How a career editor treated my novel

I placed my debut novel in the hands of an editor with long experience at an excellent publisher. What changes would he recommend?

How a career editor treated my novel

I published my debut novel as an ebook more than a year ago, titling it optimistically Bongs for Steve: A Memoir. I released it with little fanfare, and it hasn’t had much promotion. Nor has it found many readers, even if every buyer who rated it awarded five stars.

A chance arose for me to have it edited by a seasoned professional, and one who had spent many years with a publisher I have admired. Given that I had little to lose from releasing an amended edition, I negotiated a fee.

I had not engaged an editor before I offered the novel to readers online. On one hand, I was an experienced editor, having shepherded others’ articles into magazines and newspapers over most of my professional life. On the other, I had known of no editor I trusted whose strong suit had been fiction.

Care and attention

What recommended this editor was mainly his having spent the past decade in a senior establishment role. It occurred to me that even if I didn’t like his suggestions, my manuscript would have received as much care and attention as it would have got from any publisher – and likely more, since a debut author might have been paired with a junior practitioner. It would be interesting to see what I’d missed.

The result has been eye-opening, and on several fronts.

First, the oversight has lifted the reading experience. Second, the changes suggested have been insightful and subtle: a tiny cut here; a locating note there. Third, the style I achieved has been affirmed powerfully. Fourth, the editor endorsed my decision to self-publish the work, and on the grounds that had led me to reach it.

Fifth, I have gained a stronger appreciation of the novel’s literary excellence. That has surprised me, since it had been easy to think of myself as naively over-appreciative of my own work.

High spirits

My enhanced confidence in the book has had a flow-on effect, changing my sense of the reader who would most enjoy it.

I had titled it to appeal to users and past users of cannabis recreationally, understanding that the description fitted a significant and growing slice of book-buyers.

My sense was that such readers would enjoy its straightforward depicting of people relating to one another when high: sometimes exuberantly, at other times earnestly, and often at a level of intimacy they might not have reached sober.

Amusing and complex

That vision, however, isn’t easy to sell. Partly because it has not been done well in the past, and it requires a big leap of faith to think that a debut author might have done it well in the present.

But largely because it doesn’t carry with it a strong sense of story. Why would anybody want to immerse themselves in someone else’s bong session, unless they were experiencing it as an essential component of a dramatic tale.

Feedback from my editor aligned with comment from early readers of the ebook whom I knew: the smoking scenes worked as background and setting, but the story was an amusing and complex interior drama, and one that said something fresh about how we make choices.

Reflective and curious

And so it has dawned on me that the book isn’t primarily for drug users at all, except in so far as they might be better placed to apprehend certain ironies.

Rather, it is a story for reflective and curious readers from all social backgrounds. Perhaps especially for those who, at one time or another, have experienced life as humdrum and joyless.

That shift in my understanding of the story will help me to reach those readers – likely, under a title that does not allude directly to drug use. A republished ebook will be offered alongside print copies.

Key takeaways

Can I offer anything to early-career authors from this collaboration with an editor who has deep roots in fiction?

Yes. And first, get your draft into exemplary shape.

The multi-million-selling thriller author Steve Berry has said he gives each manuscript about 35 full-length edits and as many specific-purpose edits before he submits it to an agent. The point is to make it as good as he can before it leaves his hands.

The editor I chose still works mostly with publishers. He said it was unusual that he accepted a manuscript from another source, engaging with mine only because he was attracted to the style of its opening.

That fits with my understanding of editing as a profession. If you do really good work, you’ll receive invitations to put the finishing touches on others’ good work. And that’s much more satisfying than cleaning up dross.

Credit where it’s due

Second, you need a reason for having faith in your editor. This is not just about assessing the wisdom of her interventions. It is also about crediting her non-interventions.

I invited my editor to recommend major cuts and a restructure of my opening chapters. When he responded that no such changes were needed, it was easy to think that he had avoided the work of identifying improvements. After all, he has no career stake in my book’s succeeding. It is only through faith that I can accept his assessment.

Third and finally, even if you’re a seasoned professional writer, yes, do employ an excellent editor for a book you believe in, if you can find one. The editor’s input may enhance your belief in the strength of your product, and may encourage you to see it from a different perspective. I’ll be informed by my own counsel when wrapping up subsequent projects.

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