Interview with THE editor — part 2: correspondence

We’re back with Robbie Mayes, the editor who gave me my first encouragement, but ultimately never signed up any of the three books I sent him, including one I rewrote for him and one I actually wrote for him.

What went wrong? Well, we covered a lot of that in the last post when Robbie gamely answered my questions about the inner workings of his publishing house. (FSG, which he left three years ago.)

This time, Robbie answers my questions about the various ways we did (and did not) communicate during our 1 1/2 year correspondence. I hope it will help you in your dealings with editors…

SAM: You were the first editor I ever queried and one of the few who ever responded positively. Yet, my query letter was the sort of gimmicky thing editors are supposed to hate — the synopsis was illustrated and way over-the-top. Are the experts wrong when they tell us to be “businesslike” about our queries? Is standing-out good?

RM: The ‘experts’ are probably on the money when they caution against unorthodox pitches. So many times when writers try to conjure up a gimmick to attract the attention of an editor, it is a misfire. Therefore a traditional approach to submission is often the safest way to go. But if something smart and different came across my desk, I wouldn’t penalize it for breaking some rules.

On the other hand, I was an editor who actually hunted out good cover letters, whereas a number of editors I met over the years confessed to ignoring them almost completely. I felt a well-written, personality-ingrained letter helped me to form an early picture of what kind of writer I had on my hands. Sometimes the letter even trumped the manuscript in terms of whether I thought it a potentially worthwhile investment to offer encouragement and (hopefully) useful criticism.

It must bear mentioning that I generally liked the oddball stuff the best, and while I was able to acquire some defiantly quirky projects, many I wanted to do did not pass muster with my superiors. I can’t blame them, really. Even though an editor feels the whole world ought to love what he loves, it doesn’t work out that way a lot of the time, and one must be mindful of making money, unfortunately.

Once you had my manuscript(s), would it have helped if I had bugged you more often, say with once-a-month reminders? Or would that have hurt my chances?

It would not have hurt you, and probably would not have benefitted you either. Yes, I might have gotten a periodic e-mail from you, and if I was feeling impatient along the same lines, I might have sent a nudge over to whoever had it, telling him the author is inquiring about the status of his manuscript. But I am talking about you here. In this case, we had been in touch, I was interested in your talents, and you had established yourself as a funny, interesting human being whom I wanted to know and work with, so of course I wouldn’t mind hearing from you, particularly if the solicitation was impatience flavored by good nature.

If one is dealing with an editor with whom he has not set up any such affinity, I would advise against bugging unless it’s of the most professional kind. Three months is a perfectly reasonable time to ask where an editor is at with a project that he has requested. Six months, you should be telling that editor in the most nonthreatening way that even though you still want him to publish your book the most, you’re going to show it to a few more people in the meanwhile because he’s taking so long.

The last time I ever communicated with you was when I made an uninvited phone call. Was that a coincidence or do uninvited phone calls cross a line and make a writer persona non grata?

Not at all. Frequent phone calls, maybe. Probably. But it is acceptable to occasionally pick up the phone and ask to speak to someone who has shown an interest in you.

I’ll hold onto Robbie’s final Q&A until I finally write my big post about small stories in the big post-Potter world….

Many, many thanks to Robbie Mayes for answering these questions. As I tried to make clear in the previous post, it’s not his fault I had insanely high expectations…



Interview with THE editor… part 1

I’m very excited about this folks, this is more than just an interview –it’s loaded with emotion, despair and pain. (On my part.)

See Robbie Mayes was the first editor I ever queried and I hit the jackpot. He’s a great guy, we like similar books and, best of all, he liked my book. But because I was new to the publishing world, I had all sorts of insane ideas, hopes and expectations. These never came true.

Neither did that first book I sent — not even after a rewrite based on his (very good) advice. Nor the next. Nor the next. And in the meantime, I almost cracked up from re-checking my email, mailbox and voicemail constantly.

 Now, as far as I can tell Robbie is a great guy and I believe he genuinely wanted to help me.

 So what happened? Well, I have this perfect opportunity to find out. Since Robbie is no longer an editor — he left FSG 3 years ago — I can ask him the questions I was dying to ask back then and he can answer them.

