As of this fall, I’ve been an author for a decade, and to commemorate the occasion, I sat down with my first editor, Andrew Karre, now at Dutton Books for Young Readers, to talk publishing. He worked on my first published novel, Lament, and its sequel, Ballad, as well as editing my two short story group anthologies; ten years is a long time and we’re both different people.
Maggie: Ok. Man. A decade. Ten years. It has a certain gravitas to it, doesn’t it? Permanence. Like I should have a white hair somewhere (I do. It’s in my left eyebrow). It’s strange to think of how much has changed in both my authorial life and the writing world since then. The world in general, I suppose — I reckon those two things are inextricably linked when you’re in a profession that relies on processing real-life events into fiction. Our editor-author relationship was hatched about a decade ago, but your professional life was in flux (that’s a pun, I love myself) just a little bit before that, right?
Andrew: Indeed. I think I had just entered Flux (no sin in self-love) when I first read your query in my email. This would have been October of 2005. If I remember correctly, I was actually reading an email addressed to my predecessor, Megan Atwood (she was the force behind convincing Llewellyn to start Flux, the much-punned-against YA imprint that published Lament in September of 2008).
My title at that time was acquiring editor and my mandate was to acquire YA fiction. I had no significant experience of either trade book acquisition or of YA fiction. I’d been working in publishing since graduating from college in 2002, but the majority of my work had actually been on a variety of adult nonfiction (Google “andrew karre staircases” or “andrew karre wiring” or “andrew karre handfasting” for a good time [also, that’s my hand on the cover of the last one]). My goal was to find my place in the book world. I didn’t know what it would be, but I hoped I’d know when I found it.
Looking back, it’s tempting to say we were both on the edge of finding a place, but the borderlands of that place…well, they were no necessarily intuitive.
Maggie: Looking back with the benefit of a decade, one of the things I feel like we were both learning was what revision and editing truly meant. I don’t know if you remember the first edits/ suggestions you gave me back then (I don’t), but I do remember I made a dog’s breakfast of implementing them. I remember that I sent you an optimistic query for what eventually became Lament, and I remember that at that point the manuscript was a massive, winding, third person tome that at some point featured a pick-up truck charging through an underworld river of blood. I’m pretty sure I handed you back something that was still a massive, winding, third person tome that possibly no longer had a river of blood. I edited only on the most surface level, although at the time I remember thinking I was doing real work.
One of the things I think I’m proudest of in this decade is learning how different a manuscript can be while still being the same novel. I’m ever so much faster at going through permutations now without worrying about whether or not I’ve broken the inherent concept. Did you experience anything like this on the other side of the desk?
[note for context: I submitted the manuscript to him, he asked for an edit before taking it to acquistions, I edited it, got turned down, went away and wrote another novel for a year, submitted the new one to him a year later, and he said “actually, I’m still thinking about that first one, how about we try again?”]
Andrew: God, I remember that pick-up truck.
“One of the things I think I’m proudest of in this decade is learning how different a manuscript can be while still being the same novel.”
This is deeply true, and it has been probably the single most important thing I’ve learned on my side of the desk. The thing I most look for in a new project is a combination of a novel’s (or, ideally, several novels’) worth of author and material. The actual manuscript present at the moment we decide to make a book together is not actually all that important to me—certainly not as important as whether the author gives me the unmistakable sense of being a person in possession of a novel. I want to spend time with authors who are not only willing to write their way in to their novels, but who are enthusiastic about doing so. Like you, I think I’ve learned how to get through the permutations without getting bogged in stuff that doesn’t matter in the earlier phases (and I’m sure I was very bogged in my initial notes on Lament. Decent chance you’d find questions about whether the truck was a stick or an automatic). The metaphor I often find myself leaning on is creating a master tape before a final mix. I want to hear each instrument in the piece before we commit to how prominent any one voice will be. I think I’ve also gotten better at keeping in mind—and bringing up when necessary—the first flashes of the final brilliance and using those as a benchmarks throughout. I think that’s an important editorial function during revision: to remind the author whenever necessary of the high level they’ve already attained and can attain again.
