Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.25: Hiring an Editor, with Callie Stoker

Your Hosts: Howard and Dan, with special guest Callie Stoker

Callie Stoker joined Howard and Dan at the World Horror convention to answer our questions about hiring an editor, which is part of the process by which self-published authors build the team of people who will make the manuscript far better than they can make it by themselves.

Credits: Mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Finish your story. Go back and remove 1000 words. Now go back AGAIN and remove ANOTHER 1000 words. Keep doing this until the story falls apart. Now edit it and ADD 1000 words.

Thing of the week: Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, narrated by Noah Michael Levine.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Should an aspiring author hire an editor? Yes, to act as a one-on-one mentor. Or to support self-publishing. You don’t have to do it all yourself! There are various kinds of editors, developmental/content, copy editor (grammar/punctuation), proofreader. Get the right one! As a writer, think of yourself as a small business owner. Find the experts who know what they are doing. Good editors will not bring out the Hammer of Doom and force you to write it their way. Good editors try to understand what the writer is trying to accomplish, then help them do that. How do you find the right editor? Trail edits, talk to other writers, meetings at cons, panels at cons.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 25.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Hiring an Editor, with Callie Stoker.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart. I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Callie] And I’m Callie.
[Howard] And we have Callie Stoker with us. We are here at the World Horror Convention. It’s… We have kind of a reduced team at the table here, but I’m excited because Callie is a freelance editor, works with a lot of self publishers, and we have a lot of demand among our listeners for exactly the kind of advice that Callie has to offer.
[Callie] Great.

[Dan] So let’s start with the first question, and this is one that we get constantly in email and through listeners and through twitter. Is it worth it for an aspiring author, whether they’re going to self pub or they’re going for traditional, whatever, to hire an editor, just out of pocket?
[Callie] It probably sounds a little self-serving, but I would say yes.
[Callie] Really, it’s what you’re looking for and what you need in your path as a writer. I do work with a lot of authors who are still learning how to write, and they have found… They have done the writing group thing, they have joined the writing associations, and that has helped them to one point, but they’ve found that they need a one-on-one mentor. So they hired me for that. In doing that, they saw quicker growth. So I work with a lot of writers like that. Then I get to be on the team of several self-publishing authors who are acting as publishers themselves, so they hire out for all the things that a publisher would provide, including editing services.
[Howard] I love that model, Callie, and it’s important that we’ve… I mean, we’ve hit this nail before, we’ve hammered this point home before, but I want to say it again. Self-publishing does not mean doing it all yourself.
[Callie] Nope.
[Howard] It means becoming your own publisher, and one of the roles of the publisher is to hire the editor, and the art director, and the artist, and all of those other people. From my own experience, writing Schlock Mercenary… Didn’t have an editor for years and years and years. My first experience working with an editor was contract work that I did for Privateer Press. I’ve told the story before, the upshot of the story is, I learned things as a writer, 12 years after having become a full-time creative writing professional, by virtue of having an editor tell me, “No. That’s not enough. This knob goes to 11. You need to give me more here.” Is that the sort of thing that you find yourself telling writers? That a story doesn’t go far enough or a story has crossed the line? Or is it just wordsmithy stuff?
[Callie] Yes, exactly. I’m specifically a developmental editor, so I deal with story. I let someone else do the grammar and the punctuation.
[Howard] I have never heard that word before. Say that again.
[Callie] Really? Developmental editor, which means I work on content of the story.
[Dan] See, this… That’s not a phrase that I’ve heard, but I love it. Because that’s exactly the kind of breakdown that I have with my editors at Tor and Harper. It is… They are the ones who help make sure the story is as good as it can be, at which point it moves on to a copy editor and they handle all the language and the little gritty stuff.
[Callie] I find that content edit is so valuable for exactly what you were talking about, Howard, because for my first pass, I’ll always write a report. That report is a chapter-by-chapter outline that helps point out some of the things that you were talking about. More description here, the dialogue’s happening in a void, create more here. But then I also, in the report, just talk about writing elements that they might be weak on. They’ve heard these things before. They’ve heard showing and telling, they’ve heard… But what I am doing is, I’m making it specific to them and their writing style. Like, I can see that you’re trying to show and not tell here, but let’s try doing it this way so it’s more effective for you. Having that personal one-on-one advice, I’ve seen really great growth in the writers that I work with.
[Howard] I didn’t even know this service existed.
[Howard] I’m getting very, very excited about it.
[Dan] I can’t stress enough the value of it. Especially if you are going to publish your work yourself. Even… When I, two years ago, put out the John Cleaver novella, Next of Kin. Which was self published. At that point, I had, what, six or seven traditionally published books under my belt, I was a successful author, I was best-selling at that point. I still went to and hired an editor to work on that novella. Because I needed that kind of content advice. Because I… Like all arrogant people, I’m very confident in my own greatness and in the greatness of my story, but I need an outside person, an outside expert, who can say, “Okay. Yeah. It’s good, and I can see why you think it’s awesome. Let me help you make it so everyone else can see why it’s awesome.”
[Callie] Yeah, exactly. One of my philosophies as an editor is it’s my job to understand what you are trying to accomplish in your book. Once I understand that, it’s my job to help you get there.

[Howard] Do you let them pitch the book beginning to end first, or do you let the book speak for itself? How do you handle that?
[Callie] I’ve found that it’s much more effective to let the words on the page speak for themselves. Then, if I… The hope is that as I read their manuscript, and I always read through it twice. The first one is to read it as a reader, and pick up what I can and enjoy what I can. Then, the second time, to read it as an editor. The purpose of the first readthrough is to find out what you are trying to accomplish here. You guys have been doing these great elemental…
[Dan] Yeah. The elemental genres.
[Callie] Genres. What are you trying to get your reader to feel here? What is your purpose? What are you trying to accomplish? For the most part, by the time I get to the end of the manuscript, I can tell what they’re trying to get to. If I can’t, then I get to have a conversation with the writer and we help pinpoint what they wanted to do, what’s still stuck inside their head. Then I help them get there.
[Howard] I’ve had a couple of experiences with writing groups where I’ve submitted something and the feedback has been, “Wow, this does this really well, and this really well, and this is the way it made me feel, and I’m not sure I understood this bit.” The take away for me was, none of those were the things that I wanted you to feel, and that bit you didn’t understand is the bit that was supposed to bring it all home. So obviously I’ve failed. Give me that back and I will rewrite it.
[Callie] In the chapter-by-chapter outline that I do, I have two columns. One which is exactly that, what is my reader feedback? What did I get from the page? Just so that the author can see that, because it is helpful.

[Dan] All right. Let’s pause right here, and do our book of the week. This is one that Callie wants to talk about. It’s not one that you wrote or worked on…
[Callie] Correct.
[Dan] But one that you loved, and honestly, one that I love as well. Tell us about it.
[Callie] I recently read Vicious by V. E. Schwab. I’ve been following her for a little bit, and really been enjoying her writing. She writes YA under Victoria Schwab. One thing that she excels at his a lot of trust in the reader. That’s something where an editor, again, is very valuable, because as an author, you know your whole story. You know what you’re trying… You know everything from beginning to end. How do you know what holes are good holes and what holes are bad…
[Callie] And are confusing? V. E. Schwab has found that perfect balance. So she trusts her reader to pay attention, and to keep going as you go along and read, but it’s never confusing. The story is a mix between X-Men meets Count of Montecristo. So you’ve got two college boys who believe that people can gain superpowers, but only after a near-death experience. So what follows? They tried to kill themselves.
[Howard] That doesn’t end well.
[Dan] And it really is a wonderful book. It is one of the teeny-tiny handful of books that I have actually given a cover blurb to. I’m not on the front cover on this one, because I’m not as awesome as that…
[Dan] I’m on the back cover, though. It really is a great book, and she is a fantastic author. So that is Vicious by V. E. Schwab. You can find that anywhere fine books are sold.

[Howard] Outstanding. So, question for you from the writerly standpoint. Are there lessons that you can offer, is there advice that you can give to a writer, that extends beyond, “Boy, you need an editor?”
[Howard] Because we’ve established boy, you need an editor. What are the pointers that you can give to a writer that will shortcut some things for them or help things out?
[Callie] I believe strongly that writers need to think of themselves as small business owners. That means doing sometimes a paradigm shift in your brain… Because we are creative, we are creators, but becoming more business minded. We’ve already touched on some of the points that go under being business minded. One is that you are not an expert in everything. Thus, you need to find the expert…
[Howard] Yeah…
[Callie] And surround yourself by the people who know what they’re doing.
[Dan] I’m not certain that I’m an expert in anything.
[Callie] I don’t know. You’re an expert in freaking me out.

[Dan] Well. That has always been my goal. Let me ask you, because I know a concern that a lot of people have, especially as yet unpublished authors. They are afraid or concerned that an editor is going to come in with the Hammer of Doom and force them to do something and make decisions that they don’t want. I know I fight with my editors constantly, and say, “No,” and just as often, say, “Yes.” How do you, as an editor, handle those kinds of situations where the writer says, “I don’t like your advice. I’m not going to make that change?”
[Callie] I think all editors kind of love those fights.
[Callie] That might explain something about us. I find… If we were to have a quick conversation about a good editor versus a bad editor… An editor that is going to be less than helpful is one that goes in with their own ideas and their own mindset of what your creation should be, and then tries to make it that. So I’m going back to my philosophy. It’s my job to first understand what you’re trying to accomplish, so I personally worked very hard to set the writer at ease and let them know I am here to help what you are trying to do. So I think that’s a really important element. Once I gain the trust, then when I’m asking them to do very difficult things or make very large changes, they’re willing to at least look at it. Instead of just, “Oh, you didn’t understand me. I’m not even going to address this.”
[Howard] I think in this vein, the writer who always pushes back, and never makes the change that they don’t want to make, is going to miss out on an experience that they definitely need to have. But the writer who never pushes back will miss out on something else. I know that if I had pushed back on the Privateer Press guys, I would have gotten fired.
[Howard] But the story would not have been as good. But at the same time, I’ve had editorial suggestions that I know were just wrong. It wasn’t just because the editor and I had different visions for what the story was trying to do. It was because the editor thought it could be done this way, and I’m… I know it can’t. In this instance, I was right.
[Callie] It’s a real privilege to work with authors that have that clarity of I know what I want and I know what I’m trying to accomplish. So, that’s what I was…
[Dan] Well… We have no follow-up to that.

[Dan] All right. So, what else? What are some of the things that… Aside from that clarity of vision and aside from kind of helping polish up, what else can you as an editor, can freelance editors in general, offer to authors?
[Callie] Well, keep in mind that there are different layers of editing. So content is usually the first place to go, and I do two passes. I do a content edit, and then a line edit. Which does include some of the grammar and punctuation, but I still get to look at the story. Are you saying it clearly? I look at the syntax. I do a lot of checking up on things, fact checking. Then, after that, you’re going to want to get into your copy edit, which is straight grammar punctuation. If you’ve hired a copy editor and they are making comments to your story, be aware that that’s not really their job. If it’s helpful, great. But that’s not a copy editor’s job. They’re just there to clean it up. Then the final pass is your…
[Dan] Proofing?
[Callie] Thank you.
[Dan] Proofing. Yes.
[Callie] Proofreader.

[Dan] I love copy editors. I fight with copy editors even more than I fight with normal editors.
[Dan] But what I love about copy editors is when you get a really good one, they are the most meticulous readers you will ever have. They will catch stuff… It’s because they’re… A proofer is meticulous, but they’re looking at spelling, they’re looking at punctuation. A copy editor is looking specifically at the story. I had a copy editor wants who found a mystery in the Partials series that no one else had noticed. I had been building it for two books, and she’s like, “There’s a hole here.” I said, “No, there’s not. You’re just the only one that’s noticed the mystery that’s coming.” It’s because she read so carefully. Apparently, I had that mystery too well, and it didn’t really come out.
[Callie] Because she’s the only one who…
[Dan] Because she’s the only one. But copy editors are great for that kind of stuff.
[Callie] Very detail oriented.

[Howard] Now, Callie, listening to you talk about editing… I knew there were a couple of different kinds of editors, and now you’ve given me like six. If I were self-pubbing and looking to hire an editor, I am not confident in my ability to find an editor who is going to do the things that I know need to be done. How, as a writer, would I go about finding the right editor? What are the resources for me for making sure that I’m hiring a content editor, not a copy editor? Or hiring a proofreader, not a content editor? How do I…
[Callie] Go about it… You’ve talked a lot about hiring agents, and that there’s a partnership there. There’s a trust that needs to be built there. An editor’s a lot of the same things. So, most, if not all editors, should offer a free edit. I do the first chapter or up to 3000 words. So that gives you a little taste of what they can offer for you. Having that communication and seeing if you just mesh well, because personality is just as important as the actual work itself. Talk to other writers and find an editor that they trust. There’s nothing better than having a recommendation. Coming to cons like this and meeting, shaking hands, going to panels where an editor really sounds like they know what they’re talking about. That is all extremely helpful, because anyone can say they’re an editor. There’s all different brands of editors out there. So weeding through to find a good one can be difficult.

[Dan] A good one, and a good one for you. We’re out of time, but I want you to tell our listeners very quickly where they can find you online.
[Callie] So, I’m Callie Stoker, the manuscript doctor. Doctor Who fan, so I can say, “I’m the Doctor.”
[Callie] You can find me at or just Google the manuscript doctor and I’ll show up.
[Dan] Awesome.

[Howard] Outstanding. Writing prompt?
[Dan] Well, let’s do homework today. Rather than writing prompt.
[Callie] Oh, I’ve got one.
[Dan] You’ve got one?
[Callie] I’ve got one.
[Dan] Hit us.
[Callie] Okay. So this works best for something short, a short story. Go ahead and write your story, all the way to the end. Then look at your word count. Your job is to subtract 1000 words. Anything extraneous. Once you’ve done that, go back and subtract another thousand words. And again, and again. Until your story falls apart…
[Dan] Until your story’s a haiku.
[Callie] And doesn’t do anything for you anymore. Once you’ve reached that point, go back and put 1000 words back in. And you’ve found your sweet plot.
[Howard] Oh, I love that. As a former audio engineer who pushed the knob too far, just to see where too far is, I love that. Callie, thank you so much for joining us. Well, I guess that’s it. This is Writing Excuses. You, fair listener, are out of excuses. Go write.