Casting the Bones

by Robert Gregory Browne

This week I’m stealing a page from our own Ms. Alex and going the “craft” route.  In order to share my ideas about the craft of writing both novels and screenplays — hell, fiction of any kind — I’ve started a new website called CASTING THE BONES, where you’ll find a collection of my articles on craft.

What follows is one of those articles.  Not strictly about craft, but certainly about process.  A side of the writing game that we don’t often share.  It’s called:


A lot of you who have been working toward getting a book published have no idea what happens once you sign a contract with a publishing house.  Well, I’m here to tell you:

Nine times out of ten, that contract will be the result of the sale of a completed book.  You’ve written a 100,000 word manuscript, had an agent shop it around, and an editor at one of the publishing houses has taken a liking to it, made an offer, and you’ve accepted.

Eeehaaaa! Your dreams have come true.

Believe me, I still remember the exhilaration of that phone call from my agent, telling me I could now call myself a published author.  I literally started dancing.  Like a freakin’ fool.

For those of you still working on it, that contract is the pot at the end of the rainbow.  But the contract is only the beginning.  Even before the thing has been signed, you’ll get a call of congratulations from your editor and he/she will tell you that he/she is planning to reread the book with an eye toward editing.

This is when your heart sinks a little.  Isn’t the book perfect the way it is?

Not usually, no.  If you’re like me, you like to write very clean manuscripts.  A clean manuscript is one that’s very tightly plotted, concisely written and polished to a lovely shine.

But even those manuscripts get edited.   How extensively it’s edited depends on the manuscript’s needs and your editor — whose only desire is to help you put out a book that goes straight to the bestseller list.  This rarely happens, of course, but that’s a different matter.

Once your editor has re-read the manuscript, you may get a phone call, but you’ll more likely get an editorial letter.  This is where the editor goes through your manuscript, scene by scene, and makes suggestions for changes.

Assuming, of course, he/she feels it needs any.

Here’s an example of what you might see, which comes from my former UK editor regarding one of my books:

p. 7/ line 16 South Dakota – does this refer to a special police unit/ or a geographical thing? I understand the meaning but we might need to change this for UK readers if possible (also see p. 9/15)
p. 9 Cover Girl change to CoverGirl (without space)
p. 13 Anna’s thoughts on shaking hands with men – not sure if we need this; or does this refer to something else later on I have possibly missed
p. 15 It turns out later that the killing of Kimberly was a mistake – should we explain at some stage towards the end why Red Cap killed the whole family?
p. 19 / 13 ‘The minute it stops bothering you…’ – Is this a deliberate repetition from page 13 when Anna also uses the expression. It sounds slightly cynical here though and as it comes from Jake, I wasn’t sure if it would match with his character.
p. 22 / last three lines I’d cut the neighbourhood staring at her. Doesn’t seem to fit.
p. 24 Anna’s self-criticism and her views on the past. She’s not confident about her work anymore – should we reflect on this later? Do the events change the way she thinks about her confidence?

Using this as a guide, I then go through the manuscript, read the passages in question, then make changes if necessary.

I then take this very same table and write a reply to my editor explaining why I didn’t make a suggested change, or if I did, what I changed it to.

Once the changes have been made, you then email or snail mail (depending on your editor’s preference) the revised manuscript and your editor reads it again, looking to see how it flows and whether the changes work.

If all is good, it’s a wrap. If all is NOT good, then you’re likely to get another letter/email/phone call with more suggested changes.

I normally get two or three pages like this. Much of it consists of line edits, simple corrections of spelling, missing words, that kind of thing, but some of it goes to character motivation and story.

I have friends who have gotten 10-30 pages worth. It all depends on the book and what your process is. Many writers send in a first draft that reads like a first draft, and they’re looking to the editor to give them feedback before the next draft (or two or three) and the final polish.

The key is that you have to trust your editor. Know that he or she is trying to get the best book possible out of you. And they, in turn, have to trust your judgment when it comes to which changes you decide to ignore and which ones you choose to make.

I remember after the editing process was done for my first book, I said to my American editor, “So what happens now? Do you take it to your boss and get final approval on the manuscript?”

He laughed and said, “This isn’t Hollywood, Rob. As far as I’m concerned, the book is good to go. It’s YOUR book. So if you think it’s ready, it’s ready.”


And that’s it.  I hope you’ll go over to Casting the Bones and take a look at some of the other articles.  I plan to contribute more, and hope to get some of my writer friends to contribute as well.  Murderati?


11 thoughts on “Casting the Bones

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    After ten years of Hollywood notes, which (as Rob can tell you) regularly bring new meaning to the word “surreal” and I’m sure have taken at least 20 years off my projected life span, I love book editors’ notes. Love, love, love them.

    Smart, helpful, insightful, sometimes even lifesaving.

  2. J.T. Ellison

    I always find it interesting how different things are from house to house. Some editors like structure, and some are more hands off, telling what problems they have orally and letting you fix them yourself (mine falls in this category. She also sends me her notes inline, in red. Red still makes me feel like a kid.)

    Regardless, it’s a mystifying process until you go through it.

  3. Louise Ure

    Great topic, Rob, and rarely discussed. I’ve only worked with two editors but loved the style of both. Their comments (usually in the six-page single spaced category) have been immensely helpful. I even changed the identity of the villain at the last minute in my new book based on my editor’s thoughts.

  4. Dana King

    Thnaks for this. I’m still seeking my first contract, and have had the misfortune to come across a number of editor horror stories over the last few weeks in various blogs, mostly regarding copy editing. Your post has provided some balance to my impression of the process. No telling what kind of editor I might get, but it’s good to know it’s not always painful.

  5. Cornelia Read

    Very cool, Rob, and it is fascinating to see the different formats these come in. I just turned in what I hope are the final-final-final-final tweaks yesterday, before the copy editor gets to chime in…

  6. Rob Gregory Browne

    Yeah, the editing process is pretty painless for me — thank god — but I know it’s different for everyone.

    Dana, the copy editing process is something altogether different and I can tell you that there have been times I’ve wanted to throw a manuscript across the room because a copy editor decided she was the writer and not me (changing not only the line, but the MEANING of the line, and also changing dialog).

    But at the same time, copy editors also catch inconsistencies and stupid mistakes — so a good one is invaluable. With KILL HER AGAIN, which comes out this July, the copy editor did a FANTASTIC job and I’ve requested her for each subsequent book.

  7. Allison Brennan

    I love revisions/editing.

    My editor calls me and we discuss the big picture points, such as not feeling connected to the heroine, or backstory too vague, or slow pacing in a specific area.

    Then she types up her notes and emails them to me. We’ve already discussed all this, but it’s always good to see it in writing and review it.

    She then emails me the manuscript. She uses track changes now that she’s in England. I used to get the hard copy with her handwritten notes (and, I’ll admit, I prefer hard copy . . . but I’m getting used to track changes.)

    I go through and revise. Often, the story goes in a completely different direction at the midpoint. Such is my life. Not because my editor wanted it to, but as I made small changes here and there, keeping in mind the big picture problems, I find I’m on a completely different path. One teeny change to motivation in chapter one can lead to a completely different climax. Or villain.

    Then she reads it again and either sends it to production or sends it back with some clean-up points–this is common if I’ve diverged in the manuscript and given her a completely different ending 🙂 In THE PREY, SPEAK NO EVIL, KILLING FEAR, TEMPTING EVIL, and SUDDEN DEATH different people live and die from my submitted manuscript to the final manuscript . . . My editor once told me she loves reading my revisions because it’s like reading a completely different book and she never knows what’s going to happen!

    I rarely make note of comments I don’t agree with. If it’s minor, I just forget it, if it’s something I know she cares about, I’ll email her my explanation. But after working on 12 books together, we have a kind of symbiotic relationship, I think, and I trust her and she trusts me. The only thing I’ve done that I didn’t want to do was change a hero’s name because she really didn’t like it.

    re copyeditors. I’ve had great copyeditors and not-so-great copyeditors. One such copyeditor wrote re: a scene: “That’s not how they do it on television.”

    I kind of got snarky and put in my notes, “Well, it’s how they do it at the Sacramento County Morgue.”

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Good luck with getting the same copyeditor. 😉

    I’ve tried to request the same one, too, but no… no…

    Mostly they’re great but one really seemed to stop trying halfway through the book. Grrrrrr. Next time that happens I really am going to say – this needs to be reread by SOMEONE.

  9. Rob Gregory Browne

    Allison, it sounds like you and your editor have a great thing going there.

    Alex, I can only pray I get her again. If I get another one who arbitrarily changes dialog — dialog for crissakes — I will scream bloody murder.

  10. Judy Wirzberger

    It seems to me writing/publishing a book is like raising a child. The best advice my mother gave me was “Enjoy the stage your child is in–the next one will be worse.”

    Each step has its challenges. I look forward to getting beyond the “find an agent” step.

    Thanks for your insights. Judy


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