Being Edited

The first time around, I found the experience of being edited…uncomfortable. I handed over a massive chunk of work that I wasn’t really happy with (not to mention how personal it was – there were parts of the story in there I’d never even told my therapist). The person reading it was someone I barely knew but, being an editor at Jonathan Cape, someone I had great reverence for. I left the pages with him, and I waited.

In the time between handing over the pages and our first editorial meeting, my imagination got to work on dreaming up all the possible negative feedback I could receive. Surely Jonathan Cape were now going to realise what a big mistake they’d made, and tell me they were sorry, but they longer wished to publish the book.

As I travelled to London and walked into Random House, signing my name on my visitor’s name tag, I felt like an imposter. This was something real authors did, not me. Then my mountainous first draft was placed on the table, covered in post-its and green (thankfully not red!) notes…

And my editor told me he liked it.

That’s how I remember the beginning of the professional relationship that really shaped my work on Lighter Than My Shadow. To have that input right from the earliest stages was incredibly valuable. Though it terrified me at first, he was always sensitive and professional, discussing the book almost as a work of fiction, yet never seeming to lack in empathy for it being a true story. Though it made me squirm to listen to and read comments on work I wasn’t happy with, it got easier. I came to appreciate the help and support in working towards something I felt proud of, shaping it into the book I’d started imagining almost ten years beforehand. In time, the relationship became (or perhaps always was, I just misunderstood it) less pupil-teacher, more mutually respectful. A collaboration for the best interests of the story.

Over the following two years we exchanged multiple drafts and redrafts, poking and prodding at the story here and there, taking out entire chunks and sometimes putting them back in again a few months later. Always I got nervous. Always the book got better.

I understand from a recent article written by mine that editors like “to remain invisible, for the work [they] do to be untraceable to the reader; for the book to appear, as Martin Amis has put it, ‘a transfusion from above’, direct from writer’s pen to reader’s eye.” While I value this and agree entirely that’s what a good editor should aspire to, I also think it’s a shame. I don’t like it when people are unappreciated for doing great work, and it’s impossible for me to talk about my creative process without talking about the value of the editorial input I was fortunate enough to receive.

The first time around, I found the experience of being edited uncomfortable, but draft after draft it became easier, and I looked forward to receiving that feedback and support. In the end it was a great pleasure and privilege, enabling me to craft a piece of work to a level I never could have managed alone.

Thanks Alex!

4 responses

  1. Genuinely illuminating, Katie. An interesting object lesson for all those of us who would credit ourselves as the sole authors of our work. I’d be interested to know how much editing you felt was directed at the writing and how much of it was aimed at the drawing? Which was easier to take? I somehow imagine criticism of drawing being harder to take on board than criticism of writing.

    • Thanks John. Certainly in these early stages, most of the editing was of the writing (given the unfinished-ness of the drawings at this stage, I’m not really sure it would have been possible to judge those). We did huge amounts of work on structure, choosing which scenes to leave in or take out, and where to place them. Occasionally Alex would point out where I’d used a certain composition a few to many times and it was becoming repetitive, but most of what we did, I think, would count as editing the writing.

      Later in the editing process, when we were discussing almost-finished pages, that’s when I received more criticism of the illustrations. It tended to be very specific: have you noticed the knives and forks are in the wrong hands on these pages? So-and-so character’s arm is out of proportion on such-and-such page. We also did a lot of editing of the narrative and dialogue at this stage, so editing of the writing in a completely different way.

      Overall, I don’t the think one or the other was easier to take, but perhaps that’s hard to judge against the process becoming easier overall as it went on, and the criticism of drawing only coming quite late in the process.

  2. This is a great post. I feel the same whenever I give something to beta readers (not even at the editing stage yet!) I hate giving something over to scrutiny because I am so certain someone will dislike it…then it’s great when they don’t, but I still have to struggle with their feedback. Particularly when they tell me I need to fix something but neither of us knows how to fix it.

    Congrats and best of luck on the publication.

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