Self-Interview with Children's Book Editor, Writer and Illustrator Marlo Garner
Describe your perfect client.
My perfect client is motivated and eager to learn. They are friendly, polite, and respectful—just as I am to them. They do not expect more than contracted, but are grateful if I go the extra mile for them, which I usually do. My perfect client also checks for and responds to my emails in a timely fashion—just as I do. Thankfully, most of my clients are terrific. I enter into every contract with a sincere desire to help my client and I think they generally pick up on that very quickly.
Describe your nightmare client.
I've only ever had two who truly fit this term: suspicious, condescending, argumentative, rude, aggressive, tardy in paying, presumptuous, pompous, domineering, with work that had not even reached the first draft stage—I could go on, but I won't… Did I mention threatening? That's something I definitely don't appreciate!
What levels of editing do you perform and what are your definitions of each level?
- Copy-editing and proofreading, developmental/substantive editing, formatting submissions for publishers/agents, critiques/evaluations, occasional ghostwriting.
What do you like most about your job as a freelance writer/editor?
There are so many things I love (not like) about my job, and very little I dislike. First and foremost, is that I am helping fellow authors move closer to their dreams. I thoroughly enjoy the work itself—from copyediting to developmental editing to writing a critique. I love the creativity required to do a really good job, to take a piece of work and bring out the very best in it, while eliminating issues that will hinder the manuscripts chances of acceptance by agents or publishers. I love helping my clients' work to really 'sing'. I love those 'light bulb' moments when clients/students suddenly understand something about writing (and possibly themselves) that they did not before. It's also rather nice working from home, which means that I can make my own hours and, most importantly, be there for my daughter before and after school.
What lead to you becoming an editor?
Primarily, a mad, passionate love of books, of reading, and of writing. I've always cringed at the misplaced apostrophes on signs, and picked out the typos and grammatical mistakes in published material. Yes, I am that person—but I love it—editing comes very naturally to me and I find it a lot of fun, really.
How would you describe yourself as an editor?
Professional, hardworking, and eagle-eyed; friendly, warm, and understanding; dedicated and passionate about what I do and about providing superior service. And because I'm also a published author, I know just what it takes in terms of writing, revision, understanding of the industry, perseverance, personal strength, and passion to succeed. I think that makes me a very empathetic, kind, but motivating editor to work with. My client's success is my success.
How do you, as an editor, help a writer improve his or her book?
Editing is, for me at least, a very creative process. I strive to retain each author's unique voice and style—many of my clients have commented that while other editors simply made the project their own, I help to make the author's own language and style 'sing'. I bring the manuscript to a higher level of overall professionalism, readability, and audience appeal.
What does a writer get out have having her/his book edited?
It depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is the level of service purchased by the client. At the most basic level, a client should come away from the process with a grammatically correct, proofread manuscript, which is correctly formatted for submission to agents and publishers. Then there are various levels of development beyond that, of course, which good editors provide. It also depends on the writer's willingness to expand their capabilities to a large extent.
In the best of editing relationships, a writer can learn to be a better a writer—and I believe that all writers, published or pre-published, can learn to be better writers. I very much see myself as not just an editor but a teacher—and many clients have likened my critiques to a course in writing.
What kinds of authors do you enjoy working with?
I enjoy working with authors who are motivated, warm, and friendly, and who are open to what I can teach them, and most are. I am happy to say I have a significant number of previous clients and students whom I now call friends because of the relationship we developed during the editing process or during our classes together.
What kinds of authors are difficult to work with?
I don't find myself working with too many difficult authors. I think that most people who have the desire to write children's books are very lovely people with high-minded goals. It does happen every now and then… I would say that the very small number of 'difficult' authors have been slow in paying, suspicious, very sloppy, have unreasonable expectations, and are rude—and I've found that all those things seem to go hand in hand.
And sometimes I will work with an author who simply allows their ego to get in the way of the learning process—and I do understand that to some degree because it's very challenging to put your work, your baby, out there for a stranger's scrutiny. Usually those authors move beyond that stance fairly quickly, when they realize that my desire to help them is sincere.
Do you help your clients with the book proposal?
Yes, I include guidance, editing, and development of their query or cover letter, plus handy links and resources at no extra charge. But the author must write the letter initially, as it's an essential part of the process becoming an author. And they are the ones who know and love their book best.
Do you help your clients with agent/publisher selection?
Not specifically. I do provide loads of information for the best way to go about it, including helpful links, books, and so forth. I think learning to select suitable publishers is an important part of the process. Research into the market and what is currently being published is essential. I see plenty of stories which are examples of nice writing but which are so old fashioned in style or theme that it is unlikely they will find a place into today's' market. I do show authors how to avoid scams and sharks in the publish industry.
