What Authors REALLY Want…from their Editors

While all of us love books, in the end, no matter how beautiful, books are just things. That’s why the beating heart of Girl Friday will always be the author–editor relationship. After all, authors and editors are some of the first people animating those self-same stories before any print lands between the covers.

The most rewarding part of my editing career has been spent as a serial monogamist in working with a handful of writers. Working on multiple projects together is like any LTR: You build a sort of shorthand that improves the flow and eases the give-and-take. You trust each other more, so delivering the hard messages isn’t as hard. You know each other’s quirks and sensibilities, and accept them with more generosity. You get to have fun. For me, working with Sarah Fine is one of those relationships. The author of eighteen fantastic novels, Sarah writes everything from YA to fantasy romance. Sarah is a writer’s writer—meticulous, thoughtful. She’s also funny as hell and a wonderful editorial partner. Given that GFP is celebrating our tenth anniversary, and that Sarah and I are lined up to work on our tenth book together, it seemed like kismet. I asked Sarah for her perspective on the most intimate details of the author–editor relationship, and this is what she said—uncensored!

We are coming up on celebrating the tin anniversary of our editorial relationship—and yet we’ve never met (we’ll have that drink someday). What is it like for you as an author to have this type of intimate cyber relationship? How do you navigate that?

My work with editors, as well as my work with my agent, is nearly all done online, so it’s something I’ve gotten used to in my years in publishing. As far as our relationship specifically, talking on the phone during key times has really helped. A compassionate, thoughtful editorial letter is still just that—a detailed description of things I’ll need to improve and (ideally) a rationale for why—so being able to hear the kind reassurance of my editor in the aftermath can be a godsend. It’s also useful because the back-and-forth is obviously much more immediate . . . and much more human in terms of the connection.

How do you think editors and writers work best together? Are there any hard-and-fast rules, or does it vary from relationship to relationship?

Well, I think the first and possibly only definite rule is that there has to be mutual respect and trust, and encompassed within that is honest (but tactful and empathic) communication. I think so much of the rest is individually negotiated in terms of preferences for the tone, style, directness, and detail of communication. I know I work better with some editors than others, and that’s almost entirely due to personal style and preference rather than quality or competence on either side.

Not that this has ever happened to you, but what would be the best way for you to receive hard news from an editor?

Ha! Of course it has happened to me! I’ve written about two dozen books and eighteen of them have been published or are under contract, so it’s actually happened more than once, and I’m not ashamed to say it. In terms of receiving the hard news, I always prefer when editors are clear and up-front about the work that needs to be done (rather than minimizing or downplaying in an attempt to spare my feelings), particularly when they can acknowledge and empathize with the scope of the task, and especially when that comes with a commitment to help me puzzle through the most daunting items on the list.

When I receive a major editorial letter, I read it and then need to put it away for a day or two. My knee-jerk reaction is always YOU JUST DON’T GET IT, EDITOR PERSON! Or, sometimes, OH MY GOD, I CAN’T DO THIS! I have come to realize this is just a stage in my process. I haven’t tried to train myself out of it, because those feelings are the result of passion about what I created—or a desire to make the work as good as I truly want it to be. But I also know I need to move through that stage efficiently if I want to improve the book. So once I’ve let myself flail and weep for a bit, I always return to the letter and accept that the editor is pointing out something real and necessary. Then I start to break things down into more manageable tasks. Having an editor who understands this emotional process and gets that it’s not just me being stubborn or defensive is pretty wonderful.

If you were looking at dating profiles for an editor, what qualities would you look for? What would be the deal breakers?

So, basically, I should describe you(Oh, stop!) It’s true! Here are a few things I would look for:

Ability to prioritize the feedback. One thing that’s really hard for me is when an editor gives me a lot of detailed line-level feedback at the first stage of editing. I consider that first round to be for more overarching stuff. At this stage I might already have to rewrite a beginning (or, heck, rewrite most of the book), cut out a subplot, combine or delete characters, or do a few of those things at once. It’s overwhelming when, along with that feedback, I’m also getting input about my word choice on page 168 or my awkward sentence construction at the beginning of chapter six. That stuff is important, but when I might end up cutting most of chapter six anyway, it’s just distracting. I know it can be hard for an editor to resist nitpicking from the very beginning if something obviously needs fixing, so when I find one who understands that line-level feedback is best offered after I’ve addressed the overarching issues, it’s heaven.

Willingness to offer a rationale. When editors suggest key changes, I am incredibly grateful when they also give me cogent explanations of why the changes need to be made. Perhaps it’s the clinical psychologist in me, but I always want to know the underlying reasoning for a suggestion because it informs my decision about the solution. It does take time for an editor to explain instead of just tossing out an option for improving something, but to me, it’s vital information and shows respect for me and my work.

Joyful collaboration. When I embark on the editorial process, I am joining with my editor in a partnership to make my book better. When I really feel like my editor enjoys my work and working with me, it relaxes me and enables me to stretch in a way I couldn’t if I felt the editor wasn’t excited about and invested in the project. I love when an editor is interested in joining me in brainstorming ways to address issues (as opposed to simply identifying issues and leaving me to resolve them); usually we end up with something better than either of us could have generated on our own. This type of collaboration leaves me feeling like there’s someone really in the trenches with me—instead of standing on the outside looking in.

Respectful empathy. The editorial process is there to help me make my book better—not to reassure me that it’s already awesome. I want an editor to respect me enough to level with me, and to believe that I am competent enough to make the necessary changes, no matter how extensive they might be. That being said, I’m a human being with mushy feelings, and of course I want to know which parts are already good, which parts made my editor laugh out loud, which parts were particularly emotionally resonant or well written. Not only is that feedback reassuring, but it also helps me understand the type of things that are working, which can be helpful as I improve the things that aren’t. When something in particular needs work, I don’t need to be told that over and over again on every page. Though it might absolutely be true that a certain writing tic of mine needs fixing on every page, it’s great when an editor understands how discouraging it is to see that volume of criticism, and how much better it feels for an author to receive one general note with some examples instead.

Dealbreakers? Giving me a bunch of notes scribbled in illegible handwriting in the margins, and refusing to actually believe in or trust my vision for the story. So many things are negotiable, but ultimately, it’s my story, so I have to do what I believe is best. The author is the one who gets the reviews, after all—positive or negative.

I find you to be an extremely diligent writer. For example, you are very serious about upholding characterization, doing your job in world building, and not breaking point of view. What duties do you think writers have to their craft?

I think we have to commit to making our work better, which includes accepting outside feedback and engaging in a revision process. I haven’t yet written a book that didn’t need that, and I never will. I also think we have a responsibility to respect and revere the English language. I know that usage shifts over time and that there are different ways to wield it competently, but it’s hard to enjoy a story when the vehicle delivering it is clunky and inefficient. Finally, I believe we have a duty to respect our readers. When we as authors skimp on world building and just glide over things in the hope that no one will notice, readers end up frustrated and confused instead of immersed in a tale—an experience they pay us to provide.

I teach for the Editing Certificate Program at the University of Washington, and there are quite a few budding book editors in my class. As a novelist, what piece of advice would you give them as they venture out into the editorial world?

Apart from some of the things I laid out above, I suppose I’d tell them that knowledge of genre-specific conventions and standards is pretty important when editing different types of fiction. Like, if you’re editing YA, understand—don’t assume—what YA looks like these days.

Sarah Fine is the author of several fantasy and urban fantasy books for teens, including The Impostor Queen series, the Of Metal and Wishes duology (McElderry/Simon & Schuster), and the Guards of the Shadowlands series (Skyscape/Apub). She’s also the coauthor (with Walter Jury) of two YA sci-fi thrillers, Scan and Burn (Putnam/Penguin). On the adult side, she is the author of the urban fantasy Servants of Fate series and the Reliquary series (47North/Apub). When she’s not writing, she’s psychologizing. Sometimes she does both at the same time; the results are unpredictable.