In Praise of Editors

2 Jan

And so the supermarket shelves swap half-priced mince pies for Cadbury’s Cream Eggs, and the Quality Street tins of  Great Britain are down to the toffee fingers and coconut eclairs.

Seriously. You'd think they were made out of poo, or something.

Seriously. You’d think they were made out of poo, or something.

Yes… Christmas is over. The year is no longer quite so new. Everyone is back in work.

Well, almost everyone. I’d like to say I’m right back to the grindstone, hammering away at the keyboard like Jessica Fletcher on a cocktail of Sunny-D and blue Smarties, but the New Year finds me in that weird place between projects: All but finished on the novel that’s out in October, just finished a (very rough) first draft of another novel and in the planning stages of another novel (or possibly a play… haven’t decided yet) with an enormous  stack of reading to do as research.. Yes… January 2013 is off to a procrastinatory start, and as such I’m filling those hours when I should be working, or reading, or doing something, anything productive with far too much Facebook.

Kittens.

Pictured: Not work.

This morning, while browsing idly through all those pictures of kittens and passive aggressive “If you don’t ‘like’ this you’re a heartless c**t” links, I saw that my fellow writer and I’ve-met-her-once-in-real-life acquaintance Sarah Pinborough posted a status update in praise of good editing. It reminded me of a conversation I had with another writer friend, Gary Russell back in November, in which this very subject came up.

You see, editors have been coming under a lot of flack lately. The boom in e-books and self-publishing and the insane success of Twilight-fan-fiction-turned-bonkbuster Fifty Shades has led some to question the traditional way in which novels are published. In an interview with The Daily Mail, children’s author G.P. Taylor claims that as well as cutting out the “middle man” financially, self-published authors, “(Can) really choose what to write and are not held back by the whims of (their) editors”.

Pictured: Writing that hasn't been subjected to an editor's "whims". (From 'Shadowmancer' by G.P. Taylor)

Pictured: Writing that hasn’t been “held back by an editor’s whims”. (From ‘Shadowmancer’ by G.P. Taylor)

Now, first of all, I should say this isn’t an attack on self-publishing. The publishing world can seem byzantine to a newcomer, and littered with all kinds of hoops you have to jump through. Thanks to the current economic climate many literary agents are a little risk averse and disinclined to give the time of day to anything that falls outside what’s tried and tested. (One agent told me a novel I’d written was “too gay”. Having since reread it, I can confirm it was actually “too shit”, so perhaps he meant “gay” in the way teenagers and Chris Moyles use it.)

What’s more, I know of self-published writers whose work is both successful and well-written. Though I’ve never quizzed them on it, I can only imagine they have incredible powers of self-criticism, or very shrewd and forthright friends who are more than willing to give them honest, detailed feedback.

Or tell them if they've been "dirty birdies".

Or tell them if they’ve been “dirty birdies”.

Ultimately, that’s all an editor is. If they’re doing their job properly, he or she will be the best friend your Project has. You are not your Project’s friend. You are its parent. Every writer I’ve spoken to goes through alternating stages of loving and loathing the latest thing they’ve written in the months after finishing a first draft, as if suffering from a kind of postnatal depression, even when they haven’t rewritten a single word.

"I hate you! I hate you! Oh, wait... Actually, Chapter 3 was pretty awesome. Crap."

“I hate you! I hate you! Oh, wait… Actually, Chapter 3 was pretty awesome. Crap.”

A second pair of eyes is invaluable, and not just for proof reading. A great editor will spot  the chapter which is exactly the same, in terms of plot development and purpose, as an earlier chapter. You didn’t see it, because you were really pleased with the writing in both. Perhaps one chapter contained a lovely metaphor while the other had cracking dialogue. Your editor will see that you could cut one chapter without losing a thing. And hey… Maybe that nice metaphor will fit nicely in the other chapter, in which case, all is saved.

Or how about the three pages in which you describe a storm-tossed sea so beautifully? Man, you were on fire that day. You’d drunk, like, 8 cups of coffee and you’d been reading Moby Dick lately, so… you know… that stuff is pretty intense. There’s no way your Project would work without it.

Except it totally would, and what’s more, when you’ve trimmed those 600 words about “surging hollow roars” and “jets of vapor”, you won’t come across like a pretentious sixth former aping Herman Melville.

"Except in my novel the whale is actually a metaphor."

“Except in my novel the whale is actually a metaphor.”

But hey… It’s not all about cutting. How about the scene in which your protagonist is left waiting at the train station by his or her beloved, and they realise they’ve been jilted? Right now it’s, what… 400 words? You thought it would be cool to do it with a minimum of fuss and decoration, like Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, but your editor reads it and thinks it lacks oomph. (And yes, “oomph” is a technical term.) You add another paragraph, and suddenly it’s amazing. And it wasn’t your editor who wrote that paragraph, it was you, it was in you the whole time; your editor just coaxed it out of you.

Much like this.

Much like this.

Of course, even if they’re brilliant there may be times when your editor is just plain wrong. The onus is then on you to demonstrate why they’ve misread or misinterpreted something, but that’s the very essence of the author-editor relationship. It’s a dialogue that’s carried out with one purpose and one purpose alone: To make your Project as good as it can possibly be. Your editor is not a thwarted, envious rival out to sabotage your work or make it their own; they wouldn’t forge much of a career for themselves if they were. If you’re serious about your work, that dialogue can actually be enormous fun. For one thing, it breathes new life into something you may have been working on for years. 

Anyway… I’ve a meeting with my editor in a couple of weeks, so I’m sure that I’ll have to reread all this when I get that first round of notes. Because, of course, your first reaction when reading an editor’s notes isn’t, “My, what fun!”, but “Why can’t these Philistines recognise inarguable genius when they see it?” That’s your first reaction. The trick is to go away, make a cup of tea, and come back to the notes about 30 minutes later. Suddenly, like Keanu Reeves seeing a world made out of little green zeros and ones, you’ll see through your “inarguable genius”, gobble up some humble pie, and get rewriting.

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2 Responses to “In Praise of Editors”

  1. Frivolous Monsters January 2, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Our Quality Street tin looks just like that…Although you’ve already gone to town with the toffee pennys.

    • thedaillew January 2, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

      I like a challenge and the frisson of danger anyone with fillings gets when eating toffee pennies!

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