HarperCollins Children’s Books editor Stephanie Stein works on a range of YA and middle grade fiction by authors including Kiera Cass (the Selection series), Erin Hunter (Warriors), and Cynthia Hand (The Last Time We Say Goodbye). As faculty for this year’s SCBWI Los Angeles Writer’s Day, Stephanie gave a compelling keynote address, “Writing Your Book (Not Someone Else’s)” and a breakout session on what to expect from an editor when you’re revising your work together. Kite Tales caught up with her after LAWD16 for a follow-up on defining your writer’s voice, why that’s essential to getting published, and why everyone’s path to publishing looks different.
Sarah Parker-Lee: Your keynote address was all about how to stand out in the oversaturated kid lit market while still staying true to your passion and voice as a writer. For our readers who weren’t able to attend Writer’s Day, can you tell us a little more about how you define a writer’s “voice” and how someone can identify what makes their’s unique?
Stephanie Stein: Voice is one of those things that’s difficult to define, but easy to sense when it’s not there. In that way it’s like the personality or the soul of a manuscript – and when it’s not there, readers won’t connect to your writing as strongly. A writer’s voice can encompass sentence-level style characteristics, like word choice and punctuation, but it’s also shaped by how you approach description, character, setting, plot, structure; what kind of themes and tropes you’re drawn to; how you handle dialogue; and everything else that makes your writing unique.
The best tip I can offer for working on voice is something that also helps with every other aspect of improving your craft as a writer: practice. The more you write, the more you’ll start to hone in on the ideas and modes of expression that really work for you, and the more you’ll start to sound like you rather than like your influences or like what you think professional writing is “supposed” to sound like. Make sure you practice and try out new things, too: new formats, new choices of POV or age category or genre, new writing exercises. Then take a step back and try to figure out what common themes and styles are emerging from all these different things you’ve tried. Those are part of what makes up your specific voice, and they’re probably your strengths, too.
SPL: What makes a writer’s voice stand out to a publisher? What are some examples of a strong voice you particularly enjoy?
SS: When I pick up a manuscript with a strong voice, I feel like I’ve learned something fundamental about this writer and this character – even over the space of a few pages. I’m looking for writing that has a clear personality, a point of view. A specific way of seeing the world that’s just that little bit different from mine, or from other books and manuscripts I’ve read. A book with a very strong voice feels like it couldn’t possibly have been written by anyone else, and that’s what editors are always on the lookout for. Some great examples I’ve read or worked on recently include Alice Oseman’s Solitaire, Kiera Cass’s The Selection, and Ruta Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea. Which are all very different books in very different genres! But in many ways, voice is a quality that transcends genres or categories.
SPL: Can you elaborate on why a writer’s voice is not the same thing as their character’s voice?
SS: Your voice as a writer is going to (and should) suffuse everything you write, even as you grow in your career and transition from book to book. Each character you write, especially your protagonists and POV characters, is going to exhibit a particular facet of that voice, and show some qualities of your personality as a writer while de-emphasizing others. Your characters will all feel like part of you, to an extent – but they should also feel like individual people with their own personalities. To go back to an earlier example: Salt to the Sea does this brilliantly. It’s narrated by several characters in alternating first-person POVs, and that sounds like it should be confusing, but it isn’t, because Ruta Sepetys has such a fantastic handle on who each of those characters is, and what makes them different from one another.
SPL: So many aspiring authors spend years on their first manuscript, only to see it rejected, and then they give up. But you had some encouragement for us: “Your writing career doesn’t have to be linear.” Why is this, and how much time should an author spend querying their first book before moving on to a new project?
SS: So much of publishing is about timing. Sometimes the first thing you write is something that just doesn’t have a place in the market right now, or not as strong of a place as it would at another moment. But that’s fine – because a few years down the line, the market will change, and who knows what it will be the right moment for, then? This can happen to already-published authors, too, when they’re deciding what to pursue as their next project. So don’t let it discourage you.
As for how long you should wait – don’t! Write at whatever pace you’re inspired to write. You can be working on your next manuscript while your first one is out on queries to agents. You’ll keep learning and progressing as a writer with each book you write, and you never know which book is going to be the right first book at the right time.
SPL: Let’s dive deeper into the business of publishing. You said, “The entire publishing industry runs on trust and faith.” What does that mean?
SS: In a way this goes back to timing. Books are often published with very long lead times. It’s generally several years from the time you finish your first draft to the time the book is available on store shelves. And as much as we all wish we had a crystal ball that could tell us what the next big trend will be, or what readers will be interested in two or three or four years from now… we don’t. So even though we love a manuscript, and our colleagues love it, and we think the author is wonderful – we’re still taking a chance. You never know what’s going to succeed once it’s out there in the world. All we can do is try to set it up with the best chance possible, and then wait and see. So every time we acquire a book, we’re operating on things like experience and business sense and feedback from our colleagues, but we’re also operating a bit on faith.
SPL: What makes you want to put your faith in a first-time author?
SS: It all comes down to passion. The author’s passion for their book and for building their career, and my passion for the book, too. One of my favorite parts of being in this industry is that feeling of falling in love with a new manuscript, of realizing that there’s something special on these pages; and when I get that feeling with a manuscript submission, I know that it’s something I want to work on, and something I’m going to be able to help make stronger, and something I’m going to be able to champion both within the house and outside of it.
SPL: Any final words of wisdom for SCBWI’s aspiring authors?
SS: This is a long game, and everything you do – reading, writing, just living – is a move that may eventually help you get where you want to go. So keep writing, and keep trying new things, and you’ll keep increasing the chances that you’ll find yourself with the right project in the right place at the right time.
SPL: Do you have any speaking engagements to plug or upcoming book releases we need to grab?
I can’t not take an opportunity to plug one of our upcoming books, which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on: My Lady Jane, by Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows. We’ve been calling it a YA version of The Princess Bride and, well, that’s not something I say lightly. Prepare to laugh, cry, and fall head over heels in love. 🙂
Stephanie Stein is an Associate Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Other titles include gamer, coffee snob, hockey fan, and total nerd. She edits and is acquiring middle grade and YA books. She loves books with snarky banter, unconventional narrative structure/points of view, and inventive worlds you want to live in, and is always looking for diverse characters, stories, and settings. While she does admit to a major geeky affinity for fantasy and science fiction, she is open to considering most genres, from contemporary romance to action/adventure. Find her, and her manuscript wishlist, online at stephanie-stein.tumblr.com and @stephlystein.
Sarah Parker-Lee is managing co-editor of Kite Tales, reviews books for Dwarf+Giant, & writes for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs. She also writes YA alt. history & sci-fi. Her humor blog, Dogs and Zombies: A Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, shambles towards your tasty brains Summer 2016. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel
Writer’s Day 2016 Photos by Nicole von Buelow.
Stephanie Stein’s photos used by permission.