Clare B. Dunkle

The Business of Novel Writing

Clare B. Dunkle's facts about editors

Black bears in the zoo

Authors tend to mention their editors under a variety of circumstances:

"My editor called me up last week and told me the good news about the award."

"Nin Jah is my editor's favorite character in the book; she says she loves Nin's deadly detachable fingernails."

"Book VII will be out in 2008 if my editor and I can agree on the ending."

"It may seem like bad news that Bookstores R Us just banned the cover, but my editor says that's the best thing that could happen."

"Anyway, I wanted to give up writing then and there, but my editor told me I just needed a vacation."

It would seem from comments like these that a novelist's editor is part therapist, part penpal, part sparring partner, part coach, part Magic 8 Ball, part booster club, and part boss. Sum it up, and that's a pretty accurate impression.

Fiction is like a magic act. We novelists can do our best to shape the narrative, but we can't be sure we've pulled it off. We need a volunteer from the audience to come forward and tell us how we're doing. Enter the editor, the professional reader who guides us in creating a book that holds the reader spellbound in all the right places.

You know your draft is rough somewhere, but you can't find the problem. A great editor can put her finger exactly on the weak spot of your story. Mine told me the other day, "The threat in the first half of this draft is supernatural. In the second half, it's physical. Both are good, but the change is too abrupt." And she's absolutely right. As soon as I heard her comment, the solution started falling into place. I've already planned a series of scene tweaks to fix it.

Below are a few random observations about the editor/author relationship:

Unpublished authors dream of the day when the book contract arrives, but a revision letter may arrive instead. An editor may like your manuscript and want to be involved in its future, but only if you are able to make certain changes to it first. Editors complain that many new authors miss the point of revision letters. These letters are not rejections: they indicate a desire to work on the manuscript. But new authors often assume that they are supposed to receive an eager Yes, and that anything else must mean No.

After I submitted The Hollow Kingdom to Holt, I received a revision letter—a revision email, actually. The editor said she felt the manuscript was too long, but if I was willing to shorten it, she would love to see it again. I decided to trust her and revised the manuscript accordingly. We went on to publish four books together.

Gaining the interest of an editor is huge, but it isn't the decisive step. While many editors are free to pick their own projects, they usually do not have the authority to approve the acquisition of a manuscript. That decision is made by a senior staff member called the publisher, or by a committee chaired by the publisher. My editor at Holt asked for two revisions to The Hollow Kingdom before she took it to the acquisitions committee. Her publisher wasn't all that fond of fantasy manuscripts, so my editor didn't want her to see ours until it was just about perfect. (Luckily for me, the publisher loved it.)

To do your best work, you need to have a rapport with your editor. You have to be able to trust and respect her. Sure, she loves your new manuscript, but she doesn't love everything about it. Before you agree to work with her, you should make sure you see eye to eye. Do her suggestions for revision make sense to you? Or will they transform your story into something you don't want it to become?

If authors have a distinctive writing voice, editors have a distinctive style, too. It comes from the kinds of projects they choose and the way they guide the editorial process. Editors have their pet peeves, favorite genres, most hated plot tricks, and emotional soft spots. All of this will combine to shift your writing in a particular direction. No two editors would edit a manuscript into the same book.

You need to learn as much as you can about what your editor has in mind for your manuscript before you sign a contract. But try to be open-minded. Yes, you love your manuscript, but that doesn't mean it can't improve. Your editor's ideas may be just what you need to push your work to the next level.

On the other hand, you don't have to accept every suggestion blindly. Some of the things your editor suggests may ruin what you have in mind for the book. If that's the case, don't blame your editor. Recognize that you've failed at this point to bring out these themes properly in the draft. Have a talk with your editor and explain what you're trying to get at here and why these suggestions aren't going to work. Hopefully, once she knows where you're trying to go, she can come up with new suggestions that will help you achieve your goals.

The more you know about the mechanics of fiction writing, the easier it will be to collaborate with your editor. She will justify her suggestions at, say, the line edit stage: "Tighter construction—stronger paragraph," for instance. You shouldn't just come back and say, "I like my way better." You need to be able to defend your choice with an intelligent argument: "Your change to this sentence creates a near rhyme: ‘home' and ‘tomb.' I've fixed it another way."

If your writing skills are weak, you may have the idea that a paid editor can fix your manuscript for you so you can sell it. That won't work. A paid editor may help you become a better writer if you work with him for a year, but he won't be able to mask weak writing and pass it off as anything else. Paid editors can clean up the gross errors, but they can't make poor writing feel anything other than clumsy and amateurish. Agents and publishers, who have thousands of manuscripts to choose from, will not take a chance on yours.

Why won't they take that chance? Because sooner or later, they know you will need to do rewrites to this manuscript. Your editor will send you a note like this: "Mr. X has too much face time for a minor character—restructure to cut down his scenes," or "I recommend changing from omniscient to limited POV throughout this chapter." You will have to know what to do with these suggestions. No paid editor can help you then. It'll just be you and the draft. If you want to be a professional, you'll have to learn to do the writing yourself.

To learn more about rewrites, as well as gain a better understanding of the work editors and authors do together, see my webpage about the process of revision.

Like agents, editors often form a relationship with an author that can last for years. This close partnership can feel like a marriage—for better or for worse. Here's hoping you find that perfect writing partner: an editor who challenges you, believes in you, and brings out the best in your work.

"Facts about Editors" copyright 2006 by Clare B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author is credited in a full citation.

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