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What do editors do? Notes from Anita Morris

May 1, 2017

As part of his role as Writer in Residence at Toronto Public Library, author Pasha Malla offered a series of workshops during his year-long tenure. In March, he led a discussion with his editor, Lynn Henry. Lynn is currently Editor and Publishing Director at Knopf Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Editors work directly with authors to figure out what the writer wants to do and to help him/her get there. They ask questions that address gaps that may not be apparent to the writer and may open new spaces in a book where the author hasn’t gone yet. At the end of the editorial process, the writer and editor come to a place where both accept what the story is. The stages of editing include:

  • Substantive/developmental edit (addressing big issues)
    • Identify themes and structures
    • Examine the characters and how they are developed
    • Involves 1-2 major revisions
  • Line edit (issues of style e.g. whether a line should end earlier, slowing or increasing the pace)
    • Make real what was agreed to in the first stage of edit
    • Nothing at this stage should surprise the author!
  • Copy edit
  • Proof-read

In addition to working with authors, editors spend a lot of time talking to the publisher’s sales department about hooks for potential buyers. Sales staff have their own niches and networks and specialize in selling to libraries, schools or stores. For instance, “Dewey Divas” are publishing reps who sell to libraries.

Pasha’s first book, The Withdrawal Method, was a collection of short stories, something Lynn says can be harder to sell than a book of poetry. He initially submitted 30 short stories but now understands that it’s important to refine, select and shape the stories into a coherent body of work before sending it to a publisher. Lynn cut 19 stories and asked him to write two new stories to address gaps. Pasha said one of the new stories was the best he’d ever written. So good that the collection was long-listed for the Giller Prize, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillium Book Award, and made several “best book” lists in 2008!

Some publishers restrict themselves to submissions by agents. However, not all do. If an author doesn’t have an agent, it is helpful  to have a track record of publication in literary journals, or to be recommended by a published author/class instructor. Not sure if you need an agent or editor? See Barbara Berson’s comments to our group!

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