2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Editors Kendra Levin of Viking & Natalie Doherty of Penguin Random House

Kendra Levin

By Patti Buff
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: SCBWI Germany & Austria Regional Advisor Patti Buff interviewed Kendra Levin and Natalie Doherty about the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan Conference. This is the third in a series of six articles.

Kendra Levin is an Executive Editor at Viking Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, where she has spent 11 years working on a wide range of children’s literature from picture books to young adult novels.

She has edited Theodor Seuss Geisel award winner Don’t Throw It to Mo! by David A. Adler, illustrated by Sam Ricks (Penguin Young Readers, 2015) Society of Illustrators Gold Award winner The Lost House by B.B. Cronin (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2016), and the work of authors including Janet Fox, Julie Berry, Alwyn Hamilton, and others.

Kendra also helps writers as a teacher and certified life coach, and is the author of The Hero is You: Sharpen Your Focus, Conquer Your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be (Conari Press, 2016), a grounded self-help guide to a healthier writing process. She’ on Twitter @kendralevin.

Natalie Doherty

Natalie Doherty is Commissioning Editor for Fiction at Penguin Random House Children’s.

She began her publishing career in Rights and Contracts at Hodder, and moved into Editorial – and into children’s publishing – in 2010.

Since then she has acquired, edited and published a large number of wonderful and hard-working authors, including Robin Stevens (the Murder Most Unladylike series), R.J. Palacio (Wonder), Tom Fletcher (The Christmasaurus) and Moira Fowley-Doyle (The Accident Season).

As a lifelong fan, she is privileged to be Jacqueline Wilson’s editor.

First off, thank you both so much for taking the time out of your busy schedules for this interview. 

As you know, the theme of this year’s SCBWI Europolitan Conference is Pens, Pencils and Partnerships. Could you explain first the variety of partnerships an editor has during the life of a book and second how these partnerships contribute to making the best book possible?






Kendra: The collaborative nature of being an editor might be my favorite aspect of the job.

As an editor, you really are the author’s partner in creating the best possible finished book, and the best author-editor relationships are those that benefit from a shared level of trust and respect. A book has the potential to be so much better if both author and editor listen to one another and build on each other’s ideas.

For an author, the primary partnerships are with your editor and your agent, and sometimes your art director, but an editor needs every person in the entire book-creation chain to work in partnership.

So that level of trust and respect needs to be present in the relationship between the editor and art director, designer, copyeditor, managing editor, the production folks, the people drawing up the contracts, the marketing team, the sales force, the folks in subsidiary rights—anyone whose hands touches the book needs to work in partnership with the editor to create a finished product that matches the author’s vision, or comes as close to it as possible, and to get it out in the world and into readers’ hands.

Kendra’s bookshelf

It’s also very important for the editor and publisher—the editor’s boss—to have a relationship built on trust and respect. Just the way the editor advocates for the book, a good publisher advocates for both the book and the editor, paving the way for the book, the author’s future career, and the editor’s other books all in one fell swoop.

Editors’ relationships with their colleagues are also an important part of the process. I can’t speak for every publishing company, but Viking is an extremely collaborative imprint and I can’t think of a single book I’ve edited that didn’t get some input from one of my fellow Viking editors at some point during the process. This sharing strengthens the books, unquestionably.

Really, you could say that creating strong partnerships is at the very core of being an editor. And it’s what makes the job fun for me: that opportunity to swap complementary skills and make art together.

Natalie: I would completely echo Kendra’s point about the mutual trust and respect needed in all the partnerships in the publishing process. It’s so vital.

As an editor, you’re responsible for seeking out the books and projects that will shape the list, shape

the company’s reputation – and on a purely day-to-day level, that influence how you and your colleagues will spend their working day.

That’s one of the reasons editors are so careful and selective about new acquisitions. Every time it happens, it’s a huge decision. You’re asking your colleagues to place a huge amount of trust in your taste and vision – particularly if there’s not very much material to go on, or what you want to buy needs a huge amount of editorial work.

Natalie’s bookshelf

Similarly, I love knowing that I can trust my colleagues to use all their skill, talent, knowledge, creativity and passion to help bring a book I love to life. The best publishing teams are full of individuals who have a shared purpose and passion, and who will trust one another to use their individual expertise in the best possible way.

I’m not a designer, for instance, and I’m not very good at picturing what a cover might look like, even when I know the plot and the characters inside out. But I love sitting down with a member of our brilliant design team to discuss a story, to look at mood boards or artwork samples, and then waiting to see what magic they work with whatever brief we’ve settled on together.

Patti: I’m glad you both mention trust as one of the main factors in a successful partnership as I also find that a vital part of any partnership. Another way of interpreting the conference title is that the pen represents the author and the pencil the editorial team. In your experience, how important is it for both parties to share the same vision? What are some of the challenges to reaching a shared vision?


Kendra: When I’m considering acquiring a manuscript, I nearly always ask the agent if I can have a phone call with the author, mainly because I want to see if we do have the same vision for the project.

If we don’t, no matter how much I love the piece, I’m probably not the right editor for it. As a writer, it is your right to have an editor who completely gets what you are trying to do and who wants to help you take it there—not someone who has a great idea about a direction it could go in that may be interesting but isn’t in alignment with your vision.

This doesn’t mean you should have an editor who just tells you what you want to hear. But when your editor tells you something that’s hard to hear, it should be because deep down, a part of you knew all along that this aspect of the piece wasn’t working, but another part of you hoped you could sort of rearrange the furniture over it and nobody would notice.

