I’m so pleased to be bringing you another edition of Unsung Heroes. Today I’m chatting with Kate Coe, and editor and formatter.
In the world of books there are so many people that ensure a book is successful in their own small (or even big) way that get overlooked in most cases. So I wanted to shine the light on those people, if only for a short time and celebrate the work they do. From Editors to Cover Designer to Photographers to PAs, there are a whole slew of people working to ensure a book is successful and I’m hoping to speak with a variety of them about what they do and why they do it.
Kate and I met at a Grimbold Books event about 18 months ago now and had a really nice chat, we’ve kept in touch since and I’ve been really interested to see what she does…this was the perfect opportunity.
She is an author, an editor, a formatter and has even done a bit of web design. This is one talented lady, when she said she was interested in taking part in Unsung Heroes I jumped at the chance and her answers really give you a feel for what it’s like to be in her shoes.
Kate Coe – Editor and Formatter
Tell us a bit about Kate
Hello! Thank you very much for having me on the blog 🙂
I’m a jack-of-all-trades; I’m a writer, editor, proofreader, formatter and book reviewer, and in my normal life I’ve been a librarian, web developer and administrator…I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was young, but decided that involved too much rain and not enough Indiana Jones, and buried myself in books instead. I’m now a professional editor and formatter, and my TBR pile is constantly threatening to take over my house and e-reader.
Tell us what being an Editor entails
Reading books! Unfortunately, it’s not all pleasure – it’s reading with a critical eye, working out the manuscript’s strength and weaknesses, and offering suggestions to improve. Editing can be anything from pointing out plot holes to tweaking the language, or both in the same piece. It’s also supporting the author, working out what’s most going to help them, and guiding them to make the most of their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.
I’ll usually work in Word with track changes on, but occasionally in Google Docs, and I do sometimes convert manuscripts to ebook to read (although I hate doing it as I can’t comment on them). I’ll then either go back to the author with a letter or send the manuscript back with comments attached. After that it’s usually a bucket-load of emails back and forth, or sometimes face-to-face meetings (with tea and cake) to discuss any questions, problems or potentially complete rewrites that the author wants to do. Once they’re happy, I’ll do another read, and either agree that the manuscript is ready for copy-editing, or we’ll start the comments-email-changes cycle again!
Tell us about the formatting side of things.
Formatting is turning the manuscript into print-ready or ebook-ready text; it’s the fonts, spacing, indents, page size, file type…
I’ll typically get the manuscripts in docx format. I then use InDesign to create a print format (usually 5×8 or 6×9 books) and I can tweak the fonts, change the spacing, add images…it’s all fiddly, and I love doing it. From the InDesign file, I then save a pdf for upload to things like CreateSpace, and also save an epub file. I’ll then amend that (I use Calibre) to make sure that the html works; I did web design for a while so it’s basically like making a webpage! I then save the epub file and convert it to mobi, and we’re good to go.
Formatting is one of those things that sounds really simple (she says, because I thought that before I started) and once you’ve got set up, it is… apart from the details, like quotation marks going the wrong way and font sizes being 1px too big. You need quite a pedantic mind to be good at formatting!
What led you down this career path?
Being a writer, really! I’ve always read for friends, either just reading through short stories or helping with a novel or just reading because they asked me what I thought, and because I could often see what would improve the manuscript, I got more people asking me. It was never on a paid basis, but it was something that I enjoyed doing, and it definitely helped my own writing as well.
Then when I submitted my novella series to Grimbold Books, I asked Sammy if there was anything I could help with – and she gave me a novel to edit. And then another. And then some proofreading. And then another four novels. And then some formatting. So I’ve sort of built up over the last couple of years to be a professional editor and formatter on a freelance basis, and I’m now just starting a role as a full-time professional paid editor (which is, frankly, terrifying and exciting at the same time.)
What types of editing are there? I know many people aren’t aware that editing comes in different shapes and sizes.
