Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Books Above

Posts will resume January 1.
Thanks for all the concern and well-wishing.
Happy New Year!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Countdown: a Conversation with Deborah Wiles

Perhaps you know Deborah Wiles from her moving picture books Freedom Summer and One Wide Sky, or her utterly charming novels Love Ruby Lavender, Each Little Bird That Sings, and The Aurora County All-Stars. (Some of my personal favorites.) Or maybe you've just noticed all the shiny awards stickers obscuring the covers of her books. Each of her books is a wonderful example of voice, character, and human nature, so I'm just one of the many people who are thrilled to their toes that she has a new book out: Countdown.

Countdown is worth picking up just for the exemplary design of the book, from jacket to cover to endpapers to the way the many, many period images are treated. Even the details on the page edges! But most exciting of all is the way Deborah's historical fiction combines a fresh, involving story with images and quotes from the 60s that make a compelling experience for those who never experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Deborah very kindly agreed to this interview.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: It's exciting to see something so ambitious (and historical) in today's sometimes overwhelmingly conservative (and paranormal) market. You call this a documentary novel. Could you explain for my readers what that is, and what inspired you to write one?

DEBORAH WILES: Thank you! So glad you think it's ambitious and different -- so do I, and I have good partners to thank for helping me make that happen. Scholastic ran the bases with me, all the way, full out, and said, "let's do it," when I presented them with this idea.

As I wrote Franny's story, I collected all kinds of photographs, newspaper stories and clippings, songs, advertisements, cartoons, recipes, quotes, and more, from the late fifties and early sixties to help me tell the story. At first, they were just for me, to help me sink into that time frame and remember, but quickly it became apparent to me that they were an integral part of the storytelling.

So I created what I started calling scrapbooks. I wanted to explore how history is really biography (as Emerson said), it's more than just dates and names and events, and I wanted to explore how each decision we make has rippling waves that affect others.

For instance, Harry Truman's decision not to answer Ho Chi Minh's 1947 letters had far-reaching consequences that may have led to our involvement in Vietnam, so I write about that in Countdown, in the larger, historical context. JFK loving the musical Camelot led to his presidency being called Camelot, thanks to a well-placed quote from Jackie Kennedy. His decision to send more advisors into Vietnam left us with an escalating war during the Johnson administration -- something I'll get into in book two.

But just as there are huge, overarching historical events in our collective history, that history is lived out on the personal stage of each individual person. So, Uncle Otts in Countdown is a living legacy of the horrors of World War I (where he fought in the same battle that Harry Truman fought in, in the Argonne). Franny being afraid that those Russian missiles might be launched from Cuba and hit the United States is a real, personal response to the horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Franny's decision to help (or not help) her friend changes the course of her history, and her friend's.

Early on, I began to carefully assemble each scrapbook section in a way that told the larger, overarching history of the early sixties, while Franny and the other characters in Countdown tell us the personal story of that time. I knew it had never been done before, but I very much wanted to work with this form of storytelling. I think of these scrapbooks as having been assembled by Franny -- so she is telling us her story, both the bigger picture, and the smaller, personal one within that bigger picture. I thought of the biographies as being written by the adult Franny, with a more grown-up sensibility, but still her story, her opinions, in her voice.

The term "documentary novel" actually came from my editor, David Levithan. We were tossing around what to call this brand new thing we had created... "What is it?" we asked ourselves... well, it's like a documentary, but it's not. It's a novel, first and foremost -- that was important to me, to tell a great story.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I found your main character very compelling--and very immediate. I understand from the backmatter that the book draws somewhat from your own childhood, but there's no sense of nostalgia, no sense of an adult looking back. So I'm curious-- how much does Franny's experience of that October in 1962 draw from your own experience?

DEBORAH WILES: I draw from my life in every story I write, and this one is no different... and it may be closer to my life than the others, actually. The story -- the plot -- is completely fiction, but I did live outside Andrews Air Force Base, my dad was chief of safety for the 89th, my mother hosted bridge parties, we had a pink kitchen, my brother was perfect (still is - ha!), we had a dog (a French poodle, though, not a Lassie dog like Jack), I attended Camp Springs Elementary School, was in glee club, loved French, and had a friend who grew up way faster than I did, just like Margie does in Countdown. I used all these connections as the outside trappings of my story -- I wanted to be authentic to the time period, and using my own life to do it... well, it's what I know.

I did duck and cover under my desk, and I did compose letters to JFK and Khrushchev at night, as I lay in bed, but the actual story I spin from all these facts is fiction. However, the inside story -- what it felt like to be betrayed by a friend, to be in love with the boy across the street, to feel invisible at home and at school, to want to understand the world -- in that way, Franny is exactly like I was at ten. I remember clearly what it was like to be ten years old in the world. I can bring that feeling back to me as if it were yesterday. I often say that I write for ten-year-old me, and maybe I do.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: The book does a great job of bringing across how big and scary and yet essentially unfathomable the idea of nuclear war is, and was for the country at the time. Can you speak to how you approach foreshadowing and tension-building in your writing?

DEBORAH WILES: Gaaaa! You know, that's a good question. Most of the time, foreshadowing and tension-building grow up in revision. Actually *so much* that I do is a task of revision. My first draft(s) are so lousy, really. I have to think and rethink. The first draft is like a bloodletting for me -- I can't see the shape, I don't know the direction, I'm grasping for plot, I'm gasping for air, and I'm sure I can't pull it off.

I have to MAKE myself get an entire first draft, just so I can believe that I can do it and am not a total failure (and so I can sleep again and take off twenty pounds) and so I can have something to revise. Revision is hard hard hard, but it is such a pleasure, too, as it holds such great rewards (as opposed to the first draft, which I suppose should feel rewarding, but instead feels like I've been fifteen rounds with the lions in Gladiator).

In revision I throw out great wads of the plot (usually the entire second half), but as I do that, the light begins to dawn, I begin to understand who my characters are and what their motivations are, which inform their actions and reactions, and as these things begin coming clear, I go back and layer in foreshadowing and tension.

I love working with foreshadowing. I like to see how oblique I can be while not cheating -- you know? How can I give you what you need to know, so that you are not hit out of left field by the reveal (and so it is a sweet release or surprise), and yet how can I not hit you over the head with it too heavily or too many times so that you're waiting for it and say "DUH!" when it comes. I change up my references and methods to what I'm foreshadowing so you don't recognize it as such, and this is fun for me, like a puzzle... but all this work must feel seamless to the reader, and that's a challenge.

Same with creating tension. I try to remember that every action has a reaction -- so show that -- and that every emotion is connected to an action: Drew tugs at his eyebrow, Franny's heart runs away with her fear, Uncle Otts digs and digs and digs that hole in front yard -- until he keels over! -- and Franny's mother lights another cigarette... there's so much that can be shown, in creating tension. I try to remember that. And again, it's a task of revision, for me.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: You mention in the book that you started this as a picture book. What did your editor say that made you realize it was really the beginning of a novel?

DEBORAH WILES: I realized it myself, early on. I say early because this book had such a long gestation. I started it as a picture book 1996, a story about a brother and sister and a "war" they have -- a balloon fight with one kid in a sycamore tree and another on his bike below. The title was Lemon Yellow Day, and started out:

"It's a lemon yellow day. A lemon pie day. I sit in the vee of the mighty sycamore, safe inside my treehouse. I pat my supply of water balloons. "All right, Mr. TakeBeforeAsking," I say "I'm ready." And here he comes, wobbling up the street on MY bicycle: my enemy, my brother, my friend."

It was full of duck and cover, atomic bomb, Cold War language, and it didn't really go anywhere, except that my (now grown) kids and I still say, "Sorry-sorry-sorry, Mr. Thornberg!" to one another, and know what that means.

This story and others had been rejected for years. Then I met an agent at an SCBWI event in Washington, D.C. and struck up a friendship with her, and asked her if I could send her my stuff. She was very encouraging; I'd send her a story and she'd send it back a few weeks later (all of this on snail mail), telling me what wasn't working, but she refused to take me on as a client. About Lemon Yellow Day she wrote, "Get rid of that day and tell me a story."

