So what do editors want?
There isn’t any simple answer, because the things that take a book from the slush pile to publication are mostly ephemeral qualities. Most editors really only know what they want when they see it. And any attempts to narrow it down (“What I really want is a gothic vampire action adventure romance”) are more likely to lead to frustration than a book sale. It’s a lot like dating, actually.
You may think you want a certain type of guy. You look for Him. He’s handsome, medium build, blond, blue-eyed, works in finance, and has a great sense of humor and is forceful without being a jerk and sensitive without being a weeny and he never, ever forgets your birthday or your anniversary and always, always knows exactly what you want for Christmas. Also he’s great in bed and preferably is a great Trivial Pursuit player, but you’re a little flexible on this last quality because you can teach him. Trivial Pursuit, that is.
Looking for That Guy is going to leave you wildly frustrated. And what about all the other cool but not That Guy guys out there? You miss out on them.
It’s the same with publishing. If an editor is looking too hard for a certain type of book, she’ll be in danger of overlooking some other wonderful book, so she isn’t likely to look too hard for any certain type of book. And if you try too hard to write the exact book you think your targetted editor is looking for, you’re likely to miss out on what you do well.
And what is that? You have to figure it out by trial and error. You have to listen to feedback from critique partners and editors and contest judges, and you have to decide what feedback you agree with. You have to hone your gut sense about your work by getting it in front of any audience you can and then seeing their reaction. It can take years, but the years are going to pass anyway, so you might as well spend them doing something you love.
And you do love writing, don’t you? Because that’s the only reason to do it. If you love it as much as you love breathing (and by love, I don’t mean you actually enjoy sitting down at the computer every day–I mean that you can’t not write, because not writing would feel a little like death), and if you keep working at it, keep trying to get better, you’ll have the most important reward you can have as a writer.
No, I don’t mean getting published. Though that is a lovely reward. I mean, you’ll know you’ve done your best. And if you’ve done your best, and you’re writing books you love, chances are an editor will recognize it. And she’ll have to have you as her author.
The simple and complicated truth is, editors want great books. They want beautifully written books. They want books they can’t put down. And a beautifully written, can’t-put-downable book is inside you, waiting to get out onto the page. So what are you doing here? Go write it!