In two weeks’ time, my first professional sale in over a decade will be in the hands of readers. This post is one of a series of articles about the process of writing that book, and others.
Partners in Fiction:
I’ve been talking a lot about the creative process lately, and about the decisions that go into the elements of your story. Today, I want to bring other people into the discussion, those unsung heroes that make a writer seem a lot smarter than they really are.
Your choice of editor is one of the most important things that will ever happen to your story, and it’s rarely one you get to make on your own.
Most writers finish their masterpiece (or abandon, in some schools of thought), wrap it up in a cover letter and then send it out into the world to “Dear Sir.” Many times out of many, these submissions must traverse a gauntlet known as the Slush Pile.
The Slush Pile is where bestsellers go to die. Stories that were topical and insightful in their infancy are often old and tired by the time they reach the top of an editor’s reading list. When funny becomes cliche, and visionary becomes derivative, these stories die a sadly well-deserved death before ever making it in front of their target audience.
There are several ways to avoid this soul-crushing fate. The first is never to submit, because “they’ll never accept this anyway.” Like winning the lottery, the odds are indeed slim that an unsolicited manuscript will see publication, But in the same vein, you have to buy a ticket to claim the jackpot.
A lot of tickets.
Self-publishing is also a way out for a story. While this has yielded fantastic results for truly talented authors, Publishing an unedited manuscript is the literary equivalent of setting your tickets on fire before the numbers are revealed. Or more accurately, while the balls are spinning in the machine.
Everybody needs an editor. Especially editors. In my slush reading days, I dealt with best-selling authors, best friends, friends of friends, and “that guy you met at that convention one time, probably while you were drunk.”
Before I move on to the part which will upset all the people who don’t believe they need an editor, let me stress this point.
Everybody needs an editor. Ev. Ry. Bod. E.
I’ve asked a pretend friend of mine to step in here and make his views known.
Hey, Gary Oldman. Who needs an editor?
Thanks Gary Oldman. I loved you in all those movies where you didn’t try to kill people.
Don’t believe me? I present to you Exhibit A. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
An editor’s job is not to write your story for you. It’s you help you discover the story you’ve already written. If an editor passes on a manuscript, it’s because they either can’t help you improve it, or it’s not right for them at that time. It doesn’t mean it won’t sell, but it’s not likely to sell to that editor in the future either.
The good news is that there are more editors out there, and the better news is that there are editors who can help you with your story that aren’t interested in publishing it. These noble individuals care about the same thing you do: getting paid. And they’re absolutely essential to the pre-Oldman scenarios above. Finding the right one of these is also important, and like any other professional, the best ones have a long list of happy customers to recommend them.
But how to find that elusive editor who wants your story? The best way is to write a story that simply cannot be ignored. As my own well documented efforts attest, this is not always as easy as it seems. There are a lot more writers than editors out there, and the editors see a lot of good stories. The great ones always stand out, much like great writers distinguish themselves from the merely good ones.
When people talk to successful writers, there are several questions that always get asked. Among these is “how did you get your big break.” More often than not, the answer to this is some variation of “A friend of mine showed my manuscript to X/ X asked me for my book after talking to me.” This happens to the successful writer because they are already a successful person. Not in terms of money or literary accolades, but because they are the kind of person who attracts other successful people, and it always pays off.
It follows then that the best way to avoid the Slush Pile is to develop a relationship with an editor that has little to do with your fiction at all. Don’t badger them with submissions after a single conversation in a crowded room. Don’t attempt to bribe them with drinks, or cookies, or cash money. Listen to them speak, when they’re not speaking to you. Be a person worth listening to yourself, the person inside you that’s capable of writing good stories in the first place, before your head and mouth screw them up.
And the editor you have to impress is all of them. You rarely know exactly who is going to evaluate your story, so when meeting them in the wild try to remember that the person you’re speaking to might someday be your best friend. Editors talk to each other about stories just like writers do. If you’ve done your best job at being you, a story that might not work for one of them may find its way in front of one that does.
In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about how Hearts of Iron originated, and how much better it became with the help of four very important people whose last names are “, Editor.”