Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bona nit de Barcelona!

I´m now on my long-awaited vacation in Barcelona, proceeding to Paris tomorrow night. If you´re attending my talk at SCBWI France, I look forward to meeting you Saturday; if you´re a dear friend or relation, you can look forward to being bombarded with Melissa´s and my pictures, stories, and lovingly recounted details of desserts (oh my word, the desserts); and if you´re just a casual reader, I´ll update again when I´m home next weekend. Have a great week!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Behind the Book: Marcelo in the Real World

I often associate the books I’ve edited and loved strongly with the place where I first read the manuscripts. I finished the first draft of Millicent Min, Girl Genius in the lounge of LaGuardia Airport, as I waited for my family to arrive from Kansas City for their first-ever trip to New York. I read the first two chapters of the book that would become A Curse Dark as Gold in my beloved yellow wing chair by the window of my old apartment, and completed the full manuscript in my beloved blue sling chair in the corner of my old office. I inhaled all of Sara Lewis Holmes’s Operation Yes in two long sessions in the Scholastic Library, in the comfortable armchairs overlooking Broadway, then went back upstairs and told our assistant Emily that I wanted to acquire it.

And I read a certain scene late in the manuscript of Marcelo in the Real World on the downtown V train at 53rd St. in Manhattan. I distinctly remember sitting there on the bright orange-and-red plastic seats, the manuscript on my lap, waiting for the train to move after a visit to the Donnell Library, and thinking “Wow. Wow”—that eye-widening, brain-expanding feeling when you’ve read something that changes your view of the world. Marcelo, a young man on the autism spectrum, was talking with a dear friend of his, an adult female rabbi, about religious faith, about suffering, about what we weak and small humans can do to alleviate it; and I had never seen anything like this conversation in YA fiction before (or adult fiction either, for that matter). It wasn’t just the unusual players in this discussion; it was the ambition of it, the way it reached for the Big Questions and caught them. It was the reality and humanity of it—that I could genuinely believe this anguished young man in the button-up shirt and this older woman in the neon-green-framed glasses lived and thought and felt up somewhere near Boston. And it was the way the religious issues chimed within my own heart, my own complex internal stew of Big Questions and small actions and deep longing. I had been impressed by the book before that moment on the V train, but after it—pending the author being open to revisions, and not a jerk—I wanted to acquire and edit the manuscript desperately.

So I called the agent, Faye Bender, who arranged a phone call for me with the author, Francisco X. Stork. These conversations are always a little nervous and hesitant—like a first date, both of us auditioning for the other; but he was lovely to talk to: clearly open to revisions, and not a jerk. I took the manuscript to Arthur and the rest of the people in our Acquisitions process, who responded with equal enthusiasm; I made an offer to Faye, and with a little back and forth, Marcelo was mine.

And just as I had never read a manuscript like Marcelo before, I edited it in a manner that felt different from anything I’d done before. A quick plot summary:

Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear – part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo's differences, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer…to join "the real world." There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it's a picture he finds in a file – a picture of a girl with half a face – that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.
There are four intertwined plotlines here: Marcelo’s relationship with his father, which kicks off the action; his relationship with Jasmine, which provides much of the book’s warmth; his relationship with Wendell, which provides many of its uglier truths; and what happens when Marcelo finds that picture, which leads to the scene with the rabbi that I mentioned above, and ultimately serves as the thematic heart of the novel. Indeed, there was so much interesting and meaty and true stuff going on in the manuscript that I felt like the first thing we needed to figure out was what was the most important true stuff—identifying the central question the book would ask and then focusing the storyline to provide an answer.

So I decided to try something I'd never done with an author before, and I asked Francisco to write me a letter about the book, how it started for him and what he wanted it to explore and to say. He responded with a three-page essay that showed both his ambition, in articulating a hero’s journey for Marcelo, and his compassion, in identifying the thematic ends that journey would serve. The central question was how a holy person—someone with his mind on things not of this world, as Marcelo is—would react to things of this world bursting in on him: suffering, injustice, betrayal, love. What was the right action in response to those things? Was it possible—perhaps even desirable—to stay away from them, in that higher removed plane? Or must they be confronted, and if so, what were the risks and costs? These questions struck me as not just spiritual concerns, but profoundly YA ones, as teenagers are often for the first time facing departure from their own safe spaces, the fallibility of their idols, and the costs of their choices.

And Francisco’s essay became our touchstone throughout the months-long editing process, as we used his answers to shape and strengthen the plot, particularly in distributing the screen time for those four intertwined plotlines. We worked on making the stakes clear at the outset and then raising them throughout the book, as Marcelo’s ability to negotiate “the real world” developed and his relationships with Arturo, Jasmine, Wendell, and the girl in the picture intensified. My beloved bookmaps helped us monitor the pacing, so that the various revelations of Marcelo’s journey each resonated within the action and were given adequate processing time in his mind. And when it came to the line-editing, having the essay’s larger statement of purpose reminded detail-obsessed me to keep my eyes on that purpose, making sure the edits I suggested contributed to our overall aims.