There’s a couple of different stages to it; sometimes you might have done them all as the author, and sometimes you’ll go through them all with different editors or readers – it depends on what your piece needs! The first is an alpha read; literally reading your first draft to work out if there are major plot holes or your character suddenly changes motivation for no reason. The second is a beta, when you’ve sorted all those major bits, and now want someone from the outside world to read it – which is usually a friend or writing buddy. They’ll likely point out plot holes, character problems, where you need more (or less) worldbuilding…at this stage you’re ideally looking at the larger problems, and your changes could be anything up to a rewrite. You can look at smaller stuff, too – smooth your language, add more description, tweak a character, that sort of thing – but if you’re potentially looking at a rewrite to fix That Major Plot Hole, there isn’t much point in doing small tweaks as you’re likely to lose them in the rewrites anyway.
After the major stuff, you’re then looking at a structural edit; this is usually the point you’ll come to a professional editor (or send it off to your agent or publisher). You’ve ironed out all the flaws that you can see, and you’re now asking someone else what they think. This is usually the thing that has professional authors chewing their nails and takes the most time, because a structural edit could come back with “I think you need to change the whole thing” – or could just come back with “it’s excellent as it is, tweak this and we’re good to go!” This is the stage of the process where you could end up with multiple drafts; you may fix a major problem in one edit, but it’s then led to a host of minor problems which need fixing in the next one. The aim is to keep improving the book every time, and ideally get smaller and smaller with your changes – so over the course of the major edits, you’re going from the big details (“if she can’t actually pull the sword out of the stone, she can’t save the world”) down to the smaller details (“if she’s still carrying that sword around, does she need to have found a scabbard for it?”)
After that, you’ve got a copy-edit – which is aiming to look at your language, and how you’re saying what you’re saying – and then a proofread, which will literally just look for errors. At this stage, you ideally shouldn’t be making any major changes: that’s not to say that you can’t if you suddenly spot something or think you need to add/remove something, but it means you’re putting your manuscript back into the top of the cycle again.
The process sounds simple, but sometimes it’ll get condensed (you might go from a major structural plot hole to a copy-edit if that was the only issue) or you’ll spend endless drafts trying to fix one small problem! The process will always vary by book and author, even if the basic outline of stages is the same.
How does an author know what type of editing they need?
It’s worth being aware of where you think you are on the cycle above (alpha, beta, major edit, minor edit, copy-edit, proofread) and ask someone to read accordingly. I’d aim to have 1-3 people read on a beta-read, and just remember to take all advice with a pinch of salt: my rule of thumb is that if two beta-readers say the same thing, it probably needs changing – and if they say completely opposite things, it also needs changing! After that, you probably want to stick with one reader/editor, which is where the professional comes in.
Also, if you’re not sure, ask. If you say to an editor, “I’ve just finished my book and a couple of people have read it but I’m not sure what it needs,” then they’ll read accordingly. The worst thing, to me, is someone who gives me a book for a proofread that has glaring structural errors or plot holes, because then I have to go back to them and gently explain it probably needs more work before it’s proofread, and that’s just an awkward conversation all round. A good editor will be honest with you – if you give them a book for a full structural edit and actually, it’s pretty much perfect, they’ll tell you.
There must be times you need to provide more critical feedback. How do you handle that?
Focus on the good, but be honest about the bad. It’s not about correcting flaws, it’s about pointing out the weaknesses so that the author can correct them! There’s also a certain level of objectivity as an editor: I can make the suggestions, but if the author doesn’t want to follow them then that’s fine. It’s their name on the book, they’re the one publishing: they’re the one taking the risks and they need to do what they think is right for the book, which includes ignoring me! Part of being an editor is acknowledging that I’m not always right.
Also, on the author’s side, cake. I have regular meetings with one of my authors that I beta-read for, and we both agree that cake is absolutely professional. Critique hurts, whatever level of the writing profession you are! Take a night off, cry into your ice-cream or eat your bodyweight in cake, weep that your editor is horrible and Just Doesn’t Understand You…and then sit down and get on with it with as objective an eye as you can. (I’m a writer too, and I hate my editor sometimes. Cake definitely improves the situation.)
Some people question the need for an editor. What does having an editor add to a novel? How does it change the work?
