Welcome to the five hundred and fortieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today welcomes back author and editor Alana Woods (who I interviewed in April about her writing) to talk more about her editing. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello again, Alana. We’ve spoken before but just about your writing and I’d like to delve into the editing side of your life but first could you please remind us about yourself and how you came to be an editor.
Alana: I’ve lived in Canberra, Australia since 1980 except for five years when my husband John and I thought we’d go north to the sun and spent four years on the Sunshine Coast living next to the sea. It was lovely but we missed the kids in Canberra so moved back—after taking a sidestep to the UK for 14 months to be live-in nannies for our eldest daughter’s first child. It was either us or an hour commuter train trip with him every day into London and we won!
My first jobs were as a shorthand typist then a publications typist at a weapons research facility. Next came a five-year stint in court reporting from which I moved into an editing unit for a government department. I was lucky in that the editor in charge was a friend and gave me an interview. Afterwards he told me that although he gave me the interview it was me who won the job. However, I’ve always been grateful for that opportunity.
Morgen: Things happen for a reason and here you are. 🙂 Is there a format / genre that you generally edit?
Alana: I was an editor in various government departments when I worked full time, so it was exclusively non-fiction on topics as riveting as the working environment and competition and consumer law. I contract edit nowadays but my clientele is still mostly government because that’s where I’m known. But the subject matter is as diverse now as maybe a federal government national initiative one week and the tree population of Canberra the next.
Some years ago a friend asked me to scrutinise her fourth novel and since then I’ve taken on fiction when asked. I don’t tout for business, authors approach me. I’m careful what I take on because editing a novel can be very open-ended time wise, depending on the amount of work they need, and I’m conscious that I need to keep time for my own writing.
Morgen: Absolutely. It’s very easy for everything else to take over. A rather global question, but are there common mistakes an author can make?
Alana: Since publishing my first novel Automaton some years ago I’ve been approached by many, mostly young writers, with requests to critique their work. After looking at quite a few I put together a handout of writing tips covering weaknesses they seemed to have in common. And as they form the basis for my 25 essential writing tips: a guide to writing good fiction for aspiring authors. I won’t give too much away, but in my experience I’ve found that while people are learning the craft they struggle with structure, voice, dialogue and word use.
Morgen: Do take a look at Alana’s book, folks, I’m mentioned in relation second-person point of view. 🙂 Do editors generally charge by the word or the hour?
Alana: There’s a variety of ways: by the word, by the page, by the hour, a flat fee.
I charge by the hour but the time and cost of the job will be agreed at the negotiation stage.
To be able to quote on a job what I need from the client is the word count, what type of edit they require, and what the document consists of: all text or text with maybe figures, diagrams, charts, referencing etc. The more complicated the document and the higher the level of edit they want affects the time it will take and what I’ll charge.
Morgen: My editor charges per 1,000 words so, like you, we know up front how much it’s going to be. How much notice do you get (would you like / need) for editing a project?
Alana: I’ve done many with no notice at all. If you want the job you’ll do it if you possibly can. If there’s an impossible deadline, clients aren’t interested in negotiating with you over when you think you can fit them in. If you can’t do it immediately they’ll move to the next editor on their list. But if the deadline is discretionary or not pressing and they know and want you, they’re amenable.
If I’m not otherwise booked I prefer rush jobs because scheduled jobs can and often do slip at the client end. I try not to get annoyed when they repeatedly delay but it does get to me because I’m loathe to take on another job in the interim in case they end up clashing.
Morgen: How annoying, although it does sound like you’re busy enough anyway. I’ve heard numerous authors say they can self-publish without an editor – what would you say to that?
Alana: NEVER, EVER, EDIT YOUR OWN WORK. That’s the editor’s mantra. Unfortunately I’ve been known to ignore my own advice, invariably to my cost. I’m like everyone else; I just don’t see all of my own mistakes, omissions etc.
Morgen: We don’t do we, because we’re so close to it. How do you edit – on screen or on paper?
Alana: Government and corporate jobs I tend to do on screen, with tracked changes activated. That’s because you approach them objectively. The content is usually not in question, just its quality. I scan it first to familiarise myself with the subject matter and assess what needs to be done, and I’ll fix typos etc. that I see along the way. The second pass is when I get down to business.
Fiction is quite different; it’s subjective and what’s needed can range from a straight proofread to a very involved assessment and mentor process.
Authors adept at the craft generally just want and need a proofread and those I do on screen. As a rule of thumb an 80,000-word manuscript takes me 40 hours to proofread and I will always go through them twice.
If anything more than a proofread is required I’ll use a combination of screen and paper editing. I’ll do three passes: the first on screen to get to know the story and make notes of things that I need to come back to; the second on paper where I go over the manuscript thoroughly; and the third to input everything into the electronic version (and I’ll scrutinise it again at this stage). I always use tracked changes and comment boxes so the author can see exactly what I’ve done or am querying.
Then there’s the highest level that involves assessment and mentoring, which is what’s involved when authors are still new to the craft and on a steep learning curve. There’s no point trying to say how many times I might go through one of these manuscripts but, again, it includes a combination of screen and paper.
Morgen: You write as well, please remind us about that and does being a writer as well influence your editing at all?
Alana: I’ve published two thrillers (Automaton, Imbroglio), a short story collection (Tapestries and other short stories) and two non-fiction works (Family medical history and 25 essential writing tips: a guide to writing good fiction for aspiring authors). Automaton was my debut novel and won the Wild & Woolley Fast Books Prize for best Australian self-published fiction and went on to become a best seller in Australia. I’m now working on another thriller.
I feel the influence both ways: when editing I very much look at word usage, placement and effect, and when writing I’m doing the same from the editor’s viewpoint of being concise and making the point in the best possible way.
Morgen: The best of both worlds. If someone wanted to become an editor, how would they go about it? Are there qualifications they can gain? Would they need them? Is there much competition to be an editor?
Alana: I’m afraid I’m a very bad adviser here. I’ve been in the game so long I don’t know what’s required at entry point nowadays. I can say that when I was working and wanted to hire editors what was important to me was how well they did in the on-the-spot tests I gave them. That sorted the doers from the tryers. They could talk for hours about what they’d done and show me dozens of jobs they’d worked on, but if they couldn’t edit the couple of pages I gave them to my satisfaction I didn’t hire them.
Morgen: The proof is in the clichéd pudding. What do you think of eBooks? Do you read them or is it paper all the way?
Alana: I love my Kindle; I flew to the UK for two months in the middle of this year and nothing beat loading it up with dozens of books so I didn’t have to agonise about which one book to take to read on the plane and while sitting about at airports. But ever since I can remember I’ve loved books. I was one of those kids that exasperated the life out of their mother because I preferred to be in my bedroom reading than going outside to play. I love holding real books, the smell of them, the feel of them. I love being able to turn the pages.
Morgen: I have an iPad so it feels more like a book as it’s a two-page read but yes, I (and most people I’ve spoken to) wouldn’t give up the ‘proper’ book. How important do you think title / covers are?
Alana: Covers are what first grab the eye so, to me, as with most authors I think, they’re of prime importance. And after that the title has to intrigue, although I’ve been known to pick up, peruse and buy books if I like one or the other.
Morgen: I’m a big titles fan although a good cover is a bonus. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Alana: My next thriller, which has a corporate crime theme. I dearly wanted to finish it this year but what with the contract work I do plus all the self promotion that authors need to do nowadays it’s going a leeetle slower than I’d like.
Morgen: Marketing is usually the answer to “what’s your least favourite aspect of your writing life?” because it’s so time-consuming. Do you work every day? If there is such a thing, do you ever suffer from editor’s block?
Alana: I can go for weeks without a paid editing job, which is when I get stuck in to my own writing in earnest. And no, there’s no such thing as editor’s block, thank goodness. Editing is all very process driven. You know what you have to do and you just work your way through it.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research for your job?
Alana: I wouldn’t call it research, but if you’re doing what is called a substantive edit an editor is expected to check that things like references, quotes and dates are accurate. And you’re expected to be alert for anything that might cause legal, such as copyright, problems. Which is why I did some legal units in my tertiary studies.
Morgen: I mentioned this a moment ago; what’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your editing life? Has anything surprised you?
