Once More, with Feeling

I never shut up about how important revision is, which is something you probably already know if you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time. This is partly because that’s a hill I’m willing to die on and partly because it’s a part of the process I don’t often see other writers talk about, which I think contributes to the myth that the first draft is 90% of the work–which has been, in my experience, pretty much the opposite of the reality.

In my last post here I talked about the daunting prospect of the first round of revision, and about how you have to find a way to live in that strange liminal place between the disaster your first draft is and the terrific thing it has the potential to become. So let’s say you’ve gotten through that second draft. How do you approach the third?

This is where I am right now. Over the last three weeks I’ve worked through my shitty first draft, working about three hours a night with the exception of my “spring break,” which I spent locked in an AirBnB in a very small town in Pennsylvania where there wasn’t much to distract me from the work. And despite all that time spent and work done, if someone besides me were to look at the two drafts I have now, they might have a hard time spotting the differences. The most obvious one is probably that the second draft is about 25,000 words shorter, but besides that it looks more or less the same. So what the hell was I doing for those 100-odd hours I spent turning Draft 1 into Draft 2?

Reading through the ugly first draft of any manuscript is the first chance you have to meet the story as a whole, to see the shape it takes when all the pieces are finally in place. It’s a bit of a mixed bag emotionally; there’s certainly a thrill at seeing the whole thing come together, but that enthusiasm is necessarily dampened by the realization of how much work still remains to be done–a realization it’s really not possible to arrive at until you have a complete draft of, well, something. Calling it a “book” might be generous at this juncture. Whatever you want to call it, it can be hard to know where to start. Figuring that out is what I was doing between Draft 1 and Draft 2.

I’ve you’ve been following me anywhere long enough to know how much I love revision, you’ve also probably heard me harp on about how much I love outlining. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I love nothing more than smashing those two things together. Yes, I’m that much of a creative control freak: I outline revision. This is actually a habit I picked up during a writing workshop at Iowa about five years ago. Our workshop leader, responding to a question about his own revision process, explained that in each draft he only focuses on one thing. One draft to fix plot and pacing. One draft to look only at character development. Another to look only at dialogue. And so on and so forth.

Revision, precisely because it is so important and so unwieldy and because most first drafts are a holy mess, can be really intimidating. So sometime in the intervening years I figured out my own way to make it manageable. While I don’t follow the same one-thing-per-draft approach described by that workshop leader, I do like to approach each draft with a finite list of tasks to keep it from feeling overwhelming. That, largely, is the task of Draft 2: to suss out what needs to be done in Draft 3. After the last three weeks of work, I’ve got a list with ten or twelve items on it, which range in intensity from “Write those two scenes you never actually put in there” to “Cut every word you don’t absolutely need.” (For me, cutting down on the clutter is always a high priority, but since this MS clocked in at 210,000 words I’m going to have to Marie Kondo the crap out of it.) Once I have a list, I tend to favor a top-down approach and do the heavy lifting first: fixing plot holes and character development and anything else that’s a macrocosmic problem. Then I move on to the smaller stuff that only affects one scene or one page or one paragraph. Once I get to the bottom of that list, I’ll call it a draft, then start the process over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No doubt about it, this is a lot of work. But what I like about working this way is that you can really see the progress from draft to draft and know exactly what you did to get there. And by the time you’re on draft ten or twelve the items on your list have shrunk from mountains to molehills and it’s starting to look like a book. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s a bit like finding the statue inside a block of marble. You have to chip away at it, slowly and carefully, bit by bit, until you find the last graceful shape of the thing. Will it ever be perfect? Of course not. That’s art. Even Michelangelo’s David has some proportional irregularities. But if you can carve something like that from a dull mass of stone, you’ve accomplished something worth being proud of–and most people won’t even notice if his head’s just a little too big.

M

Publishing Q&A, Part 2

Over the past week, my agent, my editor, and I have been collecting your questions about books, publishing, and If We Were Villains. You can read the first round of answers here, and the second round below (but first a quick reminder who we are):

Arielle Datz is a New York transplant from Los Angeles, who started as an intern at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency in 2011. She then worked in the foreign rights department at WME, followed by the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. She returned to DCL full-time in 2015. She is currently obsessed with April the Pregnant Giraffe (aprilthegiraffe.com). Other loves include whales, contemporary chamber music, and noodles in all forms.

