First Novel Editor
How do people find you?
I’ve no idea, really. I don’t advertise. But they do find me on my website, I guess through Internet chat rooms. And many aspiring authors or people trying to write visit sites with names like Writer’s Watercooler or Absolute Writer that they all go to. At some point my name came up on one of those, and I know a lot of people have contacted me from that. So it’s word-of-mouth, or referrals by agent, or through writing groups—people who get together to critique one another’s writing. I can’t do two writers in the same writing group. I discourage it, and I try not to have any people who know each other, though sometimes I can’t help it, since they refer people they know. If I do end up with a situation like that, they tend to become competitive and email me to ask how the other one is doing—did I like what she wrote? It’s weird.
What kind of people come to you?
All types. The only way I can really describe them is to talk about a couple of people I’m working with now, so you can see a cross-section. There’s a poet in Indonesia who’s writing an epic love story like The English Patient, Arundhati Roy kind of stuff—it’s wonderful; a businessman from Leeds who goes to China all the time and writes on his long-haul flights—he’s doing a novel about the building of the Berlin Wall; I’m working with a producer from the TV series Law and Order, who’s writing a thriller about a female secret service agent—someone like her, trying to hold her own as a woman working in the male-dominated area of corporate television; there’s a construction worker in California who was in jail for drugs for two or three years and is writing about a couple of brothers from a marijuana farming family in Humboldt County, California; I’m working with an accountant in Sussex who’s writing a time-travel love story; and a wonderful American fringe-theater playwright, originally from California but now living with her actor husband in Kent; she’s had a lot of stuff performed, the kind of plays they do above pubs in England, but this is her first novel, an extraordinary book about a mother on the run from a Mormon compound with two teenage daughters who have never seen the outside world. I have high hopes for it.
Are there a lot of people doing what you do?
An awful lot, especially since the internet came along. I don’t know anyone who works in quite the way I do; most freelance editors or editors online work primarily on manuscripts by authors already signed by publishers and agents, whereas my authors are totally inexperienced, would-be writers, the other end of the scale. I’m not dealing with authors who are fully accomplished novelists. They may not be the kind who have firsts in English from Cambridge; they’re often nervous, working at the very beginning, writing the kind of stuff that is a long way from being read by an agent, very raw. And there’s something about my website that’s not threatening to them, that encourages them.
Most freelance editors work on a manuscript in its entirety; they read one whole draft, after which the author revises it, then they read the second draft, the third, and so on. I usually read the manuscript to begin with and then work with the writer a few chapters at a time, developing the book slowly but surely over the course of a year—or two or three or even four sometimes. This is because I often have an awful lot to teach the people I’m working with, and writing is so onion-layered that I don’t want to throw everything at them all at once. We’ll start by getting the first 50 pages right from the point of view of the plot—or sometimes even just simple writing or grammar. It could be anything. Then we look at it from another angle, characterization or point of view, and gradually everything comes together. Often, by the time we’re halfway through the book they’ve got it. It’s like riding a bicycle or learning to swim—they’ve grasped everything, realized what they were doing wrong and put it all together. Then they start inching forward and getting better and better.
I charge $250 or £150 for the first letter, the assessment. I insist on that, because I’m also assessing whether I want to work on the manuscript or not. I can write the letter in such a way that it’s a very long time before I hear from them again, because there is so much to do. After that I charge by the page. Some people who do what I do charge by the hour, but that doesn’t work for me, because the time it takes to read a manuscript can vary so much. There are instructions on my site about how to prepare a manuscript. I accept them only in 12 point type. Double spacing is very important, and so is numbering the pages!
How did you come to start doing this?
I’ve always been enormously excited to read things in a very raw state. I don’t know why, but even when I was working full-time in publishing—which I did for many years, and where I acquired some prominent authors—there was something enormously exciting about being the very first person to read a manuscript, as it were. That’s what motivates me. It’s partly like teaching, I suppose. It’s so rewarding when maybe it’s the third time they’ve sent you something, and it’s just wonderful—the writing suddenly takes off and there’s a breakthrough. That moment is always thrilling. When you’re in a publishing house working with agents sending you manuscripts, what you see is usually fairly far along; irrespective of whether or not you respond to the novel and want to publish it, they’ve already reached a certain state. What I do now is different. I’m seeing people’s first tentative steps in writing fiction, the earliest glimmer of talent, and for some reason I find that more exciting, no matter how amateur it might be.
Does this reflect my own experience? It could, in a complex way. I had very little education. I had an army background. I went to school for about three years total, a boarding school in England. Most of the time my mother taught me. I left school at 15 and had no further education, so I’ve always had a slight inferiority complex about it. When I began trying to write myself, I was somewhat in the dark, even though I was also working in publishing. So I identify with a lot of these people, and I can see how and where they need to learn. I can understand what they need in order to understand what they’re doing. So that’s probably why I do it.
There are other reasons, too. For one thing, if you work in publishing, a lot of people are always coming up to you and saying, “My sister’s cleaning woman’s cousin has written a novel and will you read it?’ I was doing so much of that, and I started to think I ought to get paid for it. Especially when I did editorial work for nothing and the person got published. At that point I began to understand the broader picture of what was going on. I think it all started with the advent of the internet, really. Agents were getting so many emails every day, and were so inundated with manuscripts and submissions coming by email, that they were just ignoring them. They simply didn’t have the time to deal with them. I talked to a lot of people who had written novels and who waited as long as six months to hear back from an agent. So first, that six months was wasted, and second, they didn’t get any valuable feedback.
I thought there had to be another way. These are people who have no contact with the publishing world. And agents are just like anybody else, they have individual tastes. You have to know which agents know which editors and the kind of books they like; so when you submit yours you have to know which agent is going to respond to your type of fiction—do they like quiet, coming-of-age stories? Are they into out-and-out terrorist thrillers? Or whatever. And I began to think there was a gap in the market there—that there was room for somebody who could advise or work with them and help them find the right agent. So it just evolved. Then I heard from someone who wrote me a fan letter about one of my own books. There was something about her email, and I wrote back thanking her, how kind it was of her to write, authors always appreciate blah blah blah, and then I said, “But do you write?” because I loved reading her email. She wrote back saying yes, she didn’t know what to do with it, but she’d written two books, a novel and a young adult (YA) novel. I said I’d love to read them both, she became my first client, and I worked with her for four years. She got a good six-figure advance, her book was published earlier this year by Penguin, and apparently is selling very well. She did a wonderful interview on NPR. Her name’s Ellen Airgood, and her book is called South of Superior. She was the one who started it off, because I just felt I wanted to get her published somehow.
Things took off. The first year or so it was just a spattering of people, and then somehow they began to find me. I have about 25 on the go at any one time, because some are delivering, some are going away and writing and coming back. It works very much as it did when I was a commissioning editor at a publishing house. You’d prepare a fall list or a spring list and you’d be working with a certain number of authors on that list, on their manuscripts coming up for publication. Four years is a lot; most of them stay with me for about a year to 18 months.
Have any of your people gone on to successful careers afterwards?
My authors are only just starting to be published, but I do have one, Brad Taylor, who reached number 24 on the New York Times bestseller list this year with his first book. He earned out his advance within six months and has a contract now for three more books. He’s off now; he’s got a career. Ellen Airgood has really started to sell, particularly in the Midwest. She’s become a regional seller there. Simon van Booy has got quite a good career going. He’s published several books now and is a darling of New York agents. I don’t even know who his agent is now—isn’t that terrible? I do introduce people to agents, and I’m very happy to do so, but only if there is a chance that an agent will like the book. About 75 percent get introduced to an agent.
How do you work with someone? Send emails back and forth? Meet face-to-face? Long phone calls?
All of the above, though I work by email as much as possible. I read the manuscript first. Then I write a letter with an overall assessment of the book’s chances—what needs doing, which characters need development, where the pace lags, all that sort of thing. The letter can be as long as seven pages. Sometimes this is all that authors need; they just use this letter to help them get through the next draft on their own. But most I go on to work with for as long as it takes, focusing on 50 to 100 pages at a time. I make notes on the manuscript as I go along, or I stick Post-its as I go. Sometimes, when I’m reading a book for the first time or if I’m traveling and using my Kindle, I just scribble somewhere. Line editing I do on the manuscript by hand and then transfer to the electronic version.
Very occasionally I brainstorm with an author on the phone. That’s really for my purposes, so that I can get a sense of what’s important to them about the book, which characters they really care about, and then I can respond. It sometimes works very well. I try to avoid meeting face-to-face until we are very far down the line. Until we’ve become friends, as it were. It’s much easier to be tough on them if you haven’t established some kind of friendship. And, of course, sometimes it’s difficult for geographical reasons. I’ve had experiences where I thought I really knew authors I’d worked with for a long time online, and suffered a big shock when I actually met them. But in fact I haven’t met many people I’ve worked with.
In what ways can you make an impact on their writing? Does your advice include plot, style and editing?
Obviously each author is different. They have different strengths and weaknesses; some write really natural dialogue from day one, others need serious guidance in that area. For story and characterization I set them exercises. Novels are about people, so aspiring novelists have to be interested in people. It’s amazing how many aren’t, and that means they can’t write credible characters. It’s hard to give you examples of the exercises—they’re different with each author, and it’s a personal thing. What I do is tailored very personally to the author I’m working with, so I don’t have blanket exercises. Characterization is frequently a big problem. People often tend to write characters as they’ve seen them depicted on TV or in a movie, instead of observing real-life people. I get a lot of clichéd characters.
I can certainly work on a book whose style I don’t really like. I read in different ways—when I’m reading something for my own enjoyment it’s very different from how I do it professionally, when I’m reading something for editing, for assessment. If I’m reading something that’s been sent to me because the author’s trying to improve it, somewhere at the back of my mind I’m always looking for that, looking for ways. A lot of the time I’m reading in areas that I wouldn’t read for pleasure for myself, but I’m looking to see whether what they’re doing in that genre is working. If I really don’t like something, that’s another matter, but it very rarely happens. After all, it’s the person’s voice. That said, I’m not good at science fiction, so I don’t edit it. Violence I can handle, but if something is over the top, or racial or offensive, I say that. Or I’ll play devil’s advocate and say, “Are you really sure you want to put this in here? Because I can tell you that quite a few editors won’t go with it.” I point out that they might want to think again. But at the end of the day it’s their book, and if they want to leave it in, they can.
The first novel Ellen Airgood sent me was a romance: it was about a waitress in Chicago who was having problems, ran away and met someone else. It was a basic, garden-variety romance, and I just had a sense that she could write much better. I could tell that from her emails. I can more or less tell you in the first couple of emails from people whether they can go the distance or not. I prodded her and prodded her, and it turned out that she lived on Lake Superior and ran a diner where she cooked and was a waitress herself. She snowmobiled to work in the winter, a distance of about 20 miles—she lived this extraordinary life—and she said she’d had some essays published about local life there. I asked to see those, and they opened up a completely different world—the way people without money lived up there, how they resented the weekenders coming from Chicago, and how life was changing out there. I said, this is what you have to write, because you write about these characters brilliantly; I didn’t know people like this existed, and I meet a lot of different kinds of people. So she had to undo the original book and completely rewrite it. That’s why it eventually took four years. But it became a different kind of book, as did the YA one, which is also being published very soon. And that explains the kind of impact I can have. It was a drastic change to go from one style of writing to another.
It’s a cliché that writers are supposed to write about what they know. You always write about what you know; the important thing is writing about what you know and nobody else knows. Ellen’s first book was writing about what everybody knows, your basic chick lit that anybody can do. But only Ellen could write the book she eventually wrote, about a particular way of life out there, the barren hardscrabble, the building resentment of people coming in. I did have an impact on her writing. Sometimes we just need the freedom, simply to be liberated, to say yes, we can write like that, and no, you don’t have to write what’s currently popular.
What are the most common errors/pitfalls/difficulties people have?
No story. An awful lot of people, particularly those from MFA programmes, they write little vignettes, wonderful character studies, a series of them, as it were. But there’s absolutely no story, no arc or narrative. Wooden, over-the-top, rather clichéd characters. Overwriting that smothers the essence of the story and the action. Those are the most common errors—and adverbs, they are obsessed with adverbs.
Actually, a lot of people have far too much confidence. I wish they had less! They think they’re much better than they are. Writing a novel is such an incredible achievement, just to reach the end of it. I think so many people are so amazed that they did it at all that they think, that’s it, I’ve done it, it’s a work of art. And then they have to go back, and I have to deflate a lot of confidence. I wish more people were more hesitant and humble. The difficulty of writing a novel is the gathering of all the different strands of it together, the onion-layer element I mentioned before. Okay, you can write a story, but you have to people it with characters and those characters have to be believable. You can’t just write “he said, she said,” you’ve got to make some cuts or the clichés jump off the page. And you have to write in scenes. You can’t write a long synopsis—which is what a lot of them do. Your characters have to be up and running, we’ve got to care about them. There are millions of things you have to put together.
For the kind of novelist we’ve all heard of, this usually comes naturally. Most of them would probably be horrified at the mere suggestion that anyone should try to write a novel when they don’t know these things automatically. But many don’t. There are people with MFAs from some of the best universities in the United States or anywhere, and they still have to learn all this stuff, I’m afraid. They think they know, but they don’t, and their writing is as flat as a pancake. I can only deal with this little by little, exploring one error at a time. I might say to someone, imagine you’re at a party where you meet someone and tell them a story. Imagine yourself telling the story of what happened when you climbed a mountain in the Himalayas—or something. There’s an awful lot you’re going to leave out; you’ll just tell them the essence as succinctly as you can. You’re not going to bore people with what I call stage directions, with the character getting up, sitting down, leaning back, leaning forward, going to a window, and so forth. Everybody overwrites, that’s the problem, like writing a play where you give the actors detailed directions. You don’t need them in the same way in a novel. I’m a great believer in economy in writing. I once had a man whose book just wasn’t working. I said to him, I want you to go through the manuscript and take out every single adverb. That was all it took. Dialogue will tell you what a character is feeling—nobody has to say anything “excitedly.” It should all be apparent, but people don’t see that when they start writing.
Have you ever had to say “give it up”?
I’ve never said it, actually. I leave it up to them. When I write my big letter after I first read the manuscript, I might begin with the words “You are a long way from being published.” That is sort of a giveaway. And sometimes, after I’ve been working with a person for a little while, I’ll say I can’t go on taking their money because they’re not improving fast enough. I believe that. I don’t want to give them false hope. But a lot go on anyway; for many it’s a hobby. I can’t tell you how many write to me saying that their families don’t understand what they’re doing when they shut themselves away to do their revisions, but they love doing it. Once or twice I’ve said I can’t go on, but that’s when an author was too pushy or too crazy, and was calling me in the middle of the night, so I just said “Out.”
With training, can someone of moderate ability become a writer?
That is a hard question. It depends on their attitude. It sounds awful to say this, but it will work only if they are smart and intelligent enough to realize that they have only moderate ability when they start out. It’s related to what I said earlier about people who have too much confidence in themselves. It’s like anything else: if they’re willing to search for a way to improve it, then they can, but ego and impatience often get in the way because it’s so hard. But if people persevere—and many of them do—it’s wonderful. You have marvelous breakthroughs.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists reading this?
Prepare for rejection. That is serious. You will be rejected. Be prepared to take it and go back and be resilient. Be prepared to cut and know you’ll never miss it once you’ve done it. That’s what so many people can’t seem to grasp. “I can’t bear to cut this,” they say. “That’s one of my favorite bits.” But once you cut something you never mind.
The main piece of advice I would give anyone is to take their time and not to rush to send revisions to me. If I don’t hear from a person for six months, that’s wonderful. It means they’re really taking the time to think about it. You can’t be objective if you rush through something. You’ve got to let your mind empty out in order to receive new ideas about what you’re doing. And leave things as long as you can—write a few chapters, or whatever, then put it away for a month and reread it. You’ll be able to see then, to be objective and understand. Most people try to do things much too fast.
It’s the same with writer’s block. Just stop, go away, leave it, put it aside, do something else, forget about it. Then it will come back to you. I know that others say you should just keep going, but I don’t believe that. I believe you have to empty your mind—for fiction, anyway—in order to let the ideas come back. And read your work aloud. Voice is another thing people have to learn. I don’t think writing dialogue can be taught; you either have a natural ear for it or you don’t. Some people have a wonderful natural voice for all their characters; some people take a little while and have to find it; and some people never find it. I know that from doing readings of my own work. I hate to say this, but I’ve given a couple of readings when I’ve thought, shit, this is terrible, and I’ve edited as I’ve gone along, rewritten it in my head as I was reading. And of course there are people in the audience reading along with you who tell you you’ve got it wrong. Scary!
Does your instruction help you with your own writing?
Yes. Since my editing work took off, I’ve told myself I haven’t really had time—but I may have lost the nerve to go back to my own writing, since I’ve been reassessing it and thinking how awful it is. It is also a matter of energy. You need phenomenal energy to write a book, which I don’t think people realize until they come to do a second one. When you’re writing a first novel you’re often on a high. I don’t do second books. The whole point of First Base is to get them up and running and start their careers. Then they get published, they have an in-house editor at their publisher and they don’t need me anymore. You don’t want more than one editor on a book. There are people who’ve written a first novel and nothing’s happened with it, so they send me their second as a first. But usually they get better.
Can you give us some details of your own background and career that can help us see how you got where you are now?
I was born in London, but as the daughter of a British Army officer I grew up in Holland, Germany, the Sudan and Paris before I returned to school in England. That gave me French, German and a bit of Italian. My first job, when I was 16, was as a secretary in the foreign rights department at Hutchinson in London, because I spoke languages. I went on to be a secretary at Pan Books—the same place I went back to years later as editorial director of fiction. My kind boss at Pan, thinking I could get a job as a junior literary agent, put in a good word for me at London International (which later became ICM), and I got the job. I was supposed to be selling serial rights to magazines, but I got fired pretty soon afterwards because the only magazine I wanted to go to was Vogue, where I’d watch the photo shoots all day. I really hadn’t a clue how to be an agent.
At the time I was living in a room in a house belonging to the parents of the writer-director Donald Cammell, who was writing the screenplay for the movie Performance, which he went on to direct with Nicolas Roeg. It starred Mick Jagger and James Fox. He asked me to help him type the screenplay and do a bit of research, but because he worked at night I would start at 11 p.m. and work through the night. When production on the movie started I shifted over to work for Cammell’s brother, who was the associate producer, so I was a production assistant on the movie as well. That was the start of a 12-year career in the movie business. After Performance I went on to freelance on script development for the big studios, Warner, MGM, Universal, United Artists. In those days the studios would send telexes to London with questions such as “Dustin Hoffman wants to do a boxing picture, so can you cover all boxing books, plays etc.?” Then I would read every possible book about boxing and send back reports to California. Eventually I got fed up with being away on location all the time and thought it was time to get back to publishing. I went to work at the Pan bookshop as a sales assistant, where I met Sonny Mehta (now the head of Knopf in New York), who was editor in chief in the Pan offices upstairs. He hired me as the film and TV editor, overseeing novelizations of screenplays and TV series. After about eight months I became the fiction editor. I was there for 11 years and learned a lot. I went on to be fiction editorial director at a number of London publishers.
I came to America for Christmas in 1996 to stay with a friend in East Hampton, in Long Island. She had a lot of people staying with her who were looking for houses, so I went along for the ride and ended up buying one. At that time I had an imprint with another London publishing house, Fourth Estate, for whom I worked from home. I reckoned I could work anywhere, so I went to live in the house I bought in Amagansett and ultimately moved there permanently.
I realize now that nobody with as little education as I had could ever get work so easily today. Back then you could just pick up jobs; it was all about connections and who you knew. I once asked my then literary agent, Deborah Rogers (who has had more Booker Prize winners than any other agent), what her criteria were for taking people on. She said, “Providing I like the book, I will represent anyone who is serious about their writing.” And in a way, that’s what I want to do: no matter how humble or whoever they are, if they’re serious and they want to try (and don’t have ridiculous egos that let them think they’re much better than they are), that’s what I get a kick out of in working with them.