Thoughts on the SfEP professional development day for fiction editors

On Thursday 9 June I attended a professional development day for fiction editors, run by the SfEP, along with more than 60 other delegates.

I’m not a specialist fiction editor. Most of my work is on trade non-fiction and educational resources. However, I do currently copy-edit and proofread fiction for a few publishing clients, and enjoy the work very much. I am also an avid reader of fiction, and a writer of fiction (work-in-progress).

What did I hope to get out of the day? Well, I was intrigued to find out more about going further than a basic copy-edit. Although I’ve been an editor for the best part of twenty years, and am confident working at all stages of the publishing process when it comes to non-fiction, I wouldn’t yet dream of offering developmental editing for fiction, for example – I think it’s incredibly difficult to get right, and I simply don’t know enough in this area to be able to make someone else’s story sing off the page in terms of the larger structure. I am still learning how to do this for myself. Perhaps it’s something I’ll want to offer when I have more experience.

So I suppose I wanted an insight into how editors work earlier on in the process, as an interested editor in related fields, and also as a writer-in-training – and I wasn’t disappointed. The programme was varied and interesting throughout – not easy to pull off when catering to a large crowd of editors with varying degrees of experience, from more-or-less complete newbies to people who’ve worked on fiction for decades.

Should you take the job?

The first speaker was Andrew Wille, who spoke on the subject of whether the editor should take the job – and if they do take the job, how much they should intervene, and what needs to be done to the text. He talked about the different levels of editing (from development editing, to line editing, copy-editing and proofreading), and emphasised that as editors offering a service, we must be clear about what we can and can’t do. He also spoke of the importance of being able to communicate with writers in a common language. Communication is so important, and he pointed out that often a phone call can be preferable, with this kind of work, to an email conversation – and at points in the work, a face-to-face meeting is even better if at all possible. This is something I definitely need to be reminded of sometimes … it’s too easy, in my experience, to become dependent on email.

The craft of writing

Next was Emma Darwin, who I (and I suspect many others in the room) had been looking forward to on account of her fantastically interesting and useful blog, This Itch Of Writing – required reading for any student of writing or editing fiction. She talked about how, as editors, we need to translate our instinctive reactions to a piece of writing into something the author can work with. Bearing this in mind, she took us through the elements that make fiction work, from asking ‘Whose story is it?’ and ‘What’s at stake?’ through the nuts and bolts of character and voice, point of view (yes, the point of view can be changed within a chapter if done well), structure, moving between scenes, show and tell (or, preferably, evoke and inform) and, crucially, psychic distance. The last is a subject that Emma often talks about on the blog as being crucial to how well a piece of fiction writing works, but I had struggled to understand it properly and was really helped by hearing her explain it on the day.

An author’s view of editing and editors

Elizabeth Fremantle then talked to us about the author’s experience of being edited, which was fascinating. It is always useful for us, as editors, to be reminded that we are dealing with what she described as ‘sensitive souls’ – and to be reminded of the amount of hard work and emotional investment that goes into a book. It’s not just words on a screen or a piece of paper – it’s perhaps years of someone’s life. She talked about the difference that finding a good editor (her ‘secret weapon’) had made to her career as an author, and how the editor could help the author think of themselves as a brand. She said she found it most useful not just be told what was wrong with a manuscript, but what she could do to fix it. Assertive editing is valued, and inspires confidence. Perhaps most importantly, she mentioned that when we give feedback to authors, it is helpful for us to start with the positives, and include comments on what we think is working, as well as what isn’t.

Assessing a manuscript

Loulou Brown, a longtime SfEP member and hugely experienced freelance editor, talked to us after lunch on the subject of assessing a manuscript, a service that she has provided for many authors. This might take place on its own, or as a precursor to a full edit.

Loulou started by saying how much she loved the work, and that she had ‘never read a completely boring story’. She talked us through her process for assessing a work, and reminded us that we need to think always of the reader, and that we should never underestimate the reader’s intelligence. She advocated reading on hard copy (ask the client to supply this), and reading the whole thing through once first before starting the assessment, perhaps making shorthand notes about particular problems such as repetition or anomalies. Loulou brought the idea of showing rather than telling vividly to life using an example of her own recent encounter with John Lewis customer services … which she must have done rather too well, as the audience were already giggling at her comparatively dry account to illustrate ‘tell’. By the time she got to the end of ‘show’, we’d got it, and had a good laugh along the way.

Again, Loulou mentioned the desirability of meeting with authors if possible. For me, this might be one of the fundamental differences between most of the work I do, as a non-fiction editor quite removed from the ‘action’ these days, and fiction work – there’s an extra level of personal engagement required. With non-fiction we must of course always be respectful of the text and the author’s intent … but perhaps there is less in the way of handling fragile hopes and dreams on a daily basis.

Writing a reader’s report

The final speaker of the day, Aki Schilz of The Literary Consultancy, talked at some length about dreams, and how her company provides reader’s reports that give honest appraisals of a manuscript in the context of the marketplace, and also in the context of the writer’s dreams and aims for the work. She talked about how the writer will only benefit if matched with the right editor (a service that she provides), and stressed the importance to their process of editorial objectivity, and of the editor being in service to the writer.

Again, when providing feedback to a writer, she said that it was important to remember that we are dealing with people’s dreams. The introduction of a report is important, because that is where the reader is engaged, and this will affect how they read and interpret the feedback that follows. The editor dealing with a work of fiction should be ‘clearing a path … shining a light’. So perhaps, in that respect, not so very different from any other kind of editor.

I came away from the day feeling that I had been learning throughout, and was better equipped to handle some of the things I might encounter when working on fiction. As well as the excellent presentations, there was also plenty of time to chat with other editors over coffee and lunch, catch up with friends and meet new people. All in all, a brilliant day, run faultlessly by the SfEP and specifically Jane Moody, the society’s professional development director. I can’t wait to go to another.

Photo on 02-09-2015 at 13.12Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008 – working mainly on non-fiction, but with increasing forays into the world of fiction.




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