Thursday, January 29, 2015

How to Communicate With Your Editor

James O. Born

Communication is the key to virtually any occupation.  Advertisers must communicate why their product is so important to consumers.  Police officers must communicate with each other to stop serial criminals from committing crimes over and over.  Doctors must communicate to patients all sorts of information from the most complex scientific theories to simple practices they must employ to stay healthy.  And a writer must not only communicate with the reader effectively, but also communicate with an editor.

The writer-editor relationship is unique.  Everyone has a different view of it.  It can be a partnership, it can be a chore, it can be a joy, but ultimately it needs to be a relationship which makes a novel better.  There are a number of other elements the relationship can affect.  The writer has to clearly express his or her expectations for promotion and other elements not related to actually writing a novel.  For the purposes of this blog, let's focus on the relationship that affects the novel itself.

I have dealt with a number of editors in my career.  All of them have their own unique view of how things should be done and how novels should sound.  I always thought of it as writing a novel specifically for that editor.  It's sort of like doing a public speech but focusing on one person in the audience.  But in this case there is a chance to do something special.  Don't waste this opportunity to hear someone else's opinion of your writing.  Listen to what your editor has to say.  Don't be ready with a quick excuse or response.  If the editor thinks the book is missing a character to tie it all together, I would recommend that you consider creating a character to tie it all together.  It's a lesson I learned in other areas that I can apply to writing.

I can use two examples from two different editors.  And please forgive me if I've mentioned any of these stories before.  I find that they are the best examples I can present and I use them in the classes that I teach.

The first relates to my third novel, Escape Clause.  I had finished it and felt pretty good that the story of a Florida cop sent to a prison to investigate a mysterious death had all the elements I wanted and the tone I was trying to set.  I was not overly confident, as any writer who is overly confident about their writing is probably a shitty writer.  But I felt pretty good about the book.  That is, until my editor at Putnam, Neil Nyren, talked to me about what was missing.  There is no way I would've ever seen it on my own.  He suggested that I identified the bad guy at the very beginning of the book, instead of about eighty pages in.  Even though I thought it was a great surprise to realize exactly who the bad guy was, Neil pointed out that the reader needed someone to root against right from the start.  I still recall when I was done, the letter he wrote me that said I had really, “juiced up" the novel.

I can state unequivocally that Neil's way was far superior to my original idea.  Dammit!  The book went on to earn very good reviews and the inaugural Florida book award for best novel.  Thank you very much, Neil.

A more recent example is in my upcoming novel, Scent of Murder.  Once again I handed in a book I was happy with.  This time to my editor at Forge books, Bob Gleason.  Bob liked the overall story, but felt it needed one additional viewpoint.  He thought that several scenes set in the viewpoint of one of the canine heroes of the book would make it more interesting.  I resisted at first.  Then set aside my ego and considered Bob's tremendous experience in publishing.  He didn't just leave me out in the cold, he suggested I read Call of the Wild by Jack London as well as several articles.  Bob is big on sending me articles on different subjects.  To make a relatively long story not much shorter, he was right.  The final version of Scent of Murder, is better than the version I wrote.  Again, dammit!

This was all possible by communication.  And by communication, I mean it is probably more important for the author to listen to the editor than the other way around.  In effect, the editor is your boss.  If you keep that in mind, generally things work out all right.

On a different subject, but relevant for today and tomorrow only, the e-book version of my second novel, Shock Wave, is available for free on Amazon if you click here.  I'm not selling anything, just giving it away.  That sounds worse when I say it out loud.

Have a great Thursday.


  1. I should be so lucky as to have more than one editor. Or even one.

  2. Wonderful advice and anecdotes. Thanks for the free book. I read it a while back, but misplaced copy. It's nice to have an e-book.

  3. James O. Born1/29/2015 11:56 AM

    Luc, give it time

    Andi, Thanks.

  4. It's always awful to get a critical editorial letter when you think you've turned in your best work. Editors are usually right and always worth listening to. Thanks for this, James O.

  5. Wonderful post. I agree that communication is important.