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.

 

Life Hacks for Writer’s Block

This week I want to write about something painfully close to my heart, that evil terror, the dreaded writer’s block. We’ve all had it at one time or another, whether writing a novel, an essay, a letter, or even a blog, where it seems physically impossible to coerce you mind and your fingers into creating something even vaguely coherent.

So I thought I could compile a list of potential antidotes that can be referenced if need be (fingers crossed for never). So I racked my brain for what has worked for me in the past, and also went on an online hunt for the most convincing ways to get your writer’s groove back.

And behold, a ten-step solution to writer’s block woes.

Number One: The deceptively helpful act of doing nothing at all

When a piece of writing is driving you absolutely crazy, I think sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away. By giving yourself a little distance you leave behind the negative or convoluted ideas that are distracting you from what you’re really trying to do. With that distance sometimes the crux of the issue, what you’re really trying to say and how you can say it becomes much clearer.

Number two: The opposite of what I just suggested

Sometimes if you’ve tried walking away and it doesn’t work, or you can’t stop thinking about it or you don’t have time to give it a rest, what can work is to just keep writing. Even if you know it’s terrible and clunky and awkward, if you just keep writing at least you’re somewhat closer to getting something down and you can go back and edit what you’ve got.

Number Three: The mighty and unquestionable power of colour-coding

In a second year creative writing lecture I remember my lecturer saying that one of her favourite authors uses colour coding to figure out who her characters are, how they interact and where the story is going. She plans out the series of events by the colour of their emotions. This is something I’ve found really helpful when writing. If I know the emotional colour of what I’m trying to write it’s easier to find the words that describe it.

Number Four: Saying it out loud to a helpful ear

So many times I have been so grateful to a friend that has listened to me trying to explain, and this is for two reasons. The first is that by trying to say out loud what you’re attempting to write you’re forcing yourself to vocalise concepts that you may never have put explicitly in words – you’re forcing your brain into using language without the pressure of writing it down, then you can write it down (don’t tell your brain that). The second reason is that the person you’re telling can contribute real, valuable and fresh insights about what you’re saying and how you could say it. I can’t count how many times a friend simply explaining something back to me in their words suddenly makes my own idea so much clearer.

Number Five: Changing the way you’re writing it

Sometimes a blank computer screen alone can be enough to scare away any decent ideas or sentences that may have popped into my head. When faced with this problem sometimes it helps if I write it somewhere else. A nice colourful notepad or an old lecture pad can be a little less daunting.

Number Six: Changing where you write

The place I can be most productive is never ever constant. Some days it’s the library, sometimes a coffee shop, sometimes just being at home is the best thing to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve learnt that if I’m really struggling to get something on the page a good start is to try going somewhere else. Another thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a correlation between where I can write and what I’m writing about. For example if it’s something particularly personal, or something I’m quite self-conscious about I will work best at home, but if it’s something I’m more confident about I’m more likely to be able to write in a café or public place. Catering the setting to the writing can helpful.

Number Seven: Reading a book/piece of writing you think is really good

Often when I know what I want to say but I don’t know how I want to say it I think about how my favourite authors would have done it. I read a book that I love and let it inspire me. The writing might not be the same genre or style as what you’re writing but it reminds you what good language is.

Number Eight: Reading a book/piece of writing you think is really bad

There’s no such thing as bad writing, but writing is so completely objective in so many ways that there’s always things your going to read and think really aren’t very good. Sometimes I find that reading something too inspirationally jaw-dropping makes me spiral further into the abyss of my own inadequacies. Where as if you read something that you think’s a little crappy you’re suddenly filled with the confidence that you can do better.

Number Nine: Listen to a song that matches the mood of what you’re trying to write

Sometimes I think of writing as like a workout, but for my brain; it’s mental cardio. And just like you need a motivational workout playlist, sometimes you also need a motivational writing playlist. By using music to get you in the mood of the thing you’re writing, you make yourself more likely to emulate it with your language. Sometimes I find specific songs inspire me to write something that I would never have thought of otherwise.

Number Ten: Stop thinking about what the critics will say

Critics will always have something to say, no matter what you write, and if you’re pandering to critics before you’ve even written anything you may never write at all. I think the best things I’ve ever written I decided I would never show anyone. By convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter, that no-one will read it, that it’s just to pass the time, you might be able to allow yourself to write exactly what you need to, not what you think other people might like. Writing at it’s core is about using language to express yourself, so you owe it to yourself to give it a full-hearted, uninhibited go.

