Monday, July 26, 2010

Nick Eliopulos: An Exclusive SCBWI Team Blog Pre-Conference Interview

Nick Eliopulos is an Editor with Scholastic, following a 5-year stint with Random House Children’s Books. He has edited many middle-grade and young-adult titles, including the Tapestry series, The Pricker Boy, Unfamiliar Magic, and the Sons of Liberty graphic novel.

He has also worked on chapter books, cutting his teeth as an assistant on the Magic Tree House series. At Scholastic he is at work on the sequel to Dark Life and several forthcoming middle-grade projects.

Nick will be on faculty at the upcoming SCBWI International Summer Conference July 30 - Aug 2 in Los Angeles, CA. He'll be part of an editor panel on Friday afternoon, "From Your House to My House: What Makes Me Choose Your Book," will give a Saturday break out session on "Graphic Novels" and will lead a Sunday session on the "Rise of Genre Fiction."

I'm delighted at the opportunity to interview Nick in the final week's countdown to the conference!

Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview, Nick. I'm very excited to hear you speak at the conference! The first thing I want to ask is a question I hear a lot from my fellow writers who submit to conference manuscript critiques or contests: "They only want 15 (or 10, or 5) pages?" (I hear it even more from writers decrying first page critiques!) Most of the time these writers feel that the readers "aren't seeing enough" of their work to make a judgment.

When you read a manuscript on submission, how many pages do you read to know if you want to read more?

Nick: I commit to 30 pages as a general rule, but I often go beyond that.

The thing to remember is this: as an editor, I am looking for potential. I understand that your first 30 pages may not be your best 30 pages. More often that not, I’m going to want to cut 15 of those 30 anyway, because I am merciless with my green pencil.

You can tell a lot in 30 pages. If there’s a quality in the writing that makes me want to engage—even if the writing isn’t quite where it needs to be, but I can envision helping you get it there—then I keep reading. It’s my job to listen to my instincts and figure out whether you and I might click creatively and professionally.

Ideally, a first-page critique isn’t meant to give an assessment of the entire work by any means—certainly not when we’re talking about a novel. This sort of critique is a great opportunity for feedback on what kind of first impression your writing is making. But I can’t envision ever using the old Hollywood model of deciding whether to pass on a submission based entirely on a single page.

It’s worth mentioning that this is a major reason that publishers like Scholastic don’t accept unsolicited submissions. If we did, there’s no way I could commit to even 30 pages—even if reading submissions were all I had to do all day (and it’s not). I feel the system works—particularly for those who take advantage of the opportunities that the SCBWI and similar organizations provide.

Lee: Editors and Agents constantly talk about the importance of "voice" - yet it seems a very hard quality to explain. Do you have a working definition?

Nick: In simplest terms, I think of voice as a bridge from the author to the reader. It’s about your style, how you express yourself and your characters, how you choose to communicate.

I wonder if those involved in kids’ books fret over voice more than those in adult publishing? Because, allowing for some noteworthy exceptions, a children’s book involves an adult writer communicating with a child or teen reader. So the author has a lot to keep in mind when it comes to the voice. You don’t want to risk talking down to your readers. But the more sophisticated your voice, the more you potentially limit your audience. Can you write from the perspective of a teenager without sounding like a terminally uncool parent trying to ham it up? Can you bring a fresh, interesting spin to the “master storyteller” narrator the way Lemony Snicket does, without losing sight of the emotional core of your story?

It’s a tightrope walk, to be sure. And ultimately it’s more art than science. But every time you write out a single sentence, you are making choices about voice. The trick is that great authors, successful authors, they learn to make those choices consciously.

Lee: You're leading a session on graphic novels. What would be the three must-read graphic novels we could read to best prepare for your session?

Nick: "Scott Pilgrim" by Brian Lee O’Malley, for its adoption of Eastern/manga elements and its seamless blending of the fantastic and the mundane.

"Smile" by Raina Telgemeier, for its charm and grace and emotional insight.

"The Sons of Liberty" by Alexander & Joseph Lagos et al., for its inventive mix of commercial and educational appeal.

And if I could mention a nonfiction title as well: I think anyone interested in comics and graphic novels should read "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud. Even if you’ve been reading comics your whole life, even if you have an innate grasp of the medium, McCloud’s analyses and explorations are immensely useful.

Lee: From your perspective as an editor, and with an eye to acquiring a manuscript, how important is a writer's having or not having a website/ blog/ high facebook friend count/ gigantic twitter following / social media platform?

Nick: I can’t say that it makes much of a difference. If a manuscript doesn’t speak to me or doesn’t work for my group’s list, then knowing that the author has a big Twitter following isn’t going to change that. I might include that information when going to my bosses with a manuscript that I’d like to acquire, but it’s never more than icing on the cake at that point. And the cake has to be very good for the icing to matter.

(Which is perhaps where my metaphor falls apart, because in real life I have been known to eat icing by the spoonful.)

Lee: *snorts and laughs out loud*

Nick: If you’re a fantastic writer with nothing but a decade-old Friendster account you never figured out how to upload photos to, well, there’s plenty of time to teach you the ropes of online promotion once your manuscript is as strong as we can get it and moving through the production pipeline.

Do keep in mind, of course, that these are public venues. If you are published or hope to be published, it’s important to conduct yourself professionally on the web.

Lee: Do you have any advice for those attending the SCBWI Conference?

Nick: Remember that editors are people, too. We can offer insight into this industry, sure—but so much of our job is so very subjective. How any particular editor feels about your writing is a result of his or her personal interests and biases, as well as our idiosyncratic notions of where the market is and where it’s going. So if one of us doesn’t respond to your work the way you’d hoped, chin up. You only need one home run to win this ball game.

Literary agents, on the other hand, are sometimes robots, so you should accept their word as objective truth.


Lee: Okay, you're cracking me up! The SCBWI Conference will heat up Summertime in LA - to cool down, which drink would quench your thirst: Ice tea, or lemonade?

Nick: I’m more of a lemonade guy. But I’m originally from Florida, so the heat doesn’t scare me, and I never, ever put ice cubes in my coffee. Bring it on, LA!

And thanks, Lee, for the chance to be featured on your blog. It’s a great resource—one I wish had been around when I was a gay teen, wondering why I didn’t see myself represented in the books I read (except when I read between the lines).

Lee: Awww... shucks! Thank you for the kind words - the honor is mine!

You can hear Nick Eliopulos in person as well if you attend the SCBWI Summer Conference, which starts this Friday - you can still register!

Click on the SCBWI Team Blog logo above (or here) to check out all the pre-conference interviews with more luminaries from the world of Children's Literature on the Official SCBWI Conference Blog!


1 comment:

BookChic said...

Loved this interview!! I really enjoy reading interviews from those in the publishing biz- editors, agents, publicists- because they're just so interesting and really helpful to aspiring writers like me. Also, Nick is a total cutie and is completely right when he says your site rocks, Lee! Because it does- you're a great guy for running this site!