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Five Questions an Editor Will Ask of Your Novel

By Kevin O’Brien

Why not join us for the Editing Boot Camp to learn more?

I should start this blog post by saying that good editors will ask you more than five questions about your novel, but I’ve chosen the following issues in particular as they can be the hardest to fix if left until the end of the writing–editing process.

It’s not going to be your main aim as an author to please an editor, of course, or to make an editor’s life easier (although the editor will love you for it if you do), but it’s always good to anticipate some of the editor’s questions. That’s because you and the editor have a common goal: to make your novel the best version of itself it can possibly be. The questions an editor asks of your manuscript are the same that you should ask of it, rather than leaving a prospective agent or publisher, or the end reader, to do so.

Sometimes, these questions have to be set aside until you have enough of an idea of the story you want to tell for your own revisions to begin. Then, it can be hard to know where to start. So please don’t be dissuaded by these lines of enquiry. They are intended as suggested starting points for self-editing, as well as potentially problematic end points:

 

  • Does your novel have any problems at the level of the narrator, in terms of consistency of voice and how much the narrator knows?
    For example, is your narrator mainly invisible and faceless but then seems to develop a ‘personality’ at various points? Is your narrator a character within the story he or she is telling but also privy to the other characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings? This would need to be explained in some way if so.
  • Does your novel’s structure and length suit the story you are trying to tell?
    Readers will anticipate structure in any story and base certain expectations on it. If the book opens with a prologue, is there an epilogue, or is the action of the prologue returned to in the main story somewhere (without being repeated word for word)? If the first two chapters of the book are narrated from two different points of view, do the other chapters continue in this vein? Good structure is about managing the reader’s expectations (and this also applies to the length of the story: does it feel too long or too short?).
  • Do all of your novel’s characters serve a purpose?
    A novel can reflect reality, but it is not reality. As it has been constructed to serve a particular purpose (telling a story), all of its elements are usually expected to contribute to that purpose, including characterisation.
  • Is the plot as successful and satisfying as possible?
    Are the events of the novel and motivations of the characters believable? Are there any loose ends that need tying up? How is the pace throughout? Are there turning points and climaxes? Do these come at appropriate times in the story?
  • Have you done enough copy-editing (particularly in terms of grammar and punctuation) to make your meaning clear enough to facilitate editing?
    If not, you will likely be bombarded with queries at the editing stage (politely asking ‘What do you mean?’) or there might not be an editing stage, unless you commission one yourself, because your writing is perceived as requiring too much work. Where your meaning is sufficiently clear, of course, errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation are part of the editor’s job to fix.

 

If you would like to hear more about these questions, I will be discussing each of them in detail on Saturday 17 May as part of the SA Writers Centre’s Editing Boot Camp.

 

Kevin O’Brien is a freelance editor based in the Adelaide Hills, with clients including Pan Macmillan, Hachette, Random House, UQP, Black Inc., Allen and Unwin and Penguin. Some of the novelists he has worked with are Kate Forsyth, Gregory Day, Peter Rix, Jacqueline Lunn and Jenny Bond. He runs workshops for fiction writers, and editing and Microsoft Word courses for publishing students and professional editors.

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What Editors Do

This is a snippet from a brief talk I’ll be giving at the SA Writers Centre this Thursday on the subject of what editors do. 

Whenever I tell people I’m a book editor, and the conversation doesn’t swiftly move on, their first question is usually, ‘So what do editors do?’ Their tone is that of a biologist having chanced across a new, unapprehended form of life. As I’m gathering my thoughts for the answer, they’ll often rush to cover my perceived embarrassment by supplying one themselves: ‘You fix all the spelling and punctuation in a book.’

Yes, that’s one of the things editors do, but I think this function springs so readily to mind because people imagine themselves editing a finished book, as in one that has already been edited. From this point of view, the role seems pretty basic. The book reads well and is professionally polished, apart from one or two misplaced commas or typing errors that stand out like a sore thumb. This is where the editor swoops in with his or her red pen. Change ‘stationery’ to ‘stationary’, take that apostrophe out of ‘it’s’: job done.

Editors and authors know that the work of an editor can be much more intensive and developmental than this. Depending on the stage of a manuscript’s life-cycle that an editor is brought in on, and the type of editing that the editor is doing (common types include structural editing and copy-editing), an editor might suggest, for example, changing the age of a character to suit the dialogue, giving a subplot an ending, or a different ending, making certain journeys in the novel possible in terms of real time and geography, cutting down on the overuse of certain words or phrases, introducing readers to something they need to know earlier on in the book, not quoting song lyrics that could breach someone’s copyright if not paid for, placing realistic limits on a first-person narrator’s knowledge, and changing ‘a sack of potato’s’ to ‘a sack of potatoes’. In some cases, editors will not only advise rewrites but also directly make them, always subject to the author’s final approval.

Now, I’m not in any way suggesting that editors supplant the author’s role here. The author’s role is the primary one, originating and mastering the book, and we respect and admire them for it. (The perception of an editor being an embittered, frustrated author is largely untrue and misses the point – which is that every author can benefit from a good editor.*) The editor’s role is secondary, a service provided to the author, to the text, to the publishing company and to the reader. But it takes a long time for a book to reach the stage at which most people will read it, and the editor is an important part of its gestation, helping a book to become the best version of itself it can possibly be.

Exactly how an editor does this, at what stage he or she might do this, and the different types of editing referred to above are things I will be discussing at the Writers Centre this Thursday.

*NB: Any errors you might find in this unedited blog post serve perfectly, of course, to illustrate this point and might even be deliberate. 

Kevin O’Brien is a freelance editor based in the Adelaide Hills with over 15 years of editorial experience. For the last ten of these years, he has been working intensively on trade fiction and non-fiction, firstly for Mainstream Publishing, in Edinburgh, then for Random House in Sydney, where he was senior editor for five years, and now across all the big publishers, including Penguin, Pan Macmillan, Hachette and Random House, as a freelancer.

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