Christine Kopprasch is an Executive Editor at Flatiron Books, where she recently published New York Times bestsellers The Dry and Behind Her Eyes. She is publishing the upcoming debuts If We Were Villains and Tornado Weather. Christine previously worked at Crown, where her acquisitions included New York Times bestseller Bittersweet, New York Times bestseller The Little Paris Bookshop, and The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International and was a New York Times Top 10 Best Book of 2016. Christine is a terrible but avid gardener and an obsessive reader. She has a baby at home, so she basically hasn’t slept in a year. (Her opinions are her own.)

M. L. Rio is the author of If We Were Villains, coming to a bookstore near you on April 11th from Flatiron Books. Before she was an author she was an actor, and before she was an actor she was just a word nerd whose only friends were books. She holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London, and probably won’t break away from the cult of academia any time soon. Her other favorite things include music, wine, and her dog Marlowe.

And without any further ado, our next questions from you.


For Arielle/Christine: What did you study and when did you realize this is what you wanted to do?

A: I majored in English literature, and knew when I graduated that I wanted to pursue a career in publishing, although at the time I didn’t know which part of publishing. After interning and working at a few literary agencies, I realized that I enjoyed the relationship that agents have with authors and the role that we play in the publishing world.

C: I was an English major with a Women’s Studies minor. English was a natural fit for me because I loved reading, and I interned at a literary agency when I was in college because I thought publishing might be interesting. That wasn’t a positive experience, so I actually ended up assistant teaching third and fourth grades for two years before I interned at another literary agency and got my first editorial assistant job. I always thought I would like to work with books. It’s the kind of job that people who knew me in elementary school say, “Of course!” when they hear what I do – I was always obsessed with books and writing, and I delighted in tinkering with other people’s words. I’m lucky I have the chance.

For C: 1) What types of editors are there, and what are their roles? I know of acquisitions editor and manuscript editor, but I am not quite sure what they entail. 2) What kind of education is looked for in editors? I’m interested in becoming and editor, and I know where to start. Should I shoot for an MA or is a BA fine? Also, how do I get my foot in the door at big publishing companies? What do companies look for in editors? What entry level jobs are there for me to pursue?

C: 1) I am the “editor,” full stop, in US parlance, as I both acquire and edit the manuscript. I think this may differ by country, as some UK houses have a separation between the two jobs, but I’m not sure about the details. Broadly: to acquire, I read about 500 submissions a year (or parts of them) and sort through what I like and think readers will like. To edit, I go through the manuscript very carefully and give the author my thoughts about what is and isn’t working.

2) I can go on about getting a job in publishing for too long. Real talk: It’s hard! BA is fine. I spent 6 months unemployed while I tried to get interviews in publishing, so I did an unpaid internship at a literary agency to help me connect with people in the industry. Having someone who knew me recommend me directly to the editor who was hiring was much more effective for me than going through HR. That’s not possible for everyone, of course, depending on where you live in the world and finances. I saved up on my tiny teacher’s salary so I could have some flexibility, and I had parents who lived within commuting distance of the city so I could get in for interviews and internships without committing to an apartment before I had a job.

The entry-level jobs are mostly for assistants who will do a lot of administrative work for years. They aren’t glamorous or easy! I was highly motivated (and I had a great first boss), so I was devoted to proving myself. I stayed up late reading as many of my editor boss’s submissions as I could, sending her my thoughts about what I was reading. I told her what to read first, what I didn’t love but thought she might because I knew her taste, and why I would reject the rest. I also read her edits and paid attention. She was brilliant and I would read every note she had for an author. Then I started “editing behind” her: after she was done editing a book, I would go through it and see if I had other thoughts she might find helpful. She was kind enough to not only consider and use my thoughts, but also to tell the agents & authors when a suggestion had been mine, which increased my credibility with them. (And when she left and her projects were reassigned, the agents and I could make a credible case for why I should keep the books.) Companies are looking for someone who reads widely and deeply, is fanatically interested in supporting an editor by doing lots of tiresome, often thankless work (forms, copying, mailing, setting up meetings, scheduling lunches, drafting rejections, contract requests, system admin) and adding the editorial work on top of that.

I was focused on the editorial path, but if you’re not totally sure if that’s for you, there are lots of other jobs in books to consider: working on covers or interior designs if you’re artistic, working on the accounting side if you’re math-minded, working in publicity if you like pitching books to people you don’t know, working in marketing if you are business-minded, etc. And there’s also the agenting side. All of these people are important in the process, so you don’t have to be an editor to work with books.

For C:When editing a manuscript do you only focus on things like structure, character, theme etc. or also on the language? I mean this in the sense of getting the words right or saying “I don’t think these specific words work here”.

C: All of those things! I tend to look at the big picture issues first, because there is no point in line editing chapters that may change substantially. By the final round I usually have a lot to say about specific words and phrases. For example, I always keep a running list of words that have jumped out at me as possibly being overused.  What language I think needs editing depends on the manuscript, of course. M is such an editing expert (if I may brag on her a bit!) that Villains had already been through many, many drafts when I first read it, and she had picked up on many of her own quirks and addressed them. Not only did that make it fun to read, but it left me free to notice different things than I might have if more obvious issues needed to be addressed.

For A/C: Since upmarket fiction is a bit of a “combination”: what are you more likely to be interested in, a manuscript with great characters whose plot needs some work or one with a strong plot where the characters need tinkering? Or do you feel that if either of those still need work then the story isn’t worked out enough yet, although I guess there’s always room for improvement?

A: I don’t have a clear answer for this. When I read a manuscript, if I fall in love with it, I’m willing to do the work on it. If I can find a way in, then I will try to work with the writer to realize that book’s potential.

C: It’s easier to fall in love when both characters and plot are there, but if I have to choose, I’m more likely interested when the plot needs work. I just acquired two very different books that each had wonderful characters that leapt off the page, but both needed major plot changes (in my opinion). One was brilliantly written and conceived but didn’t yet have the page-turning momentum that makes you race through a book, and the other’s central mystery didn’t yet make the best use of the amazing main character. I think they will have both of your listed attributes once the authors and I are finished with them! Even if a book isn’t quite working for me, a strong voice can keep me interested in thinking about whether I have plot ideas to contribute.

For C: For an as of yet unpublished author who’s work leans toward the literary end of the spectrum what is the best way to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher? I’ve read alot and it seems to be a combination of published submissions and contest wins which result in a literary agent which THEN results (maybe) in a book deal. How do you go about getting a publisher to invest time and money in your project? I’m not ready to publish yet (I need to improve) but when I am, how?

C: Yes, published submissions and contest wins can help you get noticed. But where I’ve worked, it really is almost all about the book on submission. If you have great credits to your name, I might decide to read that submission before something else in my pile, but in the end the only thing that really matters to me is what’s on the page. Not platform or previous publications, just how I feel when I’m reading. If I can’t put it down, that’s the best way to get my attention.

For A/C: What makes a manuscript stand out to an agent or publisher? What stood out in the case of IWWV?

A: There’s no right answer for the first part of your question. Every agent and publisher has their own unique taste, so what makes a manuscript stand out depends on the reader. For IWWV, I started reading and got immediately sucked in, and then as I kept reading my excitement for the book and about the book just grew. I can’t point to a specific thing and say, “That right there, that did it.” It’s more that, as I read, I felt energized and electrified. I’d compare it to feeling a crush for the first time.

C: Well, I don’t even think M’s ever seen this, but here’s part of the note I sent to my boss before I’d finished IWWV to tell her I was loving it and wanted the team to read with me: “I feel like it’s really smart without being pretentious, suspenseful without feeling fake, and a great friendship & coming of age story. It helps to know Shakespeare but even without being an expert it is very compelling.” Not only did the plot and conceit stand out, but also the manuscript was so clean and sharp and carefully crafted that I knew the author was someone I wanted to work with. Every word had been scrutinized, which I could tell only because the read was so effortless. And I love a book that assumes readers are intelligent and intellectually curious.