So there you have it. I hope this list will be helpful, if only just to me!

 

 An Ode to Booktubers

 

This week as part of my intern work I did some more social media exploring. I looked at booktubers, the youtubers whose channels focus solely on discussing books. As I mentioned in my previous post, the way I normally engage with books tends to be fairly old-fashioned and I hadn’t really looked into booktubers. The closest I had come was when I got really invested in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a blog-style adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (if you haven’t watched the blog it’s amazing but also very addictive, proceed with caution –https://www.youtube.com/user/LizzieBennet)

Much like my social media stalking/research, yet again I was shocked and impressed by what I found. These channels are massive, some booktubers, such as Sasha Alsbery, who created her channel ABookTopia, have over 300K followers. She’s a woman in her 20s who has 300 thousand people listening to her talk about books, that’s impressive. Moreover, there’s a whole culture around booktubing with its own slang and customs. For example most of the booktubers I looked at would promote their “book hauls”, “TBRs” (to be reads), “wrap ups”, “tags” and of course “reviews”. All these practices are geared towards making talking about books all the more interesting, engaging and entertaining. They create these massive followings through creating videos that are so damn watchable. You watch one short video and bam, you’re stuck in a Youtube spiral, it’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries all over again.

The booktubers that I have become most besotted with so far are: Jessethereader – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDPo9-NZFNi2Gwe8LnlvAUQ

and Mercy’sbookishmusings – https://www.youtube.com/user/MercysBookishMusings

Jesse is enthusiastic, funny, conversational and so endearing. He reads a lot of young adult and fantasy fiction, and the way he talks about the books he reads imbues them with such excitement and enjoyment that you’re immediately convinced that you need to read them; he’s a publisher’s dream! Also he cuts his videos in to spoiler-free and spoiler-full sections so you avoid the bits you need to. I’m really interested in the ways young adults receive and review YA fiction and I’m going to be researching it for my PhD thesis, so I can’t wait to explore more of his videos.

My other new favourite booktuber, Mercy, looks at a range of genres including literary fiction, magical realism and even non-fiction. I was drawn to her reviews of literary fiction and impressed by the range of books she takes on. She’s also really engaging, but comes off a little more serious and thoughtful than Jesse. Another thing that I really like is that Mercy states boldly in her information section that she doesn’t “have a degree in English literature” and that she’ll “never write a novel”, but that she still has her own opinion. I love that she’s so unapologetic about her lack of university knowledge, and so confident in the importance of varied opinions and analyses. As she suggests there is never one way to read, understand or appreciate a book. So what I’m coming to discover, and really value, about the booktuber community is that predominantly it’s not exclusive, elite or pretentious. Instead it’s inclusive, positive and compelling.

These booktubers are creating their own cyber book clubs, where anyone, from anywhere, at any time of day can connect with other people about the literature that inspires them. I joined a book club a few months ago (mostly because they were going to talk about my idol Thomas Hardy) and I went to one meeting, just the one, and never another one since. Even though I loved it and I met great people, it was so hard to make schedules align. What booktubers offer is a massive, exciting, anytime, kind of book club.

I believe the most important thing a book can do is change the way you think about the world, and when you get one of those rare, incredible, thought-changing books you absolutely NEED someone to talk to about it, and booktubers create the perfect platform for that conversation.

Even more wonderfully, pretty much everything they do promotes literature.  I was talking to a friend recently about booktubers, and he commented that it’s ironic to think that an industry so threatened by the internet could now come to rely on it. But I don’t think it’s ironic at all, it’s ingenious. In an era that prescribes the demise of the book, the publishing industry and literary community is using the very technology that threatened it as the launching pad into a new world of communication. So go you good booktubers!

The Reading Season

Like everything else associated with the holidays, I’m sure you’ll consider this article one that comes too soon. But, for the publishing industry, the looming spectre of the Christmas season has well and truly begun.

 

This post was spurred partly by my receipt of an actual gasp physical book catalogue last week, geared at – you guessed it – Christmas shoppers. With a smidge less than a month until the big day, every business even remotely associated with retail is pulling out all the stops.

 

However, I was curious as to what Christmas meant for the publishing industry. As one that produces physical objects that may easily be used as gifts, it would be clear to anyone that this particular national holiday is important to book sales.

