I love being on the Clarke shortlist—in the run-up to the award I have always appreciated that more readers are looking at my work, and this means a lot (even if the new readers don’t end up liking the book!) So while I’m in this more-visible place, I want to take the opportunity to say one important thing about Occupy Me, and that is Kelley Eskridge.
Kelley is a highly accomplished novelist, screenwriter and writing teacher. She is also the first reader for her wife Nicola Griffith, and from reading their posts at Sterling Editing I knew that Kelley had a deep influence on Nicola’s novels. That’s why in early 2014 I asked her to work on Occupy Me. I had already spent about three years struggling to get my head round it. Being out of contract after so many years of publication. I was bruised and discouraged and frustrated, and I needed a cheerleader more than anything, so like a very weary gambler I scraped together some money and took a chance. I told Kelley that the draft would be done by the end of that summer.
I was thinking of her role mostly in terms of keeping me accountable for finishing. It’s also true that at that stage of my life, I couldn’t afford a near-miss. I had to sell the book, and with my sales record that wasn’t going to be easy—I felt that I had already been written off in some circles.* Nothing less than the best I had in me would suffice. I’m not generally someone who shows their work to beta-readers, but in this case I was hoping Kelley could help me troubleshoot.
And she did! But I was in for a surprise, because Kelley did a lot more than troubleshoot. The edit that she wrote was a tremendous piece of work. I have been writing for a long time, I’ve worked with some really good editors, and I was blown away nevertheless. I want to try to articulate what Kelley does that really stands out.
First, she made me tell her up front what I wanted to get out of the edit as well as what my specific hopes and fears were—for the book, and for my writing in general. In the twenty years up to that point, nobody had ever asked me those things! It was a relief to be able to spell them out for someone who cared. She also asked for a sample of the work, which I was very reluctant to give because it was a mess. Her responses, though, were so understanding and insightful and respectful that I began to trust her more or less right away.
The edit followed through on the information I had already given her, and she placed the problems in the book (and its strengths as well) into the context of the overall picture of my writing. She could connect material in the book to the issues that she’d asked me to articulate at the beginning. Also, she was able to very specifically put her finger on the places where it was going wrong, even when the cause wasn’t obvious.
This is no small thing. Most editors can say that there’s a problem of some kind and they can maybe describe the problem, but usually they can’t accurately identify the cause, much less how to fix it. Often I have to figure out the real underlying cause as well as the solution, and this part of the process can be bloody hard because you feel like you’re groping in the dark. With Kelley it was like going to a doctor with a niggly knee pain and being told, look, your pelvis is out of alignment and that’s causing this thing with your knee. I felt like she could see right into the mechanics of how I was thinking, or, as I recall her putting it (more or less), ‘I get up inside your mirror neurons.’
On top of identifying what was wrong, Kelley made some absurdly simple suggestions that solved complicated problems in a single stroke. Gold.
The other thing she did was to let me know what was working well. There were a lot of passages in the book where I was in doubt. I worried I’d pushed everything too far. I figured I’d be ridiculed and I half-expected her to advise me to rein myself in. Almost without exception, those were the places where her feedback was hugely encouraging. She gave me the courage to stand my ground and be real.
I had the sense that she was with me inside the flow of the work and every move she made was designed to make me better. In fact, I learned a lot about my writing in general as a result of working with Kelley. That knowledge has stayed with me and helped me.
I wrote one revision of the book before it went out to publishers, and after it sold it went straight to copyediting. So I’ll state the disclaimer that weak areas remaining in the book are down to me, of course—I couldn’t fix everything. But I know that a number of people who read this blog are also writers. I wanted to put the word out that if you are looking for a freelance editor who can not only improve your novel, but your writing in general, then I wholeheartedly recommend Kelley Eskridge. If you can get her, work with her! She’s amazing.
*It was the ‘been there, done that, let’s find a fresh new girl instead’ type of thing that I could smell in the digital air. I could be imagining it, but have heard it said openly about women who are older than I am, back when I was the fresh new girl. So I know exactly what it is.