Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Agent’s Corner: Do.It.Yourself Editing: Preparing the perfect manuscript for submission

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Literary Agent Samantha Haywood discusses the importance of a well-edited manuscript. Writers, readers, Samantha would love to answer your questions. Please post them in the 'Post a comment' section at the bottom of the article.

By Samantha Haywood

These days, it costs more and more to be a writer. Luckily, in Canada, we still have a grant system to provide some financial relief during the time spent crafting your next book. But generally it’s accepted that a serious author has to be much more than a skilled writer. Authors have to be savvy self-marketers (which now includes a slew of growing social media skills); terrific readers and presenters for various events and festivals (if you were an actor in your youth, or happen to look like a model, that’s even better); and, while you’re at it, please make friends with a few publicists (or just learn to think like them). And, of course, the topic of this column, you now have to become a brilliant self-editor and/or be prepared to pay someone to edit your manuscript prior to submission.

As for true costs, preparing a manuscript for submission for publication is not a process that authors can afford to rush anymore. It's true, there was a time when editors actually had time to edit. Of my friends who are editors, I know they miss that time, as do we all. Editors now have so many other pressing in-house responsibilities (which are not editing related) that the actual editing job is pushed to the margins of overtime and personal hours. Which means that most editors/publishers are craving manuscript perfection now (or as close to as possible) from the first drafts they receive on submission. Cleaner first drafts are much easier to slot into the publishing schedule, as endless rounds of substantive edits have been avoided, and cleaner manuscripts are more effective when pitching your book to their pub Boards and sales and marketing teams.

I represent a healthy number of debut authors, and I’ve pulled out significant quantities of hair reading rejection letters this past year, a great number which insinuate that more work is needed before the manuscripts could be acquired. True, most agents will agree, publishers are presently acquiring less debut fiction and instead are chasing the name-brand established authors, or working hard on the authors they already have on their list. But all the same, I’ve worked very hard editorially with my debut authors and am very proud and certain of the potential of their manuscripts. So I’m left with the question, should we believe the rejection letters that tell us more work is needed? My answer is yes, we have no choice.

Granted, part of this situation is that newer authors (without the guidance from agents) tend to underestimate just how many rounds of editing novels and nonfiction books need. Answer: It's well over three, but get comfortable with the possibility of up to ten rounds before the publishers or agents even see your submission. Perfection is absolutely the name of the game. Whether you Do It Yourself or hire someone to help you Do It Yourself, a manuscript that's as flawless as possible is the new necessity in the traditional publishing industry.

I try to be a strict gate keeper and to protect my authors during the early stages of writing. I love reading a first draft and relish rolling up my sleeves and giving editorial feedback. But, I’m not an editor, I’m an agent. So I’m best used as a first reader after my author client has truly taken their manuscript as far as they can go. I'm also not the writer, so there's something to be said for asking an author client to complete as much of their manuscript on their own without me prescribing new ideas or direction. More and more, this can mean the introduction of a freelance editor or a literary consultant, someone who is skilled at asking the right questions to help the author arrive at the best possible way to tell their story. Frequently this stage comes after the author has workshopped their manuscript in a creative writing class, or with writer and editor friends. Another key step (and frustrating to the eager new writer), is to put the manuscript away after working on numerous drafts, waiting to reread it again before finally sending it to me for comment and possible submission.

As the daughter of a writer and the agent/advocate of authors in my role as an agent, I can’t help but feel a little peeved about all the downloading of responsibilities and, moreover, costs involved in making almost the entire editorial process the author’s responsibility. Certainly, there will always be those rare success stories in which an editor took an author under their wing to nurture an embryonic manuscript to fruition (see Lynn Henry’s perspective below). But the predominant situation is very much as I've described. And as much as I’d like to offer myself up as the perfect editor for every writer on successive drafts, agents are in no better position to shift their focus, nor provide these ongoing editorial services for free as a norm. So we are left with a new and growing "middle man" role in the publishing industry, one in which freelance editors and literary consultants have more clout and impact.

An in-house editor warned me over a year ago on the phone that submissions needed to be as “polished” as possible. And this is something that Toronto freelance editor Becky Toyne has found as well. When I asked her if in her experience publishers are demanding perfection from first draft submission more than during the time when she was an in-house editor in the UK at Harvill Secker, she said “Yes, a large affirmative, yes.” She continued, “there is a new middle-man in the industry developing as more skilled industry professionals are required to work with authors to get their manuscripts in shape to prepare them for submission to publishers.” Part of her freelance work comes directly from authors and the other part from agents recommending their authors to Becky for freelance editing. She also freelances for publishing houses as well, as do many other freelance editors in Canada.

But given all this, there are still the old-fashioned in-house editors out there that love to edit and spend countless hours editing successive drafts of their author’s books. (Insert passionate serenade of thanks here). And while the trend is for manuscript perfection for first drafts, editors like Lynn Henry, Publishing Director, Doubleday Canada, don’t look for perfection from their submissions but rather “that glimmer of something,” that “arresting potential of voice.” In fact Lynn reports, “I don’t use freelancers because I do the editing myself. The joy of a good publisher is to help shape the work and to realize its potential because we know how to shape a book and what will work in the marketplace and the world.” However, Lynn did concede that her type of editing is becoming “rarer and rarer” in-house these days. But she and some other amazingly talented and passionate editors in Canada prove that it does still exist (and we agents know who they are!). Hopefully, one day soon you will be edited by them, but in the meantime, from my perspective, these are some of the most important steps a writer should take before sending a manuscript to their agent, or publisher, prior to submission for publication:

  • Run the book idea by your agent first. If you don’t have an agent, ask your mentors. A creative writing teacher or a publishing industry friend or a writer in residence, etc.
  • Write and then rewrite some more, umpteen times. Definitely keep your agent updated about your progress, but try to remember that the excitement of writing a new book does NOT mean you need to submit it early. That can be dangerous depending on your reader, and I can’t say enough about how important it is that your agent, or mentor, has the best fresh first read possible.
  • Get a freelance editor or literary consultant involved in the step above so you'll know when you've reached that point.
  • Get early blurbers/advance praise for your manuscript after it’s been approved by your agent.
  • Keep yourself relevant and in the industry’s eye while writing your next book. Publish shorter pieces, do book reviews, attend events, network. This truly is a business of connections.
  • Have a great reader (hopefully your agent) do a close final read and one last round of editing before it’s ready to go out for submission.
  • Finally, and this last step is really important to remember: after all is said and done, do it again if you have to, persistence is omnipotence.


Samantha Haywood is a literary agent who has been combining her love of Canadian literature with an eye to international publishing for over`a decade. She launched her client list with the Transatlantic Literary Agency in 2004, and represents adult trade authors of literary fiction and upmarket fiction, narrative nonfiction and graphic novels. Clients include: Martha Baillie, Dave Bidini, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, Michael Cho, Jane Christmas, Kristen den Hartog, Marni Jackson, Steve Murray, Ray Robertson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Claire Holden Rothman, Ian Weir and Zoe Whittall, among others. She splits her working year between Toronto and Amsterdam where she lives with her daughter and husband, Pieter Swinkels, Publisher of Cargo and Associate Publisher of De Bezige Bij. Find Samantha at www.tla1.com and @s_haywood on Twitter.

Any views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Transatlantic Literary Agency.

12 comments

Shari Lapeña

Great article, Sam!

Thanks, Shari!! xo

Hi Samantha,

First of all, thank you for your posts. I really enjoy them!

I wanted to ask if you have any advice on how to craft a query letter (more specifically the short synopsis) for literary fiction. I have been struggling with this, because my book doesn't have an instant marketable hook, like oversexed vampires or something.

I have tried to read some jacket blurbs from literary fiction, and the blurbs kind of sound, well, generic. "Family secrets," "troubled past," "tale of redemption," etc. etc.

How can I really grab you in my query, when the book focuses more on character than plot? Surely it wouldn't be enough to just describe the character and say "and then, quirkiness ensues"?

Any thoughts? Thanks!

Thanks for your question, it's a good one. Pitching literary fiction is tough for everyone because the strength of most literary fiction is in the writing, it's usually stylistically much stronger than the plot (but not always). The first thing about cover letters is that they need to be very professional. Clean, precise, well organized. I'm not a fan of overly familiar, chatty and casual cover letters. As for describing the story, I frequently skim over long descriptions anyway. The key things I'm looking for are apt comparisons - are there other writers and books that feel like appropriate parallels to your writing style and novel? If so, use them. They are a helpful tool in pitch letters - but they are not all powerful. You need to pitch the essence of the story in a few lines or one paragraph at the most. If it's character and stylistically driven then say so. While story-driven books are the seeming trend now, it's best to be honest about what your book is as I am just going to find out when I start reading anyway. Hope this helps!

Hi Samantha,
I enjoyed reading your article and appreciate your taking time to provide neophytes and experienced writers with a considerable chock of valuable information.
At the same time I wonder if some the advice you gave is applicable to those striving to write commercial fiction with the ambition of eventually breaking into that market.I'm a self-confessed story-telling nut and the novels I write focus as much on plot and narrative as character and style. For me, the most important thing about my novel is that the story 'works'. I've been told by certain people that the kind of writing I aspire to is 'out', 'dead', 'down market' and 'really pointless, dude. I mean, why would you think of yourself as a writer?' Well, I do. And I keep sending out queries, synopses, and when asked, partials and fulls. And I do so with every confidence they will be rejected. That's the writer's lot.
But in my online peregrinations I have encountered credible sites that offer contradictory information to what I have read above. The first and most important, according to the respective authors on Query Shark (an agent) and The Rejector blogs is that you do not need any qualification to write a novel. If the novel works, is well-written and smacks of sales potential, that's all that's required. A number of bloggers footnote their submissions with a list of credentials (mostly MFA's in Creative Writing)that would serve (in their minds) to bump them ahead in line and in every case these credentials are dismissed by the blog host. And The Rejector (an author and agent herself)actually contends that such a degree is useless when it comes to snagging an agent or publisher. The same holds true for most literary contest winners. (The Query Shark pointedly rejects the value of any award if the writer is required to pay a fee to enter or submit work to the contest. The highly self-touted Narrative Magazine being a conspicuous example. But we have own here in Canada.)
It pleases me mightily that both these bloggers eschew literary fiction over a good commercial read and it is from these distant and virtual stars that a little light comes into my forlorn world.
It would be helpful to learn if there is any support or networking in Canada for aspiring writers like myself who's interest is mainstream adult fiction but not genre (horror, mystery, etc) Think Shogun, The Thorn Birds, The Gargoyle, This Boy's Life. I long for and crave the camaraderie enjoyed by many of those writers who belong to groups or specialty organizations but sad to say, my past experience after joining two such groups ended in a fusillade of put-downs for the kind of writing I enjoy. (It probably served me right because I knew these groups concentrated on literary fiction but I cheerfully assumed a democratic mindset would prevail. And BTW if you want to read an excellent account of how alienated a storyteller can be made to feel in a 'creative writing' environment see IT by Stephen King, starting page 120). As a result, I find there is little to no support for Canadian writers like myself and most of the press on writing in Canada presents an unbalanced view, the scales tipped in favour of 'lit-fic'. (If you don't write CanLit or lit. fiction, why are you writing?)
Anyway, just had to get this off my chest. You don't need to answer but any comments would of course be appreciated.
John Updike wrote that the writing life is a shabby and lonely business. I'm not so sure about shabby but lonely it is indeed. Franz

Hmmm. I've taken a little time to answer this, Franz, because it is a tricky one and I don't have a perfect answer. I can sympathize that commercial fiction writers may have a less obvious community of writers than the Can Lit writers who are regularly invited to literary fiction award galas and big reading festivals etc., but at the same time, when commercial fiction works and sells the writers of commercial fiction can live off their writing, which seems much harder to do as a literary fiction writer. All this to say that there are upshots and drawbacks to everything. But that's neither here nor there. In terms of attempting to answer your question about how to find your community of commercial fiction writers in Canada, I think the only answer is to specialize. If you are writing thrillers or mysteries you can get involved in that community and attend it's prizes and conventions etc. If you are writing romance novels, the same. In some cases you might need to approach the US branch and start a Canadian branch. And if there is simply a void out there in your genre of choice, then perhaps you should launch an online community and start something happening! Short Stories have had a hard lot, but then along came Joyland.ca - maybe that's an entrepreneurial example to find some inspiration in? Good luck and thanks for reading!

i don't think I've had a single manuscript that I haven't gone through at least ten times. Especially, especially the very beginning. I've even had the experience of completely chucking the first couple of chapters and starting from scratch because - fiction or non-fiction - by the time you get to the end you do have a much better sense (obviously) of the whole thing. Maybe we should just be called "re-writers."

Yes, maybe you are onto something with that new job title "re-writers", it's certainly far more accurate! Glad to hear you agree with all the revisions required. Sometimes it feels to me as if it has become unfashionable to take a long time with your fiction these days. But unless one is writing commercial fiction the truth is novels take ages to write (or re-write as we are pointing out!)

Hey. Great article. I'd back the edit, edit, edit claim. because as an author, there's another consideration: you've got to live with your novel once it is published! And it generally gets better with each edit, so why send a book into the world prematurely. I revised my debut novel more than 50 times, and that's not an exageration. It's published now, and I'd still edit it. In fact, when I do readings, I have certain lines crossed out. As far as editing goes, I'm big on writing group feedback too. Raw honesty and helpful feedback. They get to know your flaws as a writer over the years as you meet.

I tell my friends, writing is 10% writing and 90% re-writing. Getting that first draft written is only the beginning. Thankfully my job as a newspaper editor and my essay college classes have given me a good set of skills for that part of the process. This is the kind of information the members of the children's writing list I belong to gives to newcomers. Edit, edit, tuck away, edit again until it is as close to perfect as you can get it. This is what I have to do with my college essays, too.

I've just sent out my first picture book manuscript. The story, while essentially the same as my first draft, had undergone at least 30 rounds of edits from me then two critiques from trusted authors who have had several picture books published from a wide range of large publishing houses. I am sure there could be even more edits but it was pretty solid, and my critiquers agreed. Now I just have to wait and hope.

Heck, I edited this response.

Nancy

Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy. So great to see so many writers agree with the piece and talk about their hard-work on the revision process. And as for your picture book, I wish you every success!

Thanks for the read, Chad. And I'm impressed, 50 times is some serious editing. New writers reading this take note pls! Thanks as well for the honesty about continuing to edit your published novel during readings, I would venture a lot of writers do this but don't confess to it. And congrats on your novel's ReLit shortlist nomination. In fact, in this case, maybe it's time to put that red pen down after all?!

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