So yes, we're talking about how to find the right book editor. I wanted to talk about this in particular, because it's difficult for a writer to really know what you need from the process of editing — especially if you're on your first draft or something. It’s hard to know how to best get yourself to where you want to go.
Who am I?
I am an editor with an international reputation. The reason for this is I live in England, but I have my agent in New York and first started writing in New York. But I really began editing in earnest when I moved to England. I specialize in story development in both fiction and narrative non-fiction.
I've edited books from very early stages — from basic ideas right through to people who have final drafts and are poised for publication. I've launched a UK literary consultancy into the US so I have a foot in both markets. This has left me pretty knowledgeable about what's going on in both markets at present
So who are you?
That's a good question. I wish we were all in the same room, but I can guess that you're all writers — but what kind of writers?
You might be a seasoned writer with a book deal on your fifth book, or very new to writing.
You may be a plotter — somebody who carefully plots out their story ahead of time before they even begin writing with index cards and cork boards; or a pantser — someone who likes to write by the seat of their pants.
Maybe you’re on your first draft, perhaps you’re on your seventh draft.
You might have an MFA in creative writing and you may have a book deal. Or you might have nothing but an idea and a dream.
The thing is that every writer is on a different stage of their journey. What's important to know is that there is no single right time to work with an editor. What I'm after today is to help you get a clear understanding of how the whole editorial process works so you have the knowledge and the understanding to know where you are, so you can confidently engage an editor because you know what you want.
So to get the most out of editing, you need to know what you want.
By the way, I do use the ‘she’ pronoun a lot because that's my pronoun, but of course I'm talking about all of us.
A good editor will understand that everybody has a different goal. Somebody might want to self publish their memoir just for their children and grandchildren, or someone else really wants to make this their career — they want to get an agent. They have a very specific goal in mind. A good editor will change how she edits and how she helps you depending on what you need. But again, the power is with you. Knowing what you want and what you need is the best way to ensure that you get it.
The Science of Story
So story structure is a science, and I could do a whole other talk on structure — I'm going to try not to get too deep into this because I'm passionate about it. Story structure is a science. And, for example, everybody knows about gravity, right? But can you explain the science behind it? Do you understand the physics and the principles behind it? Probably not.
Story is the same. Everybody understands story. If you ask a five-year-old child to tell you a story, they will probably start with once upon a time. It will have a hero, they’ll put that hero in jeopardy, have them overcome terrific obstacles to win at the end or lose, but that innate ability to understand story actually predates the written word, and it’s part of how our brains are set up. It's how we survive and thrive as a species. It's utterly fascinating. I could go on. There is this one book I'll just hold up really quick, The Science of Storytelling, if anyone really wants to geek out about how stories work, why we tell them, why we need them, and why they're a part of our actual biological makeup. What an editor can do is not teach you all that science, but they will understand how the structure of a story works and can help you make sure that yours works well.
So I've read hundreds of first chapters, thousands of story synopses, countless books on the craft of writing. Part of that’s because of being an editor, but I was also a judge on two international novel awards. I've been a mentor for Pitch Wars. I've really done my 10,000 hours of reading writer’s synopses and first chapters. And what I can tell you now is that when things go wrong, they do tend to go wrong in the same place.
Probably about 95% of stories when they start to not work, when you start hearing an agent say, “Oh, the story is lacking in tension,” it comes down to one thing: your hero of your story must want something. A Buddhist would tell you that if you put a human being on the planet, within two seconds, that person will want something. That's the same of stories. Your main character must want something. Now, in commercial fiction, desire is often something specific: it's to win the girl, it's to kill the dragon, it's to get the job, it's to win the hunger games. It's very, very specific and pressing.
In literary fiction — and this is the big difference between these two types of fiction — desire would be expressed more as a yearning, a need to find a sense of place to feel at home, to be accepted. That's really the main difference when you're looking at commercial fiction and literary fiction.