Despite all this, there was a fair amount of trial and error on both sides. . . . I’d suggest a new scene arrangement to Francisco that I’d then rearrange again in the next draft (which I’m sure was great fun for him), and he estimates that in the end he rewrote half the book, which sounds about right. But both of us were drawn on by our desire to do justice to the questions he raised and the people he created, to bring as much fullness of truth to the story as we could. The novel provided its own metaphor for this search for truth: Jasmine is a composer, and she tells Marcelo at one point, “The right note sounds right, and the wrong note sounds wrong.” Thanks to Francisco’s marvelous gifts and hard work, Marcelo in the end is full of right notes.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so; the novel has received five starred reviews and much high praise elsewhere, including this great notice in Ypulse and this from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. Francisco was featured in the Boston Globe this past weekend and also in a Publishers Weekly Q&A conducted by my friend Donna (whose class at Boston University Francisco and I visited back in October). Marcelo is what I think of as a “Book of my Heart,” one that still makes me say “Wow. Wow” when I revisit it today; and if you have the chance to read it, I hope it moves you too.

Friday, April 17, 2009

My Book at the White House!

If you, like me, have a crush on the entire Obama family unit, and you, like me, have been following their search for a dog with great interest, you may have seen this Washington Post article from Tuesday about the arrival of little Bo. Bo was a gift to the family from Senator Edward Kennedy and his wife, and the article says the Kennedys also gave the Obamas this:

I edited this book, which was illustrated by the marvelous David Small, so this news delighted me no end! It's a very fun book for my favorite First Family.

And while the Obamas will have no idea about this, blog readers might recognize this walk-on character late in the book:

Yes, this is a David Small caricature of me. When we were working on the book in late 2004, David, his lovely wife Sarah, several other Scholastic people, and I gathered in Washington to meet Senator Kennedy and his dogs and tour the scenes where the book is set. Toward the end of our Capitol visit, I sat down to rest in the window seat of the Senate reception room, which is pictured in this spread. A few minutes later, David came over and showed me the amazingly complete sketch he'd made of the room, including me seated in the corner, and he later worked that long-haired blonde woman into the final picture. You can read more about our trip and the editorial process for this book here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How to Get a Seat on a Crowded NYC Subway Train

  1. Consider positioning yourself on the platform to board either the first car or the last car on the train. You'll have a longer walk to the stairs at both your home station and your destination, but as a result those cars are usually notably less crowded.
  2. If a train pulls in and it's stuffed to the sliding doors, think about waiting for the next train. Frequently riders will grab the first train that comes along, especially after an extended wait. These trains often end up overloaded and uncomfortable, and chances of getting a seat are practically nil. However, these crowded trains are often quickly followed by near-empty trains, as everyone in a hurry pushed onto the previous train, and the ride as whole in these trains is much more pleasant.
  3. After boarding a crowded train, move out of the doorway and into the seating area as quickly as possible. All successful seat-getting on the train depends upon correct positioning within the seating area.
  4. The best place to stand in the seating area depends on the layout of the train. In an "H" train, where the seats form a "H" shape (broken vertically through the middle by the aisle) between each set of doors, the ideal location is at the joins of the lines, as near as possible to the corners created by the vertical three-seat and the horizontal two-seat. On one of the new trains with blue benches bisected by a central pole, the ideal location is midway between the pole and the end of the bench. On a train with gray benches lining the sides, however, you can hang anywhere along the bench in front of a Likely Target.
  5. Observe your fellow seated passengers carefully to determine the Likeliest Target. A Likely Target is anyone who is currently sitting down but likely to stand up somewhere along the course of the route (and well before you reach your destination). Likely Targets vary with route and location. On the 2/3 line from Brooklyn to Manhattan in the morning, a man in a business suit is a 3-1 bet to get off at Wall Street, and so he makes a great Likely Target if you're going further uptown. A 19-year-old on the F train with an NYU patch on her backpack is likely to get off at West 4th; a woman in scrubs on the uptown 6 train at Bleecker St. is a terrible target because she's probably bound for the hospital complexes on the Upper East Side. Consider the possibilities of transfers as well; a woman in hose and sneakers (signifying heels in her tote bag) on the Q train might very well transfer to the 2/3 for Wall Street at Atlantic Ave., so she makes a great Target if you're at Prospect Park. Look for several Targets in one seating area to increase your chances of success.
  6. Once you've chosen the Target, grab the horizontal pole above his/her head, assume a wide stance for balance and to assert your future right to the seat, and hang on. Do not loom or get in the Target's personal space. (You can take hold of the central pole in the aisle, if the train offers it, which potentially gives you access to Targets on both sides; but beware that people standing directly in front of Targets then get first dibs on those seats.)
  7. As the train approaches a station, particularly a good transfer point, watch your Targets and their seatmates carefully. Is anyone gathering up a bag or folding away a newspaper? If the space in front of that person is free, move into it, even if s/he was not previously identified as a Likely Target. If someone else is standing in that space, respect the right of your fellow Stander to take that seat first.
  8. When the train stops and a Target rises, back off to give him/her space to move out of the train. Once the Target is clear of the space, you can drop a purse, umbrella (dry only), or newspaper into the seat to identify it as yours until you are able to sit down. Note that if you have competition from a fellow Stander for the seat, this technique may get you some dirty looks.
  9. Turn around so you are looking into the train, pull your legs together and all personal belongings to you, and sit down. This is an especially useful technique if you are taking up residence in a middle seat and need to squeeze between two people. N.B.I.: Men almost never want to sit in middle seats. N.B.II: Men are also notorious for opening their legs wide once seated. This is annoying, men. Please take up the width of your seat space and no more.
  10. The following people must always be given the option of taking a seat before you, or offered your seat if you're sitting and they're standing: pregnant ladies; young children; parents holding young children; anyone with a cane/crutches/other obvious impairment; the elderly. There are no exceptions to this rule. If you're sitting and need to offer your seat to someone, you should stand up as or after you catch the person's eye, because many people will not take the seat they deserve if you remain sitting down when you offer. (You can say "I'm getting off at the next stop" as you offer the seat, whether it is true or not; it will ease their conscience at taking the seat and grease the wheels of the transaction.) It is also polite and admirable to offer your seat to women wearing heels (because a lengthy standing train ride in those babies is both tricky and tiring), people with lots of bags, or people who just look like they've had a really long day.
  11. If you are not tired and there are few seats on the train, or if you're within two stops of your destination, ignore these rules and don't sit down -- let one of your fellow New Yorkers catch a break. Good seat karma will come to you in turn.
Happy subway riding and sitting!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

A Rule of Thumb for Submissions

Keep your packaging and presentation simple.

I am sharing this rule of thumb because Arthur received a submission yesterday in a 1' x 2' x 2' box. Boxes (larger than manuscript boxes) from people we don't know are always cause for concern, because if you're bribing us, we resent that, and if you're bombing us . . . well, we resent that too. Both Arthur and his assistant were out of the office, so I opened the package up just in case it was urgent, and it contained neither a bribe nor a bomb -- rather, six manuscripts, sample illustrations (from an illustrator the author chose) mounted on foamboard, a screenplay, a marketing plan with merchandising information, and approximately 1,537,832 Styrofoam packing peanuts.

I had to dig through the box, peanuts, and layers of tissue paper to find these materials. This annoyed me. The papers and foamboard pieces were each tied up in bundles with ribbons, so I had to spend time untying the packages to see them. This also annoyed me. The fact that illustrations exist annoyed me for reasons explained at your average first SCBWI conference, and the screenplay and merchandising plan annoyed me for reasons explained in points 10 and 13 of the Annotated Query Letter from Hell. It says specifically in the AALB submissions guidelines that writers should only send one manuscript at a time. And the peanuts went everywhere, so I'll let you imagine my feelings on that.

This does not mean that this submission is dead to us; it will get a fair reading, and if it's fantastic, hooray. But it's starting out with big strikes against it because the author is (1) wasting our time with the fancy packaging and (2) ignoring our guidelines, which makes its burden of proof to be fantastic higher, which does the author no favors. Please: Send one manuscript at a time, your best work, of the kind of material we publish (no screenplays), in an envelope, with a SASE, so we can read and respond to it promptly. Otherwise: annoyance.

(This still was not the strangest large submissions package we ever received; that prize goes to the person who sent us his or her manuscript in a used lobster trap. Thankfully empty. But still.)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Free E-Book of The Beekeeper's Apprentice

An event worthy of much italics, as seen in the following story:

One Friday afternoon in the spring of 1999, in accordance with the Benchley Law of Working Dynamics*, I went down to the Northfield Public Library in search of reading material that was not assigned for class. I came away with The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King, settled down in an armchair on the second floor of the Carleton library to start it . . .

. . . and four hours later, surfaced in panic, because I was done with the book, it was now 6 p.m., and the Northfield Library was closed. This meant I could not get the sequel until the next day. This was terrible, terrible news. Because I loved the characters, Mary Russell and her mentor Sherlock Holmes; I loved the witty dialogue; I loved the 1920s setting; and I loved the UST**, as I still love UST, and the teaser chapter for the sequel in the back of the book was loaded with UST. I was up at nine the next morning -- allow me to emphasize that I was a college student getting up at 9 a.m. on a Saturday*** -- so I could get down to the library and get the next book ASAP. I think I finished the whole series in four days.

And now you have the opportunity to have that same exhilarating experience free of charge, as the publisher is making The Beekeeper's Apprentice available in free downloadable PDF form, details here. It's only available through April 15, though, so download quick, clear four hours, and enjoy!
* "
Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing." -- Robert Benchley
** Unresolved Sexual Tension. The real trick, of course, is turning this into RST and keeping the story interesting; and Ms. King does this very well too.

*** Though admittedly I was a very boring college student.

Message for the Day

He pities you.

Regular posting should resume soon, I hope. Happy April, all!