Life of a Book Editor Elizabeth Lyon

- by Vonna Harper

Nobody I know graduated high school and in looking forward to the future thought, “I want to be a freelance book editor.” I didn’t. In my first four years of college my dreams ran the gamut, reflected in half a dozen changes of my major. Languages, humanities, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Later I earned a masters in counseling. On the side, I wrote all kinds of nonfiction and fiction, and very bad poetry. All good preparation for an editing career. I determined that book editing is further helped by a background in the social sciences, the hard sciences, philosophy and religion, politics and current affairs, psychology and crisis intervention, and of course, literature, publishing, and . . . writing.

            Like many self-employed people, the non-billable work gobbles up time. I spend about four hours a day answering e-mail, responding to phone consultations, sending contracts and invoices, and fulfilling requests for workshop descriptions, bios, photos, and travel arrangements for future conferences and workshops. Sometimes I lose hours making changes on my website or supplying pieces for blogs. I minimize my Facebook time (I haven’t figured out why this is important), and send e-mails to friends to blow off steam. The post office delivereth and the post office taketh away. 

My home office is a crucible of chaotic creative endeavors. Doesn’t that sound nice? Or, as described by a neat freak tidy editor friend, “an archaeological dig.” But I know where things are—really. I have three printers—you never know. Right now, one is down. Floor-to-ceiling shelves groan under the weight of books and manuscript boxes, each one bearing a client name—active or inactive—on one side. Other shelves are littered with office supplies, newspaper clippings related to client works, contracts and bills, and stacks of books read, books by clients, books needing photocopies for workshops, and books unread. Copies of edited manuscripts from former clients pile up, awaiting the non-existent file clerk. Instructional material, personal and professional papers, and the x-files mix in jumbled piles on “surfaces” and await the non-existent file clerk.

At last, I edit.  

            I sit, the manuscript lies before me on a cushioned lap table. I pause, recognizing resistance to the call of adventure for the journey of this project. I am anxious. Will I be able to relate to this story, this project? Will I be able to figure out what is most needed, and communicate that in a constructive way?

            I begin. I put on my reading glasses, have my pens of different colors ready. Black or blue will mark the first time through. The reverse will mark the second time through. Green or sometimes red will mark passages I’ve come back to.

I read. I become a shape-shifter, relying upon intuition, a shaman’s hidden abilities, and twenty years of editing books. I loan myself out to the works I edit. Perhaps I am a medium as much as a midwife. With a shift of awareness, I enter the story world and become the characters or the authors of memoirs, experiencing the story through them: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, emoting, remembering, wishing, suffering, and succeeding. Will I be swept on updrafts of excitement and suspense, hold my breath in anticipation of what comes next? Will I live inside a nightmare? Will I need armor to protect myself from an onslaught of bad vibes—not from the characters but from a twisted place in the author’s unconscious?

            Immersion into someone else’s writing means leaving most of my ego behind, but retaining all of my analytical and intuitive skill and nature. The left brain spots problems in organization and craft. The right brain listens, picks up nuances of style—rhythm, melody, dissonance, pace, and also the timbre of emotions, on the surface and in the undercurrent.

Many stories are dreams, projections of a writer’s symbolic or psychic worlds. A women thinks she’s writing about an exciting trip she took with her husband in Africa, entertaining, light, but she’s really expressing her fear that she’ll lose her husband to another heart attack. Most writers are unaware how present they are in what they believe is fiction or a first-person account of an event. A Siamese twin with a protagonists can be a problem; the person may be writing for themselves not an audience. The story may be a way of working out a probably unconscious set of conflicts with deep roots in a traumatic past. Sometimes the story works, but my job is to let the writer know when a protagonist is but a mouthpiece and to suggest how to set the character free. In so many ways, diplomatically but not pulling punches, I cut the umbilical between writer and character, between memoirist and projected self, and use the evaluation as a way to explain how to make that shift in a revision.

            My exit from editing a manuscript can be as difficult as my entry. After I finish, I can’t just jump into a next job. I’ve been elsewhere, in the pretend world of the novel or memoir or, for other nonfiction, in the intellectual world of ideas, information, facts, and statistics. There is a time delay before I am fully present in my mind, body, emotions, and spirit. Often I’m tired. My own complex life provides a welcome diversion. Sometimes, however, my unconscious is still lost in the story world. An insight pops through a dream or slides into my mind during a walk.