When you're thinking about your story, whether you've got a first draft already, or you're in the early stages, think about that main character of yours. Do they want something? Do I know what they want? It's harder than you think to get to that, and I think that's because that's not how we live as people. We want lots of things and it's a lot more vague. We don't just walk around with one blindered goal. But, in a story that's what's going on.
So, act one today is to help you understand the editing process so that you know what you want.
Act two of today is how to work with an editor so you then get what you want.
Then we'll take some questions.
Act I: Understanding the Editing Process
As I said before, there is no one time to engage an editor. There are different resting or stopping off points on your writer's journey, and these are the five main ones.
- You might have a raw idea because you might be a memoirist who wants to turn your true life story or adventure or trauma into a book.
- You might have an outline. You may have scribbled this down on a piece of paper, or you might have 50 note cards on a board mapping out your story. Now you want to know from an editor if the story structure works, even though you haven't started writing chapter one.
- You might have sat down and written a whole first draft and you got to the end and you're thinking, “Did I get that story that was in my head onto the page? Is it working?” Sometimes it's like trying to be an architect and the building is right in front of your face but you can't see it. You have to get somebody to help you pull back to really look at it to see if it's working.
- You might have a final draft. You might've written several drafts. You feel ready to go, but you now want to share it with a professional to make sure that it's really going to catch an agent's attention.
- You might be poised for submission, and you want somebody to help you with your submission package, your synopsis, or your blurb. The ways you talk about your story are as important as your story. Sometimes for a writer, I think this is very difficult because you know the whole story so well. To condense it into an elevator pitch can really twist you up in knots. So that's when getting somebody else to help you do that can be really helpful.
So let's go through this one by one.
Raw ideas and story outlines
At this stage, what you might want is a coach or a mentor. I think it’s usually called a book coach in America and a mentor in the UK, but somebody who can help you develop your idea into a story that is compelling and follows those hard and fast rules of storytelling. One example might be taking a real life story and turning it into a compelling book.
This case is called The Hostage. This is someone that I worked with. He was an aid worker in Kenya, who was kidnapped by Somali pirates. He was held hostage. He was tortured. He was fake executed. He lived to tell the story and he sat down and he wrote the book. He sat there looking at it, and he had some people read it, and he had this problem: it was really boring. How could it be boring when he lived through this incredible adventure?
I worked with him as a mentor. He was still working as an aid worker and he was in Burma now, so we did a few Zoom calls together. He sent me the book that he'd written, and it read like a Tom Clancy book, kind of like an adventure. A lot of it was in third person because he wanted to show the things that he found out later were going on, like his sister was calling the white house, the way the aid agency was working, and his girlfriend extorting money from his agency. He wanted all these elements in the story, so he'd written it in third person.
The strange thing that happened was, it just felt like anybody's story. Here's this guy who's lived this experience that you could only imagine. So we had a few conversations and I got him to start talking about different things.
He didn't really mention the girlfriend actually, and she wasn't in that first book. He did mention her later when we were talking and then he said, “But I don't want to put her in this book.”
Okay, so I asked him, “Why did you want to become an aid worker?” — he's from this blue collar background in Philadelphia — “What makes you want to go into war zones and help people? That's not a typical path.”
Then some stuff starts to come out about his childhood, his father, and the way that made him feel. Then he finally opened up about the girlfriend. Living in Kenya, there's a black market for everything. And one of those things is, it doesn't really cost that much money to hire someone to hurt someone else. He was properly afraid that his girlfriend was going to do that, so he wasn't making her move out, and the night he had decided he was going to make her leave, he gets kidnapped.
In the process of these conversations, I’m telling him what is really fascinating to me is how you mentally stay okay in a situation like that — where you are literally being put on the ground with your hands behind your head and told you're going to be shot today, and then they fire blanks. They're waterboarding you. You're starving. You don't know if anybody knows where you are, if you're ever going to live.
