Q&A with freelance editor Karen Conlin

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Karen Conlin is a self-employed editor who works with fiction and nonfiction books. Her prior experience includes editing at gaming company TSR. Conlin is the 2018 winner of the Robinson Prize awarded by ACES: The Society for Editing. In this interview, conducted by email, Conlin discusses her work past and present, and her interest in register.

Q. Describe your work. What is your typical day?

A. Let me stress that mine is probably a very atypical day, because not only do I work from home, I’m also the chief caretaker of my granddaughter when her mother’s at work. So …

After the usual morning routine of making breakfast for whoever’s awake (usually just myself and my husband, but with a toddler one never knows!), I head up to my work space and dig into emails and administrative cleanup. When that’s done, I look at the projects on my plate and prioritize them.

Right now, for example, there’s this interview, an article on register for an upcoming issue of Tracking Changes (the ACES newsletter), and the tail end of a copyediting job on a novel set in the Old West in the late 1880s. That’s the order in which I’ll tackle those, and if I have time later, I’ll write a blog post for Grammargeddon! about forming plural possessives. Never hurts to review the basics!

In between those, I’ll be toddler wrangling. I might be able to finish everything I plan, but then again … toddler!

Q. Earlier in your career, you edited for TSR, the company that then owned Dungeons & Dragons and other games. What was it like editing material for role-playing games?

A. I always say that working there was my favorite job as an actual employee of a company. The designers/developers (which is what our writers were called) were so creative!

I didn’t even mind that my first two weeks were spent reading rule books. All of the rule books. ALL of them.

That was before AD&D 2nd Edition, so you might think it wasn’t so bad — but the D&D line was included in my workload, so I had to read all of the BECMI rules, too. (I think that series stopped at Master, at that point. My memory’s hazy, though.)

Editing RPG material is a strange blend of technical editing and fiction editing. So many rules!

And you have to ensure that they’re all followed, which was the hardest part because those creative designers always wanted to find ways around the rules to do what they wanted rather than what was allowed. I learned a lot about diplomacy (and I don’t mean the board game, but we played some of that, too).

Q. You’ve led sessions and workshops on register. What is register, and how does it affect how you edit?

A. Register is a concept from linguistics, normally applied to people’s speech. However, I think it’s just as applicable to writing.

The five main registers are frozen, formal, consultative, casual, and intimate. The correlations are as follows:

  • Frozen is language that never changes, like memorized prayers (think Catholic mass or any number of Protestant recitations, like the various creeds).
  • Formal is most often found in medical, legal, or academic writing, although with the plain-language movement that’s changing slowly and there are fewer words the average reader or listener won’t understand.
  • Consultative is the register of meetings with professionals, like a parent-teacher conference or a visit to your doctor. There’s an assumption of mutual respect, and the language is less formal and more “everyday,” without dropping into slang and other marker of the next register, which is casual.
  • Casual is the one we use with our peers (coworkers, for example) and the one we hear most often around us in daily activities. Sentence structure is less rigid, and word choice can include slang terms and “verbal shorthand” like “Ready?” for “Are you ready to go?”
  • Intimate is used with loved ones, family, and closest friends, and can include in-jokes and terms no one else will understand because they’re “on the outside.”

I edit fiction, so I don’t see a lot of frozen or formal register. In my work, the narrative language is most often consultative or casual, depending on the narrator; dialogue, though, can be anywhere on the map.

Keeping a character’s register consistent is part of the job for me. If they start out speaking casually, why do they shift to consultative? Does that shift make sense within the story and between the characters involved?

Q. Congratulations on winning the Robinson Prize. What does this honor mean to you?

A. Honestly? I’m still amazed that my work was judged best of all the submissions/nominees.

I’ve read since then, though, that part of the reason I was awarded the Robinson was that my work exemplifies the direction in which editing is headed, and in which the membership of ACES has gone and continues to go: freelance/independent contract editing, whether that’s for fiction (which is what I do) or for a corporate client, a mainstream publishing house, an academic press, or what have you.

I always have said I have my clients to thank for my success. That’s never truer than now. Along with the samples of their edited work, their recommendations and testimonials showed the panel of judges what they value most in my work (hint: it’s not my grammatical prowess, although that’s very important), and I owe them my heartfelt thanks for this award.

Q. What advice do you have for students considering work as self-employed editors?

A. Don’t expect to support yourself on freelance editing right out of the gate. Have a solid source of income, and use your editing to supplement.

If you’re going into, say, medical or academic editing, talk to others who already do that work and ask them if they have suggestions on how to make a go of it. Most of the editors I know who do that kind of work have publishers for clients.

