Tag Archives: Robyn Mundy

2016 speeches #1: Robyn Mundy’s Wildlight

Late last year, after I gave a brief talk at a function celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Battye Library for Western Australian History, a writer friend who attended suggested that I publish it here. Good idea—thanks, Ian Reid! Taking that a step further, I’ve decided to post three of the speeches I made in 2016.

The other two were on the occasion of launching books, which is always as much a pleasure as it is undoubtedly an honour. I’ve edited the speeches to focus on why I loved the books concerned, and I’m happy to have another opportunity to do just that!

Here is the first, for the Perth launch of Robyn Mundy’s novel Wildlight (Pan Macmillan/Picador), at Beaufort Street Books last March…

 

Wildlight front cover

As most of you know, Wildlight is Robyn’s second novel. Her first, The Nature of Ice, announced a huge talent: a superb storyteller, a writer with an ear for the music of language, a writerly architect of place, a writer capable of the beautiful and the profound.

Wildlight, too, delivers all these things and more.

To give you the briefest of sketches: it begins in 1999 with 16-year-old Stephanie West travelling with her parents to remote Maatsuyker Island, just off Tasmania’s south-west coast. The family—now only three since the death of Stephanie’s twin brother Callum—are to be stationed there for five months as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. Five months without a social life, without mobile coverage, without basic home comforts like heating, without email. Unsurprisingly, Steph isn’t there by choice.

Into this scenario comes Tom Forrest, a 19-year-old deckhand on his brother’s crayfishing vessel which works the dangerous waters surrounding the island. Tom doesn’t have much choice in his situation, either, and his predicament is made worse by the tyrannical Frank’s dodgy fishing practices.

The narrative alternates between these two characters, Stephanie and Tom, allowing us to know them both, and sometimes to know more than they do.

I’m guessing that the first thing that reviewers of Wildlight are going to remark on is the setting—Maatsuker Island—but it is a great deal more than a novel of place, however atmospherically and beautifully that place is brought to life.

The subtle strength of the novel, for me, lies in the complexity Robyn brings to her small cast of characters. This is especially evident in the young characters, young people still in the process of becoming, unsure of who they are or could be, tentatively testing what they think they want against what is expected of them. Robyn’s respect for these young people, her care for the problems they face and the decisions they make, is clear, and never more so than in the way she shows them gaining the ability to turn to the adults in their lives, seeing their flaws, and moving beyond impatient teenage judgment.

Robyn also respects her readers. We come to understand many of the whys of character and story through threads of the past looping through the present, but there is no tight stitching here, no neatly tied bows. Robyn gives us enough to work with but resists over-explanation, allowing us space to speculate on, for example, the truthfulness of Stephanie’s mother’s idealised memory of her childhood on the island when her father was lightkeeper; Stephanie’s barely formed feelings about the changes in her twin before his death; her parents’ relationship; the vulnerability in Tom’s mother, the fearfulness underlying her blind deference to Frank. This is sophisticated writing.

Wildlight is also a portrait of grief. Here is Stephanie recalling her grandmother’s words:

According to Gran, this second year should have felt easier than the first. By the second year, Gran said, you could no longer look back the way you had the first, thinking this time last year we were all together, this time last Christmas, last birthday. The last of everything, drifting from your reach. You medicated yourself on the distance of time—a sedative that dulled the sharpness, then locked you in its murk. It was a kind of worn-out grief you couldn’t easily share, not once the time allowed for sadness had elapsed.

Stephanie and her parents, Gretchen and James, are a lost and broken family, each one locked painfully in themselves, confused and struggling, tiptoeing around the others for fear of opening cracks that might let the unbearable into the light. Callum’s death haunts them individually and haunts the family. And this lost boy haunts the narrative, too—not just as sadness, but as disturbance. There are no stereotypes here, no easy emotions.

But there is breathtaking writing—images you can see and hear and, in this example, smell:

Steph stood by her bedroom window staring at the night. The fishing fleet’s cluster of lights sparked through the dark. She opened the window to the air. The moon had finally appeared, a broad silver blade pressed down on the water… The bleats and groans from seals carried through the night, mournful as a cattle yard. She inhaled the cloying smell of mutton-bird, air rancid with their oil. The endless chatter of birds. An orchestra of discord pulsating through the night.

And so to the setting, to the exhilarating creation of place that comes from a writer who has lived it and allowed it to enter her cells. The ocean, the Needles and the Mewstone emerging from the sea, the lighthouse and all the history trapped within its lens, the freezing, comfortless, ‘skanky’ lightkeeper’s cottage where the family lives, the deafening sound of those crazy, odiferous muttonbirds, the clouds, the rain, the cold. And the wind—a relentless, infernal wind that we cannot begin to comprehend.

The Maatsuyker of Wildlight is raw and wild and utterly compelling, and this timeless place cannot help but shape the lives of its characters as they head into a new millennium—and for all the years beyond.

Wildlight is a coming-of-age story, a story of first love and first flight. A story about the fragility and concomitant strength of family, and the ravages of grief. And yes, it is a story of place—wild, unforgiving, unforgettable.

