Friday, August 31, 2012

Theory: The Klein Pyramid of Literary Quality

I am finishing out this month of blogging (hooray!) with a theory I've been working on for some time. Last February, thanks to John Green's The Fault in Our Stars -- which I loved intensely and immensely -- I was thinking about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and how it might apply to literary judgments. That is, to use the books within the book of The Fault in Our Stars (which form an important part of the narrative), what makes The Price of Dawn (an action-adventure novel based on a video game) better or worse than An Imperial Affliction (a literary novel about life, love, death, and the existence of God)? Is one better or worse? How do we decide that? And for me, in my real-world daily life:  What makes one manuscript better than another on a solely literary basis? To answer these questions, I hereby present, as a hypothesis up for discussion, the Klein Pyramid of Literary Quality:

(My original sketch of the pyramid above; much more readable version created by the kind Ed DeCaria.) To take these from the bottom (lowest level) up:

1. COMPLETION. The literary work is complete. (Lots of writers never even get here -- a completed manuscript -- so truly, this counts for something.)

2. COMPETENCE. The literary work is readable and understandable by a reader who is not the author.

3. CHARISMA. The literary work is able to make you feel the emotion the writer intends you-the-reader to feel, so well as that intention can be discerned. (While the subject of intention is clearly nebulous and much debated, I feel as if it is safe to say Pride and Prejudice is intended to make a reader laugh, for example, while Pet Sematary is intended to scare us, and any romance novel is intended to make readers fall in love along with the characters.)

3. QUALITY. The literary work displays some measure of imagination, originality, and/or accomplishment in at least once of these areas: Prose, Character, Plot. Ideally, all three aspects of the Quality triangle will work together to contribute to the book's Charisma or Questioning or both.

3. QUESTIONING. The literary work intentionally asks and answers questions about our human existence. (See above for caveats on intention.)

4. CONSONANCE. The literary work successfully integrates all of the above into a meaningful and beautiful whole. Consonance books are masterpieces.

How to Use This Pyramid:  To measure the literary quality of the work, you fill in all the triangles/trapezoids the particular work has achieved according to you, the reader. The darker the pyramid, the better the book is. A book must have all of the triangles/trapezoids of the previous level filled in to advance to the next level. Thus, for me, The Fault in Our Stars would be one solid dark triangle, because I think it does everything well, up to and including Consonance. But Twilight would be a dark trapezoid at the bottom (Levels 1 and 2) with just the Charisma triangle filled in above it, as it totally caught me up in the feelings of falling in love, even as I was not overly impressed by any of its Quality attributes, and I don't think Ms. Meyer especially intended to Question anything. An intensely didactic picture book might fill in Levels 1 and 2 but then have only the Questioning triangle complete, as it's asking how we should live and then answering that question, but with no emotional appeal (Charisma) at all.

Each judgment would be peculiar to its reader and the date s/he read the work, as opinions vary widely and can change over time; but that is where half the fun of literary discussion comes in, as one reader might say "Oh, this book was totally Charismatic for me!" and another would sniff, "Hmph. It barely achieved Competence!" The more widely it is agreed a book fills up the pyramid, the closer to classic status it moves in the public eye. And this pyramid has nothing to do with sales or other financial success; it is for aesthetic judgments only.

There are two more concepts that I've puzzled over whether and how to include in the pyramid:  the ideas of Pleasure and Ethics. Gone with the Wind, for instance, would have earned Consonance from me when I read it in seventh grade, and it Pleased me intensely at the time, but it's also a book rife with racial stereotypes; should it then not be allowed to achieve Consonance in my judgment, because its Ethics are bad? Or Waiting for Godot is likewise Consonant for me, but I hated reading it (I've never seen it staged):  Can it then not be Consonant because I didn't take Pleasure in it? (I guess there was some Pleasure in recognizing the mastery of the construction, how completely the Quality of its plot, characters, and prose contributed to the Questioning and Charisma it wanted to achieve; but none of that really made up for my desire for someone to move, dammit.) (Also, clearly, I would have to come up with synonyms for "Pleasure" and "Ethics" that start with K sounds.)

What do you think? Are there categories I've left out that should be included in any future revision to the Pyramid? Would YOU include Pleasure and/or Ethics, and how, and what would you call them? What books have you read this year that you would call Consonant and why?

I would be delighted to hear thoughts here! And thanks to anyone who's stuck around and read my posts through all of this month; I've really enjoyed the writing of them, and appreciate your attention.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Taking a Stand for Standing

So in the last few months, I have become a standing-desk devotee. My interest in the subject started with articles like this one, which pretty much say that anyone with a computer is doomed to die early from sitting in front of it, and then increased with the apostolism of authors I admire. My excellent (and extremely health-conscious) fiance began talking about it, and I then followed his lead in putting my laptop on various high surfaces in our apartment when I was working--the kitchen counter, a tall dresser. After I got used to the sensation of standing for so long, I came to like it . . . for an hour or two, anyway, at which point I'd sit down for an hour or two in turn. But the variety was fun. 

And now I have two standing desks, at work and at home! Here's the work version:   

Yes, indeed, that is the extremely advanced standing-desk technology of two cardboard boxes attached to each other, with a mousepad on one and my keyboard on the other. The keyboard is now right at the angle of my elbows, so typing is very comfortable, and my computer screen conveniently tilts up so I can see it easily. I made a side handle out of packing tape so it's easy to whisk it out of the way. I try to follow the policy that if I'm doing e-mail, I have to stand up, while if I'm doing editorial work, it's OK to be sitting down. Other times I just follow an hour-up, hour-down policy. It's gotten to the point that if I do sit for more than an hour or so, I start to feel antsy, and back on my feet I go. (I've also come to mind standing on the subway much less than before.)

At home James and I really did get actual technology involved, as well as some homemade gimcrackery::

We found the treadmill on Craigslist for $80 (it almost cost more to rent a moving van to get it home), and then, as the handles were inconveniently low, we rigged up the temporary solution you see here until we can figure out how to build a permanent frame. The result is more at James's height than it is mine, but it's still effective for us both. James can walk and work for three hours at a time at low speeds; I remain more task- and hour-oriented. Either way, we both enjoy having a little more of a head start on outwalking Death.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Editorial Process, Step by Step

(Not the large-scale process, from editorial letter to line-edit to copyedit; but what happens in your brain, letter by letter, word by word, if you too have the editorial bug.)

1. Notice that something feels off to you. It may be a dangling modifier; it may be a mistake in the chronology; it may be as big as the fact that the main character is turning out to be a smarmy jerk or you're bored at a point where the action ought to make you excited; it may be as tiny as an "an" where the author should really have a "the." In any case, like Miss Clavel, you sense that SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT.

Portrait of the Editor as a Young Nun
2. Reread the passage and confirm the presence of wrongness. Look at it again. Is the feeling still there? Or did you just misread the sentence? Oh yeah, it's still there.

3. Identify the problem and the principle it's violating. "A problem well stated is a problem half solved," said Charles Kettering, and indeed zooming in on the problem is half the battle. If it's a spelling, grammatical, punctuation, or style error, the answer is often pretty obvious; you've known those rules for years and you have Merriam-Webster's 14th New Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of AWESOME* to back you up. If it's a plot or character problem, you can measure it against Freytag's triangle and other editorial principles inculcated in us over decades, often even without our knowing it:  Protagonists should be interesting people, generate energy, and take action; we should see a change in both the character and his or her circumstances from beginning to end; the child character must solve the problem; the climax needs to be the culmination of all that came before it, and so on and so forth.

But sometimes a sentence just sounds wrong. Why? Uh . . . Hrmm. Is the thought coming out of nowhere? Coming in at the wrong time in a paragraph? Are all the words used correctly? Would it be better in active as opposed to passive voice? Is it repeating a word or thought or phrase or sentence rhythm you read (heard, really) in the last two pages or so? Is it just your taste vs. the author's style? Is the sentence actually a violation of the author's style in some way and so you should push him on it? Sometimes it's not until I change the sentence or paragraph to what sounds right to me that I can figure out why something sounds wrong. Until that point, I just stare at it, which is one of the reasons my personal editorial process is extremely slow.

(You can run this whole process on illustrations too, by the way; you just then have to know your visual principles as well as your verbal and narrative ones.)

* This is an in-joke with one of my authors, who prefers to call it the Chicago Manual of Boring.

4. Weigh the problem. Is this worth bringing up with the author? Well, that depends on the nature and severity of the problem, the importance of the principle it's violating, the work that would be required to fix it, where you all are in the editorial process, how much the reader would be likely to notice the problem and care, the other things you're already asking the author to do in this round (and those things might be a higher priority for now, so you could pick this one up in a later draft if it's still an issue then), your understanding of the author's revision capabilities (can she do both small revisions and large-scale ones at the same time, or is it better to save the small ones for later with her? Can he fix plot problems but is utterly hopeless at deepening his characters?), the strength of your authority here (Does the author appreciate your comments or resent them? What if Chicago and Words into Type conflict?), what the author's vision of this book is and whether correcting this would serve that, your knowledge of your personal editorial irritants (because every editor has that one thing that drives them crazy and nobody else, which is then often not worth asking about). . . . Editors truly consider all of these things -- many of them subconsciously in about 2.5 seconds -- in choosing what to query with an author.

5. If it is of sufficient weight:  Articulate the problem in a manner tailored to the author and manuscript. Having half solved the problem by stating it clearly for yourself, you now have to state it for the author in a manner that he can appreciate and which will inspire him to take action. Name the problem and the principle it's violating clearly and nonjudgmentally; it's not a personal failure of the author, it's a simple mistake in the manuscript, and mistakes can be corrected. Just as in disagreements in relationships, it's often useful to put things in terms of your own emotional reaction ("Because of [X factor in the manuscript], I felt [Y negative feeling]"), which can again be changed if X factor in the manuscript is changed. Remember that just as the author needs to show-not-tell the story to you, you have to show-not-tell the problems to her, and thus it's useful to back up your assertions with solid examples from the manuscript. Sometimes a series of questions is the best way to show that there's a problem, even if you fear you'll sound stupid; I sometimes call myself the Designated Dumb Lady within a ms. if I'm not getting what's going on, and that frees me up to ask the dumb but necessary questions. Suggest a strategy for a fix (or multiple options for a fix) if you think the author will be open to it and find it useful, but remember it's always the author's choice whether and how to fix it, not yours. (If the author is repeatedly making bad fix choices, from your point of view, then you may not be a good editorial match. Or you may just be too persnickety or egotistical; that's always a possibility worth staying aware of.)

Plot and character stuff usually belongs in an editorial letter; it's extremely useful to know which one is the author's greatest strength or primary interest, if one or the other, so you can couch your argument for making the change in terms of that strength, which might make her feel more excited and capable of doing it. Ditto for the usefulness of knowing what the author's goal for and/or vision of this manuscript is, whether to explore the idea of death or make a reader fall in love with the character or write a really breakneck adventure; you can then phrase your argument for this particular change in service of that (if it truly is; authors are smart and can see when you're going back to the same well too often, so you shouldn't overuse any of these strategies). With mechanical stuff, which you should be saving for the copyediting and proofreading stages anyway, you can usually just say something like, "Hey, Chicago says we should capitalize 'Princess' here--OK?", or the even briefer "Cap as per CMOS 6.24."** Paragraph- and sentence-level stuff is always basically the effort to explain why "an" vs. "the" is so very important (one is a new or random reference; the other refers to something we've already seen in the text) or the equivalent, or what you as a reader WANT to be feeling at this point in the text and why you aren't and how if we can just cut this sentence, please oh please, you will be.

If you are an editor who does multiple passes through a line-edit, like I do, then it's often wise to save your argument for a change for the second or third pass through, so you can reread your suggested change outside the heat of the moment and see whether it's really a problem or if you were just in a weird editorial mood. That happens.  

** This reference number not verified in the Chicago Manual.

6.  Make sure the author knows you're open to conversation to help them better understand the problem or brainstorm solutions.

7. Hope for a response that fixes or removes the problem in the next draft. If that doesn't happen, then repeat steps #1-6, perhaps making your argument in #5 from a different angle. If it's a small thing, or a thing that is mostly a matter of your taste vs. the author's taste, then consider just letting the issue go. But that depends on what you weighed in #3 (and also how careful you know the author is; some authors get distracted easily and might just have missed a query they'll gratefully address later).

8. Read the next line. If necessary: Repeat. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How to Get a Job in Publishing, 2012 Edition

Today was the twelfth anniversary of my first day at Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic (as yesterday was the twelfth anniversary of my arrival in New York City), and as such, it seems like a good day to knock out one of the questions I was asked at the beginning of this month of blogging:

How does one get his/her foot in the door at a publishing house? Any tips on how to make oneself stand out when applying for internships or assistant positions?

It is a tough time to be an aspiring editorial assistant, I have to say, as publishers receive literally hundreds of applications for every slot. Here are six things I highly recommend for anyone who wants to get a job at a big publisher these days. (All of these are my opinion based on what I see; none of them are Scholastic HR-department approved, so I could be completely off base; and I'm sure there are also exceptions to every one.) My 2006 post "How do I become a book editor?" is the preliminary reading here.

1. Live in the publisher's area (which means in practice for most jobs: live in New York). There are so many applicants for every slot that HR departments and editors have little incentive to try to interview anyone who lives far outside the publisher's region. . . . After all, why should they require you to go to all the trouble and expense of flying here for an interview when another fifty candidates can come in tomorrow? 

2. Do what you can to meet people who already work in the industry. As publishing is an intensely personal business, a lot of jobs happen through personal connections. Many positions get filled by former interns or current employees in other departments. The good news is that you can meet publishing people these days not just through long-established methods like informational interviews and the publishing institutes, but at writer's conferences, if you can find an unpressured time to talk, and in various forums online. I connected with one of my favorite-ever interns through a listserv I belong to, which showed me her enthusiasm for children's literature was genuine and that she was a good writer (even though she didn't live near New York at the time), so when she later asked if we could do an informational interview, I was happy to oblige.

3. Study and practice editing and publishing where you are. Read books about writing. Take a copyediting or proofreading course. Be a beta editor for fan fiction, or even hang your shingle out as a dissertation doctor or freelance editor. Write and submit a little fiction yourself so you know what authors experience. Learn e-book formatting and help a friend self-publish something (or even self-publish your own work to know what that's like). All of these things would be useful experience that would give you valuable practical knowledge long-term, especially in a changing industry; it will diversify the number of jobs you can apply for within said industry, and practice before you get in; and it will help give you a running start when you get a job at last.

Also, if you wouldn't edit something for free, simply out of love of editing and helping a written project become better, you might want to think about going into a different industry. Because if you become an editor, you will spend many nights and weekends on the work of reading, thinking about, and editing books -- which really means you have to love the job enough that you do it even on time that you aren't actively paid for it. If you don't feel that passionate about it, consider another department in publishing, or a more lucrative line of business altogether.

4. Be massively prepared for any contacts or interviews you might have, and try to make connections with editors, not just HR people. Stay up on what's popular in children's literature, and read lots of recently published books in the field. If you are going to meet an editor for an interview of some kind, read at least one of the books he or she has published and have intelligent things to say about it or questions to ask. Try to get an overview of the editor's list as a whole, then think about the qualities he or she values in books, and the place those books hold within the output of the larger publishing house. If you're sending an application cover letter, demonstrate that same sort of knowledge. Have a list ready in your head of your favorite books of all time, the books you've read most recently, and the kind of books you would most want to work on if you could.

