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Finding An Editor | Drawing Inspiration from the Real World

book editor Adina PortmanAdina Portman

I’ve finished my first manuscript and I need an editor. What should I look for in an editor?

It’s all about clear communication from the start, and it’s important that the writer and the editor get along. Sounds simple, and it is.

You will want to check the editor’s background. If you’ve written a literary novel and the editor has mostly edited medical textbooks, it might be best to find someone else. Find out if the editor has experience working directly with authors, as opposed to working with publishers or other companies. Having the buffer of a middleman between the writer and the editor can affect an editor’s sensitivity. What sorts of projects has the editor worked on and how do those projects compare to your own? You can also ask the editor for a specific type of reference. If you ask for three authors the editor recently worked with, those references might be able to provide valuable insights for you.

It’s important to be very clear about your expectations with your editor from the get go. If you only want a quick proofread for spelling errors and punctuation, you’ll want your editor to know not to take a deep dive into your prose, restructuring sentences and suggesting substantive changes to a book you thought you were finished writing. If you are looking for a substantive edit, you don’t want the editor to zoom through without nudging the prose around a bit. Asking the editor for a sample contract or project proposal can be a great way to hammer out these details. Their contracts should state specifically what they plan to do with your manuscript, how long it will take, how much it will cost, and so on. The contract can be a wonderful tool for the author and editor to negotiate back and forth for a while before jumping into the work.

When finding an editor, it’s important to do some introspection as well. How deeply do you want your editor to dig into your prose? How comfortable are you with criticism? Are you looking for someone to praise your genius or someone who will help you improve your manuscript? Try to prepare yourself for what you’re asking your editor to do. Emily Dickinson once wrote to her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it.”

Many writers respond to the world around them and the people in it. Any words of advice on how to navigate the complexities of drawing inspiration from real-life people in works of fiction?

Gathering the parts of a fictional character is an exciting process. While doing so, you may have one real-life person in mind or your character might be a conglomeration of people from all walks of life. Drawing inspiration from the people in your personal life can be a challenge. On the one hand, you know how their body language and inflections communicate more than their words. On the other hand, you may be too close to them to realize the most effective details to focus on. There’s also the question of whether your loved ones will be offended by being the subject of your inspiration, so tread carefully and use your interpersonal instincts in these cases.

I find the most exciting way to gather details is to sit down in a busy public place and watch people as they go about their business. Sound creepy? Maybe. But you’re a writer—you have an excuse. And you can always pretend you’re waiting to meet someone or trying to read a book. Watching people, searching for their distinctive features, their subtle movements, can be like an extravagant shopping spree. All the details are there for you to choose from and you can have anything you want. Seeing the way a man holds his dusty baseball cap, curling and rolling the bill nervously in his hands. Watching two people make eye contact and dance as they try to avoid bumping into each other. Or watching two people bump into each other and noting the difference in how they each react. How do their appearances change as they walk away? You might even recognize other people watchers. They’re taking in an entirely different scene simply by sitting in another location viewing from a slightly different angle. The possibilities are endless.

Be sure to also make note of when you’re making assumptions. Appearances aren’t enough when you’re creating a full character. If we make assumptions, we often create flat characters who run the risk of becoming a cliché. When you notice yourself quickly assuming the inner workings of a real-life person passing you on the street, take a moment to analyze your own reaction. Would this assumption ring true to your reader? Would it be an interesting portrayal of a character? Chances are if you made a snap judgment, the observation will lack a certain depth. Question your assumptions and push yourself to take a moment to come up with other explanations of a character’s appearance or action. Readers love the unexpected. They love to be surprised by human nature. Draw on the people you see in the real world and find a way to push beyond the obvious. Tweak the truth until it’s true for your reader. That’s the beauty of fiction.”

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