The Process: From Manuscript to Bookstore

I just submitted the first draft of my novel to my editor. Now what?

Ed Schlesinger

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from Ed Schlesinger, my administrative editor at Pocket Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint. He informed me that CBS Consumer Products had sent along their notes on my latest manuscript, a Star Trek novel called Original Sin. As the current copyright owner of the franchise, CBS has licensed Simon & Schuster to publish Trek books, but the company exercises its right to approve all outlines and manuscripts, subject to their call for changes. In this instance, they formally authorized the publication of my new novel, pending my agreement to a list of edits—actually, to just one edit: they wanted an occurrence of the word man on page 212 modified to person. I checked the relevant sentence, understood the reasoning behind the requested alteration, and concurred with it. I let Mr. Schlesinger know that I would happily make the change, and so now we’re on to the next stage of the process.

But just what is that process? How does a novel typed into my desktop computer make it onto the shelves of bookstores? I’m not talking about the production side of mass-producing a book—crafting a cover, ordering paper, printing, shipping, and those sorts of tasks—but about the editorial procedures involved. It occurred to me that some readers and aspiring writers might enjoy a glimpse at the major steps along a book’s path from first to final draft. Having now penned eighteen Star Trek novels, I am well acquainted with the operation, and so I thought I’d share that knowledge with anybody who’s interested.

As I mentioned, I recently finished writing the first draft of my most recent novel, Original Sin. It’s always a satisfying experience to arrive at that final paragraph, that final sentence, that final word. Careering through the concluding phase of a story always feels so good, in fact, that I usually take pains to slow myself down. I normally want the pace of the plot to accelerate as I approach the climax, but if the velocity of my actual writing speeds up to match, I risk missing some of the finer elements I wanted to include in the story, as well as making the ending feel rushed. Yes, I want readers to turn the pages of my work breathlessly to reach the denouement, but I don’t want to cause them to forsake the journey for the destination.

Once I reach the end of writing a novel, I may immediately read it over from the first page. Whether or not I do so depends on the number and complexity of the difficulties I’ve encountered along the way. Some writers work at a breakneck pace, furiously putting their words down in a race to the end of their tale, knowing that they will revisit it in one or more editorial passes. Others take a decidedly more deliberate tack, sweating every word, painstakingly crafting every sentence, sculpting every paragraph. Most, I think, fall somewhere in between (though if you ask ten writers to describe their processes, you’re liable to receive a dozen different responses). I have employed both tactics depending on where I’m at on a project and how I’m feeling, but I definitely gravitate to the slower, more methodical approach. For me, that typically means a longer gestation period, but when my first drafts are finally birthed, they’re usually in very good shape. That being the case, I normally fire off my first draft of a novel to my editor. If I feel that it still needs considerable work, then I’ll go through it one more time and produce a second draft, which I will then send on its merry way.

Margaret Clark
© 2017 CBS Studios Inc.

With respect to Original Sin, I e-mailed an electronic copy of the first draft to my nuts-and-bolts editor, Margaret Clark. To this point, Ms. Clark and I have worked together on nearly a dozen novels. She edits with considerable skill, and she also possesses a keen understanding of Star Trek. Ms. Clark also has a great feel for the series in all of its incarnations. She has an instinct for when a particular plot element doesn’t quite fit within the Trek universe, or for when a character doesn’t act as they should, or for when a thematic element fails to jibe with the mores of the show.

Ms. Clark also has an unfailing ability to pinpoint weak points in my manuscripts. Sometimes, in the course of writing a novel, I’ll encounter a thorny section—a scene that’s especially complex, or that features characters who don’t want to cooperate with me, or that in some other way proves problematic. It could be that I’ve created a story with a flaw that didn’t reveal itself at the outline stage, or it could be that I’m simply having a bad day or a bad week. Whatever the case, I will occasionally muscle through a knotty portion of a novel, knowing that I can return to it later to smooth it out. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, Ms. Clark invariably identifies the troublesome section for overhaul. That’s just one of the many reasons that I not only trust her, I rely on her.

After I sent the completed first draft of Original Sin to Ms. Clark, she read and edited the manuscript. An editor’s initial read-through of a novel can result in numerous notes or just a few, in calls for major rewrites or for comparatively minor adjustments. For extensive edits, Ms. Clark and I typically speak on the phone so that she can describe to me what she believes needs changing and why. We’ll discuss the issues and come to a meeting of the minds on them. I sometimes completely disagree with Ms. Clark and she is unable to convince me of her perspective. Other times, we’ll talk over what she’s identified as a problem and we’ll develop a solution for it together. Far more often than either of those two situations, I agree with Ms. Clark and simply heed her advice. For simpler changes—such as alterations in word choice or retooling of awkward sentences—Ms. Clark electronically marks up my manuscript and e-mails it back to me.

