Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 22, 2013

What is a Story Architect?

lexa hillyer lowresheadshot260I was going over my New Jersey SCBWI Conference Registration and noticed Lexa Hillyer co-founder of Paper Lantern on the faculty. I was not familiar with Lexa, so I read her bio. Here it is:

Lexa Hillyer received her BA in English from Vassar College and her MFA in Poetry from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. She has received various poetry awards, including the 2011 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize for her first book of poems, Acquainted with the Cold. She was named one of the Best New Poets of 2012 by Matthew Dickman. Lexa worked as an editor at both Harper Collins and Penguin, and is co-founder of boutique literary incubator Paper Lantern Lit.

This still didn’t tell me enough, so I visited Paper Lantern Lit to see what additional information I could discover. I found out Paper Lantern Lit is a “book incubator” that creates hits for publishers–and careers for undiscovered writers. Lexa Hillyer and co-founder Lauren Oliver are story architects. I still needed more information so Lexa and I talked and she answered my questions in this interview. I think you will find what they are doing, very interesting.

What is Paper Lantern Lit?

We come up with story ideas, we plot them using our knowledge and experience with narrative structure, and we coach authors through the writing process. Like architects, we envision, design and layout all the basics of a book, but it’s our writers who inhabit them and bring them to life.

lauren oliversm260How did you and Lauren Oliver decide to start Paper Lantern Lit?

We met when we both worked as editors at Penguin, before Lauren decided to pursue a career in writing. After a few years, we had stayed friends, and realized we both had pieces missing from our lives. She missed editing, and often found she had more ideas than she could possibly write herself. I longed for more creative flexibility for my ideas, and the freedom to make stronger connections with writers. We discovered that we both possess creativity and passion for storytelling alongside a pretty unusual obsession with structure and form. We know that a great novel has both, and while the elusive power of an original, emotive voice may not be teachable, the a-to-z of plotting a book is. So why not build incredibly fun book concepts, offer to help new writers, and get the thrill of discovering them ourselves?

Once we had that all figured out, we just started having meetings. We took it one step at a time and taught ourselves what it would mean to really own a business. We made sure we had a lot of different projects we felt confident pursuing, so that our company would have longevity. Then we reached out to Stephen Barbara of Foundry Media, to ensure that we would have strong representation. Finally, we hired the most amazing interns ever, two of whom now work for the company full time!

Was this before she wrote the Delirium Series?

Yes, though I believe she was already working on it. It was right after her first book, BEFORE I FALL, came out. 

How does Paper Lantern Lit differ from a traditional Publisher?

We are not a publisher or an agency, though our company does have certain similarities to an agency: we seek out excellent writers, work with them on a project, and then typically sell the project to a publisher. However, at Paper Lantern Lit, we develop many of our book ideas in-house. So while a traditional agency looks for finished manuscripts, we are far more focused on finding the best new writers out there and fostering their voices. We pride ourselves on cultivating emergent authors, and providing them a context in which to further learn their craft.

So you could say you are a book packager?

Our business model is certainly similar, but we feel our approach is unique in that we put a major emphasis on the author and on our relationships within the industry. We’re not about making a product, package or sale. We’re about creating an experience that is hopefully lasting and has universal appeal. We attach writers and projects together much the way a matchmaker might: it’s all about finding the perfect pairing.

Since Paper Lantern gets the advance for the books they sell, how does the writer get paid?

We pay the writer directly per project. You can consider it as doing Freelance or Work-for-Hire. Some of our deals offer sub rights and other financial participation—we want our authors to enjoy success as the book’s audience grows, and for them to feel invested in its future and their own!

Does the writer get their name on the books they write?
Sometimes yes, though many times we mutually agree to move forward under a pseudonym. Often that feels like the best way to give both parties the most freedom and most protection at the same time. We understand that many of our writers may be concurrently pursuing other work, and this allows for greater flexibility to do so.

Do you accept full manuscripts?

We are looking for writers, typically, not manuscripts, because our focus is on building story from the ground up. We are the story architects, after all! You might say we prefer to work on new designs rather than renovations: this way we can always vouch for the end result—we can guarantee a sound structure. However, there’s an exception to every rule. If you love what we do, we encourage you to reach out. You never know what opportunities will arise, especially as we turn our focus with more and more interest toward the digital publishing sphere.

How long have you been in business?

We officially launched PLL in May of 2010, so we’re at the three year mark.

How many books have you gotten published?

We have 25 domestic titles (this includes multiple book deals for each author). We’ve also sold our books in dozens of foreign countries. Of these, we have 9 that have hit shelves so far, and our 10th, TRUTH OR DARE by Jacqueline Green, comes out May 14, 2013!

Do you run your book ideas past editors before you look for an author?

Not often, but we certainly have many editor friends and are always discussing what they’re excited about and where we all feel the market may be headed. Further, we do ALWAYS share our ideas with our agent, Stephen Barbara, before taking on a writer. We consider him the third partner and take his objective reactions very seriously—it’s important to have some checks and balances!

So I would image that you work closely with the author to develop the book. Is that right?

Oh absolutely. It’s a very hands-on process. We check in with our authors weekly and provide very consistent notes and feedback. They constantly work to adapt the story so that it is truly theirs—in the end, sometimes they depart wildly from the original concept, but we communicate and work together the whole way through to be sure at all times that the structure is solid and that their voice is being heard.

I see you have a group of teens called Trendsetters who read pre-published YA books from you. Have you changed books due to this feedback?
Definitely! It’s fascinating to get a peek into what teens are really thinking, what their experiences are like, what they most care about. We take their input very seriously and we just love all of the awesome ways they get involved in our projects, from coming up with soundtracks to the books to creating character collages and inspiration boards. These teens are very savvy, very articulate, and love books—so of course, we love THEM!

Do you feel that an unknown author benefits from working with you, other than the freelance money they receive?

I very much believe and hope so, yes. Some of our authors have gone so far as to refer to us as a “paid MFA in writing.” Others call it novel-writing boot camp.  We offer a lot of insight and structure regarding the craft and the writing process, in addition to offering serious access to new contacts in the industry and help them reach their fans directly.

If the authors get school visits from librarian who come to you, do they get the full amount of money for the visit?

I read that Paper Lantern has a Fellowship Program for a MFA student enrolled at Queens College’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation. What do they get if they are chosen?

The recipient receives full tuition remission for the spring semester in addition to a $1,000 internship stipend.

What do authors do to get you interested in working with them?

Send us your resume, a brief bio, and a ten-page sample of your best writing (preferably fiction.) Please submit all of the above in the body of your email (no attachments), and include your name and sample title in the subject heading. Also please let us know where you heard about us!

Show off their voice. Knowing your own individual strengths, rather than trying to prove you can be malleable, is key. Also show us that you are savvy with the interwebs and not afraid to have a presence there. If you fear your own audience or seem like a ghost when we google you, that can be concerning. Writing for young people these days means having confidence in your voice, what you have to say, AND your ability to interact with your audience.

You can still register for the New Jersey SCBWI Conference in June and get a critique with Lexa. Don’t miss this opportunity. Here is the link:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Very interesting concept. 🙂


  2. So cool! Lauren Oliver is an amazing writer. I bet they’re producing some great stuff.


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