Interview with an Editor: Lisa Rector, Part 1

PhotobucketLisa Rector is an independent editor who specializes in late-draft writing, helping advanced and published writers of mainstream and literary fiction massage their text until it’s ready for the critical eyes of New York publishers. Lisa, owner of Third Draft in New York City and an award-winning writer herself, lectures about editing techniques at workshops and conferences nationwide (often with her husband, agent Donald Maass). We’re thrilled she took time out of her busy schedule to chat about 11th hour editing, sagging middles and more. Enjoy!

Interview with Lisa Rector: Part 1

On Independent Editing:

Q: Tell us about yourself and your journey. How did you become an independent book editor?

LR: It was either that or Stars on Ice! I’m not skilled at anything else. (laughs)

I was fortunate to be published at 17. I started out writing for newspapers and magazines, and then moved to editing fiction. I knew I wanted to help authors and work closely with them in developing their stories. It’s satisfying to take what a writer envisions in the early drafts and help make that a reality.

Q: What does a book editor do, and what can a writer expect from your services?

LR: Essentially my job is to find what works in a story, what doesn’t and why. Most authors can sense when a novel isn’t working but they’re at a loss for how to fix it. I try to guide them towards better story choices and decisions that will help grow their career.

It’s a very hands-on, communicative process, from manuscript analysis to personal story conferences.

Q: Can you expand on that—take us through how things might work with a sample client?

LR: It can be a harrowing experience to send work out and not know what’s happening with it. Thanks to electronic submissions and one-to-one workshops, much of that downtime is omitted.

Manuscript analysis involves a chapter-by-chapter breakdown along with an overview of the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses and suggestions for improvement. Clients can choose to receive the analysis in parts, to speed the process, or wait until all editorial work has been completed. They may also elect to do a partial or complete manuscript analysis. The turnaround time for most projects is 4-6 weeks and frequent UPS style updates are provided.

Story conferences take place in person or via telephone over 10-15 hours. It’s offered in two or three day segments or a series of intensive phone calls. Follow-up consults detailing the appropriate next steps are provided, free of charge, with all services. The focus is on developing and refining story ideas in real time. We deepen existing layers, strip away what isn’t working and add originality to a project. It’s a hugely popular service.

Most of the authors I work with do a couple of story conferences per book –the first to develop story, the second to refine – with an analysis in between to ensure they are on the right track.

Q: Are there different styles of editing? How might they be beneficial at different stages of a writer’s career?

LR: I’m not a fan of conventional editing. I just don’t find it effective. If a manuscript is fundamentally flawed, a line edit isn’t going to address that.

The work that is done in a personal story conference yields much stronger results. Consulting one-to-one with an editor means authors aren’t left for months on end to grapple with stacks of marked up pages. They see immediately why one idea works and another doesn’t, and how to apply those techniques to future projects.

Some writers come in with a premise; others a completed draft or detailed requests from agents or in-house editors. It’s a useful tool regardless of whether it’s a first novel or the twenty-first.

Q: What happens once a writer goes back to work on a project or starts something new? How involved are you at that stage?

LR: It’s important to maintain an ongoing dialog with clients at every stage. What to do in the next draft or where to begin the next book can leave writers feeling stuck. There may also be a need to rethink an idea once new material or changes to the manuscript are implemented. Often clients email me in a panic and then resolve the issue on their own. But knowing there is a place to turn for guidance and support makes the process less solitary.

Q: How has the role of the independent editor changed in the last decade?

LR: Independent editors have become a more necessary and accepted part of today’s publishing world. Many authors view it as an opportunity to gain feedback before submitting their work.

Q: What advice would you give to an author who is considering hiring an editor?

LR: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I’ve met authors who were sold things they didn’t need simply because they failed to speak up. It’s your right to know exactly what services you’re getting, how much contact to expect throughout the process, the total cost and a completion date. Reputable editors do not charge reading fees, nor do they guarantee representation by an agent following the use of their services. To do so is unethical.

Q: Are you open to editing all genres, or do you have specialty areas?

LR: I specialize in late stage story development. Much of what I see has to do with sagging middles and third draft woes. I work with authors of suspense, thrillers, mystery, historical, fantasy, YA, literary and mainstream fiction.

Q: How can people learn more about your services? Do you have a website?

