Mark Cantrell, Author

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VIEWPOINT: Editing Matters

Posted by Mark Cantrell on July 18, 2012 at 3:45 PM

Editors are not the enemy of good fiction

A good editor wants the same thing as a good author - and that's to make a novel the best it can be. So stop being so precious about it, writes Mark Cantrell


THERE'S seldom a book written that doesn't benefit from the fresh eye of an editor, but prior to the emergence of the Indie publishing scene, this truth was probably little known - or at least little regarded - by the reading public.


Editing is one of those backstage processes that only rarely makes its presence felt when something goes awry; a bit like a piece of scenery falling over during a show, or a prompter hissing out a few lines when an actor stalls, but other than that it's hidden away behind the spectacle of the production.


So what's brought the ink-stained (or maybe that should be the pixelated) editor to the fore? Largely, it's the explosion in digital literature that's seen many an author - at every stage of development, from beginner to old hand - take their wares to market with no regard to publisher or agent.


Sometimes, alas, little regard is given to those essential finishing processes either.


The results are predictable. Sooner or later the readers' patience wears thin and they hurl such authors aside with a snarl of "shoddy bastard", casting a baleful eye on the rest of us. We're not all cheap and careless, those of us who have braved the world of self-publishing, but there's only one way we can prove our case - and that's to do the best we can to put together a polished piece of work.


Self-publishing, or at the least small-press, so called Indie-publishing, has a long and frankly respectable history, but with the advent of new technology like the Kindle, and suitable self publishing outlets such as Smashwords and Amazon's KDP programme, it has really taken off.


Back in the day, the small press print scene could look really quite shoddy. In days gone by, many a 'zine essentially consisted of cut and pasted designs, photocopied and folded into cheap pamphlets. Some made the effort with the technology to hand, but with the advent of desktop publishing software, they quickly gave way towards more professionally designed and laid 'zines as the '90s chewed their way towards the emergence of the Internet as the phenomenon it is today.


Nowadays, something similar might be said to be underway in the digital publishing scene: the equivalent of those enthusiastically produced, but tatty photocopied journals, are having to give way to the equivalents of those professionally printed descendents. The growing process isn't without it's painful teething troubles, it must be said.


Publishing can be an expensive business. Even if you cut out the physical costs of printing, warehousing, distribution, and all the associated paraphernalia of print publishing; all those backstage process involved in readying a book for a reader costs money. Now that's exactly the kind of thing a lot of starting out self-publishers lack, but that doesn't make the processes any less important for all that.


Away from the new and existing small press publishers, outfits making the most of both print and digital opportunities, or the emergence of new author collectives that are looking to pool resources and expertise, for the steadfast go-it-alone, there are ways around the issue - at least for those who have been writing a good long time.


But such authors are not actually dispensing with the editing role; rather they are finding functional substitutes to help maximise the quality of the finished work. If they can't afford to pay for a full-blown editor, they call on the circle of 'self help' for beta readers, and a host of fresh eyes, to help out until they can.


Okay, so this might sound as if the authors are 'winging it' - maybe they are - but it's a far cry from disregarding the urge for quality. Hang around the Indie scene for long enough and you'll soon realise these issues are well understood. There's an ongoing debate about the merits of the 'third eye' processes - the editor and the proofreader - and the means to help make up for a lack thereof.


For the most part, it's waged in a professional and engaged manner, a little heated at times, perhaps, but nobody goes home carrying teeth in a blooded hankie.


Sometimes, though, it does get quite acrimonious, because there's a reason that the debate remains ongoing: not every Indie is quite so dedicated to quality, or at least haven't yet woken up to the realisation that every good author needs some kind of good editor (not to mention allies more generally).


Some think it's enough to bash out the words, knock the ebook file into rough shape, and get it out there. Mention the need for editors, even the self-help kind, and there's a strong likelihood of a mouthful of abuse in return.


For some writers, quality is 'assured' simply by the fact they have written their latest opus. To suggest it needs further work prior to being published is somehow to cast doubt upon their validity as a writer. And so, reacting to the perceived slight on their capability as a writer, they retreat into precious disregard of the craft - and ultimately of the reader.


There is nothing new in this. Authors can be such precious beasts at times. All the digital publishing revolution has done is take this prima donna huffing and puffing into a more public arena.


Before today's independent publishing scene took off with Kindles et al, the dominant paradigm of publishing was essentially (though not exclusively) for the author to seek a traditional publishing deal with one of the ever-diminishing range of traditional publishers. Whether they went direct, or via an agent, the route kept the spats over the 'sanctity' of an author's voice and work firmly back stage.


Anecdotes abound about the relationship between author and publisher or agent, and having never penetrated the courtyards and gardens of the corporate publishing citadels, I'm not in a position to comment on what goes on beyond the gates to such hallowed places, but I can encapsulate some of the hearsay and discussion.


There's no end to the authors who declare they would never stand for their work to be 'watered down' by over-bearing editors, or of stories of said authors making life hell for their editors, but there's plenty more who would yield to anything that might lead to a book deal and their work on the shelves of a bookstore. Between these two 'book ends', I've heard tales of over-bearing editors ripping the heart and soul out of a novel, or garbling the finished product; then there's the stories of publishers with a 'take it or leave it' attitude, but there's plenty of acknowledgements and articles I have read over the years that lay bear the gratitude of authors, as they pay tribute to the people who polished their work to a successful conclusion.


No doubt, there's a grain of general truth in all of the anecdotes I've heard over the years. Publishing, like life, is a varied and complicated beast, and it's up to the author how they approach it, especially in this day and age when the options are widening, and the possibilities can leave the head spinning. As the old saying goes, you get out what you put in, and one thing a good editor has in common with a good author - they both want to make the novel shine.


At the end of the day, it's up to the author to grow their craft, and - especially in this day and age - that includes all the finishing processes involved in turning a manuscript into a finished book.


It's no longer enough - if it ever was - to type 'The End' and consider the author's job done. Together, an author and editor can do great things, but just drop the attitude, okay?



Mark Cantrell,


15 July 2012

Copyright (c) July 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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