Betsy Thorpe has run Betsy Thorpe Literary Services since 2000, an independent editorial services company that helps people meet their publishing goals. She started her career working for many of the large trade publishers in New York, as an acquisitions and developmental editor. She is the author of many ghost-written books, as well as The Thin Place, a novel represented by The Prospect Agency. www.betsythorpe.com
We are lucky enough to tap into both sides of Betsy’s experience.
First as an editor:
Q: How do you know if you can work with a writer?
BT: Writers send me samples of their work, and I edit the first five pages. That way, they know what to expect in an edit from me, and I can see some of their strengths and weaknesses as a writer. If the book is in poor shape, I will send them to a writers’ group or a creative writing class – I don’t want them to waste their money on an extensive edit from me if they require basic lessons on how to write, but most people come to me with very polished work, so I’ve only had to turn away a few writers.
Q: What is your process?
BT: I approach the book as a reader, so I want to see the book unfold as a reader would. I edit as I read, and keep notes for my editorial letter. When I’m finished with a line edit, I write up my editorial letter, going through the book chapter by chapter, but also reflecting on the book as a whole: the plot, the characters, the pacing, the description, the dialogue. What does the writer need to work on, what can she do to make the book better besides the line edits I give. I also make many comments throughout the book – for instance, if I have specific questions, or if I think a piece of writing is gorgeous – I like to let people know.
Q: What should a writer ask an editor before working with her or him?
BT: I think a writer should feel comfortable with the amount of editing that they are about to encounter and be prepared for their feedback. Some people think that they only need a quick polish from a professional and then there are ready to submit to an agent or can self-publish. There are editors out there who will not challenge you too much and give you a solid, but not meaningful edit. But if you want to really improve your writing, be prepared to approach a strong editor. My goal is to make your work the best it can be, so that if you self-publish you can be proud when you let your friends, family, and co-workers know about your book, and if you are going to approach traditional publishers, you can be assured that you gave your work the best chance of success with agents and editors.
Q: If the story isn’t ready to submit- even after edits- do you tell the writer?
BT: Absolutely! I don’t want a writer to waste their chance at success when they still have issues they need to work on. One of the biggest problems I find writers encounter is that they rush to submit without consulting a professional editor first. Then they approach me after they’ve been rejected or ignored by thirty or even sixty agents. Their writing may be beautiful enough to attract an agent into reading their full manuscript, but if it’s not air-tight and consistent throughout the book, an agent will pass, and the writer may not know why. I can pinpoint reasons very quickly about why a book may have been rejected. I call this “forensic editing.”
Q: What are common mistakes writers make that they can learn to fix themselves.
BT: Over-writing. Many authors write books that are far too long for their genres. I’ve had books come into me that are 125,000 words and need to be under 100,000 to get considered, and we have to do a lot of cutting. It takes a lot of discipline to keep to a word count and tell your story within those word count constraints. Keep this in mind as you’re writing. I have a lot of issues with writer’s dialogue, and the balance between narration, dialogue, and descriptions. Too much back-story at the beginning (I was guilty of this in my first novel). Keep out unnecessary information – sometimes people spend a long time researching their books, and want to include every fact they find interesting, but it may not serve the story. There should be very few exclamation points in your book. Save them for when they’re really needed. And keep dialogue tags simple.
Q: What book do you wish you edited?
BT: Wow! I’ve never been asked that before! Good question. I guess there are two different ways to approach this. One is a book that was a really good idea but I was so upset by the way the author approached her book that I was put-off and never got past the first twenty or so pages. It was Amy Poehler’s, Yes, Please. I’m a huge fan of Amy from her work on Saturday Night Live, and Parks and Rec, and I was really hoping for another Bossypants (Tina Fey), which I thought was brilliant and insightful. Instead, the first part of the book was a litany of excuses about how she had no time to write the book with all her commitments, and what huge pressure she was under to write a good book. I know numerous authors who would kill for the chance and exposure she’d been given, and if she didn’t have the time, she should have written it another year when she was really ready instead of rushing it, and let another author who really wants to have their book be published get in the spotlight (or hundreds of authors probably could have split her seven figure advance). The rest of the book may have been truly wonderful, but I couldn’t read anymore after that introduction. If I were her editor, I would have cut that whole piece and gone straight to her content.
For pure delight, I would have loved to have edited Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. I just loved the author’s voice, and thought she was so fresh and inventive.
Q: Any advice for writers struggling with being ready to submit when their manuscript is not?
BT: I know you’re anxious to submit, and feel like you’re not moving forward unless you hit “Send” to all the agents you want to query. But unless your manuscript is gorgeous and as flawless as it can be, you do not want to be competing against other people whose manuscripts have everything an agent is looking for. This is a very competitive business, and it takes a lot of drafts to make a great manuscript. Agents can’t make money unless they sell books – and if they take a look at your book and it still needs work, they aren’t going to want to represent you. Please be patient with your progress in writing. The analogy I think is best is that you can’t decide one day to take up the piano and expect to play Carnegie Hall ten months later. Just as a writer can’t decide that they want to write a novel and expect that just because they’ve finished a solid draft it’s ready for the spotlight. There’s a lot of practice and coaching that needs to happen before your book is ready to meet its public.
Q: What’s your opinion on writers’ critique groups and conferences?
BT: I highly recommend them. Writers’ groups can help propel you forward by having deliverables and set meetings. The hardest thing can be though, when you get multiple opinions and don’t know whose advice to follow. Writers’ conferences can be a great way to meet other writers, consult with editors, and meet agents. I’ve had people who work in real estate and in law and banking that they never get to talk to people who love writing and books unless they’re in situations like writers’ groups and conferences. It’s a wonderful feeling of camaraderie. And meeting agents at conferences is an invaluable way to make a face-to-face connection. An agent is far likelier to request a sample or full manuscript from you if they’ve met you at a conference.
