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Ellah Allfrey
Ellah Allfrey

Ellah Allfrey is deputy editor of Granta magazine. Until August this year she was senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House.
Click image to buy from Foyles
Click image to buy from Foyles
The Thrills of the Invisible Technician

I stalked one new writer for five years before she finally delivered her book. At least twice a year, every year, I would send her what I hoped was a tantalising catalogue of forthcoming titles and an email asking after her general health and, more importantly, the state of her book. I had met her when I went to speak to a group of creative writing students who, during the session, read out the opening chapters of their books. By the time she was on the third sentence I was hooked… and so I waited. And sent little messages.

          Having recently left book publishing to work on a literary magazine (albeit one that looks very much like a book), I already miss that magical moment when I pick up the phone to say ‘Yes. We want to publish.’ Knowing the years that have gone into ‘becoming’ a writer, the months spent perfecting plot and prose and the loneliness of waiting for responses once a book is sent out into the world, being the one to say ‘yes’ more than makes up for the hours spent reading submissions that only ever make it as far as the recycling bin. That ‘yes’ is the very best way to start what, in all cases, is the most intimate of relationships.

          In the end, the author I was stalking finished her book and I bought it. While the bulk of books published are filtered through agents, commissioning editors dream of having the time to discover new talent on their own. I found one book trawling through reports of Arts Council research grants awarded to authors. I have also had the pleasure of being pursued by a persistent first-time novelist whose first book I turned down, but whose heart-stopping submission letter for his second finally won me. One author came to me having already received thirteen rejections from other publishers. Whatever the journey a book has made from its author’s computer into the editor’s hands, all efforts are rewarded when a manuscript picked up at nine in the evening is down to a few pages at two o’clock in the morning – and there is no chance of sleep until the last one is turned. That feeling of having read something truly extraordinary is, in the best circumstances, a bleary-eyed prelude to convincing colleagues (and the sales department) to take a gamble on a new writer.

          For me, the thrill that comes from publishing a debut is akin to that sensation every bibliophile stalking the shelves is seeking: the supreme delight of finding a story that one hasn’t read before, new characters with whom to populate daydreams, a journey to a new place. Helping someone bring that story to the reading public is at once a delicious pleasure and a daunting responsibility. However, after that first rush of new commitment, the editor’s job is to put on her glasses, hunker down and become her author’s best reader. After the author, an editor should know and understand a work better than anyone else.

          A high level of technical skill, an ability to spell (or to know when spellings are wrong) and a strong command of language are all standard requirements for an editor. But more important than these, I am sure, is the ability to understand how stories work. This is something that is difficult, if not impossible, to describe accurately. It comes from being the child who read with a torch under the covers, the adolescent who forged permission slips for the adult section of the library. It comes from reading…and more reading. Deep and total immersion in stories. Of course, this could also be a description of what makes a good writer; and indeed it is in this commonality that the relationship between writer and editor, when it works, finds its alchemy.

          The period between delivery of a final typescript and publication of a book is usually a year to eighteen months. For a debut, certainly, that ‘final’ should always be considered a draft. The months after an editor buys a book are spent in what should be exhaustive reading and re-reading of the work and constant questioning. Would the character really say that? Isn’t that an anachronism? These two chapters need a better link. Why has her hair colour changed? Surely he would have fed the dog first? That song wasn’t written until 1964. And for the book that has anything unusual about it (say, a talking circus lion who could be a manifestation of psychic trauma, or a private investigator who is part of the persecuted non-lycanthropic minority), the reading should involve total surrender to the reality of the world imagined by the author. It is the editor’s job to work out what the underlying rules are and to make sure the reader will be able to suspend disbelief. This is reading as engineering: do all the parts work well together Are all the joins hidden? What is it on this page that removes me from the story? How do we fix that? In some ways this is a guessing game, but these questions, and the answers to them, hashed out in the conversation between editor and author that precede the redrafting of a work, are what make a good book better.

          It is the editor’s job to understand her author’s vision, to ensure that readers will want to turn the pages– and to buy the next book. Along with this restructuring and refining, there is the less than glamorous word-by-word reading that finds spelling mistakes and repetitions, eradicates authorial tics and enforces punctuation; the choice of page design and typeface to compliment the story; the clearing of permissions and acknowledgement of sources. This is the making of the physical book that can be the most satisfying (if only because it is tangible) part of the process. And then there is the title, the cover treatment, the marketing campaign…and if one is lucky in this difficult market, the readings, book signings, festivals and (a fantasy even the most level-headed cannot resist) the prize submissions.

          There is a sense of ownership over the books I have published that doesn’t quite match anything else. It is hard to resist sidling up to an innocent punter reading one of ‘my’ books on the bus to ask for confirmation that yes, it is indeed, very good, perhaps the best thing they have read. And I always stop to admire (and turn face forward) any of my titles that I pass in a bookstore. But in the end, the author is the talent and the editor a technician. My job is to take the author’s story and to make it into the best book it can be. A good editor should, when all is done, be completely invisible.

          Books referred to in this piece:

          Forest Gate by Peter Akinti

          True Murder by Yaba Badoe

          Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele

          Advice for Strays by Justine Kilkerr

          Bareback by Kit Whitfield




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