Kill your darlings! Michael Chabon’s case study

Anyone who has ever attended a creative writing class or workshop has heard these words:

“Kill your darlings.”

The genesis of the quote has been ascribed to a host of writers, William Faulkner most prominently. When the 2013 film “Kill Your Darlings” was released—starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg—writer Forrest Wickman published a piece on Slate attributing the phrase to “Arthur Quiller-Couch, who spread it in his widely reprinted 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures ‘On the Art of Writing.’ In his 1914 lecture ‘On Style,’ he said, while railing against ‘extraneous Ornament’:

“ ‘If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” ’”

A contemporary definition of the command was put forth by Melissa Donovan on March 22, 2016 at “We writers must be prepared to cut our favorite sentences, paragraphs and chapter, if doing so improves our work.”

Do famous writers really abide by the rule? moonglow-chabon-webIndeed they do, as made clear by Pulitzer Price-winning author Michael Chabon in a special presentation on the website of The New York Times on November 18, 2016, not long after the publication of his latest novel, Moonglow (Harper).

“The Sandmeyer Reaction: A Short Story” runs for 33 printout pages. Of interest here, though, is not the story itself but Chabon’s three-and-a-half-page introduction. In it, he says that “The Sandmeyer Reacton” was perhaps his most precious darling of the original manuscript of Moonglow, “my pole star.”

“The story determined all of my narrative choices as I worked toward it,” he writes. “. . .I went off to the McDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. I devoted the whole of a precious two-week residency to writing the first of several drafts. . . .” Chabon knew the section needed revising, but he was confident that it would play the key role in his novel that he envisioned. Two years later, in March 2016, he finished the book. At month’s end, he “sat down to read the manuscript. Not quite ‘reading’ it, exactly; stalking it, slithering along it, hunting in its sawgrass for stylistic infelicities, typos, boring sentences, clichés and gags that, face it, Chabon, just never were going to work.” All went well until he reached “The Sandmeyer Reaction.” As he read it, “the tighter the grip of dread became on my gut. Wrong. Wrong, Chabon. Stop. Something is wrong here.

His conclusion? “The book didn’t need ‘The Sandmeyer Reaction’ anymore!”

Chabon decided to kill his darling: “Years of planning, months of work, hours of vivid, violent, wakeful dreaming at the keyboard—down the memory hole. Buh-bye. . . .”

The upshot of that excision is what is most instructive. “The Fist of Dread immediately relaxed its grip as I cut away the pages,” Chabon writes, “and the hole they made in the fabric of the book was tellingly small. Two or three sentences needed to be rearranged a bit. I added a paragraph of connective tissue. . . .And that was it. As I stitched up the tiny wound, I had the annoying thought, not at all uncommon at such moments, which are, annoyingly, not at all uncommon: Yeah, I could have told you all along that part was gonna have to go.

The FWB urges you to read Chabon’s introduction and his killed darling in their entirety (see link above), not only for the lesson they offer, but because “The Sandmeyer Reaction” is—like so much of his work, including Moonglow—a terrific read.—Alex McNab

 A final note: With this post, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog is going on hiatus and will be in read-only mode as of January 1, 2017.

Published in: on December 28, 2016 at 12:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Editors rock!

In the second of two pieces about editors and editing, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog is once again pleased to welcome novelist Maddie Dawson as guest author of our latest post.

By Maddie Dawson

I thought I knew all about editing.


After all, I’d worked at a newspaper, The New Haven Register, for thirty years, handing in copy and then answering subsequent questions about the stories I wrote. The most memorable editing question came at two in the morning after I’d filed a story about a tragedy, the starving deaths of dozens of horses at a local farm that no one realized was going under. The complaint my editor had: “You didn’t explain why death is bad. Can you get someone to comment on that?”

Um, sure. But don’t we already know why death is bad? Could we just go with our gut feeling on this one?

As a freelancer for women’s magazines, I also was familiar with magazine editing. Those edits came from a different perspective: “Can you please interview a couple more sources? We’d like you to find a woman in her thirties who lives in the Midwest and who has breastfed twins and works preferably in a small office. It would also be good if she had brown hair and a mole on her nose. Oh, and also, find someone who has hired a wet nurse at one time or another and lives in a split-level ranch in Idaho and will probably divorce her husband by the end of the year.”

