Ask An Industry Expert: Debi Alper
21 January 2022
Today I’m delighted to welcome Debi Alper, winner of the RNA’s Indie Editor award 2021
Hello and welcome, Debi. First of all, many congratulations on becoming the first winner of the RNA’s new Indie Editor of the Year award. Can you begin by telling us a little of your journey from being an author yourself to becoming a freelance editor?
Hi! Thanks so much for having me. To be honest, I’m still buzzing from being the first winner of the award. It’s as if a dream that I didn’t know I had has come true. I became an author in my 40s, when I had two small children and two stressful jobs. I left the day jobs when I turned 50 but knew I would need to supplement my income from writing. My agent suggested I approach literary consultancies to work with them on a freelance basis. I started working with Jericho Writers (formerly Writers’ Workshop) in 2006. Nowadays, I only do Jericho edits for people who have completed the online self-edit course I’ve run for them since 2011. The rest of my work comes to me directly and I edit an average of 2-3 full-length novels a month.
What are the most important qualities an editor must bring to the task of editing another’s work? And are there any rules for what they shouldn’t do?
It’s crucial for an editor to avoid imposing their own views of what they believe a story should be. I see the role of an editor as helping an author to write the book they want to – and, in many cases, believe they already have. For this reason, l advise authors to divide all feedback into accept, adapt or reject. Accept is what I think of as slap-yourself-on-the-head moments. Something you were already aware, on some subliminal level, was not quite right. Adapt is feedback that highlights something you agree is not working as well as it could but you need to adapt the changes suggested by the editor to make them your own. It might be that making an adjustment elsewhere resolves the issue.
But there will also be feedback that you absolutely reject. You are the author and creator of this work and only you know what is right for the story you want to tell. You should always take the time to think carefully first though, before rejecting anything out of hand. To quote Neil Gaiman’s advice to authors, if a reader tells you something isn’t working for them, they’re nearly always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re nearly always wrong.
I also think it’s really important to ensure an editor points out the things that are already working well in the draft. Even experienced authors can be put off by a lengthy report which only points out things that are not working as well as they could/should.
Some positive feedback is always welcome! In your experience what are the most common things an author does need help with? In other words, what are you most likely to be querying or advising on with those colourful comments in the margin?
This very much depends on the experience of the author. Someone who is already published, and is familiar with the elements of a good story, is likely to need very specific feedback about the plot, characters etc. A debut author may well need more advice about the craft aspect: things like voice, showing and telling, POV, dialogue etc.
My own experience of working with several different editors has been that they tended to pick up on different things and I know I learnt something different from each of them in regard to self-review of my manuscripts. So here’s my question. Do you think it’s preferable for an author to work with one main editor over a period, covering several books and developing that important working relationship—OR is it helpful for the author to gain different perspectives by working with different editors (and vice versa)?
Oooh, that’s a good question. As an author, I really liked the continuity of working with a single editor, with whom I’d already built up a relationship, and found it quite hard to start from scratch with someone new. As an editor, I feel the same. I have worked with some people over several novels (I think nine is the record, so far) and love having a shared understanding and trust. Trust is key in the author/editor relationship. But it’s also true that fresh eyes can spot different things, giving an author a range of options. It really is down to the individual.
I notice you make yourself available for teaching creative writing and even run a course on Self-Editing Your Novel, whose success might somewhat do you out of business! Can I be really cheeky and ask what you do about editing your own work now? Do you have external input or do it all yourself?
Not cheeky at all. In truth, I haven’t written anything new for many years. I pour all my creative energy into other people’s stories these days. But I would never dream of publishing something of my own that had no external input at all and have always had at least one trusted beta reader. I should also point out that many of the published alumni of the self-edit course also had a critique, post-course. The difference is that the draft I edited for them was in much better shape than it would have been pre-course.
I wouldn’t expect anything else! As well as editing and advising on structure, characters and plot etc, I believe you also give feedback on commercial potential and composition of covering letter and synopsis. Are you able to point your clients in the direction of appropriate agents or publishers, or is that something they must do for themselves, if they want to go that route?
Inevitably, I have met many industry professionals over the years but could never pretend to have a vast knowledge of all the agents and indie publishers out there, let alone what they’re looking for, whether they’re open for submissions etc. I’m afraid there are no shortcuts to trawling through places like Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook or Jericho’s Agent Match. Even then, the info should be cross-checked with the agent’s website for the most up-to-date info. I would also suggest people follow lots of agents on Twitter, as that gives you more of a feel for who they are, what they’re looking for etc.
For independent authors, how important do you consider it is for them to have a second pair of eyes on their manuscript rather than only self-edit?
Absolutely crucial! In many ways, it’s even more important for self-publishers as many agents will work on editing with their clients before pitching a draft to publishers. And, of course, people with a trade deal will work on edits with their publisher. An edit is also important for people intending to submit to agents because even though they might do more editing with them, agents are not looking for rough diamonds. You’re much more likely to be picked from the slush pile if you send them a gem that’s already sparkling. Having said that, I have also worked with agents who feel their client needs more editing expertise than the agent can provide. Agenting and editing are two very different skills. Short answer: everyone needs an editor.
Can I ask about genre now? You are quite a prolific author of contemporary thrillers. Does this reflect in the authors who come to you for feedback and editorial assessment or do you find yourself working with a full range of different genres?
Over the years, I’ve worked in pretty much every genre. I have less experience of memoir or hard sci-fi and don’t work on stories for very young children.
Does it help to have a knowledge of a genre when editing or does it make little difference? Are there any types of book you are not comfortable working on?
People are often surprised to hear that the elements of a good story apply across the range of genres. That doesn’t apply to the very literary, experimental end of the market and someone writing that sort of book might be better off with an editor who has a more academic background. I would feel uncomfortable working on a story that dealt with sexual abuse (unless it was handled with great sensitivity) or included graphic and gratuitous violence. If I felt an author had a controversial political agenda that coloured the story, eg appearing to promote racism, homophobia etc, I would definitely take issue with that. Fortunately, I can only remember that happening twice and both times were many years ago.
And, following on from that, do you get the opportunity to positively promote diversity and inclusion?
Promoting diversity is something I’m absolutely passionate about. The industry has been far too slow in reflecting the experience of communities who are under-represented in the books which are published. For this reason, I negotiated with Jericho to provide a fully-funded bursary place on each self-edit course (which runs four times a year). The bursary started in Jan 2019 and the first recipient, Steffanie Edward, is already published by Bookouture. Two others, Wiz Wharton and Elliot Sweeney, have been offered major deals and they all say that winning the bursary and taking the course was the thing that tipped them over into being successful. This is the link for anyone who would like to apply for the bursary: https://jerichowriters.com/jericho-writers/about-us/bursaries/
A great testimony to the effectiveness of the course! On editing, when I was with a publisher I had to work with two editors for each book. The first went through for content (twice, with my comments in between), then another editor did line edits, also twice. In your experience, is this distinction still maintained or is it all done in one go, so to speak.
That’s still the norm when working with the big trade publishers. In fact, most have three layers: structural edit, copy edit, proofread. I try to combine all those stages into one process, especially for people who are approaching final draft stage, meaning there will be few, if any, radical changes to the draft I’m working on.
To what extent does romance figure in the novels you edit for your clients—I hope you’re going to say a lot!
Ha! I would say that love, in its many forms, appears in many (maybe even most) stories. I’ve worked on thrillers, fantasy novels and historical fiction where romance is an element of the story, whether or not the novels would sit neatly on the romance shelf in bookshops.
What is your typical working day like?
Long. I don’t like sitting at a desk, so all my work is done with my butt glued to my settee, whether I’m reading an MS (I always do this on hard copy), writing a report or annotating an MS on my laptop. I do try to get out for a walk most days. Ashamed to say, I often don’t succeed. I’m rarely in bed before 2.00am. But none of this is a complaint. I love what I do!
What’s the best/worst part of your job?
By far the best part is working together with authors with a shared aim: to give readers access to brilliant stories. I have a long ‘shelf of pride’ of novels by authors I’ve worked with. My blog also includes a Hall of Fame for our published self-edit alumni. One in four people who took the course in its first five years are now published. How incredibly cool is that?
I’m not sure if there is a worst side but I suppose a lot of people would think it’s sad that I no longer have time for my own writing. A bigger concern for me is not having much time for reading purely for pleasure. When I do take a rare break, I binge read to try to catch up.
So, if you have managed to read for pleasure recently, can you tell us the last published book you really enjoyed and why?
One of the books I read this summer was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. What a stunning novel. Powerful and topical, it addresses the question many people ask: what sets a young British person on a route to radicalisation and terrorism? It’s a real rule-breaker, having five POV voices and multiple timeline distortions. Oh yes, and love features very strongly in the story.
Thanks for talking with us, Debi, and all good wishes for the coming year.
For more about Debi’s work see:
Debi was talking with Susan Leona Fisher (website: http://www.slfisherauthor.co.uk)