About My Editor

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People often compare the relationship between an agent and a writer to a marriage.  And in many ways, it’s an apt analogy.  Writers and agents choose each other, and usually it’s a choice that’s made as a long-term commitment.  Writers may go from publisher to publisher and from editor to editor, but we try to stick with the same agent for as long as possible.  With an agent, you look to establish long-term career goals and strategies for attaining them.  It is a relationship built for the long haul.  Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and the break-ups can be difficult, even bitter.

The editor-author relationship, on the other hand, is more complicated and harder to define.  At times the relationship is formed more as a matter of convenience than by choice.  Most writers end up with an editor based upon which publishing house buys that author’s books.  (Sometimes an agent approaches a particular editor with the idea that the book is a good fit for his or her taste.  In my case, my manuscript was simply assigned to the person who would become my editor at Tor.)  The editor-author relationship on an artistic level is, at its best, very much a partnership.  But that partnership is complicated by the fact that on a business level there is some built-in tension.  Authors want to make as much money as possible; editors are expected to contract books with the best possible terms for the publishing house.  In fact, one of the primary responsibilities of an agent is to take on the business battles on the author’s behalf, so as to maintain the viability of the artistic partnership between author and editor.

 So, while agents and authors have marriages, editors and authors have relationships of all different sorts.  Mine is most like the rapport between older and younger brothers.  Let me begin by saying that I like my editor very much.  His name is James Frenkel, and he’s been at Tor for a long time now.  We forgive each other for our personality quirks, and we have times when we’re at loggerheads.  But overall we get along very well.  I should also say that I’ve been very fortunate, and a bit unusual, in that I’ve written all ten of my novels (including THE HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT, which comes out in January) for one publishing house and one editor.

I entered the business knowing nothing about the business side of writing, and having never written a novel-length work of fiction.  I was as green as I could be.  And so I was fortunate that my manuscript ended up on the desk of someone who had been in the business for decades, who had worked as a publisher, an agent, and an editor, and who was married to a writer.  He knew the business from every perspective.

From the beginning, then, Jim served not only as my editor, but also as my mentor.  He explained the business to me.  When I traveled to New York to see him or met him at conventions, he introduced around.  He knows EVERYONE in the SF/Fantasy field, and he was more than happy to help me make connections.  When he went through that first book of mine, he tore it apart, pointing out all the places where I had made mistakes.  And I’d made a lot of them.

Some of my errors were technical.  I was a good writer mechanically, but I had been trained in academia.  Novel writing demanded different skills, and followed different rules.  Jim helped me learn them.  He pointed out places where my narrative dragged and suggested ways to punch it up.  Perhaps most important, he showed me where I had betrayed my characters, having them do or say things that weren’t true to who and what they were.

In short, he had the rare ability to address both micro and macro issues.  He could do line editing (wording, syntax, the little stuff) as well as big picture editing (character, plotting, worldbuilding).  That first book was almost like an apprenticeship.  I learned so much from him, and wound up with a novel that was far, far better than it had been when I first wrote it.

The second book was easier; the third easier than that.  I’ve improved with every book I’ve written.  Much of my early learning was a direct result of Jim’s revision notes.  Later in my career I began to pick stuff up for myself, and over the years I’ve developed a style that is very much my own.  And as this has happened, Jim has worked on my manuscripts with a lighter hand.  Every once in a while, if I start developing bad habits or I fall back into old mistakes, he kicks me around a little.  But in general I need less, and so he does less.

This is where that older brother-younger brother thing comes in.  I have three older siblings, and they’re all a good deal older than I am. (Fourteen, twelve, and six years older to be precise.)  So this is a relationship dynamic I understand pretty well.  When I was starting out I needed guidance — I needed to be taught.  Today, I still need critiquing.  No manuscript is ever perfect, and Jim still has an uncany ability to understand what I’m trying to do with my worlds, my characters, my stories.  But I don’t need nearly as much direction as I used to.  And he’s been able to make that adjustment.  Just as my relationships with my siblings have changed as I’ve joined them in adulthood, my rapport with Jim has grown as my writing has developed.  We’re still good friends.  We still argue.  But for the most part, we deal with each other as equals now. 

Not all editors and writers have this kind of rapport.  This is not to say that they don’t have relationships that work every bit as well as the one I have with Jim.  But all editor-writer relationships are different.  This was intended to be a snapshot of mine. 

The book I’m writing now, the third and final volume of Blood of the Southlands, is the last book I have under contract with Tor.  This could be the last book I do with my current editor.  That’s a strange thought — a bit frightening, but also a bit exciting.  I could easily end up selling my next project to Tor and remaining exactly where I am.  Or I could move on.  Either way, I’ll carry with me all that I’ve learned from Jim thus far.

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11 comments to About My Editor

  • *Great* post, David.
    I’ve had…let me count them…8 editors?
    Ick. It’s like I’ve been in literary foster care…
    Faith

  • Heidi

    Thank you for writing this – it’s great to know there are good author\editor relationships out there, compared to the horror stories that usually get shared. May I be as fortunate someday.
    – Heidi

  • Thanks, Faith. As I say, I’ve been very lucky with my editor/publishing situation. Just one of the many ways I’ve been fortunate in this business.

  • Lou Berger

    Wow, David…GREAT post!

    I am an unpublished author, very green, just as you were, and I have great hopes of one day becoming published. TOR is my publisher of choice, as I like how they treated you, and how they’ve treated John Scalzi. I like the professionalism of the books, the cover art, the quality of the print and the binding.

    More importantly, I am especially impressed with your revelations about how they took a newbie author and turned out TEN books!

    Well done, and please don’t think that I’m pooh-poohing your contributions to the production of the ten novels. I’m very aware of the hours and hours you put into your side of the deal…

    Again, thanks for the post, it was very enlightening!

    Lou

  • Thanks for the comment, Heidi. I’ve heard the nightmare stories, too. I won’t lie to you and say that there haven’t been frustrations in my relationship with Jim — nor will I claim that those frustrations don’t run both ways (I’m no picnic, believe me). But like any other relationship it requires compromise, communication, and patience.

    Thanks to you, also, Lou. I’m certainly no newbie anymore. It’s been fourteen years since I signed that first contract and eleven years since my first book was published. But Tor and Jim have helped me build a career, and I’m grateful to them for that.

  • Great post, David!

    I think it shows how much he likes your writing style and your characters to be able to “read your mind” so to speak, and correct you when he feels that you are straying from your characters. I think from the sounds of it, he would very much fight to keep you at TOR/FORGE with your next series.

  • [Pointing at Mark] Who let him in here?! 😉

    Thanks, Mark. I have no doubt that Jim and I could continue to work together productively for a long, long time. But this is a fluid business and few authors remain with one house as long as I’ve remained with Tor A lot will depend on what level of interest we get on the series from different houses.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Nice post, David. I, too, have really enjoyed Jim’s editorial insights.

    Funny to find out you got assigned to him by chance. I went to a convention in 1985, just after getting out of college, with the purpose of making publishing contacts. I got Jim’s card at that convention, went to work for him briefly in NY as a kind of an intern the next fall, and have known him ever since. I worked for him later on, too, and babysat his kids a few times. (The younger of those kids, who was like four at the time, has gotten into med school. Kind of eerie. ) Took me a long time to actually have something to sell him, though. 😉

    Anyway, nice thoughts on the agent/writer relationship.

  • Beatriz

    David– insightful post. Danke.

    Faith– you absolutely kill me “literary foster care” is why you make money at this and others don’t. That’s brilliant!

  • It’s so funny…I was a guest at a book club last week, and one of their questions was about what exactly an editor does. They were all shocked (and a little dismayed) when I told them the editor does not fix all the writer’s mistakes, but just brings them to the writer’s attention for him or her to fix. By now you’d think people would know that, but the old myths hang on. 😀

  • Thanks for the comments, all. Jagi, there are so many of us who have known Jim a long time. As I said, he knows EVERYONE in the business it seems. I’m always genuinely surprised when I can actually introduce him to someone.

    You’re welcome, B! And I liked the foster care line, too.

    Misty, that’s a good point. I’m asked a lot if I resent it when my editor changes my words. To which I say, “He doesn’t. He points out places where I haven’t got it quite right and recommends that I change them…”