I haven’t blogged so much in the past few months. I’m quite relaxed about that – I don’t hold myself to a strict schedule, and prefer to put up a post when I have something particular to say. However, recently it fell by the wayside for another reason – I was finishing the first draft of my second novel, and that took all my spare time. (The first novel, written earlier this year, I am choosing to think of as a warm-up, unless anyone out there is actively looking for a tale of a drug-fuelled-yoga-weekend-cum-eco-apocalypse narrated by a middle-aged divorcée who thinks she’s Holden Caulfield. No?)
I’ve learned a lot of useful stuff from pursuing my own writing alongside regular editing work (no, I can’t yet afford to give up the day job). Much of what I have found out I hope to use to inform future creative writing endeavours. But some of my lightbulb moments will also feed back into my practice as an editor.
Here are five things I’ve learned:
- WRITER LIGHTBULB: In a long manuscript, repetition is probably inevitable. This can happen at a macro level (themes and scenes that recur), and at a micro level (words and phrases that are overused, or unusual similes that are considerably less arresting on their third outing). As an editor I often encounter writerly tics in otherwise very clean, well-written manuscripts – certain constructions that just keep popping up. And in the past these would always puzzle me. ‘Can’t they see what they’re doing there?’ I would mutter under my breath. Well, the answer is, probably not. EDITOR LESSON: Repetition happens, no matter how careful the writer. Enjoy the frisson of doing your job, fix it … and get over it.
- WRITER LIGHTBULB: Continuity errors are completely normal. For example, I am amazed by the fact that even though the beginning parts of my novel only burst into existence back in the summer, there are stonking great passages that I have entirely forgotten writing. To me, this emphasises the near-certainty that there will be continuity errors in a manuscript of any kind above a certain length. I have quite a high capacity for retention of written information, as editors do, but even I simply can’t hold a whole novel in my head, even though it all came out of my head. There are just too many words, and I’m human. EDITOR LESSON: Be sympathetic to the differences between writing and editing. Writing fiction really can be a bit like being in a trance, but good editing is quite the opposite. It’s not possible to do both at the same time, and it’s important to get the best out of multiple passes.
- WRITER LIGHTBULB: Distance from the work is essential. Never before have I felt so convinced of the need for psychological distance from a piece of work in order to edit it – either through time, or by being completely dissociated from the creation of the work, or preferably both. Case in point: right now I can hardly bear to look at the thing. It makes me feel positively queasy. And I’m not ready to show it to anyone else just yet either. EDITOR LESSON: If ever I need to sell my services to someone new, an important point is the complete objectivity I provide. People used to hiring editors know this already; those yet to be convinced might not.
- WRITER LIGHTBULB: It’s hard to let go. Having said I can’t stand to look at it, it’s also my baby. In the past, in common with most editors, it’s just possible I might have been guilty of moaning about certain very difficult authors, or even being less than sympathetic about their reluctance to make changes. Well, those days are officially gone, I swear. Finally, I totally get it. If I ever get to the point of submitting my baby to the tender ministrations of a copy-editor, I just know I am going to morph into that nightmare author myself (though I’ll try my best to be nice; editors are people too). EDITOR LESSON: Always, always, be sensitive in dealings with authors. I know it’s hard to believe, but they’ve usually put a lot more into their work than we have, in terms of hours and soul.
- WRITER LIGHTBULB: Coffee helps massively. But not just coffee; for me it’s part of a larger routine, which has helped me sit down and do it, day after day. Just like being a freelance editor, you have to show up and put in the time, whether you feel like it or not, if it’s got any hope of being viable. EDITOR LESSON: Mmm, coffee. Did someone say coffee? Are you making?
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. When she grows up she also wants to be an author.