I didn't know how to do that. I was still largely writing my memories. I had been so deeply influenced by books such as When I Was Young in the Mountains and Honey I Love and When I Am Old With You, that I was still trying to tell a slice-of-life story. I couldn't figure out how to write those stories, but I was developing my voice through ten years of rejections and studying and reading picture books.

So I put the story aside and went on to others, and eventually found my way to Love, Ruby Lavender and Freedom Summer, both of which were picture books when I started them. I didn't know I could or wanted to write a novel. But Liz Van Doren at Harcourt was interested in Ruby (which started out as a slice-of-life story). She said it had voice. She assured me I could learn the rest. And she took on the gargantuan task of teaching me.

So we started working together. The story got longer and longer. As it turned into a novel, and as I turned into a novelist (a long, slow process), I began to understand that this Cuban Missile Crisis story was bigger than the argument between a brother and sister, and I began to explore it.

I'd drag it out and look at it, play with it, put it back, until one day as I stuck with it, other characters appeared. There was always a mother and an older sister, but now they had backstories -- wow. Who knew? Then there was a father. I didn't know him at all. The brother and sister got names: Franny and Drew. They took on lives that went way beyond their picture book argument. Suddenly they weren't enemies anymore, and up popped a friend for Franny, someone who could take the enemy's place eventually.

And then -- lo and behold -- Uncle Otts appeared. When he came on the scene, in all his bulldoze-the-front-yard-glory (for he had a bulldozer in his first incarnation)... well! Now I had a full-fledged family with a rich history, and I needed to know their stories. And I knew then, I had a novel on my hands. This was probably 1998.

It would take me another ten years to figure out how to write it.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: Thank you--so much!-- for bringing across how hard great writers work to be great. Finally, do you have any advice for those attempting historical fiction? Any lessons you've learned in the process?

DEBORAH WILES: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to think and talk about these things!

I'm not good with advice, as I'm still learning how I work with historical fiction, even though my first book, Freedom Summer (which is historical fiction, albeit a picture book), is almost ten years old.

There is an over-arching line of history that humans live through, a sort of collective history, if you will. Then there is each person's individual story within that history. When I wrote Freedom Summer, I knew that the book was about the passage of the Civil Rights Act and yet, at its heart, Freedom Summer is a book about friendship and fairness -- and choice -- between two boys, one black, one white, who decide they want to go swimming together at the town pool, the day it opens to "everyone under the sun no matter what color." It was always about that.

With Countdown, I tried to remember that Franny's heart and her story were paramount. Her life -- her choices -- would pull the reader through, and I wanted to place the reader firmly in Franny's world. So the personal story comes first, and somehow, as personal as it is, it also needs to be universal.

That's a key for me, I think. Where are the inner places we are connected as fellow travelers on this earth? What are our universal hopes and fears as human beings young, old, rich, poor, black, white, city, country, and every shade and persuasion?

At one particular low point in the long writing of Countdown, I despaired of young readers ever being able to connect to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. And then, two planes flew into two twin towers and one flew into the Pentagon. And as the world reacted, as I reacted, it dawned on me that we are living this history together; this grief, this joy, this fear, this confusion, this beauty, this life. We beat with one heart. And that's when I knew I could hold that heart in my hand, and tell this story.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Phoenix Will Rise from Its Own Ashes

Curiously, like racism! Except racism is more like the ugly, stupid, festering toad that you just can't squash no matter how many times you hit it with a shovel.

This charming book has a new cover! Look:And here's the sequel:
A further explanation here.

You might start thinking that publishers simply aren't listening to the strong reactions that recent instances of whitewashing have elicited from the community of readers / bloggers. You might even think that perhaps they're hoping that eventually we'll get tired of complaining about this, and they'll help us get tired by giving us some more instances.

But I don't think that's really what's going on. I think what publishers and chain bookstore buyers are really thinking to themselves is this:

"We're not racists; teenagers are racists."

Now, whether or not there are book-buying teens who are racist and will not buy this book because there is a Chinese girl on the cover, and whether or not there are enough of them to justify such a statement or make a meaningful difference to sales, letting someone else's perceived racism influence your behavior in the interest of making more money means:

You are racists. And you're whores.

Was that clear enough?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

I Loved Your Wedding Ceremony; the Decorations Were Gorgeous! Want to Read My Manuscript?

I have finished a novel and think it's ready to go out to some agents. My question may not pertain to a lot of your readers, but I value your opinion (and straight-shooting style). One of the agents I'd like to send it to is someone I used to be acquainted with in a past career (I worked with her husband, and was at their wedding), but I'm not certain she would remember me right off the bat. I haven't been in contact with her or her husband for several years. I don't want to come across like "Remember me? Wanna be my agent?" but I also think it would be silly/stupid not to remind her of my connection. After all, the novel deals with said past career, and the content is solidly within the lines of the things she represents (meaning I would submit to her regardless of a connection or not). She's a pretty big agent, and I want to remain professional. How would you recommend handling this?
It's tricky to remind someone that you know them without making it sound like you're asking her to treat you as a friend rather than as a hopeful client.

First, be sure that's not what you really want. If it is, go ahead and make that plain, so that the agent knows better than to sign you as a client. People who enter a relationship with the idea that they deserve special treatment because they're a friend end up expecting special treatment all the way through the relationship, and that's unreasonable and untenable for the agent-client relationship. An agent ought to be doing her best for all her clients, so being treated like any of the rest of them in every way shouldn't bother you.

If you don't mind her treating you in a solely professional manner, then make that clear in your letter to her by letting her know that while you remember her and her husband, you certainly don't expect her to remember you. Then go on to be very specific and convincing about why you're querying her with this manuscript-- reasons that have to do with the manuscript and with her taste and specialties as an agent, not with who either of you are as people.

Make your letter friendly, but very professional. That will tell her she would be working with a pro who won't expect more of her than what she can actually give.

Come to think of it, that's good advice for everyone.
Good luck!

You Want to Acquire? Wonderful! Here's the Other Half of the Submission!

I am an aspiring author illustrator. My question is: for a first timer, how finished does the dummy have to be? I would expect more than thumbnails, but how close to the finished product does it have to be? Also, is it ever acceptable to send the manuscript alone and mention the illustration aspect only after a publisher expresses interest? Thanks.
Certainly it would be fine to send the manuscript alone-- if you're willing for the publisher to choose a different illustrator.

You cannot count on the publisher expressing interest before the editor has done the work of acquiring the manuscript, which often involves discussing a possible illustration style. If you're unwilling to have anyone else illustrate, the editor will be very irked indeed to discover it at this stage.

The dummy should have complete sketches and at least a couple pieces of finished art--all of which you would expect to adapt with feedback from your publisher.

Dropping the Namedropping

I have one of those etiquette questions for you.

Let’s say I have a beta reader who is a published author. If I submit to their agent/editor in the course of trying to sell the book, is it bad form to mention that this author was a beta-reader? Does this add any weight to the submission?

Should I ask the author for permission before doing this? My fear with that is the author will think I am looking for them to pitch the book for me. All I would be trying to do is give the agent/editor the ability to access someone’s POV that has read the whole thing.

Writing this out makes it all sound so passive-aggressive. So I figure I know the answer to all of this already.
It doesn't sound passive-aggressive to me, but your reasoning doesn't make any sense to me, either-- no agent I know would take on a manuscript because someone else has read and liked it. ...Unless that other person has a HUGE fan base and is willing to blurb your book.

When you're choosing who you think you can work with, and whose work you think you can sell, nobody's POV means anything but your own.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Future: It's What's for Dinner.

I was shown a Dr. Seuss book on the iPad and had to wonder at the possibilities. As an illustrator I'm attempting to prepare for this brave new world by learning some animation techniques. As things become more digital do you think that this will be,
A) Incredibly useful
B) Kinda handy
C) A waste of time, static images will still be the norm
(A), and sooner than anyone thinks.

