The Fairfield Writers Blog has written several times about the value of hiring an independent editor on your path to finding an agent and publisher for your manuscript. Your options are many. You might enlist a writing partner or a colleague from your writers’ group. Or the presumably-more-experienced leader of your group. You might engage an editor whose reputation comes via word of mouth from someone you trust, or you might approach one of the many who advertise in the classified sections in the back pages of the writers’ magazines. Or, in 2015, you might decide it is time to spend top dollar on a seasoned professional who has worked as an editor at one or more major publishers. A person with a proven track record of discovering future bestsellers and guiding renowned authors in the highbrow literary universe. Here’s the story of one of those editors, and what he and those like him can do for your writing.
When Richard Marek received the phone call telling him that an editor at Atheneum had accepted his novel Works of Genius for publication in 1987, “it was one of the great days of my life,” he told the Fairfield Writer’s Blog.
Not long after hearing the happy news, Marek continued, the editor “wrote me a nine-page letter, saying, here are the mistakes that you’ve made. You have to fix this. It was humiliating because they were things I would have caught in anybody else’s novel. But I just missed them. They were part of my soul,” Marek said with sarcastic emphasis.
“To say an author is objective [about his or her manuscript] is almost an oxymoron. There are no authors with much objectivity.”
Even one with an inside-publishing resume like Marek’s.
Marek spent four decades in the upper editorial elevations of the New York book-publishing world. Among the houses he worked for: Macmillan, World Publishing, The Dial Press, G.P. Putnam’s, St, Martin’s Press, E.P. Dutton and Crown. Among his various positions: acquiring editor, editor, editor-in-chief, publisher, president and editor-at-large.
He edited books by such literary lights as James Baldwin and John Yount. He gave bestselling thriller writer Robert Ludlum his start by purchasing, editing (for more than two years) and publishing The Scarlatti Inheritance for Dial, then continued to edit Ludlum through the debut of the writer’s most famous character in The Bourne Identity. (Jason Bourne was first played, on TV, by actor Richard Chamberlain, and later in films by Matt Damon.) He ran his personal imprint, Richard Marek Books, at several houses.
Today, at 81, Marek hones the works of aspiring authors as a member of The Independent Editors Group (IEG [www.bookdocs.com]), a consortium of experts co-founded by his longtime editorial partner, the late Joyce Engelson, and the late Jerry Gross. He also has ghostwritten numerous books, including Trisha Meili’s bestselling I Am the Central Park Jogger. Most recently, he and his wife, Dalma Heyn (right), co-authored A Godsend: A Love Story for Grownups (Prospecta Press, 2012).
Marek playfully calls himself and his IEG colleagues “a bunch of old geezers who had quite successful careers as editors. . . .We all have solid resumes. We get together once a month. We invite agents and editors to our meetings. It’s a way for us to keep up with what’s going on in the business. Not that I can tell you what’s going on in publishing with any more logic or knowledge than anybody in the business. But we try to find books that are publishable. There are not many of those. Our job is to make the book better.”
Granted, publishing has changed since Marek’s days as an editorial executive. And the changes continue at a furious pace, with the unabated growth of digital publishing, self publishing, online sales, social-media promotion and marketing, supposedly shortened reader attention spans and more. But there are many elements of spinning a compelling story by putting words down on paper or computer screen, then sharpening the story and its characters and polishing the writing, that remain timeless. In short, says Marek, “Editing is editing.”
On a late-summer afternoon in our neighboring town, Westport, Conn., Marek discussed the role an independent editor such as he can play in helping you move closer toward your goal of getting published. And he shared several instructive tales and writing tips from his long career.
The Independent Editor
How writers find him. “The writer thinks the book is done,” Marek says. “She or he will probably send it to an agent, if she has any contacts at all, or find agents to submit to in Publisher’s Marketplace or another directory. And the agent will call me or one of my colleagues. But the agent will have not taken on the book. The agent will say, ‘I might do something with this if. . .’ and we rarely talk about what the ‘if’ is. I don’t like that. I want to see the book with fresh eyes.” A writer also can approach an IEG editor directly through the website linked above.
Getting started. “Almost invariably the writer will call first and interview me, then make up his or her mind, based on what I have to say and my prices.”
And how does Marek know the writer has the chops to be a worthwhile client? “Bad writing is easy to spot. I almost invariably ask for the first 10 pages of the book just to see if the writer can write. Not judging the book. Just judging about whether to take on a client. Based on that reading, I will decide whether to work on it.”
The cost. “We all charge different amounts. But it’s about in the same range. Somewhere between five to ten thousand dollars.”
How do you charge? “I charge blanket fees. But I charge in two ways. I charge for a reading and report on the book. Those are very careful. Here are the strengths, here are the weaknesses. This is what’s wrong with the characters. Here’s where the plot falters. Maybe you can fix the plot. For that kind of report I charge depending on the length of the book.
“The next step is to edit the book with the author, generally in 50-page stretches. And I charge per page. Or they can finish the whole book, rewrite it completely and I’ll edit the whole book.”
The format of the report. “It’s generally a long précis, a long criticism. This doesn’t work because, or this does work because. And then many pages referring back to the manuscript—page 87, what do you mean by? Or this guy would never say that. Whatever. But that’s the kind of report I think almost all of us write.”
Why not just workshop? “I’ve talked at writers’ workshops,” Marek says, “but I’ve never experienced having my book analyzed by a group of peers. I think writers are going to be shocked by the weaknesses in their book that independent editors identify, that their workshop peers are either too timid or too unknowledgeable to point out.”
So do you rip a writer’s work to shreds? “I am very tough, because it’s silly to be anything else, and very fair. I try not to be insulting. I’m very humble, because I’ve been humbled. And I am always looking for new customers.”
Who is the customer, the writer or the referring agent? “The author is my client, not the agent. My only obligation is to make sure that the edited book first goes back to that agent, if he or she has recommended me in the first place. Maybe he or she will take the book when I finish with it. That happens a lot. That’s probably the most common way for us to get where we want. After that, if the agent says no, then I’m free to contact anybody.”
So then you’ll try to help the author find another agent? “We all have our agent friends or colleagues. And we will call up somebody and say, ‘This is really good. Take a look at it.’ ”
The magic words. When he was an acquiring editor, what Marek wanted to hear from an agent who said they had a manuscript for him was, “You’ll like this.” Today, as an independent editor who has worked with a client on a book manuscript, “because I know the agents, I can say to them, “You ought to read this,” and they will read it. Not necessarily like it, but they will read it.”
The Publishing Veteran
Good writing. “Jane Austen. George Eliot.”
What makes good memoir. “You have to really be honest. Most memoirs are lies. You’re leaving out something, or you don’t want to insult somebody or you forgot something. The real memoir writer, Augusten Burroughs or Mary Karr, these people are unflinching. What puzzles me is why the [aspiring memoir] writer thinks other people are going to be interested in it. Who cares? Sorry, that was a terrible thing that happened to you. Next book.”
What makes a good ghost. “It’s somebody who can capture the voice of the person he’s ghostwriting for. I think one’s own interest in the subject and one’s own interest in the person he’s working with also matter. Trisha Meili and I got along wonderfully. The [Central Park] attack made it impossible for her to stay on a narrative. So we worked on a very detailed outline. I’d say, ‘No Trisha, that’s for the next chapter. You talk here about this.’ I’ve pretty much given up ghost writing. It pays well, but it’s a lot of work.
Patterson’s lesson on pacing. Marek worked as a ghost rewriter on James Patterson’s novel Hide and Seek. “One of the scenes I wrote was a description of the [protagonist] record producer’s office,” he says, “which was supposed to give you an idea of who this record producer was, and what his personality was like. Jim said, ‘It’s got to go.’ I said, ‘Why? It tells you who the character is.’ And he said, ‘It’s too slow.’ It was a couple of paragraphs. He taught me more about pace: you cut out the superfluous.”
Does bad writing mean bad storytelling? “Not necessarily,” Marek says. “One of the worst written books that I can remember is An American Tragedy. But it is great storytelling. And that’s why [Theodore Dreiser] was so successful. He was a terrible writer.
“So was Robert Ludlum. Terrible! Bob was a play producer and he and his wife were both actors in New Jersey. We had a Robert Ludlum school of bad writing. And our favorite part of that school was redundancy. Bob wrote sentences like, ‘The soldiers stood rigidly at attention.’ And I would call him and say, ‘How else can you stand at attention?’ Or my favorite, ‘The general made an audible noise.’ Try to make an inaudible noise. But Bob was a good storyteller and had this knack of finishing chapters that was really terrific.
“I was at McMillan, which had a policy for young editors. If we got a book in that we liked, we needed two readings. Get a colleague to read it, too. Obviously, pretty soon we didn’t bother with the second reading. We just said, great book, go to it. Alan Rinzler, an editor there, got The Scarlatti Inheritance in and gave it to me for a confirming reading. It was a long book. I said, ‘I don’t have to read all this, do I?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘just say that it’s got a wonderful central character and there’s a plot in there somewhere.’ Meantime, Alan was fired for something unrelated. My boss came and said, ‘I see you’ve read this.’ I said, ‘Oh yes.’ He said, ‘Well you can have it.’ So then I read it. No choice. And it had a plot somewhere in it and a terrific central character. It took Bob Ludlum and me two and a half years to get the book into some kind of shape. It was fifteen hundred pages long. It finally went down to 500. And we had a good time doing it. He had a real skill, right out of the gate, of closing a scene so that you wanted to go on to the next scene. And the book was a huge success.”
Getting it done. A writer’s productivity, Marek thinks, “comes out of desire and dreams and whatever. If an [aspiring] writer reads books on how to write, that can help a lot.” Rather than recommend present-day, step-by-step or screenwriting-influenced manuals, Marek cites three evergreen works: Henry James’ essay, “The Art of Fiction,” originally published in the September 1884 issue of Longman’s Magazine and reprinted in his 1888 anthology Partial Portraits; the late novelist and professor John Gardner’s book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, first published in 1983; and former publisher and editor-in-chief (at Stein and Day) Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing (1995), which Marek calls “the best book for the first-time writer that I know.” [Four years later, Stein published a follow-up, How to Grow a Novel.]
Current clichés. “Cliches drive me nuts, unless the character is somebody who talks in clichés,” Marek says. “I just finished editing a book in which every character “paused for a long moment.” Well, pause for a short moment, or just pause. In terms of characters, my pet peeves these days are terrorists and heroes who are too heroic. Right now, if there’s an Arab who shows up anywhere in the first three chapters, I don’t want to read it. Any kind of terrorist.”
A novel that did not need editing. “I was the acquiring editor of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I was crazy about [Harris’ previous book] Red Dragon. It has this great character, a minor character, a minor character in both books. Hannibal Lecter. Minor is not the right word. A subsidiary character, although he takes over the book.” By the time the full manuscript entered the production process, Marek had left the company. “Tom wanted me to read it anyway. I wrote him back and said ‘This is wonderful.’ The Silence of the Lambs didn’t need editing. Obviously one could have changed some sentences.
“What a book! He’s a master. I think it was torture for Harris to write these books. All books are autobiographical. These demons are inside his head. Every morning he woke up and he realized he had to face them. He said it was really scary and tough. So I think he’s faced them less in his later books.”
Two that got away. Marek recalls, “When I was in regular publishing, I used to go to Breadloaf in Vermont every summer and give a lecture. I made really good friends with a fellow named John Irving, who said, ‘You ought to publish me.’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He had had a dismal career at Random House with his first books. Later, he called me and said, ‘I’ve written only a first chapter and I’m not sure where this book is going. It’s about a tailgunner.’ I read it. He was obviously a very talented writer. I said, ‘How much do you want for this book?’ He said, ‘Fourteen thousand dollars.’ I said, ‘You don’t have a book that comes close to earning back that kind of advance.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. See you.’ Not long after, a guy I knew came up to me at a publishing party and said, ‘I’ve just bought the most wonderful book.’ It was something called The World According to Garp. He was right and I was wrong.”