5. Be genuine, passionate, and energetic but not obnoxious. When I do informational interviews, I'm most impressed by the people who clearly love books and know their stuff; who are engaged with the world and do things for the love of it, and who are eager to transfer that make-things-happen energy into the publishing industry; who write well, as that's essential in this business; and who have good, calm, non-obsequious manners and a good self-presentation. Don't laugh too much, especially in agreeing with your interviewer, and don't suck up. Be someone I can respect as a possible editorial colleague, with well-thought-through opinions of your own. 

6. Do everything right. Of course this is impossible, but in general:  Write the very best you can. Proofread the hell out of anything you turn in. Turn it in on time, or before on time. Tailor your work to the publisher (or even better the editor) to whom you're applying. Wear nice interview clothes and send a thank-you note afterward. Do all the basic professional things right, and then go above and beyond in your smarts, insight, and passion for books.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Ramble List: the Dinner Table Debate, Religion, Bigotry, and Monkey Brains

As they agreed last spring, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage and Dan Savage of the Savage Love column et al. met recently at Mr. Savage's home to debate same-sex marriage. I was fascinated by their conversation, learned some stuff, and think it's worth watching through at least the two opening statements (which would take about twenty minutes). Some observations on this dialogue:

1. They are working from fundamentally different and incompatible definitions of the word "marriage" here. Paraphrasing, Mr. Brown says "Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman"; Mr. Savage says "Marriage is a gender-neutral package of civil rights and privileges." Mr. Brown does not acknowledge that his covenant includes that civil package -- rights that all same-sex couples are being denied -- while Mr. Savage obviously does not agree that marriage is dependent on differing genders.

2. They're also working from fundamentally different ideas of the purpose of marriage -- though here I suspect Mr. Brown of double-dealing, or maybe just being a bad debater. He says repeatedly that marriage is for procreation, thus subscribing to the only point of marriage that truly excludes gay people . . . but then he also repeatedly fails to address the issue of why heterosexual couples who are unable or unwilling to have children should then be allowed to marry, or whether their marriages are any less valid than those of couples with children. Mr. Savage, for his part, asserts that marriage is for the pleasure, companionship, and support of the two adults involved. I wager Mr. Brown would have agreed with him on this (as at least one aspect of marriage, anyway) up until gay marriage became a major issue in the United States, when he had to retreat to procreation to keep his position at least somewhat intellectually coherent.

3. And in general with language, truth, Scripture, legal and romantic relationships, academic studies, love:  There are so many sides to each jewel, and each debater turns the stone in a different direction. Whenever the Regnerus study comes up, Mr. Savage asserts its methodology was flawed; Mr. Brown asserts the methodology was fine, and the only reason it hasn't been repeated was because Mr. Regnerus was so brutally attacked for his study's conclusions. It seems as if there ought to be a scientifically sound way to determine whether the methodology was flawed, but according to the Times article in the link, there are only more things to weigh:  whether the child lived with the parents, whether the parents truly lived as gays or lesbians or only had had a same-sex relationship at some point in their lives, the economic status of all involved, the funding of the study — all of which nuances both Mr. Savage and Mr. Brown bring up as evidence for their respective sides. So many facets to every human story.

4. The most irritating thing about this debate for me: In almost every statement Mr. Brown makes, especially his opening one, he comes back to how he and other Christianists* have been called bigots and how much this upsets him -- making this endlessly about himself and his pain. It was the same dynamic that played out in the Chik-Fil-A controversy a few weeks ago, where Christianists bought chicken sandwiches in order to practice their rights to free speech, which were supposedly under threat. While the Boston and Chicago mayors’ claims that they’d ban the chain were definitely stupid, in both cases, the claim to injury was truly an attempt to level the emotional playing field, both at this dinner table and in the media: Our enemies are in pain (here because of the denial of marriage rights); pain creates sympathy for them—pain sells; we need some pain of our own; let us blow up an insult to us to make our pain as great as theirs. Mediawise, I'd agree, the Christianists don't come off well, because it's hard for the media to portray their position without saying "They think God hates gays." But at the end of the day, the vast majority of marriage laws in this country (and all of them at the federal level) still favor the Christianists, so Christianists pretending that the two pains are equal is rather ridiculous.

* As defined by Andrew Sullivan, “Christianists” are "those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression."

5. Which is not to say that Christianists are the only one who practice this dynamic; Jews and Islamists the world over do it; atheists do it; God knows the Republicans and Democrats do it; Mitt Romney and Barack Obama do it; MSNBC and Fox News; Todd Akin has certainly done it in the last few weeks. And all of them (all of us) get rewarded for it with money, media attention, more support from their side. . . . The “fight” instincts in all our little monkey brains light up at being attacked, and into the arena we go.

6. But as a practicing Methodist, I find this particularly troublesome when Christianists do it—when we jump to be offended at the first opportunity. Because if Christianity is about anything at all in practice here on this earth, it is about imaginative empathy with others, about sacrificing one's own ego to share others' pain and take on their burdens. "Love your neighbor as yourself," repeatedly named as the greatest commandment, means that we must imagine ourselves in our neighbors' positions and treat them as we would treat ourselves. Christ's death on the cross was an act of imaginative empathy:  It was taking on the sins of the world in order to spare humanity the endless suffering from those sins. Turning the other cheek and offering our cloaks also demands that the other person receive all we have. The New Testament calls us to make this our first priority:  to listen, to empathize, to give, to love.

7. This is not to say that there are no limits on this giving, nor that the law does not exist or is nullified; a literal reading of the scripture would certainly make same-sex sex an abomination. But many Christianists seem to see only the law, not the humans behind it, so they don't extend empathy to the genuine pain of a young man who believes passionately in Christ and also falls passionately in love with his male best friend; or to an elderly long-term lesbian couple who cannot be together when one partner goes into the hospital. . . . What to do with empathy when it conflicts with the law is a vexing and vexed question. But in cases like this, where no harm to others has been committed, I believe a Christian's first responsibilities are always to empathy and humility, never to self-satisfaction and simplistic judgment. If we practice these latter things instead, we deny the humble, generous, radically honest and complicated God-in-man we claim to serve.

8. This might sound juvenile, but I keep coming back to this word as the one that best expresses the principle:  Above all, Christians should not be mean. People who have power and use it for their own pleasure in causing pain are mean. People who have power and ostentatiously wave it in the face of those who don’t are mean. On the day of the eat-in at Chik-Fil-A, the Christianists who lined up to buy chicken sandwiches were actively demonstrating their distaste for people who have often already suffered and continue to suffer for being the people God made them to be; and that felt to me like a profoundly mean and un-Christian thing to do.

9. I admit I did not behave well during the Chik-Fil-A contretemps myself. A high school classmate made a remark on Facebook that somehow linked the issue to the Muslim community center near Ground Zero. Non-New Yorkers being self-righteous about Ground Zero is one of the things that stirs up MY monkey brain, and the remark was so completely counterfactual (Mayor Bloomberg did not threaten to ban Chik-Fil-A), and the comments supporting it so obviously equally ill-informed and self-satisfied, that I gave into my worse instincts and wrote a dissenting comment. I then tried to be as matter-of-fact as I could in the comments “discussion” that followed, not to submit further to that monkey brain, but I did not succeed fully, and I regret that.

10. Coming back to the debate:  I eventually got depressed by the conversation, because nobody’s mind is changed and there is nothing, nothing, these men can agree on. (Peter Sagal pretty much nails the reasons why.) So it simply becomes two angry men who feel aggrieved, speaking forcefully past each other in the same room. And the same thing happened for me on Facebook:  I came away from the Chik-Fil-A argument more saddened than anything. In both cases, there was an opportunity for people to meet and talk as generous human beings — over a dinner table, as Facebook “friends” — about differing interpretations of a contentious and deep issue, and that respect, humility, and true conversation did not happen.

