Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Slush and Punishment: It Looks Like English...

The water she flows over rocks and stone
I found the jewel’d moss a day
Hard in my hand I wandered far
Green in my hand I wandered far
Wind echoing secrets nor play.

Look, I can put words on paper! And a stamp on an envelope! The world has just opened up to me since I got this one-handed crack pipe!

Slush and Punishment: Like Machetes to My Ears

There once was a goose who lived in a coop.
A coop is a building
Or enclosure where
Fowl are kept
And must be cleaned regularly.
And the goose liked to swim and to honk and to poop.

This is not a poem. This is a death wish. Take my advice. If you write things like this, don’t include your return address—editors can be violent.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Notes on Little Red

Okay, here's what I'd like to know. About what percentage of the slush pile is made up of stuff that's this outrageous? IOW, if I act like a professional and write well, what portion of the slush pile am I really competing with? If you get a lot of clueless subs like this, that it's needless to say have no chance, why do so many excellent writers, published and unpublished, have to submit like ten times and then sell the ms., unchanged, on the eleventh? That ms. must have impressed some or most of the first ten as being of publishable caliber. When you find these writers among the unspeakably bad slush, aren't you saying "OMG, this one is actually for real"? Yet it's almost sure to get just as rejected as rhyming vitamins.

Remember earlier when I said that a good 50% of the kitchen-full-o'-slush was so inappropriate, illiterate, or crazy that it makes you despair for the future of literature? You didn't really believe me, I see.

That's ok. It's a tough concept to get your head around until you see the stuff yourself. Watch this space for some examples.

And then let's remember that once you've excused yourself from the "what are you using for brains" category, you still have to navigate the difficult terrain of writing a really good manuscript. A very sizable chunk of the other 50% are just not ready yet. They have plot problems, or haven't figured out who their audience is. They have good voice but no story. They've got part of what would make a really appealing book, but it needs something more. Etc.

Ok, so let's assume that you've put yourself in the "wow, this could be published" category. You still have to find the publisher at which you could be published. Maybe one publisher has declared a short-term and undisclosed-to-the-public moratorium on acquiring picture books. Maybe another publisher has something already on their list that's too similar to your project. At three other publishers your manuscript is read by someone other than the editor who would see what your manuscript could be. And at four other publishers it might be seen through a haze of bad-slush-induced grumpiness or haste. These can all be factors.

This is, again, why you must keep working on your writing, and keep submitting. In an ideal world, there would only be the publishable stuff in the slush pile, and every editor would read every submission, with fresh eyes and a hopeful attitude. Instead, we get 15,000 manuscripts to slog through, knowing as we do that many thousand of them are dreck. But we keep trying, and so should you.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Little Red Pudding Head

A short story with a moral.

Once upon a time there was a hopeful author, and everywhere she went she wore a little red cape and asked total strangers if they would help her get published. Her plumber couldn't help her get published. Her hairdresser couldn't help her get published. Finally it occurred to her to send her manuscript to members of her alma mater’s faculty, guilting them into writing a letter of recommendation.

Now she was all ready. She sent her manuscript and the letters of recommendation to the Big Bad Editor. At first the Big Bad Editor was puzzled by the praise two economics professors had offered a rhymed alphabet book about vitamins. But then she shrugged her shoulders and ate the author for lunch.

The moral:
Clueless? Like to bother strangers for the hell of it? I don’t want to work with you.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

No Need for Bait If You've Got a Hook

EA, can you explain what a hook is? We all hear about hooks, but is it in the concept (what you can use to sell the book to the sales force, what makes someone pick up the book), or in the writing? There is so much talk of hooks. And I hope it's not one of those kinds of questions that if you have to ask, it means you don't have one. I can see them most of the time in the books I'm reading. But sometimes, not. I just read Twisted by Laure Halse Anderson and loved it. But what is the hook? Maybe you haven't read that book but have read something where the hook was more subtle. Can the hook just be really good writing? Voice? Thanks!

A hook is what is going to make people buy this book when they have so many other choices. Often it’s in the concept. Sometimes, if the writing is very strong, it can be in the writing alone. Occasionally it’s in the author. Usually publishers are looking for books with more than one hook.

But figuring out what the hook is and how strong it is is a matter of much experience. Authors sometimes are very bad at this part of the biz.

Try imagining yourself standing in a bookstore, surrounded by hundreds and thousands of books that people want, and trying to recommend this book here in your hands. The person you talk to won’t know you and won’t particularly trust you. Saying “it’s lovely writing” or “it has beautiful illustrations” will mean absolutely nada to this person.

What will you say? It may not be the thing you love the best about the book—it can be like trying to describe a husband of 20 years to a 20-year-old and trying to make her jealous. It’s easy to convince someone that you love the book. But what would make her think that she might love the book?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Favorite Picture Books?

I'm curious to know what some of your favorite picture books are... and why?
Jeez, where to start?
Tell you what. I’ll begin if you guys will add your own.

Actual Size
There’s your hook right there—everything in the book, all the animals and parts of animals, is actual size. One of those ideas that seems all kinds of obvious once it’s in your hands. And Steve Jenkins is fabulous. Over and over he takes nonfiction topics, trims them eloquently down to kid size, and illustrates the heck out of them.

Squawk to the Moon, Little Goose
An old, out-of print one. Illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This book scared and thrilled me as a child. It’s a good reminder of the fact that children want to be protected, but not sheltered. They want to talk about the dangerous world.

Skippyjon Jones
This is just so much fun to read. Verve, humor, and an impressive facility with language. And adorable pastels. I may start stalking Judy S.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Convention / Conference Dos and Don'ts

My question concerns convention and conference etiquette. As I visit the publisher booths at this weekend’s ALA to collect catalogs, I also hope to find work-for-hire opportunities (and I know these exist primarily with the school / library publishers), and I anticipate meeting a few editors. I typically exchange business cards with authors and editors I meet. Is it acceptable to ask about sending manuscripts to those whom I meet in a convention setting? How would I politely look for work-for-hire opportunities? For SCBWI’s LA conference, I've been told to list my available manuscript blurb on the card’s reverse side. What are your thoughts about that? It makes sense for a novel, but what about for picture books?

Every person who attends a convention as a representative of a publishing house (whether from editorial, marketing, sales... production, even!) has to weather the same thing: random people coming around to try to get their stuff published.

This is
a) not what conventions are about or why we're there.
b) irritating.

So I appreciate your question. Just as with slush, the first step in approaching the situation realistically and intelligently is realizing that you are one of many. The next things you should realize are
1. If you want my card, fine. But I'm going to toss your card back at my hotel room, if not sooner.
2. I'm going to forget about you entirely, unless
3. You were one of those really irritating people who tried to show me actual manuscript pages / illustrations without an appointment.

I am at a convention doing my job. People who try to get a head-to-head out of me are preventing me from doing my job and usurping my company's time. They are also trying to jump the queue of patiently waiting authors back at the office. And they have almost never read the submission guidelines. And heaven help them if they try to give me materials to take back with me! I'm having a bonfire on my fire escape tonight, and that manuscript is invited.

More than anything, you want to fail to be one of these people—the people who are essentially shouting "The rules don't apply to me!" ...or even "What rules?!"

I'm happy to spend a minute or less answering a question, for instance, "I wonder if you could tell me how I would submit to your publishing company?" (note that I did not say 'how I would submit to you'). Or "I'm a work-for-hire illustrator. Is there someone in particular I should send samples to?" That would also be fine.

Try to approach publisher staff as you would a stranger on the street, if you were asking for directions. Because that's what we are—strangers. And that's what you can politely do at conventions—ask for directions.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

More Ways to Tell You Aren't Going to Get Published

Your manuscript includes footnotes
a) Explaining each punctuation mark to the reader.
b) Explaining how difficult each sentence was to write, and why.
c) Explaining how your calculation of all the two-dollar words in the text should apply to your advance.

Your manuscript points out that it is our differences that make us unique and valuable, and underlines this point with
a) Talking power tools.
b) Hairless goats.
c) Homeless people.

You think ‘scansion’ is
a) Something that comes naturally to people.
b) A type of muscle injury.
c) A method of mapping terrain.

You've thoughtfully included
a) Illustration directions, down to what each character is wearing.
b) Your own illustrations, executed in Photoshop.
c) A dedication (because it’s never too early to be grateful).

