Mostly I love my work. This week for instance: I’ve put two budding authors in touch with agents, who I hope will enjoy reading the projects as much as I did, and also see the same potential and do what’s needed to turn potential into success. I like to think I had a hand in moving their work along a little too; it’s a rare piece of fiction that fails to benefit from a fresh pair of eyes.
But sometimes a project, or an author, comes along which/who I can’t connect with. It’s not that the work is especially bad, or the author is especially hard to deal with; it simply isn’t my cup of tea.
I’m not talking about a form or genre which is beyond my appraisal and editing skills: I know my limitations, and divert playwriting or poetry to colleagues with the appropriate expertise. The particular stumbling block I have in mind is fiction, which I’m led to believe I know a little about – but in this case of a type which, given the choice, I simply wouldn’t read. This hurdle doesn’t prevent me seeing where the narrative arc doesn’t run smooth, or the characters are inconsistent, or the plot is shot with holes; and poorly placed commas and missed apostrophes are the same no matter what the story’s about. But at its most basic – I just don’t like it.
The first law of freelancing is never turn down work; say no today, and tomorrow there may be no opportunity to say yes. And though I wouldn’t exactly starve on the street if the fees stopped coming in, my life would be a lot more frugal and far less rich in experience.
So what’s an editor to do?
It’s a fact of working life that there are always aspects of the job which are more enjoyable and inspiring than others. And mpty-mumble years of writing reviews has taught me a thing or two about recognizing quality (or the lack of it) even when what I’m seeing isn’t to my taste. So mostly I just grit my teeth and get on with it.
Fantasy fiction is a prime example. (Yeah, I know this is a blog about crime and mystery fiction; bear with me, I’ll get back to it.)
Unless it’s heavily laced with wry metaphorical humour, like Terry Pratchett’s delicious Discworld or Douglas Adams’s groundbreaking Hitchhiker’s Guide series, fantasy leaves me cold. There are more things in our own heaven and earth, Horatio, than one person could possibly comprehend in a single lifetime; why invent other heavens and earths?
But if I’m asked to appraise or edit a fantasy novel, I take a deep breath and plunge in anyway. There are a few extra conventions which don’t apply to real-world fiction, but mostly the rules are the same: unbreakable ones like the setting has to be consistent and there must be characters the reader can engage with; and there should preferably be a theme which actually means something, and the bits of plot need to connect up in a reasonably logical manner.
But I have to confess that when I’m working on a project I feel distanced from, a little voice not too far away keeps saying, I wish I was back in crime-land; doesn’t this fantasy world have an occasional murder and something that passes for a police force? When that’s done with skill and panache – Roz Southey’s brilliant Charles Patterson series, for instance – it pulls me right back into the middle of it and all is well again.
A favourite rejection ploy among agents and publishers is it’s well enough done, but I didn’t fall in love with it, and I need to if I’m to do right by it. In my last life I didn’t publish books I didn’t love – though when I was editing Criminal Tendencies, the short story collection I published a few years ago, a couple of the contributions made me blink and take a few steps back. I’m happy to admit that there are crime novels, and novelists, whose work I don’t get along with, and wearing my freelance hat I receive an occasional crime fiction manuscript for appraisal which makes me squirm.
So this week’s question is, do I trust the skillset I’ve built up over the years – OK, decades – and just get on and do the job? Or am I selling the author short if I’m not fully engaged with the work?