The future is not just ahead of us, it's sitting on top of us. It's sneaking up behind us. It's the milk in your cereal and the monster under your bed. The future is here, but soon you will not be here! The future leaves no survivors! All your worst nightmares are about to come true! The future is here for your SOULS!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

High Ho, Sparkles! Away!

The question that I have is about query letters. I know that you need to put in any published work that you have. My question is, what really counts as a published work. My first novel "Redacted" was published by PublishAmerica. I have know come to realize that I got caught up in a trap. So should i mention that in my letters to agents. Or should I just not mention it? It is hard enough trying to get a foot in the door, I don't want to do anything to hurt my chances farther.
Look, you wouldn't put your career as a unicorn trainer on your resume, would you? Even if the High Unicorn Shaman had conferred the title on you? Even if you'd paid a lot for the harness and horn polish?

Self publishing is imaginary publishing. It's as much a career credit as that time you traded your cow for those "magic" "beans".

Don't mention it.

Your Manuscript is Too Appropriate. I Hate Appropriate!

If I've written a YA novel over 100,000 words, will agents/publishers reject it right out simply because of word length before even reading my query? Or if my query is only so-so (which it probably is), could the word count tip the scales for tossing it?
Don't be silly. The Amulet of Samarkand? The Hunger Games? These ring any bells?

...Unless by "over 100,000 words" you mean "200,000 words". If you're going to get into Deathly Hallows / Breaking Dawn territory, you better be J K Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, and I think I would have noticed that in your email address.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Also Included: Photos of the Design I Shaved into My Cat's Fur

I am an aspiring illustrator I am currently putting together a portfolio. Over the past few years I have painted a a few murals in childrens' rooms and for some elementary schools. Would it be inappropriate of me to include pictures of these (original artwork, of course) if I feel that they showcase my talents as an illustrator? Or is it best to stick with book specific artwork? Thanks in advance for your help. Great blog btw.
I suppose if you could manage very good quality images of the murals, that might be ok . . . but if you want illustration work, don't you think you should show us examples of the media we'd be getting from you?

Black Holes: Powerful, Attractive, and Non-Responsive

What are your expectations toward agents who have submitted a manuscript to you? I didn’t have one for my country because authors approach the publishing houses directly but I now have an agent from an established firm. This agent is keen and enthusiastic for my work and always gives good advice. My agent works well with my editor here but, despite the book having received two award nominations, the response is quiet from America. Do you have agents contacting you for follow up or does that bug you. I trust my agent but I am curious cos if it were me, I’d be picking up the phone and going: have you read it yet? Look at this book – it’s fantastic!
Of course agents follow up to see whether I've read it yet.

But there are plenty of editors who simply ignore such proddings (the most well-known and highest-ranking editors are often among them).

Even the most talented agents can't make an editor respond if the editor just doesn't want to. Your agent ought to be able to tell you if she's sent your manuscript to one of the usual suspects, though.

Can I Submit Now? Ok, How About Now? Or Now?

I have submitted an unsolicited picture-book manuscript to a house that accepts these (with a policy of no reply unless there is interest). What do you think would be an acceptable waiting period before submitting a second manuscript?
Just long enough so that they don't clip the two manuscripts together (in which case probably only the manuscript on top would get read). Give it a week to be safe.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Where To Begin?

ok, so im really confused i dont know how to become a professional writer and yes i know my spelling isnt the best, or my grammer but i think i have some great ideas and i hardly understand any of the crap that is on the internet about it. So please can u explain in a simple way how do i get something published or become a known writer, i wanna know now so that im prepared for the future.
I sympathize about there being a great deal of information and advice (sometimes conflicting advice) available about the craft of writing and about the publishing industry. However, there isn't a single best path to published authorship, and the advice you need could fill several blogs-- it's not something I can give you in one blog post. You could certainly start by reading Harold Underdown's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books.
Good luck!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is Quirky a Good Thing?

Is it ever worthwhile to de-quirk a novel?

My book has one seriously odd character: a home-schooled narrator. The consensus among replying agents, however, is that the voice is just too "quirky". Fair enough, but now what?

Is a complete re-write in order? And a re-query to follow?

Or should I trash the manuscript, hit the bottle, and move on?
Yes, sometimes it is worthwhile to revise this sort of thing.

Quirky can be great-- it can mean charming, funny, unique. But "too quirky"... If you're getting a lot of this feedback, I would start to wonder if what the agents really mean is weird and distancing.

The right amount of quirky reminds people of themselves, their own uniquenesses. Too much, though, and you can lose your audience, especially among kids, who can be pretty judgemental about weirdness in others.

Still there are good examples of very unusual behaviors and world views that absolutely work for the book they're in... Because the author has taken the trouble to make them make sense for that character-- to show us why they have these quirks.

I would suggest that you ask yourself which of your character's quirks are serving the character development enough that it's worth going to the trouble of showing the reader why the character has those quirks... and which quirks you maybe just added for "flavor"-- as a shorthand for character development. I have a hunch that some of those quirks just aren't earning their keep in your story.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Laying Blame Where It Belongs

Just once, I would like to see a reviewer say, "This book was a worthy effort by the author and designer, but was ruined by the publisher's inept design and production decisions."
Is that distinction asking too much? Apparently so; I have never seen it, though it would be accurate in a number of cases.
I'm not certain to what degree reviewers are aware of design and production quality-- one imagines it's somewhere between the public's vast ignorance and the industry professional's close scrutiny. But what books would you posit as examples of such a charge?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fat Vampire: a Conversation with Adam Rex

You may know Adam Rex from his alien-invasion novel The True Meaning of Smekday (which wins for most hilarious alien). Or from his bestselling poetry collections Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake (which win for best running jokes). Or from his very entertaining blog. Now Fat Vampire is about to come out, which wins for Best (Comic) Relief from the Vampire Craze.

To find out more about his newest book, I put on my trenchcoat and met him in a darkened parking garage.

ADAM REX: You're Editorial Anonymous?


ADAM REX: I dunno, I expected someone older, I guess. Isn't this a school night?

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I'm often mistaken for younger than I am. If you guess my age, you'll be wrong.



(awkward silence)

...So thanks for agreeing to this interview. I'm guessing that you saw and/or read a bit of the Twilight oeuvre, and reflected (of Edward Cullen), "What a douchebag!" And perhaps at about the same time you attended a ComicCon and witnessed one or more of the attendees being called douchebags... And you were inspired to write about the true nature of douchebaginess. Am I close?

ADAM REX: No, not even. I haven't seen either of the movies, and I haven't finished any of the books. When a bookstore-worker friend heard I was writing a YA vampire story back in 2007 she insisted I take home a copy of Twilight, and I got about 100 pages in before I decided it wasn't for me and bailed out.

No, I'm just the sorry SOB who decided to start a vampire manuscript a few years ago with no idea what vampires were about to mean to the literary world. I mean, I was aware of Twilight and at least a half-dozen other vampire books/series at the time, but there you are–there are ALWAYS vampire stories, why not another? Now I'm watching the clock and hoping vampires don't entirely wear out their welcome before July, or that they wear out their welcome just enough for people to be ready for my kind of book.

But since you mention it, I did sort of write a treatise on douchebaggery.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I enjoyed the treatise. And I think the time is in fact ripe for a vampire spoof. Fat Vampire made me wonder how many people, if stuck with vampiredom, would really find it made them all brooding and romantically tortured? And how many would just find it to be an enormous pain in the ass?

ADAM REX: That's the gist of what got me started. A big part of the fantasy of vampirism, of course, is the wish-fulfillment of being frozen at the peak of your existence. At the moment we seem to have agreed as a culture that everyone should want to be a teenager again. But, while being a teen had its charms, I actually think I'm a lot happier now. I'm certainly a better person now than I was in high school.

