Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Dave King

Product Details      Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away… Yoda was an editor.

   He received a script about a guy named Luke, who was a space ship mechanic down on his luck. Luke’s father was an abusive former POD racer who never removed his helmet and smoked Lucky’s till he could barely breath and gargled Scotch.

   Knowing he had something special inside him, Luke was about to make a mark on the universe when he got his girlfriend Leiya pregnant, forgot his dreams and moved into a trailer park on the woeful planet of Jersey.

   Yoda saw something special in the story, changed a word here, an adverb there and… (cue drum roll) STARWARS was born. Fame, Accolades, ect, ect…

   Ok, editors aren’t little green men with ear hair issues, though the living in a swamp thing is possible. Editor are reclusive, mystic beings that peek out of their dwelling only at the site of a FedEx uniform. Then they edit the delivery form, sign and disappear back into their lairs.

   Or they are just vastly intelligent people that have a love for the written word and a knack for finding the valued core of a sentence or story. They edit like the wind, snipping here, suggesting there. These are the people of finish. I personally don’t know of any book that hasn’t been polished to it's final sheen by an editor.

   My guest today is freelance editor Dave King. He’s here today to shed a bit of light on a profession few but those in the publishing industry really know much about. They are a phase of the publishing process. A gatekeeper that insures a book without finished quality shall not pass.

First a bit about Dave from his website…

  “In addition to editing everything from psychological thrillers to reference manuals, I am co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of my magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic.

   I landed in the hills of western Massachusetts via that motivator of so many lives and plots-romance. I lived in the New York area when I was working with Renni Browne, my co-author, but when we gave a writing workshop at an Episcopal monastery on the Hudson River, I met my future wife. She had made her escape from the big city to Ashfield many years before, where she made her living in journalism and free-lance writing. At the time we met, she was living in an antique house trailer on 26 acres and building a house she'd designed herself-- in addition to writing the fantasy novel that brought her to the workshop. We had our first long talk in the monastery's crypt (a nicer place than it sounds). After the workshop, we became pen pals and were married the following year.

   I settled quite happily into the joys of rural living, including the bears, beavers, deer and turkeys that wander around in the yard, woods, and pond. We make our own maple syrup, grow many of our own fruits and vegetables, and manage the forest to provide wood for heat. I also am the organist at a local church, which gives me the chance to explore the connections between writing and baroque music. (The independent musical voices of a fugue act in much the same way as the characters in a novel -- intertwining to produce an artistic whole.) Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I can keep editing without ever having to move away from the wood stove."

     I’m pleased to welcome freelance editor Dave King to The Novel Road…

Amazon's Complete Selection of Dave King Books
Dave King
Me: Editing is art, though rarely mentioned or known outside the publishing world. I know of no modern book that hasn’t felt an editor’s touch. Talk about the different types of editors and the part they play in the books we love.
Dave: Copy editors pay attention to mechanical matters like correct usage, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the formatting of the text.  Conceptual editors , like myself, (sometimes called general editors) deal with the bones of the book – character voice, plot development, and scene structure -- before the copy editors put the finishing touches on it and hand it on to the proofreaders.
   Good editors have always had an impact on the books we love, but not one you can easily put your finger on.  When you do it right, editing is absolutely transparent.  The manuscript just sounds more like the author.
   I’d say conceptual editors have the most fun, but that may only be because I can’t proofread or copy edit to save my life.  The passion for correct usage you need to copy edit well would throw off my ear for authentic dialogue.  When I need to proofread, eye ewes my spell checker.

Me: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is in its second edition and still going strong. Explain its staying power after nearly two decades in print.
Dave: Some of the techniques Renni and I cover in the book – dialogue or interior monologue mechanics, say – have evolved over time.  But most of the topics we discuss – scene structure, showing vs. telling, proportion – are so fundamental to storytelling that the advice is timeless.  This is why our examples span more than a century.
   There are practical reasons for the book’s success as well.  The examples and exercises make Self-Editing ideal as a textbook, which guarantees steady sales.  And the Booth cartoons are an eternal delight.

Me: How much author editing is too much? Where should an author stop editing before submission?
Dave: When you start making changes on one pass, then changing them back on the next, you’ve probably hit the point of diminishing returns.

Me: Freelance editors, hired by authors. The consensus with literary agents seems to be an author doesn’t need one. You would think a closer-to-finished manuscript would cost them less to move forward?
Dave: Actually, many of my clients come to me because they’ve been turned down by agents. 
   Then, at the end of the editing process, when they send the manuscript out again, there’s no way for an agent to tell it’s been edited.  As I’ve said, good conceptual editors don’t leave tracks.
   I do agree that you don’t need copy editors or proofreaders except under special circumstances, like if you’re writing in English as a second language.  If you sell your book, your publisher will provide all necessary editing.  Before then, a careful reading and a spell checker can get you pretty close, and a brilliant book isn’t going to be rejected for an occasional typo or inelegant sentence.

Me: I’ve written about how I think editors may be going into a “Gold Rush” market for their skills. My supposition is based on the e-book platforms’ expansion and the growing sector of e–book self-publication. What are your thoughts?
Dave: In-house editing made better sense when putting a book out involved presses, paper, warehouses, and trucks.  With e-books, most of that overhead is gone, and editing time is a larger part of the up-front expense.  Publishers will be less likely to make the investment, and freelance editors are needed to pick up the slack. 
   Also, an awful lot of books are moving into the ether.  Wise writers hire editors to give their books the final polish they need to stand out from the crowd.
   So, yes, we may be on the verge of a booming editorial market.  We can only hope.
   On the other hand, I’ve had clients come to me after self-publishing.  Some self-publishers promise editing, but no one I’ve met has been pleased with the result.  Many writers rush into self-publishing because they’re impatient to see their manuscript in print, then realize their mistake when it doesn’t sell.

Me: I’ve written a post on literary agents and editors, in an ongoing series I call “Writer’s Angst.” What would you like writers to know about the world of the editor?
Dave: I can’t speak for all editors, but I’m very gentle – no angst needed. 
   Besides, I don’t think baseball players feel angst about the coaches who help raise their batting averages.  Many clients send me a manuscript knowing there’s something wrong but unable to see exactly what.  When I open their eyes, they’re often excited about the possibilities rather than crushed by the problems.

Go to fullsize imageMe: The Publishing Industry is facing enormous challenges in the not so distant future. A number of smaller houses have closed, literary agencies are taking on fewer, if not more select, clients. Paint us a picture of the Publishing Industry five years from now.
Dave: Is it okay to dream? 
   I’m old fashioned enough to miss brick and mortar bookstores, particularly the independent ones that always seem to have a resident cat.  But e-books have advantages.
   There are a lot of them, for one thing.  Readers can now find many more fresh, entertaining voices than there was ever room for on even the biggest bookstore’s shelves.  Those quirky, wonderful writers the smaller houses once supported are still going to find their readership.  Also, e-books stay on the shelves forever rather than the two months or so of the typical mass-market paperback.  Long-forgotten writers who once languished in the corners of used bookstores are now at your fingertips. 
   The trick is to find these great voices.  Social networking sites could help, with books going viral on Facebook.  The suggest-o-bots that tell you what you would like based on what you have liked are getting better, too.  Netflix has suggested a couple improbable movies my wife and I have loved.  One of the joys of independent bookstores is when the owner tosses a new writer your way with, “You might enjoy this.”  E-bookstores might be able to do this soon.
   Now if they could just e-mail you a cat.
Me: I send you a 150,000-word manuscript. It’s a mess, the title is even misspelled , but you read the first page and it catches your interest. Do you send it back with a note explaining “Spell Check,” margins, and sentence fragments, or do you keep it? What state do you like to see a manuscript in before you work on it?
Dave: A clean, mistake-free, unbound, single-sided, double-spaced manuscript with reasonable typeface and margins is nice, but not necessary. I sometimes have to read past a lugubrious style to see the solid plot structure underneath, or tune out a hyperactive narrative voice to find the lovable characters it’s drowning out.  After that, ignoring misspellings and sentence fragments is a snap.
   Besides, I’m working more and more on e-manuscripts, where I can at least adjust the line spacing, margins and typeface for myself.

Me: The editors I’ve researched seem to stick to comfort zones when they choose a manuscript. Have you ever gone outside your comfort zone?
Dave: No, but I have a very wide comfort zone.  Just glancing at my published client’s shelf, I see mysteries, memoirs, thrillers, romances, historicals, YA’s, magical realism, non-fiction, horror and humor.  Everything from the memoir of a sailing trip around Cape Horn to a novel about a woman who transforms into a Buick.  It’s all fun.

Me: The editor in you must have an intuition for the “special” book; the one that seems destined to huge sales or a place in literary history. Among the books you have worked with, what made your “I knew it” list? 
Dave: I haven’t encountered a Harry Potter yet, but I’m a long way from retirement.
   The midlist or niche books that have done well do have one thing in common – they’ve been a joy to work on.  Whether it’s Melinda Terreri’s To Give or Deceive (light mystery) or Charity Becker’s Presence: Awakening (heavy horror) or Canon Edward West’s Outward Signs: the Language of Christian Symbolism (in a category by itself), the authors have been inspired by my suggestions to improve the book in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.  Another way to put this is that they approached the editing process with all the creativity they brought to their first draft.
Product DetailsMe: Do you have a character, from a manuscript you have edited, that has left a mark on you?
Dave: Yes, from a memoir.  Joseph Horn was a 12-year-old Jew in Radom, Poland, when the Stuka bombers came in over the treetops in 1939.  He spent the next six years in the ghetto, a labor camp, then various concentration camps (including Auschwitz) until he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen. 
   It’s a breathtaking story, and it still gives me chills to think about this child who had the courage, brains and sheer luck to go through unimaginable horrors and survive.  But I also can’t forget  the adult writer himself.  Just recounting the story tore him up emotionally – he told me there were things in his book that he’d never told his own children.  Yet he was a businessman from Long Island with no writing experience and needed to make considerable changes for the sake of readability.  This meant examining his wrenching story intimately.  He needed a lot of help and encouragement, but he was able to do it.
   In one of the camps, Mr. Horn watched as one of his friends was executed for some minor infraction.  As the friend was about to be shot, knowing that all the horrors he’d seen would die with him, he began to yell, “No!  I must live, I must tell!”  Joseph Horn not only lived.  He has told. The result, Mark it With a Stone, is now available in paperback, and a copy is in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Me: Talk about an author hiring an editor. What are the things to look for? To look out for?
Dave: First, no one should ever hire an editor based only on a Google search.  There are a lot of skilled editors out there, but there are also sharks.  Check for both experience and credentials.  Websites like Preditors and Editors (http://pred-ed.com/peba.htm) will flag the real crooks.
   Writers should make sure they’re actually working with the editor who’s on the company letterhead.  There are mills out there that promise editing by a professional, then pass the manuscript off to an intern who skims it and fills in the blanks on some boilerplate.
   A too-low price can be a red flag.  I can’t edit more than eight or ten pages an hour at best.  If someone is offering a detailed edit of your manuscript for $1 per page, you’re probably going to get superficial copy editing and not much else.
   I’d also beware of any editor who offers, say, to edit a 400-page manuscript for $4000, sight unseen.  Even if the editor is honest and skilled, not all editors are right for everybody.  I begin editing with a diagnostic reading report to give clients a chance to make sure we can work together before they commit to more extensive work.
   At the other extreme, watch out for editors who offer to work on a partial manuscript without at least reading the whole.  Editing the first five or thirty or fifty pages can help in some ways, but if your story falls apart at page 100, it can also be a waste of money.
   Another sign of a good editor is that they use a letter of agreement that spells out beforehand just what they’ll do and what it will cost. 
   Finally, watch out for editors who tell you you’ve got the next great best-seller.  There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t want to hear that their manuscript is whole and entire, wanting nothing (except $4000 worth of editing).  Unscrupulous editors are happy to flatter you for your money.  So check for a reputation for honesty.  Despite the vast joys of the internet, word of mouth is still the best recommendation.

Go to fullsize image
Artwork courtesy of
Hilltown Tree and Garden
Me: Hiring an editor pre-submission is a substantial investment for an author to make. What can you tell new authors about knowing whether the investment is warranted? How can they tell if their work should go further than a desk drawer?
Dave: I’m back to honesty again, because it’s hard to know where to go next with a book without an honest appraisal of what it needs.  But even if your honest editor says a book has very little chance of ever being published, it’s possible to learn a lot from editing
   I can’t speak for other editors, but the work I do is tutorial as much as editorial – like a one-on-one creative writing seminar with the client’s manuscript as the only example.  So even if the manuscript faces serious challenges, the editing process will teach the client enough about writing to give them their money’s worth.  I recently heard from a client I’d edited years ago.  The manuscript we worked on never published, but the next two did, to good reviews.
   But you have to keep in mind that editors are professionals.  I charge more than a mechanic and less than a therapist, which feels about right to me.  For writers on a tight budget, getting 20 or 30 pages of a book line-edited is a great way to learn a lot about what’s wrong with it.  Also, many editors start by reading a manuscript and writing some kind of a report on it.  If a book’s problems are structural, like a plot that begins on page 100, the introductory report alone may provide enough information to start on the next draft.
   On the other hand, some writers think their job is done when they send their work off to an editor.  They’re only looking for an edited manuscript and a bill.  In this case, if the book isn’t promising, it should go back in the drawer.  
I'd like to Dave for his insights and kindness in doing this interview. Now I get to wait for a Redline of the interview... 
View Image