Long Before They Were Read: Speculative Fiction Book Editors Speak Out, Part 2 of 2
The first half of this interview appeared in our July issue.
Slow openings, rushed endings, point of view shifts, gaps in logic, over-blown language, book editors see it all—even in manuscripts they’ve bought from masters in the field. They also see manuscripts that need little or no work, manuscripts that make them jump up and down, and manuscripts stacked high enough to build bunkers with.
Editors are readers. It’s what they do, and they are good at it.
"In many ways, an editor is a professional reader, able to separate their personal preferences from the needs of the audience," said Susan J. Morris, an editor at Wizards of Coast. "Learning how to recognize what is good, even if it is not your preferred style or genre of writing, is very important."
Editors are readers who help decide what books get published and what shape those books are in when they arrive on bookstore shelves.
“An editor’s list is a reflection of his or her specific tastes and judgments,” said Lou Anders, editorial director of Pyr. “If readers respond to the books in an editor’s line, then that editor is doing their job, and if they don’t, he isn’t.”
Below, a dozen speculative fiction book editors talk about manuscripts, editing, self-editing, and the publishing industry. Mostly, though, they talk about shaping the book-length stories they love.
The Editors in Brief
Lou Anders is the editorial director of Pyr, a science fiction and fantasy imprint of Prometheus Books.
Philip Athans has been a full-time staff editor at TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast since 1995.
Victoria Blake is the publisher and founder of Underland Press, an independent specialty press.
Paula Guran is the editor of Juno Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books.
Gabrielle Harbowy is a freelance editor, and editor-in-charge at Dragon Moon Press.
James Lowder has worked as an editor for both large publishers and tiny independents, on projects that include New York Times bestselling shared world novels and small, critically acclaimed creator-owned titles..
Susan J. Morris the Forgotten Realms® line editor at Wizards of the Coast.
Darren Nash is the editorial director at Orbit UK.
Chris Schluep is a Senior Editor at Ballantine/Villard/Del Rey.
Simon Spanton is the editorial director at Orion/Gollancz Books in the United Kingdom.
Deb Taber is the senior book editor of the Apex Book Company, an independent specialty press.
Jacob Weisman is the founding editor and publisher of Tachyon Publications, an independent specialty press.
What are some of the most common problems you find in manuscripts and how do you and the writer generally fix them?
Blake: The biggest problem is in the opening. I see too many manuscripts that begin with an alarm clock going off in the morning, or with a man walking up stairs, or with the protagonist making himself breakfast. I don’t need a car chase and an explosion to start with, but I do need the story to start from page one, sentence one. There is frequently too much throat clearing before the story gets underway.
Other problems include “lyrical” language without any obvious purpose or point. That’s a major pet peeve of mine. Language should serve the purpose and intent of the story. Everything in the story should serve the purpose and intent. If the language is something that the author wants—i.e., it’s the author’s choice, not the story’s necessity—then there is a problem.
Spanton: This presupposes that we’re talking about books that we’ve acquired. Unevenness of writing. Lack of confidence in their ability to get the reader to get what they’re doing (i.e. over-determination). Extraneous material.
Athans: One of the easiest ways to spot an inexperienced author is what former Wizards of the Coast editor Mark Sehestedt described as “weather report, fashion report, travel report.” This is when a book begins with a lengthy description of the roiling gray clouds traced with ominous flashes of lightning then slowly but surely moves on to what the character is wearing—exactly—and how long and what color his hair is, before finally resting into several pages of the history and customs of the realm and the difference between a flugle tree and a tizzleberry bush, so that you’re most of the way through chapter one before anyone says or does anything.
This is solved by keeping in mind the Latin phrase in media res, which translates roughly to “in the middle of things.” Start in the middle of a fight, or with the hero dangling by his ankles over a pit of crocodiles, or the hero floating face down in a pool, or running from a giant rolling boulder (see where I got at least two of those from?) and fill in the details as you go, when they become relevant.
If you’re an American, write like an American. Time and again I see manuscripts written in some kind of (probably mostly) Tolkeinesque British accent. Adding a “u” to the word armor and using the words “about” when you mean “around” or “which” when you mean “that” doesn’t make you smarter or more sophisticated, it just makes you sound like someone trying to sound smarter or more sophisticated.
