The Editors God Gave You

Another post on gratitude, as Thanksgiving approaches!

 

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I am blessed to have a family that is very encouraging in my writing. They help me make quiet time to work, they read my pages, they pray for my success. And sometimes, they even help me figure out what happens next.

 

When I got my last round of feedback from my agent, I was determined to answer all her questions as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. In order to do that, I enlisted two of the people who know me best in the world—my mom and my husband.

 

Sometimes getting family and friends involved with writing is a bad idea, but these two are gold. They aren’t afraid to tell me when something doesn’t work, and they are great at offering practical advice on how to resolve problems in the text. I think it’s because they know me so well that they can point out when an edit I suggest isn’t going to read the way I intend it to.

 

I recently sat them both down to talk about my upcoming revision. We made a pot of tea and broke out a box of cookies. I read the feedback I’d received aloud and then mostly took notes while they offered suggestions for how to fill in the holes and up the stakes in my story’s arc.

 

They had so many good ideas. I am grateful for them, but did start to think that they were writing the story better than I could. Was I still the writer here?

 

Yet when our session came to an end, they were both grateful that I was the one who was going to input all the changes. The brainstorming was the easy part, they said; making it happen on the page was the real task.

 

Thankfully, I feel the opposite way! The writing itself is a task I’m excited to complete. I’m learning that if a story is meant to be read by a wide audience, then having more than one mind on a manuscript is not a bad thing. After all, no matter what is suggested, it’s ultimately the author’s decision as to what lands on the page. And with my own private think tank to urge me on, those are decisions I’m happy to make.

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Storytelling in GRAVITY (SPOILER ALERT)

This weekend, for the first time in . . . a really long time, I went to the movies. With two small children, this is a rare treat. My husband picked the movie—Gravity—and I was happy to go in with almost no knowledge of what the film was. Apart from it starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney almost exclusively, and the suggestion that it made commentary on some big-picture questions on life, true happiness, etc., I had no idea what I was getting into.

 

For the first half hour, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. The idea of space kind of freaks me out, and I thought my husband knew this (oops, he forgot!). But once I let myself fall into the film, I found my mind spinning as to what was going on and how readily I could relate. The experience was arresting and one I’d highly recommend—especially for storytellers.

 

What struck me most was how little I knew about Bullock’s character, and yet how engaged I was with her. I kept waiting for a flashback, for a scene to visually depict the snippets I was getting and fill in some of the blanks. As time went on, I realized I didn’t need a lot of those spaces filled in. The suggestions were strong enough, and my imagination did the rest. The screenwriters did an excellent job of including only what was most important and most relevant, and leaving the rest out.

 

It won’t surprise you that I have never been to space, and yet, I had such an intimate reaction to this story. This, I think, is one of the most effective secrets to good storytelling: for a story to be universal and timeless, it must be thoroughly entrenched in its own time and space. The more specific it is—without becoming irrelevantly technical—the more real the created world feels.

 

The classics we read in high school, the movies we watch over and over again, even the picture books we read to our children are not great because they’re trying to be something to everyone. Rather, they tell their own specific stories with particulars, and the strongest themes find their way to light through that.

 

In every good story, there’s a lesson for the storyteller. What stories have you learned from lately, readers?

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!!

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.