How to be Edited – A Personal View


‘I really like the book but do you think you could change the beginning, the end and make it half as long again overall?’

This isn’t exactly what Tim Holman, my editor said, the first time we ‘did lunch’, to discuss his potential offer to publish the manuscript that eventually became The Thief’s Gamble, but in essence, that’s what it boiled down to. How does the aspiring fantasy writer react in such circumstances? Obviously, I could have said ‘No’, resolved to defend every dot and comma of my masterpiece. In the event, I smiled brightly, swallowed hard and said something to the effect that I’d be happy to discuss reasonable revisions.

Why did I do that? Was I prepared to do anything to see myself in print? No but digging my heels in then would have probably stopped my writing career in its tracks, and not only because that potential offer to publish would have most likely evaporated. I agreed because while I knew I had a good manuscript, I still believed it could be better. I’d worked hard to take my original idea and turn it into an original, fast-paced adventure and then I’d sent it round a carefully selected group of friends for reading and comment. These were pals I could trust to tell me unhesitatingly what they thought was weak, unconvincing or just plain badly written. They did so, sometimes with more enthusiasm that was necessarily welcome, and I rewrote extensively. This is the beginning of the editing process and the more work you do at this point, the better your chances of finding an agent or editor who will be willing to commit their limited time to helping you through the final revisions. As a rule, no matter how brilliant your idea, it’ll go no further than the slush pile if your manuscript is going to need months of work to turn it into a commercial proposition.

By the time I submitted my manuscript, my own creativity was nigh on exhausted and both I and my readers were at a standstill, unable to see the wood for the trees after so many different drafts and discussions. What the manuscript needed was a completely fresh eye and this is what my editor had. Did Tim just issue a list of alterations and corrections? If he had, I would certainly have dug in my heels. This was my story, my world, no one knew it better than I did and no one was going to tell me I’d got it wrong. No one did; Tim identified areas needing work and then he left it up to me to find ways around the problems he identified. This is going to be clearer if I give a few concrete examples from The Thief’s Gamble, but the aim of this article is not to sneakily sell a few more copies, so feel free to find a pal or library to borrow a copy from if you need to.

Background information was a concern, or rather the lack of it. The original manuscript was solely Livak’s narrative and there are definite limitations to writing in the first person. When you only have that one viewpoint, it is extremely difficult to find ways for your characters to convey information about their world and society without ending up with conversations along the lines of

‘Captain, we’re in orbit around Planet Zog.’

‘Thank you, Number One. That’s Planet Zog where all the women have green teeth and ambitions to establish an intergalactic dental plan?’

‘That’s the one, Captain.’

I’d managed to avoid this kind of thing, having had early drafts back from with notes in the margin like ‘Why are these people having this conversation; they both already know this?’ This meant there were plenty of references to the countries, the history and cultural aspects of Einarinn, but there was precious little to flesh this out. The first person style meant the book started fast and furious but that demanded sacrifices in scene setting and background. The tale made it clear that wizards were ultimately behind everything but none appeared until the very end. In order to write the book, I knew exactly who everyone was and why they were doing things but unless I was going to print my phone number in the book so readers could ring up and ask questions, they didn’t have much chance of finding these things out from the manuscript.

Another concern was the ending. It was very abrupt; Livak was on a boat looking out at the water. This was largely because I had run out of inspiration and was almost at the point of ‘and I woke up and it was all a dream’. Wizards deliver the final resolution and I had to admit there was some truth in the comment one pal scribbled on his draft; ‘attack of the killer plot device’. I argued this wasn’t so, because Darni, the character instigating the rescue, had been well established earlier and when he leaves the main action, it’s for entirely justifiable reasons. ‘Ah yes,’ says Tim, ‘that’s something else I’m not entirely happy with. I keep expecting him to reappear as I read on which is distracting.’ He wasn’t the only person to have raised this. I personally didn’t consider it a problem but realising I was in a minority of one, I thought I had better listen to the majority.

I wasn’t about to let this become a book written by committee but I knew I had to consider other viewpoints. Tim’s interpretation of the book was highly illuminating since he did not have my background knowledge of the world and characters. Nor did he have the familiarity with me and the way I think that enabled my friends to make some necessary leaps of logic and understanding. He was the closest I had so far to the reader who picks up the book in a shop and decides whether or not to buy it on the basis of a quick flick through. An editor also has a professional overview of the market, what is being written, what is being successful and where trends in fantasy writing might be leading. Again, I wasn’t about to start writing to some ten-point plan constructed for instant success but if I was hoping to make a career out of writing, I knew I had to see my work in that wider context.

These were the major issues of content. There were also concerns over structure and as I’ve said, length. I found this highly ironic, since my first attempt at a fantasy blockbuster, as written ten or so years ago, had done the rounds of publishers and editors and while each had turned it down for different and I now know entirely justifiable reasons, one thing they had all agreed on was the excessive length. I’d been determined to avoid the same mistake and had brought the Livak manuscript in at just under 100,000 words. Which, as Tim pointed out, was very short for a fantasy novel, which generally start at 120,000 words and go up from there. Could I make it longer?

So at the end of this lunch, I had a long list of things I needed to revise before my manuscript could be published. It sounds like a grim experience but it wasn’t. One of the other functions of an editor is to tell the author what they are doing right and hearing what he particularly liked about Livak and her adventures gave me invaluable encouragement. I felt someone else was now committed to making the best possible book out of my original manuscript. After interminable months of rejection letters and unanswered phone calls, as I sent the manuscript round agents and publishers, I had begun to wonder if I was just beating my head against a brick wall and wouldn’t it be nice to stop? I left that lunch seeing events and characters from new angles, seeing the wood again rather than being encircled by impenetrable trees.

