Interviews with Deborah
“Calling Doctor Deborah!” (July 1, 2009)
Today our guest is Deborah Brodie, one of the best and most successful book doctors in the children’s book business. Deborah cofounded the Roaring Brook Press imprint for Millbrook Press and was an executive editor for Viking’s Children’s Books. She started her own consulting firm in June 2007.
Helen, first let me thank you for providing a forum for discussing this topic. You are right to say that more and more writers are relying on a freelancer to help get their manuscript in shape before they submit to an agent or editor--even if they are established and have already been well-published.
When I first began to freelance, I assumed that most of my work would come directly from publishers. After all, I’d been a working children’s book editor and creative writing teacher for 30 years, and I already knew most editors and publishers. Not so. Most of my referrals come from the 29 literary agents on my client list. The second source is individuals who find me through my teaching and workshops or, very often, through my website: www.deborahbrodie.com/
In this economic climate, there are now fewer in-house editors and they are all under pressure to produce more books--and for those books to be more commercial. An agent, who shall go nameless, sent a middle grade novel to a respected editor at a major publishing house, who brought it to an editorial meeting last month. The editor presented the book and its debut author as full of potential, but added that the manuscript needed a lot of revising. She was told that she is “too senior to spend so much time editing” and that she should turn it down.
The agent asked me to work with the author to revise and polish, which we are happily in the process of doing (the author, not the agent, pays me). The agent believes that, if they resubmit the novel in a more finished form, not only will we increase the chances of that publisher (or another one) buying the book, but also that the author will get a larger advance.
I can’t promise that a manuscript will be published at all, but I coach both established and new writers, encouraging them to experiment with genre, age group and voice--always moving toward our shared goal of making their work more publishable. No guarantees, of course, but we can have a productive, ongoing conversation about important ways of strengthening the manuscript.
And as Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary, Inc., said to me—in a different context—about harried editors today, “When a manuscript takes their breath away on the first read, they open their wallets wide.”
Deborah, how do you work with potential clients?
If the manuscript is at a preliminary stage, I will work with the author from the beginning—offering a consultation to brainstorm and talk generally about characterization, plot, pacing, voice, descriptions, credibility, dialogue, openings and endings, chapter divisions, segues, audience, and marketability. For that, I charge a reading/preparation fee, plus my hourly rate of $200 for the consultation itself.
If the manuscript is ready for an in-depth line-edit, I offer several possible arrangements for one or more rounds of revising. I provide a marked manuscript and editorial letter for in-depth editorial work (as opposed to a consultation, which involves no written comments). Occasionally, the author and I decide on a formal commitment to work until we are both satisfied that the text is ready for submission. In that scenario (a higher-priced one), which one of my clients so elegantly calls the “all-you-can-eat” option, I provide virtually unlimited access by email or phone, and I don’t look at the clock.
In all these instances, we work by email and phone. If the author will come to my neighborhood in New York City, we also meet in person.
In the screenwriting business, a writer works with both an agent and a manager. The manager works exclusively with the screenwriter on creative, editorial kinds of tasks to make the screenplay polished and ready to sell. The agent then does the sales effort. The agent and editor split a 20% commission. Do you ever see the publishing world moving to this model? It seems to work really well in Hollywood!
What an interesting idea! The children’s book field generally follows trends in publishing for adults--we certainly have in terms of an emphasis on front list (the most recently published titles) and the short shelf-life of fiction. Maybe Hollywood is next. If so, like all changes, I’m certain it will have pluses and minuses.
Deborah’s web site offers plenty of resources for writing as well as information about the classes she teaches in the New York City area.
Thanks, Deborah, for talking with us today.
Meet a Member: Deborah Brodie
Profile by Sheila K. Lewis
What steered you to a career in publishing?
I come from a long line of teachers. Being a teacher is probably the closest analogy to being an editor, both are about developing a person’s potential. And I think I was born with the mindset of an editor: anything can be made better. When I was 12 years old, I vowed to leave the Midwest, move to New York, and become an editor. And I did!
I was an editor at Viking Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin, for 22 years. I left to cofound the Roaring Brook Press, now an imprint of Macmillan. In my six years there, I launched the careers of 21 authors and illustrators.
My specialty is books for children and teens, but I have worked on books for adults, too. Now, as a freelancer, about one-third of my work is adult fiction and nonfiction.
What can you tell us about your recent career transition? What is most challenging about it? Most rewarding?
Oh, it’s wonderful to give up the endless corporate meetings and paperwork, not to mention the office politics. The only meetings I have now are the ones that give me the chance to work with established writers, or help new ones over the rough spots. I get to keep the most appealing and compelling part of being an editor: to move writers past their intent, closer to their full potential in terms of both craft and marketplace. I can take time to nurture and to teach in a way that wasn’t possible within the confines of the corporate structure.
I’m a book doctor for individuals and literary agents, freelance editor for publishers, and teacher of creative writing. The opportunity to explore them all is a blessing.
What does your typical work week look like?
I spend most of my time on the phone or meeting in-person with writers. We brainstorm ideas, dig into a new genre or new approach, work out a plan to combat writer’s block, or concoct writing strategies to explore characterization and plot.
I also consult on projects and proposals for agents and publishers, prepare New School Forum evening programs, and lead private writers’ workshops to critique manuscripts and discuss issues of craft and publishing. I give on-site professional development seminars for editors at publishing houses.
And I update my website: www.DeborahBrodie.com.
As an editor, you have worked with so many distinguished authors. Can you name favorite authors or books you have worked on?
I worked with Stephen King on The Eyes of the Dragon, an all-ages Bestseller of the Decade (the 80s), and, yes, he did accept editorial suggestions, graciously, in fact. Nathan Englander and I spent several months working on the short story that eventually opened his first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Other acclaimed authors and illustrators: Seymour Chwast, Sarah Dessen, Patricia Reilly Giff, Dan Greenburg, James Marshall, Milton Meltzer, Jean Marzollo, Mary Pope Osborne, Robert Andrew Parker, Howard Schwartz, James Stevenson, and Jane Yolen.
Among the early chapter-books I’ve worked on, David A. Adler’s Cam Jansen Adventures stands out; the series is still in print after 30 years.
My greatest pleasure was always making that phone call to a debut author to say we would publish her book. Equally satisfying is the chance to explore new paths with an established author. For example, I’ve worked with Don Brown, known for his young nonfiction picture books, on historical fiction for teens.
Anything else? Any advice?
We are living in hard times, and the publishing industry is contracting. It’s not easy, but we have to stay steady and, within reason, optimistic.
It’s a good time to be a book doctor. Writers understand that, to increase their chances of being published, they need to revise and polish their manuscripts to a high level before even approaching an agent or, if they have an agent, before submitting to a publisher. And I can help them with that.
Can you help train a writer to overcome her weaknesses?
Brodie: Of course, weaknesses are important to identify in order to work with and around them. But I find it most effective to focus on a writer’s strengths and how we can build on those strengths.
I look for ways to highlight the writer’s voice: cut out filler dialogue that reveals little about character and doesn’t further the plot, create consistency in point of view, and deepen the characterization to show growth and a change in awareness.
Sometimes I use writing exercises to help writers explore character, refine plot, develop dialogue, and highlight setting. I try to tailor these exercises to the individual writer and the specific manuscript, whether picture book or novel.
I hope our work together will help the writer reach for the next rung of the ladder in her ongoing career. And also, that it will give her tools she can use in working on her next book.
I think all this applies to any genre or age group, including books for adults, which I also edit.”
Pope: You worked for Viking for more than 20 years and spent six years or so at Roaring Brook. What's it like for you living the freelance life?
Brodie: When I first left Roaring Brook, I immediately started to look for full-time work in another publishing house. Editors, publishers, and agents kept sending me freelance projects, unsolicited, and two major publishers said they'd like to turn over projects to me, as a freelance editor, that would include working directly with the authors. As long as I can work directly with authors — the juicy, delicious part of being an editor — I'm happy. I worked from a home office for the last six years, so I'm all set up and have already proven how productive and professional such an arrangement can be. I just didn't expect to enjoy it this much and to be so comfortable with such a fluid structure.
So this is no longer an interim arrangement for me; it's my new work life — and I love every varied and meaningful minute of it!”
Pope: You've said that you're a better editor because you're not a writer—will you comment on that?
Brodie: The urge to write is so compelling that an editor who writes usually becomes a writer who edits. I don't want to create something from scratch; I want to help someone else do that and stretch and grow and do even better work.
I give away ideas to people who can write, never holding on to them for myself. I try to work with writers the way they need to work, to fit their personal style. (Do they need a deadline, for example? OK, I'll make one up. Are they paralyzed by deadlines? OK, let's pretend we have all the time in the world. Do they need to talk out every detail before beginning, or do they just generally want to know I'm there?)
Also, over a 30-year period, I've developed different ways of pulling out potential, tricks for overcoming writer's block, and writing exercises for moving along. There are almost as many ways of approaching writing as there are writers, and the writers I've worked with have taught me so much.”
Let's talk about revision.
Brodie: Revision? It's the best part! What is hard is keeping up with everything so you have time for the pure work. I would not be doing my job if I didn't do some of the peripheral things — marketing, going to conferences, meeting agents, reading submissions, negotiating contracts, checking proofs, networking.
But the process of revising — that's the core of the work. I'm not the right editor for someone who thinks every word is sacred and [the writing] doesn't need work. I think everyone has ideas, many people can write, but what makes the difference is who is willing to revise intelligently and revise vigorously. And more than once. I don't run out of energy for revising. I will go as far as the writer is willing to go.”