Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Editor Alexandra Penfold of Simon & Schuster

Alexandra Penfold is an assistant editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books?

I was an obsessive reader as a kid. I read everything I could get my hands on and bankrolled the public library with my allowance because I always wanted to read books one more time before I returned them.

Some of my favorite books growing up were Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, The Knight and the Dragon by Tommie dePaola, The Pirates Mixed-Up Voyage by Margaret Mahy, Matilda by Roald Dahl, The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, That Dreadful Day by James Stevenson; I could go on and on.

I can probably attribute my living in New York today, at least in part to my love for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, Eloise by Kay Thompson, and The Babysitter’s Club Super Special #6: New York, New York!

What inspired you to become a children’s/YA book editor?

My mother is a writer and growing up I always wanted to be just like her. My parents always made sure our home was filled with books and when it came time to choose a career path it all came back to the books that inspired me as a kid and wanting to be part of the publishing process that brings great books to children.

How did you prepare for this career?

I graduated from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which is a specialized school at NYU that allows self directed students to create their own majors. My concentration in school was Entertainment Business and Marketing, so I basically did a marketing major with lots of writing and entertainment and media classes thrown in.

I actually started out on the marketing side of things as a summer intern and then got my first job as a publicity assistant for Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing. After a couple years in publicity, I transitioned to the editorial side of things. But honestly I’m still learning new things every day–it’s a lifelong learning process.

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

Throughout the publishing process the editor wears many hats, but first and foremost I think of the editor as a book’s champion. From the moment an editor reads a manuscript and has that gut feeling that “this is it” they are cheering on the author and illustrator every step of the way.

What are its challenges?

I honestly wish that there were more hours in the day. As an editor you’re always on the look out for new talent, and it’s difficult to find the time to read as much as I would like. We get a lot of unsolicited submissions from authors that aren’t totally polished, but have promise and it’s hard when you don’t have the time to give a lot of individual feedback

What do you love about it?

I love working with the authors and illustrators, of course!

Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of books you’re looking to acquire?

I’m particularly interested in young humorous picture books that work on multiple levels. The kind of books that both parents and kids will want to read again and again.

I’m also interested in middle grade and YA novels with strong central characters and unique voices. Those pre-teen and teen years are such a defining time in a person’s life, a time where you really discover who you are and what you stand for. I remember reading a lot at that age and finding comfort in books–discovering I wasn’t alone in my confusion and frustration at the world.

Above all, voice and strong characters are what grab me.

Could you suggest some of your previous titles for study and/or those by other editors that you particularly admire (noting which are your own)?

Some of my favorite picture books include: Double Pink by Kate Feiffer, illustrated by Bruce Ingman; Cowboy Ned and Andy by David Ezra Stein; Wolves and Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett; Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and the Gossie books by Olivier Dunrea.

I love the humor in these books. The text of each book is short and young, the characters have a great deal of personality, the stories are fun, and once you’ve finished reading them you can’t wait to go back to the beginning and read them again.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Meghan McCarthy on City Hawk: The True Story of Pale Male (Fall 2007), which is a really great engaging non-fiction picture book about Pale Male, the hawk who makes his home on the ledge of a swanky 5th Avenue co-op in New York City. As with all of her books, Meghan does a great job making the characters really come to life for the reader.

I would also say the same for Marissa Moss‘ Amelia series, which I’ve also had the opportunity to work on. Moss’ Amelia books cut right to the heart of what it is to be a middle-schooler. Amelia’s voice is authentic and her hopes, dreams, troubles and struggles are real. I can’t tell you how many readers write in saying that Amelia is just like them

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson, Private by Kate Brian, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak are three very different young adult novels that I’ve enjoyed recently. Each has terrific characters, a great voice, and I couldn’t put them down.

Along with Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, you’ll be joining Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts as an editor speaker. Could you give us some insight into your program?

I’m excited to be doing this retreat with Rebecca Sherman, not only because we’re good friends, but also we’ve also worked together. We hope to give participants some insight into the editor/agent relationship, how we negotiate and communicate, both with each other and with our authors and illustrators, as well as run workshops on the steps to preparing manuscripts for submissions

What is one thing you wish every beginning writer knew?

You never stop learning as a writer. There’s always something more that each of us can learn. I truly believe that writing is a skill in addition to being a craft, and in order to improve you really need to write and write and write. Keep believing and keep writing!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Many thanks go out to Nancy Wagner for putting together this great retreat program! Retreats are a terrific opportunity to really focus on your writing, get targeted constructive feedback, solve those seemingly unsolvable dilemmas, and get things into great shape for submission. And personally, I love the opportunities it affords me to get to know participants one-on-one.

I hope to see you in Nebraska!

Cynsational Notes

See previous interviews in this series with authors Darcy Pattison, Elaine M. Alphin, and N.L. Sharp as well as agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House

Rebecca Sherman is a literary agent at Writers House in New York.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books?

Apparently, my mother left board books for me in my crib and would walk into my room in the morning to find me “reading.” I learned about colors, shapes, numbers and letters with Richard Scary books. I loved to read, but I was a pretty shy and anxious child.

I remember I was in both the “advanced” and the “regular” reading comprehension group in first grade because I was too timid to answer any of the questions in the advanced group, but answered EVERY question in the “regular” group because I was so frustrated that no one else could come up with the answers.

Some of my favorite picture books still are Where the Wild Things Are, There’s A Monster at The End of This Book, and anything involving James Marshall (George & Martha, The Stupids, Miss Nelson is Missing).

As I got older, I read a lot of Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl. I really believe that I fell in love with reading in Mrs. Barber’s fourth grade class where I read Bridge to Terabithia and Tuck Everlasting for the first time. Every class ended with Mrs. Barber reading poetry to us. This is how I learned that reading could connect people.

Unfortunately, in junior high there was a slight drought of great reading. Somehow I ended up reading a lot of early R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, despite the fact that I can’t see a horror movie to this day. I was looking for something age-appropriate and not too girly and just couldn’t find it.

I am definitely envious of today’s teens and tweens who have so many YA options. I would have loved to read about characters I could relate to, but soon enough I moved on to adult literature.

Admittedly, I became a bit of a pompous reader and attempted A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man poolside at my overnight camp and Lolita on a family road trip. But my favorite books from my high school years are My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and the Glass family stories by J.D. Salinger.

And I’ve made up for lost time by reading many YA novels…even poolside and on the subway.

How did you prepare for this career? How long have you been working as an agent?

I was absolutely unprepared for my career as a literary agent. I stumbled on the job of assistant to a Literary Agent at Writers House after graduating from Northwestern with a B.A. in English.

Truth be told, I went on the interview as a favor. A family friend who is in publishing was guiding me on my New York City job hunt. She told me to send a cover letter and resume to her best friend, an agent at Writers House, even though she didn’t need an assistant. I thought it was a complete dead end, but did it anyway.

The next day, Susan Cohen (scroll for bio), another agent at Writers House called me to set up an interview because she had been without an assistant the entire summer. I had been interviewing for editorial assistant positions and had set my sights on such a job.

I’m not sure that there is any way to prepare outside of a literary agency. Working as an assistant at Writers House was the best course I could have taken. I prepared by observing those around me, devouring children’s and YA books, getting to know those on the editorial side, etc. It was trial by fire, one step at a time.

I began as Susan Cohen’s assistant in September 2001 and took on a few clients about two years later. I was considered a Junior Agent when I represented my own clients and assisted Susan. Around Summer 2005, I really began to build my own list and was promoted to Senior Agent June 2006.

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

The literary agent is the advocate for the author (and/or illustrator). While an editor, designer, or art director has an entire publishing house to stand by them and help with decision making, an unagented author or illustrator is going at it alone. I feel it’s of the utmost important for that client to have me and by extension, Writers House in his corner.

That is not to say that I see publishing as agency vs. publisher. To the contrary, I see the client, editor and agent as three integral members of a team. The agent should not be seen as the middleman between the editor and author. The editor and author should maintain a direct relationship. Instead the agent is there to handle business matter (negotiations of offers, contracts, subsidiary rights, etc) freeing the client to focus on creative matters with her editor and publisher.

However, I like my clients to keep me abreast of all progress and setbacks. While it is my job to help untangle complications of scheduling or promotion, I also want to be involved to celebrate a starred review or a great school visit.

