Spotlight on SFF Editing with Teresa Edgerton and Richard Shealy

So you’ve finally finished that shiny first draft of your novel. Or maybe it’s not your first draft, but your tenth, and you’ve already submitted it to several places and the rejections are piling up. Perhaps you have no intention of submitting it anywhere, but have chosen to self-publish instead. Whatever your reasons, there comes a point in the process where beta readers and peer critiques can only get you so much further. And eventually you start listening to the whispers that say, “Get thee to an editor.”

There are many different facets to a novel’s post-production, and editing is a crucial step toward publication. Two important sides of this particular coin are developmental editing, which handles the wider plot issues such as ideas, story flow, pacing, characters, and other ‘big-picture’ aspects; and copyediting, which takes the micro rather than the macro view, and will not only check your spelling and punctuation but comb the details for inconsistencies. If you are traditionally published your publishing house will handle all this for you. If you are going it alone, you’ll be in charge of deciding who gets to do these things and how much outside help to bring in.

Online, I frequently see people asking about editing, and there seems to be a lot of confusion about what it entails. So I’ve invited two guests to explain a little more about this rather mysterious and often underappreciated side of the writing process.

In the developmental corner, fantasy author and freelance editor Teresa Edgerton is here to share her expertise. She has nine novels published under her own name, and two more under the pen name Madeline Howard. These include The Rune of Unmaking duology (Harper Collins, 2004-2007) and the Mask & Dagger duology (Ace, 1991 and revised edition by Tickety Boo Press, 2014-2015). Teresa has taught numerous workshops and writing classes, and has worked as a developmental editor for many years. Currently she juggles her freelance work with her own writing, and has just accepted a third role, as editor for a brand new speculative romance imprint, Venus Ascending at Tickety Boo Press.

In the copyeditor’s corner is Science Fiction and Fantasy specialist Richard Shealy. With dozens and dozens of books under his belt, Richard has worked with many top present-day SFF authors including Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, Aidan Moher, and Laura Anne Gilman. After doctoral work in linguistics, Richard taught French and English and worked for years as a translator before dipping his toe into editorial work. Now he works both for established publishing houses, such as Tor and Hachette, and for independent authors, editing a variety of genres although his main focus tends to be speculative fiction.

Juliana: Welcome Teresa and Richard. Could you start by sharing what led you to begin working with editing? And why specialize in speculative fiction?

Richard: I’ve been a lifelong reader of SF/F; I quite literally cannot recall a time when I did not read it. I’ve also been an equally longtime word nerd; it’s just a mindset where I absorb and analyze linguistic aspects subconsciously, hence the eventual realization that I liked linguistics enough to do grad work in it. As a result, I’ve always had a bit of a twitchy reaction when seeing glaring multiple errors in a published genre book, so when it finally came to my conscious attention that there was a profession where 1) I could read SF/F all day, 2) point out the warts on other people’s babies and 3) get paid for those, I couldn’t sign up fast enough!

Teresa: Editing is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I can’t remember exactly when and why I decided it was finally time to make the leap into freelance editing.

I started editing for Tickety Boo Press because Gary Compton, the publisher, asked me to, and offered me two manuscripts to work on that I thought would be exciting to do: Jo Zebedee’s space opera, Abendau’s Heir, and Susan Boulton’s Gaslight fantasy, Oracle. Two very different books, but I’d edited all sorts of speculative fiction as a freelancer, so in that way it was what I had been doing all along, and the concepts and particularly the characters intrigued me. Both Jo and Sue were a pleasure to work with.

Then Gary and I thought up Venus Ascending together, an imprint to publish science fiction and fantasy romance, and it was his idea that I would be heading up the imprint as well as acquiring and editing the manuscripts. I am thrilled at the opportunity.

Why speculative fiction? Because it’s what I know, since most of my reading for many years has been fantasy and science fiction, and because it is what I write. I feel that I have more to offer speculative fiction writers than other editors might. I understand the genres and sub-genres, and I’ve educated myself on a lot of things, researched many subjects that are relevant to the fantasy especially and that often come up in the manuscripts I edit.

Juliana: Would you mind giving us a quick breakdown of what your job as an editor involves, from the moment you receive a new manuscript to delivery of completed work?  

Teresa: When working on a manuscript I have two goals: to help the writer make that particular story the best that it can be, and to do so in such a way that it will also help the author to improve his or her writing skills. Part of it is teaching as well as editing.

I do developmental editing, concentrating on the big issues like plot, characterization, style, world-building (which is where some of my research often comes in), pacing. I leave the grammar and punctuation, the word usage and the like to the copy editors.

