Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The "First Reader"-- Interview With Crystal Laine Miller

We’re back with Crystal Miller, who has revealed that she’s not just a writer. She’s a “first-reader”—a position about which most of us know little or nothing. If you missed the first half of her interview, scroll down and check it out. Now let’s continue.

RM: If you encounter a manuscript that makes you think, “You know, if they’d just do this or that, they’d really have something,” do you just shrug it off or do you try to intervene?

CM: It is my job to mention this sort of thing. Many times I have said, “if the author would do this, we may have a winner.” It’s up to the editor or agent to decide whether they want to tell the potential client this information, or to just reject. They get so many manuscripts that it is easy for them to just reject and not spend any more time on it. This is more likely to happen with an editor than with an agent. You have to understand that the purpose of an agent is different than the editor’s purpose. With an agent, a potential client may be close, and just needs a rewrite. The agent sees the client as a whole career, not just that one book, but that one book should be good, nearly ready to go. With an editor he is looking for something that he can take to the committee and sell there to be published. The agent may take time to develop the potential client. The editor expects the story to be nearly ready to go.

So, if you ever get a note from the agent or editor who actually gives you direction on your manuscript, you better listen up! SOMETIMES it is how the author responds to this direction that will make the difference between an acceptance or rejection. If I see markers of a good story, just needing a few tweaks, I definitely point this out. It is a matter of checks and balances, really. If there is too much to fix, then it is not worth our time to go into too much detail. I recommend rejection. If there are just a few things that would make the manuscript a “go,” well, if the author could fix them and all the other things line up with the author, then yes, of course, I will tell the agent/editor what I think.

If you get encouragement from an editor, but still it is a rejection this is what this means: 1. Do not revise accordingly and send it back to that editor. They rejected it and unless they say, “Revise and send it back to me,” don’t. 2. Do revise and send it on to another publisher (or agent) who has not seen it.If it is an agent, you must tell them what editors have seen and rejected it. 3. Do write something else and send again to this editor because you were “this close,” and they are hoping with that next manuscript you nail it.

RM: Have you ever been given a manuscript by an author that the editor or agent thought was a real prize, only to find that the work wasn’t all that great? How can you handle that diplomatically?

CM: Agents and editors expect their first readers to be brutally honest. They have built a relationship with their readers and they respect your opinion or they wouldn’t use you. They often pay you to give your opinion, so yes, they will listen! A reader knows what kind of a client, or what kind of manuscript is wanted/needed at that agency/publishing house. They are the spotters, the point men or the scouts, if you will. There is no diplomacy. LOL.

It’s funny, but I did once get a manuscript and I emailed immediately back after only a few chapters, “This is atrocious. You don’t really want me to read the whole thing, right?”

The Boss assured me that yes, indeedy-doody I was not only supposed to read it, but “fix” it. It was amazingly awful. I hated the story. And I ripped it apart, evaluating exactly what made it so heinous. Well, The Boss sent it back to the author with all these comments. The author rewrote, and I got it again to read (!!!) The author fixed almost everything, but refused (arguing with me) about a couple points. Because the author was so willing to work and comply and trust our judgment, I this time read his objections with a softened eye, in some respect. (Though I still was sharp on cutting and doing the surgery needed.)

But The Boss listened to what I had to say and I respect this person enormously, and the “eye” that The Boss possesses to spot a potential client/author. I do not have to be a “yes” woman, but I do offer my opinion with respect, and because I may not necessarily see what they see (and it’s their call, not mine) I don’t second-guess the agent/editor. It’s on that editor or agent, not me. I used to worry about a manuscript/author once it/he left me, but after reading hundreds of manuscripts now, I pray over them and let them go. But I do remember names.

RM: What else can you tell our readers that might help them?

CM: Just remember to write the best story that you possibly can. Learn your craft. Get to know the various publishing houses and what they publish. Don’t insult the editor by saying something like, “You know, this book from your house was lousy! I have a much better story than that.” You may have addressed the very editor who worked on that “lousy” book.

Never burn bridges or tell an editor or agent that they don’t know a good story if they do reject you. Maybe you were “this close” and they knew something about the market you didn’t that made this manuscript a no-go. Maybe they were hoping you will send them something else and they gave you encouragement to try something else.

And when you are at a conference talking about your project, don’t sit there and say to someone who has offered some advice, ”Oh, you aren’t anyone, I wanted to talk to thus-and-so agent or editor. You wouldn’t know.” I’ve had people shove me out of a chair at a table because they desperately wanted to talk to some agent/editor. If you are the nameless table, don’t assume that all of the people there are not worth your time.

You never know, but you may be insulting a first reader of thus-and-so agent or editor and the first thing that reader opens up after a conference is your manuscript. Woe is the would-be author who has a first reader who has to pray to forgive that author. Ha, I’m just kidding about this, as I personally do not hold grudges and I always look at the manuscript itself with no preconceived notions about it. A first reader has a strict code of ethics and her main purpose is to answer to the person for whom she is working. Never expect me or any other first reader you happen to know to divulge anything specific, but if you are given a tip, do listen. Don’t expect a first reader to do favors or to actually hold any specific powers (we just read, like Robert Redford did in Three Days of the Condor.)

This business is relational. Show respect and you will be given respect and people will remember that about you. And be patient. It’s a combination of your hard work and perseverance and God’s timing. If you are given criticism or encouragement from an editor or agent, don’t dismiss it just because it came with a rejection this time. You never know who is watching how you take that criticism. You may have been closer than you think.

Crystal, thanks for taking the time to give us this fascinating and educational insight into what goes into the process of getting that manuscript further up the line. I especially like what you’ve pointed out to us: like a “mystery shopper,” there are first readers all around us. So we should remember that we might be “entertaining angels unaware.”


Georgiana said...

Great tips--thanks for sharing with us!

Carrie Turansky said...

This was a great series! Thanks for inteviewing Crystal!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Thanks, Crystal and Richard. Good information and advice.

Cathy Messecar said...

Oh, by the way, we haven't had dinner at a conference, have we?

Richard and Crystal, I don't know when I've gained more from a blog interview. Great information and encouragement. Thank you

Christina Berry said...

This behind-the-scenes look was amazingly insightful. I really appreciated the interview!

Caroline said...

I loved this interview! Interesting & so much encouraging info. Thks, Richard & Crystal, for sharing with others.

Christine said...

I can't say enough good things about Crystal Miller. Thank you Richard, for interviewing this wonderful lady. She was my first reader and God-willing, everything else the Lord enables me to write, Crystal will be my first reader. I treasure her wisdom. Too mushy. Sorry, I think she's awesom.

Kristy Dykes said...

This one's better. The other one's better. This one's better. The other one's better. (Plucking petals off of a daisy.) Both parts of this interview were great. Learned a lot! Thanks!

Caroline said...

I loved this interview! Interesting & so much encouraging info. Thks, Richard & Crystal, for sharing with others.