This is a continuation of our interview with Alan Rinzler. Two weeks ago, we discussed his legendary life as an editor and publisher over the last 45 years. Alan continues to be a freelance developmental editor, one of the best. Since I often tell people that they need a freelance editor, I thought it was time to try to get to understand the process a little better and to find out what a freelance editor can and can’t do. This was a very short interview. And I learned an amazing amount about the process. You should read this one carefully.
Alan has his own blog called: The Book Deal. It has a lot of information that you, gentle reader and writer, need to read!
Andy: Alan, starting with the fundamentals. What is the difference between line editing, copy editing and developmental editing?
Alan: Copy editing is a process of technical correction done by free-lance professionals with an obsessions for spelling, grammar, punctuation and formal style – none of which I have. All publishers depend on outside copyeditors who do yeoman work on correcting errors and hopefully but not always checking facts.
Developmental editing is line editing, changing and polishing the text, but also larger conceptual problems like story, plot structure, characterization, visual description and other big picture choices and necessary revisions. The developmental editor has to enter the consciousness of the author and help make the book better wherever it needs it. This may mean suggesting language for new material, including dialogue. Or it may take the form of requests for explanation and amplification that only the author can supply.
Andy: When I first started as an agent, I used to get rejection letters saying that the acquisition editor “just didn’t fall in love” with the project. This didn’t give me or the author any real sense of where to proceed from there. Now I’m hearing that a book under submission “doesn’t have a robust narrative arc”. I sort of understand what this means. But it is more like, “I know it when I see it”. Can you explain what editors mean by “narrative arc”? What are the pitfalls that writers fall into? And how do you work to improve this?
Alan: Acquisition editors are usually in a big hurry and don’t take the time to explain why they don’t like something. It may be for very idiosyncratic reasons that have nothing to do with the book itself, like their board or sales department is cranky this Tuesday, or they already have a book just like this, or they hate people named “Nancy” or “Harold”, who knows, but they say whatever comes to mind and forget about it.
Jargon like “robust narrative arc”, however, actually means something. All narratives, fiction or nonfiction, should have a beginning, middle, and end. You know: Act One, boys meets girl, John Adams meets Thomas Jefferson; Act Two, they quarrel and become alienated. Act Three, everyone kisses and makes up, including John and Thomas. Proposals need to show this progression or the story doesn’t usually work unless you’re James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, and I’m not really sure about their sales these days either.
Unfortunately, however, when an editor plays the narrative arc card, it may still be an act of avoidance and obfuscation. The reasons may actually be because they’re fighting with their marketing manager and can only submit a presold brand name guaranteed best seller for their next proposals meeting. But “doesn’t have a robust narrative arc” sounds a lot smarter.
Andy: You are a freelance editor, and I know you enjoy working with fiction. What are the kinds of flaws that you frequently encounter with fiction writers. How to you work to improve them? Do you try to get them to improve their literary values? Do you try to make them more suitable for a publisher? Are these goals at odds with each other?
Alan: I’m glad you asked because it’s uncanny how many draft novels have very weak and boring opening sentences, paragraphs and pages, which make you want to stop reading and lie down immediately. Or huge information dumps, meaning tedious back story explanations of what happened before the book started and who are two dozen characters and their ancestors. Another common flaw is no dialogue, all telling what’s happening from a distance. Or dialogue where all the characters talk like the same person and you can’t tell them apart. Or all dialogue and no visual description, no pause between quotes to explain what else is going on, where they are, and what they might be feeling internally.
Another major flaw for many beginning writers is too much material, stories that are hugely but unnecessarily complex, flashbacks within flashbacks so you can’t tell where or when anything is taking place, and a general sense of a writer being unfocused and overwhelmed by his material.
As a developmental editor I go through page by page making deletions, edits, polishes, suggesting specific new language and material, and requesting explanation or amplification for text that only the author can supply.
I don’t think this approach is at all unsuitable for either the author or potential publisher since their goals are the same: to publish a good book that sells copy.
Andy: What about other non-fiction genres: narrative, social commentary, journalism, self-help? Do each of these (and others) have their own challenges and requirements?
Alan: The need to be original and directly competitive with prior books in the field is more essential a challenge in nonfiction. So many ideas and proposals I receive, even 400 page manuscripts, are almost exactly like something already written. Writers can save themselves a lot of grief if they do their homework and see what’s already out there on the same subject. And they need to be honest with themselves about doing something new and better in their own work.
Aside, from that, however, I edit non-fiction pretty much the same way as fiction. Nonfiction still has to tell a story that makes sense, like how to do it, here’s the history, or this is what I believe about this or that – it’s really all the same to me, except that you can use headings in nonfiction which I love, as signposts for topics and subtopics. You can also make lists, add boxes with side-bar materials, and use other techniques that wouldn’t usually be appropriate for fiction.
Andy: As an agent, I am looking for 3 things: good concept, good platform, good writing. I like to tell people that the last of these is the easiest to deal with. I frequently refer them to an editor. Frequently, you. Am I just being glib here? Does your experience in publishing give you an inside track on how to improve writing to make it more attractive to the acquisition editor? And can you help them refine an imperfect concept as well?
Alan: I wouldn’t put good writing last but first. And it’s the hardest, not easiest, to deal with. Readers will usually put bad writing down, no matter how powerful the concept or big the platform. As a developmental editor I can make a million suggestions, half of which may be spot on, but they’re all no good unless the author can write. I can definitely refine an imperfect concept and improve writing that isn’t that bad to begin with. But no one can make a silk purse out of a proverbial sow’s ear and anyone who says they can is a ghost writer not a developmental editor. Most authors don’t want to use a ghost or co-author, but I do recommend it when there’s no chance an author can produce writing at at least an A minus level.
Andy: I’m always afraid that when I tell a writer that they could benefit from a freelance editor, they will take it as an insult. I tell them that even the most experienced writers need a good editor. And frequently they submit their work to one as a matter of course. Am I right about this?
Alan: Yes. The best writers I’ve worked with all want high quality professional editing whenever and wherever they can get it, either before selling their books, or from the publishers once acquired. That goes for Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Irv Yalom, Shirley MacLaine, Lenore Skenazy, Michael Gurian, Michele Borba – all writers I know. Tell your writers it’s a compliment to say their book is worth editing, not an insult but a necessity.
Andy: And going back to your experience over the years in trade publishing, would you say that publishers are less likely to accept a flawed book knowing that they can doctor it up in the course of the editing process? It seems to me that they are too busy to do this and want something publishable right out of the box.
Alan: Publishers are probably more willing to take a flawed book but they may not take the time to doctor it up, which is why so many books fail and lose money. You’re right about them being too busy and wanting something right out of the box. This is why free-lance developmental editors are often the only chance an author has to improve a flawed book that could do a lot better.
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