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Tag Archives | Jen Bryant

Working with an Editor

“What’s it like to work with an editor?”is a question I often get from teachers, students, and aspiring authors and it’s one that takes some time to fully answer. In the best situations, an editor’s relationship to her author is like a coach’s relationship to an athlete: knowing her author’s personality, talent, and potential, she encourages her strengths, while tactfully pushing her toward improving on her weaknesses. When the relationship is working well, the writer feels supported, yet independent, and the editor trusts that the writer is carrying out her suggestions, moving the book toward their common goal of making it the very best it can possibly be.  

When I began my writing career in 1989, things were a lot different in our industry. Submissions were made through the regular mail. I wrote my drafts long-hand on legal pads and then typed them into a huge, monochrome-screened computer using MS-DOS. I spoke with editors in person and by phone about current and future projects. Publishers did all of the promotion for my books (self-promotion? author marketing? What was that?) and I reviewed and approved every book contract myself.

Those times are long gone … and with them, some of the pre-digital age advantages of really knowing your editor as an individual (and vice versa) and being able to concentrate almost exclusively on writing. But some things about the author-editor experience have not changed at all: editors are still, at least the ones that I have worked with, very dedicated to making good literature, extremely hard-working, and serve as an author’s #1 collaborator through the production process.

But they are also individuals. Although their roles at the various publishing houses (acquiring manuscripts, offering guidance to the author as he/she shapes the story, working with the art director to choose an illustrator or cover artist, shepherding the book through the production process, helping to plan marketing strategies) may be similar, their execution of that role can be very different. Even so, the most important aspect of a successful author-editor relationship is communication. Let’s say an editor (we’ll call her Susan) has acquired a picture book biography manuscript I’ve written. It’s 75% done—which is to say, it’s a full story that shows good potential, but it needs some reworking and some additional back matter material. Susan will go over the draft several times, marking it up and making suggestions that she feels will improve the final text. She will send it back to me (email these days) and I will read her comments and do my best to address the issues she has highlighted. Some of these issues might be large ones (“Can we make the little brother more of an active character in the narrative?”) and some are small ones (“I think we can delete this whole line—the art will show this.”)

The manuscript bounces back and forth between us a few, several, many times—depending on how much work it needs. The clarity of communication between editor and author is paramount: I cannot make the necessary changes to the story if I have no idea what the editor is suggesting. Most editors are very, very good at this; it’s the focus of their training and they take this part seriously. Once the manuscript has been “accepted and delivered” (i.e., it’s a final draft that’s ready to go into production, where it will increasingly look like a book …), there is usually a period wherein there is less communication as the text is being illustrated. Normally, there is little, if any, communication between the author and the illustrator (a fact that never fails to astound at school visits) unless the illustrator needs help finding an original source, photograph, or has an accuracy-related question.

At this point, a good editor will keep in touch periodically to update an author about his/her book’s progress and to reinforce the rhythm of their relationship. Even if it’s just a quick email every few weeks to check in, share any questions from the illustrator, or just to say “everything’s on track for our publication date.” Remember: a good author and a good editor usually make an excellent book—and like all relationships, personal and professional—both partners need to invest time and attention to it. If they don’t, then you can bet that author will be more than happy to look elsewhere with her next manuscript. This is not rocket science, obviously, but in my own experience—and especially now that digital communication has largely displaced in-person and phone communication—it’s the editor who lets his/her author know that “I have your back”; “I am taking good care of your manuscript here as we search for just the right artist”; “I’m spending time thinking about how we can best position this book for some extra sales”; “I’m in touch with illustrator John Smith, and all is going really well”; “I saw this new book XYZ and I think we may want to do something similar in yours regarding sidebars and author’s note”…it’s that kind of editor with whom the author will want to keep working.

Being an editor is a tough job—always has been and always will be. They work long hours, wear many hats, juggle more deadlines and projects than we can imagine. Yet all the good ones know that it’s clear and consistent communication that keeps the good authors coming back.

