Q&A: Zareen Jaffery, Simon & Schuster, Part III

Welcome to  the third part of our four-part Q&A series on diversity in publishing with Simon & Schuster Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here, and Part 4 here.

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Aisha: For others who wish to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you offer to readers who may want to work in the publishing world as an editor? 

Zareen: Internships or graduate publishing programs are the most direct way to get a foot in the door. Though that wasn’t my path. (The story of how I got into publishing is here.) Other than that, I would recommend informational interviews, and staying on top of job listings and industry news via GalleyCat, PW Children’s Bookshelf, or Publisher’s Lunch. Reaching out to anyone you know who is in the publishing industry or who knows someone in the publishing industry helps, too.

I would also suggest that anyone interested in editing consider the agenting side of things. Literary agents do a fair amount of editorial work before a manuscript is ever submitted (this goes back to the insane amount of competition submissions face once they hit an editor’s desk—an agent wants to make sure the project they represent is polished enough to stand out).

And consider different departments within the publishing house. It’s not all editors! Looking for an entry-level position in marketing, publicity, school and library, subrights, production can really widen the net and either lead you to the discovery that you love those roles, or give you an inside track on editorial assistant positions as they open up. I would caution, though, that during the interview process for those positions you don’t mention your ultimate desire to be an editor. It would be hard for someone to hire you if they felt like you’d be leaving the first chance you got! Better, and still honest, to say you’re interested in publishing and excited to learn about all different parts of the business.

Aisha: What advice do you have for aspiring writers of Muslim or non-majority narratives?

Zareen: The advice I’d give to aspiring writers of Muslim or non-majority narratives is the same advice I’d give to any aspiring writer:

Keep writing! Write that first novel. Revise it. Revise it again. Query agents. If no one bites, or if you get an agent, but don’t sell your work, start another project. Acknowledge that there is a personal value to your writing, and that continual practice feeds your creative aspirations. Most published writers have one (or two or three or four) novels in a drawer that they were unable to get published. Keep at it!

Listen to your critics. Art is subjective so there isn’t a right or wrong way to tell a story, BUT (all caps BUT) sometimes what authors are trying to convey is not clear. Listen to people who give you notes, especially if different people give you the same note. You don’t have to revise your manuscript into something that addresses everyone’s concerns. If you’re getting similar feedback, though, it is probably pointing to an underlying flaw that you need to address.

Do your homework. If you want to get published by one of the Big Five publishers (Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette), knowledge of the marketplace is essential. This doesn’t mean you have to chase trends, just be aware of what is out there in the category you’d like to publish into. (And by category I mean story-specific, i.e. gothic middle grade standalone, teen thriller, epic fantasy, etc.) This gives you a sense of the current standard for accessible writing, and a better understanding of what your audience is reading and enjoying. There is something to be learned from this research that you can bring with you as you revise. In speaking about children’s literature, maybe it’s a deeper grasp of an authentic “teen” voice, for example. As a side note, when a writer says they are working on a manuscript that is like “nothing else out there” it’s a big red flag for me. More often than not, what that communicates to someone whose career has been selling books is that you haven’t done your research. Your story might be unique, it still has to appeal to an existing readership, otherwise why bother trying to get published by a traditional publishing house? If your work is avant-garde, then by definition it should go to a more experimental publisher whose financial expectations (and advances) are in line with the limited potential audience.

Don’t become a writer to make money. Seriously. It is the opposite of a get rich quick scheme. It is a ton of work, and an enormous gamble to expect a financial return beyond the advance a publisher pays you, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to sell your book in the first place. Writing may feed your creative spirit, but it’s not going to feed you literally. My friend Emily wrote a great essay about her finances during her time as a full-time author, which is up on Medium. Few authors are able to survive financially on the money they make from writing alone. Do it for the love of storytelling, and keep your day job.

Form a community of writers.  Writing is a solitary endeavor, and it’s helpful to surround yourself with people who have the same goals and face the same challenges. It’s also nice to have critique partners whose opinion you respect. Seek out people who are equally passionate about telling stories.

