We spoke to author Nicci French – a crime/thriller writing team formed of husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, and their editor at Michael Joseph, Joel Richardson, to get their views on writing and being edited ahead of the publication of their eighth and final book in the Frieda Klein series, Day of the Dead.
The Author view: Nicci French
There are novelists, so we have heard, who don’t have editors. They insist that their books are published as they wrote them, word for word, with no changes except for the correction of a few spelling mistake.
In our opinion those novelists are reckless fools.
To any sane novelist, your editor is your advisor, your best friend, your therapist, your safety harness, your lifebelt, your parachute and your spare parachute in case the first parachute doesn’t open, your safety net in case the spare parachute doesn’t open.
When we deliver our novel, we have been living with it for a year or more. It has been a part of our lives, we know the characters better than we know our own friends, we have inhabited their world, moved through their homes, walked the streets with them. You love them all, even the bad ones, you feel protective of them. Sometimes too protective. You have to let them go.
An editor – a good editor – can provide that most valuable of things, a fresh pair of eyes. You know the book backwards. The editor represents the reader encountering it for the first time. The comments can be trivial: Bess in the first half of the book becomes Beth in the second half. A character takes an impossible train from Paddington to Colchester. (Trivial but important: mistakes like these chip away at the reader’s trust in the author.)
More important the editor can ask questions? If you’re writing thrillers, the questions are often: why did she go there alone? Why didn’t she call the police? For any novel there are questions like: Is this chapter really necessary? Would the story be better without it? (‘It took me two months to write’ is not an adequate answer.) The questions might be decidedly ominous: does this section really work? They can be painful to hear. But it’s better if they come from an editor. If they come from readers, it’s too late.
And then there is a larger matter. A really good editor can see the book you were trying to write: the book inside the book, the river inside the flood. They can help you liberate that book. We work together as Nicci French and so there’s a way in which we are each other’s editor as we go, changing and erasing and correcting and adding, saving each other from large and small mistakes. We think we deliver reasonably clean copy, but we can never be that vital, critical, creative reader.
The Editor view: Joel Richardson, crime and thriller publisher at Michael Joseph
At the risk of rubbing it in, being an editor is a wonderful job. But it might not be the specific wonderful job you’re thinking of.
Some people presume that our role is dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s –many of my friends loosely believe me to be a glorified human version of spell-check. Getting those details right is incredibly important, but we have brilliant proof readers who do a wonderful job of looking after them. What I do is a little different.
As an editor, I’m lucky enough to read a book’s first draft – or, at least, the first draft that the author feels happy to share, since they might do a lot of work on it before letting it out of their sight. Being the very first reader of a book is a real privilege, and it lets us work with the author on each and every element to make the book as strong and satisfying as can be.
Every manuscript is different, and so every edit is too. Sometimes there might be a supporting character who just needs to be a little more interesting; sometimes it might be a fantastic story where the pace just drops off a little bit in the middle. Sometimes – whisper it – we might even suggest changing the ending.
But it’s not our job to make these changes, just to help the author to do so themselves. That’s why the relationship between author and editor is so crucial – you need to share a vision of what you want the book to be, and to trust one another’s instincts about how to get it there. An edit isn’t a list of instructions but rather a conversation: often the most successful edits will come about when an author agrees about the problem that I’ve picked out, but has a solution to it that I never would have imagined.
Of course that means it can be a daunting prospect to begin working with a new author – will we be on the same page about the book, and will we be able to work together to perfect it? Luckily, in this case I needn’t have worried. The first draft of Day of the Dead (the last book in the Nicci French’s Frieda Klein series) was brilliant, and a better read than most finished novels. It’s been a real privilege to play a small part in making it even better: I think readers are in for a treat.