Monday, May 16, 2011

The Two Most Important Things to Know Before Hiring a Freelance Editor - Interview With Roz Morris

The fabulous Roz Morris—ghost writer, book consultant, and human being extraordinaire—is the author of the marvelous writing book Nail Your Novel, which I had the joy of reading and reviewing here on AC last year. Roz can be found on her site, her writing blog, and Twitter. Today, Roz was kind enough to stop by and share her experiences as a ghost writer and freelance editor and her views on the rapid changes in the book industry.

What’s your background in writing?

I was originally a journalist and editor but found that inventing events and characters led to more satisfying stories! What I do now is a mixture of ghostwriting, editing, consultancy and writing my own books.

How did you get into the ghostwriting business? What are its challenges compared to writing your own stories?

It started with a lucky break. I’d been writing a novel of my own and had several near misses with agents. My husband is also a writer, and he was working on a novel for a series when the publisher changed the brief. It meant writing a completely new book, but he had other commitments. So I wrote the novel for them and they liked it, and after that I was on editors’ radar. One day I was contacted by an editor who needed a ghostwriter for a high-profile author. And the rest is (very secret) history.

Ghostwriting is a collaboration. When I ghost, I’m writing a book that is someone else’s idea, to please their readers—not the readers who would like my own work. I can’t use my own voice—I have to develop a style that is appropriate for the author I am ghosting. Also, although I develop the story, I can’t always take it in the direction I want it to go. Also, if the “author” (the person whose name is on the cover) doesn’t like what I’ve done, I have to rewrite until they’re happy. That’s not to say I can’t put something of myself into the book, but I must remember the book is not mine.

So, artistically, those are challenges. However, it can also be great fun. Not only do I have an editor to bounce ideas off, I have the “author” themselves. When I get stuck on a plot problem, I ring my “author,” and we chat about ways to solve it. Writing on your own, you don’t get that.

I also find it liberating to work on something where I don’t have to be me. I have to research subjects I would not otherwise have been led to. I return to my own work with my horizons broadened and the satisfaction of knowing that another book I’ve written is coming out for a new audience to enjoy.

Once I hand over the book, I’ve finished with it. I don’t have to do any publicity—that’s the author’s responsibility. Although it’s hard to see someone else taking the credit for my efforts! And surreal to see huge posters at bus stops featuring my book with someone else’s name! I console myself by taking a sneaky photo for posterity…

Tell us about Nail Your Novel. Why did you decide to write a book about the writing craft?

A lot of the writers who come to me for editing help struggle with revising a novel and spotting where the problems are. Because of this, they also can’t assess their novel’s structure—which is essential to whether it works or not. When I suggest they need to make major changes they don’t dare to because it looks too complicated. I disembowel my drafts quite blithely because I’ve developed ways to take control of my manuscripts. So I thought the most helpful thing I could do was to write a book about how I do that. And it’s not just about revising—it’s about planning a story so that it reads well. Its full title is Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.

In your capacity as a book consultant, what is the most common mistake you see authors making?

Everyone has his different weaknesses and strengths because writing is a self-taught process. But if I had to pick one recurring flaw, it would be problems with handling a story on a big scale. Novice writers concentrate too much on the small scale, such as prose and beautiful observation, but they don’t understand how much of the novel’s effect is in the scaffolding—such as the way the events lock together, the way revelations are deployed, the way themes are used, the way the characters change and develop. And then I tell them this, and they get in a panic about how they’re going to sift through the forest of words to sort it all out!

What are some important things for authors to keep in mind when hiring a freelance editor?

Two things.

Make sure they are worth paying for their advice. There are a lot of people who set themselves up offering editorial advice and they don’t have the experience. Check out very carefully what their background is and why they feel able to charge for their services. Go for someone who is not just a published writer, but an experienced fiction editor or a literary agent. Not only have they earned their spurs in the market, they understand writing from the inside, and how to guide you to a fully functioning manuscript.

Also, not every editor will be suitable for every writer. We all have our different genres, age groups and styles we can advise on—and ones we are not confident to work with. A good editor will ask you questions about your book to see if they are a good fit for what you write. They will also ask what you want from an editor—whether it’s a straightforward line edit to add a professional polish or more nurturing in-depth conversations. I’ve written more about it here.

What’s your take on the upheaval in the publishing industry, the closure of Borders, and the rise of the “99 cent millionaires”?

Good questions. I could go on about this for pages. First—Borders. I’ll probably be skinned for saying this, but I was an Amazon convert early on and hardly buy from bookshops. In a “real” bookshop, I can’t find anything, compared with the search facilities available on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and LibraryThing. Also, I don’t have the huge range that I have available online. So I can’t see that the closure of shops is going to have much of an effect on me as a customer. However, for the publishing industry it’s different. Big retailers like Borders, and in this country Waterstones and WH Smith, are promotional opportunities for books—all those special tables, window displays, and dump bins are chances to advertise to readers.

Next—the general upheaval in publishing. A lot of interesting books aren’t being published because marketing departments now have the final say and they are catering for chain retailers. Original, groundbreaking authors aren’t being taken on—although they would have been publishing sensations just a few years ago. My agent says he’s had plenty of novels that have been adored by editors and rejected by the marketing department. So if brick-and-mortar bookshops are disappearing, who will marketing departments market to? Supermarkets? Will that drive quality down even more? Where will readers find new, interesting, worthwhile authors? Where will influential reviewers find them, come to that? Perhaps agents will bypass publishers and become the new imprints.

As for the 99-cent millionaires—best of luck to them. The successful ones have been kicked in the teeth of mainstream publishing and have taken control. Have they opened doors for other self-publishers? It’s hard to know. Everyone has always known there is undiscovered talent lurking in slush piles. And if a book looks professional, the buying public doesn’t care whether a book has earned its stripes by getting an agent and an editor. What matters is whether they heard about it from sources whose taste they trust.

Pricing is another issue. Conventional publishers won’t offer e-books for 99 cents because their overheads are huge, but many people feel mainstream e-books are overpriced. The 99-cent millionaires are suggesting a new benchmark for what consumers will pay. But That’s too low. Some self-publishers can’t afford to produce full-length books for 99 cents. However much the buying public has got used to the culture of “free,” producing good creative content costs time and money. I guess each book will find its natural price.
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