The Birth of a Novel

10 Jan

I buy almost all of Bundoran Press’ novels through an open submission process, though obviously if you’ve published with me before you get to go to the front of the line. But even that is no guarantee of publication.

So how does a novel get from being three chapters in a metaphorical meter-high pile of other submissions (I only accept digital submissions but a sea of electrons isn’t as visually arresting) to being an actual book?

I thought you’d never ask.

Almost every submission I receive is competently written; even the stories and characters are okay. It’s not that they aren’t adequate; they just aren’t special. The truth is, good writing alone will not get you through the slush pile. You need to present something interesting, something ‘fresh.’ Hardly helpful, I know, but it really does come down to that. You have to catch the editor’s attention. The good news, I suppose, is that different editors are interested in different things – but none of us want the same old thing.

The secret is not to write the best copy ever of the last best seller. Trying to be another writer – unless you are being paid to ghost-write a celebrity bio – is not the road to success. Your novel has to reflect you. It may fall into a category of books – LA dystopian thrillers, for example – but it should try to re-define what that category means.

I call it the ‘look-away’ factor. Let me explain.

I’ve read a lot of books in my life. In the last few years I’ve read a lot of manuscripts that want to be books. I apply the same standard to both. If I find myself frequently putting a book down to wander off and check my e-mail, get a snack, wash my hair – there is a pretty good chance that book will go into the ‘did not finish’ pile. If I put it down mid-paragraph, that chance becomes a certainty. It happens more often than you might think.

Manuscripts face a tougher go. They have seldom been edited and are certainly not in as good a shape as the writer thinks it is. So, the chance of me ‘looking away’ from the screen is somewhat higher. Looking away – or walking away – in mid-paragraph is a still pretty bad sign. On the other hand, if I immediately look back and keep reading, there is a good chance I’ll want to see more.

Sometimes what brings me back is pacing. The craft of drawing the reader along in that ‘what will happen next’ kind of suspense goes a long way. I like stories; I like ripping yarns. But it can also be the depth of a character – a character I didn’t see on an episode of ‘Supernatural’ last night – that pulls me in. Or, the sheer beauty of the writing or the cleverness of the central premise.  If at the end of the 3 chapters, I want to know what happens, I then read the synopsis. But only then.

Because before I am an editor, I am a reader.

So, you’ve made the first cut – about 10-15% do. What next? Assuming the synopsis doesn’t go in a completely weird direction, failing to follow the first rule of the novel – which Nancy Kress describes as fulling the promise you made to the reader in the first few chapters – I’ll ask to see the whole manuscript.

Hold it, you say, what’s this about a promise? A novel is not a series of random events. A novel begins by presenting something to the reader – it may be “I am a mystery. Watch me solve it.” Or “This young girl has been placed in terrible peril. Watch her escape.” Or “The universe is falling apart. Watch me fix it (or pick up the pieces).” Or even “Here is a dysfunctional family. Watch them wallow in it.” You can’t then veer off and present something completely different. You can take a meandering path; you can even play tricks on the reader but at the end, you have to deliver the goods.

Of course, the first three chapters are always the most polished. The synopsis may promise more than the writer is capable of delivering. The writer may not even know what their book is about. I heard a novelist on the radio the other day who admitted she didn’t really understand her novel until a year after it was published. Fortunately her editor did.

Once I have a full manuscript in front of me, I try to read it quickly but carefully. I have several questions in mind. What is this book about? Am I interested in the lives of the characters? Do I care what happens to them? Is the plot consistent? Is the background realistic (for SF, that also means is the science ‘correct’ – that is, not patently wrong)?

While the front of my mind remains in reader mode, in the back of my mind, other questions are percolating – editor questions. Is the character arc(s) clear? Is the initial promise fulfilled and, if not, why not? Does everything that’s here belong in the book or are their pieces that are missing? Is the writing good enough to do the job? Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? Has the writer shown me – in the best parts of the text – that they have the chops to do more?

Most important: Do I want to help this writer make this the best novel they can write? And, can I do it? I once had a pretty good book that I rejected because I knew it wasn’t quite right but I had no idea how to fix it.

Once I do ask for a full manuscript, the chances are about 25 to 50% that I will offer a contract for the book. Not all offers are accepted. The second book I tried to buy was turned down because the offer didn’t satisfy them. I don’t know if the book was ever published or not, but obviously it wasn’t published by me.

Then the fun begins.

Some books are in pretty good shape when I start working on them; others are fairly rough, if intriguing, drafts. Regardless, I now do a second read – more careful this time, taking notes as I go. I may take a week or two to get this read done. By the end I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I will say to the writer. I then I read it a third time to nail down my initial thoughts. Sometimes I read parts of it a fourth time before I send my notes to the writer.

The editorial process varies a lot. In one case I got the writer to cut 1/3 of the first half of the book, providing specific examples and even some red ink to guide them along. In another case, I suggested that the writer should re-write the entire novel making the secondary character into the main one (not as hard as you might think though that is just my opinion). In others, the problem was mainly thematic – the writer wasn’t focused on what their book was really about. I didn’t impose a theme on them but merely pointed out in their own text where the theme emerged. In some cases, all that was required was the deletion of a chapter or two and the addition of some bridging material so the characters’ actions made sense.

None of the books I published looked exactly like they did when they arrived on my desk but, unless I’m being lied to, all the writers were happy with the work I helped them do. Because in the end, it remains the author’s book; their story. My job is merely to help them remove the rough edges and polish the brilliant parts. To help them tell their story in the best possible way.

That’s what editors do. It’s just a lot easier to do when you’re not being paid by the author – when the advice feels a bit like criticizing your boss.

Finally, we’re done. Well, almost. There is still the proofreading to be done – first by me, then by the author, then by me again. We get one more shot at it when the page proofs arrive – when we desperately hope we don’t find too many more typos.

And, of course, there is the cover. I generally ask the author if they have a scene that particularly captures the essence of the book. I always have a few ideas too. These get passed on to our artist Dan J. O’Driscoll – who has already read the book – for him to turn our thoughts (and especially his) into striking images. My authors don’t have final approval for art but I always consult them.

There are plenty of other details to handle – the ISBN number, the Catalogue in Publication (CIP) information for the front of the book, acknowledgements, dedications, bios, blurbs, back cover copy and so on. Then off to the printer.

Once the books are printed, 2 to 4 months ahead of the release date, there is the PR to handle – getting reviews, blog interviews, book giveaways, launch parties, all part of the package here at Bundoran Press.

And 10-18 months after I first read it in the slush, those 3 chapters have become a book. And I get to deliver it into the hands of a smiling author. And they always smile.

 

 

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One Response to “The Birth of a Novel”

  1. Timothy Gwyn January 10, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

    Useful perspective; thanks for sharing the editor’s side.

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