How to be an editor (and what to do)

EditingInevitably, the question which follows my telling some people that I am a book editor is “What do book editors do exactly?” This question is usually based on the assumption that a writer writes the words, sends it off to the publisher and then it gets printed as is. When told this isn’t the case, that in fact there are numerous steps between submission of manuscript and final placement on the bookshop shelf, the response is often one of surprise. So, in this week’s column, I shall be telling you exactly what a book editor does.

Before I go any further, however, there’s one undeniable fact about editors: no matter where you are in the literary world, whether you’re just starting out or an international bestseller, editors are an essential requisite if you want your work to be taken seriously. Even stellar writers like JK Rowling and Stephen King get their work edited: however, in some quarters, it appears that editors are considered to be nothing more than an unnecessary luxury that can safely be left out of the process. I’ve read many reviews in which it’s been pointed out how badly spelt and grammatically incorrect a book is – something which leaves a bad impression. The bottom line is that, if writers want their potential readership to finish the book and come back for more, it behoves them to treat readers with the utmost respect. Uploading your newest literary masterpiece to Kindle or whatever is one thing, but uploading it with typos, spelling errors and grammatical mistakes is more or less telegraphing the notion that

a) you don’t care about your work strongly enough and

b) that you couldn’t care less about your readers.

What you’re saying in essence is that readers don’t count: if that’s how it comes across then why should they care about your book?

Having established that, let’s now explore what the art of editing is really about. Make no mistake about it – editing is an art. As I’ve mentioned before, I liken it to music or, specifically, learning an instrument. There are basics which everyone needs to learn, like chords, chord progressions, scales, and technique. Those are just the starting ‘mechanics’ of the instrument – the tools which will enable you to produce something melodious and not an undifferentiated atonal caterwaul. But there is something beyond that, which marks out the truly gifted player from the merely pedestrian journeyman: musicianship, a quality which can lift an already beautiful piece of music into something truly and unforgettably moving. That is what any serious musician aims for and, in a similar way, this is what a good editor also aims for in his/her own way.

Anyway, let’s now move on to the meat of the article: what editing actually involves. Of course, a good working knowledge of your native language is an absolute must, allied to a modicum of common sense. First thing I usually do, if I have sufficient time (if there’s no specific deadline, in other words), is to read the manuscript to get a sense of what the story’s about as well as what the writer’s trying to say and how they’re saying it. The real work starts on the second run, where I go through it with a fine-toothed comb looking out for such things as spelling mistakes and typos, long unwieldy sentences, grammatical errors, inconsistencies in tense, character or narrative history, needless repetition or even unnecessary passages that don’t add anything to the narrative (of course, some writers need less or very little editing than some others do). Sometimes I may feel that certain things would be better placed elsewhere, or events swapped around (these latter especially may be based on nothing more than intuition, born of experience of course). There’s also the possibility that certain aspects of the story provide an opportunity for expansion or elucidation, or that something ‘extra’ needs to be added to give the story the necessary X-factor to make it better.

PHOTO BY NIC MCPHEE

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The Art of Editing (and how I set up a small press)

ArtLast time, I talked about my somewhat roundabout route to becoming an editor, at the end of which I promised I would delve into how Spectral Press got its start and how I learnt the art of editing. And that is exactly what I will be writing about this time.

The first question I should answer is: ‘who in their right mind would want to set up a small press in the first place?’ After all, it’s a time consuming exercise at the very least and it involves a great deal of work, with things like attempting to get people interested (authors AND readers), sorting out issues such as finding a suitable and sympathetic printing company, and raising capital with which to finance the whole operation, just for starters. Plus, there’s the sometimes quite mind-numbing realisation that you will be in competition with hundreds, if not thousands, of other outfits vying for punters’ money, and it becomes something of a mammoth undertaking. It’ll take up great chunks of your free time as well, something you might not be able to afford easily with a family, for instance.

In my case, it was simply because:

a) as clichéd as it undoubtedly sounds, I wanted to give something back to the genre I’ve derived a lot of reading pleasure from and

b) there are a lot of very talented authors out there whose work I wanted to showcase.

