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!!

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Writing is good for you. Editing is better.

I have a dear friend who is artistic, creative, and a voracious reader. Earlier this year, she took her passion for self-expression, and for words in particular, to a new place and starting writing a blog about her dating adventures. She was hooked pretty much instantly. She writes honestly and well, and I’m always delighted to see another entry has been posted.

 

Last week she told me she’s seriously thinking about taking an adult writing course. We’d discussed the possibility before, and in our recent conversation I egged her on again. Whether it’s a memoir workshop, a course on nonfiction essay-writing, or a seminar on some other form of creative writing, I am of the opinion that learning to write better (read: learning to edit better) has myriad benefits—both personally and professionally.

 

Learning to write better does not necessarily mean making better words hit the page the first time around. It might mean experimenting with prewriting exercises or figuring out the critical, if painful, questions one needs to ask of oneself to improve a draft.

 

Before, during, or after the writing itself, learning the craft is about figuring out what’s important—plot points, characters, phrases—and what’s not. In a story, a business email, a personal letter, better writing is about communicating clearly. And that means clearing out the junk.

 

Likewise, sometimes we need to be critical of our thoughts, emotions, and reactions. What’s really important to us, and what extraneous stuff are we letting get in the way of our goals? If we call ourselves writers, are we making enough time to write for where we are in the process, or are we letting our fear holding us back?

 

Moral of the story: Writing is good for you. Editing is better.

Process in Progress

An article I posted last week made the excellent point that you can’t know what your novel-writing process is until you’ve completed a novel. In my experience, working out one’s process is a whole lot of trial and error, emphasis on the error.

 

I want there to be intention as to where my stories go and what messages live in them, so in theory I don’t like the idea of just writing and seeing where it takes me. On the other hand, before I started writing, I thought creating an outline before writing the manuscript would lead to a boring and predictable text that lacked spontaneity.

 

I’ve come to see that my main issue sprouts up before I have the chance to take either of these tacks, namely, establishing the protagonist’s motivation. At the start, the concept for my first novel was sweet, but it didn’t have enough weight for a reader to positively need to continue reading. Every time I get closer to that in my edits, something else falls into place—or falls out of the novel all together, because it turns out not to be important.

 

My mind’s been spinning recently with an idea for a new project. I don’t think it will be quite as light as my first, but I can already see that some of the themes that come naturally to me will have a place. One thing I know for sure is that I want to understand where my protagonist is coming from before too many words hit the page. It’s really hard to make sense of the whole story when I don’t have firmly grounded why it’s important in the first place.

 

Where is this new protagonist headed? I still don’t know. And I think I’m okay with giving that a try, as long as I know why she’s on the road.

Is Being Published the Ultimate Goal?

As a writer who aspires to be traditionally published, my greatest challenge is in overcoming my own doubts. Putting the words on the page is (usually) fun. Even editing is enjoyable for me. What I struggle with is knowing that what I’ve done is good enough.

 

There are so many markers writers can use to measure our success. For those of us who haven’t yet been published, that seems like the ultimate goal. But at least some of those writers who have been published contest that it isn’t the end of the road.

 

A few years ago, I heard two-time Newbery- and two-time National Book Award-winner Katherine Paterson speak in an interview with Jon Scieszka, as he passed her the baton of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Humble as she is, Paterson said that every time she finishes a book, she thinks that’s it, the last one. She never knows if she’ll be able to write something publishable again.

 

Seriously? Seriously.

 

Likewise, in his article “30 things that every writer should know” from The Telegraph, author Matt Haig writes,

 

– Having my name on a book never makes me more confident.

 

And here,

 

– Being published doesn’t make you happy. It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones. (I should have gone to Oxbridge! Why wasn’t I invited to Hay? Am I not Granta enough? I wish I was Jonathan Franzen!)

 

And again,

 

– The joy of writing never changes, however many books you have published. It is not always a joy. It is only a joy for a fraction of the time, but it is worth it, just for that fraction. And much of that joy comes from being that misfit kid grown up, leading readers and yourself to the wildest parts of your imagination.

 

As I prepare to jump back into my agented manuscript for a revision (that I’m admittedly scared of not doing well enough!), it’s oddly calming to know that achieving my goal of publication is not going to bring about a great change on a deeper level. It will only mean I have the chance to keep on creating with a larger audience.

 

As with so many other things in life, it’s not the doing that matters as much as doing it well. And that is something I have plenty of control over.

 

Watching TV Is Good for Your Writing

Being in a writers’ group is great because:

  1. You get feedback on your writing.
  2. You practice your editing skills by giving feedback on other people’s writing.
  3. You get book and article recommendations from folks as serious about writing as you are.

 

Today I’m sharing “Six Things Prose Writers Can Learn From Television” by Matt Debenham. There’s gold in here, readers. Six elements of good television writing that can easily be transferred into a mini-workshop on prose writing. Take a look and see what you can apply to your current WIP.

