WATER~STONE REVIEW SUMMER WRITING WORKSHOP INTERVIEW WITH MARY LOGUE & ESTHER PORTER
During the 2017 Water~Stone Review Summer Writing Workshop, we were fortunate to welcome Esther Porter and Mary Logue to our annual Publishing Panel event on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Assistant Managing Editor Sophia Myerly served as the moderator for this panel. The following is a transcription of the panel discussion, lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Mary Logue was born and raised in Minnesota. While she has lived in many other parts of the world—Belgium, France, New York City, and Tucson—she always returns home. She has worked as an editor at numerous presses, including Graywolf Press and The Creative Company, and has taught in MFA programs at the University of Minnesota and Hamline University. She has published thirteen adult mystery novels (including the Claire Watkins mystery series), five books of poetry, several non-fiction books, and many children’s books. Her awards include a Minnesota Book Award, a Wisconsin Outstanding Achievement award, and her picture book, SLEEP LIKE A TIGER, won a Charlotte Zolotow honor and a Caldecott honor. She lives with writer Pete Hautman in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Stockholm, Wisconsin.
Esther Porter is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis. She earned her English degree at the University of Minnesota, then worked for the literary publisher Coffee House Press for several years and founded the literary arts and culture magazine Revolver. She has published eight children’s books with Capstone Press, most recently Peeking Under the City, which the National Science Teachers Association named a 2017 Outstanding Science Book. Esther offers editorial services through the Loft’s Manuscript Critique and Coaching Program, and she is Senior Editor of Digital Content for BestBuy.com. Visit www.estherporter.com for more information.
SOPHIA MYERLY: What were your paths into the publishing industry?
MARY LOGUE: It goes way, way, way, way back. I was editor of my high school newspaper in North St. Paul, and we came out bimonthly. This meant that every other Thursday I got to leave school and go to the print shop because we were still doing it on linotype press, so I actually got to read the paper upside down and backwards and work in the print shop, which was just the most wonderful opportunity to really see the whole thing come together. But I didn’t know you could be a writer. I often think about this—I’ve taught in Writers in the Schools a lot, and I knew lawyers, I knew doctors, nurses, teachers, grocery store people, retail, but I’d never, ever met a writer. So I went to the [University of Minnesota] and got a degree in French and English and then, of course, I did what one does with that degree, and I waitressed for a few years. But during this time I was working for the Minnesota Daily at the U and then I started writing music reviews for both of the St. Paul and Minneapolis papers, and just getting my toe in the water. Then I moved to New York, and all hell broke loose.
I worked for the Village Voice, and I worked for Simon & Schuster, and I really got my Ph.D in publishing in New York City. Then I came back here and worked for Fins and Feathers Magazine, which was a hunting and fishing [magazine]. I worked with this wonderful woman who did teach me—she was so careful and thoughtful and clear about editing, and I did learn a lot from her. And then I went on to Graywolf, from Fins and Feathers to Graywolf Press . Editing has always been part of my life. It’s not my main thing, my main thing is definitely my writing, but I love editing because it is ever changing. Every manuscript is different and I really like that about working with people and [working] one-on-one with their manuscripts.
ESTHER PORTER: First of all, I want to say thank you for inviting me here and for the opportunity to sit next to Mary and learn from her.
I’m really lucky. I started out as a kid. I knew I enjoyed writing but I loved animals, and I was told that if you want to be a veterinarian you take Latin, so I started taking Latin and joined the Latin club and that got me interested. I had an incredible teacher who was so interested in etymology. He would discuss one Latin word for half an hour and talk about all the different words in English, and all sorts of different languages and how the word evolved and changed over history and what that says about different cultures—and that’s what got me into writing seriously, just an interest in language from that perspective. An interest in what words mean and why, and what the history of that meaning is. Once I went to college, I was like, “Oh, I can’t be an English major! I’m not good enough to be an English major!” But finally, I had professors tell me, “You know you need to be an English major. What are you doing?” So I very happily became an English major and then studied abroad in London, and was lucky enough to have an internship at a children’s book publishing company called Milet Publishing. That just kind of sealed the deal for me. It was a really small publisher, and I became really close with the publisher there—Patricia Billings, who is actually an American transplant from Chicago. She and I became very close, and I just fell in love with the process of working with an author and turning their vision into something that was going to be given to children all over.
Part of the mission of [Milet] was to publish works and then translate them into underrepresented languages within the U.K., so a big part of their mission was to provide [books to] children from several cultures that come to the U.K. and don’t have access to children’s books in their own language. Suddenly they have this book in the store that’s in their language, and that was just extremely inspiring to me, to work with [Patricia] to not only have a web of words but also to have it be a service––that really made a big difference in my goals as an editor.
Then I came back to the U of M after studying abroad, and I took an editing course because I knew I loved writing but I also really loved editing—I found myself spending more time editing work than generating new work. As a high schooler, I’d be sitting in my room for hours on end writing out sentences and then rearranging them in ways—it was like a game, and that’s how I passed my time and calmed myself. I have always struggled with terrible anxiety, so rearranging sentences was what calmed me. That’s what calms me to this day—it’s like a game, or a formula. So I knew that I enjoyed editing.