It’s your editor’s job to notice those spots that need a more thorough going-over—one that you’re totally capable of once you sit down and do the work.

More of Natalie’s bookshelf

Natalie: Like Kendra, I would almost always want to speak to an author when I’m considering acquiring a new manuscript. (It’s even better to meet an author in person, although of course it’s not always possible, depending on where the author is.).

It’s really important for both parties to find out if you share that vision – it can be a painful process if you don’t.

A sign for me that I’m really excited about any new project is an itchiness to start scribbling down questions about a storyline, or thinking about ways a story could be reshaped or tweaked in some way – a vision, as Kendra says, about what its very best form could be.

It’s really important that you both want to the take story in the same direction, so it’s always so important to be honest at that moment.

Of course, when you get into the nuts and bolts of the edit, later down the line, you almost always stumble across details you might not agree on – but the big, overarching vision for the project needs to be one you share.

I also like to talk to authors about the publishing journey and what else being an author entails, aside
from the writing part. Touring, school events, festivals and social media are not for everyone, and we would never ask an author to put themselves in a situation where they don’t feel comfortable. But those things are increasingly important in children’s publishing – they’ve made a huge difference to the success of someone like Robin Stevens, who has worked incredibly hard to promote her books – so it’s an important thing to discuss at that early stage.

Robin Stevens at the Royal Ballet School

I’m also looking for a spark of chemistry from that first meeting. The author-editor partnership might last for years, even decades – one of our wonderful publishers, Annie Eaton, has worked with some authors, including Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman, for over twenty-five years. It really helps when you think, ‘I like this person and I’d love to work with them!’

Patti: I have to laugh about authors rearranging the furniture in order to hide flaws as I think that is so common and although authors may hope no one will notice and that they will get away with it, deep down I think we really do want an editor to point out those flaws so we can fix them. Both of you work with a fairly large editorial team. How closely does the team work together in pulling together a list of titles to be published? And if several editors work together on a project, how does that change the editing process?

Natalie’s desk

Natalie: We’re a large team, but we’re a very tight-knit and collaborative team, and we work very closely together on shaping our list and acquiring new titles.

Every potential new acquisition is shared and discussed with the whole fiction team, before the decision is made to take it to an Acquisitions meeting, with every editor – from Publishing Director to Editorial Assistant – having the opportunity to share their thoughts.

Our editorial discussions are rigorous and thorough – no one is ever afraid to challenge someone, or to be really honest – but it’s always respectful and supportive.

One really key part of making a large team work is knowing one another’s tastes very well, and we tend to share submissions with other editors within the team based on who we feel will be the perfect fit for a particular voice or story.

Agents often ask us how they can be sure of submitting a manuscript to the right editor.

We always try to be clear about what we’re looking for as individual editors, and we’ve recently created a guide to each editor that describes our editorial tastes and the books we’ve acquired previously, which will hopefully be helpful. But whenever we do receive a submission, we always think hard about whether we’re necessarily the right person to take it on, and if there’s someone else in the team who we know is falling over themselves to publish a new middle-grade fantasy about dragons (for example!), then we’ll always pass it on.

Kendra’s desk

Kendra: Viking is collaborative in much the same way. Penguin Random House in the U.S. is a bit more siloed than it is in the U.K., at least for now—Penguin and Random are still in separate buildings in different neighborhoods, and the children’s divisions of each part of the company have their own leadership and their own atmosphere.

Penguin Young Readers Group is big, maybe 200 people, but each imprint is independent in many ways and has its own culture, and if there’s one adjective I’d use to describe Viking’s editorial culture, it’s “collaborative” (followed closely by “karaoke-loving”).

We know one another’s tastes pretty well and are always happy to pass projects along if they seem like a better fit for someone else. And we’re always happy to brainstorm and offer advice to one another.

Natalie: Fairly often, editors will work in pairs.

A brilliant Editorial Assistant, Tom Rawlinson, now works with me on our Robin Stevens publishing, and we constantly bounce ideas off one another for titles, cover copy, editorial suggestions, troubleshooting, and new ways to reach more readers with Robin’s books.

It’s a fantastic way for new editors to hone their skills and to be exposed to conversations about publishing strategy.

And it’s double the creativity, double the passion, double the brainpower – and for the author, it’s double the in-house support.

Patti: A tag team of editors sounds both lovely and scary at the same time, but I can see how the pros would outweigh the cons. And speaking of tag teams, I’ve heard both of you are working on a project together. Could you tell us a little about it and what some of the challenges and benefits have been to working cross-continentally?

Natalie: I’m very lucky to be working on the brilliant second novel by Martin Stewart, The Sacrifice Box (Penguin, Jan. 2018).

Martin’s first novel, Riverkeep, received extraordinary reviews, and was one of my favourite books of 2016 – so when his editor Shannon Cullen went on maternity leave and I was given the chance to work with Martin in her absence, I felt like I’d won the author jackpot.

It’s an incredibly atmospheric story about a group of five kids who discover a mysterious stone box in the forest one summer, and decide to each place a personal item inside it – a teddy bear, a diary, etc – as a promise of friendship to one another.

Cut to four years later, when the group has grown apart – and suddenly their sacrifices begin coming back to haunt them. Think Stephen King meets Stranger Things, with a hint of Patrick Ness and Neil Gaiman. I absolutely love it.

