Category Archives: editing


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.


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.


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? 



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 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?


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. 


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’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.


Tips from writers, for writers

Stephen King’s  short story, “A Death,” was this week’s fiction in the New Yorker, so naturally I started thinking about how I still have to get around to reading 11/22/63 and ON WRITING. Then I started thinking about how a lot of writers seem to enjoy giving advice about writing. But is any of it any good? The answer is yes: Yes, writing tips from established writers can be very, very good.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve come across:

99% of great writers will tell you that their first drafts are rambling, incoherent pieces of s!@*. The other 1% are lying. (Full disclosure: I haven’t finished crunching all the numbers yet, so I’m ballparking here.) Editing and rewriting are such vital components to crafting a story, but first you need to put your ideas down on paper. You can’t shape what’s not there. If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, do so. Now. It will revolutionize your writing process.

John McPhee’s “The Writing Life” column in the New Yorker is a goldmine of wisdom. His tips on how to develop the structure of a story are particularly helpful. Few writers place such importance on structure as McPhee. Few writers have also had as prolific a career.

You ever hear of this guy Ernest Hemingway? I hear he’s good. He was also a proponent of simple, direct prose. Cut out all ornamentation. If a word isn’t necessary, lose it. He also said that writers should never describe an emotion—they should present the situation/action in a way that evokes the emotion in readers. This is  difficult to perfect, but it’s something all writers should strive to do.

What are your favorite tips from writers? Let us know in the comments.


Look it up!

Remember that corny cliché about every book ever written being found within the pages of a dictionary?  I’ve always gotten such a kick out of that because I love dictionaries.  I love the tiny print,  the sometimes incomprehensible pronunciation guide for each word, the prefatory material that tells you how to use the book, the illustrations that accompany some of the entries (why is Sally Ride pictured but not Richelieu?), the fact that you go in to look something up for an editorial memo you’re crafting only to get distracted by a bunch of beguiling words (xylem, yurt) that you will be desperate to use in your next heated match of Words With Friends.Dictionary

As with other books, I love old print dictionaries—at last count I  had about a dozen at home, elegantly bound ones and dog-eared paperbacks; Spanish, Russian, French and German as well as English—but I also adore the convenience of my app.  How excellent to have the ability to look up a word whenever and wherever you hear it, thereby appearing to be more   sesquipedalian than you really are (see what I did there?).

This ease of access, unfortunately, has made me more intolerant of authors who routinely use the wrong word in their work and other communications.  I mean, how hard is it to look it up if you’re not 100% sure whether you loath something  or loathe it?  (BTW, I always have to look those two up myself.)

The democratization of the dictionary in this age of supreme access is a great thing, in my opinion.  But, that means that there’s no excuse for lazy usage, at least not in your writing.  Just look it up, people!


The role of the editor

This afternoon, a group of us were sitting around our offices discussing how the editor’s role continues to change as our business evolves, and I thought I would share with you some of our thoughts.

Years ago, the primary role of the editor was to work with the author to make the book better in anticipation of its publication.  Well known examples from the past include: Maxwell Perkins, Bob Gottlieb, Ellis Amburn, Jack Shoemaker, Judith Jones and many, many more. These editors literally spent night and day with their authors until they had a polished, publishable manuscript.

Over the years, however, as publishing became more of a “bottom line” business, these editors started disappearing and those who were left had the primary responsibility of acquiring manuscripts.  The actual editing, if it was done at all, was farmed out to freelancers, a number of whom were solid, working editors who had been let go  by major publishers in waves of acquisition and downsizing.

Today, there seems to be a new breed of editor—the person who acts as both editor and publisher and oftentimes has a publishing imprint with his or her name on it.  These people are responsible for everything—the book acquisition, the editing, the marketing and publicity, etc.   In fact, the only thing they aren’t responsible for themselves is probably selling the books into the accounts.  They are, however, responsible for the bottom line of their imprint, much as a publisher is.  Examples of these editors include Sarah Crichton (Farrar, Straus &  Giroux), Margaret McElderry (Simon & Schuster) and Amy Einhorn (Flatiron/Macmillan).

We are all curious about what the next editor evolution will be.  I would love to know what you think about all this and what your experience with editors has been.