Interview with Donelle Whiting of Stitched Smile Publications
Stitched Smile Publications started when Lisa Vasquez saw how publishers approached the market and authors. She wanted to change how it was constantly this cookie cutter template. She began researching what went into creating a successful publishing house, and modeled SSP after the best, most successful indie houses and went for it. SSP wasn’t even public before receiving submissions.
Since the first grin, we’ve seen quality work come spilling from the cracked lips of this press, where Donelle P. Whiting is at the helm as Editor in Chief. A thankless job for many, I set out to find her and discover just how the inner workings of this growing press tick.
When I caught up with her, we focused on what she does as the Editor in Chief, how she manages her staff, the leadership of Stitched Smile Publications, and some of the finer points of the art of writing that many attempt to grasp. Some get a firm hold, some have it slip through their fingers like water. With Donelle’s unique insights, I think we can all make certain we get a firmer grip before the water has a chance to slip away.
NP: Donelle, if you would be so kind as to explain how you rose through the ranks to becoming Editor-in-Chief at such a thriving publication?
To be completely honest, it fell in my lap. The whole thing. The planets must have been in the right alignment or something. 😊 I always liked helping my classmates in school with their papers, but earned a bachelor’s in journalism in college after an elective class my junior year of high school English. I worked on and off for small-time newspapers during the years, but I eventually lost my motivation to work in media. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to help a close friend, Sylvia Shults, edit some of her books. This led to an introduction to author David Youngquist, who has since become a good friend. I became his editor which eventually led to an introduction to Lisa and SSP. I started as an editor, and Lisa was apparently impressed with my tenacious determination to find the errors, my desire to make the words on the page the best they can be while maintaining the author’s voice, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to help SSP and its authors thrive. It was not long before she asked me to be the assistant head editor, and then the editor in chief. It is a challenge and can be exhausting, but I would not have it any other way.
This opportunity also awakened my desire to get back into my own writing
NP: I see many titles under the belt of the press, and even more in production. Tell me, what does the Editor-in-Chief do in the day-to-day evaluation of stories and novels? Do you have final say, or is it more of a group vote?
DW: Hmmm, the day-to-day. Well, let’s see. I edit, and I edit some more. 😃 Seriously though, I am not on the acquisitions team; therefore, I only contribute to the decision of what books we accept when Lisa has a question about how much editing, and possibly developmental work, will be needed. I am in charge of the editing staff, so once a story is accepted it is my responsibility to assign the work to an editor. Once the story is assigned, I make sure both author and editor work as a team. I am always available to answer questions and settle a disagreement if needed.
The idea is to look beneath the surface, to dig into the words and see how they flow together. I don’t spread sunshine and glitter. I do not pay attention to who wrote the story, only what the author wrote and how they wrote it. And I expect my staff to do the same. There is more to editing than pointing out spelling and grammar mistakes. If there is a plot hole, an inconsistency, awkward structure, etc., in addition to the surface errors, the editing staff finds them. Like I said before, our goal is to take a story/book and work with the author to polish it to a brilliance shine.
Once the editing process is done to the satisfaction of the author and his/her editor, which can go several rounds, it hits my desk. Typically, I will send it to a different editor to do a preliminary proof run. We believe in having several sets of eyes go over each manuscript because we all see different things. What does not show up as a blip on one person’s radar can show up on another’s. The proofing editor will mark whatever he or she sees and then send it back to me. From there I have to evaluate if it needs to be kicked back to the author for more revision. Even though the manuscript has been edited and had a preliminary proofing run, I will still take the time to go through it word by word. I take the reputations of both the author and the assigned editor seriously, not to mention I refuse to allow any book to release before it can stand side by side with a book from a main stream publisher. We have a saying here at SSP. We would rather have it right than right now. Indie publishing has a reputation for focusing on quantity over quality. Stitched is not in this for the quick buck. We are in this for the long haul, and we focus on quality and integrity. I put a lot of time and energy into other people’s words because the story is important, it’s the author’s voice not mine, and how the words are put together in sentences matters.
NP: One of your most recent works, Unleashed: Monsters vs Zombies seems to be a smash hit, ranking in the top thousand horror anthologies in the United Kingdom. Tell me about what you were looking for in this anthology and some of the unexpected combinations one can expect to find.
DW: The idea behind Unleashed: Monsters vs Zombies was to get away from the usual zombie offerings. Rather than the usual apocalypse story of humanity dealing with the undead we wanted to offer readers something different, humanity getting a little help from monsters. Those monsters have their own reasons for wanting to eliminate zombies, and the concept was popular enough we opted to release two volumes. The first released at the beginning of this year, and the second should be releasing later this summer or early fall.
Some of the different creatures that battle the monsters include Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and other vampires, demons, a member of the fae, a dhamphir (my story), werewolves, and even a dragon. It truly was interesting to read so many different scenarios beyond the traditional zombies attack humanity and humans struggle to find a way to survive.
NP: Who are some of the authors that Stitched Smile Publications plans on representing this coming year?
DW: We recently accepted submissions from Dan Naden, Jason Morton, and Sam Reese. There are others still with the acquisitions team. James Matthew Byers’ epic poem about Beowulf was recently released, and MF Wahl’s Disease in currently set to go through the final stages of editing. David Court, Mark Deloy, Justin Gowland, Pembroke Sinclair, A.J. Brown, and Briana Robertson all have submissions close to the last stage of editing. August Grappin’s book is being edited. Jeff Strand will have a short story in Unleashed: Monsters vs Zombies, Volume II. One anthology, The Anatomy of Monsters, Volume I, that just left my desk and is, at the time of my answering this question, in Lisa’s hands for formatting and release. The Anatomy of Monsters is an anthology with stories focusing on monster origin stories, the origin story never told before. Robert Teun put it together, and it includes an epigraph by Clive Barker. There are also reprinted stories by: Nicholas Burman-Vince, Simon Bestwick, E.F. Benson, Ramsey Campbell, Johnny Mains and Bryn Fortey, and Brian Hodge. There are original stories by several other authors as well. It was fabulous seeing the spin all the authors put on the creation of the different monsters such as, Jekyl and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gorgons, and werewolves. There are others, and Robert is currently working on putting together the next volume scheduled to be released through Stitched spring 2018.
NP: You have a graphic novel department I saw on your website, so that begs the question: what’s in the future for this unique style of storytelling with your press? Anything on the drawing boards, so to speak?
DW: We are currently looking for someone with experience in graphic novels to head up that department. Anyone interested in talking to Lisa about that can contact her via the SSP website.
NP: A quality leader delegates the duties to other leaders. Tell us about the other heads of the Stitched Smile family.
DW: Stiched has a four-person management team. Lisa Vasquez is the creator, owner, and CEO and has become a best friend. Lisa not only oversees all of us, she also designs the book covers—unless someone is artistic and wants to do their own cover the way James Matthew Byers did for his Beowulf epic. In addition, she is the author of the recently released novel Unfleshed: Tale of the Autopsic Bride, and she is currently going through the editing process with Jeff on her book Unsaintly. Jeff (A.J.) Brown is the author’s liaison. His job is be the bridge to the rest of us when needed and to … well … mediate. Basically, whenever an author has a concern he or she is not sure how to address they can go to Jeff. He will help them get the answers or help they need. If there happens to ever be a grievance Jeff’s Southern charm and no-nonsense manner will be invaluable. Jeff is also one of our authors, having released A Stitch of Madness and Dredging Up Memories. His book, If We Had Voices, will be undergoing my editing pen soon. Ray Nichols is a new addition to the leadership, and a valuable addition at that. Ray comes to us from SQ Horror Magazine and is our marketing and distribution director. He is currently working on getting Stitched into more markets and expanding our reach. Once he joined the team he didn’t hesitate to jump right in the deep end. No water wings for that guy.
I also want to mention two other staff members. James Matthew Byers, who I have mentioned before, is not only one of our authors but is an illustrator and editor for SSP. M.F. Wahl, another of our authors, is the editor of the Stitched Smile Publications magazine, which is currently in development.
NP: Of all the female horror authors out there, who would you say generates the best shivers down your spine?
If I am going to be honest, I get more cringes than shivers when I read scary books. If I had to say whose work gets in my head the most, I would have to say Susan Hill. Of course, there’s always the ladies of SSP. I did go through a V.C. Andrews phase in high school, at one time was a fan of Laurel K. Hamilton.
NP: And of the rising stars in the indie author world, who should we look out for? And what are some of their work?
DW: Keep an eye on every one of the SSP authors of course. 😃 Tilby Noir has a story in Unleashed, and she recently joined the ranks of full-fledged SSP authors. Draven Ames is currently working on fine tuning his book Bullets Till Midnight before it goes into editing. August Grappin’s Criminal From Birth is also one to watch out for. I could sit here and list all of them, but seriously, keep an eye out for all our authors. And we are always on the look out to add more.
NP: What is a recurring issue you see when editing that seems to crop up with every manuscript and short story that graces your desktop?
DW: Aside from the basics of grammar, some common issues I see are excessive use of the word “that” when it is not needed for the meaning of the story or to move the action forward. Another issue is passive voice and the use of helper verbs. Books and stories are written art. It is like painting with words. The best way to engage a reader is to keep the action strong and active voice. Then there is the use of obscure or overly intellectual, fancy words for the sake of using them or using more words than are necessary to get the point across. I could probably list others, but frankly, I simply address them as they come up. It’s automatic.
NP: For query letters, what should they be like? What catches your attention the most, and how can a prospective author increase their chances of getting their work added to your growing pile of reading material?
DW: Because I only handle a manuscript once it enters the editing phase I don’t usually see the query letter. The only advice I can give is to make sure the query is honest and to the point about who you are as an author. Avoid being overly wordy. Include a synopsis which should only be two or three concise paragraphs. Think movie trailer in written form. Hit the highlights.
NP: Where do you find artists for your covers? How can artists apply to work for you, even as freelance?
DW: Lisa does our covers. Although, we do have James Matthew Byers as an illustrator and is able to do covers if an author would like to go that route. Anyone interested in the possibility of doing artwork needs to send an email via the Stitched website.
NP: What are some of your favorite horror novels and/or stories?
DW: While I have read many different authors, I would have to say all of Stephen King’s books, but of those It and The Stand. I like It because the story strikes a nerve. I don’t like clowns and and really don’t like spiders so seeing them defeated is always a bonus. Plus, it addresses facing fears and overcoming obstacles. I like The Stand because it is not really out of the realm of possibility. Putting aside the hint of the otherworldliness, in this day and age, a pandemic could happen. It was also nice to have an apocalyptic story without zombies and excessive violence, not to mention normal clothes. My third choice would be Hell House for its exploration of the characters deal with their weaknesses and what happens when something pushes them to the brink.
NP: Finally, what would you suggest to all the struggling writers out there? And what would you add for those seeking quality horror literature to read?
DW: Don’t be afraid to self-edit. What I mean is write the first draft without worrying about correctness. Then step away from it for a few days. After you have had a chance to clear your head go back to the story and read through it. Really read it, as if it isn’t your work but someone else’s you are evaluating. Find the places where the writing could be smoother and tightened up. If you have to read it out loud and listen how it sounds. A lot of issues tend to come to light when read out loud. Always work with a good editor, an editor who will be honest and help you improve the story not simply correct surface issues and blow sunshine at you.
As for what to read. I will offer one piece of advice, just read. Read within your genre and outside your genre. The best way to learn is to read. Even mediocre reading can offer a teaching lesson when you pay attention to what is wrong.
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Amazon link (UK) for Unleashed: Monsters vs Zombies: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Unleashed-Monsters-Donelle-Pardee-Whiting-ebook/dp/B01MY5JDUV