Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Storyteller's First and Best Tool: Voice

I have a question about voice. Every time I hear an agent or editor raving about a 'stand out' voice, the book is written in first person. Can a third person narrative have that elusive unique and compelling voice that we always hear about? Do you have any examples of books written in third person that had a voice that really grabbed you?

Tons! But it's not fair to load the list with Newbery winners.
How about:

Skippyjon Jones

Every morning, Skippyjon Jones woke up with the birds.

And this did not please his mother at all.

"Get yourself down here right now, Mr. Kitten Britches," ordered Mama Junebug Jones.

"No self-respecting cat ever slept with a flock of birds," she scolded. "Or ate worms, or flew, or did his laundry in Mrs. Doohiggy's birdbath."

Ivy and Bean

It all began because Bean was playing a trick on her older sister.

Bean's older sister was named Nancy. She was eleven. Nancy thought Bean was a pain and a pest. Bean thought Nancy was a booger-head.

The Wee Free Men

She unhooked the largest frying pan, the one that could cook breakfast for half a dozen people all at once, and took some candies from the jar on the dresser and put them in an old paper bag. Then, to Wentworth's sullen bewilderment, she took him by a sticky hand and headed back down toward the stream.

Things still looked very normal down there, but she was not going to let that fool her. All the trout had fled, and the birds weren't singing.

She found a place on the riverbank with the right-sized bush. Then she found a stone and hammered a piece of wood into the ground as hard as she could, close to the edge of the water, and tied the bag of sweets to it. Tiffany was the kind of child who always carried a piece of string.

"Candy, Wentworth," she shouted.

She gripped the frying pan and stepped smartly behind the bush.

Wentworth trotted over to the sweets and tried to pick up the bag. It wouldn't move.

"I wanna go-a toy-lut!" he yelled, because it was a threat that usually worked. His fat fingers scrabbled at the knots.

Tiffany watched the water carefully. Was it getting darker? Was it getting greener? Was that just waterweed down there? Were those bubbles just a trout, laughing?


She ran out of her hiding place with the frying pan swinging like a bat. The screaming monster, leaping out of the water, met the frying pan coming the other way with a clang.

It was a good clang, with the oiyoiyoioioioioioinnnnnggggggg that is the mark of a clang well done.

The creature hung there for a moment, few teeth and bits of green weed splashing into the water, then slid down slowly and sank with some massive bubbles.

The water cleared and was once again the same old river, shallow and icy cold and floored with pebbles.

"Wanna wanna sweeties!" screamed Wentworth, who never noticed anything else in the presence of sweets.

Tiffany undid the string and gave them to him. He ate them far too quickly, as he always did with sweets. She waited until he was sick, then went back home in a thoughtful state of mind.

Voice is certainly most noticeable when it's a unique-sounding 1st-person voice, but good voice is to be had in lots of places. It's about suiting your word choices and pacing to the story you're telling. A perfect match adds depth and texture and nuance to the text; it tells you something about the characters you're reading about and the story being told.

Everybody's Favorite Word—Freebies

Ooo, oo, oo. T-shirt lady (nicknamed "Angela") is giving away a t-shirt.
Perhaps you want the one that reads, "My inner critic can beat up your inner critic."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Independence Day

All the kerfuffle over the columnist who let her nine-year-old ride the subway alone has led to some interesting discussions on writer's boards about how much freedom to give child characters in middle grade novels. What's your opinion? Do we pretend that kids are being raised the same way we were, and let our child characters go around town by themselves doing interesting things and getting into scrapes? (And then kids read it as fantasy?) Do we make up reasons why this particular kid has freedom, like the parents are out of town or something? Or do we have them sit at home texting their friends or going on carefully supervised playdates or having their "adventures" in some after-school program, because that's what real middle-class American kids do?

How many of us haven't had the experience, as a child, of the thrill of getting to choose what we do, free of adult supervision? These are confidence- and independence-building experiences.
And how many of us haven't had the experience of realizing, while we're doing something (or shortly thereafter), that we've put ourselves in a stupid, dangerous position? These are learning experiences, and thank goodness our parents never found out about them.

It's hard to be a parent. It's hard to look at your children and know that they need experiences that build the skills of independence. And to look at them and know that if anything ever happened to them, your life would be over. It's hard to hear about the snatchings that happen in people's front yards (or even in their homes!) and not get awfully paranoid. Reasonably, we know that there are not more predators now than there were when we were children, or when our parents were children. There's just more news. But that doesn't make it easier for mothers and fathers.

I think the bottom line for writers is that there are still lots of different childhoods to be had in this country alone. It's certainly unusual to find a parent who lets their nine year old wander around a city alone, so if you describe a family like this, be sure to include the details that make those parents believable. On the other hand, the Penderwick girls and Ingrid Levin-Hill leave the house regularly to wander around in the woods. Their parents are still protective parents, but the authors have grounded us in a setting that makes these parents' attitudes believable.

Different parents are protective in different ways, and that's what results in the different degrees of freedom that different children experience. Sometimes it seems like writers think they're just writing about their child mc. Well, yes and no. Don't forget to give your reader a sense of who's making the rules: understanding the major forces in a child character's life is part of understanding the character. And for most children, there are no forces more powerful than their parents.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Gather Ye Manuscripts While Ye May

I'm wondering what your take would be on my current situation. I sent my YA manuscript to a publisher a year ago. Writer's Market gave a response time of 4 - 6 months.

Well, Writer's Market may or may not be accurate. But a year?
In November I sent a letter asking what the status of the manuscript was (mostly because I wanted to send the manuscript in to a contest. In January I received a form letter stating that the publisher was still considering the manuscript. I could call in 2 months if I didn't hear from them. In March I got the same form letter saying that if I didn't hear within 1 month I could call. I called last week and the receptionist said they were still reading the YA manuscripts and I should hear something soon.

"Still reading the YA manuscripts"? As though they had had only one shipment?
Now, I'm new to this, so I take anything that isn't a "no" as a good sign. But I'm wondering if maybe I'm reading too much into the "still considering." Does that mean at least one person read it and liked it? Or could it mean that they just didn't get around to reading the manuscript until now? I know every publishing house is different, but what's your professional opinion?

I hope the person sending those letters is properly embarrassed. A year?
A year is not a good sign, but it's true that, even so, your manuscript might be being read for the first time so long after submission. But you shouldn't think of anything submitted so long ago as an exclusive, and no publisher has the right to expect such an accommodation.
Once again, we see the importance of submitting widely and persistently. Some houses take far, far too long, and it'll serve them right if they miss their chance at something good.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Censorship or Not: a Quick Review

Things that are censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides not to carry a book because it offends the librarian or bookseller.

Things that are not censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides not to carry a book because they don't think a reasonable percentage of their clientele would be interested in it.

Things that are censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides to carry a book, but other people object because they are offended.

Things that are not censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides to carry a book, but asks the author not to read the sexy bits aloud where it could be overheard by children.

Things that are censorship:
Telling a poet she shouldn't open her fat mouth.

Things that are not censorship:
Telling a poet she's an idiot after she's opened her fat mouth.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Like Shooting Nitwits in a Barrel

It's just too easy. What real enjoyment can be had from making fun of My Beautiful Mommy, the book for mommies who want to explain to their kids why mommy needs a tummy tuck and a boob job?

(The reason is, of course, "For the same reason I gave you those Barbie dolls, sweetheart!")

...The book that Newsweek has just featured? The Newsweek whose staff can't remember the last time they were proud of themselves?

Yes, it's like sparkly pink spiders are crawling over your skin. Please admire the magical glitter that surrounds New-Improved-Mommy so that she reminds us of Barbie or Tinkerbell or Cinderella. Nice, huh?

And if we skip directly to the book's "publisher," Big Tent Books ("Beautifully Illustrated Books for Children of All Ages"), there are indeed many other targets as wide as a barn. I'm going to leave the commentary on this one to you guys:

But this highlights a truth: plastic surgery and self-publishing are related fairy tales.

The moral of both these stories, boys and girls, is that the heroine of the story (or the hero) is always special. And she's special because other people tell her she is. Even if she has to pay them to tell her that.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Swiss Family Ninjason

Some guy named Larry has introduced a discussion of the Ninja Replacement Score for literature.

The idea is: By how many characters in a work would replacement by ninjas be an improvement? So the best score is zero. And the worst score is all (which, by convention, is scored as "infinity"). This amuses me.

I think our offices would be improved if all the managing editors were replaced by ninjas (not that they're that far off already).

But after trying to play this game with my sister for a few minutes (her: "Tale of Despereaux: 1 --the narrator." me: "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: infinity!") we found it hard to apply in ways that really represented how we felt about some books. ("So Gone with the Wind gets a 41, but The Kissing Hand gets a 2? Where's the justice?")

So we started a new game: what character needs to be added to a book to improve it? (me: "The Giving Tree: The Wuggly Ump" her: "Pride and Prejudice: Mr. T" me: "Love You Forever: Dr. Spock")

Who else wants to play?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Answers Are All Yes

Do agented manuscripts get preferential treatment over requested slushie ones?
Not unless the agent's doing a better job of nagging me, or has let me know there's interest elsewhere and he/she needs an answer by X date. So the practical answer is yes, sometimes. But not because I think agented manuscripts are better than ones I've requested.

How often do you have editorial meetings?
You mean acquisition meetings? This varies a great deal from publisher to publisher. Could be weekly, could be monthly, could be whenever the editor has a chat with the boss.

Do you tell a writer that a manuscript went to a meeting before, after or never?
Any of the three. I'm not picky. Do you want to know before, after, or never?

Do you ever ask for revisions before making an offer?
Yes. I don't think it's fair to ask for more than one without a commitment on the table, but yes, sometimes I think I see something in a manuscript that I'm worried the acquisitions group won't, so I'll ask for a rewrite. This is also a test: the good writers are the ones who are good at rewriting. Some people are only good at first drafts, or terrible at using feedback effectively, and I'd like to know that about someone before I commit to working with them for months/years and spending many thousands of dollars on their project.

If you do ask for revisions or offer to look at something after a revision, do you think about that manuscript or is it out of sight, out of mind until it lands on your desk?
Out of sight, out of mind. And often out of memory. As in, it comes back and I have to work to remember what the project was, why I was excited about it, etc. This is not a reflection on your manuscript. This is just a fact of the publishing office. It's a high-distraction, sometimes high-stress environment.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Heroic Journey of the Requested Manuscript

There is a wealth of information online about approaching publishers and the query process, all of which I've found invaluable. However, once your work is actually out there, under consideration, information seems to dry up. For instance:Three months ago, an Editor at a small but extremely successful publisher called me. She liked my sample chapters and asked me to send the full manuscript straight away.After scooping my jaw up off the floor, I did as she asked.So what happens next?Does the Editor make an effort to read it as soon as she can? Does it get lost in the shuffle? If she loves it, what's the next step?I know three months is NOTHING when waiting for feedback on a full, and that I'll probably be waiting for a while yet either way, but as I can't find much information on this stage of the process, I was wondering if you'd be kind enough to shed some light on what happens to a requested manuscript once it gets to a publisher.
The envelope comes in and is pulled from the mail by someone (an assistant / an intern) who's never heard your name before. They just pull it because it says "requested material" on it. That person passes it to me. They may remove the manuscript from its envelope and trash the envelope.

I look at the envelope/manuscript askance because I forgot your name ten seconds after I wrote it on the letter requesting the full. But I open the envelope and look at the cover letter and realize I did request this. I may have a memory of why, too! Points for me.

But whether my reaction is "oh, good! I was looking forward to seeing this!" or "I can't remember why I wanted this, but it'll probably be clear when I look at it," the next step is the same: it goes in a pile of things I need to read. Because right now I'm clearing off my desk or chair or inbox, and once that's finished, I have huge amounts of the work I'm paid for to do.

(a digression) Many authors idealistically think that it's part of my job to read things, and that's true, in an abstract way. In practical terms, though, there's always a huge amount of work to do for the books that are already underway, so the part of my job that's reading is usually the part on the subway or the weekend or any of the other times I'm sure as hell not being paid for. Sometimes I fantasize about taking time out of my day to sit comfortably with my reading and a cup of coffee and give everything the time and consideration it deserves. And then I roll my eyes or snort or laugh a little hysterically (depending on my current emotional stability) and get back to answering emails.

Eventually, I notice that the pile is getting a tad out of hand. Depending on what else has been going on, this may be when it fills its basket or when it's almost two feet tall. Noticing may be aided by agents in that pile nagging me, or maybe not. And depending on the time of year, the growth from one inch to 24 inches may happen over the course of three months or just two weeks. Sometimes I look at it and whimper.

But this stage is where I differ from a lot of editors: I have a pile. One pile, with one place to be, so when it's out of hand I do notice, and when I want to know how long the pile's been waiting, I can look at the stuff on the bottom. What many editors have is many, many piles on their desks, all of which are of varied content, import, and antiquity. I don't really understand how anybody works that way, but the proof is right across the hall from me. Lots of people do.

Ok, let's assume your manuscript has beaten the chaos and the crushing workload of the office and is actually in an editor's hands and being read with some focus. I'll also be reading with some foreboding, because experience shows that most fulls don't live up to the potential I saw in the partial. And, damn, that feels like a waste of my time! It's frustrating.

But maybe, maybe I read each successive chapter with growing hope and disbelief and, my god, is it... pleasure? And I finish the whole thing and think, that was great! I then have to get somebody else to read it to be sure the pressure hasn't gotten to me and I'm out of my mind.

And then (assuming I'm not nuts), we start the acquisition process, which varies a great deal from publisher to publisher, and may take a week or a month further before you hear anything from me.

...So when you finally do hear from me and I make an offer, it feels to you like an asteroid has fallen from the sky. But to your manuscript, it's the end of a journey full of perils and close calls, suspicion and doubt. It's like a beloved dog that you thought was dead suddenly showing up in your front yard covered in tire tracks and limping a little, but wagging his tail, happy to see you again. And with a suitcase full of money in his mouth!

...And then comes the really hard part.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Higher Risk for Authors and Booksellers? Where Do We Sign Up?

Oz and Ends runs the numbers on the non-returnable, profit-sharing publishing model that Harper is trying out. I think I agree about the profit-sharing being a very dubious deal for authors.

But non-returnability... I think it may possible to construct shared-markdown and remainder-in-place policies that make sense for booksellers. I'm not sure I've seen any yet, but I'm not ready to throw the idea out entirely... yet.

I haven't seen the details of Harper's new venture, but my hopes aren't real high. People in the position to make big decisions at publishers don't often seem to have many friends who are authors or booksellers. Now wouldn't that be nice? To have a colleague on the other side of the fence that you could knock the numbers around with before you make decisions that may or may not piss them and all their counterparts off? Yeah, I'm crazy.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

I'm Back!

Yes, I've missed you, too. I'm going to be very vague about my whereabouts these past several days, though, so my coworkers can't identify me. It was somewhere where I thought I would have lots of time to sift the many entries to the poetry contest, but was I wrong? And how. Thanks for your patience.

I have a friend who is a Navy SEAL turned Dr. of physiology and chiropractic. He's written a children's novel concerning physiology to teach kids about good posture and how participating in activities in a physically correct manner is beneficial. Sounds crazy, but he's managed to do it and make it cool. For instance, learning to push your scooter with both feet (one at a time of course) helps your overall balance....both legs are strengthened, not just the side you favor, and this helps in playing sports, etc. He wants to include a DVD with the book to demonstrate the techniques. Can you give him a little guidance about querying
agents/publishing houses? It's fiction, but is full of non-fiction, teaching elements. Any advice you have on how to proceed with this would be greatly appreciated.

Your friend needs to fully grasp two facts about the business.

1. Absolutely no one is going to buy a novel for its nonfiction physiology content. And when I say "no one" I mean no agent, no editor, no parent, and no child. These people will only buy it if it is a good story, well told.

2. There is a not large but meaningful section of slush made up entirely of yahoos who are committed to explaining the importance of their chosen careers to children (eg tax audits, cosmology... remember these?). Their manuscripts are universally awful. So: your friend does not want to be mistaken for one of them.

Most of us are familiar with the expression "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down". (Some of us, in fact, can't think of this expression without hearing Julie Andrews in our heads. Damn Mary Poppins.) It's important for your friend to recognize that what he has here is medicine. Physiology is not the big, bitter pill that "Insurance Structures and Their Importance to You" would be (as a completely random example), but it is still a pill. In order for this manuscript to succeed, he must have wrapped the information so completely in a story that children want to consume that the teaching component is indistinguishable.

And what this means to his queries and cover letters is most likely something he won't want to hear: he shouldn't mention the physiology content at all. He should query and submit this just like he would if it were a story written for its own sake, because if the manuscript does not work on the strength of the story alone, it will. not. sell.

You didn't mention why he felt a novel would be a better vector for this information than a nonfiction manuscript. Personally, I think it's an odd choice. Still, I never say never. Good luck!