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PI Interview: The Geography of The Undiscovered: Rachel Pierce


 PI    How long have you been editing fiction?

RP     I have been editing fiction since I began working as an editor, about 15 years ago. I started with The O’Brien Press, where I was very lucky to work with Íde Ní Laoghaire and Frances Power, who taught me how to be a good editor. O’Brien has an extensive children’s list, of course, and I worked on a number of titles, such as Out of Nowhere by Ger Whelan, The Cinnamon Tree by Aubrey Flegg and Gyrfalcon by Grace Wells. There wasn’t much adult fiction at that time, but I did get to work with authors such as Maire Cruise O’Brien, Polly Devlin, Brian Feeney and Ivana Bacik. I began editing the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly series while at OBP, starting right back at book 1, The Miseducation Years. I’m still working with Paul Howard on that series today – something neither of us could have foreseen ten years ago. I set up my freelance business in 2004 and since then have added lots more adult fiction titles to my list, including books by Sinead Moriarty and Amy Huberman, for Penguin, and books by Louise Phillips and Emma Hannigan for Hachette. I continue to edit other genres and non-fiction books, but I find fiction editing hugely enjoyable.


PI     What attracted you to this line of work – why fiction?

RP     When you start out, it’s more a case of taking what you’re given – your head editor assigns titles to you and you do your utmost to produce the best book possible each time. So at the start, you don’t specialise in any way. In fact, I like being a general editor because I value the variety it brings to my work and experience. However, I have always enjoyed fiction editing because it creates a very particular dynamic between editor and author. Together, you collaborate to produce the very best that author is capable of writing – it requires trust and mutual understanding and delicate handling because the author is allowing you into their creative process. I love being part of that. During the editing process, you form an alliance with the author that is exciting and creative. By its nature, fiction is amorphous, less compliant than non-fiction, which means that editor and author have to pull together to ensure everything comes out right in the end. It’s a process no one else can see, no else will ever fully know about, but you two – author and editor – know it and that forges a bond between you.


PI      You have edited a wide range of genres from fiction to political memoirs. What, for you, is the biggest difference between editing fiction and editing non-fiction?

RP     I think non-fiction is generally – not always, but generally – more straightforward. You are often working with an expert author, the content is decided well in advance and it is logical, there will be illustrative material to take care of, but the author will be working hard on that too, so it’s quite a self-directing process. As the editor, you are a project manager and you need excellent organisational skills. Fiction, on the other hand, is less predictable. The submitted manuscript is more fluid, it is very open to change and rethinking, which means there can be so much for an editor to get their teeth into. You have to read and assess many different facets – POV, pacing, plotlines, characterisation, how the story starts, unfolds and ends. This means it’s a big job, with lots to think about and tackle, and that, quite simply, is what I love about it and what makes it so uniquely interesting.


PI     You are also a writer yourself. Do you find this helps you when it comes to working on a project?

RP     I have only become a published writer in the past year – my first children’s book came out in May 2012, with the sequel released in February 2013, so I’m still very new to it. I found that being an editor was very helpful when writing, certainly. For me as a writer, the editing process was really interesting to view from the other side. What it has given me is, I think, greater empathy with my authors. I suppose it’s a bit like being an art historian but never in your life having tried to apply paint to canvas – you’re missing a piece of information that is hugely helpful to an appreciation of the subject. So until I produced a book myself and engaged with an editor, I was missing something, even though I didn’t know it. Now that I have done so, I feel it has clarified the writer’s position for me – how lonely it can be, how desperately you await feedback, how your editor’s response can change a bad day to a good day. I’m very aware of these things now and try to be as careful of authors’ feelings as I possibly can be. On the minus side, being an editor can at times make writing more difficult. Sometimes I realize that I’m not starting to write because I’m too busy editing a book that doesn’t yet exist. It’s all too easy to get caught up in trying to line up everything perfectly before you begin the actual writing. If you fail to realize that you’re doing this, you can lose a lot of writing time. I’m trying to be vigilant about this and to prepare to a certain extent, but then to make the switch from being an editor to being a writer – it’s something I have to sternly remind myself of from time to time.


PI      Margaret Atwood wrote a blog post advising writers on editing their work in which she said that the beginning of a book ‘is the key signature of the book’ and that it introduces the leitmotifs and sets the tone. Do you agree with this? How easy is it for an editor to decide on what tone the author intended or should an editor need to decide at all?

RP     Certainly, the opening of any book is crucial because it can urge a reader forward or make them put the book down. You’ll usually find that an author has rewritten the opening many times – the first words you write when starting a new book are immediately seen as ‘temporary’, I think, because that’s the only way you can get going – to promise yourself you will revisit it. When Atwood describes the opening as a key signature, she is suggesting that it signals to the reader what the central tone of the novel is, in other words the sort of story it will be. Again, I agree with that – as the writer, you are introducing the reader to the world you are creating and it must be true and authentic from the first word. In terms of the editor, it’s usually clear what tone the author is setting out to achieve and also clear – from the first paragraph – whether it has, in fact, been achieved. The author is working within a genre that they know very well, so they will be well versed in scene-setting. That said, it is of course the case that the writer can write a weak opening – the common culprits here are: a lack of information about the protagonist, which can produce a sense of being adrift in an alien place; a delay in getting to the heart of the matter, in other words an overly wordy, self-conscious opener; starting with the wrong character or POV, which again delays matters and leaves the reader feeling rudderless; or simply a lack of strong images or pointers as to the tone/meaning/trajectory of the story. This last point refers back to Atwood’s invocation of the leitmotifs, which are the thematic ideas underlying the story. She is right to say that these, too, must appear in chapter 1. For a master class in this, look at Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending – he toys with this ‘rule’ by immediately giving the reader a list of unconnected, intriguing images, which can only be understood by reading and finishing the novel. That sort of inventiveness lights a fire in the reader that only reading can quench.


PI      On-screen editing has become an increasingly central vehicle with the advent of digital technology. What is the most crucial difference between print and screen in terms of editing?

RP      This is difficult to answer because it’s so long since I enjoyed print editing. As a freelancer, you have various lead-in times, multiple projects on the go at the same time and usually not much paper in your printer because overheads must be kept low, so I think of print editing as a luxury of days gone by. Authors now expect to receive their scripts by email, with changes tracked – it’s a quick and easy way to manage the script and update it continually. In terms of the difference, when you first switch from print to screen, it’s actually quite difficult – you’ve been trained to work with the page, and the screen seems somewhat hard to manage. The downside of print editing, of course, is that you have a double layer of work: the edit, then inputting the corrections. But as with most things in life, once you have made the transition, on-screen editing is easy and efficient. It makes it very simple3 to show an author how something will read if, for example, chapter 14 becomes chapter 3, as you’re suggesting. I think for authors, too, the on-screen version never feels final, so it acts as a safe, neutral space in which to try out ideas and work through the edits and suggestions. Once it has been printed out, the text immediately assumes greater importance and it can be more difficult to envisage changes. So all in all, I think on-screen editing is the editor’s ally.


PI      When it comes to editing a manuscript, what are the biggest issues you come across in terms of managing the process effectively and accurately?


RP      The issues faced by an editor will often depend on the genre in which they are working. For example, in non-fiction books there can be the question of images to be sourced and copyright to be cleared – this can be the bane of an editor’s life if there are lots of images to clear. Obviously for this course we are focusing on fiction editing, which has its own specific challenges. The biggest issues are the quality of the initial editorial report, the subsequent discussion with the author on the structure and suggested changes and how you choose to handle the rewriting. The editorial report prepared for the author must be detailed, supportive of the story and what the author has achieved and yet also very clear and specific on the problems within the story. Alongside this delineation of the problems in the script, it is important to provide possible solutions to those problems so that the author doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the extent of the report. Once the author has read and digested the report, the next issue is to sit down together to discuss it and hammer out the approach to the reworking. Again, this must be handled very carefully by the editor in order to avoid alienating the author and hampering the whole editing process. It is important to be very precise when describing your reactions to the story and your reasons behind each suggested change. Finally, there is the issue of organising the revisions between editor and author. For some authors – particularly experienced ones – it will make sense to let them tackle the revision alone and in its entirety, based on all the points you have agreed in your editorial discussion. For other authors, particularly debut authors, they may wish to have a little more support in this phase of the process. This might entail, for example, sending the editor batches of chapters for feedback at regular intervals. As editor, if you feel that an author is a bit overwhelmed by your report and the work it involves, or if you feel they don’t have a really strong grasp of the problems you have described, then it also makes sense, in those circumstances, to operate in batches of rewrites, so that you can follow the new thread of the story and avoid more major reworking in the third draft. The editor’s focus and aim at all times is to mesh with the author’s own creative process and contribute positively to it.


 PI    When does an editor overstep their bounds in terms of correcting an author’s work?

RP     The old chestnut tells us not to try to edit the book to read the way we would have written it, and I think that’s perfectly good advice. Yes, you will get deeply involved and passionate and vocal about this script and your efforts to perfect it, but you can never lose sight of the fact that it doesn’t belong to you – that’s very important. It’s like that old joke about the person asking for directions only to be told, ‘I wouldn’t start from here’. The fact is that the author has given you the starting point, and that is the place from where the editing begins and to which it returns. That said, I am a firm believer in hands-on editing. I don’t shy away from making comments of any and all hues, and I will suggest any change I think will benefit the book, regardless of how radical that change sounds to the author. The way I handle it is to preface all comments by reminding the author that everything is a suggestion, for them to consider, and that nothing is final until the author says it is final. I think for me, the only way you could really overstep the bounds and break the trust with an author is by making revisions and not showing them to the author prior to publication – that would have to be the mortal sin of editing.


PI      What do you see as the most common mistakes that writers make in their manuscripts?

RP      In fiction, the common pitfalls are things like too many narrative voices, choosing the wrong opening or the wrong ending, pacing problems and inconsistent characterisation. It is terrifically difficult to plan and write a novel or short story. The author is trying to do an awful lot of things at once and it’s easy for one element or another to slip through their fingers. The question of POV can often be the first one an author asks: who shall I use to tell this story? Sometimes a lack of confidence can lead to the wrong decision, which can affect the balance and scope of the story. Likewise, the pacing of a story is central to its success and the reader’s satisfaction, but lots of plotlines means lots of work to get the structure perfectly right. If I had to nominate the single biggest problem for writers, in my experience, I would say structure – and that goes for fiction and non-fiction. In fiction, there are just so many ways to tell a story, so many places to begin or end it and one ill-fitting decision can disturb the whole delicate balance you are trying to achieve when writing it. As an editor, this is usually your first and greatest service to a work of fiction – assessing the structure in close detail and making recommendations to ensure it’s exactly right.


PI       What is the most frustrating thing about working with fiction?

RP       The process itself is fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable. The downside is when a book you love, have laboured long over and believe in does not sell well. That’s a difficult blow. Some authors are lucky – they get their first break and they are off, soaring onto bookshelves across the country and garnering a following. Others do everything as they ought to, try so hard and for some reason no one can adequately explain, their work does not take off. If you are the editor of such an author, you both feel bruised from an experience like that.


PI       What kind of advice do you hope to offer people on the Publishing Ireland Fiction Editing Course?

RP       Obviously no one can teach ‘how to edit’ in six hours, but I think the central pillar of the day will be the idea of the editor as a force for change, but change that is measured and counted carefully, that enhances and elucidates on every level and that is, at all times, change for the good of the story. Once we all come away understanding that, we will have mastered the fundamentals of fiction editing. A writer I love to read is Wallace Stegner and he was, by all accounts, a very gifted teacher of writing too. He noted the following: ‘Nobody can teach the geography of the undiscovered. All he can do is encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few of the dos and don’ts of voyaging.’


Rachel is a highly experienced editor as well as an author herself and will be giving a seminar on Friday 10 and 17 May on Fiction Editing for Publishing Ireland’s seminar series. For more information about this, contact 

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