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A Conversation with Zoe Quinton on Developmental Editing

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I’ve invited Zoe Quinton to join me for this month’s post. She’s not just the brilliant daughter of New York Times bestselling author Laurie R. King, she’s also Laurie’s agent and publicist. In her “spare time,” Zoe is an editor and a consultant on the publishing business, including concept development and marketing.
For this post, I wanted to focus on developmental editing, a service both Zoe and I provide. It’s distinguished from copy editing in several significant ways. Whereas the latter deals with issues such as grammar, usage, syntax, punctuation, and fact-checking, developmental editing deals with more global story issues: characterization, theme, plot, pacing, continuity, and so on.
David: Why not tell our readers a little bit about your background and how you got into developmental editing.
Zoe: Well, for me that’s a little like saying how did you get into breathing. I can’t honestly remember a time that books weren’t a large part of my life, a constant companion, a source of escape and wonder. I remember even as a child narrating the mundane events of my daily life as if they were written down in a book. I have always eaten, breathed, drank words.
I can’t honestly remember a time that books weren’t a large part of my life
It helped that my parents also both lived a life of the mind, my dad as a religious studies professor at our local university and my mom first as an academic and then as an author. I’ve been accompanying her to publishing events since I was thirteen years old, so words and reading are literally part of my blood.
I myself am a recovering academic, as I got a master’s degree in international history from the London School of Economics when I was 25. I loved the research and the—no surprise—storytelling of history, and the training I received was priceless: I learned to think and write and argue, how to shape words into a weapon or a salve, how to choose just the right fact to prove my point and let the others fall by the wayside.
A few years later, I started working as my mother’s publicist and later agent, and I soon leveraged my decades of experience by her side into a consulting business helping authors write, edit, and sell their books. My favorite part of my work is truly the editing, where I can get lost in the words and the flow of the story for hours at a time. In a way my life has come full circle—I’m still the girl with her nose stuck in a book, but now I’m getting paid for it.
David, I’d like to know what your favorite part of editing is. Do you, like me, stare into space while working on a project trying to figure out how to make that tricky plot point work? Or is it when a client really gets it and runs with your advice in just the right way?
David: Since I came to developmental editing by way of teaching, I can readily say that the best part of editing is when a client gets back to me saying they understand what I was trying to convey about their work and have launched into a rewrite with a newfound sense of confidence and purpose. The teaching aspect for me is crucial—my job isn’t to tell them what they did wrong, it’s to show them how to do better what they’re already trying to accomplish.
I studied math in college with an exceptional group of professors who were remarkably generous, supportive—and demanding. One in particular, whose name was Archie Addison, had a particular knack for listening to you go through your reasoning, then pointing out the step where you went wrong. He’d say something like, “Think of it this way instead,” and then make you go back and take it from there.
I try as best I can to do the same with my clients—I can’t, of course, solve the problems for them, but I can point out where they’ve gone wrong, explain what their mistake was, and suggest ways of rectifying it.
Now, you and I have talked about this, and it’s an important point. I can’t and don’t tell clients how to change what they’ve written, but I do try to offer suggestions on how to think about the changes they might consider. Specifically, if I get the sense their plotting needs work (and as a developmental editor that’s a frequent problem I encounter), I may suggest a sequence of scenes that might help them out of a current difficulty. But it’s only a suggestion, and I always advise the client that the ultimate decision as to what goes, what stays, and what needs to change is theirs and theirs alone.
Now, if I recall your remarks correctly, you’re not as keen on suggesting specific revision strategies as I am. (I will admit, it’s the teacher in me that pushes me in that direction.) What’s your thinking on this issue?
Zoe: A math guy! Wow. I’m amazed simply because numbers are and have always been a foreign language to me. In fact, I speak a couple of languages better than I do math. How did you get into writing and editing from there?
Similarly, despite having grown up with an author, the creative writing process remains something of a mystery to me. I’m a reader, not a writer, and I know the rhythms of writing because, like I said, I’ve had my nose in a book for about 95% of my life. (Don’t quote me on that exact statistic—as I said, numbers really aren’t my strong point.) I edit based largely on my gut—something just “feels” right or wrong—and it’s taken me a while to learn how to describe why it’s wrong. So while I’m very good at pointing out errors, I’m not as comfortable telling someone how to fix it. I let them be the writer, while I remain the editor. That said, I am always happy to bounce ideas back and forth with my authors, and to help them tweak their manuscripts based on my initial feedback as we go through.
What I mostly do is ask questions where they arise, as a reader would, and suggest larger structural changes. “What does this piece of dialogue add? Is this character or plot line necessary? You already mentioned this on page xx, are you sure you want this again?”
What I mostly do is ask questions where they arise, as a reader would
Ultimately I think we are saying the same thing. I always stress that all of my feedback and suggestions are just that, and that my client is the writer and I am not. It’s their vision, and my critique is intended as a roadmap to guide their rewrite. In other words, as you say, “Think of it this way instead.”
David: I think my math “career” was simply a temporary detour intended to teach me logical rigor and intellectual honesty. It’s not just hard to lie in mathematics, it’s pretty much impossible.
To be perfectly candid, however, I wasn’t really gifted it at it. In my senior year, on a midterm in a course on complex analysis, I was second from the top in my class on theoretical questions and fifth from the bottom on practical. Dr. Ross, the head of the department—one of the most amazing men and brilliant teachers I have ever known—took me aside and said, “You want to be a philosopher, not a mathematician. Let’s work a little harder on the practical side of things, shall we?”
Which brings me to my next question: What do you find yourself addressing most frequently during a developmental edit? What problems do you see most often? Why do you think that is?
Zoe: Well, I think there’s worse things to be than a philosopher. I do see the advantage in doing a degree/program to get the background and to learn how to think, whatever that looks like. My history degree was the same—it taught me how to approach stories analytically, to find the facts that were the most compelling, and then to describe them in a way that appealed to my audience.
Regarding what I see most often—great question. At this point I am pleasantly surprised when I get a manuscript that doesn’t have any instances of “head-hopping,” or changes in point of view within a single scene or chapter—or even sometimes the same paragraph. More subtly, I often find writers having a character narrate a scene that they were not directly involved in (and therefore could have no knowledge of), or attribute a feeling/thought to someone else when the scene is from a different point of view.
I also find that antagonists tend to be single-faceted, which is understandable because it’s easy to make us dislike a bad person. What’s more challenging is to get us to understand and even sympathize with a person who’s hurt/flawed and acting in ways that are antithetical to the goals of the protagonist. I always tell my clients to remember that the antagonist is the protagonist of their own story, and urge them to go deeper on their bad guy’s background—even if all the details don’t make it into the final product (and they shouldn’t!), creating well-rounded characters is always a plus.
Both of these issues speak to one of the biggest challenges (and advantages) to writing fiction: it forces us to think outside of ourselves. Doing so in a believable way, however, is a very fine art, and one that you can either do too much of (head-hopping) or too little (flat antagonists).
On the flip side, David, what is it that you find your students/clients do particularly well? Is there a specific thing that makes you stand up and yell “Huzzah!” when someone gets it just right?
David: Nothing is more gratifying than to discover that a student or client has a distinct, compelling voice. It’s very hard to teach that—not impossible, but it takes time, and requires concerted effort on the part of the student. I know, if the writer has a strong voice, the rest likely will fall into place sooner or later, if she puts in the work.
I agree with you on the head-hopping issue, by the way, and find that point of view is often something beginning writers don’t quite get until its importance is pointed out to them.
I also find that building the story through cause and effect is something that comes naturally only to a few. Often, beginning writers just compile scenes one after the other hoping that will make for a compelling story, failing to realize each scene needs to make the next scene necessary, not just possible. Not only must the next scene be necessary and thus feel inevitable, it must also surprise—and the ability to manage that is what differentiates good writers from merely okay ones.
Often, beginning writers just compile scenes one after the other hoping that will make for a compelling story
Zoe: Ha! See, this is why this conversation is so illuminating—I think if there’s such a thing as pantsers vs plotters in editing, it would be gutters (that sounds bad, but you know) vs teachers. I always know when a chapter doesn’t feel right or slows down the pacing, and I always suggest cutting or moving it. But I’ve never been able to express why quite as well as you just did. Thank you for that.
I’d also like to add a line about what we each prefer to edit/specialize in, as that’s something relevant for potential clients. I do almost all genres of fiction, though I just worked on a longer, multi-perspective, multi-generational literary novel last week that really pushed my boundaries and forced me to think well outside of my box. I enjoyed it a great deal. I don’t think I would do a romance novel, simply because I’ve not read enough in the genre to know the conventions, and YA is similarly a bit of a stretch for me.
One thing I’d like to see more of is speculative fiction and/or sci-fi/fantasy, as that is what I enjoy reading most and have never had the chance to edit.
David: Maybe our conversation here will steer some of our speculative fiction and sci-fi/fantasy authors your way. We welcome all kinds here at the Big Unbox.
I’m sort of an omnivore when it comes to editing. Once again, the teaching experience is key. I teach online through Litreactor (my next class, “Creating Complex Characters,” begins September 5th), and I get students from all over the world who write in every genre imaginable, from lit fic to fantasy to crime to YA. Story is story, and I think the “gut feeling” you talk about applies across the spectrum of narrative. Certain genres allow for particular “exuberances”—sci-fi and speculative allow for great expansiveness in developing setting and concept, for example, and lit fic requires superb prose and voice—but there’s just that sense that a story is on track or not that I think lies at the heart of all good editing.
And nothing is more rewarding than seeing a student or client go on to publication and receive the success and critical praise they deserve.
BTW: Zoe and I will both be on the faculty for the Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference later this month, joining not just her mom (natch) but Cara Black, Jacqueline Winspear, Elizabeth George, Steve Cavanaugh, Colin Cotterill, Samantha Downing, and many others. (For more information on the conference, go here.)
Do you have any questions or comments concerning developmental editing? What would you expect from a developmental edit given what Zoe and I have discussed here?
Have you had any experiences with a developmental editor—good, bad, indifferent—that you’d like to share (no names please)?

About David CorbettDavid Corbett is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.Web | Twitter | Facebook | More Posts

"I wrote the rest of The Innocents Abroad in sixty days and I could have added a fortnight's labor with the pen and gotten along without the letters altogether. I was very young in those days, exceedingly young, marvelously young, younger than I am now, younger than I shall ever be again, by hundreds of years. I worked every night from eleven or twelve until broad daylight in the morning, and as I did 200,000 words in the sixty days, the average was more than 3,000 words a day- nothing for Sir Walter Scott, nothing for Louis Stevenson, nothing for plenty of other people, but quite handsome for me. In 1897, when we were living in Tedworth Square, London, and I was writing the book called Following the Equator, my average was 1,800 words a day; here in Florence (1904) my average seems to be 1,400 words per sitting of four or five hours."
Mark Twain

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