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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper, FAQ:

1.  Do you use readers for draft manuscripts?
2.  Are book doctors legitimate?
3.  Who is your editor?
4.  What exactly does your editor do for you?
5.  Have you ever had disagreements with your editor?

"Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers."
     - T. S. Eliot

1.  Do You Use Readers for Draft Manuscripts?

Of course. My manuscripts are usually critiqued by at least five people before they go to my editor. Some of those people are professional writers or editors.  Some don't like science fiction (I find it useful to have non-SF readers critique my SF stories because those readers are less likely to be generous with SF ideas).  Some focus more on characters and others on story issues.  Some are nit-picky, and some are thinkers who can describe in much-needed detail what is wrong with this or that part of the book.  However, even with readers like these, I still have to go back to some of them and request harsher, more specific critiques when I know they have been too generous.

For technical areas in the manuscript, I e-mail or send that text to the expert who has helped me with those ideas so that I ensure some form of rationality.  In some cases, I have been lucky enough to have an expert read the entire book and give me their opinion of the work overall with regards to their field of expertise.

Of course, some readers (everyone is a critic!) have no problems vocalizing what they see as a problem.  For example, one day, Sandy Keen, a professional writer and coworker, burst into my cubical in a near-rage.  I barely had time to look up before she had grabbed me by the lapels on my new teal, silk suit, had dragged me half over my desk, and had shaken me like a doll.

My first thought was that, if it was something I'd said, I had better start groveling--and groveling well--before those hands inched up to my neck.  Then I remembered that Sandy was not just a coworker; she was one of my manuscript readers.  That was when I got nervous.

"How could you," Sandy had snarled, "build the entire story up to a certain point--take the reader up to this point--and then skip the scene itself?  How dare you make me anticipate something that never happens?"

When she stopped shaking me--and believe you me, for a 5'2" woman, she has arms of steel--I realized that I was grateful I'd had the foresight to train only her husband, not herself, in martial arts.

Needless to say, I wrote the scene.  Oddly enough, my agent later confessed that it was that scene--the slave auction chapter in Wolfwalker--which sold the book to him.

The moral of this story is, acquire good readers and then listen to what they have to say.  They often see problems and gaps to which you, as the writer, are blind.  Best to fix these issues before you try to sell that known-flawed story to an editor who will judge you by that sloppy work instead of by your best.

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2.  Are Book Doctors Legitimate?

My initial response is, "No." --a firm No.  The complete response is, "Well, maybe, there is a small chance that, depending on the circumstances, a book doctor might possibly be legitimate, but I wouldn't count on it."

"Book doctor" is another term for an editor-for-hire.  Supposedly, this person will read and critique/edit your manuscript, providing you with a thorough or meticulously thorough story and line edit, depending on the work agreement between you.  There really are editors-for-hire who are skilled and who can give you your money's worth when you pay for a critique.  However, most aspiring writers seem to be hit on by editors or "book doctors" of dubious reputation.  These book doctors charge significant to exhorbitant fees ($2000 to $3000) for reading a manuscript, yet do not provide personal comments of worth.  In some cases, minimum-wage workers read the manuscript for the book-doctor agency.  Also, some book doctors provide canned comments that could be used on any manuscript instead of comments that resulted from an actual edit of your own manuscript.

If you have $2,000 to $3,000 to spend on a book doctor, you have plenty of money to spend on tuition for writing and editing courses at a reputable university.  As far as editing is concerned, I advise learning to do it yourself, not paying yet another middle man to do your work for you.  Using readers to help you hone your writing and story-telling skills is one thing; paying a book doctor is something else.

I would strongly suggest that, unless the private editor is being recommended by a legitimate, for-profit publisher (not a vanity-press publisher) or agent, and he comes with references you can verify, you avoid commercial, private editors.  (The term "book doctor" itself should warn you.)  Anyone can hang out his shingle and call himself an editor; it doesn't mean he is either skilled or legitimate.  Also, just because an editor-for-hire is recommended doesn't mean that the editor will be appropriate for your manuscript.  If you have questions about book doctors or private editors, make inquiries to a professional writer's organization.

Personally, I would not use a book doctor or an editor-for-hire.  I might (really outside chance), if I had no other reader or editor resources, consider hiring a professional editor to go over my manuscript before I submitted the work to agents.  I wouldn't want to waste my chance for the best first impression of my work with an agent or prospective publisher, but I also wouldn't want to waste my money on a scam.  

