In celebration of the paperback release of Surface Tension, we were lucky enough to sit down with Mike Mullin and discuss the editing process for his books. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to write, edit, polish, and ultimately finish a book, read the full interview below.
Tanglewood: How long was the process of working with your editor on revising and editing Surface Tension, and were there any obstacles along the way?
Mike: The overall process of writing and editing Surface Tension took about four years, although that’s not all I was doing in that time frame. Some of the work overlapped with finishing and editing Sunrise. Of that time, I think the time I worked with Peggy (Tanglewood’s fabulous editor and owner) was about a year. There were some obstacles along the way, as there always are in doing something as ambitious as writing a book. The one I remember best was the reaction of the sensitivity readers—both Peggy and I were happy with the draft and thought we were basically done with it. But the sensitivity readers found some serious problems that required a major rewrite and ultimately made the book quite a bit better.
Tanglewood: How did the experience compare to working together on your Ashfall series?
Mike: Ashfall didn’t change much from the draft I turned in to Tanglewood to the published version. Only the ending changed dramatically, and although getting that right was difficult (six rewrites!), it wasn’t nearly so difficult as rewrites spanning the whole book that I did for Surface Tension. Ashen Winter had larger rewrites—I threw out the whole last third of the book and rewrote it very late in my process—but those came before I turned it in to Peggy. With Sunrise, the big change I recall was Peggy’s suggestion that Alex and Darla didn’t react strongly enough to [redacted for spoilers]. So that required a lot of rewriting in the last half of Sunrise, which strengthened the book considerably. Surface Tension changed far more comprehensively between the first draft I submitted to Peggy and the final than any of my previous work had.
Tanglewood: Were there particular sections or storylines that were more difficult to hammer out?
Mike: Yes, some storylines were so difficult that I abandoned them entirely. For example, in the first five or six drafts, Laurissa’s family was Muslim. I could never get that right, however. Either I had to dramatically change her relationship with Jake, or make her what some people would consider a “bad” Muslim, or create a lot of interfamily conflict in Laurissa’s clan. I couldn’t do justice to any of those options and ultimately decided that I’m not the right person to write that story. Of course, that decision bit my tail later, when a sensitivity reader (not the Muslim sensitivity reader, by the way!) pointed out that there was nothing in the book that counterbalanced all the negative stereotypes of Muslims peddled by Betsy and her father. So that led to one of the last rewrites, and to the FBI agent, Lin becoming Agent Soufan.
Tanglewood: Please give us an author’s perspective on what it’s like to work with an editor; do you handle it mostly via email, by phone, or in person? Are you editing and submitting revisions every day, once a week, or less frequently?
Mike: One of the many awesome things about living close to Peggy is that we can meet in person, usually at Bluebeard (an Indianapolis restaurant) to discuss the book and drown our sorrows in copious amounts of very good wine (or fruit juice, if you’re reading this in a middle school). Aside from that, most of our editing work happens over email.
If there’s a lot going on, sometimes our editing work goes back and forth weekly, but usually it takes me longer than that to finish and submit rewrites. I’m a very slow writer, to the frustration of my fans.
Tanglewood: How much of the editing process includes consideration that the wording is sensitive regarding characters’ ethnicities, sexual orientations, and other social factors?
Mike: Tons! It’s important to get that stuff right. Not, I believe, to make the book something every sensitivity reader will like—that’s propaganda, not good fiction. But it should feel authentic. At least two of the late edits were entirely focused on trying to make sure Laurissa, her father, and Agent Soufan were authentic characters—plausible Black and Muslim-Americans.
Often this is seen as a political thing—something that the left is concerned with but not the right. I wish that weren’t the case, and it shouldn’t be. Some of the villains in Surface Tension are Southern Baptists, so I included a Southern Baptist hero as well. My first goal is to tell an exciting story. But I also try not to portray any particular group as wholly heroic or villainous (because they aren’t) and to make sure every group feels authentic to the reader.
Tanglewood: Would you say that as you continue to work with the same editor over several different books the process becomes a little easier as you come to understand what they’re looking for? Please give an example.
Mike: I consider Peggy a friend and that does make everything better. There’s a lot of trust in that relationship—I know we’re working toward the same goal, creating the best book we can. However, people and processes do change, so even working with the same editor isn’t the same experience each time. For example, Surface Tension is the first time I’d worked with sensitivity readers. That changed the dynamics and length of the editorial process substantially as compared to my previous books.
Tanglewood: Do you ever have to rewrite or delete large sections of the text, or is it mainly tightening up the wording here and there, or fleshing out a character a bit more?
Mike: I don’t consider it a new draft unless I’ve reviewed every part of the text and made major changes. For example, when my literary agent asked me to delete Heather (she used to be Jake’s sister in Surface Tension) and transfer her role in the story to Laurissa, that changed nearly every part of the book. It meant rewriting Jake’s relationship with Laurissa’s father, and changed Jake’s relationship with his mother, as well. I always save old drafts so that I can revert to them if I don’t like the results of the rewrites, but I can only recall one time when I’ve actually done that. I brought several deleted chapters of Sunrise back into the text late in the process of editing that book.
Tanglewood: What’s your least favorite part of the editing process?
Mike: The moment when I think I’m done and find out that I’m not. It’s also a good part of the process because it almost always leads to a better book. But it’s good in the same way that having a shard of glass ripped out of your foot is good (I’ve experienced this recently, unfortunately). It hurts like the dickens for a bit, but the result is well worth the pain.