An interview with professional writer and editor Rory J. Cole, by Underground editor Shelley Timms
Firstly, tell us about your experiences in editing manuscripts, and your experiences with having your own work edited.
I’ll begin with an experience of being edited, which I think has shaped the way I work with clients and their manuscripts.
Some time ago I went through the editing process with one of the big traditional publishers. It was for a short horror story, one in a series for kids. I worked with the editor through multiple revisions for roughly a year. Towards the finished draft she left the position and another editor stepped in. She returned her revision, and about 90% of her suggestions were actually adding in content or scenes. “What if you made this happen…” That kind of thing. Funny thing was every suggested change had been in an earlier draft, and the previous editor and I had worked painstakingly to remove to tighten the story. From memory, all of my replies began with, “This was actually in an earlier draft, but…”
It was kind of a magical moment when I realised how subjective reading and editing is. Firstly, I loved that this new editor saw the necessity of the earlier scenes. It kind of validated that I hadn’t just included filler content, but that those scenes had context and meaning to the story. Secondly, that two professional editors could approach a story in two completely different ways was a real eye opener. It highlighted that there isn’t necessarily a right way to write or tell a story – there may be a better way, but it’s not written in stone somewhere, and only editors know where.
Every editor brings their own perception and perspective to a book. So what I strive to do is hunt out those moments in a client’s work that are going to pull the reader from the story. Faults of logic or sections where the story might lag, or anything else that will remind the reader that there’s a writer behind the page. The ultimate goal is to have the reader swept up in the story, and forget that what they’re reading was ever written.
Does the editing work you do involve substantive editing, or is it mostly proofreading and small changes?
Generally, substantive editing. I work largely with emerging writers working on their first novel, or on one of their ongoing projects. These are usually a bit unpolished. There’s an eagerness in a lot of writers, I think, to finish their novel and get it out into the world, and in their eagerness, they’ve often only written a first draft or second, and feel it’s ready.
How important is liaising with the author when it comes to letting them know about any substantive changes that need to be made? Any tips on being tactful when it comes to this?
Very important. This is their sweat, blood and tears. I still get nervous every time I begin work on someone’s project. It’s like they’ve handed me their child and asked me to care for it. You need to be tactful when telling someone their baby isn’t developing as well as it could. It’s important to be able to point out potential problems, but it’s even more important to do so diplomatically, and to be able to explain why you feel it’s a problem or may not work. If you can explain it, they’re usually amazed they never noticed it themselves and take it with good humour, which you do need to be a writer. A certain thickness to the skin. If you find criticism from an editor hard to deal with, you’re likely going to have a rough road ahead once you open the doors to faceless reviewers.
Has your experience in editing other’s work informed the way you prepare your work for sending away to be edited?
More than anything, it’s taught me to be patient. To not be too hungry or force a story. It’s shone a light on the importance of stepping back and leaving space to gain perspective. To relatively forget what the story was, and how you wrote it, so that you can return to it with a bit more of an editorial eye. I’m still not perfect at this. I still have characters or scenes I know I have to kill or move to a later book. It’s a hard thing to do, and I think by the time I reach a finished draft, I have dozens of drafts in my wake, all named ridiculous things like “[Novel Name] revised – Final V7” or “Final V9 New Direction”. This also highlights how important it is to get that second pair of eyes on your book. I find it the easiest thing to analyse someone else’s novel. I can see that with an aerial eye. But when it’s your own (my own), it’s much harder to see the forest for the trees.
Have you noticed any common mistakes authors make in their manuscripts; anything that constantly needs changing?
Three things seem to crop up quite often, more so in novels than short stories: superfluous characters, dialogue, and overly long or unnecessary scenes.
I find myself reading descriptions of characters who never appear again. An entire page or two could be given to getting to know them, their dreams, their appearance and character, and then they vanish. They’re not important to the plot. They’re sometimes a waiter bringing food to the table in a scene, or they’re a character’s friend who speaks a couple of lines that don’t shed any light on the main character or alter the story’s direction in any way. A phrase I find myself repeating is, “Keep your cast to a minimum and only give stage time to those important to the plot.”
Nothing rips a reader out of a story faster than dialogue that feels like writing. If you haven’t seen the movie “The Room” by Tommy Wiseau… I can’t actually recommend it, but it’s a lesson on how important good dialogue is. Something I notice is characters repeating each other’s names and really spelling things out for each other:
“Hello Jim, how are you? How’s your wife, Susan? Are things going okay? I remember last time we talked, you told me you were both fighting a lot because you’re trying to have children and it’s putting a strain on things. How’s everything now, Jim?”
“Thanks Mark. I appreciate you being there for me. I consider you a really good friend. Me and Susan are going okay. Would you like a drink?”
All of that dialogue is written for the reader, put there to extrapolate on back story, but it isn’t needed. I see a lot of writers trying to show the rapport between two characters by having them explicitly state they’re best friends or they like each other. I think readers get a much bigger sense of the relationship between two people by what isn’t said. Something has a lot more power when it’s inferred, in my opinion. When the reader is left to surmise what’s being talked about, rather than having it all laid out for them. I’m in favour of making the reader work a little bit for their meal.
Overly long / repeated / unnecessary scenes
Often, I can tell a writer is plotting the novel out as they go, which is fine (I’m a pantser, myself, as well), but they forget to go back and tighten the chapters they have. So what I find myself reading are scenes with the main characters sitting around, usually in a kitchen or over a meal for some reason, and recounting the plot to each other, or brainstorming what they should do in the next chapter. “Okay, so here’s what we know.” Or, “So here’s what’s happened so far.” Or, “So here’s what we’re going to do.”
Scenes like this also pop up more than once, or a scene with two characters arguing, and the same argument is returned to later and still not resolved or nothing added to the development of the characters.
Every scene should have weight, and be placed for specific reasons and impact, but more often than not I find them written in a way that makes it clear the author isn’t sure what’s meant to happen next, and they’re using conflict or a combination of all of the above as a brainstorming session. The plot usually does move forward after these events, but it does it in inches after you’ve just read through immeasurable stagnation.
And often, what I quickly realise, is that if you roll these scenes into one, you can have the conflict arise, and get resolved, and you can omit a good three or four subsequent chapters, and often a few minor subplots as well.
Lastly, we always ask interviewees for book recommendations for our readers (and us!). What are the best books you have read lately?
I was reading Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. I’m going to be honest: I was finding it a struggle to read, and unnecessarily repetitious (sorry fans). I’ve just put it aside for the moment, in favour of two anthologies, The Mammoth Book of Best New SF (29), and The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (New Lovecraftian Fiction). These were both books I’d been eyeing off for a while, and bought as fuel/inspiration for my own works in progress. I have kids. They won’t let me read until I’m too exhausted to try.
I’m right now creating a new site, “(Novel Fix(ation) | For writers lost in the words” – www.novelfixation.com.au), aimed at inspiring and helping new writers. Will it be live by the time this goes to print? I’m not sure. But if you follow that link, you’ll find another link to the buzzing Novel Fix(ation) Facebook group that currently has a whopping 19 members, so that’s exciting…