Category Archives: writing

What Does An Editor Do?

Over the years, my novel Déjà Vu has been through the hands of sev­eral edit­ors, most not­ably Aliya Whiteley (the 2005 edi­tion), Katherine Flynn, George Sandison and Olivia Wood. The last editor, Olivia, is a freel­an­cer who has worked with some of the major sci­ence fic­tion pub­lish­ers, but also worked with me when I was self-publishing.

The edit­ing pro­cess is the ele­phant in the room of lit­er­at­ure. Most unpub­lished writers don’t know quite what it is; pub­lished writers tend to down­play it (per­haps under pres­sure of mar­ket­ing more than any­thing else).

George Sandison of Unsung Stories has taken the excel­lent step of list­ing the illus­trator and editor along­side my name on the Amazon list­ing of Déjà Vu and thereby emphas­ising the team­work that goes into pub­lic­a­tion. (Typically, he’s not included him­self as an editor, which belies the impact he had on shap­ing the book.)

I thought it would be inter­est­ing to inter­view Olivia Wood about her role as a editor, and she was kind enough to agree.

Olivia Wood (credit to Claire Lau
Olivia Wood (credit to Claire Lau
  • Could you briefly describe the types of edit­ing that you do?

For nov­els, I do struc­tural edit­ing, line-editing and proofread­ing. These per­haps require some explanation.

Structural edit­ing, if done, comes before line-editing. This is car­ried out in-house by pub­lish­ers, so is some­thing I gen­er­ally only do with people self-publishing. It involves a look at story arcs, how the plot hangs together, the viab­il­ity of pro­posed char­ac­ters and set­tings, sequen­cing, internal coher­ence, tone and more. It may well involve send­ing the manu­script back to the author with sug­ges­tions for pretty thor­ough rewrites. Though this can be very dis­heart­en­ing for a first novel, every author requires this to some extent (some avoid using an editor for this by using beta read­ers) and is no more than a pain­ful stage in the pro­cess of mak­ing a book as good as it can be. At the struc­tural level I won’t look at spe­cific lines or phrases, and don’t do any re-wording myself, but do send extens­ive edit­or­ial notes. If I can, I pick up styl­istic tics here – although these are more usu­ally caught in the line-edit stage. (Every writer has them. Every.)


Given how import­ant lan­guage pre­ci­sion is to edit­ing, it’s strange that defin­i­tions of what each edit­or­ial stage includes vary widely. I do a line-edit with a copy-edit, and don’t sep­ar­ate them. For some, a copy-edit is just format­ting, spelling and punc­tu­ation. I do this while I line-edit, as a mat­ter of course. Some edit­ors, when line-editing, only do basic style and gram­mar checks – which is use­ful, but won’t cover everything a book will need. (If look­ing for a line-editor, as well as check­ing rates, always find out what is actu­ally included, as the work load var­ies massively. I can eas­ily spend over 50 hours on an aver­age length novel. Someone only check­ing gram­mar should be spend­ing less than half this time.)

When I do a line-edit, I’ll work through a book line-by-line, look­ing at style, clar­ity, con­sist­ency of tone/voice, con­tinu­ity (and gram­mar and punc­tu­ation). I’ll con­sider char­ac­ters, make sure that beha­viour and speech is consistent/believable through­out. I check that there are no non-deliberate loose ends. How much re-writing/re-wording I do depends very much on the pref­er­ences of the author (or pub­lisher): some authors like a sug­ges­tion as to a fix when I spot an issue; oth­ers just like issues to be flagged up so they can resolve them.

I par­tic­u­larly enjoy look­ing at fight scenes, as I have a little first-hand know­ledge of strangles and chokes … so do get some pleas­ure won­der­ing what the author will think when I give very tech­nical feedback.

Proofreading is the final stage before pub­lic­a­tion. Not much can be fixed at this point. It’s check­ing typos, pick­ing up any flawed grammar/punctuation remain­ing from the earlier edit­ing stages. Sometimes I sug­gest minor word/phrase changes at this point, but there should be very few, as by this stage modi­fic­a­tions can inter­fere with the layout.

