Writer and Editor Wendy McClure wants to find the books you can't stop thinking about
Children’s book editor and writer Wendy McClure tells us about what first made her feel like a writer, studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the problem-solving side of editing, and writing a book about all the Little House on the Prairie home sites.
Fast facts about Wendy
Where she’s from: Oak Park, Illinois
Grew up with: her mom, dad, and brother
Education: Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa and a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa
Where she lives now: Chicago, Illinois
Growing up she thought she'd be: wearing a lot more formal business attire
Now she’s: a children's book editor and writer
What were you like growing up?
First I was the kid who drew pictures. I was kind of a shy kid. I was very sensitive, so for a while, drawing was my thing for getting attention. I would draw pictures, and then kids would gather around my desk and watch me draw. Mostly just people, and I could draw cartoon characters. I could draw horses. It’s something I did through high school, but at some point in junior high, it started competing with writing as something that people told me I was good at and I liked doing.
Why did you decide to focus more on writing as you got older?
When someone told me to draw something, I felt like I have to because I’m good. I struggled with that with my writing, too, when I started really getting into writing contests and winning little writing competitions. That was really validating, because then I could say to everyone, "hey, I’m a writer," because I won this award.
Winning writing competitions was really validating, because then I could say to everyone, "hey, I’m a writer."
How and when did you get into writing contests?
I was in sixth or seventh grade; a teacher had entered me, and then I found out and I got this little trophy. Throughout junior high and high school, I would submit lots of things. Sometimes they would really like what I did, and sometimes, they wouldn’t get what I was doing, and I’d get really mad. It was really encouraging and validating, but I kind of stressed myself out over them. It was nice, because when I was judged in these contests, it would come back with a little written critique typed up by a real writer.
I sent some stuff off to literary magazines when I was in high school, and that was fun. I would get my hopes up and send these poems out. You send them out and you include a self-addressed stamped envelope. So you get this envelope in your own handwriting, and then you open it up, and it would always be a rejection slip.
How did you feel about school?
I don’t think I felt as smart as some of the other kids. I had the writing thing. I definitely wasn’t a very organized student. I wasn’t the greatest student. I was in these upper level classes, but I don’t feel like I really excelled at them. I was good in history, and definitely English. Math, not so much.
What did you like to do outside of school besides writing?
I was on the props crew in the theatre department, and that was a lot of fun, because you would hang out with a whole bunch of your friends and you’d paint furniture and you’d find weird junk to use as props in plays. You wore all black and you had to run out between scenes when the lights went down and rearrange the props, and so it was artistic, but it was also getting to feel the kind of energy and excitement of a play.
It was definitely the first thing I had ever done where you had this common goal, and then you could have it happen and have opening night, and be like, it’s done. Now that I think about it, publishing a book, from being a writer or being an editor at a publishing house, is kind of like that as well, because you have to work with lots of people, and then there is a big, ta-da moment, and then it’s done.
Can you tell us about going to graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa?
If you’re doing the program really young like I did- I was 23- then your sense of what’s good and what’s bad depends a little too heavily on what other people say. I found that I didn’t go on to write poetry after I left the program because without people there to look at me and look at my stuff and say this is good or this isn’t, I didn’t know what to do anymore.
My experience in graduate school involved not only people critiquing your stuff, but also these very prestigious professors who were writers and they’d won things like Pulitzer Prizes and they were big deal people, so you tended to treat their criticism as pronouncements on high. Your whole day or your whole month could be either made or ruined by what a professor said about your work.
How did you decide to go into publishing?
It was a lot of flailing, honestly. At first I thought I would try teaching, because most of my teachers, that’s what they are doing. I realized that teaching wasn’t for me. I knew I wanted to do something where I could still be around words and language and books, and there was a little bit of pressure from my family saying, “well, you’ve got this fancy degree. Now you have to use it somehow.”
That got me into the notion that I wanted to get into publishing. I first wound up at a textbook company, and then just managed to stumble into a job at Albert Whitman, where I was actually only working part-time at first, because I wanted the job and that was the only thing they offered. I wanted it so bad. Luckily I was doing something else, and I wasn’t living someplace that was super-expensive like New York City.
What surprised you about being an editor?
When I first heard about what editors did beyond just proofreading and checking your grammar and punctuation, was kind of shocking to me. [I thought] you would have a finished poem and then you would have a book of finished poems, and then the publisher would just put a cover on it.
But even when it’s finished, it’s not finished. It took me a few years to look over the shoulder of the older editors to see what they were doing and understand what it was like to look at something and say this is good, this needs to be changed, and what you have to do to get someone on board with making a change.
My job is to work with a book to make sure it meets that potential that I see.
How do collaborate with your writers on the editing process?
As soon we make the decision to publish something, and the person says, yeah, publish my book, it’s a partnership. They have brought their work and I think there’s potential. My job is to work with it a little bit more to make sure it meets that potential that I see. A lot of it is talking to the author about what our plans are and what kind of book we see this as. I would talk to you in terms of how you can reach your reader better. It’s not so much that I’m telling you to change something. I’m trying to tell you how to do your job better as a writer.
What are your favorite things about being an editor?
Being able to see things like a great review for a book and being able to forward that to my author, and they’re really excited. Looking at a story, reading a manuscript, and that moment when you know what this story needs to be improved. Or some author will say she’s struggling with something, and I will look at it and know what to do.
The biggest thing was realizing what was helpful to the author and ultimately to the story, and as opposed to what would I do as a writer and figuring out that difference. I don’t even think I can put into words what that difference is.
Do you specialize in a particular age group or a particular genre?
I do a little bit of everything, but I do tend to do most of the YA novels. I have worked on a lot of picture books. After a while, you figure out what you’re not into, and you tell agents and authors not to send you that stuff, because you’re not a good reader of it. I’m not a great reader of swords and sorcery kind of fantasy. I love Harry Potter, but there’s a whole world of fantasy novels out there, and I’m not really into those.
I used to just like young adult stuff that was all solid, grounded contemporary, no magic. But I’m a little bit more open to weird things happening. I like historical stuff, and actually, I’m really interested in buying a project right now that’s a little bit historical and a little bit magic, and that stuff is really cool.
How do you spot a manuscript with potential? Is it something you’ve developed over the years of doing your job?
It definitely is a lot of reading. I’ve learned to really, really look at the writing. Even if it’s a really good idea, if the writing isn’t good, it’s not going to go well as a project. The idea has to be interesting, even when I’m reading the agent’s cover letter. If I’ve read 10 or 15 pages, and I find myself thinking about it later on; I’m trying to go get back to it. There’s a feeling when you start reading something and you start to think, “oh, I hope we can get this.”
So many times when I present the manuscript I’m interested in buying to a meeting where everyone else has read it or read at least part of it, I find myself saying, “I know this is another summer romance, but it’s a story that gets past everyone’s prejudices about ‘ugh, another dystopian thing’ or ‘ugh, more vampires.’” It’s worth noting that a lot of the mega bestsellers, like Twilight and Hunger Games and Harry Potter, a lot of people say, “I don’t usually read books, but I read this one,” and that is what makes a good book. Those people were doing something that they wouldn’t usually do, but the story drew them in.
Are the kinds of books you’re drawn to now as an editor similar or different than the kinds of books you were drawn to when you were growing up?
Some of them are, some of them aren’t. A lot has happened in young adult since I was a kid and since I was a teen, and there’s a lot more options.
You were a fan of the Little House books, and wrote a nonfiction book about them called The Wilder Life. How did you decide to write a book about them?
I hadn’t re-read the books in 30 years. I was worried that the books wouldn’t be as good as I remembered them. Then I re-read them, and “oh my god. These are great, and they’re just as good as I remembered.” I read them one after another and I started to look up all the places where the Ingalls family lived in real life on the Internet. I started telling friends of mine, “Someday I would love to write a book about going to all the home sites.”
Finally a friend of mine, who works in publishing said, “I think you need to write that book.” This was not my first book, and so I had a relationship with my agent and also my editor, and I wrote my agent saying, “I have this weird idea,” and she wrote back, “you know, I still have a sun bonnet at home. I’m so into this.” She mentioned it to my editor, and she was into it, too.
I wrote up a proposal and I wrote some sample pages. The publishing company said, okay, if you’re going to do this, we want this and this and this, and I had to think about whether I wanted to do those things, and I went from there.
One cool thing about being a children’s book editor is that you find out about all these interesting pockets of history and interesting people.
You’ve also written some middle grade books, the Wanderville series. How did you make the leap from writing nonfiction to writing fiction for younger readers?
Razorbill, which is an imprint of Penguin, was looking for historical fiction. My agent told them about me and said, “I’ve got this client Wendy McClure and she wrote The Wilder Life and she also works in children’s books on the Boxcar Children,” which I edited at Albert Whitman. My agent told this editor that I might be a cool person to write books for them, which I was really lucky to have happen.
What kind of story would I want to write? I’d always thought about being an orphan and what that was like, because it’s something that comes up a lot. That’s part of the literary device of children’s stories, but there’s a lot in history that required kids to be on their own. One cool thing about being a children’s book editor is that you find out about all these interesting pockets of history and interesting people, because you read other books about them. There are some great, great nonfiction children’s books about the orphan trains, and so I had an idea for doing a fiction series.
You’ve written columns, you’ve written blogs, you’ve written a memoir, you’ve written in so many genres. What keeps you excited about writing?
The sense of problem-solving. This thing’s in my head and I don’t know how to get it out, and you work with it long enough then suddenly, now I know how to tell the story, and that’s really exciting. Also when an idea comes to me and I feel like I need to share it, and the moment when you figure out or just before you figure out how you’re going to do something.
My process from book to book, or even from month to month, is never really the same, and that’s something I figured out. It’s like being in a maze where things are constantly shifting. I don’t have one process that works for me. For every book, I have to figure out the way I’m going to write this book. You do accumulate knowledge and skills, but to some extent, every book is really starting from scratch.
with writing, you really have to find out what works for you, and it might be a lot different than what worked for the writer who teaches your class.
So what advice would you give to someone who wants to work in books and in writing or publishing, just anything that has to do with books and reading or writing?
Definitely with writing, you really have to find out what works for you, and it might be a lot different than what worked for the writer who teaches your class, or the local writer you’ve seen at a bookstore when they talk about their writing method. For me, I don’t actually have time to sit down and write for, like, two hours every day.
I spent a lot of time feeling bad because I couldn’t do that, and I thought I had to do that to be a writer, but I figured out what worked for me, which is when I’m working on something, just to even just touch it, just change two words, even if I take just 20 minutes to look at it and that’s all I have time to do in that day, then that helps. It just keeps it in my mind, so that’s what write every day means for me. There are so many different ways of working, and you can really frustrate yourself if you think there’s only one way or a right way to do something.
How did you imagine in your life as an adult when you were growing up when you were in high school, and did you ever think that you would be doing the things that you’re doing?
I’m a lot more casually dressed in my every day in my adult work life. I don’t think I imagined I would be able to do creative, really interesting work and be at an office. I thought I would either have to be the bohemian person working in a studio and being all artsy-fartsy or that I would be at a really boring corporate job and I’d be wearing a gray suit. So it’s definitely different, and it’s a lot better than what I imagined.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out some of Wendy's favorite books and find out more about her work!