The Morgan Diaries offices have been invaded! A horde of editors have descended upon us. I’ve hidden all the Oreos and any loose manuscripts lying around, but they can smell those things out. Manuscripts I mean. The Oreos I hide on general principles.
Jmo, be quiet. It’s only one editor and we invited her. In fact you invited her.
Oh, sorry, that’s right.
Now get off the top of the bookshelf so we can greet our guest.
We are proud to welcome Cindy Davis, editor extraordinaire, to our palatial offices. We’ve brought you interviews from across the publishing world, but finally we have the meat and potatoes of writing right where we want them. Writing a book is only the first step in bringing a novel to life. It takes hours of hard work and polish to turn a good manuscript into a great book. You may not believe this, but editors are the unsung heroes of our biz and we’ll glad to finally let our readers in on the secret. Okay Jmo, tie her in before she realizes what she let herself in for.
TMD: Don’t tug. It only makes the ropes go tighter. Now, Cindy, we are so happy to have you with us today.
CD: Thanks. After that introduction, I wonder if maybe I’ve brought the wrong equipment. Should have a set of shears and a cattle prod.
TMD: Before we get to grilling you within an inch of your life, could you tell our readers a little about yourself?
CD: I live in the White Mountain state of New Hampshire. Married with eleven kids, all grown and gone. My husband and I like to travel—my job is very portable—in our motorhome. Sometimes we bring along a grandchild but since we’ll only take one at a time, grin, it takes a long time to give all 25 of them a turn. I enjoy gardening, reading, hiking, boating, reading, Red Sox, and reading. I raise exotic finches in an aviary in my office. Did I mention I like to read?
TMD: What inspired you to become an editor?
CD: I had my first book published in 1996 by Whiskey Creek Press. In ‘99, they were in a bind for editors. The owner said, “I know you can write, would you consider editing?” I did, and found out I loved it. Loved helping authors see what’s really inside their stories. I love teaching them why their characters do the things they do—and refuse to do what they want. I love it when an author says, “Gee, why didn’t I see that?”
Anyway, in 2000, I sent resumés to two other houses and was hired. In 2006, I branched out on my own. I’m known around the net as the Fiction Doctor. I’ve dealt with some awesome people from all walks of life, from mafia memoirs to one from a sex dominatrix.
TMD: Like we said above, readers don’t realize how much of a book’s success is really the result of a good editor. Mind outlining the editing process for them in a nutshell?
CD: I told one of my authors I was being interviewed and that I thought it was hard to outline this job on a page, forget about a nutshell. Here’s what he said to say, “I take writing and I make it sound like less crap." Anyway, I’ll try to tell what I do. The process differs somewhat depending on whether I receive an already-contracted ms from a publisher or a free-lance one where it’s my decision whether to work on it or not.
I begin with a synopsis. I hate writing the things, but find them essential when editing because I haven’t the time to sit down and read each manuscript. The synopsis tells me whether the author has a grasp of plot. It tells me whether the plot has unique elements that are likely to appeal to an audience. Occasionally I ask for character sketches. This tells me whether there’s a depth that makes them compelling, whether there’s a distinct difference between them or there are too many to keep straight. Then it’s on to the editing process. Oops, forgot a step. If it’s a free-lance job, I write out an estimate.
Editing begins with a compelling opening. Statistics say a potential reader gives the author less than three minutes to hook them. That means the first paragraphs are like magnets. Give the reader a taste of the story, of the characters, but whatever you do, compel them to read on, to have to find out what’s going to happen.
A question you didn’t ask is, what do I see way too much of? The answer is backstory. Many authors think the reader has to know a character’s entire history, or the reason something happened plot-wise. Backstory slows down the forward motion of your piece. A famous agent whose seminar I once took, said, “If you have any backstory in the first 100 pages, take it out. Paste it into page 101. If, when you get to that point in the rewrite, if you still need it, use it. But I’ll be surprised if you do.”
I take into consideration things like character motivation. Is his/her reaction to the plot elements logical or does it feel contrived? Is there action in this story? Whether physical shoot-‘em-up action or cerebral I-gotta-think-on-this action, it must induce the reader to turn pages.
