HarperCollins Associate Editor, Alyssa Miele, loves fiction chock-full of strong, flawed, and loveable characters whose stories stay with her long after she’s earmarked, underlined, and reread the heck out of them. From commercial to literary, queer to straight, and everything in between, Alyssa loves books that inspire, haunt, and captivate. Alyssa’s recent projects include Changes in Latitudes by Jen Malone, Confidentially Yours: Vanessa’s Design Dilemma by Jo Whittemore and The Arrival of Someday (working title) by Jen Malone (Summer ’19). Alyssa was on faculty for this year’s Los Angeles Working Writers Retreat and spent a weekend in Encino with our members as they dove into their writing and tweaked, polished, and maybe even dismantled their projects. For tips, insights, and music to edit by, keep reading!
Sarah Parker-Lee: As faculty for the WWR, you gave feedback on attendees’ work, but you also had to share space with them for a weekend. Did that change how you approached critiquing? What is your “critique style?”
Alyssa Miele: Meaning, is it hard to critique someone’s writing when they could potentially be sleeping next door to you? Ha! I don’t think that occurred to me until after the first few group critiques, when, heading back to my room, I saw some of the writers walking to their rooms along the same walkway as mine. And of course we share meals and social hours, which really turned out to be a rewarding experience for me. But to answer your question, no, it didn’t change my approach. We’re all adults and, whether writer, agent, or editor, we’re all there to get better in some way or another. I got a very good vibe from the writers. In between critiques, everyone was conscious of giving you your time and space to recharge for the next critique group.
My “style” is pretty laid back. I tried to avoid ever sitting at “the head” of the table. I tried to have the writers open up the conversation before I would give my two cents…I very much believe that I was a guest, allowed into their sacred writing retreat environment, and I wanted them to feel like I came with the upmost respect for their time, their writing, and their process. I didn’t want anyone to feel or think I was the end-all be-all of advice, because the truth is that everything they do, and everything I say, is subjective. So I’m very much of the mind that — here is what I think, but if that doesn’t track with what your vision is, let’s hear some other opinions. I know I bring marketplace and publishing experience to the table, so I hope they could find helpful takeaways in that part of my critiquing, but other writers at the table provided helpful insight, too.
SPL: Critiques can be a hard experience for a writer, to give and to receive, but are super necessary. Any tips on how to stay open, be honest, and choose wisely?
AM: Yes they can be! I sympathize with the hard position they all (and any writer who goes through critiques) put themselves in. It’s a vulnerable experience to be a part of — to agonize over a piece of writing and then offer it up to a bunch of strangers to dissect. I would just say that you can take comfort in the fact that every writer goes through this part of the process, whether published or unpublished. It’s a mile-marker that no one can avoid. Even if you’ve “made it” and landed that book deal, you still have your beta readers, your editor’s editorial letter, and, ultimately, the reviews that come in afterward. You will never not be getting critiqued. And try to understand that it’s (hopefully always) coming from a good place of wanting to help you reach your full potential. If someone is reading your work and giving you feedback, they are also giving you their time and mind space to do so, and so maybe don’t automatically come back with retorts or excuses or explanations. Park the ego and sensitivity, and just keep your mind open…take some notes, ask follow-up questions if you have any, and then let it simmer.
I feel like sometimes writers will want to explain everything right there and then to their critiquers, but it’s not necessary. In fact, it’s probably too soon. I’m a big believer in letting things marinate for a while. Thank them and then go think on it. Ask yourself if they’re right — did it need this, did it need that? Do their suggestions make sense with your vision? Did more than one person say the same thing? And if so, might that mean something? Also think about it this way — better to address any issues or blind spots your work may have now then to let a trade reviewer point it out to prospective consumers, right?
SPL: What are some common pitfalls you see when a story is in trouble? What questions do you ask your writers, and we should ask ourselves, to diagnose the problem?
AM: I think overwriting is a common pitfall a lot of writers can fall into. And I mean two different things by that. First, overwriting because you’ve lost the point, the plot, the inspiration, etc, and now you’re just trying to find it on a highway of words with no exits in sight. I see it a lot in submissions — serious length — but then you read it, and you can see that whatever it was that they set out to write got lost somewhere. And instead of rereading it and honing in on those spots to cut and revise, they submit it hoping that someone will buy their quantity over quality.
I would ask myself as a writer, then, if each scene is necessary in propelling my character or my plot forward. Or is it just taking up space? Can these characters be combined? Can this scene be shorter? Spend a lot of time revising it. If the thought of rereading it feels too daunting, and you’d rather just send it to an agent, that may be a red flag that it’s too long!
The second type of overwriting I see is by muddling simple ideas with overly-complicated descriptions. I’ll be the first one to admit to doing it — I remember in college writing classes not having a clue what to write about, but figuring if I made it sound flowery and artistic that someone would be fooled into thinking it was deep. But the class would always tell me if it felt too verbose or if they didn’t know what was going on because they were caught up in my word blizzard. So I would task writers with reading their work aloud to themselves. If it feels like a mouthful, or if you are tripping over sentences, then it’s probably way overwritten (it’s also a great way of catching repetitions!).
SPL: Sometimes we end up with a story that is just not working. In your opinion, how would someone know if they need to dig in their heels and keep going, scrap a project and start over, or say goodbye to it entirely?
AM: I think you would know if you need to keep going with a story if it was still nagging at you long after you’d dismissed it, whispering in your ear during meetings, keeping you up while you’re trying to sleep, hearing it in the music that you’re listening to. If the general idea keeps coming back to haunt you, I think you need to figure out a way to give it life. Most likely, it’s the mechanics of the story that the writer is getting lost in — using a dual narrative when it can be one, starting off in the past when you can just jump into the present tense, or setting it in a fantasy world because you heard that trend is hot (all examples I have seen). Try taking it apart, killing your darlings, ditching that cool narrative device you learned about in your MFA program, and putting it back together in a different way. Speaking of trends, that’s actually when I think you need to say goodbye — when you’re writing to a trend. Because more than likely it’s not going to sound authentic and it’s probably not what you were setting out to write anyway.
SPL: One of your Manuscript Wishes is for a “new forever middle grade hero. Give me a queer, cursing, rascally boy in leopard, please.” How do you think kid lit is doing on the diversity front, especially when it comes to LGBTQIA characters? How can we do better?
AM: Ah, yes, “Chris” (played by Judah Lewis) from Demolition. I think he’s actually 14-15 years old in that movie, but he represents the kind of protagonist I would love to edit in middle grade. I do think we are seeing more queer characters crop up in middle grade, but it’s nowhere near close to what is offered in YA. I don’t know if people think that’s too early to start talking about sexuality or what (I know in my family, everyone’s up in arms about when the right time is to tell my six-year-old nephew about my “friend” that always comes around), but I think that YA is too late. Some kids deal with these questions and curiosities way before that, and the sooner they can find themselves represented in books and movies, the easier it will be for them and the circle of people that they come out to. And, hopefully, the more educated and accepting everyone else is. It’s all not that easy, I know, but that’s how I think we can continue to do better, by actively looking and asking for these characters in the stories we hope to publish. One step further — read what is out there for LGBTQIA to help yourself get a better sense of what’s working, what’s not, and where the gap is.
SPL: You clearly love music, as evidenced by your tweets! What’s a good playlist to get in the mood to edit a manuscript?
AM: Yes, I do! I believe I was a music supervisor in another life. For a publishing professional, I keep a lousy twitter feed. But it pleases me, so… But for editing, it really depends. If the manuscript is in need of a lot of help, movie scores often help me concentrate better. Philip Glass, Disasterpeace, Mica Levi, and Thomas Newman are great for that. Or any artist who has a good selection of just instrumental work, like Kodomo, Aphex Twin, and Susumu Yokota.
Otherwise, if I feel I have a pretty good handle on the manuscript, or if it’s the second or third revision of it, I’ll dip in to the parts of my playlists that incorporate lyrics with tamer instrumentals. For those, it’s stuff like Brian Jonestown Massacre, Air, Fever Ray, Cat Stevens, Tricky, Kishi Bashi, Velvet Underground, Massive Attack, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, the Cure… I could go on, but I don’t want to bore the people who are reading this for the publishing stuff! And it would be a lie to say I’m strict on sticking to this because I am really bad about jumping around with music. As, like you said, evidenced by my tweets!
SPL: Finally, any new projects, appearances, or events to tout?
AM: My new deal with my author Jen Malone was just announced a week or so back. It’s tentatively titled The Arrival of Someday. It’s a YA contemporary about a girl, Amelia, who was born with a liver disorder that has been quiet most of her life — not really affecting her day-to-day — but she’s grown up with the knowledge that later in life it may act up in a very serious way. And so when it does, Amelia has to adjust to things like not being able to participate in her roller derby team, waiting for a stranger with a liver donation to save her life, and reconciling how special everyone is treating her with how completely unremarkable she, as an average (yet dying) teen, feels. It’s rich with the things I love best — complex characters, relationships, and emotions.
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Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: A Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies
Images provided by Alyssa Miele, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Fox Searchlight .