Editor Janice Zawerbny sits down with us this week to discuss her career in publishing and to share her advice for authors who are new to the editorial process. Janice was the editor of three books on the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize shortlist, and she talks to us about what drew her to acquire those books and how the editorial process differed between each title. Janice also tells us about the writing prize she co-founded, the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction.
- Janice talks to us about her career as an editor, where she got her start working on coffee table books and progressed to fiction and nonfiction, and she tells us about the award winning books she’s had the opportunity to work on
- Janice explains what she looks for when acquiring a manuscript, and why she believes writing quality is the most important element
- She walks us through the editorial process, from acquisition to line edits, and she shares her best advice for authors who are looking for an editor of their own
- Janice was the editor of three books on the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize shortlist and she tells us what drew her to each of the titles and how the editing process differed between each title
- Janice discusses her teaching career at Ryerson University (where Rachel was lucky enough to take her substantive and stylistic editing class), how she got started teaching editing, and why she feels it’s important to work on a real manuscript with her students
- She tells us about the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a writing prize she co-founded, how the award came about, and how it will promote women’s writing in the US and Canada
The Carol Shields Prize for Fiction
Five Little Indians
The Best Kind of People
Kamloops Residential School
Conversations with Friends
Lincoln in the Bardo
The Hidden Life of Trees
The Great Believers
The Consolations of Philosophy
Taxi Driver Wisdom
David Foster Wallace
Meet Janice Zawerbny – co-founder of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction. Janice has worked as an in-house editor in the Canadian publishing industry for more than twenty years. She has edited a wide variety of award-winning and critically acclaimed fiction and non-fiction books in Canada. Currently on staff at HarperCollins Canada, Janice is also an editing instructor at Ryerson University.
Transcription provided by Speechpad
Tara: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Tara, and I’m the director of Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel and I’m the author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life. This week on the podcast we spoke to Janice Zawerbny. Janice is the co-founder of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, and she has worked as an in-house editor in the Canadian publishing industry for more than 20 years. She has edited a wide variety of award-winning and critically acclaimed fiction and nonfiction books in Canada and she is currently on staff at HarperCollins.
Tara: Janice had some wonderful advice about the editing process in general. But she also talked about her career as an editor and how she got into it. She had three books that were on the shortlist for the Kobo Emerging Writers Prize, which is incredibly impressive because that list was so good this year. And also at one point, she taught Rachel. So Rachel was really excited to get to chat to her again.
Rachel: I was really excited to talk to Janice about editing again; she was my substantive editing teacher at Ryerson. She’s so passionate about what she does, and is such an expert and listening to how she approached each of her books that were in the Emerging Writer Prize differently was just fascinating. And you had a lot of good information for authors who are going into the editing process for the first time or who are looking for an editor. So we hope you enjoy.
Tara: Yeah, we’re gonna get her back for sure.
Tara: Hi, and welcome to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” I’m really excited to welcome Janice Zawerbny on the podcast this week, who is just editing guru and all-around star in the kind of editing world, I think from teaching at Ryerson to working with many different authors to then actually launching her own Prize for Fiction as well. So welcome, Janice. Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Janice: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Tara: I gave you just a very brief introduction there. So could you maybe start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Janice: Sure. I have been an editor in Canadian publishing for probably much longer than I want to admit. But it’s over 25 years now. And I began in literary publishing, my first job was at Coach House. That was a paid internship. And then I have been editing ever since. I started off wanting to be a fiction editor. But it’s really hard to become a fiction editor out of the gate, then I did a lot of nonfiction editing and worked in…at the time in the ’90s in coffee table books were still a thing. So I really thought that that was where I wanted to be. And I loved working on a book that had visuals and had text in it. And I had a real interest in art as well, because I also have a master’s degree in museum studies. And so I really liked working on sort of art books and coffee table books.
And then as my career progressed, I left publishing for a little bit and I thought I would get into museum and gallery work and working in a publishing setting in a museum or a gallery. But then I was pulled back into publishing again and have remained fiction and a nonfiction editor ever since. And I’ve had a number of books when I mean, this has been a really great boon to my career this spring with Michelle Good’s, “Five Little Indians” and the other books on the Kobo emerging writer list, which include also “Aftershock” by Alison Taylor, and “Finding Murph” by Westhead, which is a nonfiction book as well. But in the past, I’ve also had a number of books nominated and winning awards, I guess, for your listeners of the most significant, I was the editor for Katherena Vermette “The Break.” Which came out a couple of years ago and won the Amazon First Novel Award and a number of other awards, Zoe Whittall’s, “The Best Kind of People,” also shortlisted for the Giller and a number of other awards.
