Writing Excuses 11.41: The Editor’s Wishlist, with Navah Wolfe
Key points: On Navah’s wishlist, we find character first. A good character, with a distinct, unique voice. Are the characters interesting? The characters must feel real. A trick: if your main character was a side character in someone else’s story, would they still be interesting? What’s the best pitch? This-meets-that, IF that captures the heart, the emotion, and not just the set dressing. Lady bromance, or friendships. Ensemble stories. Dislikable characters that you fall in love with. Aka lady bro heist with Jaime Lanister. Unreliable narrators with a good payoff. Closed room spaceship mysteries. Heists. Epic fantasy with a lady protagonist. Remember, editors and agents are people — talk with them first. Then mention your lady bro heist from a closed room spaceship with an unreliable narrator.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 41.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Editor’s Wishlist, with Navah Wolfe.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Navah Wolfe.
[Navah] Hi, everyone.
[Brandon] Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Navah] Sure. Hi. I’m Navah Wolfe. I’m an editor at Saga Press, which is Simon & Schuster’s science fiction and fantasy imprint. I’ve worked on books like Mishell Baker’s Borderline and Genevieve Valentine’s Persona and Cassandra Rose Clarke’s Our Lady of the Ice, which are all awesome and you should read them.
[Brandon] Excellent. We are on the Writing Excuses cruise.
[Brandon] Navah, thank you so much for being on. We love having editors. We get them so rarely. It is one of the things that our listeners ask for the most, is more editors, more talking with editors. You actually… I am scared usually to pitch this as a topic, because most editors I know get a little tired of what do editors want. You pitched it to me, which is perfect, because I know our audience is going to love this.
[Howard] Now it’s okay for us to ask for it!
[Brandon] So, let’s talk about it. You pitched the editor’s wishlist, the things that you are actively looking for and wishing you could find. What are a few of these?
[Navah] I think for me, the thing that I want the most in general in all things is… This is less specific than you might want, but character. For me, I’ll follow a good character anywhere. If you give me a character I can fall in love with, I will follow them down any dark alleyway and any twisty path. I just want to be with them and I want to stay with them and I want to introduce them to my friends and shove this book into people’s hands and say, “Hey, have you met this person?” Those are the books that I cannot walk away from and I must have as my own.
[Brandon] So how important is voice to that? The character voice.
[Navah] Voice is crucial. The voice has to be distinct and it has to be unique. It doesn’t have to scream voiciness, but I have to be able to fall into it. It has to feel unique to me.
[Dan] I think authors, we tend to focus so much on the cool story we’ve come up with. I see this a lot with the movie director, Billy O’Brien, who did the I Am Not a Serial Killer movie. We hang out all the time, and I keep pitching him stories. Like I’ve done this other book. Do you want to make a movie out of that? His first question is always, “Are the characters cool? Are they quirky and interesting?” I’m like poised and primed to tell him all about the cool science fiction thing that I’ve come up with or this awesome plot that I have. He’s like straight to character. Are the characters interesting? That’s what’s important.
[Navah] I can’t even tell you how frustrating it is when I get a pitch for a book that sounds awesome. It’s all the things I love. I’m really excited to read it. I start reading it and I just don’t care about the characters. If all the characters are flat and all the attention has been placed on cool plot, cool things that happen, cool exciting thing that happens, and I don’t care about any of the people, so I don’t care about the things that happen. The characters are the things that make me care, and that make me invested.
[Mary] Can you talk about… When you’re looking for why you’re not caring for a character? Because I know some of the things that I see in beginning writers that make characters fall flat, but I’m wondering if when you’re looking at things that are coming in as age… Because Saga only takes agented submissions. So when you’re looking at agented submissions, these are at a higher level. What are the kinds of things… Can you articulate the things that make characters go flat?
[Navah] It’s a tricky question, because some of it is just the je ne sais pas of how it feels, but certainly when the characters don’t feel distinct from the plot, like they really just feel like plot agencies, like plot vehicles. Like we are with these people because we need somebody who’s giving us a front row seat to the end of the world.
[Mary] So that’s internal life?
[Navah] Internal life, yes.
[Dan] Sorry, go ahead.
[Navah] No, please.
[Dan] Brandon and I, back when we were still in a writing group together, we actually came across this situation almost simultaneously in our own books, where we realized that the main characters were only interesting because they were the main characters. So the trick that we started using from that point on was think about this character. If he or she was actually the side character in someone else’s story, would they still be interesting? If the answer is no, then we need to change them.
[Navah] I sometimes have conversations with my authors where I want them to get to know their characters outside of the book. Where I’m like I have many questions for you. None of them have anything to do with what happens to your character in this book, but you should know the answer to all of them. You should know their favorite color. You should know their favorite song. You should know the kind of movies they like, and the chocolate they like to eat, and the things they like to do when they hang out with their friends. None of these things are going to make it into the book. But when you know them, you’re going to write this character so much better.
[Mary] Sorry. As you were talking about that, I’m like, “Oh. This is actually…” That was what my job was when I was in New York, and I was a prop master in theater. My job was to buy the pillows that the character would have on their couch, and to buy the art that was going on the character’s wall. So I actually had to know the character as well as the actor did that was portraying it, because I had to pick the things that reflected that character’s interior life and their taste. I think that even when… Even if these are things that you aren’t necessarily going to know, that the specificity of the physical objects, because those are the permanent objects that your character has invested in. That a lot of times that really is where you have an external manifestation of their internal life.
[Brandon] So I want to ask this, then. If someone comes to you and they have… They’re going to pitch something. What’s the pitch you really want to hear? Is it like the this-meets-this, or this-meets-that, or…
[Brandon] Like what is the pitch that works for an editor? What’s your wishlist for a pitch?
[Navah] What’s my wish list for a pitch? So, I’m going to take that sideways for a second. The this-meets-that is such a complicated thing, because it’s a really, really good shorthand, and it helps you see exactly what it is, but I often feel like it sort of misses the point. Like, if someone pitches to me a book that they say, “This is Orphan Black meets Downton Abbey.” What they mean is this is a book with a bunch of characters…
[Dan] I want to read that.
[Navah] Do you, now?
[Navah] It’s a book about a bunch of characters who have the same face taking place in a costume drama. What they’re not saying is the reason why we love Orphan Black or we love Downton Abbey. Because I love Orphan Black because it’s a sisters story, it’s about women who are being manipulated, who are taking agency and seizing their agency and about the way people try to manipulate women’s bodies and the way women come together to support each other. Not because it’s a bunch of women with Tatiana Maslany’s face. When you say the thing about Orphan Black that makes it Orphan Black is a bunch of ladies with the same face, you’re totally missing the point. So if you’re pitching me this book that supposed to get me excited about my favorite property without getting to the heart of why it’s my favorite thing. So, a this-meets-that is a really, really useful shorthand as long as you’re actually understanding the emotion behind the thing and not just the surface material.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent.
[Mary] Do you want to use a pitch that I’m working on as an example?
[Mary] This is not a thing I’m pitching to you because I haven’t even written it yet, but it’s an example of this-meets-that. Alfred Hitchcock presents the Dragonriders of Pern.
[Dan] I want to read that, too.
[Navah] Are you sure you’re not pitching that?
[Mary] I have to write it, first.
[Mary] Or not. I’ll tell Jen to talk to you. But the thing for me with that, what I’m trying to get for… Get at is this is going to be tonally kind of noir. It’s going to feel like we’re at a resort in Northern California. There’s going to be a cameo by Hitchcock.
[Mary] And there’s going to be dragons and some kind of giant plot twist.
[Navah] I would super read that.
[Mary] But does that… So the reason I…
[Navah] No, but that… It gets to the heart of things, and the emotions of those properties, and why they’re cool and why they’re exciting instead of just the set dressing. I will say, I just bought a book with possibly the best this-meets-that pitch I have ever read ever.
[Brandon] Oh, give it to us.
[Navah] I’ll give you the short pitch, which is Harry Potter meets Terminator.
[Navah] The longer pitch, which is a young mage who grew up in a world believing that humanity was wiped out 100 years ago, stumbles outside of his mage community to discover that humanity is alive, but not well, because they’re fighting a losing battle to the AI. The title of the book, which is from [inaudible] is Mage against the Machine.
[Mary] That’s so good.
[Navah] So good.
[Dan] I saw that on Twitter and I thought, “Dang it.”
[Dan] “Why didn’t I get there first?”
[Brandon] Okay, we gotta stop. We gotta stop for book of the week because you’re going to tell us about The Starlit Wood.
[Navah] I am going to tell you about The Starlit Wood. This is actually… I’m primarily a novel editor. But this is my first anthology that I’ve worked on as an anthology editor. I co-edited this book of retold fairytales with Dominik Parisien, and it’s coming out next week, I believe.
[Brandon] Yes, the 18th.
[Navah] The 18th. It’s cross-genre fairytale retellings with incredible stories from talents like Catherynne Valente and Garth Nix and Margo Lanagan and Naomi Novik and 18 incredible authors writing incredible stories. I’m very excited, and very proud of it.
