Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Best and The Worst of Being An Editor

Post #2 from Nancy! I hope you enjoy the inside peek into what being an editor means, and also what it takes to be one. I'm thinking I may be able to twist her arm for answers if you have questions you're dying to ask. (No, you can't ask her who Sammy's dad is.) (And yes, she does know.) So put your questions in the comments and I'll see what I can do. Anyway, here's Nancy!


That sounds like fun…

This is what most people say when I tell them I’m an editor of children’s books.  And I usually reply, Sometimes.  But what I’m thinking is, You clearly have no idea what I do…

And how would they?  It’s such a behind-the-scenes job.  I suspect they think I sit around and read all day.  (Sadly, no.)  Or that I wield a red pencil and correct spelling and grammar.  (Happily, no.)

It’s my job to find books for my company to publish.  I work with authors and illustrators to revise and shape a book until it’s the best it can possibly be.  And then I’m the book’s main advocate in-house—explaining to the sales and marketing teams why I think it’s a spectacular book that will be perfect for a particular audience.  There’s more, but that’s the heart of it—finder, fixer, cheerleader.

It might also be part of my job to think that the word fun isn’t all that descriptive.  Sometimes being an editor is thrilling. More often: satisfying. And frequently: crushing.

Everyone approaches the job differently, but here are the highs and lows for me:

The best.

  • I love the moment of discovery.  The moment when I’m reading a new manuscript and think, yes.  Yes, this is wonderful.  Yes, we can publish this well.  Yes, people are going to love this.  I feel like I’ve got a delicious secret—no one else knows yet how spectacular this book is.  But they will.  Oh, they will!  And I get to tell them.

  • Whenever anyone—any one—says they love the book too.

  • The company I keep.  I get to work with creative, passionate, dedicated people.  Both the authors and illustrators and my colleagues in the office.  Everyone cares about books.  Everyone’s trying to bring something good into the world.

The worst.

  • When I’m the only one who loves a book.  Sometimes I’m a fan base of one.  Which is frustrating in the particular and also makes me doubt myself in general.

  • And worse than that—when no one seems to care.  I can work for years on a book and be really excited about it, and the book comes out and the reaction is…meh.  Indifference can feel worse than outright dislike.

  • I am never done.  I will never be caught up.  There is always something more I could do, should do, would like to do to spread the word about a book.  Always someone I should have called to check in on.  Always some chapter or scene that might have been better had I studied it a sixth time, or seventh, or eighth, and suggested a small change.

  • My reading time is not my own.  I should be reading submissions or the competition or the other books on our list.  Reading for pleasure has become a guilty pleasure.

  • It is really hard to know if I am doing a good job.  There’s no completely objective way to measure your success.  Sometimes books do well with very little input from me.  And sometimes I knock myself out for a book and it still doesn’t work.  Here’s the rub—when a book sells well or gets stellar reviews, it feels only right and just.  Of course it’s doing well—it’s a great book and the author created something wonderful.  When a book fails, it feels like my fault.  Some books haunt me.  Did I pick a not-so-good one?  What could I have done differently?  What might I still do to turn things around?

What satisfies:

  • Figuring it out.  Sometimes I’ll be editing a book and know that something feels off or doesn’t ring true.  And pinpointing exactly what’s making me feel that way, and then seeing a way to fix it, is incredibly satisfying.  Like solving a puzzle.

  • Even better than that is explaining to a writer or an artist that something feels not-quite-right, offering a potential solution, and having them come back with an even better solution.  Then I get to feel both helpful and inspiring.

  • Saying it well.  There are millions of small reasons I love a book, and it’s hard to distill that love into a few sentences that will explain to someone who hasn’t read it yet why it’s special.  Hitting upon the right way to talk about a book so that others get excited too is important.

  • Finding the right words.  Creating jacket copy for a book is a challenge.  You have to explain enough of the plot to draw readers in, but not give away too much.  And you have to do that in a way that gives readers the feel of a book.  Is it funny or suspenseful or goofy or heartbreaking… 

I’m suddenly realizing that the same wisdom I hear from writers applies to editors too—you have to enjoy the process.  You can’t live for the results—for the sales or the reviews or the outcome.  That part is mostly out of your control.  What you can control is the doing.  And if you enjoy being in the middle of a big, complex, knotty puzzle, and finding a way to make it all come together, then yes—being a children’s book editor is thrilling and agonizing and satisfying and, on especially good days, fun.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Please Welcome My Editor!

I'm very excited to announce that for the next few weeks you will have the rare opportunity to read posts from someone I've been mentioning here at the blog for years--my one and only editor, Nancy. This week she shares how we met, and next week she'll supply a glimpse into what being an editor at a major publishing house actually entails. So without further ado...heeeeeeere's Nancy!



Wendelin asked if I would make some guest appearances on her blog, talking about what an editor’s job is and how I go about it. 

So I thought I should start by telling the story of how we first “met.”  I say that in quotes because we didn’t meet in person for years after we started working together.  (I work with many authors and illustrators I’ve never met.)  No, I truly meet authors in the same place any reader does—on the page, in their stories, through their ideas.

