For every brilliant manuscript that grows into a best-selling novel, untold thousands of others get dumped into the recycle bin. What’s the crucial difference between them?
Over the years, James Persichetti has seen more unpublished manuscripts cross his desk than most people could read in a lifetime. He started out at the incomparable Nelson Literary Agency (Bird Box, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, etc.).
Now, he’s launched Lost Hat Editorial Services, a boutique editing business that helps writers like you succeed. Here he is, in his own words, to tell you how to find the right editor, polish your book to perfection, and avoid the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make.
Jamie, can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?
My name is James Persichetti, though many in the industry know me as Jamie. I spent over three years reading queries at Nelson Agency and selling foreign rights, but I really wanted to work more closely with authors and their craft.
At the start of 2019, I founded Lost Hat Editorial Services to work full-time as a developmental editor. My goal is to help people become better writers and achieve their publishing dreams, whether that’s getting an agent or selling a self-published novel.
What are some of the ways an editor can help a writer make his or her book better?
An editor should ask a lot of questions. Usually all it takes is a handful of “whys” and “hows” to get an author on track for a more focused, more engaging character. Sometimes the simple act of identifying a character or plot weakness is enough for an author to come up with solutions.
Editors can suggest their own ideas, but a good editor will only present them as options for the author to consider. An editor’s priority is to make sure the story an author wants to tell is the story that appears on the page.
The editing process is a mystery to some people. What do you wish more people knew about it?
That editing is a process, and one that can take longer than writing the first draft. It will take a few rounds of self-revision and critiquing before it’s even ready for a freelance editor to take on.
Editing is a long process, but it’s also extremely rewarding. It’s all about discovery, full of ah-ha! moments, clever layering-in of story elements, and planting seeds early which will come back and surprise readers in the end.
As a writer, I actually prefer the revision process because that’s where the magic happens. It’s where the messy vision I had for my book can crystallize into sharp focus.
So you’re a writer, too?
Yes. I also write in my free time and am part of a critique group. I mainly write fantasy, but have just started a new middle grade project that I’m excited about.
What are some common myths or misconceptions people have about editors?
Some people see editors as a quick final step before submitting to agents. A box to check. You send an editor your manuscript, they send it back with comma and spelling changes, and you’re done.
In reality, an editor is going to talk with you to address story problems and make sure the book not only works, but is compelling. It’s a collaboration involving several reviews and conversations to bring your book to the next level.
On that note, though, I’d say one myth is that an editor will make any book great. We can suggest changes and improve the book, but that’s not a guarantee it’ll get an agent’s attention or become a bestseller. We can only help it become a better book and help you become a better writer.
What sort of story issues do most people struggle with?
One of the biggest problems I see is when an author is writing exposition as opposed to a scene. A good novel balances both narrative exposition and scenes, but too much exposition can make it read more like an essay.
I work with authors to ground their writing in a specific scene that conveys all the important information while keeping the tension up.
Sometimes a character doesn’t have a clearly articulated goal or their motive doesn’t fit the story. I read to see if the character change occurs and if it matches with how they developed through the story.
For structure, I look for whether the story starts in the right place. Does the middle wander, or does it escalate the story to the ending? Does the ending resolve the promises set up in the beginning?
Often an author has nailed one or two of these segments but struggles with the third one.
Does that mean an editor can help fix structural problems in the outlining or planning phase, before the actual writing begins?
Yes. I offer coaching services where I can sit down with an author and help them develop a story idea before they even begin writing.
That way, we can address potential story issues and develop it as much as possible before it becomes a full manuscript. That works more for plotting authors and less for pantsers.
What are some of the weirdest mistakes you’ve seen aspiring writers make when submitting a manuscript?
The first big mistake is not doing their research. I’ve seen authors call or email an agent asking what they do or sending work to agents who don’t represent their genre. You don’t want to set yourself up for rejection.
The second big mistake is trying to stand out as a submission instead of letting your work stand on its own. Avoid attention-grabbing gimmicks like vibrant, hard-to-read fonts in query letters, or lines meant to shock an agent. I’ve read the line “I know where you live” a disturbing number of times, and once opened an envelope full of glitter.
I’ve even seen aspiring authors try to bribe agents with free copies of their books (or other books), gift cards, or chocolates in the mail. Not a good idea, as agents usually cannot accept gifts and it goes to waste.
At what point in the writing process should a writer reach out to a developmental editor?
Before submitting your manuscript to a developmental editor, ask yourself two questions:
1) Do you know what’s wrong with your manuscript?
2) Do you know how to fix it?
If you answer “yes” to both, then you should sit down and do the work yourself first. You don’t want to pay an editor to point out problems you already knew were there.
If you answered “no” to one of those questions, and after getting help from other writers or beta readers you still answer “no,” then a professional editor will be able to identify those issues and help you fix them.
OK, I have to ask: Why is it called Lost Hat? There has to be a story there.
It’s not exactly a story. When trying to find a unique but writing-related name for my editing services that reflected something personal about myself, I had exhausted dozens of names. Then my writing friend asked me, “What’s something that we love in writing?” The first thing that popped into my head was, “I lost my hat!” And it clicked.
The concept came from one of my favorite movies, Sahara. It’s a fantastic movie, if not as widely popular as I’d like. One of the main characters, Al, is constantly losing his hat in the action sequences. It’s a bit of a silly thing to have such an emotional attachment to, but for me that line represents what I love about writing.
The feeling I get from watching that scene is the feeling I want others to get from stories or books that I work on, whether it’s comedic or tragic.
Do you want to be a writer? Get more writing tips in your email when you subscribe to my author newsletter.