Sunday, December 28, 2008

Enormous Can of Worms (Can Opener Included!)

As I've only been in this country a few years, I'm still discovering which books are considered quintessential American children’s books. Often I’ve heard about books on your blog, which I’ve then gone on to read. Since there’s only so much I can gather from your header pic and because I trust your opinion, I wonder if, at some point, you’d be interested in ‘gifting’ your readers with a list of books you consider essential reading? Perhaps separate lists for PB, MG, YA? I imagine there are many readers and authors out there who would appreciate that.
This is an impossible task. This is akin to trying to walk over every inch of a mountain and still make it to the top in a day. Two years later you could still be in the foothills.

And I know no matter how thoughtful and diligent I was about such a list, inevitably I would leave something obvious out like The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Where the Wild Things Are and when the omission was pointed out to me I would feel like an idiot.

And! Let it be remembered that it is impossible to read all the good books. It was only a few years ago that I finally read The Giver, and fine, I'll go on record and admit I've still never read The Bridge to Terabithia. So you can quickly get into the quicksand of the difference between "read this and understand it before you go any further" vs. "you ought to at least have heard of this one".

But hell, why not? Now's a good time for quicksand projects.

However, I will only attempt this if it can be a joint undertaking with my readers. And if my readers will understand that I'll add their suggested titles only if they fit my personal, subjective sense of "required reading". (Otherwise readers' suggestions, none of which will be bad, will stay in the comments-- so read those, too. Readers-- feel free to make a short argument for your recommendation.) There are, after all, piles of books that you and I can both agree are wonderful and important in some way, but which I may not choose to put on the required reading list.

Oh, heck. What have I gotten myself into?

All the fairy tales (Grimm, Anderson, etc), and you wouldn't go wrong reading the works of the Opies.
Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day
Amelia Bedelia
The Big Orange Splot
Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See
The Cat in the Hat
Click Clack Moo
Curious George
Dr. De Soto
Fancy Nancy (I choke on this book, but you must know about it)
Frederick (or possibly Swimmy; something by Lionni)
Frog and Toad (Lobel)
The Giving Tree and Love You Forever (and may they both be a lesson to you)
Good Night Gorilla
Goodnight Moon
Harold and the Purple Crayon
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
Knuffle Bunny (and frankly you wouldn't go wrong reading the whole Willems oeuvre)
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse
Little Bear (Minarik)
The Little Engine That Could
Make Way for Ducklings
Miss Nelson Is Missing
No, David!
The Polar Express (and maybe some more Van Allsburg)
The Seven Silly Eaters
Show Way
The Stinky Cheese Man (and Other Fairly Stupid Tales)
The Story of Babar
Strega Nona
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
The Three Pigs
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
We're Going on a Bear Hunt
Where the Wild Things Are
William's Doll
Winnie the Pooh

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Alabama Moon
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Anne of Green Gables
Are You There God It's Me Margaret
The Bad Beginning
The Black Cauldron
The Bridge to Terabithia
Catherine Called Birdy
Charlotte's Web (and probably also The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little)
Danny Champion of the World (or maybe The Witches-- at least something by Dahl)
Ender's Game
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler
The Giver
Harry Potter
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Island of the Blue Dolphins
Julie of the Wolves
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
Little House in the Big Woods
A Long Way From Chicago
Ordinary Jack
Out of the Dust
Over Sea, Under Stone
The Phantom Tollbooth
Ramona Quimby, Age 8
Saffy's Angel (or something by McKay, dammit)
The Search for Delicious (or maybe Tuck Everlasting)
The Tale of Despereaux (hurp!)
The Toys Go Out
The Watsons Go to Birmingham
The Wee Free Men
The White Mountains
The Witch of Blackbird Pond
The Westing Game

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
American Born Chinese
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
The Book Thief
Catcher in the Rye
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
The Ear The Eye and the Arm
The Golden Compass
The Hero and the Crown
I Am the Cheese
King Dork
The King of Attolia
Looking for Alaska
Lord of the Flies
The Lord of the Rings
A Northern Light
The Outsiders
The Rules of Survival
To Kill a Mockingbird
Ok, Twilight, but for reference purposes. Feel free to read half of it.
Watership Down
A Wrinkle in Time

Let us also say for the record that people who are interested in Children's Lit in a pure sense can concentrate on catching up on the classics.
But those people interested in being published now should read one book that's topping the charts now for every classic they read. (Which "chart" you use should vary. Read the bestsellers; read the Mocks; read the books that get four starred reviews and sell 3,000 copies; flip through the books that Target carries.)

What Goes Good with Good Advice?

My situation: I had two agents request full manuscripts of my first YA Novel. Agent One said sheʼd like to see a revision and named specific issues to address. Agent Two said the writing was strong but he did not connect with the manuscript enough to offer representation but would like to see more of my work. Both are well-respected agents at top agencies. I could envision working with either of them. Iʼve completed the revision of my first novel and my second novel is also ready for submission. My question: Is it okay to send Agent One the revision and Agent Two the new novel simultaneously?
And, should I keep sending queries to other agents after Iʼve submitted to either of the above two agents?

The thing you don't do is send the revision based on Agent 1's comments to anyone else until Agent 1 has looked at it and/or had at least a couple months to respond. You can keep on sending the original of the manuscript to other people, but once you've taken someone's creative input and decided it makes the manuscript better, it's respectful to give that person the first shot at the results of their good advice.

Self-Publishing for the Self-Aware

So, I wrote a YA novel. Revised the crap out of it (repeatedly). Started querying it, got mostly rejections. Revised query, sent it out some more, and got more rejections (or just no response). Repeat, repeat, repeat. This is nothing new for me, as I've trudged down this road with two previous novels. The difference now is that I'm still in love with this one. I just want it to be read. Now, we know how you feel about self-publishing through outlets like iUniverse and such, and truthfully, I feel the same way. No distribution, no go. But what about on a personal website (after, of course, I've run through the rest of my agent prospects and been soundly rejected)? Teens do a lot of reading at the computer, anyway, and if even ten kids read it and enjoyed it, I'd be happy. And the Internet can be its own distribution if you work hard enough to get the word out. I have a few promotional ideas, and yes, the endeavor would cost me a bit, although the fruits of that would go to the reader (and hosting service) instead of a vanity press. I'm willing to spend the money. The only drawbacks I can think of: the possible regret in ten, twenty years when I cringe at my early work, as we all do; and utter failure to get even one person to read it. I'll have other novels ready to query within the next six months, so it's not like I'm focusing all my energy on this one. And maybe I should just let it go...or maybe I should follow my instincts and put it out there for the readers to decide. Your thoughts?
If you'd really be happy for just a couple people to read it, don't want any money out of it, and are willing to work to get it out there... then yes, I think the internet is perfect for you.

If you go into any form of self-publishing (from vanity presses to running a blog like this one) with the understanding that it's your time/money you're investing, it's extremely unlikely you'll ever make them back, and you're just doing it because you want to share something with people, then that's fine.

My sincere good wishes in finding your readers.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

I Only Take Exclusive Submissions. Exclusive of Squirrels.

Every once in a while I submit something to an editor who wants exclusive submissions. I usually say in my cover letter that it's an exclusive submission for 3 months. I've read that after the 3 months expire I should send another letter, notifying the editor that my submission is no longer exclusive.

I lean toward thinking this would be just another envelope to be opened by some underpaid assistant. Would any editor read my three-months-are-up letter and think, "How I regret missing this deadline! I must dig through my slush pile to find the unsolicited manuscript of this totally unpublished author, before someone else snaps it up!"?
You're probably right.
But suppose I don't send a letter. Six months later the editor picks up my submission. She looks at the cover letter and realizes it's no longer an exclusive submission. Have I committed some dreadful faux pas?
Not in that case. At the same time, there's no harm in sending such a letter on the off chance that the editor is reading your manuscript just now, or has read it and wants to ask for a rewrite (and is formulating her thoughts first).

And if she is in fact in the process of showing it to her colleagues in preparation for acquisition, she'll be damn glad you reminded her of the three-month mark.

Bottom line, yes, sometimes being courteous makes a difference, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes being discourteous makes a difference, and sometimes it doesn't.

But you never know which one it'll be until it happens. Which "makes a difference" situation do you want to be in?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Collected Works of --What Do You Mean, 'Term of Copyright'?

I would like to ask a question regarding submitting previously published, humorous newspaper articles for (possible) book publishing.

My father was an editor of the Savannah Morning News and wrote a humorous column for the Sunday Op Ed page. Since he has passed away, everyone that knew him has been urging me to get a book together of his pieces- Yes, it's regional, southern. No, he never wrote a book...though he won numerous UPI and AP awards and placed over and above Lewis Grizzard a time or two.

What I'd like to do is put his "best of" articles together, perhaps with some (personal) photography or cartoons drawn by the newspaper's artist about my father.

So, my question is this- should I query (some) publisher with these articles (copied) or simply present this idea in my own pen?
I would suggest that you tidy them up so that they're professional-looking and easy to read. That may mean transcribing them into word docs so that they'll print cleanly, but do keep all of the marks that it was an article-- headline, author, newspaper and pub date at the top. (And if you happen to be one of those people who can't transcribe anything without adding typos, have somebody else proof it.) Be sure to include in your cover letter some non-anecdotal proof of your father's popularity (numbers speak loudest). Make sure your father's arrangement with the newspaper hasn't left the publication rights in their possession, rather than yours.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Your Submission, Starring The Manuscript You Wrote in College

A thousand years ago when I was in college I entered and happened to win a literary competition at my (tiny) university. The prize was publication in the university's literary magazine. The circulation of the magazine has got to be under a thousand, and it only came out annually. (Or, at least, this was true then and I assume it still is.) There was no payment, nor was there ever any discussion of what rights they had and what rights I retained. No mention of anything like copyright was made in the fine print of the "magazine" itself. I'm not asking whether I can claim this as a publication credit. I know better than to try that. But for years, I've never done anything with this story again, even though I think it's a pretty good one, because I'm not sure what I can actually offer, and I'm afraid that trying to convey the situation will make me come off as amateurish. Can I safely submit the story without ever mentioning its "publication" history, tacitly selling first North American rights or whatever?
You should be honest about its publication history. But as you gave that college publication no rights, they have no rights. (You may want to write to them to make sure they understand this, though.)
Will mentioning that it's previously "published" make it undesirable because it's a reprint?
It wouldn't to me, but I can't speak for everybody.
Worse, will it make me look like I'm trying to pass off my small time college lit mag as a real credit?
This will simply depend on how you present the information. If you're just letting editors know the history of the piece, that's fine. If you're boasting that it was in a college magazine, that's eye-rolling. It's the difference between a footnote and a headline.

In Your Manuscript's Next Life, It Will Be Agented

On a day last May, I made up a picture book story along the lines of Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch cartoon and the Froggy books when I walked my daughter to school. She had the original concept and I asked her questions to build upon the story. I thought it was cute and when I got home I wrote it down. Subsequently, I entered the Spoonful of Stories contest by Cheerios, but alas, I didn’t final. I have since written six more stories involving these characters. Would it be improper to submit the series idea in a query?
Would it be bad karma to send all of them in one envelope to live in your slush pile?
Yes. One at a time, and after your critique group has looked at them, or I would worry this is more "cute story" or "isn't my child imaginative" than it is "good writing".
Or should I just file it under, ‘great moments shared with daughter’?
Maybe. It's good to keep this in mind whatever happens. The really enjoyable parts of your job, whether author, illustrator, or editor, are the creative parts. It's worth it to wade through the rest of it in order to share the creative parts with other people, but if all you end up with is the creative parts... that's not so bad, is it? And you've earned some good karma with your kid.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Your Identity, for the Internet

I am getting ready to query a middle-grade novel, so I thought I should have something up for a website. What sorts of things should an unpubbed writer include on her site, if she should mention a website at all in her query letter?
Not your WIPs. Those are a secret, because they're special, right?

Your website, in the very lucky event that an editor decides to look you up, should tell the editor more about who you are as a person-- your other pursuits, anything that makes you particularly well suited to write for kids, your sense of humor, that sort of thing. Your website is a chance to make the editor think, "I like this person. She seems pleasant and fun, and not needy, neurotic, or crazy. I might enjoy working with her."

Careful with the clip art. A sampling of uncohesive art styles can make your website look messy. Good visuals to include might be the covers of published books you're reading and enjoying-- and make them recent pubs, ok? We like to see that authors are keeping up with the industry.

Once you're published, put each of your own books up with their reviews, the price and publisher. Link to IndieBound as well as Amazon and B&N. Point local readers to your local bookstore. Talk about the events you do with kids.

Put Another Slush on the Fire, Babe, and Come and Tell Me Why You're Leaving Me

I really enjoyed your Kitchen Full of Slush post. I’m curious as to what happens to the piles of slush? Specifically, how do you keep them and respond in chronological order? With that many submissions it seems insurmountable.
That would be telling.
Different houses, different methods, of course.

Perhaps the editorial staff sits down Friday afternoons for a concentrated hour or so of reading, while they pass a flask around.

Perhaps the publisher gets a freelance reader (or readers) to address some (or all) of the slush and pass the good stuff to the editorial assistant, who doles it out among editors according to topic and taste.

Perhaps the interns shovel it into a smallish, forgotten room (whose original use is now lost to memory), and take turns jumping into the pile like school children into autumn leaves.

Or perhaps it's stacked tidily, labeled with the date, and tied with twine into turfs, to await April 31st.

(Ok, I feel the need to explain my title line, for those of you who aren't inveterate muppet fans.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Just in Time for the Non-Denominational Holiday of Your Choice

Pickled Pixel Toe T Shirts

Etsy's Bookish Gifts

Everyone's a Librarian at Heart

What a Tasteful Coffee Table Book! But How Does It Taste?

This question may seem only vaguely related to publishing, but here goes. Are publishers of children's books aware of the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act that will require any product for kids under age 12 to be tested by third party labs for lead content?
Are book publishers going to send off samples of books to be tested for lead as the law requires?
Many small to medium sized US businesses that make toys, apparel, science products, home decor, etc for kids are in an uproar right now. Wondered if you had any inside scoop on the publishing industry's reaction.
No uproar in my neck of the woods. Some sighing, sure, because the new law seems a teeny bit stringent in terms of age range (how many readers of Spiderwick, for instance, also chew on the books?). Some mild grinding of teeth, because lots of book-plus products are going to have to have a "CHOKING HAZARD!" label attached to them, and we know that puts consumers off-- even when it's a darling horse necklace for a 10-year-old girl who would never think of trying to eat the damn thing. And of course the testing is going to add some time into every one of our book schedules.

At the same time, most children's books are not in any danger of lead contamination, so we know they'll pass testing. And we get that the law's goal is to make everything safer for children. Who can feel too bad about that?

I Am Queen of the Wild Things! That's "Mom" to You.

You talk about "strange" writers and some you can tell right off the bat that maybe they have birth defects of the membrane or something of the sort. I write under a pseudonym. The pseudonym is [redacted]. There are a variety of reasons I do this none of which you will be interested in. Nevertheless, in your experience, if somebody sends in manuscripts under a name that is obviously a pen name and a slightly strange one too, does that make you view the manuscript any differently?
Why wouldn't you want your editor to know your name? What name would the publisher put on the contract? Under what name would they file the book for copyright?

A pseudonym is what you put on the book. If you want to go full-on Lemony Snicket or Pseudonymous Bosch, the marketing department too can use only your pseudonym. But you can bet Daniel's and Avi's editors know their real names.

Those authors are perceived as "quirky". If you really, really, really don't want to tell anyone your name, that's going to be perceived as "wacko".

So let's assume you can somehow figure out the legal ramifications of having your work copyrighted to somebody who doesn't exist and having your checks made out to someone who can't open a bank account. As you may have guessed from this blog, editors treasure and adore the sweet, stable, wholly-in-their-right-mind authors.

We meet lots of people under the mistaken impression that they need to be bizarre to be seen as original. That being imaginative is an excuse for being impossible. That being an artist is a substitute for being honest.

No. The unbridled freedom of your creativity does not give you license to behave like a total weirdo. Feel free to wear your wolf suit when you go visiting the wild things. But if you expect any damn dinner, you'll put some pants on.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Submissions Volume Explained

I'm Your Sister's Bikini Waxer's Ex-Boyfriend's Dry Cleaner. So You Won't Mind Doing Me a Favor.

