In the third installment of our series,
author Sophia Tobin and Senior Commissioning Editor at Simon &
Schuster, Clare Hey, tell us about going through the first stage of the editing
Getting a book deal had been a surreal journey, but things were about to get
real. It was time for editing to begin. I received Clare’s notes on a Friday
evening and, to keep the mood light, read them whilst twirling round and round
on an office chair (go with me on this). Having already worked on the novel
with my agent, I was used to receiving criticism, but that didn’t stop me from
being nervous. After all, it was possible that Clare and I would
disagree. On everything.
first document I saw was my novel, with tracked changes and highlighted line
edits on words and phrasing. The other document, the structural edit, offered
Clare’s overview on the whole thing – and it was a diplomatic masterpiece. Still
though, I did give the occasional wail when reading it – I’ll explain why in a
edits are like doing a crossword puzzle. The structural edit is like Mastermind
with an added assault course. The beginning and the end of The Silversmith’s Wife needed re-shaping, and even comments which
seemed straightforward (‘Could we lose this character?’) impacted the whole
book. You have no idea how many times that character was mentioned.
was happy with most of the changes I was asked to make, except one: removing the
Prologue. Pages and pages have been written about Prologues. Let’s just say, my
book had one, and I loved it. I loved it so much I could remember every detail
about the evening I wrote it, down to the shadows in the room.
drank endless cups of tea and gazed out of my window. But every time I
approached Prologue Destruction bad things would happen, mainly to my writing
ability. So I emailed Clare and explained my worries. She sent a very kind
email back, and her argument made sense: what was the book about, really? Did
the Prologue add to it, or obscure it?
removed the Prologue and re-wrote the beginning of the book. Then I asked my
husband to read it, beckoning him in from the distant corner of the flat where
he’d been avoiding me. There was no doubt, to him: the second version was
better. And what I learned was: sometimes, you really are too close to
something to be the best judge. My book is still mine, but it has benefited from
Clare’s detachment, judgement and experience.
think (hope), this is the same for everyone who writes: no matter how
meticulous we think we’ve been, quite often there are things we don’t admit,
even to ourselves, until the moment an editor shines their torchlight into
every dark corner. Fuzzy motivation? Inconsistent character? You’re not getting
away with it – and thank goodness, because the next people who see it won’t be
so kind. Some of the changes are difficult. Everything you thought was solid
about your novel will shift and creak. It might even crack – but the cracks let
the light in.
From an editor’s perspective the structural edit on a debut novel is almost
always a jump into the unknown. You don’t really know the author, apart from
having had a celebratory drink to toast the deal you have done, and so you have
no idea how they work and how they will react to your notes. In general, tears
and tantrums are best avoided – on both sides of the editorial fence!
sounds obvious but it’s important to remember that the novel is not the
editor’s – it has been written by the author and the editor’s job is to
understand the author’s intention and to help them realise it in the best
possible way. So my suggestions are always just that – suggestions. I can flag
up the places where I think the plot is flagging, or where a character needs
more depth, for example, but it is up to the author to find a solution – or to
disagree with me if they want…
I do a structural edit I am looking at the big picture things – structure,
pace, narrative tension, character, motivation and so on. If I find myself
flagging when I am reading I ask myself why – is the pace slow? Is a certain
section too confusing? Is there an issue with a particular character? I make
myself ask the difficult questions, which I know the author won’t always thanks
me for, as Sophia outlines above! And I don’t mind looking like an idiot – if I
am confused or not sure about something, the chances are a reader might feel
the same way.
The Silversmith’s Wife I had a pretty
clear sense of where the structural edit would focus right from the first time
I read it. Even if I don’t know whether I’ll be working on a novel or not, I
tend to have a first gut instinct on that precious first read. It’s the only
time you really have the chance to read purely – as a normal reader would – and
on every re-read it gets harder and harder to be objective. And if I feel like
that I know the author must feel it even more.
always try to remember to tread carefully, for I tread on an author’s dreams… I
am aware of all the work that has gone into the novel to get to this point. And
I am also very cognisant of the fact that, in the end, it’s the author who is
the expert. It is their novel and their creative vision, and I am one of the
lucky first readers.
always think that a good editor is two things: firstly they should always be there
for the author, with honest and constructive feedback. And secondly they should
be invisible for the reader so they have the pleasure of sitting back and
enjoying the novel. And when I get to read the MS for the final time, after all
the work on the structural edit has been completed and before sending it off to
the copyeditor, I always feel a stab of envy for those readers whose pleasure
in reading the novel is still to come.
Next time: page proofs,
seeing the novel looking a bit like a book for the first time. And sending it
out for quotes and early reviews…