When editors go the extra mile

The tragic arc of author Terry Pratchett’s life is well-known: a prolific and celebrated writer, he was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s in 2007, when he was just 59.

He carried on writing, with his final novel being published in 2015, which was also the year of his death.

What’s much less well-known is how those final novels were written – and what role his editors may have played in that process.

There’s much debate among Pratchett fans about which of nine books written just before and after his diagnosis first begin to show signs of the disease affecting their beloved author: Wintersmith (2006), Making Money (2007), Nation (2008), Unseen Academicals (2009), I Shall Wear Midnight (2010), Snuff (2011), Dodger (2012), Raising Steam (2013) and The Shepherd’s Crown (2015).

In our house, we think it was Raising Steam – a long book, and one which I in particular always thought could have done with much more a stringent edit. And it was that book that led me to wonder about Pratchett’s relationships with the editors of his books in general. Up to that point, his books had been shining examples of publishing excellence – even though the editors and proofreaders were never acknowledged, I knew they had been there.

Many of Pratchett devotees’ questions are now largely answered, thanks to Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, the official biography by Pratchett’s long-time assistant Rob Wilkins. It’s a wonderful book, which I can recommend even to people who are not Pratchett fans.


As Wilkins portrays it, Pratchett’s general relationships with editors was, in a word, tetchy, Talking about the start of Pratchett’s relationship with an editor in the United States, he writes:

“Thus did Anne [Hoppe], who describes herself as ‘healthily terrified’ of Terry in the early days of their partnership, commence a working relationship with Terry which quickly saw her become the third key editorial figure in his life. That, of course, as Philippa Dickinson and Jennifer Brehl also discovered, meant confrontations, conversations where social nicety disappeared off in the direction of the window, and sustained periods of all-out antler-locking.”

I should say that it’s not clear to me whether Wilkins uses the term editor to mean the person who edits the copy in a book, or a commissioning editor in a publishing house – the roles seem to blur into each other. But typically the relationship ran like this: an editor would send comments and queries and suggestions, which Pratchett would reject irritably, think about and then go over all the points made, making a better book.

So far, this is pretty much how I would expect a brilliant person, passionate about his writing, to interact with his editors. The books were his, the writing (often done in long stretches, dictated aloud as Wilkins typed) was his – and any editor worth their salt would have respected that.

What happened after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis?

Wilkins says that 2009’s Unseen Academicals “seemed to arrive in Terry’s head with ease and clarity” (though editor Philippa Dickinson did find 24 hours missing in the timeline – which was corrected). This was a source of relief and wonder to those around him, alert as they were to the first signs of the impact of Alzheimer’s on his work.

After Snuff in 2011, Wilkins says, writing (and everything else) got harder. Dodger was a “hard slog” and by the time Pratchett got to writing Raising Steam, things became heart-breaking. “Individual sentences were still gleaming, there were flourishes and whole scenes that sang… But where was it all heading?”

Wilkins eventually realised that was he had on his hands was a text with no narrative direction whatsoever. He called Dickinson, and asked for her “editorial brilliance”. This is how that went: Wilkins called her twice a day over the ensuing months. “Philippa was able to see the pattern…, detect where the gaps were, and then lead Terry to where the holes needed to be filled and the stiches needed to be made”.

He says: “Out of this painstaking, laborious and patience-sapping process Raising Steam finally emerged. Without Philippa’s overview, and her ability to guide it from above, the book would never have come together in the shape that it did.”

(One might ask why this desperately ill man was still working? Says Wilkins: “I was letting him run because what else was I do to? Terry lived to write, so every day that Terry wrote he stayed alive.”)

Shepherd’s Crown was written in the same fashion as Raising Steam had been: “Once again, Philippa Dickinson was amazing.” In twice-daily phone calls she “found threads and made suggestions for ways that Terry might tug at them”

So now we know: Terry Pratchett had wonderful editors. I am eternally grateful that they, along with all the other people in Pratchett’s life, were able to bring those last books into the world. They might not be perfect, but it is better to have them with us than unwritten and unread.

Main picture: Terry Pratchett at a book signing in 2007, letting a young fan wear his hat. Photo by Robin Zebrowski, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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