The Red Sofa Chats – Michelle Witte

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.

Her Bio:

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 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?



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  1. Christie Koester on July 15, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Thanks for sharing your story! I love what you said about establishing communication from the get go!

  2. Charlie Quimby on July 15, 2011 at 10:39 am

    What are the most common challenges you encounter when editing fiction? Have you ever made a structural suggestion that fundamentally changed the book?

  3. Michelle Witte on July 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Charlie, the first is a pretty broad question, and the second makes me think there’s a specific situation you’re wondering about, so let me see if I can answer in a way that helps.

    Each writer is different and struggles with something other writers find easy, so it’s difficult to generalize. What I will suggest as far as improving your writing is to be consistent. There’s a lot more to that than simply making sure you spell a character’s name the same way through the manuscript (and you’d be surprised at how many writers aren’t careful about that).

    What I mean is that when you have a character behave one way, then they do something completely out of character halfway through the book, it doesn’t work and really hurts the story. So be consistent and realistic in how characters, scenes, settings, plots, and a whole host of other things play out, making sure that it’s believable based upon what’s come before. That’s more of what I mean by consistency.

    As for the second part of the question, without knowing specifics I can only offer a general answer. If you’re wondering whether an acquiring fiction editor would ever ask the writer to make major structural changes to a story, I can only say that an editor would never acquire a book with something that major needing to be done. It would essentially change the entire book.

    If you’re asking that in reference to freelance editing for a writer, I have to say no. My job as an editor isn’t to tell writers how to write their books; it’s to show them what works well as well as where problems lie. I might offer suggestions for resolving an issue, especially if it involves something major, but it’s always up to the writer to figure out how to fix and/or improve the book.

  4. lorcadamon on July 16, 2011 at 6:58 am

    Hi Michelle! Thanks for giving back to authors like this. I do have a question: How closely should authors write to the “trends” in publishing, or should we just stick to our heartfelt stories? I have a writer friend who is getting blasted by fellow writers for publishing an erotic short story in order to “pay the bills.” It’s selling very well, although it’s not what she wants to write forever. She’s been called a sell-out and a “word whore” for writing what she can sell. Thoughts?

    • Michelle Witte on July 16, 2011 at 8:39 am

      Honestly, writers need to spend more time writing their own books than criticizing other writers. What does it matter to them if she writes to pay her bills? That said, she needs to learn that their criticism means nothing about her or her writing. If she lets their negativity hurt her, it only makes it harder for her in the long run. While it seems insensitive to say that writers must have a tough skin, it’s true.

      I generally tell people to write the stories that speak to them most, because those will be the best and most honest ones. When I offer that advice, it is usually to writers who have jobs or other means of financial support. Those writers can afford to take time writing the best work they can because they won’t starve if their book doesn’t get published up immediately.

      The example you give relates more to career writers, professionals who write to earn money as their primary income, than to writers who consider it their personal calling. Things are different when it goes from being a passion to the sole means of supporting yourself.

      It’s generally understood that nonfiction can be written to order and may not be the writer’s top choice in theme or topic, but the merit of what they write isn’t called into question. However, fiction is often viewed differently because writers sometimes consider it a calling, something they must do.

      Writing as a passion is different than writing as a career, though they’re easily confused. Just because a writer wrote a magnificent work of art doesn’t mean a publisher is going to turn it into a product or that readers will buy it. That’s the thing about publishing that passionate writers hate: it’s a business. Publishers are in it to make money, and a product that doesn’t sell is a failure.

      Likewise, just because a book is published doesn’t mean it’s a literary masterpiece. It could well be pulp fiction (which nowadays tends more toward romance novels and YA fiction*). There’s nothing wrong with either of those; it’s when the two are considered the same thing that problems arise.

      Writers lambasting your friend for being a word whore** are upset that she’s getting paid for writing something that isn’t her life and breath and blood in the form of words on a page. In the end it doesn’t really matter to readers if a book is written to a trend, so long as a book well-told, engaging, and just a good story. The market will determine when it’s done with that trend. Once readers get bored, they’ll stop buying those books. Until then, writers will get paid to write what people want.

      To sum up: if it’s possible for you to write whatever you want for however long it takes you, do it. Write that magnum opus. I’m envious that you can devote yourself so passionately to one project. I wish I could. But also realize that what other writers do has no affect on you or what you write. Leave them to their writing as you focus on yours.

      *My concern with many of the recent paranormal teen romances isn’t that they’re written to a trend; it’s that they aren’t completely fleshed out. The stories tend to falter midway through (often sooner), even though the concept is great or the writing is clean. If you do write to a trend, make sure the story is as well-written as the one you do because you love it.

      **Seriously? Come on, children. Name calling didn’t work on the playground, either.

  5. Rachel_Levine on July 17, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Hey Michelle,
    I can’t think of a question, so I’ll just say thank you for the interview.

  6. Regan Leigh on July 17, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    “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.” — Yes. 🙂 Thanks for this.

  7. Kristi B. on July 19, 2011 at 2:35 am

    I have half a dozen agents looking at my ms, but one of them recently tweeted two lines of it on twitter — they didn’t attribute it to me and then linked it to an article about a trend on relationships saying the words from a ms they were reading reminded them of this article.
    I was flattered, but now I’m hearing from other writers that it was not ethical of the agent to do so. A good writer friend suggested I ask someone else in the writing world about it. Obviously I can’t on twitter or the agent would see my question (the agency follows me). Any thoughts on this? Thanks and would love to be entered in the critique.

    • redsofaliterary on July 19, 2011 at 3:21 am


      Just to jump in on this, nothing wrong with dropping the person a note. I’m going to err on the side of the agent prob. appreciating the info, vs. trying to be unethical. Just ask him/her vs. getting overly worried about it.


    • Michelle Witte on July 19, 2011 at 6:18 am

      What Dawn said.

      Also, as Dawn noted, it’s probably best not to overanalyze. Things always seem worse when you don’t have all of the information.

  8. Amanda H on July 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    “A word, a sentence, a paragraph, a page.”

    I love this breakdown of the writing process. Since starting my latest WIP, I keep having to overcome the intimidation of the blank page. Every new chapter taunts me, until I tame it with just a word, then a sentence, then a paragraph, and finally, a whole page.

    Thanks for the interview, Michelle and Dawn.

  9. Ashley Elston on July 28, 2011 at 2:42 am

    Thanks so much for the great interview. I loved hearing your thoughts on social media. It all seems a little overwhelming to me but I know how important it is to be “out there”.

  10. Layla Messner on July 28, 2011 at 9:24 am

    I also cannot think of a question, so I will comment instead. In reference to the “word whore” accusations, it always confuses me that “doing it for the money” seems like a dirty concept for writers. This bias is not applied to any other profession. I don’t see any reason why a person can’t do their calling for money. Isn’t that what so many of us (writers) are striving for?

  11. Cindy m hogan on July 29, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Very interesting interview. I’d love a critique and boy do i need fresh, intelligent eyes to do it. Count me in.

  12. Cindy m hogan on July 29, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Michelle Witte,
    Just about missed that step. I’d love a critique and boy do I need fresh, intelligent eyes looking at my manuscript.