In conversation with my editor

To celebrate the launch of The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, I sat down with my editor at Walker Books, Emily McDonnell, to discuss writing, editing, and all things publishing. I’ve been working with Emily and Walker Books since 2014, on six novels, so our editing process is very streamlined. It was a pleasure to discuss it with her. You can follow Emily on Twitter at @ems_worth, or catch her tweeting under the @walkerbooksYA account.

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your new book, Lauren?

The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker is my first fantasy novel, about a girl who gets in above her head when she tries to become the most powerful ghost in a building of ancient spirits. The other ghosts happen to be freshers who all died in their halls of residence during their first year of uni, decades earlier. When Harriet arrives, things start to go badly wrong . . .  

That’s as far as my pitch usually goes, because the plot itself is a hard one to summarise without spoiling the plot twists.

How do you go about writing blurbs that don’t spoil the story, but intrigue the reader enough to make them pick up the book, Emily?

It’s definitely a tricky task. It’s really important to try to get at the heart of what the book’s about and let readers know what to expect, but without giving too much away. You just want to tease what’s going to happen. It usually takes me a few drafts!

It’s so hard to really find the core themes in a novel, when it’s so alive in your head – it takes a bit of distance to be able to analyse it properly and summarise it in a few sentences. It’s why editors are so invaluable.

What was the process of writing the book like? How did it compare with your previous books?

It’s very different from my other books – I did write a bit of horror in The Loneliest Girl in the Universe (which you edited!) but I’ve not fully explored it before. It’s also my first book outside of the realm of science fiction, as this is a paranormal fantasy. The change in genre was really tough. It took a few years of coming back to the first draft before I managed to get it right.

The plot possibilities in a fantasy seemed endless and overwhelming at first – where do you stop when you can do literally anything? Everything clicked into place when I realised the importance of a magic system with rules and limitations. When your characters have powers – each of the ghosts can do something unique, like hypnotism, shapeshifting or clairvoyance –what is stopping them from becoming impossibly powerful? That gave my plot a structure that made the novel a lot easier to work with.

Yes! You have to find the parameters of your world. I think you did that brilliantly in The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, but I know it can take time to develop.

Totally. And as a writer, I naturally am hugely excited to throw all my crazy ideas at it, and do things I’ve never seen done before – but often that can be isolating to a reader. It can feel like cheating if characters pull out magic skills in the big showdown which you’ve never seen them use before. Big superhero movies make this mistake a lot. I try to make sure everything is foreshadowed from the very beginning.

Emily, do you find there’s a difference in editing contemporary, fantasy and sci-fi as genres, or do you always have to focus on the core elements like character development?

There are certainly some differences, but I think at its core, a good book usually has the same elements regardless of genre great characters and a great plot!

I think Walker Books do an amazing job at giving my books a consistent “brand”, even though they’re all so different (blog murder mysteries and space and ghosts – it’s a lot!). What kind of editorial discussions go on behind-the-scenes to make that difficult task seem so effortless?

Thank you on behalf of Walker Books! I think at the end of the day we want authors to write what they love, so we wouldn’t want to put limits on them in terms of sticking to a genre. Even when you’ve written different genres, there have been some things which have stayed consistent. Your brilliant characters, the humour you bring to your books, the compelling plot. And of course the science! In those respects, you’re always “on brand”.

I always try to include humour, romance, plot twists, funny characters (or rather, characters who think they’re funny) and found families. I feel really lucky to be able to always step outside my comfort zone and do new things.

Tell us a bit about the editing process. Do you have a favourite stage?

I find editing really satisfying, because I see first drafts as a starting point, and make huge changes structurally each time I come back to the story. That’s how my big plot twists develop, as I come back to the novel over time and add in new levels of detail.

My plotting is always quite visual – not really in terms of needing to know what my characters look like, but more in terms of picturing the general feeling of a book. I have to know very early on whether I want the reader to be awed or disconcerted or comforted (ideally a combination of all three). Collecting images and touchstones from existing media to create a visual moodboard really helps me build out from the initial idea and develop other elements to help turn the story’s vibe in my head into solid tentpoles in the narrative. 

I’m most excited when I can really push myself to do hard things on a big novel-wide level. I definitely don’t enjoy the grammar and spelling side of things very much – I think of scenes in terms of a complete package, rather than crafting beautiful, poetic sentences.

