Substantive Editors, or SEs, do most of the things DEs (Developmental Editors) do, but they also dive further into the weeds because they’re working with a manuscript that’s already been written. SEs aren’t there to motivate you and correct you and steer you down the right road as you write your book. SEs come into the picture once your book is already written. They read your book, and if it’s a novel, they’ll pay close attention to the things that will improve your novel so that it can be the best book it can be prior to your submitting it to a literary agent or, again, if you’re lucky enough to already be working with a publisher, to your editor at the publishing house. Sometimes it’s the same person, sometimes it isn’t. It all depends on how the house uses its editors.
SEs aren’t line editors—though they can be. They aren’t copy editors either, but again, they can be. Same with developmental editors and proofreaders. You, as the writer, should understand what each type of editor specializes in, so you know the type of editor you need, and when, in the process, you need them. I’ve written a post about the four types of editors out there that goes into more specificity, and you can read it here.
Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love.
Besides being a published novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer, I’m also a Substantive Editor. My personal belief is that it helps tremendously to know the craft from the inside out in order to provide writers with the best feedback you can provide them when editing their manuscripts. By no means am I trying to disparage editors who aren’t also writers; there are a great many editors out there who’ve never written a book. The great William Maxwell Evarts "Max" Perkins, who’s credited with discovering Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others, never wrote a book. But without him, those writers probably wouldn’t have published the books they ultimately published. Perkins was, in my opinion, a genius. He just wasn’t an author. But I digress.
When someone edits my fiction, I always make sure that they’re published writers. For me, it’s like riding a bike or learning a language—if you haven’t done it, my question is, how can you teach it? Yes, there are classes on how to edit, and there are certifications, but my experience is that I’ve received the best feedback from editors who understand what it’s like to write a book. They’ve been in the trenches, they understand the tricks of the trade because they’ve leveraged them, and they speak the same language as me and in the same way. Again, it’s just my preference. Anthony Doerr, author of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction said, in an interview, something to the effect that once he’s written a first draft of a book that he then looks to add the quirkiness into it (or something like that), and I knew immediately what he was talking about. I know that an editor without a published book can know what that means and say it, but because Doerr said it, it just stuck me as more authentic. In short, it meant more to me because I know he’s gone through the process.
So, what does a substantive edit of a novel look like? Well, award-winning author Teddy Jones, whose novels I’ve substantively edited, has graciously allowed me to share portions of the feedback I provided her for her latest novel, Marva Cope. Below you’ll find screenshots of comments I’ve made within the manuscript, as well as the comments I provided her in a separate document that goes into more detail on the overall structure, organization, presentation, the tightening of scenes and the development of characters, the prose, meaning, content, and so on. The goal of my edits is to look at the novel as a whole and see what’s working and what needs improvement, where the holes are and to provide recommendations as to how to improve those holes, how to develop the plot and subplots so causality is clear, and many other things that make readers want to read the book.
Now, the thing about substantive and developmental editing is that in the end, it’s up to the author to either accept or reject the editor’s recommendations. I don’t tell Teddy or any of the authors I work with what to do. That’s their decision. It’s their book and, ultimately, they get to write the book they want to write. My job is simply to provide what I believe are the best recommendations I can; what they do with that information is up to them. Yes, I have decades of experience, but so do they—and I must respect that fact. That’s why I consider what we do a partnership—because it is. It’s a partnership that strives to produce the best book we can produce together—author and substantive editor.
So, without further ado, here are some screenshots of the edits I provided to Teddy for her recently released novel, Marva Cope:
You'll notice that most of my comments are questions. My goal isn't to dictate to the novelist what they should do--it's to ask them if what they've written is written in the best way possible, as well as ensuring that the author is considering whether or not they're staying true to the plot and characters, as well as the promises they've made to their readers.
In the above section comments (though some of the comments apply to other pages in the manuscript), you'll further note that we're diving into structure, but also asking the questions that need to be asked, because there are characters that need to do more for the novel, and others who seem to have disappeared completely. First drafts and second drafts and more need substantive editors to point these things out, because the author is too close to her work. Remember Hemingway said that "only the tip of the iceberg shows in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravitas." Well, everything beneath the water is in the writer's brain, and sometimes that gets translated into certain things being on the page that shouldn't be, and other things that should be on the page being left out. Substantive editors catch these things, and ensure that the author addresses them appropriately in the next draft. In the below image, I provide a little guidance around the experience I'd like to have as a reader, as well as direction around showing vs telling, and where the author, in my opinion, should include more in terms of character backstory.
And then here is a portion of the notes that I provided Teddy in a separate document that I sent to her along with the tracked change comments I posted directly into the word document:
The two sections/books seem a little disjointed. I was into the first novel with Marva as a youth, Cutter, Chance, etc., and then Chance died so quickly I felt cheated.
Cutter is a good character, but he gets taken out pretty quickly (in book 1), and then we learn later that he’d become a paraplegic. Should we have known more about him throughout the novel?
There are a lot of characters who we touch on superficially, but I would have liked perhaps a bit fewer that we got to know in greater detail.
What happened to Alvin? He came in all huffy and puffy and then he sort of just went away. He could have brought a decent amount of conflict, but he skedaddled.
Rose Ellen, in my opinion, should have been a greater part of the novel than she is. She becomes another character when she could have been a stronger reason/catalyst for the things going on in Marva’s life.
Maybe make Marva and Chick a little more something something once you get that line going. He drives around in trucks a lot, but I’d like to see him maybe get out and walk with her or something.
Violet’s death comes out of nowhere but feels like you just wanted to wrap it up so you killed her off. Nothing wrong with that—just my impression. Maybe Marva didn’t smell the cookies baking (and that’s what clued her in that something was wrong—because she always had the smell of cookies baking in her house.
We sort of leave the immigration thing/threat after bringing it up. Should we dive deeper into that? I did like the plane crash scene, as I saw it visually. At first I thought maybe it was intentional—was it? Or was that a red herring?
When Cutter bails out on Marva, I would have like to have seen a little more struggle on Marva’s behalf. She kind of just takes it in stride and keeps trucking.
In general I would maybe think of trying to incorporate the two sections of the book into one and tighten up the plot(s). I think we need to know a little more what Marva “wants,” as a character, and what gets in her way. I mean, we know, sort of, but is it enough? Are the motivations apparent for Marva’s overall actions? Are the hurdles she faces enough to create the drama and conflict we’re looking for as readers? Just some questions to ask yourself.
Have you thought of enriching the symbolism of things in the novel? I think it may help with some of the superficiality of the characters. Maybe if they do things (like Violet and her cookies) that say something about them. Chick drives up in his trucks but can he do more? Maybe he saves her from getting hit by a car? Or jumps out and walks with her (as mentioned above) to show that she’s more important to him than simply driving by?
Teddy Jones and I have worked on a number of her novels, so we've built a relationship where I know and understand the types of comments and feedback that will be most helpful for her, in the format she prefers. She is the author of seven novels and short story collections. She's also won the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition first prize medal in 2015, and was a finalist in the Women Writing the West Willa Award for contemporary fiction in 2014.
If you're in need of a Substantive Editor, feel free to contact me at Cully@novelmasterclass.com
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