Just what is it that editors do? As aspiring novelists increasingly turn to editorial services before submitting a manuscript to an agent or in-house editor – or for that matter before taking the plunge and self-publishing – it is a good idea to become as educated as possible regarding the role of an editor and the difference they can (or cannot) make in the story you have to tell and the manuscript you want to sell, whether it be to a publishing house or on the free market yourself. Since most of my personal experience is in traditional publishing and many of the most experienced editors offering freelance services have roots there as well, we will focus on what editors do in traditional publishing, but with an awareness there is an overlap into the indie publishing world.
When I sold my first novel in 1989 (note: the fifth novel I had written; the first one to sell), I really had no idea what an editor did beyond having the ability to make my grandest dream a reality. I remain grateful to Carrie Feron, then a senior editor at Bantam Books, for recognizing some quality in my storytelling that was fueled more by ambition and naiveté and the raw desire to be published than any mastery of the novelist’s craft.
Much of the mastery acquired over the years since – an ongoing quest to be sure – is directly owed to the editorial guidance I was (mostly) fortunate to receive from a variety of editors who worked in different publishing houses with varying degrees of responsibility, clout, talent, skill, and areas of expertise. Just as not all writers are created equal, neither are editors, but in the best of all worlds an editor is a kaleidoscopic being who is knowledgeable about the market, is savvy about the tough business of publishing, has terrific instincts, has a deep understanding of book structure and the critical reasoning skills necessary to elevate a book to its highest potential, respects the je ne sais quoi magic of story while balancing popular demand with literary merit, and knows how to deal with authors who can have a wide range of temperaments, skill, talent, and level of professionalism themselves.
What I know is how much I still do not know about what an editor does even after a solid twenty-five years in the publishing profession, first as an author, followed by nearly a decade of work in various editorial capacities, before pinging back to the author’s side of the desk again – only this time with a better understanding of, and respect for, the role an editor can play in an author’s career, in the development of their maturity as a writer, and the make or break influence they can bear on the quality and potential success of a book.
Most serious writers acquire a certain degree of editorial experience by educating themselves, developing that “inner editor” by working and reworking their own material and possibly honing those skills by critiquing other manuscripts. This is a basic, rudimentary level of what an editor technically does with a manuscript – they have to be able to think objectively, critically, and, hopefully, kindly, particularly with early efforts. My first, official editorial position did not require a lot of the above since I served as editor for NINK, the monthly newsletter for Novelists, Inc. The bar was set pretty high just to be a member of this professional organization, and the members wrote the columns, so I didn’t have a lot of hands-on technical editing to do. I did, however, take on many responsibilities that introduced me to another level of what editors do: no sooner had I accepted the position than most of the columnists left! The mass exodus wasn’t personal – and it’s important to realize that the vast majority of editorial rejections are not personal either, even if they can be a reflection of personal taste – but, like a serialized show, most columns have a shelf life before they start to go stale or the columnist has run out of steam or they have a personal crises or … just fill in the blank. So, I immediately had to acquire a stable of new writers who could consistently deliver in a specialized capacity while developing a fresh, professional synergy within the newsletter. Then there was the seat-of-the-pants learning curve to juggle payments and schedules while working with the board of directors, and getting to know the authors and understanding their unique strengths that would appeal to a wide and discerning readership.
All of these duties are but a sampling of what book editors do in traditional publishing – usually after they have worked from the bottom up as an assistant editor who handles calls and correspondence while learning everything they can in exchange for making very little money and working overtime in the hope of making their own publishing dreams a reality.
After a year in the voluntary yet weighty position as NINK editor, I could understand why. It was hard and very different work from writing; much easier in some ways, more challenging and rewarding in others. I loved it. Anyway, one level always leading to another, I got into non-fiction and memoir and collaborating and ghostwriting – even ghost editing – and series development for HCI Books that culminated in yet another layer of what editors do: everything that happens behind the scenes to take a book from manuscript to the shelves. This includes working with sales, marketing/publicity, the art department, IT, copywriting for the catalog, networking, searching for talent at conferences, and more. This was all happening simultaneously with reviewing manuscripts, composing revision letters, and what many editors would probably agree to be one of the most critical, complex, and creative aspects of their literary craft. Developmental, or substantive, editing.
My husband and I are currently renovating a 100-year-old tavern on a popular Wisconsin lake. A lot of people are involved in this exciting, creative, and, yes, expensive venture. This old building, with many stories to tell, is falling apart. But, she has good bones. In our hearts we knew it when we fell in love with the expansive view of the lake from the picture windows (who cares if they need replacing?) which front the dance floor (okay, it sags a little) and bandstand near the bar (the shag carpeting stapled under the railing is such a nice touch).
It’s amazing the things we can overlook when emotionally invested in a property.
The books we write are our intellectual and emotional property. But while we may be in love with them, the outside observer may be less inclined to share our sentiments. Should we entice the right editor to come in, have a look around, and become genuinely excited about the possibilities, too… then we are awfully lucky to have someone share our vision who knows more than we do about what it’s going to take to shore up the structure, move the walls, replace the lighting, and fix the plumbing that doesn’t know when to stop running.
Although a developmental editor may even be involved from concept to creation, and there are some hair-splitting differences in publishing lingo (substantive vs developmental/fiction vs non), the important thing to know is that a really good developmental edit can make all the difference in the fate of your property. You may be the owner, but highly skilled editors can help you turn a sow into a swan because they are master architects and engineers, or at the very least a well-connected contractor who can bring in the right professional peers for you.
It’s very difficult to get that kind of objective perspective when you are in the midst of your project. Even seasoned novelists-turned-editors-themselves are no exception. This is why John and I had three publishing professionals with a deep range of editorial expertise review the original Unbreakable manuscript; their collective input resulted in a developmental reconstruction that meant a complete rewrite of the first 100 pages, the elimination of a subplot and several characters, cutting 10,000 words, and John putting his psychotherapy background to good use for both the book and a coauthor ready to throw herself into oncoming traffic. There’s no getting around the fact that this was tough stuff to hear and even harder to execute. But. Because of what other editors with a sharp eye perceived and I was too close to see, a mini-scene that had been inserted around page 50, was flagged for a position of tantamount importance.
Here it is for your consideration. Page 1 from Unbreakable:
If you flew like a Nightbird up over the mountains and into the dark of the jungle and then sat on a limb above a small animal trail and waited. . . .
You would see the point man. His growing anxiety is becoming palpable. He thinks he can feel someone or something trailing him.
He whispers. “Shep, that you? Quit fucking around.” There is no response.
Panicked, Point Man heads out again. The Nightbird’s eyes follow him. Point Man’s breathing is gasping and scared. He tries to move quietly but everything he steps on crackles and pops, and that just adds to his panic. He thinks he hears something off to his left and, startled, starts moving to his right. He is disoriented and becoming exhausted from his own adrenaline. He slows down. His stuff weighs the world on his back and he wants to drop it all and just run. Instead, he turns.
Point Man can’t stop his smile or his near-sob of relief as he steps forward, says, “Oh God, I’m glad it is you.”
The Ranger Lieutenant punches his shoulder. “Get a grip, Stanley.”
“Yeah, yes sir.”
Suddenly the M16s open up behind them. They hear shouts and yelling from their guys on patrol until the Ranger Lieutenant shouts back.
“Cease fire, knock it off!”
The shooting stops and then it is very quiet, very tense.
Back down the path a short distance, imagine the deep bass of Graveyard Train. Up in the tree is a predator. He looks down at the last three men of the patrol and isolates the last man by shooting the two men in front of him. The last man standing is frozen, doesn’t know where the deadly fire has come from. The predator drops out of the tree right behind him. The terrified young soldier whirls around to shoot, only to have both of his hands cut off by a blade in a glinting blur. He turns to run with stumps of his wrists spraying his life out, but drops and screams as he bleeds out.
Ranger Lieutenant and Point Man carefully make their way back to the too silent patrol. They come upon the bodies of the men who were shot. All of their hands have been cut off at the wrists. The Ranger Lieutenant and Point Man come upon one bloodless hand after another, all pointing ahead to a body sitting up against a tree. His severed head in his lap, the startled eyes that saw the predator stare straight at them as the Nightbird watches, then flies away again.
The first page can determine if a reader will buy your book, or if an agent or acquiring editor, will read any further. And yet, I had initially buried the first page. That page, in turn, became like a domino fall that affected the construction of the entire book.
Editors need good instincts – a nose for what an author is capable of and what will appeal to their readership and/or the readership waiting to be cultivated. Authors need good instincts too, but particularly when starting out, you have to do your homework to better your chances of success. Whether your target is a desirable agent, a dream editor, a coveted publishing house, or you’re a go-getter intent on conquering the Amazon bestseller list solo, you need to know your stuff. And part of that stuff is what this session is all about.
And with that, here are some exercises that will hopefully prove helpful in solidifying your knowledge base of the key people who have earned their stripes as editors.
In this scenario you are teaching a class of aspiring novelists who have never worked with an editor before. What are the basics you can tell them about editors and what they do?
Knowing the class has some more advanced wordsmiths who possibly have a couple of books and acquired rejections under their belts, what is your best advice about editors – especially since there is an upcoming writer’s conference and James in the front row is certain that because he just finished the book of his heart, once he lands it in the hands of an editor attending, the rest is a sure deal.
This one’s the biggie, and it has two steps.
First, imagine this: upon receiving a rejection letter, your first instinct is to hurl every four-letter word at the completely unimaginative fool responsible for crushing your dreams. This is followed by a well-deserved night of ranting and drowning your sorrows, which culminates in a morning after of much self-torture for being so delusional that you ever thought you could write a book worth publishing to begin with. You know you can self-publish – that’s always an option – but more than anything you really want to understand why it is so hard to break the glass ceiling that lesser talents have seemingly crashed through. Do they have a secret handshake with a stack of Ben Franklins passed from palm to palm? Did they marry the publisher? Just what is the rationale from the Great Oz’s of publishing making these decisions?
Step 1: As novelists one of our primary jobs is to empathize with our characters so we can authentically convey their thoughts, feelings, motivations. Your assignment is to switch hats for a complete day – I’m talking twenty-four hours. Just try to imagine a hundred manuscripts parked in your overflowing in-box for consideration while you juggle repeated calls from agents, deal with an unhappy author, skip lunch to… well, do all the other things that editors do. And imagine that as harried and spread thin as you are, you land your mug of bad coffee on your cluttered desk while your eyes flick over the first page of a manuscript. Time stops. You forget that you’re going to run late for a must-attend meeting because you keep reading and reading and –
The day is suddenly amazing. Because you have been reminded of why you wanted to become an editor to begin with.
Step 2: Now that you have completed your Editor for a Day tour of empathetic duty, it’s time to switch hats. Your final assignment is to write that first page – followed by the next and the next, until you have a perfectly imperfect story that some fledgling editor, sleeping in a room the size of a closet, stays awake all night to read.
And even if she doesn’t and you decide to leapfrog the traditional publishing process, it’s equally important that your novel demands that the pages keep turning and sleep is lost, not encouraged, by those who hold your book in their hands.
Just the right editor can help you make that happen. Because that’s what editors do.