Tag Archives: fiction

What I learned from the pre-conference editing fiction course

By Sara Donaldson

Three Little Pigs and a (not so?) Big Bad Wolf

Three Little Pigs and a (not so?) Big Bad Wolf

This year is the first year in a very long time that I have been able to even contemplate attending an SfEP conference; usually conference time falls during term-time making it virtually impossible for me to attend. However, when I saw the dates for the 2015 conference at Derwent College in York, attendance became a possibility as I knew my daughter would have recently left school and York is close enough to ‘home’ that a visit, plus conference, was feasible. And once I saw the topic of the pre-conference course, I knew I had to attend. This was my chance to gain face-to-face basic training on something I have been toying with for years – fiction editing.

By the time I arrived at the York campus on the morning of Saturday 5th September I was slightly frazzled. A 12-hour drive from the far north of Scotland the previous day, followed by an early morning drive from Whitby to the one part of York I didn’t really know, meant that I was too tired to be nervous about jumping in at the deep end and meeting a bunch of professionals I didn’t really know. By the time I sat down in the well-hidden tutorial room all thoughts of imposter syndrome had vanished. I’d fluffed the hoped for brilliant first impression I’d make as I didn’t so much introduce myself to the first person I met as headed off in the opposite direction back to the car park to collect some forgotten items. Thank goodness there was plenty of coffee!

The group was comfortably small, with around 10 attendees, and as we all sat at desks in a horseshoe formation (much better than in groups), we introduced ourselves to the room and to Gale Winskill and Stephen Cashmore, our tutors for the day. By this time I was a bit apprehensive – my route into editorship was a bit convoluted, so who was I to sit in a room among ‘real’ editors when I’ve only really worked on non-fiction and still find it hard to actually say I’m an editor? But the worry soon subsided as we started the course and my brain kicked in.

Gale started off by going into detail about the different types of client we should expect to work for as fiction editors, and what they actually expect from us. She also explained how self-publishing does not necessarily mean that the author cannot get a publishing deal; they may simply prefer the hands-on approach and want to feel in control of their creations. We then discussed how to quote for a job (this course concentrated on copy-editing of fiction, not structural editing), what to look out for and the different ways of working on a text. It had honestly never occurred to me that self-publishing authors would not like tracked changes on a Word document, and that they may not care about the changes you make to spelling, punctuation and grammar. It really brought home to me that working on non-fiction has spoiled me somewhat; I tend to take some of my working practices for granted and assume they are the norm, although my meticulous style sheet habit will stand me in good stead.

We moved onto plot and structure (with more coffee), and discovered the differences between premise, theme and plot, before moving into more detail on structure and what we, as editors, should be looking out for. The first exercise of the day had us writing premises and a theme for the Wolf’s Story from the Three Little Pigs. Loved it! By the end of the day I had become particularly fond of Mr Wolf.

While Gale was having a well-deserved rest we moved onto dialogue with Stephen. I found this really interesting, especially as it showed me that I actually know what I’m doing. I loved his take on fidgets and throat-clearing. Erm … well … yeah, like … I really did actually.

I know we stopped for lunch at some point … then came voice, style and point of view. Now POV is something I really need to practise – internal, external, first-person, third-person … it’s enough to make your head spin when you think about it. Luckily our handout is great for explaining it in more detail, better than my scribbled notes, so I shall be going back to that frequently.

Consistency was great; plot-holes, timelines and setting appeal to my inner perfectionist. Feedback among the group reminded me of a time when I noticed a helicopter travelling a LOT further than it was capable of in one of the novels I was reading for pleasure. Glad it’s not just me who notices these things when they’re not working!

We worked through character, style and how books in a series should be treated, then finally looked at critiques, synopses and blurbs. Now critiquing is something I’ve been curious about, as it’s always been a mystery to me how an editor actually moves into critiquing, and by the end of the session I came away believing that, far from being something I could never do, this was something I really could do. And the blurb discussion showed me that I’m doing things right (I often write the blurb for a regular client’s books).

So what did I get out of this pre-conference editing fiction course? Lots!

The exercises scared me at first (what if I really wasn’t good enough?), but they showed me that my training has been good, my experience has counted for something and that I really can call myself an editor. I’ve also come to realise that, rather than being a leap too far, I can move into fiction editing if I want to. I just have to take it slowly and use what I have learned (and continue training). Finally, this course gave me my first real-life meeting with real editors and I loved every minute of it. I’m glad to be associated with such a lovely bunch of people, and this course has given me the confidence to look further at fiction editing without the horror of the unknown.

If you are interested in training for editing fiction, look at the SfEP online course Introduction to fiction editing

Sara DonaldsonSara Donaldson is an editor with an eye for a mystery. When not editing a range of projects she can be found with her Sherlock hat on as a professional genealogist, or in the theatre doing what needs to be done. You’ll find her at northerneditorial.co.uk.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

 

Posted by Margaret Hunter, SfEP marketing and PR director. Proofread by Carina Bailey.

Editing Fiction: An addiction or bête noire?

IMG_2080Fiction is a vast subject area. There’s no escaping this fact. Unlike non-fiction and academic texts, which have certain conventions, reference formats and factual, checkable details to fall back on, fiction is essentially ‘something that is invented or untrue’ (OED). Not only that, but the medium itself encompasses a plethora of categories: romance, thrillers, erotica, science fiction, fantasy, literary works, and so on … not to mention children’s fiction versions of most of these as well, albeit with additional considerations for the age group concerned, language levels and appropriate content!

Faced with such a behemoth, many editors of my acquaintance choose not to edit or proofread fiction. Of those who do indulge, nearly all shy away from children’s fiction altogether, deeming it too problematic, or limit themselves to particular fictional genres, usually mirroring their own reading preferences. So, with that in mind, where does one start when thinking about editing fiction?

As editors we are ethically constrained from commenting on the content of academic material, even if we know it to be wrong. Unless we are experts in that particular field of study, often we have no idea if the facts presented are invented or true. And, quite honestly, that is not our concern as long as the text reads convincingly and is grammatically correct, properly referenced and so on.

To play devil’s advocate, if fiction really is a work of ‘invention and untruth’, as long as it reads well, is it really that different from the above? And should it be treated with so much circumspection?

I understand that many editors may find fiction’s apparent lack of clearly defined boundaries extremely daunting, preferring the relatively controllable realm of non-fiction and academia. But although I do edit non-fiction and academic material on a regular basis, the thing that draws me repeatedly to fiction is, indeed, the very fact that I never know what I’m going to find in a narrative. Authors continue to surprise, delight, even frustrate me … but editing fiction is never dull.

Without question, fiction incorporates an unparalleled arena of realistic or fantastical landscapes, remarkable or mundane individuals, and gripping or bathetic scenarios, where anything — or sometimes even nothing much — goes, and everything is possible. There is a book for every occasion and mood, a genre to suit most people, and while fiction’s breadth and variety are undoubtedly its greatest challenge  — and a huge potential hurdle with regard to editing — they are also its most rewarding features.

So, are there things that connect and bind all of these vagaries together, and can provide a would-be editor of fiction with a starting point when tackling their first novel, irrespective of the genre? All books are predicated on certain elements, in terms of structure, characterisation, pace, plot and presentation. In David Lodge’s novel Therapy, beleaguered sitcom writer Laurence Passmore states: “Each one [each book] is different, but the same themes and obsessions keep cropping up: courtship, seduction, indecision, guilt, depression, despair.” And this is largely true.

Conversely, there could also be an argument to suggest that one should not edit fiction, as it could be perceived to compromise the author’s original creation. However, Terry Pratchett asserts: “… the fact that it is a fantasy does not absolve you [the writer] from all the basic responsibilities. It doesn’t mean that the characters needn’t be rounded, the dialogue believable, the background properly established, and the plots properly tuned.” So, subtle, constructive editorial assistance is still required, and usually welcomed, to ensure that what the author thinks they have done is actually the case on the page.

Essentially, fiction still involves the basics of our trade: punctuation, spelling, grammar (although this can be less rigid), textual fluidity, narrative cohesion. Even fact-checking exists: if an author states that the Empire State building has 97 storeys you can and should check that detail (it has 103!); and don’t get me started on incorrect spellings and missing accents with regard to foreign words. After all, erroneous details only provide a would-be reviewer with ready ammunition, which is something all fiction editors should bear in mind.

The characteristic that sets fiction apart from other media, making it simultaneously rather problematic but also intriguing, is the element of ‘story’, which has to be plausible within its own context and setting. As long as a reader believes the events of a novel to be feasible and credible, albeit fantastical, and the characters to be rounded, creditable individuals, then the author and editor have done their jobs.

Gale Winskill

Gale Winskill

Gale Winskill is a freelance editor who enjoys variety, and will edit most things within reason (www.winskilleditorial.co.uk). A half-Italian, dim and distant relative of William Shakespeare, she has travelled and worked abroad, finally residing in Scotland, where she plays tennis inconsistently, gardens by benevolent neglect, and is still occasionally flummoxed by Scots vernacular.

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Originally published May 2014; updated June 2021.