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.

As for more specific details of how, as editors or proofreaders, we do or don’t facilitate that, and how we go about imposing our own minds on the matter at hand without compromising the author’s integrity or voice … you’ll have to come to my conference workshop – Introduction to Editing Fiction: Mind over Matter – and find out, or look out for details of forthcoming SfEP training courses!

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.

12 thoughts on “Editing Fiction: An addiction or bête noire?

  1. Melanie Thompson

    Great to see this new SfEP blog, and I look forward to it growing as a resource. Well done to all concerned.
    However, of course, it is inevitable that there will be some disagreement about posts, and I might as well be the first. I don’t agree at all with your paragraph:
    “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.”
    I can’t comment on editing fiction (never even wanted to try it, thanks), but I would always query (sometimes rather loudly) content in academic material if I thought it to be wrong, never mind if I knew it to be wrong. In fact, I was recently praised in the acknowledgements of an academic book for doing just that! Tact and diplomacy are required (there has been an excellent SfEP Conference session on “tactful querying” in the past), but asking questions is the No. 1 duty of a good editor, whatever the subject matter.
    The ultimate sanction is to politely turn down work on material that does not align with your own moral compass. I’ve done that, too.
    Best wishes
    Melanie

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  2. Michael Faulkner

    Melanie, I absolutely agree with you re academic material, but I wondered if Gale was talking about student academic material specifically, much of which you wouldn’t fact-check?
    Mike

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  3. Steve Hammatt

    I agree 100% with Melanie’s comment. I thought that it was one of the editor’s jobs to query facts that appear to be wrong. Of course there’s a world of difference how you might handle facts that appear to be incorrect in an academic book as opposed to a student thesis/dissertation.

    Reply
  4. Louise Harnby | Proofreader

    Lovely to see the blog’s inaugural issue the subject of fiction editing. As a proofreader who started out by specializing in academic work, the idea of working on fiction seemed a little daunting to me, too. I was used to proofreading dense social science tomes that were heavily referenced and often quite dry in their content. When my first trade publisher client asked me to work on a piece of fiction, I was initially a little concerned but very excited. I love reading fiction but could I proofread it?

    Many of the ‘rules’ and preferences that I’d been used to applying went out the window. And I quickly learned that the art of when to leave well alone was critical to doing a good job. As my experience in the field of fiction grew, particularly in the self-publishing market, it became apparent that it was essential to be able to communicate a certain message to an independent author: that proofreading and editing are different skills. These days I turn away more fiction proofreading work than I accept – not because I don’t want it but because the author needs an editor who understands the art of fiction editing and has an ability to provide a deeper level of intervention that doesn’t damage the author’s voice, not a proofreader who will provide a final polish.

    Fiction work is a delight, and I agree with Melanie about ‘politely turn[ing] down work on material that does not align with your own moral compass’. To this I’d add that it’s worth politely referring work elsewhere when it doesn’t align with your skill set. Fiction proofreading and fiction editing are different. Tackling the latter if one doesn’t have the requisite skills can lead us to biting off more than we can chew!

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  5. Michael Faulkner

    Gale, developmental editing of fiction is my thing so thanks for posting – I agree that it’s fascinating because you don’t know what you’re going to get or where it’s going to go, and it’s fun to share that journey with the author and hopefully help to take any bumps out of the ride.

    One question I sometimes have trouble answering is whether there comes a point, in a heavily edited piece of fiction, when the text can no longer fairly be called the author’s. I agree in principle with what you said – “… 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” – but the search for narrative cohesion and fluidity can be so tricky that I sometimes find myself rewriting significant chunks of every single paragraph in the book. It’s not that I think it somehow becomes the editor’s book; it’s just that it can feel a long way from being the author’s. Nothing I’ve done recently fits into this category, I hasten to add! In fact, I don’t have a problem with it as an editor – it’s all the more fun when there is lots of rewriting involved – but I’m interested in the panel’s view (and yours) on the question: When is the author’s book not the author’s book?

    Mike

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    1. Gwen Hewett

      Such an interesting point, Mike. I guess most of us who edit fiction end up grappling with this question sooner or later. Personally, my answer has been to distinguish between the creative side and the technical side of writing. For me, as long as the characters, the plot and the narrative are created entirely by the author, it remains their story. If I pull the sentences and paragraphs around, and even delete chunks, this is technical work. As long as I remain constrained by what the author has written, and simply make it the best it can be, I consider this editing, not writing. I may change word choices, rearrange sequences and even add a linking sentence here or there, but I would never add a paragraph, a metaphor, an incident or a character. If I feel something is missing, I ask the author to write something to fill the gap.

      I recently had a chat with someone involved in music production, and I believe the same situation arises in a recording studio. The front person will be credited with the composition, whereas the contributions from others is often vast, although they are often hired hands who get no credit. But I’m sure they enjoy it just as much as we enjoy editing fiction. I suspect this may the case in many fields of endeavour.

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      1. Michael Faulkner

        Gwen, thanks so much for that, I think your technical/creative test is a nice one. I thought back through various grey areas in my own experience and applied your test successfully in all of them – even though, unlike you, I do frequently insert ‘a paragraph, a metaphor, an incident’ (not a character I don’t think!). I insert quite long passages, my own criteria being the parameters established with the author after a sample edit – I intervene as much as the author is comfortable with, consistent with improving the read.

        Very interesting, thanks. Your music comparison made me think of Clare Torry’s melody on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – she was the ‘technical’ input in that case in that she was a hired session singer, but her input was so original (no guidance from the band, they just said ‘Do something’) that she ended up getting a payout years later, after suing. I think the critical point there was that she had unarguably crossed the technical/creative line, and I think your test still holds up well in that particular scenario too.

        Mike

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  6. Jane Hammett

    I agree entirely with Melanie!

    I read this paragraph with some horror:

    ‘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.’

    What’s the point of having something ‘grammatically correct and referenced’ if it’s wrong? Part of a copy-editor’s job is to fact-check (from the SfEP website: ‘A copy-editor also tries to prevent embarrassing errors of fact’), and if an editor doesn’t know about a subject, (a) perhaps s/he shouldn’t be editing it, or (b) s/he should query it with the author. One of an editor’s most important jobs is to query anything they don’t agree with/don’t understand/think is wrong with the author. Authors are delighted when editors catch and eliminate potentially embarrassing errors!

    Congratulations to everyone involved in the new SfEP blog – it’s a great resource, and I look forward to reading many more articles!
    Best wishes
    Jane

    Reply
  7. Imogen Olsen

    Mike asked: ‘When is the author’s book not the author’s book?’

    For a discussion of this thorny problem I recommend Jennie Erdal’s wonderful book ‘Ghosting’. She was employed by her boss Naim Attallah, head of Quartet Books, to ghostwrite novels which he then published under his own name. There’s an interesting review here by Blake Morrison:

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/dec/18/featuresreviews.guardianreview3

    Naomi Campbell is said not even to have read her ghostwritten novel, ‘Swan’. So on the face of it the answer to Mike’s question might be Never. However, taking into account ‘ethical constraints’ and leaving aside the commercial exploitation of celebrity, you might argue that a person who wants to publish a novel under their own name but who can’t actually write should sign up for a creative writing course rather than pay someone else to do the hard graft. I wonder if the SfEP is in danger of losing its way in the moral maze of today’s self-publishing industry.

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    1. Michael Faulkner

      Thanks Imogen, very good article and I will go with your recommendation on Ghost – I’m interested because a friend of mine does some ghost writing. Ethically, I don’t think I have a problem with it, especially with autobiography – including celeb autobiography – where someone has a story to tell but doesn’t know how to tell it. Same applies with a novel, where the client wants to get a good yarn out of their system; the writer becomes another tool, but for a fee, so everyone’s happy. As far as my own question goes, about people who aspire to being accepted as writers but submit (usually willingly in my experience) to having their words comprehensively de- and reconstructed by an editor, again I don’t have a problem with it ethically – it’s more a factual question really, as to when the tipping point occurs for authorship. I think, as you suggest, the answer is probably Never – it’s certainly not for us (or SfEP) to be the moral police!

      Reply
      1. Gale Winskill

        Thank you for the various comments on my blog. Being the first one — which I didn’t realise when I agreed to do it — I suppose I was always going to be subject to a certain amount of scrutiny. As a result, I understand I have unwittingly created a bit of a furore in diverse places on the SfEP, for which I apologise. My subject matter was “fiction editing”. My brief reference to academic editing was purely used as an analogy for one point. Of course I was referring to “student papers”, not the wider realms of academic publishing. While I possibly should have inserted that, my attention was on fiction, and it honestly didn’t occur to me. After all, the blog is directed predominantly at editors, and I suppose I just assumed that the majority of those readers would realise that that is what I meant. Clearly, I was mistaken, but it was a genuine oversight, and not supposed to trigger this debate. The many and varied academic books I have edited over the past twenty years and more — both in the UK and abroad — have, indeed, been edited for content, guided by common sense, guidelines and the book’s target audience, rather than any sort of maverick moral decision not to comment on visible errors in the text!
        However, although my unwitting omission of the words “student papers” has, unfortunately, distracted from my actual subject matter, it has also proved a point about fiction, whose meaning is very much created by the reader’s — and also the editor’s — interpretation of the text.
        The world is not black and white, and fiction editing certainly isn’t; that’s what makes it so challenging and engrossing.
        Thanks again for the fiction-related comments, and I hope this has clarified the rest.

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        1. Felicity Teague

          Hi Gale,

          Sorry I’m a bit late with my comment! I’d just like to thank you for this piece, which is interesting reading. I haven’t edited fiction; I wouldn’t rule it out, but I wonder whether it might make writing fiction less enjoyable. (I write only as a hobby, but it seems to balance my work in academic editing very nicely.)

          I must admit, at first I freaked out about the bit about ethical constraint too, but then I read Steve Hammatt’s comment and thought, ah yes, different sorts of academic material.

          Happy editing!
          F.

          Reply

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