An American Editor

March 1, 2017

Copyediting and Line Editing Series Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

Series fiction is a boon for everyone in the publishing chain. Authors have a ready market for their work; independent editors can get repeat work from a single client; publishers have a steady flow of sellable material; readers get their fiction appetites regularly fed.

That combination is why I favor series fiction in my editing business. For independent copyeditors and line editors who may be looking to add series fiction to their roster of services, here are the main factors to consider.

Style sheets

The most important part of editing a series is building a comprehensive style sheet. While this is also true for standalone novels, it’s crucial for series to ensure continuity and consistency between volumes. Months or years may pass between editing each volume, especially if the author is writing and sending them for editing one at a time. Also, different editors might work on different volumes. In both situations, a style sheet constitutes the series’ connective tissue.

Editors working directly with indie authors are free to design style sheets according to their own parameters meshed with the author’s needs. An excellent quartet of essays on what to include on style sheets, and why these items need to be included, was presented here by the previous Thinking Fiction contributor, Amy Schneider. See Part I: General Style, Part II: Characters, Part III: Locations, and Part IV: Timeline.

When editors subcontract to publishers, they must follow the house’s lead on style sheets. The instructions could be as simple as to include character names in alphabetical order and follow Chicago Manual of Style, or as complex as to fill in a fancy-formatted template just so, for characters, places, timeline, and special terms.

Any time editors are hired to work on a series volume later in sequence than volume 1, it’s important to confirm with the indie author or the publisher’s production coordinator whether the editor is expected to make a new style sheet for each new volume or consolidate new material into the style sheet established for the previous volume(s) so that one sheet travels with the series.

Single vs. batch manuscripts

Publisher-provided series usually come to the editor one book at a time with long intervals in between. Series from indie authors, however, may come as either single books or a multivolume batch. While one-at-a-time is most common, batches may come when an author wrote an epic and decided to break it into volumes, or planned from the start to write a trilogy but wanted to complete the whole work before editing.

It’s easier and more efficient to edit a series as a unit than as single books spread out over time, but doing them all in one shot takes a big bite out of the calendar — a downside for editors who like or need to keep a diverse cycle going, but a plus for editors who like tackling large projects. Psychologically, immersion in one world and one author’s style can become grinding without a break. On the other hand, immersion may make the editor aware of slight nuances that change a character or story from what was previously described.

Even if such immersion is desired, editors need to be careful about putting an entire series into one contract. It makes sense to do so on the surface, because in essence the job is one really big novel instead of X number of individual novels, and the style sheet is created once instead of multiple times. But over the extended period of a series job, the risk runs higher than with standalone novels that difficulties might arise, such as:

  • the editor or author might have a change of circumstance and be unable to fulfill their end of the agreement;
  • the editor might recognize too late that they underestimated the scope of work, or the author might dramatically change the scope as the series develops, forcing the contract to be renegotiated and the editor to possibly lose the balance of the project if it gets appreciably more expensive or complex;
  • one party might become dissatisfied with the other’s personality, or the material, partway through and want to bail out.

Editors who haven’t prepared for such possibilities in the contract can get trapped in a bad deal for a long time, making it wise to have a lawyer review the contract before anyone signs. If nothing else, in an all-in-one contract, the editor should make certain there’s an escape clause after each volume.

I prefer to contract for volume 1 separately, then negotiate a rate or service change for the balance of the series after its qualities are understood. That opens the door to losing the subsequent volumes because the author and I can’t agree on what needs to be adjusted, but I’m more comfortable with that risk than those associated with an all-in-one contract. Usually by the time we’re done with volume 1, we’ve established a rapport that allows successful negotiation. When in doubt, I’ll treat each volume as a standalone novel and make a deal for them individually.

Series basics

Each volume in a fiction series must be a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and a character(s) struggling to resolve one or more conflicts. At the same time, each volume must advance an overarching story or theme that evolves during the series and is resolved at series end. In effect, a series author is writing two books simultaneously, for as many volumes as the series runs.

Some beginning authors believe that ending a volume on a cliffhanger will inspire readers to rush to the next volume to find out what happens. More often than not, this backfires, and frustrated readers feel cheated and may not continue with the series. The trick is to leave just enough of the overarching story unresolved in each book to draw readers onward. But the episode covered in a volume must conclude satisfactorily before the next one begins, even if the next episode opens immediately afterward in the timeline. In this regard, series novels follow the same pattern as series TV shows.

A major challenge in writing any fiction is determining how much backstory to include. The goal is to provide enough information to keep readers oriented, and the action and characters in context, without overloading the narrative with an “info dump.” In series fiction, however, the backstory not only has to be provided in the right measure to begin with, but then must be reiterated in subsequent volumes to a different degree. Ideally, readers start with volume 1 when it comes out and eagerly await the next one, and don’t need refreshers as they continue through the series. In reality, readers might discover a series at volume 4, so they must be given enough backstory to understand the basics of what’s going on, without the author having to set up the scenario all over again.

Broadly, volume 1 should establish the premise and key characters for the series, and subsequent volumes should unfold new developments and show character growth. All volumes should refer back to the first with a light touch wherever understanding the new story depends on knowledge of what came before. Some series authors open each volume with a preface covering the previous volumes, but that can get cumbersome after the second or third book and is not commonly done. Other authors may write a prequel to an existing series and provide full backstory for an established audience hungry for more detail.

Tough spots

A tricky situation is when an editor gets volume 2 from an indie author who has already self-published volume 1, and no style sheet comes with the volume 2 manuscript. This might happen if the author didn’t use a professional editor the first time, or if the author wants to switch editors and the original editor didn’t create a style sheet for the job. For the new editor to make the new volume consistent with the first, they need a copy of volume 1 as part of the job and to build extra time into the quote because every style point will need to be backtracked to create the style sheet for the book in hand and any that follow.

It helps the editor to read all volumes of the story that came before, to best understand what’s happening in the new volume — but somebody has to pay for the time it takes to do so. That somebody should be the client, not the editor, so the editor has to factor extra reading time into their quote. It’s less critical to read previous volumes when working for publishers who are on the ball with style sheets, and whose pay rate is low and schedule is tight, because the existing style sheet should have most of the information the editor needs to do the job without becoming upside-down financially. With novels by inexperienced indie authors, though, the backstory can aid an editor in doing their job well so the author will come back for more.

Sometimes what starts out as a standalone novel expands into a series. An editor might work with an indie author on the single title then be contacted later for an unexpected volume 2. Having done a detailed style sheet for the original project will pay the editor back when responding to the second opportunity. If their schedule can’t accommodate the new book, then they’ve at least made life easier for the editor who takes their place. That won’t fill the first editor’s wallet but will reflect positively on their reputation, and maybe bring back the author for volume 3 or lead to future referrals.

Author fatigue

It’s not safe to assume that editing a series will get easier with each volume. Sometimes authors get fatigued from thinking up new stories inside a fixed scenario, or bored by the whole thing, and the quality of their work may deteriorate instead of improve as they push on. Marketplace pressure also can influence an author, in that readers just want more of the same thing while the author itches to stretch in a new direction, or is obliged to turn out the next volume in less time than they need to write it well.

Most copyeditors and line editors aren’t involved in an author’s content angst, but if they’ve been working with the same indie author since volume 1, then they’ve probably established a personal relationship and care about the author’s growth and the series’ success. To help that relationship happen and help authors avoid fatigue before it starts, editors can suggest at the beginning of the series that the author plan a finite number of volumes and outline the primary plot of each one within the plot of the whole. That simple guideline can both direct the author’s energies and allow the editor to raise relevant questions during the series’ progress to help the author stay on task while being creative.

Editing series fiction can be both challenging and rewarding, especially for editors who themselves are series readers. From that habit they know how a series can thrive or pall, or vacillate in its quality, and be motivated to help authors start strong and continually improve. The bonding potential with authors adds a richness to the experience. When the business and technical sides are carefully arranged, then the creative side can bloom to mutual satisfaction and result in a series that delights the reading public and earns income for everyone in the publishing chain.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

January 11, 2017

Thinking Fiction: What Novels Do Fiction Editors Read?

by Carolyn Haley

In follow-up to my survey about what editors in general read for recreation (What Do Editors Read?, I invited fiction editors to share their Top 10 favorite novels, along with something about their background and experience.

Thirty-two editors responded, comprising freelancers plus one cluster of staff and contract editors for a single romance publisher. No one working for a Big 5 traditional publisher participated, giving unbalanced results. However, I wasn’t attempting a rigidly scientific survey of the total editorial population. As with my first survey, I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity about what other editors read, and to share their recommendations for our collective enjoyment. The complete list, owing to length, is posted separately from this essay on the file downloads page at wordsnSync as “What Fiction Editors Read: List of Titles”.

Note that not every responding editor answered every question in the survey; or sometimes they combined answers, or gave more or fewer titles when I asked for ten, and so forth. Thus in this essay I cannot always give “X out of 32” results for a given topic. Since I was looking for patterns rather than conducting a true statistical analysis, I took the liberty of rounding numbers up or down or otherwise generalizing in cases where deviations occurred.

Common denominators

It comes as no surprise to learn that fiction editors read a lot of fiction. What is surprising is how many novels they find time to read. While one editor reports only reading fiction for work, the rest read anywhere from two to sixty (!) novels per month for recreation. Most of them also read short fiction, poetry, blogs, magazines, news media, and nonfiction of all types.

Such heavy reading is somewhat understandable, in that almost half the responders work part time. For them, as with the two retirees, more opportunity for leisure reading is theoretically available. But we can’t draw a blanket conclusion from that, because in several cases the responders edit part time and do something else for the balance of full-time employment—and of course they have the obligations and complexities of a personal life (details of which were not addressed in the survey).

The survey asked broad questions about occupation, education, writing background, and reading habits, to see what other commonalities might exist. The primary criterion for participation was that at least two-thirds of their professional editing work be fiction. In this everyone qualified. There were no other 100% matches, though several predominant features emerged. For instance, all but one responder is female. Three-quarters of the responders are older than forty, and of these, most are in their fifties and sixties. The full age span is twenty-eight to seventy-eight.

