Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Editors

Working alongside Chris Rhatigan for the two Pulp Ink books has been a real treat and an education.  It’s an education I’d love to continue at some point, so fingers crossed on my part.

There was a big difference of approach in terms of editing the two collections. 

For Pulp Ink, with all writers invited to participate, we left most of the stories as they were.  When suggestions were asked for we’d offer thoughts and opinions and it was only when Chris and I shared a thought that we asked for an author to consider a change or two.

This time around we decided that we wanted to actually earn the ‘editor’ mantle.

The submissions call went out and in the stories flooded.

That led to the first part of the editing process, deciding what we thought was good enough and then, if it was good enough, whether it fitted what we were looking for.

To some extent, a submissions call can only do so much in terms of framing the aims of the editors.  It would be impossible to list the nuances and subtleties of what we sought, mainly because we didn’t know what they were until the work arrived.  There was also the organic factor, that the shape of the collection began to form only when there were enough acceptances to see what that might be.  I guess that's partly instinctive.

Next comes the difficulty of rejection.  It’s not a pleasant business, but it’s a huge part of the package.  We were fortunate in some ways to have so many great submissions, but that good fortune meant that we needed to refuse entry to some excellent work.  Pieces that were worthy of publication just didn’t fit the bill.  Thankfully all writers in the ‘not this time, thanks’ pile were very professional and kind and I hope that they’ve found homes for the work since.

Axe wielded it was time for the editing proper.  We’d decided that we wanted to challenge ourselves here, that we’d push ourselves and some of the writers pretty hard.

The first thing to mention is that editing is so very different to proof reading.  Yes, you know that, but I’m mentioning it anyway.  The proofing work came at the final stage.

I’ve recently been on a journey as an author with the novella ‘Smoke’.  It had been very well received the first time around, but when Allan Guthrie took it on for BlastedHeath, he suggested a huge number of changes.  The first third he explained, the rest I was to extrapolate from the early process.  It was a real eye-opener to see the kinds of things I was doing habitually and also to find that things I thought were clever and subtle to be blown out of the water.  The good news was that it gave me further confidence for Pulp Ink 2, that I knew that pointing things out can be seen by writers as a helpful process rather than a critical one.

So what kind of things were we looking at?

There was no list.  Again, it was fluid and depended on a piece.  I guess that the following list might cover some of it.

Character.  Is there enough information to get a sense of the people involved?  Is there too much or too little?  Is the character described with too much back story or with clumsy dialogue?  Do we need a little more individualised actions to picture who we’re reading about.  Is the description there and in the right place?

Credibility.  This relates mainly to character.  Even in the most bizarre situations, the actions of a character need to be consistent (unless there’s an obvious reason why this shouldn’t be the case).  It also relates to real life.  If ‘x’ happens, would ‘y’ really follow, or would ‘z’ be more likely?  At what age would a young boy from a given background know the difference between white powder and drugs?  That kind of thing.

Imagery.  Has an appropriate image been chosen each time?  If not, can we push for a little more?

Voice.  Did a first-person narrative work or would third-person have been better.  Given the perspective, is it possible for the teller to know this or that?

Can we trim any flab from the story, from the paragraphs or sentences?  Is it all necessary.  Did that little bit of extra information that didn’t feel totally necessary get in the way of the drive of the piece?  If the flow was interrupted, what can be done?

Pronouns (GUILTY).  Do the pronouns make it clear who’s actually involved or has the reader been confused?  Simple, you’d think; not for me it isn’t, at least not at the point of writing.

Sowing seeds.  If the character is expected to act in a certain way at some point, can this be hinted at subtly at an early place in the story rather than having something arriving out of the blue?

Structure.  Can the organisation of a story be altered to achieve the best for the ideas?  The more complicated the structure, the more difficult it can be to follow.  Rather than tie the reader up in knots, keep feeding them the breadcrumb path to walk behind.

Constants.  Are there any contradictions to pick up on and explore?

Setting.  Is there any?  Too much?  Too little? 

Punctuation.  Can it be used better to give an improved ambience or flow?

Thing about all this is that, though some of the rules and thoughts might seem rigid, a rigid approach doesn’t work.  It’s a bit like teaching children; if one method worked for all, there’d be no need to do any thinking about finding a best approach.

I think that the knack to editing is to take the piece as it is and to apply as much of the above as possible in a way that’s appropriate to the style of the author and the theme of the piece.  There’ll be other things that come up and they’ll be individual to a writer or to a work.

The wonderful thing about having co-editors (especially when one’s called Rhatigan) is that there are two perspectives at all times.  In what I might think of as being perfectly formed, Chris might see something I hadn’t even considered (something I may not have ever thought about in relation to reading and writing).  I hope there was some vice-versa.  There’s also the bonus of having a voice to point out the answers to a question before the writer is approached; this means that unnecessary points are less likely to be made and that when the points are made there can be a good deal of confidence behind them.
From then, it's a matter of ping-pong until everyone's satisfied with the final result.  The editor isn't always right and nor is the writer.  There's an element of compromise sometimes and it's always there to be found.
Lastly there's the proofing.  Not my forte, I'll admit. 
All of this means editing is bloody hard work.  You read the pieces for selection.  Again for editing.  Again for rewrites.  Again for proofing.  Again for final proofing.  Don't take it on unless you have the will and the time.  All the folk out there doing it already, we all owe them a debt of gratitude.  Keep that in mind when you see a final product, especially with some of the mighty-fine collectons that are about.  Keep it in mind, too, when you're making a submission - make it easy for them.

Maybe some of that’s useful to you.  I hope so.

What I know is that Pulp Ink 2 is a tight, varied and well-written collection with some absolutely brilliant stories.  You really should have a dig around to find the nuggets.  If the book were in the Olympics, every one of them would be medallists and a heap of them would make the top of any rostrum.

Thanks to all the authors, to Chris, to Eric and Ron for their extra input with the cover and the paperback formatting (it’s beautiful) and to Snubnose Press for having the vision.

Available in the UK and the US


  1. I found working with both you and Chris on this project to be a real treat, especially the way you handled suggestions and changes to the text. As both an editor and writer myself, I've always found the dichotomy interesting. Or perhaps "dichotomy" isn't the correct term, for some traits seem to at least influence the other, especially in the context of sensitivity. (We writers are a sensitive lot.) You and Chris are total pros, and every suggestion (in my case primarily language and removing needless repetition of phrases) was spot-on. Most importantly, the give-and-take process made my contribution the best it could be. Which is ultimately the goal of the editor. Job well done, sir(s)!

  2. Ditto to everything Joe said and more...I've sat on both sides of the desk and know how lucky it is to be edited by writers who can also edit. I was delighted by the changes you requested (so nicely) because in every case, you were absolutely right.

    Thanks for the insight into the process.

  3. Joe and Katherine, it means a lot to see that. It's always sensitive - we are a sensitive breed on the whole, I agree - so that's brilliant. Thanks for making it so easy - ditto to both of you - a pleasure to work together and I hope to do it again some time.

  4. I truly appreciate every suggestion Nigel and Chris made. I love having someone weigh in on what does or does not work. You are often too close to see the flaws.

  5. Right back at ya, Nigel. In a sense, it was easy working with such excellent writers--who were, without exception, very keen on making their work stronger. In another sense, it was difficult, as we all held each other to high standards.

    Makes for a good combination.

  6. Totally agree with Joe, Patti & Katherine - it was fun, enlightening and education. Plus you guys quite simply rock.