Hand your beloved epic fantasy manuscript to five different epic fantasy editors and you’ll likely get five different edited manuscripts returned to you. This is because, while the fundamental technical aspects of the edit (fixing typos, grammar issues, inconsistencies, etcetera) should be the same or very similar, less exacting aspects of editing (such as identifying strengths or weaknesses, improving for clarity, assisting the flow) may well throw up different responses.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that one editor is wrong and another is right; rather that there are some elements of editing that are subjective, and each editor will approach potential issues in accordance with their own individual understanding of your book and its goals, their experience, their knowledge, and their skills.
So how, then, do you know if you’re hiring a good ‘un?
First, it’s not about the cost. Or rather, sometimes it is; in that, as you’d expect, vastly experienced editors may charge a premium rate, while their more fresh-faced colleagues may charge significantly less in order to earn their editing stripes while gaining experience in the field. All other editors fall somewhere in between – and it’s a big in-between; rates can vary enormously between one editor and another. But a word of advice. Allow cost to guide your search for the right editor, in line with your budget, but not be the deal-maker or deal-breaker.
It doesn’t strictly follow that paying a premium rate will get you the best edit you could ever have imagined, or the best relationship with that editor. Likewise, keeping the cost down doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a subpar, that’ll-have-to-do result from a half-hearted professional. In fact, quite the opposite may very well be possible, in both cases.
So, setting cost aside then, what kind of working relationship should you expect to have with your editor, and what is a big no-no?
What Working With an Editor Is (or should be)
What It Isn’t (or absolutely shouldn’t be)
Firstly, a good editor will bring a fresh eye and a fresh ear to your manuscript, catching any issues that you have unwittingly missed, while also treating your manuscript like a piece of music, ‘listening’ to see if all the right notes are in the right places.
It isn’t always about strict grammar rules and punctuation… No, scrub that. It should never be about strict grammar rules and punctuation when it comes to fiction. It’s about rhythm and readability; making it as easy as possible for your reader to grasp your intended meaning.
For example, if an abundance of punctuation is grammatically correct but it’s going to make a sentence jerky when it would be more effective flowing fast and free, then - providing the intended meaning is retained - the editor will leave the punctuation out.
Forget about grammar police. Your editor is more concerned about ensuring your readers can enjoy your work without disruption. We don’t want readers to see the words and sentences – we want them to see the story and feel the feels!
Secondly, the editor and author are equals. You are a team and it’s a collaboration, as far as you want it to be. Your editor is on your side, with the same end goal in mind for your book as you have. For most authors (though not all), this goal is to produce a well-presented, professional-looking book capable of competing in its genre in the marketplace. While your editor can’t guarantee what success will ultimately look like for your book, owing to all the other factors involved in a book’s publishing journey and life, they will do their utmost to uphold their side of the bargain.
In this regard – and crucially – a good editor will respect that the book belongs to you, and that you have your own particular hopes and goals for it. Through their communications with you, as well as through the book itself and their understanding of the industry, the editor will come to understand what you hope to achieve with it, and so will work to strengthen that. Their goal is to satisfy your book needs, giving it the best possible chance of success as far as their sphere of influence stretches. This includes ensuring they remain invisible, whilst your work and voice shine through.
Where it gets murky…
As we alluded to at the beginning, there are as many types of editors as there are writers, in terms of what they specialise in, their rates, how they edit, how much or how little they edit, and what skills, training, knowledge and experience they have. It doesn’t mean they are either good or bad at their job, just that they work slightly – or a lot – differently, and hence why choosing the right editor for you and your book can take a little time.
So what’s the solution?
Easy. Ask for a sample edit. All good editors will provide one, or will outright advertise the fact they provide them on their websites or social media. Even if you’re new to all this and not sure what to expect, a sample edit gives you the opportunity to learn just about everything you need to know about that editor, and thus a sense of whether they’ll be the right fit.
Note: most editors will offer to do a sample edit for free, others may charge a small fee for their time and efforts. Personally, I’m of the former camp, in that I don’t see time spent on a sample edit as wasted. It’s just as important to me as an editor, as it is to the author, to gauge if I’m the right person for the job and if this is a book and author I’m confident I can work well with and do justice to. Remember, it’s a team effort – both editor and author need to be comfortable with each other.
That doesn’t have to mean making friendship bracelets and braiding hair (though it has been known) - perhaps you only communicate with each other at the start of the project and again at the end - but it does mean ensuring you can have a good working relationship, that your editor gets you and your book, and that the whole process is painless and straightforward.
Not every editor is right for every book and its author, so don’t be disheartened if your search takes you some time. You want to feel confident that you’ll be getting what you pay for, so think about what you hope to get out of the process. For example, you may welcome an abundance of extra advice, feedback and direction; or perhaps you just want someone to get the job done and no more than that. You can make this clear to your editor, but usually an experienced editor will gauge for themselves how much assistance you’d like, based on your initial communications.
Working with your editor should feel like teamwork, not a battle, so take your time to find the one that hits all the right notes for you. Ask for that sample edit. It’ll be a crucial deciding factor.
Remember, it’s not just about whether you are pleased with the work your editor carries out on the page – though this is certainly one priority – but also what your instincts tell you about them. Have they communicated clearly with you? Have they been respectful both towards you and your manuscript? Have they seemed to just grasp what it is you are trying to achieve with the story and the characters? Do you feel they’ve gelled with it? Have they improved it? Is their level of feedback just right for you, and does that feedback make sense to you?
In a nutshell, do you feel comfortable sending them your beloved novel?
There will always be a degree of nervous anticipation when you send your book to an editor, but there shouldn’t be dread or fear. There should instead be a little sliver of excitement in the confidence you have that you’ve done your part to the best of your ability, and now it’s time for your editor to do theirs.
And look at it this way - once you've found an editor that ticks all the boxes, they'll be more than happy to work with you again on your next book, and the next book after that. Because just as there are many kinds of editors, there are also many kinds of authors. I speak from experience when I say, for an editor, finding an author they understand and whose books they enjoy working on and watching come to fruition, is much more than merely a pay cheque - it's immensely satisfying, rewarding and exciting, and nothing short of a dream job.
How to Set the Tone for your Novel
Whether you’re aware of it or not, the tone for your story is settled before you’ve even put finger to keyboard. Thereafter it sets the precedent for how your writing proceeds and what the completed first draft will look like.
But don't panic! You've probably done this instinctively - without giving it much (or any) thought. Yet having a clear understanding of the most effective tone for your book before you begin can actually make it easier (or at least slightly less excruciating) to write, so it’s worth taking time to think it through before you dive in. Additionally and somewhat crucially, for your readers, the tone of the book is everything.
But what exactly is tone?
Masterclass describes tone in fiction like this: “In literary terms, tone typically refers to the mood implied by an author’s word choice and the way that the text can make a reader feel.” (https://www.masterclass.com/articles/examples-of-tone-words-in-writing)
Right away the keywords that jump out here are mood and feel. I don’t think I’m the only one speaking from experience when I say the reason I read – the reason I’ve always read – is to be moved, to feel something, whatever that might be. The book that absorbs us to the point of forgetting where we are - it’s not just the storyline carrying us away, it’s the book’s tone.
The same can be applied to songs – soulful, sad, happy, playful; or movies – dark, funny, scary, heart-wrenching. They all come down to mood and how they make us feel.
So if tone is about setting the ambience, where do we start with that in our books?
Well, you might say point of view, or the narrator. You might say it has something to do with the type of language used. You’ll definitely say it depends on the intended readership and the genre. And I’ll say, yes, yes, and yes. The reason tone in fiction is often so difficult to explain is because it’s not one thing - it’s all of the above woven together to create a particular effect for the reader.
The guinea pigs
Let’s pin down what tone really is using books that are clearly distinctive from one another - Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Even if you’ve never read the books, you probably know the movies, so you’ll have an understanding of the general differences between them. You’ll know that The Hunger Games has a cast of young characters and contains all the violence and threat of an action thriller but without any overly graphic gory bits or naughty words, making it perfect for a younger audience. And you’ll know that Trainspotting… is definitely not for a younger audience.
Point of view/narrator
Hunger Games : 1st person POV, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen as narrator; what happens to her as it happens, one event leading to another in a linear fashion
Trainspotting : 1st person POV, often stream of consciousness, multiple narrators, strong Scots dialect and Standard English, plus 3rd person omniscient POV; the characters and their stories in the book interweave then go off in different directions, often crossing again at later points
Language use and word choice
Hunger Games : simple, self-explanatory; a young girl telling her story; an innocence to it, thoughts, wishes, young love, relationships, strong sense of right and wrong, perhaps idealistic; no swearing or adult (sexual) themes
Trainspotting : difficult to read if you’re not familiar with the Scots dialect, takes some getting used to; the language is coarse, the characters’ experiences raw and uncut; sexually explicit; explicit drug use references; crude language and behaviour
Genre and audience
Hunger Games : dystopian action thriller, set in the near future, young adult
Trainspotting : gritty contemporary realism, set in the ‘80s and including cultural and political references, adult
Both books deal with themes of violence, death and survival, yet their language and word choices are significantly different owing to their genre and target audience. This combined with the time setting – Hunger Games in the near future; Trainspotting in the near (and very real) past – lends one book an air of fantasy, while the other is a sharply brutal social commentary delivered through fiction.
It’s clear then that the tones of the two books are very different in order to strike the right mood and create the most effective way to deliver their particular stories to their particular audiences. The Hunger Games would never have got off the ground if it was littered with cuss words or told from another viewpoint other than the female main character, and Trainspotting wouldn’t have received the same acclaim (and criticism) if it had been simply narrated in third person with flowery language. In other words, neither book would have worked as well if they had opted for a different tone.
So now we know the importance of tone - how the heck do we tackle it?
By starting with the basics. What is the book's genre and who is its audience? This is the easy bit and you’ll already know what kind of book you want to write and what age group it will suit. That’s your starting point, out of which all other decisions about your book will evolve.
After that, who is the best person to tell this story? For example, if it’s a serial killer thriller for an adult audience, do you want readers to get inside the killer’s head, or focus on the victims and/or the victims’ families? Or both, splitting the narrative between two sides of the crime (as I did in Never Seen)?
To get inside the killer’s head is to give the antagonist a voice – and this can heighten the horror aspect of the crime or even, if done well, give your readers all kinds of conflicting empathies and ideas as to how the book should or will resolve. In Never Seen I wanted to show both the killer's chilling state of mind and "reasoning" (through 1st person POV), as well as the escalating anguish of those trying and failing to stop him (3rd person close, multiple POVs) - so that as the book rushes towards its conclusion, the reader witnesses the narrowing of the divide between these characters until it becomes clear their pasts overlap in multiple ways with tragic consequences.
So, again we come back to how you want your reader to feel, and this will dictate the viewpoint (close or observational; one character or multiple) and overarching tone of the book.
From there, the viewpoint will also then influence the book’s language and word choice. Think of Katniss, her language clean and uncomplicated, a simple running commentary of events, her idealistic views of right and wrong - and then the multiple narrators of Trainspotting, an eclectic mix of muddled thoughts and experiences, often in stream of consciousness, using the language and dialect of a particular culture at a particular time and reflecting the period's uncertainty, frustration and hopelessness.
Who your main character is as a person will contribute towards the tone of the book because they're the one telling the story and therefore stamping everything they are – a collection of unique experiences, knowledge and perspectives – on all that they see, touch, think, say and don't say.
A third-person POV narrative is no different. For example, if it’s close third-person, as in focalised on telling the story from a particular character’s perspective (of which the POV may switch between characters in different scenes or chapters), then the language and word choice may still pertain to that particular character (or characters), and therefore reflect to a large or small degree their manner of speaking. Similarly, an omniscient third-person POV, where the narrator is privy to all the characters’ thoughts, opinions, histories and observations, may on balance retain a similar tone but be able to adjust slightly according to who it’s focusing on at the time. For example:
A third-person objective POV, where the narrator has no access to any of the characters’ internal thoughts or feelings, and appears to be retelling the events purely from an observational point of view, does not mean it’s toneless. Again here, you’ll be thinking about your genre, your audience, and the effect you want your story to have on readers. Perhaps you want the narrator invisible so your story can better reveal itself through the characters’ actions and dialogue. Or… perhaps somewhere along the way, you want to plant doubts in your readers’ minds as to the reliability of the seemingly objective narrator. This point of view is rare, as it’s difficult to handle while still impressing on the reader all the emotions you want them to feel. But it’s worth mentioning in case that’s the tone that best fits the mood of your story.
Tone, then, is the resulting effect of the important narrative choices combined – genre, audience, point of view, language and word choice - to create a particular mood.
For the reader, it can be a way into your story if it’s a tone they recognise and have expected; and it’s what keeps them in your story if it remains consistent to the end. They may not be able to name it as tone, but they will certainly feel something is off about a book if the tone doesn’t match their expectations or suddenly changes without good reason part way through.
As a writer, have you ever noticed how much easier the words flow in a piece of dialogue when you have a clear understanding of what a character will say and how they’ll react? Or that feeling of utter bliss when the words trip off the keyboard without too much effort because you’ve landed upon a thoroughly intriguing and perfect attitude/voice for the scene? All of this relates to striking the right tone.
It may feel like an added burden, but taking the time to clarify your book’s tone at the outset is like creating a map for your novel that will guide you through the first draft, steering the ship even when the waters get cool and choppy.
Collins, S. (2009 ed.), The Hunger Games, Scholastic Children’s Books, London
Welsh, I. (2013 ed.), Trainspotting, Vintage, Random House, London