Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Back on a Decade of Change -- and, I Dare Say, Character Definition

In some ways I wanted all along and in some ways I never even saw coming, the past ten years have been the years that will define me. This decade saw me through a failed middle school attempt at popularity; a national tragedy; the death of a close friend; red hair dye and arm warmers; my first kiss; a summer on my own in Alaska; my discovery of the publishing world; a definitive week at writers’ camp; my first job; Shakespeare, Kesey and Stoppard; a growing social conscience; AP tests, SATs and college applications; close friendships and moments that tested them; declaring my major and deciding on a career; first love; first heartbreak; Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor and Toni Morrison; a semester of traveling in England and Europe; hurting and healing and finally finding myself all over again; graduating from college; moving to a new city without a single friend; meeting and learning from people whose backgrounds and beliefs and classes and cultures are totally different from mine; two fantastic publishing internships; Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and Meg Rosoff; struggling and job searching and forging a new life for myself -- it was the stuff of a young adult novel, the roots and branches of my own coming-of-age story.

And it seems fitting that, after a decade in which I experienced my young life to the fullest and grew (often painfully and often wonderfully) to adulthood, I’ll be kicking off the next decade with yet another step towards the future I started to dream of at the very beginning of this one. I’ve just moved back to Baltimore, and next week I’ll be starting what I hope is a long career in publishing as an Editorial Assistant at a publishing company down here.

Like any great story, this decade has made me laugh and made me cry, and it constantly challenged me to redefine myself and my values, to learn from and to love those around me, to adapt to change, to grow through struggle and, most of all, to always hang on to hope.

That’s what I’m taking into this new decade. What about you -- what are your stories of the last decade?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Editor Appreciation Day!

Okay, so I'm not an author, but I sure appreciate editors! Heck, I appreciate them so much, I want to be one of them. And, during my journey into publishing, I've been so fortunate to have known and learned from a variety of truly wonderful, insightful editors. These folks have taught me the A-to-Z of bookmaking. In the process, they've inspired me with their brilliance and poise, developed my skills by offering their good examples, and pushed me to grow and succeed.

Today, I'm thinking about and hoping to thank these wonderful editors:

  • Bruce Bortz and Harrison Demchick of Bancroft Press, who took me on as a bright-eyed, opinionated college junior and made it their goal to help me succeed. Bruce enlisted me to tear down the mountain of unsolicited manuscripts towering over the basement floor, and the daunting task forced me to sharpen my reading skills, develop a clear picture of my tastes, and become discerning and decisive. Harrison's editorial letters offered me the model off of which I began basing my interactions with authors, and they taught me to think like an editor and to express myself to authors in a way that's professional, engaging and clear. Finally, Bruce brought me into every editorial discussion at the press and carefully considered my input; he put his own work on hold time and again to explain the publishing process or to help me make contacts and find jobs; and he pointed his clients to me for freelance work and hired me to design the covers of two of his books. The two of them opened the door to the industry for me, and then encouraged me to go through.

  • Emily Clement, Assistant Editor over at Scholastic's Arthur A. Levine Books, who offered me an internship that changed my life. Emily's as sweet and patient as she is sharp, and I could not be more grateful to have had her as a mentor and teacher. Throughout my summer internship, she kept an eye out for projects that would interest me specifically, and she offered me the chance to join her in editorial discussions, production meetings, marketing efforts, imprint meetings, company parties and more; to work with original illustrations and manuscript proofs; and to meet some big players in the industry. What's more, Emily took the time to counsel me through a difficult transition and a trying job search. From Emily I learned more lessons than I can count. She taught me how to write helpful reader's reports and even helpful rejection letters; what qualities to look for in a picture-book manuscript and how a great manuscript gets paired up with the right illustrator; how all of the departments at a large press work together to create and promote a classic; and some of the concepts that are at the heart of all the best children's books.

  • Cheryl Klein, Arthur A. Levine's Senior Editor, who was (and is) an inspiration and a role model for her quirky professionalism, her unbounded enthusiasm and her absolute brilliance when it comes to editing. Cheryl gave me the chance to read hot submissions before anyone else and to look over her shoulder as she went through rounds of revisions with authors. She offered praise and guidance throughout my internship, answered all my questions readily, and taught me through her fantastic example how to be a passionate, professional, unstoppable editor. From Cheryl I learned how to judge a manuscript's and an author's potential, how to take a project through acquisitions, and how to work with an author to make sure that she achieves what she wants to and that her writing becomes the best it can be along the way.

  • Arthur Levine, publisher at AAL Books and all-around superstar, who not only gave America the chance to read two of my favorite series (for those who don't know, Arthur is J. K. Rowling's American editor and, during his time at Knopf, he helped bring the Golden Compass series to the U.S.), but who also welcomed me into his imprint and offered a third fantastic example of editorial greatness. Arthur is so witty and entertaining that simply talking to him is a pleasure, but learning from him is truly an honor. During weekly imprint meetings with him, I learned about what to look for in illustration submissions, how to fit the pieces of a great picture-book narrative together into a cohesive story, and how to present myself and my ideas professionally.

  • Laura Musich of W. W. Norton, who shares my absolute love of Mary GrandPre and all things designerly and wonderful, and who took a chance on offering me freelance work, thereby giving me the opportunity to learn all about copy-editing and e-media by working directly with it. Laura is funny, open-minded and more than willing to teach and to help newcomers, and my great experiences working with her led me to consider the textbook side of publishing (where the glamor is scaled back a little, but so is the stress).

  • Erica Stern, Laura Romain, Amy Cherry and Angela von der Lippe, all of W. W. Norton's trade division, who gave me a glimpse of the world of trade publishing for adults. The four of them constantly challenged me to broaden my horizons and to learn outside of my field. I worked on a variety of projects for them, and in doing so learned about what makes trade nonfiction captivating and marketable, how rights and permissions work, and how to track a book through its publication process.
I consider myself fortunate to have become a part of such a supportive, inspiring and extraordinary community of book editors. They haven't just made it possible for me to find a job in publishing -- they've taught me, inspired me, and enriched my life by giving me something to aspire to.

Monday, December 7, 2009

How Sad is Too Sad in Children's Books?

I’ve been pondering this topic lately because I finally read Bridge to Terabithia over Thanksgiving (I know, I know, just now!? But I had a bit of a one-track mind as a child, and because of it I missed out on a lot of great books the first time around. Fortunately, I get to relive childhood constantly as an intern, and hopefully one day as an editor). It's something I consider often, because as a teen I gravitated towards dark books, and as an adult I continue to find I admire authors who very truthfully convey sadness. Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now is one of the most devastating books I know, but it nonetheless is one of my very favorites. As a child, I recall crying through Where the Red Fern Grows and parts of Island of the Blue Dolphins. Heck, I even cried as an adult during the last three Harry Potter books.

However, the seeds of this post were actually sown several months ago. I had just spent the greater part of the morning curled up in an armchair, soaking up the perfectly whimsical ninth-floor view of the city and reading a manuscript. My supervisor was out for a few days, but she had left two neatly bound copies of a manuscript for my fellow intern and I to review. The two of us had fallen into a comfortable routine by then, and when 11:00 a.m. came around and I started to feel caffeine withdrawal, Sam was usually rounding the corner, asking if I was ready for a tea run.

Still, I believe the two of us were late for tea that day, too immersed in the story’s gentle lyricism to pull away, and when we finally trekked up to the cafeteria we were bursting with ideas we just had to discuss. We loved the manuscript; we saw so many possibilities; we couldn’t wait for the editorial discussion and for rounds of revisions. Sam and I agreed on many of its finest points, and on many of the places where it needed strengthening.

But while I emptied a packet of sweetener into my empty mug, Sam mentioned something that surprised me: “I wonder,” she said, “if this chapter isn’t too sad for children.”

She had a point; the chapter included some moments that were almost horrifyingly bleak -- moments that showed characters at their worst, with no hope to go on. Of course, I had found the chapter sad -- heartbreaking, even. But I also found it beautifully written and terribly true to life. In fact, I had admired how well the author had captured the many ways in which broken people confront sorrow. I had never thought that it might be too sad for children.

And really, what it comes down to is this: I don’t know if I think “too sad for children” exists. Because in real life, every child deals with sorrow. And some children deal with the sort of breathtaking sorrow that we’d hide from them forever, if there were any way we could.

Children’s literature serves so many purposes. Sometimes it constructs elaborate fantasy worlds in which we wrap our children up, protecting them from the evils that we can’t hide in our own world. Sometimes it instructs or encourages children to dream and create, to push the boundaries of their imaginations. Sometimes it offers a safe way for children to experience danger through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes it reassures children that the world is a good and proper place. And sometimes -- in my opinion, some of the most important times -- it shows children that they are not alone, and that no feeling lasts forever.

If there were no children who missed a parent or a sibling or a friend; no children who struggled to gain the love of those who should give it freely; and none who faltered time and time again while trying to find their place in the world, perhaps we would need no sad literature for children. But those children do exist, and they need to be able to find themselves in books. They need to be free to open a book and meet a character who hurts for all the same reasons that they do. And they need to be able to follow that character through the healing process -- to see that they won’t have to hurt forever, that even after all that awful sorrow, there is some joy left in the world.

The manuscript I read that day and Bridge to Terabithia, How I Live Now, Where the Red Fern Grows, and countless other phenomenal books for children and young adults, ultimately tell a story about one of literature’s most powerful emotions: hope. And I applaud them for tackling the depths of sorrow they have to confront in order to tell that story; I hope children experience them deeply and come out of them with a better understanding of life and its many battles.

Let's not aim to keep children from journeying into dark places; rather, let's send them there -- all in order to show them the way out into the sun.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Publishing: Giving Yours Truly a Sense of Purpose Since 2001

Yesterday, while driving back to my family's house after yet another interview (!), I listened to the end of NPR's interview with Jason Reitman, who directed Juno and, more recently, Up in the Air (which he also wrote, in collaboration with Sheldon Turner). I didn't catch much of the interview, but while discussing his latest project Jason mentioned something that had intrigued him -- and which, in turn, really struck me.

Up in the Air features a character who makes his living by firing others. While filming in St. Louis and Detroit, Reitman took the opportunity to put out an open casting call for people who had recently lost their jobs. He interviewed each of the hundred people who responded for ten minutes, and simulated their lay-offs on-camera, asking each of them to respond as they had on the day they were fired. The process was eye-opening, as you can imagine.

And what intrigued me about the interviews Reitman described was this detail: though he asked each of his interviewees what the hardest part of unemployment was, none of them answered the way he expected. He had thought people would say the obvious -- that finding money was tough -- but not a single interviewee mentioned that. Overwhelmingly, the unemployed people to whom he spoke responded that what they struggled with, each day, was finding a sense of purpose. "I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing," they told him.

Okay, so that's not the spot of cheer you were looking for to start your day. But I was really struck by the reality of that comment, and I can't help but draw parallels to my own situation as I look for a way into the publishing industry, and to the situation of those already in the industry as it changes and as it suffers from the economy.

Let's be honest -- none of us are in this for the money. The industry has taken a hit of late, but it's never offered the sort of career that makes many people rich. And that fact, in some ways, really defines the people who enter the industry, whether they do so as writers, editors, publishers, designers, publicists, marketers, or salespeople. The people who come to the industry, knowing it offers long hours and low pay, come to it because they have what everyone is looking for. They have an overwhelming sense of purpose.

When publishing struggles -- when you're worried about your career, or struggling to keep up with its changes, or trying to get your footing and find your way into that elusive first job -- it's more important than ever to take some time to remember that, and to hold on to it. So tell me, writer friends and editor friends and random followers whose presence here may or may not make sense: what makes the industry meaningful to you? What have your struggles been, and what do you do when you need to be reminded of why you keep on going? What triumphs have given you a sense of purpose?