On a sunny summer morning at the very end of 2013, I met my editor. We met at a local café and I ordered wedges. I mean, I don’t specifically remember the wedges, but I know that’s all I eat at that place, so it must have been what I ate. We ate and talked about my book, because in those days, Chosen and Scarred were one single gigantic Word document and Unbidden was an unnamed pet project, and Sabrina – that’s her name, my editor – had the unenviable task of suggesting to her newest client – me, Shayla – that I make changes to my book. *gasp*
Fast forward five years and I not only have my first three books in print thanks to Sabrina, but a whole new career she inspired me to follow without even meaning to, and I find myself compelled to tell the story of how important my author-editor relationship has been to both my writing and my life. In an age of instant communication, increasingly accessible self-publishing options and changing understandings of literacies, I can see how easy it would be to discount the value of an editor, but I can guarantee I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this, living the life I’m living now, without the ups, downs, challenges and windows of opportunity granted to me through the professional and personal relationship cultivated between me and my editor.
In keeping with a narrative theme, Sabrina is honestly a fairy godmother. What does that make me? I don’t know – princess? It’s definitely been said before, meant in an entirely flattering way I’m sure. Sabrina runs her own indie press, a small publishing imprint called Ouroborus Books, and with her near-magical skills of editing, formatting, graphic design and tech-wizardry, she turns people’s unreasonable 200k-word manuscripts into two beautiful, coherent, saleable books. Well. Your book mightn’t be 200k words and in need of a tidy split, but mine certainly was. Not that I necessarily wanted to hear that, because, you know, I’m a writer, and writers don’t need editors telling them what to do, because they already know their work is perfect. Ahem. So, there was me, a relatively newbie teacher with an oversized manuscript and a publishing dream, thoroughly impressed by Sabrina’s CV of skills. I wish I could smugly say I knew what all of those were, but as we talked I became aware of just how much I didn’t know about this process I wanted to take my book on and how valuable someone like Sabrina would be to have onside. She could help me make my dream real. Thus began my professional relationship with my editor.
It also started something else – a newfound fascination with the publishing industry. But it came about through some less-than-fairytale moments. It’s a well-kept secret that I am, in fact, a control freak, well-accustomed to running a classroom of wild magical children and getting to decide everything from what colour poster paper you get to how far we can stretch free writing time out to. So, like for most writers, it’s quite terrifying to hand over your precious creation to a relative stranger – or, in fact, anyone – and allow them to judge to your work, but for me there was this other layer of twitchiness, this silent fretting of “What’s she doing to the book that I can’t do?” It became an obsession, constantly wanting to know, every step of the way, and wanting to do anything that remained in my power to do. And wanting all the power. Wanting to view every single change to the cover. Wanting it explained why a cover feature had shifted due to spine thickness, which in turn was due to word count. Wanting double quotation marks because that’s how I was taught, and silently seething when I was told that it was non-standard practice and would make my book look unprofessional. Sabrina, accustomed to handling this whole process on her own, got an opportunity to practise tactfully managing an overbearing author, an opportunity I’m sure she much appreciated. I got an opportunity to practise compromise. It’s not very fun. I recommend either tennis or calligraphy instead.
Regardless, the first book was born, and when I unpacked the first box in Sabrina’s driveway and held Chosen in my hands for the first time, I realised quite suddenly what this professional relationship and all this practise at compromising had brought me. Not just a book. Not just a whole box of books. A better book. And a new understanding of how it got there. With her skills, talents and no shortage of patience, Sabrina had guided me to this moment and made it real.
Here’s the link to the video of that moment, so you can see the enlightened joy in my eyes for yourself, along with how nice my hair looked that day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-UB1UCcN44
When we started work on the second book, I knew a bit better what to expect – what I would be able to help with, what kind of quotation marks I would have to live with – and Sabrina knew a bit better what to bring me in on. Things fell into place, things got moving, and then suddenly there was a second book to join the first. Physical proof that Sabrina’s initial careful suggestion to split my manuscript was a very sound idea, since holding Chosen and Scarred in the one hand and pretending like anyone would buy a debut book that size is just silly. Very glad she persevered in pushing that agenda with me way back when, and glad I wasn’t too stubborn to agree.
Two other things changed around this point, too. The first was that my fascination with the process Sabrina has guided me through, and my emerging awareness of how undoubtedly irritating I’d been in my ignorant determination to be involved, led me to the door of the path of a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. I was really just eager to learn and be more involved and helpful to Sabrina and my books, but a Grad Cert led to a Masters, which led to both a thesis and a group project to start our own publishing collective to publish other people’s books, which led to freelance editing work. The thesis led to a Doctorate, which is where I find myself now. I’m still not entirely sure how I got here. Pumpkin carriage?
The other thing that happened was that along the way of testing one another’s patience and tolerance, challenging each other to justify and explain our every decision on Chosen and then Scarred, toiling together to make them the best they could be and to bring them to the world, Sabrina became my friend. I learned to read between the lines of her editorial comments and know when she was being firm and when she was being funny. I learned how best to ask for advice as a new editor, because I know now that she’s straightforward and grounded and knowledgeable. We can agree and disagree very comfortably now. When we took Unbidden through the same processes as we had the first two books, it was all smooth sailing, and when Sabrina asked me to edit her debut novel, Blank, the open professional and personal relationship we had developed over so many years ensured the sort of honest, positive conversation that kept the success of the book at the forefront of our minds. I knew when a protagonist’s mentor betrayed her that it was a plot decision Sabrina wasn’t happy with – I knew her well enough to be able to tell from her prose, and I could suggest ways of rewriting that motivation to iron out the plotting that had forced her into that scene. Our boundaries were already established, so it felt perfectly natural to intersperse editorial comments with personal reactions (like, Lol, ‘as’ has one ‘s’, or KILL THIS CHICK I HATE HER!!!) the way Sabrina does with mine. And I knew, from my time spent on the other side of the fence, how terrifying this process was to a writer having handed over the reins to her editor, and how much trust and faith was involved. We had learned that trust and faith from each other. Together, we made Blank a better book. Go buy it. It’s cool.
A few weekends ago, on a fine wintery day otherwise reminiscent of that first meeting, Sabrina and I met a Masters student at a Brisbane café to discuss our relationship as editors and authors for her thesis project. That frank and open conversation reminded me both of how far we’ve come in five years but also of how valuable this relationship has been to me and my growth. Working with my editor and cultivating our two-way editor-author/author-editor relationship has not only made my books better; it’s taught me to look at writing in a more objective and professional way, it’s sent me on a whole new career trajectory, and, very importantly, it’s given me a fabulous package deal: a professional contact and a friend in one. Thanks, Sabrina.