Another book of short stories “Seage 13” by Tomash Tobosy, which won the writer’s trust award, lots of books over my career, I don’t wanna take up time naming them all. But yeah, I’ve had a lot of books that have been nominated, or won awards, or have achieved critical acclaim. But “Five Little Indians,” seems to really be the big one this spring, which is amazing, especially because the book came out just over a year ago. So there’s been a real long tail on this book. It was nominated for some awards last fall, the Giller and the Writers Trust, and then all these delayed awards and other awards that I guess because of COVID. A number of awards have different prize schedules and things like that.
So that’s my writing career. I also worked in nonfiction, so I also worked for Biblioasis and I launched a nonfiction imprint with them called “Untold Lies,” which was, and it still is an imprint dedicated to telling stories, Canadian stories, stories of Canadian history, memoir. It’s meant for marginalized voices and stories that haven’t been told before. Last year, the book that launched the series was a book about Radisson, which sounds like a very classic sort of boring Canadian history kind of book. Except Radisson was a fascinating guy who has never had a major biography. And that won the Charles Taylor award. And I also had a national bestseller with Cecil Foster’s book, “They Call Me George,” which was the history of an influence of Black train porters in Canadian politics.
So I work equally in fiction and nonfiction. And now I’m at HarperCollins. I’ve been at HarperCollins. since late 2019. And there I work on literary fiction, commercial fiction, commercial nonfiction and literary nonfiction. So I’m one of the only editors that works sort of across the board there across all genres. So when I’m not editing, I teach at Ryerson. Although I haven’t been teaching I do in class only, I don’t do online. So I haven’t been teaching for the past year. But once we go back in class, I’m hoping to go back and teach again. And when I’m not doing that, I’m also…I’ve started a number of years ago, I was co-founder of or I am co-founder of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, which is an award dedicated to women writers in Canada and the U.S., and it is the only cross border transnational award. And it’s been very surprising. We started it because there’s been no award for women’s fiction in Canada, or the U.S., which was really surprising that we didn’t have one, the UK award for women’s fiction is hugely, hugely popular and really helps promote women’s writing. The finalists, you know, their books sell in great numbers, and the winner, especially as well. And we wanted to create an award dedicated to women writers in Canada and the U.S. as well.
So that is currently in development, it’s taken so long to do, we had no idea what we were getting into when we decided to start this. And just this past January, Melinda Gates gave us $250,000 U.S. towards the launch of the prize. And we are a registered charity in Canada. So I’m also…the exciting part for me is working on a number of charitable initiatives for women writers, which I would love to talk about, because they’re really exciting. But I can’t talk about right now. But there’s just a lot of great things that we’re gonna be doing for women writers when the prize launches. So that’s sort of my career, I’m busy always working on three fronts.
Rachel: I was gonna say you sound like your downtime is really busy as well.
Janice: Yeah, I have no downtime. I walk my dog. That’s it. That’s my downtime.
Rachel: I just wanna kind of like circle back to you were listing a lot of titles that have been awarded, and I’m just kind of curious, like you acquire a lot of different types of titles, fiction, nonfiction commercial, what is it in a manuscript that makes you go like, “Oh, I need to work on that.” Like, is there something specific you look for when acquiring books?
Janice: I think the number one thing is you’re just looking for good writing. But also for me, there has to be really good storytelling, and it has to draw you in. And I think the writing quality has to be number one, because sometimes you can tell someone can write really well. But they might not have been able to put their story together yet quite, you know, as effectively as they could. So when you have someone who can already write quite well, you can really work on the story and structure of the book and developing that book into something. So I think the writing quality is the most important part of the acquisition process to me. And I can tell within a few pages, whether they have that kind of writing quality or not. I do try to give things a chance. There are times where I think some editors call it sort of literary throat clearing where they… the author’s not kind of up to speed on the first couple of pages, and then they kind of hit their stride. And then the story starts like really kind of coming together and the writing comes together. So I do try to give things a shot. But I think writing quality is really important. And second is the ability to really tell a story and tell an original story, like tell me a story that I haven’t heard before. Tell me something I don’t know. That’s what’s really important to me, I want something new, and fresh, and exciting to read.
Tara: I think that’s really valuable. I’d like to maybe take a step back for our authors that might not be as in depth with the editorial process, as authors are sort of like kind of sending their books to editors and not really knowing what is happening behind the scenes there. So can you maybe talk us through kind of what goes on when you’re editing a book and how you approach the story and the work there?
Janice: Yeah, the editorial process yeah, it’s a bit of a mysterious process I think for writers who’ve never published before, and it’s a multi-layered process. I mean, the acquisition process alone can be very time consuming. Even if I find a manuscript that I really like, I have to read it, others in house have to read it, their meetings in house or others have to read it and discuss it. And so that process can take a few weeks, even when I find something I’m interested in. And then there’s the whole process of actually acquiring the book, which is, you know, the business process of the book of negotiating a contract and advances and things like that. So the acquisitions process can drag on for quite a while, like sometimes I would say a couple of months from like receiving the book, and then going through the acquisitions process, and then actually getting a contract signed.