LR: Rates, services and information on working with an editor can be found at:

I also teach advanced fiction and editing techniques at a number of conferences each year, including the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in October.

On Writing the Third Draft:

Q: What are the telltale signs you’ve reached the Third Draft stage, and how important is it to press on once you’ve arrived?

LR: If you’ve done everything you can think of to improve the book, if it’s earning praise from colleagues, editors and agents but still getting rejected, if you’re receiving conflicting advice or know deep down that something isn’t working but can’t quite figure out what, you’ve hit “Third Draft Stage”.

A lot of writers experience resistance to doing more at this point. They want to be finished. In reality, most authors are closer to publication than they realize. The book is 90% complete.

Q: Should story continue to be developed in this stage, or should the focus be exclusively on editing? What should you key in on in this draft?

LR: The third draft stage is about targeting that last 10%. It’s about story diagnosis and repair.
At this point, it’s crucial to understand not only what is working and what is lacking but why.

Q: What are the most common issues to contend with at this stage?

LR: Anxiety is prevalent at this stage. Many of the authors I work with are ready to move on emotionally. Yet, something unsettles them about the current project. They’re conflicted. They feel that continuing to work on the manuscript is holding them back when, in fact, submitting too soon is the worst thing they could do for their career.

Other issues are story-based. These problems may not be immediately obvious to the author. For instance, is the premise strong enough on page one to sustain the middle of the book and still feel fresh on page 300? If a secondary character wants to be bigger, how do you know whether or not to give in? It involves knowing when these changes service the story and when they do not.

I see a lot of books that are similar to something I’ve already read. The challenge is in making the familiar feel new.

There is also a tendency to become complacent late in the story. Successful authors understand the need for tension on every page.

Q: You said, “If a secondary character wants to be bigger, how do you know whether or not to give in? It involves knowing when these changes service the story and when they do not.” Can you expand on this a little? How do you know if it serves the story?

LR: If a secondary character can actively contribute to advanced plot work late in the story or help deepen thematic issues, perhaps through a contrasting perspective, giving them a larger role services the overall story. But if the decision is simply gratuitous – meaning the character hasn’t earned the right to more stage time – it leads to impatience and disappointment among readers.

Click the link below for part two of my interview with Lisa Rector, when we’ll talk more about the third draft and tackle sagging middles as well.


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    Interesting article, and definitely a good ‘pitch’ for editorial services.

    However, Ms. Rector may want to put on her website’s front page that it requires Internet Explorer. I tried visiting it in firefox and none of the links were clickable.

  2. says

    I have a mac and cannot negotiate Ms. Rector’s site with either webkit or safari. A bit frustrating.
    Ms. Rector’s services sound wonderful, but I wonder if she believes that there is really 1 best way to tell a story. It seems with some books I’ve submitted, agents and editors love the premise, but would have liked it to be told a multitude of different ways emphasizing different aspects or subplots.
    Is this simply a function of a weak plot or subjectivity at work? Or can’t you tell without reading a partial?

  3. says

    I’m not having any issues with Lisa’s website, but I’m using Explorer. Great interview, Therese. And THANK YOU, Lisa, for some valuable insights.

    P.S. everyone: I peeked at part 2 (mwahahah) and next week’s segment is not-to-be-missed.

  4. says

    Lisa gave me some fantastic ideas for increasing the tension in my mystery. Plus she is a dear person. : )

    Looking forward to the second half of her interview!

  5. says

    (Note: I’m on a Windows-based PC but using Firefox as my browser and can’t navigate the site. I highly recommend a redesign, as there must be a number of potential clients who are unable to view the site properly…)

    Very interesting interview! I especially liked her answer about secondary characters.

    I wonder, is Lisa usually contracted by authors independently, or do agents recommend her services when their client seems to have hit a wall? How do agents feel about her input on the work?

  6. says

    Great interview. I alway love to hear what Lisa has to say. I myself hve been published for over 3 years and have received awards for my writing…all because of Lisa.
    Oh sure, I wrote the stories, but it was Lisa who held the light in the dark moments of indecision. This isn’t a plug, only a thank you…looking forward to seeing you in New York again in four weeks.

  7. says

    Great interview Lisa. I feel it is important to have your manuscript as polished as possible before submission, so the help of a good editor can be invaluable. There was a lot of good info in this interview and I look forward to part two. I also look forward to seeing you and Don in Sept with Daryl.