Archive for the ‘Editing’ Category

The wonderful Nicole Murphy and her team of volunteers put on a wonderful day last Saturday (April 5), presenting the inaugural Canberra Writers Day and the Aurealis Awards. The venue, University House, particularly the Great Hall, had wonderful charm. There’s this long gold fish pond in the quadrangle that I’d love to take home to my place.

Conflux Inc with Nicole at the helm put up bid to run the Aurealis Awards for two years in Canberra. Nicole wanted to make it worthwhile for people to come up for the ceremony and thought up a professional writers day.

The first thing I have to say is that both events were very well run. Nicole and the team were excellent. That’s pretty awesome for a multi stream event. Also, I know it was hard financially as there was absolutely no sponsorship money to be had for either event. That’s pretty tough going. I did note that Escape Publishing put an ad in the Conflux Writers Day booklet. Awesome.

I had a full day and I presented a talk. The plenary sessions were pretty amazing. Joanne Anderton, Kaaron Warren, Ker Arthur, Ian McHugh. All of them had inspiring and interesting presentations on their processes, their journey.

Joanne blew me away with her writing process and her copious notebooks, all so clean. Mine are NOT clean but I do have a similar weakness when it comes to notebooks and pens. I do much less thinking though. But then Joanne is an amazingly talented author and bloody hardworking.

Kaaron shamed me most terribly with her talk on using the minutes when you don’t have hours to write. I’ve known Kaaron a long time and I’ve always admired her talent but also what a devoted mother she is and how family focussed. She’s an inspiration.

Keri talked about her journey to becoming a published author and a New York Times best seller. Her story was a amazing. She persevered when many would have given up. Thank you for the inspiration Keri.

Ian McHugh talked about submitting work, write and submit and repeat was my take away message. Ian always inspires me with his focus and the stories he writes.

I went to the shorter concurrent sessions, which were 20 minutes long. I gave one myself on ‘You are not alone’ the value of writing relationships. It was about writing groups, writing buddies, writing dates and writing retreats. But I ran out of time, which surprised me and I forgot to talk about the really good part of writing retreats- the socialising (read drinking and talking crap). Someone came up to me afterwards and thought I was going to talk about relationships in writing, you know science fiction with romance. I laughed so hard. I would have loved to talk on that topic.

Craig Cormick was awesome.  I have to reprogram my head to say I’m going to win at this writing gig. Marcus Armann talked about Evernote and Scrivener and I’m now tempted to buy the later writing program, particularly after catching Phil Berrie with his word frequency proofing/editing talk. Scrivener has analytical tools that does that stuff. I’m always repeating myself when I don’t want to.

Russell Kirkpatrick sorted his mob into top downers and bottom uppers in the world building sense. He’s definitely a top downer, planning his worlds and then writing the story. I’m quite near the other end. To me it’s story first with an idea of the world, but often I build as I go.

Chris Andrews talked about blogging, which was an excellent session. I learned something. See Chris!

The lovely Shannon B Curtis talk about using Microsoft Word to navigate our novels. That was also very interesting.

The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild had a table selling books (theirs and others) and I bought a copy of Joanne Anderton’s collection, The Bone Chime Song and other stories and lost it. (so if anyone found a copy. It could be mine).

Overall it was great to network with people and also see the new faces. Again I didn’t get around to everyone to chat.

Congratulations to Nicole Murphy and the team for a wonderful event.


I didn’t take many photos during the day, except this one of Russell Kirkpatrick. (Happy birthday Russell for tomorrow!!!).

Fantasy author, Russell Kirkpatrick, presenting at Conflux Writers Day

Fantasy author, Russell Kirkpatrick, presenting at Conflux Writers Day

PS I’ll have to write about the Aurealis Awards in another post. My time has run out this morning. I decided to get up early to write. Though technically writing a blog post doesn’t count as writing.

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What is a beta reader? A beta reader is a first reader, someone who looks at a novel in progress, either at the early stages, the mid-stages or the late stages.

Beta readers read for free. Sometimes in exchange they will be offered return beta reading by the other author. Where payment is involved, this is usually a manuscript appraisal, which can be expensive and is more formal. Some writers do seek this service to help them develop their novel.

As a writer I have used beta readers for my manuscripts and been a beta reader for a number of authors. With my commencement of editing studies, I thought there were some parallel elements to what an editor does. An editor may read through a manuscript and provide critique and analysis, where they are looking to provide structural and copy edit type feedback.

The usefulness of beta readers are many fold and depending on the author and the reader can reveal a range of useful information for both parties. As a writer getting feedback on how the plot stands up, how the characters are working and the like is extremely valuable. So too, is getting feedback on what is not working. It is not a good use of a beta reader to seek to win praise, because that’s not going to help your work. Praise is nice of course, but you are really looking to see how a critical reader will react to the story. I’ve had beta readers provide very little feedback, saying only that they like it. It really isn’t any use asking these people to read again because there’s no learning involved.

As a beta reader, I find the process teaches me a whole lot about writing, and about the issues that a writer can face when writing a complex story. I also gain satisfaction from helping a friend. I have some talented friends.

Some writers have formal critiquing networks and this is also very interesting to examine as part of this series of blog interviews.

So the first interview is from Gillian Polack whose novel Life Through Cellophane has been picked up for reprint by Momentum Books. Her website is here.

Thank you Gillian for responding so quickly to my interview questions.

1. How many beta readers do you have and how long have you used beta readers in your writing process?
I’ve used beta readers since the CSFG novel critiquing circle took a look at Life through Cellophane. I don’t have a set number or a set process. Sometimes I ask for volunteers if I have specific problems with a novel and sometimes I run a story past a critiquing circle and sometimes I will ask someone particular to have a look and get a handle on where I am.

2. In what ways do beta readers assist you in developing your novel for publication?
The biggest assistance they’ve been is in helping me define my audience and what kind of book it is. I don’t write bang in the centre of genre, and it really makes a difference in explaining to a publisher “This is alternate world steampunk” or “Domestic horror with added chocolate” if I know what readers think. The beta readers also help me improve the internal balance of the novel – if they go to sleep, I know I’m in big trouble.

3. Do all your beta readers pick up the same points?

No two beta readers have ever picked up the same points on anything major. One will focus on the lack of romantic interest and another will wonder if I checked the history (poor soul, they didn’t know what hit them when I cited sources for an hour) and another will pick on the opening and point out (completely correctly) that it doesn’t quite fit the rest of it. One reader will say that the novel would be better if I dumped strand A of the plot and another will say “No, strand A is perfect – she should dump strand B.” What I get from all of this is a sense of how readers actually interact with my work, which helps me sense how it’s doing what it’s doing.

4. Do you sometimes target your beta readers to particular areas based on the experience you had with them in the past? For example, one reader is good at plot holes, another reader is good at grammatical issues and another might be good at style. Or do you take what comes?
I have one friend who beta reads for the complexities – she has a wonderfully convoluted brain and she makes very telling comments when the various layers in the text aren’t equal or balanced. I have had beta readers who check for grammar, but they tend to be frustrated. I make errors (everyone does) but quite often my grammatical errors are intentional, especially incomplete sentences. I don’t need to turn incomplete sentences into complete sentences, for the most part: I need to decide if they belong at all. They’re a part of my style and I tend to overdo them. Speaking of style, the best style editors I’ve ever had have been my editors – they have picked up on things that my beta readers missed. Still, when someone makes good comments along any of these lines (especially concerning plot holes!) it makes me very happy.

5. Do you always want the same thing from the beta reader for each novel? For example, when you have deadlines and only have time for high-level feedback?
I’ve been very lucky with deadlines. No, not lucky. I’ve set up a pattern whereby I have a lot of time to revise and rethink. I know that this pattern of work won’t endure forever, but while it lasts I’m making the most of it and learning as much as I can from the comments of others. This means that I have the luxury of choosing whether to seek beta readers for a particular volume and when to seek them.
Since each of my novels is rather different from the previous in many ways, I ask beta readers to look for different things. One I just asked to read a novel to see if it was tolerable for a male reader and if it made sense.

6. How hard is it to find a good beta reader?

I have so much trouble answering this. Sometimes they’re lined up, wanting to read my manuscript and sometimes I manage without them, for they are not to be found. It’s hard to find someone who understands what I need to hear about the book, and that it’s not the same as what a reviewer explains to a potential market. When I find that person, I am grateful, for their words can be golden.

7. Do you have any advice for readers who want to be beta readers or even editors in the long run? For example, what type of commentary to you prefer?

Learn how to look at a manuscript to see what it can be. Once you can see what that particular writer is capable of, with that specific story, then seeing the ways the writer can bring it into being isn’t that hard. A lot of people see the story as they want it to be, not the best it can be within itself. Comments that tell me how more appearances of this character would be gratefully accepted help because yes, it’s good to know that the character works, but they don’t help nearly as much as knowing that the subordinate story is woefully underdeveloped and lacking in the lovely complexity that makes the main story so good. Telling me that my grammar sucks doesn’t help unless you give examples and even then, you’d better be very careful that you’re right. I’ve been told off for non-existent grammatical errors and I’ve also been told off for using words that don’t exist, which only demonstrated (when I check, which I tend to) that I knew more grammar and had a wider vocabulary than that beta reader.

The best beta reader of all is a reality check on my telling of a story. They don’t need to know the technical reason why something doesn’t work (although an editor really does need to know – this is a big difference between the two) but if they can explain where it doesn’t work and how for them it has failed, I can work out the reason. In other words, complete and honest (and hopefully tactful) comments are very, very handy.

Gillian, thank you very much for an interesting start to this series of blog posts on beta reading. As I have a number of these on hand, I’m sure this will be an interesting series.


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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.

Thoughtful Laurie

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).

Scary Laurie

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Well what a week. I received another high distinction for my second assignment, the content of which was based mostly on this blog. Lesson: proofread blog, because score was based on content and not well-edited prose. I’m writing this post on the IPad so not the best medium for editing posts.

However, while my assessment is over, I still want to include editor interviews on this blog. I have one just in that will go up tonight or tomorrow and it is fantastic. I’m chasing the others but it’s like pulling hen’s teeth. Editors are busy people so I am very grateful for the interviews I do have, and I hope they will forgive my nagging persistence.

I did embark on Nanowrimo this time. I am even registered (Gistalia) but I did this knowing there would be obstacles due to work and my major assignment. The major assignment, I’m happy to say, is mostly done. I have to compile everything and prepare a presentation. I might have mentioned that I did two editing assignments. One was insurance. Well, for extra marks I can submit both.So Wednesday is delivery day.

Doing two, one way longer than required, means I was able to demonstrate project management skills, (this is my strength) and also my fiction editing skills, which was the part I loved best of all. Both projects are different and the relationship with the author was too. I think what evolved out of the projects was unique to each. I’m very happy with outcome, and I hope the authors are too. Proofreading is my weakest area. Luckily, this skill can be learned. I can do it, but it is the least enjoyable and takes time.

Work is very intense right now, moving from drafting to editing and polishing draft chapters of my audit report. This is very finicky, with evidence checking and cross referencing and deep analysis. Long days soon compound, leaving me utterly drained. Last night I was so tired, I couldn’t do anything and, due to being wired, I was unable to sleep. As the manager on the job, I have the greatest responsibility, writing more and supervising the work of the team.

This means it has been physically impossible to write this week. However, the uni assignment gets handed in later next week, one load is going, gone. The other issue with my Nanowrimo project is that I don’t think it is very good at this stage. It is contemporary romance and that is darn hard to write. Reading one is nothing like trying to write one. It is very precise technique, and I like the challenge. I am hoping that revisions will fix it. My first drafts suck mostly, and I’m trying not to let it dishearten me. I have a truck driver from the USA willing to be interviewed so this will help. I have Valerie Parv’s great book, The Art of Romance Writing. At this stage of my writing journey, I believe that I should be able to write anything, military SF, romance, young adult etc. So while it is not natural to me to write something that is not weird in anyway, I know I can master it.

I have other writing tasks I want to attack and my boss has hinted that I may not get my leave (for January writers’ retreat in NZ) Argh!!! No! You see the project is behind and Christmas is one hell of a deadline, particularly in the public service, because in non-project delivery departments people often go on leave until February. So that is in the watch this space position. What this means is that I hope to write fiction on the Nanowrimo later this week and see if I can catch up. Also, on the work front, I’m going to revert to fulltime for the duration so that this project gets where it needs to go. That means less time all around and possibly more fatigue. I’m not as young as I used to be.

However, the big benefit for me at this stage is that I am fairly kicked into editing mode at work and that usually translates to excellent revision and self-editing at home. This is probably another reason drafting for Nanowrimo will be harder, though not impossible. I do like deadlines and challenges. When you are not under contract deadlines are playthings. This could change one day.

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Alisa Krasnostein on editing

Alisa Krasnostein from Twelfth Planet Press has kindly agreed to be interviewed for this series of editor interviews. Twelfth Planet Press and Alisa have garnered a number of awards. The latest is a nomination for the World Fantasy Awards for her work with Twelfth Planet Press in the Special Awards, non-professional category.

Her website is here.

AK: I’ve been editing for over a decade. I started editing nonfiction and was employed by my uni department to work on editing various articles for publicity and so on. I’ve also edited a few scientific journal articles and reports. I moved into fiction in about 2005 when I set up my own small press. I’m an engineer in my day job and editor and publisher at Twelfth Planet Press.
Why did you become an editor?

AK: I love editing. I think I have the skill of reading or hearing what someone is saying and then helping to translate that to a wider audience. It’s where I started in nonfiction editing. I really enjoy reading technical scientific pieces and reworking them for more mainstream consumption.

I became a fiction editor because I wanted to influence the kind of fiction being published in Australian speculative fiction. Actually, as it turns out, that’s why you become a publisher, but I didn’t know that at the time.
What is the most important aspect of your editing role?
AK: Buying great material in the first place. Obviously I only edit work that I am buying to publish and so the choosing of pieces is the most critical aspect on the outcome of the project.

I think the second most important aspect is building a rapport with the author I’m working with. Sometimes that means being supportive and encouraging to get a self doubting author to keep on writing or working on a project. Sometimes that means being able to nudge them to hurry up on a deadline. And most importantly it means being in sync on the direction you’re both heading and the route you’re taking to get there.

Which areas of editing to you find the most enjoyable?
AK: I really enjoy the back and forth synergy with an author as we work on a story. I really enjoy working with authors who are open to feedback and criticism on where a story may not be working. I don’t see my role as making suggestions on how to fix a problem and I very much enjoy seeing skilful writers go away, work on it and bring back a new draft. Sometimes, you can’t even see exactly what they did to fix it (unless you use the track changes function) and it amazes me how sometimes a piece only needs the slightest of massaging to get it into place. I love being wowed by writers who can do that. I love how sometimes it takes an outsider to point to the flaw in the glass that the writer can’t see but then they go away and polish it up so that you can no longer even see where it was.

I also really enjoy reader feedback. Hearing what other people think of your editorial choices, and whether readers agree or disagree is really interesting. And of course, the ultimate high is uncovering a hidden or undiscovered gem. Or finding a new writer first.

In your view can editing be taught?
AK: I think everything can be taught and learned.
How do you define the editing role?
AK: In small press, the editing roles are much broader and more encompassing than in bigger publishing houses. In small press, editors work from acquisition (the much loathed slushing process), rewrite, copy editing, proofing, proofing the layout before and after print. And also, beyond that into sales and promotion.

To me, an editor needs to be immersed in the genre they edit so they can discern what is truly original and fresh. They also need to be the confidante, morale booster, timekeeper and deadline pusher to the writer. And then the aspects of editing such as structure, pacing, character development, typos, commas etc kick in.
What do you look for when employing an editor or working with an editor?
AK: Synergy and shared vision. Someone with a keen eye for the technical side of story telling and also a sharp eye for copy editing.

What areas of editing do you find most challenging?

  • ·         project management,
  • ·         copy editing,
  • ·         proofing, promotion,
  • ·         marketing,
  • ·         dealing with authors,
  • ·         dealing with acquisitions?

AK: Time (and money) and lack of (both) is the area I find most challenging. I love all of the above mechanics of editing. And the only thing I regret is not having enough time to spend more on each of them. Sometimes authors are difficult to deal with. That requires tact and strength and sometimes you have to go in directions that are regretful and unpleasant. But those experiences have also helped me head off at the pass similar ones next time.

What do you find rewarding about editing?
AK: Being the first person to read a work that you know everyone will be talking about in the future. And then bringing manuscripts into real books and selling them to readers who love them. All of which is not necessarily “editing” per se. I really love collaborating with writers to make a manuscript into the best it can be. And when you have emails back and forth as creative sparks fly, that’s the real high.
Do you have any advice to aspiring editors?

AK: Read a lot in the genre you want to edit in. Read industry publications to find out what’s happening in acquisition, commission and development in the bigger presses. Remember that editing is not writing – don’t get in the way of the story and the way the author is choosing to tell it. Don’t edit for your style, edit for the style of the author.

For new entrants to the market, where is a good place to start in the editing field?
AK: I think interning is a good way to get experience and also to show what your skills are.

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James (Jim) Frenkel on editing

I’m very pleased to be able to bring to you an interview with James (Jim)  Frenkel, who is currently a senior editor at Tor books. Books he has edited have won a number of  awards, including the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction, the American Book Award, the Shamus Award, the Edgar Award,  and the Scribe Award.
JF: Born and bred in New York City, I have been an avid reader as long as I can remember. I can’t say what except for genetics made me such an avid reader or for that matter why I’ve always been fascinated by science and technology. But I have. I’ve also always been a very active athlete . . . though a retinal detachment in 1986 has limited my athletic activities to work out exercises and fast walking on a treadmill for cardiovascular exercise. I’m still avid about all these things, as I am about film, cooking, and spectator sports, especially baseball, with American football being my second most favorite sport.

I’ve been in publishing since 1971.

Why did you become an editor?

JF: In college I was an English major, and  I wrote fiction and non-fiction whenever I could, as well as being a reporter for the school newspaper. When I graduated from college I wanted to write the Great American science-fiction story . . . but I needed some kind of a job, a steady paycheck that would enable me to get my own apartment. And I thought publishing would be a sensible business in which to work—I could find out how to get published, make contacts, make money . . .

Unfortunately for my writing career, when I started working in publishing I realized that I liked editorial work. I liked the excitement of publishing books, and in particular, I liked editing books.

That was it for me as writer. I realized that I was a better editor than I was a writer, and I could do more good as an editor than I could as a writer.

What is the most important aspect of your editing role?

JF: That’s hard to say. Perhaps the most important aspect of the job is identifying manuscripts that are likely to be worth publishing. Without a track record for editing successful books, an editor can’t really sustain a career.

Of course, part of recognizing manuscripts that are likely to make books that critics will like and  readers will enjoy is being able to see the potential in a manuscript. That’s not easy. I think many young editors tend to overestimate the difference they can make in the overall quality of a work of fiction. Being able to tell the difference between a manuscript that is competent but no more than that and one that really has the potential to become a terrific book is a big part of being able to identify worthwhile projects.

It’s relatively easy to identify a book that is so good that it has “bestseller” written all over it.   Any competent editor should be able to do that. But what is much more difficult is to look at something that is not already wonderful but has the real potential to become wonderful and realize the potential there . . . and also have the skill to be able to work with the writer effectively enough to enable that writer to make that book fulfil its potential.

But while those skills are vital to being a good editor, it is also essential for an editor to be able to work with the other people in a publishing company. Publishing is a collaboration—between author and editor, but also between the editor and the art department, the production department, the sales and marketing departments, the advertising, promotion and publicity departments, the contract department . . . and every other department in a publishing company. Editors have to be good co-workers, or they can waste the potential of a terrific project.

Which areas of editing to you find the most enjoyable?

JF: I love the editing; but the thing I love the most is the finished product—holding a terrific book in my hands, seeing great reviews, strong sales . . . it’s like being midwife to a birth of a baby. No, it’s not the same—I have children, and their births were two of the most amazing, important moments of my life . . . making books is second best, but it’s also great.

In your view can editing be taught?

JF: That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I think that competent editing can be taught, but I am not sure that someone can be taught to be the kind of editor who can do the things I mentioned regarding the kind of editing that can turn a competent book into a great book.

How do you define the editing role?

JF: If an editor did all the kinds of things an editor does, but in a different kind of business, he or she might be called a producer or director if it was film or television; if it was a business that involved developing and producing some other type of product, an editor might be called a product manager. Editors are responsible for procuring rights to books . . . and then making sure that everything that has to be done to bring the book to a successful completion as a project is done, coordinating with all the departments that are involved in the process. So—producer, director, project manager . . . facilitator. How’s that?

What areas of editing do you find most challenging?

JF: Marketing—this is, I think, the most challenging part of editing, simply because every book is its own marketing challenge. There are many books that are relatively easy to market, but there are also a number of books that will either succeed or fail depending on the effectiveness of the marketing efforts. Such books require creativity, energy and the efforts of the entire company working in concert. That’s a lot of work, and if it isn’t done right, it just doesn’t work.

Do you have any advice to aspiring editors?

JF: Don’t do it unless you’re prepared to work ridiculously long hours for low wages.  With very few exceptions, editors spend their days doing administrative work; that means that reading and editing is done at night and on weekends.

Only someone who is single-mindedly committed to the cause of excellence in publishing should become an editor. It hurts the books and the authors if an editor isn’t truly committed to the job. And I’ve seen too many editors who thought publishing was glamorous and then burn out in one or five or ten years, leaving mediocre or poorly published books in their wake.

For new entrants to the market, where is a good place to start in the editing field?

JF: As an editorial assistant.

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Ellen Datlow on editing

As part of my editing course, I am contemplating the topic of editing and I thought that interviewing editors about editing would be a good way to get the thought processes moving. From discussions with different editors, I find there are lots of views and lots of things to discuss. Particularly, that the word editor encapsulates many things, from the person who buys short stories and novels to the person who proofreads a manuscript before it goes to the printer. An editor can be a project manager, a creative consultant, a boss, a collaborator, a wordsmith and even one with an eye for detail. I am speaking mainly about fiction but even procuring the right non-fiction manuscript takes an eye for the market and good writing.

While Ellen Datlow was in Canberra recently, we were talking about editing and I thought it would be cool to interview her for this blog. Our main discussion point was whether editing could be taught. Ellen thought not and then she was worried she had upset me. She hadn’t and I thought her views were very intriguing.

For those of you who don’t know, Ellen Datlow is a multi-award winning editor and most short story writers worth their salt want to be published by her. For many years she did the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror with Terri Windling. (Ellen did the horror component) and every year she would publish a list of recommended reading along with the stories chosen for the publication. I had the honour once, long ago, to have a story mentioned.   Here is a little about Ellen from her website.

Multiple award-winning editor Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for almost thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including the horror half of the long-running The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

You will have to go there to read more about Ellen. You will see she is a very busy person and I thank her so much for agreeing to be interviewed on this blog.

Why did you become an editor?

ED: Not really sure. I loved reading and wanted to work with books. The two options I was aware of were to work in a bookstore or go into book publishing. To tell the truth, I had no real knowledge as to what an editor does until my second book publishing job. My first in the business was as sales secretary to the New York salesman of Little, Brown & Co. Some of that time I helped to read the read slush (it was unusual then to have one person dedicated to reading slush and there is no such job now). So I knew that manuscripts became books somehow. I only worked there six months before I left to become an editorial assistant at a different publisher. That’s when I began to learn what editors do.

What is the most important aspect of your editing role?

ED: Working with a writer whose story is almost there and helping that writer make it better; and to continually encourage the writers whose work I admire to produce powerful stories (and I hope, allow me to publish their work if I have a venue to do so). That’s the creative side. I also have a responsibility to buy stories that readers want to read whether in a magazine/webzine I’m editing or an anthology. If my anthologies don’t sell I: 1) will have no income and 2) have no way to buy and publish stories/writers.

Which areas of editing to you find the most enjoyable?

ED: The initial reading of a fabulous story. Seeing how that story can be made better, and working with the writer to make it so.

In your view can editing be taught?

ED: No—Copyediting of course can be—it’s a technical skill, based on a thorough  knowledge of grammar and spelling (plus the smarts to know when a lapse in accepted rules is authorial intent or carelessness).

But acquisitions/substantive, and line editing cannot be. I’m continually learning as I edit over the years but the instinct for what works and what does not, what can be made better and what can not, is innate.

How do you define the editing role?

Ellen supplied the answer to this in an article she wrote for the SFWA handbook. I have put an excerpt of Ellen’s article  here…

There’s a big difference between editors and copy editors. I have nothing but respect for copy editors, but I become rabid when I read articles and off-hand remarks mixing up the functions of editor and copy editor. I’m primarily a short story editor, so that’s the kind of editing on which I’ll concentrate, although there’s certainly some overlap with novel editing. I’m going to use the word magazine to include both print magazines and webzines.

First of all, a short story editor solicits fiction. This may sound easy but it isn’t always so. Some writers write short stories because they love the form. Others do it because they believe (correctly) that writing and publishing even a handful of excellent stories can bring quicker recognition than novels. One of the biggest problems a short story editor has is keeping her best writers from moving exclusively into novel writing. Many writers, once they begin producing novels, no longer feel they have the time or energy to write short stories because of the (usually) lousy pay. Very few venues considered professional by SFWA pay more than ten cents a word for a story. Some pay up to twenty cents a word but most pay between five cents and eight cents a word. So short story editors have to regularly cajole and nag writers to write short stories rather novels. A good editor is pro-active, searching out new talent and encouraging established writers to produce short fiction.

Mechanics of editing

What areas of editing do you find most challenging?

ED: Project management is the most complicated but crucial chore of an editor. It covers everything else (including the reading and acquisition and editing of the stories).

Magazine editing is quite different in this respect than anthology editing. A magazine editor works more closely with the production department, which has a schedule—when is the edited manuscript due? When will the copy edit be done and what date must it be returned by the editor, who needs time to go over it herself and then query the author about proposed changes? What’s the date the proofreading will be done and given over to the editor and author and when must that be back to production?

If there’s art, it must be commissioned (at OMNI) or created (at SCIFICTION) in a timely manner.

For an anthology, the contract agreement will determine when I must hand in the finished mss to my in-house editor, who will put it through production. With all copy editing, for a magazine or anthology, I will go over the copy edit before querying each author. I will often stet a lot of the suggestions/changes before I contact the writer. I used to go over all the proofreading but now most publishers’ production departments can email the separate proofread stories to each author, so that they, not I can go over their own proofs.

My anthologies are invitation only so I don’t read much slush these days. But during the period of time I’m working on an original anthology (eight months to a year from verbal agreement with a publisher until I hand in the finished ms), I will prod the writers who have said they’d contribute and keep reminding them of the deadline. Over time, I might let them know that I have too many of a particular type of story or point of view and generally push the process forward. As stories come in I read and decide whether I love the story enough to buy it and determine whether it needs minor editing or a rewrite. If it needs a major rewrite before I think it would work, I won’t commit to buying the story on the first round (especially if the writer is someone I’ve never or rarely worked with before).


ED: I’m far from being a marketing expert but first you have to sell the anthology to a book publisher and for that you need a good, catchy idea, commitments from several big name writers who write the kind of stories that you’re planning on publishing, and a great title (if possible). The editor needs to write up a proposal explaining why your anthology is a great idea and will sell. If you have commitments from name writers include bios for each saying so and so—NY Times bestselling author of ….whatever.

The publisher does most of the marketing in advance—to the bookstores, sending galleys out several months in advance of publication, giving away galleys at Book Expo, a big convention for librarians, teachers, and booksellers. Publishers or professional writing organizations have writers/members there to giveaway and sign books (no books are for sale). There are panels and parties. There are Library organizations that have annual or bi-annual conferences around the US. Publishers push the titles they think will take off there.

Promotion and publicity?

ED: As you finish your anthology it helps if you can post the table of contents and the book jacket around the web-on your blog or on facebook and to genre news organizations. As an anthologist I’ll work with my publisher (or on my own) to set up signings and readings or talks with several of my contributors at conventions, bookstores, libraries, whoever will have us.

Copy editing and proofing?

ED: Not the editor’s job.
Do you have any advice to aspiring editors?

ED: Read a lot in the field in which you want to work. Be aware of the history of the field, learn office procedure –that’s as important if you’re working in-house for a magazine or book publisher as anything else. Start thinking about what kinds of stories you like and don’t like and why. As you edit more and more your taste will develop. If you edit different kinds of fiction, you’ll discover that some writers can write in more than one genre and those are sometimes the best writers you can work with.  Follow the work of editors whose work you admire and see if you can figure out what you like about their taste (it’s difficult to discern hands on editing skills). You can only notice the things that an editor doesn’t catch (and I don’t mean typos or grammar—that’s something the copy editor or proofreader should have caught). Repetition of words or phrases, a sentence that doesn’t track (not because it’s missing a word but because something in it should have been clarified), things like that.

Many thanks to Ellen for answering my questions.

More editing interviews coming up over the next few weeks.

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