Maggie: This is wonderful: “a person in possession of a novel.” Have you ever been wrong? Is this asking you to perjure yourself? Have you ever suspected someone had a novel in them to have them let you down? You were very bull-ish once I turned in a new draft of Lament — I think I revised three chapters for you the second time and you said THIS IS ENOUGH STOP THERE I’M GOING TO ACQUISITIONS. And assumed I was off to the races.
I’ve found I have terrible eye for this. Over this decade, I’ve been through a fair number of critique partners and met many hundreds of aspiring writers — I taught four huge workshops last year and learned a lot about humility — and I’ve learned in sometimes poignant and agonizing ways that beautiful prose or hooky story or compelling characters do not always coalesce in a person’s mind into a novel. I used to think one would follow: if I read a manuscript with a great voice, I could swagger in and guide the rest into existence. If they had a great pitch for a plot, I could make them stylish. I was quite cocky at the beginning of the decade as far as thinking I could be a lamp in the darkness and now I find I have no confidence that I can shape anyone else into anything. I’m not at all sure that the way I approach storytelling is remotely transferrable. I know I say all this, and this is your job, to shepherd. When I put it that way it does sound ridiculous, that I would think I could sashay in and do an editor’s job simply because I wrote myself, as if they are the one and the same task.
Andrew: It’s weird, isn’t it? I don’t think I could write a remotely good novel, but I think I can say with some humility that I can edit them—shepherd them—with a high degree of consistency from fairly embryonic states. They’re adjacent skills, but only occasionally coincident (and of those people I am jealous).
I don’t think I’ve ever been totally wrong about the bare fact of a novel existing, but I’ve definitely misjudged the nature of the novel that person had in them or the work required to help get it out of them. But I can’t really think of someone truly letting me down with regard to being in possession of a novel.
The metaphors matter here, I think. When I’m talking to myself (And I’m often talking to myself up here in my attic) I try to stay away from “I shape” and to say instead, “I create and maintain an environment conducive to shaping work.” I think that’s a thing I had to learn quickly all those years ago: the work of editing isn’t really the marginal notes or an editorial letter. Editing is creating a place and time where a manuscript is flexible and transparent and maximally susceptible to revision. The work of editing is the collaborative work—including notes and letters, of course—of keeping that space open. This is a very abstract and highly personal metaphor, but it’s been persistent for me for a long time — and I do associate its earliest forms with you, because in my experience you remain one of the most receptive to staying in that space of anyone I’ve ever worked with.
Maggie: Oh, you. I’m up to my neck working on drawing a new deck for Llewellyn (Flux, where we first began working together, was an imprint of Llewellyn, and tarot cards are far more what Llewellyn is known for; I wouldn’t have predicted I’d be working with them in this way a decade ago, though) and so I have tarot cards on the brain. What you’re talking about reminds me of two cards, the Ace of Wands and the Page of Wands. The first card represents a new project, but the second represents a person who starts new projects. It’s a subtle difference but I think it’s one that a lot of creators struggle with: you are not your book, you are a person who makes books. You’re saying: I don’t sign up books, I sign up people who make books. Revision feels like a natural extension of this to me. You can delete every word of a project and not delete the project, because the hard copy will always be stored in your head. “WHAT ABOUT THE WORDS!” cry the disbelieving writers when I say this. The words are the part that are the least likely to be true. The story is itself, it’s thought, it’s abstract. The moment you put words to it, you’re translating, and every translation is imprecise and subject to errors.
Let’s talk what’s happened to YA in the last ten years. Back in the day, you asked me to make Lament shorter, hipper, younger. Under 80k and in first person. That was very much what YA was right then. Would you ask the same of me now? How do you see YA as shifting, and how much do you feel you have to shift to meet it?
Andrew: First, is it OK if I have this embroidered on throw pillows and send them with all future book contracts?
“You can delete every word of a project and not delete the project.”—Maggie Stiefvater
Regarding YA today versus a decade ago, I think I’ve changed at least as much as it has. This probably bears some explaining. The YA marketplace has changed a lot, of course. We’ve seen waves of certain kinds of books have huge success, and we’ve seen waves of certain kinds of readers driving that success. We’ve seen those waves grow on all sorts of scales. And publishers definitely shift in pursuit of those waves. But I have a sense that the editors I admire and would aspire to be like one day don’t leave anything behind when they go after one of those new waves. I imagine the best of us are miraculous machines for accumulating storytelling.
Ten years ago, I could manage a glimpse at Lament (the untranslated project, not the words in whatever particular draft) and imagine that it might translate well to a storytelling style that was more immediate and more centered within a character. My ability to make that imaginative leap was probably governed by what I’d seen and the relatively little actual YA editing I’d done at that point. In other words, I grabbed one of the very few tools I’d accumulated, and it was suitable, fortunately. Very fortunately.
Today, I suspect you and I might arrive at much the same place with Lament, but I don’t think that would be because either of us is short on other solutions. We’ve both been busy accumulating for over a decade.
When I’m at my most optimistic about YA as a form of storytelling in 2018, it’s because I see on the shelves (if not necessarily the tops of the bestseller lists) a similar abundance of solutions. And it’s not just the shelves: my conception of what it means to be a human teenager is vastly expanded. In that context, my hope as an editor is not to shift, but to expand with YA and with teenagers.
Lament came out in September of 2008. It was a book that offered a glimpse into the range of what you knew as a human and what you could do as a storyteller at that moment, and it was thrillingly and challengingly a YA novel unlike any I’d done. Coincidentally, in September of 2018, I published Dream Country, a novel by Shannon Gibney, which contains at least five seemingly distinct points of view, a few of whom are not even teenagers. It too is thrillingly and challengingly a YA novel unlike any I’ve done before. I like that. I hope I can still be saying that to you in another ten years.
Maggie: Oh, man, that’s so true, re: the market changing versus us changing. I am a very different human than I was ten years ago and so my stories are accordingly different. I see humans more complexly, which makes story making both better and harder. Characters, after all, are simple — like real life, they get stylized in order to become story-shaped. When I was younger, I saw people simply and then transformed them into characters. One to one, or just about, in comparison to present day. Now that I see more facets to each person I meet, I have to make the choice how to simplify them into character form. It means my characters are ever more human — the Scorpio Races characters are more human than Shiver, the The Raven Cycle characters are more human than Scorpio, etc. etc.— but also that it takes increasingly more thought to stylize them.
I’m also mindful of not repeating myself. Ten years in, fourteen novels in, now there’s a real danger of repeating myself. My critique partners say that it’s a phobia of mine, but I don’t know about that — isn’t that a path we see lots of established authors take? I’ll continue to be wary of it, thank you very much, as I head into the next ten years.
I think it’s interesting to mull over the differences in our respective futures, on opposite side of the desk. So much of our jobs cross over, but you have spent ten years making relationships with real people (how many of your authors have you retained from your Flux days! How many authors will pick up the phone to try to snag you for a lunch date when they’re in town?) and I have spent a decade making relationships with people on a page. You work hard to learn how to understand and communicate with other people, externally, and I work hard to learn how to understand and communicate with my own mind, internally. When I put it that way it seems obvious which one of us is more likely to go mad and be locked in an attic one day.
Do you have any last thoughts or questions? I feel like we’ve written so many words and yet not covered the half of it. I guess that’s what comes of ten years. It has ever so many days inside it.
Andrew: Let the record reflect, I am standing in an attic as I write this. So…
I definitely feel anxiety about not repeating myself, though I imagine it’s a little different and probably less urgent than it is for you. I think for me it boils down to being anxious that by doing too much of the same work, I’ll fall into habits that will leave me unable to appreciate things that are truly unique or, worse still, I’ll become inflexible and unable to offer a vision for the manuscripts I didn’t anticipate. This is where the communication part you mentioned really hits hard for me. If I become rigid in who and what I’m curious about, then I’m pretty sure I’ll soon stop being able to communicate effectively with the authors—new and familiar authors—who are doing fresh and interesting work. That prospect is terrifying.
I think maybe we’re trying to hold on to the best parts of the early days when, as you once said, “everyone could be as batshit as they liked, because no one was watching us anyway” while also reaping the benefits of our experience with a constantly changing world. If nothing else, the effort will keep us youthful and spry for another decade, right?