Interview: Naomi Kim Eagleson
We met Naomi Kim Eagleson and learned about The Artful Editor in Portland at AWP in 2019, then paired with The Artful Editor to provide a full manuscript critique to the first-place winner of the 2019 CRAFT First Chapters Contest. This winter we got the chance to talk with Naomi over email and learn more about what happens behind the scenes at an editorial agency, how she balances her writing and editorial lives, and more. —CRAFT
CRAFT: What was your motivation to open The Artful Editor in 2010? Did you specifically see a need to be filled, or were you pursuing your passion, or was it something in between or completely different?
Naomi Kim Eagleson: I started The Artful Editor out of chance and necessity. It was the summer of 2009, and I had just moved to Los Angeles, where I was soon recruited to edit for a biotech company. However, editing drug warning labels, despite the rather entertaining lists of side effects, was hellishly dull. It didn’t take long before I was fired and forced to consider other options: an editorial position at a publisher (if I was lucky enough to get hired during a recession) or teaching, which is what I did before moving to LA. At the time, I was facilitating a writers’ group in Santa Monica and one of the members who worked as a freelance editor suggested I try freelance editing. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could work with authors directly and actually make enough to pay the bills. I was thrilled by the idea! And within a week The Artful Editor was born. I had a website up, and after a few days I had my first client, a fiction writer. Later, I started editing for several publishers, including Getty Publications. By 2013, I grew The Artful Editor into a small agency with three editors and have since expanded it with a team of over twenty. The editors live in different parts of the country, with one in Canada and another in Australia.
C: Your undergrad education was in Hawai‘i and your MFA is from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It’s hard to imagine two places in North America less similar. How has island life, Midwestern life, and your specific educational experiences informed your work?
NKE: When you say work, I assume you mean my editing work. I really have two forms of work: my editing business and my personal writing. They are interwoven, as you can imagine, because writing involves rewriting. Rewriting is a form of editing, essentially.
I had a wonderful undergraduate experience at the University of Hawai‘i, where I took courses in creative writing and literature. At the time, the poets Faye Kicknosway, Juliana Spahr, and Susan Schultz (who later became my publisher) were teaching there, and they each mentored and supported me as a young writer. It was Faye Kicknosway (who later changed her name to Morgan Blair) who really pushed me and set the bar high for good writing. I still remember when she gave me back one of my poems, she had crossed out every line but one, and next to it she had written, “These are the only words that have a heartbeat.” She was constantly pushing me to go deeper with my writing, to take an idea or feeling as far as it could go.
At the same time, I was fortunate to get a job as an editorial assistant at MANOA, an international literary journal that publishes fiction, poetry, and essays from the Asia-Pacific region, most of them translations. Through working with the editors Frank Stewart and Pat Matsueda, I learned the craft of editing and was introduced to an exciting international community of writers. Even when I was attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I found myself gravitating toward the visiting international authors, with whom I felt more at home.
Island life has had a profound effect on my writing—the lush, tropical landscape; the diverse populations; the local Hawaiian culture, which is under constant threat of disappearing; my childhood memories of my father—a Vietnam vet who struggled with PTSD and alcoholism; and growing up hapa (half white) with a single Korean mother who worked three jobs to support her children. I’ve written and published some short pieces about Hawai‘i, which I plan to expand into a book next year.
C: How do you balance your work with The Artful Editor with your own writing practices?
NKE: It’s a struggle. Running a business can be all-consuming. There was a time when I considered university teaching, but I love the independence of self-employment and the ability to work from home and set my own hours.
Every writer who works for a living has to find the balance. The writing life can be delicate and easily crushed by the business life. My goal for 2020 is working less and delegating more, carving out time in the morning and evening to write, taking short sabbaticals and retreats (in fact, I just returned from a weeklong writers’ retreat on Whidbey Island, in Washington), and keeping in touch with friends who are actively writing and publishing. I rent a small, separate studio, where I run my business and write. This keeps both practices out of my home life, which I share with my husband. I prefer to write alone, with my drafts and research spread out on a large table. There are no distractions.
