Catch of the Day: The Art of Editing

On my brand-new one-hour walk into work I have taken to occasionally listening to episodes from the Guardian Books podcast. The latest episode I have listened to is ‘The Art of Editing’ in which editors of various stripes discuss the changing face of editing in the publishing industry.

You can listen to the podcast here.

In particular the programme reviews the shift in the role of the editor, all the way from the beginning of publishing, when editing was little more than a grammatical function of the typesetter, through the development of the novel in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the marketing/commissioning role that has flourished into the 21st century.

What I find fascinating is the relatively new function of the editor as an advisor — even creatively — to the author, guiding sometimes un-publishable manuscripts from page to print. Authors, I think, can sometimes still take it for granted that their work will be extensively re-worked and edited with a fine-toothed comb, an expectation shared by the consuming public. I wonder whether this can lead to laziness in some cases, the author (particularly the successful author?) putting together a rough manuscript that is ‘good enough’, then handing it to the editing team to be made fit for public consumption? Or perhaps this has had a knock-on effect in self-publishing, with books being under-edited?

I’m being mean, of course. The vast majority of authors take enormous pride in their work, and the path to publishing is rougher than ever, meaning the first draft of a debut author’s first novel has to be almost superhumanly good in order to get through the punishing acquisitions process. But I do wonder how much the publishing world came to rely on editors, especially towards the end of the 20th century, and how much some authors are missing editors now that they have become so snowed under with all the other aspects of their increasingly demanding and varied role.

As I embark on my own journey to publishing with Endever Publishing Studios, I know I can expect the enormous privilege of having my work looked at in great detail by a demanding and exacting team. A part of me suspects that this is a rarity, for a debut author to have such attention lavished upon them through the development of the manuscript — but at the same time it has not made me slack off in my efforts to make the first ‘good’ draft as good as it can possibly be. I see it as a challenge — a contest between me and the blue pencil team, and a good contest: one that will, in the end, produce a work of fiction that is compelling and moving, and (hopefully) financially successful.

So what are your thoughts? Have you been commercially published? Did you have a good relationship with your editor? Have you self-published? Do you look back and wish your work had undergone more rigorous editing?

Let me know in the comments, and any thoughts on the podcast as well.

Coals of Fire: The Golem (VIII)

As promised, here is some more writing that is not ‘The Singularity’. We rejoinColin and Mohammed in the desert …

*

After half an hour of walking the ground became more uneven. They came across places where the rock had either risen or fallen, creating mini plateaux that rose up fifteen feet above them, and deep sinkholes that fell away into darkness. Colin peered into them hopefully, but Mohammed shook his head: there was no water to be found there.Still further they came to the entrance of a network of shallow gulleys, smooth and rounded as if great worms had made their home there and worn them down with their passing. Colin hung back suspiciously, but Mohammed showed him how he had marked each fork and turning, showing the way he had gone before, and he led the way confidently.

Colin was soon lost, bewildered by the sheer number of forks and turnings. Every gulley was an identical shade of red-brown, identically formed into a smooth, shallow trough that barely shaded them from the rising sun. Mohammed strode ahead on long legs, without hesitation, and Colin followed close behind him; to lose himself in such a place would be certain death.

By the time they reached the end of the network and clambered out on to a narrow plateau it was midmorning. The sun beat down hard upon them, almost a physical weight on Colin’s shoulders. He was drenched with sweat, and longed to strip off the clinging grey one-piece; but Mohammed warned him against it.

“Better to sweat than to burn,” he said.

Their trek had brought them three hundred feet up; from where they stood they could see the network of gulleys sprawling down towards the distant rocky plateau where their ravine snaked back and forth in a dark jagged line. Beyond lay nothing but soft dunes of bright sand undulating endlessly towards the piercing sky on the horizon. Mohammed pointed into the emptiness.

“That is where I found you,” he said. He moved his hand a few degrees to the left. “That is where I came down, on the other side of the canyon.”

“Do you think there might be others?” asked Colin, squinting against the sunlight. “The man I killed, the woman who attacked you … Do you think we were all prisoners?”

Mohammed shrugged. “There is no way of knowing. Not unless we meet someone else.”

“And what if they try to kill us as well?”

The Somalian’s smile was feral. “Then I shall pray for them,” he said.

*

The trees Mohammed showed him were gnarled and stunted, struggling for life in a deep crack in the rock. They scoured the area for half an hour, driving their arms into every crack and crevice, sniffing and listening, straining for any sign of water. Colin followed Mohammed’s lead, though he had no idea what he was doing — it occurred to him that, left to his own devices, he would have been dead within days, attackers or no attackers. The desert would have finished him off as surely as any blade or bullet.

Exhausted, he slumped down in a scrap of shade. His side was a gnawing knot of pain; he clasped it with his hand and gritted his teeth, willing the pain away.

“Does it hurt?”

He looked up. Mohammed was standing over him, a bundle of wood under his arm. Colin shook his head.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I just need a drink.”

Mohammed nodded grimly and squatted beside him. “As do I,” he said. “If we find no water today we shall have a hard time of it tomorrow.”

“There must be water somewhere,” Colin said. “These trees are drinking something.”

“It may be they collect dew overnight,” Mohammed suggested. “Or else they can survive for many weeks on the rainfall of a storm. There is no way of knowing when the next rains may come.”

“Then why are we here?” Colin closed his eyes and rested his head on the rock behind him. “Why drop us out in the desert with a bottle of water and a bag of supplies if they just mean for us to die slowly? Why not just shoot us in the head and be done with it?”

“It may be a test of some kind.”

“Or a contest? Maybe we are supposed to kill each other after all — take each other’s supplies, food, water. Last man standing is the winner.”

“That would serve no purpose. It—”

He stopped mid-sentence. Colin opened his eyes. Mohammed had stood up, his hand shading his eyes, gazing intently into the distance.

“What—” Colin began, but Mohammed held up a hand, cutting him off. A moment later Colin saw why.

A black speck had appeared, a hand’s breadth above the horizon. As they watched the speck grew larger, and after a minute or so they heard the sound it made — thukkathukkathukkathukka — growing louder and louder by the minute, until they could clearly see the bulky outline of the military helicopter bearing down on them.

Colin stood up and raised his hands to signal to it, but Mohammed knocked them down and shook his head, pointing as the chopper veered away. A shape had detached itself from the back of the craft, boxy and cumbersome; as it fell a parachute billowed out above it, lowering it gently through the air until it disappeared into the canyon. The helicopter was already well away, the sound of its rotors fading into the still silence of the desert.

“What was that?” Colin asked when the helicopter had finally disappeared.

Mohammed rubbed his scar absent-mindedly — the first time Colin had seen him behave in a way that was not under his complete control. “A supply drop,” he said.

“Do you think we could find it?”

“Undoubtedly.” The Somalian was staring at the spot where the shape had entered the canyon. “But it is not, I think, a question of whether we could; it is a question rather of whether we should.”

“Why not? There could be food down there — water, medicines, weapons.”

“I am certain we would find all those things. But consider this: if we are not the only ones out here, then we are not the only ones to have seen that helicopter, or that supply drop. Others may be making their way there even now. Judging by our encounters so far, we may not wish to meet them.”

Colin stood up, closing his eyes against a wave of dizziness. His side was still throbbing, and the pain was worse than ever.

“Look,” he said. “I understand you want to be careful. But there’s no water up here — none that we can get to, anyway. Our only chance of survival is down in that canyon. And the quicker we leave, the sooner we’ll get there, maybe before anyone else.”

Mohammed’s brow was furrowed, and he did not answer straight away. He continued to stare out over the broken terrain, hardly blinking even in the full glare of the sun.

“Have you given any thought to the idea that it may be a trap?” he said at last. “Whoever has left us here may well be trying to entice us together into one place.”

“Trap or no trap, we need the water; I’m pretty sure I need the medicines; and a weapon or two wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world right now.”

Mohammed stood in silence for a while longer; then he nodded and turned away. “Very well,” he said. “We shall go. I do not believe it is the wise thing to do, but it is my no means the most foolish. Can you walk?”

Barely. “I’ll be fine,” Colin said. “Let’s get going.”

He let Mohammed get a head start, and when he was sure the Somalian would not look back he gingerly unzipped his jumpsuit and touched a finger to his side. The dressing was wet with blood, and when he raised to finger to his nostrils he could smell the infection setting in. There had better be antibiotics in that supply drop, or very soon it wouldn’t matter who else was out here.

He zipped up the suit, and followed Mohammed in silence.

Exciting News – Endever Publishing Studios

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So here it is: the news I’ve been itching to share and (part of) the reason why I’ve been so quiet lately. I’m pleased and proud to announce that I have officially joined the authors’ team over at Endever Publishing Studios, where we are working to get ‘The Singularity’ ready for publication sometime next year (all being well).

