Friday, November 29, 2013

What I'm Writing by Susan Elia MacNeal (and Why I'm Late with This Post)

As it turns out, I'm not writing right now, but editing — Maggie Hope book #4, titled The Prime Minister's Secret Agent. It's scheduled to be published in June 2014.

Here's the official description from Random House:

For fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, and Anne Perry, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent is a gripping new mystery featuring intrepid spy and code breaker Maggie Hope. And this time, the fallout of a deadly plot comes straight to her own front door.

World War II rages on across Europe, but Maggie Hope has finally found a moment of rest on the pastoral coast of western Scotland. Home from an undercover mission in Berlin, she settles down to teach at her old spy training camp, and to heal from scars on both her body and heart. Yet instead of enjoying the quieter pace of life, Maggie is quickly drawn into another web of danger and intrigue. When three ballerinas fall strangely ill in Glasgow—including one of Maggie’s dearest friends—Maggie partners with MI-5 to uncover the truth behind their unusual symptoms. What she finds points to a series of poisonings that may expose shocking government secrets and put countless British lives at stake. But it’s the fight brewing in the Pacific that will forever change the course of the war—and indelibly shape Maggie’s fate.

But as of now it's still in manuscript form and there's a lot of work to do…. I thought it would be fun to describe some of the ups and downs of the editing/copy editing experience, from an author's point of view. Here we go!

First, I turned in the manuscript of The Prime Minister's Secret Agent to my editor, the great Kate Miciak at Random House (who also edits Lee Childs, Alan Bradley, and Melanie Benjamin, to name just a few — NO PRESSURE THERE!) on October 1. It had already been read and commented on by my agent, Victoria Skurnick at the Levine Greenberg Agency, two novel-writing friends, and the hubby. Still, it's terrifying to send in your manuscript to your editor. What if she hates it? What if she rejects it? What if they cancel my contract and I have to give the money back? (Ah, what you think of at three in the morning…) So I'm waiting with white knuckles for the manuscript to come back, with both her comments and also the copy edits.

For anyone following the story of my crazy life, my recovering mother-in-law has just moved in with us after a hospital stay. The family is my husband, me, our eight-year-old son, and "Grandmama" as well as two insane cats — in a "cozy" New York City apartment. So I booked a week at a time share (using eBay!) and cashed in some points for a plane ticket. For one week, I would have peace, I would have quiet, I would have privacy!

However, when I was ensconced in the hotel room, one thing was clear — I didn't have the right manuscript.

No, I'd been sent Sunshine on Scotland Street (which I can sort of understand, because The Prime Minister's Secret Agent also takes place in Scotland). And my computer died. Yes, it was the universe saying, hey, you need a day off. Even Kate told me to go to the pool! (I did and took Sunshine on Scotland Street with me — excellent book!)

The next day, I received the right manuscript via overnight delivery and opened it.

It's (sort of) a book! A baby book! Here's the first page — Kate's notes are in red and the copy editor's in green.

And here are some typical comments:

Those are from my editor. Here are some from the copy editor:

Of course, these are the ones I like to see!

And then, thank goodness, at the end:

It was a long week, reading, writing, considering, rewriting. A lot of it it accepting (or not (the editor and copy editor's changes. But it's also looking things up, making sure the date line checks out, making sure the time changes (Edinburgh, London, Washington D.C., and Pearl Harbor) all work. Tightening the mystery. And, alas, I couldn't post about it on Jungle Reds because of the broken computer.

That week, I worked with Kate and the copy editor's marks. Now I'm back home and incorporating the notes from several experts. For this book it's a World War II historian, a Londoner and Blitz survivor, a retired Scottish police officer, and a medical doctor.

And the irony? For someone who's constantly complaining about not having an office, or even a desk, I didn't work at the desk, but on the hotel's bed…. (That's Diet Coke on the desk — I know, Not Healthy….)

On December 9, I'll send back the manuscript with all my comments added. They will (somehow? with magic?) decipher and enter all the changes. That's the version the galley, or the Advanced Readers Copy (ARC), will be made from. (Again, NO PRESSURE!)

And all I can say is I hope that, when it comes out, you like The Prime Minister's Secret Agent! It's been an adventure!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sheesh . . . wrong manuscript, dead computer . . . sounds like the universe thought you really needed that day off!

    Thanks for the interesting look at the copy editing process. I’m looking forward to reading the next Maggie Hope story . . . .

  3. I agree with Joan: this is an interesting look at the copy editing process. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Love your post today Susan--you're such a good sport--and it's going to be a fabulous book xoxo Lucy

  5. Oh, I loved this! You made me laugh out loud. I know this had to be SO frustrating, but, as Lucy/Roberta, said, you are such a good sport. I love your whole attitude about life. And I can't wait to read your next Maggie. (and maybe even Sunshine on Scotland Street!).

  6. I have to thank my fellow Reds for being so supportive that day — since my computer was dead, I was messaging on my phone….

    BTW, this is a very "old-school" copyedit. Nowadays, it's all done on computer. I asked my editor about it and she said she's the only one at Random House who gets away with hand-written edits anymore….

