Tension on Every Page:
the Donald Maass & Lisa Rector interview

Donald Maass is the head of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York, selling more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009)—as well as numerous novels—and a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

Lisa Rector is an independent editor (IE) specializing in late-stage story issues, sagging middles and third draft woes. She offers one-on-one intensive story development workshops, manuscript evaluations and revision assistance to professional authors of thrillers, suspense, mystery, historical, fantasy, mainstream and literary fiction. Lisa works with dozens of authors in the US, Canada, Australia and The Netherlands, teaches advanced editing and fiction writing techniques at conferences world-wide, and is the founder of the Lisa Rector Scholarship for Young Writers.

And they just happen to be married to each other.

Thank you so much, Don and Lisa, for taking time out of your busy lives for this interview! I know you’re an extremely literary household, between running a literary agency and an independent editing business. So the first thing I’d like to talk about is working together. Do you think of yourselves as two different businesses or as a single shop?

DM: We’re careful to keep our businesses separate and not steer writers exclusively to each other. We’re ethically obligated not to do that. Obviously, I recommend Lisa. She’s an outstanding editor. But I recommend others too and encourage writers to make a choice.

LR: Occasionally we do have clients in common. I may refer an author to Don, or vice versa, but only if it’s the right fit. Don’s a fabulous agent. But I refer clients to other agents as well.

Do you discover authors together?

LR: We meet writers online, through our websites, at conferences and workshops that we teach, and by referral of other authors, agents and editors. I recommend other reputable independent editors if I think they’re well-suited to a particular project.

DM: We obviously take an interest in each other’s clients, if only to cheer them on.

How do you deal with the distinction between literary representation, which authors are warned should never come with a requirement of up-front payment, and editing, which does?

LR: Editing is part of the deeper learning that exists beyond conferences, critique groups and MFA programs. A good editor can help a writer see the work that’s left to do when they don’t know what to do anymore. You pay for college, so why not for help developing your writing?

DM: I agree with that. Writers pay for conferences, courses and MFA degrees. Why not for developmental editing too? It’s accelerated learning. On the other hand, literary representation works best when the agent’s income derives from actual sales. The goal there is publication and career management. The agent’s incentive is commissions.

Lisa, do you edit Don’s books? Or are you too deeply involved in the writing of them to be able to get the necessary distance? Conversely, do you ever ask him for advice on your clients’ work?

LR: After eighteen books, Don knows how to reach writers in a unique way. And he has a wonderful team at Writer’s Digest. I did proofread The Fire in Fiction, but it was the kind of thing a wife does whose day job is being an editor. I think it annoyed him every time I pointed out a mistake [laughs].

DM: Grrr.

[Laughing] Don, you write the books. Lisa, you edit the manuscripts. Do you lock horns over issues of craft?

DM: We understand craft in much the same way. In the end we both want great novels.

LR: My focus is on late stage story diagnosis and repair. I’m writing a book on the subject, tentatively titled The Third Draft.

Oh, nice! Like Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Very subtle. Now, “tension on every page” is the one piece of writing advice no author should ever be without. (I’ve mentioned you, Don, in reference to it in two guest posts: “Everything You Need to Know About Writing a Novel, in 1,000 Words” on Nathan Bransford’s site and “Countdown” for 16-year-old Emilee for NaNoWriMo, and I mention you as well in The Art & Craft of Fiction.) However, I’ve gotten push-back from aspiring authors on the idea that that’s too much tension. Can you talk about this?

LR: Most manuscripts downplay tension. This is true of both literary novels and commercial fiction. You may think you have enough tension, but ask yourself: Is your manuscript being rejected? Are your sales declining? When an author backs away from tension it is usually rooted in something beyond story construction. It stirs up disappointment, hurt, or other unresolved feelings in characters—and in their authors.

DM: What virtually all manuscripts need is not less tension but more. Now, the word “tension” might to some imply action or over-the-top emotional churning. But tension can be many things including simmering tension or even subtle unease. There’s never enough in manuscripts. That means yours. Sorry. I’m skimming. And if I’m skimming you can bet on it: so will editors. And readers. I have a whole chapter on how micro-tension works in The Fire in Fiction, if you’d like to know more.

Definitely. Don, you mention “telling-not-showing” in an interview with Andrea Campbell. Can you elaborate?

DM: This is a dangerous topic. It is usually best to show, not tell. On the other hand, there are moments in a novel when you might want to capture something invisible, like the mood in a room or a unique moment in time. There’s a way to do that called “measuring change,” which I discuss in my books and teach in my workshops.