C: What’s your editorial philosophy? How do you approach material?
NKE: I believe that everyone can become a better writer, and working with an editor (or a teacher, mentor, or fellow writer) is an indispensable part of that process. Writers often get too close to their writing and can lose sight of the problems that hinder their work’s success. An editor is a sensitive reader who will read your work and provide you with an objective and intelligent review, unclouded by personal attachments and delivered in a thoughtful, caring manner. The editor’s goal is to help you write the best book you can in this moment.
C: What does a typical day look like for you? How collaborative is your work?
NKE: In the morning I’ll brew coffee and read some articles on Medium, Lit Hub, and The New York Times or browse the threads of some online groups for editors and writers, where people are discussing where to place commas in a sentence or sharing their latest book deal. Then I’ll go down to my studio and write for a couple of hours. Writing might mean jotting down ideas or revising a chapter or sketching a new scene.
Once that’s done, I’ll shift to business mode and check my inbox and any messages from my editorial manager, Jackson Palmer (author of The Meek), who I’ve hired to help manage projects and communicate with the team. When a job is complete, I’ll review the work, maybe ask the assigned editor some questions, then deliver the edited manuscript to the client (who might be an author, publisher, or business). If a new client wants to work with us, I’ll determine the editing service their manuscript needs (a critique, developmental edit, or copyedit) and pair them with an editor, then send out a contract and place their project into our queue. Once or twice a month Jackson and I will discuss the next newsletter or blog post, which we try to put out once a month.
If I have some spare time during the day, I’ll meet a friend or colleague for lunch, or read a book. I’ll watch a webinar or listen to a podcast on writing or running a business. Occasionally I’ll do an event, such as talk at a local writers’ group or speak on a panel at a writers’ conference.
When you work in the publishing field, there’s an endless array of things to do, read, learn, and attend. It’s not a boring business. The hard part is prioritizing time for your own writing.
C: How have you built the team at The Artful Editor? Is there set criteria for each of your editors to meet in order to earn a position with you?
NKE: Some editors came across my website and contacted me; others approached my table at the AWP Conference & Bookfair and left their card. Sometimes I would post an ad on the Editorial Freelancers Association website, but that often results in a flood of applicants—too many for me to sift through! Nowadays, I hire editors who have been referred to me by a trusted colleague or are in networks I’m already a part of. As for set criteria, an editor needs to demonstrate at least five years of professional editing experience, including a list of published titles they’ve edited; a high degree of professionalism; and a passion for the work. Copyeditors and proofreaders are given a test. Developmental editors are asked to share samples of critiques and developmental editing they’ve done in the past. If they’re an author themselves, that helps.
C: What are your favorite types of projects to work on?
NKE: I enjoy working on literary fiction (including contemporary realism and speculative fiction), international fiction, creative nonfiction, and YA. These are the kinds of books I know very well.
C: Can you tell us, in broad strokes, about a particularly challenging project? How about a passion project that just hooked you?
NKE: The success of an editor-author relationship usually rests on the ability of the author to absorb the editor’s feedback and revise their work. The most challenging projects I’ve had were ones where the author didn’t know how to implement my editorial advice and quickly gave up during the revision phase. For some, writing the first draft is easy; it’s the revision round that stumps them. Taking a break from the work or hiring a book coach can help. But not every piece of writing is meant to see the light of day. In such cases, the best solution is to move on to a new project.
A passion project I had was a memoir titled, A Recipe for Hope. Jeffery Weaver came to me several years ago with a manuscript he had written about how he helped his wife fight Stage 4 breast cancer, and the enormous amount of time and research that went into creating his delicious cancer-fighting recipes. After Jeff published the memoir and a companion cookbook, he was invited to speak at schools and interviewed on podcasts. People from all over the world bought copies of his book. Working with Jeff and his wife was a joyful process, and I will always look back on this project with fondness.
C: What kinds of trends, both positive and ominous, do you see in the contemporary literary and publishing spheres?
NKE: The positive trend today, of course, is the ability for nearly anyone to write a book and have it available for the world to read, with a click. This is what technology has given us. Very low barriers to entry. Some authors have embraced independent publishing wholeheartedly. They write consistently, publish frequently, and market effectively, and have subsequently been able to earn enough income to quit their day jobs and become full-time writers.
But I see a lot of writers who opt to self-publish struggle to get their book noticed. They launch, sometimes before their book is ready. An indie author is essentially a publisher, and many of them don’t know how to treat their venture as a business, including hiring good editors, nor do they have the necessary funds or know-how to launch properly.
Another positive trend I see is a move toward diversifying the publishing field and producing more diverse books. Language, including pronouns, is also being updated, which is exciting to see. To stay informed of the latest changes to language, I recommend checking out Karen Yin’s Conscious Style Guide.
C: What are you reading and writing right now? Do you find that reading and writing make you a better editor, and how?
NKE: I’m reading Monument by Natasha Tretheway, Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, A Warning by Anonymous (it reads like a dystopic, horror novel), and The Risk of Us by Rachel Howard; Rachel is one of the editors on The Artful Editor team and recently published her first novel. As for craft books, I’m reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. It’s full of fantastic beat sheets!
Right now, I’m writing a novel about a lonely woman who uses a cuddling service. And when I need a break, I’ll work on a short story or a lyric essay.
Definitely, reading and writing make me a better editor. Reading reminds me of why I love words so much and why books matter. And writing reminds me of how hard it is to write (and what my authors are going through), and yet how deeply satisfying it is when the writing is going well.
As an editor, I try to stay up to date with changing literary trends by reading blogs on the publishing industry, and books on the craft of writing, so I can share what I’ve learned with my authors.
C: You’ve worked in literary magazine and book publishing. What advice do you have for the writer who may be coming from outside the academy and trying to gain those first publication credits? Does your advice change for a writer with more credits or more degrees?
NKE: Part of my job at the literary journal was to review submissions and forward the best submissions to the chief and managing editors. The ones I did not forward (put in the slush pile) usually made one or more of the following mistakes: they wrote an overly long cover letter; their work was not a good fit, either thematically or stylistically, or both; it seemed obvious that they hadn’t read any past issues of the journal or done their research; their submission material was rife with errors.
My advice to writers is to do some research about the publication (or agent), personalize your letter a bit, and keep your letter simple and on point. If you have to include a description of your submission, write it like book jacket copy. And if you have some publishing credits and degrees, mention them if they are relevant to the kind of writing you are submitting. For example, if you’re submitting a science fiction story and have published a book on artificial intelligence, then mentioning that publication credit would be relevant.
C: Is there anything we missed that you wish the world knew about The Artful Editor or about you?
NKE: The people behind The Artful Editor are wonderful people who care about good writing and helping writers improve their books and get to the next step in their publishing journey. I want people who work with us to come away feeling like they got what they needed plus grew as a writer. Most of the editors on the team are also writers; we’re part of the same word-loving community as you are. We understand that writing is a solitary endeavor, oftentimes lonely, and often very difficult. But writers don’t have to go at it alone. Not everyone has the opportunity to take two years off and attend an MFA program, or has access to a good critique group willing to read your manuscript and provide constructive feedback. The Artful Editor exists to fill that void and help writers get the devoted attention, feedback, and guidance they need to finish their books and send them out into the world.
NAOMI KIM EAGLESON is a writer and book editor in Los Angeles. She is the author of Radiant Field published by Tinfish Press. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA in English from the University of Hawai‘i. She owns and directs The Artful Editor, an editorial agency that provides developmental editing, copyediting, and coaching services to writers. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Words without Borders, Asian Review of Books, and MANOA, and in the anthology Ms. Aligned: Women Writing About Men. You can find her at artfuleditor.com and naomikimeagleson.com.