Another rule that our friends across the pond tend to disagree with: one scene, one point-of-view [POV]. Anyone who tells you they write in “third person omniscient” is really telling you they write in “third person lazy.” Pick a character and get into his or her (or its, in the case of fantasy and SF) head and stay there until you think you need to switch to someone else’s head, in which case you need to employ the services of a scene break.
Harbowy: Starting and ending the story in the wrong place is a big one. Beginnings should drop the readers into the world and into the action at an interesting point: when things that have always been the same have just started to change, or in the middle of something exciting. It should be a point that captures readers’ attention and makes them want to see more, not one that’s too far removed from the action . . . but also not one where so much is going on that they can’t catch up.
Similarly, endings should hit that sweet spot where all the loose ends are tied up and the readers are given some closure, without dragging out too long. This isn’t a hard one to fix from a technical standpoint—it just requires a little detachment and a bird’s eye view of the plot—but it can be hard for a writer to let go of a very long beginning or a very long ending that they’ve grown attached to. I say cut it and save it. Maybe they can find another use for it in another work, or offer it to fans as bonus content down the road.
Another problem I see is over-explaining. “Show, don’t tell” is something writers hear often, but I often see areas where writers both show and tell. Doing both is redundant, and it often weakens a point instead of strengthening it. Writing something like, “She looked around with confusion, scratching her head. ’I don’t understand,’ she said, puzzled. She couldn’t figure out what had just happened,” is overkill. About three quarters of it isn’t necessary. The solution is to point one or two of these instances out to the writer, and to offer suggestions for streamlining them that demonstrate how a single cue can be stronger than too many cues. Once the writer realizes that his or her intentions are coming across more effectively in fewer words, he or she will be able to identify and cut out the unnecessary parts and tighten up his or her own writing, going forward.
Guran: Gaps of logic and leaps of faith. Authors know their worlds. They are gods and they created them. They sometimes forget to include information we readers need. Or something simply isn’t plausible enough. Fantasy has to be plausible to “work.” Plots can run amok, too, even timelines. Fixing this sort of thing is generally just a matter of pointing them out. Sometimes a little brainstorming.
Overuse of words/actions. Characters grinning, chuckling, looking, gazing, sighing, snorting, clenching hands into fists, stomachs churning, breaths catching, etc. over and over and over and . . . Again, identifying (thank goodness for Microsoft Word’s “find” function and showing the author what they’ve inadvertently done. Since these “revelations” are usually to their utter surprise and chagrin, they have no problem finding alternatives.
Too many subplots and characters and a lack of resolution. The books I am working with now are series books. There’s a difficult balance to achieve of staying fresh and satisfying the reader while still spinning out the story line, characters, world, what have you. (Continuity from book to book is another challenge.) Other than the truly obvious calls, this is a tough one to deal with. Some readers want more, more, more . . . others want more clarity and fewer complications. So “fixes” are individual.
Morris: William Strunk, Jr. said, “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” Authors unfamiliar with Strunk’s wisdom often commit the sin of overwriting. Luckily, it is also one of the easiest problems to fix. Editing here usually consists of helping the author figure out exactly what scenes, subjects, sentences, and words are necessary to paint the desired picture.
John Irving said, “A writer’s job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as memories.” Recent manuscripts I’ve received mimic the passive, movie-watching experience rather than the active, living experience. Usually, the author just needs to be encouraged to maintain a tight third person POV; to write in active voice; and to focus on emotion and action, letting the reader experience the story as it happens.
Ernest Hemingway said, “A writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” Authors can get protective of their characters—unwilling to let their favorites display negative character traits, and unwilling to let their villains express redeeming features. When characters could use a little fleshing out, I have authors trace out character development arcs for all their major characters as well as write up a more intensive character study. The character study often involves answering such questions as what the character wants more than anything, what they would do to get it, and, more importantly, what they would never do to get it.
Lowder: I typically suggest writers read their work aloud as they’re revising, since this helps catch a whole host of problems—awkward dialogue, repetitious sentence structure, and so on. Pacing is also a pretty typical concern; a lot of writers spend too many words on their story’s first act, setting up characters and conflicts in ways that are not very compelling. I’ve worked on several books where the first chapter or two were cut to rather good effect.
If I’m working with a writer on a project from its inception, I like to review a relatively detailed plot outline broken down by chapters. You can avoid some plot logic traps, character development weaknesses, and general pacing flaws through a thorough review of an outline, and catching these things at this early stage can save the author a lot of time writing and revising.
Nash: A slow start is quite a common problem. I don’t mean “slow” in the sense of there not being an immediate fight scene or breathtaking escape from danger or the like—I’ve read some stunning openings that are very light on action but are utterly compulsive—but some manuscripts take too long to draw the reader in. Sometimes the writer already knew this and was just looking for someone else to say “you need to lose about half of the first three chapters—it takes too long to get going”, but usually, it’s a case of looking at where the plot has to go or the characters have to end up, and then really scrutinizing the text to see whether all of the narrative is paying its way. There are other techniques I’ve been known to use but if I told you I’d have to kill you.
Sometimes the problem is characters behaving in a certain way because the plot demands they do, not because it flows naturally from what we know of them. In that case, it’s up to the writer and editor to put their heads together and work out whether the plot really needs to go that way and, if so, how we can get it there while remaining true to the characters; or perhaps there’s another way to progress the plot that allows the characters to remain consistent.
Probably the most common problem, though, is background information—either too little or too much. As you know, Bob, obvious info-dumping is a sin of the highest order, so it’s incumbent on author and editor to explore other, more inventive options. As to what those options are, it depends on the book—some books lend themselves to flashbacks, some to dialogue, others to “newsflashes.” And, of course, the opposite problem is easy to spot. You get to the point where you say “Huh? What happened there?” Or—and this is more frequent in my experience—”Man, I really wanted to know about that! Ripped off!” And that” s when you ask the author to fill in the blanks.
Taber: Tense and POV changes that aren’t warranted by the story bug the hell out of me. For tense, I make corrections in the manuscript and handle it the same way as any other line edit with the author. The main thing there is to find a good transition point—tense can be changed in the flow of a story, but not generally mid-sentence. POV changes are a bit trickier and sometimes require rewriting a section. For those, I usually leave notes in the manuscript asking either for a rewrite to a different character’s point of view, or I find, again, a better place to transition from one viewpoint to another.
Incorrectly used colons, semicolons, and commas are by far the most common mechanical edits. Those are easily handled with line edits and don’t usually cause any fuss. I’ve said elsewhere that it’s a writer’s job to know the grammar and mechanics basics; it’s an editor’s job to know the details. Those are the details that make up the bulk of my job. Not exactly glamorous and exciting, but the grammar nerd in me loves it, and I’m 99% nerd (the other 1% is probably sleeping).
Passive voice tends to be a common problem in fantasy; less so in science fiction and horror. Consistency can also be an issue. Here, I’d like to advise all authors: please run a check on your character names and any invented words such as locations, new technology, etc. If you spell one character’s name three different ways, I’m just going to pick my favorite for them all.
Schluep: Problem number one is a weak opening. I’ve had times when a manuscript has come in and the cover letter or agent stated something along the lines of “it takes a while to get started, but then it really picks up steam and leads to a brilliant crescendo.” Strike one and two. There are a lot of manuscripts for editors to read. There are a lot of books for consumers to choose from. And time is finite. Try to grab them from page one.
Problem two is trying to write like someone else. This is the toughest fix, because it’s almost impossible to make that many changes to a manuscript. Have your literary heroes, but be sure to write in your own voice. Copies almost always read like copies. Be unique. Be yourself. It will read true that way.
Lastly, I often see rushed endings to novels. Writing a book is difficult, tedious work. Writing endings can be worse. Sometimes I think writers are just so excited to bring the book to a close that they don’t give the ending time to breathe. Let it unfold on its own time. It’s easier to cut in the latter stages than it is to add.