A senior editor at a very top house has my manuscript (adult) that she requested. We had a personal connection (her stepmother was a teacher of mine). She's had the ms for about two months. Do you think my unagented ms will get a good read eventually? (I assume the ones you were talking about were all unrequested. Thanks for the visions of slush that have now filled my imagination!)
The answer is maybe.

Everyone in publishing (and especially in children's publishing) accepts it as part of their job that friends of colleagues, second cousins of friends of colleagues, and hairstylists of second cousins of friends of colleagues will use their "personal connection" to force an editor to deal with their manuscript (rather than an editorial assistant or intern). We don't accept it cheerfully, but we accept it. The world is all about relationships.

We also know that a personal connection is no guarantee at all that the manuscript will be better than the usual run of slush, and indeed it's often worse-- because the people who try this end-run are usually the rank beginners who not only know nothing about the industry, they also come with a bunch of wildly wrong assumptions about it.

Now, I'm not assuming you're one of these people. They don't find their way to my blog, because they don't see why they should be interested in publishing before they get published. You seem quite stable (and are certainly literate enough, from your letter).

But you should know that it is through this lens of apprehension and mild resentment that your manuscript is likely to be read. If it's simply terrific and grabs the editor from page one, then your road ahead may be clear and golden. But if not, the editor may only read the couple of pages that will allow her to write a letter that shows she did look at the manuscript before rejecting it.

Now, I know, sometimes it seems like there aren't hurdles in your path to publication as much as mountains. I know, following the rules of submitting to publishing houses and agents sometimes seems like an enormous waste of time. But breaking the rules is equally so.

I post about the slush to try to convey to people why there are so many roadblocks set up in the way of hopeful writers: because many hopeful writers are simply delusional about what might get published.

It's like there's a mob of thousands outside your office, and you know from experience that a good half of them are loonies. And a spare few are people you would be thrilled to work with. How do you sift through them? Ask the crazy people to raise their hands? Ask the "good writers" to raise their hands?

No. You're going to have to interview them each in turn, and it's going to be a lot of work. And it doesn't help that there are a few of them waving their arms and calling, "I knew your ex-manicurist's rabbi!"

Friday, December 12, 2008

rerun: The Kitchen Full of Slush

While we are on the topic of slush and what part of it is worthy of Slush and Punishment, I thought it would be useful to go back to the Kitchen of Slush, which is a visualization exercise from the very early days of this blog.

The fundamental lack of understanding about how much slush there is feeds many, many of the most common mistakes writers make--mistakes that hurt their chances of getting published, and often hurt their morale.

First, you need to realize that you do not know what a pile of 15,000 manuscripts looks like.

Let's say you have a table that seats four. Imagine that in your kitchen at home. 1,000 manuscripts would cover that table in piles that would teeter. Tall piles. Take a moment to picture that.

Now fill the floorspace underneath and around the table with 4,000 more manuscripts. There is no room for chairs anymore. You can't reach the manuscripts in the middle of the table.

1,000 manuscripts fill your counter space; another 2,000 stuffs all your cupboards and shelf space. There is no longer any room for the coffeemaker or toaster; all of your food and crockery has been displaced to the living room. You cannot close the doors on your cupboards because of all the manuscripts spilling out of them. The kitchen is no longer about eating or cooking or anything but manuscripts.

The remaining 7,000 manuscripts cover all the remaining floor space in thigh-deep drifts. You cannot enter the room now. You can only reach those manuscripts at the doorway. Your kitchen is now less a "room" than a tank of paper.

Good. Keep that image in mind. Now imagine that you read 15,000 manuscripts last year, and a good 50% were so inappropriate, illiterate, or crazy that thoughts of the hard work you did in college and the enormous debt you're still carrying from attending that schmancy institution made you nigh-suicidal. The cause of literature seemed futile and meaningless. You might as well hole up in a shack in Montana, awaiting the end of western civilization and stockpiling Joyce.

Now imagine that another 47% were just poorly-written, or aimed at the wrong age level, or derivative of much better (and better-known) writers, as well as having several concept/plotting/arc issues. If asked to say what was wrong with any of these, you would first have to think hard about how to prioritize the problems you saw, and then think hard about how to put them nicely. (Editors are picky, critical people, but they're also nice people. They don't want to hurt your feelings.)

The last 3% were nice, but manuscripts that no consumer was going to spend her money on when she's got so many other choices.

Which left you with 0.02% --3 manuscripts from 15,000-- that were worth publishing and ended up paying you back for the time it took to read them. (As well as, of course, the tens of thousands of dollars it took to publish them. Let's not forget about that.)

Did those 3 manuscripts pay you back for the time it took you to read the 14,997 other manuscripts in slush? No. Why do you have to read another 15,000 this year, when you have more than enough work to do (and agented manuscripts to acquire) to completely fill your 50-hour work weeks?

That's a good question.

And yet we do keep reading. Maybe it's 'hope springs eternal,' maybe it's the thrill of the chase. Maybe we're nuts.

Now see if you can answer some of these commonly asked questions yourself:

1. "Why is it so hard to get published?"

2. "Why are decline letters so impersonal?"

3. "How can some publishers decide not to reply at all unless they're interested in acquiring?"

4. "Why does every publisher have to have a different set of submission guidelines?"

5. "Why are they so slavishly attached to their submission guidelines?"

6. "How can they be so perfunctory about something that means so much to me?"

Slush and Punishment entries are inspired by the bottom 50% percent-- the stuff anybody with an iota of taste, good sense, or sanity would know is not publishable. The "grey" area that has been recently mentioned in the comments is the top 50%. It's "well... maybe" territory.

But what each of you is striving for is really the top 3%-- the manuscripts that are almost sure to be published, if they find the right editor and the right house.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

It Can't Really Be That Bad, Can It?

My Slush and Punishment posts are not real submissions, no. It would be both unethical and unprofessional for me to post the submissions sent to my publisher on this personal blog.

However: they are very closely and faithfully patterned on real submissions I have seen. This is the thing I want to bring across: I am not exaggerating for humor --or for any other purpose.

The truth that I want to offer my readers is: a fair portion of the slush is this nuts. This wrong-headed. This mind-bogglingly bad.

Sometimes at my desk I worry that I'm being too jaundiced; too skeptical of random authors who find my name somewhere and get past our receptionist; too impatient with the bizarre but well-meant drivel that finds its way to my desk in spite of our very fine interns.

But the point is not whether I am a hopeless curmudgeon or not. The point for you, sweet readers, is that every editor has waded through the same jaw-dropping crap, and is as wary of strange writers as I am, for good reason: as wonderful as many writers are, some writers can be damn strange.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Slush and Punishment: Fairy Toilets?

Fairy Isabelle can't get the boy fairies to put the fairy toilet seats down! How will she convince them that this is the only polite thing to do? As someone famous once said, speak quietly and carry a big wand!
Seems to me the wands are part of the problem.

Slush and Punishment: Me and My Rhyming Dictionary

Robert was a sweet little mutt.
His favorite food was cashew nut.
Eating it had given him a bit of a gut.
He didn't like to get in a rut.
When he was proud he would sometimes strut.
He had a sweet little tail growing out of his butt.
When his mother would call him, he would say, "What?"
I am doing my deep breathing and reminding myself that rhyming dictionaries, and yea, even the English language, do not have feelings.

Slush and Punishment: Love Potion No. K12

Exposed to more and more television and media aimed at all ages, children are falling in love earlier and earlier. And that's wonderful! My story about a love-struck bunny who follows her crush home, leaves him anonymous notes, and steals things from his desk at school is perfect for kindergarteners experiencing their very first "true love".
This "love" sounds suspiciously like the kind that takes long-distance photographs and leaves dead things on your doorstep.

Slush and Punishment: Ta-Ta, Ta-Tas!

Dear Editor,
Are you a mother? Did your child ask for breastfeeding in public places? Did you not know how to wean him/her? In Ta-Ta, Ta-Tas, little Jimmy learns that there are lots of good snacks that don't come in mommy's blouse and how they can have emotional comfort just like mommy's sweet ta-tas.

Chicken Little Gets a Time Out

I will admit that I sometimes enjoy being mildly alarmist. Still, recent events notwithstanding, some of my recent posts ("Panic", "Hindenberg") may have been counter-productive to those readers actually inclined toward hysteria. As Janet Reid reminds us, it is not the time to start dreeing your weird.

