I’ve worked as an editor and book doctor for a number of years, both
with a publishing house and more recently as a freelance editor and book
doctor. As an editor faced with a towering slush pile I can tell you
what is likely to survive the process and make it to publication in a
tremendously competitive industry. What follows are the bits of advice I
find myself repeating most often to new authors…and even to some who
have been around for awhile and need a reminder.
Point 1: Be professional, you must know the rules of the publishing
game. Don’t think—especially as a new author–that you can take short
cuts, use cute stationary, or assume that your 1200 page opus on your
cat is appropriate for a publisher that handles romance novels of
between 300-400 pages. Publishers have guidelines—follow them. Do not
deviate. Most guidelines can be obtained on-line
You also need to understand that there is etiquette around
submissions. Again, follow the guidelines, if they want an outline and
three chapters that’s what you send. If they want it with a paperclip
versus a staple, that’s what you do. Increasingly, more publishers and
agents are accepting electronic submissions—some still do not—find out
what they want.
Once you’ve got the etiquette down, which includes knowing the
basics to double space, use a proper heading etc. let’s talk about the
Point 2: To get a book done, most authors write daily. Most find a
regular time and work it into the fabric of their life. In my
experience what separates wannabe writers from those who eventually get
published, is that they write every day, usually at the same time of day
and for a set period of time. Many authors set quotas for a specified
number of pages or words a day. If you find yourself blocked, bored or
distracted, write something anyway even if it isn’t your main project.
Don’t’ be married to every word; there are always more. I find that
with many new authors—and even some who’ve been around for quite a
while—it’s difficult to have the editorial discipline necessary to prune
and even excise extensive bits of prose. Sometimes writing that is
exquisite and lyrical is unnecessary or weighs down the story—it must
go. There may be ways to soften the blow, tell yourself you can use it
somewhere else. But the cleaner your prose the less it will be edited
by others, and the more likely it is to get a green light.
Point 3: Show don’t tell. Everything should take place on the page.
The reader needs to be there at all important events. Don’t tell them
about it but use sensual detail to show them. Set the scene including
your character’s visceral responses to the action. How they feel, what
they see, smell taste and hear.
In the following example we can see how sensual detail amps up tension and sets a scene.
“Come on, Beth.” His fingers entwined in her hers, flesh on flesh, holding tight. “I want to show you something.”
“What?” she asked, laughing, and followed him down the granite
stairs that led to the dissection rooms and the hospital morgue.
Careful not to trip on her gown, she didn’t think about the stench of
death and formalin that curtained the air.” –The Cadaver’s Ball, Charles
Atkins (St. Martin’s Press/Leisure Books).
By comparison, “They found themselves in the morgue,” falls flat.
It’s a common pitfall to leave lush detail and action out of a scene.
This doesn’t mean it’s free season on purple prose, but if it’s not on
the page, no one will read it.
Another mistake that new authors—especially fiction writers fall into
is that too much of what occurs becomes internal. You need to take what
is in the character’s head and turn it into observable action. There
are different ways to do this. If your character is cerebral and
conflicted, give him/her a friend, confidant…or even dog to whom they
can bare their soul and reveal their motivation—what they want—as the
story progresses. Perhaps the most hackneyed example of this is the
villain who at the very end of the book reveals why he/she did all the
evil things they did—“I suppose you’re wondering why I called you all
here this evening.” It’s more satisfying, and in keeping with
contemporary literature, to reveal early in the book the motivations of
all the major characters. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be secrets
and surprises—there should be. Your reader needs to walk in step with
your characters and get to know them—just as we get to know real
people—as they, and the story, develop.
Point 4: It is important to develop a couple of literate friends
whose opinions you trust. Now this is where—just as with editing—you
will need to table your ego, and that surging bad feeling authors can
get when faced with criticism. Honest and informed critiques are a sort
of mirror that can show you the strengths and weaknesses of a
particular piece. Writers often become myopic around their work,
especially when they’ve read and reread the same chapters. Outside eyes
are crucial. Choose one or two people—more than that can be
confusing—and take what they say to heart. Avoid people who are overly
negative, or positive.
If you find yourself in arguments with your trusted critic, saying
things like, “Oh, you don’t get what I was trying to do there.” You
need to stop, and rethink a couple of my earlier points. Why did they
not get the rich narrative running through your head? It’s probably not
on the page. Why are they not feeling it emotionally? Chances are
good you told them what was happening instead of showing with rich
Point 5: The final point is perhaps the most important. If you
want to be a published author, perseverance is everything. Even the
most wonderful books and already established authors will receive
rejection from agents and editors. To quote Dorchester Publishing
(Leisure Books) acquisitions editor Don D’Auria, “it’s getting the right
book, to the right editor or agent at the right time.” In other words
the rejection may have nothing to do with the quality of the piece you
sent, it just wasn’t what that particular editor or agent needed at that
No doubt there is pain that comes with rejection letters. There’s
no getting around this and the best I can say is that for most writers
this lessens over time, especially if the rejections are interspersed
with acceptance letters.
However not all rejection is bad, and when you receive one that is not a
form letter, read it carefully because an editor has found something in
your work on which they want to comment. Pay attention to suggestions
they make and if they leave the door open for further submission,
consider sending them something else that is more in line with what they
Weathering rejection is a critically important step for any author.
Because what I’ve witnessed over the years, is that some of the most
brilliant authors will never make it to publication because they cannot
get past the rejection. I like the approach that my friend and author
Charles Atkins takes towards rejection, “you look at the letter and see
if there’s anything in it that can help the writing. If there is, fix
it. If there isn’t, or it’s a form letter, figure out who you need to
send it to next, and get it out in the morning mail.”
Bio—Liz Fitzgerald was an editor and publicist for Donald I. Fine, Inc.
She currently works as a freelance editor and book doctor. She can be
contacted at email@example.com.