Thursday, May 22, 2014

What makes a great editor? -- Part five

So this, finally, is the story. I called Bob Abel at Dell Books, in New York, and told him what I was working on. He suggested we meet in New York and talk about it, so I took a sick day from IBM and came in.

We had lunch at a fancy French restaurant. I remember that, because it always happened that way. Bob always treated his writers like royalty, even the ones who were writing small books. Even me, who wasn't yet one of his writers. But mostly I remember feeling as though I was with an old friend. We talked about books, about The Realist, about the Mets and the Knicks, about jazz. About what I was writing. I told him I had two manuscripts, but the first was really just an exercise. He said to send both, and he'd look at them.

I heard from him within a week. "You were right about the first one," he told me. "It's too derivative and formulaic -- even for a formula novel. But I like the second one. It's got humor and movement. I'm going to recommend that Dell buy it. I'll have to run it past my boss -- I'm not senior enough to sign up a book myself. But I'll push it."

Then things slowed down. My book was not a priority for Bob's boss, and it languished on her desk.
Meanwhile, things weren't good for me. I had lost my job with IBM. I was having no luck at all finding a new job, and my severance pay was running out. I called Bob on a Tuesday -- it was the beginning of July, 1969. "Is there any way you can push your boss a little harder? I'm kinda desperate."

"I'll see what I can do," he said.

This is the guardian angel part of the story. Don't expect this to happen in the cutthroat world of publishing...but it can happen, once in a blue moon, if you're lucky enough to have a Bob Abel in your life. He called me back the next day.

"I don't really have the authority to do this, but I just signed up your book. You'll have a check for your advance by the end of next week. Enjoy your Fourth of July weekend."

Then the work started. And I knew I had to do it right. Not only was my future on the line, but Bob's reputation as an editor, and I knew I couldn't let him down.

He sent the manuscript back to me for revision. There were red pencil marks on nearly every page.
And what comments they were! Never did he tell me what to do. But with unerring precision, he identified every weak moment in the manuscript. Make this funnier. Make this move faster. Sharper dialog here. Why would he do that? Why would she say this? Where's the motivation here?
I have had very good mentors, and very good teachers, in my life. John Simon and Donald Finkel in my undergraduate days at Bard. Philip Roth, R. V. Cassill, Vance Bourjailly, Donald Justice and Mark Strand at Iowa. I admired all these people, and learned from them all. But I never learned so much about writing -- anywhere near so much about writing -- as I did from rewriting that potboiler novel from Bob Abel's critique. And if you're looking for a definition of what makes a great editor, you can't do better than this one: he made me a better writer, and he made me a publishable writer.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

What Makes a Great Editor - Part Four

Perhaps to attain some measure of success as a writer, you have to be blessed with a guardian angel. If that's so, I was blessed beyond all counting. My guardian angel was short, bearded, with a twinkle in his eye, a Jeopardy-champ range of knowledge, a genuine belief in writers, the ability to recognize the best in a writer and develop it. His name was Bob Abel.
In 1963, a magazine called The Realist was starting to reshape the definition of American humor. It was an irreverent, unexpected breath of fresh air. Woody Allen wrote for it. So did Kurt Vonnegut and Lenny Bruce. So did Terry Southern, the screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove. So did Avery Corman, author of Kramer vs. Kramer. The Realist was the brainchild of eccentric comic genius Paul Krassner. The masthead read "Paul Krassner, Editor and Ringleader, Bob Abel, Featherbedder." Paul's was the name everyone knew, but it was but it was Bob who held it together, got it out on time, and read unsolicited manuscripts.
Incuding mine. I was a young college professor in the midwest, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, as stuffy as only a young college professor could be, and as full of himself as only a recent Iowa Workshop graduate could be. But I fell in love with The Realist's iconoclasm, and decided I could write for it.
I was valuing myself much too highly. The first piece I submitted to them took on the televised state funeral for General MacArthur -- an attempt, as I saw it, to cash in on the great ratings garnered by the state funeral for President Kennedy. I expounded on this over seven pages of pompous writing. I thought it was wonderful. It was awful.
I sent it in to The Realist, expecting kudos and congratulation from Paul Krassner. Instead, and fairly promptly,  got a response from someone named Abel, telling me, in essence, that my manuscript was pompous, stuffy and dull...but that there was a funny idea on page seven that could maybe be developed.
Who reads a stuffy, dull manuscript from an obscure midwestern college professor all the way through, is perceptive enough to find one funny idea buried on the seventh page and generous enough to write the author and encourage him to rewrite and resubmit the piece? How did he know I had it in me to write something less stuffy?
The idea that struck Bob's fancy was a TV game show called "Celebrity Funeral." And he was right. Nothing else in the essay was funny at all; that had a chance to be. I rewrote the piece, resubmitted it, and it began my career-of-sorts as a regular contributor to The Realist. You can find it now online at The Realist Archive Project
That all by itself would qualify someone for guardian angelship. But it was just the beginning of Bob's benevolent influence on my career.

