The 7 Secrets of an Indie Editor

    A guest post by Victoria Mixon of A. Victoria Mixon, Editor.


    Many years ago, when I was a starving writer wrestling day and night with the phenomenal angel of the fiction craft, I got thrown on my back a lot. I’d lie there wheezing until I could breathe again, then I’d gamely hop back up and go at it again.

    Wrestle! Wham. Breathe. Up. Wrestle! Wham. Breathe. This went on for a really long time.

    So now that I’m a professional indie editor, I know what’s going on at your house. And there are things I’ve learned about this craft that could make this wrestling match a whole lot easier on you. These are my secrets, the things you should know:

      1. 1. You need far more discipline and profound human compassion than you think.

    You guys. You bring me your precious manuscripts, written in ink from the opening of your own veins, these symbolic versions of the very real and tragic heartbreaks you yourself have survived, and you tell me, “Don’t be gentle. Lay it on me. I can take it.”

    Fortunately for you, I’m the wimpiest writer ever in history, so I just ignore you. I know that every mild criticism is a slam to the writer’s solar plexus and every compliment is a faint voice mumbling unintelligibly in the distance.

    Only when you’ve gotten a hefty dose of compassion for you, the writer, can you hoist up your suspenders and set about the Herculean task of applying the discipline and ruthlessness your manuscript needs. There are always piles, mountains, avalanches of it. If I simply laid the discipline on you first, you’d be humiliated—silenced.

    This is why I’m not just an editor. I’m a writing therapist. Half my job is being really good at handling manuscripts, and the other half is being really good at handling writers.

      1. Writing fiction isn’t expressing yourself, it’s creating an experience for your reader.

    And yet we all write because we love it. Right? I’m not sitting here at my desk thinking about you. I’m actually sitting here thinking about me, about the fact that I know something important and I want you to get a kick out of learning it from me.

    Which leads me inevitably to admit that the reader is the only one in this relationship who counts. I might very well have something you need, but if you don’t want it I’ve done all this work for nothing. Not only that, but you’re not here just for what I know, you’re here for the experience of learning it, and even more than that you’re here for the indescribable magic that happens when you find yourself sandwiched between what you’re learning and how you feel about learning it.

    That’s the magic that changes a reader’s life. And the writer’s job is working that magic.

      1. No one can properly line edit their own writing.

    This point sucks, but it’s a simple fact, so we might as well all get used to it, the same way we’re used to dentists, freeways, and working for a living. I would far rather be independently wealthy on a chateau patio overlooking the 1920s Mediterranean coast, words like pearls falling in perfect order from my quill, bouncing over my feet and across the worn flagstones.

    But that’s simply not going to happen.

    Instead, I’m going to write as clearly and succinctly and vividly as I know how, and then I’m going to hand it off to someone else—my writer husband, my writer friend, or the editor of whatever publication or blog I’m writing for—to be line edited. They’ll catch the awkward phrasing and constructs that make a reader stumble over my words. They’ll smooth the rhythm I’ve worked so hard to achieve (and, hopefully, catch most of my typos.)

    They’ll see my words the way a reader sees them. And that’s professional polish.

      1. The publishing industry is not Cinderella, and neither are you.

    Or, to paraphrase Dylan: they ain’t a-going nowhere.

    I know everyone’s breathing down your neck, exhorting you with the authority of wild-eyed fanatics to hustle your fanny out there and get your novel published. I know this is why you ask for blunt criticism and hope to skimp on the line editing, why it’s so daunting to be told this work is, more than anything, about magic.

    But honestly. . .what’s going to happen if you don’t get published PDQ? Are the publishers all going to turn into pumpkins at midnight?

    No. And neither are you. Novels have been written and published for over four hundred years. They will continue being published a good four hundred years from now. I spent thirty years delving into this craft in the privacy of one cozy little workspace after another, across three states and half a dozen countries, one desk in a closet and another on a minuscule Hawaiian lanai overlooking the endless ocean. You have time to immerse yourself in this craft for a very, very long time indeed before you need to start looking over your shoulder to see if the end is gaining on you.


      1. Your manuscript is in much worse shape than you believe it is, but you have vastly more potential as a brilliant writer than you can imagine.

    Now, you may have seen my recent moment of online glory in which I was immortalized in the Huffington Post for being dissed by my agent. That story was absolutely true. Every single manuscript that comes to me is the best, brightest, most word-perfect work of which its author feels capable, and every single one of them has aspects for which an agent with a caustic tongue could get them into the Post.

    But that’s okay. I learned how to fix all that stuff.

    Even more importantly, every single manuscript that comes to me has its moments of ineffable glory: a facility with words, specific telling details that snap scenes into three dimensions, plot twists and developments that carry me right out of myself, laser-like snippets of dialog and amazing character insights, things that make me sit up, make me laugh, torque my heart exactly the way a reader’s heart needs to be torqued.

    These moments are the stuff of which brilliant fiction is made.

      1. Your job is to go beyond the limits of possibility.

    Of course, the biggest thing I know that you don’t is that writing fiction is an impossible labor. Great art is never as transcendental as its creator has in mind.

    Readers might be happy enough with less than transcendental (but not much). Publishers and agents might be as happy as they’re ever going to get. (It’s hard to tell.) But once you’ve seen your vision and known what it’s like to capture even a fragment of that iridescent substance for your own in words, you will never again be satisfied.

    So you keep at it—the impossible. Even though you know it’s impossible. That’s what you, great writers, and immortal protagonists all have in common.

      1. Fiction isn’t really about reading or writing, it’s about living.

    Finally, not the biggest thing I know that you don’t, but the most important: there’s no such thing as either “escapist” or “literary” fiction. There is only storytelling to which all of us, readers and writers alike, go over and over again, to find out what life is, learn the basic skills we need to survive it, and discover the unspeakable beauty and subtlety and significance that makes it worth living.

    You don’t have to be a writer. You simply do this work because we human beings need it done.

    Victoria Mixon spends her time blogging for the vast tribe of aspiring great writers in the blogosphere and editing their work with her suspenders hoisted up. She is the co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators and author of the recently-released The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual.

    About the author

      Victoria Mixon

      Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She is the author of the Art & Craft of Writing series, including Art & Craft of Writing Fiction: First Writer’s Manual and Art & Craft of Writing Stories: Second Writer’s Manual. She is listed in the Who’s Who of America and has taught fiction through Writer’s Digest and the San Francisco Writers Conference. Mixon has just published a free new ebook, Art & Craft of Writing: Secret Advice for Writers, through which you can join her email list and get your free copy of Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Advice for Writers. She works as an independent editor through her blog at http://victoriamixon.com and can be found on Twitter at @VictoriaMixon.

    • Peter says:

      #6 speaks volumes to me. I’m in the middle of a short story that feels all right because the story is drawing me out, letting me know what I really feel on the subject. I feel it wanting to dive deeper into the realm of the impossible, a challenging, mind-blowing experience. Thanks for all the other points, too. Good stuff.

      • Oh, Peter, you just nailed it—the reason we write: to learn why we’re alive. This is why professional novelists plan where the story is going (the Climax) but not necessarily how it will end (Resolution). And it’s why so much of the work of a new aspiring writer is just forgetting publication and following the craft wherever it takes you. Dive ever deeper. The depths hold the good stuff.

        Because every story is about exploring your reasons for living, and you won’t learn what this story has to teach you about that until after you’ve written it.

    • Nellie says:

      I’m an editor and writer, too, so I especially enjoyed this.
      1) Many (most) editors do not write. They can still function as manuscript critics, but they have NO CLUE how it feels to be a writer or how hard it truly is.
      2) I believe editorial compassion comes with age and experience. Baby editors – say, the in-house editorial assistant or brand new editor – are not nearly as bright as they think they are. (I can say that because I was one.) Many of the things they worry about will have virtually no effect on book sales.

      • You know, I know indie editors who don’t write, but I also know a lot who do.

