Getty Images
Getty Images

BooksApril 14, 2016

‘The book didn’t sell and yes, I was mean-spirited enough to rejoice’

Getty Images
Getty Images

Stephen Stratford, one of New Zealand’s best and most illustrious book editors, has died. In this essay from 2016, he vented about the worst parts of a job he (mostly) loved.

This post was updated on 22 November 2021.

What I dread #1

When meeting someone new, the question I most dread is, “What do you do?” It is really hard to answer. As a freelancer, I do lots of different stuff – writing manuscripts, assessing manuscripts, editing manuscripts. I never call myself a writer – at best I am an author; it is too tedious to explain what assessing manuscripts means. I can’t talk about the Secret Television Business or what I do for Creative New Zealand. So I say, “I am a book editor.”

And then the someone new launches into a monologue on their pet hates about punctuation and grammar and what gets published in newspapers and magazines and how it’s all wrong because it’s not what they learned in school.

They are always – always – wrong.

They think that the rules they learned in school are the right rules for every occasion. I am a polite person, mostly, so I never ask them what year their teacher taught them this, and what year their teacher might have been taught this by their teacher, and what year that teacher’s teacher’s teacher might have been taught this. We are back in the 19th century by now. They think that fiction should follow the same rules as non-fiction. They have no idea about register, voice, tone, about how fiction works.

This is also true of some editors.

The bed of Procrustes

A friend was struggling with his latest novel, which had an unreliable narrator. The author slowly, carefully signalled to the reader that the narrator wasn’t quite as intelligent and well-educated as he presented himself to be. Grammatical and vocabulary mistakes were deliberately planted. They were, in gambling terms, “tells”. The author asked me to help him with this – immensely flattering, because he is one of our best and most-awarded writers – and we worked on it closely to get the narrator’s voice right, line by line.

The publisher gave it to his usual editor, who has a somewhat prescriptive view of grammar and vocabulary. The bed of Procrustes has nothing on her. When the author saw the page proofs, he was horrified: she had “corrected” the manuscript. The narrator’s grammar and vocabulary were now textbook-perfect. The narrator’s voice was gone; the novel was wrecked. The author complained to the publisher, who paid the editor but published my version. The author was happy; I received a few bottles of Central Otago pinot noir.

My winebox inquiry

Authors can be clueless too. On the first page of his memoirs, an elderly former journalist got the title and genre of his favourite piece of classical music wrong: there were two other factual errors I spotted straight off on that first page. That meant I had to fact-check everything in the whole manuscript. Later, when I taught an editing course, I showed the students all the reference books I used on that job. They were amazed: the books filled a winebox.

The elderly former journalist had some years earlier become a weekly columnist for a newspaper, and had written his memoirs in the style of a newspaper columnist: tight, snappy, compressed sentences. Perfect for a column, unreadable at book-length. I inserted all the filler words needed to let the text breathe, so it would read like a book, not a series of newspaper columns. On the page proofs he took them all out: the book read like a series of newspaper columns.

There was more. I emailed the publisher: “I think he’s gone a bit potty. Several times I deleted a space at the beginning of a par, and he has marked them all to be reinserted. Twice now a quotation has opened with close quotes, which I’ve changed to open quotes. Each time he has marked the original to be reinstated. That sound you can hear is the grinding of my teeth.” The publisher was sympathetic, but let it go: God knows what other horrors she was dealing with.

The book didn’t sell and yes, I was mean-spirited enough to rejoice.

Is your adverb strictly necessary?

Reviewers often say, “This would have benefited from a more rigorous editor.” They haven’t seen the manuscript, so have no idea how much editing was involved. One first novel I did was written in a florid style more suited to the European market. I dialled it back a bit because this was for the New Zealand market. (I have often thought that books should/could be edited differently for different markets. I once edited a novel which was to be published in New Zealand and the text had to be readily translatable into a Scandinavian language. This was not easy.) The reviews were good so the second novel was accepted. The author got the page proofs late – she was travelling in India – and wrote a bunch of new material on them. A really big bunch of new material. The book was now due at the printer. I never saw it – the new material went unedited into the published book. Which was savaged by reviewers, who singled out the new material for derision.

Again, the book didn’t sell. In both cases, it was the publisher’s fault for not controlling their authors. An in-house editor, I imagine, has that kind of control. An out-house editor like me doesn’t.

This book will change your life

You live with these novels while editing them and sometimes for years afterwards. Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, which opens with the abduction of a small girl, Gemma (as described, exactly like my younger daughter who was then at the same age) has haunted me since I read and edited it in 2009. I lived and breathed that novel for months. Still do. Our house has six external doors and every night I neurotically double-check that all six doors are locked.

Location, location, location

One travel book related how the author, flying from capital city X to capital city Y, looked out the window to the left and saw Lake Z. I am hazy on the geography of the continent involved but thought that this was impossible. I looked at my atlas. It was impossible. I emailed the author to tell him so. He reacted badly. Very badly indeed. This author was very, very rich and, I suppose, unused to anyone suggesting that perhaps he could be mistaken about anything. But he was about this. The Times World Atlas does not lie.

At least he didn’t call me a “cocksucker”, as one crime novelist did at the end of my edit of his latest bestseller. He was in New York at the time, so might have been joking. Possibly.

Another author, multi-awarded, multi-gonged, described the town hall in Cambridge as being made of wood. It is made of brick and masonry. He also had a character drive directly from Hamilton to Cambridge via Hautapu. She wouldn’t have: she was in a hurry but he made her take the leisurely, scenic route. I know this only because this story is set where I live. So I worry when I am editing fiction set in places I don’t know. Arrowtown, Dunedin, Feilding, Masterton, Tauranga and Whangarei are all fine but if I get anything set in New Plymouth I’m buggered.

When I taught that editing course I mentioned Donald Rumsfeld’s much-derided quote about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. That always got a knowing snigger because of the George W. Bush connection. Moron, obviously. But then I explained how it works: you know what it is that you know, so you don’t have to check it. You know what it is that you don’t know or are not sure you remember correctly (on what street in Paris is the Cafe de Flore?), so you have to check that. And you do. It’s the unknown unknowns that will get you, the invisible errors.

Best example from my experience, although it’s mere journalism: many years ago I edited one of those long murder stories Metro used to specialise in. It was a horrible West Auckland murder, early one morning. The writer began by depicting the idyllic scene at sunrise, the light twinkling off the dappled swimming pool at the local primary school etc. It was a great set-up for the horror to come. Next day we got a letter from a West Auckland reader, saying there was no swimming pool at that school so she had read no further than the first paragraph. Understandably. If we’d got that wrong, she couldn’t trust any other detail in the story. It was the journalist’s fault for making it up, just assuming that every school had a pool — but it was my fault too for not fact-checking every detail. I didn’t think to. I would now.

A book editor’s many faces (Illustration: Steve Braunias)

These are a few of my favourite things

The Oxford Dictionary for Editors & Writers (OUP, 2000)

The Chambers Dictionary, 12th edition (Chambers Harrap, 2011)

New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide (OUP, 2014)

The New Zealand Guide, compiled by E.S. Dollimore (H. Wise & Co, 1952)

The Economist Style Guide (Hamish Hamilton, 1993)

Back to the fiction

In one historical novel the writer had a meeting at the court of King George III where the characters sat on Regency chairs. Easily spotted, that one. (My father had a furniture store in Tauranga: I know about furniture.)

In another novel, a sailor rounds a Pacific island from the eastern side and sees the rugged cliffs of the south coast. The writer knows the island better than I do, but I didn’t think it was possible to see that from there. The atlas, and a map with contour lines, confirmed that it wasn’t.

In a crime novel set in Auckland, character A stands on the south-east corner of Mayoral Drive opposite Vincent Street watching character B leave Auckland Central Police Station, walk down towards Myers Park and take the steps down. I wondered, “Can you see this from that street corner?” I lived in Auckland for more than 30 years so know that corner well, but I couldn’t be sure. I checked a map but still couldn’t be sure. Three cheers for Google Street View – no, character A could not have seen that.

Why this matters so much is that if you know a location, or any detail in the story, is wrong, you can’t believe anything else. This is especially true for crime novels. I bet editors of literary fiction don’t have to worry about all this stuff. Actually, I know they don’t. At the 2015 Auckland Writers’ Festival the big star was Haruki Murakami, whose novel Norwegian Wood begins:

“I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth, lending everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in waterproofs, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So – Germany again.”

When coming in to land through dense cloud cover, you can’t see the ground crew. I stopped reading, just as that Metro reader had.

‘Is it any good?’

Mainstream publishers can, frankly, be a bit crap. One sent me a travel manuscript to edit and three days later rang to ask, “Is it any good?” She hadn’t read it. But there was a publishing date with publicist and advertising booked, so it was published even though my answer was “No.” (It didn’t sell.)

The same publisher sent me a manuscript, another rush job for similar reasons, but I couldn’t check anything with the author because she was about to give birth. OK, fine. But the manuscript… She had written it on a computer, using it as if it was a typewriter, so had put a hard return at the end of every line. Dear old Word treated every line I could see on the page as a paragraph. There was no way I could think of to get an editable text other than deleting these hard returns manually and recreating paragraphs as I went. I asked a typographer who agreed: manual it was. That took three days, possibly the most tedious three consecutive days I have ever spent since working on a lathe in the Masport factory.

Also, the writing was appalling. The author had great knowledge of her subject and access to information and people no one else could have got to. She was the only person who could have written the book, but OMG the mixed metaphors, the incontinence of the incoherence. The publisher, again, had clearly not looked at the manuscript before sending it off to be edited. (It didn’t sell.)

Questions I have asked

Would this character say that?

What do they look like?

Are there too many alien species?

Are there a few too many planets?

Is chronological order really the best way to tell the story?

Who is your intended audience?

This scene serves no dramatic purpose, so is it included simply because it happened in real life?

A question I never ask

Is the narrator/protagonist a version of yourself?

You can usually tell if it is: he or she will be woefully under-characterised. The author knows that this character is so fascinating, so adorable, that no characterisation is needed.

How I started

In 1983 I left the Listener to go freelance so I could edit and design the bi-monthly left-wing magazine New Outlook, which I did for two years. I was never paid for this work, which has rather put me off left-wing projects ever since. I started editing books so I could eat, freelancing for Oxford University Press. There was a terrific book on mustelids (Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King), a slim volume of verse (Catching It by Lauris Edmond), a terrible novel (Horse by James K Baxter) and a worthy but dull literary monograph about Dan Davin.

These days the fiction is much better – recent authors include Vincent O’Sullivan, Paddy Richardson, Graeme Lay, Tina Shaw, Paul Thomas, Danyl McLauchlan and others – and the non-fiction is still all sorts, from how to be a better rugby coach to a history of Sikhs in the Waikato.

I have been lucky in my authors – not only the established ones but the discoveries, like John Daniell (The Fixer, sports crime) , Ray Berard (The Black Horse, TAB crime) and Richard Gooch (Sassafras, drugs crime). Crime fiction has become a specialty. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer. This is as close as I am ever going to get.

‘I would have done it like this’

The worst kind of editor is like the worst kind of reviewer, whose approach is “If I’d written this book I would have…” And so they try to turn it into their book, not the writer’s. The technical term for such people, whether editor or reviewer, is “wanker”. Most editors aren’t authors and vice versa (there are good reasons for this). I am always conscious that it’s the author’s name on the book, not mine.

The rules that matter

I am currently editing a good novel (Eleanore by Megan Payne) that is almost but not quite a romance novel. I don’t know the rules of that genre: what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what the readers expect. If it had been a straightforward romance novel I would have sent Megan to a specialist romance editor I know in Northland. But I can help her to get the structure right, the characters plausible (we’ve already changed the lawyer heroine from partner to senior associate), each character’s voice distinct and the timeline right.

This is so not about the rules of punctuation and grammar.

What I dread #2

The other thing I dread when meeting new people is when I say I am a book editor and they say, “I’ve written a book.”

“No you haven’t,” I reply. “You’ve written a manuscript.”

One of these days I will say it aloud.

Keep going!