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editing

Editing process rundown

11 June 2020

Given that I’ve worked as an editor for 21 years it seems crazy that I’ve never written a post that breaks down the different kinds of editing, but I’m about to remedy that! Most of the books that I edit are for publishers, but about a quarter of my work is directly for authors who fall into one of two categories. Either they intend to self-publish, or they want to ensure that their manuscript is the very best that it can be before submitting to agents or publishers (most fall into the latter category). Often writers are unsure about exactly what kind of edit their book needs, so here’s a quick rundown. I’m going to focus on fiction because it’s my first love.

Structural/substantive edit

If you’re wondering if your book needs a structural edit (sometimes called a substantive edit), the answer is YES! Every single book needs a structural edit, even those by the most experienced authors. This is the big picture stage where the editor is looking at things like characterisation, plot, pacing, appropriateness of language and style for the intended readership, order of chapters and scenes (including whether there are missing scenes or unnecessary scenes), chapter breakdowns, narrative progression and gaps in the narrative, and so on. Every book is different and the list of possibilities is endless. The editor might recommend that the book should in fact begin at Chapter 3, or that a subplot is enlarged, or that a character is cut completely. Be prepared for anything! You will usually receive an extensive report outlining all the areas that need work.

I love this stage because it’s a long conversation between the editor and the author — two people who care deeply about the book and want to see it become the very best version of itself. It’s always a privilege for me to be a part of this highly creative stage of the editing process, and to work so intimately with a text and its author.

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Copyediting

Cartoon Irma talking on a panel at Noted Festival

With copyediting we move from the big picture down to the fine detail. The editor will go through your manuscript with a microscope, line by line, examining grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, formatting, clarity and awkward phrasing. At this stage it is absolutely imperative that your editor becomes a chameleon. (As you can see from the cartoon, this is a philosophy that I live by! As a sidenote, the irony of the spelling error follows Muphry’s Law, a lesser-known cousin of Murphy’s Law, that states that whenever you write about editing there will always be an error.) But I digress. Back to chameleons. In fiction, the voice is everything. The editor needs to take on the author’s voice, and work with it to make it the very best version of itself, not impose their own. If they can’t do that the result is death by a thousand cuts. The voice — which is what makes every work unique — can quickly become a dead thing. So choose your copyeditor wisely. Some editors have this skill, some don’t.

Proofreading

Page proofs for a book by Nick Earls

This stage is often misunderstood because the word ‘proofreading’ is used differently outside of the publishing context, often to mean a last-minute, super quick check of a document. With a book, proofreading happens once the manuscript has been typeset and the first set of page proofs have been delivered. And it is not a quick process; it is actually slow, careful and time-consuming work. It is essentially a quality control process where you are checking that everything is exactly as it should be. So, indie authors, please don’t ask your mum (who happens to be quite good at grammar) to do the job — I urge you to employ a professional.

In fact, many self-publishing authors neglect this stage altogether, to their great detriment. It’s like taking all the care in the world to build a limited edition car, only to skip the paint job. Once the typesetter enters the text there are a whole raft of errors that can inadvertently be introduced. What’s more, at this stage it is no longer just about the text, there are a new set of elements to consider in terms of design and layout. When I was teaching editing I used to show my students two sets of proofs for the same book: one with mark-up from the author, the other from me as editor. It demonstrated how even authors (with some exceptions) pick up comparatively little. A professional proofreader knows what to look for. They will ensure that the paint job is flawless.

Where can I find an editor?

Now that I’ve outlined the three stages of the editing process I thought I’d answer the two questions that I get asked the most often. The first is about how to find an editor. Firstly, you need to find someone who is qualified. Like every profession, there are people out there who claim to be editors who don’t have the necessary skills or experience. If you head to reputable sources like IPEd or the society of authors in your state you will find a register of editors. Your local writers centre may also be able to recommend an editor who’s a good fit for your book. But one of the best ways to find an editor is through word of mouth recommendations. This brings me to the second point. You need to find someone who has experience working in your genre. So if a writer friend wrote a fantasy novel and you’ve written a middle grade novel the editor who they used may not be right for you. I emphasise ‘may’ here because it all depends on which genres that editor works in.

