After a pretty good couple of years back on the freelance trail, everything seems to have gone quiet. So, just for the record, any rumours you may have heard of my retirement are greatly exaggerated. Such editing skills as I possess remain at the disposal of aspiring or established authors with work in need of any attention from major revision to a little extra polish; and of publishers large or small in need of a little freelance input. CV available on request. All at very reasonable fees, of course.
Meanwhile, since that spark of whatever it is that gets the new work going is also conspicuously absent (clearly the Muse of contemporary fiction also thinks I’ve retired!), I’m taking the opportunity to look back over my archive, AKA the five boxes of dog-eared papers beginning to moulder in the cupboard in the far corner of my workroom. And let me tell you, revisiting old projects can be an eye-opener.
If it’s shown me anything, it’s that the theory I’ve lived by for ftymumble years, that every writer needs an editor hold up. In fact, it doesn’t just hold up; it should be blazoned across every magazine, website, convention programme, anywhere writers might see it. Seen through the end of the telescope formed by the passing of the years, I can be almost as dispassionate about my own writing as about a complete stranger’s; and though some of it doesn’t appear at all bad, if you’ll pardon just a tiny preen, absolutely everything I’ve looked at NEEDS WORK!
And now, with the measure of impartiality which distance offers, I even know what kind of work it needs.
In some cases, there’s some overwriting which needs to be pared away. Sometimes the concept of show, don’t tell seems to have escaped me. And occasionally... OK, more than occasionally, a whole novel needs to be completely restructured. And typos. There are always typos.
In short, I can now see exactly why these works of unmitigated genius, or so I firmly believed at the time, met with rejection from an average of eight publishers apiece.
Nine novels I wrote, over more years than I care to admit to. Lots of other things as well: short stories, feature articles, reviews, ad copy, brochure text, press releases, a lot of which found its way into print; that’s how I justified calling myself a writer. And reams of teaching materials which almost wore out, they were used so much. But always, always a novel in progress. Not a one of them published.
It wasn’t for want of trying. The first couple sank without trace, much as I do when I try to swim (must be a metaphor there), and are probably irretrievable; but when I sent the later ones to seek my fortune, the most common response I received was along the lines of, we like your writing, but this one doesn’t quite work; we’d be glad to look at something else. Which means everything and nothing, especially when there are no pointers as to why it doesn’t quite work. (That isn’t a dig at busy editors and agents; I entirely understand why they don’t give pointers.)
And now, years and in some cases decades later, the flaws and issues and yes, major problems I failed to spot at the time are leaping off the page and giving me a good shake, showing me the value of the other theory I’ve preached to aspiring writers for many of those years and in some cases decades: when you think you’ve finished a piece of writing, put it away in a drawer and do something else for at least six months; when you take it out again, you’ll see all kinds of things wrong with it which you can set about dealing with.
I’m not claiming the editing skills I’ve been honing for a couple of those decades will knock any of all of those oeuvres into the kind of shape which will blow the next editor away; the writer isn’t yet born who sees every flaw, every problem, even every typo in his/her own work, and besides, what an editor likes isn’t something anyone can predict. But even from my very personal and completely biased standpoint, I think it’s fair to say that distance has lent not enchantment, but much clearer vision.
I have a picture on my office wall of a woman wearing three hats; a friend gave it to me years ago because that was how he saw me then. These days I mostly wear my hats one at a time, but over the past few weeks I’ve felt as if I’m wearing two. And it’s... interesting.