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.

 

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.