        Of course, you’re absolutely right that those of us who do both know exactly how it feels for the writer. And that makes the process a human bonding, over the long run. But I don’t think Bob Gottlieb’s authors ever worried much about his lack of writerly sympathy—writing for thousands of total strangers involves a certain amount of toughening up, and I guess Gottlieb’s authors took his casual attitude toward their travailas as tough love. He certainly edited them beautifully.

        It’s certainly true that we’re all more callow in youth than we think we are. Life in general is a balancing act. I spent a whole lot of my twenties falling off the highwire.

    • First of all, I’m drinking wine now (actually I’m drinking port which is worse), so please bear with me. We all need an editor, or rather someone with a different set of eyes willing and able to review our work and keep us on track. Thus, I absolutely agree with #3.

      Also, relative to #2, we must never forget that it’s all about the reader. I like to think of authors as cooks making a giant pot of soup for an army of knowledge-thirsty soldiers who are in search of a means of escape. As authors, we may never see the faces that read (eat) our soup, nor will we know how well they like the book (soup). But we still cook (write) because it is something that we love to do. We want the consumers to enjoy the soup (story) and say to their friends, “Hey, this guy (insert your name here) made a really good bowl of soup for me. You should check it out.” And they tell two friends, and so on, and so one, and so on. Simply put, we must please the (faceless) reader and not ourselves. After all, we get our kicks from the actual act of writing, at least I do… and I’d guess most of you as well. So, bon appetit… I mean good writing.

      • Ooh, port. What kind? We drink Taylor Fladgate. We used to get it out of the 40-year-old bottle freebie at a classy joint on Union Square in San Francisco, because my husband had once worked with the bartender. Ruined my tastebuds for cheaper stuff.

        This is a great analogy. You want every single reader coming back like Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, may I have another?” With a long line of hungry little pals with empty bowls standing behind them.

    • Terrific insights – thanks for sharing – and for being candid. I’ll be linking to this post on my Author Exchange Blog.

      • Thank you, Linda! When it comes right down to it, writing is always about telling the truth.

    • G Thomas Gill says:

      Great comments, every time I edit my work, I find a few errors. Makes me wonder what else is buried in there my eyes refused to pick up. However, I do struggle with the price of a first rate line editor.

      • Oh, I know—invisible errors are the worst viral infection the world has ever known. Sometimes I swear they appear in my stuff after I do my final read-through.

        And I do understand the issue with cost. Believe me. I was a starving writer for many, many years. Where was I going to get the money for an editor? I couldn’t even pay my rent.

        I try to keep my rates low now compared to the industry standard because I absolutely know what that life is like, but there’s no way to get around the fact that a novel takes a heck of a long time, both your time and your editor’s. Publishers used to pay for the editing as a matter of course, but things are changing, and that burden is simply falling more and more on the shoulders of the writer.

        I’ve done some freebie edit specials in the past, demonstrating both Developmental and Line Editing on submitted pieces, which are posted now on my site. At the very least, you can take a look and learn as much as you can from those examples—I explained what I was doing on each piece and why.

    • Lee Cole says:

      I love point number 2! Just like the rest of life, it’s not about you! It’s about the reader, the consumer of what you do. Excellent!

      • “Just like the rest of life.” 🙂 That’s great, Lee. It’s true. Write for yourself if that’s what you love—there’s nothing wrong with that—but if you expect someone else to buy what you write you’d better create something that’s worth the price. Worth it to them.

    • Words of wisdom and compassion. Excellent post. And, yes–number three; no writer can properly line edit their own writing.

      • It’s nuts, isn’t it? What’s up with that? It’s like being a master carpenter and not being able to trim out your own house.

    • With this kind of empathy, you must be one of the most effective editors out there! Sounds like you get at the necessary work of writing with wisdom and care. Your writers are lucky.

      • Oh, thank you, Jenny! You’re very sweet. My writers do tend to stick around, even after we’re done with their current ms’s. They bring me their new projects, they comment on my site and share their lives with me and send funny emails, and any time I need a someone to offer a little support to a newbie, they’re absolutely ready to jump in and give a hand up. I’m like that teacher who never went home after class, but stayed at her desk while the kids congregated around it.