Q: What do editorial notes look like?
BY: I edit the same way I did when I was an editor for many of the trade publishers in New York. My bosses taught me how to edit and how to be tough, and I learned from them. So if you get edited by me before you get a contract, you will know what to expect. However, having said that, some editors may not edit you as you need to be edited. I have seen many traditionally published books not edited as much as I’d like. Some editors are too overwhelmed that they don’t have time to edit, some write a few notes here and there and consider the editing process over – there are numerous reasons why this may happen. So again, it’s another good reason to make sure your book is properly edited before being submitted.
Q: Do you help writers understand what editorial notes look like from publishers?
BT: I’m always happy to interpret editorial notes from agents and editors, and also, fellow writers in critique groups. It can be overwhelming to know what to work on. Also, I hate to say that in traditional publishing we only give authors as little as two weeks from the time of them getting their editorial letter from their editor in order to meet the production schedule, so it can be a fraught and scary time.
Wow! Thank you Betsy. I can’t wait to read what you have to say about life on the other side of the page.
Now as Betsy Thorpe, author:
Q: When did you first start writing?
BT: I’d been writing in diaries since the second grade, and had some very early validation in college when I wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that got published. I’ve been ghost-writing for the last sixteen years, and I started my first novel as a therapy when I was going through divorce.
Q: How long did it take to write your first book?
BT: For the novel, I stopped and started it many times as I was a single parent of two little girls and building a business, so from first words on typed to finish it took eight years.
Q: Are you a panster or plotter?
I have a very rough plot in mind chapter by chapter, but it’s very fun to go by the seat of your pants and have characters say things and plot happen that you have no idea how you’re going to dig yourself out of. I find that intellectually exciting and fun.
Q: Do you have critique partners?
BT: Yes, I was blessed to work with Charla Muller and Judy Goldman on my first novel, who were invaluable to getting the book to where it is today, both thematically and physically finished. I have a retreat group now, but it doesn’t meet as consistently, and Judy, Charla and I are hoping to get the “band” back together.
Q: What books inspire you?
BT: Anything with a smart and innovative voice. I had to read so many hundreds or thousands of books in my career as an acquisitions editor (and now as an independent editor), that a fresh voice and innovative plotting gets me every time. I recently loved A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and how he managed to get his reader to willingly follow the story of a grumpy and disagreeable old man, and then discover, slowly and precisely, the layers of his personality and how he got to be the character he was, and how and why he changes.
Q: Where do your ideas come from?
BT: My first novel was inspired by watching a PBS documentary on Windsor Castle – part of my book takes place there, but eventually the mystery that I was interested in there became a very minor part of the book. My current novel was inspired by an after-school class that my daughter took.
Q: Are you an introvert or extrovert?
BT: I’d say I’m an ambivert. I used to be very shy when I was growing up, but gregarious at times. When I became a professional, I had to make so many phone calls and meet people and network and socialize in order to survive that I quickly got over my hang-ups. I love getting together with friends and meeting new clients is fascinating, but walking into a party of people where I know only one person still fills me with dread. And I definitely need down-time to recharge my batteries.
Q: What is your writing routine?
BT: I have a full-time job and am a single parent, so I’m pretty exhausted by the end of the day. Many successful writers who have a full-time job will tell you they get up in some cruelly early hour of the morning, say three or four a.m., and write for three hours in order to meet their writing goals. I’m afraid I can’t do that – my body needs the sleep. I used to write on my every-other-weekend custody schedule with my ex, and he has since moved to another city, so I think I’ll just have to really block off times for my kids not to interrupt me. They’re teenagers now, so mornings on the weekends are usually very quiet here. We’ll have to see how I can work things out now.
Q: Do you have a favorite topic to write about?
BT: Dating after divorce. I’m afraid I’m horribly cynical about ever being in a serious relationship again, but that faint glimmer of foolish hope seems to never leave. I’m also very interested in manners and how they help soothe the rough-spots of our innate differences in personalities and viewpoints.
Q: How many drafts do you typically write before submitting to your critique partner, agent or publisher?
BT: For my critique partners they saw raw, new material, but before I submit to agents it felt like I wrote about three thousand drafts before I got my agent, but realistically it was probably four complete drafts.
Q: What word did you delete the most from the last draft you revised?
Q: How do you keep self-motivated?
BT: I’ve been published many times and helped many authors meet their publishing goals, but to publish my own novel has long been a bucket-list dream of mine. My goal was to entertain other people who are going through a rough patch. I didn’t want to bring anybody down – just to give them a fun adventure to travel through to know that life doesn’t end when one part of our lives is over.
Q: How do you cope with rejection?
BT: Rejection is a part of the publishing business, and I’ve been rejecting many wonderful and talented writers (who weren’t right for either my boss or his/her list, or my list) since my very first day on the job many years ago.
Q: How do you cope with reviews?
I’m so self-critical that I always know I could have done better. As a co-author, it’s the tug and pull of what we can do as a team. So I’m proud of my work, but deadlines are deadlines. Art is a function of what you can do during a set period of time, whether it be a painting or composing a song, writing a book, or playing a piano concerto.
Q: What’s the last book you read?
BT: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. I highly recommend it as a modern day rewrite of Pride and Prejudice, set in Cincinnati.
Twitter and Editing Website
If you enjoyed Karen’s interview, you may also like to read my interviews with Tricia Skinner, Sarah Davies, Alan Gratz, Lisa Mantchev, Monica Hoffman and Nicole Ayers.