What I found was thinking about solutions to one problem led me to ideas that helped with other issues and as everything came together, additional benefits to the book as a whole became apparent. To get across background and scene setting, we decided to open each chapter with extracts from ‘learned tomes’. This got me thinking about books, records, archives and having wizards searching for lost knowledge as well as lost artefacts. That idea didn’t really go anywhere so I set it to one side. Thinking about how I might make the book longer, I realised there was no point in just trying to pad out what I already had; I’d sacrificed the advantages of a more measured third person narrative for the immediacy of first person and just stringing things out would leave me with the worst of both worlds. So I needed a distinct sub-plot. There were immediately obvious threads to tie up; the machinations of the wizards in the background and what had happened to Darni when he left the group Livak was travelling with. As I wove those together, I also went back to the notion of wizards looking for knowledge and came up with Casuel, whose misadventures in the second-hand book trade help form the final novel.

Other advantages soon appeared. Putting the sub-plot in the third person made an effective contrast to Livak’s tale and meant I could take advantages of that style in terms of scene setting and description. Making Casuel a complete contrast to Livak shone new light on her as a character. One of the things I’d enjoyed about writing fantasy was taking a sideways glance at some of the more tired clichés, so making Casuel a wizard so far removed from the selfless wisdom of Gandalf and his ilk served all manner of purposes. Introducing Casuel’s interaction with Planir and the other wizards enabled me to bring out their role more fully, introducing ideas on the responsibility and limits of wizardly power. This all added depth and had the reader seeing Livak’s adventures with the benefit of knowledge she didn’t necessarily share.

This wasn’t a smooth or seamless process, however it may read in summary. We discussed five alternatives for conveying background information before opting for chapter introductions. Initially Casuel travelled alone but this meant a lot of solitary musing, which became hard work to write and to read. He needed someone to interact with and so Allin was created. From her beginnings as a device to enable Casuel to talk out loud, she became a minor character in her own right, a female contrast to Livak, a means of conveying information about wizardry, the role of women, some history and all manner of other things. Allin’s own personal development through the book also shows up Casuel’s lack of self-awareness nicely.

The editor was posing the questions; it was up to me to find the answers and we’d talk through their implications for the rest of the book. It’s not the editor’s job to turn a promising manuscript into a finished novel, that’s the author’s responsibility, but a good editor can help with ideas. When I was struggling with the ending, Tim suggested taking Livak full circle; back to the friend she’d been waiting to meet in the opening chapter. I tried this and found it worked well. Other suggestions I considered and discarded; for instance, opening the book with the scene that introduces Planir the Archmage. A convincing case can be made for giving the reader this advance knowledge to colour their reactions to Livak’s adventures. In the final analysis however, I was convinced that starting the book with wizards would make it a book about wizards, in some intangible sense and I definitely wanted it to be a book about Livak. This taught me something else about the editing process; when I had no strong feelings either way about a change but other people did, it was no skin off my nose to find a compromise I was happy with. Then, when I did dig my heels in, I could expect my decisions to be respected, because it was clear I wasn’t just being stubborn.

There was other minor tinkering to be done and once it was all finished, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. This lasted until I got the manuscript back from copyediting. My first thought was someone had gone mad with a pencil! Telling myself not to panic, I went to make a coffee and read a few articles and notes I had about being copy-edited. These reminded me that this is about far more than making sure all the commas and full stops are in the right places.

My discussions to this point had been with the commissioning editor. I was now dealing with Lisa Rogers, desk-editor at Orbit, who was my liaison with the copy editor. I rang her to establish what the ground rules were regarding these changes. I was relieved to learn all alterations were only suggestions; I could veto any of them. With that assurance, I started reading, not in my initial defensive mood, but trying to understand why the copy editor was making these suggestions. I found changes that definitely improved the prose, in the way sentences and paragraphs were structured. I opted to accept and to learn from these amendments. Others, especially speech patterns, just proved the copy-editor and I came from different parts of the country and here I generally restored my original text. Where, in a very few instances, the copy editor had made more extensive alternations, I looked hard to see why. I reasoned that if the copy editor had missed my point, the chances were other readers would as well. In most cases, I rewrote the passages myself. Lisa also raised some concerns of her own, in terms of structure and content and more revisions were made as a result.

By the time I finished squinting over the page proofs and The Thief’s Gamble was sent off into production, three assorted editors had had their say, from their various view points. The book had come a long way from the original Livak manuscript and I am extremely happy with the final result as now published. I certainly don’t feel my writing was compromised in any way by the editing process. Overall, the editorial contributions shone new light on my work, helping me to significantly improve this novel in particular and my writing skills in general.

So have I learned everything I need to? Did The Swordsman’s Oath go straight from my computer to the typesetter? Not at all. There was nowhere near the same amount of work to be done but we went through all the same stages and as it was a different book, different issues cropped up. Getting the opening to that second novel right caused more than a little anguish but because everyone’s ultimate aim was improving the story, we were able to reach an amicable agreement. I immediately put the new lessons learned into practise as I started The Gambler’s Fortune. This time I recognised when I had reached the end of my inspiration and was just going round and round in circles. Editorial input at this stage gave me the fresh ideas and encouragement to find that extra polish which makes all the difference to my ultimate satisfaction with the final novel and crucially, to the readers’ enjoyment.

This essay was written in July 2000, just before The Gambler’s Fortune was published.

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