Things you think are a good idea include
a) A rhyming catalog of famous murderers.
b) A cosmetics book for toddlers.
c) Walter the Farting Dog Gets a Whistle. (think about it for a moment)

You've noticed a hole in the market! What kids need now is
a) Another goddamned book about collective nouns.
b) A rollicking adventure featuring anthropomorphized ipods.
c) A nonfiction poem about the different types of sofas.

You recently visited Two-Fingers-In-The-Eyes-Nyuk-Nyuk National Historical Monument, and instead of seeing the humor,
a) You thought you’d write a book for children about the historical significance of the site to early 18th-century explorers.
b) You were inspired to tell children about ways to resolve conflict without violence.
c) You couldn't wait to get home to write a story about Nyuk-Nyuk, your blind, two-legged, dying therapy dog.

Just Another Example of Roger Sutton Kicking Some Ass

And another reason you need to read The Horn Book cover-to-cover.

Here he talks about the American Girl catalog as "toy porn":

Don't miss the very interesting comments on this post.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Learn to Speak Editor (part 4—the hard news)

"... the story just didn't come together in a way I had hoped it would.”
This could sure be more specific. It could mean that your resolution didn't resolve what the editor felt was the real conflict; it could mean that the strong elements of your writing weren't applied evenly in the manuscript. It could mean almost anything.
"Unfortunately, although I enjoyed this I’m afraid it feels a little too familiar. We are publishing a book that is similar called [title] this summer and I’m afraid this isn't quite unique enough for us to publish as aggressively as we’d like.”
This probably means just what it sounds like. Publishers have to try hard to keep their books different enough from each other so that bookbuyers can't say, 'oh, I don't need that book, I have your other book about that.'

"It's a fun idea and I especially enjoyed some of the moments between mc and mc, but I’m afraid it’s not right for our list right now.”
Praising the idea rather than the writing is usually a sign that the writing wasn't something the editor wanted to praise.

"You have sweet faces and a good family unit and theme at the core but at least for me the text still needs to be refined. I like the style and the feeling but not the story at hand."

This is a nice way of saying, "start over."

"Very clever, but not right for us. Good luck!"

This means nothing.

Here's one that puzzles me ... In a couple of cases, I've received several encouraging, complimentary rejections on my picture book manuscripts from one
editor. By the third or so letter, the editor will say sorry we can't publish this and ask if I have "anything longer." I don't.
I do, however, have other picture book manuscripts. Judging from their catalogs, these editors are publishing their share of picture books (and often from new authors). Should I move on to another editor at the same house? Or is that rude when someone has put the time into sending personal rejections? Clearly, these editors are sending me a hint but I'm not sure what to do with it.

There are pros and cons to having a semi-personal relationship with editors. It may get you a pass to send email submissions; it may get you personal rejections. But after a certain number of trys and misses, it's going to mean your submissions are met with rolled eyes and sighing. It's probably time to try another editor.

Learn to Speak Editor (part 3)

further twists on the magic decoder ring:

"Thank you for sending, not quite right for us." But a hand written note that said, "The energy in your writing is fantastic, please do send other manuscripts our way!"
Was somebody's name on that letter? If not, I'd worry that this is the work of an intern. I personalize my rejections in the actual typewritten part of letters.

The nonfiction manuscript referenced below provides an explanation and discussion of the (very well-known and well-supported) scientific conclusion that the elements in our body, carbon, iron, etc. originated in supernovae. (I've written several books about supernovae.)
Tell me the manuscript is too dry (it isn't). Tell me it might be difficult to illustrate (it might be). Tell me it's not a subject that interests you (that's fair). But don't
tell me it's "too controversial." Trust me. There's no controversy except among the scientific illiterate. Sheesh!

Oh, what bullshit. Shame on that editor.
It's true that certain states have enough hopelessly backwards people that the school bookclubs cannot offer books that talk about evolution, witchcraft, and other things that are no threat to thinking people. And if this editor has that in mind, and worries that your book will have very little audience outside of said bookclubs, that's reasonable. But saying the topic is too controversial implies that there's some legitimacy to the "controversy." Moreover, hasn't she seen Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust?

"As you know, we have a small nonfiction program and our nonfiction tends to be more straightforward than this disguised-as-a-picture-book

I like nonfiction picture books. But if she doesn't, well, ok.

"I was interested to see this.."
This means nothing. Nothing at all.

