Tuesday, April 26, 2011
In The Zone with Zee: Of Editors and Your Story...
26th of the month again, and I'm back on Tabby's Nocturnal Nights for the monthly Agony Zee advice column.
I received two queries this past month that pretty much overlapped, and I figured I'd answer them both here since I'd tell them the same thing. Both queries pertained to editors and editing.
Now, I'm still a freelance editor, and in the past I've been a senior editor at an epublisher. My duties covered every step of the acquisition and editing process, from reading submissions, writing broad notes identifying the problems with the ms (if problems were too substantial, said broad notes constituted the feedback for the rejection letter. If the work was taken on, broad notes were the very first phase of edits). I would then go on through technicalities of the story and ms, line by line edits, galley formatting and proofing. In these last stages, I'd also help the author come up with tag lines and back cover blurb.
So this answer, and basically this column, come from the POV of an editor. If ever there's any question you wanted to ask an editor but never dared to (or didn't know who to ask!), feel free to send me a query at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll try my best to feature your query and the answer here.
Without any further ado, here are the questions for today:
Dear Agony Zee
I guess you must be aware more and more authors are jumping on the self-publishing band wagon. After considering the pros and cons, I've decided to jump aboard the train too.
My problem is that most places I check for advice, and even the self-pubbed authors say this, recommend that any author going indie acquire the services of an editor before putting the work out.
The thing is, I have received extensive critiques on my ms, and I have a good eye for my own mistakes and pitfalls.
What will an editor help with? If I knew what more an editor could bring to the table, I'd be willing to consider the option. Care to enlighten me?
Dear Agony Zee
I recently signed with a small epublisher and am now awaiting to be assigned an editor. The acquisitions' person has already told me there would be work expected from me on this ms, that it will require a lot of tweaking to bring it to publishable standard.
As excited as I am to have signed, I'm dreading this edit process. Could you tell me how far and how deep an editor can go into the editting process? How anal should s/he be?
If I know what to expect, I wouldn't find this perspective so daunting. Please advise.
Dread in my Stomach
Dear Going Indie and Dread in my Stomach,
To answer Dread's second question (how anal should an editor be?), I would say as anal as possible!
To Indie and Dread, here's what an editor is supposed to do/be.
The job of an editor is to fine tune your story and to make the ms as strong as possible. The editor also needs to give the pub house the best possible work for publication.
So, in concrete terms, what does this entail?
In broad sweeps, this is what is expected of an editor:
- Know the craft
- Know the genre
- Know the story being editted inside out
- Know the market
Knowing the craft means that an editor should know how to write too. The editor needs the same basis as the writer, because a story, whether writing it or editting it, uses the same techniques. How will an editor be able to spot GMC issues or plot holes and plot drops if she doesn't even know what these are about? An editor also needs to come up with constructive advice and avenues for every issue she finds in your story, whether it is how to make the hero more heroic or how to activate your scenes and make them more character-forward. And, of course, the editor knows about all those terms such as character forward, massaging the story, layering, and knows how to explain it to the author in a clear way.
Knowing the genre means an editor should be in her element when working on a story. For example, if the editor is a fan of vampires and weres, she knows the rules, limitations and set-up of such creatures' worlds. This enables her to edit a story within these worlds to make it stronger.
Now in case the editor is not so familiar with a genre, and however lands with the story, it is her job to brush up her knowledge of the genre in order to be able to provide a worthy edit. Say that for example, your editor has landed your Regency historical but is not inherently familiar with that era. She'll be expected (by the publisher and Editor-in-chief first) to brush up her knowledge. Ideally this story should go to someone who is familiar with the era and genre, but this is not always possible. Research is a key word here. Then the editor won't come and ask you in her notes why in a Regency historical, you mention that women don't wear heavy powder and rouge yet the old gossipmonger of the town wears it. As your Regency historical editor, she should know that powder and rouge went out at the turn of the century, yet the older ladies who did wear such makeup prior to the era circa 1800 still stick to their guns and haven't ditched the heavy caking up.
Another example would be a fantasy story - an editor should recognize that fantasy stories are rather heavy concept-wise and contain lots of explanations because the world is completely fabricated, with its own myths, landscape and world-building.
Knowing the story inside out means the editor should be able to sit down and talk about the intricacies of the story off the top of her head. She's expected to have read, re-read, and analysed every aspect of the story so that she knows its every detail on the tip of her fingers. Expect at least a modicum of 'knowing what the story is about' and everything the plot and characters entail from your editor.
