I feel extremely privileged that John Helfers, accomplished and experienced editor and author, finds time in his busy schedule to edit my novels. I mean, how cool is it for an indie author to get the chance to work with a Hugo-nominated editor who’s also edited or collaborated with the likes of Charlaine Harris, Mercedes Lackey, Margaret Weis, and many other science fiction and fantasy luminaries? In addition to his freelance work, John is also the novel editor for the Shadowrun game line, where I worked with him on my Borrowed Time novel.
To give you the opportunity to get to know John, I asked him a few questions recently.
RLK: Tell us a bit about yourself!
JH: I’m somewhere over 40, and have been writing and editing both fiction and nonfiction for almost half my life (which sounds weird enough to say, much less write down). I’ve always loved reading (and basically taught myself how at 3 years old), and am very lucky to be able to work in not just one, but two fields I love, writing and editing. I live with my very patient spouse and the recommended three cats (one for each of us, plus a spare) in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but we’re slowly inching toward moving to the Pacific Northwest…eventually. In my spare time, I enjoying traveling, visiting museums and Renaissance Fairs (in costume—for the fairs, not so much the museums!) and trying to whittle down my massive “to be read” pile of books and magazines.
RLK: I know you’re both an author and an editor – which one do you like best? Is it hard to take off your “author hat” when editing, and vice versa?
JH: That’s a hard one—I like the creativity and freedom of writing, but I also really like helping authors as an editor. The hats are pretty much interchangeable for me—when I’m editing, I usually don’t have the author hat on, as I think that’s a big mistake for editors to look at something they’re working on with an eye toward how they would have written it. I feel that an editor’s job is to help the author tell the best story they can.
When I’m writing, I often wear both hats at once, since I begin each session by going back and reviewing what I’d done the day before, so there’s that. My editorial voice is also ever-present in my writing, as I hate to waste time, and so I typically like things all laid out and making sense before I start writing—I am definitely not a seat-of-the-pants writer. J
RLK: What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on as an author? As an editor?
JH: As an author, I have two favorites. The first was being able to write four novels in the Deathlands post-apocalyptic series, until recently published by Gold Eagle. I’d grown up reading that series, and to be able to add to the mythos with my own stories about those characters was really special for me.
But the project I’m currently working on—my first truly original fiction novel in more that a decade—is what I’m really excited about at the moment. It’s an urban paranormal book written in first person—also my first novel-length work using that perspective—that’s part of a shared-world with two other authors. We’re working with Silence in the Library, and the project will be going to Kickstarter later this year.
As an editor, that’s easy: the Shadowrun novels I help produce for Catalyst Game Labs. While I’ve enjoyed working with all my clients on their various books, the SR novels hold a very special place in my heart, not just because I’ve always loved the game universe, but because of the dedication that both myself and Jason Hardy had in working to bring back full-length novels to the fans, as well as the dedication of the fans themselves.
RLK: What do you find most challenging about editing?
JH: Making sure I’ve caught everything that I want to work with the writer on to improve their story—and knowing that even if I have, some reader out there is probably going to disagree. I often say editing by its very nature is both subjective and objective—coming to each project with no preconceived notions means that I can approach each one objectively, but at the same time, my subjective opinion on an element of a book may run absolutely counter to the author’s intent, which they are therefore free to discard if my edit doesn’t do what they think it should for the story itself. It’s quite a balancing act I find myself walking sometimes.
RLK: You’re the editor of the Shadowrun novel line, a project near and dear to my heart. What is it about Shadowrun that appeals to you most?
JH: To me, Shadowrun is a glorious mash-up of everything I like about both SF and fantasy. Fantastical races? Check. High-powered magic? Check. Cybernetics that transform people into near-superheroes? Check. Gritty, dystopian setting? Check. Vast, nation-spanning conspiracies executed by monolithic corporations that exist off the backs of the general population? Check. It’s simply a whole lot of fun, and I think that’s proven by the fans that keep coming back to play and read about it.
RLK: What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you about your craft?
JH: The best advice I ever received was back when I was writing my first full novel, a Twilight Zone-tie in. The editor on that project was Karen Haber (spouse of Robert Silverberg, and a fine writer as well) who told me that each scene should reveal more about the character, the plot, or ideally both to the reader. That has been my primary rule (insofar as there are any real rules for writing) for every project I’ve done since, and it’s served me very well.
RLK: I see you’re involved in a Kickstarter for Champions of Aetaltis. Tell us a little bit about your involvement in that.
JH: I’m pleased to note that the anthology has been successfully funded (and thanks again to all who contributed or got the word out), which is simply awesome! Marc Tassin at Mechanical Muse is doing an amazing job on his Pathfinder-compatible Aetaltis world setting. I was brought in to edit the previous sourcebook The Heroes of Thornwall, which he had also funded by Kickstarter (and which is available in PDF as a “pay-what-you-wish” format on DriveThruRPG), so doing the all-new anthology that way made a lot of sense as well. Marc asked me to assist with editing Champions as well, and I had such a good time on Heroes, I couldn’t turn it down.
Marc’s also gathered some terrific authors to create new stories that will bring the world of Aetaltis to life, from New York Times-bestsellers like David Farwell, Larry Correia, Elaine Cunningham and Michael A. Stackpole to superb fantasy authors such as Ed Greenwood, Elizabeth Vaughan, Mel Odom, David Gross, Jean Rabe, and many others. There’s plenty of stretch goals we’d still like to reach, and more information can be found on it here.
RLK: I know you’re married to an author/editor. Do you two confer a lot on projects? Edit each other’s work? Commiserate about frustrating clients?
JH: That often depends on the project, but yes, my spouse (Kerrie L. Hughes) and I often confer across each other’s projects, both in writing and editing. I tend to edit more of her work than vice versa, but that’s primarily because my deadlines are often very tight (and I use every minute of them), and along with her writing, she’s also finishing graduate school, which eats up the rest of her time. As for our various clients, we treat every single one like the joy they are to work with. Anything beyond that, I’m pleading the Fifth. 🙂
RLK: If you wanted to offer one bit of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
JH: The only thing any aspiring author has to do to remove the “aspiring” from that title is sit down and write. I’m not going to say that it’s easy, or that it will shower you with fame or fortune, but you will never know what you can accomplish until you sit down and just start writing. And having done, that, keep going.
For anyone serious about writing, the best advice I can give is two things: first, to schedule it into your day, just like anything else, and then stick to that time you’ve carved out, no matter what. It’s far too easy to let the writing time slip in favor of anything/everything else (I’m guilty of this as well, in case anyone’s wondering), so treat writing as an essential part of your day, and that way you will approach it with the seriousness it deserves. This isn’t to say one can’t write as a hobby—there’s nothing wrong with that—but someone who wants to make a career out of writing needs to practice it pretty much every day.
Second, do not be afraid to fail. Approach your work with every intent of writing a great story, but don’t beat yourself up if you do not always succeed in your intent—it happens. Learn from your mistakes and move on to the next one.
RLK: Anything else you’d like to tell us? This is the “Make Up Your Own Question” question!