Before I became a full-time writer, I worked as an acquiring editor for a number of years. While I don't advise grinding away in book publishing as a prelude to your professional writing career, you'd certainly learn a few valuable lessons no MFA program will teach.
Being a successful editor isn't just about schmoozing with literary agents to solicit scintillating book proposals. ("This guy has how many #BookTok followers? I've written a number on this cocktail napkin...") That's only part of the job, especially at first. To break into the next tier, you're going to need to rustle up your own projects. That means thinking up commercial book possibilities and then—crucial bit here—finding someone great to actually write them.
This process is only slightly easier than lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps, but it can be fun, and you get to claim a bit more credit when the thing you dreamed up actually works. One of the best parts of being an editor is thinking up the perfect pairing of author and idea. You get all fired up by What Might Be.
For me, making the transition to writer meant abandoning the quixotic pursuit of perfect pairings. But I can't help thinking up new possibilities.
For example, I've been enjoying Matthew McConaughey's memoir-slash-advice manual Greenlights (now available with a companion journal). Greenlights falls squarely into that sub-category of artist-with-something-to-say-about-livin' (no g for McConaughey) memoir that regular readers know I discuss frequently here. What can I say? This kind of thing is my bag, baby.
The category contains an embarrassment of riches, but I can't help but see a gap in the marketplace. The screaming need for a book by someone whose life and work have been even more rich and strange than any other artist who has yet put pen to paper: Nicolas Kim Coppola, better known by his superhero alias, Nicholas Cage.
I mean, really, whose creative and personal guidance would you rather follow? Nicholas Cage is tapped into the cosmos. He's opened a direct line to reality itself. If you doubt me, well, read this profile. Or just watch some of his work.
If I were still behind an editor's desk, convincing Nicholas Cage to share his life experiences, acting tips, and personal mantras would be my number-one priority. I simply wouldn't rest until I was in Las Vegas with the guy and being insulted by the crow he keeps in a geodesic dome.
Alas. As a writer, I'm the one being paired. Luckily, my experiences as a pairer have proven valuable as a pairee. Whenever I find myself questioning whether I can, or should, tackle a specific project, I put myself back in that old, familiar headspace. Would I hire me to write this thing? Or is there someone else who'd be a better fit? If I'm the guy, that's great. If I'm not but I know who might be, I send the client their way instead.
Sometimes, however, I want to work on a kind of project where the fit isn't as legit. Rather than try to convince others I'm capable, I begin by convincing myself: how do I become the perfect pairing for this book? Where am I lacking? How do I level up? I talk to people and ask questions. I read plenty of similar books. I try out ideas in this newsletter. In shaping myself to the task, I either find I can get from A to B or discover I simply don't have the constitution for it. Either way, I'm not sitting on my hands and waiting for the universe to choose me.
As you consider the kinds of books you want to write, think like an editor. Given the power—and a blank check from Big Publishing—who would you hire for that gig? If the answer isn't you, you've got some work to do.