Friday, May 09, 2014

What makes a great editor? Part Three

What made Jim Bryans a great editor? Part of it was what made him a great packager. He knew everything. He knew every facet of the business, and he could deliver the package he promised. He knew how to put together a series, and how to promote it. And he always knew, and made sure you knew, that the writer was the most important part of the package. Show Jim that you were a professional, and you'd be treated with respect.

He was inspiring, He was a larger-than-life figure, and working with him, you knew that you were part of, if not the literary vanguard, at least of a glorious adventure.

And adventure it was. "150,000 words in ten weeks? Sure, Jim, nothing to it."

Then sit down at the typewriter, and panic starts to set in. The great sportswriter Red Smith once described the process of writing a column: ""You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead." I started it. And started it again. And nothing. I did research. I found a neighbor who'd served on a submarine in World War II, another who'd served on a sub tender. Finally, painfully, I started to find characters. I decided to turn each character around and find his or her other side. The promiscuous bad girl...I'd open up her heart, and let her find true love. The good girl, McCrary's sweetheart...I'd find her wild side. The tough, sadistic admiral...I'd find his tender side. The intellectual naval officer who almost got drummed out of the submarine service because he developed claustrophobia, but instead became a brilliant engineer and designer...I'd put him back in a sub and subject him to the most claustrophobic adventure I could imagine. And McCrary, my dead hero?

Finding him alive wasn't hard. I located him on a prison island in the South Pacific, held in a "tiger cage" -- a pit in the ground with bars over the top (I later found out that this wouldn't have happened--no American sub commander survived the destruction of his boat, but that's another story). But then what? During my research I'd found this incredible true story, too long to go into here, which ends up with a prison ship bound for Japan, sunk by an American sub. I put McCrary on it, had him torpedoed, floating for days on a tiny raft, finally rescued more dead than alive. This would be other side of the bold action hero -- his story would be total shell shock, a long, tortuous recovery, until finally he returns to active duty and leads one last heroic mission near the end of the war.

All well and good. But I only had about 25 pages written, and I was three weeks into my timeline.

I got a call from Jim. "Tad, how's it going?"

"Great, Jim! I've got a hundred pages written, it's coming along like gangbusters."

"Well, that's good. Because it turns out we've got a little problem. We accidentally gave the same outline to two writers, you and another guy. But since you've got a hundred pages written and the other guy only has 75, we'll let you go on with it."


"But since we've paid both of you an advance, we'll have to get books out of both of you. So there'll have to be a few changes."

The changes were up to me. But with this restriction -- so as to give the other guy a piece of the war to write about, I would have to change my time frame. Now, instead of October of 1944 to the end of the war, I had to make it to the end of the year.

Which meant I had to seriously revise at least part of my plot. Instead of a slow, tortuous recovery, I had to give McCrary a dramatic, miraculous recovery.

But I had dodged the bullet.

I told this story at Jim's memorial service, and it was good for a fond laugh...the writing life, dodging the editor's wrath, how we got things done one way or another in our youth,

But over the years, I've come to realize...Jim Bryans hadn't just crawled out from under a cabbage leaf. He'd heard every story every writer could possibly tell him. He knew what was going on.

He got the book out of me, didn't he? And on schedule. And the first of many.

There was only one problem with it. Lou Cameron, an old friend and the professional's professional in the paperback novel business, gave me one piece of advice. "Make sure to put an incest scene in it. Jim loves incest scenes."

Well, there wasn't any possible way an incest scene could fit in my plot, but who would know better then Lou? So I shoehorned it in.

Jim called me as soon as he'd finished reading the manuscript.

"Tad, this is great. But what's this damn incest scene doing here? I HATE incest scenes!"

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What makes a great editor? -- Part two

If you do a google search on Jim Bryans, or James J. Bryans, editor, you don't get any hits at all. [note: this is no longer strictly true. Now you get my original Examiner article.] And this is not right, because Jim Bryans, though not in the prestige class of a Maxwell Perkins or a Michael Korda, was a great editor. Jim worked in the trenches. He was an editor at Magazine Management, a pulp publishing house that served as the early proving ground for writers like Mario (The Godfather) Puzo and Bruce Jay (The Heartbreak Kid) Friedman. He worked for a number of book publishing houses, and helped a lot of writers. When I met him, he was a book packager.

A book packager is a guy that big publishers outsource to. His job his to bring them a finished product. He comes up with the idea, finds the writers, edits the manuscript, gathers the art, gets the permissions, chooses the cover art, writes the cover blurbs, and sometimes even handles the production. Jim had created a hugely successful series, The Making of America, and was in the process of creating a few more. The Making of America novels were written by Lee Davis Willoughby, but Jim had a stable of writers, all of who were Lee Davis Willoughby.

Jim died...maybe ten years ago? I lose track. His memorial service was a source for sadness, but also for laughter. Everyone had a great Jim Bryans story.

