The gentle art of editing your book

2000px-Ryanssandbox.svgI’m currently working with my publisher on editing my next book, The Pick-Up Artist, ready for its publication in February 2015.

It’s part of the process I enjoy – but then I think I’ve been lucky both with this book and with my previous novel Song Of The Sea God to have editors whose work and opinions have brought out the best in what is there. It can be a curious feeling to have your work looked over and commented on by somebody who you don’t know – but, given that it’s going to be published and read (hopefully) by lots of people you don’t know it’s best to get used to it at this early stage!

I had a head start on this, even before Sea God found a publisher because for years I was a newspaper journalist so I was used to having my copy go through the hands of news editors, sub-editors, feature editors and of course editors all of whom, from time to time, would have an opinion on it and changes to make. You learn not to be too precious – to take criticism on the chin and you learn that good editing can improve your work. That said, bad editing can ruin your work – but that’s another story, and not one that I have had any experience of as a fiction author thankfully.

So you hand over your book, your baby, to a stranger and she or he hands it back at length with suggestions for changes. She doesn’t actually make the changes, that’s your job, but points out areas which might be improved, and sometimes gives suggestions how.

With the Pick Up Artist what I’ve found is that all the changes suggested by the editor at my publisher Magic Oxygen were things which I agreed with. I could see how they would improve the book over all and in some cases they were even things I’d half thought myself but not got round to tackling or had put to the back of my mind. Perhaps that’s a sign of good editing, that it feels organic – part of making the book what it should be.

With The Pick Up Artist I also had a couple of friends whose opinons I trust and value read a draft of the book at an earlier stage and provide their feedback, large parts of which I took on board in later drafts. I didn’t do this for Sea God and I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s quite a quirky book with a vision that is uniquely mine. With the Pick Up Artist I was aiming for something a little more commercial and I wanted to ensure I was on the right road before travelling further down it.

Once they have been handed over to the publisher both my books have undergone a thorough examination but it’s fair to say that neither has been very dramatically altered at this stage of the process. Perhaps that’s partly because they go through many rewrites before I let go of them.

How would I react if a publisher did want me to do a major overhaul on one of my books, or they were set on doing one themselves? I really don’t know. As I said above I am someone who is used to being edited and sees the value of it. However I do have a much stronger emotional attachment to my fiction than I do to copy I write for work – there’s more of me in it so of course it matters to me.

I think it would come down to how much sense I saw in the changes, which I would want to do rather than having them done for me. I don’t know whether I could go along with a root and branch overhaul of my work if it was taking the book in a direction I didn’t agree with. Thankfully that’s not been an issue so far and I have nothing but good things to say about the way both of my books have been handled!

Raymond_CarverI remember one author telling me about her play, which had a successful run in London‘s West End. It was a drama set in the trenches of the First World War and, as is the nature of these things, at the end, everybody died. At least they did in her version. In the version which was staged everybody lived – because that was a more cheerful and optimistic ending apparently! That’s the sort of thing I would struggle with I think.

What if changes are made by an editor which are significant but improving? The great story writer Raymond Carver had a tough editor behind him, Gordon Lish, who used to cut his stories very heavily, sometimes making them very different from Carver’s original version. Carver didn’t like this one bit, but he did accept the edited versions were often better, and added to his reputation as a writer. It was something he had to wrestle with – I know I would wrestle with it too.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

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18 thoughts on “The gentle art of editing your book

  1. I just sent my first story out for a professional critique and I am so curious to see what the comments will be and also how I will react to them.

    I have an edition of Carver’s work that also contains the original versions unedited before Lish took his blue pencil to them and it’s absolutely fascinating to see the differences. The presence of Lish was far more apparent than I was aware of – but it’s hard to say which of the stories are “better” because the Lish versions are so firmly associated with Carver’s pared back style that to read them in any other version is, really, to read another story.

    I don’t know what I think about that to be honest. Sometimes I think, Gee, Lish was too present, he took out too many of Carver’s thoughts and ideas, but then when you see the end result you can’t help but admire both of them for developing such an intimate creative relationship.

    The role of the editor is definitely not one a reader is always aware of.

    As always, an interesting article and food for thought.

    • Thank you Jennifer – I hope your experience is as positive as mine has been. It seems to have been a curious relationship between Carver and Lish and one they both came to resent in the end. Carver felt his work was being altered too much, Lish felt his contribution wasn’t appreciated. From my point of view I like to handle significant rewrites of my work myself if that is possible.

  2. This is so interesting, Chris. I’m glad you’ve had good experiences with your editors. I have too, and I’ve not disagreed with anything they’ve said, but had I been Carver, I might also have baulked and withdrawn. After all, Lish wasn’t his co-author; he was his editor. But then I suppose it depends on what you write for too. I’ll admit that for me, it’s a self-indulgence. I like writing, but I’m not in it for the money. Nor am I in it for art’s sake or for my reputation’s sake either, so I don’t think I would want to be quite so severely edited as he was.

    • It’s interesting that, after his death, Carver’s wife released a collection of his stories in their unedited form – so there was obviously a feeling something had been lost. For myself, I see it as a collaboration and I have been lucky in having good editors to work with. I do remember though that I once rejected changes to one of my short stories which appeared in an anthology as I didn’t agree with tham.

    • Thank you – I do a lot of editing myself of course before the publisher gets hold of my book – it has to be good enough for a publisher to want to take it on! But I do feel that someone else editing gives it another dimension and I know a lot of self published authors who don’t have a publisher to edit their book will pay for an editor to do it as they know it will improve their work.

      • Indeed. Mine isn’t self-publishing, but they don’t do the editing or proofreading, unless I pay them a huge sum and I didn’t want to do that and still find mistakes in them.

        In all honesty, I did initially have someone with a good command of English looking at the first one, as it was written in the third person like a novel. (By the way, they are both my life stories written two different ways). Three different UK publishers wanted to publish them, but were asking a large financial contribution, which I declined. The Editors in Chief gave them both good feedback, which was why I felt confident that they were of a professional standard.

        Of course, unless one is that exceptional a writer, there will always be a mistake here or there, as even I’ve found in academic books, what to speak of mine, which is just written for the general audience. Still, I respect the reader to make sure it’s of a professional standard, as no good reader appreciates careless writing. If it appears that the writer doesn’t care, then the reader won’t care either. But thank you and all the best for success with your work 🙂

      • You are very right in what you say about the reader deserving high standards. You are right too to turn down the sort of publisher who wants you to pay them for their services. A proper, traditional publisher makes their living from the books they sell, not from authors paying them. Good luck with your books and I hope they do really well for you!

  3. I edit all my own work and have got better at it as I’ve gone along – my earlier publications could do with an overhaul, I have to admit! I think that it’s good for writers to learn to edit their own work because it makes them write it better in the first place. Happily, I now receive reviews for later books commenting on the fact that there is not even one superfluous sentence; it’s about writing from a reader’s point of view, I think. Twice, I’ve had literary agents saying that they would take my book on if I re-wrote it so it was completely different – well, they didn’t actually use those words, but what they did say amounted to that! I think you have to write the book YOU want, as well; aside from ridding your book of the unnecessary and irrelevant, an editor’s opinion is only that – one person’s opinion.

    • I think you’re right Terry it’s very important to be able to self-edit and, of course, there’s a lot of self-editing goes on before a book is polished enough to be accepted by a publisher. I like to think I am quite good at editing my own work but at some point I do believe it is very useful to have someone else take a look at it, particularly if that person is an experienced professional editor. Like you I have had agents suggest I go down this or that path which I don’t feel comfortable with and I have progressed merrily down my own road. My experience so far with publishers though has been very positive and the editors have made suggestions which have amplified and improved what was already there. I know some authors who have had lots more books published than me who have mixed reviews for the editors they have worked with – some are good, some bad – I think I have been lucky so far!

  4. I always work with an editor because I need that critical eye. I’ve been in the situation where it was recommended I do an entire overhaul of the book and it’s excruciating when that happens, but it was a sound reason, I did it, and the book was better for it. There are other times, the book concept is fine and it’s just grammar. There’s other times they suggest a big change, but for whatever reason, I just don’t want to do it. You are paying for their advice, their expertise, but at the end of the day, it’s your book and your heart must be into it. Just remember, we can’t be wedded to every word and must be willing to constantly work on our craft. Nice post.

    • Thanks for that insight – I’m like you, I think my work benefits from having an editor! I think there might be a slightly different relationship between a writer and an editor they are paying as opposed to one their publisher is paying. If you are paying you call the shots in the end while, if you are working with a publisher it’s more a two way compromise.

  5. I re-read this again today because I am going through the same process. I had 2 suggested changes that I initially did not agree with from my editor, but I put them aside and thought about them overnight. The next day I could look at them and see where the editor was coming from and was able to adjust my perspective. Sometimes I need a bit of time to see from the perspective of a reader. Having a good editor to work with helps!

    I also like your comment about working with an editor you pay versus one that the publisher pays. I have gone the traditional publishing route for my first novel and I am very happy with the process. Although some of my favorite authors are independents and I can understand the appeal of making every decision on your own, I really like the people I am working with at Musa. They have a lot of experience with speculative fiction and I feel like I am benefiting from that experience.

    • Good luck with it! Just finished mine today I think, more or less – maybe one more read through. I do think at this stage I read the book more as a reader would than a writer, which is very necessary.

  6. Editors are worth their weight in gold – just don’t tell them that 🙂 My editor has made my books infinitely better. As a self – or rather – author-publisher (as we are now calling ourselves) I have to pay for the editing, but I see it as an investment in myself and my work. Like you I really enjoy the editing process and welcome all the constructive criticism and advice.

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