Is the manuscript overwritten? Does the author use an economy of words to describe something? Is it loaded with passive voice? Another question you didn’t ask was my pet peeve in editing. There are two: passive voice and the word ‘that’. Most of the time ‘that’s’ unnecessary.
TMD: Have you ever run across a book that no amount of editing could save?
CD: Twice. Once I was right, one time I was wrong.
If the submission was sent to me by a publisher, I eat a bag of potato chips while praying the book wasn’t contracted already (99.9% of the time it isn’t). Then I write a note to the author explaining the good points (that one time I couldn’t find anything to say) and providing a detailed outline of what the story needs to be acceptable. If it’s a free-lance submission, I do the same, but decline the job. Sometimes I offer to look at the piece again once the rewrite has been done. (That time I mentioned where I was wrong? The author rewrote the book using most of my suggestions. It hit 12 on Fictionwise after its release! Hey, I can admit when I’m wrong!)
TMD: And diva authors. We know you have at least one. How do you deal with their ego and their ambition? (Is it Jmo? Enquiring minds want to know)
CD: Here, being a fellow author helps because I know what it’s like when someone criticizes what I do. Writing is a very personal endeavor. We put our souls on those pages. On rare occasion I find an author who’s impossible to handle, but as I said, it’s rare. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a clash of personalities—hard to believe about me, I know. I simply ask the publisher to reassign the manuscript to another editor. It’s better for all concerned. On the free-lance side, I try to speak with potential authors before taking them as clients. I haven’t had one I couldn’t bring around by some judiciously placed accolades (in editing jargon—kissing ass)
TMD: Deadlines. We all have ‘em. Do you love them or hate them?
CD: I’m proud to say I’ve never missed one. I’m the kind of person who’s haunted by a manuscript in my files. I cannot let it sit there waiting for me to work on it. As for my authors, some work better if I give them a deadline. Others are quick on the edits and have them in my inbox before I’m finished with the next set of chapters.
TMD: Tell us about your greatest triumph as an editor. Was it a particularly good review for your author? An award? Likewise, what was your greatest disappointment to date?
CD: All my jobs are triumphs in one respect or another. I love when an author says, “Gee, I didn’t think of that!” or “I really learned something from you.” But two recent events stand out in particular. One author wrote and told me what she learned from me during our process, she’d applied to another manuscript and received a contract from Avalon Books. Another author wrote to the senior editor at one house touting my ‘talents’. On the downside, I once got a note from an author for whom I’d done a free-lance edit. He’d received a contract from a publisher and a whole new set of edits. Not that mine were wrong, but the new editor and I obviously had different agendas regarding what’s interesting to readers.
TMD: As is a time honored tradition here at The Diaries, we got a crazy question with your name written all over it. Seriously, Jmo wrote your name all over it. I had to take the crayons away from him before he moved on to the walls.
If you could get any classical work of literature into your Word program for a good edit, which book would you chose and what would you do with it?
CD: Ooh, good question. I’ll have to think on that.
TMD: What fuels the editor in you best? Oreos or chocolate chip? Dove or Hershey? French vanilla ice cream or double dutch chocolate? Vodka, rum, or gin? (Personally MorganO prefers a good Zin or champagne best.)
CD: Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food washed down with a glass of DiSaronno liqueur.
TMD: If you could offer one bit of advice to up and coming authors, or those already in the business, what would it be?
CD: DON’T SUBMIT YOUR FIRST DRAFT! Oops, did I yell? Sorry. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking the first draft is ready to be viewed by the public. You’ve poured yourself into that story for months, perhaps years, but I’ve never seen one that was finished. Before I’ve read a page, it’s screaming at me for a rewrite.
TMD: Before we let you go, Jmo be ready to cut the ropes off her and run, let our readers know where they can find you on the web. Urls, emails, MySpace…the usual methods. Thank you so much for joining us. Send us the bill for your dry cleaning if those wrinkles don’t come out.
To answer the classic literature question. There are two books I’d really like to edit. One is classic literature, one isn’t. Dickens’ Bleak House and Janet Evanovich’s Metro Girl.