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Game Talk - Dion Winton-Polak

First introduced to Dion in 2016 at FantasyCon (Scarborough) by Phil Sloman, I was struck by the man's sense of savvy. Soft-spoken and with an impish sense of humour, after introductions were made, we began to talk shop. The convo I remember was Dion's take on open submission calls and how an editor might manage them. That is the earliest moment I can remember thinking, "he's got game."


1. For those who don't know, who are you?

Hi folks, my name is Dion but you might also know me as The Fine-toothed Comb. I’ve been working as an editor on the side for the past 6 years, largely (though not exclusively) in the horror genre. It started out as a hobby but quickly became my passion, and I’ve been building up my business ever since. Over the years, I’ve spent far too much time toiling away in unsatisfying jobs so, when the dubious stars of Covid and Brexit shone a path to Redundancy, I pretty much ran down it. You might think it’s a hell of a time to leap into self-employment but, weighing it all up, I realised I’d never have a better opportunity. You only get one life, right?


2. Game talk – how do you organise and manage your game? How has it evolved?

It’s funny, I’ve never really thought of myself as having game, but I’ll take your word for it. I’m not what you’d call a natural businessman, so the only game I began my editing life with was the way my brain picks at words and my pleasure at helping them sing. I had some great responses from the authors I worked with on my first couple of books, so I was definitely doing something right, but it was only when I started hiring my services out that I started learning the harder lessons. The element I get paid for is the actual editing, but there’s a whole heap of unpaid work around the edges!

I knew from the start I’d have to build relationships. Editing is a covenant of trust, and that takes time and effort to build. Conventions were my route into the writing community, and social media my means of growing and maintaining those contacts. It helped that I wasn’t in any rush in those earliest of days – acquaintances grew into friendships quite naturally.


The website was the second part of the puzzle. My shop front, as it were. I’ve got no skills there, so that was something I had to invest money in. It took some time to get the look right, and I kind of want to revamp it now. Still, it’s given me a place to point at when people asked about my services, and a base from which I could blog (as and when I remembered). I’m taking that side of things a lot more seriously now I’m self-employed. Got to seriously up the game if I’m going to pay my bills off the back of it.


One thing I’ve discovered, to the cost of my health, is that the willingness to work is not enough; I’ve got to work smart. So I’ve been figuring out a plan recently, really digging into the behind-the scenes stuff: an actual honest-to-God analysis of where I am, where I want to get to (financially speaking) and how I can get there. I’m talking about attracting and retaining customers, adjusting my prices, reducing my costs, breaking down my work-pattern, systematising where possible, diarising tasks, producing regular content to engage people with etc.


It’s going to be exhausting at first, but this is a fundamental shift of practise and, as activity becomes habit, this is what will become my engine – regular, rhythmic, driving my business on to greater success. At least, that’s the plan…

3. Talk us through one of your biggest achievements in your game – give us the story behind it. How did it play out?

I don’t know about ‘biggest’ achievement. Every step has felt huge and scary to me, but I’ve kind of grown to enjoy the challenges as I’ve faced them. Each success proves that it’s worth stretching myself to go further. I’ve already bored you with my escape from the day-job so…hmm…let’s go more personal: my biggest achievement recently was beating imposter syndrome—or at least kicking it out of the room long enough to play expert.

One of my very first authors, Angeline Trevena, has gone on to garner some pretty impressive success on the indie scene, earning herself a regular income from writing that frankly eclipses the wage from my old day-job. She invited me to present a workshop on editing at a convention she was organising and I said yes before my brain weasels had a chance to attack my confidence. (Top tip, by the way.) I went months without thinking about it, and the postponements-by-pandemic came close to freeing me of the responsibility. Of course, Indie Fire changed tack to become an online event, so there went my escape route…


Long story short, I had no choice but to knuckle down and do my prep: plotting out a journey to take my work-shoppers on, producing a couple of exercises for them to do remotely and – critically – finding a way to to get prompt notes directly in front of me so I’d be able to stick to the path without drying up or getting lost. I had the opportunity to pre-record it, but I decided that would be too horrible. My editor’s brain would be pushing perfectionism and that would only serve to ramp up my anxiety levels. Better to go live, keep agile, and just get through it.


And it went well! Hell – if we ever get back to the convention circuit, I may even do it in person. The buzz you get from defying your fears is extraordinary, and this is coming from somebody who has lived much of his life beset by social anxieties. Face them. It’s the only way to break free.


4. Now you've got a workshop presentation under your belt, is that something you'd do more of? Given the current pandemic, I'd imagine online events are more common now.

