Finding the perfect editor for your work isn’t easy, but what doesn’t get talked about often enough is genre familiarity.
Writers worry about cost, timeline/availability, an editor’s style, and most definitely references...but what too often gets overlooked is the need to find an editor who knows your genre. And an editor who knows their stuff when it comes to Horror, and not just stories and language, can be worth their weight in blood, sweat, and tears.
Understand that we’re not talking about proofreading or copy-edits—any editor comfortable with those editing levels will be able to help you when it comes to that stage of polish. We’re instead talking about story—character, suspense, pacing, style, use of subgenres and tropes, and, when it comes right down to it, satisfying a horror reader.
An editor who knows Horror isn’t just going to get sucked into your haunted house novel. They’re going to help you make it stand out as a haunted house novel, and if there’s a moment where you’re going wrong in a way that may well frustrate readers, they’re going to be able to tell you how and why so that you can fix the issue before you submit the work for publication.
So, what can a Horror editor do for your Horror novel?
First, let’s talk about an awareness of tropes and subgenres of horror, whether we’re talking about zombies, haunted houses, bad houses, possessions, vampires, or anything else. (And, yes, there is a difference between a bad house and a haunted house—and your editor better know that!)
An editor is, first of all, a reader—they’re an early reader who’s going to help you understand how your novel is playing for a live audience. Part of that comes with helping you know for sure that you’ve delved into a subgenre’s territory without allowing it to come across as cliché or unoriginal. If your editor has only read Bram Stoker’s Dracula as far as vampire novels go, and you send them a contemporary tale of vampires, they’re going to see it as being pretty original. They won’t know any better either way. But if they’ve been reading recent vampire fiction, they’re going to have read a lot of unoriginal plots right along with all of the good stuff, and they’re going to be able to help you see where you might be going wrong, coming too close to another author’s presentation of tropes within a vampire novel, or simply not going far enough to satisfy an avid reader who’s read every vampire book released in the last decade. They’re going to have an awareness of your subgenre that is at your disposal once you’ve hired them, and they’re going to use that knowledge to your book’s advantage.
Genre mash-ups come into play here, as well. What if you’ve written a bad house novel, heavy on suspense, but there’s a very definite romance subplot. And maybe you’ve got a good friend who writes Romance and who loves their editor, so it’s tempting to use their editor—that should be fine, right?
Maybe...or maybe not.
Ideally, you probably want an editor who works with (and loves) both Horror and Romance, but the important thing is your primary genre. You don’t want a reader to pick up your book thinking it’s a Horror novel, and then end up feeling like they’ve been tricked into buying a Romance. That will essentially land you with the wrong readers, or lead to you not getting that agent call or publication acceptance—because you’re submitting a Romance novel to a Horror agent/publisher/reader. So, yes, your editor needs experience with Horror first and foremost. That’s going to save you from pacing issues where the romance factor becomes too much of the focus and/or takes away from the suspense related to the horror element of your novel. Your editor will be there in Chapter 7 to step in and say, “Yeah, this is cute...but does it belong in this book? Can you find a creepier scene in which these characters can start flirting?” or “I like the way you introduce them, but your reader hasn’t been fully engaged with the house yet—I think you need to build a bit more suspense with the house before you lean in to this romance since not all readers will have come for the romance, and you don’t want to scare those readers off.”
On an aside, I can tell you that I worked with a novelist some years ago who, if I remember right, went through four full rewrites of her Suspense novel before she threw her hands in the air and went in search of an editor. The problem? Her entire writing group was made up of Romance writers who didn’t particularly read the sort of novel she was writing. They meant well, but they were trying to help her fit her book into their understanding of beats and pacing, as related to Romance. That cost her years in rewrites (literally), and she only realized it once she found an editor versed in Suspense who could help her balance the different elements of her book—which had no romance in it to speak of. She needed outside eyes, but she needed outside eyes that knew her genre.
Since then, she’s written four more books, none of which have needed a single rewrite.
Gore/Detail is another area where having an editor versed in horror can make a big difference. Maybe you’ve got a scene where you’re wondering if you’ve gone too far with the blood and guts, or perhaps it’s the opposite and you’re worried you haven’t given enough detail to make a scene visceral in the way you intend. If you bring in an editor who doesn’t care for horror, they’re either going to skim those bits of your story—not doing justice to an edit or feedback—or they’re going to tell you to pull back on what you’ve got on the page, no matter how little ‘gore’ that is. That doesn’t make them a bad editor; it just makes them an editor who’s better suited to other genres. (There’s an argument to be made that they let you down ethically by accepting the job in a case like this, but the point is that not every editor is going to be suited for every book.)
Your editor won’t have read every Horror novel out there—but if you tell them that you want to appeal to readers of, say, Clive Barker and Robert McCammon, they should know what that means on a level of detail/story. A Suspense editor may well tell you to cut that paragraph about how blood pools around your main character’s broken leg, bone sticking out, because it’s ‘too much’ or will ‘gross out your target readers’...but an editor of Horror who knows Barker is one of your influences might instead ask you about the shape of the pool of blood, the viscosity of it, or how much of the bone is jutting out. And you’re only going to be pushed to make the most of that scene if, you guessed it, you found the Horror editor.
Last, and least tangible of all, we have to talk about passion. Like writers, editors aren’t doing what they do because of the money. They’re doing what they do because they love books and story-telling.
You want an editor who’s going to be a cheerleader for your work, and who’s going to take all the time required to make sure that your work meets its full potential. You don’t want someone who’s going to get tired of the subject/subgenre, be grossed out by the blood or subplot, or think that your book isn’t ‘important enough’ for them to take the extra time needed to figure out a plot hole or exchange multiple emails about a particular chapter that’s not working as it should. If an editor tells you that your zombie is coming across as humorous instead of scary, they need to care enough to tell you why. And if what they say doesn’t make sense, they need to care enough to jump on a Zoom call with you and talk over the issue without being dismissive of it.
Passion matters. Like others, I try my best to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but editing is in some ways quite a bit like writing when it comes to the passion for storytelling. If I’m working on a developmental edit and something is striking me as being not quite right, I’m going to think about it till I’ve figured it out. Sometimes, that might mean I finish an edit and include a note for the author saying, “The plot point about [insert issue] in Chapter 9 doesn’t work because [insert reason], and I’m not sure how to resolve that. I’m going to keep thinking on it and shoot you an email later this week, but let me know if you have an answer or want to chat sooner.” And then, I’ll keep thinking about that plot hole and how to help my client fix it—I’ll think about it while I’m in the shower, while I’m walking my dog, while I’m cooking, or whenever else my brain has a few minutes to consider it. Because I have a passion for Horror and for helping my clients make their books as good as they can possibly be. Will someone who doesn’t like Horror or your particular story do that? Maybe...but maybe they’ll also just tell you it doesn’t work, and they don’t know how to make it work, because they’d rather think about something else.
And the thing is, I’m not that special in this regard. Every editor I know cares deeply about their clients and the stories they tell—but there’s a reason that even when writers come to us with a referral and say, “Hey, I heard you’re great from my friend Jane Doe...would you edit my novel?”, it’s not a matter of yes/no. We reply by first asking about their genre and what sort of edit they want. In some cases, we might want to know the subgenre, too, and in the end, we might have to suggest they hire someone else...or we might be holding our breath and crossing our fingers because they’re writing a bad house novel, and we love them. (I really, really do love bad houses, if you couldn’t already tell.)
Jennifer has been a full-time freelance editor since 2014, when she left academia and teaching behind in order to focus on editing and writing. She sometimes jokes that she specializes in all things dark, but more specifically, her work is focused on Horror, Suspense, and various subgenres of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, as well as a few subgenres of Romance (especially Paranormal). She primarily works on Adult fiction, but does occasionally edit speculative YA fiction (Horror, Fantasy, Sci-Fi). Most of her new clients come to her via referral, and she normally books out loosely 6-8 weeks in advance. You can contact her at JLCollinsEdits [at] gmail.com or follow her on Twitter here.