Book doctors: Rx for your writing
Published: December 13, 2001
|If your book is ailing, you may need a doctor for a thorough diagnosis|
Our writer knew what was right with his novel—good characters and a good plot—but he didn't know how to fix what ailed it. He got the cure from a good book doctor and describes what he learned. To read the article, see the February 2002 issue.
|FAQ for the doctors|
The following is an interview with three experienced freelance editors, which includes Web-specific content.
Browne, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (HarperCollins), has been an editor for 40 years. She left mainstream publishing (where she was senior editor for William Morrow) in 1978, put together an association of freelance editors, and in 1980 founded The Editorial Department, now headed by her son, Ross Browne. She and Ross are co-authoring an upcoming book on dialogue. Renni lectures on editing and writes pieces on writers and writing for magazines, online publications and public radio.
Gross has been a freelance editor for 14 years. During his career, he created the gothic romance and gothic mystery as paperback categories. He is the editor of Editors on Editing: What Writers Need To Know About What Editors Do, the standard work on trade book editing in our country. He creates and gives presentations on writing and editing at writers conferences and university campuses across the United States.
Stein is a prize-winning playwright on Broadway, an anthologized poet, the author of nine novels, including the million-copy-seller The Magician, plus nonfiction books, screenplays and TV dramas. He is the author of Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel, and has cloned himself in three computer programs for writers: WritePro, FictionMaster and FirstAid for Writers (The WritePro Corporation). He has edited some of the most accomplished or popular writers of our century, including James Baldwin, W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Jack Higgins, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, as well as such famous individuals as F. Lee Bailey and David Frost.
|Where should writers look when they wish to obtain the services of a freelance editor?|
Browne: You can find contact information for hundreds of freelancers in references such as Literary Market Place [available at libraries] or online at sites listing writer resources. But again, check the track record and sample the editor's wares. If you commit to editorial work, do it in stages and make sure you're satisfied with the first stage before proceeding further.
|What do you love to find in a manuscript?|
Stein: Is there an eccentric character who wants something badly, and wants it now, and do I want to spend 12 hours living with that character? Would I want to take that character along on a two-week vacation?
|What are the most common mistakes you see in manuscripts?|
Browne: Succumbing, again and again, to the understandable but so often fatal desire to explain things to the reader; it can be counted on to wreck fiction. By resisting the urge to fill the reader in, you leave space for the reader to "get it." This forges a connection between story and reader that can be incredibly powerful.
Gross: Thin characterizations, unconvincing motivations, stiff dialogue, no forward motion in the narrative, too much detail, not enough care given to pacing, plotting, heavy use of contrivance and coincidence.
Stein: The most common mistake I see in fiction is that not enough is visualized in dramatic scenes, and too much is told in narrative summary that diminishes the experience of the reader. Another common mistake is that the writer is concentrating on getting his story down rather than on what effect each moment is having on the reader.
|What are the responsibilities of the editor in the editor-author relationship?|
Browne: To tell the truth. To work with the author to bring the manuscript to its fullest potential: critiquing, inspiring, suggesting, coaching, line editing-whatever it takes, within the limits of the editor-author agreement. Never to forget the work is the author's, not the editor's.
|How does "line editing" differ from "developmental editing?"|
Gross: Line editing is working on the writer's style, making it say what the writer wants it to say, making it readable and effective and interesting. Developmental editing is shaping the plotting, pacing, characterization, narrative structure of the work.
|What kind of work history and references should a writer look for when soliciting editorial help?|
Stein: A book doctor should have experience as an editor of books that were subsequently published.
|What editing/critiquing resources are available for novice writers, other than professional editorial services?|
Browne: Reading your own work to a writers group, showing it to a friend whose literary tastes are similar to yours, attending a workshop or simply waiting. Staying away from something you've written until a significant amount of time has elapsed may elicit some of the same reactions you'd have if you weren't the author.
Stein: The better writers conferences offer a chance to get responsible comment from more experienced writers.
|What are the most common mistakes that writers make when presenting their work to agents and editors? What lessens their chances for publication?|
Browne: Thinking the second or third or next to the last draft is the last draft. Thinking an agent or publisher's editor is going to help them solve a problem in the manuscript or polish its prose.
Gross: Submitting a single-spaced, hard-to-read manuscript because of too narrow margins and too small a type face, done on dirty, creased paper; poor spelling and grammar.
Stein: Newcomers "dress up" their manuscript, which comes across as "this is from an amateur." Their cover letter should seduce the recipient's curiosity.
|Have you ever felt the need to tell writers that they should pursue a different career path? If so, did you convey those thoughts?|
Browne: I have, and I did. As gently as possible.
|Do you have a general goal that you try to obtain with each project?|
Browne: There's a spark—something special, something different—about the work of every writer whose manuscript I edit. My general goal is to fan the flame, as high as I can.
Photograph of manuscript by William Zuback; manuscript critique provided by Charles R. Davis; photograph of Sol Stein by Peter Kurz