Writers and editors

I was chatting with a fellow writer yesterday about meeting editors. Ask a dozen writers what they think of their editors and you’ll get a dozen different responses. My own view, heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov’s view, is that editors are the “bosses” in the relationship and should be treated as such. I realize there will be writers how there who read this and laugh derisively at me–naive fool that I am–but like I said, it’s how I was brought up and it takes a lot of doing to convince me otherwise.

In truth, that isn’t quite accurate. A better way to describe my view of editors is as teachers. Editors will teach you what works and what doesn’t work in a story. They teach you what works by accepting a story. They teach you what doesn’t work by requesting revisions. The vast majority are forced to let you figure it out yourself, but even there, if you are resourceful, it can help. Obviously, some editors are better teachers than others.

My first story sale required several revisions. Edmund Schubert, editor of InterGalactic Medicine Show worked very patiently with me, pointing out those parts of the story he felt were weak or didn’t work well. He would suggest what the problem might be, but he would leave it up to me to fix it. This was incredibly important because I learned a lot through this process. Eventually, I sold him the story, met him in person on a number of occasions and since, we have become friends. However, I still think of Edmund as a kind of teacher/boss when I submit stories to him.

Prior to selling a story to Analog, I received a couple of rejection slips from Stan Schmidt, each of which pinpointed what he thought didn’t work about the story. Like Edmund, Stan didn’t suggest how to fix it, but like Edmund, he supplied encouragement, telling me that he liked me writing and to continue to submit. I must have read and reread those rejection slips hundreds of times and each time I sent Stan a story, I tried to avoid the mistakes that he pointed out in his previous letter. It was like being back in an airplane making my first landings. Come in the first time too hot and go around. Come in the next time too flat and go around. Eventually, you get it just right and grease the landing. In fact, it took three tries with Stan and on that third try, the note I got from him started with, “I’m taking this story…” Eventually I met Stan in person and found out what a nice, down-to-earth guy he was (to say nothing of brilliant).

I’ve met Sheila Williams and Neil Clarke, and was nervous on both occasions, which is odd since I am generally an outgoing person. Why should I be nervous of someone I look at as a teacher? Part of it, I think, is an internal desire to want to be taken seriously as a writer, to separate yourself out from the mass of would-be writers. I imagine every writer must feel this way at some point. Before you ever sell a story, approaching an editor is like going up to a movie star. You get the feeling they are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Here comes another story pitch…” Even when you’ve sold a few stories there are so many good writers out there that it’s hard to imagine the editor recognizing your name–unless you’ve already sold them a story.

Most of this is in my head, and I realize that. But you have to remember that I’ve been a fan of science fiction for decades and a writer of science fiction for only a few years. It is a difficult mental transition to make. But I’m trying to make that transition. I have, for instance, never met the editor from whom I’ve gotten the most rejection slips–and it’s not because that editor has rejected my stories more than anyone else. It’s difficult to approach someone, when in your head you imagine them thinking, Oh, this is the person who keeps sending me bad stories. Of course, that’s silly, the stories aren’t all bad, they just don’t meet editorial tastes. In any event, I’ve been convinced to approach this editor at a convention later on in the year and introduce myself. Now I only have to drum up the nerve…

…or do I? There is an alternative solution to this little problem. Maybe I can manage to sell this editor a story before the convention. Then, at least, I wouldn’t feel like a total stranger. I’d have some street cred, so to speak.

I’ll tell you all about it–after it happens.