Robyn talks about Wildlight here

 

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Filed under Australian Women Writers Challenge

Robyn Mundy talks about Wildlight

Robyn Mundy author #1205CFD

Photo by Kirsty Pilkington

I’ve been waiting a long time for something new from my friend Robyn Mundy, and the wait has been worth it. I couldn’t be more thrilled that she’s here talking about her brilliant new novel, Wildlight (Picador).

Robyn’s first novel, The Nature of Ice (Allen & Unwin, 2009), remains one of my all-time favourites, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Dobbie Award. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to beg, borrow or steal a copy—or preferably buy one here. After you’ve read Wildlight, that is.

If there is a link between The Nature of Ice and Wildlight, it is in the wild places that Robyn brings so beautifully to life in each—in the former, Antarctica; the latter, Maatsuyker Island.

Robyn is intimately acquainted with both. In the preliminary stage of writing Wildlight, she and her partner spent four months living and working alone on Maatsuyker Island as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. And she has summered and over-wintered at Australian Antarctic stations, working as a field assistant on science research projects.

Robyn works seasonally as an Assistant Expedition Leader on ship-based tours to the Antarctic, Arctic and other remote locales. The rest of the time, she lives in Hobart, where she writes and teaches writing.

Here is the blurb for Wildlight:

We all bow to the weather. It’s the light and dark of being at this place. You plant yourself on the edge of an ocean and you see how startling nature is, that it’s fierce and beautiful and totally indiscriminate.

Sixteen-year-old Stephanie West has been dragged from Sydney to remote Maatsuyker Island off the coast of Tasmania by her parents, hoping to recapture a childhood idyll and come to terms with their grief over the death of Steph’s twin brother. Cut off from friends and the comforts of home, exiled to a lonely fortress with a lighthouse that bears the brunt of savage storms, the months ahead look to be filled with ghosts of the past.

Steph’s saviour is Tom Forrest, a 19-year-old deckhand aboard a crayfishing boat. When the weather allows, Tom visits the island, and he and Steph soon form an attraction. But Tom must conceal at all costs the illegal fishing he takes part in, orchestrated by his tyrannical brother. And he dare not dwell on his fear of the sea or his deep-worn premonition that the ocean will one day take him.

Wildlight is an exquisite, vividly detailed exploration of the wayward journey of adolescence, and how the intense experience of a place can change the course of even the most well-planned life.

And now, over to Robyn…

Wildlight front cover

2 things that inspired your book

1 Land: I grew up studying my parents’ wall chart of Tasmania and listening, through a crackling radio, to evening weather reports from around the state. Maatsuyker Island’s pattern of westerly storms had me picture a wind-battered outpost on the edge of the Southern Ocean; I’d see keepers trudging to and from the lighthouse to dutifully tend its light. I must have put myself in that picture, for I longed to know such a place.

2 Ocean: A second inspiration stems from a growing-up of boating: rowing down the bay to pull the net and craypot, or trips with Dad in the big boat, a packet of jaw-wrenching Minties ever at hand. I can still summon the moment of seeing the craypot reach the surface, peering down to a small haul of crayfish.

As an adult, visits to Hobart often included a walk around Constitution Dock to see the fleet of fishing boats with their craypots stacked on deck. But it wasn’t until I spent four months on Maatsuyker Island in 2010–11, looking down upon these small boats in formidable conditions, that I gained full admiration for their fishermen and women.

IMG_9190 Serenity 2#1216508

How and why do these formative experiences, stored in memory sometimes for decades, transfigure into story? I only know that a wild place, and the people who inhabit it, inspired the makings of Wildlight.

2 places connected with your book

1 Becoming: I’m interested in the way a wild place—far removed from the comfortable urban lives we might otherwise live—impacts upon us. I’m not talking idyll. Immersion in such a setting can be hard, uncomfortable, may even resemble an imprisonment. Stephanie of Wildlight will tell you that. But ultimately, and sometimes only on reflection, the encounter—clear and simple in its focus, removed from the thousand distractions that cluster our day—is liberating, vivid, perhaps powerful enough to shape or direct us beyond. I am fascinated with the process of becoming and its connection with place.

2 Writing at Camden Haven: In the early stages of writing Wildlight I was lucky enough to be awarded a writing residency at gorgeous Camden Haven on the Mid North Coast region of New South Wales. It came packaged with the valuable guidance of mentor Ian Templeman, to whom Wildlight is dedicated. One day Ian commented on my hosts’ home, built on a bend of the Camden River: I can imagine your character living somewhere like this. That idea put itself to creative work and evolved into the setting and trajectory of the final part of the novel. Thank you, dear Ian.

2 favourite quotes from the book

1 I really like my character Tom. He is nineteen, a deckie on his older brother’s crayboat. He wants a purpose to his life. He wants to be free of his brother’s control. Tom’s need for a future of his own choosing has him chart the point within a person where goodness ends and a darker force takes over. With sound reason Tom fears the ocean, but at the same time the awe he feels for his surrounds is something I love about his character:

On a clear morning he’d be pulling pots in the dark, the first hint of dawn the eastern horizon purpling to a bruise. Before the sun tipped above the ocean, the promise of light would amplify the sky—a curtain turned blood orange, the Mewstone toy-like against its breadth.

