Abigail Nathan has been a freelance editor for over ten years, specialising in genre fiction, including speculative fiction; YA; romance and erotica. She edits for various Australian publishing houses, including HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, Penguin and Harlequin, as well as publishers in the US and UK. She also works regularly with emerging and self-publishing writers, mentoring and helping them to develop their work.
Abigail runs Bothersome Words Editing & Writing Services and blogs at http://www.bothersomewords.com/blog and on twitter at @BothersomeWords. She is also the website coordinator for the Society of Editors (NSW) Inc. and occasionally presents workshops for editors on freelancing, social media and marketing.
You’ve worked in a wide range of roles and edited lots of genre fiction! Do you continue to learn about editing and narrative?
Always! I learn something from every manuscript I work on and from every writer I work for or with. When you edit, essentially you’re analysing the writing. I have learned more about writing, and the rules and processes thereof, by reading and working on manuscripts than from studying editing itself.
For me, editing properly requires getting inside the writer’s mindset – it’s the only way you can (try) to slip into their voice and style when you’re making changes to and suggestions about their work (assuming you want your efforts to appear seamless and invisible), and in the process of doing that – picking up their style and habits and tics – you work out why a particular thing does or doesn’t work. For an editor, it’s a great way to learn how and why certain writing and editing rules exist and how you can either enforce, ignore, or work around them while staying true to the writer’s voice and intent.
I learn as much from new writers who are still developing their skills as I do from writers who have really mastered the craft.
People are always telling writers they need to read a lot and broadly if they want to get better at what they do. The same is true of editors: you need to read a lot, and figure out what does or doesn’t work in a piece if you want to be able to edit well.
I spend a lot of time reading and discussing language and writing with other editors and writers, too. And I still regularly take courses on writing and editing. No one knows everything and there are always those “oh, that’s so obvious” things to learn that somehow passed you by.
What are some of the best (and worst — if you want to go there) aspects of the editor-writer relationship?
Best: being allowed to work on someone’s beloved story or manuscript. Actually collaborating and sharing ideas and solutions and getting involved with a world they have created. Any time you feel you might have helped or made a difference (in a good way). I love stories and I get to play inside them for a living. Having an author trust you with the keys to their innermost thoughts and imaginings is pretty special.
Worst: I work with a lot of new writers, many of whom know nothing about the industry. It is always ALWAYS tough to be the one to burst their bubble by explaining that this first manuscript is not going to mean they can quit their day job at the end of the year, or possibly ever. And giving feedback is always harrowing. Despite our reputation, most editors are not harsh critics out to ruin dreams, but often we do have to tell people they might need to do some writing classes and rework from scratch the manuscript they sent in…rather than sending it to a publisher as is.
OK, that looks really unbalanced! I *love* my job, to be clear. And I really love working with writers at all stages of their career. I just don’t like to have to give enthusiastic people news they don’t want to hear. Crushing someone’s dreams isn’t fun.
Congratulations on receiving a grant from the Australia Council to attend UK conferences for skills development. Can you tell us about your conference plans and presentations, and any specific research areas you are interested in?
Thanks! Currently I am set to present a workshop on editing for writers at NineWorlds Geekfest, and I’m on a panel about editing at LonCon3. I’ll also be attending the International Edinburgh Book Festival and FantasyCon in York. In between whiles, I’ll be doing a bit of a bookish tour around the south of England, visiting various writers’ spots and homes so I can get a feel for the sort of places that inspire/d them.
It’s all part of a research project into writers and their processes. As I said above, I learn best, and work best as an editor, if I can understand how a writer thinks. Learning what inspires and helps different writers in their own approach to writing and creating not only helps me to provide edits and feedback in terms they are familiar with, but it helps me to advise and mentor writers who still want to develop certain skills. I am going to be listening to and talking to a lot of novelists and publishers and industry professionals, but I am also really keen to learn more about the writing habits and techniques of writers outside books. I’m hoping to talk to fanfic writers, scriptwriters, and comics and game writers about how they each approach and develop their projects. They all have slightly different considerations and the final products have slightly different aims and requirements to a novel manuscript, but a lot of tips and tricks will cross over. I am hoping to develop a kind of arsenal of different exercises, techniques and suggestions I can use to help both editors and writers develop their skills.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
Oh gosh, how long have you got? I am really behind and in danger of serious injury from my to-be-read avalanche pile…
I have been privileged to work on Karen Miller’s upcoming The Falcon Throne, which is going to be amazing. I am still (shamefully late) working through Trudi Canavan’s latest series. I’ve brought a massive stack of Australian ebooks overseas with me, so ask again in a couple of weeks!
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
I’m not sure they’ve change how I work, precisely, but I am required to do different things these days. I get a lot more work from private clients – either those who wish to self-publish and want a lot more help and advice, and need more detailed edits with fuller explanations. Mentoring and support has become a bigger part of my job. I also find that work requirements from trade publishers have shifted a bit and certainly for digital imprints the workflow is slightly different and a lot faster. There is a lot more combining of editorial stages.
If I could predict the future, I’d make millions! I think publishers will start experimenting even more with digital publishing and this might mean a bit more variety. Already publishers are doing some great things and are more willing to take chances on things that might be considered too risky for print. For example, I just worked on a choose-your-own-adventure style series for adults/YA and digital is really perfect for that. Novellas and even much-longer-than-usually-accepted work are also more possible and accepted in digital since there are fewer cost and binding concerns, so I suspect we’ll see more of that. And at some point someone will work out how to make add-ons and apps work in some really obvious and usable way for novels (especially fantasy and scifi) and I think that will become accepted and expected in a way they aren’t quite yet. There are things available already, but largely these have not been embraced by readers. Yet. However, the next generation of readers is being brought up on ebooks and reading onscreen/online and they will have far different expectations/understanding/preferences than those of us still recovering from an all-paper world.
All this will mean editors might be expected or required to edit slightly different supplementary material. And I think freelancers like me will be expected to understand and use templates and management systems in a way that isn’t quite universal yet.
When I first started out I was doing a lot of things on paper, but it’s nearly all on-screen now and it’s not unheard of for editors to be expected to know how to code and format as well.
Having said all that, five years is a lifetime in publishing these days, so I’m not sure I can guess!
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and collating the links at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: