Editor Q&A with Scholastic Senior Editor Emily Seife and Sheila M. Averbuch

Emily Seife is a Senior Editor with Scholastic Press New York and was the person who brought the middle grade thriller FRIEND ME to acquisitions. Find out what drew her to the manuscript, why children’s books are her passion, and why writers are most likely to win an editor’s heart if they follow their own.

Q1: Thank you for joining me on the blog! Is it okay to kick off by asking a bit about how you became a children’s book editor and when you first knew that’s where your heart lay?

Thanks for having me here, Sheila!

I started my career applying for jobs in both adult and children’s publishing, but I knew almost immediately that children’s books is where my heart lay. The books that I read when I was little are the ones that have stuck with me the most. I still can’t believe that I have the opportunity to help make the books that shape, inspire, and create a new generation of readers. I’m thankful every day, especially now, that I get to work with books that are so hopeful.

Q2: Scholastic is the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and celebrates one hundred years in 2020. Any thoughts about how the editorial team is looking to bring the list into its second century and what you’d like to achieve?

It has long been a goal of Scholastic to publish entertaining books that offer both windows and mirrors to young readers. (Take a look at our Power of Story catalog to find some incredible new reads!) These days, we are working harder than ever to make sure that our list is one that reflects the diversity of our country. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m proud to be publishing brilliant authors like Francisco X. Stork, India Hill Brown, Gail D. Villanueva, and Christina Diaz Gonzalez. I hope to continue to acquire and support own voices stories from creators of diverse backgrounds.

Q3: Thinking back to when FRIEND ME first came into your hands: what about the story made you want to acquire it? Is it true what we hear about an editor having a gut feel from the first page that an acquisition was meant to be?

Yes! With so many submissions coming in, a book absolutely needs to grab an editor’s attention right away, whether with spectacular writing or a great hook.

Kudos to you and your agent, because I was immediately intrigued when I read the pitch for FRIEND ME. A social media thriller for middle grade readers? A story that deals with online bullying? Tell me more!! And then I picked up the manuscript, and your writing completely grabbed me. In fact, I read it in one morning. At my desk at work. I rarely if ever do that; most of my submissions are read during my commute—when I had such a thing!—or at home in the evenings. But once I started this book, I was hooked. The characters were real, flawed, and loveable, and the pacing was absolutely phenomenal. Friend Me is a sensitive picture of a girl’s experience getting bullied, but also a nonstop thriller with unpredictable twists and turns.

There are a lot of submissions that I read that I like, that are well-written, or that I even think are worth publishing, but that just aren’t for me. An editor really needs to connect with a project in addition to believing that it can find its place in the market.

“I love character-driven stories, books with a big hook and a big heart, mysteries that genuinely stump me, and anything that can make me laugh. I hope to see all these things, especially from BIPOC or marginalized creators.” – Emily Seife, Senior Editor, Scholastic Press

Q4: During FRIEND ME edits I hugely valued the way you pushed me to keep working until I’d conveyed the main character Roisin’s predicament in the strongest way. Without your guidance, there’s no way the story would be what it became. How do you go about striking the balance with writers during edits: helping them see where improvements are needed without denting their confidence?

Thank you, Sheila! I only sign up books that I absolutely love, and I try to make sure that love always shines through, no matter how rigorous the editorial process.

When I acquire a book, I have to be willing to bring it to our acquisitions meeting, read it at least four times over the course of edits and copyedits and proofreads, and advocate for it in-house. It’s also entering into a new relationship with the author—always scary and exciting, and a big investment of time and energy! I wouldn’t take on all that work if I didn’t fully believe in a project. I hope that the authors I work with know this and enter into our work together excited for a real partnership.

Of course, everyone still needs encouragement along the way, and I always try to call out the moments that make me laugh or bite my nails! Praise is a strong editorial tool, too. Pointing out what is working can help an author see how to fix the trickier bits.

Q5: A lot of our readers are children’s authors. Can you give them any insights into Scholastic submissions: how many manuscripts you and your colleagues consider each year, how many you choose, and finally, what’s on your own manuscript wishlist at the moment?

I’ve never actually counted how many submissions I get a year, but I only bring a small percentage to the acquisitions table. I love character-driven stories, books with a big hook and a big heart, mysteries that genuinely stump me, and anything that can make me laugh. I hope to see all these things, especially from BIPOC or marginalized creators.

Q6: Any final thoughts on common pitfalls that children’s writers should avoid in their manuscripts, or key things we can do that would most improve our craft?

Read, read, and read! Read recently published books so that you’re familiar with what’s coming out in today’s market. That said, write the story of your heart, rather than feeling like you have to chase a trend.