It’s something I’d be open to, sure, but I want to change gear and get the actual editing side humming along more efficiently before I put serious efforts into it. I think EdgeLit Alex gets a reasonable revenue from the workshops he runs, so it makes sense to keep my options open. I’m also starting to investigate the possibilities of other forms of freelance editing e.g. audio for podcasters.

5. It's great if things go according to plan. Tell us about when it didn't; how did you handle it? What were/are those challenges?

Oooh. Okay. Hm. I mean, I’ve had things not go to plan, but I can’t say I’ve had any disasters yet. More like wobbles that have thrown me off. I managed to publicly embarrass an author at FantasyCon by being too effusive; I’ve got surnames mixed up to the point now where one publisher absolutely despises me (according to my brain weasels) because on numerous occasions I’ve talked about ‘him’ within his hearing – eliciting hard stares in my peripheral vision – when I was actually talking about somebody else; I’ve had testimonial requests rejected from people I thought everything had gone swimmingly with and so on. Social stuff. Patchable to a degree, but fundamentally there are some things you have to let go of. Allow them to wash away in the river of bygones.

One thing I’m constantly having to learn from (and refine my responses to) are those odd occasions when I’ve inadvertently upset a client with my appraisal of their work, or to be more precise, with how I’ve phrased that appraisal. A couple of people stand out in my mind as being particularly aggravated, and that blast of pure anger can be pretty traumatising at the time. Relationships are vital to my business though, as I’ve said, so repairing that damage is equally important. It takes time, care, and a proper empathic consideration of the author’s position. None of us are correct 100% of the time, the job still needs to be done to the best level possible, and for that you have to have an atmosphere of good will and trust. That’s why I think it’s so important to own my mistakes when I make them, and to apologise with sincerity where feelings have been hurt.


Of course, prevention is better than cure. I habitually review my Comments now before sending them off, checking them for tone and content, imagining myself as the reader and how I would feel to be given that piece of information. Better to over-explain, I think, than to be inadvertently dismissive of derogatory. It’s a work in progress, as are we all.


6. Give a pep-talk to someone on game in your field.

Sheesh. Are you sure? I feel like I’ve already gone on too long. Is there anybody still here? Well look, if you are still reading this, and if you’re hanging on my words to help make your way in editing, I’m going to give you three pieces of key advice right here, right now.


i.) If you want to improve your game, you need to build a good reputation. That doesn’t happen overnight, but you need to keep it in mind with every interaction and every job. The biggest thing you can do to get a good reputation is to earn it. Put in the work, do the best job that you can, look for ways to improve at every turn, and – key to it all – make sure that the people you are working for feel that you have genuinely helped them improve their work.


ii.) It’s not a competition. You don’t need to be better than everybody else in order to build a career. There are vastly more writers out there than editors, all of whom will benefit from the safety-net observations and thoughtful insights of an editorial review. Develop yourself and your business as much as you can, of course. You want to be successful. But you can’t edit for every publisher, you can’t click your fingers and have people hammering at your door for help, and you certainly can’t turn every client into an author of unparalleled genius. Just do the job, improve where you can, and keep on keeping on.


iii.) Value yourself. This comes in two flavours: pride and price. When I started my career, my main concern was earning my stripes; any money I earned was a bit of a bonus. Testimonials were my true prize back then and, I have to say, they remain a strong benchmark of success—particularly when I’m having a low day on the emotional front. Reading those nuggets of praise reminds me of my value to others, and that gives me pep like little else.


However, now I’m reliant upon it to live, my income has become a greater concern. There is a tendency towards desperation when you begin freelance work – a race to the bottom of pricing in order to attract new clients, and an agreement to work on pretty much anything just so long as the work keeps coming in. BUT, as I said earlier, there is no shortage of potential clients out there. So think about what you’re doing and why. If you price yourself as cheap as possible, you will only attract clients for whom cost is more important than quality. That means more people, more often, but it also brings the tendency to lower quality manuscripts, each of which demands more work.


So aim high. Stand out as a mark of quality.


Ambition gives you work you can be proud of, clients who are more likely to succeed (and whose testimonials therefore hold greater reputational value), as well as an income that might actually be able to support you through these difficult times.



My website is at www.thefinetoothed.com

If you just want to see my past jobs, go straight to https://bit.ly/3bpTsXS

and my Testimonials are here: http://bit.ly/3nH2zpL


You can contact me via social media:-

Facebook: https://bit.ly/37kDk6u

Twitter: https://bit.ly/2KNswGf

Linked In: https://bit.ly/3q7fPGn

Instagram: https://bit.ly/37dzsnJ

or you can email dion@thefinetoothed.com

#game #gametalk #game101 #dionwintonpolak #thefinetoothedcomb #editing #freelance

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