(Well, ok. For the people who have lost their jobs just before the holidays, probably it is.)

But for those of us still at sea on the great ship of publishing, this economy is not our iceberg. We've just hit some really choppy water. Work will likely be harder in the immediate future. We'll feel particularly bad about those colleagues we know who are out on their butts. There will be more drinking in publishing circles (marginally, as we've already set a pretty high bar for ourselves).

However: we will get through this. If you find wailing through the streets personally cathartic, though, feel free.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What's the Difference Between Publishing and the Hindenberg?

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn't it?

Not today.

Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Simon & Schuster--the news keeps coming in. Publisher's Lunch is calling today "Black Wednesday". Resignations, layoffs, fracturing of houses...

For those of you inclined to worry, I still have a job.
But some people don't. Raise a glass to them tonight.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Spam, spam, spam

There's something about Monday mornings. Last Monday I had something like 50 sex-spam comments added to this blog, and this morning it was over 100. I'm afraid I'm going to have to start mediating the comments, which will mean your comments won't go up automatically.
If you meet a spammer, kick him for me, ok?

Synopsis: The Little Princess by Frances Hodgeson Burnett

The wealthy and handsome Captain Crewe deposits his beloved daughter Sara at a London boarding school. The stern headmistress of the school, Miss Minchin, resents Sara from the first day of class. But not only is Sara clever, she is also uncommonly good, and gifted with the ability to tell stories that win her a fiercely devoted group of followers and the nickname Princess Sara. During Sara's birthday party, Minchin discovers that Captain Crewe has died of brain fever and left Sara penniless. Enraged, Minchin strips Sara of her finery and forces her to become a maid-of-all-work. Sara invents a fantasy-life she calls "the magic" that warms her despite the bitter cold. Someone leaves her secret gifts that make her believe ever more strongly in the magic. Her benefactor is the school's mysterious new neighbor -- Captain Crewe's business partner, who has been searching the globe for little Sara. He adopts her, and she becomes Princess Sara once again.

It's ok to start your synopsis a little further into the story than the manuscript does, if the problem comes later. You couldn't skip over the very beginning of Hatchet, of course. But here, the beginning is all prologue to Sara's fall from privilege and how she makes the best of it-- with goodness, imagination, and spirit-- and how she finds a happy ending in spite of her misfortunes and enemies. For a short synopsis, start with the problem.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Synopsis: The Ear, The Eye and The Arm by Nancy Farmer

In 22nd-century Zimbabwe, the children of General Matsika – Tendai, Rita and Kuda – escape their sheltered life for an adventure in Harare, and are immediately kidnapped and sent to the plastic mines.

Good beginning--we definitely know we're in the future.

The General hires three mutant detectives, Ear, Eye, and Arm, to find them. The detectives, always one step behind the resourceful children, follow them from the mines to the walled-in, secret village of Resthaven – a protected island of traditional tribal life in the middle of Harare – and on to the subtler dangers of Mrs. Horsepool-Worthington, a snobbish society woman who plans to hold the children for ransom.

You're skipping over a bunch of the unnecessary (for these purposes) details, but I'm not sure the ones you've chosen to share are serving your synopsis.

The detectives and children finally meet at the Mile-High McIlwaine Hotel for a showdown with evil telepaths known as the Masks, who threaten all of Zimbabwe. Sensitive Tendai defeats the Masks, with help from both friends and enemies, and grows into a hero.

If there are going to be evil telepaths, you should have introduced them a little earlier. It sounds like they just materialize in the story for the sake of the ending. And (hold on!) Tendai is the hero? That's not at all clear.

This book has a very involved plot, and while part of the appeal is the adventure, another important part is the humor. A synopsis of this story has the challenging task of conveying adventure without trying to tell about all the adventures, and at least implying the threads of traditional folklore and comedy that run through the text.

This one's intriguing, and I might request a manuscript from it, but it could still use some work.

Synopsis: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Brian Robeson is lost and alone in the mosquito-infested Canadian wilderness. The bush plane he was flying in to visit his father lies at the bottom of a lake with a dead pilot inside.

Good beginning.

Brian bumbles along the first few days after the accident and then experiences his ultimate low point when he sees a search plane but the pilot doesnʼt see him. After a failed suicide attempt Brian starts to embrace his situation.

You go from "bumbling" straight to a suicide attempt? We need a better sense of the despair that Brian feels to make suicide acceptable so soon in this synopsis. Perhaps it's best not mentioned here.

Armed with only a hatchet, Brian figures out how to make fire and procure food. He has way more setbacks and frustrations than successes but by not counting on being rescued Brian embarks on a life-path of survival as he physically, emotionally and spiritually becomes a part of the wilderness.

"Way more" is stylistically out of character for the text you're describing. Your synopsis should reflect your text whenever possible. Also: "life-path"? This sounds like new-age bibble in the face of a story about survival in the wilderness.

When rescue finally comes he meets it not as a scared, helpless kid but as a mature young man at home in his body and surroundings.

There's clearly the seed of a good survival story here, but there are enough inconsistencies in the way this synopsis was written that I think I would pass on seeing the manuscript.

Synopsis: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie Hatter has a boring life, and is almost sure she wants it that way. Then the Witch of the Waste casts a spell on her and turns her into an old woman. Sophie decides to hobble out and seek her fortune. She makes a pact with Calcifer the fire demon and enters into the service of the Wizard Howl. He eats girls' hearts, but Sophie's not worried since she's no longer a girl. Soon Sophie must save Calcifer and Howl from a bargain that helps neither,

What bargain that helps neither?

save her younger sister from Howl's heartless courtship, and save the Kingdom of Ingary from the Witch. Sophie learns that she's not as timid as she thought, she has an incredible talent for magic, that she's not immune to the Wizard's charms, and that in Ingary, even the oldest of three can live happily ever after.

Oldest of three? What?
This is mostly well done, and I might be intrigued enough to request this. But this highlights a common difficulty in writing a synopsis-- forgetting what elements will be confusing/meaningless to someone who hasn't read the book.

Synopsis: First Test by Tamora Pierce

The daughter of the Yamani Ambassador, ten-year-old Kethry of Mindelan, was exposed to a different culture than her native Tortall. Her decision to become the first openly female Tortallan knight meets with resistance – from the knight training master.

The first two sentences don't really flow into each other. I'd be wondering if your writing style is this disjointed. What you've left out is that in Tortall's male-dominated knighthood, there is a striking exception: Alanna, who is (can I recall now?) King's Champion, or something? So now Kethry is the first girl to go through knight training without hiding her gender.

Allowed to train, on probation, Kethry also has to deal with the prejudice of the boys and their attempts to force her to leave. While her prior Yamani training further sets her apart, it enables her to physically fight to right the wrong in the hazing – bullying – she sees. Only an anonymous benefactor gives her hope in the form of exercises for the upper body.

Nevermind about "in the form of exercises for the upper body"; it's unnecessary detail. Replace it with "of finishing her first year in training".

Kethry pushes herself to persevere through black eyes, bloody noses, and punishments for fighting and not completing her homework. The end of her year of probation brings tears as she readies herself to leave. The training master surprises everyone by allowing her to return the next year.

"Black eyes, bloody noses" is the kind of detail that's useful in this context. But I can't remember now: did the book end this anticlimactically? You had me pretty interested until that last sentence.

Synopsis: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Katniss's expert archery skills enable her to provide for her widowed mother and younger sister by supplementing their income with illegally procured meat. But when Katsa is chosen as an unwilling regional representative to The Games, a highly-anticipated, fight-to-the finish competition, her unusual skill becomes her only chance to survive.

Watch out for changing your characters' names in the middle of the synopsis. (Yes, you've just been reading Graceling, I know.) Don't say "fight to the finish" when you're just introducing the book to people-- this is a fight to the death, and it's important to bring that across.

Protecting herself in the competition is challenging. Deciding whether to protect other competitors is heart-breaking. As the cruelties of the Game grow more fierce, Katniss's anger at the vicious system escalates. Instead of killing her final competitor and friend, Katniss turns her energies to out-witting the system and forcing an ending with more than one survivor. Although she triumphs over the most vicious elements of the Game, she isn't happy; the self-knowledge she has gained is as alarming as it is enlightening. This dystopian tale looks backward to the age of gladiators and forward to what we may become.