"Thank you for your query letter. Unfortunately, from your description, we do not think that your book would be a likely prospect for our list." But I didn't send a query letter. I sent a manuscript.
Ah, whoops. Shrug this off; it's the sort of mistake that does happen sometimes in the course of trying to get through as many manuscripts as we have to. I would assume that your manuscript was read, though--you just got the wrong rejection letter.

"I...was impressed with the creativity of your subject, as well as the caliber of your rhymes. The world's seas are fascinating and the lyrical flow of your poetry really helped them come to life." Well, that's nice. But this manuscript had nothing to do with the "world's seas" and "bringing them to life." You'll just have to trust me on that!
Oh dear. That's just mismanagement. Try submitting to other publishers for a couple months, and give this one a chance to "experience a change of staff."

"I don't think there is enough retail potential..."
You've narrowed your audience down to you and your friends.

"This would not translate well into other languages, which limits the markets to which we can sell a book. "
You're doing something too oblique for most of America. But the French aren't going to go for this.

"While I found some humorous moments, I don't feel this manuscript could compete in a crowded market."
Funny only works as a sole hook if it's really funny, and all the way through.

"This manuscript raises ethical issues."
(Said about a humorous manuscript about hybrid animals.)
Aside from the ligers and mules, people are going to look at this book and think "ick!". Others will picket the bookstores that carry it.

"Could you rewrite and get rid of the metaphors?"
I went through the manuscript several times, but couldn't find any metaphors.
Hmm. This is an interesting one. It might be another screw-up, but in my experience there's another possibility: You don't realize that you've put metaphors in your manuscript. I remember talking to a woman at a conference who had a manuscript about a stray dog (which I read in its entirety). I mentioned that books about homelessness were challenging to sell. She was honestly surprised. She'd never considered that her manuscript was about homelessness.

Sometimes authors get so focused on telling their story that they don't realize that the story is developing subtexts--and sometimes those subtexts are ones the author never realized they had in them. When people talk about stories having a life of their own, they're not kidding.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How to Overhaul the Slush System?

I am constantly amazed at how archaic the submission process is for the book publishing industry. I do understand that publishers need a way to weed out the
drivel, but honestly, there has GOT to be a better way. It just seems that the slush pile has gotten so ridiculously huge, that there's no chance for a deserving author to ever navigate their way through it (at least without connections).
In this day and age, shouldn't there be a better way? An online process that allows authors to post their work on a publisher's web site, much like posting a resume on That way, we could choose our genre, and even add keywords so editors could do quick searches for stories that might fill gaps in their list. And maybe SCBWI members and published authors could somehow rise to the top. That would at least limit the amount of paper you poor people are dealing with.
Have any of the publishing houses tried something like this yet? Why, why, why does it have to be so laborious and time consuming, the way it is now?

I absolutely agree that it's a rotten system for everybody. But if we could think of a better way of doing things, we'd be doing it.

Some publishing houses decide that the best way out of the hideous piles of slush is to stop taking submissions from anyone but agents. I can see the appeal of this sytem, but it also makes you dependent on agents, with whom, let's be honest, we sometimes have mildly combative relationships.

Others will only look at unsolicited submissions from SCBWI members, or published authors... but in my experience that doesn't guarantee you much. The number of people who consider themselves "published" is growing by vanity presses and gigabytes. Being a member in the SCBWI indicates a willingness to know more about the industry, and the possession of $75, and not much else. More to the point, I have seen some true dreck come from the pens of very talented people, and have pulled utter brilliance by a complete unknown from the slush.

Regarding the idea of making the submission process digital, this is not the first time I've heard this suggested. The thing to remember is that while many, many services on the internet (my hotmail account, my blogger account, the sitemeter on this blog, just to name a couple) are free of charge to the user, they are not free of charge to the company that runs those services. There would be a significant expense involved in having the servers and tech people needed to store and access 15,000 manuscripts in our computers. (Making the manuscripts key-word-searchable wouldn't change the fact that at least half of them are awful. And when it comes down to it, I don't care what your manuscript is about. If it's got good writing and a reasonable hook, that's all that matters.)

When we compare this expense to the extremely negligible expense of having people mail us submissions, having an intern open them, and letting them take up space in a corner until we read them, our decision is made for us.

If anyone has an idea of how to make the slush process better, I'm open to suggestions. But I've thought long and hard about it, and haven't come up with anything else yet.

Learn to Speak Editor (part 2)

This is code for "where's the hook?"
On a young PB: "I worry that literal-minded kids will find the dancing somewhat irresponsible."
This is code for "parents don't want to spend money on books they think will directly lead to misbehavior."
"Thank you for sending us your picture book manuscript, which I am returning to you now. I like the story, especially the linking between each response to a gift and the next gift. I can imagine it as a picture book for young children. However [name of company] is not the right publisher for this story. Our picture books tend to be much more substantial and aimed at slightly older children. I wish you success in finding the right publisher for this story and hope that you will keep us on your list of potential publishers for future work.
Here's the deal: I had previously sent her a longer picture book manuscript and received the comment, "this is more what we are looking for, however we need some shorter books for our list, ones which parents and teachers can quickly read to the picture book set." ...And that is why I had a bald spot on the side of my head.
Both of these are code for "This isn't close enough to pare down or beef up into what I want. Maybe if I give you just enough information to confuse you, you'll have a psychotic break."

"As you may have noticed, this is a form rejection. While we would like to give personal responses to each submissions, it is not practical for us to do so at this time. Please keep in mind this is not a statement about the quality of your submission. All this says (and we apologize for not being able to offer more) is this: your particular story is not for our particular publication, at this particular time. Good luck placing your work elsewhere! Being an author is more a journey than a destination, and it's important to keep moving forward."

This is code for "I want to be supportive, but my head is too far up my ass to tell which way is up."

Learn to Speak Editor (part 1)

The magic decoder ring of editor speak begins!
I used to write: 'I'm afraid it's not quite right for our current list.' What I meant was: 'It's not good enough for our list. And it never will be.

It's strange and wonderful to think of other editors reading this blog. I've written "it's not right for our list," and yes, most of the time I meant "it's not good enough." But some of the time I really meant "not right for us"--a topic that we didn't publish, or a theme we already had something similar to (but that was in early enough stages that I didn't want to tell the world about it).
Has pacing problems (boring)
Exhaustive (academic/boring)
Somewhat heavy handed (preachy)
Not without charm (too precious)
Nicely written but ultimately unsatisfying (plotless)
Underdeveloped characters (totally stock)
Nice sense of place (is this about anything?)
Not enough tension (mind-numbingly slow)
Feels familiar (not another)
Entertaining (overwritten)
Too special (it won't sell)

Has pacing problems (where did you leave your story arc?)
Exhaustive (not one but multiple kitchen sinks)
Somewhat heavy handed (the obedience school method of storytelling)
Not without charm (this means nothing from an editor's mouth. Seriously.)
Nicely written but ultimately unsatisfying (too much focus on setting/character, not enough on story)
Underdeveloped characters (what characters?)
Nice sense of place (it's nice you're living in the moment. Some of us want a sense of time passage, though)
Not enough tension (the problem is that there's no problem)
Feels familiar (the feeding-of-baby-birds method of storytelling)
Entertaining (you're funny. But when was the last time you heard a standup comic tell a joke that lasted for 32 pages?)
Too special (I haven't a clue what this means. Who would write this? Crazy editors.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Honk If You Love Geese

It's official. The geese have replaced the squirrels in the slush pile. Some pandas this week, some sheep (one that thinks it's a goat) and of course the standard number of therapy/rescue dogs. But tons of geese.

Tell me the truth. How many of you are thinking about writing / have recently written a manuscript with geese characters?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Very Small Peeve

Why doesn't Blogger do m-dashes? I often want to use one. After the semicolon, it's my favorite piece of puncuation.

Learn to Speak Editor in Just One Week!

I got a rejection letter that said something like, "I like your manuscript, but you deserve someone who's more enthusiastic about it. Best wishes placing it at another publisher."
At this point, I don't care how enthusiastic the editor is! I just want the damn thing published. I kind of want to write back telling this person that if she likes it at all, that's good enough for me!
Do you guys want to take this, or shall I?
This is yet another reason to totally ignore rejection letters. You don't have to worry about getting slapped with the clue stick.

Editors are caught between people with delicate feelings who will be irate if we don't say things in the nicest, most circuitous way possible, and people who can't read between the lines when things are phrased that way. (Not to mention the people who have delicate feelings and can't read between the lines.) We try to take a middle road that is polite but clear, but no matter what we write, someone is going to be pissing cactus.

The sentiment expressed above is code for "I liked your manuscript, but not enough to spend hours upon hours of my time on it over the next year and a half."

Perhaps the readers of this blog could help me put together a little glossary of phrases editors use and what they really mean. Oh, this'll be fun. I know a bunch of you save your rejection letters, if only to scrape your boots on when you come into the house. Want to send me your favorite excerpts? I'll take submissions until the end of the day Friday. And it'll be so interesting to see what my counterparts are writing!

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Humiliation of Petty Distinctions

What's your take on middle grade fiction these days? Some editors are saying it's underpublished right now. Does that mean it might be easier to sell a MG in the current market? And is MG still 8-12 year olds, or are things shifting up? My agent seems to feel that editors are more hungry for older MGs. But those good readers in 2nd-5th grade need novels to read too, don't they?
I'm a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to these designations. I just don't care what "chapter book," "middle grade," or "YA" are currently supposed to mean. Why don't we simply speak in terms of ages, or grades?

I'm also a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to "what's hot right now." (Ok, maybe I'm just generally a bit of a curmudgeon.) Your agent is right, more publishing is happening in the 10-and-up age groups, and chapter books for kids younger than 10 are a bit of an ugly stepchild to the rest of the list. But you're also right--there's no reason for this. It's dumb. All kids need books, and the more variety (of all sorts) we have, the better.

Moreover, I think most editors know this. We're looking for books of all lengths and all age groups because the most important thing is giving kids great literature that will get them excited about reading. Sometimes my boss will talk about balancing the spread of a list, and the reaction that I hide from her is: "Screw that!"

I do not care how many fricking chapter books vs picture books vs middle grades vs YAs are on our goddamned list as long as every single one of them is something awesome.

Alas, I'm not in charge...

... yet.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

80 Proof

This week has had a theme. But this is the last how-long-do-I-wait-what's-going-on question I answer for a while, and Mr. Cuervo here agrees.

So, This is a stupid question and yes, I have queried the piece to death, but I still can't sleep at night. A full of my MG has been with 5 different editors at 5 different houses (and 1 agent has a full) for several months with NO RESPONSE. I am not hallucinating as I still have all of the requests in writing. Yes, my email is working, but at this point, the postage rates have changed on the SASE. WTF?

Is my manuscript in a corner somewhere? Has it been riding around in the trunk of a car? Is it holding up a desk? Has it even been opened? Is an assistant using it as a coaster? Did the editor post my book on the bulletin board as an example of what not to do? Did it go to acquisition, editorial or whatever they call the meetings? Are they working on a P&L and talking it over? What is taking so long?

A good imagination is a blessing and a curse, isn't it? Did an overworked intern come to the office with lighter fluid? Did an editor send you a really important request for a rewrite in an envelope the post office is never going to deliver? Did someone mistake your upside-down manuscript for a pile of recyclable paper and print the month's sales reports on the blank sides? Did the sheer, incalculable mass of slush create a black hole of hopelessness from which no manuscript can escape? Did the publisher sign so many books up for 2008 that the idea of acquiring anything ever again makes the entire editorial staff nauseated?

There's no telling. But I can give you the percentages. For your questions, in order:
1. 40%
2. 15%
3. 2%
4. 70%
5. 50%
6. 0% (it's too big to tack to a bulletin board)
7. 15%
8. 30%

You must keep writing. You must keep submitting. You must not think about how people who deliberately requested your manuscript should really get back to you.

The percentages for my questions, in case you're curious:
1. 0%
2. 10%
3. 1%
4. 13%
5. 40%

What's My Motivation?

Good god, did you read this article? It's phenomenal what authors put themselves through. And with what horribly unrealistic expectations!

(Ok, ok, you're thinking back to some of my posts and thinking, "Phenomenal what we put ourselves through?" And while my social life may be in the toilet, and I may have gained some weight since taking this job, and there may be better-paid sanitation workers... crap, what was my point? Oh yeah. At least I don't find myself wandering around with just one shoe on like a crazy person. My crazy job makes me happy, and I can at least maintain the appearance of sanity.)

Anyway, this is about how crazy you people are. So, so many people seem to decide to become authors because they have the wrong idea about what's going to happen.
Not "You've got the wrong end of the stick."
More like, "That's not the stick. You're holding a tree snake."

Let's dispel some of these ideas.

