Using an editor? Two questions so you don’t shoot the messenger

Two major reasons why authors might get angry after a critique report from an independent editor

I thoroughly enjoy the final stages of writing a critique for an author client. I’ve digested their novel, I know what’s ticking nicely and what isn’t. It’s even more exciting when I know they have the skill, the insight, the ear for language and the sensitivity for story and character. That if they solve the remaining problems, their novel will really set sail.

But often I know I’m going to get an email telling me, probably at great length, that I’m wrong. That the novel doesn’t need any more work. Even, wanting me to change my mind and agree with them.

I’m not talking about changes to make a work more commercial. I don’t tend to suggest those anyway; they are usually as much about fashion as craft. A novel takes so long to get right that by the time you submit it, boy wizards, time travel, vampires and vector botany will all be gone to the pulping machine in the sky. Yes, even vector botany, which as far as I know hasn’t happened yet.

And I’m not talking about perfectly understandable disappointment or sensitivity. While I’m always honest, I’m never brutal. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have heartfelt stories raked over. I get notes from agents and editors too.

And of course I check before I accept a client that I understand their aims as a writer, so I don’t give advice that’s way off kilter.

What I am talking about is a vibe from the client that makes me certain that when they open my report they’re going to shoot the messenger – with both barrels.

Now, though, I’ve learned to spot them, so I test them with the following questions.

1 – Have you allowed time for rewrites?

Often the writer is angry with me because they thought the book was fit to submit, give or take a few light edits. Or that they could hit self-publish.

The second question is more complex.

2 – Is your book based on traumatic events that happened to you?

Some people start writing a novel as therapy. That can be a recipe for a self-indulgent, unreadable book. But many writers produce works of astounding power from their own traumas.

If they have unresolved issues with some of the subject matter, or the rotters they are writing about, it often comes across as flaws in the book. I quite often find passages where the writer still needs to unravel more, to step back and examine. There are places that are stridently defensive, or characters who are treated with jarring harshness, whereas elsewhere the reader is allowed to make up their mind whether they like someone or approve of their behaviour. (I’m not saying this never works, indeed such blindness and fury can be heartbreaking. And if it is, I leave well alone…)

If a client is writing about personal traumas, I warn them that, in acting as the book’s advocate, I may make some criticisms that could touch a nerve. But I’m doing what they asked for, to help them make the book as good as it deserves to be.

Before you give a manuscript to a professional editor, obviously try to finish it and polish. But – here’s the conundrum – expect it probably isn’t finished at all. In particular, don’t make a deadline for sending it out afterwards. Expect that you might need to take a good few months to tweak, re-evaluate and rewrite.

When you ask for an editor’s help, they want you to write the best book you can. Allow the space and time to do that, mentally, temporally, physically and emotionally.

(Thank you, Bedford Street, for the picture)

Have you used editors? Do you offer this service yourself? Share your experiences in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Doug Lance on May 15, 2011 - 6:51 pm

    As an editor, it is tough to work with beginning authors who have great personal stake in what they write about. Tears are a frequent occurrence, like writing is a type of therapy for them. I was that way too long ago, but I got over it and moved on. My writing matured as did the writer behind the words.

    • #2 by rozmorris on May 15, 2011 - 7:45 pm

      I well remember a client shrieking ‘But that’s what really happened!’ when I ventured to comment on a sensitive scene. We do mature, certainly, once we learn to make art out of our experiences. And it’s very rewarding to help people to make that transformation.

  2. #3 by Zelah on May 15, 2011 - 7:10 pm

    Interesting to hear from an editor’s point of view Roz. :)

    Something I’m curious about is, if someone is sending something to an editor for a plot edit, does it need to be line edited first?

    I ask because I plan to get my other half to do my line editing (maybe with my mother doing a secondary proof read if she’ll agree to it!) However, I’m going to need to hire someone to take a look at the plots and I was wondering how polished the finished drafts ought to be in terms of grammar before they go out to a plot editor?