IMG_8394 red sunrise Mewstone_web

2 On my desk I have a piece of lighthouse glass I found on Maatsuyker Island. For such a small object it’s surprisingly heavy, the glass 10 mm in thickness. It holds its own story: a bygone storm with force enough to smash a toughened shield of glass. Throughout Wildlight the glass of the lighthouse takes a hold of my character Stephanie:

She heard herself babbling when she’d promised herself she wouldn’t; that at first the glass looked clear but when you really looked it was the most delicate sea green imaginable, each curve infused with hundred-year-old bubbles. The lighthouse glass was sunlight punching through the back of a wave and that’s how she saw it, the swirl and twist and how the ocean’s energy seemed locked inside the glass. Light set it in motion.

IMG_8367 prisms & view_web

Wildlight is in bookstores now
For more information, visit Pan Macmillan/Picador
Visit Robyn’s website, Writing the Wild
Book trailer here

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In fine company…

Image-for-ECU-SW-student-news-Aug-2013The Mt Lawley campus of Edith Cowan University, in Perth, is currently holding an exhibition called ‘Celebration of the Book’, which showcases the published creative work of graduates of the university’s higher degree program in writing (PhD, Masters and Honours), as well as some of the academic staff involved in the program.

Candidates graduating from these programs undertake a major creative work plus an accompanying exegesis; my PhD thesis, for example, consisted of a novel (submitted under the title ‘Ellipsis’ and subsequently published as The Sinkings) and an exegesis comprising two substantial essays, one on the subject of ambiguous genre and the other on ambiguous gender.

Many of the graduates of ECU’s higher degree writing program have gone on to achieve publication; outstanding novels that spring to mind—products of that program—include The Alphabet of Light and Dark (Danielle Wood), A New Map of the Universe (Annabel Smith), The Nature of Ice (Robyn Mundy), Finding Jasper (Lynne Leonhardt) and The Albanian (Donna Mazza). Even that abbreviated list includes one Vogel Award winner and one T.A.G. Hungerford Award winner, as well as four short- or long-listings for other major awards. To quote from the exhibition catalogue:

From 1999 to the start of 2013, twenty-one writing students have graduated with a Higher Degree from Edith Cowan University. More than half of their projects have resulted in significant publications. Many of our alumni have carved careers as professional authors and academics, mentoring a new generation of writing students. From a small base comes an impressive collection of printed works. As part of our 2013 Celebration of the Book Exhibition, Edith Cowan University is proud to showcase a selection of creative writing publications, with supporting comments from the authors.

I feel proud to be included among the writers featured in the catalogue (you can download a copy via the link here)—writers whose work I admire, many of them friends, and/or colleagues in various capacities.

So congratulations to ECU, to exhibition curator Robyn Mundy, to all the writers exhibited (full list below), and to one supervisor, in particular, who has been thanked so often that there is talk of a fan club (he would hate that!)—Dr Richard Rossiter.

And what fine company it is!
Dr Suzanne Covich
Dr Fran Cusworth
Dr Maureen Helen
Dr Simone Lazaroo
Dr Julia Lawrinson
Dr Lynne Leonhardt
Dr Donna Mazza
Dr Vahri McKenzie
Dr Anne Morgan
Dr Robyn Mundy
Dr Ffion Murphy
Professor Glen Phillips
Dr Marcella Polain
Associate Professor Richard Rossiter
Dr John Charles Ryan
Dr Annabel Smith
Professor Andrew Taylor
Dr Terry Whitebeach
Dr Danielle Wood

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On the other side of the red pen

iStock_000018482964XSmalllooking up/looking down is a blog dedicated to writing, reading and watching the world. But among the several hats I wear in my professional life is the editor’s hat—and editing is closely involved in writing and reading: the editor always serves the needs of the publisher, the author and the reader. So there will be an occasional piece relating to editing, too.

Here’s a version of a paper I gave recently at the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) national editors conference in Perth, Western Australia. I would especially like to acknowledge the generosity of the fifteen authors who contributed. They are listed at the end of the paper, along with links to make it easy for you to find out more about them and their work. I hope you will; they are all exceptional writers.

Crossing the editor–author borderlands

I inhabit a space that could be called the borderlands—a place where I sometimes wear two hats at the same time, sometimes juggle two hats with a dexterity that is possible in metaphor in a way that it is not in real life, and sometimes hide one hat in a cupboard while wearing the other.

I am talking about the roles of editor and author. I have been a freelance book editor for more than 25 years and an author for considerably less time than that; my first book was published in 2008 and the third this year.

As someone who occupies these two roles, I am often asked to take part in publishing panels at writers festivals, conferences and other events, and it is usually in the context of explaining the editing process to authors—communicating how editors work, the different kinds of editing, what each process involves. In workshops, master classes and mentoring sessions over the past few years, I have taken every opportunity to talk about how authors can make the most of their experience of being edited, and to give them practical advice on things they can do to assist the process.