Sheila’s local independent bookshop near Edinburgh in Scotland is the marvellous Portobello Bookshop, which has signed copies of FRIEND ME while supplies last at bit.ly/SMAbuyindie Or, find FRIEND ME at your own local bookshop here bit.ly/SMAorder

Scholastic Senior Editor Emily Seife is on Twitter here. Sheila M. Averbuch is a former technology journalist and author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME publishing November 10, 2020 with Scholastic Press. Find Sheila at www.sheilamaverbuch.com or at www.instagram.com/sheilamaverbuch

Booklove in the time of Covid

My debut novel FRIEND ME doesn’t come out until November, but I have some sense of the particular heartbreak now hitting my fellow Roaring 20s Debuts who have recent and upcoming launch dates. For these writers, in-person publicity is now impossible, and the effect on school and library sales is still unknown.

Do you or young people you know have reading time on their hands, perhaps an abundance of reading time stretching from sunup to bedtime? Please consider giving some love to these debut authors whose lifelong dreams are coming up hard against the reality of a global pandemic.

I’ve personally read and loved How to Make Friends with the Sea, My Life As A Potato, To Fly Among the Stars and From the Desk of Zoe Washington. I’m in the middle of the wonderful What Stars Are Made Of, and I can’t wait for Efrén Divided and Stand Up, Yumi Chung!

But that’s just a sliver of what’s available! And WordPress won’t let me upload too many more thumbnails into this blog without going all skewy.

See a list of debuts here

All of these books and their fellow 2020 middle-grade debuts can be browsed here. I think they all sound amazing, and I’m thrilled to see there’s a wonderful selection of diverse and #ownvoices stories. These folks are finally changing the face of kidlit publishing. Go have a browse and, above all, enjoy!

These books are going to be worth your time. It’s unimaginably difficult for a manuscript to rise to the top in the competitive children’s literature market. These authors have beaten the odds by attracting a publisher’s attention and getting that elusive book deal.

You can help make that final bit of their dream come true by showing some booklove and sharing one of these stories with a young person.

If you use Instagram, why not follow the hashtag #roaring20sdebut on Instagram for the latest news, online events and read-alouds?

Sheila M. Averbuch is author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME, publishing November 2020 with Scholastic Press US. Follow on Instagram at @sheilamaverbuch

My publication deal and other miracles

I’m still reeling from the best news I’ve had in my professional career: Scholastic in New York will publish my debut for middle grade readers, FRIEND ME, in autumn 2020. My agent Jennifer Laughran is to thank for this magnificent turn of events, as is my editor Emily Seife at Scholastic. Emily hasn’t just championed the project heartily through the acquisitions process, she’s also been the most profoundly sensitive and ingenious reader I’ve ever encountered, with inspired editorial suggestions that have pushed this story to be so much better. The deal announcement is here:

How can I express what it’s been like to go through this experience? I’d been writing on and off for children for more than a decade when, in 2014, I attempted my first NaNoWriMo. That’s when I wrote the first draft of a middle grade adventure I really thought was going to be a winner: I honed it to what I felt was a bright shine, including writing 35 versions of my cover letter, pitching it at and winning The Hook, SCBWI’s national pitching competition in the UK, and signing with my agent, Jennifer. That manuscript and my next one got fantastic feedback, but neither of those projects was quite The One.

To be honest, life then took over. My health, mental and physical, headed south, and I found myself inside a deeper hole than I thought possible. I stopped writing.

It was months before I could face a keyboard again. Even when I did, I decided that what I wrote was just for therapy: I wouldn’t show it to anyone, I’d just focus on the catharsis of it. So I began, and never have I written from a place of such anguish. I wrote the first words when I was at 30,000 feet, in May 2018, flying home to see my mother and sister in Massachusetts. Miraculously, I looked up and realized a couple hours had passed. Mentally I’d been miles away from the cramped abnormality of the aircraft cabin, absorbed with the opening scene of the book – a scene that would later be rewritten, then rewritten again, then cut altogether. I remember how good it was to experience that sense of wellness again, a feeling that only writing can give me.

Pantsing

I grabbed onto that wellness and followed it, taking baby steps. I wrote slowly, more or less every day, averaging just 250 words a day, I realize, when I look back at my Pomodoro statistics.

I knew where I wanted the story to go, including the accident that would befall my main character’s bully. I also knew the unhealthy turn that I wanted her relationship with her best friend to take; but the rest I left open, writing scene after scene, following only the sincerest motivation of the main character. If it didn’t make sense for her to do a thing, it didn’t happen.

