One area of the writing process that I’ve noticed writers can be hazy on is the role of an editor or mentor. This is familiar to me. I worked as a freelance sub-editor for many years, and found myself explaining repeatedly at parties what I actually did. So with the hope of bringing a bit of clarity to it, I recently asked editorial consultant Mary Morrissy if she would give an insight into how she helps clients with their work.
Mary is experienced in every aspect of the writing world. She is herself an award-winning author (of novels Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey, and short story collections A Lazy Eye and Prosperity Drive). She has taught creative writing at university level in Ireland and the US for the past 20 years, most recently as Associate Director of Creative Writing at University College Cork (UCC). On top of all that, she also has 30 years’ experience as a journalist under her belt.
Now she offers a one-to-one creative mentoring and editing and appraisal service for writers called The Deadline Desk. I really couldn’t think of anyone better to shed some light on the benefits of editorial support.
So Mary, starting with the obvious question – why should writers invest in an editor?
To get an experienced first reader, and a critical second eye.
For anyone new to the writing world, could you explain the difference between an editorial and a mentoring role?
Mentoring is an ongoing relationship where the writer submits work over a specified length of time, or to finish a project. Editing is usually once-off, and happens after you have your MS finished and want that vital ‘second eye’ on it.
Do you find it important to have a rapport with a writer you’re working with? In other words, do you need to have some knowledge of them as a person to ‘get’ their writing?
Some of the writers I’ve worked with I’ve known already – former students of mine from UCC and elsewhere; others are people I don’t know at all. So I don’t think it’s vital to have a rapport with a writer before I start. Actually, I think in a mentoring and/or editorial relationship, it might be better if you don’t know the writer. That way your relationship is solely mediated through the words on the page. It allows you to be more dispassionate – to look at a piece of work as an editor in a publishing house might look at it. After all, he/she won’t know you personally either.
My service, The Deadline Desk, is text-based rather than interactive. At the end of the mentoring relationship, I offer a one-to-one session (online these days due to COVID-19) where I discuss with the writer plans for the future. Otherwise, though, I don’t interact personally with writers because that way it can develop into a therapeutic relationship – and I’m no shrink! Writers have friends and other writers they can bitch and moan to. What I’m interested in is making your words on the page the best they can possibly be.
With a novel, at what stage would you recommend a writer bring in the help of an editor/mentor – when they have a fairly complete first draft or early on while the shape of the book can be redirected if necessary?
As I’m sure you know, Anne, a novel can be redirected at any stage in the process although the later it happens, the more painful it is!
I think the writer knows when the cavalry has to be called in. Sometimes, a writer needs a sense of structure, and perhaps a few imposed deadlines (hence the name of the service) to get going on a long project like a novel, which is where a mentoring service comes in. Others will be happy to produce a messy first draft but don’t know how to tackle licking it into shape. Some writers prefer to have their MS as good as they can get it before they’ll let anyone from the outside take a look. I’m happy to work with a writer at any of these stages.
You are a hugely experienced educator and novelist as well as an editor. What are the most common mistakes you see from early stage writers?
Lack of clarity, making narrative leaps that are not justified within the text, a failure to make things happen in short fiction. In long form, I think writers baulk at sustaining a narrative and handling large amounts of narrative material.
Any tips for how to avoid the main pitfalls?
Remember always that there’s a reader. Even if you’ve never been published, you’ve still got to keep that mythical reader with you. And don’t forget the word “story” makes up half of the genre description. Even in freeform, mood-led, autofiction, something eventually happens. That’s your job: making something happen.
For a long project, keep in touch. There comes a stage in a novel where you have to be living ‘inside’ the world of it, not dipping in from time to time. That way your sub-conscious is worrying away at problems even when you’re not actively working on the MS. You know you’re fully engaged with a novel when you wake in the morning and the first thing you think of is it.
Not all editors are writers themselves. Do you think it gives you an advantage to understand the process from the other side as well?
As a writer, I know how hard it is to write a book, even a bad one!
Do you have any editorial bugbears? I personally can’t bear it when authors use phrases like “a barely perceptible smile”. It’s either perceptible or it isn’t!
This is very nerdy of me, but actions used as dialogue tags is something I’m allergic to. e.g. “Don’t be a fool,” he laughed. “I’m yours,” she smiled.
Would you ever recommend that a writer ditch a work-in-progress or is there something to be salvaged from every project?
Never ditch anything!!!! I have several failed novels behind me which I’ve cannibalised over the years, using bits and pieces elsewhere. So I’ve advised writers to set projects aside, and allow them to simmer on the back burner for a while. Having done this, they will often come to the decision themselves. Sometimes, the writing can be great but it hasn’t found the right place to be, hence my advice to hold on to everything.
Touching upon the same area, if someone approaches you to do a light proofread but you can see the MS needs major structural changes, would you break that news to them or just do what they’ve requested?
Mostly I’m not approached to do proofreading, although as a former sub-editor, like you, Anne, I can’t let punctuation, grammar and spelling errors go by without marking them on the MS. So when someone submits a finished MS to me, I will do a reader’s report as well as line editing on the MS itself. If I feel a major restructuring needs to be done, I’ll suggest it as an option. After all, this is what the writer is looking for – your professional advice. He/she doesn’t have to take it and it’s such a subjective business, I would never insist that my take on a piece of fiction is the only one.
As both a reader and a writer, I’ve noticed that problems are more likely to occur in the second half of a book. Why is it so hard to write a satisfactory ending?
Oh Anne, if I knew the answer to that one… I think the main difficulty is recognizing when you’ve reached the end. My experience with novels has been that I’ve often got to the end before I realise it. I usually have a notion of my destination before I start a novel – just a general notion of where I might end up. Often, I don’t know how I’m going to get there, and there are many digressions along the way, but an end point gives me a sense of security. Probably false!
Speaking of ditching work, my first novel which I was three-quarters of the way through – or three years in – before I called a halt, suffered from exactly this problem, i.e. not having a terminal station. As a result, it kept on changing on me and I was prone to every passing narrative whim trying to come up with a resolution. When I introduced an angel into my grim realist novel on page 167, I knew it was time to stop.
One final question on writing, what are you working on yourself at the moment?
I finished a speculative historical novel, Penelope Unbound, about Nora Barnacle earlier this year, in which I give her an alternate life as an independent woman without James Joyce. I started another novel during lockdown number 1 which is a bit of a departure for me, about murder and remorse, and I’m busily working on that at the moment.
I always have short fiction on the go and as a recent convert to flash, I’m trying my hand at that too. Think I could learn a few lessons from you in that department, Anne!