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What Fiction Editors Want

Just what is it that today's editors want from fiction writers?We interviewed three top editors about a variety of subjects of pressing interest to writers. The bad news: They don't read unagented submissions. The good news: They agree it's all about craft.


Ruth Cavin, senior editor/associate publisher, Thomas Dunne Books for St. Martin's Press: I can't see the point of query letters for fiction. For me, it isn't what the book is—it's how it's done. I will look at three chapters and a synopsis. If I like what I see, then I will ask to see the entire manuscript.

When I buy a book, it's nice to have a computer disk along with the printed pages, but as far as submissions, I'm not going to sit and read a whole book on the screen. And I'm not going to print it out, hogging all that time on my department's printer. Other than that, a submission has to be double-spaced on one side of the paper because two-sided printing becomes so confusing. And I want the pages numbered from one to 250 or whatever, not each chapter numbered separately. I prefer reading a standard manuscript format, not a print-on-demand format.

I get about 35 to 50 submissions per month. I spend one day a week—usually on a weekend—[looking] at new work. We also get 20 to 30 unagented submissions per month. Our new policy is to not read over-the-transom submissions. Because of my past success with many unagented submissions, I sneak sometimes, but can quickly see whether a submission is something to spend time reading or not—and I've never yet turned down a book that later became a best seller. If I don't come to the office to look at submissions, I've got a manuscript at home that I'm evaluating. Being an editor is not 9-to-5 and a three-martini lunch.

Response time for a submission can be pretty long because I get so many. ... I do give preference to some agents if I know they understand what I need. On average, a response can take six to eight weeks.

Daniel J. Conaway, executive editor, HarperCollins: I get 15 to 20 submissions a week from agents for projects by authors I have not worked with before. We only accept agented submissions; as much as I hate to say this, unagented solicitations are a waste of everybody's time because they're not going to get read, nor returned. There just isn't time.

Joe Blades, vice president/executive editor, Ballantine Books: Having a literary agent is almost a requisite. But when I was reviewing material submitted by authors themselves, what always impressed me most was directness in the cover letter. Direct, conversational, no frills, without hyperbole. This is who I am; this is what I've done; here's what my manuscript is about.

My advice is: Don't load the cover letter with comparisons to previously published works. Let the editor know about any pertinent educational or career background that might have bearing on the particular manuscript; the life experience is now reflected in this work of fiction.

I get 10 to 20 inquiries or partial manuscripts per week, plus a number of agented submissions. Nowadays I review only submissions from agents, thus nothing unsolicited. My associates or assistants take care of nonrequested submissions.

Common mistakes

Blades: I suppose there would be the things that any English composition instructor would comment on. It's everything from active vs. passive voice, too many adjectives and adverbs, lackluster grammar, repetitions and misuse of words.

Cavin: Unfortunately, there are many writers who are published and some who are even very successful who have never mastered the craft. And for me, craft is all important. ... If you want to be a professional musician, you have to know how to play an instrument or sing and read music. If you want to be a professional artist, you must know how to use the materials, and you must know how to draw even if you are going to be an abstractionist. But when it comes to real writing, too many people often think that if they know how to read and write, they're writers. They don't understand that they have to master the craft just as other artists have to master their crafts.

Conaway: Writers should not be in any hurry to get their manuscripts out there. I mean rewrite it. Stop, and rewrite it and rewrite it again. Print out whatever your final draft is, and then rekey the whole manuscript. Start over on a blank file. That's the only way you are going to get far enough back into the work to make a difference. You can't back into the actual rhythm of the lines themselves without rekeying. Whenever you think you are done, you will make the book infinitely better if you take the stack of paper and start over. You'll find fat that you've gone blind to because you've seen it on the screen so many times.

What tells me whether you're a writer or not is not whether you're making a living as a writer—it's whether you write every day. If you're going to stay in shape with something, you'll have to keep your skills honed, and the only way to do that is to stay at it.

Getting publishedCavin: This year I'll publish 25 hardcover mystery thrillers, five hardcover nonfiction books, four hardcover general fiction, nine trade paperbacks—and four are from first-time authors. I published the first books of many of the authors on my list. I'd say that I published about 27 first-time authors in the past five years.

Unfortunately, getting published is such a crapshoot. It's very difficult. It's hard to get published, and writers should understand that. A lot of times it isn't that the book isn't good, it might be that a particular house has enough books like that and they don't want another one. There's no wonderful answer about how to get published. Write the best book you can and send it out and hope that it fits somebody's publishing require-ments.

A writer needs perseverance. Don't be discouraged if your book gets turned down. Even after many turndowns, keep trying and write another book.

Conaway: This year I'll publish about 19 hardcovers, 11 trade paperbacks and 12 mass-market paperback books. Of those, only one novel is from a new author that I'm working with for the first time. In the past five years, I published nine books by first-time authors: three thrillers, two literary novels and four nonfiction books.

I think it's becoming more difficult for B to B-plus writers to break in. There are fewer publishers, there are fewer editors to submit to, and the pressure is greater and greater for a book to be bigger and bigger. You work, as an editor, just as hard on a small book as you do on a big book.

New writers should take the first novel they write and—at the point at which they think they are ready to send it to an agent or editor—they should put it in the closet and go write another one. It's the hardest thing to say, but so many first novels that have been submitted to me were really a learning experience. You can recognize the talent, but they are not ready for the tough job of breaking into an established list. Kevin Baker wrote for 15 years before anybody bought one of his novels. And now look at him—he has the stamp of the Today show book club. He obviously learned a lot. Writing is incredibly subjective, and that's why an agent has to understand the peculiarities of each editor's particular taste.

Blades: This year I'll publish 25 hardcover, 50 to 60 mass-market paperbacks and five trade paperbacks. On my list each year there is almost always one first-time author.

It is very difficult for new writers to get a foot in the door, and one's heart goes out to prospective authors. My advice to those authors who have difficulty breaking into print with large publishers is to seek out independent or small presses and, in some cases, even university presses. The smaller publishers are often positioned to take greater risks with new authors.

Because I have an established list and have continuity with many authors, I don't need to constantly add new writers. I certainly review material and want fresh blood in order to maintain the vitality of the list.

Making the cut

Conaway: I can give up on a manuscript in two pages if the writing is sloppy, or if there is evidence of Hollywood shorthand scene making.

The hard job of being a writer involves learning the craft. How do you learn the craft? You only learn the craft from writing. ... I don't care whether you're going to call it literary or call it a serial killer novel, the craftsmanship matters more than anything else.

Blades: There is so much that I read that is very similar. This overfamiliarity diminishes and dilutes new submissions, and consequently many manuscripts I review don't have the impact and the power needed to break into an established list. To be published, writers must find that fresh new voice or a concept that makes me really passionately want to acquire their work.

Cavin: I find character development to be of major importance. If a book has good characters and is decently written, but with mistakes in the plot, it can be fixed. If the plot works, and everything falls into place, and the characters are two-dimensional, and the writing is clunky, it can't be fixed.

Literary agentsConaway: Writers absolutely need to find an agent, and they need their agent to help them address the basic protocols. It's because a writer's manuscript is going to get a very limited number of opportunities. Within each house there are many editors, and if you submit a manuscript to the wrong editor, you've just blown your chance. It's the agent's job to get to know the editors well enough to know exactly who to send each manuscript to.

People love to envision agents and editors having their three-martini lunches as they discuss their houses in the country or the stock market. ... But the truth is, those lunches are critically important because it's how we get educated, learn about shared sensibilities and so forth. It's a form of professional dating—we're trying to form partnerships of taste that, hopefully, will pay dividends down the road. It's not enough for an agent to know, for instance, that I publish thrillers; the agent needs to know what sort of thrillers I publish, what my sensibilities are. If I love Dennis Lehane, there's probably no point in sending me a David Baldacci knockoff. ... If [an agent] does send me a Baldacci knockoff, she's probably wasted a submission that would have been better spent on somebody else.

I have three rules for acquiring an agent. Rule 1: It's all about work. So be sure the manuscript is as good as it can possibly be; no other gimmicks or hard-sell tactics will make a bit of difference if the agent doesn't like what she reads. Rule 2: The agent is incredibly busy. So keep your pitch letter short, fight any urge you might have to be overly quirky-clever, and do NOT try to sell the agent on your sense of the market for your book. Rule 3: Do your research. You should know some of the clients the agent represents, and particularly those who write in a vein similar to your own. A good place to start is in the acknowledgments pages of the books you love.

Blades: It has become more important to develop relationships with agents. They know what I am looking for and won't send me certain things.

My advice for finding a good agent is to attend writers conferences; be guided by listings of literary agents in Literary Market Place; utilize bookstores and libraries for appropriate magazines, including Writer's Digest; and [consult] reference/career guidance books.

This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.

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