Characters are the author’s puppets, but they’re people too

There are different ways to read a novel. There are different reasons that we read, different levels on which we engage, different things we get out of it.

Reading through editorial eyes, can be a complicated process. Especially when it’s your own work you’re editing…


When editing a book you tend to think of it as something functional, a creation with surfaces to be polished and tools to be applied. A construction to be arranged and critiqued until well oiled.

In this endeavour everything to do with the novel becomes equipment. The characters aren’t people, they are tools, puppets to be manipulated. The setting becomes a Paper Mache set, to be painted and filled with props. The plot becomes a series of events to be arranged and rearranged until they’re as romantic, or fantastic, or thrilling as desired.

And it’s easy to get into a habit of reading like this, so that even when you’re not editing or thinking critically about a book, but reading it for pure enjoyment, this same approach creeps through.

It’s certainly a useful way of reading. It allows you to consider the purpose of the book, all of its elements and what it has been made to say, to mean. But long ago literary scholarship determined that the creators of a book and the reasons for its creation, although there to be mined from the book if you wished, certainly didn’t need to determine what a book could say, or what a book could mean.

There’s another, completely different way of reading a novel than that of the critical editor. It involves seeing the book as a world in which to immerse yourself, a world of places, and people and events, devoid of a puppet master who controls them. The novel’s world simply exists, without an author having to create it. Viewing it in this way brings it vividly to life, and allows for endless possibilities of perception and meaning.

Like many readers, fan pages and book clubs do, it’s intriguing to consider the characters as people. To think about what motivates them, what is important to them, and how they interact with others. They are beings within themselves. This is of course the logic that accompanies things like fan fiction.

I’ve been writing a book club pack for a novel Odyssey has helped with. I’m putting together a series of questions that can help stimulate discussion about the characters, setting, themes etc. at book clubs. So I thought about what I would want to talk about in relation to this book, or any book really. What was engaging and exciting?

The book I was writing the pack for, The Bishop’s Girl by Rebecca Burns, is really well written. It jumps between various time periods and characters, from a 19th century bishop to a present day archivist, taking the reader on a tense and exciting journey.  A story of history, discovery and genealogy, The Bishop’s Girl also tackles the pressing issues of the everyday, like marriage, kids, friendships and self-discovery. You can find the book here.

With books as well crafted as this one, it seems a waste not to consider the literary tools used to construct it. Similarly though, some of the most captivating discussions about books come out of their ability to create characters and worlds that are so real that they stay alive even after the author has finished writing them. The ability to imagine and debate what could have happened, why events did happen and what they meant, hints at the captivating authenticity of a well-written book. I thought this approach was especially important given the vivid characters and environments that appear in The Bishop’s Girl.

When writing the book club pack then, I tried to work in questions that asked the reader to look at the book as a device, having a function for the reader, but also as a world in which the people, places and events truly existed.

It made me realise the importance of achieving a balance between styles of reading, between critical and immersive approaches, that I hope I can cultivate better in my future reading. Books are incredible in the many different ways they can be read. You can write a whole PhD thesis on a novel, or flick through the sandy pages on holiday, imaging yourself in the character’s shoes. And I will endeavour to remind myself, as put into words by this blog, to remember, and value, both of these styles. May my reading ever be analytical but also fanciful, constructive but also immersive.







Editing Reveries: Things I realised editing my first manuscript

This week I was given my first editing task as an intern. I’m helping to edit the third book in a fantasy series published by Odyssey. I really enjoyed reading the first two novels in the series so I feel pretty darn lucky to get to read the third before it’s even published and to have the opportunity to help out with it. Editing exciting new manuscripts seems to me like the very bread and butter of publishing, a real taste of the industry, and I was pretty keen to get started. I felt like a proud and protective new Godparent to this novel (even though so far I’d had nothing whatsoever to do with it’s upbringing…but then neither do the Godparents until they’re God-parented).

