An Interview with MJ Bush

InterviewsInstead of interviewing a writer, I decided it was time to see the opposite side of the coin — the editors. I hope that you enjoy this interview with freelance editor MJ Bush!

RJ: Please introduce yourself.

MJ Bush: This is the hardest part. Who gives a decent overview of themselves in a paragraph? Not I.

Hi, I’m MJ Bush.

According to my clients, I’m a fiction coach and editor. My strengths are learning, contemplating, and collecting sources of information. I value depth and clarity, and I’m quoting from personality tests that rang true for me…

Ahem. I’ve worked with baby tigers, performed as a magic assistant, married a Marine, lived through deployment, had life-saving surgery, and that still tells you next to nothing about me. Some would say I’m stubborn. Some would say I’m gentle. Others would probably tell you that I’m pedantic, or impish.

I believe that knowing someone is an experience, and it can’t be duplicated in a short introduction.

RJ: You edit fantasy and historical fiction. At first glance, these are two very different genres. What attracted you to these fields of writing?

MJ Bush:I grew up reading historical mysteries like the Mandie series by Lois Gladys Leppard, and inspirational pioneer or Civil War romances. I was always a little disappointed in a book if it didn’t take me to a different time.

My first adult fantasy was The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, and my addiction to fantasy bloomed. It was my biggest annoyance that the library didn’t have stickers on the spines of fantasies like there were for mysteries.

As for what attracted me, both genres take the reader unequivocally outside of everyday experience. I am an escapist, if you will. I love being transported and losing myself in a book.

RJ: What makes fantasy and historical fiction compatible from an editing perspective?

MJ Bush: Both require the author to carry a large load of setting the cultural tone, giving a sense of time and place, and making sure that everything makes sense in context. Editing either one demands an ability to read diagnostically or radically suspend disbelief at will. The main difference is in asking for research to clarify something, or asking questions for the author to ponder and use imagination to answer.

RJ: Writers often give each other warnings about the type of person who makes a good, reliable editor. What type of person makes the ideal client? What do you look for in a client?

MJ Bush: In general, the ideal client is committed to learning the ins and outs of good writing and isn’t afraid to ask questions.  Nervousness doesn’t preclude being an ideal client. The right editor will help you get over it in a way that makes sense for you.

My personal ideal client feels safe when there’s a system, a plan. They appreciate the time I take to separate feedback by level of importance, from deeper edits up to line edits, so that the inflow of information isn’t overwhelming. They like that they aren’t left at loose ends because there’s homework to give both of us deeper insight. An absolutely ideal client would be bold, willing to rewrite or scrap scenes and chalk it up to experience without a fuss. I hate having my authors scrap scenes. I hate it.

Outside of the ideal, when accepting a client I look for a willing spirit, eagerness, and determination. All appear at varying levels in my clients, though nervousness can disguise them at first.
If there is one thing I look for above any other, it’s trust. A client is puts a reflection of their soul into my hands, to be distilled and refined. If trust isn’t present, I’m not the one that should be editing that manuscript.

RJ: It’s sometimes hard to judge a writer at the start of a professional relationship. What do you think is the most important thing an editor and writer need to remember when working together?

MJ Bush: You are working together. You have a common goal. Treat your teammate with respect. Listen to each other, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially when you hit a snag.

RJ: What made you want to become an editor? It’s a lot of work! Did the reality of editing work match up to your expectations?

MJ Bush: It was more like coming out as an editor, for me. In high school, I was the editor for my group of friends, be it a research paper or a story. I far preferred clarifying the thoughts and arguments of others to writing my own (fiction not-withstanding).  I’ve done a lot of studying the craft since then, and I’ve collected, and organized, a lot of writing advice. When members of my local writing group asked me to edit for them, and insisted on paying, it was a bit like coming home.

Because of my history, the reality was pretty obvious to me. Before I started getting paid, I was practicing on prematurely published e-books, for the benefit of my own writing. Those helped me be realistic about what I was getting into.

It’s a challenge, but it’s a contemplative challenge, and I can’t resist those.

What can I say? I find fun in odd places.

RJ: What advice would you give to an author seeking an editor?

MJ Bush: Take your time.

  • First, figure out what type of editing you need. Be honest with yourself. There’s proofreading, line editing, and developmental or structural editing.
  • Second, research each prospect thoroughly, including the process they use and how knowledgeable they are. Don’t count on high price alone as an indicator of quality.
  • Third, decide what process sounds most comfortable to you. Systemized, chronological, statements of opinion, objective structural analysis, or question prompts are just some of the options. There is a wide range of editors out there. Don’t settle.
  • Fourth, sign a contract. That way if your chosen editor turns out to be a flake and only edits half your manuscript, you have legal recourse. (I’ve heard stories.) Editing is an investment, and the money involved is often hefty.