Janice: Then after that, once the contract is signed, then we can begin working on the book. And so for me, it’s a multiple-step process. So the first draft that I work on, I’m looking to deal with the substantive issues in a manuscript and substantive issues are the structural issues of the manuscript, the organization, the storytelling, the plot, does the plot hang together? Did some characters disappear off the page? Does the story make sense? So very macro issues? Do we need all these characters? I’m talking about fiction right now. But even in nonfiction, sort of this the same storytelling applies in nonfiction in nonfiction, you’re just telling a true story.
So a lot of, for me, the same editorial things apply. So I deal with the macro issues first, and I go through the manuscript. So at that point, you’re not I think everybody thinks of editing as marking little things on the page. But at that early, substantive point in editing, it’s not for me, I just read the manuscript, and then I send the author a memo outlining what I think the substantive issues are, we have a conversation about it, I usually have a conversation before I send the memo to the author, so they know what they’re getting. So we have a big discussion about it, I say, these are what I think the substantive issues are, we have a discussion about what the possible solutions are to them. And then I provide them with a memo so that they have sort of a record of what we discussed. And they can use that during the revision process. And once the substantive issues are done, and they may…the substantive issues may be addressed, like in one draft, or even two. And then after that, I go back through the manuscripts. And that’s when I do a line edits, also called a stylistic edit. And that’s where I’m getting more granular. And that’s where I’m looking at sentences and word choice, and flow and language.
And then I’m really looking at the author’s work again, in a very close fashion, making sure that…like to me every word is important, and every sentence is important. And I want the whole thing to hang together. And so then I do the line edit. So that’s where you see me working on the page, the author will get an actual manuscript and track changes. And I’ll have comments in the margin. And I’ll be tinkering with their sentences or, and so then we go through that stage, maybe one or two more times, ideally.
Although like I’ve done drafts sometimes. I mean, I’ve done 8 drafts, I’ve done 10 drafts, I mean, it depends on the author, depends on how complicated the narrative is. But you know, I think for writers listening to this show, I think what’s important is to know like, the editorial process is a natural part of the process. It’s not like editors acquire a book, and then just send it to the copy editor and send it to the printer, there is…we have about a year to work on the manuscript. And my job is to help the author make the manuscript the best that it can be. And that means going back and revising. And I think all good writing is about revision. And so I think it’s natural. I think good authors understand that revising is an important part of the process. I think a lot of rookie writers think, I mean, I can see why it’s like, I mean, it’s hard when someone criticizes your work. I mean, we’re doing it in a very constructive way. But I think new writers need to go into that process and recognize like, “This is just part of it, it’s okay, we’re gonna talk about this. And we’re gonna, like work our way through it and just make sure the manuscript is as strong as it can be.”
Rachel: You kind of already answered my next question, but it was, if you had one piece of advice to give authors who are approaching the editing process for the first time, what would it be?
Janice: Yeah, be open to the revision process, I would say and really embrace it, like, it can actually be really fun. You know, you can sometimes sit there and talk I mean, the world becomes, especially with fiction, the world becomes very real. And then you just like live inside this novel, or even nonfiction, you just live inside the manuscript. And it can be really fun. And a lot of writers really like that process because it’s the first time that someone outside of themselves and outside of their own brain is talking to them in great detail about their work in this world that they’ve created. And a lot of them really enjoy the process. They don’t see it sort of as a criticism. They’re like really interested in like, developing this world further. So I would say really embrace the editorial process. And I think the best experiences are the ones with the writers who are like, “Yeah, let’s do this, let’s get into it like, what do you think of my manuscript?” And and I tell them what I think and let’s talk about how things can be fixed, or embellished, or amplified, and just generally, become more engaging, you know, make them the writing more engaging.
And so I think that’s probably the most important part of the process. But it is, I mean, I also understand that it is hard, especially for a very first time author, you’re in a very vulnerable position as an author. And so I think it’s important for an editor to make them feel comfortable. And I think that that part of it comes before the…like at the acquisitions process. When you’re talking to a writer, you know, I talk to writers before I have part of their book, I give them an idea of…I tell them what I think needs to happen with the book, and I walk them through the editorial process, like what we’re talking about right now, to give them a heads up about what’s gonna happen. That said, when you finally get into it, there are some authors who can get a little bit defensive. But other times they really embrace the process, like I said, because they really enjoy having someone else to talk about their work with.
Tara: I like that it’s such a collaboration between the author and the editor, I think that’s really important. And you know, you have to have that trust with one another. So I’m wondering if you have any advice for what authors should look for? So you’re saying that you should, as an editor, be making them feel comfortable. But if it was on the other side, is that like, how can an author spot a good editor, if they were happening, to try and find someone freelance? Like what are something that they should look out for?
Janice: I think you have to have a good rapport with the person. And I think all editors, you know, you might get dazzled and go, “Oh, this publisher, this editor really wants my work,” but you’re gonna be working with that person for a very long time. And you have to be able to get along with them, you have to be able to feel that you can have a trusting relationship with them. And because you’re gonna be going through the editorial process with them, then the book is going to come out into the world. And then there’s even after that point, let’s say your book is reprinted, the author and editor are gonna be together on this project for three years, or if the book is really successful even longer than that. So you have to be very comfortable with them, you have to feel that they understand, I would say, your vision for the book. I mean, I think it won’t work if the author says, “This is what I’m trying to do.” And the editors like, “This is what I think you should be doing.” Which doesn’t mean like, authors shouldn’t listen to the editor as well, because I think, as an editor, I have my eye on the work. But at the same time I have my eye on audience and the market. And that’s something that I think a lot of authors forget about, they forget that they’re writing for an audience, I mean, because they’re writing for themselves, or they’re writing for their friends, or their family, or whoever they’re trusting to read their work, my vision is cast wider than that.
And so I do have sort of some insights that I can provide to help sort of attract an audience to a book. But generally, you have to have…you have to be on the same page. And you also have to like each other. Because again, you’re gonna be spending a lot of time together, you’re gonna have lots of long phone calls, and lots of emails and your…It is very collaborative, and you’re your editor is your advocate in house and your champion, and you have to feel that they have your best interest in mind, and you have to feel that trust with them. So I think that’s really important. And I would say, don’t sign with an editor, if you don’t feel like you don’t get along. It’s kind of like, this might be as bad comparison. But it’s a bit like picking a therapist, you know, like if you don’t get along with your therapist, if you don’t trust your therapist, you’re not going to have a very productive time in therapy. And actually being an editor is very much like being a therapist, in many ways. So it just because you have this intimate connection with this author, when you’re working on someone’s creative work, you’re sort of in their brain, right, you’re in their creative brain and you’re sort of in there mucking around and so you really do have to trust that person.
And so I would say if you don’t feel you have that kind of rapport with the editor, then they’re not the right editor for you, and you won’t have a positive experience. Now, sometimes you don’t have a choice. Sometimes a book gets passed on to another editor. But I mean, if you’re in a position where you have a choice or you have a choice between editors, I would say pick the person that you feel like you can get along with and someone who you feel can see your vision or understands you as a writer, I think that’s just really, really important.
Rachel: Speaking of the author, editor relationship, sometimes it can start out great, and then take an unfortunate turn. Do you have any advice for authors who find themselves in an editor author relationship that doesn’t, like it starts out really strong, but then kind of takes a turn for the worse.
Janice: It’s a tough question because as an editor, I also have a say in what books I acquire. And if I feel like an author also is difficult, or I’m not gonna get along with them, even if I really, really like their book, I’m not gonna acquire it, because you just have to be able to work together. Now, there are sometimes editorial breakdowns in relationships with authors, and I don’t think it’s that common, certainly things go on along the way. But again, I think if you do…again, if you do this due diligence upfront, and you trust your instincts and your gut, and you actually talk to the editor, and again, you feel you have that rapport and that trust or that you think you can trust this person, I think that goes a long way to making sure that things don’t go off the rails later. And having these conversations up front with the author before they even sign the book. And anywhere you say, “Hey, I’ve read your book, I think it’s great. This is what I think we should work on.” And this is if they’re new authors saying, “And this is the process going ahead, like first this is gonna happen, then this is gonna happen. And then this is gonna happen.” And then you take them through that process ahead of time, they have a good idea of what to expect. So there’s no surprises. But if things go off the rails, I don’t know, it’s really tough, because again, you don’t wanna undermined your author’s confidence. And you again, don’t wanna break that trust between you and the author. Because if that trust is broken, that working relationship is broken. I think, again, doing your due diligence upfront and making sure that this is a person you can work with is just ultimately, really important to making sure that that doesn’t happen later on.
Tara: I’d like to go back to the Kobo Emerging Writers Prize for one sec. So if there’s any listeners that aren’t familiar, Kobo has been doing this emerging writers prize for some years now, where we offer a prize for debut Canadian novels, in fiction, nonfiction, and then we rotate the genre. So this year, it is a mystery I should know. So Rachel and I helped. We were part of the team that kind of whittled down the long list and there was so many good books this year. They were like, I mean, every year there’s always great ones. But I feel like this year in particular, was the quality was so good. So you have three titles in the emerging writers prize that made the shortlist that are very different. “Finding Murph” by Rick Westhead, “Five Little Indians” by Michelle Good, and “Aftershock” by Alison Taylor. All excellent books. I have to say, “Five Little Indians” really stayed with me after reading that. It’s something that, yeah, it’s just it stays with you for a long time. But I’d like to hear from you as they’re very different. What was it about each book that really kind of piqued your interest and made you want to work on them?