    • #4 by rozmorris on May 15, 2011 - 7:49 pm

      Hi Zelah! I’ve never heard of a ‘plot editor’ but if you are asking someone to look just at your outline, why not send a detailed synopsis if the manuscript isn’t yet ready? Although it might be a false economy. If an editor reads your novel in as finished a form as possible, they might find problems and issues you never dreamed were there. If you show them only the plot, they might never see how it works with the characters, for instance.

      • #5 by Zelah on May 15, 2011 - 7:57 pm

        Hiya, I called it a plot editor as I’m not sure what you’d call it!

        Basically, once I’m happy that I’ve got my work as polished as I can make it through self-editing, I’d like to get a professional editor to look for any bits that need work.

        I won’t be looking for someone to correct grammar & spelling, just to pick up any spots I’ve missed.

        I haven’t considered sending it out prior to self-editing, because there are patches that I can see for myself need work & I’d rather pay someone to spot the stuff I don’t see rather than the stuff I do!

        Would you suggest sending work to someone before I’ve improved it? I’m concerned that important things could get missed while listing obvious points if I do that – but then I’ve never done this before!

        • #6 by rozmorris on May 15, 2011 - 8:09 pm

          Zelah, it’s probably best to get someone to look at the entire manuscript – although some editors will work piecemeal on just outlines and summaries. Don’t worry too much about the spelling and grammar (especially if you have a willing Paul on hand to help), because you’re probably going to have to change a lot more than a few cosmetic details. But try to get the story and characters and the voice as true as you can. If those are too rough, the editor might not be able to judge it properly.

          • #7 by Zelah on May 15, 2011 - 8:35 pm

            Cheers Roz, that’s a relief (for Paul as well I imagine!)

          • #8 by Victoria Mixon on May 16, 2011 - 4:32 pm

            If you don’t mind me jumping in here, Roz, I do all three types of editing (copy, line, & developmental), so I think I get Zelah’s asking.

            Don’t pay for a line edit before you get the developmental edit done. That’s a waste of money. When I do both, I do the developmental edit first, work out all the kinks with the writer, and only then do the line edit to polish the language of the story in its final shape.

            This means, for example, that you’d hire Roz to do a developmental edit/critique on your ms and find a line editor afterward. Unless Roz does line editing—do you, Roz?

            And, as she suggests, it is perfectly fine to have a developmental edit done on your synopsis. It’s much cheaper to start there and make sure your building blocks are properly aligned before moving on to deeper edits.

            The issue of grammar and punctuation you mention is copy editing, and that’s what agents mean when they say, “You don’t need an editor!” Well, you don’t need a proofreader. But you really ought to know grammar and punctuation well enough to do your copy editing for yourself.

            • #9 by Zelah on May 16, 2011 - 4:51 pm

              Hi Victoria,

              Thanks for that, yes, it’s a developmental edit that I’ll be looking for when I’ve knocked my books in to shape. Thanks for putting a name to it!

    • #10 by tahliaN on May 15, 2011 - 11:56 pm

      I hired a professional to do a ms appraisal fairly early on. She just looked at the big things, plot, characterisation etc it cost me $550 and was totally worth it because after I worked from her suggestions I knew I had something basically good to refine. If I’d asked for a full edit at that stage, there would have been so much for someone to feedback on that it would have cost me heaps, so I think a ms appraisal is a good start, cheaper than an edit. You can then leave the editing until later, when you’ve polished it as much as you can.

      I paid an editor $75 for one hour of work and she didn’t finish my first chapter, so with 24 chapters, the cost of doing the whole book is going to be around $2000, but if I end up self publishing I’ll do it.

  3. #11 by Stacy Green on May 15, 2011 - 7:19 pm

    Roz, are you reading my mind? As you know, we’ve had this discussion before, and I would love to employ your services, but cost is an unfortunate issue when it comes to having the entire novel looked at. I did have a 25 page critique with a different editor (prior to our conversation) and was happy with the overall results. There were lots of changes and questions, but that’s what I was looking for.

    I’m fully aware that even after I complete the second draft, fresh eyes will still need to go over it, probably more than once. We have one shot at impressing our audience, be it an agent, editor, or e-book reader, so we’ve got to make sure all of our steps our covered.

    I know an editor is essential, but what are some cost-effective alternatives? And what’s the real difference between a critique partner and beta reader?

    Thanks, and great post as always!

    • #12 by rozmorris on May 15, 2011 - 7:54 pm

      Hi Stacy – you’re right, we only have one shot! Editing certainly isn’t cheap, because it is time-intensive and also because you are paying for the editor’s considerable experience.

      Alternatives? Certainly critique partners and beta readers can be very helpful.I think the difference between them is that critique partners would expect you to give feedback on their work too, perhaps in small chunks as you go along. Beta readers tend to be willing volunteers who read the whole manuscript when you think you’re done with it. And they’d probably like it if you’d do the same for them…

      • #13 by Stacy Green on May 15, 2011 - 7:56 pm

        That’s what I was figuring. I do have a critique partner of sorts, she’s a reading/writing professor and is a huge asset. But she’s also only one set of eyes and always busy. I’m going to start setting back money for a full edit, but in the meantime I will look into those alternatives. Thanks!

  4. #14 by Ollin on May 15, 2011 - 7:23 pm

    Very interesting. I saw this poetry/performance showcase last night with various young performers. All their performances were about their ex’s or some sort of traumatic experience that happened.

    But it didn’t feel like I was watching art, it felt like I was at an open therapy session. Now I don’t particularly blame these performers, I think it is good to have an outlet, but what worries me is people mistaking art with therapy. I mean, art can be “therapeutic” but it is no substitute for a PROFESSIONAL therapist working you through your issues. And we all have our own issues to deal with.

    Just to add to your point: I would strongly deter people from seeking art as a SUBSTITUTE for therapy. Certainly there are “certified art therapists” but they are certified – that means they are professionals. You can’t give counseling to yourself, nor can your friends or family do this by simply watching you wax poetical with painful lyrics.

    And I also think that simply expressing pain isn’t art, it’s all about what that pain says about humanity and must somehow push us closer towards universal healing.

    Anyways, that’s just my two cents. Thanks Roz!

    • #15 by rozmorris on May 15, 2011 - 7:56 pm

      Interesting indeed, Ollin.This is why I’ve learned to ask that question!

    • #16 by tahliaN on May 15, 2011 - 11:48 pm

      I totally agree with you Ollin

  5. #17 by Dave Morris on May 15, 2011 - 7:33 pm

    I was recently talking to somebody who wants to branch out his business from mobile games to epublishing. Some original novels had been submitted to him by several authors (some of them previously published) but I had to advise him that it’s not as simple as just pouring the text into digital format and sticking it in the Kindle store. Even an experienced author needs to schedule extra work with a professional fiction editor to get the kinks in their story ironed out. Reckon on typically a man-month for this, though it can be a lot more. The snag, of course, is that there are a lot fewer good fiction editors in the world than there are authors.

    • #18 by rozmorris on May 15, 2011 - 8:03 pm

      Agreed! People who haven’t been through the conventional publishing process don’t realise how much goes on behind the scenes to get a book perfect.
      And as publishers do less and less of this work, the onus is on authors to get the book more polished before it’s ever submitted. And if an author is thinking of self-publishing, it’s all down to the author to get expert help and to make time for the work involved.

  6. #19 by Zelah on May 15, 2011 - 7:39 pm

    I actually think it’s risky working with any real-life events unless you can distance yourself from them. Otherwise there is a temptation to stay true to what happened in reality, which may not work on the page.

    Also, truth often is indeed stranger than fiction and it can be hard to make the reader believe that what you saw happen in reality is actually happening to your character. Unless you weave it in very skillfully. People will expect it to flow as part of the story – and real life doesn’t always flow, sometimes it jars. I’ve had things happen in real life that nobody would believe could happen to a character – and I’m sure I’m not the only one!

    • #20 by rozmorris on May 15, 2011 - 8:03 pm

      Absolutely, Zelah. Real life makes rotten narrative.

