Write Advice: editor Diane Johnstone takes questions on editing and agents

Diane Johnstone
22 June 2017
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Mo Harber-Lamond

Many of our Faber Academy alumni are ready to send their manuscripts to agents and editors. To give them an insight to the process, we invited editor Diane Johnstone to our online chatroom to take their questions on agents, literary consultants and when a piece is ‘finished’.

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Writing a Novel: the first 15,000

Q – Hi Diane, and welcome! We’re really happy to have you here this evening. To start off with, can I ask you at what stage you prefer a manuscript to be sent to you – first draft, or completed manuscript?

Diane Johnstone – It’s a pleasure to be here. I usually find that even a ‘completed’ manuscript needs more revision! A first draft is fine. As long as I can see where the story is headed, I can suggest things that might be of help.

Q – It’s probably an impossible question, but how do you know when to stop editing a manuscript?

DJ – Goodness, that might be an impossible question… You could probably go on and on changing things, but I think eventually there comes a time when you think ‘this is as good as I’m going to get it at the moment’. That’s the time to send it to someone like me, who’s looking at it with a fresh eye. I’ve never yet received a manuscript which didn’t need some tweaking here and there. I think you should follow your instinct – stop if it all seems right.

Q – Does ‘editing’ cover everything from correcting typos to suggesting major plot changes?

DJ – If you hire a literary consultant, the contract you enter into is usually quite specific. Major plot changes are part of the service you would expect, but correcting typos and punctuation is usually charged extra. I once had an author who always wrote ‘women’ when he meant ‘woman’. I would certainly point this out, but it would be his job to go through the manuscript and alter the spelling.

I’ve never yet received a manuscript which didn’t need some tweaking here and there.

Diane Johnstone

Q – Is it common for you to recommend structural changes to a draft? For example, changing the order of some chapters and possibly even the starting point? My current story isn’t too bad, but I’m so embroiled in the details it’s hard to get an objective overview myself.

DJ – Yes, I frequently recommend structural changes. I quite often find that the author has started the story in the wrong place. For instance, if there’s a lot of backstory, the author probably needs to start further back so that the backstory becomes more immediate. It is hard to be objective when you’re living and breathing your story, but a good point to remember is that readers like to be in the ‘now’. They often aren’t nearly as interested in what happened in the past as the author is! That’s one reason why you should avoid writing prologues unless you absolutely have to. Prologues get the reader used to one time-frame, and if they have to suddenly adjust to another, it kind of jerks them out of the world you’ve just put them in.

Q – If a new writer asks you to work with them on a novel, and after reading what they’ve written you genuinely believe they don’t have the ability or talent to get published, do you tell them?

DJ – I try never to say to someone directly that they don’t have the talent for publication. I’ve seen some pretty ghastly manuscripts in my time which haven’t a hope, but what I usually try to do is suggest they buy or borrow books on creative writing. I also spell out the basic building blocks of a novel, and ask them to make sure their story follows this framework. I might sometimes say that they have chosen an ambitious subject for a first-time writer (usually true) and suggest they try writing something with a simpler plot. Dashing their hopes isn’t really my job – it’s a conclusion they should come to themselves.

Q – Do you find that the best scripts you have edited have a simple plot?

DJ – Not necessarily a simple plot, but authors absolutely need to be in control of what’s going on. I find a lot of first-time authors want to write fantasy, but get lost in their world which they haven’t thought out properly, and where nothing is logical. You could say there can’t be logic in a magical world, but things need to follow the rules.

A literary consultant can easily be found on the internet, and there are lots of firms who specialise in helping would-be authors to polish their novels.

Diane Johnstone

Q – How does one get in contact with a literary consultant, and what do they actually do?

DJ – A literary consultant can easily be found on the internet, and there are lots of firms who specialise in helping would-be authors to polish their novels. They’ll likely set some sort of standard and ask you to send in your first three chapters or so in order to evaluate your writing style. If they think you are worth helping, they’ll tell you so, and if not, they’ll turn you down. They are quite expensive, but if you believe in yourself and your work it’s a very good way to go. You’ll get excellent advice. If they really like your work they’ll suggest agents for you to apply to, or do it for you, but that’s usually after several more drafts.

Q – After assessing manuscripts do you ever suggest agents, and go the extra mile with them if they get turned down after sending an extract?

DJ – I would definitely suggest agents if I thought the book merited it, and would be glad to work with the author to see what could be put right if their first submission was rejected, but if I was being fair to the author I’d probably suggest they try another consultant because I’d be too close to their work.

Q – Do you usually only do one revision of a book with an author, then? For example, if a writer sends you a first draft and you review and make recommendations, would you expect to see the same script again for more revisions, or do writers typically use another agent for each round to keep it fresh?

DJ – I usually only get one go at assessing a book, but it’s lovely if the author trusts me enough to come back for a second slice, particularly if they have listened to what I suggested the first time round!

Q – Finally, what are your ‘pet hates’ in writing?

DJ – Well, there are plenty! One is historical fiction where the author has barely done any research, and there are howlers on every page. I don’t like accounts of battles which go on for eight pages or more (or even which go on for eight paragraphs, unless they’re surprising or funny). I’m also not a fan of books with no humour at all anywhere, and children’s fiction in the style of 50 years ago. I could go on…

Q – Diane, you’re given us such great answers. Thank you very much for joining us!

DJ – Thank you for having me. Good luck with all your writing!

Diane Johnstone

Diane Johnstone has worked with writers and the writing business for many years. She used to read film scripts for a London film and theatrical agency with a view to casting suitable clients. Books she has helped to edit have been published by Viking, Orion, Hodder and Simon & Schuster. She has also worked as a mentor for students on Falmouth University’s MA Professional Writing course.

Writing a Novel: the first 15,000 online course

Begins: 24 January 2018