But here I am wearing the other hat, talking to my editing colleagues about what the editing process feels like from the author’s perspective. And to tease out whether there are things editors can do—things we are not already doing—to enhance this process, make it easier or more effective or more reassuring for authors.

I did not want this to be an all-about-me session. First, because although my expectations and experiences as an author have much in common with those of any other author, they cannot help but be coloured, in part, by the fact that I am this hat-wearing, hat-juggling, hat-hiding border-dweller. And second, because it is far more interesting to hear a range of voices, encompassing a diversity of experience and publishing contexts.

To that end, I have enlisted the assistance of writing friends in Australia and overseas—for the latter, taking advantage of international residencies undertaken in 2011 and 2012. All but one of the generous respondents to my brief, informal survey are fiction writers (although some also publish in other genres) and the other is a poet.

~~~

Let me begin by revealing an extraordinary fact about writers. Some of you might have an inkling about this already, but it is generally a mysterious, unknown phenomenon.

Writers have a sixth sense. Not like the child in the M. Knight Shyamalan film of that name, the one who has supernatural powers, who sees dead people. The sixth sense I am talking about is this:

Writers hear your voice when you are not saying anything.

I know this to be true of myself, but it was not until I overheard a group of writers talking at a festival that I realised it was not just me. One of the writers—well-established, award-winning—said: I handed in my manuscript on the due date and haven’t heard anything since. The editor obviously hates it and can’t bring herself to tell me.

I said writers hear your voice; I did not say they hear the truth.

Since then I have heard writers express many versions of the same, and it’s evident in a couple of comments from my writer friends.

Meg McKinlay says:

For many of us, I think that space in which we wait for the editorial letter to arrive is one of deep uncertainty, in which much of our previous confidence in the work is abandoned. It’s always helpful to be reminded that we are not hopeless and our manuscripts do have promise and that is in fact why they are in the happy position of being edited, as ridiculously self-evident as that may seem.

The voice Meg hears—the editor’s voice—is saying: Meg is hopeless. Meg’s manuscript has absolutely no promise. I can’t imagine why we’ve contracted it.

And this from Robyn Mundy, describing the editing of her first novel:

No one actually spelled out whether it was okay for me to reject editing suggestions. There were a couple of suggestions that I felt did not serve the novel. I feared that if I didn’t act upon the editor’s advice, the publisher might change her mind about proceeding with my novel.

There is that voice again: Robyn had better smarten up and agree to that suggestion in chapter 6 or I’ll bury her novel in the chamber of non-starters.

As a writer, I understand the anxieties underlying these comments, and as an editor I have observed them in the authors I have worked with.

There are two points to make here. The first is that authors are a great deal less confident, more vulnerable, than you can ever imagine, and wherever there is a vacuum, most authors will fill it with a negative message. Robyn Mundy described that vulnerability well when she wrote:

Here you are, with your hard-earned creative output that’s as precious as a newborn, being told, albeit in the most diplomatic and encouraging terms, that your baby is not quite perfect, that he needs reshaping, reworking, re-creating—that even the name you’ve so carefully chosen is now under scrutiny. Who wouldn’t feel a little wounded?

In spite of the ultimate rewards, the process is not, as Cate Kennedy observes, a fundamentally reassuring one for writers.

Reminder: Never underestimate the author’s vulnerability. Neutral silence will usually be interpreted negatively.

The second point is about communication. It is easy, and understandable when editors are so busy, to forget that a new author does not necessarily know what is expected of them; to assume that a successful author knows their manuscript is original and exciting and does not need to be told this; to neglect dashing off a quick email to let an author know you have begun work on their manuscript because they should already be able to see this on their copy of the schedule.

I have always felt that ‘learning’ your author is essential to the relationship and to the success of the whole editing process—finding out what they do and do not know about the process, what their comfort zone is with things like Track Changes, whether they are familiar with the publisher’s house style, whether they are likely to speak up when they should (or possibly just speak up incessantly—it is good to know that, too). And with many if not most authors, a lot of anxiety can be defused by a quick email to stay connected—something as simple as everything’s going to schedule and I’ll be in touch by Friday week.

Reminders: ‘Learn’ your author by asking questions. Err on the side of generosity when it comes to keeping authors informed of what is happening with their manuscript.

The authors I surveyed recognise good editorial skills as crucial in bringing a book to its full potential.

David Whish-Wilson observed:

Often this seems to involve asking questions of a narrative from the position of an ‘ideal reader’; at other times, answering questions the writer has about the work but lacks appropriate answers. This insight is the thing that I most value in the writer–editor relationship, a kind of clarity of vision and steely intelligence and determination and belief that draws out into the light what might otherwise remain hidden.

Meg McKinlay also spoke of that ability of editors to uncover the hidden, to zero in on ‘themes or ideas that may be submerged in a manuscript…waiting for a canny editor to come along and tease them out, to guide me towards them’. And she values

the way in which a good editor approaches the manuscript on its own terms. They see what the work is trying to be/do, and help guide it towards becoming the best version of that, rather than steering it towards being any kind of version of something else.

Alan Carter privileged the editor’s role in assessing the ‘bigger picture stuff’:

Knowing whether the overall plot structure is working, whether characters are interesting and believable, whether there is or isn’t logic to how they act/think/talk.

Others spoke of the smaller, but no less important, things that all authors miss when they are too close to a work to see what is there. Cate Kennedy said:

Once I wrote something like ‘It was the week before Christmas and she was at home watching the tennis on TV’, and my editor wrote: ‘The tennis is not televised until January’. Excellent! Picking up on overuse of certain words or even repeated images is another great feature of a good editor.

Liz Byrski, similarly, speaks of her copyeditor’s

forensic eye for timelines, which is a lifesaver for me. However many charts I make of the characters’ ages at certain times in relation to the other characters, to their life events or major social or political events, I always mess it up.

