Continuing my What’s it really like to… posts, I’m coming onto editing. (I’m mostly coming onto it today to avoid having to go and tackle a new edit right now…)
So far, I’ve had five editors (for novel length work, I’ve had a couple of others for short work). They were, in no particular order, a developmental editor, who is now my publisher’s editor, a different developmental editor for Inish Carraig (the fab J S Maryatt) , an agent, a new publisher’s editor and a copy editor. So, I’m no longer a stranger to being edited and this is what I’ve found, warts and all.
- THEY DON’T FIX YOUR GRAMMAR (mostly)
I hear this from new writers, from time to time: that they don’t need to worry about knowing the tools of the grammar trade (and believe me, I say this as someone who most assuredly doesn’t know all the tools out there. Not even close…) There seems to be a common misconception that an editor comes along and fixes everything for you.
Nope. Sorry. De nada. You have no hope.
What an editor does is tell you what to fix and leave you to get on with it. They’ll tell you a character or scene isn’t working, or suggest something that might be stronger. They might ask you to add something in, or take it out. But they don’t write it for you. Which means you need the skills to do that yourself.
But what about copy-editing, you cry! They fix things.
Well, yes, they do. Sam Primeau, my copy editor, is fabulous at fixing things. She fixes things and then she sends it back to me to review and agree. Which means I have to understand what I’m agreeing. Does that semi-colon becoming a colon still deliver the speed and context for that sentence? Did I have a different meaning in mind than the (correct) grammar gives?
In short, expect to (mostly) do your own work and try to give yourself the tools to do so.
- THE CLEANER YOU WRITE, THE EASIER THE PROCESS
I got a little nudge that my last manuscript wasn’t quite as error-free as it should be. Now, I can make excuses about my ancient computer, and its dodgy spellchecker that jumps into Dutch as often as UK English, or that I did some late revisions that hadn’t had a fine-tooth comb yet.
All true. All excuses.
Here’s the thing. The more mistakes your copy editor has to find and correct, the more they might miss. It’s hard going over a mss line by line, word by word. If an editor keeps getting pulled out of continuity by fixing things, it’s even harder.
I have never published without a last check, usually on my ipad because I pick up mistakes there more easily. And because the spellcheck actually works. And always, always I’ve picked up stuff at that stage. (And after publication, too, sadly. I’ve never come across a perfect mss anywhere and mine are no exception.)
- EDITORS DON’T GILD THE LILY
They come with teeth. They’re there to pick up the bits that don’t work. My latest edit came with a cover note telling me it was a “fine novel”. The accompanying list that needed fixing (high level, not line by line comments) ran to two pages. I considered that getting off lightly.
I’ve had edits that make me wonder why the publisher/agent/editor ever accepted my book. The one I’m about to start (honest, Sara! Today) has a daunting to-do list with it. I’ve had edits with more red in them than the average slasher-horror. They make the worst beta-reader seem like a kitten with a fluffy ball of wool.
This isn’t a reflection on you as a writer. Or, rather, I choose not to take it as such. They’re there to do a job and…
- YOU’RE A PRO NOW
Either you’re going to spend your own money bringing out a book you’d like to sell, or a publisher is spending their money on you. That carries expectations and one of those is that you’ll go at this professionally. That means putting your head down and getting on with it, not gnashing your teeth at the red-penning. It means using your writer’s brain and finding the ways to fix what’s asked for.
The hardest bit of end-edits is that they’re coming down to the nitty gritties. You’ve fixed all the easy stuff. Your beta readers will have nailed down the early howlers. What’s left is what you already considered your best work and you have to make it better. And better again.
One of the scenes I’ve just had to have another run at is a supposedly rousing speech. One of my betas picked it up as a problem on a final run and I thought I’d fixed it, but no. Now, my editor is telling me in no uncertain, toe-curlingly frank words to sort it out.
- DON’T BE AFRAID TO REACH OUT FOR HELP
In my case, it was back to my writing group with the new scene and firm instructions to them to maul it ‘because it’s going to have my name on it in eight weeks’.
My writing group do great virtual cake when it’s required. They do ra-ra-raing and keep going emails.
They also do teeth. Four bruising responses later and I’ve sent back what I hope is a suitable speech (I bet it comes back…)
Sometimes in a book, a scene is a process. It grows and curls and is hard to catch – that’s the time, even when you’re near the end of the road, when you sometimes need an extra pair of eyes.
- RAPPORT ROCKS
If you can’t stand your editor, or them you, they’re the wrong one for you. There has to be trust and respect, going both ways. You, trusting them to make the right call for your book (I’ve been on the wrong end of that one, and it’s horrible), them trusting you to listen and act on what they’ve said.
If you don’t respect your editor’s knowledge of books/ability to write/ knowledge of the genre and market, you will never listen to what they suggest. If they don’t respect your ability to run with their suggestions, they won’t push you as much as you should be pushed – and that’s the sort of pushing that makes a book better than you thought it ever would be.
Which leads to the most important thing of all. Of all the tips in all the writing books in the world this is, I think, the hardest to learn, and the most important
- DON’T BE A SHEEP
It’s hard this one. Your editor is a pro. They are being paid by someone to give expert opinion. You probably look up to them (see above.)
But it’s your book. You’re the person with the vision in your head. By all means, listen. Teresa Edgerton (my editor for Abendau) suggested a fundamental change to an opening chapter in Sunset over Abendau. This was a chapter I thought I’d nailed. It was one I liked.
Her suggestion was great. I ran with it, and things are better (if longer, the book is up, overall, by about 6000 words)).
What would I have done if I didn’t agree? If I fundamentally felt it was the wrong turn for my book? Change it? Dig in and refuse?
I’d have gone back to Teresa and talked to her about it (knowing I rarely win.) I’d have explained WHAT was important about that scene (because sometimes we get hooked on whole scenes when really it’s only one thing we need to keep) and asked where the middle ground could be. And if it was really, really fundamentally against what I wanted I’d a. have the wrong editor for the book (and that’s been a biggy with Abendau – that my editor appreciates what I’m trying to achieve, because it’s a bit of a snake to hold onto) and b. I’d have to stand my ground, knowing I could be wrong.
It comes back to what I said earlier – the book will have my name on it in eight weeks. I have to be proud of it. Editorial makes that stronger – but only if I have the skills to carry them out. And those skills are the ones a writer learns in critique groups, in writing groups, in criticism. If you don’t want that criticism to be public, on Amazon and Goodreads, in reviews that you can never erase, then it’s best to learn them if you can. Because, ultimately, it’s up to you to follow the advice given, and do that darn edit.