Melissa edits both literary and commercial projects—from middle grade to young adult novels. She seeks original voices wed to strong concepts and manuscripts with a vivid sense of place. She acquires realistic and genre fiction alike, but she has a soft spot for fresh, character-driven fantasy and richly imagined worlds—the kind of books you want to jump into and live in because the real world simply isn’t as fun as the author’s world. Books that she works on include the Pretty Crooked series by Elisa Ludwig and the forthcoming MILA 2.0 series by Debra Driza. Before becoming a children’s book editor (her absolute dream job!), Melissa worked on the adult side of the industry, with bestsellers like Harlan Coben and John Lescroart at Penguin. She tweets at @melissaedits.
Melissa, thank you for joining us at Chiseled in Rock today - we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us and our readers!!
Chiseled In Rock: As an editor for Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books), you acquire and edit literary and commercial projects ranging from middle grade to young adult, but you have also worked as an editor of adult fiction. How does acquiring (and editing) books for younger readers differ from choosing works for an adult audience?
Melissa Miller: I find that it’s actually almost 100% the same! As a childrens’ book editor, when you’re acquiring and editing books you worry about the same things as an adult book editor: Are the characters believable and compelling? Is the plot seamless and tight? Is the setting evocative and vivid? Is the overall concept fresh and original? Is the writing strong? Is there an audience for this?
The difference I find is that many more writers in the children’s world struggle with voice. There are exceptions, but many adult writers don’t have to face the challenge of writing in the voice of a younger person; most adult books are about adults. I’ve seen many writers, including well-known adult authors, try to write middle grade or teen novels and come off sounding didactic and watered-down and fake. The thing is, kids know when they’re being talked down to and they know when they’re being preached to. Young readers have a sixth sense for authenticity. They know—and I know—when an adult is doing a poor imitation of a kid.
The mistake that many people make when they think about novels for children is that they conflate accessibility with simplicity. Just because many books for young readers are more accessible and readable, does not mean that they’re any less complex. The best children’s books out there have many layers of meaning and emotion and have extremely rich, complex characters. Go read The Book Thief, Walk Two Moons, Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, House of the Scorpion, or Harper’s recent Newberry medal winner The One and Only Ivan—to name a small few of my favorites—if you disagree.
Finding that balance between accessibility and complexity is very hard. Too many people underestimate young readers. That’s why I’ve come to believe creating books for young readers might be trickier, in some respects, than creating books for adults.
CIR: Many authors are afraid to pitch (or even talk to) editors at Writers’ Conferences. What advice would you give to the writer quaking in his-or-her boots?
MM: Editors are generally really nice people! No one should fear them! We love books, we love writers, and most of all, we love helping people. In fact, I reject your assumption that people are afraid of editors. We’re a totally non-scary bunch. What writers are really of afraid of is rejection and criticism—two things that editors happen to hand out. But writers shouldn’t be afraid of rejection and criticism. Those things make books better. Those things make writers better. Those things make humans better.
So my advice for Writers’ Conference attendees is to chant “this can help me, this can help me, this can help me” over and over until it sticks—and to be as open as possible to learning opportunities. Then, no matter what comes, there’s nothing to fear!
CIR: What led you to pursue a career in publishing, and specifically as an editor? Do you have advice for people considering a career in publishing?
MM: I’ve always loved writing and story-telling. As teen, I won a Scholastic Gold Key for an essay I wrote. Winning a prize at a very young age from a real live publisher was wonderful and encouraging, and because of that, I applied for and won a writing scholarship to college. That threw me into a circle of other writers. Soon, I found that I loved helping them write even more than I liked writing my own stuff. I began to tutor writers between 10 and 15 hours a week, helping them with their papers and their grad school applications. I became a teaching assistant for several writing classes. Ever since I won that award, it set me down the path to book publishing!
My advice for people considering a career in publishing is to network and do internships. Publishing is so small, that it’s challenging to get a job without a referral. It took me a year to find a job even with all of my writing and tutoring experience just because I didn’t know anyone. Find someone who knows someone in publishing. Ask that person for an informational interview. Ask as many questions as you can and at the end of the interview ask if s/he knows of any jobs you can apply to or any other people that you can meet. Repeat until you get a job.
CIR: How many books do you edit at once? Do they all take about the same amount of your time, or do some take substantially more time than others?
MM: Two or three or more! And I also edit outlines and proposals for future projects simultaneous to full-length novel-editing, so I have a lot of things coming down my pipeline.
The books I work on don’t take the same amount of time; it depends on what kind of shape they’re in when they arrive in my inbox. Some books come in very raw. Others, very polished. In the end, all of them need to be very polished—but some books come more easily than others and some take more revisions to get there.
CIR: What’s your favorite word? If you have a least favorite word, would you share that too?
MM: I really like words that are fun to say like “indubitably” or “ensorcelled.” I’m not too fond of the word “hate.” Too many people use that word when they don’t really mean it. Plus, saying “Ugh, I hate blah blah blah,” is a little bit of a cop out, you know? There are more clever and biting ways to express dislike…especially if you manage use words like “indubitably” or “ensorcelled.”
CIR: If you could wave a magic wand and eliminate one common error or flaw from all unpublished children’s/middle grade/and YA manuscripts currently in existence – what would you choose to “fix”? (If you’d like, the wand will let you fix a different problem in each type of book.)
MM: Can I wave the wand and make all the wonderful, amazing manuscripts come to me? The mistake is when the manuscripts do not come to me.
CIR: What inspired you to make the switch from adult fiction to books for younger readers?
MM: That’s easy! Kids let books change them. Sure, many adults do, too. But kids are especially open to transformative experiences. And just knowing that I might work on a book that makes a young person learn to love reading is profoundly motivating.
Many editors will tell you that they were voracious readers as children, but I was not. I was a reluctant reader. I later realized that was in part because all of my gatekeepers were trying to give me books they though would “improve” me instead of books that would enrapture me. If only someone had given me Animorphs instead of boring historicals of canonical significance where nothing fun happens and all of the characters die then maybe I would have gotten the reading bug sooner. When I finally discovered fantasy and thrillers—in college, I might add—I never looked back.
I wish I could to go back in time and give myself the right book. I wish I could make up for all those years of lost reading! But I can’t, so instead I edit the kind of books that would have rescued me in the hopes that they’ll rescue some other young reader.
CIR: Are you looking for anything in particular right now? What kind of manuscripts and topics are you hoping to find in your inbox?
MM: I know it’s a tall order, but I’d love to find a sci/fi writer whose ideas remind me of Phillip K. Dick’s or Ray Bradbury’s, or a fantasy writer who can write an expansive series about one world like Brian Jacques or Anne McCaffrey. Easy peasy, right? If you’re the Next of any of these people, drop me a line.
Thank you, Melissa, for chatting with us today. We appreciate the glimpse into your world - and wish you all the wonderful manuscripts your inbox can possibly hold!
Originally posted March 13, 2013.
Originally posted March 13, 2013.