From slush pile to shortlist: Michelle Winters reveals the gory details of the publishing process
Winters will be sharing her Giller journey with CBC Books in a five-part series. In part one, she shared the sudden shock of being shortlisted.
Today, in the second installment, she talks about the long, sometimes torturous, process of how a book goes from manuscript to finished product.
If you can't take a little gore, publishing a first novel as a completely unknown writer may not be for you. But if you can endure the harrowing psychological terror — and if you survive until morning — you may just find yourself with a book.
A decade of torture
It took me 10 years to write I Am a Truck. A number of those years were spent sending the manuscript out into the void and hearing nothing back but the echo of my own obscurity. The oubliette, or "room of forgetting," is a form of medieval torture where a prisoner is tucked down into a tiny cell in the floor with only room enough to stand — and starve — while regular castle activity continues happily through the grate overhead.
The publishing slush pile operates on a similar premise. I submitted the manuscript for I Am a Truck to a few publishers prior to Invisible Publishing, and while a couple of them did reject it, the majority never got around to reading it. Once it reached the Invisible slush pile in 2013, there was a transition underway in their acquisitions department, which meant that it sat there for two years before Leigh Nash took over, dusted it off and held it up to the light. Then she contacted Stuart Ross, who'd been advising me along the way (bless you, Stuart) and asked whether he thought she should read it. Any prisoner finding herself in an oubliette is pretty much guaranteed certain death without the intervention of incredible luck or human compassion. I somehow got both.
Once Invisible said yes, however, there was still the editing to come — and this is where the real carnage comes in. No one can prepare you for the bloodbath of 10 years' work at the hands of its first editor. Leigh knew what needed cutting and what needed fleshing out, and approached the slaughter like a sensitive executioner; she didn't force my hand, she just guided me to the right spot and handed me the axe.
Kill your darlings
This was never a long book, but we slashed it down to muscle and tendon, and in so doing I lost two of my favourite chapters and my best joke. It was a joke about steak. The whole novel built up to that joke, and it wasn't just a gag, or a throw-away line, it was a poignant, multi-layered reflection on the consequences of misunderstanding love. It's not as though I can just transfer it to the next novel, either. It was so intricately woven into this one. So it's gone. The steak joke is dead in the ground, and I killed it myself. But when you're with a good editor, you trust in their bloodthirst, close your eyes, and hack at your sweet darlings no matter how they scream from their beds.
Forgive me, steak joke. I will never forget you.
Michelle Winters is the author of I Am a Truck. The winner of the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize will be announced on Nov. 20, 2017.