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  • Paul Cumbo

The Inertia-Crushing Power of the Right Editor

I “finished” my second novel, Wilderness Therapy, about six months ago. I wrapped up the final chapter with a satisfying, tempered, well-paced resolution that, frankly, made me a little bit teary-eyed in a sappy way as I saw my main character break free of the story arc and run (literally) off into his own imaginary future.

Oh, it was an emotional moment for sure. Because Mike Whittaker, whom I’ll hope many of you will come to admire and cheer for as much as I have, went through some really bad stuff. There were moments, writing his story, when I cried. I mean, literally...once raising some serious concern on the part of a fellow Spot Coffee patron. But yeah, it happened as I tried to crank out the raw, honest truth of Mike's pain. As I watched him, in my imagination, struggle with forces and weights far too heavy for a kid to bear—and collect the resulting scars.

So yeah…when I finished that last chapter, and saw that Mike had kept his wits about him despite heartbreakingly difficult circumstances, I was a pretty happy guy. I bought myself a drink on a sunny afternoon and toasted Mike’s tenacity, his strength, and his fundamental goodness. In fact, I wanted to have a beer with the kid, but...1.) he'd be too young, which wouldn't be appropriate, and 2.) well, he doesn’t actually exist.

My most loyal reader (mom!) read the story and loved it. My second most loyal reader (my wife!) loved it. A few of my close friends loved it. So I figured it must be finished, and I proceeded to craft a fairly kick-in-the-derriere query letter and sent it off to about eighty agents over the course of a couple months.

Well let me tell you how thrilled I was—despite seventy-or-so no-replies and many “sorry, sounds interesting but not for us” replies—to receive eight requests to read the full manuscript. Two of those requests came from independent publishers, and six came from literary agents. So I got all giddy with each one, and sent it off, fairly sure that it would knock their socks off.

The first response was from a Houston-based independent publisher. They’re a startup with innovative business model. They wanted the story. But I just wasn’t sure. I wanted to see what the agents said. And I wasn’t entirely confident in the production quality of their books or the efficacy of their business model, based on what I’d seen and a couple conversations with their authors. So I decided to offer a polite decline, with the understanding that I might reach back out. They were gracious and supportive of that decision. I have to give them credit for that.

And then the agents. Each agent who read it is young (probably younger than I am) and enthusiastic. Each had great things to say about it. They praised the writing. They praised the evocative, dynamic characters. They praised the fundamental premise and the unique take on a potentially tedious genre. And….they all said pretty much the same thing, with minor variations: You need to re-arrange the telling of the story. You’re starting in the wrong place. It’s the execution of the story, not the story itself, that needs work. Consider changing the point-of-view and/or tense. A few of them left the door wide open to reading revised resubmissions. They were all very gracious.

So what did I do with their suggestions? know. Not a hell of a lot.

Not because they weren’t right. But because my wife and I had our third child in January, and the insanity of our household grew to a fever pitch with three children under age four, and because I was taking online grad school classes, and because I was also starting freelance writing/editing jobs for four new clients.

No, that’s not really why. That's an excuse. I could use that excuse for just about anything, and it would be just as lame.

The real reason it’s because I fell headlong into a GIANT PIT OF SOUL-SUCKING INERTIA.

And stayed there for quite a long time. Then I had a dream about Mike Whittaker and he told me to go finish his damned story and get it published. The kid is very persuasive.

Mike was right. It was time.

Well, I knew I couldn't fix it on my own. By the time you've finished your third draft, you're done making a manuscript better on your own. (In fact, you're probably only going to screw it up and make it worse.) So I started looking around at independent editors. That’s when Kiele Raymond and New York Book Editors came into the picture. I did a lot of due diligence. I’m an editor myself, and I know there are a lot of people out there who have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. So I did a lot of research. And all throughout the interwebs, the arrows kept pointing back to New York Book Editors as knowledgeable, qualified, and possessed of actual, real-live Big Five employment experience at the Associate Editor or higher level.

So I took a leap of faith (and made an investment) in what I (and many others) discerned to be a truly professional organization. Full disclosure: they're not cheap. But in my mind, Wilderness Therapy has been a project to which I've dedicated (at least) two years and in which I have a lot of faith. At worst, I know it will (at least) pay for itself someday.

But I can say, from Day 1, I knew I’d made the right decision. NYBE takes the right approach. They match you with a suggested editor based on an analysis of your detailed submission. Then you do a trial edit of a sample (fully refundable if you don't think it's working). Then you get a phone consultation with the editor to get a sense if he or she is right for the story.

Kiele made specific, helpful comments based on just a small sample of my story. She helped make sense of many of the vague suggestions offered by the interested agents. She managed (in just the short time we worked together in the initial “trial edit” phase) to achieve an incredibly balanced approach to my work: one which respected the fundamental integrity of the story while respecting me enough to avoid any and all sycophantic malarkey. Our phone consultation, which was supposed to be about 20 minutes, lasted almost an hour. And to be honest? It was among the best conversations I've had about writing with anyone, ever.

So, sprung free from the GIANT PIT OF SOUL-SUCKING INTERTIA by Kiele's balanced, respectful, enthusiastic, and optimistic objective voice—that voice that had real, live street cred and experience in the industry—I began a furious, caffeine-fueled revision of the novel that has utterly transformed the telling. The plot hasn’t changed—although it has been deepened and refined. What has changed is the pacing, the structure, and the sustained momentum of the narrative arc. I’ve found myself back in the trenches with my characters, peeling back more layers of their motivations and needs and desires and intentions—their goodness and their flaws. What I’ve enjoyed the most is going back to the Montana wilderness with Mike Whittaker, and helping him navigate the perilous forests in the dark. It’s good to hang out with him again. I admire the kid even more.

I’ll be sending Kiele the manuscript, in its entirety, in mid-August. I’m sure she will give it the appropriate dismantling it needs, and help me refine it even more. I can’t wait to work with her feedback, making this thing stronger than ever.

More than anything, I can’t wait to share Mike’s story with you.


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