If you need someone to cover your story, Bothersome Words can draw on over 12 years of experience writing magazine features, business articles, marketing campaigns and blogs to fit the right words to your message.
Best Australian Blogs 2011
I first started this blog back in January this year after finding myself repeating the same comments about wording and structure in numerous manuscript assessments and reports. At the same time, I realised I was getting identical editing questions from nervous authors who were understandably worried about handing over their precious manuscripts for the first time.
Outside work I found I was having conversations with people trying to start editing careers who were having to dig to find all the information they needed about the industry – just as I had had to when I was starting out. Although there is a lot of information about writing and publishing available, it seems the editorial process can be a mystery for those who have not yet gone through it. Sometimes it seems it’s a mystery even for those who work regularly with editors!
I genuinely love working with authors and new editors – it’s no secret that writing and words are my passion* – but I found I was spending a lot of extra time putting together advice and information in separate emails instead of actually editing. Plus, I had pages and pages of spare notes that hadn’t made it into editorial reports for varying reasons – all that time and energy spent explaining different writing problems for nothing.
Originally, I had thought I’d just put a FAQ up on my static website, but those notes kept growing with every editing project – more than would make sense for a question and answer page on a business site. Once I’d decided on a blog, I realised I could also explore some other areas of writing and editing – there are lots of writer blogs, I thought it would be interesting to show what it’s like to work with writers and words from the other side.
I’m not usually one to enter competitions, but when I saw the Best Australian Blogs competition advertised, I thought I should probably enter Bothersome Words – not because I expected the blog to win, but because everyone knows it’s very hard to get a blog up and running and most of them fail within the first year. The competition, I thought, would be a good way to get the blog “out there” – and it was all about promoting good writing, which is something very close to my heart.
Writing is scary business. I have always respected any writer for having the courage to hand over their work to someone else to read**, never mind actually allowing it to be published and sent into the world at large. I get nervous enough just hitting “publish” on a simple blog post, knowing that it will slip out into the ether to be read and judged (or not read at all – is that worse?) by the denizens of the interwebs.
I was absolutely astounded when the 23 competition finalists were announced and I was notified that Bothersome Words had made it as one of the five in the Words category. I have been deeply touched by all the lovely messages of support from friends and family on- and offline. And delighted and amazed to announce that today Bothersome Words won the Words Category in the Best Australian Blogs 2011 competition.
Thank you so much to the judges, particularly the Words judge, Angela Myer, and to the Sydney Writers’ Centre. Congratulations to all the other winners:
Business and Best Blog: Styling You – Nikki Parkinson
Lifestyle/ Personal: Random Ramblings of a Stay at Home Mum – Lori Dwyer
Commentary: News with Nipples – Kim Powell
People’s Choice: Bike Exif – Chris Hunter and, of course, all the finalists and nominees.
Here’s to celebrating writing, in every category!
* No, seriously, allow me to bore you some time.
** Or edit. Really, we editors DO know how terrifying our pencils/red pens/post-it notes/track changes are.
If you want to be an editor, use your imagination
Mandy Brett wrote a fabulous article recently about editing and the invisibility thereof (Stet by Me: Thoughts on Editing Fiction) It got me thinking as to how editors view the art and act of editing and, further, how others view editing as a profession. I don’t mean in terms of its value, so much as the very bones and passion of it.
Writers often bemoan the fact that their lives and careers are looked upon in such “romantic” terms – those outside the industry tend to assume all writers are either tortured, starving and misunderstood* or impossibly rich and lurking in Hollywood mansions, dashing off film scripts. Either way, authors are usually objects of intrigue because they are creative – “professional daydreamers”.
Editors do not have this problem. Career-wise, they are generally regarded as boring and most assuredly not creative. No one wants to hear what an editor spent the day doing (although some writers might argue that no one really wants to hear what they actually spent the day doing, either – it’s the fantasy that’s appealing**). However, it’s the difference, or perhaps the similarities, between the two vocations, to which I wish to draw attention.
Non-writers always ask editors, “Don’t you want to write?” – the assumption being that surely one must be bored doing all those tedious corrections and desperate to do something less dull and more creative. Something with a purpose.
Writers, by contrast, tend to couch the question more tentatively and their phrasing will depend on their own experience and how their current manuscript is going: “Do you write at all?” they might ask, cautiously. Or more caustically, “Oh, God, you don’t write as well, do you?”****
The thing is, both editors and writers are drawn to their careers for the same reason – an absolute love and passion for words and stories; and for fiction writers/editors, the thrill of imaginary worlds. While the skills of each are quite different – writers are, of course, the creators; editors merely step in when the words (worlds?) are already on the page – I think there are fundamental similarities at the heart of both.
