The Final Edit: A Full Process Rundown

Two days ago I delivered the final final FINAL manuscript of BLOOD OF THE COSMOS, the second book in the Saga of Shadows Trilogy—185,000 words long, 752 pages, 132 chapters…six drafts.  Yes, it was an enormous project, not just the length of the manuscript itself, but all the numerous characters, settings, plot lines, and the intricate choreography.

I wanted to take you through everything that went on between Draft 5 and Draft 6.  It’s a lot more than just reading and polishing here and there.

On September 1, I delivered the Draft 4 manuscript to my Tor editor, Pat LoBrutto, and my group of test readers. While they all pored over the manuscript, I appeared at several large pop culture shows, did a lot of WordFire Press publishing work, curated two bundles for, and wrote a good chunk of CLOCKWORK LIVES with Neil Peart.


 Cover painting for BLOOD OF THE COSMOS by Stephen Youll

Finally, when the test readers were finished going over the giant manuscript, we all gathered around the long dining room table and spent five hours going over the manuscript. It was an intensive, free-form conversation as people brought up weak points, missed connections, questions, suggestions for strengthening scenes.  I took six pages of hand-written notes about changes I wanted to make. This wasn’t just a gripe session pointing out problems—it was also brainstorming to figure out solutions. Frequently, one new chapter or scene would provide a neat fix to several flaws. My head was spinning with all the work left to do. Fine-tuning can sometimes be more challenging than the broad strokes writing in the first place.

Then I had a mountain of manuscripts after the test readers turned them back to me; this was detail work, with many misspellings or grammatical mistakes marked in the prose, line-by-line suggestions as they read through, notes in the margins. I took one manuscript at a time, page by page, and keyed in all the changes, getting rid of all the easy and straightforward ones, then setting aside the bigger-issue comments.  By the time I went through those manuscripts and pulled out the bigger stuff to fix, I had also received my editorial comments back from the Tor editor, so I fed those into the stack.

I didn’t agree with everything from the readers, of course (they didn’t all agree with one another either), but I know which things I knew needed revision to make a stronger book.  I sorted out the marked pages and keyed them to my six pages of notes for changes; many things referred to the same general problem, and I had to come up with band-aids, new scenes, added shingles on the fictional roof. Looking at the problems, I tried to think of new chapters or scenes that would resolve them, other scenes that would tie the plot threads more tightly together.  In all, I had to write 13 new chapters or scenes, so I mapped those out, went back to my novel outline (I call it a “skeleton”—one or two lines of description on every single chapter, color-coded by the character.) I knew which scenes I had to write, but where to fit them into a complex novel that already had 120+ chapters?  One change would make a ripple effect, and it wasn’t as simple as just inserting a new event, because I had to refer to that event throughout the rest of the book, wherever it might have consequences.

So I went back to the manuscript to do surgery. I had already input the easy fixes, so I worked my way down through the notes and comments, fixing one character or problem at a time. I dictated the new scenes and chapters and sent them off to the typist, and when they came back, they were still my first draft, so I had to edit those chapters a couple of times just to get them up to the same quality as the rest of the manuscript into which they would be inserted. Then I placed the scenes where they needed to go, filed away the pages of notes as I completed that fix.  I worked my way down, crossed off finished items on my 6 pages of notes, and after about a month I had made all the basic repairs.  That process had added 86 pages to the manuscript.

But there were still a lot of rough edges, a lot of seams showing, a lot of loose ends.  Time to give it one final read, start to finish.  And I needed to be ruthless in trimming it down again. When you give a reader a 750-page book, you better make sure all of those pages are *necessary*—I don’t want any extra dead trees on my conscience. 

Draft 5. Page 1, chapter 1. “The universe was vast and full of wonders—some too marvelous to understand, some too terrifying.” And I worked my way forward from there.  Throughout the read, I also built the Glossary, adding and updating from the Glossary in the previous novel, THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS. (By now the Seven Suns universe has ten novels and is bursting with places, characters, names, concepts, and alien terminology—I don’t expect the reader to REMEMBER all that, so I make the effort to do the full Glossary for each volume. It’s a courtesy…and also a pain in the ass.  I did that as I trudged through with my final edit.  In order to get a lot of pages done in as little time as possible (with deadlines looming and other projects nibbling at my heels), I holed up in a cabin in Estes Park, Colorado—a beautiful mountain town on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, with very cheap off-season rates and (as it turned out) terrible weather for four days. I didn’t mind. I was sealed in a cabin with my laptop, my music, and a growler of microbrew IPA.  I got 350 pages edited in four days and finished the complete book the following week. I had managed to tighten it by 53 pages (after adding 86 during the rewrites).

When I finally finished my last edit of BLOOD OF THE COSMOS, I turned over the manuscript to my wife Rebecca—who is herself a bestselling and award-winning author…and also my sharpest copy editor. Now it was her turn to comb over the novel, line by line. I set her up in the master bedroom with a worktable, a lamp, noise-cancelling headphones, and constant room service so she could read all day long, with as few interruptions as I could manage. She copy edited 100 pages a day, and I took each stack to perform the tedious core of keying in all those necessary changes. (I would sit for hours at the kitchen table with my laptop, open marked-up manuscript beside me, and watching Hell on Wheels and Boardwalk Empire on the TV—I got through most of a season of each!)

As we finished that mammoth task, I turned to another piece I had been avoiding—writing “The Story So Far,” the summary I put at the beginning of each book, so that readers can get up to speed before they jump in. Again, with such a long and complex story, I think it’s an important thing to do. A courtesy to the reader…and again, a real pain in the ass. Imagine trying to summarize all the necessary details in a 700-page book in a few pages.  This time I took 12 pages to give everything a person needed to know about the previous Saga of Seven Suns series and THE DARK BETWEEN THE STARS novel.


When I input the last of Rebecca’s copy edits, added the Glossary and The Story So Far, then I ran a complete spell check (that alone took almost two hours), I was done, DONE! Well, not quite. I still had to write a detailed letter to my Tor editor explaining all the major changes and improvements I had made, and THEN I sent it off to him.

Next, I opened my file of notes for the third book in the trilogy, ETERNITY’S MIND, which I have to start soon. All the plot threads, chapter ideas, general outlines…better get started while it’s all fresh in my head.

BLOOD OF THE COSMOS is scheduled to be published by Tor Books and Simon and Schuster UK in June 2015.