Thursday, 25 February 2016

Week Thirty-Two: To Be Or Not To Be Edited?

I've chatted about writing again today on a new AD HOC podcast, recorded last week on Day 5 of my writing retreat in rural Devon. This is an irregular podcast about my own writing journey, usually under 10 minutes' long.

For those who like to listen to podcasts, here's the link:

During the podcast, among other things, I discuss the loneliness of writing retreats, a lack of prawn cocktail, how to strengthen a character's unlikely motivation (in this case by giving him a daughter to worry about), and most importantly perhaps, whether or not tis nobler to suffer editorial intervention or to go solo and eschew editing altogether.

Oh, I'd better cross that out. What would my editor say?

This last point is something that I change my mind about constantly. Good editors can vastly improve books and provide a superb sounding-board for writers who are not quite sure where they're going with a piece of writing. Always a wonderful thing.

But the wrong editor for you - or simply a mistaken editor - can leave you gnashing your teeth, cornered like a rabid animal and forced into some horrid - and usually pointless - confrontation over some detail which they want excised and you'd rather keep. They can also influence you even before turning in your manuscript, if you've been working with them a while: you hear their disapproving voice in your ear, and start to second-guess yourself, or self-correct, knowing you will only find that paragraph or plot development deleted by your editor if you leave it in.

Is that a good thing though? Or is it cramping our style? I ask these questions out of an impish spirit of enquiry, you understand ...

Stronger-minded writers may just tell editors to lump it in that situation. But I've always been rather careful about staying friends with mine - not that such courtesy has done me the slightest bit of good career-wise, mind you - so I tend to swallow editorial changes wherever possible and reserve my refusals for moments of absolute need.

Which means I'm often to be found shaking my head silently over notes in the margin ... and probably suffering from stress because of it.

Anyway, since becoming self-published - first as Elizabeth Moss, then Beth Good, then Victoria Lamb, and now very successfully as Jane Holland - I have learned to make do with self-editing. This mainly comes down to minor structural changes and correcting my own grammar and punctuation where necessary. I am an experienced novelist now, and have worked as a fiction editor myself, and was even brought up by a Times newspaper sub-editor, so such tasks are not beyond my skillset - and doing them myself saves me a fortune in freelance editorial fees.

But I know other writers may not have the same level of expertise, and self-editing may cost them readers. And I'm also uneasily aware that some changes - character development, for instance, or continuity errors, or even some plot holes - may not be as obvious to me as they are to another skilled reader.

Now, was she wearing a red hat when she was murdered, or a blue one? Damn ...
So I could be missing out by not going to a freelance editor, and indeed many would condemn me straight out for not doing so, without even looking at my books to see if that's justified - simply because it's not considered the Done Thing to self-publish without paying someone £300-£500 to go through your book with a red pen first. (And thereby losing most of your profit.)

However, I blow raspberries in the general direction of those entrenched enough in their views to claim NOBODY should self-edit, regardless of the exorbitant cost of getting a full-length novel edit, or of that person's skills, and point instead to the many glowing reviews across all my pen-names which suggest the opposite to be true.

In my podcast, I don't discuss that though so much as the wonderful freedom that comes from being a self-publisher: able to write precisely what I want, in whatever style I choose, knowing that nobody in the universe can force me to change a single word of my manuscript against my will. After many years of working closely and even exhaustively with editors at mainstream publishing houses, it feels a little scary at times to be walking the editorial tightrope without a net - but also incredibly liberating and empowering.

More in my AD HOC podcast.

Meanwhile, what do you think about editors and their role in a novelist's life? They can make a bad book good, a good book brilliant, but also at times make a writer want to tear their hair out in despair. Would you ever be willing to publish without one?


  1. Well, it was good enough for Virginia Woolf, so ....

  2. As someone plagued by bad editing choices, I'm also a bit disgruntled about it.
    It's so hit and miss. My last novel, a sweeping supernatural tale based in Canada was originally shot down in flames by someone who seemed to have the imagination of a teacake, and whose reading choices may only have stretched to historical drama / memoir, I have no idea. Cost me hundreds in wasted money. Editors' personal reading tastes must be a factor in their judgements, yet you could end up sending your dark fantasy to someone who only rates literary fiction and therefore stands no chance of liking your work. Won't stop them taking your money though.
    Interesting post, sorry I only picked up on it now!


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