Becoming a Fiction Editor Pt 2: Becoming a Good Non-Fiction Editor FIRST

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

In my first post on becoming a fiction editor, we took a look my STOB personality type and the formula by which a STOB successfully becomes and gains employment as a fiction editor. This next post will begin the biggest section of these linked posts about formal and informal training and practice by discussing formal training.

After establishing whether you are or are not a STOB, the next step in preparing you to become a fiction editor is to discuss the sort of deliberate steps one takes in order to become one. I say “deliberate” in order to discriminate from among the many valuable activities for fiction editing, some of which are outlined in my first post—those activities that reflect a deliberate, conscious attempt to become an editor of fiction, rather than a fiction promoter or critic, creative writer, or teacher of creative writing. And by the way, if you haven’t really qualified as a STOB but feel passionately that you are meant to help authors develop stories, I’d encourage you to see yourself as a STOB anyway, a unique one who is taking a path less travelled.

Here’s the first step—and don’t get disheartened when I say it—enrol in formal training that will help you become a good general editor. Most training attempts this, making only divisions in training for educational (textbooks) or trade (consumer books like fiction, gardening, cooking—the books you see at your bookstores) editing, if it makes any at all. Some programs may offer an option to train in fiction specifically. If so, by all means take the course, but complete the general editing program as well. The reason for this is simple, and I emphasize it: there is no reliable direct path to fiction editing. The path is unique for everyone, and the path is always at least a little circuitous. The reason for this is that there are only handfuls of in-house jobs working on fiction (perhaps 4 or 5% of editing jobs in trade publishing), and perhaps quadruple that number of freelance editing jobs.

Remember, I told you not to get disheartened. You will work on fiction if you persist in aiming yourself at that wonderful work. But you may wait one to three years before getting your first taste, and even then, you may wait several more years before fiction editing makes up most of your salary and workload. (We’ll discuss how to upgrade your chances of getting more fiction work sooner in my final post on Luck, the last part of the formula; contrary to the sense of the term, Luck is very much under your control—or, at least, under your influence.)

Before I discuss training, let me describe the editor’s life ahead of you. You may work on cookbooks and gardening books, if you are that type of person. You may work on political books and academic books, if you are that sort of person. Or you may work on charmingly innovative, visually oriented, and playful textbooks for children or for teens, if you are that sort of person. You may work on all of the above, and more, either because you have a broad range of interests, or simply because that’s where the work is. And all that non-fiction work you do will season you into a professional editor that uses hardcopy editing symbols expertly, knows the courtly language one uses to convey requests for revisions to authors, and has become expert at explaining to authors the defects of manuscripts, as well as the solutions to them and the methods for their implementation.

These are fiction editing skills also. And you cannot become a fiction editor without learning these fundamentals, and you won’t likely stumble onto them by working on fiction itself. Fiction editing requires, in addition to the skills I’ve just mentioned, artistic sensitivity and far greater and more subtle skill at explaining problems and solutions in a manuscript.

Editing fiction has no equivalent in the visual arts—there are no people watching you paint and supplying an audience’s perspective to aid you in your work. But painters do have critics. Editing fiction is a kind of art criticism (in the broader sense of the word), but it’s criticism offered as the art is being made. Editor’s therefore need artistic sensitivity to fiction in general and the types of fiction they edit particularly. An editor’s ability to translate the mechanics of fiction into useful tools is as important as their understanding of the mechanics themselves. Most editors know more than they can articulate, and some have a greater handle of the language editors use to convey and sell revisions to authors than they have knowledge of fiction. The way to ensure that your knowledge of fiction mechanics and your ability to communicate it grow at the same rate is to learn all you can about the special language of communicating and selling revisions. You can do this best by getting experience working on different sorts of non-fiction, thereby learning how suggestions are phrased to different sorts of authors working on different sorts of books.

Non-fiction books are made up of elements and formulas, as are, to a lesser degree, most fictional books. Once you understand the elements and the formulas, you attain a degree of safety in your work with them. But once you leave those elements behind for work on the art-governed, finer forms of fiction, you have two things to rely on. First, you have your own artistic sensibilities and sympathies. Second, you have all the refinements you have made to your ability to communicate with authors that largely make edits to more art-governed fiction intelligible to and actionable by the author. In essence, I’m saying that there is an editor-speak (or rather an editor knack-for-explanation-and-suggestion) in which revisions to even the most exquisite and experimental fiction are requested. Fine literary sensibilities are only as helpful as an editor’s ability to convey the fruits of those sensibilities in queries (an formal term for an editor’s notes to an author on revisions to a draft).

A substantive editor’s work—fiction or non-fiction—is the work of suggesting changes to drafts of a book. The mastery of editor-speak (or of queries) is mastery of a discourse in which are found all sorts of strategies for persuasion, argument, selling and pitching, encouragement, inspiration, direction, affirmation, hedging your bets, and even for sowing seeds of doubt and fear (this last is a last resort, but it can be necessary, and it can be very effective). This language can and often does save you from making an irreparable editorial misstep, or from a bad reaction to a good edit from a difficult author. And you don’t want an opportunity to edit fiction until you are a very good non-fiction editor.

Editing fiction is higher-stakes editing. There’s a reason why. For example, when you fail at explaining a problem in a textbook, or fail to come up with the right remedy for it, you—or another editor—will likely get to try again. Many non-fiction books are service-oriented and relatively straightforward in their mandate (i.e., show readers how to improve your vegetarian diet), with problems in fulfilling the mandate relatively transparent and objective as far as the basic solutions to the problems. Because non-fiction trade is generally easier to work with, and usually includes more people in the editorial process, there are more opportunities to revise the text before publication; problems that go unaddressed in a substantive edit will likely be caught by a savvy copyeditor. And even if the problem goes unaddressed in the first edition and first printing, it can be amended, in a worst-case scenario, in a next edition, or in time for a second print run. With fiction, you don’t have second editions, and very often you don’t have second print runs, either.

The reason for this is that with fiction, reviews and criticism, both professional and amateur, are crucial to a books sales performance. Poorly edited fiction is much more likely to fail in the marketplace, unless perhaps written by the most bankable authors. And even with bankable authors, poorly edited fiction leads to a gradual tarnishing of the author’s reputation among their readership. Shortcomings of fiction editing show much more than in most categories of trade non-fiction; and readers who expect entertainment are much tougher and less forgiving consumers than readers who expect useful information from non-fiction.

The practical point is that when you fail in your expression of a problem or in your positing of a solution with fiction, you may not have a second chance with that publisher. Or you may find that rather than editing artistically ambitious fiction, you a relegated to editing romance or adventure fiction that is much more formulaic.

In summary: get trained as a general editor, and learn the fundamentals of querying very, very well. Try to imagine all the applications of your querying to fiction: begin to edit a friend’s fiction and begin to practise applying the new language to fiction with a real author who can give you feedback on how effective your language is. Then watch the manuscript blossom into much better drafts with each round of queries you make. Soon, you’ll have the confidence and competence to make a pitch in-house to do a shadow edit on a fiction manuscript, or perhaps you can start with writing reader’s reports on unsolicited fiction (more on this next post).

You actually have to become a fiction editor on your own time, and a fairly good one, before you are really ready to undertake fiction editing at any level, from writing reader’s reports to sub editing. If you are interested in reading much more about becoming a book editor, please have a look at Wilson and Lucyk’s The Editorial Department.

Next post: finding fiction-editing learning opportunities in-house once you’re a working non-fiction editor.