Category Archives: Editor’s post

Conceptual editing for fiction, by June Cussen


Conceptual editing for fiction

There’s much to think about here. You can certainly make the artistic case that for fiction the editor must give a much freer hand to the writer. We are, after all, speaking about Literature here when we speak of novels. (Say: LIT-ra-chuh.) The writer is creator here, the God role. Who dares edit? We’ll keep that issue in editing fiction in mind as we go, letting it temper big decisions, being humbly aware that the editor did not have to face that blank page.

As always, I start with the reader. And these hard days you have to think of the reader as buyer. Who will buy this book? We covered that in earlier acquisition ruminations, but that too must be kept in mind by the editor as juggler. Three balls in the air: writer (Father), reader (Son), editor (humble ghost). So, as the editor considers the overall story of this piece of fiction, she must consider what reader it is aimed at (age, sex) as well as what genre it might be placed in. If it’s a literary novel, the writer may be more likely to prevail, if a genre novel like a Western or a romance or a mystery, the reader usually reigns. Of course there will always be the unclassifiable, and here the editor must step carefully, first considering that most authors feel that their work is beyond categorization. But I tell them, yeah, but librarians will do it anyway. Be prepared.

Keeping the reader in mind will help the editor make sure of consistency. This becomes more of an issue in copyediting where we have to remember to keep a character’s eyes blue all the way through the book if they start out that way. But even in conceptual editing, consistency rears its hobgoblin head. The tone cannot jump from deep to whimsical, serious to silly—unless of course that is part of the author’s design and it works within the context of the whole.

Story: that’s what a novel tells. Aristotle had it right with insisting on a beginning, a middle, and an end, with rising action, a climax, and falling action. The editor needs to make sure that the tension is created, holds, and is released. Beginnings are always hard. The writer has to establish the characters, the time, the place, the feel, and get us hooked into what’s going on without boring us before we get to the real action. Some writing guidelines tell the author to do that by first having a walloping action scene before anything else. Well, maybe. Sometimes that works. But I’ve read way too many manuscripts that start out with something either preposterous or truly awful in the attempt to hook us in. I’m usually just put off and don’t even want to read the rest.

The conceptual editor will have to make sure the whole story gets told, that bits don’t dangle at the end (unless this is a series and you want to hook readers for more). This is particularly true for mysteries. We have to find out whodunit, and it has to be consistent with all the details all the way through.

Character: They are people and must feel, think, and behave like real ones. Real ones aren’t always consistent, but in a story they need to be consistent enough to make the action work. The editor will note if a character suddenly does something out of character just to make the plot work. There’s always that tension between character and action. The editor will see that one does not exist merely to serve the other.

Editing fiction is a pleasure—the icing on the editorial cake—not that editing botanical keys is not tons of fun (wherein you spend days checking Latin names and learn the meaning of words like dentate and scandent). And working with fiction authors is usually a pleasure too, unless they take the God role too seriously.

Here’s my animal photo today. It’s turtle hatching season around here on the Gulf coast of Florida. This little loggerhead is heading toward the water. If you live near the beach, be sure your outside lights are off at night or little guys like this one will head the wrong way thinking your light is moonlight on the water.

Leatherback turtle

June Cussen

— June Cussen, Pineapple Press

@pineapplejune

www.pineapplepress.com

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Let’s talk about the editing part of editing, by June Cussen

Conceptual editing for nonfiction

To most people editing means “fix writing,” that is, cutting the excess verbiage, correcting the grammar and spelling, checking for consistency, and such. That kind of editing is called copyediting. (And it makes an editor-blogger very nervous to get everything just right.) But let’s back up to the first stage of editing after acquisition. We’ll call it conceptual editing. I see some self-published books these days that are well copyedited. Either the author is good at that or has hired someone who is. Nary a misspelling nor one grammar no-no (well, almost nary since I’d bet money that every book has some head-slapper boo-boo buried in there somewhere). But the reader still senses something is wrong, something makes it reek of self-published, even if it has a handsome cover. The problem is that the author did not undergo that necessary step-outside-yourself process of conceptual editing.

The conceptual editor stands back and looks at the whole. Gestalt used to be a hot concept. It still is, though the term died out with tie-dye. It’s the forest before plunging into it and seeing each tree. It’s the wide Google Earth view before you fly down to see the rooftops. In conceptual editing, you read the whole manuscript, get a feel for what the author is doing in general, and see if there are any overall issues that need addressing before the nitty-gritty editing starts.

The conceptual process differs for fiction and nonfiction. Let’s look at nonfiction this time. The first thing to consider is, drum roll, the reader. Always consider the reader. Who is this book for anyway? How will the reader use the book? Will it be read straight through from cover to cover, or will someone look up what they want and hop around, using different sections at different times? How much introduction does the topic need? How versed in the topic will the typical reader be? Many nonfiction books, in an effort to attract as many buyers as possible, try to straddle the line between amateur and professional user. Good luck, writing to both without boring or confusing either is a fine art. It can be done, but find an editor who understands some of the needs of both kinds of readers.

