Ask Daphne! About Editing

April 22nd, 2010 • Kate

tortoiseshellshoesI love these shoes. When I think of shoes to illustrate a post about editors, these are the ones that come to mind. And speaking of editors, (Not Intern) Jenny asks:

Do you work as an editor on in-progress stories? I understand that proposed non-fiction does not necessarily have to be complete. Memoir, however, is to be dealt with as though it were fiction. Write the thing, polish it till there’s a hole in the cloth, then query. How would you distinguish between memoir and narrative non-fiction? For something that’s incomplete, do you work with the author in order to make something better able to sell? Or is that a publishing house’s editor’s position?

I do, though the level of how much editing I do varies wildly. With most of my clients, part of the signing process includes asking them to make some level of revisions to their manuscript. Very few things come to me in perfect form for submission to editors, so I like to help authors tweak things as part of the process. That may be big picture edits — can this character be more active throughout? Can you bring the conclusion together more tightly? Can they kiss sooner? — or line and continuity edits. In a manuscript I’m working on with an author right now, the timing of a clock tower chime is important, and was represented in two different manners. Together, we went through the manuscript and fixed that.

In most of these cases though, we’re talking about finished manuscripts that I have basically already agreed to represent, or nearly so. In memoir, which, as you note, is usually sold on a complete manuscript, the steps would be the same — though I don’t represent memoirs myself. In narrative non-fiction, I think the concept and the writing play equally important roles, but a manuscript does not need to be complete to sell. The difference is that memoir, to me, is a particular life story, while narrative non-fiction need not be that personal. But that may be simplfying things too much.

In many cases with narrative non-fiction, depending on the subject, that initial advance payment for a deal is the financing that makes the book possible — think of something like Around the World in 80 Dates or just about any of A.J. Jacobs’ books. Most authors can’t undertake to follow through on the trips or ideas their books are based on without funding — whether that comes from the advance on a proposal, or previous success.

I have worked on editing nonfiction proposals before, which can be a difficult line to trend between style and substance. You want to make sure you have enough of both.

Hope that helps! And if anyone else has a better sense of the difference between memoir and narrative non-fiction, please leave it in the comments. Otherwise, I’m stuck with “I know it when I see it!”

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One Response to “Ask Daphne! About Editing”

  1. Georgiana Says:

    I think memoir is a subset of narrative nonfiction. For instance Into Thin Air and Into the Wild would both be narrative nonfiction in my eyes but neither are memoirs. (Although Into the Wild is almost a memoir written by another person, if that makes any sense.)

    Three Cups of Tea is interesting. Is it memoir since it's by the person who experienced the events or is it narrative nonfiction since it tells a story? Maybe memoir is broader and encompasses more of someone's life; the entire arc as opposed to "most exciting event"?