Before funding Rock of Ages, I was mostly ignorant of the editing process a book goes through before reaching shelves. When I thought of editing I thought of line editing and copyediting– going line by line marking misspellings and grammar mistakes, maybe providing some insight about characters and plots in a note at the end, but mostly correcting mistakes. There’s a whole other step, I learned quickly. The developmental edit.
This broad level edit looks at the story as a whole, making suggestions sometimes as sweeping as dropping or adding characters and chapters or whole subplots. Settings change, sometimes tense and point of view.
My own developmental edit letter was thrilling, which is not how I expected it to feel. In spite of huge suggestions (work really hard on my descriptive prose, drop several subplots, change the setting for parts of my story, age down my characters, etc.), I was so excited about my editor’s vision and could really tell they would improve my book immensely.
It’s been a challenge explaining to my supporters how I can be making such huge changes to the manuscript while still delivering them the book they signed up for. So here’s a before and after example that I hope will make this a little clearer, as well as provide authors who are nervous about their developmental edit some assurance that though it is a lot of work, your book will still be your own, just better!
A warning that there are some minor spoilers for Rock of Ages below, but none that should greatly affect your reading of the book.
“Becca,” Simon said, turning his gaze back to me.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too. Thank you for always being there for me. I really needed this.”
“I’m…in love with you,” he said, hugging his the sleeves of his red flannel shirt, too warm for the 80 degree weather. “I always have been.”
“Simon,” I started.
“I would be so good to you,” he said.
“I know,” I said. We were silent. We looked at our drinks, Simon’s almost gone and mine still full.
“Cass,” Simon started, and then pushed himself up to seated, staring over at the far bank, thoughtful. I watched him, lifting one arm to shield my face from the sun, which had emerged from behind a fluffy cumulous cloud.
Is he going to lecture me? I wondered. It didn’t seem like him, but I had no idea what else he could be saying.
“Cass, I’ve been in love with you for a long time,” he finally blurted. I propped myself on my elbows and let him continue.
“I know this probably isn’t the time to tell you this. I know.”
I sat up all the way now, listening.
“Cass, I would be so good to you,” he finished.
“Simon,” I started, not sure how to respond. I had never even felt a hint of romance with Simon. We had always been more like siblings than anything else, but here with him now, hearing this, I noticed for the first time how handsome he was. How he had lost the chubby cheeks that had made him look so much younger than he was for so long and was now lean and muscular from working in the gardens. I thought about his compassion and loyalty, caring for his family, how steadfast and dependable he had always been. He was so familiar, so safe, but at the same time there was something new and intriguing about him. He had changed since I’d been here last— he was more confident and determined, and I had to admit when I tried to see him from an outsider’s eyes, from the point of view of someone who was just meeting him now, for the first time, he was attractive, all of those things together were attractive.
You should kiss him, I told myself. And I almost did it. I almost leaned in and kissed him. It would have been like a movie— I could see it playing in my mind.
“Simon,” I said again, and his face perked, reminding me of a puppy. But that was it— I couldn’t see him from an outsider’s perspective. He would always be the kid I grew up with, regardless of who he was now. And he was always a part of here, of Buckhannon. And the weight of Buckhannon, of all of it, of my dad and my grandma and my mom’s dumb marriage, how she said she never loved my dad, and the drownings and the mine disaster and the little girl at the health clinic and the mom at Wal-Mart and Simon’s mom and brother and my fight with Tim and just all of it. Buckhannon was more than a place now— it was a weight, pressing down on me with all the heaviness of all of those awful things. And I wasn’t really sure, like Grandma had insisted I needed to be. And if I wasn’t really sure, if I didn’t get out now, I knew I never would. I thought of my job at Pow!, of LA, of good vegan food and blending into a crowd. I had a week left of family leave before I would have to tell Karen I wasn’t coming back to the office.
“I’m sorry, Simon,” I said, my face crumpling. “I think I have to go back to LA.”
His face mirrored mine, his eyes creasing at the corners and his lips turning down, but he nodded, holding his tears at bay, and lay back down on the rock. I lay next to him and grabbed his hand. Together, we watched the clouds for a long, long time.
In the first excerpt, I relied on the dialogue to convey all the things I said explicitly in the second excerpt. There are changes to the setting, additional descriptive prose, and more developed characters. You’ll also notice that I had to rewrite the passage mostly from scratch, but I hope this example shows how I can be rewriting most of the book while still keeping the heart of it! If you’re nervous about a developmental edit, I hope this makes you more excited! If your editor is good, you’re in for a lot of work but a book that is still yours, just a lot better!
Have any of your projects gone through a developmental edit? What was the process like for you?