Editing for Indies - Sorting the Facts from the Fictions by Catherine Czerkawska

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an indie author in possession of a manuscript must be in want of an editor. Or several. Few writers question this. Not in public, anyway. Although you might be surprised to learn that privately, a great many experienced novelists disagree. I could name (but I won't. Your secrets are safe with me) a number of well reviewed, nay celebrated, novelists who - perhaps I should be whispering this - self-edit. Mostly. Although they are not afraid to ask for professional help as and when they need it. And will even pay for it if necessary.

Beta testing anyone? 
When the number of editors is legion, unpaid volunteers, they are sometimes called Beta Readers. The original Beta Testers were, and still are, groups of people invited to use a new software product or video game and report on irritating faults or bugs. So - conventional wisdom goes - you find yourself a group of readers, let them loose on your manuscript and follow their instructions. Which, if you can find any significant points of comparison between your novel and a piece of software, might be a useful process. There are many people who swear by their Beta Readers. But I have never, in my years of tutoring Creative Writing groups of one kind or another, groups stuffed with lovely, talented people, I might add, come across a group of writers I would trust to tell me how to rework my own fiction. Nor would I presume to advise them in any but the most general terms what they ought to do with theirs. I'm not against editors and the editing process per se. In fact a good editor is a pearl of great price. Once you have found one, never let him or her go.The problem is that not all editors are good editors and it's certain that not all editors are good for you, as a writer.

It's impossible to acquire any kind of track record in publication and production without also acquiring significant experience of the editing process, good and bad. Any kind of new play development - for example - involves a long process of analysis, difficult questions and endless rewrites, the dramatic equivalent of the editorial process. This is the reason why most producers of radio drama like to have the dramatist present in the studio. No matter how much work you've done beforehand, there will be rewrites and it's always preferable if those rewrites can be done by the creator of the piece, even if it means writing on the hoof. Queries are one thing; concrete suggestions quite another. As a writer, you can readily take on board that something might be problematic or unclear, but in theatre at least - television is another matter entirely - no director or actor worth his or her salt will attempt to rewrite the dialogue unless they know you and your writing style very well. I can count on the fingers of one hand the colleagues I would trust to do this and they are almost all actors I know and respect, never writers. Instead, they will ask you for your alternative.

When I was writing for the Traverse in Edinburgh, the rewrites only stopped at the point where the actors protested that they couldn't learn anything new in the time available. And all theatre is a collaboration. But here's an interesting thing. Some years later, I met the director I had worked with at that time, and he remarked, casually,  'You know, you were much too accommodating, Catherine. You should have dug your heels in a lot more. If you agree too easily, all that happens is that people will suggest more and more changes.'
Now, I was young and relatively inexperienced with theatre, and the plays which eventually emerged from all those rewrites did pretty well. But the director also had a point. Give people an inch and they will always be tempted to grab the extra mile.

Over the years, I've known good, bad and indifferent editors.  Sometimes they were working for publishers or for agencies; sometimes they were directors or actors. All were fulfilling the function of reading the work in question and commenting on it, sometimes in detail, asking tricky questions and expecting me to make changes. I've done a little editing myself and you walk a tightrope, always resisting the urge to say in too much detail what you would do yourself, trying hard to ask the right questions, questions which will somehow allow the writer to work out what she needs to do: a process of teaching people to teach themselves, teaching people to do without you.

My worst editor, for a piece of fiction, assumed a position of superiority, pointed out 'anachronisms' on every page, (they weren't) tried to rewrite my dialogue and made extensive changes to the manuscript without flagging them up in any way. In between, I've met the good, the bad and the indifferent.The problem is that too often I've been inclined to believe them all. It's one of our failings as writers - the belief that somebody else knows more than we do about our work. But with hindsight, I can see that not all of them were right. Worse, they had agendas of their own. Quirks. Irrational prejudices. Least favourite words and phrases. Books they wished they had written. Books they wished I had written.

A little while ago, I saw a request from an Indie writer for Beta Readers. The writer in question quoted a long and very precise list of things she wanted the Beta Readers to highlight for her. They included whether or not characters were fully rounded, plot inconsistencies, structural inconsistencies, overall structural integrity, dialogue, vocabulary and more, a whole paragraph of wants. It struck me that since she clearly knew about these things, and knew that they might need to be addressed, she also needed to learn how to do that for herself. It's what writers do. She needed to set her manuscript to one side for however long it took (and that's personal. There are no hard and fast rules) and go back to it in a month, several months, possibly even a year. Whereupon everything would become much clearer. Meanwhile, my advice would have been to get on with more writing. Always get on with more writing, so that while one book is lying fallow you have something else to concentrate on. Keep the ball rolling.