11. Perhaps it was overly optimistic even to hope for that sincere conversation on both sides:  As Mr. Sagal notes, the identity issues and principles involved are grounded too deeply within Messrs. Savage and Brown for them to be able to detach from them, even if they were genuinely open to doing so. Merriam-Webster’s defines a bigot as "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices”; and as nobody’s feelings and beliefs are ever entirely rational and proportionate, I imagine there are very few people in the world who are not bigots for something or other. (Or as they sing in Avenue Q, "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist." And yes, readers:  I just called every one of you bigots! Ha!) Mr. Brown is a bigot for fundamentalist Christianity and the Christianist doctrines that he sees as following from that; Mr. Savage is a bigot for the freedom to love and marry who he likes. I will happily proclaim I am a bigot in the obstinacy sense for the novels of Jane Austen, gender equality (often known as feminism), and civil same-sex marriage. Perhaps the best we can all do is to recognize our opinions as opinions, try to keep them anchored in objective reality. and then prevent that obstinate bigotry from extending into intolerance, by treating others with respect and kindness even when we disagree.

12. (I disagree with Peter Sagal on one thing:  I don't want my Facebook friends punished for disagreeing with me or for eating at Chik-Fil-A. I want them to recognize the humanity of gay people and the validity of their romantic relationships and to change their minds about civil marriage. They can keep objecting to it religiously and eating chicken sandwiches for all I care--they just have to accept that their interpretation of religious truth does not govern Mr. Savage's and my civil lives.)

13. But this can be so hard when the other side of whatever argument has fewer scruples and doesn't behave well as we do, and/or when the feelings run so deep. . . . The biggest argument against religion from my point of view (and really the only argument against it I'd make myself) is that it encourages its practitioners to think they know immutable and eternal truth -- to the extent that I'd wager at least one person who just read that sentence is now offended because, as a practitioner of the _________ faith, they DO know immutable and eternal truth, and I have just implied the matter is a little more fungible. And it is near impossible to see outside that particular kind of immutable and eternal truth, to remember that others might have their own immutable and eternal truths that are just as real to them as ours are to us, and just as valid when weighed against objective reality, if we can even determine such a thing.

14. I'm guilty of this too:  Last year, a lovely author and I disagreed profoundly on a manuscript, where I saw it as an X type of book and she saw it as a Z type of book. She did not want to change it in the least toward an X, and I could not make it cohere in my head as a Z. . . . The X type felt immutably right to me, just because of my own experiences as a reader and editor and my bigotry (I'll own it) toward X type of plots. But she was the author; she knew what she wanted to do with her book best; she may well have been right about the whole thing, or as right as one can declare anything when all reading is subjective; and I admired her devotion to her vision, even if I was unable to share it. We ended up mutually agreeing to part ways, with the sincerest good wishes on each side -- which nonetheless left me sad and confused about my inability to help her get where she wanted to go, even as I was relieved and glad that she could now find someone else to do that as I could not. Sometimes we just have to accept that the obstinate, not entirely reasonable opinions are what make us who we are, and live with that, with the gains and losses that follow. And then again remember the "opinions are opinions" thing.

15. I don't know if this kind of separation will work in the same-sex marriage debate, or any of the other religiously based conflicts that roil America, except that I feel sure Brian Brown will never go to Dan Savage's place ever again.

16. And sometimes the monkey brain is necessary and can be used for good. Rep. Todd Akin was simply flat-out wrong about his medical facts, and oh my goodness did he need to be called on them (and now voted out so he can't implement the thinking behind them). When we encounter something that activates the monkey brain, we need to feel and conserve the energy from that; take a deep breath; remember we are never, ever in possession of perfect knowledge or righteousness; weigh the supposed offense against our truths and our principles and our long-term ends (time spent objecting to a blog post can be better spent on supporting an election); and then fight as hard and reasonably and honorably and passionately as we can.

17. I need a conclusion here, because otherwise I can ramble all night and continue to contradict myself into oblivion. Oh, here's one:  conclusion.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Quote File: Ideas

“I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.” — Picasso

"If you want to find, you must search. Rarely does a good idea interrupt you." — Jim Rohn

"You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it." — Neil Gaiman

"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." — Linus Pauling

"If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk." — Raymond Inman

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” — John Steinbeck

“That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.” — Ray Bradbury

"The question authors get asked more than any other is "Where do you get your ideas from?" And we all find a way of answering which we hope isn't arrogant or discouraging. What I usually say is ‘I don't know where they come from, but I know where they come to: they come to my desk, and if I'm not there, they go away again.’” — Philip Pullman

“Creative ideas flourish best in a shop which preserves some spirit of fun. Nobody is in business for fun, but that does not mean there cannot be fun in business.” — Leo Burnett

“First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it.... The first draft of a book is the most uncertain—where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better.” —Bernard Malamud

“To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself....Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” — Mark Twain

“All words are pegs to hang ideas on.” — Henry Ward Beecher

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a mind can get both provocation and privacy.” — Edward P. Morgan

"An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." — Oscar Wilde

“Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time.” —Voltaire

“When we want to infuse new ideas, to modify or better the habits and customs of a people, to breathe new vigor into its national traits, we must use the children as our vehicle; for little can be accomplished with adults.” — Maria Montessori

“We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.” — Mary McLeod Bethune

“Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.” — Susan B. Anthony

“Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards — the things we live by and teach our children — are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.” — Walt Disney

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” — John F. Kennedy

“Oh, would that my mind could let fall its dead ideas, as the tree does its withered leaves!” —Andre Gide

“A fixed idea is like the iron rod which sculptors put in their statues. It impales and sustains.” — Hippolyte Taine

“Apologists for a religion often point to the shift that goes on in scientific ideas and materials as evidence of the unreliability of science as a mode of knowledge. They often seem peculiarly elated by the great, almost revolutionary, change in fundamental physical conceptions that has taken place in science during the present generation. Even if the alleged unreliability were as great as they assume (or even greater), the question would remain: Have we any other recourse for knowledge? But in fact they miss the point. Science is not constituted by any particular body of subject matter. It is constituted by a method, a method of changing beliefs by means of tested inquiry.... Scientific method is adverse not only to dogma but to doctrine as well.... The scientific-religious conflict ultimately is a conflict between allegiance to this method and allegiance to even an irreducible minimum of belief so fixed in advance that it can never be modified.” — John Dewey

“A belief is not an idea held by the mind, it is an idea that holds the mind.” — Elly Roselle

“To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true.” — H.L. Mencken

“The man who strikes first admits that his ideas have given out.” — Chinese proverb

“We should have a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas, and not for things themselves.” — John Locke

"Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don't allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas?" — Joseph Stalin

"Beware of people carrying ideas. Beware of ideas carrying people." — Barbara Harrison

“What matters is not the idea a man holds, but the depth at which he holds it.” — Ezra Pound

“The only force that can overcome an idea and a faith is another and better idea and faith, positively and fearlessly upheld.” — Dorothy Thompson

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Throwing Away the Alarm Clock" by Charles Bukowski

via The Writer's Almanac

my father always said, "early to bed and
early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy
and wise."

it was lights out at 8 p.m. in our house
and we were up at dawn to the smell of
coffee, frying bacon and scrambled

my father followed this general routine
for a lifetime and died young, broke,
and, I think, not too

taking note, I rejected his advice and it
became, for me, late to bed and late
to rise.

now, I'm not saying that I've conquered
the world but I've avoided
numberless early traffic jams, bypassed some
common pitfalls
and have met some strange, wonderful

one of whom
myself—someone my father

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Editorial Life: My Working Notebooks

When I started working as Arthur's editorial assistant back in 2000, I quickly discovered that I had a lot to keep track of:  his appointments and any materials he might need to prep for them, my personal to-do list, people who called, what Production needed from us each day, what manuscripts most urgently required a response . . . a long, long list of priorities to juggle and information to track. There was only one possible solution to contain all this:  a notebook! And as soon as I got one, my work life got a hundred times more organized.

Here are my collected notebooks from 2001 through today:

I keep them because I never know when I might need to make contact with someone I spoke to on the phone about a project in April 2006 -- and I really have used these for information like that! I have also become very particular about the qualities of my notebooks through the years. A good working notebook has to open flat. Either a wire binding or a standard glued binding can work, but glued is slightly preferable, as then the wire doesn't dig into my hand when I write on the left-hand page. The notebook indeed has to be wide enough to hold my whole hand as I write, and/or have few enough pages that my wrist is still supported on the desk. And I like lined paper, but with the lines a decent distance apart, so my handwriting doesn't have to be any more crabbed than it already is when I write quickly. I don't know if many other editors use them -- any editorial readers: Do you? -- but I do give notebooks like this to new editorial assistants, to provide a home for all the many notes they have to take on procedures, and to welcome them into the tribe.

Every day, my notebook sits open on my desk to anchor me with its calm, practical list of tasks to complete (and cross off, oh frabjous joy), to accept notes on phone calls and voicemails and manuscript thinking sessions, to doodle in during meetings, to draft letters or note random phrases for flap copy. When I talk to writers, I usually take notes on our conversation for later, so my notebooks contain sloppily scribbled transcripts of my first conversations with Francisco X. Stork and Karen Rivers and Trent Reedy. Here I have notes from a brainstorming session on what concepts should be included in Food for Thought:  The Complete Book of Concepts for Growing Minds.

And every night, the last thing I do before I leave work is make my to-do list for the next day.

For this day in November 2007, for instance, I wrote "Notes for Francisco" (on an early draft of Marcelo in the Real World), "Email Yurika" (the foreign rights agent for Moribito:  Guardian of the Spirit), "Fact sheet copy," and "Clean desk a bit?" (The question mark is telling.) I also brainstormed titles for the book that eventually became Crossing to Paradise, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, and apparently received voicemails from a couple of agents. Thus, as you can see, the notebooks are fun historical documents as well as useful ones . . . the diaries of my working life.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Narrative Breakdowns, Muggles Editing, Getting a Job, Overseas Travel, and Lovely Links

About a year and a half ago ago, my fiance, James Monohan, who is a video editor and director, decided that he wanted to start a podcast to talk about story questions, and thus The Narrative Breakdown was born. (I cannot even type those words without hearing "Narrative duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Breakdown duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Narrative duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh Breakdown duh-duh-duh-duh-DUM-duh The Narrative Breakdown" in James's voice, as that is a rough approximation of our theme song, which both cracks me up and makes me do a little groove. It is well worth the listen.) We only recorded three trial episodes last year before our schedules got in the way, but we are back this week with a discussion of Beginnings & Inciting Incidents, pivoting off my blog post on the subject last Saturday. James goes on to chat in Part II with our friend Jack Tomas, screenwriter and proud ubernerd, who discusses the concept of Inciting Incidents as it applies to many of pop culture's biggest properties and this summer's hit movies. We hope to be doing these much more regularly going forward. Do please check the podcast out, subscribe on iTunes, give us a rating if you like it, and enjoy!

And that is not the only podcast I'm on this week! Keith Hawk and John Granger of Mugglecast Academia kindly had me on their show to talk about being an editor, particularly my role as the continuity editor on Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. It was a fun conversation that includes some reflections on the HP series and some advice on getting a job in publishing (which I also know I still need to write about here).

Did I ever mention this blog post on the CBC Diversity website about how I got into publishing? It's probably the best account of my own story I've ever written up -- though I just noticed I did exclude the detail that Arthur thought I was a pothead during our interview, thanks to my red eyes (I was wearing my contacts). He was very kind to have faith in me and let me write reader's reports anyway.

For those of you who wonder why editors don't take unsolicited submissions:  As of 8 a.m. this morning, four days after my query-open period began, I have 238 new queries in my inbox. Clearly this is a more concentrated dose than usual or than would happen if I were open all the time. But goodness. If you did not receive a confirmation e-mail (and ONLY if you did not receive a confirmation e-mail, as apparently most people did within 24 hours), you may resend your submission, using the exact same subject line as on your original submission, to CBKedit at gmail dot com, and then e-mail me separately at chavela_que at yahoo dot com with just your name and title. I will reply next week via Yahoo and confirm that those manuscripts got through.

(I have to admit, I am getting VERY testy with people who are not obeying the query instructions -- sending manuscripts to my other addresses, putting elements out of order. They are the world's most straightforward submissions directions, and they are not hard, so it does not make a great first impression if you're not paying attention and obeying them. And if you HAVE messed them up, don't send the ms. again to make up for it. Just go forth and sin no more.)

If you would like a guaranteed way to be able to submit to me in future, I am very happy to announce I'll be at SCBWI Hawaii on February 22 and 23, 2013! I'll be offering both my Plot Master Class to a small group on the Friday and participating in the general conference on the Saturday (with Lin Oliver, who's always fabulous). While a full schedule/registration will be online in November, anyone who's interested now can e-mail the RA, Lynne Wikoff, at lwikoff at lava dot net to get instructions for the Master Class and get on a mailing list for future info.

In other travel news, I'm going to be in Singapore for five days and Thailand for eight later this fall -- my first-ever trip across the Pacific, and I am very excited. If you have recommendations for things to do or see or ways to avoid jet lag, they'd be much appreciated.

Loose links:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Quote File: Ursula K. LeGuin

I haven't read nearly enough of Ursula K. LeGuin's work, but everything I have read leaves me in awe of her intelligence, empathy, high standards, and grace. Most recently, I thought of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" every time I read about the Penn State horror; her "Hypothesis" effectively and efficiently destroys the pretensions of those who say genrefic can't be literature; and I reread Very Far Away from Anywhere Else at least once a year. . . . If you are or were a sensitive, smart teenager searching for connection and meaning in the vast future, you might think, like I do, it's one of the best YA novels of all time.

A very small collection of Ms. LeGuin's wisdom:

The art of words can take us beyond anything we can say in words.

We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. 

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper. – from “Advice to a Young Writer”

It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope. 

People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.

What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy? 

We're each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark.

Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.
– from The Lathe of Heaven

When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep. – from The Left Hand of Darkness

Monday, August 20, 2012

Query Holiday Guidelines

As announced earlier this month, I am open to unsolicited submissions from this very moment -- Monday, August 20, at 8 a.m. -- until Friday, August 24, at 11:59 p.m. To submit, please use the following guidelines (adapted from the ones for the SCBWI Winter Conference--but they HAVE changed, so don't refer to those):

  1. You can see my general "What I'm Looking For" at the Submissions page on my website. You should also check out the Books page on my website and the "Books I Edit" label to the right to see more about the kinds of things I publish. Genrewise, I'm always pretty much looking for everything -- picture books, middle-grade, YA, mystery, fantasy, romance; what's important to me is the freshness of the voice and idea, the quality of the writing and story, and the depth of the characters and the emotions explored. 
    1. Expanding on this: The writer and blogger Caleb Crain once defined "depth" as "a sense of the complexity of reality," and that's precisely what I mean when I say I'm looking for a novel with literary depth: I want fiction that presents the complexity of reality (which could be a funny or romantic reality as well as a tragic one--indeed, most realities are in more than one mode), and writers who can make those realities tangible and meaningful. 
  2. IMPORTANT ETA:  You may submit only one manuscript during this period. Any additional manuscripts after that will be noted and deleted unread.
  3. Open up a new e-mail to CBKEdit at gmail dot com. Agented submissions should continue to go to my work e-mail address.
  4. In the subject line, put the code word SUMMER SQUID, your name, and the title of your manuscript. ("SQUID" is a nickname I've long used in affectionate reference to slush-pile manuscripts; I eventually decided it stands for "Submissions, Queries, and Unsolicited Interesting Documents").
  5. In the body of the e-mail, please include the following elements in this order:
    1. Your name
    2. The title of the manuscript
    3. The format/age/genre of the manuscript. To keep this simple, include any of these options as appropriate:  Picture Book / Easy Reader / Chapter Book / Middle Grade / Young Adult / Nonfiction / Fantasy / Mystery / Romance / Paranormal / Historical / Poetry
    4. A portion of the manuscript as follows:
      1. Picture Book: complete text
      2. Novel (whatever age): the first chapter
      3. Nonfiction / Poetry Collection / Etc.: the first ten pages
    5. Your query letter, including your contact information, and a flap-copy-like summary of the work as a whole.
    6. If you are an author-illustrator with a picture book text that you want to illustrate, I suggest any of the following methods: (a) paste the full text here, then include one sample illustration in the body of the e-mail; (b) paste the full text here, then put a link to your website in the query letter so I can see your style; (c) if you have a full dummy available online (the best option), simply include a link in your query -- no need to paste in the text.
  6. I am able to read HTML submissions, which will retain manuscript formatting; I am also able to read plain text, whichever you send and prefer. Please do not send attachments. I do not care about any formatting questions beyond the inclusion of the elements above in the order I specified them, so please don't ask them.
  7. You will receive an automatic reply letting you know your manuscript has been received. It says that you will get a response within six months, and I will do my best to keep to that. I have often failed to stay within these expectations in the past, which I regret, but I'm doing the best I can.  
  8. SUMMER SQUID Submissions received after 11:59 p.m. on Friday will be deleted unread.
  9. As with my submissions through the regular mail, if I am interested, I will send you some  personal response; if not, you will receive a form letter. Due to the demands created by the many manuscripts I receive and edit, I will not be able to correspond further than this if I am not interested. 
Thank you for your interest, and I look forward to seeing your work.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Five Things I Love about Leah Bobet's ABOVE

1. The voice.

What got my attention first, from the second and third paragraphs of the book:

It's half past three already, and nobody awake except for Hide and Mack and Mercy and me, unloading our week's ration of scuffed-up bottles and tins into the broad-wide kitchen cabinets. Most supply nights that's all there is to it:  the swish and thunk of stacking tins, the slow quiet of faucets stopping, pipes sleeping, water mains humming lower as the city Above goes to bed. The air moves slower with everyone laid asleep; gets dustier, goes back to earth. There's a light by the kitchens, run by a wire drawn down off the old subway tracks, and the rest is feel-your-way dark until morning, when Jack Flash lights the lamps with a flick of his littlest finger.

Jack's got a good Curse. He might have made it Above if not for the sparks always jumping out of things to kiss at his knuckles. Me, the only thing good 'bout my Curse is that I can still Pass. And that's half enough to keep me out of trouble.
Obviously these lines raise a lot of intriguing story questions (why do these people collect scuffed-up bottles and tins? Why are they underground? How can this guy light the lamps with his finger?), and those were interesting. But what was more important to me was the obvious authority in the voice, as I was talking about in the previous post:  the control Leah demonstrates in setting a tone and doling out details. The lines about "the slow quiet of faucets stopping" and "The air moves slower" themselves are slow and quiet, with a murmuring, rolling-on rhythm, which draws me into the world through the sound of the prose, as well as what it's describing. She doesn't say outright that this happens underground, but trusts us readers to figure it out through phrases like "the city Above" or "the old subway tracks" -- and I love novelists who have faith in me as a reader, whose own obvious intelligence requires me to pay attention. The caps on "Curse" and "Pass" indicate this place has its own language, its own ways of showing meaning, different from our regular world. And finally, some of those phrases are just beautiful, like "feel-your-way dark" and "sparks jumping out of things to kiss at his knuckles." These virtues captured me immediately and inspired me to want to read on.

2. The perfect match between plot and theme.  

Shortly after the underground world of Safe is established as a place where outcasts from Above can receive care and acceptance, an old enemy -- a former resident -- invades Safe, kills its founder, and forces many of its residents to flee to Above . . . which is actually the everyday contemporary world we live in, which is also the world they fear most. As Matthew, the narrator and protagonist, tries to figure out how he can defeat the enemy and reclaim his home, he also discovers the secret history of Safe, and that his beloved home has never been as much of a refuge for all as he believed. But can you admit everyone into your refuge, and what are the limits of that generosity? What happens to people when they stay inside their safe borders all the time, by their own will or by others'? How do community myths form, and how are they maintained? Who can you save -- or can you save anyone?

The story's events keep pushing Matthew back toward these questions, and then he has to make choices about them and take action from the results, which leads to more story events and more questions:  the perfect match between plot and theme. Above is a book about insiders and outsiders, myths and truths, safety and isolation vs. openness to experience. It's thinking through these real-world moral and ethical problems using fictional people and events -- but the thinking never feels heavy-handed or moralistic, because we care so much about the characters and their problems are so real. And I get really excited about books that are about things, and especially ones where the thinking-through is as intelligent and the emotion as real as it is here.

3. A true love story.

Matthew's quest to regain his home isn't the only plot in the book; he is also desperately in love with Ariel, a girl who can shapeshift into a bee. Ariel is from Above, while Matthew was born in Safe, and that among other things makes her a little bit unknowable to him. But he tries as hard as he can to know her and to keep her safe. . . . I am an absolute sucker for a good romance between flawed, real people -- it is probably my favorite plot in fiction, to be honest -- and there are moments in this book that just made my heart split open with their realness and beauty.

4. The entirely human, entirely matter-of-fact diversity.

I'll acknowledge upfront that it's kind of weird and self-reflexive to call this out, like Look! People of color! People romantically interested in the same gender! All of it presented as just human and not anything of note!, when clearly the very praise itself indicates it's something of note. But the truth is that such a presentation can still be rare enough in fiction, especially YA fantasy, that it IS actually of note, and it's also something I really value in fiction, and it's done right here.

So:  Matthew? Half-Punjabi, half-French Canadian, with fish scales down his back. The strongest, most stable, and long-lasting relationship? Between two ladies. The wisest person in the book? A Native woman medical doctor -- not wise because she is Native by any means, in the stereotyped wisdom-of-savages way, but the fact that she grew up on a reservation means that she has a specific opinion about the book's situation, which comes directly out of her personal experience. It was such a pleasure to see all of these people brought together not in a showy way -- a la the Look! People of color! bit cited above -- but simply in honest community, with all of the compromises and joys that entails.

5. A protagonist who takes responsibility for his actions and grows thereby.  

Another way that Jane Austen has influenced my life:  I love protagonists who are brought to see the  truth of their actions, who recognize and admit their mistakes, and who keep trying. That is where the real work of character happens, in those recognitions and continuations, and that's ultimately what makes a lot of coming-of-age novels satisfying, I think:  that sense that the character is improving as a person, and will continue on the right track even after the novel ends. That happens for Matthew here, and his new wisdom in the face of the community's turmoil feels both momentarily surprising, and ultimately reassuring and right.

This is a powerful, painful, gorgeous book -- not for all readers, but what book is? And if you like beautiful writing, love stories, personal stories, marvelous imagination, terrific debuts, and/or thinking about big questions through narrative, it is well worth your time. Do check it out.