Finally, know that good editors are in demand and will likely be booked up several months in advance, so be sure to factor this in. Picture books are the exception (for me, at least) because they can usually be fit in around larger jobs.

How much will I pay?

The way it works is that you send the editor either a few sample chapters or the whole manuscript (the latter is better). They will assess whether the manuscript is a good fit for them, how much work is required and how much time it will take. They will then send you a quote that you are under no obligation to accept. After over two decades of working as an editor, my quotes are usually very accurate, but if a manuscript takes me less time than anticipated I always reduce the fee accordingly. If it takes longer, I never increase the fee. It is standard to expect to pay at least half the fee upfront, with the rest paid on delivery of the manuscript. For smaller jobs — for example, editing a picture book manuscript — expect to pay the full fee upfront. You may also be required to sign a contract that will protect the interests of both parties.

Occasionally I am contacted by new writers who think a structural edit of a 90,000-word manuscript is going to cost them a couple of hundred dollars. Remember that you are paying for a professional’s time. And if you don’t employ a professional, your money is probably going to be wasted. Which brings us back to the earlier point — and the most important one to end with — that you need to make sure that you find the right editor for you and your book.

If you have any questions about editing or publishing, please drop them in the comments. And no question is too silly!

Irma has been an editor, both in-house and freelance, for 21 years. She is a professional member of the Canberra Society of Editors and for a decade was Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra. For examples of her work and endorsements, or to get in touch about editing a manuscript, see Editing services.

 

Literary adventures — around Canberra and on to Iceland

20 November 2019

Is anyone else hanging for the end of the year? I’m so madly busy right now and the pace isn’t going to let up until Christmas Day. It helps that I’m editing some incredible books which I’m so excited to see in print, but I’m also hanging out for the Christmas break when I can drink prosecco and eat mince pies and do very little other than laze about and read. Okay, so with three children that is probably going to remain an illusive fantasy, but a girl can dream.

Let’s stick with November for now which has offered up a few highlights of its own. First up was the annual celebration for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge for which I am an ambassador.

Accepting a thank you gift from one of the Reading Challenge participants

It’s such a joy to be a part of this initiative which aims to transform kids into book addicts for life. The challenge asks them to read a minimum of 15 books but there is no set list — they can read whatever sparks their imagination. This is so important because with so many forms of entertainment competing for kids’ attention, we need to help them find the books that sing for them, the books whose worlds they won’t want to leave.

So it’s wonderful to hear about the Reading Challenge’s success stories. This year one of the standouts was a student from Holy Spirit Primary School who set himself the goal to read 1000 books over the six months of the challenge. He wasn’t previously a particularly avid reader but he smashed that 1000! I must say I’m a tad jealous. I manage about 100 novels a year — if only I could somehow claw back those luxury after-school hours of primary school again! I would only need a live-in chef, housekeeper, gardener and taxi driver to achieve this. Ah, there I go into fantasy land again.

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Another standout was two students with vision impairment who completed the challenge, one in braille and one in large print. Neither of them were big readers before. In fact, the student who read in braille (from Caroline Chisholm Primary) had previously avoided reading at all costs. But the challenge saw her reading at both recess and lunch! Hearing these stories makes my heart swell a little. Okay, a lot. Hats off to all the students who completed the challenge this year, and I look forward to going on more reading adventures with the challenge next year.

Picture book workshop participants dreaming up stories

 

This month I also helped a bunch of writers create their own fantasy lands of sorts when I taught a full-day picture book workshop. It was lovely to hear that it was the ACT Writers Centre’s most popular workshop of the year! This meant that it was elbow room only as we got cosy in the glorious upstairs space of Harry Hartog’s bookshop at the ANU. Could there be anything more wonderful than talking about how books work when you are surrounded by them? (No, is the correct answer.) They were a gorgeous and engaged group and I look forward to seeing some of their names on future picture book covers.

November also marks the end of an era for me. Since 2008, I have spent almost a decade teaching editing at the University of Canberra (yes, I realise those numbers don’t add up but I had a brief break in there). It’s been wonderful getting to know the students and seeing them go on to do all sorts of fabulous things in the world, and I’ve learned so much about myself along the way. A massive shout out to all the brilliant postgrad students who made it such a pleasure.

I’m going to briefly dip into October now because I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing literary superstar Charlotte Wood, who also happens to be one of my all-time favourite authors. As I discovered, she is also a generous and generally delightful human. We spoke about her new novel The Weekend, which is a brilliant book that examines old age and friendship. I devoured it, appropriately, over one weekend, and I’d strongly encourage you to do the same.

Harry Hartog events manager extraordinaire, Katarina, pronounced our conversation her favourite event of 2019. It was for me too! It doesn’t get better than chatting with a writer whose work you have admired for years.

Finally, my most exciting November news — drumroll please! I was thrilled to receive a phone call from artsACT a few days ago to say that my grant application was successful. This means I’m travelling to the Iceland Writers Retreat next April where I’ll be working on my second novel. It is one of the world’s most lauded retreats, with a phenomenal line-up of internationally successful authors running masterclasses. Needless to say I am dying of happiness!

Beautiful Iceland — where I’ll be come April!

Well, that’s it from me for now. Excuse me while I go back to dreaming of mince pies and endless (primary-school style) hours in which to read. And maybe an Icelandic adventure or two.

Four launches and a festival…

7 May 2019

…is much more fun than four weddings and a funeral.

The festival was the annual Flash Fiction Weekend, aimed at writers wanting to develop and hone their craft, held in the beautiful East Hotel. I had the pleasure of convening a panel on the writing process with superstars Graeme Simsion, Karen Viggers, Jack Heath and Susanne Gervay. I wish I could give you a sense of what we discussed but when I’m on a panel it’s always a bit of a blur afterwards, even when I’m the one asking the questions! So instead I give you writer Amanda McLeod via Twitter: ‘This panel was the business. I have many, many notes.’

With fellow panellists Graeme Simsion, Susanne Gervay and Jack Heath

I also ran my workshop on editing flash fiction and was thrilled when one participant told the marvellous organiser, Suzanne Kiraly, that my workshop was worth the price of the festival ticket alone. That kind of feedback is always happy-making. (Thanks John!)

There were lots of short keynotes and I enjoyed them all. Graeme Simsion of Rosie Project fame was up first. He spoke about how writers need to devote as much time to learning their craft as a neurosurgeon would to learning theirs. What’s more ‘there are more jobs for neurosurgeons than there are for writers’, he noted. Graeme is a keen plotter and encourages all emerging writers to carefully outline their plot before beginning to write.

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Susanne Gervay, on the other hand, is a devoted pantser, writing by ‘the seat of her pants’. ‘I can’t do it any other way,’ she said. In her keynote she spoke from the heart about her writing journey and her goal to ‘empower the disempowered’. This goal drives all her books for children. Susanne is one of those rare speakers who reguarly makes me laugh and cry. No easy feat. I couldn’t agree more with her final advice: ‘You must write something of value.’

Despite functioning on next to no sleep courtesy of his two-week-old baby, Jack Heath was as engaging as ever, discussing his Hangman series, featuring a cannibal detective. Ten years ago Hangman was rejected by publishers who advised him to rewrite the story without the cannibal detective. As Jack pointed out, that would have made it the same as a bunch of other crime books. He hung onto his vision and eventually found a publisher willing to take a risk on it. And it’s a risk that’s paid off as it’s become an international bestseller. His take-away message — stick with what is unique.

 

Craig Cormick delivered some hard truths in his keynote. Here are a few:

  • Neilsen Bookscan reports that only two per cent of books sell more than 5000 copies.
  • Only one per cent of books (that includes self-published titles) make it onto a bookshop shelf.
  • Quality matters less than you’d hope and luck matters more than you’d like.
  • The book you want to write isn’t always the book someone else wants to read.

He concluded that the most you can really hope for as a writer is a life in which to write. You may not achieve fame, fortune, awards or bestseller status but the writing life is reward enough.

