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.