It was around then that I had breakfast in Edinburgh with a friend from Harvard, Maile Meloy, now a celebrated novelist and short story writer. We discussed her book (an excellent thriller for adults called DO NOT BECOME ALARMED) and what her characters did in it, and I told her I felt strange about pantsing rather than plotting my current story.

Maile gave me the confidence not to worry: “Just stand your characters up, make them want something, and don’t let them get it,” she said. Scene after scene, that exact strategy had been working for me, so I carried on. What I ended up with, by that October, was the mostly tightly-woven story I had ever written, with clear and strong motivations throughout.

The Call

Jump forward to May 2019, and a Google Hangouts message from my agent at 10pm (“I know it’s late there – I have just sent you some very exciting news”) made me shriek and brought my daughter to the top of the stairs. All I could say was, “Oh my God, oh my God.” Because there it was: I was going to be published. And all it required was that I write not just from the heart, but from the deepest, darkest abyss I’d ever experienced.

It was almost a year to the day since I had written those first words on the flight to Boston.

I may never know why the earlier manuscripts weren’t The One, but I sense that there is a chiming between who I am as a person and the subject matter of FRIEND ME that the other stories didn’t have. I don’t just mean my own experiences of bullying, but also my career as a technology journalist, which has steeped me in the kind of tech that surrounds (and overwhelms) my main character. Roisin’s life is as phone-dependent and social-media-fuelled as the vast majority of young people today; throw classic middle-school bullying into the mix, and it’s an explosive combination.

Writing and your wellness

Even if I had not struck it lucky with the publication deal, I know now, after what I wrote through and out of last year, that I would’ve kept writing no matter what. For me, there’s no salve like a well-written sentence, a sturdy paragraph, a pleasing scene. I find tremendous comfort in re-reading something solid that I’ve written. Its solidity helps me regain my own, when I’m wobbling.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer, keep writing. If you can’t write – as I couldn’t, for months – try at least to protect your writing time and do something else satisfying in it, something creative or mentally stimulating (I practiced my old acting monologues, and tried new recipes, and learned Japanese). That way, if and when you feel you can work with words again, your writing time is ready and waiting for you, and it hasn’t been swamped by life.

Even if the world hasn’t yet given you a signal that it needs your writing, you need your writing. And a happier world starts with a happy you.

Unlocking a tough scene with a clean-slate rewrite

Pen and Paper by GuudmorningLast week’s revisions were the hardest I’ve faced in a while on my work in progress, a middle grade novel that’s my first full-length fantasy. The scene where the very real world meets the magical just wasn’t working, but thanks to some great reading recommendations from twitter (I especially loved Anne Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS), plus some back-to-the-drawing-board scene brainstorming, I’ve got past my roadblock in chapter 7.

I don’t know how I’d forgotten this golden rule of revising: when I am struggling to rewrite a scene, I cannot bring over any old material from the previous draft, and by that I mean not a sentence, not a phrase, not a word. I absolutely need to reimagine everything about the characters’ mindset, assumptions and fears in order to generate realistic interactions, and the realistic dialogue that flows from that.

This meant doing some improv acting, devising a new scene (and, yes, talking to myself out loud in my writing room while I did it), exploring what the characters would say to each other on first meeting.

If I forget, please remind me in future – no! copying! and pasting! I have to start with a completely clean slate, especially when a scene is tricky.

If you’ve had any epiphanies during your writing or revising process, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

 

 

Paper and pen image by Guudmorning on Flickr

Review: Emma Shevah’s MG comedy Dara Palmer’s Major Drama

dara palmer major drama

I’m a sucker for theatrical kids, and it was obvious from the start that Dara Palmer, star of Emma Shevah’s DARA PALMER’S MAJOR DRAMA, wouldn’t disappoint. Eleven-year-old Dara is a born star; it’s just that no one around her has recognised this yet. Passed over repeatedly for starring roles in the school play, Dara ever-so-reluctantly joins the director’s after-school acting class at the local theatre and ever-so-gradually learns that she has a lot to learn about this acting thing…which is not, evidently, based around how many faces she can pull.

If you loved Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER books, you’ll love the Dara story, not least because there’s a heavy dose of heart-warming self-discovery as Dara’s eyes open to other things beyond what makes a good actor. Dara’s one of two adopted daughters in the Palmer family but she’s never wondered (until an acting exercise by her teacher spurs her to do so) what it feels like to be her shyer, younger sister Georgia, who’s habitually outshone by Dara and her megawatt personality.

