Writing Excuses 12.38: What Do Editors Really Want, with Toni Weisskopf and Cat Rambo
Q: What do editors really want?
A: Chocolate and bourbon. To give you a contract for your bestseller and $50,000. The next XXX, but not the same. To buy a book that works. The writer to do the work!
Q: What are they looking for when working with the editor?
A: The ability to take direction, to achieve the author’s vision. How do we bridge the gap between “Don’t write to the market” and “Editors buy for the market?” The first audience is yourself. Readers, like dogs, can smell crap. Write what you are passionate about.
Q: When an editor finds a problem, what is the next step?
A: A challenge to the author. Editors suggest fixes, but good authors don’t do that, they do it their own way, in their own voice.
Q: What are some common pitfalls or advice?
A: Be timely. Don’t try to be perfect, just respond, and keep the communication going. Ask yourself, “Will this news get better if I wait?” Editors are not parents or bosses. Collaboration is the name of the game.
Q: Is there an exemplary or hilarious incident from the trenches?
A: Don’t respond to a rejection slip with the news that your mother liked the story. Arguing with rejection letters is pointless.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 38.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. What Do Editors Really Want?
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] With us, on this episode, we have Cat Rambo and Toni Weisskopf. Say hello.
[Tony] Hey, y’all.
[Dan] Awesome. Let’s take a minute just to introduce yourselves. Cat, tell us a bit about yourself.
[Cat] I’m a writer and editor. I write a lot of short stories. I’ve got a couple of novels. I am the current president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
[Dan] Fantastic. And Toni?
[Toni] I am publisher of Baen Books. We publish science fiction and fantasy, and have been doing so for over 30 years.
[Dan] Awesome. Well, great. Thank you very much for being on the show. We’re excited to have you because most of the time we’re talking to authors. Today, we get to talk to people who have really strong editing experience. So, let’s start with the question in the title, what do editors really want?
[Toni] Well, I mean, the obvious answer is chocolate and bourbon.
[Toni] I think also of the Snoopy cartoon, when he’s sitting and he’s reading his rejection letter, and he’s saying, “No, you didn’t understand. What I really wanted was a contract and $50,000.” Of course, that’s what the editor wants, too. The editor wants to give you the contract for your bestseller and $50,000. We are always hoping that the next book that we read is going to be the next Robert Heinlein, the next Andre Norton, the next Anne McCaffrey, the next Brian Herbert, the next Roger Zelazny, what have you. Except we want it to be all brilliant and new and not the same.
[Dan] Yeah. I think that’s something that a lot of aspiring writers, especially if they been at it a while unsuccessfully, they forget that and they think the deck is stacked against them. Really, when a submission comes into you, you are rooting for it to succeed.
[Toni] Absolutely. Deep down, in our shriveled little hearts…
[Toni] We want to be able to write that giant contract and we want… We are rooting for you. The problem is that the impulse to tell stories is universal. This is a human universal. Narrative… We all want to tell them. It’s one of the ways that we shape and engage our universe. Universal is a big slush pile. So, against our will, experienced editors will find that we are looking for reasons to reject rather than reasons to buy. It’s something that I as a publisher talk to my editors about. It’s part of our editor training is to train yourself out of that. That said…
[Howard] Right now, our listening audience, I’m sure that in their furiously scribbled notes, they have chocolate, bourbon, and shriveled little hearts. But, yeah, you want to buy… You want to buy a book. You want a book that works.
[Cat] If I might say something that I think editors don’t want. When I was working with Fantasy magazine, I think some folks were coming in with the illusion that I wanted a story that once I put my magical touch on it would be wonderful. So it would be like a halfway there story, and then I would somehow elevate it into wonderfulness. No! I want the writer to do the work.
[Dan] Absolutely. So let’s talk for a minute about that. Assuming that you’ve already then accepted the story and that you’re working with the author, what are you looking for at that point from the author?
[Toni] When you’re working with the author, you’re looking for the same thing that your director in your high school play looked for. That is the ability to take direction. That doesn’t mean to mindlessly do what it is that the director says. But to take constructive criticism and to take suggestions, and then filter it through your own sense of what the character should be, of what the story should be, and make it better. The editor is going to bring ideally different eyes, a sense of what the market is going to be, a sense of salability, experience working with other authors, and all of that should ideally help the author achieve their vision. Because that’s what the editor wants, is to achieve the author’s vision. Not to achieve the editor’s vision. But to help the author get to their vision, reach a larger audience.
[Howard] Except that the editor’s vision includes bourbon and chocolate…
[Howard] And you want to make sure that the story works in support of…
[Toni] Well, you see, the thing is bourbon and chocolate cost money.
[Howard] Exactly. Exactly. There’s… You need the story to work in favor of some fungible sort of thing that drives the bourbon and the chocolate. That’s the question that I always have for editors and for publishers. As authors, we’re told, “No, don’t write to the market. Don’t write to the market. Don’t write to the market.” You guys often buy to the market, though. How do we bridge that gap? How, as an author, do we work with an editor so that you’re getting…
[Cat] I think any author that is writing and thinking about how to sell the work instead of writing the work is going astray.
[Toni] I absolutely agree with that. I think the first audience that you have to sell it to is yourself. Now, not everything that you write is going to have a giant audience. But, if you’re not liking what you’re doing, then nobody else is going to, either. Readers are like dogs, they can smell crap.
[Toni] Yeah, that’s going to be on a button.
[Dan] There, now we have the tagline for this episode. [Garbled] that’s perfect.
[Dan] So, what I have noticed with my own work is that when I write what the editor or the market wants, I’ll usually end up with something serviceable, but not great.
[Dan] Whereas… For example, the book that I have coming out this month, in November, that is a crazy weird idea that I was really passionate about, and it’s bizarre, and yet, it’s gotten some of the best advance reviews I’ve ever had. It’s because I… I humbly assume because that passion is what showing through, and that people are excited about… They’re excited about the story because it’s obvious that I was excited about the story.
[Toni] I think that’s true. There’s always a balance to be made. The fact is that the things that some people are very passionate about are things that not a lot of other people are passionate about. That may reach a very teeny tiny, very directed audience. It may just be you’re just freaking weird.
[Toni] That’s okay, too. In the greater scheme of things.
[Dan] The freaking weird people buy a lot of books.
[Toni] Yeah, they do.
[Dan] So, let’s pause for a minute. Actually, each one of you has a book that you are going to tell us about. So take just 15… 20 seconds each, and tell us about the book. Now, Toni, you want to tell us about Through Fire by Sarah Hoyt.
[Toni] I do. It’s a science fiction novel set in a future that is not too too far away. Unfortunately, we’ve just gone through an election. I think this novel will be helpful to all of us. And cathartic, let’s put it that way. The novel is titled Through Fire. Let us hope that the election does not take us in this direction.
[Dan] There’s an ominous book description. All right. Cat, you have a new collection out. Tell us about that.
[Cat] I do. It’s another double-sided. I’d done a double-sided collection of science fiction, and this is a double-sided collection of fantasy, with secondary world fantasy on one side and fantasy set in our world on the other side.
[Howard] What’s it called?
[Cat] Neither Here Nor There.
[Dan] So that is Neither Here Nor There by Cat Rambo, that is new this month, and Through Fire by Sarah Hoyt. So, look those up in your preferred location and medium and anything else, and read them.
[Dan] All right. Now I want to get into some more kind of gritty nitty gritty questions. When you are… When you read something, as an editor, and you say, “Here’s an obvious problem.” What is your next step? Do you come up with a solution, or do you simply present the problem to the author and let them find a solution? Is there some middle ground there? What do you do at that point?
[Toni] I’m smiling because I think of this as a challenge to the author. If I see a problem, I will almost always suggest a fix. My intention, and my expectation, is that the author will take a look at this and go, “Oh, well, no. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to do this.” And this is going to be way better than my that. My suggestion for a fix is always going to be a challenge to the author. The kind of authors who are fun to work with take it as such.
[Dan] Well, it’s like Cat was saying earlier, that the editor doesn’t want to have to do all the work herself. You want that author to step up and come up with something new and unique and original and brilliant…
[Cat] That’s part of helping them find their own voice. Right?
[Toni] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] So, we want… So, that’s the first take away here, for the people out there listening. It’s okay to say no to an editor. It’s okay to go in a different direction than the one they suggest.
[Toni] I’m not going to claim to speak for all editors. For me, for editors at my house, absolutely. It’s a collaborative process. The ideal collaboration is I read the book, it’s fantastic, and I sign a check.
[Toni] Less work for me.
[Dan] Okay. So what are some other things that you might be able to suggest to our first time authors out there? They’ve just sold a work, they’re working with an editor. They maybe don’t know what’s going on. What are some common pitfalls or some advice that you would give?
[Cat] Be timely and send contracts back and send author bios in the first time they ask for them and that sort of thing. It’s because if you don’t, editors are putting a little checkmark in their mind, going, “Oh, this is that guy that I had to badger about the contract.”
[Toni] I think a lot of that is fear of the unknown. So it’s one of these things where… Get to know your editor. Talking about getting the bio back? The excellent is the enemy of the good. It does not have to be a perfectly polished pearl of one paragraph of your bio. It just needs to be in. Then, if it’s ugly, somebody else will polish it.