Anders: I think that this question will allow me to address a common misconception in general about what editors do. Typos belong to the world of the copy editors—I could not spell my way out of a paper bag—and while it’s true that I’ve rolled my sleeves up to the elbows in certain manuscripts and dug around in their guts, there are others I haven’t touched.
I hear this misconception a lot when readers are discussing the “Best Editor—Long Form” Hugo. One stated, “Well, I don’t know how much the editing improved or hurt the original manuscript so I don’t know how to vote.” I don’t think that’s the part of an editor’s job that need concern the reader. Rather, it’s the mere fact that they are reading the book in question at all, versus any one of the hundreds of other manuscripts and pitches that crossed the editor’s desk in a specific year. I get pitched maybe two to three times a day now, and out of that, I select/publish under 30 books a year. So it isn’t so much about whether I caught a typo on page 256, or said, “Do you think you need to explain that obscure reference a little clearer?”—it’s the fact that you are reading the book at all that counts.
Weisman: Continuity errors can be extremely entertaining. Marty Halpern, who has worked with us as our copyeditor and as one of our editors, is one of the best in the business at catching them—soda cans that are left in the kitchen and later picked up in the bedroom, changes in eye-color, wife’s maiden name, and so forth.
All manuscripts need to be fact-checked within an inch of their lives, and then fact-checked again. Is that really the name of the song? Was it really recorded by that artist? In that year? Are those really the lyrics?
The science isn’t always thought through. Why would the aliens create a robot that can be immobilized by throwing a bag over its head? Authors shouldn’t rely on editors to catch this stuff. We know less than you do. Or at least we should. Talk to experts. Have people who have a little bit of know how read your stuff and try to poke holes in it, before you submit the story for publication.
Do you have some advice for someone who wants to break into editing?
Nash: In this economy? Waiting until the houses are replenishing some of the blood spilled over the last six-to-eight months might be an idea. Really, though, everyone seems to have their own story about how they got into editing—some came up through the ranks, some from related disciplines, some horizontally from other departments at the same company (my own route was via marketing, which I’d entered after a period in sales).
Some of it’s probably the same advice you’d give a potential writer—read as much as you can; otherwise, try to involve yourself in fanzines, magazines, small presses, web-only publications—anything that gets you editing experience.
Anders: If you think your flame is going to dim, just be a reader and go do something else that makes more money! If you don’t eat sleep breath this stuff, why on earth would you do it?
Beyond that, I’d say, involve yourself with the community from the start, online and in the flesh.
Taber: If you don’t truly love it, don’t do it. I’ve worked with several proofreaders who thought it might be a good way to make some extra cash because they were “pretty good at grammar and spelling.” They burnt out quickly or vanished without a trace.
You have to be enthusiastic enough about understanding the ins and outs and shadings of language to run off and look up anything if you’re the slightest bit unsure. Gill Ainsworth—our Senior Editor of the magazine side of Apex—and I trade resources and pick each other’s brains frequently, not because we have to, but because we like to learn.
If you think you might be nerd enough to try, see if someone is looking for volunteer proofreaders. You’ll get the stuff that has already been through line edits, so if you get frustrated with that, you’ll know you don’t want to go deeper. If, instead, you find yourself wishing you’d been the one to do the line edits because that sentence would have worked so much better over there, then you’re on the right track and now have a little experience to cite when you start looking into copy editing and line editing gigs.
And don’t forget that rules and conventions change. What you were taught in high school may not be true today (plus, there are plenty of teachers who don’t teach well or clearly) so you must be willing to constantly refresh your knowledge of the subject.
Weisman: Pay your dues. Do an internship and take any kind of publishing job you can get, no matter how humble. Specialize. Network in both real-time and online by making a lot of contacts in your chosen area; in the SF/F world, that means attending conferences, commenting on (or starting) your own blog/Facebook page, etc. Read as much as you possibly can. And then read some more. Jeff VanderMeer is an expert on the publishing field, and I have to both give him credit for these ideas and to recommend his blog, www.jeffvandermeer.com.
