Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
Kate is drawn to various genres: contemporary realistic, some historical, stories with fantastic elements mixed with everyday reality... and, above all, “stories with unforgettable characters full of heart and sass. Bonus points if you make me guffaw at my desk.”
Kate has worked with many aspiring writers at prestigious events, and “loves working with authors to shape their novels.” As you’ll see from Kate’s generous responses in the interview below, she goes the extra mile(s) for writers. Come meet Kate Harrison at the Pacific Coast Children’s Writer’s Workshop—and bring an irresistible story with you.
How would you characterize your personal focus and that of your publishing house?
I’m usually pulled in more by the power of a voice than by a specific theme. But I love coming-of-age stories that have a unique take on the experience—stories about a character reacting to a major life change or living outside the rules most kids have to live by. I also love realism with a touch of magic—“fantasy light”—and future dystopian. Dial in general looks for stories with a strong commercial hook, but with a literary spin. Strong writing is essential. The stories should have a certain weight—something that won’t feel dated in five years.
I work very closely with authors, usually going through several rewrites before the book is finished. A very intense process, but it’s amazing what can finally be revealed or just click the third time around! The editor-author relationship takes a lot of trust on both sides. In the end, it’s the author’s name on the book, but I hope I help them dig out the best version of their story and get to the heart of their characters. The goal, for me, is to find books that teen readers will remember well into adulthood, to help readers through a difficult time, make them think about an issue in a new way, or realize they’re not alone.
Describe some youth novels you’ve edited. What makes them appealing to you?
Peak by Roland Smith is about a boy who wants to be the youngest kid to climb Mount Everest, but must make difficult choices along the way. Smith is great at writing adventure stories that also have a ton of heart. Reading his books is almost like reading a movie—there’s not an extra word anywhere. Even the chapter titles are part of the story; you can’t help but get pulled in.
Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve is about a girl who lives on a farm where rhubarb tastes like chocolate, her best friend is a rhubarb plant, diamonds sprout from the ground, and it rains every Monday at 1:00. Then one Monday the rain stops, and Polly must figure out why, before all the plants shrivel. I was so pulled in by 11-year-old Polly’s voice—she was vulnerable but believed strongly in magic, and it was a completely unique, memorable premise.
Willow by Julia Hoban is about a 16-year-old driver in an accident that kills her parents. She survives, moves in with her brother, starts a new school, cuts herself to quiet the pain, and finally meets a boy who helps her find her way. Willow’s character feels real from the first page—we see a girl who is so vulnerable, whose world view is closely tied to her own recent tragedy. She’s always thinking, overanalyzing, wondering how everyone sees her. I wanted to both protect her and be friends with her right away.
What background do you bring to editing?
I love stories that explore family relationships and roles—there is so much material from every one of our families. I also love to laugh (my family is filled with unabashed punsters); humor is a powerful tool if an author can do it well.
I also went to an all-girls’ Catholic school, so it always intrigues me to see what high school was like for other people—people who could run into the boy they’re secretly obsessed with between Chemistry and Calculus. Maybe I’m living vicariously!
I first considered a publishing career in college, when I took a Children’s Literature writing course and devoted much more time to helping classmates with their writing than working on my own short stories. I’ve also done journalistic writing—I wrote for my high school and college newspapers, and interned at People magazine—so I appreciate being on the receiving end of edits (sometimes lots and lots of edits, not always worded kindly!) and always keep that perspective in mind when I’m writing editorial notes.
(General, Queries, Synopses, Manuscripts, Marketing)General
Some editors give preferential treatment to conference attendees’ submissions for one to three months after the event. How long after our event will you consider participants’ submissions?
Up to one year later—I’d rather have someone take the time to apply my feedback than rush a submission.
How many of a novel’s manuscript pages do you read before forming a conclusion about its appeal?
I often have an idea after just the first page, but [allow] at least five pages to get a fuller feel for the voice. In a requested submission [following a query and/or invitation to submit the full manuscript], I read 50 pages. Sometimes I’ll know after five, or sometimes I’ll read 50 and then skip to the end to see how the author tied everything up. Sometimes, I can’t put the manuscript down and read the whole thing in one sitting. That’s when I know it’s love!
What’s your usual time from submission to contract to publication?
It depends on what stage the manuscript is in when I first get it—sometimes I go through several revisions with an author before I sign it up. It’s important for the story to be as strong as it can be before I show it to my publisher, because I want her to get as excited about it as I am. If I show it to her before it’s ready, it can backfire.
As for contract to publication, again it depends. We work far in advance—we launch each list to our own sales, marketing, and publicity teams a full year before the publication date, and want a polished version of the manuscript to show them when we launch it. It helps build buzz and excitement for your book, and helps our publishing house think about how to market it. Sometimes a book must be on a list because of the subject matter (a Christmas book needs to go on a fall list, for instance), so that can affect the timing as well.
What’s your usual response time to queries? Do you consider unsolicited queries or those submitted without a referral?
Sometimes a response can take a long time, especially if I get a huge influx after a conference. I try to respond within four months, but can’t always do that! I do take unsolicited manuscripts, but only respond if I’m interested.
Some editors hardly read queries; others say queries are an important reflection on the author and the story. Which is true for you?
I notice a query if it does something unique and pulls me in. It can help grab my attention if I love the voice and style, because then I know the author is good at pulling out his or her hook. I always tell writers they should be able to describe in one sentence why I should read their book. A query is a good way to test whether you can do that, whether you really know the strengths of your story. So, composing the query can help the author as well as the editor. I don’t want a long query because the true test will be the actual manuscript.
What should authors avoid in queries?
Please don’t tell me that your children or grandchildren love the story. I’m sure they do, because they love you, but it doesn’t mean everyone else will! I can’t tell you how often writers include this comment in their queries.
Please state your synopsis guidelines and what makes a synopsis intriguing to you.
[In addition to our website’s guidelines,] I prefer 1.5 line spacing, one page. I really like these to be concise! As a reader, I don’t rely heavily on the synopsis; but, like the query, the synopsis can be a great exercise for authors to figure out the most important points of their novels.
Do you read the synopsis before or after reading a manuscript—or bypass the synopsis entirely?
I almost always read the synopsis last, if at all, because I am all about suspense and don’t want to see what’s coming! However, I’d rely on a synopsis if I have only sample chapters instead of the entire novel. In that case, the synopsis is very important.
Manuscript Elements and Edits
What are memorable, perhaps elusive, story qualities that hook you?
A great voice, with a style that feels rich and natural and easy to read. (Please leave the SAT vocabulary off the page!) A character who has depth and feels true, whose actions fit with everything her narration tells me. A nice balance of showing and telling. A plot that moves along quickly and builds at a steady pace, rather than feeling like a jumble of random events. A larger theme built into the story—done naturally and subtly, not in a way that feels like the author is preaching. A story that seems timeless, that won’t feel dated in five years.
Voice is often touted as a desirable element in fiction, yet it’s difficult to define (“I know it when I see it”). What does voice mean to you? How can it help create and/or define a character?
Writers are always frustrated by the “know it when I see it” line! But it’s very difficult to define what makes a voice great. For me, the main things are believability, empathy, and freshness. I should have a sense of your character from the first page, whether it’s through narration or actions.
Sometimes I ask writers to think what their main character would say if she were on a therapist’s couch—what makes her who she is, and what is the main conflict in her life. It helps to do character studies in order to find your voice, to figure out what your character likes and dislikes, where she’s coming from, what she wants. If you know the character well—even if some specific details you’ve come up with don’t make it to the page—studying your character really helps the voice come alive and feel real.
I recently finished Liar, which was amazing. The main trait of this character was lying, and the whole voice became unreliable as a result. So I as a reader felt the same way everyone around this character felt—unsure whether to trust her, yet falling for her claims time and time again, only to find out a few chapters later that it was all a lie. Ironically, I totally believed that she was an amazing liar—because she showed me that she was, she didn’t just tell me. Even though I didn’t always like her, I was intrigued by her and couldn’t put the book down.
What self-editing tips do you recommend to writers who aim to submit fiction to you? What are common flaws in novel manuscripts (including revisions) that you receive?
I always recommend that authors take a break from the novel after they revise it, then reread it after they’ve had some space. A lot can pop up after a break that you don’t notice when you’re too close to the story. I get suspicious if I get a revision back too quickly, because it makes me think the author didn’t put much thought into it. Take your time!
Reading your novel aloud can also help you find sections that drag or feel repetitive. The most common revision flaws are either plopping my notes right into the story or changing just very specific, tiny things without thinking about the novel as a whole. My notes are always only meant to be a jumping off point, to make an author think about why something may not be working. The best revisers take those notes and come up with their own solutions.
Please describe your approach to revision in an accepted manuscript—or one for which you’ve provided an editorial letter and invitation to re-submit.
Lots of revision still happens after a book is under contract. I’m working on a novel now (one under contract) that’s undergoing its third revision, and in every stage various characters have merged into a different one, the pacing has changed drastically, a character that was only showing up at the end is now woven in from the first chapter, even the main character’s name has changed. It went from a pretty violent drama to a book with an incredible love story at its heart.
It’s been really exciting to see it evolve into something completely different from anything the author has done before. He was so excited during this latest revision that he got up at 3 A.M. to write. Sometimes it takes a number of drafts for the story to click!
Are you a “hands-on editor,” a business-end editor, or both?
I am definitely a hands-on editor, and go through an intense editorial process with all the books I edit. But the state of publishing has changed, and all editors have to be business-minded these days too. Editors are basically your in-house advocates—we have to be able to “sell” your book to our in-house sales, marketing, and publicity teams, to get them excited about it and help them find the selling points of the book for their markets.
It’s not enough to create a beautiful book with an author—editors have to make sure that the book finds a place in the marketplace. If your first book sells a lot of copies in addition to getting great reviews, it makes it that much easier to sign up books two and three and really build you as an author.
What does your house do to market its books? In what ways should authors contribute?
Marketing varies book by book. All books are sent out to media for reviews and coverage, and sometimes we run print or online ads, set up book websites or create trailers, target bloggers, give away galleys, print posters or other fun giveaways. Our marketing can get incredibly creative—it’s fun to see what they come up with!
There is a lot authors can do to help the marketing these days; it really can make a big difference. One of the best things is to create a website that readers will want to visit. Having something changing and interactive, like a blog if you can keep up with it, or “bonus” items from your book, helps draw visitors. Sarah Dessen’s and John Green’s websites are great examples. Set up your own school visits, or do online research and find teen bloggers to send your book and start creating buzz. Go into your local bookstores and introduce yourself! People who work there will love meeting a local author, and often they’ll display your book prominently or set up an event with you. Anything you can do to get the word out helps.