by Cassey Harding
Once Mary-Rose MacColl took the stage, it was clear why she had been asked to be the guest speaker at the annual branch meeting (ABM) of Editors Queensland on 7 August 2019. She possesses a vibrant energy and enthusiasm, especially for writing, tempered by a deep appreciation for the work of editors. In her talk MacColl placed great emphasis on the creative nature of editing and an editor's ability to see what the work could be, rather than just what it is.
MacColl opened with a story about her mother, a journalist at The Courier Mail in the 1950s, described by the statement pieces* she often wore: white Catwoman sunglasses and gloves. On this occasion MacColl's mother, along with a throng of her male peers, went out to Brisbane Airport to meet the famous children's author Enid Blyton. Upon being asked where she got the ideas for her story, Blyton responded with an almost incredulous 'Noddy tells me!'. MacColl says that Noddy will tell you, but as a writer – and as an editor at least initially – you need to listen, to get into that 'quiet place' where the characters and stories exist.
Lessons on writing
This message, of listening to where the story and characters lead and letting the story come with them, led into MacColl's next point: the importance of not letting your ego get in the way of your writing. Both voices – the positive voice that tells you you're the best ever, and the negative voice, the voice of dissent that tells you you're a failure – are unhelpful to creative work.
The difference an editor can make
MacColl then moved onto editors and her experiences with them. MacColl then moved onto editors and her experiences with them and was quick to emphasise that an editor's first reading needs to be creative – listening to Noddy. MacColl used Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird to explain. From its initial draft, later published as Go Set A Watchman, Lee's editor Tay Hohoff saw the potential of telling the story through young Scout's eyes rather than her older counterpart. She pushed Lee to rewrite it from that perspective and to focus on the Civil Rights issues. This editorial creativity gave us the classic book as it is today.
More personally, MacColl told us of her a similar experience she had while drafting her own novel, The True Story of Maddie Bright. Her editor focused on a letter within the story, and initially MacColl dismissed the attention brought to it – after all, 'a letter's just a plot device; what would you [the editor] know?' But because of this focus on the letter, the relationships within the book were strengthened, and the novel was made all the better for it. MacColl freely admits this is thanks to the work of her editor in recognising the letter's significance.
The anecdote highlights that while 'writers write', they don't need to be amazing on the first draft. For it is when the work moves from the solitary field of writing into the collaborative space of publishing that most books reach their potential. After all, while what you say is important, it's how you say it that can make all the difference. And a creative editor can help with that.
Books referenced by MacColl during her talk
The Writing Book by Kate Grenville; Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers by Gail Sher, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.
*A statement piece is usually an interesting, attractive or relatively eye-catching piece of a person's outfit. It's not necessarily bright, colourful or oversized, but it is in most cases bold and unique. The statement piece is the thing people notice first about the outfit.