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Choosing an Editor for Your Science Fiction Manuscript

by Arlene Robinson,
with Terry Robinson

More than in any other genre of fiction, readers of science fiction want to be challenged. Most sci-fi readers consider themselves intellectually gifted due to their ability to stretch their minds around conceptual advances contained within a story. Boring, unbelievable, or inconsistent text and scenes will make them put a book back down and never purchase it; conversely, if they read a book by an author who has done their job right, they will anxiously await the release of that author's next book.

This need creates its own challenge for the writer. While all fiction is the product of the writer's imagination, science fiction calls on the writer to create a story that may be based on vastly different worlds or dimensions—sometimes blended with Terran aspects, sometimes not—and incorporating philosophies, languages, cultures, governments, and characters, and relationships that most writers cannot imagine.

Adding to this, and in order for the writer to help Earthbound readers better suspend their disbelief, he or she is often called upon to use (or more often, create) scientific or technical terminology that may baffle the average writer of commercial fiction, no matter how technologically or scientifically savvy. Every creation, whether or not based  on current earthly knowledge, must be used consistently and believably throughout the story—challenging enough for most fiction writers, but doubly challenging for the science fiction writer.

Consider the scenario where the writer has chosen to create an entirely new language and/or nomenclature. Sci-fi readers are usually exceptionally good at spotting inconsistencies and illogical trends in these areas, and are much more likely to express their displeasure.

The writer's challenge then, is to make every newly created bit of information clear and consistent throughout the story. This, above all else, is where the choice of an editor can make or break an otherwise promising sci-fi story.

Finally, and no matter what other challenges the sci-fi writer faces, a romance is a romance in any genre, and a mystery is still a mystery. So in addition to the unique tests placed on science fiction writers, they must also fulfill the elements critical to all fiction, such as plotting, pacing, and suspense-building from the dramatic opening scene to the satisfying resolution.

Which of the above aspects is most important to the sci-fi writer when choosing an editor? All of them.

What does this mean to the sci-fi writer in search of an editor?

1. The obvious corollary is that sci-fi writers will work more closely with their editors to produce the completed work. Ask for and check at least one reference as part of your evaluation of the editor. Then make absolutely sure you're comfortable communicating with the prospective editor. If the initial correspondence sets your teeth on edge, it's not likely to get any better once the editing begins.

2. Make sure you come to a general agreement on the amount of changes/editing needed. It is impossible to predict the total number of changes needed in the beginning, but a good editor tries to maintain the client's unique voice and style while making them aware of needed changes.

3. Agree on the level of editing and the associated cost—in writing, and before the editing begins. This is a business relationship. With typical editing fees for novels ranging from one to several thousand dollars (depending on the level of work needed), it is mandatory to have the business details out of the way first so they don't get in the way of the editing process.

4. Be realistic. If your manuscript has hundreds of basic errors, your editor must correct those as well as focus on enhancing the manuscript, making your cost greater.

5. The editor will have to comprehend the basic structure of your story in order to maintain its consistency. Where possible, try to find an editor who is at least familiar with sci-fi. For example, if you mention Ursula Le Guin and there's no name recognition you might (but not always) want to go elsewhere.

So, after you have put your creative muscles to the test, and created a world—and a story—that is like no other, choose an editor who will give your story its best chance of launching into undreamed-of territories.