Making Words Count
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Comments From Writer's I've Worked With

Comments From Writer's I've Worked With

I asked a number of authors I’ve worked with recently if they’d be willing to write a comment about their experience of working with me as an editor. I told them that over the last six years of free-lancing I’d become acutely aware of what a difficult situation a writer looking for editorial help finds him or herself in, not knowing the ins and outs of publishing, not knowing the reputation or track record of any of the people they might be dealing with — basically working in the dark. Indeed, I’d started to joke that choosing a free-lance editor was a lot like choosing a shrink — there really is no good way to do it; you simply have to pick somebody and try them and see if the pairing works out. The proof of the pudding and all that. But I thought that perhaps hearing about the experiences of other people might help such writers in their search and decision making process.

The unedited responses which are printed below initially surprised me in their diversity, but of course it makes sense — the main thing an editor has to do is respond appropriately to the person and text before him. There is no cookie-cutter process here; different writers and different manuscripts require different, and appropriate, responses. Sometimes it’s the over-all structure that needs work, sometimes it’s line editing, sometimes it’s characterization, etc. This is why I often find myself at a loss when talking with a potential client who asks how I’ll approach their manuscript, worried about what I’ll do to their book. I’m always tempted to say, Ask me when I’ve finished. In truth, how would I know before I’ve actually done the editing? Not a reasonable answer, I know, so I restrain myself. But to come back to the proof of the pudding: the thing that matters is whether the manuscript gets better or not, which is what makes the analogy to choosing a shrink quite precise.

In any event, here are some comments by other writers I’ve worked with that might help you in your decision making process. Or not.

Michael Denneny has been my editor for novels, poetry, and plays for over thirty years. His vast store of knowledge of literature in the English language as well as South American work in translation offers a fecund foundation for his judgments. He is sensitive to the individual voice and nurtures that voice with an acute sense of point of view, syntax, and grammar. More importantly, Michael is passionate about the work he does on manuscripts and his work with writers. There is a warmth, an enthusiasm about detail he exudes whenever he approaches a text. There is always room for new ideas, embellishments, cuts, and characters. Michael is a marvel to work with.
— Ntozake Shange, author of “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” Macmillan, l975 SASSAFRASS, CYPRESS & INDIGO, St. Martin’s Press, l982 BETSEY BROWN, St. Martin’s, l985 LILIANE, St. Martin’s, l994 HOW I COME BY THIS CRYING SONG, St. Martin’s, 2010
My new book, Return to the Middle Kingdom: One Family, Three Revolutionaries, and The Birth of Modern China, is nonfiction. During the process of writing it, I told my editor, Michael Denneny, that I intended it not only for China specialists but also for general readers. In other words, I wanted it to be a well-researched, fact-based nonfiction, and yet I also wanted it to read like an engrossing historical novel, a story of adventure, political intrigue and family life as a century and a half of history swept through China. Fully understanding what I intended to do, Michael coached me with skill and imagination. With his help, I saw more clearly that I could and should dramatize the facts, use revealing anecdotes to create three-dimensioned characters of real people, and describe their venues with illuminating details, so as to bring history to life. I am glad to say that since the publication of this book, more than a few scholars, reviewers, and readers appreciate what I intended to accomplish.
— Yuan-tsung Chen, author of RETURN TO THE MIDDLE KINGDOM, Union Square Press, 2008
Michael is an outstanding editor. His rigorous editing reflects a hard-to-find knack for simultaneously focusing on content, reader, writer and the book market. What more could an author want?
— Kairol Rosenthal, author of EVERYTHING CHANGES: THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO CANCER IN YOUR 20s AND 30s, Wiley, 2009
As I undertook the job of writing a memoir, I knew I needed an editor, but I was anxious as to what that would involve. Would an editor hear my voice or would he bend me to his own voice with a series of pompous rules I didn’t understand? Michael read the pages I’d already written, respected my voice, but insisted that I go no further until I’d outlined my projected work chapter by chapter. Next he showed me how to organize each chapter and steer clear of digressions. In other words, focus. Michael, bless his heart, taught me focus.
— Eustacia Cutler, author of A THORN IN MY POCKET; TEMPLE GRANDIN’S MOTHER TELLS THE FAMILY STORY, Future Horizons, 2004
In 2004, when I ran into trouble with my first book and needed an editor, I sought advice from a number of friends. One author friend suggested I call Michael Denneny. I had never met Michael, knew nothing about him and wondered if it was worth spending more money for a free-lance editor to go over my manuscript. It was probably the best investment I’ve made in my career. Michael made himself available immediately. He was delightful to work with, gave me very sound advice and perhaps most of all, he was encouraging and extremely supportive. The book came out and I had Michael to thank for that.

That would have been the end of my testimonial on Michael except that there is a second and more important chapter to this story. Four years later, deep into my second book, I ran into a huge problem. I was convinced that it was a great story, but I had just fired my second agent after having been rejected by almost every single publishing house. After three years of work, I hated to just throw it all away. At that point, it was my wife who reminded me that although this wasn’t a contracted book yet, maybe Michael could help me.

We got together in a local coffee shop and I told him my story. Once again, there was this great support and in the easiest way he got back to me the next day and said he was so intrigued that he’d read the proposal as soon as he returned home. He immediately deduced that the fault wasn’t in the agent or in the publishing houses … it was the proposal! He gave me specific instructions on how to change it and because of his years of experience, he explained what it is that publishers want to see in a proposal.

I rewrote it. Michael edited it. And within a few very short months, it was picked up by a major publishing house. Once again, there is only one person to thank — Michael.

Well, actually two, including my wife for telling me to call him. If there is a book number three, you can bet Michael Denneny will be involved with that one too.
— Warren Kozak, author of THE RABBI OF 84TH STREET, Harper Collins, 2004 and LEMAY; THE LIFE AND WARS OF CURTIS LEMAY, Regnery, 2009
To say that Michael Denneny’s editorial assistance is beyond words is true, may even be clever, but only hints at the Michael’s skill. Imagine your manuscript or, more important, the ideas in your manuscript, as a large chunk of clay. Now imagine Michael taking that clay in his hands and working it, stretching it where it needs to be stretched, cutting off some peripheral pieces that are not needed, softening a bit here, while all the time kneading and shaping until you the author cry out, Yes! that’s exactly the work of art I had in mind!

Michael is a grand conceptualizer, a molder; if we were making movies, he’d be the Producer. Of course, this all takes many sessions and discussions and even disagreements, some pushing and some giving, with Michael all the time listening with his heart. If I were to write any more, Michael would criticize me for being repetitious.
— Fred Jerome, author of EINSTEIN ON RACE AND RACISM, Rutgers, 2005 and EINSTEIN ON ISRAEL AND ZIONISM, St. Martin’s Press, 2009
Working with Michael Denneny was one of the best experiences I have had as a writer. While I’ve been fortunate to know a number of highly accomplished people, Michael stands out for having one of the rarest of qualities: he is wise. His wisdom, especially when combined with a first-class intellect and an apparently innate sense of aesthetics, was a great asset at every stage of the writing process: from how to approach people to how to handle extremely delicate situations; from deciding how to do research on to the writing and the final shaping of the manuscript. The great breadth and depth of his editorial experience also evidenced itself in many ways. He could see both the big picture, such as overall structural issues, as well as the finest editorial details: what word to change or cut in a sentence. In the many years I have worked with Michael, I have yet to go to him for advice and come away disappointed: a writer could ask for no finer editor.
— David Carter, author of STONEWALL: THE RIOTS THAT SPARKED THE GAY REVOLUTION, St. Martin’s Press, 2004