Friday, November 30, 2007

The Cutest Thing You've Ever Seen

It's probably your snooky-wookums dog. Or cat. Or weasel. (You keep that in your apartment?) In some cases it's your favorite stuffed animal, or in one case your purse. (Seriously? Your purse?)

Whatever it is, it's so adorable you've made a photo album of it. Oh, I'm sorry, a picture book.
You've traveled with wittle wuvums to scenic locales for your photo shoots. "Scenic" evidently includes the ditch near your house and the four corners area. (You can see four states! Except, you know, not in the photograph.)

And then you've convinced yourself that people with photoshop don't need artistic talent, and you've been doctoring the photos so that your overweight chihuahua (as a completely random example) has an adventure in outer space where he worries the planets like tennis balls and teaches children facts about the solar system. (Are there ten planets?) It's delightful! Because he's so cute!

And you've sent this off to a publisher because sharing your pookie with the world qualifies as a public service, and to "show" those people who made fun of your weird obsession and suggested in their "nice" voice that you might join a book group or try knitting or take a bath.

In the end, it doesn't matter whether these submissions will get published or not. (Though they won't. Ever.) The point is that people at publishing houses get the chance to play MST3K with your photos and for this we sincerely thank you. It's a nice break from taking things seriously.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Q&A Grab Bag

A couple of editors have commented that some secondary characters in my YA ms aren't "developed enough." I'm guessing they meant the characters were cardboard cutouts. I tried to address this problem by showing more of these characters' motivations, gave them more to do than just be a sounding board or antagonist for the heroine, etc, but I'm not sure I've gone far enough. At the same time, I don't want the secondaries to take over the whole show. Could you please talk about character development, what works for you and what doesn't?

The trick seems to lie in giving your secondary characters personalities, histories, and priorities of their own, without regard to your main characters. Then picture the characters interacting. (Not everything will go as planned, and that's what makes writing life-like.) Give your secondary characters a small chance somewhere to show us their point of view—even if it isn't one anyone else in the book agrees with. Give each character a chance to petition for the readers' sympathy—even if they don't get it. Give each of your characters a sense of self, and they'll become the currents your main character swims in and against, rather than simple scenery.

What is your opinion of writers submitting to agents and editors at the same time, especially for picture books? Say a ms was well received during a First Pages session and the editors said they would like to see the rest of the book, would the writer be better off securing an agent before submitting or should he go ahead and submit on his own?

The decision to find an agent or not is a personal one. There's nothing wrong with submitting to editors and agents at the same time; go about this however suits you best.
EA, you may have answered this, but I was wondering about the rejections you give to agents, are they more honest than the ones to authors? Before an editor said yes to my manuscript, several said a variety of things like what you've described here, "strong writing, character, plot, but not right for me." There was also at least one, the writing isn't strong enough. I'm curious if you work harder to be clear about your rejection with an agent, because you are trying to educate the agent as to what you are looking for, and developing a relationship, or if the bottom line is you don't have much time to spend on manuscripts you don't want because you've got to find and work on the ones you do?

As with authors, I'm more likely to be specific if I think there may be some eventual reward for me. Very promising authors and agents who I know have great taste get more feedback for the reasons you mention, as well as to encourage them to keep trying me with manuscripts.

Non-specific responses are not necessarily a sign of no respect, however; it's usually just a sign of no time. Most authors and agents don't really need encouragement to keep submitting, after all.

Is That a Stuffed Hamster?

