Last week, when Jeff Cohen challenged me to a conversation about agent-author relationships, I wanted to get into one of his comments, but it didn’t fit into the time or space I had. So I’m going to take Extra Time like they do in soccer and discuss the question of whether I would send a book out on submission when it’s not really ready, just to get it off my desk. That was the basic question, right Jeff? No matter, it’s the question I’m answering, because it gets into a far more existential issue than whether another scrub would make a novel more marketable. Rather it has to do with intent, and with the true definition of “done” and whose decision that it, really. Hell, this could be my first Derridian deconstruction of text since my senior thesis (which I reread five years after graduation and didn’t understand one word I’d written after “By Josh Getzler”). So let me impose some late-80’s differance and see where it leads us.
First things first, I almost never simply get a manuscript, say “OK,” and send it to publishers. Once in a while with a reprint (because, well, what are you going to do?), but not with a manuscript that comes to me unpublished. And it’s not because I want to leave my mark or impose my will. It’s that most of the time, when I read a submission—even a terrific one—there are things in it that I think could make the book more marketable, or a better read, or better organized. So I always give it that kind of a once-over. I was originally an editor, and actually digging into text is something I love. But I do my best not to do unnecessary tearing apart.
Often, though, there is a need for edits, where either the plot outshines the character, or the pace needs speeding up (rarely does it need slowing down!), or where relationships need clarifying or worlds need to be built better or…whatever, it needs editing. There are then two ways I go about it: I either write an editorial letter with broad issue suggestions, or I go through the manuscript using Track Changes and do a full-on, roll-up-the-sleeves line edit. Often I will have a phone conversation with the author as well in order to clarify my points, particularly when I get the sense that I will get pushback on my tweaks. My clients know that I use the terms “brush strokes” and “heavy lifting” to describe the degree of work I think a manuscript needs before I feel it is ready to go out on submission. Those terms also give a sense of how many times we’re going to need to do it, since a Brush Strokes ms often needs just one go-through and a scrubbing, while a Heavy Lift mostly needs to get to Brush Strokes first.
One thing to say here, which leads to the conclusion, is that my edits and suggestions are exactly those. I recognize and understand that this is my author’s writing, and he or she is very much entitled to disagree and choose to ignore me. And that doesn’t mean I won’t submit the book. And here’s the salient point. If I’ve chosen to take an author on, and have gone through the material to the point where the author is satisfied, unless I believe that the book is embarrassing in some way, I am likely to submit it. It’s not that I haven’t refused ever—I have several times told authors that I felt that their books are unsalable and either need another edit; or, occasionally, ought to be shelved for the time being. That could be because the market shifted away from the subject of the book; or there was something fundamentally flawed with the plot or characters that I felt that nobody would buy it and it would be a waste of the editors’ time to make them read it (which then would be a bad reflection on both the writer and on me).
But the point is that I believe that my role is to be the first reader, the advisor, the sounding board, the conduit between the author and the publishers. My judgment had already been made—I took the writer on after submission because I felt that he or she was talented enough for me to spend my time reading, editing, and submitting the writer’s work. So while I will discuss and argue with the writer about decisions and choices, I will often defer to the author when I feel that further edits will not be useful. This is particularly true when I feel that the author has had it, and is becoming resentful of my suggestions. Then we get into diminishing returns on further edits, and it’s worth stepping back and preparing for submission.
The good thing, I have found, is that most of the time, my authors and I get to the point of saying “we’re ready” at the same time. We get to the best possible place for the manuscript, where the kitchen smells great, like a cake is in the oven. And then, when it’s completely baked to our satisfaction, we take it out and serve it to the publishers.
Hope that helps!