Choose a book. Any book. A book you love, a book you’re reading, a book you want to read, a book you hate. Choose any book—but!
Make sure it is published by a house. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. Established and respectable, or fledgling and finding its footing; either will do. And once you have the book in hand, look at the authorial line, the answer to “who wrote this book?”.
There, you see it? There they are: the author. The writer. The one who spent no small amount of their life putting pen to paper and fingers to keys, creating a story from nothingness for you to enjoy at your leisure. The writer of the book you are holding is undoubtedly the star of the show, the figure deserving of praise and recognition. After all, they are the ones who created this work of fiction.
But, are they the only ones with fingerprints on it?
Is the writer the only one who worked hard to put this story into your hands?
Of course not.
The publishing industry is a many-headed beast, and each head has its own personality, its own viability, its own set of fangs. And while the task of detailing each facet of the sometimes elusive would be an interesting undertaking, this article is centered on one of the most important aspects of publishing, yet one of the most overlooked.
That of the editor.
The role of an editor is one, often, without splendor and recognition. It doesn’t have the pizazz and glamour of even a middling author, and without fail (if asked) most avid book readers couldn’t name a single editor to save their life.
And yet… Without these forgotten masters, the books you love so dear, the very book you’re holding in your hand would never have seen the light of day.
Regardless of what you see written on the O’ So Hallowed Halls of Twitter (funnily enough always written by the least successful writers), there is no such thing as a perfect draft. Every draft of a story could be improved, could be slimmed or bulked up to serve the telling of the story better. No matter if it’s the rough draft of the thirty-fifth, there is arguably something that can always be done to improve the prose.
And though it flies in the face of the empty blathering of Twitter famous self-published “authors”, every manuscript is crying out for the stern, but fair judgement of an editor.
The first time a writer gets feedback from an editor, there is always a sense of indignation. “Well, they obviously don’t understand my poetic form,” or “Who are they to tell me the structure is indecipherable?” or “WHAT! This piece is perfect the way it is!” Seeing those little red marks all over your hard fought words is a sucky experience. Honestly, many writers get so offended by this that they quit writing altogether, or turn into a deluded psychotic self-published Twitter troll.
But for those who stick around, who swallow their pride and get back into the thick of it, the benefits and wisdom of an editor is recognized as the treasure it is.
There are all kinds of editors, each with their own tools and specialities. But in this article, I’d like to focus on editors who compose multi-author compilations, or short story collections.
It takes a remarkably well read, insightful individual to select titles from the ever deepening sea of available short stories to include in a singular volume. Recognition of style, of an author’s prestige, of the subject matter, of the narrative rhythm of one story and matching it to the rhythm of another—all of these things (and many many more) are required to put together a successful volume of short stories. Few authors write like one another, and even fewer deign to view the same object or topic in the same lens. Thus is the magic of fiction born. And while beautiful to read, those differences quickly become seen as difficulties when trying to bring together many stories into a single tome.
No small amount of experience and decorum are needed when attempting to put an odd, dark story by Paul Tremblay next to a literary examination piece by Joyce Carol Oates, and then to place a depressive metaphor about mental illness and self harm by Seanan McGuire smack dab in the middle of them. There are a lot of individuals who try to make this work, but very few of them are as successful as Ellen Datlow.
Miss Datlow is the editor in charge of acquiring new titles for the publisher TOR, and has spent the last 35 years editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror for a variety of magazines and publications such as OMNI, Event Horizon, and SCIFICTION. She has also edited over 100 collections of short stories including The Best of the Year horror series, as well as Mad Hatters and March Hares and Fearful Symmetries.
But most notably (in this writer’s opinion) is her contribution towards multi-author culminations of fiction. Along with her Best of… series in both science fiction and horror, Miss Datlow has compiled multiple titles of compilations of short fiction in various themes. Some of them deal with the unifying fear of tiny mannequins and dolls, such as in the appropriately titled collection The Doll Collection, or the intrinsically interesting subject of our avian counterparts in such works as Black Feathers, but in all of these compilations are works of truly amazing talented writers.
Black Feathers is honestly where this writer and avid reader, Ashleigh Hatter, discovered the amazing work of Joyce Carol Oates, in her story The Great Blue Heron. And I can honestly say, without a shred of doubt that I would not have likely stumbled upon Mrs. Oates work had it not been included in the short story themed work compiled by Miss Ellen Datlow. Without a shred of hyperbole, I can state that Oates’ work in The Great Blue Heron gave me pause and offered me a chance to look at my own work in a new light; truly investigating my words and themes for a sense of value.
Yes, it seems like a very overblown statement, but in all seriousness, I mean what I wrote.
Mrs. Oates’ words in The Great Blue Heron were moving enough to make me question the validity of my own stories.
And this is what I truly value and applaud Miss Datlow for achieving.
Her skills as an editor and compiler of short fiction, I know, have not only reached and shaped my own view of literature, but also countless others who took a chance on her themed works. Even if done with a cursory intention, those who have picked up a copy of any of Miss Ellen Datlow’s work have been inspired and moved by the stories she selected for that compendium. Yes, ultimately, it was the work of the author behind the story that really made an impact in our lives, BUT it was the faith of an editor that allowed that story to make its way into the world, for us to be able to read, that allowed for us to have our view of the world changed.
And for that, I am forever indebted and grateful to the men and women who comprise the web of unrecognition of the editorial world.
Miss Datlow, you offered me the chance to learn from amazing authors, to discover new favourite voices, and to more accurately assess popular authors in a more honest light. Your effort in reading the countless short stories that come out every year, and your dedication to putting forth–what you believe to be–the most influential work from authors all over the world is not going unnoticed. You are a national treasure, not seen since the days of William Maxwell Evarts Perkins, and this writer truly values your work, and looks forward to the fruits of your coming labors.
And to every editor who happens across this article, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You are so highly valued, and there is absolutely no replacing the value you bring to the table. Your wisdom, your knowledge, your insight is worth more than its weight in gold, and we as writers are indebted to you for any minutia of success that we taste. Please, keep strong and tarry forth. You are the unsung heroes, and we in the literary community are only better for your being here.”
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