Excellent job! You got all the most important pieces of this plot, didn't get sidetracked talking about the possible romantic implications (which may or may not come to fruit in a further book) and wrapped it all up in an easily-grasped, almost catchy way.

Synopsis: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

When four children walk through a coat-filled wardrobe in England, they find the land of Narnia, a magical place filled with fantastic creatures and talking animals. An evil witch, who has imprisoned Narnia in ice and snow, deceives and captures one of the children. His brother and sisters must seek help from the great lion Aslan, Narnia’s creator and rightful ruler, to release Narnia and rescue Edmund. But the witch invokes the ancient “deep magic,” and Aslan offers himself as a sacrifice in place of Edmund.

Don't use "the" here for magic I'm not familiar with. Quotations like these, too, are worrisome when you're describing your own ideas/work. I would have said, "But the witch invokes ancient magic, and Aslan is forced to offer himself as a sacrifice in place of Edmund."

The witch kills Aslan on an ancient stone table. Then she and her evil army wage war on the grieving Narnians. The children, armed with gifts from Aslan, become leaders in a desperate, losing battle. But unknown to the witch, Aslan’s sacrifice has unleashed a “deeper magic.” Aslan rises from the dead to defeat the witch and redeem Narnia from its eternal winter.

"Ancient stone table" is maybe unnecessary here. "Narnians?" We haven't been introduced to these people, so maybe you want to say something like "inhabitants of Narnia." Again, don't use those quotation marks. And end this "and redeem Narnia with the help of the children." We like to see power in the hands of the main characters, remember. The victory should be theirs as well.

So a few tips, but good work.

Synopsis: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Kate Sutton, neither charming, nor beautiful, is blamed for her sister’s too-frank letter to Queen Mary and sent away to an obscure holding in the north of England known as The Perilous Gard.

Here she meets her guardian’s younger brother, Christopher, who blames himself for his niece’s loss down the castle well. Kate can’t believe he’s responsible, and when she hears a local story about the “fairy folk” she suggests the child may have been kidnapped by the remnant of a druidic cult. Finally convinced, Christopher offers himself in exchange for the child, correctly guessing the folk are planning a human sacrifice like one described in the ballad Tam Lin.

Kate witnesses the exchange and is taken as a slave to the same underground world. She finds Christopher and works to counter the mind games designed to make him a willing sacrifice. When she escapes the caves to meet him by the bonfire on Halloween night she’s able to reach his mind—saving them both by breaking through the spell of words the folk use, but the next time she sees him he is with her sister. Kate rejects the Fairy Queen’s offer of “magic” to bring him back, only to learn it was one last trick, to make her question his love when he did choose her.

Nice job. It might have been nice to have a sense from the beginning that this was going to be fantasy/romance (it sounds very historical-fiction at first), but I'd definitely request a manuscript from this synopsis. "Neither charming nor beautiful" is a good beginning; it shows me a bit of the author's hand, and the plot sounds like an appealing twist on traditional stories of fairies.

Mustaches for Children

That is, mustaches that adult people grow to raise money for children. Like Adam Rex is doing.

His first mustache update looked respectable, but the second one is awesome.
And by "awesome" I mean "like a hirsute skin disease".

So skate on over to his blog and donate a little moolah to the kids. Or, slightly less charitable but more humorous: give mustaches to kids.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Pupil Is Not Above His Teacher, But a Baboon's Butt is Smarter Than This School Board

Tired of hearing how bad our schools are? Cheer up! In the UK, they have a school that's getting rid of its library because it's just unneeded.

...And it's unneeded because the school is to become a virtual learning environment.

Now, whether you think the word virtual is meant to modify learning, environment, or both, let's review what the word means (for those people who might need a little refresher):

If we leave out those meanings of virtual that are rare or obsolete, and those having to do with optics or particle physics, then we have two options:

a. Digitally simulated.
b. In essence or effect, although not formally or actually; admitting of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned.

So it's not actually a learning environment, though it might seem that way in digital renderings, or it could be, insofar as learning may occur in its environment, though that's certainly not its formal purpose. "Learning environment" is really more of a nickname, you know. Its full name is That Pit of the Intellect, Whereto the Blind Lead the Blind and the Ignorant, the Ignorant.

Synopsis Update

I now have plenty of entries. Thanks!
But it's a short week, and work is unusually crazy.
I'll reveal all soon... or over the weekend.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Panic!! Panic!! (Ahem, I Mean: Oh, Hmm.)

HMH Places "Temporary" Halt on Acquisitions

It’s been clear for months that it will be a not-so-merry holiday season for publishers, but at least one house has gone so far as to halt acquisitions. PW has learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books.

Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts.” The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.”

--Rachel Deahl for Publishers Weekly

Let the Frivolity Commence! (And Then Stop. Stop That, I Mean It.)

I just had a question regarding children's books. Do they have to have a deep, moral point; or can they just be somewhat frivilous?
On the surface, this seems like a softball question, doesn't it? Of course there are frivolous children's books. Is there a deep, moral point in I Ain't Gonna Paint No More or When a Monster is Born or Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus? Don't be silly.

However: Before we shake our heads and smile and talk about the (indisputable, overwhelming) truth that children love frivolous; they love nonsense; they love play . . .

Let's make sure we're also talking about what sells.

Yeah, there's the catch. Frivolous all by itself doesn't sell. I see piles of manuscripts in slush that clearly don't think they need to do anything for the reader outside of appealing to his/her imagination, because kids love frivolous/nonsense/play. Know what the problem with that is?

Adults have small, obedient wallets that live in their bags and come out whenever the adult wants. Children have large, judgmental wallets shaped like parents.

I Ain't Gonna Paint No More uses humor, a narrative structure that fosters guessing, body parts, and an really easy to read, energetic rhythm.
When a Monster is Born uses humor, a narrative structure that fosters guessing, and cause and effect (ok, and monsters).
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus
uses humor, audience participation, and turns a familiar situation (whining) around on the child.

None of these books has a deep, moral lesson at heart, but each one is working hard to offer the reader an entertaining, layered experience.

That's what you can sell-- layers of things people want. Not just one layer, because you're in competition with piles of books with many layers-- that do many jobs. And not layers of things that people aren't so excited about, because books aren't free.

Even if one day they are free, they'll still cost people the time it takes to read them, and nobody wants to waste their time on something that is only frivolous.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Synopsis Karaoke

So far I've gotten two (2) synopses, which is a pretty paltry showing.

Now, I know it takes some guts (and perhaps tequila) to take the stage, which is why they have karaoke in bars rather than coffee shops.

So you've got the rest of the weekend to get appropriately tipsy and belt out your homage to Little Women. Or whatever book doesn't have any of those difficult high notes.

I'll Take "The Duckbilled Platitude" for $400, Alex

I am an independent graphic novelist interested in representation. I am currently being featured in Elan (, Northern Virginia Magazine ( and Voces Del Caribe (, a Cuny College sponsored e-zine. These works focus on metaphysical questions of man’s creation, fall and redemption. I wish to spark debate specifically among parents and their children and/or educators and their students regarding three major themes:

- Man’s creation and his potential within reality.
- Physicality Vs. Conscious/Ethereal existence.
- The place of Law/Rule Vs. upholding ideals- which negate the necessity of rule.
This feels like Jeopardy!. Am I supposed to guess the question?

Ok, let's see:
"What are concepts too abstract for children?"

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Open Mic Night at the Synopsis Lounge

My question is more of a research problem, though one I imagine other writers might have. I'm working on a synopsis of my finished novel, but I'm having a terrible time finding examples of good and bad synopses. (Query letters? Pitch paragraphs? Twenty-five line hooks? Those I've found examples of in abundance, but synopses not so much.) I've found numerous articles offering synopsis advice (without examples), but I'm one of those learn-better-by-example people, so they're of limited utility. Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough?
Blog readers to the rescue! This is your chance to practice your synopsis skills and help each other.

Please email me with synopses of well-known, published middle-grade/YA novels (synopses should be no more than 150 words). I'll post them with my comments regarding thoroughness, clarity, style, and appeal in a separate post.

  • Think of this as your chance to tell a stranger why they should read a great book.
  • Keep it to under two minutes (or, for these purposes, 150 words).
  • Get bogged down in detail.
  • Describe a little-known or unpublished book. Not helpful.
Don't forget to include:
  • What makes it all appealing. If you've summarized everything except the reason readers will be drawn through the plot, you've failed.
  • The ending. I don't care if it's a surprise. Tell me how it fricking ends. (Readers: be aware that this will mean spoilers. Don't read a contest synopsis if you don't want to know how the book in question ends.)
  • The title of the book. Very likely it will be obvious from the synopsis, but if I can't tell and you haven't told me, I won't use it.

Misteaks? I dont kno Anything about any Mistaks. Because Im Perfec.

I have a question about author sloppiness. I have recently gotten my hands on quite a few uncorrected proofs and I've noticed that some of them have very few errors - maybe as few as one or two, but others have many. Not just typos, but lots of formatting errors, and even continuity errors. I realize that they are uncorrected, but it brings me to ask this question. How much does an author's sloppiness affect the ARC and the final book?
This depends on the editor, copyeditor, and proofreader. Sometimes a mess of a manuscript inspires the publisher's team to go through it with a fine-tooth comb, and other times it inspires them to think, "the author clearly didn't give a crap; why should I?"
I'm not defending that thinking, fyi.
For example, someone in my critique group is notoriously sloppy with typos and continuity errors, and when her first book came out, there were more errors in it than I've seen in any other finished book. I'm just wondering how much a writer can actually rely on editors and copy editors? My agent has recently sold my book and I'm on the first round of edits, so I'm a ways off from this, and I'm generally quite meticulous, but is there anything I should do besides try my best to get things right and also have someone else read it who is detail oriented?
That is the most you can do, and that much is deeply appreciated by your editor, assuming you have a decent one.
Or are some of these errors coming later, AFTER the writer has handed over the project?
Yes, of course some of them are.
No, don't freak out. This happens to pretty much every book as it goes through the process. That's because it's a more complicated process than most people realize, and between communicating edits among a team of 4-5 people and transferring text from a word doc to whatever the designers are using, mistakes can and will happen. That's why there are multiple rounds of galleys and proofs.

Mailbox Grab Bag II

When constructing the query letter for my YA murder mystery, should I mention that hubby's a sheriff's deputy and/or that I've used bits of real life mystery from our county? (With artistic liscense to protect those involved.)
Yes. I'm kinda intrigued right now.
I was wondering your opinion on the graphic novel sliding into the picture book arena? I have seen some picture books with a comic book format, and I know that The Little Lit Library has 'Toon Books' ( Just wanting to know if it was worthwhile submitting a picture book in this format? I'm not an illustrator, but I know how to write a MS in a scripted format with the different panels, etc. Is it realistic for someone who does not illustrate to submit a MS in this format?
Sure. It's only going to happen more.
But for those of you who haven't worked in this format before: it's not as easy as it looks. Read a bunch of graphic novels and think about the storytelling before you go submitting manuscripts in this format.
My question is: if you have a book published already through a small publisher, is it possible to find a different publisher to publish a sequel which also stands alone on its own merits? I am not asking about the legal aspect of being under contract, but is a sequel even remotely attractive to another publisher? The first book got some good reviews and sold respectably.
Sure, if it really stands on its own.
Does a contract for a young chapter book series differ from a contract for a novel or PB? In other words, let's say an author writes the first book of a young chapter book series. The pub acquires and wants a second book to follow. Does the contract have a clause that would give the pub. an out if the first book failed? Would the pub. wait/want to see the second book finished before releasing the first? And if the pub. does not like the second book would they have a clause in the contract that allows them to cancel the whole thing? We were discussing this in my writer's group and we were also all curious to know how frequently contracts are canceled and usually for what reasons.
This is a series of questions better addressed to an agent, because contracts vary a great deal from house to house. My answer has to be "no comment"... but perhaps Literaticat would like to weigh in?
My Question: I've recently finished reading John Green's new YA, PAPER TOWNS. I am a huge fan of his and really loved the book. However, many elements of the book were very familiar to his previous (award winning) books -- the geeky/nerdy guy with no other goal than being in love with/figuring out the unattainable, vibrant girl; the wise-cracking best friends; the "themes" batted back and forth at the book's end. These work well for John Green and in fact I look forward to them, but I wonder, as an editor, do you encourage your authors to branch out and try new things? Or do you let the sales speak for themselves? Taking John Green out of the equation, I guess my real question is, How important is it for an author to create a DIFFERENT book each time out? Or are revisited elements one way to create your own type of "brand?"
This will vary from author to author, book to book, and relationship to relationship. I love authors to try new things, but sometimes those experiments don't result in something publishable. (And in publishing, good sales always speak for themselves.)
I've been reading your blog for a while now, and it's pretty clear that you don't think self-publishing is a good option for any self-respecting author. Should authors/illustrators always try to go with a traditional publishing house? I realize that authors/illustrators are not the best judges of their own work, and that many will resort to self-publishing because of rejection (due to the fact that their books just aren't very good). Are there, however, any instances where self-publishing would be the better option for a well-written work of fiction?
I think self-publishing works well for a very small, very well-informed, very pro-active segment of authors. So it's not fair to say it's crap for everyone. But many, many people who self-publish do it under fantastic delusions-- delusions that most vanity presses do nothing to dispel. (After all, if it were only the small, well-informed, pro-active segment who self-published, most vanity presses would be out of business in a hurry.) So it's not something I'm going to recommend for most people.

Query Clinic

Dear editorial anonymous,
I'm an English children's writer and I've always begun my query letters with 'I'm writing to ask if you will consider being my agent/publisher' but having read American blogs I can see the benefit of a more direct start with the mini-blurb. The problem is I'm not sure if I'm getting it right.
Hope you can help.

The most exciting day in Millie's life has finally arrived, the chance to meet her idol - TV conservationist Dr Midas. To the ten-year-old's surprise she discovers Midas has invented a time machine, and she's about to help test it.
Wow, that's pretty left-field.
Suddenly she is back in 1720, hanging around with pirates, a robot dog, mouthy parrots and mad monkeys. When Midas is called upon to be a hero - Millie quickly realising the man is not the same as his image - and it's up to her to ensure they stop the resurrection of Blackbeard and find a strange lost treasure.
'Dr Midas and the Pirates' is a fun adventure tale for 8-12 year olds (complete at 64,000 words) inspired by real events and set on St Mary's Island off Madagascar.
Cut "fun adventure tale for 8-12 year olds" (because I'm not going to believe you about 'fun' yet, and 'adventure' should be obvious from what you've already said) and replace it with "middle-grade novel". You'll sound much more professional.
I have used fascinating facts about the island in my storyline, these include local beliefs such as Vazimba (hairy pygmy land guardians), fadys (taboos) and the famadihana ceremony - where the Malagasy take their relatives’ bodies out of their tombs, clean and redress them as well as talking and dancing with them. My plot is based around the island’s wildlife, including lemurs and huge elephant bird eggs.
Ok, pirates still have some cache, but the trend is waning. And having realistic facts about Madagascar in your book is nice, but what I'm missing here is the significant appeal to children of this manuscript. (Children do not care about geography much.) Why are children going to be excited about it?
I am 33-years-old and work full time as a chief sub editor at the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo newspapers, in England. 'Dr Midas and the Pirates' was a winner in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook novel competition and I won first prize in the Writers’ Advice Centre’s 2007 short story competition with my story 'Diversity.' I have featured in the local press and there was a double page feature about me in the January edition of Writers' Forum magazine. I also have my own website and a blog
I'm afraid I don't care how old you are, nor about any of these competitions and features in newspapers, because I'm unfamiliar with them.
I have completed a sequel to 'Pirates', 'Dr Midas and the Incas' and I am currently racing towards the finish line off my first draft of 'Dr Midas and the Khmers' set in Angkor, Cambodia.
I then plan to write a fourth Midas book set in Papua New Guinea involving diving, cannibals and Skull Island and a fifth set in Australia featuring Aborigines and dreamtime myths.
If you are interested I would be happy to send you a full outline and sample chapters or the full manuscript.
Telling me about the sequels you're already hurrying to finish is like counting your pterodactyls before your chicken eggs have hatched. Leave it out.