Now, when I am wearing my editor’s hat, I have a reputation when it comes to the matter of timelines; I have to confess that one author refers to me as ‘the chronology nazi’. In fact, the need to construct a chronology, maintain it, and hand it over to your editor is one of the things I have been trying to impress on authors for years. It is one of the little soapbox speeches I give when I am inhabiting the borderlands. (My reasoning, in brief, is this: the time an editor is given to devote to a manuscript is finite, and if they do not have to spend some of it on tasks like constructing a timeline, that’s more time they can spend more creatively with you.)

Bart Moeyaert, who has an impressive writing career spanning nearly thirty years, with only one change of publisher in that time, spoke of a relationship with his editor that will sound unusual—and utopian—to most of us. He compared his former editor (since retired) at prestigious Dutch press Querido to his doctor:

He is the man who knows a great deal about me. He knows my history, he knows my sorrows, anxieties, personality, qualities and shortcomings. He knows the best way to handle me (and I know he knows)…He was a gift. He sent me articles that could interest me, prodded me if he thought it was necessary, arranged meetings/dinners/parties to give me the chance to meet authors/actors/artists, and once in a while we would quarrel, as in every good marriage.

But Bart recognised that this relationship was ‘old school’ and ‘belonged to the past’, and that the place of marketing and sales departments in publishing houses is more important now than before.

I was interested to see differences among authors emerging when it came to how far editors should go in making specific suggestions once having identified an issue with structure, logic, emotional connection, psychological credibility, etc.

Cate Kennedy prefers it

when the editor does not try to ‘rewrite’ the passage or add anything of their own, but rather acts as a kind of ideal reader, willing to give their honest reaction as they read, leaving the rewriting/recasting/rejigging up to the writer. It’s really helpful when an editor writes something as simple as ‘Why does he say this now?’ or ‘This reaction feels over the top’, making me push for better expression or more clarification.

Similarly, Meg McKinlay appreciates

editors who are able to identify issues while resisting the urge to offer their own ‘fixes’. If an editor does offer suggestions, I prefer these to be open-ended, leaving room for me to step into the creative process. Specific suggestions or interventions tend to shut that down. For example, I’m very happy for an editor to say, ‘I feel that this scene needs more tension’, but I don’t want to hear, ‘Perhaps he grabs her and she has to struggle to escape?’

In contrast, F. G. Haghenbeck loves it, he says, when editors ‘really edit’—‘when the editor is involved in the construction of the story, making proposals, changes, even big changes, to make the story the best it can be’. He even advocates bringing in the editor while the book is being written, though he concedes that both parties need ‘100% trust’ for that.

David Whish-Wilson said:

What I most appreciate, having reached the end of my own vision for a narrative, is the application of an editor’s insight into potential avenues for further exploration. This could be in regard to extending a particular character’s influence in a story, or something as macro as structure.

Liz Byrski referred to her editor being ‘very creative in her suggestions about the way things might be done’:

If she wants me to know something isn’t working she always explains why she thinks that, and she suggests ways it might be dealt with. I don’t always make changes in the way she suggests but her suggestions always help me to work out how I do want to handle it.

Denise Deegan described how two major plot suggestions from her editor turned around a manuscript she was struggling with and had lost enthusiasm for:

I thought the ideas were interesting. I said I’d think about it. Driving home, though, my mind started to fire. As soon as I got in, I started writing. My editor’s ideas sparked off so much, triggering an avalanche of ideas, inspiration but, most importantly, enthusiasm. My writing took off.

Ted Thompson tells of having had a fantasy ‘that I’d have a creative collaborator, someone who could crawl inside my book and fix it with me’, but then found it ‘surprising and refreshing’ when she was, rather, ‘a sort of acupuncturist—pointing out tiny lapses in logic or tics in the writing that go on to have large implications for the book’.

Chigozie Obioma, whose first published story found its home in a prestigious US journal, described the experience of having his 8,000-word manuscript cut down to 5,000 words. His editor

did not tell me, at any time, that a certain thing was not working. He did not ask if he should remove a scene or not. He dove in, did what he thought was best and asked for my approval. In the end, I had very little to add. Because he’d used my words, metaphors and phrases throughout, it was difficult to disapprove of anything in the text he sent. The process was bliss.

Chigozie concluded: ‘I want my work to be loved through and through. I believe that if it is loved so, the editor will push it to the best possible place’.

In outlining his preferred process for receiving editorial suggestions, Bart Moeyaert drew a distinction between language-based issues and structural issues. He explained that a Belgian writer writing in Dutch, where some words/expressions are more common in Flanders than they are in The Netherlands, and vice versa, often must choose which of these reading audiences his language will privilege. Bart will discuss such issues raised, and suggestions offered, by his editor, and notes that the beauty of the language is usually the deciding factor for him. However, with structural issues, involving the rhythm and musicality—the voice—of a novel, all of which have evolved organically, Bart prefers his editor to explain these, and offer suggestions, in writing:

The ‘writing down’ is important. I will try not to talk about it. I will think about it in silence, and if I think the editor is right, I will make a change—in silence.

Poet Adam Zdrodowski spoke of his editor identifying ‘places that may need some rewriting’, but also valued his editor’s ‘suggestions that helped me get rid of poems that could have made my book a bit repetitious, and choose some of the new poems to be included’. The framework for editing a collection of poetry is something outside my own experience, but it seems, from Adam’s observations, that there is scope both for identifying issues and for making substantive suggestions, just as there is in editing prose fiction.

A. J. Betts’s responses demonstrate that editors often walk a tightrope in handling authors’ expectations. ‘I don’t expect the editor to solve specific areas that don’t work for me’, she said, ‘just highlight them so I can solve them myself’, but also noted that when ‘really desperate’, she did wish her editor would give specific suggestions on how a problem might be fixed.

Putting on my author’s hat for a moment, I think I am happy enough for an editor to make suggestions, as this may help me to better understand the issue that has been identified—the why of it, the possible implications—which often leads me to find my own solution.

And now switching hats: as an editor, I am not sure I have always got the balance right on this matter, but a strategy I have used instinctively in the past is to keep a note of possible ‘fixes’ or approaches that might occur to me, in the event that the author does ask for specific suggestions, but first wait and see how they respond to the issues raised. In the case of rewording, I always preface any suggestion with something like this? (the question mark is important) or here’s an idea of what I mean, although I’m sure you’ll come up with something better.

