Whether writing short fiction or a novel length work, a new creative writing project can present a minefield of hurdles from initial blank page paranoia through chapter structuring terror until finally a satisfactory conclusion is reached and I type those ever-blessed words: The End (or ###.)
And then the real fun begins. Copy editing.
It’s never easy handing my brand-new baby over to a professional editor, even when I’d trust that editor with my soul. The new story is still so fresh, so delicate there’s a fear that if I jigger it too much, shift too many pieces, I may lose the vital essence that brought the story to vibrant life. I’m sure there are writers out there who are so knowledgeable about the craft of writing that they can grammatically dissect their stories into bits and then fit the tiny bits back together without a bobble, but I’m not one of them. When my story is as complete and polished as I can make it, I’m terrified that if I edit it too much it will end up looking like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, all patched up paragraphs with thick obvious sutures, a shaky house of cards that may come tumbling down with one harsh puff or worse: that I may change something vital that I can’t fix.
There’s a definite left brain/right brain thing going on with mystery writers, and I think it’s the difference between imagining whole new worlds and new characters (right-brain) versus developing plot points, twists, and logical conclusions (left-brain). This difference may explain why some writers are gifted “pantsers” (e.g., writing by the seat of your pants) versus gifted plotters (e.g., following a step-by-step story outline.)
I’ve decided that editors are neither one of these two types. They are an entirely separate and alien species. These folks take copy editing to another, higher level. They spot story flaws from outer space, from Mars. I also know that when an editor agrees to review my work that I need to throttle my fragile ego, calmly close my eyes, listen to their advice with an open ear and step off into the void, trusting that in the end all will be well and that they fundamentally do come in peace.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with an amazing professional editor. She gave me exactly one hour via a Zoom call to review three hurdles she identified in my story while at the same time offering such excellent fixes that I was in complete agreement with her from the start of our over caffeinated conversation. One of her suggestions was even so good, so much better than what I had written that I felt a twinge of professional jealousy that I hadn’t come up with it on my own. My only real difficulty was in accepting that my “final version” was really and truly final and that I couldn’t make any additional last-minute tweaking edits after I sent the “final version” off, probably some form of separation anxiety.
To be fair, any emails that I send out that start with “But, wait…” should be ignored.
In podcasts and at conferences you repeatedly hear that working with a professional editor is about developing a long-term relationship, that it’s never about one single book, that editors are looking for publishing career partners. What has your editorial experience been like?
I've been working with the same editor almost since the very start of my series. She left my publisher but agreed to freelance for me. I trust her so completely, I dread the idea of sending a book out into the world without her help.
Because I have been both traditionally published and self-published, I've worked with several different editors. Each had strengths and all improved my manuscripts. The one thing I could not tolerate was when an editor became a fan to the extent she stopped suggesting major changes that could improve the story. Editors can like, even love, my work, but they have to keep fandom out of their work product.
I treat working with a professional editor as a learning experience. And yes, I learn plenty!
Ah, yes. The absolutely essential editing process. When you find one you trust and with whom you can work well, stick with him/her if you can.
Annette, you're so lucky to have kept that continuity. I've been using the same initial beta readers, and I absolutely rely on them.
Jim, I agree that every editor I've used has improved my story. Sometime, when writing, I get too close to it (I know that sounds odd) but an editor can often catch a plot hole or character misstep that I've missed, and I'm grateful for their help. LOL My editors are always ready to suggest major changes to my work.
Hi Margaret, It is a learning experience. So is working with a professional graphic designer on the cover. It's so interesting to see how they perceive the story versus what I have in my mind. It adds a whole other bit of insight to the story.
KM, I completely agree. I try to explain to newbies that working with an editor isn't just about one book, it's about building a trusting long-term relationship that will make all of your books better. I believe the same thing goes for agents, and I know it goes for independent booksellers since I've been working with Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA for gosh, 16 years.
I’m still chewing on your very insightful distinction between pansters and plotters.
As for editors. my first editors are two members of this blog. I can always count on them to get me recentered and on track when my stories meander over much of South Florida. I also use a professional developmental editor for a final pass. She edited my work at Henery and thanks to a member of this blog, I have reconnected with her. She is invaluable to the process. Sounds like you have found an excellent editor as well. Kudos!
I have kept my same editor for all but one book. She is essential. All my books will go through her.
So true, Martha. I was lucky enough to meet my editor when she edited my first ever short story for a SINC anthology, and I've stuck with her ever since. I learn so much from each pass!
Hi Kait! Glad it gave you some insight. I'm both; I create a rough storyboard at the get-go with plot ideas but it's not a true outline. Sometimes, I'm as surprised by what my characters decide to do as my readers are. The tough thing about an editor for me (LOL) is that I need to remind myself it's not a competition and we both want what's best for the story. :)
Susan, how many books have you worked on together?
I've learned a lot from my publishers' developmental editors and love them. But copyeditors! Their attention to minute details like trailing white space and italicized or non-italicized commas following italicized words - amazing! And the stamina they have to do this through entire novels is breathtaking. If copyeditors were lace makers, they would make lace so fine and strong that spiders would hopelessly envy them.
Shari, I've worked with more than one editor, but I've kept the same graphic designer (Karen Phillips) since my first short story was published in the Pittsburgh SinC anthology, Lucky Charms. I love her work. It's a credit to the SinC organization that so many of us got our start and our first publishing credit with a SinC chapter anthology. I've been honored that one of my stores, The Honor Thief, was picked for the 2021 BCon anthology. Sha-zooey. I'm still in awe over that one.
Molly, lace making is a great analogy. I agree. I'm fairly good with grammar and punctuation, but inevitably some critical detail slips through. I had a real bomb in my last mystery, Love Power, that thankfully got caught. When she mentioned it, I thought 'no way,' but she was right. It pays to listen.
Great post, Martha. New writers don't always understand how important a good editor is. You can't give a manuscript to a good friend to proofread. For my first two books, I had the same editor, who was very gentle with me. The editor I had for my third book came at me with blazing guns. It took me a while to get over my distress. But when I finished rewriting, I had to admit it was a better book.
Hi Grace - You're right, and I think that in the flurry of getting published that new writers may not hear that finding and working with an editor is another fully complete step in the process. I know that when I get my manuscripts back (marked with copy edits) I need to seriously slow down and think each remark or comment through, which is difficult because at the point I desperately want to get it done.
Thanks for this post, Martha! I've learned to always, always trust my editor.
Hi Jennifer - I've learned to trust my editors, too. I do think though they should get combat pay for working with me. LOL
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