Avoiding a Massive Rewrite

In my last article, I talked about hiring an editor. Today, I want to talk about working with an editor on conception rather than after-the-fact editing.

When I began to work with my editor, I expected her to cut some history and perhaps rearrange some scenes. But, though she was complementary of the writing, characters, etc., she believed that, since the story had certain elements of a thriller, it would need to BE a thriller. But I didn’t write it as a thriller, wasn’t sure I wanted it to be a thriller, and so, was undecided on what to do. Thrillerizing it would basically mean rewriting half the book.

Meanwhile, I was becoming more excited about my new novel about the Italian writer Boccaccio.

I write historical fiction, teach creative writing, and direct the Village Writing School. I believe stories have the power to connect us to our histories, one another, and our best selves.
I was days away from coming to Italy to work on his story. So I suggested to the editor that we simply put the previous manuscript on hold and focus on this new one. I suggested that I run my first several scenes by her to get this thing off on the right foot.

I see this as a great experiment. CAN I write a book that I LOVE that can be published in New York? I don’t know the answer to that question today. Over and over I am assured that it’s not a question of my writing but of the type of book that the big houses are looking for from debut novelists.

I came on my trip and began to write faster than I ever have. I sent the editor 35 pages. She read through it (not editing) and we FaceTimed. She loved the character and voice but said it was beginning too slowly and reading like a travelogue. We brainstormed Boccaccio’s life, and she said that the plague of the Black Death was the thing his story needed to revolve around.

Now the interesting thing is that she, of course, is looking for drama and salability. I am looking for authenticity in the character’s journey. I thought about it all that night and decided that, if you lived through something that horrific, indeed, you would divide your life into before and after. You would be changed. Evidence of this is found in the many scholarly articles analyzing the effects of the plague on Boccaccio’s greatest writing.

So I wrote a new beginning, a couple of pages. I wrote a scene for the modern story that will run consecutive with Boccaccio’s. Again, we FaceTimed. She asked me questions about Boccaccio’s life, about the modern character and what was at stake for her. I did most of the talking. But then she took what I said and underlined the potential in it. “Start with that.” “Bring that out more.”

So far, I can report that I am happy with the process and the progress, though I also realize that a time may come when our paths diverge. I do want to be published by a big house, but if she says, “Now bring in a giant lizard,” I’ll have to opt out. I don’t think that will happen. It’s also possible that I just will never be able to truly see into what she wants. But for now, I’m optimistic.

I have learned that this is how many “bestselling” authors proceed. They are under huge pressure to produce and don’t have time for a massive rewrite. Of course, they are not as transparent about the process as I have been with you, and these editors even sign confidentially agreements not to divulge who their clients are. So, at least I’m in good company, LOL.

If you’re interested in running your ideas by a former big-house editor, you can check out the editors I listed in my last article. This is far less expensive than a full manuscript edit and just might get you off on the right foot so that you don’t have to have a full edit.

Meanwhile, it’s fun to kick around ideas with someone who used to acquire manuscripts for these big publishers. It’s an education to see how they think.

And you get to talk about your book with someone other than your mom.

Don’t miss an article! Sign up to my newsletter via the form on my homepage.

How to Find an Editor

In my last article, I talked about hiring an editor, and I warned you against hiring an editor. Say what?

Many people have had horrible experiences with freelance editors. They’ve spent thousands of dollars to end up with a book far different from their original vision and still unpublishable. Early on, I realized that the Village Writing School needed to help people protect themselves. Two groups find someone on every corner hawking them a quick fix: those who want to lose weight and those who want to be published. I’m in both categories.

Here are my thoughts on hiring an editor.

Be sure you are ready. Before you hire an editor, your book should be as good as you can make it.

I write historical fiction, teach creative writing, and direct the Village Writing School. I believe stories have the power to connect us to our histories, one another, and our best selves.
It should have been read by competent readers—either a writing circle or some good beta readers who have told you where they got bored and where they got confused. Listen to them. On the other hand, don’t let someone force your book into a direction you never intended. One reader told me Jake should meet another version of himself who is trying to stop him. Yikes. Not the book I’m writing.

Make sure the editor understands your overall vision. When my editor and I were exchanging emails, I said, “I think the novel is really about living in the zone where you’re open to possibility rather than bound by dogma, whether its religious dogma or scientific dogma.” She replied: It’s super helpful to have your philosophical take-away. I wasn’t planning to change any of that meaning.

As a writer, you must be able to identify and articulate your themes. That’s what is important. Not the order of the scenes or the quantity of historical detail or any of the scaffolding. You are looking for an editor who gets what you’re trying to do and can help you bring it into sharper focus.

It’s also possible to hire a “developmental” editor, who can help you articulate themes or find your narrative arc. Many editors do that as well.

Don’t be in love with your every word. Last week I talked about the arduous process of getting published. Yet almost every month I meet people who think that they should be able to barf out a story, it should go sailing to New York, and the whole world bow down. They complain that they “can’t get a break,” or “publishing is screwed up.” Successful writers understand it’s about revision and continual education to keep up with what it takes to be published in today’s marketplace.

I’m willing to evolve my vision for this book because I want to be published by a major house. If that’s your goal, you must: 1) Invest in craft; 2) Understand the market. A good editor can help you with both. And if that is your goal, then it only makes sense to work with an editor who has previous experience acquiring novels for major publishers. So how do you find them?

Here are three sources. I don’t know these people, and this is not an endorsement per se. But they were recommended to me by a major-house editor, and they have years of experience in the business. Look for an editor who has previously handled a book in your genre that went on to be published.


A word about cost. Yes. It’s real money. Which is why your book should be at its optimal before you engage an editor. A good editor will give you an estimate before she starts.

The thing to remember is that you are paying not only for the edit of this book but for an education. I think of my work with my editor as MFA, Part 2. What I learn will make all my future books more publishable.

Another thing to consider is how expensive it can be to go to a large conference. Add travel, the expensive hotels they usually hold those in, registration fees, banquets, extra fees for pitching to agents, etc. Conferences are great, but wouldn’t it make more sense to spend that money on an education that is specific to you and your book?

Certainly I’m not saying that hiring an editor is the only way to go or that everyone should. If you’d like to talk to me further about your project and whether you’re ready for an editor, email me.

Whether you’re a writer or not, let 2017 be the year that you show up to your creative project and take the next step, whatever that next step may be for you.

Don’t miss an article! Sign up to my newsletter via the form on my homepage.

An Editor!

If you follow me on FaceBook, you know I recently went to Boston to meet with an editor. I promised to document my writing journey in this blog—complete with rejections—so here’s the story.

I got rejected again. (But it’s not all bad–read on.)

Through the efforts of another writer, I had the opportunity to get my manuscript before an editor at a major publishing house. This editor wrote me a very nice letter to say she was rejecting it because the story was bogged down by the history. (I wrote about this danger.)

I stared at her email for about fifteen seconds. We are told not to reply to a rejection. And, I worried that bugging this publisher would reflect badly on the writer who had gone to bat for me.

But here was someone in a major house who had actually written me a personal letter. Immediately, I wrote back.

Dear Ms. ____:

Thank you so much for your time and your thoughtful comments. If the novel has this issue—and I certainly see what you are saying—can you suggest an editor whom I could hire to help me make it publishable? 

Please forgive this last imposition on your time.

Now yes, I could have gone in with a chainsaw and hacked up my novel myself. But I really don’t know just how much history readers of historical fiction want.

I didn’t hear for an entire day and then the wonderful woman recommended: a freelance editor who I think might be a good fit for you. She’s very experienced and has a special affinity for and interest in historical fiction.

I sent the freelance editor 50 pages and a synopsis. She agreed to help me whip this thing into shape.

Then I decided to go see her. I had promised myself that if I got an agent or a publisher, I would sit down with them face to face. This may be as close as I ever get, and I wanted to see into the big, mysterious beast that is New York publishing. This woman has been a senior editor at several houses and has acquired many novels. She understands the beast.

We had a great, long lunch and I got to talk to her about my other novels, about the Village Writing School, and the projects of some of our students. She was warm and funny, and I feel confident that she will make this book the best it can be for today’s marketplace and, importantly, that she understands and respects what I am trying to say through it.

Alison Taylor-Brown and Denise Roy

But, a couple of reality checks:

I do not have a publisher yet. I am paying this woman to edit my novel.

I’m not telling you to go hire an editor. I have heard many horror stories of people losing thousands of dollars and getting really bad advice. In my next newsletter, we’ll look at the process of shopping for an editor, and I’ll give you some possibilities.

Of course I won’t send the novel to anyone else until I get her edits, which she says will be by late January. Then I’ll get to use her name in my query letter, and that’s no small thing.

But most important to me, I will know that this novel will be the best it can be. And if it doesn’t ever get published, it won’t be because I didn’t understand what the big publishers want or I couldn’t get it to them.

I have made the choice to try to be published by a major house. There are many respectable ways to be published, but this is my choice at this time.

It’s not easy. It’s a journey. Rewrite after rewrite after rewrite is the usual process. I did a major rewrite on this book during the first five months of 2016 when I rewrote the main character based on comments from an agent. I gave her comments a lot of thought, discussed them with my writing circle, and decided she was right. I made Jake younger, more idealistic. (At lunch, this editor said: this is the first novel I’ve read with a millennial hero, and I think you have totally nailed that generation.) One problem solved.

Now, here I am at the beginning of the NEXT year, facing another rewrite. But what do we say?

Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to make this book better.

The Empowerment of Defeat

Alison Taylor-BrownTo the right is a picture of a young woman. She is thirty years old, and, as you can tell by her expression, she is utterly pleased with her life. She is doing the thing she has wanted to do since she was a little girl. She has become a writer.

Her book has been bought by a senior editor and vice-president at Simon & Schuster. She has never met the man, nor, at this date, does she understand just what a name he is in New York publishing. He is Donald Hutter, former editor-in-chief of Holt, Rinehart & Winston where he had his own imprint.

The woman recognizes that she has been incredibly lucky. She doesn’t even have a writing degree. She took an undergraduate course at the University of Arkansas. A graduate assistant suggested she send ten pages of her novel to Douglas Jones, a local novelist. She followed up with a phone call and Jones, who was ex-military and crusty, said, “Young lady, I’m not in the business of helping young writers get started. But . . . I’ll give you the name of my agent.”

To the agent, she send 100 pages and an outline. His name was George Weiser, and he was telling his client Dan Brown to write thrillers. Two weeks after receiving the young woman’s query, Weiser called. “I’m not taking any new clients. But . . . I’m going to take you.”

Two weeks after that, Weiser and Hutter were having drinks and the publisher asked the agent, “Do you have anyone new?”

Wiser said, “Yes, but her book’s not finished.”

“Send it over anyway.”

They flew her to New York, took her to a fancy lunch, talked to her about British rights and a television miniseries. Her life, Weiser said seriously, as they waited for a cab–her first–would never be the same.

She had a contract and an advance which, because she tried to be a good person, she donated to a children’s home in Honduras. She bought a KayPro computer and went to work finishing her novel. Her mom put the picture in her hometown newspaper. “Local writer signs with Simon & Schuster.”

Alas. Hutter was fired. Her book was orphaned. She didn’t understand. If Hutter thought it was good, why didn’t the editor who replaced him? There was a contract, but to pursue that she would have to hire a New York attorney. She didn’t want to sue. She wanted her book published. She borrowed the money to pay back her advance in order to regain the rights.

She was shattered. She didn’t know what to do. Her agent was kind but he didn’t shop the manuscript, and she didn’t push. She cried whenever she entered a bookstore. She gave up on writing. She would do other things with her life.

She started a company and two nonprofits, traveled, designed her house, taught in several universities, became a foster parent. But she never stopped thinking about writing. In middle age, she got a master’s degree in fiction to try again.

So, what can we learn from her story?

