Thursday, May 27, 2010

An agent-turned independent editor, Part II

This is the conclusion of my interview with independent writing and publishing consultant Anne Dubuisson Anderson, a former literary agent. (Check out Part 1 here.)

Kathryn Craft: You once told me that you are an editor, not a writing teacher. How do you perceive the difference, and how much "education" do you think a writer should expect from a developmental editor?

Anne Dubuisson Anderson: A good piece of writing is the result of talent, both learned and instinctual, an intelligent (and perhaps unusual) read of people and the world, hard work, and the desire to always write better. While I am confident in giving direction in the art of revision (and yes, it is an art) which requires the latter two attributes, I think writers who need to nurture their talent or develop a different understanding of humanity should look to writing coaches (or experience life more fully!).

Kathryn: Have you ever had to turn away an editing client because the work simply wasn't ready for editing? How would you advise a writer to judge his/her readiness?

Anne: Before taking on a new client, I always ascertain how far along they are in the process of writing their manuscript and, as per the previous response, how willing they are to work to improve it. One successful writer I know advises an "apprenticeship" of six years of writing a first novel before thinking it is ready to show anyone. It worked for him, but I think a more realistic timeframe is at least a year, with at least two revisions. I would also advise most writers to have at least one peer review before coming to me—for instance another writer or good reader they trust (family members and close friends don't count!).

Kathryn: I heard you give a talk that translated some of the most common phrases spewed out by agents in their rejection letters. The one we've probably all heard is a variation on "I was not able to connect with your protagonist." What do you think the agent is really saying, and what should the writer look for to fix it?

Anne: Well, this could mean a number of things, none of them particularly sweet (which is why agents are masters at euphemisms). Some interpretations are:

• Your protagonist was too—(indistinct, boring, whiny, macho, bitchy, clueless, etc.) for me to care about them.

• I myself am—(conservative, liberal, funny, serious, male, female, just plain tired of this kind of character which you see all of the time in fiction, etc.) and couldn't relate to your protagonist.

• WHO is your protagonist? There are so many—(voices, points of view, characters, etc.) that I did not find one distinct character to latch onto.

What this and the large majority of "nay" responses from agents also says is that he/she didn't get very far in the manuscript. Something about that protagonist put her off right away.

I would not advise a writer to "fix" this perceived problem unless a number of agents and/or other readers echo this complaint. If they do, then the writer must reaquaint herself with the character again and try something new. That's where I might come in, to help a writer "see" her character more clearly.

Kathryn: What one piece of advice would you leave our aspiring writers with?

Anne: Here are two pieces of advice.

First: Be patient; patient with yourself and with the publishing process. Writing well and producing a marketable manuscript is not something for your daily to-do list. It takes time, effort, a burning desire, and patience.

Second: Write only if you love to write.

On behalf of the Blood-Red Pencil contributors and readers, thank you, Anne, for spending some time with us! If you would like to leave a question in the comments section for Anne, I'll post the answers there when I get them back from her.


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, a manuscript evaluation and line editing service. She was a dance critic and arts journalist for 19 years before writing fiction. She is currently seeking representation for her women's fiction manuscript, THE SPARROW THAT FELL FROM THE SKY.

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  1. Again, wonderfully helpful. I would love more translations of editor and publisher speak but I suppose if I were honest enough I could suss out their meaning. I like the dictum to develop patience.

  2. Yesterday Maryann asked how Ann was able to help me. First of all, I want to say that it was developmental editing, and therefore unlike what I think most writers who post here think of as "editing," judging from recent comments stating that their editors made "mistakes." This is why you already need to know how to write to work with her--she isn't going to be changing your tenses and straightening your grammar.

    Ann identified underdeveloped story threads that, with further development, could help with pacing and character motivation. The seeds were there in the story, but I'd never watered them enough to grow and bear fruit. We brainstormed some ideas.

    The second thing she did was motivate me as author. Since my novel is on the literary side, and therefore wide open as concerns subjectivity (there are no genre expectations to meet), I have met with much rejection. Before I exhausted all of the agents who handle this kind of work, I needed to know, from an industry insider who had actually read it, if she thought it was salable. Who knows if it will or won't sell, given the current market challenges--but Ann's faith in the project bolstered me to forge on.

  3. I totally like the idea of a coach, esp one who knows the business. I think that would be very helpful.

    Straight From Hel

  4. Enid: Hang tight.. I've passed your question on to Anne. I have a few thoughts about writing coaches that I can add as well.

  5. For Enid, from Anne:
    I think by using the term "writing coach" I may have invented a whole new profession! I'm not aware of any practioners that go by this title, but I was referring to the many writers and writing teachers who lead one-on-one or group classes and workshops specifically geared to teaching how to multiply and improve the tools in a writer's toolbox. They do this through such methods as offering writing assignments and prompts and providing regular feedback on a piece of writing and its subsequent revisions.

  6. Editorial self-bashing: I spelled Anne's name wrong in one of these comments! Sorry, Anne!

    Maybe I don't have a whole lot more to add to the "writing coach" definition--Anne expressed most of what I wanted to say. The main difference between an editor and a writing coach in my mind would be that the editor is selling a defined service with typically one or two passes at the work (again, this would be defined); the writing coach is working on specific writing issues (that may or may not be specific to the piece of work submitted) with the author over a period of time. And sometimes the same person offers both services--I do at, for instance.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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