A Short Interview with Hope Larson about Editing
by Dash Shaw
Monday, August 24, 2009
If you’re unfamiliar with her work, Larson is the cartoonist of Salamander Dream, originally serialized online and later published in book form by AdHouse Books, Gray Horses from Oni Press, and Chiggers from Ginee Seo Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. Her next book is Mercury which arrives from Ginee Seo Books in 2010.
She was very generous with her responses and, I think, this is an interesting (brief) view of a cartoonist working with editors in the book industry, something becoming increasingly common.
Larson: When I submitted the Gray Horses script–beginning with Salamander Dream, I’ve always worked from scripts, even for short comics–I all but begged for editorial feedback. I’d always considered myself a bit of a writer, but doing it professionally was new. I’d barely written fiction since high school, and I knew I was probably doing a ton of things wrong. I wanted someone to tell me what those things were so I could fix them before the book was drawn and winging off to the presses.
I never got any feedback for Gray Horses. Oni Press was in an, um, transitional place at the time, and my book slipped through the cracks. I sent the script to a few friends, but they weren’t much help, either. That was when I realized that if I wanted a real editor, I’d better jump to a book publisher.
This probably makes it sound like the editorial relationship, for me, is all about my insecurities as a writer, but it isn’t. It’s about making the best books I can, and pushing my stories further. Some editors are able to look at a story and see what you’re trying to say when you can’t articulate it yourself. Some editors are more literary, while others are hyperaware of what the market wants. Some editors pursue structure, structure, structure above all else.
Starting with Chiggers, the editorial process has gone something like this:
1) The overhaul. I send in the troubled first draft of my script, and my editor (and her editorial assistant, if she has one) sends me reams of notes that address the themes of the book and problems with structure and character, plus a few niggly little notes. This batch of notes always starts with a paragraph or two telling me how great I am, how much they like the script, and how I don’t have to make any changes I don’t want to make. (Usually the notes are spot-on, but there have been times when I’ve refused to change a line, or omit a swear, or disagreed about the direction a scene should go.)
Notes do sting, but they leave me invigorated, ready to dive back into the story with greater awareness of both its weaknesses and its strengths. Many–or most–of my writing epiphanies are the result of an editor saying, “This doesn’t work. You need to rethink this.”
2) The fine-tune. More of the same, but not as extensive, and with more line edits.
After the second draft is locked in, I go ahead and draw the book. After that, I send over a PDF of the book and we move on to
3) The polish. Art editing and more line edits. Occasionally pages are redrawn and scenes are rewritten at this stage, but I do so much work before ever putting brush to bristol that changes tend to be minor: “What is her expression expressing, here? This panel doesn’t read.” Etc.
4) Copyediting. Also minor. Copyeditors catch all kinds of interesting stuff, including continuity. There’s a lot more to their job than commas and semicolons. They’re minor heroes.
And that’s it!
Working with my Ginee Seo and her assistant (now an editor himself) Jordan Brown, and with my current editor, Namrata Triphathi, has been an invaluable experience. Their guidance has helped me become more critical of and less attached to my work, and to write with greater awareness of my strengths and weaknesses, and of my audience.
Due to restructuring at S&S, Ginee, Jordan and Nami all worked on my new book, Mercury, and at different stages of the process. That was a frustrating experience for everyone, I think–and especially for Nami, who came in at the 11th hour when the book was all but complete–but it was fascinating to see how three people can read the same story and see it three different ways, and want different things from it. All editors are different, and even a very good editor isn’t a magic bullet, because writing always comes down to you and your book. A good editor knows when to intercede and when to get out of the way.
Shaw: This might be a dumb question, but did the editors/publisher approve anything before the first draft? Did you submit to them X # of completed pages, or does it all start with words- a paragraph summary of the project? And, for the draft that you’re talking about in the first stage, is that all in words or does it have drawings too? Could you describe what that draft/script is like? This is interesting because your publisher/editor is accustomed to working on all-word books, so they probably had to invent a model for doing this that isn’t like the Marvel Method.
Larson: It’s not a dumb question. I know people sell stuff off outlines all the time, and I think at this point I could, too… But I have a really hard time with outlines. I’ve tried outlining before, and I just get stuck. My writing process is fairly intuitive–I figure out what I’m writing as I write it–so it’s usually best for me to just sit down and write a script. The worst that can happen if I write a script the publisher doesn’t want is that I’ll take it somewhere else.
Everything I’ve sold has been off a complete first draft of a script. Gray Horses was a complete script and some sample comic pages. Same for Chiggers. Mercury I sold just off the script and a couple character sketches.
A script for me is all words. I do think about layout, or how things will look on the page, but that isn’t usually reflected in the script. My scripts look more like screenplays–and they basically are screenplays now that I’ve starting writing everything in Final Draft. I don’t even break down my scripts into comic pages until it’s been edited and locked in, although I usually have a rough idea of how many pages I’ll need. And I don’t break a page down into panels until I sit down to draw that page.
As for my editors being used to working on all-word books, most of them have been comics fans, and most of them have worked on picture books. It hasn’t been a completely new language to them, for which I’m grateful. There still isn’t a standard model for comic scripts in the publishing industry; at least not one I’m aware of. I just do what works for me.
Shaw: When you get notes from your editor, do they lean toward a specific goal? Like, it makes sense to cut curse words out because it’s a YA book and that’s probably a decision that they’ve made beforehand: no curse words. But if they’re talking about the structure of the book, does it lean toward a three-act Robert McKee framework? Does the publisher have an idea of how a book is supposed to unfold? And: What’s an example of a “literary” edit or a “structure” edit?
Larson: I want to talk about cursing specifically for a second. I’ve never been told I MUST remove swearing. It’s often suggested that I tone the swearing down, which is hard to argue with in a YA book, and a lot of the time I write curse words in because I’m being a lazy writer. The one word that can cause real trouble in YA books, unsurprisingly, is “fuck.” The original manuscript of Mercury included fuck, and Ginee told me that I could leave it in if I felt strongly about it, but that I was preemptively banning myself from most libraries. I took it out.
When I made the comment about structure I was actually thinking about the screenplay I wrote this year (for fun; it hasn’t been optioned or anything), and the notes I got from a friend who studied screenwriting at AFI. She isn’t a professional editor, but she gave me 11 pages of editorial-quality notes that look at the story in terms of a McKee-esque three-act structure. My notes from Ginee or Nami focus more on the characters and the relationships between them, and on stuff like symbolism (“What does _____ represent?”), than on plot, which I would say is a more literary view of the thing.
Having the book unfold according to act structure isn’t important to them as long as the book works.
Shaw: Let’s talk about the covers. You had a sensibility present in the covers for Salamander Dream and Gray Horses that didn’t continue into Chiggers. Were there meetings about the cover? What are those meetings like?
Larson: Yeah, that cover was not my doing. I pitched a few covers that didn’t fly (and in retrospect, I see why), and the publisher wanted a cover that said “BUY ME, MIDDLE-GRADE TARGET AUDIENCE” and “HELLO THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT SUMMER CAMP”. They specifically requested that image, that design, and I capitulated because I was sick of the back and forth and I didn’t have cover approval in my contract, so there wasn’t much point in kicking up a fuss. I don’t care for it. I feel it cheapens and does disservice to the book, but I also understand why marketing was gung-ho about it. It is what it is.
On the other hand, for Mercury, marketing didn’t know how to sell the book. Nami, art director Sonia Chaghatzbanian, and I went around in circles a couple of times, trying to find a concept that would work. Marketing was down on everything. Their ideas, my ideas… At one point I thought we’d hit on the winning concept, and I did a whole sketch, and I was sitting in an airport on the way home from someplace when I got an e-mail saying it was a no-go, and did I have any other ideas? And all I could think was, “Fuck. I don’t know what they want. They don’t know what they want. How on earth can I give them what they want?”
So I was sitting on the plane, and it was the middle of the night, and all of a sudden I figured it out. I got home, did the concept sketch that night, I think, and within a few days it had been approved, and everyone was happy: Nami, Sonia, marketing, and me. Sometimes it just works out.
Larson: I don’t wish I had an editor for any of the early stuff. I was playing, screwing around. I needed to figure some stuff out on my own before I was ready to work with an editor. My early work is a string of incomplete ideas, which is what early work should be like, I think. They were pounded out in a couple of weeks, a couple of months. My books–Chiggers and Mercury, anyway, and my screenplay, which is called Heavens–are ideas fully explored. I lived inside them for months. Years. They’re part of me.