I took that course my last semester in college and Chris Fischbach from Coffee House Press visited, as a visiting speaker, and he had the Coffee House Press catalog with him. I started looking through it, and I realized, “Some of my favorite poets are in here!” I didn’t realize! So I made that determination, “I am going to work with you, and I am going to start by interning at Coffee House Press.” I applied the following fall, and absolutely loved the internship. As my internship was coming to an end, a position opened up, and I was lucky enough to be able to work with Allan Kornblum, writing grants with him, and I learned so much from Allan. He really was a major influence in my life. At Coffee House Press, there’s also the mission of publishing underrepresented social groups, so writers of all walks of life and cultures [can] share their stories. Having that mission behind the love of words really propelled me toward publishing and staying in publishing.
MYERLY: Who have been your mentors or inspirations as editors and writers?
PORTER: As I said, Allan, certainly. Not only in the editing and writing but also in the sort of letterpress and the world of letterpress and font and the history of printing. That had a big influence on me. Chris Fischbach at Coffee House Press also was a huge mentor and helped me when I knew I needed to leave Coffee House Press because my husband’s schooling was going to take us to Iowa for three years. I needed to be a freelancer so I could work from anywhere. He really mentored me a great deal, along with Anitra Budd, who worked at Coffee House Press at the time. I let them know 9 months in advance, “I have to move away,” and they said, “OK, we’ll get you totally set up to be a freelancer, to be a freelance editor.” And I owe so much to them—they were definitely my mentors.
LOGUE: I actually go back to my French degree. In French, they do an analysis of text called explication de texte, where they look at the first page of a book, they look at the first sentence of a book, they look at the first word of a book, and they write—as you can imagine—reams and reams on what it means, and why this was so… I really have picked up from that. I mean, that was a huge lesson to me [on] how important it is that we invite the reader into our work.
I really, really stress titles. I think titles get neglected, and I really want you to think about your first sentence. Is it a sentence that lets people come into your work, that asks people to come into your work? Your first paragraph, your first page, and your first chapter? We are not making objects that people pay dollars for and then have to sit in a seat and watch—not that you can’t leave a movie, but people will put down books. I just was reading Nancy Pearl, the famous librarian. She says that you should always give a book 50 pages, but then when she turned 50, she decided that as you age, you get to subtract a page.
PORTER: Wasn’t it because you have less time on this earth?
LOGUE: Yes! I feel like my actual big picture editing, which is what I tend to do the most of, I think I learned from every book I read. But my careful editing, which comes not as easily to me––because I tend to be more a big-picture person––I did learn from the editor at Fins and Feathers Magazine. And I love the story of her—I remember her first name, it was Bonnie, but I don’t remember her last name––but what I loved about her was that she had been a nun. She wanted to be a nun and became a nun because she thought she could read all the time, and then when she found out she couldn’t, she changed her mind.
But she had that mind…I was just in awe of her mind, that she could ask every question, look at every comma…and helped me, I really think, slow down, because I read very fast, and just be a little more careful with things I tend to think not so important, like punctuation. She was very, very helpful. I think that wonderment of language—again, I just have to say that I’ve learned from every book that I’ve loved, so keep reading.
MYERLY: As editors, what do you, or have you, looked for in publishable work?
LOGUE: Well, I’ll go back to what I just said, which is, I want to get on the ride right away. I don’t want to wait for it to start. I write mystery, I’m really conscious of suspense, but I think all good work, be it creative nonfiction, that’s a story—you’re telling a story. And I think all story must have promise. It can be funny that pulls you in, it can be romantic that pulls you in…I think there’s nothing more suspenseful than a good romance. And I could go on for hours about it… But I want to be invited in. I want to have the promise of the book quite quickly, I want to have a sense of the playing field, and I want to get on the ride. And I’m impatient—I won’t wait a long time for that to happen. There’s got to be something—and again, it can be language, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a big dramatic scene, but a promise of more to come is what I’m really looking for in a book.
So that’s what gets me into a book, but that’s what you want, and you want to get me into your book. Because I will go a fair length of time with you [on] the strength of a good opening. What do I want then? I want follow-through, I want things to happen that are surprising to me, I want characters to turn out different than I thought they were. Often, I want that pull to continue through the book. At the end, I don’t want it wrapped up necessarily. I want most of my questions answered, I want a sense of life continuing. So, that’s easy!
PORTER: Yeah, that’s really good. It’s interesting that you say that you’re more of a big picture person, whereas I find that sometimes I really narrow in on things. For sure I’m interested in their work as a whole, but as I get into it, I want it to also start with a promise. A big part of it is that you’re going to tell me what kind of writer you are in your first paragraph, in your first sentence, and that’s going to clue me into what I’m about to get into. So that first paragraph needs to be one of your best, you know?