Overall, this is a decent query, but it needs some work before I'd call it requestable.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How Many Legs in "Buffalo"?

On his blog, Nathan Bransford once said that he can often tell when someone will almost positively never be published from their query letters.
Yes, that's true.
It seems likely that most of these people have no sense of this, as they are continuing to query.
The next logical step in this self-destructive thinking pattern is that I may be one of these people myself.
So my question is, when should an author give up? Is there any way to tell if I'm just a crap writer and it's never going to happen? I know you'll say you shouldn't be doing this if you don't love it, etc. But in reality, although I enjoy writing, I don't love editing and revising and all that jazz. In fact, I hate it. If I knew I'd never get published I'd just give up on that bit and stick to blogging and leaving comments on blogs to fulfill my need to communicate with the world.
I know, you hear things like, "Crazy people don't think they're crazy."-- and it makes you think, "um... I don't think I'm crazy. Does that mean I'm crazy?" Writers live a great deal in their heads, and sometimes it gets a little crowded in there, huh?

It's sometimes hard to bring across to people to whom writing with clarity comes naturally, but editors and agents get piles of queries from people who are barely competent to scratch a drawing of a buffalo on a cave wall, and who would probably manage to misspell even that.

I can tell from the way you wrote this letter that you have a fine grasp of the English language, the use of its grammar and punctuation, and are capable of putting ideas in logical order without unnecessary repetition.

You know the quote "I don't know art, but I know what I like"? There are plenty of people like that in books, as well. On the one hand, it's fine for people to like whatever they like, and especially in children's books I am a proponent of readers reading whatever makes them want to read more.

But when it comes to writing, yes, there's the rub. "I don't know writing, but I know what I like" just doesn't fly when you're trying to create writing rather than just consuming it. Would you say "I don't know electricity, but I know what I like," before attempting to wire a house? Would you say, "I don't know brain surgery, but I know what I like," before picking up a scalpel?

Perhaps writers who are secretly worried they're terrible and don't know it could cast their minds back to their high school and college days, and ponder how well beloved they were of their English teachers. Did your teachers give you high marks on your writing? Or did you get every paper back with misspellings and ungrammatical constructions marked in red, and points withheld for style? Have you been complimented on your writing by people who read a great deal in the same field for which you're writing? Or have you been complimented on your writing by people who think of the comics page as their primary encounter with written language?

There's no need to love every part of the industry-- truly, there's no one who does. There are difficult, exhausting aspects no matter which role you have. You've got to love some part of it, and love that part a lot, for that very reason.
And you've got to recognize it when your own imagination is trying to stab you in the back. ;)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fact vs Fiction, Men vs Women, and Brian Lies vs the World

How does an editor go about editing a nonfiction book? (e.g., does she read up on the topic, etc.?)
I'll send nonfiction out to be proofread and fact-checked, and possibly to a specialist for verification. Certainly if I acquired a book about a nonfiction topic, I'm interested in that topic--but I don't have the time to do the reading that would make me an expert. And anyone who is an expert in something knows that sometimes it's the people who have only done some reading that make the worst mistakes.
Why do men get more Caldecotts?
That's an interesting question. And by "interesting", I mean "something I am trying very, very hard not to jump to conclusions about".
If you want to look at the list yourselves, it's here. The score rests at 51 to 24, which in other arenas might be called a landslide. I honestly wish I knew why men have won 68% of the time, and if anyone has an explanation that doesn't involve name-calling, I would be so grateful.
Can you ever publish with more than one imprint at one house? (say, a picture book at Schwartz & Wade, a novel with Random House?)
Yes, of course.
What marketing efforts have made a difference to anyone? (website? school visits? signings?)
Who can read this question and not think of Brian Lies? I know it's disheartening, but in self-promotion it does seem that more is more. But off the cuff, my recommendations would be: DO: put up an attractive, easy-to-use, and informational website. It gets easier every year, and you can do it from home, so you really don't have an excuse. DON'T: enough with the cheesy bookmarks, ok?
What are your early Newbery, Caldecott, Printz picks? Who's got buzz?
I'm sure you realize how unpredictable the awards are. But if I have to name some names:
The Underneath
River of Words
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
The Trouble Begins at 8
We Are the Ship
...there are other front-runners, too. Sign yourself up for a mock if you're very interested.
How will the economy affect children's publishing? What's the climate like?
Nervous. Children's books are a bright spot for many publishers, though, and historically books fare better in economic downturns than more expensive entertainment (like movie tickets). So while we're all keeping a weather eye on the economy, we aren't building bonfires and discussing the end of publishing as we know it (I mean, not more than we normally do).

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Special Missive from the Mailbag

I have no idea why this letter was sent to me at my Editorial Anonymous account. But enjoy!

My name is [name redacted]. I have been writing for over fifteen years. I have 16 published books. A majority of them are non-fiction. My books have done well, but I think they could do even better if I had a publicist helping me get my books and work into the right hands.

I am almost finished with a fiction book that I am writing. I believe this book will do extremely well if it is marketed correctly and given to the right people. Enclosed is my bio, and a couple of sample chapters from my soon to be fiction novel [title redacted] is suspense and mystery that will make the reader want to read on after each page is finished.

This book also was the capabilities to become a 5-star movie. The potentials are endless. I have a lot to offer, but what I am lacking is a good publicist that can help me. I never had a publicist before and I think this is my problem.
Author [name redacted]:
[photo of the author from her prom night redacted]
[yes, seriously.]

1. The Complete Herbal Guide: A Natural Approach to Healing the Body
2. Natural Cures For Common Conditions
3. Epilepsy You're Not Alone
4. Eternal Love: Romantic Poetry Straight from the Heart
5. My Mommy Has Epilepsy (Children's Book)
6. My Daddy Has Epilepsy (Children’s Book)
7. Keep the Faith: To Live and Be Heard from the Heavens Above (poetry book)
8. Live, Learn, and Be Happy with Epilepsy
9. Epilepsy and Pregnancy: What Every Woman Should Know
10. Faith, Courage, Wisdom, Strength and Hope
11. How to Be Wealthy Selling Informational Products on the Internet
12. How to Become Wealthy in Real Estate
13. How to Become Wealthy Selling Ebooks
14. Life’s Missing Instruction Manual: Beyond Words
15. How To Become Wealthy Selling Products on The Internet
16. Breast Cancer: Questions, Answers & Self-Help Techniques
17. How Thinking Positive Can Make You Successful: Master The Power Of Positive Thinking

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Personal 'No-Comment': In Which We Need Some Better Terms for Rejections

Let's say you've revised many, many times and you've begun the process of sending out your manuscript. You get one personal rejection from an editor of a big house and one personal rejection from an agent, neither of which explain why they've turned it down. The editor says it was a pleasure to consider the work.
At this point, do you keeping trying for the big leagues or go for the smaller presses? Or return to the revising process?
First of all, you're rethinking your approach after two rejections?! Readers, please help this sweet, demented person.

Secondly, unhelpful, non-specific rejections are not exactly what I'd call "personal".

But we do need better names for these things. Readers, will you help me name the following rejection categories, please? Points for imagination and humor, but also points for clarity and usability.

Rejection Categories:
1: no response or a pre-printed rejection
2: a rejection letter with your name on it, but no meaningful feedback
3: a rejection letter with your name on it and meaningful feedback
4: a rejection letter with your name on it and meaningful feedback and an invitation to resubmit

SCBWI and/or Verla Kay to the Rescue!

I have only a couple of manuscripts I'm working on, but I would like to do more and am looking for ways to add some discipline and focus to my writing efforts. Everyone says you should have a good writing critique group, one that will give you tough, honest opinions as well as encouragement. I live in a fairly rural area, so my opportunities for face-to-face critiques are limited. Any suggestions for how to find good feedback from peers?
Check out the discussion boards at the SCBWI or Verla Kay (you'll have to become a member of SCBWI to access theirs) and find yourself a nice eCritique group. Bear in mind that you may have to try a couple out before you find one that works for you.

Ooo, You're Not a Novel Virgin? That's So... Dirty.

I was wondering if it was better to be a debut author with a clean slate than someone who has published a book with a small publisher (Five Star, for example). I'm querying agents and wondering whether I should include the bit about my Five Star mystery novel (even though the book I'm querying is YA) or if I should leave it off the bio completely. In conversation once, an agent told me publishers would rather have a debut author than someone published with a small press. The book is under a pseudonym, so I suppose I could leave it off my bio. What do you think? Honestly.
This is suddenly casting me back to high school and those "purity" tests. I wouldn't knock abstinence for teenagers, ever, but there's something just screwed up about the way our culture idealizes ignorance and inexperience.

It is better to be entirely honest with your agent and editor than not. Your editor may decide that your adult novel under a pseudonym is not information that Sales and Marketing needs, but that needs to be her call.

Yes, sometimes there's a cool cache to the phrase "debut novelist", but most editors also realize that anyone's first novel is not their best work.

The bottom line is: it doesn't matter. You have to be who you are. If the current chic was in writers who have buck teeth or who escaped from religious cults or who loathe pecans, it wouldn't matter. Honesty and integrity are always in style.

Contract Limbo! Next Stop, the Lake of Fire

I got the phone call acceptance in March for a picture book and am still waiting for the contract and here it is November. Is there anything I can do about this?
...Is it because I am unagented?
No. ...At least, mostly no.

It's because you're not doing what an agent would have done at least three months ago: call or email the editor to remind her of this outstanding contract. Agents can do only that much and the editor will read between the lines: "You know and I know that this is bullshit, so get your crap together, damn it, or I'll sell this book someplace else... unless you have a really good excuse or some quality grovelling for this lateness."

Editors won't read the same thing into a reminder from an unagented author, because most unagented authors don't have a sense of where things crossed into bullshit. An unagented author should be a wee bit more pointed (but still pleasant and professional--try to express polite concern rather than escalating frustration and panic. Frustration and panic are common qualities in authors (and yes, I know sometimes it's the editor's own fault), but they're unattractive qualities).

You should get in touch with the editor and remind her nicely of the contract (she may truly be surprised to hear that the contracts people haven't sent it to you, so reminders are good) and express worry that the project may be losing steam at that publishing house, and perhaps give her a soft deadline (like, "I'd hoped to have this contract finalized by the end of the year").

If you get no response for very much longer, you'll have to be more pointed, and make it clear that while you would love for this project to be published at this house, you're afraid there isn't enough enthusiasm for it there.

Still no response? Withdraw the project.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Editorial Ass Blogiversary

No, I don't like the term 'blogiversary', but considering the lifespan of most blogs, anniversaries are worth celebrating. And the many fans of Editorial Ass (aka Moonrat) are hosting a little 2nd birthday party over at

So go over and raise a glass.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

It’s a Small World After All

Let's take a moment to appreciate what a small world children's publishing is—what a small, talkative world.

This is a good thing for the majority of people, since the majority of people in children’s publishing are very nice.

It’s a not-so-good thing for the relatively few people who don’t think they have to be nice.

Perhaps, for instance, you hear (from a reliable source) about an author who has done something that was at best unprofessional and inconsiderate, and at worst sneaky and unethical. But she was a brand-new author, and you like to think well of people, so you assume it was a momentary lapse, and she’ll learn better behavior soon.

And then you hear (from a different reliable source) about the very same author and how her agent got her to do something that was sneaky and unethical and no two ways about it. Something which would, no doubt, displease her publisher quite a bit to hear.

At this point you're deeply afraid that this author has not understood something fundamental about the children's book industry: word gets around.

No doubt this author and her agent figured that no one would find out about their behavior, or if someone did, it wouldn’t matter because it’s making money that people care about, and how you do it isn’t really important.

Ahem. (This is me leaning into the microphone:) Which is wrong.

One day, perhaps quite soon, this author and agent may find a themselves facing a bunch of resistance from the people they’d most like to work with. And it’ll be a big damn mystery why, won’t it?

Because it’s a small, small world.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Basic Book Construction

How would I go about finding a children’s book editor for a 15 page book?
The first thing you need to know is how this question sounds to anyone in the business. It sounds ignorant. And very confusing. I have no idea what you meant to ask.

For one thing, there aren't different editors for different page counts. (Though of course some editors specialize in picture books and others in novels, etc.)

For another thing, 15?
How did you come up with that number?

Most authors have only the sketchiest idea of how to count pages, so I'm going to go way out on a limb here and guess that you're just wrong about that.

Did you:
  1. count the number of pages the manuscript fills when typed or hand-written?
  2. count the number of pages the manuscript fills when space is left for illustration?
  3. count the number of spreads the manuscript fills when space is left for illustration?
The correct answer would be: none of the above.

Ok, you know what? Everybody: stand up right now and go to your bookshelf. Pull out a picture book and flip to the first two pieces of paper that you can pinch between a finger (i.e., I'm not talking about the paper that's glued to the covers).

Are the two pages made of the same kind of paper? You're holding a self-ended book.

Are the two pages made of two different kinds of paper? You're holding a separate-ended book.

Go through your picture books until you're holding one of each. I am personally holding Wild About Books by Judy Sierra (self-ended) and The Little Red Hen by Jerry Pinkney (separate-ended). Good. Class is now in session.

fig 1.

Ok. The very outside of a book is the jacket. It's loose, and would slip right off of the book except for the way it's folded around the book's cardboard cover. The two parts of the jacket that get folded into the book are called the 'front flap' and the 'back flap'. The front flap usually has a description of the book and/or marketing copy (and by 'copy' I mean 'text'). The copy on the back flap is usually information about the author and illustrator. Take the jackets off of your books and set the jackets aside.

Next you have the cardboard cover. This is the 'hard' part of the term 'hardcover'. It is this cardboard that makes the book not a paperback.

Next are the ends, or endsheets. Let's come back to these.

And then we come to the actual book pages-- the book block. (Aside: if asked for the 'trim size' of a normally bound book, it is this-- the size the pages are trimmed to-- that is being spoken of.)

Printers set bundles of paper sheets into the cover in sets of four. Once bound in, and counted front-and-back as pages, those four sheets make 16 pages. This is a signature. A 32-page book has two signatures of paper in it.

It costs a little extra to split a signature into smaller units, and so a publisher may be reluctant to do this. It is for this reason that many books have page counts in multiples of 16. (It is still possible to have a page count in a multiple of 8 or 4, but never 2--as you'll realize if you try building a book this way.)

So most picture books have 32 pages. Once bound into the book, page 1 is not part of a two-page spread, and neither is page 32. The pages in the book look like this:

fig 2.

Though of course I haven't indicated the gutter in the middle of the two-page spreads in this image.

So here's the thing about endsheets, or 'ends'. If the printer was asked to put 'separate ends' into the book, then he's put two sheets of paper between the cover and the book block. Two sheets of paper, once bound in, make 8 pages. If we numbered these endsheets (which, in bookmaking, we do not), page 1 and page 8 get glue applied to them and are glued onto the cardboard cover. You now cannot look at page 1 or 8, and their other sides, pages 2 and 7, you can look at, but they are now serving as the inside of the cover. Then you have a loose page of endpaper at both the front and back of the book (endsheets 3-4 and 5-6), and between them comes the printed book block.

In the case of separate-ended books, every page in the book block can be printed upon. Page 1 will have the title or half-title. Page 2 may have the copyright information, dedication, acknowledgements, and permissions info (depending on the kind of book) and page 3 the full title, or the CR info may go on page 32, and pages 2-3 may be the first spread you can use for your story. At the most, you will have 15 spreads to tell your story.

But what if the printer was not asked to put endpapers in? Then we go back to our fig 2. Then all we have to work with is the pages of the book block, so page 1 and page 32 are the ones glued face-down onto the cover. Spread 2-3 is the first thing you see when you open the book, and spread 30-31 the last thing before you close it. Now, you will often see those two spreads printed with patterns or extra illustration-- but those spreads cannot have meaningful information printed on them, because librarians are going to stick their little envelopes and barcodes all over them. And librarians have a big voice in children's books, make no mistake.

So, in a self-ended book, pages 1,2,3, and 30, 31, 32 serve as ends. They cannot have another use. Spread 4-5 will have the copyright info (etc) and the title page, and the remaining 12 spreads are what you have in which to tell your story.

I hope this was clear, but if not, I strongly recommend every picture book writer do what they must to figure it out. This is very basic book information.

Now, to the questionner: How many pages is your book?