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Music Historical-fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay on the slow process of editing his work

In Between the Acts, The Globe and Mail takes a look at how artists manage their time before and after a creative endeavour.

Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay eagerly await news on his new book, but the veteran historical-fantasy novelist is giving away no secrets – not even the title. “It will come out in spring, 2019, which is all I can say,” says Kay, an Order of Canada appointee whose previous work, Children of Earth and Sky, was published in 2016. What Kay will speak about is how his forthcoming book is coming along, with details on the nitty-gritty editing process and the writers’ right to their semi-colons.

Guy Gavriel Kay.

Ted Davis

When you first deliver a book to your publisher, the editors – in my case in Canada, New York and London – have their input. I’ve had very light feedback at that stage for years, because I am a little bit obsessive about trying to get the book to 90 per cent of what I want before I let anyone see it.

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Many writers I respect think of their books as an extensively collaborative process. They get it to a certain point and then their friend or their editor gives them extensive suggestions. I’ve never done that. I want to burrow down at the earliest stage and get it as close to finished as I can before my editors get it. So, because of that, the notes from my editors tend to be pretty light.

I give myself more grief than any editors have ever given me. I’m always trying to narrow the gap between what’s in my head and what’s on the page – what I, as a fallible human being, have been able to produce. So, I put a lot of effort into the rewrite after the notes come in. It’s a slow rewrite.

Then it goes to the copy editor. I have worked with the same copy editor for years. Catherine Marjoribanks is a Canadian freelancer who does it for my U.K. and American editors, too. Everyone loves her and buys what she does. We’ve done about eight books now. It’s a long relationship.

She marries the copy editor’s necessary obsessive eye for detail with a sense of humour. Which is probably why the two of us work so well together. I want her be obsessive, but I need her sense of humour. And I think she needs it in me, too.

So, right now, she has given the book back to me. We’re down to the commas and semi-colons and paragraph breaks and word choices. It’s right down the minutest detail of sentences.

I’m about a third of the way through going through her notes, accepting or rejecting them. Early in my career, I would get copy-editing notes back from whoever was doing it, and in my high-dudgeon propensity, I would be muttering and swearing all the way through. “Don’t they know how to use a semi-colon? Don’t they understand this is a character’s voice, and that it’s not an essay, it’s a novel?”

Somewhere along the line, I grew up a bit. I realized that even if I only accepted a quarter or a third of what a copy editor suggested as changes, that quarter or third I bought made my book better. I stopped being irked. Every time I bought one of the copy editor’s suggestions, I was doing a little internal thank-you to the copy editor. Every suggestion you accept has made the book better.

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