LR: Um, what Don’s talking about here is not for beginners. Don’t try that at home! Call us first.

[Laughing] Yes. You’re talking sophisticated technique. Don, multiple layers are essential for a long work like a novel. Is there a basic technique you recommend that works in most cases? Do you have favorite techniques that are too tricky for the standard story?

DM: The first concept to grasp is plot “layers.” Those are the multiple—and later, interwoven—problems facing a protagonist. They can be planned separately; ditto subplots involving other characters. For multiple point-of-view novels, each character’s storyline can be thought of as a separate novella. Separating storylines makes them easier to manage. It also demands that each by itself is strong. It’s important to weave storylines together, but first they must stand on their own.

Lisa, what is your method for working with a client? What’s your first step, and how do you follow up? What do you consider the most important elements in a manuscript, and how do you go about achieving that with a client?

LR: The first step is to identify what works in the manuscript, what doesn’t and why. Because I work in late-stage story development, those issues can be difficult to pinpoint. At this stage, many writers are close to publication, yet not quite there. Agents and editors don’t have time to explain what’s lacking, so they send cryptic rejection letters.

Through story analysis, workshops and follow-up consults, we work to repair sagging middles, enhance line-by-line tension and address other third draft issues. There is, justifiably, great emphasis on what goes wrong in a manuscript, but most authors also tend to do too little of what they do well. Essential to any good novel are passionate storytelling, purpose, clarity, tension and characters that matter.

That’s a beautiful, insightful list. There are agents, though, who don’t like the idea of authors having their manuscripts professionally edited before submitting them. Some say it makes them nervous, and most say, “Don’t mention it in your query.” What is your opinion on this issue, from both sides of the fence?

DM: Most of the time “professional editing” means line editing by marginally qualified so-called editors. Most manuscripts don’t need that. Most need story development, the kind of work that Lisa does. Count on it: When a query says the manuscript has been “professionally edited” it is not ready. But when someone is referred to me by Lisa, Jerry Gross, Pat LoBrutto, John Paine or Lorin Oberweger, trust me, I pay attention.

LR: More and more I see referrals coming from agents. They’re not looking for line-by-line polish, they’re after great storytelling. And they know that a reputable IE can help get it there.

How can authors distinguish really good, professional editors from the many, many amateurs advertising themselves as “professional editors” without any background or training?

LR: Good editors take time to clarify author goals, identify what is working and what isn’t and provide support to authors in moving forward. Reputable editors do not charge reading fees, nor do they pay or receive money for referrals from other editors, authors, agents or publishers. For more information on this topic, visit my website.

How do you see the laying-off of so many in-house editors in the past couple of years affecting the work you both do, and how these new independents with publishing contacts and skills will play out in the workforce—both as literary agents and as independent editors—in the next few years?

LR: When in-house editors go independent it brings credibility to my profession. But authors need to discern which particular editor best suits their needs.

DM: There are a lot more agents today! That’s good for authors but also, in a way, bad for authors. I see manuscripts taken on, and sometimes sold, that I read too and felt were not ready. What’s wrong with that? Those authors are getting quick gratification but not necessarily a strong foundation of craft under their careers.

The fewer publishers’ in-house editors are left, the more it really puts the burden of polishing the manuscript on the writer. Which is, honestly, either a nearly impossible task or expensive—even if the author knows they need an editor—because, unlike agents, editors get paid up-front. How do you see the role of independent editors evolving as the industry continues to change? What’s your attitude toward writers who take the craft seriously but don’t have the money to pay a reputable editor?

LR: Developmental editing is an investment. It may take time. It may require extra work on a manuscript you felt was ready. Ultimately, a good measure of that investment is what shows up on the page. Conventional editing is expensive and, for the most part, ineffective. Rather than blue penciling a manuscript, I try to equip authors with the tools of craft that can be applied many times over in their careers.

Lisa, do you consider yourself expensive? Cheap? What is your philosophy behind how you price yourself?

LR: Am I the cheapest editor out there? No. Nor am I the most expensive. I work within each writer’s budget to provide the best editorial input I can.

DM: Independent editors like Lisa definitely are part of the publishing landscape now. Is it an extra burden of expense for writers? You can look at it that way, or you can see it as a level of professional help that was never before available.

That’s an excellent point, Don. Have you played with or implemented the idea of the editor taking a percentage of the writer’s royalties, rather than payment up-front, the way an agent does? Do you see any potential in that, or would the semantics simply make it too difficult?

