In Conversation with my editor

Last year to celebrate the launch of The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, Emily and I did a chat about writing, editing, and everything that goes on behind-the-scenes of book publishing.

I had so much fun getting to quiz her that I asked if we could do it again for Green Rising.

I’ve been working with Emily and Walker Books since 2014, on seven 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.

Emily: I know this is a book very close to your own heart. Could you give us a brief summary of what Green Rising is about?

Lauren:  Teenagers who can grow plants from their skin use their powers to rewild the planet, and stand up to the profit-hungry corporations who want climate change to continue, for their own devious ends.

Emily, I love how the cover for Green Rising fits in the ‘brand’ of my other titles, but feels fresh and unique too. What was the process behind designing this at Walker?

We always begin the process with a cover brief, which provides an overview of the story, as well as where it will sit in the market. It’s a great opportunity to make sure that different departments such as editorial, design, sales and marketing etc all have the same vision for what we want to achieve with the cover and how we want it to look.

The images of hands and plants felt central to the story and also the cover, so Beci Kelly, who illustrated the cover, started looking for different ways to incorporate the two. This early selection shows some of those ideas.

The concept was really well liked, and as you can see the final cover is a kind of hybrid of options 3 and 4. Beci did a brilliant job of blending the tree and hand so that they work really harmoniously.

One point of discussion was the colour way for the cover. Your last book, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, had a green cover, so we didn’t want the two books to look too similar. I love the autumnal burnished colour that we chose for the final book – and it looks so stunning with the coppery foil.

I think Beci and Chloe Tartinville, who designed the overall cover, did a superb job of creating a cover that has a striking simplicity to the concept, and yet is so rich and detailed at the same time. It feels “on brand” for you, and yet original at the same time.

Where did the spark of an idea for the book come from? And what sort of development work do you usually do in the early stages after you’ve had an idea for a story?

I’ve always wanted to write about climate change – but I could never find a ‘way in’. It’s such a huge, complex topic that I didn’t know how to tackle it in a way which felt uplifting. I was reading about the rewilding of abandoned urban areas when the idea for magical plants came to me. It was immediately an idea which felt like it had the legs to talk about such a scary topic in a way which matches the tone of my books – I could see the comedy and fun in that scenario, despite the serious debate at its heart.

I pitched the idea of teenagers with magic tackling climate change to my agent Claire Wilson, and we had a long discussion back in November 2018 about the idea, which I originally called ‘The Green Earth Preservation Society’. Claire is really passionate about climate change, and had a very clear vision in mind for what the book needed to do thematically. I was really excited by the idea of the magic (I had all these ideas for having a sentient talking cottage that holds Theo’s family hostage, and a rainforest plant monster that Gabrielle takes around with her!) but Claire kept pulling me back to the central message: that the magic needs to be a tool to help the teenagers stand up to powerful organisations, and highlight the power of collective action. She also made sure there was a clear antagonist, and it didn’t feel too much like ‘wish fulfilment’ – that there would still be work for the characters to do in the long term, and I hadn’t fixed every issue on Earth immediately.

We played around with lots of different pitches for the concept, honing in on one which would give us the maximum amount of drama and betrayals between characters. I’m hugely grateful to have an editorial agent like Claire – if she hadn’t helped me isolate the key issues that might crop up in the early stages, I would have wasted a lot of time writing and rewriting down dead ends before I realised the issues myself.

Emily, you really pushed me to expand on the logic and evolution of the plant magic powers. Do you find that this is a blind point for authors when building fantasy worlds – that they don’t fully build the laws of their magic systems? I struggle with this a lot, and have to think about it in a very scientific way to get my brain to work through the concepts behind magic!

I think authors often know the worlds that they have created so well – it’s so familiar to them – that perhaps some of the simplest details or parameters of that world don’t quite make it to the page. It can’t be an easy job spelling out all of the ideas in your head! So as an editor, I try to ask questions and dig a little deeper to ensure that readers will have a full understanding of the world they’re reading about. Often authors know the answers to these questions immediately, so it’s just a case of then incorporating that into the story.

In the case of Green Rising, we obviously had to think about how the plant powers would develop and evolve, and make sure that at each stage it was clear to the reader what the characters could and couldn’t do with their powers. But once we found that logic it really helped tie everything together.

You did an incredible amount of research when writing this book, and it has certainly paid off. How do you structure your research so that it doesn’t become overwhelming? Do you make notes as you go along? Or do you read a lot and then give yourself some time to digest it all?

It was really tough! There are so many issues at play in the climate debate – from science to politics and economics. I really had to give myself a crash course in everything so I could trace the problems that needed fixing to their sources (and then find a way to fix them using plants!). For a while it definitely felt like the more I read, the more confused I got, but that actually helped a lot, because my characters felt the same way. I could channel some of the questions I had about climate politics into their perspectives.

I use Workflowy to keep bullet point lists of notes as I’m planning a story:

Then I compile it all into a Word Document with my outline and try to organise points in places in the story I might need that information. Often I’ll start writing and then there’ll be a specific scene I need to do research for, so I’ll go away and read up on what it’s like on an oil rig, making notes for the scene like this: 

Emily, how has your relationship with climate change evolved as a process of editing the book? I know mine changed a lot while researching and writing. I’ve become a lot more politically engaged with the issues.

It was a real eye-opener for me! I was of course aware of the climate crisis, but I hadn’t fully understood the impact that certain industries are having. I’ve learnt so much, and like you have become a lot more engaged with the issues, as well as doing my best to keep making differences in my own lifestyle.

While you were writing Green Rising, you also set up the Climate Fiction Writers League. Could you tell us a little more about this project?

The Climate Fiction Writers League is an organisation of over a hundred climate writers. I run a biweekly newsletter of essays about climate writing, in order to encourage readers and writers to take action. I think it’s made me feel a lot less scared about the future too, because I’m doing something positive to help. I started out primarily just wanting to create a database of climate fiction, because I couldn’t find any online when I was research Green Rising. It’s grown a lot since then, and I’m hoping to build out the group even more and start offering support to developing writers.

This book is a lot more political than my others. Was this something you were concerned with when editing it?

I think you’ve tackled such an important subject and done so in such a unique and innovative way that I always knew how important it was to get this book out into the world. As an editor I of course felt a certain responsibility to help you do the topic justice, but the level of research you’ve put into this book shows how committed you are to getting that right. It’s been an honour to try and play my part.

This is your sixth young adult novel! Does the process of getting a first draft down get any easier with each book, or is it always nerve-racking when you’re facing a blank page?

I definitely panic a lot less these days, because from previous experience I know that it is possible to finish a novel, even when it feels insurmountable from the midst of it!

I wrote the first draft in 14 weeks, working from a detailed 20,000 word proposal which I’d been researching for 6 months. That included 30 days of active writing, averaging 2,400 words a day. Here are my stats:

The first draft of Green Rising was 110,000 words, and you helped me get it down to 80,000 words without losing anything significant – something I’d thought was impossible! Do you have any tips for writing concisely to the word counts required for YA?

I don’t think writers should be afraid of having a long and messy first draft, because once you’ve got that first draft down on paper, you’ve got something to work with. I’m sure some people find it helpful to edit as they go along, but if that’s not you, there’s always plenty of potential to cut the length down in the editing process.

As an author, it’s vital to make sure that everything scene counts – that each one is serving a purpose. And to think about how you reveal information to your audience – too much exposition can easily bog a reader down. Focusing on those two points can quickly help to bring a word count down. Sometimes you do have to be ruthless – just because you like a scene or a character doesn’t mean it’s serving an overall purpose. Coming back to your manuscript with fresh eyes can be one of the best ways to help self-edit.

You’re always brilliant at taking on board editorial feedback. Did this book present any new challenges for you that you hadn’t encountered before? How did you find the editorial process?

I really wanted to capture a mix of responses to the climate crisis, but without having any characters be totally uneducated about the topic – I feel like that’s unrealistic in this time, when we’re all very aware of the future we’re facing. Hester starts out the novel as someone who is against climate action, but she considers herself very educated and engaged on the topic and can debate very well on it. She’s been raised by an oil tycoon, so she knows all of the economical and political background of the climate issue.

Meanwhile, Theo is a fisherman’s son, and he is aware of the need for climate action but isn’t very educated about the topic. He just knows that action needs to be taken, even though he doesn’t know what or how it would be possible.

Their views change over the course of the book, and it was difficult to construct character arcs for them that felt realistic and built into their cultural upbringing. I wanted it to feel genuine to the experience of becoming more involved in climate issues. As I became more educated around the topic too, I struggled not to put too much of what I’d learnt in the story – I know you had to rein me back there a lot!

But editing with you (and the whole team at Walker) is always such a pleasure – it’s very fun and laidback, even when we’re planning to tear apart a whole storyline!

Emily, you’re a big fan of sharing manuscripts with other editors to help find issues which have become blind spots after rereading a book so many times. Have you noticed anything in particular which tends to be missed by people close to the story?

Haha, it’s amazing how we can miss plot holes when we’ve read a book so many times! I’m always so grateful to have a fresh perspective. I think world-building and character motivation are often two things that authors have very clear in their heads but might not have translated into the story quite so clearly.

As well as all of your research into the climate crisis, you also did a huge amount of research into the oil industry to create Hester and her dad. Was Hester a fun character to write? I personally love her, and feel so invested in the journey she goes on through the novel to gain a whole new perspective on the fossil fuel industry.

She was so much fun! I loved writing her at the beginning of the book, when she’s totally focussed on success in business, and really oblivious to anything outside her very upper class, 1% bubble. She’s really been indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking, and over the course of the story her entire world view basically collapses around her. I think it takes a lot of bravery to face something like that head-on, and not repress and deny it all. She really sacrifices a lot during the story, and I hope I did her character arc justice.

One thing we talked about a lot when editing Green Rising was the relationship between Hester and her father, which is really complex and nuanced. You have a really strong grasp on character dynamics, and you helped me get the things in my head onto the page in a way that was clear to the reader. What kind of issues do you usually see in books, particularly in the relationships between characters?

Relationships play such a key role in character development, so this is always something I’m looking for. Hester’s relationship with her dad was a really interesting one, as there are so many different emotions tied up there. She’s in awe of him and wants to be just like him at the start of the book, but she’s frustrated too. We had to tease out those different elements to understand what she goes through over the course of the story.

I think character relationships are a key area to try and ensure you’re showing the reader as well as telling them what the dynamics are. And embrace subtlety and conflicted emotions. It all helps to make a character feel more authentic.

Speaking of parent–child relationships, Theo has had a very different upbringing to Hester, but they are both close to families. Parent–child relationships are something you write about in quite a few of your novels – is it something that particularly interests you?

There’s a joke in kid-lit that the parents always die in books, because that’s the easiest way to get your young protagonists out on an adventure. And I tried to stay away from that trope, because I think there’s so much you can learn about a character through meeting their parents, and seeing how they were raised into the person they’ve become – for good or for evil!

I think there’s a way people talk to their parents which is very different from how they talk to anyone else in their life. Emotions always bubble closer to the surface, and it’s a lot easier for conversations to go disastrously wrong – or be really therapeutic and rewarding. That’s a hugely valuable tool in storytelling if you use it right. 

For Theo and Hester, I intentionally built in a lot of similarities in their upbringings. At first, they can’t relate to each other at all, and think they have nothing in common. But their experiences mirror each other in a lot of ways, even across the divide of culture, opportunity and wealth. It was a lot of fun playing with that. 

One thing you flagged up in edits was that I don’t really describe my characters’ physical appearance, particularly for side characters. I think I’m probably not a huge visual writer – scenes usually arrive for me as emotional beats rather than things I can picture immediately in my head. I definitely have to go away and find an actor who fits a character, and then I can describe the character’s appearance on the page. Is the focus on visual/emotional/logistical etc elements something that varies from author to author, and for you personally?

It definitely varies from author to author, and I don’t personally feel that I need to have every character’s appearance described in detail to me. But sometimes just having a sense of a character’s physical presence and appearance can really enhance a reader’s perception of them. Sometimes there’s a moment where I’d just love to know how someone looks!

Finally, without giving too much away, could you give us a little hint as to what your next YA novel is going to be about?

I’m working on the novelisation of my online story An Unauthorised Fan Treatise, which you can read for free. It’s a contemporary YA (a first for me!) about a fangirl who gets involved in the murder of one of her favourite actors. It’s really fun – but slightly scary to be doing something without any magic or time travel!!

Can you tell us what books you’re working on right now, Emily? I’m really excited for Ann Sei Lin’s upcoming book Rebel Skies!

Oh I’m so excited about Rebel Skies! I got to read an early draft and it’s brilliant.

One of the other books I’m working on that I’m really excited about is a middle grade novel by Justyn Edwards called The Great Fox Illusion. The Great Fox is a world-famous magician who has died, and our protagonist Flick Lions has entered a competition to win his legacy. It puts a whole new spin on magical middle grade and is such a gripping read. Plus I’m loving finding out all about the sleights of hand that make magic tricks so convincing. It’s publishing next April and I can’t wait for people to read it.

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

Emily and me at YALC 2017!

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. 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. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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