My Agent, My Editor, and Me:  From Manuscript to Novel

My editors all have names beginning with “A” – Adriann, Allison, and Andrea. To honor my A Team, I gave them crystal necklaces. Only later did I recognize these as copies of the crystal necklace worn by Ms. Chu, the librarian in How to Write a Novel. Recently, the A Team has been joined by our publicist, Angie. How’s that for serendipity?

With a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and course releases from Kennesaw State University, I researched a novel about a psychopathic liar in a small town in Alaska and sat down to write it.  Instead, I wrote How to Write a Novel. (These things happen.) I sent the second draft to my former editor at Algonquin, Shannon Ravenel.  She loved it!  Then, as she always does, she asked me how I was going to rewrite it.  I rewrote it.  I sent it to my agent, Adriann Ranta at Wolf Literary Services.  She responded:

From: Adriann Ranta Date: February 28, 2013,

Dear Melanie,

….First of all, I’m such a fan of this book. So beautiful and funny and clever, and Aris, Diane and Max are just so lovable and human, alternating with very real moments of wanting to wring their sweet, little necks. Penn, however, I’m stealing as my literary boyfriend–he’s simply wonderful. The single mother perspective is very clear, and I agree that a wide audience could relate to poor Diane’s struggles to do the right thing….

I have a few editorial problems with the book, however, that I’d love to discuss with you, if you’re amenable….

From: Adriann Ranta Date: March 5, 2013

Great speaking with you, and I’ll be excited to see where your edits take the novel! As discussed, here are my notes….

Take your time with the revisions (it’s always scary when an author turns around revisions in a week or two!), and I’ll be an enthusiastic audience whenever it’s ready.

Not wanting to scare her, I spent another year rewriting the manuscript and sent it back.  Pronto, she sent it around to several interested publishers.  The winner was –

From: Adriann Ranta Date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I’m delighted to forward your offer from Vintage! Take a look and let me know your thoughts. I’m headed to a 1PM lunch today and would love to be able to get back to Andrea before then, but if you need to take more time, or ask any questions, feel free to!


My new editor at Vintage Random House, Andrea Robinson, contacted me.

From:  Andrea Robinson  Date: April 22, 2014

Hi Melanie. Just a quick note to say how insanely happy I am about How to Write a Novel! Am really looking forward to working with you and Adriann to introduce Aris to the world at large.

A few days later, Andrea sends me two pages of suggestions for revision, with a cover letter that sent me to heaven.  I read it approximately seven times, the first day.

From:  Andrea Robinson  Date: April 29, 2014

It was a rainy Friday night. As I squeezed my way into that middle seat between a man with forty elbows and a woman who had brought the entire inventory of Macy’s home with her, I decided to reward myself for the week by reading a book that was not war fiction. I opened How to Write a Novel, and if you’ll allow me to capslock at you for a second, it was like a BALM FOR MY WEARY COMMUTER SOUL. 

First of all, it was funny, so funny that I often found myself doing those little surprised snort laughs and then looking around to futilely try and share the joke that only I was reading.  I was also continuously impressed by how seamlessly you were able to use the novel-writing conceit; in less capable hands, that’s something that could be short-lived or distracting, but you manage to keep it strong throughout without ever letting it overwhelm the actual story. It becomes the perfect medium through which to experience the three-legged-doggedness of Thibodeaux family in all of their messy, comic glory. (Also, as someone who used to read writing advice books like candy, I often smiled in recognition at the advice and exercises that Aris was treating with great solemnity. I also described my backyard once, although not nearly so well).

Most of all, though, I loved how much heart this book has.  Seriously, I want to grab every character’s cheeks and smoosh their faces like an insane person. I love Aris’s chipper outlook about her quirky family and her wholehearted embrace of adulthood (sometimes even too wholehearted for her own good,  I think).  I love Diane and her painfully earnest but often overbearing attempts to be a good mother—she’s a mom turned up to eleven, and I love how the secret stealthy plot of this novel turns out to be her finding a measure of peace with herself and the life in Kanuga, GA, that she’s ended up with. I love Max, with his Legos and his Pokémon and his hypersensitivity. I love the mysterious Penn, always calm in a crisis and trailing handsome question marks wherever he goes. I even love Anders Andersen, Mr. Hell and Brimfire, Jr., who is going about wooing the oblivious Aris in all of the wrong ways.

I ended up saving this book to read on the commutes, because I think that it made me a nicer person. It definitely made me more benevolent of spirit toward the world’s coats. This is a feel-good book in the best sense, and one that’s all the better because it doesn’t shy away from serious things.  For every quirky family member and moment of hilarity, there’s a dark thread, too, and those very subtly run parallel to Aris’s fantastic narration throughout the novel.

But because this is an “editorial letter” and not just a “compliment letter,” I should probably start getting down to business.  I think that your book is something of an odd editorial duck, because unlike a lot of books in early stages, it’s already in great structural shape—it begins, middles, and ends at exactly the right place, and I think The Flood, The Purge, Diana’s Job Loss, and The Talent show give us nice action points throughout.  Your characters leap off the page the first second they appear, and you manage to sum them up with little details without making them feel like small-town or Southern caricatures. And you manage to do this all in 65,000 words! 

While I feel like Diane would be very proud of your literary thriftiness, I feel that, in some ways, they are limiting its potential impact. As it is right now, it feels like a very smart and entertaining teaser of a novel…

Pop-full of confidence, I revised the manuscript and zapped it back to Vintage.

From:  Andrea Robinson  Date: July 4, 2014

I hope that you are having a sunnier holiday than we are having here, where it’s been thunderstorms since Wednesday afternoon. I was supposed to go to a family cookout, but it’s been postponed until tomorrow. To be honest, I didn’t mind all that much, as I was able to get myself to a coffee shop this morning and finish reading the second half of How to Write a Novel 2.0. 

I’m blown away by all the work you’ve done–I didn’t think that I could be more excited about this novel, but then I got to the middle section, where Aris has sent her journals and Diane is a woman scorned and things are unraveling, and I sat back in my little coffee shop stool and went, “This is electrifying.” And I weirdly wished I wasn’t going to be away from the office for a week, because I wanted to crow about it to evvvveryybody. 

Here are things that I love about this draft….

Now I’m sitting here trying to figure out the best way to approach the next step….

From: Andrea  Date: Saturday, August 01, 2014

I know I’ve said this many, many times, but you have an amazing book on your hands. Seriously, this is now the fourth time I’ve read it, and I still find things that surprise and delight me.  Throughout the manuscript, you will find lots of bubbles that just contain “#:)”; at first I was leaving you little “<3” at every line I loved, but then I thought, “NO, Aris would leave little people in Mad Bomber hats” and so that is what I did.

I have also, of course,  left you a lot of COMMENTS….

How many times had I told my writing students to “kill their darlings” without mercy? Yes, yes but…  she didn’t understand! I wrote back:

From: Melanie Sumner Date: Saturday, August 02, 2014

….I have to confess that when I read some of your suggested deletes I was dismayed.  Some (most?) of these darlings are underpinnings of the story, and I can’t take them out without losing the novel

Andrea was ready for this.

 From: Andrea Robinson Date: On Aug 4, 2014

Do you have time for a phone call today? The last thing I want is for you to be dismayed, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to frame my thoughts in a way that prevented that! I think you DO have a wonderful book on your hands, and one that is working because you’ve put so much heart and head into it.  I see your points in your letter, and I’d love to discuss ways to keep everything that is crucial to the story, but perhaps tease them out more. I am wondering if what I was responding to was that they were sharing space with what I felt were OTHER important moments, and if it’s more a matter of figuring out the right place.

Diplomacy is one of Andrea’s strong points.  I dug in and churned out some revised chapters. 

 From: Andrea Robinson Date: On Aug 4, 2014

You may start to feel like you are being edited by a demonic Rainbow Brite.

 Your comments to my comments to your comments all make sense to me. Have attached a draft with responses to your bubbles.

From: Melanie Sumner Date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Subject: Muddle

Hi Andrea.  Please have a look at this through page 64.  It’s hard to squeeze things into previous scenes, without breaking up the those scenes, but I see the necessity…. 

Looking forward to your clarifications here!  When I’m muddled, I don’t want to strike out in a new direction.

She whipped out some fine editing.  So, we continued.

 From: Andrea Robinson Date: Aug 19, 2014

I know airlifting things can get tricky, but I’ve been really impressed by how seamlessly you’ve woven certain details into different places! I feel like if I hadn’t read a previous version, I wouldn’t suspect the surgery at all….

She went on to provide another two page summary of suggested edits.  At this point, I realized that I was working with a world class story surgeon.

From: Melanie Sumner Date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thank you for that fast response!  This direction is exactly what I needed.  I made a few some quick accepts and fixes and will sleep on the issue of …

From: Andrea Robinson Date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014

….In the middle of the night, I had the idea of perhaps having that text that Max read aloud be something along the lines of “She says that you should ask Billy when he’s going to visit.” For what it’s worth, I don’t think you 100% have to have Kate introduce it before the Lab scene, just was wondering if it strengthened the continuity between the two scenes. You are a good judge as to whether my ideas are sensible or weird, I think.

I revised and then sent another batch of chapters.

From: Andrea Robinson Date: August 28, 2014

Document with my responses through page 261 is attached! I got to the part where Diane and Aris are talking in her room on the quilt and actually teared up. Weirdly, I was eating a ChocoTaco at the time (don’t tell Diane), and it made the whole thing kind of surreal. But I feel like if you can make someone cry while eating a ChocoTaco, you are doing something right….

A few general thoughts, highlighting the few areas with several comments and answering some of your larger questions….

I continued editing, while back at Random House, Andrea began “the launch” to promote How to Write a Novel.

From: Andrea Robinson Date: September 17, 2014

We had our FIRST launch meeting yesterday, and I’m really happy with how it went– I got a lot of enthusiasm and follow-up questions….

Note my optimistic subject line here, “Finished.” I had been working the manuscript, counting the time it was a different novel, for three and a half years.

From: Melanie Sumner Date: Thursday, September 18, 2014

Subject: Finished

 Hi.  I hope baby teeth aren’t keeping you up tonight.  I have finished the novel. 

From: Andrea Robinson Date: Sep 18, 2014

Received! Unfortunately, here is a candid picture of my Outlook calendar today:


 I don’t have any office time to give it, BUT I am going to take it home tonight so I can get you feedback before the weekend instead of after….

P.S. I had two people approach me in the elevator today and say that they are excited to read HWN. It is making me feel very powerful to say “Not yet, but SOON.”

With most of the words in place, we began to talk about marketing, which is always tough for me.

From: Melanie Sumner Date: Thursday, September 18, 2014

Subject: Re: Finished

Thank you – sorry to elbow my work in – I had just spent 13.5 hours with the manuscript and was a little demented,  but it was worth it to see your calendar. :))) 

From: Andrea Robinson Date: September 19, 2014

Subject: HTWN: Night of the Living Notes

As promised, I took the last section home with me last night to read, and came in this morning with the intention of typing up something short and sending it all your way. But then I started reading the book from the beginning and couldn’t stop? Now it’s 3:40pm, and I have spent my whole day with Aris, and I’m feeling a little guilty, but also pretty happy…..

What do you think? *Ducks a deserved dart* I SWEAR I AM ALMOST READY TO SHUT UP. I just love this book so much, and I feel like it’s so, so close to untouchable.

From: Melanie Sumner Date: September 19, 2014

Thanks, Andrea. I’m always honored that you read this book, AGAIN.  You are doing exactly what you are supposed to do – no darts.  In fact, when I think about the work you have put into project HWN, I’m humbled.  Without your pokes and prods, this book would not be what is right now, and I think it is pretty hot, and about to get “untouchable.”….

You impress me — I watched you walk through the offices of Random House with your head bent down — all forward motion, and I thought, that is one determined woman.  That is MY EDITOR.  

Perhaps because I told my editor how much I appreciate her, she cut me some slack.  Or were we really, truly almost finished?

From: Andrea Robinson Date:  September 23, 2014

Attached are what I am pretty sure are my FINAL IN-TEXT COMMENTS on How to Write a Novel. You have defeated my Word Bubble Shadow Self. She must wander off and obsessively question another author’s paragraph breaks now.

I didn’t get a chance to send you an official CONGRATULATIONS YOU ARE DONE REVISING AND IT IS AMAZING email. So….

Here it is.

From: Andrea Robinson Date:  September 23, 2014


Then we began to work design elements, choosing a cover, writing cover copy, getting blurbs, and marketing strategies…all interesting, but our real work was over, and it was rather sad.

From: Andrea Robinson Date:  November, 2014

Somehow we went from talking every day to not talking for a few weeks, and, I have to tell you, it has left a weird, How to Write a Novel-shaped hole in my day…

Me too.