I aspire to read at a fraction of the volume some of you do.
I’d love to savor books on the order than I savor Totino’s pizza. (Not every day, but when I do, I savor it, and that’s how I imagine it must be to get into a good book. Like a supreme Totino’s pizza.)
Someone must decide which stories present the most compelling reads – even before we talk design for book covers or what wine to serve with chips and salsa at our book signings. These things are also important.
Isn’t that what we should be thinking about?
Today’s #GirlsRock guest makes a living of doing just that. (No, not the guac talk.) Jess Cohn is acquisitions editor for Mascot Books. She assesses book proposals to find the stories we most want to read. It’s fascinating work!
Please give Jess a warm CD welcome – and check out this post she wrote, too.
Eli: When you were little, what did you think you’d grow up to be?
Jess: Originally I thought I would be a dolphin trainer. They were my favorite animal and I was jealous of people who got to swim with them all day. Then when I finally got to swim with them on my own, I realized I most certainly did not want to get into cold water every single day. I had a brief stint where I wanted to be an interior designer, but I’m not great with measurements. I’ve always loved books, but when I took a creative writing class in high school I realized that I could actually make a career on the opposite side of books: in the publishing industry.
Eli: How did that realization unfold?
Jess: I didn’t know that there were so many different moving parts to making a book. In the creative writing class, we had a unit where we talked about what would happen to our books after we wrote them and there were so many other people involved with getting the book out to readers. I never really saw myself as a writer, but if I could be the person that helped decide what books would be published, well that would be a dream job. So I did some extra research on what degrees qualified someone to get into publishing and that’s what I aimed for.
Eli: What degree path did you take?
Jess: I went to the University of North Carolina Wilmington not only because it was my dream school, but it’s one of the few universities on the east coast that has a publishing program where an undergraduate can obtain a publishing certificate. I have a BFA in creative writing, a minor in English, and the certificate.
Eli: Tell me a little about the course load, and the biggest things you learned.
Jess: The course load is a little different than other majors. My program had me take two classes in each genre (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) before deciding what my concentration was. I chose fiction. Most of my classes consisted of writing short stories and critiquing each other’s work as well as writing essays on evaluating well-known authors’ writing styles. My publishing classes for the certificate were the best ones since we did a lot of role-playing with pretend books and I learned all the ins and outs on how to make a book. The three biggest things I learned were proper grammar and how to use it effectively in fiction, what the core aspects of a good story are (That’s helped me tremendously in my current job), and the entire journey a book takes from conception to distribution in the publishing industry.
Eli: Tell me about your job, and how the core aspects of a good story have helped?
Jess: I’m an Acquisitions Editor at Mascot Books, a leading hybrid publishing company based in Herndon, Virginia. We have a selection process for manuscripts so most of my job is reading through submissions to see if it’s a project we want to work on. I look for how strong the author’s voice is, what the moral of the story is for children’s books, and how the characters are developed for fiction titles. In nonfiction books, I evaluate the topic and how well the author tells a story instead of making it more academic.
Those are all aspects I learned in my creative writing classes and I’m able to tell the difference between stronger stories and ones that need a bit more work.
Eli: What are some elements of stronger stories?
Jess: Strong stories have complex characters. Ones that readers can relate to. They also have a clear story arc in the plot where the conflict is introduced within the first chapter. The author voice and point of view stay consistent throughout and the narrative are fresh and original.
Eli: What are some elements of stories that draw you in?
Jess: I love when there is some sort of magical realism. I work on a lot of fiction books and it’s always a draw for me when the author can solidify that this magic or paranormal element exists in today’s world. I also adore strong female characters and if it’s a nonfiction book, I want an author voice that makes me feel like I am living the story, not just reading about it.
Eli: I have strong female characters in two works in progress. What are the common mistakes we beginners make when creating these characters?
Jess: A common mistake is that sometimes the writer thinks that the girl has to be strictly tomboy to be strong. Think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. But a girl can still be feminine and strong as well. Developing a character’s personality is key. Bravery is important and so is having flaws. If the girl is too perfect, she’s not realistic and the strongest of characters should have weak moments while they rise to meet a challenge.
Another mistake would be not having beta readers check out the work. Beta readers provide great insight into the characters and they’ll let the author know when the character falls flat or if they seem too stereotypical. If the author is writing from the perspective of a different gender, beta readers can also help the author make sure the voice is authentic.
Eli: Titles are important, too. What title would go on your life story?
Jess: That’s a tricky one. My story is still in development so I’m not sure I can put an official title on it yet. A working title might be “I’m a Reader Not a Writer.”
Eli: I love that. Expound on that a bit. Write me a New York Times bestseller description out of it.
Jess: I’m a reader , not a writer. It’s a saying I’ve had since I was young and made up stories about my Barbie dolls and other characters. My parents would ask me to write them down, and I’d say no, I’d rather read a story instead. And I did. My book collection grew exponentially and I scrambled to find stories that I could devour in a day. It fascinated me that a story could develop so profoundly in someone’s mind before being put on paper. I wanted to know the mechanics of it instead of writing my own stories.
I planned to go into book publishing, which is exactly what I did and to do that I needed to know how a story works. How did it grab a reader’s attention? So I read. I read and read, and though I could write my own stories, I’d much rather help authors tell theirs.
Eli: I love that. What’s next for you, Jess?
Jess: Thanks , Eli! I’ve enjoyed this. Well, I was one of the lucky ones and I got my dream job right out of college. I love the company, my coworkers, D.C., and I genuinely enjoy going to work every day so I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon. What’s next would be continuing to help authors achieve their dreams of publishing books and that’s enough for me.
Eli: What advice would you give women as they venture out of college and into work?
Jess: I would say don’t be afraid to not succeed right away. I think there’s a lot of pressure in our society today for women to immediately succeed out of college, but everyone’s path is different and as long as you keep putting your best foot forward, the right opportunity will come along. It can be extremely frustrating, but worth it in the end.
E is for End-of-your-career awards
F is for Frank, my uncle
H is for ✊🏻 haiku (my quarantine journal)