See You on the Bookshelf | Episode 4
February 13, 2017
We go deeper in the editing process with Jess Garrison and Anthea Townsend, and talk about the differences between young adult and middle grade.
Jack: Before we get into this episode, I want to just step back for a moment and point out how many unusual things have happened up until this point in our story. Usually, scouts don’t get involved until after a book’s already been sold. Usually, you don’t have an international offer coming in before a US or UK offer. And also, usually, you only have one editor instead of two. These joint-editing scenarios – they’re definitely not the norm. I just want to make that crystal clear. This is the story of how a book gets published, but it’s not the story of how every book gets published.
I feel like I just copped a line from the movie Ratatouille there but … it’s true! Every book has its own path to publication. And I think part of the challenge of being an author is to not get too attached to your idea of how you want your book to move through that process. It’s more about figuring out the most appropriate path for the book – figuring out what the book wants. I hope you keep that in mind as you’re listening to this.
This is one way it happens; it’s definitely not the only way.
Anthea: It’s that process of questioning –
Jack: Once again, that’s Anthea Townsend, my UK editor.
Anthea: – and obviously a question needs an answer, which we can’t always provide.
Jess: Yeah. And I was going to say, if you think back to our process with See You in the Cosmos –
Jack: And that’s Jess Garrison, my editor in the US.
Jess: – Anthea and I are often tripping over ourselves when we do suggest an answer, to say, this may not be the right answer, but it’s one possible answer. See where it takes you. If you like it, great. If you hate it, you know, use it as a jumping off point to something else. Because I think as editors, you do want to make sure you’re leaving creative room for the author or the artist to find his or her way to an answer that feels right to them.
Jack: I think when some people think of editing, they have this image of a person going in and gutting their novel with a red marker. But in my experience, it’s much more like what Jess and Anthea are saying – this process of questioning.
And what happened specifically with See You in the Cosmos is that we ended up falling into this rhythm. I’d send them a new draft of the novel, they’d discuss it between themselves, and a few weeks later, I’d get an email from Jess with their combined edits and feedback. When we needed to, we’d hop on a conference call, much like we’re doing here, to talk about it.
Jess: It was really wonderful because I would find that as I was reading, I would be reading with a head toward some set of particular things we wanted to address. And then I would speak to Anthea and there would be something I kind of hadn’t thought of at all yet. And it made the process, I think, much more efficient because we could give you two brains worth of insight in one go.
It did mean maybe the letter was fairly long. And that –
Jack: So the letter that Jess is talking about here is what’s known as an editorial letter. Typically the manuscript is passed back and forth as a Word document with tracked changes for specific comments and edits. The editorial letter is a separate document that’s more of the overarching summary of the feedback.
Jess: – that may have been a little bit intimidating or just overwhelming, and I hope not. But I think it made for more efficient feedback, and we could really crystallize what the question was because we were speaking to each other and working it out for ourselves before we shared it with you. This is why I go back to saying, let’s do every book together! This worked out great!
Anthea: I’m interested from your perspective, Jack, did it feel streamlined and natural and efficient, because it’s kind of a first –
Jack: Yeah. It did feel very natural. And I think that feeling you’re talking about, Jess, about another person bringing up something that you hadn’t thought of … for me as a writer, what I find with editing is that very often, you guys will mention something that I was only like unconsciously aware of, and that I had an issue with this part of the book and this part of the story. And one of the great joys of working with editors is seeing those things be articulated, and being like, oh yes, this totally gets at what I feel about what’s wrong with the book, or what could be improved.
Jess: That’s great. Yeah. I was going to say, I hope it was as fun on your end as I think it was for us.
Jack: Yeah. Yeah! I think I’m generally – from my experience working in advertising and tech – I’m typically a little wary of group feedback on things. Because with some of those experiences, there was often a case of too many chefs in the kitchen. But I definitely felt – just having like the three of us – it felt much more natural and it felt that you had hunches and they would be confirmed. I think you felt a little more confident in your own opinions and your own evaluations of how good something is.
Jack: Much of the work that we did to the story, from the time that Jess and Anthea acquired the manuscript to when we finished editing, was to make the novel more for a younger audience. More, as Jess would say, “squarely middle grade.” And if you remember from our past episodes, this was something that was a point from the very beginning. We decided to work together based on this idea of: we all wanted to make the book younger.
Now, some of this is what you might expect, like not using swear words for instance. But the distinction here between a novel for kids and a novel for teens or adults also goes beyond just the content.
Jack: So Jess, when you and I first sat down for lunch that time in New York, after the acquisition, something that we talked about – and something that I think we talked about, even from like the very first phone call – was the difference between young adult and middle grade. And I’ve found that even now, every time I ask myself that question, I come up with a different answer for it.
Jess: Yeah, it’s a slippery one.
Jack: Yeah. And I want to hear from you guys, like right now: What’s the difference between young adult and middle grade?
Jess: I know. I was thinking about that because I knew it was something that you were curious to talk about, and I think I’ve come down to saying that mostly it’s about it’s about perspective. You know, kids only know what they know, in the moment they’re in and their childhood previous to that. And so there’s sort of a set of older teen and adult things that they just don’t even really – and I’m speaking in generalizations here; I mean, every kid’s experience is different – but there are a lot of things that certainly I didn’t get as a 10- or 11-year-old.
And so I think for middle grade and teen, it’s just about staying in that moment where the kid is, and not pushing too far into things that are beyond their emotional experience or knowledge yet. And that’s sort of what the story is about – it’s pushing up against those boundaries. But I always say that it’s not necessarily so much about the content; it’s about the author’s intent with the content and the way the information is being distilled and presented, that it feels authentic to the way a 10- or 11-year-old would distill it, would see it, would talk about it or not talk about it.
When you and I first started talking about it, Jack, I never really thought about the distinction. It’s just something I recognize when I read. And I recognize too, when I have, you know, a 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kid in a story but it’s an adult novel. Because there’s an adult gloss on things. There’s just a way of writing. There’s a narrative voice, maybe, that is speaking to an older person who has a lot more experience than a 10- or 11-year-old does.
Anthea: Yeah. I think that’s beautifully put. I think that question of perspective is bang on, and that idea that – again, speaking generally that for middle grade readers – they’re kind of brushing up against adult issues but they’re not into adulthood or even that first step into it in a way that young adult or teen readers are. But they are starting that kind of burgeoning comprehension of some of those issues or …
Issues is the wrong word. It’s just life. It’s what they’re encountering. It’s what they’re processing, what they’re understanding from life. Whether that’s, you know, immediate life around them, relationships, love, school, jobs … life, everything. So middle grade, it’s writing with that in mind, that doesn’t lose that end reader, that they’re going to still be captured, that what they’re reading will resonate, that they’ll get it, that they’ll see themselves …
Jess: One of the ways that makes it easy is to remember who you were at 9 or 10, and then think about who you were at like 15 or 16.
Jess: Like, they’re just worlds apart. You know, the stuff that I was dealing with in fourth or fifth or even sixth grade, and then who I was when I was a sophomore or a junior in high school? Oh my goodness. It’s childhood to the brink of adulthood. And I think in middle grade, you’re on the brink of becoming a teenager. You’re you’re on the brink of this next big stage, but it’s not adulthood.
Jess: You know, you’re maybe getting a little bit of that stuff, but it’s – YA is the brink of adulthood.
Anthea: Yeah, you know, that middle grade age is kind of 9, 10, 11. What your understanding about adulthood is very different to what your understanding as a teenager about adulthood is. And seeing how that plays out in middle grade, and then YA, is really interesting. As Jess said, it’s something that you know, immediately, as soon as you’re reading, but it’s quite hard to put into words.
Jess: Yeah, it ends up being a line-by-line thing or a scene-by-scene thing, which is what we discovered with See You in the Cosmos – things that tipped just a little bit beyond, or where Alex seemed to get lost in what was happening with the adult characters. It became more about them and less about him. I think that’s how we went about it in this case. It was just line-by-line, scene-by-scene.
And I don’t mean to – I feel like in our conversation we’ve completely skipped over 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds. They exist too! And I think that’s actually where the distinction between middle grade and YA becomes really interesting. And those are the years that are interesting, I think, in our lives. You know, you’re just getting a lot of information and a lot of experiences as you go from middle school or junior high into high school.
And I think there are books where the lines are blurred too, in a good way. I think See You in the Cosmos is kind of one of them. I think Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead is another. And there are a ton more, but I think those are worth examining too. They’re sort of, upper middle grade, I might say.
Anthea: Yeah. Every reader, especially that age, is different. And so I think there’ll be 10-year-olds who’d read it differently to that 14-year-old, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t resonate with both. And that’s the beauty of the novel.
Jess: Exactly. Yeah. There aren’t very many that that can do that, that you could give to a 9- or 10- or 11-year-old kid and they will get it. And you could give it to an older, junior-high-aged kid and they would get something else, and you’d give it to a teenager and an adult and they would pull out even other and different things. And I think it was something that we were all aware of from the beginning, you know – that there were these elements that were really rich in these characters whose own situations were really, finely wrought.
And it was a matter of making the story – I think I kept saying, Jack, you were probably like, oof, if I see that phrase one more time – squarely middle grade. Your core audience. It has to work for that 10-year-old. You don’t want your reader to feel like they don’t get something, or they’re being left behind.
And when we do that, the beauty of the book – because there are all these characters at different ages and different life situations who are all part of Alex’s mix – the beauty is that you kind of get to have your cake and eat it too. You get a book that really will make sense for that 10- or 11-year-old, but then you have all these older people who can appreciate it too. And I think that’s just … that’s just what we call a really good book.
Jess: What was the … how did you put it when we had lunch? I can’t quite pull up the details of the conversation, but you were talking about sort of identity and morality, I think, when you were making a distinction between middle grade and YA. Is that right?
Jack: Yeah. I think I was talking about how middle grade … the kids are at that age are asking the big questions really, for the first time, and they’re learning, what’s right and wrong. Their values are starting to really form.
I think what I said about YA was that, like, being a teenager is such a crazy thing because you’re having to go through all these experiences of betrayal. Where your body’s betraying you, and your body’s changing, but also, friends will do something inconsistent from the image that you’ve built of them. When you’re younger, it’s almost like you’re coming up with these theories of how the world works. And when you’re a teenager, that’s when your theories first start to break a little bit, and you’re having to deal with re-evaluating what you thought was Truth.
Anthea: You know, considering all this, you cross your mind back to those years – like you said, Jess – the kind of person you are at 8 and then the person you were at 9, 10 … and then fast forward to 15, 16, and life has changed so dramatically. Your outlook and who you are – and who you are presenting yourself as to the world, and how you feel about that – is so different. It’s a kind of crazy ten years, actually, isn’t it?
Jack: I think that then gets into the question for me of, okay, so then what’s the difference between YA and adult fiction?
Anthea: There is something that –
Jess: There is something, for sure.
Anthea: Yeah. I mean, I suppose if you’re just boiling it right down, you might say the age of the protagonist. But that’s not to say there aren’t adult levels where there are teenage millennial protagonists –
Jess: Yeah, I really do think there’s something about an adult gloss. Sometimes when I read something that I like and I ended up declining it, that is sort of the reason – I feel like there’s something coming through in the narrative voice that feels like it knows more than the kid does, in dialogue and in how that kid is presenting him or herself.
Anthea: I often find it’s the dialogue that’s really exposing for me. Or voice. For me, the first thing within a page of reading See You in the Cosmos, Alex’s voice was just totally unforgettable, but also felt so true and so real to his age. And everything we were learning about him about his situation … it was that voice. And I think that’s where often the challenge really is, is getting that voice.
Jess: Yeah. It really is often a feeling you get. It’s like these little tiny cues in the writing where you’re like, well, I know this about this kid based on the dialogue, the conversations, but then there’s this thing creeping in in the narrative voice that seems to speak to things happening that that kid in dialogue wouldn’t really know about yet or understand. And I think that’s what makes it adult.
And you do in those opening pages, where we readers understand that there’s something more happening in his life than he’s letting on to us. Maybe more than even he understands. And you’re kind of reading to figure out what that is, but also what his understanding of it is. Does he know that there’s something that’s not, you know, quite healthy about this relationship – or with his mom’s health? Or is he oblivious? – that’s part of the intrigue of those opening pages. You let us know without going over his head. It’s just in the presentation of the facts.
Anthea: Something else that struck me as we’ve been discussing this, is that you see a lot more humor in middle grade fiction than you do in young adult fiction – and that you see in adult fiction.
Jack: That reminds me of – so, my mom in recent years, she’s been doing this thing where she’s making photo books and getting them printed. And a few years ago she made one for me that was basically pictures from when I was born up until I left for college.
Jess: Oh wow.
Jack: And as you’re flipping through them – as you’re going through my earlier years – I’m this joyful, happy kid. And then like, as soon as you get into high school, there’s no smiling in any of the pictures.
[ laughter ]
Jess: I know, it’s like our surly years. I mean, I think I was laughing with my friends. Just at home, I was sorta like, I’m going to go read a book.
Anthea: Totally. I’m going to get to be in my room. A lot of the time.
[ laughter ]
Anthea: But I think, to go back to the humor of it, I think there’s something also about that age when you really start enjoying humor and telling jokes, as a way of forming friendships and actually understanding – sometimes sort of making sense of the world. I think that also, that really hits in that middle grade age group. So perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of funny middle grade fiction out there.
Jess: That’s a really good point, that it’s almost – it’s like a social lubricant, you know?
Jess: I love sort of angsty, coming-of-age YA, but it’s hard for me to get through it if it’s not also funny. You know, there has to be … there kind of has to be the good with the bad. And I think that’s life, too. You know, gallows humor – that you need it in order to make it through those moments. And I think readers need it to be able to make it through some books.
[ brief silence ]
Jess: I think I just touched on like –
Anthea: You need Alex with an astronomy joke.
[ laughter ]
Jess: But it’s true. I mean, this is a great example of, you know, he’s going through a lot of stuff, but he’s always –
Anthea: He’s always got a joke.
Jess: He’s always got a joke!
[ laughter ]
Jack: Something that happened throughout this process was that Jess and Anthea were constantly reminding me to think of that kid reader. And it was an exercise, I think, in empathy – in putting myself in the shoes of my main character, and trying to find creative ways to keep some of the more adult content, but come at them from that perspective that we talked about here – of a 10- or 11- or 12-year-old.
And while all this was going on, there were some other things that were happening in parallel at the publishing houses. One of those things was the design of the jacket. That’s next week on, See You on the Bookshelf.
Thanks once again to Jess Dandino Garrison and Anthea Townsend. Anthea is on Twitter, @antheatownsend. Jess is on Pinterest as JKD Garrison. Music for this podcast is by Saint Benjamin (now known as Ben Johnson Music Factory).
And one more thing: How do you put a baby alien to sleep?