Oh wait. You said briefly?

  • What are the things that writers need most help with? (Or is it not pos­sible to group writers like that?)

Most writers are a strange mix of massive and fra­gile egos. (This is in no way an insult.) It takes tre­mend­ous guts to show your cre­at­ive work to someone and ask them to find everything that is ‘wrong’ with it (where ‘wrong’ is just a mat­ter of what should be changed to make a thing bet­ter, rather than actu­ally ‘bad’; and is, any­way, the per­sonal opin­ion of that one per­son). It takes even more to send work out – whether pub­lish­ing dir­ectly, or to agents. That said, most get pretty sore when things they love are deleted or changed or cri­ti­cised. Many have spent years on a story, even a sec­tion of a story, and to be told some­thing in which they have inves­ted so much doesn’t work, hurts.

Issues in writ­ing that need tack­ling vary from writer to writer. But I think the thing that all would bene­fit from is this: find­ing ways to con­sider edits as dis­pas­sion­ately as pos­sible. Perhaps get­ting help from writers’ groups; or trus­ted friends. But not from people who’ll com­fort via platitudes.

Generally speak­ing, the more an editor has done to a story, the more enthused by it they are. Lots of cor­rec­tions doesn’t mean ‘it’s crap’, but ‘this is worth mak­ing perfect’.

The editor isn’t always right about how some­thing needs to be changed but will almost always be right that the thing needs chan­ging in some way.

So – what do writers most need help with? Understanding that the edit­or­ial pro­cess is a pain­ful but bene­fi­cial one and not let it dis­hearten them.

Though per­haps that’s my answer because I’m fairly blunt when I give feed­back. But I think/suspect/hope that the authors I work with can detect my enthusiasm.

  • What’s the most dif­fi­cult thing about the edit­ing pro­cess? Does it have more to do with the work itself or your rela­tion­ship with the writer?

Part is summed up in the answer to the above. I would rather be clear than tact­ful, but aim for both. It is harder to pol­ish the work of a really sens­it­ive author, but at the same time I com­pletely under­stand why edits hurt. On the whole though, I have a good rela­tion­ship with authors I work with, and I think we work well together. Stares at Ian dar­ing him say otherwise.

There is always a ques­tion of time man­age­ment – both in doing the work and deal­ing with the expect­a­tions of the author. Editing involves a lot of the same thought pro­cess as writ­ing, and shares many of the prob­lems – word blind­ness, know­ing there’s a nig­gling issue but not being able to put a fin­ger on it imme­di­ately, read­ing some­thing so often that you develop false memory about what is actu­ally there (mak­ing it a night­mare to check con­tinu­ity). I make a point of tak­ing breaks between go throughs of a work. And take a vast num­ber of notes. But it does mean it’s a slow pro­cess, and it’s only when I’ve returned work to an author who has never been edited before that they real­ise why it takes a while. (A few seem to think it should take not much longer to edit than to read. Generally, it’s about ten times that. Minimum!)

  • What is the goal of edit­ing? Is it clar­ity, qual­ity, sim­pli­city? All of the above?

I think clar­ity could be stretched to cover all the above. Different types of work require dif­fer­ent kinds of edit­ing – it’ll vary dra­mat­ic­ally between fic­tion and non-fiction, as well as between genres, audi­ences and so on. But fun­da­ment­ally, writ­ing is about con­vey­ing an idea to the reader. And the best writ­ing, how­ever com­plex, is always clear. A romance, a thesis, a journal art­icle – all require clar­ity to be read­able, and from that fol­lows qual­ity, enjoy­ment. You can’t con­trol how read­ers will react to your idea, but good edit­ing ensures they have the chance to under­stand it, and thus (per­haps) appre­ci­ate it.

  • Do you read the work once the writer has (or has not!) incor­por­ated your suggestions?