Fiction editing’s a whole ‘nother ball game, as they say. It’s rather like my current project — the Wild West. I’m lucky to have a good stable of repeat clients at the moment, but when their series come to a close … I’ll be looking for replacements. There’s no opportunity to sit back and relax, because you need to keep the work coming in.

And even so, this is my favorite job. Hands down. It ain’t always pretty, but it’s satisfying.

Follow Karen Conlin on Twitter and read posts on her blog.

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Student guest post: Rethinking editing — my journey from editing news to reading books

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Molly Weybright is a junior studying journalism and creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill. This summer, she will be an editorial intern at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

As a college student, figuring out what you love is one challenge, and synthesizing what to do with it is another.

I always knew that I loved books, reading and writing, but it wasn’t until I was a junior in college studying journalism that I discovered my knack and love for editing.

I love reading and editing — now what? As I tried to figure that out, I started to learn about the field of book editing.

Lindsey Alexander, the editorial director of The Reading List, told me that to be a book editor, I had to love books and reading, have a good sense of trends in the market and be able to give constructive feedback to authors and agents.

To me, it sounded perfect.

So there I was finally feeling like I was discovering what I was meant to be doing. Books and editing, what could be better?

But as with any career path, I quickly discovered some misconceptions and challenges I would have to overcome in order to succeed as a book editor.

Different Types of Book Editing

In the process of researching book editing, I learned that there are four different types of book editors who are involved in different aspects of the book publishing process. There are project editors, developmental editors, copy editors and acquisitions editors.

Project editors and developmental editors work with authors during the writing and production of their books. Copy editors edit manuscripts line by line to correct grammatical errors and inconsistencies. Acquisitions editors read through book proposals and manuscripts to determine whether the publishing house should acquire the books.

While project and developmental editing sounded interesting, I was more interested in working with the physical books than I was in working with authors. So, I thought, copy editor or acquisitions editor?

Both positions are so distinctly different, but to me, the idea of reading books for their content and quality rather than looking for every error was appealing. Also, most publishing companies offer internships as editorial assistants to acquisitions editors.

Acquisitions editor it was.

Thinking Differently

Naively, I thought that once I decided what form of book editing I was interested in, it would be smooth sailing from that point on. Not only did I have a background in editing, but I also study creative writing, so I figured it would be an easy learning process.

I was wrong.

After interviewing with the local publishing company for an editorial intern position, they gave me a test. In less than a week I was to read an unedited first draft of a 400-page manuscript and decide whether the company should take the book to publishing.

I could not have foreseen the difficulty I had with reading that unedited manuscript. It was possibly one of the hardest things I’ve done since being in college.

Earlier in the year, I read “The Subversive Copy Editor,” from which I learned that authors operate on a different plane than editors. In other words, as authors write, they don’t always pay close attention to grammar, punctuation and spelling. In order to get their thoughts on the page and write their story, those editorial aspects are often pushed aside.

I discovered the truth of that while I was reading the manuscript. Every misspelled word, every grammatical error, every incorrect sentence structure jolted me out of the story that I was trying to analyze.

Throughout the process I developed tactics to help me read the manuscript without getting too distracted by my learned newsroom copy editing techniques, but it wasn’t easy.

Book Editing Strategies (That Helped Me)

I had to get out of the mindset of a newsroom copy editor. So what did I do?

There were four main things that helped me refocus my frame of thought:

  • Jot down edits onto the manuscript as needed. The manuscript is there to make notes on so I found that making some copy editing marks helped to ease my mind.
  • Make note of the common errors on a separate sheet of paper so that I knew I had already accounted for them.
  • Remind myself of what my job was: to decide if the story needs to be told. If a book is brought to print, it will get copy edited by someone; it will not be published with the errors.
  • Think about the first draft of any paper or story ever written and remember that it’s never perfect. Also, I tried to remember that what I was reading was someone’s hard work and a huge accomplishment.

This was a learning experience for me, and I got the job. This summer as an editorial intern I know I will encounter more challenges, but my experience as a news copy editor will help me overcome them.

Q&A with Kathleen A. Flynn, author of ‘The Jane Austen Project’

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Kathleen A. Flynn is a copy editor at The New York Times. Her debut novel, “The Jane Austen Project,” will be released May 2. In this interview, conducted by email, Flynn discusses how she researched and wrote the book, and how it was edited. (Photo by Bryan Thomas, 2016)

Q. How did you get the idea for “The Jane Austen Project”?

A. It came to me in a flash, not everything, but the main idea: a time-traveling physician sent on a mission to Jane Austen, a terrible price for achieving an amazing thing. I felt chills go down my spine. I thought, I can totally do this! For some reason I never stopped believing that.