I look for variability in sentences and music in the words. I’m looking for a good rhythm, and no grammatical errors, because that says a lot too—you are submitting a work, and [if] a grammatical error or punctuation or spelling error gets past you in that place, what am I going to see later on? It’s a big window into what the rest of the work will be. I look for characters that feel clear and real, work that doesn’t feel as if it’s imitating other popular things of the time. Of course we have influences, we all do, but for it to have a certain authenticity and a freshness is very, very exciting, and that’s going to hook me in and I’ll read much further into a book, or a short story. Generally, that’s what I’ve published.
Texture and variability in the sentences, the musicality…at that moment, I’m less looking at plot and am moreso looking at, “Are you a skilled writer? Can you pull off a first paragraph?” But there’s something that you can’t articulate, what you’re looking for, you know? Surprise, for sure.
MYERLY: When reading pieces for potential publication, what makes you want to stop reading a piece?
PORTER: Unbelievable voice. Certainly the grammatical errors, but some of the greatest writers need editors—everybody needs an editor, but some of the greatest writers have issues with spelling, so it’s not like an all or nothing for me––if there are a few grammatical errors here and there, that’s not the worst sign. But one of the things that turns me off the very most is when you can tell that the writer wants to be whoever the narrator is and is self-congratulatory. That grates on me so much. I’ve seen some of that, and that puts me off a little bit. I need the voice to be clear and honest.
LOGUE: I think what would stop me later on would probably be two things. Unbelieveablity is not something that would necessarily stop me, because I do think we’re telling stories. But I do want a sense of the characters to be believeable in the world that you’ve created. We’re seeing so much fantasy and sci-fi these days that there has to be kind of an integrity to your character within the context of the world that you’ve created.
I think what stops me is when I have no more questions. When you’re writing a book you want the reader to be asking pretty much the same question all the way through the book, which is, “What is going to happen next?” You don’t want them to be asking extraneous questions, so you should always let us know how old your character is, any pertinent information, because otherwise we’re going to be asking that question, like, “Where did he come from,” or silly questions.
But when I’m not asking, “What’s going to happen next?” then I will stop reading the book. Or when I stop caring what’s going to happen next…and I know that might sound kind of abstract, but you can feel it in your body when you are leaning slightly forward when you are reading, when you want to turn the page. That’s what I want. Again, I think oftentimes we think, “So, it has to be suspenseful.” But suspense is waiting for what’s going to happen next, and I think we sometimes use that word too much to think that it has to be really big and dramatic—but it doesn’t. It can be a conversation, and we want to turn the page because we want to know what she’s going to say back to him. It can be that simple, but it has to be that powerful.
PORTER: I love that. When you start to ask the questions that shouldn’t matter…that is really true.
MYERLY: Both of you now offer manuscript consultations or critiques as freelancers, after working as editors for presses. Can you elaborate on the role of a manuscript consultation in the writing process, and at what stage in the writing process a writer should consider investing in one for their manuscript?
LOGUE: What I do, what Esther does, did not exist 15-20 years ago. But because things have changed to a certain extent in publishing—not so much with the presses that she and I have worked for…but editors in mainstream New York City presses are not doing very much editing anymore. They’re much more acquiring editors. They want a book to come in at a much higher standard than it used to be
I work with agents. Agents will bring me manuscripts that they’re very excited about but just know that if they went into a major publisher with the manuscript in the shape it’s in, it would not fly—there’s too much work that has to be done. They’ll hire me to come in and do what used to be done more in the publishing house. So it’s really a very interesting and odd time. I feel kind of lucky because I love doing it.
I actually really want people to come to me when they have taken [the manuscript] as far as they can. And what I mean by that is when they have read it, revised it, read it, revised it, read it out loud, revised it, had at least a friend or two read it, preferably someone who reads in the field that they’re in…if you’re writing for YA, have a couple of YA kids read it. You know they’re not going to be able to give you a certain kind of criticism, but they can say things like, “Well, I didn’t get this, I was confused, I didn’t understand why he did that.” You want people that aren’t writers, that aren’t editors. You want them to be telling you how they move through a manuscript—where they went real deep, where they couldn’t wait to see the next scene, where they were falling out a little bit, where they weren’t as grabbed in.
Once people have done almost everything they can do, and they feel like they’re very close to being ready to getting an agent or getting an editor, that’s when I want to see it. I will tell people they should take a class at the Loft. I will have people come to me with manuscripts and have a nice conversation with them, and tell them they’re not ready for me yet. I’ve done that even with people who have published books, who are really good writers. Sometimes they’re just off track, and the best thing I can do is say it’s not there yet.
PORTER: That would be my ideal, to be at that stage. I love that, because once it’s been accepted and once someone has polished it as much as they can, it’s exciting to be able to give them that last push if you can. I also love to help people schedule and plan how they’re going to write a book at the beginning stages. I love to pull books out of people. It doesn’t always go well, and sometimes it goes beautifully, but that’s a lot of fun.
On the one hand, I’m inspired by people who want to tackle writing a book and setting a schedule for someone and having them follow it. I am so inspired by them because I struggle so much with that myself. I really enjoy working with someone at the early stages. I also just love when someone’s written their first draft, or their second draft, and they’re welcoming [feedback], saying, “I don’t know whether the second chapter needs to be the tenth chapter.” I love to go in and suggest moving things around. Just interacting with the text is really fun. I love that.
Sometimes you’ve written a book and you’ve edited so many times that suddenly you can’t see any other way for it to be, but you know it’s not right. Every sentence feels essential, simply because you’ve read it so many times, so how could it be any different? Coming in with fresh eyes can help. I also enjoy being at the very, very end. I even really, really enjoy proofreading. It is very relaxing to me to proofread, to zone in and read every sentence extremely slowly. I find it so interesting that [Mary Logue is] a fast reader. I am a slow reader. My mom is a fast reader and it drives her insane when we try to read something together because I’m just watching every little word. Even at the Loft, at any stage, depending on what the writer needs…if it’s a good fit, I really enjoy jumping in.
MYERLY: What keeps you engaged in the publishing industry?
PORTER: The thrill of encouraging a writer and pulling out something from them that they are proud of. That’s the best feeling—like a midwife. A community of other readers working with other editors to make a piece better is my ultimate joy. That’s what keeps me engaged. There are days when I am not inspired at all, and that’s where that safety net of community comes in where people say, “Oh, I need you for this, can you please do this,” and I’m like, “Oh, OK.” There are times where it’s hard to get out the door. But it’s the community that keeps me engaged.
LOGUE: I think for me it’s a deep, abiding sense that telling stories is what we’re here to do. I feel like I believe in quantum and fractals, and I’m interested in all of that stuff, how we move through the world. I have often thought that the leaves to a tree are like stories to us as human beings. We tell stories everywhere we go. We tell stories to our kids to help them through difficult times, we tell each other stories to help each other through difficult times, we tell stories to laugh.
Now this might sound really abstract from ‘why would I still be in publishing,’ but I believe that it’s one of the ways we save the world. I also find it absolutely fascinating. I love going into someone else’s mind, I love figuring out why something is working. When I’m working on a manuscript for someone else—and for myself—I often live with it for a few days before I write anything down. I’m kind of feeling where the bump in the story is, where, “OK, this is the way it is, but what if you did this? How could this be enlarged?
I often do that work on walks. I think sometimes as writers we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the work we do when we think we’re not working but we are. I write so much while I’m driving—and I don’t mean that I write anything down, I’m just working and working and working.
It’s absolutely fascinating, and I think it’s really, really good work that we’re doing, and I’m really happy to be involved at the levels that I am.
MYERLY: Esther, could you please talk about the differences you had to consider when editing for a literary journal versus editing for a literary publisher?
PORTER: On the drive here, I was thinking about this question, and I was listening to Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life. She has a chapterwhere she is riding along with a pilot in a small plane. It helped me make the connection to my experiences riding in a small plane with pilot who I know—riding in his plane that he built, which I LOVE—I love flying, I love the feeling. Not as much now that I’m a parent, but before I was a parent, I loved flying and letting go and saying, “If I die, it’s alright. Life was pretty good.” That feeling of release and relief, and, “Yep, we’re going to be fine. I’m flying.” I love to fly. But the moment that that pilot friend of mine gave me the controls and said, “You’re flying now,” my stomach turned into a great big boulder, and I said, “No! NO!”
So I love the ride of working with an acquiring editor, who has the controls and has chosen what writing we’re going to have to represent the press: “You know, you can come along on the ride and enjoy the sentences with me.” But to be acquiring work at a literary journal—and this is just my own experience—taking the reins, there’s a gravity to that. And it can be terrifying! But it’s also liberating and exciting.
You’re on a completely different publishing schedule as well. I found that [when] editing for Revolver, I was always trying to think, “OK, is there a poet who I just adore that I would love to celebrate their work, and do I feel brave enough to approach them and ask for them to submit something?” That was work that really pulled me outside of myself because [when] editing for a small press where they have already acquired the work, you just get to participate in the text and participate in the process of polishing. And the timelines are so far out—there is such a safety of time where you can really sit with it.
With a literary journal, it’s more like, “Gotta go out and find the next thing, find the next writer, find the next piece.” It was daunting, but it was also a thrill to have an excuse to be able to approach writers who I adore. Because otherwise I’d probably just walk up to them and say, “I like you!” But to have a literary journal [where] you can have an excuse to celebrate writers—that was really, really exciting.
I mentioned to [Sophia] that I stepped away [from Revolver] about a year ago for various reasons, and Revolver is probably going to dissolve late [this] summer. But the executive director of Revolver, Luke Finsaas, and I are possibly going to start something new and fresh. Just the two of us…we’ll see. Maybe it has something to do with letterpress. But we’re also working on our own writing instead of editing other people’s work all the time.
