I have been interviewing members of our kid lit community for about four years now, chalking up well over a hundred interviews, and I never tire of them. It has given me a wonderful opportunity to connect with people I admire across the industry. When I began writing five years ago, I couldn’t have told you the difference between a publisher and an editor. Yes, I was that green! Now, of course, I understand the nuances of these professional roles, and I follow imprints and editors with keen interest. Cheryl Klein is an editor with whom I connected through social media soon after I began writing, and I have been following her career, her writing and her advice ever since. I am very happy to share our conversation with you today.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your career?
[CK] I grew up south of Kansas City, Missouri, in a small town called Peculiar. I loved theatre and art and books, so I started to crush on New York City while I was still in high school – I actually had a map of Manhattan on my bedroom ceiling for a while! But then I visited New York my senior year of high school, and when the plane touched down again in Kansas City, I remember thinking very distinctly, “Oh, thank GOD I am back in the Midwest.” That said to me I wasn’t ready to move to New York. I then went to a small college in a small town in Minnesota (www.carleton.edu), and ironically, that did make me ready to move to New York; because if you like walking everywhere, as I discovered I do, your choices for living in the United States are tiny towns or big cities with excellent public transportation. So the Midwest got me here finally.
I think I tend to bring a pretty Midwestern sensibility to editing, too: nice, a little reserved, focused on getting the work done, not prone to combativeness or drama or big displays of emotion — but when I compliment or fight for something, I really mean it.
[JM] Please tell us a little about your journey to becoming an editor.
[CK] My grandfather was a professor of children’s literature who ran an annual festival for children’s authors, so I grew up madly in love with books and a little in awe of their writers. I decided I wanted to be an editor while I was still in high school, and after college, I attended the Denver Publishing Institute, where I made the connections that led to my job at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. You can read the whole story in depth here.
[JM] SECOND SIGHT has been one of my go-to craft texts. Your next book, THE MAGIC WORDS, was planned to be a revision of SECOND SIGHT, how did it morph into something new and different?
[CK] Well, it IS a revision of SECOND SIGHT — it’s just a really extensive one! When I drafted out a plan for THE MAGIC WORDS, I wanted to focus exclusively on novels, eliminate some repetitive material, add some new stuff I’d written, and craft a more coherent book altogether — one a novelist could take from the first inklings of an idea to the final polish on the manuscript. So I took a hard look at all of the content in SECOND SIGHT, and ended up replacing or reconfiguring about seventy percent of it in favor of other material, while also revising the remaining thirty percent to add more depth and nuance. People who like SECOND SIGHT will recognize many of the ideas and even some of the language in THE MAGIC WORDS, but the new book takes everything a step farther, covers more topics altogether, and includes more practical tools and exercises to help writers go deeper in turn.
[JM] What lessons did you learn through self-publishing SS and did any of these carry over into your traditional publishing role?
[CK] Self-publishing mostly reinforced a lesson I had learned already through traditional publishing: book-making involves endless attention to detail. I also gained a new appreciation for unit cost, since I paid to print every page in each copy of SECOND SIGHT, and the more material I had, the more each book cost me. That reminded me that the content in every book must always be able to justify those extra pages (and pennies).
[JM] You were talking about the need for or lack of diversity in children’s literature well before it became a buzz term. What sort of changes in the diversity of the submissions you receive have you seen in the last five years? And, do you actually like to know something about the author of a MS or would you rather simply judge the writing on its literary qualities alone?
[CK] I’ve definitely started seeing more diverse submissions, in part because my outspokenness on the subject means that more agents send me their diverse books. And if a book involves diverse protagonists or is set in a very specific location (whether, say, a physics lab or Tierra del Fuego), I do like knowing where the author is deriving his or her authority to write about that subject. If I feel like I can trust the author, that allows me to relax more thoroughly into the book.
[JM] What motivated you to start your blog in 2005 and how has it evolved over the last decade?
[CK] I had been involved in a longtime email correspondence that came to an abrupt end, and when that break happened, I felt like I missed my own writing voice even more than I missed my friend’s voice in writing. So I decided I would start a blog to keep talking. It accordingly began as a sort of public personal journal, then, after writers discovered it, I started blogging more about writing and publishing and the books I was working on. The blog became a useful space for me to think out loud about many of the ideas that eventually evolved into talks or essays, like my Theory of YA Fiction here, or were just fun to explore, like the elements of romance here.
For a long time, I posted something at least once a week, but that habit slowly fell away as a result of five factors: an expansion in my editorial workload; moving in with my then-boyfriend, now-husband; Twitter and Facebook, which allow me to share all my random thoughts without needing to collect them in a blog post; the downturn in or disappearance of RSS feeds, which drove fewer people to blogs in general; and as of last year, writing THE MAGIC WORDS, which kept me so busy that I went months without a post. I both miss blogging and don’t. . . . I feel like I’m getting to express myself as much as I need to pretty regularly now, so I don’t feel the itch, but it was also a lovely space and time in which to do a lot of thinking and talking to readers. (I recently started a monthly newsletter, which readers can sign up for at my website, www.cherylklein.com, and I hope writing there will provide some of that same reflective space.)
[JM] What is the most recurring error you see authors making during the revision process?
[CK] In their haste to get their manuscript back to their editors, writers often address the skin and not the bones of a revision: They’ll fix a character’s actions, but not add the deeper psychological motivations that would drive those actions; they’ll toss off a “Oh, and then everything was okay” summary line to resolve a subplot, without setting up the character or plot circumstances that make the okayness believable. If you’re not up against an absolute deadline, I think most editors would rather have authors hold on to a ms. for a while and get those bones right rather than returning it quickly.
[JM] What, if any, initially draws you in more: character, plot, world or voice?
[CK] They all need to sustain each other, but I’ll go with character, as a writer who can render a character compelling on the page can usually find their way to the rest as well.
[JM] What are some of the essential qualities of a good editor?
Listening, first of all: the ability to hear what the writer is saying both in the text and in conversation about what this book is or wants to be. The capability to see negative space: What is not in the manuscript and should be there for it to achieve its fullest and best state. Imagination, to figure out new approaches to solving an editorial problem or new directions for books on familiar topics. An understanding of the emotional needs and desires of readers at each of the ages we publish for. Communication and persuasive skills, to clearly articulate the problems we see in a manuscript to its author, or why a company should invest in a particular project, or what a cover should look like. Good public speaking skills, for making presentations in-house and at writers’ conferences (if the editors wants). Organization, to stay on track, on deadline and sometimes on budget in all of the various strands of our lives and books. A sense of the individual strengths and gifts we bring to a manuscript and its author, to know whether we’re a good match for a particular project. Bravery and confidence, in saying “I WANT THIS BOOK” or conveying our editorial opinions; flexibility and humility, in knowing other people have different opinions and we are not always right.
[JM] What was the first book you ever bought with your own money?
[CK] A FRIEND FOR FRANCES, a “Tale from the Care Bears.” I was five years old, and it cost four dollars at the TG&Y in Belton, Missouri.
[JM] $4, that was almost my monthly pocket money when I was a little older! What would you like aspiring writers to know about the publication process?
[CK] You can and should ask questions of your editor before you sign with them and throughout the process, and, after you’ve given consideration to their edits, push back on anything that doesn’t sit right with you. Usually, if an editor identifies a problem, we do want to see it solved; but we’re open to discussion on HOW it gets solved—we know you can come up with better ideas on that than we can. And we want the book to feel good and right to both sides in the end.
[JM] How do you manage to keep fresh eyes during several rounds of editing on a book?
[CK] Mostly time! Usually at least two months passes between drafts, and I’ll work on many other projects in that period, so my brain can come to the new draft scrubbed clean of the old one. I’ll also give new drafts to various readers to bring true fresh eyes to the text, or to help me overcome what I think of as “Editorial Stockholm Syndrome,” when I know the author’s vision or habits or characters so well that I can’t see them with totally unbiased eyes.
Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What’s your favorite park (state, urban or national) in the world?
[CK] I have to go with Prospect Park in Brooklyn, because it’s cunningly designed, I got engaged there, and I never get tired of it. Heaven will look Iike Prospect Park on a sunny Sunday in June.
[JM] I discovered the joys of Prospect Park before I knew Central Park. Cats or dogs?
[CK] A cat, a rambunctious and eternally dissatisfied rescue named Marley (who is sitting on the floor and staring at me even as I type this).
[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[CK] I spent a substantial portion of my college years writing Jane Austen fanfiction, and I’ll still write a fanfic from time to time when characters catch my imagination.
[JM] First paid job after high school?
[CK] I actually worked for a local printing company on an assignment: creating a church cookbook for the First United Methodist Church of Belton, Missouri. I typed up and organized the recipes, laid out the pages, inserted clip art illustrations, wrote out the index, proofread my work, the whole thing. That was my first-ever book editorial project.
[JM] Favorite book cover of those you have published?
[CK] I have to go with MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD here, because it’s a beautiful piece of art that perfectly captures the spirit of the book. It’s also worth noting that it is not a moment that actually happens in the book – Jasmine never comes to Marcelo’s house, takes him by the hand, and leads him away from his treehouse – but that literal fact felt less important to all of us than the artistic truth and beauty of the picture.
Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Cheryl and I encourage my readers to sign up for your newsletter, and to pre-order their paperback or kindle copy of THE MAGIC WORDS: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS as soon as you can. It will be released in September. You can follow Cheryl on twitter, @chavelaque.