Basically, take your time.

RJ: Many writers aren’t really aware of the amount of work that goes into editing a manuscript. If you had to estimate, how long would you say it takes for you to finish a manuscript?

MJ Bush: It takes me at least six weeks to edit a manuscript, sometimes longer. It takes time to reframe the story in the author’s eyes and draw out what they want it to be. My process includes homework to improve the author’s sense of what isn’t working. Even if they can’t articulate it, I want it lying just under the surface so that when I do articulate it, they respond with, “That’s it!”

My ultimate goal is to increase the author’s skill, and that can’t be rushed.

RJ: What do you dislike the most about editing?

MJ Bush: As I mentioned, I hate telling an author that this lovingly crafted scene doesn’t add to the story line and must go. I only do so after we make efforts to tie it in, but sometimes it just needs to be cut.
My other major dislike has been alleviated somewhat by my system.  I don’t want my authors to hate me, even temporarily. I know that’s the norm, but by sectioning out feedback by level, and by guiding them to their own understanding of the manuscript’s needs, I can avoid it to some extent.

RJ: What do you like the most about editing?

MJ Bush: I love finding the potential, seeing what it could be, and watching that vision evolve as I get to know the author’s vision through the homework. The hybrid vision goes beyond either one on its own, and its realization is a beautiful thing to guide.

At what stage in the writing process do you feel a writer should look into hiring an editor?

MJ Bush: It depends on the author, but a good general guideline is after the first draft is completed or a plateau is reached. For outliners, it’s possible to get a quick structural analysis before the writing begins.
It’s a very personal choice, just like the choice of editor. That said, the large majority of writers would benefit from a developmental editor rather than skipping to line editing or proofreading.

RJ: An interview isn’t complete without the final question: You are trapped in a walk-in freezer with one character from a novel. What character do you choose, and why? (Please tell us about the novel they’re from, too!)

MJ Bush: Well, the obvious answer is a nice warm dragon. I’ll go with Ramoth from the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. By the rules of the question, I can’t have her break us out, but at least I won’t freeze. Plus… DRAGON!

In the first book, Dragonflight, Lessa, whose Hold was stolen at a young age, is taken by the dragonriders and bonded to Ramoth. Lessa’s antics include solving an ancient mystery, defeating Fax (the villain that stole her hold), and generally being a pain in the side for F’lar, her romantic interest. The classic series is a YA fantasy and sci-fi crossover.

Leave a Comment:

MJ Bush says May 30, 2013

Thanks for having me, RJ! I’ll stick around to answer questions, too.

Jennifer Baylor says May 31, 2013

Thanks for this interview, RJ. Great to see an editor’s perspective and learn about their process. How does an editor go about deciding which authors he/she will work with? Is there an interview process? Questionnaire? Read the first chapter of the author’s novel? I know the writer must make a decision, but presumably the editor does, too.

    RJBlain says May 31, 2013

    I do several things — MJ might be different, but I’ll pitch in on how I select a client.

    First, I do request at least the first chapter of a story — sometimes up to three chapters, depending on length. I check to see if the story is something I can work with. I then ask them some questions, particularly what they’re looking for in an edit.

    If I’m hopeful about the relationship at that point, I warn them I’m a cannonball or hand grenade with a pin removed. Then, I show them a sample of my edits and ask them if that is something they can handle — a few of my clients have volunteered to let me use their edits as examples for other clients.

    I don’t edit samples of the potential clients — the first three chapters take so much time that I’d be working for hours and hours with high risk of not being paid. So, using a sample from another client’s edits can give them a feel for the type of work I put in.

    If they can handle it, and I think they can handle it, we proceed with the relationship. 🙂

    MJ Bush says May 31, 2013

    I don’t exactly have an interview process, but I do talk to the author, and in every case so far, we have talked prior to possible editing being brought up, via social media or in real life.

    I do have them give me a quick plot summary, along with the first few chapters. I also outline much of my process, and let them know the exact type of editing that I do. I’m considering putting together a PDF/brochure for this, so it’s all covered on the first go-around.

    I don’t do sample edits either, for the same reason. I haven’t needed examples so far, though I should take care of that. (Thanks for the reminder, RJ!)

    To be truthful, not all editors are so selective. Some will take any work and do a sloppy job. Some will take anything and do just fine, as long as that’s the type of editing you’re after. I think the passionate ones, the ones that will push your manuscript to its highest potential, are the ones that are selective. We can’t be passionate about just anything. 😉

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