In praise of editors, again!

It never ceases to amaze me how little credit is given to book editors. I've already sung their praises on this blog but really and truly, they are the secret heroes of literature. Whenever I finish a book, I flip to the back to check out who the editor is. In fact, the other day, I was at the shop, considering whether or not to buy a new novel. Then I peaked at the acknowledgements, saw the editor was Iris Tulpholme, and went straight to the check out. The book, by the way, is The Storm by Arif Anwar. I read it and loved it. Iris did not let me down.

The Storm skillfully weaves various narratives together all the while keeping a firm grip on a true protagonist. There is a mystery at the centre that is solved at the end, but the threads of the story remained untied. It is not an anodyne happily ever after. It is a "they lived ever after" and what happens next is up to the reader to decide. I've been thinking a lot about plot lately (with regards to my new novel) and this book has given me something to chew on.

A couple of weekends ago I also read (gobbled up, more like) Zoey Leigh Peterson's Next Year For Sure. Billed as a story of polyamory, it's really so much more. It's the vivisection of a relationship and an exploration into loneliness, early adulthood ennui, friendship, and the fuzzy line of betrayal. Although it is a very, very different book, it reminded me of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I couldn't look away even as the novel made me deeply uncomfortable. That's the hallmark of a great book. Plus, the dialogue was wondrous. More and more I find myself appreciating exceptional dialogue (Elisabeth de Mariaffi's Hysteria, edited by Iris Tulpholme, is another example of a book with sublime dialogue) Zoey eschews quotation marks and the result is that the line between interior thought and exterior speech is open to interpretation. If you are an intelligent reader who doesn't want to be spoon-fed, but who wants to be surprised and delighted by beautiful prose and new insights, this is a book for you. The Canadian editor, by the way, is Kiara Kent.

Jen Knoch, senior editor at ECW wrote two illuminating columns over at Open Book on the editorial process and what to expect when you're expecting to work with an editor on a new book.

Detective fiction

I harp on a lot about the importance leaving things unsaid and trusting your reader to work it out. But what does it mean in practice? For me, restraint comes during revisions. And it can be as simple as trimming a sentence. Here’s an example from my novel. A character walks into a coffee shop. 

Original sentence: Grace had taken to sitting with her back to the wall in public places so she couldn’t be surprised from behind.

Edited sentence: Grace had taken to sitting with her back to the wall.

Now the reader has to work out the why. Some might not make the leap but that has to be a risk the writer is willing to take.

Another way to leave things unsaid is to show not tell.

Let’s return to Grace in the coffee shop. A few pages after the line above, this happens:

“A bulky man walked in, shoulders hunched, eyes concealed by a black hood, hands hidden in his pockets. Fear hitched Grace’s chest. The man looked up and waved and a child ran over. When he pulled back his hood and sank to his knees, holding his arms out, his whole demeanour changed. Grace released a breath.”

We force the reader to do a little work because there's something in it for them at the end. Why do people love detective stories and murder mysteries? Because we are endlessly fascinated with working things out. Readers who must connect the dots are naturally more engaged so take a lesson from mystery writers: keep the reader guessing.

In praise of editors

It's been radio silence here for the past several weeks for two reasons. First, my husband and I packed up our lives and moved temporarily to Toronto (more on that later) and second, I'm deep in the throes of editing The Boat People.

Editing on this level, with the guidance and wisdom of actual professionals, is a completely new experience. For one thing it is DEMANDING. You know, I thought the manuscript was pretty good, nearly ready for publication, to be honest. But dear Reader, it was not. Not even close.

Here is the best analogy I've come up with: Writing a novel by yourself is like furnishing a house with the lights off. You feel around a bit, blindly, trying to get a sense of each room, how they fit together, their size. You throw paint on the walls, lay the carpets down. You can't see what colour anything is but it's dark so you don't know the difference. Then your writing group comes over. They help you move the furniture around. Still no one knows how the electrical works so you're fumbling in the dark. It seems pretty good though. You've even hung the art. It's nearly ready for the open house.

Then the editor arrives and flips a switch. Light floods in. Surprise! There's a hammock in the bathroom and a bed in the kitchen. Also, your editor is an interior designer. Now the novel looks completely different. You understand its real potential. You see which chapters must be added, the storylines that should be cut, the themes that need to be brought forward. Good editors call out your lazy writing (in a nice way, lazy writing is my phrase, not theirs), point out the scenes that are begging for catharsis, ask thought-provoking questions.

See what I mean about demanding? Basically you must re-paint all the walls, toss out some carpets and re-arrange half the furniture. And then you have to clean it all up. But it's also worth it. I'm nearly two thirds of the way through the first round (the toughest round, I'm assured) of professionally-aided revisions and already I can see how much stronger and richer The Boat People will be.

The next time you finish a good book, spare a thought for the editor(s) involved. They are the magicians behind the curtain.

Sense of an ending

In my writing group we have a running joke that no matter what or whose piece I'm critiquing, my advice will always be to cut the last paragraph. I could have sworn it was something Hemingway said but now I can't seem to find the reference. So let's leave it at this: a wise writer once said we should all cut our last paragraphs.

There is a tendency, often, to wax on for too long. Or, worse, to be anxious that the reader will not get it, will fail to properly understand the story. And then the writer, in a moment of weakness, crams a horrible summary at the end to explain the whole thing. No. Just erase all that stuff. The real ending is three sentences up.

Red herring

The novelist Anne Simpson once gave me some good editing advice. Often the beginning (the first sentence, paragraph, chapter) is not really the beginning.

When we sit down to tell a story, it takes a while to warm up, to ease in. So then, in the edits, we must wade through and find the true beginning, the place where the story really starts, and lop off the rest.

I remember having this experience with an early draft of A Drawer Full of Guggums. Originally the story had an extra 500 words at the top. My main character got on a plane, flew half way around the world. Jet-lagged, she listened to her uncle snore in the next room. Bumbling around London, she struggled to find housing. And that was all great fun to write. It was quality time she and I spent together. But all along, I knew the story was about the main character and her quirky landlady. Which meant everything before their first meeting - all those hundreds of words - had to go.

Preludes and prologues, sometimes they are a red herring. Be brave.


Pay attention to your boredom

Podcasts are like opinions these days; everyone seems to have one. One of my favourites is Startup (the podcast about what it's like to start your own business). It's hosted by former NPR/ Planet Money guy Alex Blumberg and it's fantastic. If you haven't already listened, go have a binge.

The first draft always sucks. Things want to be bad... the only way to get that stuff to be good is with editing.
— Alex Blumberg

I was listening to this episode one evening last fall and it stopped me short. Blumberg talks about how he and his team create their podcasts, how every second of tape is obsessively edited to catch and hold the listener's attention, to educate as well as entertain, and just how much effort goes into making that happen. Skip ahead to about 21 minutes in and listen to what he says about editing. If you're a writer, it will 100 per cent resonate.

"The first draft always sucks," Blumberg says. "Things want to be bad. Talented people with great ideas still produce horrible stuff and the only way to get that stuff to be good is with editing."

Let's savour that for a moment. Things want to be bad. The only solution is editing.

A few beats later, he says: "pay attention to where you are confused, annoyed, bored. A big part of editing is paying attention to your boredom."

If you listen to the episode, you'll see that much of what Blumberg and co. do in their edits is straight forward deletion, skipping past the verbal diarrhea, straight to the good stuff. And this is much of what I do in my edits too. Delete. Delete. Delete. Sentences, words, scenes, whole characters and subplots. Delete. Delete. Delete.

Originally, there were 50 extra (boring) words and the start of this post. Delete!