I recently had the opportunity to speak with Alan Rinzler, who has had a long and successful career as an acquisitions editor and executive with major publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Bantam Books, and John Wiley & Sons. He was also VP and Associate Publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine. Alan is now an independent consultant and developmental editor, who enjoys working with both new and experienced writers.

I caught up with Alan on Whidbey Island, where he was leading classes about publishing and editing at the MFA program of Northwest Institute of Literary Arts  (Whidbey MFA). Here are some of the things we discussed:

CM:            During your career as an editor and executive with major publishers, you worked with many authors, both established and debut. What have you learned about being an editor, through working with writers?

AR:            First, an editor is not the writer. An editor is the helping professional. I often compare it to being a psychotherapist. In fact I went back to study psychotherapy in order to understand the intimate relationships that form between an editor and a writer.

An editor must be acutely sensitive to a writer’s unique needs, intentions and motivations and to try to help fulfill the writer’s goals for the work, whether those goals are conscious or unconscious. Much of being an editor is uncovering unconscious ideas, intentions, motivations, goals and visions – the purpose of the book – of which the author may have only a vague sense before the book is completely hatched or in its final form.

Editors can have a lot of influence in the relationship, which must not be abused or used to attain the editor’s personal goals. An editor must subsume, or tuck away his or her own ego, and never try to take over a book and insist that it be done the editor’s way.

CM:            What should a writer keep in mind when working with an editor?

AR:            Writers need to remember they are the boss, that they don’t have to take the editor’s suggestions. Writers must be true to themselves and have confidence in their own judgment and enough clarity of what they are trying to say (with the editor’s help) so that they don’t take a wrong direction.

CM:            Is that still the case when a writer is working with the editor assigned by the writer’s publisher?

AR:            Yes, I believe the author should never make changes simply because of a fear that the book may not be published. There are cases where the editor may not approve the book because certain edits were not made – that happens. But the author should never capitulate just for the sake of publication.

CM:            You have worked with some extremely talented and well-known authors.  How much of a great work can be attributed to talent and story, and how much is attention to craft, both by the writer and the editor?

AR:            Some people are better with story telling and language than others. But even the very best must revise, and revise, and revise, over many drafts, both before and during working with an editor. You need both talent and craft.

Part of the talent is knowing that you must develop the craft. Some of the most talented writers, I think, are those who are never satisfied with their work. They go back and make changes in the second edition, or they want to do the manuscript over. That is a byproduct of talent – dissatisfaction with anything that isn’t perfect (and of course, nothing can be perfect.)

Much of the success of high-quality writers also has to do with discipline, of applying themselves.

CM:            What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working with writers?

AR:            I feel it’s an honour and a privilege to be part of a writer’s creative process. And it’s so much fun. Both as an acquisitions editor and a developmental editor, I’ve chosen projects carefully and for the most part I have done books that I’ve really believed in. I have made lifelong friends with writers. I can’t think of a better way to make a living.

CM:            What are some of the challenging aspects?

AR:            Most writers have trouble writing. And the way they deal with the trouble or stress is to avoid it. They procrastinate, disappear, fail to show up, don’t deliver, find absurd but apparently rational reasons for delivering; they get malingering illnesses that have no basis in reality, or take on other jobs that suddenly prevent them from doing the job they were supposed to do for the editor.

CM:            What types of projects do you take on as an independent consultant and editor?

AR:            My projects fall into two categories.

The first category is consulting with writers about their projects. In these cases the writer may have a story idea, an outline or notes, or an early draft. We discuss what the book is about, the characters, the narrative perspective, story, and structure, working it up to the point where it’s ready to write.

The second category is developmental editing of a full manuscript, in which I take a very proactive approach. It is conceptual editing and involves a page by page review; polishing and improving the language; rearranging, deleting, or adding sections (and often suggesting text), adding or deleting characters. This process may take a week or ten days.

CM:            That quickly?

AR:            Yes, I work quickly. I edit only one book at a time and immerse myself in it.

CM:            Any favourite types of manuscripts?

AR:            Lately I’ve worked on a lot of young adult books. I’ve specialized my whole life in good mysteries. I also work on science fiction, paranormal. I enjoy working on anything with a good story and good characters.

CM:            How does a writer, without a publisher for a project, find a good editor?

AR:            One easy way is to look at their track record; if they haven’t edited books of which you’ve heard and that have succeeded, then look elsewhere.  At least some of their books should be recognizable and memorable and of high quality.

There’s no substitution for experience in this area, and the broader the experience the better.

Consider as well how accessible they are. If they are slow to respond to your inquiry, forget about them. If they don’t get back to you quickly, that pattern will continue while you work together and can affect your work and slow you down. You need an editor who will give you a realistic schedule and stick to it.

You should also get a financial agreement up front so that you know what the cost is; if they provide an estimate, they should not exceed it. Also agree on the timing of the payment of the editor’s fee. Put it in writing – email or some other written record.

CM:            Alan, thank you very much for taking time out of your packed schedule to speak with me and for allowing me to share some of your insights on my blog.

Alan Rinzler’s blog, The Book Deal is a helpful resource for writers, where you can find articles ranging from working with editors, to marketing, to solutions for problems with your manuscript. He will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming San Francisco Writers Conference in February. You can find out more about Alan on his website, www.alanrinzler.com.