        I always knew I’d grow up to be her.

    • Marwa says:

      “I know that every mild criticism is a slam to the writer’s solar plexus and every compliment is a faint voice mumbling unintelligibly in the distance.”
      OMG, you’ve been reading my mind again!

      • Marwa, this is true of <everyone—you, me, all my clients. We’re really very tender little keyboard-wielding kids, and we have tender little feelers.

        I watched Meryl Streep get her Lifetime Achievement Award a couple of months ago, where Kevin Kline told a wonderful, hilarious story about the first time they worked together, in which she told him, “Go ahead and hit me full force. Throw me around. You can’t hurt me,” and another time years later, in which he told her, “Don’t hit me! Be careful! I’m fragile. You can hurt me.

        We’re all fragile under our tough exteriors!

    • Victoria,

      Congrats again on winning the “Best Blogs” competition. Your blog definitely deserves it.

      I absolutely loved #5, because I’m sure most writers (myself included) view these statements as mutually exclusive, but they’re not.

      The fact that my manuscript sucks at the moment doesn’t automatically mean I suck as a writer, and I always will. That’s a tough thing to remember as rejection after rejection comes back from agents and publishers alike.

      I’m printing that phrase out and sticking it up on the wall behind my computer where I can stare at it when the tears clear…

      Thanks again!

      • Oh, I know, Justin. That’s why I directed you guys toward what my agents said to me about mine. I mentioned the same general thing in an interview once, in which I pointed out that my own early shlock is so bad it makes my clients look like geniuses. All I have to do is lay them side-by-side, and my enthusiasm for the client’s work simply sky-rockets.

    • Thanks Victoria! I want to ask people to re-read number one, but boy does it take a LOT of discipline. Yeah, like the amount you thought it takes, multiply that by a hundred and then add million–gagillion.

      I’ve started the journey to writing my first novel last year and I just want to thank you for your inspiring but realistic article. I think that really shows that you love your readers because you are not about to promise them quick fixes or lure them in with stories of overnight success. You really are there to get them through the nitty gritty of it all with a practical, reasonable, and therefore useful approach. Congrats on the new book! 🙂

      • Thanks, Olin!

        And yes, holy cow, does it take a metric ton more work than you ever think it’s going to. A hundred times a million-gagillion sounds about right.

        That’s why it’s so important to keep your priorities straight. If you’re not doing this work for the sheer love of the work, then for heaven’s sake, people, go do whatever it is you do love. Life’s short. There’s no reason to waste your time.

        On the other hand, if this is what you love, if other writers are the people you love hanging out with, if you can happily while away hours of your leisure time figuring out just who was in the closet under the stairs while the railway magnate was having his hair done for the impersonation in the Easter Parade. . .then I say have at it. Fiction is a wonderful, exciting, brain-expanding way to spend your life! To paraphrase Lily Tomlin: action-packed and fun-filled.

    • You’re very welcome, Elle. I hope you enjoy the book! I’m working on the sequel, covering all the more detailed stuff I didn’t have room for in the first one. And I’m hoping to have workbooks to go with them available later this year. It is an infinitely fascinating craft.

      Whenever you’re ready, you know where to find me. (By the kitchen fire, yelling at the cats to stop thrashing on each other.)

    • Elle B says:

      This is why I write fiction…”it’s creating an experience for your reader.” So hard to do, but when done well it’s pure magic. Just read the first chapter of your book on your website — “seeking hope/finding validation/creating art.” Beautifully worded (of course) and inspiring. I’ve told myself I’m not going to buy any more writing books, but okay, exception made!

      Would love to be in a position one day to employ your services. Thanks for the phenomenal advice!

    • Lisa Cron says:

      This is all so well said it takes my breath away. Especially #2 and #7 — I couldn’t agree with you more. Your love for writers rings out loud and clear, along with your spot on assessment of the meaning of story — both to the writer and to the reader. There is only story — it’s how we make sense of the world – I’m thinking it’s even more important than opposable thumbs. Not that I’d want to give mine up, mind you.

