Editor Spotlight: Emma D. Dryden
April 15, 2015
KidLit411 is very honored to have the amazing and talented Emma D. Dryden in the Editor Spotlight this week! We are privileged to have the opportunity to interview her about craft and the editorial process.
You've been an editor for nearly thirty years and you’ve edited over a thousand books for infants, children, and young readers! What books stand out in your mind the most? Were they difficult to edit? Easy? Why do you think some of them won awards and some didn’t?
Because I love language, wordplay, and the balance of words and white space on a page, I particularly love reading and editing poetry, so a lot of poetic works stand out for me—novels in verse (such as those by Ellen Hopkins or Lorie Ann Grover), poetry collections (such as those by Lee Bennett Hopkins, Betsy Franco, Alan Katz), and poetic picture books (such as those by Karma Wilson, Karen Katz, Louise Borden, or Margaret Mahy).
I also love thinking about that time in our lives when we’re just starting to experience autonomy, moving away from the safety of home and family into the outside world with all of its dangers and mystery and potential—and thus I love working on middle grade novels, and some of the main characters who stick in my mind from the many, many MG novels I’ve edited include ten-year-old Fred (short for Frederika) from THE YEAR OF MISS AGNES by Kirkpatrick Hill, Cam O’Mara from BULLRIDER by Suzanne Morgan Williams, Pattie Mae Sheals from THE LEGEND OF BUDDY BUSH by Shelia Moses, Maggie (and her Newf, Sirius) from STAR IN THE STORM by Joan Hiatt Harlow, and Sam and Mollie from VICTORY by Susan Cooper.
Truth be told, I am a total voyeur and I love to get fully immersed in the nitty-grittiness of a character and his or her story; the darker and deeper and more complex the better! So that’s why I love working on young adult novels, and some that stand out are Ellen Hopkins’ IDENTICAL, TRICKS, SMOKE, and RUMBLE; SKIN by Adrienne Maria Vrettos, and SAMURAI SUMMER by Ake Edwardson, among many others.
Editing is never easy, nor is it ever hard. Editing becomes what it needs to be for each individual book. Some books require more intensive editorial questions, guidance, and thought than other books. Some books require more time than others to sort through the threads, making sure they knit together strongly enough to hold fast. And because the editing process can and does vary so greatly from one book to another, I am passionate about working on all sorts of books—picture books, novels, poetry, and more—so as to keep my editing skills sharp as well as keep my editorial approach fresh.
Ah, awards! That’s such a subjective thing, and I actually don’t much like talking about awards. Who can say why one book gains more attention than another? Who can say why one book seems to have touched the hearts of a committee or a group of readers when another book doesn’t in the same way? It’s too subjective, and I’m usually the one NOT playing the “mock Newbery” or “mock Caldecott” games because to my mind, a book that gets an award is not necessarily any better than a book that doesn’t get an award—it’s just come at the right time for that particular group of readers or reviewers or librarians.
This speaks to the nature of publishing itself: it’s so often a crapshoot, a matter of being in the right place at the right time, a matter of a story finding the right person at the very moment that person needs that story.
How do you approach submissions as an independent editor? What makes you stop reading?
Having spent twenty years of my career within the structure of a large publishing company, my drydenbks submission policy is very much based on the submission policies I was accustomed to at those houses. I require a cover letter and one-page synopsis for anything that comes to me, along with either the complete manuscript/PDF dummy of a picture book or the first ten pages of a novel.
I learn a lot about the author and what they think their book is about from a cover letter; I rely on the synopsis to show me if the author has a handle on how to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end and if they understand the difference between an emotional plot and an action plot; and I can tell what I am generally going to think about a manuscript from a first page, and very often from the opening sentence.
I do not take on everything that is submitted to me; I will not submit a proposal to an author or illustrator if I feel that neither the project nor the author are actually ready for an intensive assessment (in which case, I might suggest the author get some feedback and guidance from a critique group or workshop before working one-on-one with an editor), nor will I submit a proposal to an author or illustrator if I don’t feel I can offer helpful guidance towards deepening their craftsmanship as a writer or artist.
Ideally, I want to feel the projects on which I work have the potential to be published well (not just published, but published well, which means, in part, the project will be embraced and enjoyed by the intended audience) and I reserve the right to decline a project if I don’t see the publishing potential in that project, or, indeed, if I just don’t share the author’s or illustrator’s vision and passion for the project.
I love my work as an independent editor because even if I stop reading something, that doesn’t mean I won’t offer an author a proposal to work together. This is completely different from how I functioned as an acquiring editor and publisher within a publishing company; I’d stop reading if I didn’t think I could sell the manuscript to my team and, ultimately, to the market—so stopping reading generally meant not working on the manuscript, and declining it right then and there.
But in my work now, if I see potential in the writing, the storytelling, or some other aspect of the work, even if I don’t feel the manuscript is working, I will take it on. If I see writerly habits, stylistic issues, and other things in the writing that I can comment on with confidence, I will take it on. And this is because my goal as an independent editor is not to eventually publish that manuscript nor meet certain parameters set by a publishing company; my goal as an independent editor is to offer authors the tools they need to revise their work and ask them questions or make suggestions that require them to deepen their understanding and mastery of their craft.
My obligation now as an independent editor is to only focus on craft; of course the market will come into play as I assess a project, and I will discuss the marketability of a project with a client, but ultimately my focus is on giving the artist everything I can to assist them in becoming a stronger writer or illustrator.