Related links:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Some Lists about First Pages

A few months ago, I helped judge a contest where I read a bunch of first pages for YA novels all in one sitting -- about forty of them in the course of three hours. And by the end of it, I have to say, I had seen quite a lot of:

Contemporary first-person protagonists:

  1. Who are cynical or world-weary (especially evinced by rolling their eyes, and/or sarcastic remarks to whatever parent is present)
  2. Who blame themselves for something that happened in the past (often an accident)
  3. Who are outcasts and either (a) proud of it or (b) self-loathing for it
  4. All of the above
With parents: 
  1. Who are goofy-quirky
  3. Who are dying of some disease
  4. Who are already dead (often thanks to some accident or other circumstances the protagonist didn't prevent; see #2 above)
Or who:
  1. Live in a land ravaged by war or ecological disaster (post-apocalyptic)
  2. Have some kind of paranormal magical power, often involving death 
  3. Both
All of these things are perfectly fine elements in fiction, actually. . . . I could rattle off YA novels I love that have each of these things. I only object to them when these elements are broadcast (as they often were in these contest entries) on the first page, often in the first paragraph--like a mini-synopsis right at the very beginning:
"Periana!" I heard my mother call as I fled into the woods.
I threw back my head and screamed "LEAVE ME ALONE!"
"I hate her," I whined to myself. She was such a harpy! Ever since my stepfather, Varrow Rai, became High Archon of Columbakron, she had been on my back for me to stumble into his archenemy, the beautiful Archoniess Velatrinia, and step on her foot with my deadly poisonous left toe. I knew my real father would never ask me to do anything so degrading--if only my mother would tell me where he was.
To enumerate the faults here (and I made that example up, in case you couldn't tell):
  1. Chiefly, this demonstrates what I think of as "conceptitis" -- a common ailment among first pages, where the writer is so excited about the concept of the novel that s/he gives that concept away on page 1. 
  2. Or in this case, a whole mess of concepts:  conflict with the mother, high and deadly politics in the fantasy world of Columbakron, a missing father, an unlikely assassin. It's hard for me to have a sense of where the story is going because there are so many stories on the page right here, so, as a reader, I feel more confused than drawn in.
  3. Periana is also starting us off with her emotional volume already at 11--screaming at her mother as she runs away. Because I as a reader haven't seen any of the circumstances that led to this screaming and running, I feel more alienated from her than connected to her. It's usually better to start softer and give your protagonist some emotional room to play with.
    1. I was talking to a writer earlier this year about my exhaustion with first-person teen or preteen protagonists who are angry or whine all the time, and she said, "But that's how my kids talk to me, so that's an authentic teen voice, isn't it?"And that is true--it's authentic to one of the voices and emotional registers that teenagers often use. But it's hardly their most attractive voice, quite often, especially if it involves constant conflict or whining; and it's one that's really hard to connect with, I think, especially if there's no charm or truth or humor to the whininess. 
    2. So really, I don't want to read a teen voice that echoes how your kids talk to you--I want to read one that sounds like how your kids talk to their friends, with that honesty and humanity and a wider range of emotion than you parents might see from them. Actually, I even want to see how you (the writer/parent) talked to your friends when you were a teenager--omitting the slang of the period, maybe, but with that same emotional authenticity.
  4. Protagonists should never, ever whine unless they know they're doing it and they're aware that it's bad behavior. (This might be just my pet peeve, but lord, I hate whiners.)
  5. Elbow-jogging the reader with as-yet-unnecessary details that clog up the storytelling, like the stepfather's name and the beauty of Velatrinia.
  6. The deadly poisonous left toe is clearly ridiculous, but some days it feels like the only paranormal ability someone has not yet written about.
  7. And the "real father" gambit is so common that it makes me roll my eyes a little. Which is not to say it's not true or believable or a necessary element in many stories--the search to know oneself by knowing one's family; only that because it's so common, I wouldn't lead with it on page 1. Hook the reader with some other elements first.
I understand that writers are told over and over again to capture a reader on Page 1; I've probably given that advice myself at some point. But I believe that the number-one thing that hooks readers is authority, by which I mean a sense that this writer is in control of the story and how it's being told. An author with authority isn't in a rush to give away the central plotline of the book, because s/he knows that plot is going to be good, and so s/he can afford to take her time getting there, and to do it right. Nor is s/he sucking up or desperate to attract the reader, which is often how a case of conceptitis comes off, and which often loses my respect in turn. Rather, s/he can offer little details, hints, shafts of light illuminating the characters and world that's about to unfold for us, and help us get anchored within that world, so once the action truly begins, we readers have an emotional relationship of some kind with the place and the characters.

The author can take that time because s/he still makes all of this backstory build up steadily to the Inciting Incident, which happens by the end of the first chapter if not earlier -- and s/he knows it's a good Incident, an event that's not only interesting and noteworthy all on its own, but one that sets up clear lines of action and/or questions that will follow out of it, so there's more story there that I want to know about. And s/he has good, strong, confident prose that draws me in by showing me the protagonist and world. This formula describes:
  • The Golden Compass
    • Intriguing hint in the first line: Mention of "daemons," with no explanation of what they are (ever, really; Philip Pullman is like the honey badger and doesn't care if you keep up)
    • Getting to know the world and character:  Lyra is in a clearly alternate Oxford, and she dares to both explore forbidden territory and hide in a wardrobe to eavesdrop.
    • Inciting Incident in first chapter:  The arrival of Lord Asriel, and the attempt on his life
  • The Hunger Games
    • Intriguing hint in the first paragraph:  Katniss's obvious love for her sister, who needs comfort, because "This is the day of the reaping."
    • Getting to know the world and character:  District 12 is poor, and Katniss needs and likes to hunt
    • Inciting Incident: The reaping
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
    • Intriguing hint in the first line:  The phrase "perfectly normal, thank you very much"
    • Getting to know the world and character:  the contrast between the Dursleys and the Potters and their respective worlds
    • Inciting Incident:  Hagrid's delivery of Harry to the Dursleys via Dumbledore
  • The Fault in Our Stars
    • Intriguing hint in the first line: The disjunction between Hazel's behavior and the fact that she implicitly asserts she is not depressed; also, the specificity with which she lists those symptoms
    • Getting to know the world and character:  observations of her Support Group
    • Inciting Incident:  Hazel meets Augustus
  •  Stealing Air (by Trent Reedy, forthcoming in October; I know Trent will be embarrassed to be included in this company, but his first chapter works for exactly the same reasons these others do)
    • Intriguing hint in the first line: "Great success through great risk"
    • Getting to know the character and world:  Brian does take a risk in stepping up to try to make friends, and we get a good sense of layout of this small town as he later tries to escape the park
    • Inciting Incident:  Fight with Frankie, and Max's rocketbike
Study those models; take your time; show us the character and world; have a good Inciting Incident; and finally claim your authority, and readers will follow. I've said it before and will say it again:  Write your novel like you're performing a striptease, not going to a nude beach.


One blog business thing:  In response to a request, I added a "Subscribe via e-mail" button there at the right. Thank you for your interest!

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Security," by William Stafford

Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.

Some time there will be a tomorrow without any island.
So far, I haven't let that happen, but after
I'm gone others may become faithless and careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Six Reasons Why Everything in Publishing Takes So Long

Publishing takes so long because . . .

1. Because each book is individual.

The beautiful and difficult thing about publishing is that it's a one-to-one industry:  one writer connecting to one reader at a time. And because everything is individual, there are absolutely zilch solid rules in this business (beyond "Have a sense of humor" and "Don't be a jerk"). Each author is different; each manuscript is different; each editor is different; each agent is different; each publishing house is different. No matter how many books an editor and author have worked on together, each new manuscript has to be considered on its own strengths, with its own problems. 

Aesthetically terrible books get published and make a ton of money; aesthetically brilliant books win the National Book Award; other aesthetically terrible books cost their publishers piles of cash with very little return; other aesthetically brilliant books disappear completely. In adult publishing, Alice Sebold, Charles Frazier, Audrey Niffenegger and Sara Gruen (to pick four names in a very common pattern) all experienced incredible success with their first novels, leading to advances for their second novels in the multiple millions; and not one of those second novels has achieved the success of their previous books. Markus Zusak and The Book Thief ended up on Good Morning America because a smart Knopf publicist sent a copy directly to Charlie Gibson, who happened to open his own mail that day, became fascinated with the book, and took it home to read over the weekend. There's no way to guarantee that happening again, and thus it illustrates my point:  Every book is individual, and a success not easily replicable.   

(N.B. An earlier version of this post misstated the nature of the Zusak-GMA connection, which was kindly corrected by a Random House insider. This blog regrets the error.) 

2. Because editors and agents have many submissions to wade through, because . . .
2A. . . . The barriers to being a writer who submits manuscripts are extremely low.

This is not a complaint or an accusation or anything pejorative, just a factual observation:  Writing is an individual pursuit, that anyone who is literate can participate in, with extremely low technological requirements (as technological requirements go in the modern age). As a result, all you need to write and submit a manuscript is the ability to write in English, access to a computer with word-processing software, and an Internet account so you can send out the resulting manuscript. (You no longer even need a printer! Or stamps!) So a lot of people can participate in this process, and do.

2B. . . . Writers vastly outnumber editors and agents — especially when writers multiply submit.

We are also living in an unprecedented age of access to information about publishers and editors and agents, thanks to the Internet, Amazon, acknowledgment pages, writers’ discussion boards, QueryTracker, you name it. This makes it extremely easy for writers to research places to submit their work, and to send forth manuscripts accordingly to all the places they find.

I am not complaining about multiple submissions, please note; I understand why writers and agents do it, and those reasons are 100% valid. But if we think of the amount of time spent reading a query as quantity X, then one writer submitting to one agent equals a reading time of X across the whole industry. One writer submitting to six agents equals 6X across the industry. Six writers submitting to six agents each equals 36X (though note we still have just those same six agents doing six times the work) . . . and so it all grows exponentially, and crowds out the time for other things within the industry. Again, these are not complaints, just facts.

2C. . . . Reading is inherently not fast.

The very smart Jason Pinter once wrote something on Twitter like, "The average person reads 250 words per minute -- 60 pages an hour. If you give someone your 350-page manuscript, you're asking them to spend the length of a flight from New York to California with you talking to them." His point was that you should do your best to be sure that you're good company, which is true. But no matter how good the company is, it takes a lot more than just sitting down to listen to a three-minute song, or watch a 30-minute TV show. . . . I have days when I wish I could fly back and forth from New York to California to get all my reading done. 

3. Because each book has both aesthetic and economic factors that must be carefully weighed at each step in the process.

I remember once in my first year as an editorial assistant, I fell in love with a picture-book manuscript and took it in to my afternoon meeting with Arthur. “I love this manuscript,” I said. “Will you read it right now?”

“Sure, leave it with me,” he said.

“It’s not even two complete pages,” I said. “Can’t you just look at it?”

“No, I can’t,” he said patiently. “Leave it here and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

Now that I’ve had manuscripts thrust at me at conferences, and been that editor facing an intern with a great manuscript in hand, I understand where he was coming from. Because each manuscript — even a two-hundred-word picture book text — presents an editor with a series of questions to be answered, to wit:

  1. Is this any good in an aesthetic sense?
  2. Is it of any interest in a publishing sense? 
  3. Is it appropriate for our publishing house?
  4. Do I like this?*
  5. If it is some good aesthetically, but not perfect, what parts aren't working?
  6. Can those parts be made to work?
  7. Assuming yes to question #6: Are the good parts good enough, and the publishing interest strong enough, to justify the editorial time and energy in trying to make it work?
  8. Assuming yes to question #7:  Is this strong enough as it is to try to acquire it? Or should I request a noncontractual revision? 
  9. Is the author capable of revising it? (Some writers simply are no good at revising.) 
  10. Is s/he someone we'll want to work with for the long term or just this book?
  11. How much do we think the book will sell?
  12. Following on #11, how much should we pay for it?
  13. Assuming no to question #7:  How should this be rejected?
  14. If it’s a picture book:  Who could or should illustrate it? What is Dream Illustrator's schedule like? How much would we have to pay him/her? Etc.
Sometimes those answers come very quickly:  If the answer to the first three and sometimes four questions are “no,” everything else is simple. But naming the bad parts takes time; writing a letter to the author takes time; figuring out whether the book is of publishing interest or whether, say, five other books on the same topic have just been published takes time. And of course, just plain reading the manuscript takes time!

And if I do decide I want to acquire it, there's a whole other to-do list after that (and then another one after that), which keeps coming back to evaluating the book's artistic and publishing strengths and how they can be maximized. Publishing is an extremely long-term game, and long-term games aren't fast.

* N. B. Many years ago, back when I was an assistant with time to do freelance editing, an author I was working with said, "I have the feeling you don't like my book." I realized then that I didn't care whether I liked the project, actually, because I was committed to editing it either way; I cared only whether the book worked, whether it accomplished the task it was meant to do, because then the book (and my work) would have been successful, and my personal feelings about the project were irrelevant. It's very different from my job now, where, if I'm going to put in all the time and effort that I do put in to a manuscript, and stand before my acquisitions committee, sales force, and the world and say, "You should pay attention to this," I want to feel emotionally connected to the project, and to feel like it's worthy of that attention.

4. Because each draft is a wholly new artistic work and must be considered as such.

I can't just read the two chapters or five lines that were changed from the previous draft to this; I have to consider them in the context of the whole, to see how the whole makes me feel now, and therefore whether the revision is working. (This is not so true in later stages of novels, after I've read the book six times and we're polishing moments; but it is true early on, and always true with picture books.) Then see #2C above.

5. Because what is individual is often deeply personal, and people deserve kindness. 

I love my authors, and I often know their spouses’ names, their children’s names, where they’re from, when they’re going on vacation and where. When I have bad news, I want to present it to them in the kindest and most supportive way possible. When I have good news, I want to celebrate with them in a way that feels present. I have relationships with agents, and I want to give them smart feedback on projects so they'll keep thinking I'm worth submitting to even when I say no (as I frequently must). When I read manuscripts, I'm very aware that every one is a little piece of the writer's soul there on the page for me -- like a good Horcrux -- and that if I'm turning it down, I need to do so with at least politeness. In a world that grows ever more rushed and demanding, time spent is a compliment, and I want to pay that compliment to the people who are important to me.

6. Because we're trying to make beautiful things that matter here and share them with other people who will love them too.

And that takes time, in the writing and thinking and editing and painting and copywriting and publicizing and selling and reading and telling; and that's all there is to it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

[This Space Intentionally Left Blank]

I was walking home tonight in the lovely air, only the slightest bit tipsy, and thinking about the fact that I am not going to blog tomorrow or Thursday, or the 22nd either, because I missed blogging last Wednesday by accident, and if I can't honestly blog every day of the month, by God, I can at least make a pretty design in the little calendar to the right. In any case, thinking about blank spaces made me think of one of my favorite passages from what I honestly believe is one of the funniest YA novels ever written, The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty. Emily and Charlie are writing back and forth, and he's just written a rude letter insulting her. She thus sends him a letter reading "You talk a pile of crap." twenty-eight times, and then adds the following P.S.'s:

P. S. I decided to use this opportunity to practice my handwriting. As you can see, I am developing a highly eloquent style.
P.P.S. I got a Secret Assignment yesterday and GUESS WHAT. I'm not going to tell you what it is.
P.P.P.S. I have to go now because you are wasting my TIME.
P.P.P.P.S. The next letter you get from me will be an empty envelope, so be prepared for misery. 
Charlie then responds by telling her a long (and true, so far as he knows) story about how he saved the lives of the whole school from a gas leak, and concludes, "I liked your handwriting in your last letter. It was cute."

She writes back:
And this is so completely in tune with who Emily is, so adorably resolute in her ditzy brilliance, I still smile every time I think of it. (Ditto with "You are Argentina.")

So, readers, despite all the foregoing: