Where were you when the page was blank?
August 12, 2016 — 8:51

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: fiction writing literary fashions  Comments: 12

Dickens Cartoon


Authors sometimes grumble about their editors, and the question I’ve chosen as a title for this post is one I’ve often heard authors repeat.

But I’m pleased to say that I have a wonderful editor for my new novel, titled The Swan Island Connection. This novel is a sequel to the first of my sea-change mysteries, Through a Camel’s Eye, which was published in April by For Pity Sake Publishing

The editor’s name is David Burton. David, an editor with For Pity Sake, is also an award-winning playwright and theatre director, whose plays include April’s Fool, Orbit and The Landmine Is Me. He has written a memoir titled How to be Happy. As an editor, Dave possesses that rare quality, (rare in my experience), in that he takes the trouble to see into an author’s mind, think about where he or she is trying to get to, and how he might help them to arrive.

Dave read what I am now calling the Dog’s Breakfast Draft (DBD) of The Swan Island Connection and wrote a nineteen page report. When I first saw the report, I felt daunted. There must be an awful lot wrong with the manuscript, I thought, to require this many pages. But the report, while critical, is constructively so, and that makes all the difference. In tone it is far from negative, and is full of helpful ideas and suggestions. And the very fact that someone who know what he’s talking about has paid such close attention to my DBD has given it, and me, a whole new lease of life. Thank you, Dave!

The Swan Island Connection will be my eleventh novel to be published. The first was in 1984, and since then I’ve run the gamut from good editors to woeful. Amongst the good I number Jenny Lee and Lois Murphy, and amongst the woeful, who shall be nameless, the lesbian separatist who read my book about the British atomic bomb tests at Maralinga. This was not, on the face of it her subject, and she made no effort to meet me half, or even a quarter of the way. Another was the editor who used to ring me at 6 PM, just before she left the office, to discuss editorial points that required thought and concentration. At the time this editor was assigned to me, I had a four-year-old and a baby who wouldn’t sleep, plus a deadline for the manuscript. One horrible evening I shouted at her down the phone, ‘Don’t you realise it’s jungle hour!’ I’ve felt ashamed of that outburst ever since.

Then there was my New York editor whose publishing company had bought the first two of my Sandra Mahoney Quartet (mystery novels set in Canberra, where I lived for thirty years). This editor, though I respected him, and of course felt grateful that my books were going to be published in the United States, insisted that I change all my galahs to parrots, all my jumpers to sweaters, and that I massage the text in various other unsavoury ways in order to make it more attractive to an American readership.

Recalling all that, I’ll say again – thank you, Dave!

And thanks to Bill Whitehead the cartoonist for reminding me how much I like Dickens.



  • I love the cartoon! This reminds me of “Black Snow” where the poor narrator’s play is variously described as hopeless and as wonderful but needing a compete rewrite. And of a fellow student in an English tutorial who insisted on having full factual detail about Alph the sacred river. David Burton certainly sounds a treasure- the sympathetic but intelligent reader for whom most of us write!

    August 12, 2016 — 21:35
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    Yes, the cartoon’s great, isn’t it? The original (very similar to this) was published in Punch many years ago. I don’t know ‘Black Snow’ but will look it up. It sounds apt, since David Burton is a playwright. In my experience it’s rare for a creative writer to be a good editor as well, but Dave is both.

    August 13, 2016 — 0:31
  • Love the Dog’s Breakfast Draft Dorothy. And, I don’t think you should continue to feel embarrassed about your “jungle hour” outburst. That’s outrageous timing! (Oh, and I used to call it arsenic hour. Yours is much more polite!).

    As for that American editor. Really! Can’t Americans, like the rest of us, enjoy reading different cultural experiences, getting into different worlds? What did that editor do when editing historical fiction? Did his authors have to give everything modern names? Same thing really. Different places and/or times both need to be reflected in the vocabulary.

    August 15, 2016 — 6:12
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    I agree about the American editor W.G. When you’re editing a novel for an American edition, you do feel yourself to be caught in a bind. Perhaps I should have been more forthright at the time. ‘Arsenic hour’ is good. I could certainly have dispensed some arsenic to that editor for her insensitivity!

    August 16, 2016 — 1:14
    • But, you were caught between wanting to be published there – and I think that’s fair enough – and standing on your cultural digs. Best to be published I think because it’s a start!

      August 16, 2016 — 4:21
  • Great post Dorothy! I definitely agree that having work edited (particularly a manuscript, which can take so long to produce and is basically a part of yourself by the time it’s ready to be read) can be so daunting. We’re so lucky to have an editor like Dave who can offer such wonderful insights and constructive feedback on these things! I think the mark of a good editor is to be able to outline both the flaws and merits of a work, having an editor read your work and return it with nothing but negative comments can be so disheartening, and can shatter your confidence when it comes to developing the work further!

    August 18, 2016 — 1:31
  • […] blog was originally posted on Dorothy Johnston’s website, on the 12th of August […]

    August 18, 2016 — 1:34
  • Ah, Dorothy, it was such a pleasure editing your work! Thank you for being so kind. But the work was a joy to read, and it’ll be a wonderful finished work. I’m just glad to be a part of the process. Thank you for trusting me with your words!

    August 18, 2016 — 7:11
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    Thanks, David. You’re modest as well as a great editor!

    August 19, 2016 — 1:55
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    Thanks, Anna. I agree about how an editor’s negative comments can throw an author off balance. The tone of an editorial report, especially if it’s a long and detailed one, is important too, I think.

    August 19, 2016 — 1:58
  • Sorry to be so late in replying, Dorothy, but it’s been a jungle couple of weeks since we last were together – don’t ask why. But all is well now and I’ve had a moment to read this. Wow – experience of editors. Where to begin? On the whole I’ve been lucky and have had editors who were treasures. But the one bad one – she broke every rule in the book. Put me down consistently, allowed a pear left so long on top of one of my manuscripts to rot and eat a hole right through it, and when I finally lost patience she gave me up altogether and it was taken up by another who was wholly sympathetic. And I do remember the time you had with the Jungle Hour Caller. But there was never ever keeping you down.

    August 23, 2016 — 6:41
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    I remember that pear! It’s not something you forget, is it? Why do some editors feel the need to put us down? It’s not as though it really does them any good. Not in the long run.

    August 24, 2016 — 1:18
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