Janice: Michelle’s book was already a winner of the HarperCollins UBC Prize for Fiction. And it seems like a very timely story and a story. I mean, there have been books about residential schools. Yes. But Michelle’s approach to me seemed much different. First of all, as an editor I love multiple narrators, and which also complicates the editorial process for all authors out there it is, you have to really pay attention when you have multiple narrators. And it’s a different kind of editorial work that you have to do to braid those narratives together. But with Michelle’s book, what I liked about it was that she humanized this often abstract concept of residential schools, I learned about residential schools in school, like a lot of people, I knew what they were, I knew that there were abuses at the schools. But again, it was still very abstract. And what Michelle’s book did was she made you realize that these are real people. These were real people who were harmed. And not only that the reverberations of that into their life over the years because the book spans more than 20 years is very real.
And I think there was something very visceral, which is why it stays with people. Because she was very honest, this book is very honest in how destructive these residential schools were for people. And I think that’s why it’s resonating with people now. It’s unfortunate like the timing was really unfortunate. The night that she won the Amazon First Novel Award was the night that the news came out about the discovery of the children at the Kamloops Residential School, which is also just basically down the street from where she lives, which again was just a strange coincidence. But that book, I just thought it was telling the same, you know, the story that people knew about but in a new way and from multiple perspectives. So you could see the bright wide-ranging impact of residential schools on these children and in their adult lives later.
So, editorially, what was important was to weave these five stories together. And then because we were also dealing with a very broad chronology, also making sure that that sort of all hung together as well. We did a lot of work on the manuscript to get it to the place that it’s at now.
Tara: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of trust in the reader in that book as well. It’s not directing you too much. You know, it’s like moving, you know. Yeah, it’s the readers kind of figuring things out as it goes. Well, what about Alison Taylor’s “Aftershock?” What was it about? This is a very different book again.
Janice: Very different book, again, I mean, this one, multiple narrators, again, the mother and a daughter. I mean, this is a really great book. I mean, I was so thrilled to see that this one was on the…it actually just won The Atlantic Book Award. It also won our best fiction for emerging author. And I was really thrilled when it was on the Kobo shortlist, because I feel like this is a really great book that was overlooked due to the pandemic, it was published right into the peak of the pandemic. And stores were closed, and there was no discoverability. And I just think that readers out there should go pick up “Aftershock.” So this one was much more different. I think stylistically, it was much more literary. And there’s a lot of humor, Alison used to also be a standup comedian. And so there’s…she’s very funny, there were these sharp moments in the manuscript, a very serious manuscript, or story about a mother and a daughter, and the mother has an Oxycontin addiction. She’s a very successful businesswoman in Toronto, and her daughter is a teenager and is struggling in her life as well. And they sort of go their separate ways and then come back together again.
And then there’s again, a secret sort of trauma and that way, it’s very much like “Five Little Indians” and that these both these books are dealing with people with hidden trauma and how to deal with that. And I think I really liked these moments of like really sharp humor that would come out and lighten the narrative, at very serious moments, I think, I’m trying to think of what the editorial process was like about “Aftershock.” I mean, “Aftershock,” we spent a lot of time on line editing with “Aftershock,” because in this case, the author had a very specific way of writing that I thought to be more effective for readers and needed to change. And so there was a lot of fiddling with actual sentences and syntax with this book, like the general overarching, substantive structure of the book was pretty much there. But it was really much different editorial experience, because it was really me trying to make these changes to her sentences. And I think if Alison’s listening, she knows that like, she was a bit resistant, let’s say, at first, she came around later. So it was different in that way, because I feel like, “Five Little Indians” was more about this broader structure. And this other book was more about stylistic issues with the manuscripts.
And the third book, “Finding Murph” is like completely different from both of those, because here we have a nonfiction book by a journalist, sports journalist in Toronto, I actually realized now it’s also a dual narrative, because it’s telling the story of Joe Murphy, who is this hockey player who sustained a head injury, and is now living homeless. He’s still living homeless, in probably somewhere in Northern Ontario. But it tells the story of Joe Murphy. And then it also tells a larger story about the NHL, and its role or in not treating head injuries as seriously as a lot of people feel that they should have been treated. And there are a lot of players that have had ongoing issues after their careers are over. And it’s believed to be untreated head injuries.
And so working with a journalist is also very different because and offers a lot of different challenges editorially, because journalists are used to working in shorter form. And they’re used to writing articles that are short pieces. I mean, they could have like a big feature piece that’s maybe 1500 words or 2000 words. But writing a book is a whole different thing. And so working with journalists, it’s about being able to sustain that narrative, in this case, Rick Westhead is a super pro-writer and he was really…he actually was really good at sustaining that narrative. But like most heavily researched books, there was almost too much information. So really, in this case was paring back some of the research is making, like tightening up the story a lot more, and again, making sure there was a back and forth in the narrative between Joe’s story and then the larger context of the history of the NHL with respect to these head injuries.
So that one just needed a lot of cutting. It didn’t need that much shaping, but there was just, again, a lot of he had done a huge amounts of research in the book. And that’s actually one of the big challenges of working on nonfiction or heavily researched nonfiction. You know, the authors again, get into their books, and they throw every single thing in there that they’ve researched. And then so you have to come in as an editor. And it’s a bit like being a sculptor, you know, and you’re just trying to carve away parts of the story or carve away some of the research or sometimes they go off on tangents and things like that, and just shaping the story in that way. And because really, it’s about momentum and making sure people keep turning those pages and staying engaged with the story. So nonfiction is very different in that way. Like I really enjoy working on nonfiction. I like switching between, I like the fact that I can work on fiction and nonfiction because I feel like as much as the editorial process is very similar on both, I feel like it’s a nice relief to move to nonfiction sometimes from fiction, and vice versa. Just for a change.
Rachel: I’m gonna switch gears slightly here, you mentioned up at the top that you also teach at Ryerson University. And like we discussed before we started recording, I was lucky enough to take your substantive editing class in, I wanna say it was 2017. But years don’t exist right now. But I was just wondering what kind of led you to teaching editing and what has that experience been like for you?
Janice: Well, over the years, like, throughout my career, I’ve been asked to do like a lot of talks, like one-off talks with writing classes and writing classes, or publishing classes and things like that, which I’ve always enjoyed doing, because as you can tell, I like to talk. But someone I used to work with Meg Taylor, who runs the Ryerson program just contacted me out of the blue, she actually used to teach this class and she started running the department. So she needed someone to be able to come in and do this class. Now, before joining Ryerson, I also had worked at each year, like for three years, I’m gonna say, I can’t remember now, I would go out to SFU and work on their nonfiction editing summer workshop. So I’d done some teaching. That was very short, that was like a small week long, intensive. And then Meg decided that now that she was running the department, I guess that she didn’t wanna teach as well. So she contacted me and said, “You know, I guess I think you’d be really good at this. And are you interested?” And I’d never sort of taught in like, a full class before like a full term, which is a whole other thing. And the first year was…I found it very difficult. I didn’t know if I was gonna go back and do it. I really enjoyed working with the students. But it was really difficult and just to juggle with a full-time job, but I stayed and kept doing it. And actually, a lot of people who teach I think will understand, like, it actually gets easier every year that you do it, and it started to get easier and easier. And I really enjoy it. Like I’ve missed not teaching this year, I love talking to the students, I love their interest in editing, and writing, and the publishing process. I love telling them stories from my day at work, as you probably know.
I try in my classes if I can to bring an active manuscript with the approval of the author, the students always work on a real manuscript. So sometimes it’s a book that’s already been published, which is not ideal. But if I can, I bring in a manuscript that I’m currently working on, so they can edit it alongside of me, and they can work on something that’s…and I think that the students really enjoy that. And I think, because they’re working on something real, and something that’s gonna see the light of day. And if the timing is really good, and if the book is published at the end of the term, I used to bring the actual finished book and give everybody a copy. Now in the last couple of years, it hasn’t quite worked that way. But if I can do it that way, I think it’s really, it’s just a fun way of going about it. And even if the book has already been published, so I always change the name of the manuscript and the name of the author. The author has approved using it in the class. But I try not to…I don’t wanna tell the students who it is or what the final book is, because I don’t want them to go look it up online and think that they’re going to…it’s gonna be an easier process to edit the book by knowing what the finished book is, because it’s actually not. Because if you read the final book and think that you can sort of retroactively piece together the editorial process, it just doesn’t work that way. And if anything, it would…the students who do that do very poorly in the class, because I think they get bogged down and you just can’t reverse engineer a manuscript. It just doesn’t work like that.
And on top of that, I mean, the class is about teaching young editors to be but also a lot of writers take my class, teaching them, you know, that editorial process and how to hone their own editorial skills and their own instincts. There’s many times where students come up with really great editorial solutions to problems or have really acute insights into manuscripts that even I haven’t had. Or they bring up things that I’m like, “I never even thought of that. That’s like a great idea.” And so, you know, which is why it’s important for us to all sort of work on this manuscript together. And it’s better that they don’t know what the final book is, because it just lends itself to a lot of discussion. And I think that makes the class a little bit more interesting.
