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.

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

The Cave Where Dreams Are Made: An Intern’s Visit to the Printers

IMG_0487
The Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark Headquarters

by Jenna O’Connell

So, something I’d never thought about until recently was where our books came from. I’ve been interning for Odyssey for almost a year now, and I’d never questioned the appearance of our books. We just got them out of boxes when we needed them. Intuitively, I’m sure I didn’t believe that our publisher just waved her fingers and the books appeared in a puff of smoke, but I certainly hadn’t given printing a moment of consideration. As I learnt recently though, not only is there a lot that goes on between the final edit of a book and pulling out a knife to slice open that first crisp box of books, but it’s something that almost no one thinks about.

On a recent trip to Melbourne, I was lucky enough to have a site visit at the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark printers in Scoresby. While it doesn’t initially sound like an awesome adventure, let me tell you now, for all you booklovers out there: IT. IS. CANDYLAND! Ingram Spark is a publishing-on-demand platform that offers both print and e-book versions. Publishers like Odyssey, as well as authors who are self-publishing, upload their manuscript, and the relevant details like ISBN, pricing, territory rights etc. The book is then processed, printed at a facility like the one we visited, and distributed out to warehouses, retailers, publishers, whatever you like! But, as with everything in life, there’s a bit more to it than that.

IMG_0476
Piles and piles of printed books waiting for their covers. The process begins…

Our visit started with a meeting with the manager for content acquisition in Australia, Debbie Lee. We had a chat about Odyssey’s relationship with Lightning Source/Ingram Spark, how Odyssey likes the relatively new Ingram Spark platform, and the small publishing industry in general. Here, one of the main themes stressed again and again was quality. That’s something my boss is passionate about – delivering quality books that are worth reading. For both Odyssey and Ingram Spark, quality control is a big issue, and one of the reasons my boss uses Ingram Spark as a printer.

Then we headed out onto the floor. And that’s where the real fun began. Just this site here processes between 40-50,000 books a month. You walk through the door onto a raised lookout over the factory floor. That’s when the excitement hits. Books everywhere! It really is the book-birthing suite, with books in every stage of the printing process. Lightning Source has two black and white digital printing devices on the floor. There’s a digital link that routs the publications from a database in the United States. You submit a book through the Ingram Spark portal; it travels digitally to the US, is processed and re-routed back to this device, which begins the printing process. At this facility, publications are routed three times a day, at 3pm, 5am and 8am. Inside here the book is cooking away, producing all the pages. From there the books are cut, and we start dealing with covers!

The cover-printing machine rolls out the covers in big long strips, which are then cut and assigned to their relevant books. Everything is done via barcodes. At any stage of the process, if barcodes between covers and manuscripts don’t match up, the machine won’t work. So if you’ve ever wondered what that barcode in the back of your book is for, now you know!

From there, the books are put into a binding machine, to finally attach cover and pages. The newly created book is shot out the end. But wait! This doesn’t look like a book! There’s cover hanging off everywhere! That’s because after the book is bound, it still needs to be trimmed. Something I hadn’t realised was that the books don’t shoot out automatically bound perfectly. The cover printer has a standard size paper to print on. This means the book is often quite a bit shorter than the cover at first. Once it’s through the trimming machine though, everything is finished. And boy is it tempting to pick up those books and run away with them!

The mighty book binding machine. Magical!
The mighty book binding machine. Magical!

The visit to Lightning Source/Ingram Spark (or as I’m now referring to it, The Cave Where Dreams Are Made) has been one of the highlights of my internship so far, because it opened my eyes to a whole side of publishing I had never even considered. I started this internship with my eyes firmly focused on learning how to be an editor. But sitting in on this meeting, and touring the site where books are actually, physically, made, I’ve discovered a world of other interesting facets in this industry, and one I’m definitely keen to explore further.

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.

Futuristic Books

Editing and the Way Forward
by Jenna O’Connell

Nobody reads books anymore. Anyone can self- publish these days, why would we need to be signed? Publishing is dead.

These are all sentiments that have been punted back and forth, usually by your average person on the internet. As we enter an increasingly technological age, debates on the future of the book, particularly the print book, are becoming increasingly common. I won’t lie, as an intern, a student, and a young editor; the potentially tenuous future of the publishing industry has frightened me at times. Is there a point trying to crack into a notoriously competitive industry when many out there are predicting its downfall? I’m sure I’m not the only young publishing hopeful who has considered this question.

However, my feelings have been largely assuaged, thanks to my attendance at the Australian Publishing Association’s recent seminar: Editing Futures: How Commerce, Culture and Technology Are Changing Editing. As I took advantage of yet another opportunity to tag along to an event with our publisher, I was largely unsure of what to expect. What was the future for publishing in an increasingly dense media world? Apart from all the things I actually learnt, which I’ll get to in a moment, it was enriching to hear so many individuals discussing the future of editing. Among the casual discussions to be had on the day were comments on the rise of small press, increased focus on social media, and opportunities for distribution. Whatever else you say about the nature of publishing in the present time, from my experience, you can’t accuse them of not looking towards the future.

We began with a focus on acquisition and commissioning. Sue Hines, Group Publishing Director at Allen & Unwin, stressed the importance of knowing how to put books into the market. In a society with access to a greater volume of books than we have ever had before, this struck me as particularly important. An increasing variety of categories and sub-categories allows us to more easily position books in relation to their most likely consumers, something which I believe allows us to more accurately assess how well a book will do. But, as Sue ruefully noted, it’s not always as easy as that.

The importance of trends to the publishing industry was highlighted, and the difficulty of attempting to be ahead of the curve duly noted by all with a sigh. It was a sentiment further reinforced by publisher Robert Watkins, of Hachette Australia. Robert began by noting the challenges of a highly competitive book market, something we’ve all felt across the industry. The pressure to innovate and provide new talent is ever looming, and Robert’s advice was to be as across media and popular culture as you can. This was something I hadn’t much considered before, but his point that these are the areas from which trends most often emerge was spot on. I’ll certainly be keeping closer tabs on culture, news and social media from now on. And hey, if I can justify a sneaky movie as ‘cultural research’, you can bet I’ll be jumping right on board!

However, it was the second part of the seminar where things got really futuristic. Editorial Consultant Sarah JH Fletcher and Sydney University Press’ publishing manager Agata Mrva-Montoya took us through the technology that is best assisting publishers in innovating, from writing and reading, all the way through to the production of the final product. An important area, that print-centric little me had barely considered, was eBooks. Many publishers still tack on their eBook as an afterthought, but in this day and age, the role of eBooks as an important and separate form of media was stressed. What I hadn’t realised was how much cool tech was out there to make creating eBooks a happy little dream.

The most useful and interesting bit of tech to come from this was the idea of a content management system. This is a platform in which the content (i.e. the text of the book) is created, managed, and then exported into a variety of formats. After a particularly disastrous experience with a content management system earlier this year, I was initially reluctant to consider one again. However, with a realisation that increasingly, adaptable book formats are becoming key, I became resigned to giving the frustrating, intimidating technology another go.

I could blither on for pages about the insights I gained from attending this seminar, but I worry I’d scare you off! Suffice to say, the most important thing to come out of the presentations and discussions of the day was this: there IS a future for publishing, and it has the ability to be a dynamic and vibrant one. With a willingness to innovate, and to embrace the inevitable progressions of society’s demands, books, in all formats and iterations, will thrive long into the future.