Interview: Crime Fiction Editor Jim Thomsen
It's a humbling process. Feverishly typing out our breakthrough story, coming back to it a week later to self-edit, revise, and give it one victorious last pass, only to have someone who really knows their craft and has no emotional connection to the project tell you to re-write the whole thing.
It's imperative that we see the rough manuscript (the “vomit draft”) as the mere raw material, the benign hunk of clay. While unglamorous and often overlooked, editing is where the real work comes in—the sculpting, where the story really takes shape. If the goal is to write for eyes besides our own, then it's only logical we must employ that final pair of eyes—detached from our own sentimental preciousness—before we release a book into the wild.
Jim Thomsen is one of those rare editors—he's also a unique presence that casts a mighty shadow. An outspoken voice in the world of crime-fiction, his assertive takes on the craft of literary noir and its orbiting culture rarely leave wiggle-room. A hard-earned authority who I might be framing as slightly intimidating, Thomsen conversely sees himself a rabid fan who merely wants the best for the crime field. And not bereft of humor—his secret Twitter identity @CrimeFicTrope is a jabbing thorn in the side of any crime-writer who isn't staying aware of the genre's danger of becoming a parody of itself. You can find more, including rates and services, at: jimthomsencreative.com
Coming from a newspaper background where you were both a journalist and a copyeditor, how did your editing expertise take precedent over your own writing?
My 25 years as a newspaper journalist were evenly divided between writing and editing, but I’d been an editor for more than a decade by the time I saw the end of my newspaper career coming. When I was laid off at the end of 2010, the time was right to roll over my editing skillset into the book world. E-publishing was just coming of age, and with seemingly everybody self-publishing their rejected, previously-relegated-to-the-trunk novels, it was the perfect time to try to surf that wave as an editor.
Of course, I thought I could do both. I didn’t realize then the extent to which being immersed in other people’s writing would bleed over into mine, and make it hard to write with uncluttered headspace. Nor did I fully appreciate that running my own editing business would take much more than 40 hours a week, and that hurt my writing simply by draining my daily bandwidth for dealing with words. I still poke at writing most every day, but ten years later, all I have to show is a handful of book drafts that need more sustained time and focus than I’m able to give them and a whopping seven published short stories.
Do you find authors tend to be overly precious about their early drafts, simply because it was their own hands that scrawled them out? How do you convince a client to strike a passage of their manuscript when there might be some irrational emotional attachment on their part?
In my experience, authors spread out across a broad spectrum of realism about the readiness — or lack thereof — of their drafts. There are some who understand that writers need editors, that their own revision and self-editing skills can take them only so far. They’re usually a dream to work with because they’re disciplined enough to step back and give me space to work. Then there are those who don’t understand that the first draft is just that, a start, and are downright delusional about the pick-and-shovel work that goes into a publication-ready manuscript. I call those the “Just a Proofread People,” because they often ask for the cheapest service on my menu, thinking that a few stray pieces of punctuation are all that stands between them and a rock-star literary agent. Sometimes those folks can be reasoned with. Sometimes I have to wish them well and release them back into the wild.
One of the biggest lessons I had to learn as an independent editor was this: You must divorce yourself from the outcome. That means not only that you can’t promise your client that you can make their book a success, but that you can’t take the book’s success or failure as a referendum on yourself. All you can do is offer the author the benefit of your knowledge and give the best counsel you have. How they, or their agent or publisher, choose to take it is entirely out of your control. Any frustration I might feel over wisdom not heeded is wasted energy.
Does being an editor for a living ever cause you to lose perspective on your own literary work, your striving for perfectionism becoming your own worst enemy?
Ugh. Yeah. There is definitely that. My overpowering, all-but-pathological instinct to perpetually self-edit gets in the way of my ability to bang out the necessary vomit draft that gets any worthwhile novel in motion. Another big problem is having the voices of the authors I work with in my head at a time when I’m trying to access my own. That leads to work that often has a schizophrenic quality from scene to scene and chapter to chapter — dense, pseudo-poetic passages colliding against terse Hemingway-type sentences, all depending on what kind of writers I’ve most recently been working with.