Mine had to do with the first book Jim signed me up for. He was doing a series of novels on the submarine service in World War II. Mine would be about the 6th book in the series, and would be called Depths of Danger. The pseudonym for the series was a fine naval name -- J. Farragut Jones. (By the time Depths of Danger came out, the pseudonym had been changed to Halsey Clark, which was a mild disappointment for me -- I had looked forward to being J. Farragut Jones.)

Jim gave his writers a bible of about one page, which included the main characters, the historical time frame, and the story to date. The main character of this series was Jack McCrary, the handsome JFK-like captain of a sub. Unfortunately, as my book was to start, McCrary was dead -- killed in a naval action in the South Pacific. My job...bring him back to life. I was to carry the action from October of 1944 to the end of the war. I could kill off one major character, but I had to let Jim know which one, so that he could put that into the bible he gave the author of the next book in the series.

"Can you write a 150,000 word novel in ten weeks?" Jim asked me.

I had never written a novel in less than a year and a half.

"Oh, sure, Jim. No problem at all with that."

And I was launched into the strange and wonderful circus act, part high wire, part head in the lion's mouth, part being shot out of a cannon, and part baggy pants clown, that was the world of the Jim Bryans author.

To be continued...

What Makes a Great Editor? - Part One

For a few years, I wrote a column on writing for I finally stopped because no one was reading it, but over a period of time I put together a bunch of thoughts about writing, and I've decided to republish them here, in another place that no one reads. I'll mostly do them in chronological order, because that way I don't have to think about any other order, but since deciding to do this was triggered by a friend's Facebook post, I'll start with the thoughts that were triggered. This is the first of five articles on what makes a great editor.

What makes a great editor? I have my own ideas, but I wondered what other people thought, so I googled the phrase.

The first hit was BNET, the go-to-place for management, and they had a whole page of definitions.  All of them were interesting and insightful, and none of them struck home to me. But of course...this was the go-to-place for management. This was a publisher's-eye view, or a CEO's eye view. None of it spoke to a writer's definition of what makes a great editor.

And yes, I do know that essentially a writer's definition of a great editor is someone who loves your book and offers you a big advance. But there's more.
AccessMyLibrary, a wonderful resource I had been previously unaware of, reprints an article [which I'd link to, but the link seems to no longer exist] from The Quill, a magazine for professional journalists, which says, among other things:

    Something odd happens when reporters of any age recall their best editors, the mentors who taught them to understand and love journalism. I've been through just that exercise in a dozen newsrooms and at just as many conventions and workshops. The responses seldom vary by much.
    Their best editors, the respondents say, were great teachers. They took a personal interest in young journalists and showed an obvious concern for them and their futures. They took time. They listened intently. They set high standards and established challenging goals. They laughed a lot. And some of them were even -- dare we say it? -- gentle.

Author Jack Hart is comparing this reality with the myth of the irascible, loud-talking Cary Grant of His Girl Friday or Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men. And he's right, I think. The best editors I ever had were colorful and memorable, but supportive and warm too. I loved them, and remember them with love.

After that, this being the Internet, I started finding software reviews -- what makes a great html editor, what makes a great photo editor. So I was thrown back on my own devices. Which means that I will, after all, have to think.

And hey, that's why they pay me the big bucks. So I'll talk, in future columns, about Bob Abel and Jim Bryans, two of the greatest editors anyone could ever have worked with.

But here I'll relate one anecdote about Bill Grose, who inherited me when Bob Abel left Dell Books. I pitched Bill an idea. I had spent a long bus trip from New York to Bristol, Tennessee, with a young federal marshal as my seat mate. He saw my banjo, and told me a funny story about his first case as a marshall. He had been sent back to his home county in the Appalachian Mountains to take a prisoner into custody. The prisoner, it turned out, was his charismatic reprobate cousin, who accepted that he had been caught fair and square. "But there ain't no hurry, cousin," he said. "You can take me back on Monday. I've got a little moonshining shack up in the mountains..." and there they went, to enjoy a weekend of banjo picking and moonshining, before the law took its course."

"I think there's a story there," I told Bill, on our first meeting. "I'm thinking a rollicking comedy, with the moonshine and banjos and..."

"No, that's all wrong," said Bill. "You've got a story here, but you don't know what it is. This is a thriller...a manhunt."

I needed a book contract, so I agreed. And Bill was dead right. I discovered a young man whose training and inexperience are tested by a cheerful but deadly psychopath, and more important, a young man who has to face the roots and the heritage he has tried to disavow. The novel became The Killing Place, published by Dell, was optioned for the movies by the great Howard Hawks. Later the character of the bad guy (I developed a screen adaptation that moved the story to Puerto Rico) Raul Julia wanted to play the villain. Neither movie ultimately happened. But none of it would have happened if Bill Grose had just said "Nah, I don't see it" -- if he hadn't recognized the story that I had missed, if he hadn't nudged me toward it.