scandal_in_veniceI love Valentine’s Day!  Even in years when I’ve been single I’ve loved it when the stores fill up with pink and red boxes of candy, poetic cards, and bouquets of balloons.  I like crying at jewelry commercials (even when the jewelry is ugly!) and re-watching favorite romantic movies.  So I was very excited when I heard that Signet would be re-launching their Regency line, with my first book Scandal in Venice, on this great holiday.

Another thing I love is researching traditions and rituals in other cultures and other historical periods (which is one reason why I enjoy writing books set in places like Venice).  So I thought I would take a look at how Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in the past….

Historians trace the origin of Valentine’s Day to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a holiday on February 14th to honor the goddess Juno (among other things the patron of women and marriage, though maybe Venus might have been a better Valentine’s Day choice!). On the following day, February 15th began the fertility festival called ‘Feast of Lupercalia,’ which often turned into a big, wild party.

An interesting custom of the Feast of Lupercalia was to bring together young men and women who otherwise were strictly separated. On the eve of the festival names of young Roman girls were written on a slip of paper and placed into jars. Each young man drew out a girl’s name from the jar and was paired with the girl for the duration of Lupercalia. Sometime this pairing lasted until the next year’s celebration, and sometimes the couple would fall in love with each other and marry.

But it was actually due to the Christian priest and martyr St Valentine that today’s holiday got its name. The story goes that during the reign of Emperor Claudius, Rome was involved in several bloody and unpopular wars. Recruting new soliers was hard because a lot of men didn’t want to leave their wives and families to take part in such hopeless campaigning, so  Claudius canceled all engagements in Rome.  Saint Valentine defied Claudius’s orders. and performed secret marriages. When his defiance was discovered, Valentine was brutally beaten and put to death on February 14, about 270 AD and later became a saint.

Around 498 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day to honor the martyr Valentinus and to end the pagan celebration.  By the Middle Ages, Valentine became a heroic and romantic figure in England and France, perfect for the cult of chivalry.  Valentine’s Day Cards are even said to have originated in medieval France. Charles, Duke of Orleans is said to have written the first Valentine’s Day card. He was captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and wrote a poem or ‘Valentine’ to his wife while locked in the Tower of London. This letter is still in the collection of the British Library in London, England.

There was a popular belief in Great Britain and France during 14th and 15th century that birds begin to mate on February 14, halfway through the month of February. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes thus about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (spelling modernized), addressing the favored suitor:

And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.

Unmarried girls in Britain and Italy used to wake up before sunrise on Valentine’s Day. They believed that the first man they glimpsed on Valentine’s Day (or someone who looked like him!) would marry them within a year. Girls would wake up early to stand by their window and wait for the right man to pass by. Shakespeare mentions this tradition in Hamlet (1603). Ophelia sings:

Good morrow! ‘Tis St. Valentine’s Day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine! 

Another tradition in Great Britain made women pin four bay leaves to the corners of their pillow and eat eggs with salt replacing the removed yokes (yuck!) on Valentine’s Day eve.  Unmarried girls also wrote their lover’s names on paper and put them on clay balls that they would drop into the water. It was believed that whichever paper came up first, that man would be their future husband…

These are just a few of the fun Valentine’s Day traditions out there!  I like to imagine that my heroines would receive letters and bouquets (and maybe a diamond bracelet or two!) from their heroes, but I hope they wouldn’t resort to eating eggs full of salt.  What are some of your favorite Valentine’s Day traditions?  How will you or did you celebrate the day??

duchess_diariesMy husband and I were married on Valentine’s Day over twenty-five years ago in the middle of a tumbleweed storm. During our marriage we’ve celebrated our anniversary in a number of romantic and not-so-romantic ways.  We’ve toasted our togetherness in the traditional manner at a beach-side restaurant in Malibu, at a charming Santa Barbara inn, and in a hotel in Beverly Hills that featured gourmet dining for your pampered pets—no, we didn’t bring the dogs. If nothing else you can usually count on the California sunset and a coastal drive to provide a perfect backdrop for a celebration.