You may need to repeat this process several times. There are few shortcuts. A good editor can help you by asking the right questions. In finding the answers, you'll improve the piece of work. But the editor or, worse, a group of editors, worst of all, a group of editors who haven't even found their own voices yet, can't do the work for you. This is a personal opinion, but I don't think you can write a novel by committee. Well, you can. But you'll never find your own true voice. And the more you rely on other people to tell you what they think you ought to do with your manuscript, the less sure you will become about what works and what doesn't. It's a little like learning to drive and passing your test. Sooner or later, you are going to have to get in that car, switch on the engine and go it alone.

Last year, I had an interesting conversation with an artist. We are roughly the same age, with roughly the same level of experience and a reasonable amount of success. Would she, I asked, expect to submit her latest artwork to somebody for validation. Would she expect to be treated like a beginner, told where she was going wrong, and what she had to do to fix it? She looked at me as though I had two heads.
No. She would not. She was no longer a beginner. She had served her apprenticeship. But yes, she would allow the work to lie fallow for a spell and go back to it with a fresh eye. And yes, she might well discuss a project with a trusted colleague and ask for an opinion. Especially if and when she felt that she couldn't see the wood for the trees. But trust had to be established first and sometimes comments and especially suggestions might be inimical to the spirit of the work. You had to learn to be careful. Had to learn to trust your own instincts as an artist.
Had to learn to do it for yourself.
I think so too.


Lee said…
Your point about an artist is interesting. I too have an aquaintance who is a professional artist, who shows - and sells - regularly in galleries in Germany and the U.S. (and has held several professorships in both countries). When I asked what she would do if one of her galleries suggested revisions to a piece, her answer was, quite bluntly, 'Find a new gallerist.'

However, commercial artists do have to accept at least some editing, I reckon.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that half the job of a writer - or more! - is thorough self-editing. I'm not there yet, but I too am determined to let all of my current and future work proof for an extended period of time, if necessary several times over. If I wanted to work with others, I'd have gone into writing for TV or films (which doesn't mean that I look down on script writers, only that it's not me).
Not exactly the same thing, but (in realm of knowing one's own mind and not being TOO open/swayed by external feedback on an established, or new, piece of work) strongly reminds me of that statement Graham Greene made when asked why he had left the American publisher he had been with for many years, Viking, and moved to Simon and Schuster:

"What irritated me was a telegram saying that the travelers [salesmen] didn't like the title of my book ['Travels With My Aunt'] and would I change it to something else, and I came back saying it was easier to change the publisher than the title."


Also, this gets into the issue of whether an artistic work is, yes, as you say:
a) To be brought into being by committee

b) Planned out in advance (as Alan Warner for example says he does)

c) Will it be, as in the case of Robert Louis Stevenson/Graham Greene/Hemingway...something brought up from the depths of the subconscious, unplanned beforehand...with Hemingway, for example, according to A Moveable Feast, feeling it to be a terrible mistake to show anyone an uncompleted first draft of this kind of work(having made the mistake of showing it to "the rich/the pilotfish" and ruining the book/and himself...by the exhibition "of his own sputum"

Calls to mind too that Ray Bradbury-ism, "Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down"

But how can you build your own wings, or grow them, if you're not taking a sufficiently long time to listen (alone, even in the rewriting, perhaps especially in that phase where one "hears" oneself for the first time...) to that quiet voice within which used to be the wellspring? (Must be/still is?)

The prospectus for the Creative Writing Postgrad course at the University of East Anglia used to actively warn "intuitive/subconscious" writers that perhaps the course might not be for them...that it suited better those students who enjoyed the collective discussion/revision process...and that this process was not suitable for all writers.

Laurens Van Der Post noted that certain African birds which built their nests too close together, began to build nests of greatly inferior structure until the nests were no longer nests at all, just messes of twig and straw...

There had to be a certain distance between the birds, so that they could do their work well and build their own nests with due concentration.

William Blake:
"No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings"
I love your bird analogy, John. Isn't that exactly right? Even in theatre, I could see that devised drama wasn't really for me, although I could imagine circumstances where it might have been fun to do, so long as you acknowledged right from the start that it was a group project and didn't really belong to you at all. But for me, the plays I wrote began in the quietness of my own mind where I could see and grasp them whole. I actually love the theatrical collaborative process, but that's because with the right director and actors, everyone has respect for the script, for the play you intended. What emerges at the other end is often better than you could imagine, but that's because people are feeding in a whole lot of other skills to that central concept: acting, visual skills of all kinds, lighting, design. And you have to give these people space to get on with it, respect their talents. But that's quite different from somebody pulling your novel or story apart ('a good rigorous edit,' as somebody once said to me, having turned one of my stories into something he might have written!) and then leaving you to attempt to reassemble the pieces.
Lee's point about commercial art is a good one. If you're working to a brief, that's what you have to do. And I can imagine writing projects where the same would apply. But it's the wholesale assumption that the editor knows best which I'd disagree with.
Dan Holloway said…
fabulous, and much needed. I have frequently happily pinned my colours to the mast on this and sung the praises of unedited books for which I have been accused of everything from not being serious about writing to bringing the whole of self-publishing into disrepute. What we need is full, informed, and fully thought-through debate
madwippitt said…
This resonates ... as you say, there are editors and there are editors. And the same applies to non-fiction as well as to fiction. I was lucky enough to have had some brilliant editors when I started out, writing for magazines (yes, it applies to pre-fish and chip paper too) - Michael Williams, Nancy Roberts and Sarah Wright please step forward and take a bow. I learnt loads from them. And having gained the confidence from them to try my hand at books, I found other brilliant editors. And some that were a nightmare to work with. There are some publishers I will never work for again because the editors have been so atrocious - so hurrah for self-publishing!
Susan Price said…
Wonderful post, Catherine - thank you. Every word on the nail. So much wisdom in the comments too!

I signed my first contract with Faber at 16 - and was very lucky in my editor, Phyllis Hunt who, as she said 'brought me up as a writer', and was probably the best editor I have ever had - a pearl of great price, Catherine!

But even then, at 16, I would flatly say 'no' to any suggestion I felt was wrong, because this was my playground and my rules. I thought this was the norm (having no knowledge whatsoever of the 'book world'.)

Later when I met other writers I was appalled - and still often am - at how ready some of them are to completely rewrite their book, to change everything about it, to please an editor, or the marketing department.
I've found that if the writer says, 'No, and here's why I'm saying no - ' the publisher gives in - with a greater or lesser degree of grace.

I did once have to write to an American publisher: 'I said no a year ago, I said no six months ago, I'm saying no now - and if you ask me again in ten years time I shall still say no - but I was rather hoping the book might go into production before then!' The publisher gave in, but with much snarling and tail-lashing, and I've never been published by them since. I've probably been given the reputation of 'difficult.' So it goes.
Jan Needle said…
tremendously thought provoking post, thanks. i've had great editors and terrible ones, and i basically gave up writing tv because the so-called collaborative process struck me as being not far short of bonkers. (look at the end result most nights). i once had to submit to a grim ending to a short play being turned into a happy ending because it was for children. which was the point of the original ending, of course.

there's one problem with putting something to one side for too long, however. when you reread it, you think it's unbearable crap. but when you wrote it, it seemed terrific. which opinion is the right one? how can you ever tell?
Bill Kirton said…
Excellent as ever Catherine, and there's clearly a consensus about the value of good editors. The first one I ever had made suggestions for changes and additions that took my breath away and seemed so obvious once she'd voiced them. I once asked her why, since she was so good at improving material, she didn't write her own. She just said she wouldn't know where to start.
I should add that I didn't take all her suggestions on board because she wasn't always happy with some of the more extreme things the characters did.
Finally, as you say, the experience of having a play brought to life truly is magical. It's still your own play but it becomes something organic, with its own life outside you, but that's from a process beyond collaboration.
I've gratefully benefitted from the input of beta readers, but the choice of whether to accept the advice has always been mine. I will make changes that make sense for the book or story, but editing is completely my responsibility, right down to the final proofing. It's a learning process, no doubt about it, but what is writing all about if it doesn't include learning?
Debbie Bennett said…
Interesting. I mostly self-edit, but I do have a couple of trusted beta-readers. For me they are invaluable. They are people who get what I am trying to do and point out with unnerving accuracy exactly where I am not doing it. Sometimes they come up with suggestions, sometimes they just tell me a scene sucks, but they're not afraid to be honest and that means a lot.
Susan Price said…
The trust - that's key, isn't it? Someone who's judgement you can trust, because they know what's good and what isn't. And whose compliments you can trust not to be mere politeness or flattery or fear of hurting your feelings. And whose 'that scene sucks' you can trust not to come from jealousy, or spite... It really is rare.
Absolutely! You have to establish the trust first. Then you can work with somebody. But why are we so nervous when it comes to insisting on a certain level of professionalism and familiarity? I agree with you.It's rare to find that kind of expertise.
Kathleen Jones said…
I self-edit, but I always run it past someone I trust for feedback. They spot things you've missed because you knew them but had forgotten that the reader didn't! But it's finding the person you trust that's the problem. it's such a personal thing.
Lovely post Catherine.

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