This has been my first experience of working with the brilliant Viking team and it’s been a real treat.

Kendra and her colleagues Ken Wright and Leila Sales read the manuscript alongside me, and we then had a phone call to discuss our thoughts and what we wanted to suggest to Martin.

Having more than one pair of eyes on a story at an early stage can be hugely productive – you’re all invested in wanting to make the book as strong as it possibly can, and you’ll all have ideas for areas of improvement that will almost certainly be helpful to the author. You’re also much more likely to spot plot problems!

A challenge when working in this way can sometimes be that one editor feels very strongly about a certain point – a character isn’t working/is a creation of genius, a plot point doesn’t make sense, etc – and the other feels quite differently. Obviously, editing is often such a subjective process and there usually isn’t a right or wrong answer.

Another challenge around cross-continental editing can be that in one part of the world, a particular topic, detail or even phrase might not be familiar to a reader, whereas a reader in another country might have no problems with it at all. In these situations, I like to talk everything through in detail and ask lots of questions, and aim to get to a point where I think we’re both comfortable with what we’re going to put to the author.

With The Sacrifice Box, I wrote a detailed editorial letter which I then shared with Kendra’s team for their approval and input, and then sent to Martin. When the new draft comes in, we’ll again talk about our thoughts and ideas.

Our U.K. team works closely with our U.S. counterparts at Penguin Random House (PRH) on a number of authors and titles, from Roald Dahl and John Green to Nicola Yoon and Jennifer Niven.

I work with a number of U.S.-based authors who are also published by PRH U.S., including R J Palacio (Wonder, Knopf, 2012) and Lauren Wolk (Wolf Hollow, Dutton, 2016). I also work very closely with Kathy Dawson at PRH U.S. on Irish writer Moira Fowley-Doyle (The Accident Season, 2016).

Co-editing does not always happen, depending on a number of factors: whether an author has an existing and very strong relationship with one editor; whether there’s physically time in the schedule; etc. But when it’s possible, it can be hugely rewarding, productive and creative.

Kendra: I’ve now had the pleasure of co-editing a number of projects with U.K. editors, many of which were PRH collaborations, and they always leave me feeling like I’ve just taken a course to refresh my skills. I learn so much from having another set of eyes on the manuscript and getting to see another editor’s perspective, and I’m certain the books are stronger for it.

Puffin U.K. editor Shannon Cullen and I edited an entire six-book series together, and I shudder to think what it would’ve turned out like without her insights! We’ve really come to rely on one another.

Plus, it’s so much more fun to have a partner in crime. It’s like going from being an only child to having a sibling—somebody else who knows the author the way only the editor can!

Patti: That does sounds like a lot of fun and I can’t wait to read The Sacrifice Box (by Martin Stewart, Penguin, 2018) when it comes out. Was there a partnership in your work you didn’t expect to develop before you became an editor, either within house or without? And did that help you grow as an editor in any way?


Kendra: Before I became an editor, I didn’t know how closely I would wind up working with
designers and art directors, and that has been a wonderful learning experience in so many ways.

I always feel a little insecure around designers because, unlike editors, they actually went to school for training in the specific area in which they now work. Editors come from all kinds of disciplines—I’ve known editors who majored in, beyond the common English or creative writing, psychology, anthropology, all different kinds of disciplines including playwriting/screenwriting, my own major in college. Editing is an apprenticeship-learned job.

Designers learn by apprenticeship, too, but after four years of training in their field. So they come into the role with very different qualifications than editors have, and a totally different knowledge base. I’m fascinated by learning from them and seeing how they do their work.

Natalie: Agreed – the partnership between editorial and design is so important, and I also hadn’t realized how closely I’d work with designers before I became an editor.

I also love the close collaboration between an editor and a publicist – it’s especially important when you’re launching a debut. I’m always amazed by our publicity team’s passion and creativity, and I love seeing all the inventive ways they take a new book and run with it.

Patti: I’m so glad you both mentioned designers as I’m always amazed at how a great cover feels like the perfect match to a story as though one couldn’t exist without the other. Finishing up, is there a question on partnerships you wished I’d asked? If so, what?

Kendra: Well, another partnership I think is interesting is the one between the agent and editor.

The agent is, at the heart of things, loyal to the author; the editor is, at the heart of things, loyal to the
company that employs the editor. But in practice, both typically want what’s best for the author and the book. Because of this, sometimes the partnership is easy and sometimes it can become oppositional or even antagonistic.

Agent Gemma Cooper with Natalie

The agents I love to work with don’t see me as an enemy; they see us as allies trying to get the book and author the best possible care, which is truly what I want. The agents who try to make everything into a fight, I’m disinclined to work with again.

Natalie: I couldn’t agree more with this!

In the best scenarios, I see the agent as a key part of the same team – someone who I can get on the phone with at any time of day to share good news and exciting updates, but also problems or disappointing updates.

My favourite agents are the ones who I can talk to honestly about any challenges we’re facing, and who will work with me to reach a solution. It can be difficult and disheartening working with agents who are constantly critical or negative.

Having said that, I have so much respect for agents who question the decisions of a publishing house at the right moments. They sometimes make life a bit harder, but it’s always good to be challenged – especially if they force you to reassess your plans and realize there might be an even better approach to a problem than the one you had in mind.

Patti: How interesting to hear about this from an editor’s point of view! I think it’s good to remember that not all partnerships can be smooth all the time and that there will be bumps in the road. What’s important is what happens afterwards. And finally, I’d like to end with something a bit more practical. Is there one piece of advice you would give authors about how to prepare for working with an editor/editorial team?

Natalie: Be open. I love working with authors who are open to ideas, suggestions and questions.

Editing can be a sensitive process sometimes; editorial letters can look long, daunting, and negative, and I have a huge amount of respect for any writer who’s willing to share their work and receive comments and criticisms from an editor – I can imagine it must feel like baring a bit of your soul.

But being published is a partnership, and any good editor only ever has the book and the author’s best interests at heart – we’re always on the same team and we both want to make the book as brilliant as it can possibly be. So I’m always appreciative of an author who will listen to my thoughts, read my suggestions, consider them seriously, and enter into a conversation about them with me – even if they decide they disagree with me about some points, which is always absolutely fine by me.

I’d never dream of forcing through changes that an author isn’t happy with.

Kendra: I completely agree! Being open doesn’t mean doing everything your editor tells you to do—we don’t want you to agree to anything that doesn’t feel right to you.

As Viking’s longtime publisher Regina Hayes used to say, know which hills you want to die on—pick the points that you feel very strongly about and, if you and your editor disagree, you can find a way to preserve what’s essential to you. But don’t try to die on every single hill or both you and your editor will get battle-weary very quickly!

Cynsational Notes


The tenth child out of eleven in a family that took in hundreds of foster kids, Patti Buff learned early that if she wanted some peace and quiet she better put her nose in a book. A native Minnesotan, she now lives in disgustingly beautiful Germany with her husband and two teenagers.

Her YA novel Requiem was recently featured in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2016 anthology. Due to that, she was lucky enough to snag Hannah Sheppard of DHH Literary as an agent. Patti’s newest book, No Direction Home is now on submission.

Patti is also the Regional Advisor of SCBWI Germany & Austria and is on Twitter @pattibuff.

Cover Reveal & Interview: Author Ashley Hope Pérez & Editor Andrew Karre on Out of Darkness

By Ashley Pérez and Andrew Karre
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the promotional copy of Out of Darkness (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner, Sept. 2015):

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them.


“No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs.”


They know the people who enforce them.


“They all decided they’d ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit.”


But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.


“More than grief, more than anger, there is a need. Someone to blame. Someone to make pay.”


Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history— as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.


The starred Kirkus review of Out of Darkness called it “a powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism,” and Elizabeth Wein, best-selling author of Code Name Verity, had this to say: “The beauty of Pérez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing, star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.”

Read on for a conversation between Ashley and her editor, Andrew Karre, who is now executive editor of Dutton Books for Young Readers. 

Ashley and Andrew talk about book covers, challenging boundaries in YA, what happens in the woods of East Texas, and the author-editor collaboration that made Out of Darkness possible.

Ashley Hope Pérez: Since this is also the cover reveal for Out of Darkness, can we start there? I love that we arrived at this design. What do you think it signals to readers?

Andrew Karre: I think it does the jobs of a book cover very well: it is visually arresting from the shelf, and it rewards deeper looks after you’ve read on in the book.

The image of the braid is lovely and intriguing, but once you’ve read the book, the layers begin to emerge.

I also love the uncomfortable separation in “Darkness.” It is not a comfortable cover—and it shouldn’t be.

AHP: I love that you mention the absence of comfort—right now I’m writing an article about the role of discomfort in YA reading experiences. So let’s linger for a moment on the topic of narrative elements that don’t sit easily with readers’ expectations.

Your particular vision of YA—which I’ve always taken as being focused on engaging or deconstructing various ideas of adolescence—gave me license to write the book without worrying about fitting it to a particular YA mold. You’ve never been interested any kind of filter for writing “at” teen readers and instead have gained this incredible reputation as an editor for choosing unusual, boundary-pushing works.

Did Out of Darkness give you a chance to scratch anything off of your boundary-pushing bucket list?

AK: I definitely got to put a check in the box labeled “historical YA that portrays teenagers acting on recognizable sexual appetites.”

AHP: Glad to have helped on that front. I think I was at least a little bit influenced by the workshop on sex in writing that you and Carrie Mesrobian did with teens last year and the insights that came from that.

I took a few items your compelling piece and the list Carrie compiled, and I thought about how they intersected with the private worlds and identities of my characters.

Portraying teen sexuality as a real part of the past was one of the contributions I wanted to make in Out of Darkness.

This is in addition to my general adamancy about the fact that teens are sexual people regardless of how they act on that fact. I find it maddening when people assume that the relative silence around sex in times past somehow amounted to a magical chastity or innocence among teens. That’s an assumption that especially gets applied to women in depictions of the past, I think. I enjoyed researching sexual matters of the period from the book.

AK: I distinctly remember my own delight at discovering some vintage condom packaging.

The kind of tins that held condoms in the 1930s. Image from www.collectorsweekly.com.

AHP: As do I… I think you gleefully tweeted a link to this article full of handy details about prophylactics of the past. For me, beyond the period particulars, there was also the pleasure of thinking about logistics for my characters. The woods in East Texas are notorious for being where you go to do things you don’t want others to know about, but I loved the chance to also show it as a space where a particular kind of possibility unfolds: an interracial love with a definite sexual intensity.

Although I didn’t want to idealize the physical aspect of Wash and Naomi’s relationship, which has an intensity that can be parasitic on their emotional connection at times, there’s also a sweetness to what they give each other.

So, we did some important work around the idea of teen sexuality in days gone by. What other boundaries do you see Out of Darkness testing?

AK: Well, the book pushed a bit at my personal definition of YA, which is novels about people experiencing the various social constructs of teenageness. For example, I don’t think Wash and Naomi are teenagers in the sense of your typical YA character. Because of their races, they’re not afforded the leisure we associate with teenagers. They are adults in many significant ways, but they do overlap with modern teenage-ness (in the form of all the white high school kids) and I found this deeply fascinating and illuminating. Your execution of these characters casts a bright light on the white privilege at the heart of that teenage-ness.

I also saw that you had set yourself an enormous challenge with the character of Naomi’s stepfather Henry. The book would fail if you let him simply be a racist monster. You had to make him a deeply flawed human who behaves monstrously—a considerably taller order and one that makes the book harder for some readers, though I think ultimately more satisfying.

AHP: I remember several important conversations with you that helped me to find and capture the humanity, however distorted, in Henry. I went through a similar process to uncover the complex character of the pastor who initially encourages him to bring the kids to East Texas and then has to buoy him up repeatedly in the role of father. The evolution of characters is more memorable, maybe, but the editorial back and forth was just as critical to the development of the narrative and stylistic choices that make this book what it is.

You’ve managed to be my ideal reader three times now. Each time we’ve worked on a book, the questions or challenges you presented me with opened the right doors for me in revision so that I could help the story grow into what it was supposed to be. Dark magic aside, how do you do that?

AK: I have no idea, but it’s my only useful skill, so I’m glad it works. Good editing is about building a little space where an author’s best work can happen. (And it has to be a little space, because books don’t happen by committee.) The minimum qualifications are understanding, nurturing, and—when necessary—reminding the author of the original vision.

AHP: That little space is a gift to writers. I think you must also have a kind of special sight that allows you to see submerged possibilities, both in a manuscript and in the writer herself. I feel like this was especially true in how you responded to Out of Darkness. I mean, it was such a different case from What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012)(both Carolrhoda Lab), both of which are contemporary realistic fiction and arrived to you somewhat resembling their final form. And then there was Out of Darkness…

AK: Out of Darkness is the best of what can happen when an author and an editor have a good working relationship. Honestly, if at any point after our first two books you’d told me about the school explosion and your eagerness to use it as an entry point for a story about race and class and love and family, I would have been in. I knew we could work well together, and I wanted to do so again.

At least 294 people were killed in the New London, Texas, school
explosion. Chaos after the explosion and the destruction of all school
documents made an exact count impossible. Image from the London Museum
archives.

AHP: It’s true that you didn’t even flinch when my agent sent you a manuscript that filled a ream of paper. Or at least you didn’t let on that you flinched. I think the first complete draft weighed in at 200,000 words.

AK: I’m glad that you sent those 200,000 words. Even though I knew we were years away from a book, the scale of that draft gave me a sense of how committed you were to a project somewhat more ambitious than our first two. And I knew you would match my effort, so I didn’t worry about how much work it would be or whether you were prepared to explore some difficult places.

AHP: There was some serious cutting, reshaping, and expanding that happened over those years… and a ton of collaboration to develop the vision for what the novel would become. Did your expectations evolve over those years we went back and forth?

AK: I don’t think my expectations evolved much, given how high they were to begin with. This is a book that could obviously only exist on a fairly significant scale and scope.

As you know, I dearly love short, circumscribed stories of unusual individuals. This was never going to be such a book—or maybe better said it was several such books tightly braided together and making a still greater whole. My job was to see that from the beginning and work like hell to make sure we never compromised. (We didn’t.)

AHP: I’m grateful for that. I felt all along the way that I had just enough space to grow to be the writer who could handle whatever challenge we’d set for a round of revision.

Looking back, I realize that you probably read this manuscript at least five times as we were working through that process. Am I some kind of crazy outlier, or do you find yourself going through comparable iterations with other authors?

Ashley’s writing process. Crucial tools: writer’s
notebook, Scrivener, paper, pen, scissors, and tape.

AK: You’re not a crazy outlier, except perhaps in terms of length of first draft.

With some authors, I’ve gone through more drafts, others fewer. Ideally, they all get a similar level of attention, but sometimes that attention takes different forms.

AHP: You also do this thing where you don’t force a change but you plant a seed that makes it possible for me, on my own, to wholly embrace that change. That probably happens dozens of times in a book, but I distinctly remember at one point discussing the author’s note for Out of Darkness.

There was this line in it that more or less sounded to you like an apology for the intensity and tragedy of the novel, and you gave me the courage to cut it. I think you said something like, “you shouldn’t apologize for making your readers feel deeply.”

AK: The longer I do this, the more I’m convinced that the only reliable indicator of a book’s durability and quality is whether it elicits strong feelings in the reader. Whatever those feelings may be, if they are present, then the book is doing something right.

I get more upset by indifferent reviews than I do by strongly negative ones. A.S. King and I were talking just a couple weeks ago about a Goodreads review for her first novel, where the reviewer thinks she’s angry at the book—thinks she’s writing a bad review—but by the end of the review both of us agreed that the reviewer got exactly what we’d hoped from the book: very strong feelings. We didn’t take issue with a single point from the review.

Polite people generally apologize for causing emotional distress in others, so I’m never surprised to see a line like the one you cut. But I always try to remind the author that emotional distress is what the reader is paying for.

AHP: There’s an intensity and darkness to Out of Darkness that connects it to The Knife and the Butterfly, but I also feel like both novels leave room for hope, too. Does that resonate with you? Or do you see the works differently?

AK: I do absolutely find a hopeful quality in all your books. It’s hard earned and never more so than in this book. Brokenness and injustice are things I find in your work, but you also have a faith in human resilience that balances the brutality. That’s hope.

AHP: Hope is a thing with me. It’s literally my middle name, so how could it not be?

There are some books, like Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2014), that are so full of promise and hope that you can’t miss it. I mean, that’s a novel set in the 1980s where two gay, Mexican-American boys discover and embrace their love for each other in part because of the support they receive from their parents. Ben finds ways to tell stories that get to the heart of growth and healing without being sentimental.

In Out of Darkness, I’d say that the possibility for hope depends on a certain kind of commitment from the reader. Or maybe what the novel does is create an appetite for hope—an authentic desire for life possibilities that go beyond what the characters achieve. My characters improvise wholeness, cobble together a family, but it can’t hold.

AK: There is something so, so gorgeous in the magical little family Wash, Naomi, Cari, and Beto make for themselves. Yes, it cannot possibly survive, but the short spring of that incredible family is unbearably and eternally beautiful.

Sabine River and the East Texas woods where Wash, Naomi, and the twins improvise a family. Image by Michael Gras.

AHP: That does sound like grounds for hope. Readers might only wish for things to be different for Wash, Naomi, and the twins as they’re reading, but maybe that wish can turn into something like a broader awareness that an unconventional family can have a rightness to it that is just as fundamental as any biological family. That’s one possibility I see in the novel when I think about it as a reader or lit professor rather than a writer. I try not to do that too much because it’s not the lit professor in me who runs the show when I’m writing.

My academic work has a place in my heart and my brain, but the novels I’ve written take up a lot more space. They’re like houses I once lived in but have had to leave behind. Each one is unique, and I have a distinct sense of what it felt like to be inside them, what the building and repairs and maintenance cost me.

I have favorite spaces, too, passages that, at least in my imagination, are where I felt most at home as a writer, most myself.

Is there anything comparable for you when you think about the books you’ve edited? What’s their afterlife like?

AK: I find myself remembering the process more than the book itself. I mean, I can recall the books as needed, but the pleasant memories that come unbidden are more about the experience of working on the book—the editing on my own, the phone conversations, the emails, the lunches. It’s as close as I get to old army buddies.

AHP: I look forward to reenlisting for another tour of duty. I’ll take the pen over the sword any day.

Cynsational Notes 

Find Ashley online at www.ashleyperez.com, where her blog is full of writerly and readerly insights, or at www.latinosinkidlit.com, where she’s part of a team of bloggers working to get the word out about awesome kid lit by Latina/o authors or about Latina/o experiences.

Follow her on Twitter (@ashleyhopeperez) and on Facebook.

Also follow Carolrhoda Lab on Twitter (@CarolrhodaLab) and Facebook for news and reviews of Out of Darkness and other fantastic Carolrhoda Lab titles.

Andrew Karre keeps us all entertained and informed from Twitter via @andrewkarre.

Librarians, bloggers, booksellers, reviewers, and teacher types: don’t forget to go to netgalley.com by the end of July to request an advance read of Out of Darkness.

Interview: Freelance Editor Francoise Bui

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

How would you describe yourself? A writing coach? Freelance editor? Independent study instructor?

Definitely a freelance editor. I’m not a writing teacher. I love to work on manuscripts that I feel have the potential to be published–ones where my feedback can help a writer shape his/her characters and story.

You’re a former Delacorte (Random House) editor, with a history of publishing children’s-YA books across age markets and genres. 

Could you tell us more about the insights you gained through this experience?

I love editing books for all ages–picture books, chapter books, middle grade and YA novels. The variety keeps things interesting. I find it especially liberating that middle-grade stories do not include romance, something that’s largely a must in YA novels. In terms of insights, I guess it’s that marvelous storytelling exists in every age group and in all genres.

Of the titles you edited, which stand out in your memory and/or might serve as models of study for writers interested in working with you?

In middle grade:

Paperboy by Vince Vawter (Delacorte, 2013) received a 2014 Newbery Honor. I’d never encountered a protagonist with a speech impediment. It’s told in a memorable first-person voice that makes you feel what it’s like to be a stutterer. Plus, there are so many rich plot threads to the boy’s coming-of-age story.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea (Delacorte, 2010) features seven very different kids in the same third-grade class. Pure fun, very kid-friendly, with a lot of heart. Each character is so well defined.
In young adult:

Orchards by Holly Thompson (Delacorte, 2011) is a gorgeous novel in verse. Beautiful, spare language. It’s also a multicultural and multi-generational story.

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab is a rich family drama, with a mystery at its core. Very textured narrative that is both absorbing and thought-provoking.

All the books I’ve mentioned stand out for their memorable voice(s), compelling characters, layered storytelling, and emotional pull.

All the books also happen to be examples of realistic fiction, which I have an affinity for. But I love a new twist on a fairy tale (Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier (Knopf, 2007)), not edited by me), thrillers (All Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab (Delacorte, 2010), which I edited), and all-around page turners (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2006) and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2010), both very different and edited by others).