 

And yet, for many, the book is not at the top of any Christmas lists. True, the rectangular package under the tree does have it’s own brand of predictability. The avid readers out there will also be familiar with the mingling of excitement and dread as you unwrap a carefully chosen book to be confronted with your fourth copy of Pride and Prejudice. Book buying can become a minefield at Christmas time, so how does the publishing industry address this?

 

Well, first and foremost, by increasing the number of new and exciting titles for readers to salivate over and parents to be confused by. The significant increase in books being released for publication around the first week in October has become so apparent that it now has its own name – Super Thursday. This is the day on which many of the big potential bestsellers are released, with plenty of time to entice shoppers away from shiny plastic and chocolate-coated nuts.

 

The reason for this is that new books are generally given between 2-3 months to prove themselves, sales-wise. Usually it becomes clear after the first two months whether the publisher has a bestseller on their hands or not. By releasing books on Super Thursday, these books have just the right amount of time to get on the Christmas bandwagon and help the word of mouth spread in the seasonal sales rush.

 

But this is done in order to target a certain type of recipient – the ones who (apparently) most commonly receive books for Christmas. An article published in UK newspaper The Telegraph a day before the publication of this year’s Super Thursday books noted a large skew in one area – children’s books, and a complete absence of one particular genre – chick-lit.

 

This says a lot about the expectations publishers have drawn out about who will be buying books this Christmas. Overwhelmingly, the season is targeted at children. So an increase in the release of books aimed at this age bracket makes sense. Christmas-themed books also represent a growing and popular trend. The Elf on the Shelf book, for one, has combined Christmas, books and toys in such an appealing way that many will choose to sit a small plush elf in their children’s room this Christmas, in an effort to both awaken their holiday spirit, and get some well behaved children in the bargain.

 

The other trend is more interesting. The absence of chick-lit novels, and the presence of those focused on crime and war suggests that – if you’ll forgive me for invoking a stereotype to demonstrate how I think the industry is using it – that book publishers consider men (particularly older men) to be the recipients of books more often than women will be this Christmas. This is certainly not to say that the industry is ignoring women over this time, but it does not appear to be their focus.

 

Interestingly, this surge in publication around Christmastime is also a positive step for the future of the print book. Let’s face it; an eBook has to be one of the more underwhelming presents available. Oh cool! A digital file! – said no one ever. And the rush is predominately towards print.

 

This Christmas, you may choose to buy a book for a loved one, or even yourself. Certainly the outpouring of usually non-existent catalogues and a higher percentage of new, physical books would suggest that this might be a good time to stock up. For the publishing industry, just like others involved with consumption, Christmas is an important time, with products produced especially for those swept up in the spirit of the season.

The Forgotten Readers

We’ve all been inside one. For many, including myself, our love of reading was grown and cultivated in a building absolutely bursting with books. You could stroll through the seemingly endless rows of towering shelves, trying to find that perfect book. Especially as children, libraries seem to house never-ending possibilities for reading. Across the country, indeed, across the world, libraries are institutions that open their doors to thousands of avid readers every day.

Whilst the library is the main source of reading material for numerous individuals, it is a commonly overlooked vehicle for increasing promotion and awareness of your book. This is largely because many don’t consider an institution that buys one copy of a book and then lends it to as many people as possible an opportunity for substantial profit.

However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that there are far more opportunities for promotion than first meets the eye.

It has been suggested that libraries purchase as much as 12% of all books sold in Australia. Although many towns no longer have bookstores, especially rural ones, many of them still have a library, or have access to a travelling library – yes, those still exist! All these libraries need to be stocked, and librarians are always looking for new and interesting titles to attract readers to their shelves.

The fact that libraries only buy one copy of a book, and are therefore not worth spending time marketing to, is a common argument. However, not only is this not always true, even when it is, that’s no reason to discount the library. School libraries in particular are known for ordering class sets (usually around 30 copies) of books they are interested in acquiring. If a book proves popular, libraries may buy multiple copies in order to cater to demand.

But even if they only buy one copy, that copy is one more sale you didn’t have yesterday. In a 2011-2012 report, Australian Public Library Statistics recorded 1,505 public libraries across the country. If every library in Australia bought only one copy, that’s still a significant sales count.

Additionally, the report noted that there were approximately 9 million visits to libraries every month. Consider the exposure that one book could get if it was seen 9 million times a month. Nowhere but a library will you have that kind of potential for people to see a book, and quite often pick it up and read it. If they love it, not only do you have a loyal reader, but they’re very likely to spread the word to all their friends, who can easily access your book from their library.

For the small press author, libraries, especially your local library, can be a great support in getting your book talked about. Many regularly host events with authors, including talks and signings. Others may also support the idea of launching your book right there in the library. Events like these not only open up more opportunities for sales, but also make sure your book is exposed in a place that has regular and dedicated traffic – and they ALL read books!

As many libraries purchase largely through library vendors, this can limit the opportunity for small press and self-published authors to get their books on the shelves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance. Local libraries in particular love supporting authors who reside nearby. And once the word spreads about books that are popular, other libraries may begin to show interest.

Nowhere else in the world can you regularly attract such a concentrated group of readers as you can in a library. Those who are focused on the bottom line in the short term can dismiss those non-paying individuals who grip tightly to their library card. However, increasing the number of people who see and read your book is never a bad thing, in the long term it will contribute to an increase in sales. Especially if those library patrons are all as impatient as I am and, when faced with their desired book being on loan, goes out and buys their own copy because they cannot bear to wait. The book industry forgets about library patrons at their peril.

The Un-Conventional Pitch

Authors and editors alike are always interested in how the manuscript gets into the publisher’s hands – authors because they want theirs to be read, editors because it means things to edit – yay!

Traditionally, publishers receive manuscripts in two ways, depending on their preference and, usually, the size of the organisation. Most of the big publishing houses use literary agents, who write letters of recommendation, extolling the virtues of this particular client’s work. The person in charge of the slush pile (often your lowly intern!) reads the letter, and if interested, may actually set eyes on the manuscript.

The other way to do it, usually a more common method for smaller publishing houses, is through unsolicited manuscripts. This involves the author emailing or submitting the manuscript online whenever they choose. It is not based on the request of a publisher or the advice of a literary agent.

This is the method that Odyssey uses. Authors upload their manuscript through our submission portal in order for us to see it. We require them to include a synopsis, a biography, an ‘elevator pitch’ (how they’d pitch the book in the time it takes to ride an elevator) and the first four chapters of the manuscript.

Each of these methods work fine, indeed, at least for Odyssey, it’s how we discover most of our authors. But it does have its downsides. Both styles of submission are very impersonal; they consist of a letter, an email, or a summary. They give no scope for your impassioned defence of your work. All you can do is try and type as much as you can into that little box, and hope it’s enough to sell your work.

However, particularly with small publishers, a third option seems to be emerging.

As I noted in my blog post on the Supanova Pop Culture Convention a few weeks ago, going around these conventions with Odyssey, I have seen a number of authors willing to come up and make themselves, and their work, personally known to my boss.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Conflux Science Fiction Convention Odyssey attended in Canberra over the October long weekend. Conflux provided an option for authors they called PitchFest, which gave them a chance to pitch a particular work to my boss in 10 minutes.

The session worked thus: after brief introductions, they began by covering their title and synopsis. The publisher could then ask for clarifications, and even request the author elaborate on details they found interesting. Then they went over their author platforms, while the publisher made sure they understood the way Odyssey works, and knew what it would be like to work with a small press.

I considered this opportunity an excellent way to bring publisher and author together in a way that allows for a more personal and in depth interaction about the work. It was also a great way for everyone to get their names out there, and for authors to have a go at pitching their work.

Aside from this more formal aspect of it, I also found, as I have with every convention I have attended this year, that interest can also be expressed very casually. Throughout the day, a number of authors stopped by to discuss publishing with us, some interested in how Odyssey worked, others wanting to quiz our authors on what is what like to be published with us. Our boss was always open to informal sessions over coffee, and, as always, we found a few interesting manuscripts over the weekend.

So it seems that any and all opportunities to make yourself and your manuscript stand out should be enthusiastically undertaken by authors. Networking is key, as you get a chance to both formally and informally meet different publishers, and figure out which one is best for you. Some authors we have met at previous conventions are now part of the Odyssey family. If you can, I would always recommend taking a chance on the unconventional pitch

What is a Real Writer?

This is not the blog I had intended to write and post today. You’ll get one about beautiful immersive worlds next week, I promise, but for this week, it’s another riposte, that can be alternatively titled “Svetlana Alexievich wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and people are jerks.”

