April 18, 2017
Why You MUST Hire a Developmental Editor
If you’re a first-time novelist as I was – or a first-timer at writing anything you want published – you must hire a developmental editor or literary consultant to provide you with feedback on your completed first draft. Even established writers could benefit and learn from a good independent editor, as they could be making the same mistakes over and over again and are unaware of it.
When I sat down and began writing my first book, I knew I had a good story, or “hook”. However, as a debut novelist, I really didn’t understand some of the mechanics of how to construct a full-length book. Yes, I read a lot, and have during my entire lifetime, and some of the lesser books I read got me thinking “I could do this, and perhaps do it better”. But if you’re reading good books, the mechanics are seamless and not necessarily noticeable.
In an earlier blog I mentioned attending the Willamette Writer’s Conference, where I met with literary agents and pitched my novel’s concept. One of those agents gave me the name and contact information for Selina McLemore, an experienced developmental editor who had recently moved from New York to my hometown of Portland. The agent said “Call her. You’ll be glad you did.”
That was the understatement of my year. Before moving to Portland and establishing herself as an independent editor and consultant, Selina worked for twelve years in the publishing business in New York, including more than six years as a senior editor at Grand Central Publishing, a subsidiary of the Hachette Book Group, one of the largest publishing companies in the world. She’s also worked for HarperCollins, another big player in the industry, so she knows what gets published and why (and, more importantly, why not).
She ripped my first draft to shreds.
My protagonist – who I plan to write a series around – was weak, and didn’t lead the crime investigation. I was trying to make him nice, so y’all would love him, but the result was he was too wimpy. And, I gave you readers almost 40 pages of backstory on him upfront so you would understand him. Ugh. I didn’t get into my story fast enough, and I didn’t tell it in proper order. The dialogue was terrific (!), but the wrong characters were saying the best stuff, not to mention solving the crime.
There was positive feedback too. My setting is atmospheric and well-rendered, most of the characters feel real, the story is all there, and my writing is clean.
I’m old enough to realize that I don’t know everything about everything, and so, I took Selina’s constructive criticism and made my book better. It helped that she is so delightful to work with. Her evaluation of my manuscript was thorough and intelligent. Yes, some of it was difficult to read, but I never doubted that she was all about helping me make my book the best it could be. Without her guidance, I would have embarrassed myself sending my first draft out to agents.
Now, as I’m about to finish incorporating Selina’s story-shaping ideas into my second draft, I know I’ve improved my craft, and my book has a better shot at being published. I got lucky in finding Selina, but how should you go about finding the right developmental editor to help you? Following are some do’s and don’ts from Selina. If you want to talk with her, contact her at email@example.com:
Do ask for her professional experience. Most editors are quick to say they’ve worked in publishing for however-many years, but “working in publishing” can mean a multitude of different things. Did she work as an acquisitions editor? Was she a production editor? Was she in publicity or marketing? Does she have a specialty in any particular genre? What does she know about self-publishing? Is she a published author herself?
One professional history isn’t necessarily more relevant than another, but knowing an editor’s background can help you find the editor who is best for you. If your goal is to sell to a traditional publisher you might prefer an editor who has recently worked for one. Or, if you want to go the indie route, you might prefer someone with a heavier marketing background, or someone with personal experience navigating that path as an author.
Do ask her to explain her process. Never assume that your experience with a developmental editor will be identical to your friend’s or to that of someone in your writing group. Every editor—and every book she works on—is unique. Most editors have their own standard process and the degree to which they are willing or able to tailor that process to your specific needs varies.
Always ask an editor to describe her process to you. How does she send you notes? What is her timeframe for completing the edit? How does she handle questions you have after you receive your notes? It’s okay to ask an editor to do something a little differently if you feel you need it—she might say no, but it’s still okay to ask-- but do so up front, before any work begins, so that everyone is on the same page.
Don’t fall for false guarantees. Over the years, I’ve heard editors promise authors that hiring them will lead to a publishing contract or get them signed by an agent. It makes me furious. There is no sure thing in publishing, and anyone with actual experience in the industry knows that. If an editor tells you that working with her is a guaranteed path to publication, tell her you’re ready to sign—so long as she’s also willing to guarantee a 100% refund if that book deal doesn’t happen.
The best reason to work with a developmental editor is to improve your craft. The right editor can help you unlock your story’s full potential and help you become the writer you want to be.
To Selina’s advice I would only add that you should like and respect your editor. For one thing, life is too short to work with people you don’t like, and two, the criticism would be hard to take if she was mean. Our relationship worked because we are both direct and honest, but with an element of kindness. In fact, the single thing I can think of about Selina that bothers me is that she’s a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan.
But nobody’s perfect.
Coming next time: What to Plant In Your Spring Vegetable Garden (or something about the writing process; I haven’t decided yet).