The Story Doctor Is IN

Not long ago I spent $5,000 hiring a freelance developmental editor to critique my soon-to-be-published epic fantasy series. It was money well spent, but that’s a hefty chunk of change. I’m sure there are many aspiring authors who would appreciate some help, but don’t have that kind of money to spend.

Also, I know darn well that there are plenty of aspiring authors who need help, whether they know it or not. Once in a while I stroll over to Amazon and use the Look Inside feature to take a gander at the first few pages of a few self-published fantasy or science fiction novels. Every kind of story problem you can imagine, and some you may never have imagined, is well represented there. Gruesomely bad books are being uploaded every week by authors who have completed a book (yay!) but apparently have no clue about how limited their skills are.

I’m thinking about rolling out an entirely new type of editorial service for aspiring authors: advisory editing. As an advisory editor, I would not do an in-depth job on your manuscript. What I would do, at a more modest cost than most other editors, would be to read your manuscript (full or partial, rough draft or already e-published) and offer suggestions about where you might want to focus your efforts so as to bring the manuscript up to a higher level.

With one author, I might say, “Your prose style is very good, but the story premise you’re using is shopworn. It was a current idea in the 1950s. Here’s a list of newer SF novels you could read that may suggest fresher ways of dealing with that concept.” With another author, I might say, “This is a terrific story premise, but your plot sags badly. For several chapters, there’s no forward movement. I suggest this how-to book on plot construction.” With yet another author, “Your grasp of grammar and punctuation is not up to speed. Your story is solid, but you need to hire a good copy-editor.” Or perhaps, “Your grammar and punctuation are very tidy, but your shifts in narrative tone and narrative distance are distracting. Here’s a how-to book that will help with that.” Or perhaps, “You need to spend more time thinking about the emotions of your characters. They seem flat and uninvolved in their own drama.” Or, “Your dialog is stilted and unconvincing, and your use of dialog tags is not what most people regard as smooth or effective.” Or, “You seem to be trying to tell two entirely different stories, and they’re fighting with one another. Maybe you have two books here, not just one.”

Naturally, each of these suggestions would be accompanied by a few specific examples of passages in the manuscript where the writer I’m working with could benefit from giving more attention to that particular element.

Brainstorming is another area where some (or many) authors could benefit from the services of an advisory editor. Show me the half-finished manuscript in which you’ve gotten stuck, or toss a few story ideas at me. I’ll ask questions — the same kinds of questions I would ask myself if I were writing your story. Together, we’ll see if we can’t get your story moving forward.

I don’t know how much I would want to charge for this service. Every project might be a bit different. Maybe start with a $100 advance payment for three hours of work, and after that you could decide whether to continue. The point of offering this service would be to help authors move forward without having to spend huge amounts of money, and to help them pinpoint the weaknesses in their work so that they can move forward efficiently and economically, without having to thrash around and perhaps waste money hiring an editor who offers the wrong type of services for their particular needs.

In case this blog post turns into a promo piece for my services, perhaps I should mention my qualifications. I’ve had two paperback originals published by mainstream New York houses, many years ago (Walk the Moons Road by Del Rey and The Wall at the Edge of the World by Ace — both are long out of print). My stories have appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and other magazines. I spent 25 years as a staff writer and editor at Keyboard, where I wrote innumerable nonfiction articles on music technology and also served as the in-house copy-editor. After leaving Keyboard in 2002 I wrote several nonfiction books, also on music stuff and still available from Hal Leonard Publishing and Cengage Learning. I was the series editor for a while for Backbeat Books’ Power Tools music technology series; I also edited a couple of music books for Peachpit Press. It’s a varied resume, but I think you can safely assume I didn’t just crawl out of the woodwork. Also, I have a shelf of how-to-write-fiction books that, if stacked up, would be taller than I am.

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