QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, June 8, 2009

Freelance Editorial Services: If, When and Why

Today's market is tough for writers.  It's become essential more than ever to have a manuscript that not only has a fabulous premise, but a great story arc and clean writing as well.  

New writers in particular find themselves wondering if hiring a freelance editor would give them the edge needed to stand out in the slush pile.  

The answer...um...maybe?  Maybe not.  It depends.  How's that for decisive? Only you can know what's right for your book. 

If you do decide to go the freelance editor route, writers beware!  There are scam artists in every profession, but writers get so wrapped up in the process that we are sometimes less cautious than we should be.  Editorial services for pay is an area that harbors lots of crooks waiting to take money from writers for shoddy work in return. 

Because I'm not an editor by any stretch of the imagination and can't address this issue from that side of the fence, I've asked several questions of two writers who are freelance editors.  I selected people with whom I am familiar because I am confident of their integrity and experience: Christine DeSmet and Lauren Baratz-Logsted. 

Christine DeSmet: 

Christine DeSmet is an award-winning writer who also teaches retreats and workshops and provides professional editorial services through University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has directed the annual Writers' Institute conference in Madison for twenty years. She writes novels, short stories, screenplays, and plays. She belongs to a group of writers called Jewels of the Quill; samples of Christine's writing can be found at the Jewels' website, 

When and why would an author seek professional editorial advice for a manuscript?

Two kinds of authors benefit greatly by seeking professional critiques or editorial services. First, new authors have discovered that getting a professional critique saves tons of time and heartache. I call it the "Start Smart" approach. An experienced professional knows a lot about what won't fly with agents, editors, publishers, and in contests. So why not save time and learn all that stuff in one fell swoop? In addition, we're neutral parties and not among your group of critique friends saying only nice things about your pages, or worse yet-avoiding telling you things out of lack of knowledge. Or maybe you lack a critique group; we fill that gap for many writers, too. Professional critique people are compassionate and kind; it's our job to help you stop the frustration. We work hard to help you raise your manuscript several notches in days or weeks instead of months or years.

The second group that seeks out editorial services is the intermediate/advanced writer. That group is made up of two kinds of writers:  the nearly-published, serious writer, and the published writer who likes that extra pair of eyes on their work before it gets sent out. These writers love saving time and learning all they can to improve their writing. They're somewhat voracious and love new ideas. They want to stop getting so many rejections, and if they're published, they don't want to send anything less than polished material to their agent or editor. These advanced writers come to a person like me with very specific questions, goals, or problems with their story or manuscript. The advanced writer likes the quick diagnosis and brainstorming someone like me can provide.
When you approach a manuscript, what elements are your priority?

I have a "big and small" approach because frankly, agents and editors tell us all the time that they reject manuscripts based on either big issues or small issues.

Many manuscripts are rejected based just on the amount of clutter or typos or mistakes in things like punctuation. Those small things destroy a manuscript fast. Editors at publishing houses and agents don't do that sort of line-editing. That's your job to correct it, and my job to point it out to you and help you correct it or suggest you hire what's called a line editor to clean up your manuscript. A manuscript filled with clutter is like a house filled with clutter; the house or manuscript won't sell in that condition. I always go through a manuscript and circle or strike out clichés and over-used words, and I help you with punctuation.

The harder to fix, and more important things are the "big" issues:  emotional content, dramatic tension on every page, story structure and the right plot events and plot points, characterizations and character arc, pacing, scene work and transitions, and the development of the writer's voice on the page. I'm always looking for ways to help a writer make all those big elements work in harmony for great storytelling. I'm also looking for ways to make sure an editor or agent will look at your work and think, "Wow, this is fresh. Fresh story, fresh voice." Editors and agents today are well-versed in structure and all of the things I've mentioned above. They go to all the conferences writers do, and they read books by structure and story specialists such as Christopher Vogler, Donald Maass, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Dwight Swain, Blake Snyder and others. I steep myself in what those experts say, and try out their ideas in my own writing. I synthesize all of these experts' advice and bring the appropriate techniques and tricks to each writer's manuscript.

I should mention that each manuscript gets a unique approach from me. Every writer and every story is different. There is no formula approach to polishing. Editorial professionals want you to retain your unique voice and story. We don't rewrite your stories. We don't ask that you take out all the words you love; even some of those "clutter" words get to stay now and then. What we're after for you are these two big things you've heard about before: Emotion and Entertainment. Stories have to connect to reader emotions, and stories must entertain in some way.
How do you approach a chapter for edit?

The first thing I do is look at the placement of the chapter within the book's structure. There are different elements of plot and character that readers want for a chapter that's in the middle, for example, versus the opening chapter.