What first drew you into the world of crime-fiction/noir? Did reporting for a paper propel you into that world or just further cement a fascination with the shadowy elements of the law/human behavior? How do you see its geographical relationship with you in the Pacific Northwest and Florida, where you split your time?
As a kid, I realized that as a reader I was built strictly for realism. My classmates loved fantasy and sci-fi, but I learned early that I liked to use fiction to escape into something resembling my reality, not from it. My childhood reading was a mix of stuff like The Three Investigators series and the dark adult stuff that my mother piled up. When I was nine, I got hold of her copy of Helter Skelter, which is just all kinds of wrong. That led to my fascination with paperback pulp fiction — what budding pre-adolescent boy isn’t mesmerized by covers of men with guns and the half-naked women in their arms? — and those were cheap and easy to find in the 1970s.
Being a Pacific Northwest native helped. My boarding school, outside Auburn, Washington, overlooked the Green River, and nearby at the time one of the most prolific serial killers in American history — Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer — was just starting to snatch prostitutes from nearby highways. One of my early adult friends was an author named Jack Olsen, who lived in my hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, and was then known as “the dean of true crime” (even though he also wrote several crime novels). I met him during my first college newspaper internship and he told me that I had the right mind for the sort of dark writing he was doing. He later hired me to do occasional research and legwork for him — stuff like going to county courthouses a half-day away to pick through files for trial transcripts and the like. Heady stuff.
I also had a connection to two headline-making murders in my hometown. In 1989, three young adults, including a kid I knew in middle school, were shot to death in the woods I played in as a child. Years later, I was a reporter at the Bainbridge Island newspaper when the woman who owned our building and lived in the apartment upstairs was slain late one night by my late friend’s older brother. My brain couldn’t help but puzzle over the novelistic twist that tied the two cases together.
By that time I was reading a lot of Pacific Northwest crime-fiction authors — Earl Emerson, J.A. Jance, G.M. Ford, Richard Hoyt, Mary Daheim, etc. — and working on my own crime fiction. My first story sale, in 1995 for fifteen dollars, was to a community college literary magazine, and it was titled “Found In A Wooded Area.” From then on, it seemed, my die was cast in the collision of Pacific Northwest journalism and crime fiction.
At the rate of your editing output, I imagine you see it all – every cliché and all the trends that sort of cannibalize themselves. How do you keep from getting jaded in a genre you've hardwired yourself to thrive in?
I act it out with much snark — and admittedly, passive-aggressiveness — through my Twitter alter ego, @CrimeFicTrope. I could go on and on about what annoys me about the dreary sameness of much high-concept commercial crime fiction, but I’ll just say this: @CrimeFicTrope started with my particular animosity for shoulder wounds, which are ubiquitously employed by hack writers as a device in which heroes can be instantly assigned reader sympathy while still somehow managing to kick ass without skipping more than a beat or two. I knew a woman who had been shot in the right shoulder decades ago, and trust me, the shoulder is not some fluffy, friendly pincushion for bullets. You don’t get over a shoulder wound in short order, even if the bullet misses the clavicle and most major blood vessels. My friend lost most of the use of her right arm and hand, and also lost so much of the mass of the shoulder area to a series of surgeries.
The cliché has gotten so ridiculous that an author I usually admire wrote a recent mystery in which a dog was shot in the shoulder. Another author I admire had, in a recent series novel, both his hero and his antagonist suffering shoulder wounds — and continuing to chase one another. I think every author who considers busting out a shoulder wound on the page should volunteer to suffer one in the name of authoritative research. I bet the Bouchercon people could find a firearms expert willing to do it as safely as possible. Then I’d like to read the writing that results. Assuming the writers aren’t too crippled or agonized to keep from writing.
You've recently shed light on some largely forgotten 70s crime-fiction. What is it about this often overlooked era that shines for you? Is there an undercurrent of particular style that decade boasts more than others?
I like the 1970s because it seems to me that it was the last decade that an American could get lost and stay lost in America, which is something that, as a childless single person who could take his work anywhere, was and still is tremendously appealing to me. People were harder to trace, and people were more trusting toward people who wanted to avoid being traced. You could get a job and an apartment with a handshake and a hatful of genial bullshit. You could be as aware or ignorant of the rest of the world as you wanted to be. That context, and the conflicts inherent in it, gives rise to what I find is the most satisfying crime fiction. Novels like Newton Thornburg’s CUTTER AND BONE and TO DIE IN CALIFORNIA, and Robert Stone’s DOG SOLDIERS, and films like THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, and the stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine — my dad gifted me a subscription when I was ten, which tells you what kind of weird-ass kid I was — went a long way toward helping me cross the bridge between my experience and a bigger understanding of the time.
It's safe to say that 2020 has been the most challenging year for this cross-generation of Americans. How do see the unprecedented, real-time atrocities we are witnessing affecting the future of crime-fiction?
I think many authors are dealing with the moment by turning back from it. More and more, authors seem to be picking past times in which to set their novels. And many of those that lean into this moment seem to do so by marrying contemporary cultural signposts to past story frameworks. Thus, the surge in stories that marry Agatha Christie or Patricia Highsmith plots and settings and themes to, say, social-media influencers. Or those that mine an author’s childhood for a Stranger Things-type sepia-toned nostalgia fix in the form of crime fiction.
Maybe it’s because I’m old and misanthropic, but who the hell wants to lean into 2020, now or even in decades to come? I’m probably the last person on the planet who wants to read a piece of pandemic fiction, now or ever. But I suspect I’ll have a lot of company in my corner among my contemporaries.
As the snarky voice behind the Twitter handle @CrimeFicTrope, is the focal point to keep writers honest and in touch with the field they've committed to, or is it pure comedic pressure release for you?
I started out hoping @CrimeFicTrope would be both, but I think the acid I’ve sprayed from that seat over the years has alienated virtually everyone who might benefit from a little dope-slap of applied self-awareness. And speaking of which, yes, I’m aware that I can be kind of an asshole sometimes. But I don’t kid myself and think I’m any kind of influencer, or that I have any credible profile in the crime-fiction community.
All I can say is that my acid splatter, however corrosive, comes from a good place: I love crime fiction, read it constantly, and simply want the genre to be the best it can be. Which to me means having the integrity to hew to an original artistic vision while trying to marry it to a commercial framework without losing sight of either in the process. If all you want to do is draft along the successes of others, and all but duplicate their plots, settings and specifics of style, then you’re equally shitty as an artist as a person — no matter how successful you are in doing so. And someone needs to call that out. I do so only because many in the crime-fiction community seem to find it more important to performatively tongue-bathe one another than tell necessary truths.
As a no-nonsense editor, what would be some frank advice for a young writer just starting out that might humble a delusion or two?
1. Be realistic. Very few books net a profit, and tying your expectations about editing to your dreams of commercial success is a sure-fire recipe for disillusionment. But it does happen, and I’ve had clients who have made cubic buttloads of money through a combination of skill, savvy and hustle, so by all means chase those dreams.
2. You need an editor, and by “editor,” I don’t mean your well-read relative or your retired English teacher. Editing a piece of narrative writing isn’t about knowing how to spell or how to diagram a sentence or how to enforce petrified pet peeves about split infinitives and the like. It’s about knowing what works and what doesn’t, and how to make everything work within the author’s voice, even if that voice uses sentence fragments, run-ons and dialectic language. It’s about knowing when to use exposition in narrative or in dialogue, how to begin and end a scene, how to stay consistently within a point-of-view, how to flag clichés, inconsistencies and implausibilities, how to maintain flow, and about a thousand other things that only professionals steeped in story craft as much as style and usage can navigate. I think I’m one of them; I’ve been making a living largely off referrals for the last several years.
3. Editing is a professional skill, and one that shouldn’t be compensated as if the editor were the night-shift cleanup guy at Burger King. Don’t waste our time by coming to me with your 130,000-word manuscript and your $500 budget for editing.
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