Alana: Now that I work at home I hate the prospect of jobs before I start them—I’d much prefer to be working on my own stuff or outside doing some digging or something in the garden. But once I start a job I get thoroughly engrossed and hate stopping of an evening when my husband comes in to my office and says ‘Dinner’s ready’. Yes, 🙂 he’s the cook in the family.
Has anything surprised me? I’ve worked on some important government initiatives and feel I’m a more appreciative citizen for knowing about them. One in particular was an Australia-wide environmental land and water care initiative. Its scope and the number of ordinary Australians involved surprised and heartened me.
Morgen: 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Alana: Oh boy, advice. There are plenty of things they can, should, do. First of all read, read, read and analyse what they like and don’t like about other authors’ work. Then write, write, write and don’t ever stop because that old adage of practice makes perfect is an adage for a reason. Join a writing group and don’t be shy about workshopping their efforts. They need to find their writing voice and hone their skills and that won’t happen if they don’t practice. And buy my 25 essential writing tips: a guide to writing good fiction for aspiring authors. 🙂
Morgen: Yes, please do. 🙂 If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Alana: Off the top of my head … Henry VIII as a representative of all the men in history who’ve killed or mistreated their wives for not giving them sons: I’d love them to know the sex of a child was their fault (Oh dear, that sounds like a rant and he probably wouldn’t stay for long). The second would be Cleopatra because I’d love to know what made her so fascinating. And the third would be a world-class editor, say, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who was Jules Verne’s editor and one of the best of the time. Although he’d probably make me feel very small if he insisted on discussing editing knowledge and experience.
I’d serve lots of wine so they wouldn’t think too much about the food I’m serving. But my chicken risotto and lemon tart usually get the thumbs up.
Morgen: It’s a winner with me. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for editors?
Alana: I can’t see them becoming an extinct species any time soon, not if the amount of work I’m approached to do is any guide. Then there’s the ever-increasing proliferation of authors. If only half of them wisely decided to employ an editor to proofread their work we’d be inundated!
Morgen: And they should. Where can we find out about you and your work? Do you take enquiries from authors directly?
Alana: I don’t advertise because I have an established clientele and I’m not actively looking for work. If authors want to talk to me about editing their work I’m happy for them to email me. They can contact me via my website http://www.alanawoods.com. If we decide we like each other and want to take it a bit further I’ll work on a short excerpt or the first chapter without charge. If they like the result then we talk turkey because by then I’ll know what level of edit is involved and I can give them a sensible quote and timeframe.
Morgen: Is there anything you would like to add?
Alana: I think I should finish by saying that editors aren’t infallible. We’d like to be, but I’ve yet to meet one who will categorically guarantee that they’ll find 100 per cent of your typos. I’ll go so far as to say I’m comfortable saying I will pick up at least 99.99 per cent and I’ll always give it everything I’ve got to find that other 0.01 per cent.
Morgen: 🙂 Thank you, Alana.
I then invited Alana to include an extract of her writing…
‘Richards isn’t bothering you?’ He had used Lizzie like a weapon.
They were at the rear of the court building. In the shade. Elisabeth stopped and removed her sunglasses. Judy felt like an interloper. They were less than an arm’s length apart.
‘Don’t worry about him. He doesn’t bother me.’ She put a hand on his shirt, round about where the ribs come together. Judy held her breath. Robert looked down at it, bent an elbow, then returned the hand to his side. ‘It’s been a while since Thierry Richards got under my skin, Robert.’ Again he resisted the urge to flatten the fingers against him. Was she telling him not to worry about Richards, in any capacity? His heart pounded. Her fingers increased their pressure and her eyes softened. ‘Okay?’
The thought that she was still manipulating fell like a torrent over a cliff and she saw his eyes cloud. Withdrawing everything about herself she stepped back, replaced the glasses and left them to come behind.
He was appalled with himself.
She has been a professional copy editor for most of her career, only taking time out to have children, and has been writing for almost as long—but for some years she says it was the sort of stuff you put in the cupboard because you think no-one would be interested in it.
She became serious after a prod by her husband to either do it properly or stop. Alana says that after a few months of scribbling away furiously he asked whether she had finished, but now he just asks when she’s going to make enough money for him to become a kept man.
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