It is a great pleasure to welcome Sue Barnard back to the blog. Of course, Sue is a bestselling author in her own right, but today, she takes time out of her busy schedule to explain the job of an editor. As she edited my firat three published novels, many of the issues she raises are all too familiar! Now, over to you, Sue.
Hi Val, and thank you for inviting me to your blog.
It’s a sobering thought that it’s now a little over eight years since I first started working as an editor for Crooked Cat Books (as it then was). During that time I’ve worked with nearly thirty authors on a staggering total of around fifty titles, in genres ranging from sweet romance to gritty thriller via just about every genre in between.
One question I’m often asked is: What does an editor actually do? And the answer is: A lot more than you might think.
It goes without saying that editors need to be constantly on the lookout for typos, spelling mistakes, grammar gaffes, dodgy sentence structure, punctuation errors (especially commas, about which more in a minute), and words used incorrectly. It’s surprising to find how many people don’t seem to realise that just because two words look or sound similar, they aren’t necessarily interchangeable. For example: uninterested and disinterested have quite different meanings, discrete isn’t the same as discreet, and prevaricate doesn’t mean the same as procrastinate.
The humble comma is all too often misused, and as such deserves a paragraph to itself. The purpose of a comma is to indicate a pause in a sentence. A good rule to follow is: if you are unsure about whether or not you need a comma, try reading the sentence aloud. If you have to pause, either to take a breath or to clarify the meaning of the sentence, this is where the comma should go. Conversely, if you find yourself pausing at an existing comma and it feels wrong, that comma is in the wrong place. Another common mistake is the so-called comma-splice, where a comma is used (incorrectly) to join two phrases which would both make sense in isolation if they were written separately. In this case, the phrases should either be joined by a semi-colon or written as two separate sentences.
But an editor is much more than just a proofreader. The editor’s watch-list is quite long and varied…
PLOT HOLES and CONTINUITY ERRORS
A plot hole is a gap or inconsistency in the storyline which does not fit with other parts of the plot. Examples might include events occurring out of sequence, or improbable or impossible time-line issues (such as, for instance, a child born in 1915 to a woman who had herself only been born in 1910).
These could range from major gaffes such as historical or geographical inaccuracies (I once edited a novel which was set in Italy but where all the natives appeared to speak Spanish) to something as minor as a particular plant being in flower at the wrong time of year. Don’t think it doesn’t matter – IT DOES. There will always be an eagle-eyed reader somewhere in the world who will pick up on even the slightest inaccuracy!
LOOSE ENDS LEFT DANGLING
Unless the novel is part of a series and there is the definite promise of a sequel, all loose ends must be tied up before the final full stop. Unresolved endings can leave the reader feeling frustrated, cheated, or (in extreme cases) disinclined to read any more by the same writer. Take this from one who knows!
Head-hopping (or Point-Of-View change) is when the narrative switches, in the middle of a scene, from one character’s thoughts to those of another character. Although this style can still be found in older books (a prime example being Gone With The Wind), it is now largely discredited as it can be very confusing for the reader. As head-hopping only occurs in third-person narrative, a good way to check for it is to imagine the scene rewritten in first person. If you suddenly find that your narrator can read the minds of other characters, and/or knows things without having been told them, you have head-hopping.
Third person (in John’s Point Of View):
John looked out of the window and saw the man standing on the opposite pavement. He turned to face Mary, who thought he looked worried.
First person (with John as narrator):
I looked out of the window and saw the man standing on the opposite pavement. I turned to face Mary, who thought I looked worried.
STILTED OR UNNATURAL DIALOGUE
All too often, a passage of dialogue reads as though it’s written as an info-dump for the benefit of the reader, rather than as an ordinary conversation between two people. As with commas (see above), if you aren’t sure about your dialogue, try reading it aloud. Does it sound like the sort of thing you might overhear in a coffee-shop, or does it read more like the dubious offspring of Wikipedia and TripAdvisor?
SIMILAR-SOUNDING NAMES, OR TOO MANY NAMES STARTING WITH THE SAME LETTER
Personally I’m not a fan of this, as it can be very confusing for the reader. And as will be testified by anyone who has ever read Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë obviously never got the memo about it…
US VERSUS UK ENGLISH
According to George Bernard Shaw, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” It’s well-known that US and UK English often have different words for the same object (for example, faucet for tap, or gasoline for petrol). This isn’t usually a problem if the words are recognisable in their own right, but problems can arise if the same word means different things on either side of the Atlantic. I have long since lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain to US-based authors that when they talk about “pants” they think they mean trousers, but in UK English “pants” refers to underwear. Not a great situation when writing for an international readership!
The editor also needs to be on the lookout for possible copyright issues when referring to, or quoting from, other sources (this is particularly true of song lyrics, which can be a costly copyright minefield), or anything which might be deemed defamatory or libellous when referring to living people. This is one case where the golden rule must surely be: If in doubt, take it out!
I could tell you a lot more, but I fear I’ve already overstayed my welcome. If you’re still with me, pour yourself a stiff drink. You’ve earned it!