The literary journal life is very consuming—not that the publishing house isn’t consuming, but in my own experience, to publish the volume of work we were trying to publish and also find work that was exciting and fresh and worthy of our readership, because I really respected our readership––I still respect those readers––I didn’t ever want to give them something that wasted their time. So to find all that work and pull it together for that readership…
LOGUE: How often [was Revolver] coming out?
PORTER: Well, we had a couple of physical editions, but mostly it was on our site, and we would try to print something new five times a week.
LOGUE: Oh, wow.
PORTER: But there were times we just didn’t because the work wasn’t there.
MYERLY: How has the use of social media and blogging affected the publishing industry and its evolution?
PORTER: You could go either way with it. I choose to see it as a positive thing, where more people have a chance to get their foot in the door and prove themselves. If you are someone who loves to read and write and you want to participate, and you are provided the tools to know how to participate, say, requesting upcoming books from a publisher and saying, “I’d really like to review that book, may I do that please? Could you send me a galley?” You have the opportunity to do that, and that’s pretty amazing. And you can write as thoughtful reviews as you want to. You can step up and be a literary citizen.
LOGUE: I like that term.
PORTER: Yeah! You can build your reputation in that way, just by pushing yourself in and writing great reviews, and showing publishers that you’re interested in the work that they’re publishing. That can get you into the community. I think that’s a wonderful thing.
Also, people aren’t just looking for books that major reviewers are going to give any attention to. People are looking for reviewers who mirror their own reading interests. When there are so many reviewers out there and so many different venues for different kinds of books, readers are more likely to find that perfect list of books that just is tailored to their interests. So I feel like that’s a really good thing.
LOGUE: Yeah, I think there [are] incredible opportunities out there, and I myself probably don’t take advantage of almost any of them. But the one thing I will say is that if you are getting ready to send a book out, you need to Google yourself and see what your web presence is. Almost the very first thing an agent or an editor is going to do—if they are interested in you and get something from you—is to see who you are on the web. So you need to be aware. You are putting stuff out there that is going to be accessible to an editor and an agent, so you need to be aware of that.
They will want to see a way that you can communicate with your readership, so you should get your domain name and some minimal website presence so that they can see that you are savvy enough to be able to do that. I think the sky’s the limit, I think that we can’t even begin to imagine how the Web can be used in the future. I tend to drag my feet, Peter [Mary’s husband] is full force ahead and I admire him for that—he helped me get on Facebook, finally, a year ago.
But I will say this—it isn’t the only way. I think that all of us are dealing with the fact of how much time looking at our computer aside from our writing is taking up from us. I think we get to make choices. I think you can put up a website and say clearly, “This is who I am and this is what I’ve done and I don’t visit my website, I won’t change things very often.” Don’t put up a calendar of events unless you’re going to keep it [current]. And I just hate it when I go to a website of an organization and I don’t know where it is. Like, they don’t put on the very first page that they’re in Kentucky, or they’re in Tennessee, or they’re in the Twin Cities.
But anyways, I think that you have to come back to yourself and say, “How can I best use my time, my energy, and what can I do on the Web that will suit me and speak to my strengths?” If a blog is really appropriate and something you think you would do and would really show off your writing—because we know that books [can] come out of blogs, but if it isn’t something that you want to do, don’t do it. Don’t force yourself to do something that isn’t going to, [at] some level, move you forward, give you some pleasure, showcase you in a way that you’re happy with. I think that again, the possibilities are limitless, and therefore, we need to come back to ourselves again and figure out what’s going to work.
MYERLY: What current trends and areas of growth excite you the most in the publishing industry?
PORTER: I really enjoy what people are doing with public events. I love a good sit-down reading, I love sitting down and listening to the writer read from their published work. But the idea that there are new possibilities with the literary event is very, very exciting to me because so many of us readers and writers are solitary. I’ve gone to a reading before and not spoken to anyone, which is great! That’s fine. But to have the chance to really interact with other readers and writers is exciting. Exploring the effects of words and language on our minds in a way that is different than just sitting and absorbing…I find that really, really exciting.
Another thing that I find exciting is Skype. There are authors who are unable to travel and now they’re able to visit classrooms and book groups, and anywhere in the world, pretty much, through Skype. That’s wonderful.
LOGUE: The trends that I see that I think are really exciting is the crossover stuff that’s happening in publishing. We’re seeing the resurgence, or maybe even just surgence, of YA literature. Middle-grade is super hot right now, [and] the way that picture books are going is very exciting. I think we’re seeing really fantastic and interesting and astonishing illustrations. But again, we’ve got such interesting crossover that adults are now reading down to YA a lot.
I love going into the library and seeing, next to the picture books for kids, a stand of books that adults would like. I see even in the libraries this merging of, “You don’t have to feel stupid if you’re reading a book that’s for kids.” And I see it with the genre-blending too—of sci-fi fantasy, of sci-fi romance, and even with creative nonfiction. I just think the lines are being blurred more than they used to be with what we can write about, what we can read about, and it’s a very exciting time. And it’s really fun to see what people are doing. I think any time we’ve got more voices in the mix, it makes us healthier.
MYERLY: Mary, you were an editor in children’s publishing, and have written a number of children’s books. Does the process of editing a book for children differ from the process of editing a book for a more mature audience? If so, how? (Esther, you’ve also written children’s books, so please feel free to comment on this too.)
LOGUE: Editing for children is done more like the way Esther works, literally word by word. You’ve got gatekeepers in children’s publishing, so you’ve got parents, teachers, and librarians. Oftentimes a book has to get past those gatekeepers before it actually gets into the hands of the child that you want to read it. I have never been edited as thoughtfully or as carefully and thoroughly as I have been edited when I’ve written for kids.
I have to tell you—and this goes back to what I was saying before—I have had, in the last ten years, two books that were not edited at all at major publishers. One time I called up my editor and said, “I haven’t had a revision letter yet,” and he said, “Oh yeah, it was fine, I just sent it on to copyedit.” And it scared me to death because I already had changes I wanted to make. You do not want to be making changes after copyedit, it’s the worst idea. And I love working with an editor—I love having someone else look at my work and suggest things and make it better. We’re all in it together. We all want to put out the best book we can put out. So that’s discouraging. Thank God I have Peter, who lives with me and critiques my work, sometimes very painfully, before it goes out into the world. [That] said, I want more eyes on it. I do think that is happening, but editing is being done at a very careful level with children’s books. They’re shorter, it’s easier. But again, I think that publishers of children’s books are much more conscious of how many eyes are going to be on it before it gets to the end reader.
PORTER: Reading level can play a big role in there, I mean, the word count for each sentence, the vocabulary, the level of vocabulary that’s used…that’s why it’s so much fun. It’s kind of a puzzle to try to get it just right for a particular audience because children’s books are so wide-ranging. In the span of childhood your mind changes astronomically. So when you’re writing to a specific age group it needs to be different. I think to some extent we underestimate what children are capable of, but there has to be a predictable standard for readers to know where to go to find the right book for their child. So those standards are useful.
MYERLY: Many, if not most, of the individuals in the audience [today] are preparing to write a thesis before embarking on the path to publishing it as a book. Can you both share some wisdom for those heading into this stage of their writing careers?
PORTER: I think it’s important to write how you write––sticking with what you do well, and not trying to morph yourself into what some particular editor somewhere wants. The more you hone in on what you do well and what you do naturally and passionately, what you are compelled to do, you’ll eventually—you should––find an editor that’s right. Just do your research. I’m sure you all are well aware, but reading as much as possible and finding out what publications are interested in––the more you read what different publications are putting out there, the more you’ll kind of hone in on what reflects your work in some way. Rather than going towards a target you think you need to morph yourself toward—OK, mixed metaphor. Excuse me. Whoa.
Just be yourself and write what you love, and then eventually trust that you’ll find the right venue for who you really are. You’ll be better for it—it’ll be better writing when the time comes. Publication is secondary. What matters is the work.
Why do we do it anyway? We do it because we’re compelled to. And if you’re suddenly forced to write toward something that you’re not compelled to write toward, your life’s going to be a chore rather than a joy. So stick with what you feel is your identity as a writer. And don’t let anybody try and change you. Sounds silly, but it’s just true.
LOGUE: So there you are. You have done your thesis. First of all—celebrate. Whatever that means to you…chocolate, champagne, a long walk, a good movie…pat yourself on the back. It’s huge to get to thesis. Absolutely huge. Then understand that if you want to be a published writer, if you want to have a life that involves writing books, one after another, that you have only begun.
So do what we’re doing now—begin to find out more about what it actually means to be in this world of publishing, if that’s where you want to go. But I want to back up for a second. The other thing—if you can do it, take a break. Esther and I were talking about, “How do you step back from your own work?” And one of the ways you can step back from your own work is by putting it aside for a while. If it works in your life, put it aside for a week, a month, a couple months. I would recommend it. You’ll come back to it and then read it out loud. It’s really, really helpful to read your own work out loud, because where you stumble, the reader will stumble too…literally.
But then once you’ve done that, if you are willing to work as hard as you have worked to write your book, you might get it published. What you have to do is find out, as Esther said, what’s out there. Who’s doing what? You’ve been reading all your life—what books do you like? Who publishes them? Who’s their agent? I personally recommend getting an agent. There are reasons pro and con, I have almost always worked through an agent. I feel that agents make more money for you—they make up the money you pay them. They should get 15% of what comes to you, and I feel like they ask for more money, [but] they get the movie deals, they get the subright stuff, they do the work.
I’m going to go back to what I said with the Web—what are you good at? If you are good at selling, then you might consider not getting an agent. But if you’re not, and you really just want to write books, then I would highly recommend getting an agent. And to do that, you have to do research. Find out what books you think are like yours, [and] who their agents are. Almost all this information is available online. That’s the second part of being a writer, and the third part is once your book comes out. And that’s another piece of who you’re going to have to be.
Peter and I started going out when I was publishing, and he hadn’t published yet. The first year we went out together he came to all of my publishing events and studied [them]. And he figured out really quickly that he didn’t like being in front of other people, so he went to Toastmasters for a year. He is a fabulous speaker now—he’s funny, he’s relaxed, but he took it on. And I think—again, only if you want to be published and you want to enter this world—you have to understand that there’s two other pieces of it that are pretty big and that you’re going to have to work hard. But celebrate first. Peter and I always have a bottle of champagne in the fridge for starred reviews, for accepting a manuscript…you know, this is a hard job we’re doing. And if we don’t celebrate every moment that is good, we’re making a mistake.
MYERLY: How do you balance your work as editors with your work as writers, and how have you found that balance over the course of your careers and lives?
LOGUE: I just like it all. A couple things that I have learned in my advanced age… more and more, as I’m asked to do things like what I’m doing today––which I see as part of my job as a writer––I go to my stomach and see. If it makes me want to throw up, then I say no. That may sound silly, but if you get into this world, there’s so many things people are going to ask you to do. Reading manuscripts, blurbing books––even for me, if I’m working on [someone’s] manuscript and it would mean some money for me but it’s not good enough—to be able to say, “I just can’t read any further, this is not where it needs to be for me.”
The other thing that I’ve learned—and again, some of you are younger and maybe this is not an issue for you—but I have come to realize that I can’t do any work after dinner. I used to be a night owl and stay up all night and be able to write work, but I get too revved up. I just have to calm down and have some time for myself and walk the dogs and watch TV and have a drink. I just cannot do the full blast that I used to be able to do. And [to] take that in and accept it has been a good thing for me. It’s going to change.
I guess the one thing I’m going to say is keep coming back to yourself. I’ve said this with the Web. I’ve said this in [regard to] how you learn to manage the other pieces of being a writer—but really begin to learn your strengths. Do the Myers-Briggs. Figure out what your personality is like. I’m an extrovert, and I’m a writer. Most writers are INFJs, I’m an ENFJ. So that means I have to take care of the extrovert part of myself. I have groups I go to, I see people, I go out to lunch. Because I’m not like Peter. He’s an [introvert]. He can sit at home for days and weeks and be happy not seeing anyone. And most writers are like that, but I’m not, so I have to understand that about myself. In managing, if you have full time jobs, if you have kids, you know you’re just going to have to come back to yourself again and again and say, “What is working for me right now and what isn’t working for me right now?” There’s no one answer. You change.
PORTER: It’s amazing that you say, “Yes, how you balance will change,” because when I went freelance, that was when my husband and I went to Iowa for his post-doc and his internship. I was just working nonstop. I was like, “My goal is to not make any friends in Iowa, I’m just going to work.” That worked in Des Moines and not in Iowa City, because Iowa City is amazing.
But at that time, he was always working on his thesis and doing research and writing and working at the hospital, so I was just working, working, working right alongside him and it worked well. Then we had a baby. And things changed. Things shifted. But I feel in a good way. In a not so good way, at moments—it was really hard. But I’ve come to the other side of that to a certain extent. She’s four now, and I’m more able to take time out for myself and know what I need
A big part of my writing practice is the idea of rebellion, and I find that I rebel against myself the most. I have an impulse to rebel, and I need to do it. Rebelling against myself is often the safest place to do it. But I realized that I need to find a way to make my writing the rebellion against other things that are taking up my time, like social media––not to say [social media] isn’t important, but to me, I really despise social media. I can love it. But realizing that the rebellion that I need to do is to take time back to myself.
I get to a point where I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’ll think of something that I need to write down and I’ll stay up for hours in the middle of the night writing. And that’s not sustainable or healthy! Like, “This is when it’s happening? Oh, OK!” And I think back to the daytime when I was doing things that were less useful––I may have been relaxing, and that is very important––but when I was kind of wasting time and I could have been either actively relaxing or actively being productive.
So there’s a lot of self-flagellation, and I need to be more gentle on myself. But it’s always shifting, and I feel like having a kid really threw a wrench in everything. It also makes my life extremely full and wonderful. Yep, shifting priorities. But always remember what fulfills you as a human being. Try and do that a lot. Fit that into your schedule somehow.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I know a big part of working with both an agent and also a publisher is going through the process of a query letter. Can you offer up any tips to the group if they haven’t heard of it before?
LOGUE: First of all, know that query letters are not important, and oftentimes, they’re not even read. I know this for a fact––a lot of publishers and editors and agents don’t even look at them. They just want to read your book.
Having said that, never go over a page for a query letter. Mainly what you’re wanting to do is not do anything wrong. But also recognize that you’re writing to a real person. You have chosen to write to them, and they want to know that you have chosen to write to them. The way you do that is to say things like, “I saw so-and-so read the other night, and I know that you’re so-and-so’s agent, and so-and-so spoke very highly of you, and I am writing to you because…” OK. You are telling them in the very first paragraph why you are writing to them. It can be simply, “I love so-and-so’s work and I know you’re their agent.”
