A humble writer

The editor, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is the writer’s first reader. She (well, yes, there are a few guys in editorial chairs) is more than that, of course: the editor is generally the person who buys the book for the publishing house, negotiates the contract, knocks the book into shape, and oversees the myriad of steps to publication and beyond, from author photos and cover art to showing her enthusiasm to the sales force and deciding how much money the company is going to spend in promoting the book.

The editor is the writer’s main point of contact with the publishing business.

But before all that, she is the writer’s first point of contact with the reading public. No matter who the writer gives a manuscript to—family, friends, writing tutor, UPS delivery guy—it’s the editor’s read that matters. Editors can be wrong, but it’s the editor’s trained eye for the written word that has put her into her job, and that keeps her there.

Many people outside the writing world don’t see this. I’ve heard indignation, that someone would tell a writer what to do, force the writer to shape a story in a direction not her own. And certainly, there are cases where the editor’s vision of a book is at far remove from that of the author. Wars are fought over less.

I, however, am a fairly humble writer (with much to be humble about, I know.) So when my own editor said that the middle of The Language of Bees seemed to need some taste of peril for the main character, Mary Russell, I listened. And spent the past week adding 8500 words of hands-on encounter between Russell and the villain—or perhaps one of his henchmen, you’ll have to wait and see (if you’re taking notes, it’s the part in the house.) And my editor was right: a sharp up-tick in focus wakes up the middle of the book, since before that, much of the villainy was off-screen.

My first reader has made it a better book.

Of course, this means that the character I had to introduce has thrown the remainder of the book completely out of whack. So I now have to rewrite 100 pages down to their bones. In three weeks.

Posted in


  1. Strawberry Curls on August 12, 2008 at 9:15 am

    Speaking as a humble reader (the put out my money for the book type) I can only say a taut middle containing encounters with villainy (did I miss the part about a house?) seems just wonderful. I’m salivating over this books publication. I found the world of Mary Russell just after LOCK was published so I have never had the experience of “waiting” for the next book before. I have a friend who found the series right after BEEK was published, and she tells me the wait between MREG and LETT was excruciating. I can only imagine.

    They say patience is good for the soul, so I’m practicing patience and finding all these tantalizing peeks into the creation of this book good for my soul. –Alice

  2. Pat Floyd on August 12, 2008 at 10:12 am

    As one who was an editor for 29 years, thank you, Laurie, for your kind words about editors. The rewards of editing are great: the deep satisfaction in reading a very good piece of work and having the opportunity to identify the little changes that will make it excellent and more appealing to its intended audience. I treasure the opportunity to help a writer perfect her work and speak in such a way that readers will hear and receive what she wants to convey to them.

    Laurie, as I reread your books, I marvel at what you (mainly) and your editor have achieved. For me as a reader the development and interaction of major and minor characters comes first. I know these people and “wave back.” Surprisingly, I realize that for me the settings come next: I have walked the Sussex downs, London streets, Palestinian and Dartmoor wildernesses, roads of India, and my favorite places in San Francisco. Furthermore, your plots won’t let me stop reading.

    Except for some contract editing after retirement, I was a curriculum editor rather than a book editor. I chose writers, but they didn’t have the freedom of book authors. They had an outline for their work: a teacher book, student book, and multimedia class packet published quarterly. If I chose a writer unwisely that meant a good bit of rewriting on my part to meet deadline. We selected writers for their knowledge of the subject and of how to teach children. If their mastery of the written word was more than competent, that was a bonus.

  3. hnartisan on August 12, 2008 at 11:26 am

    As one who is about to be in need of an editor I shall take your words to heart and listen humbly to her advice…
    Midway through last winter I had a painting meltdown… decided to shut out all the noise and paint something from a different part of my soul…found my way back to some sketches I had done while listening to the Beekeeper’s Apprentice…I hauled a huge panel out from the garage…got our grandson Isaac over to the studio for a february modeling session…and the Beecharmer was begun…
    I eagerly await the next chapters…
    Thanks again for the muses. Heather

  4. AlarmingFemale on August 12, 2008 at 11:54 am

    I must say, I re-read few books, but I’ve re-read all of yours this summer, except for Califia’s Daughters (just got it from Powells–a “staff pick,” btw). Actually, I re-read all the Mary Russells, and read many of the others for the first time.

    After all the Kate Martinellis, I now feel better prepared to visit San Francisco this month for the Outside Lands music festival, since I feel that I “know” the city a little better.

    And Folly really spoke to me. It came into my life at just the right time. Thank you.

    So looking forward to the next one!

  5. Annika deGroot on August 12, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    If anyone can rewrite 100 pages in 3 weeks, you can! It’s a tight schedule, but I bet you’re exceedingly familiar with the subject matter.

    Last year I had the frightening experience of sitting there with a signed contract from my publisher in hand as I realized I had only two months to write my jewelry book! I had sold them on the idea of creating a how-to book with only ten jewelry projects already designed and had to come up with another 20 viable designs in less than 6 weeks.

    1,500 step-by-step photos and 140 some odd pages of copy later I managed to hit my deadline, but to this day that whole process is one big slur of incoherence… I am now dealing with rewrites and am happy to admit that my editor is a Godsend. She is saving me from myself.

    So I agree, editors are wondrous folk. Unless you happen to be a close relative of one… 😉

  6. Lauren on August 12, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    You will do a fabulous job with the rewrite…no doubts about that! Here’s to creative thoughts and the endurance to write them down!

    Thank you for the reflection on editors. Last month I started working full time as an editor at a small Catholic press. We publish scholarly and devotional works. I am fresh out of grad school and at times I feel completely unworthy of this fantastic job. Then reflect on my purpose as an editor and it makes me feel much better. Words are my passion. Getting them in the right order, surrounding them with the correct punctuation, and allowing the author’s voice to come forward is my job. It is a blessing to be able to help people articulate their ideas and perhaps nudge the world a little bit.

  7. Carlina on August 16, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Bones…did someone say bones? What was that about bones? *looks around anxiously*

    You’ll do just fine 🙂 . God bless your editor :). It reminds me of when I wrote the first draft of my dissertation and it came back with much comments on what was needed, including the exploration of a topic in which very little was written. I had to trudge every 19th century primary source I could find to weave independent details into one topic. However, in the end, once it was added (and I did it in 60 days, with it being completed the first of this month…and my degree granted!) it was a much better product. So if I can do it and I’m not a professional novelist, then I have faith that you can do it too. I shall be cheering on the sidelines. Editors and readers are truly the niftiest folks in the world! 🙂

Leave a Comment