Pub Talk with Kate McKean

By Kate McKean

Kate McKean is a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. She tweets at @kate_mckean. She’s writing a YA novel, too, so she feels your pain.

In my job as a literary agent, I read thousands and thousands of words a week written by writers who started right where you are—in front of a computer, fingers on keys, and totally unsure of how to get what they just wrote published in a real live book. Lots of people think agents can wave a magic wand and—poof!—make you an instant best-selling author. Unfortunately, it never works that way. Never ever. Agents can, however, help you edit your novel so that it’s the best it can possibly be. Agents can get your book read by the best editors in publishing. Agents can help you navigate the confusing business side of publishing so you can focus on what you do best—telling stories. But first, you have to work incredibly hard at your writing. There’s no other way around it.

As a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, I’ve worked with many YA authors on their debut novels. I’ve seen books go from a little germ of an idea to a finished manuscript to real copies on bookstore shelves over and over. But how do I do it, you ask? Luckily, I can give you some secret insider information. Do you want to make sure you’re not only working hard, but smart? Mastering these techniques will put you ahead of the writers who don’t. And then you’ll be that much closer to publication.

Remember, though, publication is not the only reward of writing. And the vast majority of writers do not get their first novel published. Just like any other skill, you must practice before you are able to master it. Your first novel might be a warm-up novel. Think about how good you’ll be when you finish it! Novel number 2 will be a breeze! (Errr, probably not, but at least somewhat easier!)

So, what’s the super secret magic writing tip: Don’t be afraid of the delete key.

Huh? That’s it? I should conquer my fear of the delete key?

Yep, that’s it. Deleting a sentence or a paragraph can be really stressful. I know it was for me.

When I was in graduate school for fiction writing, I was terrified to delete a sentence. What if that was the best sentence I ever wrote? What if it all comes crumbling down if I take out that paragraph? I was paralyzed. I was so afraid to admit that a word or phrase or a sentence didn’t work, afraid to admit that every word wasn’t a magic special snowflake sent down from the Muses on high, that I couldn’t fix any of my short stories. I couldn’t learn and grow from my mistakes, experience the joy of chewing on a phrase or sentence for a while and coming up with the perfect way to say it or re-say it. It had taken me so long to put the words together that deleting it or revising it was terrifying.

So I didn’t cut anything. Then my teachers yelled at me. And then? I still didn’t really delete anything, either. Instead, I cut, copied, and pasted those special little snowflake sentences into another document and called it my ‘Save File.’ And those sentences were safe there. I could go get them any time I wanted to.

Then two things happened: 1. I felt free. I felt like I could write a hundred bad sentences because there was that cache of good sentences standing by. If I loved a sentence, but it wasn’t working for this story, I just filed it away. It was safe, and I was happy.

2: I never actually looked at the ‘Save File’ again. I didn’t need to. I had billions of other sentences in my brain, just waiting to get out. Some good, some bad. But they’d been log-jammed because I was too scared to admit what wasn’t working. And I couldn’t make room for other things that could work.

So, if you can look at your work objectively and trust your gut, and cut out the things that are boring, or self-indulgent, or insincere, or completely wacko, then you can make room for the good stuff and your writing will sing. You’ll build good sentence on top of good paragraph and create a good book. You’ll be miles ahead of other writers who can’t revise. You’ll be a better writer, and be one more step closer to seeing your work in print.

The delete key may just become your best friend. I know it’s mine.

9 thoughts on “Pub Talk with Kate McKean

  1. Thanks for writing this. It is good to know I’m not the only one who has broken out into a cold sweat when editing, and chopping, and hacking away parts of my dearly beloved works! I may just try that deleted file.

  2. Yay! Glad I hopped on Twitter at the right moment for this link!!! Awesome advice from an awesome agent–I know I was scared to delete anything permanently on my first novel, too. I had something like seven copies of that MS. In fact I still might… LOL! You just never know~

    And hey, I didn’t know you were writing a book! May your words flow~ :o) <3

  3. Better than me. I’m not afraid of the delete button at all. Which is why I edit and edit so much and never manage to finish one complete draft of a story. :/

  4. Interesting advice.

    Myself, I would be fine “chopping away” at anything in my novel that needs chopping- except that out of the fifty or so literary agents I’ve sent a manuscript to… I would guess perhaps five actually gave the novel a good read through. And of course none of them actually provided anything useful in the rejection letters, just “your work is not right for us at this time” and such.

    If I could find an agent who was willing to actually give some pointers on what needed to be done, I would be fine with changing my book. But it’s been over a year now, and I’ve run out of options.

  5. Yes! Totally! I always do this — word hoarding. I have so many docs that are full of carefully crafted paragraphs that I won’t be using because they no longer fit into a story, but can’t let go of. At least they don’t take up much drive space. Who knows, maybe bits and pieces of them will fit in somewhere else… perhaps I should make more of a habit of reviewing them when I’m stuck.

    Anyway, they do make the task of “killing your darlings” that much less painful.

  6. Having Time Capsule backup makes the deleting part a lot easier for me – if I ever really need something back, I can dig it out again.

    (How many times have I used it? Once. Most of the deleted stuff really doesn’t need saving.)

    But then, I have more of the ‘endless redraft’ problem than the opposite; by the time I get to chapter two, chapter one’s been revised 8-10 times. I don’t like to move on until I’m certain about what’s already happened.

  7. I do the same thing when I have to delete something from a story. I have a file called “extras,” which I save just in case. I also do a lot of “save as” so that I can go back to older versions if I really mess things up.

    Thank you for sharing your tips!

  8. Pingback: Top Ten Things Agents and Editors Never Want to See | Figment Blog

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