      • Thank you for your kind words, Lisa. You made me laugh out loud! It’s true—it is possible to live a life without opposable thumbs. But I don’t think even my cats could function without their own little story about the two brothers of whom only could be superior.

        • “only one”

          I’ve got to quit posting before I’m all the way awake.

    • Stuart says:

      What an amazing post! I believe there’s so much more to writing than most people would have you believe. Writing is living, and if we don’t believe what we write, no-one else will.

      Particularly liked No.2. We always have fun writing, but if no-one else likes what we write, we may as well keep it to ourselves. And there’s no fun in that 😉

      • Thank you so much, Stuart. That #2 is really the key to the whole thing. You write your first draft for yourself. Then you spend ALL the rest of the drafts on your reader. As Roz (@dirtywhitecandy) mentions in the interview we’re conducting, writing as therapy is different from writing to be read. They fulfill different needs in the writer. And they require vastly different concentrations of focus and energy.

        Truly—writing for others isn’t a hobby. It’s a calling.

    • So far, my crit partners have been harsher than my editors–or maybe it’s because they’re harsh that my editors don’t have to work quite so hard. #3 is so true. Great post.

      Terry’s Place
      Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

      • Oh, this is a really good point, Terry. Crit partners are not editors. No matter how much they might understand their craft, no matter how serious they might be about helping you—they are not approaching your manuscript with the professional time and care and dedication it takes to help you get absolutely everything you can out of it. That’s not their job. It’s mine.

        • So true — although one hopes that good crit partners can make the editor’s job easier.

          Terry’s Place
          Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

          • You know, Terry, it’s really so dependent upon the crit partners—I’ve seen critiquing going on out there in the blogosphere that made me put my head down and weep. Those people are actually making my job harder.

            The truth is there’s a lot of really terrible advice floating around, and innocent aspiring writers pick it up and pass it on because they have simply no way of knowing it’s wrong. Editors learn the rules from qualified professionals, practice applying them under supervision, and add that to years dedicated to researching and analyzing literature on their own. Then they have to learn how to impart what they know to less experienced writers without crushing them.

            Crit partners are really mostly there to make your job easier. They ease the loneliness, provide the encouragement you need, help you get through the Self-Loathing Phase of Revision without setting your keyboard on fire.

            They form the tribe that’s so much an essential part of what being a writer is all about.

    • Has anyone applauded #5 yet? This is what I find makes book doctoring so interesting. Just as everyone has their own blind spots, every writer has their own brilliant spots. Putting the magnifying glass over them and helping the writer recognise them is perhaps the most useful job we can do. A good critique helps the writer with not only the book thely’ve sent you, but all the other ones they’ll write in future.

      • I know we’re talking about this in our interview, Roz—this very minute.

        It’s something I learned when I worked with abused children twenty years ago: children will become whatever you tell them they already are. So I tell my writers they’re writers. (We all know writers are basically enormous, keyboard-wielding children.) Because they are! And half the struggle is learning to approach this craft professionally, with dignity, secure in the knowledge that you can learn what you need to learn and do what you need to do in order to create the stories you long to create.

        Then you do it.

        • Genevieve says:

          Here. This is it. This is me. I have wanted to write, and tried, ever since I could hold a pen. I’m 28 now and only last year realized the truth that you stated above. I am a writer. Because I want to be. Now I get to learn how to be one.

          I love this article. For me it reads like the assuring hand on the back of a new bike.

          Thanks, as always!

          • YES, Genevieve. Now you get to learn how to do what you know to be the most impossibly fun, elaborately frustrating, profound, and meaningful work there is for you. All of us here—we are such lucky people.

    • Wow. As a fellow freelance editor (book doctor), all I can say is Wow. Thank you for this post. This is brilliant, and dead-on accurate in all seven points.

      Especially point number 1. Every time I send a manuscript critique back to a client, I’m worried that I’ve been too harsh and that I’m going to crush their soul. I have to tell them the truth–they’re giving me their hard-earned money to learn how to improve their craft, so I owe them the truth–but I’m always worried that I haven’t been able to tell them the truth in a way that is kind, gentle, and constructive enough. The last thing in the world I ever want to do is make someone stop writing. But, I have yet to have anybody fly off the handle at me or rage at me in response, so I guess I’m doing ok. You’re right, though, at least half of this job is about knowing how to handle people with compassion and respect, even while telling them all the things they need to fix in their manuscript.

      And especially point number 2. The reader’s experience is the only thing that matters, and every writing rule or guideline is only useful to the extent that following it generally creates a better experience. It’s not about me. It’s not about my clever premise. It’s not even about my characters. Those things are just tools I employ to create an experience for my readers.

      And also, especially point number 3. Oh, how I wish I could line edit my own stuff as well as I can line edit my clients’ stuff, but you’re right. It’s impossible.

      But I think my favorite part of this whole brilliant post is this line from the end: “There is only storytelling to which all of us, readers and writers alike, go over and over again, to find out what life is.”

      In the beginning and in the end, there is only storytelling.

      • You’re so kind, Jason. And yes, it is really only storytelling. A small, simple holograph of the cosmos.

    • I’m lying on my wrestling mat reading this post and taking a breather before jumping up again. Thanks! The line-edit thing I know but still good to see it again, especially as I’m at the line-edit part in two manuscripts. # 4 – yay – thanks for this. When I feel like the end is nigh (by the way, why is it only ever the ‘end’ that is nigh?) I will read this again and again. Because of there is anything more disheartening than the 6 months to a year of waiting for someone to just damn reject you already so you can move on – it’s the thinking that there will be no one to reject you by the time you’ve done your 44th draft. gads. So, again, thanks!

      • Do you suppose it’s just less nerve-wracking to know the beginning is nigh? I don’t even think about whether or not I’m nigh the middle.

        I know it’s hard to roll with the time it takes to be a writer, but it’s simply not something we can think of in terms of speed.

        This is our life’s work.

    • I loved #5! So true. I’m always amazed (and grateful) for what editors and copy editors find to fix in my seemingly “perfect” manuscripts. Self-published e-books, while a possibly intriguing way to publish my under-the-bed manuscripts that didn’t fit at a traditional publisher, freak me out a little bit — the idea of publishing them without benefit of an editor is kind of terrifying. 🙂

      Thanks for a great post!

      • Oh, yeah, Shannon, you don’t want to self-publish without an editor. That professional polish is essential. I had three professional writers read my ms before we published it, but because none of them had time to do a meticulous line-by-line edit, we just found two completely inane errors in grammar and punctuation in the chapters on grammar and punctuation.

        Truly—learn from my example. Everybody needs a professional editor.

    • Perry says:

      What a great post. I like your humor and your caring comes through. Great points.

      • You’re my next guinea pig. And I still do not know how to put my picture on this software.

        Thank you, Perry—yes, I do feel passionate about both writers and writing. It is such a vital art, there’s so so much depth and complexity and wonder and inexplicable power to it that makes it the one art we with our “sawn, splay sounds” choose as our own. And there is so much we who write know about practicing it that we can share with each other.

        None of us is going to live forever. We are all every moment in the act of passing the torch.

    • I agree with #3, for sure. No one can line-edit their own work, and even if they do, they should try coming back to it after a few days. It makes a massive difference!

      I typically do this: Once I am done editing a piece for a magazine, I will go about my way and leave it alone for a few hours of a couple days, if I have that luxury. And then I’d come back with the red pen. Wham. All I have got to ask myself at that moment is “how could I use that sentence?” or “how could I let it slip earlier?”

      You get the idea.

      Super post by the way. Thanks for the share!


      • guest says:

        Oh, no, the dreaded red pen! You know, it took me twenty years to figure out that actually applied to me. Sorry and woe—but, wow, did my writing life get a zillion times easier once I accepted it.

        Yes, time is a wonderful tool for revision, and nothing good ever gets written without it. Except maybe grocery lists. Those seem to do okay. 🙂

        • guest says:

          That was supposed to be me, Victoria, replying to that. Apparently I do not have a handle on this software. I’ll see what I can do about that.

          • guest says:

            Also apparently I don’t know how to spell ‘sorrow.’

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