The freeway is another story—the truth is that my husband and I have celebrated a few awkward dates over the years.  We set out one night for a dinner together only to be thwarted by an emergency phone-call from Grandma.  Our daughter had croup. We hit Wal-Mart for cough syrup and the rest of the evening—well, it’s a blur. We passed another less-than glamorous anniversary at a quaint German restaurant that we’d decided to try at the last minute. Our gourmet meal included frozen fish sticks with peas and carrots.  A ventriloquist plunked his dummy down on our table and entertained us with a repertoire of terrible jokes. We laughed about it for months.

Once we drove to a murder-mystery dinner theater in Palm Springs. It was like playing Clue.  It would have been a great memory except we got lost on the way home, and my husband locked the car keys in the trunk. There’s nothing like a walk along a dark desert road in evening clothes looking for a locksmith to cap off a romantic evening. We dined at Chasen’s in West Hollywood and my husband neglected to wear a tie so the house provided one. I know we’ve spent at least two Valentine’s Day anniversaries at Barnes and Noble, sipping coffee and browsing books.

This year we’re staying home again by choice. We’ll dine on homemade spaghetti in the courtyard by candlelight with the fountain splashing and Dean Martin serenading in the backyard.  We’ll eat spumoni and then—we won’t linger like lovers should.  My husband has a software project due, and I’m blogging about my latest Penguin romance The Duchess Diaries on the Book Binge.

I think it’s fair to say that we’re versatile Valentines.  We’re still passionate about each other but practical.  And on that note I wish you all good hearts today whether you’re celebrating by yourself with chocolate or are out on the town.

They always say (those “they” people) that you should write for yourself rather than for other people. Well, what if your writing happens to be self-help and you’re meant to be writing for other people? It’s been a challenge finding the balance in writing self-help, but I’ve been on the see-saw for some time now, and I feel like I’ve found a little place the middle that seems pretty comfortable.

My first book, Meeting Your Half-Orange, is about how to use dating optimism to find your other half, and my new one, Bright Side Up is about how to embrace life optimism and enjoy every day. And as much as I wanted to write each of them “for myself,” how could I? I was giving advice. So I did the next best thing: Each time I sat down to write, I had one person in mind.

For my dating book, it was a friend who’d been disappointed again in love; for my new happiness book, a woman I’d met at a party who was trying to be more positive but didn’t know how. The faces I wrote for changed along the way, but with one person’s face and struggle in my mind each time I typed, I was able to speak to them heart to heart, so my words felt less pat and more human.

The fact is, writing for hundreds or thousands of potential readers of different ages, genders, backgrounds and experiences is ridiculously intimidating! How in the world can you possibly pinpoint advice that will work for everyone, right? That, after all, is what sent me into the fetal position crying while planning my wedding five years ago: How the heck do you plan a party that will please country mice and city mice ranging in age from 2 years old to 85?

Well, when you write with one person in mind (or plan a wedding with the goal of a plain ol’ good time in mind) you don’t have to worry about pleasing everybody. Because the truth is, we are all more similar than we think. The details of our stories change, but what we want from life—love, happiness, fulfillment—we all want that. Which leads me to the second thing I’ve learned about writing self-help.

It happened the day I was reading an early draft of Bright Side Up and found my own mind wandering. It felt like homework, somehow. My own book, it was boring! I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong until I called my mother, who’d been reading the same draft.

“I love when you tell stories,” she said.

“But Mom,” I said, “I have to give real advice. I can’t just write stories in every chapter.

“Why not?” she said. “I love stories.”

When I went back to the book, I realized she was right. Yes, of course I needed to give real advice. But why not wrap it up in entertaining tales from real life? Even I don’t want to read a lecture or a list of must-dos, after all. I want to dive in. I want to feel like I’m part of it. I want stories.

So that week, I chopped out page after page of my yawn-y lectures and replaced them with stories of people who used these happiness ideas in real life, from famous to friends from home. And although my book is about one hundred small chapters you can read at random, I also built in a story for people who wanted to read it all the way through—the personal one about my husband and my on the difficult road of starting a family, full of miscarriages and failed IVFs. The way I saw it, writing a chipper book about happy rainbow things wasn’t going to help anyone. When real life doesn’t give us a happy ending, we have to make our own, and what better way to express that than by sharing my own struggle with my optimism. It’s about getting real. Personal stories, heart to heart.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, the advice I share in my books won’t just help that one person I picture each time I’m writing. Maybe, hopefully, it’ll also help one more.

Sign up for Amy’s weekly Vitamin Optimism email and visit her blog Follow Amy at

blackveilFantasy. The term evokes images of rainbow unicorns, fire-breathing dragons preying on virgin princesses, and sparkly elfy-welfy magic, or maybe even exotic dancers in a nightclub. The word used to categorize the type of fiction I write doesn’t sound very serious, does it? There are others who call it “imaginative fiction,” or “speculative fiction,” perhaps to avoid whatever perceived stigma “fantasy” suggests. While I am uneasy with the term, I also try to embrace it.

The application of the term “fantasy” in publishing to indicate a category has been in use for a long time. According to my editor, Betsy Wollheim, it’s been around since the early 20th century and was used to label the works of such greats as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Robert E. Howard (Conan), and H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulu). But it was her father, the legendary Donald A. Wollheim, writer, editor, and founder of DAW Books, who, while he was an editor at Ace, spurred the modern fantasy genre into popularity by publishing an unauthorized paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1965. If he hadn’t, fantasy might have remained obscure and non-commercial.

Books fall into categories, or genres, because it simplifies marketing and indicates where they should be shelved in stores. As a result, it’s relatively easy for people to locate the kind of books they wish to read. The problem with categories is that one may begin to make assumptions about what a whole genre is about, when really books lumped together in a particular genre can be quite diverse. Are all novels shelved in the mystery section Agatha Christie cozies? Are all romances bodice rippers? And do all fantasy novels feature rainbow unicorns and fire-breathing dragons?

For my part, I write traditional fantasy adventure. Traditional fantasy is often set in a secondary world. Magic may play a part or not. Often the books have great sweep to give depth and complexity to the worlds that have been created, and the immersion into these worlds, the experience of it, is often what draws readers. Sometimes they do feature unicorns and dragons, but if you think their use is all rainbows and sparklies, you might be surprised. Traditional fantasy is a very archetypal genre with roots as old as story-telling itself. Archetypes allow us to see our own world through a different lens. For instance, the conflict between an evil overlord and a resilient hero may sound a little too familiar, but depending on how the writer uses the archetypes of good and evil, the reader may find deeper meaning in the savagery of war, and the cruelty or nobility of human beings. Modern traditional fantasy has mostly leaped beyond its…well, its own traditions, and become sophisticated and gritty and full of sharp details. I think of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. One of his central characters is a slave who struggles between hope and defeat, and who through force of will transcends the cruelty inflicted on him and his fellow slaves.

Over the last decade or so, the genre has become ever more diverse, leaving behind its traditional origins and leading to highly imaginative tales and different sub-categories. I’m not sure how to classify Anne Bishop’s work, but it is dark, yet deeply touching and romantic. You would not naturally associate “romantic” with the domain of Hell, and it may not be obvious to think of Saetan as a loving father, yet Bishop makes it work. She spins our assumptions on their heads, making her Dark Jewels books such a fabulous read.

Historical fantasy is a sub-category of fantasy that offers an alternate version, or vision, of our own history. Authors must artfully combine the requirements of both the historical and fantasy canons to make their novels work. In Jacqueline Carey’s “Kushiel’s Legacy” series, we get an alternate Europe where angels once walked the Earth, making for a creative re-imagining of European culture and religion. To top it off, the lead character is a courtesan. And not just any courtesan, but one whose “gift” is to receive exquisite pain as pleasure. (You would not have seen a protagonist like this pre-21st century!)

What about those dragons? They still roam the worlds of fantasy, but not necessarily sniffing out virgin bait and hoarding caverns full of treasure. In Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire series”, dragons populate Napoleonic-era Europe, which impacts not only the war between Britain and France, but cultures across the world.