I have to say the impetus for this book actually came when I misread a banner ad. I was in the middle of my morning web-crawl when I saw an ad for some manga or webcomic or something called My Dork Embrace. And I thought, That's great. I bet it's a story about the kind of awkward guy who's never supposed to become a vampire. And a minute later my brain wouldn't let go of it because the art and tenor of the ad didn't really jive with the assumption I'd made, so I scrolled back to have another look at it. And I discovered it's really just My Dark Embrace. I'd misread it. But then I got excited because that meant I could write My Dork Embrace myself, and it would be a good framework to work out some thoughts I'd been having about high school.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: My god, I remember that banner ad-- I misread it the same way! And I was so disappointed when it wasn't My Dork Embrace. The lowercase 'a' in that typeface wasn't very clearly formed.

ADAM REX: Oh, that's funny. It's nice to have corroboration, because I've since searched for that title and I can't seem to determine just what it was the ad was advertising.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: So what about writing this book was a pain in the ass? And what was fun?

ADAM REX: I always enjoy writing dialogue, and I'd do it all day and all night if I'm not careful. Sometimes I have to accept that NOTHING'S HAPPENING and the story will never go anywhere if I can't get my characters to stop exchanging breezy banter.

I also think one of the larger challenges of this book was writing my main female character, Sejal. She becomes something of an Indian Exchange Student Goth Kid–a combination I thought was funny, what with the Goth predilection for pale skin and pseudo-medieval-romantic European sensibilities, but which probably only underscores how little I really know about the subculture. There are probably Goths of all stripes.

Anyway, writing a teenager from India was sort of terrifying–I wanted her to seem genuinely foreign but also instantly relatable to my readers, and I didn't want to appear that I was trying too hard either way, if that makes sense.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I thought she was very well developed—a stand-out character. And the comparison between Sejal and your main character, Doug, helps to underscore your point about it being our mistakes that force us to grow—she’s made hers, and is trying to overcome the aftermath; she's more grown up. Doug is still in the middle of making his (and is going at it with gusto, too, which is a happy thing for the book).
How do you approach character-building?

ADAM REX: I don't have much of a system. I'm afraid I just sort of plow into the story and then revise. Sejal's backstory changed a number of times, and each time it changed I went and rewrote some of her parts to better reflect the person I'd felt she'd become. I often use someone I know or once knew as a kind of personality anchor for a character, but I give myself leeway to go off the map here and there.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: So you do it by feel? That's about what I guessed, though it's not a lot of help to my readers, lol.

ADAM REX: No, it isn't, and yet I do think there's something encouraging in knowing that published authors are just feeling around in the dark as well. When I was a teenager and took my first real stabs at creative writing, I frequently felt like a big faker because I would just write without being entirely sure what I was writing or where it was going. My public school education had not taught me to have much faith in this approach, but the thought of mapping everything out ahead of time was too daunting. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird saved my life because she explains that she doesn't compose outlines or flow charts or any such thing, either. She dives in and figures it out as she goes along. And she assures her readers that this is the method preferred by every author she's ever known. This was a big deal to me–knowing that, despite appearances, my own amateurish blindfolded plate-spinning might actually be a legitimate means to an end.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: Do you have any method to your revision?

ADAM REX: One rule I try to stick to is that if I find myself, just twice, wondering if some passage (or dialogue, or plot contrivance, or bit of drawing) is good enough and then mollifying myself that it is, I'm wrong. I'm wrong and I have to fix it.

Frankly, revision is often what I'm doing when I want to feel like I'm working but I'm feeling shy about charting new territory. There's nothing like rereading twenty pages and changing three adjectives to give you that sickly florescent glow of accomplishment, in lieu of any actual ray of light from the heavens.

What a nice metaphor. I bet it's going to be hard for people to believe that this is the transcript of a face-to-face meeting between the two of us in a darkened parking garage and not actually some protracted email exchange.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: Shh, let’s preserve the illusion. What was the editing process like for this book (if you don't mind talking about it)? Was it different at all from the process for Smekday?

ADAM REX: I had the same great editor (Donna Bray) on each, but there were differences. In Smekday Donna pointed out, quite rightly, that an entire middle section sucked and, later, that the entire second half could be tightened up quite a bit. In fact, given the clarity of hindsight, I wish I'd really done as she asked and tightened it up a bit more. According to Donna Fat Vampire was, comparatively, a cleaner manuscript. She asked me to clarify and strengthen the motivations of a couple characters but there were no big plot rewrites. I think in general she always has to nudge me in the direction of being more forthcoming, as I tend to err on the side of being a little obtuse and vague. I've already read a review of Fat Vampire online that confesses not to understand what actually happened at the end of the book. Whoops.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I followed the ending, but readers will have to pick up the book to decide what they think.
Finally, do you have any advice for budding writers? Or budding vampires? Or budding douchebags?

ADAM REX: There's a joke in there somewhere: What's the difference between a writer and a vampire? One of them leads a pallid, lonely existence, sucking dry both loved ones and strangers alike in his ghoulish quest for immortality, and the other one is a vampire. Ha ha.

I don't know if I have anything new to say to writers. As someone who not long ago was an illustrator who wanted to write and is now the author of his first major work without any illustrations whatsoever I am still in equal parts exhilarated, bewildered, and frightened by writing. I've been doing this just long enough to suspect that those feelings are not supposed to go away. But to answer your question: read as much as you can, and read critically. Live frugally. Marry someone with insurance. Find your own voice, or failing that mimic your favorite authors so blatantly and with such conviction that the costume of their style gets humid and itchy and you can't wait to be rid of it. All that, and write more.

To the aspiring douchebag I can only say, you're too late–the market has reached saturation. Buy low and sell high, man.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why You Want the Intern to Read Your Manuscript

From the intern over at Bookends Lit. She's right!

The editors and agents who are Established and Experienced and who you Really Want to Read Your Manuscript? They skim and discard the slush so fast it would make the faint-of-heart weep. An enthusiastic intern (with smart opinions) can make us actually read the whole manuscript.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

How to Know What You're Doing

Brenda Bowen ( visited us at Dreamworks studios today. She shared her brilliant insight on how to get children’s books published. One of the things she said was that most agents right now don’t want to see rhyming stories. But she also elaborated by saying that there is a difference between real poetry and simply rhyming, and the former has a better chance if you really know what you’re doing. Do you concur with her advice, or do you have any additional thoughts on the topic? Thanks dude.
I absolutely agree.

There are a lot of people who know very little about children's books and about writing poetry and who nevertheless don't see any problem with that and send us AWFUL manuscripts.

They can't remember many children's books outside of Goodnight Moon and Dr. Seuss, and so they figure most children's books are poems. But they aren't.

They don't read much poetry themselves, and so they figure the only thing that makes a poem poetry is that the last words in each line rhyme. But it isn't.

Brenda's advice can also be summarized in broader terms:

If you've done your own taxes, don't assume you're ready to work for the IRS.
If you've carved a turkey, you still really shouldn't try to perform brain surgery.
And if you don't know a damn thing about children's books, go ahead and assume that includes not knowing how to write them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

3 Questions: Following Up, Giving Up, and Saddling Up

I am in the process of submitting my manuscript for my second children's picture book to agents. I got a solid referral to a high-profile agent. The referral came from one of the agent's award-winning illustrators. I sent my letter and submission but haven't heard anything back after about two weeks. Should I follow-up? If so, should I follow-up with e-mail, or snail mail?

I would like to resume submitting my ms to other agents if he's not interested, and one agent had suggested revisions, so I don't want to keep her waiting.

What should I do?
A couple weeks is a very short time for most agents, so it would be nice if you'd give him a little more time before emailing to follow up.

Unless you told him that it was an exclusive submission, though, I would not wait to continue submitting elsewhere.
I have written what I think to be the cutest little children's picture book on boogers. However I keep getting rejected. With books like Captain Underpants, I thought my rhyming book would be at least acceptable material for a picture book, kids love things funny and gross. One potential agent even said it was "cute". Should I scrap the project all together?
Wow, an agent said it was cute?

I'm sorry, sometimes the sarcasm just comes out before I can stop it. When you've gotten a few more rejections, you'll start realizing that a lot of the soft words agents and editors use to cushion the blow are about as meaningful as feathers. The flip side of this is that a lot of the hard words that deliver the blow are meaningless, too. A rejection, whatever the words used, means nothing more than "no".

I can't tell you why your particular manuscript is getting rejected. Possibly agents are worried that since picture books are bought far more often by parents than are chapter books (Captain Underpants rose to popularity on the spending habits of children), the topic is too likely to foster bad behavior and conversation no one wants at the dinner table. Still, there are examples-- David Greenberg's Slugs-- of picture books that manage to be popular and disgusting. So perhaps your rhyme is not as solid as it needs to be?

Yes, after a certain number of rejections, it's probably time to put that manuscript in a drawer somewhere... but it's a pretty big number. Good luck with it.
I have a question that I'm thinking you could answer. I have a cowboy poem that is Christmas oriented. I envision it in a children's book format, although the poem itself is equally appealing to adults. So, what I'm thinking is a few lines of the poem on a page along with an illustration. My question I guess is will this work, and if so, how do I go about submitting something like that and to whom?
I cannot tell from this whether it will work. You'll need to read a bunch of picture books, and read about picture book page counts to be sure you have enough action to carry the poem through a standard picture book length.

As for who you should submit to and how, this is research you need to do. I'm sure there are authors in my readership who have some ideas-- and authors (and agents) generally know more about publisher submission guidelines and various publisher tastes than editors do. But market research is an important learning process for new authors, so you need to do this work. Good luck, partner.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Query Critique: Knowing Your Reader

I am a first-time writer and have done quite a bit of research about how to write a query letter, but without feedback I feel like I am throwing darts blindfolded. I've found your posts dissecting others' queries very helpful. Please let me know what you think of this query letter. I sacrifice it on the alter of your expertise and your readers' thirst for blood. Or education.
Ok. But what about MY thirst for blood?

Maria Black’s 2,477-day normal streak is destroyed by a song.
Intriguing first line.
She hears the latest single from rock star Sam Montgomery on the radio and begins to fantasize about him.
Um... bit of a let down? Fantasizing about rock stars is among the most normal things for teenage girls.
When Sam and Maria meet and learn that they have each been dreaming of the other,
Oh! Is that what's going on? Clearer sooner, please.
they choose to accept their extraordinary friendship. But only Sam is willing to question its meaning. If Maria lets herself believe there is a larger purpose in their seemingly fated friendship and affair,
Affair? I thought it was a friendship?
she would also have to question whether there is a reason why she has the phoenix-like ability to burst into flame and fly.
Ah... what? Is this flaming/flying before or after she breaks her "normal" streak?? Do you think you should maybe lead with this element?
And Maria is not interested in posing questions that don’t have answers.
How can she not be interested in why she is BURSTING INTO FLAME? Your readers are.
Flight is a 72,000-word novel. Readers who enjoy Paulo Coelho’s literary fabulism—grounded in the real world but seasoned with fantastical elements—will enjoy this book. As will those that like Jeanette Winterson’s playful wielding of language and strong female protagonists. This is my first novel. I am happy to send the complete manuscript upon your request.
This part is just right-- except that you're referencing adult writers! Readers who enjoy Paulo Coelho and Jeanette Winterson will NOT enjoy this book because mostly they read adult fiction. If you don't know some YA writers to compare your book to, WHY THE HELL NOT?
Many thanks for taking the time to read my query. I look forward to hearing from you.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Bios and Nonfiction

I realize that the agent reading the bio of a query wants to see relatedness between the writer and the subject about which they write, so with that in mind - can revealing help or hinder in any way what a prospective agent thinks when weighing the merits of the writer against his/her work? I know it may help if I want to write some legal thriller novels, but I am only interested in the YA and children genres.
If you're writing nonfiction, then yes, we really do want some reason to think that the nonfiction is not full of mistakes copied from Wikipedia, or "facts" revealed to you on a piece of toast by Jesus.

If you're writing fiction, there doesn't need to be any related experience with your subject.

If there is-- if you're writing a legal thriller for teenagers and you have legal experience, or have actually been to juvie yourself, that's just gravy.

If there isn't, just try not to say something weird, like about your advanced degree in grandmotherhood / cookie-baking or how you're writing about teddybears because you have the ability to hear their thoughts.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Stands for Book Expo America.
Full of publishers and booksellers and authors and some people who want to be one of those things but are kidding themselves.


Everything was packed. The show floor was packed. The ABC dinner was packed. The kidlit drink night was packed. New York was packed, and I fricking hate taxi drivers. There was a line two miles long for the Children's Breakfast, and I had to pull chairs out from under other people in order to conduct the very important meetings I had scheduled with important people. By the end of the week I was communicating mostly in catlike teeth-bared hisses.

I communicated this to one of our marketing people, and she said she had had a related conversation with an author just before the show.

Author: "I want to go to BEA!"

Her: "You just think that."

Friday, May 14, 2010

All Signs Point Toward Needing to Read the Signs

How should the text of signs be formatted in a fiction manuscript? I've seen it in all caps but I am not sure if this is correct. For example -They drove past the rickety WELCOME TO TULSA sign.
You are over-thinking this. If you desperately want to be correct, you could look it up in the Chicago Manual of Style, which is what most people use. But most editors will look benignly on however you format such a thing-- as long as it's clear what's the text of the sign and what isn't, it's fine. The copyeditor will adjust it to the house style later in the process.
In the days of yore, when email was exciting, there were some who'd always advise us to send partials with SASEs. Part of the thinking behind this was to control who got to see your MS. Has that culture of mailing queries and partials completely gone away now?

Of course, I realize that - in theory - once the MS is out of your door, it can always be copied and leak out (say, if you're Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling). But how does the author know her MS was read and rejected? That it didn't drown under the giant swells of other partials?
It seems like you have more than one question.

If one of your questions is "How do I know my manuscript won't be copied or stolen or something?", please refer to the pythons.

If one of your questions is, "Do people still want a partial MS and an SASE?", please refer to individual publishers' submission guidelines.

But to "But how does the author know her MS was read and rejected? That it didn't drown under the giant swells of other partials?", the answer is a question: Did you submit your manuscript to a publishing house that accepts slush? If yes, then assume it was read and rejected. If no, then assume it drowned.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How Interested Do I Have to Be?

I was just wondering, in that vague kind of unfocused fashion that comes after just having had a full meal, what it takes to be an agent?
A lot. Have you read any agent blogs, or is your interest too vague for that?
Is there a course somewhere to prepare you for it?
Is it merely a discerning eye for good stories? For what will sell?
Yes. PLUS a knowledge of WHERE it will sell. Agents know the differences in publishing tastes between one publisher and another; one editor and another. AND they know the ins and outs of publishing contracts. AND they know industry practices and norms. AND they know the terrain of the modern author's career path, and what's best for them.

If those sound like things you'd like to learn, then you could try interning at an agency.
I'm a writing student at the University of Technology, Sydney, in my final semester and I've always loved editing, have always desired to enter the publishing industry in some fashion (be it as an editor or writer) but I've never considered what is required to become a successful agent, hence my question.
If you could give me tips re: the editing front as well, I would appreciate it. I've tried offering myself as an intern for most of the publishing houses in Sydney (though there are probably several hundred I've missed) to no avail, so tips there would be nice.
Knowing something about writing is a definite plus. But what matters more to people in publishing houses is being acutely interested in CURRENT books, and in what's GREAT and what SELLS.

Have you conveyed an acute interest to the publishing houses you've applied to? Or only a vague one?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Query Redux

In my zeal to share my brand new novel with the WORLD!!! I misinterpreted "cast a wide net" as "query a bunch of agents all at once."

No, I didn't actually do the whole "Dear Agent" with a million email addresses in the "To:" field. That seemed rude to me... I simply googled agents representing my genre, and on Monday I sent 10 queries, on Tuesday I sent another 10, on Weds... etc.

Only problem is, it seems my query wasn't so hot. I'm getting more form rejections than not, a bunch of non-responders, and one kind agent who directed me to the Heroman's guide. I did manage to score one partial request! But it's still pending.

