Being an Editor

When you haven’t had to look for a job in over a decade, you forget quite how much time it takes up. While I stomp both the online and physical streets of London’s publishing industry, and try to make money via freelance editing, Pile o’ Books is wanting of attention.

So while I gather the brain power and time to write about Salinger, here is a small scrap of a link that might be of interest as it discusses the kinds of things I do, and the thoughts which consume my mind, when I’m not tapping out this blog. This article on editing, Stet By Me: Thoughts on Editing Fiction, by Australian book editor Mandy Brett, is one of the best pieces on ‘being an editor’ that I have read in a long time.


New Year Treats

If asked for phrases which describe the majority of book editors,’technologically enlightened’ and ’embracers of change’ wouldn’t spring to the mind of most. It’s harsh criticism and a notion I think is scattered about too breezily. Book editors need to be calm, organised, consistent, focussed people—and if that leads to a group personality which sometimes seems a mite studious and traditional, then so be it; would you really want to read books edited by a haphazard flibbertigibbet without a sense of language and form?

Peoplekind in general aren’t fans of disruptions to their regular programming; there are photographers who feel that the soul of their art is in film, mechanics who want to hear only a V8 engine, chefs who wish molecular gastronomy had never raised its foamy head. The people involved in the making of creative products are often not in as much of a rush for advancement of ‘the technology’ as the consumers who want to feast on it. But they get there, and usually after a great deal more consideration than those who just want to fork over some cash and sync up.

I am not innocent of stone throwing; I have complained of editorial counterparts being dull and stuck in their ways, and I believe that the book industry as a whole has taken some time to come around to the notion of digital publishing. But the thing which is not enough expressed is how excited many book-people are about the future of publishing and book-making; whatever that future may involve. For proof one only needs to potter about my company’s headquarters and take note of those who asked for an e-reader for Christmas, are borrowing one of the company’s devices to trial it, are organising concurrent publishing of a p-book and its e-book, who let out a little squeal when a box containing an ordered reading-gadget lands on their desk. My boss is one of that rare breed who doesn’t own a mobile phone, but she bought herself a Kindle for Christmas and she loves it, loves it, loves it. So take note: editors may be bespectacled, cardigan-wearing, pencil-wielding wordsmiths who are attached to making things out of paper, but that doesn’t mean we don’t dig new stuff as well.

With travel on my mind, this little editor and book-blogger ordered a Kindle today. And I’m darn excited. Mind you, I buy/borrow/beg so many paper books, imagine what I’m going to be like when I can simply download the e-books I’d really like to read… One day… When I have time. I can see it now: a pile of p-books that actually sit in piles, and a pile of e-books cascading on the screen of a virtual library. It will definitely be a convenience when globe-wandering,  though I don’t know which way I’ll end up leaning. I still prefer to own a CD than download mp3s, and I imagine that I’ll prefer to own an actual book than a e-file—but preference is one thing, what you end up using every day is another.

I await the yet to be invented e-reader which displays on a rear screen a copy of the cover of the book you are reading—to help book-loving souls sate their curiosity of what others are reading, to facilitate conversations between book-nerds, to show off on the train. Yet a positive of existent e-readers I had not considered was recently discussed in the New York Times (with thanks to the colleague who alerted me to this): Sometimes you don’t want others to know what you’re reading. Whether it’s a trashy romance, the biography of a conservative politician you claim not to vote for, an airport novel by an author you have previously derided in public, the e-reader allows you to enjoy these biblio-indulgences in hypocritical and lowbrow privacy. Not that I think you should be ashamed of what you choose to spend your personal reading-time doing, but just in case you do anyway. Last year a friend of mine wrapped in paper the cover of the Robert Pattinson biography she was reading, so that she could eat lunch at a cafe free of embarrassment. An e-reader would have saved her the trouble and associated angst. Though I would not have found it as amusing.

The way we publish, purchase and read books is changing. And I suppose I’ve just joined the revolution. Or at least suggested I may join the revolution if I like it well enough. (Leaders of revolutions are ok with this lack of decision-making, right?) I suppose, though, when I download my first potentially-embarrassing title in the privacy of my wifi and read it by the light of my electronic ink, there will be no anonymity of e-reading for me, for surely I will post about it here for all to giggle at. Or will I…?

E is for Editing

Chicago is some folks’ kind of town (the Blues, Obama, deep dish pizza…) and The Chicago is my kind of style guide* – there’s some swot editorial dagginess for you. Trust me, book editors everywhere are sniggering over their cappuccinos right now.

I warn you that posting on our ‘E’ book, The Subversive Copyeditor: Advice from Chicago by Carol Fisher Saller, may result in your humble blogger ranting about her job and the annoying questions people ask when you tell them you’re a book editor, so for all our sakes let’s get four things out of the way:

1. Yes, I read a lot.

2. No, my job does not solely involve reading and correcting spelling.

3. No, I can’t help you get your book published.

4. Yes, my job is interesting, I do love it, the pay is awful and no, I still can’t help you get your book published.

I hope we all feel better now. But why oh why am I blogging about a book most of you aren’t going to have any interest in reading? Well, isn’t that just the great thing about books? There are tomes for every taste and interest and knowledge-need out there, and though this particular title may seem a little overly specific for most, what I want to write about is that wonderful ability of certain books to do a wondrous thing for their readers – to teach, inspire and make them feel like they’re not alone.

Editing can be a lonely job. I work with a team of wonderful editors but the work itself is often solitary, taking a lot of concentration and ‘quiet time’. It can be a job of all responsibility and worry, yet no power or glory. But it can also be a job of immense pleasure – creative, collaborative, nurturing, challenging, enjoyable, educational and edifying. A well-edited book is a triumph of organisation, language-wrangling, consistency, understanding, specialised knowledge, relationship-building, hard work, a graceful mind and careful hand, talent, ability, design, structure, decision-making, time  management, whimsy and a little luck. And Fisher Saller ‘gets’ all this and so for your blogging little black editing duck it makes The Subversive Copyeditor a winner.

Fisher Saller is an editor speaking to editors in a knowledgable and entertaining way about their craft. And that doesn’t happen very often. (After all, we may be the ones who make the books, but we don’t write them. It’s like writing a book for the stage manager instead of the leading performers.) I don’t know if this scenario is also the case for other professions. Maybe the shelves at engineering firms practically groan with entertaining and inspirational dusty tomes on bridge-building and urban structures (apologies, I’ve never been quite clear about what engineers ‘do’), maybe there’s a pocket-sized book on how to get more out of being a caterer that hairnet-wearing cooks the world over like to carry around in their aprons. I imagine, though, that all of us are a little lacking in well-written books that talk to us about what we do. What I do know is that even if you are someone who is passionate about their ‘job’, who has a craft, a philosophy on why they do what they do, who can, honestly, most of the time, tell people you love your job, you still need a little inspiration now and then, a voice in the dark that says ‘I know what you do, I know what you worry about and I have some ideas on how you can make it better’.

I’m not trying to sound like a born-again publishing professional. The Subversive Copyeditor is a great little book full of tips, advice, knowledge and a good dose of editorial humour (trust me, we’re a very funny people). But it is just that, a little book. It’s not going to change anyone’s world, but it may help its target readership do their jobs a little bit better, it may help remind them in those stressful, overworked, unappreciated times why they do what they do, and why it really is a pretty awesome job.  I recommend it to editors and proofreaders, I recommend it to writers and wannabe-writers who want to know more about ‘editing’ and book-making, I’d like to hand it out to all those people I meet at barbecues who think I just sit in an armchair and read all day.  

I hope there are books like this out there for engineers and caterers, mechanics and zookeepers. We spend so much of our lives at work it’s nice to like your job. It’s even nicer if you can indulge every now and then in a literary ‘discussion’ with someone who ‘gets’ it, you and why you do what you do. We all need a little inspiration and guidance now and then and The Subversive Copyeditor provided that for me.

* A style guide is a reference book editors use to make decisions about consistency of language style in a manuscript. It covers everything from how to deal with numbers, to capitalisation, foreign words, colloquialisms, referencing and more and more. The Chicago Manual of Style is a well-known and much-used style guide.

Book 35: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Back when Pile o’ Books was trundling its virtual suitcase through the glory of Canada, I promised to one day praise the golly-gosh fantabulousness of my book group. And as we hurtle past the tinsel-end of the year the time has come!

Book groups can conjure a loungeroom of soccer mums floating in sav blanc and complaining about their husbands, their barely cracked open copies of the chosen novel serving as coasters and foot rests as they use this legitimate excuse to have some time on their own as an opportunity to get stuff off their chest. And that’s fine. Good luck to them and I hope one day they get around to finishing Middlesex, because it’s a bloody great book. But I’m a book person. Perhaps even a Book Person. And I want to talk about books at book group; the book we’ve all read (at least some of), the other books I’m reading, the things I’ve never read, the authors others adore whom I’ve barely heard of. I want a free-wheeling discussion where hands are waggled around and people grip their neighbour’s arm in agreeance, where folk lean over their laps to counter a claim of brilliance or hilarity, where cheese and quince paste bobble off crackers during an exclaimed character assessment – ‘And what about when he…!’ Where people are so enthralled with the words on the page that they quote from their books, where others jot down the name of an author or title on a little notepad, so contagious is someone else’s passion for them. 

Because I work in the book world I’m surrounded by the mechanics of book-making every day, I am limited in the books I can get all excited about, because I can only focus on so many as a part of my job. Often I know of a book because a colleague is having a challenging time with its production, or because the design department has made some pretty posters that have been hung in the stairwell. It can be difficult working in the world which envelops one of your passions. If you let it you can become worn down and jaded about the very thing which attracted you in the first place. This isn’t the case for me, I love the world I work in, but sometimes sitting down to read can take on the feeling of a chore, it can fly you back to your cubicle and that over-piled shelf with the slight bend in it, and those other books you should be doing something about. Having something like a book group with like-minded folk helps maintain my passion for reading and storytelling when the craft of bookmaking is weighing too heavily on my literary heart.

This outing’s book was A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore and once again, it was a book I probably would never have read if it wasn’t for book group. Other books which fit this category and I ended up loving include Fugitive Pieces and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I can’t say I love this most recent choice like I have loved others, but there was a lot about it that I liked and which I was impressed by – from a writing and storytelling point of view – and I’m glad I’ve read it and would like to read more of Ms Moore’s work.

Why is my book group so wonderful? I think it’s because of the enthusiastic, articulate,  interesting people, who thoroughly enjoy discussing what they have read and what they thought about it; how the reading experience made them feel; what they learned and the directions in reading (and life) this one book has pointed them in. A fearless leader helps too, and the woman who organises our get-togethers is a star, and one of the most well-read people I know, and possibly the most articulate when it comes to discussing all things book. And it’s the word ‘discussion’ which is key I think. It’s a human requirement to be able to sit with one’s fellows and verbally explore the things that concern us, that have happened to us, that we plan for the future, what we have in common and what we don’t – it may be less about sabre-toothed tigers these days, and more about characterisation, comma usage and the pros and cons on Americans writing about September 11 (at least in our book group) but it’s still a bunch of folk meeting to discuss that which is relevant to them and which affects their beings. 

I so look forward to book group and I always leave feeling happy and upright, intellectually stimulated, relaxed, and all gung-ho and in love with the written word. Storytelling makes the world go round. And being able to tell stories about the storytelling is just as fun.