Anatomy of a Creative Writing MA, Part 6

Back in 2000, one of my projects won an editing mentorship on the strength of two scenes that I’ve since edited out of it. But when the writers’ centre director administering the award referred me to a writer (not editor) of her choice, not mine, the fifty-something author (known for young adult fiction) declined after reading my adult novel. Because it was ‘contemporary’ and ‘youth oriented’, she said, she felt I needed to work with a younger editor. Next, the director attempted to match me with a forty-something author (not an editor either) renowned for zany humour. This writer whom I’ve always admired, though happy to take me on, assumed we’d be converting my project into a comic novel. When I told the director that we hadn’t seen eye to eye, she said, with undisguised impatience, ‘What editors do you like?’

It seemed futile to remind her that book editors rarely get credited, let alone that when their work is expert it can’t be detected. Even a poorly structured text needn’t point to a poor editor; it might result from a too-tight publishing schedule and/or editing budget. Nonetheless, I proposed a widely praised writer–academic. Yet, when approached by the director, my third hope said no, reportedly alarmed by the thought of having someone else’s book in her head. (Wouldn’t such a reservation compromise all reading pleasure?) The esteemed sixty-something editor (and author) with whom I wound up (by default) read my ms just once, and made a few general suggestions including that we meet for coffee, twice (though each time he drank red wine).

For years after that I fantasised about working for real with an editor. When short pieces of mine got accepted for journals or anthologies, I revelled in the attention given to details as minor as commas. It was inevitable that I’d choose Professional Editing for an elective.

The tutor – my most useful so far – wasn’t a writer, which didn’t surprise me. For one thing, she brimmed with curiosity and enthusiasm. And some of my other tutors, being outsiders to copyediting, would introduce errors when marking my assignments; they were mere writers. In fact, an editor needs to exercise skills many writers lack, including diplomacy, a good memory, and full command of grammar, punctuation and spelling.

What does an editor do? Our first assignment was to pick a book from the current bestseller lists and review it. Stoked to have options for once, I chose Atonement by Ian McEwan. One night while I was discussing McEwan’s dangling modifiers* with the tutor, a student employed as an asst ed. with one of the major publishers overheard and asked me to point them out. As soon as I’d done so, Ed† changed the subject – to that of the forthcoming uni anthology. A member of the committee that had rejected my short fictions, Ed was only too eager to spill the beans. They’d had to read 300 submissions in three weeks, some of them 20 pages long and/or novel extracts, and most of them ‘TERRIBLE’. Ed paused awkwardly at that point and asked if I’d submitted work. I nodded, maintaining a neutral expression. Reassured that I bore no rancour, Ed bumbled on. With the terrible pieces (i.e. most pieces), Ed’s MO was to read just 2–3 pages, trusting that at least one other of the eight editors would read the rest. Apparently some writers who didn’t make it past the shortlist were angry with Ed. I smilingly invoked perspective: ‘It’s a student publication.’ Ed said they should have notified those who made the longlist. I mentioned that no-one had notified me of my rejection, I’d had to ask, because I wanted to send the pieces elsewhere.‡ ‘Was that you?’ Ed said, wincing, then reeled off a lame and protracted excuse. Later that night, as we left the room, I overheard Ed telling someone else about the hardships of editing anthologies. And the following week, Ed told a student in our novel-writing class. She misunderstood, thinking Ed’s employers were putting out an anthology, and when Ed clarified, she expressed sympathy. Though Ed was atypical, I noticed a difference between the two classes. Most editing students came across as reflective, good listeners, analytical; in contrast, the wannabe novelists exuded an aura of narcissism. My guess is that these different skills relate to different brain hemispheres – editing, the left side (logic, detail, facts, patterns etc); and creative writing, the right side (feeling, intuition, symbols, images).

Throughout the editing course we often worked in small groups, on such exercises as the following: ‘Discuss the changes you would make to this piece of fiction if you were asked to copyedit it’, it being a single page from a Dan Brown novel. I underlined the phrase, ‘Langdon sat up in his empty bed’. Brown clearly favours the right side of his brain over the left – unlike Ed, who, for instance, didn’t hold with verbless sentences (most typically found in literary prose).

Later in the course we were treated to guest speakers. According to an underpaid ms appraiser, you can tell in the first three pages if an ms is likely to interest a publisher, but you must then read it all and write a report that neither flatters the author nor betrays your rage or frustration. Next we heard from an acclaimed editor (and author) who likes to spend two weeks on a structural report. Obviously, this job pays much better than does appraisal (each instance of which need take a mere day), but requires more tact: ‘aim for non-confrontational language’ and ‘use questions instead of statements’ (e.g. ‘what if’ or ‘maybe’). ‘Writers can never have too much praise or attention,’ this editor said.

The course concluded with input on cover design and blurb copy. During the semester, we’d covered, in varying degrees of depth, each stage of the editorial/production process. When, three months later, I received a free publishing offer from a UK press (open to – on a first come, first served basis – 4999 others), I used the opportunity to consolidate my training, producing a feral novel called Hum.

* Two of McEwan’s dangling modifiers:
Since coming down, landscape gardening was his last craze but one.’
Some time in her teens a friend of Cecilia’s father who worked in the Victoria and Albert Museum had come to examine the vase and declared it sound.’
To be fair, their meaning is clear in the original context. As the tutor once said: ‘Almost any sentence can be improved – but is it necessary to change it?’

† The names of the relatively unknown have been changed to ensure that they remain so, even where they demonstrate no desire for privacy.

‡ On the last night of semester, Ed handed out postcards to promote the anthology: a virtual reunion of almost half of the students from my old short-story class. My peer exclusion proved fortuitous: one piece was later shortlisted by two leading editors, and published by another, earning me $400. (Perhaps understandably, no-one pays contributors to uni anthologies.)

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