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What is the true role of a fiction editor?

I was going to talk about showing and telling in this post, but I'll return to that next time. For now I want to discuss my role as an editor - not in an effort to sell my wares! - but in response to a social media thread I recently saw. The thread revealed a few misconceptions about what an editor of fiction actually does, and also about the areas of expertise required in an editor when it comes to editing fiction. (This post focuses on historical fiction, but it applies to all genres, really.)

I was the unwitting and anonymous subject of the social media thread. A writer I've worked with took to a writers' group on-line, and let off steam about their editorial report. I am in that particular group too, and I saw the post, realised it was about my work, and I read all the replies - some of which were rather bizarre. Some were nasty. There was sarcasm. Three or four comments were, thankfully, sensible. Some were deeply puzzling. Let's just say I ran a gamut of emotions. I was even in tears at one point. Then I stepped back, calmed down, thought about it, and reminded myself that none of it was personal, because the people on the thread had no idea who the person behind all this was. Once I calmed down proper I saw that this was in fact a useful experience, that rare fly-on-the-wall moment. So I asked myself, what can I learn from this? And what could writers learn? Please read on...

"This editor wasn't a good fit"

There were a lot of comments like this. I realised after a while that what was probably meant in this particular thread was "This editor didn't tell you what you wanted to hear". Hearing things you'd rather not hear is generally what happens when you get an edit or a manuscript assessment. It happens to all writers. You hope your editor won't notice things that perhaps you are aware of but don't want to face up to... a massive plot hole? A character not lifting off the page? Too many characters? Insufficient tension? Your protagonist doesn't have a goal? Too much research showing? It is the editor's job to point out these things. It's what you as the writer sign up for when you commission an edit or an assessment. What you don't sign up for is a yes-woman, somebody to tell you everything is fine, when it isn't. That's what your ego wants. But that would be poor value, and shoddy work on the part of the editor. Editors - indeed, all readers - couldn't give a fig for your ego, and neither should you. Please try not to allow your ego to dominate your response to editorial comments, corrections, questions, and bad news. Yes, it's hard to be told that a major novelistic aspect of our writing isn't yet in place. It's deflating, disappointing, even devastating, to be told something isn't working. But it's not the editor's fault, and your emotional reaction to this observation is not the editor's responsibility. Writers do have to develop a thick skin, I'm afraid. If you can't handle professional editorial input, respectfully and thoughtfully delivered by a skilled editor, how are you going to cope with repeated rejection? And, later, one star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads? Those that say "Meh!" or "Worst book I've ever read". Yes, you do need an editor who "gets" your style - you don't want any editor to over-correct or try to remove all of your idiosyncrasies. But that sensitive editor will also have to deliver some bad news, I'm afraid. (Editing calls for a fine balance, and it can be a difficult task.)

"The editor didn't understand your aims"

The gist with comments along these lines was that any editor not understanding a writer's "aims" is a failing on the editor's part. It's not. The truth is, editors don't need to understand your aims. We need to understand the words on the page. A writer's aims are their business, their issue, not the reader's, whether the reader is an editor, a literary agent, or a browser in Waterstones. The reader has before them a novel, let's say 80,000 words, no more, no less. We don't see your inspiration, your notes, your mood board, your abandoned early drafts, the ideas in your head. The editor's role is confined to assessing the words on the page. That's all we have, just like any other reader. Those words either work, or they don't, and the writer needs to know this. It is the editor's job to deliver the news, good or bad. Being told that something isn't working isn't an attack on your aims. It's an observation of the words on the page.

"The editor was too young"

It was conjectured by some that the editor was a youngster*. I found those comments mystifying. And the ageism is of course deeply troubling. A good editor can be any age. OK, an older editor may have had more practice at editing, and reading, and that's a fair comment. But a good editor really can be any age. It's to do with how well an editor understands fiction: a good editor knows how a novel works, and what a novel needs to do, and not do, if it is to "land" for readers. Being a good editor means being sensitive to, and aware of, story; it means being observant and objective, while at the same time being receptive to emotion... none of which has much to do with age; nor with theme, or setting, or historical period. Novels are set in all manner of times and places. The novel I worked on for the letting-off-steam client was set in a clearly defined era and place. It was very interesting to read, and the writer did a fantastic job of evoking the atmosphere. Whether it was accurate, I have no sure-fire way of knowing. But it worked in the story. It was novelistic, and accurate in story terms; and therefore that aspect of the novel "landed".

(*I'm 56.)

"You'd think the editor would understand there would be a lot of research"


"You need an editor who understands the era"

These were interesting, and many of the comments along these lines missed the point. I did criticise the writer's abundant research showing in their novel. I'm afraid historical novelists in particular are often very prone to allowing their research to take over, and, sometimes, these writers are deeply defensive about this aspect of their work. I've seen it dozens of times, and I get it. You love a certain period, or you've lived through it. It's inspired you to write a novel about it. You know a lot of stuff already, and you've relished researching even more. All good. But some historical novelists wrongly assume that their novel is about an era and a place. That is a mistake. A novel is about the characters who happen to live in an era and a place. It could be anywhere, any time. And the editor absolutely does not need to be an expert of any kind about that era or place, any more than a prospective reader needs to be. Many of the comments suggested I was too young to "understand" the novel. That's nonsense. I'm also too young to "understand" the Roman era, but I can still assess a novel set in that time. Setting is immaterial, from a fiction editor's point of view. Editors of fiction do not judge and, dare I say it, admire, the veracity of your research. What we look for is how much of your research has made its way into your novel; and we look for the skills you have used to weave into your writing the research that the novel can not do without. That is where an editor's expertise lies. So if an editor suggests that your novel contains too much research, it's wise to listen to that advice. It' s almost certainly correct, and right, and well-observed. It doesn't matter what the research is, or how it's presented: in dialogue, in long over-explaining passages, in info dumps, in letters. And it doesn't matter how much research you have done, or how much you love the era: you are not writing a history book. You are writing a novel: character, plot, pace, tension, conflict, dialogue, emotion, the personal. These are the fictional elements your editor looks for and comments on. Abundant, intrusive research (moving too far away from fiction and towards non-fiction) stuffed into a novel can damage all of these things, and more. It's incredibly valuable to be advised that this is happening in your novel.

So, there we are. My fly on the wall experience! I hope this is as useful to you as it's been to me. The thing is, and it can be a hard lesson to learn, is that almost all of us are not the writer we think we are, not at first, sometimes not for a long time. We are not as good as we hope. Actually, "good" isn't quite the right word. It's too subjective. Let's get back to that concept of control again: most of us are not in sufficient control of our writing. It's a bit like driving, if we are drivers: most of us are not the driver we think we are. We have developed bad habits, got lazy, perhaps we focus too much on the wrong things, or allow ourselves to be distracted. Writing is like that. And an edit or a manuscript assessment, by an editor who has a thorough understanding of how novels work (all novels, in any era, in any setting, of any genre), is worth its weight in gold. Yes, you are going to hear things you don't want to hear. Yes, you may well feel upset, and resentful, and angry. But that is your ego's take, and you have to learn to hush your ego when editing. You do need your ego in order to write, and to submit work... we all have to have a certain amount of belief in our ability... but when it comes to editing, turn your ego down. Turn it off. Don't listen to it. It will block so much that is valuable to you. Take criticism on the chin. If you don't or won't, you can't possibly grow into your talent. It's that simple. By all means question advice, if it's not clear or even if you disagree with it. A frank and clarifying discussion is healthy and useful for both writer and editor. But listen to what's been said and be honest with yourself about what it is the editor has seen. Remember, your editor is on your side. Your ego isn't.

I think that's it for this post. I do hope it's helpful. Writers who put their work up for scrutiny are brave, actually, so don't lose sight of that courage in yourself. Please also remember that editors sometimes have to be brave too, and tell you the truth. Hopefully at the end of the process, the writer ends up with a stronger piece of writing: the ultimate aim of both writer and editor.

Back soon with that promised show-and-tell stuff. It's a concept that is often misunderstood, a rather slippery fish. Hopefully I can help shed a bit of light on it.

Until next time,

Louise x


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