In Praise Of Editors

Like everyone else, we here at Olivia Waite have been hearing a lot about Amanda Hocking. About half the posts were about how self-publishing is a flash in the pan, and the other half were about how the Bix Six should be shivering in their skyscrapers. And Amanda Hocking herself stepped forward and said, "Whoa, I may be Amanda Hocking but I'm no Amanda Hocking," the way that Cindy Crawford once wished that she too could look like Cindy Crawford. Because hype is contagious, and everybody wants to predict the future, especially if they can make money doing so. And then—Amanda Hocking signs with St. Martins, and the book-related internet loses their shit.

And I thought to myself, "That's nice—she won't have to take time to search for freelance editors anymore."

Lo and behold! That is No. 2 on her list of reasons:

Readers complaints about the editing of my books. I have hired editors. Many, many editors. And I know that I can outsource editing, but I'm clearly doing a really shitty job of picking editors.

It's nice to be right about something every once in a while.

A slim, shiny blue skirt on a mannequinn.

This past September, I signed my very first publishing contract with Ellora's Cave—and with that contract, there came an editor. Part of me was excited, and part of me was terrified. Even newbies like me know there is more to editing a book than saying, "You need more/fewer/the appropriate number of commas, but otherwise it's fine." Fiction manuscripts are never fine.  (For the record, I had way too many commas. Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? This gal.)

And in fact my editor, the luminous Meghan Conrad—hi, Meghan!—wanted to see the story expanded a little. So I did that, very nervously, but as well as I knew how. And then, almost before I knew it, I had the whole manuscript back in my inbox, full of edits and comments.

I opened it.

At this point, one thing became very clear:

Editors are magic. They are geniuses. They are an oasis in the writerly desert. For all our bravado and confident self-promotion, writers know there are flaws in the book. There are two-pants removals in books that are not a menage. There are typos of unspeakable wrongness, like that time I found "bollocks" in place of "buttocks." On the heroine. During a spanking scene.

And those are just the little things—there's bound to be larger issues. Scenes that fall flat. Under- and over-reactions from characters. A deflated plot structure that needs to be rebuilt. Editors—I'm going to use italics because even now I am still excited about this—editors tell you where all the weak spots are so you can shore them up.

And: they know where all the strong spots are and they'll tell you about those, too, if you're fortunate.

I knew that there were comments and changes I could push back on if I felt strongly enough about them. But every note left me slapping myself upside the head, yelling, "Of course! She's right!" And then I'd type a few new sentences, or break out the thesaurus, or put the pants back on the ground where they belonged.

There was attention to the level of the word, the sentence, the scene, and the story, all at once. It damn near brought tears to my eyes. All I had to do was fix things. And then, at the end, when I went through it all again in one big rush with comments turned off—it was so plainly better that I was astonished. Did I really write this? This is a book I can tell people about! This is a book whose praises I can sing!

{In fact, this book, "Generous Fire," came out this week! It's hot enough to scandalize my friends and make them use words like "intense" and blush when they tell me they've read it.}

It is as though in writing my manuscript I have spent all day cooking, fixing a multi-course meal with a marinated entrée and a complicated side salad and a really insanely ambitious batch of homemade ice cream. There is planning—consider a shopping list an outline, if you will—and timing to consider, and whether or not you have the proper utensils, or whether you need a crème brûlée torch or a more comprehensive understanding of nineteenth-century undergarments (both, as it turned out).

The editor is the person who tells you the burner under your custard is running too hot, or the oven needs more time to pre-heat. She is the one who tastes your marinade and says it's brilliant, or that it needs a little more of this or that spice to be really full and balanced. You couldn't have noticed these things on your own because you are too busy running around, chopping vegetables and melting things in double boilers. You are caught in the chaos. Your editor keeps you from bouncing off the walls and slicing off your own fingers in the process.

And then we get to sit down and actually eat all that stuff. And it tastes so much better, because so much care went into its preparation, and because there is more than one person at the table.

But it doesn't happen—it can't happen—without a good editor. This is not a thing writers can do for themselves.

And I think—with the caveat that, again, I'm new to the industry—I think that it's more likely to happen with an editor at a publishing house than a freelance editor.

This is not to say all freelance editors are bad editors, and all editors at publishing houses are brilliant. It's the nature of the business relationship that matters.

A freelance editor has an author as a client, and so the freelance editor's motivation is to satisfy the author-client as best they can. The editor at a publishing house wants to make the book as salable as they can for readers, in line with their house style and content and quality. An editor at a publishing house is also much more likely to be immersed in the industry network, as well—they are more likely to be in step with the flow and flux of genre trends, and to have talked to other authors and editors about them.

I don't need to tell you that making an author happy is not equivalent to making a book salable.

And that was important to me, to know that Meghan's highest priority was not to make me happy with her comments. (It's a priority, because it works better when we work together, but we both know it's not the priority.) Meghan's top priority was getting this book into pristine shape. Which—yes, totally, let's do that. Let's make this book as strong as it possibly can get in a reasonable amount of time. In Meghan's perfect phrase: let us collaborate to increase awesomeness.

Let's make this book sound good to readers, other authors, and the entire world—because much as I love writing I don't do it solely for my own amusement. I do it because something magical happens when someone reads a book that hits them just right, and I want to be the one to give that to readers the way that so many authors have given that to me.

It's thanks to Meghan that I can nourish this hope.

My first book was dedicated to my husband, who is brilliant and warm and lets me keep him awake to talk about story ideas, and not always in the fun way. My second book—which Ellora's Cave has just purchased—will be dedicated to my editor, Meghan, because she is brilliant and warm and helps me be the best writer I know how.