There is no doubt that editing can be an extremely difficult and thankless role. Apart from ensuring the semantics and syntax is bright and shiny, editors teeter on that unsteady bridge of feedback and critique and that of their perception and experience on what the publishers will and won’t accept; trying desperately to balance all of this in a way the writer may best digest it. Finding an editor whose work ethic, outlook and style will enhance your work can be challanging. Trusting what they have to say can be a difficult journey. As professionals, we as writers need to place trust in their judgement and listen to what they have to suggest. I’ve been told on many occasions that “editing is next to godliness”; besides they have a magic ability to make our words so much better.
I bring this subject up as I have recently re-read an Australian modern ‘classic’ and began thinking about how the author must have felt when the editors lavished their red pen across her manuscript. I wonder how many of us would have placed the amount of trust Joan put in her editor and if we might allow our work to be manipulated in the way she did.
Joan Lindsay wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1967 .It became a phenomena in the 70s after it was made into a film. One of the forerunners for Australian Film industry, Picnic at Hanging Rock became an instant success within Australia, but was received with mixed reactions in the US and UK. Peter Wier defended his direction, apparently bemused that these audiences were outraged that the mystery was never solved.
The book was read feverishly by a huge range of people, the mystery it held in the pages, taunting everyone. Though it proclaimed to be fiction, its audience hunted the history books for mention of the characters held within the pages, desperate to find out what ‘really’ happened. The actual setting – Hanging Rock – became an icon for bushwalkers and those with a morbid sense of adventure, hoping that they might unravel the mystery of the missing women. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that the local police stations records were lost due to a fire in the early 1900’s, destroying any evidence which may have given truth to the that the story.
The story follows a group of upperclass school girls at a boarding school going on a picnic on Valentines Day in 1900. Four girls and a school teacher disappear on the rock, spurring accusations of abduction, murder and sexual misconduct. One girl is found dazed, hysterical and unable to recall what has happened to the rest of the party. Parts of the women’s underwear are found and one search party member returns in a similar distressed state clutching a piece of fabric from one of the girls dresses. Tragedy strikes the boarding school with ‘apparent’ suicides and audiences are left wondering on the truth behind the disappearances and events.
However, this is not the entire story as Joan originally had intended to be published. Upon advice of her editor and publishers, she omitted one chapter and a number of references the latter part of the book, with a legally binding agreement that it would not be published until a certain time after her death.
In 1987, The Secret of Hanging Rock was published by Angus and Robinson. Although its 12 pages reveal the whereabouts and motivations of the missing women, readers were once again outraged at the explanation. In many peoples opinion, the ‘missing’ chapter, which would have originally been placed toward the end of the book, seemed incongruent with the rest of the story. I remember being entranced by the movie and the book, waiting till the author died and the sinking bitter disappointment when I’d finally laid hands on the ‘secret’.
While I will not reveal much more on the plot or ‘solution’, it brings up a very important point for writers. Trust your editor.
I’ve no doubt that Joan’s book would have received mediocre – if that – reviews had she published it as she originally intended. Had she insisted her manuscript be kept whole, there would have been only distant chances of it being made into a film, particularly by Peter Weir. The ‘Secret’ Chapter colours the entire story, throwing it from one genre uncomfortably into another. Joans editor knew there was a brilliant story hidden in the manuscript. Wielding a razor sharp editing blade, they whittled out the words till a shining gem remained. Although I am sure it would have been a shock for Joan to see her work manipulated in this way, she trusted the professional team she had around her and was able to then reap the benefits.
I actually wish the secret chapter had never been published.
Film Poster via Wiki