Clara, the no-longer-unsung-hero

Dear readers

 

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(Okay, it’s not actually Clara; but it could be. Image copyright ‘minoir’, Flickr)

 

This is Clara Finlay, who shall forever henceforth no longer be an unsung hero. Clara is one of the very rare breeds of professionals who work under completely unrealistic timeframes with nearly always unreasonable demands, with a near-zero error rate, who isn’t paid nearly enough and almost never gets any credit. What’s worse, it’s really difficult for these people to argue for a pay rise because when they do their work at their absolute best… No. One. Can. Tell. They leave no trace; they leave no calling card. They are the ninjas of the publishing industry. They are our editors.

How do I know this? Because I used to be an editor. A good editor, yes, one, worth her weight in salt. But Clara here is a great editor, worth her weight in saffron. I specifically asked (okay, begged) my publisher if I could work with Clara again after working with her on The Chocolate Promise and said, “She will make me work like a sled dog and eat kilos of chocolate but my book will be so much better for it.” And I’m confident to say that during the edit for The Beekeeper’s Secret, both the former and latter came true, and my book is a much, much better novel because of Clara’s nimble ninja fingers.

I’m not talking about picking up typos, spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. This is not what editors do. (Well, yes they do but it’s only a tiny portion of what they do. There is also a proofreader who comes after that who takes a last sweep for those things.) No, what a great editor does is to get inside your mind as an author and somehow know what it is you were trying to say and then help you say it better; get inside your character’s mind and help your character say it better; provide you summaries of reflection, analysing your characters and plots and then showing you what it looks like to a reader (which might be probably is totally different to what it looks like to you as a writer).

A great editor will ask literally hundreds of questions of you. Questions like:

  • Did you realise that you used the word ‘disquiet’ on page 86, 134, 257 and 301? Did you mean to do that?
  • On page 33, Alice shrugs. Why? Is she annoyed, bored, or rude? To which as an author I might think, actually I have no idea why! And then I have to have a conversation with Alice to find out why she is shrugging. And Alice might tell me she is bored, or she might tell me that she is remembering when she was five years old and … a new scene is born that gives an entirely different depth to Alice and infinitesimally more satisfaction to the reader.
  • This here, where you reference legal document XYZ and you say it means ABC… I looked it up and to me it meant XXX. Which is it? To which, I need to go and research the document again and find clarity, or I might decide to remove it altogether and rewrite the paragraph around it.
  • I think you have a timeline problem. In 1975 Mary was 6, but on page X in 1984 she is 23, and then a decade later on page XX she is 35 and her sister, who was 8 in 1974 is now… Could you check throughout? OMG, I hate these questions! There is a lot of chocolate eating over these ones as I pull out my calculator to start all over again and search the ENTIRE bloomin’ document to find EVERY instance where this could be wrong! (Cocktails may also ensue.)
  • I’m not sure you can say this? I think it might be copyright. Oops! Lucky!
  • Do you think George would say this? He seems a bit more conservative to me.
  • Do you think Marcia would think this? She seems a bit more enlightened to me.
  • And my favourite: NQR?.. which is editor shorthand for politely saying, “not quite right” or sometimes written more bluntly as, “recast?”. For a blunt interpretation, it means: I think you’ve been a bit lazy and could work a bit harder here and make this a better sentence. Having a bad day, were we? Would you like to try again?

A great editor lets you, the author, solve all the problems yourself, and be in charge of your words and intentions at every step, and yet you would never have gotten there if they hadn’t probed you and asked the difficult questions in the first place.

And on and on we go, for 100,000 words, or around 320 pages. If your editor has worked on hard copy, by the time you’ve gone through and accepted/ rejected/ changed/ added/ expanded/ explained your way through with your red pen, your pages look like a murder scene.

If it’s been done in Word with ‘track changes’, it will be so colourful you’ll think mardi gras has arrived in your document and you’ll barely be able to read the words for the highlighting, colour and added notes.

But when it’s all cleaned up and it’s sparkling white and shiny again, there will be no sign of the ninja whose swift, sharp knife had cut up those pages.

She will have done her job and disappeared once more into the night.

But I want you to know, Clara (and all editors whose diligence graces my books’ pages), that I see you. To me, you are heroes.

I know how hard you work.

I know that you are almost always the last person to touch a manuscript before it goes to print and therefore countless others before you have missed their deadline and pushed the timeframe further and further behind until someone slaps it on your desk and tells you that you can have two days to do two weeks worth of work and it has to be your best work ever, despite the fact that it might take you two days just to read the blasted manuscript, let alone touch it with a pencil!

I know that you’re financially undervalued. I know that it’s near impossible to argue for your worth when the only time someone notices you is when you’ve missed a typo on page 98 and a reader phones the publisher to complain. They didn’t see the four thousand and sixteen things you did; they just saw the one thing you missed.

I know that most people have no idea how skilled you are, how much breadth of general knowledge you need, how sensitive you are, what a great sense of humour you have, or what value you actually add other than picking up spelling mistakes.

I know that when a book does well that you might miss out on the awards and the travel and the publicity and cocktails.

But you will never miss out on my gratitude and deep love for the great work you do. Plus actual gifts. If no one else gives you gifts, I will!

From the bottom of my heart, thank you!

 

Thoughts on Writing: Editing a Novel is Like Renovating a House

We’ve been renovating a 100+ year old house now for more than 18 months, and I’ve edited quite a few manuscripts in my time (having been an editor before becoming a career writer) and if there’s one thing I can say definitively, it’s that editing a novel and renovating a house are the same beasts. There are different stages to editing and they have to go in this order, or you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt and re-work down the track. Want to know how to edit a novel? Think like a renovator.

Demolition

images-3Oh, how I enjoyed this part of renovating our house. Bulldozing. Jackhammering. Tearing down. Knocking down. Ripping up. Throwing out. Fun, fun, fun. We had to remove the toxic waste (asbestos). We had to tear down a significant extension on the house that was teeming with live termites. We had to cut down enormous trees that were touching the house, smothering it and threatening its very survival. Hey, I am a tree hugger; I have difficulty removing weeds. But if they’re in the wrong place and are threatening the entire building they have to go. So too does the useless, poisonous, distracting stuff in your novel. The plots that go no where. The characters that don’t belong there. The pages of useless stuff that slows your plot down to a girding halt. Get rid of it. “Cut your darlings.”

 

Structural improvement

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This stuff is huge. This is where you ask the really tough questions: what am I trying to achieve here? Where do I want this to go? What style of project is this? Who is my reader (buyer)? This is the stuff that will make you cry with sheer frustration and jump in the air with elation when you get it right. And far, FAR too many writers skip this and jump to the next stage. But this is where the money is!!!

After the demolition came the urgent structural improvements. The big one for us was to re-stump, a task I once thought was a simple matter, but in fact turned out to be a really trying exercise. The stumps that were there were termite ridden and rotten and the whole house was slumping. We had to get council approval and that meant we had to… wait for it… draw up plans!!! (Do you see where this is going?) What was currently on the house and what did we intend to replace? What material were we going to use (wood, cement, steel)? And the answers to these questions meant we needed an engineer (an expert) to give guidance on how to proceed.

Now, hopefully, your novel isn’t in as much danger as our house was but, even so, it’s fantastic to get an expert, an outside eye, to step into your project and offer some wisdom to make sure you’re going in the right direction and not making things worse for yourself down the track. This is where you need your beta readers–your trusted advisors. (But do tell them to ignore the obvious spelling etc. and spend their valuable time on the big stuff. That’s what you need.)

Having taken care of the must-do structural renovation (and we couldn’t do ANYTHING else to the house until that was done because EVERYTHING else depended on having a level, stable base to work from), we moved on to the fun structural improvements. We’d previously demolished the front stairs (also termite ridden) and built new ones. We pulled out an entire load-bearing wall and put in a load-bearing beam. And then we did another one. We put in new doors. We built in wall where previously there wasn’t wall. We chased the leaks in the roof and plugged them.

All of these types of things can be done in your structural edit and there isn’t a lot of point proceeded to the next stage. There’s no point painting walls if you’re only going to tear them down.

 

Cosmetic renovation

This level of renovation is equivalent to the copy edit stage of your manuscript.images-5

Most of the really hard yakka is done at this point and you won’t need quite as many chocolate runs, coffee or cold beers at the end of the day. This is where we put in a brand new kitchen. Ta da!! Gorgeous. A chandelier. Ka-ching! Polished floorboards. Painted walls. Re-wired the house. Put in an air conditioner.

All these things make it easier to live in the house, which is precisely what you’re doing in the copy edit. You’re finding sentences that could be prettier and making them so. You’re sanding back the excess words and letting the real beauty shine. Everything flows from one area to the next. You’re grammar is straight, tidy and enticing.

 

Sprucing

This is like proofreading. (We aren’t here yet in our house renovation; we’re still working through the cosmetic renovations.) This is like when you’ve images-4got people coming over for dinner, or you want to sell the house. You’re mowing, cleaning, tidying, fluffing and styling. The proofread is your final sweep, your last chance before your visitors arrive to make sure your place is looking its best and nothing’s going to embarrass you (no hidden mould or hair caught in the sink trap).

 

To summarise, there is no point putting flowers on your kitchen bench if you don’t even have one! Make sure you’re editing your novel in the right order. Do the hard work first, the one that will cause you the most sweat, agony and tears and have you saying that you will never, ever do this again for as long as you live. And work your way through to the fun, pretty stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting published: There’s no reason it can’t be you

In February 2009, QWC published an article I wrote called ‘The Power of the Positive’ in their WQ magazine, and I’m betting more than a few people thought I was a little nutty and ‘woo woo’. 

