Understanding Editors

Special thanks to Nathan Bodell of WednesdayComics.info for joining us on our discussion of editors on this week’s Firsts in Fiction Podcast. Be sure to stop by and check out his podcast if you’re interested in comic books. You can subscribe to his podcast on iTunes. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter (@FirstsinFiction) for the most up-to-date information. You can also like us on Facebook or get in touch with us at firstsinfictionpodcast@gmail.com. Lastly, we’re excited to announce that we’re on Stitcher. Stitcher has some great apps for your phone and/or car, and allows you to stream our content at your convenience. Be sure to rate us and leave us a review! Otherwise, you may listen below or download the .mp3 here.

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red-penEditors are a necessary evil in the publishing world. While they sometimes get a bad reputation for being overly-critical, and often maligned as wanna-be writers, they are professionals. Most have at least one professional degree, while many have multiple degrees. These are usually in literature or English or composition, and even marketing.

As an editor, I am the necessary evil. My background is in English and writing, specifically fiction. I have a Bachelor’s and a Masters of Fine Arts from Antioch University of Los Angeles. When I started The Citron Review, I tell people I started a literary journal because I was tired of being rejected, and wanted to reject other writers. This, of course, is a terrible joke. I actually did it because I wanted to send some acceptance letters. I wanted to share in the joy of acceptances. It didn’t take much time to get the journal set up, but it took quite a while to develop the reputation that we currently enjoy. We’re a very selective journal, taking only the best flash fiction and micro-fiction and poetry.

Not all editors are failed writers. Consider Gordon Lish who, though his fiction was never as popular as Raymond Carver’s, Lish’s edits are what rocketed Carver’s work to fame. The two worked closely together, and some of Carver’s best works have Lish’s fingerprints all over them. Lish would often cut fifty percent or more of Carver’s work, even rewrite lines and sometimes entire endings. Of course, once Carver’s reputation exceeded that of Lish’s, the two had a falling-out, and Carver cut ties with Lish. Undoubtedly, the work Carver produced post-Lish varied greatly from what he did with Lish’s help. Which is better is largely a matter of opinion. Still, Carver owed Lish, as Lish owed Carver.

While each editor looks for particular things, most editors look for common things. Specifically, they look for originality. Though there may be nothing new under the sun, there’s always a new way to say it. Stories told in mature voice always get our attention. We want to know that the author is in control and confident. They are subtle and avoid cliches. They avoid melodrama. This stems from a lack of confidence which results in over-writing.

I also look for some movement in the story. I like action. Not necessarily gunshots and stabbings and punches and kicks, but movement. The story of the old woman knitting and reflecting on life isn’t super-exciting. Too much introspection really bogs down the prose. You’ll see this in info-dumps in genre fiction. The goal is to shift between movement, action, and thought. If it’s used to establish voice and character, and deepen our understanding of a character’s past, great. Still, we need the present-tense story to move along as well. Think of it like this: if you have a thirty year old man reflecting on the time he was twelve, why does he wait until he’s thirty to tell the story? Now, if something is happening when he’s thirty that reminds him of when he was twelve, that’s fine. But show us the correlation, and move between action in both time periods.

Adverbs are bad. You can get away with one or two well-placed adverbs, but more than that makes editors wonder if you’re verbs are too weak. The same rule applies for adjectives and nouns. Rather than strengthening your nouns and verbs with extra words, choose the right nouns and verbs to carry the story.

Specifically, in flash-fiction, one of my pet-peeves is what we call punch-line fiction. This is where a story takes three pages to set up a joke ending. I love humor. I’m very willing to laugh. But when you end on a joke, it demeans the rest of the story and makes it a waste of time. It’s the literary equivalent of “and then he woke up.” The reason that ending is bad is because it means the rest of the story had no value. It wasn’t true; it wasn’t real, though we wanted it to be.

Another pro-tip: when you’re submitting to a publication, be sure you read what they produce, so you send them something they publish. While I love fantasy, The Citron Review does not run genre fiction. I can tell, within the first paragraph if the submitter is a reader of our publication. The best cover letters come from active readers of our publication. They’ll send us a letter that says, “Love what you do. My favorite story is (insert story here), especially the line (insert line here), which made me (feel/think/understand some emotion/truth/etc.). I hope you’ll find my story equally (powerful, challenging, etc.).” These letters put me in the right frame of mind, and make me want to accept the story.

The best way to work with an editor is to send them your best work. They read all the time. They know within a page how careful and cautious you are. Careless mistakes leave a bad taste in their mouth. It makes it feel like you don’t care enough about your work to put the time in that you should. This can frustrate readers, and will likely result in short-tempered e-mail responses, or worse, form rejection letters.

So how do you handle rejection? If you do get a scathing letter from an editor, disregard it. There’s a lack of professionalism when an editor berates a submitter. Form rejections can be disappointing, but it shouldn’t be disheartening. Often times, we’re too busy to write back. If you get an e-mail with specific comments on your story, even if it’s a rejection, be excited. Take it to heart. This is where you want to be. It means the editors liked your story enough to respond to you personally, and likely, what they have to say will be accurate, whether or not you agree. These are the professionals. They read a lot, and they know what people like to read. Their suggestions will improve your story. Rarely, if ever, will an editor deliberately try to sabotage a writer. They have nothing to gain by doing this.

If you have the opportunity to work with an editor, you’ll want to do so. You’ll learn a lot about the process of writing from working with an editor.

Do you have a good editor story? If so, leave us a comment here or on our Facebook page. You can even tweet them to us (@FirstsinFiction) or e-mail us (firstsinfictionpodcast@gmail.com) We’d like to roll these together and maybe do a follow-up podcast on our experiences.

8 thoughts on “Understanding Editors”

  • Generally I’m not very good at editing my stories. I’m a huge prefectionist when I write my rough draft but after that I have no idea how do fix it even more. I think editors are helpful because they show you what you need to change, so it gives you a better idea of how to fix it.

  • I am horrible about editting my own stories because I feel like I spent the time to write it why should I take it out. I dont think I will be able to become and editor ever even if it isn’t my book.

  • Rejection is a tough subject for me because i do tend to take criticism to heart and not in the good way.I feel it would take time for me to learn to appreciate that they took the time to respond

  • i feel that i am a decent writer but when it comes to editing i would have to look to people like you Mr. Gansky or someone else because i have no idea how to do it professionally.

  • I think before the time traveling story i would’ve never seen this as a good thing. But now i see it as simply making your story better with the help of someone who knows what they are talking about.

  • I feel that once it comes to editing, i’m a horrible writer. With all the corrections I get that I made too many mistakes and it was just a horrible story

  • Wordiness is always a hassel to read through. Understanding the words isn’t the problem, it’s just an over explanation most of the time.
    I think writers find editors intimidating because of rejection, like you said.

  • I hate the editing process after writing a story. Hallelujah to the creation of editors. They are there to tell you what to change and what not to change, but I can never take criticism well.

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