What are the biggest DON’Ts that authors should remember when submitting?
DON’T ignore submission guidelines.
DON’T be impatient and submit before you and the project are ready.
DON’T get yourself into a tizzy by comparing yourself to others (DO see my blog post on this subject: I Want What She's Got: The Disastrous Comparison Game)
DON’T care more about getting published than about your craft.
“DON’T let “no” define your “yes”.”—Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander
What are the biggest DOs?
DO the hard work on your craft for a long time before you submit.
DO your homework about the people to whom you’re submitting.
DO follow submission guidelines.
DO spell the agent’s or editor’s name and affiliation correctly.
DO proofread everything you’re submitting before you submit.
DO behave professionally and care about your reputation.
DO remember that publishing is a combination/balance of creative and business.
DO identify what you don’t know and ask for help when you need it.
DO care more about your craft than about getting published.
What is ONE thing people can do to improve their submissions?
It’s hard to pin down ONE thing, but I am going to say that submissions can be improved if people take their time before, during, and after the submission process. If an author’s been at a conference, gotten some feedback on a project, and has been told they are welcome to submit, that author should take time to sit with and process that feedback, revise their work thoughtfully and thoroughly (more than once!), read their work aloud many times, and have someone read their work aloud to them, and not act impatiently or recklessly by submitting to that editor or agent too quickly. Show respect for yourself and your writing process by taking time and care with your craft, with any feedback you receive, and with the submission process itself.
I speak quite often on “best practices” in publishing (be it traditional, self, or hybrid publishing) and the one thing I feel most strongly about is that an author or illustrator must take very seriously the fact that their name is on that manuscript or piece of artwork, so this means your reputation is on the line—no one should be okay with putting out a book or any sort of artwork that’s sloppy, incomplete, or not as polished and refined as it could be. So take as much time and care with your own work as you might with your appearance or your resume before you send it out into the world. “Good enough” should never be good enough.
You are an independent editor offering professional services to authors, illustrators, and others in the field. Can you tell us about these services? Can you describe one or two instances of how you helped someone in a consultation/critique?
I was a publisher for many years in addition to being an editor, and I recognize that my big-picture publishing background sets me apart from a lot of the independent editors out there.
In addition to assessing and/or editing manuscripts and assessing and/or offering advice on portfolios, sketches, and dummies—I am available for story development services, working with someone on developing ideas into more fully realized stories.
I also provide consultation services to authors, illustrators, publishers, editors, agents, and students. These consultations normally consist of conversations (Skype, phone, in person, over email or any combination thereof) lasting anywhere from one hour to many, many hours that can cover everything from career counseling and submission strategies to helping someone navigate a tricky or delicate situation with an agent or a client or a contract.
Some can actually become life planning consultations, since one’s writing or artwork cannot necessarily be properly assessed without taking into account an author or illustrator’s life: feelings, financials, family, etc. In these consultations, I will generally ask for all sorts of different materials in advance of a conversation, such as a client’s list of concerns, questions, and goals or a client’s experiences with agents, editors, and other authors. drydenbks offers a completely safe space in which a client can and must feel free to divulge some of their deepest feelings about themselves, their work, or the business so that I can be of the most possible assistance in identifying where they might be going astray and guiding them to their next best steps.
In my editing/assessment work, the majority of clients come to me when they are struggling to figure out why a manuscript or project hasn’t found an agent or an editor. By the time I step in, I can identify the various reasons why the project is getting the reception it’s getting and help an author or illustrator accordingly, pinpointing where more attention and focus is needed to deepen their craft and/or make their work more marketable.
An example of a consultancy that had a happy ending: I worked with a published author who was at her wits’ end and actually thinking about quitting writing; she came to me as a last resort to see if I could help her. What I was able to do was identify her problem: it had nothing to do with her writing, which was excellent and solid, but it had everything to do with her inability to prioritize and focus her goals, which was resulting in a lack of confidence and a sense of desperation that was clouding her judgment. I helped her slow down, step back, regroup, and create a step-by-step plan of action for herself and her manuscripts that not only brought back her sense of balance, but shortly thereafter yielded her an agent and several new book projects that all found publishing homes.
Where can people meet you in person?
I do a lot of speaking and teaching about writing and the craft of writing. This is gratifying and fun work and it’s especially thrilling to work with a group of writers or illustrators over the course of several days or a week to see the “Ah-ha!” moments take hold and result in new ideas, strong revisions, and renewed confidence and perspective. I am on the faculty of several writing workshops and conferences this summer and fall, including:
Leading a craft-based writer’s workshop and retreat, The Art & Craft of Writing Children’s Book Writing July 5-11 on Martha’s Vineyard
As an SCBWI Board Member I will be attending—and also teaching at—the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference July 31-August 3, in L.A.
Leading an intensive “Revision” program for the 2015 Better Books Workshop, a Craft-Based Workshop for Middle Grade and YA Writers October 22-25, Marin County, CA
Where can people find you online?
drydenbks website: www.drydenbks.com
“our stories, ourselves” blog: http://emmaddryden.blogspot.com/
drydenbks Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/drydenbks
personal Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emmaddryden
Twitter: @drydenbks https://twitter.com/drydenbks
Emma D. Dryden is the founder of drydenbks LLC (www.drydenbks.com), 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.