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Interview with an Editor: Jody Gerbig

The ins and outs of indie-publishing can get overwhelming and frustrating. It's nice to have talented friends around who can offer their expertise.

I met Jody Gerbig with JGT Editing when I joined an online virtual writers group during COVID. We jived on crime novels, mysteries, and story structure. When I needed to hire a developmental editor, she was at the top of my list.


Jody was nice enough to agree to allow me to interview her with my editor questions relating to the business, her process as a writer vs an editor, and what she recommends for new writers.


Headshot of writer and editor Jody Gerbig

Would you please explain – for the readers – what the difference is between a developmental editor and a copyeditor.

A developmental editor looks at the big picture—structural elements of story, such as character arcs, plot development, time frame, etc.—and helps bring the manuscript together as a whole. A copy editor, on the other hand, reviews language at the line-level, for grammar, style, and clarity.


Which do you prefer between the two different jobs?

I love both, honestly. I started my career as a graduate student in literature and college writing professor, analyzing story and structure, so seeing the whole of a book comes naturally to me. However, I also taught prep-school English for almost 20 years, which required me to learn and teach sentence diagramming (yes, diagramming!). I also worked as a copywriter at one point, so I know style and grammar well. I am not a natural grammarian or poet, though; I struggled, through high school and college, writing clear sentences. It wasn’t until graduate school that something clicked, and I understood that each line had a structure, like a book has a structure.

If I had to pick one to edit, though, I think I would prefer developmental: keeping an entire book in my head at once is tougher and therefore more satisfying to solve.


What are the top three things you wish writers would do before sending something to a developmental editor?

  • Choose a main character and make sure that the book starts and ends with that character at the point when that story begins: so many people haven’t identified who their hero is before drafting or what that character’s journey is. Maybe they would name the character as the protagonist but haven’t thought about how the reader will come to know him or her or where her story begins. If you were to write about only one day, for example, you might start not with the character waking and brushing her teeth, but in the moment before a car crash, which is when her life is hurdled into forced change. What does that character value, which might be taken away in this opening scene? What wrong might be righted throughout the story?

  • Make sure every chapter is written in scene: some novice writers rely heavily on telling, or exposition, which makes it difficult for readers to land in that new and foreign world of your novel. Have the character acting and reacting to other people, the environment, objects and conflict rather than placing that character alone, thinking about their lives.

  • Write a logline or an elevator pitch, boiling down what the book is about in one-two sentences: this will help keep a story’s focus. See my ‘what I am working on’ line below for an example.


As a developmental editor, you get to work hands on with writers – getting up close and personal with ugly first drafts. Where do you find the patience for this task?

As a writer myself, I prefer the revising stage, trying to find the essence of a piece and honing it like a sculptor might a block of wood.

A good editor tries to find the writer’s vision and work with it, rather than bending the piece to suit her own vision.

When I identify that, I am excited, and I can’t stop reading and looking for ways to shape it. This process requires less patience than empathy and selflessness, in my opinion. A good editor must let go of what she might have done and instead try to understand what the writer wants to do but hasn’t yet. Still, I find this challenge fun (here is the selfish part), which is why I do it and can continue to do it, even in the “ugly” first drafts.


Why do you like working with fellow writers on these larger projects like novels?

Writing requires community, even if the act of writing is solitary. It is incredibly difficult to refine one’s own work, so we rely on one another’s expert eyes and feedback, which laymen cannot give. I rely on my very excellent and generous writing groups in which we exchange drafts and feedback. I know I can trust those writers to give me honest and constructive criticism, whereas family might only want to praise my work, or an agent might only want to mold it into something that sells.


What are some easy “fixes” that writers often overlook?

Make your last page mirror the first. In other words, story is about reversal: whatever world the character starts in must reverse by the end, as story, by definition, is about a character undergoing permanent change through the act of facing obstacles and hardship. Pick up any book off your shelf and test the first-page, last-page theory—you’d be surprised how alike and yet completely different the first and last pages are.

Have your computer read your work aloud to you, which estranges you and your work, allowing you to revise more critically.

Another way to do this is to print in a different font and take a pen to it.


You are a writer as well as an editor. How do you separate those two processes, or do you feel they feed on each other?

I am probably a better editor than writer, at least on the story level. When a writer is as engaged in a story as she must be to write it, she might not be able to think critically about that world. As an editor, I only and always think critically, trying very hard not to get lost on the page like a normal reader would. I am always asking why this is here and like that and whether it works. However, I also think writers must keep a certain distance if they are to revise, at all. They need a tough enough skin to “kill the darlings,” as Faulkner once said.


Could you please give us a quick glimpse of your writing process?

I have triplet grade-school children, so I write when they are in school or at camp, and that is about it. I can sit for hours and not eat, only looking up to realize I am late to pick them up. Revising is different. I must rework my novels by rereading them in one sitting, which sometimes requires reading in the car at pickup and after school, begging my children to busy themselves and leave me to work. But for the most part, writing has become like any other job might: I must hang up my hat when the bell rings and become Mom until whenever they crash. Then, I often crash, too.


You recommended Lisa Cron’s Story Genius to me as a great book for understanding how to structure story. Do you have other books you would recommend to writers?

I love Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody, which gives kind of a cheat sheet for plot structure. I also like Story, by Robert McKee, whose examples are all movies, which makes them easier and faster to digest than trying to read novels to understand. He is also thinking about the economy of words: movie scripts can only be about 90 pages long, relying on dialogue. It’s also interesting to think about how that boils a story down to what we can see and hear rather than what is told to us by a narrator. Donald Maas, an acclaimed agent, also has some great guides out there, and, if you are a fan of short story, I recommend "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain," by George Saunders, who breaks down author choices line-by-line.


What are you working on right now that has you excited?

I’ve made some big changes recently in my career and am excited about them. Let’s just say that this year is about pursuing my vision rather than listening to some bad advice. I am reworking a novel I started last summer, a dark comedy about a mother of quads whose husband keeps some strange secrets and even stranger company. I also want to focus on promoting my critique partners’ debuts and a few clients’ books, as well.


What are you reading/watching/listening to right now which is fueling your writing fire?

I just started recommending books for The Big Thrill, a publication by International Thriller Writers, so I am reading some great just-launching thrillers and mysteries for them. You can find my recommendations on their The Big Thrill Recommends page. I recently watched Death and Other Details on Hulu, which I loved—notice how it drops clues to pick up much later—and Only Murders in the Building, a fantastic dark comedy with all my favorite actors in it. I also love to read literary and dark comedy. My recent favorite is Wellness, by Nathan Hill, whose first pages offer a master class in creating tension, even when bombs aren’t going off. Kevin Wilson’s comedies are always an inspiration—I want to write his books! And last but never least, one of my writing-group friends, Brianne Sommerville, just debuted her thriller, If I Lose Her, which was fantastic.

If you are interested in contacting Jody, please check out her website at www.jodygerbig.com or look for her @jodygerbig for X, IG, and Goodreads. Or check out https://www.teamlctfl.com/ for information regarding her writing group, Let's Cross the Finish Line.


And don't forget to keep checking in for upcoming interviews with other important members of the writing and publishing process.


Read Books. Wear Boots.

B.



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