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Inkcouragement: Does This Red Ink Make My Novel Look Bad?

September is Inkcouragement Editing Month! Today editor and vice-president Donna Bray, of Balzer + Bray, and freelance editor Stephanie Kroll are here to discuss what you need to know about the editing process as a first-time author.

Inkcouragement: Does This Red Ink Make My Novel Look Bad?

Welcome back to Inkcouragement! We are so excited to have some talented guest-posters this month -- editor and vice-president Donna Bray, of Balzer + Bray, and freelance editor Stephanie Kroll.

As aspiring authors, a lot of us don't really know what lies beyond our own self-editing (and that delicious fantasy where literary agents fall all over themselves to represent us, and publishing houses compete with seven-figure bids for our manuscripts). What happens after that? What should you expect from your editor, and wait a second, there is more than one kind of editing? Should you hire a freelance editor before you send out your manuscript in the first place? If you've never worked in the publishing world, these questions can be overwhelming.

Here to introduce Donna Bray is Heather Demetrios, author of the Dark Caravan Cycle and November's book club pick, I'll Meet You There:

When I found out that the woman who'd edited The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks was going to be MY editor, I was floored. Frankie is my kind of book: smart, with strong voice, great themes, and a character I can't help but love. I knew Exquisite Captive and the rest of the Dark Caravan Cycle would be in very good hands. Donna is a writer's editor, meaning that she really engages with the story and works hard to draw the very best out of her writers. She asks the hard questions, but never pushes the book into territory the writer doesn't feel it belongs. Rather than rely solely on compromise, Donna is able to show her authors alternatives they'd never thought of before. Her brilliant editorial insights have always made my books better. She looks at the macro and the micro, juggling every aspect of craft and story as she moves through her writers' books. Exquisite Captive, Blood Passage, and Freedom's Slave are lucky to have such a loving, vigilant fairy godmother. On top of all that, she's a publisher who curates a list of books that are intelligent, diverse, and unique. Whenever I tell someone I'm working with Donna, I see a gleam of envy in their eyes. I honestly don't know how she's able to manage the enormous workload she has while also being fully available to her authors, staff, and family. Any author would be lucky to have such an ally and advocate for their books.

Stephanie Kroll (Steph) is a freelance editor, a good friend of mine, and exactly the sort of diplomatic person you'd hope your editor would be. Steph is incredibly passionate about books and publishing, professional to a fault, and handles even the most demanding clients with a well-developed sense of humor and grace. Steph does both copyediting and developmental editing, and she'll also be describing the different types of editing.

Along with Heather Demetrios, Carmen Rodrigues, Leah Stecher, and I came up with some questions for our editor guests -- later this month, check back for Carmen's insight into the editing process as an already-published author.


How did you get into editing? 

DB: I got very, very lucky – an alum of my college who graduated a couple of years ahead of me casually suggested that I might like publishing. Oddly, although I was an English major, it had not occurred to me. My jobs during college had been in TV and classical music publicity, then I moved to France for a while, and didn’t have a clear direction. I applied for and interviewed for two publishing jobs: one in adult publicity and one in children’s marketing. The children’s job paid better (by just $1000) so of course, I took it! It turned out to have been the best decision of my life. I loved the variety of books I got to work on, from picture books, middle grade, and YA, both fiction and nonfiction. And while the marketing job was a great way to learn about a different part of the business, I knew I really wanted editorial. Ten months in I switched over at the same company (Henry Holt).

SK: I always knew I wanted a career that worked with books and storytelling, but I was fairly convinced that I couldn’t be an editor because I thought there was no way I’d ever make it when there were so many other talented people who also wanted to edit. Even when I started my MA in Publishing, I was warned by everyone that usually people who think they’re going to love editing figure out pretty quickly that it’s not for them. I went in resigned that I would probably discover I loved marketing or ebook design more, and even made sure that half of my focus was on marketing so that I’d have a fallback. It turns out that I absolutely hate marketing, even more so after having worked for a press, but even at its most difficult and frustrating, I love editing.

What do you love about your job?

DB: I really love the smart, creative, interesting people I work with. That is number one, I’d say. I am in awe of the talent, innovation, and bravery of my authors and illustrators, but also of the dazzling skills of everyone I come in contact with: folks in marketing, publicity, sales, production, managing editorial, finance… and outside of the company, literary agents, booksellers, librarians, and teachers. The expertise each person brings to making and supporting a book is truly awesome, which is why I can’t imagine taking on the daunting task of self-publishing.

SK: Editors have a reputation for being people who sit in quiet rooms nitpicking people’s grammar, instead of people who are diplomatic and have a good head for both small details and the big picture. Actually, it was the communication aspect that made me love the editing process even more than I thought I would. Instead of feeling like I’m pretentiously correcting people, I get to feel like I’m working with them toward the common goal of making their writing great. It involves a lot of tact, a lot of theory, and a lot of triple checking my Chicago Manual of Style, but at the end of the day it’s so rewarding when a client succeeds or improves or feels empowered to dive back into a project.  It’s difficult, but I feel at ease when I do it. I get to combine my language geek side with my storytelling geek side all the while helping writers. It’s the best, basically. I do work with corporate or non-profit clients sometimes, and that, of course, is not as exciting as working on fiction for me, but even then, I still get to spend my day with words, so it’s all worth it.

Which authors or books are you currently obsessed with? (They don’t have to be your own clients, but feel free to include them!)

DB: Yikes, what a great but terrible question! By choosing a few, I’m not-choosing WAY too many, and probably forgetting 90% of the many books I admire. So I’m going to do what politicians do and respond to a question of my own making, which is: can you name two books coming in 2016 that you are especially excited about? Answer: yes! Everyone absolutely must read the beautiful, heartfelt, brilliant, life-changing Pax, written by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Jon Klassen. It’s a middle-grade novel about love and loyalty, self-discovery, and the costs of war. On the debut front, Tom Sullivan’s I Used To Be A Fish is destined to be a talked-about classic in its own right. It’s a deceptively simple picture book that manages to simultaneously introduce young children to the subject of human evolution while being an inspiring and funny story about dreaming big. The art is spare and amazing – think Dr. Seuss meets Jon Klassen.

SK: In terms of YA, I’m in love with Marie Lu’s The Young Elites. It’s the series everyone should be talking about. There are so many layers of court intrigue packed into this awesome world inspired by Renaissance Italy, and Adelina Amouteru is one of the most fascinating (anti-)heroines I’ve encountered in a very long time. I was gutted when I realized I had to wait until October for the sequel. I’m also loving Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle for being fantasy that is so grounded in its fascinating and flawed characters. My two favorite YA debuts this year (thus far) are Stephanie Oakes’ The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly and Stacey Lee’s Under a Painted Sky. I guess you could say I have a weakness for books with great writing and even greater characters.


Wait, there's more than one kind of editing?

SK: One of the things that the publishing world could stand to be a little more transparent about is that editing really encompasses a variety of ways to clean up your manuscript. In fact, some editors may be really bad at one type, but awesome at another. Other aspects of editing, such as fact checking, involve a specialist in certain fields who know the standard resources and procedures for that field. There are freelance editors who spend their entire time compiling the indexes and appendices for non-fiction titles, which requires a level of patience and understanding of how to make things user-friendly that is just amazing. (Do not mess with indexers. They’re brilliant.) 

Break it down for the newbies, please.

SK: Copyediting- Copyediting is what most people think of when they think of editing. It involves going over what we like to call the 5 C’s: Clarity, Consistency, Coherency, Correctness, and Concision. It’s about looking at things on a word and sentence level and making sure all the details are taken care of. While a lot of copyediting is tuning up the mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation; or GSP if you want to sound fancy and technical), it can go into all sorts of aspects of a manuscript. Copyediting can also mean making sure the same type of abbreviation is used throughout or that same types of things are italicized.

Developmental editing- Developmental is my favorite kind of editing (and also the kind I get to do least often because it’s expensive.). It means looking at the big picture of the novel and making sure it’s working as a whole. Is the plot flowing? Does the character development make sense? Are the themes working? How’s the structure? A lot of times, a developmental edit will not even be able to touch on grammar, spelling, or punctuation issues unless the editor notices that the author has a blind spot in their mechanics (eg- they consistently mixes up when to use single and double quotation marks. Everyone has their GSP blind spot, which is why we’re here to help.).

Some people also call developmental editing substantive editing, but others define substantive as being something of a cross between developmental and copyediting: where the big picture is taken into account, but the editor also addresses line-level concerns. The difference here gets a bit murky.

Proofreading- This is often confused with copyediting to the point where if someone asks me about a proofreading job, I usually have to clarify what they’re looking for because they usually mean copyediting. Technically, however, proofing means checking the designed document of a book against the text of the book to look for introduced errors, acting as a last line of defense against GSP errors, and also looking for formatting errors.

How do you know that you’ve found a “winner,” or can you describe a time a manuscript really spoke to you?

DB: There are so many examples of this – for me, I have an almost physical reaction to a voice when I read a novel. The book comes alive for me and speaks to me on multiple levels. That’s vague, I know. Again, I feel so bad not-choosing so many of my talented folks, but here are just a few that I can see from my desk right now: Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, Amanda Maciel’s Tease, Tricia Springstubb’s It Happened On Fox Street, Adam Rex’s Fat Vampire (and The True Meaning of Smekday!), Maryrose Wood’s The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series. I’m running out of space here…!

How can a first-time author make your job easier?

DB: Having a great attitude will serve you well throughout your career, so start cultivating yours from the start! Don’t be afraid to ask your editor questions about the process – it’s your first time and in case we forgot to fill you in on any aspect of the process, we are happy to explain anything. The better informed you are, the more confident and relaxed you can be.

But you also want to avail yourself of your agent’s expertise, as well as the expertise of other authors. This is a great time to connect with other writers online and do as much research as you can so you know how best to help build your career.

Also it is helpful to keep in mind that you’re playing a long game – you want to have a great first book launch, but you also want to start figuring out what you want your career to look like, what your strengths are both as an author and a self-promoter. For some, blogging and tweeting may be their thing; for others, school and library visits, genre-specific cons, or regional mini-tours.

Have you ever suggested edits that an author is strongly against? How is that situation resolved?

DB: I did one have an author write a 7-page rebuttal/defense in response to my edits. That wasn’t terribly helpful to the process of making the book better, mostly because it showed that this writer was absolutely closed to questions or suggestions. It is imperative that an author come into the process with an open mind. I try to be careful to read a book at least twice before sending my editorial letter, and try to consider what the author is trying to do, then ask questions and make suggestions that I think will help the author realize that vision to the greatest possible extent.

The best-case scenario is that the author hears what I’m saying, thinks about it, then comes back with her own explanations or solutions. Sometimes they may incorporate my ideas, sometimes not. I’m never invested in one particular outcome for the book, except that it should be the best it can be. It is ultimately the author’s book. In fact, I had a great talk with an author whose answer to my questions and concerns was to scrap one huge assumption at the beginning and rework the plot! Brave and bold, but once she said it, it seemed totally right. This is the best kind of author, once who realizes that what launches you into a story may wind up being vestigial or unhelpful in the end. Luckily for me, my authors are all this good!

SK: A lot of people worry that a developmental editor might pressure a writer to take their book in a direction they didn’t want, and while I’m not saying that’s never happened in history, it’s really not in the job description. For me, developmental is taking a book and giving the author a roadmap to making that book its best version of itself. I always try to stress that it’s okay to find a developmental letter difficult to work with at first; I know how hard all authors work on their manuscripts, and that getting such in-depth feedback is overwhelming even when it’s positive and supportive in tone. It’s a great way to make sure your book is holding up as a whole.

When would I want or need a freelance editor? Do I need to "pre-edit" my manuscript before I try to send it out to agents?

SK: If you are trying to publish traditionally, you might not need to work with a freelancer. I can think of two cases where it might make sense to spend your money:

1. If it would make you feel better to have a professional copyedit your manuscript before sending it out. You should always try to copyedit your work before sending it to agents, but if you’re nervous, a freelancer will be able to devote their full time and energy to it.

2. If you find yourself getting rejected by agents once they read your manuscript and want to see if you can fix that individual manuscript, a developmental editor can help you bring it to the next level. In both cases it’s important to realize that publishing is a numbers game as well as a talent game, and even with an editor on your side, you still might not get an agent or a publishing contract. I wish I could guarantee success, but there’s no way of taking rejection out of the publishing process. It happens to everyone.

If you are planning on self-publishing, you should hire a freelance editor for at least copyediting and preferably developmental editing as well. This is out of respect for your readers; they deserve to read the best version of your novel possible. Hiring an editor gives you an idea of how your story appears to people who neither are you nor know you. An unbiased pair of eyes can help put a whole new light onto how your story is working. Also, the longer you stare at a piece of writing, the less likely you are to notice mechanical errors. Your brain will autocorrect. This means a second pair of eyes is an invaluable investment. The end product will read more professionally and also help you become a better writer because you have someone challenging you to push your writing to the next level.


Thanks to both of our fantastic guests for joining us today! I don't know about the rest of you, but this made everything seem a lot less intimidating -- and now I can go back to fantasizing about that seven-figure contract.

Do you have more questions about the editing process? Share them in the comments! Stay tuned for our discussion of the editing process as an already-published author.

Jennie's photo About the Author: Jennie Kendrick lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness of historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. She is also a literary agent. When she's not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, and thrifts for vintage everything.