Many people call themselves editors. Some are, some aren’t. Some are wonderful insightful readers who understand nuance; some are egotistical non-humans who want to take your work and make it their own!
I am about to start work on the new book manuscript, known at this stage as A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline (but that may alter as the cover-designer seems to find it overlong – another discussion point to come). I am fortunate to have the marvellous Elizabeth Cowell as my editor, and that is by a happy accident.
Elizabeth was my editor at Random House for Siddon Rock. Since then she free-lanced for several years and last year took up the post of senior editor at Text Publishing. When the ms for Cassandra went to Text, Elizabeth was the person who received the email. I said to Lyn (my agent) that I wanted to work with Elizabeth again and to accept the offer – so here I am with the book on the publication train chuffing along slowly towards March 2018 when it will reach the bookshops.
Some years ago I gave a workshop to the Society of Editors in Sydney with the aim of making those attending more aware of how writing works, how it is put together, and what is needed by the writer from her editor. (A couple of beginner-editing interns were huffy that they had not been given editing exercises, but that’s another story).
I asked writer friends for their editor-experience here is Anne Deveson’s response:
THE WRITER AND THE EDITOR: A MORALITY PLAY
by Anne Deveson
I think I’ve sent my new editor a final draft of my book on Resilience. She disagrees. She begins our conversation by honking loudly:
Editor: They said this was a copy edit.
Editor: It’s a complete re-write
Editor: Honking turns into hysterical laughter
Me: (Looking at a manuscript that is so crisscrossed with red and black lines, it looks as if its got the pox) But don’t you like it?
Editor: (sternly) That’s irrelevant
Me Then what’s wrong?
Editor: All that stuff that’s missing. For example, how did Waldo travel to Zaire from Rwanda, when there were no planes?
Me: He drove ( dumdum)
Editor: How did he know where to go?
Me: He had a map (double dumdum – and whose book is this anyway?)
War is declared. After two weeks, both sides are exhausted. The editor wages her battle from Melbourne. I am in Sydney.
One afternoon, I hear the roar and thud of several children in the background. She sounds as if she is about to burst into tears.
The milk of human kindness floods through my veins. I sympathise. I empathise. I apologise for being so prickly and say I am exhausted from finishing the book. Well, almost finishing the book.
She apologises for being so prickly and says she is exhausted from looking after her husband’s children as well as their own, a three months old baby.
We make civilised, even friendly, noises about both wanting the best result. I thank her for being so understanding. She thanks me for the same reason.
Now I have started to praise and thank her for all her hard work – and I mean it – she responds with equal generosity. We become good friends. She does a superb job of editing and helps transform a bowl of lumpy porridge into a magnificent meal.
Moral one: DON’T KILL THE EDITOR. KILL YOUR DARLINGS INSTEAD
Moral two : it’s not just the work you’re dealing with, but the writer (or editor, if you are the writer).
I miss Anne! Her death has left a hole in many people’s lives. The above is so her – she was empathetic and self-denigrating while being a giant among equals (I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and became a friendly acquaintance who had breakfast with her every couple of months).
Back to the editing thing. During the process of getting Siddon Rock to the bookshelves the ms was not only worked on with Elizabeth but it went out to an external editor-reader first (thank you Nadine Davidoff), then, towards the end of the process, to an external proof-reader.
I must say here that I feel strongly that, like a loved child, once the work has left home the writer becomes professional and views responses to it not as a slur on her integrity or ability but as suggestions to improve the text. I have a file of dead darlings to prove it; words, phrases, sentences that I thought were wonderful but, on reflection, were not quite right for that text at that time.
I take seriously comments and suggestions because they draw attention to how a reader understands the text. Sometimes I change it, sometimes I don’t (no mate, you didn’t read that correctly), but that last proof-reader made me cross and resistant: she changed words, altered the structure of sentences, made derogatory comments none of which added to the meaning or depth of the story. I choose words very carefully so that the exact meaning is what I want. Someone changing my word to something nearly the same was not only infuriating but highly disrespectful of the text and of the writer. I complained loudly to Elizabeth, who said the all the correct soothing words, and I took not a scrap of notice of the proofer’s anything.
The thing is, she could have told me something significant in there, but the attitude made me not see if there was. I used, in that workshop, a quote from the writer Tess Brady: ‘Her mistake was to offer solutions, not signposts to places where improvements could be made.’
It is the writer’s responsibility to move the text forward.
It is the editor’s responsibility not to hinder that in any way.