Authors are usually featured in my Five Questions series, but authors who read this blog can benefit from hearing from talented editors. Selina McLemore is an excellent editor who specializes in romance. I have worked with her in the past couple of years. Her feedback has been invaluable.
1. Writers often know they want to write at any early age. When and how did you know you wanted to be an editor? What draws you to the profession?
I’ve loved books ever since I was a child. I would write stories and plays to amuse myself, I’d check out everything I could from the library, and I even made tiny little books to go inside my dollhouse. But when people would ask What do you want to be when you grow up? I never thought about being a writer. I don’t know why, really. I suppose I just associated books with fun, and if TV and overheard snippets of adult conversations were to be believed, work wasn’t fun. As for being an editor, to be honest I didn’t even realize that was a job until high school. It was the year we read Fitzgerald and Hemingway, which made it the year I learned of Maxwell Perkins. I had always imagined writing a book as a solitary act. I never thought about the other people who helped these great authors share their stories with the world.
But that still isn’t when I knew I wanted to be an editor. That finally happened the summer after my junior year of college. The previous summer I had worked as an editorial assistant at Sesame Street Magazine in New York. It was an amazing experience and I had the opportunity to learn a lot about magazine publishing. The editor I worked with was a wonderful mentor to me, and when I mentioned that I was also interested in learning about book publishing, she helped me secure an internship at HarperCollins Children’s Books for the following summer. (This was also how I learned just how small the publishing industry is, which is always good to remember.) I was able to work at both places part time, so I could really compare the two industries. In the end, I felt book publishing was where I belonged.
As for what draws me to my profession, it’s probably not what you think. I’m not an editor just because I love books and reading. I do, of course, and yes that is a part of it, but for me it’s more. I love the collaboration. I love being part of a creative team. And I love problem solving, helping an author find the best way to express herself. I have a very logical brain and an appreciation for the imaginative and artistic. Being an editor allows me to combine those different parts of myself.
2. From your perspective, what should an author know in order to have a successful relationship with an editor?
An author should remember that she and her editor share the same goal. Your editor wants your book to succeed. After all, her success is linked to yours. However, that doesn’t mean you will always agree on the best way to reach that goal. Sometimes you will disagree with your editor, and when this happens the best thing you can do is listen to what she’s saying and try to understand why she’s saying it. Editors are not always right, and it is okay to ask questions when you don’t understand something, be it a revision to your manuscript or a marketing decision. But authors aren’t always right either, so don’t assume your editor is wrong just because she’s telling you something you don’t want to hear.
3. What advice do you have for authors who are looking at a wildly diverse publishing landscape and wondering whether they should choose an indie career or a more conventionally published one?
Either path can be an excellent one, so it’s really a question of what is best for an individual author. The two biggest questions I recommend authors ask themselves are What are my resources? and How much control do I want to have? It’s takes a lot of time and knowledge to manage an indie career, or, in the absence of those, it can take significant financial resources to hire other people to manage it all for you. Traditional houses may come with advances and a support team, but to gain those you will give up a certain amount of creative and business control. Don’t get caught up in what someone else has done. What worked for someone in your writing group might not be the right choice for you. It’s wonderful to learn from other authors’ experiences, but never let them limit you.
4. Your specialty is romance. What advice can you give a beginning romance writer?
Read widely across the genre and remember it’s not only about the sex.
I’ve worked in many genres over the course of my career and I think, of all of them, romance is the most diverse when it comes to story—and yet it is almost universally panned as having books that are all the same. When you consider all the subgenres of romance, I think nothing could be more untrue. To think all romances are the same or that writing one is easy is to dramatically misunderstand the genre. But here’s what is true and what a beginning romance writer must never misunderstand: At the heart of a great romance novel is a great conflict. Intense conflict, both internal and external, is what drives story. We want characters who have something at stake. Characters who must act to gain something, but by taking that action could lose something as well. It’s a risk, and what can be a greater motivator to take a risk than love?
5. I have to ask: Do you see particular trends authors might want to either avoid or try out? It’s a horrible question, because authors should be writing the stories of their hearts and not either avoiding or chasing trends. Nevertheless, your overview of the state of the publishing world can be extremely valuable to an author who is in the beginning stages of a story.
The trend question. It’s the one everyone asks, for obvious reasons. I would never tell an author to write to a trend, but I don’t fully agree that authors should be blind to them and only write the “stories of their hearts” either, and here’s why:
Publishing is a business. Editors don’t necessarily get to buy whatever they want; they have to buy what their houses believe they can sell. Indie publishing gives an author more freedom, in that, if the story of her heart isn’t the story the publisher needs, she can publish it on her own. Of course, she will still need readers to buy it, which means just like that publisher, the author has to give some consideration to market demands. So, I can understand why authors might choose to chase trends, because it might increase their odds of selling their work. I don’t think this is necessarily horrible, provided that the author still enjoys what she is writing. It’s when an author compromises too much, and forces herself to write a story for commercial reasons only that I think she can run into problems. For example, if you decide to sit down and write a YA novel because they’re popular, and not because you actually read and love teen fiction, it’s likely that you’re writing won’t feel genuine.
Instead of chasing trends, I think authors need to educate themselves about the market in which they wish to publish. Look at bestseller lists–not just the New York Times or USA Today, which tend to be dominated by the same celebrity-level authors. Look for lists broken down by genre to find out what’s working specifically within your chosen field. Explore bookstores and libraries to see what’s popular there. Follow publishers on social media to learn what they’re promoting. Follow authors to see what they’re reading. One of my favorites sites to play on is Bookish.com, which has a lot of information about all things, well, bookish. If you discover that your specific story doesn’t seem to be on trend right now, that doesn’t mean you have to abandon it. You can look for ways to incorporate trends—say a certain type of character or setting—into your writing. And read everything you can. No one becomes a great writer without first being a great reader.
Selina McLemore is a Portland, OR based Independent Editor and Literary Consultant. Her publishing career spans nearly two decades, and in that time, she’s had the privilege of working with a number of bestselling and award-winning authors, and helped numerous aspiring authors find their voice.
A graduate of Northwestern University Selina has worked at Harlequin Books, HarperCollins Publishers/ Avon Romance, and Grand Central Publishing/Forever Romance. In 2013 she traded the skyscrapers of Manhattan for the mountains of Portland, OR, where she launched her literary consulting business, providing a wide range of editorial services to publishers, agents, and independent authors across the country.
If you’d like to discover how Selina can help you reach your goals, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen