What Makes a Fiction Editor Great?
Your novel is your pride and joy. Who will you trust to steer your story to publication?
Me. I mean, I hope it’s me.
Regardless, let me suggest three qualities that you should look for in a fiction editor for your next manuscript.
A great editor edits for the reader
Great editors advocate for readers, not authors. After all, a novel belongs to its readers. If a novel is written for the person who wrote it, that’s not authorship—that’s masturbation.
For the cynics out there, I’m not telling you to settle for sellouts. (Frankly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any in the—gasp!—not-so-lucrative field of freelance novel editing.)
A great editor does, however, read what’s popular. There is no denying that a novel is a commercial product, so it makes sense that a great fiction editor follows trends. But it’s like that old saying about learning the rules so you can break them effectively: a great editor will read best-selling novels so your novel rises to the occasion and then surprises the hell out of even the most faithful genre readers.
A great editor has serious conversations about anything
Memorable stories have strange encounters, unique characters, and settings so real you can smell them.
Do you want your readers to feel the threat of hot breath on their necks? Do you want them to feel the cold, inhuman gaze of robot invaders? Then you want an editor who won’t trivialize your brand of fiction by not thinking critically about every minor detail in your novel.
I have talked to writers about the logistics of werewolf attacks, the sounds that lasers make, and the consistency of ectoplasm. And although I did it with a smile on my face, that didn’t mean my advice was sarcastic or that these things didn’t really matter. They absolutely do.
A great editor understands the science of storytelling
Humans love compartmentalizing. Even if it were just us and an infinity of dark matter, we’d still want to organize it according to dark, darker, and darkest.
The makeup of a novel is no different. Look at Campbell's hero cycle or Jung's archetypes. We take the intangible—a story, a myth, a dream—and divide it up into pieces. Then we describe those pieces independent from their whole. Here’s the Call to Action. Here’s the Belly of the Whale. Here’s the Redemption Arc. She's the Trickster. He's the Wise Old Man.
But a novel has got to be more than a fill-in-the-blank. In my experience, an editor’s job is to acknowledge these paradigms and recognize when they’re helpful for direction or emotional resonance. But a great editor will never rely on them without good reason or demand that an author adhere to them.
Besides, isn’t there a thrill in casting these archetypes away and doing something different?