[Howard] One of the things that I like to tell myself when I’m avoiding some sort of communication is, “Will this news get better if I wait?”
[Toni] Oh, that’s brilliant. Yes.
[Howard] Okay. Because if I’m holding off on talking because oh, I really don’t want to say, “I hate your suggestions,” but I hate to say… Is that going to get better if I wait? Well, it’ll get better if I wait if instead of sending you email, I fix the thing that’s broken and offer a solution. But if it’s not a problem like that, then what I need to do is just muscle myself up to the keyboard and send an email and hope I haven’t poisoned the water. That, for me, I’ve been doing work as an art director recently, and I dread opening every email from my artists because what if I hate what they send me?
[Howard] What if they hate what I’m asking them to do? What if there’s pain in this? So I totally feel that relationship that an author might have with an editor. If the news isn’t going to get any better by waiting…
[Toni] No, that’s lovely. I do art directing at Baen, too. 99% of the time, when you ask somebody to make a change, they’ll go, “Oh, yes. This is very easy to do.” All of the angst that you’ve put on it just dissipates. The same is true with writing to editors. The longer you wait, the harder you run into deadlines. Deadlines, when you’re talking with marketing, timing and soliciting of books, and the more people who get involved with it, the harder it is to make that change, the worse that news gets.
[Howard] If you’ve had, “Oh, I had a car accident and my grandmother’s in the hospital and my writing time has been cut to one third and I’m not going to make the deadline.” Boy, that news is not going to get any better if I sit on it.
[Howard] I just need to tell you now.
[Toni] Yes. Absolutely. Because there are things that can be done earlier in the cycle that can’t be done later in the cycle. So keeping the lines of communication open with your editor as a new young writer is just the thing to do.
[Cat] Don’t treat your editor like your parent. I mean, like sometimes you get people and there’s like this weird projection that goes on.
[Toni] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[Cat] We don’t like that game, people.
[Toni] No, we don’t. I mean, conversely, editors can’t treat their authors like children either.
[Cat] That’s true.
[Dan] I would also say the editor’s not necessarily your boss, either.
[Cat] No, not at all.
[Dan] They’re a collaborator.
[Toni] Exactly. Exactly.
[Dan] That you’re both trying to work together.
[Howard] Quick question for you. Is there any incident… Is there something you’ve asked of an author, or something an author has asked of you… You don’t have to drop any names… That has stuck with you as something that is exemplary or oh, geez, never do this? Or it’s just hilarious?
[Howard] Something from your trenches. I probably should have warned you about this question earlier.
[Cat] I had someone who got very upset with a rejection slip, and wrote in to tell me how much their mother liked the story. That is something that I would personally avoid doing, because I don’t think mothers are a good arbiter.
[Toni] Well, my mother would…
[Cat] Well, your mother might be.
[Toni] Yeah. No, I mean, arguing with rejection letters is bootless. There’s just no point to it. No good can come of it.
[Cat] And much ill.
[Toni] And much ill. Yes. We’ve had that, too. And, no, we will never work with you again. We regret sending you the kindly rejection letter that led you to believe that we would want to have this conversation. Well, what it does is it poisons the water for everybody else.
[Howard] They need to let people into the room here with us pretty quickly here. So…
[Dan] So let’s finish up. I’m very excited to hear our homework. Which is what I have written down as the Weisskopf possum theory.
[Toni] Oh, God. We don’t have enough time for that.
[Toni] Telling the possum story would be at least 10 minutes.
[Dan] Oh, well, we can’t do that. Can you give us like a 10 second version of it?
[Toni] Cat, go first.
[Cat] Here’s my writing advice.
[Cat] Try something new this week. If you always write indoors, go right outdoors. If you always write by hand, try it on a typewriter. Just mix it up a little. See what happens.
[Dan] Awesome. That’s great advice.
[Toni] All right. This has nothing to do with possums. But listen to dialogue. Sit down and write down, if you can, how people actually talk. This is not how you write dialogue, but it will help you writing dialogue.
[Dan] That’s great advice.
[Howard] When she says listen to dialogue, listen to people speaking to each other. Not TV dialogue. Listen to people talking.
[Toni] Yes. Thank you.
[Dan] Aaron Sorkin…
[Toni] That’s why you’re the writer.
[Dan] One of my favorite bits of writing advice he gives is go sit in a coffee shop for an hour and just listen to people talking to each other.
[Dan] Awesome. Well, that is our show. Thank you very much, Cat and Toni, for being here. We are very excited.
[Cat, Tony] Thank you.
[Dan] Everyone else, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.