  7. #21 by randigfine on May 15, 2011 - 10:00 pm

    When I had the manuscript of my memoir, my first book, edited, the advice given to me brought my story to life. She brought out points of view of the reader that I had failed to see because I was too close to the story. Based on that criitique I went back and reevaluated the entire manuscript and made many changes. Then I had that manuscript edited by a different set of eyes and rewrote the manuscript again. I had been advised that when a writer feels their book is ready for publishing, they should expect to give it another 6 months to a year before it is truly ready. That was absolutely the case for me. The finished product is something I am very proud of and could not have achieved from only my point of view.

    • #22 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:17 am

      Hi Randi! That sounds like quite a journey you went on – congratulations for your persistence and for getting there in the end. A good editor should make you feel like you’ve written the book you really wanted to write – but didn’t know how to!

  8. #23 by tahliaN on May 15, 2011 - 11:46 pm

    After thinking my ms was finished several times and later realising that it wasn’t, I figure it’s best not to think like that anymore. If I get a publisher, they’ll give me an editor who will prove it’s not finished, so I’m prepared for that. If I self publish I’ll hire my own and the same can happen. I figure that a book can always be better and A writers perception of their own work is always flawed. http://tahlianewland.com/2011/05/10/why-an-author%e2%80%99s-perception-of-their-work-is-inherently-flawed/

    • #24 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:19 am

      Good plan, Tahlia – and good luck.

  9. #25 by Daniel R. Marvello on May 16, 2011 - 12:00 am

    Hi Roz.

    Your post strikes close to an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: time for rewrites. I’ve set myself a goal of launching my novel at the end of January 2012. To reach that goal, I’ve been working backwards through a calendar, planning time for all of the steps that must be completed to make it happen.

    One of my conundrums has been the timing of certain steps. I was thinking I would finish the first draft and then release my second draft for critique in parts as I finished them. I’d produce a third draft using feedback from the critique and submit that to an editor. The final manuscript would incorporate the editor’s recommendations.

    However, there’s a lot I don’t know. How long does it usually take an editor to get through an 80K manuscript? Can I schedule the edit in advance so I know exactly when it will take place? I’m planning for a month of manuscript review and three weeks of post-review edits. Is that reasonable or insane? I know it depends upon what the review turns up, but surely there must be some precedent or average for this kind of thing.

    Your insight would be appreciated!

    • #26 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:24 am

      Hi Daniel
      Good question about timings. Most editors I know allow 6 weeks to turn a manuscript around, although you may get it back from them faster. But they should tell you when you book them how long they expect to take.

      Yes, you usually can schedule them – but I get a lot of enquiries from clients who swear they’ll have a ms ready in a month and then two months later haven’t finished it enough to show it to me! What I actually have to do is tell everyone ‘the first person who gets a ms to me gets a slot!’

      I think you need to schedule a lot longer than 3 weeks for your revisions. Of course, sometimes very little needs to be done to a ms. But often the editor’s recommendations are much wider and deeper than the writer thought (which is why the editor’s feedback is so valuable) and 3 weeks is not enough time to make that kind of change.

      • #27 by Daniel R. Marvello on May 16, 2011 - 1:51 pm

        Thanks, Roz. That’s exactly the kind of editorial feedback I needed!

        I completely understand regarding “first come, first served.” I do the same thing with my consulting clients. They don’t get scheduled until they pull the trigger on the project. Until then, I consider them a “be back” (as in “I’ll be back”, which is sometimes untrue).

        You can’t very well set aside time in your schedule for a project that may never happen.

        • #28 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 3:02 pm

          That’s all we can do, Daniel. And it’s not that clients are unreliable – their projects are taking them to uncharted quarters.

  10. #29 by Jeffrey Russell on May 16, 2011 - 1:33 am

    I use an editor, and would have it no other way. She asked me once, for a survey, or blogpost of one sort or another- I don’t remember, exactly – but she asked my opinion of why editing is a good idea. I listed the adage “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

    Clarence Darrow is one of the most successful, famous lawyers in US history. He was once a defendant himself, and he hired a lawyer to defend him.

  11. #33 by Mark Feggeler on May 16, 2011 - 3:21 am

    I’ve never had my fiction edited (as I have yet to finish drafting my first WIP), but I did work as a newspaper reporter for several years. It was a tremendously educational and humbling experience. Fortunately, for me and my managing editor, I can’t recall ever taking umbrage at her changes or suggestions. I always understood her purpose was to sand off the rough bits and keep our grammatical slips and typos from getting in the way of the stories we were trying to tell. Proper criticism should never be taken personally. Accept it as one does advice from friends or relatives — listen, consider, then make your best decision.

    • #34 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:28 am

      Hi Mark – criticism is much more than grammatical details and typos, of course. And novels are a much more emotional medium than journalistic pieces – which is why criticism can seem to cut deeper. But the underlying principle is just as you say – to make sure nothing gets in the way of the reader and the story.

  12. #35 by Joanna on May 16, 2011 - 3:43 pm

    I’ve worked as an editor for about 5 years but always for the publisher. I view it as my job to praise the good bits, offer suggestions (which I have lots of experience in from working at a children’s packager), move things around and suggest what should be deleted. I’m not your mother. Yes I’ll say what’s good and yes I’ll deliver critiques with tact and suggest alternatives, but if they don’t want to make any changes and don’t want to make their novel better I don’t know why they’re hiring an editor in the first place. Confusing. I’m planning to start offering my editorial services to authors. I think making sure thy author is ready for a relatively heavy hand will be crucial.

    • #36 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 10:18 pm

      Hi Joanna – I’ve worked with book packagers too and they’re generally very good at giving guidance to authors. Nice to see you here – and good luck with the freelancing.

  13. #37 by Sally on May 16, 2011 - 4:03 pm

    Hi Roz,

    Weird that you should post about editing now. I’m very near the end of my novel and as someone who has edited for others before (though not for fiction) I’m absolutely terririfed of sending it off to an independent editor. I’m not scared of constructive criticism but like the poster above has said, time is what’s bothering me. I’ve spent so long editing already … could I bear to find out (after x number of weeks) that what I have done is so far off-whack that I might have to spend another x months more? I’ve had plenty of validation for my non-fiction. I know I’m good at it – from an editorial perspective. But my fiction – well, that’s an entirely different ball game, and no one has ever laid eyes on it (other than one family member but that obviously doesn’t count). Why do I get the feeling you’ll advise me to send it off anyway? :)

    • #38 by Sally on May 16, 2011 - 4:06 pm

      Wow, I’m even more terrified than I thought … “terririfed”! lol!

    • #39 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:36 pm

      You answered your own question, Sally… wise girl.

  14. #40 by Alexander M Zoltai on May 16, 2011 - 4:31 pm

    Being a very poor military veteran, I made a deal with a Lit. Grad. Student–edit my book and you get an Acknowledgement in the book.

    I was only looking for spelling/grammar/etc.

    She took on the whole role and gave me both barrels but it didn’t hurt at all–I’d totally lucked-out and found a kindred soul :-)

    • #41 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:38 pm

      What a wonderful way to make a friend – although you have to be remarkably in tune for it not to go badly wrong… Glad you lucked out, Alexander.

  15. #42 by Zelah on May 16, 2011 - 4:48 pm

    The thing that is terrifying me the most is the amount it is going to cost me to self-publish four books at the same time (which sounds like the best bet if I want people to find my work). I hadn’t researched how much editing would cost until this post!

    I did some quick Googling last night & the results were scary. I knew it would be pricey but had underestimated exactly how pricey!

    At least I know I can have the copy-editing side of things covered for free, so I’m more fortunate than many. I do see though now why so many people self publish without a professional edit!

    I’ll console myself with the knowledge that it could cost a similarly gulp-inducing sum to put on a show at the Edinburgh festival & there you only have four weeks to make your money back or minimise your losses!

    • #43 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:41 pm

      Zelah, yes it’s not terribly cheap, I’m afraid. But no professional help is. What you have to consider is how long that money you’ve spent is going to last – like a cost-per-wear analysis. Usually I end up giving the client several months’ worth of work to do – and not only that, what they learn lasts them for a lifetime.

      Nice analogy with the Edinburgh festival! I suppose in most ways, writing is the cheapest artform.

  16. #44 by Victoria Mixon on May 16, 2011 - 4:50 pm

    I love your questions, Roz! They remind me of Anne Lamott’s story about calling up her publisher’s editor after receiving a very kind but heartbreaking rejection of an ms (for which she’d already spent the advance). She told the editor she was on her way over, and she imagined the editor wanting to say, “And will you be bringing your knives?”

    What do you do if you ask a client these questions and the answer is, “Yes”?

    I also want to reiterate what Ollin said, above, because it’s so true: “Simply expressing pain isn’t art, it’s all about what that pain says about humanity and must somehow push us closer towards universal healing.”

    • #45 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:45 pm

      I love Anne Lamott.

      As for if a client answers ‘yes’ – if they’ve allowed time for rewrites I tell them to be realistic and allow several months.

      If the book is based on traumatic real events, I give them a pep talk about how I’m looking at it as a work of art, not of therapy, and that if they’re okay with that we’ll rock. I’ve had some great relationships with writers of very harrowing personal stories as a result. Often their courage is humbling.

      If the answer is ‘no’…. I’m quite good at scaring them away… :)

      • #46 by Jason Black on May 16, 2011 - 8:45 pm

        I haven’t used your two questions myself–yet, anyway–but I fully intend to. Great idea.

        In my own editing practice, I can’t say as I’ve really run into the situation where my spidey-sense tells me that someone isn’t ready to accept deep, constructive criticism of their work and yet still hires me.

        Usually, what happens is that prospective clients come to me all a-bubble, looking for “a quick edit” before they shoot off the queries or sign up with CreateSpace. But usually, when I explain to them that “a quick edit” can be a copy edit, a line edit, or a developmental edit, and what all three of those things mean, and why none of them are really all that quick, and why it’s a really good idea to begin with a developmental edit, then they either say “Oh. You’re right. I never thought of it that way but a developmental edit does sound like the place to start.” Implicit in that is an admission that they’re going to do something substantive with the feedback I give them.

        Rarely have I had anybody receive that little “caveat emptor” talk and still say “yeah, but really I just want a line edit.” When they do, hey, who am I not to give them the best line edit I can?

        What has happened more often than I’d care to admit, though, are clients who sign up for the developmental edit, but for whom my spidey-sense DOESN’T tip me off that they’re not serious about it. That they’re 100% certain their underlying story is guaranteed Pulitzer/Orange prize material.

        When those people get my feedback, I imagine it’s rather an upsetting shock to them.

        Usually I know this is the case because I just never hear back from them. By the time I’m done with their book, I know I’ve got a hard message to deliver to them, and I’m pretty sure they’re not going to like it, and when I receive the client’s final payment without a word of acknowledgement of anything, that kind of confirms it. I always feel bad in those cases that I didn’t figure out earlier what kind of client I was dealing with, so I could have set their expectations more realistically.

        Only once have I had a client come back and rant at me in e-mail. It was clear she wasn’t interested in making any substantive changes to her story, no matter how amazingly haphazard her overall story structure and writing craft were. I was all “then why did you hire me?”

        It’s so, so hard not to rise to the bait in that situation. I think I composed and then deleted about three replies to her before settling on a short reply to address two specific issues in the book she was arguing about, to remind her that she got exactly what she paid for. And she did. I gave her detailed, in depth feedback on what was working and not working in her novel. I hope she can eventually step back from her emotional attachment to the work and see what I was talking about.

        I can have some hope that this might happen. Just recently, I heard back from a client whose book I had worked on about 18 months ago. Another one whose book was a mess (and was a memoir), who had gone quiet on me after receiving my report. She called me up to say “I don’t think I was ready to hear what you had to say back then, but I’ve worked hard on the book since then, I’ve really studied some writing craft, so can we have a do-over?” That was pretty rewarding, and I really do look forward to seeing her book again. The experiences she was relating were pretty darned interesting, and I’m eager to see whether they read better now than they did 18 months ago.