Rachel: I can attest that it was a really cool experience to work on an actual manuscript. The book that we did, I believe, was already published. I cannot for the life of me remember the title. I’ve been thinking about it all day.
Janice: I did Zoe Whittall’s, “The Best Kind of People.”
Rachel: That was it. Is that the one where it’s the family in the aftermath of the sexual assault?
Rachel: Yeah, that’s the one we did. And it’s just so interesting how many people have different ideas of where a story can go, or what characters can be cut, because like, in my editorial notes, I was like, “Hey, give this character the axe, we don’t need him.” He survived in the book. So I just think it’s a really, really cool process.
Janice: Yeah, because there’s not just one way to edit a book. And there’s a lot of different solutions. And that’s why the editorial relationship with an author is so collaborative, because you talk it out. And ultimately, it is the author’s book. And so for me, I mean, all of my, you know, all edits are just suggestions, as you’ve probably heard me saying, in class, they are just suggestions, it’s up to the author to choose what direction and what they’re gonna do. Again, if they trust their editor, then they will listen to the editor if the editor’s going, “Look, this is really not working, or you know what, I know you really wanna keep this character, but they really don’t have a role here.” In that scenario, if they trust you, they will listen to you. But a lot of editing is a very, you know, long conversations with the author. With “The Best Kind of People,” I remember sitting in my office with Zoe talking about the ending of that novel. And because she wasn’t sure how to end it. And it was a three-hour conversation, we just were talking, and talking, and talking, like going through the book and talking about the characters, and talking about the story, and talking about all the different possible ways that this book could end. And that’s actually the fun part of my job. I mean, I enjoy working with authors like that, and having those really detailed conversations, and then you have the conversation and as the editor, then the author goes away. And they make their revision. And I, again, I’m always happy to read the next draft to see what they’ve done. It’s kind of exciting to me. Yeah, so it’s really collaborative in that way.
Tara: I like that you were kind of teaching, there’s something about the book industry or publishing industry in general, that people really feel the need to give back, which I think is great, everyone’s so generous with their time, like, we work with independent authors. And they’re always sharing what worked for me, what didn’t, you know, giving tips and things like that. So it’s interesting to see that even on the editorial side, that you’re doing the same thing by sort of teaching and getting enjoyment out of that. You mentioned to kind of like meeting with authors in person and things. Has the pandemic changed how you’ve been editing, like, has it made it harder, or is it just much longer Zoom conversations, rather than being in person?
Janice: You know what I find, I prefer not to do Zoom for my editorial meetings, I think it’s really distracting to have that visual there in front of you. I actually think the conversation becomes more intimate when you’re just talking on the phone, you don’t have…you’re not like looking at the background and checking your hair out, like I do constantly, because I haven’t had it cut in 10 months. And I find just having that editorial call, just really much better than a Zoom call. So in that way, it hasn’t changed because, I mean, it is great to meet with an author in person and like sit down with them. And sometimes you flick through the manuscript and talk in that, that’s sort of a really important part of the process. But most of the time, even without the pandemic, a lot of the editorial meetings are on the phone, because most of my authors don’t live in Toronto. I mean, the ones that do I mean, it’s great. And if they do, then you can meet in person, but increasingly, most authors don’t live anywhere near you. And so it’s not unusual to have these kinds of editorial meetings. And in fact, there’s a number of books that I’ve published where I’ve never met the author in person. So I’ve never met Michelle Good in person. You know, I’ve never met Alison Taylor in person. I mean, that was pandemic, although Michelle Good, we started working before the pandemic. But there were certain authors that to this day have never met in person, other authors who I only meet after the book is published and it’s either because they’ve traveled to Toronto, or I’m traveling for various reasons and go off and meet with them.
So I think this is really a product of the last 20 years with technology and things like that, but it’s not unusual for me not to meet someone face-to-face. Although I would say like if I’m just acquiring a book, I think probably having a face-to-face Zoom meeting or something like that is important just so you have a face to put to the name and there is some value in that but for the actual editorial calls and conversations. There’s an intimacy of just talking on the phone, where you’re just focusing on what the person’s voice and what they’re saying that I think is very valuable.
Tara: Thank you. And not to keep you all day. I mean, we could definitely keep talking to you. It’s been so helpful. But we have some rapid fire book questions that we’d like to throw your way. Rachel, you wanna go first?
Rachel: I will start off easy. The last book you read and enjoyed?
Janice: I was reading Sally Rooney. I was reading “Conversations with Friends.” And I really enjoyed that. “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders, because I love the unusual structure and the way that that story is put together. And Anna Burns, “Milkman.” I like to read things that have been critically acclaimed or won awards. For nonfiction “The Hidden Life of Trees,” because I love trees. And that was like a fascinating story. And like, I think a lot of editors had turned down this book, and then it became a hit. And people were like, “Who wants to read about trees?” And I was like, “Actually, trees are very fascinating things.”
