I have had quite a lot of experience with editors – mostly copy editors, who were looking for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. But three times now I have used substantive editors to look at structure, plot, characters, and organisation, as well. The first two of those experiences were pretty horrible in the sense that their major comment was ‘cut’. This was demoralising in that the editor gave no indication of understanding what the book was about and thought that a significant portion of my writing was worthless.
The third experience with a senior writing instructor in London has been altogether different. The only time he used ‘cut’ was when I had used unnecessary commas. When he thought that my writing had gone astray, he would say, ‘please think about the contribution this section is making to your novel. Is it moving things forward?’ And I would think about it in terms of the three C’s: Character, Cause and Concern. Is it developing the character, is it establishing an important cause of subsequent plot action, or is it heightening the reader’s concern for a character? As a result of this review on my part, I rewrote some sections and eliminated others.
But his help went far beyond the value of portions of the writing. Initially, I had some concerns about tension in the novel. Was it keeping the reader fully engaged? He assured me that I was producing literary quality writing, but my choice of narration in the first person by the central character was limiting the tension level. He suggested that I use two narrators, who are related, but of different ages, genders and personality. Rather than telling the story in chronological order, why not tell it by major events, so that intensity of each character’s involvement would be increased? This change, while it ramps up the tension, tends to cause the reader to lose her sense of time, and I had to add time markers to indicate the sequence of events.
The editor made helpful comments about some of the language or actions of characters if they seemed out of character or threatened to reduce the reader’s interest in them. Then there is the issue of emotion. The editor says that novels are ’empathy machines’. Often, I needed reminding to make a character’s feelings clearer. This action should be as show rather than tell, where body language, tone, expression and setting are used evocatively.
As a resident in the UK for thirty-three years, I think I’m pretty familiar with the Queen’s English as opposed to American English, which is my native tongue. The novel is set in today’s lower middle class London, and there were subtleties which I missed in my writing and which the editor caught. Since the novel will hopefully go to a British publisher, it’s important to get the QE right.
Sometimes I was accused of using orthographic language which I understand to mean unnecessarily correct language which falls short of expressing a point. Frequently this involved the construction of long sentences separated by semicolons. (I admire William Faulkner’s ability to construct sentences that are half a page or longer.) Finally, I learned that I use too many commas and semicolons.
For me, the bottom line, before you go to an agent, is to hire a substantive editor, based on seeing samples of his work or comprehensive testimonials.