But no idea comes from nowhere. It had to do with what I was reading at the time: the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian (“Master and Commander,” etc.) about a British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars and his friend, a doctor. These are like Jane Austen novels, except with sea battles – in their wit and subtlety, their depiction of human nature – and of course they take place in her time. Two of Austen’s brothers were captains in the British Navy and could have met Jack Aubrey, had he been real.

These books make the past come alive in a way that is very unusual and hard to do, and they made me start thinking about Jane Austen as I never had before: as a person, not just an author, and wondering what she was like. Because she wasn’t famous in her lifetime, there is a lot we don’t know about her. I found myself wishing there was a way to go back in time and get some answers. It made me sad we couldn’t. Then it struck me that I could — in a story.

Q. How did you go about researching, writing and pitching the book?

I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels; other novels by writers of her time that she would have read; biographies and discussions of her work. I also read to try to get a sense of what life was like then: books about household management and 19th-century cooking, biographies of some other important people of the time.

Eventually I traveled to England, to see the neighborhood where Jane Austen would have stayed in London (unfortunately her brother Henry’s house has been replaced by something larger and Victorian), and some other notable things, like a house museum and this weird museum about the history of medicine. I went to Chawton, where the Jane Austen Museum is in her last house, and to Winchester, where she died.

Although I had read many novels and even attempted to write one earlier, there was a lot to learn: about the architecture of a novel, about how to convey information gracefully, about sentence structure. How to keep going, how to make it all cohere. What to show, what to summarize.

When I finally had a draft that I didn’t completely hate, I did a manuscript workshop. There were five of us, and we all, plus the instructor, read and commented on each other’s novels. This was a big step because I finally had to show it to someone. It was also helpful reading other people’s work, thinking about what worked and didn’t.

I revised it for another year or so after that, and then I started trying to identify agents who might be a good fit and sending them queries. And mostly heard no or nothing.

It’s hard to think about how to describe your own work, how to interest an agent who’s never heard of you and has an inbox full of queries. I was not connected to the literary world at all. How I found my agent was this: I read a recently published novel that I liked very much and learned (by reading the acknowledgements) who the author’s agent was. I emailed him and said: I really loved X, I’ve written this book that is not like X exactly but has these certain similarities, would you consider taking a look?

It’s important to emphasize that all these things were true — I don’t think this approach would work if they weren’t. And that’s no guarantee it would have worked in any case, although it did in mine. Eventually.

Q. You’re a copy editor. What was it like to be edited?

A. It was fascinating and humbling. Naturally, I am a fan of copy editors and believe in the importance of editing.

I imagined I had done a pretty good job with at least that part of it, but the copy editor found several mortifying things I’d missed, including typos, a wrong birth date for a character and a number of dangling modifiers. And HarperCollins has its own house style rules on things like hyphenation, numbers, and the serial comma, which I had repeatedly violated. Everyone needs an editor!

Another cool thing was the “style sheet” they sent to me along with the page proofs. Part of it was a list of words from the book that needed style attention or a ruling of some kind, like capitalization or hyphenation, for consistency.

Reading this list was a strange experience, because the words seemed so odd out of context: banditti (pl), beetroot, bell cord, belowstairs, brickworks, coal smoke, country-gentry (adj), curlpapers, dairymaid. … Another part was a list of the names of all the characters in the book, the page where they first show up, and age and eye color, if mentioned.

This seemed quite obsessive! But also important for consistency. How to remember otherwise, a hundred pages on, if someone had green eyes and now they have blue? It made me realize how copy editing a book must be more challenging than editing even the longest piece of journalism.

Q. What advice do you have for other journalists who want to write fiction?

A. Journalists have some advantages: They are used to working with words, they are sensitive to the power of story, they are used to being edited and being rejected. But most of us tend to think in the short term; it is a big mental adjustment to the long time horizon required to write a novel.

I think writing journalistically is also something we need to overcome. Newspaper prose is functional: Its main aim is clarity and directness, but it can also be clunky. Ideally fiction should be a pleasure to read, with a kind of subtle music created through word choice, variations in sentence length, rhythm. So there are some habits to break, and new ones to get into.

I would advise reading lots of fiction – all kinds, but especially the kind you want to write. Read analytically, thinking about what works and what doesn’t. Get in the habit of writing regularly, and try to find a community of people who are also interested in writing.

One useful piece of advice I came across is that there are two basic ways to keep writing despite discouragement and setbacks: developing a work ethic that keeps you going even though the world does not care or notice, or having an idea that you are so on fire with that you can’t help working on it, because you’d rather do that than anything else. Ideally you’d have both, but sometimes having one is enough for a while, and then you can see your way to the other.

Follow Kathleen A. Flynn on Twitter and Facebook, and order a copy of “The Jane Austen Project.”