Not long ago I submitted my first novel to an agent. She responded with several compliments and suggestions for changes and said that if I agreed with her changes and were willing to rewrite, she’d be happy to read it again. I agreed with one of her ideas and rewrote the book with it in mind. Her response was to praise my efforts in rewriting but, sadly, she still felt it was not a good fit for her agency. She said this was a personal opinion and others might disagree and encouraged me to continue submitting to other agents. I was, of course, disappointed but not discouraged; not many players hit a grand slam in their first major league at bat.
I continued to work on it while researching other agents until I decided to start querying again. The next agent to respond asked to see the first chapter only. Of course I wanted everyone to read the whole book before passing judgment but that’s not the way the industry works, so I sent her the first chapter. She too responded with both compliments and criticisms, some of which were similar to those of the first agent. Now I needed to re-read and reconsider what I was submitting.
The first thing that struck me was the need to totally rewrite the first chapter because a lot of the things I felt were interesting and necessary to understanding the story were really backstory rather than the dramatic hook necessary to catch the reader’s attention.
The second thing was that I knew I needed help. Until that point I had resisted the idea of hiring an editor, feeling that my process of constant revision would get me there, eventually. But I had reached a point where I no longer knew what to revise or where to take it. And this is where non-professional friends who were my first readers were unable to help. The time had come.
I’m lucky to have very good friends and one of them recommended an editor he knew and liked. We talked, I liked her too, and hired her. Good move, Scherl. Her work was smart, perceptive, professional and on time. Her method was to simply assume the role of any reader and comment on what she liked, didn’t like, or didn’t understand. Then she wrote a detailed report explaining her comments and connecting them to the whole. She pointed out several characters who, while interesting, really had no effect on the plot. She was particularly acute in recognizing autobiographical details that might be interesting to me, but had nothing to do with the story and, therefore, meant nothing to the reader. There were many other ideas relating to character development and treatment of the plot that led me to realize that the real process of writing this novel began with autobiographical details but developed by moving away from reality into the imagination, while retaining the truth of what I have to say.
She strongly encouraged me to stop submitting to agents before I had made substantial changes because there was potential in this book and I shouldn’t sell it short.
So I’m back at it. I’ve put a hold on Book 2 because what I learn in another revision of Book 1 can only help. A good editor is an enormous help and now, the next time I get on a plane to New York, I can tell my neighbor to please remove his elbow from my ribs and, by the way, I’m going to NY to have lunch with my editor. I always wanted to say that.