Q&A with Editor Gretchen Stelter

I'm thrilled to introduce the brilliant and talented editor Gretchen Stelter to my blog today. She has agreed to answer some of my burning editorial questions, and I greatly appreciate her honesty and insights.

So, without further ado, heeeere's Gretchen!

1) So, Gretchen, you work as an editor. Please tell us exactly what that means, and a bit about your background, particularly in regards to the literary world.

Well, I work with authors and their agents and publishers, which could mean anything from developmentally editing early drafts with individual authors to copyediting their manuscripts before the type is set all the way to proofreading book pages just months before publication. It depends on where your book is, where you are in the process, and what you need from me.

I began editing in grad school, while attending the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia, where I also trained in writing and editing UK, AUS, and US English. I finished my degree after I transferred to the publishing program at Portland State University and worked for Ooligan Press, which taught me more specifically about book editing and writing. Before I’d finished grad school, I met Bernadette Baker-Baughman, and began working with her as an agent. We worked together as co-owners of Baker’s Mark Literary Agency, LLC, for five years before I started editing and writing fulltime. Over the years, I’ve worked on books in nearly every genre, as well as countless book proposals and queries.

2) What made you decide to go from Literary Agent to Editor?

To be an agent, you have to be a bulldog. Bulldogs are formidable if you are ever involved with one in a tussle. They grab hold and don’t let go, and the literary types are no different; this is why you hire them to pitch your book. I am not a bulldog. I am a bookworm. I knew for a while that selling wasn’t my strength, which is why I was the Editorial Director at the agency for a year before leaving. I can see the holes in the plot and put my finger right on what’s wrong with the dialogue, and that’s what I needed to be doing all the time; that is clearly where my strengths are. So in the end, it was really less of a decision and more of a natural evolution. It was supposed to happen.

3) What services does your business provide?

Henry Covey, my editing partner at Cogitate, and I basically run the gamut of anything that has to do with words. We ghostwrite, developmentally edit, copyedit, proofread, and write reader’s reports. Over the years, we’ve edited book proposals, published books, academic papers, legal contracts, business plans, and reports for the Department of Justice. We’ve also ghostwritten published books, press releases, bios for band websites, and a lot more. Seriously, if it has to do with words and you are wondering who could help you with it, that’s probably us.

4) Do you only work with agented or published writers?

That is a resounding no. I’ve worked with authors at every stage of publication, from before the query or agent stage all the way to international bestsellers whose works I proofread and copyedit for reprint. I do work with agented writers and have been hired either by a publisher or author after a publishing contract is in place, but I also work with authors trying to get agents, and I help write pitches, synopses, etc., in pursuit of that. Working with unagented authors is also in line with what I did at Baker’s Mark for five years: getting the unpublished author published. And there’s nothing lovelier that starting out with a writer at that level, helping her or him find an agent, and then being first in line when the book hits shelves.

5) At what point should a writer consider working with an editor?

I help take a manuscript to the next level. If you’re getting a lot of partial requests and no one is requesting the full, it’s time to ask for an editor’s eye, because your concept is good, your query is good, but something isn’t sparking when people start to read it. Manuscripts are authors’ babies, and sometimes it’s easy to get a bit too dear with them, which means it’s easy to get comfortable and not truly push yourself as hard as you can or take the chances that your manuscript needs. Athletes have trainers to push them; authors have editors. (This is also why every agent I know will roll their eyes when someone says, “But my family/wife/co-worker/best friend read it and loved it.” Well, these people—although vital to the writing process in other respects—probably aren’t going to be the ones behind you at the gym screaming, “Do one more!” They like you. They don’t want to be negative or an ass. And, let’s not forget: It’s most likely not their day job.) So if a manuscript is stagnating in any way, it’s time to hire an editor.

In my opinion, however, a writer should start working with an editor as soon as possible and this isn’t me trying to promote what editors do. I say this because it’s not going to be your choice whether you work with an editor or not if you are traditionally published (no self-publishing, POD, etc.). If you are published, you will have an editor, end of story. The more you get used to working with someone on that level, the better off you are. You may be in for a rude awakening even if you get to an agent and are thinking, “Whew, I have an agent offer to represent me. Now I’m done with this manuscript.” The agent may ask for changes, and if not, your publisher is going to. No ifs about it. Let me repeat: Your publisher will ask for changes to your manuscript.

Now, if you start arguing with me that Stephanie Meyer’s publisher didn’t with her last book (which may just be a rumor) or look at Ayn Rand, then I’ll concede the point, because let’s be honest, people with track records (READ: sales records) are not going to be edited as heavily, but most authors are going to have some input from their publishers their first few times around, if not every time around. I say, dive in and figure out what it’s like.

On a draft-level, I would say that, at the very least, you want to consider working with an editor before you take it to query, because you may be a brilliant writer who has no concept of what a comma splice is or how to use commas at all, and you’ll want to hire someone to at least do the mechanical stuff to perfect your manuscript. Yes, people will get representation without this sometimes, but more often than not, if it looks like you don’t know the mechanics of writing, most agents won’t mess with it. And really, you wouldn’t send a résumé out with tons of typos, so putting your best foot forward just makes sense.

6) What can a writer expect from working w/you?

Of course, the specifics depend on every project, but in general, you can be sure that I will have a knowledge of the genre you write and it will inform my feedback. When given the choice, I often opt for sitting in my apartment with a book after hours of editing instead of venturing out among the other 3-dimensionals, and I read pretty fast—which to be honest, is an understatement; I can read very fast—so I have read a lot in the genres I work in and I can normally work relatively quickly on your project.

A writer can normally expect me to start with a reader’s report, which takes me two to three weeks and will give the writer the broad strokes of what needs to be revised, or I’ll start with a sample edit, if we’re jumping into developmental or copyediting. I like to be sure not only that my expertise is going to work with the project but also that the writer and I have similar sensibilities and will be able to work well together. You can also be sure that I will have worked in that genre, otherwise I’ll discuss moving the project to Henry’s schedule and referring you to him.

I’d like to think you might enjoy it too. I really love my job, and I become friends with a lot of the writers I work with, so hopefully you can expect to actually have fun while we’re at it.

7) Are there any books you've worked on that we may have heard of?

Editorially, I’ve worked on some amazing published work. A smattering of titles that I worked on at different stages and that fall under many different genres but have all been (or will be) published are:

The Truth About Beauty by Kat James (Beyond Words/Atria 2007)

Cosmos Incorporated by Maurice Dantec (Del Rey 2008)

Choose Them Wisely by Mike Dooley (Beyond Words/Atria 2009)

Never After by Dan Elconin (this was while I was at Baker’s Mark, as he is represented by BMLA, but while I represented I did also do editorial work with Dan and his editor at Simon & Schuster—Simon Pulse 2009)

Loving Mr. Darcy
Romancing Mr. Darcy both by Sharon Lathan (Sourcebooks Landmark 2009, 2010)

Beautiful People
Farm Fatale
Bad Heir Day all by Wendy Holden (Sourcebooks Landmark 2010)

An Offer You Can’t Refuse (2009)
Miranda’s Big Mistake (2009)
Millie’s Fling (2009)
Perfect Timing (2009)
Rumor Has It (2010)
Take A Chance on Me (2010) all by Jill Mansell (Sourcebooks Landmark)

Amelia O’Donohue Is SO Not a Virgin by Helen FitzGerald, (Sourcebooks Fire, Nov. 2010)

Real Mermaids Don’t Wear Toe Rings by Helene Boudreau, Dec., 2010 (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky)

I also recently started work on the US versions of children’s books inspired by Bindi Irwin, Steve Irwin’s daughter, and her life at Australia Zoo—previously published in Australia and coming out here next year.

8) What advice can you give to writers working on their first novel?

1) Read your genre. You don’t want to read so much that you can’t get trends and other popular writers’ voices out of your head, but you need to know what’s going on in your own genre.

2) In my best Burgess Meredith voice, the Micky Goldmill in me says, “Kill your darlings. All of them.” (Or maybe it’s the Faulkner in me, since it’s his quote, but I couldn’t resist channeling Rocky’s trainer here.)

3) You don’t have to give your reader as much back story as you think. Cut to the chase and get to the action; don’t describe things you don’t need to. For instance, if you know that your character’s favorite color is blue, that’s great. You should know that about your character, but unless this little tidbit somehow matters to the plot, you seriously don’t need to tell your reader this.

4) Constantly consider beginning your work, or even just your chapters, in medias res.

9) What about writers who have written at least one novel and are actively looking for agent representation?

If you’re reading your genre, you know what books are popular and which books you can accurately compare yours to. From there, do the research; figure out who represented and sold those books and see what their guidelines are and if they are open for queries. Then concentrate on crafting a query that gives the most important details: the pitch for one book (you can pitch a series, but try not to list three different books that aren’t connected in any way in one query), your background, why you think you’d work well with this agent. Don’t go in uninformed. As an agent, I constantly received queries that praised a book I sold and how that was why the writer was pitching me. Unfortunately, more often than not the book was not something I sold or wasn’t even out yet. You wouldn’t apply for a job that you had absolutely no skills for, so don’t pitch an agent that has absolutely no connection to your type of work.

10) Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I just want to say thank you, to Debbie and to all the readers interested in knowing my responses.

And I'd like say, thank you, Gretchen, for shedding light on the process of editing and the role of an editor. MUCH APPRECIATED!
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