MCC: Hi, I’d like to welcome Philippa Francis, editor extraordinaire, to my little haven. She’s got some tips for us—and some stories to tell—about her adventures in the editing world. Just so you know, she’s using a pseudonym to protect the guilty. So if your editor happens to be named Philippa, I’m sure she is perfectly lovely. However, it’s not this Philippa, and you’re not the author in question. That being said, for the love of all you consider holy, don’t do some of the things mentioned here!
First things first, Philippa, do you plan on eating my firstborn? I’ve heard editors are all soulless, dream-crushing spawns of Satan.
PF: No, I get most of my protein from tofu and raw fish. Unless your first-born is a salmon or a soybean, she’s safe.
MCC: I totally believe you, though the firstborn did once claim that she wanted to be a part-time mermaid, part-time polar bear, so, uh, I’m just going to send her… over there. Before we dig into the editing business, let’s talk about you. What’s your favorite work of fiction, and why?
PF: I never know how to answer this question. I just went to Goodreads to figure out which novels I rated the highest.
Some novels I love because of the genius of setting or the conceit of the narrative style, like Iain Pears’s Stone’s Fall or An Instance of the Fingerpost. Some I love for voice and pace, like Nero Wolfe stories. Some novels are so easy to slip into that it’s almost as if you’re wearing your favorite cashmere sweater, like Teresa Edgerton’s The Green Lion Trilogy or A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer (my comfort reading).
A novel that continues to blow me away is Lolita. It has an unreliable narrator, amazing voice, incredible style, and staying power. That it was Nabokov’s first book written in English just makes it all the more impressive. Ordinarily I am annoyed when I notice the beauty of an author’s writing, but added to the gestalt of Lolita, it works.
But overall, I’m very picky about fiction. Most of my reading time goes to non-fiction, and most of that to history. If I start reading a novel, it’s because I’m very interested in it and I’ve read good reviews from sources I trust. If I hate it, I won’t finish it. I will put it down and write a negative review on Goodreads or Amazon. The older I get, the more precious my time gets.
MCC: Speaking of reviews, what do you think about authors feeling obligated to give other authors glowing reviews?
PF: It’s disingenuous and a huge disservice to readers. If that’s not clear enough? I absolutely hate it.
I understand you want to support your friends and fellow authors. Great. Go around and click “like” on your friends’ or critique partners’ Amazon pages. Tag the books on Amazon. If you really, really like the book? Fine. Give it a good review.
But when I see an author giving a mediocre book five stars and gushing about it, I lose respect for both and…I probably won’t buy either author’s books from that point forward.
Do I sound like a bitch? Sorry. I have limited free time. When you fake a good review for a badly written book, it tells me you don’t care enough about my time to give me an honest opinion. That means I don’t care enough about you to give you my money.
And if you’re an author who gets less than a five star review, get the hell over it. If there’s merit to the criticism, fix the flaws in your next book. If there isn’t, who cares? Move on.
Whatever you do, don’t assemble all your friends and sister writers and pressure them into writing gushing reviews of the book. If you put your friends in that position, you may find yourself with fewer friends.
And never, ever respond to a critical review online. Ever. (But if you’re reviewed in the London Review of Books, please do feel free to write in to the editor with complaints about your review. It never ends well for the author, but I live for reading that page.)
MCC: I’ll admit, I’ve felt the pressure, which is why I stopped doing reviews on my site. I have issues with guilt, thought I have great capacity for snark. I’ve been trying to keep my snark in check. One day, it will spring from my head fully grown, like Athena, fully clothed in armor and ready to rumble (or the Queen from Alien. Either way, duck for cover when it finally happens. It won’t be pretty).
But I digress.
What’s your favorite genre to edit?
PF: Anything historical. Mostly because I love history, but I also love finding anachronisms in books. I am the reader who will be scathing in a review if I find an error. When I save my authors from that, I feel like some sort of OCD history superhero.
MCC: Well, now that that’s out of the way, and we like to talk about things that bug us around here, what is the biggest pet peeve you have when editing a manuscript?
PF: I have three. I type these comments more than anything else: “POV.” “Filtering. Cut.” “Tortured dialogue tag.”
Point of view errors. I’ve tried to explain them a hundred different ways, and some authors get it and some don’t. At worst, you’ll jerk your reader out of the story. At best, it’s lazy writing.
Filtering. Don’t write “Jasmine saw Aladdin fall from the sky” when Jasmine is the exclusive POV. Of course Jasmine saw it. No one else could. Just write “Aladdin fell from the sky.”
Tortured dialogue tags. Don’t do this: “’No,’ Jasmine said, running forward as Aladdin fell from the sky.” Instead, it’s: “’No.’ Jasmine ran forward as Aladdin fell from the sky. (Although in a perfect world, you’d have the falling preceding the running. But you get the idea.)
