March 11, 2011

An Author on Editing

Mindy Hardwick holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College.  She has published YA flash fiction and middle grade stories and articles in Glass Cases, Edmonds Community College’s Between the Lines, Washington State History Museum’s ColumbiaKids, and various anthologies. Her YA romance and contemporary middle grade (MG) novel are out on submission. Mindy is included on the Washington State Arts Commission Teaching Artist Roster.

I sat with Mindy one morning last week at Under the Red Umbrella in Everett to discuss her experiences working with editors.

How has working with a freelance editor differed from working with advisors in your MFA program? 
   They are actually very similar. For the MFA program, we submitted a monthly packet of twenty pages of revised work and twenty pages of new work to our advisors. We’d receive at least a four-to-five-page editorial letter. My letters often focused on character motivation and story structure. One difference, when I’ve worked with a freelance editor, I have submitted the entire manuscript for review.

Do you detect a difference between revising for story and technique and revising for the marketplace?
   Yes. When I was in Vermont, we focused on crafting a story which was written from the heart. I still think this is important, but what I’ve learned is that, in revision, it’s important to pay attention to how the story might fit a particular market. For example, do I have romantic elements which can be played up? Or do I have a dystopian setting? I think a story needs to start with a kernel of something we feel passionate about, or want to explore, or understand.  But I think at some point, we have to look at that manuscript and ask ourselves: Is there a market for this story? What is that market? And I think some stories just aren’t marketable right now. It doesn’t mean there won’t ever be a market, but we have to know when to set the story aside, and move on to something else.

You’ve had editorial input from several editors on one of your novels. Can you describe that process? 
   Yes. My MFA thesis story, Girl on a Thin Wire, turned into Stained Glass Summer in the process. I had a lot of input from my four advisors and in the workshops. I actually spent a year after I graduated, revising the story so it felt more like my own again. I felt it had lost its focus a bit. After the story came close to being acquired by a small press, I paid for a professional critique. The best advice I received was to change the story to be MG rather than YA. The topic, character, and voice fit much better in an upper-middle-grade market. As soon as I started the revisions, I could feel the story slip into place.

Can you sum up your reactions to the editorial letters from the acquiring editor at the small press and the freelance editor you hired? What made the difference?
   I think the big difference is in how an editorial letter is phrased.  When Stained Glass Summer came close to being acquired, the manuscript was sent to a team of readers. I received the reader report with the instruction that I could revise and resubmit based on that. When I read the reader report, I was very discouraged. It seemed to be a list of what the readers did not like. I felt like I had been hit over the head. I did not revise or resubmit.

   However, I still believed in the story. A month later, I learned that Sarah Cloots, an editor I’d heard speak at a local SCBWI function, had left her publishing house job and begun to freelance. I sent Stained Glass Summer to her.  Although she said many of the same things that the reader report had, it was how she phrased the questions that inspired me. She always made sure to keep the story’s ownership with me. She’d ask: What do you think? Or, does this sound right to you? It was as if we were having a conversation about my manuscript. I was very eager to revise after her comments.

Did you have the opportunity to discuss with the editor your main concerns? Did the editor ask questions as she worked?
   The editor did not ask questions as she worked. When I contacted her, she asked me to give her a summary of the manuscript and who I saw as the market. After that, she responded and asked me to send the entire manuscript to her. She had it for six weeks, all of which she told me upfront, and at exactly six weeks, I received the letter and manuscript in my email. I was paying for a developmental edit, so she gave me a few comments and notes on the manuscript, but most were in the letter. After I received the editorial letter, I could email the editor with my questions. However, I didn’t need to. Her letter was very clear and straightforward.

How did you use the editing comments as you continued on with the novel?
   When I revised Stained Glass Summer, I kept her editorial letter next to me as I wrote. I checked off each paragraph and each point that she brought up. I made notes in the margin of the letter with my thoughts and ideas. I also printed out a copy of the manuscript and stuck it in a three-ring binder. I went page by page, while working on a new copy of the manuscript on my computer screen. I compared versions and made edits as needed.

Coffee cups refilled, Mindy and I chatted on a bit about books and blogs. Later I thought further on her experience with Stained Glass Summer. It might be a fairly typical growth pattern for a novel: create, get feedback, revise, the last two steps sometimes repeating over years. There are differences in the way college advisors, an acquiring editor, and a freelance editor approached Mindy’s manuscript. This could be a matter of style and personality rather than position.

In our work with authors, we hope the feedback we give will propel the author forward, as Sarah’s conversation with Mindy sent her eagerly back into her story. In a final comment, Mindy said, “I was really glad to use her editorial services and plan to hire her again for a couple other manuscripts I have in progress. Her fees were reasonable. Writing is a business, and on my end, I have to ask if I’m going to get back what I’m paying out on this one manuscript.”


  1. I so appreciate hearing an author talk about her experience of editing -- Thank you, Pamela, for this interview!

    Mindy Hardwick said, "it was how she phrased the questions that inspired me." I totally agree with Pamela that as editors, "we hope the feedback we give will propel the author forward."

    Pamela also said that editorial approaches can vary by position, style, and personality. This is one reason why I am not especially unhappy when an author decides that I'm not the right editor for her (or his) project. On first contact, I'm primarily tring to suss out whether I'm the right fit for a project. It's helpful when the author is doing the same.

    I will say, it would be nice to know when an author chooses another editor, just to be able to set thoughts about it aside. It may be hard to say: "Thank you for your time. I've found another editor who seems to be a good fit for my needs." Probably it's hard to say. Because I usually never hear anything more from someone who decides not to work with me. Meanwhile, I really hope that this is the case -- that the author I've spoken to has found the right support for writing and revision, and has not gone away confused or given up on editing.

  2. Thinking back, Kyra, I don't remember ever hearing from an author, "Thanks, but I've found someone else." I suspect that authors don't consider the time--sometimes several hours--we spend on assessing their project to see how we'd handle it and to give an estimate. I get a good vibe from your hope that the author "has found the right support and not gone away confused or given up on editing."

  3. I also appreciated hearing about the author's experience with a freelance developmental editor, versus her experience with advisors and a reader board (didn't know about those). Because developmental editing isn't a well-known option to many writers, it's helpful to have something to compare and contrast it to.