He lived to tell the story, he stayed sane to tell the story. The two guys he was with lived. These aren't soldiers, these are just regular guys. He wasn't prepared for this kind of thing. That is really an incredible story.
So after a few conversations we realized, with the situation with his father and the situation with his girlfriend, it was almost as if it took being actually taken hostage to then be able to live a free life. After he came out of this situation, he became happier than he'd ever been in his life. It changed things for him, and he wrote a whole new story that was all very close to him, that just stays with him in first-person. It turned into an absolutely compelling story of survival.
So this is the kind of thing that a book coach or a mentor can do. It very much borders on therapy in a way. We’ll help you to find what is the real root of the story and how you need to tell it.
I think of first drafts a lot like sculptures. It's really like a raw lump of story and you've made a shape out of it. A person could look at it and say, “Okay, I can see that there's a story there.” But now the real graft begins of chiseling and polishing and taking out the bits that don't matter, and accentuating the bits that do, to turn it into something beautiful.
Now one thing to think, especially for the kind of writer who sits down and writes out a full first draft, is that we do a lot of our figuring out when we write that first draft. We are figuring out the character's backstories and exactly why they behave the way they behave, and what happened to them in the past that affected that.
We might spend two chapters at the beginning saying everything that's going on before the story kicks into gear. This is fine. This is a lot of real hard work. I think that what separates the wheat from the chaff is that true writers are the ones who — after they've gotten that first draft down and they're like, ‘this is a mess’ — are not afraid to then start a fresh word document and start over again.
This doesn't mean that that first draft isn't absolutely vital because you've done so much work of figuring out your story, your characters, who they are, what they want, where they're going, and what they're dealing with on the inside. When you sit down to write it again, what comes out is closer to what you really want it to be, because you don't want to put in all the figuring out. You don't want to show your work. You don't want to show all the backstory and all the history. You want the story to be engaging.
And what we mean by that is that it invites the reader inside to figure things out for themselves. An engaging story isn’t one where everything is laid out for you. “This is why she does this. This is why she's afraid of that. That's what he's like. This is what affected him as a child.”
It's a way of saying ‘show, don’t tell’. You take out all that exposition and you let the reader walk around inside of your story, seeing the little clues and the bits that you've left for them and leaving them — trusting them — to figure it out for themselves.
So that's the first draft. At this stage in the writing process, you might hire an editor for a developmental edit. There's different kinds of things a developmental editor might ask of you at this stage.
1. What’s at stake?
What does your hero or heroine want, and what is at stake for them if they don't get it? Desire is paramount. I can't say this enough. If anyone out there right now already has a first draft or is working on something I want you to go back and think about that main character and think:
- What do they want?
- Is it specific enough?
- Is it just one thing?
It's hard to get it down to just one thing, but if you can, you have a stronger story.
2. What does the midpoint do?
An editor might ask, “Does your midpoint change things irrevocably for your main character?” That is also an ironclad rule of storytelling. In the first half of the story, your main character tends to be reactive. They're reacting to the inciting incident — the thing that kicked the story into gear. They're being tested, but something hasn't happened yet. That ‘something’ happens at the midpoint. Suddenly, they become proactive, they take charge of their destiny and they're galloping towards the end of the story.
3. Do we need this backstory?
An editor might ask, do we need to know all this history that you've put in your first draft? Is it vital? Is there a different way to give the reader this information without just telling it to them?
4. What’s your main character’s internal conflict?
What is it that he or she needs to overcome inside of themselves to get what they want?
Now, some people might say this is the most important part of story. The external conflict is the plot. That's the things that are happening, but the internal conflict is the things that are happening inside of your main character.
So in the external conflict, something happens in the world of the character to test them. Now they have a desire and they get faced with obstacles and they have to win.
At the same time they have an internal conflict. They might be selfish or really prone to being reactive and making bad decisions. It's something that's inside of the character that actually trips them up all the time. And until they come to terms with it, until they are able to recognize this thing in themselves and confront it and change, they're going to keep making the same mistakes.
You might've heard that some screenwriters like to say character is story. I believe this. When we think of the books that we love the most, we don't remember the story. We don't remember what happened. We remember the characters and we remember them like they are people we know. When we remember a character that way, it's because they've shown us that internal conflict, they've shown us their worst selves, their deepest flaws. They've shown us what they challenged in themselves in order to change.
We've seen them take that journey and it's an incredible thing. And when you've seen that in a character, it's hard to forget it.
Receiving your feedback
Typically a developmental editor at this stage of the editing process will deliver your feedback in the form of a written report and a marked up manuscript. But it's important to think again about you, what works best for you?
Some of my clients don't want that. They want to just do zoom calls and talk it out and then I'll just give them some notes. Some people prefer a ton of writings that they can sit there with and go through. That's just entirely up to you.
For a developmental edit, we have the case of The Missing Midpoint. In this instance, this was a fiction story about a lawyer who is a young woman, and her negligence in a court case ends in tragedy. She flees London for a remote Scottish island to live an isolated life.
So this writer had a really compelling inciting incident: the fleeing of London, getting on a train, and going where no one knows where she is. She really knew her character. She knew her inside and out. Yet she couldn't finish the book. She was stuck and she would get to the midpoint and not know where to go.
After looking at it, there was something wrong with the beginning of the story. And usually when you get stuck in the middle, something wasn't set up right at the beginning. And in this case, it was this court case. There was something that wasn't right about why this lawyer's involvement in this court case would result in her being publicly shamed and involved in the tragedy.
And the more I thought about it, I realized maybe the thing that myself and the writer couldn't understand about the past was actually the character's problem as well. Something was in the past, in this court case that she wasn't able to untangle. We came to realize that's because there was no midpoint, we needed the new information.
In order for this character to finish her journey and become the person she needed to become, she needed to go back to London, deal with the past, then go and move on. She still had the same story goal. She still wanted to live life on her own terms. She wanted to buy his house in the remote Scottish island and start a school and that didn't change, but the character was not able to do that until she had reckoned with her past. She needed that new information at the midpoint to bring her back to the reckoning.
These are the two most important elements of story: the desire at the beginning and the midpoint that changes things. Without them, the story is trying to catch its feet on the ground. It's very loose and wobbly and you'll feel it when you're writing it. The reader will feel it when they're reading it.
So the fourth step in the process is your final draft. Now, top tip here: I've worked for a couple of literary festivals for a couple of years. I would be in the green room with authors and then do a little introduction for them, kind of what Martin just did for me, but it was with all kinds of authors: Murakami, Natalie Haynes, David Mitchell, all these huge authors. Since I got these precious few seconds alone with them, I decided to ask them all the same question, and it kind of blew my mind because nine times out of ten, all of them said it took seven drafts to finish a book.
Seven drafts. So if you're starting to freak out, because you're on your third draft, just remember Murakami, David Mitchell, these people who have bestsellers, who are greats of literature, took seven drafts. I thought it was quite spooky that it always seemed to land on that number, seven.
But if you get there and you start thinking your story is in place, all the elements are there, the tension and the pacing continues throughout, now is the time to think about a copyedit. Not every writer wants a copy edit. Some find it the most magical stage in the process, because it's where you take that manuscript, send it to your editor, and they go through it line by line by line, and tighten it. They make sure that the story is consistent, that there's no repetition, that the sentence structures are active. This is right down to tinkering on a paragraph-by-paragraph and a line-by-line level.
Typically what happens is you'll get your manuscript back with two versions; one with everything in track changes so you can see the work the editor did, and then a clean version.
This can be quite fun because you don't have to do any more work. The editor is doing it all. After a developmental edit, you might have to go back and do some more heavy lifting. But after a copy edit, you get back a polished manuscript.
