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