So in essence, this too is another communication matter, part of learning the author: in the first instance, subtly teasing out what is the best approach to take, and then maintaining a connection throughout the process, alert to when an adjustment in approach might be needed.

Reminder: Do not assume the author wants specific suggestions about how to ‘fix’ an identified problem.

I detected little disagreement on whether editors should hold back on delivering praise as well as criticism. Here are two comments:

I do find it reassuring to have some sense of what is good in the manuscript, where the strength lies in the bones I’ve laid out. I’m of course not talking here about vague, ego-boosting praise, but specific praise for elements of the manuscript which are strong, which are working.

—Meg McKinlay

It would be great occasionally if editors didn’t solely focus on faults and structural flaws, and just jotted something like ‘this part works beautifully’ or ‘I loved this exchange’. If you feel moved by something positive, TELL the author. It’s a real boost.

—Cate Kennedy

I know I sometimes forget to do this often enough when I am editing, and I have resolved to do it more, because I know how helpful—and gratifying—it can be to see those little ticks along the way from an editor whose judgment you trust.

Cate Kennedy’s plea is for a subjective, emotional response to the manuscript as well as an incisive analysis of its elements. Ted Thompson, however, found himself appreciating his editor’s highly objective approach:

There are no qualitative assessments (nothing about likes and dislikes). It’s all practical, focused, and based in the text. This, to an obsessive self-critic, is an enormous relief.

He did add, however, that ‘every writer wants some impossible mix of enthusiasm and reassurance’.

Adam Zdrodowski echoed this when he said:

It is easy, especially when you write poetry (which generally does not have a large following), to lose faith and stop believing that what you do is important and you should devote a lot of energy and effort to it. I really need that reassurance as an author.

When Denise Deegan was unsure about a risk she was taking in one manuscript, it was her editor’s expression of confidence that gave her the confidence to make that risk pay off.

A. J. Betts observed that ‘too much negativity overpowers the positives’, while Caroline Hamilton listed as one of the essentials in an editor ‘honesty—but not brutal’. Josephine Rowe made a sensible, practical point about terminology: that ‘sending a writer corrections of their manuscript is a terrible way to begin a conversation’.

Reading this last comment immediately gave me a shiver: have I ever inadvertently made this mistake? When copyediting, we do make corrections—for consistency, for example, or in the service of house style. But even in copyediting it is a word that has the unhelpful effect of implying a hierarchy. In the structural editing of fiction, it has no place at all.

Striking the right balance between praise and criticism, positives and negatives, is another aspect of the author–editor relationship that comes from learning the author. Authors do not want shallow, empty compliments, but most will appreciate being told when you—as an engaged reader—feel that thrill of knowing you are in safe hands, when something is really working, when you are moved to tears, laughter, anger, despair.

Reminders: Do not assume your experienced, multi-awarded author is secure enough not to need a balance of praise and criticism. Take care with terminology: words like comments, observations and responses (structural editing) and amendments (copyediting) are preferable to corrections.

Preparation and engagement with the work rank highly in authors’ expectations of their editors.

Robyn Mundy hopes for

a relationship of trust that will grow from discussion rather than dictation, and play out as guidance from a mentor. I expect the editor to be intimately engaged in my manuscript, that they ‘get’ the nuance of what I am striving to convey. I expect that they can substantiate suggestions for change and genuinely consider my responses to those suggestions.

A. J. Betts appreciates the editor ‘doing multiple readings and being very prepared prior to meeting with me’, while Liz Byrski praised her editor’s immersion in the manuscript, saying: ‘she seems to know the story and the characters as well as, or even better than, I do’.

Meg McKinlay dislikes formulaic queries that demonstrate a lack of

ear for the voice of the writing itself…where an editor might, for example, annotate a line with the comment ‘Repetition. Re-word?’ when the repetition is clearly intentional in the context, for patterning or contrast with other elements. Or she might query a poetic use of language—‘Usage is not grammatical. Please revise’…As a poet who’s turned to writing for children…I would tend to privilege things like rhythm over rules and if an infinitive or two is split in the process, so be it.

Meg went on to say that whenever she comes across an indication that the editor has not thoroughly engaged with the manuscript, it can have the effect of ‘undermining my faith in the validity of her reading in general, and that has a flow-on effect into how the process/relationship unfolds’. So the success or otherwise of the author–editor relationship can hinge on this issue of preparation and engagement, which, in essence, is a measure of the editor’s professionalism, instincts and skill.

Reminders: Be well prepared. Be very familiar with the elements of the work, and come to grips with what the author is trying to achieve. Substantiate suggestions for change. Avoid perfunctory queries.

As I have been talking a lot about communication, I am going to close with a few comments from respondents on practical matters of communication.

Josephine Rowe spoke about the deficiencies of email and Track Changes:

I’ve found my favourite editors are those who will pick up the phone when there’s a particularly tricky aspect that needs ironing out. Written communication doesn’t allow for the same fluidity of ideas and narrative possibilities as a verbal conversation. A phone call can be much more effective than batting something back and forth, and is generally less time-consuming.

This comment really struck a chord with me, as I have often thought how exhausting email ‘discussion’ can be. It does, of course, have the virtue of easy, traceable documentation of decisions made. With phone and face-to-face communications, we still need to make a note of the date and the outcome of discussions, to keep on file.

A. J. Betts noted a preference for email communications, in the context of wanting her editor to be ‘easy to access’.

Liz Byrski appreciates ‘notes and mark-ups that are really neat and easy to read’, clarity about deadlines for revisions, and gentle checks on how she is progressing.

Caroline Hamilton also mentioned deadlines, and the need for flexibility:

Sometimes schedules do get thrown out of the window. I really think it’s important that the editor knows when to crack the whip and when to leave well alone.

And this from Meg McKinlay:

I’m happy to work quickly if necessary, as long as I know in advance and can adjust my schedule accordingly. Just as I don’t expect that I’m the only author an editor is currently working with, so I’d like editors to remember that I’m probably doing many other things as well.

A final comment from Caroline Hamilton reminds us what is at stake when we are talking about communication:

Above all, [my editor] listened to me. I mean really listened. And as a result, I listened to her.

Reminders: Be flexible. Be clear. Be a good listener.

~~~

Before embarking on my informal survey, my view from the borderlands was that editors generally seem to be serving their authors well, and are getting better at doing so all the time. The introduction of professional standards (Australian Standards for Editing Practice), IPEd’s accreditation scheme, increasing opportunities for professional development through national conferences and society training sessions—all have made their mark.

Studying the comments offered by my writer friends has not shaken this view, but it reminds me that all the things we are doing right can still be done better, and it highlights, for me, the centrality of communication in all we do. It is my hope that bringing authors’ voices into the conversation will contribute to the further development of the editor–author relationship, that it will help editors to get the best from the authors they work with.

picisto-20130618120234-118426Contributing authors
pictured from the top, left to right:
A. J. Betts, Liz Byrski, Alan Carter, Denise Deegan
F. G. Haghenbeck, Caroline Hamilton, Cate Kennedy, Meg McKinlay
Bart Moeyaert, Robyn Mundy, Chigozie Obioma, Josephine Rowe
Ted Thompson, David Whish-Wilson, Adam Zdrodowski, Amanda Curtin

A. J. Betts (Australia), author of YA novels Wavelength, ShutterspeedZac and Mia [forthcoming 2013]

Liz Byrski (Australia), author of novels In the company of strangers, Last chance café, Bad behaviour, Trip of a lifetime, Belly dancing for beginners, Food, sex & money, Gang of four; memoir Remember me; non-fiction Getting on: some thoughts on women and ageing

