Complete Idiots Guide to Publishing Children's Books, editing, Eileen Robinson, Harold Underdown, Highlights Foundation, Kid's Book Revision, process, publishing, revising, revision grid, The Purple Crayon, WD2020, writing
Harold Underdown is an independent editor and publishing consultant, with over 30 years of experience in children’s publishing. He’s the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing and has worked as an in-house editor for Macmillan, Orchard, and Charlesbridge. The collegiate atmosphere of publishing is what drew him to editing and developed his passion for helping writers bring out their vision.
He will be sharing his expertise at Writers Day on March 28 and leading a pre-conference revision workshop for those lucky enough to have grabbed a spot. (You can sign up for the waitlist here.) He’s also been generous enough to share some tips with us at Kite Tales.
JESSICA CHRYSLER: You’ve been an editor in the children’s book industry for many years, how has publishing changed since you started? Has it changed for you as an editor?
HAROLD UNDERDOWN: When I started, which was in the late 80s, there were no personal computers or workstations in editorial. Editorial work was done more or less like it had been done since the 19th century. Manuscripts would be sent in by authors, then sent to type houses, and then the type houses would send us the galleys. Gradually everyone got a personal computer with a word processor. Then we could take manuscripts on disks. It’s a digital work flow now and that has changed how the business is run.
This change has also had an impact on writing. It used to be that when you had to make revisions in a manuscript, you had to either pull out entire chapters or sections and retype them, or retype your entire manuscript start to finish. And some people would do literal cutting and pasting so as to avoid having to retype. But nowadays, you put a draft of your MS into the computer and you can just modify that all the way along. This makes it possible to do revision much more extensively and repeatedly. It also makes longer manuscripts, especially longer fantasy novels, more acceptable. The work involved in turning a 300 page manuscript into a 300 page book is just not as great as it was, due to digital workflow. Yes, Harry Potter led to longer middle-grade and even YA novels, but digital workflow helped make that happen.
JC: Revising your own work can be difficult, especially if you have no idea where to start. What do you feel is the most difficult part of the revision process for writers? Is it different for editors?
HU: The most difficult part of the writing process is getting beyond the blank page. People are always talking about doing the horrible first draft. But once you’ve got something to react to then you can go from there. I know people who have taken their first draft, thrown it out completely, and retyped it from scratch—not even looking at the draft pages. But the process of having written it helped them work out the story they wanted to tell. After the rough draft, the most difficult thing is looking beyond what you think you’ve done to what you’ve really done and assessing that. It’s hard for editors too, because we also get emotionally involved in what we’re working on.
A related challenge for the editor is that we have to get inside the manuscript, this possibly massive 200 page manuscript, or even just a picture book, and feel how it’s working when we’ve never seen it before and know nothing about it. I often have to ease my way into it. I’ll read the first few chapters quickly and then go back and start over. I will also go through it a chunk at a time and take notes, but I won’t try to get through it all in one sitting.
JC: You also teach, both at the Highlights Foundation and your own masterclass at Kid’s Book Revisions with editor Eileen Robinson. Can you tell us about how your editing career grew into teaching?
HU: Working as an editor, I’ve developed an understanding of the writing and revision process. And I’ve developed techniques and tools that either I use myself or that I recommend to writers. The teaching grew out of that. I felt I had something to teach.
Eileen and I met at a conference 10 years ago and were both independent editors. We started teaching together because we thought it would be more fun than teaching on our own. Early on we did online work with people—helping them with their manuscripts by giving them two different perspectives. But we realized it made sense to also teach classes with basic techniques for writers to learn some dependable ways of editing their own work. So that when they come to us for editing we’re not just dealing with the same basic writing problems in every manuscript.
JC: Do you often find similar issues of craft that writers struggle with?
HU: Every writer has a different writing process, and they tend to get broken up into “plotters” and “pantsers,” but really people have many different processes, and that can vary from manuscript to manuscript as well. But what I do think that everybody struggles with—and this is also something editors do—is having written something and being deeply emotionally involved with it. How do you step back from it and develop the objectivity to see what’s wrong with it? Part of the problem is that it’s there on the page and it’s hard to imagine how it could be different because—there it is! You might know there’s something missing, but how do you get out of that feeling that what is on the page is fixed and impossible to change?
JC: Are there any tips you could share to help a writer get out of that headspace?
HU: One of the tools we always teach, which I’ll be teaching at the conference, is one I developed initially as a tool to help me. It’s a tool that I discovered other authors and editors use, but I call it “the revision grid.” I use it with chapters with multiple scenes, but you can also use it with picture books. It’s a way to break down the story at a scene level and make notes on basic things that happen: who are the characters in the scene; where does it take place; what’s the key development in the scene. I usually use an Excel document and make rows for the scenes and columns for the things I’m keeping track of. And if you go into sufficient detail, it puts the story in a different format so things can pop out at you—patterns that you might not have noticed otherwise.
Thank you, Harold, for your insights!
And if you want to learn more about revision, how to take a class with Harold, or stay up to date on the latest move between publishing houses, check out his website The Purple Crayon. For more information about the Highlights Foundation Revision Retreat you can visit the website here.
To learn more about WD 2020 (and sign up for the waitlist!), check out the regional events page.
For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.
Images provided by Harold Underdown.