5 Questions with Editor Mary Kole

Mary Kole, book editor and former literary agent. Mary Kole worked as a literary agent for Andrea Brown Literary Agency in California and as senior literary manager for Movable Type in New York before leaving agenting behind to become a full-time book editor. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco and has worked with authors at all stages of development and expertise.

Although Kole specializes in children’s literature (she is the author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit from Writer’s Digest Books), she offers independent manuscript consulting and editing for all genres through Mary Kole Editorial. Her services range from phone consultations and manuscript brainstorming sessions to full manuscript edit and review. She leads webinars on the craft of writing for Writer’s Digest and speaks regularly at conferences nationwide.

There is often a misguided view of the role and function of editors. We often hear writers lament that they don’t want to hire an editor because they don’t want an outsider to change their vision or tell them how they should craft their story. What is your response to this?

I can absolutely appreciate a writer’s reluctance to open their creative process to any outsider. For example, I see it all the time with picture book writers. They want to dictate the details of their stories to their illustrator, not realizing that the illustrator is an artist in their own right, who is contributing to the vision equally. The idea that they don’t get to micromanage the illustrations often comes as a rude awakening, unless the writer is ready to realize that publishing is a collaborative process. It truly takes a village to raise a book. I was a literary agent, I am now a freelance editor. In both roles, writers have invited me into their manuscripts to give advice. Sometimes it’s well-received, other times it’s quite challenging. But for the process to be successful, the writer must at least come to the table with an open mind.

If they advance toward publication with a house, there are going to be many moments of feedback – some optional, some less so. A writer will work with an in-house editor at a publisher, and the editor may not accept a manuscript unless certain changes are made. A cover will be presented, as will a book marketing angle, that the writer could disagree with. That’s not to say that publishing is one long, slow loss of control, where a writer’s vision is ripped away from them. But there are certain realities once your goal becomes to take a story out of your head and put it into a physical object that’s offered for sale by a team of professionals.

Once a book is published—whether through a traditional house or self-publishing—there will be feedback galore from readers. The more open to collaboration a writer is, the easier they’ll tolerate this process. There has to be a certain level of trust involved, trust that outside feedback is coming from a valid place, and that the many people who make a book possible have its best interests at heart. (For moments when the writer really disagrees, there’s always ice cream.)

We often tout the importance of a strong book cover. As a former agent and editor, how important is a compelling book cover in enticing readers? Can you truly judge a book by its cover?

To be perfectly honest, covers are really important. They’re one of your biggest pieces of book marketing, something to entice readers to sample a lick of your gorgeous prose or sparkling flap copy. For the book to hook someone, it has to get picked up first, and there’s a lot of competition.

What are the most common clichés you encounter in editing fiction manuscripts?

If an image feels familiar to write, it feels familiar to read. More so than cliché imagery, however, I tend to notice emotional clichés. Hearts hammering, stomachs churning, breaths catching, etc. To me, this is lazy telling. Your protagonist saw her crush and her heart started pounding? Yawn. When I work with writers, I ask them to get out of their character’s physical body, with all of its various symptoms of emotion, and into the character’s mind. What’s the thought behind the hammering heart? What, exactly, does our love-struck protagonist hope will happen when she sees her crush? What does she fear might go wrong? If he doesn’t speak to her, what’s next? What if he does? That might be even worse! And on and on. It’s in these specifics that we learn so much more about the character than the fact that their stomach feels sick when they get nervous.

We’ve represented many picture book authors and author/illustrators over the years. Picture books are a unique element of the publishing industry. If you could give picture book authors (or author + illustrators) one piece of advice, what would it be?

Dream a little bigger. No, I’m not talking about practicing your Oscar speech for when the picture book gets made into an animated movie. Dream bigger with the story itself. Too many picture books are too straightforward. They go from Point A to Point B too quickly, with a tidy little moral and one big leap of character growth. A boy needs a friend so he finds one…the end. That’s too simple. What’s the bigger picture? What am I supposed to feel about life when I finish reading? A boy wants a friend so he finds one…then they find a third lonely character, and suddenly they’re spreading friendship to everyone who needs it? Better. The other piece of advice that sort of goes hand-in-hand with this is that picture book writers need to trust their readers more to get the story. You should never explain the point. “And so they learned that friendship is as essential in life as sunshine is to plants…” or something similar will absolutely kill your effort in its tracks. Let the story speak for itself, and make sure it has something layered to say.

What character traits does it take to succeed in this industry?

Two come to mind immediately: tenacity and curiosity. This industry isn’t easy to break into. There are thousands of people who are throwing manuscripts into slush piles every day. Agents and editors have many, many potential writers, some of them very good, to choose from. Tenacity comes into play when a writer keeps getting rejected…but keeps trying. Now, there’s a very big difference between tenacity and stubbornness. The stubborn writer keeps trying with the same manuscript, which they haven’t revised, and wants to wedge their work into the industry, no matter the feedback they keep hearing. Don’t be that writer. A tenacious writer is flexible enough to realize that maybe their first few efforts weren’t up to snuff. They keep trying, but with fresh or revised material. That’s where curiosity comes in. A writer more likely to be successful will keep honing their craft, reading books, going to conferences, taking classes, and experimenting with their writing, just for the hell of it. They want to learn and grow stronger. And they are tenacious about it. They don’t just have the one idea that they’ve been pitching around since the 90s, they have a wealth of ideas to pursue, and can roll with the punches. If something doesn’t work, they have the curiosity to try something different, and the tenacity to try again. As an agent, and now as an editor, I love working with this type of writer. And I know a lot of my colleagues on the publishing house side do, too.