Thursday, January 5, 2012

The difference between a book doctor and a developmental editor: a meditation about a vanishing craft, and an introduction to a new sister blog

Today I’m launching the sister blog, The Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag, in which I’ll be explicating things I learned in about a decade of book doctoring.  Eventually I think the process will lead to a how-to ebook with that title.

Allen Rinzler, in process of explaining when to go looking for a developmental editor, has done a very nice job of describing what the people who call themselves developmental editors do.  I always called myself a book doctor.  Most people use the terms interchangeably,  but I think there’s a difference that is worth contemplating.

I heartily recommend reading  the Rinzler piece I’ve linked to, and if it absolutely sounds like something you’d gladly pay someone to do,  then by all means go get yourself a developmental editor.  There are a lot of them around nowadays because of layoffs and cutbacks in publishing, and many of them are superb; you’ll probably never find more of that kind of talent more readily available.

But I’m not a developmental editor, I'm a book doctor.  

 The difference between a book doctor and a developmental editor, I think, is worth contemplating for at least three reasons:

1)    So that writers don’t buy one when they need the other.

2)    So that editors don’t try to do one job when the other is needed.

3)    To justify yet another damned blog about writing.

A developmental editor is something like your personal trainer; there’s nothing wrong with you (or your book) at the start except that you’re not in very good shape.  With their knowledge and experience,  developmental editors know what you need to do, and with their people skills they motivate you to do the next step and do it well, and eventually, at the end, it’s a book and you’re a writer.  A good developmental editor (and I have no interest in any other kind) is focused on the health of the writer and the book, making both the best they can be.

A good book doctor is focused on what’s wrong, the same way an ER room physician is focused on injury or sickness. 

The book doctor comes in when:

• the book is 250,000 words, the editor at Traditional House is only willing to publish 150,000, and the author is paralyzed because making the cuts seems so difficult. 

• the agent says, “The plot is awesome and everyone who sees the synopsis wants to see the book; they say the writing is fine; but after they read the complete manuscript they say they were bored out of their skulls, and there’s no offer.  And I think by ‘fine’ they mean they don’t know what’s wrong, but something is.”

• the author is two years late, there’s only four chapters to go, and nobody – the editor, the agent, the author’s mother, the agent’s cat – can think of anything satisfactory that can happen in those last four chapters.

•the agent says, “I’ve taken on four authors like this in two years, I can’t sell any of their books, and none of the editors can seem to tell me what’s wrong except that they don’t like them enough to buy them, but as far as we can tell they’re not bad books.”

• “It should be a great story but my eyes glaze over.”

• “I don’t know why I want to beat the hero to death with a flat-bladed shovel.”

• “All of a sudden it stopped making sense.”

• The latest suggested revisions to the author are mostly undoing suggested revisions from a previous round.

• Everyone just wants this book to be over but no one feels good sending it to production.

And so forth – a book doctor solves the mysteries of books that instead of getting up off the slab and walking like well-built monsters, are lying there moaning in pain, or curiously still, or seem to have come out as penguin/geranium crosses.  Then the book doctor prescribes a course of action, which might be carried out by the editor, the author, or the book doctor,  and if it goes as it should, that course of action leads to a better-than-publishable book.

Ideally a book doctor should not work on something that is untreatably dead, or too incomplete to tell if it will ever live, just as you don't call in an ER doctor to treat anybody you've already buried, or call in Dr. Frankenstein when all you've got on the slab is a left leg, a set of kidneys, and half a dozen teeth.

You call for the book doctor when the book is mostly okay, the writer is almost certainly okay (maybe inexperienced but okay), and the book just needs to be finished satisfactorily.  In cases like that we don’t need to fix the whole writer, or re-start or re-do the book.  There is probably about one thing wrong, with maybe half a dozen symptoms of the fundamental problem, or there might be two or three things wrong with some persistent weird trouble that is a result of negative synergy.  In any case, the book is almost there,  doing the right thing would fix it, and you need a fresh set of experienced eyes and a big bag of tricks.

You call the book doctor when the book is so almost there. 

When it feels like just a little bit more of a draft would do it.

As a book doctor,  I move books from almost-publishable to better-than-publishable.  Sometimes that means a short report identifying where the roadblock is; sometimes a detailed revision plan laying out every step to be completed; sometimes it means whole ghost drafts, following the revision plan and rewriting sentence by sentence.  (Those last are expensive –  the price of a first-novel advance or more – but three times, it’s been worth it to a publisher, and once to an agent).

I suspect traditional book doctors will be extinct in half a generation or so (and there’s another difference – I think developmental editors are going to flourish as never before).   The things that used to make book doctoring a great job are mostly over with.   The work is difficult and challenging,  and most people can’t do it, so I charge a lot for it.  In the old days, a publisher with $100k sunk into an unpublishable book, or an agent who was sure he could get at a six-figure contract if only the book didn’t utterly blow,  would sometimes come up with the money.  Over the years most of the money came from traditional publishing editors and agents, and I preferred that; it didn’t matter what I told the writer, so I told the truth without fear of paycheck.  But nowadays there are always six much-more-ready books out there from newbies; rather than have a book doctored, it’s cheaper to bury the poor thing, perhaps still twitching, and buy a new one from an unknown.

Part of the reason for that is another reason book doctors aren’t in much demand anymore:  the gap between  “sorta-publishable” and “ready to publish” has been steadily eroding from both sides.  The resources and training available to beginning writers are better, so the not-quites are better, and the time and concentration put into professionally published work has been sliding, so the just-barelys are worse.  The population always overlapped but now the overlap is enormous, and the new self-pubs of the indie revolution are flooding into that space as well.

So I’m working my way out of the book doctoring business, though I’d probably still take on the right project.  (Right being defined as a book doctoring, not developmental editing, job, with decent pay and a source other than the author).  I’ve thought about taking more developmental editing clients, but whenever I’ve found myself doing developmental editor work, especially on the author’s dime, I’ve found it frustrating, even with the best clients, and one large part of the reason is that they want a partnership, not a fix.  Furthermore the money in developmental editing overwhelmingly comes from the writer,  which feels wrong to me no matter how willingly they sign the checks, and where an editor and I can agree that this book is a good bet and just needs a fix, the writer and I have to agree on something a lot more complicated and fraught, and it’s not good to be incentivized to shade the truth to get work; just knowing the incentive is there makes me doubt my judgment more than I should.

So here I am with about a decade of book-doctoring skills, having doctored about thirty titles, developmental-edited  around a dozen, and done enormous amounts of agency reading, much of it focused on can/should this book be doctored.   That’s a lot of experience, but the job is fading from existence.  What to do with the skills?

Of course I’ll keep right on using them in my own work.  Many times problems that I have doctored for other people show up in less-serious, non-fatal forms in my stuff and in other people’s work, even published work.  It’s actually rare that one of them becomes so severe that it kills a book rather than just damaging it subtly.

So here’s my thought, and why I’m launching my allied blog, The Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag.  Most of what I learned in that odd little trade of book doctoring was tricks.  What I mean by a trick is something that works in a lot of circumstances, but has no theory behind it, and is unconnected to other tricks.  (Whereas theories tend strongly to connect to other theories).   If you will, technai.  

Tricks, as we all know, come in bags.  Bags like doctors carry ….

So over in  The Book Doctor’s Little BlackBag,   I’m going to walk you through my bag of tricks, about one per week, usually on Thursdays.  These are the technai I know for figuring out what is keeping a book Just Below Not Quite and moving it forward to Well Above Just Barely,  if the problem is severe.  (And they're not just for the totally dead; most of these tricks will improve a book that has a mild case of the problem).  The first post, about  curiously dead action-filled scenes, is up there now.

A few provisos and warnings:

The Book Doctor’s Little Black Bag  is for people who are recognizably writing something that most of us would call fiction, be it ever so feeble.  Raw beginners might cut themselves on the scalpels, eat the ointments, or get snarled up in the gauze.  It will be better for everyone if you come back when you’ve finished at least a hundred thousand words of fiction or so.


Although some of this may be useful to beginners,  you will find no systematic discussion of the basics.  If you’re not sure what the difference is between a protagonist, a protractor, and a protease, and you think a climax and a resolution is what happens at a parliamentary orgy, there are a zillion sources out there.  Go to those. 

You will find little or nothing about the business of writing except perhaps some things about scams (to which non-agency non-publisher private book doctoring clients are often susceptible because they are desperate), including some eventual hints about how to know your book doctor is a quack, and perhaps a thing or two about how to negotiate with a possible book doctor.  You won’t find my opinions about indie v. traditional, paper v. epub, all that.  If I have any such opinions, and they appear anywhere,  they will appear here, in Approachably Reclusive.

Avoid medical student syndrome -- just because  you have a name for it doesn’t mean you’ve got it! I would be deeply irritated to learn that any workshop was trying to work through these tricks as the kind of list that some places have made of, for example, The Turkey City Lexicon.  Many of these issues I discuss are peculiar things that you may never see in your own work, and others are only problems in some works and may actually be beneficial in others

 The checklisty fix-up is one of several reasons why I’m on record as a workshop-loather:  before deciding to check the oil, make sure you are working on a car rather than a cat, a cow, or corn on the cob.  Many workshops don’t take that first step, because they are so eager to get on with dragging their writers over the next bed of coals or covering them with the next slathering of butter.

Nearly all of these tricks require that there be an existing text.  (The diagnostic tricks in particular do).  You can’t doctor a book you haven’t written yet.  (And till you’ve written it, it doesn’t have problems, which is why so many people never start).  So if you’re looking for the thing to improve that idea that you bore people at parties with, or those six pages of notebook paper you scribbled once in the bus stop – go write it.  Finish it.  Then come back.

These are tricks, not esthetic commands.  Omitting to do them does not necessarily make your work worse.  Doing them is not at all guaranteed to make it better.  But experience has shown that many people like their own work better after the trick is done.

Don't read this with an eye to lining up clients for yourself.  Having this bag of tricks will not make you a book doctor any more than a flight simulator will make you a pilot – not even a bad one, and in this current market, there’s not that much book-doctoring (as opposed to developmental-editing) work anyway.  If you really want to be  a book doctor, please bear this in mind: I did my first book doctoring gig around the time I finished my twentieth novel.  That may have been a bit too soon. ß NOT A JOKE OR IRONY.The tricks you’ll find here should be applied only to your own work only, cautiously.

Like they say in all the drug commercials,  if it hurts, stop.  (And consult a physician.  I know a good book doctor who is available, occasionally, at excruciating and outrageous rates).