Bringing out the best in an author…
This week I’m very pleased to bring the first of a two-part interview with Julie Watts, the notable Children’s and Young Adult Publisher for many years with Penguin Books Australia.
During a justly celebrated career, Julie has been responsible for publishing some of our most successful and best-loved books for both younger and older readers, and for pioneering attractive new formats such as the ‘Aussie Bites’ series and its offshoots.
In the first part of the interview we talked about the process of editing: her approach to it, and ways of dealing with established writers and also first-time authors, for whom editing can sometimes be rather confronting.
I began by asking Julie to tell us something of her background – where she was born and educated, her family, and marriage.
I was born in 1950 in Guildford, Surrey, England and brought up by my grandparents till I was five. I then moved to Battersea, London with my mother and at the age of eight I acquired a stepfather, a stepsister and a half-brother.
I attended East Barnet Grammar School in north London and left at 18 armed with A-levels and secretarial qualifications to take up the position of secretary to the editor at the Royal Institute of Chemistry.
When did you come to Australia? And why?
I married my childhood sweetheart and we left in England with our two babies in 1974, bound for Australia, looking for adventure and to get to know my birth father, who had sponsored us as part of the Assisted Passage 'Ten Pound Pom' scheme. The plan was to return at the end of the requisite two years, but we are still here decades later.
You became an editor with Penguin about 1984, and my first book The Bunburyists was among the early manuscripts you worked on. Did you always want to go into publishing? What is it about editing and publishing that interests you?
I had always loved books, magazines and reading and vowed I would work in that field one day. I had been good at English and Literature at school and won a few writing competitions.
My mother, who worked in a second-hand bookshop after I was born, ensured that I was surrounded by books, and my erstwhile father was a journalist and a writer himself.
It was drummed into me that I had inherited his talent. Chemistry in Britain, the journal of the RIC, wasn’t quite what I had in mind but it was a beginning.
How do you see the role of an editor? Is it just to correct mistakes of spelling, punctuation and grammar in a manuscript? Or does it extend to looking at the structure, coherence and literary expression of the work as a whole?
It is both, but not all at the same time and not necessarily by the same person. I like to work with an author from a very early stage in helping, when it’s needed, to shape the book and draw out the very best from that author, to help him/her fully realize what he/she had set out to achieve.
This can mean responding to a number of drafts, questioning and probing and suggesting, depending on how ‘ready’ the submitted draft is. It can mean restructuring content, eliminating content, asking for more content.
It can mean requesting further character development, more or less dialogue, a shift in narrative pace, a heightened climax, a better resolution, and many other aspects besides.
An editor can only question and suggest...
Some authors will be great on plot but weak on character, for example. Some may have great characters but a rambly narrative. All of this is done in consultation, of course, because the manuscript belongs to the author and must remain the author’s. An editor can only question and suggest.
All this comes before attending to spelling, punctuation and grammar. That can come once the manuscript is as good as it can be.
Some writers, especially when they’re starting out, find it hard to accept other people amending their text during the editing? How do you get round that? What do you say to authors in that situation?
It can be a daunting experience for a new writer to have their work edited. They have toiled long and hard on producing what they consider to be their best so it’s understandable if they perceive any editorial comments as criticism.
Helping the author discover that the editor is actually on their side...
An editor has to be very sensitive to this and help the author discover that the editor is actually on their side: a good editor only wants the very best for this author and this book.
A good editor is not trying to change what the author is doing just for the sake of change, but rather to get inside the author’s head, to think as the author thinks, in order to help the author bring out more fully what might not yet be on the page in quite the way he/she thinks it is.
A good editor will also have a keen sense of who this book will appeal to, and thus suggest ways it might be tailored in order to maximize its chances in a highly competitive marketplace.
An important conversation...
It’s a good idea to explain all this to a new author well ahead of undertaking the work, but in so doing not to neglect the very important conversation about all the manuscript’s considerable strengths, and basically conveying how exciting it is and what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to work on it with the author, all of which is very true!
I've always found editing to be very much part of the creative process. It's an on-going discussion. Generally I give my editors 90-95 per cent of the changes they ask for in order to keep the 5 per cent of the material I think essential. Is this your experience?
I think my answer above covers some of this. But I can say that I have worked with authors across the gamut: from those who accept every suggestion and simply want me to ‘fix it up, please – I never want to look at it again’, to those who won’t accept a single suggestion at all, not even punctuation, because they had ‘already edited’ their work before submission.
The best scenario is where you both listen to each other and explain your reasons for wanting this or that and hopefully achieve the best outcome that way.
Ultimately ... it is the author's work...
Ultimately, though, it is the author’s work and the author should have the final say even if that might cost sales.
For example, an editor might point out to the author of a teenage manuscript that some school sales would be jeopardized if the swear words are retained, but the author might insist on keeping them for the sake of authenticity.
I would most likely agree with that stance in any case, but as an editor it’s still my duty to point out something like that.
Thank you Julie. Next week Part Two and the view from the Publisher’s desk.
Julie Watts, courtesy the Julie Watts.
Book covers courtesy Penguin Group (Australia)
The Bunburyists and Soldier Boy, by Anthony Hill