Twenty-five responders come from the United States, five from Canada, and one each from the United Kingdom and Australia. Approximately two-thirds of the group have college degrees, of which twelve are in English or a closely related subject. Seven of the thirty-two have a certificate of some sort in editing.

In years of experience, approximately half the responders have been editing professionally for ten years or less and the other half for longer. Six have more than twenty years of experience, and one has more than forty. Most have worked in fiction the bulk of their careers, focusing on novels but also accepting novellas, short stories, and flash fiction (super-short stories), along with assorted nonfiction.

A majority of the responders work with indie authors as their main clients, with a few also working with publishers and packagers. All but one report that they offer multiple types of editing and associated services (the exception being a dedicated developmental editor). Twenty-six of the editors are writers themselves, and almost two-thirds of them have published. Only one-third, however, has published in fiction.

Reading tastes

As readers, the responding fiction editors like darn near everything, with literary, crime, and historical novels dominating. But many of the responding editors enjoy romance and young adult novels, as well as science fiction, fantasy, and eclectic other. The editors read in all formats, with almost two-thirds liking a mix of print, ebook, and audiobook compared to those who prefer print only. One editor has moved entirely away from print, preferring to get her stories via ebooks and audiobooks.

Series

Many of the editors favor series or complete bodies of work by a given author. These responses skewed the results, because among the total consolidated list of 263 novels, not all are unique titles but rather representative titles of a series, or just the series name, or “all works” by an individual. Ninety-four—just over one-third—of all editor responses mentioned part or all of a series. Frequently, responders listed single titles that are part of a series, but they didn’t list the entire series (the rest I uncovered during a title/author spelling check online). I suspect that in many of those cases the responder read all volumes in the series and simply didn’t say so.

Specifics of series titles are shown on the complete list. Below are the series names that came up, and the number of times beyond one that they were mentioned, followed by the shorter list of favorite bodies of work by a given author.

Favored series:

  • A Wrinkle in Time series (2), Madeleine L’Engle
  • Adam Dagliesh series, P. D. James
  • All Souls trilogy, Deborah Harkness
  • Amelia Peabody series, Elizabeth Peters
  • Anita Blank, Vampire Hunter series, Laurell K. Hamilton
  • Atticus Kodiak series, Greg Rucka
  • Austenland series, Shannon Hale
  • Cairo series, Naguib Mahfouz
  • Checquy Files series, Daniel O’Malley
  • Chicago Star series, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  • Chronicles of Ixia, Maria V. Snyder
  • CIA Spies series, Linda Howard
  • Colorado Trust series, Stacey Joy Netzel
  • Cowboy-Fiancé series, Donna Michaels
  • Culture series, Iain M. Banks
  • Dempsey series, Jennifer Crusie
  • Detective Inspector Chen, Liz Williams
  • Discworld series (2), Terry Pratchett
  • Dragonriders of Pern series, Anne McCaffrey
  • Dresden Files series (2), Jim Butcher
  • Drumberley series, D. E. Stevenson
  • Ender series, Orson Scott Card
  • Fever series, Karen Marie Moning
  • Gallaghers of Ardmore series, Nora Roberts
  • Hainish Cycle series, Ursula K Le Guin
  • Haitian Revolutionary series, Madison Smartt Bell
  • Harry Potter series (4), J. K. Rowling
  • Hazelwood High series, Sharon M. Draper
  • Heartbreaker Bay series, Jill Shalvis
  • Heralds of Valdemar series (2), Mercedes Lackey
  • Hidden Wolves series, Kaje Harper
  • Immortals After Dark series, Kresley Cole
  • In Death series, J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts)
  • Irin Chronicles series, Elizabeth Hunter
  • Italy Intrigue series, Stacey Joy Netzel
  • I-Team series, Pamela Clare
  • Jack Reacher series, Lee Child
  • Juliette Chronicles, Tahereh Mafi
  • Kirsten Lavransdatter trilogy, Sigrid Undset
  • Law of Moses series, Amy Harmon
  • Leaphorn and Chee Navajo police series, Tony Hillerman
  • Life Lessons series, Kaje Harper
  • Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Lives of the Mayfair Witches series, Anne Rice
  • Lizzy & Diesel series, Janet Evanovich
  • Logan Family Saga series, Mildred D. Taylor
  • Lord Peter Wimsey series, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Lords of Misrule series, Andy Graham
  • Manawaka series, Margaret Laurence
  • Marrying Stone series, Pamela Morsi
  • Maze Runner series, James Dashner
  • Midnight in Austenland, Shannon Hale
  • Midwife Mystery series, Sam Thomas
  • Millennium series, Steig Larsson
  • Outlander series (3), Diana Gabaldon
  • Plainsong series, Kent Haruf
  • Regeneration series, Pat Barker
  • Riftwar series, Raymond Feist
  • Riyria Revelations series, Michael J. Sullivan
  • Shannara series, Terry Brooks
  • Silo series, Hugh Howey
  • Sinner’s Grove series, A. B. Michaels
  • Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin
  • Species Imperative trilogy, Julie Czerneda
  • Starbridge series, Susan Howatch
  • Starcatchers series, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  • Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich
  • Sword of Truth series, Terry Goodkind
  • The Black Dagger Brotherhood series (2), J. R. Ward
  • The Black Stallion series, Walter Farley
  • The Bourne trilogy , Robert Ludlum
  • The Bronze Horseman series, Paullina Simons
  • The Cat Who series, Lillian Jackson Braun
  • The Chalion series, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • The Deed of Paksennarion series, Elizabeth Moon
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide series (2), Douglas Adams
  • The Hunger Games series (2), Suzanne Collins
  • The Lace Reader series, Brunonia Barry
  • The Lord of the Rings series (2), J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Pillars of the Earth series, Ken Follett
  • The Raven Cycle series, Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Sandman series, Neil Gaiman
  • Thessaly series, Jo Walton
  • Tillerman Cycle series (2), Cynthia Voigt
  • Vampire Chronicles series, Anne Rice
  • Vorkosigan saga, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Wolf Hall series, Hilary Mantel

Favored author bodies of work:

  • Clive Cussler
  • Harlan Coben
  • John Grisham
  • Lawrence Block
  • Lee Child
  • Nora Roberts
  • Sandra Brown (mysteries only)

Works such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were sometimes listed as standalone titles and other times as series. I’ve included them under the series listing because most people who read them read all volumes.

Duplicate titles

In the main, responders mentioned individual titles. The list below shows novels mentioned by two or more responders (with the number in parentheses indicating how many more than two).

  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee (3)
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (6)
  • Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Living, Annie Dillard
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Duplicate authors

Individual authors were mentioned by multiple responders in conjunction with different titles. There were instances where a responder listed different titles by the same author on their own list, and also a few cases where one responder mentioned a specific title and a second responder mentioned “all works” by the same author or a series. The list below, however, only includes authors mentioned by different responders, specifying different titles.

  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Charles Dickens
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Daphne Du Maurier
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Jane Austen
  • Jodi Picoult
  • John Steinbeck
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Linda Howard
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ursula Le Guin
  • Virginia Woolf

Oddballs and exceptions

Not every responder understood the directions in the questionnaire, or else rushed through it and missed a request. For instance, I asked exclusively for novels, but two responders included memoirs and one included a nonfiction title. Although I’ve included these titles on the complete list, I do not include them in the full count.

Likewise, the request for “your favorite novelist” was commonly ignored, or people just couldn’t answer because they had so many (with one responder saying, “You’re kidding, right?”). Among those who did answer, or listed multiple authors, there was erratic correlation between favorite authors and those on the individual’s Top 10 list. Favorite authors mentioned are shown below (with the number in parentheses indicating how many times more than once their names came up).

  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Anne Rice
  • Bess Streeter Aldrich
  • Beverly Nault
  • Charles Dickens
  • Connie Willis
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • D. E. Stevenson
  • Dean Koontz
  • Diana Gabaldon (2)
  • Dick Francis
  • Donna Tartt
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Douglas Adams
  • Drayton Mayrant
  • Eliot Baker
  • Elizabeth Cadell
  • Elizabeth Moon
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Helen MacInnes
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • J. K. Rowling
  • James Patterson
  • Jane Austen (2)
  • Janet Evanovich
  • J. D. Ward
  • Jodi Picoult
  • Jonathan Franzen
  • Joseph C. Lincoln
  • Judy Ann Davis
  • Karen Marie Moning
  • Laurel Hamilton
  • Linda Howard
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Maeve Binchy
  • Markus Zusak
  • Mary Balogh
  • Nevada Barr (2)
  • Nora Roberts (2)
  • P. D. James
  • Patricia Cornwall
  • Peter Carey
  • Peter Mayle
  • Rita Bay
  • Ruth Rendell
  • Sam Thomas
  • Sigrid Undset
  • Terry Brooks
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Tony Hillerman

Survey overlaps

While processing the fiction editors’ questionnaires, I looked for overlaps with my first survey, even though it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. The first survey involved thirteen nonfiction-dominant editors, while this one involved thirty-two fiction-dominant editors. Nevertheless, their tastes crossed thirteen times for specific titles and seventeen times for authors (meaning, different books by the same author mentioned twice or more). Most of these titles and authors can be considered “literary” and/or “classic.”

Title overlaps:

  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • The Lord of the Rings series, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Persuasion, Jane Austen
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • Discworld series, Terry Pratchett
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

Author overlaps:

  • Jane Austen
  • Charles Dickens
  • Charlotte Brontë
  • Connie Willis
  • David Mitchell
  • Dick Francis
  • Edith Wharton
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Ian McEwan
  • John Fowles
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Michael J. Sullivan
  • Sarah Waters
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Umberto Eco
  • Virginia Woolf

Conclusions

Putting it all together, I observed three superstars—Jane Austen, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis—whose names came up multiple times no matter what criterion I used to view and sort the reading lists of the fiction and nonfiction editors I surveyed, separately or combined. Another standout was Terry Pratchett, whose enormous Discworld series appealed to editors of both types.

While I was not surprised to see these and many other familiar names on so many people’s lists, I was surprised to see who didn’t appear. Agatha Christie, for example. She is considered one of — if not the — top-selling novelists of all time, yet none of the fiction responders in my survey mentioned her. She did, however, appear once on the nonfiction editors’ list (also on my own list, which was appended to that essay but not counted in the results).

Among the fiction editors, there seems to be a gap between classic and contemporary works that leaves many vintage mega-sellers behind, such as Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon, Georges Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner, and many others, all of whom were hugely popular in their day. Also notably absent is household name Stephen King (who did, unexpectedly, appear on one nonfiction editor’s literary-biased list). But J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame had a strong presence, even though that series was marketed for young adults, whereas Danielle Steele, still writing prolifically with an enormous fan base, wasn’t mentioned even by the editors who gobble up romance and women’s fiction.

What I found to be significant among all the editors surveyed was how widely their tastes range. See for yourself the complete fiction editors list here: “What Fiction Editors Read: List of Titles”.

Postscript: Apparently I’m not the only one doing this type of survey. For a literary take, see “The Most Important Books of the Last Twenty Years”. A handful of titles and authors on this list overlap both my surveys.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

November 2, 2016

Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part II)

by Carolyn Haley

In Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part I), I described an informal survey I made among editorial colleagues to learn what novels they felt to be Really Good. Thirteen responded. What follows is the balance of the responders’ lists of Really Good novels, along with profile information for context.

Editors’ personal favorites (the final ten)

Editor #4: female, 76, Washington

  • Professional experience: 30 years; retired from staff position, currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (business communications), doing copy and line editing for business consultancies and professional services firms.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (American studies), post-grad (incomplete, in film). Studied some literature and writing in high school and college.
  • Recreational reading: 2–3 books per month, approximately half novels, always in print. Prefers general fiction and mystery. Favorite fiction author: varies constantly, with Jo Nesbo current favorite.
  • Top 7:

A Little Princess, Francis Hodgson Burnett
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Anne of Green Gables (lead title of the 6-volume series w/prequels and sequels), Lucy Maud Montgomery
Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles

Editor #5: female, 79, California

  • Professional experience: 50 years; retired from nonfiction (educational materials, esp. biology and health) doing developmental editing for textbook publishers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (biology), master’s (human ecology), doctorate (education). Studied some literature and writing in college.
  • Recreational reading: 5 books per month, approximately half novels. Prefers general fiction. Favorite fiction author: Margaret Atwood.
  • Top 10:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Candide, Voltaire
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow
Native Son, Richard Wright
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
Walden Two, B. F. Skinner

Editor #6: male, 69, Connecticut

  • Professional experience: 20+ years; currently full-time self-employed in mainly memoir and family history, some business/technical, doing developmental, line and copy editing, and production services for individual authors and companies.
  • Highest level of schooling: college without degree (math/computer science, English minor). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 2 books per month, mainly nonfiction, a few non-business-related novels per year, always in print. Prefers an eclectic mix. Favorite fiction author: no opinion.
  • Top 10:

1984, George Orwell
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Chermpf, book 1 The Cats of Nova, William S. Russell III
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

Editor #7: female, 36, central Europe

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently full-time staff in nonfiction and science (medical and physics), doing developmental, line, and copy editing for NGOs.
  • Highest level of schooling: undergrad (German and linguistics), grad (applied linguistics). Studied German literature in school.
  • Recreational reading: 5–10 books per month, mostly novels, always in print. Prefers literary fiction. Favorite fiction author: Anne Tyler.
  • Top 10:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Gut gegen Nordwind (trans. Love Virtually), Daniel Glattauer
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell, Susanna Clarke
Larry’s Party, Carol Shields
Of Love and Other Demons, Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
The Eyre Affair (lead title of the Thursday Next series, 7+ volumes ongoing), Jasper Fforde
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

Editor #8: female, 52, Jamaica

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently full-time self-employed in nonfiction, moving into fiction, doing copy editing and indexing for individual authors, publishers, packagers, and businesses.
  • Highest level of schooling: graduate (library and information science). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 4 books per month, mainly novels, in print and ebook. No category preference or favorite author.
  • Top 10:

1984, George Orwell
A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul
Green Days by the River, Michael Anthony
Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror (lead title of the 4-volume [plus prequel] Meg series), Steve Alten
Native Son, Richard Wright
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Silas Marner, George Eliot
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Weaveworld, Clive Barker

Editor #9: female, 69, Hawaii

  • Professional experience: 10 years; currently part-time self-employed in environmental sciences (ESL), science fiction and fantasy, doing developmental editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: associate’s (STEM), bachelor’s and incomplete master’s (anthropology). Studied some literature and writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 30 books per month, mainly novels, in ebook. Prefers science fiction and fantasy, 19th-century novels, and mystery. Favorite fiction author: no opinion.
  • Top 10:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Genji Monogatari (trans. The Tale of Genji), Murasaki Shikibu
Heartsease, Charlotte Yonge
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Peter Grant series (lead title Midnight Riot, 6+ volumes ongoing), Ben Aaronovitch
The Curse of Chalion (lead title of the 3-volume Chalion series), Lois McMaster Bujold
The Goblin Emperor, Sara Monette (writing as Katherine Addison)
The Martian, Andy Weir
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (lead title in series of same name, 16+ volumes ongoing), Alexander McCall Smith
Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Editor #10: male, 56, Massachusetts

  • Professional experience: 23 years; currently full-time staff managing editor for a nonprofit periodical.
  • Highest level of schooling: no college degree. Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 4–5 books per month, mainly novels, in ebook. Prefers speculative fiction. Favorite fiction author: Ursula Le Guin.
  • Top 10:

A Door Into Ocean (lead title of the 4-volume Elysium Cycle series), Joan Slonczewski
Ancillary Justice (lead title of the 3-volume Imperial Radch series), Ann Leckie
Doctor Thorne (book 3 of the 6-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire), Anthony Trollope
Little, Big: Or, The Fairies’ Parliament, John Crowley
Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The Sparrow (lead title of the 2-volume Sparrow series), Mary Doria Russell
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Editor #11: male, 73, Ohio

  • Professional experience: 9 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction and fiction, doing line and copy editing for self-publishing clients.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s and incomplete master’s (music). Studied some literature and writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 5 books per month, approximately half novels, in print and ebook. Prefers literary fiction. Favorite fiction author: multiple.
  • Top 10:

11/22/63, Stephen King
American Pastoral (lead title of the 3-volume American Trilogy series), Philip Roth
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Rabbit quadrilogy (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), John Updike
The Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) , Kim Stanley Robinson
Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell

Editor #12: male, 41, Texas

  • Professional experience: 4 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (academic, ESL), doing mixed editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: Ph.D. (ethnomusicology). Studied some literature and writing in college.
  • Recreational reading: 10 books per month, mainly nonfiction with a few novels, always in print. Prefers literary fiction and fantasy. Favorite fiction author: Dostoevsky.
  • Top 10:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland along with Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
Aubrey–Maturin series (21 volumes starting with Master and Commander), Patrick O’Brian
Chaos Walking trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men), Patrick Ness
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Descent into Hell, Charles Williams
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The Chronicles of Narnia (7 volumes starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), C. S. Lewis
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Lord of the Rings together with The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Neverending Story, Michael Ende

Editor #13 (aka An American Editor): male, 68, New York

  • Professional experience: 32 years; currently semi-retired self-employed in nonfiction (medical), doing line and copy editing for publishers and packagers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (political science), JD (law). Did not study literature or writing in school.
  • Recreational reading: 4–6 books per month, a few novels, in print and ebook. Prefers science fiction and fantasy. Favorite fiction author: David Weber.
  • Top 10:

Age of Myth (lead title of what is planned to be a 5-volume series called The Legends of the First Empire), Michael J. Sullivan
Honor Harrington series (15 volumes ongoing, plus spin-offs, starting with On Basilisk Station) and Safehold series (9 volumes ongoing, starting with Off Armageddon Reef), David Weber
Inspector Lynley series (19 volumes ongoing, starting with A Great Deliverance), Elizabeth George
Inspector Maigret series (75 volumes starting with The Strange Case of Peter the Lett), George Simenon
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis
Jason Bourne trilogy (The Bourne Identity, The Bource Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), Robert Ludlum
Saga of Recluce series (lead title The Magic of Recluce, 17 volumes ongoing) and The Imager Portfolio series (10 volumes ongoing, starting with Imager), L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Sentence of Marriage, Shayne Parkinson
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

As an addendum for those who are curious, here are my own choices and data. I have not counted them in the survey results.

Editor #14: female, 60, Vermont

  • Professional experience: 35 years; currently full-time self-employed primarily fiction, doing line and copy editing for publishers and individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: college without degree (art and animal science), certificate in copyediting. Studied literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 5–10 books per month, almost all novels, in print only. Prefers mystery, hybrid romance, and historical fiction. Favorite fiction author: Dick Francis.
  • Top 10:

Aubrey–Maturin series (21 volumes starting with Master and Commander), Patrick O’Brian
Complete oeuvre, Dick Francis
Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger
Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams
Mike Bowditch series (6 volumes ongoing starting with The Poacher’s Son), Paul Doiron
Mrs. Mike (lead title of the 3-volume Mrs. Mike series), Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Nemesis (12th of the 13-volume Miss Marple series), Agatha Christie
The Eleventh Man, Ivan Doig
The Flicka trilogy (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, Green Grass of Wyoming), Mary O’Hara
Under the Tonto Rim, Zane Grey

I’m sure you’ll agree that the total collection shows intriguing diversity, creating that book buffet I was hoping for. Among the offerings, you will find many selections that make you nod in agreement, blink in astonishment, and jot down a list of new material you’d like to sample. That’s the goal of the next survey, too, which will focus on dedicated fiction editors’ reading preferences.

Stay tuned!

