On Being an Editor:
Leslie Vermeer and Frances Peck in Conversation
originally published The Editors‘ Weekly
Frances Peck, interview, Leslie Vermeer, writing
Editing a first-time novelist calls for a blend of sharp-eyed clarity, cheerleading and hand-holding. What if the novelist is also an editor? As part of a series of blog posts featuring conversations between editor/writers and their editors, The Editors’ Weekly asked two editors to reflect on their experience of working together.
Frances Peck is a long-time editor and teacher of editing. Her debut novel, The Broken Places, comes out with NeWest Press in April 2022.
Leslie Vermeer was the substantive and copy editor of The Broken Places. She is an editor and academic whose book The Complete Canadian Book Editor will soon be complemented by Last But Not Least, a book about proofreading.
Leslie Vermeer: When I learned I’d be editing Frances’s first novel, I was both excited and intimidated. The manuscript was one editors dream of finding: confident, accomplished, fresh. So I was delighted to help bring it to publication. But editing an editor of Frances’s calibre gave me moments of genuine imposter syndrome. And knowing that her extensive editing community would read the book — eek! Doubly frightening. Fortunately, Frances is so warm and down-to-earth; my fears were unfounded. From her first email, I knew working with her would be a joy (but still daunting!).
Frances Peck: My first thought, when my agent told me NeWest Press had bought the book, was not one I can put into words. It was more like a shriek. My second thought, immediately afterwards, was “Who’s going to be my editor?” I so wanted it to be someone experienced, someone who got the book and could hear dialogue and was okay with adult-themed content. And who understood that and which!
When I found out it would be Leslie, I was deeply relieved. Leslie wrote the book on book editing — literally. Five minutes into our first Zoom meeting, I knew things would go well. We spoke the same language. There were entire conversations on process that we could skip. Best of all, Leslie had read my book so deeply and perceptively that she saw things in there, connections and themes, that I hadn’t seen. This, I reminded myself, is why we have editors.
Building the relationship
FP: A few months ago, during an online talk, an editor in the audience asked me to comment — as a writer, not an editor — on how much praise is enough. She’s always walking the line, she said, between encouraging authors and giving them the constructive criticism they need. Well, I’ve been edited lots in the past, when I’ve done ghostwriting for clients. I never needed much praise. A few crumbs did the trick. So I was totally unprepared for how different it was when the material was mine, not a client’s. There is not enough praise in the world. That was my answer.
Leslie is a master at giving compliments and encouragement. That really set the tone for our work on the manuscript. Because she settled me into this warm bath of positive feedback, I was willing to take whatever cold water she splashed on me after that.
LV: I’ve never been a coy editor. When I enjoy something, I tell the author — loudly. My goal was for Frances to feel well supported throughout editorial so that this book will be the first of many. It’s important to be rigorous in suggesting cuts, changes, compression (Frances liked my characterization of one passage as baggy). At the same time, you have to note the sparkling things a writer does, to let the writer know she’s been seen. Trust emerges out of that byplay. As Betsy Lerner says, the writer should always feel the editor is there to catch her.
Lessons and surprises
LV: Watching Frances review the proofs was a brilliant learning opportunity. She ever so cautiously adjusted sentences the way I imagine a sculptor polishes a work: a speck of a change here, the slightest refinement of a curve there. Frances keeps growing as a writer, and it was fascinating to watch her interact with an older version of her own voice. If your process permits this level of interaction, let it happen: it felt exceptionally informative for my work with Frances on the next manuscript.
Because I was so conscious of Frances’s experience and her editorial community, I thought deeply about how to assert conventions like correcting comma splices and modifier placements. We went back and forth on a particularly tricky bit of grammar — agreement across a linking verb — and while that might not sound profound, the problem generated great thinking about grammar choices throughout and how permissive to be when you know the audience is watching. Frances’s narration has such a natural gait — judicious “errors” are part of that swing.
As for surprises? Most characters in this novel swear. Compiling a style sheet for consistent cursing gave me unexpected giggles!
FP: I learned a lot of little things. For instance, Muzak is trademarked. I had lowercased it. When I’m writing, I turn off all attention to compounds. Hyphenated, open, closed? Mine were all over the place. And guess what? Unmired is not a word. Leslie gently queried that one: “Frances, look at this word again. Another descriptor, please?” I looked up the word and literally blushed when I found it didn’t exist. I went with unmoored.
I was surprised by how much fun it was to trade comments with an experienced editor! We wrestled, playfully, over whether to replace some of my em dashes with colons. I stetted nearly every dash and explained, in probably way too much detail, why. Leslie also flagged some which’s that should have been that’s (and vice versa). Ironically, given how much I had longed for an editor who knew the difference, I asked if we could stet the “wrong” choice.
One big lesson Leslie taught me was to stand up for myself, to trust my writer’s voice. At one stage, a reviewer of the manuscript had flagged my use of “Lipton’s” iced tea in a bit of dialogue. The company is technically called “Lipton,” the reader noted. The reader was right, and my instinct, born of a lifetime of editing, was to defer. Leslie pushed me on that, asking which word was truer to the dialogue. It stayed as “Lipton’s.” It’s that wonderful elasticity, that ability to hew to the rules and at the same time let a writer get away with breaking them, that makes Leslie an editor’s editor.