Editing Eleanor

Since October, when Eleanor was acquired by my editor at Crown, I've been in a minor creative funk. I was reluctant to begin working on anything new until I knew the scope of revisions that were going to be needed for the novel. While waiting, I outlined my next project — likely a new novel, one grown from the Limbs concept I was toying with this summer — and wrote a couple of short stories. That is, I tried to write a couple of short stories, and both stalled out. Both felt overly preachy, exactly like the kinds of stories I don't particularly like reading. I didn't let it bother me too terribly much. After all, I knew why I couldn't seem to write a good sentence. I was waiting for those Eleanor edits, and unable to give anything my full attention in the meantime. As soon as the edits arrived, I would be distracted from those interim projects.

Which is, of course, exactly what happened. 

A couple of weeks ago, the edits arrived. I know that many authors dread editorial letters, and for good reason. Editorial notes can sting, man. But I'd been looking forward to these, not only anxious to know what my editor's feedback was, but to get started.

See, Eleanor is by far the most heavily-edited novel I've ever worked on. My prior novels were all written quickly, and published just as quickly. (I absolutely regret that, in case you were about to ask.) After all the years of writing Eleanor, though, I hesitated to click the publish button too quickly. This book represented an awful lot of work, some great personal commitment and sacrifice, and more than that, it was probably the most me of anything I'd written. I wasn't going to half-ass this one. 

So in the late spring this year, some sixty readers volunteered to beta-read the novel, while at the same time I hired David Gatewood, a rising star freelance editor who's becoming increasingly known for his remarkable genre anthologies, and is as well-known for being Hugh Howey's editor. David and I worked together on the book for a couple of months, as I recall, including sorting through feedback from those generous beta readers. The result was a much stronger novel than the one I'd begun with, and that's the book that was published in late June. 

As the book drew interest from a film producer and began to sell copies quickly, I signed on with my agent, Seth Fishman at The Gernert Company. Seth is a novelist himself, and a sizzling literary agent. Before we tried to sell Eleanor, he knew there was an even stronger book to carve out of the version that I'd already self-published. So between July and the end of September, we got to work. 

An aside here: Authors don't always like the idea of their agent providing editorial feedback. Maybe there's good reason for that in some, or even most, cases, but my experience has been very different. Seth's editorial notes were measured against his own narrative expertise as a writer and his understanding of what editors and publishers will buy, and what they won't. The soul of Eleanor was never at risk.

But its fat was, and over the course of those three months, we slowly cut some of that fat away, sharpened a few edges, and honed the story until it shined. I won't pretend I was great at this: my first edit based on Seth's notes went in the wrong direction entirely, expanding the novel by ten thousand words. Seth, to his credit, pulled no punches in questioning this. I went back to work again, bringing David Gatewood back into the mix. My objectivity was long gone; after so many years writing and so many months of editing, I had no problem admitting that I couldn't tell what was working and what wasn't. David was a lifesaver there. 

In early October, after David and I were happy with the edit, we sent it to Seth. A few minor line edits later, Seth pronounced the novel ready to go, and we began the submission process. A week later to the day, Zachary Wagman at Crown bought the book, and that brings us to now, with Zack's edits and my latest draft. 

Maybe this entire ordeal sounds like an ordeal to some authors, but through it all I've come to greatly respect and even love the editorial process. I'll confess I'm incredibly fortunate — not every editor, I understand, is as skilled as David, Seth and Zack. It's rare, I suspect, to find a single person who really understands your authorial intent, much less three. 

Today I'm a week or two into the latest edits of Eleanor. I'm settling in now to work on the largest of those edits, a thematic shift that, while not terribly painful, will have far-reaching effects on the entire novel. It's a good shift, one that will make the story resonate more deeply, I'm certain. 

In a few weeks, I'll enter my fourteenth year of working on Eleanor. As is the case with many long projects, most of the really important work on this book has happened in 2014, and will bleed into early 2015, I'm sure. I like to imagine that when this novel is finally done, those years will pale in comparison to the years ahead, when the book will find readers who will cherish it, share it, and pass it down for decades. I hope this is one of those books, one that lasts. 

And I hope there are many left to write. But for now, it's back to the red pen and the manuscript stack. Would you believe me if I said this part is actually a lot of fun? You should.

Jason Gurley2 Comments