Sometimes. I gen­er­ally recom­mend authors use someone else for a proofread so that they come to it with fresh eyes. As a res­ult I don’t tend to see it again at that point. However there are times when I arrange to dis­cuss or check changes. I never mind if an author hasn’t accep­ted my sug­ges­tions – often they’re only there as a short­hand to what I think the prob­lem is, and aren’t neces­sar­ily ‘the solu­tion’. I would be a little sur­prised if some­thing was sent back to me with no changes con­sidered – but I’ve never exper­i­enced that.

I’d love to have the time to read all the fin­ished products just for pleas­ure – but I don’t.

  • Do you find your­self hold­ing back on com­ments if they’ll lead to large-scale changes in the work? (That is, do you try to limit your input to sug­ges­tions that play a min­im­ally cre­at­ive role in the final version?)

This depends on the dis­cus­sion I’ve had with the author/publisher before I start. If someone makes clear to me that there is no chance for major re-writes, then I’ll offer edit­or­ial feed­back that best sup­ports the work as it is. If, how­ever, someone isn’t work­ing to a tight timeline, or has, per­haps, indic­ated an issue with a par­tic­u­lar area, I’ll quite hap­pily offer my sug­ges­tions. If, on start­ing a pro­ject, I real­ise that it’s not ready for a line-edit, I’ll go back to the author/publisher and ask how they want me to approach it. I’m not going to hold back sug­ges­tions I think might be use­ful – unless I know that there’s no way they can be implemented.

At the same time, I work this way only once I’m clear the author real­ises my work is always a col­lab­or­a­tion with them – I’m not intend­ing to over­rule their ideas, and the major­ity of my edits are only ever sug­ges­tions. I’m more likely to be for­ward with ideas if I know the author is happy to reject them.

  • It seems that edit­ing and writ­ing are some­what over­lap­ping skills, given that (unless a writer only pens one draft), the writer needs to self-edit to an extent. Do you feel that what you’re doing with a writer, in some part, an ele­ment of the writ­ing pro­cess too?

Only pens one draft? What mad­ness is this?!

Yes – edit­ing is part of the writ­ing pro­cess. Anything which causes the author to come back to the work to change it, to improve it – edit­ing com­ments, feed­back from beta read­ers – it’s all part of the writ­ing pro­cess. What I do is look at the work with enough dis­tance to enable the author to write the thing they wanted to write, not let them stop with the rough first draft.

As a tan­gent from your ques­tion – is an editor a writer? Not neces­sar­ily. But they do need to be able to mimic one, and to mimic vari­ous styles, so as to be able to offer sug­ges­tions in the author’s writ­ing style.

If you have an edit­ing prob­lem, and if you can find her, maybe you can hire: Olivia Wood’s Textmender Team.

Aliya Whiteley's new book

An Interview with Aliya Whiteley, Author of ‘The Beauty’

Unsung Stories, a new imprint headed by the up-and-coming George Sandison, is pub­lish­ing not only the quint­es­sen­tial Déjà Vu but also a novella by Aliya Whiteley called The Beauty. Both are due to land around the end of this month, and to cel­eb­rate The Beauty, I asked Aliya for an interview.

Before we begin, let me say that The Beauty is a great novella. It has sharp char­ac­ter­isa­tion, story, pace and has all the genre-bending prop­er­ties of a lit­er­ary work. It’s the kind of book that should win prizes.

Aliya Whiteley
Aliya Whiteley
  • Can you tell us a little about where the idea for the book came from?

I think the novella star­ted with Nathan’s voice. I wrote the open­ing sec­tion without any plan­ning or fore­thought, and within a day the entire thing had formed in my head, which is very unusual for me. Usually it evolves as I write.

  • How hard was it to write the book?

It was an abso­lute gift to write. It really flowed. Usually I try to con­trol my more lyr­ical tend­en­cies, and I’d just fin­ished writ­ing a very demand­ing novel where the lead char­ac­ter is sup­pressed in many ways. So to just let go and put that explo­sion of lan­guage on the page was won­der­ful. And I loved Nathan, and his involve­ment with the earth, the sea­sons. It’s the way he sees lan­guage as a part of that nat­ural reality.

  • The book is a novella, which is a form of fic­tion even rarer than the novel! Did you set out to write a novella? Were you temp­ted to extend it some­how, to make it more marketable?

I knew it needed to be short. I was expect­ing about 30,000 words. And then I thought, well maybe I could stretch it out to make it com­mer­cial, or I could write what hap­pens after what I saw as the end point. But the moment I star­ted to try I knew it wouldn’t work; I had said everything I wanted to say. I would love to be a com­mer­cial writer, but I think my nat­ural tend­en­cies are on the sub­vers­ive side, and so I’ve decided to go with that, and to be happy with the books I write.

  • There’s a lot of mater­ial in the story that might be described as ‘hor­rific’ in the lit­er­ary clas­si­fic­a­tion sense. And yet there’s also a strong sense of sci­ence fic­tion. Do you see the book as fall­ing into a par­tic­u­lar genre?

As soon as I worked out it was post-apocalyptic I was so excited, because I’ve always wanted to write some­thing in that cat­egory. Is that tra­di­tion­ally sci­ence fic­tion? The Beauty def­in­itely has hor­rific moments, and fant­ast­ical ele­ments. Let’s call post-apocalyptic a genre, and settle for that.

  • I got the sense that The Beauty was stand­ing on the shoulders of some giants of the literature–in a good way! Are there any par­tic­u­lar clas­sic stor­ies that you had in mind when you were writ­ing it? I was reminded of Riddley Walker and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Riddley Walker and Body Snatchers, abso­lutely. Octavian Butler’s tri­logy, Lilith’s Brood, was a really big inspir­a­tion. Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague. Having loved that kind of fic­tion for years, it all went in and stirred around in the ima­gin­a­tion, so The Beauty def­in­itely builds on it all. I think it goes off in unex­pec­ted dir­ec­tions as a reac­tion to those great books, though, so maybe you get more out of it as a reader if you enjoy the genre to start with.

  • The idea of ‘story’ is very import­ant in the novel. What to you think about the role of story in cre­at­ing mean­ings, and propagat­ing ideas?

The oral tra­di­tion of story telling, and the way stor­ies change and grow, is a huge part of the book. The power of stor­ies to shape real­ity, too. I think it’s a theme that stretches back to my first novella, Mean Mode Median, for me. But since writers are all about shap­ing real­ity with story I don’t think it’s too sur­pris­ing! I like how there’s a very dark side to those com­fort­ing stor­ies Nathan tells in The Beauty. They have a strength in them that he doesn’t really under­stand. Our world is shaped by stor­ies: as books, as adverts, as the anec­dotes we tell, but maybe we’ve become less adept at reach­ing to the mean­ing of these stor­ies. We let them all wash over us in slick, shiny forms and don’t look at what’s underneath.

  • Another idea import­ant to the novel is reversal; from dead to alive, male to female, ugli­ness to beauty. Do you think that, in some sense, these oppos­ites are closer than they might oth­er­wise appear?

It’s cer­tainly all about those oppos­ites, and how the dis­tance between them depends entirely on where you’re stand­ing. Perspective is everything, isn’t it? In life, in story, in mean­ing. And in whether you’re a vic­tim or a hero, a saviour or a des­troyer. I like the fact that you have to choose the place from which you view the terrible/beautiful events as a reader in The Beauty. I’m really proud of that aspect.

If I wrote The Beauty, I’d be proud of the whole thing. You can pre-order a copy from the Unsung Stories store.

Aliya Whiteley's new book
Aliya Whiteley’s new book

Of Friends in Tombs, or ‘Shut Up, This Fight is Making your Party’: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer 1988

To me, Norman Mailer was one of the finest prose styl­ists of the twen­ti­eth century.

This excerpt is from Of a Fire on the Moon (1970, p 354):

Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was pre­sum­ably a way to describe the most curi­ous steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the lan­guage of Shakespeare — another to be unaware how rich was the vic­tim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms.

He was also a pub­lic intel­lec­tual, an icon­o­clast, and a buf­foon of epic proportions.

A report of a cock­tail party from 1977 (related by Lennon, p 513):

[Mailer] went imme­di­ately to the liv­ing room and as soon as he saw Vidal, Janklow [a bystander] said, “He charged.” Mailer told a Washington Post reporter that he had “been look­ing for Gore [Vidal] six years and last night I finally found him. When I saw Gore, I just felt like but­ting him in the head, so I did.” Accounts vary, but it seems that Mailer threw a gin-and-tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head. …The host­ess walked in from the kit­chen, unhappy to see a fight at her party. “God, this is awful; some­body do some­thing,” she yelled. Clay Felker, at ring­side, said, “Shut up, this fight is mak­ing your party.”

Why did Mailer phys­ic­ally attack Vidal? Certainly it related to unkind words penned by the lat­ter. Certainly it com­bined the duellist’s need for viol­ent sat­is­fac­tion, Mailer’s idea of releas­ing the dogs of his mas­culin­ity, and a deeper, mys­tic notion that unmet chal­lenges cre­ate a psychic revolt at the level of the cell, can­cer being the result.

For Christmas, I was given Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J Michael Lennon. It’s an excel­lent bio­graphy that, among other things, con­trasts the pub­lic Mailer and the private. This blog post is not a review, but a record of thoughts I had while read­ing Lennon’s book.

Money in the Bank

Mailer spent his life look­ing for exper­i­ence. He did this, in part, because the chief dif­fi­culty for the nov­el­ist is obtain­ing mater­ial. Douglas Adams once wrote some­thing along these lines: “Your whole life is research for your first novel. The research for your second novel takes about a year, and is mostly spent in bookshops.”

Mailer did not spend much time in bookshops.

Graham Greene wrote:

The great advant­age of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listen­ing to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is use­ful to a writer, you see — every scrap, even the longest and most bor­ing of lunch­eon parties.

This is half of Mailer. He com­ple­men­ted it with a liv­ing exper­i­ment in the pur­suit of exper­i­ence. Too often, he agreed to capers–like trav­el­ling to Russia on the prom­ise of access to Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB files–for credit in the bank of mater­ial. The drugs provided as much illu­min­a­tion as a lit fuse. Here is the nadir of writ­ing The Deer Park (1955), as described by Lennon (p. 193):

Without drugs, he couldn’t write; he needed more than in the past. Along with marijuana, Seconal [a bar­bit­ur­ate], booze, cof­fee, and two packs of cigar­ettes a day, he began tak­ing a tran­quil­izer, Miltown… “Bombed and sapped and charged and stoned,” he lurched for­ward through May, feel­ing as he had when on [war-time] patrols in Luzon.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Mailer was an exist­en­tial­ist, a philo­soph­ical school defined more by a push away from clas­sic ortho­doxy than the pull of well-argued altern­at­ives. The heart of exist­en­tial­ism, accord­ing to Walter Kaufmann (1975, p. 75), is:

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repu­di­ation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and espe­cially of sys­tems, and a marked dis­sat­is­fac­tion with tra­di­tional philo­sophy as super­fi­cial, aca­demic, and remote from life

Mailer val­ued the primacy of exper­i­ence (as a truth, or some­thing closer to it that than the truth presen­ted by logical pos­it­iv­ism). The richer that exper­i­ence, the bet­ter. Hell-raising lives next door to this idea. Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, sec­tion 283):

…Believe me, the secret of the greatest fruit­ful­ness and the greatest enjoy­ment of exist­ence is: to live dan­ger­ously! Build your cit­ies under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!

