Eastern PA SCBWI’s very own critique group coordinator and meet & greet coordinator, Heather Pierce Stigall, recently caught up with editor and publisher Eileen Robinson here at the café. We are so excited to have Eileen on our faculty for the 2019 Pocono Retreat. Eileen will be leading two workshops as well as providing critiques at the retreat. For more information or to sign up, click here.
Heather: Welcome to the Eastern Penn Points Café! We’re so happy you’ll be joining us for our upcoming Pocono Retreat. You have an impressive resume. Can you tell us a little about the path that led you to children’s publishing?
Eileen: Thank you so much! It was kind of an accident. I was actually trying to get into magazine publishing but couldn’t land a job and so I was temping, hoping something would come along. One day I got a call from the agency about a job at a doctor’s office so I went. It was an awful day. I was suffering from a migraine and had to decipher a doctor’s handwriting to enter into the computer. I jumped up and called an agency that I was with that specialized in jobs in publishing and said, “Get me out of here please,” (and mind you, I had never left a temp job). The woman said, “We have a position in the marketing department at Scholastic.” I said, “I’ll take it!” I was there the next day! Now the thing about this story is I had no idea what Scholastic was about. I didn’t remember their books or book club magazines from my childhood. I just knew it was book publishing and I loved books (though my heart was still set on magazines). I also had no idea the job had been with the temp agency for three months with no response and the woman’s position that I filled was leaving the very next day! Was it meant to be? And, I had no idea that I would become an editor there and it would lead to a long career. And now I own a publishing company, and in addition am helping an educational publisher build a new trade division—Reycraft Books. And despite all this, I still dream of magazines . . .
Heather: What a happy accident! Currently you are an editorial consultant at F1rst Pages. Can you tell us about what you offer at F1rst Pages?
Eileen: I help authors work on their craft. I show you your strengths and discuss the challenges in your story and your writing (and writing career—if you want one). I look at your manuscripts with an eye on the market—as all editors must do—but encourage you to find your voice and tell that story to a child, tween, or teen in a way that would speak to them. I try to help you to work with your fears and explore that in your writing so that the emotion—that crucial element in connecting the protagonist with the reader—comes through. I don’t promise publishing. No editor can do that or should. But I aim for the story to be better than when it came to me and for you to leave with the courage to continue to revise and put it out there when it’s ready.
Heather: You also partner with Harold Underdown (who was a faculty member at our Pocono Retreat last year) at Kid’s Book Revisions. Can you tell us about your role at KBR?
Eileen: My role is similar to what I do as an independent editor. It’s just that Harold and I have teamed up together to provide a broader framework. It’s very unique because not only have we put together these workshops and webinars that focus on different elements of revision, we often take manuscripts, working on the same one, so not only do you get the benefit of two editors on one story, but you get to see how editors agree and disagree, and you can take all of that and determine your own path. We focus on revision because we believe that’s where the real work and fun begins. One key thing we want to accomplish with authors is helping them to create their own toolbox, or add to it, so that they have the confidence to edit themselves . . . so they have the confidence to move scenes around, experiment with different ways to find their voice as well as the voices in the story, to play with plot and re-examine character by stepping out of their comfort zones. To look at the way things are said, the way lines of text move across the page—the flow, the rhythm—and most importantly, to not be afraid to tear it all down and build it back up again.
Heather: As if you don’t do enough, you are a publisher too. Move Books. Can you tell us a little about that?
Eileen: Yes, I publish books targeted to boys ages 8-12. Why that niche? Because I recognized many years ago, while working on many other books in-house, that there was a hole. And my son was a reluctant reader, and it unnerved me because I couldn’t imagine a life without stories—in book form. I could go into statistics about boys and reading, but I won’t. I’ll just say, like you were drawn to writing probably in part because you have something to say to the world, to children, or this is your way of leaving a footprint—to say, “I was here and I made a difference to someone”—I, too, am trying to do the same.
