Sunday, September 12, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Editing the Novel

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.


Here's the blurb for Editing the Novel
"Editing a 5000 word short story is one thing - how do you edit a 100 000 word novel? A panel of professional editors discuss their own experience in editing the novel - how to keep a work that long consistent, how to maintain energy and enthusiasm, how to liaise with the author over the long haul, and how to decide how long or short a novel should ultimately be.
Simon Spanton, Zoe Walton, Jean Johnson, Ginjer Buchanan "


Mod – Zoe Walton – publisher of YA at Random house/editor

Simon Spanton – publishing director for Gollancz in the UK, editing since 1991.

Jean Johnson – published in romance/fantasy, freelance editing for 23 years, unpaid editor position for fan community.

Ginjer Buchanan – NAL publisher (Penguin USA), we publish Gene, and the gentleman who just gave me $100 is not trying to buy his way into publication, he’s my husband. (Laughter)

J: He was trying to buy his way into her affections.

G: No, he gave me a chocolate koala bear last night for that. (Laughter)

Z: We’ve edited books of many lengths, from 80,000, 150,000, 250,000…

S: 380,000 words.

Z: Can anyone top that?

J: I can, but it was for a fan.  It was still finished, though!

Z: Simon, you actually edited 380,000 words?

S: (Discussing Brendan Sanderson)  Well, no, I got to sit on the sidelines and cheer on the US editors.

J: Sean Williams’ books are interesting for that, they come out first in a 800 page hardback, and then you have to separate it for the paperback release, because it’s going to fall apart no matter what you do.

S: 380,000 words won’t work as a paperback, no, the hardcover is one of those books that’s taller lying down than it is standing up. (Laughter)

G: Hardcover vs. softcover explanation – it’s to do with the fact that softcover books are bound only with glue, while hardcovers have saddle stitching holding the pages together in little segments, so it’s a lot more robust.

Z: How do you decide when something is too long?

G: Jack Federer submitted a novel, and it was far too long, and he doesn’t write epic fantasy, so I said it had to be 200 pages shorter and these are my suggestions, and he tells the story on panels, I don’t remember saying it, but he said that I said there’s no 800 page manuscript that wouldn’t be better as a 600 page manuscript. (Laughter)  But with some authors it’s difficult, they don’t want to cut things.

S: And sometimes you don’t want them to.  Reality Dysfunction, Peter Hamilton, I edited that at the beginning, he’s a very intricate writer with all of these different storylines, it’s kind of like a game of pickup sticks, if you remove one part the rest of it goes all wobbly, and so we didn’t want to cut it, so we were looking at things more along the lines of changing the margins, because paper is expensive, and when you’re only printing 300,000 copies, because we don’t store stock in warehouses anymore, we print on demand, and it gets to the point where you’re making a loss on every sale.  And back to Peter, there was no way to surgically extract the plot and leave the rest of the corpse alive, so it got to the point where I started cutting two lines a page, and when the second draft came back, it was 10,000 words longer. (Laughter)

G: Yeah, that will happen.

Z: It’s interesting, sending your suggestions to the author, and that’s really where the writer’s creativity, to see where they take the story that is really interesting, it’s where their creativity really comes through.

S: Absolutely, I’ve never come up with a solution that’s better than what the author comes up with, and you can say “Why don’t you do this?” and you can see the gears whirring in their head, and then they say “I could do that.  But what about if I did this?” and it’s so much better.

J: I want to put a caveat on this, which is that romance is different, Harlequin has very strict rules, their romances are 50-60,000, Temptations are 60-70,000 and their other imprint is around 100,000 words, and that’s it, so one of my manuscripts I went through taking out a line here, a couple of words here, and got it down to 101,462 words and sent it in.

G: Sometimes it comes down to the fact that the book is the right length, but it comes down to the economy, and this also varies from country to country, in that the cover price of books here is astounding, and if you add in that that extra dollar, you can add a lot to the book, but when you’re dealing with someone who writes 250,000 words, and that’s a lot, and he doesn’t want to edit and delivers it at the last moment, and I said to him “Then you will have an $8.99 paperback” and his agent said “No, we don’t want that!” so he went and gave the author a talking to.

S: James Patterson is a good example of a fairly standard 350 page mass-market paperback thriller, but this is a book made up of half-page chapters with wide margins, so there’s not actually a lot of text in the book, so the reader sits down and a day or a day and a half later and they feel like the book must be amazing because they finished it really quickly, and a lot happened, when it’s really only 60,000 words, and it’s just their perception.

Z: We find we have to do this in YA fiction now because it feels like value for money, even if it might be a bit more scary for young boys, the distributors want a bigger book, so that’s something we’re looking into.

G: The Spencer books started as category mystery, and those weren’t long, and he never really got past that in length, so the challenge for us was to make them look like longer books, but Parker had this style he’d learned that worked really well…

S: And then they suffered a little when they got longer.

G: Yeah, he started going back to not editing, and with those kind of writers, they’re the opposite of Tad Williams, and you’re not doing them a favour by demanding they add 10-20,000 more words because the story doesn’t need it.

S: Stephen Diaz, I’d commissioned him to write these trilogies of political machinations, fast-paced, exciting, with massive dragons in them. (Laughter)

G: We publish that in the US. (Laughter)

S: And he met the brief perfectly and did exactly what I asked him to do and did so brilliantly, and people loved it, but some reviews came back and said too much happened and there was no time to learn about the world, and you want to say “Just go with it!” and you realize that some people want some padding in their stories, to make the action feel less frenetic, so in the next two books, I wasn’t so hard on it, because he’s great with description, he’s great with worldbuilding, and some people really want that in fantasy.

J: I want to address worldbuildiing, especially with new authors, because they’re generally really good with worldbuilding, and they’re very proud of their worldbuilding, and they spend pages describing something that’s fascinating to those of us who care, but the other people are just saying “Where’s the plot?” so if it’s not necessary, consider removing it or cutting it down, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, it’s difficult, but it’s necessary.

G: John Snodgrass’ series is post-apocalyptic, there was a magnetic pulse, and society has to rebuild itself, and the best people for this are the society for creative anachronism, because they know how to make armour and arrows and the editors came in and said “Steve, we know how to fletch an arrow, you’ve told us how to fletch an arrow, you don’t have to tell us again.”

Z: And of course, as an editor, you’re a fan of the book, so you have to take a step back and make sure it reads well from an outside perspective, and not just as a fan of the book.

S: There is no ideal version or style of a book, you have different hats, if I’m editing a piece of literary fiction by Adam Roberts, I’m not editing the same way as a piece of pulpy fiction by James Barclay, you can’t try to shoehorn each book into the same-shaped hole, so what you seek to do rather than having a consistent approach, is having a consistent approach for each book and try to maintain that vision. 

G: That’s one of the things that doesn’t always happen, but I think it’s necessary, is having continuity of editorial styles from book to book.  You can judge whether or not the information needs to be repeated later in the series, but you need to judge what bits of information are important to impart again, in case the readers have just picked the book up as the first one, and this is why authors value the editor who stays put for a few years, because they get to know the series and are familiar with it.

S: Inheriting an author from another editor is tough for both of you.

J: Kind of like changing dentists when the last one knew you didn’t dig too deeply on this side because it’s sensitive. (Laughter)  I have a series of 8 books, and I knew they could get picked up in any order, so I had to make them readable in any order, but there are arcs between books 2-4, and 5-8, 8 is really plot heavy, read that later.  As a new author, you want to get 3-5 people editing your books, and you can return the favour, to get an idea of what you like, and what they like, and don’t forget to be specific.  Don’t squee all  over the manuscript, that’s like eating cotton candy, don’t flame it, because you’ll just wind up with a crisp, be specific as an editor, say “I really like this scene BECAUSE” and “This is a little out of character BECAUSE”.

G: You’re talking about Beta editors, just in defence of my colleagues here, that not everyone can edit.

J: Not everyone can write, and not everyone who can do one can do the other, so if you’re good at something go for it.

Z:Do you prefer to edit electronically or on paper?

G: Pay-per? Define that for me. (Laughter)

Z: I edit on screen, and I love it.

G: Pearson’s is a multinational company, it’s green, it needs to be green, so by and large most of our editing is done on screen.  I know that I’m ancient enough that I still treat a letter I’m sending via email as if it’s a real letter, so it’s really just the electronic version of what I would normally write…

S: You print the email out and tie it to a pigeon. (Laughter)

G: No, I print it out and put it in a pneumatic tube. (Laughter) After all, as we in America know, the internet is a series of tubes.

G: There’s what I call the global edit, which is moving things around, then there’s the line edit, which is all covered by track changes now and the author responds, blah de blah de blah…

S: It’s not quite the same for me, because each author has their own preferred method, and some authors require more work than others, and there are some authors I can have a 20 minute conversation with them and that’s all it takes, and there are some authors where I need to make 5-10 notes per page of the whole bloody book, and that never changes.  And in terms of editing on paper or not, I do most of my editing at home because I’m too busy at work with all that other office stuff, but I’m really lucky that I have this (holds up e-reader) so I don’t have to lug a 400 page manuscript back on my bicycle after work, but there’s no way to match the pagination of this file to the one on the manuscript, so you have to note key phrases and enter the comments later, which is still better than typing your hand-written notes up laboriously afterward, but it still drives me mad. 

S: There are global edits, and there are lines edits, like “I can’t tell who is talking here”, and that’s the copy editor’s job, but it’s hard to  find a good copy editor these days, they’re all so busy and they don’t have  the time to spend, so it’s interesting to find these errors in a book that the editor and the author miss that make it through reprint after reprint, so I always say that proofreading editors are there to make me, the author and the copyeditor look stupid. (Laughter)

J: When you have a short story, I tend to edit on paper, because you see mistakes on paper that you don’t see on the screen, but gone are the days when the manuscript used to come back with the stickynotes or paperclips down one side that doubled its width, but you can’t do that anymore, being green is really important, and it’s  difficult.

G: You’re right about the Kindle, the page notings are meaningless, we basically work off laptops now that we can undock and take hope, and the powers that be at our company aren’t entirely  ignorant of the editing process.  The wonderful thing about track changes is that, there’s this author I’ve had for 20 years, and he overuses the word ‘just’ and I can remove them all then go back and add I the ones that actually need to be there. (Laughter)

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