Pam Gruber is a Senior Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers where she has worked on everything from novelty and picture books to novels. She primarily acquires middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She loves alternate histories, off-beat teen romances, witty voices that can make her laugh and cry simultaneously, and stories of characters being asked to see their world in a different way. She is also on the faculty for this year’s Los Angeles SCBWI Writers and Illustrators Day (Feb. 25th) where she will deliver a keynote and lead a breakout session on immersive world-building. For a great preview and insights from an editor-extraordinaire (and cute cat photos!), read on:
SARAH PARKER-LEE: Your list includes a hybrid graphic-novel series, VIP by Jen Calonita, Claudia Gray’s new space opera, Defy the Stars, and YouTuber Josh Sundquist’s debut novel, Love and First Sight. You certainly don’t dwell in traditional spaces for content or creator! What makes you want to take a risk on non-traditional projects? What’s the difference between non-traditional and straight-up gimmicky?
PAM GRUBER: I’m definitely drawn to projects that feel different—different from what’s out there already, and different from the other books on my list (that way, I never get bored!). The market is crowded and competitive, so I’m looking for something that will stand out. I also like authors and stories that have something new to say, be that through the format, the characters, or the author’s own background and how that influences their storytelling. That said, I’ve realized that most of the books I edit have one major theme in common—a main character being asked to look at his/her world in a different way, being forced to examine his/her assumptions. And I think that’s a reflection of what I’m looking for when reading submissions in general. I gravitate towards stories that offer a new perspective and challenge me to approach the editorial process in a new way. The difference between non-traditional and gimmicky, then, comes down to authenticity. I have to ask myself, “Does this truly feel like the right format for this story?” You can’t shoehorn graphic novel elements into just any book, for example, it has to feel like a natural extension of the narrative. There’s also the question of the author’s authenticity. Meaning, can I tell if the writer is passionate about telling this story in particular, or are they just writing it because it seems like it could sell? I’m a pretty cynical person sometimes, but I don’t like cynical publishing.
SPL: Novl, an arguably nontraditional Little, Brown imprint, started in 2013 as a social media portal for your authors and has since become a place to find new books and stories that “build upon a world” already created by an author. It still relies heavily on social media and fan-input. Over the course of this lovely experiment-turned-community, what have you learned about fostering the relationship between author and reader? Should social media impact the way authors approach their projects?
PG: What’s great about the novellas we publish through NOVL are that they really are for the fans. We’re not necessarily trying to hook new readers (although it’s great when that happens!), but we’re creating the content as an extra treat. It’s also really fun for the authors! And in a world so connected by social media, it’s only natural that the fans are going to have some influence on what’s being written. These novellas come together very quickly and sometimes the author will write one specifically to satisfy a fan craving—telling a particular backstory, or giving a glimpse into the life of a favorite side character—especially if he/she sees that topic gathering steam online. I think the novels themselves are less impacted by social media conversation (unless there’s uproar), but the novellas offer a nice space for everyone to play together.
SPL: Speaking of building worlds, you’ll be leading a workshop intensive on world-building at SCBWI Los Angeles’s Writers and Illustrators Day. What are some questions you wish writers would ask themselves before they begin writing a whole new world?
PG: Before you begin, the most important thing to ask yourself is whether you’re crafting a world to suit your story, or a story to suit your world. Hint: It should be the former! If you think you’re falling into the latter camp, consider the plot in more detail, then go back and adjust the world to fit. You might have to lose some of your favorite elements, but you can save them for a future book. 🙂 Take the time to run through and/or jot down as much about the world as you can. For instance, how does this society function? Think about how people live, about their history, how different social classes interact, and what the politics are like. What is the geography like, even, and how will that impact your characters’ movements throughout the story? And so forth… Whether a story is set in a real place or an imagined one, you need to establish your characters’ world so that the reader can suspend any disbelief and fully engage with their story.
SPL: Your Twitter bio says you’re an “amateur DnD player.” That’s on my list to try as I’m a huge fantasy nerd and love tabletop/deck-building games, but somehow missed the Dungeons and Dragons boat. DnD is about world-building and community (I’m sensing a theme). What role do you think community plays in world-building, be it the author’s community or that of the world being created?
PG: Community is a huge part of world-building! Just think about the world we live in now, even your own town. You’d be hard-pressed to describe it without telling me about the people. You can barely describe the geography without describing a community’s impact (houses, roads, etc.). In my opinion, the best world-building is done through the characters themselves: how they interact with each other, with their surroundings, with their laws, etc. World-building shouldn’t necessarily be spelled out on the page, but illustrated through the actions of the characters and how they affect their community, or how their community affects them.
In terms of the author’s community, this can be useful in a couple of ways. The first is via the old adage of “write what you know.” I don’t think this is always meant literally (like, set your story in your backyard and write about yourself), but is a call for writers to take inspiration from their own communities and translate that experience into fictional worlds—however fantastic—to make them feel real, grounded in some truth. The second way is through critique groups. Now, those are great communities. I’d always advise using a critique group to troubleshoot your world-building. I actually play DnD with a couple of other children’s book editors, so there’s my community for you, and we can get pretty side-tracked by world-building as a group!
SPL: Do you have any upcoming projects or speaking engagements you’d like to share? Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
PG: I’ll be holed up in my metaphorical editing cave for a while, so no upcoming appearances to speak of (other than WID tomorrow). I do, however, have a few novels coming out this spring that I am super excited about and which I’d highly recommend to anyone reading this blog post: Seven Days of You by Cecilia Vinesse, for the contemporary romance reader looking for a taste of Tokyo; Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray for the sci-fi fan interested in AI; and The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones for Lovecraftian horror aficionados or anyone needing a Stranger Things-esque fix.
In terms of other advice to share… Read often and read widely—even, or maybe especially, outside of the genre that you write. You never know what you can learn about the craft of storytelling by reading the work of an author whose novels are vastly different from your own.
SPL: Twitter also says you’re a “crazy cat lady.” I love my cat a little too much too. I’ll share a photo of Pharnsworth if you’ll share one of yours!
PG: OMG, the look on Pharnsworth’s face is killing me! And that is a fantastic cat name, by the way. These are my two felines:
The Los Angeles Writers & Illustrators Day event is technically full, but there is a small chance walk-ins may be welcome at the event if we have no-shows. More info here.
Photos & Book Covers Provided by Pam Gruber. (Except Pharnsworth’s photo, provided by Sarah Parker-Lee)
Sarah Parker-Lee is Managing Editor of Kite Tales, book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, & content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs. She’s also available to edit your novels & writerly endeavors. She 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 April 24th, 2017. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel