Wednesday, April 23, 2014

An Interview with Editor Extraordinaire Peter Gelfan

Author of Found Objects

On the advantages of editing your manuscript, choosing the right editor, and what's more difficult: editing the newbie or editing the established writer?

I've never met Peter Gelfan in person, and yet when I write, I hear his voice in my mind. No, I'm not sick, at least not yet. You see, Peter has been my editor throughout most of my writing career. He has read every book of mine that has been published and tackled all of my writing vices. He has applied his expertise, passion and humor to my work and changed the way I think about writing in general and fantasy in particular. Today, we are lucky to have him at MB4 answering our questions.  

Welcome to MB4, Peter. Can you tell us a little about yourself? Why did you choose a career in editing? How long have you been an editor?

The career in editing chose me. Twenty or more years ago, a good friend of mine, a successful novelist, offered to put a manuscript of mine into the hands of Renni Browne, who, he said, could get it to agents and publishers. I got a nice note back from Renni saying she liked the manuscript but thought it needed some editing. Out of vanity, I declined the offer. Renni, who had founded and was then running The Editorial Department, made me another offer. She had a client looking for a ghostwriter for a nonfiction project—was I interested? I needed the money and found the challenge interesting, so I accepted. The book got published and did well. Renni continued to offer me projects, mostly editorial, and I continued to need money, so the career was born.

For those writers who are sitting on the fence about having their manuscripts edited: How will editing make a difference in their work? And will editing help them to sell their manuscripts?

Often the biggest benefit to having your work edited professionally is that it gets a careful, objective read by someone who has no axe to grind other than to help you make your manuscript better. Your mother and friends either want to be nice to you or try to convince you to quit screwing around and get a real job. Besides, an editor says a lot more than “I liked it, it’s great!” or “Couldn’t get through it, dude.” An editor can tell you what’s working, what’s not, and why. A good editor will then help you produce the book you want to write rather than push you to write the book he or she think you should write.

I’ve heard agents and acquisitions editors say that knowing a manuscript has been edited shows the writer is serious about the work and can take suggestions, though I’ve never heard one say that the mere fact of its having been edited has ever made the difference between a no and a yes. But a better manuscript—a tauter plot, more vividly fascinating characters, more depth, a stronger voice, and a polished style—will certainly be more likely to sell. It will also teach the author how to do better with the next project from the start.

With so many services and freelance editors out there, how does a writer choose the right editor for his/her work?

Research. Websites that cater to writers often have discussion groups and even ratings. If you know writers who have used an editor, ask them for recommendations pro or con. I also think it helps to talk to the prospective editor and get a feel for how your personalities and sensibilities will mesh.

What's more difficult, editing the new writer or editing the established writer?

Interesting question. In a way, it’s easier to edit a newbie because there’s so much low-hanging fruit, like no plot, unconvincing characters, stiff dialogue, amateurish style. For those writers, it’s a steep learning curve, by which I mean they learn a lot of basic stuff very quickly.

For the established writer, the task is more difficult. The basics are almost always in place. The manuscript is better than 95 percent of what you normally read. But the author doesn’t think it’s quite right yet, and you have to agree … but what’s wrong? It takes detective work. Where did the story sag a little? Where did attention start to wander? What was unsatisfying about the end, and where did that problem start? 

Sometimes the key clue lies chapters before the problem arises: Why did the protagonist do that? There’s always an ah-ha moment or two, and you know you’re right when the author says, “Oh my god, why didn’t I see that?”

You are so right! I've been there myself. Thank you so much for answering our questions, Peter. Folks, Peter will be back on MB4 Wednesday May 7th, discussing the challenges of being an editor, the balance between editing and writing, and what matters in writing today. Don't miss it!

Peter Gelfan has been editing and ghostwriting both fiction and nonfiction for the past 20 years. His clients range from beginners to published and bestselling authors and celebrities. He also edits screenplays and has sold two he wrote under his own name, one of which was produced and recently released in France. His novel Found Objects was published in May 2013.

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Dora Machado is the award-winning author of the epic fantasy Stonewiser series and her newest novel, The Curse Giver, available from Twilight Times Books. She grew up in the Dominican Republic, where she developed a fascination for writing and a taste for Merengue. After a lifetime of straddling such compelling but different worlds, fantasy is a natural fit to her stories. When she is not writing novels, Dora also writes features for Murder By Four, an award-winning blog for people interested in reading and writing, and Savvy Authors, where writers help writers. She lives in Florida with her indulgent husband and three very opinionated cats.

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