AND I hope you’ll get something out of this, too…


Sam: I was always consoled by the fact that while FSG passed on my book (twice), you said you liked it. How does that decision go down? Do numerous editors read each MS? Or does one editor just pitch the story/theme to the group? Are there a limited number of books that can get published, so that editors have to make “this one or that one” choices?

R.M.: Different houses do it different ways. Unless I thought something an absolute sure thing, I would always seek an opinion from one or more of my colleagues before presenting it to the ultimate decision-makers.

When I worked at FSG, we didn’t really have traditional acquisitions meetings like many houses do, though projects were passed around a lot for opinion-gathering.

There are a limited number of books a house can publish, but one must think years ahead in this regard. So sometimes you might have to make an offer on a book and tell the author it won’t be published for another three years. (And then you’d hope some other author would be late delivering so the project could be bumped up to fill the gap.)

Lack of room on future lists was never the sole criterion for rejecting something. But there were times I had to say, well I finally won that hard-fought battle, so if the enthusiasm level for this other book is tepid, I should probably let it go.


There are large gaps in our correspondence from that time. In the case of Qwikpick, months passed by without an update. Can you tell us what goes on during these periods? Are MSs sitting on someone else’s desk? Or awaiting a meeting? Or just in a big pile that’s less urgent than other stuff?

In the case of your book, Tom, if I remember correctly, it was passed around a bit. I know one colleague had it for some time before I got a vague endorsement, the ilk of which generally come to little use, and then I passed it to the director.

Trust me that when you don’t hear anything for a while—this is of course after first getting some encouragement—chances are pretty good you are not forgotten. Perhaps the editor is waiting to get second or third reads to gather support. Maybe it is a busy time. Maybe the editor in whose in-box the manuscript lies motionless has an office one can barely step into because he has a mind-shattering backlog, and you’re afraid a gentle reminder that you’ve been waiting a few months will drive him over the edge. Maybe the editorial director likes it but the marketing director hates it, so he or she must lie in wait for The Day of the Good Mood on which to make convincing efforts. Maybe it was sitting on my shelf awaiting inspiration for a revised acquisition memo with all new angles.

Those are hypothetical; there are many possibilities. But believe me, even the handful of manuscripts at FSG that sat around there for three years and more because we couldn’t figure out how best to publish them but neither could we let them go—they were always present in the deep reaches of the editor’s store of anxiety.

NEXT UP: Robbie Mayes will answer questions about contacting editors and even tell me what he thought of the time I called him up univited….

Revising without a contract…

There’s been talk over at Editorial Anonymous today about revising without a contract. She discussed it from an editor’s point of view of course.

This is when an editor tells you it’s good but they’re not ready to buy it. However, if you revise it they’ll take another look. (note that they didn’t say they’d buy it, only that they’d reconsider it.)

Here’s my history: I have done this once and refused once.

The first time was for my beloved Dickensian mid-grade. The editor suggested a number of changes, including a major expansion of the story. I really threw myself into it and made all sorts of discoveries and the book got much, much better. But he still didn’t buy it. Nor has anyone else. I don’t regret the work I put in and I the editor’s advice was great. But, obviously, I’m very disappointed with the way it worked out.

The other time it happened, my editor wanted substantial changes to the whole framework of the book and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. My agent showed it to another editor who bought it. There will still be revisions, of course, but this time I’ll know I’m investing my time in something that will see the light of day. 

Still, I think my advice is to do the revisions even without a contract, especially if it’s your first book. it can be very exciting to get an editor’s suggestions and then tackle your book all over again.

Submissions: What not to do — Moonrat’s Rules

I haven’t posted getting-published advice in a long time, because I’ve mostly put all I had to say in the page over there on the right.

But Moonrat — who if you don’t know is a former Editorial Ass. and is now an editor, but kept the “ass” — listed these rules regarding blunders that submitters make.

You’re probably not a stalker, but it’s easy to become an annoyer. In my earlier days, I broke two of the rules. Yes, I sent out MS to editors understanding what they were looking for.

And, yes, one time I called an editor. We had exchanged emails and letters, but he had never invited me to call. But actually, that turned out fairly well, since he gave me very good advice.

Chicken Soup for Weirdos and Middle-Aged Horses

Actually, this may be the first post from Plastic Pumpkins that’s not just for weirdos.
This time Steve has posted a story that’s sort of a zen, life-changing, getupoffofthatthing, inspirational anecdote.

