Bryon Quertermous: 5 Things You Can Learn From A Freelance Editor

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I love editors. Editors are the unsung heroes of the Book World. They’re the ones with their arms plunged into the meaty stink of various drafts, reaching into the pink slurry in order to stitch up ruptures and rearrange vital organs and make the whole monster work. Without editors, all writers would probably descend into a pit of writing pamphlets consisting only of profane emojis.

Freelance editors are an awesome variant of the editor — though, tricky, because a lot of folks out there call themselves editors and will gladly take your money and then just-as-gladly either do nothing for you or instead take the cash in order to tell you what you want to hear. So, it’s nice to hear from recent Angry Robot editor Bryon Quertermous, who has once again returned to the Wide World of Freelance Editing. Here he is with ‘five things you can learn from a freelance editor.’

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When Chuck initially offered me this space after the publisher I was an acquiring editor for closed my imprint, I submitted a whiny, altogether off-putting piece that Chuck kindly pushed back and suggested I rethink. [Hey, I just want the best for ol' Bryon. Or Byron. Wait, what the hell is his name again? Quartermouse? Qwertymace? Whatever. -- cw] After some time to clear my head and figure out what I was looking forward to in this next phase of my career I realized how happy I was to be back to editing on a freelance basis rather than in a corporate environment. That joy has nothing to do with bad corporate experiences, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every job I’ve had working for publishers big and small, but in all of those instances my main loyalty was to the company, not to the writer. As a hired gun, paid for by the writer and serving at the writer’s mercy, I exist for one purpose: to bring the manuscript as close to the writer’s perfect vision of it as humanly possible and that’s a freeing feeling.

So in the spirit of freedom and independence, I present today, five things you can learn from a freelance editor (or as it’s known in my document file: five reasons my fee is really worth it).

1. WHAT YOUR STORY IS REALLY ABOUT

If I had to pick one common element from all of my editorial letters, this would be it. Whether it’s elevating a minor character to a starring role, suggesting a single novel is actually a trilogy (or vice-versa), or suggesting that maybe your contemporary romance is actually a perfectly structured romantic suspense novel, authors aren’t always the best judge of what type of book they’re writing. They almost always know what they want to say and what they want the reader to feel and why they’re writing the book, but the delivery of those key goals is usually not as defined.

If you have the luxury of putting your manuscript away for months to clear your head and take a fresh view, that’s great. But most writers don’t have that luxury (or that much discipline) so bringing in someone who thinks like an author and respects the vision like an author, but has the fresh eyes and training of an editor is the next best thing.

2. GETTING PERSONAL IN WRITING IS GREAT; GETTING TOO PERSONAL ISN’T

One of the big problems I had with the original version of this piece was finding the balance between making it personal and keeping within the bounds of common decency. For a book to really work well, part of the author’s soul has to be on the page. Even authors like Chuck who write multiple books a year across multiple formats and multiple worlds find a way to put a piece of themselves in even the silliest or outrageous projects. But finding that balance isn’t easy.

The best fiction, like the best dialogue, presents a hyper-stylized version of reality that keeps all of the good parts and excises the repetitive and boring parts. A good editor will dig deeper with a string of questions to the author to help find the interesting core of personal anecdotes or find ways to combine multiple boring real elements into one fabulous fictional element. They’ll also point out the points where the personal elements you’re incorporating go against the vision you have for the piece. Going back again to this piece, Chuck knew my main goal for writing this was to show off my editing experience and skills and get more work out of it. He pointed out several places where good personal writing was damaging the mission of my piece. He also pointed out places where I was flat out wrong.

Which brings me to…

3. YOU’RE GOING TO GET SOMETHING WRONG

Authors are also a really smart lot by and large, but they tend to be specialists and tend to be hyper-focused on individual projects. Editors are able to see the bigger picture because they haven’t spent months or years researching the topic or novel like the author has. They’re coming to it as your readers will, with the same questions and desire to be entertained AND informed, but with the added skill of being able to help you fix the spots where you goof up.

As with personal details, including enough research in a novel to keep the reader informed and educated as well as entertained without bogging them down in footnotes and graduate thesis-level description is a tough balance. Again, a good editor will do this tactfully through a series of questions (do we really need four pages to describe how to turn on the Demon Laser Sword?) to help the author realize the overload on their own. This also includes spelling and grammar. Editors are vigilant with the dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style, and other resources at hand to make sure that the prose comes across clear and easy to read without being hampered by silly grammar or spelling errors.

4. THE BEST OPTION FOR PUBLISHING MAY NOT BE THE ONE YOU THINK

Most of the freelance editors I know, myself included, have worked with Big Five publishing houses, smaller publishers, and everything in between and still follow what’s going on in the industry. A good portion of my editorial business is publishing consulting and helping authors find the right publishing fit for their story.

Once you have a great novel polished to a sparkly sheen, a freelance editor with great knowledge of the current publishing scene can help you figure out the best path for your individual story within your publishing life plan. If your goal is only to find an agent and be published by a traditional publisher, an editor will help you find ways to make your unique vision fit within the boundaries of the commercial fiction marketplace. But traditional publishing isn’t the best path for every author or for every book. An experienced and skillful editor can offer suggestions for alternatives to traditional publishing whether that be self-publishing, POD publishing, or dropping the project completely and moving on to something new.

5. NOW YOU KNOW SOMEONE IN THE BUSINESS

For those looking to be traditionally published, contacts and networking can be immensely helpful in cutting through the red tape. Hiring an editor with a wealth of contacts in the industry can help elevate great manuscripts in the slush piles and offer a stamp of validation when competing against the thousands of other unsolicited manuscripts agents and editors receive every day. While no ethical editor will ever guarantee that hiring them and working with them will guarantee representation or publication (one of the best novels I’ve ever worked on in my career still hasn’t sold and it crushes me daily), there’s no denying that a well-placed email or note can help a great manuscript get the best opportunity for success possible.

Even those who want to bypass traditional publishing can still benefit from a freelance editor with great contacts. One of the biggest complaints indie writers have is how hard it is to get their books noticed. In addition to contacts with editors and agents, most top freelance editors have contacts with bloggers, book reviewers, and influential readers who can help spread the word of a book.

So when considering whether to hire a freelance editor and how much you’re willing to pay for the service, think about what you’re looking for. Do you just want someone to make sure the commas are in the correct place and you haven’t used their, they’re, or there wrong, or do you want a skilled and well-connected partner who can help you fully realize the vision of your project  and provide access to reach the largest audience possible for that project?

Bryon Quertermous has over a decade of publishing experience that includes work with traditional stalwarts, such as Random House, as well as more cutting-edge operations like Harlequin’s digital-first imprint Carina Press. His most recent position was as the commissioning editor for Angry Robot’s crime fiction imprint Exhibit A Books. He’s worked as a freelance editor for New York Times bestselling authors and published the award-winning crime zine Demolition for four years. His first novel, Murder Boy, will be published in 2015 by Polis Books. Rates, testimonials, and recent editing projects can be found at his website, right here.

12 comments

  • Loved the blog Bryon, and best of luck with the freelancing! I always thought an editor would be crucial, but the last point about knowing someone in the business is a great one. Always assumed this would be purely down to an agent, but of course not everyone has an agent.

  • Ah, thank you for getting the blood pressure up this morning. Nothing drives me battier than reading someone’s statement about a writer not knowing what story they want to write.

    Aside from that, there are some good tips, but the language could be cleaned up a bit for the first entry, in my opinion.

    Ah well, this is why I gave up writing. If I know of anyone who needs editing though, I will let them know about this article.

  • As Stephen King wrote, “To write is human, to edit is divine.”

    One question that’s been on my mind as of late: any tips or recommendations for a writer looking to find the RIGHT editor? By “right”, I don’t just mean “yup, this editor knows how to correct spelling and grammar”. I mean “this editor is a good fit for my story, the genre I’m hoping to write for, etc. etc.”

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