But, and this is the argument I do have the most with writers, a lot of writers want to leap to this stage. You don't want to spend your money and your time on a copy edit when the story isn't ready, if the midpoint isn't in place, if the tension goes slack at the second half. If you have to add a new ending, you haven't copy edited that and wasted your time.
So, you really want to know that your story is ready to go — either that's because you've worked with an editor before, or maybe you have a critical writing group of people and you've shared it. You feel confident that it's ready to go out to an agent or a publisher.
But if you're not, don't rush into a copy edit.
The YA Thriller That Started at the End. A little subtitle for this one is: ‘Why you should never plan a series when you're writing book one’. What I see a lot, especially in YA, is people get their idea for a whole series, but it's quite a feat of pacing to plot a story across three books. What then tends to happen often is that the first book is a lot of backstory, and the story didn't really get going until the second book. People who do pace incredibly well are like the Hunger Games where the series was obviously carefully plotted so that each book was also a stand-alone.
Even if you're planning a series, which is fine, each book must stand alone. And even if you're going to submit book one to agents, you need to submit it as a standalone, then tell them there is series potential, and if they're interested, they'll want to know what those other books are about. But each book should stand on its own.
So in this instance, the writing was incredible, she got an agent off the back of this book. The agent loved the voice, the writing was amazing, but the agent kept saying, “Look, the book is starting at the end. You need to start where it ends.” And she wouldn't listen. And of course what happened was that's the same result she got from publishers.
You've just wasted a lot of time because that whole process can take up to a year. Now you find out what you could have known from the beginning. Don't rush it, make sure the story is in place. If you have typos and stuff in your book, and you're sending it out to agents, that's not so big of a deal as if your voice is strong and your story is strong.
Martin: I'm actually a bit confused by this. What do you mean by starting the book at the end?
The really interesting things in that book kicked off at the climax, and the agent wanted that to be the start of the book. Then what the writer had in mind for book two would have been book one. And this was a debut, too, so the first book should be like ‘bam!’ out of the gate. In this instance, book one was really almost all backstory. The climax of the story would have been an amazing beginning of a book.
Martin: All right. Yeah. It's sort of like pre-planning for those series where people say, “Oh yeah, just get through the first two books and it gets better after three.”
Yeah, exactly. Nowadays agents and publishers aren't going to take a gamble that our readers are going to stick around that long. They want a book that is like ‘boom!’ in the first book. So a lot of times that is almost as simple as thinking about, “Where am I taking this book? Where's the climax going to be?” then starting there.
Martin: Cool, cool. Got it.
This is a really helpful time to have an editor, I think. For one reason, it's because editors can help you with a query letter, which is an extremely precise professional kind of thing. It has very specific needs. You want to start a certain way. You want to have a blurb that's exactly a certain amount long. You want to have a bit of a bio. A lot of times that's hard to write. Especially a blurb can be hard to make tight and impactful, and something that really makes you want to open it up and see what the book is about.
The other thing is that synopsis, which is a really tricky thing, I think, for writers to write — although a very useful tool for writers to have. Even if every agent you're thinking of sending to isn’t requiring one, you're eventually going to have to show it. You might have to show it then to a publisher when you go on submission. You should always have a synopsis.
The other part of a typical submission package to an agent or publishers, is the first 30 pages, could be three chapters. Every agent has different requirements. It's important to check those. But this is typically what your submission package looks like and what you want to have ready.
One of my other top tips is if you are submitting, you don't need to proofread your entire manuscript. No agents turning someone down because you've got some typos in the manuscript. They're reading for voice, they're reading for story, they're reading for a book that they know that they can sell to a publisher.
If you're self-publishing, that's different. Then you do want to have a proofread. Some self-publishing companies will roll that into a package. Also, there's a lot of excellent proofreaders on Reedsy. You definitely want to proofread if you're self publishing because once it's out, it's out.
