Category Archives: editing

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Pretentious much?

The thing is, writers can be inordinately pretentious and blissfully unaware of the fact.  Part of the whole living in your head while trying to describe the most banal processes using language that elevates them to art will do that to you, I guess.

I’m reading The Girls now and had just finished Sweetbitter before it.  I loved the latter and struggled with the former at first, before giving myself over to the strangely familiar creepiness of the story.  Both are debut novels by pretty young blonde women.   Both are firmly evocative of a particular time and place—California in the late ‘60s and New York City in the early oughts.  And, both showcase prose that is sometimes pretentious to the point of hilarity.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great writing in these books.  The authors are nothing if not exquisitely attentive to their craft.  It’s just that as I read, my eyes occasionally rolled back into the universal expression for “Girl, get over yourself!”

Anyway, this parody in The Millions of Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer’s e-mail exchange for T The New York Times Style Magazine in which the hyper-educated actress and Cormac McCarthy trade brilliant observations, cracked me up, precisely because it’s really not that farfetched.  Writers who are allowed to indulge their bombast without check (i.e., a strong editor with a finely sharpened red pencil) can very quickly veer into self-parody.

Personally, I don’t mind a little purple mixed in with the black ink, but it is one of the things that authors need to be vigilant about.  A momentary lapse is forgivable and even endearing, too many and you’re headed for the rejection pile.

Can you think of any fun examples of affected, self-important writing you’ve seen recently?

Cat Godard

5

Coco Chanel’s Guide to Sample Pages

If you follow us on our Facebook page (and you should!) you’ve already seen this post from the Penguin Random House blog about what editors want to see in a winning first page. I gave it a read and realized a lot of these things are what agents look for, too, when we’re reading the sample materials that come with queries. We talk about queries a lot on this blog, but your sample pages (we ask for the first 25 pages) are just as important. Even if you have a killer query with a great story concept and impressive writing credits, your writing itself still has to hook me! So I thought I’d talk in a little bit more detail about how to apply the PRH editors’ tips to your writing.

The first suggestion is A Powerful Opener, which is really about the rest of the tips all coming together – the Attention-Grabbing Characters you’ve dreamed up, the Well-Realized World they inhabit, conveyed through your Authentic Voice, which stems from your Unique Perspective.  Often new writers think a powerful opening means packing their most majestic, glorious prose chunk full of with their favorite four-syllable words into the opening lines of the book. And that’s a fair instinct! But overwriting can actually take away from your Authentic Voice. One well-chosen perfectly placed word can actually do more to convey emotion, place, or personality than three or four well-chosen words; one word doing the job on its own carries more of your Voice as a writer than if you gather two or three together to get your point across. Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one piece off,” and the same thing applies to adjectives in your sentences. Take one off!

Another key to a Powerful Opening is understanding where the story starts. I’ve mentioned before on Twitter my pet peeve about manuscripts that start with the character waking up in the morning, or start with the narrator telling me how they thought it was going to be just another ordinary day. Figure out where the stakes of your story appear – your Attention-Grabbing Character’s first conflict or obstacle or unexpected event – and then back up just far enough to show me who the character is and what their world is like.

Is your story about a poisoning at a cocktail party? Don’t begin with your hero making breakfast that morning, or skip to the moment when the victim clutches their throat. Open when your main character gets to the party and sees their frenemy or love interest standing by the chips and salsa. Open with your protagonist running into their love interest at the wine store on the way to the party and inviting them along. Open with your narrator getting lost in the host’s apartment complex and reacting with the rage, despair, or sense of adventure that is key to their personality. These are all ways to show what kind of place they live, what their friends are like, how much money they make or whether they know a lot about wine, all of which are more important to how the story unfolds than describing to me what they look like while they get dressed in the morning. You want me to get invested in your characters – Attention-Grabbing Characters! – as quickly as possible, and I do that more quickly by seeing their lives in action.

I hope this has been a little bit helpful in taking the tips on a great opening page and applying it to your writing. I look forward to seeing your strong queries and irresistible sample pages in my inbox soon! And let me know in the comments what your favorite tip is for starting your manuscript off strong, or if you’ve learned anything else about writing from Coco Chanel.

 

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The Creative Juices

 

A couple of posts ago I wrote about different authors’ processes; what works for some, but not for others. This intriguing interview with Patrick Ryan that recently appeared on the Electric Literature  blog  gives another perspective.

The advice writers most often hear is that they should ideally be the vessel through which their work passes. In her invaluable 1934 book BECOMING A WRITER, Dorothea Brande described the “creative coma” that we now refer to as being “in the zone”:  when the writing is flowing freely, with no self-editing angel looking over your shoulder. It’s AFTER that time that writers should go back over their work with a full editorial eye.  That makes a lot of sense, IF you have the ability to write that way. Not all authors do.

About the writing of his short story “The Way She Handles,” part of his new collection THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS, Patrick Ryan says:

 

The end of “The Way She Handles,” that wasn’t planned. I decided to pull back in order to look at the narrator’s life from a later vantage, and it was thrilling. It was like running on a decline — you realize that the decline is giving you a momentum, and that you’re not entirely in control anymore. I’d never had that experience before. Normally, I’m so controlling. I write so slowly. I rewrite constantly while I write. That’s not a brag — it’s a problem. I write ten words, I take five back. Nearly every writer I know says the point of a first draft is to knock it out, but I can’t. I write a paragraph, and I can’t write the second paragraph until I feel like the first one is in okay shape. It’s not a great way to work. If I have a rare, three-hour session, say, and I write three pages? That’s Olympic. So this was a rare instance where the whole last part of the story came to me in a rush. I looked back on it and thought, how did I get so lucky?

 

By the time he finished the story, he realized, in fact, that the entire emphasis of it had shifted to another character, and it had found its true heart.

 

I’ve always admired writers who are able to focus their creative forces, and to bring their inner editor back only when necessary. Often, it’s much easier said than done. If you’re a writer, please feel free to chime in and let me know if you’re one of those lucky ones who can make this system work.

1

That special something

Authors often lament—quite reasonably—that many of the rejections they receive are not specific. “I liked it but I didn’t love it,” the letters say, and offer no more feedback on why. And some of that is because there is only so much time in a day, so agents can’t offer feedback to all the projects they turn down and still actually have time to fulfill the obligations to the clients they’ve signed on. But it’s also true that sometimes that is simply the answer. The main characters seem well rounded enough, the premise compelling enough, the plot well-paced enough, the voice strong enough, the writing well composed enough. You read the book and you can imagine it being published by someone, but…you simply cannot say it’s a book that you love. You don’t have a vision for it. You don’t know what the spark is that’s missing, only that it’s missing. You don’t begrudge that book publication certainly, but you also don’t have the enthusiasm for it to tell other people they must read it, or to edit it, or to champion it in a million ways for years to come.  Even those of us who don’t read books for a living can probably think of books they felt this way about—the book was fine, you suppose, but also you didn’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone.

But the flip side of this is when an author turns in a revised manuscript, and it’s like they’ve flipped a switch. Maybe it’s one big edit, maybe it’s a million tiny edits, but that perfect, beautiful book that you thought you saw hiding inside the previous draft is right there, shiny and on display. It’s not magic, it’s the result of hard and often tedious and sometimes quite exhausting work, but that special extra spark changes everything. And as an agent, you feel a degree of excitement that it’s hard to properly convey—because now you get to go out and champion this perfect, beautiful thing in a million ways for years to come.

Fortunately for us all, whether or not a person sees that spark is completely subjective. That manuscript an agent passed on because they just weren’t head over heels? Someone else is telling every single person they speak to how much they adore it.

8

The Second Time Around

 

It’s no surprise that a particular author interview last week made the front page of the New York Times’s Arts section.

 

Karen Hall’s debut novel Dark Debts was published by Random House twenty years ago and was an instant hit, with big sales, rave reviews, and a Paramount film deal. Since then, Hall has never written another book; instead, she obsessed over what was wrong with Dark Debts and how she could make it better. You usually only get one crack at a novel once it’s been published, but it turned out that her editor Jonathan Karp harbored the same misgivings. In the meantime, he became publisher of Simon and Schuster, and offered Hall a chance for a twentieth anniversary re-issue of the book, in a newly revised version. Both Hall and Karp are now happy with the end result, which was published on Tuesday of last week.

 

The revisions were extensive. Hall has made changes throughout the book, including a new ending, the excision of a major character, and the addition of a new one. Whether fans of the original will go for these changes remains to be seen, but it’s unusual that a novelist is given this kind of second chance.

 

It all reminds me a bit of Steven Spielberg. Everybody loved his classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it was released in 1977, and nobody seemed to feel the need to enter the spaceship with Richard Dreyfuss at the end. But the management of Columbia Pictures did, and two years later, Spielberg was persuaded to shoot an additional scene showing what happened to Dreyfuss after he stepped into the ship. The reaction from audiences was a collective shrug. Few felt the film had been enhanced or improved. And it didn’t help that Richard Dreyfuss was two years older and looked it. Spielberg himself was unhappy with the addition, and had it removed for subsequent home-video releases.

 

It will be interesting to see whether critics and fans take to the new Dark Debts or consider it a misfire. I’d love to hear from you as to whether you think authors should periodically revise their work as Hall did–or whether they should let each book stand as a record of its time and of the point in life when the author wrote it. My own opinion, without having yet read the revised version? Sometimes you need to just leave something alone and move on to the next project. As important and lengthy as the writing–and re-writing–process can be, there is a point where you finally have to put down the hammer and tongs. Otherwise, by that time, the best you can get out of it may turn out to be the worst.

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The New Year’s purge

 

It’s a new year, and in the Rudolph house that means it’s time to get rid of clutter. I think we do a January cleaning, rather than Spring or Fall Cleaning, because we’ve just come back from the holidays in Maine crammed into a car that’s inevitably jam-packed with oversized kids’ presents and new clothes from the Freeport outlets, and all we want to do is find room for the new stuff in our too-small New York apartment–the only solution for which is to purge the old stuff. 

So, for the past two weeks, we’ve been clearing out every closet, cabinet, and bookcase, bagging clothes for Goodwill, bringing books to schools, and scrubbing down the general grunge in the kitchen. I can’t really say it’s been fun, particularly getting rid of the old clothes that I know I’ll never wear but liked to see in my closet just because… But the results are worth it–it’s nice to be able to actually see the back of my closet for a change, and not have a 3-foot pile of books on my desk, either. 
 
And coincidentally or not, recently I feel like I’ve been asking a bunch of my authors to do a lot of purging in their manuscripts as well. I know I’ve used the phrase “kill your darlings” at least three times in recent weeks, and I’ve had conversations with writers about getting out of the corners they’ve written themselves into. Now, darling killing and getting out of corners are always necessary, no matter what time of year. But I wonder–do writers have seasons or preferred times of the year when they feel more inclined to trim the fat and solve lingering problems? 
 
Well… do you? 

 

1

Out of Time

I’m in the midst of editing a novel that needs to be cut down by a third and I confess, wiping out broad swaths of thoughtful, beautifully composed prose is not easy, even for someone who believes in a stringent edits the way some folks believe in juice cleanses, never going to sleep angry, or a morning constitutional. So I found John McPhee’s piece on Writing By Omission
especially helpful. In truth, most everything McPhee writes about writing is instructive, smart, subtle and so well built as to have no seams showing. A piece that at first seems meandering and conversational is invariably a feat of engineering (for more on this see McPhee on structure.)

How do you decide what to cut? In her recent post, Erin cited Hemingway’s counsel to “write drunk and edit sober.” Does that method work for you? When charged with transforming your shaggy dog sort of tale into a sleek greyhound, do you agonize, rail, sulk or simply get down to the business of shearing? I’m a bit of a railer—after all, I LIKE long books, I’m a devotee of the doorstop. In my own weird universe, a dense book means a longer stay in the world of the story. And who wouldn’t welcome an extra week’s vacation?

Of course, the industry in which I work rarely shares my view, and I’d be a poor sort of agent not to communicate this to my clients. Most any book above 150K words is a non-starter, especially for first time authors; why? First, there’s the high production costs of a printing, shipping and storing a brick of a book, but it’s also true that people are understandably parsimonious with their time. Publishers are afraid that long novels are off-putting. Maybe that’s true. There are certainly plenty of other contenders for our leisure–social media, online games, clever, much-talked-about TV. But that the otherwise smart site Medium.com actually estimates how much time it will take its readers to complete a piece actually offends me. The delight of reading is that it is atemporal. That the words—whether on a page or screen or read by an actor from an audiobook–vanish and with them, any sense of regular time passing.
I can read on a page or a screen with equal ease, but cutting is a task that is best done on paper, and not electronically. There is something bloodthirstily satisfying about a diagonal slash through a page that the Kindle highlight function cannot match. How do you, as F. Scott Fitz may or may not have said, kill your darlings?

2

Comma sense

Many of you may have seen this last week, when it was all over social media:

 
Rachel Ray

 

I think I’ll stay away from Rachel’s meat loaf.

Call it the tyranny of the comma if you like, but that tiny punctuation mark exists for a very good reason, as demonstrated here.  Even among fine writers, it has become neglected of late, and that is a shame, because it clearly carries great power. Lynne Truss’s EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES is an entire book dedicated to the science of punctuation, and to the demons it can unleash when improperly used.

I recently read a Middle Grade manuscript that was truly impressive—good writing, a terrific plot, suspenseful storytelling. The trouble was, it took me twice as long to read as it should have, because the author had no conception of how to use commas. That meant that I had to go back and read nearly every sentence twice in order to grasp  its correct meaning. As an agent, I cannot present a manuscript to an acquiring editor if it’s in that state. I did take the author on as a client, because the book was superb–but I had to insist that the manuscript be professionally proofread and line-edited first, with an eye specifically on punctuation.

If you know or suspect that you’ve got problems with punctuation, have the final version of your manuscript thoroughly proofread and corrected before you show it to any industry professional. Some of us may give up after only a page or two when a manuscript is riddled with this problem. We may even give up after reading just the query letter. I have to be a real schoolmarm about this issue, because commas are as important to a strong sentence as words are. They are the pins that keep it firmly anchored on the clothesline. You don’t want it slipping off and falling into the mud. 

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The acceptability clause

There are many clauses in publishing contracts that can be confusing to a first time author and that need clarification.  Most of these can be negotiated by the agent (on the author’s behalf) and the publisher.

The one clause, though, that can be truly disturbing is the “acceptability clause” because it states  that the sole decision as to whether a manuscript is acceptable or not is the publisher’s.

Usually we are able to get an addition to the clause that says that if the publisher finds the manuscript unacceptable, it must provide the reasons in writing and give the author the opportunity to make the requested changes.

Most of the time (I estimate over 95%), the publisher and the author work out their differences and the book is published. There are occasions, however, when publishers arbitrarily decide, for whatever reason, that they no longer want to publish the book they have contracted for and they reject the delivered manuscript and demand that the author return the advance already received.  In that case, if the author refuses to return the money, the publisher will not release the author from his or her contract, thus preventing a future sale of that project.

Sadly when this happens, the only recourse an author has is to seek legal counsel, which is expensive and which does not  guarantee that the author will win.  Still, the publisher generally doesn’t want the bad PR a lawsuit would bring and so an author taking this route—in an extreme situation—might, in fact, either get his or her rights back or the publisher might decide to publish the book after all.

The bottom line here is that the acceptability clause is an important one and should be taken very seriously by everyone.  Authors are required to deliver their manuscripts on a certain date.  If an extension on the delivery date is necessary, authors should notify the publisher that they will be late, why they will be late and, on occasion, show progress on the work they are doing. Extensions are usually granted unless there is a timeliness factor due to the subject matter of the book.

Looking around for a comprehensive  piece on the acceptability clause, I found this from my agent colleague Richard Curtis’ blog.  It covers the subject very well and it’s worth reading, especially by first time authors.

Writing strong characters

Many years ago, I was working with my very talented client, A.J. Hartley, and he sent me pages for a new thriller with a female protagonist, the first female protagonist he’d ever attempted. I read the opening section and tried to be diplomatic in my feedback, but I basically told him that the lead character was not likeable or sympathetic enough and that she came across as very defensive. He took the criticism graciously, went back to the drawing board, and delivered a revision that nailed the character so well that when the book was later published, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about her: “Hartley has created an enduring heroine in Deborah, who’s courageous, loyal and smart enough to learn from her mistakes.” He has since gone on to write many wonderful books with both male and female protagonists, but that first one paved the way. See first edition cover image below.

I recently came upon a piece on Tor.com’s blog about strong female characters that I wanted to share. The author, a writer named Ilana C. Myer, brings up an important point about writing characters in general, regardless of gender. What is most important is that they have empathy. Focus less on whether they are a man or a woman and more on the character’s feelings, their pasts, their sense of humor and a fully realized character will emerge.

What are your tips for writing strong characters? Any pitfalls you try to avoid? The stereotypes are easier to fall back on, but when you get past that and create really memorable, enduring protagonists, gender can be the least important factor of all.