Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

The writer’s editor: a project

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

If you’ve ever read this blog, or accidentally engaged me in conversation, you’ll know I have Quite Strong Feelings about editing. And writing. And how editors and writers relate to each other and their procedures.

“Editing is tedious.”

I hear that a lot. From writers to me and/or to other writers. From other editors (less frequently). In terms of the writing process, editing is often regarded as administrative; the clean-up chore you know you have to complete in order to make your story “good enough”.

“Editing is about finding mistakes.”

That’s another line used regularly.

Too often these are views held by writers and reinforced by the editors they work with who are trying to pacify and reassure them: it’s OK to dislike this process, it’s hard; it’s not going to be pleasant, but…

I consider this an unfair and inaccurate view of editing. Both phrases put the task of editing, and thus the role itself, in a wholly negative light. And if you find editing monotonous, or perceive it as an unpleasant process, it’s possible neither writing nor editing are the right vocation for you.

Editing is key to the writing process, especially if you want to do it even semi-professionally – rather than writing for your eyes only[i].
It is part of redrafting and refining whatever you managed to get out on the page in your first flurry of inspiration.

If you take out the initial research and planning parts[ii], then unless you are one of those miracle writers who manages to type out exactly what they mean to say on the first pass and never go back, editing probably takes more time all up than putting the very first draft down on the page – whether you are self-editing or working with an editor. It includes all those rewrites and amendments you make as you go, as well as the changes you make to the final version.

So if you start out regarding it as an exhausting exercise in disparaging your hard work, you are really setting yourself up for a hard time.

And I’d say you’re doing it wrong.

And so are we, as editors, if that’s how you feel about the process.

What editing is…and isn’t

I spend a significant amount of my time as an editor reassuring writers that things I’ve marked on the manuscript are not a judgement against, or criticism of, or, in many cases, even a correction to their work. Of course, there are some changes that are marked for correction – spelling mistakes, grammatical errors etc. – but a large proportion of things I mark up are phrased as queries, suggestions, or flags for attention. I’m not marking a test. I’m not going to slash through someone’s work with a pen and send them to the back of the class for a “fail”[iii] – though I know some people (writers and editors) prefer that approach.

Editors can go deeper into a work than just rectifying surface issues. Given the chance, and assuming we connect with the work/author, we can get almost as close as the story’s creator – but with the benefit of objectivity. Editors can be as passionate about a work as the author, but since we didn’t actually put the words on the page, there are no threads tying our heart to the author’s darlings. Which doesn’t immediately lead us to “kill them all” but does mean we can see why something may need fine-tuning.

An editor’s job is not to jump in and tell a writer how to tell their story or what phrasing they have to use. Rather, our role is to attempt to slip into the writer’s skin[iv] and work out how they would approach a problem or phrase, and then either pose questions or provide suggestions that might spark the synapses. The key is to help and guide the author to make sure they’ve written the story they want or intend to tell. Not, unless we have been engaged by someone for this purpose, to encourage them to write the story we think they should be writing.

It’s genuinely troubling to see the role and purpose of the editor diminished to “making corrections” and “ripping things to shreds” when I know how hard my colleagues and I work to establish relationships of trust with authors; the time we spend getting to know each manuscript, and thus its author; and reassuring new writers that the editing process might be confronting but it doesn’t have to be painful and will be
worth it.

Knowing how much we all love stories and writing (whether or not we write ourselves) and the creativity that is involved in the task of editing, it is disgruntling to see others cut our work down to a chore that must be endured.

But much of this sense comes from the fact that many writers don’t know what editors are capable of, or what we can offer. Particularly freelance editors. I’ve been told very matter-of-factly by several writers that they don’t think an editor would be able to help with story, or developing writing skills. (We can and do.) And more than once I’ve had writers say to me that the information and/or support and guidance they are looking for just isn’t out there if you don’t have your own circle of writing friends, or an agent, or a publisher. (It is. If you know who to ask.)

Having said that, while there are things some writers may not know they need to know, or may not realise an editor can help with, I think there are also things writers want that editors don’t always provide – or only provide by accident. Especially now that the publishing industry is changing so much and in so many different ways. With self-publishing becoming more viable, a slew of new publishing services and models on the rise, and traditional publishers often unable to offer their authors the same guidance they may have done in the past, a lot of writers I talk to seem a little adrift – unsure where to find support and advice, or how to navigate the vast quantities of information available online.

With this in mind, I think freelance editors are uniquely equipped to adapt to the developing needs of publishers and writers. Which leads me to:

What would a writer’s perfect editor look like?

The usual (only half-joking) answer to this question is “someone who tells me my work is perfect as is!” or “someone who offers me a contract!”; but, as you very well know, that is not really what I am asking. And furthermore…I don’t think either of those responses are correct.

Of course you want to impress your editor, that’s only natural. But is it really their feedback you are most concerned about? Working with an editor, whether via a publisher or privately prior to self-publishing, is just one step at the start of the process. Do you want your editor to tell you your book is amazing and nothing needs changing…or do you want your readers to feel that way? Because the role of the editor is to help you make your book the best it can possibly be. To give your readers the same joy/pain/other emotion that you get from your own story.

The editor is already on your side. We not only want to help make your book shine, it’s the whole reason we do this job. And sure, there are budgetary concerns and time constraints whichever publishing path you choose, and not all editors can do all things… but, generally speaking, editors will do whatever we can to help you and your book.

So how can we offer the best help and support? What is it writers are missing out on?

Like most editors, I already do my best to discover and understand authors’ processes and language and interests so I can communicate and feedback in a way that is most useful to them – from a position of understanding things on the outside. But I’d like to take this further.

The project

This year, I am talking to writers about what they need and want from the editing process. While an editor doesn’t need to be a writer[v], knowing their techniques, strategies and angles helps us to speak to writers in their own language. A lot of writers assume that an editor will work from a solely editorial perspective anmalkovitchd force novelists to work to that structure: “here are rules you must follow; plain language first and foremost.” But editors are generally more flexible than that – it’s down to what works and suits the manuscript best, rather than blindly obeying writing laws. Personally, I am more interested in getting inside the writers’ mindset and working from within, rather than tidying up wordage from the outside.

Putting myself in a writer’s shoes helps me not only to understand how to adapt my feedback and approach, but to weed out other writing advice and see what can be helpful or harmful. What works for one writer can be detrimental to another[vi], so every writer’s process is a helpful guide for how to work with authors.

As such, later this year I will attend a series of conferences and literature events in the UK, with the aim of learning more about how different authors create and develop their work; their writing and publishing challenges; and what they need (and want) from editors. I’ll be following[vii] agents and publishers, too, to see how they approach and respond to different needs and requirements.

I hope to talk to writers, publishers, artists, creators and producers in different fields – literature (particularly genre), film/TV, fanfic, comics etc – to find out more about how these works are created, what makes them good or bad, and how all this can translate to the editing process.

And when I get back, I’ll be looking for ways to adapt and develop Bothersome Words to better meet these needs and challenges.


Australia_Council_master_horiz_col_logoThis project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

This is a research project that is being undertaken with the support of the Literature Section of the Australia Council for the Arts, to whom I am incredibly grateful. The Editorial Professional Development Grant supports opportunities for professional development and cultural leadership for Australian book and journal editors to enhance their literary editing skills. I am thrilled that in this case the Council is supporting a project that will largely focus on genre, allowing me to attend NineWorlds, LonCon3, FantasyCon and the Edinburgh International Book Festival in pursuit of knowledge.

Are you going to any of these events?
Drop me a line if you’d like to meet up!

Got some ideas about what editors can do to help writers?
I’d love to hear from you, too!

Comments, as always, are open…


[ii] Because yes, I understand that some books have years of research and planning behind them. A whole lifetime, in some cases.

[iii] OK. Occasionally the slashing might happen. But there are no marks awarded or deducted for your work.

[v] Some say this can be a hindrance since it can lead to the temptation to rewrite rather than query or suggest. On the other hand an editor editing something they wrote themselves can get stuck on an endless edit loop. So… you say potato, I say edible tuber…

[vi] This post about “firing the muse” and just getting on with it instead of waiting for inspiration is perfectly just and sound. But some writers do work best with a sudden flood of inspiration or a “visit from the muse”; some writers cannot handle thoroughly planning in advance.

[vii] Not in a stalkery way.


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Conflux 9

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

It’s always great to head off to Canberra’s annual Conflux, where I can catch up with friends and make new ones.  It’s a chance to find out what everyone’s up to and celebrate successes. There are parties and gatherings and just all-round fun.

Mark Timmony, Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren

Mark Timmony, Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren

But for me it is also a chance to learn. Conflux may be a speculative fiction convention that draws and encourages fans of all flavours, but more than anything it is a celebration of writing; bringing together authors and publishers and readers in one spot. For all that I already spend a lot of time reading books and blogs about genre, writing, and publishing; events such as Conflux are an opportunity to hear experts and folks in the field speaking in person about their passion.

It’s a chance for me as an editor to discover what makes the worlds I wander through work so well, and to learn how writers understand their processes – so I can talk to them in their own terms when I am editing their words.

It’s also a chance for me to share the pearls of wisdom I pick up with other writers who may not yet have discovered writing communities or online resources. My incessant livetweeting during these events[i] is intended as much to help spread the word to them as it is to record/report the event as it happens. And spending time attending panels and talking to industry folk keeps me armed with the latest information to help new writers who often turn to me and other publishing professionals for advice.

This Conflux I not only followed panels, but also participated (because I was momentarily brave when filling out my registration form). I spent a late night with Patty Jansen, Ian Nicholls and Satima Flavell mumbling to a bleary-eyed audience of ten about whether self-publishers need editors (you can probably guess what I think about that). I think we mostly made sense, and even if we didn’t all agree, no one punched anyone and we’re all still friends. I also got to ramble about social media etiquette at the end of the con with Russell Farr, Zena Shapter, Alan Baxter and Alex Adsett. My favourite part of that was Jason Fischer repeatedly putting his hand up and prefacing every question with a promise not to pun. (Although I am pro-pun, as anyone who’s ever had to edit my magazine and newspaper heads can attest, so I was all for it…)

I also did my first pitching session for Etopia Press! That was an adrenaline-pumping  hour – who knew five minutes could go so quickly? I can’t speak for the writers, but I really enjoyed that session as I met some lovely writers, heard some fantastic stories, and can’t wait to read more. I also chatted about pitching and the process thereof to a few people later on, so maybe I’ll blog on that topic down the track…

Topics I followed through the con…

Small press: I work with small, medium and mainstream publishers so this was a particularly interesting series of conversations, not least because so many innovative things are coming from small press in this changing publishing landscape. The mainstream versus small press smackdown highlighted the different considerations and approaches publishers and small press take – and the different challenges they face and the opportunities for their authors. There was a strong sense that small press like Ticonderoga have been able to take more risks and follow their hearts on “artier” projects in ways that mainstream publishers, driven by the bottom line, cannot. Marc Gascoigne described Angry Robot as medium press and was keen to take advantage of the ability to move faster than larger publishers on publishing projects and even marketing and promotional ideas.

Fantasy: I read and edit so much in this genre, and there are so many sub-genres within it – and they’re constantly changing and expanding.

Duncan Lay and KJ Taylor prepare to launch each other's books!

Duncan Lay and KJ Taylor prepare to launch each other’s books!

The panel examining the success and visibility of women in fantasy was particularly fascinating as this seemed to vary depending on country and subgenre. Indeed, while this panel was taking place, *this article*  was going around Twitter; and many people have since been discussing the Strange Horizons survey. It was especially interesting to hear Trudi discuss her unexpected success in Poland, where she says publisher support and promotion meant her book tours made her feel like Stephanie Meyers.

Young Adult: Again this is a topic I followed as a fan and as an editor. Arguments about YA and what constitutes a YA novel seemed to permeate the whole convention – and you can log on to Twitter at any time of the day or night and bump into people discussing the subject. As the YA explosion panel explained, the fact that so many books originally published as “adult” titles have since been rebranded as “YA” only adds to the confusion.  Garth Nix pointed out that it’s no surprise so many adults enjoy YA fiction – the word “adult” is right there in the name. The panel ultimately concluded that YA is story-driven and this will always appeal to readers.

Crime: It was a twist to see the “crime tropes” panel pop up in a speculative fiction convention, but the reason for this soon became clear with a quick poll that confirmed everyone present, speculative fiction readers all, also read crime. The success of last year’s first GenreCon already made it obvious that most genre readers probably cross the streams fairly readily, but it was impossible to determine from this sample crowd whether as many readers of crime also cross back to science fiction. This talk covered the difficulty of categorising crime novels when so many cross genres – Daniel O’Malley making the point that in “anything ‘other world’ a single drop will make it so, but a drop of blood does not make a book a crime novel” – and quickly led on to book covers and bookshop shelving (a topic which came up numerous times during and after the convention; frustrating more than one bookseller.)

Co-author Lisa Hannett and cover artist Kathleen Jennings model their beautiful 'Midnight and Moonshine'

Co-author Lisa Hannett and cover artist Kathleen Jennings model their beautiful ‘Midnight and Moonshine’

Short story: I’m starting to edit more of these now I am working with digital presses – which have begun to accept and publish shorter works – so I was keen to learn from the experts what makes a short story successful and how the process differs for the writer compared with writing a novel. Lisa Hannett described short stories as “evoking more than they explain” and it was interesting to hear the panel describe the importance of the first paragraph or two of a short story – rather than the first line. Jonathan Strahan admitted a good first line made him suspicious as he’d then anticipate two pages wasted on justifying such an opening.

The business side of writing: In “facing reality” terms, this was one of the most valuable panels I attended. I often hear from new writers who plan, based on the first draft of the first thing they’ve ever written, to quit their job and live off their income as a writer. I know enough to talk them out of this,(!) but this panel took it to the next step. This was about the reality of being a career writer once you have been published. In many ways it was similar to workshops I have co-presented for freelance editors – the focus being less on the actual work you do (writing or editing) and more on the reality of what that life means: you will be running a small business. And you will be working alone. You have to be prepared, you have to be organised, and you have to know yourself. Karen Miller pointed out that while writing is a solo endeavour, publishing is a team sport and you need to know the roles of all the publishing people you work with. All the panellists agreed that publishing was just one step in a writing career and shouldn’t be the end goal because actually being published involves a lot of work and effort on the writer’s part.

Guests of Honour: I tried to attend as many guest of honour presentations as I could, although I missed more than I would have liked. Karen Miller’s photo presentation stood out in particular, showing how valuable a research trip can be and how differently a “standard” tourist tour of the castles and exhibits of Europe can be, viewed through a writer’s eyes. Under Karen’s guidance, stunning shots of a romantic, mist-swathed glassy river became the potential scene for a bloody ambush; an intricately engraved helm featuring the moulding of a bearded face became the enchanted armour for a king and so on. She showed us pictures of elaborate (and decrepit) doorways and encouraged us to imagine what sort of occupant might reside beyond, and further: how difficult (or how easy) others may find it to enter through such deceptively restrictive openings. The presence of tourists in the ancient dwellings served to add perspective – providing a measure by which we could see how humans have changed in height and girth (or not) and the challenges a character (and thus a writer) may face maneuvering within any given space.

Books about these places are easy to find, but Karen’s photo presentation made it obvious that these realities are much clearer when seen in pictures.[ii]

I also signed up to attend my first ever kaffeeklatsch – with Angry Robot’s Marc Gascoigne. I think everyone has been watching Angry Robot closely since they started as they’ve certainly been trying exciting new things and publishing fantastic titles – lots of Australian authors among them. Angry Robot are extremely online-savvy and one of the most important things I took away from the conversation, given the number of authors I have heard bemoaning the need to be on a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, etc. was that the only thing that is a must-have for any author is a website. Nearly all publishers feature pages for their authors, but Marc pointed out that readers will go to Google, not a publisher, for the latest information about their favourite author. An author can keep all their information on their own site and be the obvious, official place for readers to go. Additional social media: blogging, Twitter etc. should only be undertaken with genuine interest. As our later social media panel discussed: readers and followers can instantly tell if you’re faking or marketing, so if you aren’t interested, don’t have time, or can’t be bothered: don’t do it – concentrate on the writing!

Angry Robots

The “Angry Robot family”: Marc Gascoigne, Jo Anderton, Ingrid Jonach, Kaaron Warren

I think all the authors at the chat[iii] liked the idea of Angry Robot’s inclusive approach to publishing, which both Marc and his authors described as a kind of “family” with AR authors
encouraged to join in on their email loop for discussions about releases and covers, launches and signings. More than one writer mentioned later how isolated they had found their own publishing experience by contrast.

For myself, I think it’s imperative that any future office[iv] I move into comes equipped with underfloor caves like the AR offices. And cobbled streets outside, too. Or inside. I’m not picky.


In all this was another fabulous con. I met some wonderful new people and learned far more than I could ever condense into a single post. (Even one as epically long as this.) And I haven’t even touched on all the launches, readings and parties that took place between and after panels. Once again, this was a weekend of fun and enrichment that reconfirmed to me how lucky I am to work with the books and stories I love to read.


[i] Apologies to everyone who has been bombarded during this month’s Bothersome Words Conference Tweeting Extravaganza.

[ii] Or real life. I think we could all justify a holiday to somewhere that would help with our next writing/editing project: yes/yes?

[iii] And at the Angry Robot Hour held later in the con… I may have stalked Angry Robot a little bit…

[iv] House.

Latest additions to Mount ToBeRead, courtesy of Conflux.

Latest additions to Mount ToBeRead, courtesy of Conflux.

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Genre-ly speaking

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

There’s been a lot of chat about genre on the interwebs lately; in particular, people have been discussing the question of whether one should write according to genre – and according to what sells both to readers and to publishers in the first place – or whether it’s okay to write what you want and hold firm to the belief that someone somewhere will recognise the deep-seated brilliance of your creation, genre (and markets) be damned.

This seems a rather multi-layered question and there are so many different answers and aspects to consider.

Genre is confusing

Genre often means more inside the industry than out. Even passionate readers may only be aware of some of the broader categories and this can cause problems, particularly in areas such as speculative fiction, which most readers I speak to think of as “science fiction and fantasy” – assuming they have even heard the alternative term at all.* There is an understanding among readers that the “science fiction and fantasy” section of a bookshop will also include horror, all the vampire and werewolf fiction they desire, urban and paranormal fantasy, supernatural fiction, and anything else that seems a bit “otherworldly”.
That said, there can be confusion over books that, due to their themes or certain narrative devices, fall neatly under “speculative fiction” and thus find themselves duly shelved with other, more obviously fantastical or science fictional titles. This categorisation may not work well for readers who don’t quite know how to relate to what seems to be, for example, a straight-up detective novel with subtle supernatural elements.

It’s hard to know whether this is a problem of marketing or categorisation. Would such a title do better in general fiction? Would the author be better advised not to write the book at all or to adjust the writing to fit genre conventions? This last seems a great disservice to the original story, but what’s more important – the creation or the success? Are there similar problems in the crime genre which also has various subsets?

When contemplating genre, it’s important to consider who you think will be your main readers – but keep in mind you can’t actually control your audience. For example, YA, or young adult, fiction seems to be growing in popularity, but the definitions of “young adult” differ slightly from country to country (and possibly publisher to publisher). Depending on the title, it’s generally accepted that it’s not just “young adults” but also actual adults who will read YA, as well as children, depending on the book. I recently heard an industry expert say that not only does the Australian publishing industry not call this genre “YA”,** but also that he thought it was really sad that so many grown women (in particular) were reading – and becoming obsessed by – YA novels such as Twilight and other popular series because they were intended for children and he felt they should be kept that way.***

This seems like the voice of someone who would certainly like to keep distinct lines between genres, at least when it comes to distinguishing between adult and children’s titles, but honestly it just doesn’t always seem that clear-cut. I have worked on a number of titles for adults that have later been described in reviews as “young adult novels” – to the author’s surprise and, if the cover labelling is anything to go by, presumably the publisher’s as well.


So how do you decide what to write, genre-wise, if you already have a plot and a story in mind? And how does this relate to the common writing advice that’s already bandied about?

Write what you know

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be an expert, but surely the genre, and indeed the subject matter, should be something you care about and are interested in?****
Writing is not a quick process and it is certainly not a get-rich-quick career. Why would you saddle yourself with a genre and style in which you have no interest? It would be immeasurably hard to write such a thing as well as something you were passionate about and, assuming you were successful, any publisher would be likely to require you to continue to write in that genre, at least initially – thus you would effectively have written yourself into a corner.

Assuming results in donkeys

Or something. There are certainly some clear-cut lines with genre, but there are also books that have crossed those boundaries. If you make assumptions about the publisher or the market and deliberately rework your ideal book to fit more comfortably into an established genre, you are denying the publisher (and your readers) an opportunity to see beyond that. Sometimes categorising isn’t obvious and sometimes publishers slip genre titles into general fiction or even (shhh) literary fiction. The Time Traveller’s Wife, for example, is a successful novel that has been slotted into “general fiction” in most bookshops, but given the time travel elements is certainly speculative fiction, despite the romance within. Sir Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, often says in interviews that he was under the impression that he was simply writing satire until being categorised as a fantasy writer. Elizabeth George is an established crime writer, but it’s the romantic back story of her characters that gets her readers most up-in-arms.

Trying to adhere too neatly to genre conventions in order to fit can be a mistake. Readers will see straight through it if you aren’t genuine, and it’s important to remember that there’s a reason other books have so easily crossed genre or slipped into “general” or even literary fiction. Russell Davies talks about this in A Writer’s Tale, pointing out that even his comedies have tragic or sad moments and vice versa. His suggestion is that this is what life is like – if the audience is to believe the story, you have to add a dose of reality and that means not being all one thing all the time. This applies to any story if you want it to stop falling flat. It’s where the secondary and tertiary storylines can come in so handily: the romance back story in the crime novel, the tragic spy thriller set in the fantasy novel etc can add depth to a tale that might otherwise feel too two-dimensional if forced to sit wholely trapped within a single convention.

Note, though, that all this still has to be true to you as a writer, to the story you believe in, or it will ring hollow and the reader – not to mention the sharp-eyed editor – will find you out. Genre is about much more than making sure you follow a few conventions. You have build it from the ground up. It will be reflected in the language you use, the world that you build, the characters you choose and their motivations, the plot itself and the interactions between the characters. It will be there in the rules you follow and it will be evident in the rules and conventions you break, the things you don’t show. While it’s true that some genres sell better than others, in the end it comes down to story. A good story told well will always sell better than a humdrum tale told half-heartedly.

What do you think? Should writers “write to fit” or just let the story flow as it will?

There has already been some discussion on this here: Kylie Mason: In Which I use the Words Genre and Convention (following the first Genre Cage Fight at Shearer’s) and here:  Zena Shapter: Should Genre Mean Something Special to You Or Not?


*Mostly they haven’t. Hands up those of you in the industry who have heard the old “but all fiction is speculative” line more than five times?

**Which may be news to the authors, editors and publishers I see online regularly discussing the genre using that term.

***Admittedly, said expert visibly cringed when discussing the wave of YA vampire fiction that was in the New York Times bestsellers list at the time and said he didn’t understand any of it, so perhaps not the most unbiased of opinions on that front…

****At this point I find it comforting, salient and, frankly, amusing to turn to Mitchell and Webb to illustrate this point with their series of screenwriter sketches, including this one which proves that you really will do better if you know and care about, for example, spy drama, rather than just making up what you think is required to fit the genre: Mitchell and Webb – Spy Service 
Fast Tube by Casper

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Diana Wynne Jones

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

It’s a sad and reflective time in the BW hovel today, with news that the great Diana Wynne Jones has passed away.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this author changed my life, though I never met her. Certainly she changed my reading habits, for though, as a child, I had already discovered fantasy through such books as Alice in Wonderland and the Chronicles of Narnia, it was Diana Wynne Jones who really brought my love of the genre to life. My devotion to her stories was enough for me to decide at quite a young age that one day I would not only work with books, but I would work with books just like these.

Diana Wynne Jones Books

My first DWJ was Charmed Life, given to me by a book-loving relative when I was somewhere around seven or eight years old. I fell head over heels from the first page and from then on my whole family ensured I was regularly supplied with a DWJ fix. This was not always easy, particularly during the dark days when so many of her works seemed to be out of print – sometimes my habit was fuelled with ancient, second-hand copies, the covers sticky and grimy with age. But I didn’t care. Only the stories inside mattered, and those were intact.

Later there were reprints as fantasy fell back into publishing-favour, and I quickly gathered up books I hadn’t even realised were missing from my collection. That same relative who’d gifted me with my first DWJ continued sending adult-me the latest releases when she came across them.

Meanwhile I’d found a more immediate source – a friend who worked at the local arm of DWJ’s publisher occasionally provided me with advance copies.

As an adult, I reread the books and marvel at the layers – the hidden themes and meaning (often so much darker and more serious than I ever realised as a child), the different historical and mythological elements that are woven into the various tales. But reading as a child it was the simple things I adored.

Despite having no interest in science, I wanted a chemistry set like the ones in The Ogre Downstairs. And I developed a peculiar fascination with matchbooks after reading Charmed Life and Eight Days of Luke. To this day, I get a little thrill every time I find one – so much more magical and olde worlde than a matchbox.

Of course, with Diana Wynne Jones books it is the very ordinariness mixed in with the magic and quirkiness that make them so special. There is something delightful in the notion that a powerful enchanter might use plain old stainless steel in place of the “proper” silver cutlery that cripples him. Jones’s heroes are nearly all ordinary people, complete with their own flaws and foibles, and while sometimes they perform magnificent feats, nine times out of ten, it’s their ordinary strength and wit and courage and mostly common sense that sees them through outlandish and twisted circumstances; staring down the most wicked, selfish, pompous and powerful villains. And usually, the hardest thing they have to overcome is not the wild and magical danger, but the very ordinary and human traits of doubt and fear of being humiliated.

Her books are things to be treasured but, I learned, shared sparingly and cautiously. Having once given a good friend a copy of Fire and Hemlock (my own best-beloved copy deemed far too precious to leave the house) I was horrified when she casually told me she’d thought it was ‘quite good’ but ‘a bit weird’. I loved my friend a tiny bit less after that faint praise and vowed never to chance Charmed Life on anyone unless I could be certain of appropriate levels of adoration.

In the online world I have since met hundreds of the millions of DWJ devotees out there. Now I find it commonplace to see blog discussions on the merits of Howl or stranded commuters tweeting requests to Hathaway for a bus.

What a wonderful legacy she has left us with. And how sad for everyone that she has left so soon.

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How to build worlds

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

When it comes to setting the scene in a book, everyone will tell you the worldbuilding is important. This is true no matter what sort of book you’re writing or which genre you’re writing in.

If you’re writing a fantasy novel, of course people tend to focus more closely on the worldbuilding since it is expected that you will be inventing new, make-believe worlds with your words. But it is just as important to create a believable world if you’re writing a memoir or autobiography: you have to recreate the world of your past, bring real people and landscapes to life for today’s reader.

Similarly, even if you’re working between these two extremes, creating a fictional story set in the real world, you still need to focus on piecing the foundations together. Things need to make sense. They must be believable and consistent and well-rounded. The biggest mistake a writer can make is to assume that their own knowledge or view of things is enough to for an entire world.* We all have our blind spots and biases, and these can easily be revealed in the worldbuilding if care isn’t taken.

The devil, they say, is in the details. They can make or break the story. As the author, by presenting the reader with your words, your vision, your world, you’re asking the reader to suspend disbelief and let go of this world to enter yours (even if the story is set in this world, and even if what they’re reading is “true” rather than fiction). So, you have to give them enough information to experience that world – and you have to maintain their interest in your world throughout the story.

Add enough detail and the world you have created is brought to life. Leave too much out and the entire story can seem shallow. Lose track of even the most insignificant-seeming fact and the entire plot can fall apart. **

Worldbuilding and the speculative fiction focus has already been mentioned. The skill it takes to create these fantastical places is widely recognised by fans of the genre. These authors are not just creating a land or planet complete with landscapes and townships, but also ecosystems, cultures, politics, language, magic – entirely different states of being. Ideally, everything that makes the world run on every level has to have been thought out as it affects every character and the way they interact with each other and the plot at large. The author needs to keep hold of every strand that they’ve used to weave this world together if they are to keep the reader convinced with every page they turn.

All this attention to detail gives a sense of realism to even the most incredible of tales. If the world works, the story works. But if some of the details feel off, if the worldbuilding isn’t strong enough, the whole story can come crashing down. Unless it is a plot point, nothing is more distracting than finding a character possessing skills or achieving feats that the very rules of the invented world insist should be impossible. A reader will snap out of a story in an instant if, for example, the shapeshifter who couldn’t touch metal in the first three books of a series is unharmed by several silver bullets in the fourth because the author forgot that particular clause.

Consistency and attention to detail is just as important in less fantastical novels. Action thrillers that otherwise show extreme attention to detail when it comes to science, technology and military power can fall apart if, for example, the political scenes depicting world leaders gathering to combat the major common threat (aliens, terrorists etc.) only show the US President and his security force in action – leaving out any further mention of the other supposedly powerful “leaders”.

Such a situation suggests the author has cribbed from US-centric Hollywood movies, rather than researching how global political leaders might react to crises. It doesn’t matter how convincing the aliens are, how believable the technology, or how tightly-written the gun-fights if the scenes most easily imagined in our world are the ones that are merely sketched over. Such a contrast in the level of detail is likely to pull the reader out of the story. It suggests a lack of authority and mastery on the author’s part and the mirage can be shattered.

Research, then, can be key to ensuring that details and your own narrow knowledge base don’t let you down. But there’s more to it than merely adding and enforcing those details. It’s not just about creating a world – you have to make it believable and it has to make sense.

If your world is different to ours in some way, if it breaks the laws of nature or physics, you might do well to familiarise yourself with the consequences of such a change. How would that affect day-to-day life? Geography? Trade? Buildings and cities? Education? Politics? Family life?

If you’re writing non-fiction, think about your audience and consider whether you’re writing about something that will be different for them – are you writing about a different time? A different country? Again, how is life different in that world to this one?

It’s also worth ensuring you’re familiar with the genre in which you write, even if (or especially if) you plan to break all the perceived rules of those who have written before you. It’s worth knowing in advance if the concepts and characters you think you have invented are actually featured heavily in World of Warcraft or bear an uncanny resemblance to a well-known Celtic myth, even if it is entirely coincidental. Whether or not these similarities are acknowledged in your world are themselves  important in the building.

* Unless you’re writing a dystopia. Or utopia, depending on ego size and confidence/tendency towards tyranny…

**Of course, add too much detail and you leave no blanks for the reader’s imagination to fill in. There’s a lot to be said for hinting at information. Worldbuilding doesn’t necessarily mean giving all the facts, figures and measurements of a world or city. That way page-skipping lies.

What are your tips for worldbuilding? And have you seen any major slip-ups? What pulls you out of a writer’s world?

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The stigma of working in fantasy

Friday, March 4th, 2011

A lot of authors talk about the stigma attached to being a genre writer. No matter how successful a fantasy writer may be, it’s likely they have at least once been scorned by people comparing their work to that of “literary” authors. Readers too may have aspersions cast upon them if their reading choice is of the paranormal persuasion rather than something considered “high-brow”.*

Thankfully, fellow authors and readers within these genres are very supportive of each other, but it’s not unusual to hear authors admit that they don’t always tell strangers what genre they write in, or for readers to confess to hiding their book jackets when reading on the bus.

It can be a similarly lonely path for the editor who specialises in fantasy/science fiction.

When I first professed my desire to edit speculative fiction, the reaction from fellow publishing friends was lukewarm to say the least.

When I put together an ad for my freelance editing services, some people even recommended I avoid mentioning that I had specialist knowledge or interest in this area as it was likely I would scare off potential clients and publishers who might otherwise have hired me.

Several years down the track and while I enjoy editing many different forms, fields and genres, a significant proportion of my work falls into the speculative fiction category, and I am proud and excited to work with some incredible FSF authors, editors and publishers.

I am not sure whether things have changed over time, or whether the rise of social media simply means that fellow geeks, speculative fiction readers, writers, editors and publishers have all found a safe place to congregate, but I don’t feel as though I need to hide my “niche” interests.

Most of the time.

While I have, of course, found fellow editors who share my passion, generally speaking I know that if I am in a room full of editors outside certain circles, finding one who also edits fantasy is likely to be tough. Often during these gatherings, fellow freelancers tell me that they “always refuse to edit that stuff”, because they “can’t stand it”.** One person even turned her back and walked away upon discovering I edited this subject matter, such was her dislike of and disinterest in the genre – though we’d been talking happily enough about editing in general up to that point.

Most of the time, if I don’t know the person I am talking to, I know it is easier say only that I edit books; fiction, if pressed. Or mention other subjects I work on. It seems to be considered much more acceptable (or should that be respectable?) to edit literary fiction, non-fiction, or government material than anything as low-brow (or “escapist”) as speculative fiction, romance or crime.

But why is this? The basic editing skills are the same; you still have to consider style, structure, continuity, spelling, grammar, punctuation and all those other things.
In addition, with fantasy you might have to stay on top of a made-up world, which means you have to “learn” the culture/s and language that are part of the worldbuilding without any resources to check for research. You have to ensure the rules that govern the language and the world itself make sense and “work”. It makes for some very lengthy style sheets and very odd author queries.

I can understand that as an editor, if you don’t enjoy reading fantasy, you may not want to take on the task of editing it. But what I don’t understand is how an editor can look askance at the genre when it is clear how much work an author has to put in to develop and write such detailed books.

This week I was lucky enough to attend a recording of a TV special on fantasy books. It was no surprise to see a good proportion of the program devoted to the stigma attached to the writing and reading of fantasy, and the authors had some great points to make – not least about the complexities involved in writing such works and the fact that fantasy is the biggest-selling genre in fiction.

Several pointed out that fantasy is actually sneaking onto the general fiction shelves without people noticing. And there are great literary works out there that are best-beloved in spec fic circles, though scholars and critics would never categorise them that way.

Perhaps things are looking up. The last time I went to a general editors’ meeting, the wary revelation of my speculative fiction tendencies was greeted with only mild surprise and resulted in a discussion about editing fiction. Could it be the stigma is fading?

*Of course this impression is not restricted to FSF. Romance writers and readers (and presumably therefore their editors) get the same treatment. I remember a colleague once telling the office that she and a friend had decided to try and write a Mills and Boon, believing it would be very simple. They’d given up, having (unsurprisingly) found it was harder than it looked…

**I could argue that a lot of people don’t really understand what fantasy is – it’s not all dragons and wizards! But not liking FSF is fair enough. Not everyone likes crime novels either. Or romance. Or <gasp> literary fiction. (Whatever “literary fiction” means. Feel free to insert your own rant or vodcast of your interpretive dance on THAT topic in the comments…)

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Fact-checking across the universe

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

One of the things I love about my job is the information-gathering aspect. I love snaffling up little factoids and random pearls of wisdom, which is just as well, because at times the task of editing falls squarely in the realm of fact checking.

In this case, it helps to love research.*

How much fact-checking a particular job may entail depends upon a great many things. Not least are the subject matter and genre, the style of publication, the expectations of author and publisher and, let’s not forget, the budget and deadline.

Different publications work in different ways and may have entirely different expectations. I have worked for magazines where the fact-checking portion of the sub-editing role could take days for a single travel article, such was the accuracy required. I would spend hours checking map books and atlases, perusing the internet, and finally on the phone to hotels overseas (in different time zones, speaking to people whose first language was certainly not English) confirming: the transfer vehicle was a coach and it was blue, the precise direction it took from the airport (including road names), the colour of the marble in the hotel foyer, the time at which the towels were put on the sun lounges around the pool, and the kinds of cocktails available in a bar.

And no, I am not exaggerating.

This contrasted mightily with a stint at a major newspaper, where I expected similar levels of checking would be necessary. Here timing was everything and journalists were assumed to have been correct in all details. In this particular department, sub-editors were not encouraged to check anything but major facts or obvious potential errors.

Books are different again.

The fact-checking element is slipped in wherever timing allows and is different probably for every book, never mind for every editor or publisher. And there are always facts to be checked, no matter how fantastical a tale the author has woven.

While non-fiction and academic works have obvious fact-checking requirements, I have edited crime novels that, for me, meant checking Tube stops and car park locations**, never mind murder techniques (and yes, I check those too, but not Dexter-style). I have researched Ninja weaponry on a surprising number of occasions*** as well as helicopter treads. I edit fantasy, which means ensuring that facts hold up within invented worlds – sometimes this means tracking back through an entire series to make sure the magic works as it should. And yes, I mean facts, as opposed to consistency; a subtle difference.

At the end of all this, my brain is usually bursting with information, none of which is any use to anyone, except possibly the author, who already knows far more about the topic anyway. I forget all of it before I can use it at a trivia night and nine times out of ten, everything was perfectly accurate in the first place.

But this is another one of those invisible jobs an editor does. Next time you pick up something to read, even if it’s just a quick flick through a magazine article, remember, not only did the author pour his or her heart and soul into the words on the page, but at least one editor probably spent countless hours double-checking the facts as well as the spelling.

*It is, admittedly, less helpful to get so involved in a topic that you veer off entirely and become, for one week only, a self-described expert on 16th century building materials when you only needed to know whether it was acceptable for an author to use that word once as a passing reference.

** All hail Google maps! (And, indeed, the interwebs in general.)

*** Seriously, when you combine some of the things I have had to research over time, I have to wonder if I am on a watch list somewhere. Although I am probably in good company, since I am checking other people’s work.

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