First a little about you Laurie.
I’m the Submissions Editor at Black Library, based in Nottingham, UK. We’re the publishing arm of Games Workshop, so we deal exclusively with science fiction and fantasy stories based on the Warhammer gaming backgrounds. In the past, BL was more diverse (with general sci-fi and thrillers being released on the Solaris label, etc) but that was a little before my time here.
I asked Laurie for a photo so that you can track him down at Gamesday.
I’ve been with the company since January, although I did a lot of freelance work for them for many years before that so I knew most of the authors and editors on a social level, as well as professionally. I had also been organising online fan-fiction contests in my spare time and releasing PDF anthologies of the submitted stories, just for fun.
From an early age, I was always fascinated by language and the written word–I upset my primary school teachers by finishing their reading scheme at the age of six, and having to bring my own books with me to school. I read ‘Lord of the Rings’ aged eight, primarily because my mum bet me £10 that I couldn’t. In hindsight, I think that appealing to my immature, mercenary nature was probably quite a shrewd move on her part. That’s the dangerous thing about having parents who are teachers: you never know when you’re being tricked into learning something.
My role is actually focused on discovering new authors, and either working with them on new projects or helping them to refine their style to fit with Black Library’s range–to use a music industry term, I’m the A&R man! We have a very peculiar readership (dare I say, fanbase?) in that almost every BL reader also seems to want to have a go at writing for us, too. We actively encourage this by having an annual ‘submissions window’ where we accept amateur writing samples and project pitches, and I’m trying to arrange more workshops and seminars at our events so that people know what sort of things we look for in prospective authors.
Why did you become an editor?
I actually became an “editor” long before I started working in publishing, although not in the sense you’d expect–for seven years I ran an audio-visual production company, so I was in fact a film editor and sound engineer. I like to think that the skills involved in editing, in any medium, are transferable at some level. Hollywood film editor Walter Murch famously said that editing takes ‘a certain kind of personality’ where you have to help craft ideas and refine other people’s work; both on a small scene-by-scene scale, but also in the wider context of the whole piece, the genre, the culture etc.
In short, I became an editor because I have that kind of personality. I’m opinionated, I’m a compulsive fact-checker, I like to have structures and procedures in place that I can follow and amend…but I also love to get involved at the creative level. Inside every editor is also usually a frustrated writer, but while I dabble in a lot of artistic fields I like to think that I work best in helping to refine the work of others.
What is the most important aspect of your editing role?
Well, for editing as a technical or artistic skill, it’s diligence and a keen eye for detail, or the ability to help craft ideas towards a goal. That goal depends on what you are editing, and why–it can be as crass as ‘to create a product which will sell to our customers’, or it can be to help an author craft something truly special, something that is an absolute pleasure to read. Usually, my goals fall somewhere in between… although as a lifelong fan of the science fiction and fantasy genres, I often edge towards the latter even when I perhaps shouldn’t…
But if we’re talking about my role as Submissions Editor, it’s actually far more important to create and maintain good working relationships with our authors. As I said before, I knew a lot of the guys before I started working in-house for Black Library, but I have also discovered a few new authors in the last eleven months or so, and so I’ve been able to build rapport with them right from the start of their careers with us.
Certainly, there have been times when my editorial style clashes with a writer’s personality, and I’ve gracefully handed these chaps over to other editors on my team–there’s no point in trying to force it, when what we really want to do is collaborate with them on great fiction. If an editor loses interest in an author’s work, or if the author feels they aren’t getting anywhere with that particular editor, then it’s time for a rethink.
Which areas of editing to you find the most enjoyable?
I love seeing a project through, from commissioning right up to the finished, published story. Although the publishing industry often moves at a near-glacial pace, I’ve already got some work from my authors in print even though I’ve only been here for eleven months. Without fail, even though I helped them thrash out the synopsis and refine the prose, guide them through rewrites and sort out the proofing copies…I still always read the finished, printed book. There’s a degree of finality in holding that novel in your hands, and I still get excited by that ‘new book smell’, especially when I know that I helped bring it into being.
In your view can editing be taught?
I think the basic skills of copy-editing and proofreading can be taught, but not so much the personal side of things. You can’t force someone to be creative, diplomatic and amiable but still to remain critical. If they don’t have the basis of that within them already, then they won’t be able to learn it. It’s about being a ‘people person’, or at least being extrovert enough to interact with others in a productive way.
Having said that, I often ask my editorial colleagues to check my responses before I send them back to authors–I have a tendency to be overly factual, which can sometimes sound officious or curt on paper. I find written feedback the hardest to give, which is strange really. My senior editor is Nick Kyme, who is also a successful author himself, and he has really helped me to find a suitable ‘vocabulary’ when dealing with my own authors: even if the message is harsh or very critical, it’s important to find a constructive way to deliver it, and to be direct without bruising egos along the way. As with anything, it’s an ongoing process, but once you find your rapport with an author you can sometimes get away with being a bit more direct or cheeky.
Something which Nick said to me very early on, which has always stayed with me in this role, is to ask yourself this: ‘Does it matter? And is it cool?’ (Believe it or not, I’ve got those words taped to my computer monitor so I always remember them!) This piece of advice came from me over-analysing author submissions, and picking fault with storylines or even character names. Especially working in the genres that we do, I had to constantly remind myself that there weren’t really any ‘facts’ as such, and that as long as something was AWESOME, it didn’t matter if it was actually possible or not. It illustrates my point perfectly – it’s important to learn the skills you need, but to constantly develop your own attitudes and the way you interact with your authors.
Do you have any advice to aspiring editors?
Aside from needing the obvious fastidious personality and attention to literary detail, you mean? An editor not only needs to know the difference between there, their and they’re, but also needs to be able to communicate those sort of facts to others in a helpful and diplomatic way. It’s fine to check your facts–I always have dictionary.com and Wikipedia open on my desktop, for first-stage research and basic fact-checking–but a good grounding in the English language and an academic spirit are invaluable.
It’s also very important to consume as much literature and media as you can. It’s good to have examples of tone, imagery and style that you can pitch as ideas or to help develop an author’s work, but it’s also vitally important so that your author doesn’t accidently “borrow” the plot of an old episode of some TV program, and you unknowingly approve and commission it!
As with most careers in this age of devalued university degrees, in order to get a foot in the door you’re going to need some experience in the field. For me, this was doing freelance video and literary editing on contract for Games Workshop, and it allowed me to get to know people in the industry, and specifically the company I wanted to work for. When there was no role available, I honed my skills by running the aforementioned online fiction contests and acting as an editor there.
Although everyone on the BL editorial team happens to come from an academic background (degrees, masters, post-graduate study, foundation courses etc) this is not necessarily required to be good at the job. For example, I have a BA in Cultural Media and Film Theory, and a BSc in Digital Post-production Technologies, and I have also studied English Language and Linguistics…but none of that directly relates to editing or the role itself. A professional qualification in publishing would be far more valuable to someone looking to get started in the industry, and that would still be secondary to actual experience.
The Black Library can be found here
Here is a scary shot of Laurie, which is probably why he signs his emails (Pedantic Corrections Goblin).
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