Editor Interview: Stacy Whitman of Mirrorstone Books (an imprint of Wizards of the Coast)

Stacy Whitman is the associate editor for Mirrorstone Books, the new children’s and young adult imprint at Wizards of the Coast. Mirrorstone is seeking to publish fantasy of all sorts, from quest fantasy to dark urban fantasy to alternate world fantasy, magical realism to fairy tales. The imprint also is looking for other types of speculative fiction (such as horror/suspense and science fiction with both boy and girl appeal). The focus will be on older fiction, not picture books.

What made you decide to make children’s book editing your career focus?

It was actually a roundabout process. My first major in college was animal science–I wanted to become a veterinarian for horses. But due to a number of circumstances, I later changed my major to human development and family studies. All this while, I had been working my way through college at textbook typesetting, newspaper reporting, editing phone books, and other publishing-related jobs.

It wasn’t until I took a children’s literature class as an elective in college that it hit me–I could combine my ability as an editor with my love for children’s books, which would suit my talents more than becoming a social worker might. I’d be involved in helping with child development from a perspective that I’d enjoy. From there, it was just the matter of finding the right opportunities.

How did you prepare for this career?

In my last year of college, I took editing courses and an editing internship through the English department, even though I wasn’t an English major. I also joined a student publication, Leading Edge, and read science fiction and fantasy slush, to get fiction experience. Basically, I was willing to do whatever volunteer work or low-paying internships I could get to get experience.

After graduation, I worked as an editor for a trade magazine and joined SCBWI Illinois [Chicago area], writing a little of my own YA novel on the side for fun, while preparing for graduate school. I got a master’s in children’s literature from Simmons College in Boston to help round out my knowledge of the field, as well as to network in the field and figure out how to get a job.

While at Simmons, I also temped at Houghton Mifflin in the school division, and that led to getting a full time job editing social studies textbooks. My last year of grad school, I was an intern at the Horn Book Magazine and Guide for a semester, then worked at a bookseller the next semester. All that experience, along with my graduate studies, made the difference in helping me become a well-rounded candidate for the job I was eventually offered.

What do you see as the job(s) of the editor in the publishing process?

My job is to help the author mold their book into the best book it can be. I aid both storytelling and wordsmithing–reeling the reader in with a great plot and fully developed characters, and refining the prose that story is told in. From finding new talent to helping established authors promote their work, I’m there for the whole process as a guide and a mentor at times, and at times a cajoler.

Books are such a strange business. To write is to share one’s deep inner thoughts, which is a very emotional process, but the book is a product that must sell for a publisher to stay in business. I’m the liaison between those competing ideas.

What attracts you to speculative and/or fantasy fiction? What is its enduring appeal for children and teens?

I’m going to answer both of these at once, because I think it’s the same answer. For me, fantasy tells stories in a way that realism can’t. It’s both a metaphor and an escape. When I was a teen, the last thing I wanted to read about was real life–I had enough of that going on around me. While I love realism in many ways and think it has its place in the literary world, I was the kind of teen who needed something different.

For me, it’s the possibilities. The idea that it would be so cool to be able to fly, or to have some mutant power, or to be able to move things with your mind–I thought they were fascinating when I was young, and I still do. There’s a deeper level to it, as well-the challenges that characters in a fantasy novel face can also be metaphorically interpreted to parallel anything that the reader is facing, and often gives hope.

How does a new fantasy imprint stand out in a Harry Potter world?

We’re still relatively new to the children’s books world, but we have a wealth of experience behind us. Wizards of the Coast has been publishing bestselling fantasy books for an adult audience for over twenty years. We know fantasy like no other.

Beyond the description above, could you be more specific about what you are looking for? What is your vision for the list?

We’re still quite new, and we’re still evolving. We have a chapter book magical time travel series coming out this fall called Time Spies by Candice Ransom (Mirrorstone, 2006)[Book 1 is titled Secret of the Tower], which we’re very excited about, and next year we launch our first historical dark fantasy series for older teens beginning with In the Serpent’s Coils by Tiffany Trent (Mirrorstone, 2007). So we’re looking to serve a breadth of readership from 6 on up, and to do that, we’re looking for sharp new ideas that knock our socks off.

As many have noted about fantasy in the adult genre, a lot of fantasy tends to tread the same ground. We’re looking for innovative new worlds, inventive magic systems, and characters our readers will care about. For example, I’m particularly fond of fairy tale retellings, but there have been so many in the last decade or so that I’d like to see an entirely new take on the subgenre, or a tale that no one has retold before. These things can be done in all the different subgenres of fantasy.

The books you currently see on the shelves with the Mirrorstone imprint (Star Sisterz, Knights of the Silver Dragon, Dragonlance: The New Adventures) are series books, which are just the beginning of our program (more on series books below). Now we’re acquiring shorter series and standalone novels in addition to those longer series.

Will you be publishing original hardcover fiction and/or original paperbacks? Will the work be more literary or mass market?

All our books to date have been paperbacks. We’ve heard from many librarians and booksellers that kids prefer paperback because it costs less and it’s less heavy to lug around than a hardcover. That doesn’t mean we don’t intend our books to be literary, however. I’ve heard from many readers that they’re surprised at how good the Dragonlance: The New Adventures or Star Sisterz books are, because they expected a series paperback to be pretty bad. We want to tell good stories that kids will enjoy, and to do that, the writing must be excellent as well as the story.

We will make a few forays into the hardcover arena, though. Our first hardcover is a special book coming out this fall called A Practical Guide to Dragons by Sindri Suncatcher (Mirrorstone, 2006). Sindri is one of the characters in the Dragonlance: The New Adventures series. As readers will find out in The Wayward Wizard by Jeff Sampson (Mirrorstone, 2006)[Suncatcher Trilogy, Volume 1], Sindri’s magical powers really shouldn’t exist–kender (short people with short attention spans) can’t do magic. The Practical Guide is the result of Sindri’s studies with his mentor, the black-robed wizard Maddoc. It details every dragon in the imaginary world of Krynn, from their eating habits to beautifully illustrated pictures of their lairs to their life cycle.

We also have a short story anthology planned for 2008, to be edited by Steve Berman, a longtime writing friend of Holly Black (author interview). The anthology will showcase some of our existing authors, and bring in stories from authors whose work we admire and want to work with someday.

As far as literary vs. mass market, I’d like to see both on our list. Some books that aren’t considered terribly literary are just the books that will get some kid reading. But as we reach a more sophisticated teen audience, they’ll want to read a good story that’s also a little more lyrical.

Are you interested in series or trilogies? If so, how would an author pitch these to you?

Certainly! Authors can pitch a series or trilogy by sending us the first three chapters and a chapter-by-chapter outline of the first book, and a proposal that outlines where the rest of the series will go. See our submission guidelines.

What are the particular challenges in marketing fantasy for young readers?

Children’s literature is the only genre written by people who aren’t its target audience. A lot of “gatekeeper” adults filter the literature before it reaches a child’s hands-booksellers, teachers, librarians, parents, editors, writers. So our challenge is to help those gatekeepers love our books as much as we love them, to create stories that kids will love even after being recommended by an adult. It’s a disconnect that will always be with us-the way we remember our childhoods probably doesn’t reflect the way a child today lives, so we always have to find a way to appeal to an adult whose memory of childhood doesn’t necessarily match up with a modern child’s experience.

Will most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or from agents?

Right now, most of our manuscripts come from writers, and I like it that way. I like being able to help shape a new author, which is a luxury to many in the industry. But I’m open to pitches from agents, too.

What recommendations do you have to individual writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

The most important thing is to know your genre. If you want to write for children or young adults, know your audience and read the other books out there. I’ve listed a few–just the very beginning–below.

The second most important thing is to read the publisher’s guidelines before you submit. When I first started my job, I had a slush pile of about 100 manuscripts waiting for me. A good 50 of those manuscripts were picture books, which we specifically stated in our guidelines that we don’t publish. Don’t think that you’re an exception, and don’t just send off manuscripts willy-nilly. That’s a good way to annoy an editor from the get-go. Watch out for interviews like this, conferences at which an editor will appear, and listen to what they say they want.

The fact that a potential author is reading this blog is a good start to that education. Going to sites like Harold Underdown‘s The Purple Crayon, talking to your local teen librarian, and getting involved in your local SCBWI chapter are also great ways to get to know the business of children’s books.

I prefer submission letters to be short and to the point. Tell me who you are, perhaps give me a brief summary of your book and your writing credentials, but don’t worry about hooks and gimmicks. If your writing doesn’t speak for itself at this point, wait to submit until you’ve perfected your craft.

What titles would you especially recommend for study to authors interested in working with the house and why?

There are so many!

My short answer is every great fantasy for children and young adults out there.

My long answer is… long. Let me sum up. The answer would depend upon the particular book the person wanted to write.

If someone wants to write for our shared-world Dragonlance: The New Adventures, be sure be familiar with the books in the series (see the full list). Also, it’s important to have read the original Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (Wizards of the Coast, 2000).

If you’re interested in writing for middle grade, look at titles like The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (Simon & Schuster, 1999), Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins, 1997)(author interview), Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (Hyperion, 2001), or The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley (Simon & Schuster, 1999)(author interview). Oh, and Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2005). But there are so many good titles out there–when you’ve read those, go on to Robin McKinley and Donna Jo Napoli and Kevin Crossley-Holland and Diana Wynne Jones…and so on.

For YA, I again recommend Robin McKinley–especially The Blue Sword (Ace, 1987) and The Hero and the Crown (Ace, 1987). Tithe and Valient by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster, 2002, 2005), A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2003)(author interview)(excerpt), The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint (Viking, 2004), Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (HarperCollins, 1986), the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix (HarperCollins, 1995, 2001, 2003), Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2003)… Again, I could go on and on. There are so many great books out there, each one telling a unique story that resonates with their audiences.

The reasons I list these books is because they’re examples of how fantasy is done well. Each author creates fascinating characters and takes those characters on a journey through new and exciting worlds. Perhaps there are otherworldly creatures in the world, perhaps not. Perhaps the story draws upon mythology or fairy tales and puts a modern twist on them. Perhaps it’s an alternate world with its own mythology.

There’s a place for the traditional high fantasy with elves, dwarves, and dragons (we publish some of them and love them!), but I also want to see books that seize upon an idea completely unlike what’s come before–or at least, only resembling it in that it uses motifs or creatures we’ve seen before, but now we see them in a new context, interacting with completely different beings.

I would also suggest potential authors read books like Anita Silvey‘s 100 Best Books for Children (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). Anita is an expert in children’s publishing and her opinion on each of the books will help potential authors see why a former editor loves particular books. Then go ahead and read the ones that sound most like something you want to write.

In what ways do you work with teachers and librarians in support of your titles and their efforts?

One of the things I love about fantasy is that it connects with reluctant readers in a way that much other fiction doesn’t. As a library volunteer tutor, I’ve worked with students who are first learning to read, either because they’re in first grade or because English is a new language to them, or both. I know how important finding the right book for each kid is, because especially at that age, helping kids enjoy reading will help them become lifelong readers.

Series books in particular help newly proficient readers gain proficiency and confidence. There’s a reason why I loved Trixie Belden as a third and fourth grader, and it wasn’t just because the characters were cool and the mysteries always exciting. It was because I could come back to these characters again and again, revisiting their world and daydreaming that I could be a part of it. I liked that Trixie and her friends weren’t static, but that each book allowed them to grow a little older and for their relationships to change over time. All that while, I was building my reading proficiency in a place I felt safe.

To that end, we’ve created Reluctant Reader kits for librarians, teachers, and homeschoolers that contain tools to assist their efforts to help kids love books. The kits contain teachers’ guides, reading lists, bookmarks, a list of online resources for parents and educators, and a guide for starting a book club. We offered them free at ALA last year, and have an updated version that will be available this summer (look for our booth at ALA, or email for more information). Last year’s kits are available in PDF form, but the new kits will also include one copy of each book for
libraries to add to their collections.

How about booksellers?

Our books are distributed through Random House, and they serve as our primary liaison to booksellers. As a new imprint, we are very eager for bookseller feedback and Random House has been a wonderful partner in helping us present our books in a way that will best support the bookselling community. We encourage all of our authors to work with their local booksellers to schedule signings and readings in their communities.

Our senior editor, Nina Hess, and I spend lots of time in our local bookstores talking to booksellers, seeing what’s hot (and what’s not), and what’s missing from the children’s/YA fantasy genre.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

Seattle is a great city to live in, especially during the summer. Though I would have enjoyed the multiple cultural opportunities and the great public transportation had I found a job in a New York house, I love that Seattle is literally riddled with bike trails, and that I have both the mountains and the beach within minutes’ drive–and the ocean a few hours farther. So I do a lot of biking, I knit, I watch science fiction movies with friends. I go camping a few times every summer, which is another reason I love Seattle. I’ll even be judging a 4-H county fair this summer, which is exciting for me as a former 4-Her. And… I read YA fantasy. No, my job doesn’t wear me. That love of YA fantasy is what made me want the job in the first place!