As you can imagine this is a huge deal for me – official publication is a huge deal for any writer striving to become an Author (and what is the deal with the two terms, anyway? Do you only get to become an Author once you’ve been published? By someone other than yourself?) – and an even huger deal because Endever is a truly exciting and unique development in the world of publishing.

Endever’s model is a collaborative, collective one: authors and editors work together as part of one studio to bring works to market. As I’ve only just joined I haven’t seen this in practice yet, but if you want a small taste then head over to the Studio blog, where you can sample the first releases in the Studio’s debut serial, ‘The Underneath’, an apocalyptic adventure with a strong thread of mystery. ‘The Underneath’ is being written collectively by the Studio’s stable of authors, and so far it looks pretty fantastic.

All of this means, of course, that I will be taking ‘The Singularity’ off the blog for a while so that it can be polished (read: pummelled) into shape ready for release. However, I will be updating you with progress towards publishing, and I’ll be posting further instalments in a few other stories as well.

And if you’re interested in working with Endever, why not pitch an idea? They are always on the lookout for unique and exciting stories, and yours could be the next they take on board …

The Singularity: Part 10

“Closer to the black hole spacetime starts to deform. Now there are more paths moving towards the black hole than paths moving away.”

“So — how did it go?”

Sarah closed the door as Alice took off her bag and sat in the green chair; Sarah sat opposite her in the purple chair, as usual, and crossed her legs. Her clipboard lay out of arm’s reach on the desk.

“Tell me about the school. Did you talk to your friends again?”

Alice nodded, looking around at the drawings. There were a few new ones today: one over Sarah’s desk of a girl’s face, looking down, her eyes closed, beautifully rendered in soft pencil; next to it, a more childish drawing of a bright blue river winding away between green hills, lollipop trees standing tall and straight on the horizon, a plane soaring through the blue sky above them.

She looked away, back at Sarah, who was regarding her thoughtfully.

“Are you all right?” Sarah asked.

Alice nodded again. “I’m fine,” she said. “Sorry, what was the question?”

“I was just asking about the Shannen School. On Saturday. How did it go?”

“It was good,” Alice said.

“Did you talk to your new friend? What was her name?”

“Ellie. Yes, we talked. It was nice. But …”

Alice trailed off. Her eyes drifted back to the drawing of the hills, and the white plane against the blue sky. She knew why she was drawn to it, in the same way she would probe an ulcer with her tongue despite the pain.

“But what?” Sarah prompted gently.

Alice looked down at her lap, at her hands — anywhere but into Sarah’s eyes. “It’s not easy,” she said. “Sometimes I’m not … I don’t know what to say, and sometimes Ellie asks me about stuff that I don’t want to talk about. She asked me on Saturday. About Mekala. Well, not about Mekala … she just asked if I had any brothers or sisters. And she didn’t know what she was asking. But …”

Again she trailed off, unsure how to finish the thought.

“Well, that’s part of having friends,” Sarah said. “We have to learn how to live with other people, and what to do if people make us feel uncomfortable — having a friend can be a safe way of working through that. Tell you what. Why don’t you try telling her, the next time you don’t feel comfortable talking about something? I’m sure she would understand. You might find it helps to build the friendship.”

Alice shrugged. “Maybe,” she said, knowing it was something she probably would not try. She still wasn’t ready. Not yet. Better to keep quiet. Keep quiet, and nothing bad could happen.

Sarah did not ask her anything else about Ellie. They talked about other things instead — about the session with Olivia, and Adam, and Alice’s run-in with Clara. As they talked Alice relaxed, and sat forward in her chair, and once or twice she even smiled, though she did not realise it. When they were finished Sarah wished her luck for the next Saturday, and insisted Alice would have to fill her in on everything the next time they met.

After Alice had left Sarah sat for a while, biting the end of her pencil. Eventually she reached over and picked up the phone, dialled a number, and waited.

“Yes,” she said, when the line was answered. “It’s me. No, it went well. I just had Alice Mensah in. She’s getting along well, I think. She’s made friends with Elisha Elmi. It seems to be developing. I’d like to recommend that the friendship is encouraged … Yes, I was thinking that perhaps Olivia could help …? Of course. Yes. No, nothing too outright. Just a gentle … Thank you. Yes. That would be great. You too. Goodbye.”

She replaced the receiver, and sat looking at it for a long time in silence.

*

The rest of the week passed, if possible, even more slowly than the last. Alice spent most of her lessons with half an eye on the clock, willing the hands to move — but like the clocks in the theoretical experiments in Valeris’ book they all seemed reluctant to move, extending each minute of school into an agonising eternity. The only time the clocks seemed to race was at lunchtime, when her precious hour spent reading in the library was over almost as soon as it had begun.

The torture of lunchtime was made worse by the rain that started on Tuesday and hardly stopped for the rest of the week, battering on windows and sweeping in freezing sheets across the concourse. At break and lunch every inch of indoor space was suddenly packed with students escaping from the wet — in corridors and classrooms, the canteen and the toilets: anywhere there was space to sit or stand.

The library was the most crowded of all, as hordes of students who before had only ever come in to print their homework suddenly descended and occupied every nook and corner, leaning up against the shelves, sitting on the stairs that led down to the sixth form study area, and generally driving the librarians to distraction with their noise and litter.

By the time Thursday came there was barely room to stand, let alone sit. Alice was forced to pick her way through the scattered bodies, searching for a gap between the gossiping, texting groups where she might be able to read the book in peace. At last she found a space at the far end of the last row of shelves, right up against the window that looked out over the concourse. She lowered herself cross-legged on to the carpet, took the book from her bag, and tried to block out the shrieks and giggles of the girls sitting beside her.

She had finished the book the day before, sitting up late into the night as she devoured the final chapter. It had been something about interdimensional string theory; she hadn’t really understood it, but the words alone had been enough to thrill her and keep her reading into the early hours. Now she turned back to the beginning and began again, this time with a pencil in her hand to make a note of anything particularly interesting or particularly difficult. The book started with Valeris’ introduction, in his usual unapologetic style:

In nature we find that nothing is alone: a single organism is composed of multiple organ systems, each in turn comprised of multiple organs, which are made up of tissues formed by cells, which have their own component parts descending to the subatomic level, where we find each quark tightly bound to its twin by immense forces of attraction. Even the organism — however lonely it may seem — does not exist in a vacuum, for its every action informs and changes its environment, by which environment it is also informed and changed in its turn; and where organisms group themselves together in families, packs, societies and nations, this interaction becomes ever more profound.

So the scientist, however lonely, however insulated from society or his peers, finds himself informed and changed, not only by his environment, but also by the sum of the labours of the brothers and sisters who have gone before him and those who will follow him. Within the discipline we call ‘science’, the scientist is not himself an organism; he is but a cell, a single part of a great whole, without which he has no purpose or function. Only by accepting his place in this greater order, and surrendering himself to its aims and desires over his own, can he hope to survive the storm of contradiction and confusion that is the universe we call our home.

Alice stopped at the end of the paragraph, went back, and carefully underlined the phrase ‘nothing is alone’. Then she sat and looked at the page for a long time, until a noise in front of her made her look up, and she found herself looking straight at Keyana and her gang, crowding into the narrow space between the shelves.

“What you reading?” Keyana said, her arms folded, a faint sneer playing over her perfectly-glossed lips.

Alice did not reply. Her eyes darted to the groups of girls to either side of her, but they were all caught up in their conversations and dramas, and no-one paid any attention to Alice or the group confronting her.

Keyana put out a hand. “Let’s see, then,” she said. “Come on: give it.”

Still Alice did not move. There was no way she was going to hand the book over to Keyana. Just the thought of it made her feel sick. She sat and stared back silently — though not out of bravery, or defiance — she simply could not will herself to do anything. She was aware of the glass at her back, at the hundreds of eyes who could look up and see her at any minute, but still she knew she was utterly alone. Anyone glancing at the situation would see only a group of girls talking to another girl — nothing suspicious, nothing threatening. And yet she felt like a lone and tiny animal crouched before a pack of wolves who were ready to tear her apart at a moment’s notice.

Keyana sighed. “Seriously?” She glanced at Shereen, who was standing beside her, chewing gum noisily. “Go get it.”

Shereen picked her way down between the shelves, reached out with her french-tipped nails, and gently plucked the book from Alice’s unresisting fingers. Alice wanted to resist — she wanted to shout, to call for help, to let everyone know just how wrong this was and how much she wanted them to stop — but she was frozen, watching helplessly as Shereen handed the book to Keyana, who opened it and started flipping lazily through the pages.

“What is this?” Keyana snorted. “You taking A-Levels or GCSEs? Seriously, this is A-grade geekishness. Look.” She showed the book around the group, who sniggered and nudged each other.

Alice watched them in silence, her face burning. Something private was being violated; the book was hers, the one thing she had to remind her of the Shannen School and help her through the long grey week. Keyana had no right — none of them had any right — to be touching it and pawing at it with their creamed and manicured hands, contaminating it, desecrating it.

But still she did nothing. There was nothing she could do, nothing she could say to stop them. All she could do was keep quiet. Keep quiet, and nothing bad could happen.

Finally Keyana grew bored, and turned back to Alice with a contemptuous sneer. “Think you’re so great, don’t you?” she said. “Think you’re miss perfect? Think everyone feels sorry for you, for poor little Alice? Think everyone needs to give you special treatment? Well, I’ll give you special treatment.”

She reached down, grasped a page from the middle of the book, and slowly and deliberately tore it away from the spine.

“There,” she said, tossing the book back to Alice. It hit her in the chest, but she hardly noticed. “Consider yourself treated.” Keyana folded the page in half and half again, and tucked it into the waistband of her skirt. “Mind if I hold on to this?”

“Girls? Are you sitting down or not?”

One of the librarians appeared, peering over the girls’ heads and shooing them with her hands, while they turned and gave her dirty looks in return. Alice knew she should say something, show her the ruined book, point out the page tucked into Keyana’s waistband — but it didn’t matter what she knew. No matter how many times they had been told ‘the right thing to do’ in bullying workshops, Alice understood that there was only one thing she could do right now: keep quiet. Keep quiet, and nothing worse would happen.

The gang of girls gave the librarian lip for a few minutes then turned and left, commenting loudly on her dress sense, hairstyle and jewellery. Keyana was the last one to go; when it was just her and Alice she paused, turned, and frowned.

“You know what you really need?” she said, then smiled brightly. “A study-buddy. Pity there isn’t anyone around for that.”

She blew a kiss, then turned and disappeared behind the shelves, leaving Alice clutching the book so hard her knuckles turned pale.

* * *

Just a quick note: due to me having caught up with myself in terms of edits, future instalments will be weekly, on a Wednesday. I will continue to post writing videos and other posts in-between.

Lifting the Lid: Live Drafting (1)

I said I would do it, and here it is: my first attempt at recording myself drafting the next section of ‘The Singularity’, with accompanying commentary.

I’ll be honest: this was a strange experience, and I’m not entirely sure of the effect it had on my output (quality, not quantity — what you see is pretty much my working rate). Writing is very much a private affair. It’s hard enough to let someone see the first draft of your work, let alone expose the raw process to the general public via the internet. I felt a constant nagging in the back of my brain that I should somehow be doing something differently, that what I was writing wasn’t perhaps good enough.

Which it probably wasn’t, if I’m being entirely honest. Quality in writing most often comes in the edit, when the writer can be objective about what works and what doesn’t, polishing the rough-and-ready workings into something cohesive and presentable. The first draft is almost always a bit of a mess, the creative outpouring, unpolished and unafraid. This is the place where mistakes can be safely made, blind alleys followed, embarrassing prose set down without fear of exposure.

Yes, this is technically an edit, but it’s an edit involving extensive re-writes and first settings-down, so I think it falls (at least partially) into the ‘first draft’ bracket. I suppose I’ll know more when I come back to this work over the next couple of days, and I’ll let you know my thoughts then.

Until that time … enjoy.

Lifting the Lid: Re-Drafting (Video)

Welcome to my first ever video blog, in which I take you through my Google Docs setup and explain my thought processes behind re-drafting ‘The Singularity’. I don’t actually do any writing in this video — although I may upload a video later in which you can watch me struggling with a draft.

Apologies for the slightly stilted commentary — this was me trying something new, and I thought it would be fun just to let it flow. Let me know if you think it works, and if there’s anything else you’d like to see.

Some spoilers included, so if you want to be totally fresh as the story progresses then look away now. Bearing in mind, of course, that nothing you see is set in stone, and there is a whole lot of speculation involved in this process.

Enjoy!

The Singularity: Part 9

pt9“Dad?”

Olivia strode back down the empty corridors of the school, having seen off the last of the children and their parents.

“Dad?” she called out again, peering into the darkened rooms as she passed. “I’m ready to go when you are!”

“This way, love!” Adam’s voice echoed faintly down the corridors. Olivia tutted and followed it, and found her father in a darkened room lined with filing cabinets. He was flicking through an open drawer, pulling out the odd sheaf of paper and scanning it before replacing it and going on to the next.

“What are you looking for?” she asked, crossing her arms in the doorway. “Couldn’t it wait until tomorrow?”

Continue reading “The Singularity: Part 9”