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Publishing Interviews: Lexa Hillyer, Co-Founder of Paper Lantern Lit

In our Publishing Interviews Series, we sit down with people on the other side of book publishing -- agents, editors, and more -- providing insight into industry happenings and just what goes into getting a young adult novel on shelves.

Today we welcome Lexa Hillyer, editor and co-founder of the literary development company, Paper Lantern Lit! If you're unfamiliar with what a lit development company does, check out their FAQ page.

1. On the Paper Lantern website, you have a great comparison of literary development companies to literary agencies; both are seeking outstanding writers, but agents are interested in those with completed books and ideas, whereas development companies already have the ideas and want to find the right writer for the story. Neither actually manufacture books – which, as an editor at HarperCollins and Razorbill, was part of the process you were/are involved in. What prompted you to move into the development side of publishing, and what do you most enjoy about your job with Paper Lantern?

Even on the publishing side of things, I was always working closely with packagers like Parachute, Alloy and Working Partners, and I also developed a number of projects basically from scratch with my writers. So plotting was kind of in my blood. I really love the art and discipline that goes into building a strong plot; as maddening and difficult as it can sometimes be, it’s also kind of like solving a puzzle—there’s an incomparable satisfaction when things finally click together, and it becomes more than just a series of actions but a meaningful story that delivers on its promises. So, yeah, I guess that’s why I decided to start up Paper Lantern, along with one of my favorite ideas-people, Lauren Oliver. So we could really focus not just on editing but on developing—developing stories, and developing new talent!

It’s hard to say what my favorite part about the job is—that I get to discuss book ideas all the time, and solve the complex plot riddles they present? Or that I get to work with the awesomest and most eager new writers out there, really helping to shape their prose and story-telling skills? Or that a typical day involves me sitting in a sun-filled café, brainstorming, reading, and editing? Or that my job gives me a built-in excuse to watch lots of television directed at teens… because I’m supposedly “keeping up with what the kids are into these days,” (aka I’m just addicted to those shows.) Yeah, it’s hard to say what my favorite part is… :)

2. Can you describe the Paper Lantern process – how do you come up with story ideas and develop them into plots? Once you have selected a writer, is she a part of the plot development process?

Coming up with ideas is not really the hard part—Lauren Oliver and I both passionately believe that there are infinite stories to tell—even if they all share only a very few key universal themes. The trick is knowing how to turn a set of words or images which intuitively seem to fit together into a more coherent book pitch and then evolve that pitch into a functional and compelling full-length novel. That’s the hard part! I bet there is someone out there who could turn any three words into an awesome book. Let’s try it: Unicycle. Pigeon. Exodus. Go!

Seriously though, it’s good to break down walls and not be afraid to go over the top at first—that sometimes how the most unique ideas come about! And you can ALWAYS streamline and calm things down if it seems too crazy. This goes for my editing process too—I like to tell writers, before you write what you think Should happen in a scene, or even Would happen, first let your imagination run wild with what Could happen. If it’s too absurd or doesn’t work, then revert to the Would. But if it’s all about what the character Should do, you might be trying too hard to control your book, and it needs to breathe and be spontaneous to some degree.

So, we start to create a document about the plot, and we go back and forth on that for awhile. When Lauren and I think we’re on our way to something good, one of us will start laying out a rough chapter outline, which we’ll trade back and forth often for a number of months, until it’s got lots of layers and subplots and rich pay-offs and well-seeded reveals. This sometimes takes us FOREVER it seems. Finally, we feel it’s ready, we share with our agent to make sure we haven’t lost our minds. Then we begin the audition process!

And once we’ve hired a writer… yeah, that’s when all the REAL fun begins. And believe me, the story keeps on growing and changing until we sell it to a publishing house—and then it pretty much keeps on evolving right up until it goes to the printers! The process is pretty organic and the authors definitely get involved in shaping the story—they have to—after all, in the end, the books need to reflect THEM, not us! They have to put their heart into it.

3. More often than not, writers start working on a project and realize that, when the first draft is complete, the story has changed (sometimes significantly) from how they initially envisioned it! Has this been the case with any of your Paper Lantern authors? Is there a collaborative effort to keep the story “on track,” or to adjust and make changes as the story develops?

