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An editor’s tale

I received this in conversation with Kay Green of Circaidy Gregory Press and I thought it was so good that I had to share it. An insight for us writers about the importance of editing

Proof reading is one of the reasons editors are needed – it’s hard to correct your own work because you already know it so well you read what is supposed to be there, rather than what is.

At a deeper level, the same is true of fiction editing. I constantly hark back to a fantastic lecture I went to by Beverley Birch, writer and editor of novels for children. She had an extended metaphor running through the whole lecture in which the writer was a film director, the editor a producer and – well, editor.

But the difference is in what has already been made in the writer’s head. When you write a novel, by the end of the first draft the story is complete in your head, as a film or, as internal films are most commonly known, a ‘daydream’. You can see it all perfectly, and the words you write and re-write are the imperfect pencil lines on that bit of tracing paper. The problem is that you, the author, cannot switch off the film completely – it’s indelibly in your head – so you cannot see what the words alone look like when the tracing paper (your ms) is moved away from the original (your daydream). Only your editor can do that.

The importance of being Edited

A while back, long before Forest Brothers was more than just an idea, I went to a writing festival in Winchester. A weekend of writing lectures and one to ones. Stunning town, beautiful cathedral and the festival itself was quite fun. Highly recommended actually, I learnt a lot.

One point was not to approach every opportunity as it being the ‘do or die’ moment. Getting 15 minutes with somebody deemed important is great, albeit a bit artificial, like a cold call. It doesn’t kill your writing career when someone says no. I realised people use so many different routines to achieve their final manuscript. So the next time someone tells you ‘this is how to write fiction’, you do have a right to say; ‘Thanks, but this is how I write fiction.’ Editing may be necessary, no is necessary – a second opinion who hasn’t lived the novel for the past few years is always handy to tell you where things could be tightened, added or taken away.

I laugh now at the agent who flicked through the first 17 pages of my manuscript, before jabbing her finger on page 18 and exclaiming ‘Start there!’ At the time i wondered how her speed-reading powers were so great, until she followed it up by explaining that Prologues were not part of the story. Well, that one wasn’t, cobbled on as a vanity project to dramatise a scene from my family’s past. Maybe it will stand alone in its own right as an essay one day. On being linked to the front of a saga about lead miners in Cardiganshire, a farmer’s wife in Barmouth having a fling with a Spanish sailor (true story, mind you!) didn’t move the plot along or introduce the protagonists straight away so that you got to join them ontheir journey. A useful piece of advice, I have only written one prologue since and it was the end scene of a story. Designed of course to make you join the man when he said ‘how the hell did I get here’ and make you read on.

Back in Winchester, the speakers were interesting, mostly trying to emphasise their points with pieces from their own work. This again made a lot of sense – what other piece of work do you know so intimately. Well perhaps you could reach for a piece about a boy wizard, a hobbit or a British agent. (I haven’t invented a new variation of the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman joke there, btw). Authors are more comfortable with their own work – hey, you might buy some of it too if they’ve done a good job with the seminar!

I remember two things that showed me the other side of writing. The one when you start believing your own press, gaining an addiction to luvvydom. I sat down to breakfast and a jolly elderly lady came over to join me. On being asked whether she was here as a delegate or a speaker (well, I didn’t quite get to the speaker bit), there followed a pained monologue about how she was a prolific children’s author with over 50 novels published. The tone was veiled very thinly with outrage. I still don’t know who she was. Don’t think I ever read one of her books in my 40s (as I was in Winchester), but then again, she had never read one of mine either.

A particular author read passages from one of his novels to emphasise hoistorical research, something I am very keen to subscribe to for obvious reasons. He finished with a long piece about a funeral of a famous Briton. At the end, he slowly put a bookmark into his work. Then with an equal pace, he closed the book and looked up with… hey, I thought the earth had stopped rotating for a second. ‘There you are,’ he said. ‘Write like that and you’ll earn yourself a few bob.’

I admit I learnt a lot from that talk. mainly ‘Don’t piss off your audience by acting like an arrogant toss-pot.’ Also, ‘always check for a sick bucket in case the speaker has disappeared up his own backside’. I hated the way this prose was fed to me that here was a masterpiece, I must bow to its splendour. Hang on, bro. That’s my call. If I like your work, I’ll decide that. if I think it’s lacking, I’ll decide that also, thanks very much.

And not that the Winchester festival needed defence, because it was a really good learning curve with lots of positive speakers and friendly, good advice given.

At the moment, as you might have guessed, I am involved in the editing process of a manuscript. I enjoyed this part previously, because there is still a child-like thrill as to where we will end up. The opinions of an experienced editor are very insightful. I am not averse to suggestions, these people are taking up their precious time to enhance my work. Sometimes things get rewritten a bit. Sometimes bits that haven’t been highlighted stand out as needing development from the edit. Some scenes may be lost or watered down. Others may arrive from that part of the corner of my mind. Suddenly, the labour of love you have slaved over for many a year is being looked at from a different angle and its a refreshing and exciting experience that you miss when it’s all completed. I hope I never get to the Bob phase and forget that.

NB For those of you expecting to stumble on some GBS monologue, I shall leave you with this thought.

A handbag.

Current work

My last post detailed the prequel planned for Forest Brothers. I can also report that there is also a planned sequel, currently untitled. The story will feature Juhan being recruited to catch Godfrey, now a fugitive in the north of Scotland. Teamed up with a British agent, he follows the trail as the web unravels into something much bigger than was imagined. he is aided by his parents, also Jan and the crew of his Shetland Bus.

Currently though, I have begun to prepare another novel for publication. ‘The Promise’ is a story of a young man forced to flee from his rural mining village near Aberystwyth. Set in the late Victorian period, it relates his struggle to find his place in the blossoming railway trade and his hopes to rediscover his family. The Promise won a prize at the 2012 Aber Valley Arts festival in the ‘Welsh novel’ category.

More information will follow…!