Alan Carter (Australia), author of novel Prime cut

Denise Deegan (Ireland), author of YA novels (the ‘Butterfly series’) And actually, And for your information, And by the way; novels Do you want what I want?, Love comes tumbling, Time in a bottle, Turning turtle

F. G. Haghenbeck (Mexico), author of novels Bitter drink, The secret book of Frida Kahlo

Caroline Hamilton (Australia), author of novel Consumed

Cate Kennedy (Australia), author of short fiction collections Like a house on fire, Dark roots; novel The world beneath; poetry collections The taste of river water, Signs of other fires, Joyflight, Crucible and other poems; memoir Sing and don’t cry

Meg McKinlay (Australia), author of junior fiction Surface tension, Annabel, again, The big dig, Going for broke, Wreck the halls, Duck for a day, Definitely no ducks!; picture books Ten tiny things, The truth about penguins, No bears; poetry collection Cleanskin

Bart Moeyaert (Belgium), author of many novels for adults and children, translated into 20 languages (including Bare hands, Brothers, Hornet’s Nest and It’s love we don’t understand), as well as poetry, short fiction, memoir, plays and screenplays

Robyn Mundy (Australia), author of novel The nature of ice; non-fiction (with Nigel Rigby) Epic voyages

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), author of short story ‘Fishermen’ in Virginia Quarterly Review; novel [forthcoming 2015] The Fishermen

Josephine Rowe (Australia), author of short fiction collections Tarcutta wake, How a moth becomes a boat

Ted Thompson (United States), author of novel [forthcoming 2014] The land of steady habits

David Whish-Wilson (Australia), author of novels Zero at the bone [forthcoming 2013], Line of sight, The summons

Adam Zdrodowski (Poland), author of poetry collections 47 lotów balonem [47 balloon flights], Jesien Zuzanny [Susanna’s autumn], Przygody, etc. [Adventures, etc.]

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Reasons to love a novel: imagery

Sometimes a writer will create a mental picture so compelling that it seems, in its beauty or its depth or its tenderness, or its raw, shocking slap, to open up a neural pathway, connecting me to something never before felt, or seen, or heard. It changes the way I am wired. It writes itself on my memory. It becomes permanently implicated in all of the reasons I love to read and want to write. I always wish I’d written it myself. I always feel—as my friend Marlish Glorie said recently of Annie Proulx—grateful that such writers exist.

Here are three images I love, from books I love:

419MMJTJS6L._SY300_This is what she had seen, earlier that day: An Indian man had been climbing the bamboo scaffolding of one of the high colonial buildings, with a large mirror bound to his body by a piece of cloth. His white dhoti was flapping and his orange turban was atilt, and he hauled himself with confidence from level to precarious level—altogether a fellow who knew what he was doing—when some particular gust or alarum that carried the dimension of fate caused him to misjudge his footing and fall through the air. Because he could not release the mirror, but clutched at it as though it was a magic carpet, he landed in the midst of its utter shattering, and was speared through the chest. The quantity of blood was astounding. It spurted everywhere. But what Lucy noticed most—when she rushed close to offer assistance along with everyone else—was that the mirror continued its shiny business: its jagged shapes still held the world it existed in, and bits and pieces of sliced India still glanced on its surface. Tiny shocked faces lined along the spear, compressed there, contained, assembled as if for a lens. She simply couldn’t help herself: she thought of a photograph.

—Gail Jones, Sixty Lights

resized_9781741140651_224_297_FitSquareI would not wish for you to think that I was a nice child. I was not. Mother called me a storm child. A foundling, she said, washed up on the beach beneath the lighthouse in a storm, without so much as a scrap on my little body. She looked as if she wished she had left me there. If she cut me, she said, I’d bleed icy-cold sea water all over the floor. Once, she said that she was only waiting for the tide that would come up high enough to wash me back out into the sea where I belonged.

—Danielle Wood, The Alphabet of Light and Dark

resized_9781741755763_224_297_FitSquare‘The first Swiss to ski in Antarctica,’ Hurley said. ‘He makes it look dead easy.’

Ginger would have bowled X over had her chain been longer. She nuzzled under his arm as he untethered his skis. He scratched her back and she leaned her weight against his leg, her tongue lapping at the air.

Then the dogs pricked their ears in unison; penguins halted in their tracks. Douglas watched X smile with the sweetness of the melody rising from the hut.

Ginger laid her ears flat when X hoisted her up by her front legs and placed her paws on his chest. He stepped from side to side, one hand on his dance partner’s back, the other resting on her paw. Mertz and Ginger swayed to ‘The Shepherd’s Cradle Song’; the lullaby playing on the gramophone spilled across the bay. On each turn Ginger hopped and shuffled; with each step she licked her master’s chin.

Douglas nodded. ‘The first to dance.’

—Robyn Mundy, The Nature of Ice

Serendipitously, these are all Australian women writers, in a year when I’m taking part in the Australian Writers Women Challenge. And today is International Women’s Day.

I’d love to hear about the images that have caught your breath and you know will remain with you forever.

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