Tuesday, June 12, 2012

#24hb - The Editor's Log

#24hb team. L to R: Geoff Lemon, PM Newton, Rjurik Davidson, Me, Angela Slatter, Steven Amsterdam, Simon Groth. Missing: Krissy Kneen, Nick Earls, Christopher Currie. (Source Courier-Mail)

24 hours.
9 writers.
1 book.
On 11 June 2012, if:book Australia will challenge a team of writers and editors to collaborate, write, and publish a book in a single 24-hour period.
At midday, nine writers (including Nick Earls, Steven Amsterdam, Krissy Kneen, and P.M. Newton) will gather at the State Library of Queensland and begin writing furiously. Their stories will be written live on the day, with work in progress posted online to allow readers to watch the story unfold and to submit ideas, suggestions and contributions across media. As the stories are completed, a team of bleary-eyed editors will take the text from manuscript to a book.
On the 12 June (at midday of course), the finished book will be available in both digital and print with a launch in the following days.
If you haven't heard about the 24 Hour Book Project by ifbook: Australia, you can read all about it

Editing, like writing, is for the most part a solitary process, but not in 24hb land. And it was really something special to be together in the eye of a creative storm with a bunch of authors who were prepared to really commit, to really cooperate and to collaboratively create something. Going into it, I think I was as nervous as the authors.

Day one began with a brief story conference. The stories had to connect in some way so what were the elements that would form the substrate of each story? It would be in and around the library. There would be flooding. There would be encroaching sand. There would be a librarian, and people going missing. The wall behind us would serve as in ‘idea wall’ for authors to post important elements that might crossover into more than one piece. A common element to appear in each story was agreed: a vase decorated with a willow pattern. As every story had a beginning, middle and end, the writers quickly worked out an order. Angela Slatter, Steven Amsterdam and PM Newton would concentrate on the lead up to the ‘event’, Krissy Kneen, Geoff Lemon and Simon Groth would write stories that showed the event unfolding, and Chris Currie, Nick Earls and Rjurik Davidson would write the aftermath.

And with that incredibly loose framework, we got to work. As the day progressed the idea wall became littered with plot points: 
The weeks leading up to the floods have been burning hot and dry. Desert heat. This is when the sand dunes first start moving – before the water. Some of the disappeared people are taken by the sand. The dunes roll in, cover an area, then dissolve, leaving only empty buildings. Image: a luxury boat, stranded by falling water level, tipped onto its side. Tibetan monks making a sand mandala, blowing big horns outside the library to start the day. Det Const Burleigh: overweight, grey hair, too old to still be a constable, must be a loser. Has just asked to see the librarian, not sure why... I think he dies of a heart attack. Post-apocalyptic flooded world: strange spiders flood into city, animals changing in weird ways, character called Elroy. 4BB post-flood radio OB, Brian Brightman 50s loudmouth, Steve ‘ferret’ Fletcher 40s second banana, Paul Martin 30s harried producer. Private Investigator Verity, looking for whatever is making people disappear as part of the pre-apocalypse. Radio station runs a competition where the public unravels clues to find the whereabouts of a missing child (tying in with the spate of disappearances. First clue = vase.
I busied myself with reading the drafts as they unfolded, refamiliarising myself with the Pressbooks platform where the writing, editing and publishing would all occur, and trying some test epub exports and different format options to view the results. I thought it would be a long, slow day and I’d brought books to read and tv shows to watch in the ‘down time’, but there was none. The collective focus on the creation of the 24hb drew us all in. The concentration in the room was palpable, creative and workmanlike at the same time. There was a job to do, a time to do it in and any ego that might have been brought to the table – not that any was in evidence – was quickly subsumed. Everyone was pulling together, sharing dialogue, ideas, characters, quickly bargaining on plot points: ‘don’t kill her off, I need her in mine’, ‘Okay, but can you get the vase to level 4 of the library?’ And, of course, there was bragging rights about word count: hey, they might be collaborating, but they were still authors.

Our ‘drop dead’ deadline for writing was 11pm. As lead editor I needed that solid cut-off to make sure the editing team got started in reasonable shape and had enough time to look at the individual pieces. By 5pm or thereabouts (yes, even now it’s becoming a bit of a blur) we had a break for a story conference. This was really make or break time. The authors had been writing to their loose structure, and sharing and collaborating on the fly. This was the first time everyone sat down and relayed the key sequences of events they were writing about. It could – at that point – all have fallen into one, big mess. But the gods were with us. As each author spoke in turn, we began to see the overarching structure. It was hanging together in pretty good shape. After the last synopsis, a spate of minor horse trading occurred. Plot points were firmed up, crossover elements were agreed and... They got the hell back into it!

Another bonus of the 24hb project was the instantaneous interaction and reaction with the public. People were emailing and posting encouragement, sharing thoughts and ideas, spreading the 24hb message further. At one point we were trending in Brisbane – I got a Twilight Zone shiver at that point. People writing a book were trending on Twitter.

At 6pm one of the editing team, Laura Elvery, turned up and she and her designated author, Krissy Kneen, had a sideline story conference. Like everyone else, the editors had been reading the early drafts online – kind of crucial when you have less than a day to get familiar with and edit a book.

By 7pm everyone was in good shape and most of the rest of my editing team were there: Jack Vening, Chris Przewloka, Emma Doolan, Matt Sheppard, Kelsey Bricknell and Sasha Mackay. Sarah Kanake and Andrea Baldwin couldn’t make it in but they were in touch via email and mobile phone. Everyone broke for pizza and beer, the authors matching up with their editors and there was a festive atmosphere. We hadn’t done it yet, but I think everyone was feeling that we could.

The authors got back to work and I met with my team in the QWC offices. They were, every one of them, smart, personable and really excited to get started. We talked tactics. Given the timing there was little if any chance for back and forth communication with the author. So the focus was on making sure that the story made sense, was spelt correctly, used correct grammar where appropriate, and was consistently formatted according to our style sheet. Above all we had to make sure mistakes were not introduced INTO the manuscript. There then followed that secret, cabalistic editor talk about the apostrophe, how to present dialogue and all that other stuff that editors find really, consumingly interesting, but everyone else greets with a glazed stare.

Meeting over, the editing team retreated to a uni computer lab. Rather than split up and do their editing on a laptop at home, these guys were going to do team editing. It fitted very nicely with the whole collaborative 24hb vibe.

As I said, the writing deadline was 11pm. I didn’t know how this was going to pan out. I’d presented it as a hard deadline, but you can’t really drag the author away from their laptop keys if they feel they’re not finished. It’s their work after all. But then Krissy Kneen declared she was done. And after that, one by one, the authors called it. Time for the edit team to get on the job.

As I’d discussed with Simon Groth (project leader and 24hb author) beforehand, when an author was finished, I flowed their work out of Pressbooks and into Word and ran a few common search/ replace actions plus some text cleaning macros to try to catch the majority of miss-key errors. After that I flowed the piece back into Pressbooks and made a call to ‘activate’ the designated editor for each piece. Only one author stayed past the deadline, which is quite a feat really.

After that, it was in the hands of the edit team and the lap of the gods. I got back to my hotel and was in bed by 2am, ready for a 6am wake up. Which came all too soon.

If day one had been relatively plain sailing, day two was to prove there were still a few challenges and curve balls left.

As I was happy to admit on Twitter, it is not possible to edit a book in 12 hours. You can throw as much technology at the problem as you like, but there is no substitute for time, concentration and multiple checking. The editing team knew that at the outset, but we did the best we could in the time we had available. By 7am I was back in Pressbooks and using the compare revisions tool. It’s a really nice visual representation of the editing process. But it’s not like the accept/ reject change option in Word. Instead I had to make a note of those changes I wanted to review and then go back into the actual story, search them out and make any alterations there. That meant hastily scribbled notes on a piece of A4. Not the best way to do it. There was only one editing misstep, where the editor went in a little ‘harder’ than we considered appropriate. This wouldn’t have happened in a more protracted process. Apart from that, the editing team acquitted themselves very well indeed. There were a couple of changes that, while literally correct, I changed back because the original was more in keeping with the authorial voice. It’s a fine distinction that really comes with experience, and in no way do I raise this to detract from the work of the edit team. I only mention it because I’m trying to give an accurate account of the editing process and this type of thing happens all the time in editing.

With a quick review of all the edits, the only other thing I really had time for was to check the formatting, especially around section breaks and to do a search and replace where necessary on em dashes in accordance with our house style. The other major curve ball was due to the fact that a fan of one of the authors, who had indicated they’d be happy for their name to be used in the stories, decided at some point overnight that they didn’t want that so much after all. That meant we had to excise all mentions of that name – and they were named all through each story – and change it to something else. Here was another limitation of Pressbooks: you can’t do a global search replace. The only option was to do a find and then manually rekey the name. Alternatively we could have flowed the work back into Word and done a global change there, but I wasn’t confident the formatting would be preserved when flowed back into Pressbooks so we did it the slow way. There may still be occurrences of that name in the book. But we did what we could within the time constraints.

So, like I said, day two was a little more tense and ‘oh my god’-ish. But we got there. Everyone rallied to overcome these hiccups and the book file was sent to New York as promised by 11am and loaded on the internet by noon. Yay us.

I think, in tandem with a lot of 24hb participants, and once I got over the brain-deadening exhaustion, I took home an overwhelming feeling of exhilaration just to have been part of it, to have set an insane goal and met it. We did something out of the ordinary, and I’m proud of everyone that was a part of it. And I’m ready for 24hb part two.
The editors in no particular order: me, Christopher Przelowka, Emma Doolan, Jack Vening, Kelsey Bricknell, Laura Elvery, Matthew Sheppard, Sasha Mackay. Missing: Sarah Kanake, Andrea Baldwin


Kate Eltham said...

Thanks for the round up, Keith, it's fantastic to get the lead editor's perspective on the process.

Keith Stevenson said...

And thank YOU, Kate for letting me be a part of it. :)

Desolie | sharpens your writing said...

What a project!

And what a challenge for the editing team.

Thanks for sharing some insights.