Trusting your editorial gut

I missed most of last night’s #yalitchat on Twitter, but I caught just a few pithy remarks from editors and writers that I wanted to share with you all. It pins down what I’ve been trying to articulate to myself as an editor, and I think it will help writers to understand where editors are coming from.

The topic seemed to be mistakes we’ve made, either as writers or publishing people (I didn’t look at the schedule and haven’t gone back to the beginning of the posts, so someone in the know, please correct me if I’m wrong). Here’s the relevant part for us today:

Elana Roth (agent) said,

I’ve passed on things that needed SO MUCH work even though the concepts were great. Sometimes I wonder about those…

And in reply, Elizabeth Law (editor) said,

Me too. Learned years ago that if someone has great idea but can’t write it, I can’t rewrite the book for them.

Then she went on to quote Moss Hart:

Moss Hart said “In my life I’ve had many successes and many failures. Each success came for a different reason, but each failure came because I said ‘yes’ when I wanted to say ‘no.'”

One of the things I’ve grown a lot in, as an editor, over the last few months as I have gone back to reading the slush pile is refining the point at which I say no. It’s so easy for me to latch onto a good idea and want to develop it with the writer. And sometimes it’s worth it and will grow into a really great book that I can acquire, but there are two factors that I have to consider before I can ever get that far:

1) Am I really excited about it, or just think I should be because it’s a great concept? That is, does the voice hold up? Or do I continue to read because there’s so much wrong with it that I just can’t help myself wanting to “fix” it?

2) If like it, but have mixed feelings, often those mixed feelings are a sign that I should say no.

There has been the rare occasion where I’ve come across something so brilliant yet flawed that I agonize over whether it’s worth it to ask for a full or to work on it with the author. Often, that’s when the voice is gorgeous but some other aspect of the book needs work—something that I can help with, such as plot structure, characterization, or worldbuilding.

The ones that I have learned to turn down earlier and earlier are the ones in which the ideas—maybe even the worldbuilding—are great, but the voice is the problem. I can’t teach a writer through the editorial process how to be a better writer, how to reach the voice of their character more fully. I can’t spend my time on that when there are so many writers who have perfected their craft enough that the voice is perfect—exquisite, even—despite a few flaws in areas that can be discussed in an editorial letter.

Much as I’d like to help with voice, it’s really almost impossible for me to make editorial letter suggestions at the acquisitions level. I used to work with authors at earlier stages when I was freelancing, which is where suggestions for improvement can help voice eventually, if the writer is willing to do the work. But at the acquisitions stage, voice should mostly be decided. Oh, there might be a tweak suggestion here or there in line editing, or even suggestions for differentiating one character more from another, but the author needs to have perfected his or her craft of the overall narrative voice as much as possible. (Among all the other things you’re supposed to be perfect at!)

Going back to the Twitter discussions, that’s what I’d point out as my “mistake,” one that I’m constantly working to improve as I go through submissions: Refining my ability to say “no” earlier in the process for as many books as need it, so as to free up my time for concentrating more deeply on the possible yeses. I think I’m getting better at it. As Elizabeth said later, “I’m just learning to trust my gut, That’s all I’m saying.”

Yup. Even experienced editors are constantly learning how to be better at what they do.

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