Urban fantasy has been in ascendance for some years now, frequently featuring vampires, werewolves, fairies, and zombies populating our modern world. One of the best known practitioners is Charlaine Harris whose Sookie Stackhouse books have been adapted into a popular television series.

There are more sub-categories of fantasy fiction than I can enumerate, and more and more often fantasy overlaps with other genres, such as romance. There are even literary novels that borrow fantasy conventions, yet are not considered fantasy.

I guess what it all comes down to is that today’s fantasy ain’t your grandpa’s fantasy, and its creators are wildly inventive, challenging the once accepted boundaries of the genre. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a great time to be a reader.

velva_jeanAs I’m researching my fourth novel in the “Velva Jean” series, I am reading through book after book written by or about movie stars and movie moguls from the 1940s. I’m reading about the studio system, the star machine, the inner workings of the movie musical, every bit of Hollywood and Los Angeles history, and the studios themselves. In all these many, varied books one thing stands out– very few are well researched, well resourced, and well documented, and the majority of them take great liberties in reporting fact.

The one I’m reading now, for instance, is a book about Clark Gable and all his women (written by a woman who never knew Gable or the women in question). The author quotes pages of dialogue supposedly spoken between Clark Gable and his various wives and mistresses, yet she doesn’t list any notes or sources. Perhaps she was there for every single one of these private, often intimate, conversations, hiding behind a curtain or underneath a bed or lurking in the shadows while Gable and Carole Lombard or Gable and Joan Crawford or Gable and his first wife, Josephine Dillon, were deep in discussion, but somehow I don’t think so. This woman has written other books on Hollywood stars of yesteryear, just as sloppily reported and shoddily researched, but she isn’t the only one. She is just one of– unfortunately– many nonfiction “writers” who bend and fluff and spice up the truth to suit the story. She is just one of many authors who rely on hearsay, rumor, legend, and unreliable secondhand resources– magazines, newspapers, other books– and then fails to document where she got most of her information. I have approximately 133 books on my Hollywood shelf, and I would estimate that only 15 of these have the right to be called nonfiction.

jennifer_niven_nonfiction1Hollywood-related books are not the only ones guilty of this. There are plenty of other books on plenty of other subjects– from literary biography to World War II to Appalachia to Anne Boleyn– that are filled with conjecture and theory, without actually calling it conjecture and theory, but instead putting it out there as hard fact. Which is especially unfortunate when the subject or subjects being written about are no longer here and able to speak up for themselves.

I look at writing nonfiction as a privilege, one that needs to be respected. As a writer of nonfiction, you are, after all, dealing with real people and real lives and real events. Even in my historical fiction, I try to keep the nonfiction mindset of researching my subject thoroughly and staying as historically accurate as possible, shaping my character to fit history as much as I can, rather than shaping history to fit my character. I write both fiction and nonfiction, and one reason I do so is because fiction is where I can make things up. Nonfiction is where I do my best to retell a story. It is also where I provide pages and pages of endnotes to back up my telling of that story, one of my least favorite aspects of writing. But also a very necessary one.

jennifer_niven_nonfiction2Because I’m such a meticulous, unrelenting, passionate stickler for fact (my mother, who almost strictly writes nonfiction, is the same), I hate it when writers repeat or pass off as truth unsubstantiated “facts” or “blur” the edges for dramatic effect. I also hate it when people ask me, “So your first two books are nonfiction– how much of what you wrote in there is true?” The answer: all of it.

If I didn’t know something, I left it out. If it didn’t happen, I didn’t pretend it did. After all, truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Why embellish?

jennifer_niven_nonfiction3Although I certainly formed opinions about the people I was writing about in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack– especially controversial expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson– I worked hard not to color the prose with my opinions. Who cares what I think? That’s what author interviews are for. Besides, I wasn’t on those expeditions. Even if I feel justified in expressing an opinion about Stefansson or his methods or this person or that one, the simple fact is: I wasn’t there. Instead, I let the men and women of the expeditions speak for themselves, through the material found in letters and diaries and other firsthand materials from the time.

