Death Of 1000 Cuts – Talking Chop #3: Francesca Main

Merry Mondaymas, everyone. Welcome to another Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

Today we’re continuing our sweet run of editing chats – you can read the previous ones here – by talking to an actual editor – Francesca Main, of Picador. Whether you’re an author or a nosey book-lover, I hope you find these interviews interesting.

If I have an agenda here, it’s securing a beachhead in the continuing battle to convince aspiring writers that editing is an Actual Thing You Have To Do and not just a cutesy optional extra like sprinkles on a cupcake. For many authors, the editing process takes longer than the first draft. This is not a sign of failure! The myth of the musestruck kimono-clad artiste scrawling in furious reverie to produce perfect-first-time scenes is deeply unhelpful. Writing is rewriting. Embrace it.

Oh, and remember that I’m currently accepting submissions for In The Barber’s Chair. I need your first page (250 max) from your novel or short story. Send it in via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right, (just in the body of an email with a title – nothing else thanks) and, if I use it, I’ll robustly engage with it on the blog in an effort to see where we can improve. Please only send work that you’ve edited and polished to the best of your ability. In return I’ll be 100% honest, and hopefully we can all learn lessons to take away and apply to our own writing.

Right. Enough of me. Here’s the interview.

Hi Francesca. Thanks for agreeing to a quick chat. First off, just to clue everyone in, what’s your current role at Picador and what does it involve?

Hello Tim. Thanks for having me!

I’m an Editorial Director at Picador. This involves a variety of responsibilities, but my most important ones are to consider fiction submissions from agents, acquire new books and authors for the list, edit my authors’ work and see their novels through the publication process, from first draft to finished book.

The standard line is that editors no longer have time for editing. How true is this?

In theory, it’s true. Editors’ roles have expanded over the years and we’re involved in a huge range of activities connected to publishing and promoting our authors.  But nonetheless we make the time to edit, even if some of that is our own time in the evenings or at weekends, because it’s the reason most of us wanted to do this job in the first place, and because making sure our books are as good as they can be is so important. I can’t speak for all editors, of course, and some are naturally less preoccupied with the editorial process than others. But for my own part I want to spend as much time editing a book as it needs, even if that time is hard to find.

How important/involved is the editing process after you’ve acquired a title? Do debuts tend to need more work than novels by grizzled veterans, or does it vary case by case?

It’s crucial, I think, even if a book needs relatively little work.  At the very least there’s always a conversation to be had about a novel’s strengths and weaknesses and it’s certainly not the case that grizzled veterans need less work than debut novelists (sometimes quite the opposite, since debut novels have often been extensively workshopped on creative writing courses, or had feedback from multiple sources along the road to securing an agent).

I like to work with the author as closely as possible.  After a first reading I’ll talk them through my overarching response to the manuscript and discuss their own aims for it, to make sure we have the same vision for the book.  I’ll then do a structural edit, making notes on the page and writing a separate editorial letter, focusing on the bigger picture things – plot, structure, voice, characterisation, themes.  At a later stage I’ll do a line-edit, commenting on individual moments, sentences, even word choices.  Sometimes the author will only need to revise the manuscript once; other times we’ll go back and forth over multiple drafts.  But it’s important to know when to stop, too.

What are the top 3 problems you encounter when editing novels?

Beginnings that take too long to get going – perhaps because the author has spent lots of time introducing the characters, filling in backstory or setting the scene.  Middles that aren’t well-formed – they might be erratic in pace or contain unnecessary scenes or lose focus.  Endings that feel unsatisfying – whether because they’ve been rushed or feel inconclusive or tie everything up a little too neatly.

On a page-by-page level, the three things I find myself flagging up most frequently are unsubtle chunks of exposition, repetitions (word repetitions or making the same point more than once) and excess stage directions – that is, descriptions of characters’ inconsequential actions or body language that the reader could imagine the scene just as well without.

Are differences of opinion between an editor and an author common? How do you deal with them?

I’ve never had a significant difference of opinion with an author (famous last words…), though of course they come up – it’s only to be expected given that the way readers respond to novels is subjective.  Establishing a mutually respectful and trusting relationship is the key to it.  The author needs to remember that the editor is the fresh pair of eyes that they don’t have, and there to bridge the gap between writer and reader.  The editor needs to abide by the author’s vision for the book, rather than imposing their own ideas.  In the end, all editorial notes are suggestions rather than instructions, so the author gets the final say.

Finally, can you let us know about a book you’re working on/recently worked on that we ought to get very excited about?

Oh, there are so many!  Naomi Wood has written a dazzling novel about Hemingway’s four marriages, Mrs Hemingway.  Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler is the most verdant, heartfelt novel about friendship and small-town American life I’ve read in years.  Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is an absolute show-stopper – a heady, subversive, unputdownable novel set against a backdrop of the Dutch Golden Age and featuring a young woman in search of herself, a wealthy merchant with a secret and an elusive miniaturist whose tiny figures might just have the power to predict the future.  All of these books are published in 2014 and I hope readers will find them as exciting as I do.