EDITOR – WHAT DOES YOURS DO?

by Jule Selbo

 Serious question, sorry. Does everyone have a different experience?

I had dinner with some writing friends the other night (at a place that didn’t put a serious dent in our bank accounts – yeah, hard to find these days). Over beer and local oysters, there was hilarity and gossip and tales of recent hikes and writers’ blocks, concerns about the world and never-ending humidity. In my experience, writers tend to like other writers. Maybe it’s the common pain that bonds us, common loneliness of living with brains that can – alternately – burst out of the starting gate or refuse to leave the stall. Combine that with a predilection of assigning character quirks and motivations for everyone standing at the gas pump or at the grocery store counter, we tend to understand each other. The conversation turned to the craft of writing. I brought up a question that had been on my mind. I prefaced it because I haven’t (like many bloggers on this site) published dozens of books, I wanted to check out their experiences. I asked a question that – surprising to me – sort of stopped the conversation. I had struck a nerve.

The question was: What does your editor do?

It was like an NFL defense line had entered the room and sat across the table and were ready to put me in a chokehold.

 

I wondered – is this was a verboten question?

 

My friends suddenly got very protective – their editors were fabulous, insightful (not only because they recognized my friends’ talents), but they had “great ideas”, were “so creative” and “helped me come up with a new ending.” Their editors were all “at the top of their game”.

I wondered – what game?

BACKGROUND: The other writers at the table were not crime/mystery writers, they toil in “literary fiction” and “pop fiction”. When they finish the draft of the book they feel good about, it goes to their editor who (it seems) has a lot of influence on content and usually gives a lot of notes that send the writers back to the computer. For months – maybe even a year. (Or if the book has not been pre-sold, it goes to their agent who then tries to place it with an editor at one of the publishers houses to get an advance and/or book deal… and when this is accomplished, then the editor’s notes begin.)

One of the writers of “pop” fiction, told me he’d just gotten his notes from his editor. He thought it would take him a year to “re-think, rewrite, re-submit”.

In my head I was shouting, “A YEAR!” I worry about who I will be in a year, if the same things will interest me and if, after putting in months (more than a year) into this initial, solid (as I see the story) draft – would I want to keep kicking it around for another few months/a year? Will the “year-later-me” want to tell the story in a different way? Do I want to head down a rabbit’s hole where – knowing if I change one thing, the rest could slip away and totally disappear?

I didn’t dare ask this question, because I felt everyone had gotten a bit uptight. So I’m asking the question now: after the re-submission, was there a possibility that the editor might ask for more “re-thinks and rewrites”?  And another question: If the editor who “championed” the buying of the book is not pleased with the subsequent draft – does the advance/deal have to be “re-thunk”? Monies returned? (I googled this question, so I have the answer to this one.)

Do some novelists, after completing the draft-they-feel-good-about, use the editor as a beta-read?

I look to friends who claim they want to do an early read of a finished manuscript and give me thoughts, reactions. Am I taking advantage of those friends? They say they don’t mind and they often have great suggestions.

I also love my writing groups, where we give each other feedback (it’s about 5,000 words per submission). The “deal” is that we read each other’s work, engage in a give and take of reactions. Sure, it’s a commitment, but with the right group, it’s fantastic. And no one is holding me hostage to change something I don’t think needs changing. But of course, feedback can have me doing some rewriting, re-noodling.

I’ve never thought of the editor at the publishing house as a creative partner in a novel. But some of my friends seem to. And there also seems to be a great need to please those editors. (Can that trap you from being true to yourself?)

I put “best editors of fiction” into my search engine and got a few descriptions of the editor’s job:  (name withheld) “…is an editor with a track record of acquiring, developing, and launching critically acclaimed books and high-impact bestsellers that span a wide range of categories—including “big ideas,” history, narrative nonfiction, and fiction. He has a proven talent for identifying and broadening trendsetting ideas for a general audience, and a keen ability to marshal the power of marketing, publicity, and social media to strategic advantage.”

(Name withheld) “…is an experienced ghostwriter, screenwriter, and New York Times-bestselling editor who has collaborated with hundreds of aspiring writers and widely-published authors.”

One editor marketed himself by saying “I’ll help you write a book you’re proud of.”

Some of the above are “scary” thoughts  – to me.

I know I have a bias against “gate-keepers” in artistic/creative endeavors. When I worked in Los Angeles as a screenwriter, there was the oft-told tale among my fellow screenwriting friends (oft-told because it happened over and over): one of us would be taking a meeting at a studio with a development executive (their job is to bring stories/scripts they deem as possibilities for production to the “next-level boss”), this person would often be fresh out of college (or not, but semi-young and feeling powerful) and likely didn’t know who John Ford or Orson Welles was, had never viewed The Godfather or Some Like it Hot or Animal House or Pulp Fiction or Casablanca or American Psycho (much less Hitchcock’s Psycho), didn’t know the plot of Hamlet (except to quip about the fact they’d heard The Lion King story had some similar plot points).

Horror, to them, meant “Jordan Peele movie hits”, did not include Craven, Cronenberg, or Carpenter. The subsequent discussion among my screenwriting friends centered around this: did this person want to help make your idea/your script “better” or did they want it to be as close as possible to what just won the box office weekend, or did they want to make it “different” (more like what they have written if they had the stamina/patience to crank out a full screenplay). Did they actually have the chops to make your story “better”? Being a professional screenwriter in Hollywood is all about taking notes, new drafts, reacting to an executive’s newest brain fart. (Photo is Tim Robbins in the super fun movie The Player (1992).

When I had a solid draft (beta-read by friends and writers’ groups) of my first novel, Find Me In Florence (it has some mystery in it, but no crime… my publisher calls it: “Women’s Fiction” – I call it a coming-of-age, romance, mystery novel that takes place in the fine city of Florence Italy), I hired an freelance editor (let’s call him Pete) that a friend of mine had been paired with at Penguin. (Editor Pete had left Penguin and had gone freelance). I was insecure, thought before I sent it off to a gatekeeper, I should get a professional’s opinion. Pete was a super nice guy, but he wanted to change the whole story. My story is about a young woman (Lynn) who, at her mother’s deathbed, makes a promise to fulfill her mom’s ask to “find me in Florence.” Her mother had been a Mud Angel. (When the Arno River flooded in Florence in 1966 to catastrophic levels (flooding museums, libraries, churches),  volunteers hurried there from all over the world to help dig up paintings, sculptures, relics, books etc. that had been trapped in the muck and mud – to unearth and save great treasures to ensure that generations-to-come could appreciate a Cellini or Botticelli or…

These people were called “Mud Angels” and, for various reasons that Lynn discovered, it was a life-changing experience for Lynn’s mother. While in Florence, Lynn finds out her husband (still in NYC) is a shit, she meets a super-great Italian man, finds out the secreted details of her mother’s past, and comes to a new understanding of what she “should” be doing with her life. Pete (the editor) became fond of a character in the beginning of the book – Lynn’s best friend and said something like this… “Why don’t you drop the Mud Angels thing and make it more about the friendship and get in a few cat-fights in between the women.” Perhaps he’d just read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and thought I should slide under its popular umbrella.

Or perhaps he wanted to string me along, get me to do a 90% rewrite so I’d pay him for another “tell me what you think” session. But after stewing on his response for a week, I knew I didn’t want to go back and shape the book to please him. (In fairness, I did beef up the friend’s role (made it a stronger “C” story) but decided to stick to what had made me want to write the book.) Find Me In Florence found a publisher and was up for a few small awards – so all was good. So, instead of re-working the project for a year to please someone else, I was free to go on to the next thing I wanted to write.

            Back to the oysters and beer dinner with friends a few nights ago. When they sensed my distrust of how much creative weight they put into their editor’s hands, they asked me about my publisher. I told them the publishing company assigns “an exec”, one content editor, one line editor, and then one of the “brass” of the company does a final read before they press “publish”. The first go-through is with “my exec”; he’s been assigned twenty or so authors to keep track of and answer questions regarding what the publishing company is doing with the writers’ works. He reads the author’s draft, logs it, gives a quick response to author and a report to publishing heads. Then, if approved, it’s put into the machinery. The “content editor” is assigned. In my experience, they catch inconsistences in timeline or note where there could be better clarity in plot/character/structure. The content editor who had been assigned my last two books was on maternity leave, so I had a new content editor for 9 DAYS (second book in the Dee Rommel series). I so appreciated her input because she (who had not read the first book in the series) was voracious in pointing out where a reader (who had not read 10 DAYS) might need more background on a recurring character. She did not suggest story changes. I made the small adjustments in a few days.

            The second is the line editor who checks for typos, wonky sentences, dropped words and other things that can be a writer’s nightmare. Then the draft is returned to me for another read (I ask for this, not sure it’s always done?) and I get to send in my list of remaining typos. Then one of the “brass” in the publishing company reads it and if there is a small question, it gets addressed – and it’s done and goes out for publication. This is the way that makes sense to me. Does my publisher give more “creative/story” notes to other writers and hold off publication if they think the rewrites are not satisfactory? I don’t know. I’ll have ask “my (very approachable) exec”.  (Just got a note back, an answer to that question: “Rarely, but yes it does happen, each for its own peculiar reason.”)

 Is this “less than invasive approach” I’ve experienced with my publisher consistent with other crime/mystery writers’ relationships with their editors? Is it a genre thing? Are crime-mystery novels handled differently than “lit” or “pop” fiction – because they’re more reliant on a tight plot and parts can’t “move around” willy-nilly?

Some writers have a close relationship with their editors. Do you?

I would love to hear about people’s “take” on what role their editor should/does play.

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. She's just completed the next book in the series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, it will be out late summer 2022. She's currently working on 8 DAYS...
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7 Responses to EDITOR – WHAT DOES YOURS DO?

  1. Kate Flora says:

    Oh, wow, Jule. Have you got a few hours? I’ve had hands on editors (think nine pages of notes), writing groups that want to reshape the stories far from my intentions for the book. I have had brilliant freelance editors. Indifferent editors. Beta readers. Next year a book I have worked on for twelve years will finally come out. I have had serious arguments with a great editor that resulted in a far better book. A good editor can make us a better writer. Over the years, I have come to embrace rewrite and learned to slow down, even though my first love is still those fresh words growing on a blank page. I think literary writers often aren’t under the same pressure to produce a book a year like we are. I remind myself that The Great Gatsby, with its brilliant, sometimes breathtaking sentences, is a very short book that had three full edits from a superb editor. And feel envy. We should do a group discussion about this, yes!

  2. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I’ve run the gamut from extreme laissez-faire to “change every verb tense from page one” with the three publishing houses I’ve worked with. For the most part, though, I’ve been very lightly edited–don’t know whether that’s good or bad, LOL. But I did have to do a major re-write on what had developed into a “kitchen sink” book–I had thrown in virtually every trope and character there was, and my editor was justifiably concerned/horrified. In that instance, the book was definitely improved. 🙂

    • jselbo says:

      So glad the “good” editor pointed out stuff – I know I want to know if I have gone off on a deep end – but wow – waiting for that point with editor – that’s gotta be a head butt! when you got that back –

  3. kaitlynkathy says:

    Everything Kate and Maggie said! I’ve had some really great editors (Carolyn Marino, Hope Dellon, Kathy Sagan) and I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had an editor push for a total rewrite, but editors in the 90s at category romance houses were really picky. One insisted I give my heroine a child to beef up her motivation! Since I’m childless by choice, I had to borrow a friend’s three-year old to research how that would work. I’ve been glad when editors caught contradictions in the text and/or asked intelligent questions about why my characters did what they did, frustrated when one tried to change my “voice” in a first-person story (I ended up taking that book back–long story), and felt very uneasy when an acquiring editor had her assistant read the ms. and then send it straight to the copy editor with instructions for a “light” edit. A four or five page revision letter never bothered me, especially if it contained good suggestions. Sadly, what seems to be the new normal is editors who expect their authors to hire a freelance editor before submitting the manuscript (or to do a really good job of self-editing). Then they want those same authors to do all their own promotion, especially online, while writing the next book.

  4. joesouza says:

    Great piece. I’m going to follow it up tomorrow.

  5. Thank you for being willing to discuss this, it seems, touchy subject. I’ve only had one experience with a content editor (on an online writing platform), and it was a good give-and-take exchange. I didn’t agree with one major change–deleting the first chapter completely. Now that the book is going to be published traditionally, I added that part back to my original as a prologue as that was the chapter that hooked so many readers in the first place! Looking forward to reading Joe’s follow up.

  6. jselbo says:

    Taking ownership is tough sometimes – we get too close to it. I’m glad you decided to do that though

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