It took me about two-and-a-half years to write the novel, workshop excerpts at conferences, rewrite, and polish it as much as I could. On some days, I read my manuscript and marveled at certain turns of phrase or whip-smart metaphors. Then I returned to my draft the next day and questioned why I ever thought I could write a book. My sentences sounded pedestrian and amateurish when I read them aloud and they certainly didn’t measure up to the work of my favorite authors. A few writer friends had perused a few scenes or chapters of the story but no one had read the full manuscript and I knew I needed external feedback before submitting to literary agents. It was time to hire a developmental editor.
Writing organizations are often the best places to turn for finding developmental editors since you can get first-hand reviews and recommendations based upon the experiences of other writer clients. I knew several great editors through writerly circles and would have been pleased to have many of them critique my work. However, I took a different approach by looking for editors who were also authors, writers whose work mirrored what I was trying to achieve with my novel.
I remember reading Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt for the first time feeling mesmerized by the idea of Lucy, a teenage girl, running away with her high school teacher. The worry and unease about how Lucy would walk away from her family and her entire life captivated me. Caroline weaved backstory seamlessly in that first chapter and I learned so much about Lucy’s family, her naive attachment to her teacher, and everything she was leaving behind. Also, Caroline told the story through the perspectives of five characters whose lives intertwined.
Months after reading that novel, I heard about a charity auction for editorial services and one of the options included a manuscript review from Caroline. My novel-in-progress had four point of view characters and rich backstory that would inform and pressure the choices of my protagonist. It was a perfect fit and I jumped at the chance to work with her.
The coolest part was that before she even finished reading the novel, Caroline emailed with her reactions, including an “oh my God” and “holy moly.” As a writer with a fragile ego, that positive reinforcement boosted my confidence. Then she proceeded to gently advise me to dump the prologue that had garnered rave reviews at a recent writer’s idol event, precious words I’d agonized over and reworked until they sang or at least hummed. “It’s gorgeous, but you don’t need it,” Caroline said. “Get right into the drama.” Yes, ma’am.
Caroline’s wicked insight showed me that I over-explained some things in my attempt to make sure the reader understood subtext. “It reads like you’re not trusting the reader and you need to give us information. You don’t.” She taught me how to keep the narrative drive going and not put up roadblocks of unnecessary details. Still, some details are important and she advised me to fill in my characters’ backstory with the details that made them full, complex people. The other big piece of wisdom Caroline imparted centered on where my novel should begin and end. Originally, I’d told the story in chronological order, but Caroline offered that it might be helpful to play with time in the early chapters. It’s amazing what small tweaks in structure can do to improve storytelling.
The recommendations of an editor are just that. Recommendations. It’s not a mandate and as any editor will tell you – take what you want, whatever resonates, and leave the rest. So much of Caroline’s input resonated strongly with me. She didn’t try to change my story. She just helped me enhance it. Revising based on her feedback was so much fun because I had a roadmap of what I needed to work on. The lasting words from Caroline’s editorial note that stuck with me most were “This is so publishable.” When I read that, I felt more confident than ever that my dream of becoming a published author would come true someday.
Nancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay in the November 2015 issue. Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s 2016 Rising Star Contest and one of the winners of Writer’s Digest’s “Dear Lucky Agent” contest. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.