For my new YA novel, I had the good fortune of working with the amazing Anita Daher
. Not only is she the associate teen books editor at Great Plains Publications
, but she has written five middle grade and two YA novels, which have been finalists for many awards. It’s no surprise that her YA novel Two Foot Punch,
about the sport of parkour, is a fast-paced, high-energy thriller. She also writes columns for The Winnipeg Review and The Winnipeg Free Press, teaches, mentors, does presentations and school visits, is active on social media and is the Manitoba/Saskatchewan Representative for The Writers’ Union of Canada. But somehow she still has time for her family and Wager the Wonder Horse!
So what was it like to work with this busy and talented editor? A real pleasure. From the beginning, Anita expressed her support for my book, and kept reminding me how much she believed in it. Her suggestions were always just that. I could think about them and use them – or not – as I saw fit. My book, my call. Luckily, we both agree that less is more, so when she asked me to make cuts, I did. And right up until the last minute, she emailed suggestions for small changes that made a big difference.
I am so impressed and inspired by Anita. That’s why I wanted to interview her about writing and editing. I emailed her my questions, and she graciously took the time to answer:
JS: Anita, I’m sure you’re always asked how you manage to accomplish everything you do, so I’m going to skip that question for now. What I’d really like to know is how you got started as a writer? As an editor? Which came first – writing books or editing them?
AD: Hi Jocelyn! Before I answer your questions I have to tell you how much I enjoyed working with you. How to Tend a Grave took my breath away from the moment I first read it, and I enjoyed our discussions as we worked through the editorial stages.
Which came first? Definitely the writing. Like many writers I started while young, forever jotting story ideas, overheard phrases, observations on napkins, bus passes, homework, anything within reach. I began writing with the intent to be published in the mid-nineties and published my first novel with Orca in 2002. In 2008 I popped into the Great Plains offices, where I’d previously worked as marketing coordinator, to discuss the company’s developing YA imprint with publisher Gregg Shilliday. I began as associate teen book editor that very week. It is a company I believe in with a publisher that trusts and supports its staff and authors—a terrific atmosphere!
JS: You write for both middle grade and teens. Do you have a preference? Why? What’s your current WIP?
AD: I enjoy each for different reasons. Middle grade novels are pure fun, even when scary. The ones I write are all action and reaction and characters learn important life lessons while working their way through adventures. When I write for this age I connect to the 12-year-old me (which isn’t that hard for me, by the way), and tap into an energy and gusto that is uber-fun. Middle grade readers have such an optimistic view of life.
But I also enjoy thinking on the complexities of being human, and recall how our awareness of this emerges in our teens, and continues through the years. I slip into a more thoughtful place when I write for teens, where my protagonists learn something important about themselves through interactions with other characters, even the bad ones. They tend to be tougher stories, painful, and writing them can be emotionally exhausting, but ultimately, perhaps because of this, I find the experience more satisfying.
JS: What’s it like being an editor who also writes? Does it make seeing a critique of your own work easier or harder? Are you able to edit your own work?
AD: Balance is always tough. I find it difficult to put all of my attention in another author’s creative work when I am working on something of my own. Luckily, I have a flexible work environment, and so I make sure that I schedule my own projects, especially first drafts, around Great Plains novel edits. I like to think editing for others has strengthened my writing skills, especially in terms of flow, however I still need objective eyes on to see the truth of what needs strengthening or fixing in my own work. I love this! Even when the truth is difficult, it is needed, and always makes for a better, stronger story. Lucky for me my first reader is my lovely agent Marie Campbell, who was first (and still is at heart) an editor. I love having her on my team.
JS: If you had to choose between writing your own books and editing other writers’ work, which would it be?
AD: As much as I enjoy editing, I would choose to work on my own stories hands down. My dream would be to write every morning, and ride every afternoon. Hmmm, I suppose I’m pretty much living that dream, though some mornings are devoted to editing over writing. I guess the key is the “every morning” bit.
JS: Can you describe your editing process? How many times do you reread the whole ms?
AD: My first look is during the acquisitions stage. I make notes that I take to the editorial table where decisions are made, but often several months pass before an author and I begin working on a manuscript. This is good because my memory is so bad it is like I am approaching it fresh again! Before we begin, I like to make sure the author is clear on my approach: substantive edit for big-picture stuff, then the nitty-gritty copy edit. We may need to go back and forth several times during each stage, or not. I like authors to know that I make suggestions where I feel they are needed, but unless there is a significant issue I won’t push. It may seem obvious, but it is the author’s novel. We are on the same team, but ultimately it is his or her name on the cover. The number of times I read a manuscript varies…perhaps between six and dozen times.
JS: As a YA writer, I try to resist the temptation to self-censor, but it’s always there. How do you deal with profanity and sensitive subjects as you write and edit? How aware are you of the possible negative reaction of teachers/parents/librarians?
AD: I think it is important to set aside that self-censor during the initial story birthing. If the story leads toward sensitive subjects, fine, and if profanity feels right for the character, that’s fine also. During rewriting I will use judgment, but it is only ever regarding balance, flow, rightness and truth for that story. An editor once pointed out in a particular story of mine that teachers may be sensitive about my character holding and pointing a gun. I understood the concern, but the story required it. In the end I made a small adjustment: the young person held the rifle, but did not point it at anyone.
A different sort of concern came up during the writing of Spider’s Song. In that novel, the main character is a cutter. During my research, I learned that reading about cutting might be a trigger for those affected. This concerned me greatly, and so I decided the character would not be actively cutting during the story, but employing strategies to fight the urge. I believe we must write truthful stories, and not shy away from difficult subjects, but that we must also and always be respectful to intended readers.
As editor I feel much the same way, however I do have to think of market and potential sales. If there is something in a novel that I feel may be a concern for teachers or librarians, I will point it out, but ultimately respect the choice of the author. Any significant concerns would have been addressed prior to the novel being accepted.
JS: All four of Great Plain’s new titles for Spring 2012, The Break by Nelsa Roberto, The Green-Eyed Queen of Suicide City by Kevin Marc Fournier, Cape Town by Brenda Hammond and my own book, How to Tend a Grave, deal with tough subjects – Alzheimer’s, suicide, apartheid, racial prejudice, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, vandalism, prostitution. What’s your take on the whole dark YA thing?
AD: I don’t necessarily seek dark stories. I like stories that make me feel, and believe that is what teens seek also. If the stories are dark, so be it, as long as they are well written. Every story has a deeper meaning, something the author is communicating. If that message has strength, and is effectively communicated in a humdinger of a story, I am happy.
JS: How many submissions to Great Plains Teen Fiction do you receive in a year?
AD: I’ve not sat down to count, but if I break it down to the number I see monthly, between 180 and 240.
JS: How many full ms do you request for every one you accept?
AD: Hmm, again, if I break it down…I may request twenty-four to thirty-six full manuscripts in a year, but our standard has been to publish only three or four. Moving forward, until flux in the industry settles out we have decided to stick to three. So, for every eight to twelve full manuscripts we request, we accept one.
JS: Do you always choose manuscripts that don’t need a lot of work, or will you take on something you love but that needs a lot of substantive editing? Is there a time when you’re reading a submission that you just know you want to publish it?
AD: We sometimes take on a manuscript that is pretty clean, but we never accept a manuscript that still needs a good amount of work, no matter how brilliant we sense a story might be underneath the clutter. The reason: if we say yes, and then need to ask the author to do a significant rip and tear, the back and forth might be demoralizing for the author, which does not make for a healthy author/publisher relationship. We may, however, offer thoughts, and invite the author to submit again if concerns are addressed.
And yes, often the manuscripts we accept are ones that just…spark. I love them from the beginning.
JS: Editors often play a huge role in making books better, but they don’t always get much credit for their contribution. How do you feel about this? Are you underpaid and/or undervalued? Are there misconceptions about editors that you’d like to clear up?
AD: I feel just fine about it! I get so much satisfaction in helping an author bring out strengths in an already wonderful novel (if I didn’t already love it, we wouldn’t take it on!). It is always, always about the story. Does this make sense? Also, I never forget that it is the author’s story, not mine. The pay is what it is…I guess if I had any financial savvy I wouldn’t have gone into writing and publishing (Hah! I don’t actually believe writers have a choice. We write. Period—and we gain additional income from writing related activities). I am enriched and inspired by the process, and always feel appreciated by my authors. That is enough.
Misconceptions? I don’t worry too much about those. Beginning writers may feel an editor must be an adversary, or that it is an editor’s job to “fix” their novel and correct their mistakes, but these are not authors I work with.
JS: Do you ever get to read just for fun?
AD: I do, but not nearly enough! For intellectual, creative and mental health I must remind myself to set aside works-in-progress, student papers and manuscript submissions and pick up something wonderful—and already published. My favourite time-protected reading space is in the bath (too much info?).
JS: Is there a question about writing or editing that you are eager to answer but no one has ever asked you?
AD: Hmm…I can’t think of anything at the moment. To me, editing isn’t a mystery. You either love it, or you don’t. If an author finds they enjoy the process of editing their own work and think they might like editing someone else’s, I encourage them to give it a go. The balance can be tough—working on someone else’s novel means time and creative energy not going into personal work—but if they can manage it, the experience can be satisfying.
I’d like to thank Anita very much for taking the time to answer my questions, and for her kind words about my book. But even more, I’d like to thank her for being such a terrific editor. And as for that question I didn’t ask earlier about how she does it all, who cares? She just does – and the literary world is the better for it. That’s what really matters.