by Brian Thornton
In our last go-round we spoke with freelance editor Jim Thomsen about emerging authors, the mistakes they make most commonly, and got some great advice about what to do to avoid these pitfalls if you're one of these first-time authors. If you'd like to revisit Jim's interview questions and responses, you can find it here.
This time we speak with another accomplished freelancer, Stacy Robinson of Next Chapter Writing.
Writer/editor Stacy Robinson operates The Next Chapter, a full-service company that provides a range of editorial and writing services for every type, size and stage of manuscript. Whether you are simply looking for a fresh eye to conduct a review and provide some general feedback or you’re in need of a more detailed evaluation (one that tackles every facet from plot development to word choice), The Next Chapter promises a comprehensive experience tailor-made to you and your writing. To find out more or to contact Stacy, feel free to take a look at her website.
What sorts of editing jobs do you perform, and how do they differ?
Since hanging my shingle as an independent editor, I’ve engaged with a variety of manuscript types, jobs that were in every stage of development from concept to publication. While I offer five distinct levels of edit service to prospective clients (developmental, substantive, line, copy and proofing), I would say that there are elements of all five within each level. What matters most to me, as an editor, reader, and prospective buyer, is that the story being told resonates with the author’s targeted audience on a deeper, more meaningful level. That the characters and spaces created with a writer’s words are communicated in such a way that the reader is transported through time and space, and given the gift of seeing the world (whichever world that may be) through the eyes of the players on the page.
If I were forced to signify the stage in which I am most effective, I’d say as a developmental editor (where my role is to help the author bring the story along from the start) or during the substantive editing phase, where a manuscript is really nothing more than a large mass of clay, ready to be molded and smoothed into perfection. With this level of editing, the manuscript is evaluated in its entirety and any issues that crop up with structure, scene order, coherence, character development and consistency are identified and corrected. Substantive editing about fine-tuning the "big picture" elements, things like plot lines, pacing, tension, character development, and scene setting. With my background in English Literature and Communication, with Marketing and Theatre experience backing it up, I’m able to recognize inconsistent character behavior or speech, adjust language use to really connect with the preferred audience, and assure that your story has believable dialogue and a plausible plotline. The collaboration and connection this type of hands-on editing affords me with my clients really serves to enhance the partnership, as both editor and writer form a sort of synchronicity that allows the most highly-tuned and polished prose to develop and shine through.
That being said, there have often been manuscripts I’ve been asked to work on where the author believes it is nearly complete and needs only that “final polish”, a basic proofread. As an editor, it is quite difficult to tell a prospective client that their work, their baby, isn’t as quite ready to meet the world as they want to believe. However, as the main function of this job description is to improve and enhance the work you’re presented, it is inevitable that we will tell our fair share of clients they need to head back to the drawing board and start again. While never an easy conversation to have, this type of real communication and honesty between editor and writer can lead to incredible results. If you have faith in the editor you’ve chosen to review your work, and have faith that the end result (no matter how difficult or painful it is to achieve) will be the most potent and carefully-crafted version of your story possible, then you’ve truly found the sweet spot of authorship.
You deal with a lot of first-time authors in your line of work. What sorts of mistakes do you see popping up over and over again in their writing?
A fairly common error I see fledgling writers making is something I think even veterans are guilty of – attachment to a particular plot line, underlying theme or character/trait that simply does not work within the overall framework of the story. This is perfectly understandable (and entirely relatable), but letting go of the excess, the misfits, the problem-makers, you really free yourself and your prose from concepts and approaches that just bog the writing down and complicate an already intricate process. This is especially where a good, honest editor comes in handy, as they can tell you in non-emotional and objective terms where things are flowing and where they come to an absolute (and often confusing) halt. Once these problems are resolved, the manuscript naturally moves into a more polished and refined state, where the last passes can be made before publication. Though it can be tough to let go, dissolving attachments to things that distract your reader from your most meaningful prose will lead to best possible reception from your audience.
Another mistake new authors often make is “telling” what they should be “showing”. While the temptation to explain to your readers all that motivates and drives a character is justifiably high, demonstrating their traits and tendencies through action, dialogue, diction, body language, etc. provides a much more effective and pleasurable experience for the reader. For instance, if your protagonist had a difficult childhood and is now nearly estranged from her father, you should exhibit these elements of her character through the tense and awkward content of their phone conversation rather than listing all the reasons for their unease. Show your readers the constructs of their relationship through the halting pace of her speech, the things they discuss (and more importantly, what they don’t), the way he sighs in the spaces between their words. This method is much more likely to provide your audience with a rich and visceral experience they can really sink into, and one they won’t easily forget.
What sort of manuscript makes you glad you took the gig? And why?
The thing that really lights me up is when an author hands me a manuscript that has a solid plotline, plausible and electric tension, and most especially, is driven by the strength and intricacy of its characters. In my opinion, there isn’t a story so imaginative, so “out there”, that good, solid characters can’t tell it, and tell it well. Any tale, no matter the setting or the time period or the plot, can be relatable and engaging if the characters driving the action are genuine and honest. When you start out with well-developed and complex characters, building a story around them becomes a more organic and linear process.
Any last bits of advice?
Stay positive, listen to your inner voice, and write from the gut. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re the only one who has ever wondered if an idea is a good one or if your words are effective. We all have those doubts. Just remember, whatever needs fixing, a good editor can make all the difference in the final product.