Some of you may be tiring of my psychological metaphors, but I liken the work I do with my editor to a trip to the shrink’s office. Please note: it’s my manuscript that’s taking the trip, not me. Well, I do go along to accompany it. You see, I know there are things wrong with my manuscript, but I can’t name them. And if I can’t name them, I can’t fix them. Or perhaps, at other times, I know what’s wrong – the last scene that ends the book isn’t right, for example – but I can’t get my head around how to fix the problem. A good editor puts his (or her) finger on the issues, and suggests ways of correcting them. This kind of person is the writer’s best friend, and I’ve always made it my business to listen closely, and take copious notes.
I’ve always been lucky with my editors. Of course, “lucky” is not the right word; if I hadn’t have listened, I wouldn’t have been lucky. And listening begins with feeling that there is room for improvement. At the very beginning of my writing career, I had Ed Carson as an editor with Random House. When he went to Harper Collins, I followed him there. I guess I was in a state of dependency.
Sometimes the editor can be a freelancer. That shouldn’t change anything about the process. For The Speaking Cure, Douglas & McIntyre hired Jennifer Glossop from Toronto to work with me. For my kids’ books, I’m blessed with Shelley Tanaka who will soon be taking the train in from Kingston, Ontario, to help out with the next title in the “Travels” series. I was so grateful to both these editors that I thanked them in the books they worked on. I was told that such acknowledgement is rare; I don’t see why it would be. Novels don’t spring fully formed from the writer’s head.
My “luck” with editors has continued. Last Friday, I had another in a series of epic sessions with Marc Côté, my editor and the publisher of Cormorant Books (the house that did my last novel Midway). The subject: my upcoming book scheduled for spring 2014 publication. He pointed out a series of things that I knew but could not actually articulate out loud (not me – my manuscript!), and that needed to be solved. For instance, I have written about the intense emotional bond between two best girlfriends in their late teens, as they head towards adulthood and, alas, marriage. Of course, this friendship cannot last, but how can I keep both characters as going concerns in the book even after they’ve separated? I knew that would be a challenge from the very start. Apparently I hadn’t solved that challenge entirely. A good editor like Mr. Côté can not only point out the problem, but offer avenues to solving it.
To some degree, this sort of relationship exists, ideally at least, within a writing group. But when the person is paid to do this work, when it’s not only his (or her) mission but his profession, the result should be much more productive.
I experienced something similar with Yves Chaput, the editor I chose to help me with a documentary film I wrote and directed called Is my Story Hurting You? I had three characters, all patients of the doctor who was the hero of the piece, and Yves helped me structure their stories in a way that would create suspense around their predicaments. Though often people think that making art is a solitary pursuit, it turns out that it is much more collaborative that it first seems. And that’s a source of comfort for me – I’m less alone.