At least, there are for me.
I have yet to read anything written by an author or writer about the experience of writing or being a writer that doesn’t in some way mirror my own feelings about being an editor. In particular, I have just begun reading The Writer’s Tale by Russell T. Davies. While I haven’t yet finished the book, it’s a fascinating and completely raw look at what goes on inside the writer’s mind as he goes through the writing process – not just as he writes, but as he considers each new idea and mulls things over. The doubt, the exhilaration. Every aspect is laid bare. This particular quote struck me at the beginning:
“Writing’s inside your head! It’s thinking! It’s every hour of the day, every day of your life, a constant storm of pictures and voices and sometimes, if you’re very lucky, insight.”
It occured to me that people speak this way about writing (so passionate!), but never about editing.
Editing is regarded as the “clean-up” – it’s mechanical, drudge-work, and has been given an aura almost of soullessness, suggesting a lack of creativity or imagination involved in the process.
But is this a true reflection?
Editing is not just about correcting errors. I know many are quick to point out that an editor’s role is to read and amend a manuscript objectively and calculatingly. Indeed, they say, the editor’s greatest skill is their ability to survey the work with a scrutiny and distance the author could never be expected to achieve. And yet the vocation itself is not cold and calculating and I find that I shy away from being associated with such distant terms. I don’t know any editors that don’t live and breathe words as surely as the writers they work with so closely.
Do we use them and filter them in different ways? Perhaps.
I can’t, however, think of a time during which my mind is ever switched “off” from its natural storytelling state. There is always part of my mind experiencing anything, everything, in the world as that “storm” of words and stories. There is always a disembodied narrator putting things down for me on mental paper – rewording, rephrasing: editing, if you like. As Davies says – it’s every hour of every day; it’s constant… and sometimes it brings insight to a piece I am editing, or to a piece I will edit.
And, it seems to me, it is very similar to the way in which so many writers say they experience the world.
Many writers note the way they get lost in fictional worlds; the way characters – born entirely of their own imaginations – become as real to them as anyone with whom they actually share a house. They may write blog posts confessing that interactions with friends and family, or even strangers, are likely to end up as thinly veiled passages in future books.
While an editor might not be prey to the Muse in the same way as a writer, the above is not unfamiliar. An editor becomes so involved with the books they work on that they too begin to know the characters nearly as well as the original author. They have to, for how else might they deduce any errors in characters’ behaviour or inconsistencies in plot?
Once trained to analyse texts and manuscripts and re-imagine characters and structures fitting together in different ways, it’s not so far-fetched to think that editors, like writers, might also mentally rework their next meal as a scene in a book – even if they don’t then sit down to type it up.
Where a writer might use such a scene as inspiration for their own new creations, an editor might similarly mentally catalogue the scene and use the same kind of creative process to help the authors they work with to develop their existing stories and improve their writing. It becomes a real-world example for the editor to draw on: “this is how dialogue should flow”, “this is how a family scene might be”.
Editors need to develop their powers of observation and a certain amount of creativity and writing prowess in the same way that writers do. Editing is not, in fact, all drudgery and red pen, and checking dictionaries and “just being pedantic”.
My own “about” page here says: “I spent most of my childhood buried inside my imagination and now spend most of my time mucking about inside other people’s as a freelance editor…” and for me this is key to my ability to edit. Because if I don’t allow my own imagination free rein, then how can I guide anyone else? How can I presume to offer suggestions and amendments beyond the prescriptive offerings of the grammar rulebooks and dictionaries if I haven’t explored my own imagination and spent a good deal of time learning the art of daydreaming?
I am not suggesting for a moment that what an editor does is by any means the same thing as what a writer does. Of course writers are the ones who create the works that we merely step into. Nor am I suggesting that editors ought to be treated as tortured artists.
But I do think it’s important to remember that editing has a creative side – and it’s okay to admit to that.
What do you think? Is editing a creative process for you? (Or do I just have voices in my head?)
* Possibly this IS true.
** Undoubtedly, writers can make “spent 8 hours staring at the computer screen and procrastinating” sound a lot more exciting than it genuinely is. Nevertheless…***
*** Hypothesis re: procrastination based on twitter comments and blog posts from eleventy billion authors worldwide. Full-time, part-time, published and unpublished.
**** There are just so many ways to take this question. And yes, I have heard every one of these iterations. More than once. In more than one tone.
Are you ready for an editor?
The other day someone asked what I was working on and then expressed surprise when I said it was the same manuscript they had asked about previously. They felt I had been working on it for a “long time” – in fact this particular tome was on a very tight deadline and needed to be completed far more quickly than usual. This, however, is not an unusual reaction from someone outside the profession – as far as they can tell, we editors just read for a living and how long, really, does it take to read a couple of pages?
When you come to an editor for a professional edit, they are not just reading your words. They are considering each word, each punctuation mark, and the context and flow of each; separately, in combination, and in the manuscript as a whole. They will go through your manuscript more than once.
If you are a new author, many editors will also endeavour to provide you the tools with which to learn so the process becomes easier and less complex for you as time goes on. Most first drafts, particularly of first-ever novels, require a lot of work and a lot of time, but new writers, seeking to get published, don’t always know what they’re getting into when they finished their first manuscript and start looking for help to “clean it up, ready for a publisher”.
Most people who decide they want to become authors pick up on one piece of advice pretty quickly. They know that if they want to achieve their dream of becoming published, they need to write.
However, further down the track when that first novel draft is completed, things are not always so clear. Not everyone is surrounded by fellow writers, or knows what next step they need to take. Many people know only that once they have written their manuscript they need to get it to a publisher and, having looked about a little (online, or perhaps browsing the “how to get published” section of a bookshop or library), they realise they probably need to have that manuscript edited first.
This blog post is about how there is much more to it than that.
Because so often freelance editors get emails from people asking for quotes to edit the first draft of the first manuscript they’ve ever written – sometimes the first thing they’ve written since high school.
This blog post is about why you might want to put a little more work into that manuscript first, about why you might want to spend a little more time working on your own writing and editing skills before you hire someone else.
There are plenty of authors who can tell you why you’d do this from a writing perspective. There are plenty of publishing sitesthat will tell you why to do this, too.
This post talks about it from the editing perspective.
There are a number of different ways to work with a manuscript, depending on what stage the work is up to. An editor may do a structural edit, (which will go over the “big picture” stuff, checking plot, characters, consistency and – well – overall structure, as well as identifying any major repeated errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation etc.) a copy edit (this goes through the manuscript in detail, checking facts, consistency of plot and characters, as well as language, spelling, grammar, punctuation etc.), or just a straight proofread (this is less detailed and and usually ensures that all the spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting is in order ready for print, but may also catch out any jarring facts or wording).
Depending on the author’s skill level and the state of the manuscript, the editor may decide to do a combination of these.
Alternatively, an editor can complete a manuscript assessment. Depending on the author’s wishes, this can be done at the start of the editing process – so the writer gets an idea of how much work is required on the novel, or at the end, so they can see if it’s actually ready for publication or submission to publishers.
An editor, as explained in previous posts, is there to help the author get the story in their head out on the page. Obviously the more experience an author has, the cleaner the manuscript is that the editor is working with, the easier this task is.
If an author shows up with a manuscript they have never even looked over, that is a much bigger task. It is not realistic to spend the time (or money) on all the things that likely require attention.
No matter how good the basic story is, if it is written entirely in a passive voice, or the dialogue is clunky, or there are constant shifts in tense or points of view; this draws attention away from plot errors, or grammar problems, or spelling mistakes. It’s highly unlikely that a writer would want to pay for the hundreds of hours it would take a professional editor to amend, correct and explain the problems in such a manuscript. So the editor has to make a choice as to what to focus on and that means other elements miss out.
It is not always clear what the author may actually want – do they just want what’s on the page cleaned up, or do they want the story to be the best it can be? Often it can seem that what the writer really wants is a mentor and this is really a separate task to editing.
If you’re a new writer serious about developing your skills and creating the best story you can, there are other stages you should consider before you think about engaging a freelance editor:
- After completing that very first draft: let it sit for a while. Let your brain refresh before you go back over it yourself and check the story for issues as well as looking out for grammar and punctuation.
- Do you have friends or family who you can trust to read over your work critically? Pass it to them and ask for feedback.
- If mentoring is what you’re after, consider joining a writers’ group – there’s bound to be one in your city or even online. These don’t work for everyone and you have to find the right mix of people, but such groups can be invaluable. Writers’ centres often also run workshops and mentorships.