One more thing to note:  If an editor or book doctor is soliciting you or contacting you before you have requested information, you should be immediately wary of a scam.  Such an organization is likely similar to dubious vanity-press publishers and to agents of ill-repute who charge the aspiring writer significant fees, while providing nothing of value in return.

The key is to be wary, to check everything, to understand that, as an aspiring writer, you are nothing more than a mark for many dubious agencies.  Take the time to check out references.  Make your choices wisely, not impulsively, in this.

[ See also the FAQ file for agents, which includes in-depth discussions of fees that agents legitimately or fraudulently charge writers.  ]

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3.  Who Is Your Editor?

Shelly Shapiro, Editorial Director, Del Rey Books.  She has been the editor for all my books.  (Plucked mai roight out o' obscoority, shay did...)

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4.  What, Exactly, Does Your Editor Do for You?

Irritate me, of course.  (--That was my editor's input, not mine!)

Now, in my opinion...

Seriously, though, my editor tells me specifically, point by point--line by line if necessary--what is wrong, confusing, irritating, or unwieldy about the manuscript.  Sometimes, my editor identifies a result or manifestation, not the source of a problem.  In those cases, I figure out why/where there was a problem and fix it at the source.  For example, the problem in Chapter 11 may actually have come about because a character was not set up properly in Chapter 2. Trying to fix Chapter 11 could simply perpetuate the problem--better to fix Chapter 2 first, then Chapter 11. My editor doesn't seem to care how I fix a problem--as long as I do indeed fix it.

"The difficulty in literature is not to write, but to write what you mean;
not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish."

                                   - Robert Louis Stevenson

My editor also helps me improve my writing in general.  The critiques I receive from her are not just blow-by-blow lists of everything wrong with my manuscripts.  Rather, they are maps to my weaknesses.  I can look over those critiques to see if there is a general or specific writing area in which I can improve. When dead matter (an original, edited manuscript) is returned to me, I go over that also, looking for patterns to see if I am developing a bad habit or if I can identify something that I can fix next time around.

For example, the first letter of critique I received from my editor was six pages long, and detailed many problems, from issues of pacing, to using the word "twin" twice on the same page.  By the fourth novel, the letters were one page long, and had around 6 to 10 items to fix, half of which were trivial.  With the latest novel I turned in, Wolf's Bane, my editor gave me three weeks to make all the changes, and didn't tell me what the changes were until two-and-a-half weeks before the deadline.  I was quite upset with the timeframe until I saw the list of changes, and realized that there weren't any real changes to make.

Good editors don't just critique manuscripts, they take the long view toward a writer's skills.  Only because my editor has given me the kind of comments I can learn from,  have I been able to improve my writing as much as I have as fast as I have.  It has been from studying my editor's comments that I have been able to identify patterns, weaknesses, and errors in my writing, and then work on my own to solve thoise problems, study to improve style, and develop writing tools to achieve particular effects more strongly.

Refer also to the Writer's Workshop for articles such as, What to Expect from an Edit

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5.  Have You Ever Had Disagreements with Your Editor?

People always seem to be asking this question.  All I can think is that the writer-editor horror stories are much more fun to tell than the simple, yes-we-get-along-fine stories.

My editor and I have had differences of opinion, I suppose, but not very many.  They didn't even become issues--just things we had to talk over.  For example, the type of books I want to write.  There have also been times that we've miscommunicated, but that 's just part of life. (As Shelly says, "Don't you hate it when that happens?")  And once or twice we have had to discuss someone's expectation that I would automatically be like other fiction authors, desiring what they do, thinking like they do, wanting to work as they do, etc..  

The problem is, I'm not necessarily the same as other authors--or the same as a lot of people, as my friends keep telling me (they smile when they say that, but I 'm not really sure they mean it as a compliment).  Although I ended up getting published in the same way as most other authors, I didn't come around to a fiction-writing career in the same manner as most.  My goals are also not necessarily the same.  It's taken some time for my editor (and my agent) to understand that about me.  

I don't think the real question is whether or not we've ever had disagreements.  The questions for me are:  Can this editor help me do my job?  Will I become a better writer by working with this editor?  And finally, can this editor and I work together effectively?

I have great respect for my editor.  She's professional, intelligent, and highly skilled.  She's helped me improve my writing immeasurably.  I'd recommend her to others, but I really don't want to share her.  (Shelly, are you reading this?)

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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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