Overall, it is my job to oversee and help manage a client’s career instead of focusing on just one book.

What are its challenges?

So much to do, and only so many hours in a day.

Also, there are times when I absolutely love a project and cannot sell it. If I love a project, there is no system of checks and balances. I am free to enter into a working relationship with that writer. By taking on a client, I have devoted my time to her, but none of Writers House’s money.

It’s heartbreaking, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I understand that just because I love something doesn’t mean that a publisher can necessarily take the risk to put money into it. So despite the fact that I am emotionally involved and have allocated some of the little time I have to a project, it might never reach book store shelves.

What do you love about it?

Being an agent allows me to take part in so many aspects of not only a book’s creation and success, but on a more personal level, the advancement of an author (or author/illustrator’s) career. There is the potential on any day to discover the next great writer. As an agent, I am often the first fan of a writer’s manuscript or artist’s portfolio.

I am blessed with the job of calling a client to say that their work is going to be published. Not a bad gig.

Would you describe yourself as an editorial agent–one who comments on manuscripts–or as an agent who is exclusively concerned with publishing issues? Why?

I am absolutely an editorial agent. My editorial input is expressed mostly for the benefit of unpublished authors. If a client has already been published and plans to publish again with the same publisher, I might put my two cents in (if asked), but would leave the substantive part of the editorial process to the client and editor. However, for unpublished clients and prospective clients, I feel it is of the utmost important to send the most polished manuscript possible to editors.

It is part of my job to have a critical eye and to know the market. This knowledge should be shared with clients whose careers I am trying to strengthen or begin. If I can’t sell a client’s manuscript, I can’t move on to the next step of “concerning myself with publishing issues.”

If I extend an offer for representation, I am agreeing to work with a client for the length of their career, not just for one book. Going through an editorial round with a client is a great way to get to know each other and establish a trust. I want to submit manuscripts to editors from clients who are open to feedback and believe in teamwork.

If I find out that a potential client is unwilling to make modifications or collaborate via editorial work with me, I have saved myself and an editor a great deal of hassle. A client who refuses to revise when it is in the best interest of the book, is a client neither an editor nor I would want to work with. My clients do reflect on me and my reputation.

Why should unagented writers/authors consider working with a literary agency?

I simply cannot imagine trying to both create a great manuscript (or a great dummy or proposal) and educate yourself about the business of publishing. If I was a writer or illustrator, I would want that to be my job, and would want to find someone who feels passionately enough about my work to do their job for my benefit. Oh, and your advance will be higher with a literary agent, not to mention a stronger contract in a variety of ways.

What distinguishes Writers House from other literary agencies?

Writers House is the best of both worlds: small enough to feel tight-knit and familial, but large enough to have a great deal of clout and provide many services for our clients. Writers House includes an in-house foreign rights department of three members, a three person accounting department, a CFO, a contracts manager, and a subsidiary rights director who handles audio rights, permissions and more. The agents at Writers House represent an array of award winners and bestsellers and many have been with Writers House for more than twenty years.

From my point of view, our focus on and success with children’s and YA titles is unparalleled in the industry. Six senior agents specialize in books for young readers with other agents (even those focused on thrillers or romance titles) representing clients in this market.

The range of material for young readers that Writers House represents is inspiring and includes Newbery Winners Susan Patron, Sharon Creech, Cynthia Rylant, Robin McKinley and Cynthia Voight, Printz Winner John Green (author interview), Coretta Scott King Winner Kadir Nelson and Caldecott Honor recipients Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith in addition to bestsellers such as Stephenie Meyer (author interview), Christopher Paolini, Dav Pilkey, Barbara Park, Francine Pascal, Ann Martin, Neil Gaiman, James Howe…and that’s just skimming the surface. Our devotion to books for young readers benefits our clients at each stage of the publishing process. Please visit our website to find out more about the agency and some of the clients we represent.

Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of authors you’re looking to sign?

I’m always looking for manuscripts with a striking voice and unique point of view mixed with authenticity. Humor is a real plus for me. Although I represent many author/illustrators, I am looking for more novelists.

For a better idea of my tastes, please see my website on Publisher’s Marketplace which lists many of my clients and upcoming projects.

Do you work with author-illustrators or illustrators?

I work with author-illustrators primarily, though I have taken on clients who are only illustrators at the time. In these instances, I always ask the potential clients if they have ideas for stories of their own, and in most cases, they do. I am not currently looking for authors of picture book texts who are not also illustrators.

Along with Alexandra Penfold of Simon & Schuster, you’ll be joining Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts as a speaker. Could you give us some insight into your program?

Alexandra and I have previously worked on books together, so our program is sure to include a little bit of she said/she said. We’ll illuminate many stages of the process from the agent and editor’s perspective including times where we work as a team and times where we are butting heads.

Could you share one tip for finding the perfect agent?

Not just one. My advice is to be talented, open, patient, and persistent. Look for an agent with whom you will be compatible, not just someone who can sell your manuscript.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author Darcy Pattison

Darcy Pattison is the author of both picture books and novels. Her books include Nineteen Girls and Me (Philomel, Summer 2006), Searching for Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt, 2005), The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt, 2003), The Wayfinder (Greenwillow, 2000) and The River Dragon (Lothrop, Lee & Shephard, 1991). Her books have been recognized for excellence by starred reviews in Kirkus and BCCB, Child magazine Best Books of the Year 2003, Nick Jr. Family Magazine Best Books of the Year 2003, and several state awards reading lists. The video version of The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Nutneg Media Children’s Picture Books on Video, June 2005) was named an ALA Notable Video 2006.

Darcy is also widely published in periodicals, usually writing about quilting or creative writing. Darcy holds an M.A. from Kansas State University and a B.A. from the University of Arkansas. Currently she is an Adjunct Professor teaching Freshman Composition, Introduction to Creative Writing, and Creative Writing for Children at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway, AR. She travels throughout the U.S. teaching the Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat.

Darcy Pattison on Darcy Pattison: “I grew up on a 1000-acre ranch, 100 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the Jemez Mountains. I am fifth out of seven children. That background of the ranching life and being in the middle of a large family seems to be a thread through much of what I write.”

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt) is my most popular picture book to date. It’s about a wooden man who crosses the country to connect a family. I didn’t consciously do it, but most of my books have some sort of travel; maps seem to be important in my inspiration process, even though I’m not a good navigator when we travel.

My current picturebook, 19 Girls and Me (Philomel), is most often cited as a favorite read-aloud. It’s about friendship in a kindergarten classroom with 19 girls and one lone boy. The “high concept” helped the book, but I also worked hard on the language. Teachers tell me that kids request it over and over–and they don’t mind, because it’s fun to read aloud.

You are one of the author-teachers associated with Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts, and your focus will be revising a novel. Could you tell us more about that?

One participant in a recent Novel Revision Retreat said, “This was an amazing workshop that has me actually excited about revising already revised stories.”

Another said, “My revised chapter has moved from nice to richer, deeper, funnier. And the finest part is that I feel so empowered – like I have the tools to make my writing the writing of my dreams, the writing I love to read. It is wildly exciting.”

After twelve years as the conference director for the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators (SCBWI), I realized that the hardest thing to get help with is a novel. Most conferences are one-day events in which many different topics are covered briefly. Yet, year after year, someone would hold out a novel and ask, “What do you think of this?”

I finally designed a format where this question could be answered, the Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat. The Novel Revision Retreat was the beginning point for this special set of retreats, A Novel in Three Acts.

Author Nancy Sharp had wanted to host my retreat, but at a conference, she had a brainstorm to create three linked retreats in which a novel would be taken from conception, through a first draft, a major revision and then marketing. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for writers who were willing to take the leap.

Will you be lecturing, offering writing exercises, critiquing?

Each participant receives a 75+ page workbook to accompany lectures. Brief lectures are followed by time to work on your own novel, then reinforced by group discussions.

Here’s some comments from participants about the different sessions of the retreat:
Inventory Session:

“Maybe the most helpful part. From the moment I started filling the worksheet out, I knew I was in trouble.”

“I will use this tool for all projects.”

Plotting Sessions:

“Coming in, I had the book knowledge about plots, subplots, climax…but this workshop put it all into a working perspective. Something I could grab hold of. Exercises forced me to look at things I was avoiding.”

“It was a more enhanced description of plotting than I have ever seen.”