With any chapter, I look for it to start with a hook or a good transitional hook (if it's a chapter further into the manuscript). It's amazing how often we writers forget to catch readers up on the time or day or where we are, and the character's emotional state-of-being since "yesterday." I look for the Point of View character, making sure the author is getting inside the character's head and action and trouble fast. Too often, we writers back into what's going on with a lot of fancy words that I call "throat clearing." The real action or nugget is buried at the end of that first page of the chapter or on the second or third page. So I'm on a treasure hunt for the "nuggets." At least fifty percent of the time I ask writers I'm working with to move something up from the second or third page to the first page of the chapter.

A hook need not be a big, serious thing like action. A hook comes out of the character's Central Question or problem that has to be solved by the end. A hook can be a piece of dialogue, a setting, a big battle or a quiet moment, or even something thematic. But a hook has to startle us somehow; it has to hit the gut, heart, and mind. We have to feel that jolt and think, "Oh my, that's good writing. I'll read on."

The other common, big item I work on with writers within a chapter is the scene work. Often, writers will short-change their scenes or summarize things when they really need a full scene with good action (big or small) and dialogue. Sometimes they write scenes with no purpose. Sometimes a scene has a beginning, but the conclusion comes too fast and we're robbed of character development. Writers also seem to be in this mode of interrupting a scene and picking it back up after the next scene-a sort of hopscotch approach to writing a book. Interruption is a good technique. But the over-use of it and the constant interruption of scenes can wear on readers instead of providing the suspense you think it does. So I look at stylistic choices like that, too, and note how the patterns of the scenes are working or not for the story and reader.

I also look at issues such as settings, claustrophobia, and the like. For example, if you've set three scenes or chapters indoors and people are always sitting when they talk, might it be time to get them outdoors and in an activity while they talk? Is your book becoming too claustrophobic? And if you have a story that has to take place primarily indoors (like a prison), how might we find fresh ways to "open it up"?

Finally, I look for clichéd scenes. One big advantage of hiring a professional critique person or book doctor is that we've seen a lot of scenes. We also pay attention to what agents and editors are saying they're tired of seeing in manuscripts. When I get to your Italian restaurant scene, you can bet I'm going to ask you a few questions about that cliché. Is there a way to make it unique and fresh? Or should you change the restaurant? Do you need that restaurant scene at all? Could they meet instead in a butterfly exhibit or whatever is appropriate to your story and characters? Or, if you really like that Italian restaurant scene, maybe you can turn it into a "set piece" scene that is so fresh and memorable that no editor can refuse buying your manuscript.
What can the author expect to receive from you (line edits, revision letter, etc)?

I ask that writers try me out first without spending much dough. Send the first chapter or no more than twenty pages along with a short synopsis of the entire novel. We don't charge for the synopsis; it's just for my information. I go over the manuscript using everything I've mentioned here in this article or blog. You can expect lots of scribbles on your pages along with explanations of "why" I had that reaction. I also send a detailed letter filled with suggestions. I never leave a writer wondering "how" to correct something. I also welcome unlimited emails. And I look at your rewrite at no extra charge and will write comments on it a second time, as needed.

I work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, so you're paying a fine university's outreach program for the editorial service, and not me directly. We charge $4/double-spaced page or 300 words. Please email me first when interested in a critique so that I can fit you into my schedule around the retreats and other things I teach. Email and address:  
cdesmet@dcs.wisc.edu; Christine DeSmet, UW-Madison Liberal Studies & the Arts, 21 N. Park St., Madison, WI 53715-1218. Our website:  www.dcs.wisc.edu/lsa/writing
Christine will be leading a session for first-time novelists at the June 15-19 "Write-by-the-Lake Retreat" in Madison. She'll also be teaching two workshops for writers at the July 20-24 "School of the Arts" held in Rhinelander, Wis., and will be one of the presenters at the "Weekend with Your Novel," Oct. 24-25, in Madison. All are sponsored by UW-Madison.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted: 

Lauren Baratz-Logsted  was kind enough to answer my questions as well.  Some of our readers are already familiar with Lauren.  She addressed the topic of writing for multiple genres last month when she was a guest on the QT Blog.  Her article is here.  

When and why would an author seek professional editorial advice for a manuscript?

When a writer has completed a book and has revised that book to the point where they have tunnel vision - you know in your heart it can still be better but no longer have any clue how to make it so - that is the time to seek out professional assistance.  
When you approach a manuscript, what elements are your priority?

Everything! I do a complete copyedit - even the cleanest manuscript typically contains hundreds of minor errors - as well as a developmental edit where I point out any major issues that might prevent an agent or editor from falling in love, providing a prescription for how to solve each problem.
How do you approach a chapter for edit?

I don't really think of looking at books so much on an individual chapter level unless it's to see how the chapter fits with the whole. To give an example, I had a client who wrote a marvelous book...but it was impossible to see that before around p. 75! At that point, the rhythm was finally established, which was of two main characters alternating chapters. Before that, the chapter focus was random and with the book starting out with the less charismatic of the two. I recommended leading with the more charismatic character and then telescoping the earlier chapters, losing some dead wood along the way, so that the rhythm that worked so well later in the book would be established from the get-go.
What can the author expect to receive from you (line edits, revision  letter, etc)?

As I said earlier, a complete copyedit as well as developmental advice. I request my clients snail mail their books to me. I mark up the pages using standard proofreader marks, returning any necessary pages to the client. I then email a revision letter. These tend to run anywhere from 1-14 pages, depending on need. Like real doctors, I believe in "First, do no harm." So I don't try to change what doesn't need fixing. The client requiring the 14-page letter was an interesting case. Her book had four first-person narrators. One of the biggest problems was that one of the four, and the one the reader should have most connected with, suffers from depression through most of the book following a life-changing event. The problem with that is: How many of us want to spend time with someone who's clinically depressed when this is pretty much the only way we ever see that person? It was a downer. So I advised her to do two things: 1) have the first scene with this character occur just a little bit before the life-changing event, so we have a sense of her as a more emotionally rounded human being and have something we can root for her to get back to; 2) have other characters testify for her, i.e. through dialogue etc talk about what she was like before, again so we have something to root for. There were several other problems with the book - 14 pages of notes worth! - but the author met the challenge. She made the changes and after she informed me of that, I referred her to an agent who offered representation within 48 hours. Her book is now out on submission and I hope it sells. Will the same thing happen to everyone who works with me? No. But I can guarantee that anyone who does work with me will wind up with a better book and that going through the process will make subsequent books even better because one of my goals is to help writers turn on their own editing ears so that in the future they can better help themselves. 
Anything else? 

I've always said that all writers have a weakness in one of three areas: bad beginnings, saggy middles, unsatisfying endings. And I've always said the first is the hardest to overcome: you may be brilliant later on but no one will be there to see it when you are if you're saddled with a bad beginning. But I never realized until I started working closely with so many writers how prevalent and truly detrimental bad beginnings are. You've read the two examples I've already cited. Here's a third: A client wrote a middle-grade fantasy novel about a girl who's about to start at a new school she fears. If you look at books clinically you'll see there's always an establishment of the ordinary world followed by the call to adventure. In this instance, the ordinary world was the girl's home and it somehow made the opening very like a Kate DiCamillo book while the rest of the book belongs more on the shelf with Spiderwick Chronicles. Can you see how that wouldn't work? So I advised the author to have the ordinary world be the girl's first beloved school, doing a brief chapter showing her happily immersed there. Then at the end of the chapter it's announced the school is closing and they all have to go to this new awful school - there's your call to adventure!
OK, that's enough anecdotes out of me.
Credentials: I was a book buyer and seller for what was at the time the largest independent bookstore in the northeast. I then became a Publishers Weekly reviewer (292) titles, a freelance editor (nearly 100 titles) and a sort-of librarian. By the end of this year I will have had 15 books published: seven adult books, four for teens or tweens, four for young readers. My books have been published in 11 countries and my publishers have included Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Red Dress Ink and BenBella. Earlier this year, I decided to launch my own freelance business. Interested parties can reach me at glogsted@aol.com.
 I appreciate time Christine and Lauren spent answering my questions.  

There are lots of excellent editors out there. Writers just need to be sure to do their research before paying anyone to evaluate their manuscript.  

Have a great week, everyone!

Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for children and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law School, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama.

Mary can also be found on her website.


M. Dunham said...

What an interesting topic. Thanks for posting this. the topic of outside editors interests me muchly.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Thanks, M. Dunham.

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this. I run a small freelance editing business, and I've gone to great length to try to explain why receiving an edit is so important. It's particularly important in today's publishing market.

The two editors expressed many of my same approaches to editing, but they also brought up some new things for me to consider as well. Thank you for posting this.

Allison M. Dickson
Allison Edits

B.J. Anderson said...

Thanks for this great post! Hmmm. Something to consider for sure.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this info - my critique group was just discussing this very issue so I'll direct them to this post.

Laura Bickle said...

Great article. I worked with a freelance editor on a manuscript once, and it was a very valuable learning experience...I felt that it really helped me get a handle on my craft and the process of writing. With one-on-one attention, I learned a lot of things about how I approach writing and how I can do it better.

I think one of the chief things I learned was that there is ALWAYS room for improvement and a way to get better. A completed draft is really just the beginning in making a manuscript ready to be sent out.