Regina Hayes has edited Sarah Dessen’s young-adult novels at Viking since 2001. As Dessen’s 11th novel, The Moon and More, comes out this month, Hayes and Dessen emailed each other about finding the right title, adding the right cameos, and writing the right boys (and the wrong ones).
Sarah Dessen: I'm really happy to have the chance to talk about the editing process. It's something that I think doesn't get the weight it deserves, especially with the rise of self-publishing. Maybe other writers have perfect first drafts, but I am not one of them. I always try to get the book as tight as I can, but you reach a point as the author where you have lost all perspective.
Regina Hayes: From my perspective you really don’t need much line editing; you have a very distinctive style that I wouldn’t want to change. So my initial editorial letter always has to do with bigger questions: structure, plot, motives.
Dessen: The day I get your editorial letter is always both exciting and terrifying. On the one hand, I'm glad to not be all alone battling the revision process anymore. On the other, I'm always sure you're going to suggest something that I won't be able to fix or do.
We do our revision exchange in a very old school way, with the editorial letter and actual manuscript and pencil edits. We couldn't track changes in a Word document if you forced us! We joke that we're Luddites (and we totally are) but I like being able to go through the manuscript page by page and make all the little changes first before I tackle the bigger ones you bring up in the letter. It just gets me back into the book slowly, and gives me a sense of control. Even if it's a false one.
Hayes: The girls in your books are always on a journey. The books are not problem novels, nor are they boy-meets-girl tales. They’re full, rich, stories about a person in transition, caught in a nexus of change. There is always a large, well-developed cast of characters, both major and minor. So my role, I think, is to provide a fresh eye on the overarching story and to ask a lot of questions.
Dessen: I think you're right about how the books are always about a girl going through changes. It's what makes the book so hard to describe and also difficult to categorize. It's also why I am always so grateful that you write the flap copy that people read when they first pick up the book. Whenever anyone asks me what one of my books is about, I always say, "Well, it's about this girl, and ..." Twenty minutes later they have lost all interest but I am still talking.
Hayes: And then there are the boys. Of course they’re different from book to book, but they’re always quirky and/or artistic or musical, sensitive, tender—and incredibly hot, natch.
Dessen: When I was a teen, I was never really into the captain of the football team or the student body president. The guys I liked were quirky and different: They listened to music I'd never heard of, never had lunch or gas money, and could always make you laugh. It's one of the perks of being the person writing the story that you also get to fall in love along with your narrator, so I guess I am just making it easy on myself. What's harder is when I know that the guy isn't the One for a character, even if she doesn't. It's definitely more fun to make someone totally and truly appealing. Having someone appear that way, but turn out otherwise, is a bit trickier. You and I encountered this a bit in The Moon and More. You’ll jot comments in the margins like, "He's such a jerk!" at the exact moment I can't have my narrator or the reader thinking it. So I know then I need to adjust both the boy and the way I am writing him.
Hayes: I’ve been reading through the correspondence about the books we worked on together—seven so far. It’s really been an eye-opener to remember how much work you put in to achieve a seemingly effortless result. Along for the Ride is a perfect example. I was surprised to see that we were worried initially about Auden’s likeability. In the first draft, she came across as a bit prissy and self-satisfied, disdaining all things girly and frivolous. But as you developed the back story of the divorced parents, the feminist/academic mother, the school she attended, the lack of congenial girls to be friends with, she emerged as a girl who had been denied a lot of normal teenage experiences and was rather clueless and wistful.
Dessen: I think that it is a common issue in my first drafts, the tendency to overmake a point. I’m usually so worried that I’m not crafting a character effectively that I do it over and over again, knowing that in editing we’ll be able to cut to the point where we have just what we need. As a writer, though, I’d rather have too much than not enough. Cutting is easy. Stretching is really hard. And just a bit of backstory can change everything.
Hayes: Your characters acquire a life of their own, so when one of them turns up in a different book, I have the feeling that I’m encountering an old friend – oh, hey, there are Wes and Macy having pancakes. Why did you start writing those cameos?