A&M: Alexa is in the middle of a major revision, and you went through three major revisions with Megan. Did you know that these were going to be major revisions when you acquired our books? Did you see potential for something in these books, and does that play a big part in your acquisition decisions?
ES: When I decide to acquire a book, I have a pretty clear idea of the changes I’m going to suggest. So I like to talk to authors first, to make sure we have a similar vision. I’d never take on a project if I didn’t totally believe in the author! But sometimes a revision will reveal new possibilities in the story that weren’t present in the previous draft, and the original vision evolves. I’ve learned that you can’t really see what will culminate from the revision process until the book is bound. It’s a splendid thing. Sometimes it takes a few rounds and a book has to move back a list, but I think it’s always worth it.
A&M: We both feel like we took most of your suggestions. What percentage do you expect an author to take? What do you do when there are disagreements?
ES: That’s so funny! I often reread my letters and think, "Thank god she didn't agree with me on that one." I write really long editorial letters with plenty of suggestions, but my real aim is to show authors potential in their stories they might not have realized. Sometimes they’re good ideas in themselves. But usually it’s the back-and-forth that propels the evolution of a story. One of the most moving ironies in Meg’s book, Secrets of Truth & Beauty, emerged from her resistance to certain suggestions and partial acceptance of others.
When I have concerns about what I perceive to be real flaws in a story, I try to back them up by sharing the manuscript with a colleague who isn’t as close to it as I am. Extra insight from a disinterested party almost never fails to open up solutions.
A&M: Megan tends to work quickly, while Alexa takes more time to work through her writing and edits. Is there a difference between how you work with these different kinds of writers? Can you tell ahead of time what kind of writer you might be dealing with?
ES: Pace isn't a big issue for me as long as an author has a realistic idea of how quickly she can deliver a first revision once she’s received my first edit. I usually get a sense of an author’s revision style during our phone chat about the first edit letter, and at that point I decide which list to put the book on. It hasn’t seemed to affect my editorial process that much.
A&M: Sometimes when reading other writer's works, it seems like the easiest way to "help" would be to just jump in and rewrite for them. Do you ever have the urge to do that, and, if so, how do you stop yourself?
ES: I guess that’s the fundamental challenge of editing—figuring out the best way to draw out an author’s best writing through thoughtful questions and comments. It takes trust and patience and mad articulation skills. I’m still learning! My approach evolves with every project.
A&M: Megan's book was one of the first you acquired and edited on your own, and now you've worked on Alexa's. Though it's been less than two years, is there anything you have learned along the way about revising with an author?
ES: So many things! I don't know where to start. I guess the most important thing I've learned is that positive feedback is an author's best resource. Absolutely by far. I've also learned that in a first edit, general feedback and questions are usually more helpful than detailed suggestions. Then in the second edit I offer more specific ideas for things that I think still need development.
A&M: We think you have a great sense of the book as a whole as well as the little details. Where does that overarching sense come from? We theorized that it came from your own writing experience, but wanted to hear your take?
ES: That’s about the nicest thing you could say to me! I don’t have a lot of fiction-writing experience, but I read a lot, and I have an oddball family who loves to tell stories. I also have a pretty vast reservoir of humiliating memories. (Humiliation is an amazing eye-opener!) All these things help me find interesting tensions and themes as I read manuscripts. It’s thrilling when a story crystallizes feelings I’d never been able to articulate—that’s why I love YA so much. The protagonists are so smart and so honest, and they’re just discovering how bizarre the world is; I love to see how they grow. I guess that’s where the narrative arc really pops out to me, that dramatic rounding the bend. All the books I’ve acquired so far have protagonists I deeply empathize with, and that empathy guides me quite a bit as an editor.
Thank you, Emily!