Well, ok. You don’t need an editor. In the same way, you don’t need a proofreader. Or a formatter. There’s absolutely nothing to stop you writing something, checking it yourself, and putting it out there. But…
The thing to remember is that an editor is always trying to improve your work; and that, as the author, you are always in charge of your writing. I see the editing process as a conversation, and that’s reflected in my editing style. I’ll highlight something I think is a problem, and suggest a possible solution – but then if the author comes back and says, “actually, if I just did this…” because they know their book, and wow, that fixed it and two other problems at the same time! The editor’s role is to look at the weaknesses of your manuscript, but it’s always up to the author to fix it.
I think there are people who see editors as killjoys, or critics – and to be fair, some people have had very bad experiences with editors. In the same way that there are all types of writers, there are all types of editors, and not every editor and writer will get on. But that doesn’t mean that the editorial process is meant to be horrific – it’s not. You just might not have found an editor with the right style for you, and it’s worth keeping looking. Same with beta readers – not every reader will be looking at the same thing, and if you’ve found someone who picks up on the things that you’ve been worrying about as a writer, bribe them with chocolate or cover them in gold or just KEEP THEM. A good beta reader and a good editor are absolutely worth having if you want to improve as a writer.
I also figure that if a manuscript has weaknesses, as a writer I’d rather hear that from an editor (and have time to cry into my ice-cream before I go fix them) before it’s published, than publish it and then see a review with “THIS IS AWFUL BECAUSE FLAWS!” and then not be able to fix anything. Just saying.
So, basically, an editor is there to help. They’re the check on your writing, the critical eye before the world sees it, and they’re aiming to make your book better. You don’t have to agree with every suggestion – and if you can argue back with reasons, absolutely do! – and you might have to hunt around to find an editing style that you can work with. An editor will make you rewrite, will force you to learn, will tear your work apart – but then they will also help you put it back together and become a better writer.
The same question for the formatting. Why is getting a book professionally formatted so beneficial?
We deal with all the details! For example, Kindle mobi is fairly temperamental about how you’ve converted your mobi file, which I know and deal with. CreateSpace can throw a fit over margins (been there, done that). Spacing gone wonky? (Sorted). Which of the thousands of fonts is going to make your book look professional? (Try these three examples).
I had an author who’d tried to format their own ebook recently comment to me, “Do you have to check every page? It takes forever!” Yep, except I can cheat – my software lets me tweak and takes a lot of the spacing hassles out (seriously, if you’re thinking of using MS Word to format, don’t. Just pay a formatter. Please.) And it means that you don’t have to check every page, because I’ve done it for you.
That said, there is a lot of good software out there, and it’s certainly a lot easier than it was to format your own book – most of the self-publishing sites have very good guides. The downside tends to be those details, and the amount of time you end up investing in finding answers to the error codes or just getting that spacing working…and if you can hand it off to someone else who can do it and tweak it far more easily, it’s a lot easier to just send an email saying, “Can we try a different header font?” than it is to find, install and get the font working yourself.
Also, if I format something then I get to play with pretty fonts, and that makes me happy.
How do you keep track of everything you need to do?
Trello and a paper list, plus my calendar! My memory isn’t great thanks to my depression, so I know I need to write things down to keep track of them. I also give people rough timeframes, so they know when they can bug me – things don’t often fall off the list but they do get pushed down it, so I try to keep everyone updated.
You are also an author, would you like to tell us a little about your own work?
I write the sparkpunk (electricity and Renaissance technology!) magical Greensky novella series, which is currently up to six books with another three due out in the next year! They’ve been called “delightful” and “like Ghibli”, and follow a variety of characters in the same world. I also write in an urban fantasy universe which is definitely not delightful, but is great fun: there’s various shorts out, and hopefully a novel (or three) coming out soon.
Do you want to share any links promo material with us?
I format and edit freelance for Book Polishers (www.bookpolishers.com), and you can find my blog and ramblings at www.writingandcoe.co.uk. Also check out GrimboldBooks.com for our amazing fantasy and science fiction books – some edited by me!
Thanks so much for taking part Kate, I’ve found it so interesting finding out more about the editing and formatting processes, especially as I’m just wading into that minefield myself. It’s also good to find another fan of Trello boards!
Are you an Unsung Hero? I’d love to hear from you so that I can show the world what you do and how you do it. There is a sign-up form on this page.