All these things can help you workshop your manuscript in ways that could be quite expensive with a professional editor. Plus, you will learn more if you work through these stages yourself, rather than paying someone else to clean up the early draft/s and supply you with a report or some notes.
And if this list looks daunting, if all this looks like too much effort, too time-consuming? You may need to reconsider why you wish to become an author. Because while it’s perfectly true that occasionally a first-draft manuscript arrives that is very clean – an amazing story, wonderfully told, that needs little help in the way of plot tightening or grammar correction, this is exceedingly rare.
Even published authors with ongoing publishing contracts and piles of bestsellers behind them work through a lot of these methods* – many of them have their own personal beta readers, take time out between drafts of their next bestseller, and they certainly go through several rounds of editing with their publisher. Why should it be any different when you’re starting out?
* Where do you think we learned about them?
Diana Wynne Jones
It’s a sad and reflective time in the BW hovel today, with news that the great Diana Wynne Jones has passed away.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this author changed my life, though I never met her. Certainly she changed my reading habits, for though, as a child, I had already discovered fantasy through such books as Alice in Wonderland and the Chronicles of Narnia, it was Diana Wynne Jones who really brought my love of the genre to life. My devotion to her stories was enough for me to decide at quite a young age that one day I would not only work with books, but I would work with books just like these.
My first DWJ was Charmed Life, given to me by a book-loving relative when I was somewhere around seven or eight years old. I fell head over heels from the first page and from then on my whole family ensured I was regularly supplied with a DWJ fix. This was not always easy, particularly during the dark days when so many of her works seemed to be out of print – sometimes my habit was fuelled with ancient, second-hand copies, the covers sticky and grimy with age. But I didn’t care. Only the stories inside mattered, and those were intact.
Later there were reprints as fantasy fell back into publishing-favour, and I quickly gathered up books I hadn’t even realised were missing from my collection. That same relative who’d gifted me with my first DWJ continued sending adult-me the latest releases when she came across them.
Meanwhile I’d found a more immediate source – a friend who worked at the local arm of DWJ’s publisher occasionally provided me with advance copies.
As an adult, I reread the books and marvel at the layers – the hidden themes and meaning (often so much darker and more serious than I ever realised as a child), the different historical and mythological elements that are woven into the various tales. But reading as a child it was the simple things I adored.
Despite having no interest in science, I wanted a chemistry set like the ones in The Ogre Downstairs. And I developed a peculiar fascination with matchbooks after reading Charmed Life and Eight Days of Luke. To this day, I get a little thrill every time I find one – so much more magical and olde worlde than a matchbox.
Of course, with Diana Wynne Jones books it is the very ordinariness mixed in with the magic and quirkiness that make them so special. There is something delightful in the notion that a powerful enchanter might use plain old stainless steel in place of the “proper” silver cutlery that cripples him. Jones’s heroes are nearly all ordinary people, complete with their own flaws and foibles, and while sometimes they perform magnificent feats, nine times out of ten, it’s their ordinary strength and wit and courage and mostly common sense that sees them through outlandish and twisted circumstances; staring down the most wicked, selfish, pompous and powerful villains. And usually, the hardest thing they have to overcome is not the wild and magical danger, but the very ordinary and human traits of doubt and fear of being humiliated.
Her books are things to be treasured but, I learned, shared sparingly and cautiously. Having once given a good friend a copy of Fire and Hemlock (my own best-beloved copy deemed far too precious to leave the house) I was horrified when she casually told me she’d thought it was ‘quite good’ but ‘a bit weird’. I loved my friend a tiny bit less after that faint praise and vowed never to chance Charmed Life on anyone unless I could be certain of appropriate levels of adoration.
In the online world I have since met hundreds of the millions of DWJ devotees out there. Now I find it commonplace to see blog discussions on the merits of Howl or stranded commuters tweeting requests to Hathaway for a bus.
What a wonderful legacy she has left us with. And how sad for everyone that she has left so soon.
How to build worlds
When it comes to setting the scene in a book, everyone will tell you the worldbuilding is important. This is true no matter what sort of book you’re writing or which genre you’re writing in.
If you’re writing a fantasy novel, of course people tend to focus more closely on the worldbuilding since it is expected that you will be inventing new, make-believe worlds with your words. But it is just as important to create a believable world if you’re writing a memoir or autobiography: you have to recreate the world of your past, bring real people and landscapes to life for today’s reader.
