I Love my Editor


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.



2 thoughts on “I Love my Editor

  1. Another insightful and helpful entry.

    But I’d like to ask, in your opinion, what is the difference between the writer and the editor?
    I know this could prompt a multi-volume response but editors do fascinate me. And not just as word shapers but I think of movie editors working the same magic. What do you think hones the instincts they have to cut away the fat or clear the fog in a story?

    And another curio, how many editors do you know who are writers as well? I’m not trying to segue into the old adage of those who cannot do, teach, but rather the opposite. They do seem to know better. And the resulting work, if lauded as a classic, only became so because of the collaboration you mention.

    Going back to film it makes me think of the trend of the director’s cut. Perhaps it was the director’s vision, but many a time the extra footage should have stayed as dust collecting clippings on the editor’s floor.

    I haven’t read much Malcolm Gladwell, but I read Blink a few years back. Bit of a haze at this time but I do remember the story of one particular fellow who could instantly recognize a fake or original work of art. He just knew immediately what was “correct.”

    Are all editors, well, quality editors made by an osmotic process of having read so much or do you sense something else?

    And you can answer in more psych metaphors. Free therapy of any kind is beneficial.

  2. The editor of a novel or other book tries to get the most out of the manuscript, helping the author see what s/he has done right and wrong, making suggestions — an outside eye. Film editing has more of a structuring function in documentary, less so in fiction film, where you are following a script.

    A good editor has a love and respect for the story and affection for the writer. An ability to understand what the writer was hoping for. That’s why it’s good to have the same editor from one project to the next. Some writers (like me) occasionally edit other writers’ works, but usually on a time-to-time, freelance basis, not as a full-time job for obvious reasons.

    In film, “director’s cut” is often a synonym for “way too long.” Good editors have to be good readers, but not just that: they have to have an empathy for the story.

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