Interview With Fiction Editor, A. Leonard Lucas
I get an inside look at submissions--the process, the competition, the trends. It's strengthened the cover letters I write. It's stripped clichés out of my stories. And because I get to nitpick other people's writing, I've become a much stronger self-editor.
But there's a change I've noticed that's seldom talked about. The publishing industry is losing courage, gravitating toward safe, meaningless literature, and that’s a threat people need to notice.
There was a time when stories brought about world change. Controversial books were hot topics in pop-culture. Magazines were boycotted for printing bold fiction. Books were burned for opposing the status quo. Now we have to go to reality TV, rap music and Super Bowl halftime shows to find this same type of controversy. And sadly, these platforms aren't as effective at producing change as a good book.
I'd like to open my (almost) weekly copy of The New Yorker and find something other than a slow-paced, sentimental story that reflects the soft-side of the world we live in. There's more controversy in their cover-art than their fiction. I'd like to pick up Nicholas Spark's new bestseller and see something that challenges what love is and what it could be, rather than read a formulated romance with tragedy, separation and southern belles. Now I know there are exceptions to this. And don't get me wrong, this is not meant to attack these well-respected publishing machines; the problem is much more wide-spread. I only mention these examples because they came to my mind first, and high-market platforms are where a little courage has the most effect. It's where bold stories could reverse this sad trend.
Interview With Lisa Rojany Buccieri, COO & Publisher, NY Journal of Books—West
Lisa, what do you love most about working with authors? What I love most of all about working with writers is their enthusiasm. Regardless of their level of skill or experience, every author I have worked with is absolutely excited about the fact that they have committed words and stories (and sometimes even art for the author/illustrators) to the page. Everyone seems to have a story to tell or valuable experience to share, whether it is a novel or a nonfiction narrative memoir, or a picture book, or a YA novel, or a general nonfiction book. And these days, that includes a lot of eBooks and self-publishing, which deserves the same editorial expertise as any other written piece.
The reason I love my work so much is that it is extremely gratifying for me to help writers make their work the best it can be. I take everything I have ever learned from working in publishing as a Publisher and Editorial Director, a writer who has been through the publishing process dozens of times, and an editor of lists of books both as a full timer and through my business (www.EditorialServicesofLA.com) and they get a brain dump from me. This brain dump includes detailed commentary both on the manuscript—where I note every single issue that needs to be addressed—and in the detailed, sometimes 20-page critique letter that is specific to their work.
I always provide suggestions as to HOW to address the issues (writers are instructed to put them in their voice, of course), as opposed to providing amorphous information or terminology that no one gets: e.g. I would never say, OK, you need to flesh out your protagonist without giving a writer exact details and a process by which to accomplish the improvement to their work. And this level of detail applies to everything from character arcs, plotlines, environment/context development, grammar, style, voice—everything a book writer needs to understand to make their work shine.
And when they come back to me with their rewrite or I hear that they have acquired an agent or snagged a publisher and are going to be published, or if they are published and win an award or a great review, I feel both gratified that I was able to help them achieve that goal and grateful to have been part of the process.
At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I really am one of those people who loves what she does and cannot believe that I am lucky enough to spend my days working with words and stories. It doesn’t even feel like work.
What approach do you take to the editing process? I am one of those editors or writers who does not charge by the page, I charge by the project. I do this because I want the writer to be able to afford to come back after they have made their edits and get more feedback if they feel they need it.
I also believe that editing is a collaborative process, that I have to get inside the writer’s head so that I can glean what they are trying to accomplish and where they are going with their story. That is why I only work on one project at a time. I want to be able to concentrate solely on one voice, one story, one writing endeavor.
I also am absolutely incapable of even reading a manuscript without pen in hand. I am always and forever compelled to help improve what I am reading. A blessing or a curse, who knows? I also work on hard copy whenever possible because track changes is such a mess and does not allow the work to flow or the edits to flow as well as an edit on hardcopy does. When rewriting a manuscript as a ghostwriter, or helping a self-publishing or eBook writer to lay out their manuscript text and pages, of course I do it digitally, but I still prefer the old fashioned way. It helps writers learn about the process so they can apply it to their next writing project.
And I never use red pen. I have used a purple pen exclusively for over 20 years. It’s less scary and a tad whimsical, sort of lightening up the process for the writer so they do not get too overwhelmed.
What are the challenges and rewards of working with words all day? Hmmm. Well, I would say that the only challenge is to get inside the writer’s head to make sure that I can mirror their intentions with my edits. The rewards are endless. I think I elaborated on them above.
What do you make of all the changes in the book industry? I think eBooks are the best invention in the universe. I loved my Kindle, and when I graduated to an iPad (then an iPad two because I am a gadget/tech whore, I even added magazines and newspapers to my queue. I love the instant access to the written word and the fact that you can take 1,000 books with you wherever you go as long as there is an outlet to recharge. Not like I ever have time to read everything I want to!
But as a partner in and the Publisher of the premier online book review site www.nyjournalofbooks.com, I feel much better read than I actually am because I edit every single book review that comes in. These are long-form reviews and so I feel that I have read many more books than I actually have!
I also think that it is empowering for writers to be able to choose to self-publish or publish an eBook as they do not have to rely on agents to place their work or publishers to offer them a contract. On the other hand, many self-published works are so desperately in need of an edit that it’s shameful.
What advice do you have for struggling writers? I have worked with literally hundreds of writers in every format and genre and they all have different levels of skill. But the writers who have succeeded in mainstream publishing are the ones who are determined and do not give up. Sometimes, many times, that determination can make up for less than stellar writing skills, believe it or not. One of the weakest writers I ever worked with had four thrillers in a series published simply because she attacked the process and kept at it, did not allow herself to get discouraged by rejection because she believed in herself, and finally succeeded—and how!
Did you know that Kathryn Stockett, the author of the blockbuster The Help that got made into a successful movie as well, got something like 60 rejections from publishers until she hit the 61st that recognized her obvious talent? Talk about the one that got away!
Also, the writers who understand that publicity and marketing are a full-time job and that they have to engage with SEO and social media and everything else that goes into pushing your book into the public eye are the ones who will accomplish the most notice and longevity.
Another very important aspect of getting published is that you cannot be a dilettante. You need to educate yourself about the process. From the simple aspects like how to properly format a manuscript for submission to how to write a query letter to the more important aspect of a submission that I address such as: Is your protagonist compelling? Is your story interesting and plausible? Do you adhere to the conventions in your genre—or are you talented enough to subvert them? Is your grammar correct? It’s amazing how many people think that they can just write a book and the world is going to love it because they do.
Join writer’s groups. For instance, children’s book writers and illustrators benefit greatly from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators that provides lists of agents and query letter hints and so much more to its members (www.scbwi.org). Writers of books for young adults have to have read the best and latest in their genre and format and know what they’re up against so that they can play in the game in the first place—and that goes for every other format and genre.
And for god’s sake, if you are writing a picture book and don’t know that a 3,000-word manuscript will never get published buy a mainstream publisher (do your research and you’ll know why), then you have not done your due diligence and as far as I am concerned, you don’t deserve to get published. It’s so easy online to find out how to do things properly, and anyone who doesn’t do the research is simply asking for rejection—and will have blown that precious opportunity of first impressions that can never be recovered.
But here’s what I tell all my writers: Hope means having something in some agent’s or editor’s inbox. So always keep writing and improving your skills and someday, if you don’t give up, maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to be a Kathryn Stockett as well.