The role of the editor.
As I have said elsewhere, and often, the one person no writer – however experienced, and whether self published or otherwise – can do without is an editor. The editor is the person who comes to your work fresh and assesses whether it works structurally, makes sense, and does not repeat itself. The editor is not strictly speaking an assessor, and he/she is definitely not a proofreader, but if you are lucky she/he will offer her or his opinion on your work and how and if it can improved.
I was very lucky to find Shelley. She did a magnificent job editing my book The Worst Country in the World. She was sensitive to the material and did not try, as a previous potential editor had – changing ‘the wind got up’ to ‘the wind rose’ for example – to alter things for the sake of it.
Finding the right editor is like finding the right partner. You are looking above all for someone who understands what you are trying to achieve and who does not impose their own style on your writing, or to ‘correct’ your obvious (and deliberate) idiosyncracies.
In addition to her editing work Shelley is an established author of five novels and many published short stories. Her book ‘Writing your first novel’ is being published in June by The Guardian as part of a series of ’60-minute Masterclass’ ebooks. She also teaches creative writing and mentors new writers, and it is this that I wanted to ask her about.
P: How would you describe the job of an editor?
S: A good editor aims for an understanding of what the writer is trying to say and whose story it is. Having achieved this, the aim is for CLARITY. This means finding a balance between what the writer aims to say and the economy of language with which to say it. The ultimate aim is to achieve the kind of transparency that allows a reader to be drawn without distraction into the heart of the story.
P: As an editor and tutor what are the commonest errors you encounter among your student writers?
S: It’s at the character invention stage – which, for me, comes right at the beginning of the process – that many new writers falter. So often, and even when they have written large chunks of their novel, I find that they don’t know their characters in the deep, multi-dimensional way that is essential for strong believable fiction. The other big stumbling block is control of point of view – meandering without particular reason from one character’s consciousness to that of another. That can be distracting and confusing. As a reader, I lose faith in the skill of my storyteller.
Personal comment: I’d like to add to this something Shelley told me once, which is that a large chunk of her student writers DON’T FINISH THEIR BOOKS.
P: Do you have any particular words of advice to writers, beginners or otherwise?
S: Writing fiction is a complicated process that takes imagination, commitment, and skill. This last requirement is more complex than is generally perceived. While few people begin piano lessons with an assumption that the concert hall is only a few scales away, many new writers dream of instant publication. They are perhaps less excited by the prospect of a long hard slog with very little fame or fortune at the end of it. So only write if you really want to do it. Among the many talented writers I’ve encountered in my decades of teaching, those who succeed at any level have tenacity.
P: How does your work as an editor and tutor impact on your own writing, if at all?
S: I try to separate my activities and, while I’m writing, suspend the critical part of my brain that might impede the flow. The problem is not so much cross-contamination but the pressure of time. Unless I’m extremely strong minded about dividing my days, it’s easy for the teaching and mentoring to swallow the weeks. On a positive note, I have learnt an incredible amount about my writing from the close scrutiny of others’, and feel that engaging with new writers is a highly creative process.
P: The burning question: do you think it is possible to teach someone how to write?
S: I believe that we all have a right to write, and that the first vital requirement is the will to do it. Beyond that, however, is the technique: the skills required to create an illusion of reality, to depict a fictional world that seems plausible to the reader. To that extent – yes, those skills can be taught. But some people have a particular and innate ability to shape a narrative and enthral a reader. That too can be honed with practice, but I’m not sure if it can be taught.
P: Now you have self published your books as ebooks what are your views on self publishing?
S: I think self-publishing is a wonderful opportunity for writers. One of the worst aspects of finishing a novel is the sense of powerlessness, the passivity induced by waiting for responses for agents and/or editors. While I believe that there is still a strong place for conventional publishing, it is a great thing for writers to have at their disposal – and within their reach – the possibility of finding their own readers. For me, the process of writing is incomplete without readers to close the circle, and self-publishing allows that to happen – and more. Increasingly we hear stories of writers whose self-published novels achieve online success and are then discovered by mainline publishers. As a tutor, I’m delighted to be able to put forward a proactive route to publication. It’s a refreshing alternative to all the bad news I’ve had to transmit: difficult climate, very few new novelists being taken on, etc.
SHELLEY WEINER’S novels include A Sisters’ Tale, The Last Honeymoon, The Joker, Arnost, and The Audacious Mendacity of Lily Green. She is the author of ‘Writing your first novel’, a ’60-minute Masterclass eBook’, to be published by The Guardian in June 2014. Shelley presents workshops on fiction for Guardian Masterclasses, Faber Academy, Skyros Writers’ Lab, The Literary Consultancy and others that include Birkbeck College, Anglia Ruskin University, the Open University, the British Council, and Durham University Summer School. She is a mentor on the Gold Dust Scheme and a trusted Reader for The Literary Consultancy. Shelley’s website: www.shelleyweiner.com