For A/C/M: How long did the whole process take, from starting to write IWWV to deciding it was ready for publishing?

A: Let’s see: for IWWV, M and I started working together in March 2015, and we did a few revisions before I felt ready to submit to publishers. Flatiron acquired it in June 2015, more revisions were done, and here we are with publication fast approaching.

C: I got the submission in June 2015, so I’ve been involved with it for coming up on two years.

M: It was definitely a longer process for me, because I worked on the manuscript for about a year by myself before Arielle came into the picture, and then a few months later, Christine. I’ve been working on this thing since just about this same time in 2014. So, three years in the making for me.

For A/C/M: What was the most troublesome or difficult part of the publishing process? Like, were there any unexpected bumps in the road?

M: I think with any creative project that takes place over the course of two years or more, you’re bound to hit some unexpected bumps. Actually the timeline was a bump in and of itself. Our original release date was in January 2017 and I don’t mind admitting that I was a little bit heartbroken when I heard we were going to have to push it back to April. Down the line I completely understand why we decided to do that and I do think it was the right call—I mean, nobody buys books in January because they all just got books for Christmas—but at the time it felt like a whole lifetime longer to have to wait. I will also admit to being the lone dissenting opinion in the cover art conversation. But that’s part of the beauty and also the challenge of having so many people work on one piece of art: there are bound to be things not everyone agrees about.

A: Speaking to what M said, I think one of the hardest parts of the publishing process (especially for a first time author), is reconciling the dream of a book with the realities of the publishing industry. Compromises are inevitable, but that doesn’t make them easy. Ultimately the author, agent, and editor/publisher all want to create the best book possible, but unfortunately agreeing on what that actually is can mean some difficult conversations.

C: I always try to share my major editorial ideas with an author before I buy her book, so she doesn’t get shell-shocked later. But if I’m remembering correctly, my biggest suggested change to Villains came out of my third (or so) reading of the manuscript. Luckily M jumped on it, but as I was sending that letter I did wonder what she would think about this rather significant plot change we hadn’t previously discussed.

 


We have many more questions in the queue, so keep an eye out!

–M

Q&A with My Agent and Editor

insideDCL
_Inside DCL (Arielle Datz)

In the past few weeks, as we get closer and closer to a release day for Villains, I’ve shared a number of conversations with my agent and editor about the enthusiasm for publishing online, and the lack of inside information available. And they’ve offered to do something amazing:

They’re going to answer all your questions about writing, editing, agenting, and the process of publishing If We Were Villains

Here’s a little bit more about them:

Arielle Datz is a New York transplant from Los Angeles, who started as an intern at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency in 2011. She then worked in the foreign rights department at WME, followed by the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. She returned to DCL full-time in 2015. She is currently obsessed with April the Pregnant Giraffe (aprilthegiraffe.com). Other loves: whales, contemporary chamber music, and noodles in all forms.

Christine Kopprasch is an Executive Editor at Flatiron Books, where she recently published New York Times bestsellers The Dry and Behind Her Eyes. She is publishing the upcoming debuts If We Were Villains and Tornado Weather. Christine previously worked at Crown, where her acquisitions included New York Times bestseller Bittersweet, New York Times bestseller The Little Paris Bookshop, and The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International and was a New York Times Top 10 Best Book of 2016.Christine is a terrible but avid gardener and an obsessive reader. She has a baby at home, so she basically hasn’t slept in a year. (Her opinions are her own.)

This is an incredible opportunity to hear from some people (besides me) in the book business firsthand, so please take advantage of it! Here’s how it’s going to work:

  1. You send a question to me here, indicating that it’s for Agent/Editor Q&A. (This is important, so I know it’s not just a question for me.)
  2. You indicate who the question is for: Arielle, Christine, me, or some combination of the three of us.
  3. I will post all of our responses here! So if you want to see everybody’s publishing questions–not just your own–keep an eye on this blogroll.

We’ll be accepting and posting questions up until April 4th, which is one week before the Villains release, so go ahead and start sending them in!

Can’t wait to hear from you.

–M