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Interview – Anita Mumm

staff of Nelson Literary AgencyAnita Mumm is a class act. Check out her website or any number of the interviews she does and you’ll see that right away. She’s also smart. Hardworking. Savvy. Her resume and background reads like the best restaurant menu…you’re sort of overwhelmed by the amazingness of it at first, and then you read it and you’re just blown away by what’s being offered. That’s Anita. She’s a freelance editor based in Denver, Colorado and she has worked with some of the best in the publishing business. She was the Submissions and Asian Territory Rights Manager for Nelson Literary Agency, working alongside powerhouse agents Kristin Nelson and Sara Megibow. She personally hand-picked several amazing stories from the slush pile, including NYT bestseller The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough (Del Rey), international bestseller The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (Greenwillow/HarperCollins),Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Shaw Wolf (Walker Books), and Broken Like This by Monica Trasandes (Thomas Dunne).

Anita has since taken the lessons she learned at NLA and combined them with her passion for working with great writers, reading and teaching. With Mumm’s the Word Editing and Critique Services, she’s bringing out all the tools of a very impressive toolbox to help authors make their stories shine. She handles full manuscripts, partial manuscripts, and query letters in the following genres: commercial fiction, literary fiction, women’s fiction, sci fi, fantasy, young adult, and middle grade. I’ve been a long time follower of Anita’s, having been first introduced to her through NLA’s monthly newsletter, where she shared awesome tips of the trade and insider info. Invaluable stuff. And when I heard about her newest venture with Mumm’s the Word Editing and Critique Services, I knew I had to interview her. Thank goodness she said yes. Enjoy!

Thanks so much for being here Anita! I am so excited to chat with you! I swear, I’ve interviewed probably ¾ of NLA! It’s a great agency! Kristin seems awesome and Sara is just the best. What sort of things have you learned from working with such two strong, smart, savvy women that you’re bringing into your own editing agency, Mumm’s the Word Editing and Critique Services. You yourself have such an impressive  background: linguistics, French, teaching ESL, a strong passion for language and reading. Talk about being well-rounded!

Thanks for having me, Bethany! I love your blog and it has been great to get to know you through NLA over the years. I do hope for a chance to meet you in person one of these days!

Hmm…where to start? I’ve learned so much from Kristin and Sara and my other colleagues at NLA. I always say I had to pinch myself when I got the call that I’d been hired at such an awesome agency. Knowing how they love pets, I suspect it was because I was the one wagging my tail the hardest during the interview. 🙂

First, I learned the nuts and bolts of how an agency works and what a successful agent-author relationship should look like. I learned how top editors work with their authors and how they fit into the publishing ecosystem (like agents, they do so much more behind the scenes than most people realize). And I learned the importance of keeping up with every new change in the publishing industry—you’re right, Kristin and Sara are always on the cutting edge.

Mumm’s the Word Editing and Critique Services is brand new and you’re ready to take on clients. So excited for you! How are you feeling? Excited? Nervous? It’s always such a thrill and a bit terrifying to start a small business!

Wow, you nailed it! I’m definitely feeling a combination of nerves and euphoria. Saying goodbye to my work at NLA was so difficult, but I knew that if doing so meant the chance to combine my passions (working with authors + teaching & travel), I had to go for it. I’m just back from spending nearly four months in India, where I taught at a school for Tibetan refugees. I can’t say enough good things about that experience and it has left me tremendously energized and excited for all that’s ahead. I’ve just started my newest editing projects and it’s such a thrill to be back in the creative trenches! I’m blessed to already be working with some very talented writers.

You offer a lot of services with Mumm’s the Word. Your full manuscript edits seem awfully impressive. You offer something called a “Developmental Edit” and a “Full Manuscript Critique”. Can you tell us a bit more about each one of those services? 🙂

Actually, those are just two of the possible options, one at each end of the spectrum. The full manuscript critique is a “light edit” for authors who aren’t quite ready to invest in a more extensive developmental edit. It focuses on gauging the overall readiness of a manuscript (for submission to agents or for self-publishing, depending on the author’s goals), defining the major strengths and weaknesses, and advising the writer about next steps for the project (will one more draft be enough? which elements need tweaking—or an overhaul?). In a developmental edit, I dig into all of the major elements of storytelling: character, plot, pacing, theme, voice, dialogue, etc. Clients receive a 10-12 page editorial letter, an optional phone or Skype conference, and a query letter critique (if they’re at that stage).

Between these two options is a range of others. I can basically tailor an editing project to fit a writer’s budget and goals. For example, he or she might choose to have an edit focused on a particular issue, like character development, or on a particular section of the novel.

You not only offer full manuscript edits, but you also provide query and 50-page critiques. I think it’s safe to say you’ve seen your fair share of queries and opening pages! You were the slush pile reader for something like 36,000 queries in one year! Considering you were part of NLA for about four years, I’m thinking you’ve read about 150,000 queries! And I believe you once stated you read something like 3,000 partial manuscripts! That’s a ton of exposure to all sorts of writing genres and levels and you certainly bring so much first-hand experience to this service. You picked a number of exciting stories from the slush pile including Stefan Bachmann’s debut The Peculiar, which sold in a major auction. Can you tell us what a writer can expect from a query critique with you?

Yes, I definitely have a mind-boggling number of queries under my belt! But believe it or not, I never got tired of reading them. Every time I thought I’d seen it all, something fresh and exciting would show up in the inbox. So that’s my primary goal for query critiques: helping a writer achieve that delicate balance of uniqueness (so it stands out) while not coming across as too over the top. Because while the quirky (or just plain bizarre) queries made things interesting, they rarely gained any points for the writer. A certain level of professionalism is important, and it doesn’t have to stifle a writer’s voice.

On a more concrete level, what this means is that I’ll give my honest opinion on how likely the query is to make it out of the slush pile. If it’s close, I’ll look for tweaks to help it stand out better. If it’s feeling generic or confusing, I’ll point out why and give the writer ideas for a new direction. Sometimes writers come to me with a query that has already been through quite a few rejections, and then my job is to help the writer see why that happened and how to start fresh. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding a more compelling hook, or reframing the pitch to focus more on the dynamic main character.

Anita, you obviously love books and writers, as evidenced by how you speak about the craft in your interviews here (and here and here and here!). And on your website, Word Cafe, you offer a great editing workshop series. What do you love most about your job as an editor and working with writers?

I get really psyched at the thought that I could help someone achieve their dream of publication, either with a traditional publishing house or through success as a self-published author.  Authors are among the people I admire most, and to be a part of their process is an honor—I try not to forget that no matter how busy I am or how many queries I’ve read. 🙂

Aside from that, I love the reading! When an exciting manuscript comes in, the kind that hooks me from the start and clearly has a lot of potential, I have to pinch myself to think that my job is to read it! And I get really excited about helping the writer take it to that next level.

What would you say is your greatest strength as an editor?

I think I’d have to say my ability to give constructive criticism. That “c” word makes writers cringe, I know! I think a lot of people secretly hope their editor will simply recognize the brilliance in their manuscripts and give them the go-ahead to submit or self-publish. But of course, that’s rarely going to be realistic or helpful—even writers with a publishing contract still have to go through a serious edit before their novel goes to press. I work hard to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript and point them out in a way that is ultimately encouraging. If something is not working, I’ll say so, but I’ll do it in a constructive way to promote flexibility and new ideas from the author. As a teacher, I’ve learned that people who are convinced they are capable of excellence will attain it. My job is to give a little boost.

Another important skill: good communication. I try to convey a patient tone and be easily accessible to clients. It makes for a good working relationship and helps avoid misunderstandings, and those things are vital in a situation where people work very closely together but may never actually meet face-to-face.

Do you have rules as an editor? For instance, do you give yourself deadlines? Will you only accept so many clients per month? Are you very communicative with clients as you’re reading their work, or do you prefer to be able to just concentrate on the manuscript and then send back notes when you’re all done?

Yes, definitely. Editors, like everyone else, need structure to manage all of the different projects going on at once. I give myself deadlines by telling a writer when (at latest) he or she can expect my edit/critique. That deadline is based on the author’s timeline and my own workload, but I generally try to finish a full manuscript edit within 3-4 weeks, and I can have query and partial manuscript critiques back to the writer within 1-2 weeks. If I’m able to finish sooner than anticipated, even better!