[Brandon] Excellent. That sounds wonderful.
[Brandon] Now, we titled this episode The Editor’s Wishlist. So far, we’ve gotten to one point on the editor’s wish list, which is great characters. So what else is on the wish list?
[Navah] Okay. This is the thing that I… It’s sort of my life crusade. I want lady bros.
[Navah] I want… But specifically, I want friendship stories. There’s so much of a focus on stories about romance, and the heart relationship is a romantic one. Which is great, and I love romance. Romance is wonderful. But friendships are so critically important in all of our lives. I want more stories that focus on a friendship, on a nonromantic, nonsexual friendship story, with also romance. There can also be romance in the story, but where the primary story that we care the most about is a friendship. I’m dying to see romance stories… I’m sorry, friendship stories. Either between two ladies, which is my lady bromance, but really anyone where people are just friends with each other’s. Another thing on my wish list, I’ll toss a few out. I love ensemble stories. Think Firefly, where… This comes back to the character thing, where you get a bunch of characters in a very tight enclosed space, and they’re bouncing off each other. They just bring out elements of their character more and more and more in interesting ways. Like Deep Space Nine or Battle Star Galactica kind of a thing, which is really fun.
[Brandon] Fortunately, we’ll be doing an entire month on ensemble stories coming up in a few months.
[Navah] I definitely did not know that.
[Navah] But one of the other things I really love is the really dislikable character who you fall deeply in love with by the end of the book. You’re like, “I will never love this character.” Yes you will. You absolutely will.
[Brandon] So if someone can write the…
[Brandon] Friendship story about people that you hate when it starts but you fall in love with who are in an ensemble, then they’ve got the perfect book for you?
[Howard] So you want a lady bro heist with… Now I… Joke’s going to fall because I can’t remember that character from Game of Thrones who we hate…
[Brandon] Jaime Lanister.
[Navah] I would buy that book.
[Howard] Lady bro heist plus Jaime Lanister.
[Mary] I would read that book.
[Navah] I’m there for that book.
[Dan] I would even title it Lady Bro Heist…
[Dan] I would also binge watch the hell out of Lady Bro Heist on Netflix.
[Navah] 1000%. I’m right there.
[Brandon] Oh, dear. Okay. So, bringing this back. You were giving us a list of wishes…
[Navah] My wish list. Unreliable narrators. I love… This is really hard. This is a really, really hard one. Unreliable narrators with a really good payoff. All too often, unreliable narrators sort of fizzle out, where it’s unreliable and it’s unreliable and it keeps you guessing and then you have the grand finale and you’re still guessing in a really unsatisfactory way. I love the ones that stick the landing, and you’re like, “Oh, wow. That puts everything in perspective.” They’re really hard, but so, so good.
[Navah] Thank you.
[Brandon] I really wanted to write a story… I don’t have one yet, but along those lines of you don’t realize the narrator is unreliable till about halfway or three quarters, you start to get a sense. Then, the pow ending is that unreliable narrator that’s all the way through, it’s kind of sixth sense thing, except they’ve been lying to you in first person the whole time. If you could pull that off…
[Mary] It’s the Hogwarts…
[Brandon] I just want to figure out how to pull that off. Right?
[Mary] I think… Well, that… We could do a whole podcast on that. I will stop at that.
[Brandon] We will actually be doing one on unreliable narrator next year.
[Mary] Oh, that’s right.
[Brandon] That’s on the outline. So, we will wait to tell you how to do that.
[Mary] I’ll make notes about that so I’ll remember it next year.
[Howard] Lady bro heist with an unreliable narrator.
[Navah] Also, the top of the list for me, I’d love a closed room spaceship mystery.
[Brandon] Closed room mysteries are fun.
[Navah] They’re so fun.
[Brandon] You don’t see very many of those posted to genre fiction that often.
[Mary] So you would also like my Thin Man space opera.
[Navah] I super would.
[Brandon] You’ve got a Thin Man space opera?
[Brandon] So it’s got comedic like Thin Man as well?
[Brandon] Oh, hoh hoh.
[Mary] And it’s a happily married couple.
[Dan] That’s fantastic.
[Navah] Tell me more.
[Mary] This is not about me pitching. I don’t know why this has happened. I’m sorry.
[Howard] But, fair listener, pay close attention to what you are hearing.
[Navah] Again, closed room comes back to the character thing. You lock people in a room… And what better room is there than a spaceship in space? And you just get interesting shenanigans. Heists. You mentioned heists. I love a good heist. Also an epic fantasy. Primarily one with a lady protagonist. I would love a phenomenal epic fantasy.
[Brandon] That is awesome.
[Dan] Now, I was just going to say very quickly, since we’re talking… We’ve said lady bro heist like 900 times. I have one coming out in February. It’s called Ones and Zeros, and it’s awesome. So, everyone read it.
[Navah] I will read that.
[Brandon] When we were talking about this episode ahead of time, and I want to just talk about this for just a minute or two. Mary wanted to give some context to this episode, how you can take what we’ve been talking about here and apply it in general to talking to editors and learning about editors and pitching your work.
[Mary] Yeah. So, a lot of times what will happen is an editor will actually have on their website… Not all of them, but a lot of times you will see an editor or an agent have their wish list. One of the things that my mom taught me… My mom is an arts administrator. One of the things she taught me when talking about how to make a sale was to talk less about yourself and that the other person is always more interesting than you. So one of the things, rather than going to an editor and saying, which is what I’ve been doing tonight, because I’m not trying to make a sale. “Hey, I have this… I saw that you were looking for this, and I have this thing about Thin Man and space opera.” Say, “So, you’re looking for closed room science-fiction? What sort of things make you excited about closed room science-fiction?” To get the editor talking about it. Once they have begun talking about it, then you can kind of slip in things that you have been working on. Which…
[Navah] I’m nodding, but you can’t see that, podcast people.
[Brandon] For those not benefiting…
[Mary] But, I mean, that is one of the things that I… Even though I was not actually pitching. Really. Really I was not. But that’s one of the things that we are modeling a little bit here when she’s talking about…
[Navah] No, it’s true.
[Mary] This is a thing that I’m interested in…
[Navah] No, those came… I mean, you just lobbed them very gently at me, because I was talking about things I was interested in. So in the course of a conversation, it’d come up in a more natural way. To make me interested and excited.
[Brandon] We were telling the students we were interacting with, I was there with Dongwon Song, who we will have on the podcast a little bit later. He’s an agent. One of the things he said was be ready to talk about books you’ve read recently that you’ve enjoyed that actually are similar to your’s in some way. Because that gives you a nice way to approach a pitch without being hard pitching. Right? You can say, “I read this. I love how they did magic systems. It’s the sort of thing I aspire to do very well.” Like that sort of conversation is a lot more… It’s just easier.
[Mary] It’s more organic.
[Brandon] It’s more organic.
[Navah] In everything, just remember that editors and agents are people, so nobody likes to be targeted, as you were saying earlier. No one likes to be… Like you’re coming to like throw something at us. Have a conversation. Make it a conversation. Everyone is more receptive when you are… When we’re engaging with you, and we’re talking with you, instead of you just talking at us.
[Howard] I do not… My career does not depend on me selling things to editors and agents. But if I had a novel that I wanted to sell, I would never for a minute consider it… Consider selling it to someone cold calling. I would approach someone with whom I’d had a conversation. Okay, yes, I got kind of a longer lever because we’ve had a lot of people who are guests on the show who would happily talk to me about this. But I would approach them because I know how to talk to them. We’ve already had a conversation. I know that they are interesting. I don’t know if this relates, but a book that I’ve written, anything that I’ve created, is kind of my baby, and I want to hand it to somebody who I kind of already like.
[Brandon] No, that’s excellent advice. I have to call the episode here. We’re out of time. We really appreciate you coming on, Navah.
[Navah] This is fun. Thanks for having me.
[Brandon] And we appreciate our audience.
[Brandon] I do want to give you listeners a brief warning. We’ll talk about it more next week, but in three weeks, we’re going to do Ghost Talkers as our Project-In-Depth. This is Mary’s new novel. It is excellent. We will go in-depth into spoilers, so you have three weeks to read this book so that you can listen to this episode, and learn a lot about the writing process directly from Mary.
[Brandon] All right. To bring us out, Mary’s going to give us some homework.
[Mary] All right. So, Navah talked about the this-meets-that and looking for the emotional heart of those things. So I want you to write two different pitches for your work in progress. Whether that’s short story or novel. One of which is basic this-meets-that. So think about the emotional heart of your piece and pick a film or book or some other touchstone that has that same emotional heart. Not the set dressing, but the heart. Then I want you to do a second pitch, but this time I want you to think about the set dressing. So, Orphan Black, people who have the same face, that is set dressing. The emotional heart is about sisters. So think about those two things. Look at those two pitches. Then see which one fits your story best, and whether or not, in fact, what you need is a third pitch which is a combination of those two.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.