With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Renni Browne
Renni Browne has been an editor for over fifty years. Before Scribner’s hired her in 1966, she was a copy editor for Time-Life Books and assistant fiction editor for Woman’s Day. When she left Scribner’s she worked part-time for a paperback publisher and a literary agent while reviewing books for Kirkus and Library Journal. In 1968 she became senior editor at Stein & Day, where she stayed seven years until she became a senior editor at William Morrow.
In 1980 she founded The Editorial Department. In 1991 she and Dave King wrote Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the bestselling title on editing, now in its second edition from HarperCollins. She has written book reviews and magazine articles, appeared on NPR, and given workshops and seminars around the country on topics of interest to writers. She’s originally from Charlotte, N.C, and now lives in Asheville with three cats. Hobbies include old-time music festivals, walks in the mountains, and reading fiction.
When did you first decide you wanted to be an editor? What steps did you take to hone your editing skills early on?
I typed my friends’ papers in college and made changes and suggestions they thanked me for. My first job, in New York after graduation, was writing and editing promotion copy for a national magazine. My boss fired me–because, he said, “You’re a born editor. Take any editorial job you can get, then quit as soon as you’ve learned everything you can there and take another one.” I followed his advice, honing my skills every place I worked, and when Scribner’s hired me as an book editor five years later I’d had nineteen jobs!
You founded The Editorial Department in 1980. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your inspiration for starting The Editorial Department?
Most publishers were no longer placing a high priority on the kind of editing I’d been doing for twenty years–my boss at the time told me he paid me too much for me to spend a month editing a bestselling author’s novel. As senior editor my job was to cultivate literary agents and acquire books, not edit them in depth. This state of affairs caused some highly skilled editors to drop out of mainstream publishing. I saw an opportunity.
Your book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, covers a wide range of editing techniques that you developed during your impressive career as an editor in mainstream publishing. What is the greatest benefit a writer can expect to take away from your book?
A manuscript that reads as if it’s been written by a pro rather than an amateur.
At what point during the writing process should a writer consider self-editing? Are there times at which you should turn off your “self editor”?
It’s a good idea to be aware of self-editing principles from the get-go, but writers shouldn’t focus on them when writing a first draft. Let the story flow and the characters go–then self-edit your style and mechanics.
What are some common misconceptions about editing that aspiring authors should be aware of?
Many writers assume editors correct punctuation, typos, word repetitions, etc.–that’s actually copyediting, the last stage of editing. Developmental editing comes first: you’re likely to get suggestions about plot, characterization, scene construction, architecture, and your literary style in general.
Is it still necessary for writers to hire a different set of eyes before a project’s complete?
Your book is your child–and we simply can’t be totally objective about our children. So yes, hire an editor. Many of The Editorial Department’s clients have published one or more highly successful books. Their latest book is their latest child, so they hire us again.
As a fiction editor, what are the most preventable mistakes you see in manuscripts?
Weak dialogue mechanics. Overuse of flashbacks. Introducing characters with backstory. THE most preventable mistake? Explaining things to your readers they can figure out for themselves! Whenever they do that, they’re involved in the story at a deeper level–because they’ve just invested a little piece of themselves in it.
The Editorial Department is over 30 years old. How has it evolved alongside the ever-changing publishing industry? What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in your career in publishing?
The biggest changes I’ve seen in the industry are e-books, the phenomenon of self-publishing, and the decline of traditional publishing. Ross Browne, my son, foresaw these changes years ago and began hiring top cover designers, web site designers, and marketing experts so that The Editorial Department could offer writers who wanted to self-publish a chance to reach a market far beyond their friends and family. We still have our agent-matchmaking program, but these days many of our clients actually prefer to self-publish.
What is your best advice for writers trying to break into publishing now?
Have your manuscript edited. Consider self-publishing it. If you’re determined to go mainstream, research agents and send it (simultaneously) to any of the ones you’ve chosen who are willing to read unsolicited manuscripts. And keep your expectations low!
What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects or events we can look out for?
I’m writing a new book, Dialogue for Fiction Writers, with Editorial Department senior editor Peter Gelfan. So far we’ve finished the first chapter–it’s hard to find time to write when I’m so busy editing.
Thank you for the interview, Renni!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.