During the past two weeks, even a hint of wanting to discuss a submission has garnered me severe side-eye from editors around New York. So it’s allowed me to spend some quality time doing one of my favorite parts of the job of a literary agent—helping my clients make their manuscripts better. I’m a hands-on editor, and am, um, not shy about letting them know when I think a manuscript or proposal still needs work before being in sufficiently clean shape to be submitted.
I get a lot of one particular question at the beginning of this process: “So why does it need to be THAT close to ready? Don’t editors, you know, edit?” (And that same question, incidentally, is asked with even greater despair every time an author gets a pass from an editor who says “I liked this and that and the other thing, but just felt that the pacing was too slow (or one character out of twelve was too weak, or something was preventing her from relating to the protagonist…whatever).”
So here’s the thing: We’re in a simple situation of supply and demand. Editors get tons of manuscripts. The ones that have really been worked on, are really polished, have really addressed as many questions as we can possibly anticipate will have the best chance of getting through. (Of course there are the exceptions that prove the rule—the proposals on the napkins, the novel bought on three pages. But, you know, that’s not a terribly good bet, and REALLY bad policy for an agent to run with.)
This month, therefore, I spent quite a bit of time digging into text. And I found I could divide my editorial process into three kinds of edits: The in-person (or call), the letter, and the line-edit. This month I did ‘em all. One of my clients, who has written a terrific contemporary novel that’s already gone on one round of submissions, needed to tweak aspects of three of her characters’ personalities, and also beef up her ending. A full-on edit wasn’t necessary, but a conversation was. She came into the office and Danielle and I went through the issues editors had had with her. We had a number of ways to make them more relatable, some of them more sympathetic, humanize one who was just too nasty. We took notes, our client took down her own, we agreed on a course of action, and she went home with a plan.
The second—the letter—was to a new client, a middle-grade adventure author with a wonderful voice and a great idea, but whose book was really 2/3 of book 1 and 1/3 of book 2. Here again, a line edit wasn’t necessary, but a serious letter was. We needed to get into Big Issue Stuff, about where to start and stop sections. It wasn’t a granular edit, but rather plot guidance. And when the author indicated that he understood what we were getting at and didn’t need more detailed explication, we were able to move on.
The third manuscript was one I have great hopes for—it’s topical, timely, a great idea. But the author and I had gone through some very serious changes to the book, including changing some truly intrinsic pieces that affected the book nearly sentence by sentence. The protagonist’s character had fundamentally changed; the time the book was set was made more vague; even the setting was different. And I was so specific about it (and the author very busy for his own particular reasons) that the most efficient way to deal with it was for me to dig into the text, make corrections inline, and comments in the margins. It takes much longer on my end to do it that way—and it’s invasive, for sure. But at the end of the day, there are times when spending a lot of hours earlier on will eliminate the need for twice as much work later, if it’s still not right. It’s not my first choice of tactic when going through a manuscript. But sometimes it’s the correct way to deal with it.
And at the end of the day, every time I take on a client, my commitment is to work with him or her to get the manuscript right. What’s good now, eight years into my agenting career, is that it’s become clearer to me each time whether a manuscript needs a call, a letter, a line edit, some combination…or what…to get it into shape. And it’s completely satisfying when I read a revision and go over to Danielle’s desk and say “Oh MAN, so-and-so GOT IT!” A great feeling.
Now it’s on to the next batch. We’ll see what IT brings. But on the plus side…I’ll be reading it by the pool.
Merry Christmas to those celebrating!