Similarly, even if you’re working between these two extremes, creating a fictional story set in the real world, you still need to focus on piecing the foundations together. Things need to make sense. They must be believable and consistent and well-rounded. The biggest mistake a writer can make is to assume that their own knowledge or view of things is enough to for an entire world.* We all have our blind spots and biases, and these can easily be revealed in the worldbuilding if care isn’t taken.
The devil, they say, is in the details. They can make or break the story. As the author, by presenting the reader with your words, your vision, your world, you’re asking the reader to suspend disbelief and let go of this world to enter yours (even if the story is set in this world, and even if what they’re reading is “true” rather than fiction). So, you have to give them enough information to experience that world – and you have to maintain their interest in your world throughout the story.
Add enough detail and the world you have created is brought to life. Leave too much out and the entire story can seem shallow. Lose track of even the most insignificant-seeming fact and the entire plot can fall apart. **
Worldbuilding and the speculative fiction focus has already been mentioned. The skill it takes to create these fantastical places is widely recognised by fans of the genre. These authors are not just creating a land or planet complete with landscapes and townships, but also ecosystems, cultures, politics, language, magic – entirely different states of being. Ideally, everything that makes the world run on every level has to have been thought out as it affects every character and the way they interact with each other and the plot at large. The author needs to keep hold of every strand that they’ve used to weave this world together if they are to keep the reader convinced with every page they turn.
All this attention to detail gives a sense of realism to even the most incredible of tales. If the world works, the story works. But if some of the details feel off, if the worldbuilding isn’t strong enough, the whole story can come crashing down. Unless it is a plot point, nothing is more distracting than finding a character possessing skills or achieving feats that the very rules of the invented world insist should be impossible. A reader will snap out of a story in an instant if, for example, the shapeshifter who couldn’t touch metal in the first three books of a series is unharmed by several silver bullets in the fourth because the author forgot that particular clause.
Consistency and attention to detail is just as important in less fantastical novels. Action thrillers that otherwise show extreme attention to detail when it comes to science, technology and military power can fall apart if, for example, the political scenes depicting world leaders gathering to combat the major common threat (aliens, terrorists etc.) only show the US President and his security force in action – leaving out any further mention of the other supposedly powerful “leaders”.
Such a situation suggests the author has cribbed from US-centric Hollywood movies, rather than researching how global political leaders might react to crises. It doesn’t matter how convincing the aliens are, how believable the technology, or how tightly-written the gun-fights if the scenes most easily imagined in our world are the ones that are merely sketched over. Such a contrast in the level of detail is likely to pull the reader out of the story. It suggests a lack of authority and mastery on the author’s part and the mirage can be shattered.
Research, then, can be key to ensuring that details and your own narrow knowledge base don’t let you down. But there’s more to it than merely adding and enforcing those details. It’s not just about creating a world – you have to make it believable and it has to make sense.
If your world is different to ours in some way, if it breaks the laws of nature or physics, you might do well to familiarise yourself with the consequences of such a change. How would that affect day-to-day life? Geography? Trade? Buildings and cities? Education? Politics? Family life?
If you’re writing non-fiction, think about your audience and consider whether you’re writing about something that will be different for them – are you writing about a different time? A different country? Again, how is life different in that world to this one?
It’s also worth ensuring you’re familiar with the genre in which you write, even if (or especially if) you plan to break all the perceived rules of those who have written before you. It’s worth knowing in advance if the concepts and characters you think you have invented are actually featured heavily in World of Warcraft or bear an uncanny resemblance to a well-known Celtic myth, even if it is entirely coincidental. Whether or not these similarities are acknowledged in your world are themselves important in the building.
* Unless you’re writing a dystopia. Or utopia, depending on ego size and confidence/tendency towards tyranny…
**Of course, add too much detail and you leave no blanks for the reader’s imagination to fill in. There’s a lot to be said for hinting at information. Worldbuilding doesn’t necessarily mean giving all the facts, figures and measurements of a world or city. That way page-skipping lies.
What are your tips for worldbuilding? And have you seen any major slip-ups? What pulls you out of a writer’s world?
The stigma of working in fantasy
A lot of authors talk about the stigma attached to being a genre writer. No matter how successful a fantasy writer may be, it’s likely they have at least once been scorned by people comparing their work to that of “literary” authors. Readers too may have aspersions cast upon them if their reading choice is of the paranormal persuasion rather than something considered “high-brow”.*
Thankfully, fellow authors and readers within these genres are very supportive of each other, but it’s not unusual to hear authors admit that they don’t always tell strangers what genre they write in, or for readers to confess to hiding their book jackets when reading on the bus.
