Freelance Editing: An Interview with Chantelle Aimée Osman

By E.A. Aymar

Those attending PitchFest at this year’s ThrillerFest would be well-served to work with Chantelle Aimee Osman. Ms. Osman, and a number of other agents and editors, will review the first page of your manuscript or query letter (depending on the agent/editor) before you present it (i.e. send it out to the wolves).

It seems like everybody in publishing knows Chantelle, and that’s likely because she’s done damn near everything in publishing. I came across her through her award-winning website, Sirens of Suspense, but others might know her from her work with the well-respected RT Book Reviews, where she serves as Editor-in-Chief. Or maybe you know her from Author Connect, a service dedicated to matching hopeful authors with experts in their field (check out the impressive list of writers/editors here). Or you might have heard of her through her QUICK AND DIRTY GUIDE TO series (I personally recommend the guide to crime fiction). Or from Project Booknado, the book drive she’s been actively involved in (check out the link and get involved too!). Or maybe it’s because  you attended Left Coast Crime this year, where she was the freaking Guest of Honor. Or it might be…

Get the point?

When you get feedback from Chantelle Aimee Osman, it’s coming from one of the top pros out there. So we thought she’d make the perfect interview leading into ThrillerFest. Given her work with PitchFest, we focused this interview on freelance editing.

How did you first get professionally involved with writing and editing crime fiction?

 That’s a long story that involves a magical talking otter, three brothers from Nebraska and a top hat. I just don’t think we have time for me to tell it, Ed.

I’ve always had a love of words and, I suppose, crime, so it’s really not that surprising that I ended up in this business—after having tried my hand at two other professions that embrace the same qualities: politics and law.

Years ago, I worked as an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood, and when I shifted to the development side, it was a more natural fit. It was disheartening when screenplays with potential were rejected for reasons other than the quality of writing, which is why I started teaching.

I keep telling people I’m an editor, not a writer, but for some insane reason, they keep asking me to write. So sometimes I do.

Should every writer hire a freelance editor before submitting his or her work to an agent or publisher?

The majority of the work, even after the book is in print, is up to the author these days, which means the author’s responsibility doesn’t end once you write “the end.” Agents and publishers see so many submissions that they have to have some means of winnowing the pile. You want to make sure you’re not being kicked aside because of typos, missed plot points, etc., that someone with a more independent eye would have caught. 

First and foremost, your responsibility is to write the absolute best book you possibly can. If it’s not the best work you can do, you can be the best marketer in the world, and it won’t mean anything.

An editor’s responsibility is to ensure that the vision of the story you wanted to tell is translated to the reader clearly on the page. Editing on some level needs to be done before anything sees the light of day. You want to give your words every chance to succeed, and editing can only help it along.

What makes a good client?

One with an open mind. One who never stops learning. One who realizes that they can always improve their craft.

What about a bad client? Are newer writers combative when it comes to edits?

Not necessarily, although sometimes new writers expect success too soon in the process. They just finished NaNoWriMo and expect the phone to ring and a major publisher to offer them six figures. They have to realize it’s a process. 

The worst clients are those who baby their work and, like any parent, believe their child is perfect even when that child is throwing a tantrum in the middle of a restaurant.

As an editor, my job is to find out what’s wrong with your work. I’m not criticizing for fun—I only do that on the weekends—I actually have your best interest in mind. If you don’t at least consider the changes, it’s a waste of your money and my time. 

This is really an important lesson no matter what. Whether from an editor, agent, publisher…you don’t have to make every change or take every suggestion, but realize that these are people who may have more experience, and have a reason for you to succeed. Listening and being able to work with your team makes you a better writer. And one who will be more successful.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see writers making – either in regards to their approach, plot, grammar, etc.?

If you’re not writing with passion, you’re probably writing the wrong thing. It’s going to be flat on the page. That’s something I just can’t fix. 

The first two chapters can be the most important in the book. They may be the only chance you get to get the attention of a reader. When you tell a story, you should never, ever, have to say “this is what you need to know before you read this.” That’s by far one of the biggest mistakes I find – writers want to give too much backstory before they get into the action. A standard screenwriting trick is to start the movie 20 minutes after you think the story should start. Drop the reader in the thick of it. We’re smart, we’ll catch on.

I also generally find that if an author is having difficulty writing a part of a book, or if there’s a section that just doesn’t quite work, they should go back and fit the plot into the overall three (or four, if you prefer) act structure. Generally, you’ll find a beat is missing or in the wrong place.

What should writers look for when hiring a freelance editor? What are some things to avoid?

No matter who you’re hiring in this industry, it’s important to do your homework. It’s too easy to have a fancy website that’s a web of lies. I’m not saying that most people are out to take advantage; the majority in this industry are helpful and stand-up people. But before hiring anyone, google them, check them out on pred-ed.com, ask to see a sample of their work (if applicable), or ask to be put in touch with previous clients.

This is a business relationship, so ensuring you’re on the same page and can work together long-term (I often work with many of my authors through an entire series) is very important. I sometimes offer a 5 page sample edit of a new client’s manuscript, not just so they can see how I work, but also to gauge the depth of edit they need and how they’ll be to work with.

Do you think the future of publishing is heading into a good direction, given how many new publishing models have been introduced?

When the shift started, I found it reminiscent of when home televisions were first introduced; the movie industry was certain it was their death-knell. Why go out to a movie when you could sit and watch it on your own sofa? But their reaction was premature. They scrambled to keep up and have a draw. Many didn’t work—Smell ‘O Vision, anyone?

There’s room in this industry, and on the shelf, for everyone. Personally, I’m excited every day work in an industry which is so quickly evolving. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next. 

Yes, it’s been a bit of a free-for-all where anyone who has written anything can immediately post it for sale online, but the market is gradually self-regulating. We’re seeing the readers become industry hall-monitors, and the overall quality improving. Traditional publishers are realizing that they need to listen, and that they need to evolve quickly and jump ten steps ahead to keep up.

You’ve written, edited, taught, and marketed. What do you like doing best, and is there something else in publishing you’d like to try?

Being an editor is extremely rewarding. I know when I get a manuscript that I’m holding someone’s dreams, and that when it leaves my desk, it’s hopefully a step closer to reality—and publication. There’s a level of immediate gratification you don’t get many other places. 

But, of those you mentioned, teaching is by far my favorite. I love being there the moment someone learns something new, or particularly, when they solve a problem with their plot or character. 

Really, I just love doing anything to help fill shelves with amazing, undiscovered, books.

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Chantelle Aimée Osman is the Editor-in-Chief of RT Book Reviews, as well as the founder of Author Connect, a service enabling aspiring writers to get feedback on manuscripts from experts in their genre, and webmistress for The Sirens of Suspense. A freelance editor specializing in mystery/suspense/thriller, science-fiction and fantasy, she is also an instructor with the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. A former lawyer and head of development for production companies in Hollywood, Chantelle is the author of the non-fiction series on writing THE QUICK AND DIRTY GUIDE TO… she has published numerous flash fiction and short stories.  She was named LCC 2016 Fan Guest of Honor, and is currently editing an episodic anthology, SERIAL KILLER, for Polis Books to be released Spring/Summer 2017. 

E.A. Aymar is the managing editor of The Thrill Begins. His most recent novel is You’re As Good As Dead (2015), and his column, Decisions and Revisions, appears monthly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. He holds a Masters in Literature and lives just outside of Washington, D.C.

To learn more about E.A. Aymar’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

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