Working with an Editor: Not Change, But Evolution

drafting editing science fiction

While I worked for years – twelve of them – on my book, I knew one day I'd eventually send it to an editor as the final trial before publication. What I pictured that editor doing to my book either involved many measuring tapes and 10x magnifying loupes, many feather dusters or many match books. It was a Big Scary Thing, because that editor would no doubt point an accusing index finger at all my shortcomings and mistakes. They would tell me to "kill my darlings" (a concept I didn't even understand at the time) or even tell me, a la Frankie Avalon, to go back to my day job. They would throw copies of Strunk & White at my head at the very least. Or, perhaps worse, they would provide no such emotion, and simply dust the thing off and let me thrust it into the world without allying themselves to it. Just take my money, catch my typos, and disappear into the mist. Oracles, Neverending StorySo I avoided hiring an editor, putting it off for as long as I could. I wanted to have a 'perfect draft' to prove my way past the laser oracle eyes designed only to smote unworthy drafts. One more revision pass. One more re-write. One more clever idea and one more beta read-through by a trustworthy, safe friend. I kept the grindstone moving on my story because it was that or put myself up for judgement. But here's the thing. The longer I kept at it, the more my confidence shrank. I had no way to know if the changes I was making were too reactionary (even as so many of them were proactive, anticipating arguments I hadn't heard from readers I hadn't encountered). No way to know if the changes I was making were improving anything. It was a downward spiral, a slippery slope into a bottomless pit. My husband spotted it before I did. He asked me, "What if you actually finished the book?" That sounded pretty great, so I decided to make one last revision pass. Of course I did. It was the passing of David Bowie in January of 2016 that startled me into action. His final album, Black Star, awed me with its purpose and delivery. Compelled by his final artistic statement, and with the album on repeat, I began to raise my writing gaze from the ground in front of my toes upward, toward a horizon where I made my own statement to the world. Nine days later, I reached out to an editor whose blog I'd followed for a while. Eleven days after that, I sat down for a Skype meeting with him, bracing myself to be told my story was a hot mess. The story was messy, for sure, but my fear of the Grand Judgement of Editor Man throwing criticism at me like a poorly-sealed motion sickness bag on an airplane? It never happened. I came away from our first meeting with a sense of purpose and direction. My strengths were identified, as were my weaknesses. My greatest weakness was not that I was a poor writer but that I was afraid of taking the next step. And we were about to correct that. You know the classic boxing scenario where the fighter is trying but can't figure out a way through their opponent's guard, and then the experienced coach gives them encouragement and mindset strategies to draw deep, look at the struggle a different way, and overcome the internal struggle that helps them tackle the external problem? That was exactly the experience of working with a writing coach. Working through FLOTSAM with me on a developmental level, the editor never pointed to a paragraph and said, "This is wrong; fix it." He never said, "You're awful at X. Do better at X." Instead it was, "What you're trying to accomplish is X. Look at how these five books do that, then we'll talk about how you could improve the way you did it." He wasn't taking my money and giving me answers. He was helping me become a better writer. He gave me the rolled oats of craft: tips and tricks and reading assignments. Then he stood back and let me turn it into the porridge and experience how that worked. If I wanted to know what he'd do in a situation, I could ask and he would answer but we had an unspoken understanding that FLOTSAM was my story and I was the only one who could tell it. I would ask him, in spontaneous text messages, "What if I did this..?" His answer was always an enthusiastic "YES. DO THAT." It might work, or it might not, but I was trying everything and growing and evolving as an author. His encouragement and expertise are infused into the final piece, but the story and words are mine. Four-and-a-half months after our first session, my overwhelming fear of taking the next step had eroded under the effects of that encouragement, and my excitement was building to dwarf my fears. Of course, Imposter Syndrome is still a thing that is up to me to work through and overcome, but my experiences working with the editor are one layer of armor I use to defend against its bite. I had a complete draft and was beginning to revise it. The hard work was just beginning, but I'd already done in a few months what I felt incapable of doing in more than a decade of work. Me. I had guidance, but it was more that he helped me tap into an internal wellspring that I'd spent that decade-plus unintentionally blocking up. Four months after that, the book was done. Let me repeat that: the book was done. He told me it required "no further monkeying" and provided me with his editorial review, such as he might prepare as an acquisitions editor. The two page report felt like a final grade and, while it was dry and objective, it confirmed that everything I set out to achieve was addressed successfully. Cover Art for Flotsam by R J TheodoreIt was the sad occurrence of David Bowie's passing that pushed me into making the decision to hire an editor. It was hiring an editor that made the difference. The difference between another year of giving my draft another pass to make it "perfect," and revising my story with direction and purpose and making it DONE. Finished. I sold the rights to that finished book to a publisher, Parvus Press, and now FLOTSAM is available for purchase in digital, print, and audio. That finished book has a finished sequel in revisions. In an alternative universe, there's a David Bowie that didn't develop cancer and release his call to arms for other artists in the album Black Star. But, in that same universe, maybe I didn't hire an editor and FLOTSAM is on Draft 23. I'm happy where I am, thank you very much.