working with an editor

I’ve had the rewarding experience of working with two editors, Aviva Layton and Toni Lopopolo. My first experience  was with Aviva Layton some years ago and that was the customary situation where I hired her to read and critique, (not line edit) two different manuscripts. One of them she read twice. She gave me more than I paid for. I was looking for an overview from a sophisticated reader who could tell me where my plot flagged, where my characters mystified, where I talked too much when I should have let my characters show. I killed a couple of characters under her advice, and man, was it satisfying. An editor will see things you never did, ask questions even the best writers group doesn’t, and ruthlessly guide you to a cleaner clearer story arc. After all, that is the point — to tell a good story.

You might find it odd that I mention Toni, who is also my agent, but you know what? I got lucky. I ended up with an agent who does it all — she has over this past year helped me rewrite my novel about Nigeria from beginning to end something like ten or eleven times… I think we’ve both lost count. Did I pay her? No; when Toni signed me it was in accordance with all the rules you see on Writers Beware and other such sites. She did it on the speculation that I’d make something saleable and worth this tremendous investment of her time and energy and patience.

I tried very hard to be good because I knew the work was flawed. The novel Toni fell in love with was my tale of four women in Nigeria who are caught up in the Nigerian Civil War. I wrote it starting in 1976, when I was in college at Wellesley. Fellow students got accustomed to seeing me hunched over my old electric typewriter in the commonroom picking at the keys. Never learned to touch type, and even though I write a lot, I use four fingers on my right hand and four on my right. It’s a wonder my pinkies haven’t atrophied, but maybe they keep exercised by waving about in the air cheering the others on.

I digress. The problem with this particluar novel was that it had morphed over the decades. It was in purely awful shape. It had swelled at times to something over 600 pages, shrunk down to 200 and swelled again. I’d never even shown this manuscript to Aviva — I knew it wasn’t ready. It was pure chance or my father’s ghost that made me take a couple of excerpts to the writers workshop where Toni heard a section and fell for it. So when Toni told me it was a mess, what could I do but nod? The miracle was that she didn’t give up. We waded through issues of point of view, adverbs and masses of beautiful description that stopped the story in its tracks, too many people– and started the process by killing of some characters. Sound familiar? Is that my trope that I tend to pack too many people in?

Now I have a contract with an independant publisher, and I’m setting up the nitty gritty of publicity. We are, fingers crossed, looking at this September. My father, who took us all to Nigeria in the first place, would be pleased.

What I wanted to say in this post is that if you are a writer, use your resources. Run the novel or the story through your writers groups (and yes, I put that in the plural form.) Make yourself go to writers’ conferences and force yourself to your quaking feet to read aloud. Don’t just read the first chapter over and over again. Most chapters should have their own arc, and with the briefest of descriptions of the set-up, you should be good to go. Remember that if your book makes it to a bookshelf in a bookstore, you may be picked up by a potential reader who follows my evil habit of opening to the middle to see what the fat looks like.

If you are told by two or more people to change something, you need to think it over real hard. If you hear it from three, just do it. Do it in your own way, but do it.

When it comes to editors, I’d say wait until you’ve done the groups and the conferences. Take your shining clean typo-free copy and pay an expert to tell you what isn’t working. The neater your copy the less your editor will be distracted by the detritus. When you finally corner that agent who signs you, she or he may not be as old fashioned as mine, so don’t be surprised, but make sure that your manuscript is as ready as you can make it. I think I’d even recommend springing for another editorial run-through. Your writing is an investment, not only of the time in your life you’ve spent making love to a keyboard, but of your funds, in the sensible use of professionals.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “working with an editor

  1. As a writer soon to seek an agent (after 10 years of work on one book), I especially enjoyed your insights here. It truly is a journey.

    • Thank you and good luck on the agent search. It can take a lot of time and a lot of luck to find that particular person who resonates to the story you have to tell, but the pursuit is worth it. What a learning curve I have been rollercoating on!

  2. Thank You for sharing your writing journey. Aviva Layton is exceptional and I say she’s a story doctor! That’s what I have come to realize because I taped our two hour session and replayed it so many many times that I could hear her talking to me as I made my adjustments to my novel. She’s a wonderful soul and I am so thankful for the opportunity I had to work with her.

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