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

October 12, 2016

Thinking Fiction: What Do Editors Read? (Part I)

by Carolyn Haley

In thinking about subjectivity in fiction writing and editing, as I so often do, I became curious about my editorial colleagues’ reading preferences. What do they consider good novels?

Their opinions would be diverse, I knew, which led me to wondering just how diverse. If ten different editors walked into a bookstore and each bought ten books, how many would choose the same title(s)?

No better way to find out than to ask, so I turned to Copyediting-L, a long-standing e-mail list group of both self-employed and staff editors; current, retired, and aspiring. Seeking to satisfy my curiosity and maybe write an essay if enough people responded, I posted an informal invitation for anyone to send me a list of ten published novels that “you think are Really Good,” which the editors had read “any time from birth to today.”

Thirteen editors responded, with twelve providing a full list and the thirteenth providing a partial list, for a total of 127 titles. Only eight titles were duplicated, or 6.3%, making a total list of 119 unique titles. None of the eight duplications was selected by more than two editors.

These numbers satisfy my curiosity in general. A broader sampling and more formal questionnaire will show whether or not the baker’s dozen of responders represents the editorial community of many thousands. I will conduct a larger survey in the future and see what arises. For now, the starter sampling is interesting in what it does and does not present.

General results

To frame the list in some sort of context, I asked the responding editors for basic data about themselves, their work, and their recreational reading habits.

The thirteen responders comprised eight women and five men. Beyond that I have data for only twelve, because one did not submit details. The dozen are located around the world, with the majority in the United States. Their ages range from thirty-six to seventy-nine, and their years of professional experience range from four to fifty. Two of the responders edit full time, nine edit part time (a definition that includes “semi-retired”), and one is retired. Of those still editing commercially, ten are self-employed and one holds a staff position. Only four work on fiction at all, and none exclusively. This last point surprised me, as I would have expected fiction-dedicated editors to be the primary responders to my survey.

What did not surprise me is that the majority of responders prefer to read recreationally on paper. Whether this reflects their eyesight or personalities and lifestyles, I did not seek enough information to explain. I’m sure it’s not a matter of age, because the two responders who read exclusively ebooks are fifty-six and sixty-nine, while the two youngest (thirty-six and forty-one) are dedicated to print. Of the ten print devotees, six prefer print books only, while four mix print books with ebooks.

Another element that did not surprise me in the editors’ recreational reading choices was a bias toward literary novels. Most of the selected titles came from literary and general fiction, including the bulk of duplications. As mentioned above, there were eight overlaps in title (same novel mentioned by two different responders) but also eight overlaps in author (separate titles by same author mentioned by two different responders).

Title duplications

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  4. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  5. Pride and Prejudice, also by Austen
  6. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Author duplications

  1. Jane Austen
  2. Charles Dickens
  3. Umberto Eco
  4. George Eliot
  5. George Orwell
  6. J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. Anne Tyler
  8. Edith Wharton

Second to literary and general fiction came speculative fiction — “spec fiction” being the collective term for fantasy, science fiction, alternative history, and the like. This was unexpected (I would have guessed mystery), as was the number of series mentioned. Genre romance was conspicuous by its absence (no surprise), but other genres made an appearance, such as historical fiction, suspense, and mystery. It might seem at first that horror was also represented, because titles by well-known horror writers Clive Barker and Stephen King showed up, but both authors write other material, and in this case the responders selected from those authors’ spec-fiction novels.

Most titles were traditionally published. But three self-published novels made the list: Sentence of Marriage by Shayne Parkinson, via CreateSpace; Chermpf by William S. Russell III, via a private press; and The Martian by Andy Weir. The Martian exemplifies many writers’ dream scenario. The author, in his twenties, initially wrote the story as a serial on his website. Reader demand led to a book available via Kindle. When that became a best seller, the author was approached by a literary agent (compared to the usual situation of authors soliciting agent attention). A big-name publisher then acquired the novel, which made the New York Times best-seller list and went on to become a popular movie that received awards and its actors earned Academy Award nominations. It’s amazing to see that story on the same list as one of the oldest stories in the world, The Tale of Genji (ca. 1021, Japan).

The subjectivity factor

As always when I run a survey, there’s a rogue element I didn’t anticipate. This time it was interpretation of the request: “send me a list of 10 published novels you think are Really Good.” I should have emphasized you, because one editor glided past it and focused on the cap emphasis of Really Good, saying, “I’m not sure how far I can get with such a list. I’m not really a fan of Really Good novels. I lean more toward schlock. For example I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a college freshman, and it left me cold. Never picked it up again, either. Maybe I’d think differently today. OTOH, I’ve read Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair probably three times. That’s not a Really Good novel; it’s well-crafted escape literature.”

That comment bowled me over. Why can’t “well-crafted escape literature” and “schlock” be Really Good for someone? Josephine Tey, as it happens, wrote what the British Crime Writers’ Association deemed to be “the greatest mystery novel of all time” (Daughter of Time) in its 1990 Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. The same association placed The Franchise Affair at number eleven on the list. That kind of ranking suggests a novel that mystery lovers might find Really Good. (This is confirmed on our list of thirteen responders, two of whom selected titles that are on the BCWA’s top one hundred: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.)

The commenting editor goes on to say, “I’m not sure if Dickens can be counted as Really Good. Pretty sure Gone With the Wind doesn’t count. Nor any of my childhood favorites — Burnett’s A Little Princess and Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, for example.”

The obvious subjectivity revealed here is why I asked the survey respondents what they, not their school teachers or other literary authorities, think is Really Good, and why I put Anne of Green Gables, Gone with the Wind, and The Franchise Affair on the results list instead of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I believe that literature comprises the body of written work produced by the general population, and that it contains something for everyone, and ranges as broadly in quality as it does in diversity. I sought, through this survey, to learn about editors’ different tastes in creative literature, specifically novels, and to assemble a book buffet for all of us to sample from.

A different responder similarly found a distinction between popular fiction and literature, mentioned in an exchange we had about Stephen King. This editor’s title list was predominantly literary fiction, so when commercial giant King’s 11/22/63 appeared on his list, I was startled enough to initiate discussion. King is reviled by some literati as a hack who produces schlock. But this responder felt that 11/22/63 “stands apart” and “may come to be recognized as his best book. The story is absolutely extraordinary…and the writing is really top-notch.”

That sounds Really Good to me!

You can see for yourself what the responding editors enjoyed reading in the break-out that follows. Although the list of editor’s favorites begins in this essay, owing to length, the list will conclude in the next Thinking Fiction column. Each editor’s list is accompanied by a brief profile.

Editors’ personal favorites (the first three)

Editor #1: female, 51, non-U.S.

  • Professional experience: 9 years; currently part-time self-employed in nonfiction (library and information studies) doing copy editing, proofreading, some developmental editing, plus teaching and consulting, for individuals (esp. students) and publishers.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (English literature and history), master’s (library and information studies), doctorate in process (information science).
  • Recreational reading: 6–8 nonfiction and 1–3 novels per month, also poetry and essays, always in print. Prefers general fiction with special interest in fantasy and historical fiction. Favorite author: Terry Pratchett.
  • Top 10:

Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation), Isaac Asimov
Interesting Times (17th of the 40+ volume Discworld series), Terry Pratchett
People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
The Chronicles of Narnia (7 volumes starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), C. S. Lewis
The Emperor’s Winding Sheet, Jill Paton Walsh
The Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father, Roy Lewis
The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
The Night Watch (29th of the 40+ volume Discworld series), Terry Pratchett
The Third Policeman, Brian O’Nolan (writing as Flann O’Brien)

Editor #2: female, no other data provided.

  • Top 10:

Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-gazer, Sena Jeter Naslund
Atonement, Ian McKewan
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
The World According to Garp, John Irving

Editor #3: female, 60, California

  • Professional experience: 12 years; currently part-time self-employed in memoir and occasional fiction, doing line and developmental editing for individual authors.
  • Highest level of schooling: bachelor’s (biology). Studied some literature and writing in high school.
  • Recreational reading: 2 books per month, mixed nonfiction and novels, always in print. Prefers romantic adventure, classics, and mystery. Favorite fiction author: Edith Wharton.
  • Top 10:

A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen
City of Thieves, David Benioff
Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach
Mrs. Mike (lead title of the 3-volume Mrs. Mike series), Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton
The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde
The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy

You can catch the trend of the list from just these first samples. Most of the titles have been around for years — decades, generations! — and can be considered classics; indeed, some have been standards for study in advanced English/literature classes in schools. They prove that good stories stand the test of time, and suggest that editors take their fiction seriously.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

September 21, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Factors That Make a Novel Publishable

by Carolyn Haley

A common belief among authors and editors is that any well-written novel will find a publisher. Although that is broadly true, there are other factors at play, such as luck, perseverance, subjectivity, and economics. These factors, in varying combinations, explain why novels get published at different quality levels of writing and storytelling — or not at all.

A saying I heard decades ago puts the equation simply: an author must get the right book onto the right person’s desk on the right day. Published novelists who have submitted a book to multiple parties can affirm the veracity of that statement. Some writers nail the combination on their first attempt; others labor for years before success; some never achieve success. Still, whether they get published depends on somebody’s accepting their book, based on personal or corporate criteria.

Multiple choices

The right-book/right-desk/right-day combination applies only to traditional publishing. Until recent times, that was an author’s sole path to publication (unless the author wanted to spend thousands of dollars with a vanity press, which carried a stigma most writers didn’t want to bear, even if they could afford it). Authors had to satisfy the gatekeepers of the publishing industry — agents and acquisition editors — who always had to consider a novel’s commercial potential, as well as the author’s potential for long-term output. Some of the larger publishing houses could afford to take risks on unknown or radically different authors, and indeed that’s how many now-household-name, award-winning writers got their break. For the most part, though, a novel’s publishability depended on whether the house thought it could sell the book to enough readers to justify the cost of production and distribution, and generate enough profit to pay the writer and refill the publisher’s coffers.