While many people took to social media to congratulate Alexievich and commiserate with the runners-up (Roth and Murakami perhaps most notably), there was an unfortunate strain of comments that serve no purpose but to scorn both the winner and runners-up, saying that the Nobel Prize is only for “real writers”, accusing Alexievich of being a mere propagandist and Murakami of being a commercial “non-writer”.

I don’t normally heed comments like these, having gone native on YouTube in my adolescence, but the comments dismissing those who write commercial books got me steamed – P.S. world, “steamed” is back. “Real writers” is such a derogatory phrase and it belittles literature, and writers generally. It doesn’t raise certain people up, it is just divisive, tearing down anyone who wants to write and make a living. Because let’s face it, “real writers” are literary, they don’t commercialise their fiction, but instead chase writing as a pure art form. They don’t pander to a larger audience because sales = food, rent money, etc.

I know that last bit doesn’t apply to those in the running for the Nobel, but when you set up the distinction between a “real writer” and a – what? A fraud? A fake writer? – purely on your subjective literary taste, you’re dumping on the writers that it does apply to.

A study released by Macquarie University this week put the average writing income at $12,900 for Australian authors. The study also made it clear that most authors have another career to support themselves, which undoubtedly eats into their writing time. So why should we belittle those who want more time to write by earning more money from their books? Why is there a hierarchy where some books are considered more valuable than others? The idea that great literary texts make a great contribution to the world is well and good, but for those books to have a considerable effect today, they have to become widely read and hence commercially successful. The scorn for commercial drive in the literary world is contrary to the continued functioning of the literary world.

If only we had robotic slaves, so we could all devote our lives to this concept of pure art. What an uninteresting utopia. Without the struggle there is a lot less flavour in the literary world. Those writers out there, working to make a dollar, writing works for commercial audiences ought to be praised for the way they practise the craft. It’s a tough slog.

So why should we divide the system into “real writers” and “non-writers”?

We shouldn’t. It’s simplistic, offensive and elitist.

Throwing around elitism when discussing the Nobel Prize for Literature seems kind of idiotic, but I’m okay with that because I’m done with the rankings. I don’t want to read books according to tiers that the writers fit into, and I definitely don’t think that someone should be considered simplistic for not being interested in a “literary” work while preferring “commercial” titles.

Books are books. Just read them.

Also, let’s pay writers more. Please and thank you.

What’s in a Career? Fear, Excitement…

Returning once more to the intern side of things, I’ve been thinking about my future career a bit lately. What’s the future for jobs in our economy? There are estimates that nearly 40% of jobs currently done now will be gone in the next decade or so. It’s the computers, they are coming for our jobs. It’s like I, Robot but friendlier and with more unemployment payments.

While I know that there will always be a need for human writers, editors, publishers and designers, I do hesitate to think about what all of this means for my future. I sit in a very precarious position at the start of my career. It’s precarious because I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I’m sure if I knew where I was going though, I would get lost. I’m happy to go with the flow, but it does worry me from time to time.

As one job comes to an end, I’m wondering how much longer I’ll be doing temporary contracts. Or if I’ll become a slashie, a term for someone who crafts full-time hours out of multiple jobs which tend to be in entirely different careers, i.e. “I’m a such-and-such/this-or-that/third-career-or-job”.

I wouldn’t mind having that sort of career trajectory as my main goal at this stage is do something interesting or meaningful, preferably both.

I think there is also a definite need for people willing to do many different things, sometimes all at once. In 2013, I attended the Independent Publishing Conference hosted by the Small Press Network in Melbourne. It was a fantastic experience for me then, as a student, and one of the key things I took away from those three days was that it’s quite common for people in the publishing industry to have a range of different roles that don’t necessarily correspond with one another. To be someone who “wears many hats”.

These storied careers are fascinating, and show a side of the business which I think is both wonderful and scary. It’s wonderful because I find the prospect of those changes to be inviting. The idea that while your career is on a path, that path is always turning. It’s not a straight ladder.

The scary part of that is the unpredictability or insecurity of it. Just like temporary contracts, you never really know when or where or how things will end.