From the per­spect­ive of the writer, there is value in this. If exper­i­ence is credit, woe betide the over­drawn. But there is some danger, as most people will recog­nise, in throw­ing out the baby with the bathwa­ter. It can lead to the some­what bizarre state­ments like Mailer’s com­ments in this inter­view with William Buckley (Part 1 of 6) from 1968:

I don’t think in cat­egor­ies. I try to think in this way, that the world is bet­ter off if every so-called type in the world is bet­ter. In other words, it’s a bet­ter world when the cops get bet­ter and the crim­in­als get bet­ter. It’s a poorer world when the cops are dull and the crim­in­als are dull.

Mailer emerged at a time when a writer was seen as a trans­form­at­ive force. He was eager to assume the role of com­ment­ator and doer. His dis­tance from true power frus­trated him. Like Sergeant Robert Hearn in The Naked and The Dead and Menenhetet in Ancient Evenings, he wanted to be Merlin at Kennedy’s Camelot, but his over­tures to Jackie Kennedy were botched. Later, his influ­ence on the Clinton admin­is­tra­tion was neg­li­gible. Mailer’s life seems to have coin­cided with the decline (in America and the UK, at least) of the pub­lic intel­lec­tual. Today, our intel­lec­tu­als pro­duce BBC doc­u­ment­ary series and tie-in books. Easy to poo-poo. But I think the younger Mailer would have seized these oppor­tun­it­ies. He always wanted to trans­mit his ideas and lever change.

Technology Will Get You Nowhere

One such idea is the weak­ness of the arti­fi­cial. There is a moment in Of A Fire on the Moon in which Mailer takes the notion of acceleration–so fun­da­mental to rocketry–and applies it to the moon pro­gramme at large. Imagine the step from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Tranquility Base, the Moon; this, psych­ic­ally, is an accel­er­a­tion suf­fi­cient to push human­ity from one sphere to another. And yet the mis­sions that fol­low (with the excep­tion of Apollo 13) are both iter­at­ive and bor­ing. The accel­er­a­tion has been lost. With it, will, and with that, the moon pro­gramme itself. For Mailer, this is the treach­ery of tech­no­logy. It appears to be freighted with pos­sib­il­ity but this prop­erty only emphas­ises, once revealed, its emptiness.

The Spooky Art

There are notes in Lennon’s book about Mailer work­ing through his manu­scripts with edit­ors, line by line, stop­ping at every weak sen­tence. While his poetry was unsuc­cess­ful in most estim­a­tions, he brought a poet’s atten­tion to prose. Words were always read aloud. If a sen­tence had to be changed, this might alter its role in a para­graph or a pas­sage, and thus change the char­ac­ter of the pas­sage as a melody leads its key. The pas­sage would be writ­ten again.

And what pas­sages. Nothing stood between Mailer and his words. From Ancient Evenings:

My memory, which had given every prom­ise (in the first glow of moon­light) that it would return, was still a sludge. Now the air was heavy with the odor of mud. That was the aroma of these lands, mud and bar­ley, sweat and hus­bandry. By noon tomor­row, the riverb­ank would be an oven of mol­der­ing reeds. Domestic anim­als would leave their gifts on the mud of the bank–sheep and pigs, goats, assess, oxen, dogs and cats, even the foul door of the goose, a filthy bird. I thought of tombs, and of friends in tombs. Like the pluck­ing of a heavy string came a first intim­a­tion of sorrow.

The last few pages of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which relate to his death, are dif­fi­cult to read. I was reminded of the com­ments that Arthur Miller made in a BBC doc­u­ment­ary (‘Finishing the Picture,’ 2004) shortly before his death. (Miller and Mailer grew up near each other, but they never really got on, and were never going to after Mailer’s book Marilyn.) In the doc­u­ment­ary Yentob, asks Miller what he thinks of his own death. Miller, as I recall, says:

I always think of Shakespeare and the light going out.

It takes a big tall writer like Miller to com­pare him­self to Shakespeare. But to con­sider all that exper­i­ence, the wick burn­ing low before going out, is troub­ling. The point is to illu­min­ate the party.