I was contacted by a high school student interested in becoming a freelance independent editor. She sent me a list of interview questions for a presentation she’s doing on careers, and with her permission I’m going to answer them here, for the benefit of all readers young and old:
1. When did you realize that you want to be an editor and how did it come to be?
I’ve been editing since I was in high school in the 1970s. I was recruited by my teacher out of her Creative Writing class and became editor of my school newspaper after, I think, the first quarter. I kept that job for the rest of my high school education. So I was taught to edit others’ copy pretty young and as a matter-of-course rather than because I went after the job.
It was a terrific education, and I still use it today.
2. Can you list a few obstacles that you have overcome during your career?
I became a freelance independent editor when the telecommuting industry in Silicon Valley collapsed in 2008 during the economic crash. I lost my job, my income, my entire career.
My husband encouraged me to start a blog on fiction, because I talked about nothing else. I gave myself a formal, very intensive education in the proper development of character and plot by analyzing hundreds of novels, studying every single night. I blogged about aspects of writing fiction that I didn’t see anyone else blogging about. (At this point, my most-viewed post has almost 100,000 views.)
And I charged very low rates when I began freelance independent editing, always working longer hours than I billed.
At the same time, I was working these 10-hour days five days a week, building my online presence and writing my books: The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual.
Perhaps the hardest part is that I always spend a little time with potential new clients trading emails so they can get to know me a bit before they hire me. They’re human beings, and they deserve to be treated like humans. However, I’ve been burned once or twice by despairing writers whose morale I restored, who then changed their minds about hiring me as soon as they felt better, and they simply disappeared.
This just happened in January, when a writer came to me from possibly the most expensive, most famous freelance independent editor out there, who had utterly discouraged this writer and left them feeling hurt and taken advantage of. I empathized with the writer, helped them understand what had happened while remaining professional about the other editor, and encouraged them to get what they’d contracted for from that previous editor—they’d paid $2,500 for a one-hour consultation, of which they’d gotten only thirty minutes. Thirty minutes!
Two weeks later, after accepting my estimate and during the actual scheduling, the writer unexpectedly announced that they’d decided to hire another freelance independent editor “with more expertise in my genre.” It wasn’t true about the expertise. (I know what editor they went to, and I have gotten their unhappy ex-clients as well.) The writer and I had briefly discussed their genre, and they knew that I understand it and work in it. They’d just fallen for someone’s aggressive self-marketing.
So it was a waste of my professional time—more than I should reasonably have spent, but I try to be patient with clients planning to make big investments in their work—time for which I will now never be compensated.
I really don’t like losing my faith in people this way.
3. What is your greatest failure and how did you deal with it?
For many years, I was a technical writer and editor for computer companies in Silicon Valley. It was good money. . .but you have to like computer technology.
I had majored in Computer Science in college, intending to become an engineer. But after the third year, I lost control of myself—stopped doing homework, stopped studying for exams, just spent my days sneaking into my local used-book store to open books and smell the wonderful, dry smell of old literature. I barely got out of college with an English Degree, my three years of computer study three years down the drain (and three more years’ student loans to pay back).
I never loved working in the tech industry. I always complained. If I’d been able to reconcile myself to Silicon Valley, I’d be making a much better living today.
But my heart is in fiction.
4. Tell me about your proudest achievement.
I built myself a new career in fiction as a freelance independent editor at a time when industry insiders were still telling aspiring writers, “You don’t need to hire an editor.” Now I see literary agents telling aspiring writers, “If you’ve hired an editor, tell us in your query.” It’s been a heck of a climb.
And I’m still a contractor—there are no guarantees in contract work. I take what jobs come to me, where I can do the most good. Every day, I’m working to let potential clients know who I am and what I can do. I’m very often fighting a tide of misinformation and sometimes deliberate deceit from the lower echelons among my competition.
However, I keep at it, in spite of the obstacles. I started this work for the love of it, and I continue for the love of it. I’ve put out a ton of my knowledge on my blog and advice column free to anyone who needs it. I’m proud of that. And now I have clients whose novels have gone on to win critical acclaim and even become bestsellers. (You can find them in my sidebar.) That is a source of great pride for me. I feel like their mother.
5. What interests you the most about editing?
The writers. I identify very strongly with them, you know. I was for decades an unknown aspiring writer, so stone-broke that I couldn’t afford classes or conferences, writing alone and on my own for much of that time because we didn’t yet have the Internet and the plethora of writing forums that we have today. For decades.
So I have a deep emotional investment in seeing my clients succeed at their dreams. These people become my friends. Their novels become my own projects. As the writers learn and expand and deepen their understanding of this art and craft, I feel enormous satisfaction in their progress.
I never tire of the wonder of this accomplishment.
6. What would you say is your average workload?
It varies quite a lot. Last year I worked fulltime, 40 hours a week, and still had more business than I could handle. In the years before that, I averaged around 25-30 hours a week. This year has been an odd one. My workload fluctuates wildly right now from month to month. The industry is changing—the freelance independent editing industry is changing.
7. Do you work independently or in a group?
I’m an independent. I always have been as a fiction editor. I have trained a junior editor to take on developmental editing jobs I don’t have time for. I love him, and he does a wonderful job.
However, it’s my business. What you see on my blog and in my books is what you get.