In 2011, Simon C. Larter interviewed me on his blog, Constant Revision:
1. You’ve worked in the publishing industry for quite a while, according to your bio. (Chivalry compels me to note that you must certainly have begun working in it at a very tender age, possibly falling afoul of child labor laws, since you appear so exuberantly youthful in your photographs.) How long ago did you make the transition to freelance editing, and why?
Well, bless you for the compliment—I am pretty exuberant most days. But I couldn’t actually do the work I do, the way I do it, without all those years of experience.
I started as editor of my high school paper in the 1970s, which I liked so much I did it the entire time I was in high school and would be doing it still if those young whippersnappers hadn’t chased me off. After that, I was writing and editing the smallest newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, which is the period from which I date my professional experience.
I co-authored my published book in 1996—Children & the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents & Educators, with Prentice Hall—and wound up in the Who’s Who of America for that. So, you know, then I knew I’d arrived.
I spent many, many years making good bucks in technical documentation and writing fiction on the side. After telecommuting jobs became scarce in 2008, I gave in to my husband’s pressure (by that time, many years in the making) to start a blog and hang out my shingle as an independent editor.
That was February, 2009.
2. Do you have any particular specialty, or are you an equal-opportunity editor? Are there genres you just don’t enjoy editing? Subject matter you prefer to avoid?
I won’t edit erotica or gratuitous violence. That’s pretty much my only parameter. Other than that, I see all work in terms of what’s yet to be done to make it the manuscript the best it can possibly be.
That’s why talk of being a “literary” editor versus a “genre” editor is meaningless to me. The delineation between good work and bad simply doesn’t run along those lines. Genre fiction from the nineteenth- and earlier twentieth-century was often extremely well-written stuff. Modern literary fiction is often glib tripe. I mean, we all know about the Lord of the Rings, right? Raymond Chandler? Douglas Adams? Colette? P.G. Wodehouse? Wuthering Heights? All genre. All great fiction.
Can you do a better job with any particular manuscript than you’ve already done on your own? Probably. Can I teach you how to do that, while also building your self-esteem as a writer, treating you with the professional respect you need to take your writing seriously, and making you proud of your work, thrilled to be the writer you are becoming? Absolutely. That’s my job.
3. You’re a writer as well as an editor. You can level with us: you’re writing Twilight fan-fic under a pseudonym, aren’t you? Well, maybe not. But what do you write? What thrills your writerly soul?
As it happens, I have boxes and boxes of manuscripts in my store room. I think I have four or five finished novels and a few incomplete ones languishing in one corner of my life or another, plus two collections of stories and a whole lot of random literature.
I write long, involved novels about people who don’t understand why their lives are so strange. Once upon a time, this was called regular ole fiction, but since the rise of genre obsession in the 1980s it’s been considered literary fiction because it doesn’t fit tidily into any particular genre, the way schizophrenia used to be used as a catch-all for mental illnesses that couldn’t be identified. I have outlived my own literary categorization.
Now I’m obsessed with vintage mysteries. I’ve taught myself the craft of writing mysteries, so I spend a lot of time taking notes on their structures. I love noir.
My real calling, though, is as a poet. You didn’t know that, did you? That’s the only stuff I’ve actually gone to the trouble to get published. I don’t try very hard to publish. It saves my clients from comparing themselves to me. Also, I’m lazy that way.
4. Do you find that after a long day of editing, you’re slightly surfeited on words? Do you need some time and space between your editing work and your writing work?
Oh, you know that’s a very good question. I get surfeited on individual manuscripts. After a certain number of hours, I begin to lose that objectivity that’s the key to my entire craft, and the client’s manuscript starts being difficult in the same way my own manuscripts are difficult. It’s a form of option paralysis. Should conflict #1 end with this scene or that one? Should the hook be the party or the aftermath of the party? How many catastrophes can we pack into conflict #3 and the climax? Could the hook sentence survive without that one word or couldn’t it? What advice should I give? The most important skill I’ve developed over the years is the ability to answer these questions from my gut without waffling. Once I start waffling, I know I’m getting into the dark and murky land of brain mush.
I work on my own stuff when and if I can. I have a child to raise, and I have a mortgage. Such is life.
5. You spent all day line-editing a treatise on the mating habits of fruit flies in Malaysia, then took a long walk to clear your head. What kind of drink do you pour yourself as a reward?
Me? What drink do I pour? I don’t pour my own drinks. I wait until my husband gets restless in his office in the next room (we work out of adjoining offices in our attic) and says, “I’m running downstairs for a little something. Do you want anything while I’m down there?”
He’s very kind. And often thirsty.
6. What types of things make you happy when you’re reading a fiction writer’s work? Say, for example, you were an acquisitions editor at a stupendously-large publisher. What would make you club your fellow editors with baby seals to get the senior eds to accept a manuscript?
Beautiful writing. Sentences like this one from my client Kathryn Estrada’s MG historical adventure: “They met with an impact that cracked the air.” Amazing, realistic characters and fresh plot ideas, like the intricate internal portrait and one-day timeframe in Ania Vesenny’s SWEARING IN RUSSIAN AT THE NORTHERN LIGHTS or the heartbreakingly unsentimental depiction of rural India with a reverse mystery embedded in it in Bhaichand Patel’s Asian Age #5 bestseller Mothers, Lovers, & Other Strangers. I’ve had lots of clients who were writing the most incredible fiction—dark stuff, deep stuff, intense and profound stuff. My husband and son listen to a lot of carrying-on over the dinner table about how brilliant my clients are. They know all their names.
Some aspiring clients from my early years editing have agents now, and that’s thrilling for all of us. They’re heck of good.
But, you know, my favorite thing isn’t even the writing, it’s the writers. When someone comes to me saying, “Am I a writer? I’ve never taken classes, and I sucked in English at school. But I love fiction, so I wrote a novel. Then this agent told me my novel doesn’t have a hook,” and I can say, “Your novel has a hook, all right, and it’s fabulous. It’s just not the hook that leads into this particular story. Let’s discover the story that goes with that hook,” and over the weeks I watch them learn and grow, improve their skills by leaps and bounds, take themselves and their craft seriously—that’s the real joy of this work.
7. What… is your favorite color? (The Gorge of Eternal Peril awaits should you get this one wrong.)
8. Well-played. You’ve read a metric crap-tonne of work by aspiring and published authors. You’re not supposed to have opinions about your clients’ work, I know, but it’s impossible to avoid gut reactions. How many pages does it usually take you to assess whether a given writer is destined for greatness? (I had to ask at least one controversial question, you know.)
One: I’m pretty much like agents. I can see in the first few pages how serious a writer is about their craft and how well they understand storytelling. But I also know that the first few pages are the ones that get the most careful loving attention, so if something’s really wonderful I skip to the middle to see how well the craft is holding up. Middles are notorious bogs. I think when T. S. Eliot came up with the title “The Wasteland” he was probably thinking about the middle of some novel he was trying to write.
Two: I can edit any manuscript into a great story, given enough motivation and dedication on the part of the writer. I think this is true of any really good developmental and line editor. Is there a brilliant novel in the most early-draft manuscript? Sure! Why not? Everyone has to start somewhere. I myself have written some dreadful shlock in my time. I just keep working on it until it’s better.
So you wrote 250 pages of which only one or two elements are diamonds in the rough. Those one or two elements will get you where you want to go. You simply need to be shown the way. You need to be supported and given faith that you can make it. And then you need to pull up your socks and do the work to get yourself there.
This is the writing life.
9. Would you like to read my Twilight fan fiction?
Send it. I won’t edit it, though. Unless you pay me. Then I will.
10. Even with the publishing world in a bit of upheaval right now, and the fact that you likely see a lot of unpolished work, would you classify yourself as optimistic about the future of fiction? Why?
I was a terrible, anguished cynic for many, many years. I was watching the quality of a lot of published fiction plummet like a rock down a dry well, lamenting—along with everyone else—”Why is this happening? Where does it think it’s going?” And at the same time I was meeting incredible aspiring writers everywhere I went, in classes and workshops and conferences, people like Sasha Troyan and Lucia Orth, who were still unpublished when I met them (now award-winning novelists). And I was clutching my hair under the cold indifference of the sickle moon, crying, “Why? Why?” Along with everyone else.
Then I started independent editing. And these incredible writers started bringing their work to me. And I started researching the industry, meeting agents and other professionals, reading up on what’s happened over the past forty years. And it all—finally—started making sense.
So now I know. I know why some things get published and some don’t, why some books sell in the gazillions and some don’t sell beans, why it isn’t always about the quality of the writing, and what a writer can do about that. I know a lot about the forces that drive this industry.
And, I’ll tell you, as much of a stinkbomb as self-publishing seemed to be when it first hit—as bad a reputation as it got—there has always been a lot of really exciting stuff going on in that arena. And that’s what’s going to break the stonewall between the gorgeous fiction being produced by really talented, dedicated, intelligent, visionary craftspeople out there and the dollars-for-eyeballs business of the publishing industry, which relies so heavily on Walmart fiction.
I look at what happened in the music industry when the labels got too corporate, what happened in the movie industry after the studios got too self-indulgent. Technology happened. And suddenly we had indie music and indie film, and now they are extraordinary sources of some of the best art in those media being created today.
It doesn’t necessarily make a billion bucks. But it’s great art.
Fiction is on the cusp of that right now. It’s fascinating. It’s electrifying. This is the best time ever, in all my years on this planet, to be a fiction author. I can’t wait to see what the future brings.
A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR
VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN