Dear Editor Please Note

hand writing a letter to editor with a goose feather

Dear Editor . . .

Whoever you are, wherever you are, Dear Editor, this blog is for you. You’ll find it’s somewhere between a  human resources case study and a love letter.

I’ve been writing most of my life. I’ve moved from “Not a semi colon goes” (end of conversation, book never published) to “Whatever you say” (utter misery, nearly stopped writing) and am now definitely at “Looking forward to discussion”.  I hope the following may help other authors and their Dear Editor avoid some of my pratfalls — or at any rate, get up afterwards a damn sight faster.

Relationship in the mist

Whether you’re a difficult author or a pussycat, the author-editor relationship is always edgy, groping its way through the mist. You can’t get away from it. There are just too many dark alleys and water’s edges. You think you’re striding along a good straight path of mutual understanding and — KERPLOP!

Both of you have to live with this.
And pull each other out of the water when necessary.

Editor-author relations like fog in Venice

Editor Fears Author

Oliver Johnson, who has edited the wonderful Lindsey Davis’s books for twenty-eight years and thirty books, admitted recently on the BBC’s Radio 4 Front Row (12th April 2016) that whenever he goes to visit her for an editing day, he is “still nervous”. This is notwithstanding the fact that she moved publishers when he did. TWICE. 

OK, the first time she was encouraged by him making her what she calls “a huge offer”. But the second time, she had to think very carefully. Davis says it was the right moment for her; she wanted a change. But she could have seized the opportunity to escape from Johnson’s interference, with his demands for “more bodies, more bodies” and arguments over her titles.

Does this plot work? asks the editor

Why didn’t she?

Because he’s the Ur Reader. “Every time, I have to think of the new reader,” he says.

She agrees he’s taught her about plotting.

They’re complementary.

Author Fears Editor

This is visceral. Frequently irrational. No amount of good manners, good wine or even Knowing Stuff About Each Other trumps that elemental terror of exposing the beloved work to the steely gaze of — well, anyone who doesn’t love your characters as you do, really.

Female writer resting at her workplace with hands behind her head. Almost ready for Editor

I have been very lucky.

In my writing career I have had at least four Dear Editors. One became a truly close friend, but that is not essential. With all of them I worked like an angel on amphetamines. Couldn’t wait to finish to get the ms into their hands. Couldn’t wait for their response. Couldn’t wait to do the edits. And I flew.

BUT — even that isn’t all good. You run the risk of becoming dependent. Of course, you don’t have to. Lindsey Davis talks gleefully of putting things into her books to challenge Editor Oliver. I haven’t got that far, but I’ve certainly said, “Not my bag” to some editorial suggestions. Eventually.

What is more difficult — for both parties — is that the Editor is, by tradition, an authority figure. Most thinking people aren’t wild about people who tell them what to do.

When editors are giving you their employer’s requirements, this is fair enough, even if sometimes hard to swallow. But, I have to admit, some take it too far. The author starts to feel they’re treating your novel like marking homework. One friend of mine started to refer to her then editor as The Headmistress.

A hand hitting paper with a hammer stress expression - Editors!

Hammer, anyone?

Another good way to feed authorial terrors is to make promises and then not keep them — no responses by time agreed, no promised phone calls, even just no info at all, for months and months. The editor, pivoting between management, meetings and manuscripts, can easily lose track, of course. But the author, without those distractions and waiting for a response, is in a constant state of pre-fight or flight. It makes us grumpy. And eventually turns us into Difficult Author Who Goeth About Seeking Whom She May Devour.

And then some editors — God knows why — want you write quite another book, their book, full of fantasy revenge, the idyllic love story, the whispering wizard that their own subconscious keeps offering them in their dreams. But those are just ingredients, uncooked. Dear Editor, face it. You need to write that damn book yourself.

And dear Fellow Author, there is only one thing to do, in a case like this.

Walk away.  RUN.

Author to Editor -- I'm outta here.

I’m outta here

Dear Editor, please will you …

These days many skilful editors are freelance. The self-published author (which I am now; wheeee!) needs an editor. I am certain of that. So we have to brief them, in exactly the way that their old employers or new publisher clients brief them. “Just tell me how to make it better” doesn’t really cut the mustard.

The self-publisher and the freelance editor have one common goal: to make the book as unputdownable as it possibly can be. But they come at it from different directions. The author wants to reflect the truth of the characters, in all their intensity and confusion. The author has spent large amounts of time and passion on this. The editor is the First, Best Reader. Readers Want To Know What Happens. So . . .

Dear Editor, please will you

  • tell me what you don’t understand in my ms
  • Paper and technology for editors and authorstell me where you’re bored
  • tell me where you want more
  • tell me where you recoil in disgust or loathing (Yes, I know this is going to be tough for both of us, but I need to know. I’ll be brave.)
  • And, please, please, please, tell me what you like in it. If the layout is the only thing you feel able to praise, say so. I promise I shall take the point.

The Love Letter Bit

Well, I did say that was part of this blog. Nothing embarrassing, but I’d like to say thank you to some of the editors I’ve worked with, whose remembered advice has kept me writing when I feared I’d lost it entirely. And of course the late, great, Jacqui Bianchi, she of the “Give me firelight. Give me emeralds. Give me ginger, hot in the mouth,” which I have mentioned on this blog before.

You probably don’t remember, dear, dear Editors. The ideas you shared, which I’ve hung onto like talismans (talismen?), were all just part of the day job to you. And probably to me too, at the time, to be fair. But they have proved lights through a very dark wood.

Fantasy tree house in forest Editor leads author there

Dear Editor, never underestimate your power to inspire.

16 thoughts on “Dear Editor Please Note

  1. Sue McCormick

    Your mention of editors who want authors to write the editor’s book reminded me of the legendary SF editor John Campbell. He successfully did that. He would discuss and plot with several authors to see what would return to him for publishing in his magazine.

    To be fair to both Campbell and his authors, what he was offering was plot situations. He often received several completely different stories based on that situation. And in general he just sat back and accepted those offerings. I never heard that he ever told an author “that is not what I had in mind at ALL.” Authors I have met who worked with Campbell have all praised him as a good editor. He wasn’t doing what you discussed. But the author might try convincing their intrusive editors to turn to Campbell’s direction.

  2. rosgemmell

    Great post and some very pertinent points, thank you! I’ve had three American editors and one British editor so far for different small publishers and while I learned a lot from all, I now appreciate the differences between them – and not only because of the US/UK divide! One wanted me to change some of my sentences to fit a more US style and one persuaded me to add a new character I had no previous intention of including. It’s been a great learning curve, however, and now that I have the rights back for a couple of those books, I’ve taken pleasure in redrafting some of the sentences. I don’t have the rights to the one with the added character yet so I’m not sure if I’ll ever bother changing that one – I’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

  3. Sophie Post author

    I agree with you Ros. You can learn a lot from editors’ comments. And making changes can be highly enjoyable when you’re responding to a specific question or comment. I suppose it helps you focus

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    I’ve had some horrors and some wonderful editors too. My take on it is if the editor found it necessary to mention it, then something needs to change. Not necessarily to what the editor suggests, however. Usually it just needs clarifying or deleting, I’ve found. I stopped being precious about my work years ago. There’s always more where that came from. But editors have also stopped me in my tracks and I then haven’t written for months. It’s a tough one. The best editors urge and suggest rather than demand. But one should never be afraid to fight one’s corner at need.

  5. Sophie Post author

    It’s a high risk relationship, Liz. No question.

    I think it’s quite important for both sides to recognise when they’re not complementary and call it quits sooner rather than later.

  6. amorinarose

    I’m ready to publish but haven’t as of yet gotten myself and editor. Costs are a big factor and fear the other. I don’t know where to start. Your post was delightful and full of warmth. Still fearing but smiling also.

    1. Sophie Weston

      Finding an editor for yourself must be difficult. You have my sympathy. The only way to do it is to ask around and identify a few names. Maybe follow them on Twitter or Facebook for a while, see if they know your genre and seem likely to “get” your writing. Remember you’re not looking for a new best friend, you want someone with the right skill set and experience.

      Sympathise on the cost front. But they’ll generally tell you what it will cost before you start. Speaking for myself, it’s the one area on which I would really not economise.

      1. Helen Stevens

        Really interesting post!
        Re: finding an editor. As well as asking around and checking social media, you can find suitably qualified editors via the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (mainly UK; other countries have similar organisations). The SfEP has an online directory, so you can search for those who specialise in your chosen genre: All the editors and proofreaders in the directory have achieved a level of professional competence (judged on experience, training and client references), so it does take *some* of the guesswork out of the process.

  7. ruralwifie

    While waiting for my favourite authors to publish their new books for me to devour I occasionally drift through the Amazon kindle free books and find something that I think I will enjoy. Sometimes it is worthwhile and I find a new [to me] author who I go on to follow when his/her later books are the more normal price. However I have started [but seldom finished] a lot of absolute drivel, many books with good story lines and ideas but all sadly missing an editor. Overindulgent prose, incorrect historical information, incorrect historical language,geographical and other inconsistencies, and a lot of good stories ruined by Greengrocers’ apostrophes. Editors are more essential than ever in this time of self-publishing.

  8. Sophie Post author

    Strictly speaking The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe is the business of the copy editor, along with fact checking and internal consistency. But most editors I know would point it out, along with comments on where the story wanders off track. Some forcefully.

    And I know what you mean about over-indulgent prose. It can obscure what is actually going on and it always holds up the action. I tell myself regularly: beware of Faine Wraitin’!

  9. katyhayewriter

    This struck so many chords! As a self-published writer I’m delighted to have an editor I trust. But even in just two books (third underway!) I am aware of a creeping desire to “please”. Fortunately, that means I can guard against it. The editor isn’t a teacher and we both have the same object: serving the story. I can’t attribute this as I can’t remember who I got it from, but I heard the editing process described beautifully as “finding the heart of the story”. That’s what we do. Together.

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