A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I hired a development editor to give my manuscript the once-over. The following is my experience.
Please, please, please note that my takeaway is entirely unique to me.
Also, there is no “you should/should not” here. It’s all an individual experience. But wait, there’s more disclaimer! My little dear-diary is NO reflection on editors as a group. I believe in editors and think that only very foolish writers disregard editors out of hand.
Now, with the caveats out of the way, I’ll say that I planned this consultation for quite a while. As in a way back in 2012. In the closing words of her very constructive rejection email, Janet Reid referred me to an editor she had worked with. That recommendation was good as gold for me.
When you are poised to spend several-hundred dollars, if not a couple of grand, it is not the time pick an editor from the contents of your SPAM folder. Ideally, the editor you choose will be recommended by someone YOU KNOW AND RESPECT, with good reasoning behind the recommendation, (e.g. they worked with authors X/Y/Z or have worked extensively in your genre). The editor I chose (who shall remain nameless) has extensive experience with crime fiction and includes a list of authors worked with/books worked on their webpage.
Does all that matter? Well, literary editors understand the artsy-fartsy stuff but lack insight (or great respect) for genre. Cozy editors understand what makes the cozy so very special to cozy readers. Hard-boiled stuff is not their bag. Science fiction editors couldn't care less about your bad boys and naughty girls. Their eyes are on the BIG picture. So, yeah, the right fit is key.
But why a development editor?
A good set of beta readers, (who “get” your genre) can help you immeasurably. But even if those readers are writers they may not be able to identify structural weaknesses in your work. Even if they do identify those structural weaknesses, they may not be able to offer solutions. The degree of friendship between you and your beta readers may also handicap any relevant criticism.
The development editor is paid to give you the hard—but honest—truth you need. They are not your bestie or your fan. Their experience and knowledge guides their recommendations.
Ideally, you’ll see that honesty in your initial discussion with a prospective editor. You want someone who can tell you clearly, up front, what they will do for the money you pay. The editor I hired was clinical in detailing their service: one read-through for pace, tone, and consistency, a second read-through for fine detail, plot-holes, and/or lapses in logic. The editor also offered to read over my query letter/synopsis.
The editor requested the first chapter to see if this would be something they could work with. If not, they would refer me to someone better suited to the work. This is a good sign. No (ethical) editor wants to waste their time (or your money) on work they can’t connect with or that is not “editor ready”.
When you say “editor-ready”…?
Editor-ready means that the book is complete. You don’t hire a development editor while you’re still drafting. Ideally, the editor is NOT the first-ever-other person to read your book. Please don’t waste folks’ time on something you haven’t passed through a Grammarly-like product. Case in point, I retyped that last sentence AFTER googling “Grammarly” for the correct spelling.
What the editor does NOT do…
A development editor does not check your spelling or “fix” your grammar or wade into the horrors of passive voice. The development editor does not re-write your book. They make suggestions to fine-tune your book. You, (the author) do the heavy lifting.
You will get better results if you have some sense of the concerns/weaknesses you want to address.
My concerns were:
· Pacing—beginning, middle, and conclusion flow evenly
· Balance—character arc and plot/story are proportionate (subjective to me)
· Tone—my crime novel remains a crime novel and not a manifesto on commas
Once we established a working relationship (meaning my first chapter was tight) we reached terms of .038¢/word or about $2600 for my 70K+word manuscript with a third up front and the final payment due upon receipt of the comments.
If you’re interested in mechanics: all the work was based on google docs but the editor also used SharePoint and Dropbox. The payments were process through PayPal. I went on the editor’s list in January and the whole show was done in 60 days.
First the good
Here is the text of the email I received:
Thanks for giving me a chance to comment on THE GETAWAY SCORE. I really enjoyed reading it. It feels like such a fast-paced and timely read. The fight scenes are all very well choreographed and I really like how authentic your world feels.
As I'm sure you know, fiction is completely subjective. You do not need to agree with all (or any!) of my thoughts. My editorial style is just to throw out a ton of ideas and suggestions and you can decide which ones connect with your vision and inspire you to push what is so great here out even further.
I don't have a lot of "overall" notes because the story flows nicely from page one until the end. But I did find myself getting a little lost and I think some of the details and action is a little hard to follow, all noted inside the attached manuscript via track changes. I also think we need more detail on some of the story elements. For example, Roosevelt follows Doc loyally and Doc seems like his only true friend. Why? How did they get to this point? We don't need pages and pages of explanation - and that wouldn't work with your writing style anyway - but just a few more lines of explanation could really help, maybe as initial background when we first see them together. We also need more closure on what happened to end their car ring and also more explanation / illustration of their desperation to understand why the credit union job is the only next natural step. This will all all feel vague, but I go into more detail inside the attached manuscript.
Please confirm receipt, then take your time reading and digesting. I'm here for questions, brainstorming, and to read the revision whenever it is ready.
So, that’s nice.
As I also mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don’t “do” defense of work. Typically, if you have to defend it, then it doesn't work. However, I did have multiple pages, explaining not only the end of the car theft ring but why the turn to “heavier” crime represented the only option: need to escape a turf war, lack of money to escape the turf war, actively being hunted, etc.. I knew these were big issues to address to preserve the suspension of disbelief.
That issue, coupled with the editor’s notes on the set-up for my end-act crisis left me wondering how closely they read my manuscript. In fairness, I have not reached out. And, almost three months later, I haven’t submitted a revision. I have left my end-act-crisis setup, (with the painstakingly laid rationale) as-is.
I still believe in development editors. I still believe in this specific editor and would consider hiring them again—if I felt the need. Ultimately, it comes down to trusting your story and trusting your skill. When I consider some of the crap I’ve seen, much of it published by the big four (ish) publishing houses, I’ve come to trust my kung-fu much more than when I began this journey.
So, as I stated at the top, there is no “you should/shouldn’t hire a development editor,” here. I gained a measure of resolution of my concerns though I’m not entirely sure I got my money’s worth. Mostly, as with beta-readers and crit-groups, no one says you have to take the suggestions. It’s your dime.
However YOU must be happy with the product that YOU put out. That is the biggest takeaway.
The photo a the top, "Misery, Collectors Edition DVD Cover," is the property of Castlerock Entertainment/Columbia Pictures. Its use here, for educational/instructional purposes is covered under the Fair Use Doctrine.