This week, the science fiction and fantasy community was devastated by the loss of David G. Hartwell, long-time Tor editor, co-founder of the World Fantasy Convention, and an extraordinary man in every way. (especially his fashion-sense–seriously! His ties have their own website)
Unlike this year’s prior losses of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, this one, I take personally. I have known *of* David since I first aspired to sell a fantasy novel, more than twenty years ago. And when a friend more plugged in to the SF community told me that David read everything that crossed his desk personally, I found it hard to believe–surely, David Hartwell had more important things to do. And yet, I am not sure, from his perspective, if there were any more important job to an editor than discovering a new great writer, grooming their work for success, and helping it reach its audience. He considered discovering Gene Wolfe to be one of his greatest achievements.
I had only a couple of opportunities to talk with David directly about my work, most notably when he invited me to join him for breakfast at a World Fantasy Convention while he was considering my first novel. [David (via email) “Are you going to World Fantasy? We could have breakfast.” Me (thinking furiously about how to afford the trip): Yes!] During that meal, David told me things about my own book that I never thought anyone else would know or understand. In my case, I’m sure it helped that his background was in Medieval Studies. He ably demonstrated what makes a great editor.
Although I was not able to work with David on that project (and now mourn the lost dream that we would eventually work on books together), he showed by example many of the skills of the great editor. I have now had numerous editorial relationships both awful and wonderful. I often hear new writers or indie authors questioning the need for publishers at all–and I make the case for editors every time. Many indie authors know all about this, and hire their own editors. For the traditionally published author, the publisher will assign an editor to work with the novel–often the editor who selected the work for publication, though not always.
A great editor recognizes what is unique and striking about your work. They will identify the heart of the story and help you to craft the words to more carefully reveal that uniqueness. This requires careful reading and a global way of thinking about the work–the editor needs to see the forest, not just the trees.
A great editor also sees what makes the work similar to other works in the field. They can place this new novel in relation to those works for the benefit of the marketing and in-house designers, enabling them to generate book covers, cover copy and ancillary sales materials to reach the market segment most likely to fall in love with the book (as, hopefully, the editor did).
A great editor delivers feedback in a clear, organized, articulate and respectful way. The editor understands that their response (positive as well as negative) is important, but that the author is one who will develop the solutions to any concerns. The editor may have ideas about solutions, or aid in brainstorming, but trusts the author to create the one that is most suitable for the work. This may extend to aiding the author in developing a series concept or planning for additional projects.
A great editor helps the author to hone individual scenes, paragraphs and sentences to enhance their clarity and purpose. The editor questions things that aren’t working and may suggest cuts, but the purpose of the cuts is always to strengthen the work. The editor is open to negotiation about things the author thinks are critical about the story or style. The editor doesn’t try to change the work simply to “leave their mark” on it, or introduce stylistic elements that aren’t in keeping with the author’s voice.
A great editor communicates directly when working with either the author, or the author’s agent, if any, giving the information they need and guiding the work and the author through the process from a rough pile of words to a finished book on a shelf, virtual or physical.
A great editor is the book’s first fan, celebrating it and advocating for it both within the publishing house and outside of it.
David could be all of this and more. He was a voice for science fiction and fantasy, a thoughtful participant at conventions, a firm and illuminating moderator, a witty and enjoyable presence at parties and social affairs. He will be missed.