The same conditions apply today, but novelists now have publishing options that lie between the opposite poles of traditional and vanity publishing: self-publishing. Self-publishing is considered by some to be vanity publishing under a different name, but with the electronic era have come new outlets for distribution, new tools giving authors desktop production and control, and myriad author-service vendors to help at different skill levels. The combination has created a third arena, one that places publishability determination into authors’ hands. The vanity stigma is fading fast as well-known authors reject suffocating corporate contracts and release new novels or reissue their backlists through self-publishing alternatives. A small but growing cadre of new authors is building their names and making great incomes from bypassing the old system. As a result, what makes a novel publishable has changed with the times.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is reader desire for a good story. Many authors have great story ideas, but their narrative technique is weak or sloppy. That’s where hands-on editors (copyeditors, line editors, developmental editors) enter the publishing process. But it’s rare for those editors to have decision-making authority regarding what novels get accepted for publication.

Whose standards apply?

Today a novel’s publishability depends on context. In self-publishing, authors have sole decision-making authority, influenced perhaps by their support circle and understanding of the market for their work. For them it’s a matter of getting the right book into the right channel, and they can release it at whatever writing quality level suits them and their audience.

In traditional publishing, a house’s acquiring editor makes the initial decision on behalf of the company, although managing or executive editors, and/or key people in accounting or marketing departments, might overrule their choice. Writing quality may be important to a house, but sometimes the best-written works have the narrowest audience appeal, so novels of perhaps lower writing quality but higher demand continue to be acquired in order to subsidize the less-popular books and any high-risk extraordinary works the house wants to take a chance on.

Publishability might also depend on a multibook-author’s track record, in both sales and reliability in producing new books on time, without hassle. Each publishing house has a hoodoo–voodoo equation on how best to invest their marketing dollars. Do they want to build an author’s readership over time, or make a fortune on a single novel’s potential to expand into other media? Are they interested in prize-winning literary candidates, or cultivating a mass audience in popular genres? Any or all of these factors influence which manuscripts are selected for publication.

The largest and most influential publishing houses have candidates fed to them by literary agents. The “Big Five” publishers (Hachette Group, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and HarperCollins) are corporate giants whose multiple imprints still offer the prestige, support, and income possibilities sought by many authors. The agents who direct material to the Big Five have no decision-making clout beyond which authors they choose to represent, which manuscripts they choose to submit, and the timing of the submissions. An agent’s job is to apply marketplace savvy to the flood of submissions they receive, and select the most appropriate novels to pitch to the editors in their network. Agents live on commission, so they look for novels they can sell. At the same time, they understand the subjectivity and unpredictability of public and editorial taste, and may choose to gamble on novels they love. In that frame of reference, they decide what’s publishable, though they are subject to the same fickleness of fate that authors must endure: getting the right book onto the right person’s desk on the right day.

Outside the Big Five, authors can fend for themselves with independent and genre-specific publishers. The smaller or more focused the house, the easier it is for authors to have their work accepted. Ebook-only houses seem to be the path of least resistance for many.

Where’s the editor?

Noticeably absent from the above scenarios are the hands-on editors — copyeditors, line editors, developmental editors — the people who actually get involved in the revision and fine-tuning of an author’s writing, as compared to acquisition or managing editors who make business decisions about a work. Hands-on editors are involved in publishability decisions only in small companies, where most everyone wears more than one hat. Still, there’s always someone who has executive authority and deems a novel worth the economic risk of publishing it, regardless of a hands-on editor’s passion (or lack of passion) for the project. It might be that the rejected book is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, but if the deciding party doesn’t think so, then it goes back to the author to try somewhere else.

The larger the publishing company, the farther away from decision making a hands-on editor sits. Self-employed editors are farthest from that decision, especially if they work with self-publishing authors, who alone decide what to do with their edited books. For hands-on editors, it’s a built-in job frustration to diligently contribute to a novel’s publishability while the outcome is beyond their control. So to be happy in their work, they need to know and manage their personal tolerance for quality deviations, and understand their role in the publishing process. Staff hands-on editors must be in tune with their employer’s overarching policy and criteria so they can either edit what’s handed to them or pass it on with instructions to freelance editors. The self-employed hands-on editor, often the editor a book is being passed to, must establish her own parameters so she can decide what projects to accept and how to handle them. Hands-on editors must always bear in mind that once a manuscript leaves their desks, someone else decides whether the book merits publishing.

More variables

Different publisher types have different factors to balance when deciding what to novels to publish. A senior acquisitions editor at, say, Random House, who serves best-selling authors in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook, with subsidiary rights involving translation and film options and ancillary products, will have one set of criteria to juggle. A managing editor at a genre press that employs eight people who work out of their homes, producing mainly ebooks with print-on-demand options, will have different, often less stringent, criteria for deciding what to accept and reject. An indie author self-publishing through CreateSpace can do whatever she wants, limited by how much time, effort, and money she wants to spend—just like the publishing companies.

Competition among authors to get accepted by a top-tier house is fierce, and those with the best-crafted, most-compelling story ideas with broadest appeal have the best chance of being accepted at that level. “Best crafted” and “most compelling,” however, do not always equate with “well written.” Separating literary excellence and commercial viability can be difficult for authors and hands-on editors, but it helps both to grasp the fluid balance between these elements and adjust their expectations accordingly. A high-aspiring author paired with a relaxed-standards editor may not be a good match; likewise, an editor with classic literary standards may not work well with authors shooting for easy commercial success.

It serves both parties to share an understanding of the author’s goals for the novel vis-à-vis what the author has actually written, as well as the author’s potential and willingness to push to higher standards if need be. A realistic perspective on whether a novel is “good enough” to be published helps the work become the right book on the right person’s desk on the right day — or, in the case of self-publishers, the right book in the right channel. Professional hands-on editors are able to guide authors along the path to finding that perspective and help them achieve the writing and storytelling quality desired by their audience.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

August 8, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Fighting in Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

I edit a lot of genre novels, and many of them include funny fighting. Not the ha-ha kind of funny, but the eye-rolling, groaning kind of funny caused by absurd or impossible situations. I believe some authors create such scenes because they have lived secure, nonviolent lives, and gained their impressions of battle from media. Young writers, in particular, are prone to composing fight and chase scenes that come across like video games. But young or old, many authors’ combat scenes show either a lack of direct experience or a failure to do research. As a result, the ordinary heroes they strive so hard to make human and believable suddenly become idiots or superheroes when faced with violence.

Editors sometimes allow fighting bloopers to pass unchallenged because they, too, have led secure, nonviolent lives. Editing is a desk job, and the types of people drawn to it generally are neither fighters nor athletes, nor come from mean streets. An inaccurate fight scene may make just as much sense to the editor as the novelist. Which is fine in one context but a problem in another, because savvy readers will spot the bloopers and lose faith in the author.

The difference between a context that works and one that doesn’t is nicely defined in a reference book I recently discovered, Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall, a volume in this author’s Writer’s Craft technique series. She calls one context the “gritty fight scene” (realism and brevity required) and the other context the “entertaining fight scene” (realism and brevity optional). Understanding the difference is key to determining whether a scene involving violent action is plausible.

Writing Fight Scenes is the most helpful resource I’ve found for both writing and editing fight scenes. It covers not only the gritty-vs.-entertaining distinction, but also ancient and contemporary weapons (including magical ones); unarmed combat and self-defense; how to use settings in fights; individual and group combat; nautical and land battles; differences in technique and advantages between men and women; fighting with and like animals (including fantasy beasts); and psychological barriers to successful fighting. For each topic the author includes “Blunders to Avoid” and provides video and website links for more information and illustration.

The book also includes tips on story and fight pacing, and vocabulary to use for best effect in different scenarios. It comes in both ebook and paperback format. I recommend it to all authors and editors working in adventure fiction.

In the absence of such a handy reference work, and any personal experience in combat, editors can still spot implausibilities in client manuscripts. They just have to know the basics.

The Big Three

The problem areas I see most often in fight scenes pertain to weapons in general and firearms in particular; the next most often seen problem areas are implausible character actions and reactions.

Firearms

The basics of gunfighting involve weapon and ammo types, handling characteristics, and sounds. Authors who have experience with firearms usually get their facts right, and editors just have to spot-check a few to confirm, then verify exact spellings of makes and models throughout the manuscript. Authors with no firearms experience, however, tend to just say “a gun,” sometimes specifying handgun, rifle, shotgun, or machine gun, but often not knowing, say, that revolver and pistol aren’t synonyms. (A revolver is a type of pistol, but not all pistols are revolvers.)

The type of gun and its ammunition can profoundly affect the veracity of a story. A popular fight outcome is the shoulder wound, where a bullet passes cleanly through the narrow bit of flesh in that joint and the hero keeps on swinging. While this is possible, it’s extremely unlikely for anyone to be that lucky. Most bullets would damage or destroy the joint and drop the hero like a stone, or at least put him out of action. Any gunshot wound is likely to cause shock. More often than not, a gunshot wound means an ambulance ride.

Then again, adrenaline — the amazing chemical that allows humans to perform extreme physical feats — lets people live through their injuries to win the day, then collapse later. The same is true for certain drugs. So fictional fight scenes can get dramatic and remain within the realm of believability. But to get there, the author must lay the foundation prior to the fight scene and be accurate with the details of weapons and human physiology.

An often overlooked detail is the noise guns produce when fired. In general, small-caliber weapons make cracking or popping sounds, and large-caliber weapons make bangs and booms. All firearms are LOUD. People who practice at shooting ranges wear ear protection for good reason; and people within blocks or miles will likely hear the firing. Shootouts can’t occur without drawing attention unless the shooters are way out in the boondocks or employing silencers, so editors must watch for gun battles that occur in a vacuum. They must also be aware that certain powers of ammunition will cut through barriers of different material, and others will ricochet around in a closed environment, creating new dangers. Unimpeded bullets can travel long distances and hit unintended targets.

Every action involving a firearm has consequences on several levels. Characters can’t just whip out a weapon and fire it without the author accounting for where it came from. Save for very compact personal-protection weapons designed for concealed carry, or very high-tech weapons made of ultralightweight materials, firearms are bulky and heavy. Handguns without proper holsters make clothing bulge or sag, and can turn purses into shoulder-straining totes. Among inexperienced shooters, firing handguns can fatigue or strain wrists and bruise palms with recoil. Rifles and shotguns are renowned for their kick, and can’t be concealed without special clothing or carriers. Any weapon needs to be reloaded if the gunfight goes on for a while, so authors must remember to provide their characters with ammunition.

Authors also need to account for weapons during and after a fight scene. For instance, hot barrels on handguns that are slipped back inside clothing can cause new problems. Dropped long guns can change a fight outcome by getting tripped on underfoot. One thing a weapon cannot do is disappear from the scene, unless magic is involved. Too often I see weapons arrive and depart at author convenience to enhance drama. Equally often I see amateur shooters hit moving targets. This is acceptable if there’s any backstory that explains where the character got training and practice. Without that background, however, there’s almost no chance it would happen in real life.

Character actions

It’s common in manuscripts containing inaccurate fighting details to also have the hero and villain chatter during their battle(s). I call this “honor fighting” because it’s more about the characters’ psychological battle than actually taking the other guy out. When in reality combatants would have no breath for conversation, in honor fighting they bait and insult each other, explain their motives, reveal their secrets…meanwhile giving so much time for henchmen to ambush the other party while distracted, and so much opportunity for any form of power reversal, that the encounter becomes silly. This is where Hall’s “gritty” versus “entertaining” distinction especially pertains. Honor fighting has no place in a gritty story, which is why otherwise compelling tales may move readers to groans or laughter during climax battles.

A story centered on a character desperately trying to stop someone from wrecking their life turns unbelievable when they ignore a golden chance to stop them; worse when they ignore multiple chances. Logic says that if you fear someone and they’re trying to kill you, you do everything you can to stop them before they can get you. When characters fail to do this, they need darn good reasons. Editors need to ensure the author has supported such action or inaction in the story leading up to it.

A subset of honor fighting is incomplete disabling of henchmen. In so many stories that it’s become cliché, heroes fight their way through a screen of hardened bad guys on their way to the target villain, knocking them down and moving on. Then they are surprised when some or all of the bad guys bounce back to menace them again. I suppose the author is trying to demonstrate the hero’s humaneness by having him not kill people unnecessarily. And when urgency counts, there’s no time to truss everyone up, and usually no materials. So why doesn’t the hero at least give a second blow to ensure prolonged unconsciousness, or kick out a knee, or something to guarantee he won’t suffer a rear attack? In a story attempting to be realistic, this warrants a query.

Character reactions

Who among us has not sliced their finger with a kitchen knife or bonked their head against a door, or barked their shin on a coffee table, or slipped on the stairs? Each of those impacts gives hard pain at the time and lingering pain afterward, and generates bruises or blood. Sometimes simple domestic accidents cause injuries that require a trip to the emergency room.

From that knowledge, an editor can extrapolate the effects of getting slammed in the face with a two-by-four piece of lumber swung by a 250-pound man, or even a 99-pound weakling in a berserker rage. How credible is it that an ordinary person would rebound and chase the villain after that kind of hit? More likely, one would be spitting out teeth if one managed to stand up at all. A fictional character who doesn’t get similarly affected must have backstory provided to account for his ability to stay in action after a mighty blow. This pertains equally to being punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, thrown, and falling from a height.

Framing Fights Credibly

Violence is ugly and painful. If it’s part of a gritty story, it has to reflect reality. If it’s part of an entertaining story, realism can be bent or ignored. Authors unwilling to do their homework might be able to fool equally uneducated editors and readers, but the world is a harsh enough place that a substantial audience knows how violence works and can see through author fudging. Readers’ possible rejection of the story, and maybe even public panning of it, counterserves the purpose of having a book edited and published. Editors can do their part in preventing negative reaction to a novel by informing themselves of the basics and paying special attention to the technicalities and choreography of fight scenes.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

July 6, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing IV, Part II

by Carolyn Haley

Part I of this essay described the results of my survey of nine independent editors, which asked for their individual definitions of copyediting. First I evaluated the definitions in general terms, then I looked at the first three descriptions from the perspective of a hypothetical indie author, John Q. Novelist. Part II looks at the remaining six descriptions through the eyes of different hypothetical author, Henrietta Nonfiction Writer (HNW).

A view through the nonfiction lens

HNW works in the insurance industry. For decades she has written employee manuals and other in-house materials for a megacorporation, and even wrote the company newsletter for a while, so she knows how to craft clear sentences for different audiences. That pays the bills, but her real passion is American history, in which she took a master’s degree.

She’s not sure there’s a market for her book — a collection of true stories about white women captured by Indians in the Revolutionary War period — or whether she’ll publish it traditionally or on her own, but she does know that it needs to be clean and accurate, if only for her own pride. She’s written a dissertation and read many technical journals, so she understands the complexities of references and bibliographies. Also, she knows there are different kinds of editors, and a copyeditor will best serve the housecleaning needs of her manuscript.

She likes the detailed definition of copyediting that John Q. Novelist passed on to her, and files it for future reference. First she wants to do her own search for editors, which pulls up these:

Editor #4 (25 years, scholarly, U.K.)

Copy-editing is revising… an article, a book, a chapter in a book, etc., to eliminate errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage; to ensure consistency in abbreviations, capitalization, spellings, etc.; and, where required, to make the contents conform to the requirements of the intended channel (print, web, electronic, etc). [The text] may also contain illustrations, tables, footnotes, references, etc., in which case the copy-editor is required to check such adjuncts to text as well. Generally, copy-editorial changes are made at the sentence level (that is, copy-editing rarely involves changing the sequence of sentences). Language editing is the next higher level, at which the copy-editor may do some rewriting to make the text more concise and clearer, whereas proofreading is the next lower level.

This suits HNW just fine, and she feels the editor will grasp what she’s after. She’s a little uncertain about working with someone in another country, though, so makes a note to ask about the differences between U.S. and U.K. English when she sends her inquiry to the editor.

The next candidate impresses her with their specificity:

Editor #5 (5 years, business, U.S.)

Copyediting is being the best and first objective reader of a written work and making changes to ensure writing is clear, consistent, and in compliance with a specific writing style or style manual and with accepted usage of the target language.… [S]pecific tasks include:

  • Querying the author when a sentence doesn’t make sense.
  • Checking that the correct formatting codes have been applied.
  • Applying formatting codes to text with missing or incorrect codes.
  • Checking the accuracy of cross-references and citations.
  • Checking the spelling of names and accuracy of easily verifiable facts.
  • Ensuring writing complies with a specific style manual and dictionary.
  • Ensuring writing conforms to the grammar and punctuation of Standard English, except when I can discern a good reason for unconventional sentence structure or punctuation.
  • Asking the author to OK a deletion, rewording, or relocation of more than one consecutive sentence.
  • Ensuring the author consistently formats and spells terms that aren’t in the specified style manual or dictionary and creating a style sheet to document my and the author’s decisions regarding such terms.
  • Ensuring numbers that are supposed add up to a specified sum add up to it and ensuring that numbered lists are written in order without skipping numbers.
  • Suggesting wording changes in headings that don’t reflect their content well.
  • Ensuring correct characters are inserted for dashes, mathematical symbols, names in foreign languages, and so on.
  • Ensuring artwork is clearly visible, referred to in the text beforehand, and reproduced with permission.
  • Ensuring tables are easy to read.
  • Suggesting titles for untitled tables and figures.
  • Communicating changes to the author and others who must work with the [manuscript] with electronic markup.

This covers everything HNW can think of, and she particularly likes the inclusion of production-oriented elements. She hadn’t thought about all the technical steps between writing and publishing. This editor seems to assume that every manuscript they work on will be published, which makes her feel more confident. She wants to work with another professional to bring her project to fruition.

In contrast, the next candidate unsettles her because of their informal tone and imprecision:

Editor #6 (4 years, scholarly, U.S.)

I view [copyediting] as readying a piece for publication.… first, ensuring that the copy meets all the style guidelines, and second, that the copy is as good as it can be. I do subdivide the various tasks somewhat on my website since I work with academic authors… and invite them (for example) to do the reference formatting themselves, but if somebody sent me an article and said “unlimited budget, copyedit this” I’d get it completely ready to go: line edits…, style guide compliance, cross-checking, consistency checking, clarity/coherence fixes, reference formatting, etc.… I don’t think it includes fact-checking… research … rearranging the piece’s organization (although many of them need that, and if I notice it I make a comment to that effect…).

It’s not the tone that puts HNW off as much as the mention of being “invited” to format her own references. That’s something she wants to pay another person to do. Although she was careful in compiling her references, and is pretty sure she has them all listed in correct scholarly style, the labor of double checking and using Word for special formatting is beyond her ability and patience. That’s why she set aside a hefty chunk of money for professional editing, which she can afford because of her solid career. But she knows someone on a tight budget who might like this cost-reducing option, so she forwards the link and moves on.

Editor #7 (50 years, nonfiction/scholarly, U.S.)

Copyediting is whatever the client says it is for a given job. This holds whether the client is a traditional publisher, a packager, an indie publisher, or a private client regardless of whether the definition consists of the client’s detailed specifications or reflects my education of and negotiation with the client.

Golly, thinks HNW, this one is a chameleon! On one hand, she realizes, the door is wide open for a customized experience. For writers like her who know their strengths and weaknesses, the idea of negotiating a personalized edit holds appeal. On the other hand, HNW wants someone with a stronger sense of who they are and what they offer so there’s a standard she can wrap her head around. If she’s going to pay for a professional service, she wants the professional to know something she doesn’t, to justify her expense. Having to lead an editor through an editing job doesn’t inspire confidence.

Editor #8 (35 years, academic/business, U.S.)

Copy editing is performed on a near-final draft of a manuscript that has gone through developmental or line editing. Copy editing entails reviewing spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation; checking facts, abbreviations, trademarks, and references to figures and tables; ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, and numbers; and flagging ambiguous or unclear wording. Copy editing can involve smoothing transitions, changing passive to active voice, and breaking up long sentences or paragraphs (which can cross the border into line editing).

This description is the concise version of what HNW seeks. Her only misgiving comes from the fact that her manuscript, though near-final, has not gone through developmental or line editing. She’s taken care of that herself, having acquired the necessary skills from her own scholastic and business experience. Thus she’s unsure the editor will take her seriously. Still, she adds this editor to her list of people to contact.

The final editor offers something she hasn’t seen before. After noting the elements she’s looking for…

Editor #9 (30 years, legal/textbooks, U.S.)

  1. Preparing a manuscript for publication: cleaning extra tabs and spaces, applying style tags, and the like.
  2. Reviewing and correcting a manuscript for grammar, spelling, punctuation, logic, consistency, and house style.
  3. Styling notes/citations, often including finding missing info.…

HNW finds something very important to her:

What copyediting is not: rewriting to suit my own personal style; imposing “what sounds better to me.”… In my books, maintaining author’s voice is rarely a huge consideration…, but still, you have to have a reason to make a change.

This paragraph relieves an anxiety HNW didn’t know she had. Owing to her experience, she hadn’t considered the possibility that her work might be rewritten. Seeing this editor’s assurance about voice preservation makes her wonder what the other candidates’ policy might be on the matter. She needs to review their presentations in this light and look for others who mention it. For now, she puts this editor at the top of her list, even though the subject of her book might not be within the editor’s purview. It’s close enough to a textbook that they have a basis for conversation.

Embracing subjectivity

I’m certain that every author would perceive each editor’s description from a different viewpoint. For example, I would go for Editor #2 (see Thinking Fiction: Subjectivity in Editing IV, Part I) because their description is detailed enough to tell me what I want to know, succinct enough to not belabor any points, and conveys experience in my target publishing arena. Another author might favor lots of details, as presented by Editors #3 and #5, or something loose and simple, like Editor #1’s one-liner: “correction of errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic facts/continuity.”

The great thing about working in such a subjectivity-oriented industry like publishing is that there’s something for everyone, as much in the author–editor equation as in the books–audience equation. The goal in both is to match the right parties with each other. So the smart strategy for independent editors in a business lacking uniform role and task definitions and performance standards is to cater to subjectivity: define themselves, their services, and their approach for the publishers and authors they best serve. That reduces wasted time and incompatible clients — and the headaches that go with them — leaving energy to enjoy successful projects and build satisfying careers.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

June 29, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing IV, Part I

by Carolyn Haley

As the final step in my exploration of subjectivity in editing, I conducted another experiment. The first experiment was to see what would happen when editors were asked to edit sample text with no direction beyond “Copyedit according to your own understanding of what copyediting means.” Seven professional editors volunteered, and their edits showed a range of approaches from light touching to heavy recasting. I discussed the results in Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing I, II, and III.

The second experiment took the opposite position, and asked a different set of independent editors for their specific definitions of copyediting. Nine volunteered. Their replies follow, continuing into Part II of this essay. Part I begins with an evaluation of their definitions filtered through my direct experience as an independent editor and author.

To give the editors’ responses some context, I requested data from each person, such as years of professional editing experience, clientele base, area of concentration, approximate percentage of business comprising copyediting, country of residence, variant of English used, and a sampling of editing-related software tools and reference resources. I also invited clarification of what copyediting isn’t.

As I expected, the respondents’ descriptions ranged from simple to complex. But all revolved around the common denominator I had hoped to see: a focus on the mechanical aspects of editing — spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, continuity, consistency.

The mechanical focus suggests that any author seeking copyediting can have the work done by any copyeditor. But as the nine descriptions show, there are variations in style and approach that make finding a good fit between author and editor more than just a spelling-and-punctuation game.

Elements to consider

For an author or publisher seeking to hire an independent copyeditor, the first line of distinction is the logical one of whether they edit fiction or nonfiction or both. Another selection criterion might be language bias — meaning, for writers in English, whether an editor works in American, British, Canadian, Australian, or some other variant of the tongue, or handles translated material, or works with people for whom English is a second language.

Authors and publishers might also consider an editor’s area of specialty and style of approach. These are, in my experience, the most common “match” criteria. Novelists often seek editors with experience in their genre. Nonfiction writers often seek editors knowledgeable about the topic of their book. Subject aside, authors divide in personality type. One author might want an editor who is superfocused on details and formal language, whereas another author might want an editor who is open to creative interpretation and won’t micromanage the author’s prose. The possible author–editor matchmaking combinations are myriad.

Some authors and publishers want to know about an editor’s toolkit. In my survey, all nine editors reported that they use only MS Word for electronic editing, with one editor still working primarily on hardcopy. Six editors use a mix of editorial software tools (e.g., EditTools, Editor’s Toolkit 2014, PerfectIt, macros) to enhance their accuracy and consistency. Everyone’s reference resources correlate with the publishing area they serve.

In the area I serve (mainly independent and especially first-time novelists), the topic of reference works rarely comes up. The authors seem to assume I’m working within universal and arcane parameters known to the publishing industry and will apply those “rules” to their work. Few authors are aware that there are different dictionaries and different style guides, and they don’t appear to care as long as the editing is consistent and editorial explanations make sense. My clients expect me to know what to do; that’s what they’re paying me for. Consequently, I don’t advertise my constantly growing reference library beyond a short statement on my website. I do, however, list on my style sheet for the project the reference works I consulted for the job. On the two occasions a client has shown interest, we’ve discussed and agreed to which reference works to employ.

Things are different when I work for publishers. The project editor specifies which dictionary and style guide the house adheres to, and often defines the copyediting tasks they expect me to cover. I duly comply.

In my survey, all the American editors named Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (MW11) as their primary dictionary (except one who didn’t answer that question), with the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., as alternate. All the Americans also named the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., as their general style/language guide, with some editors mentioning the AP [Associated Press] Stylebook, the AMA [American Medical Association] Manual of Style, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. The sole British and handful of American-British editors listed one or more of the Oxford and Hart dictionaries and style guides. Individuals then included a sampling of other works pertinent to their specialty. The fiction-only editors listed fewer reference works than the nonfiction editors.

The fiction-only editors were also less detailed in their copyediting descriptions than the nonfiction-only editors. Whether this represents a valid pattern can only be determined by a survey on a much larger scale. What matters here is that each editor gives potential clients a snapshot of their approach and personality. The information helps authors and publishers swiftly narrow down a wide field to a short list of candidates for their jobs.

Whether a given editor is a good editor, or the right editor, can only be determined through follow-up actions between author and editor: their dialogue, a sample edit, and, ultimately, the project itself. But editors who offer a profile help themselves and compatible prospective clients find each other, while reducing the risk of surprises that could negatively affect a project or relationship.

Nine definitions of the same thing

What follows is the survey respondents’ actual text, verbatim save for some condensing. It answers only the question, “How do you define copyediting?” I’ve included each editor’s years of experience, specialty, and English variant for context.

These descriptions, however, only have meaning when matched against an author’s expectations and desires. The number of possible combinations seems endless, so for this essay I’ve created a hypothetical scenario that views the editors’ descriptions from the perspective of a fiction and a nonfiction author, each independent and unpublished. The nine volunteer editors’ descriptions that I received through private solicitation are assumed for the scenario to be material on professional editors’ websites found through a Google search.

A view through the fiction lens

The editor-shopping fiction writer John Q. Novelist (JQN) is a software engineer and zealous science fiction/fantasy reader who has written his own sword-and-sorcery epic and thinks it’s ready for editing. His family and friends have told him the story is wonderful, and he dreams of great reviews and cash flow, especially if he expands the book into a series. All he wants from an editor is to correct his spelling and punctuation errors, point out any content goofs he’s unaware of, and help prepare his manuscript for publication.

Somebody in his writing group put a name to what he’s looking for: copyediting. So he uses that as a keyword in his online searches. He knows there are different kinds of editing but doesn’t fully understand the fine points of distinction between them. Since he’s researching a task, he doesn’t think to add “fiction” or “novels” to his keywords, so his search on “copyediting” returns an enormous list of websites and articles. The first three editors who offer a definition of copyediting are these:

Editor #1 (18 years, mostly fiction, U.S.)

[Copyediting is t]he correction of errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic facts/continuity.

Perfect, thinks JQN. He can send this person his manuscript for tidying up, then be on his way to fame and fortune. But Editor #2 offers more details, so, curious, he reads on.

Editor #2 (5 years, fiction, U.S./U.K.)

Copyediting is targeted at fixing elements of sentences, addressing correctness rather than artfulness of expression. Copyediting focuses on elements such as detail and description consistency (making sure the hero’s eyes stay the same color throughout, a house doesn’t grow an extra bedroom, if a character is standing on page 10 they aren’t said to be rising from a chair on page 11, etc.), grammar, correct word usage (such as die vs. dye), punctuation, adherence to a style guide or a publisher’s house style, fact-checking minor details such as business names and historic dates, formatting elements like text messages and letters, flagging potential copyright and legal issues, and more. The editor will make nearly all of the changes within the manuscript, not the writer.

Even better, JQN thinks. Exactly what he needs. This person must know what they’re doing. But, good grief, look at how long the next one is! What more could be involved?

Editor #3 (10 years, nonfiction, U.S./U.K./Can.)

I [derived these definitions]… from the Bay Area Editors Forum.… At all levels of copyediting… the copyeditor corrects errors, queries the author about conflicting statements, requests advice when the means of resolving a problem is unclear, and prepares a style sheet. The copyeditor may also incorporate the author’s replies to queries; this work is known as cleanup editing.

Light Copyediting (baseline editing)

  • Correcting faulty spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Correcting incorrect usage (such as can for may).
  • Checking specific cross-references (for example, “As Table 14-6 shows…”).
  • Ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, numerals, fonts, and capitalization.
  • Checking for proper sequencing (such as alphabetical order) in lists and other displayed material.
  • Recording the first references to figures, tables, and other display elements.

A light copyedit does not involve interventions such as smoothing transitions or changing heads or text to ensure parallel structure. The editor checks content only to detect spots where copy is missing. A light copyedit may include typemarking.

Medium Copyediting

  • Performing all tasks for light copyediting.
  • Changing text and headings to achieve parallel structure.
  • Flagging inappropriate figures of speech.
  • Ensuring that key terms are handled consistently and that vocabulary lists and the index contain all the terms that meet criteria specified by the publisher.
  • Ensuring that previews, summaries, and end-of-chapter questions reflect content.
  • Enforcing consistent style and tone in a multi-author manuscript.
  • Changing passive voice to active voice, if requested.
  • Flagging ambiguous or incorrect statements.
  • Typemarking the manuscript.

Heavy Copyediting (substantive editing)

  • Performing all tasks for medium copyediting.
  • Eliminating wordiness, triteness, and inappropriate jargon.
  • Smoothing transitions and moving sentences to improve readability.
  • Assigning new levels to heads to achieve logical structure.
  • Suggesting — and sometimes implementing — additions and deletions, noting them at the sentence and paragraph level.

The key differences between heavy and medium copyedits are the levels of judgment and rewriting involved. In a heavy copyedit, the editor improves the flow of text rather than simply ensuring correct usage and grammar; may suggest recasts rather than simply flagging problems; and may enforce a uniform level, tone, and focus as specified by the publisher or developmental editor.

Wow! That covers everything JQN could possibly want, and breaks it into clusters with different price tags. JQN now starts thinking about cost-benefit ratio and how far his budget will stretch. He’s sad that he can’t spring for heavy editing, it sounds so helpful, but at least he knows what his dollar will buy for light and medium. But wait — in rereading the page to evaluate his best choice, he notices what he missed on first scan. This editor only handles nonfiction. Drat! So he refines his search terms in hopes of finding a fiction editor offering the same level of detail and clarity.

Part II of this essay covers a nonfiction author’s response to the remaining six volunteer editors’ descriptions of copyediting, followed by a summary of the subjectivity studies.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

June 1, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing III

by Carolyn Haley

The editing experiment I reported on in Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing I and II offered a unique chance to see the same material not only from both sides — author and editor — but also from multiple editorial viewpoints. As the author of the test material, I was surprised by how many thoughts and emotions the editors’ responses evoked in me, even though the material was decades old and had been replaced by what became successful published novels. I suspect that any author on the receiving end of seven different edits might feel similarly disconcerted.

At the same time, editorial subjectivity is what authors experience whenever they shop for an editor and request or automatically receive sample edits. (The same happens when they solicit feedback from beta readers.) Multiple samples are a good way for authors to select the editor best suited to their work.

During the experiment, I reviewed each volunteer editor’s response from both an editor’s and author’s perspective. I’ve already covered the editor’s angle in the above-referenced essays, so here’s a taste of what the experiment results looked like through an author’s eyes.

A quick review for context

My experiment imitated a common scenario in the industry — publishers or authors who hire copyeditors without giving them instructions, assuming they share the same vocabulary and process. All I told the seven professional volunteers was, “Copyedit according to your own understanding of what copyediting means.” I deliberately didn’t say what copyediting meant to me, or ask them for clarification of their individual approaches. I wanted to see what would happen without guidance.

As part of the test, I inserted errors into both samples. Neither sample resulted in seven takes to compare against each other; instead, six editors chose to edit the first test sample and four chose the second. A handful edited both.

Now that the experiment is complete, I can reveal what I withheld from the volunteers. As an author, I would expect a copyeditor to accept that the story was finished and my narrative style was intentional; and to polish the prose with a light touch, correcting all the technical errors and pointing out anything in question with neutrally phrased comments and queries.

The following examples show how close the editors came to meeting that expectation while working in the dark.

Example 1

Original:

“Her car had a close encounter with a tree” Jona retorted. Linny kept her mouth shut to hide the broken teeth from her close encounter with the steering wheel. The remaining car interior had bashed her head, elbows, and knees.

All six editors caught the technical error — the missing comma before the close-quote in the first line. Then the variations began.

Editor #1 remarked: ‘close encounter’ twice in consecutive sentences is a little distracting. I suggest Jona says “her car met a tree”, or similar, or that she hides the “teeth, broken on the steering wheel”?

Editor #2, after changing all the paragraph breaks in the full dialogue, offered this: Consider recasting to avoid a close repetition of “close encounter” — unless the repetition is intentional.

Editor #3, meanwhile, replaced the second close encounter with collision, then commented: This way avoids repeating “close encounter,” to give the expression more impact the first time; does that work for you?

Editor #4 was fine with the close encounter duplication and body-damage description, but felt a clarification was appropriate elsewhere in the paragraph, changing “to hide the broken teeth from” to “to hide the teeth broken during.”

Editor #5 cared about dialogue tags, changing retorted to said with the query: Change OK? Jona isn’t really retorting, and said is generally your best bet for dialogue attribution.

Editor #6 had nothing to say about any element of the paragraph, though questioned the character’s injury in an earlier paragraph — querying the plausibility of the effects of the injury still showing after the timeframe specified in the story.

Example 2

Original:

Blanche rushed into my silence. “I know, I’m sorry, but — well, the final’s the last chance, and Dru asked . . .”

The trap in this paragraph is final; it’s supposed to be finale, a performance identified as such at the start of the characters’ conversation.

Editor #1 caught the typo and changed the ellipses style.

Editor #2 changed final’s to final performance is then commented on a different sentence (“Blanche rushed into my silence”) with I like this phrase, followed by an explanation of a different edit: New para for new speaker.

Editor #3 also caught the typo then felt obliged to clarify the character’s trail-off speech with added content: Blanche rushed into my silence. “I know, I’m sorry, but — well, the finale’s the last chance, and Dru asked . . . ” Her nerve seemed to break.

Editor #4 corrected the typo and moved on.

Example 3

Original:

I sat holding the phone without seeing for a moment, then smacked it into the cradle. Two points for Blanch for finding a way to get me to New Atlantis! Give her another ten for making it as awkward as possible.

The trap was the misspelled character name: Blanch should be Blanche.

Editor #1 caught the typo and left the rest of the paragraph alone.

Editor #2 suggested deleting “without seeing” then asked: When does this story occur? Rare for people to have home phones these days.

Editor #3 also caught the typo and left the rest of the paragraph alone.

Editor # 4 corrected the error, changed a preposition (“Two points to Blanche”), and added a writing lesson: Exclamation points can lose their effectiveness if you overuse them. I’ve changed to less dramatic punctuation here and elsewhere, retaining only if the speaker really is shouting.

Example 4

Original:

“I guess so. No, not really. Look, I’ve got no time and six people in earshot, but, please, can you do me a huge favor?”

I sighed and placed my brush into a water jar. “What.”

There were no traps in this section.

Editors #1 and #3 changed the period after “What” to a question mark, without comment.

Editor #2 let the period stand, but opined: Technically, this should have a ?, but I like it fine as is because she isn’t asking so much as demanding. J

Editor #4 expressed the same sentiment by leaving the sentence alone.

Example 5

Original:

The front entrance was barricaded not only by gates but also by a hoard of groupies. I had discovered this three years ago when I first visited Blanche and Dru after they moved up from the City for good.

The trap is hoard, which should be horde.

Editor #1 caught the trap and also chose to lower-case “City” (which was capped as a shorthand for New York City and used consistently through the book, but the editor couldn’t know this from the sample).

Editor #2 made the same change to “City” plus corrected the tense in the sentence (“. . . after they’d moved up from the city for good”).

Editor #3 not only lower-cased “City” but also recast the paragraph, resequenced the paragraphs around it, and rewrote half the text to connect the changes together, thereby condensing five paragraphs down to two. It was partly explained by the query: Deleted because (in passage I’ve shifted up from below) she’s adamant about never using the front gate again, so question of choosing. OK?

Editor #4 left everything in the paragraph alone, including the incorrect word.

Making choices

As an author, I found it simple to choose which editor I could work with comfortably, just from the two samples of approximately 1,600 words each. And I’m sure a different author would make a different choice.

This luxury of choice, however, can only be made by authors who self-publish, or those who directly hire editors to help prepare their novels for submission to traditional publishers. Once authors are under contract with a publishing house, they rarely have control over who edits their manuscript, or any option to change editors if they are dissatisfied with their work. More than one editor might work on the book — a content editor and copyeditor, plus maybe the agent who placed the manuscript with the house — but a contracted author won’t get seven different takes on their book at the same stage at the same time and be free to select their preferred partner. The same holds true for authors who buy editing from an author-services company, which distributes manuscripts internally without author involvement.

The unanswered question

My experiment left an important question dangling: How would the revisions, comments, and queries have differed if I’d told the editors exactly what I wanted for copyediting (i.e., acceptance that the story was finished and my narrative style was intentional; and to polish the prose with a light touch, correcting all the technical errors and pointing out anything in question with neutrally phrased comments and queries)? Or if any of them had asked?

Considering another experiment to test that, I asked a fresh group of ten editors, “How do you define copyediting?” Sure enough, I got ten different answers, which will be discussed in a future essay. For now, the lesson I learned from the subjectivity experiment is: Author, tell the editor what you’re looking for! Editor, tell the author what you intend to do! If your vocabularies and ideas differ, then dig a little deeper before working together. That conversation will go a long way toward preventing misunderstandings during the editing process, and building a mutually positive relationship.

Related essays on An American Editor:

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

May 21, 2016

Congratulations to Carolyn Haley

Congratulations to our Thinking Fiction essayist, Carolyn Haley, for winning the Grand Prize in the 2015 Chanticleer Book Reviews awards for Paranormal/Supernatural Fiction with her title The Aurora Affair. Carolyn’s other novel, Into the Sunrise, was a finalist in the same competition in the Vintage Romance category. For those interested, the books are available from the following sources:

Well done, Carolyn!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

 

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