Spanton: Do whatever you can to get (and keep) a wider sense of the industry. I worked as a bookseller for four years before going into publishing and in marketing before going into editorial. Both were invaluable for letting you see that it’s all too easy for the editor to sit in an ivory tower of artistic endeavor (often feeling they have to be there on the author’s behalf). Moaning about the trade not getting your book, huffing about the fact that we haven’t sold many of such-and-such’s book just isn’t good enough. You have to try and make sure you have at least a sense of where all the other imperatives in the industry are coming from and learn how to work with and around them. A haughty retreat onto the sunlit uplands of “Art” does very few people any favors.
Of course, you also have to know when to die in ditch for a fantastic book but time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted and both you and the book you are fighting for will benefit from you not ending up dead in a ditch on as many occasions as possible.
Schluep: Be prepared to start at the bottom. Assistant work is not glamorous, but that’s how nearly every editor starts out. Start at the bottom. Then work hard. It’s all self invention after that. The harder you work, the more people you meet, the better off you’ll be.
Lowder: Editors need to be as widely read as possible. You never know when you’ll be working on a project that will benefit from some obscure bit of knowledge. One of the first books I was assigned to copyedit was a modern horror story set in the Soviet Union; I caught some mistakes the author had made in the structure of the characters’ names because I’d studied Russian in college.
You also need to learn to recognize the difference between suggestions you’re making that will clarify the author’s vision and ones that move a book closer to your vision, as if you were the writer. Some editors fail to grasp the difference. That can be deadly for a book and nightmarish for an author.
Athans: Don’t do it! But, okay, if you really feel you have to . . . Make sure you’re well read, especially in the category or genre you’re looking to edit, and pay attention to the business. There are several good publishing industry new services, like Publishers Weekly and Publisher’s Lunch.
Blake: I read somewhere that if you scratch the surface of an editor, you’ll find a failed writer. I don’t think that’s true, but I do think that writers make great editors. There’s a sensitivity to language and tone, and an understanding of craft, that comes from an active practice of writing. That’s important, I think. But you have to be a reader, primarily, to be an editor. So read, read, read.
Also, there are a variety of different kinds of editing jobs. Most projects aren’t the dream projects we all think about when we think of art and letters. Most of the words out there in the world serve a purpose other than art. I mention this just to be realistic about the world of published words.
Harbowy: When it comes to copyediting . . . Practice. Beta-read fan-fiction for friends. Get a feel for how to offer constructive criticism without making writers defensive. Learn to look things up—look everything up. Even things you think you know. Writers have the leeway to go with their gut when it comes to using “lie” or “lay”, referencing a real-live company several years before it was founded, or deciding whether “hair dryer” is one word or two, or to go with what “sounds right”. Editors don’t!
And be conscious of where you’re looking things up. Pick a style guide and a dictionary and use them consistently, and remember that just because something’s cited as fact somewhere on the internet, doesn’t make it true. Pick a source you can trust. Building these habits will make you the sort of trustworthy, meticulous editor that your writer friends will refer their friends to. Once you have those credits to your name, samples of your work, and clients who will serve as references for you, you’ll be able to start to approach editing professionally.
Guran: I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be an editor. Must be a genetic defect or something.
How about some Dos and Don’ts for writers who are self-editing their manuscripts?
Anders: When I worked as a screenwriter, my co-writing partner and I had a technique we used. We would go sit in a the movie theatre early, when it was empty and the screen was blank, and we would close our eyes and try and picture what we’d written the day before on the screen in front of us. If we couldn’t, we threw it out.
I think when you are in a manuscript, it is easy to fool yourself because you know in your head what you want, and you may not be able to see that you haven’t achieved it. The ability to get out of your head and encounter what you’ve written as a viewer is very valuable but hard to cultivate.
Secondly, to speak to yet another industry, Sting once remarked that “songs aren’t created in studios; they are abandoned there.” While “all writing is rewriting,” there comes a certain point where you need to put it down and get on to the next one. Don’t spend your life rewriting the same book. Put it down and start the next one. That’s the only way to have any hope of a career.
Blake: Don’t do it. Find a friend, or ten friends, to read it and help you. You won’t catch everything yourself. You know the rock sorters they use to separate the big rocks from the small ones? Think of editing as a series of filters. By definition, you can’t be both the big filter and the small filter.
Lowder: Authors should never fall so in love with anything in their prose that they’re afraid to cut it. Develop the ability to step back from your work and look at it with a reader’s eyes. At the same time, don’t get so bogged down in tinkering and making small changes that you never finish the revision. Set yourself a deadline and make yourself keep it.
Athans: I’m not sure it’s possible to self-edit. I also write, and it never ceases to amaze me that I get comments back from editors that show me I’ve done the very same things I complain about seeing in other authors’ work. Never underestimate the value of a fresh, informed, set of eyes on your work.
Here’s a fun, real-life example: When I first typed this answer, the second sentence read: “I’ve also written,” but then I thought it would sound better as: “I also write,” so I changed “written” to “write” then forgot to change “I’ve” to “I” so I ended up with: “I’ve also write.” Thankfully, I ran the whole thing past my boss, Bill Slavicsek, mostly to make sure I haven’t said anything that’ll get me in trouble, and he pointed out the error. Author, don’t edit thyself!
Harbowy: Do give yourself time away from the manuscript before you try to edit it. The eye sees what it expects to see, not what’s actually on the page. Give yourself enough distance and time to forget the words on the page, so that you can read the manuscript with fresh eyes. It might help to read it in a different font, or read it aloud.
Don’t worry about marketability at first. Tell the story that you need to tell. Genre and word count can wait. You can always revise it later to make it a better match for the market.
Guran: There’s no reason for me to offer my advice. Others have done it better. Buy this book: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne, Dave King, and George Booth. Read it.
If you are looking to sell a novel, read The First Five Pages: a Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. Read it. Have the sense to know that not everything in either book applies to you specifically, but, generally apply what does.
- Remember you’re writing for an audience.
- Trace out the plot arcs. Where does your novel really start and end? Are all the arcs complete? Could you make the arcs tighter? More dramatic?
- Examine each scene. What is its purpose? Does it drive character and plot development? Is it told from the correct perspective? Is it necessary for the story? Is there a better scene that could go there?
- Trace out each character arc. Does each character have an ideal arc? Are there any gaps that need filling? Have you forced your characters to their limits, to confront their greatest fears? Forced them to make the hardest choices?
- Examine each paragraph and sentence. Are they as concise as you can make them? Do you overuse any unusual words?
- Start editing immediately. Take at least a two-week break before you start editing your first draft. Regardless of the quality of your prose, you will become blind to both its virtues and vices when forced into close proximity with it for extended periods of time.
- Spend too much time with your thesaurus. Remember, exotic words are like precious gemstones, and need to be set in plain, polished prose. One exotic word per paragraph is plenty.
- Save over your first draft file. Keep previous versions of your text, just in case you change your mind about your edits.
- Be afraid to take risks with your characters and plot arc, completely rewriting whole sections if necessary. If you limit yourself to tinkering, you may never discover what your story is meant to be.
- Worry about the details on your first pass. Worry about character and plot first. Then do a second pass and worry about details.
Schluep: Do write freely on the first draft, but don’t be afraid to kill your babies during the editing stage. You’re writing more to entertain others than you are to entertain yourself.
Nash: Do take the time to put the manuscript away for a month or two and come back to it fresh.
Do take the time to check for spelling and grammar errors rather than relying on your computer’s spellchecker to do it (there knot they’re four the porpoise of replacing you’re brain; write spelling of words inn the wrong context throes up all manor of miss takes).
Do remember the old saw “murder your darlings.” If you’ve written a passage or a scene that you’re convinced is the most polished, most powerful, most brilliant piece of prose you’ve ever written, the odds are good that it should be the first chunk to come out of the manuscript.
Don’t assume that just because you have your characters laugh at something that it’s funny.
Don’t serially-abuse your thesaurus because you think there are too many “saids” in your work; “said” works just fine (he proclaimed).
Taber: Do know what every word you’re using means. Sure, malapropisms are entertaining for me, but they don’t make you look good. Also, if you don’t really understand things like past perfect or passive voice, ask someone. Ask several people. Eventually, you’ll find someone who can explain it to you in a way that makes sense, and from then on you’ll be able to write and self-edit accordingly.
