Monday, May 12, 2014

Editor Deborah Halverson: The Exclusive Pre-#LA14SCBWI Conference Interview

Author, Editor and 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference Faculty Deborah Halverson

Deborah Halverson spent a decade editing books for Harcourt Children's Books before becoming the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, the upcoming Writing New Adult Fiction, the two teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth, the picture book Letters to Santa, and three books in the “Remix” series for struggling readers. Deborah has been working with authors—bestsellers, veterans, debut, and aspiring—for over fifteen years. The books she’s edited have garnered awards and rave reviews, and many of the aspiring writers she’s coached have landed agent representation and lucrative book deals. Deborah is now a freelance editor, author, writing instructor, and the founder of the popular writers’ advice site She also serves on the advisory board for UC San Diego Extension “Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating” certificate program.

She'll be on faculty doing quite a bit of cool stuff at #LA14SCBWI, and I connected with her to find out more...

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Lee: Hi Deborah - so excited about the upcoming 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles, and thanks for taking the time to chat.

Deborah: Thanks, Lee. I love this annual conference. The first one I attended was in 1996, and here I am, eighteen years later, just as excited to get there.

Lee: From your perspective as an editor, the writer of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and an author of your own books for young readers, what do you think authors and illustrators can gain from attending the conference?

Deborah: A few years ago I “ordered” a writer, who was penning an MG story but who had no contact with other MG writers or knowledge of the industry, to attend this conference. He aye-ayed and then called me from the conference floor: “I have found my people.” We expand professionally and personally when we talk shop with people who share our passion. This conference brings in professionals to explain how this complex industry works. It brings in seasoned writers and editors to help you fill your writing toolbox. And it gathers around you a community rightly hailed for its supportiveness and enthusiasm. Attendees are educated, invigorated, and inspired. At any given moment during the conference, you’ll see a person whip out a laptop or notebook and set to work feverishly as ideas strike. I bring the same notebook every year and add to it, recording insightful quotes in green, tasks to follow-up on in black, new ideas in red, and general notes about the industry or writing strategies in blue. I’m in multicolored pen heaven.

Lee: I love that multi-colored strategy! (Scribbling a note to myself to try color-coding my notes, too.)

I've heard different perspectives on the "New Adult" category of fiction. Some say it's really stories for older high-schoolers, about people who are out of high school, in college and/or just starting to figure out the "real world." Others say it's mainly an excuse to take YA closer to erotica. Are they both right?

Deborah: I believe that saying New Adult fiction is just YA with sex is akin to saying Young Adult fiction is just stories of high school romance. Hook-ups of the heart play a part in most YA fiction, yes, but YA doesn’t exist to serve up young love. The YA category is well known for its breadth, with thrillers, fantasy, paranormal, historical, adventure, and issue-driven stories. What many people don’t realize is that the category scrabbled long and hard to get away from the “it’s just high school love and angst” dismissiveness that existed at the beginning of my children’s books career. 

New Adult fiction is going through a similar evolution, in a more compressed time frame. Romantic attraction becomes a significant part of life after puberty, and we enter a new phase of it when we leave the constraints of high school and parental oversight—as we should. NA fiction tells the stories of these young people who are finally free to explore their sexuality unfettered, so it includes more sexual activity. And because NA writers don’t have the gatekeepers of YA fiction looking over their shoulders, they can include that activity in juicy detail. The first big NA titles had their share of the sexy stuff, and that dominated the early NA offerings. But readers are making it clear that they want more in their stories about this time of life, and writers are vocal and active about offering more. You hear it all over social media and NA blogs ( is a fabulous one), and you see it in the comments sections at online book retailers. Mysteries, paranormal, thrillers, issue-driven NAs… writers know that if NA is to continue its evolution and thrive, it must do what YA did and push beyond the love stories—even as love storylines remain. 

New Adult fiction explores the hearts and the minds of 18- to 25-year-olds as they learn to live self-responsible lives, reaching up as high as first career forays. That’s a wide spectrum whose common foundation is the full, unrestricted exploration of self before settling into career and family. I’ve written an article for an upcoming SCBWI Bulletin that expands on this overlap of “mature YA” and NA and what it means for those people writing stories about older teens. Keep your eye out for that if you want to know more.

Lee: For our audience, I'll share that Deborah also has a new NA (New Adult) craft book coming out in July 2014 from Writer's Digest Books, Writing New Adult Fiction, which goes deep into techniques and the NA marketplace for indie publishers as well as those seeking traditional publication.

Having said that, please tell us more about what you'll be covering in your Friday breakout workshop on "New Adult Fiction."

Deborah: Many YA writers are interested in exploring what it means to be a teen after high school. I’ll cover New Adult Fiction as the next step in our young readers’ development to adulthood. These young people have distinct concerns and sensibilities that you can tap into just like you would for YA fiction. They are establishing new social circles, dealing with constant change and the stress that goes with that, learning financial responsibility, developing their own world views—all with brains not yet fully developed, so their risk-taking and decision-making skills are still lacking. Great fiction opportunities there! I’ll be sharing examples and, because I like tangible take-away, covering strategies for writing NA characters who feel authentic, situations that ring true to that age group, and storylines that intrigue fans of new adult fiction. 

Lee: Sounds indispensable for those wanting to write New Adult!

One of the incredible resources SCBWI offers members and conference attendees is the "Market Report" that you put together. Can you tell us more about what that is?

Deborah: Happy to! I sure love putting it together. Each summer I interview about 20 publishing insiders—editors, agents, sales VPs, institutional market reps, etc. We get into what’s selling and what’s being acquired, what’s being wished for, what’s not so popular, and what’s showing signs of potential upswing. I’m extremely grateful for their enthusiastic willingness, across the board, to give us this glimpse at the market from their seats. I combine their insights with my own research to create a market snapshot for attendees, which I’ll be presenting in a keynote at the Sunday morning gathering. I’ll also highlight big changes to the printed Market Survey, which is SCBWI’s list of publishers, their editors, and each house’s lists and submission policies. If a new imprint has been launched or there are new calls for submissions, I give all the details. Every attendee holds the most current version of that document as I talk about it.

Lee: After the three full conference days (Friday August 1, Saturday August 2 and Sunday August 3) there's a day of craft intensives on Monday August 4. There's one for illustrators, and the writers have a variety of expert classes to choose from. You're offering a morning intensive on "Crafting a Youthful Narrative Voice and Sensibility in MG/YA Fiction." I've heard many discussions about "voice" but this is the first time I've heard it separated out from "sensibility." How do you define the difference between those concepts?

Deborah: A writer can learn to use the words and phrases a teen would use, and to construct sentences in ways that jive with how teens would stitch together their thoughts. These skills are essential to creating a youthful narrative voice. But that doesn’t mean the writer understands what teens talk about, what they focus on and think is important about the situations at hand. To me, writing a youthful narrative “sensibility” is about understanding how a young person processes the world and her place in it. I encourage those who write for young people to take into account both voice and sensibility so that their fiction can sound authentic in every way.

Lee: Please share more about the intensive as you're planning it...

Deborah: I’m a nuts-and-bolts nut. I want people to walk away from me armed with strategies they can put to use in their WIPs immediately. The intensive will include strategies, examples, individual exercises designed to try out those techniques, and group evaluation of portions of attendees’ WIPs to help them see opportunities for revision. I hope that what attendees learn will also strengthen everything they write in the future.

Lee: Another aside for our audience: make sure to check out Deborah's "cheat sheet" for quick tips into creating a youthful narrative voice, creating convincing teen dialogue, and evaluating character and plot here. It includes great tips like this one:

Make the conversation about the speaker. Teens are a self-absorbed lot, and that can come out in their words. Frame teen dialogue from a perspective that focuses on how the circumstances affect the speaker. Thus, instead of "Tom seemed sad today. I wonder why?" use "Tom blew me off today. What's up with that? What did I do to him?"

Back to our interview...

Deborah, I really liked the quote you had up on your DearEditor site from Revision Week 2013: Laura Griffin, NYTimes bestselling romance writer, with 11 acclaimed novels: "I always try to remember that no matter how compelling a plot is, the reader is really in it for the characters. So I try to make sure I focus plenty of attention on character arc so that the story will have an emotional punch."

It's good advice for plotters like myself. Do you find your own stories grow from plot or character?

Deborah: I’m a character-driven person at heart, but that doesn’t mean my projects start with the character every time. My MG and YA stories start with characters and the issues I want them to grapple with. However, I’m currently developing two chapter book series, and each one of those very definitely started with concept and plot; the characters seemed to spring forth of their own accord as I wrote the action. Did that happen because I’m writing a series, and in a category known for hijinks and whacky action? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, I found when I was done with the first stories that the characters are so distinct and essential that the plots now depend on these characters for existence. I can move the characters around from adventure to adventure, but the adventures would change completely if I altered even one character.

Lee: What's your current favorite piece of writing advice to share?

Deborah: Don’t neglect your setting. Setting influences and illuminates characterization, figures directly into plot, influences characters’ word choice, affects pacing and tension, and provides subtext and ambiance. Yet setting is often missing from the MG and YA manuscripts I see as an editor. I think writers fear stalling their story with description dumps, and there’s certainly a push for strong characters, action, and dialogue these days so maybe that’s what’s highest on writer’s radars. Don’t fear description dumps: Go beyond description and have your characters react to and interact with setting elements to bring your world to life. Trigger your readers’ sense of hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Slip these triggers into the narrative beats between lines of dialogue. You don’t need another character pushing his bangs out of his eyes or smiling or looking at another character—that’s generic action that fills the spot without revealing anything. Use that opportunity to show us your character is ticked off even though she says she’s fine. Perhaps she scrubs furiously at the sweat on her brow when she’s standing at the stupid lemonade stand with her little brother, thinking about that sun hat she failed to bring. Maybe she sits on the plastic lawn chair then leaps up with a yell at the burn on the back of her thighs. One hot day, one unhappy gal, demonstrated through interaction with props and reaction to the elements. Dialogue and action are great, but don’t burden them with your whole story. Let setting do its share—and reap the rewards that follow.

Lee: That IS great advice. Thanks so much, Deborah. See you in August!

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If you want to see Deborah and learn from her in person, you'll have to join us at the 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles, August 1-4. Click here for Information and to register.

You can find out more about Deborah at her website,, and at


The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Loved this interview. Thank you so much Deborah and Lee. I can't find a tweet button or Facebook share on this page. But I copied the link and am sharing anyway.
Susan at Pen and Ink

Deborah Halverson said...

Thanks for your note, Susan. I'm so glad to know you found things to chew on here!