LR: I don’t think taking a percentage would be beneficial for writers. It’s not just the extra cut it would entail, it’s that the editor’s incentive would then be to get done quickly and see a manuscript sold as soon as possible. As I said, I’m not about quick fixes. Authors need the tools of the craft so they can not just sell one book but build a career.

You take a long view of a writer’s career, rather than aim for a one-hit wonder. Don, you talk in The Career Novelist about big conglomerates buying up publishing houses in the 1980s. What effect do you think, in retrospect, the conglomerate business model has had on the quality and types of books published since then?

DM: One effect has been the withering of the mid-list. Genre lists also used to be a safe place to grow one’s craft. Not anymore. Nowadays authors get a very small window, two to four titles, to prove themselves and find an audience. It’s an extremely difficult situation. That’s why learning to write at breakout level from the get-go is important. That’s also why developmental editors like Lisa are important.

Ebooks—Kindle, Reader, Nook, and now the iPad—what is their impact on publishing and readership?

DM: E-books are still only four percent or so of overall sales. E-publishing isn’t changing the industry very much. Remember, you still need the physical book and everything that goes with it (cover, copy, reviews) for the e-book to be successful. Who sells the most e-books? Authors who are already best sellers in paper. Guess what? You still have to write a great novel. As for the future, I can see e-books becoming an established niche in book retailing, perhaps as big as audio books (which are roughly 10% of the book market). But I don’t think the paper book is going away anytime soon.

What is the impact of Publishing On Demand (POD) on publishing, particularly returns? Are publishers moving in this direction?

DM: POD is great for tiny print runs, but what author wants micro-sales? POD is good for authors with backlist titles that can’t be made available any other way. But keep it in perspective. It’s not a way to build an audience.

LR: I agree, POD doesn’t build readership.

But POD is the heart of self-publishing—which leads us to the fact that there’s some truly awful stuff being self-published, and yet we continue to hear about publishers who find excellent work through self-publishing. What role does self-publishing play right now in the whole system from writing through agent to publisher?

DM: Self-publishing success stories are one in 10,000. Every year there’s one breakthrough. Eragon. The Shack. Is self-publishing a career development strategy for aspiring authors? If you like 1-in-10,000 odds then sure. But for virtually everyone, I’d say no.

LR: What pushes authors into self-publishing? Is it the realistic expectation of using it as a stepping stone? I don’t think so. Most self-publish because they’re frustrated, can’t wait, feel it’s their turn (yet they’re not getting “the call”), or because they imagine that self-publishing is the only way to put a particular project behind them.

Writers hear all the time now: “Don’t try to get published if you aren’t also prepared to become your own marketer.” And yet, like self-editing and professional editors, self-marketing is no substitute for professional marketing. And what about “social networking” and the power of grassroots exposure on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etcetera?

DM: Promotion and “platform” are much bigger considerations for nonfiction authors. Novelists starting out need to put their focus on great stories. All the blogging in the world won’t build an audience if your fiction is weak. The best promotion in the world is a strong second novel, followed by an even better third novel. But, hey, let’s assume your fiction is superb. You never write a weak novel. (That’s you, right?) Okay, how much effort to put into online promotion? Remember that promotion is cumulative. The effect of any promotion on sales of an individual title is going to be small. If you are a self-promoter you’ve got to commit to it for the long haul.

LR: The emphasis on self-promotion is often misplaced. There are writers who’ve built their website and planned their promo campaign before they’ve even finished their first draft.

I see it all over out there, Lisa. Exactly what you’re saying. And now we’re talking sales numbers—Bookscan has created a situation in which writers no longer have time to build a readership. It’s sink or swim right out of the gate. What is your take on how this helps or hinders the industry?

DM: Bookscan’s a useful tool for publishers, no question. The downside is that it fosters instant success thinking. Fiction audiences don’t always grow like that. Also, some genre fiction sells disproportionately in independent bookstores and outlets that don’t report to Bookscan. I’m happy to say, though, that most publishers get that. I’ve learned to live with Bookscan.

Don, you offer The Career Novelist as a free downloadable book online. And at the same time there is a very real sense among professionals of, “If you undervalue yourself, everyone else will undervalue you, too.” While, simultaneously, many new writers worry that the blogosphere culture of, “Everything should be free,” means their chances of ever earning anything with their work is shrinking away to nothing. How do you balance these conflicting issues?

DM: It’s a strange thing, but giveaways can help sales of physical books. We can at least say with some confidence that they don’t hurt. Look at it this way: You’re happy if your publisher stuffs goodie bags at conferences with your book, so why not do the same thing online?

What about the blog effect—there have always been amateur writers hoping to break into publishing big-time due to the perceived glamor of being A Writer, but now that everyone writes a blog it seems there’s an almost insurmountable bottleneck. People who have never considered writing before are announcing in public that they started writing a book two months ago and, as Lisa said, are already looking for representation and studying up on marketing. How does this affect the industry overall?

LR: Blogging is great. I’ve done it myself. But marketing and craft are two different things. Think about it: does writing a blog teach you how to write a novel?

DM: I’ve never taken on a novelist just because they’ve got a killer blog. What’s the point? It’s not going to sell books, or many. Blogs are a nice place to connect and discuss craft. Blog away. But don’t expect that by itself it will make you a successful novelist. It really won’t help that much.

Traditionally, Don, one reason agents are so important is that they have the leverage to negotiate higher rates for the writer. What about the hailed decline of big advances and advent of backloaded offers? What about advances that don’t earn out and how that figures in the bottom line? What are you advising writers these days on what they can expect?

DM: Publishers are grabbing more than ever in terms of territory and sub-rights. You still need an agent in your corner. Your agent is also your intermediary, problem solver, career advisor, sub-rights broker, payment facilitator and much more. In terms of what authors can expect, yes, our advance expectations right now are lower. Blame the recession, but that can also be good. Advances that fail to earn out can kill careers. More realistic advances can give an author time and room to grow. It’s not all bad.

Lisa, what do you tell your clients (besides referring them to Don, of course) about seeking a career as a writer?

LR: Writing, like anything, is hard work. Successful authors know that dedication and desire to evolve are required every day. They commit to improving their craft and taking risks. They don’t get comfortable wrapping themselves in the familiar. They understand that it is their most recent book sales that dictate success.

Independent editor Lisa Rector can be reached through her website, Third Draft in New York City.

Literary agent Donald Maass can be reached through his website, Donald Maass Literary Agency.

“The freshest and
most relevant advice
you’ll find.”

—Helen Gallagher,
Seattle P-I

The Art & Craft of Fiction
The Art & Craft of Story

A. VICTORIA MIXON: Freelance Independent Editor


8 thoughts on “Tension on Every Page:
the Donald Maass & Lisa Rector interview

  1. Kathryn says:

    Hands down, what I liked best about this interview is that your questions to LR and DM are similar to questions you have posed to your readers.

    You have asked every one of us to carefully consider many of these issues and I, for one, bumbled around trying to figure them out. How wonderful it is to see them finally answered so well.

    Thank you for a wonderful interview.

  2. Marisa Birns says:

    This has been an interview that illuminates so much good information!

    I have purchased The Fire in Fiction and am so glad I did. It’s excellent.

    Yes, writing is hard – some days harder than others. But it is ultimately more fulfilling than anything I can think of doing instead!

    Thank you all for taking the time to share your expertise.

  3. Lots of good, solid information here. Don’s books should be in every writer’s library.

    And everybody in the blogsphere needs to read Lisa’s comment “The emphasis on self-promotion is often misplaced. There are writers who’ve built their website and planned their promo campaign before they’ve even finished their first draft.”

    This horse-before-cart stuff is taking up time new writers should spend learning their craft.

  4. Lady Glamis says:

    This is an excellent interview. Thank you to all! Victoria, you’ve asked questions here that Lisa and Don have answered so well that I won’t walk away forgetting them. I’m going to link to this over on The Literary Lab in my Thursday post. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

  5. Excellent interview! I’ve stated on Twitter and on my blog that Don’s, “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” (which my agent, Bernadette Baker-Baughman highly recommended – she’s so smart!) and Stephen King’s, “On Writing” are the two greatest sources for help on the craft of writing I’ve come across. And, what a cute couple!!!

  6. John Wiswell says:

    This is an enormously helpful interview. Maass always illuminates and reading these two together provided some useful complimentary opinions. Good work, and great snag!

  7. An excellent interview geared to assist the writer in whatever stage they are at.

    With respect to multipe point-of-view novels, how many POVs are permissible to avoid confusing the reader? And for this, which is better to use: third person limited or third person omniscient?

    I am currently in a third draft edit to turn a manuscript into a stand alone book. My original intention had been to write a trilogy or multiple series, but was advised to ensure each book was a stand alone.

  8. Victoria says:

    Thanks, everyone! Don & Lisa were great interviewees. I love that she made him growl.

    Barbara, I’ll put your questions in the queue for the advice column. I should be able to get to it next week. I’m probably the one who advised you to make each book of your series a standalone, and that’s where.

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