Kimberly: Catherine, you are a developmental editor and book mentor. What does that mean?
Ms. Adams: “Developmental editor” isn’t used much in writers’ lingo anymore. The term is a carry-over from the old days of publishing when an editor could see a writer’s potential and devote time and resources to develop that writer’s work and style, whether it took hours or weeks or years. We’ve all heard those stories—they have a mythic quality anymore—and all writers understandably hope a publishing house editor will discover them in the mountains of submissions and nurture their work until success hits. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen now. In publishing houses, the “developmental editor” has morphed largely into the “acquisition editor” because that’s the focus anymore—acquisitions. And when acquisition editors are expected to shepherd the equivalent of 50+ book-length projects through each year, from acquisition to production, it’s little wonder they don’t have time to develop work sent their way. It’s either ready or it’s not. Agents face the same dilemma. There’s just too much to do to nurture a writer whose work isn’t yet ready to submit. On occasion, an agent will spend precious time to give suggestions to work they find promising—but that is by no means the rule. That’s the very rare exception, and it should be taken as a test of a writer’s ability to buckle down and rewrite, even if rewriting means gutting. In the main, however, writers get no feedback, just polite (or not so polite) rejections.
Into this vacuum, I step in. Independent developmental editors are well known in the industry—everyone from individual writers to agencies to publishers use their services. We’re one of the many sets of people operating behind the scenes. I am the person who reads the manuscript—plus agent or publisher comments, if available—and works with the writer to devise a revision strategy. First comes the identification of problematic areas—whether in specific sections or in how craft/argument techniques are used—and then suggestions for how to address these concerns—and there are always several options to consider. Each project is different, which keeps the work exciting and fresh. One project might need threads condensed or the structure reworked for balance and unity; another project might need its prose examined for weaker spots, while still another needs to reconsider how place or context is used in the story or argument. Presenting these problems and their possible solutions in a clear, professional, and supportive way is the most important aspect of my job. And with this support, writers wind up with a manuscript ready to submit or resubmit to agents or publishers.
Kimberly: How did you happen to get into this business? Does it take talent or intuition to become a successful developmental editor?
But to become a successful developmental editor—that takes a lot of different skills, including business and communication skills. I imagine every editor taps into their special combination, but for me, a key ingredient is the ability to invest fully in a project, emotionally, intellectually, so to develop solutions—but then step back at the end and listen to the author. I do a balancing act between taking on a project as if it’s my own and always understanding that it’s the author doing the hard work and making the important decisions. I am both tough critic and supportive listener—because it’s in that combination that the best ideas and work come out. I want to be the one a writer eagerly calls to springboard ideas off of or to share the latest revision or project, and I want to be the one who responds with honest feedback, including feedback I know is difficult for an author to hear.
Kimberly: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Ms. Adams: I grew up in a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, and while my working-class parents found it odd that I loved libraries and museums and Italian opera, they did their best to get me to the arts center and to exhibitions . . .