Never give up. The truth is that many books are orphaned for various reasons. I knew of an author whose books were printed and just a few days away from being shipped to bookstores. His publisher merged with another, and his books were shredded before he even knew it.

Do I think that my book might have been published if I’d gotten on a plane, sat down in Weiser’s office, gotten referrals from Hutter, TRIED? Maybe.

It’s never too late. I’m a poster child for resetting your life, returning to your first love. So you fell off the horse and broke your heart. Don’t give up.

Every experience informs the writer. I am a different writer than the young, happy woman above. I am practical. I understand what it takes not only to write a book but to promote it.

I am wiser. I am stronger. I have something to say.

She only wanted to be a writer, but I am passionate to tell the unique stories that rise inside me. She was called by the process. I am driven by the story. Those are two different things.

A lot of us have been rejected, felt defeated, given up. But the stories we have to tell now are wiser and better informed and truer than if success had found us early.

Are you feeling defeated today? Then I promise you, you’ll be a better writer tomorrow . . . if you don’t give up. 


Research Can Get You a Laurel

This week I’m answering some questions that have come in about my trip to North Carolina.

What on earth could be worth driving three days one way? Sometimes, we get the idea to write about someone or something but we don’t see the story. The 13th-century Italian writer Boccaccio sounded interesting. But who was he really?

How did you know about this woman you visited? Dr. Roberta Morosini teaches Italian Studies at Wake Forest University. She writes articles about Boccaccio. When I realized that there was an expert in the southern United States (who spoke English!), I knew I wanted to have a lengthy visit with her.

alisonHow did you set up the meeting? I wrote to her and asked to interview her. I made it clear that I wanted a formal interview in her office and then an informal brainstorming session over dinner. She suggested we go out the evening before the interview as well.




What questions did you ask? My first question was: If you knew Boccaccio today and you were going to tell me about him, what would you say? Then I asked the question of first importance: what drove him? What was his burning desire and did he achieve it?  
Did you record the interview? I didn’t. I could have, but I was looking for big points on which to hang my plot, rather than specific dates and details. I have a theory that the cream rises to the top of our brains, and that too many facts and figures actually impede creativity. 
Was it worth it? Totally. This will be a much different book—and a truer book—because I went to the effort to spend several hours with a woman whose life’s work is this character. She explained to me about being “crowned with the laurel.”
In the ancient world, a laurel wreath symbolized not only athletic victory but poetic prowess. It wasn’t just an award for being a great poet. (I tried to compare it to literary prizes today, but Dr. Morosini said no no no no no no no.) The laurel was a symbol of wisdom. She showed me an amazing image of a man shipwrecked and drowning who has reached out and grasped hold of a laurel bush to save himself. This reflects the belief that only wisdom can rescue society. To receive the laurel wreath was to be recognized as a writer who had something important to say about how one should live one’s life to create a good society that would benefit all its citizens.  

boccaccioDuring Boccaccio’s life, King Robert of Naples, the most cultured monarch of the time, crowned the writer Petrarch with the laurel wreath. After that, Boccaccio spent his life working for that honor but never received it, despite the fact that he is often portrayed as wearing a laurel crown.

So what? Well, I don’t know about you, but whenever I get a rejection letter, I totally understand the heartbreak of not having my work appreciated. Yes, the novel will still feature the Black Death, war, assassination, illegitimate children and their mothers. But the real heartbreak will be that darn laurel.
I’m excited about this, and I would never have understood it had I not gone to North Carolina.
Over and over, I advise writers to pursue research and not to be put off by a little effort or expense. And never forget that an academic brings a whole other perspective to any discussion. Maybe you’re not writing historical fiction but science fiction or crime drama or your memoir that begins in the 1950s. I promise there is an expert out there who would love to share their knowledge with you on any of those topics.

alison3Not only did I come away with great information, but I made a friend who is going to be my guide in Naples this summer and take me into the very castle of King Robert.

So don’t be afraid to get up and go. Consider research a necessity rather than a luxury. Give yourself permission to put your writing first, even if it means something else has to wait.

And don’t forget your expenses are tax deductible.