In Praise of editors: an interview with Lin Webb, Senior Editor, Bluemoose Books.

My new book, Saving Lucia, is out on 30th of April with Bluemoose books. My editor there has been Lin Webb and I have so enjoyed working with her. Look what we made, as part of a team at Bluemoose.

It occurred to me it would be fun to interview Lin, reflecting on the editing process for me, but also because I knew she would be full of advice and ideas and we thought these things might be really useful for a new writer – or perhaps any writer. I have asked her both general and specific questions, including those to highlight the particular challenges we faced on my own book. Finally, I wanted to draw attention to the role of an editor on a book. They are vital and you can learn so much. There is a degree of self-editing you do when preparing your manuscript for submission – and I hope you may find tips for this stage if that is where you are now – but when that book is accepted it is the skill of the editor which brings it to press: they see things that, perhaps, you do not and, with a firm hand if necessary, your book has a chance to be polished; to shine. It is vital, therefore, that you work with and not against them. I have had a few rocky writing and publishing experiences to date and I am sure most people do, but working with Lin has restored a sense of fun and self-belief, too: I will always be grateful to her. You will see, also, that Lin shows you how she is part of a team, for example referring to going back to Kevin and Hetha at Bluemoose and particularly Hetha (another very experienced editor as well as co-director of the press) on the thorny issue of punctuation in this particular book. Now that brought us to some tremulous then rather wonderful changes…read on.

TEN QUESTIONS WITH LIN WEBB, SENIOR EDITOR AT BLUEMOOSE, DRUMMER, WOODWORKER, AND ALL-ROUND GOOD EGG.

What do you enjoy most about editing?

I enjoy the whole process: familiarising myself with the text, getting onto the writer’s wavelength, and working with them to shape, smooth and polish their manuscript. Seeing the book go out into the world buffed up to a shine is deeply satisfying.

Building a rapport with ‘my’ authors is a bonus which enhances the editing process and has led to some lasting friendships. I’m very fortunate in working for a small, independent publisher that adopts writers into the Bluemoose ‘family’. The editor/writer relationship can be very different, depending on the context. Some editors make only two or three passes through the manuscript; I‘ll go through it dozens of times, getting to know the work as well as the writer does. The big publishing houses employ different editors for each level of editing, whereas I’m likely to see the work through from start to finish, albeit with back-up from other editors if needed and fresh eyes at the proof-reading stage. I believe that this makes for a better experience for the author, as well as a satisfying one for me.

Could you describe any particular challenges for you as an editor? That is, in general terms, what are the trickiest things about editing a book?

The aim of editing is to make the book the best possible version of itself (while preserving the author’s voice, of course), but some authors think that their book is already the best it can be and may be resistant to cutting or changing any of their carefully-chosen words. If I say that a sentence is unclear or over-complex and the writer retorts, ‘That’s just your opinion’ or ‘Nobody else has complained’, I know it’s going to be an uphill struggle at first. Eventually, one hopes, they will accept that I’m working on behalf of their readers, as well as with the writer and for the publisher, and become more receptive to suggestions for improvement.

As an editor of some years’ experience, might you comment on pitfalls for authors – perhaps about structure of narrative? I understand that there is a degree of subjectivity here!

One of the most common pitfalls is cramming in too much information too soon: an interesting opening is followed by a surfeit of explanation and a history lesson. The writer needs to know all the back-story, but readers need a lot less detail, and the essential elements should be dished out in small helpings.

Do you have any pet hates? Appalling things that your authors do. For example, sloppy speech punctuation, non-English words placed in italics, strange crimes against apostrophes – you name it!

I do wish that writers would check their default language setting in Word and change it, if necessary, from US to UK English before they start on their manuscript. I can change the submitted work to UK English, but I have to spend time checking for US spellings and punctuation differences. My other pet peeve is finding that writers have moved to a new page for a new chapter by pressing Enter repeatedly. (Anna’s note: WHO WOULD DO SUCH A THING?) This means that any changes to the text will move the start of the chapter, so I have to go through and delete the multiple returns and insert page breaks instead. If writers know how to insert page breaks, it saves my time for more important editor-y matters.

Other than these time-sinks, I don’t have a problem with people’s peculiarities of punctuation, spelling or grammar – although I’m sometimes surprised by new strange crimes against apostrophes.

Any advice for writers in terms of looking back critically at your own manuscript? Tips and things to watch out for?

Reading your work aloud is invaluable, as Nicola Morgan explains in Write to be Published (which I highly recommend). As well as listening for errors and repetitions, she says: ‘I imagine that my audience consists of a group of potential readers who would far rather be doing something else. My job is to hold them there. So, I’m honing my prose to ensure that each sentence, phrase and word works hard. If it doesn’t, it goes.’

Reading aloud is also the best way of checking that your dialogue sounds natural and that the speech tags aren’t obtrusive. There’s no need for variations like ‘he gruffed’. Some writers worry about using ‘said’ too often, but readers barely notice it. A further benefit of reading aloud is to hear the rhythm of the phrasing, plus the variations in sentence length and construction. Or the lack of rhythm and variations.

Beware of over-writing! It gets in the way of the story and covers the beauty of it with frilly bits. Over-descriptive passages can give an inflated idea of the significance of a place or person in the story; over-written description can also tempt the reader to skip past it. Look very closely at paragraphs you’re particularly pleased with and ask yourself if they could be improved by judicious pruning. Have you overdone the adjectives or the adverbs?

Might you tell us about highlights of your editing career – other than the fun we have had together and the fact that SL* is your favourite Bluemoose title to date? (*Joking.)

The highlights depend on when you ask me, since it’s always the most recent project. Every writer is different, every book is different, and with each one I learn something new; each one feels like the best so far. So yes, at the moment you and Saving Lucia are my favourites…

May I ask you about my own book, Saving Lucia, and a little specific insight here? What were the challenges you and I faced as we worked on this book, would you say?

It was important to ensure that the book is accessible to readers who, like me, aren’t familiar with the work of Joyce and/or Beckett, without losing the essence of it, leaving the influences visible to those in the know.

We had to rein in your fondness for obscure words, didn’t we? I think it’s ok to use unusual words as long as they don’t bring the reader to a halt, and if the context permits readers to bypass the unfamiliar words and look them up later. Repetition is not recommended, though. Another challenge was that there were so many passages in foreign languages that it looked rather like showing off. We had to cut those back.

Still on Saving Lucia, what about decisions we made on the book – for example, things we were hesitant about but pleased with later?

We ran into problems with nested single and double quotation marks when, for example, Lucia was reporting Violet’s telling of Bertha’s story, which included quotations. It looked messy, especially where closing speech marks were clustered. I asked Hetha’s advice and she suggested cutting out some of the quotation marks. I’ve never been in favour of unconventional punctuation, and it went against the grain for you, too, but we agreed to give it a try. Cutting away one level of speech marks made the pages a lot cleaner and, while I was going through the proof and finding strays that I’d missed, I started to wonder if we could get away with removing them all. Greatly daring, I marked up all the remaining quotation marks for deletion and tweaked the text slightly where necessary. When the typesetter sent the fresh proofs back, I was stunned at how much better it all flowed and I emailed it to you with a warning to take off your English teacher hat. Your unexpectedly enthusiastic response was a great relief, I must admit. I don’t think either of us expected the punctuation change to improve the book so much. Hetha and Kevin are also pleased with the finished result.

What next for Lin?

I’m editing Heidi James’s new book, The Sound Mirror, which will be out later this year.

And finally, tell us about books you like to read?

I like humour: I have lots of books by Patrick Campbell, Alan Coren, Bill Bryson, Carl Hiaasen and Terry Pratchett; only one by Brian Bilston, as yet. I hadn’t realised it before, but my fiction bookshelves are full of strong female characters, from Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise collection andAlexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Detective Agency series, via Sue Grafton’s ‘Alphabet’ books, Anne Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope and the Kathy Reichs ‘Bones’ novels, to all of Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak books. I’m also a fan of Val McDermid and of Joanne Harris, whose short stories I’m currently reading, and I should have mentioned Dorothy Parker earlier.

Recent non-fiction purchases include Dreyer’s English for dipping into, and Tom Cox’s The Good, The Bad and The Furry because it’s cats.

Thank you Lin. It has been a tremendous thing. xxx

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