Saturday, 18 April 2009

What Editors Want

A few days ago this thread was started on the Authonomy message-board. It eventually degenerated into a sodden late-night exchange, but the post which kicked it all off reinforces much of what I've written here and says it all far more clearly than I could manage: so here is that post in its entirety. I've bolded one line, but that's the only change I've made.

It's late at night, I have a job I'm procrastinating on and the wine is open, so I feel a fit of pomposity coming on. Read no further if you are offended by reminiscing and lecturing.

But here it comes.

An central idee fixee among emerging writers is: 'What do editors want?' Much thought is given to this question, particularly in gathering places like Authonomy. Eventually, when the discussion has built up a head of steam, some all-knowing, squelching person will come along and say "editors are looking for excuses to reject your book. Just one comma out of place and – bam! – book rejected". The conversation is thereby killed and the insecure author feels even more dejected.

This is all wrong. At least, it was in my case and still is false as far as editors I know go.

What editors want, more than ANYTHING else in the world, is for someone to delight them.

Most manuscripts that land on an editor's desk – even, believe it or not, the ones that comes through recommendations, agents, personal friends and authors with track records – range from the unfinished-need-lots-of-work to the outright boring. And that's only speaking of work that has been through the filter. Some of these will be picked up, just because the sausage factory has to keep churning stuff out, but they won't fill the editor with excitement about coming to work in the morning.

Publishing doesn't have many pluses. It's poorly paid, the glamorous lunches are few and far between, and the overseas trips heavily contested. The free books pall after a while (a) because you've soon read them all and (b) because they're probably not your genre anyway.

What makes it all worthwhile are the times when a luminous book pops through the post. A book that from the first masterful sentence transports the reader.

Such books are incredibly rare. But they're fun to work on, they're fun to publish, and they add lustre to an editor's career if they win an award or become a bestseller.

How do you know if you've written a masterpiece?

If you're asking the question, then you probably haven't. The more experienced and expert you are at anything – tennis, swimming, painting, computer programming – the more you instinctively know what works and what doesn't. And you certainly know when you have done something outstanding in your field, even if you don't know HOW outstanding it is. If you're still floundering, hoping for approval for your book, go back to the drawing board.

Because the sort of books that enthrall first the publisher and then the public are books written with verve and confidence, and that's something that comes from talent plus a finely honed craft.

And all that came from a bottle of Californian Zinfandel. Whew, that 16% alcohol is a killer.

My thanks to editor, writer and Authonomy member Osiander, for giving me permission to quote him at such length.


Philip Sington said...

That's about as balanced and accurate a description of the book buying business as you could wish for. The only thing I would add, is that what delights one editor may bore the pants off another. You may know that what you've written is good, but that doesn't mean that it will appeal strongly to everyone. In truth, absolutely nothing does. This is, of course, a thoroughly good thing.

Jane Smith said...

It IS good, isn't it, Philip? I was delighted when I first read it, too. And your additional point is good too--thank you for that.

I hope that Osiander might be persuaded to visit here and make a comment or two. We shall see.

Marty said...

Pour me a glass of that wine 16% alcohol and a killer post!

writtenwyrdd said...

Thank you for this post! You have reinforced my assumption about editors. They are not the enemy, they want to be on your side in the 'war' to publish.

Jane Smith said...

Marty, what ever it was that Osiander was drinking when he wrote this piece, it seems to have been very effective. I shall demand a constant supply. And WW, you're right: agents and editors really are on the side of the writers: they do want to publish gorgeous books, as well as they can.

Osiander said...

Hi Philip,

It's very true that what delights one editor won't please another.

But it's not all totally subjective. These days I review books, rather than think about whether they would sell or not, and I know better than to judge science fiction, for example. Kids lit, on the other hand, is something I DO know something about. It's striking that whenever I speak to colleagues about books we've read, we're in general agreement on the merits of specific books, even if we personally don't always actually love them.

Except Twilight! Good thing I didn't review that, because I would have panned it and made a twit of myself. A much wiser, older editor than me, on the other hand, tells me she liked it.


Anonymous said...

Talent, a finely honed craft and a couple other things you left out: a great deal of hard work and perseverance.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah, forgot. A good premise at the beginning is also pretty much a requirement.

Nicola Morgan said...

People too often think of editing as being just a job, a task, a process. That's copy-editing (very important too but so, so different.) I remember my editor very early on saying that I must never forget that she has one aim: to get the best book out of me that I can produce. None of what she does is marketing-led, or process-led, though we both have to remember market and process: it's passion-led. I can write but I'd be a useless editor; she can edit, but she has no ambition to write. It's all about passion for the work, and as such has to begin with subjectivity, travel through a objective-ish process, and end with something which will be subjectively read. That's why it's so wonderfully unpredictable.

Great post!

catdownunder said...

I think I want to curl up with the tip of my tail over my ears and my paws over my face! I squirm. How dare I bother an editor?

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great post. Fun reading and a reminder that writing is hard. Really hard.

none said...

oh yes oh yes oh yes

When I started reading Darja Malcolm-Clarke's story "A Song, a Prayer, an Empty Space" in GUD slush, I knew from the first sentence that I was going to buy her story and publish it.

That first sentence is:

The Isiola monastery has sunk into the sea.

Reading that story made me so happy. I knew I could relax and enjoy it because I could tell the author knew what she was doing.


Nicola Slade said...

Not an editor but as a reader I was enchanted by the first line of Silvian Hamilton's 'The Bone Pedlar' - 'In the crypt of (St something or other) the monks were busy boiling their bishop.' (And the book and its two follow-up live up to the opening line).

Word verification: casubles. A clerical term of uncertain origin and meaning - 'I had him by the casubles.

none said...

See this similar post on Making Light:

Dan Holloway said...

Jane, I used to prepare sixth formers for Oxbridge entrance. I found exactly what you describe amongst writers.

Kids wanted to know "what do I do to get into Oxbridge?", "What should I read?", that kind of thing. The enthusiasm was wonderful, and wholly admirable. But I knew that every kid who started their prep that way was probably going to get their 3 A grades, and was definitely not going to get their Oxbridge place.

It's the same with writing. The person who wants the how-to guide to pleasing a publisher/editor/agent is the one who never will.

Which isn't, of course, to say that you don't need to work, work, work, and learn, learn, learn. The kids who did get in to Oxbridge I could spot a mile off - they'd be the ones full of ideas who'd jump up and down with excitement when they discovered there were books out there by people who'd had similar - or opposite ideas.

Which is why when the papers bemoan top universities refusing a place to straight A candidates they miss the point as much as authors who decry the publishers who don't print beautifully crafted books they've come across.

In bopth cases it boils down to what I've heard a lot of times in recent weeks - you can teach technique, but you can't teach voice.

Unknown said...

Thanks, that's a very uplifting post! I hear the same from literary agents, they go to work everyday hoping that today they'll fall in love again.

I suppose it's the massive amount cheap sausages that we see on the bookshelves at Tesco's and W.H. Smith, that depress 'us', aspiring authors.
We keep buying them because they're cheap and the blurb doesn't seem so bad. But they go off very quickly, and as soon as we've read half of it we feel like we could do So Much Better!
But where's the pride in being a lucky sausage?

David Dittell said...


This is often what's said about producers/agents/managers for film writers -- what people want is just a good story.

Of course, when you're reading your sixth script of the day and the first five were nearly unreadable, you probably just want to finish up.

But if you can suck your reader in and never let them go, they won't even notice that fabled misplaced comma. If you have the story, they won't even remember they're "working."