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My Life as an SF Book Editor

Posted by Gordon on October 2, 2010 at 12:49 PM

My Life as an SF Book Editor

Gordon Williams, Babora Books


I get asked a lot about what I do as an editor to get a manuscript ready for print. Mostly from authors wondering where the heck their book has got to.


Editing is a key part of the publishing process, regardless of the platform. When a manuscript is nearly ready but still needs that final polishing, it’s the editor’s job to take it to the next level.


One of the hardest things to learn as an editor is not to insert yourself into the story. Just because I want to say something in a particular way doesn't mean that is how it should be said. And I'll admit that in the early days I tended to give in to temptation to re-write things in my own voice.


The goal is for an editor is to be invisible. Readers need to see a book as well written, not "well edited." (Although they will notice work that has been poorly edited) Motto for editors: Healthy sales is its own reward.


Why a professional editor?


The fact is, doing a serious and careful edit takes a lot of time and effort. Anything less than a professional job is going to make a poor impression on publishers, reviewers and your audience.


A basic edit for a 100,000 word novel (around 300 printed pages) can take several weeks. Good freelance editors generally charge in the range of $75 to $100 per hour.


So if you're thinking about hiring an editor to get your novel ready for print, the cost can add up quick.

If someone tells you they are an experienced editor and will edit your novel for a flat fee of $500 or $1,000, they're probably not going to do a lot. Keep in mind that there are still "agents" around who want $500 just to read your work! You'll generally find these listed under "publishing scams.” (Or maybe that is just wishful thinking)


So here in broad brush terms are my editing steps.


Step 1) Read the entire novel.


What I'm looking for on first read is how the story hangs together, how it works as SF, how the characters work and really, how good a job you've done with spelling, proofing, punctuation.

This also gives me a chance to become familiar with any unique style conventions you've adopted. For example, if your characters are having internal dialogue, do you use quotation marks, italics or plain text? Its up to you to decide but once I know your style I can look for any inconsistencies.

I'm a fast reader and I can usually do this in 10 to 16 hours, assuming:


a) No major flaws. By "major flaws" I mean your story flows in a logical pattern, i.e. you haven't killed a key character in Chapter 3 and then resurrected him or her later in the book without any reasonable explanation.

 b) You have proof-read a hard copy of your work. It’s easy to tell the difference. There is a whole lot of science that shows reading comprehension is way lower on screen than on paper. I've been using computers for more than 20 years and I still don't do proofing on screen for print products. 

c) You've spell checked. OK, there are lots of mistakes spell checkers won't catch, and a few places where they can insert errors. But the upside is that spell checkers are consistently bad, so at least I know what to look for. 

Step 2) On-screen edit.


If I get through Step 1 without sending your manuscript back for re-working, we move to the interactive part of editing. At this stage I'm going to be asking a lot of questions: 

  • How did Mary know how to fly a space ship?
  • Wouldn't the police be involved if a giant alien landed at a shopping mall?
  • How credible is it that a passing time traveler just happened to stop by to solve a problem?
  • Wouldn't a race of super-advanced aliens think to get their flu shots before invading Earth?
  • If John has the ray-gun in his right hand and the treasure map in his left hand, is he going to be able to fly a hovercraft with his arm around the princess at the same time?
  • Would the expression "Don't have a cow, man" (or similar) be in common use in the 28th century?

All right, those are extreme examples, but I need to put myself in the place of a reader who is pretty sophisticated when it comes to SF and is used to having logical consistency.


This also where the rubber meets the road with "show, don't tell."


Do the actions of the characters fit a logical pattern? Do they advance the story? And - what is missing here? If you are writing an action sequence there has to be continuity for events, objects and where people are. It’s like blocking a stage play. Your actors all need to get from A to B in the story, and not just miraculously appear where they need to be for the action to continue.


A Few Words about Fact Checking

Editors love to maintain the illusion that we have vast knowledge of many subjects. The reality is we just have a good sense of what's easy to get wrong.

Suppose your main character happens to be a former Canadian Air Force pilot who fondly recalls his time with 3 Wing during the '60s at Lahr in West Germany. Oops! It turns out that 3 Wing was based at Zweibrücken until 1968; they didn't move to Lahr until the 80s. Easy enough to fix but it’s the kind of thing that would simply annoy a reader who knows the facts. And, since your audience for military thrillers is military people ...well, you get the picture.


I recently read a crime novel written by a British author but set in the US. In one scene there is a description of a bar where the owner has framed the first two-dollar bill the business took in. There actually is a US two-dollar bill but it is so rare that a lot of businesses won't even take them. Canada had two-dollar bills in wide circulation until they were replaced by the two-dollar coin. So chances are that the author picked the denomination as being iconic of US commerce without having the background. The funny thing is that I can't remember the title or the author but that two-dollar bill line sticks with me.


Guns: For some reason television and movies always show actors handling firearms as though they are plastic toys. From time to time I see writers describing guns in similar terms. I always fact check anything to do with guns - how much they weigh, how the safety works, what part you push to make bullets come out. It’s worth a writer's time checking this kind of thing on line. And besides, I think my ISP might be wondering why I'm spending so much time searching subjects like "how to load and fire an UZI machine pistol."


This isn't to say you can't play around with history, science and geography from time to time. You just need to know when you are doing so and why.


SF can be particularly hard because its core readers are a lot more likely to be aware of at least basic science.

So at this point you'll be getting a revised MS back with a pile of questions and comments and, hopefully, minor revisions.


In the old days, this would have been done with red pen, sticky notes and lots of phone calls. Now I use Word's track changes mode and comments almost exclusively.


This is where the writer-editor relationship can get a bit stressed. I'm open to negotiation and there is nothing I'd like more than to see some really innovative writing forms. But at the same time we're in the fiction business, so whatever we produce needs to work for the audience.


Don't take any of this as personal criticism. The company took your book on because we feel it is worth publishing. I'm here to add value to your work, not because I want to write a book of my own.


Step 3) hard copy edit.


This is time to catch all those things like punctuation errors, misused words, (bear/bare, two/to/too, council/counsel/consul/console, weather/whether, hare/hair), and places where the spell check misses variations for US, Canadian and British spelling and word use.


I'm also looking for places where previous fixes contradict something else. Example: You found out earlier that John (ray-gun + treasure map + princess + hovercraft) ran out of hands a while back, but now he just threw something across the room that he was never holding in the first place. Is it any wonder film and TV productions have whole departments of people whose whole job is keeping track of continuity from one scene to the next?


Rather than send back a marked up hard copy I'll transfer those changes to the electronic file and send back to you for review once again.


Step 4) re-read a clean copy.


Is this sounding like a lot of printing? Sure is. But at least you're not retyping everything for each version.

This is the fine-tooth-comb stage that is best described as "beyond tedious." Is that character a dark-haired woman? Or a dark haired woman? (Read the two sentences a few times and spot the different meaning.)


Step 5) Proof read


On a really good day, steps 4 and 5 can sometimes be combined. But often we hand over your work to a professional proof-reader.


It’s a bit risky for the editor to double up on proofing because, now that I'm on at least the fourth read-through, I can be really tempted to skim.


Have you ever seen one of those tests where you are given words that are deliberately misspelled but you still read them easily? That is what skimming does and why its easy to miss little things.

The up side is that I'm a lot less likely to get caught up in the story.


Proof-reading isn't actually reading at all because I'm not looking at sentences and paragraphs, but at words and groups of words and the punctuation that keeps everything in its tidy little boxes.


There’s a handy tool that used to be standard issue called a “proof reader’s ruler.” It’s a regular plastic ruler with a clear window running its length. To use it, you slide the ruler down a page of text and read one line at a time.


Another trick proof readers use is to tap each successive line with a pen or pencil. Both methods work to focus your attention on individual words and word groups.


So how do I know when it’s done?


If I can get down to where a fix is only needed every five or ten pages I'm going to be comfortable that I've caught everything. Anything more than that and I'll repeat this step.


And that's about it. A lot of time and energy but if we can turn out a first rate product it’s well worth it.

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