Make Your First Pages Shine — An Interview with Editor Mary Rakow

Mary Rakow will be leading the “Make Your First Pages Shine” workshop at the Marin Writers Conference on April 22. We talked on the phone last week about what makes a great first page, how she works with writers, and how authors can tell if an editor is right for them.

Q: First off, what was your path to becoming an editor?

I’m primarily a writer. Freelance editor is my day job. I learned editing and critiquing from many years in a writing group in L.A. We met twice a week, with a teacher, Kate Braverman, who was very rigorous, who also opened up the critique to the group.

Recently, we reconvened that group again, and I go back to L.A regularly. We spend the day together. First socially, then we switch into work mode. It’s so worth it.

Q: How do you work with authors? What’s the process?

Couple different things. I recently did first-page editing at San Francisco Writers Conference. Eight-minute time slots. I like to see the actual work, not just the pitch. The pitch is someone telling you about their boyfriend. I want to meet the guy.

I work in a variety of ways. I meet one-to-one, I read full manuscripts, partial manuscripts. I do workshops.

Recently, I met on the phone with an author from Silicon Valley. She gave me fifty pages. In the first three pages, she mentioned something about people lining up in straight lines, and then there was a character mentioning things being in straight lines. I asked her about that.

She said she studied at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). Is there something deeper, I asked. Something else going on? She started crying. Told me this story, all about identity. She’s left Singapore. She has two graduate degrees. She breaking rules she grew up with. I noticed this tick. That’s where the story is.

Q: Almost like being a therapist.

No, not a therapist. Not trying to heal. But providing the perspective that the writer doesn’t have. Deep attention. Deep listening to the work. It’s not a checklist. It’s about finding that distinct voice.

Q: Your workshop at the Marin Writers Conference is focused on making first pages shine. Without giving too much away, what characterizes a great first page?

The main thing is that there’s a sense of encountering a new sensitivity, meeting a unique consciousness.

Q: On your website, you say that we all have an original take on the world, and that the best artist explore that more deeply. You call it their personal crevice. How do you help a writer find that place?

You want them to focus on what’s deep for them in their writing.

When I have only eight minutes with an author, there are things that jump out at me. The same word over and over again. Who the narrator is. For example, there was one for whom every single observation was negative. That’s hard for a reader to live with.

Q: What problems or omissions do you see most in the manuscripts you edit? Or a variation on that, what problems are the most challenging for authors to address?

I’ll tell you one that I’m guilty of. So many writers are. This critique group I was in, we did seven pages each meeting. We continued on our own after our teacher moved away, and we had what we called Queen Day—we were an all-woman group at the time—and we would read the whole manuscript and give all day for feedback.

One of my friends, she says, your book doesn’t take off until page 50. You’re warming up the engine. We often think readers need all this introductory stuff, but we can drop them in the middle of the action. The reader can catch up.

There’s also a pattern I see with beginning writers, a tendency to say something in dialog that has just been established in the narration. Lot of editing is taking things out, and here and there going deeper.

Another common thing is the desire to be in control. There’s a misunderstanding that certainty is important. But that’s not the way art is. You want to take risks.

Q: Some critic once said that great art is almost always flawed.

They say you should write what you know. But the core of any work, whether it’s symphony or a novel, is engaging where you are uncertain. Move out of your comfort zone. Tolerate degree of chaos.

If you go into that painful place, then you can organize your feelings. You increase your comfort zone and go deeper. You’ve ordered the chaos. That is art.


Q: You’re a writer of literary fiction, yet you edit all kinds of genres.

I have varied clients. Some doing thrillers, sci fi, young adult, poetry, academic work for general public. It’s fun for me. I go where they are.

I mostly edit what I don’t write. My peer group is all literary writers. But my day job isn’t, which is fine with me.

Q: How does an author know if an editor is right for them?

For me, it’s when the editor makes a suggestion and it makes you excited, when you say to yourself, oh that’s exactly what I’m trying to say, when it makes your own work more yourself.

That’s why editing is so much about listening. There something alive in every single manuscript. My job, even if it’s a book I would never read, my job is to get quiet enough to hear the beautiful thing in the work. Listen for the pulse of this person’s work.

If you’d like your work edited as part of the workshop, email one to two pages to Register for the Marin Writers Conference here.