Friday, June 10, 2022

How I Stoped Throwing Things and Learned to Work with Editors, by Josh Stallings

Q: Do you work with a professional editor? Why/why not? What would you look for if you hired a professional editor?

A: When I was a film editor I hated getting changes. It was often a political game of trying to convince others to do what was best for the cut even if it meant making them think it was their idea. As a young lion I’d throw splicers and yell. Time ground that out of me. I realized film editors get the first cut, after that it’s in the hands of others. I was pro enough by then to know that the real trick was being able to turn in a good version thirty-six.

As a writer I decided if it ever started to feel like a job I’d quit. Bullshit. The truth for me is that writing is a calling, one no sane person would take on. And the only one who could make writing feel like a J O B, was me. I have ultimate authority over my work, and that buys me the freedom to look for and accept any editorial ideas that make the book better. 

My first novels were self published back in the days when that was a dirty word. I believe that when a reader buys a book, they deserve it to be professionally edited and formatted. For those early books I had three editors. First is my wife Erika, she has two essential assets; one, she’s smarter than I am (Phi Beta Kappa from Occidental college smart.) Two, she understands my voice and defends it even against me if I’m screwing with it. She understands that to me cadence is equally important as word choices and grammar. She also knows that when I’m writing at velocity I will sometimes put in place holder scenes, cardboard backdrops that need fleshing out. And most importantly, she respects me enough to tell me when I can do better. 

The second editor I need is someone who has eyes in the sky while I’m carving names in the tree trunks. By the time I’m at the end of a novel Erika and I have read every chapter a brain numbing number of times. On the first book I convinced Charley Huston, Tad Williams, and Deborah Beale to read and rip to shreds Beautiful Naked & Dead. I trusted them. I wanted to write the best book I could. I will forever be in their debt.

For the next three books I hired Elizabeth A. White ( to give me that overview, she also did a great job of fact checking. With Out There Bad she had her husband in the yard jumping to see if I’d made a roof to roof jump distance impossible. Now that’s commitment. In Young Americans I used “Solid as a Rock.” as a come back line. Elizabeth pointed out that the song didn't come out until 1984, the novel took place in 1976. These may feel like little things but they can throw you out of a book. 

William E. Wallace, the amazing and prolific crime writer, and investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970’s, would have noticed if I got anything wrong. In his review he wrote, Young Americans is definitely a two thumbs up for me. Stallings not only tells a story that will have the reader biting his or her nails, but he does it so smoothly that his audience stops looking for anachronisms after about three pages because they simply can’t be found.”

(Thank you dear editor for coving my ass.)

For Tricky besides Erika, I was blessed to have an agent who worked with me on the big picture edits before we shopped it, and an acquiring editor At Agora/Polis (the amazing Chantelle Aimée Osman, Esq.) who refined it even more.

Every one of these editors also had to work to remove my dyslexic errors. And still, I require a line editor. For all my self published books I used JW Manus ( to catch any remaining mis-types, as well as handling the book/ebook text design and formatting.

For the Moses trilogy I designed the covers. For Young Americans I hired ChungKong ( a Dutch artist to create the cover.

It cost some bucks to get my books out. I was fortunate to have a job that allowed me to front the cash to publish. And then damn lucky to sell well enough to pay our household budget back and pay for my conferences and research trips. 

These days, when I get my feelings hurt by editorial notes, I pause, remind myself it was just my ego that was stung. I take a walk, think about the note. I don’t work with stupid people so they must have a point I’m not seeing. I try not to call them up and say “What the hell were you thinking?” Editing is a conversation. Their part is when they send or call in notes. Then it’s my turn, the only thing for me to “say” is in the rewritten chapters, those are my part of the conversation. 

Writing a first draft is a solitary act. To get from there to the printed page it must becomes collaborative. Park your ego at the door and join the party.  

Final statement: In the words of Mark Stevens “Bottom line: don’t shine off the editing process. Don’t. Just don’t.” (


Susan C Shea said...

Sage advice from someone who knows. The key is listening to the advice and then deciding for yourself, without defensiveness or timidity, what's best for your book.

Josh Stallings said...

Susan, well put. Listening, and thinking about what’s said seem like strange lost art these day.

Unknown said...

Elizabeth White is the best.