Tara Weaver: Interview with a Developmental Book Editor

I met Tara Weaver when we were working at Travelers’ Tales. She came on as an intern, took over the Permissions work when I moved over to Publicity, became an Associate Editor, and went on to edit Tuscany and Provence before getting her MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College. So between her publishing background, working for an agent, and writing herself, she has an excellent grasp of the world of books from several perspectives. Tara is now a full time freelance developmental editor and helping lots of writers turn their novels and memoirs into something saleable. I thought it’d be fun to interview Tara and see what the other side of the writing process is like.

JL: Hi Tara, thanks for giving your time to the Written Road community. I’ve heard of line editors, but I’m curious to find out what a developmental editor does. Can you tell us the difference?

TW: Line editors, or copy editors, focus on the mechanics of a manuscript—grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax—while developmental editors look at all aspects. Is the plot working effectively? How is the character development? What about pacing, tension, voice, setting, narrative strategy? Are there holes in the story or redundancies that need to be eliminated? A good developmental editor will cover the same territory as a line editor, correcting and tightening on a micro level, but also look at the big picture—how it all comes together and what can be improved or strengthened. Developmental editors are sometimes called content editors or book doctors.

JL: Damn, I think we could all use one of those on call 24/7. Even for email! But seriously, when would a writer need a developmental editor?

TW: Most of my clients come to me when they have a finished manuscript. They’ve had feedback from their friends, family members, and perhaps even a writing group. They either want to take their project to the next level but don’t know how to do it, or they’re about to start submitting to agents and publishers and want feedback from someone in the industry. The editing process is ongoing until a book is in print—your publisher will want certain edits, your agent will probably want certain edits—but it’s a competitive field and a writer needs a strong and polished manuscript to even get an agent these days. More and more writers are seeking editorial help before approaching agents/publishers. Many of my clients come to me because I’ve worked on the inside at both a publishing house and a literary agency, and I can give them a solid assessment of what is working and what they need to change before they submit.

JL: Aw, come on…does it really have to be finished manuscript? What about us really fun writers with heaps of marketing potential, and only a couple of chapters from a hilarious and promising book called 99 Nights in Vegas: The Mad Diary of Poker Fan? I’m thinking about prepping something in a hurry so I can send it to my favorite agent. Couldn’t I, or rather should I, see a developmental editor to see if I’m on the right track for showing an agent my drivel?

TW: I generally work with full manuscripts, though I sometimes review book proposals for clients whose manuscript I have already edited, and I have one client who sends me everything she writes—chapters for anthologies, book introductions, etc. There are editors who will work with writers on crafting a book proposal. For this you’d want to make sure they have experience in the publishing industry (I’ve had to rewrite some proposals put together by writing teachers/coaches that were quite weak). Someone with an industry eye can save an author from making mistakes regarding the format and tone of the book, mistakes that would otherwise sink a project.

JL: Sink a project?! As if us writers don’t already do plenty to sink our own projects. 🙂 But I don’t think you’re talking about procrastination….please give us an example of what you mean.

TW: A recent client of mine has written a book about training for a first marathon. It was based on his experience, but he structured it with chapters on different topics—nutrition, gear, distance training, etc. It was a hybrid, a how-to book based on personal experience. To successfully publish a how-to book, he would need to have a “platform,” to be an expert in the field, a marathon coach or a world-class runner. I helped him restructure the book into a personal narrative. It still encompasses all the how-to information he wanted to include but does it through story. He could have spent years sending the original book out but, because of the format, it never would have been published.




JL: Nice one! So, tell us…did he sell it?
TW: He’s working on his proposal and endorsements right now, but I have no doubt that he will sell it. I know the publisher at his first choice publishing company, so when he’s ready I’m going to introduce them. That’s another thing an editor can be helpful with, guiding an author through the process of submitting to agents or publishers, especially if the editor has a background in the business. I regularly give my clients advice, review their book proposals/pitch letters, and make connections for them when I can.

JL: Ok Tara, I know a bit about you, but can you tell the WR folks here what sort of background you have?

TW: I got hooked on editing while working on my high school and college newspapers. I then lived in Asia for five years and worked on English language publications there. I have six years experience in the book publishing world, working at a publishing house and a literary agency, which gave me a strong sense of what sells and how projects get marketed. I went to grad school and earned an MFA in creative writing, which taught me about the craft of writing. I’ve also learned to be very tactful. It’s essential to be constructive and focus on what can be done to strengthen a project. Good feedback makes a writer feel like a light bulb has been turned on and they can see new solutions. Bad feedback just makes them feel bad.

JL. Too true. Now, lets get to the stuff that applies to Written Roadies. Do you have any specific advice for travel writers working on books?

TW: I think travel writing is great because you usually have an intriguing setting to work with, and evoking a sense of place is an important part of any story. The one pitfall I notice is that many aspiring travel writers focus too much on setting and forget about plot and conflict. It’s not enough just to have an exotic setting. Great travel books are good stories set in interesting places, but they would be good stories even if they took place in very ordinary settings.

JL: Ok, so say we’ve got what we think is the next best thing and we just KNOW that ten publishers are going to be fighting for it. From your experience working at the literary agency can you give us writers any advice about submitting to agents?

The biggest mistake I see is writers submitting to agents they know nothing about. The agency where I worked received so many submissions that were completely inappropriate—romance, thriller, sci-fi, poetry—genres we didn’t work with. This is such a waste of time, with the added drawback of unnecessary rejection for the writer. It’s not that hard to research agents. Go to the bookstore and look in the acknowledgments section of books that are similar to yours. Subscribe to Publisher’s Lunch and track the deals made by certain agents. All the Publisher’s Lunch deals for last year have now been compiled into a book, BOOK DEALS: 2004, which at $100 a copy is rather pricy but would make a good shared purchase by a writing group. Look not only at what the agent sells, but who they sell to—big publishers or small. Treat it as if you were applying to a job and find out everything you can about the agent (you wouldn’t go into an interview without knowing everything you could about your prospective employer, would you?). Don’t submit until you are sure that the agent is good, and a good fit for your project. Why sign up for unnecessary work and rejection?

JL: Ooooh, good tip. I hadn’t heard of that book. Now I really want it! OK, wait, one more thing—and I think it’s important for writers wanting to hire you, as well as editors wanting a job like yours—what’s the best part of your job?

TW: I love it when a writer has that light bulb moment and gets excited about new solutions to a problem they had been struggling with. Or when a client calls to say they’ve signed with an agent or a publisher. As a writer myself, I know how important that is. It’s a great feeling for me to be able to help other writers strengthen their writing and achieve their goals.

JL: Ok, that wasn’t the last thing. I have two more things…first, how many sessions with you does it take to get a finished manuscript in shape? Can you give us an overview of what happens with a writer from beginning to end?

TW: I generally spend at least an hour talking on the phone with a new client, hearing about their project and what specific concerns and goals they have. Once I receive their manuscript I read it two or three times, making line edits on the manuscript pages and taking notes. When the author gets the project back, they have a line edited manuscript as well as 10-20 pages of detailed notes focusing on what could be strengthened and specific suggestions of how to do this. There is usually another conversation, once they have digested the feedback, to answer any final questions. Some clients take that feedback, incorporate it on their own, and only call to tell me that they’ve got an agent or a publisher. Other clients want me to go over their next draft or to take a look at certain sections that might have been particularly problematic. Others ask me for feedback on their book proposals, or for my opinion on an agent they might be interested in. Each project is different, which is one of the things that make it so much fun. Some of my clients live here in San Francisco and I meet with them in person, if they want to, and some live in other states and it’s all email and phones. I usually spend a week or two on each manuscript, though that depends on length.

JL: And if I may be so bold? How much is this going to set us back, and do you have time to take on more clients right now?

TW: Developmental editors usually start around $35-60/hr. The upper end can go pretty high, especially for well-known editors who have been at it for years and have edited a number of award-winning authors—$150-200/hr. Some editors work on a project estimate basis, and that can be a few grand. It’s an investment but, to be completely honest, the right editor can make a manuscript shine. You can sometimes even notice when a well-known author switches editors, because the quality and cohesion of their writing will change. I’m working on a novel right now and I will definitely send it to a good developmental editor before I approach my agent of choice. I’ve seen enough before and after examples to know it’s worth it. Even though I am an editor myself, it’s very hard to do this sort of work on your own writing—there’s no objectivity. As for my editing work, I am available though I usually have a few projects waiting so it might take a month or so to get in. I only take on 20 projects a year, focusing on fiction and narrative nonfiction, but I always have a soft spot for travel narrative.

JL: Great!!! Thanks, Tara. I bet we all want one now. Sheesh, I better hurry up and write my first ten nights!