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I am a writer, editor, reviewer and dance teacher based in Perth, Western Australia.

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The first two novels of my trilogy, The Talismans, are not available as e-books at present, but I expect to get them back online shortly. However, I do have paperbacks of The Dagger of Dresnia at the low price of $25 including postage within Australia. I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below. The best way to contact me is via Facebook!

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The first two books of The Talismans trilogy were published by Satalyte Publications, which, sadly, has gone out of business. I hope to see my books back on Amazon under a new publisher in the near future.

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The Cloak of Challiver

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Monday, 3 October 2011

An editor's role


Recently, a friend sent me a link to an article in The Guardian by restaurant reviewer Giles Coren. My friend said that was exactly how he felt about his writing.
As fiction writers, we do feel very protective of our work. Our stories are like babies we have birthed and parented. We like to think they are perfect, and that not one word should be changed.
A few weeks in a good critiquing group, however, is usually enough to show writers that their work is not perfect and can be improved, but even so, there is always that flash of resentment when someone wants to alter one of their darlings. It can take a long time to wean that baby, and the process is painful for the parent!
But we're talking here not about fiction but about writing for journals, and in that light I think Coren’s tirade is sheer wankery. As an editor, I feel I should put the other side of the story forward.
For a start, Coren is not writing the Great British Novel. He is writing ephemera. Writing that goes into a newspaper, journal or online zine is always edited without consultation – it's just the way it's done, because of tight deadlines. And for any writer to be so precious as to be highly offended at the removal of an indefinite article is just laughable.
Nobody likes having their work altered, and I agree that sometimes sub-editing is done less than skilfully, simply because there is a deadline to meet. The worst instance of this in my experience happened when I faxed off a review to the Australian and the next morning received the phone-message equivalent of a poison-pen letter from the artist concerned, complaining bitterly about the "mean-spirited review". I found out why when I opened the paper – my review had been cut in half, and only the negative criticisms made it into print. (I only got paid for the part that was published, too, but that’s the way the system works.)
This episode was largely my fault. The golden rule of criticism is "put the good stuff first", and for some reason, on this occasion, I did not. All the good stuff was at the bottom of the article – the part that got sliced “on the stone” as they used to say in those pre-electronic days, probably to make room for a last minute ad or "stop press" paragraph. Mea culpa, mea culpa – but it taught me never to break that rule again.
As I understand it, when a sub removes a small word, it's usually because leaving it in would result in a "widow" on the next line. Apart from wasting valuable space in a print journal, orphans and widows are anathema to layout people. One sorry little word sitting on its own, looking lost, can spoil the whole look of a page. Because, you see, a layout person is, in his or her own way, also an artist, one with different sensibilities. The rhythm of reading the work out loud means little to the layout person, I fear. And in any case, who reads the bloody newspaper out loud, for heaven's sake?
(A “widow” BTW, is a word or phrase that hangs out on its own at the top of a page or column, while an “orphan” is a word or phrase – usually a heading of some kind – that is left alone on the bottom of a page of column. It does depend, though on whose definition you read!)
But all that I've just said only applies to writing for ephemera. Fiction writing, of course, is a different matter. There, ongoing consultation is the norm, to-ing and fro-ing until the work is satisfactory to both writer and editor – within a given deadline, of course. And in fiction, the writer has the last say – but the editor has right of veto, if not on that work, then the next. A writer who stets every tiny word and every comma will pretty soon find herself without anyone to publish her work. Word of such things gets around.
One only has to look at the morass of badly-written, unedited, self-published works on the market to see that the editor, whether of journals or books, performs an essential task in bringing the reader a product that delivers value for money. And that, friends, is the bottom line in any industry, even an arts-based one. Perhaps especially in an arts-based one, because all performers, all visual artists, all writers, are competing for that same tiny slice of people's purses, and if we produce a sub-standard product it will not sell. The fact that we editors hurt people's feelings now and then must be balanced against the fact that we help many, many others to create a better product. For, make no mistake, a writer's work is a product. It may also be a work of art, but only history can judge that.
An editor is to a writer what a choreographer is to a dancer, or a conductor is to an orchestra. If you're a fiction writer, try to be grateful to your editor for helping you to produce something that really shines, something more people will want to read!
And if you're a reviewer or a feature writer, for God’s sake just smile and take the money.


9 comments:

Keira said...

agree about the spamming!
Just wanted to say I agree with the process of editing. I've always thought that the original draft is like a limp of rock you've pulled from the ground with the opal, diamond or gold visible. Further drafts reveal the treasure, editing is like cutting it and polishing it to reveal the stunning beauty.
Good post, Satima.
Keira

Satima Flavell said...

Good analogy, Keira - one I'll try to live up to!

Sue Bursztynski said...

And a very fine editor you are, too, Satima! :-)

I've always felt that the editor's job is to make my book look the best it can. I remember when my first book reached its final draft, and my very first editor, Beth Dolan, asked me, "How do you feel about it?" and I admitted that I felt rather proud of it - something I hadn't with earlier drafts. The editor, mind you, doesn't always get it right, but when I feel they're wrong, I explain why and if they still feel the way they did, I do my best to accommodate. Or I just do what I can anyway, but still explain my issue.

I haven't written for ephemera before, but I remember learning about the "Pyramid" thing when I was doing short course in freelance journalism.

Satima Flavell said...

Ah yes, the Pyramid! And there's a Football, too - did you learn that one? The pyramid is a news item: the football is a review or feature. It's an Aussie Rules footie, of course, with points at each end:-).

I think most fiction writers who've worked with a sympathetic editor soon realise the value of the process, but you do get the odd "precious" one!

Satima Flavell said...

Hey, I just noticed your first comment, Sue. Ta muchly:-).

mjhearle.com said...

Fantastic post Satima,
I'm new to the writing game so was very surprised when my editor told me what a pleasure it was to work with a writer who was actually open to constructive criticism. She was used to fighting with writers tooth and nail throughout the editing process. This baffles me – why fight someone who's only trying to make your work better?

Satima Flavell said...

I've only had a couple of "precious" writers, thank heaven! Most writers, even the more experienced ones, are always keen to improve. In fact, the best people to edit are the ones who've already been published by major houses. I've found them to be humble and always willing to listen to suggestions. That's probably why they are already published and the "precious" ones aren't!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Mind you, I had been used to working with one editor when I sold my first novel. Beth Dolan for the first, Sarah Brenan for the second, Penny Matthews, etc. And then I sold Wolfborn and there was a reader's report, which was fine, the reader was the editor (I never actually worked with her directly, I got en email from Leonie Tyle saying, "Here's what (the editor) says" and then comments from the editor - again, sent to me by Leonie. So when that was done, I thought that was that - but no. There was yet another editor. That was done and then - the proofreader had some things to say! As it happened, the publisher and other editor thought it was strange, but let me read the comments anyway, just in case it was of help to me.

One thing I have no problem being precious about is when someone re-writes my work rather than letting me do it. I'm not talking here about the word "a" but an entire new paragraph or several written by the proofreader - not the editor - and in a style so different from mine that anyone reading the story would notice immediately. I don't scream, but I offer to do my own re-write, if one is necessary.

Satima Flavell said...

In the Olden Days, I gather it was normal to have an editor, a copyeditor and a proofreader, but a second editor sounds a bit extravagant! Probably better than a no-editor-at-all policy, though! OTOH, too many cooks can certainly spoil the broth.

I don't think you're being precious if someone actually rewrites your work, Sue. That's certainly exceeding a proofreader's command! I - and, I think, most editors - will often suggest a rewording, but it's up to the author to treat that as raw clay to be modelled, as you did. A proofreader does have the task of noting incorrect words and other solecisms that the copy-editor might have missed, though.

And isn't it funny - even after four people have worked on a ms, the odd typo can remain. I reckon the computer sneaks them in, just to be mean:-).

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