How realistic is it that a writer might forge a career relationship with one

It does happen, and it's a happy thing for everyone when it does. But it's not very frequent.
Now that I’m about to start sending out queries, I want to target those editors who are looking for manuscripts in the varied genres I write in. (Material suitable for their list of course.) Am I dropping the ball here by thinking this way? Should I concentrate solely on the sale of each individual manuscript and not consider this?
Yes. Trying to get your manuscript published is hard enough without trying to find and only submit to editors who might take any genre you ever feel like writing. Find someone to publish something of yours, and count yourself lucky. If you happen to find someone with whom to build a continuing relationship, count yourself very lucky indeed.
When you take on a writer, do you look ahead for future projects from him or
her, or do you just care specifically about the current one?
I want to be sure you understand something—the writers who do have a continuing relationship with a particular editor have it for these reasons; and all of these reasons, not just one or two of them:

1. Luck (and perhaps some networking). If an editor and an author who make a really great team happen to find each other, there's always some serendipity about it. Erect a shrine to the goddess Bibliomachia and hope. (If you want to make offerings, she prefers burned manuscript pages and broken pencils.)

2. Professionalism and similar working styles. Those editors you see at conferences and hear about in the writing community? 99.9% of them are very nice people. Those authors out there hoping to get published? 99.9% of them are very nice people. This does not matter, because being a nice person and being good to work with are about as related as hamsters and salad forks.
You don't care if your editor is the kind of person who steals lawn gnomes and dribbles spaghetti sauce into library books, as long as she helps you make your book better and gets back to you promptly when you email. Your editor doesn't care if you're the kind of person who taxidermies your dead pets and only washes your hair when it starts to itch, as long as you take feedback and respect your due dates. It doesn't matter how much you and your editor like each other personally; if your working styles drive each other nuts, you'd both be much happier with other people.

3. Success. Here's the real catch. Not one of those happy teams you may have heard about is turning out unsuccessful books. If you sell a manuscript to an editor who you do happen to enjoy working with, wonderful. But if that book bombs, her publisher is going to cast a skeptical eye on any other manuscripts from you that she decides to champion. And she knows this, so she's less likely to champion them. It doesn't matter how great you both are to work with or how blessed by the ferocious goddess of books you both happen to be if you aren't creating books that sell.

Synopsis Plus Sample Chapters

This week's dip in the slush brought me a manuscript for which there was a synopsis and sample chapters. That's what our submission guidelines request, so the submitter gets points for reading the guidelines. The sample chapters, though, were chapters 19 and 47.

So a quick bit of advice.

I don't need consecutive chapters at this stage, because sample chapters are really just about whether your writing style appeals. (And the synopsis is about whether you've got a plotline that hangs together.)

But let's see... one assumes you've given me your best chapters. Is one of those not chapter one? Has it occurred to you that readers of your published book will not read chapters 19 and 47 first? They'll read chapter one (often skipping any foreword), and if it doesn't grab them, they'll put the book down.

If you have not put some of your best writing at the very front of the book—on the very first page, ideally—that is Not Good.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I Can't Acquire the Next Newbery; I've Filled My Quota for the Month

Are there ever times where you find yourself buying two manuscripts at the same time? (Say, within a few weeks.) Or do you generally try to avoid that?
Why would I avoid that? I acquire when I get the chance to acquire, and no other consideration of timing often comes into it. I think I once offered on three things in the same week.

One Workman to Another

A number of writer's-market-type-guides advise authors to be aware of the market, of who's publishing what. Fine and dandy. But many of them further recommend that you demonstrate this knowledge in your query letter by comparing your manuscript to "similar" offerings from said publisher -- in other words, explain why you think your story is a good fit for this editor and/or house with concrete examples.
Am I the only one who thinks this is bound to come off as pretentious at least 80% of the time? I'm a part-time bookseller, and few things make me want to pluck out my eyeballs as much as catalog copy that assures me a new fantasy is the "next Harry Potter" or that a historical novel is "sure to appeal to fans of Dear America." I end up muttering, "Oh puh-leeze!" and turning the page. (I also sniggered mercilessly when Jenna Bush compared her book to Number the Stars and Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl .) Just let me read the dang book and *I'll* decide what it reminds me of, thank you very much. Besides, I don't know about you, but when I give a new book a shot, I'm mostly hoping it will be somehow DIFFERENT from the other gazillion books I've already read.
In light of that, how can an author appear well-informed and familiar with a publisher's taste without going too far and coming off as a conceited nitwit?
While it's nice to see that people have actually done a little research, you're exactly right. Most of the time that skimming of our website does not result in a particularly better-targeted submission or a significant understanding of how my publishing house is different from others. And yes, absolutely, I don't care what you think your manuscript is like unless you give me a good reason to think I might agree.

