Do you ever think about the skills of your editor? When searching for a fiction editor, does it cross your mind as to how long the person has been at this, or how much she’s improved in the process?
It’s funny—I get emails about once a week from someone wanting to enter the editing field. Questions abound as to what background is needed, degrees, how does one break in, etc.
And to be completely honest, I don’t have answers to those questions.
I came to this profession through the back door, as an editor was never anything I aspired to be. Actually, I’d never even thought about it.
But nearly 30 years ago, I was in a writers’ group. In addition to read and critique, we passed book-length manuscripts between us, giving feedback.
They found I had a knack for diving in and figuring out what was going right with characters, plot, pacing, style, and what was falling down. And more importantly, could offer tips to fix the issues.
So they all piled manuscripts upon my head!
After a few years, I thought, okay, if I’m going to be doing this, I may as well be professional about it. And a business was born.
That was a very long time ago. I charged hardly anything in the beginning. But as my reputation grew—and more importantly, my skills—the fees went up.
Does it surprise you that my skills improved? We often don’t think of our editors as “getting better.” We think of them more in terms of complete beings from the get-go, kinda like Adam appearing fully formed in the first place, and Eve springing to life from his rib.
But doesn’t it make sense that someone who’s been doing this for decades would have more skills than someone breaking in?
I mean, don’t teachers of all sorts get better as they go? Marathon runners run faster over time? Brain surgeons become more precise with each passing year?
Editors are no different.
But how do editors improve and become better at their skills?
Here are 5 ways a fiction editor becomes a master at the craft.
֎ Working with a Mentor/Learning from Masters
When a young editor wants to work in NY, with a big house, he first apprentices, and then if all goes well, becomes an assistant to an established editor. The road is long, and for a reason—there’s so much to learn about this craft as well. About writing skills, on all levels. This isn’t about proofing or copy editing (unless that’s the faction of the profession one aspires to). Rather, it’s about story craft and all that goes into it.
I was so very blessed early in my career to have sold a novel, and had the benefit of working with 2 great editors. One from my publisher, himself a great novelist. Oh, what I learned.
The second was an editor in NY, a friend of mine, who went over my book with me before publication. I cannot express how much he taught me—both about writing and editing. Gary Goldstein is now a senior editor and VP at Kensington, and still someone I admire to no end. He’s a brilliant editor.
And by that, I’m not talking how-to books. As I often mention, I’m not a proponent of those, except for a very few. Most of the time, you have to wade through 200 pages to get one gem. Or worse, you get really bad advice.
What I mean by studying is reading. Reading great books. Discerning how master novelists achieve their goals of story craft, prose in service to the story, fashioning fabulous characters. In short, figuring out how the great ones do it, in all genres.
Sounds odd, no? Writers don’t often think of their editors as being novelists themselves, or nonfiction authors. But funny thing—most of the great editors I know are also authors. Many under pseudonyms, to avoid any conflict of interest, but often under their own names.
Why on earth is this important?
Because a great editor needs to be able to teach you not only what’s going wrong, but also how to fix the deeper issues. And it’s of enormous benefit if she’s fallen into the crevasses herself, and found a way to climb back out.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix for every novel! In fact, rarely do two books need the same revision. Every novel is unique. Every one has its own set of issues and points to deepen and broaden, along with the nuances that make a great book.
A fiction editor who writes is miles further along the road than one who doesn’t
֎ Practicing the Craft
Which of course just means, doing the job. The longer an editor has been at this, the more he knows. The better he is. Improving every year, picking up new tips to impart to his writers. Honing those skills, just as writers do.
One of my favorite editing stories is of Theresa von Hohoff Torrey, the editor for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I talk of the brilliance of her invisible hand in that manuscript here.
And you know, she worked with a number of great authors, including Thomas Pynchon and Eugenia Price, among others.
The point here is, she’d been an editor for over two decades when she met Harper Lee. She’d honed her craft. She was a master by then.
That sounds funny, doesn’t it. I mean, why would an editor become better with success?
Because as with any craft, one learns from success as to what went right. What tweaked that agent and publisher. The more success an editor has (and by that, I mean books sold to Traditional publishers, the more adept she becomes at her craft. Success breeds success—an old cliché, but a true one.
Yes, we all learn from failure as well, but in this business, riding the wave of success is an eye-opening experience.
So, when you’re searching for a book editor, ask all of these questions. Ask how much the person has learned over the years (and how many years there are!). Who she worked with in the beginning. What she reads. If she writes.
As I often say to writers, the person you work with will have an enormous impact on your career—and we want that to be positive.
Just think: What if Harper Lee had fallen into the hands of a less-skilled editor. What if Go Set a Watchman (which is what Editor Torrey first saw) came out in that version instead of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Don’t let this be you.
Now, roll up your sleeves, do your homework, and find the very best editor for you and your book!