What do you consider to be the main elements of great fiction?
Unique, interesting characters with a strong, individual voice, who develop over the course of the story, original language style, strong narrative structure, and a plot or essence that keeps the reader turning pages.
Is there any material you refuse to edit?
I will not edit material that is offensive, racist, or bigoted in any way, shape, or form.
Do you prefer to work with character-driven or plot-driven fiction?
I like variety! I love character-driven stories, and much of my own work is firmly in that area. I thrill at working on plot driven novels, too. Plot is something I sometimes struggle with in my own writing, so I always appreciate clever, well-constructed plots. For me, the very best stories have a fine balance of both.
What is the most common piece of advice you give to new authors?
If you want to write children's books, read as many as you can: read what's new and read the classics. Write every day for at least twenty minutes. Join SCBWI: The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Join a critique group, take a class, attend a conference. Don't give up after your first rejection letter, or your tenth, or your hundredth. If you're serious, never stop. And please, don't tell me you want to write for children because you think it's an easy way to become a published author. It's far from easy, and you have to LOVE the genre.
What are common mistakes you see when editing children's fiction?
Point of View (POV) issues, telling instead of showing, wordiness, verbose dialogue tags, pointless dialogue or plot points, talking down to children, didactic writing.
What are your top five favorite fiction books of all time?
This is an absolutely impossible question for me to answer. There are so many I like, and for very different reasons. I will say that the sound of the language is generally very important to me. I've just finished reading Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix, which I love, love, love.
What are you reading right now?
Happily, I have a job which requires me to read the classic of children's literature, to devour the award winners, and to keep up with what is hot right now! I have a pile of books on my nightstand nearly two feet high which includes: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'engle, Holes by Louis Sachar, Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson, 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass, Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, the first Gossip Girl book, and numerous others.
Has any book changed your life? If so, what book and how?
There are so many books that have changed my life. I have always been an avid reader. I grew up in Australia, devouring the stories of Enid Blyton. The Ice is Coming by Patricia Wrightson, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and The Owl Service by Alan Garner—I read these books when I was about ten, and they were very real and powerful to me. At about that time, I began to realize that I wanted to be a writer—I started writing my first novel when I was eleven. I loved Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever when I was in my early teens—I remember bursting into tears as I read the final page of the last one. The book I would save if my house was on fire: Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, given to me by my beloved mother for Christmas when I was seven.
Do you have a favorite author?
Laurie Halse Anderson, Jane Yolen, Kate diCamillo, M.T. Anderson, Gary Paulson, Margaret Wild, Susan Cooper, J.K. Rowling, Maurice Sendak, to name the first few that come to mind and in no particular order. There are many.
What's your favorite movie of all time?
I have two: Excalibur and Once Upon a Time in the West.
If you could make a cameo appearance on a TV drama or sitcom, which one would you choose and why?
Survivor: I love anything to do with wilderness survival and I'm a keen outdoors-person with lots of wilderness experience. I'm also known as 'the born diplomat' by my family, and I have a very good (often very quirky) sense of humor— I'd love to discover how my personality would play out in that kind of difficult setting (not sure how I'd deal with cameras in my face, though).
What's your favorite TV show?
I don't watch a great deal TV because I usually write at night. Mostly I watch science and history documentaries but I am a closet Idol fan—because I find those dedicated, talented, hard-working kids so inspiring. I wish we had a show called 'Children's Book Idol'! Also, I'm not fully happy without my weekly Survivor fix—it's such interesting stuff: human nature under pressure, fabulous scenery, and survival of the fittest… or craftiest.
What is your favorite kind of music?
I have very eclectic taste which ranges from composers such as Dario Marianelli, Ennio Moriccone, Loreena McKennit, to ethereal or experimental music such as Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Clannad, David Bowie... I like to put on Pandora.com and see what it chooses for me. But while I must listen to music while I write, I never listen to music while I edit—it is too distracting and works counter to the rhythms and sounds of the language I'm editing.
What do you do when you are not editing?
Spend time with my six-year-old daughter and my husband, go running on the beach or through the woods with my boxer, Baxtor; Pilates and gym; try to balance my checkbook and de-clutter my house. I am a mad keen kayaker and hiker, I love to swim and bodysurf, and I love to garden. But mostly, when I'm not editing I am writing. I am currently working on a chapter book for six to nine-year olds, a middle grade novel, and a YA novel.
If you could visit (or return to) any place on Earth, where would it be and why?
I would go home to stunningly beautiful Australia; I miss it—and most of all my family and friends—very much!
Are you involved in community service?
I have led volunteer writing sessions with Hasbro Children Hospital in RI. I very much believe in writing as therapy and hope to set up an ongoing program in the near future. I also give blood every eight weeks and urge others to do so—it's so easy to save a life.