Oh yeah it totally changes from the initial vision. Ideas and characters are just like living things—they don’t stay static. The authors follow an outline which is kind of like a blueprint—but if the story starts to outgrow the outline, as sometimes happens, we try our best to go with the flow of it, while making sure we’ve helped them work through any new snags the changes may have caused.

4. Unpublished writers who spend even a small amount of time online have access to an overwhelming amount of advice on the query process, including a whole lot of “what NOT to do’s”. What tips do you have for writers interested in working with Paper Lantern? Anything we should definitely do (or definitely avoid doing) in our submissions?

Yeah, there’s really so much advice out there it’s overwhelming, and yet it’s also kinda shocking how often people ignore it! :) We are not as concerned with query letters since we ask for quite short samples; we really try to just focus on the material itself, and the voice. So, be yourself, but show off your strengths! If you don’t know what those are, you may not be the right kind of writer for us—you’ve got to trust in your own voice, and we’ll help you learn the rest!

Also: we are NOT interested in hiring people who just want to be an invisible ghost writer. This is not a quick gig, but a big and exciting and challenging adventure that we’re all going to go on together, so you’ve got to be really sure you’re up for it!

5. Literary agents usually have a list of genres they’re most interested in representing, such as paranormal romance or middle grade fantasy. For writers who are considering applying for Paper Lantern, what genres can they expect if they are selected for a project? Are there any genres in YA/MG Paper Lantern is not interested in?

We’re pretty much open to it all! You never know what our next project will be, so like I said, just represent your own voice and your own skills, and we’ll let you know if we’ve got something right for you! FYI, we do keep people on file for quite a long time if we love their prose but don’t immediately have a project.

Five Real Fast

1. Free plane ticket to any destination in the world – where would you go? Right now? Anywhere sunny and beachy!

2. What was your favorite book as a child? Jacob Have I Loved

3. Favorite coffee drink? Earl Grey Tea

4. Least favorite paranormal creature? Dragons? Do they even count? I’m less into creatures that don’t have any human qualities, ya know? But I am always open to being convinced otherwise!

5. If you had to choose, would you rather be an elf or a hobbit? Elf.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. So interesting to hear about this lesser-known (to me) part of publishing. Thanks Lexa and Michelle!

  2. "I like to tell writers, before you write what you think Should happen in a scene, or even Would happen, first let your imagination run wild with what Could happen. If it’s too absurd or doesn’t work, then revert to the Would. But if it’s all about what the character Should do, you might be trying too hard to control your book, and it needs to breathe and be spontaneous to some degree."

    I LOVE this. I'm going to print it and hang it over my desk to remember every time I write. LOL

  3. Interesting concept for Paper Lantern. I often think about how books are made and it makes sense to me there are ideas people who hire writers to expand on them. Do both the idea maker and the writer get credit for writing? Or just the writer? Curious!

  4. I applaude the line about stories and characters not being static. As a writer, I never truly feel like something is done. My YA novel has been in print for six months, and I still think of things I would change!

  5. I remember Libba Bray said she originally worked with a book packager. But I had never read about the process. This all sounds very intriguing

  6. I loved reading about the process from idea to the final print - wow, you guys put a tremendous amount of time and effort into a project! I wondered how many books Paper Lantern Lit takes on a time?

  7. I can't decide if it would be easier or harder to take someone else's idea and turn it into a book. I don't think I would ever feel true ownership of it, and ownership of my books is really important to me.

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  9. I'm a Paper Lantern author! Working with Lexa and Laura has seriously been the best learning experience of my writing life. I don't think even an MFA program could have taught me as much about plot! These ladies know their stuff, and I'm so lucky to have found this path into the publishing industry!

    And after all the time I've spent writing, I definitely feel ownership over the idea. Sure, it didn't start out as mine, but it definitely grew into mine. They're also really good at matching authors with projects that fit their style. Meant to Be is totally the kind of book I would have wanted to write had they not matched me up with the project!


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Item Reviewed: Publishing Interviews: Lexa Hillyer, Co-Founder of Paper Lantern Lit Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman