More On The Pros And Cons Of Editing

Not terribly long ago I wrote a long blog entry on what I thought were some of the positives and negatives of being an author. It was rather philosophical, stating unequivocally that the upsides outweighed the downsides – in terms of the negatives, I was referring to two classes of situation – people who are friends and acquaintances who want 'editor time', and those who have become friends, who want to control you (intentionally or otherwise).

I was having a conversation today with some family, and I was suddenly struck with what I think is a universalism, and which sheds a tiny bit more light on the second class of downside of being an editor. In a nutshell, a distant family member of mine is losing his battle with an awful condition, and a good friend of his has performed a carer function – albeit informally. While never foreseen, a clash occurred when the said 'carer' wanted more powers and information (financial, medical) to help. In my mind the intentions were philanthropic, but standing back it was, and is, wrong. This person with the affliction had family who were rightly entitled to provide these more important roles and they gladly gave it.

Experiencing this discussion it dawned on me that it hit close to the mark on what it means to be an editor and having strong friends and acquaintances. Or almost any other profession or important role – hence the universality.

Regardless of formality, there are services that people give to other people. Sometimes there is a strong acquaintanceship or friendship involved, or developed. This is fine but the person giving the service must be wary. The reason why is because friendship and love are hard to define and even with good will, people are people and they want to be more involved. Before you know it, the involvement goes beyond the pale and people get hurt – especially when there is friendship or love involved. This situation was classic with the example I gave above, but it also happens in the professional field all too often – and exacerbated when relationships are formed virtually.

I have experienced, as an editor, authors dictating to me what I should do. I have the authority to exercise my role and I have the training – no one else does in the business relationships I have. Then it gets worse – because in the minds of the individuals concerned they are in the right and because they are 'friends' or the like, there is compulsion to be 'reasonable'. As editor, I have to draw the line on occasion, for many varied reasons – and suddenly I hurt the individuals concerned. In hindsight, it was inevitable. From day one it was going to happen.

What's the answer; what's the universal approach? Not sure really, but I can say be careful who you befriend within professional (or serious-role) relationships, beyond professional courtesy. At the same time, don't separate yourself completely. Life has risks. But do not, I repeat, do not befriend willy-nilly. A friendship, like a marriage, can be just great, but suddenly out of the blue someone, usually unwittingly, steps over the line, and then there is a lot of discord, and nervous energy spent.
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The Downside Of Being An Editor

Ah, over some time I have, on occasion, reflected on events that I have been part of, and how it affects me as an editor – and how I affected others. I should add that my role is not unique with regard to what I will discuss below – there are other jobs that can be compared to that of being an editor.

I'll get the up-side out of the way quickly – and it certainly isn't less important to me – hey, it has to be stronger than the downside to actually cause me to continue to it – but it isn't as interesting as the downside. Firstly, the only thing better (from a professional/creative point of view) than publishing one's own story, is to help others achieve publication. It is a thrill. It is exciting. It is, ultimately, rewarding. Being a key player in a small publishing concern is also rewarding, for many of the same reasons as being an editor, and providing the pleasure of turning such a concern a success. Working with words is fun, and helping an author polish the music of our great language, is pleasurable. As a writer, I have learned much about my craft by exercising my editorial skills with other authors. I am certainly humble enough to acknowledge that I constantly learn from every author I work with. All in all, it is a fantastic job to have.

Now the downside. I am being clinical in my descriptions here, so you must understand that it does not imply that these 'events' happen all the time, or in each case to an extreme extent. I am being hyperbolic, perhaps.

As an editor I don't just work at the creative level all the time. I am a businessman as well. I am part of a team that must ensure, through our responsibilities, that the business is viable. Even though I would LOVE to help every author I touch on get better, I can't help the majority. I must often reject, and while I try my best to explain why, my rejections at best will be brief. I am respectful and honest at the same time. Nevertheless, not everyone likes it. I do get email directed to me (or my company) with varying degrees of 'peevedness' about them. These email can be short, long, terse, clinical – but ultimately all emotional. Most have little effect on me, and some may even be somewhat, strangely, funny, but the cumulative effect can be a little depressing at times. Only a little. The underlying reason why I get concerned with this is because I see writers who have a weakness that needs to be overcome, and often aren't – they need to develop the necessary combination of confidence, thick-skinnedness, and willingness to improve by taking on board constructive criticism (and, for that matter, having the wits to determine what is constructive criticism).

Working one-on-one with authors is mostly goodness. By and large authors who form the relationship to polish a manuscript have sober, sensible attitudes to the relationship. As an editor, I have a key role to help nurture the relationship. There can be hairy moments, and these can be 'downsides'. One example is excessive violence and/or sex in their manuscripts. Each publishing house has a policy of one form or another that scopes what is acceptable or not for publication – it isn't a moral issue, some effort at defining what is right or wrong. No. It is usually a mix of factors, including defining what the publishing house's target audience/s is/are. This isn't always easy to explain to a writer, but I can say that I haven't had any issue grow into a knock-down battle. It works out – and often because the author and I work together to come up with an alternative, creative and acceptable result. Another potential downside to working in a relationship is if the author has, for whatever reason, issues with confidence, process, or something personal going on their lives. Yes, there is a bit of psychology employed, albeit 'pop' in my case. It taxes one's time, and sometimes one's nerves, for all sorts of reasons.

There is a downside to another form of relationship with me as an editor. It has to do with personal relationships. This type can be divided into two sub-forms. Firstly, there are those people who were friends and acquaintances with me prior to, or aside from, any professional relationship. These are the people who want you to read their work, with that expectant look on their faces. These are the people who suddenly ignore you if you respond with a less than optimistic assessment, and usually a rejection. Most people respect my space, and my position, but the pressure and tension can still be there. I don't believe it will ever go away.

The second sub-form of this particular downside type is when a relationship is formed post (or during) the professional relationship. This is where a friendship is formed, or strong acquaintanceship, and then I, the editor, am subjected to overt or covert pressure to 'do things' for the author, or illustrator, or whoever. While I doubt that in the majority of cases the person concerned is intentionally manipulating me, there is a degree of it happening. The wider the collection of such relationships, the greater the accumulated effect. This can often extend beyond just the editor – it becomes a managerial issue, including marketing and managing directorship. For example, an author may want certain marketing opportunities that are well and truly beyond the capacity of the publisher and explicitly noted in its manifesto, and yet there are the barrages of requests. This effect is particularly upsetting to me if the friendship is (or appears) strong, and the person concerned chooses to hold back, hide, or distort facts/communication to achieve an end. Only recently I was led to believe that a particular person was happy as Larry, and more importantly, was happy for me to unravel an issue, only to learn a few hours later it was escalated with threats and demands. I personally can live, like most of us do, with the foibles of being human – the disagreements, spats, etc, but from a professional perspective I take great exception with manipulation, intended or not.

Totally separate from relationships is the last notable downside – time. Publishing is a meticulous, time-consuming business, and no area of this industry where it is more obvious than the editing/proofing stages. Discipline and patience is paramount – no stones must be left unturned. There is no question that an editor must have the right temperament and skill to take on these challenges, but it can also take its toll. Many hours are consumed and it can be wearisome. There can be deadlines that create enormous pressure. Unfortunately, this is one that goes with the territory.

So, I have vented my spleen somewhat. But it haven't, really. I just want to share with you my experience being an editor. It is a facet of my life – and not necessarily a major one. I'm not after sympathy, just a few nodding of heads, and perhaps a handful of 'oh, so that's what happens'.
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Six Common Writing Issues In Submitted Manuscripts: An Editor’s Perspective

I have been Chief Editor for IFWG Publishing for nearly two years and in the 1.5 million published words I have edited, I have observed common patterns of issues with submitted manuscripts, particularly from (as then) unpublished writers. I thought I might outline six of them below.

I will not talk about SPAG, typos, or simple stylistic mistakes – from my perspective if these are endemic in a manuscript, they would never have got to the editor's desk. The odd error isn't an issue, and it never will be – although I would recommend strongly to authors trying to break into the market to place some emphasis on these fundamentals in your synopses, submitted chapters, queries, etc. From a selection perspective, it is hard to ignore basic errors in submissions. Tsk Tsk.

So here goes the more common, interesting issues:

1. Conversation Style Versus Formal Narrative

A writer should understand to a point where it is second nature that writing a piece of fiction is the art of simulating everyday language, not realistically capturing it. With the exception of dialogue – where the writing can get closer to 'real world', it is important to write in a more formal mode than what would be expressed in ordinary conversation. When I relate some incident of the past to a person who I am talking to, there will be ums and ers and repetition, and iteration, and so forth. But this isn't a mode you would want to use in your writing, as it would bore the reader to death, if not confuse – this is an extreme example but more subtle examples can often be found in raw manuscripts.

A few words that are often overused in narrative are 'but' and 'then', and to a lesser extent, 'so'. These are words that spring from conversation, and perhaps idiom. They are not good words to heavily use in fiction, and it is truly amazing how often they are employed. I can spot a mature writer 9 out of 10 times by the near-absence of these words, alone.

If there is any category of mine that urges writers to write a lot, get peer reviewed a lot, and read a lot, it is this one. There are many styles to choose from, well covered in creative writing theory, but they are all simulation constructs of reality. I repeat, it must be second nature to a writer to enable maturity in fiction writing.

2. Stage Direction Versus Trusting The Reader

Many new writers feel it is necessary to spell out every eye glance, turning of the head, body position etc of every character in their manuscripts. Especially around dialogue. Yaaaaaargh!!!!  That is pretty much what I say when I read it. It is almost like the writer has constructed her story like a play, or a film, and has then taken over the role of director and has added directorial notes to each scene in the script. MARK STARES DOWN AT HIS PLATE – "I don't know what to say… it felt cool at the time." HE THEN LOOKS UP AND STARES AT FRED, THEN JENNY. "I'm real sorry." Ad infinitum.

What makes fiction such a wonderful medium is that can be (should be) constructed so that the reader can fill gaps – the mundane stuff. Keep eye glances to a minimum – if not, it becomes boring, and probably irritating. Same goes for turning of bodies, opening and closing of doors constantly, marking every foot of movement within a scene. Yaaaaaargh!!!  Trust the reader.

3. Chaos Versus Order for Point of View (POV)

With some small exceptions, it is sinful to change POV within a chapter, or between breaks within chapters. Sinful.

For narrative to flow, at a micro and macro level, the reader needs some degree of stability in the sentences and paragraphs. Something to anchor the flow. Order. I wont go into POV in any detail, but within the third person mode of writing, particularly in past tense, the writer has amazing control of the universe and can have anything happen, any time and any place. The switching of scenes is pretty easy, but within each chapter, or subsection of chapter, the flow hinges on how the information is delivered – it is rare to have a large passages written without a POV – the protagonist, a side-kick, whoever.

And this is where I often find issues. Writers will naturally write with POV from an intuitive perspective – and not realize that they will change it in mid-stride – often mid paragraph. This disrupts the flow for the reader, and can often confuse them. If it seems 'right' to change POV, do it with breaks within chapters, or even better, by having these switches occur between chapters.  Don't get me wrong, changes of POV can enrich a novel, but not done haphazardly.

4. Tell Versus Show

An old chestnut – Creative Writing 101 and all that. And yet writers will fall into the trap so many times. This can't be a 100% rule, and there are cases where large passages deserve the tell mode, but in typical fiction it is critical to let the action, the words, the inferences, show the reader what is going on instead of treating them like young school children. This hearkens back to Issue #2 – trust the reader.

5. KISS Versus Complexity

Another old chestnut, and with the same provisos as Issue #4. However, I am not so much interested in the redundant half chapters, or even whole chapters that need to be eradicated – again, they are pretty self-evident. I am referring to the micro – the sentences that have too many words, or even clauses, again echoing the non-compliance with the 'trust the reader' epithet. I sometimes feel that certain sentences which are clumsy and hard to follow (often too long) exist because the author liked the start, and when confronted with painting herself into a corner, announces "damn the torpedoes!". With a little thought, perhaps a bit of a break, a rewrite will clear it up and it may or may not require a complete rework or splitting into multiple sentences. I amazes me how often just shaving off a few (or more words) is enough to turn a poor sentence into something sparkling and fresh (and most importantly, flowing).

6. Echo Versus Flow

I know I said I wouldn't talk about the absolute fundamentals, but I have to say something about the prevalence of word echo – repetition of words (or roots of words) in close proximity. There is no exacting science in determining some, but I can put my hand on my heart and say I can spot them every time, unfailingly. As a writer, I can miss a few, but a reread will usually pick them up. This is one of those 'intuitive' traits of being a writer – one of those skills that make up the craft.

And there you go. I might add another six down the track, but I can safely say the list above represents the lion's share of editing work that I carry out with new (and less than new) writers in my daily activity.
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Milestone

I was reminded by the IFWG Publishing site that at some point over the last 8 weeks or so I had passed a significant milestone – I had edited (in final copy terms) over 1 million words for IFWG Publishing – and we are talking about large works here, not short stories/anthologies, editorials, press releases etc.

This surprised me, and at the same time made me feel content. Stuff like this makes you feel like you made a difference.
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Productive Weekend

Whew, without going into a great deal of detail, I managed to do what I think I couldn’t, this weekend:

  1. Edited, and did some serious formatting planning for the longest IFWG Publishing project: Constellation Station (childen’s illustrated book, the project commenced October 2009!). May I say, bravo to Gary Alexander for a great story, and Ioanny Dimov for amazing illustrations (22 of them!).
  2. Finished editing (my side) Louis Lowy’s Die Laughing. I was nearly in tears when finishing it, and not from laughing. This is a classy book and deserves to be successful.
  3. I read up to a third of a most interesting, compelling draft of one of our current author’s new manuscripts. Great possibilities for next year, I believe.
  4. Read well into Lincoln by David Herbert Donald . An amazing biography – I have not read a better one.

Editing Progress: Ian Hall’s Opportunities: Jamie Leith in DariĆ©n

In my role as editor in IFWG Publishing, I have the pleasure of working with new titles coming through our pipeline. I certainly can add Ian Hall’s Opportunities: Jamie Leith in Darién, as one of them. I’m at just over 80% through the copy editing phase, and then we turn it over to the proofing cycles.

IFWGP is a speculative fiction specialist publisher, but we don’t mind delving into other genres, on occasion. Ian’s work is quite long – around 200k, but this is not uncommon for historical fiction.  There is a tendency for historical titles to have a bit more meat to it, and oh, what a delightful repast it is! I have to say it is difficult indeed to refrain from divulging what happens in detail – but let may say this: it has it all. "All in what way?" you may ask. My response is simple – "what do you expect to happen in an adventure set in 1699 with a heck of a lot of sea voyaging?" In the Caribbean. *smirky grin*
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Back

Yep, got back a few hours ago from the Gold Coast. Had a wonderful 6 days – it was sunny (and hot) when we needed it to be. Little one loved the pool (7 dips), Broadbeach, and Sea World. I relaxed, and yet was able to catch up on reading and also enjoying editing some of Ian Hall’s wonderful historical novel, Opportunities.

Day job from Monday… oh well!
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Writing In An Unequal World

Ah, a topic no doubt close to writers’ hearts, especially short fiction writers.

Editors.

The motivation for writing this post was because I did something I have never done before – I complained to an editor that rejected me. Surprisingly, the editor responded, and it was rather vitriolic. I responded back, and I am waiting for the completion of round two. Hopefully, it actually has already ceased.  Why did I complain?

I should point out that it is not my style to respond to rejections, and in fact I consider it poor form. We live in an unequal world, and for several reasons. Firstly, the writer is knocking on the editor’s door, and it is up to the editor to open it or not. This leads to the second reason why it is unequal – the editor’s skill can range from brilliant to moronic, and it doesn’t make a difference. From an editor’s perspective, of course, they have their own issues to contend with, including a wide range of author capability, as well as the whinging, whining types (the ones that complain on rejection on a habitual basis, or for no good reason). For these reasons, there is normally no point at all on dwelling on rejections.

The irony about my complaint in this case was that the editor took the trouble of providing content and style feedback – which is, these days, refreshing. However, editors expose their own skills in communication and assessment by doing this. Add the whinging, whining authors, and it isn’t surprising at all that most publications don’t provide feedback (not to mention the sheer logistics of spending time on feedback).

My complaint was directed to this particular editor because he made an assertion outside of my writing capability – I submitted a story that has, as its central antagonist, an antique porcelain doll. I wrote it as part of a regular challenge among some peers, where in this case stories had to be written based on a photograph of a doll. I submitted my story to this particular publication because it was running a theme on dolls, marionettes, etc. Perfect fit, for submission purposes. My story was rejected, and some constructive criticism was presented, as well as notes on strengths – all appreciated, but it then asserted that I retrofitted an older story to include a doll, in order to justify submission.

This was too much for me. As a writer, trying to be professional, I will take rejections on the chin and go to the next market. And gladly, even if comments (as rare as they are) are facile. ‘Water off a duck’s back’, as I stated to the editor in question. But I also stated that I do not kindly accept second guessing on my motivations, and would rather have feedback on the delivery of my story – otherwise, I would rather have no comments at all.

The editor responded in shotgun fashion, ignoring my point altogether, simply stating I was ‘sensitive’ to criticism. I suppose I was sensitive (as he clearly was), but it wasn’t to criticism.

I don’t necessarily recommend that authors do what I do – it took mental and nervous energy to write an email, and ultimately to construct this blog. For what purpose? Not entirely sure – I was hoping that I could send a message to the editor (a criticism in itself – despite our unequal world), but perhaps there was also a bit of venting one’s spleen. The only saving grace is that I do not do this very often (in fact, this is the very first time, and probably the last).

As a writer, we live in an unequal world. Pick your battles, and avoid getting damaged. Most of the time, write instead.
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Special Time

Yes, I just finished the day job and it is Friday evening. Not going back to work until 5 January. Have some Christmas commitments, and will enjoy time with the family. And I will write, edit, outline, etc. Yes, it is a special time.

Want to finish the high level outline of Bitter Creek. It is starting to take over all my spare time of thinking, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, due to stupidity on my part, I left some of my resource material in a chest that is stored away until my house is built – we are talking July or August 2011. Oh well.
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