My question is this: Of my sawed-off shotgun approach, there were about five "ideal agents," eight "perfect match" agents, and several "might like it" ones. And I'm thinking if I'd stumbled upon Nathan Bransford's extremely helpful blog sooner, I might've connected with at least one of the first 13. Maybe even more.

Is all this just too bad for me, or would an agent appreciate an introductory "I'm a dumbass, and would you mind if I tried this again" followed by an improved query? Or should I just go to my room with no supper? And if you say, try the "I'm a dumbass" reboot, how long should I wait? A month? Two? Six?
I'm sure some agents will feel you should just wait to query again on your next project. But others will be sympathetic to the humble "dumbass" approach-- as long as it's just ONCE.

So I guess I would suggest trying that, and sooner rather than later. Be sure to offer the agents the option of not responding to the re-query, if that's what their inclination is, so that it's clear that you know they're doing you a favor if they do consider the re-query. And I would also recommend assuring them that if in another month or two THIS query seems foolhardy and amateurish to you, you will NOT be querying a THIRD time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Without Fear of Punishment... or Publication

Do editors worry when children’s book authors post political trash talk on the internet?
I’ve seen some pretty offensive comments on Facebook and other forums; as a result I’ve passed on purchasing several titles over the last couple of years. I don’t believe in banning books, but I just can’t bring myself to personally contribute to authors I find offensive.
Well, editors are busy people and may or may not find the time to look into what a potential (or currently signed up) author is getting up to on the internet. So perhaps not-- ignorance is bliss.

But I would hope that if any of my authors held political views that they knew would offend major segments of the public (if aired publicly), they would take that under advisement. I don't mean to say that they should necessarily say nothing about their views-- I'm a big believer in free speech, and I doubt that any one of us doesn't hold some belief that would set someone else's hair on fire.

Sane people know that however true and irrefutable their beliefs are, there's no point in bringing them up just anyplace, and in front of any audience. Respectful, reasoned discussions of current topics are a wonderful thing, but there's no point in them if the audience in front of you just isn't listening. And if it's not a respectful, reasoned discussion, but rather an angry, emotional screed, most people will respond by not listening and getting angry about it. Sane people know this.

Crazy people don't know this.
I don't want to work with crazy people. Nobody does.

I don't want anyone to be quiet when they feel it would be untrue to themselves. But I also want my authors to remember that they are ambassadors for their books, just as their publishing house is.

If they aren't interested in being ambassadors for their books, then they shouldn't be surprised if their publishing house loses interest in that, as well.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Calamity Jack: a Conversation with Shannon Hale

You may know Shannon Hale from her awesome Newbery-Honor-winning novel Princess Academy. Or maybe from her many other novels, which manage to be both thoughtful and a hell of a lot of fun. Or maybe you know her from that time you thought you were just going to hear another author talk, and ended up laughing so hard you had cross your legs to keep from peeing your pants.

Or perhaps you know her from the fantastically entertaining graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge, which she wrote with her husband, Dean, with the fab illustrations of Nathan Hale (no relation). If so, you're in luck, because--tada!-- there's a sequel out this spring: Calamity Jack, and there's just as much fairy-tales-meet-the-wild-west hijinks as lit up the first book.

In honor of its release, Shannon and I traded secret passwords and "met" in adjoining airport bathroom stalls.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I enjoyed Rapunzel's Revenge a great deal, so I was thrilled to see a sequel. I particularly admire the pacing, which is often a troublesome thing for writers trying the graphic novel format for the first time. Can you speak to what it was like to transition from novels to graphic novels?

SHANNON HALE: Thank you! I think the key for us was having the right story. We didn't want to take any book idea and try to cram it into that format. We wanted just the right story that would really shine in this medium. The fairy tale was the skeleton, but the Hollywood western really directed the plot and let us have fun with the story.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I think many writers coming from a novel-writing background are accustomed to the support that narration offers. But in graphic novels, the dialogue has to do the lion's share of character building AND plot acceleration. I suppose that could be either difficult or exciting (or perhaps both). What elements do you like best about the two storytelling media?

SHANNON HALE: I do depend a lot on my narrator. I love the third person narrator. It's such a useful tool, and allows for so much language, which is thrilling for me. But the truth is, I get bored easily. I have to switch stuff around to keep myself from getting disaffected with writing. I used a different narrator for my adult books than my YA books, I had a first person diary in Book of a Thousand Days. It is very limiting to lose that narrator entirely in a graphic novel, but it's a good, clean challenge too. Whittling down a story to dialog and captions, then turning over the action of the story to an illustrator is scary and exciting! Luckily we had a brilliant illustrator. Also, we re-wrote a lot, which is my secret weapon in any genre.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: Did you and Dean write the manuscript before beginning work with Nathan (the illustrator)? If so, how close to what you'd imagined were the illustrations/scenes? How much did the manuscript change as it came together with the art?

SHANNON HALE: I love the way it worked out. We had the plot outlined and first 1/4 written when we met Nate. We pitched it to our editor and Nate was on board before we finished the script, so we were able to work with him on character designs, as well as write to his strengths. (He loves beasties and creatures!) I think it became a stronger partnership that way than if we'd written in a bubble then turned it over to an unknown illustrator.

Graphic novels are so different than picture books, I think if the author/illustrators don't know each other, it makes it harder to have solid collaboration. We do write all the panel descriptions for Nate, since so much of the action is visual, so the script we send him is twice as long as what ends up actually printed in the book. After we see his art we go through and make lots of changes--striking unnecessary dialog, changing dialog to better fit the mood of the scene, etc.

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: What do you think it is about you that attracts you to total doofuses like the main character? Are you proud of the example you're setting for the young people?

SHANNON HALE: I know you don't mean Rapunzel, because she is Kick-Butt Awesome. And no way you mean Jack is a doofus, since he's all kinds of good times, built in the grand tradition of trickster/rogue/Coyote. But in answer to your question, yes, I am very proud. As you no doubt know, we children's authors took a sacred pact years ago to secretly subvert the young minds we so carelessly influence and lead them straight to a Bad Place. My part of this nefarious scheme is to trick my impressionable readers into growing their hair long and using it as a weapon. When the war comes, my army will be well-trained, and ALWAYS ARMED. (or haired)

EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: LOL! I'll start growing out my bangs. Do you have any advice for people who want to try writing a graphic novel, or who want to fight crime with hair?

SHANNON HALE: I think there was this idea for awhile that graphic novels were HOT, HOT, HOT and easy to sell. That has not always proven true.

I've never had such gleeful responses to any of my books as I have to Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. Parents, who were initially hesitant (there's that idea that comic books are Evil and kids should be weaned off illustrations by age 8), were so excited when their 10, 12, 14 year old non-reader read these books and decided he/she liked to read after all. That kind of feedback is worth a career!

Graphic novels have found a place in the libraries, but many book stores still struggle with where to shelve them (a kids' GN section? on the shelves with regular books? the general GN section?), let alone to sell them. I've been pleased with the success of our books, but they're very expensive to produce, both for the illustrator Nathan Hale (17 hour days, 7 day/week for 9-12 months per book) and the publisher. Less than hoped-for sales have discouraged many publishers, and I've heard of some publishers who are no longer looking at GNs. (I'd be curious to hear your experience with this, E Anon.)

But what that all sums up to is, the graphic novel market is no easier to break into than any other, and perhaps even harder. I think writer-illustrators have the upper hand here. I don't know of any debut author who pitched the script alone and got published. The idea, the hook, the script itself has got to be pretty extraordinary to catch an editor's eye. Still, if you can make it, wow. It's awesome. Based on reader response, I'd be thrilled to do more books like Jack and Rapunzel for the rest of my life.

As for the hair question, I find my own locks woefully flimsy and harmless. But as a child, I was Pippi Longstocking for Halloween and my mom threaded my braids with a piece of hanger to make them curl up. So I suggest pimping out your hair with lethal lengths of wire. Unless someone gets hurt in the process; then I never suggested such a thing.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Art Samples: From Your Imagination to Our Recycling Bin

Love your blog! I have a quick question about sending my artwork to editors. There are always several different types of editors: editor in chief, executive, managing, deputy, assistant, just plain editor, and so on. Who is the best person to send my work to so that it doesn't end up in the trash? I am planning on sending my first sample pack to the art director and then send postcard updates to the editor as well.
Those titles mean slightly different things at different houses. Any or all of those people may have a voice in illustration selection.

Realistically, most of your samples WILL end up in the trash. That's why you have to send a lot of them, to a lot of people. A few of them will like what they see and keep the postcard for future reference. If you want to send a more formal sample, like a portfolio, then you need to research each publisher's preferences in receiving portfolios for review.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

To Be Continued! Or Maybe Not.

How does one decide how to split up a story into parts if the book is too long and the story is continuing into another book? Is it OK to end a book with a cliffhanger, or should you always come to some kind of resolution?
It is OK to end a book on a cliffhanger. You should just be aware that if buying your book requires buying two or more books, the publisher is going to weigh their enthusiasm against the higher investment required.

If you're starting a series, consider whether you're writing the type of book that often becomes a series. Genre fiction often carries series. Quiet, literary novels... not so much.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Art of Choosing Illustration

On Thursday, February 11, 2010, In Memoriam, your blog says, "The story suggests some unusually good visuals - animation, in fact - though I have learned I should not bother with illustration before submission for publication." "That is correct."
But on Monday, November 23, 2009, In Which the Cockles of My Heart are Reasonably Tepid, your blog states, "They submit illustrated manuscripts, and the editor doesn't look at them and think, "Well, we'll get that illustrated by someone better." She thinks, "This is essentially done! Awesome!"

It appears it's a double edged sword. I'm curious because I'm a profession video producer. I have produced videos for 8 years now and I have a lot of marketing experience too. I have basically learned that you have a finished project and THEN you pitch it. But I have also included in my submissions a letter stating I'm completely open to having different illustrations done. What say ye?
Professional-quality illustrations are acceptable, and including a note that you're willing to be flexible about them is a good idea. The reason I generally caution against pairing a text with art is that the VAST majority of people have no access to professional-quality illustration, and don't know enough about the CHILDREN'S book industry to know what flys. Do you, for instance, know someone who does great animation for Pixar? Their static art may be a bad fit because they're not used to art being static. Do you know a fabulous cartoonist who appears in the New Yorker regularly? Their cartoons may be a bad fit because they're too adult in flavor.

On top of these considerations, it's just unnecessary! Editors acquire unillustrated manuscripts all the time!

There are some children's book agents -- and others who know our industry well -- who are good at matching art and text. To my readers, my advice is: if you just think you can do this well, you're wrong. The people who can do it well know it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Changes of Heart and Character

I have a book which is now in the hands of a publisher. It was recently submitted so it will take quite a bit of time to hear back about publishing or not. When I submitted the manuscript it included a character that now the creator of the book wants omitted. (I am basically the ghostwriter and the one who submitted the's a long story.) Now what? Do I resubmit a manuscript? Wait for a yeah or nay by the publisher? If the publisher likes the story, do I still have the option of saying the character wants to be omitted? The creator is very attached to his book and refuses to bend on this point. So, does that make the manuscript now void?
No, not necessarily. I mean, it's not one of the main characters, is it?

I'd suggest you wait to hear from the publisher, and if there's interest, let them know immediately about this change. Most likely they won't have a problem with it.

And if they do, then you can assume they wouldn't have wanted the revised manuscript, can't you?

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Black Hole Has "Requested" Your Manuscript

I've had a middle-grade manuscript sitting (or standing, or whatever manuscripts do while they wait) at a small regional publisher for going on nine months now. It was requested last summer just a few days after I queried, and I received an enthusiastic confirmation e-mail a couple of days later. After six months of silence, I sent a brief follow-up to check on the status and got no reply. I've since seen on the Web site that the person to whom I was asked to direct the manuscript is no longer with the publisher. I would assume that when the intern/associate/whatever who was originally assigned the manuscript departs, the manuscript remains viable until I'm notified otherwise. Is it OK to e-mail the managing editor, who originally requested the full manuscript, again? How might I word the e-mail to engender an actual response? I don't want to be a stalker, but this isn't a slush pile situation. They asked for my book.
You're not being a stalker. They ought to respond.

However, one of the staff leaving often means his/her to-read pile is utterly orphaned. (Possibly even orphaned into the recycling bin.) Anyone helping to shoulder the work that staff member left behind is going to have more than enough to do with the already-signed-up manuscripts.

I would suggest you do email the managing editor, but there are no magic words to make this a priority or ensure a response. Meantime, you should be submitting elsewhere. 9 months is ridiculous.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Legend of the 3,000 Word Picture Book

I have written an original legend about an indigenous Chilean girl who saves her people from volcanic destruction. It would make a great picture book; the problem is that it is 3,500 words long! It is written for readers of about 4th grade level. Is there another type of format rather than picture book that would fit something of this length and for this grade level?
Well, that's still too short for a chapter book.
There are some picture books for older readers that have texts of this length. But they're mainly supported by teachers and librarians-- so I would be asking myself how such a topic fits the needs of curriculum. I know they aren't doing South American indians in 4th grade. Why will teachers and librarians want this enough to spend their (smaller and smaller) budgets on it?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Children vs Adults

I once read that children books should also be designed to target parents since they are the ones buying the books. I would think that there is some truth to that since parents probably look at content and often times decide for their kids. Do you have any words of wisdom on this?
Yes, that's absolutely something we consider in publishing, especially in picture books.

Picture books are most often bought by the adult for a child. Once you get into books with chapters, it's a more even mix of kids shopping with adults who pay vs adult shoppers alone. But yes, even then, the adult holds the purse strings and may refuse to buy something they disapprove of.

Is it possible to write a bestselling book that by far appeals mostly to adults and leaves children cold (or even creeped out)? Yes. Favorite examples include Love You Forever and The Giving Tree. You may have noticed that many people who are serious about children's books abhor and detest those books for their wildly dysfunctional relationships, but lots of adults get all mushy over them. So the authors (and their estates) can feel in need of therapy all the way to the bank.

Is it possible to write a bestselling book that by far appeals mostly to children and which outrages and disgusts adults? Yes. Favorite examples include Captain Underpants and Junie B Jones. You may have met upright people who abhor and detest these books for their bathroom humor and bad grammar, but lots of children will read them because they're funny. So the authors can feel juvenile all the way to the bank.

But here's what we're mostly shooting for: books that serve children-- their needs, their tastes-- and that will get by the gatekeepers with a minimum of fuss.

A certain amount of sympathy for parents is not out of place-- it's a tough job raising kids; a heroic job. That doesn't make laziness acceptable, and I'm one of many who think that if you know how to discipline your children, no amount of undisciplined-character exposure can undo the training your children get at home. But it does make tiredness acceptable, so I'm sympathetic to parents' preference for shorter bedtime reads.

A huge amount of sympathy for children is always appropriate. Being a child is a tough job; a heroic job. One of the things we fight in slush all the time is people who want to write for children and really don't know much about children at all. (Why do they do this? I would never decide to write for wombats. It perplexes me.)

In terms of audience, my recommendation: Children first, always. Adults advisedly.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The High Cost of Self Publishing

I've written a children's book, which I plan on self publishing as an app. I have a built-in mode of marketing, which should ensure publicity for the book.

What should I expect to pay the illustrator? What are the standard fees asked for by an illustrator in the self publishing arena?
I'm afraid I don't know. I've never worked on a self-published book. Regular publishing pays illustrators thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars, plus royalties. And if we pay an illustrator on a flat-fee basis, even then they'll have a publication credit to point to that can further their career.

Of course, most of the self-published books I've seen weren't professionally illustrated, and that's one reason they sell so badly. If you were thinking of going to someone of professional quality, I don't know what kind of money would tempt them to work on a self-published book.

