What skills do you need, to harness a writer’s true potential? To be the tempering instrument through which their most powerful words emerge? If behind-the-scenes work in these subtle and nuanced acts of word shaping appeals to you, you might be destined to be an editor – but how does one become a good editor of writing that shines and speaks volumes on the page?
These were some of the questions aired and answered at the inaugural CaribLit Fiction Editing workshop, hosted by CaribLit, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest and Commonwealth Writers, with additional support from the British Council and CODE. This week I joined eight other participants from across the region in Georgetown, Guyana, for an intensive one-week course in editing fiction and publishing. In rigorous, explorative sessions, held at the historic Moray House Trust, we examined the anatomy of a manuscript – all the stages it travels through to arrive, polished and perfectly-bound, in the hands of an expectant reader.
Editing workshops are thin on the ground in the Caribbean, including Trinidad and Tobago, where I work as an assistant editor, book blogger and literary critic. My colleagues and fellow workshop participants are also professionals in regional arts and literature, functioning as librarians, publishers, cultural officers, and entrepreneurs. Much of our knowledge has been autodidactic, and while we love what we do, it can be daunting to feel that we are editing, proofreading and book pitching in isolation.
My relief was palpable, therefore, upon learning that much of the self-taught skills I’d acquired did in fact resemble editorial best practice. Our workshop tutors, Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press and Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, led the group through five days of lectures, guided writing exercises, group discussions and case studies. Enthusiastic debate was not merely tolerated, but encouraged, with a free flow of ideas on the book industry and its intricacies flooding informal conversations, walks to and from the workshop site, and filtering into the classroom itself.
Temple and Poynting are the editors-in-chief of their publishing houses, both of which have shown massive enthusiasm in supporting Caribbean literature – but they didn’t stumble idly into these positions, nor do they rest on the pedestals of their accomplishments. As Poynting said: Devoting yourself to the independent publishing scene means allotting more than your fair share of sweat, blood and ink-tears to the endeavour. Temple stressed the importance of personal integrity in building your literary name, as editor and publisher alike: Choosing writers whose work you respect and admire; building your catalogue with attention to detail; never sacrificing your publishing house’s literary ethics for flashy, disingenuous successes. These tenets are worth as much, if not more, than the biggest of dollars raked in by the Big Six.
During our time in Georgetown, CaribLit fiction editors contemplated the nitty-gritty of contract details; examined the legalities of authorial rights; pored over sample fiction excerpts for macro and micro editing details; framed personal mission statements and tackled the intimacies of editor-author relationships. The bonds we established amongst each other, bolstered by our commitment to support and present Caribbean literature in all its astonishing, enriching complexity, were one of the workshop’s major bonuses. CaribLit’s unwavering dedication to the state of reading, publishing and writing in these, our islands, has never been stronger. This workshop proved that there are individual voices just as strong to match that intent, from Barbados to Belize and every coastline in between.
The Fiction Editing Workshop was held between 18–22 January in Georgetown, Guyana.
Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and literary reviewer. She works as the official blogger and social media manager of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad’s annual literary festival, and Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad’s sole independent Caribbean bookseller. She writes weekly book reviews for the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section; is the book review editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine; and the assistant editor of The Caribbean Review of Books. She is the second-place poetry prize winner of the 2014 Small Axe Literary Competition, and was shortlisted for the 2015 Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize. Her poetry is published in Small Axe 47 and the anthology Coming Up Hot: Eight New Poets from the Caribbean (Peekash, 2015).