Secrets A Fiction Editor Should Tell You (But Probably Won’t)

Sep 11, 2023 | Editing

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Writing fiction that readers will love is a painstaking process. Usually the writing process starts with developing an interesting story idea until you’ve formulated an outline. Once that has been written, next comes the execution of a first draft. When that first draft is completed, a lot of writers get lost on what comes next. How do you take your first draft, basically the rawest of ideas, and formulate something readers will respond to? The answer, for most, usually comes in working with a top notch fiction editor

If you’ve been around the writing game, studying the craft and business, that revelation should not come as any surprise to you. It’s fairly common knowledge that, in order to elevate your rough first draft into something truly outstanding, you will likely need the close help of a strong fiction editor. Even a seasoned writer, take someone like Stephen King, thanks their editors at the end of a book. Why? Because they know that the editorial touch is crucial to their success. 

A lot goes into being a fiction editor. First and perhaps foremost, you need to be well-read. Most of the really good editors I know and trust read voraciously, their tastes covering a wide range of genres and styles. They also need to know the general market, which makes them uniquely able to identify what sells (and what doesn’t) and possess strong communication skills. After all, when the process is over, they’re going to communicate to you what they believe your book needs to be successful.

Editors are a fountain of information. Here are the five things a fiction editor won’t tell you about working on your manuscript (but probably should).

Young man sitting in front of a laptop at a desk

The First Secret A Fiction Editor Won’t Tell You: The First Fifty Pages Matter Most

Most readers, whether they’re editors, publishers, or someone looking to immerse themselves in a good story, make their judgements on a book based on the first fifty pages. There is ample evidence that says, in today’s hyper-competitive market, a writer gets even less than that before the reader decides whether to toss it aside or keep on reading.

What does this mean to you, the writer? You need to wow that hypothetical reader right away. Slow burns can work, sure, but for most new authors, you need to hit the reader from page one. 

The Second Secret: Most Writers Don’t Know Their Genre

In my years of experience working with authors, I have found that most don’t really understand genre. Why is this the case? Because the concept of genre is changing and evolving so fast it’s almost impossible to keep up with the trends.

If you picture the old Barnes & Nobel shelves of mystery, fantasy, science fiction, etc… when you think of genre then you’re behind the times. Amazon, the biggest bookseller in the world, features thousands of sub-genres that divide fiction genres into a series of very specific niches.

Knowing that you write fantasy used to be enough. Now you need to know the difference between what goes into an urban and portal fantasy. Your readers know the expectations, so there is no excuse for you not understanding. 

erick mertz, fiction editor

The Third SEcret A Fiction Editor Won’t Tell you: Holding Back From Book One In The Interest of Book Three Isn’t Effective

This problem is the product of a recent phenomenon. The writing market is driven (as is most of commercial storytelling) by long series. Every writer wants to write one and every producer wants to find the next big thing.  Just think of billion dollar properties like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, etc… Every one of those names evokes multiple volumes, books, comics, movies and multiple income streams, creating generational wealth.

While it’s true that series rule, many writers cheat their first books in the interest of serving their planned six-book series. I hear authors say it all the time: “I didn’t want to show off that really cool thing because that’s for book three”. While the logic may seem sound, it’s totally foolish.

Why hold back? You’re not going to get to book three unless book one wows readers. If book one is a hit, great, you’ve crossed the first and most important barrier. You’ll have ample time and resources to create new and exciting things for all those future volumes. 

The Fourth Secret: You’re Not Required To Make Every Recommended Change

This omission is likely the product of inflated professional egos. A fiction editor is there to offer you, the writer and creator, suggestions. These are their ideas for what they think might work for the book. They’re not necessarily the gospel of how the book needs to go.

I’ve worked with numerous authors who, after receiving my feedback on their manuscript, ended up getting really bogged down trying to implement every single suggestion to the letter. They work meticulously through each item dutifully. They make sure that no stone is left unturned.

This, in most cases, is totally unnecessary. You’re in charge. You get to choose.  

A good fiction editor gives their client multiple suggestions for improving the book. The best ones, in my experience, approach every area of need in the manuscript from various different angles. Writing a book can be like preparing a meal, where the author, upon giving a taste to someone, gets multiple suggestions for what to add more of. 

The suggestions I offer, while high quality and professionally informed, are merely that. Suggestions. You, as the book’s author, are perfectly within your rights to look at those and choose to implement only what works, toss out what doesn’t, and even evolve all new ideas inspired by those suggestions.

erick mertz, portland oregon

The Fifth SEcret A Fiction Editor Won’t Tell You: Re-writing A Book Once (Likely) Won’t Be Enough To Get Over The Finish Line

Regardless of the problem, we all crave a simple, one-size fits all solution. It’s a natural desire, especially when you’re spending good money on a highly regarded professional. You did the right thing, after all. You recognized that your first draft was flawed, you brought the manuscript to an editor, they offered you suggestions and you implemented them.

You should be done, right? Maybe. But maybe not.

The truth beyond all truths is that writing is difficult. Very difficult. Even more challenging is writing fiction that readers, your readers, are going to respond positively to. There is a fairly decent chance that, even after working with a high quality fiction editor, you’re going to need to re-write again. That may require more advice, another round of beta reads or edits. Don’t despair though. The deeper you go, the more you embrace changing and improving your manuscript, the better off it’s going to be.