I have a confession to make: I feel like a total fraud when I talk about what it is to be a writer because 95% of my working life is taken up with being an editor. The writing bit gets squeezed into odd-shaped corners like evenings and weekends, until I have that two-weeks-before-deadline panic and stay home from my day-job flinging my fingers at my keyboard until I have 80,000 words down, hoping they are more or less the right words, more or less in the right order. I have three books published under my own name and another one in gestation (but please can we not talk about it right now because the nearness – okay, the pastness – of the deadline makes me cry). Sometimes I’m a little bit proud of them, sometimes I open one quickly and cringe at the clumsiness of my prose, and sometimes I forget I ever wrote them. As my friend and co-worker Alex says, I have the sin of no pride.
But as an editor, I cannot pass a bookstore without going in to view my precious babies, and saying to my long-suffering companion, Look, I edited that series and that one and this one over here and oh dear they don’t have any of that series but they’ve got this one which is great… I have lost count of the number of books I have edited (close to one hundred Animal Arks alone, which means there isn’t a creature on the planet that I haven’t injured, abandoned or endangered in some way). I have worked on all age ranges, from Rainbow Magic by Daisy Meadows which is aimed at first chapter book readers (4 to 7 years) to Warriors by Erin Hunter which falls into the 10+ bracket. I’m also lucky enough to have experienced pretty much every kind of genre (except horror, which is about to change because I’ve just landed my first 9-12 out-and-out scary project for boys), from fairies and fantasy to medieval detective adventures. So I thought I could offer a few tips on how to get the most from your editor, who will become one of the most important people in your life from the moment you sign the contract. At least, I hope that’s how my authors view me…
Firstly, all writers need editors. Even writers who are editors by day. Like me. It took my lovely housemate Joe (who has no literary experience at all since he graduated high school) to point out that the horse changed colour in the opening paragraph of my first manuscript. In my third book, Heart of Fire, I made my editor fall off his chair laughing when I described a character who had just taken six weeks to sail from Namibia to the UK as suffering from “jetlag”. My scripts regularly suffer from subplots that go nowhere, characters whose eyes change colour according to my mood, and lines of dialogue that sound 400 years out of place. But when I edit, these are things that leap out of me, prompting me to reach for my purple ballpoint pen (always purple, known by my authors as The Purple Pen of Doom) and make tiny notes in the margin. So don’t just love thy editor, but trust her, because it’s her job to find the holes that writers just aren’t programmed to see. (I am going to refer to a female editor throughout because statistically there are more women than men in my line of work but I know there are plenty of male editors too.)
Accept that your editor is never going to love your book as much as you do. Then accept that she wants your book to do as well as it possibly can because (a) her company will stay afloat and she’ll get paid, and (b) the world of editing can be softly, discreetly cut-throat and no one wants a failure on the shelves. Believe me, we all know who edits what even if the publishing industry seems hellbent on keeping our identities secret. So when she sends you an eighteen-page revision letter and a hard copy with more purple handwriting than typescript, she isn’t trying to make you feel dumb. She is showing you that this book is worth more attention, more work, some directed polishing here and there. The best thing you can possibly do for your editor is listen to her. You may well have followed my advice from my previous entry and not got it right, just written. Your editor will have plenty of ideas for pruning and honing and buffing the story to perfection; in fact, if she doesn’t have any suggestions for improvement and says it’s perfect straight off, I’d be suspicious of her lack of imagination. It doesn’t follow that all editors make good writers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t tap into the experience of an informed, questioning reader and have a positive influence on your script from the inside out.
However, just as you will not always have used the right words in the right order, your editor is not infallible either. My favourite authors are those who challenge the Purple Pen of Doom, who call me to say, You can’t possibly mean that because then Firestar will have lost ten lives which goes against everything in the warrior code. Listen to your editor, trust her, but feel free to question her as well. It’s a truism to say that creativity is wholly subjective, but unfortunately it means that it’s possible for no one to be right and no one to be wrong, all at the same time. The best editors are those with whom you can discuss a contentious point and bounce ideas off each other until you reach a mutually satisfactory solution. So use your editor – she’s a valuable resource, just like Google.
Be honest with your editor. If you know that you’re not going to make a deadline, tell her as soon as possible so that she can shuffle her other projects and fit yours in a bit later. Don’t leave it until the morning she’s expecting her script because she’ll probably have cleared her desk in anticipation. And please use real excuses. I’ve never quite had “the dog ate my script” offered to me, but I’ve had some pretty lame variations. I’d much rather know the truth, even “I can’t make the deadline because I haven’t worked quickly enough this far”. A good editor will ask why you haven’t worked quickly enough, knowing that chances are there’s a problem with the storyline or her revision comments which can be sorted out if shared. We all learn one thing very quickly: getting cross with authors who fall behind schedule does not make them write faster!
Finally, be kind to your editor. She can miss a deadline because she was partying too hard the night before, forget what colour the hero’s eyes were in chapter one, hanker after a happy ending when your story is much better suited to something dark and challenging, and fall in love with the minor character that you want to kill off in chapter sixteen. Love her, trust her, listen to her, question her and use her – and if all else fails, buy her chocolates.