Early last year I was thrilled to find out that Margaret River Press was going to publish my collection of short stories. I was excited—then scared! What if I stuffed everything up?
Enter Josephine Taylor: cool, calm, collected—editor extraordinaire!
After my email-introduction to Jo I, naturally, strutted around for a while feeling like a movie star. I had my very own editor—she was mine, all mine! But the strutting didn’t last for long. After a few emails it became clear that she meant business. I thought I’d been edited before—easy peazy!—but when drafts of my stories started appearing in my inbox, blushing with Track Changes, I knew I was in for the editing of a lifetime.
Being worldly-wise, and with the emoticon-savviness of a teen, Jo immediately sensed my fears—and put them to rest. She assured me that of course I’d retain control of my work, and of course she was happy to discuss any aspect of the editing and book-making process that I was unsure of.
I quickly realised I’d been given a huge learning opportunity. Jo would not only help me get my manuscript in order, but would do so in a way that spoke directly to my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
Drafts of each story bounced across the ether for five months. It was a marathon. I regularly swore to the Gods: Why can’t Jo be a slacker? Why must she be so thorough? I’m tired! I cannot see the stories for the words—or is it the words for the stories? Hell, I can hardly see the words on the screen—my retinas are burned to a crisp!
Some of the stories were already in good order—but even these had problems that Jo’s eagle-eye spotted. ‘Beautiful meaninglessness’? She questioned my purple prose. Mixed metaphors? She was onto them. Gaping plot-holes? She helped me plug them. Shoddy foundations? She requested a rebuild. Dodgy skeletons and malformed flesh? She ordered surgery. Chrono-illogical errors? Jo pointed them out—everywhere.
Whilst I was fixing these problems, Jo trawled through the manuscript, somehow developing a style-guide that would unify the collection but allow each story to sing in its own unique voice. I’ve always experimented with voice, never thinking twice about the headache such experiments might give a future editor—and poor Jo felt that headache straight away! She immediately saw that, if each story had ‘it’s own style,’ the collection would seem more like a dog’s breakfast than littérature.
Jo also had the nasty job of correcting the entire book for spelling and grammar. My generation was taught nothing about grammar. What did I care? I could still write, right? Yes, and no. Jo showed me how intuition and ignorance often travel hand-in-hand. How many people rationalise their dumb beliefs by saying such things as, ‘I just know it’ and, ‘I just feel it’? Mea culpa! When Jo suggested that I seemed to write ‘aurally’—that is, that I wrote by listening to my characters—I realised she was spot-on for, when she questioned my wacko punctuation and dodgy turns-of-phrase, my sophisticated defence was, ‘It just sounds right, okay!?’
I quickly realised that what ‘sounds right’ is often… wrong! Watching Jo apply her grammatical knowledge to my work really showed me that, whilst anyone can drive a car through life, only a mechanic knows how to get unstuck when there’s a problem. I pledged to myself: I will learn grammar and become my own word-mechanic; I will learn the rules so that I can break them intelligently. Jo nevertheless conceded to many of my ‘ungrammatical demands,’ understanding that characters must speak in their own voices. It’s not our fault, after all, if they ain’t speakin’ right!
Throughout this entire process, amazing things happened to my stories. One of my dog-characters got a sex change! This fixed some ‘pronoun confusion’ in the text—though I suspect it created some pronoun confusion for the mutt! Jo pointed out that this dog also seemed to start talking in the middle of a scene. This was very funny—what a subversive dog!—but Jo prohibited any such magical realist moments happening in an otherwise realist text. Likewise, we noticed an elbow seemed to start talking in another story. In fact, many strange things were happening to inanimate objects throughout: I wasn’t handling dialogue and physicality in the stories clearly enough. These hilarious problems reminded me how the basic ‘nuts and bolts’ of moving characters around settings, and making them talk, is actually damned hard writerly work!
The problems didn’t end there. In another story, an entire family acquired and lost a whole bunch of people, and all of them were ordered to travel through time to change their birth dates. Tough luck! When there’s a chrono-illogical problem, everyone must chip-in to fix it. Another character changed her name, her nationality and her body-type—all in the blink-of-a-draft. One of the biggest problems Jo spotted was how numerous words, phrases, images and sentence-structures were repeated throughout the manuscript. Worse still, different characters in different stories had the same bloody names. ‘Are they meant to?’ she cautiously asked, respecting me enough to assume I was doing some clever writerly things. Hell no! I was doing dumb writerly things! Having always hated naming characters, my unconscious strategy for dealing with this seems to have been—use the same handful of names, always. Pure genius!
Quite frankly, all of this was rather confronting. ‘How embarrassment!’ as the saying goes. Did I need an editor—or a psychiatrist? Luckily, where I saw proof of neurotic obsession, a tiny vocabulary and a narrow imagination, Jo saw what she kindly called ‘writers’ tics’. I went with that—and I’ll be sticking to it from now on.
Eventually, we were ready to arrange the story-order of the book. We placed them in a way that we hoped emphasised the stories’ uniqueness and the motifs, themes, echoes, images and resonances that (intentionally!) united them. And then? Jo sent the blasted thing back to Margaret River Press. Good riddance to bad rubbish!
Simultaneously, on the opposite sides of Australia, we each keeled over—exhausted!
I have since told Jo that, for me, 2017 will forever be the year that ‘Josephine Taylor murdered my brain.’ She thinks I’m kidding. I’m not. I’m still recovering! But I’m so grateful that she did bust my chops, because now the book not only exists, but it’s in the best shape possible—and that’s just a little bit thanks to her!
H.C. Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has published short stories, poetry, essays and book reviews in Australia and overseas. Gildfind has also researched interwar Australian literature and history, has been mentored by novelist Andrea Goldsmith, and is currently working on a novel. Margaret River Press published Gildfind’s short story collection, The Worry Front, in April 2018.