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WANDA OTTEWELL
Harlequin Books

 

Wanda OttewellWG:  Welcome Wanda, and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month.  To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself.   

WO:  Thanks for having me here, Winnie! It’s a pleasure to get the chance to chat with you and your visitors

I’m an editor at Harlequin and have been with the company for more than seven years. In that time I have worked on many of our series—Harlequin Blaze, Superromance, American Romance, Silhouette Desire, Romantic Suspense, to name a few. I primarily work on series books but have had the occasional single title project that has been a fun change.

WG:  Can you tell us why you decided to pursue a career as an editor and what steps you took to get you where you are today?

WO:  This question always makes me smile because, despite the good fit, I sort of fell into publishing. The short story is that after I finished grad school I realized, for the first time in my life, that I was done with school. I had no idea what sort of job I wanted since I’d started my program with the intention of staying in academia. So I called in a few contacts and landed a position as an editor at a small non-fiction publisher. After a particularly stressful period that resulted in the urge to do bodily harm with sharpened pencils, I realized it was time to reconsider my career path. I liked the editing part but wanted to work with material that was more inspiring and interesting—like the romance novels I love to read. The decision to send my résumé to Harlequin was a no-brainer then. Fortunately for me, there was an opening and here I am.

WG:  What genres/lines do you currently acquire works for?

WO:  As mentioned above, my focus is on series. I work with a lot of authors who write for Harlequin Blaze and much of the slush I receive is for this line. But I also have authors who write for other lines. I like the variety.

WG:  When was the last time you acquired the work of an author from the slush pile?

WO:  Early in my career I acquired a lot of new authors from the slush pile. As my author list has expanded and those authors become prolific, I have slowed to acquiring approximately one new author a year. But I’m always on the lookout for that exciting story I can’t put down so I’ve continued reading the submissions.

WG:  Are you actively seeking out new authors, and if so, what would it take to catch your eye?

WO:  I am actively seeking new authors. I look for a story that makes me forget I’m an editor, one that’s so compelling I’m caught up in the tale. I look for characters with strong motivations and sustainable inner conflict. Ideally the romantic conflict is so believable and seems so impossible to resolve that I think this hero and heroine won’t resolve their differences. I love when authors surprise me, when they set a scene up to go in one direction but the characters’ decisions or external events take the scene in an unexpected one.

WG:  Do you think contest credits help an author further their career?  Have you ever acquired a manuscript that you discovered via a writing contest?

WO:  I think that contests play a role for authors. For published authors winning or placing in well-known contests can add to the press kit as well as introducing the books to new readers. For unpublished authors, contests can be a great way to garner feedback from the judges—keeping in mind, of course, that judging is a subjective art so not all of the feedback will be relevant. Contests can also be a good way for a finalist to get her work in front of an editor or agent, particularly if she is targeting the single title market. Having said that, however, contest wins generally don’t influence my decision about a manuscript. I focus on the storytelling and the author’s ability to draw me in and pull me through the story. Over the years I have had the pleasure of acquiring manuscripts that were finalists in the Golden Heart contest.

WG:  When asked what they look for in a new author, most editors and agents will mention a fresh and/or strong voice.  How do you personally define voice?

WO:  Oooh, this is a tough one. Voice is one of those terms that gets bandied about yet few people have a good definition. I think it’s the way in which an author tells a story—the words she chooses, the unique perspective she brings to the scenes and the characters, and the parts of the story that she deems important enough to share with the reader. A story is composed of what is not told as well as what is, so it’s those types of editorial choices that shape voice.

WG:  Have you ever considered penning a novel yourself?

WO:  No, I think my strengths rest firmly on the editorial side of the publishing equation. The editor in me is so dominant and always looking for perfection that I suspect any efforts to write a novel would be over before I began (if you knew how many times I reworked this interview, you’d agree with me!).

WG:  How would you describe your editorial style? 

WO:  I am a big believer in the revision process—just ask my authors. I believe we—the author and I—can always deepen an emotion, develop a theme, strengthen the conflict, or heighten the tension, etc. Sometimes tweaking a few things here or there can make the story so engaging that the reader won’t be able to put the book down. And that is our goal—to create the best story possible.

WG:  What is your involvement with the author’s creative process?  With his/her career planning? 

WO:  I’ll be as involved as an author would like me to be. Some authors like help brainstorming and will send me just a paragraph or two and we’ll flesh out the ideas together. Other authors like to work on the story idea independently so I give my input on the synopsis and/or chapters. I find the creative process fascinating and like chatting with authors about possibilities.

As for career planning, my role there is limited to an author’s work with Harlequin. I am happy and willing to discuss goals and plans, but I recognize that, as a publisher, we may only be one part of an author’s overall career.

WG:  What do you see as the main strength you personally bring to the table as an editor?

WO:  I would say that I offer a different perspective about the manuscript. Before a manuscript hits my desk an author may get feedback from her critique partners and/or readers, so I’m not always the first reader. But along with my knowledge about story structure, I have knowledge of the market and reader response based on our research and sales data. I am also familiar with the series and some of the types of stories that do/don’t sell well or have been published too frequently. I see a lot of different stories so I can tell an author what conventions or ideas I’ve seen a lot—or too much—of so that she can focus on more unique expressions.

WG:  Are some/all of your submissions read by someone else in house before they reach you?  If so, what sort of feedback and/or screening do you expect that reader to provide?

WO:  All of the contracted manuscripts from my authors I read myself. Depending on my workload, I sometimes send slush submissions to readers. The readers write reports outlining the manuscripts’ strengths and weaknesses including how competently the authors have tackled plot, character, etc. Sometimes I agree with the readers’ assessment and sometimes I don’t, which is why I always go through the submission myself.

WG:  Realistically, what is the normal timeframe for your response to queries? Partials?  Fulls?

WO:  We aim to respond to all submissions within three months. With query letters our response time is usually much shorter because they are shorter.

WG:  Given that you feel an individual author’s manuscript is marketable, how important is it that you personally like the work in order for you to pursue acquiring it?

WO:  I’ve worked on a lot of stories that I might not pick up for my personal reading whether it’s because of the type of story or the themes or the characters. But I can see where these stories can and do appeal to other readers. When I’m working on a manuscript I focus on its merits and the strength of the writing.

WG:  What input do you personally have on the cover art selected for the manuscripts you acquire?  What level of involvement do you feel the author should have in this process?

WO:  For series books the authors fill out information sheets about their stories that include details about the characters’ appearance, story synopsis, and setting as well as providing suggestions for scenes that they think would make great covers. Using that information, the editors brief the covers with the marketing people and art directors. We decide on the most appropriate look for the cover—keeping in mind what other covers are in the month and the poses/styles we’ve used recently. Given the number of books we publish each month, this process seems to work effectively.

WG:  Do you feel that writers’ conferences provide significant value to you in the way of personal contact with your authors, other authors (either published or unpublished), and/or other industry professionals?  Do you receive any value from other offerings such as the presentations, pitch appointments, and/or networking opportunities?

WO:  Conferences are a great way for me to connect with authors. I have met authors at conferences who, despite not seeming to write what I work on, end up writing for Harlequin/Silhouette years later. And it’s always wonderful to see the authors I regularly work with face to face. Some fabulous story ideas have come out of those conversations. I also find it interesting to hear what other publishers are doing or to meet with agents to discuss who they represent.

WG:  Do you visit the websites and blogs of authors you work with or of authors you are considering acquiring?  If so, is there something in particular you look for that potentially impacts your view of the author and their work?

WO:  Aside from a bit of shopping, I don’t spend a lot of time surfing the Web—something I’ve been mocked for, believe me! But I do occasionally browse through authors’ sites to see if they’re working on new projects or discover what other stories they’ve written. While the personal information about the author is interesting, our decision to offer for a manuscript rests on the strength of the storytelling.

WG:  Do you approach submissions by agented authors differently from those without agents?  Does your familiarity with/opinion of the agent impact this?

WO:  Generally no. I tend to be driven by deadlines so for slush manuscripts I respond in the order of their arrival on my desk. For contracted manuscripts, the production deadlines always dictate when I read.

WG:  What piece of advice or ‘pearl of wisdom’ would you like to offer authors who are considering submitting a work to you – or to any editor for that matter?

WO:  Always seek to improve your craft. I do this myself—improve my editorial skills, that is—by reading books and articles as well as talking to people about how they resolve issues in stories. I feel it’s our responsibility to give readers the best book possible. If we get complacent or write the same plot with the same character types over and over again, readers will get bored and stop buying the books.

WG:  What sort of misconceptions/ unrealistic expectations have you encountered from authors about what an editor’s role is that you would like to correct?

WO:  Hmm, I’ve run into several so I’ll narrow my answer to a few. One of the big ones is the belief that an author’s career will be made or broken based on the pitch to an editor at a conference. I’ve had authors give me brilliant pitches whose manuscripts lacked the writing competency we want. And I’ve had the reverse experience: authors who gave terrible pitches but whose manuscripts were engaging. Occasionally I have encountered the expectation that a great pitch will result in an instant contract…without the editors even reading the story!

Many new authors expect to be offered contracts immediately after submitting their manuscripts, unaware that often several rounds of revisions—and a lot of time—can pass before a contract is offered. And a manuscript can be rejected even after revising because some element of the story isn’t working. Being prepared for the potentially long road to publication is one of the benefits of belonging to a writers group such as the Romance Writers of America.

One final misconception I’ve encountered surrounds those rejection letters that contain strong encouragement. A lot of authors view any letter than isn’t an offer to buy as an outright rejection and never try again. Yet there are many reasons manuscripts are passed on, and, because of the propriety nature of the information, editors aren’t always free to share the specifics. Perhaps the story doesn’t fit the publisher’s current focus. Or perhaps the editors have recently bought enough stories with similar themes so we want to avoid them for a while. If we think an author’s writing shows potential and we’d like to see another story, we’ll say so in the letter. Authors need to read their letters carefully. If an editor invites the author to send in a new story or to revise the current one and resubmit, the author should do so. I can’t say how many times I’ve hoped authors would resubmit, only to be disappointed.

WG:  How important do you think self-promotion is to a writer’s career?  If so, is there a particular area of promotion that you feel is most effective?

WO:  In the current environment of limited marketing budgets authors do need to be proactive about getting their name known and their books in the hands of readers. Having a Web presence is important as is getting to know their local booksellers. I’m not an expert on promotion so can’t speak to the benefits of blogging or other particular efforts. Authors should investigate and certainly ask other authors about what methods have proven effective for them. One of the advantages of writing for Harlequin/Silhouette is that many readers are loyal to particular series and buy all of the books every month. This can be a tremendous boon for new authors, exposing them to readers whom they might not otherwise reach.

WG:  I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc.  Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share?

WO:  Sadly, I’m not as good at remembering quotes as I’d like to be. Given all of the fiction I’ve read, how cool would it be to actually be able to quote it? However, there is one that has stayed with me:

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”—Eleanor Roosevelt

This sentence reminds me to take the time to dream, and that there is great power and strength to be had in dreaming—something that I can forget as I get caught up in the practicalities of day-to-day life.

WG:  What do you do to relax and have fun?

WO:  Well, I read—no surprise there. Lounging by water with a great book is my idea of perfection. In the past few years I’ve discovered the joys of traveling for pleasure (business travel, on the other hand, is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds). Since I acquired a personal video recorder, I’ve become a complete TV addict! It’s an embarrassing habit for someone who used to go years without watching it. With the PVR it is entirely too easy for me to record many shows—even at the same time!—and watch without commercials. If my habit gets any worse, I may have to seek therapy….

WG:  Other than your client’s work, what do you enjoy reading?

WO:  I tend to read across genres, although I do linger in romance and many of its subgenres. I like historical fiction, works by Canadian authors, and the occasional biography. Generally when I’ve read too much in one genre, I’ll switch to another.

WG:  What are your favorite movies and/or TV shows?  Why?

WO:  Given my answer above I think it would be easier to list what I don’t watch! I like good storytelling and I like to be entertained. Some shows give me both, which is fantastic. But some only satisfy one of those preferences and that’s okay, depending upon my mood. I do enjoy real estate and decorating shows because I like seeing the interior of homes—perhaps because domestic spaces fascinate me. Given my TV addiction, I don’t see as many movies as I used to…I’m much too busy trying to free up space on my PVR!

WG:  Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your life?  In what way?

WO:  The short answer is there isn’t any one book in particular. Books, especially genre fiction, have been constant companions for me (and the bane of many movers’ existence because I tend to keep many books and have been known to change residence a lot). At different times in my life, different books have made an impact. I think that’s the beauty of storytelling in all its forms—there are always truths that resonant with us.

WG:  Before we close, is there anything else you'd like to mention about yourself or the publisher?

WO:  At Harlequin/Silhouette we are always looking for new, talented authors so keep writing!

WG:  Is there a website you can point us to where folks can go to learn more about you and/or your publishing house?

WO:  Absolutely! People can find us at www.eHarlequin.com. The site is an excellent source of information about us as well as providing a place to buy our books and a forum for readers to chat with each other, with authors, and with the occasional editor.

WG:  And finally, thanks again for taking some time to ‘stop by’ this month!Always a pleasure chatting with you.

WO:  Thanks for having me! It’s been a lot of fun.

 

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