(Speaking of speaking for themselves, in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, as well as in my memoir,The Aqua Net Diaries, the only dialogue that appears is quoted from actual resources. While I would have loved to add additional exciting pages of dialogue to the book, I would have had to call it a novel.)

jennifer_niven_nonfiction4To me, the saddest thing about that question I’m often asked is this: if a book purports to be nonfiction, why do we, as readers, naturally assume part of it must be untrue? Perhaps because so many– too many– writers take liberty with fact. And the danger there is that by doing so, the real story, the true story of the men and women and children involved, becomes lost.

As a writer, isn’t it my responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen?

Visit Jennifer Niven on her website.

cold_dishWalt Longmire’s New Year’s Resolutions

1)      Read more.

2)      Lose some weight.

3)      Adopt a more professional relationship with staff.

4)      Give Dog a name.

5)      Finish cabin.

6)      Drink less beer (see #2).

7)      Run with Henry more (see #2).

8)      Call Cady less, so as to not annoy her.

9)      Fix doorknob on office door.

10)  As Vic says, no more crazy shit (see #3).

2011 was a heck of a year, with making the New York Times Bestseller List and the announcement that A&E was green lighting LONGMIRE for a ten-episode, debut season in the summer of 2012. All these things are truly wonderful, but would you like to know the thing that really keeps me in the game, why it is its so easy to write a novel a year?


The Longmire novels are written in first-person, which means that the sheriff is never very far from my thoughts or narrative. I tend to refer to Walt as a detective for the disenfranchised, a man whose secret weapon is his compassion for the less fortunate or forgotten members of society. I think he has an empathy for the outsiders because, in a sense, he’s one himself; a rogue male somewhat driven off from the herd, even if it is a self-imposed exile.

longmire_mugAnother thing I like about him is his ability to surprise me. I was talking to Greer Shephard, the producer of the A&E series based on the books, and she asked me if I thought of Walt as being a verbose person and I said yes. She told me to go through one of my books and highlight his dialogue, what he actually says… She was right; he thinks a great deal but doesn’t say much—it was a genuine revelation.

The eighth book, As the Crow Flies, takes place almost exclusively on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and is, as you’ve grown to expect, a departure. There is the regular ebb and flow of characters but there’s always one stalwart, a guy I can depend on to tell the story with me, a guy whose company I still enjoy even after eight books.

I’ve really come to appreciate the guy, and I’m sure glad you do, too.

See you on the trail,


city_lostI like crossing genres.  Lovecraftian westerns.  Sci-fi detective stories.  Primate interpretive line-dancing romance.

Okay, I made that last one up.  Honestly, it hurt just to think of, so I can’t imagine what it did to your brain.

One of my favorites is mixing crime and horror.  I think they work pretty well together, like chocolate in your peanut butter.  No matter how you sping it both genres are pretty bleak.  Think about it, even a cozy mystery is pretty dark.  I mean, there’s a dead guy in there somewhere.  And if you make it noir, well, now you’re really bleak.

There are no happy endings in noir or horror.  You got yourself a double whammy there.

When I wrote City of the Lost, I wanted the protagonist, Joe Sunday, to really have his life spiral out of control.  He’s a guy who isn’t big on fear.  He’s a thug who collects money, beats people up, kills them if needed.  He’s usually the baddest bad-ass in the room.  Not a lot spins him.

So I killed him and brought him back as a zombie.  Figured you don’t get much more screwed than being the living dead.

It’s a noir tale with a darker twist.  He’s used to dealing with bad people, but this just cranks it up to eleven.  He knows how to deal with corrupt cops and guys trying to kill him, but demons, magic and the undead are an entirely different thing.

Throw them all together and you get a pretty fun mix.

cookieI am entranced by decorated cookies. They are fun to create by oneself or with others, especially kids. My mother followed the classic rolled sugar cookie recipe in Joy of Cooking and a simple confectioner’s sugar and butter icing that didn’t harden. She divided the icing into several bowls and added food coloring to each. My sister and I sprinkled colored sugars or chocolate jimmies on top, and we did so with enthusiastic abandon.

