June 16 – 22: “How has an editor’s advice helped with your story?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we turn to editorial advice and ask ITW Members Meg Gardiner, Kate White, Sheila Lowe, Tom Wither, Kym Brunner, Ridley Pearson, Tim Waggoner, Kathrin Lange, Amy Lignor and Neil Plakcy: “How has an editor’s advice helped with your story?”



inheritorTom Wither’s debut work is THE INHERITOR, a military thriller that crosses four countries in pursuit of the leader of a resurgent al-Qaeda.  According to Publisher’s Weekly, “…the narrative provides plenty of mind numbing twists and turns along the way. Military buffs and fans of high-stakes action thrillers will find a lot to like.”  Tom served his country at home and abroad for more than 25 years as a member of Air Force Intelligence. Tom holds professional certifications from the NSA as an Intelligence Analyst, and the Director of National Intelligence as an Intelligence Community Officer. He lives near Baltimore.

inkLike her fictional character Claudia Rose in the award-winning Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series, Sheila Lowe is a real-life forensic handwriting expert who holds a Master of Science in psychology. She authored the internationally acclaimed The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis and Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, as well as the Handwriting Analyzer software. Her analyses of celebrity handwritings have appeared in Teen People, Tiger Beat, Us, Mademoiselle, and many others.


PhantomMeg Gardiner is the bestselling author of twelve thrillers, including the Edgar Award winner China Lake and the 2012 Audie Award winner The Nightmare Thief. Her new novel Phantom Instinct is published June 26th.




WANTED - DEAD OR IN LOVE MEDIUMcoverKym Brunner has been writing action-packed novels for young adults for ten years. An active member of International Thriller Writers (ITW) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), she spearheads two writing groups. When she’s not writing, Kym teaches reading and language arts for seventh graders––which is an action-packed thriller all on its own. She’s repped by Eric Myers of the Spieler Agency and resides in the Chicago area. WANTED: DEAD OR IN LOVE (Merit Press, June 30, 2014) is her debut novel.


deep like riverShirley Jackson Award finalist Tim Waggoner has published over thirty novels and three short story collections of dark fiction. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College and in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program.



The Charlatans Crown_Final Online(1)As the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL are still her heroes. Beginning in the genre of historical romance with, “THE HEART OF A LEGEND,” Amy moved into the YA world where her first team from THE ANGEL CHRONICLES became a beloved hit. Moving into the action/adventure world with TALLENT & LOWERY, Amy has created a new, incredibly suspenseful, team that has once again exploded with readers everywhere. Born in Connecticut, Amy is now living in the bright sunshine of Roswell, NM, delving into her next adventure.


40hoursKathrin Lange was born in 1969 and lives in Northern Germany. After passing the Abitur and training to be a publishing bookseller, she spent some time working at a theological bookshop. When her children were born, she founded her own media design company. From 2002 to 2004, she published the author’s magazine FEDERWELT, and since 2005 she has been writing novels. Her exciting thrillers are published by Blanvalet and Arena. Kathrin Lange is deeply committed to the promotion of reading. She also works as a novel writers’ coach, and in addition to the International Thriller Writers, she also is a member of the leading German crime-authors organisation SYNDIKAT.


RedRoom Cover2Ridley Pearson is the New York Times bestselling author of more than four dozen novels, including Choke Point and The Risk Agent, featuring globetrotting problem-solvers John Knox and Grace Chu, as well as the Walt Fleming and Lou Boldt crime series, and many books for young readers. The play “Peter and the Starcatcher,” based on his novel written with Dave Barry, was the recipient of five 2012 Tony Awards. He lives with his wife and two daughters, dividing his time between St. Louis, Missouri, and Hailey, Idaho.

eyes on youKate White is the New York Times bestselling author of six Bailey Weggins mysteries and three stand-alone suspense novels, Hush, The Sixes, and the upcoming Eyes on You (June 24). She was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 14 years. She is also the editor of the upcoming MWA cookbook.



A Golden Moment (October, 2009)A native of Bucks County, PA, where the Golden Retriever Mysteries are set, Neil Plakcy is the author of more than two dozen novels and short story collections. He is the proud papa of two rambunctious goldens, Brody and Griffin. More information on his books can be found at his website.



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  1. As a debut author, with one novel published this month, and one coming out this Fall, my experience is obviously limited, but I feel that my editor’s comments have provided the most help with my stories in two major ways.

    1 – Getting a more complete version of the vision in my head out onto the manuscript. As I write, the words tend to fly onto the page, and even after I’ve made two or more editorial passes myself, I find that I tend to ‘fill in’ details some of a scene without actually having the words I think are needed for the reader on the paper. Over the length of a 130,000+ word novel manuscript, there are usually a few places where this can crop up. Having the editor’s second pair of eyes going through the story and point out places where he or she wasn’t able to envision the scene as I intended helps me see the holes in how I described the scene on paper and repair them.

    2 – Keeping the pace up. I’m a trained intelligence professional, and that makes me a detail oriented guy, and including lots of detail increases story length at the risk of boring a reader. Worse, I’m a trained IT professional as well, and when you pen military/techno thrillers, the geek in me tends to run away with the manuscript, so to speak. The editor’s input can provide me with valuable feedback about whether I’ve gone too far with the military or computer technobabble, or have I taken a complex technical subject and brought it down to a level that a large reading audience can consume without getting a Doctorate in military operations or microprocessor design. The editor’s review and suggestions (or questions) helps me keep the audience immersed in the story, without having them step back and say ‘when will this dissertation on how Internet domain name resolution end?’

  2. An editor’s value cannot be underestimated. I happen to be one of those writers that benefits greatly from editorial comment, and have been editor-dependent from the start of my publishing career. I currently work with a freelance editor who advises, revises me ahead of submission to either publishing house in an effort to help my work look better going in the door.

    Once inside Putnam, my suspense novels are edited by Christine Pepe whose well-deserved credentials stretch a mile long. “Chris” was instrumental both in the early development of the Risk Agent series conceptually and in the continuing development of its twin protagonists, John Knox and Grace Chu.

    After I submitted an early draft the Risk Agent (2012 publication) Chris came back to me and, liking my “sidekick” character of Grace Chu, asked me to bring her more to the forefront. We attempted something not often done (to my limited knowledge): a novel with two equal protagonists.

    To “balance” Knox and Grace required a half dozen total rewrites and a like number polishes. Chris was extremely patient through the process. I wrote 9 full rewrites for the next novel in the Risk Agent series, last year’s Choke Point. Nearly 6,000 pages to end up with a 400+ page novel finding its way onto bookstore shelves. What we now have going has made it all worth it: a “new” kind of suspense thriller where no single character dominates the plotting or the characterization, where each lead informs the reader about the other lead, and where the unexpected can happen at any moment because it doesn’t have to happen to the same protagonist (thereby suspending disbelief, I hope!).

    The Red Room, the latest installment that publishes this week has garnered the best trade reviews yet of the books in the series, including a starred review from Booklist, making me feel as if the endless hours spent rewriting for both my editors has paid off.

    I view the role of the editor to 1) read the novel as a “fresh reader” 2) make critiques and judgments based on pacing, characterization and the level of writing 3) possess the intelligence to be able to articulate a novel’s strengths and weaknesses 4) to offer constructive criticism wherever and whenever possible (everyone’s a critic!).

    It can take years to find the right blend of these qualities and a personality with which you, the writer, feels comfortable. When you do find that person, or those people, you want to never let go.

    In fact, if it wasn’t a Sunday—Fathers’ Day at that!–I would send this off to my freelance editor, Genevieve, and ask her to do a quick line edit! I’m sure it could use some improvement.


  3. Great comments, Tom and Ridley.

    What I’ve learned after working with editors on twelve novels:

    Good editors have a 30,000 foot view of a manuscript. They see the forest AND the trees. They take a thorough look at plot and character. They see ways to hone the story, and to bring out elements that are swamped or underdeveloped in my first draft.

    Working with an editor is collaborative. I outline, and when I’m creating the story I try always to work toward a satisfying ending. Sometimes I get it right the first time. Other times, the editor is the one who reads a draft and tells me: who’s this character lurking at the corners of the story? He’s bad, cunning, manipulative, and wants so much for himself… shouldn’t he be behind things? Or: isn’t this half-developed temptress the one who’s been pulling the strings?

    An editor has NEVER told me to change “Whodunit” – but they’ve seen where I stopped short, didn’t dig deep enough, or left the possibilities of a story unfulfilled. They pushed me to go farther. An editor who has skill at story-building is priceless. And an editor you work with on publication becomes a partner – because you talk about development of upcoming books, and where you see series characters going, and who might join them, and build up the world of the story.

    Basically, editors are the ones who help our books to shine.

    1. “Editors are the one whe help our books to shine.” What a great sentence, Meg! If we are luckily having an editor, who has this 30.000 ft view of a manuscript, we should be grateful, I think.
      I had one when I wrote the “Angelkiller”-Series and I always remember his annotation on my “Madonna”-Manuscript: “If you change the whole story this and this way, then your novel would be a real criticism to the childrens abuse-affair of the catholic curch which was ongoing these days”.
      But unfortunately not all my editors were this good. I had several quarrels with some of them because they tried to change my very own language into something shallow on behalf of mainstream. I wonder how you acted if something like this would happen to you.

      1. Fortunately I have never quarreled with my editors. But I have disagreed with changes that proofreaders tried to make. Some proofreaders are aggressive sticklers for formal grammar in every piece of writing. That’s appropriate in a presidential speech or academic monogram. It’s not always the right choice for a thriller. Especially not in dialogue. Sometimes I want characters to speak in sentence fragments or to use “ain’t.”

        Don’t mess with my dialogue. (Picture me shaking my fist.)

        1. So, what are you doing when you disagree in the changes proofreaders advice? Do you change the proofreaders? And it would be interesting to me how you find your proofreaders, esp. ones that are experts to technical subjects as policework and so on…

          1. These proofreaders were hired by my publishers. I now always ask my editor to let me see the final version of the script before it goes to production.

  4. I think the easier question for me would be: How have they not helped? LOL.

    My editor has not only brought a new opinion to certain tales, opening up or alerting me to the fact that there was another avenue to pursue, but she has also been able to decrease the nerves and allow for the flow of my writing to become easier for the reader.

    Nerves, as many know, (or maybe it’s just me)are there when the book has been created and we are waiting ‘patiently’ (HA, HA) to find out what the editor of our work observes, and if the new novel not only stands up to past work but, hopefully, can outshine it.

    I also have to admit that my editor has found some true screw-ups – some of those lines where you know you must have written them at 1:00 A.M., while listening to the neighbor’s dog bark, and a motorcycle being revved up down the street. These are the lines that I then miss completely in read-throughs.

    One of mine (and, yes, I don’t mind the shame), was when I actually wrote a line regarding the celebration of Thanksgiving…in England. Talk about embarrassed when she made sure to point this particular nugget out, but also extremely relieved that no one actually reading the story had to roll their eyes and throw my book onto their ‘yuletide’ fire. I must say that her hard work, attention to detail, and the diligence she has always shown to me has most definitely improved my work.

  5. For a long time, I was jealous of author friends who got great critiques from their agents and editors. I never believed that my books were so great that they couldn’t benefit from some editorial guidance, but for the most part I only received copy edits, and working with publishers, there wasn’t much more I could do.

    Then I decided to jump into the brave new world of self-publishing. I hired an editor I’d worked with before to take a look at the manuscript for IN DOG WE TRUST. I knew there were some things that weren’t working but couldn’t put my finger on them.

    The editor was able to pinpoint them. He thought my hero appeared too much of a fuddy-duddy, older than he was, and he pointed out several character traits that I could change to eliminate that impression. No more drinking tea or belonging to a mystery book club! He gave me back a critique of several pages of excellent suggestions — nothing that changed the basic plot of the book, but ideas that enhanced the pacing and strengthened the character and his motivation.

    Now that I am on book six of that series, the golden retriever mysteries, I still value editorial assistance. For the last two books I’ve hired the terrific Ramona deFelice Long. On the most recent manuscript I received back over 300 editorial comments (on a 200-page manuscript.) She felt that I was skimping on a major relationship development and that made her question one of the character’s motives.

    She saw the book from the outside, instead of the way I was looking at it, from inside the narrator’s head. That change in point of view was invaluable.

  6. Great question! For me, the long and the short of it is that editors, like my critique group members, do something I can’t do on my own––give perspective.

    Naturally as I’m writing, I’m thinking in my head how things look, smell, feel to my characters and I try to convey that into words. But the reality is, I often fall short in what I think I’ve said, and what my audience perceives. My critique members give me glimpses and thoughts and reactions to the bits and pieces I send them when we meet several times per month.

    An editor however, reads your story in a short amount of time (rather than bits and pieces like my critique group) and can give a big picture look at how the characters interact and how the overarching theme fits together. Sure, one of my critique members could also do an entire book read, but an experienced editor brings with his or her opinion a seasoned and professional opinion that my critique members cannot. Editors spend their entire lives in and around bookaphiles––they live and breathe story and have a superb knack for getting at the heart of what’s working well, as well as what’s missing.

    For WANTED: DEAD OR IN LOVE, I was supremely lucky to be able to work with Jennifer Rees (editor of the Hunger Games trilogy) as a freelance editor before my agent submitted it to publishers. She had phenomenal insight about the interaction of all four of my characters, but especially about the romance aspects in particular. Love triangle, or four-way switcheroo? Love ’em and leave ’em or true love forever? We discussed various alternatives––things I hadn’t even considered––until we arrived at what we both agreed would work best. (I hope you agree!)

    After being acquired by Merit Press, I couldn’t believe my good fortune but to discover that the famous author and journalist, Jacquelyn Mitchard (Deep End of the Ocean), would be my editor. Her advice pinpointed a particularly important point about the likability of my main character, helping to mold her into a starring role that a reader is sure to want to take a journey with. Instead of being bitter and angry over her mother’s death, she asked me to make me bring out the tender side of their relationship, and the story is better for it.

    I’m still so very thankful for being able to work with all of the many, many superstars that helped make WANTED: DEAD OR IN LOVE (and also my “other” debut, ONE SMART COOKIE, arriving July 15th from Omnific Press) become a reality.

    1. Exactly! My critique group is awesome, but they can’t give me the overall feedback that an editor, reading the entire book in a condensed time period, can.

      I do think it’s important, if a writer is choosing an editor, to make sure that editor has a familiarity with the particular genre. An editor who specializes in thrillers may not be able to be as helpful to an author writing a cozy.

  7. It took seven years to sell the first book in my forensic handwriting mysteries to a big traditional publisher, and I credit Ellen Larson, my first editor with that sale. I’d been getting rejections that held compliments, but with an ultimate “pass” because the writing “wasn’t strong enough.” I didn’t know what that meant, and couldn’t find anyone who could it explain it. This was after Poison Pen had won 3rd place out 97 entries in the 2000 Southwest Mystery Writers competition, so I figured it had “something.”

    With every rejection I would rewrite the book, trying to figure out how to correct that elusive “not strong enough” to make it saleable. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Ellen that all became clear—not all at once, of course, but her substantive editing made the difference. One of the important things she pointed out was the adverbs—that’s the weak writing those editors were talking about. Who knew how many “ly” words were lurking in those 300 pages!

    At least as salient were her comments about my protagonist, Claudia Rose, who, I discovered was constantly (yes, I know, adverb alert) feeling guilty about this or that. It turns out that readers want strong women protagonists who, even though they are flawed, have a tough inner core that helps them grow through the story. Her many excellent suggestions made me stretch as a writer, and once I followed them, Kristen Weber, then-senior editor at Penguin bought the first four books in the series.

    Even after Kristen became my official editor I continued to retain Ellen to work with me through the next four manuscripts before I turned them in. She has kept me on track and taken me to task when I overwrote or got silly. Kristen has since gone independent and I am no longer under contract to Penguin, but I continue to work with both these wonderful editors, who have become a nice, warm security blanket.

  8. When my agent and I developped the idea of “40 hours” one evening I couldn’t think of how many work it would be to get a clear image of Faris Iskander. On this, Petra, my agent, worked with me for nearly 16 months – and in this time no editor was involved in the writing process. But when we sold the manuscript to Blanvalet I was lucky to work with a young editor who had a great view on things like suspense and language. She helped me to make a great story out of a good one. We, for instance, changed the timeline by reducing it by one hour. Which made me sweat for weeks and weeks. 🙂 But it was the one thing, that made the plot shine, like Meg wrote above.

  9. Kathrin: I love that moment when you shrink the timeline. It is definitely “cringe-worthy!” But there’s an adrenaline rush as well as I would realize “all that is going to be packed into 2 weeks!” Fun.

    1. Ridley: When I finished the gathering of the timeline I swore that I would never again write a novel which takes place in only hours! Know what? The second volume of the Faris Iskander series I’m writing at the moment needs 48 hours to reveal the killer. Not really an amelioration to me, but I hope it will be a breathtaking story to the reader …
      But I of course agree that a story can be enthralling to if it need weeks or months. Do you work with some timeline-programm to get an overview of your storyline?

  10. Ridley: Glad to hear someone else gets that kind of feedback! My editor’s comment on my most recent submission was “we think the first half of the book is slow and needs to be sped up.” Had me screaming for a while until I looked at it as a challenge.

  11. Neil: Sometimes the pithy comment says more than a five-page editorial letter. When I submitted CROSSCUT, one of my Evan Delaney novels, to my British editor, I was convinced that I’d written one scene she would consider perfect: a chase sequence through a half-built skyscraper. I couldn’t wait to get her reaction. I expected gold stars in the margin and maybe roses and a bottle of whiskey.

    Soon her comments and corrections arrived. Halfway through the golden masterpiece of that chase scene, she had written: THIS GOES ON A BIT.

    After I stopped shrieking, I reread the scene. Huh. It went on a bit.

    I cut it by a third. It ended up at least three times stronger than the original version.

  12. I’ve published over thirty novels and one hundred short stories by this point, and every one of those has been improved thanks to an editor. Some editors provide more feedback than others, but good editors work to help make the author’s story the best it can be. The key words in that last sentence are “author’s story.” One of the hallmarks of bad — or at least inexperienced — editors is a tendency toward acting as full-fledged collaborators with at least a 50% stake in the manuscript, or worse, as senior collaborators with final say about what does or doesn’t go into a manuscript. These editors can even go so far as to rewrite sections of a manuscript. The common wisdom is that these editors are frustrated writers, and while I don’t know if that’s generally true, I wouldn’t be surprised.

    Good editors can point out a manuscript’s weaknesses, give the writer basic suggestions for revision, then get out of the way and let the writer do his or her job. Good editors are first and foremost highly skilled and attentive readers who pay close attention to their responses to material as they read, and who can then articulate clearly why they feel a certain aspect of a story isn’t working for them. Good editors also treat the editorial process as a friendly artistic negotiation between themselves and authors, with plenty of room for discussion about what should be changed and how.

    Good editors are worth their weight in gold. In my experience bad editors are few and far between, and they don’t remain editors long.

  13. An editor at a large independent publisher turned down my first mystery, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” but sent a personal letter. He didn’t like the book starting with a flashback (the murder) and he felt the book’s tone was too negative. An editor with a small press also rejected the book for the “negativity” along with other suggestions. I asked if she’d give the book a second look if I revised it. She said yes and send more feedback, I made massive revisions (including removing the flashback) and sold the book. If two or more editors tell you the same thing, change it!

  14. I’d be crazy to say I didn’t love editors because I spent a huge chunk of my professional life as one–though in the magazine business. I made pieces better by editing them but I also saw the value of being edited myself. Even as the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, I would get input from staffers on things I’d written or coverlines I’d done. It really helps to have someone take a fresh look. They see things you don’t, especially at the pace we’re all moving today. In terms of my mysteries, I’ve had some terrific editors. One of them always pushed me to go big. And I took that to heart because I know I have a tendency to to pull my punches. That said, I’ve had some dreadful experiences, too. I handed in a book once and the editor said she was sorry to see that the killer was X because she was hoping it would be Y and then looked at me as if I should freaking agree. I just told her there was no way I was going to change it. You have to trust your own gut on some of it.

    1. Changing the killer? I would never have done that too! The question to me is: Is there a possibility to change an editor like this or do you simply have to be grateful to have found one in these times?

  15. As an editor, and a writer, I understand the distinction between the two. The writer tells the story, crafts the work, and is the “parent” of the book. As an editor, it is my job to help guide the writer to craft the best work possible. I am part cheerleader and part trail guide, encouraging the author en route to the finish, which I help point out.

    I read differently than do family members, friends, and even other writing colleagues, looking at character development, character interaction, and plot lines with a unique eye. For example, I point out when an author has a character doing something simply because the plot requires it, rather than because the action is innate to the character, something the character simply must do. That inner motivation can be extremely powerful, in that one particular scene, but also, surprisingly to the author, in many other scenes.

    An editor is also a trail guide, leading the author to the precipice, and helping the author then avoid falling off the edge, especially in thrillers and mysteries.

    As a writer, I love to tell the stories, full-bodied and enveloping. As the editor, I love to trim, to prune, to help the perfect story emerge.

    1. Hey, Ann — glad to see you here! (Though you’re hiding behind a gnome.) I’m happy to get some insights from the editor’s side of the desk.

      Everybody else: Ann’s too well mannered to pimp herself, but she’s a terrific freelance editor, and I’m not saying that just because I’ve known her since she was fourteen.

  16. Kathrin, I know what you mean. You can feel lucky to have an editor and you don’t want to rock the boat. What I ended up doing–and I think this is a good strategy–is accepting some of her points (and there were some that were indeed good) but standing my ground on others. I tried to make my case with her. I also added a bit more of a twist at the end of the book. I guess in some ways I was stepping back and trying to get at the bigger picture of what was bothering her (the ending wasn’t as exciting as she wanted it to be) and fixing the problem in a way that suited ME.

    You raise a good point about being lucky to have an editor. Before you find an agent/publisher, you want feedback and family and friends, as Ann point out, can suck at good feedback. I recommend that you find readers who at least love the genre you’re writing in. Someone asked me for feedback on their book lately and I told him, “I would never read this kind of book and so I’d give lousy advice.” Pick your readers carefully.

    1. My general rule — and I can now see what an idiot I am (as if I didn’t know)!– is to give all suggestions a try, no matter how “off the wall,” just to see how bad my tunnel vision is on this project. To my disappointment, a high percentage of the time the work written as a result of suggestions work out as smoother prose, better storytelling. I think that’s partly that I have very good editors, and partly that the farther away I get from finishing the book the better I am when I start up again. Exhaustion and creative fatigue are a writer’s Valdemort.

    2. About getting feedback: learning to listen is vital. Learning who to listen to is equally vital. Sally makes a great point above – that if two editors tell you to change something, pay attention. Editors, publishers, agents – people with extensive experience at putting great books in readers’ hands – often have a strong sense of what works for a story, and what doesn’t.

      When I first tried sending work out for publication, I got identical feedback from my agent and from an editor at a major publishing house: the first chapter didn’t work. But I was a neophyte, and stubborn, and had the tunnel vision that Ridley mentions. I loved Chapter 1. I had worked on it for a year. I thought it showed how brilliant I was. So I balked at making any changes, for months. I was too green to know that the entire chapter was a huge, stonking cliche.

      Once I let go of my pride, and listened to people with decades of experience, I dumped that chapter… and started making progress.

  17. I found a fun way to get around my editor’s dislike for a particular scene. We went back and forth a couple of times, and she still wasn’t giving. So I cut out the scene and then made it a PDF giveaway on my website, with a teaser something like “This is the scene my editor didn’t want you to read!”

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