Prose talks to New York Book Editors

NY Book Editors is a premiere affiliation of editors with extensive experience from New York’s major publishing houses. We spoke to William Boggess there and managed to put some of the questions we thought you’d all like to know about Editors and Editing. He was kind enough to indulge us awhile:

Q: There are many levels of editing at New York Book Editors. How do they differ and where do you come in?

A: I perform both of our main types of edit, depending on what the client needs. The first is a manuscript critique, which includes a read and notes on how to improve the book in broad ways — character, plot, and major prose trends. The second is a comprehensive edit, which includes both the broader criticism of the manuscript critique and an actual markup of the manuscript, where I edit the sentences line by line.

Q: What does your normal working day look like?

A: I usually work for a few hours in the morning at home, followed by some lunch and a workout. If I have a lighter afternoon workload, I’ll usually do that from home as well, but if it’s time to put the nose to the grindstone, I’ll join the laptop’d masses at one of the many excellent coffee shops in Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Q: What is your favourite and least favourite part of the role?

A: It might sound cliché, but my favorite part really is watching a book get better — giving a sentence a shake to see what falls out and making it read smoother, or trying to nudge a character to feel more believable and compelling. My least favorite part is how slow I am sometimes. There’s nothing worse than sitting down at the computer, ready to edit 50 pages and then spending a half hour on the first one.

Q: You personally edit literary fiction and narrative non fiction. Which do you find easier? Do you have a preference?

A: I wouldn’t say that either is easier necessarily, though fiction allows for a bit more variation in style and tone, so the editing can be a bit more free-form. I love working on nonfiction, but my favorite thing is always a nice, meaty novel to tackle.

Q: You’ve worked with some heavy hitting best sellers. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

A: I’ve been lucky to have worked on a ton of awesome books in various capacities, so it’s hard to pick one above the others, but my favorite thing recently has been recommending two novels I worked on in the past couple of years — Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Lily King’s Euphoria — to just about everyone I know and waiting for them to come back gushing about how much they love them. I wasn’t the primary editor on either one, so I can’t take too much credit, but I love the fact that I had a hand in two recent books that are so universally beloved.

Q: How did you get into the world of editing?

A: In college, I was deciding that I didn’t want to go into academia, when a friend recommended I intern at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, which was near my school. I was an editorial intern for a few semesters there, which led to moving up to New York after I graduated, and I got a job as an assistant at the literary agency Barer Literary. That started a career in publishing that has me most recently going freelance and working with New York Book Editors.

Q: Without naming names, do you have any horror stories about submissions?

A: Honestly, most of the horror that has stuck with me from my days as an editor and agent is the lingering feeling that I still somehow have a stack of things to read that I’m late on responding to. There’s nothing worse than watching the submissions pile grow when you have so many other things to do, knowing that there are probably some gems in there that you are dragging your feet on.

Q: Are you a writer and what can we read of yours if so?

A: Not since college, when I had a few stories in a campus literary magazine before I realized I was better at improving others’ prose than writing my own. I’m better with sentences than I am with inspiration, so I’m happy to put those abilities to use in an editorial arena.

Q: Who is your favourite author?

A: It has changed a lot over my life, but in the past half decade or so, it’s settled on Larry McMurtry. I really believe that Lonesome Dove is the great American novel, and his books that aren’t westerns show just incredible sensitivity for the nuances of human relationships. I also love Walker Percy,

Q: Do you have a favourite genre generally

A: No favorite genre in particular, but I do prefer authors who are strong storytellers first and foremost. I can appreciate a stylist, but I would rather a traditional story well told than an author who is looking to wow you with their sentences.

Q: What is your recommendation for a book to read before you die?

A: I would recommend Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Everyone has seen the movie with Jennifer Lawrence, which is great, but Woodrell’s prose is just so gorgeous that it pales in comparison to the novel. A beautiful example of how dark, tragic subject matter can be balanced by characters who feel vibrant and alive.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: I’m working on a biography of a famous scientist, a commercial novel about an advice column, a literary novel that is a coming of age story set in the south, and a sports biography of a major professional basketball player. A full plate!

Q: Do you have any advice for writers?

A: It sounds obvious, but I think the most important thing for writers is to write a book that you would want to read. Working in publishing, we think about the potential readership of books a lot, and although I don’t think you should write specifically to cater to an audience, I do think it’s a good first step to imagine what you would feel like if you were to approach your book as a reader. Would you like it? Would you be able to put it down? Would you recommend it to your friends?

Q: Can you give advice for indie authors who self-edit?

A: Buy a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It’s the bible for clean, powerful, modern prose. Read it cover to cover, and then reference back to it often when you have questions. I rarely work on a project where I don’t look up a few things in it.

Q: We get asked all the time about literary agents. Can you give any hints on how to open doors with them?

A: The old chestnut is to look at the acknowledgements of books you love to figure out who the agents are, in order to build a list of agents who represent good stuff. I think that’s a great place to start, but keep in mind that many commercially successful books are represented by agents who have full client lists and thus don’t take on many new authors. Try looking at the agency’s website and figuring out if there might be younger agents at the agency who might be younger and hungrier and eager to add new clients. Obviously they might not have the bona fides of the more established agents, but good agencies hire good people, and I can promise that there are tons of smart young agents out there.

Q: What are you reading right now — literally what is on your bedside table, rather than your desk?

A: I’m about halfway through the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. When Karl Ove fever first hit New York, the concept didn’t appeal to me, but I read a piece in the NYT Magazine that sucked me in. Volume 1 was such a killer — astoundingly compelling detail for the first two thirds, and then just an emotional kick in the pants for the last third.

Q: What would you say is New York Book Editor’s biggest success story?

A: I haven’t been editing with them for long enough for any of the authors I’ve worked with to make it through the publishing cycle, but overall I think New York Book Editor’s biggest success is just being a great place for editors and authors to connect. Natasa is always looking for ways to improve experience on both sides of the edit, and is always active in trying to find new and exciting books that need our services.

Q: The Oxford comma. Do you like it, agree with it, and, in fact, use it?

A: I like it, agree with it, and use it (see?). Journalists might feel differently, but I don’t think you’ll find many novelists or publishing types who don’t like it.

Q: You climb out of a time machine into a dystopian future with no books. What do you tell them?

A Y’all missed out!

Awesome answers, there! Many thanks to William for his time and his answers. So there you go. The answers to (we hope) all of your questions, and some great books to get hold of.

You can find New York Book editors here and they are also on Twitter as @NYBookEditors


Originally published at on February 22, 2016.

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