No literary genre is an island. Even if there is one genre you usually read, odds are, it has more in common with other kinds of stories than you might think. No one knows this better than Jill Santopolo, whose latest novel The Light We Lost draws on her experiences writing and editing across a number of genres. Here, she tells readers about the lessons she’s learned from her genre-spanning career.
Before I started writing The Light We Lost, I spent ten years editing children’s and young adult novels across many different genres. I’m still doing that, and I love it. I love being able to work on mysteries and paranormal romance and fantasy and historical fiction and contemporary novels because I can look at what one author has done really well in one genre, and see how it might apply to what another author is writing in another genre. I can give tips to a mystery writer about narrative tension from editing a romance novel, I can give tips to a historical fiction writer about world building from editing a fantasy novel. I love being able to do that, finding pieces of the writing craft that crossover from genre to genre.
So when, a few years ago, my boss, the publisher of a children’s book imprint, asked me to read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey to see if there was anything that she did that we might learn from and share with the young adult novelists we were working with, it made perfect sense to me. And I did come up with some things that I thought might be useful—some that I also ended up applying to my own writing of The Light We Lost. And when I did so, it got me thinking: What have I learned as a children’s book editor that could make my adult writing stronger? While young adult novels aren’t a genre, they do have some similarities as far as craft is concerned—and they’re elements of craft that I thought might my make my own novel stronger.
One of the things I keep in mind when I’m editing children’s books is that books are competing for kids’ attention with sports, video games, apps, homework, play dates… basically everything. The goal with any children’s book is to keep the pace of the story moving so quickly that there isn’t any place that feels natural to pause, nowhere to put the book down and go do something else instead. We want those kids to fall asleep with their books on top of their blankets. And one of the ways to make that happen is to pay special attention to pacing. When I started writing The Light We Lost, I kept that in mind. I wanted my readers to get so wrapped up in the momentum of the story that they fell asleep with it on their blankets as well.
I’ve edited more than one teen romance with a love triangle at its center, and, as an adjunct professor at The New School, have worked with students who are writing books with love triangles in them, too. The “who will s/he choose” and “who would I choose” is something that seems to connect readers deeply to the characters whose stories they’re reading—think about Bella, Edward, and Jacob from Twilight. Katniss, Peeta, and Gale from The Hunger Games. Calla, Ren and Shay from Nightshade. The trick, I think, is creating two characters who are potentially a good match for the main character because they fulfill different needs that the character has. Then the reader—and the character—get to choose which of those needs is more important. Making that decision along with the main character is a way to connect the reader to the story, and that’s always my goal—to make that connection.
The Light We Lost is written in vignette form, none of which is more than a handful of pages long. This is something else I look for when I edit books for children and teens. It’s easy to read “just one more,” when the next chapter is only a couple of pages long. This ties in with pacing, but is slightly different because it’s not just the idea of keeping the action moving, but it’s the idea of making each scene as tight and taut as possible.
No Extra Words
When I’m line-editing novels for kids and teens, I often circle words or sentences or whole paragraphs and write “needed?” next to them in the margin. I tried to do the same thing with The Light We Lost. The book’s not all that long, and every word that’s in there feels, to me, like it’s absolutely necessary. I hope readers feel the same way.
There’s that old writing mantra: Write what you know. And then there’s the addendum: Write it slant. For the past 15 years I’ve known children’s books. But with The Light We Lost, I took what I learned and I wrote it slant.
Jill Santopolo received a BA in English literature from Columbia University and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s the author of three successful children’s and young-adult series and works as the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City.