Book editing – the process…

Book editors help you ‘see’. They understand what you’re trying to do better than you do; find the words that will help you do it; are your ‘go to’ person; and, best of all, are on your team. They bring so much to a book. I don’t know if that’s true of all editors, but it is certainly true of mine. And here she is:

Amy Thomas grew up in Adelaide before moving to Melbourne to study. She has worked in publishing for nearly ten years and has edited children’s books for most of this time (and quite a few books for adults too). She has been lucky enough to work with authors and illustrators such as Shaun Tan, Sofie Laguna, Colin Thiele, Neil Curtis and Isobelle Carmody, to name just a few. She always wanted to have a job that involved books and reading, even from an early age, so being a book editor was perfect for her.

Amy Thomas

Book editing is not proof reading, is it? Can you give a brief overview of what an editor does?

The role of the editor is to take a book from manuscript through to finished book, guiding the author along the way. This sounds pretty straightforward and not too involved, but it can mean a lot of different things depending on the book an editor is working on. It can sometimes mean taking a manuscript through a number of drafts, giving structural/story feedback along the way, and then giving the manuscript a final edit. It’s not just about picking up errors in punctuation and spelling; it’s also about picking up inconsistencies/weaknesses in story and the narrative arc of a book, and often involves making suggestions to strengthen these elements of a book.

With fiction editing, it’s also about asking the right questions.

Sometimes I ask:

  • Would this character really say that?
  • Is that really how their relationship would unfold?
  • Does their voice feel real?
  • Is that repetition deliberate?
  • Do the characters sound like different people or is it easy to confuse who is speaking?

I also look for stories that have their own unstoppable momentum, gripping you and not letting you go until you’ve read the book in one or two sittings. Raw Blue is like that. I think one of the reviewers said that they read it ‘feverishly, desperate for a happy ending’.

I’ve worked on non-fiction adult titles too, and they’re quite different, but can be a lot of fun to edit. One time I found myself checking that websites for Las Vegas’s tattoo parlours were correct, for example, when I edited the Lonely Planet Las Vegas guide. Quite a bizarre thing to be doing! On the flipside though, on another occasion I was fact-checking an Eastern European accommodation website and managed to bring all the IT people in Lonely Planet running to my desk when the website turned out to be a virus-spreading site …

I find when I’m working on a particular book that it can sometimes be the filter through which I see everything. For example, whenever I see sunsets now, I think of the skies in Alison Lester’s new picture book, Running with the Horses. I also keep thinking of Raw Blue’s main character Carly and which actor would play her in a film. (I have casting ideas for all the characters in Raw Blue, actually, but don’t get me started …) And I once edited four books on Ned Kelly in one year (Ned Kelly: A Short Life; Ned Kelly: The Last Stand; The Ned Kelly Encyclopaedia; and The Fatal Friendship, in case you’re interested) then drove to Kelly sites all around north-eastern Victoria with an audio book of Ned Kelly: A Short Life playing in the car. A little weird? Perhaps …

Is the process different when it comes to picture books? Is it more complicated when you have a separate illustrator and narrator?

It is quite different, as the fewer words there are, the more important they become. A good illustrator interprets the text and brings something creatively to a book – they don’t merely repeat the text in a literal way. There are lots of complicated things to consider when it comes to the editing of pages with pictures and text: characterisation in illustrations; consistency in every visual detail across the length of the story; the rhythm of the language; the relationship between the text and image; visual jokes; how well the artwork will reproduce …

Are there other responsibilities associated with the role, other than editing?

The editor’s role is to act as an advocate of a book as much as anything else, and to convey your passionate attachment to anyone who will listen … It’s also the pragmatic things like overseeing the whole production process so that the book meets its schedule and comes into being, and communicating to authors and illustrators the whole way through the process; taking them through it in an easy and hopefully enjoyable way.

Someone (another editor) once told me that when editors are busy doing other things, they’re actually aching to be editing. Does that ring true for you?

When I’m not working with books; I’m aching to be working with books – that’s probably the most accurate way to describe it. And in my spare time you’ll find me browsing bookshops, reading, and visiting book-related exhibitions. :)

What inspires you? What do you love?

I loved Roald Dahl when I was young – I always felt that he spoke directly to me as a child. Colin Thiele was another one of my favourites; I got very excited when I worked with him a few years ago and got to speak to him on the phone; I loved him so much when I was younger! We’d often pass the shack where Storm Boy was filmed on family holidays in the Coorong. I also loved books by Susan Cooper, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Rosemary Sutcliff, Molly Hunter and Ruth Park. As a teen I loved S. E. Hinton and Russian novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Doctor Zhivago. Now, I love all of Shaun Tan’s books, as well as books by Melina Marchetta, Geraldine Brooks, M. J. Hyland and John Green, to name just a few … John Green’s Looking for Alaska is one of my current favourites, actually, and so is Finnikin of the Rock.

I think, as a teenager, I really hated the fakery of some books for young people and teens, and I disliked authors whose attempts to sound like young people patronised them. I disliked it when authors ‘ockered up’ too and tried to replicate Australian teen dialogue in a cringe-worthy way. Part of what inspires/motivates me as an editor working on children’s and young adult books in Australia is working on books that connect with the reader in ways that never condescend, but always inspire and engage and speak to them. That’s something I really love about Raw Blue because not only is it beautifully written, it works on all of these levels.

One highlight of editing books is the way you can be creatively involved without being the author or illustrator. I love the beauty of books as objects, and love Jenny Grigg’s Peter Carey book designs, for example, and the Nicholas books illustrated by Sempé. I also love Emily Gravett’s picture books and I loved the Cat and Fish picture books, illustrated by the now-no-longer-with-us Neil Curtis. I loved Ida Rentoul Outhwaite’s illustrations for Elves and Fairies too – there’s something quite magical about them that captured my imagination when I first saw them.

I was lucky enough to visit the Bologna Children’s Book Fair when I was living in Germany for a little while a few years ago too. It’s an amazing fair to visit and it is inspiring to see some of the beautiful books being created around the world. I also spent some time at the International Youth Library in Munich when I was living there. It’s the most extraordinary place and is housed in a beautiful castle by a lake, which often has children ice-skating on it in the winter. The library was set up after World War Two to promote tolerance and understanding between cultures, and encourages youth literature around the world which does this (via its White Ravens catalogue each year). In the cellars of the castle are shelves and shelves of children’s books in every language, there are literally millions of them – including lots of Australian ones. It’s so great to see.

Thank you Amy!

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