1. It's easy!
While it is perfectly true that there are abominably written books out there which make it seem like damn near anyone can get published, I think a great many people are looking at children's picture books and thinking, "That's short! I can write short! I'll write a children's book the next time I sit down!" And I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the slush manuscripts I see are written in the bathroom.

2. I'll be rich!
You aren't going to get rich. You aren't even going to make a living at this. You'll be among the lucky few if you get enough money out of your book to buy an economy car.

3. I'll be famous!
Celebrities are not going to rally around your book. There will be no groundswell of support from consumers. Awards committees will refer to you as, "Who?"

No, neither sloth nor greed nor vanity shall make you a happy author. (Nor anger, gluttony, or envy. Not sure about lust.)

Lookit. There's just one reason why anyone should subject themselves to authorhood. Because you've written something that you love. If, at the end of all the hoopla, very few people read your book, or it gets terrible reviews, or it never even gets published, you should still be holding something that makes you happy. It's just not worth it otherwise.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

More Proof...

From the continuing conversation about the last post:
In terms of doubts, are there not always doubts? Or is it that some doubts are greater than others? How often does a ms come in that is so clean and sparkly and perfect that there are no doubts? What percentage of mss do you fall in love with completely from the word go? And have no doubts over?

There's a difference between doubts and things that need work. Editors, being who we are, don't think of any manuscript as being so clean and sparkly and perfect that it can't be improved upon at least a little. So to an editor's mind, there's no such thing as a manuscript that needs no work.

Doubts are when there are things that need work that we are unsure we and/or the author can actually fix. And usually having doubts about a manuscript leads directly (and pretty darn quickly) to its being rejected.

But every once in a while doubts are amorphous enough to cast a book (perhaps like the one we've been discussing) into a kind of limbo--you love it, but maybe you're just not sure about how the market is going to respond. but you love it. but will it work? but you love it. but would it be taking a place on your list that would otherwise go to a more solid bet? but... etc.

Still, and as we've covered, there's just no excuse for three years. Jeez, there are a couple things on my desk that I've had for less than three months and I'm already feeling guilty about them.

Though I do want to add something. While I'm not about to start making excuses for people who take obscene amounts of time deciding about manuscripts, I can't help feeling a little sympathy for them, especially at the end of certain days. It can be a killer job. Sometimes there's less than half the time you need to get all of your work done, and the only thing that saves you from utter panic is the exhaustion. And you wonder why so many junior staff leave for grad school--or sanitariums.

Proof of Life

I've been reading and loving your blog for the past few months. Thank you for the humor, information, and humanity in your entries.

I'm writing for advice about one of my manuscripts, which has been with a certain publisher for over 3 years now. I sent a query letter initially, and they invited me to send my YA novel. I was in contact with an associate editor. Every six months, I would e-mail, just asking where my book was in the process. She would continue to apologize for the delay and to tell me that she was interested as were others--that their editorial meetings had been canceled, interrupted, etc. and that she would get back to me soon.

This past September 2006, the response I received from my query was that she loved my story and writing. The editor-in-chief had read it again and loved my story and writing. Then she explained which section of the book that they were having difficulties with. I wrote back that I was open to changes and suggestions. I never heard from her.

I waited until January 2007 to repeat my willingness to rewrite. Never heard from her.

I waited a month or so and rang. It turned out that she left in December to go to grad school (something she had to know ahead of time). I asked the assistant on the phone who had my manuscript after telling her the history. She assured me that she would get back to me to let me know what was happening with my book or the person who now had my manuscript would. They didn't.

I called again and learned that the editor-in-chief had it. I wrote her a letter, asking about my manuscript, how pleased I was to hear that she liked it, and mentioned that it had been 3 years since I sent it to them.

That was in April. This is June. I've never heard from her.

I would love for my book to be published, of course, and haven't wanted to jeopardize that. And if they are seriously considering it, then great. But how do I get any response from them?
Three years is ridiculous, no question. Of course, it's also just something that happens sometimes. It shouldn't, but there it is.

I don't know what to tell you about these people. It sounds as though your manuscript has gotten lost in the limbo of "we like it, but not well enough to acquire it straight out and not little enough to let it go."

Now, editors are very, very good at letting things go. With as many submissions coming in as there are, we have to be. So the fact that your manuscript has hung around for as long as it has is an indication of real, honest-to-goodness enthusiasm for it. Obviously there are also some doubts.

What I would recommend is to go ahead and take a serious stab at rewriting the section/aspect they had trouble with--sometimes a good rewrite is the proof editors need that you're going to be a good person to work with. (The ability to rewrite is the thing that separates the good from the great in writers, over and over, in my experience.)

While you are doing this, or directly afterward (in case you end up feeling your rewrite has improved the text), KEEP SUBMITTING IT ELSEWHERE. Because it's also possible that all the real, honest-to-goodness enthusiasm for the project left with that associate editor, and your manuscript is just going to languish in the editor-in-chief's office in a nameless drift of paper until she retires or her office catches fire.

Keep your sense of humor, and your patience. This industry takes a great deal of both from everyone who works in it, on either side of the desk. And keep your chin up. Clearly you've got something that speaks to people.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Beyond the Valley of Good and Managing Editors

If nothing happens in certain months because editors are busy, and nothing happens in certain other months (e.g. August and December) because everyone's on vacation, when the heck does anything ever happen?
Please don't confuse "nothing" with "nothing that affects you". I simply cannot tell you how much there is to do in every one of my days (and weekends) that is not (1) editing, (2) replying to authors and agents, or (3) reading new submissions.

Remember the kitchen full of slush that you kindly imagined for me a while back? This time, imagine that same kitchen, but where all the slush is, imagine paperwork that needs filling out, internal emails that need sending, sales materials that need building, flapcopy that needs writing, schedules, p&ls, etc, etc, etc. And now imagine a black-leather-and-stud-clad Managing Editor standing on top of those piles with a fiery whip.

We're getting stuff done, I swear. During those times of year when there are pressing distractions and time out of the office, we're getting a bit less done, and that means that projects that are not yet officially ours and thus have no schedule get shorter shrift. And you'd offer them shorter shrift too, if the person managing the schedules was going to flay you alive if you missed one more deadline.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Three-Day Martini Lunch (and other vacations I need to find time for)

My agent is trying to teach me patience...others have tried, my pastor, teachers, isn't an easy task.

My agent was offered a contract for my first book, a YA novel. She, my agent, wanted to negotiate for better terms so I haven't signed anything yet. How long does that process take, on average? I haven't heard from my agent for a couple of weeks. Which wouldn't worry me except that once, on the eve of closing on buying my first house, my mortgage broker took off on a three-day drinking binge with all our mortgage documents in the trunk of his car. Really. No one could find him, until he showed up four days later all, "Where's the (hiccup) table? We've gosh work to (hiccup) do."

Two weeks is almost nano-seconds to editors. (Especially certain weeks in April, May, and June, which may include Bologna, IRA, BEA, ALA, and a publisher's presentation of its new books to its sales force. This is crazy time for us.) Inquiries should usually be made after a couple of weeks, but letting it go for a month during this hectic time will be appreciated by the editor, and your agent probably knows this.

Before you and an agent team up, you should do the research that reassures you that the agent is one who knows the industry and has sold projects before to the trade houses. Because you can't look over your agent's shoulder all the time (and trying to is just going to make her bonkers), and you have to trust her to be getting it right.

Once you know that about your agent and the two of you have joined forces, then it is time to embark upon the second Great Work of all authors: trying not to freak out while other people are doing their jobs. I say this sympathetically; I know it's hard for authors. But it's important for you to recognize it as necessary work, to remember that all the other authors have been through it as well, and 90% of all the author worrying that gets done is unnecessary.

I think it's just part of the artistic temperament to be a worrier. Embrace this about yourself. Just try to avoid forcing your agent and your editor to embrace it.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Faster, Bunny Rabbit! Kill! Kill!

Say an author submits a manuscript that you like and ultimately offer a contract. Next thing you know, you're dealing not with the writer but from the agent s/he was able to get because there's now an offer in hand. How do you feel about that?
No harm done. I’ll be significantly less ambivalent, though, if the author not only received my offer but agreed to it... and then failed to tell their new agent. Suddenly there’s an agent in the mix who thinks the advance and royalty are still up for negotiation, and is perhaps eager to prove their value to their new client.
As I said before, I don’t mind negotiating; not at all. Re-negotiating, though, shows a lack of understanding of the rules--and steams my bunny slippers.