Monday, April 14, 2008

In Praise of Editors

by Nancy Martin

My latest book (Murder Melts in Your Mouth, the 7th Blackbird Sisters Mystery) was released a month ago, and we’ve been enjoying good sales. I say “we” intentionally, because no successful book could possibly be the work of one person. In my case, there’s my critique partner, my blog sisters, my readers, my family, my agent and her various colleagues, my publisher and the house staff, and last but certainly not the least--my editor.

In my twenty-eight-year writing career I’ve had nine editors (and three agents, five publishers) so I’ve had good and not-so-good experiences. Recently, I asked a few friends what they felt about editors. We came up with a list of good qualities in the person who buys, edits and shepherds a book through the publishing process. Here’s our list in no particular order:

1. A good editor has the people skills to make an author feel smart. And clever. And writerly. Not to mention confident and talented with skills and a creative mind that needs to be nurtured, but also occasionally whipped into shape. An editor can truly build an author into a powerhouse bestseller—or break her into a muddle of melted self-esteem. But the author must stand up for herself if she’s being treated unfairly or impolitely. Don’t be a victim.
2. A good editor is a good communicator. Whether the news is good or bad, she writes or phones promptly and doesn’t pussyfoot. She gives you all the information in her power to give: print runs, sales figures, returns, remainders—the works. It’s up to the author to ask the important questions sometimes, however, so an author should educate herself to be an equal in the partnership, not a supplicant. Plus the author has to learn to take bad news like a grown-up. Otherwise, you’re just asking to be treated like a child.
3. A good editor brings creative ideas to the table. “You know how the first plot point doesn’t work? You need to come up with something else.” That’s not helpful editorial input. But brainstorming—that can be fun as well as useful for the book and the longterm author-editor relationship. On the other hand, an editor who’s a frustrated writer can spoil the book and undermine an author’s confidence. It’s the author’s job to draw out the editor’s best ideas, but stop short of taking a collaborator.
4. A good editor edits for content and clarity. Once she gets her red pencil out, she’s the last person (after your critique group or your husband or your mom or whoever else reads your manuscripts) who can honestly tell you when stuff doesn’t make sense or the theme isn’t clear or the story wanders long before a reviewer or bookseller or reader claps eyes on it. An editor who skips this step isn’t doing the author any favors, so the author must learn to accept criticism for its intended purpose—to improve the book.
5. A good editor copy-edits. I’ll never forget the moment I—a former English teacher who thought I knew my trade--opened my first copy-edited manuscript and discovered all the red marks the copy editor had inflicted on the “perfect” pages I had rewritten and revised a dozen times. What an education! A good copy editor is golden. Again, she’s one who will save you from embarrassment and frustration, because there are plenty of readers who will hunt you down like a dog to point out the smallest errors in your published book.
6. A good editor is an author’s champion “in-house.” She’s the one who pitches your book to the art department for the cover, at the editorial meetings and the marketing meetings and at sales conference. She’s your cheerleader. If your editor doesn’t throw herself behind your book to the people who will market and sell it, you’re doomed to lousy sales, disappointing sell-through and—oh, dear—possibly the end of contracts. Give her all the ammunition she needs to do her job.
7. A good editor is ruthless in her pursuit of quality. If she wants your book to be the best possible product, her determination can be contagious. You’ll work harder because she’s encouraging you to produce the best writing you can manage. Are those endless revision letters frustrating? Yes, but not as frustrating as the alternative.
8. A good editor has an appreciation for books and language. Some of my favorite conversations are with agents and editors, talking about books. I’ve learned a lot.

Naturally, most writers don’t have a choice when it comes to editors—not at the beginning of our careers. But as you get a few books under your belt and develop your skills and your business savvy, you can better participate in the process of choosing who you want to work with.

Until then, you take your chances. Out of nine editors, I’ve had only two not-so-great experiences. In both cases, I was part of the problem. Since then, I’ve had a couple of tremendous editors who have challenged me, partnered with me, bolstered me and otherwise helped me become the writer I am today. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
Nancy Martin is a Sisters In Crime Member at Large.

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