Friday, June 12, 2015

14 Solutions for the Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and More -- An Interview with Editor Emma D. Dryden

Today we're deeply honored to have an interview with the brilliant Emma Dryden, who left Simon & Schuster as Vice President and Publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books to start an independent editorial service after 25 years in publishing. She has a phenomenal editorial eye, but even more than that, she is great at boiling complex concepts of story structure and writing into simple, easy-to-grasp terms. The following interview is no exception.

Happy reading!


Q. As a deeply respected editor within the children’s publishing establishment, you’ve since moved to the independent side, but you continue to work with both publishers and agents. When you take on a private client, an aspiring author, or a previously published author with a new project, and you’re looking to see whether a work is publishable and of interest as a project you would take on, what criteria do you use?

[EDD] As an independent editor, I am neither bound by the requirements of a publishing house to decide whether I will work on a manuscript nor do I have to worry about whether the manuscript will eventually be published to certain parameters; instead, I want to feel I share the author’s vision and enthusiasm for the work. That’s first and foremost, and if I do feel I share the author’s vision, then I use the criteria I’ve always used to determine the potential of a manuscript—I look at whether I feel the story’s compelling, the main character’s thought-through, the main character has a clear arc in relation to some kind of antagonist, the world building’s thought-through, there’s a distinct narrative voice, and so on. To determine some basics about whether the project is viable for the marketplace, I do also consider the style of writing, the genre, the word-count, and the desired audience to see if these elements align in some ways with what I know agents and editors are looking for. If I don’t feel enthusiastic about a project for any reason and if I don’t feel I can offer substantial and useful information, guidance, and tools to the author, that means I would not be the right editor for the project and I reserve the right to decline the work.

Editing is not mechanical or robotic—and to my mind any independent editor who says they can edit anything is not necessarily doing authors a service; an author deserves to work with an editor who shares their vision and enthusiasm for the specific project, particularly if that author is paying out of pocket for the services and expertise of that editor. It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean a manuscript needs to be in great shape for me to work on it—far from it. It may be that every element I look for in a manuscript is lacking or missing in some way, but if I get excited about what I know I can share with the author to help them become a stronger writer, then I will submit a proposal to the author accordingly. The end goal of my work with an author has changed from when I was at a publishing house: the end goal is not the promise of publication; the end goal is to assist authors in mastering their craft.

Q. As an editor, what are the most common mistakes you see people making with their WIPs, and are there solutions you find yourself frequently recommending?

[EDD] I’ll start with something that may seem small and inconsequential but that’s actually extremely important, and that has to do with following submission guidelines: Too many authors who contact me are not following drydenbks submission guidelines that are clearly posted on our website. When I get a submission that doesn’t follow the guidelines, I’m going to assume that this author either doesn’t care about coming across as a professional or the author feels above the rules. Either way, it’s a reason for me not to work with them. I have to say, I’m hearing this complaint regularly from agents and editors, so I urge authors to have the courtesy to be diligent about following submission guidelines appropriately for the sake of their own reputations.

When it comes to craftsmanship, I recognize that many authors don’t have a strong enough handle on who their characters are and what their characters really, truly want during the writing of their first few drafts. I frequently share a “Character Questionnaire” worksheet with authors to jumpstart them on getting to know their characters at a much deeper level than the level that’s on the page. Writers have to experience their story through the eyes and heart of their characters—if an author doesn’t know exactly how their characters would feel, think, speak, emote, and behave in every possible circumstance and particularly under pressure and conflict, the author won’t have that necessary access to their characters’ eyes and hearts.

Another element of craft I’m frequently discussing with authors concerns the fact that characters are developed, defined, and deepened by the choices and decision they make under tension and pressure, and these choices and decisions need to change in value (positive/negative) and “temperature” (hot/cold) as the story progresses. I see many manuscripts in which either the tensions and pressures aren’t great enough to require characters to make choices or in which the tensions and pressures are repeated at the same level over and over again. (Repetition does not build tension!) I see many manuscripts in which characters don’t make choices or decisions (and keep in mind, choosing not to make a choice is a choice) and therefore don’t have enough agency to take charge of their own story. Characters need dimensionality to be recognizable and intriguing to readers. Dimensionality comes from how characters choose to act under some kind of pressure.

A third craft element I discuss a lot with authors is world building—and I’m frequently asking authors to figure out the rules of the worlds in which their story takes place. Once the rules of the world are clearly defined in the author’s head, it’s much easier for events to happen in the story that feel authentic and to ensure the reader’s not questioning why something’s happening in a certain way.

NOTE: Many readers may think I’m only talking about fiction or fantasy when I talk about the importance of character depth, character choices, and world building. Not so! These are all as critically important in picture books and nonfiction as they are in fiction and fantasy.

Q. From the editorial side of the desk, what’s more important—concept or execution? Does that vary from publisher to publisher, and has your opinion changed on this subject since becoming a freelance editor?

[EDD] In my opinion, concept and execution can’t exist without the other, so one is not more important than the other, but both are equally critical. Someone can hit upon a terrific concept, but if they can’t execute it intelligently and with great craftsmanship, the concept remains just that—a concept, without the elements of storytelling that bring concepts to life on the page: character building, world building, subtlety and nuance, layers of substory and subtext, and so on. To my mind, how well or how poorly something is executed speaks directly to an author’s mastery of their craft as a writer and story teller—an author has to be able to not only conceive of a story and tell a story, but actually put the story down on the page within a story form that compels and transports readers.

When it comes to concepts, lots of authors have great concepts but they may not fully understand the conventions of the genre in which their concept would be best executed. Every genre has conventions. It’s critical for an author to know and understand the conventions of the genre in which they’re writing and understand that readers know these conventions as well. Only when an author knows the conventions of their genre can the author then break and change the conventions to suit their story, thereby executing a story that’s going to not only surprise and compel readers, but also keep them satisfied. Again, this applies as much to picture books and nonfiction as it does to fiction and fantasy.

Q. Do you find yourself working differently with a project when the client is a publisher who has already acquired a manuscript versus that of an author who is paying you directly? Do you have to think about leaving room for another editor to see themselves on the page?

[EDD] If a publisher has hired me to edit a project, I make sure to understand the goals of the publisher for that project before I begin my work on it; other than that, though, I don’t think I work differently on a publisher-generated project than on a project that comes to me directly from an author. At the same time, though, I will try to gauge from the publisher what the concerns are, if any, about that author—their particular sensitivities, expectations, goals, etc. I am not comfortable with editors editing editors; when a publisher hires me to edit a project, there’s not usually an in-house editor involved in that project. At least, not at the line-by-line editorial stage of things. I have to assume the publisher will be providing an in-house contact for that author as well as an in-house champion for the project once I’m done with my bit of the work—and that’s usually an in-house editor who will take an author the rest of the way with their project.

Q. What segment of the industry interests you the most right now, and where do you hope the industry is headed?

[EDD] The whole industry interests me insofar as the publishing industry continues to undergo lots of change, flux, and new initiatives and directions. I don’t think anything is going to necessarily “settle down” any time soon in this industry, so what I hope for the industry is that agents, publishers, editors, and authors stay clearheaded and broadminded enough to recognize that we all share the same end goals—bringing good books to as many readers as possible. I’m interested in smart, professional, balanced self-publishing opportunities; I’m interested in how books can be experienced by readers through many different platforms—print, digital, and other; and I’m interested in the survival of storytelling. Storytelling is, to my mind, the element that transcends everything that’s going on in our industry right now—so the more people care about excellent storytelling, the more our stories will continue to serve us as a society.

Q. If someone wants to hire a freelance editor, how would you recommend they go about it?

[EDD] Do your research. First and foremost study the “Freelance Editors Directory” in SCBWI’s downloadable “The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children” and follow through on looking at editors’ websites to get a sense of their experience, their approach, their submission guidelines, their prices, and so on. Word of mouth and recommendations from other authors who’ve worked with a freelance editor are often the best way to find a good and experienced freelance editor. I understand it’s fairly common in the adult book world for freelance editors to show prospective clients sample edits; I don’t offer this and I don’t know any colleagues who do this, so don’t expect to see a sample edit. I would, however, expect to have a very clear understanding with the editor before entering into any sort of arrangement of the scope of the project, the projected work timeline, the payment schedule, how the author can expect to be hearing from the editor (memo, email, track changes, phone call, etc.), and I would expect to sign some sort of contract or Agreement of Understanding generated by the editor.

I do want to add a caution to authors that it’s very important to try to recognize what you’re actually looking for from a freelance editor before you make your inquiry. Are you looking for positive reinforcement and confidence building, or are you willing to receive a potentially rather intense objective critique that may be full of questions and suggestions for considerable revision? Are you thinking you’re far enough along that the manuscript only needs a line-by-line copy edit (for grammar and punctuation), when perhaps the editor feels your manuscript still needs major structural work and character dimension? I have found myself in the delicate position of working with authors who, it turns out, aren’t actually ready to receive a full editorial assessment because they’re not ready to hear and take in frank criticism about their work. It’s important for an author to recognize what it is they’re actually seeking and for them to make that clear up front with the potential editor—and, too, for the editor to clearly state what sort of work they feel is required on the manuscript. That way an agreement can be reached that, hopefully, won’t result in unexpected surprises for either the editor or the author.

Emma D. Dryden is the founder of drydenbks LLC (, the children’s editorial & publishing consultancy firm she established in 2010 after twenty-five years as an editor and publisher with several major publishing houses, most recently Simon & Schuster.

She edits books and digital content for infants through young adult/new adult, consults on writing and illustration careers and publishing strategies, and teaches extensively about writing craft as well as traditional and non-traditional publishing options and best practices. A board member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, Emma lives and works in New York City.

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  1. Thank you, Martina, for this terrific opportunity to share some of my thoughts and impressions about publishing on the Adventures in YA Publishing forum!

    1. It's our absolute honor to have you here! As I told you, I had a V-8 moment reading your responses. You always manage to explain things so perfectly! Thank you, Emma!

  2. It's so good to hear all of these important points, Emma - thank you! I made myself a little poster of your key ideas to look at over and over as I revise.

  3. Thank you for sharing your insights! This is so helpful to me as I work on revising my MG novel.

    1. That's great to hear, Andrea. Good luck with the MG!

  4. Thanks, Emma (and Martina) for this great interview, brim-full of helpful info! *takes notes*

  5. Yes, this was very helpful. Thanks, Martina and Emma!

  6. Really great advice, especially the part about how it's important for writers to recognize what they’re actually seeking. It's fine to want positive reinforcement—we all need this—but if a writer isn't sure she's ready for an objective critique, the editor should know. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  7. This was very helpful. I think those people who work with Emma will become better and more confident writers.


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