Gillian Holmes has worked in publishing for almost two decades, latterly at Penguin Random House. She now heads her own Editorial Agency – The Editor.
For those who think an editor merely corrects spelling and grammar could you give writers an insight into your work?
I like to think of myself as a literary midwife. I have absolutely no input into the creation and growth of the book. But once it’s born, I clean it up, wrap it in a snuggly blanket and give it back to the author with some helpful (hopefully) suggestions on what to do next. It can be quite a heavy responsibility, because every book that crosses an editor’s desk is the result of hours and hours of somebody’s blood, sweat and tears, and editors are very aware of that.
In general, when an editor reads a manuscript for the first time, they will be paying close attention to the structure, plot, character, pace and consistency. As well as examining the language – changing tenses, a slip in the narrative voice, passages that make no sense within the story. It is usually apparent quite quickly what the areas of weakness might be, and an editor should be able to help the author come up with a solution to fix it.
Then they need to read it again to make sure they haven’t missed anything – and believe me, I always have. It’s helpful, after that, to read through it again… By the end of the process, the editor will know the book almost as well as the author.
Simply put, the editor is there to help the author make the book as good as it can be, whatever that might entail.
How can you find the right editor for your particular genre – and does it matter?
Oh, my goodness, yes this matters. Everything about an editor’s work is geared towards improving the author’s initial vision and enhancing their voice, while not actually messing with it. It’s a fine balance, because the author will have a very clear idea about what they want, and editing is very subjective. No two editors will have the same thoughts about a book, which is why it’s important to try to find an editor who understands your work and the genre you’re writing in. I would not, for example, edit sci fi or fantasy for the simple reason I don’t read in this genre, and wouldn’t feel confident commenting on it.
With regards how to find an editor, that’s a lot tougher. There are many very good editors available to help, but they might not be the right one for you. It might be worth having telephone conversations with a few editors before making your choice. Talk about your work, what you hope to achieve with the edit, discuss the editor’s experience and reading preferences, and you may get a feel for who would be the best for you.
What was your route to becoming an editor – was it by design?
Yes, I definitely wanted to become an editor, but when I left university, it seemed a hopeless dream because I didn’t study English, didn’t know anyone in the industry, and had zero experience. So I signed up with a temp agency that specialised in publishing. After several very short-term jobs where I photocopied all day, I got a long-term assignment at a book packager. Finally, I made some contacts and gained valuable experience, and when an editorial assistant’s job came up at a large trade publisher, I jumped at the chance. Luckily I got it. And I’ve worked in publishing ever since.
If you want to get noticed and get an agent or publishing deal do you think working with an editor will boost your chances and in what way?
Yes, it definitely helps. I have worked as a reader for a literary agency, and I can assure you that a well-written, well-plotted submission will always get a fair reading. On the other hand, if by page two, the reader is struggling to make sense of what is going on, then I’m afraid it will be rejected, no matter how brilliant the rest of the book might be.
A well-edited book also demonstrates that the author is serious about their craft, and willing to listen and act on editorial advice. I can’t overstate how important this is to agents and publishers.
By making sure your book is the best it can be before submitting, you stand a better chance of finding representation. Although, unfortunately, there are never any guarantees.
Many writers I meet these days are writing young adult fiction. I find this uplifting as it indicates that even though young people are so much more exposed to the digital market they continue to read. Do you see this trend strengthening in the future?
Absolutely. It might be a cliché but Harry Potter taught the publishing world that it’s not just teenagers that love YA novels; so do adults.
And as each generation grows up, they continue to seek out new authors in the genre they have grown up with. And, thanks to the Internet, people don’t have to rely on the traditional publishers anymore. There are so many novels available through self-publishing platforms as well as on websites like Wattpad.
Young people have a much more sophisticated and informed view of the world than they did even twenty years ago due to the amount of information available to them, and the genre has grown with them. There are very few boundaries in YA literature anymore, so these novels frequently deal with some pretty tough issues that resonate with adults too. In fact, writing under the YA umbrella can free an author from the constraints of adult fiction and allow them to find a more mainstream market without the fear of being boxed into a narrower genre. YA seems to cover most things. For example, if you wrote about vampires or shapeshifters for adults, you would be immediately sent to the Fantasy shelf. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does limit your market. Whereas the diversity and scope within the YA genre is staggering, and I’m not at all surprised authors find that attractive.
What’s more, there is no pretension in YA, there is just good, straightforward storytelling, and a hero or heroine battling against the odds. What’s not to love?
If you are struggling with your synopisis you can find more great advice from Gillian over on Frost Magazine
Gillian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about The Independent Author Book Award: www.wordsforthewounded.co.uk deadline 6th March 2016
Words for the Wounded are also holding a LitFest on April 16. www.wordsforthewounded.co.uk and tickets are on sale now.