Manuscripts to Market - An Interview With Michael Neff of "The Novel Editors"

    by Connie Chenowith of Author Salon

Q: What made you guys decide to start a novel editing service?

It's a natural outgrowth of the writer conferences. Writers are always asking for something like this, especially following the New York Pitch Conference. Overall, I've spent many hours helping alums get published, all pro bono, and now I feel it's time to parallel that with another more methodical and goal-defined process. Besides, we can justify far more dedication to any given project over a longer length of time if actual remuneration is involved. 

CC:  That makes sense, of course, but seriously, does the world need another novel editing service?

Yes and no. The world does not need another commonplace editorial service. Ours is unique, indefinite in length, customized for each writer, and finally, structured more productively than other novel editing services--the condition we're striving for in terms of methods and final results.

CC: So how does "Manuscripts to Market" really differ from other novel editorial services?  I'm skeptical.  There's a hundred of them out there, or more.

We provide a three-stage review of the manuscript. First, a preliminary analysis of the story premise and other major elements that might well necessitate rewrites from the start. Why begin a read of the manuscript if we know from the onset, for example, that crucial elements of plot are missing? Second, the core developmental review of the manuscript itself takes place, from first page to last, resulting in ms notes and a separate editorial report. Weeks or months later (depending on the author and ms) it is followed by a third and final review once the author has completed the necessary restructure and rewrites based on the core developmental review.

Once the above is complete, we assist with the search for agents and production of a superlative query letter. We also stick with the writer through the query process for an indefinite length of time, reality checking as appropriate and necessary.

Overwhelming evidence shows that one-shot reviews rarely, if ever, result in greatly improved or publishable manuscripts. You see writers pay gobs to freelance editors only to get the ms back and later go through even more rewrites. Follow-up is always necessary. The writer must be guided as needed, depending on their skill set, and the project itself developed in stages. 

We also differ from the many editorial services in other ways. For example, our own combined skill set exceeds that of most freelance editors. Unlike the academic types, we've actually worked with commercial publishing house editors and agents, we have a track record, and unlike the majority of ex-editors from publishing houses who left the business to freelance, we are actual writers, published authors of fiction. I recommend a perusal of our website for more on this particular issue

CC: Why do you feel your viewpoint on novel editing more valuable, or realistic than that of an academic MFA instructor? I know you're not keen on advice that emanates from MFA programs.

For the most part, no, exceptions being Robert Olen Butler's program at FSU and a few others. I totally reject the Conroy philosophy and approach began at Iowa decades ago and later cascaded into the bulk of MFA programs throughout the United States. They preach that writing can't be taught, and in keeping with that disproved absurdity, therefore eschew notions of discussing plot or story premise when it comes to writing a novel. What could be more ridiculous? Craft becomes a whisper after dark and the word "market" gains the status of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter books, i.e., becoming a word which must never be spoken on campus, or even in the presence of ivy.

An academic whose beliefs about novel writing, or fiction writing in general, are rooted in that culture should never be consulted. It's a little like consulting with a home builder who doesn't believe in the basics of physics. If  nothing else, the "professors" fail to understand the demands of various genres and their readerships, and that's just for starters. 

Necessity, experience, and common sense demand that we be the polar opposite.

CC: Do you offer guarantees to writers? I mean, do you assure the writer they will be published as a result of utilizing Manuscript to Market services? 

No editors, no matter how brilliant, by contract or otherwise, have sufficient control over a work to engineer it to guaranteed commercial publication. Why? Because no matter what you do, no matter what services you provide or what you say, it is ultimately up to the writer to rise to the challenge. At the end of the day, the writer must actually write or rewrite the manuscript. Also, given the reality and ease of social media interaction, you sometimes find yourself as an editor in a struggle to be heard over the din of readers and writer groups interacting with your clients--often telling them what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. 

Any number of things will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I've witnessed long slogs to brass ring territory only to see a history of titanic effort go whooshing into the sewer because one single player in the writer's life, sitting beside her one evening at a theater, told her that her novel was perfectly wonderful, no more changes were necessary, and to just "follow her heart" to certain success.

A tragic event for that writer, though it seemed so right and blessed with divine good feeling.

CC: Anything else you would like to add on the subject?

Yes, I want to tell everyone out there to ask themselves the following questions before they ever decide to spend a penny on novel or nonfiction editorial services. As follows:
  1. Do you get to review the credentials of the individual who will be working on your ms?
  2. Do the person's credentials include any real-time experience working in tandem with the New York publishing business, or at least with mid-sized or quality independent presses?
  3. Is there a demonstrable track record of commercial or literary publication of any kind associated with past clients of this person? Is the track record relatively recent or really old news?
  4. Is the proposed editor person an actual writer of narrative nonfiction or novels? Has the work been self-published or published?
  5. Are accolades or testimonials about the business itself focused rather on buzz phrasing than pointers to actual results, i.e., contracts with major houses or agencies?
If you get positive answers to the above questions, you know that you and your manuscript might have a fighting chance.

CC:  Thank you for the interview, Michael. It all sounds sensible. 


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