A simple enough premise, one might assume, but the problem then was deciding in which format to showcase these talents – that was solved when I was handed a couple of Nightjar Press chapbooks at FantasyCon 2010. Whilst reviewing them for a website, it hit me that they were a perfect way to show off writers’ works, with the added benefit of being relatively ‘cheap’ to produce and distribute, meaning that I could keep the price reasonable for readers. The one thing I was not prepared to do, however, was compromise on quality – one of the other aspects of pitching yourself into the publishing industry is that you should at least attempt to offer something new to the paying audience, and simultaneously offer value for money.

Physical quality isn’t the only issue when it comes to an imprint, of course – being able to spot a good story and tight editing are also essential prerequisites. You can have the most amazing-looking volume ever, but if the story isn’t on a par with that attention to physical detail then people won’t buy into the ethos behind the imprint. Spelling and grammatical mistakes are an absolute no-no, as they’re an enormous turn-off (I’ve been known to stop reading a story which has too many typos and mangled English in it). Knowing a good story when you come across one isn’t just a matter – at least in my view – of personal preference (although it does play some part), but also knowing what elements go into creating a successful tale. That can only be learnt through wide reading across all genres, not just your favourite one, so you can pick up the rhythms and pacing necessary to what makes a particular story work and what doesn’t, for instance. There are some stories you might not like on a personal level, but which nevertheless scream out quality and readability.

Editing, in my case at least, I learnt through a combination of reading extremely widely through all forms of literature (non-fiction as well as fiction, lit-fic as well as genre offerings and classic as well as modern) and common sense (plus a dose of reading online interviews with several eminent editors). It also helped that my parents were avid readers themselves who were always encouraging my voracious reading habits. I also particularly loved English in school. A lot of my editing is as much intuition as it is consciously knowing what constitutes a story that will enthral readers –for instance, I have sometimes ‘felt’ that just by moving one passage somewhere else or omitting it entirely would improve a story immeasurably yet, on a conscious level, I couldn’t have told you why. It just felt right.

There are correspondence courses available out there which, I would think, at least teach you the basics of what editing involves. However, I also think that there’s an element which goes beyond the mechanics of the editing process, which I can only describe as a natural affinity or talent for editing – that intuition I talked about above. I’m not saying that correspondence courses are unnecessary, not at all – I can see them being extremely useful, especially if you’re looking for a career within the publishing industry itself. However, I liken it to music: you can be taught how to play an instrument and read music, but it takes a particular talent to push beyond that into musicianship. However, it is also true that you need to know the basics in order to become a musician.

I didn’t do a correspondence course because I couldn’t afford it and that’s the only reason. As Stephen Jones, one of the horror genre’s pre-eminent editors said to me, “you learn editing by doing it”. So that’s what I did: threw myself into the thick of it by actually starting an imprint, inviting writers to submit their stories and then editing those submissions (and working closely with the author – another essential prerequisite). I can proudly say, however, that not a single typo has crept into any of the Spectral Press chapbooks or the sole novella I’ve issued. But that, I believe, is what makes the difference, paying such close attention to detail – to do otherwise is ‘commercial’ suicide. People will take notice of your mistakes and will let you know by taking their custom elsewhere.

Next time, I will go deeper into the elements of editing, so stay tuned for the next episode.

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on spectralpress@gmail.com.

Confessions of an editor (and how I learnt from my mistakes)

Fractured Spaces RecordsLike most things in life, and like most people in all probability, I came to my calling via a circuitous route. I’d always enjoyed studying English during my school career but, rather than go on to pursue it at university level as I should have done, I chose art. Looking back to my late teen years, I realise now with a measure of chagrin that I was typically bloody-minded and rebellious – just for the sake of it. Commonsense, especially back then, has never been one of my strong points. Whatever sense I do possess nowadays has been fought-for and hard won, although my wife would probably tell you otherwise.

My first foray into publishing was way back in the early 90s, when I became involved in the then nascent industrial music scene and decided to launch a fanzine. FRÄCtüred (and yes, that’s how it was written) was quite successful in its own little way, selling all over the world at a time when the internet was still some years away. I managed to put out three issues, before life got in the way and I just let it all go – again I would say that this was typical of the person that was me then. With hindsight, I should have kept the thing going, although having said that, if I had it’s likely that Spectral Press wouldn’t have come along, as I would still have been heavily involved in the underground alternative music scene. Certainly FracturedSpacesRecords might have done better had I stayed in touch with what was going on, and not been the disaster it turned out to be.

But let me tell you this – I loved editing that fanzine, despite me having no idea of what editing actually involved. Remember, there was no internet or email, so I had no-one around to advise me. I thought it was simply a matter of commissioning articles, reading them as well as the unsolicited submissions, choosing which of them would go into a particular issue, maybe correct a spelling mistake here-and-there, and then collate it all to be sent off to the printers. And that, to my knowledge of the time, was the extent of it. Luckily, even though I made a few mistakes, I seemed to have got away with it and even received praise for what I’d created. I must have done quite a good job, despite my cluelessness.

Anyway, around this time (1991), the place where I was working had acquired one of the then ‘new’ PCs, a clunky old thing with limited memory which used massive floppy discs on which to store data and whose graphics capabilities stretched solely to badly pixellated images which made identifying what they were supposed to be quite difficult. Alongside the usual packages it came with there was a desktop publishing program, which the company let me use to typeset the fourth issue of FRÄCtüred (which never saw the light of day in the end). Here was an opportunity to make the affair look professional, and I could already see the possibilities inherent in the proto-digital publishing technology. It was an exciting time, knowing that a revolution could be just around the corner.

And then Fate intervened, in one of those moments that leave you wondering in the small hours. I’d just lost my job, and been herded into the dreaded Job Club initiative. After several unsuccessful applications for unsuitable jobs, I happened to look through The Guardian newspaper one day, and noticed that the University of Plymouth were looking for students to apply for a new course they’d just created – MediaLab Arts, a fancy (and somewhat pretentious) way of describing the emerging field of digital media. Included in the advert were the words ‘Desktop Publishing’. I called them up, arranged a telephone interview and then, after talking to the Head of Course, was told I’d been accepted.

An over-hyped course and poverty

Okay, so in the end the course failed to live up to its promise, and the only things I came away with were an intense dislike of computers (since cured) and the advent of a stroke, which finally hit me in the winter of 1997. So, the next decade, or so, was spent struggling with recuperation and learning to deal with physical disabilities, as well as poverty resulting in a journey down the bumpy path which led to alcoholism. I admit that I could have done a lot more to help myself, but I was mired in booze and living in an isolated (and somewhat rundown) area, was incredibly depressed and had no desire to lift myself out of the rut I was in. It took two people (a best friend and a future wife) and a move to a new town to drag me out of that vicious circle and make me realise that I had untapped potential.

I still wasn’t quite clear of the woods yet – I came into publishing and editing via the music business by setting up a record label, devoted entirely to obscure genres created by bands that only about ten people listen to (okay, so that’s not quite true, but still…). As intimated above, it was an unmitigated disaster – and my wife and I are still paying the price for my failure. Several factors contributed to its demise: my unfamiliarity with the industry, compounded with the undeniable fact that I’d been out of the scene for too long, and launching it in the middle of a global recession, in addition to making a series of poor decisions. So, after two years of spasmodic trading, I closed its doors for good.

No experience is ever wasted, however, even the bad ones. I learnt my limitations in terms of business and how to go about it. I vowed never to get involved in something about which I knew very little, and that attempting to substitute enthusiasm for sound commonsense and knowledge of your market definitely won’t help you succeed. Enthusiasm is an essential attribute to possess it goes without saying, but it has to be allied to something grounded in the real world. You have to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, otherwise all manner of mess can result, as it did in my case. But like I said above, no experience is totally wasted and I can honestly say that I don’t regret going ahead with starting the label as it taught me some very valuable lessons. Because of it, Spectral Press is in great shape and is continuing to grow, slowly but steadily.

Anyway, that’s enough to be going on with for the present – next time, I’ll explain how Spectral started, and how I learnt about the art of editing. So, until then, onwards and upwards!

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on spectralpress@gmail.com.