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Interview and Live Chat with Donna Ippolito 


Note: At the time of this interview, the late Mary Rosenblum and I were instructors in courses on breaking into print with short fiction and articles and on writing, shaping, and selling the novel. The courses are accredited and were offered by Long Ridge Writers Group. Rosenblum was also webmaster for the LRWG website, which featured weekly chat-room interviews like this one. I am still an instructor in the accredited courses on breaking into print and writing short fiction and articles, which are offered by the Institute for Writers, the school’s new ownership. Mary Rosenblum was a prolific novelist and outstanding writing teacher. Her energy and generous spirit are deeply missed.

Legen Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in
black.
The Moderator's comments are in
blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello all!

 

Welcome to our Professional Connection interview.

 

My guest tonight, Donna Ippolito, is very exciting. Donna Ippolito has been writing, editing, and teaching others to write for more than 20 years. For many years, she was editor-in-chief at FASA Corporation, a Chicago publisher that packaged best-selling science fiction and fantasy novel lines for Penguin Books and Time-Warner. These included the popular BattleTech, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and Vor series.

 

Prior to that, Ms. Ippolito was an editor at the Swallow Press, a prestigious publisher of both literary and commercial titles. Writers published by Swallow include celebrated novelist Anaïs Nin; Jungian analyst Linda Leonard; futurist Robert Theobald; Zen poet Lucien Stryk; and distinguished anthropologist W. Y. Evans-Wentz. She also worked as a senior editor for Consumer Digest Magazine and was a founding editor of Black Maria, a quarterly journal of women's writing. Today, she is a freelance editor whose clients have included Powersuasions, Inc., Ohio University Press, Chicago Architecture Foundation, Publications International, and the American Library Association.

 

Ms. Ippolito's own fiction and articles include stories and reviews published in Sunday Clothes, East West Journal, Small Press Review, Journal of the West, and others. She has been listed in Contemporary Authors, Encyclopedia of Short Fiction Writers, and Poets & Writers. Tonight we'll be talking about writing from the perspective of someone who has spent time on “both sides of the desk.”

 

So, Donna, after all that long introduction, welcome!

 

Glad to have you here!

Donna Ippolito

Thanks, Mary. I'm delighted to be here.

Mary Rosenblum

Shall we begin with the basics? How did you get started writing, or did you begin as an editor?

Donna Ippolito

Well, I started writing from a very young age...but I think I really learned to write from being an editor.

Mary Rosenblum

Why do you think that is?

Donna Ippolito

Because the real art of writing is in the act of editing and revising. We pour it all out in the early drafts, but then the craft comes in.

Mary Rosenblum

I totally agree. J And you've had some very nice publications with your writing.

Donna Ippolito

Yes, but my experience in recent years has been much more as an editor and teacher. Right now I'm trying to find time to work on my book about dreams, but time is the hardest to find. By seeing the problems in other people's writing and having to work under extremely tight deadlines on very long projects, working as an editor was a trial by fire as well as a learning experience.

Mary Rosenblum

That's interesting. That's about the same way that I feel I have learned from my teaching...without quite the deadline pressure, however!

Donna Ippolito

Well, yes, teaching is another great learning experience but the thing about editing was that I had to have distance in order to identify what was wrong and how to fix it. That's not easy for a writer to do in the heat of writing.

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding. Don't you find as a writer that you have to consciously step back from your work in order to gain that distance? It's hard for novice writers to do.

Donna Ippolito

Yes, you need to put the work aside sometimes, but that's where editing has been such a great help to me. I have an editor's eye all the time even with my own work.

charie'

Do you have a technique that helps you distance yourself to edit your own work?

Donna Ippolito

The techniques have to do with knowing the functions of various aspects of each piece of writing. For example, you've got to grab your reader in those first couple of sentences. When I was reading "the slush pile" of submissions, I never got further than that if something didn't catch my attention. That taught me a lot about one important element of any piece of writing.

kolanda

How long should a novice writer set something aside?

Donna Ippolito

There's no set time. Usually you set something aside when you feel stuck or when you've worked over and over the same material so much that you can no longer really "see" it.

kolanda

As an editor what was your main pet peeve about submissions from writers?

Mary Rosenblum

And how does this relate to the weakness you see in student manuscripts as a LR instructor?

Donna Ippolito

My pet peeve was receiving material that was utterly wrong for our publishing program. I couldn't figure out why people didn't just do a bit of research.

Mary Rosenblum

I hear that from a LOT of editors!

Donna Ippolito

This relates to manuscripts from students because they often don't have a clear sense of who the reader is for a piece of writing. You have to know who you're writing for. How else will you know what to emphasize and what to leave out in nonfiction or what tone and style is right in fiction?

reece

How do you meet deadlines while distancing yourself from your work and how do you know when it’s been edited enough?

Donna Ippolito

Well, this is where craft comes into play. You must develop your skills and techniques so that you can rely on them when you barely have time to think. As for knowing when something is finished I suggest that writers join or form a writers group of like-minded souls to get serious but constructive feedback.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you think a novice writer can be objective about his/her own work without some outside input?

Donna Ippolito

Again, I believe that craft is the key word. If you are working from certain principles, you may be able to ask yourself the right questions. But you'll always want to get feedback from your editor (if you get accepted) or other friendly readers (not family and friends, usually).

niro1689

Do you think it's better to complete a first draft before you start revision, or to revise as you work through your draft?

Donna Ippolito

I think that varies with the writer. I do believe it's usually a good idea to get as much out on the page--for better or worse--rather than to start editing yourself in the midst of the creative side of things. Editing and revising are where we refine the raw material. That’s why we call it polishing.

Mary Rosenblum

I'm glad to hear you say that, Donna -- that it is usually better to get that first draft down. I've seen quite a few novice novelists bog down in the middle of a book as they edit until they run out of creative steam.

Donna Ippolito

Yes. The main thing is to have a manuscript that you can go back and edit. If you edit and constrict the creative flow, you'll never have that pile of pages that you can dive back into.

Mary Rosenblum

Hear hear!

kolanda

Would it be good to pay for your work to be edited in advance of sending it somewhere?

Donna Ippolito

I'd be very careful about this. The best thing is to learn the skills and techniques that will serve you in the genre you've chosen. I truly believe writing is a craft like weaving.

 

I truly believe writing is a craft like weaving.

Mary Rosenblum

(Which is why you're taking the Long Ridge course, right?)

Donna Ippolito

The reason I wanted to teach for Long Ridge is that the materials will teach someone EVERYTHING they need to know if they will truly work closely with the instruction manual.

Mary Rosenblum

I totally agree there.

Donna Ippolito

Writers have to read voraciously as well. I think that is one of the best ways to learn to write...by imitating the writers we admire and studying their tricks.

Mary Rosenblum

Donna, I'd like to talk a bit if we may about inspiration versus craft. I run into many novice writers -- especially in the speculative fiction universe-- who believe that all you need is a good idea and the writing simply doesn't matter. The idea trumps all.

Donna Ippolito

Excuse my bluntness, but that makes no sense to me. You've got to tell a good story, and the only way to do that is through tight plotting and an understanding of how plot and character interact in a chain reaction.

kolanda

How do you know you have a really good story?

Donna Ippolito

You'll be excited about writing it, of course, but that's where you also need to test out your work on readers in your own circle or through Internet groups and such. A good story is suspenseful. I just read the novel The Historian, and I didn’t even care if I understood the plot half the time because the characters were so fully realized and the action was so exciting.

Mary Rosenblum

Were you a purchasing editor, Donna, or did you work on in-house projects?

Donna Ippolito

I was the acquisitions editor at two different publishing houses and also at a magazine. Is that what you mean?

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, thank you. J So what was it that made you say “I want to buy this story?”

Donna Ippolito

I'm sure everyone knows this is subjective. I had an assistant who usually loved the manuscripts I hated, but I had confidence in my own taste and I knew what our readers were looking for. I can only say again that a story has to grab the reader up and not let him or her go. That’s a good story—in any genre and even in nonfiction.

Mary Rosenblum

And I do want to touch on something you just said here -- this IS subjective. It's easy for a novice writer to feel that one editorial rejection means all editors will reject it. Which might be so. But it might not either, right? If it’s a good story.

Donna Ippolito

Absolutely, Mary. As we teach in the course, rejection can come for many reasons, as editors usually have very specific themes or other criteria in mind. A rejection might have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

niro1689

Which is better to expand on: characters or plotline?

Donna Ippolito

As I mentioned, the two are interrelated. For me, character is always the starting point; what this person wants with all her heart and soul and what she's willing to do in order to overcome the obstacle in her way. One character will react differently to the same events (plot elements) than another character... You have to know your characters just like you'd know another person--what they'd say, how far they would go, what they're afraid of, what would make them overcome their fear and so on. Each action leads to a new situation (plot complication), which will lead to new actions by the character. I hope this makes sense.

Mary Rosenblum

It does to me. It seems utterly sound.

grayalien

Do you think anyone can be successful at writing fiction, or does it take a degree of "natural aptitude"?

Donna Ippolito

Natural aptitude is simply the starting point. I believe that anyone with aptitude can learn the skills and techniques. Not everyone can be "great" but every person with natural aptitude can learn to be a good storyteller. Most of the great writers were “hack writers” in the sense that they wrote for weekly newspapers and for money. Dickens wasn’t sitting around trying to write masterpieces. He was a working writer.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you SO much for saying that!

keslas

What's your advice on building believable worlds in speculative fiction?

Donna Ippolito

It depends on your bent and the type of reader you want to attract. As long as you can make your ideas credible on the page through small details and technobabble etc. it doesn't really take that much to "create a world." Don't forget that the reader is collaborating with you by filling in a lot of the imagery and scene through his or her imagination.

reece

If you receive a rejection, should you revise the manuscript before sending it out again or send it out a few more times before revising it?

Donna Ippolito

If you haven't received any feedback, I still suggest getting comments from other writers like yourself. They may be able to help you identify any spots that might still need work, but if you're satisfied with the story, I would persist.

Mary Rosenblum

And doesn't that tie back in to what you said earlier about the reasons for rejection? That story might simply have been rejected because the editor had one in inventory like it, right? So revising it might not be a good thing.

Donna Ippolito

That's right. We have to believe in ourselves, but that's where doing a tremendous amount of reading like a writer comes in. If you immerse yourself in the kind of writing you actually want to do, you'll gradually absorb a sense for what works and what doesn't. This isn’t really a science, though.

Mary Rosenblum

Is this a good reason for novice novelists to write the type of book they like to read?

Donna Ippolito

Oh yes, Mary! You'll know exactly what readers are looking for.  You’ll know the kinds of characters that are the most fun to read about, the kinds of settings…the kinds of situations readers want to see the characters dealing with. I’ve had students who say they don’t like to read, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever learn to write well for that reason.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, boy, that has sure been my experience with novice writers and students!

kolanda

Can you have too many characters at one time or in one area of your story?

Donna Ippolito

Definitely. A short story is obviously very different from a novel. It covers only a brief period, and you can't clutter up the plot with a lot of characters simply because you probably don't have the word count. You're talking about a short story, right?

Mary Rosenblum

What about in a novel?

Donna Ippolito

Well, a novel usually has subplots, so you’ll need interesting characters for that, but I think if you have too many characters you risk the reader getting confused and your main character will get too sidetracked from his desperate struggle to overcome some obstacle to his burning desire…a phrase I use to describe plot.

niro1689

How do you know when you have too many characters?

Donna Ippolito

Your main character has to feel very real to you. You’re going to experience everything s/he does in a visceral way. If you start to feel like you’ve got too many characters pulling you (your main character) away from the main action of the story, that should tell you something.

 

You're going to experience everything he does in a visceral way.

kolanda

Can you have two main characters in a struggle at the same time?

Mary Rosenblum

Kolanda mentioned that she's working on a novel.

Donna Ippolito

If you mean can the main character be involved in her struggle while a secondary character is involved in a subplot, the answer is yes. But the subplot has to support the main plot. They aren't independent of each other.

mmmmmm6

How important is educational background in writing/English?

Donna Ippolito

Educational background, per se, is not important. Once again, I say read, read, read, and read some more. You have to fall in love with language, too. I especially want to say that the English language is one of the most flexible, beautiful, rich tools that we could ask for. Start listening to the rhythms of speech because English is a rhythmic language rather than a melodic language like Spanish or Italian.

kolanda

Do you have any suggestions for someone wanting to write an historical/fiction book based on family other than reading those type books?

Donna Ippolito

I don't understand the question. Can you clarify?

kolanda

I am basing my book on actual research of my family, creating characters from those family members...any suggestions on doing that? I have read lots of historical fiction books

Donna Ippolito

Well, you need a plot and a main character. Remember that a plot consists of the main character’s desperate struggle to overcome some obstacle to his/her burning desire. Writing family history is not the same as writing a novel.

Mary Rosenblum

Donna, what is your take on the very common desire of novice writers to use real family events as the basis for a fiction novel?

Donna Ippolito

They will have to face the fact that plot is the heart and soul of fiction. That means they may not be able to tell the story exactly as it happened because fiction and real life are, of course, very, very different. For one thing, fiction has a resolution, while real life may not.

Mary Rosenblum

Truth is no excuse for good fiction. J

Donna Ippolito

Mary, I'm speechless. What a great line.

Mary Rosenblum

I get to use it a lot as an instructor. J

kish100

If a publisher rejects you, should you send it back after a revision?

Donna Ippolito

I hope that novice writers will want to give the reader a wonderful experience--be it scary, profound, passionate, exciting--rather than wanting to recount events that actually happened. If a publisher rejects you with some positive comments, then I think you'd be justified in trying again. Few editors have the time to respond personally to manuscripts they reject, so getting actual comments from an editor is a good sign even if it’s along with a rejected manuscript. Every good piece of writing can find a home. I believe this utterly. You just have to keep writing and keep submitting and not take rejection personally. That’s what actors have to do.

Mary Rosenblum

Amen, amen, amen!!!!

kolanda

I don't want to recount family events, I want to weave those events into a great story...is that what you mean?

Donna Ippolito

Well, a great story is based on a plot and a plot must be suspenseful. And the reader must identify totally with the point-of-view characters. That identification with a character is what keeps the reader glued to your words. We begin to live the experience vicariously through the character until it becomes OUR experience. This is the reason we read and it’s the secret to writing that is successful.

Mary Rosenblum

I think that's very well put and I hope you all in the audience copy this and paste it up on a corner of your monitors. Nice capsule description of Good Story.

Donna Ippolito

Thanks, Mary. Of course it's easier said than done.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, yes. J

mmmmmm6

For aspiring novelists; what writing would make a good portfolio?

Donna Ippolito

It makes sense to start out writing stories and trying to get them published. It doesn't matter where you get published, just get published. An editor is very influenced by a writer's track record. It's hard for writers to understand that editors are schizophrenic. On one hand, they’re looking for fresh, new talent for their readers and on the other hand they’re pressured, overworked, and so on. If a writer has a track record, the editor may think ok, this is worth me taking some time out of my over-scheduled, deadline-driven day. It’s not a guarantee, though.

Mary Rosenblum

Which is also why it's important to present a professional looking manuscript?

Donna Ippolito

Oh Mary, that is SO important. Who more than an editor will notice typos that the ordinary person will not? A professional presentation can also make the difference between the editor taking some time with you or not taking the time.

grayalien

Do editors actually read every submission?

Donna Ippolito

It depends, I suppose. At one job, I was the only reader. At FASA, I had an assistant who read the unsolicited manuscripts and only passed on ones that she thought were worth a closer look. Some publishers (academic types) send out manuscripts to professors and such and often don’t do the editorial work.

sss1208

Do editors actually read every query letter?

Donna Ippolito

Again, this depends on the situation. In one job, I was the only one who read everything, including queries. If you want to write nonfiction, I advise you very strongly to master the query, though. A good query will take you a long way. Queries aren’t so important for fiction, however.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, in novel, more and more agents and editors want queries only at first.

Donna Ippolito

I guess I'm distinguishing a query from a proposal. I only accepted proposals as a fiction editor. That was a good, well-written, exciting summary and several sample chapters.

Mary Rosenblum

It has changed a lot in the past few years. I have been surprised at how many houses want only a query (if they accept unagented material at all), and how many agents want only a query at first.

Donna Ippolito

Mary, I have to be very honest here and interject a comment I made earlier. When reading through unsolicited manuscripts, especially fiction, if the first paragraph didn't grab me, that was it. I didn't keep on reading.

Mary Rosenblum

I have heard that same statement from every professional editor I know and I know a lot of professional editors. J Listen up, folks!

mmmmmm6

So focus on publishing stories; or any writing? Would this also include newspaper articles?

kolanda

 

Mary Rosenblum

This refers back to your comment that publishing anything will help get an editor's attention.

Donna Ippolito

If you want to write a novel, I think it's good training to start with stories. Short stories may be harder to write than novels. Newspaper articles are good practice--Hemingway said he learned everything he knew about writing from the Kansas City Star style sheet, but I recommend short fiction when starting out.

carolelizabeth

Is it important to have a degree in English to be an editor or to be published? Or, can you be successful with no degree?

Donna Ippolito

You don't need a degree at all to be a writer. In fact, I think you might be better off without one because too many people start writing what they think professors might like. Watch a lot of movies. Read a lot of great books, from the potboilers to the classics. In fact, I would even start watching sitcoms and TV programs purely to analyze the plots. Learn to plot.

niro1689

Is it possible to have two main characters at the same time?

Mary Rosenblum

Niro says he's asking about short story and novel.

Donna Ippolito

For a short story, I say no. A short story has unity of time, place, and character. Each scene has to build to the next...In a novel, of course, you will have subplots where secondary characters will have their own little story going but it won't be as important as the "main action".

reece

Is it better for the reader to find out information with the characters or let the readers know beforehand and "watch" the characters proceeding while ignorant?

Donna Ippolito

Don't tell the reader anything beforehand. Be inside the character, inside his or her heart and mind. The reader has to live the experience through that character’s limited consciousness, which is exactly how each of us humans must bumble along through life.

charie'

Is the MC's desire to survive the evil perpetrated by the villain a worthy plot?

Donna Ippolito

That sounds very abstract. The basis of a plot might be that, but it seems limited and artificial. It’s better if the plot is based on the main character’s motivation (burning desire). Throw all kinds of obstacles at him or her that force the character to go beyond who he or she is so that the character will ultimately be transformed at the end of the story.

grayalien

When conjuring up the idea for a novel, it's tempting to imagine it becoming a series, with sequels and prequels and such. Is this a good idea, or a problematic one?

Donna Ippolito

It's hard to say whether it's a good idea, but it seems distracting. I'd rather see a writer working at his craft and trying to tell the very best story in the manuscript in front of him right this minute than projecting into the future.

niro1689

Which POV seems to engage readers best?

Mary Rosenblum

I'm assuming he means first or third?

Donna Ippolito

One isn't better than the other. Again, that's abstract. I would choose a point of view depending on what effect I wanted to have on the reader with a particular character. Again, it’s better to go deep into your character and experiment with point of view to see which works best for the story. I don’t see any value in predetermining the point of view. It needs to be an organic decision based on your connection to your material.

kish100

What if the short story is about 2 main characters in conflict?

Mary Rosenblum

I think Kish is referring to the “can you use two main characters” question.

Donna Ippolito

I don't believe that a short story can have two main characters. The main character may be in conflict with another character, but only ONE character can be the main character.

niro1689

Will editors look at writers with no clips?

Donna Ippolito

Every magazine or publishing house is different. Clips will always be in your favor so your main goal is to get published in order to get them.

charie'

What percentage of manuscripts did you accept for publication out of the many received?

Donna Ippolito

The percentage was small. Many times I went looking for writers.

 

For example, I read magazines to see if there were promising writers I wanted to contact.

red 1a

What are the most common errors you see from new writers trying to break into the novel market?

Mary Rosenblum

I know you mentioned this, but I think restating it is worthwhile.

Donna Ippolito

Let me say one thing before answering. I don't mean to sound discouraging. Every writer will get published if he or she just doesn't give up. Now to answer the question. Many of the writers I worked with were first-timers, especially at FASA, where we did novels based on game products. Dialogue was often stilted and characters often didn't seem to react the way a real person actually would. Often writers didn't set the scene and so I would feel “lost in space” when I got to the next chapter because I had no idea who the characters were or where they were supposed to be. Again, these can all be handled through learning the craft.

kish100

What is your take on limited 3rd POV for fantasy?

Donna Ippolito

I never accepted or rejected something on the basis of POV. Point of view is one of the writer's tools, that's all. Maybe there's another question hidden in that question.

niro1689

Is it possible for the pov to be a secondary character?

Donna Ippolito

I say no, because even if the POV character is recounting events that he/she mainly witnesses or observes, then the story is still about him or her and why that character wanted to get involved in the events in the first place...Maybe the character will have to come to terms with the fact that they don't really want to be somebody's sidekick but that it’s better to be the star of one’s own life.

niro1689

Is there a difference between MC and protagonist, then?

Mary Rosenblum

Maybe we need a definition here.

Donna Ippolito

In my mind, no. The main character is the one with the motivation that sets the plot in motion. Protagonist comes from the Greek and means something like “one who struggles for the prize.” That’s what a plot is about—the main character struggling against difficult odds to win through to some “prize.”

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, Donna, we have worked you hard right up to the wire here. Thanks for many GREAT insights! Do you want to blow your own horn here a bit? Are you working on something now? Or something coming out?

Donna Ippolito

I have put some of my writing about dreams on dreamscoop.com and some of my thoughts on writing on expert-editor.com but I'm still trying to figure out how to carve out the time to get my projects done.

Mary Rosenblum

We just need the 36 hour day, that's all! Thank you SO much for coming, Donna. You were great!

Donna Ippolito

This was a fascinating experience, but I can't tell whether it was helpful.

kolanda

It was for me!

charie'

Thank you both.

Donna Ippolito

I'm so glad.

niro1689

Yes, thank you!

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you all for coming tonight! Thank you, Donna. You gave folk some VERY good advice. Good night all! See you on the website!

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