I read through the manuscript making notes as I go, addressing problems as they come up: an expository lump, an out of character action, a mixed metaphor, and so forth. I used to print up hardcopy and make my notes in pencil, then translate my scribbles into something more coherent as I typed my remarks and suggestions into the manuscript file. Now I save paper and ink by sending the manuscript to my Kindle and reading it that way, highlighting anything that catches my attention and making my pencil notes in a composition book. From there, the process is the same as it used to be. Then I write a separate, in-depth and wide-ranging assessment of the book, covering everything I think is of particular importance to that particular manuscript. I make a lot of suggestions for improving the story, and I explain why I think a change ought to be made. If I can help them to understand why, they are more likely to come up with their own solutions, which is the best possible outcome. I send all that to the author and they can decide how much of it they want to take on board. If the author has questions, I answer them, but I’ve done my best, I have no responsibility for what the writer chooses to do with the manuscript after that.

When editing a manuscript for Tickety Boo Press, I do have a responsibility for the end result, so there may be more than one editing pass, working with the author to find satisfactory solutions — ideally more than satisfactory to us both — to any remaining problems. Because I have a responsibility to the publisher to produce the best possible result, I’d say I am more vigorous in presenting my suggestions, and I hope more persuasive.

With the new imprint, where I will be responsible for choosing the manuscripts as well… we’ll see how that process evolves.

Richard: While this varies from client to client and even project to project, there’s a general workflow that obtains. As a freelancer, I get queries from potential or repeat clients—“Can you do a project of X number of words by Y date?”—and can usually juggle my schedule enough to fit it in somewhere (although, too often, I’m booked solid throughout the entire set of possible dates for the client; this is not said to brag but to bemoan the tragedy of being physically unable to copyedit everything!).

Once I’m able to turn to the project, I start a style sheet (contains general and work/author-specific grammatical/typographic/etc. preferences, a list of characters, places, preferred variant spellings, invented words/phrases and so on—partly as a bit of a cheat sheet for myself to confirm spellings and such while I work but also to provide the client with a definitive list of observations, as they may, when seeing a word/phrase/name out of context, decide that they want to modify it). If I know the author personally, I give them a heads-up before diving in that I may have questions/concerns to bounce off them as I work; this is a huge time-saver for both me and the author in the end, as it keeps unnecessary modifications or stets from being needed. Most authors I’ve encountered are actually quite happy about this, as a short query in a margin comment may not actually raise the question that needs to be raised, and an ongoing dialogue works around that and ends up producing a more-informed copyedit.

During the work itself, it’s fairly simple: read, verify (spellings, fact-checking, internal consistency/continuity, grammatical tendencies and the like), SAVE SAVE SAVE. Just like authors, I live in paranoid fear of a crash that eats everything I’ve done, and nobody gets paid for redoing work! This can be a low-key or terribly intensive step, depending on how familiar I already am with subject matter, terminology, etc. At any rate, once I reach the end, I double-check for certain things (belt and suspenders, thank you very much!), then finalize the style sheet and invoice, create an edit letter (occasionally, there are issues broad enough that they bear making a clear heads-up for the client) and send the whole shebang.

Juliana: What do you find are the most common misconceptions about your work?

Teresa: That my services are very, very expensive. That it matters whether my style as a writer matches theirs in any way. I’m not there to teach them to write like I do, but to write like themselves, consistently, to help them find their own voice if they haven’t already, and encourage them to write with all the power and eloquence that is already inside them. But most writers who come to me have no real expectations, they wait for me to tell them what I do and don’t do. Then they decide if that is what they want. There are a few who have had bad experiences with previous editors who charged them a great deal of money and did practically nothing. Those writers tend to be wary.

Richard: That there are rigid rules for language. Language in general is a messy thing; English takes that standard and wallows in it until utterly filthy. Then add artistic and even poetic (authors who like to appeal to spoken language in their writing make what is simultaneously the most rewarding and most frustrating kind of project!) aspects, and the rules get trampled into the mud by necessity. As a result, much of the copyediting process is a juggling act between perceived/accepted rules and the artistic intent of the author, not to mention trying to predict what the typical reader is going to extract from those. 

Juliana: What is your favorite part of the process? And, conversely, what do you find to be the most difficult aspect of the job? 

Richard: As I said above, the best part of this work is the ability to 1) read SF/F all day, 2) pick nits and 3) get paid for doing both of those! The most difficult part arises from that first point: I got into this racket precisely because I wanted to help make genre work just that little bit better, so there’s a constant level of uncertainty regarding whether I have, in fact, correctly divined the author’s intent on a multitude of items and caught all of the inevitable errors, typos, slip-ups and such. To illustrate this: I was recently praised (publicly!) by a client for catching so many of those, yet what was foremost in my mind even then was the fact that I had not caught all of them. I want to do the best job possible, so the inevitability of missing something still sticks in my craw. And it is inevitable; there is no such thing as a perfect copyediting pass. This still troubles me, probably far more than it should, but there it is.

Teresa: My favorite part is when the author takes one of my suggestions, gives it their own special spin, and comes up with something that surprises and excites us both.

The most difficult aspect is when they think the book is one quick draft away from being publishable when the fact is that they don’t even know all the writing basics yet, and I am the one who has to tell them this as tactfully as possible.

Juliana: I know you’re both actively involved in the SFF world, online (social media, internet forums) and in person (convention and event participation). Do you also read a lot? And how important is genre involvement in your line of work? 

