The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist

Insights from Thomas McCormack

The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist. Use by permission of Thomas McCormack.

In 1988 Thomas McCormack, then CEO and editorial director of St. Martin's Press, published a book designed to help editors more effectively edit the novels under their care. To his surprise, the biggest response to The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist was not from its intended audience, but from novelists themselves, who rightly saw the book as a valuable guide to writing a novel.

Since then, McCormack has retired from publishing and begun a second career as a playwright; when Paul Dry Books approached him about a second edition, he happily incorporated the lessons he had since learned.

In the interview below, McCormack expands on the material in his book, sharing more stories from his twenty-eight years in publishing and offering clear-cut instructions to help novelists ensure that their books end up in the right hands.

Question: What are some of the major ways the publishing industry has changed since you began your career? What do these changes mean for writers?

Thomas McCormack: I used to be asked this question at the beginning of each decade when I was working. The people asking were the media, in particular the New York Times. If one can hear a frown over the telephone, I'd hear it again and again because, again and again, I'd say, “It hasn't changed much.” I knew they wanted something dramatic, and, preferably, something apocalyptic -- “The sky of publishing is falling!”

But it wasn't. I left publishing ten years ago, so I can't speak about changes since then (though my old house, St.

Martin's Press, looks very much the same except it's bigger and stronger). When I left, I wrote a column for Publishers Weekly reporting these five facts: That year I did research that showed there were more independent bookstores than ever before, more independent publishers, more books published, more fiction published, and more books sold.

That was contrary to all the predictions we'd been hearing for a generation -- and, perhaps more startling, contrary to what almost everyone in the media and the industry as a whole believed.

The biggest single change during my time was the rise of the computer. Its impact, however, was in the “backroom” -- publishing's management and operations. It certainly was a convenience and accelerator in the writer's work, but it didn't at all change the kind or quality of the books written and published.

Q: Looking back, what books are you most proud to have worked on?

TM: An approvable source of pride to a publisher is the discovery and coronation of a great writer who would otherwise have lived in obscurity. I had that chance with James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian whose warm and joyful memoirs -- beginning with All Creatures Great and Small -- eventually made him perhaps the most widely read memoirist of the twentieth century. His first book had been published in England, and it had sold 1,200 copies. He had been rejected by every American house his work was submitted to -- and there were many. My wife Sandra, the greatest reader I ever knew, was evidently the first person over here to see his worth.

It was she who called Herriot to my attention.

There's also gratification in publishing a writer and raising his readership far beyond what he'd ever found with his previous books, which were just as good. We did this with Tom Harris when we issued his The Silence of the Lambs.

In terms of a class of books, all of us at St. Martin's were proud of what we did with gay books, especially books about AIDS. Our editor Michael Denneny shepherded the first book anyone published about the affliction, The AIDS Epidemic by Dr. Kevin Cahill. Michael also did the biggest book about AIDS -- And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts.

Michael then went on to create our flagship imprint for gay writing, Stonewall Books.

Personally I'm proud to have published years earlier the ground-breaking book by the man who coined the term "homophobia," Society and the Healthy Homosexual by Dr. George Weinberg.

Q: As an editor, what did you look for in both manuscripts and authors?

TM: In a sense, the most gratifying moments as an editor come when you're not actively looking for some particular thing, and out of an anonymous pile of manuscripts something emerges that feels magnetized, radioactive, dancing with electricity. I had this opportunity often when I first went to St. Martin's because we were almost unknown as a publishing house, so no agent was sending us potential bestsellers by big-name authors.

I used to take trips to London to license the American rights of books originating in England. I'd race around with my beggar's basket to as many publishers and agents over there as I could find. They'd load me with heaps of manuscripts by beginning or obscure writers, and I'd go back to my hotel room and, every night and all weekend, read whatever they had given me. My own background had been steeped in “haute-lit,” classic stuff from Austen up through Bellow. I was deeply and happily startled to find that, if it was good of its kind, I could be seized by fiction in genres I'd never encountered, including such unlikely fare as ladies' Gothic novels. (The exception: I didn't have the breadth to appreciate science fiction and fantasy. My remedy was to go out and buy for St. Martin's the best S.F. publisher -- Tor Books.)

The same goes with authors: They come in every form and background imaginable, and the only way to judge them is by their writing. As I say in the book, the sole common denominator in great or successful writers is: none was born a congenital idiot.

Q: Your second career as a playwright has obviously informed your revision of The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist. In your opinion, what is the most important thing that fiction writers can learn from playwrights?