Sensory Details Session:

“Very helpful. I already thought I was employing sensory details, but now I have a clearer picture of what I need to be doing.”

“Excellent examples chosen to illustrate points. This is a piece of writing without good sensory details; this is a piece with good sensory details.”

“A jewel! I wish someone had explained ‘show don’t tell’ in terms of sensory details language.”

Characterization Session:

“I’m looking forward to using the checklists on all my characters.”

“Helped me give more dimension to weaker characters.”

Setting/Mood Session:

“Helpful because I learned to connect this to the characters’ emotional journey in a scene rather than just through something on the page.”

“Again–I learned to think of this in a new way.”

Specific Words Session:

“Helped me see beyond the meaning of words–a new concept.”

“Makes the story ring true.”

Narrative Patterning Session:

“This was excellent–deep, powerful, something I’ll always use now.”

“The narrative patterning, imagery and epiphany sections were especially wonderful. I’ve never met a writing teacher who was willing to tackle these head on.”

Imagery Session:

“Word list approach very helpful, real graphic. Something I can wrap my hands around.”

Overall Comments:

“As a whole–these exercises were brilliant because they helped me see how each aspect of novel writing connects to or is attached to the other.”

“The workbook is one of the most useful things I’ll take away.”

“You made things we already knew into a tool instead of a concept.”

“I think I’ll look back on this weekend as a turning point in my growth as a novelist. I wish we could do this every year!”

Could you share one revision tip?

I’ve posted on my blog an interview with Kirby Larson about the revision story for her 2007 Newbery Honor book, Hattie’s Big Sky. An exercise that helped her was the Shrunken Manuscript exercise. Basically, you single space a manuscript and then shrink the manuscript to a small font and print it out. This allows you to mark and see the overall structure of a long story like a novel.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author Elaine Marie Alphin

Elaine Marie Alphin on Elaine Marie Alphin: “I was born in San Francisco in 1955 and knew from the time I was three that I wanted to become a writer. My dad and I would go for walks in the early morning on weekends, and tell each other stories we’d made up, and I decided that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: make up stories and share them with other people.

“We moved to New York City when I was nine, and I fell in love with Broadway and with the American Museum of Natural History. I was heartbroken when we moved to Houston when I was thirteen, but grew to feel very much at home there, so much so that I chose Rice University for my college years.

“I was awarded a Watson Research Fellowship, so after I graduated I lived in England for a year, doing research on a novel about Richard III and the murder of the Princes in the Tower. I imagined that the book would be for adults, because all the lit I’d studied at Rice had been for adults–but when I returned to America I met Arthur Alphin, who would become my husband, and he told me he thought I ought to consider writing for young readers instead.

“I’m still grateful for this insight. I wrote Tournament of Time (Bluegrass Books, 1994) for middle graders and decided that kids were my real audience after all. I write for a wide range of ages, from beginning readers through teenagers. The only book I’ve ended up writing for adults is a book on how to write for young readers!”

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

Although Tournament of Time was the first book I wrote for young readers, The Ghost Cadet (Henry Holt, 1991) was the first book I published for young readers. It placed on fourteen state award lists and won the 1995 Virginia Best Book Award, and it was so successful that Henry Holt asked me to write a companion book some years later. Ghost Soldier (Henry Holt, 2001) was nominated for the 2002 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, has placed on six state lists and won the 2002 Society of Midland Authors Children’s Fiction Award and the 2004 Young Hoosier Book Award.

In addition to writing novels for middle graders, I also write novels for young adults. Probably my most successful YA novel to date has been Counterfeit Son (Harcourt, 2000), which won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult mystery, has been placed on numerous state award lists and Best Of… lists, and has just been optioned for film.

Simon Says (Harcourt, 2002) is another YA novel that’s very special to me. I wrote the first draft of that book in 1977, while I was still in college, when I was struggling with the realities of wanting to live the creative life. It’s probably the book that brings in the most correspondence from readers, who have been touched by the characters’ struggles to find ways to be true to themselves.

My most recent novel, The Perfect Shot (Carolrhoda, 2005) won the 2006 ForeWard Book of the Year Gold Medal in the Young Adult category, and it’s very special to me because it centers on my passions for history and its impact on the present, and for justice. I’ve gotten intense reactions from teen readers about this one, both to the basketball subplot and to the whole idea of struggling to prevent injustice. There’s more information about these and my other books at my website:

You are one of the author-teachers associated with Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts, and your focus will be starting and developing a novel. Could you tell us more about that?

Nancy L. Sharp and I met at a conference in North Dakota where I’d led an interactive session on developing plot and character, and she came up with this wonderful idea for a retreat that would carry participants through actually writing a first draft of a new novel, revising it, and then learning how to market it, and how to move forward to the next novel.

She asked me if I’d be willing to lead the first Act of the Retreat on planning your novel and getting to work on your first draft. I’ve written about developing plot and characters in Creating Characters Kids Will Love (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000) and I’ve led workshops getting writers started before at several SCBWI conferences, but always in a small way, as part of a conference program in which other speakers offered other subjects (in case attendees were more interested in writing picture books or getting an agent, for example), so I was thrilled by the idea of focusing on a single novel for the whole weekend.

I’m sure some writers will come to the retreat with ideas in mind, and others will come hoping to find ideas, so I plan to take everyone through the process of delving into their passions to find inspiration for their writing, and then crafting a plan for their book. It’s amazing how much writers can accomplish when they’re inspired and free from the daily domestic routine!

Will you be lecturing, offering writing exercises, critiquing?

I’ll be doing some lecturing, but everything will be geared to getting participants writing and bonding together in small critique groups. My sessions will be accompanied by lots of worksheets with exercises to help participants develop main and secondary characters and plot, structure and pace their novel, and then deepen the original plot skeleton–what I like to call the roller coaster track since the experience of writing a novel (as well as the experience of reading it!) is a lot like a roller coaster ride.

Everybody who attends can look forward to doing a lot of writing during the retreat, first making notes on their novel, and building up to actually writing some of that novel before they leave (we have free time set aside to write), so that they have a good start to carry them over their return to home, family, and the interruption of the pure creative writing life we’ll enjoy at the retreat.

What are a few of the challenges in starting a novel?

The biggest challenge is getting an idea that will support a novel–the second biggest challenge is holding off charging ahead with that idea before you have a chance to work out what you really want to do with it–what voice you want to use, where your story actually begins, what background research needs doing so you can write naturally about what your characters are doing and thinking.

I really struggled to hold myself back from plunging into writing Counterfeit Son until I researched serial killers and sailing, for example.

Some writers feel comfortable plunging in right away, understanding that means they’ll have to do considerable revision later on as the novel comes into clearer focus in their minds, but other writers, especially beginning novelists, get frustrated when their idea peters out on them, and may just stop. Or they keep trying doggedly, but they want to retain what they wrote in the first flush of enthusiasm, even though it no longer fits with the way the book is evolving, because they worked hard on it. So I advocate doing a great deal of planning and getting to know your characters so that once you plunge in you find it easy to return to your writing and keep moving forward.

How do the psychological and the professional fit together…or not?

This question made me scratch my head–at first I interpreted it as the characters’ psychological lives fitting together with the writer’s professional life, which can be challenging because as you live more and more in the world of your novel, with your characters, thinking their thoughts and feeling their emotions, their psyches can impinge on your day-to-day world, to the point where you may answer a question or write a letter in a tone or in words that your characters might use. This can be embarrassing when you’re speaking with or writing to an editor…

However, then I was told that the question was intended to mean the way the writer’s psychological life fits with her professional life. Oops. You can see just how character driven I am. Anyway–in the first place there’s something about a writer’s psyche that drives her to write, to explore ideas on paper in the guise of characters, so the two fit together very well.

However, in everyday life we have a lot of distractions. There’s our personal life (caring for families, cooking (or buying take-out), perhaps a paying job to cover bills, etc.) and then there’s our professional, or business, life (dealing with editors, perhaps teaching, perhaps writing other, short, projects separate from our novel, maintaining our website, corresponding with readers, etc.).

The artistic psyche often gets frustrated with these less creative sides of life, because there are only so many hours in a day. It’s a juggling act for us all, and one of the things we’ll be talking about at the retreat is a writing plan that allows time for both the creative side and the less creative side of living.

However, there’s another aspect to the writer’s psychological life. We’re all affected by things that happen to us, for good or for bad, and these things shape our psychological lives–they give us our hang-ups. Strong novels grow from strong hang-ups, as writers explore aspects of our psychological lives through their characters. So, in the end, the psychological life feeds the professional life.

Could you share one tip for beginning novelists?

Care passionately about your subject matter and about your characters, especially your main character. You’re going to be taking a long journey with your characters for quite some time, and you should want to enter into their world, not dread going there.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author N.L. Sharp

N.L. Sharp on N.L. Sharp: “I am married to Larry and am the mother of three sons and one daughter-in-law. I am a former elementary teacher (grades K-3) as well as library media specialist and elementary reading/writing consultant. I am currently taking some time away from the classroom to concentrate on my writing career.”

What about the writing life first called to you?

I have known since second grade that I wanted to be a writer. I was born in Valentine, Nebraska, and attended a one-room country school, located two miles from the South Dakota border. My favorite time of the day was when my teacher would read to us. I still remember many of the books that she read–Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Brighty of Grand Canyon, The House of Sixty Fathers.

But when I was in second grade, our teacher read the book that changed my life. She read The Little House on the Prairie. And I realized, for the very first time, that anyone can be a writer. You don’t have to be smart and write about things I know nothing about, like penguins, or travel to exotic places, like the Grand Canyon, or have lived through a horrific experience, like war.

You can be a kid from an ordinary place like Nebraska or South Dakota and write about ordinary things like your mom and your dad and your brothers and sisters, and you can be a writer. So I have been writing “Nancy” stories since about second or third grade–although I didn’t try to get any of them published until well into my adult years.

Could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

I am the author of three picture books.

My most recent book is Effie’s Image, illustrated by Dorothia Rohner (Prairieland Press, 2005). It was selected by Learning Magazine as a 2006 Teachers’ Choice award winner and is on Nebraska’s Golden Sower list for 2007-2008.

My two other titles are: Today I’m Going Fishing with My Dad, illustrated by Chris Demarest (Boyds Mills Press, 1993) and The Ring Bear, illustrated by Michael Hassler (Dageforde Publishing, 2003).

You are the mastermind behind Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts. Could you give us a brief overview of the program?

I would love to. Basically, this series consists of three individual retreat weekends that will occur in the span of one-year’s time. The intent of this series is to help the writer move from the first inklings of an idea toward a publishable novel in twelve intensive months. The retreats are designed for maximum participation and advance preparation for each one is required.

The first retreat, scheduled from Thursday, October 25 to Saturday, October 27, 2007, will be led by Elaine Marie Alphin, and will focus on brainstorming techniques related to plotting, character development, and pacing. We will leave this retreat with a basic outline and a plan for turning that outline into a novel.

The requirement to attend Retreat 1: Read Elaine’s book, Creating Characters Kids Will Love, published by Writers’ Digest Books. Elaine is the author of more than twenty published books for children and young adult readers, many of them award-winners.

The second retreat, scheduled from Friday, April 4 to Sunday, April 6, 2008, will be led by Darcy Pattison. The goal of this retreat is that every author will go home with strategies and tools for revising their novels.

Requirements to attend Retreat 2: 1) have a completed draft of a novel, 2) submit four copies of that manuscript to be read by three other members of the Retreat 3) agree to read three other drafts of novels before the retreat, and 4) read Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

Darcy Pattison served as the Arkansas Regional Advisor for the SCBWI from 1991-96. In 1999, Darcy created the Novel Revision Retreat, which she now teaches nationwide.

The final retreat is scheduled from Friday, October 24 to Sunday, October 26, 2008, and will be led by Alexandra Penfold, an editor at Simon and Schuster and Rebecca Sherman, a senior agent at Writers House Literary Agency. The focus for this retreat will be marketing strategies and submission secrets. We will also discuss the process of letting go of this novel and starting again with a new project.

Requirements to attend Retreat 3: 1) Attend at least one of the other two retreats, 2) Read the book Art and Fear by David Bayles, and 3) Submit a cover letter, a synopsis of your novel, and the first three chapters for critique by either Alexandra or Rebecca.

What inspired you to initiate this effort?

I have a draft of a novel that I have been playing with for several years. I contacted Darcy Pattison about her Revision Retreat with the idea that, perhaps, we could offer that retreat in Nebraska. But, as you can see, one of the requirements to attend Darcy’s retreat is that you have a novel written. In order to offer this in our area, I needed to find eight-to-twelve people that met that requirement. And I was struggling to do so. I spoke with several people who were interested in writing novels–but few that actually had a novel written.

Then, this fall,I attended an SCBWI-sponsored conference in North Dakota where Elaine Alphin was speaking. She did a two-hour brainstorming session with us, focused on character development and plotting. After the session, I asked Elaine if she would be interested in expanding that session to an entire weekend. It was my idea, at that time, to offer the retreats as a two-weekend series. The first retreat would be designed for getting us started (creating a plan to move the novel from an idea to a finished draft). The second retreat, held six-to-eight months later, would provide us with the tools to revise that novel.

As we were discussing the possibilities for such a retreat series, editor Alexandra Penfold, another conference speaker, joined us. We shared our vision with her, and soon the two-weekend retreat became a three-weekend retreat. We felt like offering participants the opportunity to have their manuscript packages critiqued by an editor would encourage participants to leave Darcy’s retreat with not only the tools they need to revise their manuscripts, but the incentive to do so.

After I returned home and began to work on the specific details regarding these retreats, I began to think about the third retreat more and more. I wanted to make it more than just a “critique” weekend. I also felt like I was asking a lot from Alexandra–to critique all of our manuscripts, plus be our presenter for the entire weekend. I contacted her and asked what she thought about inviting an agent to share those duties with her for that Retreat, and if she had anyone in mind that she thought might be interested. She suggested Rebecca Sherman from Writers House.

Why did you think there was a particular need for a program structured this way?

I don’t know that I actually thought about the need for this program in terms of others. I just know that I work best when there is lesson presented, an assignment given, and a realistic deadline for completing that assignment. And if I can do this in a group setting, so that I can bounce ideas and gain support from others, I am more likely to meet that deadline with a project that I am proud to call my own.

I believe that this series will provide me with the structure that I, personally, need to get my novel writing back on track. If I can find eleven to twenty-three other like-minded individuals who are willing to take this journey with me, then I will be thrilled, and all of the work I’ve done organizing the Retreats will be well worth my time.

What are the pros of Novel Secrets versus other craft-development opportunities?

Well, first of all, we have the opportunity to meet and work with four wonderful writing teachers–Elaine, Darcy, Alexandra, and Rebecca. We have a deadline–and the opportunity at the end of that deadline to have our novel professionally critiqued by either an editor or an agent. But, more than that, we have the opportunity to network and share our struggles with other committed and like-minded individuals–all working toward the same goal–crafting a novel in a year’s time. And, by including the reading and discussion of books on the craft of writing as a part of our process, we will all have the opportunity to take our writing up a notch, from whatever level we are right now.

Could you describe the setting and facilities?

All of the Novel Retreats will be held at the St. Benedict Retreat Center, a retreat and conference center located on Highway 15 north of Schuyler, Nebraska, approximately 70 miles from Omaha, Nebraska. It is truly an inspiring place to relax, regenerate your batteries, and focus on your career. The Center provides several peaceful and quiet spaces for writing and quiet reflection, including a man-made lake and surrounding park, a solarium with a fireplace and small library, and an amphitheater.

Each participant will have his or her own private room with bathroom. Meals and lodging are included in the cost. All rooms are fully air conditioned and have private bathrooms. An exercise room is also available. The Center is a smoke free environment. For additional information or to see pictures of the facilities, you may visit their website at:

Is there anything else we should know?

Openings are limited. The minimum number of participants required to run each retreat will be twelve, and our maximum will be twenty-four. Priority will be given to those individuals who register for all three retreats at one time. Also, if a participant is a published author already and would like to do a school visit while in Nebraska to help off-set the cost of the retreats, just let me know. I can’t guarantee school visits, but I am working with a bookstore owner in Omaha, and we will do our best to make that happen for anyone who is interested in that particular opportunity.

There is additional information about the retreats, including sample schedules, at my website:

If you have other questions, please feel free to contact me directly:

I’d love to hear from you!