An Interview with Editor Erin Black
Erin Black will be one of the many great featured editors at our 2014 Agents and Editors Conference. Erin is an assistant editor at Scholastic Press. Learn more about Erin and what she represents by visiting our Featured Editors page and reading the Q&A below.
How would you describe your personal approach to working with a writer/client?
I don’t have any two authors that are exactly alike, so I wouldn’t approach everyone the same way. That said, I like to get to know my authors. The more they tell me about their lives and schedules, the easier it is for me to avoid sending them copy-edited manuscripts when they’re super busy on their kids’ spring break, or to gauge how close I need to stay to my desk when I’ve just sent an editorial letter so I’m available to talk. I have some authors who I know are going to want to disappear with their line edits for a week and call once they’ve gone through the manuscript on their own, and some who want to communicate through links to YouTube videos as they work on a first draft – it’s all fine, but the more I know about my authors, the better I can help them!
If a potential client could do one thing to make the experience of working together even better, what would it be?
The best thing I think an author can do is to be aware of how many people are working on their book! Writing can be solitary, especially in early drafts of a manuscript, and it can feel like only your agent and editor are pulling for you – but my authors are great in that they realize how many people in the publishing house are working on their books, from the copyeditor to the publicist as well as the sales team. Sometimes getting an author’s enthusiastic email about a cover can make a designer’s day (just as reading it makes mine), and as rewarding as our jobs are, it’s so nice to know that the author of a book you love appreciates the work you’ve put into getting it out into the world.
What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to receiving submissions, reading work, etc.?
This is a strange, specific pet peeve that I mostly run into online: writers confusing editing and copy-editing. Editing comes first, and includes making sure the book is working on a large-scale as well as a minute one. Is the emotional arc of the story satisfying? Are the characters coming alive? Is the dialogue lagging in this chapter? Is ‘smashed’ too dramatic for this description, and would ‘smushed’ be a better word? All of these are things an editor will be thinking about (and then some). Copy-editing comes after editing, to make sure that everything in a manuscript is correct, from the grammar, spelling, and punctuation, to pointing out gaps in logic or sequence that the author and editor have missed (‘This character was seated, and then over here he’s pacing, but when did he stand up?’), to making sure that appropriate language is used throughout a story. (I can’t tell you how many times, especially in books with historical settings, a copyeditor has flagged a word that wasn’t in use when the story was set!) Editors and copyeditors (as well as proofreaders and designers and typesetters and…the list goes on) are needed to help a book grow to its full potential before it’s printed and sent into the world.
You often hear that it’s the first ten pages – or even the first page – that sells a story. Is there something particular that you look for in those first few pages?
Reading is a hugely subjective practice, and some editors will look for characters, or world-building, or a great hook for the story first thing. I can usually tell a couple of things after the first page or few pages: I can tell whether there’s a great voice that’s going to make me keep reading; and I can tell if an author has a sense of her own story. Voice is the thing that hooks me on a story – boy or girl or dog, younger or older or tween, etc. If I can still hear the narration after I’ve stopped reading a manuscript, that’s an indicator that the voice is a winner. But I also want to know whether an author has a sense of the story she’s telling, and that’s where characters and world-building come in. If a character is introduced as being sixteen but reacts to things in the first pages as if he or she were much older or younger, I’m probably not reading a YA novel, and I’m not sure that the author knows who she’s writing for. If there’s no sense of setting indicated in the language or narration, or if the language screams contemporary United States while there are horse-drawn carriages or wombats in the bush, I’m not sure the author knows where she wants her story to take place. It’s difficult to ask the right questions to shape a story when a writer doesn’t know what kind of story she’s looking to tell, and most editors and agents are juggling so many projects at once that they don’t have time to work on such early, exploratory drafts of manuscripts.
If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
First is to finish the book. It doesn’t matter how many cities you plan on touring to if there isn’t a finished manuscript. Next, and more important: Find an agent. Editors depend on agents – we’re happy to discuss our lists and theirs, we appreciate that they’d never send us edgy YA when we only want board books, we know that they’re there for us when we need a manuscript soon so that we can make our production dates and we’ve already called the author, etc. We rely on them for so many things, including finding the most promising authors and helping them polish their projects before they choose which editors to send them to (since many large publishers, like Scholastic, don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts). Finding an agent is, in my view, the best first step on the path to getting a book published.
Tell us about a project you took on, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on, because there was something special or unique about it that you couldn’t say no to. If this question doesn’t apply to you, please tell us about an exciting or proud moment in your career as an editor or agent.
I adore fun, contemporary (like Jennifer Ziegler and Elizabeth Eulberg do such an amazing job with), and love science fiction and fantasy – but I’ve learned (with a few exceptions) not to say there’s a genre I’m not a huge fan of, as I inevitably end up working on that very thing a little while later. I’m not a reader of thrillers for adults – but when Victoria Scott’s Fire & Flood landed in my inbox, I was up until 2 in the morning because I could not put it down. I’m the last person who would go see a horror movie with you – but I’ve been having an immense amount of fun working on a series about a museum of haunted objects with Suzanne Weyn. If I love it and it’s right for our list, I’ll want to work on it!
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