I attended two sessions on editing at Aussiecon4.
Editing the Novel.
Panellists were: Simon Spanton editor at Gollancz; Zoe Walton a publisher at Random House; science fiction author and freelance editor Jean Johnson; and Ace editor Ginjer Buchanan.
They started the discussion by answering the question of how long a book should be. Simon said that a novel should be as long as the story takes to tell. Ginjer said that for a large novel, Ace used different formats to fit the words in or they just charged more for the novel. Young adults like chunkier books. Fantasy readers like more padding, description.
Simon said editors are not there to be creative and that he never came up with a solution to an editing problem that was better than what the author thought up. He said it was increasingly difficult to get good copy editors.
They said that an author can refuse all the changes an editor makes, but then the reader might spot all those problems. Editors don’t want an author to agree with 100% of changes.
Jean Johnson came across as a bit too overbearing. I don’t know whether her appearance on the panel would have increased her sales.
How we Edit
The panellists were: Simon Spanton, once again, but looking a little bit under the weather; Amanda Pillar, in-house editor at small press Morrigan books and; John R. Douglas, who has 21 years experience as an in-house editor than freelance editor.
John said he worked with an author to find out what story they wanted to write. He removed most adverbs when editing. He said he spent a lot of his time explaining to management what the science fiction book he was editing was about, because they had no idea about the genre. He reckons it helps if the editor has a science background.
But Simon – who edits Stephen Baxter -said he had no science knowledge. He said you must remember that you are editing a novel. He trusts that the hard science fiction writers have gotten it right, adding that they were usually scientists. He said the main task was to ensure the novel was consistent.
John said editors with production houses like to work with authors who get it nearly right at the start, so the editor can edit enough books to satisfy management. He said the workload per editor is increasing at publishing houses. One of the big problems with books he edits is that most authors know a whole more about the world their novel is set in than they remember to tell the reader, and they leave it too late to give the reader vital information.
John said that publishing on demand is delivering hundreds of thousands of not very good books.
Simon said that things that interrupt the story are a problem: too many tricks risk knocking the reader out. (Graham here - that is why I didn’t like the novella that won the Hugo “Palimpsest”by Charles Stross, I was continually being thrown out of the story by information dumps, histories of the future and a plot that jumped all over the place.)
Simon said that publishing houses no longer have paid readers to troll through the slush pile. It was the last thing he looked at each day if he had time. Unless a novel from the slush pile absolutely blew his head off, it was not going to be published.
John said that he got rid of 90% of the slush pile very quickly He would dismiss submissions by the first line or page. He only spent about 5% of his time on the slush pile. He said that editors needed to spend 95% of their time on signed clients and couldn’t afford to waste their time thinking about the novel they might miss in the slush pile.
The editing panels did not have a lot of new information for me. They confirmed the fact that publishing houses are caring less and less about editing so a writer, especially a new writer, will have to try and get their story as structurally and grammatically correct as possible before submitting it.