Case Cracked: Editing Mystery Novels

This post was originally posted on the Lee & Low blog.’ve long been a fan of mysteries. Trixie Belden was my BFF as a third and fourth grader. Nancy Drew was another favorite. Veronica Mars updated the teen sleuth idea, bringing the storytelling form to a new generation.

When I got the chance to work on Valynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes, our new YA mystery which comes out in June, all of those mysteries and more were going through my mind. Claire, the main character, has the spunk and curiosity of Veronica Mars and all of her predecessors, but she’s also a little different. And to honor those differences in the editing process, I needed to refresh myself on what’s out there right now in the teen mystery/suspense genre, and the mystery genre in general.

As I was editing Ink and Ashes over the course of about a year and a half (which spans two developmental edits and a line edit), between edits I was reading mystery after mystery. I stocked up on Agatha Christie, I rewatched Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and read the first book of the series it’s based on (Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood), I read multiple YA suspense, spy, and murder mysteries.

Miss Fisher ABC
Miss Fisher from the TV show “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”

That reading reminded me that a great mystery read requires the same elements as any good read: well-paced plotting, characters the reader cares about enough to want to know what happens next; even world-building, though that’s a term we generally associate with speculative fiction, is tremendously important in setting the stage in a mystery. But my rereading of classic and contemporary mysteries also showed me that more than in any other genre, a sense of suspense and danger must permeate the mystery book, must drive the reader to breathlessly wonder what will happen next.

Ask probing questions

One of the biggest challenges in this edit—with any edit, really, especially with an author you’ve never worked with before—was discovering how to bring the author’s vision of the characters fully to life. An editor’s job is often to just ask questions: Why is this happening right now? Why would that character decide to do this? What is the goal here?

In that way, figuring out the goal allows the editor to ask further probing questions on what the solution might be—figuring out how current plot points and character decisions hamper the desired effect.

“The plot thickens” turns out to be trueink and ashes cover

The biggest thing I learned while editing Ink and Ashes and reading all these mysteries is the importance of plot escalation. In the original draft, clues did of course build up into a frenzied final few pages of conflict that were very enjoyable—that’s one of the reasons the book won our New Visions Award. But comparing the early manuscript to mysteries I enjoyed the most, I realized that there were so many ways that the narrative could be complicated. (Valynne was on the same page. As she waited for the results of the contest, she was also already thinking of ways to improve the manuscript. That kind of editor-writer synergy makes a huge difference in any book project like this.)

We looked at the end goal, and discussed the plot points that got Claire and her friends to that point. In particular, we discussed how the inciting incident—the moment that gets Claire to veer her course to investigating whether her father and her stepdad ever knew each other—might be complicated and how those complications would have a ripple effect that would improve multiple other plot points, and increase the pacing.

In other words, escalation. If the reader didn’t feel the suspense at every page turn, we had work to do.

Valynne worked very hard on making that happen, and I’m very happy with the results! In answer to all my probing questions, Valynne improved on an already-well written manuscript to bring what was an interesting read to the level of an exciting page-turner that’s getting readers hooked. That’s the end goal for any editor and author: Creating a final book that readers can’t put down. I’m happy to say, we succeeded with Ink and Ashes.

What’s coming down the pipeline?

I’ve been talking a lot about Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s new book, Summer of the Mariposas, which we’ll be publishing at Tu this fall. Another thing coming out this fall that we’ll have more info about in the coming weeks is an amazing anthology edited by Tobias Buckell and Joe Monti featuring a list of authors that will knock your socks off. More on that in the coming weeks when the official announcement comes out.

And if you’re a Tankborn fan, you’ll be happy to know that coming Spring 2013 is the second book of what is now a Tankborn trilogy! A lot of the questions that remained open in book 1 will be explored in further depth. Will Kayla and Devak be able to overcome their huge gap in status? Will the GENs be able to take ownership of their own resistance movement? What secrets are lurking in this world that Kayla hasn’t even known to discover yet? It’s gonna be awesome.

Coming that same season is a new book we just acquired that I’m so excited about: New Worlds by Shana Mlawski stars Balthazar Infante, a bookmaker’s apprentice who, accompanied by a half-genie, sets off on Columbus’s journey to the New World to avoid the Spanish Inquisition and fulfill a quest to find his father and figure out his magical heritage. A look at this time period of history from the point of view of those who the Spanish Inquisition targeted, Jewish and Moorish people, and then jumping across the pond to look at Columbus’s journey in a new light. I never even realized that the two happened at the same time! More on that as the editorial process goes forward.

Quick review of the redesigned Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine

Beautiful old pen

In a sentence: WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY PEN??

I loved the old Precise V5s. Almost every editor I know who I’ve ever talked pens with loves the Precise V5. It’s got a fine enough tip to write between lines of text without smearing ink everywhere, and it was steady and sure.

And when I went back to the supply shelves today to find a new red pen, I certainly found a new pen, all right. Why in the world would anyone reinvent a pen that already works perfectly (besides, of course, a tiny little exploding problem)?

Looking at the new pen in comparison to an old one here on my desk, the construction feels cheaper. It doesn’t have the heft to it that the previous version did, which I felt was balanced perfectly. It’s more flimsy plastic, and it writes like one of those cheap ball-point pens that I avoid—you know, with a little wiggle feel to it, which kind of negates the whole point of the PRECISE pen.

Evil new pen

The new tip now scratches across the paper rather than gliding as the old pen used to. The ink and precision of what you write itself looks okay, but the process of writing isn’t as comfortable as it used to be. The length and width physically seem to be similar, except that the nib of the new pen is shorter than the old one and I feel like I have to choke up (back?) on this pen to hold it in the same position as the old pen, yet that means holding more of the fat part of the pen, rather than the part that fits my hand. There seems to be more plastic, but maybe that’s just a vibe I’m getting because the way the ink flows down into the nib is a straight tube rather than those weird layers of plastic (which would eventually explode in the most inconvenient way possible).

IF (and only IF) the changes mean fewer explode-o-pens in my purse/pocket/backpack/hand, I could probably get used to everything except the annoying scratch of the nib across the paper. The very tip of the nib where the ink comes out doesn’t appear to the naked eye to be any different in design than the previous pen, so I’m unsure why it moves differently across the page.

I’ll probably get used to it, if it means continuing to be able to have neat(er than my usual) handwriting when I edit. But I am a bit sad to see the old design go. Why mess with it?

ETA: Hm, now I’m confused. I went to the Pilot site, and now it seems that the V5s are V5/V7s? Can anyone tell me what’s up with that?

Just what *does* an editor do all day? (Or, nibbled to death by ducks.)

What Do People Do All Day?I recently lamented that I had little blog fodder anymore—and of course I know you are all languishing to know what has been happening in my brain lately—and a friend suggested that I talk about the editorial process, because she didn’t know much about it. I have discussed it on this blog before, but my tag system isn’t the most organized filing system so perhaps it’s time to revisit the subject.

This idea was reemphasized to me the other day when I got an email asking me (paraphrased and anonymized):

How would I go about getting a job like yours? I don’t have the discipline to write every day. I would love a job where I could read books all the time. Is there a way to become an editor instead of a writer without having to go back to full time education?

I like to joke that I get to read for a living, but the reality is that reading manuscript submissions is only a small part of my job, one that I constantly feel like I don’t have enough time to do. So here’s just a little window into the kinds of tasks I’ve been doing over the course of the last few weeks as I prepared and sent three books out to the printer for advance reader’s copies (and a few things I’ll be doing later this week). Some of these tasks only took a few minutes, some an hour, some took all day or several days, in the case of editing a manuscript.

  • Meet with company vice president to go over a new-to-me procedure (in this case, several times, as this is our first season; this includes meetings about how to coordinate with the production manager, how to upload files to the printer’s FTP site, how to double check the files I received from the designers to ensure that what I’m sending to the printer has the correct measurements including bleeds, etc.)
  • Check with marketing to ensure that the number of ARCs I’m telling the production manager we need is still correct
  • Assemble all the specs of the ARCs to go along with the files I’m sending to the printer
  • Compress PDFs for uploading to the printer
  • Transfer zipped files to the printer’s site
  • Organize feedback for partial revision that I’m asking author for to prepare for acquisition meeting
  • Back-and-forth with author, including reading revision and clarifying some points
  • Organize more feedback to refine partial revision for acquisition meeting
  • Put together two acquisitions memos for the acquisition meeting, including market research, editorial notes, comparison titles, etc., and a trip to the library to find a particular book to show around at the meeting
  • Go to acquisition committee meeting, present on why we need/want the books in consideration
  • Email several agents about books in various stages of consideration
  • Prepare offers for books discussed in acquisitions
  • Negotiate with agents
  • Prepare fall preview (visuals from my fall books) for department quarterly meeting
  • Attend department quarterly meeting, talk about fall books briefly
  • Attend company quarterly meeting, talk about fall books briefly
  • Read full manuscripts that have been waiting too long for a reply (ongoing)
  • Make a decision on whether to send feedback on certain full manuscripts
  • Organize notes for manuscripts that I’m sending feedback on (ongoing, as I am working on several at once)
  • Give partial submissions to intern to sort through and give feedback on to assist me in separating out the most promising submissions (ongoing)—which results in a pile of promising submissions I need to go through
  • Request full manuscripts of most promising submissions
  • Look at huge submissions pile and feel guilty that I’m not faster (multiple times a day)
  • Look at most recent version of cover for all three fall books, proofread, send feedback and design requests to designers
  • Go through interior galleys of three ARCs to ensure that copyedit/proofreading changes have been made
  • Send interior galley revision requests to designer
  • Start the edit for a spring book (this in-depth edit is a second look after a revision, so it won’t take quite as long as the first, but it has already taken several full days and will probably take two or three more before it’s done)
  • Start the search for a cultural expert for a spring book
  • Prepare bar codes to send to designers for final fall covers
  • Meet with a group of college students to tell them about how I started the imprint and why diversity in children’s fantasy and science fiction is important
  • Talk with marketing about a new thing we’re thinking of doing for our fall books
  • Look at Tu’s catalog page to ensure it’s the most up-to-date information before the catalog goes out the door
  • Actually upload fall books to printer’s site, coordinate with production manager

I feel like I’m missing something, and the list is very much out of order compared to the way the last few weeks went, but it gives you an idea. And looking at that list, no wonder I’ve been so tired these last few weeks! But my point is, there is so much that an editor does. Some of these things, like coordinating directly with a designer, are something that an editor might not do at a larger house because they have People for that. I like being able to coordinate the stages of my books so closely, though of course things like submitting my own Cataloging-in-Publication data are less interesting than being involved in the design of a book or choosing the paper.


Does someone need to be qualified to be an editor beyond a love of reading? If you already have a bachelor’s degree, I’m not sure it’s necessary to go back to school for an English degree (my undergrad is in marriage, family, and human development, with an emphasis on child development), but a love of reading certainly isn’t enough. More important than that, a good editor needs critical reading skills, the ability to sift out the most promising submissions—both in artistic quality and in marketability. A good editor, therefore, also needs to understand the market that he or she wants to work in, and in this changing climate, an innovative business-oriented mind is an important asset (this can be learned, believe me—I never really thought of myself as a “business” type). A good editor needs a deep understanding of the audience for the books she wants to edit, particularly when it comes to children’s and young adult books, because of the developmental needs of the audience that sometimes adults forget about—and the ability to recognize and sift out condescension to that audience.

A good editor needs the ability to work independently and as a team, depending on the task at hand, and the ability to be organized in keeping track of long-term projects (most books take at least a year if not more from acquisition to publication). A good editor doesn’t necessarily have to be a fast reader (though it helps if you’re editing the number of books some of my colleagues do a year—some editors work on 20, 30, or 40 books per year; they’re generally at houses where they don’t have a direct hand in every other stage of the process, though, and many of them have full-time assistants to sort through the slush pile, if their house even still allows slush). What an editor does need as far as reading skills, however, is a sharp eye for detail when necessary, and the ability to also hold a picture of the full scope of a long book in their mind at the same time, in addition to a great sense of taste for voice, and the ability to help shape prose that needs it, including a strong knowledge of grammar but also a good sense of what is missing—how to guide a writer in filling in the gaps in a manuscript with promise. That means being able to see characterization flaws, plot holes, pacing problems, and worldbuilding weaknesses, and know ways to suggest fixing them.

And all of that requires enough people skills to know how to communicate these ideas to writers with diplomacy, tact, and in a way that works for the writer’s particular personality. Hopefully you have a bachelor’s—and it doesn’t need to be in English. The next step, after ensuring you have all these qualities, is to get job experience, and that means being willing to start at the bottom (internships, editorial assistant positions) and work your way up, learning from a mentoring system, basically, as you go.

The editing process

So, let’s talk about the editing process for the life of one book. After I’ve requested the full manuscript and like it enough to decide to work with it, I start out with developmental editing, usually even before a book is acquired. I’ll read requested full manuscripts through, trying to take as few notes as possible because notes just slow me down. I’m just trying to get a feel for whether the voice, plotting, and characterization suck me in enough to want to work on this project for over a year of my life, not get hung up on typos, even if the author can’t spell “all right.” (Note: NOT “alright.”) Those that I decide are strong enough that I might want to take to acquisitions, I then evaluate whether they’re strong enough to discuss right away, or if they might need a little development.

Then, if it needs work (and most projects usually need at least a little work), I’ll make notes of the most important things that need addressing, the things that I couldn’t bring the book to acquisitions without addressing. Sometimes that’s a weak beginning. Sometimes it’s a character who doesn’t feel like he or she is working. Sometimes it’s strengthening worldbuilding, or a critical change needed in the main character that would be a dealbreaker otherwise. It might be a need to delete some scenes, or add some scenes, or for pacing to be adjusted, or any number of other fairly big-picture adjustments. But the book is strong enough for some reason (usually the voice and an original concept) that these things are worth asking for.

Then I talk with the author (or sometimes with the agent) and ask if she or he would be willing to make the changes I ask for, usually by compiling those notes into an editorial letter, but sometimes in a more casual email. Usually they’re willing to do at least a partial revision to make sure that the book is seen in its best light—if I’m serious enough about a book to ask for a revision, it’s something I hope to eventually take to acquisitions.

If the revision is done to my satisfaction, I’ll take the book to acquisitions and we’ll talk about how it fits our list, what need it fills, market viability, and so forth. We’ll make a decision on whether we want to make an offer.

Then the negotiation process begins, either with the author directly or with their agent, if they have one. Contracts get negotiated and signed, etc.

After that (well, during the contract negotiations, really), the author and I set up deadlines for milestone revisions—usually the first revision date and the final due date, though we might expect that some intermediate revisions could crop up. The revision at the first revision stage is often still developmental, focusing on the big picture. It might be finishing a revision that was begun with a partial, or it might be another full developmental round.

After developmental editing needs are satisfied, we move on to line editing, refining the words on the page at the paragraph and sentence level. This is often accompanied by further smaller developmental tweaks, usually artifacts left over from bigger changes.

Once the author has completed any line editing changes necessary, then it’s on to copyediting, which is usually done by another editor, often a freelancer who specializes in catching the grammatical details that we weren’t looking for in the previous passes. That could be as easy as looking for typos and punctuation errors, but usually it’s more in-depth, covering part fact-checking (“are you sure there’s an “East Side” of Chicago?”), part continuity police (“He had green eyes on page 15 and brown eyes on page 278. Which is it?”), part general secondary reader (querying a point that’s confusing, or querying a change in wording that might clarify or correct an error), and most importantly, the copyeditor is the person who catches the vagaries of usage that we never really think about in speech, such as dangling modifiers, unclear antecedents, the difference between hyphens and em-dashes, and all those other grammar-nerd things that a lot of people think is an acquisition editor’s only duty.

Then once the editor and author go over copyedits, accepting and rejecting changes and discussing any points in conflict, it’s on to proofreading to catch the little stuff. Often by the time we’re at proofreading the book has been designed and the text has been flowed into the galleys, so in addition to typos and random little problems like that, the proofreader might also look for bad breaks (in children’s books it’s not really a good idea to break any words across the page or to break hard words at all), stacks (the same word starting or ending multiple lines), missing or extraneous page elements (such as headers on a chapter opener page, missing page numbers), that kind of thing.

And while all this is going back and forth between the editor, copyeditor, proofreader, and author—multiple times per editor and all at various stages, because of course no editor ever works on only one book at a time—remember that long list of things I’ve done in the last few weeks? There are about that many other things going on at the same time at any given moment in the book’s life cycle.

What do editors do all day? Not reading, in the sense of reading only submissions (though at any given moment we might be reading as we edit). The only time an editor really has that luxury is when first starting a new job, when the work hasn’t started to pile up. I had this luxury back in early 2010 when I was starting Tu because I also didn’t inherit any books from a previous editor—because I was starting a brand-new imprint—so I was reading submissions all day, every day, until I found books I wanted to push forward to the next stage. Then it gets complicated, and you have to budget your time and make yourself a schedule of deadlines to ensure that you’re keeping up with all the myriad things that need to be done. For example, I’m coming up on a deadline to order art for one of my spring books, which tells me that I need to start talking to the author and the designer and putting together ideas so all the design and art needs this book will need will have plenty of time.

One editor friend described all these little things that editors need to do as “being nibbled to death by ducks.” What do you think—appropriate?

What I’m seeing in the submissions pile

Last week, as I was going through a pile of submissions, I was thinking about the kinds of submissions I’ve been seeing. Many of them work really well, and it’s made it hard to choose, in some ways. I’m working with a few authors on manuscripts in various stages—though as you know we don’t have anything to announce just yet—but what about the rest? What are the things that make me say no right away? What kinds of things am I not seeing? So here’s a random list for you. Some of them are pretty obvious, but sometimes lists can be useful.

What I’m seeing in the submissions pile:

  • A lot of really great Asian-based fantasy. Which is awesome, but it’d be nice to see more of other cultures & ethnicities too.
  • A lot of really great YA. I’d like to see more middle grade books.
  • Really, really short books or really, really long books. If your book for teens is 13,000 words long, it’s too short. (That’s too short for most chapter books.) If your book for middle graders is 150,000 words, it’s way too long.
  • The occasional ms based on a “Native American” culture (i.e., not a specific tribe, but the label “Native American”). Be aware of cultural appropriation issues as well as how diverse the people behind the term “Native American” are, especially if you’re writing transracially. If you want to include any kind of Native American content, be sure to check out the resources at Oyate and American Indians in Children’s Literature (those are looking at currently-published books, but it’s a great way to see how to avoid cliches and misappropriation as a writer). There are hundreds of different cultures, not just one, and most First Nations/Aboriginal/Native American cultures regard their traditions as sacred and it’s important to respect that when mining history, religion, folklore, and mythology for magic systems and worldbuilding. If you do decide to include a Native American character and you’re not writing from that background, do your research and consult experts.*
  • Adult wish-fulfillment fantasy that has nothing to do with children’s/teens’ immediate lives. Remember, your audience is young readers, not adults.
  • On a similar note, stories that feel out of touch with kids/teens as they are today, rather than as they were at the time today’s adults were children.
  • Fantasies based on northwestern European folklore. These are not non-Western cultures. They are the very definition of Western. Perhaps I’d love them from another publisher, but I don’t want to publish them for this imprint, sorry.
  • Realistic tales about real, important world events that involve no fantasy or science fiction element at all. I’m sure they’re lovely/gripping/horrific, but I don’t want them. I’m looking for speculative fiction.
  • Certain kinds of characters that just don’t suit my tastes, like anthropomorphized inanimate objects and animals. For some reason, though I LOVED anthropomorphized animals as a kid, they’re just not something I want to read anymore. Blame it on missing the farm? Though SF about bioengineered people with animal DNA is fair game as long as it’s original.
  • The oddly occasional blatantly racist tale. Though thankfully I see these only very rarely.
  • A lot of not-quite-ready and not-right-for-me manuscripts that do follow the guidelines well (thank you!), which is just as it should be. Some manuscripts will work for me, some will work for other editors, some will need some more work before they’re ready to be published. Some had problems with voice, which I discussed in a previous post. Some had speculative concepts that needed more development and just weren’t ready for me, though they sounded like they had potential. Some were, honestly, downright incomprehensible. (At least there aren’t any submissions in crayon from prisoners yet. Yes, this has actually happened in the past.) That’s a normal part of the process.

The takeaway: I’d really like a few more awesome middle grade books to consider (that fit my submission guidelines, of course). And that there are lots of cultures/people I’m not seeing enough of in the submissions pile. I’d love to see more Latino, Middle Eastern, and Native American/Aboriginal/First Nations characters.

I’d love to see a Native American or Middle Eastern character (from a specific background; I’m being general here to include the many different cultures this could mean) in a futuristic/dystopian/SF novel, by the way. One that extrapolates how things are today and creates a new world with new problems. Something akin to Setsuna‘s world in Gundam 00 (does the future include peace in the Middle East? Has the balance of world power changed ala China’s influence in Serenity? (minus the no-Chinese-main-characters thing)), or something more culturally specific and less of the same generic New Age-y “Native American” discussed above than Chacotay. How might the world look to someone of a specific ethnicity in 200, 300, 400 years? Different from the mainstream because of their cultural background? Sublimated into the larger culture? Gone underground? Lost, even? In 400 years, will American culture be colorblind/accepting of all/dead/something else completely, and the issues people face be completely foreign to someone from our time? What about that same scenario, but in Iraq? And how would all that play out amidst changed technology?

Oh, the possibilities! Where is the Native American The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm?

* I wish I could find the link or at least the place I saw a link to guidelines the Australian government put out about writing using Aboriginal content, because it would probably raise some really great issues whether you’re dealing with that culture or another. If anyone knows what I’m talking about and has access to that link, can you share it?

Trusting your editorial gut

I missed most of last night’s #yalitchat on Twitter, but I caught just a few pithy remarks from editors and writers that I wanted to share with you all. It pins down what I’ve been trying to articulate to myself as an editor, and I think it will help writers to understand where editors are coming from.

The topic seemed to be mistakes we’ve made, either as writers or publishing people (I didn’t look at the schedule and haven’t gone back to the beginning of the posts, so someone in the know, please correct me if I’m wrong). Here’s the relevant part for us today:

Elana Roth (agent) said,

I’ve passed on things that needed SO MUCH work even though the concepts were great. Sometimes I wonder about those…

And in reply, Elizabeth Law (editor) said,

Me too. Learned years ago that if someone has great idea but can’t write it, I can’t rewrite the book for them.

Then she went on to quote Moss Hart:

Moss Hart said “In my life I’ve had many successes and many failures. Each success came for a different reason, but each failure came because I said ‘yes’ when I wanted to say ‘no.'”

One of the things I’ve grown a lot in, as an editor, over the last few months as I have gone back to reading the slush pile is refining the point at which I say no. It’s so easy for me to latch onto a good idea and want to develop it with the writer. And sometimes it’s worth it and will grow into a really great book that I can acquire, but there are two factors that I have to consider before I can ever get that far:

1) Am I really excited about it, or just think I should be because it’s a great concept? That is, does the voice hold up? Or do I continue to read because there’s so much wrong with it that I just can’t help myself wanting to “fix” it?

2) If like it, but have mixed feelings, often those mixed feelings are a sign that I should say no.

There has been the rare occasion where I’ve come across something so brilliant yet flawed that I agonize over whether it’s worth it to ask for a full or to work on it with the author. Often, that’s when the voice is gorgeous but some other aspect of the book needs work—something that I can help with, such as plot structure, characterization, or worldbuilding.

The ones that I have learned to turn down earlier and earlier are the ones in which the ideas—maybe even the worldbuilding—are great, but the voice is the problem. I can’t teach a writer through the editorial process how to be a better writer, how to reach the voice of their character more fully. I can’t spend my time on that when there are so many writers who have perfected their craft enough that the voice is perfect—exquisite, even—despite a few flaws in areas that can be discussed in an editorial letter.

Much as I’d like to help with voice, it’s really almost impossible for me to make editorial letter suggestions at the acquisitions level. I used to work with authors at earlier stages when I was freelancing, which is where suggestions for improvement can help voice eventually, if the writer is willing to do the work. But at the acquisitions stage, voice should mostly be decided. Oh, there might be a tweak suggestion here or there in line editing, or even suggestions for differentiating one character more from another, but the author needs to have perfected his or her craft of the overall narrative voice as much as possible. (Among all the other things you’re supposed to be perfect at!)

Going back to the Twitter discussions, that’s what I’d point out as my “mistake,” one that I’m constantly working to improve as I go through submissions: Refining my ability to say “no” earlier in the process for as many books as need it, so as to free up my time for concentrating more deeply on the possible yeses. I think I’m getting better at it. As Elizabeth said later, “I’m just learning to trust my gut, That’s all I’m saying.”

Yup. Even experienced editors are constantly learning how to be better at what they do.

Can you believe it’s been two months?

Spring is in the air. It’s been raining for the last several days, but it seems to be clearing up.

While there hasn’t been much to post about, I’ve been quite busy behind the scenes. The nice thing about starting a new imprint is the lack of interruption. I can read and read and read without worrying about copyedits, covers, marketing meetings, and other interruptions. However, that also means my day looks the same day in and day out for right now, which is rather boring for blog consumption. And sometimes you like your day being a bit broken up. It’s great to have all this time to read, but it’s also nice to have books in various stages, allowing you to switch up your day when one thing becomes too fatiguing.

So my days have mostly been read manuscript, write editorial letter, rinse, repeat. I’m slowly working my way through full manuscripts that I’ve requested, reading new partials, and hopefully working toward those first acquisitions. (By the way, if you haven’t heard back from me and have been wondering why, you’ll want to know that Lee & Low’s company policy is to only respond to submissions if we’re interested. I’m afraid the volume of submissions is such that it’s the only way to keep the workload manageable.)

Edited to add: Here’s a great illustration of what my days tend to look like to an outsider!

I also find it easier to post quick thoughts on Twitter rather than putting together full blog posts nowadays. I’ll continue to blog—and once we have acquired a book or two, I’ll definitely want to talk about them more in depth!—but if you want to have more frequent updates, you’re welcome to follow me on Twitter. I’m more likely to share publishing-related links there, because that’s where I often find them (and it’s quicker to retweet something in 140 characters or fewer via Tweetdeck than it is to go to the blog, sign in, click “new post,” figure out what commentary I might have on it, figure out what category it might fall under, and post a blog post). Of course, I might want to do that for a number of things, but posts that were link-heavy have mostly migrated to the Twitter form, at least for me.

Speaking of reading and reading, I just finished reading an awesome manuscript and needed a rest, but now it’s time to dive back into the piles of paper on my desk. Or back into the Sony Reader (which I should post about at some point—that’s something new for me that I haven’t mentioned here!), depending on which book I’m going to read next. I need to let my thoughts percolate a little while before diving into my notes for the previous book.

How are things in your neck of the woods? I haven’t been on LJ lately to read friends’ posts and I forget to read my RSS feeds often, so I’m afraid I’m quite behind on everyone’s doings! It’s hard to believe I’ve been in New York two months already, and it’s made me realize how tunnel-visioned I’ve been lately. But it’s been a good tunnel vision—I’ve had some really awesome books to read lately.

Cover art considerations

Justine Larbalestier’s new book, Liar, has been getting a lot of attention lately. When she first revealed the cover, I thought it was nice — striking image, interesting thing happening with the hair. But having never read the book, I didn’t realize that the main character describes herself as black, with short hair, and looking like a boy. So as you can imagine, with a cover like this, some controversy has erupted, starting with Editorial Anonymous. Publisher’s Weekly covered it today in their Children’s Bookshelf. And then the author came out with her response.

This discussion fascinates me from the editorial end. ETA: The reason why it fascinates me is not because I’m excusing what went on on the Bloomsbury end–either way, the end result was that the cover photo didn’t remotely represent the character. The reason the discussion fascinates me is that as an editor, I try to pay close attention to these things, making sure covers that feature the character match the character (see anecdote below on a time I screwed that up), and it’s an important subject that needs to be discussed. I just figured I was late to the party on something like this, given how so many people I know in publishing feel so strongly about diversity.

I’m not sure what was happening behind the scenes at Bloomsbury —  the editor commented to Publisher’s Weekly that the cover itself was intended to be a lie — but I do know how tough it can be for an editor to get the cover exactly right, something that will fit the contents of the book and sell the book to readers. After all, despite the maxim, many people do judge books by their covers, and the editor (in partnership with the art department) has to take the feedback of all the stakeholders like marketing and sales, to make sure that book buyers will love it, so that the book will get onto bookstore shelves, before readers even get a chance to see the book.

This controversy reminds me tangentially of why as an editor, when doing cover orders, I strive to make sure to accurately describe the character if that person will be on the cover (obviously, that’s moot when the cover depicts something else, like a symbol; other considerations are at work then). The reason that I work so hard at it is because of an incident early in my career, which was thankfully fixable before the book went to print, but embarrassing for me nonetheless. Vinod Rams is the excellent artist who illustrated all of the Dragonlance: The New Adventures covers and the Dragon Codex covers. He did a brilliant job with the cover of The Wayward Wizard, a now out-of-print book that kicked off Jeff Sampson’s Suncatcher Trilogy. (It’s SO good, and it’s so hard to find the first book that even I don’t have a copy, because I gave away my copy only to realize we couldn’t order more. Now they’re going for over $100 a piece on Amazon and Ebay).