But that’s when I realised that this amazing task is also sort of scary. I realised the importance of what I was doing. For an author, writing a novel is not only a long and laborious process, but it’s also a very personal one. I’ve just started writing my own novel for my PhD and it’s still a wee baby novel that I can’t let out of my sight, let alone give to someone else to hold. It’s new and fragile and uncertain. Hopefully when my baby novel has grown up enough to take it’s first steps out into the world, and be read by other eyes, it will be big enough and strong enough to take it. But right now I am acutely aware of how sensitive writing is to the person that’s written it; that really it’s an extension of yourself. I know the manuscript I’ve been given is certainly not a baby novel, and that it’s nearly ready to take on the world, but for the author will it ever stop being their baby?

When I started reading the novel I imagined how much work had gone in to every paragraph, every sentence, every word, and I crumbled at the thought of making any changes at all. Who was I to critique what had been so laboriously crafted and nurtured? This was my chance to edit a real novel about to be published, and I was scared to edit it. Not a great start. I emailed Jen asking for a bit of advice on how to approach the editing process, which she kindly gave, and I felt better. I decided to treat it like the grownup novel it is and stop being so tentative.

Then it wasn’t like I had anticipated at all. The point of editing is to polish what needs to be polished, but what I found was that it was already pretty shiny. I’d definitely been blessed with a novel that is well structured, well proofread and well written. There were some little alterations of course, minor things, but nothing difficult or major. Moreover, the little things that I did suggest I wholeheartedly thought would enhance the novel in some way, and it didn’t feel fussy or overbearing but instead it felt cooperative and helpful.

The more I read through it, making my little notes as I went, the more I realised that while editing is in essence about criticising, it’s not about being critical for the sake of it. I think the editing process can sometimes seem malicious or disparaging, that it’s mistakenly taken as the act of searching for the negatives, that every edit is like a slap in the face of the author. But in fact, the right sort of editing is actually a kindly hand, one that simply helps to mould the story like a piece of clay, shaping it into a piece of art. This delicate, personal piece of art is not at the mercy of editing; it’s being honoured by it. Like the kindly godparent, editing nurtures the novel, and I hope that I will too.


Redundant Editing?

This blog has an overwhelming preoccupation with book editing. For many, that’s the image of an editor that springs to mind when you hear the word. But for others, the vision can be that of the harried newspaper editor, a la Spiderman’s John Jonah Jameson Jr.

However, the endurance of that vision must be called into question. As we move deeper into the digital age, print newspapers are seeing circulation rates plummet, as consumers increasingly look to the screen for their news.

The result is that newspaper companies have been forced to slash jobs. What is interesting is that these have overwhelmingly been from editorial departments.

On 24th November, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that News Corp, Australia’s largest newspaper and media company, was to axe 55 jobs, all from editorial.

Traditionally, editors, particularly copy-editors, provided vital support to the newspaper publication process. Their job was primarily about being a second pair of eyes to review the article before it was printed. Editors oversaw corrections to spelling and grammar, fact checking, and changing sentences that may have left the newspaper liable to defamation or other legal issues.

With the cuts to editorial, these jobs are being consolidated into the ever-expanding role of the journalist. Increasingly, the onus is on these individuals to not only write, but also to find their own stories and edit them. The journalism process has changed to facilitate even more rapid news reports, by having articles immediately uploaded to the web, then subsequently incorporated into print.

This has significant implications for newspaper quality. As we all know, the benefits of having someone else review your writing are substantial. Most of us quickly grow familiar with our own work, making it more difficult to spot mistakes, or places where improvement is needed.

Inevitably, things slip through the cracks. Editors Victoria demonstrated how a lack of editorial review contributes to even the simplest mistakes, when they posted a photo of the Herald Sun’s December 2 front page. In a blatant typo, the newspaper proclaimed the year to be 2105, transporting its readers 90 years into the future simply through a disordering of the number keys.