Dara is one of the most deliciously comic characters I’ve read in a long time, with a non-stop voice that explodes with personality. Her wonderful character is what lets her ruminate genuinely but never in a heavy-handed way about the Cambodian parents she never knew, about what it must have been like for her baby self to be whisked away to live in England, and about the everyday racism of a few boorish classmates. Dara’s dawning awareness that there are no faces like hers on the Hollywood posters that line her walls also feels real, as does her all-guns-blazing determination to be one of those faces, one day.

As a transplanted American living in the UK, I especially adored the view on America; I’ve seen in my own kids and others in our Scottish village the way that the US (in entertainment terms, at least) is like a giant pop-culture monolith to the west, obsessing British kids in a way that’s not altogether a good thing. Dara is irritated that she finds herself misusing US terms like “prom” and “vanity cases” — this is deftly, brilliantly done and is some of the funniest writing I’ve seen in ages.

As a NetGalley reader I didn’t get to see most of Helen Crawford-White’s illustrations, but the sparkling cover has the right glam to draw star-loving readers.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah, illus. by Helen Crawford-White.

Published 2015 UK: coming July 2016 in US.

More info at Chicken House

Your story can make a great story

The Mirror

I shouldn’t be blogging when this is my only clear morning to work on novel revisions, but yesterday’s twitter pitch contest aimed at increasing the diversity in children’s literature has me thinking thoughts that are crowding out everything else.

#DVpit, the brainchild of New York literary agent Beth Phelan, took over twitter yesterday, encouraging writers with polished, ready manuscripts to put a one-liner about their work onto twitter if theirs is a diverse book — especially if the writer him- or herself is from a diverse background. Of course that’s open to interpretation, but here’s how Beth described DVpit.

So for example, if you are a writer of colour and your book centres around characters of colour, or if you are a writer with a disability and so is your main character, #DVpit wanted to hear from you yesterday.

By the way, if you missed yesterday’s contest and you’re writing a diverse story that’s ready to be seen by agents, you haven’t missed the boat. It’s clear from yesterday’s huge industry interest in #DVpit that agents and publishers are keen to hear from you whenever your story is at its best.

That’s why I wanted to jot down some thoughts today – to encourage you, whoever you are, not to be afraid to put your own culture – or elements of it – into the story you’re writing for children. I’m a Caucasian, first-generation Irish-American now living in Scotland, so I don’t pretend to have first-hand experience of living in our society – which still tends to prioritise and reward white, male, heterosexual, middle-class Judeo-Christian backgrounds – as a person from a minority or marginalised background.

But I do know what it’s like to assume, at a gut level, that my own story isn’t as interesting as something I could invent. The first two manuscripts I wrote were set on a space station, centred around a boy struggling with self-confidence issues. The problem with skilled writers is that they can write just about anything and make it sound good, and I was indeed able to write a competent story that had very little of my own guts, fears or fantasies in it.

It was only when I wrote a story that I decided was going to be 100% for me – with deep roots in my own Irish-American Massachusetts upbringing – that I tapped into something special. That third story was the one that got me my amazing agent, Jennifer Laughran, and while a huge amount of writers-craft work and practice was needed to pound the story into shape, I do believe the story works because it’s plugged right into my guts, into who I am.

Don’t discount your own heritage, background, insights, inherited legends or cultural traditions if you’re looking for the stuff of your own stories. I’m not giving the pat advice to write what you know; I’m saying don’t forget who you are when you’re looking for ideas that resonate.

The best advice I remember hearing on this topic is “write what you fear.” (Who said that? If you can remember, stick it in the comments below.) All the way through my Massachusetts book, I had the palpable sense of exploring things that really, really scared me.

And those are the books I adore reading: books like YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS by Meg Medina or Brian F. Walker’s BLACK BOY WHITE SCHOOL, or Lindsay Eagar’s HOUR OF THE BEES, or Julie T. Lamana’s UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, where the main character struggles to find peace with where they came from and where they want to go. Not all those stories, by the way, are own-voice tales by and about authors from the same tradition. But they are the stories I love most, because they pack an unbeatable punch.

A lot of people in the publishing industry would agree that books on shelves don’t reflect the true diversity of the great wide world, and #DVpit looks like it’s a step in the right direction, encouraging more writers to tell stories that spring from their own backgrounds. I’ve looked at Twitter contests for some years – that’s what set me on the road to finding my amazing agent – and I’ve never seen such a high calibre of industry folks watching the one-line pitches as I saw yesterday with #DVpit.

Whatever your story is, write it, make it awesome, hone your pitch until it shines so much it hurts your eyes, then submit. What have you got to lose?

 

 

 

Mirror photo by Pellesten on Flickr