I looked at a book recently that was about all the practical stuff of life, the life skills you don’t learn in school but need to know to succeed in daily living. You know: balance a checkbook, burp a baby, clean the bathroom, unplug the toilet, write proper thank-you notes. All good, but who was this book aimed at? Some of the book seems aimed at the parents, how to teach your kids this stuff. Some of the book addresses the young person: here’s what you should know. I couldn’t tell if I should buy this book for my niece or for my sister. (Of course, I don’t need it, me of the more or less tidy house—if you don’t count the manuscripts piled everywhere waiting to be read.) A good conceptual editor would have helped this author decide her readership and speak truth to it—in a palatable way. I have to tell you that the first chapter was called “Cleaning Supplies.”

Enough for today. I’ll look at conceptual editing for fiction next time. And that’s a much slipperier proposition.

My animal picture this time is a Florida neighbor. You are never far from a gator in these parts.

 

 

 

 

 

— June Cussen, Pineapple Press

@pineapplejune

www.pineapplepress.com

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More about editing: The acquisition phase, by June Cussen

Let’s continue on the acquisition phase of the book editing process, and just to keep up with the times we are in, consider it from the more digital point of view. What’s different? What’s the same?

A big difference, of course, is that with that great equalizer, the Internet, everyperson is a publisher and his/her own editor. And that’s a great thing, mostly. Fling open those gates of publishing elitism. All of us have our stories to tell. Most of us are experts in something or other. We can share all that acquired wisdom and/or storytelling talent with anyone in the world with an Internet connection. You’ve heard of the ‘long tail’ concept of retailing on the Internet, that you can sell a lot of items by selling in small quantities to a lot of different people. So if you write your book on some niche topic, an iguana cookbook say, you might just reach enough buyers on the Internet to make it worth your while. But, hey, that’s marketing. That’s on the other end of publishing, right? Nay. The good editor knows that you have to think about the back end, how to sell the darn thing, right up front in the acquisitions stage. And so our everyperson can be his own editor and get that book out there—either as a p-book (you know, the old-fashioned printed kind) or e-book, which will go digitally into the buyer’s electronic device.

Did I just say that our writer can be her own editor? (No, I just said ‘his’ own editor, but I’m trying to juggle our inherited language to play fair with the genders.) Be one’s own editor: let’s consider that for a moment. An editor acquires, edits (in its many phases), marshals through production, proofs, pitches to the sales folks, keeps the momentum going for his author as long as he can keep that book alive and selling. There are some parts of that process that you can do yourself, and maybe better than some professional sort of editor. We’re looking at the acquisition phase here. And, sure, you can certainly ‘acquire,’ that is, decide to publish, your own book. You can count on the ‘long tail’ as your marketing nod during acquisition phase. Are you entirely realistic about a) the quality of your book, b) how well you can perform the copyediting, design, and production, and c) how many buyers might really be out there and how well you can reach them? Being realistic is what editors quickly learn about manuscript acquisition. In big publishing companies, if an editor’s list doesn’t sell after a few years, it’s out the door—your acquisition stinks. In smaller companies, it’s, well, OOB (pub-speak for out of business). In self-publishing, it’s, hmmm, better stop spending my children’s inheritance (or if they’re younger, lunch money) on this vanity.

Enough today. And just to keep up with the animal ending theme, here’s our latest kitty, Phoebe. She’s the one by the door. The other one is a neighbor cat, Rory, come to court (to no avail, of course).

 

 

 

 

 

— June Cussen, Pineapple Press

@pineapplejune

www.pineapplepress.com

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A day in the life of an editor, by June Cussen, Executive Editor at Pineapple Press

So what does an editor do?

Once, during the back and forth of the conceptual editing and copyediting process for his wife’s book—and in that case it was a long, involved ordeal—the author’s husband asked me something, I forget what, that made it clear he assumed I did this for all our books. I said no, that I wouldn’t have time to do that. And he said, with great puzzlement, “Well, what else would an editor do?”

Now, mind you, this is a small company. We publish about 25 books a year. To make it work—most small publishers disappear quickly, and we’ve been doing this for 29 years—each person has many tasks and works pretty hard. Can’t afford much real specialization around here. First we have to acquire manuscripts that will work for us. In our case, since we are a regional publisher specializing in Florida and the Southeast, we need to feel fairly sure we can sell enough to make it all work. True, that’s fewer than the Big Boys in New York need to sell, but our market is smaller, thus fewer potential book buyers to sell to. But we still have to go through all the steps. And the first one is acquiring. No one, and I do mean no one, really knows how many copies a book will sell before it’s out there. You get better at guessing, but you can still pick some big losers, and, gratefully, some surprise winners. Acquiring means you have to let people know you’re looking and what you are looking for, you have to have a system for receiving and (mostly, sorry) rejecting, and you have to have a lot of time to read the blasted things to see if one of them might have that certain something we are looking for. In the case of nonfiction, that it’s a topic, a writer, and a style that will work for the region. For fiction, well, who knows? It’s just really a case of ‘that certain something.’ Who knows? The editorial nose knows (or doesn’t).

And that’s where I’ll leave it today. Next time, next step along the editor’s way to a book. And by the way, as we all know, or should, the whole concept of book (and bookstore) is undeniably in the midst of a Big Shift. So I’m an old dog trying to learn the new tricks.

 

 

 

 

 

— June Cussen, Pineapple Press

@pineapplejune

www.pineapplepress.com

 

Speaking of old dogs, here’s our dear old Max. Wish he were still here with us. We will never forget him.

 

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