If you weren't planning on that, you have bigger problems than what you'll pay them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Warning: Objects in Mirror May Be Less Self-Editing Than They Appear

After editing my manuscript multiple times, I sent it to a professional editor for a final polish. In my submission letters to editors and/or agents, should I mention that I have had my ms professionally edited? Of course, the ms must stand or fall on its own, and I don't expect that mentioning a professional editor will give the ms any special advantage, but are editors/agents interested in knowing that a writer has gone the extra mile to make his/her ms the best it can be?
No. Don't say anything about this... unless you plan not to send your next novel to a freelance editor, and to surprise your publisher with a less-polished-than-the-first-one manuscript. Then we would like some warning.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Quick Answers: Age Groups, Beginning Illustrators, Librarians

I'm about to start querying my novel (workshopped, re-written, etc.) to agents and feel I've put together a pretty good query. But, I stumble over how to define the novel. It's a 55K word urban fantasy with twins that turn 13 in the first chapter. It seems to me that the characters maturity (or lack thereof) plus a few nonsensical elements place it as a mid-grade, but I wonder if the age of the characters make it YA. Is there a sharp line delineating the catagories? Or, perhaps more likely, are there widely accepted defining points that apply to this situation? Should I send out x number of queries calling it a MG, and y number calling it YA and see which fare better?
There isn't a distinct border between the age groups-- or, that is to say, some people's distinct border is different from other people's distinct border, like neighbors who are always arguing about the property line. Take your best guess, and stop worrying about it--if we like what we read, we'll forgive it easily if you think it's MG and we think it's YA. That's a slight tweak in the terminology-- no big deal.

What we don't forgive as easily is if a person thinks their "fictional novel" is for preschoolers or something like that-- some designation that's so far off base that we have to worry about their relationship with reality, and what that will mean for the publishing process. People with low reality IQs are a huge pain in the ass.
I am a childrens book illustrator, however have not yet published my first book. To be completely honest - I don't quite know where to start.
So far my research has shown the first step (after completing your work of course) is sending out query letters. How should an Illustrators query letter look?
If you could offer any advice on how to get started, it would be really be a great help...I just know I have some wonderful illustrations to offer the world!
If what you're trying to sell is a book, then regardless of whether it's text and illustration or a wordless book, your query letter should look the same as any other author's.
If you're trying to get illustration work with samples from your portfolio, then you should be looking up publisher's art submission guidelines and following those. Possibly you can participate in a portfolio review, and you should definitely have a portfolio up online.
Between 1995 and 2000, I wrote four nonfiction series books for two different publishers. Both publishers seemed happy with my work and asked me to do more. However, just at that time, I started moving up in the ranks of my actual full-time paying job in a library. I made the decision to concentrate on my career and my family, with spare time devoted to reading, rather than writing. The writing I have done during the intervening ten years has been professional in nature: book reviews, journal articles, a book chapter, and a book.
Now I am ready to go back to writing children’s nonfiction. I have several projects I am researching for possible books.
My question: how much do I have to explain my hiatus in publishing when I query editors and agents? If I just say I wrote these four books in the late 90s, will they wonder what’s been going on? I don’t want to over-explain, but I also want them to know that the break was my decision, and not because I couldn’t get anything published.
Do explain very briefly that you've been concentrating on being a librarian in the meanwhile. Not only does that give a reason for your past titles being long out of date (and thus less useful to us as comparisons), it also tells us you're a librarian! We like librarians.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sexy, Sexy Armadillos

The Rejectionist has a little news flash for you: MFA programs may not help you get published.

Let me preface this by acknowledging the truth that Writing of True Genius can elevate any topic, no matter how dull or off-putting to the public's sensibilities. A 500-page novel about the sex lives of armadillos? Great!

Good, now that that's out of the way: You're not a genius.

Have you been Highly Educated in writing? That's wonderful. You've spent years thinking about what makes writing good, and practicing those skills, and caring, and god knows we need more of that. The slush pile blesses your heart.

However, what MFA programs tend to instill in writers is an appreciation for their fellow writers as sole audience, because through all that workshopping, your fellow writers are your sole audience.

Guess what? If you want to be published, writers are not your audience.

Now, this is not an argument for the dumbing-down of literature. I wholeheartedly do NOT want ANYONE to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I want you to appeal to average people, who need books as much as you do (and possibly more). Average people are not stupid, but they're less smart about literature than you are. And that's ok! And you should think it's ok, too.

Average people will happily read a Work of Fine Literature and be AMAZED and CHANGED by the experience, but they won't even pick the thing up if it's about the sex lives of armadillos, you know? (Or working-class alcoholic armadillos in snowstorms.)

If, however, it's tightly plotted and about something people can identify with, then you're on your way to moving the hearts and enlightening the minds of thousands. Your publisher loves you! Your readers love you! And your MFA program can barely recognize you, now that your head is completely out of your butt!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Killer Angels

I was hoping you could look over my query. Feel free to post it on your site if you wish.
I offer the warning in my sidebar because an honest look at what an editor is thinking while reading a query is often NOT what people want. Indeed, some authors' queries are like Roy Schneider dangling red meat over the side of a boat.

Information, however, is power-- and more power to all authors!
Dear Editor,

For seventeen-year-old Nicola Summers, finding her boyfriend Tristan chained to the driveway after being mugged by a street gang was not part of the plan.
No kidding, really? That wasn't part of the plan?

Something "wasn't part of the plan" is a terrible cliche in queries. Still, we might forgive it if it's used acceptably--this isn't. This is akin to saying "Being enslaved by alien Elvis clones was not part of the plan." I think I can safely say that no one has EVER planned for this.
Beaten and knowing the rain is underway, he rejects Nicola’s help.
What? The rain is underway? What does that mean?
Determined, Nicola tries to liberate him, but when the rain arrives and hits his kin, she witnesses the impossible: out of thin air, Tristan sprouts wings.
Oh, you meant "on the way" not "underway". (And I assume you meant "skin" not "kin".) But that sentence would still have been confusing even with the right phrase in it.

"Out of thin air" is another cliche. (Was it really out of thin air? Or... was it out of his shoulders?)
Consumed by an animalistic instinct to protect his identity, Tristan attacks the person he holds most dear and nearly ends her life.
That is not what "animalistic" means.
But after the encounter with her winged-monster-of-a-boyfriend, Nicola’s not sure who to trust with the information—who would ever believe her?
The people who see the bruises? Wounds? Angel dust?

Which makes me wonder, how does he nearly end her life? He didn't try to drown her in a puddle, did he? There must be marks?
She can’t decide whether to pack her bags and move with her mother or finding him.
I know this kind of verb tense inconsistency is an easy mistake to make when you've rewritten something a lot, but it makes it look like you don't understand grammar.
When she seeks answers with the help of her best friend, Tara, Nicola finds herself near a truth that is more terrifying and heartbreaking than anything she imagined.
Just "near" the truth?
First, Tara reveals she is Tristan’s sister.
That doesn't sound terrifying or heartbreaking.
Second, Nicola discovers she is only alive because Tristan unconsciously chose her as his soul mate.
Neither does that. Kinda creepy and stalker-ish, though, since how in heck can she not have a say about who her soulmate is?
And third, he’s dying.
Ah, that's the heartbreaking part, I guess?
Tristan elected staying in his human form
Another verb/grammar problem. For editors, one is a typo; two is Highly Worrying; and three is Oh Hell No.
to prevent his kin of angels from seeing his memories and killing Nicola for what she knows. But how is Nicola supposed to save him when he is dying to save her? TITLE REDACTED, a YA fantasy novel is complete at 90,000 words.
Since when do angels kill people for knowing about them?

We in publishing are getting pretty tired of paranormal romance, including the recent sub-trend in angels, but we do generally tire of trends much faster than the reading public, who are less aware of them.

So you may be able to sell this, even though it's not clear whether you're doing anything markedly different from Hush Hush and Fallen (etc). But this query needs to be clearer and much better proofread, and I'm guessing your novel may need those things, too.

Good luck!