In my last article, I talked about hiring an editor. Today, I want to talk about working with an editor on conception rather than after-the-fact editing.

When I began to work with my editor, I expected her to cut some history and perhaps rearrange some scenes. But, though she was complementary of the writing, characters, etc., she believed that, since the story had certain elements of a thriller, it would need to BE a thriller. But I didn’t write it as a thriller, wasn’t sure I wanted it to be a thriller, and so, was undecided on what to do. Thrillerizing it would basically mean rewriting half the book.

Meanwhile, I was becoming more excited about my new novel about the Italian writer Boccaccio.

I write historical fiction, teach creative writing, and direct the Village Writing School. I believe stories have the power to connect us to our histories, one another, and our best selves.
I was days away from coming to Italy to work on his story. So I suggested to the editor that we simply put the previous manuscript on hold and focus on this new one. I suggested that I run my first several scenes by her to get this thing off on the right foot.

I see this as a great experiment. CAN I write a book that I LOVE that can be published in New York? I don’t know the answer to that question today. Over and over I am assured that it’s not a question of my writing but of the type of book that the big houses are looking for from debut novelists.

I came on my trip and began to write faster than I ever have. I sent the editor 35 pages. She read through it (not editing) and we FaceTimed. She loved the character and voice but said it was beginning too slowly and reading like a travelogue. We brainstormed Boccaccio’s life, and she said that the plague of the Black Death was the thing his story needed to revolve around.

Now the interesting thing is that she, of course, is looking for drama and salability. I am looking for authenticity in the character’s journey. I thought about it all that night and decided that, if you lived through something that horrific, indeed, you would divide your life into before and after. You would be changed. Evidence of this is found in the many scholarly articles analyzing the effects of the plague on Boccaccio’s greatest writing.

So I wrote a new beginning, a couple of pages. I wrote a scene for the modern story that will run consecutive with Boccaccio’s. Again, we FaceTimed. She asked me questions about Boccaccio’s life, about the modern character and what was at stake for her. I did most of the talking. But then she took what I said and underlined the potential in it. “Start with that.” “Bring that out more.”

So far, I can report that I am happy with the process and the progress, though I also realize that a time may come when our paths diverge. I do want to be published by a big house, but if she says, “Now bring in a giant lizard,” I’ll have to opt out. I don’t think that will happen. It’s also possible that I just will never be able to truly see into what she wants. But for now, I’m optimistic.

I have learned that this is how many “bestselling” authors proceed. They are under huge pressure to produce and don’t have time for a massive rewrite. Of course, they are not as transparent about the process as I have been with you, and these editors even sign confidentially agreements not to divulge who their clients are. So, at least I’m in good company, LOL.

If you’re interested in running your ideas by a former big-house editor, you can check out the editors I listed in my last article. This is far less expensive than a full manuscript edit and just might get you off on the right foot so that you don’t have to have a full edit.

Meanwhile, it’s fun to kick around ideas with someone who used to acquire manuscripts for these big publishers. It’s an education to see how they think.

And you get to talk about your book with someone other than your mom.


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