What kind of writer would be best suited to your working together on a freelance basis?

I prefer to work on a complete manuscript. It’s easier for me to assess and give constructive feedback on.

What can you tell us about how you approach a manuscript?

I read with an eye toward sufficient character development (protagonist and secondary cast), plot structure, setting, and overall pacing.

How would you describe your feedback style?

I am honest–what’s working, what’s not–and I do my best to suggest ways to rethink the weaknesses so that the revision gets the story to the next level. I try to be constructive.

What would be the logistics? How should writers get in touch with you? What would happen from there?

I can be reached at fbui.editor@gmail.com. I’d like a short note, saying whether the manuscript is middle grade or YA and a brief synopsis. Please attach the first chapter so that I get a sense of the story and voice. Then I’ll decide whether I can be of help.

My fee depends on page count and what is required: general feedback only; revision letter and possible mark-up of manuscript; a line edit, etc.

I’m happy to answer questions.

Do you have any interest in joining writer conferences or workshops as a critique (or other) faculty member?

Francoise (center) with authors Mari Mancusi (left) and April Lurie (right)

I’d be happy to offer critiques as a guest editor at writers’ conferences.

More globally, what should writers consider in choosing a freelance editor?

It’s helpful to see what types of books a freelance editor published when employed at a publishing house. A shared sensibility goes a long way.

FYI: I’m about to create a website, so a more comprehensive list of the books I’ve edited will appear there.

More and more writers are seeking the assistance of a freelance editor before submission or publishing independently. For the latter, the reason is fairly obvious (they want to ensure a professional-level book). But why do you think agented and trade published writers seem more predisposed of late to take this route?

It’s something I’ve encountered in recent years only, but it’s becoming more common. Editorial staffs have shrunk and editors are overburdened. Because publishing schedules have to be met, there isn’t necessarily the flexibility to work on every manuscript until each one is truly at its best.

A freelance editor can devote the time to multiple rounds of revision. So I guess agented and trade published writers now seek out freelancers to ensure that their manuscripts are strong enough for acquisition, as well as thoroughly polished for reviewers.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you for this interview, Cynthia. I look forward to editing some wonderful stories.

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Author-Writing Coach Esther Hershenhorn

By Elisabeth Norton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

Esther Hershenhorn is an award-winning Chicago children’s book author.

She coaches children’s book writers and teaches Children’s Book Writing at the Writer’s Studio of the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies and the Newberry Library.

Her recent titles include Txting Mama, Txting Baby (2013) and S Is For Story: A Writer’s Alphabet, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (2009)(both Sleeping Bear Press).

Regional Advisor Emeritus of SCBWI’s Illinois chapter, Esther also served two terms on SCBWI’s Board of Advisors. Esther blogs at Teaching Authors. She was interviewed by Elisabeth Norton for the SCBWI Europolitan Conference.

Your intensive at SCBWI Europolitan is titled Rx for Children’s Books Creators: Getting Your Stories Right. Can you tell us more about the idea of the Creator’s Story?

I’d been out and about for quite some time, learning and honing my craft, receiving more than my fair share of “admirable declines,” when I was fortunate to attend – three years in a row – the sadly-no-longer-available Vassar Children’s Book Publishing Program.

Each day, each session, each year, I chose the same seat: last row, right corner, next to the glass case that held a first edition of William Steig’s Brave Irene.

That last year, still unpublished, I was thinking about how much Irene and I had in common when the venerable instructor, publisher Barbara Lucas, spoke of The Universal Plotline – the Hero-dash-Heroine, moving forward in scenes of escalating disaster to fulfill a wish/realize a dream/solve a problem until, grown and changed, he or she returns home with something even better than what he or she first sought.

I literally smacked my forehead.

I was traveling the Universal Plotline! That was it!

The inevitable yet surprising satisfactory resolution would someday be mine.

There’s a good reason Christopher Vogler titled his book on mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters The Writer’s Journey.

As creatives we are often focused on honing our writing or illustration skills. It sounds like your workshop at Europolitan is going to take that to the next level. How do you think a Creator’s Story intersects with the stories they are creating?

As we creators toil to tell our good stories well, it’s good to remember just how in synch we are with our questing characters.

All of us are moving forward on plotlines both physical and emotional, driven by wants/needs/wishes; each of us is acting and re-acting, with accompanying emotions, to overcome the obstacles placed before us.

Award-winning author and superb teacher Marian Dane Bauer believes a writer needs to put his story into the story he’s telling if it’s ever to resound in his reader’s heart – and I agree, wholeheartedly.

Not the actual story, but the emotional import of the story. We strengthen our story’s underpinnings – and heart – when we’re in synch with our characters emotionally.

You are an active teacher, speaker and career coach. What are some of the common issues you find in the manuscripts submitted to you for feedback?

The first time I read a manuscript, I read on behalf of the intended reader – no matter the age. More times than not, the writing in the manuscript sings, and I want to go along, really and truly, but the chinks in the story’s logic push me away, forcing me to exit what John Gardner labeled the requisite continuous dream.

Simply put, the story has holes and I’m not buying it.

The Good News is: returning to a story’s characters to dig even deeper usually solves the problem.

Returning to a story’s characters also solves a second common story problem: the absence of an emotional plotline. There needs to be a reason why we care what happens next, why we want to live inside this story and travel along.

This is true for picture books, early readers, middle grade and YA fiction as well as nonfiction.

If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would that be?

My advice about craft: read like a writer and write like a reader.

My advice about the journey, because writing is just that: story gifts both the reader and the writer.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more!

Elisabeth Norton was first published at age 16 when she had no idea what an “unsolicited submission” was. Seeing her byline on the subsequently published magazine article ignited her desire for a career as an author.

Once she realized she wanted to write for children, she joined SCBWI and now serves as Regional Advisor for the Swiss region.

Originally from Alaska, she now lives in Switzerland between the Alps and the Jura and writes for middle graders.

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Author-Editor Jill Santopolo

Jill Santopolo

By Dina von Lowenkraft
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jill Santopolo is the author of the Alec Flint Mysteries, the Sparkle Spa series and the Follow Your Heart books.

She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate in Intellectual Property Law from NYU.

In addition to writing, Jill is an executive editor at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a thesis advisor at The New School, and an adjunct professor at McDaniel College, where she helped develop the curriculum for the certificate program in Writing for Children.

 Jill has traveled all over the U.S.—and to Canada—to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City. She was interviewed by Dina von Lowenkraft for the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan conference.

Greetings, Jill! Thank you so much for agreeing to stop by for this interview. I’ve always been intrigued by people, like yourself, who are both authors and industry professionals at the same time. How did you end up doing both?

I probably ended up doing both because I’m a little bit nuts…

Really, though, I wrote short stories my whole life and always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that “writer” was a hard career to pursue right out of college.

So, while I was in school I started interning at publishing companies in New York City. I totally fell in love with the editorial side of things, so decided to put writing aside and concentrate on becoming a children’s book editor.

After I’d been working in publishing for a few years, I started writing a YA novel after work and on the weekends, just to see if I could actually do it. The answer was “sort of”. I did write the novel, but it didn’t sell. It did, however, get me an agent.

And my second novel sold—along with a third I hadn’t written yet.

I was a little uncertain about whether or not I’d be able to write that third novel, and a colleague suggested applying to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for an M.F.A. in Writing for Children & Young Adults. I did, and I got in, and it cemented the idea that I wanted to keep writing novels for kids. But at the same time I discovered how much I truly loved editing books, too, so I kept doing both. (And kept loving both.)

Do you think that being a writer affects the way you edit (and vice versa)?

I don’t think it’s changed anything on grand scale, but now that I’ve experienced the process from both sides, I definitely do small things differently.

For example, as an editor, I give myself editorial letter deadlines and share them with my authors so they know when to expect my feedback. And as a writer, I stick to all my writing deadlines and jump in to help plan launch events and promotions when that makes sense.

What I do think had a huge affect on how I edit and how I write was getting an M.F.A.. Spending two years analyzing fiction and learning about craft made me, I think, a more thoughtful, confident editor and a more thoughtful, confident writer.

I know that at the SCBWI Europolitan Conference in Amsterdam April 4 and April 5, one of your talks is on using theater games to improve your character development. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Learn more!

Of course. When I do author visits at schools, I always talk to the students about how pretending and storytelling are very similar—in one situation you’re acting out what it’s like to, say, be a turtle, and in the other you’re telling a story about what it’s like to be a turtle.

I think the same thing applies on a deeper level with acting and writing. I acted quite a bit from middle school through college, and I loved the way getting into character meant finding out more about the character than was written on the page.

I think that the same theater games that help actors discover details about their characters that aren’t in the script, also help writers to discover things about their characters that they haven’t yet written into their manuscripts, but that might deepen a character or speak to their motivation throughout the novel.

I think that sounds like a great tool and I can’t wait to participate in your workshop! I know you’re also going to be talking about how writers can look at their work through a sales or marketing lens. Why do you think that’s important?

I don’t necessarily think that it’s important while someone is first writing a novel, but I do think that it’s helpful to be able to encapsulate your story in one sentence or one paragraph, like you’d have to do if you were submitting to agents and editors and also after a book is published, if you’re going to be doing some marketing yourself.

I also think it’s important as far as expectations are concerned. Looking at similar titles and their sales tracks can give writers an idea of what their sales might look like. And thinking about an audience—along with those comp titles—can help writers figure out how to target their outreach once a book has been published and decide how much marketing and publicity they’d like to take on themselves.

The theme of the SCBWI Europolitan is about growing beyond boundaries, can you talk a little bit about diversity in books?

Like pretty much everyone in publishing now, I think that it’s important to publish novels with diverse themes, diverse characters, and diverse life experiences—and it’s something that I pay attention to when I’m working to balance my own piece of Philomel’s list.

Because I edited Atia Abawi’s novel The Secret Sky, which is set in contemporary Afghanistan, I got to go with Atia recently to a panel at NCTE about books set outside of the U.S., which is a piece of diversity that’s not always talked about quite as much.

It got me thinking more about the kids around the globe and the ways in which experiences and feelings are universal—and the ways in which they’re not. I’m looking forward to continuing that conversation at the SCBWI Europolitan (and to having many other exciting conversations as well!).

We’re so excited that you will be one of our faculty members and are looking forward to seeing you in Amsterdam and continuing all these discussions!

I’m excited too!

Cynsational Notes

Born in the U.S., Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on four continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her husband, two children, three horses and a cat.

Her debut YA fantasy, Dragon Fire, was published by Twilight Times in August 2013. She is repped by Kaylee Davis of Dee Mura Literary.