Seriously, You Get to Read for a Living?


shutterstock_322480529smallI love it when people ask me about my job as a freelance editor. It always leads to interesting conversations about books and the writing biz.

Recently, I got to continue that discussion through an interview in Southern Writers Magazine. I really liked the pool of questions they sent, so I asked if I could post some additional content here as a supplement. In true Southern style, they graciously acquiesced.

SWM: What are the biggest benefits of being an editor?

I think the very best part is that I constantly get to work on something new and exciting. One month I might be working on an epic fantasy and a middle grade mystery. The next, a contemporary YA novel and a paranormal thriller. It’s always fresh and interesting. Another big advantage is flexibility. I set my own schedule and as long as I have a good internet connection, I can work almost anywhere. It allows me to travel frequently to industry events or to visit my out-of-state friends and family, while keeping up with my work as usual.

The biggest challenges? Is it difficult working on your own?

Since every manuscript has a new and unique set of challenges to tackle, I never get to just sit back, relax, and go into autopilot. But honestly, that’s another of the perks—no chance of boredom! Time goes by so fast.

Working as an indie editor carries many of the same challenges writers face: you’re alone in front of a computer for long stretches of time with a manuscript, a stack of writing manuals, and your thoughts. There is definitely a potential for cabin fever! I mix things up by regularly presenting workshops at writers’ conferences and retreats. I also Skype with my clients, or if they’re local, we meet in person to check their progress and discuss issues in their works-in-progress.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as an editor?

I’ve gleaned this piece of advice from the mentors and colleagues I respect the most: seek the right balance of criticism and praise. If you only point out the faults in someone’s writing, they may not see a reason to persevere. If all you do is praise what they got right, they might assume their work is fine and never grow in their craft. Somewhere in the middle is that sweet spot, where you help the writer understand both the strengths and weaknesses, so real progress can happen.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard given to a writer?

Hmm…probably this: “Where you are today as a writer is not where you were yesterday, and it’s not where you’ll be tomorrow. Take feedback with a grain of salt and learn from it. Promise me you won’t stop writing.” That’s from agent Kristin Nelson, my former boss. I think that really says it all.

What do you think is the most important quality it takes to be a successful author?

Persistence. It takes years of honing craft and working through multiple manuscripts and drafts to become an excellent writer. Once you start submitting your work, rejection will happen. Shake it off and keep moving forward! We all know real-life examples of how this pays off (name your favorite author).

This wouldn’t be complete without a slush pile question…What are your query letter pet peeves?

Ha! Nowadays I don’t really get to have pet peeves because it’s my job to fix them. :) But thinking back to all those submissions I read…I’d say queries that are too long and rambling. It’s so important to be able to boil it down to the heart of the story in just a paragraph or two; without that skill, you can have a really strong novel but still miss your chance with agents. A good rule of thumb: if agents have to scroll while reading your email query, it probably needs a slim down.

Want to find out more about freelance editing or how to pursue this career? Two good places to start are The Editorial Freelancers Association and Author-Editor Clinic.

Hot Topics from the Conference Scene: Diversity in Fiction Writing + Subjectivity in the Slush Pile


Happy Fall, Word Cafe readers! For me, it marks the beginning of conference season, and I’m just back from the Colorado Gold Conference from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It’s always a top-notch event, but this year’s offering of workshops and panels was perhaps the best yet. I’ll give a quick overview of some themes and resources that resonated with me, and then I’ll zoom in on a vital topic for writers heading into submissions: subjectivity in the slush pile and the publishing industry.

A couple of sessions that really stood out to me put the spotlight on diversity in fiction. They were “Writing the Basics of Queer Characters” by Charles Yoite, Emily Singer, and Cath Lauria; and debut MG author Judith Robbins Rose’s talk about writing characters from a different culture/background than your own. A theme that emerged in both sessions was the importance of including a broad array of experiences and viewpoints within what we consider “diverse characters,” in order to avoid what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” In other words, including a cisgender gay male character in your fiction (for example) does not begin to encompass the entire LGBTQ experience, just as writing about a young second generation Mexican girl from a tough neighborhood does not encapsulate “the Latino/a experience” in the U.S. If you’d like to explore this further, check out the website of the amazing We Need Diverse Books campaign. Now in its second year, the BeyondTheTropecampaign has made great strides toward getting the publishing industry and our literature to more accurately reflect the diversity of this country (it focuses on the U.S. book market, but hopefully the message will go global!).

Another dynamite workshop, “Tropes 101,” showed how to turn fictional tropes on their heads, and featured the team from the Beyond the Trope podcast. A few questions that arose: “Why do women warriors wear bikini-like armor–isn’t there a chance someone might try to stab the parts the armor doesn’t cover?” and “How can I subvert the ‘faithful dog/man’s best friend’ trope? (Answers from the brainstorming session: “Make the dog an alligator,” or “Let the dog think her master is an idiot.”) If you’re not acquainted with the podcast, I recommend it for excellent writing advice and a hearty dose of cerebral humor.

I always like to attend the agent/editor panels at conferences to stay current on what the publishing world is looking for, and this year’s RMFW sessions did not disappoint. For me, though, the prevailing message was one you have (hopefully) heard before:

In the world of publishing, it often comes down to individual tastes and opinions.

AgentEditorReadsSlushPilePanel croppedCase in point: the “Agents/Editors Read the Slush Pile” panel. It featured two agents and two publishers/acquiring editors, who were to listen as Angie Hodapp (my friend and former colleague at Nelson Literary) read the first two pages of audience members’ manuscripts. The panelists were to raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading if these were submissions in their slush pile, and then explain why. Talk about a nail-biting experience for the participating writers! But there was a twist: Angie had mixed in the opening pages of four New York Times bestsellers to add a little nail-biting on the other side of the table as well. Here’s how it played out:

Every participant received genuine praise from the panelists, and nearly every one made it to the end of the two-page read with at least one panelist still interested. The agents and editors were clearly impressed and noted that this was not at all typical during such an activity (or in the slush pile); the pool of submissions was exceptionally strong. Some things the panelists liked:

Elegant prose. They noticed when the writing was flowing beautifully, and if it ever started to feel over-written or stilted, hands went up (the “stop reading” signal).

Questions raised in the reader’s mind. There were cases where panelists said they might have stopped reading, had there not been a compelling question raised in those first two pages, ensuring they wanted to hear more in order to find out what would happen next.

The panelists did find room for improvement in each submission. Here were the most common pieces of advice:

Trim, trim, trim. For at least half of the submissions, panelists recommended tightening the writing on the sentence or paragraph level. Several authors were told their story started in the wrong place; that they should trim the first couple of paragraphs, the first page and a half, etc.; start the story in a more dynamic spot, and then weave in any relevant information from the cut material later. Some stories had an overload of descriptive language. Others contained too much thinking/ruminating from the main character, preventing the story from really taking off.

Clarify who the main character is (in the context of the story) and help readers get to know her/him better, right off the bat. Some of the submissions had excellent prose, but the panelists were left with a vague notion of the POV character. More grounding was needed.

Infuse the story with more emotion or a reason for the reader to care. Some of the submissions flowed nicely but left the audience feeling apathetic about the characters (often a precursor to yawning). Tackle the “So what?” factor early on.

Now, here’s the kicker. Remember those four NYT bestsellers? Can you guess how they fared?

The four published novels received reviews ranging from “good,” to lukewarm interest, to “no thanks.” None of them gave the impression of blowing the panelists away. Two received a stop sign from all or most of the panelists before the end of two pages. They were novels by…drum roll…Philippa Gregory and Nora Roberts. Yes, really!

Each of the four bestsellers received suggestions for improvement; the most common was again “I could see room for a bit of trimming/tightening.”

Are you surprised? I wasn’t. After hearing the samples, I agreed with those critiques and suggestions, but on a big-picture level, it’s something I’ve seen over and over in the publishing industry. In writing, as in any art form, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there is such a thing as incontestable good writing, just as there is cringe-worthy writing. But in the middle is a vast gray area, where it often comes down to individual tastes, preferences, and opinions on the part of industry professionals. It has become an axiom: Every agent has rejected a book that went on to be a big hit.

During this critique session, there was definitely overlap in the panelists’ feedback, but not a single submission received exactly the same assessment from all four agents/publishers. And though they appeared a little sheepish at rejecting those bestsellers, the panelists stuck to their guns and delivered what I think was the most important take-away: Publishing is a subjective business, and debut authors have the hardest road. You have to get your foot in the door and prove yourself before you’re allowed a few missteps or a saggy opening scene. Then, once you have established yourself as a master storyteller (AKA sold millions of copies), you just might get away with murder.


My workshop at the conference was titled “A Layered Approach to Worldbuilding: The Macro, the Micro, & the Unseen.” You can read some of the content in this blog post.

History Unboxed: An Interview with YA Author Stacey Lee


It has been far too long since I featured an author interview, but I think you’ll agree once you read this one that it was worth the wait! Today I’m very excited to share a conversation with Stacey Lee, whose debut YA historical fiction novel UNDER A PAINTED SKY debuted last month from Penguin Putnam. It’s the story of two teenage girls in 1849 who escape their grim circumstances by disguising themselves as boys pursuing the Gold Rush via the Oregon Trail. It’s intense, gorgeously written, and has already garnered some amazing praise, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

I4wfy9XvrOoDnSzWDaZBh8KzeVfGhe9G4qEeAEJ_qKcAbout Stacey: Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys.  She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul.  A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.  She plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes YA fiction. You can read more about her work at, on her Facebook page, or on Twitter @staceyleeauthor.

AM: Welcome, Stacey! I first read your novel under a different title (GOLDEN BOYS), in my slush pile days at Nelson Literary Agency. It has been a huge thrill to see it debut, and to garner such well-deserved praise. Congratulations!

To start off, can you tell us a little about where the inspiration for this story and its characters came from?

My parents inspired me!  My mother’s people came to the US in the late 1800’s, but due to the Chinese Exclusion Laws, Chinese people were not allowed to stay permanently.   I always wondered what it would have been like for the first Chinese people in the US.  My main character, Samantha, is born in New York, and has a toe-hold in both cultures, American and Chinese.  I chose the vehicle of the western for my dad, who came to the US in the 1950’s when he was eleven, when the western was at its heyday.  My father loved John Wayne movies, and would often play cowboy music for my sisters and I, so that was essentially the music of our childhood.  I think, like many emigrants of that generation, the western appealed to him because in westerns, the hero is faced with an often-hostile country, and must go it alone.

UAPS_coverAM: What do you feel are the greatest pleasures and challenges of writing YA?

I love both the awkwardness and the extreme-ness of that age.  The teen years offer such a rich well of emotions to draw from, everything from anger and disappointment in parental figures, crushes, heartache, and it all feels SO devastatingly important and immediate.  The challenges are to keep up the pace, not only to hook reluctant readers, but also because teens may not have the patience of adult readers who may stick with a slow starting book because they’ve heard the book got good reviews, etc.

AM: As an editor, one of my favorite challenges is helping writers find the right place to start their story, and to make those opening pages as dynamic and engaging as they can be. Do you have any advice about this based on your own writing experiences?

It’s important to get into the story as soon as possible.  By the first paragraph, we should have a sense of time and place.  By the end of the first chapter, we should have an idea of what the main conflict is (even if turns out to be something different).  When I read, I always pay attention to how the author pulls us into the story, and I shamelessly incorporate those techniques into my own writing.

AM: I love that advice. It’s not shameless, it’s savvy!

You’re one of the team members at the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, which makes me an even bigger fan! Could you give our readers a glimpse of the project’s mission and your role in it?

Absolutely.  WNDB was created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.  We believe that embracing diversity will lead to more empathy, understanding, and ultimately, equality.  We have a ton of awesome projects we are working on; we’ve established the Walter Award, which will be given to the diverse author of a diverse book every year in honor of visionary Walter Dean Myers, we’ve partnered with major organizations like National Education Association to bring diverse authors to classrooms, we’re establishing an internship program at major publisher for diverse folks who want to go into publishing, we’re planning a huge Diversity Festival in 2016.  So much good stuff ahead.  I am the legal director, as well as the panels director; we all wear many hats at WNDB.

diverselogoAM: What can readers and writers do to help support We Need Diverse Books’ goals?

You can be involved directly by volunteering. If you want to support diverse books and diverse authors, there are lots of ways to do this, including buying diverse books, requesting them at libraries, and telling your friends/families about the diverse books that you love.  If you loved a diverse book, you should absolutely let your bookseller, and even the publisher know.  They value and need this feedback.  Take the time to review the book on Goodreads or Amazon.  It doesn’t take too much time to rate a book, or to add it to your GR list.

AM: Can you give us any teasers about your next project(s)?

My second YA historical fiction will be out in 2016 and is called THE UNSINKABLE MERCY WONG: a spirited Chinese-American girl pretends to be an heiress from China to get entry into an all-white boarding school, but more than her future plans are shaken up when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hits.

AM: That sounds amazing! I’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you for sharing this news and all of your wonderful insight.

Thank you so much for having me, Anita!