Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Jim McCarthy's reading process

Choosing what projects to take on can be a tricky thing. Given the number of manuscripts I usually have waiting to be read and how few of those I’ll actually be able to work on, I start each one assuming that I’ll be passing on it. For about 50 pages, I keep an eye out for the specific reasons I’ll be rejecting. I’m looking for overwrought writing, character inconsistency, sloppy plotting, and/or any reason to put the pages down and move on to something else.

Let’s say I pass page 50 and haven’t found a reason to definitely say no. I hit my optimistic reading phase and for the next 100 or so pages, I’m thinking, “Hook me!” I’ve invested just enough time that I won’t be upset if I end up deciding to pass, but I’m starting to think, “Hey, this could be my next new client.”

At page 150, my mood shifts entirely to, “Don’t let me down now.” Pessimism sneaks back in a bit. Even if I like this, I start to wonder, can I sell it? This is where I bust out the super handy trick that Jane taught me when I was starting out: if you can think of five editors you know who this could be right for, then it’s probably worth a shot. I ride the manuscript out keeping that in mind and also thinking about the competition. What similar books have done well? Are there too many similar books? Does this read like what’s working now, or does it read like what might be working a year from now when it would come out?

Of course, every so often, a manuscript comes along that shuttles my reading rules right out the window. And that is what I live for.

Let’s flash back to last summer. I drag a bag of manuscripts up to my roof, yank out the first one, open to the first page, read the first paragraph…and stop. It sounds so corny and over the top to say that you were hooked on something from the first page except that when it happens, it’s transporting. I read until the sun went down, and the next morning, I handed the manuscript to a colleague.

“Read a page and tell me if I’m crazy,” I requested. “I mean—this is really as good as I think it is, right?”

I fell so head over heels for the novel that I actually wanted confirmation I hadn’t just lost my mind. I felt stupidly luck to even have the project in hand. When the first page was read, I got the affirmation I needed: “It’s really that good.”

“Crap. Who else has this?” Luckily for me, though other agents did have and did want to represent the novel, its author, in her infinite wisdom, decided to work with me. THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan is an astonishing novel for the young adult market that blends the literary and the commercial, stunning writing with rich characters and brilliant plotting. I eagerly look forward to its publication by Delacorte next spring.

The point I always come back to is that people who work in publishing do so because they’re readers. Yes, I read with an eye toward market and potential profit. This is a business, and when you work on commission, you can bet that there’s always an eye on the bottom line. The most thrilling part of the job, though, is playing some role in ushering a book you feel passionately about into another reader’s hands.

At the delightful (and not just because you can gamble there) Las Vegas Writers’ Conference last year, someone asked a panel I sat on, “Would you rather have something come across your desk that has great writing or a great plot?” It’s an unanswerable question. Because I’m not looking for pieces of a good book. I’m looking for the whole package, or for someone who inspires me to believe in their ability to create the whole package.

In responses to rejection letters, understandably upset writers sometimes ask, “Who are you to judge me? What right do you have to say who’s good enough?” All I can answer is that I’m a reader. I’m an audience. And I want you to win me over as much as you want me to be won. It can’t happen always, but we hope it happens enough.


  1. Jim,
    This is great insight on the process. I am happy to know that you are so excited about books and really care about the writers you work with.

    See you in a few weeks in Vegas. Can't wait! Everyone is so happy to have you back as part of the faculty.

    Best Wishes,

  2. I tell you I cannot wait for Carrie's book to come out! I've heard soooo many good things about it and the small excerpt that I read was AMAZING!

    The girl can hang and I cannot wait to read it. :)


  3. I can't wait to read FHT myself. Carrie and I are imprint mates, and believe you me, there's been some broad, tactless hinting about a desperate desire to see that in galley. :D

  4. In a way, this is how I read published books. I have a fifty page rule too. Although, since I'm not reading in order to find someone to represent, I do want to be hooked on every book I pick up, so in the first fifty pages I'm not actually looking for a reason to put it down. But I do read 250 books a year, and I have to write sometime, so I don't want to waste my time either. Lucky for me, I get lots of recommendations and also an agent/publisher has already believed in my "library slush pile". And while you get to bring the book into publication, I get to spread the word on my blog. Thanks for an interesting post.


  5. Jim, this was incredibly invaluable advice. Thank you so much! Now I know exactly why my first 50 pages didn't work for you! And you were right. But sometimes it is so hard as an author to see what is wrong until you've had a few rejections under their belt. I am now working on a new WIP and I will definitely be keeping these points well in mind.

  6. What a great post!
    Carrie should frame it and treasure it for always. I can't wait to read her book.


  7. Thank you for letting us enter your mind and explaining the thought process of selecting a client. As a novelist with my second book coming out this month, fortunately I'm past the "find an agent" stage. But I remember very clearly the fear/excitement/paranoia of that time. Knowing the agent is experiencing similar feelings (albeit for different reasons) is comforting.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this. What a good challenge you set for us writers. Thanks!

  9. A brilliant piece of insight and it makes perfect sense. We're all readers - whether we're writers or agents or publishers. I try to think when I'm writing, is this something I'd personally want to read - given I'm a very picky reader... Would of course that it was as easy to write brilliantly as it is to be a picky reader! :-)

  10. I can't wait to get my hands on Carrie's book. :)

  11. What a great story!

    Carrie and I are in LiveJournal's "debut2009" community, and I was looking forward to her book before I read this, but NOW ...!

  12. I really wish you guys had time to post more often. This was one of the most inspiring posts I've read in a while.

  13. This is a really helpful post.

    I read the way I eat: I always finish the book just as I always clean my plate. But the more good books I add to my reading list, the more inclined I am to change this practice. Life's too short.

    As for 'The Forest of Hands and Teeth,' I think the title is pretty much the hook; I want to read the book even before I've opened it.

  14. Jim,

    Thanks for posting this. It gives us insight as far as what an agent expects when he/she reads.

    As Miss Snark would say, "Good writing trumps all." :*)

  15. Thanks for allowing us into your head as you read a manuscript. Kind of fun to know this.

  16. I got goosebumps! Go, Carrie!

  17. Oooh, instant title envy. I'll buy that one just because of this post and that title.

  18. Insightful look at how you view submission. thanks for sharing.

  19. Jim,
    Did Carrie title the book herself, or did the publisher create the title?

  20. Netanyahu, That title was all Carrie. One of those rare moments that the title stayed the same through the entire process.


  21. Wow, that is really great to know as a writer, to know what is looked for when read. I have a question: I finished my book and am looking to get it published, but I am in desperate need of getting it edited. Not input or an opinion of: "Well I think you should do this with it..." but an ACTUAL editor who will work with me. I am totally new in this business and have no idea where to go from here or what to do, who to contact. Any help you can give me will greatly appreciated.


  22. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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