The only problem? I had forgotten to specify in the art order that the friend Sindri meets in this book, Tayt, had copper-colored skin. Humans are all sorts of hues in Dragonlance, but many of the human characters are white, so it was something that Jeff had done specifically to diversify the story. Of course, in Dragonlance there are no “African Americans” or “Asians” because we’re in a fantasy world — wayward-wizardracial issues in Dragonlance tend to cut across human/dwarf/kender/elf/ogre/goblin/gnome lines rather than skin color — but Jeff had pictured her as looking somewhat like an average African American girl (I’m sure he had a specific picture in his head). In the art order, I included all sorts of details about her: she had close-cropped hair, she was lithe and slim and short for a human (though taller than Sindri, who is a kender — a halfling in Dragonlance) and the color of her eyes. But I forgot to specify her skin color! When we got the artwork back, it was lovely–but Jeff told me that Tayt was all wrong.

I was mortified–we couldn’t go back and change a finished painting. It would take too much time, and because of the nature of the mediums Vinod works in, it would require a whole new painting, which would not be in the budget. What could we do?

Well, the art department saved the day. They were able to alter her skin to be closer to the tone the author had imagined. Or at least, it worked for me–her skin was described in the text as the color of copper, if I remember right. She’s gorgeous, though I still worry that she wasn’t quite as Jeff had imagined. And I don’t blame him; it’s completely my fault that I didn’t pay enough attention to detail to make sure that I specified more about how she was supposed to look. ETA: Jeff tells me in the comments on my LJ that I was actually the one who caught it. I didn’t remember it that way at all! And he says he thinks Tayt looks perfect. So I’m even more glad that it all worked out!

I feel for Justine as she fields the controversy over her book, because as Jeff could testify, authors rarely have control over their books (most editors, myself included, ask authors for cover suggestions, but usually character descriptions aren’t part of this process because we generally already have those details in the book itself, as I did with The Wayward Wizard). As I said above, I have no idea what went on behind the scenes at Bloomsbury in deciding upon the cover; I won’t comment on that. I just know that it’s tough making sure that all the people with a say in the cover are happy (including everyone from big book buyers like B&N, who often will say that they’d buy more of a certain book if the publisher did thus-and-such with the cover, to the sales & marketing people, not to mention the author and the editor). I’ll be very interested to see how this conversation plays out over time.

ETA: Questions I’d love to hear addressed from the publishing end of things: I deleted the questions here, because they’re incomplete and it was making the entry wayyy long–see my next post for them.

Upcoming books by friends

For those of you who are RPG players or DMs, here’s a book for you. Back in April, I got the chance to line edit/copyedit X-treme Dungeon Mastery, a new book by bestselling fantasy author Tracy Hickman and his son, who is a magician in his own right, Curtis Hickman, and illustrated by Howard Tayler. It’s now available for pre-orders through the Tayler Corp. If you are familiar with Howard Tayler’s excellent webcomic Schlock Mercenary (and the books they publish from that content), you’ll already know about it. For those of you who don’t know the Taylers, well, you should.

The book is a hilarious and enlightening look at how to make your game nights more entertaining and fun for both the dungeon master and your players–including how to wow your players and bring the magic in your game to life with step-by-step instructions on a number of magic tricks. Howard’s excellent illustrations enliven the already-fun text. Here’s a taste of what you’ll learn, from the marketing copy:

Throw off your chains! Too long have your role-playing games been held in the bonds of substandard gamemasters, bound in needlessly complicated rule sets, and enslaved by players who will avoid doing anything unless it counts toward leveling up! It is time to take a stand!

Learn from the masters the ancient secrets of how to:

  • Become a certified XDM and impress dates (Do-it-yourself secret initiation rites included.)
  • Design epic adventures that tell stories.
  • Perform magical feats to amaze your players, and even make them disappear!
  • Employ actual combustion (yes, “fire,” and yes, it’s dangerous) to enhance your games!
  • Hijack any game as a player, and deal with any player revolution as an XDM!

God does not play dice with the universe. We do.


Also, for those of you who are writers, you’ll be interested to know that editor Cheryl Klein–she of the Arthur Levine imprint at Scholastic, who keeps an informative blog and whose writing advice is excellent–has announced that she’s going to collect her many helpful speeches into a book. She’s decided to self-publish this book (remember how we talked about how some projects lend themselves well to self-publishing?) and is raising the money for the initial print run through to make sure she has enough interest to pay for the project. I’m sure there are enough people in this world who would love to have a copy of her wisdom in a collected form (especially talks that have not been shared on her website), so if you’re interested in getting a copy of the book or just want to support the project, wander on over to Cheryl’s post explaining the details, and she’ll link you to her project page.


I’m forgetting someone. There was someone else’s book I wanted to plug here, but it’ll have to wait for another post when I remember. Instead, I will just tell you that I’m in the middle of (finally) reading The Hunger Games, and BOY is it good. I bought the book way back in February or March, but was so busy I hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. Then I took it to the seminar I taught in March to use as an example of a great opening line (I had gotten that far), and then when the seminar was over, I brought my big tote bag of books home but never got around to putting the books back on the shelves. I spent most of May and June wondering if I’d dreamed buying the book! Thankfully–because I was in the bookstore mulling over whether to buy it a week before–I’d put the book down to wait for the King’s English’s sale a few days later and then never made it back up to Salt Lake to buy it, because in preparing for my seminar last week I finally found the book at the bottom of that tote bag from March.

Whew! So now I’m reading it, and though I’ll save a real review until after I’ve actually finished it, I just have to say–she already had me tearing up in the first three chapters! It’s that good.

Another post on self-publishing

Today the #followreader conversation on Twitter covers self-publishing, and I just wrote this post to the Utah Children’s Writers list in answer to a similar question, so I’m reproducing it here for a wider audience:

I think you could pretty much group everyone’s comments on what someone who self-publishes has to do under the umbrella of “you’re the publisher.” That means you take on ALL the roles that a publisher does, without the clout a mainstream publisher has. That means you’re no longer just the writer — all the pre-production and production issues are yours (editing, copyediting, proofreading, design, interior and cover artwork, administrative tasks like ISBNs (beware a vanity publisher who says they’ll get your ISBN — often they’re getting it in THEIR name, not yours, which causes problems in  reprints if you get that far), copyright registration, getting quotes from printers and other vendors, etc.), and then the marketing, PR, sales, and distribution are a major hurdle that you’re handling yourself as well. As many have already noted, you’re not going to get your book in most bookstores unless you have several books, and the quality of the book in presentation and editing are always going to be an issue.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some great self-published books out there — look at Schlock Mercenary and several other webcomic artists’ books. But they definitely fall in a niche — a niche for which they already had a built-in audience from the webcomic of tens of thousands of fans. If you don’t already have an audience in place, it’s definitely something you’ll have to consider, because building an audience for most books, at least fiction, tends to be easier through a mainstream publisher.

Again, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible, but it is definitely daunting. It’s daunting for me as I start my small press, because I’m taking on a lot of these roles myself, roles that when I worked with a larger publisher were delegated to other employees. I will have to use all these kinds of skills — skills tha t I’ve gained through working in a publisher —  and be very active on the selling end (going to shows, etc.) until we get at least five books out because no distributor will even look at a small press who isn’t a self-publisher until you have at least five titles out.

The stigma against self-publishing in the publishing world is simply that with all that up against the average self-publisher — and nowadays the average self-publisher *tends* to be the kind of person who insists they know publishing better than the experts, despite never having worked on either side of publishing as a writer or editor/other publishing staff — few people have the expertise to manage all those roles and come out with a well-written, well-edited, well-designed book that also sells well. Heck, it’s hard enough to do it when you’ve got a team of experts on your side.

Now, when I said “the average self-publisher” that often rules out anyone who’s doing their research, like networking through lists like this and so on. Already you’ve got more knowledge than the literally millions of self-publishers out there — most people who go to self-publishing honestly think that’s how a book gets published. I had an old roommate, who knew I was an editor, ask me how much it costs to get a book published by Random House — she honestly thought you had to pay to be published, and without more information, would probably have ended up going with a scam.

The reason why the number of books published every year is so large is because of all those self-published books. Few can stand out from a crowd in the sea of all those books. But the ones that do know how to capitalize on the skills everyone’s talking about here. And it can be a very good option for all the reasons Rick and several others have mentioned here. I know an author who just wanted a copy of the book to hand to her daughter at a certain age, so she decided to self-publish her picture book. For that goal, it succeeded. She hasn’t succeeded in selling out her print run, but the emotional reason was more important to her at that time, and she has other books she’s writing for the traditional publishing route. Certainly family and local histories have a limited, niche audience, and self-publishing can be a great boon for those kinds of stories. Self-help nonfiction, as someone mentioned here, can do very well in self-publishing because of all the opportunities to use your platform at conferences and such to sell the book, especially if you’re already an expert in your field. I’ve heard the same about real estate and finance kinds of books — again, those are authors with built-in audiences, so the books will probably sell themselves.

But the thing to remember as you consider self-publishing is whether you truly want to take on the roles of the entire staff of experts — or if you don’t want to do it yourself, if you want to enlist the help of independent experts (there are a lot of freelance editors out there who would be glad to help, but as Rick said, good help doesn’t come cheap — I myself charge $50 an  hour for a developmental edit of a full manuscript) or if you have family members with these skills. It’s definitely possible, but it’s a whole lot easier to have a team of experts who are paying *you* to work on your book.

Keep in mind that the Eragons of the world are literally one in a million. There are a million books out there, wanting the limited attention span of the audience you’re trying to reach. It’s definitely wise to consider whether you can and want to take on all the roles necessary to really capture that attention. If you do, go for it. If you don’t, keep going for a regular publisher, working on getting your polished book into the right hands at the right time — and they’ll have that team of experts ready to go at the right time.

Sorry if this appears pessimistic. I may have been the editor at last year’s WIFYR that someone said told them that “all” self-published books are bad. If it was me, I believe I was misquoted. As I said above, *many*–not all, but MANY–self-published books tend to be of a low quality simply because the author doing the publisher is a *writer*–not any of the other roles that you have to fill to publish a book. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s always best to consider these things and consider how they’ll affect the end product of your book.