Hanging Out With Honey Boo Boo
As I write this, a sneaky plan is afoot. Today, while my injured, crated, Elizabethan-collared dog is nice and sleepy from his morning dose of Gabapentin, I will tiptoe out of the house without waking him, get in my car, drive to town, and meet my contact, Beth. At Sir Speedy Printers I will pay Beth money and she will hand over the spiral-bound 375-page draft of my third novel. Back in the privacy of my car, I will stroke its flimsy black plastic cover, imbuing it with good vibes, and perhaps enjoy a fleeting feeling of accomplishment before I drive it to FedEx (sorry, USPS, I’ve lost faith). From there, my precious baby draft will take wing and fly to Florida, where, for three weeks or so, it will be in the hands of an editor while I await a verdict. I equate this with having one’s trusting, innocent toddler dolled up with false eyelashes, hairpiece, and spray tan to be paraded in a frilly spangled fuchsia dress before harsh judges, like a paper Honey Boo-Boo in a reality-TV pageant.
For the first time, I’ve hired a professional editor. Can you tell I’m a little nervous about it? Allowing–heck–paying someone to read our work critically can produce anxiety. My personal impostor-syndrome demon (who goes by the moniker of Dobby), is having a field day here.
So, Liza, you might ask, how did you choose a professional editor? And this brings us to the point of this article.
I started looking for a paid editor a few months ago and realized that there are a lot of people offering editing and book coaching services these days. The pricing structures vary, with some charging by the page, the word, or the hour. I decided I wanted an editor with a track record as a successful author, plus editorial experience. I asked another historical novelist pal if she had any leads and she highly recommended the woman I am now working with. In our communication thus far, she seems genuinely nice. She hikes. I like the looks of her dog on Instagram. She is a New York Times bestselling historical novelist, and luckily for me, she had an opening for a new client. After she read my first five pages, she agreed to take me on. She quoted me an estimate for her services. We discussed timing, deadlines, and that she worked from a paper copy. Our communication has been smooth; she is professional and seems really on the ball.
And so, I’m entrusting her to tell me everything that’s wrong with my new book and how to fix it.
This is a new process for me. My first novel had a lot of good eyes on it before publication. It was conceived eight years ago in a college English class, which was my first writing class, at age 53. Then I took a semester-long course where I worked with a harshly critical Big Book Editor from New York, who humiliated me and then taught me a hell of a lot about writing novels. After that, I worked on it in a Novel-In-A-Year course at my local writing center, WriterHouse, in Charlottesville, with award-winning author Mary Kay Zuravleff and eight fellow aspiring novelists. Next, I started an MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2016. A few weeks before my first master’s residency, I signed with my first agent and worked on the novel with her for almost a year. When we amicably parted ways, I revised again on my own, and found another agent. He sent the manuscript out on submission. When it sold, it went through creative edits with the publishing editor, and copy edits before publication.
I began my second novel in my MFA program as my creative thesis. I had to turn in thirty pages of new work or revisions every month to my advisors. Since my first novel was in play at that time, I figured the easiest thing to start would be a sequel to my first story, only it would stand alone, in case the first manuscript didn’t sell.
So that’s what I did. As I drafted and fleshed out that second novel, I was fortunate to have the eyes of New York Times #1 bestseller Jacquelyn Mitchard on it, as my advisor for a semester. I was also fortunate to work with Connie May Fowler, Clint McCown, and Brian Leung, among others, plus I had the invaluable input of my MFA peers in workshop. Jill McCorkle and Richard Bausch reviewed parts of the second novel at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where I workshopped pages. So again; lucky, lucky me. Some very talented eyeballs were on my drafts and the second manuscript sold with the first, in a two-book deal, then went through the editorial process with the publisher as before.
So now, two published novels in and three years since I began, I have completed a draft of a third novel and I feel like it’s ready for the next step. Here’s the thing, though: NOBODY has read it. Not the whole cooked enchilada, I mean.
This is problematic. And it’s a problem I have to solve on my own. My agent read a really, really early, incomplete draft two years ago and he was all in, but he isn’t editorial. I did not write this manuscript on contract, meaning it has not sold in advance. I don’t have a cohort of MFA candidates or advisors to critique monthly thirty-page chunks. In other words, this baby has had a very sheltered existence and now it needs to be examined, judged, pinched, slashed, tweaked and maybe made over before being sent out into the world for sale.
When we writers find ourselves in this situation, whose input do we trust?
My dear husband does not read my work-in-progress. He’ll read what’s published, and nod understandingly when I bitch and moan about a tricky scene or some sequencing issue in a plot. He and I both know he’s being supportive but, really, he has no idea what I am talking about and can offer no solutions. But he listens. This works for us.
I tried a Beta writing group put together by the fabulous Bianca Marias, founder of my favorite writing podcast, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing. Bianca grouped six of us who were working on historical fiction. We were all enthusiastic, but in several months together we could never once find a time to Zoom. We did not seem to be able to get pages or comments back and forth to each other on any sort of schedule. In our first round of exchanging pages, one member of the group took in everyone’s feedback on her fifty pages and then ghosted all of us by not returning critiques for anyone else’s work. Now that is some sketchy-ass writer karma, if you ask me. Over time, I fell out of the group because I really wanted to move forward apace.
At present, I’m in a new, very small critique group and my two fellow writers have read one round of fifty pages of this manuscript and offered excellent suggestions. I recently had the first 2000 words critiqued by the Trinidadian-British novelist Monique Roffey at a residency in England. In those first few pages, Monique zeroed in on an issue that bothered me, but I hadn’t addressed. Based on her comments, I rewrote the beginning to change the inciting incident, then worked my way through the draft to iron out the repercussions of this change. I am pleased with the result.
Which brings me to today’s mission. The “finished” draft needs input. I’ve done my research, and now need to trust the process. Here are some potential outcomes:
- The editor says it’s crap and I should burn it and concentrate on gardening instead.
She says it needs a complete overhaul, and then maybe, just maybe, it might begin to resemble something worthwhile.
She says it needs some finessing, but then I should send it out.
She says it’s fantastic, the best thing she’s ever read! She laughed! She cried! She stayed up all night, and by the way, I don’t need to pay her, she’s going to pay me for the immense pleasure of being an early reader of this masterpiece.
I’m really hoping for #3. Definitely not #1, and definitely not #4. When we hear, early on, “this is great! Send it out!” lights should flash: DANGER! DANGER! In offering critiques in classes I teach, I start with a caveat—my criticism will be direct and honest, and I will also find some nice things to say, but IMHO; specific, actionable critique is most valuable.
So, bring it on. This next step is exciting, and next time I post, I’ll let you know how it’s going. When my baby returns (with red markup) from Florida, I’ll be ready to go back in. Until then, my dogs and I will be out digging up weeds, waiting for the FedEx truck.
Have you hired an editor before? What did you look for in a professional? What was your experience?