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Martha Sharpe: Every book needs a good nap

The former head of House of Anansi divulges her secret weapon in the demanding work of editing literary fiction. Hint: it may involve an afghan.

Martha Sharpe.jpgI have heard stories about editors who deliver editorial feedback in less than ten words, and the writer breathes in these words and goes on to write the perfect new draft, later crediting the editor for saving the day in an award acceptance speech. I love those stories. Love them.


The beginning of editing a book is exhausting. I confess to taking naps. I know how that sounds, but the naps are not slothfulness. At first even I thought they were, but eventually I realized they were a necessary stage. Sometimes a writer will ask me to give his or her manuscript a quick read, just wanting to know if I think it has potential, if it's on the right track. They don't know what they're asking. I can't just dip my toe in; I have to sink myself into a book's muck and feel for the unseen shapes until I know what's in there. This happens when my eyes are closed in the late morning or afternoon.


After the muck and the naps, I write a letter. Usually about five, single-spaced pages. Or twelve. I ask questions, I identify problems—slow patches, places that need to be drawn out more, inconsistencies in characters' behaviour—and I make suggestions. Sometimes I get so convinced that I've found the solution to a problem, it's exhilarating. I'm helping! This is exactly what this book needs! And then I get the next draft back and the writer has come up with a better solution. That is even more exhilarating.


I sent an editorial letter to one writer identifying about fourteen things that I thought needed to be changed or worked on. We met too many characters within the first three pages, for example, and couldn't keep track of them all. A baby was born after a gestation of five months with no mention of being a preemie. The writer was coveting certain words, such as "redolent," and when this happened it felt like "Writing" (as though the writer's hands and feet were showing). The writer went to work and figured he'd change maybe seven or eight of the things I'd identified, and disregard the rest. Months later, we gave a talk to a bunch of creative writing students about working together, and he said he'd reread the letter the night before and now realized that he'd changed all fourteen things. What a suck-up. The truth was that he'd produced a new draft that transcended my letter. In other words, he didn't get mad, he got even. (Still, all fourteen!)


Another writer told me during a long, grueling session over her manuscript in my kitchen that it felt like we were getting divorced and were dividing up the furniture. Yet another experienced writer told me over the phone when I called to check in that my editorial letter had paralyzed him. Not good.


What am I doing? I shouldn't be admitting to all this. I take it all back. What really happened: I said, Do these three things and all will be well; and each writer did, and we all got drunk at the Giller Prize party.


And the next day, I had a nap.


Martha Sharpe is the editor of Simon and Schuster's domestic publishing program. During her time at House of Anansi Press, she edited and published the work of Margaret Atwood, Michael Ignatieff, Rawi Hage, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, Sheila Heti, Steven Heighton and Ken Babstock.



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