As for the number of clients, I try not to schedule more than two or three full manuscript edits per month. Any more than that, and I’d be spread too thin or start to confuse the story lines and characters. One technique that I find helpful is to set a manuscript aside for a few days after my first read; this helps the story gel in my mind, and it allows me to work on other projects, like queries and partials, in the meantime.

For your third question, my style is pretty communicative. I check in regularly to let writers know where I am in the process and to ask any questions that have come up for me. I try to keep my questions to a minimum during the first read, though, since I might see the answer when I go back for the second round. After I send the final editorial letter, I give the writer a chance to respond with questions. When I do a developmental edit, there’s a follow-up Skype or phone conversation in which I answer questions or address specific topics at the writer’s request.

There’s no question that good editing pays off! You once stated that no less than four of NLA’s clients (among the, two New York Times bestsellers) received a “no” to their first submission. But with editing, they were able to come back and get that much sought after “yes”! I know that no editor can guarantee a publishing contract (and writers out there reading this interview, they really really can’t) but what can you give to your clients? What are you hoping they walk away with when you are done going over their manuscript?

I’m glad you pointed that out—unfortunately, as much as we’d like to, editors can’t make promises about future publishing success (and if they do, I’d say beware). I’d love it if we could! Nor can we rewrite the novel for you. What we can and should do is help writers reach the level of their very best work—and learn to continue at that level. I’m hoping my teaching background will help with that (in subtle ways). I can also bring my knowledge of the market and industry to the table, and I can help a writer identify his or her main strengths and weaknesses. When something isn’t working, I can give ideas and suggestions, but an editor should never try to railroad writers into major changes if they’re not comfortable with them. In the end, it’s not my story—the vision and all of the final decisions belong to the writer. But I have to admit I’m thrilled when I hit upon an idea that makes the writer say, “aha!” and run with it. 🙂

I must confess, you are by far one of my favorite interviews because there are just so many questions to ask you! Plus, you’re so darn knowledgeable about publishing. Not only are you familiar with US trends, but because of your time as NLA’s Asian Territory Rights Manager and your time teaching in India, you are also very well-versed in the global marketplace. I can only imagine how valuable that will be to authors looking to see if and how marketable their story is. Can you talk a bit about how else such expertise adds to your critiquing service?

*blushing* Thank you! Yes, I think having experience with the U.S. and international markets gives me some helpful perspective, and it’s important to share that with writers to give them a realistic sense of how difficult this business is and how badly they have to want success in order to achieve it. But, as I’ve said in my blog articles,I’m also careful not to get too focused on trends, because they’re so unpredictable and can change so fast. If a story feels 100% generic to me and I don’t think I’ll be able to help it stand out (based on the summary and sample pages I look at before charging anything), I’ll be honest and tell the writer that I’m not the right editor for the job. But I’d never go so far as to tell a writer to abandon a project; that decision isn’t mine to make. A flash of insight down the road might give him a new direction for the story, and boom—second chance!

Finally Anita, you are taking on clients at anitaedits@gmail.com. But can you tell us about what sort of projects you’d like to take on? Are there any particular genres that call to you?

Oooh, good question. I love working in a variety of genres (you can see the list of those I handle here because I read widely and it keeps things interesting. But I have to say I’m a sucker for YA (all subgenres but especially contemporary). It’s where I most often see those really strong voices that grab me from page one. I’m also eager to work on some literary fiction projects; I’m a fan of that type of writing but didn’t get to work with it as much at NLA, where the focus was mainly commercial fiction. And I’d love to work on multicultural projects—stories set in other cultures, stories about minorities, immigrants, refugees, and expats. Stories of people coming into contact with things that are foreign to them and growing from that. I think that type of diversity is still seriously lacking in our market.

Other dream projects? Something that reminds me of Dave Eggers or Zadie Smith or Ransom Riggs or Stefan Bachmann. Or…something so fresh there isn’t anyone to compare it to!

Thanks so much, Anita!

Thanks again, Bethany!

2 Comments »

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