I first met Wendelin in the pages of How I Survived Being a Girl.  I distinctly remember reading this on Amtrak, riding from New York to Boston.  I remember laughing at the daring exploits of Carolyn and her brothers as they spied on the neighbors and dug up someone’s yard. I remember my heart nearly bursting as Carolyn’s crush dangled a gift in front of her—and then put it back in his pocket. And I remember grumbling with frustration at the long and rambling sidetracks Carolyn went off on as she told her story.  I remember the manuscript being heavy

Now, Wendelin and I disagree on the length of this first manuscript.  I acknowledge that the balance of evidence is on her side (since she still has the original document).  But this is my post, and I remember the book being just ridiculously long!  Carolyn’s narration would be tripping along nicely and then she’d veer onto a side road and spend pages ranting about something, and then finally, finally come back to the main story.  Don’t get me wrong—a lot of these meanderings and musings were hysterical.  But the sidetracks kept interrupting the flow of the story—I’d find myself skimming and skipping ahead—yeah, yeah, but what happens next?

And so I wrote to Wendelin and said I liked her story but would she please cut it in half.  If she was willing to try, then I’d read it again. 

I may have been nicer about it than that, a smidge more encouraging, but not much.

I stand by the advice.  Cutting a story that severely forces a writer to choose.  To pick out the events and the details that are truly essential.  To decide which of the many plot threads are bedrock, and which can be chipped away without damaging the whole.  Once you know the true heart of the story, your can figure out which details amplify that meaning, and which ones distract from it.

Also, it’s important for me to know if a writer can revise.  (Not everyone can.)  And it’s good to know if a writer is willing to cast a critical eye on their own work and re-think, and re-imagine it.  Willing and able—a successful writer needs to be both.

So—decent advice, iffy delivery.

I believe it’s Wendelin’s husband, Mark, I have to thank for actually convincing her to revise the book and send it back to me.  Did he somehow sense that I really loved this story, meanders and all?  Did he just want to give Wendelin some encouragement to keep trying at this thing she loved?  Whatever the reason, I thank you, Mark, from the depths of my heart.

I have to say, this story makes me queasy.  It ends well.  Wendelin did revise the book.  She didn’t cut it quite in half, but she did tighten and focus the story brilliantly.  I loved it.  I published it.  It was the first novel I acquired on my own—a huge milestone for any young editor.  And Wendelin and I have now worked on thirty (and counting) books together.  We are an awesome team.  So when I think back on the terseness of my first letter to her—how glib I must have sounded—I feel a little ill.  She could have easily crumpled that letter and never responded.  And I would have missed out on the most rewarding editorial relationship of my career.  And on meeting one of my dearest friends.

It’s a fragile thing, this business.  Luck plays a big role.  And occasionally, rarely, if you are a truly lucky editor, then the stars align, and the kind husband intervenes, and you meet…Wendelin.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

An Apology to GWAATP

There was a point in the series where I made Nancy promise me there'd be no more pink Sammy Keyes books. I think it was after Hollywood Mummy came out. (An early version was pink.)

The poor boys who read the series complained. Pink! No! You're killin' me! they said, and I agreed and discussed the gravity of the situation with Nancy and we agreed--no more pink books! Sammy and pink belong in opposite universes.

Like Sammy and that pink angora sweater!

And yet, 10 books later, here we are, looking at the very pink artwork for the paperback version of Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City. 

I might have protested more than I did (it was really just the raising of a little white flag) if I didn't like the cover so much. And pink seems so appropriately Vegas. Plus, all the menfolk in my family seem to think the artwork is awesome .

So, sorry Guys Who Are Allergic To Pink--I guess you'll have to read the hardcover.

The paperback artist is Karl Edwards, in case you've forgotten / didn't know, and I like the way he works. He's very generous with preliminary sketches, giving the art team at Random House lots of options, and he seems to have a lot of patience with all of us. I like him. Here's an example of some of the Elvi he submitted in the early stages. Varied, and very funny!

And now, switching from art to text, I'm so happy to report that I've reached the "payoff" phase of Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise. Yippiddiy-dappidy-dooo-ooo-oooh! It's all coming to a head, and watch out, world, here she blows!

I was hoping to keep it to 250 or 275 pages, but no, we'll be at 300 before we're back in port. I should be able to tell you next week if I keep up this full speed ahead.

Meanwhile, I'll see you in the comments. I hope you enjoyed the sneak peek at the art--thanks for checking in!

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Detour Through London

So all day yesterday I avoided the spoilers surrounding Oscar Pistorius's semi-final run. I didn't expect him to make it to the finals, but I wanted to see the race for myself without already knowing how it ended.

And I didn't want to take all day waiting to watch a 45 second race!

So from the scheduled time for the race until 11 PM last night I kept checking in. I saw bits of women's volleyball (very cool), women's waterpolo (brutal), women's marathon (the winner was the one who fell at the water station!) equestrian competition (I have no idea what to look for), diving (I don't get why athletes choose a sport where years of training come down to the size of a splash), and the women's gymnastic vault competition (I would feel tremendously sorry for McKayla Maroney but her demeanor [concentration aside] and apparent sportsmanship is very off putting).

I couldn't spend the day watching horses jump or rain fall on runners. I have a book to finish. So I had the TV on in the next room (because Oscar's racing wasn't broadcasting when it was supposed to). and kept an ear out. At one point "carbon fiber" caught my ear and I raced next door in time to see one of NBC's little athlete spotlights about OP. And then nothing. For hours.

The race finally broadcast at 11 last night and for me the highlight wasn't the outcome, but the exchange of bibs. That, and knowing that Oscar's participation in the Olympics will inspire so many people.

Next week, back to books! I have pictures to share and Sammy Keyes updates. But this one's for Oscar. What a guy!

PS Besides Oscar, Missy Franklin and Gabby Douglas are a couple of my favorites. Let's hear yours!