  7. It's so different now for most of us--when I was doing my first few books,the pages were mailed back and forth with hundreds of yellow stickies on them. That system was so helpful when I was visiting fifth grade classes. They were stunned at number of pages I wrote and appalled at all the notes and corrections:)

  8. Lucy/Roberta, yes! It's been great for my third grade kiddo who's learning to revise. He was so happy to see all of the red pen on Mommy's manuscript!

  9. I learned to work on a bed from Lucy. It's her preferred spot.

    I love it when the manuscript comes back. Reworking is (often) fun. I'm working my way to the finish line of a novel and it would be so much nicer if I knew exactly where it was going.

  10. Wasn't it John Lennon that said life is what happens when you're busy making other plans?

    I've been on both ends of the editing process, both by hand and via the copyedit notes in Word, and I still prefer hand editing, with actual notes in margins. Don't you think it's easier to make the changes that way?

    Looking forward to the new book, and wishing your mother-in-law a speedy recovery, Susan.

  11. SUCH fun to read this..and what a fabulous insight.

    Is there ANYTHING better than those little editorial pats on the back? I live for them.

    And for you-WHEW! YOu did it! Through all the adversity. Hey--Very MAggie, right?.

  12. Hi Susan,
    Love this post - it's so great of you to share the copy-editing process. Kate, though, has a parter-in-Old-School-crime at Random House. My editor Susanna Porter also sends hand-written copy edits. I was so surprised when I received the first batch - I thought for sure everything would be done by computer. And I was thrilled. The hand-written notes made everything feel so "real" for me. I actually framed the first page she edited, and I still treasure the one with the ring on it from her coffee cup :)

  13. Karen, I do prefer hand-editing — it just feels better.

    And Kim, I know Suzanna Porter at Random House! When I was an intern there (first job out of college) I photocopied things and sent faxes for her! I'll have to tell Kate she's not alone...

  14. Susan,
    Thanks for sharing this. The process is fascinating!

    I'm a big Maggie fan! The historical period is a wonderful source of stories.

    And I adore the covers!

    Good luck with the edits.

  15. My editor writes notes on the manuscript, usually things like, "Show, don't tell!" and "Too many directions!" (I love to describe how my characters get from once place to another, and have come to see this as just part of my writing process, knowing I'm going to have to delete most of it..) But my actual copy edits are now done digitally.

    If this sounds confusing, it's because it's two different steps in the process. Your editor (or at least for those of us who are lucky to have an editor who still edits!) makes her or his notes on the manuscript. Then the manuscript goes to a professional copy editor. These are the people who check spelling, punctuation, facts, continuity, etc. (Your character was named Maxine in Chapter 1 and Maureen in Chapter 10... Ooops.)

    I miss the by-hand copy edit, and am wondering if there are authors out there who actually prefer the Word version?

    Susan, thanks so much for the insight and the wonderful pics! I'm glad you got your day off--AND you got to read Sunshine on Scotland Street!

  16. Thank you, Joan, Kassie, Kaye, and Marianne, you are very kind.

    And I heartily recommend SUNSHINE ON SCOTLAND STREET — the author, Alexander McCall Smith, has a wonderful ear for dialogue. Now I'm going to go back and read the series from the beginning — how did I miss this one?

  17. Good lord Susan, they sent you ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH'S manuscript??? did he get yours? I see a huge blurb coming...:)

  18. Susan,

    I've read each of your previous books. You have such a gift for writing suspense! Your editor's comment that the upcoming book is the best one yet has just about convinced me that I'll need to sip a glass of wine each time I sit down to read from it!

    As for receiving the wrong manuscript and your computer woes, I think you were given the gift of a much deserved break. (And I look forward to another book from Alexander McCall Smith, too!)

    Let me now start countig the days until your new book becomes available! June, huh? That's such a long way off!

  19. Heroic effort! Sounds like you're being well looked after!

  20. Susan, I loved that you worked for Susanna - small world!!

  21. Ha ha ha — I don't think he got mine — I think Sunshine on Scotland Street was supposed to go to Kate at her home address…. And I have a blurb from our Rhys — what else do I need? : )

    Thank you, Deb and Karin, for your kind words….

    Kim, yes — Suzanna was lovely — I remember her fondly. Those were the days of the Big Editors, such as Harry Evans, Joe Fox, Jason Epstein, Robert Loomis, and Kate Medina (who's still going strong, of course).

  22. They sent you Alexander McCall Smith?? Are you KIDDING?

    You're livin' in the stratosphere, sister.

  23. Thank you for opening your veins for us!! WOW.

    I love Maisie Dobbs -- and so will likely like this book from the sound of it.

    Thank you again!

  24. Susan, I have such a good feeling about this book! I know it's going to be terrific. Your books are so intriguing. I love the historic time period and the part Maggie has to play in it. Such a great concept.

  25. the beginning sounded a little like a Showtime movie I just saw at a hotel-- Words. but glad that your experience ended well....
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