Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ten Things I've Learned in Ten Years in New York

Yesterday, August 28, was my ten-year anniversary of living in New York City. I spent the day hiking in New Jersey, but I also spent some time reflecting on what I've learned:

  1. Getting rid of my puffy 1990s bangs = Idea of the Decade.
  2. New Yorkers are people like people anywhere else -- often in more of a hurry and in closer quarters, and consequently sometimes ruder; but also capable of great kindness, especially in times of great need.
  3. A lesson of 9/11: I will never, ever claim that my religion is the only right religion, or my God the only and only right God.
  4. Another lesson of 9/11: Any non-New Yorker, who wasn't here that day, who invokes 9/11 for their own political or religious ends: should be punched in the face. (I do not follow through on this -- I walk away. But they deserve it.)
  5. Heaven is going to look like Prospect Park in Brooklyn on a summer Sunday: people of all ages and races chatting, eating, snuggling, listening to or making music, throwing Frisbees for dogs, running, reading, dancing, with a library nearby to answer all our questions.
  6. The goal of a work of art, literary or otherwise, is to create emotion. The book editor's job is to assist the author in identifying and achieving that intended emotion.
  7. One of the easiest and frequently best ways to make conversation, get to know someone, and/or get them to like you is to ask questions. Fifty percent of men in the dating pool do not know this. (I've tried to stick with the other fifty percent.)
  8. Humility and self-confidence, or good manners and self-assertion, do not have to be (and indeed should not be) mutually exclusive.
  9. In my real life (not my reading life), I tend to like the opposite of drama, and as interesting as dramatic people's lives are, and as boring as mine looks in comparison, this is okay. (A corollary to that: If a situation or person is making me crazy with the drama, I should deal with it and be done with it.)
  10. I'm very lucky to have had such a good ten years in the city, and I'm looking forward to a good and unpredictable ten more.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

More than "Nothing Left to Lose"

I adored these lines in Sam Anderson's New York magazine review of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's new novel:

Few modern novelists rival Franzen in that primal skill of creating life, of tricking us into believing that a text-generated set of neural patterns, a purely abstract mind-event, is in fact a tangible human being that we can love, pity, hate, admire, and possibly even run into someday at the grocery store. His characters are so densely rendered—their mental lives sketched right down to the smallest cognitive micrograins—that they manage to bust through the art-reality threshold: They hit us in the same place that our friends and neighbors and classmates and lovers do.
YES. I LOVE "text-generated [sets] of neural patterns" that make me believe they're real. I also loved The Corrections, and clearly at some point I'm going to have to read Freedom (she says, glancing guiltily at A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book sitting untouched on the Grown-Up Books shelf . . .).

While we're talking freedom, I think that any politicians who would like to express opinions about the relative positions of certain kinds of New York City real estate should be forced to live in the city for six months before doing so. New Yorkers are a diverse group, and thus we know that getting along in such close proximity requires letting others exercise their rights so we can exercise ours; living and let living; remembering without fetishizing; and frequently, shutting up and not being stupid. Would that certain politicians could learn the same.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Insert Your Own Title Here

Because it's summer, which means I'm too lazy to come up with a proper blog title, much less a thoughtful post. Fortunately, I have awesome authors who make hilarious videos:

Lisa's Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) is now in paperback, by the way! And Bobby the Brave (Sometimes) will be out next month. More on that (and all our fall releases) soon. (And did you know you can friend Arthur A. Levine Books on Facebook?)

Speaking of the fall, I'm going to speak at three different SCBWIs in the next three months:

I'm having a lot of fun giving my "Twenty-two* Revision Techniques" speech (*the number varies depending on the time allotted and how fast I talk), so that's likely the one you'll see at these events. (The book version contains a whole twenty-five!)

Martha Mihalick posted a very true and well-done "Editor's Choose Your Own Adventure" here.

Finally, I loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as a lot of kidlit people did/do (I saw it with a colleague and ran into a party of two agents, two authors, and at least one other editor as I left the theatre). Why? Because it's everything most of us are looking for: It's got great characters; it brilliantly captures those characters at a key moment in their emotional development (in this case, that twentysomething "What the hell am I doing with my life and will I ever make a relationship work? Thank God for my friends while I figure it out" moment); the book art is unique, emotionally charged, and efficient; and -- the key thing, I think -- it has great moral development and consequently a really good character-plot structure, as Ramona and her seven evil exes force Scott into a place where he has to grow up and be a better man . . . exactly like the outline here, actually. The videogame stuff is all window dressing on that. And it's hilarious, besides (especially if you get the videogame stuff). Highly, highly recommended.

ETA: I forgot the other thing I wanted to say about the greatness of Scott Pilgrim: The fantasy served as a metaphor for a larger emotional situation or problem, as happens in nearly all good fantasy, I think (Fellowship of the Ring = World War I, Moribito II = coming to terms with the past, Harry Potter = facing death, the Chanters of Tremaris series = multicultures trying to work as one, etc. Quite often when I turn down a fantasy, it's because it's not going for this metaphorical level, so it just feels like the problems of some oddly named people in a made-up world). In SP's case, it's about working through the baggage of past relationships and figuring out how to establish an honest basis for moving forward in a new one.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Flap Copy Contest Winners!

The winners of my flap copy contest are Sarah Atkinson, for the Best Sticky One-Liners (meaning phrases or sentences that would stick in a reader's head and make hir think, "Ah, nice"); Angie Brown for Best General Body Copy; and Barbara Liles for Best Setup and Final Twist. Please send me your postal addresses via my website e-mail so I can send you the book when it's ready. And thanks very much to all who entered!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Midweek Miscellany

Apologies for the bloggy silence of late; I've been doing a lot of work on my book in the evenings, and catching up with my reading, and watching Mad Men (about which more below), and thus not having very many original thoughts worthy of a whole blog post. So here's a little miscellany of stuff.

Kidlit Drink Night tomorrow night, August 5, at Characters Lounge on 54th between Broadway and 8th. Come prepared for a little fun with nametags, related to the name of the bar. And as always, if you want to join our mailing list, send an e-mail to nyckidlitdrinks at gmail dot com.

James and I just finished watching the third season of Mad Men last week, in time to catch the second episode of the new season on Sunday; and I have that familiar itchy readerly desperation for more -- more with these characters; more revelation of mysteries; more, more, more, now, now, now, tell me, tell me, I want to know what happens next! This desire bemuses me a bit, first because it's so at odds with the studied cool of the characters and events themselves, and second because, when we started watching the show, that very cool kept me at a distance from the show well into the first season. I admired it aesthetically for its gorgeous period design (and Jon Hamm), and artistically for its refusal to cut anyone any breaks (including Jon Hamm, or rather, his character Don Draper). But as I read somewhere, the show excels at accumulating events and emotional reactions over time, so that the decisions made in one episode don't just have consequences later, but they reverberate in the characters' actions forever after; and the lives of minor characters hum along in the background until they spill into Don's life unexpectedly. Thus it is a wonderfully novelistic TV series, with a strong author's hand in the work of creator Matthew Weiner; and watching it reminded me most of my experience reading the Patrick O'Brian books, actually, in that the same way I would often think affectionately, "Oh Jack Aubrey, you foolish, foolish man" as he did something stupid ashore, I was saying "No, Don! Don't! DON'T!" to the screen, as he did something equally idiotic this last episode. . . .

Writing this, it's occurring to me that the show excels at the "Suffering" strategy of getting viewers/readers to care about the characters. Because before Sunday night, I don't think I had thought more than "Oh, cute dress" about the character over whom Don made an ass of himself; but her consequent Suffering made me feel for her and furious at him, and now I am quite invested in how she feels and what she will do next. Same for Pete and Joan and Paul and Peggy and Don himself, that I could point to specific moments when I thought, "Oh, poor ______"; and perhaps the reason I feel merely a liking for golden boy Ken Cosgrove is because everything seems to come easy to him, with no suffering at all.

Anyway, contrast that to Glee, by far my favorite show of the last year, but where I gave up expecting any coherence to the characters and plot early on -- particularly reverberations for suffering, as most characters seemed to stay at more or less their same emotional notes all season long. And thus, while I loved many individual episodes, I never felt the same driving desire to know more, because not much really changed hugely and permanently from episode to episode. If Mad Men is a beautifully written John Updike novel of 1960s turmoil, Glee is an Archie comic of the time period, its racial and sexual boundaries exploded, but mostly playing the same set conflicts and relationships out over and over again.

Still, there is one place where I keep hoping for things to truly move forward. . . . I've been a big Rachel/Finn partisan, which kind of puzzled me when I thought about it logically. I mean, of course I will always root for the dork girl to get the hot guy over the cheerleader -- Dork Girls of the World, UNITE! -- but he's kind of dumb and she's deeply annoying and there is nothing in their characters that should make them a good couple, other than their mutual talent and passion for music.

But then I realized that what I really loved about them was the possibility of moral development that each one represented for the other, the chance that they could make each other better people. (Jennifer Crusie writes about this aspect of a satisfying romance in her v. smart post today, "How to Critique Romantic Comedy.") In their best scenes in the show together, they've been really honest with each other, and that makes me have hope that he could teach her actual social skills and social restraint, while she could inspire him to go beyond his I'm-cute-and-a-sports-star laziness and actually do something useful in life. Occasionally they've done this already: Of the three boys in the "Run Joey Run" video, Finn was the one who articulated for her why her using all three of them was wrong, and it's partly her talent and love of music that's kept him in glee all this time anyway. I'd love to see their romance develop further along those real, characterful, painful lines, rather than falling back on the popular vs. unpopular, football/cheerleaders vs. glee club trope the show has kind of overplayed already.

On vacation, I also read The Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire sequence by George R. R. Martin; and I really, really liked it, so this series also is causing me mental itchiness to know more. (Someone should make a cream for this condition.)

If you have to cut pages or words from your ms., here's a strategy I'm finding very personally effective: Pretend that you have to print each copy of the book yourself, and you're being charged roughly 1.5 pennies per page. (A 250-page book is thus $3.75 to print; a 300-page book, $4.50; a 400-pager, $6.00.) You have/want to keep the price in the average trade paperback range of $10-15, so every additional page in the book eats directly into your overall personal profit. It is suddenly much easier to slash and burn.

This is a situation we publishers face regularly, actually: We spec our books out usually a few months before we have the final copyedited manuscript. If the book then comes back from the typesetter sixty pages longer than the P&L promised and our specs specified, that doesn't hurt the writer directly, as his or her advance and royalties have already been fixed by the contract; but it does hurt our overall profit on the book, which can have negative consequences for everyone later if we don't make that money back. Often this situation can be resolved by creating a tighter page design to start with; sometimes not. Oh, lovely dead-tree publishing. . . . But I am grateful for the limits dead-tree publishing still imposes on us, the beauty of having to work within sixteen-page forms, especially when it comes to picture books, where every one must be like a sonnet.

James just came in and turned on the Daily Show: No, Jon Stewart! Bad goatee! (I haven't seen the show in a while.) And it won't be on today's episode, but yes, California! Way to go on Prop 8! I liked this summation of facts.