But, if you're planning to send to agents, it's not something you really need to worry about as much as you should story.
This is from yesterday from probably the top literary agent in the UK. I think she had the top three books in the Sunday Times bestseller list like two weeks ago. Sometimes she answers questions on her Instagram story, and this just fit so perfectly I threw it in there — and that's her cat. She's actually a friend of mine too.
Someone asked her, “What is the most common mistake in submissions?”
She said, “Not having a clear enough idea what your story is about. What is the source of conflict and tension? Why are readers going to keep reading?”
This is another way of saying exactly what I said about the main-character story goal. If you think about the space between what somebody wants, what's at stake for them if they don't get it, and the obstacles standing in their way, that is what we mean by tension. We'll take the Hunger Games, because that's an example that most people know. She has to go into this battle and if she doesn't everybody in her township isn't going to eat. That's life and death stakes, and she has to win. Also, she will be killed if she doesn't win.
So that is an unbelievable tension. She needs to win. She doesn't want to murder people, but if she doesn't, her people go hungry, and she dies. You've got stakes up to here, you’ve got a very clear and specific story goal. That's unbelievable tension. And you can't put that kind of story down.
Act II: Working With an Editor
This is about working with an editor. I want to go through some things to ask for specifically, from a prospective editor. I want to talk a little bit about how to receive feedback and genre and why that might drive you nuts.
How to get the most out editing
So hiring an editor is a pretty big deal. It's an investment in yourself as a writer, and it's a courageous thing to do, because you're also opening yourself up for critical feedback.
If you're going to do this — when you do this — you should walk into it with total confidence, knowing exactly what you want and feeling confident that you're going to get it. So if you're after a developmental edit, I think it's really important to ask to see a sample report. That way, you'll be able to judge how that editor delivers their feedback. Are they specific?
I hate to say this, but there are bad editors out there. Something like Reedsy is really good because they vet the editors. I had to do interviews. I had to have a certain amount of thumbnails of books I'd worked on before I could even go on Reedsy. They check your background and what you've done for your jobs. So, you can be pretty confident and, especially in the US too, like a lot of editors are just advertising and you don't really know what you're going to get. And I've seen some inferior editor reports where they'll spend three pages talking about layout and margins and stuff, and that's not so important.
They need to be able to engage with your story, to have ideas about your story. So ask to see a sample report and you should see feedback that doesn't just point out what you're doing wrong. Just as importantly, It should also point out what you're doing right. So you'd know what you do well. Do you really write amazing dialogue? Maybe you're not so good with the structure of a story, but my God, you can create a character that people don't forget. Maybe it's your visual descriptions of things. Knowing what you do well is as important as knowing what you need to work on.
So look for a sample report that cares about the story. You should be able to get a sense of caring, because a good editor really does care. There's a lot of love in editing, because you really have to get very close to a writer, their idea, and also what they want to make happen in their story. So you should get a sense of that caring in the sample report.
If you're after a copy edit, I would say to ask for a sample copy edit of your pages. I think this is very powerful. Copy editing isn't just following the rules of grammar, it's sinking into your voice and your way of writing, and then making that better. There's a lot of style in it, actually. It's not so much of the mechanical thing. It's just as much about understanding what you would want to achieve, and then helping you do that.
You might be completely confident over email that this is the right person for you, but it's totally fine to ask for a face-to-face — like a zoom call — or even a phone call, just to be able to really get to know this person who you're going to trust with your story.
But in all cases, I think you should expect your editor to have ideas about how to make your story better, and to understand what you're trying to do and how to take it to the next level.
How to receive critical feedback on your writing
I just included this — it's actually a column I wrote on this for The Writer Magazine — but what's in that column is five key points.
1. Don’t take it personally
The first thing is don't take it personally. It's very, very hard to separate yourself sometimes from your story, because it's you on the page. But don't take it personally, because the criticism isn't about you, it's about your story and it should be helpful and constructive criticism.
2. Sleep on it
Whatever you do, sleep on it. This is especially true if you're submitting to an agent. Agents can be a little bit more direct and straight to the point, versus an editor who's going to try to be a little bit more instructive. Because I'm friends with some agents, I know the kind of thing that they deal with is people slamming back to them with an email, “You just didn't understand my story!”
Never reply, always sleep on it. Give yourself a beat and then look at it again, because sometimes they're giving you some really, really vital information that can help you make your story better.
3. If you don’t agree, you need a good case for why
If you're working with an editor, one thing to know is that you don't have to agree with all of their story points, but you need to make a darn good case for not wanting to go along with what they're suggesting. There's probably a reason that they're saying, “Don't kill your main character in the second half of the book before the ending.”
You really have to have a solid reason for breaking the rules of story and you have to understand them, and understand why you're breaking them. You don't have to change everything an editor says, but you do have to know why you don't want to.
4. Constructive criticism shouldn’t make you feel bad
Constructive criticism shouldn't make you feel bad about yourself as a writer. It should always take you from where you are to the next place that you need to be. I always aim for instructive criticism. All these books about craft, I've read them all so that you don't have to. What I'm trying to do with my editing is to not just help you with your story, but help you to become a better writer, so you can take that into the next book that you write.
5. Always ask for clarification.
It's absolutely fine. You might want to think about this when you're going into a developmental edit: ask to be included in the price that maybe a couple of weeks after you've received your report and you've read through it, you've digested the information, that then you get to have a follow-up zoom call for an hour or something. Either go through anything, or maybe to brainstorm changes to the plot with your editor. I think a follow-up is always a good idea.
And pay attention to feedback, even the feedback that is difficult. I don't know if anyone knows the memoir by Tara Westover called Educated. It was kind of a big bestseller and I met her soon after it was published. She was talking about the first readers that read her first draft, and they didn't like it at all. They said, “We don't trust you. You feel like an unreliable narrator because you're talking about these really horrible, kind of abusive situations you're in, but you're making it into a joke.”
She felt really hurt by that: “How can you not believe me? I'm writing my true life story.” Then she realized what was going on was that she needed to unpack these memories and look at them again, in a way you don't, especially with trauma. One way to deal with trauma is to turn it into a joke and treat it lightly, and she was writing that way. The feedback she received really stung, but after she really, really took time to understand it, she realized what it meant and why she needed to go back to the page.
Just one last thing is a note on genre. It's totally normal for it to drive you nuts. In commercial fiction, genre is important. What you need to remember is that genre is basically a marketing tool. It's a way for booksellers to sell books — how they organize the bookshop. It's a way for agents to market books to the right publisher. It's a way for publishers to market it to booksellers.
Some people know very clearly, because they really love noir crime — they read it a lot and they write it a lot, and they have no problem going, “This is exactly what my book is.”
Some people just have a story and then they find themselves having to try to decide if it is a paranormal romance or a YA thriller. And ultimately, my advice is that it's not for you, the writer, to tie yourself up with those questions while you're writing. It's for you to write the best story that you can write, the most real story that you can write. Then you get the help of an editor, someone who knows the market.
That's something to look for in your editor if you are having issues with genre. It needs to be pitched just right — you do need to know the genre, and it does need to be in your query letter. But if you are having difficulty, look for an editor who really knows the marketplace where you’re planning to try to put your book.
I just wanted to say one last thing and it's really important. I want everyone, all you writers out there right now, to know that your story really, really matters. To be a writer, I think, is an act of bravery. Anyone can write, but a writer is really born when you take that story, that sweat and blood that you put onto the page, and you share it; you put it out into the world, you submit it to a competition, or you submit it to an agent or a publisher. You share it with a critical writing group. You send it to a friend.
These are acts of true, true courage. And if anyone is on that path right now, and has already done that, you should be really proud of yourself, because that's when you get to call yourself a writer.