We all love compliments. You know, “I saw you at a writer’s conference and you just knocked it out of the park.” Whatever the reason is, why you’ve chosen them—one thing they want to know is that you have not just gone through the Writer’s Market and picked the first fifty [agents or editors] and sent out queries to all of them. Why would you do that? That’s not a good sales technique. So that’s your first paragraph, you’re telling them why you’re sending your manuscript to them. You have chosen them, they are special.
The second paragraph is a very short description of your book. If you want to, you can say it’s like something or like another book. But this can be dangerous. I think it’s better to try to write a one-sentence blurb about what they’re going to get if they read your book. We’re going back to promise here—what’s the promise of the book? It’s a teaser, it’s not a synopsis. It’s short.
And then the last paragraph should be anything else that they should know about you that might be important, like you teach at the University of Minnesota, like you’re a veterinarian, like you teach 3rd grade. Anything that pertains to what your book is about––that you are really comfortable speaking in front of people, that you’ve got so many followers on your Facebook site—you’re selling yourself a little teeny bit there. And, even saying, “This is my first novel.” That is a selling point. People like to discover writers so it’s not a negative that you have not been published before.
That’s your query letter. You can also include a synopsis—always, when you’re querying an agent or an editor, know what they want. Go to their website. Almost all the time you will find instructions on what they want from you. Do they want three chapters, do they want full manuscript, do they want a synopsis, how long do they want the synopsis to be? Follow instructions. It goes back to what Esther was saying––if you see a typo on the first page of a manuscript, it can be discouraging. You want to show them that you can follow directions, because they’re going to work with you. They want to know that you know what you’re doing. So you do need to do some work.
PORTER: I would say do your research and personalize everything. And follow the directions because that’s a real basic instruction, and if you’re unable to look for their instructions and follow it, then…sometimes I feel they [can] even take offense. It’s your first step in the door to follow [their instructions] to a ‘T’. Then keep things concise.
I remember as a Revolver editor––those cover letters, where if they showed an interest in the work we published before, bonus points. There’s a reason that you’re submitting—it’s because you’re a reader, and you appreciate it. That makes me want to engage with you further.
MYERLY: And finally, I have to ask––what books or literary journals are you currently reading?
PORTER: I enjoy Tin House, I enjoy Electric Literature…the standard Paris Review, [and] PANK is really fun. Those are the goodies.
LOGUE: It always surprises me when I hear writers say, “Well I don’t read anything while I’m writing because it might affect me.” I’m writing all the time, and I’m reading all the time. I’m often reading around what I’m working on—I was working on a book about a girl who gets hit by lightning, I was reading books about lightning, I was reading scientific books about lightning, I was reading life stories about people getting hit by lightning.
I’m now working on a middle-grade and am really kind of focusing on voice so I just finished reading The Great Gilly Hopkins, which was just made into a movie that was pretty good with Kathy Bates. [The movie] just came out this year. I’m really working on voice, so I’m trying to read middle-grade that really features voice. I use my reading to educate myself, and I use my own personal library as support. When I’m like, “How did Elmore Leonard start that one book that was so cool,” I’ll go and pull books like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. How did [Benjamin Alire Saenz] handle dialogue in that book? I just loved [that] it moved so fast, and I love dialogue. So anyways, I’m reading a lot of middle-grade right now.
PORTER: Lately I’ve been reading a lot of how-to books, like The Art Of… series from Graywolf—it’s so, so interesting and instructive. That helps me to feel equipped as a writer. But yeah, as you say, standing in front of your personal library…my husband, Jim, we’ve moved so much and he’s like, “We can never move again because you have fifty boxes of books and it’s driving me nuts.” But to finally have a home that we’ve bought, and we can set up a library, and to stand in front of those books…there’s nothing better than standing in front of those books and having all the characters jump out at you. You’re reminded of all these beautiful moments that inspired you as a reader, and I love that. We just moved into our new house, so I’m setting up the library, and figuring out how to sort everything.
LOGUE: I bet you’re really good at that. You should come over and set up my library.
PORTER: I love to organize. That doesn’t mean I’m an organized person, but anyway…
MYERLY: Future side venture, perhaps.
Meet the Moderator:
Assistant Managing Editor for the Literary Journals of the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University
A transplant from the fields of Iowa to the deep forests and flowing waters of Minnesota, Sophia delights in the natural world and considers it to be her writing muse. She is fascinated by the complexities of the written word and the hidden marvels of the brain, which explains why she savored the opportunity to pursue a double major in Creative Writing and Psychology with a double minor in English and Linguistics at Hamline. Equipped with a deep, reverent appreciation of research and heavily laden bookshelves, Sophia is currently delving deeper into her studies of creative nonfiction in the Hamline MFA program.