A couple of years ago, I sat down with some of my fellow fiction editors for coffee and a chat. One looked particularly brow-beaten. ‘I’m really stumped on this structural edit of the latest in the Two-Dimensional Murders series,’ she confessed. ‘The author has Miss Scarlet committing the crime in the billiard room with the candlestick. But how she manages to sneak it away from the dining-table unseen, while the rest of the guests are enjoying a candlelit dinner, is beyond me.’
We sympathised. ‘I know just how you feel,’ said another. ‘In the mystery I’m working on, this professor – Plum, he’s called – bumps off the host in the conservatory with a length of lead pipe. It’s causing me no end of problems, considering that the author also has him chatting to the colonel in the lounge at the exact moment the murder is committed.’
‘A good alibi,’ mused a third. ‘Perhaps too good. Is there any possibility of, say, a secret passage?’
‘Why – that’s brilliant!’ gasped the editor. And we all cheered and hugged and congratulated ourselves on another problem solved.
In reality, of course, it’s not like that. Fiction editors, like all other editors, are bound by confidentiality clauses that prevent them from spilling the details of their clients’ plots. (Which is a shame, in a way, because we are all people who love stories and love talking about stories. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has to bite my tongue so as not to enthuse to others about a particularly ingenious plot workaround that a client and I have cooked up together.)
That’s not to say that we don’t help each other out. There are certain problems particular to fiction that have no single ‘best-practice’ solution, and it’s not easy to work out which will suit your project best. For instance, say you have a third-person narrator, Emma. As she talks to her friend, Harriet, she is struck by a sudden realisation. How do you convey her thoughts to the reader? Do you put them in italics? In her own words, or yours? Is it lapsing into ‘filtering’ to tell us that ‘it darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself’?
Questions such as these are easily phrased so as to give away little or nothing about the nature of the book. They often crop up on social media or in the CIEP forums, where other editors love to pitch in with suggestions. The supportive nature of the community is astonishing; new entrants to the field are greeted with a chorus of warm wishes and friendly advice.
What’s particularly useful about Facebook and its ilk, to fiction editors, is its international breadth of expertise. Say your client, a Brit, has penned a romance set in Seattle. ‘Perhaps he simply doesn’t fancy me,’ sighs the heroine. You know it’s not quite right, but if you haven’t heard much American slang, it can be hard to reword such a line so that it sounds remotely convincing. Ask the internet, and a chorus of voices will sing out across the Atlantic: ‘Guess he’s just not that into me!’
Fiction editors around the world are constantly giving each other tips on other regional matters, such as copyright law and cultural sensitivities. When e-books can be read anywhere across the globe from Day One of publication, there is great scope for offence in even the most innocuous novel. And we all know the damage even a single outraged Amazon review can do.
The most rewarding form of collaboration, though, is the kind where we really do get together, in person, and sit down for a coffee and a chat. The CIEP annual conference is one such occasion, warmly anticipated by many editors around the UK and beyond. Smaller workshops throughout the year are organised cooperatively, with the twin aims of improving our professional skills and building personal links with our colleagues.
We may be prohibited from sharing our clients’ stories, but there’s nothing we like better than sharing our own. This is not just editorial self-indulgence. Having such a collaborative network ultimately helps our clients too, and it hopefully means the published work is even better for some collective input.
Carrie O’Grady is a fiction editor and former reviewer for the Guardian. You’ll find her at the Hackney Fiction Doctor or on Twitter at @carrietoast.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.
Originally published July 2018; updated March 2021.