Years later, “I read a book by a published writer and I kind of liked it. It was about a guy who joins a law office. I might have bought it. We bid, I think, $50,000. I don’t remember what the final sale price was, but it was above that….I said, ‘The second half of this book doesn’t work.’ And I was wrong. The book was The Firm by John Grisham.”
Two pillars of compelling fiction. Conflict and characterization. “Conflict, it seems to me,” Marek says, “is the most important thing in plotting any novel. And conflict comes out of the clash of character. Conflicts ought to grow from a simple meeting of two people on different sides of an issue.”
Good characters are “people who you care about.” Such characters, by the way, do not have to be likeable. “Let’s go back to Lecter,” Marek says. “Lecter’s the best example of a villain who’s totally captivating. If you can do that, you’re going to be published.”
“The mistake people make is concentrating on the plot and not concentrating on the characters. Everybody has idiosyncrasies. And most writers don’t write them in. . . .
As superior examples of characterization, Marek cites three protagonists from crime fiction. First, “the best thriller writer in the world is Arthur Conan Doyle, probably, and Sherlock Holmes a great character.” Second, writer Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. “That is my idea of a truly wonderful central character. He’s a Swedish detective who has every flaw in the book; he’s exhausted and he wants to quit.” Third, author Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles Police Department detective Harry Bosch “is a totally believable character with a background. His mother was a prostitute. She was murdered. There is a whole backstory. And I can’t tell you a single plot of a Michael Connelly book. But I sure can talk about Hieronymus Bosch.”
Last, Marek offers an example of classic characterization from literary rather than commercial fiction: “If you pick up Ulysses and read ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan. . .’ you know you’re in the head of a really good writer. Those two adjectives are terrific and you get a picture of somebody in the first four words.”
Beware labels, buzzwords and formulae. When asked about oft-used statistic that 90 percent of the people who read novels are female and how that means selling a men’s novel these days is harder than. . . .Marek breaks in and says, “ I don’t even know what the term means—a men’s novel. What’s John Irving? God knows his characters are very male and very testosterone-filled, but he’s read by both women and men. And I can’t think of a better writer than George Eliot, and she was a woman and she created wonderful female and male characters.”
Did he ever use the buzzword “platform?” “Never. It’s totally new to me now. It means a launching point or. . . .who do you know in the industry. There’s no platform in fiction.”
Any advice for overcoming the common problem of a muddle in the middle of one’s bogged-down novel? “I don’t think there’s any formula. I really don’t. What happens in the middle of the book? It should keep your interest.”
What about the supposed importance of knowing what genre your work-in-progress falls into? “I think you should not be thinking of that. Because if you’re thinking about a genre, you’re probably going to be imitating somebody else. What I would say to writers is, be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else.”
The decline of in-house editing. Conventional wisdom holds that today’s in-house editors don’t actually edit because they’re under too much pressure to search for and acquire the next mega-seller. Marek’s opinion? “I don’t mind it. The publishing house exists only to make money. And I felt pretty much that way myself. I wanted to be a financial success. Few books were. I could point you to some dogs that I published. I think if you’re a true editor, however, you’ll want to get your teeth into the book anyway. Even if it’s behind the publisher’s back.”
Why you can’t get your book accepted. If a manuscript has good writing, good characterization and good storytelling, what’s going to keep it from getting sold?
“It’s commercial appeal,” Marek says. “Now. That didn’t used to be the case. Tom McCormick, who ran St. Martin’s Press for years, and for whom I worked for a long time, was happy if a book sold 3,600 copies—provided he had only paid an advance of $2,500. And he did that with a whole bunch of books. But that’s when library sales were hugely important to publishing, and they are not anymore.”
The key to success? Marek imagines it this way: “My first boss told me that there was, for exercise in the Pantheon, a room for writers. The god of writing would lie on his bench eating chocolates—he was a fat guy and didn’t get much exercise—and he had a dartboard at the end of his room. Every once in a while he would throw a dart and when it hit, that publisher or that writer was going to be a mammoth success and there was no reason.”
A final admonition. “Books are never finished,” Marek says. “I’ve re-read my novel, which I worked on for three years painstakingly, sentence by sentence, and I see things in there now that I regret, that could be done better.”