I think there is a really cinematic quality to your writing, so that definitely makes sense. But you write poetically when you need to as well!

The sign of a good editor: compliments alongside the constructive criticisms!

Though I do dread the “it’s time to choose a title” conversation in the editing process. Coming up with a title is, hand on heart, the worst part of writing books. I seem to spend all my time suffering over the thesaurus, and usually delay it until a title is desperately needed so the cover designers can start their work!

Emily, what’s your favourite/least favourite stage of the editorial process – big structural edits, line edits or copy edits? Do you prefer writing a broader more general letter of notes, or getting in the document with tracked changes and moving things around yourself?

I actually really enjoy both working on an editorial letter and getting stuck into a manuscript (sorry, that’s a cheat answer!). The structural edit stage (where we’re looking at the bigger picture and focusing on things like story arc and character development) is really exciting because there’s so much scope for where the story can go, and it’s exciting to see what an author does with your editorial notes. But I really like the line edit stage too there’s something very satisfying about it.

I wouldn’t say that there are any stages I don’t enjoy, but it’s always a bit scary sending a book out to print, so the later editorial stages are a bit less fun.

Lauren, you’re known for some really jaw-dropping plot twists. Do you usually plot out the story before you start writing your first draft?

I’m a huge plotter. My outlines are 10+ pages long usually. What is important in a first draft is making sure that the plot flows – each scene clearly provides a motivation or clue towards what happens next – and the characters have believable motives.

The characters need to drive the plot, making decisions that cause things to happen, rather than being dragged along on an adventure. I double back on myself a lot to adjust scenes which aren’t changing the overall plot arc or keeping the tension high even in smaller scenes.

Some of the smaller twists in my books are planned from the beginning, but as I edit the novels, I usually add in some more along the way! I get bored easily, and learn a lot about writing between rounds of editing, so I try to push the story as much as I can each time I return to it.

Adding twists is a way to take risks and stretch the narrative in ways I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do otherwise (particularly in regard to the characters’ backstories). It takes a lot of planning in advance. While writing, I tend to think about my novels in several strands:

  • what the reader knows about what’s happening
  • what the characters know about what’s happening (but aren’t necessarily saying)
  • what is really happening

I then pace out reveals about the truth alongside character development. Ideally, readers will guess twists about 10 pages before the characters realise the truth – I try to give enough clues that it’s possible to work it out if you’re a close reader. I don’t think it’s fair, otherwise.

Emily, how do you edit plot twists and foreshadowing in a novel like The Loneliest Girl? Did you find this challenging? How do you keep track of really complex plot threads – do you use an excel spreadsheet or post-it notes or anything?

Editing plot twists is definitely challenging. It’s so important to find that balance between teasing and foreshadowing what’s coming and not giving too much away. It’s great to have other editorial colleagues read a draft as sometimes you need fresh eyes to say if it’s working.

It is crazy how often we get to the third or fourth round of edits and a new reader will point out a gaping plot hole that we’ve all missed, because we’ve just read it too many times. Fresh eyes are invaluable! (Also, changing the font to notice spelling errors).

I tend to make quite a lot of notes of timelines etc when I’m editing to help me keep track of everything. And of course I used your famous spreadsheet when editing The Loneliest Girl to help me keep track of all the timelines!

Lauren, what makes a great character for you? And do your characters tend to appear in your mind fully formed, or do you have to spend time developing and getting to know them?

It’s definitely something I have to work at. I don’t know them very well until I start editing. I think it’s because I need to have written their ending to know how many “steps back” I need to take to find their beginning.

So, if they’re going to have to face a struggle with their bravery, I need to make sure the opening chapters show them failing to be brave. That’s a very basic example, but the same principle applies for every aspect of their personality.

Until I’ve written a full draft, I have no idea what will be relevant to their story, so I can’t really craft their personality fully. Character development is completely driven by the needs of the plot, for me. They need to be absolutely essential to progressing the story. If a character could be replaced by someone else with different traits, and the plot continues to work, then I haven’t done a good job at building them into the structure of the story.

That makes a lot of sense. When I’m editing, I usually need to have read a full draft before I start making any notes. I need to know where a story and its characters end up to be able to delve into that arc.

I think being able to write to the END is a hugely undervalued skill by aspiring writers. We’re all great at starting new projects when they’re fresh and fun, but tying it all together in a satisfying way is tough. It’s almost useless to start editing a book until you’ve plotted it.

Absolutely! Getting through that first draft is a huge achievement. Because it’s only then that you have something you can work with and polish and improve on.

Emily, do you find that characters’ personalities change over the course of editing a novel, or do they usually arrive in a very complete form before they reach your desk?

I would say that while the main protagonists might change a little during the course of editing a book, they tend to arrive in a fairly complete form. It’s often the secondary characters who need some more fleshing out.

It is of course different for every book, but I think authors tend to know their main characters pretty well. Having said that, sometimes motives need further clarity, or we need to make their reactions to events clearer and more believable.

I’m sure you get asked for writing advice a lot, Lauren! Do you have any tips you can share?

Writing advice is always “write every day”. I think that’s wrong. The real trick is to read every day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. You need to be constantly filling your brain with sentences and plots, to fill up your mental bank of ideas. Then you’ll have something to write about, by stealing all the best bits of your favourite books. That’s the real secret to writing.

When I’m struggling to write something, I tend to go away and read lots of books, to teach myself more about writing by seeing how the masters do it. So I’ve been reading a lot recently – authors like N. K. Jemisin and Naomi Novik have been especially inspiring.

Brilliant advice! It’s so helpful for aspiring authors to read widely.

Finding an early reader you trust is absolutely essential too. I used to get very nervous about sending off my work (it exposes a huge vulnerability!) but having the same editorial team at Walker since my debut novel in 2014 has changed everything.

I know that everyone at Walker understands my writing and editing style, and we work very well together. I think if I was working with a new team I would get very nervous, as I wouldn’t know what to anticipate getting back in the notes.

Try to find a reader who can look at your work critically but is on the same wavelength as you in terms of where the project should end up.

What about you? Do you have any advice for authors trying to self-edit their work?

I think having some space from your work is actually really valuable. Once that first draft is written, put it away for a week or two and then come back to it with fresh eyes. And thinking time is really valuable too.You don’t always have to be writing and editing in order to improve your book. Having the space to mull things over is also great. And as we said, getting that first draft down is key.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on next?

I’m currently working through your editorial notes on my novel about climate change – about nature, geoengineering and teenagers taking action through civil disobedience, in the face of overwhelming corporate negligence. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for years, but never felt good enough at writing to tackle, as it’s such an enormous topic. I’m finding it tough, and there’s a lot research to do, but it’s such an important discussion to have.

Emily, you’re great at highlighting the weak parts of a novel while also giving me room to fix it in whatever way I want. Your suggestions aren’t prescriptive, and that gives me the space to be imaginative with solutions.

I’m blushing! Thank you. I think the relationship between an author and editor is so important, and I feel very privileged to work with dream authors like you. This book is going to be brilliant and I am so excited about it!

Can you tell us what you’re working on right now, Emily? Walker has so many amazing books!

I agree (even if I am a little biased!). I’m reading lots of submissions at the moment, and working on some great fantasy books, for both young adult and middle grade readers.

Lauren, thank you so much for joining me for a chat! We really hope you’ve found this informative and insightful. And if you haven’t read The Reckless Afterlife yet (where have you been?!), find out more and buy your copy at all good bookshops.

Emily McDonnell is a senior editor at Walker Books. You can follow her on Twitter at @ems­_worth.

If you’re after more writing chat discussion, check out my recent panel discussion with Alice Oseman here:

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. She is the twice Carnegie-nominated British Young Adult author of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, The Quiet at the End of the World and The Next Together series, as well as the dyslexia-friendly novella The Starlight Watchmaker and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. Her upcoming release is The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker. She started writing during secondary school English classes, because she couldn’t stop thinking about a couple who kept falling in love throughout history. She sold the rights to the novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her books have sold over fifty thousand copies in the UK alone, and been translated into five languages worldwide. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and all of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was inspired by a Physics calculation she was assigned at university. The Quiet at the End of the World considers the legacy and evolution of the human race into the far future. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient.  She has written articles for numerous publications, including the GuardianBuzzfeed, Den of GeekThe Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2020. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

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