When I am asked if I edit my authors’ work, I say that I do, but that’s not quite how it feels. Editing (in my imagination) is an organised, professional activity involving sharp pencils and methodical thinking. My clients’ talented editors do inspired work with text to elevate every book to the very best form it can be. But my job is a little different: as my authors’ first reader, the scripts I receive tend not to be complete – either they’re half-books or they’re draft-ish – and my feedback on them tends to the chaotic too; all impressions and ideas and rambling discussion. And then a clear picture emerges; of the book the author is working towards, and a path towards it.
What it really feels like, when an author invites me to read their unfinished manuscript, is as though I have been handed the keys to their private house, to wander freely from room to room, picking up their most precious possessions, leafing through the books on their shelves, looking through the wardrobe. The house is the book they have built word by word; the rooms their stories; the view from the top window their inspiration. It’s all newly built – if you’re the first reader, you’re the first to be invited to see how beautiful and warm the house is – and whether the roof leaks, too.
I leave my mark, of course, like any common trespasser. Once I have read a book, and the characters are real to me, and my author and I have speculated madly about what might happen next, implausibly I am allowed to leave a trail of evidence that only she and I can spot – proof I was there. I’m no Goldilocks; I don’t eat the porridge and sleep in the bed. I have been known to reorganise the kitchen cupboards and repaint the bedroom though… it’s a loving interference I offer. When I leave, it’s almost always the same house it was before; maybe just better lit. Occasionally, more radically, it might have a new facade or a different, hilltop, situation.
I read my authors’ books like an emotional reactor, set to go off if I feel sorrow, fear, anxiety; or to sound an alarm if I thought I would, and didn’t. When I finish, we talk about how I felt throughout my read, and whether it was what the author wanted, what I had wanted. I set a metronome early on in my edit (oh it is editing, I do know that) so I pick up on dischord should the pace drop. And I develop an ear for the narrators’ voices quickly, so I can alert the writer, should a character’s point of view falter, or change, or get lost.
And what a joy, what a privilege it is. When I was a child, reading under the covers at night, I made worlds of books and imagined myself into them. And now here I am: you wrote me in. There I am, dancing in the flames of the burning house (thank you, S); there I am, the working mother fighting to be heard (thank you, V); there I am, staring in awe at my newborn baby (thank you, R); I am Robyn lying on her back in a barn staring at the cockerel’s eye (thank you, K); I am Amber running to the beach (oh E); I am Rachel, alienated and alone (thank you, P); I am Payasa, with a gun in her shaking hand (thank you thank you, R).
What an honour. Thank you, dear authors, for making room for me. I will repay you in the only way I know how: by loving your book even more than you do and doing my best to ensure that as many others as possible get to feel what I did.