Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A "Baby Got Book" video!

Two years ago, for the fun of it, I wrote new literary lyrics to Sir Mix-a-lot's classic "Baby Got Back": a filk entitled "Baby Got Book," rapped by a narrator who only makes passes at girls who wear glasses (and are probably librarians to boot). Anyway, agent Janet Reid mentioned it on Twitter last week, and as a result, Gale Martin made it into this hilarious and highly enjoyable music video. Thanks, Gale!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nine Questions & Answers

In my previous post, I solicited nine questions from readers and promised to answer them. Voila!

1. Portia Pennington: How important do you think a personal connection between editor and manuscript is to the overall success of the project? Not only to acceptance (I assume that's an essential first step!), but to the crafting of a lasting work of which both author and editor can be proud?

I think the most important thing (and in some ways, the only thing) an author and editor need to have in common are their literary values and goals--that they both value the same things in the manuscript (whether that's characterization or beautiful prose or good trashy drama or whatever it may be), and they're both working toward the same vision of the manuscript based on those values (because they both value trashy fun, say, the editor suggests adding a shopping scene at Fred Segal and then a catfight at the heroine's villa in the Hollywood Hills, and the author sees the Judith Krantzesque hilarity of this and agrees). Those values and goals typically come from similar past experiences and present values that often lead to more personal connections; talking over a certain character's development naturally leads to discussion of past personal experiences analogous to the situation, say, which might in turn lead to real emotional connection and friendship. But a strong personal connection between author and editor isn't really necessary, so long as the values and goals are the same and the conversation is civil and respectful on both sides.

2. Jason: If you were a writer, who had no other connection to the publishing business and you had just completed re-re-re-re-writing your first novel and you were finally ready for submission... and considering the current economic climate... would you seek out an agent or focus on the publishing houses that accept queries from unagented writers?

I would seek out an agent, not only for the multiplicity of reasons that agents are good for writers, but because responding to unagented queries tends not to be the first priority for editors timewise (see: my previous post), and agents will get back to you much more quickly than we can. Editorial Anonymous had an excellent post on this recently, as she often has excellent posts on many topics.

3. Lauren: I've seen / heard some kidlit agents and editors asking for more magic realism on their desks. Are you seeing more of it in your SQUIDs and agented submissions, and do you think it'll become more popular on the shelves in the future?

Actually, yes, I have been seeing slightly more of it lately, at least in agented submissions. (At least I think it's magic realism. . . . It could also be the softer edge of urban fantasy, or the more magical edge of paranormal romance. . . . These things all bleed into each other, which makes it hard to determine when a trend starts and when it ends.)

Whether it will become popular, I have no idea. I tend to think kid and YA readers like more solidity in their reading than magic realism offers -- having rules underlying a fantasy world, and delineations between what's real and what's not, rather than the amorphousness of magic realism. But this just may be the kind of kid reader that I was, and the kind of adult reader I am. Magic realism works best for me when the vagueness of the Action Plot/world is balanced and/or given coherence by a really strong, distinct, and well-developed Emotional Plot.

4. Also, bonus!: What's your favorite Sondheim song?

Hardest question of the list! My favorite Sondheim song in performance is Barbara Cook singing "Not a Day Goes By / Losing My Mind" on her Sondheim album, which breaks my heart every time. My favorite Sondheim song purely by itself is probably "Finishing the Hat," with strong competition from "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Being Alive." "Pretty Women" is one of his most gorgeous melodies, IMHO, but I don't have the personal emotional connection to it that I have to the other songs I've mentioned.

5. Eliza T: In a review for *House Rules* by Jodi Picoult, a critic referred to Asperger's as the "disease du jour" (which shows some measure of ignorance since AS is not a disease.) There do seem to be a number of books, movies, TV shows, etc that have characters on the Autism Spectrum. When does the market become saturated? Is it like vampires (although I cringe to make the comparison) and there is room for more protagonists with different ways of being? How do publishers gauge which underlying topics have room left to explore and which do not?

We publishers know the market is saturated when (a) bookstore buyers start rolling their eyes and passing on the books when sales reps present them (a dangerous warning sign we try to avoid before we get there), or (b) the books stop selling (ditto). Another warning sign is when a manuscript involving the trend du jour presents all the cliches of that trend rather than any original thought involving it, but then that could just be the fault of one unimaginative writer rather than the fault of the trend. . . . Maybe many manuscripts like that would form sign (c).

With something like Asperger's, which is (or should be) a factor of a character's personality rather than the whole plot itself (in contrast to vampirism, where a vampire's mere existence in the real world alongside regular humans usually becomes the central problem/plotline of the book), I think there's still a lot of room to explore, because there are so many plots that might involve it in so many different ways. Also, the most recent statistic I've seen regarding autism said that 1 in 110 children born today are somewhere on the autistic spectrum -- which is up considerably (and distressingly) from the 1 in 150 statistic I saw when I was working on Marcelo in the Real World a couple years ago. If that's true, the interest in autism isn't going away anytime soon, though the subject will need to continue to be covered relatively well in order to be respectable. (Though those numbers should certainly be taken with a grain of salt: "lies, damned lies . . .")

6. Quartland: For a YA novel, what length of a synopsis makes you smile?

One page, single spaced.

7. Melissa: What, in your opinion, are some of the major differences between the run-of-the-mill published book and the stand-out-from-the-crowd published book? What do you see in books that get starred reviews, win awards, and/or become bestsellers, that you do not see in the rest?

"Get starred reviews and win awards": capacious characters with multiple dimensions; tight writing, often with a strong voice; a plot that points to a larger emotional or philosophical idea.

"Become bestsellers": plots that are "sticky," in the terms set forth by Made to Stick: a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Story, executed with some modicum of skill.

I think people tend to buy books for their plots, but love them for their characters, writing, and ideas.

8. Patricia: If you have rejected one genre manuscript from an author, will you consider/read another genre manuscript from the same author?

It depends upon why I rejected the first manuscript, which usually has very little to do with genre. If I rejected the first manuscript because I thought the characters or writing weren't up to my standards, then I'm probably not going to be interested in the second unless the writer shows me the treatment of those things have changed in his/her work. But if I rejected the first one because I thought the plot wasn't hanging together right or I wasn't interested in that particular genre, then sure, I'd be glad to take a look.

9. Kaitlyn: How international is the publishing industry culturally? By that I mean the interchange of books/ideas across different cultures other than Western, and more specifically, American... One Australian author, Matthew Reilly, has commented that the reason why his first few books have American protagonists is because the American people only like to read about Americans. How true is this?

I don't think that American people only like to read about Americans. I think it is easier for Americans to read about Americans, because no cultural translation is involved; and as Americans (like most people the world over) tend to prefer things that are easy to things that are hard, it is easier to sell books about Americans to Americans. And sure, publishers do tend to like books that are easier to sell!

But that doesn't mean it's impossible to sell Americans books about people of other countries -- the bestselling author of modern times, for example, came from and wrote about a non-American country. And Australians especially have been doing pretty well at getting published here altogether: Markus Zusak, Jaclyn Moriarty (whose wonderful The Ghosts of Ashbury High Arthur A. Levine Books will publish this summer), Martine Murray (whose lovely How to Make a Bird we will also publish this summer), Garth Nix, Judith Clarke, Melina Marchetta, Justine Larbelestier, Margo Lanagan. . . . So I think the industry is open to great writers and characters, no matter their nationality.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Status Updates

For those of you curious about my progress on SQUIDs: It has been slow -- mostly because I've been concentrating on agented manuscripts and books already under contract -- but I'm doing a little bit each day, and the responses are going out in batches. Look for a big burst next week.

For those of you curious about my progress on my book: Also slow, again because I've been concentrating on my day job; but also steady now . . . and the one good thing about the slowness is that I keep having more material to add, most recently a fun talk called "Twenty-Two* Revision Techniques *(Subject to Revision)." So. I already know April will be crazy workwise, plus I have to write the last of my speeches this spring ("'The Wand Chooses the Wizard': Of Carleton, Children's Books, and Creating Yourself") for delivery on the 23rd at my wonderful alma mater, Carleton College (so this is kind of a big deal for me); but by May, I hope, I'll be done with it.

For those of you curious about anything else in the whole wide world: Leave a question in the comments, and because I've been such a bloggy flake / flaky blogger this spring, I promise to give answers to the first nine queries with names attached (that is: no answers for Anonymii). Have at it!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

An 110-Year-Old Rejection Letter

My grandfather gave me this framed piece of correspondence shortly after I started working as an editorial assistant. It's from William Dean Howells, the eminent American novelist and editor, politely turning down the novel of a "Mr. Shedd" on November 26, 1900 -- an 110-year-old rejection letter! The text reads:

Harper & Brothers
New York and London

Franklin Square, New York City

Nov. 26, 1900

My dear Mr. Shedd:

Your story is developed well on the political side, which is important and novel, but without a strong love-interest it would not go. Your men are boldly struck out, and the situation is good; and yet it is not the close, strong study of Western conditions which I had hoped for from your work in the "Kiote." I still hope for that from you.

Yours sincerely,

W. D. Howells
A little research reveals that the likely recipient of this letter was Harry G. Shedd, who wrote short stories for and published The Kiote, a Nebraska literary journal. An 1899 notice in The Publishers Weekly says "The Kiote is the title of a fad or freak magazine, fantastically described as 'a new venture by a new folk in a new field, being a literary monthly dedicated to the prairie yelper.'"

Professionally speaking, I find this an admirable example of the rejection-letter form: It identifies and praises the things the writer does well (the men "boldly struck out," "the situation is good") or makes new ("the political side"), but likewise explains why it wouldn't work commercially ("it would not go") and why it doesn't work for Howells personally, given his expectations. It's interesting that he apparently wanted to see a "close, strong study of Western conditions" combined with a love story. . . . I'm guessing that even in 1900, publishers wanted a love story to bring the drama of a nation down to a personal level, and to hook a female readership, perhaps. Still, the letter ends with the invitation for Mr. Shedd to send more manuscripts, and that is about the best an aspiring writer can hope for from this genre of letter.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Of Harry Potter, My Grandfather, and Five Uses of Reading

Frequent readers of this blog may remember that my grandfather passed away at the end of last year. Yesterday I spoke at the Children's Literature Festival he founded, and that talk is now up on my website here:

Raised by Reading: A Life in Books from the Children's Literature Festival to Harry Potter

There are a number of other little tweaks throughout the site -- updating the front page with my upcoming appearances and Et Cetera with material recently added to the blog. Thanks for checking it all out!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Several Habits of Highly Effective Writers' Conferences: Critiques

Continuing the series . . . Again, agents, editors, and RAs are welcome to chime in with their advice and preferences in the comments.

Organizers: When you send out a packet of manuscripts to a critiquer, please include a cover letter listing all of the manuscripts enclosed, by author and title. This is enormously useful in ensuring that I've received all the mss. I'm supposed to, and then checking off the critiques as I complete them beforehand.

I like a manuscript for critique to include the first ten double-spaced pages of the manuscript plus one single-spaced "description page." This page should have: the author's name and contact information; the genre of the manuscript; the length of the manuscript in page count (not word count; I have never yet met an editor who thinks in word count, so that number tends to be meaningless to us); its working and publication status (incomplete/complete/currently in revision; under contract/agented/available); and then a brief plot summary and/or the author’s intention for the book—what he or she set out to write with it--or both. I've found that ten pages of the manuscript usually gives me a good sense of the author's voice and writing style, and having the description page saves valuable time during a critique where the author would have to summarize the rest of the book or tell me "This book is really about a post-parental-divorce identity crisis" when it sounds like just another paranormal romance novel.

Every page of the manuscript should include a header with the page number, the author’s last name, and a key word from the title, if not the whole title. It is very easy to drop a stack of paper-clipped critiques and mix up all the pages. (Not that I have any experience with this or anything.)

Fifteen minutes seems to me to be the perfect length for an in-person critique: time for the author to talk for five minutes, me to talk for five minutes, and both of us to converse and ask and answer any remaining questions for five minutes. If possible, timers should provide five-minute and one-minute warnings. Also, it is nice to break up the critiques if possible (e.g. do some in the morning and some at night, or have a half-hour break in a ten-critique block) so critiquers can stay sharp and useful to critiquees.

Most SCBWI conferences these days seem to be doing a great job at educating their members in how to receive a critique, and I hope that trend continues. A tip for critique-ees: Never ask “So, would you like to see the whole thing?” If the agent or editor wants to see the rest of the manuscript, or a revised version of the manuscript, he or she will let you know.

Blessed are the conferences whose critique area is furnished with water bottles or a water carafe and glasses, for they shall be called the
oases of people talking at great length and high speed.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Several Habits of Highly Effective Writers' Conferences: First Pages Sessions

I've attended a pretty good number of writers' conferences in nine years in the industry -- nineteen after last weekend, from Paris to the Poconos, Atlanta to western Washington. And as such, I've observed a lot of different ways of organizing certain types of sessions, and come up with the following list of what seem to me to be pretty good practices for first pages sessions . . . ones that benefit editors/agents and attendees alike. Later this week or next I'll post additional lists on Q&As and critiques. Other editors/agents and RAs are very welcome to chime in in the comments with their own experiences and tips.

First Pages

  • First pages should always be anonymous.
  • Since every writer seems to format his or her manuscript differently, ask attendees to send not the first page of their manuscript, but the first 300 words. That equals more or less one page of double-spaced text, and it means that poets and picture-book writers (whose work often leaves a lot more white space on the page) get the same amount of their work read as novelists or nonfiction specialists.
  • Ask writers to put the title, intended format (board book, picture book, MG novel, YA novel, PB / MG / YA nonfiction), and genre if applicable (basically, if it's historical, sci-fi/fantasy, or a mystery) at the top of their submission. This makes it MUCH easier for panelists to respond to the page according to the appropriate standards, rather than having to spend valuable time diagnosing the genre and going on from there.
  • This sounds wimpy, I know, but I often find my voice getting really, really scratchy in the course of a full day of speeches, critiques, and conversation. Thus it's very useful if someone from the conference can read the page submissions aloud, and then I (and all my fellow panelists) can save our voices for the responses and the other speaking we're doing.
  • If possible: Project each submission on a screen so all attendees can read along and see what particular lines, phrases, or other details panelists may be calling out.
  • If possible: Have a hard copy of all pages available for each panelist individually (particularly if the pages are being projected on a screen that we're sitting in front of and not facing). I find it very useful in my critiques to be able to look at the page itself, and we panelists certainly can pass the page in question back and forth -- but oh, the luxury of having pages of our own!
  • (In a totally ideal world, every audience member would have their own set of hard copies to make notes upon and then take home, but this is clearly problematic for environmental, organizational, and probably legal reasons, so it likely isn't feasible.)
  • If possible: Have a microphone available for each panelist individually likewise.
  • The Southern Breeze conference this weekend projected illustration samples on a screen for panelists' responses during the session. This was the first time I'd ever seen this done at an SCBWI conference, and it was a pretty neat way to include illustrators in First Pages.
  • Writers: If an editor or agent responds enthusiastically to your (anonymous) work, then I think it's OK to approach us afterward, identify yourself as the writer, and talk a little more about the project. If we respond negatively, you're likely not doing yourself any favors by identifying yourself as the author.
I really enjoy doing first pages sessions, which I admit is a little strange, since, as I've said before, it's sort of like being set an editorial oral exam: How quickly can you diagnose the literary quality and saleability of this manuscript? Go! But they're a great way for writers to get some solid stylistic tips; receive feedback on whether the first page, at least, is working; and hear all the different ways panelists can respond to a piece of literary art. Thanks for taking these ideas into account.