The Editor: Betsy Mitchell
In July 1993 Warner Books hired me to revitalize its science fiction and fantasy line, where sales had been dwindling. There were almost no manuscripts in inventory - unlike at my previous publisher, where we were bought up for a year and a half ahead.
Although most large publishing houses no longer accept slush manuscripts - those submitted directly by writers, not via an agent - I was in desperate need of novels to build my line. My assistant and I plunged into a pile of manuscripts addressed to the previous editor. Most were not what we were looking for. However, the cover letter for something called Immortal Longings
from a British writer named J.V.Jones caught our interest. It began:
I have just completed my first novel and I am seeking publication of my work. My book is aimed primarily at the "speculative fiction" market, and I am aware that Warner has had considerable success in this area.
My novel takes place in a Medieval setting and has a Chaucerian array of characters; a scheming chancellor, an avaricious madam, a gluttonous archbishop and a queen too long barren...
The Author: J.V. Jones
I wrote my cover letter with one basic criteria: Keep it short. I did not want to bore anyone with the entire plot line, or my personal resume; instead I chose to present a brief description conveying the flavor of the novel, followed by a few basic facts about myself. I knew I would only get one shot at catching Betsy Mitchell's attention and I realized that above all, my letter would be judged on its professionalism: spelling, grammar, and the ability to get to the point.
The well-written (and blessedly brief) cover letter drew us on. Because of the numerous duties competing for any editor's time, an editorial assistant is always first reader on slush pile manuscripts, and my assistant delved into Immortal Longings. In a few days time it graduated to my desk, accompanied by an enthusiastic report.
Indeed, the manuscript had the spark of something new. It was written in a vigorous, cinematic style that put the reader vividly into the setting. The enormous cast of characters, even those in small background roles, was distinctively created. But the novel, even at 150,000 words, was nowhere near a finished story! Ms.Jones' cover letter had left out the important fact that Immortal Longings was only the first third of a trilogy.
Launching a new author with a three-book series is tricky. If anything at all goes wrong with the publication of the first book - the cover artist does a mediocre job, or the novel appears in the same month as something similar by a much bigger name or one of the main bookstore chains simply doesn't order it for whatever reason - then the second and third books stand even less of a chance, since their advance sales will depend on the sales of Book 1. Still, Ms.Jones showed strong potential, and I was loathe to dismiss Immortal Longings. I requested an outline of the complete series.
From the start, I knew it would be difficult to sell an editor the idea of a trilogy from an unpublished writer. With that in mind, I decided to lessen my odds by not mentioning it in my cover letter. It was a risk, but I was banking on the idea that either Ms. Mitchell would like my work well enough to pursue it further, or, finding it wholly unsuitable, not read it past the first twenty pages and never discover that the novel was the first of three.
When Ms. Mitchell called and asked for the complete outline of the series, naturally I was thrilled. However, up until that point, I only had the bare bones of the plot committed to paper. I worked on the outline for several days, changing, revising and expanding and then faxed it over to Warner to see what they thought. As with the original query letter, I tried to ensure that the document had a clean, businesslike tone, but this time I added something extra: a few sentences stating my willingness to be flexible and work with Ms. Mitchell to make the series stronger.
Julie Jones' outline posed almost more problems than it solved. The story promised lots of action, romance and magic, but after three long books, several major plot lines were left unresolved, and another important plot line ended with the death of a major sympathetic character, leaving his lifelong mission unfinished. Ms.Jones was suffering from what I privately call "British disease" - the tendency for many British authors to write with a dark, depressing slant. American audiences want uplifting, happy endings. Would she be willing to revise not just her outline, but much of the emotional feel of the trilogy, still with no promise of a contract? I sent my suggestions in a three-page, single-spaced letter.
Ms.Mitchell is right about us Brits - we hate a happy ending. One high school semester my official reading list was: Hamlet, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Brideshead Revisited. Not a happy ending amongst them! Depressing tendencies of the English aside, as soon as I read her fax I saw she had raised several important points: Not only did the series need a more upbeat ending, but it also needed a greater sense of closure. In the original outline I left the fate of a major character dangling and some subplots unresolved. Betsy urged to me to rework the outline, paying special attention to the buildup of the story line, strengthening the role of the leading character and, as she put it, "answering all the questions". Sound advice has a clear ring to it and my ears responded to the call.
From my point of view, this was a good chance to work with a professional editor - someone with the practical experience needed to know what it takes to capture and keep a reader's interest. I didn't look upon the situation as having to revise the outline without a contract, but rather an opportunity to receive the benefit of Betsy's editorial expertise for free.
There followed a series of faxes, where we not only worked together to fine-tune the outline, but went into detail discussing potential changes to Book 1. My priorities during this exchange were first, to demonstrate my ability to both take, and work from, constructive criticism; and second, to appear professional at all times. If this was a test, then I was determined not to lose points for bad presentation or inflexibility.
The time had come! Julie Jones had proven herself willing to revise her original concept and very capable of doing so, as her imaginative responses to my suggestions clearly showed. I made her an offer for the trilogy, discussing all the aspects of the contract just as I would with an agent, and the paperwork was drawn up. The usual periods of first-deal billing and cooing ensued. Then a long letter of comment regarding Julie's manuscript went off to England. But now she could start her revisions with the promise of an on-signing payment close at hand.
By the time I received the first installment of Ms.Mitchell's rewrite suggestions, I was raring to go. Her thoughts were laid out in a precise, page-by-page format that I found easy to work from. A pattern quickly emerged from Betsy's numerous recommendations and proposals: Lose the fat. Anything that was extraneous or self-indulgent had to go. It was a learning experience for me; not only did I emerge better equipped to look at my work more objectively, but also with a valuable insight into the editorial process.
What I found most rewarding about the re-write was the way Betsy's suggestions prompted me to come up with some wonderful new material for the book. We added a prophesy that immediately became central to the whole story line, provided a tragic background for a central character and fleshed-out areas that required more explanation. By the time the rewrite was finished, Book 1 had emerged as a stronger piece of fiction.
During this time if I ever got a little burnt out with working all day and then coming home to write all night, I just reminded myself how lucky I was to actually have a publishing deal. Before I sent my manuscript to Warner, I sent it to two publishing houses and a handful of agents, all of whom politely rejected my work. If anything, it was the fear of being on the receiving end of more of these bleak, discouraging letters that kept me going. Yes, Warner was asking a lot of me, but at least they were asking !
The hardest thing about the rewrite was having to cut scenes that I really liked, but that Betsy judged unnecessary to the plot. My one sex scene, which I had lovingly giggled over many a time, had to be cut. This was quite a blow to me and I had to learn how to bite my tongue and the bullet at the same time.
Because Warner's publishing schedule is drawn up a solid year in advance, even before the author returned her signed contract to Warner, it was already time to write the cover cop for the novel! The first-draft manuscript went to Mark Arnold, a copywriter with years of experience in science fiction and fantasy. Julie's story captivated him - but also gave him much cause for comment. In a rather long letter to me, he communicated his concerns about various plot points. And since several of them raised topics that I had no discussed with the author, I passed the letter on to her.
I was by the fax machine when this one came in. Half an hour later it was still coming. To say that it was long is like saying that the bubonic plague killed a few people! I was due to go out that night, but stayed in instead. Mr. Arnold proved to be stimulating company.
Basically, his fax challenged me to take a fresh look at my plot, with a view to tightening my grip upon it. He pointed out that it would be a shame to leave certain characters along the wayside, and suggested ways I could re-introduce them in later volumes to the benefit of the series as a whole. He went on to give lots helpful advice about settings and form and pointed out several areas that would benefit from further consideration.
I was grateful for his counsel, and promptly revised the series outline, bearing his comments about plot in mind. Once again I was in the fortunate position of receiving expert advice, and I readily agreed to a second rewrite of Book 1. The extra work wasn't important; making the manuscript the best that it could be was what counted.
Many authors might have balked at receiving so many comments from an "unofficial" source. The wise author will recognize helpful advice wherever it comes from. If Julie had refused to incorporate Mark Arnold's suggestions into her revised manuscript, I would have wondered how serious she was about her writing career.
On the other hand, she did stick up for herself when she felt strongly enough that something shouldn't be changed. I tried to push her into concluding one too many subplots with a happy ending. Julie pointed out that her characters were busy enough already; how could I expect them to clear up all the problems of her fantasy world simultaneously? This answer I respected; editors recognize good reasoning when we hear it, too.
By the way, it doesn't behoove an editor to ignore sound suggestions just because he or she didn't think of them. Editing is an imperfect and subjective art. If we expect 50,000 or so people to buy a book that we put out, certainly more than one pair of eyes can be useful in editing it!
Now we had just one final challenge: to find a strong title. Immortal Longings sounded to me like a romance, not an epic fantasy. If possible, a title should be memorable and communicate the type of story that it names. We need something that promised a mysterious prophecy at work in a magical world. Even Julie's original title would have to be edited.
I liked my title a lot. I took it from Anthony and Cleopatra, the first Shakespeare play I ever read, and I remember it with a sort of fuzzy, pubescent fondness. Of all the changes that Betsy proposed, this was the most difficult to accept. For years I had carried my title around in my head, keeping it safe until I was ready to write my first book. I suppose that was the problem: No matter what I wrote - be it high-tech thriller or car maintenance manual - it was going to be called Immortal Longings.
Betsy rightly pointed out that this sounded like a "romantic bodice-ripper," not a fantasy, and so, with my newly acquired oral skill of biting tongue and bullet simultaneously, combined with enough sense to realize that Betsy knows the best way to target her market, I agreed to her suggestion of The Baker's Boy. We settled on The Book Words as the overall trilogy title.
Says J.V.Jones: "My advice to first-time writers is be prepared to work with an editor. Never love your manuscript so much that you're unwilling to make changes. And always put your best foot forward. A little luck goes a long way, but a professional attitude will take you further."
Says Betsy Mitchell: "Julie was lucky in that her manuscript was on my desk when I need to buy - and there will always be editors in that situation. But don't rely on luck: Read Publishers Weekly (and this magazine!) for news of book lines being started, editors changing houses, special projects needed. Subscribe to newsletters that specialize in your area of the field. When the big chance arises, act like the professional writer you'd like to be. If Julie hadn't proved willing to make the many, many changes her manuscript needed, it would have stayed unsold."
This article originally appeared in the Writer's Digest.