Rachel: It’s a cool book.
Janice: Yeah, “Ohio” by Stephen Markley, which is about again, the opioid epidemic. But I came to that one while I was working on “Aftershock,” interestingly enough. Oh, “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai. So I met Rebecca in Chicago last year when we were launching the women’s prize in the U.S. and she’s just a really great person and a really great writer. And “The Great Believers” made the finalist list for the Pulitzer Prize. It was like a “New York Times” bestseller, and I really enjoyed that one as well.
Tara: Those are great. Lots of great recommendations. I’m gonna hit you up with the next one. So what book do you recommend the most often?
Janice: This is an odd one. If I want to give like a gift to someone, I often give them “The Consolations of Philosophy” by Alain de Botton, just because I think it’s a book that everyone can get something out of, you know, it’s like philosophical self-help. And I don’t think there’s nothing objectionable about it. I think it’s interesting. I think there’s value in every chapter, and I think I haven’t had anyone ever complain when I give it to them as a gift. Also another book…sorry. Another one again, it’s not fiction, or it’s more of a giftie book, and it came up with Chronicle Books about 20 years ago, still my all time favorite is called, “Taxi Driver Wisdom.” And it is the wisdom of taxi drivers. And it’s in this like, little tiny leather-bound book. And I found it very insightful and profound.
Rachel: Right. Last question, it might be a tough one.
Rachel: Is there an author, dead or alive any author that you would love to work with?
Janice: David Foster Wallace.
Rachel: Oh, it was an easy one?
Janice: I love David Foster Wallace. Like everyone, I have like a first edition of “Infinite Jest” here on my shelf behind me. And he was just again, smart, and funny, and insightful, and I loved his brain. His wide-ranging interests in things, but also his humor. I mean, I love someone who’s really smart, but also has a really great sense of humor. So there was a point where, in probably 1997, where a friend of mine and I were so obsessed with him, we thought he had plans to like drive down to where he was teaching university, and we were just gonna go like, crash his class, just to the back of the class, we just kind of wanted to be in the room with him. Now, I regret we didn’t do it. And I have a signed copy of one of his books here. I have a signed copy of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” on my shelf. And it was my prized possession. And then a friend of mine came over to my house one night and said, “Oh, I really wanna read that. Can I borrow it?” And I was like, “No, because it’s kind of a signed copy by an author.” And at that point, he wasn’t dead. But it was still very valuable to me. And she took it home and spilled orange pop all over it.
Rachel: Oh, no.
Janice: Oh, yeah. Like the worst-case scenario of like, giving your prized possession to someone and then they literally go home and they wreck it.
Tara: Are you still friends?
Janice: We are still friends. But it was just really, I mean, I was really, really upset, like really upset, and even more upset now. I mean, the book is still there and like the pages are kind of wavy. And his signature is still there and stuff. But it’s, you know, like, you just took my all-time favorite book that was signed by my favorite author and you wrecked it. Like she had it for like two hours before she… And like why did she have orange pop in the middle of the night? So anyway. Who drinks orange pop beyond like 10-years-old? So.
Tara: It’s been so nice to chat with you, Janice. I think that our listeners will find this super informative. And we will have a link in the show notes to The Emerging Writers Prize Books. But if they’re interested in learning more about the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, where can they find out about that?
Janice: We have a website, which is actually about to be redesigned, but carolshieldsprizeforfiction.com. We’re also on Instagram at shieldsprize.com, and we’re on Twitter. I think probably our Instagram is the more exciting of the two and they can find out more information there. There are more announcements coming up. And we also have like a newsletter that comes out every second month, which has proved hugely popular, where we do a lot of interviews with women authors, and profile their books. So you can always go to the website and sign up for the newsletter as well with a lot of interesting content that comes out there. So yeah, I encourage people to go check out the prize.
Tara: I love that. I’m gonna sign up for that newsletter right now.
Rachel: Yeah, same.
Janice: Thank you.
Tara: Yeah, thank you so much.
Janice: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. As you can tell I love talking about what I do.
Rachel: And I could listen to you talk about editing forever. So this was a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Janice: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in learning more about the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, we will have the links in our show notes. And will also include a link to the Emerging Writer Prize books as well. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. And you can follow us on socials. We’re @kobowritinglife on Facebook and Twitter, and at kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Tara: This episode was produced by Rachel Wharton and Tara Cremin. Editing is provided by Kelly Rowbotham. Our theme music is provided by Tearjerker. And huge thanks to Janice for being such a wonderful guest. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey today, sign up at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.