Heather: As a picture book writer, I’m looking forward to attending your “Picture Book Revision Master Class,” and I see you will also be offering a Master Class for MG and YA writers. Can you give us a hint about what we will learn in your workshop sessions?
Eileen: I’ll be showing you how to look at your writing/story from different perspectives, get you out of your comfort zone. It’s not about you. It’s about your audience. We tend to forget that because we are adults. We sometimes feel like we are being irresponsible in some way if we are not providing some sort of clear lesson instead of letting the characters grow and figure it out for themselves—and letting our audience do the same. We’ll have lots of hands-on work because “doing” is the best way to see things differently, so bring that manuscript or be prepared to start something new!
Heather: Now I’m even more excited to attend your workshop! You have experience giving critiques at conferences and will be providing critiques to Retreat participants who sign up for them. Can you share any tips on how to receive a critique?
- Be open. Remember that you want to get a fresh eye on your work. You’ve been immersed in it for so long. It’s your baby and it’s difficult sometimes to even think of letting that baby out of your sight, or putting it into someone else’s hands, especially for criticism. And that’s the thing—it’s not criticism. It’s guidance, it’s expertise, and it’s also, in some ways, an opinion. You have to let go if you want to grow.
- Why are you writing books for children/teens? Where did this particular story come from? What’s beneath the surface? Not necessarily what’s your goal. We are always told to think in terms of our goals. For now, just remember what brought you to this moment. What brought you to meet me? What’s that story behind the story? That core reason is what’s going to keep you going when you feel like you don’t want to do this anymore.
- Be honest. What do you need help with? Tell me the one thing you might not want to say out loud because you think it makes you sound like a failure. These are the things that hold us back (and our characters).
- Have fun. I’m not judge and executioner. I’m here to help you. Despite what you may think about editors—that we are looking to weed you out. Yeah, well, lots of folks want to be writers and so we’ve got piles of manuscripts, and we can’t publish them all . . . however, what we really want is to lay back, put our feet up, and become so immersed that we forget it’s a manuscript, because it speaks to us and we know it will speak to kids. And I enjoy helping writers get there. And since I am also a publisher, I come at this from many different angles.
Heather: Excellent advice! I can say from personal experience that anyone who has scheduled critique with Eileen will not be disappointed.
Okay, it’s time for some lightning round questions. What’s your favorite . . .
Outlet? Massages and high-stakes bingo
Indulgence? Chocolate, chocolate, and did I say chocolate?
Childhood book? Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Thing to look forward to? The lives my son, nephews, and niece will lead, and other younger members of my family now out in the world, building their dreams
Recently published picture book? Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, Drawn Together by Minh Lê, and The Remember Balloons by Jessie Oliveros (sorry, had to have three)
Middle grade novel? Besides the ones I’ve published? LOL. The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon, Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, and My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
Young adult? Girls on the Line by Jennie Liu
(And, note, I’m sure by the time I see everyone I’ll have others.)
Piece of writing advice? Experiment:
- Put a character in a different setting.
- Give your characters attributes you don’t like.
- Start with the ending of your story instead of the beginning.
- Read a little bit of everything, not just the genre and format in which you are writing.
- Do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, something opposite of who you are. Now, how would your character feel doing that?
Heather: Thank you, Eileen! I really enjoyed chatting with you, and I look forward to seeing you in April in the Poconos!
Eileen: Thank you so much for having me. This was incredibly fun. And I can’t wait to hear about all of you!
Publisher/Editor Eileen Robinson loves the power of stories, and has acquired works from both the UK and US markets, working with authors from many cultures to find their voice. But her son’s reluctance to read is what led to Move Books, and the urge to help all boys experience the joy of reading, especially fiction. Working in children’s publishing for over 20 years, in-house and independently, she was an executive editor at Scholastic and editorial director/manager at Harcourt, she has gone on to partner with Harold Underdown in Kid’s Book Revisions doing workshops and webinars, help build Reycraft Books, a new trade imprint for Benchmark Education, and is currently an adjunct academic advisor for Rosemont College’s publishing program.