Editor reflecting


Melissa Sweet

In this interview with Melissa Sweet, illustrator of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked six questions and Melissa kindly took time from her busy days of visiting schools and creating art.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encountered a William Carlos Williams poem?

My first introduction to William Carlos Williams was when I was seven years old and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw a  painting by Williams’s  friend Charles Demuth, based on Williams’s poem “The Great Figure.” I loved both the painting and the poem.

The Great Figure

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Carlos Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

My short list is Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and, yes, William Carlos Williams is now on that list.

When you begin to illustrate a book like this, what is your very first step? And what do you do next?

William Carlos Williams prescription padFirst I decide how and where to research. I’m looking for clues as to what to draw to inspire the illustrations. For this book I read biographies about Williams, his poetry, and newspaper articles about him. It was important to travel to Rutherford and Patterson, NJ, to see where he lived and worked. At the Rutherford Public Library, I saw his bowler hat, his manual typewriter,  and the prescription pads he used as a doctor. All those things became inspiration for the art. Then, back in the studio, I make a dummy placing the words on the page and begin to sketch to out the paintings or collages. Lastly, I make the final art.

A River of WordsIn the book, we see handwritten bits of poetry in several different styles of handwriting and we also see typeset scraps of paper as well as intriguing bits of type. Do you create these by hand? By computer? With friendly help?

All my art is created by hand—I don’t use the computer to make the illustrations. I cut up old books and use lettering from wherever I can find it. Incorporating calligraphy and hand–lettering into the art makes the piece more fun and lively. A typeset font would look very different, maybe somewhat static. In A River of Words I recreated Williams’s handwriting in places, and hand–lettered his poems within the art. The content of the poems became the inspiration for what to draw.

A River of WordsAre there entire spreads you prepare that don’t make the final cut of the book? When you send the illustration in for review by the editor or art director, do you leave things unglued so they can be moved if requested? And what do you use to affix the parts of your collage? 

Sometimes spreads need to be redone, but rarely. The editor and art director see the dummy, but typically they don’t see the art in progress, just the final art. It’s difficult to plan or sketch a collage–it happens as you go along adding and subtracting elements to make it work visually. (Even I don’t know exactly how the art will look in the end!) I use stick glue, white glue, and depending on the materials, I might need something strong like epoxy. Kids often ask how my arts gets “in” the book. My work is generally photographed since there is too much dimension in the pieces to scan them. Those photos are downloaded to the designer and the text is added digitally.

If you had met William Carlos Williams, what question would you have asked him?

I have two questions: Where was the red wheelbarrow? What did you think when you first saw it?

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet


Jen Bryant

In this interview with Jen Bryant, author of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, our Bookstorm™ this month.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encountered a William Carlos Williams poem?

I was in high school—and it was part of an anthology reading that we did for English class. I had disliked/not understood/ been unmoved by all of the other poems in this assigned reading (I recall that the language in those poems was archaic and flowery, and the forms very, VERY traditional)—and then—whooosh—like a breath of fresh air, here were a few selected W. C. Williams poems, which used little punctuation, were freeform in structure, and focused on everyday scenes and real life. They were the first poems I enjoyed and felt “welcomed” into.

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Carlos Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

He’s definitely on the list—and there are too many others to name here, so I’ll just start by listing a few of them: Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wendell Berry, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Marge Piercy, Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Phillip Levine, Marilyn Nelson, Gary Soto, Galway Kinell, Eamon Grennan, Jane Kenyon … (see? way too many!)

When you turned your manuscript in to your editor, did you envision how the book might be illustrated? What do you think when you first saw Melissa Sweet’s ideas for illustrating Williams’ life?

Melissa and I did not know each other before Eerdmans paired us for this book. Gayle Brown, the art director at EBYR, chose Melissa as the illustrator—and I believe that this single act has influenced my writing life ever since! I’d already written three picture book biographies on creative people (O’Keeffe, Messiaen, and Moore) and I had never met ANY of those illustrators. All of their styles were very distinct, very different from one another’s—so, no, I had no clue what an illustrator would do with this text. You can just imagine my reaction when I saw Melissa’s art for this book … I wept with happiness. She’s truly amazing.

