What Lisa Ann Sandell Learned While Writing a Novel

Today I’m excited to share an interview with the talented Lisa Ann Sandell, executive editor at Scholastic Press and author of The Weight of the Sky, Song of the Sparrow, A Map of the Known World, and contributor to the collection, 21 Proms. Lisa writes for young readers in both prose and verse, and has generously offered to share her wisdom on writing and publishing.

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Here we go!

You were an editor before you were a published author. How did your day job prepare you for being on the other end of a project for the first time?

I think I was an associate editor, assisting two more senior editors, when my first novel sold to Viking. I was incredibly excited. I wanted to be as professional as possible and wanted to deliver the cleanest manuscript I could. I just wanted to do my best to make the process as smooth as I could. As a writer, I tend to agonize over the most minute details – I can scrutinize a comma for hours. I’m not sure whether that stems from the ingrained habit of poring over details like this in my day job, or whether it’s just my personality!

Now that you have published three novels of your own, what has changed about the way you work as an editor?

As an editor I always try to be highly sensitive to the authors’ feelings and needs, and above all to their sense of a book’s integrity. A book is an author’s baby, and I make sure to keep that at the fore of all my work. I love editing; I love working with authors – it is always an adventure, always an amazing and rewarding collaboration. Working with an author on a book I love and that resonates with me and speaks to me and moves me is just the most wonderful gift.

What are the challenges of performing both roles simultaneously? What are the benefits? 

The primary challenge of doing both jobs at once is finding enough time in the day to do everything I want to do. So much of my editing work gets done at night and on weekends. When I was working on my own novels, that time was split between my editing and reading responsibilities and carving out some pockets of time to focus on my own writing. It’s a juggling act. But now that I’m a mom, I have to say, it all seems so easy in retrospect – ha! The greatest benefit of working as both an editor and a writer is that I just feel more mindful overall – of text, of story, of what it means to deliver a book into the world.

Your sculpture played a large role in A Map of the Known World. How does engaging in other creative activities influence your writing?

I think creativity begets creativity. Letting my imagination and my mind and my hands play in one medium simply allows for everything to feel more free and opened-up when I turn to the next medium.

Your work is largely influenced by personal experiences—living in Jerusalem, the artistic legacy your grandparents left you, etc.—and yet the stories are not autobiographical. Do you find yourself more compelled by the idea of “writing what you know” or of discovering something new?

I very much wrote of what I knew in my first book, The Weight of the Sky, and once I was done with that story, I went on to write something that I knew about only academically. Song of the Sparrow was probably the most enjoyable writing project I’ve ever embarked upon. I loved diving into the research, and I loved writing about a world that I mostly got to imagine from scratch. But I do love research, digging through old texts, looking up random facts, like what sorts of vegetation would have grown in the time and place where the story is set. I think, for me, the most ideal sort of story to tell is one that contains some measure of context by which I can connect to the world I have to build, but that also has a very wide field in which I can play and learn.

You write beautifully in both free verse and prose. What advice would you give to an author interested in playing with structure and form?

Thank you so much – that is very kind of you! I think the best advice I can give is to just read as widely and deeply as possible. Reading the works of one’s predecessors and understanding the craft will give younger writers the tools to explore and experiment and invent on their own. Then, go play!

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thank you so much for this fabulous opportunity!

Where can readers find you online (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)?

I am on twitter (@lisaannsandell), goodreads, and facebook, but here’s my embarrassing confession: With two little toddlers at home and a lot of books to edit, I’m not online nearly enough. Readers can also visit my website: www.lisaannsandell.com

Thank you, Lisa, for your time and thoughtfulness. Now, back to writing . . . or whatever creative venture is speaking to you today!

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What Lauren Oliver Learned While Writing a Novel

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Oliver on her experiences as an editor, a writer, and the founder of literary incubator Paper Lantern Lit.

 

In October of last year, I heard Ms. Oliver speak on a panel at the Boston Book Festival. She discussed her writing honestly and humbly, and I left inspired, encouraged, and wanting to know more. I’m excited to share our conversation here, as the newest installment of this publishing-professional-turned-novelist interview series. Grab a pen, because you’re going to want to take notes.

New Author Photo

 

Before you were a published author, you were an editorial assistant at a YA imprint. What did you learn there that fueled or challenged your own path to publication?

Before I worked as an editor, I was writing long and structure-less books tedious in their description and characterizations. Working for a commercial YA imprint actually taught me about story for the first time—about the need for tension and resolution, about the way that the components of narrative work.

 

You still work with authors as one of the founders of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary incubator. How does working with other writers’ work encourage your own writing? 

I just like being immersed in the field. I have a great macro sense of the industry because working at PLL requires it, which helps, I think, to keep my antennae up. And working with creative people inspires creativity. As humans, we’re emulators and sponges: we absorb the attitudes of the people around us.

 

PLL develops ideas and then pairs them with talented writers to craft manuscripts. How does this method relate to the way you write? Do you always have an outline first?

I don’t. I very rarely begin with an outline, although I always do develop some kind of outline to work from or within ultimately. Otherwise I end up reverting to kind of meandering ruminations about the nature of people. Nobody wants to read that.

 

I was fortunate to hear you speak on a panel titled “Fiction with a Twist” at the Boston Book Festival in October 2014. There, you remarked that you’ve gotten tangled up in reactions and sales of your books, and you intend to spend time becoming a better writer. Part of that will entail becoming a student again, enrolling in graduate classes. What in particular are you looking to retrain in yourself, and how?

I just want to get better. I want to get better, and I want to be able to separate what I’m doing from my expectations of its commercial success in order to take more risks and push my boundaries.

 

You said at the festival that you read very broadly. Are there certain genres or titles you intend to study as part of the “retraining” process?

No, although there are books I’ve been meaning to read or re-read—Chris Adrian’s short stories, for example; Love In the Time of Cholera; Wolf Hall—so I’ll tackle those. But I’m always reading so widely and with such voraciousness, it’s not so much a question of my reading habits as it is my writing habits.

 

Do you have a single writing process or a different procedure for each of your audiences (middle-grade, young adult, and adult)? What did you try to figure out what works for you? Are you satisfied with your process, or do you intend to change things as you “retrain” yourself?

My writing process is the same, roughly, in that I always write my way in to the world and the characters before thinking overall about structure. I am trying to get even more granular on a sentence level, to read everything out loud in revisions, to be merciless about what I cut. And I’m trying to get smarter about research and the way I use it.

 

At the festival, you said you always feel you are attempting to do something you’re not quite qualified to do. Do expect that to change? What aspect of writing will always be a challenge, and what do you think you are capable of mastering, or at least improving upon?

I hope it doesn’t change, honestly. I hope I’m always stretching myself and trying to be ambitious when it comes to my work. If you’re not attempting to grow, what’s the point, really? I think that progress probably looks like punctuated equilibrium—I might “master” an element of storytelling for a period of years only to have a completely and revolutionary new feeling or response or reaction subsequently that leads me to become a neophyte again.

 

It was encouraging to hear you say that writing is a calling—you simply have to do it—and that you are looking to restore the joy for yourself in that. In which part of the journey of writing a novel do you find the greatest joy? 

I mean, there is a joy embedded in the daily practice itself. There is joy in getting a sentence right, in getting a character right, in nailing down a detail. The joy and the difficulty are intertwined, I think.

 

I can’t wait to read your next novel, Vanishing Girls, due out March 10, 2015. It will be your tenth full-length book published. What did the experience of writing and publishing the other nine contribute to making this one what it is?

I think it’s obvious from the evolution of my books that over the course of my career I’ve become increasingly interested in things I tended to dismiss at the start, like detailed world-building and the way structure informs story and vice versa. I’ve tried to refine and distinguish the characters’ voices in Vanishing Girls, and that preoccupation is even more evident in my next book.

 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thanks for having me!

 

Where can readers find you online? (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)

All of the above! All of my info is on www.laurenoliverbooks.com, including information that directs you to my social media.

 

Thank you, Lauren!

What Amanda Maciel Learned While Writing a Novel

The next installment of the publishing-professional-turned-novelist interview series is here!

The talented Amanda Maciel shares her experiences as an editor at Scholastic and author of two forthcoming (fabulous, compelling, super well-written) young adult novels.

Maciel Author Photo

Thanks for being here, today, Amanda.
 
To start, what kinds of books do you work on as a children’s book editor at Scholastic? Have your interests and what you’ve worked on changed over your time as an editor?
I got my start in publishing in nonfiction, but after about a year I switched to children’s books and never looked back. And for the last 12 years my list has actually been pretty consistent — commercial fiction for kids aged 8 years and up — though for many years I focused on teen fiction for girls. Since starting at Scholastic in the fall of 2007, I’ve worked more on middle-grade (8-12), and more of my books are boy-friendly now, like the action-packed historical fiction I SURVIVED series and the dragon-fantasy WINGS OF FIRE books. I’ve worked mostly on series or “lines” (the Candy Apple books from Scholastic were technically standalone novels, but they all had a similar look and tone; similarly, the teen “beach read” line I spearheaded at HarperChildrens had a few mini-arcs but were mostly standalone teen chick lit, if you will). And mostly my interests have stayed the same — strong narrative voice combined with a strong commercial hook, preferably with potential to serialize!
Your debut novel, TEASE, is due out from Balzer & Bray next summer. Congratulations! I’ve had the privilege of reading parts of it, and I’m so looking forward to reading it in full. Can you briefly tell us what it’s about?
Thank you! TEASE is the story Sara and her classmate, Emma, who has committed suicide. In the aftermath, Sara and several of her friends are accused of bullying Emma and brought up on criminal charges, holding them partially liable for Emma’s death. It’s a story inspired (unfortunately) by current events — and by my own need to try to sympathize with kids who are seen as bad or guilty in these cases.
I understand you wrote and shopped another manuscript before TEASE—less bullying, more zombies. Can you talk about what you took from writing that novel into working on TEASE?
Yes, the first novel I actually finished was called MADISON MEADOWS, HALL MONITOR, and it’s basically a long homage to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, except with zombies. I loved writing it and it was much more fun than TEASE (even with zombie peril, it was an essential comedic, lighthearted story), and it accomplished many goals: it showed me I could, in fact, write a whole novel; it convinced my agent, Holly Root, to take me on as a client; and it even captured the attention of Donna Bray, who couldn’t publish it but did take me to coffee and was wonderfully encouraging. Most of all, that manuscript taught me what every writer will tell you — you just have to sit down and do it. Letting it percolate in your head is great, but you also need to get yourself in front of the computer, early and often. I finished MADISON before my son was born, so the sit-down-and-write part was much easier (or at least, more easily scheduled into the day), but once I started TEASE I knew what needed to be done — and I knew I could do it, if I didn’t let myself get scared. Having already finished a novel made it (slightly) less scary to start another one.
 
You are signed up for a two-book deal, both standalones. How are you managing your time between writing one and editing the other? Or are you used to working on two of your own projects at once?
I have been working on both at once, actually — but the new one is getting very, very neglected right now! Luckily TEASE has been moving at some kind of physics-defying speed, and I’m already done with the copyedited pages. I still need to review the typeset pages (which I plan to read very carefully, as that will be my last review of the book before publication), but soon I won’t have any more excuses to ignore the next manuscript. Well, other than my toddler and my day job. And the rest of my life. 🙂
 
Have you always written young adult (YA) fiction? What draws you to that genre?
 Yes, so far it’s all been YA. And you know, there are a lot of reasons. One is that the teen years are so emotionally heightened — with everything happening for the first time, everything feeling so important and yet so hopeless, I think we all get stuck in high school to a certain extent. And I’ve always wanted to see or read stories about teen girls. When I was in elementary school the line between middle-grade and YA wasn’t as starkly defined, so I was reading Judy Blume and Christopher Pike alongside Beverly Cleary and C.S. Lewis. And it was so thrilling to have Clueless and Buffy come to theaters when I was in middle school! Of course as a teenager myself I wasn’t nearly as well-dressed or fabulous as those girls — even now I wish I could be as glam as the girls on Pretty Little Liars — but fortunately I didn’t have any terribly traumatizing experiences, either. But emotionally (and professionally) I am very drawn to childhood and early adulthood because it can be incredibly fraught — and yet, at the end of the day, you still have your whole life ahead of you. So there’s still always hope.
You joined a writers’ group while you were finishing TEASE. How did that play into the way you worked on the manuscript? (Disclaimer: I am a member of said writers’ group.)
Joining a writing group was something I knew I should be doing for a long, long time. When I got the chance to start meeting with you and the other women of PSCWW, I was nervous (no one had really critiqued my writing since college!), but it really made me feel like a legitimate novelist. And it’s been excellent practice in meeting a writer where they are — so much of an editor’s job is to position a book, which is very different from working on the quality of its writing. Of course I try to do that, too, but working on different genres and really digging into what will make a short piece better has strengthened those muscles I might’ve been underusing. Oh, and it was very reassuring to know that the weaknesses I saw in my own writing weren’t wrong — that might sound strange to say, but I was glad to hear that the parts of TEASE I thought needed work were the right parts! There were also surprises — passages that the group liked more than I did — so I was grateful to know to leave those alone (at least mostly!).
What surprised you, being on the other end of the acquisitions process?
That I am not able to emotionally distance myself from my own work! I thought I’d be a much cooler customer. And to a certain degree, I really do know what to not take personally — though we’ll see how far that gets me when I see a cover image for TEASE. (Authors always hate their covers!) Being at this stage of the publishing process is a little like being pregnant: you’ve seen other people have babies, and you know how it’s supposed to go or how you’re hoping it’ll go. But then you have your own baby, and all bets are off! Other surprises: Agents will send you the responses from editors. (Good agents, like mine, only send the nice ones.) And when you’re revising a manuscript, margin notes from your editor that say “Nice” or “I like this” are the most amazing, most encouraging words ever.
How has your work as an editor informed your writing?
I definitely edit as I write, though I don’t find that it really slows me down. Probably because I edit as I go in life, too — I run sentences through my head before I say them aloud; I mentally draft text messages before typing them. I think in dialogue, and I’m a very slow reader because I’m basically reading aloud in my head. But with writing and editing, I work my way through by intuition. I really don’t know any of the “rules,” so I just try to develop a story, or help another writer develop her story, by how true it feels.
 
Conversely, how has writing influenced how you approach your job as an editor?
I think I’m even more sympathetic with — and I was already very sympathetic to the writing process — and often more impressed by the writers I work with. It’s so hard to see my own writing clearly, though, that honestly the editorial side of my life feels much the same.

Anything else you’d like to share?
Thank you for having me! I would just add that collaboration is a huge and wonderful part of book writing and publishing, so try to embrace it. I truly think that I help my authors as an editor, and now I’ve seen firsthand how much editors, including everyone in our writing group, have helped my own work. Every writer should find readers she trusts and solicit their honest feedback. This can be scary — terrifying, even — but if you can get that feedback, and truly accept it, I guarantee your writing will benefit. There might be points you want to hold your ground on, and that’s fine. But try to trust the notes — try to work with them. They will make everything better. And along the way, if you’ve chosen your critics wisely, there will be lovely notes in the margin that say things like, “Nice” and “I like this,” and that will make you feel awesome for at least a week.
 
Where can readers find you online? (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)
 My Facebook is all baby pictures and my Tumblr is bare (so far), but Twitter is a good, work related spot to find me: @AmandaMaciel12.
 
Thank you so much!

My pleasure! Thank you!!

What Seth Fishman Learned While Writing a Novel

Today I’m thrilled to post the first of what I hope to be many interviews with publishing professionals (editors, agents, etc.) who have published their own books. My guest today is agent Seth Fishman.

Seth

Thanks for being here, Seth. I really appreciate your taking the time to share your experience as a publishing professional who has written and published a novel.

 

Let’s start with what you do, by day—both your official job title and a little about what that entails on a daily basis.

Hi Lindsay!  First of all, thanks for having me here.  This question, though simple, is also the most complex.  But I’ll break it down to the basic form: I’m a literary agent at The Gernert Company, a wonderful agency located in NYC.  My job is to represent authors and their best interest, so my day consists of filling the blanks for what that means.  Since each client I rep is at a different phase in their career, that means I’m doing a pretty diverse list of activities, from reading submissions to submitting novels, short stories, essays, proposals for publication, to vetting contracts, to brainstorming marketing ideas, to helping place foreign and film rights to arguing over cover designs and on and on.  Lots of people think an agent does all their work when they sell a novel, then they sit back and let it go.  But I’d say that’s only a small percentage of what we do, and not even my fully favorite part.

 

Congratulations on your first novel, The Well’s End, to be published by Putnam next February. How did you pitch your novel when you were looking for an agent?

Thank you!  That’s a good question!  Well, the truth is, my agent (Kirby Kim), signed me for an adult thriller that I wrote.  I see, now, the issues that book had, but we came close to selling it back then.  It was my 3rd book I had written (yep, us agents still have to work hard on writing too) and after it didn’t sell I was pretty exhausted.  Kirby had me into his office and said he thought I could write YA, and maybe sell on a partial.  Partials are usually not something I recommend, as they are harder to sell and you get less money for them, but at the time, I couldn’t stomach writing the full book on spec again.  So I came up with an idea, outlined fervently, wrote the partial and landed at Putnam with a two-book deal.  My agent pitched the novel to ME.  Haha.

WellsEnd_Final

 

Your novel was partially inspired by the story of Baby Jessica McClure, who over twenty-five years ago was rescued after falling into a well. What brought that story back to you as a writer? How did you know you’d have enough fuel in that to complete a novel—and the first in a series at that?

Well, I was from the hometown of Baby Jessica, but The Well’s End only uses that incident as a catalyst for the novel, and I knew if I tried to actually have it link to the real story, it would be bogged down.  So I moved towns, moved states, and had the event happen years before.  I was interested to see how that would influence Mia, the protagonist, as she was set in an entirely different set of circumstances.  So it’s there, always in the back of her mind, but the well fall was really just a spark, not the fuel, you know?

 

You represent a wide range of material as an agent. Have you always been interested in writing young adult fiction, or do you write in other genres as well, and had this particular project take off for you?

I sorta answered this above, but I do write all over the place.  Maybe not as well, though.  I’ll not trouble you with specifics, but I’ve tried my fair share of styles.  It’s allowed me, as an agent, to understand more about how similar each genre and age group is.  Good genre writing is good writing set by the confines of the characteristics of a classification.  I like that I can ignore those classifications and focus on the good writing.

 

You hold an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. How important was that for you as a writer? In what circumstances would you recommend aspiring authors pursue a similar degree?

I loved my time in England, writing away, and would definitely recommend living abroad for a year with a collective of writers – how fun is that?  Thankfully, the program was shorter and cheaper than US programs by far.  As an agent, though, I certainly glance at the MFA credential but have seen good and bad from very famous to very unknown programs, so I rely much more on the writing.  This, I believe passionately: Do Not Go Into Debt For An MFA.  Or at least a big debt.  There are amazing amazing programs that will cover your fee, like Cornell or Austin’s program.  Or if you do want to spend money, take 50k (which is half the tuition cost of two years at some places) and team up with likeminded people and write.  Also, briefly, there are great programs that aren’t MFA’s that do as well or better in terms of education and connections, like the Clarion programs.  Those are 6 weeks long and cost around $4,000 bucks.  And the teachers are amazing.

 

Let’s talk a little about the editorial process. How has agenting informed your creative process?

I write as I always write, to be honest.  But before I wrote the book I came up with a number of ideas and picked the one I both liked and thought had commercial potential.  I tell that to my clients all the time.  Don’t write what you don’t want to write, don’t pander to others, but come up with a few ideas and find one that hits as many marks as possible, with ‘interest’ being #1 on that list.

 

How has undergoing the professional editorial process as a writer influenced the way in which you approach your work as an agent?

Ha, absolutely.  I’m way way more sympathetic when my writers get their editorial notes.  And on my own edits for my clients, I try to be significantly gentler in my comments.

 

Onto publication! Was knowing that you’d sold your book the pinnacle of the process thus far, or has something else surprised you as being even more awesome?

That’s a good question.  Selling the book was really a big deal for me, but what’s funny is that there are SO MANY layers to a book’s pub that you sorta go glassy eyed.  First draft finished.  Last draft finished.  Cover.  Galleys.  Blurbs.  So many wonderful things that I love, but I think my friends and wife are now kinda like, ‘Ok… congrats… again…’

 

What was the toughest point on the journey to publication for you? And what kept you going?

Editing is tough, finding time to write is tough.  Being an agent and trying not to be annoying with that knowledge is tough too.  But why keep going? There was never a chance I’d stop.  Why do we write?  Why do we keep writing?  Because we can’t help ourselves. Because we have to and we love it.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I love my job as an agent and I won’t ever leave.  It’s the best job in the world and I’m lucky to have it, to have the clients I have.  Thanks for having me here!

 

Where can readers find you online?

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16101138-the-well-s-end

Twitter: @sethasfishman

Tumblr, http://www.tumblr.com/blog/sethasfishman

Website: sethasfishman.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Sethasfishman?ref=br_tf

 

Thank you again, Seth, for this wonderfully encouraging interview. Can’t wait to see The Well’s End on shelves next year.