Back to the Edit

Back to the edit. Look at the size of that manuscript - badly needs slimming down!

Back to the edit. Look at the size of that manuscript – badly needs slimming down!

Today I have settled down to work on the edits of my next book, Fields of Glory, which will be published next summer. Luckily there’s not too much to do, other than remove some unnecessary scenes and tighten some others. I say luckily, because as you can see, this isn’t the shortest book I’ve written!

It’s a stage authors dread, very commonly, and as a result we are prone to get quite defensive. However, with a good editor (and I’m lucky enough to have a very good one), a story can be improved almost magically.

I was talking to Michael Ridpath last week, and he gave that pained smile when I mentioned the stage I had reached with this book. He was the same, he said: he found it best to set the editor’s comments to one side after reading them, to let them sink in. Better that than to snap an immediate (intemperate) response that could hurt relations later. Especially, as we both agreed, because almost invariably the editor is right.

OK, I confess, I have had editors who didn’t give a damn about the book in front of them. If they had not commissioned the book themselves, and they were brought in from outside, sometimes they were too keen to make a name by bringing in a new author of their own, fostering the talent and demonstrating that they were capable of picking the next JK Rowling.

But the vast majority of the editors I’ve worked with have been sensible, very competent wordsmiths who can read a manuscript and see where sections are too woolly, where descriptions are weak, where there is too much description or, a terrible failing for an historical novel, where there is basically too much history. These books are novels. It’s all right to play fast and loose with the history – a bit!

I had an interview with another American writer recently (if you’re interested, keep an eye open for Lisette Brodey’s interview on her site at – should be out around 21st October), and in that she expressed delight at my response to one question.

Just a beautiful nib.

It is the age old problem: do you show your work to anyone, or keep the whole novel to yourself until it’s ready to publish?

I am utterly wedded to the idea that all books should be written by the author, and when the author’s moderately happy, the book goes, in sequence, to the agent, and then the editor. No one else sees it until those two have had their say.

Other authors do not like this. Some feel the need to have friends, family, or other writing professionals cast an eye over their work, and make their own comments. Some, especially those in the ebook and self-published market, actively seek out Beta readers and collaborators of various hues to give input.

I’ve mentioned in past blogs that I have friends who are enormously successful who have taken precisely this approach. I know of some of the very top authors working today who will pass their books around old friends in the creative writing industry either as a matter of politeness or as a generous acknowledgement of help given in the past.

For those who are involved in the self-publishing business, it makes sense, because it is the same as presenting a manuscript to an impartial judge – an editor.

However, for me, it’s not either a good idea generally, and nor should it be acceptable professionally.

In my own case, the book goes first to the agent, and then to the editor – it’s always that order for a very good reason.

My agent is a wonderful fellow. He is extremely hard working, unfailingly supportive and generous, and utterly dependent for his income upon his stable of authors.

One thing he must do every year is put his own professional credibility on the line for his authors. Each book that they produce must be taken on and sold by him to the various publishing houses with which he must deal. He has to tell the cynical enemy (publishers) that his books are actually the very best that are available this decade. There is nothing better anywhere. And he has to believe it. If he thinks the book’s twaddle, it’s less easy for him. If the work goes to the editor before he has a chance to even look at it – well, clearly he’s hamstrung.

So, if for no other reason, I think it’s a matter of professional courtesy to make sure that he is the first person to view my work and to have an opportunity to comment.

Second, of course, there is my editor.

Many people who are not published still have an over-inflated view of how publishers and editors work. There is no great system: it’s the same as any other organisation, and all the staff in the firm are all there to keep their jobs, to progress in their company, and to try to earn a little more this year than last. Every publishing house has in-house politics. Every member of staff has to justify their existence. And those who are in at the sharp end tend to be the editors.

When an editor gets a new manuscript in, and rejects it, the author has to appreciate the pressures on the editor. It’s not necessarily because of the author’s halitosis and body odour. Although it might be, of course …No, really, that was a joke!

First, she (it’s almost invariably a woman) will have to actually like the book. If she can’t get on with the story or the style, she can’t give it her best shot. So some books get sent back for that reason.

However, it’s not only the book itself. Every editor will have to attend the dreaded “Commissioning Meeting”.

This is a hotbed of dispute and rancour. In my mind, I can see editors chewing paper to make soggy projectile balls, and flicking them unmercifully at their opposite numbers as they speak. No? Perhaps my imagination is getting the better of me. However, it is the case that editors have to present to their colleagues any new books that they have read and want to take on. Their colleagues, by comparison, have to read through the works themselves, and consider whether they think those books have merit enough to make money – and not lose it.

Editors at those meetings, once a week or so, have to get up on their hind legs and say why they like this or that, what is so good about them, and whether the publisher should invest £10,000 or £20,000 in advances in it to win the title from their competitors.

All well and good, but if you have a book you are yourself unsure of, it’s hard to fight in a commissioning meeting for a slice of the money available. And if it’s the kind of book you know your colleagues, your boss, the head of the publishing group or the owner – or a combination of the above – do not like, you are not very likely to push it hard, are you?

Better to let that one go, and get on with the next manuscript. Especially since all editors will receive at least ten unsolicited manuscripts every day. Yes, every day.

So, for my money, the first people to see a book are always, agent, then editor, in that order. Both, like the author, have their own professional careers invested in their authors and the books written by them. It’s a matter of common sense and courtesy to let them have first sight of them.


And I should apologise. This was typed up while a severe cold was threatening to remove what few brain cells I do possess, and turn them all to mush! If there are typos, blame the cold.

2 Responses to “Back to the Edit”
  1. ‘And I should apologise. This was typed up while a severe cold was threatening to remove what few brain cells I do possess, and turn them all to mush! If there are typos, blame the cold.’

    No, I’m going to blame your agent, then your editor.


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