(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!