A River of Words

How did you find information about this poet’s younger years?

I had to piece scenes together from many different sources: forewords and prefaces to poetry collections, a few audio recordings, an old film, some archival records, etc. The key, though, was to keep the river as the central image around which the rest of the story could spin. Once I had made that decision, the rest became a bit easier.

A River of WordsDid you have to cut much material from your original concept of the book? Did you go through a few revisions with the editor or many revisions with the editor?

I always prefer to give the editors more than they need—then let them give me feedback on which scenes/stanzas are more compelling and which are redundant or less compelling (and thus can be cut.) Yes, there were on-going revisions with this manuscript—but if I recall correctly, the originally-submitted version was the one that was sent to Melissa and she got started from that text. We didn’t make HUGE changes to this story, but we tweaked wording here and there—and then the back matter was added later on.

If you had met William Carlos Williams, what question would you have asked him?

“If you had been able to quit your day-job (as a physician) and could support your family full-time by writing, would you have done that? OR, did your daily rounds—with all kinds of patients and in many different settings—feed your art so much that you needed to do both in order to write well?”


Jen, thank you for sharing your answers with our readers. Your style of writing biographies is so unique, and so well researched, that it’s valuable for us to know more about the process of this book’s creation.

For use with your students, Jen’s website includes a discussion guide that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet


Bookstorm™: A River of Words


Bookmap for A River of Words

A River of WordsAuthor Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet have teamed up on a number of picture book biographies about creative artists. We’ve chosen to feature their very first collaboration during this month in which poetry takes the spotlight. By telling us the true story about poet William Carlos Williams’ childhood and growing up, with his clear poetry surrounding the pages, they awaken interest in young people who may think this no-longer-living, ancient (he was born in 1883 and died in 1963) poet is not within reach. They’ll be surprised by how his poetry will touch them. And he made a career for himself as a poet while he was being a country doctor! What an interesting fellow.

We trust you will find this month’s Bookstorm useful for teaching poetry, teaching writing, units on nature, talking about nonfiction and biography … and enjoying the quieter moments when reading poetry is one of life’s pleasures.

For more information and discussion guides, visit Jen Bryant’ website.

You can learn more about Melissa Sweet, the illustrator





Picture Book Biographies of Poets. From Shakespeare to Woody Guthrie, from Dave the Potter to Pablo Neruda, you’ll find top-notch biographies of poets with whom kids find connection. Several of these are excellent mentor texts as well.

Biographies of Poets for Older Readers. If you’d like to use A River of Words with older grades, we’ve included a few biographies that pair well. For instance, you’ll find Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (Monica Brown and Julie Paschkis) on the picture book side and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Dreamer, also about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, for the more comfortable readers.

Revolving Around William Carlos Williams. We’ve recommended a biography written for adults, a collection of Mr. Williams’ poems for children, and a book that was inspired by his poem, “This is Just to Say.”

Kids and Nature. Nature-deficit disorder is on many educators’ minds. William Carlos Williams had a significant connection to nature. He wrote about it often. We’ve included books with terrific ideas for enthusing children about going outdoors, both unplugged and plugged-in.

Collage and Mixed-Media Illustrations. Do the types of illustration confuse you? We’ll have an interview with Melissa Sweet this month that we hope will make you feel more comfortable discussing the art in A River of Words. We’ve suggested a few books that also use a mixed media style.

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.


Jen Bryant: The Writing Apprenticeship

by Jen Bryant

TRW book cover w sealsSeveral months ago, I was asked to be on a panel for a new-writers workshop. During the question and answer period, one woman commented: “I keep hearing that writing is a craft that requires time and practice to master. I get that . . . but as someone who’s eager to be an apprentice but has neither the time nor money to enroll in an MFA program, how—exactly—do I go about finding someone who’s qualified, willing, and available to mentor me?”

It was a great question—one which we took turns answering, based on our unique personal experiences. That panel made me recall the details of my own (very long, circuitous road) to becoming a published children’s author, and how I found my own “Master writers” from whom I learned a great deal about the art and craft of writing. This is what I told her . . . . .

After spending the first seven years after college as a French teacher and H.S. X-C coach, I began my writing life almost by accident: We relocated in the middle of the school year and I suddenly had no full-time job. I continued to teach part-time, but I also began some freelance writing. I wrote magazine articles and book reviews and compiled quotes for a gift-book company.

At first, I got by using the “trial and error” method (accent on the error!) and working on my own when my baby daughter napped. In college, I’d majored in foreign languages, not English or Creative Writing, so while I had no formal training, I also had very low expectations. In retrospect, this was an advantage: I had no preconceived notions about what was “acceptable” and so moved freely between genres and formats—experimenting, failing, and trying again. That got me through the first couple of years . . . but I got to a point where I wanted to write better.

georgias-bonesI’d published several essays and reviews in literary magazines and I was reading a lot of poetry (and trying to write my own), when I stumbled upon my first professional mentor. While attending a reading at a Philadelphia bookstore, I saw a flyer for a workshop run by a local poet-professor. Disappointed that I couldn’t make the scheduled classes, I asked her if, instead, she’d be willing to meet me for twice-a-month tutoring sessions. She agreed, and thus began my first true writing apprenticeship, held in a bakery on South Street (I can still smell those cranberry scones!)

It would take me pages to explain what I learned from her, but suffice to say that despite my being a “published author” I knew in my heart that I was just starting to learn how to write. She assigned monthly readings, critiqued my poetry drafts, shared her own drafts and finished poems, and answered hundreds of questions.

When she moved away for her job, I continued my writing apprenticeship with another Philadelphia poet. His style was very different, but that stretched me in new directions and made me experiment even more. I learned so much from him, that when he, too, moved on to a new job in Colorado, we continued to exchange work by mail. [** I should note that neither of these poets wrote for children, and that nearly ALL of what I read and wrote while working under their guidance was aimed at adults, not kids. Nonetheless, everything they taught me has influenced and improved my writing for young people.]

11_10Bryant_Jen, Eileen, Jerry

l-r: Jen, Eileen Spinelli, Jerry Spinelli

About this time, I got to know Jerry and Eileen Spinelli, who lived nearby and whose books I’d admired for years. As our friendship grew, they became mentors of a different sort, answering questions about picture books (Eileen convinced me to turn one of my “art poems” into my first picture book, Georgia’s Bones), editors (Jerry connected me with his editor, Joan Slattery at Knopf, who became my editor for the next decade), and bolstering my spirits through the inevitable ups and downs of book publishing. Where my previous mentors had been about skill development, the “nuts & bolts” of craft, the Spinellis were more like gear-greasers, facilitating my foray into children’s literature and cheering each small success.

I was lucky to find these people, I know—but I believe I also made my own luck: I created a workshop tutorial where there was none; I persevered in my apprenticeship through changes in logistics, geographical distance, and personal/ family demands—and I made my writing life a priority.

I truly believe that, with a little persistence, anyone can find a writing mentor, someone (or a series of someones) who can be both Teacher and Guide on their otherwise solitary journey.


Skinny Dip with Jen Bryant

What animal are you most like?

Probably a cat. I’m very independent, I love to sit in a puddle of warm sun, I spend a lot of my free time watching birds, and I’m very attached to my home. (I would have said a dog, but I’m not that obedient!) 

Which book of yours was the most difficult to write or illustrate?

book coverThere were several reasons why my verse novel Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial was the most difficult to write. I wanted to tell the story in many voices, so I had to experiment with how to keep the real/ historical events moving forward, while at the same time keeping track of the fictional characters and how they were growing and changing and interacting with one another. I used a LOT of those brightly colored sticky notes! I also used my husband’s pool table to periodically lay out the pages for each section so that I could physically see where and how each character was contributing to the story. I also faced the challenge of making a trial that was (quite unlike the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, which centered on a brutal crime) very philosophical and full of “legalese” into an entertaining and more easily understandable narrative. 

