Thursday, May 31, 2007


That was a riot. Unfortunately, there weren't many that I felt were making classic mistakes. Classic mistakes are, after all, usually small-but-teeth-grinding. You all have a clear talent for gigantic, snort-my-margarita-through-my-nose mistakes (which turns out to be painful, fyi). Thank you all for playing!

I do want to point out one more submission to the contest, and ask a question. This one must be from a real manuscript.
Akana stretched in bed, relishing the cool spaces that her body hadn't warmed overnight, and tilting her face until the morning sun shone pink through her eyelids.

You were worried about this first line? That's not bad at all. You keep that up.


Several Bulwer Lytton Prizes for

When I play guitar, I simply strum and strum and then I go to the piano and ta dum and ta dum before I go to my drum, and drum and drum, but sometimes I need to get up and sing and sing until I feel that ring in my ear drums so that I can ta dum da dum dum dum but I never succumb to being just a guitar.

Where is my gun?
“What a marvelous day!" Squeaky Squirrel said to himself as he skipped down
a tree branch, little realizing that the bark beetle he sidestepped was Hylurgopinus rufipes, a carrier of Ophiostoma ulmi, the dreaded Dutch Elm disease, first seen in the U.S. in 1928, and that the day, while marvelous for him (and for the beetle), was going to be rather sucky for the tree.

Points for use of the word "sucky."
Call me--if you must, notwithstanding I probably don't know you, but in the spirit of sharing berths (separately) aboard the whaler Pequod for the next year or so, while I tell you about a captain who's a bit of a ding-a-ling, and a savage who shoots some wicked craps, yes, call me--Ishmael.
Congratulations. Well deserved.
Eager to escape from her devilish Uncle who had just tried to rape her, Jasmine mounted her steed and made her getaway. Her burnt auburn hair billowed
behind her as she galloped through the dense vegetation of the very woods
where her brother had hanged himself the year before.
Nice. Try adding a touch of unnecessary metaphor to the landscape.
It was dark, like a king sized Hershey's Dark, and not at all like those chichi miniature milk chocolate jobs that come in the 9.2 ounce assorted bags that they sell at the grocery store and sometimes at Walgreen's; and it was friggin' stormy, too.
Thank you.
Once upon a time there was a very good, and talented children’s book author who could not get the mean old book editors to publish her very fine stories for little children, even though she had been sending all these editors her wonderful manuscripts for twenty years (in packets that included a humbly phrased cover letter on pale pink scented stationary) and she of whom we speak had even offered to baby-sit the editors’ kitties and knit them leg warmers (the editors not the kitties), which is something these editors’ other authors would never have dreamed of doing, those ungrateful, already published authors who nitpicked at every comma and semi-colon in their contracts and kept asking for bigger and bigger advances and kept saying, "Me! Me! Me!" no, none of them would have done anything like this, and so it came as no surprise when our very good, and talented children’s book author, unappreciated and unloved, withdrew her manuscript (the one that featured tap dancing centipedes from the planet Zorg)
and........decided to self-publish.
This one gets an additional Restraining Order Commendation.
Catherine Cute was not the kind of little girl to wet the bed, dismember her favorite teddy bear and stuff it down the toilet, set her Mommy's hair on fire with an acetylene torch, and talk back to her grandma, but on the eve of her fourth birthday she was mad as mad could be.

There's something so awful about this, and yet... I kind of want to meet this kid.
"Pa, where you goin' with that Uzi?" asked Ma questioningly, a hint of concern coloring her voice like a Day-Glo pink highlighter pen.

I must begin coloring my conversation this way! Brilliant.

Two Winners for the Seuss Honor

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie,
A Twinkie, four pretzels, a sandwich on rye--
He tossed all his cookies
And some say it's sinister
That all of it landed on Britain's Prime Minister...

Nice job there.

When I sing my song
about how we all belong
I know we can't go wrong
because it makes me feel so strong.

Another good example of the sort of thing I see in the slush. Gack!

Let's Be Serious for Just a Moment

Mommy's little Snookums makes poo-poo in a pretty pink pot. Baby's little kitty-witty makes stinky in a pan that is not.

(Housebreaking Snookums and Kitty is a 6000 word pickture book exploring the joys and dispaires of potty training children and pets. My cat liked it alot!)

This is a fantastic example of the true awfulness that I honestly see in slush. I know, you wrote this line as a joke. But I kid you not--this is the slush that editors are trying to dig through without becoming sociopaths.

A very well deserved Drivel Award for

The mountain, old as the hills, loomed over them.

Simple, elegant, trite.

The Gag Reflex Honorary Plastic Vomit Award goes to

Whenever Wendel or Gertrude had to go to the bathroom Timmy the toilet bowl was there to swallow their pee-pee and poo-poo and send it down the rusty pipes into the rat-infested sewers of New York City.

The Must… scratch… my… eyes… out… now… Trophy goes to

You’re an energetic kid of six
Who’s always having fun,
But it’s time to sit with "Lit R. See"
And have some Phonic Fun!

The Robert Munsch Citation goes to

My mother is a fish, and I know heard her say "I'll glub you forever, I'll glub you for always!" as I flushed her into the New York City sewer, not knowing the adventures that awaited us both.
With extra points for being so damn painful, and with the promise of more pain to come.

"Someone has been rummaging in the Wig Room," gasped Old Crotty.

I can't stop laughing long enough to make up an award for this. It's beautiful.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Worst Firsts Contest-- an extension

Gosh, it was nice to have an extra day out of the office. Not that it was work-free, but time found for my reading stack is always a nice break. And not only did I get through my reading stack, it had some really promising things in it this time, two things that are just a great way to put me in a good mood. And I had a nap! I love naps.

So because I am feeling so cheerful, and because the submissions to the contest are on the manageable side (did I realize when I set this date that it would be Memorial Day? Probably not), I'm going to extend the deadline to Tuesday night.

Come on, hit me with your best shot.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Worst First Lines Contest--Go!

I'm going out, so I'm going to open the contest a bit early. It'll close at 12:00 midnight Monday night, giving you a bit more than 24 hours.

Wondering if your first line is making a classic mistake or boring your reader to tears? Just want to write something for the fun of being bad? Go to it!

Send your entries to my email (not the comments section), and put WORST FIRST in the subject line, please.

Categories (as mentioned before) include, but will not be limited to:

The Bulwer Lytton Prize for overall, overwritten awfulness
The Seuss Honor for poetry as rhythmic as a pounding migraine
The Drivel Award for uninspired use of cliches
The Robert Munsch Citation for most dysfunctional relationship in a first line

...and one imagines several more.

Can't wait to see what you come up with!

A Tree Grows in the Slush

This week's slush brought a cover letter in which the writer noted that she was in the process of learning English. Which handily explained why she kept talking about her woodpecker character's "beaks," "feets," and "fathers" (the kind of fathers, one assumes, that grow all over woodpackers).

Still, I have to admire anyone who attempts the million hydra-heads of English language usage. It's a damned hard language, and our attitude only makes it harder. Whereas certain of the French seem to think, "anything that we use this much should be beautiful," Americans are more apt to think, "anything that we use this much should be fun." So we're constantly playing with our language. Want to use that noun as a verb? (to chicken out, eg) Go ahead! Want to garble two words into one, forming a term that adds no particular nuance of meaning to the language, but is fun to say? (chortle; ginormous) Why not?

But there are limits to the amount of fun you can have with the language one publishes. For instance the manuscript that looked like it was supposed to rhyme; was laid out in stanzas... and yet didn't. Was the writer attempting slant rhyme, I asked a fellow editor? "No, this rhymes," she said, and read it back to me in a Brooklyn accent.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Scary Stories vol 2

Many questions!
Since I have not been exposed to the momentous moment of signing a contract, how long does a writer get to consider the contract before they sign? Just an estimate mind you.

If we sent out a contract and didn't hear back from you for over two weeks, we'd be concerned. The important thing is to be in touch.
Hey EA, Can you explain a bit about option clauses? What if your subsequent works aren't necessarily a great match for that particular publisher? Should you send 'em on in anyway? Or does the clause really only apply to the second book? It seems like it might be annoying to send the editor who's editing your picture book a three-volume YA fantasy when she doesn't do much YA fantasy.

Depends on the option clause. Which is why most agents get that clause trimmed down and specificed-up. If you want to send your clause in anonymously, I could post it and see what I think (I would remove mention of the publisher, if included).
I'm working on ED2 with a major company and my contract is still not in the mail. Since it's the sequel to a great selling book, I'm not too concerned... or am I? What if.... they change their mind after all the editing!
Probably no need to worry. But how many drafts of the new book have you turned in? More than two? Time to tell them to fish or cut bait.

Scary Stories to Tell Authors in the Dark

A convicted madman is on the loose. Police say he's carrying a pen, and where his right hand should be is . . . A CONTRACT!

I know, half of you have stopped reading already so that you can put your head between your knees, take deep breaths, and try to go to your happy place.

Many, many authors dislike contract negotiations. And I mean that they'd rather be in an exam room naked, hearing, "You need a shot, but we've run out of everything except horse needles."

But it's ok. That's not a lawyer scratching at your window, and there isn't an indecipherable clause hiding under your bed.

Envision, instead, that your editor (who is a nice person: just about everyone in children's books is) does not see a contract as a chance for either side to take advantage of the other. It is an agreement--and that means that just like later when you and your editor talk over suggested changes to your manuscript, she doesn't want to win. She wants to agree.

She'll talk to you about the things she thinks are important, and you'll talk to her about the things you think are important. She may ask you to clarify your concerns, and you should have no fear about asking her to explain what parts of the contract are about. Negotiation, to your editor, is natural and friendly (yes, really!). She wants the contract you sign to be one that everyone thinks is fair.

Now, in the wake of the furor around S&S's new boilerplate, it should be pointed out that editors cannot openly disagree with their company's contracts policy, so you should absolutely have read something like Negotiating a Book Contract by Mark Levine. Your editor, who, again, wants you to feel satisfied and fairly treated, will be very happy to discuss changing the company's boilerplate if you suggest it.

Sometimes the changes that authors suggest are not ones that publishers feel are fair to the publishing house, and in those cases we will explain why and hope that you'll understand. If you don't agree, keep talking to us--tell us just what worries you--and we'll really do our best to accommodate your concerns.

There are always several places where compromise is possible. And in order to achieve that compromise, there is no need for combativeness, paranoia, or hyperventilation. We aren't car salesmen or hucksters. Quite the contrary--in a community as small and talkative as children's books, it is in fact bad, bad business sense for publishers to have staff who are going to treat authors as marks rather than as valued colleagues.

This is the first step in navigating contract negotiations: realizing that your editor wants to talk this through with you, and while she'll side with her publisher whenever she has to, she'll side with you whenever she can. Let's face it, she likes you better.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

I've Submitted to a Black Hole. When Will It Get Back to Me?

Dear Anonymous Editor
Yet another submissions question: when a publishing house accepts manuscripts during only one month a year, how long would one expect to wait before receiving the enclosed SASP that will tell me they've even received / opened the submission? Or is that something that's likely to fall by the wayside in the craziness that is Slush?

This is among the unknowable questions. It might even be a zen question that isn't meant to have an answer, but to lead you to greater self-knowledge.

Or it could be that I just don't know. Frankly, I wouldn't hold my breath. I can't tell you how disillusioned I've become with the post office. The number of things I've watched them lose is appalling.

So you're dealing with the possibilities that
1. The post office lost your submission
2. The publisher lost your SASP or didn't notice it as they opened the slush
3. The post office lost your SASP
4. The post office lost your mail carrier, its main office, several trucks, and your house

In your newly acquired zen state (assuming you haven't stopped reading this blog in order to buy an M-16) contemplate that you have submitted your story to the universe, and the universe is reading it.

Its reply will be in the mail.

Miss Snark Retires

The horror.

Who will take up the mantle of snark (and the vicious poodle of snark)?

I'm shocked.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Broken Rhyme and Shattered Eardrums

Your blog item about children's poetry was interesting. How about the interest level in a children's story written in rhyming verse?

Poetry and stories in verse are separate categories in children's books, but both are, of course, poetry. And that makes them very, very difficult to do well.

Lots of people enjoy writing poetry, and I wouldn't discourage that for the world. But what you do as a hobby and what a poet does is the difference between the person who has a gorgeous, ancient bonsai and the person who is aware they have a tree in their back yard.

This is a difference not much appreciated by the mass of people in the slush pile, and this is why you sometimes hear editors say they can't read another rhymed manuscript until their therapist says they're ready.

Rhymed manuscripts are, nevertheless, important. The best audience for rhymed manuscripts is infants and toddlers, because rhythmic language with predictable, repeated sounds helps very young children to absorb the patterns of our language. (You could, of course, read the Times' stock pages to your infant and still be doing him or her a favor. Any reading aloud makes a difference during those critical early years.)

Please be aware that rhymed manuscripts for children older than 4 are very hard to get right. (Never mind that John Lithgow is doing a business in them. If the only real competition you can find in any pursuit is a celebrity, you should know that you cannot compete.) There are a few books that do this well, but even they must battle the perception among children that rhyming books are for babies.

For my sanity and the sanity of all other editors, use this rule of thumb: never put a manuscript into rhyme because it seems easier or cuter than to develop a story based on writing well and writing hard. If your work (however joyful) doesn't seem like real work to you, chances are it won't seem like it to anyone else.

Copyright, Intellectual Property, and the Threat of Pythons

How do you protect the stories you send out. Copyright? or return receipt from the post office , etc?

This is a not infrequently asked question. The worry that your manuscripts need protection is pretty unnecessary, but let's go through this once anyway.

I don't send out stories, but if I did: copyright is more trouble than it's worth, and I've heard that the ways of documenting your manuscript via mail are not terribly secure in the legal sense.

This is where your critique group comes in handy. If you have been using a critique group, as you should, you have witnesses. But this is just a safeguard for worriers.

Let me be clear. The chances of your manuscript being stolen while at any of the reputable publishing houses are essentially the same as the chances you'll be killed by a python while riding a streetcar.

...But perhaps you're afraid someone will steal your idea. This is the concern that makes people at publishing houses laugh their espresso out of their noses. Your undeveloped, unrealized idea is intellectual property? Ah, the irony.

In publishing, execution is everything. Say, in 1998, somebody had come to me with the idea for a book about a kid who finds out he's magical and has to go away to school to learn about magic. My response would have been somewhere between "Eh," and "It's been done." Because it had been done. It took JK Rowling to express that idea in a way that was really what the market wanted. Behold the difference between idea and execution.

Ideas are not only a dime a dozen, they're recycled at a rate too fast to track. Write badly, and it doesn't matter how brilliant and original your idea is. Write well, and it doesn't matter how many times before your idea has been done.

Now go write!

Friday, May 18, 2007

psst! the next contest...

It seems some of the people who entered the First Lines contest wanted some examples of what not to do--even if they were the examples.

So on May 28th, I will open a Worst First Lines Contest. This will be your chance to enter both real first lines of manuscripts (for you gluttons for punishment) and made-up-just-for-the-contest first lines.

I'll offer a Bulwer Lytton Prize for overall, overwritten awfulness, but remember, this is the easy one. It's tougher to write first lines that are bad in ways that many people achieve accidentally--but those are the ones I'll really be on the lookout for.

There will also be a Seuss Prize for poetry as rhythmic as a pounding migraine, a Drivel Award for uninspired use of cliches, a Robert Munsch Citation for most dysfunctional relationship in a first line, and other honors based on the varieties of dreck you foist upon me.

DO NOT enter now. Entries received before the contest opens on May 28th or after it closes 24 HOURS LATER will not be considered. This gives you some time to craft your entries, and maybe some time for me to wonder what I was thinking.

First Lines Contest... What Not To Do

I find I can’t choose examples of what not to do from the sweet, sincere people who entered the contest. There were a couple that kind of asked for it, though. So... some tips:

1. If your first two lines are so rhythmic that they could be the start of a limerick, they’re almost certainly too rhythmic.

2. You probably don’t want to start your manuscript with a run-on sentence.

3. Have your manuscript read by someone who knows a lot of slang, just in case you’ve given a tall pointy structure a vaguely Asian-sounding name which to other people is a term for male genitalia.

Thanks to all for playing!

First Lines Contest... Honorable Mention

Here are a few that I have a slightly uneasy feeling about, but I'd keep reading. And after all, that's the main thing.

Donald owned a purple vulture, a green vulture, and a deep blue pillow-eating vulture.

No matter where she went her bubbles drew a crowd, but Molly always knew she was more than just bubbles.

My brother has a giant head. He keeps it in the closet.

First Lines Contest... Humor

My mom wanted to know how the cow got in my room. As if that was the strangest thing that happened all week.
The second line could be a bit stronger, but I do want to know about the cow.
I kick at a rock on my way to Mrs. Viola Meyer’s house and tally up my life’s ten most troubling facts. 1. Lillian and I will attend the Winter Dance dressed as floral bookends.
I hope number ten is really troubling.

First Lines Contest... Rhythm

In an old Italian villa near the cold Anchovy Sea
Lived two ordinary onions both as bitter as could be.
I have a dread that this is going to a pizza-y place, but for now, a good start.

First Lines Contest... Voice

Like Moses, Meemaw had Ten Commandments.
Don't you want to know what they were? I do. But they'd better deliver.

First Lines Contest... Tension

The smell of death drifted from the woods.
Simple, but creepy. Note the combination of the foreboding 'smell of death' with the gentle 'drifted from the woods.'

A long, hairy leg poked through the hole in Ida’s window screen.
The mind goes immediately to 'enormous spider,' something that's definitely icky. But then we get 'poked' instead of a creepier word, and 'Ida' rather than a more normal name. You can tell this is going to be creepy and silly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Enough, enough!

The contest is closed. ...Now to find my way through the hundred and something entries.

Ready, Steady, Go! (a contest)

The power of the first line:

Where's Papa going with that ax?

As soon as certain questions are asked, you realize that you, too, would very much like to know the answer. Have you ever been at a cocktail party and overheard a question that turned your whole attention toward it like a needle seeking north? This is one of those. With this beginning, you know something's going to happen. And this question leads directly into the book's source of tension. Fabulous.

I come from a family with a lot of dead people.

Voice. I will wade through dim and perilous fens of slush for voice. And here it's matched with a sense of humor. I'm hooked.

In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon.

Cadence. The order of these syllables and the way in which they rhyme forces the voice to slow. Compare this to the first line of Madeline, which trips off the tongue. Madeline could be read very quickly, but this is a bedtime book, and it makes the reader go softly.

One day my mama caught me paintin' pictures on the floor
and the ceiling
and the walls
and the curtains
and the door
and I heard my mama holler like I never did before--
"Ya ain't a-gonna paint no more!"

Rhythm. Here is a book that would have every chance of sounding idiotic in a query letter. But read that first page aloud, and you're practically out of your seat with the irrepressible energy of it. Love it.

So here's the deal: send me your first line (or your first two lines, if you must) and I will post a select few to comment on. Send them to my email with CONTEST in the subject line.

This contest opens now, and closes as soon as I've had enough. Maybe tomorrow.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Self Promotion and Scorpions

Dear EA, Children's writers are always urging each other to new heights of self-promotion--visiting schools, putting up a website, arranging bookstore signings, speaking at conferences, paying for bookmarks/postcards/stickers etc. etc. I've even heard the advice that first-time authors should spend their whole advance on self-promotion. Writers who don't want to do all this are seen as lazy or totally out of touch with reality. What's your opinion? How important is author self-promotion? And if a writer wants to spend some time on other things (say, writing, or possibly even having a life), which types of self-promotion are actually effective and which a waste of time and money?

In my experience, authors have to do a really fantastic job of self-promoting in order to make a real difference. But how many people are going to match the Bats at the Beach team?

I'm not an expert on this, though. I do know that your publisher will be so very happy with you if you are ready and willing to do the events that they suggest. That means:

a. Being really professional--on time, organized, with all your materials ready to go and no reliance on the venue to figure out projectors, power point, etc.

b. Being really time-conscious, especially in schools. They have a schedule to keep, so you do too.

c. Being really prepared and really entertaining. Don't know what sort of presentation is going to appeal to the age group you'll see? Figure it out!

d. Being really friendly and good-natured. Events almost never go just as planned. I once saw Peggy Rathman do a signing for which five people showed up. Did she get upset? Depressed? Snotty? Not for a second. That woman is graciousness personified. And you could see the relief and gratitude on the bookseller's faces.

e. Support your booksellers. Try not to suggest to schools that you can get them a better discount from your publisher while you're standing in front of the bookseller supplying the books. Or suggest that people patronize Remember who got the snowball rolling for Harry Potter and Eragon and piles of other books: the people standing on sales floors, hand-selling. Try to make any pitch made within hearing of a bookseller helpful and appealing to them (even if the pitch is for an audience of kindergarteners). If you do it well, then when you're long gone, there will be people in that bookstore picking up your book and talking to customers about it.

When it comes right down to it, it's your writing career. Some people do manage to make a difference with their self-promotion, and others not so much. Part of this is personality, and part of it is wanting to be there. If you would really prefer to be at home in your bathrobe or even in a pit of radioactive scorpions rather than talking to children, don't let people you don't work for tell you you're falling down on the job.

Picture Books for Late-Elementary and Middle School

EA, about that 6,000-word picture book you mentioned a while back. I know most picture books are under 1000 words these days, but I've noticed that picture book biographies are often longer and aimed at older readers. How many words max would you want to see in a picture book bio?

This is a separate category. The 6,000-word picture book was hilarious because the topic clearly marked it for pre-K.

I love that more people are offering picture books to older kids. Most of those people are still teachers, though, especially in topics that have been fictionalized. Straight nonfiction picture books have had a pretty good spread into late elementary for a while.

You want to be careful about biographies, though--only make it a picture book biography if you really want it to reach into early elementary. Once you hit fourth grade, most teachers are demanding that biographies read for school have at least 100 pages. That cuts the picture books out of the equation.

The trick is not to say 'this category means this word count', but to picture the book's use. Longer nonfiction picture books will be read by the child, or browsed by parent and child. You still can't have an enormous word count, but you can have a darned high one if it's broken into appetizer-sized chunks. Think of the popularity of the Eyewitness books. Those have big word counts, but they make it easy to read a little here and there, and there's still a great deal of space for pictures.

But if the book is best used as a read-aloud--and that applies to picture books for the 0-7 set and to picture books on topics best aimed at middle-schoolers (because seriously, no middle-schooler is going to pick up a picture book him/herself), then you have to keep the word count down to something you can read aloud in 10 minutes. And 5 minutes is much better.

The real killer in any kind of picture book is big blocks of text. Don't do this. Either have a nimble little text, or break your long text into nimble little pieces.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dammit, Enough with the Pirate Manuscripts!

Ooo, a hot new trend! Pirates are all the rage! bookstores.

Which means that for publishers, who are looking at what the market will be like in a couple years, pirates are essentially over.

Couldn't I get some scary stories, please?

(But before you write some scary stories, go read a book or two in both the Goosebumps series and the Scary Stories to Read in the Dark series. And then contemplate how different they are--and how successful for two very close age levels. Tolerance of creepiness, just like sense of humor, develops rapidly between certain ages. Get it right.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Trouble Right Here in Homophone City

Dear Editor,
I hope you'll take a peak at my new manuscript "Barley Bear Lays an Egg."
I'm submitting to you under the advise of [name redacted]. My manuscritp is about how their is a time for loss and a time for happiness and how we have to go on and be happy. But Barley bear can't except this--or can he?
I will be happy to hear from you by post.

Are you sure I can't emale you?

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Zen and the Art of Submitting to Editors

Listen carefully, grasshopper.
"I had a critique done by an assistant editor with one of the bigger children's books publishers while at a conference last summer. She liked the pages I submitted and asked me to send her the entire manuscript. Six months went by and I sent a status query via e-mail. No reply. It is now going on eight months and still no word. At this point do I just give up and assume it is a no? Why would a publisher ask for a manuscript and then never respond? Even after a status query?"

1. She's overworked. Your manuscript is somewhere on her desk, but which pile?

2. Somebody spilled something on your cover letter and you didn't put your contact info on your manuscript pages.

3. Your original mailing never made it to her, so she doesn't know what your status query is talking about and she's embarrassed to admit it.

Never assume it's a "no" until it's a "no." Alternatively, assume everything is a "no" until it's a "yes." Whichever of these methods allows you to KEEP SUBMITTING.

Prod this editor pleasantly and understandingly every three months until she gets back to you, the project sells to someone else, or hell freezes over.

You could think of this as the passive-resistance method: non-violent, persistant action. Sitting still may not seem like much, but it can do great things if you're sitting still at a Woolworth's lunch counter or at a desk addressing envelopes to publishers. It's like the guy who calls out to god to help him win the lottery:

The heavens part. "All right," says God. "Let it be so."
Well, weeks go by and the guy keeps losing.
"Why haven't I won, God?" he calls out in frustration.
The heavens part again. "Do me a favor," says God. "Buy a ticket."

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Slush

If slush is a journey, most people are packing way too much luggage.

I can't tell you how often I have to throw away 5-10 sheets of the submission before coming to the manuscript. Here are some things that you really don't need to include:

1. An author photo.
Why do I care what you look like? Everyone knows that there are some very pretty, friendly-looking people who haven't a talented bone in their bodies but who will keep submitting manuscripts, appearing on reality shows, saying things in public, and otherwise making themselves a flagrant aggravation. They give new meaning to the term "attractive nuisance."

2. All the little flourishes.
The letterhead with the plume-and-inkwell motif (god, if I never see another one of those, it'll be too soon); the stickers; the colored envelopes; the random enclosures that I'm sure you thought were a kind gesture or had something to do with your manuscript. (I don't take candied walnuts from strangers. Or fruit. Or puppets.)
Want to make your submission look professional? Make it look plain. Professionals, remember, are people who have sent out many, many copies of many, many manuscripts and who have realized that when you're dealing in that kind of bulk, all the extras are a waste of time and money.
I try to look past the foofaraw, but trust me--some editors are judging you.

3. An author bio
The only thing I want to know about you at the outset is your publishing history, if you have one.
I do not care if you teach preschool or have seven grandchildren or get along great with the kids across the street. Being good with children does not make you a talented storyteller. I only want to know if you're a good writer, and your manuscript is going to tell me that. Besides, some of the very best writers for children have hated children. They respected children, but they didn't want to spend any time around them.

4. Market analysis
I've seen these included several times, and I still can't imagine what's included in them. Because I've never read one. Never. What in god's name makes you think you know more about the market than the people at publishing companies, who spend an extraordinary amount of time charting the market?

5. Publicity plans
This might or might not go over well with a publicist; I've never asked one. But your submission is being read by editors, who are happy to let publicists do their job and really don't care whether you think your cousin's hairdresser's niece can give your manuscript to Oprah.

6. Overview and synopsis
I don't know how anyone manages to have both. And are editors asking for chapter-by-chapter summaries? I only backtrack to a synopsis if the writing's really good and I'm wondering if the author knows where the story is going.

7. Competitive research
It always lightens my day to open a fantasy submission that has a page of competitive research that includes, in its entirety, Half Magic, Harry Potter, and Eragon. If you think that's your competition, I think I'm going to double over laughing so fast I bonk my head on my desk.
Competitive research is something you should do for your information, but don't send it to me. I'm better at research than just about every author I know, and being fully informed about a project I take to acquisitions is part of my job--and not a part that I'm going to trust to you. If I like your project, I'll do the research.

The moral of today's blog:
Why check baggage that no one is going to claim?
Cover letter and manuscript. And SASE, if requested. That's it. Really.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Be Patient. Be Professional. And Submit the Hell Out of Your Ms.

Everyone has the same question: how long to wait?
READER 1: "I met a senior editor at a conference in Feb 06 who invited me to submit a manuscript for consideration. I submitted a story. Six months after I submitted the ms to this editor, I received an email from her asking if it was still in need of a home She also said that she loved the quirky humor of the story and would get some notes to me soon. I responded that yes, certainly she could consider it! A few more months passed and I checked in with her to see if she was still interested in the ms because I had not heard back from her. She responded right away, that yes, she was still very much interested and sorry to be taking so long, and could I please hold on a little longer (that was in November 06). I waited until the end of Jan 07 to check in again and never heard back, and checked in another time at the end of April 07 and still haven’t heard. I’m curious as to why she wouldn’t get back to me to say she either still wants it or doesn’t. Do you think she is not interested anymore? I guess it might be obvious to some that she doesn’t, but her two emails to me indicated that she was really very interested. Should I just forget about it? Should I try calling her or would that be totally annoying?"
I kind of hate phone calls. For one thing, editors are maniacally multi-tasking: paperwork, emails, people coming to our desks, etc... so suddenly finding yourself stuck on the phone puts a wrench in the crazy juggling act. Also, I may have some meaningful thoughts about your manuscript, but if you're suddenly on the other end of the phone, I don't have enough time to cast my mind back to the last time I was looking at the thing. You're going to get very little that's useful out of me. Email.
To answer your two previous questions, editors don't express enthusiasm lightly. It could be that she can't quite think how to present the project to her acquisitions board, and it still may not work out at her house. But I would believe her when she says she's interested.
Try emailing her and asking if perhaps she's having trouble positioning the ms, and would a rewrite be of any help? And in the meantime, keep submitting that thing elsewhere.

READER 2: "If two years is long but not out of the question, what's typical? I realize it depends on the book and the publisher, but am curious if the illustrator usually signs on within a certain time frame. Also, does having an agent help prod the process along?"
I've seen an obscene amount of time pass before some projects get moving. And I've seen some with no particular time-sensitivity hit the ground running and zip out the door. There is no "typical." It's not one project vs another, one publisher vs another, one editor vs another.

Agents can help with the prodding, but you can do that job yourself if you're patient, professional, and aren't going to go crazy just thinking about the amount of time that's passed. A good rule of thumb is to prod in 3-month increments.
READER 3: "My novel has been under consideration for 4+ months. I had an inside contact, and after reading my query the executive editor requested the first large chunk. I sent her ten chapters, which she read, and requested the rest of my YA novel. She said she'd try and let me know in "three-weeks." I know, pretty optimistic. So...that was 4 months ago. Shortly after the three-month mark, I sent her a short note, saying I hoped things were still moving in a positive direction and that I wanted to keep an exclusive submission with her. She didn't reply to that email. I certainly DO NOT want to be annoying, so I've done nothing since. But other editors have shown interest in my novel, so I don't want to lose opportunities. I'm currently unagented. Any advice on how to proceed? Just keep waiting?"
Yes. But while you're waiting, let that editor know that you're submitting the manuscript to other editors, and get that baby out there! Exclusives, my ass. If there's a chance you can get two editors competing for your manuscript, fantastic.

Brains! Braaaaiiiins!

A reader writes:
Is there a market for children's funny poetry?
Or is Shel Silverstein dead?

Shel Silverstein is dead. For like 8 years now. Alternatively, Shel Silverstein will live forever.

Children's poetry is living a quiet, semi-reclusive life, which one hopes is part of a very long adolescence rather than early retirement.

(As I recently posted on the blue boards:)
Poetry is a hard sell to publishers-- because it's a hard sell to consumers. People just don't buy a lot of poetry, and trust me, it kills editors as much as it does you. We, too, love poetry and see its value and accessibility to children. I've had to decline more than a few collections that I really liked, because I didn't think we'd be able to sell enough copies to justify the investment. It hurts to send those back!

Funny poetry gets out more than its siblings. Kids always enjoy humor. (You've been reading Douglas Florian, haven't you?) We need more Funny poetry.

If, on the other hand, you're talking about You-Think-You're-Funny-But-I'm-Not-Laughing poetry, or Absurdist-Is-The-Same-Thing-As-Funny-Right? poetry, those have been crawling out of their graves and moaning for brains for years now. Where is my shotgun?

Thursday, May 3, 2007

And In the Crater They Found... Dora the Explorer 8x8s

Here's a quickie:
"I enjoy your blog. Have you ever written a children's book or any other sort of book yourself?"

I remember sitting next to a pleasant lady at a conference who asked me this question. She seemed honestly surprised to hear that editors are writers. "How could we critique writing if we didn't do it ourselves?" I asked her.

Writing is a part of editors' jobs, and sometimes that does mean writing a whole book for the publisher you work for. So, yes, I have. You won't see editors' names on most of those books, of course.

The next time you see a book with no author name on it, consider that you may be looking at the work of an editor. But not if you're shopping at Target. Those books are written by aliens.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Preditors and Editors! Memorize this!

Oh, no.
"I submitted a manuscript for a children's picture book to Children's Literary Agency last October and I only signed a 6 month contract. In the meantime, I have written another book with that series and am now working on a third book which is a chapter book for boys. My question is do you have any knowledge of Children's Literary Agency? I read on a website that they were a scam outfit under an umbrella of poorly managed services."

You haven't given them any money, have you? Children's Literary Agency is one of Writer Beware's Top 20 Worst Agents. Which you would have known if you'd heard of Writer Beware, or the wonderful people at Preditors & Editors (

You, reading this blog. Go to Preditors & Editors right now and familiarize yourself with it!

When P&E or Writer Beware says that someone is a "Worst Agent" or "Strongly Not Recommended," what that means is that person is not an agent. He/she is committing a type of fraud that is very difficult for the law to prosecute. If you have paid this company any money, consider your legal options. You may be able to make business difficult for them.

But your money is gone.


A reader writes in:
"As a writer, I find it extremely helpful (and humbling) when an editor has taken his/her valuable time to write positive personal notes in the margin of my manuscript. Some have even given their much appreciated comments such as, "Drop this word. It will read much better here," or "Very nice. I like this!"

The frustration, and reason for my question, is this. After finding such helpful, positive comments, I've been disappointed to read one additional comment: "Excellent story, but it's not what we're looking for at this time."

When I receive such a positive rejection letter, I do another search through my work to find another manuscript that might be what they're looking for and send that off to the same publisher with a nice thank you note for taking the time to critique or comment on my previous story. Sometimes, I get a similar, but positive rejection letter, again with notes in the margin ... but the same comment, "Excellent story, but it's not what we're looking for at this time."

How, as writers, are we to know what they are looking for ... at this time? I so wish they could jot just one more line ... "but if you have a manuscript about _____, please send it to us."

This, this is why writers think editors are the devil. Well you may wonder what in heck was going through the editor's mind when he/she sent you such a rejection.

"Not what we're looking for right now" is publisher code for "I'm declining this and I'm not going to go into why." As I've mentioned in other posts, sometimes there are good reasons why an editor doesn't take the time to explain a decline (the foremost being an utter lack of time). But there's no excuse for "Excellent story; I read the whole thing! ...No."

I'm an editor, and you know what I'm looking for? You guessed it--excellent stories!

Frankly, and I'm sorry to have to say it, I think you're being screwed with by extremely well-intentioned but clueless interns. (No matter who actually signed the letter.) Interns are asked to draft declines sometimes, and they're typically much more encouraging than editors are. This is problematic, of course, because if left unwatched they'll send out letters that say, essentially, "This was just fantastic in every way! I enjoyed it so much! We have serious doubts about it! We aren't going to publish this in a million years!" with just no clue that they're presenting the publisher as schizophrenic assholes.

This is just another reason why rejection letters should be taken as meaning nothing. Try to shrug and move on. Perhaps to a publisher that watches their staff better.

Oh, Holy Crap.

Once you guys get your teeth in something, huh?
Suddenly I have more questions than I can answer. Not that I'm complaining--but some of you may not get answers. :(

Thank you all for the support and links and everything. (When did this blog show up on Fuse 8?)

There's certainly something to be said for the phenomenal immediacy of the internet community. Right now that something seems to be: "Eek!"

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Project on Shelf... Author on Rack

A question from the mail:
"What would make a major publisher buy a manuscript (or two, or three) from a new author and then take a year (or two, or three) to choose an illustrator? I'm wondering if the issue is needing a well-known illustrator for an unknown author, or something else. And on a related note, how often do publishers buy manuscripts but never publish them?"

Well, in my experience, one year is different from two.
Sometimes things just get in the way, and a project is shuffled from season to season before everyone settles down and makes the illustrator decison and the book's schedule gets figured out.
(And if an illustrator has been chosen, then there's often waiting if that illustrator is in demand. But that waiting happens after the publisher contracts with the illustrator.)

But two years before the illustrator is chosen is about as long as you want to wait before you start asking some diplomatic questions. Because yes, sometimes publishers buy manuscripts and then their read on the market changes in an important way, or the editor who was excited about the project leaves for another house... and the project gets cancelled. This is not something that happens a lot, and publishers don't like to do it, but printing each book represents a chunk of money roughly equal to our own yearly salaries, so we can get a mite nervous if we're no longer sure a book is going to work out.

If it has been two years for you, and no illustrator has been chosen, get in touch with your editor and ask her pleasantly (because there really may not be any cause for alarm) if there are any concerns about the project. If your editor feels the project is no longer serving the market as originally envisioned (perhaps another, very similar book has been published by another house, eg) then you can suggest that your contract be amended to apply to a new manuscript, to be mutually agreed upon. This is the sort of play that I see from agents, but almost never from authors, because agents know how things work better than most authors.

If your editor indicates that there is no hesitation about the project's marketability, suggest nicely that you're a bit worried that it may be losing some momentum at the house. Do not reference the failure-to-publish clause in your contract at this point, but be aware of it.

Do take it easy. (Though I know--it's hard.) Editors' timelines are always much longer than authors would like them to be. It's amazing how quickly time slips by when you're this busy all the time. And even if the project is not to be at that house, you still have options.

Acting pleasant and professional about whatever's going on at your publisher will endear you a great deal to your editor--and will reinforce the idea that they can work with you, and that they want to.

Good luck!