The publishing industry is a tremendously exciting place with a range of different roles to fill and I think in the future it’s going to be more and more important to be able to fill many of those roles, to be an all-rounder. That excites me, but it does also concern me. I worry that we’ll lose specialists. Many roles have already been taken out of the house and made into freelancer positions. I don’t know if this translates to less people becoming that kind of specialist, or if it means more. I think it’s probably less.

That’s one of the weird effects of digital disruption in a way too. Digital opens up the toolkit of publishing to anyone. So while some jobs may fade away or diminish because of this, other freelancers will be sought by more customers than previously. This adds to the career excitement and the fear, and I think it’s a balancing act that a lot of people at the start of their careers feel. It’s an important one too, I think.

In this blog, I haven’t answered the question that spurred me to write. But I have come to a better way to ask the question:

How can I balance the excitement and the fear, to have an interesting career?

 

Traversing the Thorny Thicket

One of the most typical intern jobs around is being assigned to the slush pile, as both I and Brendan have been at different times.

In layman’s terms, the slush pile is the collection of all the new submissions a publisher receives. Part of my job is to sift through the hopeful cover letters and (often) ambitious manuscripts, and divide them into two groups, the ‘Don’t Bother’ and the ‘Worth Consideration’. It’s a job commonly assigned to interns and newbies because it’s intensive, with often little to no reward. However, ploughing through the slush pile is an important step in any intern’s journey for a number of reasons. It allows you to hone your critical thinking skills, as you learn to look for certain signs that a book may have what it takes.

It’s prompted me to think more deeply about why I approve or reject a certain manuscript. Not only do I suggest certain manuscripts for our publisher’s consideration, but for every manuscript I read, I’m required to do up a summary document, where I provide a short synopsis, pick out the elements that are good and/or bad about the manuscript, and justify why I would or would not publish it. It’s quite a lot of power, which has the potential to easily swell this small intern’s head!

Before I even read the manuscript, I’m looking at the cover letter, the biography, the marketing plan, and the way the author sells their work. And so, before we’ve even made it to your manuscript, we’ve made a lot of assumptions about you. One of the most important, and often overlooked is: can you follow our submission instructions? Someone who hasn’t bothered to add in their pitch, or whose cover letter leaves out relevant details automatically needs their manuscript to work harder for them.

The process of turning manuscript into finished product sees an editor and author working very closely. So when we consider your book, we’re also considering what you will be like to work with. These things come out very easily in cover letters, and will definitely make us reconsider you, even if your manuscript is out of this world. The relationship between a publisher and an author is very much a partnership. The work doesn’t stop once we agree to publish. So, ideally, you want to come across as interesting, enthusiastic, and willing to work with us, to be in the best possible position for us to accept your manuscript.

Now on to the fun part: reading the actual text! At Odyssey, we usually ask for the first four chapters, to give us a sense of the work. When I’m reviewing the slush pile, rarely will I read all four of those chapters. From discussions with various editors and slush pile enthusiasts I’ve met through my work, I’ve discovered that everyone has their own rule of thumb. For me, it’s the first twenty pages. What I’m looking for, first and foremost, is a text that can capture me in those first twenty pages. Even better than that, if I end up wanting to read more than the four chapters an author has sent, that’s usually when I send excitable emails to the publisher, demanding that we request a full manuscript, just so I can know what happens!

How does an author capture my attention and keep it? Well, that’s the part that’s hard to quantify, and is different for every book. Readers today are more spoiled for choice than ever. A novel that can make readers connected to their characters, absorbed in the action and excited to see what comes next, just in the first twenty pages, is going to be one that has a much better chance of succeeding in the market. So I can’t highlight what I want. But I can give you some ideas of what I don’t want.

  • Poor Editing – Oh wow! As editors, we know that typos slip through all the time. We do it too! (only sometimes) But a manuscript that’s full of typos just seems lazy. If an author can’t be bothered to edit their manuscript properly before submission, how are we supposed to think they are at all dedicated to making sure their book does as well as possible?
  • Over-Detailed Introductory Material – This is guaranteed to make me stop reading a manuscript very quickly. The best novels catapult you right into the world you have created. Backstory comes later! It trickles out and keeps you hanging on for more. If you load it all in at the beginning, no one will be hanging around for the middle, let alone the end.

As I’m rapidly running out of space, I’ll leave it there. My adventures in the slush pile have made me one of the pickiest readers around. Every manuscript I work with allows me to better understand what it is that makes a novel stand out as publishable amongst the mountain of slush that never will be.

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.