the good, the bad, and the ugly about the writing life

Why I Hired an Editor–Part 1

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Depending on what day it is, I will give you a different answer. If you ask me on Monday why I hired an editor for my mystery novel, I might tell you that the publishing landscape has changed and you would be lucky to get even one, all-over edit from your publishing house—if you are lucky enough to land an agent who gets you a publishing house.

If you ask me on Tuesday, I could mention that I really hate editing. I’m good when I’m looking at other people’s writing and hopeless when I’m looking at my own. It’s possible that I would mention both reason one and reason two if you asked me on Wednesday.

On Thursday, I would skip the whole issue and tell you that we needed to meet for coffee (you’re buying) to discuss. But, if you asked me on Friday (and I was in a good mood), I might tell you the truth.

I wrote my first mystery novel, Discount Death, years ago. At first, I thought it was the most wonderful book ever written in the English language, and, as an English major, I figured I would know. However, as time went by and agents took a pass on it, I began to have a more realistic view. Finally, I decided that the book had been a learning experience. No one was going to publish it, nor should they.

So I wrote mystery novel #2, Death and the Motherlode. This book felt better, more complete, but there was something missing. I had this niggling feeling that something was wrong with it, but I couldn’t figure out what. One writing friend suggested that the main character, Paulette, didn’t have much of an interior monologue. I liked having an answer and promptly added interior monologue. The book still didn’t “feel” right. I asked all my writer friends for a diagnosis, but nothing worked.

Finally, a friend at Mystery Writers of America told me about an editor she had used. She told me that this editor had helped many of the writers in the Chicago chapter and that the editor had made it possible for her first book to get published. I contacted said editor, Chris Roerden. She diagnosed my problem straightaway: I didn’t anchor my scenes.

Huh?  I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained that anchoring your scene in physical reality helps the reader to “see” what your characters are doing, not just what they are saying. She didn’t say it, but my characters were sort of free-floating talking heads. I set up the scene at the beginning of the chapter, but I never mentioned it again. Who knew?

Chris also said, in our original contact, that I had promise as a writer. As I recall, this business about having promise was drowned out by her suggestion that my manuscript needed an editor. By this time, I had a Master’s degree in English. I thought that the degree covered everything I needed to know about writing.

In fact, I was shocked. After years of education and reading and writing and teaching, I felt that I SHOULD know how to write a novel. More than that, I felt ashamed that I needed an editor to tell me what was wrong with my book. I was a failure as an English major and a word nerd–not to mention a big fat zero as a fiction writer.

Check in later this week to see what I did next. (Hint: I got OVER myself.)

4 Responses to “Why I Hired an Editor–Part 1”

  1. michaelalexanderchaney

    This sounds like a compelling origin story for your emergence as a novelist and a writer, Heather. It sounds to me that this person was not your average editor. Not just someone to proofread and polish for style, but a careful reader and a sort of writing coach. The worlds most amazing gold medal winning athletes are not ashamed of the great advice they get from good coaches and neither should you be. You brought the goods (via your education and talent), this person just helped to make those goods even … well, more good. How’s that? And to think, I’m a former English major, too.

  2. Chris Roerden

    Wow! You’ve shared some really insightful observations and self-awareness, Heather. In 50 years of editing I’ve noticed that most fiction writers include me in their books’ acknowledgments as “friend,” “reader,” or something similar; never editor — until Hank Phillippi Ryan, investigative TV reporter, multiple award-winner, well-loved president of Sisters in Crime and national board member of Mystery Writers of America. She turned her reporting to writing mystery fiction when she was about 55, and remains so comfortable in who she is that holding back credit to others isn’t her style, even tho’ the creative talent in her books is all hers. How terrific to witness the rare quality that you share with Hank, and I have every expectation that some day you will become as well published as she is.

    Thank you, and all best wishes!


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