Rock, Paper, Scissors: Agent, Writer, Editor (Reflections From Someone Who’s Been All Three)

Betsy Lerner
From the July/August 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Scissors. When I was a young editor at Houghton Mifflin (this was before the 2007 merger with Harcourt), we’d go to the Boston office every few months for launch meetings. I loved going to the office on Park Street right off the Common. In the winter it looked like a Bruegel; in the spring a Seurat. It was like stepping into a Henry James novel, the elegant murals on the boardroom walls, the mahogany conference table glossy enough to skate on, the elevator with the manual cage door and the small sign within: “We take authors to great heights.” The walls were lined with framed National Book Award certificates and Pulitzer Prizes, a dizzying sight. I also loved the editors in the Boston office, each one fulfilling a fantasy of what an editor might be: an unassuming man in a bow tie with a light touch and savage wit; a poet with a potbelly and stories of great affairs with mentally unstable poets; a woman with long, white braids and Birkenstocks who spotted new-age gurus long before the term new age was in vogue; and an editor who looked like a nineteenth-century explorer with his bright blue eyes, General Custer goatee, and binoculars perched on his rolltop desk.

On one trip up to Boston, I took my seat on the shuttle and removed the manuscript I was working on and my mechanical pencil. A young, good-looking man, about my age, sat down next to me. He took out a copy of one of my favorite books, Great Expectations. Then he turned to me and asked, “Are you a writer?”

“No,” I said a little apologetically. “I’m just an editor.”

Rock. I’m in an agents’ lunch group called ETA (editor-turned-agent). There are ten or so of us and we were all card-carrying editors before we crossed the line and became agents.

We meet at Japonica in Manhattan. Ten agents, ten credit cards. We look around before we say anything too damning, because the place is lousy with publishing types. We each have our successes, but we mostly talk about the challenges, the indignities, and the absurdity of our business. Publishing equals complaining. It’s one of the great pleasures of our business, often elevated to an art form that takes the shape of pure Schadenfreude, petty envy, niggling gripes, and overwhelming disgust.

At our last lunch, a new editor-turned-agent joined us for the first time. He looked a little freaked out by the blank slate before him. Going from salary to commission is daunting. The rhythms of agenting are also different. Project development can take months or years, and author care is more intensive. Over the years I’ve nursed writers through depressions, writer’s block, addiction, divorce, and bankruptcy. One of my writers didn’t pay taxes for over a decade—oops! Also, when you’re an editor you have the institution of the publishing company behind you. When you’re an agent—especially an indie, as we all are in our lunch group—you’re the last line of defense. Part of why I didn’t want to be an agent was this added layer of responsibility for a writer’s well-being, financial and otherwise. I once had a client who cried that he couldn’t afford his baby’s diapers. Another couldn’t afford her rent.

Our new agent friend was pale by now. We all weighed in and unanimously agreed that the best part of being an agent boiled down to this: We all felt free—free to take on what we wanted, free to push our passion projects as hard as we could, free to make our own hours or take time off. Or, as one of us said, “Go to sample sales in the middle of the day.” Or therapy.

Scissors. I am a word nerd. I love language. I have an MFA in poetry, which means I dropped nearly twenty thousand dollars on sonnets and villanelles. The first time I wrote flap copy for a book, you’d have thought I was composing the Magna Carta, that’s how seriously I took the job. There is nothing about the editorial process that doesn’t fascinate me.

When I was an editorial assistant, I would make a copy of the manuscript my boss was working on and edit it. Then I would surreptitiously compare my notes to his. I was astonished at how much I missed; this was how I learned line editing. I had done this for a few books when he noticed what I was up to. After that we compared notes together. Eventually, I would catch most of the things he pointed out to the writer. Once in a great while, I’d catch something he’d missed. It was an amazing feeling. This was the first sign that I really loved editing and might be good at it. Great editing boils down to paying extremely close attention and then communicating your thoughts to the writer in a way that motivates and elevates. Demoralized writers don’t tend to thrive.

Then I worked for an editor in chief who was obsessed with blueprints and architecture. He’d structure books within an inch of their lives and expected his editors to do so as well. I learned a lot from him, but I also learned what not to do. I’ve come to believe that structure emanates organically from the pages and suggests itself the way patterns do through poems. Often, structuring a book is one of the most difficult things for writers to do. They are staring at themselves too closely in the mirror most of the time. My greatest happiness as an editor (and still as an agent) is to figure out structure: how many chapters, how many parts, how much variation, where are the key breaks in the book, what is the tense and point of view. I love helping a writer make a transition seamless that once seemed rocky, or take a leap in time and place to striking dramatic effect. Teasing out the themes, and sometimes even finding the meaning—these are the moments when you and your author are humming, and it’s amazing. I also love coming up with titles. It’s like being in a batting cage. For me, a home-run title is original, unforgettable; the more you read the book, the more right the title feels. Bonus: You come upon the sentence where the title comes from while reading, and it feels like the whole world makes sense.