by John Helfers
Recently I was on a panel at the World Science Fiction convention about the role editors play in the publishing process. While participating, it was brought to my attention that I’m one of a fairly rare breed: a writer and editor. By the end of the convention, that’s how I was referring to myself, and when (if) I ever get a blog up, the title will definitely have something to do with being a writer/editor hybrid.
I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to do both throughout my career, not only for 16 years at Tekno Books, but also afterward as a freelance writer and editor. I enjoy both immensely; when my wife recently asked me which one I would choose if I had to, it was a very difficult decision. Although writing won out (narrowly, and for the primary reason that I don’t believe there are any truly rich and famous editors, whereas writers still have that chance, although the odds are similar to winning the lottery), I hope that is a choice I never have to make.
I enjoy writing and editing so much that when William invited me to contribute to this blog, I agreed on the condition that I could discuss what inspires me as both an author and an editor. He was happy to agree, and so here we are.
Although I often refer to editing and writing as two different vocations (to the point of often saying that I wear two different hats, one as a writer, and one as an editor, and switch back and forth as needed), as I thought about this topic, I realized that the two have more in common than I thought. Whether writing a short story or novel or editing an anthology or novel, the goal is still the same: to produce or help to produce the very best story possible, bringing all of my knowledge and skill to the table either to create a story in my world or someone else’s, or to help shape other people’s stories into a stronger, more enjoyable experience.
Let’s start with writing. Whether I’m creating something out of whole cloth or writing in an already created universe, the kernel of the story, the idea itself must hold my interest long enough for me to grasp it and see the possibilities of where it might go. Whether its an undead assassin trying to rebel against his master, or a modern warrior who’s been fighting international terrorism for more than 400 novels before mine, the germ of whatever plot I’m spinning must be intriguing enough for me to say, “That’s a great story idea! I can run with this!”
From there, I go into what is both the most fun and occasionally most frustrating aspect of writing: fleshing out the world, characters, and plot while trying not to get waylaid by the myriad choices available to me as the writer. Here’s where I find out whether that kernel is enough to sustain a plot line, whether short or long. I’m a firm believer is creating at least a rough (1-2 page) outline of the main plot points, but at the same time, I don’t ever feel constrained by it—if an idea pops into my head during writing that improves the story and doesn’t detour too much, I go with it. While I don’t admit to any sort of god complex, usually I retain absolute control over what happens to the plot and characters I create in a story (When a character resists my control, that’s another item altogether. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often).
One aspect of writing that I must confess puzzles me is the opposite of inspiration: writer’s block. Although I will admit to having to puzzle out how a particular scene should start or unfold more than once, I have always been puzzled by those folks who say that they are having writer’s block. Like many other writers I know, I have more ideas than I’ll probably ever write (the motivation to actually write those ideas is sometimes another matter entirely) so I’m forced to pick and choose which ones I’m going to work on. I really don’t ever expect my creative well to run dry—there’s simply too many ideas in the world today, waiting to be crafted into entertaining, engaging stories.
Editing a project, whether it is an anthology or novel, starts the same way—with the idea. For a theme anthology, I have to come up with a concept that is not only salable, but also intrinsically interesting enough not only for me to read 12-16 stories about the theme without becoming bored, but also be broad enough to allow the invited writers to spin their tales without worrying about stepping on another writer’s toes (fortunately, this also happens very infrequently).
Once the idea has been firmed up and sold, then the process of soliciting authors begins. As the editor of any project, my role is to make sure that the anthology is on target both in theme and length, and to hit its delivery deadline to the publisher. Along the way, I ensure that the authors are all on topic and deadline—a process very similar to herding cats. But the end result is always worth it.
For working on an edited novel, again the idea has to be one I’m willing to work on—there is nothing more deadly to a manuscript than a bored editor, or one who is unfamiliar with the genre or sub-genre a novel falls into. Fortunately, when I was at Tekno Books, we packaged a lot of techno-thriller novels and genre fiction anthologies, so I had no dearth of interesting projects to work on.
The same criterion applies now that I’m a freelance editor—I have to be engaged in the novel projects that I decide to take on. If I’m going to give a writer the best possible editorial experience, I have to be as committed to seeing his or her manuscript succeed, and therefore help them tell the best story they can.
Whether writing or editing, it all begins with the idea and goes from there. They’re all around us, just waiting to be taken and turned into amazing fiction. And whether I do it myself, or invite a collection of talented writers to give me their visions of a particular theme, I intend to be creating and commissioning fantastic fiction for many years to come.
About the Guest Author
John Helfers is a freelance author and editor currently living in Green Bay, Wisconsin. During his sixteen years working at Tekno Books (the largest commercial book packager in the nation), he co-edited more than twenty short story anthologies, as well as overseeing many others for publishers in all genres. He has worked with many well-known authors and co-editors, including Charlaine Harris, Anne Perry, Mercedes Lackey, Margaret Weis, and Kevin J. Anderson. He has also edited dozens of novels by such authors as Doug Allyn, Brendan DuBois, Brian Herbert, James Patrick Hunt, Richard Parks, Jean Rabe, and Tim Waggoner.
He has published more than forty short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Places to Be, People to Kill. His fiction has appeared in anthologies, game books, and novels for the Dragonlance, Transformers, BattleTech, and Shadowrun universes. He has written both fiction and nonfiction, including the third novel in the first authorized trilogy based on The Twilight Zone television series, the YA novel Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers: Cloak and Dagger, and a history of the United States Navy. He wrote three novels in the Room 59 espionage series for Gold Eagle/Worldwide Publishing (including the launch book, The Powers That Be) and has written novels in both their Deathlands and Mack Bolan/Executioner series.
His essays on the military have appeared in Beyond Shock and Awe, edited by U.S. Navy SEAL founder Eric Haney, and in the Civil War and World War II volumes of the How to Lose a War series. His most recent nonfiction book, The Vorkosigan Companion (co-edited with Lillian Stewart Carl), a guide to the science fictional world of Lois McMaster Bujold, was nominated for a 2009 Hugo Award. In 2010, the Shadowrun anthology Spells & Chrome won the Origins Award for Best Game-Related Publication.
Currently he’s working on several tie-in and original projects in both the adult and YA genres.