Earlier this year I took a writing class through MediaBistro with Kendra Levin, an associate editor at Viking Children’s Books. Her supportive critiques and insider’s view of the publishing industry made the class extremely relevant. Her YA Novel Writing Workshop will start again in September, but you can get a FREE preview of her brilliance if you’re registered for WriteOnCon (she’ll be a presenter on Monday). A few lucky authors will get to meet her in person at the Los Angeles Working Writer’s Retreat (check to see if they still have spaces available). She’s a certified life coach for writers, an award-winning playwright, and in her spare time, she edits picture books, middle grade and YA. Whew!
I have to tell you, your status keeps rising at my house. I was already impressed to learn that you were one of the people working on Thalia Chlatas’ book, Because I am Furniture. But then my son discovered that you worked on his favorite historical novel, Blood on the River. Very cool!
Thanks, Sherrie—I’m honored to be included! That’s one of the great things about the way the editorial hierarchy is structured—I got the opportunity to work on lots of amazing (and quite varied) books as an assistant at Viking. The editors I supported were very generous about sharing their projects with me, and I was able to learn a huge amount from getting involved.
You’ve worked on such a range of material, from David Adler’s Cam Jansen books to Susane Colasanti’s teen romance novels to picture books by Nancy Carlson. What makes you fall in love with a book and say I want to edit that?
One of my favorite aspects of my job is the variety. I love that I’m always bouncing between projects of totally different age levels, subjects, and styles. Inheriting a long-time Viking author like David Adler has been a wonderful learning experience for me, since he’s been in the children’s books business since before I was born! But when it come to new projects, my best barometer for figuring out if a project’s a match for me is the subway read. I commute about an hour a day, total, and I usually use that time to read submissions. If a manuscript draws me so deeply into its world that I miss, or almost miss, my stop, I know it’s worth serious consideration. It’s a good barometer, but it has caused me to be late for work a few times because I actually missed my stop!
I’ve heard that most editors are so busy they have to read submissions in their spare time. Considering those time constraints, how many pages are you willing to read before you pass on a book?
It depends on many factors, including how busy I am, what I already know about the author, the backstory of the manuscript itself, and other things. Twenty pages should give me a good sense for whether I love or hate something, but if I get to twenty and am on the fence, I’ll continue reading.
What’s something you’re looking for that you haven’t read?
I would love to see more fiction that takes place in, or at least relates in some way to, countries outside of the United States. As much as the internet has allowed us to become more global in our interactions, it’s also given us a way to narrow our worldview and select what we see and don’t see. Books remain a vital way for readers, especially kids, to see and experience a world totally unlike their own, filled with characters to whom they can relate in spite of superficial differences. So I’d love to see more stories set internationally, or even in regions of the U.S. that we don’t typically see in fiction for young readers.
I know you were published in an anthology of young writers. Have you tried your hand at writing a novel?
Luckily, writing a novel has never really been a goal of mine. I say luckily because I know just how hard it is and how long it takes! While I wrote fiction when I was a teen, once I started studying dramatic writing at NYU, I felt more at home in that format and all the writing I’ve done subsequently has been for either the stage or screen. But fiction writing was actually what led me to my career in publishing. A year or two after I won a Scholastic Art and Writing Award for a short story I wrote in high school, editor David Levithan contacted me for permission to include the story in an anthology. I had just moved to New York and asked him if he was looking for interns, and happily, he was. I interned at Scholastic until I graduated from college, and that’s where I fell in love with working in children’s books.
I love the immediacy of the theatre, the sense the audience has that this moment will never happen in exactly the same way again, that they’re part of a wholly unique experience. My parents took me to many, many plays the whole time I was growing up, and I think that fostered both my love of theatre and my comfort with the medium. And yes, it’s no longer a secret, Hamlet and I did have a little thing going on—you can read about it here.
I don’t know, that experience sounds like a great basis for a YA novel…! What made you decide to work as an editor?
I mentioned my internship at Scholastic—it was an incredible learning experience and exposed me to a whole world of ways to use skills I had that I hadn’t known might actually make me employable! I was mentored there by Joy Peskin, who’s now my colleague at Viking and who was incredibly generous about sharing her knowledge and expertise with me. I was also lucky enough to learn from the late, great Craig Walker, a true visionary who did the coolest and most empowering thing anyone can do for an intern—he took me seriously. After that, I was hooked.
Having mentors can make such a difference in your career. I know it has for me as a writer. Now I know that a lot of times internships = slush. Did you ever pull something from the pile that ended up getting published?
I read slush in my internship at Scholastic, later as a freelancer for Scholastic, as an editorial assistant at Viking—and I still read it today, when I can make the time. Once when I was an intern a particular editor, one whom I didn’t normally support, asked me to read a self-published fantasy novel and report on it ASAP. I remember bringing it with me to my cousin’s bar mitzvah in Florida that weekend and reading it in the hotel room while everyone else was at the pool—definitely a future editor in the making! Though I’m not usually a great lover of fantasy, I thought it was really well written and suspenseful, with a detailed, fully realized world. I suggested a few tweaks but recommended that the editor acquire it. Unfortunately, Scholastic didn’t make the winning bid for Eragon, but I was gratified to find out that I’d given them good advice!
Omigosh, that’s so cool! I think that’s one of the amazing things about being an editor: seeing these stories go from unknown to loved by readers everywhere. As an editor, you get to play a huge role in making that happen. But do you ever have time to just pick up a novel and read for pleasure?
Yes, it’s sort of ironic that editors almost always love to read, but we so seldom get to read purely for pleasure! Though I spend a lot of my non-submission-reading time checking out the YA and middle grade from Penguin’s other imprints and from other publishers, I love to read books for adults. The last adult novel I read that I loved was Little Bee by Chris Cleave—I gobbled it down on my vacation in about two days because it was so powerful and the voice was so compelling, I really couldn’t put it down. And I’m a fan of great non-fiction for adults as well—I recently read America’s Women by Gail Collins, which I highly recommend. It’s a fascinating overview of women’s history in America and taught me as much as a college course.
Are you planning to be at any upcoming conferences where people can meet you in person?
It’s been a busy SCBWI year for me, and it’s only getting busier! The remainder of my 2010 plans include the SCBWI-LA Working Writer’s Retreat in Palos Verdes, California (September), the Falling Leaves Masterclass Retreat in Silver Bay, New York (November), and the Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Editors Conference in NYC (November). I’ll also be participating in WriteOnCon, an online children’s book writers’ conference, next week. I always enjoy getting to explore the country and meet children’s book authors, so I’m always open to invitations.
And I’m sure writers enjoy meeting you. In fact, think people often go to conferences with wild fantasies of going home with a contract. What advice do you have for conference attendees so that they can (realistically!) get the most out of their time?
While conferences are a great place to potentially meet editors and agents, they’re an even better place to network with fellow writers and share tips, create critique groups, and offer much-needed support to each other. Don’t focus so much on getting an editor’s ear that you lose sight of a wonderful opportunity to connect with your regional writing community. If the conference includes a workshop, make sure to go into it with an open mind—you never know what you might get out of looking at your work from a new perspective. Let your paradigms get shaken up! And remember to pay close attention to what editors and agents say they are looking for. If you disregard their requests and send them submissions that don’t fit the genres or age levels they work on, they’ll think you weren’t listening to their talk—not a good impression to make.
And we all know how important it is to make a good impression! One of the things we talked about in class was the importance of self-promotion, and showing your editor that you’d be willing to work at promoting yourself and your book. What are some ways that you recommend for writers to do this, even before they are published?
There are so many ways to self-promote these days, so it’s important to choose the method you feel best reflects you as a writer and as a person. Some authors love to tweet; others find it distracting. Some enjoy reaching out to the writing community or to teen readers through blogging; others feel it takes too much time away from their creative writing. Some people like to have an active promotional presence on social networking sites; others create a fan page for themselves and leave it at that. The important thing is to choose a method that you won’t get sick of, that is not purely self-indulgent, and that allows you to showcase your talents. Be creative! What can you come up with that’s germane to the subject or nature of your manuscript, that’s different from what other writers are doing to promote themselves? You might connect your writing to a social cause, create or participate in an event…the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
I realize being an editor is a pretty cool job, but if you weren’t an editor, what would be your dream job?
Hmm…that’s a tough one! I used to think someday I’d become a therapist, but then I discovered life coaching. And just when I thought teaching might be a good direction for me, the chance to teach at Mediabistro came along. Most of my dream jobs have come true, without my having to give up my job as an editor! That makes me one of the busiest people I know, but I consider myself one of the luckiest.
Thanks so much, Kendra. It was a pleasure getting to know you better!
Thanks for including me in your excellent blog!
You can sign up for classes with Kendra at these sites:
L.A. Working Writer’s Retreat
Falling Leaves Masterclass Retreat
Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Editors Conference