Inside Publishing

How to Develop a Great Story

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”  –  Arthur Plotnik

Today we have the privilege of hearing from Carol Traver, a Developmental Editor at Tyndale House Publishers. Carol has the challenging but important job of taking author’s stories and developing them into books. Read on to hear from Carol about defining a narrative, the biggest mistake authors make, and what she reads in her free time.

Describe your job.

Basically, I help authors structure (or in some cases, restructure) their manuscripts to fit the acquisition team’s vision for the book. That can involve a wide variety of things, such as helping the author put together an outline, organizing and shaping existing content, developing new content to fill in existing gaps, providing chapter-by-chapter feedback, and—in some cases—even ghostwriting.

How did you choose this job?

I actually started out in acquisitions, and over the years, I found myself doing more and more developmental work on the manuscripts I had acquired. When it became apparent that other nonfiction acquisitions editors at Tyndale were also investing large amounts of time in similar work, I made the shift into full-time developmental work. This has been fantastic because now I can serve the whole team.

What does a normal workday look like for you?

Honestly, it varies. It includes a lot of meetings with people from the acquisitions and editorial departments; but more often than not, you’ll find me holed away in my office reading a manuscript, wildly taking notes, drafting outlines, and back-and-forthing with authors.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

The variety. Every project is so utterly and completely unique—the genre, the topic, the authors, etc. And of course, the work itself. I’ve always loved the writing process, so to get to spend every day working with words and helping authors turn their ideas into books is a dream come true.

What is your least favorite thing about your job?

Sometimes there simply isn’t enough time to do everything I’d like to do with a manuscript. It’s always hard to let something go before you feel it’s the best it can be.

What is the difference between developmental editing and “regular editing”?

That’s a great question. Developmental editing deals more with big picture issues—structure, organization, story selection, narrative arc, etc.—basically ensuring that all of the key pieces needed to effectively tell the story (in the case of memoir) or make a point (in the case of general nonfiction) are there, complete, and in the right order. Once the acquiring editor reads the manuscript and says, “Yes, this is what we are looking for,” then it moves on to editorial, where they do the more detailed line-by-line edit.

How long do you typically work with an author on a manuscript before it’s considered complete?

It varies, and sometimes the schedule (either the author’s or ours) dictates how much time I can spend on a given manuscript; but generally, I try to block out three to five weeks from start to finish.

What is the most common mistake authors make?

I realize it may sound “old school,” but I wish more authors would take the time to create an outline before they start writing. A well-thought-through outline is like the framework of a house—you may not be able to see it, but if it’s not there, everything falls apart.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Yes. Read. A lot! Every genre has its own unique rules and expectations. Familiarize yourself with these before you start. See how other authors have handled your topic, how they set their stories up, and what literary devices they’ve used. Draw inspiration and learn from the best, but don’t try to mimic them. Find your own unique style and voice. That’s what makes the best the best.

What is your favorite project you’ve worked on so far?

I don’t know that I have had a favorite project per se, but I definitely have a soft spot for memoirs. When an author comes in with a fantastic story and a clearly-defined voice but needs help figuring out where to start, where to finish, how to decide which stories to include, and how to build powerhouse scenes that really pull the reader into the action . . . it just doesn’t get any better than that.

What are you currently reading?

I binge-watched The Crown on Netflix over Christmas and was curious as to how historically accurate it was; so at the moment, I’m in the middle of a massive biography of Queen Elizabeth. I’m also reading Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, which is the biography of the man who edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. It’s comforting to know that even the greats needed a little help every once in a while.

Thank you so much, Carol! See many of the books Carol has contributed to HERE.

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