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Book Editors Alliance

When To Call the (Book) Doctor

by Sandi Gelles-Cole 

Chances are, if you are checking out the BEA web site, you are an author with an inkling that you might require editorial assistance.  Of course, in the world of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and novelist William Faulkner—or for that matter the world of Carole Baron and Judith Krantz, or many other contemporary editors and the authors they have worked with—it’s understood that every author needs an editor, just as every actor needs a director.  Traditionally, the editor was provided by the publisher.  But this is no longer the case.  Editors who work for publishing houses have had their job descriptions changed over the past decade.  Their mission now is generally to acquire books and help package and market them—not to edit them.


Maybe you’ve been getting the message that your book needs editorial work.  The message may be coming from that nagging voice inside you, from your dearest friend and critic, from every agent you have submitted the material to, or even, if you are lucky, from a publisher who has committed to the book provided you improve it.  No matter the source, if that message is reaching you persistently, then it is probably time to call the book doctor.


It’s fine to seek editorial help after writing a complete first draft of your book.  However, it is easier and more productive to begin working with an editorial consultant much earlier.  For example, consider nonfiction.  The author in any field, whether writing a memoir, a biography, or a book about business, health, science, or psychology, would do well to begin working with an editor as soon as the book idea begins to take shape.  The editor will help you develop your idea into a full-fledged book concept and then help you put together the book proposal.


Suppose you are an astronomer who has discovered a new galaxy.  Maybe the entire world knows your name, and you have been on talk shows and radio call-in shows.  You may have already made it to the late-night talk circuit, and Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien may already be making fun of you.  When you decide to write your book, it may take many forms.   It might be a dramatic narrative relating how you found the galaxy.  It might be a ground-breaking exploration of what finding the galaxy means to scientists and to our future.  It might even be a “tell-all” book exposing the seamy side of scientific competition.  An outside editor can help you choose among these and other options, expanding your thinking from the outset.


On the other hand, it may be that your nonfiction idea is quite fully developed, but you have come to realize that the book’s organization is making it less broadly appealing than it could be.  An editor can help you find the largest concept in the material and a form of presentation that will highlight the facets of the idea that are new or uniquely yours.  Even familiar material can be made more appealing through shrewd editorial intervention.  For example, there are zillions of self-help guides, but the best sellers in the category have some unique concept, structure, or organization that puts them over the top.


If your material is not reader-friendly, is disorganized, or fails to fulfill its potential, consult an editor before you submit your book to agents.   If you do, the agents will ultimately have the opportunity to consider the best possible material you can turn out, avoiding frustration and loss of time on all sides.


For the fiction writer, there are different considerations.  Perhaps you have written and tucked away a thousand pages.  When you think you finally have something worth showing to other people, this is a really good time to call an independent editor.  For a fee, the editor can read and evaluate your work, providing a detailed editorial letter that will honestly appraise the book’s chances of getting published and explain how you can make it the best book it can be.


Some would-be novelists have a great idea (a “high concept” in industry parlance) or special and unique knowledge suited to a fictional recounting, but don’t know where to begin to tell a story.  An independent editor can help develop a story around your concept, help you build characters and subplot, and either write the book for you or review the book as it leaves your computer.  An experienced editor knows what works for your market and can help to ensure you have created the optimal story to wrap around your idea.


Perhaps you’ve been getting really nice rejection letters from agents rather than form letters.  These suggest that your work is promising, though currently inadequate.  Consider digesting what all the agents have to say and then finding an outside editor to help you deliver.  An independent editor may be called when you find that you need help in applying various literary techniques, such as flashback; flash-forward; prologue; use of various narrative voices; the third-person-limited point of view, or any other elements of the craft of writing that you have not mastered on your own.


For example, the complicated plots necessary for mysteries, thrillers, psychological suspense, romantic suspense, science fiction, and so on, can be daunting to work out.  A seasoned, objective editor may be able to “see” the ending of your book even when you can’t.


A fictionalized memoir like David Peltzer’s A BOY CALLED IT can also benefit from an objective eye.  An editor can weed out those parts of the book that are not interesting to readers (even though you may consider them the high points of your life story).  And an editor can help you organize the events, reordering and modifying them if that makes for a better story.


Still in doubt as to whether it’s time for you to call the book doctor?  Examine the lists of genre specialties for each BEA member, and find an editor with expertise in your field of writing.  Send a query describing your project, and the editor will be happy to advise you as to whether you might benefit from professional help.


Sandi Gelles-Cole, a member of emeritus of the Book Editors Alliance, founded Gelles-Cole Literary Enterprises in 1983, after eleven years as an acquisitions editor for major New York publishers.  Authors she has worked with include Danielle Steel, Alan Dershowitz, Victoria Gotti, Christiane Northrup, Rita (Mrs. Patrick) Ewing and Chris Gilson, whose first novel, Crazy for Cornelia, was sold in an overnight preemptive sale as a major hardcover and became a Los Angeles Times bestseller.  She can be reached at sandigc@gmail.

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