Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Great Horse 9 – Editing, the author’s view

The Muse apologises to those readers looking forward to our guest editor’s post. Editors are VERY busy people, and as in all freelance lives schedules sometimes have to be changed, so Helen's post will now appear next week. In the meantime, I’ve prodded Katherine with my glittery horn, and she is going to tell you about how it feels to be edited first…

The editing process is where your book stops being your book and starts to become your publisher’s book, and I believe learning to work effectively with an editor is the single most important thing that separates a hobby writer from a professional writer. It’s possible (if you’re very lucky and very talented) to get paid for work that has not been edited, but I don't think it's possible to have a long-term professional career without an editor.

My first ever experience of being edited was with a magazine called Visionary Tongue run by a team of professional writers, when fantasy author Storm Constantine worked on a short vampire story of mine called “Rubies” (which you can read on my website). Although at first the edits seemed like extra work (I’d redrafted my story about six times already… what could possibly be wrong with it?!), I really enjoyed working with such a celebrated author and saw an immediate improvement in my work. Even though this particular magazine did not pay contributors, the editing process gave a level of professionalism to the publication, and was valuable experience for me as a new writer.

A few years later, when I’d written my debut novel Song Quest, I had the pleasure of working with Barry Cunningham (editor of the first Harry Potter book!) and Helen Wire, who together made a great team. There was quite a bit of editing to do, but all the hard work paid off when the book won the Branford Boase Award for a first novel for children, which honours both author and editor, thus recognizing the importance of the editing process in bringing a first novel to the shelves.

When I came to write “I am the Great Horse” to some extent I made the author’s classic mistake of falling too much in love with my own book. I had such passion for Bucephalas and Alexander’s story, all I wanted to do was pour these passions into the page. I forgot younger readers might struggle with such a huge book - 200,000 words before editing! So the first thing my editors asked me to do was cut out 50,000 words.

To begin with this seemed a big ask – some entire books aren’t even that long! – but in the end, losing that many words was surprisingly easy. I took out one plot line (the Persian Prince’s story), then condensed the rest by taking out some of my more long winded scenes (such as five pages detailing a charge Alexander made up a ridge to tackle an enemy at the top) and condensing them down to just a few lines. With my first person/horse narrator, this was probably easier to do than with a book written in the third person - do too much of this, and your story can feel as if it is being “told” rather than “seen”, which then starts to read dangerously like a history text book. So where the book started to feel a bit too boring with this approach, I removed the whole scene and skipped to the next. Again, the style of the story helped me with this. If I hadn’t been using a linear plot, cutting whole scenes would have been much trickier (though not impossible).

At the time, every cut I made felt like being slashed by Alexander’s sword, but I can see now I could have taken out quite a bit more without destroying the story. If there’s something I’ve learnt from being edited, it’s that you can always cut. But there does come a point when a story ceases to become worth everyone’s time and expense to publish as a book. The Twitter version: “My name is Bucephalas. I am the untameable black stallion who carried Alexander the Great and conquered the world - HA!” Is fine, but is it entertaining? I’ll leave that up to you!

I actually believe the editing process is just as important in the second, and the third, and the hundred and third book, though it does not always seem to be carried out in such depth later in authors’ careers, particularly if that author becomes a best-seller. Perhaps editors are afraid to destroy a best-selling formula? Or perhaps they are just too busy to edit all the books they publish to the same extent? I only know that for all of my five books so far with Chicken House, my experience has been similar: Barry reads and suggests the larger changes (such as “I don’t understand why they’re doing this” or in the case of I am the Great Horse “FAR too long - where can we cut??!”) Then Helen takes the new version and gets down to more detail, providing me with a sheaf of suggested changes and queries and notes made at chapter level. She also works on the words themselves to correct grammar, take out commas, and makes sure the speech marks pair up, etc. This is called copy editing, and next week you’ll be able to read Helen’s guest post for a fascinating insight into how she approaches her work.

I like being edited more as time goes on, and I begin to see all the flaws in my writing that I was blissfully unaware of a few years ago when I started. Editing makes your book the best it can be for your readers, and the best it can be for the market – which are hopefully the same thing! If you imagine an author sitting in a room creating something beautiful, editing cleans the window so the story can be enjoyed in its full glory by those outside looking in. So if you're new to the process, don’t be scared. Being edited is not as painful as it sounds, and can be enjoyable as well as instructive. The best part is knowing that your book or story will be read after all the hard work – something that is by no means guaranteed when you are writing the book. Without its editors, “I am the Great Horse” would still be a mammoth 200,000-word manuscript with an unpronounceable title lurking in electronic form on my computer.

So I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my editors Barry Cunningham and Imogen Cooper at Chicken House for bringing this book into the world, my American editors over at Scholastic US for the beautiful silver hardcover version, and of course our fabulous guest editor Helen Wire, who should (we promise!) be here next week…

Next: Editing – the editor’s view.


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