Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Mistakes Writers Make by editor Chris Roerden

Chris Roerden is an outspoken freelance editor with eleven books to her publishing credit, including Agatha winner Don't Murder Your Mystery and Don't Sabotage Your Submission.

Chris, which editors did you understudy and was ethics part of your publishing curriculum?

I learned publishing the way some writers write: by the seat of my pants. I learned editing by reading voraciously from early childhood on and having a photographic memory. I learned ethics by determining, also in childhood, to be as different as possible from my father--a hypocritical, racist, abusive s.o.b.

Tell us about your background in publishing.

I had the good fortune to grow up in Manhattan and be accepted as an art major at the High School of Music & Art (now LaGuardia). I also had the good fortune to graduate at 16 at a time when jobs were plentiful. So I picked Rockefeller Center as a nice area to work in and got jobs in the public relations and advertising departments of major corporations. I wanted to see how commercial artists worked.

This was long before email, of course, so one of my clerical tasks was to redistribute interoffice mail, by hand, among the 35 staffers in one PR department. While making my rounds I compulsively corrected the text of about-to-be-printed materials. To my surprise, my bosses valued the skills that I’d taken for granted. Didn’t everyone know how to write an effective sentence? Apparently not, because I kept getting promoted to more and more interesting positions.

I learned a little-known side of publishing that paid well and was a great training ground for learning marketing. Besides, I’d seen enough to know I couldn’t produce commercial design as fast as the artists had to--I’m a tinkerer.

Which types of books do you most enjoy editing and which ones do you prefer to stay away from, and why?

I most enjoy mysteries and thrillers because editing them lets me analyze how intricately they are plotted. Nonfiction editing paid the bills, but there wasn’t much intricacy to discover. What I stay away from are books on spirituality, because after the first half-dozen or so they seem too similar to each other.

What made you decide to become a freelance editor?

Family transfers took a toll on my career choices. I did some teaching of writing at universities when my boys were young, but often I worked for niche publishers, where I learned the business from inside out. By the time 50 approached, I held a well-paying position as managing and production editor for a growing niche publisher in Wisconsin, but I missed the hands-on editing of manuscripts. Yet changing jobs was no longer easy at my level--my experience was perceived as fast-tracking me to take over a higher-up’s job.

So I decided to freelance for a while. Unlike many who set out to freelance, I was never without a steady stream of clients, and I liked being my own boss. A major turning point for me was editing the first books of two up-and-coming mystery writers: Alex Matthews, for whom I’ve edited nine Cassidy McCabe mysteries, and Jeanne Dams, who won the 1995 Agatha for Best First Mystery.

If a novel starts out well but loses its focus halfway through the book, as an editor what do you usually do?

I’m always frank with writers and offer a great deal of feedback--probably more than they expect. I find it an advantage to work directly with each author. (One nonfiction writer complained that I made her miss her deadline because it took her so long to make all the changes I’d recommended--yet she chose to make them!)

I’d like to emphasize that I consider all edits suggestions and observations, which authors are free to accept, reject, or analyze to see why something made me stop and how they might prefer to come up with their own improvement.

What prompted you to write your first book?

If you mean Don’t Murder Your Mystery or Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, they are actually my 10th and 11th books. My first I’d merely volunteered to edit for the bicentennial celebration of the town of Cape Elizabeth, Maine--where we’d just be transferred to. Word got out that this newcomer had been a “New York editor.” Turns out that the town historian refused to make his manuscript available, as I’d been led to believe, which was actually a good thing, because expressions such as “she was big with child” characterized his writing style.

So I began collecting bits and pieces of Cape history, accompanied by my one- and three-year-olds. I loved the work of compiling all the material and writing about it, but the gaps in my knowledge of American history motivated me to do something that had not interested me until then: go to college. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was 30 at the time and assumed I’d do poorly. Instead I received highest honors, a big surprise to me.

How well have your ghostwritten books sold and were they written for fledglings or well –known authors? (I'm not asking who.)

All of the 11 books and a game I’ve written, either as a ghost or under my own byline, are nonfiction. I edit fiction but don’t write it, though my two latest titles are about writing and revising fiction. Eight titles I wrote for mid-sized businesses and national organizations. Several started as editing projects, but each client’s text was poor so I ended up doing the writing.

Sales reflect the extent of promotion by each client. One is a real go-getter who’s been on many national TV talk shows. For writers who have a taste for writing nonfiction, I’ve always said that becoming a ghost is a good living. As for the fiction I’ve edited, many successful authors aren’t eager to have it be known they work with a manuscript editor, so in a way editing is ghosting, too. But editors are used to keeping low profiles anyway.

What are the usual mistakes writers make that cause editors to cringe?

The first 10 mistakes are arrogance, as in:

 My book is so good it doesn’t need editing.
 The only thing it could use is maybe a light proofreading.
 Everyone will want to buy it.
 Every publisher will want to publish it.
 They’re getting a bargain at 150,000 words.
 To make sure no one steals my ideas, I’ve already registered the copyright.
 I don’t have to read guidelines, write a synopsis, or play by any of those other Mickey Mouse rules because those are for amateurs.
 I never read books about writing.
 What genre is it, you ask? Let the publisher figure that out. They’re in the business. It’s got romance, mystery, history, and biography, and autobiography.
 There isn’t another book like it.

Any advice to novice writers, including self-publishers?

There’s so much more to being the author of a book than writing it. I think it’s a good idea to know your goal. For instance, is publication of a particular book your goal or is it publication of your best work that will make you proud for years to come? Is it the desire to hold your finished book in your hand ASAP, or is it a career as a writer? If you anticipate a writing career, I advise aiming for traditional royalty publication instead of self-publishing, even though that will take much longer and require greater perseverance.

Self-publication can affect a writer’s eligibility for certain organizational positions, awards, speaking roles, and conference panels--all of which could play a part in book marketing and even in developing a mentor.

Anything you’d like to add?

It’s never to early to start networking through organizations and writers conferences, as long as you maintain your regular time commitment to writing. And I always recommend reading more widely in the field you’re entering, and learning more about publishing and marketing--such as by reading either of my two DON’T books for writers.

Thanks for taking part in the series, Chris.

Chris's main web site has links to her publisher’s site, to a long excerpt from Don't Sabotage Your Submission, and to lots of information about editing and about Chris. The shortcut to her Amazon blog is (then scroll).

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