Editor Extraordinaire: A Chat With Jennifer Rees
During the last leg of revisions for the 5th-anniversary edition of my debut novel, The Vitruvian Heir, Book I: The Unraveling, I realized that, this time around, I needed an editor to nitpick the manuscript until it was fully pristine. I just happened to luck out in my search on Reedsy and found Jennifer Rees, acclaimed editor of award-winning and NYT bestselling fiction including The Hunger Games series. That's right, The (fricken) Hunger Games. And let me tell you, she lives up to her killer street cred. Aside from her accolades, she's an absolute joy to work with and I was lucky enough to chat with her about all things editing. Here's what she had to say.
Q. Let's start with a fun question – what's one book you started reading and couldn't put down?
A. There are so many! One that I remember connecting with as a kid the most is Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. I thought the book had been written just for me! Judy Blume captured so many of the feelings of being 12. It was magical for me. As an editor, one of the things I look for in a story is emotional resonance – if we don’t have that in a story, then it’s entertainment without connection. To me, that’s not so interesting.
Q. When you first read Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games manuscript, did you have any idea how big it would be?
A. I don’t think anyone could have imagined how big The Hunger Games ended up being. But as soon as I read the manuscript, I knew we had something we had never had before. Reading the manuscript after Suzanne had delivered it, I actually missed my subway stop going home from work (with a kid waiting for me at daycare, no less)! I was hooked. The next day, David Levithan, my boss and an integral part of The Hunger Games team, walked into my office and we actually said, “Holy shit!” to each other at the same exact time. We were just stunned...We couldn’t believe how groundbreaking and amazing it was. It was an incredible feeling.
Q. You recently edited the new edition of my novel, The Vitruvian Heir, Book I: The Unraveling. Who was your favorite character and why?
A. It is really hard to choose just one character that I love and who is my favorite, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that it's Lorelei. She’s gutsy and smart and she doesn’t take crap from anyone. I wish I could be her! But I love how open and honest she is, and how loyal and committed she is. I loved how I could see change happening through her eyes and in her actions, and how she propelled the story forward in such fascinating and wonderfully unexpected ways. She’ll live with me for a long time, and I can’t wait for the next book!
Q. How did you become an editor? And what part of your job are you most passionate about?
A. After graduate school (in poetics… seriously), I had no idea what I was going to do (imagine that), so I decided to give myself a break. I landed a coveted job at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, one of the gems in the independent book world. They assigned me to the children’s store, and I remember being so humiliated. I wanted serious stuff, like poetry! It ended up being the most amazing year of my life. I reconnected with picture books, middle grade fiction, and teen fiction. (I was always a HUGE reader as a kid and teen.) We were allowed to borrow all the books we wanted, and I read everything I could get my hands on. It was an education more valuable than any college or graduate school. When I moved to New York City to pursue a career in publishing, they actually hired me based on this experience, because I knew and loved children’s books inside and out, I knew authors and publishers, and I could sell them.
Q. What's your process like when you get a new manuscript?
A. I like to just start reading, really dig into the story and see what the writer is trying to
accomplish, get a feel for their voice and style, pay attention to how they move from one
scene to another, what they are trying to get their characters to experience in terms of
growth, and what they are asking the reader to experience. I make a ton of notes! I ask
myself, is this something I’d want to read? And if not, why? And how can I help this writer
achieve what it is they are trying to do? Sometimes it helps to think of the story as a
movie—where am I getting bored, where am I getting super excited, what is making me
cranky (lol), what is making me contemplate and connect?
Q. You left the New York publishing scene to be on the freelance side of the business. What have you liked about this?
A. I loved my job as Senior Editor at Scholastic. I worked with so many talented authors and our in-house staff was simply amazing. But as I became more senior to the company, I began to get pulled more and more into the sales side of things, with pile-up upon pile-up of meetings and business trips, there were long nights and I was finding it harder and harder to actually do my editing (my heart’s passion) and reading of submissions (one of my favorite things ever). I was working all the time! There were so many nights where I’d be up until midnight working, only to get up and do it all over again. I was also pregnant with my third son, and I thought, why am I doing this? And I loved Scholastic, so it was hard. But I felt as if I was missing the thing I really loved, which was to work on stories and connect with writers and be there for my kids. Freelance has been the best thing I’ve ever done. I get to spend time with my sons (who are now 16, 13, and 8) and I also get to do the work that I love, which is to edit wonderful writers and their deeply creative and amazing stories.
Q. While you're still working with top literary agents, you're also working with a lot of first-time authors. Has this changed your role in the process at all? And if so, in what way?
A. It hasn’t actually changed my process much – I still give the same quality of feedback, I still edit the same way. You’d be surprised by how much willingness there is for new writers to learn and grow; to me this is super exciting. They are willing to put in the work, they are willing to put their egos aside and say, "Hey I’m not really sure what I’m doing but I have this great idea, can you help me?" More accomplished authors sometimes (not all but a lot) are a lot more sensitive and prone to be rigid. It’s a more delicate balance, to be sure. There’s definitely a big learning curve for new writers, but that, to me, is super exciting – to teach and support someone who has a passion for writing kids’ books and is willing to put in the time and effort. And everyone is so kind and respectful – I have made wonderful friends on this journey.
Q. Speaking of new authors, what's your biggest piece of advice for them, especially those who are indie or self-published?
A. My biggest piece of advice is for them to read as many books as they can (in their genre, but outside of it too, and different age levels as well). And be familiar with the marketplace and the industry. You should know what #ownvoices is. You should know authors and books. You should be reading everything you can get your hands on. You should be connecting with your libraries and booksellers. You really need to immerse yourself.
Q. What's your best piece of advice for writers?
A. Let yourself experiment a little, and don’t be so worried about what you think might or might not sell. And please don’t write to trend. By the time your story is done, the trend is over, and the market is flooded. You should be writing about something that interests you and excites you. And don’t be afraid to get feedback early on. I have some clients who come to me and say, “Can you just read these first three chapters? I’m not sure about the direction.” Every time they are like, “Wow! I’m so glad I did that,” because they were headed in a direction that was going to set them way off course.