It can be a similarly lonely path for the editor who specialises in fantasy/science fiction.
When I first professed my desire to edit speculative fiction, the reaction from fellow publishing friends was lukewarm to say the least.
When I put together an ad for my freelance editing services, some people even recommended I avoid mentioning that I had specialist knowledge or interest in this area as it was likely I would scare off potential clients and publishers who might otherwise have hired me.
Several years down the track and while I enjoy editing many different forms, fields and genres, a significant proportion of my work falls into the speculative fiction category, and I am proud and excited to work with some incredible FSF authors, editors and publishers.
I am not sure whether things have changed over time, or whether the rise of social media simply means that fellow geeks, speculative fiction readers, writers, editors and publishers have all found a safe place to congregate, but I don’t feel as though I need to hide my “niche” interests.
Most of the time.
While I have, of course, found fellow editors who share my passion, generally speaking I know that if I am in a room full of editors outside certain circles, finding one who also edits fantasy is likely to be tough. Often during these gatherings, fellow freelancers tell me that they “always refuse to edit that stuff”, because they “can’t stand it”.** One person even turned her back and walked away upon discovering I edited this subject matter, such was her dislike of and disinterest in the genre – though we’d been talking happily enough about editing in general up to that point.
Most of the time, if I don’t know the person I am talking to, I know it is easier say only that I edit books; fiction, if pressed. Or mention other subjects I work on. It seems to be considered much more acceptable (or should that be respectable?) to edit literary fiction, non-fiction, or government material than anything as low-brow (or “escapist”) as speculative fiction, romance or crime.
But why is this? The basic editing skills are the same; you still have to consider style, structure, continuity, spelling, grammar, punctuation and all those other things.
In addition, with fantasy you might have to stay on top of a made-up world, which means you have to “learn” the culture/s and language that are part of the worldbuilding without any resources to check for research. You have to ensure the rules that govern the language and the world itself make sense and “work”. It makes for some very lengthy style sheets and very odd author queries.
I can understand that as an editor, if you don’t enjoy reading fantasy, you may not want to take on the task of editing it. But what I don’t understand is how an editor can look askance at the genre when it is clear how much work an author has to put in to develop and write such detailed books.
This week I was lucky enough to attend a recording of a TV special on fantasy books. It was no surprise to see a good proportion of the program devoted to the stigma attached to the writing and reading of fantasy, and the authors had some great points to make – not least about the complexities involved in writing such works and the fact that fantasy is the biggest-selling genre in fiction.
Several pointed out that fantasy is actually sneaking onto the general fiction shelves without people noticing. And there are great literary works out there that are best-beloved in spec fic circles, though scholars and critics would never categorise them that way.
Perhaps things are looking up. The last time I went to a general editors’ meeting, the wary revelation of my speculative fiction tendencies was greeted with only mild surprise and resulted in a discussion about editing fiction. Could it be the stigma is fading?
*Of course this impression is not restricted to FSF. Romance writers and readers (and presumably therefore their editors) get the same treatment. I remember a colleague once telling the office that she and a friend had decided to try and write a Mills and Boon, believing it would be very simple. They’d given up, having (unsurprisingly) found it was harder than it looked…
**I could argue that a lot of people don’t really understand what fantasy is – it’s not all dragons and wizards! But not liking FSF is fair enough. Not everyone likes crime novels either. Or romance. Or <gasp> literary fiction. (Whatever “literary fiction” means. Feel free to insert your own rant or vodcast of your interpretive dance on THAT topic in the comments…)
How stories are distilled
One of the best tricks a writer can learn is how to make the research they have done for one specific book or article work for a completely different publication. An even better trick is to figure out a way to make that research work for several different pieces.
One of the keys to working this out is understanding the audience for the text you’re writing so you can identify the best way to present your words. The slant, style and content of a piece may suit one publication but be completely inappropriate for another, leaving you with perhaps pages of research and hours of interview recording left unused.
If you can identify a fresh angle or approach to this same information, your otherwise wasted notes can easily become the makings of a completely different piece that you can send elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, editors need pretty much the same skill set.
The editor needs to be just as aware of audience (though perhaps this seems obvious, given that I’ve said before the editor is there to ensure a written piece works for the reader and the publisher as well as conveying the author’s message).
But this goes further.