One of the pleasures of writing the “Cookie Cutter Shop” series is that I get to daydream about decorated cookies. I bake and eat cookies, too, but daydreaming doesn’t result in dirty dishes and weight gain. Since I do need to get words on paper to get paid, baking all day, every day, is not feasible. Neither is unfettered daydreaming. So to point my imagination in the right direction, I’ve collected an arsenal of sights, smells, and tastes that conjure up the experience of baking and enjoying decorated cookies. A whiff of ginger, and I’m entering The Gingerbread House along with Olivia Greyson, my main character. Those sensory cues draw me quickly into Livie and Maddie’s world, where cookies abound and murder waits around the corner.

When I settle down to write, a stack of cookie cookbooks wait within reach. They range from helpful, informative books for the beginning baker to more advanced collections that include challenging recipes I will leave to Olivia and her sidekick and best friend, Maddie Briggs. All the cookbooks have stunning cookie photos that feed my imagination. They also make me want a cookie. Right now. For cookie cutter inspiration, I have copies of Cookie Crumbs, the Cookie Cutter Collector’s Club newsletter, which is filled with information and color photos of vintage cutters. For even more, I can always go online to check vintage cutters for sale, though that route leads to temptation.

If photos and recipes aren’t enough, I turn to my ever-growing collection of baking spices, flavorings, gel food colorings, decorations, and, of course, cookie cutters. When Maddie chooses teal gel coloring for a pastry bag full of royal icing, I feel as if I’m standing beside her. I smell the sweet lemon extract she adds to her cookie dough. I watch the purple edible glitter sparkle as she sprinkles it on a tulip-shaped cookie with pink icing. And, of course, on occasion I have to eat a decorated cookie to remind myself what one tastes like. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for my work.

Much as I love decorated cookies, I have to admit that cookie cutters, especially vintage ones, are endlessly fascinating. And less fattening. Like Olivia, I wonder about the succession of bakers who once pressed a vintage cutter into rolled dough to create that ephemeral delight, a cutout cookie. Was the cutter passed on from mother to daughter to granddaughter? Was it used to cut sugar cookies? Gingerbread cookies? A secret family recipe? Might there have been a teensy dollop of poison in the dough?

black_beautyOn November 8th, Purl Soho hosted a launch party for Penguin Threads, Designer Jillian Tamaki and Penguin Classics Associate Publisher Elda Rotor talked about the creation of these crafty new book covers for classic favorites: Emma, The Secret Garden, and Black Beauty. One of the fun things about Penguin Threads is not only are the covers awesome visually but they’re textured to give the impression of raised embroidery work and the end papers display what the back of the embroidery looks like, knots, stray threads and all.

Elda discussed how she and Paul Buckley, VP, Executive Creative Director for Penguin, first thought about designing covers for the Etsy crowd. Jillian Tamaki shared how as a young girl she loved horses and designing a cover for Black Beauty was like a dream come true.

Elda also told us that the next three Penguin Threads will be The Wind in the Willow, The Wizard of Oz and (to the collective gasp of “awww!” from the audience, proving that this series is hitting all the right notes with its target audience) Little Women. The new covers are designed by Rachell Sumpter.

All pictures from Sonya Cheuse and Langan Kingsley, both Penguin Publicity.





The invitation to an evening of books, embroidery and design.








Elda Rotor poses with the piece of embroidery that inspired Penguin Threads.








The Penguin Threads in their natural habitat, a crafting store.







200 people showed up to check out Penguin Threads.









Elda Rotor and Jillian Tamaki stand up on a table so everyone can see them as they discuss the project and answer questions from the audience.







The original covers, hand embroidered by Jillian Tamaki.






Jillian Tamaki signs our books, drawing a different picture for each title: a flower for The Secret Garden, a lady for Emma and…no one I was with had Black Beauty but most likely it was a horse.





- Julie Schaeffer, Senior Online Content Coordinator


doomsday_vaultLet’s face it–you are your own worst editor.  You can carefully craft the most amazing novel your brain can produce.  You can spend months or years on it, polishing every page, every sentence, every word.  And then another person will read it and say, “Did you notice that in chapter four you start almost every paragraph with ‘he’ ”?

After working so long with a story, even the best author loses sight of some of the details.  This is where an editor steps in.

Before we go any further, I need to define the term.  Here, an editor is a professional hired by a book publisher to walk a book through the publishing process.  I’m also going to focus on what an editor does for the writer.  An editor’s job actually covers quite a lot more than the tiny portion I list below.  We’ll start our particular list with the moment the author turns in a completed manuscript.

Once the writer hands a complete novel manuscript to the editor, she works it over with a red pen.  She’ll pick out problems with the story, character, or anything else.  For example, Anne Sowards, who edited The Doomsday Vault, made the following comments in her editorial letter to me:

— Maybe we could speed up this section where Gavin struggles to survive in London before he’s kidnapped.  Right now it’s feeling a little slow.

Should Alice be a little more surprised / shocked when she discovers Gavin? It seems like she should wonder more about why he was kidnapped and trapped in her aunt’s home.  This is an unusual situation, to say the least, and she seems to take it a little too much in stride.

The phrase “as if the meat would come off her skeleton” is kind of an unappealing image. Maybe rephrase?

Some editors are pickier than others.  An author of my acquaintance once got an editorial letter consisting of 30 single-spaced pages.  On the other hand, I once got an editorial letter consisting of three words: It was fine. These are extremely unusual, though!  My usual editorial letters run two to three pages.

Editors actually don’t copyedit.  That’s done on another pass-through by someone else.

Your editor will (or should) push your book to the publisher and to the marketing department, doing her best to ensure your book gets a cool cover, a decent blurb, good placement in the catalogs, and so on.  Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes not.  Office politics and the opinions of higher-ups all have an impact here.

If something funky is going on with your book, your editor also plays liaison between you and the publisher.  For example, if you discover that your book is being pirated on a web site somewhere, you’d want to alert your editor immediately, and your editor will get hold of the publisher’s legal department.

Your editor will push your book to booksellers and distributors at marketing meetings, conventions, and elsewhere.  However, an editor’s time is limited, and some books get more face time than others.  That’s just the way it is.

Editors are also part of the money chain.  When a check is late, the writer calls the agent to complain.  The agent calls the editor.  The editor calls accounting.  Accounting pretends to know nothing about the problem, and the editor ends up tracking down the money with the agent breathing down her neck.  One of my editors spent several hours tracking down an accountant who had lost all the paperwork associated with a large check overdue to me.  The editor, bless her, then took up most of an afternoon personally walking a new set of paperwork through the entire accounting department so I could get paid.

Your editor will discuss future projects with you.  She wants to know what else you have up your creative sleeve, and the earlier, the better.  If you have a project she’s pretty sure isn’t marketable, she’d rather tell you up front so you don’t waste time on it.  On the other hand, if you have something really cool, she’d like to know so she can anticipate it.

What an Editor Does Not Do
Certain jobs don’t fall under an editor’s bailiwick.  For all that she’s friendly and loves your book, she still works for the publisher, and when it comes to business, her first priority is for the publisher.  She definitely wants your book to succeed for a number of reasons, but ultimately the editor is the publisher’s face.  This is why you want an agent who can talk business–you won’t have to mix art and money, and can keep things friendly with your editor.

Your editor doesn’t solve problems that show up in your writing; she only points them out.  Some editors may offer suggestions if the author gets really stuck, but ultimately editors edit while authors auth.  Most authors would be insulted or upset if the editor made unauthorized changes anyway.

And did you see the movie Julie and Julia?  I burst out laughing at the scene in the editor’s office, the one in which the publisher hands Julia Child’s manuscript to an unsuspecting editor.  The editor’s desk was perfectly clean and tidy.  No paper in sight.  What a fiction!  Even in the electronic age, no editor I’ve met manages to keep a perfectly tidy office.

Steven Harper usually lives at and