Edwin Hill on Writing

Edwin Hill makes his fiction debut in the Department of First Stories of EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2018). The tale, entitled “White Tights and Mary Janes,” was inspired, in part, by a short stint he did at a for-profit college. Currently, he is vice president and editorial director for Bedford/St. Martin’s, a division of Macmillan. At the end of August 2018, Edwin’s first novel, Little Comfort, will be published by Kensington Books (with a second book already contracted). As he explains in this post, his story for EQMM began life as part of an earlier draft of that book. EQMM is trying something a little different today; we’re posting a podcast of “White Tights and Mary Janes,” Edwin’s debut story, this afternoon, to coordinate with this post and the print version of the story currently on sale.—Janet Hutchings

I’ve worked as an editor for most of my professional career, including my current stint as the vice president and editorial director at Bedford/St. Martin’s, which is a division of Macmillan Learning. I cherish the collaborative nature of writing and book making, especially the type of detailed development work that we do in academic publishing. And by now, I’m comfortable with both the editorial process and the recursive nature of writing. Still, I hadn’t had my own writing put to the test until an agent agreed to try to sell my first novel, Little Comfort, in the summer of 2014.

Below are five lessons learned during the three and a half years since that day.

  1. Rejection letters are the key to success.

The first time my agent submitted Little Comfort to publishers, it was rejected practically everywhere, and, I won’t lie to you, it was terrible. Most of the passes were polite and short, purposefully noncommittal. As an editor, I know how important it is not to give authors false hope. If a manuscript isn’t for you, it’s important to say that so that the writer can move on to someone who can support the project.

However, there was a bright spot in this process. In academic publishing, we use peer reviews all the time to help shape a manuscript. Academics will write detailed, and often very polite, reviews, and a good editor is able to synthesize the views of many different academics so that the author can shape the material to better fit the audience.

I read the rejection letters in the same way that I would read reviews to see what trends I could pull from them. One trend I started to see was that many editors mentioned that there was too much story in the manuscript. One editor—in a single gold mine of a sentence—went as far to say that the manuscript read like two novels mashed together. And that gave me enough to work with as I began an extensive revision process.

  1. Don’t kill your darlings, part one—recycle them.

Little Comfort began as three intertwined stories: Hester Thursby, a librarian who uses her research skills to find missing people; Sam Blaine, a charming grifter who reinvents himself to gain the trust of the wealthy and powerful; and Maxine Pawlikowski, the embattled leader of a for-profit college under federal investigation for fraud. I quickly realized that one of the stories had to go, so I spent about six months excising poor Maxine from the story. What resulted was a stronger novel—more focused, with a commitment to a single protagonist who could support a series.

I also wound up with the short story, “White Tights and Mary Janes,” which focuses on Maxine. To read more, visit here.

  1. Don’t kill your darlings, part two—you may need them.

Like many first-time novelists, I read, and continue to read advice from other writers, including very good tips for cutting as much backstory as possible from a polished manuscript. Backstory really can slow down the forward momentum of the novel and, worst of all, it can be boring.

As an editor, I know that many writers need to warm up to get into a manuscript, especially a first draft. I use backstory to get to the meat of the story, so trimming it away from the finished product is almost always a good idea. As I prepped Little Comfort for submission #2, I combed the manuscript for backstory and cut nearly all of it.

After I sold the novel to Kensington, and my editor sent his development notes, it turned out that most of his questions were about what had happened to get my main characters where they were, i.e. backstory. Thankfully I’d kept every single draft of the manuscript and was able to piece together a solid—and brief—backstory for each of the characters that answered my editor’s queries.

  1. Time away from a manuscript is a good thing.

Copyediting happens late in the writing and editing process. Good copy editors do much more than correct grammar. They find problems in your manuscript around logic and continuity, as well as structure, word choice, and repetition. And yes, they correct your grammar. A great copy editor will help you put the finishing polish on your manuscript and make you a much better writer in the process.

When I got the copyedits on my manuscript, I was deep into writing a new novel and hadn’t looked at Little Comfort in months. The nice thing about seeing the copyedits was that it made me think about my writing in a different way, and helped me catch some bad habits. I always believed I was a pretty clean writer, but it’s never too late to learn! For more on my own copyediting process, click here.

  1. Be mindful of names

Avoid naming terrible, terrible characters after real people, especially ones with whom you may have a conflicted relationship! Also, don’t name rifles after friends who are anti-gun. And if you choose to name a character after someone’s dog, ask. Especially if that character is a serial killer.

But, that’s what Find and Replace is for, and that’s why the editorial process has many steps and can sometimes be maddeningly slow. We all want to get it right. That takes time, and a great team.

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2 Responses to Edwin Hill on Writing

  1. Solid! Thanks for the tips, man. “Also, don’t name rifles after friends who are anti-gun.” That’s really specific hahaha. Is that something you’ve done or just an example?

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