Interview with P. N. Elrod

Cover of P. N. Elrod's The Hanged Man. Tor Books. May 19, 2015.Accomplished writer and editor P.N. “Pat” Elrod is the author of 24 commercially-published novels, more than 20 short stories, and the editor and co-editor of several collections. In her copious spare time, she freelance edits and critiques.

What is that editors do and don’t do?

That depends on the editor and the kind of editing involved. I have worked as an acquisitions editor—reading the slush pile—as well as what I call regular editing—working on a manuscript—and in developmental editing: throwing ideas at writers to see if they can think  how to fix a problem.

Acquisitions is a rough job. They don’t call it slush without good reason. I have to pace myself and not read too much or I get depressed. I don’t like rejecting stuff, knowing all too well what that feels like, but it’s binary: the story is publishable or it is not. It’s the kind of stuff we publish or it is not.

I’m thrilled when I find something I can pass upstream. It might not get past the next editor, but it makes my job worth it. Editors WANT to find something they love and can share with others.

For me, regular editing requires concentration on details. I am relentless on my own writing; I take pride turning in a clean manuscript to the publisher. When it’s as clean as you can make it, then the real errors are easier to spot.

Developmental editing is essentially feedback that leads to rewrites if the writer is inclined to accept suggestions.

You don’t find as much of that going on now, only for certain books. I see it mentioned in Publishers Weekly, but never had it happen to any of my books. Gone are the days when a writer turned in multiple drafts and a supportive editor offered feedback and suggestions over the course of several months or even years to bring it up to speed. The books need to take off and fly from page one, especially in genre fiction.

Editors want a book that’s strong enough as-is to sell to the Suits upstairs. A nascent work needing rewrites won’t impress that bunch. They want a book that will make money for the company. A book that uses up an editor’s time in repeated rewrites is not cost effective.

This is general stuff and may not hold true for a small presses. They don’t publish as many books and may have more time to groom a work, but don’t count on it. Always strive to send your best stuff. It’s not enough to be the best in your writing group, you have to be as good or better than your favorite writers who have books in the stores.

Back when paper submissions were the norm a writer might get a scribbled note with “Almost there, keep writing” and vague as that is, would fall down sobbing in gratitude. With e-submissions you don’t get that. The publisher whose slush I read said to not send feedback. Too many writers shoot back an email anxiously asking for more comment, more detail, but the editor above me said, “We don’t have time to open a dialog.”

She’s right. I’m on their clock and have to get through dozens of submissions. In the time it takes me to review six stories another twelve have appeared in the IN box. On one especially busy night it was fifty new stories.

How do you know when your book is ready for an editor?

You probably don’t.

Many writers think that the harder they’ve worked on a book the more ready it must be, but publishers don’t give extra credit for effort. They look only at what’s sent. They don’t care if you opened a vein over the keyboard, the bottom line is, “Can these words make us money?”

The best course for any writer is get as much feedback as possible from as many people as possible before sending anything out or shopping for a freelance editor.

It’s preferable to get feedback from writers. Friends and family (who may not be writers) love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings, but another writer will tell you the truth.

“Don’t tell me how much you like it, tell me what’s wrong with the damn thing so I can FIX it!” I said a dozen times over on my first novel. Thankfully a few very brave friends offered things I could use. I didn’t like what I heard, but it turned out they were right. I fixed things. The book sold.

Even now, I’m tetchy about feedback, but it’s a necessary evil. You put on your game face and take it. Writing ain’t for wimps.

What can writers do to make the editing process smoother?

Turn in a clean, proofed manuscript. This is Writing 101 and part of the job. You turn on the spell checker and leave it on, those little zigzag lines under a word are your friends.

You learn correct grammar and punctuation. It’s not rocket science. Get and read The Elements of Style. I got a used Chicago Manual of Style some years back, and I use Google. But you need to learn this stuff or you won’t know when you’ve made an error.

The less work you give an editor the better. You want her focused on your story and characters, not your sloppy spelling and worse grammar.

The editor is not your enemy. She has the same goal as you: making a good book better. You’re two strangers working together, and most of the time you’re on the same page.

A good editor/writer team is one where both are able to listen to each other. I’ve been very fortunate. I find the best professionals on both sides are those who listen and don’t arbitrarily discount an idea. A not so good idea can lead to something brilliant, so long as it’s not instantly shot down.

Don’t be a writing diva, but don’t be a pushover. Many times I had editorial suggestions that were wholly wrong, but I learned to make a note and find my own way to fix a problem.

If the writer reaches an impasse with an editor, then it’s time to call your agent. It’s good to have someone in your corner who has your back.

The rules are different when dealing with a freelance editor hired for a job, the writer is running the show, not the publisher. However, if the editor spots a problem, then it’s wise to hear them out. That problem could be the tree the writer missed because of the surrounding forest.

What are good questions to ask a potential editor?

One thing not to ask is if the editor likes your book. That’s right up there with, “Do these pants make me look fat?”

Don’t put your editor on the spot. If they like your book you’ll pick up on it. If they don’t, allow that you’re not the only star in their sky and don’t take it personally. Stick to the job. If they spontaneously gush, be happy, and don’t let it go to your head.

A writer with a commercial house is assigned an editor who may or may not be the one who bought the book. Let them know how you prefer to work, ask when is a good day for phone calls, and confirm their correct email address. Ask them if there are things that drive them crazy and take notes. Make sure you are clear on deadlines. Ask their procedures. The usual thing is turn in a final draft, it’s copy-edited and sent back for approval, and you put in any changes. The next time you see the MS it’s in galley form.

I had a bad time with one house, assumed I’d get one more look on a book after the copy-edit, same as at other houses, but the next time I saw it was in galley form. I freaked, since there was little chance to do a rewrite on trouble spots. But that was a work-for-hire situation and may not reflect the rest of the industry.

At another place I never saw galleys. It was a small press and the MS went straight to formatting. The next time I saw that story was in the finished book and they had the wrong title on it. Stuff happens.

When I’m dealing with a new editor at a commercial house I warn her on what a pain in the butt I am as a writer and how to “handle” me. (I know my shortcomings!) I ask them to point out a problem and trust me to fix it, don’t rewrite it themselves. If they spot a really bad problem and have a solution, make me think it’s my own idea. Seriously, I fall for that one every time!

I do the same thing as an editor when I’m meeting writers over the phone. I tell the writer I’ll just point out a problem and leave it to them to fix it. Most are hugely relieved. So am I. It’s less work for me!

A writer seeking to hire a freelance editor has to get as much information as possible.

If the editor familiar with the genre? What books has she edited? Contact the writers of books she’s edited and ask them about their experience. Is she a member of recognized editing organizations? Is she willing to do a couple sample pages?

Just because someone has a degree in English doesn’t mean they know squat about editing.

I see plenty of sites where that degree is the only thing on their resume. Maybe that person can do a decisive analysis of Jane Austen, but not how to build a scene, end a chapter, or spot word reps.

Having a solid background in publishing is a necessity and it better not be from working in the mail room. You should be able to call a publisher and ask if that person was in their employ as an editor and what they did there. The freelancer is on a job interview. Don’t trust what’s on the website—verify. There are a lot of sharks in the pool. A true professional won’t mind your curiosity and will encourage it.

Check the websites. Spelling and grammar errors are a red flag. Check them on Absolute Write, Writer Beware, and Predators and Editors.

It works both ways, a freelance editor should have questions for the writer. I want to know if they’ve sold anything and where, if this is to be indie-published or if they’re planning to submit it to a commercial house. If the latter, I tell them to learn to self-edit and get feedback, they don’t need me.

I’m not an editor who can suck it up, work on a badly written book, and collect payment. If a piece of writing isn’t ready, I turn down the job. It’s terrible for my bank account, but I can sleep at night.

I look at the MS and at anything the writer has previously published. If the stuff isn’t ready, it’s a given that the writer is not going to get my best effort. I will say no.

In one case, and only one, I didn’t check things as carefully as as I should have, accepted the job, and it ended badly. I was 10K words into the edit and realized I could not finish it in good conscience. The book was too seriously flawed. The writer just wasn’t ready to publish, and yet he’d done so several times over with his indie books. This was one of a series, so the flaws were all through it like an infection.

I gave him five pages of comments on the flaws—hey, he could always take those books down and rewrite—charged him only for the work done and sent the file back. He paid for the work, but I’m sure he was pissed about it.

Since then I’ve been more careful. I recently edited a pretty good, though flawed book for an indie writer. She had some plot holes and a few bad habits, and I pointed them out in a summation feedback when she got the edited MS. It was a mini-lesson in writing. I didn’t have to do that, but I thought it might help for future books.

She had the option to tell me to go to Halifax and instead thanked me. Seems she didn’t know about those problems and was happy to sort them out. I hope she comes back. I’d like to see how she’s improved.


Do you have a favorite book about writing?

I have several, starting with Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. I was in a bad dry patch, unable to write, and this was the only book that got me out of it.

I also like Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. It’s about script writing, but good for novelists, asking the same questions any writer needs to answer: What’s the book about? What’s the hook?

It comes with software which I found useful for plotting a steampunk Tor is releasing this summer. I have the devil’s own time plotting, so I like a road map of the story before starting it. I don’t always stick to the map, but it gives a starting point.

But the best books on writing are often those of other writers. When I hit a dry patch it’s time to dive into the library and feed words into my starved brain. I’ll pick old favorites and enjoy those again. They’re usually the books that inspired me from the start. Most retain that magic or have gotten better with age.

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