It’s up there with that bit about the kid, the grandfather and the beached seahorses. You know what I’m talking about?
And you’ll probably enroll in a pottery class at the local community college.

Dealing with rejection, failure, frustration … the usual.

Over at Finding Wonderland, they were talking about dealing with rejection and failure.
This is something I know about, though I haven’t always dealt with it well.
Right now, despite the good news I’ve reported lately, I am still dealing with a heart-breaking failure. But I don’t want to talk about that right now….
Here’s what I had to say over at Finding Wonderland:
Here’s a coping mechanism that is also the cold hard truth:
We’re playing a game in which the rules are not only stacked against us, but they are also unknown to us.
The complete rules are also unknown to editors, publishers and even the book-buyers. However, some people seem to have a feel for them.
So we might write what appears to be a good book, even a great book, but because of the rules of the game it’s really a dud.
Some people seem to figure out the rules and slip in with a lousy book. And others are unaware of the rules and just happen to write a perfect book.
But the masters, like Sachar, have sussed out the rules well enough to play the game AND they write great books within those constraints.
So when you get rejected … realize that you may have made a great shot, you just did it after the buzzer went off or into the wrong basket or some such violation of the unknown, but sacrosanct rules.

Slush pile horror

Did you see the size of the one-week’s slush pile over at Albert Whitman?
I’d post their photo here, but it’s sure to win a Pulitzer prize so I won’t borrow it.
I feel so much sympathy and understanding for the editors of the world right now. And for folks like myself who have entrusted all their hopes to the slush pile. Man, it’s rough world.

Story mechanics – better late than never…

This crazy time-travel book of ours has been through a ton of revisions, based on input from various sources as well as my co-author and myself.
But after all this time, our new editor threw us for a loop by requiring an explanation of how it all worked. That is, how the time travel stuff worked. (She also pointed out a few glitches in the system.)
It was kind of like when Dr. Seuss asked the Berenstains what kind of tobacco Papa Bear smoked in his pipe. (In that case the answer was that Papa Bear was a non-smoker.)
But for us, it exposed the fact that we had never really thought the mechanics through all the way.
How could we have thought the reader wouldn’t want to know the rules of the game?
It turned out that sitting down and hammering it all out was frustrating, but kind of fun. And, for me at least, has added a new layer of depth to the story.

My biggest tip for getting published…

The theme for this month’s Kidlit Carnival is tips and advice, so I’m going to take this chance to try to restate my main piece of advice as clearly and convincingly as I can.

The advice: Diversify your manuscripts.

Let’s use an analogy. Let’s say you’re the greatest Etruscan rockabilly flutist who does Carpenters covers of all time. But nobody in the business will even listen to your album, “Close to You, Daddy-o.”

What does that mean?

Does it mean you’re not a good musician? No, because they’ve hardly heard you play. Plus you can play two at once while walking through a forest! You’re awesome!

So what should you do?

Practice the flute harder? Learn more obscure Carpenter hits? Get a bigger pompadour?

“No, dog,” says Randy Jackson, “let us hear something that’s not an Etruscan rockabilly flute cover of the Carpenters!”

So do you play an Etruscan rockabilly flute cover of Dionne Warwick?

No, you’re a great musician. You’ve got skills. You’ve got more than one idea.

So, you play something completely different to prove it! (Maybe Nina Simone’s Backlash Blues with a hip-hop sensibility.)

The moral: if you’re banging your head against the wall trying to sell, say, three different poignant urban kiddie chicklit masterpieces maybe you should send them a funny werewolf attack book.

 That’s basically my story, except for the part about being the greatest anything of all time. Keep reading if you want to hear the actual story, but I imagine you’ve got the gist by now….

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World’s Greatest Agent Interviewed

I don’t mention my agent, the aforementioned World’s Greatest Agent, on my blog very much because I figure she doesn’t want her name bandied about.

But since the “Guide to Literary Agents” has just posted an interview with her, this is a great chance to find out what she’s looking for.

I can’t even begin to tell you how important Caryn has been in my life. Well maybe I can by making it this simple: I would not be a published author without her. It simply wouldn’t have happened.

So take her advice to heart. She knows what she’s talking about.