Which of your books would make a good movie and who would be the star?

book coverI think several of my novels would be good screenplay material, but I think if Pieces of Georgia is ever made into a feature film, I would want Robert Duvall to play Andrew Wyeth, Sabrina Carpenter (a southeastern PA native) to play Georgia, and Matthew McConaughey to play Georgia’s father.

What’s your favorite line from a book?

“There’s no place like home.” –from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of OZ.

What book do you tell everyone to read?

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. It’s brilliant. I was so relieved to read in the back matter that it took him more than 10 years to write. It’s scaffolded on the Hamlet tale, but set in rural Wisconsin in the 1970’s. (It’s also a book that I only recommend to people who love dogs and who are empathetic.)  

Are you a night owl or an early bird?

Actually, I’m neither one. I’m very boring in that regard—my best, most productive hours are generally 9am to 5pm.

Were you most likely to visit the school office to deliver attendance/get supplies, visit the nurse, or meet with the principal?

Hmmm…. That was a long time ago! I’d say probably to deliver attendance/ get supplies. I was a reliable kid, although I’ll bet I made several unscheduled stops on the way there and back. I’ve always been pretty distractible!



Jen Bryant: It’s Not Pretty!

by Jen Bryant

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with the word “inspiration.” On the one hand, I acknowledge the illusive, inexplicable aspect of the writing process that I can’t control, when the lines, paragraphs, pages seem to flow from somewhere outside of myself, knitting together almost seamlessly. On the other hand (and this is the much, much heavier hand) I believe that good writing—like all good art—comes from conscious effort, commitment, and lots of trial and error. In this way, writing a poem or a novel is much like anything else we do: making a home-cooked meal, building a go-cart, or shaping a backyard garden. You begin with a vision, but then you must roll up your sleeves, kneel down and set to work.

“But how do you know where to start?!” I hear this question at nearly every writing workshop I conduct, regardless of the age or experience of the students. My standard answer is always the same: “Well, I don’t KNOW where to start . . . but I start anyway. I start at the place where my heart is thumping the loudest, the part that is almost pure emotion.” Usually, it’s not pretty. I might scribble down some phrases, a question, or even a few lines of rough poetry that focus on one or two images. It never looks like much. I set that aside and go do something else (work on my garden or my grocery list.)

ph_river_of_words_medalLater, I come back to that first scribble and read it over a few times. If it’s the beginning of a biography for which I’ve done considerable research, I shuffle through my notes and choose a few facts about the subject that I find particularly interesting or unusual. For example, when I began writing A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, I honed in on young Willie’s love of wandering through the fields around his hometown, his sense of physical connection to his surroundings, and his easy relationship to solitude. Later, as an adult, these would be instrumental in his success as a poet. As I worked through the many drafts of the narrative, the image of the river became the thread that connected his childhood to his adulthood, his child’s play to his man’s work.

Ladder and nursery window, Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Ladder and nursery window, Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey. Photo courtesy NJ State Archives.

If it’s a novel with some real/historical underpinnings, I focus on an image that I can flesh out into a rough poem. In The Trial, for example, I began with the image of the ladder—the object that became the most important piece of evidence against immigrant carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man accused of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. So how, you ask, did that ladder make MY heart thump, when I wasn’t even alive in 1935, the year the trial took place? Well . . . I grew up just a few blocks from the famous Flemington courthouse, and our house was next to that of my paternal grandmother, who remembered that trial from her own childhood. She used to tell me stories about that time, and those stories sometimes haunted me at night, when I would imagine a stranger placing a wooden ladder against OUR house, climbing up to my bedroom window, and snatching me from my room. (See?– thump, thump, thump!)

The part of “inspiration” that you CAN control is your commitment to try. Sit down, pick a phrase or an image that has some emotional resonance for you, and start with that. If the first one doesn’t lead you forward—try another one. And another. And another, if necessary. Do this often enough, and you will have the first bricks laid on a path that will lead you through the rest of your book.




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