In a similar vein to Craig, Marion Halligan reflected that ‘it is perhaps a strange thing that so many people want to become writers. It’s hard work, poorly paid and fickle in its rewards.’ She recounted a review of her debut novel, Self Possession, which was reviewed with a batch of other debuts. The reviewer remarked that the other writers were sure to have a literary future, ‘but not Halligan’. Marion said, ‘I take a certain glee in being up to my twenty-first book.’ She reflected on the changes she has seen during her 30 years in the industry. ‘I sometimes think the writer is less valued than ever…most people in the industry seem to have forgotten that without the writer there is no book,’ she concluded.

Overall the festival offered a lovely mix of encouraging advice tempered with hard truths for the many emerging writers in attendance. It finished with the launch of Impact, an anthology of flash fiction that emerged from last year’s festival, edited by yours truly. Marion Halligan did the official honours and rightly observed, ‘Don’t think that flash is easy. Brevity is hard. And time-consuming…You have to make every word count.’

Editing this anthology — comprised of 21 stories by both established writers and fresh new voices — was such a pleasure. It reveals the breadth and strength of Australian flash fiction and is a perfect introduction for anyone not familiar with the form. Marion concluded: ‘I should offer a word of warning. A book like this is a marvellous rich box of chocolates. You want to have just one more, just one more, just one more. And then you’re finished.’

Let’s head back in time now for the launch of This is Home by my dear friends Tania McCartney and Jackie French. Jackie has curated a collection of poetry for children of all ages, with stunning illustrations by Tania. It’s a gorgeous book and my seven-year-old son was spellbound through the very long launch (all those seated in the image below were speakers). Afterwards he said to me, ‘I found all the writers really inspiring but Jackie French almost made me cry.’ At which point he did. So we went to talk to Jackie — catching her just before she sat down and signed books for the very long queue — and she said all the right and beautiful things about poetry and my son’s feelings while he wept into my skirt. Later when I asked him what it was that Jackie said that moved him so much he said, ‘I could just really feel what she was saying.’ Ah, the power of words, poetry, books.

The third launch was more kids’ poetry, namely Moonfish by Harry Laing, who had his audience crying with laughter. This time I was the one doing the honours of launching the book into the world, which is always a privilege. I love the tagline for this book: ‘Poems to make you laugh and think.’ Kids are instinctively drawn to the musicality of rhythm and rhyme in poetry, and the way Harry plays with language and ideas immediately draws them in. As an added bonus the book features illustrations from an incredible line-up of Australia’s best illustrators — everyone from superstar Shaun Tan to former Australian Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs of Mr Chicken fame. A winning combination, that’s for sure.

A fourth long-awaited launch by another dear friend, Nigel Featherstone, is on 16 May. I have followed this novel’s development — with all the pain and joy that writing and publishing entails — and can’t wait to get my hands on it next week. Readings describes his Bodies of Men as a ‘beautifully written, tender love story — the perfect book to curl up with as autumn sets in’. If you’d like to win yourself a signed copy simply subscribe to my monthly newsletter full of writing and publishing news, tips and advice, to go in the draw. Sign-up box is in the right-hand sidebar, or down the bottom in mobile view.

Till next time, folks! Happy reading x

Book mail

17 October 2018

This month I’ve been so flat out editing that I’ve barely had time to do anything else. I’ve got lots of wonderful books passing across my desk at the moment — literary fiction, YA and middle grade mostly — and it’s keeping me very busy. I’m booked through to the end of the year, which feels as if it is advancing at a great rate.

So in the absence of a proper blog post, I’m going to share with you this beautiful book that landed in my mailbox this week. (Is there anything better than book mail?) It is about Australian artist William Robinson, written by Nick Earls, published by Brisbane’s QUT Museum, designed by Sandy Cull and edited by yours truly. Images don’t do this tactile, light-catching cover justice, but here’s a short vid to give you a peek inside. Isn’t it a thing of beauty?

 

Update: If you would like to hear more about the book and Nick Earls’ writing process, have a listen to this lovely interview on RN’s The Hub.

It’s a collaboration

13 September 2017

Last weekend I presented at SCWBI’s Level Up conference on the collaborative process of editing a manuscript, and how the author–editor relationship should ideally work. I thought it might be useful to share an abbreviated version of the section on how to get the most out of the experience, because if you’ve never worked with an editor before it can feel like a daunting process. Every writer is deeply attached to their work, so turning a manuscript over to an editor can feel like having your soul laid bare, and critiqued.

