Thursday, November 20, 2008

Editorial (Ass)istant: When Do You Know?

Ah, it's Thursday, you can all breathe again. We know you've been waiting with bated breath for Miss Moonrat's answer to that vexing question. Before you read on, one bit of advice, be certain that first page sings, my friend -- and the rest of it too! And after you read her response, make sure to go over to her blog,, and read the archives, all of them. There's much to learn.

So to recap, we asked Moonrat (aka Editorial (Ass)istant), a woman we know to work at one of New York's finer publishing houses (see Monday's post), to answer a simple question:

Q) When you read a manuscript, at what point do you stop reading, knowing you'll decline, and at what point do you feel your pulse quicken, expecting to make an offer?

Moonrat: At the risk of quoting a Tom Cruise movie... Remember when Jerry McGuire walks in the door and gives Renee Zelwegger a long take-me-back speech? I know you can see where this is going.

You really should have me at "hello." The proposals that really get me start so strongly that I can't resist them. If you don't start strongly, then (on my desk, at least) your book will have to distinguish itself in spite of itself.

Notice I say "proposal" and not "manuscript." The reason is that "hello" comes well before I start reading your first page. Really, "hello" comes when your agent calls me on the phone and pitches your book to me. To this end, you can help your agent out by working together to brainstorm the perfect pitch line--one that catches my attention and is memorable. There are ways of pitching the same book that can make it more or less attractive to an editor (who, keep in mind, will have to sell the concept to her money-minded publisher and sales department, not to mention about a jillin other people). Stay away from generic praise and focus on what is special and unique about the book--"A beautiful collection of lyrical linked stories" means much less to me (and, thereby, to my boss) than "What happens to a tight-knit small-town community when they discover a secret in their church basement?"--even if we're talking about the exact same book. I know it sounds horribly commercial and low-minded, but a memorable pitch will set your manuscript apart from the other 15 beautiful and lyrical books I have on my desk at any given time.

Not that I encourage you to underestimate the importance of your first page! If you do, it may be the only page of your manuscript I read! On the other hand, for almost every book I've ever bought--let me think, are there even any exceptions?--I've already known at the first page that this book was one I was going to care about. It's a combination of the sellable hook and how caught up in the writing I get at the first page.

If a book does not speak to me with its first page, I give it the benefit of the doubt and continue reading closely for at least 20 pages. After that, I'll skim to 50pages. But as I turn each page and still fail to be engaged, it becomes less and less likely that I will change my mind.

It's true. I make snap judgments. But I'm not too proud to admit it. I hope that that is information that authors can make work for them, though. I sincerely doubt I'm the only editor who works like this!


Anonymous said...

I love Moonie's blog and this is a great post. Thanks for having her.

This does bring to mind another question, this "working with your agent on the pitch." I'm wondering if those in The Writers Group did this--was there a back and forth with your agents where you helped work on the pitch and/or letter? I'd imagine there is a line there-so as not to step on the toes of your agent.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks, Moonrat! I've heard from many agents and editors--that's how they work also.

And thanks for your question, anonymous. It's a great one, and we will answer it in an upcoming post.


cindy said...

thank you for this! i am an utter moonie devotee!

... Paige said...

Thanks for your insight. Sounds like you give more a read then I do at the store. If I make it past page two chances are I'll buy it. But if not, I move on down the shelf to the next eye catching title or book cover, because yes that is what makes me pick up a book.

Travis Erwin said...

It's always great o see how decisions are made from the other side of the desk.

Amy MacKinnon said...

Isn't Moonie great? We adore her for the sharing her insight. Expect great books from this woman in years to come.

Did you all notice the image, Buy Books? If we all post these on our blogs in support of booksellers this holiday season, perhaps we can help save our industry.

Anonymous said...

As always, elsewhere, Moonie here reveals herself to be dismayingly level-headed. :)

Thanks so much for the advice. It's a great question, well answered. (And I bet it works equally well if you substitute "agent" for "editor.")

moonrat said...

the image is great. may it spread virally!

Kiersten White said...

Both interesting AND helpful, Moonie. Thanks! My agent and I are putting together the cover letter/proposal right now, and this gives me great things to think about and discuss with her.

You rock.

Chris Eldin said...

It's informative and refreshing to see this from the other side. Thanks for sharing!!

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Thanks so much Moonie - and ladies!

This is very interesting. I always thought an agent/editor gave a ms about 5-10 pages and if it didn't grab by that point, you, the author, were DONE.

Anonymous said...

Glad I found your blog through Editorial (Ass)istant. I'll return!

Love it that you're a group of women at different stages of the publishing process. (I'm about where Lisa Marnell is: agented but no contract yet.)

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