Stuff that authors need to know #3: what your editor wants you to know

I recently finished editing Lauren Beukes’s second novel Zoo City (to be published in a few months by Jacana and Angry Robot), and as always, learned and relearned a lot in the process. This, plus the fact that I’ve recently assessed several unpublished first-novel manuscripts, has meant yet more brooding on the business of writing and editing fiction.

It was amazing to be reminded just how intense editing fiction can (and should) be. It involves total absorption in someone else’s world. There is no coming up for air, no pausing for a chat, a glass of wine with friends (something utterly necessary to the academic editing ultra-marathon). It’s not a bad analogy: academic editing is like one of those hundred-mile marathons where you proceed at a steady trot, stopping off each night for a hot bath and a bowl of pasta — and fresh socks. The scenery changes day by day, the terrain differs mightily (especially if you’re editing something with multiple authors — some days you’re striding across gentle meadows, some days you’re stumbling over sharp rocks and picking thorns out your legs).

Editing an 80-000 word novel is more like a race over a shorter distance — ten or twenty kays round a track. You can grab a wet towel or water from someone on the sidelines, but you cannot stop to shoot the breeze or wash the dishes. You’re in the same environment the whole time, and that environment is all you can think of.

During my spell in Zoo City, I got total tunnel vision. I found it incredibly difficult to respond to phone-calls, emails, demands from the outside world. I often didn’t even hear the phone ringing, or found myself hitting “reject incoming call” without even thinking. This may be a personal failing or just the way my concentration works.

The crux is that there is a gap between the real world and the world on the page. It’s a given that the real world is more important, but if the world on the page is to work, it requires total immersion. On the last day of editing ZC, a friend rang for help with a CV. We kept arguing about how long they’d been in a certain job, until I realised I was working from a March 2011 calendar — which is when Lauren’s novel is set. It was quite a shock to remember it was still 2010.

So then, a round-up of some thoughts on editing and writing fiction.

When editing fiction, it is your responsibility to enter the writer’s world and head. You may NOT redecorate to your taste. (Neither Lauren’s Moxyland nor Zoo City are H-rated, the latter most especially not. At times, my eyes were watering from the effort not to squeeze them shut, but it was not my job to PG-rate the text.) You are, however, allowed to point out that the back stairs go nowhere, there is no supporting wall holding up the second storey, the characters curl up in front of the cozy fireplace, but no chimney emerges from the roof. In which case, the author must fix the problem, not you. You can prompt, nudge, encourage or suggest: but you may not wheel in your own bricks and cement and start putting in a load-bearing wall.

Immediate sort-of exception to this rule: if your author is experienced, you’re in tune with each other, and they trust you, you can be quite directive about how to tackle gaps. This consists of literally papering the cracks to which your author needs to take a trowel and plaster: you’ll write something like “This transition is too abrupt. How does Thando go from cracking beers in Ellen’s kitchen to falling down the manhole? Can you have him weaving his way drunkenly down the street, back-chatting the local prostitutes while the long-suffering Ellen watches from her front gate?” If your author is gifted, she’ll take the idea of a transition and run with it, so that a drunken Thando might spin round to blow kisses at a passing beauty and take a tumble in the process. Or start walking backwards, waving at Ellen, ignoring her warning shouts. Or… you get the picture.

This, of course, isn’t line-editing — the business of taking a manuscript and running it through the grammar, spell and consistency check machine. There are lots of different words for this editing approach in the industry — some call it manuscript development, some development editing, some copy-editing. All I know is that it’s what I do.

Some years ago Michael Titlestad took issue with the way some local first-time writers were being edited. I certainly don’t agree with everything he said (his piece was suggestive of the diffused light found in ivory towers), but one thing he wrote is worth tattooing on all publishers and authors’ foreheads:

…before copyediting and proofreading, writers need … to labour over revisions. They need to fashion the best and most compelling narrative they can. The best literary editors guide authors, especially new authors, down this path of frustration and travail.

The point is that the editor or the publisher often needs to return a novel – especially a first novel – to its author for rewriting. Substantive rewriting. With copious instructions and a map of the way. And you hold their hand and chivvy them and cheerlead them while they do this. Then you make them do it again. And again. And sometimes yet again. Only then do you start line-editing. Zoo City travelled the cyberwaves between Lauren and myself umpteen times before we were both satisfied. It was already a gem, but we were determined to polish every single facet.

The problem comes when you return something that needs a lot of work to a gifted but inexperienced author. (This was NOT the case with Lauren, who picked up every useful suggestion and responded with flair and speed. She also knows by now exactly when to ignore me.) For a newbie, instructions like “rewrite” or “promising, but needs work” or “cut substantially” are hopelessly vague. I’ve seen second attempts that are worse than the raw but feisty originals: rewrites are often longer than the original (usually an indicator that you’re going in the wrong direction), dialogue has become more formal, the text has been padded with yet more adverbs, adjectives and metaphors, and the latter have been lovingly polished while the pace languishes.

So for everyone in this position, this is what every (good) fiction editor wants their author to know:

1. Ditch the notion that every word you write is precious. Those lines of type marching across your screen? Raw material only (yes, this is a business where you put in months of labour just to create the raw material). Don’t even think of confusing this with the finished product. What you have at this point is a block of wood or marble from which you are going to sculpt something fine and rare. Now start chiseling.

2. Same goes for even the most brilliant, original and creative metaphors and images. If they distract from the action taking place in the sentence, toss them. Don’t expect your reader to stop in the middle of a car-chase to admire the scenery.

3. Your fictional world has to obey much stricter rules of internal logic and consistency than the real world (aka the Mike Nicol rule, aka the John Lanchester rule). In real life, the unimaginable happens all the time, wildly improbable coincidences occur daily, and characters are much larger than life. This is seldom tolerated in fiction.

4. Corollary to the above: if you are taking real life and turning it into fiction, you will probably have to tone real life right down. However, don’t ever mess with the facts. Readers get very beady-eyed about this. For instance, don’t set your novel in autumn and then have a character listening to the call of a bird that sings only in spring.

5. Numbers 3 and 4 apply especially strictly if you are writing magic realism/sci-fi/fantasy. Your fantastical world has to follow its own internal rules as rigidly as tramlines. If you establish that your heroine is a mind-reader in Chapter 1, do not have her gazing at her lover, wondering what he’s thinking, in Chapter 9. Or if you do, you need to create a water-tight exemption to your rule first. Which can look clumsy.

6. Another way that fiction differs from real life: there should be some measure of closure. Wrap up the loose plot threads — not all of them, especially not if you have a series in mind. But you want to avoid too many questions trailing in the reader’s mind.

7. Beware of purple prose, of dense lyrical passages, no matter how exquisite. Modern readers want to know what happens next — the era of lingering for two pages on the cry of the peacock in the Moghul gardens at dusk has passed. (Personally, I think this is a pity, but only the famous are permitted this luxury these days.) Rather sprinkle aesthetic sugar throughout with a restrained and even hand.

8. Readers enjoy characters with whom they can identify. Your hero or heroine should be sympathetic. Failing that, they should be compelling. A few very good writers can get away with creating a central narrative character who is repulsive or alienating, but it might not be wise to assume you are one of them.

Circling back to the editor/author relationship, it is essential that you actually have such a thing. Some publishers (none that I know of in this country, thank goodness) believe that there should be no contact between author and editor, much less dialogue and debate. You don’t have to like each other, but mutual respect is essential. There has to be a certain chemistry. This is what makes the total greater than the sum of the parts. (Over on his Facebook page, Louis Greenberg says: “Editors are shinks with a lower hourly rate.” Yes indeedy.)

A final insider PS via Elinor Sisulu (who recently chaired the judges’ panel for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize): When there are very, very strong contenders for a literary prize, and the books vying for the prize are truly equally brilliant, guess what one of the deciding factors is? How well the book has been edited. (How can you tell? A good novel that’s also been beautifully edited reads effortlessly, with no “fat” or excess verbiage, no typos or silly and sloppy mistakes, no unevenness, and an overall sense of polish, flow and clarity.)

Nick Mulgrew