Teresa: I read a lot. Since I am more or less housebound much of the time I have the opportunity to do a lot of reading, and I take advantage of that by devouring dozens of books a year. As for genre involvement, SFF readers, writers, editors, and publishers have always been a community, probably dating from the days when most speculative fiction was published in pulp magazines, first a tight-knit little community, but expanding with the growth of science fiction conventions, and later with the internet. But at every stage it has been a supportive community of generous individuals, happy to share their enthusiasms, their time, and their knowledge. Why wouldn’t I want to be involved? Of course there are occasionally controversies, some of them quite bitter, because people really care about the genre, it’s not just a way of making money, and feelings run high. So far I’ve avoided getting too deep into these controversies, so my experiences have almost all been good.

Richard: Paradoxically, I think I read less now than before I began this work (although that’s the difference between a category 4 hurricane and a category 5). I can copyedit roughly a novel a week, so “me-reading” is necessarily when I’m taking a break or during the evenings and weekends…but I stop the pleasure reading when there’s too much interference (too-similar subgenres, characters, plot or even authorial voice), as I don’t want to risk cross-contamination between the two. As a result, I’ve been known to suspend pleasure reading for a week or two.

As for genre involvement, those are essential to my work. On the most basic level, much of the decision-making in the aforementioned juggling act of writing vs. rules comes from decades of absorption of genre standards, the things that are so essential to genre fiction that the typical genre reader isn’t even consciously aware of them but is nonetheless expecting them. So, reading truly is fundamental…but being involved in the public side of genre is becoming just as fundamental, as it brings to light a number of those aspects. And let’s not forget the pragmatic (even mercenary) side: getting to know the players in genre means 1) I begin to have a better idea of their attitudes, their thought processes and other things that contribute to the on-site decisions made during copyedits and 2) exposure. Think about that latter: when a potential client is looking for a new copyeditor, it pays to have been visible to as many industry people as possible (“Hey, there’s this one guy who seemed not to be too stupid and wasn’t a truly intolerable twit” can get you work, folks!). Still, for me, the biggest personal payoff in being involved is that I’m as immersed as I can be in something I love and improving how well I do my work. That’s something you can’t buy.

Juliana: Following on from the last question, what advice would you give to those just starting a career in editing? 

Richard: Read! And pay attention to what you’re reading! For a copyeditor, it’s obvious that knowing the rules (in fiction publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style reigns supreme) is a (not the) sine qua non of being able to do the job, but knowing when, how and why the author can or even should bend or outright ignore those rules…well, that’s at least just as important, and possibly vastly more so.

And then get out there. Engage with people in the community: authors, naturally, but also editors, publishers, publicists, illustrators and so on. Knowing the field, as I’ve said, is potentially even more useful than knowing the rules in both the execution of your work and possibly getting more of it!

Teresa: Make sure you are prepared. If you don’t have years of critiquing in writer’s groups, haven’t attended workshops, or haven’t had any professional experience in book publishing, then the fact that you were, for instance, an English major in college counts for nothing. Your involvement in writing, one way or another, should have been intensive. And then, if you specialize in specific genres, know those genres very well.

Juliana: Which science fiction and fantasy authors – past or present – would you have loved to work with?

Teresa: With my favorite authors, all I see is the finished result, so I don’t know how much input the editor had, how that writer was to work with. But I suppose I would have loved to work with some of them just because it would have been fun to get to know them, and find out more about how their minds work, what inspires them, by what process that turns into such wonderful stories. So I would say Patricia McKillip, Tanith Lee (I did have the opportunity to do an interview with her a few years ago, and the way stories just seemed to well up out of her was fascinating. I would have liked to learn more), Robin McKinley, Tom Holt because I am intrigued by the books he writes as K. J. Parker.

Richard: Are you kidding? All of them. I’m not joking. I’m still relatively new to this field (I’ve been doing this professionally for under three years), but I’ve already been remarkably fortunate to have worked with an amazing variety of writing and writers (read: people). That aspect is so richly personally rewarding that I want MORE, and I see no reason whatsoever to be terribly picky about where that “more” comes from. I want to COPYEDIT ALL THE THINGS!

Juliana: Thank you both very much for taking part, and for giving us a fascinating peek at what goes on behind the editing curtain. 

Check out Richard Shealy’s website, http://sffcopyediting.com, where he does a much better job of explaining his line of work than I ever could. Richard is active on Twitter, both as @SheckyX and @SFFCopyediting, and you can also find him on Facebook either as shecky.exbetai or SFFCopyediting.

Look for more information on Teresa Edgerton’s work as a writer and editor at http://teresaedgertoneditor.com, as well as lots of great blog posts with writing advice. You can find Teresa on Twitter @TGoblinPrincess, and she is also a regular on the SFF Chronicles forum.

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out October’s Spotlight on Cover Art with Aty S. Behsam and Gary Compton. Next up in December: Spotlight on Mythology in Fantasy.

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