Monday, March 7, 2011

How to Hypnotise Chickens

As a freelance editor, I get asked to work on all kinds of projects. I’ve edited PhD theses in more disciplines than I ever knew existed. I have edited corporate newsletters, family histories, biographies and meditation manuals; memoirs, short stories, poems and undergraduate papers.

But my favourite thing is editing novels, especially novels that I would love to pick up at a bookstore and read. In fact, sometimes when I’m in a bookstore I browse through a book and think, “Wow, I wish I’d edited this!”

The trouble is, most novels I’m asked to consider are simply not ready for editing. I am sometimes asked to deal with manuscripts that are so riddled with spelling and grammatical errors it would cost the writer hundreds of dollars to have me correct them. And that is often only the beginning. Many writers have not the faintest idea about basics such as show-don’t-tell and how to handle point-of-view. I reject far more manuscripts than I accept, simply because I will not encourage people to waste money on editing that would be better spent on writing classes and a few good reference books. So when someone sends me a manuscript that is well-written and entertaining, and only requires a fresh pair of eyes to help point out a few possible improvements and pick up the odd typo, I am elated.

But let me digress a little. For upward of twenty years, I was a ballet teacher. Now, children turn up at ballet classes for all kinds of reasons, the main one being that the child has seen ballet on TV and has visions of floating around in a tutu. (Those are usually girls, I’m pleased to say – I daresay I could start a school for seven-year-old budding drag queens but I doubt there’d be a living in it.)

The other reason for children turning up at ballet class is that a parent has decided Chloe or Jack would benefit from a little healthy exercise. Sometimes there is another agenda: one of hopeful expectation that their child will be the next Pavlova or Nureyev, and those I try to disillusion as soon as possible. Dancing, like all the arts, is a field to which many are called but very few are chosen. Finding that rara avis, the child who has the right build, the right capacity for hard work and the huge dollop of talent necessary to make dreams come true, is every ballet teacher’s dream. They don’t turn up very often.

It’s the same in writing. I keep looking for the newcomer who has supreme ability: the kind that can write decent English and has the capacity to move the reader from tears to laughter and back again, and have me wish the book were longer when I’ve finished working on it. I say “newcomer” but usually the kind of writer I’m talking about has already done the hard yards. S/he has attended classes and workshops, taken part in critiquing circles and possibly dabbled with competitions and short story publication, although these are not essential. What is essential is that there is a manuscript on my desk that I know I can help turn into something wonderful: a chrysalis that is ready to become a butterfly.

To find one of these in a year is good. To have two land on my desk within a couple of weeks is amazing. And that’s what happened to me last month.

So I am working on two very, very good manuscripts at present. One of them is military Sci-fi, and I hope to tell you more about that another time. The other is called How to Hypnotise Chickens, and it was written by someone I already knew from workshops, classes and critique groups.

How to Hypnotise Chickens is a political thriller with more than a dash of whimsy and humour. It has the kind of tension called for by its genre, but the main character, an African chicken-thief who somehow gets mixed up in a political coup, is an absolute delight. He is Everyman, with all the little hopes and dreams and fears of humankind rushing around in his bloodstream, ready to jump out and surprise the reader page after page. The author, Fiona Leonard, is Australian, but she has lived in Africa on and off for many years and her love for the continent shines through in her writing.

Fiona is planning to self-publish. The whole topic of an African or Arab leader who is ripe for overthrowing is so topical this year that Fiona decided not to lose the time it takes to go through the submission process with a publishing house (which can take anything up to two years to get a book on the shelves at your local store) but to race the book onto the virtual shelves of Amazon ASAP.

In a week or two, we hope to have Fiona as a guest on the blog so she can share her experiences of self-publishing with us all. In the meantime, though, you can visit her website A Fork in the Road where I was really chuffed to find that our admiration is mutual – she has lovely things to say about my editing prowess here. If you look in the top right hand corner of the page you will find a link to a Sneak Preview of How to Hypnotise Chickens. Do check it out. It’s a great read, and I have it on good authority that it’s well edited, too!

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