OK, so maybe they didn’t say precisely that, but trust me, it was close. I was always having to explain to editors that such people didn’t exist in the real world—or if they did, they weren’t in my Rolodex, and how would it be if I simply interviewed the sources I knew would have interesting things to say? “Well, if that’s the best you can do. . .” the editor would say.

Then I started writing books, and the real fun began.

I was sure I was ready for editing, ready for the teams of editors and copy-editors who would help me sharpen my prose, get to the true meat of my stories—and support my most confused and confusing efforts. At last I would have my own personal Maxwell Perkins! We would talk on the phone about plot points and adjectives! We would move commas around as though it were a team sport!

I signed with Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Crown Publishing, which is a division of Random House, and I wrote three novels with them before the imprint was shut down in a belt-tightening move by Random House. After that, I wrote two more novels for Crown.

Let me just say: I loved (and still love) my editors there! They are lovely, talented, smart women who were interested in my books and interested in me and my career, and we have had lots of great conversations over the years. Their job—and they were busy, busy, busy—was to discover authors, nurture their careers along by presenting their work and defending it to the very shadowy and scary Marketing Department, and then help to launch the book out in the world.

Although these editors sometimes needed me to shorten a scene or to tighten a chapter, we didn’t take the book apart scene by scene. Was it that there was no time for that, or that the books seemed good enough when they purchased them? Clearly they had a lot of authors they were working with—and although they were always willing to stop and take a phone call and discuss a character’s motivations, the edits they sent me were mostly suggestions about ending a scene with a cliff-hanging sentence (good advice!) or describing the character’s physical details sooner in the book (also very helpful!)

They hired copy editors to go over the nuts and bolts and semi-colons and commas of the books. These were the ones who tracked down discrepancies (thank you!) and made sure my characters kept their same names and hair color throughout the book and that they didn’t put on their coat and then three paragraphs later put on their sweater.mdcover

Then I signed my latest book with Lake Union, a division of Amazon Publishing, and found myself in a whole different world. There, not only did I have an acquisitions editor (the one who bought the book and deals with all the nuts and bolts with marketing and publishing—sort of like a general contractor who keeps tabs on my book as it moves through the system), but I also was given a developmental editor. She was a professional freelance editor who edits manuscripts full-time and doesn’t have anything to do with other aspects of the book’s publication.

She worked on the book for about a month. The manuscript, when I received it back with all its Track Changes, seemed to me to be ablaze with red lines connected to bubbles with questions in them. No page had seemingly escaped her careful scrutiny.

I have mercifully forgotten the precise number of changes and suggestions and comments she made (a number Microsoft Word so cheerfully pointed out to me). . .but trust me on this: it was in the thousands! Thousands, I tell you.

I had to take to my bed.

There was everything from formatting changes for me to accept or reject—to huge questions like, “Hmm, would she REALLY say that?” after a line of dialogue. Or, “I think this character caves too quickly in this scene. What if you don’t have her so eager to be friends right here? Maybe move to p. 156.”

In the letter that accompanied these massive changes and suggestions was high praise for the book. What?? She actually liked it, and yet she needed to see approximately 56,587 changes? There was also the assurance that this was MY book, and that I didn’t have to do anything. I could simply press a button that said REJECT CHANGES, and go back to my life.

But of course I didn’t do that. After gnashing my teeth and informing my friends and family that I couldn’t ever see them again, I set to work. Day after day for three weeks, I sat at my dining room table in my bathrobe, going over the manuscript, weighing my editor’s suggestions, rewriting scenes, rethinking characters.

I probably took 98 percent of her suggestions, because when I thought about them, they made sense to me. She had a distance and a perspective on the book that I simply couldn’t have, being so close to it. She had studied the arc of my story—an arc I’d been constructing but not ever sure was working correctly—and she knew when it faltered and when it needed oomph, and when the reader needed some sparky scene to keep her from turning off the light and going to sleep.

I found myself living for those moments when I’d come across one of her comments that would say: “Oh my God! I love this scene!” or even “I’m weeping here!” When she told me she actually loved this book, I wanted to send her roses and caviar and perhaps ask her to come live with me in my house.

By the time the book went to its next stop—copyediting—it was in mostly good shape. The copyeditor did all the fact-checking that was needed, and when I went over those edits, I learned a few more things I was grateful hadn’t slipped through the cracks.

