Lorin Oberweger interview: Tapping your story’s full potential

A Q&A with independent editor, author, and former literary agent Lorin Oberweger.

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Author, editor, and story development guru Lorin Oberweger has been a fixture in the writing workshop circuit for more than two decades, serving as a faculty member for events held by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America, and other regional and national writing organizations. Her boutique editing company, Free Expressions, is now in its 25th year of operation, and – in addition to its personalized editing services – offers the popular Breakout Novel Intensives with literary agent Donald Maass, among other workshops. An award-winning writer herself, Lorin has received praise for her book-length fiction and nonfiction from the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, NPR, and elsewhere.

 

What got you interested in the world of writing and books?

Here’s the expected answer – I was always a voracious reader. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t have a book in my hands. Plus, my grandfather was a printer, and I loved paper – the craft of bookmaking was so fascinating to me.

While I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age, I also enjoyed editing, starting with my high school literary magazine. Helping showcase the work of others proved rewarding in different ways.

In short, I love the world of words and always have.

 

How did that translate into a career that’s primarily about writer support versus doing your own writing?

While the ratio changes from year to year, in general, 75% of what I do is help support others versus create my own work – you’re right about that.

I went to school for psychology because I bought into the idea that writing wasn’t a viable career. But, as fascinating as I found psychology to be, and as useful as that education has been to my work, my heart was always in writing and literature. I switched to English lit, and that course of study introduced me to the critique format, at least the academic version. After college, I pursued work in publishing, starting with a small educational and human resources publishing outfit that operated out of a house on Anna Maria Island in Florida. It was lovely – I edited an eclectic bunch of books and took my lunch breaks right on the beach.

That job and ones that followed taught me how to become a proficient editor in terms of line-by-line work and organizing for clarity. Yet my main interest was always in fiction and narrative nonfiction. I love stories.

 

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How did you move from that first job to the type of work you’re doing today?

I attended a workshop that changed my life – a nuts-and-bolts retreat on fiction craft run by Gary Provost. It solidified things for me about vital areas of craft, and after attending a few times, I realized I had a knack for explaining story and craft elements to others in a clear, concise way. I became really passionate about helping writers tell their stories.

I felt then and still feel now that I can write and edit and teach. I’m happy with that combination.

 

What’s the most important thing Gary’s workshop gave you?

Gary taught me to value commercial genre constructs – to appreciate what they mean to people on a psychological and emotional level. He also taught craft aspects like how to thoughtfully structure and sequence scenes – something I still proselytize. In short, I came to understand how a book really comes together. If you create stories on a scene-by-scene basis, it provides a great road map that ensures a protagonist is the one who serves as the catalyst for story events. He also talked about character agency and goals, too, among other useful things.

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You also spend a lot of time helping people develop characters.

Deep character development is vital. It’s really about exploring the elements that make up a person, from physicality to philosophical beliefs to emotional underpinnings. To me, character – desires, backstory, sacrifices, values – creates plot. I like an inside-out approach rather than starting with plot points or other templates and moving characters around like chess pieces to satisfy structural criteria.

I’m of a mind that a book is a gift to a reader. The person you create for the reader to invest in and root for should have qualities that make them both singular and universal, in some respects. You’re trying to create meaningful, thought-provoking experiences for someone, and that starts from character.

I offer a popular talk/lesson called “The Emotional Query,” which helps writers find the beating heart of their story – the emotional chord that vibrates through every single scene, which makes a story go from mechanically adept to undeniably compelling. Again, those elements are illuminated through character even more so than through a powerful hook or set of circumstances.

 

You primarily work in the world of books, so let’s dig a bit deeper there. What would surprise a layperson about the book editing/development process?

That there are different types of editing. Some folks have no idea what a real developmental edit can entail. For them, editing = line editing. But that’s best handled at the very end of the process. I usually start with a really robust evaluation of the work – sometimes 30 single-spaced pages or more. That’s before any kind of line edits, which I offer as well.

I don’t do much copy editing – there are others who tackle grammar, punctuation, and other elements of consistency more efficiently and inexpensively. So, my line edits are also pretty developmental in nature. Another strength is helping people from the ground up with story development. I’ve literally had people come to me with an idea on a notecard. Then we spend an entire weekend working out the plot and fleshing out characters, world, and conflicts. I don’t think most people realize that kind of story help exists, or why they’d even need it.

My goal is to help people build a sound story from the start. If you have that, it prevents those roadblocks many run into, which are typically the result of plot and/or character shortcomings. If you know the sort of things that make for great human conflict and a deep emotional experience, you can set yourself up for success from page one.

 

Anything else surprising?

How long it can take to edit a book. If I’m moving at a great clip, I might do about 10 pages/hour, and that’s not counting reading the entire book through once to get a good feel for it before diving into editing. It’s not unusual for me to put 80 or more hours into a project. Most great editors I know put a lot of time into their clients’ books.

 

You did a brief stint as a literary agent at the Adams Literary a year or so back. Talk about why you made that decision and why you left agenting to return to editing.

I like new challenges. That’s just in my nature. So, branching into another publishing arena had a lot of appeal. Also, I kept running into writers who simply needed someone to advocate for them – to believe in and support them outside of a paid service – and help them find success. As a literary agent, I felt maybe that champion could be me.

What my time as an agent taught me, though, was that I’d already been doing the things I loved most, which were primarily story development and editing. That and teaching (and my own writing, of course) are my real passions and not so much the world of contracts and submissions. Though I admire the hell out of agents. They’re rock stars.

 

Agenting sounds like a ton of work.

It is, and I frankly just bit off more than I could chew. I added agenting on top of everything else I was doing, putting one more hat on top of a pretty towering stack of hats. Somehow, time didn’t magically expand to make room for it all. As a freelance editor and workshop director, I receive a lot of correspondence, but as an agent? Wow. That’s another thing entirely. Good agents earn their money – that’s for sure.

 

Any advice for those who might be better suited for agenting than you were?

One common path seems to be starting as an intern at an agency, where you’ll usually get paid for doing work and learning the business from the inside. This provides you with some financial support and a strong foundation to grow into the job.

 

For some time now, you’ve worked with superstar literary agent Don Maass on Breakout Novel Intensive (BONI) writing workshops and retreats. How did that come about?

Don and I first met at the Writers Retreat Workshop, but when he came back again in 2000, he taught material from his not-yet-published book Writing the Breakout Novel, which really impressed me. He’s a phenomenal teacher, and his workshops are incredibly generative, which I personally find so appealing. I was excited, too, because it felt like his material could serve writers who’d moved beyond the beginning stages – even writers who’d published one or more books.

I asked Don if he’d be interested in putting on a weekend program. He said sure, and I went home and figured out how to put on workshops! I’d helped with writing events before, but that wasn’t the same as organizing one from the ground up. We put on our first one in 2001 – a weekend version of what’s now our flagship workshop.

 

And it grew from there?

Absolutely. We’re at 100-plus workshops and counting.

After our first couple of years, I realized that folks would benefit from a week-long program. We could go even deeper, which I always feel moved to do. A longer workshop also gave us the opportunity to offer one-on-ones with Don and other staff members, like the amazing Brenda Windberg. That deepens the cumulative level of expertise, the sense of community, the chance to connect – that’s all part of the value.

Whether I’m working with Don or running my own events, I don’t want an artificial separation of staff and participants. We eat together, work together, and learn together. I love that shared sense of purpose and spirit.

We do about four or five workshops per year and now have a graduate version of BONI for those who’ve taken the regular course before. We also created our Two-Year Story Lab program, which we consider our answer to a low-residency MFA in creative writing.

 

Who generally takes these workshops?

At the BONI workshop, we get a decent number of published authors. We also get a lot of writers who are SO close – those folks who are receiving a lot of positive feedback on their work but haven’t managed to break in quite yet. Most of our students participate in critique groups and take their writing very seriously.

I also give my own Story 360 workshops, and like the BONI ones, they’re very generative. You’re actively working, not just listening to me talk. In some ways, I feel I’m carrying the baton given to me by Gary Provost, Don, and other writing instructors who’ve meant so much to me. I try to provide the advanced nuts and bolts parts of craft that can sometimes be missing from a writer’s toolbox. We’re talking real practical stuff, such as deep scene structure, deep point of view, emotional through-lines, high and low temperature story moments, active setting, and more.

 

How does your freelance editing inform your own book writing, both the ghostwritten projects as well as novels?

Well, it’s an ongoing education in craft that absolutely helps me to grow as a writer. I have to think about story all the time and about the industry and what readers want. Even if I’m not keeping all of that information at the top of my mind, it absolutely seeds my own writing.

—Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books and a frequent contributor to The Writer. Visit him at ryangvancleave.com & OnlyPictureBooks.com.

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