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Titles and Tips for Revision from an Editor (Now Agent!) Who Knows
Written by
Passion Project
November 2010
Written by
Passion Project
November 2010
Literary agent Lea Beresford takes us inside her process as she helps Passion Project winner Monique Fields title her book and restructure her sample chapters. Pay attention, She Writers: Do NOT save your best line for page 52! Last week, Amanda Johnson Moon brought up some wonderful points in her post (Six Ways to Polish Your Proposal Before Sending It Off) about her work with Monique, especially the title and subtitle debacle. I’d like to offer a few suggestions. First, RAISING SIMONE AND NADIA would sound better—at least to my ears—as RAISING NADIA AND SIMONE. While Simone is Monique’s first daughter, it just seems to work better this way. Try it—say “Simone and Nadia” out loud, then “Nadia and Simone.” Your voice rises in pitch as you say “Nadia” but lowers with “Simone,” so ending with Simone’s name (even though she is Monique’s first daughter) sounds both more authoritative and more complete. Make sense? And here are a few new subtitle ideas to address Amanda’s concern that the title and subtitle are at odds with each other: Our Family’s New Definition of Race Understanding Black, White, and the Colors In Between I’m a former editor-turned-literary-agent and I revise writing for a living. Some of you may have noticed that I am no longer the manager of She Writes Services. I’ve taken a job at the Denise Shannon Literary Agency (I’m looking to build my client list. I’m especially interested in literary fiction, memoir, food writing, pop science--especially psychology--and pop culture. If any She Writer has a project that fits into those categories, I would love to consider representing your work!*) While I live to edit others’ work, editing your own work must be the hardest thing you writers have to do. You’ve put everything you have into a manuscript. It’s your baby—why would you want to go back and change anything? You have to edit your work. You have to be ruthless. You have to slash and burn and rebuild. You have to look at your manuscript with critical eyes, not adoring ones, and read it objectively. What would make it better, stronger, more appealing? It’s very hard to be both a writer and an editor, but I hope this post will help. Monique is a beautiful writer. Like the writing of any great reporter, her sentence structure is good and there are very few grammatical errors and typos. Her work didn’t require much of a line edit—just a few tweaks here and there for clarity. What Monique does need is help structuring those chapters. When a writer submits sample chapters to a literary agent or a publisher, she must consider how many of her pages might get read. Always, ALWAYS follow these guidelines to a T (see my Ask an Editor post Do I Need an Agent? for more details.) Do the agent’s submission guidelines specify a certain number of pages? How many of those pages might that agent actually read? Consider the hundreds of submissions an agent receives every week. Do you think she reads each one in its entirety? Of course not—she has other work to do! When I look at submissions, I first read the cover letter. Does the subject of the book interest me? Does it sound like a saleable idea? Then I focus on the writer’s biographical information—has she been published in high-profile literary magazines? Did she graduate from a top-tier MFA program? I’ll look at the proposal and sample material if I’m interested in the subject matter. If I’m not fascinated by the subject but the author has impressive credentials, I’ll also read on. Otherwise, the writer gets a short and sweet rejection letter. Once I’ve opened the sample material, I’ll stop reading after a few pages if I don’t like the writing. If I’m impressed with the prose, I’ll keep reading. Is the material compelling? Gripping? When the sample pages lose my interest, I stop reading. This probably sounds harsh, but when you consider the volume of work a literary agent considers, it makes sense. Keep the agent fascinated and you’ll keep her reading. That’s your goal. Keep in mind, too, that your next goal will be to keep your editor reading. And your publicist reading. And reviewers reading. And so on, and so on, until you’re trying to keep bookstore browsers reading. Those early chapters need to be compelling for everyone. (Really, every chapter should be compelling). In Monique’s case, I was blown away by her Passion Project submission. I’m sure you all remember the arresting beginning to her excerpt: Simone snuggled up beside me and pointed to my face. "Mommy," she said, "is a black girl." How observant, I thought, for a 3-year-old to make such a distinction. "Yes," I said, "Mommy is a black girl." "Simone," she continued, "is a white girl." Monique’s biggest challenge at this point (the biggest challenge of ANY writer in the process of looking for an agent) is to keep an agent’s interest. Every page in her sample material should be as compelling as these opening lines. There are three important elements in these early pages: The reactions of Monique and the world to Simone and Nadia’s skin color; Monique’s relationship with her husband; and the girls’ grandmother, who is no longer living and therefore unavailable to guide Monique in caring for her girls. Every non-fiction writer should identify the components of her project that best illustrate the project as a whole and make sure her sample chapters focus on them. In Monique’s case, the first element of the above three is the most important. In their current incarnation, Monique’s sample chapters focus mostly on background information. In fact, the striking quote above doesn’t appear until page 52 of the 64 pages Monique shared with me. When considering Monique’s project, an agent might not even make it to page 52! Not because the project isn’t wonderful (it is), but because some of the best stuff is a bit buried. Clearly, some reorganization is in order. While the story of how she met her husband is nice, it doesn’t have a place in the sample chapters. While her description of Nadia’s delivery is lovely, it doesn’t have a place in the sample chapters. Make sense? I recommend that she open the book with her outstanding Passion Project excerpt. I have faith that that opening will keep everyone reading. Some tips to help you revise your work: She Writes has an outstanding stable of professional and passionate freelance editors. Any one of the editors on this page can help you prune your sample chapters into shape. Don’t want to invest in one-on-one help at the moment? Try these old school revising tricks: 1. For line editing, read each sentence backwards. Not “Backwards sentence each read, editing line for,” but start at the end of your work and read the last sentence first, the penultimate sentence second, etc. When we read things from start to finish, we tend to read quickly because we’re so familiar with the material in that order. You’ll miss grammatical errors again and again when you read your work in the order you’ve always read it. Reverse that order and you’ll catch things you wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. 2. Remember, too, that YOU know what every sentence means. Of course you do—you wrote them! But is there any other way for a reader to interpret a sentence? Make sure that your meaning is clear. 3. For structural edits, COLOR CODE! I used to hate this exercise, but it’s surprisingly helpful. Sometimes the most fundamental tricks are the most useful. When I started thinking about Monique’s sample chapters, I went through and highlighted sections that focused on her mother in pink and sections that focused on her husband in royal blue. This allowed me to see the structure of her work at a more macro level. The colors also made it easier to scroll through the document and find the sections I was looking for quickly. Keep writing, refining, and revising, Lea Beresford *If you are interested in contacting me in my new capacity as an agent, please check our submission requirements at http://www.deniseshannonagency.com/submission.htm and send your query to [email protected] with “She Writes: attn Lea Beresford” in the subject line. I look forward to reading work from the wonderful women of this community! RELATED: Read the advice of previous Passion consultants--an editor, a marketing pro, and a life coach--right here.

