Friday, 29 January 2016

Meet the Editor: Catriona Troth

By JJ Marsh

There are many advantages to being in an author collective, the most valuable being the skills each member contributes. Many years ago, I spotted Catriona Troth on a writers’ critique site. Smart, perceptive, erudite, critical yet tactful, she was one of people I really wanted to read my work. In fact, it was Catriona who first had the idea of an author collective – a team based on mutual support. Unsurprisingly, she has now become a professional editor. We had a chat about how she does what she does so well.

What kind of editing do you do?

The first thing to say is probably that I am not a proofreader, or a copy editor. Nor can I give specific market advice. I am a structural editor, which is quite a different job.

My approach is to take a helicopter view of an MS and provide an overall report. In fiction, I am good at spotting where scenes need to be reorganised, say, and I will home in on inconsistencies and anachronisms. I do a close read of a manuscript, but I will typically make one or two in-line comments on average per thousand words – far fewer than proofreader or copy editor would.

I have also worked on a number of non-fiction proposals, helping authors to work out how to structure their ideas and present information. I spent twenty years writing reports based on technical data for a non-technical audience many of whom did not have English as a first language but who needed to understand the implications of the results. It gave me a good grounding in how to organise information so that it flows logically, and how to express it in a clear, concise and unambiguous way.

How would you describe a successful author/editor relationship?

The point of a critique is not to impose my vision on the manuscript. The story is and remains the author’s. Whatever suggestions I make must respect the author's own voice, style and intention. I always begin my report with the aspects I thought were strongest. And while I will be clear where my concerns lie, I focus on asking questions, offering reminders and suggesting developments, while encouraging the author to fill in the detail and find the solutions that work for them.

As for the author, they need to be able to take any criticism on the chin. But they also need to remember that the editor's view is just that - a view. If after they have listened to what the editor has to say and given themselves time to digest their comments, it still feels wrong, then they should stick to their guns.

Can you give some examples of your work?

Some of the aspects of a manuscript I focus on are:
  • Overall plot arc / Pacing 
JD Smith’s powerful series of short novels about the Palmyrian warrior princess, Zenobia, are fast paced and packed with action. But occasionally the early drafts fell into the trap of repeating in dialogue things that the reader already knew, or dwelling too long on passages where not much was happening.
  • Use of place
JW Hicks’s dystopian novel, Rats, is clearly set in a future version of Britain, but originally in no specific location. As a fan of the TV series, The Walking Dead, I knew how much that gained from being set recognisably in a devastated Georgia. I encouraged Hicks to ground the story in a landscape she knows well – the cities, mountains and valleys of south and west Wales.

  • Character development / sketched characters 
Again in Rats, the main character's love for her pet ferret leapt off the page. But I didn’t feel the same immediacy in her relationship with her lover, Striker. I pointed out a few scenes where taking us in a little deeper would draw out Bit’s feelings and engage the reader.

  • Voice, symbolism 
I hugely admired the virtuosity with which Barbara Scott Emmett created the ‘historical’ documents she threaded throughout her novel, Delirium, about a lost poem by Rimbaud. But when she wrote in the voice of Rimbaud’s teenage wife, I felt she let Rimbaud (and her own?) irritation with the young woman creep in, rather than fully inhabiting her mind.

I also encouraged her to bring out the full impact and symbolism of one shocking discovery along the trail of discovery.

  • Consistency over a series 
Your detective, Beatrice Stubbs, has now appeared in four novels, set in different European cities. Beatrice is a good detective, but she has certain defined characteristics and eccentricities which readers come to love. I try to spot and point out whenever she veers away from those (such as when, as a noted gourmet, her response to an invitation to dine aboard a large cruise ship was less snobby than I might have expected).

  • Fact checking
I am always fairly good at spotting where facts need to be checked, and will either check them myself or suggest that the author checks. But as my mother came from the Welsh speaking family and I know Anglesey well, Gillian Hamer has had a particularly hard time from me - querying everything from geology to how to give a dog commands in Welsh!

  • Sources and copyright
I am very conscious of how important it is for authors to acknowledge their sources and to check copyright for quotations etc. Copyright law, and the concept of fair usage, varies between territories, so in this age of global publishing, it is particularly incumbent on authors to ensure that they remain within the law.

One of the manuscripts I worked with in most depth was the third book in Liza Perrat’s The Bone Angel trilogy, Blood Rose Angel, the story of a midwife battling the plague in medieval France. Early drafts of the novel suffered from two problems. First, Perrat’s passion for her subject had allowed her research to get in the way of the story. Secondly, there was a structural problem with the development of the plot lines. Rather than allowing a build-up of people and circumstances ranged against her lead character, Heloise, till she reached her lowest point, Perrat was either starting at too low a point (in one version) or allowing a normal, untroubled state to continue too long (in a second).

In this case, I offered a report covering:
  • Development of particular characters
  • Trajectories of particular plotlines (such as the progress of the disease, the impact of the disease on village life, the attitude of the villagers to Heloise, and Heloise’s relationship with her husband)
  • Use of language to suggest a historical period
  • Themes and symbolism
  • Structure, pace and ending
In addition, I provided a marked up copy of the manuscript with specific questions that had occurred to me as I read, ranging from consistency re use of names to historical details such as when playing cards were first introduced to Europe.

How do you approach working with a new client?

If it's a writer whose work I don't know, I like to have an initial meeting (which these days can be via Skype) so I can understand exactly what the author is trying to achieve. After that, I am happy to offer an initial assessment of a chapter or two, just to be sure that we both feel we can work together.

For fiction, I would then read the whole MS and return a report that gives both an overview of its strengths and weaknesses and in-line comments pointing to specific issues.

The process for non-fiction can be more iterative, but my initial feedback is likely to include:
  • an initial map of how might be presented
  • suggestions for changes to the structure
  • an assessment of any gaps
  • some ‘friendly challenges’ about the ideas presented

What the clients say:

Liza Perrat: Catriona did a fabulous job of restructuring the entire plot for Blood Rose Angel. From an ill-defined, wayward storyline, she established a clear and solid plot arc, defining themes and symbolism. She also pointed out inconsistencies and anachronisms and told me to “cut the historical facts and concentrate on the story."

Gillian Hamer: Catriona's input into my novels has been invaluable from the first (The Charter). She has a natural editorial eye and sees things no one else would. She is encouraging and tactful, but also matter of fact when changes are needed. Consistency, story arc, accuracy and character development are only some things I rely on her for. Even if I don't always agree with every one of her suggestions, she always makes me think.

JJ Marsh: Every one of my books has benefitted from Catriona's gentle touch. Editing can be a particular kind of hell, as if you and your Precious are being beaten, slashed and made to do sit-ups. Somehow, Catriona makes the experience painless, almost like a therapeutic massage, from which you emerge clear-eyed and relaxed in the knowledge you have a far, far better book.

JD Smith: Catriona is more than a line-editor, she really gets to the heart of your book and the crux of the emotions between characters. She spots things no one else would, and really provides and indepth evaluation of the inconsistencies and narrative issues  my books face, not to mention making me check all my historical facts!

JW Hicks: Once Rats was, to my eyes, finished done and dusted I was reluctant to change a word. But Catriona’s illuminating editing removed the scales from my eyes and made me realise that my fictional future world needed grounding, needed deepening, needed to be made  ‘realer’.
That I achieved this, is all thanks to Catriona.   

To contact Catriona about editing, send an inital email to catriona[dot]troth[at]gmail[dot]com, with the subject line Editing Enquiry and some details about your MS.
For more information, see Library Cat Editing Services

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