MCC: Interesting. I’ll make a note of that. Now, I’ve mentioned some things I’ve heard of authors doing to editors and agents when they’ve been rejected—things authors have admitted to! But even after they’ve been accepted, they still have loads of work to do, right?
PF: I think this is the hardest part for new authors to understand. The manuscript that you submitted and was accepted…it’s not perfect. It seemed like it, sure. But when editorial staff read it, they haven’t been with you and your little darlings all along. They see that you’re relying too heavily on adverbs, that you didn’t resolve a subplot adequately, that you’ve got two characters who could (and should) be merged or three scenes that are duplicative.
MCC: What are some suggestions you have for authors after they’ve received their contracts but before they’ve made it to first round edits? Any advice?
PF: Keep writing. Move onto the next project. Not only is this going to help your career to have another book ready to go while you’re editing this one, but it will also give you more distance when you get your first edits back.
MCC: What are some suggestions you have for authors as they receive their first round of edits?
PF: Oh, lord, where to start?
First, expect to see a lot of red. It will be there. You’re not the outlier. You didn’t turn in an instant masterpiece. Your perfect book isn’t perfect. I’m sorry. Even if your army of critique partners said it was…it’s not.
Second, I wish all authors knew that editors want the book to succeed just as much as they do. I’ll go so far as to say the editor’s interest in the book is purer than the author’s. Editors are interested in working with you to make a book that will sell a lot of copies. Editors don’t care that you based the hero on your beloved great-uncle Maynard or that the lovely prose on page 59 is a description of your childhood house. If the hero is unlikeable and the overwritten prose bogs the scene down, your editor will tell you to fix it.
If you’re unwilling to see those are honest, objective critiques, you’re going to have a rotten time of it as a writer. Pick a more ego-fulfilling career.
MCC: What do you do if an author doesn’t agree with edits you’ve suggested? What’s negotiable and what’s not, when it comes down to edits?
PF: I’ve only had one author throw a complete tantrum and refuse to change anything substantial. It didn’t work out well for her.
My job is to point out the problems in such a way that the author gets it. I can’t rewrite for the author. The authors who have published the worst books are the authors who have blown off my recommendations. When it comes down to it, if they want to publish crap, I’m very sorry, but there’s only so much I can do.
Grammar and style-guide issues are non-negotiable. It continues to amaze me how many authors don’t look at the publisher’s style guide and then argue with me about things like semicolons or one space after a period.
MCC: Because I find other people’s bad behavior vastly entertaining, what’s the worst thing an author has ever said to you, and how did you respond?
PF: Authors usually say the worst things right after they’ve gotten first edits back. In every email accompanying a set of first edits now, I tell them to not bother writing me until two days have passed.
I send a long email with first edits. I tell them what I like and why. Then I explain where they will find the red in the MS and why. I point out the broad plot problems, where things go off the rails, some suggestions about how they might fix it, and I usually point out the words or phrases that they overuse.
I’m very direct. I don’t think it serves anyone well if an editor beats around the bush. If there’s a big enough problem, I’ll say, “And this is where I would put the book down and write a scathing review.”
What kills me is when authors immediately write back (email makes it so easy) and then try to refute my points bullet point by bullet point. I ignore those messages, mainly because two days later I’ll get a follow-up that says, “I’ve thought about it and you’re right. I’m working on the edits now.”
But for the love of all that’s holy, don’t tell me that your critique partners loved it and thought it would be tragic if you made my suggested changes. (Not making this one up.) I don’t care what your critique partners think. If you’re clueless enough to 1) ignore my 2-day waiting period and 2) refute me line by line, your critique partners probably can’t get you to act sensibly, either. They’ll agree with you just to shut you up. I don’t have that luxury.
Recently I read something for an acquaintance who put me on the spot (my usual response to this is “no” – I don’t like looking at anyone’s first drafts). Per the request, I edited the way I would my own authors. The acquaintance turned around and told me how I was wrong about 1) head hopping, 2) POV errors, 3) use of any verb but “said” or “asked” as a dialogue tag, and 4) a bunch of other things I’ve forgotten.
Remember, I was asked to read this as an editor! I was just glad it wasn’t one of my authors. If my acquaintance wants to take that thing into the marketplace and try to sell it as-is, well, that’s not my problem.
MCC: See people, I’m not making this stuff up. People really do take criticism badly. They didn’t grow up in a household where taking criticism well is a skill necessary for survival.
PF: Right. What prepared me for editing was being raised in a family where mispronouncing or misusing a word meant endless supper table humiliation.
I’m not exaggerating.
Then, when I was 10, my father handed me something he’d written. By this point, he had three graduate degrees and had published books and many scholarly articles. About an hour later I returned it – corrected.
You reap what you sow.
I’d like to continue this as an “Ask the Editor” segment. So if you have any questions, post them in the comments, and maybe Philippa will return for another round? What do you say, Philippa?