        • #47 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 9:43 pm

          Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jason! There are some clients who are miffed when they find that they might have to do a lot of hard work afterwards. But generally I’ve found that if they genuinely understand I want to help them, we have a positive relationship. It may take a while, though, for ruffled feathers to smooth down (no pun intended..).

  17. #48 by Dawn on May 16, 2011 - 6:06 pm

    As someone who writes (I’ve never been published), a friend once got someone in the publishing business to comment on the book I was working on and the way I had proposed it to publishers. I was after feedback about what the main problem was (proposal, plot, quality of writing, etc).

    The comments I got were: “the book itself is what needs the work, not the proposal” and “Perhaps advise her to read some Stephen King: a master at introducing the supernatural story line into every day affairs. Dawn’s approach is too abrupt. We have to believe In Juliet’s psychic ability straight away, it’s breathless, there is no suspension of disbelief.”

    Thing is, for me these weren’t so much an issue of work as a difference of opinion about what it was I was trying to write in the first place. My book was deliberately written so that it started by establishing the supernatural as I wanted to explore the issues around that rather than being remotely interested in the “is it/isn’t it supernatural?” slow creep. I find the suspense of disbelief style doesn’t interest me as it’s been done (by Stephen King(!) and many, many others). What I wanted was a book for people who read/watched/etc a great deal of supernatural genre in the first place and were interested in following a story where that was taken as read. Sort of like Heroes (which came out several years later) and its kind.

    Because I didn’t have direct access to the person in question, it was quite frustrating not to be able to go back and ask. Whether the answer would have been “what you’re writing won’t sell it’s too specialised” or “but even though you don’t want that sort of suspense it’s what your reader will want” or “Oh, thought that was what you were going for from your proposal – the latter is wrong”, I would have been interested. However, the feedback as it stood was useless to me as it was telling me how to write a genre sub-type I wasn’t trying to write.

    • #49 by rozmorris on May 16, 2011 - 7:48 pm

      Dawn, that sounds frustrating. When you pay an editor, you do get to ask questions like that – it’s part of the deal. We’re supposed to help you write the book, not leave you confused.

  18. #50 by Dave Morris on May 16, 2011 - 7:19 pm

    The first novel I ever worked on was a full rewrite of a concept by a TV producer. The (freelance) editor hired by the publisher had written a brilliant critique that pretty much halved my workload. That sort of developmental editing is rarely provided to untested authors these days, by publishers at any rate – but agents do it still, which is one reason why anyone contemplating self- publishing should get an agent first. The undeveloped early work even of writers like F Scott Fitzgerald does not bear looking at. If you can’t afford to pay a fee for an editor to help with the second draft, another possibility is cutting them in on a percentage. Most won’t go for that ( if they’re taking a risk, they’ll save it for their own writing) but you could return the favor?

  19. #51 by Zelah on May 16, 2011 - 11:21 pm

    Alan Marriott used to talk in impro classes about how people had both an internal and external status (bear with me, there’s a point to this!) These aren’t always the same.

    He said that when someone speaks to you, you react first emotionally (internal status) and then logically (externally). Hence the phrase “acted without thinking” – reacting to something emotionally rather than logically.

    The statuses come in to it because, if you said to someone with a low internal status “You’re rubbish!” they would think “Am I rubbish? Perhaps I am?” If you said it to someone with a high internal status, they’d think “How dare you!” They might both reply “No I’m not.” but they would be coming from different places. If someone is perceptive then they would read (and perhaps react to) the initial emotional response.

    Whether the writer tends to a low or high internal status, I think they need to read the critique in private and react to it emotionally before taking a deep breath and looking at it without that first flush of feelings. That’s why I’m glad to hear the editors here refer to sending out the results in writing. I would much rather read the feedback, take it in and then discuss it with my editor once I’d had five seconds to get over that initial blow of hearing changes need to be made.

    Of course changes will need to be made & that is why you get your work edited. I think yes, it would be lovely to hear that your work is great just as it is – but the most important thing is to get it to a state where it actually is great – and that is where the edits come in. I guess the period it takes for the writer to move away from the initial emotional response varies from person to person – and other factors such as the ones Roz listed, can prolong things.

    • #52 by rozmorris on May 17, 2011 - 2:51 pm

      Wise observations indeed, Zelah. And that’s why I would always rather give my critiques in writing – to allow the author to digest them at their own pace.

      There’s another reason too. People don’t remember complex points if they are explained in person. They also don’t see the areas that were praised. If they have a written report they can go back to it and see 1) exactly what was said and 2) that it’s not all bad!

  20. #53 by Dave Morris on May 17, 2011 - 2:16 pm

    Many’s the time Roz has told me about the cherished opus of some aspiring writer that she has to critique, and I always think they’ll be knocked for six when she gives them what for. Yet they always come back with something like: “I read your comments and at first I was devastated, but then I started to see how I can make this book a lot better thanks to your guidance.” The art of gently but firmly pointing out mistakes and showing the way to fix them is possibly rarer than the skill of spotting what’s wrong with a manuscript in the first place. This is why really good editors are so hard to find. They have to be perceptive, analytical, creative, literate – and above all considerate of authors’ tender feelings!

  21. #54 by rozmorris on May 17, 2011 - 5:16 pm

    One of the things I’ve noticed in this business is that we all have our terms for the different stages. What some agents call copy editing others will call line editing. Over the years I’ve developed my own terms for all these stages so that they are absolutely clear to clients, and just to be sure the client knows what they’re getting I explain them.
    It’s interesting to see these terms being used by other editors as though they are gospel. Although the stages of the process are roughly the same, the terms editors use aren’t set in stone. Each editor invents their own and has their own definitions. If you’re using an editor, ask them to clarify exactly what they are going to do for you and what they’re not!

    • #55 by Victoria Mixon on May 17, 2011 - 6:56 pm

      I do this too, Roz. I believe Shakespeareanism is one of those things you & I have in common. :)

      It would be nice if all editors spoke in terms of the same words for the same things, and one day we probably will. But we don’t yet.

      Years ago, when i was first thinking about going indie, a friend told me her indie editor talked in terms of three levels of editing. I did some research and decided upon the terms that made the most sense to me to describe the three levels as I understand them: copy, line, & developmental. And I stick to them—there’s no need to drag clients through the history and variety of terminology on my end of the work, so long as they get what they need. I define them in my book so writers will know what I mean by them. And I capitalize them in my book and on my blog, just to train writers to think clearly in terms of the differences.

      But of course substantative is the more traditional industry term for developmental, and, as Zelah mentioned above, this can also be thought of in terms of “plot editing.” Even Robert Gottlieb calls line editing copyediting (it would probably never occur to him that a serious novelist might submit copy to an editor to be edited line-by-line that wasn’t already grammatically correct).

      I’ve had a client query me at length over the difference between my Abbreviated Developmental Edit and a Critique, although really there is no difference except that I prefer the term developmental. You & I do the same work on those jobs. You just do it with a charming British accent.

      I’ve made up terms, too, for techniques I’ve learned from studying the work of great novelists. Sometimes it’s flattering to see them come back to me from unexpected quarters—and sometimes it’s simply odd.

  22. #56 by Ted Cross on May 20, 2011 - 1:31 pm

    Structural help is what I need, but I can’t see paying a bunch of money to an editor unless it’s one that really gets me and my work, and how can one ensure that before going forward with an editor? It’s a tough world.

  23. #58 by doreen on July 4, 2011 - 2:55 am

    It must have been my training working with really tough editors at a newspaper that made working with my editor a breeze. I made every change she suggested…I thought about arguing a few points but she was right. The only suggestion she gave that I adamantly refused was changing the title. The cover designer sided with me on that one!

    • #59 by rozmorris on July 4, 2011 - 7:06 am

      Interesting point, Doreen. I was also a journalist first, so when a fiction editor gave me my first notes I was used to the situation. Certain other professions prepare you for it too – one of my clients is an actor and loves my reports on her work. She says nothing is as bad as working with frazzled West End directors!

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