So here's what would really make a difference: mention a couple of our titles that are in some way similar to yours (e.g., in the same genre and age range, or on the same topic but in a different genre or age range) and tell me specifically what's strong about them. Don't use filler words like "sweet" or "charming" or "great" which essentially mean nothing. Think like you were in a Masters program on children's literature and say precisely what one of our books' strengths are. Showing me that you are aware of the ingredients of a good manuscript rather than simply your reaction to it sets you apart.
You know, most people enjoy any cake that is pretty and palatable, and that's about all they can say about it. Other bakers, though, can tell that this one has a good crumb and a touch of nutmeg and that the type of icing is a good match for the texture and sugar content of the cake. Talk to me like that. Show me you know the difference between pretty and palatable, and pretty and palatable and well-made.

The (Possibly Explosive) Dangers of Feedback

Not as many questions for the magic eight ball of editor speak as I expected, which perhaps means that my colleagues have not been making as much of a nuisance of themselves. Or maybe you guys are taking the 8 Rules of Rejections to heart and not thinking much about the rejection letters you get. (If so, good for you!)

I've had an ed say she loved the voice, the plot, and the premise but not the dialogue. There were literally all of three lines of dialogue in that ms.

Yes, here's an example of wanting to give feedback and avoid the problem at the same time, which editors ought to know are mutually exclusive goals. Sure, editors are sometimes skittish about approaching the problem, since some of the things you definitely can do while giving feedback are confuse, anger, frustrate, and offend people. Still, if you're going to skip the problem, skip the "feedback". This sort of letter just makes people wonder what you're using for brains.
"the writing is thin"

This most often means the writing didn't have enough color or personality of its own. This doesn't necessarily mean you need more description, though writers are frequently in danger of taking it that way. Good, muscular writing knows what its goal is in the manuscript, and gets it done with few words. If you choose the right few words, the right few telling details, you only need a few.
"it's too quiet"

This is a topic problem; the editor is saying there isn't enough of a hook. There are now so many books on the market with lovely writing and illustration that those facts alone will not sell a book. If the writing or art is breathtaking, then that can be a hook of its own. Otherwise, the book also needs to be about something people know they want.
"not substantial enough"

This could mean "too thin" or "too quiet" (see above). Hard to say which.
I have a friend who just got a rejection from an ed who said she loved the concept, loved the genuine voice, loved the really great writing, but rejected the ms b/c she wanted to see more b/w 2 characters. As writers we hear over and over that plot can be fixed. But believable voice, solid writing, original concept, etc...have to be there first. So what was the deal-e-oh here? Not even a revision request. Although she did ask to see anything else of the writer's. Is there a subliminal message, like, "I adore this, but my publisher will never green-light this project," huh?For writers, these kinds of rejections are both exhilarating and excruciating.

Sounds like a letter I would have ended with a revision request. It's sometimes hard, though, to be sure a writer's able to change a manuscript the way you think it needs to be changed. And while we'd love to give people the benefit of the doubt, we see a few hundred manuscripts every year that have distinct strengths and that are simply not ready to be published. If we gave all of them an open door for resubmission, we'd regret it almost instantly. My advice: think hard about this feedback, and if you like it enough to make some real changes to the manuscript, do resubmit it. And submit it elsewhere. And keep submitting.
My husband has noticed that I get more vague yet personal rejections of the "I loved this, really enjoyed it, want a copy for myself" variety between May and September... Even worse are the friendly, unsigned replies from publishers who told me not to include a SASE b/c they only respond if interested... so someone actually SPENT MONEY to send me a vaguely polite rejection..His diagnosis? Summer Interns.(Though I half-wonder if the polite rejection from the "only respond if interested" publisher was, in fact, a veiled attempt to say "please don't EVER submit to us again." Then I stop being paranoid and make another pot of coffee to make me feel better...)

I would attribute any rejection in the vein of "This was so great! I can't think of a single thing to criticize! Not on your life!" to interns.
The friendly, unsigned replies from houses who don't promise a response, however, I would take as actually friendly (while obviously not real personal or helpful).

Now, I do know what you mean about a polite letter that was sent in the hope that the author would never submit again, but you can be absolutely sure you've never received one. You seem perfectly sane. We don't send those letters to the clueless or the people who need to work on their manuscript some more. We don't even send them to the people who we feel could really work on their writing some more. They are solely for the very occasional certifiably insane person whose manuscript and/or cover letter actually scares us. They are "Oh my god, send this person a very nice but vague letter and let's hope the next thing we get from him isn't a bomb" letters.

So far we have not gotten any bombs, but trust me, some of the slush is just that terrifying.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Editor Speak Strikes Again!

If this is not a repetitive question could you please define what "slightly more commercial then we would pursue" means. That word commercial, has me a bit befuddled!
I was just thinking it's about time we had another round of What's -This-Editor-Thinking, otherwise known as the Magic Decoder Ring of Editor Speak. Come one, come all, and email me with your favorite unintelligible editorial comments; I'll try to translate (but no promises). Offer ends on Friday; not applicable where prohibited by law; etc, etc.

Commercial is one of those terms that you know for sure you understand until someone asks you to define it for them.
I not infrequently run into manuscripts that could stand to be a bit more commercial, in that they could stand to appeal to a wider audience.
Saying something is too commercial, though, could be taken a couple ways. Maybe this editor feels it's too mass-market, as in, would be most at home at Kmart and Target rather than at trade bookstores.
Or maybe she means it's trying to appeal to so wide an audience that it's lost it's own uniqueness, and thus has no particular audience.
Or... it's possible there's an interpretation I'm not thinking of right now.

If you cannot make head nor tail of an editorial comment, chances are you should just ignore it. (Remember The 8 Rules of Rejections?) But if you just want to have some fun with them, go ahead an email 'em to me.

Instant Sisterhood

Know how you read somebody's blog and instantly bond with them over their snark and humor and occasional swearing? Yeah, like that.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Illustrated Manuscript, though not Illustrated with Examples

I've just stumbled on to your blog and I'm really enjoying it. Thank you. I have a question: What does an illustrated children's book manuscript actually look like? I'm trying to picture it, but it's hard considering there aren't yet illustrations.

If you mean a manuscript that is meant to be illustrated by someone other than the author, it looks like a manuscript. It's up to the editor reading it to picture what would be going on in the art.

If you mean one of the manuscripts I get that's already illustrated, that varies a great deal. Simple pencil sketches, full-color art samples (photocopies, one hopes), the occasional manuscript with illustrations borrowed from someone else's book (instant reject) ....
Unless the author is a professional artist, including art of any kind is often a bad idea. See my previous post "Stick Figure Theater."
Is it possible to view actual manuscript submissions (strong ones vs. poor submissions)?

Is it possible for me to post submissions I get at work on my personal blog? Hell no. Those people sent their manuscripts to a publisher, who can be relied upon not to use their intellectual property in any way they do not explicitly agree to.

Beauty vs Utility

When you talk about finding "something I want to acquire" in the slush pile, what do you mean? Is this a literary gem that speaks to your heart or is it a commercial manuscript with a hook that will beat out the competition?

The answer is yes.
I don't pull things out of slush that I think will be a commercial success but that I personally despise. Those stay there. The less said about them to Marketing, the better.
But when I do pull something from slush and get excited about it, it can be for lots of reasons. "Literary gem" is one of them; so is "kids are going to love this" and "what a great read-aloud." And many other categories. I love many different kinds of readers, so I love making many different kinds of books.
I guess what I'm trying to ask is are you (and other editors) looking to create art these days or is your company (and you by extension) mainly fixated on the bottom line?

The answer is yes.
Editors are in this business because they love books and want to help create great ones. Publishers are in this business to make money.

Editors work for publishers, which on the one hand put an emphasis on profitability, but on the other hand pay us to work in books.
And publishers hire editors, who on the one hand are stubborn and headstrong and care much more for literature than for profitability, but on the other hand are the only types of people who can do the job.
So each side has some trade-offs.
Is there any room for beautiful writing in picture books?

You're sounding awfully discouraged. Did you notice Show Way got a Newbery honor last year? What a great book.

Friday, November 9, 2007

I Did It! I Avoided the Slush! I'm—AAAaaaaaahhh!...

I'm an artist, and last year, my art rep started shopping around my dummybooks. Her method is starting with an AD who in turn says they love the concept and will "pitch" it to an editor.
YAY! But then the crickets start chirping. My rep contacts the AD who apologizes profusely and says to call on such and such a date when they will have some feedback. This follows with a string of apologies when rep does call and nothing has been done regarding the manuscript.
More phone dates are planned and then eventually AD avoids phone calls all together. This has happened at two houses so far and each time the AD has had the manuscript for 5-6 months at least.
I would just appreciate a "NO" rather than being ignored. Should I seek a literary agent who will submit directly to the editor?Are my manuscripts junky and the Art Director doesn't want to share that feedback?Should I suggest to my rep to submit to more houses than one at a time and directly to an editor? (Ack, I hate to do this, I don't want to come off like I know more than she does.)

The answers to your questions:

1. Yes. The problem with trying to sidestep the swamp of The Slush is that on either side of it is a sheer cliff. There's no where to stand out there. At most houses, designers are not your best advocates for acquisition.

2. Possibly. Designers are often sweeter people than editors. Editors (who are often very nice themselves) have to develop the ability to give bad news without stressing over it or worrying about just how to put it: we get lots and lots of practice, and after the first couple years it gets easy. Designers don't have as much of this experience, and do stress and worry... and may procrastinate because of it.

3. For god's sake, yes. Assuming you don't do the better thing and get a literary agent.

4. And remember to tell the publishing houses you submit to (whomever does the submitting for you) that it's ok if they want someone else to illustrate your manuscript. I've gotten illustrated submissions from artists who were in no way bad artists—but whose art style's strengths did not complement the manuscript's strengths. In those cases, it's better to get someone else.

Agents: the Mousetrap (Ahem, I mean Prize) at the Bottom of the Box

A few months ago I sent a sample (three chapters) of my YA fantasy to The Publisher Of My Dreams. Last week, I was both surprised and delighted to receive a phone call from said Publisher requesting the full manuscript.Of course I obliged, mailing the package as fast as was humanly possible.
Now, I am fully aware that a request to see the entire manuscript is in no way a guarantee that my work will be published. But at the same time, it's as good a sign as I could possibly have hoped for, and I find myself wondering about my situation should I actually be offered a deal. You see, I have no agent... and no clue as to how a Publishing Contract works should one fall on my doorstep. I'm not saying for a second that The Publisher would try to take advantage of me, but I'd like the benefit of someone who knows what they are doing in my corner. If I were to receive an offer, would it be considered a slap in the face to The Publisher for me to then approach an agent? I really don't want want to ruin my chances by committing some stupid faux pas.

I've offered on books that then suddenly developed an agent. In all honesty, I am a tad irritated when this happens, because I'll often make an unagented author a better offer than I would an agent. Agents always haggle, no matter what the starting offer, so you have to leave room for negotiation.

But I put that irritation away. I understand that (a) it's damn difficult for new authors to get an agent (if they want one) before they have a publication deal, and (b) everyone deserves to come to the negotiation table with the knowledge they need in order to understand the contract.

It is, in fact, in the publisher's interest (assuming it's a legitimate publisher) for authors to understand the contract they're signing. The fewer misunderstandings down the road, the better.

So go ahead and get yourself an agent. Do also read Negotiating a Book Contract or something similar, because no matter how great your agent, you should still know what you're signing.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Yes, Sometimes

My question is, if you do acquire this manuscript, how will you go about choosing the illustrator? Does a particular illustrator immediately pop into your head,

Yes, sometimes.
or do you take the marketing advantage of teaming a new writer with an established illustrator into account first?

Yes, sometimes.
If neither of these is true, do you go through postcards you've received, talk to your Art Director for suggestions, or wander online portfolios (which ones?) or illustration annuals (which ones?) to find the illustrator?
Yes, sometimes.
(Ones the design department suggests.)
How much time do you generally spend on this process?

As long as it takes. Sometimes that's a week or two (ie, no time at all: knowing what illustrator I want: illustrator agreeing to do it), other times it's a process of a couple months as design and I find time to meet a couple times to discuss ideas and narrow down who they'd like to work with and who I think will give the project what it needs.
The moral: What's right for one project is not the same as what's right for another.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Questions of Protocol

I have a question concerning the proper way to follow-up on a submission. I had a manuscript critique with an editor from a closed house roughly five months ago. She was interested in the novel, but it wasn’t finished yet. At the end of the critique she gave me her business card. A month later, I sent her a picture book via the conference coupon. It is now one week shy of four months and I haven’t heard anything yet. This is a relatively short amount of time I know, but I am anxious to send it on to other publishers but feel this was an exclusive submission as I didn’t note otherwise. Which would be more professional in this situation, send a follow-up e-mail (which was on her card) or snail mail? I would walk a mile of hot coals to work with her, so I don’t want to do anything that comes across too casual. Any advice?
It's not an exclusive unless you tell someone it's an exclusive. Keep submitting. And you may email the editor at this point and remind her that she's had your submission for four months. Mentioning how excited you would be to work with her isn't a bad idea, either.
Is it OK for a writer (newly unagented) to approach one (or more) of the editors at a closed house who looked at another manuscript when she was agented?
If the editor in question specifically asked to see other work from that author (and not just other projects from that agent) in her correspondence, then yes. Be sure to remind her of that, and be calm if she wants to stand on her company's no-unagented-work policy. But it's ok to ask.
If yes, then can said writer use the email address she obtained via notes from the agent or should she snail mail to the address of the publisher? If this is not appropriate behavior ever ever ever, please discuss why not.

No. While this does vary some from editor to editor, many editors do not want anything in their email inboxes that they could reasonably handle via paper. This is not because we have a vendetta against trees, but because our email inboxes are monstrous already. They are not the place for slush. Agents get to email me because the stuff they send me is often time-sensitive. Email is for things that need a quick turn around. The author who emails a manuscript to me seems to be saying I am important rather than the preferable I have manners.

The Thrill of the Capture

To heck with the thrill of the chase. Chasing publishable manuscripts is less like a heady gallop over wooded hillside in sunny autumnal weather and more like wading neck-deep through fetid swampland while biting midges swarm your face. The chase sucks.

Finding something, though... ah, what joy.

I know I haven't been blogging much recently; instead I've been working very hard. I've seen the inside of my office both days this weekend. But I've been rewarded. This very afternoon I was working my way through a pile of manuscripts that other people (agents, my publishing director, the editorial assistant, etc) had decided I should read, and there it was. Something I want to acquire!

The gleeful disbelief. The attempts to quell my burgeoning optimism with skepticism and visions of the enormous piles of work already sucking my every waking moment away from me. I don't care; I want it, I want it!

Of course, now I must show it to other people at my publisher—people who may go, "Eh." And if so I will have to maintain a professional demeanor while inside I am thinking, "Who cares what you think?! It's mine, it's mine!"

And then I will have to talk to the author (who may have interest from other houses) without acting like a big baby. ("You can't sell this elsewhere, it's mine, it's mine!")

Deep breaths. Still, this glee. Machinations about the illustrator to match with this manuscript. More deep breaths. Must go read something to distract myself.