It’s an especially challenging time for a writer to get their book published via the traditional route these days. And so, many aspiring authors trying to snag a literary agent or get a publisher’s attention are turning to independent book editors to give their manuscript an extra edge in the extremely competitive and crowded marketplace.
Ramona DeFelice Long, an independent book editor and author herself, kindly stopped by to shine some light on typical problems she sees in first drafts and how one-on-one feedback from a book editor can help shape a promising diamond in the rough into a polished manuscript ready for submission.
Q. What are the most common mistakes you see in manuscripts you edit?
Ramona DeFelice Long: I hear time and time again, from agents and publishers, that writers send their pages out too soon. I agree with this. Writers need patience, and that means putting the manuscript aside, or sending it to an editor, before hitting Send too soon.
Many manuscripts are not put through a rigorous mill of grammar and spelling, or fact checked, double checked, and triple checked for loose ends, inconsistencies, logic or fact errors.
Overwriting, which is showing every move the character makes. My favorite line about that is, “Every character eats, sleeps, and goes to the bathroom, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it.” Learning what to skip is important. Closely related to this is over-explaining. Trust the reader.
More specifically, for mysteries: Forcing the mystery. That means, someone dies and a character immediately jumps to the conclusion that it is foul play, with nothing in the manuscript, yet, to support that leap. Also, errors in laws and police procedures. Nothing is more disturbing than watching an author make a cop commit a felony! A hooky opening that doesn’t match or relate to the rest of the manuscript.
Smaller items: POV slips. Too much backstory in an opening. Clichéd characters. Clichés in general.
Q: Editorial feedback can be hard to take—even if an author has requested it. How do most authors react to your critiques?
RDL: The vast majority of my clients come through word of mouth, or through working with me in an anthology or online course. So, I have to assume my authors are okay with my work! On my website, I make it clear that my philosophy is to aid the author in telling his/her own story. My name is not on the story; the author is the creator. My job is to make the story stronger. But the nature of an edit is to be critical, and yes that can be painful. I would say many of my clients have a “shaken but stirred” reaction. They may cringe through what seems like a litany of weaknesses, but in the end—I hope!—they are motivated to dive in, newly charged and with new ideas.
It’s never fun to have your work evaluated line by line by line, and the weaknesses pointed out. That’s what an edit does. However, I am careful in how I comment. A comment like “This doesn’t work. Fix it.” is as useless as “I liked it.” It is important for an editor to point out the WHY. Why doesn’t this work? Why do I like this? When something isn’t working, I offer suggestions in what I call teachable comments. I couch suggestions as “what about” or “think about” or “maybe” so the author can consider more than one remedy or approach.
Q. The traditional publishing industry is extremely challenging right now. Are you seeing a trend of more writers turning to book editors as a result?
RDL: I can’t speak for the industry as a whole, but from my own experience—and the regular flow of inquiries I receive—I would say yes, certainly. There is the idea that intense competition requires a writer to seek every competitive edge. A good independent editor can provide that, because a good editor will make a manuscript stronger.
Q. What edge can a professionally edited book give to an aspiring author seeking an agent or publisher?
RDL: A polished submission—which means both clean copy and a story that is efficient and logical—is a boon. Whether or not the words “I’ve had this story edited by a professional outside editor” in a query will elevate the writer’s chances, depends on the agent or publisher. Since many of my clients kindly mention me in acknowledgements, I assume they inform agents and publishers from the start. When it comes down to it, the author’s success lies in the state of the manuscript itself and its presentation. While I fully support authors attending workshops and conferences, a professional editor will work with you one-on-one, like a tutor would. It’s a different experience.
Q. How did you become a book editor?
RDL: The short answer is, I belonged to a critique group. During our brainstorming sessions, I discovered I had a knack for seeing the big picture of a story—what’s there, what’s not there, what should be there. At that time, independent editors were not common but were becoming more so. I began working with other writers on a casual basis, primarily with mystery manuscripts. When I was ready to turn 50, I decided I wanted to pursue an arts-based business and, thank you kismet, this was the same time the publishing industry began to acknowledge and need an independent workforce of editors. For the record, I didn’t just build a website and hang up my shingle willy-nilly. There’s no Bachelor of Arts in Editing, but I enrolled in workshops, intensives, retreats, etc., to school myself in structure, style, marketability, etc. When I felt I had skills to offer, I opened up for business, primarily through word of mouth.
Q: Any advice you can offer authors who are trying to get published?
RDL: Keep trying! It takes patience and perseverance. Also, never stop learning or trying to grow as a writer. Join a group, take a class, attend readings, force yourself to try a new creative experience. Make yourself part of the writing community.
Ramona DeFelice Long is an author, editor, teacher, and free write leader. As a writer, her work has been published in juvenile and literary magazines, and she has been awarded writing fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Pennsylvania State Arts Council and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. As an editor, she works with private clients on short stories and novel length manuscripts, as well as organizations such as Sisters in Crime to edit group and chapter anthologies. She also teaches online classes, leads retreats and gives workshops at conferences.