Learning to Let Go When Editing
by Matthew Farrell

When I was asked to write this article for Killer Nashville, I was in the middle of fourth round edits for my fourth book and second round edits for my fifth book, so I thought the subject of the editing process would be fitting. For those of you out there who are looking to enter into the world of publishing for the first time, allow me to take you behind the scenes of what the process of editing looks like from my standpoint from first draft to finished product.

I love the process of editing. I love taking a story you think you know and building on it or stripping it down or moving it in a different direction, only to watch it grow more compelling and polished with each pass. I never realized the magic that editing is until I experienced it on a professional level. Before I was published, I would typically write a first draft, go back and correct typos or misspellings, and call it finished. In my mind, I couldn’t wrap my head around changing elements of the story away from what I previously come up with. It wasn’t that I was being stubborn or standing my ground for the good of my art. I just didn’t know you could do that. I never contemplated moving a story around to make it more exciting or gripping or mysterious. I thought what went down initially were the pieces of the puzzle that fit a certain way. What I didn’t understand was that I could take that puzzle apart, change the pieces themselves, and create an entirely new puzzle. To me, that was fascinating and new. I was intrigued.

But this realization didn’t come to me until I had some interest from an agent who couldn’t take the manuscript on as it was and suggested I hire a freelance editor to help. I found Jennifer Sawyer Fisher, who had once been a senior editor at a top publisher on Manhattan. One of the first things Jennifer said to me was “This story takes place in Philadelphia, but you’re not using the city. Make the city a character. Take the reader through it and use the landmarks in your story to push the plot and the action.” I had literally never thought of that. Suddenly, I had places to play with and landmarks to chase my characters through, and the story began to morph from a Psychological Thriller to more of a Suspense Thriller. We talked more and went through another round of editing, tightening the story and cutting scenes that didn’t work or didn’t move the story along. Again, I never realized I could do that, and in hindsight it seems so logical, but when the story is yours, it’s sometimes hard to see what needs to be cut or tightened or rearranged. During this process, my eyes were opened to the endless possibilities proper editing can provide. It can take you down roads you never thought were there and it can shine a light on something that isn’t working and holding the story back from being as good as it could be. When we were done, I had a tighter, more fluid, story, and although that particular agent still passed, I learned the process of editing, had a story that was better than it had ever been before, and I eventually landed an agent who helped with even more rounds of edits until it was sold and became my internationally bestselling debut, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE. 

I’ll say it again. I love editing. In fact, I like it more than writing the initial story. That may seem strange to some of you, but it’s the truth. The first draft is nothing more than a brain dump of words to get it down on the page. It’s a huge block of ice. It’s just there, untouched, waiting to be carved into a beautiful sculpture. And with each round of editing, I do just that. I begin to carve the story I want it to be and each round brings that new version of the story to life. Suddenly characters are doing new things. Motivations change. The plot can change. More often than not, the murderer will change. A twist I never saw before reveals itself. And in the end, I have something I hadn’t thought of during that first draft, but is something I know my readers will enjoy. 

In the professional world of publishing, I typically go through five to seven rounds of editing from first draft to what the reader is reading on publication day. I write my draft and then edit once myself before sending to my agent. My agent and I go through another two rounds of editing, and this is usually where major changes are done to plot and character motive. After we’re done, I send to my editor at the publishing house and I go through another two or three rounds. These rounds start with big changes and then grow smaller with each pass. I write thrillers, so my editing at this level often involves tightening a story, developing a plot more, and getting that twist just right. After my editor is satisfied it goes through a final pass-through line edit for typos and punctuation, etc. My job is to keep that reader turning the pages and not give them a point where it’s okay to put the book down. It’s harder than you might think, and it really does take a team to pull it off. I’m so thankful I have the team I have.

In closing, I want to leave you with one piece of advice. In editing, everything’s on the table. You need to be prepared to cut or add whatever you need to in order to make the story stronger. The publishing phrase “kill your darlings” comes from the editing process. It’s inevitable that you will come across a scene or subplot or character that you absolutely love, but must cut for the good of the story. It happens to all of us. I just deleted 20,000 words from my fifth book because what I was trying to pull off wasn’t working and we decided to go in a different direction. It was painful to hit that delete button, but I’m excited to move in this new direction and I know the readers will love where we’re now going. I also had to kill a character (no spoilers) in WHAT HAVE YOU DONE that I really liked and was determined not to kill and hadn’t killed in all the previous versions of the story. In the end, I knew it had to be done in order to move the story to where it needed to go, and although some readers are blown away by the death and some are upset by it, everyone recognizes it as a turning point in the novel and always elicits a reaction from the fans. Killing a darling happens to us all. Embrace it when it happens to you and remember that everything’s on the table.

Happy writing (and editing) to all of you out there. I hope you enjoyed our peek into my professional editing process.

Matthew Farrell is the internationally-bestselling author of WHAT HAVE YOU DONE and I KNOW EVERYTHING.  His books have been sold in 16 countries and have been #1 bestsellers in the US and UK, having landed on the Washington Post and Amazon Charts best sellers lists.  He currently resides in Northern Westchester County with his wife and two daughters. Get caught up on the progress of his next thriller along with his general musings by following him on Twitter @mfarrellwriter or liking his page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/mfarrellwriter2 or Instagram @mfarrellwriterbooks.