Karen Chaplin began her publishing career at Scholastic. She was an editor at Puffin Books/Penguin Young Readers Group for six years before she moved to HarperCollins Children’s Books, where she is currently a senior editor of picture book, middle grade, and young adult fiction and nonfiction. Karen received her undergraduate degree in English from the University of Delaware, and her MA in English from Simmons College. When she’s not working, she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, finding DIY projects to do, and dabbling in photography. She also has graciously offered to do a Q&A with us!
Sarah Parker-Lee: As an editor, it’s your job to take a writer’s labor of love and not just fine-tune it but take it to the next level. What are you looking for when you first begin this process?
Karen Chaplin: One of the first things I look for in a manuscript is voice. The voice of the story, of the main character, of all the characters, really needs to draw me in from the first few pages, and if that happens, then the author has got me hooked. Plot points, character issues, the ending—all of that can be modified. But the voice is difficult to accomplish, and if an author nails that, it’s a fantastic start.
SPL: Any advice for writers working with an editor, whether they are first-timers or old pros?
KC: I think having an open mind and being willing to have a conversation is really important. I tend to ask a lot of questions when I edit, which serves different purposes. First, I am trying to clarify something I don’t understand or need more information about, but second, I’m trying to elicit a different way of thinking about the narrative. Why did a character do X? Was it because of this, or maybe this? I’m trying to start a conversation with the author about motivation or reason or purpose, and in that conversation, oftentimes the author and I spark other ideas that lead to new plot points or characters.
KC: Jennifer is the best! I had so much fun working on her Guardian Herd middle-grade fantasy series (and her new middle-grade trilogy!). Sometimes the purpose of characters isn’t as clear as it could be, and I often find myself becoming smitten with a smaller character who I just want to see more of. And a lot of times I see purpose in those characters to draw out feelings or plot points that enrich the rest of the story. Again, it was all about having that conversation, asking the author what she meant by Morningleaf’s character, and how we could draw that out more.
SPL: “Voice” is something we hear about all the time – whether it’s a character’s voice or the author’s – rather than ask you to define it, can you give us a few tips to help us define it for ourselves?
KC: Yes! Voice, again, is just so important! I think being true to yourself, writing from the gut and not to a trend or something you think agents and editors want to see is the best way to hone your voice as a writer. And in terms of character voice, I think paying attention to teens or tweens out there, listening to what is important to them and transferring those ideas into your own characters can help hone that voice.
SPL: Your work as an editor involves almost as much solo time as an author, but you’re working on multiple fronts for each project. Do you have some advice for managing time and staying focused – both things that are often troublesome for writers?
KC: Writers should not feel alone in this. Editors, as you say, are working on multiple projects at all times. I think managing time for anyone these days is difficult. For me, I usually make lots of lists and personal schedules for myself to keep really organized. That is key for the way I work, and for staying focused and on task. It’s hard, no doubt, and we all slip here and there. But if you love what you do, and you love your authors, like I know most people I know in this industry do, it makes it just a bit easier.
SPL: In this Chiseled in Rock interview, you mention the YA marketplace “…is a constantly changing entity. I think the minute you start thinking you know everything, something changes and the market shifts. Tastes are fickle, and what was once the hottest thing could start to be on a downtrend.” Does that mean you aren’t looking for “trends” when acquiring and editing projects? Or is that always in the back of your mind?
KC: Trends are always in the back of my mind, but to me, what is most important is the quality of writing and the fundamental story. I’m not going to acquire a manuscript just because it’s on trend. I need to love it, I need to identify how it fits in the market and for what kind of reader, and I hope I am choosing stories that I think have a long life, not just to be a flash in the pan.
SPL: Are there other resources, be they books, classes, websites, etc., you’d recommend writers check out?
KC: I think the most important thing for a writer to do is just write. The second most important thing for writers to do is read, read, read, especially in the category in which they want to write. Writing is a craft, and you need to hone that craft with practice. And you need to see what others have accomplished, how they have written their story. I also think joining a writing/critique group could be helpful to talk things out, work though plot issues, and just commiserate about writing in general.
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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: Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies