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.

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