Herald Sun

It was a very simple mistake. How many times have any of us hit the wrong keys as we whiz through a document? But this easy fix made it all the way through editorial and print, to appear on shelves across the country. I have to ask, if the Herald Sun had been given adequate editorial support, would this error have still slipped through the cracks? I consider that unlikely.

Many people, those in control of staffing decisions across News Corp and Fairfax in particular it seems, consider the role of an editor to be superfluous – desirable, not necessary. After all, anyone can proofread, right? While I won’t comment on the average person’s ability to fix their own grammatical issues (Youtube comments section anyone?) editors provide a level of quality control that our newspapers are currently floundering without.

Those in charge may think that axing editorial staff is the most efficient way to cut costs and have the waning print newspaper format survive in the digital age. I can assure them that it isn’t. The increased production of poor quality work that we see when the position of editor is devalued will only accelerate the decline of the medium, as consumers search for a medium that can at least get the date right.

Publication Day Jitters

It’s crazy. In just three days, a book I found in the slush pile will be published. I’m nervous as all hell. Probably not as nervous as the author, Belinda, but still bloody nervous.

My main worry is whether I have done a good job with the editing. Have I allowed the author’s voice to cut through? At the end of the day, my thoughts as an editor rest with whether I’ve enabled the author to tell their story in the best way possible. That’s a very nerve-racking concern, particularly for one’s first-time fully editing a manuscript for publication. Did I mention that I’m nervous? Probably. This is a huge moment and will remain important to me for the rest of my life. I will always remember Hero as the first book, and that’s really special. (Thanks Belinda, for writing a story that moved me to do this.)

This kind of privilege – to acquire a book and see it through is such a huge thing to take on at a junior level. And yet, this is common in the US industry. Low level editors in most houses spend their time acquiring books at a fairly steady rate. In the Australian industry, acquiring titles is the field of senior editors (commissioning editors) and publishers. Below that, editors work on the books that their house has acquired, and may occasionally pass things up the chain.

These two distinct models of editorial careers are interesting, but do they change the content of what is published? If low-level editors acquire books as well as the upper-levels, would that not encourage more diversity? I believe so, and I also think that it represents a significantly different caliber of on-the-job training for editors. It would be more about creating a confident, individual professional over a competent, focused operative. While both systems have their merits, perhaps it’s better to have editors working on acquisition from the early stage of their careers. I know I certainly don’t want to stop picking something from the slush and running with it because I believe in it.

Hero very much fits that description. I first knew it was a good book because when I picked it up, I had been going through one of those awful phases where everything I picked up might have been a good book but it wasn’t grabbing me. Hero grabbed me immediately. I was skeptical at first glance, but then I read the first page, and the second, and then I couldn’t stop. They say there are books that you literally cannot put down and I always thought that was a weird or silly statement.

But now I get it.

There are books that, regardless of your capacity for reading at the time, sink their claws into you and pull you through them. They are the books that make reading as natural as breathing.

Hero is just that sort of book.

Back to my nerves. In a recent book about editing, the author stated that confidence was an editor’s “stock in trade”. Whoops. Though the larger part of me is very confident that we’ve got a good read, there is always the self-doubt at my own choices. But I know this is a good book, I’m just a mess of nerves. So perhaps I could be an okay editor and maybe I’m just a rubbish stock broker. But I think I can live with that.

The Big Picture: Structure and Flow

Happy Friday! You may have read Jen’s excellent piece on Monday about editing sweet, sweet copy. If not, there was a link back in that last sentence and you ought to click it. Now it’s time for the second blog of the week, by me! As Jen covered copyediting, we thought it would be swell if I talked about the bigger picture: structural editing. Here are some choice shower thoughts I had about this blog, that became this blog.

A disjointed novel, much like a disjointed limb, can be pretty useless. It goes without saying, but there’s a reason that people find short story collections without a very tied-in theme difficult to read in smooth succession. It’s because it’s hard to jump from world to world so quickly because you’ve only just established a connection with the previous story. You need that cool down time, where you dwell in the spaces the author created. You fit yourself into the world’s nooks and wonder about the characters and the plot. (You might wonder why it is that Gandalf didn’t want to go through Moria, but wouldn’t tell the fellowship his fears? Was Gandalf deliberately keeping the truth from Gimli? That bastard!(This was indeed a shower thought.))

Similarly in a novel, disjointed chapters or voices can have the same effect. If the author has created what feels like two different worlds that have no connection, then it can become very difficult to invest as a reader. It becomes more difficult then for the author to impart their story, to build characters and share emotions with their readers.

The job of the structural editor here is to ensure a sense of consistency, or provide suggestions of where to put the glue in the cracks. One of the many things a structural editor will do is called “chunking” where the parts of the story are categorised or chunked into groups. This allows both the editor and the author to get a better sense of the story and character development, what’s happening and when. Often a structural editor may even suggest the scalpel for a voice or chapter, as it brings nothing to the story and is hurting rather than helping. We do the same with paragraphs, but that’s on my next point.

Flow is often one of those annoying buzzwords that people use. But I am people, and I will use it because it’s the right word for the situation. It also literally means flow, as in the same way water flows. Why is it important to a structural editor and also to an author? Flow is vital to the creating a good reading experience of the book overall but also for each individual chapter. Something structural editors look to ensure is that voices, moods or scenes don’t chop and change (unless of course, that is achieving something deliberately). An important part of flow is ensuring that chapters don’t run up against each other and cause people to need a break from the book. Within those chapters, flow is about ensuring that people don’t switch off. That each paragraph pulls the reader to the next like a current. Sometimes to create flow in a chapter, we use the scalpel. Sometimes we move things about. Sometimes we ask for more. That’s what we do. We help put things in place, words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. All for the long view.

At some point a manuscript becomes a book, and the job of a structural editor is build and mentor, to pester and worry, and ultimately to make sure that an author’s words connect with the reader. We’re for good stories, written well and read even better. We are the big picture people, and as many editors will tell you, the bigger picture is often in the details, which is why structural and copy editing work together to create good books.

They’re Their: Copy Editing and Its Importance to the Finished Product

Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you are feeling a bit ripped off. In our introductions, and most of our discussions about what we do, Brendan and I have both said time and time again that the majority of our work centres around editing. But so far, a lot of our blog posts have focused on other topics. We hear you, loyal readers! You want to know about the ins and outs of editing, and we plan to bring it to you.

Today this post is all about copy-editing, the often confusing, mostly frustrating, and frequently overlooked aspect of editing that many authors forget they need. Copy editing does not concern itself with major plot holes, aspects of drama or action that need livening up, or even fixing those incredibly annoying characters that you just cannot stand. In a nutshell, copy-editing involves editing a text to make sure it is clear, easy to read, and most of all, consistent.

When I talk about copy-editing’s concerns with being clear, I am mostly taking about issues of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Misspellings, an over abundance of semicolons, or passive voice are all concerns of the copy-editor. This also ties into making the text as easy to read as possible. Copy-editors scan your manuscript line by line, just waiting to find those devious little sentences that are too long, too verbose, or just plainly too confusing. Like a tiny little word ninja, they swoop in and cut those sentences down, making them pleasing and simple to read.

One of the absolutely key jobs of a copy-editor is to make sure the manuscript is consistent. There are many out there, mostly frustrated writers banging their head against battered keyboards, who would love the writing process to be simple and straightforward. The reality, of course, is that it is a highly creative and organic process. As such, characters undergo major identity changes, settings are moved, and events are scrapped and written again. This means that your average manuscript can often be full of inconsistencies that the author has overlooked or simply forgotten to fix. When your Hobbits begin by marching through the Misty Mountains, and end up at Hogwarts, that’s when you know you need a copy-editor.

Most inconsistencies aren’t usually as drastic as all that (although, now I think about it, Bilbo Baggins’ sorting would make some awesome fanfic). Usually checking for consistency involves fixing characters who were redheads in one scene and brunettes in the next, or whose names have mysteriously changed halfway through. Not only that, consistency with word choice is also important. How many times have you Aussie writers battled frustratingly with a Microsoft Word that insists on changing your ‘s’ to a ‘z’. Small issues like these occur frequently throughout a manuscript, and finding and fixing them is an important part of the copy-editing process.

I can see the cogs whirring in your brain from here, even though none of you have yet read this article as I’m writing it. This sounds like proofreading! Proofreading is easy, I do it all the time in my essays, why have you gone and given it a fancy name? I should note, before our publisher reads this and then decides to hunt me down for my factual inaccuracies, that there IS a difference between the two. Although proofreading and copy-editing have several things in common, they are different parts of the editing process. Proofreading is generally the final stage of editing, where we look for errors that have been overlooked in previous edits. These are usually small spelling mistakes and typos. Copy-editing is a far more intensive edit, and aims to make the text as cohesive as possible, in order to provide the most pleasure for you, the reader.

It’s very easy to think that editing is just the one process, rather than the many-layered beast it is in reality. Manuscripts go through a number of edits before they are even proofread, and a major part of this is the copy-editing. We’ve all been frustrated by a sudden change in a character’s appearance or name that shouldn’t be there, but the sign of a solid editing process is when that never happens. And as someone who wants to be an editor, boy is that a lot of pressure!

Give Me Paper or Give Me Death

This is not the debate you think it will be. I love both ebooks and print and this is not about which one is better. That fight has been played out more times than there are new titles in a year (for the curious, that’s some huge number I don’t want to look up).

This is about editing, and style. It’s about old fashioned copyediting vs. the digital, track changes kind. They are basically the same thing; I’m looking for same errors, I’m changing the same sentences.

But one turns the page into rivers of blood and bubbles (I’m looking at you, Word), and the other involves beautiful, albeit antiquated, markings that are a language unto themselves. A subtext that any trained eye can read. . . Well, that depends on the legibility of the craftsperson (yes, editing on paper is a lot like artisanal sourdough).

An insistence on editing on paper is pretentious. But I can live with that. The reason I love editing on paper is much simpler. In a digital document, there is just a stream of words and pages, without a significant indicator of progress made. Sure, things turn red and comments appear thick and fast, but you don’t have the stacks. The stacks are the true measure of whether you’re on pace for a deadline. If the stack to your left (or right, I’m not a cop) isn’t decreasing and the stack to your right (or vice-versa, your left, you uncultured swine) isn’t increasing, than you know you’re not getting much done. If you are powering through it, however, the shifting stacks can be a source of motivation and pride. You just don’t get the same sense of achievement when you check a page indicator at the bottom of your Word doc.

Then there’s the way you can sort paper stacks into chapters and assign them to days. You say, I’ll have this stack of chapters done by Tomorrow, and that stack by Tuesday, etcAnd then you get to keep them in separate piles and feel extraordinarily organised and industrious. Now, you could do this with a Word doc, but it’s just annoying rather than inspiring and then you have recompile them into a single document later, which is far more laborious than stacking paper.

A mark against on paper editing is that, due to the nature of the industry, any changes you make are going to have be made to the digital file eventually. Almost certainly by YOU. This means editing on paper increases your workload. But conversely, this also means that by the time all the edits have been transferred digitally, you will have edited the manuscript twice. Turning weaknesses into strengths is part of my repertoire of excellent (party) tricks.

I could consider the environmental impacts of printing each manuscript to edit it on paper when I could just edit it digitally, but in this industry that argument is pretty laughable. Do I still feel terrible about the trees? Yes, but not terrible enough to seek a different career.

In summary, you can take my pens but you’ll never take my freedom! preference for editing on paper.