Thursday, January 26, 2012

Editorial Palavering: Martha Mihalick, Editor at Greenwillow Books / HarperColllins

(Second in an extremely occasional series of interviews with my editorial friends and colleagues.)

1.  How did you come to be a children's books editor? What were the biggest lessons in your editorial education, or what are three of your guiding editorial principles now?

I realized that children's book editor was a job sometime around sophomore year of college. I was looking around publisher websites for internship possibilities, and came across a description for an editorial assistant in a children's division. And I instantly knew that THAT was what I wanted to do when I graduated. So, two years later, during the summer right after graduation, I attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute, and patiently waited all month for the children's book lecture, which was given by Virginia Duncan, Greenwillow's publisher. Very fortunately for me, I got to talk to Virginia, and she was just beginning her search for a new editorial assistant at that time. And now I've been at Greenwillow for ten years!

Biggest lessons...hmm. Every day I learn something new, either from one of my colleagues or one of our authors! So perhaps the biggest lesson in my editorial education is that in the creative process everyone has to be open to continuing to learn.

Before I was in publishing, I also never realized just how important the page turn is. In picture books, it's a huge part of the pacing and build of the story, of course. But even in novels, that turn from end of chapter to beginning of chapter is important. Another big lesson is that it isn't necessarily an editor's job to know HOW to fix a problem in a story, but to know WHAT needs to be fixed.

2.  What kind of books do you do these days? (All picture books or all novels?) What are some common themes or ideas or motifs that run through books you acquire? How might those connect to your childhood reading or your own life?

Lately I have been acquiring mostly novels, but at Greenwillow, we all get to work on every book in some way, so I also see a lot of picture books every day. I love having the wide range of books to work on, and the fact that I don't have to pick one age group.

I've noticed that I'm very attracted to stories that involve significant--often heartwrenching--choices for the characters. And ones with strong friendship or sibling themes. And looking back, these do connect quite a bit to the themes that appealed to me in my childhood reading, as well. Robin McKinley's and Tamora Pierce's books were among my favorites, as were The Secret Garden, Matilda, and A Wrinkle in Time. I also seem to go for stories in which the child or teenager discovers or creates their own spaces, away from the parents or other authority figures. There’s something very magical about that, even in books that don’t involve any actual magic.

3.  What is your general editorial process like? How did you learn/develop it?

The first time I read through the manuscript, I try to do it straight through without picking up my pencil (this doesn't always work!) to get a sense of how the entire story plays out. Then I go through again, pencil in hand, jotting questions or thoughts in the margins as I go, and making notes on larger issues on another piece of paper. I use those notes to start my editorial letter, and will go back through the margin comments to pick up anything else that seems like it needs called out in the letter. Often, I'll talk to the other Greenwillowites who've had a chance to read the manuscript, and we'll discuss what we like and what we think needs attention, and I'll tweak the letter after those conversations. In later drafts, the balance usually shifts to heavier line editing and shorter letters. But every manuscript and every author are different, so the editorial process is a lot about finding the best way to work for each project.

Editing is interesting...on the one hand you're always learning, but on the other, it never feels like a process you're being taught. For the most part, I learned how to do it by because as an assistant I wrote reader's reports for the other editors, and then I was the one who xeroxed their editorial letters and marked-up manuscripts. So of course I read them as I xeroxed! A lot of it is experience, too, of course. The more manuscripts you work on, the more you know what has worked in the past and what hasn't. And there is always the instinctive part of it, too.

4.  You're very involved in social media, with your own blog and Tumblr, a strong role on the Greenwillow blog, and Twitter. As an editor, what do you get out of doing that?

Social media's been a really great way to make connections with agents, other editors, and writers. I've certainly gotten submissions because of something I've mentioned on Twitter--it's been a new channel to show what my taste is. And it's been a terrific way to get to know booksellers, librarians, and bloggers, too. I love hearing them talk about books, and I learn so much about their perspective from the blogs and twitter. Added bonus? There's nothing more warm-and-fuzzy-feeling than seeing people whose opinions you respect talking positively about one of your books!

Plus everything online give us so much access to such a wide array of information, and the people I follow through various platforms introduce me to articles I might not have found on my own but find incredibly interesting.

5.  I have to ask: What is it like to work with Megan Whalen Turner? And can you tell us anything at all about the next Gen book?

Well, Virginia is Megan's editor, so it's a better question for her! Megan is, of course, amazing, and I consider it a gift to have watched the last two books take shape.

I will tell you everything I know about the next Gen book: She's writing it.

6.  How many hours did you work in the past week? (Include time spent editing at home or reading manuscripts.)

Cheryl, you can't honestly expect me to tally that up! That would ruin the illusion that I have a life.

7.  How did you come to acquire and edit The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which was nominated for the Morris Award? Do you do a lot of debuts? What did it mean to you to have a book nominated for the Morris?
Oh, this is an exciting story! Rae Carson's agent, Holly Root, called me late one afternoon saying she had a manuscript that reminded her of Kristin Cashore and Robin McKinley. I said SEND IT OVER RIGHT NOW! Which she did. And I read it overnight. By the end of the next day, Rae and Holly had accepted our offer to publish it.

I have done a lot of debuts in the last couple years--Entwined by Heather Dixon, Mistwood by Leah Cypess, A Touch Mortal by Leah Clifford were all debut novels. And there are a few more coming in the next couple years, too! It's really inspiring as an editor to help launch an author's career, and know how many more books they have in them for all of the readers out there.

Having The Girl of Fire and Thorns named a finalist for the Morris is such a thrill, and an honor. Rae is an absolutely beautiful writer and the story she has to tell took my breath away. I'm so excited to know that others felt the same way, and am beyond happy for her!

8.  What book do you have coming out next, and why do you love it?

Bethany Griffin's Masque of the Red Death is coming in a few short months. It's a reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe's story, and it is breathtaking. Romance, despair, a fight for hope, a little touch of steampunk, and a destroyed society--all with that gothic tone that's so delicious in Poe. It's the first of two books, and definitely not one to miss! I was completely swept up in this story; it's another that I read in basically one sitting.

Then there's The Crown of Embers, coming out next fall. That's the sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns. And let me just tell you that you can't wait.

9.  What are three things you'd like to tell beginning writers / you never get to tell writers, but wish they knew / you find yourself telling writers over and over again? (Take your pick!) 

I pick "tell beginning writers."

* Write the story you HAVE to tell, not the story you think someone else wants to hear.
* Don't be too stiff in your writing. Stay loose and let your voice shine. Be YOU, not "An Author." That's how you'll stay true to your originality and unique perspective.
* Writing is an art, but being an author is a job. Make sure you learn how to balance the two and always be professional in your interactions with the publishing world.

Thanks, Martha!

1 comment: