Friday, June 27, 2014

Editor Interview with Marissa van Uden

I love falling into a story and just going along for the ride, but I also love capturing a story and examining it like a naturalist would, trying to figure out what makes it tick and how it turned out so beautiful.

I started out editing National Geographic books, and have been editing full time for over five years, working on all genres but specializing in science fiction and fantasy. I love my job: being able to help storytellers bring their ideas to life and seeing them grow as artists is incredibly rewarding.

What type of stories do you most enjoy editing? 
I specialize in my two favorite genres: science fiction and fantasy. I love the way these genres work like telescopic lenses to zoom in on certain elements of what it’s like to be human. SF/F can incorporate flavors and structures from literary fiction or any other genre, like mystery, romance, adventure, but because they use speculative worlds as a setting the author is free to remove or enhance cultural ideas or technologies we usually just take for granted. I love the open-mindedness and possibilities of SF/F.

What book are you most proud of having edited?
Some standout novels I’ve worked on recently are TheScorpion Game by Daniel Jeffries, TheCasquette Girls by Alys Arden, and the Harbingerof Treason by Bayard Smith. I’m also working with some up-and-coming authors on their shorter fiction, like Eduard F Vinyamata who just published Drone Commander Tidek, and Justin Mermelstein who regularly publishes beautiful fantasy novellas. But I feel more grateful than proud to have been a part of their production. It’s amazing to get the opportunity to work with new artists and see them bring their stories to life, one sentence at a time. 

What does your editing process look like from start to finish?
My process depends on which editing stage we’re in (developmental, substantive or line editing) and how far the author wants to push their work. At its heart, editing is all about understanding the author’s intentions and making sure their voice is coming across to readers as they want it. So I generally start with an open-minded and compassionate reading (more relaxed than analytical) to get a feel for story and mood, and to jot down first impressions. Then I’ll do a series of closer reads to diagnose problems, challenge weak or unclear writing, and offer the author suggestions, solutions or just new directions to consider.

How do you decide your pricing?
My range of fees is based on the Editorial Freelancers Association’s guidelines and my cost of living (manuscript editing is my full-time job), but every project is different, and I tailor my pricing to the authors needs. Basically, I start by reviewing the manuscript to get a feel for the story and for the author’s writing ability, and together we discuss the work that needs to be done. A big part of the pricing depends on the author: what they’re willing to invest in terms of finances and also post-editing revision time (i.e. do they want light surface edits they can just accept or reject at a glance, or are they looking for deeper and more challenging edits that could result in multiple rounds of revisions?). Once we know how much time we can give the manuscript, we can tailor the editing to focus on the most essential stuff and do as much as possible within that timeframe. 

What do you charge?
It depends on what kind of work the manuscript needs, and how much work is required to get the manuscript to where the author envisions it. Generally my rates fall between $3 and $8 per standard page (250 words). 

What are some of the typical mistakes you see writers make?
Lately I’ve seen many scenes written as if the author is describing what they see on a TV show or film. The narrative perspective floats behind the character like a camera, recording visuals and audio but not much else. We can see the character in the setting but we don’t learn what it’s like to experience it. 

The novel’s advantage over a film is that readers can go deep inside the character’s mind and imagine what it’s like to be someone else. They want that realistic human experience, not a realistic movie-watching experience. If someone’s in the mood for a film, they’ll go watch one, but when they pick up a novel, they usually want to be immersed in the psychological and sensory world of the character.

What are some things you think writers should look for/be wary of when hiring an editor?
After you’ve found an editor who has the level of experience and skill you are happy with, the most important thing is to make sure you understand each other. It doesn’t matter how great an editor is, if they don’t “get” you or your vision for the story then how can the collaboration bring out the best in your story? Manuscript editing is an act of translating the author’s imagination to a large group of readers’ imaginations, so your editor has to understand you and your audience.

What should a writer expect (or not expect) out of an editor?
An editor can help give you direction and perspective, and help you hone your writing by diagnosing the weaknesses and pointing the way to good fixes. They’re like a local guide you’ve hired for the difficult part of your journey. You should expect them to use their knowledge and experience to give you good advice and practical suggestions. You should not expect them to re-write your story, impose their own style, or guarantee you success.

What do you think makes a good editor?
Manuscript editors looking at story and content have to master some peculiar skills, like being able to adopt multiple mindsets (the author’s, the readers’, and the characters’) and then jumping back and forth between them. They have to have a kind of detective-like personality so they can keep a sharp focus while spending hours crouched over a single chapter, searching for tiny inconsistencies in the story and checking that everything stacks up. They need to have a good intuition for what’s working in a story and what’s not, good communication skills so they can explain why to an author, and good puzzle-solving skills so they can help rearrange the pieces so that everything fits.

When you’re not editing what do you like to do?
I love to learn new things, so I read loads of non-fiction as well as fiction and take online courses about science and the universe. When I’m not reading or studying, I like to take photographs, explore new towns, watch stand-up comedy, and gaze at the planets.

Freelance manuscript editor, specializing in science fiction & fantasy
Twitter: @marissavu

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