Knowing the market means your editor has also got her finger on the pulse of the publishing world. What's hot and what's not, what's in and what's out, what's being requested and what being ditched faster than a hot potato. This knowledge will enable your editor to tell you why your story may not fare well and what you can do to remedy that. For example, if beta heroes are being brushed aside and you have a Beta hero in your ms, the editor can, will, and should, tell you this and offer ways how to Alpha-ize the hero to better target the market.
All of the above usually come with the editor when she takes the job, or at the very least, when she is training to become an editor. The actual hands-on side of the task of editting englobes all the above and combines a few other aspects, discussed below. These are more the nitty-gritty, on the job/ms issues:
Ensuring a proper reading experience - an editor is the bridge between the author and the reader. The editor has a duty towards the reader to provide him/her with the best possible reading experience where the book is concerned. So in this light, an editor must ensure that the story has a smooth flow, that it 'works' well, that it is a wholesome package, and also that it doesn't take the reader for an idiot.
Guaranteeing attention to detail - this comes in the wake of ensuring a proper reading experience. The editor makes sure that details are consistent throughout and make sense all through the story. A good example would be character and place names - are these consistent in the ms? Could there be an instance where the hero, who is named Nick, is addressed/mentioned as Rick? Nothing jars a reader more than lousy attention to detail. Imagine reading a story where the hero is named Michael and at one point, you read line that goes "She thought him obnoxious? Viktor didn't know what to make of her!" This wouldn't be a problem if the hero was named Viktor, but say that in the first draft he was named Viktor then the author changed it to Michael. Not only did the author miss this name slip, but the editor too missed it? On more than one read? Wouldn't this spell 'sloppy' in your reader's mind?
Being the guardian of language - another point to consider: people read also to 'see' how proper language is used. As such, an editor is the guardian of the language, because based on her edits, people can and will construe the grammar/spelling/punctuation laws. For example, he had strived. First, strived does not exist, and second, after using had before a verb, you would use striven. An editor's best friends are often a style guide and a good dictionary!
Yet, all this does not mean the editor is responsible for all the aspects of your story. She isn't a full-time nanny with whom you dump your baby once you've delivered. The editor should fine-tune your work, but she isn't responsible for the whole deal of making your ms meet quality standards. You as the author are expected to do a good part of this already when you submit your work.
Some examples of this would be:
Proofing your work - your editor is not your school teacher. Every writing program has a spellcheck feature; use it and present a good, finished project. A few instances where the program may have missed an error is not an issue, but when the ms is lettered with mistakes, the editor can be saying "Holy ****!" at every page and this doesn't bode well at all for a good edit!
Needing to rely on the author for some things - like formatting according to the publisher's submission guidelines. Another good example would be when the editor is not familiar with an aspect of the story and has to rely on the author knowing what he/she is doing. Like, your story is set in Northern England, and the old ladies there call everyone ducks, or Scots call a baby a bairn, or your London East End cabbie says Guv instead of Sir. The author has to make sure such details are accurate. Similarly, if the author needs, for example, permission to use the lyrics of a song, he/she is responsible for ensuring he/she is not in breach of copyright laws on said lyrics. The editor is not responsible to figure out if you're in breach (though she should question it and ask for proof of release) and does not need to go search for this release on the author's behalf.
Research work -the editor cannot research the story's background/era/backing for the author. An example would be depicting the animosity between a Hindu and a Muslim in India. An editor is not expected to know the intricacies of this animosity, its roots and reasons for existence. This seems to contradict what I said above, that the editor should be familiar with the era. There's a difference between being familiar with an era/period/situation and knowing the intricacies of a region. For example, as an editor you should know the base notes about the former IRA in Ireland and how it affected the country and people. However the editor is not expected to know that such and such word carries bad connotations and is never used. This is research that the author needs to undertake and which the author should be able to explain. If the editor knows it, great, if not, the author should help by providing the most accurate and up-to-date presentation in his/her work.
No rewrite expected - an editor shouldn't be saddled with a sloppy copy of your ms, or the first, non-revised draft you ever penned (a publisher shouldn't even take on those, but sadly, this isn't the rule at all houses). The editor is expected to fine-tune your story, not rewrite it to commendable standards! The author needs to provide a good foundation on which the editor can continue building.
No tampering with your voice - a good editor will recognise your voice for what and how it is and will not ask you to overhaul it. There's a difference between ensuring proper grammar in your work (your characters use verbs like people talk, like, there ain't any way she did that. This can work in dialogue, but not outside of dialogue tags.) Your voice means the way you write, the words you use, the way you explain things. If your style of writing goes into using a few sentences to describe a setting and the description works, your editor shouldn't tell you, tighten this to a five-word sentence, or you are overwritten, or, you use too many questions) All these can pose issues if they do happen too much, but a good editor should know how to figure out the difference.
For example, your heroine has been kidnapped and once in the cold, dank and dark room, her POV goes:
Why me? What do they want from me? A ransom? No one has the kind of money to pay for my release. Why, oh why, did I think of going to the store when the light outside was broken?
Counter example: your heroine loved a man who went missing and she is now about to marry his brother:
Oh dear! Would she be able to marry John tomorrow? And why was she thinking of Steve, when she was about to pledge herself to his brother? Steve. Had she ever stopped loving him? And what to make of the suspicions she had that the man she'd seen lurking around could be him? They had never found Steve's body, had they? That charred skeleton in the car could've been anyone's, couldn't it? What would she do if Steve came back? Would she go ahead and marry John? Would she betray John's love? What would she do? Would John blame her? Was Steve still alive? Would he come back from the dead?
The point here - unless you're writing the script for a soapie, the second example has too many questions, while in the first, the questions actually strengthen the POV and highlight the heroine's plight.
So with all this in mind, how does the editor actually go about the job? The key here is reading. Yet, there are different kinds of reading associated with editting:
Read like a potential reader - This is usually the first read. Is story interesting? Does it make sense? Is it consistent? At the same time, the editor is asking herself whether this story would fit in the editorial line-up of her house. Usually, to a trained editor, the first 40-50 pages give a pretty good idea of what the story will be about - whether in plot or technical aspects. S/he can spot if the story is already strong or expects it to falter along the way.
Read like a editor - Usually second read, though a seasoned, experienced editor can do this on the first read itself. At this stage, she is looking for the potential pitfalls of the story, which issues need to be adressed, such as plot holes, plot drops, incoherent characterization, sketchy GMC.
Read like a 'teacher' - usually follows in the wake of the 'looking for issues' read. The 'mistakes' are identified and solutions devised based on the story, plot, characters, etc. The editor here jots down how to strengthen the story, irrespective of whether plot holes or the likes were found in the ms.
Read like a reader - after line-by-line edits are tackled, to make sure the details are consistent and whether the story provides the best possible reading experience. Example - Nick became Rick or Michael turned into Viktor are dealt with here.
That would be the broad view of it. Every story is unique, and also based on the complexity of the story and the length, all of the above can take place within two weeks or two months, provided too that the editor is working exclusively on that project. If she's also got other works on her edits roll, this can take longer.
It is pretty much obvious an editor would encourage rewrites to stregthen the story, but at the same time, she shouldn't be overhauling your story either, unless this is exactly what you signed up for when you were contracted. For example, you sold on proposal and your first draft made it on the editor's desk, and she takes the role of CP-beta reader-editor in the same go.
There you go, the long and short of it. An editor generally should be anal and a perfectionist, because that's when she ensures the best possible story comes out of your hands, through the publisher's doors, and into the hands of the readers.
And, the best bit - the reader knows naught of what the editor did. The great work coming out is the author's, and it's the author who reaps all the glory and spotlight!!
Got a question for Agony Zee? Drop her a line at email@example.com with your concern/issue/dilemma.
Author of stories about love, life, relationships... in a melting-pot of cultures
Zee is an author who grew up on a fence - on one side there was modernity and the global world, on the other there was culture and traditions. Putting up with the culture for half of her life, one day she decided she'd stand tall on her wall and dip toes every now and then into both sides of her non-conventional upbringing.
From this resolution spanned a world of adaptation and learning to live on said wall. The realization also came that many other young women of the world were on their own fence.
This particular position became her favourite when she decided to pursue her lifelong dream of writing - her heroines all sit 'on a fence', whether cultural or societal, in today's world or in times past.
Hailing from the multicultural island of Mauritius, Zee has been writing for close to a decade and has had 3 novels published so far (under other pen names). After a stint in the publishing industry, on the 'other side of the fence' as an editor, her goal today is to pen wholesome, fulfilling stories and help fellow authors, whether as critique partner or as freelance editor.
Find out more about her by checking her blog