By Erin Parker
We’re thrilled to announce that Caroline Adderson will be teaching Editors BC’s January seminar, Editing Fiction! Caroline is the acclaimed author of four novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice, The Sky Is Falling, Ellen in Pieces), two collections of short stories (Bad Imaginings, Pleased to Meet You), and many books for young readers. She also teaches in SFU’s Writing and Publishing Program. In this hands-on workshop, Caroline will share valuable techniques to help editors collaborate effectively with writers and bring out the best in their fiction manuscripts.
Erin Parker, a member of Editors BC’s professional development committee, recently had a conversation with Caroline about her writing journey, some of the biggest mistakes editors and authors can make when they start working together, and her appreciation of good books and savvy editors who take their writers out to lunch.
Could you tell us about your journey to becoming a writer, Caroline?
It was an accidental journey. I simply got off the train at the wrong stop!
I studied education at UBC and during those four years changed my mind annually as to what age group I wanted to teach and what my specialization would be. In third year, I took a creative writing class and enjoyed it so much that I decided to make it one of my “concentrations.” The next year I enrolled in three classes in the department. That would have been it for me except my professor, Andreas Schroeder, took me aside at the end of the year and said, “You should apply for a Canada Council grant.” I didn’t even know what the Canada Council was, so he dragged me to the office and wrote down the address. I applied and got a grant, which allowed me to write for nine months. Everything I wrote was awful, but I developed the discipline necessary to keep going in the arts. Discipline is more important than talent in the beginning.
Your upcoming seminar teaches editors practical techniques for strengthening and polishing fiction manuscripts. What’s one way editing fiction differs from editing non-fiction?
This is hard for me to answer. I recently published a book of non-fiction (Vancouver Vanishes: Narratives of Demolition and Revival), for which I was “editor” and co-contributor. But I really only selected and commissioned the pieces. As soon as the finished manuscript was compiled, I panicked and said, “Help! I don’t know how to edit non-fiction.” My friend Zsuzsi Gartner came to my rescue. That being said, I suppose the main difference is the importance of character, especially the development of the protagonist. For fiction to be successful the protagonist must have an arc and her motivations must be clear. Fiction editing is probably much more intuitive than non-fiction editing.
In this workshop, you’ll also offer advice about the all-important writer–editor relationship, which can be tricky for both parties to navigate. When an editor and writer start working together, what’s the biggest mistake each of them can make? How can these missteps be avoided or corrected?
On the editor’s part, the biggest mistake is not saying how much you love the book, or not saying there are things you love about it, right off the top. Fiction writers work in isolation for years for almost no money. They need to feel that their sacrifice has been worth it. Your praise will do that and will also open them up to your suggestions for improvement.
On the writer’s part, the biggest mistake is making the editor an adversary rather than a partner in creating a better manuscript. Sometimes, of course, the editor is an adversary, but I’m sure none of those nasty people will sign up for this class.
As an award-winning author of numerous novels, short story collections, and books for young readers, you’ve had the opportunity to work with many editors during your career. What have they had in common? How have their approaches to editing differed?
They buy me lunch. I know this sounds extremely shallow, but it’s simple psychology. When they buy me lunch, I feel special. I know they value my work—at least enough to put lunch on the publisher’s tab! Then I want to please them and show them I am worth the price of that lunch. The writer–editor relationship can be very personal and intense. Establishing mutual trust, collegiality, and respect should be the first thing an editor does. And it only costs about $20!
As for different approaches to editing, children’s editors are much more hands-on. Shelley Tanaka at Groundwood, for example, slashes my books. Out, out, out! I love it. Patrick Crean, who has been my adult editor for most of my career, never touches the prose itself. He’ll write several pages of notes and leave it to me to fix things.
Our focus is often on New Year’s resolutions this time of year. Could you tell us one of your reading, writing, or teaching goals for 2016?
I’d like to do more pleasure reading and less duty reading, but it already looks like I’ll be falling off the wagon in January. That’s the life of a freelancer. And since you’ve mentioned reading, let me say that to be a good writer or a good editor of fiction it’s imperative that you read good books. You’re pretty much only as good as what you read.
Erin Parker is a professional bookworm and full-time freelance editor of trade fiction and non-fiction for adults and young readers. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto and has worked in publishing since 2013.
Photo credit Cassandra Matichuk.