What Does An Editor Do?

Last night I chaired a panel discussion at Byte the Book, a monthly networking club for authors and people who work in publishing. The debate was focused on the new array of independent publishing houses and the question of the importance of editorial came up. Predictably, the panellist from a marketing and sales background said it was unnecessary, and the panellist from an editorial background said it was central to his company ethos. As an editor by trade myself, I ended up wading in a reminding panellist A that there is more to editorial than correcting commas and typos.

This is an all-too-common misconception about editorial work. People inside and outside the industry think that we just correct spellings, grammar and punctuation, and that’s it. Job done. But these are things that are done at the very END of a book’s editorial life, and they are often outsourced to freelance copy-editors and proofreaders AFTER the big, ‘structural’ edit has been done by the commissioning editor. The bigger companies have a ‘desk editorial’ pool that will complete this work for them, and if the desk editor feels that a bigger change to the text needs to be made, they will discuss it in detail with the commissioning editor and/or directly with the author before making it.

But what of the editorial work that takes place before this part of the life of a book? And why does the world and her partner think it’s so easy that everyone can do it?

Let’s say a commissioning editor has bought a fully written text, they love it, they’ve shared the love with the author, the agent and everyone in-house and persuaded them to acquire it for the list. But, they know it could be EVEN BETTER if the narrative was re-shaped in certain ways – perhaps a character needs to be drawn out or cut completely, maybe more or less dialogue is needed, perhaps the author could magnify a particular event to make it more dramatic or a non-fiction text needs more factual information to make sense of the point it’s trying to make.

It’s our job to let authors know how we think the text they’ve supplied can be improved, and to deliver that information in the way that allows THEM to make the changes successfully. It’s a collaboration, and if the author disagrees with a note, then it’s their right to resist that change, but maybe suggest another one. I’ve watched TV producers give ‘notes’ to actors and crew on set and realised how similar it is to the editorial process. Do the actors or writers think it’s a waste of time? No. They listen carefully and go for another (improved) shot. If they think a scene can be improved by something they’ve thought of, they tell the producer or director and it is discussed. Together.

Most commissioning editors give broadbrush notes to start with, to allow authors the freedom to make the changes in the way they see fit. Then at the next draft stage, because at this stage we’re only talking about a ‘draft’ text, then they’ll go in with an Editorial Letter. There’s an art to these. You’ve got to know the author well during the acquisition process and you learn to flex to their way of working. Some authors only like broadbrush comments, others prefer masses of detail. Some react strongly to red pen all over their text, so you go for blue, or you don’t write on the text at all – it all goes into the letter.

The best editors know that this is the author’s baby and it is important to bring the best out of it. You owe it to them, and nine times out of ten a text needs another close eye on it to really make it sing. And therein lies the joy and why your authors can end up loving you. (This can go wrong if the editor has a strong urge to be an author themselves, as they can transfer their own writerly ambitions onto the text, but I think this is a rare occurrence.)

You may be at draft five or six before the text is ready to be copy-edited (the stage where the grammar, punctuation and typos are corrected) but even then, any significant changes are discussed with author and commissioning editor in case there are stylistic considerations, e.g. not all authors use traditional speech marks during dialogue scenes. Ideally the copy-editor and proofreader are briefed on stylistic notes before they begin, so that they don’t undo all the editorial work done so far during the final stages.

All the way through this process there are phone conversations – fraught and joyous; to-ings and fro-ings re ideas for improving the text; changing the ending, or placing chapter 3 after chapter 10. It’s a constant conversation that never really stops until the book goes to print (and even then corrections can be made on reprint).

In recent years there has been a move away from traditional editing, partly due to the rise in self-publishing. We all know how many red pens have been twitching over the Fifty Shades trilogy – the Inner Goddess would’ve been the first to go if I’d been editing it. And then the near-universal agreement among readers and editors that The Goldfinch could’ve done with a really good chop to make it even more brilliant than it already is. (Sometimes, as authors reach the bestseller heady heights a fear of editing kicks in in the publishing company (in case the author is scared off) and you can track it as their books get bigger and bigger.)

I’ve just finished The Miniaturist and felt so frustrated that this wonderful concept died on its feet 50% into the book – in case you’re interested, my editorial notes would’ve been a) the book tries to cover too many themes at once: black history, female independence, homosexuality so focus in on one or two, and b) either ramp up the significance of the miniature house and its creator or get rid of it all together. The former would be my preference.

Some authors have decided to eschew being edited at all and I await to see what happens when they run free. Only this last week, Cornelia Funke has decided to set up her own publishing company because she objected to Little, Brown US and her UK publisher Chicken House, asking her to move a chapter and change the ending of her latest book.

Her UK publisher Barry Cunningham said, “We had some editorial thoughts about the direction of the last book that she didn’t agree with,” he said. “One of the purposes of a publisher is to edit so if we felt there was a better book to be made and she didn’t then we have reached the best conclusion.”

I think, sadly, we are going to see more of this ‘parting of the ways’ as editorial skills are becoming less and less valued by authors, readers and let’s face it, some publishers (if they’re led by sales people, as most are these days).

I’m always amazed that so many people in my own industry don’t know what my job entails, so how do we bring the value back?

When Authors Go Astray

I had intended to sit down today and write a piece on what happens when your favourite author writes something you really don’t like; that is so unlike the thing you’ve been buying into all these years in terms of genre, style and content that you are left feeling really let down and, well, reeling from it all.

And then along came the advance copies of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to her global bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird, revealing that our beloved Atticus Finch is really a racist, a bigot. And it has shattered our dreams.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m reading reviews where people are clinging to the fact that this novel was written earlier than Mockingbird. They are using all the words beginning with D to describe it: ‘disorienting’, ‘disturbing’, ‘distressing’, with New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani summarising it thus:

“How could the saintly Atticus – described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in ‘Mockingbird’ – suddenly emerge as a bigot?”

Well this weekend I finally finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and could have summarised in a similar way, “how could the Man Booker-prize winning Ishiguro, consistently found to be a writer of great lyricism, melancholy and unrequited feeling – suddenly emerge as an author of a Bad Novel?”

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

I hadn’t been aware of any bad reviews at the time because I was (and am) a huge fan who doesn’t want to hear anything negative said about Ishiguro’s novels until I’ve read them myself. When I went back to look, I came upon the blasting from Adam Mars Jones in the LRB, concluding: “From the reader’s point of view it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” I can’t disagree.

From my friends and social-media acquaintances, there was a resounding silence on the book. A few had started it but couldn’t carry on, others had it gathering dust on a shelf (they knew they *should* read it but had been aware of the LRB review) and some just doggedly stuck to the ‘it must have had something brilliant in it that went over my head’ response.

No, guys. It’s just that a great literary novelist has tried to go ‘off-brand’ and written a poor novel. It happens. Let’s give the man a break and hope the Real Ishiguro comes back to us.

I started thinking that there was a pattern emerging between my favourite novelists (curiously all men) who’d all let me down a bit with a bit of a duffer. I could have cried when I started reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which treated the ’80s with the same shoehorned-in references to the culture as Titanic (the movie) did with its clunky ‘What would Dr Freud’ make of this?’ script. Where was the classy surrealist who blew my mind with Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas? Having a break by writing something so utterly pedestrian I had to pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve got The Bone Clocks on my shelf to read next – don’t let me down, David.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Then there was William Boyd and his sudden switch into the crime novel in Ordinary Thunderstorms. Stupidly, I loved Boyd so much that I chose this for my book club, thinking I’d wow everyone with his talent for an epic, sweeping storyline, as seen in Restless or Any Human Heart. Nope – it was as though he’d asked his editor if he could ‘have a go’ at crime-writing. Some people didn’t turn up to the book club I hosted because the book was so bad. Thankfully, Waiting for Sunrise signalled a return to form.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

And then Niall Williams and History of the Rain. This too, is on my bookshelves, but as I read about fifty pages in, that familiar feeling hit me. Gone was Brand Williams – lyrical, surreal, magically real, poetic – and in came a story written by someone I didn’t know, possibly because he was writing in the voice of a young girl, Ruth Swain. I wonder if that had put me off Black Swan Green, too, written in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy. These books are more YA than anything (and incidentlally, Adam Mars Jones thinks the same could be true of The Buried Giant.)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

I think this is what happens when authors writing into a particular genre, veer off in another direction without their readership knowing they’re going to do it. Publishers are culpable, in that they package the books in a similar fashion to their authors’ backlists, hoping they won’t frighten the horses.

I’d much rather they said, ‘literary fiction giant pens young adult/crime/fantasy novel for the first time’ in big letters – I’d still buy it, just to see what they’d done with it, and I wouldn’t feel as though I’d been hoodwinked into reading something ‘off brand’. I can understand an author’s urge to break out of a genre, just like bands do when they go all experimental in later years. The fans may waiver and yearn for the early days, but they do stick with them to see if their favourite band will return to form.

When they don’t for a while, we’re very reluctant to say so, it seems. We need to be able to voice that disappointment and move on, retaining the hope that one day the writing we love so much will come back to us. We do talk about film franchises being disappointing (hello Star Wars prequel) or albums being a disaster, but it just feels to awful to admit that a brilliant author has gone astray, let alone tell all our bookish pals about it. I was told that I was ‘controversial’ for giving Ishiguro one star on Goodreads.

Not controversial, just telling the truth.