It’s important to remember that editors are ordinary people who love books. An editor’s job is to make the writer look good. They have nothing to personally gain, other than the satisfaction of knowing that they helped you make your book better.

In order for the editorial process to run smoothly, it’s important to develop a good working relationship with your editor that is based on mutual trust and respect. So here are my top tips for how to create a strong partnership.

  1. Let go of your ego

The truth is nobody really enjoys being critiqued. We all secretly want to be told that we’re a genius and the work needs absolutely nothing done to it. But even the most experienced writers benefit from a close edit. A good editor will provide honest, constructive feedback designed to improve your book. Anyone who believes they don’t need an editor is letting their ego get in the way of commonsense.

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If you are a first-time author, you may be unsettled by the number of changes your editor makes on the manuscript. But remember that this is normal. It doesn’t mean that the editor doesn’t love your book. Try to remember that that the feedback is not personal criticism but professional insight into what could make your manuscript stronger. The editor’s goal is the same as yours: to make your book a success.

So don’t be defensive, instead…

  1. Be open

Be open to new ideas. Be open to different approaches. Be open to major rewrites. Be willing to listen and learn. The best editors see potential. They see what the writer’s vision is and they help sharpen it and enlarge it — they help the book reach its full potential.

Listen honestly to what your editor has to say. Their suggestions may require you to do some really hard work that you might resist. But be brave. Embrace change. Experiment with structural revisions. In short, be willing to move in a completely different direction from where you started.

  1. Take time out

But first thing’s first. When you receive your editor’s comments and you’ve read them through and realised that you’re going to have to grapple with some major changes, you might need to take some time out. You might need to sulk. Or cry. Or drink wine. Or eat an entire block of chocolate. Or do all of those things. And that’s okay.

Give yourself time to gain some perspective because your initial reaction is likely to be driven by emotion, but then get on with it. Consider every point carefully, without letting emotion play a part, and objectively assess the substance of the critique.

  1. Pick your battles

The editing process is not about winning or losing. The editor is your ally, not your opponent. And if you treat them this way your work will only benefit. That’s not to say that the editor will always be right. Even the best editors sometimes get things wrong.

Anyone who is a parent will know that you pick your battles with your children. You also need to pick your battles as an author (and know, too, that your editor will be picking their battles). If you don’t agree with a suggestion clearly explain your position, and be willing to engage in a discussion about it. Editors are creative problem-solvers and they want to work with you.

Often an editor will identify an area that needs work and might suggest a solution. However their suggestion should be treated  as a springboard. You might use their solution, but often the author comes up with something that’s even better. Think about the process as being like a conversation. Exploratory discussions give rise to the best work.

Some newer authors feel intimidated by editors, but don’t be. Always ask questions if there’s anything you don’t understand or aren’t clear about.

  1. Be professional

Always be professional, polite and timely with your responses. Remember that the editor will be working on multiple books simultaneously, and another author’s book might be their current priority. Editors are extremely overworked, so be understanding if they don’t get back to you immediately.

Ensure that you always meet your deadlines. The editor will stipulate a deadline for every round of revisions. If you don’t meet these deadlines you will put the whole production cycle out. Even though it’s your book, you are only one person in the process. If for some reason you think you’ll be unable to meet a deadline, let your editor know as soon as possible.

  1. Be patient

Know that publishing is long game, especially with books where an illustrator is involved. My next picture book, Seree’s Story, will have taken about four years by the time it comes out with Walker Books. And that’s only from submission — the research, writing and self-editing process began long before that. Admittedly this is a particularly long timeframe (my previous picture book took 18 months, my short fiction collection took one year), but publishing is a slow process. The smaller independent presses tend to be quicker than the larger publishers, but waiting is a reality of the industry. The best antidote is to get on with writing your next book.

  1. Say thank you

It is true that not every traditionally published writer has an amazing relationship with their editor, and there are certainly horror stories out there, but these are not the norm. Most published writers value their editors. So if your editor has helped you create a better book, thank them. Editors get very little credit, they are essentially invisible, and they work hard to help you make your book the best that it can be. So express your gratitude — privately or publically, or both. Flowers are not necessary — we are all word people after all, and words are more than enough.