Diane Schoemperlen, the author of a dozen novels and short story collections, thought that writing a memoir would be easy. After all, she had the makings of a great story – a fraught relationship with an inmate convicted of second-degree murder – at her fingertips. What could be so hard about typing it into the computer?
To her surprise, This Is Not My Life turned out to be the most difficult book she had ever written.
Diane shared her experiences of writing the memoir and working with editors at a recent meeting of Editors Kingston, a group that is part of Editors Canada.
The writing and editing process started with the proposal. Even though Diane had published for years with HarperCollins, the publisher wanted to see a detailed outline and two sample chapters. (A proposal is standard practice for nonfiction, whereas for fiction, publishers want to see the finished manuscript.)
“Almost none of what I wrote in those sample chapters made it in,” Diane says.
She had written at length about things like getting her hair done. “It was my life, and so everything seemed important.”
The first draft that she submitted to her editor, Jennifer Lambert, was detailed and rambling. Jennifer’s first piece of advice? Cut 40,000 words.
Diane did, and over the next year, the manuscript went through four rounds of substantive editing.
Until now, Diane hadn’t experienced heavy editing. “I’m a perfectionist by nature. My fiction manuscripts, when they were submitted, were very close to being just right.” She had previously worked with editor Phyllis Bruce, who by this time had left HarperCollins. “I never had any major editing from Phyllis.”
But when Jennifer calmly told her, “cut,” Diane knew she was in good hands. “I had never been in such need of clear editorial guidance.”
The book was emotionally taxing to write, and Diane struggled with the structure, voice, privacy issues, libel, and the constraints of actual facts.
The story might have been easier to write as a novel, but Diane wanted to tell the truth to expose the problems in the Canadian correctional system and the harmfulness of Harper’s “tough on crime” policies.
She arrived at a five-part structure, each ending with a parole hearing. Although books on writing memoir warn that a chronological structure – the “tyranny of the linear” – runs the risk of tedium (this happened, and then that), Diane felt that there was no other way to structure her story, and Jennifer agreed.
Diane had the courage to listen to her own story and to find the narrative structure that it called for.
After working closely with Jennifer, Diane felt that the manuscript was very near to how they both wanted it. Her memoir moved into copy editing, a stage in the publishing process that Diane had always enjoyed.
Not this time.
Diane received the copy-edited manuscript on the Friday before Thanksgiving in October 2015. Eagerly, she opened the file and started working on it. Her excitement soon turned to panic: a number of the proposed edits tampered with voice, changed the meaning, and cut the humour that was so characteristic of Diane’s way of seeing.
“It was traumatic. It made me doubt myself horribly,” Diane says.
For example, in the following paragraph, the copy editor deleted the last line – the punch line – without querying or commenting.
I have never been religious, but still I felt reassured by the church setting of this first date. In my own version of magical thinking, I couldn’t help but feel our relationship was being sanctioned, if not sanctified, by history, the Catholic Church, and the Virgin Mary herself. I let this outweigh any niggling misgivings I might have. What could possibly go wrong?
What could possibly go wrong, indeed?
Another example: the copy editor, whom Diane was stresses was a freelancer not an in-house editor at HarperCollins, and was careful not to name, changed the word “warrant” to “warranty.”
“Anybody who has ever watched a crime show on TV knows the difference between a warrant and a warrantee,” Diane told our group.
It took Diane three weeks, working with Jennifer, to restore the manuscript pretty much to what it had been before the copy edit.
Her story is a cautionary tale for those of us who work as freelance copy editors.
This Is Not My Life went on to be longlisted for the BC National Book Award and shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize.