Written by Carl Rosenberg; copy edited by Maggie Clark
On Saturday, May 27, Editors BC will present Joy Gugeler, who will give a six-hour seminar on structurally editing literary fiction. In this seminar, participants will learn how to understand reader expectations, work with authors, and assess and structurally edit fiction.
Joy has more than 25 years’ experience as an acquiring and substantive editor, including acquiring and editing over 80 books for Beach Holme Publishing, Raincoast Books, and ECW Press. She has also worked as editor-in-chief for three online magazines and as an editorial board member for Arc Poetry, Quarry, Portal, and Room publications. Currently, she edits the Ralph Gustafson Distinguished Poet’s Lecture Series and up to 10 titles annually for her freelance firm, Chameleon Consulting.
Joy teaches editing in Ryerson University’s Certificate in Publishing program and SFU’s Master of Publishing program and summer publishing workshops, and at Vancouver Island University. She holds a Bachelor of Journalism and a master’s degree in Canadian studies from Carleton University, and is completing a PhD in communications at SFU.
Carl Rosenberg, a volunteer on Editors BC’s communications and social media committee, talked to Joy about her work and her advice on the intricacies of editing fiction.
Hello, Joy! Thank you for taking the time to chat with our readers. Tell us how you came to your career as an editor in your various capacities—online and print publications, publishing houses, and your freelance firm.
I was born in Nepal to an Irish English teacher and a German engineer who were there to build suspension bridges. From an early age, I escaped into the portal of a book, emerging only to select a new title and re-immerse. At 11, I won a contest at the local library by reading 100 books in a single summer. The prize? Lunch and an interview with Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella. Though he doesn’t likely remember my precocious questions, the exposure to a “real live author” made a lasting impression. After writing the high school column for our local paper, I did a double major in journalism and English at Carleton University in Ottawa and went on to complete a master’s degree in Canadian studies the following year.
Upon graduation, I launched a biweekly radio program called “Write On!” that featured interviews with Canadian writers of fiction and poetry. Where there’s an author, there’s an editor and a publisher close behind, so I selfishly indulged my passion for our national literature while scouting for an entrance into the seemingly impenetrable world of publishing. The radio program opened several doors in areas peripheral to publishing proper. I was on the editorial boards of Arc Poetry and Quarry, two national literary magazines; reviewed books weekly for the Ottawa Citizen, the Vancouver Sun, and the Globe and Mail; did a monthly panel on CBC with the national librarian; and worked as a freelance publicist for HarperCollins, Penguin, and McClelland and Stewart in Ottawa.
When Steven Heighton, one of my interviewees, informed me that Quarry Press was looking for an associate publisher, I crashed the publishing house’s Christmas party at the Château Laurier hotel and won the right to be interviewed. I was hired the following week. I worked in this position for one year and then headed west to try my luck in Vancouver.
Upon arrival on the Coast, I secured the managing editor position at Beach Holme Publishing, a 25-year-old literary house for which I was the only employee. (Both of my predecessors had retired.) Somewhat apprehensively, I began to weed through inventory, find contracts, read the 2,000 neglected unsolicited manuscripts, create a website, and publish eight books a year. Four years later, I had a staff of three and we were publishing 15 titles annually, all young adult and adult literary fiction.
In 2000, Raincoast (Canada’s Harry Potter publisher) hired me to be its editorial director of fiction and to launch a new imprint featuring new writers of fiction for adults and teens. During the same year, I launched the inaugural summer Canadian book camp for 120 young adults; camps now run annually in Vancouver (Vancouver Public Library) and Toronto (Harbourfront Centre) for children 11–17.
Despite the success of Raincoast’s new imprint in terms of award nominations and sales, it was discontinued two years later. As a result, I moved to Toronto in the winter of 2002 to pursue a similar position. (By this time I had moved more than 28 times.) I became literary editor of Canadiana at ECW Press and published a number of bestselling non-fiction titles there in my four-year tenure.
In September 2005, I became editor-in-chief of an online general interest magazine called Suite101.com, growing it from 2 million readers a month to 24 million readers, and from 200 writers to over 1,000 writers and 20 editors. I left at the end of 2008, and in 2009, I was hired as publisher and editor-in-chief of Orato.com, a general interest online magazine written by citizen journalists, to completely relaunch and rewrite the code of the magazine. We did this with a team of four in just four months, editing 3,000 articles. The project ended nine months later, so I took on a six-month consulting contract for NowPublic.com.
Since 2010, I have been teaching publishing, journalism, and media studies at Vancouver Island University and overseeing Portal (its literary magazine) and the Ralph Gustafson poetry lecture and chapbook series. And for three years, I contributed weekly to Be the Media on the radio program CHLY with a segment called Books & Bytes. I continue to freelance edit up to 10 fiction and non-fiction manuscripts each year, increasingly for authors, and to stay involved in many other writing and publishing efforts by judging awards and so on.
It was a circuitous path, certainly, but like most aspects of publishing, the path was never dull, and I always built and expanded on my experience to nimbly anticipate the next turn in the road.
How is editing fiction important for the various parties involved—author, publisher, and reader?
While an editor might argue with a writer of non-fiction about a point of fact, in fiction, an editor will likely have to rely on their powers of persuasion and perception, by invoking the reader and their appreciation of the story to provide the rationale for a suggested change. An editor is always the reader’s advocate, and a writer must respect the editor’s advice on the reader’s behalf as much as the editor’s industry expertise if the writer is to fully take advantage of the editor’s role. Many student editors new to fiction are intimidated by this leap and either assume incorrectly that little hands-on editing is given to writers of fiction (i.e., that the manuscript arrives polished when contracted) or feel that they are unqualified to comment despite being the ideal reader and a fresh pair of eyes. Sometimes this objectivity is precisely what’s required when a writer has lived too long in their creative cocoon to recognize what a reader may fail to comprehend.
The challenge for a new editor is to express suggestions confidently, rallying the vocabulary and rationale necessary to be convincing while still respectful of the author’s vision. My workshop will attempt to give participants some strategies with which to do this, but only they can grant themselves permission; this environment is the safest of all possible playgrounds in which to do so.
Trial and error is the stuff of any early career, and we learn more from our missteps than from our triumphs. Think of every instance in which you read a novel and said, “It was good but…” as a prerequisite for this task. Now take that extra step to elucidate not only the problem but also how to fix it. Go beyond the book club gripe to the press’ inner sanctum, and attempt to correct the issue rather than complain about it.
To fully appreciate a fictional work, an editor will need to “switch gears” and approach the project as a creative venture where anything is possible. As with any editing job, an editor must be able to see not only what the book is now, but also what it could be. This requires imagination, empathy, and flexibility. Because the book was invented from nothingness, it can be reinvented in areas that warrant it.
Regarding the above discussion of “permission,” it is important for an editor to give themself permission here to explore how the book and its author could even more successfully deliver on the author’s promise and vision (rather than overwriting either). The editor needs to intuit the author’s purpose and intention and make tactful but honest suggestions about how those intentions might be better realized.
Both the editor and the author need to remember that the world of fiction is a created world. The editor and the author can remove characters, change the location of the action, reverse a plot twist, or have someone else tell part of the story. Neither editors nor authors should be seduced by the apparently fixed nature of fiction. Anything that can be written can be rewritten if the act is warranted. Two people can be made into one; the dead can be reborn; and names, gender, and events can be changed, provided the author is convinced these actions would make a more effective telling of the tale.
The author may also feel the world of the novel is unchangeable because they may consider the manuscript finished, complete, and ready for readers. The editor may need to reinforce that the manuscript is a draft that is about to undergo the first of several (at least three) edits, namely the substantive one. Because the substantive edit is likely the most time-consuming and involved of all the editorial stages and because it occurs before a line edit or a copy edit, it is at the heart of fiction publishing.
What are the various factors to be weighed in editing fiction? And how does one achieve a balance between them?
In my workshop, we’ll get into the specific components of fiction and the questions an editor should ask of the material to make sure they have done a comprehensive, respectful, and considered job as the book’s first real reader. Sometimes the fiction we read for pleasure seems as though it could not have been written any other way and the author must surely have penned it just like that at first draft, but this is rarely the case. The author may intend to write the book you’ve read, but they don’t get there alone.
Authors write many drafts and then undergo months of intensive editing in which the book’s potential is further developed. In the substantive edit, this is done by looking at the book’s eight key technical elements: structure, plot, character, dialogue, setting, point of view, voice, and tense.
All of these elements must be evaluated, but authors need to know the ones that are priorities and the order in which to approach them, lest they get overwhelmed or confuse minor concerns with significant ones. Editors can revisit their checklist with subsequent drafts and feel confident the landscape has been thoroughly traversed.
On a lighter note, what are a few of your favourite books and publications, editing-related or otherwise?
It is by no means exhaustive, and I do have a three-page bibliography of memoirs of editors, how-to titles, and handy reference texts I’m happy to share, but here’s my short list for brevity’s sake:
- Stet: An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill
- The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell
- The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by Sven Birkerts
- Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
- The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture by Robert Fulford
- A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins
- The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
- Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers by Scott Norton
- The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago by Carol Saller
- The Complete Canadian Book Editor by Leslie Vermeer
I also love Canadian literary magazines—Room, Geist, and The New Quarterly in particular—and always have several works of fiction on the go, both for pleasure and for my book club. And I adore too many authors to mention, but I’m happy to swoon about them when asked!
Joy, thank you very much for sharing your experience and expertise. We’re looking forward to your seminar on May 27.
Carl Rosenberg edited “Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine” from 1998 to 2016. He has a diploma in Latin American studies from Vancouver Community College and a bachelor of arts in Spanish language and literature from UBC. He has recently begun volunteering with the communications and social media and committee of Editors BC.
Maggie Clark is a post-secondary student whose goal in life is to work as a professional editor. On her way to achieving that goal, she has recently graduated from Royal Roads University’s Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication program. Her next step is to learn and graduate from the Editing Certificate program at SFU.
Photo provided by Joy Gugeler