Life After the MFA: Part II
Today’s post is the second in a two-part series about writing and publishing during and after the MFA program. Today I’m chatting with my VCFA classmates Caroline Carlson and Melanie Crowder about life after grad school, what we’ve learned about publishing and writing since graduation.
You both signed contracts for books you had not yet written. Caroline, you had a deal for a three book series with one publisher, and Melanie, you work with two different publishers, one for MG and one for YA. Will you tell us about the scheduling of the books and how you structured your time to meet the deadlines?
Melanie: Sure! My YA was set to release in January and my MG was slated for September. In really general terms, a book goes to copyedit a year before release, which means that I finished Audacity in the winter of 2014, and I finished A Nearer Moon later that fall. Now, my next YA will come out in early 2017, so I’ll need to be wrapping up revisions in the next few months.
Where it gets tricky is in the planning. You never know how extensive revisions with your editor are going to be. Revisions for Audacity took months and months (and months!) while revisions for A Nearer Moon were relatively quick. So as I try to plan my drafting and revising schedule for the coming year, I really don’t know when I’ll need to stop drafting my next MG and begin revising my YA, or when that revision will be finished and I’ll get to finish the MG. I have to be ready to shift gears quickly when I hear from my editors. It’s a challenge, for sure, but I feel really fortunate to have the privilege of working with two fantastic editors.
Caroline: I have always loved schedules and spreadsheets and making plans way in advance, but publishing has taught me that I need to embrace the unexpected! The three books in my Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series were scheduled at one-year intervals (in September of 2013, 2014, and 2015) so I always knew roughly when I had to have a final manuscript delivered to my publisher. But as Melanie says, when it comes to the time spent on revisions, each book is different, and you never know exactly how much time you’ll spend revising or when those revisions will take place. One thing I’ve learned is that I can conjure up an editorial letter by scheduling a vacation or another important life event! For example, I had to do major revisions on The Buccaneers’ Code during the same month that my husband and I moved houses. All the packing and unpacking kept me so busy that there are huge chunks of the book I don’t actually remember writing.
What about the editing process? How similar or different was it to a faculty’s packet letter? How many revisions did you go through with your editor?
Caroline: I’m hugely grateful that I got to experience receiving packet letters from my advisors at VCFA, because it made receiving editorial letters so much easier. My editor and her assistants are tremendously smart and ask great questions; they also occasionally offer suggestions when I’ve dug myself into a hole I can’t get out of without help. At this point, I feel like sending a draft to my editor is a lot like sending a packet to my advisors: I have done my best work, but I know it can be better, and I am genuinely excited to hear someone else’s ideas about how to push my story to the next level. Building that sort of relationship with an editor or an advisor takes time and trust, though, and I feel lucky to have it with my editors at Harper.
I usually do one larger-scale revision and one smaller-scale revision with my editor. Sometimes I’ll make small line edits during the copyediting process, too. By the time the book goes into production, I try hard not to change anything unless it is absolutely crucial!
Melanie: The biggest difference is that you’re preparing a story for market. In a packet letter, the focus is on learning, and process. In an editorial letter, the focus is on the product. So the same comment yields different results; you don’t address a problem by exploring all the different ways to resolve it. Instead, you find what works, and if you don’t get it right, you go back and forth until you do get it right.
As I said above, Audacity took several rounds of revision. But that story posed unique challenges. It was a verse novel, and it was a historical fictionalization of a real person’s life. There was a lot of pressure to both get the timeline to work on a story level, as well as to honor history and Clara Lemlich’s legacy. A Nearer Moon, which is prose fiction, only took one round, with a little back and forth in the line edits afterwards. The thing is—if a story needs several rounds, you want to give it that amount of attention. While a quick revision process is nice, you know it can’t be like that every time if you are going to be putting your best work forward with each new book.
Meg: My experience with PAPER HEARTS was that the packet letter was significantly more difficult than the editing process. When I first spoke to my editor, before the story had even sold to Margaret McElderry, she wanted to know if I could change Zlatka’s POV from third person to first. I played around with that before an offer came in so I would know if I could do it. So for me, the biggest change was done early. After that, there were relatively easy revisions.
Let’s talk about the copy editing process. What was it like for you?
Melanie: Copyedits for A Nearer Moon were pretty easy, but I had been through it a couple of times by then. My first experience was torture! With Parched, I was so particular about every single word I put in that book that to cut or add words in a line to fix paragraph or page widows felt impossible!
Caroline: I love copy edits! I have actually done a lot of copyediting work myself—first at my college newspaper, then at the publishing company I worked for after college, and finally at Hunger Mountain, the VCFA literary journal—so I have a lot of sympathy for copy editors and a pretty good idea of what to expect from that part of the editing process. My advice for writers is to make sure you understand why your copy editor is making each suggested change. Sometimes she may be offering a style suggestion, but other times, she may be correcting a mistake. If the edit is more of a suggestion than a correction, I keep it if I like it and stet it if I don’t. Copy editors expect this to happen, so don’t feel bad if you don’t want to accept all of your editor’s changes! Just make sure you understand why she made that change in the first place so you’re making an informed decision when you stet.
My copy editor at Harper has been fantastic, and she’s saved me from making a lot of embarrassing errors. In Magic Marks the Spot, I had a character “climbing to the halyards” of a ship until my copy editor pointed out that the halyards are actually on the deck. My copy editor also keeps track of things like what all the characters are wearing, so there are no accidental costume changes from one scene to the next.
Meg: My copy edit experience was payback for the hell I didn’t have to go through in the revision process! I wanted to curl into the fetal position on the floor (I may actually have done that at one point).
It began when I opened the package and saw my mss marked up with red squiggly lines that looked like hieroglyphics but made less sense. The first thing I did was call Melanie, who calmly told me to Google copy editing marks, which I did. Here is the most helpful page I found (bookmark it in case you need it some day).
I think what made it so difficult was three-fold, first PAPER HEARTS is a novel in verse, so that raised questions of punctuation and grammar that might not come up in a straight narrative story. Secondly, I used a lot of foreign words (Yiddish, Hebrew Polish, German, and some camp slang which produced words that are hybrids of two languages and don’t exist in any dictionary). Finally, it’s historical fiction and like Melanie’s AUDACITY, it’s based on true events in real people’s lives.
My copy editor at Simon & Schuster was fantastic! She was tough, but excellent. She found problems in the timeline that my agent, editor, and I missed; she fact-checked EVERYTHING, which meant I had to fact-check Everything. (Suggestion to anyone writing historical fiction: KEEP EXCELLENT RESEARCH NOTES). I took over the dining room table for a week while doing copy edits.
What happens next? Please explain First Pass Pages (sometimes referred to as 1Ps). How many passes did you get to see?
Caroline: It’s a pretty exciting day when first pass pages arrive. My books have all been illustrated and heavily designed, but I don’t get to see most of the design work or artwork until the production passes begin. Flipping through the pages and seeing what the designer and illustrator have come up with feels like getting the best birthday present ever. It’s also a nice reminder that you, the author, are not the only person working hard on your book—there are many other wonderful people who are all putting their creative energy into the story with your name on the cover.
I usually only look at first pass pages. If they’re relatively clean, my editorial team handles subsequent passes in house, and my editor sends me an email if she has any additional questions. When I get first pass pages, I read through the entire book, looking for any mistakes I haven’t caught previously or errors that might have been introduced during the transfer from text document to production file. I’ll also answer any questions the editorial or design teams have for me. Sometimes I get a chance to weigh in on the visual aspects of the book—if the designer is choosing between two fonts or two design elements, for example—but my main responsibility is to make sure the words on the page are right.
Something I learned at my previous job in publishing is that making changes during production passes can get expensive! It costs nothing to make a change yourself in a word processing program, but once a book is all laid out in a program like InDesign, changes can have far-reaching consequences and require a lot more effort to implement, especially if they’re large. If the author makes a lot of unnecessary changes to the text late in the process, she may end up paying for those changes herself, so it’s best to get your text as clean as you can before it goes to the production team. You may still have to go through several rounds of pages, but at least you’ve gotten the bulk of the writing work taken care of!
Melanie: This is a really fun part of the process because you get to see your book in its final format—the smaller page, the designed chapter beginnings, the font and style—it’s really cool! All this is done by your publishing house; your responsibility as an author is to check that all your copyedits have been correctly input into the document.
Another good thing to know about 1Ps is that usually that document is what the ARCs or galleys are made from. So any mistakes in the 1P will probably be in the copy reviewers and early readers see. Yep, that’s a little nerve-racking!
With Audacity, formatting 300 pages of poetry was a huge undertaking—we went through 3 or 4 rounds, which is a lot! Of course, I had all the line breaks and spacing the way I wanted it in MS Word with Times New Roman 12 pt. font, but the designer of course changes the font and program and page layout, so I had to go through and check the formatting in every single line. You don’t have to do that with prose!
Meg: I agree that getting 1Ps was thrilling. Seeing my words laid out on a page in a font I didn’t even know the name of, with page numbers and chapter headings, and the detail of the stitching at the bottom made my heart beat faster. But there were a lot of errors, mostly all those pesky foreign words, that made my heart beat faster for reasons other than excitement. Because there were so many misspellings, I asked to see 2Ps, but ended up seeing 3Ps. By that time, all the misspellings were corrected and I am grateful that, for whatever reason, the ARC for PAPER HEARTS was not made from the 1Ps. Yet with all those passes, there is still an error in the Acknowledgments.
At VCFA the faculty, thankfully, focused on craft. How did you learn about all of THIS – what happens once you’ve signed on the dotted line?
Melanie: I asked for help! I am fortunate to have several people from my literary agency nearby, and they have become both a huge source of information and really good friends!
Caroline: As you can probably tell from some of my previous answers, working in publishing for a few years turned out to be a really helpful way to demystify a lot of the work that goes on behind the scenes to make a book. I also talk to my agent and my more seasoned writer friends. Even when you think you know everything there is to know about publishing, someone will share a new tidbit of information that blows your mind all over again and makes you realize how much you still have to learn.
When my first book sold, I joined a group of children’s authors (including Melanie!) who all had their debut novels coming out in that same year. We all had different experiences with our publishers and different areas of expertise, and we talked a lot about everything we learned throughout the process. Knowing you’re not the only one who’s confused or lost or bingeing on cheese can be very comforting.
Meg: I asked Melanie and Caroline for help! Thank goodness for the VCFA community and my L.E.C.S. classmates!
Is there anything else you’d like to share about this process? Something you wish you’d known about before you were in the midst of it?
Melanie: I’m still trying to figure out the balance between writing and promoting. My advice is to set a limit on what you are going to do to promote each book and then get back to writing—that’s what we’re in this for anyway, right? Nobody writes books because they’re so excited to sell books and market themselves. We’re in this for the story, so do everything you can to get yourself back to your stories, back to where you want to be.
Caroline: There is nothing better than meeting or hearing from a child who loves your book!
Meg: Life goes on. The book is out there, it’s out of my control. It is thrilling, frightening, and humbling. But the laundry still needs to be done.
Melanie and Caroline, you each have two more book contracts. What can you tell us about those books?
Melanie: I have a YA set in South America coming in early 2017 from Philomel, and a MG (that I’m having a lot of fun drafting right now!) coming in fall 2017 from Simon & Schuster. And I have lots of ideas banging around up there, so hopefully there are many more to come!
Caroline: My next book is a middle grade detective novel that’s kind of a send-up of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, and all the great mysteries I’ve loved to read ever since I was a kid. That’s coming out from HarperCollins in 2017. After that, I have a couple of ideas I’d like to play around with, but I’m not sure which of them will transform itself into a book. I hope it’s a good one!
Caroline Carlson is the author of the VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES trilogy for middle grade readers. You can learn more about her and her books at carolinecarlsonbooks.com.
Melanie Crowder is the author of the middle grade novels PARCHED and A NEARER MOON and the YA novel AUDACITY. You can learn more about her and her books at melaniecrowder.net.
Meg Wiviott is the author of the YA novel PAPER HEARTS and the picture book BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS. You can learn more about her and her books at megwiviott.com.