Wordsmith Wizard – A Conversation with Writer and Editor Dion Winton-Polak

Image credit – taken from The Fine-toothed Comb

Dion Winton-Polak is a freelance editor and a familiar face in the horror writing community. An accomplished writer, reviewer and podcaster, Dion’s energy and drive are infectious, and he is known for having both an impeccable eye for detail and a twisted sense of humour.

It’s a winning combination. 

In the bio of his website Dion states; “Words are why I’m here … this is what I do.” I asked Dion to tell me more about his work as an editor: what he does, why he does it, and the best advice he can give to those in the writing game. 

*Content warning: includes some profanities

Welcome, Dion. Come inside and have a nice cup of tea. 

Let’s start with your background; what got you into professional editing and for how long have you been helping other writers? 

Hi Tabby, cheers for inviting me over. Nice place you’ve got here.

It’s funny. I never specifically wanted to be an editor but I can’t imagine doing anything else now.

I used to host a books podcast with an old friend of mine, who now writes under the name Phil Sloman. We drove and inspired each other to be more creative. He started to get serious about writing and sort of pulled me into his world. One of his publishing contacts needed an editor and Phil thought I’d be a good fit. Until then, I’d only really edited audio but I was looking for a new outlet for my creativity, so I volunteered. (Why not, right?)

Absolutely. It sounds like a fun challenge. 

I kind of felt like a fraud so I really pushed myself, determined to do the best damned job I could. It paid off for me, big time. Gave me confidence. I was proud as hell sending Sunny, with a Chance of Zombies off, and I knew I wanted to do more. In fact, the next day I pitched a shared-world anthology called This Twisted Earth to Steve Shaw, back before Black Shuck Books got going. It wasn’t his usual kind of thing, but I’d impressed him enough with ‘Sunny’ to earn myself another shot.

And – bonus – I attracted a high-profile author to the project, and that gave my confidence a real shot in the arm.

That must have felt pretty awesome. 

The feedback from my writers was encouraging but it was still pretty much a hobby which consumed my life. I figured I should try to get paid in the future – properly paid – if I was going to spend so much time and energy on this new career. I’m a family man, after all. Got to do my part. I did a bit of research, enlisted some help putting a website together, and finally set up my shingle as ‘The Fine-toothed Comb.’ I’ve been helping publishers and independent authors with their manuscripts for three years now, tucked around the edges of my high-street job.

Do you favour any particular styles or genres? 

As a reader, I usually vacillate between fantasy and science fiction, though I do dally with other genres from time to time. I was an imaginative child, deeply withdrawn, and the ability to escape this confusing world (or at least view it through a different lens) was hugely important to me. Grimm tales and ghost stories held a certain appeal but – aside from a fling with James Herbert and Clive Barker – I didn’t really read much horror until I began editing. Now I read it just as often as the rest, if not more so.

Style is a tougher one to answer, being so dependent on the authors in question. I’ve been rapt by long, languorous passages of description from some authors, yet bored to tears by the rambling of others. Terseness can build tension, ambivalence can evoke wonder, yet either can leave me feeling bored or frustrated when used poorly. It’s individual. To read is to build a personal relationship with the author, and that – just like in meat space – can be a complicated thing. Sometimes you hit it off, sometimes you don’t, and that response will be based on thousands of signals we barely notice on the macro level.

Dialogue has to feel ‘real’ to me. (Except of course when it doesn’t. I still revel in the impossible, charming, whip-snap dialogue of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.’) At any rate, it has to be an interplay of real personalities, tangled in communication. Human; none of this info-dump bollocks. Plots can be twisty as hell or straight as a die, I don’t really mind. I’ve enjoyed both. Genre and context matter hugely, of course. There are conventions to follow, rules to break—

But look. A good story is a good story, and good writing is good writing, regardless of genre.

I agree. I also think as a writer you should read as much as you write, from a variety of places. I think you can often do yourself a disservice by only exposing yourself to a limited creative window.

So tell me, in your own opinion, why do you think writers need an editor? 

In my own opinion? I mean, the reasons are many and varied but the biggest one has to be this: Writing Is Hard. And Looong. And— (stop sniggering there in the back) And It’s Complicated As Fuck!

You have to make sure the plot hangs together, check that the character arcs follow through properly, fully realise your world-building— and remember, you don’t just want something blocky and functional; you want your narrative to sing! Never mind the fact that you’re freaking yourself out about silly spelling mistakes and shoddy grammar.

And what makes it even harder is that this…this thing has been growing and developing in your brain for months, if not years. It takes long enough to do a single draft, but then you have to go through it all again and again, refining it.

A good editor – in my opinion – is both a safety net and a coach. We are an enthusiastic partner in your project, sharing your creative delight and helping you hone your manuscript… We are there to make you shine as brightly as possible.

In this, the editor is your staunchest ally. We are your first readers, taking your story in with fresh eyes, responding to it as a whole. Not what’s in your head, mind you, but what’s actually there on the page. We pay careful attention, take notes, think things through.

It’s basically your job to catch any mistakes that the writer has made. I would say that a good editor’s feedback is invaluable and always intended to improve never discourage. 

I’ve heard of editors chided for being too harsh, making their writers feel insecure or stupid. I can’t say if it really happens or not, but I don’t imagine they’d last for long in the business if that’s how they treat their clients.

A good editor – in my opinion – is both a safety net and a coach. We are an enthusiastic partner in your project, sharing your creative delight and helping you hone your manuscript. To the public, we are silent, invisible, but that doesn’t mean we lack value. We are there to make you shine as brightly as possible. The editing journey is collaborative, fluid, and we have to earn your trust and respect along the way.

What sort of things are you looking for when you start editing?

As a freelance, I have the wonderful freedom (and the financial burden) of choosing what jobs to take and what pay-cheques to turn down. That’s a bit of a balancing act, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate. I have to make sure the job is worth the time it’ll take to do it. That the manuscript has a good chance of being published and well-received.

So good writing is the short answer. As a matter of professional courtesy I will always offer some kind of feedback in order to encourage the writer’s better traits for future efforts. However, I will not expend energy on a copy or line-edit of a manuscript that is simply not good enough to be edited. I have to see something that engages me. It has to show promise.

As a side note, I also do a bit of research to see if the writer is a decent human being. Reputations do precede people. Word gets around. Failing that, a glance at their social media accounts often reveals much.

I can understand that. It’s a massive community and 99.99% of those people are truly lovely, but there is always going to be one not-so-great one in every bunch. 

What about the editing process?

The physical editing process is way too long to go through on here, but I tend to work on multiple levels at the same time. I’ll read it all first to get an overall feel, jotting down a few initial thoughts. Then I’ll work my way through the manuscript on a more granular level, correcting errors as I go and using comments boxes to ask questions, make suggestions, requestion clarifications etc.

After that, it’s a case of passing fresh drafts to and fro until we have a mutually agreed best version to send off to the publisher, agent, or wherever.

So, what are the five most common mistakes you see in unpolished manuscripts? 

These are four mistakes that everybody makes and should therefore cause zero embarrassment. Remember – it’s a work in process until it actually goes to print. Anything can be corrected.

1. These are simple spelling errors or grammatical fluffs that are perfectly plausible and therefore would not even be picked up by spell-checkers. You wouldn’t want them to go to a publisher like that if you’re doing an open submission, but when it’s just coming to little-old-me…? Don’t worry. We’ll catch ’em, sort ’em, and nobody’ll be the wiser.

2. Names! Names are changed all the time as you skip from draft to draft. Could be a person, a place, whatever. One thing one minute, something else entirely the next. That’s cool. We editors keep track of this kind of thing. Names, gender, race, role, descriptions— We’ve got you covered.

3. Logical flaws. Something might be described a dozen times and appear to be perfectly envisioned, but there’s a whopping great reason why it just doesn’t make sense. I won’t risk embarrassing anybody with real examples but generic things might include too many flights of stairs on a building, night falling twice in the same day, or perhaps a long-dead character popping by for a random encounter in a café.

4. Out of order. This is usually a result of some scene-shifting as the writer goes through successive drafts. It might work better to have characters meet earlier, or help clarify a plot-point if such-and-such were shown to be elsewhere. Bits of text are cut and pasted. Small elements may be changed here and there…but has the text then been checked all the way through to ensure the logical flow of events? Not always. (Hey, look – there’s that dead girl in Costa again. I’ll have what she’s having!)

5. Counting. (Can you see what I did there?) We could be talking about numbers of people in a room, warriors attacking, points being listed in an interview— doesn’t matter. If a writer says there’s a certain number of anything, you’d better go back and check it. Chances are something’s gone wrong somewhere.

A lot of indie writers who are going the self-publishing route often say they can’t afford an editor and do it all themselves. Assuming that’s true, what’s the one biggest piece of advice you would give them? 

Okay – let me preface this first. I can understand the inclination to save money, particularly in times of hardship, but I think these authors would be demeaning themselves if they did not seek some form of editorial advice. It’s like a tight-rope walker going across without a safety-net. The very best ones might do it and survive, but if you’re a newbie? If this is how you’re looking to build your reputation and your brand? That’s one hell of a risk.

Our society in the UK tends to devalue artistic endeavour and those practising it. We’re encouraged to treat our art as disposable, asked to produce it as cheaply as possible, told to expect and accept that we will never amount to anything.

Excuse my language, but fuck that.

/nods and claps 

If your art is worth spending your time and your effort on, it is worth spending a bit of money to make sure it’s as good as it can be. Don’t do yourself down.

Besides, some editors may be flexible on price if they see genuine value in your work. Some might offer an affordable payment scheme to help you spread the cost. Others…well others you might have to save up for. Just make sure your editor has a good reputation before you splash the cash. A bit of research never hurts.

Yes, and while we writers get told to be wary of those people who ask you to ‘pay to play’, that applies to dodgy publishers, not editors. Being clear about what you’re paying for is very important. 

All that said – you want one big piece of advice for people who absolutely, positively cannot afford an editor. Hm. Let’s see, then…

Get yourselves some good beta-readers, and make sure you use them properly.

These need to be people who genuinely love reading and (crucially) are prepared to be both honest and critical of your work. That’s a service most people will do for free, but finding good ones can be tricky. It’s not comprehensive, but it gives you a baseline from which to begin your editorial journey.

Oh, and give yourselves time to absorb their feedback, time to get over any (understandably difficult) emotional responses, and time to strategise for your next draft. When you get back to the manuscript it needs to be with a clear head, with fresh eyes, and with a real determination to make things better.

You cannot read it as a new reader. You don’t actually know if everything that was in your head made it to the page intact. You get word-blind.

I fully agree with that. It can be really hard not to react with a knee-jerk when someone tells you what’s “wrong” with your writing. I think you have to give yourself the time to think about what they’re saying and why they’re saying it.

You’re a writer as well as an editor. Do you edit your own stories, and if so, how do you approach that? 

I edited my own pieces in This Twisted Earth and Welcome To A Town Called Hell.

It’s a hard thing to edit your own stories. You need to get it as good as possible first, for sure, but binocular vision beats mono every time.

Think of it this way – you already know the background, you know what you mean by every word, every sentence. You understand the characters’ motivations and every other implicit detail because you created them but here’s the rub:  you cannot read it as a new reader. You don’t actually know if everything that was in your head made it to the page intact. You get word-blind.

You really do, and there is always at least one tenacious typo which slips through multiple re-reads. 

So. How did I edit my own work? Brutally, repeatedly, and driven by the cold fear of doing a bad job.

I don’t know if I qualify as being a writer just yet. (I’m not sure it matters.) Every couple of weeks I put out a bit of flash fiction on The Fine-toothed Comb. It keeps me in practice, stirs the creative juices, and helps me remember what it feels like to try to make magic on the page.

I think that’s a pretty important thing to keep in mind when I’m coaching others.

I really like that.

Tell me about your most favourite project that you’ve worked on. 

Hm. Two spring to mind. The book I am most proud of editing is called You Will Grow Into Them, by Malcolm Devlin. It’s an extraordinary collection from an author of the highest calibre. I cannot recommend it enough. It is haunting, lyrical, literate, and wide-ranging in its narratives. Go grab it.

The book that I had the most fun actually editing was a collection from an independent author. It went by the improbable title ‘A Warning About Your Future Enslavement That You Will Dismiss as a Collection of Short Fiction and Essays by Kit Power.’ Kit is an amazing writer who is passionate, dedicated, and a thorough delight to work with. The ‘frankly bloody awkward’ collection (his words, not mine) provided me with structural, plot, and thematic challenges that I really enjoyed getting my teeth into. And what a crazy book. Brilliant.

Finally, just before you leave, how do you think you’d fare in the Zombie Apocalypse — are you a survivor, or would you get chomped? 

Why? What have you heard? Is this a Brexit thing?

I would be chomped, no question.

I may have it up here in the braaaains department but I am utterly incompetent when it comes to physical activities. I lack practical knowledge, I’m out of shape, and I’m really not a fan of weapons. Innate cowardice and a degree of overthinking might keep me hidden for a while, but the zombies would get me in the end. If I didn’t shoot myself in the foot literally, I would certainly do so metaphorically.

Thank you, Dion. It was truly great to have you here. Drive safe.

Oh, and watch out for the zombies… 

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