And then—voila! The Advanced Reading Copies (known as ARCs, or galleys) were printed up, right before the final proofreading took place. Although the ARCs are close to what the final book is like, in my case, there were still a couple of things that changed—nothing big, but things I added and took out as I went through the final proofreading stage.

Having my book be so thoroughly edited has been nothing short of amazing. It’s like having a partner, someone who is so much on your side, who cares enough about what you’re doing to argue with you, make hard suggestions, listen to your concerns—and ultimately help you figure out the best answer.

The other day, when the first copies of The Survivor’s Guide To Family Happiness landed in my driveway by way of the Fed Ex guy, I opened the box with excitement—and sat immediately down and started re-reading it. With pleasure.

Editor’s Note: The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson (Lake UnionPublishing, 384 pp.) will be published on October 25, 2016.

Published in: on September 30, 2016 at 12:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Want to understand editors? Check out these portraits

Consider the editor.

Unless you opt for the self-publishing route, as a writer you must realize that the editor is the ultimate gatekeeper to your words appearing in print. That’s true whether you submit your work to a website, a newspaper, a magazine, or, via a literary agent or directly, a book publisher.

Do not think of the editor, however, as just an obstacle to overcome. She or he also can be—and in the best cases always is—an ally, one whose goal is to help you make your writing as good as it can possibly be and then get it in front of others to read.

So it may behoove you to broaden your understanding of how and why editors do what they do. Fortunately, the past few months have offered three notable portraits of editors at work.

The latest is Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, Avid Reader (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Gottlieb is a publishing giant, having worked as a top book editor at Simon & Schuster and, over two separate terms, Alfred A. Knopf, in between which hgottliebe succeeded the legendary William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker magazine. The roster of authors whose work he shepherded into print includes Toni Morrison, John le Carré, John Cheever, Michael Crichton, Robert Caro, Nora Ephron, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Joseph Heller and Bill Clinton.

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog has purchased Gottlieb’s book but has not yet read it. The universally positive reviews have promised a healthy dose of editorial wisdom amid Gottlieb’s stories about polishing the prose of authors from both the literary and celebrity ends of the publishing spectrum. One for-instance, from Dwight Garner’s review in The New York Times: “Throughout his long career, if one of his writers was blocked, Mr. Gottlieb liked to tell him or her, ‘Don’t write, type!’ ” Indeed, the simple act of putting something, anything, down on the screen or paper often acts as a trigger to getting your creative juices flowing.

The FWB already has cited, albeit briefly, Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life (Knopf). McDonell edited 13 mTMcDagazines over a 30-year career in periodicals, most of them men’s magazines, ending with a 10-year stint at Sports Illustrated. Written in vignettes, the book presents portraits of such guy scribes as Richard Price, P. J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford; editors Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone), Helen Gurley Brown (Cosmopolitan) and Liz Tilberis (Harper’s Bazaar); and other notables, including Steve Jobs and Jimmy Buffet. Scattered throughout are short, useful lessons about dealing with writers and writing, such as this summary, quoted in our earlier post: “I had only three rules [for writers]: Force nothing. Be clear. You can always go deeper.”

The third 2016 exploration of the editor’s job is not a book. It is a movie—“Genius”genius—starring Colin Firth as editor Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s and Jude Law as author Thomas Wolfe. The independent film is adapted from A. Scott Berg’s award-winning 1978 biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (Dutton). It was released in U.S. theaters in June, to so-so notices, and came out on DVD earlier this month.

Perhaps it takes an editor to fully appreciate the inherent drama of a famous author-editor relationship. The FWB recommends clicking through to “I Read It at the Movies,” in which Gerald Howard, executive editor at Doubleday (where he worked with FWB friend James Kaplan on the second volume of Kaplan’s monumental biography of Frank Sinatra), offers just such an appreciation of “Genius” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Howard’s essay expresses the challenges and rewards of his and his colleagues’ craft in far more refined prose than the FWB marshals here.

Should you decide to make a deeper study of the editor’s world, Berg’s life of Perkins is the place to start. It won a National Book Award for biography.

A companion memoir to Gottlieb’s is Michael Korda’s Another Life korda(Random House, 1999). Korda worked down the hall from Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster, editing writers as diverse as Jacqueline Susann, Larry McMurtry and Richard Nixon.

The FWB recalls Korda writing that one of the gifts he and Gottlieb shared was an ability to read a manuscript incredibly fast, often overnight regardless of length. And The Wall Street Journal’s review of Avid Reader has this advice from Gottlieb:

“ ‘Get back to your writers right away. . . .[It’s] cruelty to animals to keep them waiting.’ (He often adds a corollary: ‘Bad news delivered quickly is better than no news.’) When, later in life, [Gottlieb] started writing himself. . . ‘It made me insane when I would deliver a commissioned piece, or part of a book and wait days, sometimes weeks, to hear back from my editor. Insane with anxiety and insane with fury, I expected others to do unto me as I did unto others.’ ”

OK, so your interest is in writing, not reading about or watching the depiction of what Howard, in his essay, refers to as “the sausage factory” aspects of putting words into print. Editing—what’s the fun in that?

Well, if it is fun you are after, consider the story of five authors hoping to find glory through goldsmiththe auspices of editors at imaginary New York City publisher Davis and Dash. The compelling cast of characters navigates a world of glamour, intrigue, humor, heartbreak and, yes, steamy sex. Their journeys are recounted in fast-paced, occasionally cynical and endlessly entertaining style by the late Olivia Goldsmith, author of The First Wives Club, in her novel The Bestseller (Harper Collins, 1996). You can find a copy today on the shelves of the FWB’s home, the Fairfield (Connecticut) Public Library, or perhaps at a library near you.—Alex McNab

Note: This is the first of two posts about the editing experience. Coming up, a veteran author has her latest book edited by her new publisher.

Published in: on September 20, 2016 at 2:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Writing Short

Writing short. Consider the significance of the two-word sentence: I do.

Roy Peter Clark, author of How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, in an interview with Katy Steinmetz, defines writing short as “300 words or fewer . . . 300 is about the ClarkBooknumber of words that appears on a single, type-written page.”

Today, for many, short writing is a tweet (140 characters) but Clark reminds us that short writing has played a significant role in “human culture, over history, to say some of the most important and most enduring things.” Clark notes, “[I]f you take the shortest versions of the Hippocratic oath, the 23rd psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, any Shakespeare sonnet, the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address and the last paragraph of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ and add up the total words, it’s less than 1,000.” The Lord’s Prayer contains 66 words, the Gettysburg Address contains 286, and the preamble to the Constitution was crafted with just 52 words.

When asked by Katy Steinmetz how good writers approach short writing with the same care they would a book, Clark responds:

“The very best practitioners of short writing on blogs, on social networks, are people who are working over their prose. They’re revising it, with the same care they would if they were putting it on paper. . .When I’ve failed to do it, I’ve always regretted it, because it results in something awkward or upside-down or worse, inaccurate. A formula I learned about writing short poetry is that ultimately what you’re looking for is focus, wit and evidence of polish. Focus means that we have a keen understanding of what the message is about, wit meaning there’s a governing intelligence behind the prose, polish meaning there’s that one little grace note, that one little word in a tweet that sounds like us in an authentic way. What I’m pushing back on is the notion that this kind of writing and communication requires less care. . .These two things—speed and care—are not mutually exclusive.”

In a Washington Post review, “Confessions of an editor: A review of How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark,” Carlos Lozada provides an example of Clark’s ability to write short: “ ‘Omit needless words,’ William Strunk admonishes in The Elements of Style, then adds a 65-word, 386-character paragraph explaining why. In four rounds of edits, Clark gets it down to 27 words and 137 characters. It comes at a cost, he admits, but learning to determine that cost is the point. ‘A good short writer must be a disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space.’ ”

Writing an obituary is a personal example of short writing that many of us will undertake at some point in our lives. By definition, it is a notice of a person’s death usually with a short biographical account. Condensing a life into a few hundred words, or less, is a difficult task. A dear friend recently asked me to help write some words about her Uncle Joe for his obituary. It was an honor to be asked. Two hours, several cups of tea, and three revisions later, the 145-word tribute was complete to “a gentle and compassionate man” who “greeted everyone with a smile.”

Six Word Story Every Day (also on Facebook) offers an interesting look at writing short. A story told in just six words. Last July, on my birthday, I began keeping a six-word-a-day journal. My entries reveal a range of daily events, reflection, contemplation, joy and sadness.

Telephone call from old friend—balance

Connected memories allow softer edged transitions

National Watermelon Day—Dad—miss you

Writers at the table: unlimited possibilities

Seafood soup: Daniel—me, cooking together

Summing up my day in just six words is a challenge. But, I have become a more “disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space.”

Novelists can write shorter, too. In “To the Quick,” a new online essay on “lowering the word count” by debut novelist Tony Tulathimutte, he recommends the “scalpel edit.” He reduced this sentence in his first draft—

“Up to a certain degree he felt there was nothing wrong with disliking work”—

to five words:

“Still, it beat real work.”

Carlos Lozada notes that “Clark cites the late Pulitzer winner Donald Murray’s dictum about concision: ‘Brevity comes from selection and not compression.’ He also offers his own version: ‘Prune the dead branches before you shake out the dead leaves.’ ”

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Published in: on February 25, 2016 at 12:13 pm  Comments (1)  

What an independent editor can do for you

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 []),  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 Cedalma-and-richardntral 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.”

—Alex McNab


Published in: on January 18, 2015 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

An informal writer’s guide to editing & editors

“If you turn in something you think is perfect, an editor will go, ‘I know you think it’s great, but it’s not. You need to do this and move this and change this.’ You may think that person’s an idiot, which they might be, but they’re probably not because they’re still in business after everybody else has been fired.”

That warning to all of us who aspire to be published came from our local writing guru Carol Dannhauser, who prefaced her remark by pointing out that there are a lot fewer editors working at magazines and book publishers than there used to be, and that those survivors are overwhelmed with submissions.

So the question arises: proofreading_symbolsCan we increase our chances of having our writing accepted for publication if we have a better understanding of the editors’ perspective? Perhaps. It certainly cannot hurt.

Here, then, is a random survey of sources where you can increase that understanding.

Self-editing: In “A Short Course in Line Editing” from, author and journalist Michelle Seaton presents a paragraph from a 1940s pulp romance story and uses it to illustrate how you can make your writing tighter and clearer as you line edit. A key point is this:

Double-check the clauses. When something goes horribly wrong in a sentence a dependent clause is usually at fault. . . .Many times our problematic clauses just need to move out of the sentence, and get their own place.”

Copyediting: “Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor,” at, is by Edan Lepuki, novelist (California), short story writer and founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Lepuki conducts a Q&A with copyeditor Susan Bradanini Betz. Betz defines the copyeditor’s role this way:

“When I copyedit, I get closer to the manuscript than I was ever able to as an acquisitions editor. I read every single word, looking at each word and tracking the syntax, not skimming over sentences. It’s not my job as a copyeditor to suggest big-picture changes or comment on quality, so I am focused on the story and the language at the word and sentence level. I keep the reader in mind and try to anticipate what might be confusing or problematic; I check facts and dates, track characters and events for consistency; and I do the most thorough read I possibly can, coming away with an in-depth understanding of the work that wasn’t possible for me in acquisitions. . . .”

Acquisitions editing: Christine Kopprasch, associate editor at the Crown Trade Publishing Group, a division of Random House, answers questions from a staffer and the Facebook community of in “Interview with a Big Five Editor.” Among the works Kopprasch has acquired is Fairfield Writer’s Blog friend and contributor Maddie Dawson’s latest novel, The Opposite of Maybe, which will hit bookstores in April. Kopprasch gives a behind-the-scenes rundown of an editor’s  responsibilities, as well as pointers for writers. Such as:

“I establish a relationship with the author, talking often over the phone or by email, and start editing. Usually I do multiple rounds of editing: a few in-depth rounds with lots of comments and structural suggestions, and then as much line editing and refining as is needed. . . .”

What specifically is it that attracts you to a story, a writing style, or a cast of characters, that eases your mind over taking a chance on an unknown author?

“The voice, foremost, and the I-can’t-put-this-book-down feeling that’s so personal and hard to explicate. . . .”

What is the one thing that will turn you away from a book every time? 

“A flat voice. ‘Information dumps,’ too. . . .”

Name [two] things we writers can do to our manuscripts to make your job easier. 

“Make your first chapters amazing, both to hook us and help us hook our team. Be sure it’s really ready to submit, which usually means putting it away for a while and coming back to it with fresh eyes somewhere in an author’s editing process.”

Editor-author relationships. The standard for Q&A explorations of this critical aspect of writing was established in the Fall 1994 issue of The Paris Review with “The Art of Editing No. 1.” Robert Gottlieb’s stellar editing career has included stints at Simon & Schuster, Knopf and The New Yorker. Rather than go one-on-one with interviewer Larissa MacFarquhar, Gottlieb shared the stage with many of the notable writers with whom he worked, among them John le Carré, Robert Caro and Toni Morrison. Here is Morrison on Gottlieb’s art:

“I was an editor myself for a long while. . . .If it has your fingerprints on it, it’s no good.”

In today’s online environment, sets the bar high with its occasional author-editor interviews in “The Slate Book Review.” Recent pairings have included author Claire Messud (The Woman Upstairs) and editor Robin Desser (Knopf), short-story master George Saunders (Tenth of December) and Andy Ward (Random House), and novelist Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). Here is a sample from the last:

Tartt: Do you work with all writers the way you work with me? (Which is to say, not really commenting until you have the whole manuscript in hand.) Or is it different with different writers?

Pietsch: . . .Every edit is different. Some writers like to show a chapter at a time or even individual scenes, as they go, for comment; I’ve worked with writers who wanted to read a passage over the phone just after they completed it. Others want to write in total privacy, not revealing a single thing until it’s finished. Sometimes editing consists primarily of a letter asking questions about plot elements, or about pacing, or character, and sometimes it’s entirely line-by-line comments on language. . . .Editing is only useful if the writer finds it to be. And some writers really don’t want an editor’s help at all. Martin Amis told me once that he’d rather have his own mistakes than an editor’s fixes—an opinion that any writer is entitled to!

Tartt: I’m with Martin Amis on that. I’d always rather stand or fall on my own mistakes. There’s nothing worse than looking back, in a published book, at a line edit or a copy edit that you felt queasy about and didn’t want to take, but took anyway.

Editor biography & memoirs. Want to read more about editing and editors? Begin with Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg’s monumental 1978 biography of the remarkable shepherd of many great 20th century writers at Charles Scribner’s Sons. Perkins guided F. Scott Fitzgerald through The Great Gatsby, cleared the way against in-house objections to profane language in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, convinced Thomas Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, helped pave the way for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize winner The Yearling and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved County, and steered first-time novelist James Jones away from one work-in-progress to the beginnings of From Here to Eternity, which won the National Book Award after Perkins had died.

Michael Korda—a successful author of a diverse collection of nonfiction books including, most recently, a biography of Lawrence of Arabia—told the story of his many years as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (1999). Korda edited as diverse a list of authors as you can imagine, from Larry McMurtry to David McCullough to Jacqueline Susann to Ronald Reagan. Another Life is entertaining as well as informative about editing and publishing.

Finally, check out Daniel Menaker’s coverfinal_mymistake_hirecent memoir My Mistake (2013). Menaker was an editor at The New Yorker, principally but not exclusively working on fiction, before moving into book editing at Random House. His book weaves the story of his career with his moving personal story about him and his brother. On pages 110 and 111 of My Mistake, he reprints the first two sentences of the original manuscript of a New Yorker book review by the renowned psychoanalyst Robert Coles, followed by the version that appeared in the magazine. The excerpts are an object lesson in the editor’s role in the clarification of prose. Menaker allows that it is “an example of the heavy work that editors sometimes had to do.” You get the sense that he wishes he did not have to wield so detailed a blue pencil.

In an online interview he did with the “Barnes and Noble Review” in December 2013, Menaker spoke of how his own memoir benefitted from being edited by others:

“What they did—what a good editor does—is make your text the way you really would have wanted it to be if you had been doing it on your most disciplined, best day.”

We should all be so lucky to work with editors who do that to our writing.—Alex McNab

March 26 Update: At the, Edan Lepuki at has just posted a new interview with her acquiring editor at Little, Brown, Allie Sommer. Check it out. It’s a fine bookend to the conversation with Lepuki’s  copyeditor cited above. Here’s an excerpt of Sommer’s words—AMcN:

“My job is to make suggestions on how the author can take what he or she is already doing and make it even better. Mostly, I try to think about how the reader will react to the text. . . .It all leads to the same goal of making it the best possible experience for the reader.”



Published in: on March 20, 2014 at 3:23 pm  Comments (2)