TM: If I have to choose one thing, the word that comes to mind is succinctness -- saying the most with the fewest words. In truth, good screenwriters also teach us this. A few years ago, I saw the movie of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

It drove me back to the book where I was surprised to find that Scorsese and his screenwriter, Jay Cocks, repeatedly knew where a scene ended, but Wharton would profitlessly write on. Beware, though: this less-is-more dictate does not apply to novels where the richest rewards lie in something other than the action or dialog.

Q: You describe two key ways an editor can fail a book: through a defective sensibility and a lack of craft. How can writers tell whether or not their books have fallen into the right hands? What can writers do if their books have not? What questions should fiction writers ask potential editors and agents?

TM: I always told editors the best kind of suggestion an author can hear is one that strums a chord already subliminally humming in the author's mind. “Agh -- I knew you'd say that! You're right -- I suspected I was indulging myself there.”

It's important not to just slap something down on paper and send it to a hard-working editor to do all the heavy-lifting of rebuilding it.

The reason is, it's best to be sure about the kind of book you want to write. Being convinced about this is the best protection against editorial suggestions aimed at getting you to write another book entirely, perhaps a book the editor wants rather than what you want.

One clue to watch for is a stream of suggestions designed to make the book more orthodox, more like all the other books the editor is familiar with.

The most damaging editorial comments I've seen have all come from the editor's inability to take on board something new. Such commentators can go through a manuscript and unerringly suggest deleting exactly the aspects that make the novel fresh, unique, and cherishable. Those people shouldn't be editors, but unfortunately the industry is rife with them.

There's no sure way to find the best editor for you. Certainly try to learn who was the editor of various books you respect and love. (It's easy; just call the publisher and ask, “Who was the editor of such-and-such?”) If you're the writer of ladies' romances or mysteries, you don't want to be in the hands of an editor whose specialty is kitchen-sink tragedies translated from the Lithuanian and Czech.

Don't let the mere offer of a contract blind you with ecstasy. Meet the editor; ask questions. Ask two things: what did you like in it, and what not? Strange to say, if an editor gushes with praise over elements you consider minor or beside the point of what you were after, watch out. Metaphorically, you're like the beautiful young woman who should realize she'd be in trouble with this guy if all he can coo about is her looks. And, of course, you don't want an editor who will be asking you to change all the major things you prize the most.

Get the editor to talk about recent popular books he disliked. That will tell you at least as much as hearing about those he approved of.

In short words, if the editor is a fool -- run. Say you need to think about it, and try to find someone better. If the next forty publishers turn you down, go back to the fool, courteously resist his foolish suggestions, and hope someone else in the house chain-of-operation recognizes the real value of what you've done. That someone could be the editor's boss, or someone in sales, or, most likely, someone in subsidiary rights.

Q: Many fiction writers imagine that a career in publishing is a good way for writers to support themselves.

Do you think this is true?

TM: It's certainly true there have been working editors who were also flourishing novelists. In my time, signal examples are Michael Korda and E.L. Doctorow (though Ed quit as soon as his books could pay the rent). Problem is, no signal is given off when a would-be writer enters publishing and his ambition is smothered by the demands of working with the manuscripts of others all the time. When I was in my twenties, I wrote a short story that caught an agent's eye. He took me for drinks, and when I told him I'd just taken a job at Doubleday, he all but stood instantly and wished me and my writing career goodbye and good luck.

Ten years later I wrote my first play -- a one act. It was published by the Dramatists Play Service and mounted in small houses across the country for the next fifteen years. I decided I'd found my calling. But about a week after writing it, I joined St. Martin's as director of the trade division. Within forty-eight hours the man who hired me went down with an ulcer and suddenly I was in charge. Only then did I learn the company was fibrillating in red ink and about to die. To keep it alive I had to put my playwright's pencil in the drawer, where it stayed until I retired over twenty-five years later. The writers lost to publishing constitute what might be called “invisible evidence."

In sum, if you can find a sustaining job elsewhere, I wouldn't urge going into publishing.

Q: Are you working on a play or another creative project at this time?

TM: I am. I have a “finished” script for which I'll now seek a "reading," in which actors perform with the open book in hand. Whether or not anything will come of it is no sure thing. When I was in publishing, I used to think the period between finished manuscript and finished book was infernally long. I now see that compared to the gestation term of plays, books feel like newspapers. Oh -- the new play has an apt title, considering I wrote a book labeled The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist. It's called The Storytellers.