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  • Robyn Porter

    Ok, bit confused here. I followed the above and my email/submission was deleted without being read? Would love to know why. Do I even try and send it again?

  • Eden Tyler

    Thanks for this post!
    I'm working on my v.first nonfiction proposal and other than the help I have from a recently published nonfiction author (whose second book is due out soon!), I'm kind of flailing around, taking down notes here and there, and trying to get everything organized.

    It was nice to see that you don't always care about a master's degree or credentials. I do have writing credentials, but most of my work has to do with advocacy and speaking and working on spreading awareness about the book's topic. It's more about a presence and being someone people will listen to and connecting with people (and, subsequently, having those people work with me on the project) rather than being an expert or a doctor or whatever else you may be looking for.
    An MFA would not, in the least, help me spread awareness about lupus and other invisible illnesses. The work I do and the articles I publish (paid or not) are what is going to make my name and credibility worth something. :)

    It was also nice to see the example you said originally wasn't used until later in the sample chapters. I had considered opening with a quote from my daughter, and showing our short conversation, but thought maybe that wouldn't be a good idea ... I should open with facts. Now i'm rethinking that.

    Great information -- thanks again, Lea! :)

  • Mary Day Long

    There's a wonderful balance of encouragement and hard reality in this post. I welcome any insight into what a prospective agent is thinking as she opens my query--thank so much for letting us in!

    Best of luck in your new job.

  • Virginia Williams

    Very helpful post--thanks for this. I remember reading backwards in grad school on the advice of a very helpful, yet slightly eccentric, professor. It does help when you start to feel you're going cross-eyed looking at your own work!

    I just sent you a memoir query and look forward to hearing from you! Again, thank you.

  • Brigetta Schwaiger

    Great advice. I love the idea of reading it backwards. I get so irked when I am so familiar with the content that I can't see a silly typo. I just started writing query letters for my manuscript so I just sent one to you. Thanks for the invite.

  • Melissa McNallan

    I'll be querying you. Thanks for sharing the fabulous advice!

  • Elena Schwolsky

    Congratulations, Lea, on your new position and thanks for the insightful thoughts about sample chapters. I have to admit I was a bit discouraged by the emphasis on "credentials" in terms of getting an agent's attention but I guess that is the reality.

  • Judy Palm

    I have written a book I would like to see published. I could mail my manuscript to you for your consideration. Thank you,
    Judy Palm
    1575 Gelhot Dr, #88
    Fairfield, Ohio 45014 [email protected]

  • Tanya Valentine

    Thank you so much for this information - - really insightful and helpful.

  • Laila


  • Laila

    Congratulations Lea. You you are a special, kind and compassionaye person. I wish you all the best.

  • Robyn Porter

    Congrats on the new position. Agent, wow, I bet you're excited. You are correct, editing is one of the most challenging parts of writing.

    Much success!

  • J. A. Carlton

    First, congratulations on your new position! I wish you every success.

    Second, sad to say if not having a masters in fine arts is the first thing that'll get you tossing someone's work into the fire, well then, thanks for saving me the postage.

    Best of luck to you with everything.

    J.A. Carlton.