Over the past four years or so, I’ve taken three fiction editing courses online. Here are my thoughts and recommendations.
Trade Books: Fiction (CDPB 306)
From this seven-week course I learned how to read and think like an editor, not like an English major (which I was). The course provided an overview of the elements of fiction and practice in writing two 750-word manuscript evaluations. I found these assignments perplexing. Students are asked to edit short stories by the likes of Alistair McLeod, Jack Hodgins, Phyllis Gotlieb, and Ethel Wilson – well-known Canadian authors from an older generation. The stories have been published and, presumably, edited. I had something to say in the first assignment, but in the second I tried to find something wrong with the story when I thought there was nothing wrong with it.
The course texts were the Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich, which I found to be too formulaic in its approach, and Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French, which I highly recommend.
I would like to see this course expanded to twelve weeks and re-envisioned for distance learning. The online course when I took it was an apologetic version of the in-class course. I think there is a huge need for a comprehensive fiction editing course, and Ryerson could do better. After completing Trade Books, I didn’t feel that I had the skills to edit fiction, so I enrolled in . . .
Editing Fiction, Parts II and III
The Christian Pen
I was allowed to skip Part I because I had taken the course at Ryerson. Part II is a six-week course that covers a number of random topics such as dialogue, interior monologue, chronology, sensory detail, sentence length, metaphor, malapropisms, and plot. Part III runs for seven weeks and focuses on substantive editing and how to set up an editorial business. The instructor is Jeanne Marie Leach, an author of Christian historical romance novels and a freelance editor.
This course alerted me to aspects of stylistic editing to watch for in fiction, such as too much step-by-step description of mundane action, repetitive sentence structure, the hazards of the little words “before” and “after,” and the difference between interior monologue and direct thoughts. I was baffled by the debate about FBPs – floating body parts – which apparently is an issue in Christian fiction.
An example of FBPs from the course notes: “She threw up her hands.” Jeanne’s response: “She shouldn’t have swallowed her hands in the first place.” Aargh.
Naturally, given that these courses are offered by The Christian Pen, the content has a Christian slant. In the assignments, we were asked to edit Christian historical romance – the genre that the instructor herself writes – and the lessons referred to the Bible. I’m not interested in editing Christian fiction, but it would be unfair to criticize a Christian organization for having that teaching focus.
That said, the course notes could benefit from stylistic and copy editing, and from a more attractive layout.
The instructor provided generous feedback on the weekly assignments. I also learned a great deal from the other students, many of whom had previous editing experience in other contexts. I was beginning to feel more confident about editing fiction, but something was still missing, and so I enrolled in . . .
Introduction to Developmental Editing: Book-Length Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
Author-Editor Clinic, Seattle
This eight-week course is excellent. The instructor, Barbara Sjoholm, taught me an approach to structural editing that I’ve used ever since, such as how to take notes, write an editorial letter or manuscript evaluation, and use tables to analyze elements of fiction. In addition to practical tools, she shared her philosophy of “cultivating an attitude of positive neutrality.”
In the weekly assignments, we practiced how to write sections of an editorial letter. The assignments were time-consuming but worth the effort. In her feedback, Barbara demonstrated how I could temper my bluntness (still working on that) and communicate with authors with respect and kindness.
Note that the course is not about developmental editing in the sense of working with a concept, outline, or unfinished draft. In the parlance of Editors Canada, this is a course on structural editing.
The format of this course is somewhat outdated. Students join a Yahoo Group and access lectures (files) and discussion threads on the group site. I received an email whenever someone posted anything, which cluttered up my in-box.
Another minor complaint is that Barbara wouldn’t address questions about the business aspects of editing, such as how to estimate time and fees, and how to convince an author that their manuscript needs structural editing and not just copy editing. Instead, she referred students to another course offered by the Author-Editor Clinic on business practices.
I highly recommend the course and the text, An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors (reviewed earlier on my blog).
Invitation to Talk Shop
I’d love to hear from fiction editors. How did you acquire the skills you need?