            The editing process is engrossing, but by far the people I meet are the most rewarding, and entertaining, privilege of this work. They often become lifelong friends. Patti, ever positive and supportive, part Cherokee and a Republican (!), writes a biography about an inspirational Cherokee coach. We’re convinced we’re telepathic, sending “call-me” vibes while the other one is thinking the same thing. Carolyn began as a student, became a member of my critique group, then an associate editor (to bail me out of a rough patch) while she wrote and published mysteries. She has taken care of me after surgeries, helped sort out my belongings after several moves, and become my wise adviser and a best friends. Unique in my editing career was the client become friend who wanted the editor and not just the edited manuscript. Eighty-something-year-old Art paid for me to fly to his home on the beach in Malibu. That wasn’t a hard sell. We sat side by side in his office, making further revisions of his most-recent book on primal therapy. Our conversations ran deep, about the state of current therapeutic practices, human nature, our lives, Art’s song writing for Celine Dion, and John Lennon.

            My work, sometimes only consulting, has brushed with famous people, like Art, or to famous events. A housekeeper for Rajneesh writing about how she and her husband fled for their lives. A surviving member of the Jones Town mass suicide. The son of Tennessee Ernie Ford. The body guard of Tonya Harding. A man who as a boy, from a family of high status, sat on Mao’s lap to watch a movie, only later to be sent to a youth camp. A woman who as a young girl was put on the Peter Pan flight from Cuba, and who once sang for Castro.

            Scary people also go with the territory. A former medical examiner, now retired, submitted a novel in which a woman was abused in the most awful ways by the protagonist, a medical examiner. While watching my evening news, the featured story was  about a person with his name who was accused of trying to run over a woman flagger.

The greatest threat of my twenty years occurred one night when my phone rang at midnight. That afternoon, just two days after a back surgery, I had answered a woman’s call about the “real life novel” she had written. I gave more time than usual advising her about writing, revising, marketing, and self-publishing. She kept asking me questions, holding me on the line. I knew she was a novice.

“You have no right to tell me I’m a beginner,” the voice on my message machine yelled. “You haven’t read even one word of my writing. You have no right to think I’m a beginner.” She went on from there for another minute and then hung up. I exchanged the “what-the” look with my friend who was taking care of me and then hobbled back to bed. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang again. Her voice had ratcheted up a notch. She ranted again, venom in each word. My friend and I discussed the nut case, deciding that she must be drinking—or something. Instead of returning to bed, I sat down and waited. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang yet again. This time, she screamed her words, “People like you should be shot!” Ohmygod. Although I called the police in the morning, she never called again. I was glad my address wasn’t publically known.

Writers are also weird. I supplied crisis intervention to a man who called me and threatened suicide because he not only didn’t win first place in a contest but didn’t win anything. He was indignant, cut down, no reason to keep living. An editing client called to tell me that his rabbit ear had caught fire when he leaned over a candle, and how a very nice seamstress had come out to his house, saving him from having to remove his furby outfit, and didn’t even charge him. Despite his unusual compulsion, we had what I thought was a helpful discussion about OCD and bipolar illness and how it affects confidence in writing.

            Manuscripts on my desk now or soon to arrive for editing will test my background in many subjects. I have a hitherto now secret tell-all about a military mission, a moving epic novel set in the Montana frontier, the autobiography of a European chef who buttered me up with dinner at his home—and we didn’t have spaghetti, I can assure you, an AA-related book, a young adult novel set in prehistory, a category mystery, a revision of a memoir by a Broadway star. The projects change, the writers change. Along the way I make new friends and learn about new ideas and subjects.

I never chose a career as a freelance book editor. It chose me. And it fit.

To see a sample of even more of the “characters” and their books that Elizabeth Lyon has worked with, see “Client Successes” at She is the author of how-to books on craft, revision, and marketing. Her sixth book, “Manuscript Makeover” was selected in an article for The Writer magazine, as one of “8 Great Writing Books” in 2008, and “perhaps the most comprehensive book on revising fiction.”


  1. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for the peek into your day and your life.

  2. You’ve got enough material to writer your own novel! Who knew? Thanks for sharing with us.

  3. Thank you for sharing your life with us, Elizabeth. I knew things could get crazy for editors but not that wild! And I concur that writers are weird. Yes, we are. I try to keep my weirdness to a minimum, and that’s what Facebook is for–I can socialize with friends and other writers and purge my strangeness there and keep it from my editor. Er, well, most of it at any rate. :)

  4. Great post and greatly enjoyed.