The Writer to Writer series features various writers across multiple industries to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the writing process and hopefully pick up a few writing tips along the way. Today’s interview is with Peggy Ann Shaffer, who works in publishing in New York.
Interview With Peggy Ann Shaffer
PM: You have a long background in creative writing. Can you talk about your creative process? Where do you get your ideas from?
PS: I’ve worked on some pieces that I’ve had on the back burner since I moved to New York. Some of my writing comes from the experiences I’m going through in the moment. A few years ago I came up with the idea of a children’s book about a bunny after I doodled bunnies at the restaurant I worked at while I was bored, waiting for customers. The idea was a tiny bunny that was belittled by other animals for his size. At the time, I was a lost, confused, recent college grad who had a fellow employee telling me I was going to spend the rest of my life working in the restaurant business. I was frustrated and felt small in the world and felt like a failure because I didn’t have a career in my field. I sort of expressed that through a bunny, which I believe is my spirit animal. The story is resolved when the tiny bunny is able to reach something only of his size can reach and the other creatures embrace him.
PM: You’ve worked for a couple of different publishers. What can you tell us about the inside of the publishing industry? Is there anything you’ve experienced that surprised you, anything you didn’t expect going in?
PS: Going to grad school for publishing showed me there’s more that goes into publishing a book than many people think. It’s better to submit your manuscript to a literary agent. If you submit it straight to the publisher it’ll land in the slush pile, but an agent has connections at the publishing houses and can persuade an editor to read your manuscript simply because the editor trusts the agent’s judgment. It’s also important to choose the right paper texture and weight, and to consider specialties done to the cover, like foil, embossing, and debossing, the printing process, and publicity and marketing strategies.
Right now I’m working at an academic publisher and what surprised me was how the editorial department does not do any of the actually editing for the books. It’s done by production editors in India who are considered vendors, even though they have the same company email addresses. Also, there’s no contracts team who create the contracts. The editorial department does that.
My first internship showed me how much the editorial department can do for trade books. I searched images for within the books about sharks and dinosaurs, but I was restricted to which photo-sharing company I could use based on how many credits we had – like Dreamstime and Getty Images.
PM: Has working in the industry changed your relationship with writing in any way?
PS: It’s definitely changed what I know about the publishing process and trends. I’m better aware of what’s hip and hot at the moment, and I can see it constantly changing. Everyone is trying to be the next J.K. Rowling or find the next Harry Potter.
PM: Your master’s thesis covered the history of marketing teen/YA fiction. Can you briefly recap the twists and turns of the industry in the last 30 years? Is there anything about it that surprised you?
PS: I was surprised at how big horror was. I never got into Goosebumps as a kid – I tried avoiding the spooky and scary (the Chucky commercials alone terrified me and is one reason I’m creeped out by dolls, especially the ones whose eyes seem to follow you as you pass them). I also didn’t realize how the publishing industry, for a long time, took its cues on trends from TV and movies in the 1990s; publishers paid attention to what kids and teens were watching and focused their genres around that to help book sales. In the ‘90s, MTV and the WB were solely focused on teens, which was new back then and led to more of a focus on teens in publishing and eventually spawned YA in the Children’s books departments; before then there was just adult and children’s, there was no YA, especially no New Young Adult book category like there is today. New Young Adult’s focus is more on the 20-something-year-olds. And with that said, the age categories in Children’s is constantly changing. Go into a B&N and head to the Children’s section. Books I read at 10-years-old 17 years ago are now recommended for first and second graders…some even kindergartners! Some of the books that were considered middle-grade books when I was a kid are now considered YA. Publishing is constantly in flux.
PM: You’ve written about how the YA industry has changed thanks to the internet, especially due to blogs and social media. Can you discuss what it takes for a writer to be effective online while promoting his or her work? Are there any authors who seem to have the technique down pat, who up-and-coming writers can imitate for their own self-promotion?
PS: They have to be active on the internet, post things about their book, upcoming projects, and a little bit about their personal lives that they want to be known. Being active on social media allows the fans to have access to the authors and ask any questions they have about the book. It’s the new fan letter, but without the hassle of writing and waiting for a response. Social media allows the connection of authors and fans immediately.
John Green is a great example. Along with his own personal social media platforms, he also has his YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers, he started with his brother in 2007. Watching any of the Vlogbrothers videos, you see the immediate appeal to John Green. He’s likable. Genuinely likable and funny. I remember one of my high school English teachers showed us Vlogbrother’s “July 27: How Nerdfighters Drop Insults” video as a way to teach us Shakespearean insults. We were all captivated by John Green’s personality and humor. He was awesome! Teens who have become members of the Nerdfighter phenomena have found people they relate to and brighten up their day.
On social media, he welcomes his fans into his writing process with sneak peeks at upcoming books. On Instagram he posted this photo:
He also takes you behind the scenes when he visits the films based on his books and goes on book tours. In similar fashion to his Vlogbrothers videos, he also posts silly things like videos of himself drawing on his face with a Sharpe.
PM: What would you say is the best way to grow as a writer?
PS: Be open. Read as much as you can and learn what you like and dislike about the writing, style, genre. Have some of your writing friends peer review your work and get their insight.
PM: What are you reading right now? What’s the best piece — article, book, blog post, etc. — you’ve read in the last six months?
PS: I just finished Veronica Roth’s new book, Carving the Mark, but right now I’m reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I absolutely loved Roth’s book. It’s very clear how much she’s grown as a writer since writing the Divergent series. The book is classy and feels more mature in the writing (in the way that she’s matured as a writer compared to the college student version of her who wrote Divergent). This book also takes place in another galaxy instead of a dystopian Earth. The world-building is fleshed out nicely; you don’t question whether you’re in space or another planet. It’s the first book in months that I gave 5 stars on Goodreads. I’m excited for the sequel.
Beloved is the second Morrison book I’ve read (the first was Song of Solomon in college). Morrison is amazing. She’s taken a real life woman, Margaret Garner, and added a narrative around her life in the form of the character Sethe, and why she tried to harm her children. Morrison’s added meaning behind someone’s destructive action and allows the reader to sympathize for Sethe.
Boiling it Down: 3 Hottest Tips to Take Home
1. Promote your own work online to connect with fans.
2. An agent is a valuable resource for getting your work published and expanding your network in the publishing world.
3. The industry is constantly changing. Having a presence requires understanding the current market at any given time.