How To Become a Fiction Editor, Part One: Story-Technique-Oriented-Bibliophile

Fiction editing is very desirable work: helping people tell stories is one of the most visionary and creative types of editing you can do. And fiction is undeniably the writing form the carries the most cultural cachet (with the exception of poetry). Fiction arguably matters more than other forms; not everyone reads non-fiction, but everyone digests stories, fictional or true ones, whether through books, movies, TV or other media. In most case, the number of people who read very influential non-fiction books like The God Delusion and Fast Food Nation pales in comparison to the number of people who read even lower-echelon bestsellers of fiction.

Unfortunately, fiction accounts for only a small percentage of the number of titles published—say about 5%—which means that getting your hands on fiction editing work is harder than most other types of editing. Even so, I believe you can manage to get yourself fiction editing work if you can satisfy the following formula:

Story-Technique-Oriented Bibliophile + formal and informal learning and practice + a little self-promoting + some luck

Let’s work through the formula, starting with the first part, the editor personality type.

Story-Technique-Oriented Bibliophile (STOB)

First, you have to be a fiction-editor type in order for your next stage, the formal and informal learning, to develop you into a fiction editor. How do you know if you’re this type? Easy: you like to spend time asking and answering the question, How do stories work? You love to appreciate the structure and working parts of story, take stories apart, and put them back together again. You are keenly interested in aesthetics—how does the machinery of story work to create spellbinding pleasure?

Here are the sorts of things you may like to do that engage this STOB part of your brain:

From What to How: if one of your most fulfilling exercises in grade school was writing book reports, and later, in high school and college, essays on books, that’s a possible indicator of the STOB personality type. Usually, by the time that you reach your post-secondary years, you may start dabbling in writing book reviews for blogs, university newspapers, or community papers. All these forms of writing are about evaluating the aesthetic or cultural effects of the book on an audience. That knack for analysing and appraising the potency of literary effects is something editors need to be able to do, but it’s not an editor’s trait by itself. Some of your early undergrad writing may have involved first attempts to move from an analysis of the reading experience to a consideration of its causes and structures. Or, as was the case for me, you may find that the most fascinating discussions you have about reads are about how the read works so well—how the pleasure was invoked—instead of what the book means or is trying to expound. Academics are interested in analysing the meaning of text; editors want to know how the text works. If you have similar discussions about movies, that’s a valid indicator as well.

If you routinely compare the effects of one book with those of another, whether in conversation, personal reflection, or in writing on a blog or an article, you are at least beginning to analyse the means by which fiction creates pleasure. You are moving beyond the what of fiction to the how of it. I’m afraid that if your contemplation of writing contains mostly gushing praise or scathing fault-finding without getting into the reasons behind the success or failure of a read, you are evincing the traits of a different publishing professional—the publicist. Publicists are evaluators and appreciators, not technicians. Publicists have brilliant taxonomies of reading pleasures and are very good at distilling reading experiences for the reader; but they do not build or repair stories. To what extent does your thinking about stories move from the what of the read to the how? That’s the extent to which you are evincing the STOB personality.

Editing a friend’s fiction: if you’ve often volunteered to be, or have been asked to be, a friend’s source of feedback about their fiction, that can indicate one or two things. One, your friends are comfortable with you and trust you to be fair with your feedback (though they may feel you’re unlikely to hurt them with your feedback because they sense you’re a sympathetic reader or you’re only a cheerleader). Two, your friends believe you can identify weaknesses in their writing and offer solutions. If you’re this sort of go-to person for your friends, that’s another indicator of an STOB. An important qualifier is that the people you are giving feedback to must be asking for help with the workings of their story and not their spelling or punctuation.

Creative writing: In my humble opinion, there are two kinds of creative writing instruction, students, and instructors. First, there are the non-STOB pursuers of creative writing, or soft creative writers: these people study the what of writing, or, to explain further, they study how to develop the imaginative raw material of story, characters, settings, themes, and language, but they shy away from the more mechanical areas of point of view, plot versus theme and subplot, scene design, tension and conflict, interior monologue versus narration, balance of action and thought, et cetera. These latter things that the soft writers neglect are the main areas of interest for the hard writers. The hard writers already know what they want to write about and how to develop the raw material of their imagination into worthwhile action and themes, and so they move on to the business of story architecture, scene progression, exposition, et cetera. In short, they are worried about the how of fiction, not the what. And I’m sorry to say, soft writers are more likely to be obsessed with writing “literary” fiction, and they’ll be trying to reinvent all elements of the novel before they’ve even learned the fundamentals of how to create them. These soft writers are the furthest possible thing from good editor stock. The hard writers are among the best stock.

I’ll be continuing in my next post in this series on how to become a fiction editor, the first of at least four posts on the formal and informal learning and practice of editors, the second and largest part of the formula for how to become a fiction editor. If working in publishing as an editor, fiction or non-fiction, really interests you, you should have a look at Wilson and Lucyk’s The Editorial Department on Amazon.