Random House’s managing editor talks shop

Brandon VanOver in front of a book shelfBrandon VanOver began his career in New York at the literary agency Curtis Brown on the switchboard before becoming an assistant to the legendary children’s book agent Marilyn E. Marlow. He then moved to Sydney and an opening eventually came up as an editorial assistant at Random House. He progressed through the ranks of publishing and, for the past five years, has been the managing editor for Random House.

We had a chat with him recently in episode 66 of our So you want to be a writer podcast.

Here are some highlights:

What he finds appealing about the process of editing:

“If you love and admire writing and writers, it’s rewarding to be involved in that process and to take a manuscript that isn’t quite there yet, or far from there yet, and work with an author.

“I think a lot of people think of the editor as the task manager, but it’s really the conversation of asking good questions to help an author reach their goals.”

On whether he finds fiction or non-fiction harder to edit:

“I think fiction is tougher because you’re treading on sacred ground… Often an author has been working eight years on something. They’re highly connected to it. It might be fiction, but there’s often a lot of them in there. It doesn’t play by the same rules; you can’t slap a style guide on to it. You need to be really flexible.

“You’re dealing with more of a volatile creativity. By ‘volatile’ I don’t mean people throwing things, but it’s something that is not stable. Often there’s no absolute right answer. Someone was either born in 1895 or they weren’t. But, [in fiction] it’s like, ‘Maybe have you thought about that character being born in 1895?’ … I find it, personally, a bit tough.”

On standing his ground about changes with an author:

“I think as a younger editor, if they came back and said, ‘No, no, I think it’s fine as it is,' I would just say, ‘OK, thanks.' But now I’m more inclined to go back and say, ‘I’ve continued to think about this, I really feel like ‘X’ is letting the book down, for these reasons…' I think if you make an intelligent case for something, it’s hard to argue with, as long as it’s intelligent.

“There was one book in particular, I was three years in and I just knew that the scene was wrong. It was fiction, obviously the author had made this side trip… It actually contributed nothing. I went back, ‘I think it should be removed.' ‘No, it’s going to stay.'

“The next thing you know, it’s reviewed: ‘God, this book! What the hell was this scene doing there? That made no sense.' It even said, ‘If this book had an editor worth his weight, it could have been good.' I’m thinking, ‘Oh, god, I’m never going to work in this town again!’”

On the value of having a good editor:

“I think the problem with some manuscripts is they’re workshopped to death. They go through writing groups. You’re not working with an editor, but you’re kind of editing — you’re receiving editorial feedback that you’re probably comfortable with because ‘it’s Sue down the street' or ‘Dan from university'. They’ll give you different opinions and often conflicting opinions or vanilla opinions. The next thing you know, you’ve ripped all of the originality out of the manuscript.

“I often say I like getting just exactly what you did in its unvarnished self, because there’s a lot of originality and spirit and tension that’s in that original manuscript.

“I don’t want to bag out writers’ groups or anything; it’s really a community and it definitely has its purpose. It’s just funny that a lot of people embrace that process, but once they work with an editor…

Being an editor, it’s a trade, it’s something that you hone over time. I was going to say ‘craft,’ but I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. It’s a craft, it is. It truly is. It can really take your manuscript to places you hadn’t imagined, help you find your own voice and your writing.”

We would have published this post sooner, but Brandon had a couple of suggestions to make… ;)

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