Conventional wisdom seems to be moving toward advising all aspiring authors to hire an editor, even before sending the book to an agent. I may not be wise, but I’m often unconventional: I think this is bullshit.
Whose book is it? Do you have a vision for it? If so, stick by it. If not, why are you showing it around? Is the editor supposed to provide that, too? What do you do when the editor differs about how something should go? Roll over? Look for another editor and go best two-of-three? Or stick to your guns, in which case you wasted your money on the editor.
This is not to say editors do not serve a valuable role, but it is best played after a relationship has been developed. Per-page editors may be good, and they may want the best for you and your book, but they cannot have the same investment you have. They edit your book, send the bill, and move onto the next author. That’s their job.
Editors also disagree. My first story submission went to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a short story about a man who may, or may not, have killed his wife. We don’t know, as the story is told through him talking to what we learn at the end is the priest who accompanies him to the death chamber. Hitchcock declined, but I did receive a note: it needed another character, if just for a second, to provide context.
I added a couple of brief paragraphs where the narrator speaks with a guard and sent that one to Ellery Queen. (The Hitchcock editor did not invite a resubmission. I probably should have tried again, but I was a virgin.) Ellery Queen also passed. Told me to lose the guard, he wasn’t needed. What I lost was interest.
Have I never been helped by an editor? Au contraire. (I like to throw in the occasional bit of French for The Sole Heir, so she knows I pay attention.) My first two agents were enormously helpful as editors, mainly by teaching me what to look for and how to fix things myself. Pam Strickler sent me copious notes on how to tighten my prose and, in retrospect, leave out the parts people tend to skip at a micro level. Barbara Braun provided tips on story structure that help me keep god as far away from my machines as possible.
My success with a purely editorial editor was with Todd Robinson. I submitted a short story to the original Thuglit, and he returned it with notes about the ending, and said he’d look at it again if I wanted to resubmit. (I’m paraphrasing. This is Big Daddy Thug we’re talking about. I’m pretty sure “fuck” was in there a few times.) I thought it over, re-crafted the ending, resubmitted, and—boom!—I had my first sale, and a tee shirt I wear to this day. Todd also picked “Green Gables” for one of the anthologies, thus providing my first paycheck as a writer. (And people wonder why I worship at the Church of Thug.)
The difference, to me, is to show your best effort around, then get editorial assistance if needed. No offense is meant to my many editor friends. Their best assistance may come when an agent or publisher has told you they like the book, but it needs work, and then you’re not sure what to do. Give the editor specifics. (“I can resubmit, but I need to punch up the dialog.” Or, “I’ve been told the setting is weak. What can I do?”) Don’t just send them a book, allegedly your book, and say, “Fix this.” If all you’re getting are generic rejections, your writing may well need more than an editor.
But you’re a fledgling writer, adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Where to start? What do to? What do you want to write, and in what style? The answer is a lot easier than you think, and a lot harder than it sounds: read. All the time. Every spare moment, and make time to have those spare moments. That half an hour a day you spend watching television to wind down? Read instead. Which is more important today: weeding the garden or reading? That depends on which is more important to you, gardening or writing, if today’s schedule demands choosing one or the other? There is no wrong answer, but you can’t learn to write on your knees pulling things out of the dirt.
All good writers are good readers, and by that I don’t just mean copious readers. They know how to read. Don’t read to fall asleep on the beach. Read to learn how writers who are good or great at what you want to write get it done. Need help with dialog? Read Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins. Want a more staccato, edgier writing style? James Ellroy. You’d like to be more poetic, yet not overly wordy? James Lee Burke or John Connolly. Not saying you have to write like them—you can’t, they’re geniuses—but pay attention to see how they get the effects you like and experiment with those techniques in your own fiction.
My dream was always to be a professional musician. I couldn’t make a living at it, and had to give it up. It broke my heart at the time, but the recovery was quick, because I knew I’d done everything I could. I’d wrung every last drop of talent out of myself, and it wasn’t enough. There’s honor in that; any shame would have come from less than a full effort.
That’s how writing is. You’re going to own whatever success you gain, though, to be sure, you’ll appreciate and acknowledge whatever help you had along the way. (Unless you’re a complete asshole, in which case get away from my blog.) Be prepared to own any failures as well. The way to do that is to be true to your vision of your work, and to give your best effort all the time. Your best effort. Don’t claim your well has run dry when you haven’t yet dug it deep enough. I can live with rejection. What I wouldn’t be able to live with is wondering if what I had written in the first place would have been good enough, when what I submitted was not.