Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pre-Hiring an Editor

by Holly West

Sometimes, writing a mystery feels like juggling. You start with one or two balls, casually tossing them in the air and catching them with relatively little trouble. By act two, you've added a couple more, then, by the end of act three, you're juggling so many you feel sure you'll drop one. And the truth is, you probably will. That's what editors are for--to help you find those dropped balls.

Over the last few weeks, I invited several of my author friends to write guest posts for my Wednesday spot. The reason was two-fold: first, I really wanted to hear from some new voices (i.e. voices that weren't mine) and thought my audience would, too. Second, I recently "pre-hired" a freelance editor to edit my new novel, hence giving myself a self-imposed but solid deadline.

Honestly, I don't know why I didn't think of doing that before. This book is important for me (well, I suppose they all are) in that it will be my first non-historical mystery and the first book I'll give to my agent to shop. I've known all along that I'd have it edited professionally before I turned it over to said agent. The question has always been when.

You've heard me whine more than once about how long it's taken me to finish this damned book. I've written a book (MISTRESS OF LIES) on deadline before and even though I complained constantly about having to do it, I got it done on time (ish). It occurred to me that I could treat this current book as if it were under contract, even if it's not. Hire the editor and set a firm deadline by which it had to be finished. Sure, I was taking a chance, but it's provided just the motivation I need. I'm on track to finish the novel well before my deadline so that I'll have a few weeks to revise and polish before it goes to my editor. Just like when I wrote a MISTRESS OF LIES.

Back to what I was saying about juggling. I'm at about 60k and heading into act three. There's a yellow legal pad next to me and every day I start with a list called "Balls in the Air." I write down the plants that need pay offs, the red herrings that need explanation (or not) and basically, the issues that still need to be resolved for a satisfactory ending. I know I'm going to drop one (or three) of those balls but I try not to let that knowledge bother me. By the time this book is out in the world those loose ends will have been found and tied.

While I was writing my first novel, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, I never intended to hire an editor. I thought I'd polish it myself and then when it sold I'd have an editor with the publishing house. Clearly, I was nothing if not rosy-eyed and optimistic back then. After a year or more of rejection, I thought maybe I'd self-publish and I hired an editor. She had experience at a couple of the big houses and said that while she understood why I might want to self-publish, she thought the book could get a traditional offer. In the end, of course, I didn't self-publish, but that professionally edited manuscript was the one that scored me my deal.

Do I need to have my current manuscript edited before I send it to my agent? Maybe not. I have more experience now and I'm confident I could polish it up real purty myself. But the fact is, if I decided to self-publish this or future titles, I'd never send them out into the world without having them professionally edited and copyedited. How does having an agent make that any different? Shouldn't I put my best foot forward from the very start? I expect my agent will have feedback regardless, but I'd rather give her the best possible work I can from the get go.

It does make me think about just how much of the responsibility in the publishing process is piled onto authors, even those who don't plan to self-publish. It wasn't always like this, was it? At the recent California Crime Writers Conference a fellow author whose under contract told me he had his work professionally edited before he sent it to his editor at the publishing house. He went on to mention two other high profile authors who do the same thing.

It wasn't as though he was trying to convince me that all writers need to do this or that writers who don't are shirking their responsibility in some way. We were just having casual a chat about writing and publishing and these were offhand comments. I thought it was interesting, nonetheless.

I really want to hear what y'all think about this subject. I know you have opinions so let 'em rip.


Eileen said...

Really interesting stuff to think about, Holly! Here's what makes me nervous: what if the editor you hire isn't simpatico with the editor that might buy your work and steers you in the wrong direction. Let's face it. A LOT of how people react to a book is subjective. If someone had asked me to take a look at Fifty Shades of Grey before it was sent out, I would have told her that it needed an awful lot of work before anyone would take a second look at it. I would have had a lot of good and solid reasons from my experience and years of studying genre fiction. I would have been dead wrong. Maybe I would have even spoiled it. Maybe it wouldn't have ever sold if I'd had my wicked way with it.

OTOH, there is very little time for editing by editors at traditional houses these days.They're not as likely to take a book that has potential, but still has problems. There's no time for it. Another set of professional eyes on a project before it sashays out into the big bad world might help you catch the kinds of problems that would keep it from selling.

So . . . as always, I don't know. Still, a really interesting set of issues to consider.


Unknown said...

Great post, Holly. I hired an editor before I sent the final version of my debut novel to the publisher. It was as much for my own peace of mind as it was for polishing the manuscript. Very happy with the decision.

Holly West said...


That's something I never even considered (still don't) but now that you mention it, it's a valid concern, for sure. You have far more experience than I do and I bow to it.

Once each of my books went to my in-house editor, there was really very little story editing to be done. Which makes me think (possibly erroneously) that those editors don't offer much in the way of developmental editing. Of course, that's one house and one editor so I really have very little experience.

As Steve says below, I'm mostly doing this for my peace of mind and also, it's somewhat in lieu of beta readers. I'll have a few trusted readers read it before I send it to my agent, but my editor will see it before they do.

Scott D. Parker said...

Both books I independently published went through editing. The third has already been edited and I've lined her up for the next one already. First impressions are everything. I'd say that yeah, it would be a good idea to pre-edit.

Unknown said...
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Bryon Quertermous said...

To Eileen's comment, this is where an author needs to have a very specific goal in mind for the project BEFORE hiring an editor. If you truly want to submit the manuscript to agents and editors for traditional publishing then use an editor who has worked in traditional publishing. They will not only be able to edit the manuscript but help you tailor it to the very specific traditional publishing market for your genre. I edit differently for authors who want to go the traditional route than those who want to self-publish.

The problem is too many authors lie to themselves. They say they want to self-publish and tell the editor they want to publish so the project is edited free of most market thinking and with the goal of developing a really interesting and specialized story. But what they author REALLY wants is to self publish only to have the manuscript discovered by a traditional publisher and bypass the hard work of the submission process. But since the book was never edited with traditional publishing in mind it will almost always fail to succeed in either self publishing or traditional because the author had no idea which way was the true path for the book.

The rare case of that happening though is 50 Shades. Eileen is correct that no editor would see that book come across a slush pile and buy it, but it didn't come across the slush pile. By the time Vintage won the rights to publish it the book had been making millions of dollars already as a self-published fluke that hit and exactly the right time and exactly the right place. But an author trying to replicate that is bound for failure.

Eric Beetner said...

Interesting. I think Eileen has a very good point.
For me, it comes down to feeling ownership in a book a pride in the story. It's important to differentiate between story editing and copy editing. I agree that anything self published should go through a pro editor. Absolutely. To me, and only me because everyone works their own way - if a book needs help with plotting problems or dropped balls as you say, then the editor is becoming a co writer, in a way. If someone has an idea that fixes act three, then what's the difference between that and writing with another author who serves the same job?
I guess because I hold writing close to me as the one area in my world where I don't need to take input from anyone I don't want to that I never liked the idea of opening a work up to outside input. I want my work to live and die on its own merits (and they often die there, believe me) The difference is when a publisher wants to release a book and put their time, effort and money into my book, then they can suggest anything they want to change or fix. I can always say no and walk away with my book in hand and it may never see the light of day. (For the record I've made significant changes on some stuff and never regretted a thing)
You're right in that mystery writing is a complicated tangle of plots and macguffins sometimes. This is when I advocate for outlines and pre-production work. Those issues should be figured out (I think) ahead of time. That's what writing is. I guess I'd feel disingenuous if I put something out there with my name on it knowing that someone else fixed a major issue that would have gotten the book either rejected or criticized or laughed out of town because of a big plot hole or such.
But you know me, Holly, ever the maverick. Ever the small press writer. You're certainly doing it right for you, especially if it gives you confidence in your work. And I assume you're not flinging anything out there with major plot problems that someone would have to solve for you. Goodness knows I've sent stuff where a characters name has changed along the way and crap like that that you just can't see when you're in the deep, dark woods of your own book.

Holly West said...

Eric Beetner this makes me want to have lunch with you so bad! I should've never left LA.

Anyway, I do think of my editors as partners in the work and if my editor helps me fix a plot problem, God Bless Her. I'm still the architect and builder of my work. But I'm also acknowledging that I'm not perfect at what I do. In some ways, an editor serves the same purpose as beta readers--albeit paid. I've had suggestions from beta readers that I incorporated into the manuscript. One, in fact, was a pretty big plot point at the end of Mistress of Fortune, in fact.

Eric Beetner said...

If the end result is a better experience for the reader, then we should all use whatever works. I've certainly always appreciated a more thorough edit. I don't mind questioning anything in a book and if I don't have a satisfactory answer, then it should change or get cut.

Jeri Westerson said...

I just hired an editor for a paranormal book that got rejected to a significant number of publishers. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with it and I even worked on it with my agent before he sent it out, but there were still issues, and the notes we got back from publishers confirmed them. But I was too close to it, too many rewrites, and couldn't really put my finger on the problem. So I hired a freelance editor. Though I've only had time to go through the notes so far (I'm finishing up another ms) I think she nailed a lot of the issues. And though I don't agree with some points of plot she suggested changing here and there, she really helped me pinpoint those areas I need to rework before we send it out for its second round. And to the person who worried about a freelance editor not meshing with a publisher editor, here's the thing. I'm the final word. And when I see the notes the freelancer made and I'm nodding my head a lot, that means something. That means that something clicked in ME. And once I go back and address those issues, and it goes to a publisher who (hopefully) picks it up, there will likely be no diametric opposition, because I will have sanded down the rough patches and made it a seamless piece. That's what an acquisition editor will be buying; the (mostly) finished product. They wouldn't pick it up otherwise.

Holly West said...

That's a very good point, Jeri. I might've believed at first that I could sell my book to an editor w/out it being perfect, but now I very much feel that it's got to be as polished and as you say, seamless, as possible before an editor will buy it. Certainly before an agent will rep it.