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For the rest of our Q&A series with Zareen, you can find Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 4 here. You can leave comments by clicking the speech bubble on the bottom left.

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zareenBio

 Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery has over a decade of experience in publishing, and joined Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in February 2011. Her focus remains acquiring commercial and literary young adult and middle grade fiction, as well as teen non-fiction. Zareen works with a number of New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed authors including Jenny Han, Siobhan Vivian, Kresley Cole, Sheila Bair, Claire Legrand, Hilary Duff, and Becca Fitzpatrick. Her recently published projects include a debut middle grade series by Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer and a memoir by Shyima Hall, a former child slave. Zareen began her children’s publishing career at HarperCollins Children’s Books editing bestselling novelists Lauren Conrad (L.A. Candy), Jodi Lynn Anderson (Tiger Lily), LJ Smith (The Vampire Diaries), and Claudia Gray (Evernight). Prior to working in children’s publishing, she was an editor of fiction and non-fiction at Hyperion, the book publishing arm of The Walt Disney Company, where she worked with notable authors Amy Goodman (Standing Up to the Madness), Marshall Goldsmith (What Got You Here Won’t Get You There), Jon Kabat-Zinn (Arriving at Your Own Door) and Paulina Porizkova (A Model Summer). Zareen is a graduate of New York University.

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Latest Comments

  1. Zame Khan says:

    Hello Zareen,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I’m humbled by the opportunity to ask questions of a New York City editor and won’t waste the opportunity:

    1. What general mistakes do you see in a first time writers work

    2. Which additional editing skills should a writer acquire before submitting

    3. Which editing books or courses would you recommend for new writers

    4. Can a writer learn to edit their own work

    5. What should a writer look for in their editor

    6. Do you apply different editing skills to fiction and non-fiction

    7. Where and how did you acquire your editing skills

    Thanks again,

    Zame

    1. Zareen Jaffery says:

      Happy to share what knowledge I have! Editing is an art, not a science, and every editor works a little differently. Hope my answers are helpful!

      1. What general mistakes do you see in a first time writer’s work
      • Clunky dialogue, exposition in the form of dialogue, unnecessary details, lack of sentence structure variation
      • A plot that drags in the middle, then falls apart (or comes together too quickly) in the end
      • Overuse of literary devices (alliteration, metaphors, similes, lists). These are meant to add emphasis in text. When there is a simile on every other page, all it’s emphasizing is the author’s love of similes.
      • All of the above are symptoms of not revising enough before submitting a draft, and not reading your work out loud to yourself (which is a great editing tip. If you read it out loud and you’re stumbling over it, or it has no flow, or just sounds stiff, odds are you need to revise it.)
      2. Which additional editing skills should a writer acquire before submitting
      • Editing skills come from close reading of text, so I would suggest coming up with a targeted list of authors you admire and studying how they do what they do. In my opinion: Close reading requires a minimum of three reads of any text. The first time for pleasure (though keeping in mind what scenes, lines, characters stood out). The second time, read only the first two chapters and the last two chapters. Think about why the writer chose to start that way and end that way. Finally, go back to those scenes that stayed with you in your first read and pay attention to what the writer did to make an impact. Word choice? Scene setting? Dialogue?
      3. Which editing books or courses would you recommend for new writers
      • There are lots of great books about writing. My all-time favorites are BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott and ON WRITING by Stephen King. One of my new favorites is STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST by Austin Kleon.
      • In terms of grammar, I like the old standby STRUNK AND WHITE: ELEMENTS OF STYLE. The caveat being: you can make choices that break the rules of grammar, but you have to know the rules in order to break them in an intelligent, creative, and deliberate way.
      4. Can a writer learn to edit their own work
      • A writer absolutely needs to learn how to edit their own work. Understanding how other writers have done it is part of the process. Also giving yourself time between finishing a draft and going back to revise is another important step. That time away from the work gives you some distance to see things more clearly and objectively.
      • That being said, at a certain point, a writer has been working on something for so long and no longer sees the forest for the trees. That’s why having an editor is important. (And in reality, a published author has more than one editor. My role in the company is acquisitions and developmental editing. There are also copyeditors and proofreaders.)
      5. What should a writer look for in their editor
      • A shared vision for the book. That sounds vague, so let me try to come up with a hypothetical. For instance, say an author wrote a book about friendship with three main protagonists. But when an editor read the book, the editor felt like one of the three didn’t need to be there because their role was mostly passive, reacting to what was going on with the other two. In the editor’s vision, the book is about friendship, and it’s being conveyed via two characters. In discussing with the author, the editor expresses the concern. And if the author and editor share a vision for the book, the author considers this and either revises the third character to have more of a role, or folds the character into one of the other two, so it’s a dual narrative. This is a weirdly extreme example, but you get the gist! (I hope!)
      • A writer also needs to feel comfortable with an editor. This is creative work and requires a fair amount of collaboration. You’re not always going to agree, and should feel comfortable talking out concerns. Like in the above example, I’d MUCH prefer an author to tell me she wants to keep the third character and rework her to make her more relevant, than to just roll over and do what I say if that’s not what she wants. Does that make sense?

      6. Do you apply different editing skills to fiction and non-fiction
      • Yes and no. Fiction and narrative non-fiction have a lot more commonalties than advice/how-to etc. For the purposes of this question, I’m just going to assume you meant editing fiction and narrative non-fiction.
      • The yes: For both novels and memoirs I consider diction, structure, pacing, and “character” development. The “character” is in quotes because in memoirs, the characters are real people. While there isn’t room to change what happened in the story in memoirs, when I think about character development for those stories I often ask writers to include “emotional check-ins” with the “characters” so the reader can better understand what they were going through at each step of the story.
      • The no: the big, obvious no is plot. With fiction, I often make suggestions on what could happen to get the characters and story where we need it to go. You can easily see why that’s not appropriate for memoir/narrative non-fiction.
      7. Where and how did you acquire your editing skills
      • I am an acquisitions editor and a developmental editor, which means I seek out talent, and then work with them on big-picture issues. Developmental editing is largely an apprenticeship, though you are given an manuscript test for most editorial assistant positions so you have to come in with some level of talent. (This is acquired via close reading, as referenced above. I wasn’t an English major in college, but I was really into reading fiction, so close reading was second nature to me.) In terms of my professional life, I learned most my skills from the editors I worked with over the years. I also learned a lot from the authors I’ve worked with over the years. Each writer is different, has different needs and goals for their books. It’s a creative endeavor, so there aren’t a lot of rules. Some authors like long editorial letters that separate out character development, structure, plot. Some prefer long brainstorming calls to talk through the changes that are needed. It’s a constant learning experience for me, and one of the best parts of my job.

  2. Kaye says:

    Thank you so much for doing this, Zareen! I am pretty sure that I either want to do something in terms of library science or publishing. I’m currently in an internship with a literary agent, but while discussing things with her, I wasn’t completely sure if I wanted to take a publishing course. Does not taking a publishing course block my path in any way? Can experience help me apply for entry-level positions?

    Also, does remote internships hinder my opportunities – ie. no office experience?

    1. Zareen Jaffery says:

      Hi Kaye!

      I never took a publishing course, though several of the editorial assistants here have taken one at either NYU or Columbia. The publisher of the imprint I work for actually teaches at NYU. The benefit of these courses is not only an intensive education in the business, but it’s a fantastic way to network. The reason I didn’t take one starting out was because I didn’t know they existed, but even having known, I don’t think I would have wanted to spend the money on more schooling!

      Interning with an agent is a great step towards a career in publishing. Remote internships do hinder opportunities, but not because of a lack of office experience. When applying to jobs at the Big Five publishers, applicants are at a big advantage if they are already in New York, so that once they are interviewed and approved, they can start work immediately. If you’re comfortable doing this, you might want to ask the agent you work for to let the editors she works with know that she has a fantastic intern looking for an editorial assistant job. Having that recommendation from someone you work with (as an editor, I value the opinion of agents I work with) goes a long way towards opening doors.

      I hope that is helpful!

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