A page of my Original Sin first draft, edited by Margaret Clark
©2017 David R. George III

With Original Sin, my editor requested no significant modifications. Ms. Clark did have a healthy set of minor revisions, which I examined as I read through the novel again, from beginning to end. As I did so, I emended the manuscript to produce a second draft, including making some of my own modifications that I felt were needed. I’m not required to make all of the changes that my editor suggests, or even to make most of them. Actually, I don’t have to make any of them. As the author of the novel, I am ultimately responsible for its content. But Ms. Clark—as with any good editor—is not my adversary; rather, she is my ally. She has a reason for every edit she recommends, and a large majority of  the time, I completely agree with her. In those cases where we’re not in accord, I do my best to see the matter from her point of view, and I always attempt to put myself in the mind of a reader. If I’m conflicted about a particular change, I’ll often call Ms. Clark to discuss it so that I can make sure I understand precisely why she’s counseled me to make it.

When I finally completed my second draft of Original Sin, I e-mailed a clean copy of it to Ms. Clark, who then sent it to Mr. Schlesinger so that he could submit it for copyediting. He also forwarded the novel to CBS Consumer Products for them to read it and—if all goes according to plan—approve it for publication. As I’ve indicated, because CBS owns the copyright to Star Trek, any requests for change that they make carry the force of commands, but there’s still room for dialogue if I think it’s absolutely critical. Only once, over the course of writing eighteen novels and a novella, have I ever received more than a couple of minor notes from the copyright holder about one of my manuscripts, and the exceptional case involved just ten or twelve minor notes, requiring no significant modifications. For a majority of the Star Trek work I’ve done, CBS—and before that, Paramount Television—has sent no notes at all. I attribute that to my and my editors’ strong knowledge of the different series, and to our shared vision of the novel I’m writing—a vision that I must delineate in a narrative outline well before I begin on a novel, an outline that likewise must be approved by both Simon & Schuster and CBS.

In my experience, notes from the copyright holder can arrive at any time. For Original Sin, I received them after I had submitted the second draft of the novel, but prior to it being copyedited—meaning that CBS’s notes came near the beginning of the editorial process. For my previous book,  The Long Mirage, they reached me at the end.

At some point after Mr. Schlesinger has submitted my manuscript for copyediting, he usually sends me a Production Schedule. That timetable details the key dates for the process that will see my novel shepherded from electronic manuscript to physical (and digital) book. Specifically, I learn when I will receive the copyedited manuscript, and what are called the first-pass and second-pass pages, which I’ll explain later. I’m also told how long I will have to complete my own work at each of those stages. The dates are fixed and I do my best to accommodate them, but if I have a conflict of some kind, I can ask to have them adjusted. I’ve almost never had to do that, but on the one or two occasions when I have, Mr. Schlesinger and Simon & Schuster’s Production Department have been flexible.

The Production Schedule includes other dates as well: when the final cover will route for approval, when the digital cover files must be delivered to the printer, when the final typesetting files must be delivered to the printer, when the book will be “off press” (meaning that the print run has been completed), when the book will release from the warehouse, and the on-sale date. I don’t need to pay much attention to that information since those steps require no action on my part. It does somehow make the entire process feel more real, though, when I see my novel’s “street date” specified in an official memorandum.

As I write this, I have yet to see the Production Schedule for Original Sin, though I expect to receive it shortly. (Pocket Books has scheduled Original Sin as a January 2018 release, meaning that it will be available for sale on 28 December 2017.) I know that my second draft of the novel will soon be assigned to a copy editor, if that hasn’t been done already. In that part of the process, typographical, spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors are corrected, but there’s far more to it than that. It is the mandate of a copy editor essentially to ensure that a work is the best version of itself, and that it conveys what the writer intends it to convey. That duty involves much more than making simple corrections.

One of the most important aspects of copyediting is the promotion of consistency. A word with one particular spelling must be spelled that way throughout the book. I can’t describe something as sizable on one page, and then talk about it (or something else) being sizeable on another. The copy editor must foster the uniform application of choices across the entire manuscript. Has the writer set foreign words in italics according to an established rule? Which nouns are considered proper nouns, and have they all been capitalized? Are abbreviations always rendered in the same fashion?

Notice that I specified the uniform application of choices, rather than of rules. That’s because written language provides for myriad ways to impart the same idea—including methods that break grammatical rules. Consider, as an example, remote communication in Star Trek novels. If Quark contacts a private investigator named Mayereen Viray via the companel in his office, all of her dialogue will be italicized.

Heat drained from his lobes, but he had committed to a course of action, at least for now. He set the padd to one side and resumed his comlink with Viray. “It’s done,” he told her.

“I will collect the funds at once,” Viray said. “I don’t think you’ll regret this.”

An example of italic type used for remote communication in Star Trek novels
©2017 David R. George III

Strictly speaking, standard grammatical rules demand that Viray’s dialogue be set in roman type. But about fifteen or so years ago, the Star Trek editors at Simon & Schuster decided it would benefit readers for all remote dialogue to be italicized. It serves to remind them, when reading a conversation that span multiple locations, which characters are physically present in a scene. Personally, I like the custom. The practice is grammatically incorrect, but the Star Trek literary line applies the methodology in a congruous manner across all of the novels, which allows it to work as designed.

To cultivate consistency in a book, a copy editor will create a style sheet. Such a document is specific to a single work, although it can share characteristics with similar forms across a group of related books—for example, across the set of all Star Trek novels. An individual style sheet details the conventions employed for a specific work, including stylistic choices, as well as the identification of proper nouns, personal names, abbreviations, and other miscellaneous items. For example, the style sheet for The Long Mirage specifies that the book utilizes the serial comma, that the 99th Rule of Acquisition is written in that way (with numerals and capitalization), and that a certain character’s rank and full name are rendered as Admiral Leonard James Akaar.

Abbreviated style sheet created by the copy editor for The Long Mirage
©2017 David R. George III

There’s also the matter of factual consistency. This can relate to both external facts—that is, the truth of the real world—and internal facts—the state of affairs as set up in the novel. If I referred to Cyrano Jones as the father of modern science on Earth, that would be factually inaccurate; Galileo Galilei is considered to hold that role in our planet’s history. If I mention that a character is walking along a dusty road, but rain fell heavily in the scene just five minutes earlier, that would make no sense within the world of the novel.

In addition to assuring consistency, a copy editor looks for instances of repetition in order to eliminate them. A writer can intentionally use repetition for effect, but it very often crops up accidentally and can be a detriment to the reading experience. Called echoes, these types of problems are most readily identifiable as words or syllables repeated in close proximity to each other.

Voices buzzed in the Great Assembly, and then somebody shouted something Kira could not make out. A second voice rang out as though in answer to the first, the words it yelled equally impossible to distinguish.

The two occurrences of the word out so near to each other make for a clunky reading experience. A copy editor will usually point out echoes, but allow the writer to determine an appropriate solution. In the above example, the following is a simple fix to the text, which eliminates the repetition.

Voices buzzed in the Great Assembly, and then somebody shouted something Kira could not hear clearly. A second voice rang out as though in answer to the first, the words it yelled equally impossible to distinguish.

Repetition can happen in other ways too—sometimes pages, chapters, or almost an entire book apart. Imagine that early on in a novel, I describe a setting as tenebrous. Readers might know the word, which is defined as “dark,” “murky,” or “shut off from the light,” but I’d venture that it’s not an adjective in most people’s everyday usage. If I later in the novel—even much later—use the word a second time, it will stand out—and not in a good way.

In a similar vein, writers can sometimes overuse common phrases. If I start half a dozen sentences with, That being the case, readers will notice. It reflects on the writer as, at best, unskilled, and at worst, lazy.

I should point out that the same words aren’t even needed for repetition. It’s possible to use comparable constructions. The following two sentences resemble each other enough in form that I would probably attempt to recast one of them.

Not only had Quark wanted to sell the object, he’d hoped to peddle it for twice its value. He hadn’t just succeed in getting it out of his inventory, he’d also turned a handsome profit.

Here’s a rewrite of the paragraph that eliminates the structural echo.

Quark had wanted to sell the object, and he’d hoped to peddle it for twice its value. He succeeded—not just in getting it out of his inventory, but in turning a handsome profit.

Writers can also produce repetitions in meaning. The description of an object as uniquely one of a kind is redundant; the definition of unique is “being the only one” or “being without a like or equal.” You wouldn’t want to characterize a person as famously well-known or priggishly prude.

Copy editors also work hard to ensure clarity. Because a writer knows what they intend to say, it is sometimes an easy matter, when first setting down and later editing your own work, to overlook something that could be confusing to a reader. Imagine that Captain Kirk has been exposed to a dangerous contagion and has begun showing signs of sickness. It’s clear that Enterprise’s chief medical officer should perform a physical exam on him as soon as possible.

Doctor McCoy needed to examine the captain badly.

As the writer of that sentence, I would understand exactly what I meant—that it was imperative for Enterprise’s CMO to complete a physical of his commanding officer—but that’s not quite what I conveyed. Surely, Doctor McCoy doesn’t want to do a poor job of examining Captain Kirk’s medical state. In this case, the meaning of the sentence could be made clear rather easily.

Doctor McCoy badly needed to examine the captain.

A copy editor also validates the writer’s proper usage of words. Consider a passage that details the number of people aboard Captain Kirk’s starship during the original series. Back then, the figure hovered somewhere around 430.

Under Captain Kirk’s command, four hundred thirty Starfleet officers comprised the Enterprise crew.

That might sound fine in casual conversation, and to many readers, it might even look all right in print. I would also hazard a prediction that even those people who see the error in the sentence will nevertheless understand its meaning. The problem is that comprised is used in a way related to, but different from, its actual meaning. The proper usage is reflected below.

Under Captain Kirk’s command, the Enterprise crew comprised four hundred thirty Starfleet officers.

A manuscript page from Raise the Dawn, with changes by the copy editor (oddly identified as “Preferred Customer”) marked in blue, and my changes marked in green
©2017 David R. George III

So that’s a description, by no means exhaustive, of the many types of modifications a copy editor might make to a manuscript. As I’ve said, the copyedited draft of Original Sin has not yet been sent to me, but I’ve been through the process enough times to know what comes next. When the copy editor completes their work, they return a marked-up electronic copy of my novel to Mr. Schlesinger, who then e-mails it to me. I must then read through the manuscript again, specifically to examine every change that the copy editor has made to it. If I feel that a particular alteration has repaired a problem or otherwise improved the book, I leave it as it is. Otherwise, I either have to change the modified text back to how I originally wrote it, or I have to find another means of changing it for the better. Sometimes, I may not like an edit that’s been made, but I can see that it pinpoints an issue that requires me to find some other solution.

As I read through the copyedited manuscript, I am also free to make other modifications to it. Up to that point, all drafts of the novel have been saved as word-processing documents, and all changes have been made electronically. I make my changes to the copyedited novel in the same way. I then e-mail the updated document back to Mr. Schlesinger, but that will be the last time that the novel is saved in a word-processing format. That means that my review of the copyedited manuscript is the last time I’ll be able to make anything but minor changes to the book.

Movable type on a printing press
©2008 Nelson Pavlosky

Upon my completion of work on the copyedited manuscript, I return it to Mr. Schlesinger, who in turn submits it to personnel in the Production Department so that they can typeset the novel. That means that they construct the physical layout of every page that will appear in the book. Typesetters used to accomplish such a task manually, beginning with the invention of the movable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the fifteenth century. Today, that process is executed using computers.

Once the novel has been typeset, Mr. Schlesinger sends me what are called the first-pass pages. I’ve also heard them referred to as the first-pass galleys, or even just the galleys. They are the four-inch by seven-inch pages as they will appear in the actual mass-market paperback book, but printed on eight-and-a-half-inch by eleven-inch sheets of paper. I must read the novel again, this time with the particular purpose of finding typesetting errors and indicating how they should be corrected. I can also make other minor changes, either to fix mistakes that have somehow managed to slip past me, my editor, and the copy editor, or just to make the novel better.

When I go through the first-pass pages, I am limited in the extent of modifications I can make to the text. Even though it is accomplished utilizing computers, typesetting a book is an involved process. Any alterations I make to the novel at that point must avoid “re-flowing” the pages.

By re-flowing, I mean changes on one page that propagate changes to subsequent pages. For example, let’s say that I add a couple of sentences to a paragraph at the beginning of a thirty-page chapter. Imagine that those two sentences take up five lines of text. By adding those words at the start of the chapter, the first page of the chapter will have to be typeset again. But adding five new lines will force the last five lines on that page onto the following page, which will also have to be typeset anew. But the five lines added to the second page of the chapter will push five lines onto the third page—and so on, throughout the entire chapter. That means that at least thirty pages will need to be typeset again, and if the last page of the chapter is already filled with text, a new page might have to be added, which would then require all subsequent pages in the entire book be typeset again.

All of that doesn’t mean I can’t make modifications to the first-pass pages. It only means that I must be judicious in doing so. If I add five lines to a page, I can compensate by deleting five lines somewhere else on the same page. There are also other means of making larger changes, depending on the circumstantial configuration of the book. If I’m altering the last page of a chapter that has only three lines on it, I have enough room to add several whole paragraphs without re-flowing the pages.

I receive an electronic copy of the first-pass pages, not in a word-processing format, but in a fixed-layout flat document. That means that my ability to make changes to it is limited. If I want to modify the text within the file, I am more or less constrained to describing that modification, rather than marking up the document. If the alterations I want to make are limited in number and not very complicated, that wouldn’t be much of an issue. But I have discovered over the many books I have written that I typically need to make changes at this phase on about sixty pages, and that some of those changes will be complex. For that reason, I ask Mr. Schlesinger to send me a physical copy of the first-pass pages. I take a red pen to them to make my updates, then scan the changed pages into my computer and e-mail them back to Mr. Schlesinger, who passes them on to Production. I am typically alloted two weeks to complete the task.

My handwritten changes to two pages of the first-pass galleys for Ascendance
©2017 David R. George III

Production personnel review my edits to the first-pass pages and modify the typeset book accordingly. They then send an electronic copy of the second-pass pages to Mr. Schlesinger, who e-mails them to me. I read through the novel yet again. Because the changes needed at this point are likely to be simple, I work within the file, electronically tagging any troublesome spots and describing the changes that need to be made. I then e-mail that version of the second-pass pages back to Mr. Schlesinger, who sends them along to Production so they can make their final updates. I am normally given a week to do this work.

My electronically recorded descriptions of changes to the second-pass pages of The Long Mirasge
©2017 David R. George III

Once the Production Department completes their work on the second-pass pages, the typeset novel is sent to a proofreader. Since the book has reached the final stage prior to actually printing it, the proofreader is effectively the last line of defense before a volume sees publication. It is their task to examine the typeset novel to ensure that it contains no errors—in grammar, in spelling, in punctuation, in usage—and that it is internally consistent and clear. They can point out echoes and many of the same issues a copy editor identifies. A proofreader marks up the final-pass pages, usually by hand, producing queries. These queries are for the writer, and they specifically ask questions about the text. Is this sentence phrased correctly? Should this echo be eliminated? Can you fix this dangling participle?

A handwritten query from the proofreader on a page from the final-pass galleys of The Long Mirage
©2017 David R. George III

In the case of Star Trek novels, Simon & Schuster often assigns an individual familiar with the franchise to proofread books in that line. Consequently, I will sometimes receive queries asking about some particular detail in my novel and whether it is accurate within the Star Trek universe. I once made a reference to an action Spock had taken in the original television series, except that it had actually been another character who had taken the action. A sharp-eyed proofreader, well-versed in Star Trek, saved me.

I receive proofreader queries from Mr. Schlesinger in a fixed-layout file containing only the relevant pages. If there are only a few queries, which is usually the case, I answer them in an e-mail to Mr. Schlesinger, either explaining for each why no change is required, or what change needs to be made. If there are more than a few, I electronically tag the appropriate portions of the text and describe what actions need to be taken. I then e-mail the file back to Mr. Schlesinger, who then sends it to Production so that they can make the necessary updates.

All that’s left for me at that point is to review the final-pass pages. Once the Production Department has incorporated my changes to the second-pass pages, including my responses to the proofreader’s queries, they send Mr. Schlesinger a file that includes only the pages modified. He sends it to me for review. Only rarely have I found that an alteration has been missed or made incorrectly. In those cases, I describe the problem in an e-mail to Mr. Schlesinger, who sees that the needed fix is then implemented by Production.

Ascendance arrives
©2016 David R. George III

Et voilà. After months of effort—developing a story, crafting a narrative outline, receiving requisite approvals, actually writing the novel, having it edited and copyedited, typeset and proofread—at last, the novel is ready for printing, binding, packing, and finally, shipping to bookstores. Overall, it’s a long process, and it can at points grow tedious; by the fourth or fifth time I’m required to read through one of my novels, I’m pretty tired of doing so. Still, it is very gratifying to reach the destination I set out for in the first place, and it’s always a thrill, usually in the month before publication, to receive that box containing my author’s copies of the book.

By that time, though, I’m usually working on my next novel.