By Marc Baldwin
Today we’ve got a great post from Marc Baldwin who explains what exactly he does when he reviews a novel. I think you’ll have a much better understanding of what editors do for fiction writers and why it can be so important to have your novel edited after you read what he has to say.
Having helped to usher more than 1000 novels into print over the last seven years, we’ve learned quite a few things about the editing that aspiring authors need to do to bring their novels up to publish-worthy speed.
Alas, most writers and even so-called, self-titled “editors” act essentially as a “clean-up crew”—that is to say, a hygienically-minded proofreader—whereas a more rigorous process produces a more rigorous novel.
Over the years we have notched an enviable record in securing authors’ contracts for publication, many of whom were first-time petitioners for acceptance of their work. I’ll briefly outline the process we go through while editing a novel, suggesting some points for fiction writers to keep in mind as they prepare drafts of their manuscripts.
- Be true to the narrative voice
- Assure the characters’ credibility
Editors should next concern themselves with the credibility of those characters. Do they speak in a manner consistent with their individual depiction and the text’s setting? “Spiffy,” for example, is an inapt description of male attire in 1920s New Hampshire.
We also pay close attention to how characters are originally introduced, since such profiling will have a significant bearing on their subsequent roles.
- Are they plausible, again as gauged in terms of the work’s fictional context?
- Are their actions congruent with both the story’s events and human psychology?
You must persuade your reader that your invented personae are real and that we should care about what happens to them.
- Attend to the plot
Then comes the matter of plot. While verifying that developments jive with previously indicated circumstances, an editor should check for minor lapses. Sometimes this can be a minefield. As in a 5,000-piece puzzle, one wrong detail can derail the entire project.
Editors should be fanatically adept at questioning these occasional miscues. Thus, if you do not find some such issues to address as you edit your work for plot consistency, you’ve likely missed them or you are, indeed, a consummately skilled writer. Even Homer nodded. Almost all of us find that another pair of eyes can see things in our writing that we can’t.
- What does it all add up to?
What an editor should look for, finally, in a fictional manuscript is an answer to the question, “So what?”
By the narrative’s climax and resolution there should be some indication, however obliquely framed, of its conceptual import. This is another way of saying that the text ought to limn by its end what has been at stake throughout the entire plot.
Formulaic or pat closures, of course, should be avoided. The dénouement instead must arise credibly from earlier plot complications and project some larger insight into what has informed them all along.
The pay-off for the reader, in other words, should be worth his or her investment of time and attention.
- Is it a satisfying, organic story?
These major points encompass what an editor should look for while editing a novel.
The best approach is to work from the inside out, letting a fictional manuscript’s flow guide the editor in monitoring its unfolding design.
Alas, many editors do not adhere to this method, or something like it; rather, they come at the task from the outside in.
An editor absolutely must be sensitive to a novel’s organic shape. Their editing—or yours if you do it yourself—should mesh with the text’s objectives. If it doesn’t, the editing is not “editing”—it’s just housekeeping.
The first thing an editor—whether you’re editing your own book or you’re a professional editor—should try to detect and respect is the text’s latent voice. This involves more than the technicality of identifying narrational point of view. It also is not easy to describe.
What we initially try to do is to hear the author’s cadences as they percolate through characters’ dialogical speech patterns, which of course should be distinctive to each. Through them we listen for the echo, register, or stylistic tonality of a writer’s ventriloquism, the kind of nuanced effect found, for example, in John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor (2010). Attunement to this idiom guides us in making or proposing editorial changes.
Have you reviewed your book from the inside out? Tell us in the comments.