 

I tend to get stuck on Item 2. My characters, especially my protagonists, start out really nice and well adjusted. I have to work to mess them up. A number of the writers I’m working with now seem to have the same problem. None of us wants to write about characters we’ve all seen before, some textbook psychology that we can all see playing out from page one. We want to create relatable characters, put them in challenging situations, and then have them behave unexpectedly. But at the same time, there must be a believable (not necessarily logical) motivation behind every action of every character for the writing to work.

 

Debenham says it well,

 

Active doesn’t mean always happy, or manic, or illogical. Active means a character who wants something, who does things relating to those wants — oftentimes when that is exactly the wrong thing for them to do.

 

That’s where tension, conflict, and just plain good writing come from.

 

Which piece do you have the most trouble with? How are you working through it?

Cure for Doubt

doubt (noun): one of writers’ greatest enemies.

 

Last month I started to work on a new project. I’d had the idea for this novel for some time, and had begun it a couple of different ways, whenever the mood struck. Who doesn’t love a spontaneous and fruitful burst of creativity? The words were coming easily and I was looking forward to devoting more time to it. My writers’ group kept me moving after that initial rush.

 

Currently, I am three chapters in and have written a synopsis of all I think will happen thus far. Sounds good, right?

 

Unfortunately, I have almost no motivation to write more. I’m not as excited about it as I want to be. Add to that the minor tailspin that my recent notes for revision sent me into, and I am fighting a case of Doubt with a capital D.

 

This new piece is in the same genre as my first, and it’s one that I’m not totally convinced is salable. Of course, that is not the whole picture. Writing my first novel provided my invaluable insight into the worlds of writing and editing. Likewise, whether it’s publishable or not, I can see myself returning to this new project at some point in the future.

 

But for now, I am thinking seriously about traditional publication. I want to write something I enjoy and something I think offers something worthwhile to the marketplace. In other words, something that can sell. If I’m not excited about this new work-in-progress, why in the world would anyone else be?

 

The solution: Time. Time to put both projects aside and consider what motivates me. What inspires me. What excites me.

 

What can I create that will offer greater perspective? What’s not out there that I can add to the canon of contemporary American literature? Ultimately, what do I want to spend my time on?

 

Taking the time to let go of my current pieces and the desire to get something out to publishers as soon as possible is opening up the doors of my creativity. I have yet another new concept in mind—not one that’s ready to find paper quite yet, but one that has my brain and my heart moving.

 

I know I need to be writing for the right reasons to produce anything worthwhile. It’s hard to force that when the prospect of publication could be right around the corner—or not. That’s something I need to let go of this week. In its stead, I’ll have a  fresh notebook, a new story to consider, and a chance to let my imagination do its thing.

 

The more excited I get about this new idea, the more motivated I am to go back and finish my revision. Maybe I am capable of writing something worth publishing. Then again, maybe not. But either way, I can choose to write something I enjoy, something that makes me a better writer and a more thoughtful and compassionate person.

 

The cure for writerly doubt is hope. And published or not, I can have that whenever I want.

Dealing with Revision

Last week, I met with my literary agent, in part to discuss my most recent manuscript revision. In my mind, this pass had the most dramatic changes and as a whole, came closest to achieving my thematic goals for the book. I thought it might be ready to go out on submission to publishers, and I anxiously awaited feedback from my agent.

 

Wise editor that she is, she made some really valid points about changes that still need to be made, as a result of what I did in the last round.

 

At first, part of me was crushed. Despite having been the person to tell an author there was yet more to be done, I second-guessed my agent’s message. If I needed to revise again, was it worth it at all? Would the manuscript ever be ready to submit? I’d told myself that if this manuscript weren’t picked up by a traditional publisher, I wouldn’t self-publish (more on that in another post). But now, maybe I would. If someone else didn’t like it, that didn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. I worked hard on this. A lot of my readers sincerely enjoyed it. And on and on . . .

 

When I took a breath and considered the situation objectively, I was able to remind myself that a request for revision is not the same as rejection. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Why would an agent spend her time reading and commenting on a manuscript she doesn’t believe is going anywhere?

 

What I took as a blow to my pride is something I should be very grateful for. Constructive criticism (and everything she suggests is constructive) is, for a writer with her head on straight, the greatest gift to receive. Of course my manuscript isn’t perfect yet. If we can edit out some of the easy reasons for an editor to pass later on, let’s do it and give this thing its best chance. Here is another example of how important humility is for writers.

 

No one in publishing knows it all, but I believe that experienced publishing professionals trained by other successful publishing professionals have a good idea of what works, what doesn’t, and how to get a writer’s work from one side to the other—if she’s willing to listen.

 

I have at least one more revision to do before we move to the next step. Would I like to be there already? Maybe, but not if my manuscript isn’t in the most promising state it can be.