book editing


 

Have you completed a memoir, or written a lot of material, and become stuck? A developmental editor can help you figure out what you need to do and how you can reshape your material. I do this work and find it very rewarding because I love helping clients tell their stories. Whenever I can, I offer would-be authors advice on how to get unstuck in the process of writing their memoir or self-help book, and in that spirit, I’d like to share with you an interview I did with a colleague, Al Desetta.

Al Desetta is a ghostwriter/developmental editor I have referred people to when the project isn’t quite right for me or the timing isn’t going to work out given the client’s plans and my schedule. I asked him to shed some light on how he works so that people who follow my blog can learn from him.

 

Nancy: Many people are confused by what a developmental editor does. How would you describe what you do?

 

Al: A developmental editor helps an author develop the true potential in a completed or partially completed manuscript. Unlike a copyeditor who simply corrects a manuscript, a developmental editor looks for ways to help the author improve it, which typically includes helping the writer reorganize the book, rewrite parts of it, add new or additional information, cut or deemphasize parts of a manuscript, etc. For example, I often help memoir writers deepen certain aspects of their stories that they may have overlooked or not considered important. Writers—especially first time writers—are frequently too close to their experience to fully realize the true power in certain events. As a developmental editor, I help authors find the “diamond in the rough” of their experience.

 

Nancy: Who is your typical client? Why do they hire you? For instance, where are they in their process of writing?

 

Al: A typical client is a first-time author who has written a book, but who is uncertain about the quality of the work and seeks me out for objective and constructive feedback. They know they have the germ of a good idea, or even a pretty well-developed book, but they want someone who can offer a professional opinion on the state of the manuscript and ways to improve it.

developmental editor

Stuck on writing your memoir? Hire a developmental editor to evaluate it and help you write it! Developmental editor Al Desetta explains.

 

Nancy: You ghostwrite and you do developmental editing. How do you help a client decide which service is the right one for that particular project?

 

Al: Usually clients are pretty clear about which service they want. Ghostwriting is for people who don’t have the time or skills to write their own books. Developmental editing is for authors who have written their own books, but who are stuck in some way. Sometimes developmental editing also includes some ghostwriting. I’m helping an author right now who has partially completed a memoir. Some of what I do with her is developmental editing—I ask her questions and point out areas where she can improve and develop the manuscript. But I also do a little ghostwriting to help in the process—I interview her about aspects of her life, write chapters based on the interviews, and she then revises these chapters and adds more information.

 

Nancy: When you get full or partial manuscripts from a new client working on a nonfiction book, what are the most common problems you see?

 

Al: Two common problems are overwriting and lack of a workable structure. These problems often surface in memoirs, but are also true of most nonfiction books.

 

Memoir writers often tend to overwrite—they are so close to their experience that they don’t know how to manage or shape it. They think they can write their way out of this problem, but that only compounds the problem. A memoir can’t be about an entire person’s life—it has to focus on an aspect of a person’s experience. What you leave out is as important as what you decide to include.

Related to this is the importance of structure. When an author doesn’t have a workable structure or organization, it’s like driving without a map. Or, to use an analogy that a writing teacher once told me, you set out rowing on the ocean and you lose sight of land. And you keep rowing, hoping to sight land on the other side. But pretty soon you realize you’re lost on the ocean and more rowing (or more writing) won’t get you back to land. Having an organization or structure at the start helps a writer from getting lost, especially in memoir writing, where the author has access to great amounts of information about her life, but often isn’t sure what to include or how to organize it.

 

Nancy: Are there any recent developmental editing projects that stand out for you that self-help mind/body/spirit or inspirational memoir writers could learn from? Any lessons you drew from these recent projects, or were reminded of?

 

Al: One lesson that always stands out is how gratifying the process can be, for both writer and editor. People have life experiences or ideas that they’ve always wanted to write about, but all authors encounter obstacles as they try to write about them. Right now I’m ghostwriting a memoir for a mother and son who were held captive for months by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. It’s been a wonderful experience to help them create the book they’ve always wanted to write, a process that has also helped them to heal.

 

As a developmental editor and ghostwriter myself, I understand Al’s enthusiasm for helping people to tell stories that lead to healing for themselves and others. If you are eager to get unstuck in writing your memoir, consider contacting a professional, experienced developmental editor to get you back on track.

 

Al Desetta’s website, where you can learn more about his services and the kinds of books he has worked on, is www.AlDesetta.Com

 

 

 

Twenty years ago, I had the honor of being involved in a cultural phenomenon called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Remember that catchphrase? It came from a mega-best-selling book by relationship counselor John Gray, PhD. My boss, Susan Moldow at HarperCollins Publishers (then Harper and Row), signed up the book and as her assistant, I co-edited the manuscript with her. My contribution included a key question that John expanded upon, and insights into how women and men at the younger end of the baby boom might respond to some of his advice. I went on to co-edit or edit his next two books—What Your Mother Couldn’t Tell You and Your Father Didn’t Know and Mars and Venus in the Bedroom (about physical intimacy in male-female committed romantic relationships). Like John’s first book, they became New York Times bestsellers.

 

I well remember calling John’s agent every Thursday morning when I came into work to let her know his ranking on the USA Today bestseller list, which was new at the time. It was a thrill to see him become famous, to watch his hardcover book sell 9.5 million copies in the U.S. alone and become the bestselling American nonfiction book of the 1990s. I learned so much from John that helped me with my own success—and if you’re an aspiring author, you too can learn from him. Here are eleven lessons I draw from his book’s phenomenal success.

 

1. Indulge your curiosity. John Gray became fascinated by male-female romantic relationships after spending nearly a decade in celibacy as a monk working for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the fellow the Beatles took a shine to and about whom John Lennon wrote the song “Sexy Sadie”). Like many great cultural innovators, John Gray was curious—and approached the task of learning how to start and maintain a healthy relationship with a woman by adopting beginner’s mind, as they say in Buddhism. Where can your curiosity take you?

 

 

2. Research your audience as you build your platform. What John Gray learned from formal study and from doing in-person workshops with men and women helped him formulate and refine his ideas. He told me that he’d throw an idea out there in a workshop—like that men are similar to rubber bands, needing to pull away and then snap back to emotional intimacy—and read the audience’s body language. If the men smiled, nodded, and sat forward in their seats while they women’s eyes grew wide, he knew he was on to something universal. And if everyone looked blank and crossed their legs and arms, sitting back in their chairs, he knew he had to refine the idea. This is market research at its very best—you must get your ideas out there and try them out on real people.

 

3. Be true to the needs of your audience. While self-help books typically sell to women, John Gray knew how to make his book appeal to men as well, and knew that if he made it “guy friendly,” women would buy it and leave it on the nightstand or quote from it to their husbands and the guys would pick up on it and recommend it to their male friends. Sometimes when working on his books, I’d make a suggestion to John and he’d say, “But men won’t respond well to that. I have to say it in a way that won’t turn them off OR turn women off.” He insisted that his audience would want key ideas highlighted in boxes—which some readers complained about but the majority loved. He said this element echoed how he would repeat a key idea when speaking—and the audience would want it in the book, too. He’s right; they did.

 

4. Consider self-publishing first. John wrote a book called Men, Women, and Relationships to use with his workshop participants. Its success impressed book publishers who had the opportunity to buy the rights to republish it.

 

5. Come up with an amazing title. Before writing a book proposal to sell to editors via a literary agent, John Gray came up with a fantastic title—the article in USA Today on the twentieth anniversary of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus dominating their bestseller list explains how. He had the concept right—but his self-published book had what we’d call a “working title.” He needed a memorable hook that grabbed your heart, and in this case, made you laugh in recognition. A play on words is a great way to come up with your amazing title. We’ve all heard “Men are from Mars!” It’s the “Women are from Venus” that makes you want to open up the book!

6.  Persevere at building your platform. John Gray built his platform before he wrote a book proposal and he continued building it while writing the book, while it was in production, and after it was published. He used his own advice about wooing women with roses to help him woo Oprah into putting him on her show—and she did it four times. Every time he went to a city, he went into the bookstores and introduced himself. He was a tireless self-promoter because he had a passion for his message. Platform building can never start too early, and it never ends.

 

7. Have a sense of humor and lighten up. People can get very defensive about having their problems or challenges pointed out, and often have a lot of baggage about gender stereotypes and roles. John Gray has always used humor to open people’s hearts and minds, and much of his humor is self-deprecating. Watching him do a lecture is so entertaining that he actually inspired a real off-Broadway stage show and then went to Broadway to do his own one-man show! His book also inspired the movie, What Planet Are You From? by Gary Shandling. Humor engages people and brings out their own creativity!

 

8. Don’t let others tell you you’re not an expert. Many criticized John Gray for not having a PhD from a credentialed university with brick-and-mortar presence (this was in the days before online learning). They dismissed the work he’d done trying out his ideas on real people and honing them, and couldn’t stand the fact that someone outside of mainstream academic circles had achieved success. John Gray was always completely open about his education and his training—he wouldn’t let anyone shame him into silence. Don’t let anyone shame you—trust your inner sense of knowing about how much research you need to do, and of what type, before writing a book of value for a wider audience.

 

9. Expand your brand. A book shouldn’t pigeonhole you. John’s second book, What Your Mother Couldn’t Tell You and Your Father Didn’t Know, expanded on the first by going deeper into how men and women are different and how knowing about and respecting those differences will help your relationships. His third book, Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, was about the physical intimacy piece. Later, he expanded to talking about male/female romantic, monogamous, long-term relationships in other ways—and his new book will be about the role of ADHD in these relationships. Your brand can and should expand over time.

 

10. Put yourself into your book. If you take your ego and personality out of your book and platform, you take the heart and soul out of it. John always talks openly about his return to sexuality after having been a monk, his relationship experiences, and his vulnerabilities. That’s what gives his work heart and soul. Do you have the courage to put YOU into your book?

 

11. Turn your weaknesses into strengths. A celibate monk is the last person to know about how to woo and retain a girlfriend—but John Gray made his situation into a strength by using it as a foundation for learning. Can you imagine how a woman responds to, “I have to tell you, I’ve been a celibate monk for years and I’m hoping you can teach me something about women?”! People who have dyslexia and trouble reading often are told they can’t write, but John Gray didn’t let dyslexia stop him from his goal of writing a book. His ADHD may have made focusing difficult as he was growing up and as an adult, but it also gave him the drive and focus to use his passion to create a cultural phenomenon. And it makes him a dynamic, high energy presenter! What weaknesses of yours are actually hidden strengths that can help you in your goal to write a book?

 

Congratulations to John Gray on the twentieth anniversary of his USA Today and New York Times #1 bestseller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus! 

 

 

Thinking of self-publishing? Should you choose the editing or editorial evaluation package from the self-publishing arm of a publisher, or from self-publishing houses?

As a former in-house acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, a current ghostwriter and developmental editor, and the coauthor of several successful books, I can help you make the right choice for yourself and your book based on your goals (and your budget). You need to know whom you are hiring (and yes, you want to hire someone who knows why I used “whom” right there!). You also want to get the most bang for your buck, and that means making sure your book’s structure, approach, voice, and concept are solid before you start line editing it. You don’t paint the walls of a house before you’ve installed the plumbing and wiring correctly!

Many editors don’t know anything about structuring and editing books, which is a skill of its own. Also, those of us who are developmental editors do not work on every type of book there is. I am well read in many areas, but in some, I admit, I know next-to-nothing! I do turn down and pass along projects I know for certain I’m not the right editor for because I don’t have enough background in working on that type of book. My clients benefit from being able to work with someone who keeps up on what’s going on in the publishing world, the book marketing world, and the worlds of wellness, motivational speaking and writing, business, health, and more.

Peggy McColl

Some of the books I’ve worked on include business books, self-help, inspiration, life lessons books, and memoirs.

 

ADVICE FOR NONFICTION AUTHORS

Here’s what I recommend for authors who want to self-publish nonfiction: Work out your outline and the beginning of the book, looking to other successful books as your guide, and then call in a developmental editor who can evaluate the material and advise you BEFORE you get off track. Write a clear description of each chapter whether or not you do a whole book proposal before contacting an editor. Don’t make the editor guess at what’s in each chapter based on the chapter titles. If you’re looking to sell the book to a publisher and need a book proposal, follow the standard instructions for creating one (you can use the guidance on my website, and please pay close attention to the all-important comparative books list). Then, ask a developmental editor with an acquisitions background or success in shaping proposals that sold to evaluate it. A developmental editor will alert you to writing issues you need to be aware of, and will guide you on structural changes you need to make. If you’re writing a memoir, you will want to be sure you know what the purpose of the memoir is. Memoirs by non-famous people have to have strong themes and titles to capture the attention of readers who aren’t friends and family members.

When you’ve gotten the manuscript into the best possible shape, hire a copyeditor/light line editor to clean it up. He or she should simultaneously create a style sheet for a proofreader to work from (a style sheet lists all the proper nouns and the grammar and punctuation rules you decided upon, such as whether or not to capitalize the first word in a full sentence that follows a colon). Hire a proofreader and ask a friend or fellow author to be another set of eyes.

ADVICE FOR FICTION WRITERS

If you want someone to evaluate your novel (or your completed memoir or other nonfiction manuscript), recognize that it will take hours just to read it, much less to read it, make notes, and correct those notes afterward. How often have I thought, “Oh, I see—now I understand what she was talking about back in chapter 2. Let me go back and change that note.”! If you want to get an evaluation and save money, create an expanded chapter outline and a plot description. Otherwise, the editor has to skim and skim to get the big picture. I was trained to do this as an in-house editor and had lots of practice reading for literary agents, book clubs, and publishers, and I regularly met with other editors doing the same sort of work to compare notes. We became masters of skimming and evaluating. But even masters need time to go through a manuscript whose entire cover letter with plot description is three sentences long! Make it easier for an editor to evaluate your book by creating the one-page synopsis at the very least. And if you can also write up a list of chapters with short descriptions, that’s even better. It will help the editor and it will give you a big picture view of your book in the process. Maybe in preparing the chapter outline, you’ll spot sections that need to be edited down, for instance.

If you decide that you really must write the whole book and “get it on paper,” so to speak, before getting direction from a developmental editor, don’t let me stop you. Just know that if you go that route, you are likely to have to do a lot of cutting and restructuring, and you may end up spending a lot more money paying an editor because you’re presenting that person with a manuscript and no “cheat sheet” with plot description or chapter summaries. Don’t be married to what you wrote.

I hope this helps! I really don’t want any of you feeling you must approach the book writing process a certain way, but I also don’t want you shocked by how much money and time it takes to shape your very raw manuscript.

Good luck on your writing and editing!