Fiction Editing: A Distinguished Panel
February 19, 2003
Working with fiction is often the dream of those who become editors, but for many seeking that first freelance assignment, figuring out where the work is and how to get it can be daunting. February's BAEF panel discussion focused on demystifying fiction editing and offered insights and practical advice on making a go of it in the world of fiction.
The panelists were Donna Levin, the author of two novels and two books about writing (Get That Novel Started and Get That Novel Written, both published by Writer's Digest); Jay Schaefer, editorial director at Chronicle Books; Anika Streitfeld, acquisitions editor at MacAdam/Cage Publishing; and C. J. S. Wallia, a long-time BAEF member who holds a Ph.D. from Stanford and has fourteen years' experience as a contract fiction and nonfiction editor.
As far as fiction goes, New York is the home of the large fiction houses. But according to Jay Schaefer, editorial director of Chronicle Books' fiction line, the amount of fiction published in the Bay Area has more than doubled in the past few years. In fact, San Francisco-based MacAdam/Cage Publishing concentrates almost exclusively on fiction (publishing around 30 books per year), Chronicle Books has its own literature line, and a multitude of local small magazine and book publishers have some small interest in publishing fiction.
And elements of fiction creep in to nonfiction genres, particularly the memoir.
"I'm not the first person to suggest that the memoir is replacing the first autobiographical novel," said author and teacher Donna Levin. "When people ask me if they should write a memoir or a novel, I tell them there are two requirements: (1) that they be older than 23, and (2) that either the bare facts of their life are so fascinating that we would read about them in People or that they are able to bring a sense of detail into describing their lives that makes a difference in the ordinary."
C. J. S. Wallia concurred, noting that Ved Mehta of the New Yorker wrote over a million words in his memoir. Wallia also cautioned that fiction editing and nonfiction editing are two different skills and that there is little that carries over from nonfiction trade publishing to the fiction world.
"To do fiction editing, one most know the craft well," Wallia said. "You must have the equivalent of an MFA and experience with creative writing."
According to Wallia, one of the primary differences between fiction and nonfiction is that for fiction, editors need to pay particular attention to voice and point of view. He gave the example of April Sinclair who came to him to have the grammar corrected in her manuscript. He recommended against that, because the narrative voice was so strong and just right as it was.
Although the manuscript that an editor receives may appear to be complete, it may require developmental or substantive editing. Wallia recommended Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King as resources for editors.
In addition, the life cycle of a novel differs dramatically from a trade book. For trade books, the author often submits a book proposal and sample chapter(s). If a publisher decides to acquire the book, only then does the book actually get written. Novels, however, come to the publisher generally as complete works, and then the publisher has to decide if the book is worth the effort to publish. Unlike nonfiction (e.g., marketing gardening books to gardeners), fiction normally doesn't have a ready-made audience.
Unlike many publishers, MacAdam/Cage accepts unsolicited manuscripts, according to Anika Streitfeld, acquisitions editor. One way that they manage the slush pile is by hiring freelance readers who get paid approximately $25 for every 100 pages. The readers fill out a questionnaire about the book, giving their feedback.
"The reading process for us has been kind of mixed," said Streitfeld. "The good thing is that we can get through the manuscripts in a pretty timely fashion, and most of our readers have an editorial mindset."
Ultimately, the decision to publish a novel is subjective, according to Streitfeld—in that way MacAdam/Cage operates differently from the big NY publishers. And for Chronicle Books editor Schaefer, acquisition is based on a number of factors.
"The decision to acquire is personal—is it appropriate to the publishing house, something that excites you, something that surprises you?" said Schaefer. "My problem is not getting a manuscript through Chronicle Books, but finding the good stuff. There is no fixed formula for success."
And if a book doesn't make the cut, Schaefer will sometimes find himself writing a detailed rejection letter, giving feedback on what changes he would recommend. However, he hesitates to refer authors to developmental editors or book doctors.
"I rarely refer writers to outside editors because that's normally such a rip-off for the author," Schaefer said. "But I do sometimes use outside editors who have a particular expertise."
Levin notes that when a publisher refers an author to an outside editor, there can be a possible conflict of interest. She frequently gets requests to work directly with publishers or authors at the substantive, big picture level. And as an editor, she has struggled with the moral question of whether to work on a manuscript that probably won't get published, no matter what.
"But the inspiring and true part is that I've had two or three students virtually shunned by the rest of their classes as losers who were the first ones published," Levin said. "Lalita Tademy (Cane River) was in my novel writing workshop and she has been rejected by 17 agents. I hooked her up with my agent and she got a huge advance."
Both MacAdam/Cage and Chronicle Books rely on freelance copyeditors and proofreaders from the Bay Area and beyond. They don't consider geography when hiring freelancers—but they look for good communication and a light touch.
"I consider light editing to be primarily concerned with grammar and continuity-not moving around vast concepts," Schaefer said. "You need to get into what the author is trying to do, not supplant the author with your taste."
"I often get copyedited manuscripts back with notes to me, but that creates a weird situation," said Streitfeld. "Queries should be written for the author."
Before the manuscript reaches the copyeditor, Streitfeld has gone through multiple rounds of editing. According to Streitfeld, there is a sensitivity involved in fiction editing, particularly with a first-time author who can quickly get bogged down by queries.
While queries are passed along to the author to resolve, any bigger picture problems should be brought to the project editor's attention sooner rather than later, said Schaefer. And for Schaefer, copyediting is done on hard copy. He doesn't want to have the electronic version until all copyediting is done and the manuscript is cleaned up and ready to typeset.
In addition to point of view and continuity, Wallia watches out for "Tom Swifties" when he works with fiction. Authors will often add a tag in dialog that repeats what the words are supposed to convey; for example, "'Who would want to steal modern art?' asked Tom abstractedly."
Levin suggests that editors with particular expertise in creative writing or developmental editing can get referrals and network by offering workshops and classes.
"I've gotten the vast majority of my contacts through teaching," Levin said. "Teaching is a good stepping stone to a base of editorial clients. Teaching pay sucks, but editorial pay is a little more reality-based."