I Flunked the Random House Typing Test, But Everything Turned Out Okay

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So you want to be an editor? Or maybe even a writer? I’ve been in book publishing for over 25 years and just spent the past five writing a novel about my mother and my father. Over that time I’ve come to realize that the good fortune of my career depended on scores of literary “parents” — teachers, mentors, authors, and folks who have let me make enough mistakes to learn how to do things better. So for aspiring editors and writers, here’s a who’s who and what’s what of small lessons from the literary life…

My first teacher was, of course, my mother. With Anne Desmond, you start with the Bible, mythology, and Shakespeare. Know them well.

My dad gave me humor, some highbrow, but mostly lowbrow, and simply said: Don’t put on airs, appreciate both the weirdness of Wallace Stevens and the wackiness of “Airplane!”

Back in the 1980s at St. Rita’s, Mrs. Brown would make us diagram sentences. This was no fun and probably just a time suck for her to sneak off to the teachers’ lounge to smoke. But you sure as hell learned grammar — and understood that Catholic school is all about useful, painful lessons like this.

My high school English teacher Mr. Oglesby made me write every day. He took me out of five-paragraph forms and boring rote work, and taught me that writing is 90% revising. Whatever you write, you have to go over it until you re-see (re-vise) it into a whole greater than its words.

In college, Professor Helen Vendler taught me preparation and close reading. If you’re going to be an English major, don’t be soft. If you’re going to say something about Keats, know your stuff.

Seamus Heaney gave me an ear for the line. On Fridays for his class on British and Irish poets, he would just read aloud for over an hour, often putting down his Faber collection after a few lines because he had memorized so much of Auden, Kavanaugh or MacNeice and could recite it all. Good writing needs to breathe and sound right. So when you write something, read it out loud.

My undergraduate writing teacher was Verlyn Klinkenborg, who hated my style because I wrote these long, laden sentences. He was right. He showed me how to slay the clause monster and keep it pithy.

My first job in book publishing was at Norton assisting two tremendous editors. Ed Barber was a great line editor and book mechanic. He worked with a lot of academics and science writers and he taught me the first rule of editing: show, don’t tell.

The other editor I worked for was Gerry Howard, probably the best-read person I’ve ever met. Gerry wrote beautiful, thoughtful editorial letters by hand and I had to type them up. Gerry generated a mountain of correspondence, which I resented, but how to write a letter is a dying art. By typing out Gerry’s letters, typing out Gerry’s contracts, and typing out Gerry’s memos to the editorial board, he showed — not told — me how to be an editor.

I then worked in the literary department at ICM. I answered the phones for a few different agents. Knowing how to talk on the phone is an actual skill, and overhearing Binky Urban or Esther Newberg do that is like listening to Helen Vendler and Seamus Heaney recite poetry. And so I learned: always call back. Even when you don’t know the answer, call the client back and say, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”

At ICM, I worked for Kris Dahl, who taught me author care. A wise and wonderful agent like Kris is a concierge (get ’em what they want), therapist (talk ’em through it) and lifeguard (save ’em from their mistakes) to her authors.

When I went to work as an editor at Crown, my publisher, Tina Constable, gave me great advice on how to present myself. By nature, I am kind of a publishing rat — I gnaw away on problems and run around the maze in a mood. But Tina tapped and tempered my inner publishing squirrel with tail-up energy for pitch meetings and presentations.

Around then, I started learning from my authors. The best way to understand writing, besides reading, is to talk shop with other writers. Most of them are dying to tell folks about their process and it’s a good icebreaker. I love working with my authors because this education never ends.

The mystery writer Milton Burton taught me that I was going bald because I have too much testosterone. Peggy Noonan gifted me with the Dorothy Parker expression, “What fresh hell is this?” Hugh Leonard and Homer Hickam both recommended putting a dog or cat in the scene because people love animals. President George W. Bush taught me to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, as did Barbara Ehrenreich. Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes showed me where to sit and what to order at Forlini’s. Johnnie Cochran educated me on the systemic bias of our institutions and what it meant to be anti-racist. Maureen Dowd turned me on to cranberry and sodas and where to listen to the old Caedmon recordings of Shakespeare. Jack Hitt amazed me with his ability to forge deep narrative ties, like how the search for an ivory-billed woodpecker really explains the South. And Shea Serrano, besides making valid culinary cases for Whataburger and Pappadeaux, has taught me to show — not just tell — our next generation of writers and editors how to be bold in finding their voices. They need “parents” willing to invest in them so these kids might one day write something so great, we’ll all say: Where the hell did they learn how to do that?

Sean Desmond is the publisher of Twelve books, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing, and the author of a new novel, “Sophomores.”

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