As often stated in various published bios, my first post-college writing job was working for a Chinese newspaper. Now, if you're looking at my photo, you may be thinking "She doesn't look Chinese." (You're right!)
However, the very understanding editor of the Seattle Chinese Post thought if I was crazy enough to apply for the job, she was crazy enough to hire her first non-Asian employee. My job was writing for the four-page English language insert that went into a larger, Chinese-language newspaper. And my particlar "beat" was going out and interviewing various members of the community for a column called "Who's Who in Chinatown."
I learned a lot during the six months that I worked there, including various ways to answer my interviewees when they invariably said to me, "You know, you don't look Chinese." But the most important thing that I learned was from my editor, which was "If you ask, your editor will tell what she wants."
My first couple of "Who's Who" columns didn't go over too well. My editor kept handing them back and asking for rewrites. Finally, I did ask what she wanted. The formula for a good article (for her) was (1) Tell which part of China the person or their parents came from; (2) Tell which dialect of Chinese they spoke; and (3) Tell how this heritage led to a successful career.
After that, I was always able to write a "Who's Who" that made her happy. And every column was wildly different, which made me happy, because I didn't want to write the same thing over and over again. But I found asking those three questions solicited very different responses from the interviewees, just as the people that I interviewed were wildly different, ranging from a pharmacist to a FBI agent to the owner of a frozen food factory.
I came across those clippings the other day. None of the articles read the same, but, if you know what you're looking for, you can find the answers to question 1, 2, and 3 in each story.
Every now and then, I see that editor. She's become a very successful publisher whose newspapers serve a diverse Asian community. She still compliments me on my writing (which is kind, because it's been a very long time since I've done anything for her). And I always tell her that she was a terrific first editor to work for. Because she taught me to ask what an editor wants and then think very hard about how I can make my writing fit that request while still staying true to the story that I wanted to tell.
And, since then, I've always felt it was OK to ask "what do you want?" Not all editors can give you three specific questions, but most can give you a hint. For example, I did a round of spectacular rejections from Wizards of the Coast. After approving a writing sample, they asked me to send ideas for novels for the Forgotten Realms series. And every idea came back with "Sorry, don't like this outline. Do like your writing. Try again."
Finally, I said, "What do you want to see in an outline?" (Note I didn't say "what don't you like about this?"). And the editor kindly wrote back and said that he wanted a very clear synopsis that showed who the main character was, what the major obstacle was for the main character, and how the main character would overcome that obstacle. Three very simple points that he wanted addressed and (he added) not much else. For example, he said that he didn't need to know all the names of all the other characters or any of the subplots. That explanation could come later.
So, the next synopsis that I wrote just named one character, said what the major plot obstacle was for that character, and how that character would overcome it. There's a touch more description in it than that, but it all fit on one page. And the only character who had a name in this synopsis was Ivy, the leader of a scruffy band of mercenaries.
You can read about Ivy's adventures and how she solves her problems in Crypt of the Moaning Diamond. Because that was, of course, the book idea that I sold.