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 firstname.lastname@example.org:
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).
So, it turns out that writing a book is hard. Difficult. Really hard. But I did it, and it seems that I did some things right and some things wrong. Following is a user’s guide for you if you are contemplating having 2017 be your year to write a book.
I did two things right from the get-go. First, I had a terrific idea for my book’s concept. A real-life murder decades ago in my home county was the loose inspiration for the book’s story. I say “loose” because other than my novel’s setting, the story quickly diverged from the real case. But because I was familiar with the territory – people, geography, culture, weather – the writing of the first draft was, dare I say it, easy. Story comes first.
The second thing I did right before I began my work was to read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Aside from the highly entertaining account of King’s life, his advice and “how to” on the craft of writing proved invaluable to this novice. My primary takeaways from his practical advice were to:
“On Writing” is loaded with tons of other writing advice and inspiration. Don’t even think about turning on your laptop until you’ve read it.
One thing I did wrong was not read other great books on the craft of writing. Here are two more I wish I had read before I wrote my book instead of after: Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel” and Robert McKee’s “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting”. Even though McKee’s book is technically for screenwriters, his writing advice can also be adapted for novelists. Both of these books helped me when I started my rewrite. You should read them before you start.
What else did I do right along my journey? I attended the Willamette Writer’s Conference in Portland, three days of unrivaled knowledge, inspiration, and networking. I was only two-thirds of the way through my first draft at the time of the conference, and hated to spend the money (it’s not inexpensive). Looking back now, I realize I wouldn’t be anywhere near as far along on this process as I am if I had skipped this conference.
Not only did I make contact with five literary agents who expressed interest in my story, I also got a lead on a developmental editor in my hometown, whose hiring was the single most important thing I did correctly (more on that coming in my next blog). Add to those crucial contacts, the workshops that seemed to be specifically designed for what I needed to know precisely at that point in time, and being inspired by successful writers from all over the country, and, well, it was the best investment in my new career I could have made.
What did I do wrong? You’re waiting for this, I know. Several things, but none – thankfully – turned out to be unfixable.
I made one “new writer” mistake that, as I now know, almost every new novelist makes: Info dumping. Instead of jumping right into my plot action, I spent wayyyy too many pages giving the reader the complete backstory on my protagonist. I wanted you, dear reader, to love him as much as I do. But I have now learned that the correct way to introduce readers to your main characters is to layer in their backstories a little at a time. Introduce your plot action, your characters, and their conflicts in chapter 1, but dribble out their backstories until you’re at least halfway through your story.
My other mistake was to take a lengthy break from writing when I was approximately halfway through my first draft. It was brought on by real life demands, but still. Stephen King was right: Write every day and keep your story momentum going. I lost my mojo, and it took me a while to find it again. I’m finishing the second draft of "The Port Stirling Murder" now, and will soon start the second book in my series. It's my intention to write every day if at all possible.
I will still have time to attend to my life, including, most importantly, planting my spring vegetable garden. Peas are in the ground; spinach and lettuce this weekend!
COMING NEXT: “Why you MUST hire a developmental editor for your debut novel”. Yes, I’m looking at you.