This guest interview done by author
Jessica Anya Blau
I’ve been working with Katherine (Kate) Nintzel, editor at William Morrow – HarperCollins Publishers, since my first novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES. The process has changed a little since then—we started with paper manuscripts and Kate’s tight, precise pencil marks like grey confetti decorated each page. Now it’s all done on computers with Kate’s notes in colored bubbles in the margins and highlighted on the page.
Jessica Anya Blau’s latest novel, THE TROUBLE WITH LEXIE
(June 2016, Harper Perennial), was just released. Her previous
novels, THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER; DRINKING CLOER TO
HOME; and THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES have been
featured on on CNN, NPR, The Today Show and in Vanity Fair, Cosmo,
Oprah.com and other national media. All three books have been optioned
for film and television. All of Jessica’s books were edited by Katherine Nintzel,
editor at William Morrow – HarperCollins Publishers.
A good editor is like a good spouse, or your best friend: someone you trust completely, who you know will tell you the truth that you need to hear. And a good editor “gets” you the way your friends do. That’s why you trust them with your work: you both want the same thing and you want it to sound the same way.
As far as I’m concerned, Kate’s the smartest editor in the business. Here she answers a few questions about editing:
Jessica: My early draft endings are always terrible and you pretty much just tell me that. Do you ever worry that I won’t be able to make it right?
Kate: Well, it’s less that they’re terrible and more that they’re not right. Endings are both important and complicated. They have to tie together everything that’s come before, fit with the overall story, and feel satisfying (and what makes a satisfying ending is different for each book). And endings are also often written last, so you’ve lived with that part of the book the least amount of time. But I never worry that you won’t be able to make it right—four times now we’ve figured out the right ending! Often getting the ending right involves taking a step back, giving the book some space, and then looking at it again with fresh eyes. And what’s great about you is that I can say the ending isn’t working and YOU figure out a better one!
J: Do you have other authors with this same problem?
K: Yeah. You’re not alone! Endings are hard (see above).
J: Do you find that your authors have the same problem in book after book, so when you get their new book you know ahead of time what you’ll have to deal with?
K: Yes, and that is one of the great comforts of doing multiple books with the same author: you start to know what to look for. Often with a writer who is new to me I won’t be able to articulate some of the small, subtle stuff until I’m well into the line edit, whereas with someone whose voice you know already you get a kind of shorthand. It’s a double-edged sword, though; I try to read everything as clean as I can, without bringing previous books into a new one.
Katherine Nintzel is an executive editor at William Morrow,
HarperCollins. Her best-selling books have sold millions of copies worldwide.
J: Do you worry about how you phrase things, or how to tell your writer that something’s not working? Or is there no time for that, you just have to say it and they have to get over it?
K: I used to worry about it a lot more. Now I’ve edited a lot of books and worked with a lot of writers and also delivered a lot of good and bad news about all aspects of publication. I worry about the editorial part less because it’s the one part of publication that the writer and I can control 100%. If something’s not working, it’s not working, and the writer needs to hear it, and in most cases the writer knows that it’s not working, too. I also think “this isn’t working” isn’t necessarily bad news; it just means the book needs more work. At the end of the day, all our goals are the same: the best book the book can possibly be. But in terms of practicalities, when I’m picking on something that isn’t working, I also try to call out the stuff that is. And if I’m picking on something big—like a relationship or a character – I won’t also throw in, “And that line of dialogue on page 235 needs to change, too.” I focus on the big stuff first, then work down to the smaller stuff.
J: Is it hard to work with people who don’t have a thick skin? Do you take that in to consideration when you’re considering taking on a book?
K: Oh, you know, I actually think most of my writers have pretty thick skin. Or if they don’t they’re good at hiding it from me. The number of mean Kirkus reviews I have had to pass along over the years! In terms of taking on a book: if it’s a debut you just don’t know what the writer is going to be like, so that’s not a consideration. I mean, maybe you’ve done a phone call, but in terms of knowing how you and that person are going to work together, you’re really going in blind. And in continuing with a writer it’s a lot more about the working relationship and the in-house support and the sales (obviously) than about someone who might be more delicate.
J: What, for you, is the hardest part of editing?
K: For me, the hardest edit is when I genuinely don’t know my own mind. When a book could go one of two ways (or three) and I don’t have a gut reaction while I’m reading—that’s when I have to sit with that book for a little while and figure out what I think, so that my author can get my best advice.
J: What’s your favorite part of editing?
K: I really love the line edit. I love going through a book line by line, cleaning up things I think are messy and asking pointed specific questions. (And you know how much I love to trim.) The days you’re in dialogue with a book, really thinking closely about every single word on the page—it’s a privilege to be trusted with this job on those days!
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