Friday, October 3, 2008

Conference Notes: Talk with Stephanie Greene and Martha Mihalick

Stephanie Greene is the author of the recently released MG novel, The Lucky Ones, and Martha Mihalick worked on editing the book for Greenwillow. The two ladies sat down and discussed the process of the book from writing to publication.

What struck me the most was how much work was involved in the development of this book. The original writing of the book seemed to flow for Greene—she mentioned that this was her "gift book" that Shipley alluded to. But when the book was sent to Greenwillow, there seemed to be quite a flaw: there wasn't really much of a plot. Mihalick's exact statement in her comments to Greene were: "But what happens?" Because the book had started off as a story about a place—not the characters—the plot was lacking.

I think that if the editors at Greenwillow, Mihalick included, had not believed in Greene's ability so much, and if Greene had not already proven herself with past books, and if Greene's writing was not already so beautiful, this book might not have made it. That's my impression, anyway. The plot and character development was originally lacking, but the writing was so strong that the editors helped Greene figure out how to develop the other elements in her book to create The Lucky Ones.

Greene didn't set out to write a gritty novel. The Lucky Ones is about growing up and deciding who you will become. When she received notes from the editors at Greenwillow, she put them away for three months, then picked and chose from the notes what needed to be fixed. She printed the entire book out and spread it on her kitchen table, chapter by chapter. She looked at the revision process as a layering process—layering in plot, details, characters to develop her story. She added tension—a hint of a threat to the happiness of the characters—in the first chapter; she made her characters' actions consistent; she put the parents at risk. In short, she kept raising the hurdle in small ways, and was able to develop a subtle, elegant plot within a beautifully written piece about a place. This worked for Mihalick: "You don't need radical changes—small details developed the overall ideas [in The Lucky Ones]."

Notes about the editing process:
  • Editors don't fix minutia; they ask questions. Their job is to poke holes and go at it from all sides—but they don't expect every question to be addressed, they just want to show the writer what kinds of questions arise.
  • Editors don't suggest how you rewrite the book—they just ask the questions for you to then revise.
  • Editors are all impatient for revisions—but they are also patient and give the writer time so that they can get the best possible work from the writer.
  • Editors take their time with a work: it will take a day at least to read the story and delve into it thoroughly.
  • Stephanie Greene: "It gets easier [to revise] as you write more books."
  • Greene has never had an editor rewrite language at the line editing process—it was always notes on things, but never rewritten language.
  • Mihalick: The value of a critique group is that they ask questions and poke holes. Think about why the person is missing the point you're trying to make, and fix it from there.
  • Mihalick: It's not about what's wrong with the manuscript, it's about what could be better.
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