Freelance editors for example, like many freelance writers, often work for multiple publications and need to be aware of the different requirements of each editor*, each publication (or publishing house)** and, of course, the audience. They need to take care that the approach of the text they are working on suits the reader and the publication not just when it arrives fresh from the writer, but also once it has been edited.
Subediting magazines or newspapers, often the editor will be required not only to edit, but to cut – sometimes substantially – a piece of writing to fit a layout. This might mean cutting a 1500-word piece down to 500 words, all while keeping the soul and voice of the piece intact. While this involves some rewriting on the editor’s part (hopefully without it being noticeable) the editor must always keep in mind the audience for whom the piece is intended.
One thousand words is a lot to cut from any piece and so the editor must get into much the same mindset to subedit as the writer did in order to write it in the first place.
They need to consider the angle and approach of the piece.
It becomes a precision procedure. That travel story, told from a personal perspective, may contain all sorts of amusing details. So what do you cut and what do you keep? You can change the slant of the whole story, without any rewrites, just by cutting those thousand words.
If, for example, you’re subediting for a travel magazine, you need to keep in mind that the reader might want to recreate the author’s journey and would be more interested in the facts and figures of the trip than the amusing asides.
But the same story in the lifestyle section of a newspaper might be intended as light Sunday brunch reading, for which the entertaining, relatable stories about other hotel guests and getting lost in a foreign city are more suited.
In effect, the subeditor repeats the story distilling process that the writer did at the start.
For each piece, a subeditor needs to determine the most salient details to keep; those most relevant to that particular publication and its readers, discarding spare text that doesn’t fit either stylistically or thematically. At the same time, the editor needs to weave the remainder together, hiding any gaps and reworking the text so it appears this is how it was written in the first place.
This is the invisible craft at work once more.
What are the most pieces you have ever got from a single piece of research? Have you ever been mis-edited (rather like being misquoted)?
*Different editors have different, personal style preferences. (Usually comma-related.) It’s worth finding out what these are before you start marking up pages. While every editor knows that even venturing the word “comma” in an editorial department is a bit like yelling “fire”, I once worked for two different magazines in the same publishing house at the same time. The two editors had completely opposing views on comma usage. Fun times.
** Beyond content, you, as editor, need to know what the “house rules” are for that publication or publishing house. Em-dash or en-dash? And would that be with or without spaces? What’s the general feeling on ellipses? Which dictionary do they use? Which style guide? Do they have a house
style guide? ***
*** Don’t be fooled by these last trick questions. Of course you also need to know if the editorial department actually uses and adheres to these guides. Including the house style. Rather than, say, some alternative style a particularly scary chief editor once implemented that everyone has since soaked up by osmosis or passed on with secret, trembling handshakes…
Just a fraction too much fiction
People often describe authors as artists or craftsmen, but have you ever thought of them as master manipulators? I recently had a conversation during which a friend informed me that they never read fiction because they “didn’t like to be manipulated”.
At first my reaction was one of incredulity. How can anyone not enjoy stories? And how could such a cold word as “manipulation” be used to describe the process of journeying through someone else’s imagination?
But really, I suppose, that’s exactly what it is.
I have read tales depicting snowstorms so realistic that I have found myself huddled under a blanket in mid-summer and downed gallons of water to quench unreal thirst in sympathy for fictional characters stranded in equally fictional desert lands.
The other night I woke up feeling sick and calmed myself back to sleep when I “remembered” the cause: I had drunk several litres of blood after dinner. It was only the next morning, when I was fully awake, that I realised how odd this was. I had become so absorbed in the story I was reading in the evening that later, in my half-awake state, I’d actually thought I’d lived it.
Clearly, as a reader, I am very suggestible. I should keep that in mind when planning what to read before falling asleep – fewer vampire novels; more stories about sunshine and rainbows. When I get into a book, I really get into it. I absolutely experience the life and emotions of the characters.
And isn’t that what every writer strives for? To get the reader to care? To paint pictures and scenes with words so readers really believe they’re standing in that street? Sitting on that couch?
Of course, as both an editor and a reader, I regard all these experiences as signs of powerful writing – indications that the authors have the ability to captivate their audiences with nothing but words.
My compatriot, I suspect, would suggest that I must suffer from some form of readers’ Stockholm syndrome to view such manipulation in so positive a fashion.
I can’t really take issue with this stance that fiction is a manipulative experience to be avoided.* If someone prefers not to have their emotions falsely tugged or their adrenaline tested by make-believe events perhaps, on the face of it, that’s reasonable. Maybe not everyone is okay with waking up believing they might actually have drunk three litres of blood – who am I to judge?
But it does seem a shame to avoid one’s own imagination in this way.
There’s a kind of magic that takes place when a writer creates something – a person, a scene, a world, an event – with words; but the reader has to submit, yes, yield to the manipulation, in order for the spark to catch.
In some ways, it is a matter of trust. The imaginations of both the writer and the reader must come into play. The reader must trust the author to allow his or her words “in”; the author must trust his or her readers enough to set the words free in the first place.**
I’m still not sure I can see this as harshly as the word “manipulation” implies. There’s too much joy and exhilaration to be found exploring my own imagination and that of others.
I think good writing should touch your readers’ hearts, they should believe in your characters and their experiences. I think a true test of a story is whether your reader emerges at the end believing, even if it’s only for a moment, that it was all real; and I am far too biased to be able to see this as a bad thing.
What do you think? Have you ever felt manipulated by a writer (or a story)? Did this spoil your experience? Are you anti-fiction? How do you feel about trust between author and reader?
* I didn’t ask my friend how he felt about arguably similarly manipulative artistic enjoyments such as art, music or film. And of course, there are another ten blog posts in the idea that even (or especially) non-fiction writing can manipulate too. News, biography, autobiography, history, politics… there’s plenty of fodder there!
** Because let’s not forget, the author is dead. Death is a pretty big price to pay for a little mental manipulation… And now the internet is around and online discussion prevails, there are a lot more corpses.
You keep using that word…
One of the reasons to hire an editor, even if you have run an automated spelling and grammar checker over your document, is to get that all-important second pair of eyes looking over your work. As a second reader, the editor will pick up if you have overused a particular word and they’ll see, where a spellchecker won’t, if you are using the word incorrectly.
Most of us have a particular “tic”, a preferred word that we use frequently. It might be different depending on whether we’re having a conversation (or even who we’re talking to), or whether we’re writing an email or a book or blog post. It may even be different every time. But it’s the sort of thing we are unlikely to pick up ourselves. And unless someone tells us, we may never realise that we’re repeatedly using a certain word incorrectly.
This is where an editor comes in.
Unlike Microsoft Word, your human editor will call you out on attempts to have your action hero bring his fighter jet in for a daredevil landing right inside a wardrobe (ie: on a clothes hanger) when it would be far more advisable to pull in to an aircraft-sized hangar.
If every one of your characters is described as having glowing eyes and skin, and you’re not writing a supernatural or sci-fi thriller, your editor may suggest alternative ways to highlight their features.
When a scene depicts someone in a suit with a separate bathroom, it’s your editor, not spellcheck, who will advise either adding an “e” to clarify that you meant “suite” or adding detail to explain how the catheter arrangement works with the pinstripe.
Often it is the way a character speaks or conducts him- or herself that gives away the tic. In an attempt to avoid overusing “said”, many writers will use action to keep things moving. This is an effective technique, so long as it is not overdone and as long as those tics are kept in check. Again, the editor is there to ensure that a character who “snorts” in response to every comment doesn’t come across as having a drug habit (unless he’s meant to) or that others don’t “shrug” their way through every exchange and seem disinterested.
Punctuation can reveal similar “tics” and it’s only during that close editorial read that it becomes obvious every second sentence ends with an exclamation point or ellipsis that lends the story a jumpy or disjointed flow. Your editor can help smooth these out so that the dramatic effect isn’t lost and the text stays even.
Of course there are ways to try and catch these things yourself. Letting your work rest before you read over it allows your brain to “reboot” and you become your own “fresh eyes”. And becoming friends with your dictionary (and thesaurus) also helps, although yes, that seems obvious. But editors use them all the time.* Even the ones who are themselves “walking dictionaries” use actual dictionaries. Probably even more than other people because they are paranoid about getting caught out. After all, if you’re going to spend your life nitpicking other people’s words you want to make sure you get it right!**
But when all’s said and done, there’s nothing like that second pair of eyes to pick up the things you don’t know you’ve missed.
Do you have any writing tics? Spotted any anywhere? Let us know below!
* Apart from the editors I once met who refused to use dictionaries on the grounds that if a word needed to be looked up then a different word should be chosen. As a word nerd I am still troubled by this years later.
** Seriously, there is no sound like the tone of glee in someone’s voice when they believe they have found an error in an editor’s work. This is possibly understandable. But still…