I started off by saying, “It seems to me that there can be a tendency in writing circles to dramatise the negatives… the main message is all about how difficult writing is, how it’s nearly impossible for a first-time writer to get published, how the annual salary for full-time writers in Australia is ridiculously low, how you ‘shouldn’t give up the day job’, how you ‘shouldn’t get your hopes up’, how everything is so competitive and how the slush pile is so high and the editor’s time is so short.”

 
Sound familiar?
 
An excerpt from my article, 'The Power of the Positive'
An excerpt from my article, ‘The Power of the Positive’

The rest of the article goes on to talk about the importance of believing the positive, visualising success, and channeling all that creative energy you have into something useful, rather than something that’s going to tear you down and bring others down with you–incorporating some sports psychology and some new age theory too.

But most importantly, it poses the question, ‘Why can’t it be you?’
 
Now, my first novel, The Tea Chest, has finally made it out into the world. And I am living proof that you can rise above all that negativity out there that will shoot down your dreams before they’ve even started. I’m not saying it’s easy to face more than a decade of writing books (10 manuscripts in 12 years for me before I got a publishing deal) and literally hundreds of rejections. It’s emotionally hard going when you’ve put your soul into a piece of art that other people criticise. And then it just sits silently and invisibly on your laptop with no where to go (which is why I’ve turned some of my manuscripts into books via http://www.lulu.com, just so I could see the completion of the project). 
 
And just for the record, The Tea Chest was submitted to every mentorship program and manuscript development program out there and not picked up.
 
You’ve got to do the work. Of course you do. I guarantee your book won’t get published if you don’t write it. But there is no predetermined expiration date or outcome on this. The sky truly is the limit (or maybe not even then).
 
Having said that, I do actually want to ‘ground’ this notion in a larger philosophy: that of art for art’s sake. Because I’m not saying you WILL achieve all those things you dream of. Sometimes, good work just won’t get published. This is not about bulldozing your way into perceived success via milestones and paycheques. The most important thing of all is to write. Just WRITE. 
 
If you are going to become attached to anything, become attached to being a writer, not to your manuscript. Then you will be able to move on from the wonderful manuscript you’ve worked so hard on for so many years and write a new one, or indeed something else entirely.
 
And just for once, I won’t quote Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (I do not work for Julia Cameron or get commission  though the amount I plug her I probably should…), but instead I will quote Australian author, Torre de Roche

Forget the stats, the numbers, the wealth, the prestige, the popularity, the things you imagine to be waiting for you on the other side of ‘success.’ They’re not there, and if they are, they won’t stay long. Instead, work tirelessly to make your soul happy. Keep going until you’re standing before a big, glorious creation made by you, for you. Your baby—made of cells, or paper, or clay, or words. That’s yours.

Be proud. You did it for the simple joy of creating. There is nothing more to life than that.

So don’t quit.” 

What I’m saying here is that we write because we must. We write because it makes us happy. That is why we do it. So do it.

But there is no harm in expecting the best along the way. There is no harm in valuing a financial reward for your art. Imagine your biggest, scariest possibility of whatever you deem to be ‘success’. Got it? Good. File it away somewhere in your heart and mind to revisit at a later date, shrug of the criticisms and the crazy looks you get when you say you’re working on a book (to which someone will instantly say, ‘oh, do you have a publisher?’ and you’ll squirm inside and say, ‘no, not yet’), and go write. It doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say about your ‘chances’ of being published. That’s their reality, not yours. Feel free to invent your own.

A shameful secret

I have a confession to make.

In the spirit of Liane Moriarty‘s latest novel, The Husband’s Secret, I have decided to reveal a shameful secret. Actually, just to be self-indulgent, I will reveal two secrets.

First, Bold and the Beautiful is my guilty pleasure. I’m watching it right now! (I know, I know…)

Husband'sSecret_AusBut not only that, I have for the first time in my entire life done something awful. I skipped to the end of The Husband’s Secret to find out what the secret was. Yes, it’s true. Why? Because the tension in this book is utterly excruciating and I actually thought I might DIE if I didn’t relieve just a little of the pressure from this intense and masterful tale.

Around seven years ago, I was sitting with a group of fellow editors. We all worked in a publishing house in Brisbane and we were talking about books (of course) and do you know what? Half of the people in that circle confessed to regularly skipping to the end of the book to find out what happens to decide if it was worth reading. Half!!!! As an aspiring author, I was distraught! And these were editors, no less. They should know better!!!

But here I was, just a few days ago, lying in bed, well past bedtime, in writhing agony of the unknown and what did I do… exactly the same.

Shame, Josie, shame.

If you’re into compelling secrets, fantastic writing, clever dialogue, humour and very human tales, you won’t be disappointed in Liane Moriarty’s latest offering. Though I certainly do not recommend it for reading before bed. Not if you ever want to sleep before turning the final page.