“It’s in the Twists and Turns of the Plot That the Magic Lies”: Editing Crime Fiction with Louise Harnby

Interview conducted by Jennifer D. Foster and Alicja Minda.

Louise Harnby is a professional fiction editor with 30 years’ publishing experience who specializes in working with independent crime, thriller, and mystery writers. Based in Norwich, UK, she is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

She is also one of the voices behind The Editing Podcast, an insightful show covering editing from every possible angle, which she co-hosts with Denise Cowle. The BoldFace review of The Editing Podcast can be found here.

Why did you choose to specialize in editing crime, mystery, suspense, and thriller writers? How did you get into this niche?

Those genres—more than any others—are what I love to read for pleasure, and I enjoy being paid to do what I love! I chose the niche purposefully because of this, and I’ve made sure my marketing and brand strategies mirror that intent. I shout my specialism from the rooftop, which means good-fit authors can find me and know they’re in the right place.

What’s distinctive about editing crime, mystery, suspense, and thriller books?

Transgression is the foundation of the narrative, but it’s in the twists and turns of the plot that the magic lies! And at sentence level, a good editor needs to help the author produce a taut narrative and riveting dialogue that compels the reader to ask: Who? What? How? Why?

What’s your advice for beginning editors interested in those genres?

First, read it. As with any subject or genre, that’s one of the best ways to explore why a sentence, paragraph, or scene captures your attention and holds it.

Second, editors wanting to specialize in crime, mystery, suspense, and thrillers for the indie market will need a more nuanced understanding of line craft beyond what they might have learned via general technical copy editing training.

In my experience, beginner and emerging indie authors can be prone to:

  • overwriting, which can damage pace and mood;
  • over-revealing, which can knock out suspense;
  • and under-planning, which can make a plot dull or implausible.

For that reason, I recommend complementing your reading by studying the craft of fiction editing—at line and story level. That way you’ll understand concepts such as narrative viewpoint, register, psychic distance, showing versus telling, and the foundations of strong dialogue.

Third, make it clear on your website and other visible spaces that this is one of your specialisms. You’re more likely to get asked to quote for a project if you’re evidencing a specific interest in it.

Fourth, show rather than tell your genre interest. Anyone can set themselves up as an editor, so proving to potential clients that we really know our stuff is tricky. However, by creating niche written and/or audiovisual resources that demonstrate our knowledge, we bridge the trust gap and attract great-fit clients. It takes time and commitment to do that, I’ll admit, but every piece of solution-based content we create can be used in perpetuity.

Can you describe an especially memorable project you’ve worked on?

I’ll tell you about my experience of editing a short story in April 2022 because it knocked my socks off! The plotting was exquisite and the characterization compelling, but the tense and viewpoint choices were confusing, and the prose was cluttered by swathes of italic text that were problematic in terms of accessibility. I suggested changing the entire story to a (roman) first-person present-tense base narrative that would allow a seamless transition between the protagonist’s immediate actions and past recollections. It was an invasive approach, but the author went with it. That he chose to trust me so completely was fantastic. Best of all, we both agree his story really pops now!

Who is your favourite crime/mystery/suspense/thriller author and why? Is there someone whose work you’d love to edit?

Probably Harlan Coben, whose books I will preorder without even reading the blurb! His characterization is top-notch, his pacing is excellent, and—most important—his plot twists always deliver. And he makes every single word count—his books are a fluff-free zone! Line editing for him would be a dream!

What are your top three tips for being a successful freelance editor/proofreader?

  • Make time for business promotion even when the cupboard is full. Being self-employed means never assuming that today’s client will be tomorrow’s client, even if you’ve been working together for years.
  • Talk like a specialist even if you’re a generalist in reality. Potential clients don’t search for editors who can edit anything. They often have a subject or genre in mind, and so using the language of specialism helps you get noticed.
  • Have an open, global, and inclusive mindset that can override prescriptivism. Language preferences are never static, so some of the queries I’m raising now weren’t on my radar even two years ago.

Have you ever thought of writing your own crime novel? If so, what might it be about?

A few years ago, I was contacted by The Blair Partnership, a literary agency based in London. One of their agents had read my short stories after I’d been shortlisted for a few competitions, and they wanted to know if I had a novel in me. It was flattering, and I flirted with the idea, but I realized my heart just wasn’t in it. While I adore editing other people’s thrillers, I’m far more productive when I’m crafting business guidance. Creating my courses and books continues to bring me a huge amount of joy, and it generates an income for me that a novel likely wouldn’t have.

If you could choose any other career, what would it be and why?

I’d like to be a digital forensics agent…all the drama without any of the dangerous fieldwork. Not that I have ANY of the skills!

Jennifer D. Foster (she/her) is a Toronto-based freelance editor, writer, and mentor, and owner of Planet Word.

Alicja Minda is a Toronto-based editor with a background in media. She is the editor-in-chief of BoldFace.

This article was copy edited by Emily Faubert (she/they).

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