by Michael Bedford
Published at 2021-07-28
The process of working on any manuscript presents a range of concerns specific to the manuscript’s intended genre, so don’t get caught with your space pants down. Have a look at these 5 tips on how to effectively edit science fiction.
During the substantive edit of a science-fiction manuscript, the editor acts as an informed and interested reader. Science fiction usually involves lots of imaginative elements, so it’s important that an editor of science fiction keep an open mind about the manuscript in question. Like most good writing, timely themes that refer to issues of the day provide an extra quality that make good ideas great, and science-fiction editors have the opportunity to encourage authors to explore these themes within the boundaries of the worlds they create.
The way the narrator relates to their surroundings presents specific difficulties when editing science fiction. For instance, making a Martian the first-person narrator of a story raises questions about how the narrator’s unique perspective will be communicated to the reader.
Many popular science-fiction stories employ defamiliarization techniques to highlight humanity’s strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncratic behaviours. So, rather than describe our Martian character driving to work in a car, we might instead describe them as zooming to work on a solar-powered hover-mobile, or maybe instead of speeding to work, our Martian character enters a psychic realm where dreams become reality, thus negating the need for work altogether—sounds nice!
The only limit on how far one can defamiliarize is the imagination of the author. After the author has determined the limitations of their imagined world, the editor’s job is to keep the author’s methods of defamiliarization consistent and relatable to the reader, which brings us to my first two tips on how to be an out-of-this-world science-fiction editor.
Depending on how complicated the author’s imagined world is, it’s usually helpful to employ a spreadsheet to keep particulars straight.
Using your preferred format, create a project-specific style sheet/guide.
Whether it’s a time machine, a starship, a teleportation device, or any number of other fictitious inventions, science fiction often involves a made-up technological innovation. And, much like the balancing act they must perform when determining how to defamiliarize their readers, authors and editors must also determine how best to dazzle their readers with their imagined flashy inventions, rather than bore them with overly long technical descriptions. If an author has front-loaded their manuscript with too many technical details, consider suggesting that they…
Break up necessary expositional technical descriptions and pepper them throughout the story.
Copy editing science fiction is demanding work since there is so much riding on the editor’s dedication to combing through the manuscript to get every detail right. For instance, if a character is described as an android initially, that character must consistently be referred to as an android rather than a robot or a cyborg. Each of these words has a specific meaning, so editors must determine the most appropriate term to use and then apply that term consistently. In a genre that regularly features cybernetic aliens, time-travelling doctors, spaceships that break the laws of physics, and the like, science-fiction authors ask a lot of their readers’ wilful suspension of disbelief, so it’s important that editors do what they can to keep up appearances.
Another area of science fiction that requires vigilance on the part of the editor is monitoring the use of analogies, metaphors, and other turns of phrase. Since science fiction generally showcases cultures different from any in our contemporary world, characters should employ different turns of phrase. For instance, if our trusty Martian knows little of Earth’s customs, editors must be on guard against Earthly idioms or run the risk of finding themselves up the hyper-creek without a subspace paddle.
Be very wary of idioms or risk spoiling readers’ suspension of disbelief.
Proofreading science fiction is relatively straightforward but, like copy editing and substantive editing, critical. Reading a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel once, I saw “Borg” misprinted as “Bong.” Errors of this nature are easy to make and easy to miss but they pull even the most dedicated reader out of their blissful suspension of disbelief.
The same can be said of gaffes involving the times and dates of events. Keeping time and its passage straight when writing or editing a novel is hard enough on its own without introducing plot elements that make it possible for characters to travel through time. It’s a good idea to triple-check all dates, times, and other such figures for consistency. Since many of these numbers are subject to change when developing the manuscript, it’s important to check all the math.
Finally, special symbols often play a larger part in science-fiction novels than in other fiction genres, so make sure that alien languages or insignia are consistent throughout the work.
The Three “C’s” of Editing—Consistency, Clarity, Concision—apply in science-fiction editing, but Consistency is paramount. In science fiction especially, Consistency leads to Clarity. Concision is important but, after all, the author can always turn their story into a trilogy!
As I said earlier, it’s important to allow science-fiction authors room to develop their ideas without too many restrictions. Like any book editor, editors of science fiction temper authors’ ideas by subjecting those ideas to sympathetic scrutiny. Science-fiction novels are capable of lampooning, satirizing, celebrating, scrutinizing, and much more, but they’re still susceptible to the smallest of typos, so set your shields at maximum, and make sure to turn those short- and long-range sensors up too.
Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at https://mgb-editor.com/.
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