WHAT IS BEHIND THE DESK?
Behind the Desk is a new interview series in which I ask questions of amazing published authors, librarians, teachers, book designers, etc. so that we can learn more about the intricacies, struggles, and excitement that goes on in the world of books and literature. Feel free to contact me with suggestions for future interviewees!
Behind the desk: rachel cohn
Rachel Cohn is not only a New York Times bestselling author nor is she just an author who has published thirteen YA and children's books (with four more due out in the next couple of years!); she also happens to be my brilliant half-sister. If it weren't for her, I may never have entered the world of publishing (or been an extra on her book-turned-movie, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist). Rachel was kind enough to be my first subject for Behind the Desk, so I'll let her take it away...
Why are you a writer?
I often say I write because it’s the healthiest way to channel all the voices in my head. I think I also write because I am drawn to words. They float in my headspace all the time, and my joy is to tie them down, and together.
When you're in the middle of a book, do you find the characters' voices are inside your head even when you're not at your computer?
When I’m actively writing a book, the characters’ voices are absolutely in my head all the time. I’m constantly stopping whatever I’m doing to jot down phrases or ideas. When I’m between books, not so much—which is both a relief and a worry!
Everyone's writing productivity is different (whether you're in a shed undisturbed for hours like Roald Dahl or writing for just half an hour a day like Banana Yoshimoto), but what routines have worked best for you?
Sometimes I feel like I would work best if I was locked in a dark garage with no light and most importantly, no internet! I am the worst at procrastination…meaning I am sadly the best at it. I will do anything not to write. But I have deadlines! And characters who want to be heard! So alas, I have to get over myself and get on with it. The one “routine” I’ve found that works best for me is having a dedicated writing space away from my typical household distractions. It also helps to share the space with friends who do what I do, and they’re great as a cheerleading system, for bouncing around ideas, and sharing frustrations. My advice for other writers is find what works for you, and try to be consistent about it—whether that’s a particular cafe, or a time of day, or the right balance of caffeine and typing time.
What would you tell a writer to bear in mind about the editor-author relationship? What are the main qualities you personally look for in an editor at a publishing house?
The first thing I would suggest a writer keep in mind is that for an editor, your book is also their business. The creative aspect is fun and hugely important, but at the end of the day, it’s the editor’s job to make the book profitable for the company, and it’s up to the writer to be respectful of the privilege of being published, and mindful of all the many people at the publishing house who are involved with the book finding its way in the marketplace. Ideally, an author seeks an editor who is passionate about their work, foremost—you want to work with somebody who loves your characters and your worlds as much as you do. Secondly, you want to work with someone who can be your advocate and help you navigate the book’s journey to publication and after.
How do you find the editing process—is it harder than writing the first draft, do you feel a great sense of accomplishment when you've done the rewrites, would you rather take out your eyeballs with a fork then ever do another edit…?
I actually enjoy the editorial process to a certain extent. First drafts are the hardest part for me, getting me to extract the template of the book and just finish it. But once a first draft is done, it’s so rewarding to rework, revise, make it better, tear down the walls and put it back together. That being said, I confess it usually takes me a few days after receiving an editorial letter to actually read it. (Fear.) And then a week or two before I can finally get into the document and start addressing the issues from the editorial letter. (Anger and denial gradually giving way to acceptance.) We all wish we could write that perfect first draft that needs just a quick polish. Hah, joke’s on you! Now, get back to work.
As a reader, what do you appreciate most in a book (plot, character development, voice...)? Why do you think that is?
As a reader, I’m attracted to a strong voice, a sense of humor, and an author who lets readers draw their own moral judgments without announcing what those judgments should be. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that I appreciate these qualities in books because they are what I strive for in my own.
When was the last time a book had you so hooked you wouldn't have put it down if Patrick Stewart* himself were standing in front of you?
Well, with all due respect to every book, ever, I don’t think any book could distract me if Patrick Stewart himself were standing right there in front of me. Actually, maybe it could, because I’d be trying to look down to look cool and casual and whatever about the whole thing. But then I’d want it to be a book that makes me look smart for reading it, that I’d probably never actually read (but would claim to have read). For argument’s sake, let’s go for any Malcolm Gladwell book in this category. Or Infinite Jest.
Now, let’s say it’s Shatner standing right there and I am fascinated a la Nimoy but I cannot be bothered to pay attention because the book I’m reading is so freaking good. Of my most recent reads, I’d say Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Amazing voices, so real and true and vulnerable, and even the smallest emotional moments felt like they had huge stakes. Loved and admired this book so much.
*Rachel has a not-so-secret crush on Sir Patrick Stewart, which is understandable if you grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation or even if you've just seen his glorious face.
There's writing advice all over the internet (including your website) for writers, but do you have any tips on what NOT to do as someone who's perhaps just starting out?
Wait. That’s my advice. Frustrating, but true. One of the most common mistakes fledgling authors can make is to send work out—to agents or publishers—before it’s ready. It takes time and a lot of revision to get the work to its best place for submission. You don’t want to waste your shot getting an important person’s attention, and then losing it too quickly because the work wasn’t polished enough. Just because your mom or best friend loves it (and bless them for that) does not mean the work is ready for submission. To get your work to its best state, join a writers’ group, or ask some people you respect who have no vested interest in your work to read it and give their opinion. Be patient, and let the work evolve. Take some time away from it. A break from the writing will bring a fresh energy and tougher eye to the work when it’s time to revise.
As an established and successful author, what do you make of the recent Authors Guild letter regarding publishing contracts negatively affecting authors' incomes and professional lives?
Again, book publishing is a business. As an author, it’s your job to know the business—and how it’s changing—as best as you can, and to be prepared and not naive about how the industry’s evolution will affect you. This is why it’s so important to work with an agent you trust, who has your best interests at heart, and who will advocate to get you the best and fairest deals possible in this changing climate.
If you could meet one author for a chat over coffee, who would it be and what would you most want to say to her/him?
I’d love to chat with JK Rowling. While trying not to be too worshipful, I’d love to pick her brain about world-building, and how she so deftly balances her work with her private life and public voice. I’m a huge admirer.