Yes, my job rocks. I’m on record for saying this many times; but when there’s an opportunity to interact with so many smart, well-read, quirky, endlessly interesting, and friendly individuals in publishing – my love of publishing, authors, and the people behind the scenes grows even more. The newest Red Sofa Chats is a special one. My guest is Michelle Witte, a gal who has worn many hats in our world of books. When Michelle agreed to do this, I was ecstatic!
This is a great interview, especially she refers to the process of writing as going back to the basics of “a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a page.” Having just experienced a near panic attack from writing a NEWSLETTER, this calms me down significantly. If YOU the writer can write a book, I can then write as many newsletters (as needed) by simply remembering Michelle’s calm and encouraging advice.
With this newest installment, there’s the opportunity to win a Query Packet Critique by Michelle (one of the editing services she offers). This will include the critique of a query letter, up to 3 pages of a synopsis, and the first 15 pages of the manuscript. To enter your name a comment and/or question needs to be posted to Michelle. The winner’s name will be drawn on 7/29/11.
Michelle Witte spends every moment possible with the written word, as a reader, writer, and editor. She offers her expertise to authors and publishers as a freelance editor and writer. Author of the forthcoming Craptastic Guide to Pseudo-Swearing (Running Press, Spring 2012).
Once upon a time, she owned children’s bookstore Fire Petal Books in Utah. Before that, she was an associate editor with nonfiction publisher Gibbs Smith and a copy editor with the Deseret Morning News. You can find out more at www.belletrinsic.com or follow her on Twitter: @michellewitte
1. Michelle, you’ve worn many hats in publishing, which many of us (including me) find your perspective very valuable. In the larger picture, why did you choose to become an editor?
I’ve always loved words. I was a bit of a packrat when I was young, so I still have some of the very first stories I wrote. It’s always been part of who I am, but I never imagined it would take so literal a form.
Even when I was in high school, I loved writing short stories and poetry, but I never thought I’d be patient or persistent enough to write a full-length book. Nor did I want to work as an editor because who wants to memorize all of those rules. It generally comes naturally to me, but the thought of memorizing style guides was completely off-putting.
But once I got to college and started into my journalism coursework, I realized that I love to take what someone has written, point out the flaws, fix the minor errors, and basically help turn it into something wonderful. That’s still what I love about editing. I can see a piece of writing and help the writer see where its weaknesses are so he can take that and make it even better. My life revolves around stories, even if they aren’t necessarily the ones I tell.
In my career I’ve gone from newspaper reporter and copyeditor to book editor to bookstore owner to freelance writer and editor, but each step along the way has taught me about words and writing. That’s what it really breaks down to: a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a page. Then building on those elements until you have an entire book filled with words. It’s absolutely incredible, and something you can’t really understand until you hold a finished book—glossy cover and carefully typeset pages that you toiled over for months and even years. To see it in such a finite state makes the words real. It makes the stories real.
And that’s what publishing really is, what being an editor and writer is: telling compelling stories. Forget that, and you’ve lost sight of who you are and what you do as a writer.
As a note: the grammar and spelling and rules tend to come naturally once you work with words enough. That is, if you pay attention to the minuscule details and use your style guide like a bible. It also helps to take a basic editing course if you’re interested in it but don’t have practical experience, like in an internship or at a newspaper.
2. Stepping back, are there any projects you wish you could have edited?
When asked this question editors tend to discuss books they loved and adored that they wish they could have worked on. For me, it’s the opposite. I see books that I wish I could have guided because the potential was there and it was so, so close, but either fumbled or tanked in the end. It’s those cases where I wish I could have said, “Well, why don’t we try this. Maybe explore this concept a bit further. This section really seems flat. What can we do to fix that?”
A writer recently told me that writers don’t like to hear that their books need to be fixed. That’s too bad, because writing won’t improve if no one is there to say it’s not good enough—at least not yet. It can be better, and you can do it. Because, honestly, editors are coach and cheerleader rolled into one terrifying bundle: they tear you down, build you back up, and then cheer as your loudest supporter.
3. I know that you also have a book coming out next year (so excited!) – What was your experience like in working with an agent (Jean Sagendorph of Mansion Street Literary – whom I absolutely adore and believe to be a fantastic agent). Any knowledge or advice you’d like to share with other writers on how to make a good agent/author and editor/author relationship?
The most vital and important thing an author needs to establish with her agent and editor is good communication, and I’ve learned this as both editor and writer. I could share too many stories of communication breaking down and books falling apart because of it.
I’m not just talking about joking with your agent/editor on Twitter or Facebook. You’ve got to establish now how you’ll communicate in your partnership on business matters. Would you like your agent to check in by email once a week during submission, or would you rather wait until there’s news? Do you want to see rejections from editors? Do you hate discussing business by email and would prefer to speak on the phone about important matters?
Discuss how you’d like to communicate before you even get working so you can avoid misunderstandings, and especially the dreaded silence on the other end. Agents have no way of knowing if you get neurotic when you don’t hear from them every two days unless you tell them. They won’t have a clue that you’ve been pacing the floor like mad, waiting breathlessly by the phone for their call if you never said you’re expecting one. If you’ve ever heard of writers dumping agents because they wouldn’t respond to emails or they just didn’t get along well, imagine how that could have been different if they’d made their communication style clear from the get-go.
We all have our quirks, but the sooner we know about each other’s idiosyncrasies, the better it works out in the end. If there’s any point I can stress on good agent/author or editor/author relationships, this is it.
4. What are you reading right now (for personal reading, for fun)?
I’m just finishing up several large projects, so I honestly haven’t had a chance to read recently. (Does watching Doctor Who count?) Two books I’m really excited to get to, though, are Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.
I’m really excited about Ultraviolet because the publisher, Carolrhoda Lab, is doing crazy cool things with YA fiction. I’m learning I can expect awesomeness from whatever they put out. One recent fave from them is Savannah Grey by Cliff McNish. My mind was so eloquently blown by that book.
5. How do you utilize Twitter? How do you believe it has changed the way we go about publishing books?
I’m a bit of a Twitter addict, but it’s almost unbelievable how many professional (and personal) connections I’ve made through social networking. I met my agent, Jean, via Twitter, as well as other great colleagues and friends.
I started on Twitter mainly as a way to find a link with the publishing community back in New York City. Most of the publishing world is there, with some smaller presses scattered throughout the U.S. Working as an editor in Utah felt like a void compared with all the friendships and connections editors in NYC have.
That’s how it started, but since then it’s become more of a support system and university and convention on publishing whenever I want it. I can chat with world-renowned authors, discuss the evolution of digital publishing with brilliant analysts, or talk nonsense with anyone who’ll participate.
At its heart, Twitter is what you make it. If you want a professional tool, great, use it for that. If you want to create a support group of other struggling writers, do it. If you don’t want any of those things and can’t find a single good reason to be online when you could be writing, then stop. Do what is best for you, your writing, and your career. There are countless successful writers who have never spent even a second on Twitter, and they’re doing fine. If it’s for you, great. If not, get off it and stop complaining it’s a waste of your time.
6. If you had a crystal ball, where do you think (or hope) publishing will be in 5 yrs?
Predictions are not my forté, so I’ll leave that for professional prognosticators. Sounds so much better than psychic, don’t you think? 😉 But that’s all it really is, at this point, when we guess where publishing will go. No one knows anything for certain, but so long as publishers and others take advantage of good opportunities, stop doing what isn’t working, and keep doing what’s right, the industry will make it.
I do hope writers will jump in and make publishing a success, whichever path it takes, and that they’ll be positive and focus on what they can do and stop whining that publishing is an archaic yadda yadda yadda . . . Honestly, the way the entire world interacts is changing and will continue to change. Discussing the future of publishing is fine and all, but it gets to the point where talking doesn’t add any value. So I hope that come five years we’ll all be immersed in what it is and not so worried about what it isn’t or won’t be or can’t be.
Thanks again Michelle! Okay everyone, let’s get this train moving. What questions and comments do you have for Michelle?