An editor’s perspective on writing

I went to a brown bag lunch the other day, and it was led by Colin Harrison, the Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Scribner. Before joining Scribner, he was the deputy editor for Harper’s Magazine. He’s an accomplished novelist but edits mostly nonfiction because he enjoys the challenge, the journey that he takes with the sometimes nervous and overburdened writer.

These sessions allow young editors the opportunity to interact with someone who, before, had only been known by name.

Harrison is a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a well-kept winter beard, and he talks with his hands. I expected the typical spiel about the business of books, but he actually provided an intimate account of writing and editing. I felt that some of his points might help me and you (whoever “you” might be) become better writers.

“What does it mean to be a writer?” he asked us. We all worked in different departments: editorial, marketing, finance, and legal. First thing that popped into my head is that writers need to be a bit bonkers. They need a small dose of insanity to conjure wild stories. Harrison definitely agreed, saying that a writer either wears this stereotype like a badge of honor or profusely denies it.

But, “writers are [also] criminals,” he remarked. While others aren’t noticing, while they are too busy obsessing over the superficiality of the world—the Kardashians, for example—writers take what they see as authentic and appropriate it to their own use. Without others knowing, these writers commit a slight theft, storing knowledge for later use.

Harrison also discussed the challenges that writers encounter: the form, the story, and the process.

The Form. This should be the easiest thing to figure out, right? Wrong. Sometimes you’ll need the reader to point out that one form would benefit the story more than another. There have been plenty of times when I critiqued a writer’s work at my writing group and saw that the story could have functioned as a poem, rather than a short story.

The Story. Ugh, the struggle. I often ask myself why I’m telling this person’s story? What is the narrative that will grab the readers’ heart, hold them hostage until they become willing visitors to another world?

The Process. Every writer has a particular way of functioning. Harrison mentioned someone he knows who writes in the morning. And every morning, his wife would pour water on his head to wake him up. Funnily enough, this practical joke has become a step that the writer takes to jump-start his writing process. I haven’t developed a process that benefits me fully, but I will.

Oftentimes, writers mistake one problem for another. Example: I can’t figure out how to write this story in first person. Someone else asks: Why? Writer: Because the coffee shop where I write gets noisy and I can’t concentrate when that happens. What they think is a form problem actually turns out to be a process problem.

Finally, Harrison also talked about the definition of a book. He dismissed the normal definition that we all use, and of course, tweaked it with a novelist’s flair. According to him, a book is a machine of language. The beginning brings readers to the middle, which leads to the end; every part of a novel benefits the next. So, in this sense, editors are the mechanics. A book comprises a narrative, an argument, or a list. If you have trouble placing your book into any of these categories, then you might not have a book.

Well, it’s obvious by now that I love talking about writing! Perhaps too much. But I hope Harrison’s tips resonate with you as much as they resonate with me. Comment below to let me know your thoughts!

Other posts on writing: 

What I learned after working at literary agency 

In search of a writing community

What I learned from reading and writing fanfiction

What I learned after working at a literary agency

I worked at Folio Literary Management in Manhattan for about four months. It’s an agency that represents fiction and non-fiction authors. I’ve already experienced the publisher side when I was at Simon & Schuster  (where I will soon return), so I wanted to get a sense of where a book really begins: at an agency. I heard about Folio from a friend, and decided to apply in the summer of 2013. I didn’t get a response until the end of the year, but I didn’t care: it was a response!

While at Folio I maintained my agent’s query inbox. She’d get more than 20 emails a day, each with ten-page submissions for me to read. If I liked a query, I would say so (two paragraphs talking about narrative momentum, character, marketability – all things to consider when reading a manuscript), and then I’d get either a partial manuscript (50 pages) or a full manuscript. For a full script, I would have to write a one-page reader’s report listing the story’s strengths and weaknesses and a suggestion as to whether or not the agent should represent the client. I’d also research recent literary prize winners and see if their work could become a novel or if they’re already at work on a novel (making sure, of course, that they are not already represented). As you can see, I was given many responsibilities and I worked hard to complete  my tasks in a timely manner.

This experience was so rewarding. I learned so much about the publishing industry, thanks to Folio’s Intern Academy sessions. When I finish my novel, I’ll know how to query an agent! If you’re reading this, you’re probably a friend, and you’re probably curious to see what I’ve learned from Folio. Or you’re a complete stranger, but want to hear about my experience at a literary agency. Maybe you want to get an internship at a literary agency. Perfectly fine!

Here’s what I have to say. Some are tips for authors, some are pet peeves that I had as an intern (a few are confirmed pet peeves and others are personal pet peeves). Comment below if you have any more questions!

  • Easy on the font. Use Times New Roman or a clear serif.
  • When writing your reader’s report, watch the tone. You’re trying to help the writer improve his or her story, so it’s important to maintain a cordial tone throughout your report.
  • When submitting one novel, don’t mention that you have another one in the works. If an agent really likes your writing, he or she will ask. But if you tell them right away, it’s like you’re telling them, “Hey, I don’t think this is good enough either, so here’s some other choices!”
  • Research your potential agent. Did you write a YA novel? Check if she or he is accepting queries for that genre at the moment.
  • Let your supervisor know what you like to read. I told my supervisor that I love reading literary fiction, so he would always send me those queries.
  • Queries are first impressions that agents get of clients, so proofread. It’s amazing how people can completely ignore that.
  • Never send a mass email. Always address one agent at a time.
  • Don’t mention how you got your novel idea. Agents don’t care if God told you to write something.
  • Have a detailed synopsis ready in case the agent likes what you’ve sent him/her so far.
  • Don’t compare your writing style to legendary writers like Ernest Hemingway or Jane Austen. That’s just pompous.
  • The first ten pages matter. They usually tell agents to read more. You might be asked to submit a  partial (50 pages) or a full manuscript. So, it’s important that you get to the point of your story.
  • Read the literary agency’s submissions guidelines. It’s that simple.
  • Include relevant writing experience in your query. If you’re writing mystery and you’re a member of a mystery writing club, let them know.
  • If you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, have a platform. If you’re writing narrative nonfiction, you have to write well.
  • Interns: Take books from the book pile. Book piles are heaps of gold. Don’t pass up an opportunity to get FREE books (and no late fees from the library).
  • Know what’s going on the publishing industry. I recommend reading PubTalk, Galley Cat, Mediabistro – any site that relates to publishing.
  • Make friends, because you’ll never know what’s going to happen two years, three years, etc. down the line. Publishing peeps are fun.
  • ENJOY.