An Interview with Peter Gelfan – Editor Extraordinaire and Author of Found Objects – -On the Ins and Outs of Editing, Choosing the Right Editor and What Matters in Writing Today
I’ve never met Peter Gelfan in person, and yet when I write, I hear his voice in my mind. No, I’m not sick, at least not yet. You see, Peter has been my editor throughout most of my writing career. He has read every book of mine that has been published and tackled all of my writing vices. He has applied his expertise, passion and humor to my work and changed the way I think about writing in general and fantasy in particular.
Peter is the kind of editor every writer wants. He has the courage to tell you everything that’s wrong with your work while also pointing you in the right direction. He’s also a writer, the author of Found Objects, an intriguing new novel about love, loss and acceptance that showcases crisp, powerful writing while challenging our conventional views on love. Finally, Peter is a great teacher. He always asks the right question, but he’ll never give you the answer. And that’s how you develop good writing, folks.
Welcome to Savvy Authors, Peter. Can you tell us a little about yourself? Why did you choose a career in editing? How long have you been an editor?
The career in editing chose me. Twenty or more years ago, a good friend of mine, a successful novelist, offered to put a manuscript of mine into the hands of Renni Browne, who, he said, could get it to agents and publishers. I got a nice note back from Renni saying she liked the manuscript but thought it needed some editing. Out of vanity, I declined the offer. Renni, who had founded and was then running The Editorial Department, made me another offer. She had a client looking for a ghostwriter for a nonfiction project—was I interested? I needed the money and found the challenge interesting, so I accepted. The book got published and did well. Renni continued to offer me projects, mostly editorial, and I continued to need money, so the career was born.
For those writers who are sitting on the fence about having their manuscripts edited: How will editing make a difference in their work? And will editing help them to sell their manuscripts?
Often the biggest benefit to having your work edited professionally is that it gets a careful, objective read by someone who has no axe to grind other than to help you make your manuscript better. Your mother and friends either want to be nice to you or try to convince you to quit screwing around and get a real job. Besides, an editor says a lot more than “I liked it, it’s great!” or “Couldn’t get through it, dude.” An editor can tell you what’s working, what’s not, and why. A good editor will then help you produce the book you want to write rather than push you to write the book he or she think you should write.
I’ve heard agents and acquisitions editors say that knowing a manuscript has been edited shows the writer is serious about the work and can take suggestions, though I’ve never heard one say that the mere fact of its having been edited has ever made the difference between a no and a yes. But a better manuscript—a tauter plot, more vividly fascinating characters, more depth, a stronger voice, and a polished style—will certainly be more likely to sell. It will also teach the author how to do better with the next project from the start.
With so many services and freelance editors out there, how does a writer choose the right editor for his/her work?
Research. Websites that cater to writers often have discussion groups and even ratings. If you know writers who have used an editor, ask them for recommendations pro or con. I also think it helps to talk to the prospective editor and get a feel for how your personalities and sensibilities will mesh.
What’s more difficult, editing the new writer or editing the established writer?
Interesting question. In a way, it’s easier to edit a newbie because there’s so much low-hanging fruit, like no plot, unconvincing characters, stiff dialogue, amateurish style. For those writers, it’s a steep learning curve, by which I mean they learn a lot of basic stuff very quickly.
For the established writer, the task is more difficult. The basics are almost always in place. The manuscript is better than 95 percent of what you normally read. But the author doesn’t think it’s quite right yet, and you have to agree … but what’s wrong? It takes detective work. Where did the story sag a little? Where did attention start to wander? What was unsatisfying about the end, and where did that problem start? Sometimes the key clue lies chapters before the problem arises: Why did the protagonist do that? There’s always an ah-ha moment or two, and you know you’re right when the author says, “Oh my god, why didn’t I see that?”
What are the most common issues that you find when editing fantasy?
Some writers become so fascinated by the fantasy world they have thought up that they think it’s their story, and so the novel consists mostly of a guided tour. We get exotic lands, strange creatures, different forms of magic, lots of special effects, intricately designed backstory, but too often little real plot. In fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the world the writer, godlike, has created is, in the universe of the novel, mere setting. In fantasy, setting is often more important than in an earthbound novel, but it’s still just a stage upon which a story of characters in conflict will unfold.
What’s the best part of your job as an editor? The worst?
The best part is reading the next draft of manuscript I’ve edited and seeing that not only did the writer understand the problems I brought up, but also solved them in a creative way that enhanced the rest of the work. The worst is the rare occasion when the next draft isn’t much better and the problems remain unsolved and apparently not understood.
How do you balance your job as an editor and your job as a writer? Are your best moments as an editor really different from your best moments as a published author?
I find I have to do one or the other. I can’t write in the mornings and edit in the afternoons. For that matter, I only edit one manuscript at a time. The shift of gears takes up too much time and is frustrating.
The best moments of each are quite different. Writing, the pleasure comes from dreaming up a great idea for the book and making it work well, even better than expected. When editing, to some degree I have to set aside my own creativity as a writer. If I don’t, it’s all too easy to take the client’s idea, run away with it, and start rewriting the manuscript as my own—hey, how about turning your old-man hero into a young woman and setting the novel in modern-day Cleveland rather than Roman Carthage? So I have to always keep in mind what the author wants, and come up with creative ways to deal with whatever stands in his way.
Do you use an editor when you write?
Yes, mostly in the early stages, when I want input on the general idea, characters, and so on.
How did you come up with the idea for Found Objects?
I could give you a raconteur-worthy explanation, but it probably wouldn’t be true. I don’t know where story ideas come from. It’s like falling in love, we have no idea why we fall for this person instead of that one, but after we do, we come up with all sorts of handy reasons, both plausible and not so.
The general question—why do people pair up romantically, sexually, and domestically instead of coming to a more interesting and useful configuration of three or four or more—has knocked around my brain since puberty. But such arrangements rarely last long. How come? Even from close up, or especially so, it’s hard to fathom. The question had prompted a couple of starts earlier that never bore fruit, but then the central premise of Found Objects popped into being and began to grow.
What matters in writing today?
The same as always. Having something to say that could be of value to someone else, and saying it well.
The novel is still evolving, and it’s hard if not impossible to predict where it’s going. But I have a theory, not about where’s it’s headed but why it continues to thrive in whatever form. A novel allows and invites readers to live a life and even its death as if it were their own. Humans may be the only creature that can learn from others’ experiences without directly witnessing them. Stories expand a thousandfold the scope of our innate self-education process of trial and error while avoiding its frequent real-life consequences of injury, death, or wasted years. We absorb those lessons not as dry information but as ersatz experience that, like real life, engages not only the intellect but all our faculties. It’s easy to brush off fiction as entertainment or artsy diversion, but in fact it’s a vital element in our personal and cultural advancement.
Peter Gelfan has been editing and ghostwriting both fiction and nonfiction for the past 20 years. His clients range from beginners to published and bestselling authors and celebrities. He also edits screenplays and has sold two he wrote under his own name, one of which was produced and recently released in France. His novel Found Objects was published in May 2013.
Dora Machado is the award-winning author of the epic fantasy Stonewiser series and her newest novel, The Curse Giver, available from Twilight Times Books. She grew up in the Dominican Republic, where she developed a fascination for writing and a taste for Merengue. After a lifetime of straddling such compelling but different worlds, fantasy is a natural fit to her stories. She lives in Florida with her indulgent husband and three very opinionated cats.
When she is not writing novels, Dora also writes features for Murder By Four, an award-winning blog for people interested in reading and writing, and Savvy Authors, where writers help writers.
Lusielle’s bleak but orderly life as a remedy mixer is shattered when she is sentenced to die for a crime she didn’t commit. She’s on the pyre, about to be burned, when a stranger breaks through the crowd and rescues her from the flames.
Brennus, Lord of Laonia is the last of his line. He is caught in the grip of a mysterious curse that has murdered his kin, doomed his people and embittered his life. To defeat the curse, he must hunt a birthmark and kill the woman who bears it in the foulest of ways. Lusielle bears such a mark.
Stalked by intrigue and confounded by the forbidden passion flaring between them, predator and prey must come together to defeat not only the vile curse, but also the curse giver who has already conjured their demise.