Reading your work aloud (or having someone else read it to you) is a great way to catch errors, especially words that you use far too often and don’t even notice (“now,” “just” and “suddenly” are some of the most common culprits).
Don’t get impatient—your work is worth the time it takes to get it right.
Spanton: Write first, then revise. Get it down on the page and then go back. Don’t revise as you go. That may mean a chunk, that may mean a chapter, that may mean a whole book but get something substantial down first before you go back and start tinkering. At least half a day’s worth of writing I’d say—give yourself a chance to get in the swing.
Be brutal—kill your darlings. If the sentence you’ve written doesn’t progress the plot or tell the reader something important about the character, get rid of it. However beautiful the writing, however fitting the image, however many hours you spent laboring over it. Unwriting is as important as writing.
Do read your dialogue back out loud. Obviously you can’t reproduce speech, with all its repetitions, pauses, diversions and redundancies exactly but you can mimic its rhythms and its feel on the page. Reading dialogue out loud helps you spot if speech sounds right.
Try reading whole passages out loud, not just dialogue. You’d be surprised how awful some prose sounds when you try to read it out. If you stumble over reading it out loud, then the chances are the reader will stumble over it as well. Stories were listened to long before they were read.
Go back and be brutal again.
If the book sucks, move on. But don’t chuck the manuscript or delete the file. Keep it somewhere. You never know what’s in there that might be useful at another time.
Don’t feel that time spent on writing that wasn’t published was wasted. It almost certainly wasn’t.
Don’t listen to friends and family. They’re going to be nice to you.
Don’t edit (much less write) a book according to what you think the market may want. Write (and edit) for yourself and your imagined reader.
Go back and be brutal again. That’s right, a third time.
Weisman: If possible, don’t do it all yourself. It’s hard to “see” your own work; once you’ve gone through several drafts (and you have by now, right?), you lose the ability to be objective about your work. Get some other readers, particularly an agent (you have or are actively looking for an agent, right?) (Some agents do this and some don’t), or teachers/participants in a writing conference such as Clarion or Sycamore Hill. A trusted friend might also be able to help, but in any case you need to be wary of how much or how little feedback you choose to incorporate in your work. It’s your work and your vision, above all else.
If you could rule the world of book publishing, what would you change?
Athans: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the publishing business, really, that a top-to-bottom, exhaustive, total reorganization won’t fix. The number of things that happen in this business every day that are based on “well, we all know it’s stupid, but we’ve always done it that way,” would blow your mind.
If I was the Emperor of Publishing, the first thing I’d think about doing is breaking it up and moving it out of New York. The days when everyone had to live within walking distance of each other to work together has been over for a few decades now, and I’ll tell you what, being out here in Seattle is fantastic. There should be no more than two trade publishers in any given city, and the literary agencies should be required to be located in cities with no publishers at all.
In that ideal world, editors and authors should enjoy a richly collaborative relationship built around the single unifying principal of working tirelessly to create the best possible books. I’m proud to say that that’s true among my staff—and true among many of my friends and professional acquaintances around the business, even the ones who live next door to agents.
Morris: In my ideal world, an editor’s job is completely focused on the actual manuscripts—on reading, selecting, obtaining, editing, and polishing great stories—and the author always has plenty of time for revisions, and I always have plenty of time to edit. And, of course, the fruits of our happy collaborations all sell brilliantly. My first change would be to claim more time with the manuscript, rather than being as tightly bound, as a shared world publisher is, to release dates.
Nash: This is a difficult one, because the process has changed to reflect the realities of the marketplace. It’s no use advocating sweeping changes that would result in painstakingly crafted books not being stocked in the bookshops. I’ve seen it said that books are no longer edited—which is tremendously insulting to the many hard-working editors in the industry who spend their own time reading and editing manuscripts, and is simply not true. What is true is that the time we can spend on individual manuscripts is less than it used to be, because of all of the other elements of the job that need to be done.
I’d love to be able to spend more time working with an author to carefully polish the text, but if that meant neglecting cover briefs, cover copy, in-house championing of the author and all the other arcane practices we enact in order to give our books the best possible chance in a very competitive market, I’d argue that would make me a less effective editor rather than the person who goes over every line in the manuscript but allows the book to published with an embarrassing cover and dull copy. (I’m not saying anyone does that, by the way—just trying to illustrate a point).
But if you want a nice sound byte or bit of controversy, how about this: if I could rule the world of book publishing, I’d ban people from writing autobiographies unless they’d actually done something. Yes, I’m looking at you, vapid celebrities and teenage sportspeople with only half a professional season under your belts—go and achieve something before you bore us with your life stories.
In the most ideal of worlds, editors should be like sporting officials—invisible if they’re doing their job. The only time you remember the referee in a football match is when he’s had a stinker!
Anders: Don’t chase trends, set them. There are extreme commercial constraints on the publishing industry right now. I maintain that “good” and “commercial” are not mutually exclusive categories. I cannot publish a work that is “good but not commercial” and keep my job, but so far, every work I’ve selected is something I’ve judged (rightly or wrongly!) as “good and commercial” and none have been “commercial but not good.”
I think every quality book published by every house sustains the genre, by keeping the active readership engaged, and potentially swells the genre, by potentially being someone’s introduction. Likewise, every bad book published has the potential to diminish the genre, by providing someone with the excuse to quit reading with that book, to put SF/F aside as something they think they outgrew, or something not worth their interest. Ultimately, I think that publishing bad books because “they sell” is detrimental to the field.
That and I’d get rid of the return system. That’s something people have groused about for years, but the green movement and the recent publishing crisis might actually stand a chance of doing something about it. It will take some key big houses to lead the way there though.
Blake: I actually think the production process is pretty well sorted by this point. Like ants, we’ve found the shortest way to the food. If I would change anything, it would be in other parts of the publishing world. In marketing, I’d get rid of the bound galley; in distribution, I’d change the returns policy.
Guran: Be considered as goddesses/gods on earth? If I ruled the publishing world I’d have a lot more information and understand a lot more about things I couldn’t tamper with. I’d probably also see a lot of things that could be improved. First, I’d make sure I had a secure job and benefits—or be independently wealthy—so no matter what I said or tried, I wouldn’t have to worry about the personal consequences.
Harbowy: If I could rule the world of publishing, I’d release paperbacks first, and shuffle hardcovers off to become library and collectors’ editions. Hardcovers are space-consuming, expensive, and I think that they hinder first-time authors. A reader would be more willing to take a chance on someone they’ve never heard of and buy an interesting-looking paperback for $5.99, than take a chance on the hardcover of the same book for $25 or $30.
Lowder: As the major publishing houses have been consolidated and swallowed by international multimedia operations, editors find themselves with less and less time to nurture talent. Chasing fads and questing frantically for the next writer-with-a-back-story, the media-friendly guy or gal who might make it onto Oprah, has replaced the idea of growing markets and building authors over years, not months or weeks. Ideally, editors should be able to focus more on books and writers they care about, and then be given the time to develop them.
Schluep: In my perfect world, editors would get two days out of the office to do nothing but read and edit. It would lead to less multi-tasking and more concentration. I do not believe there will ever be a perfect world.
Taber: I would love to see big-name authors held to the same standards of quality as newer authors. Yes, established authors have earned a following and a little bit of leeway, but quality is quality. It hurts the publishing industry as a whole, in my opinion, when marketing efforts and book buying dollars are put into substandard work. I understand, from a marketing perspective, why this happens . . . but in my ideal world, it would not be so.
As for ideal editing, the only thing I think I would change is the timeline. I would love to have more time to go through the back-and-forth stages with an author to get the book into a shape that everyone is truly happy with . . . but then, it might never get to print.
Weisman: Wow. I would publish all of the best books and have unlimited resources to market, promote, and sell them. And time, lots of time. In an ideal world, editors have the time to work more closely with authors. In this world, the editing process in increasingly rushed due to economic constraints.
Spanton: Don’t get me started . . . Seriously, though, I think the industry is pretty well evolved. I might think my changes would be the business but generally there are good (or at least powerful) reasons why things happen the way they do.
It’s writers who shape worlds, not editors.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.