Thursday, March 29, 2007

"Cheering Up Cheryl": A Bad Picture Book

For my LA SCBWI talk, I'm writing a bunch of bad picture-book manuscripts that I use to illustrate the principles of good picture-book manuscripts, and I wrote this one to illustrate "No Child Appeal." It has since been revised in another direction to make it even worse, but this version rather amused me, so I'm posting it here as an outtake. There's nothing in it based on real life, no, not at all . . .

Cheryl and Katy were best friends.
Cheryl had just been dumped by her boyfriend.
Katy wanted to cheer her up.
“I know!” Katy said.
“Let’s go eat ice cream!”
So they went to the ice-cream parlor.
Katy had mint chocolate chip.
Cheryl had Phish Food.
But she was still sad.
“I know!” Katy said.
“Let’s go get pedicures!”
So they went to the nail salon.
Katy’s toes were painted a bright, hot pink.
Cheryl’s toes were painted a deep, rich red.
Cheryl wiggled her toes.
But she was still sad.
“I know!” Katy said.
“Let’s go shopping!”
So they went to Designer Shoe Warehouse.
Cheryl tried on a pair of platforms . . .
A pair of wedges . . .
A pair of boots . . .
A pair of stilettos . . .
A pair of sneakers . . .
A pair of clogs . . .
A pair of oxfords . . .
A pair of flip-flops . . .
A pair of wing-tips . . .
Until finally she found shoes that were just right.
She used them to stomp on the picture of her ex-boyfriend.
And then, Cheryl was happy.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

True Story

Today I helped count the offering at church, and we had a check from a woman with the last name "Harriet-Welsh."

I think I better keep an eye on her . . . just in case she's keeping an eye on me.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Twelve Things That Are Keeping Me Sane at Present + A Suggestion

  • Tasty Bite microwave entrees -- Indian dinners that heat up in two minutes, are relatively nutritious (as two-minute dinners go), and are indeed tasty bites.
  • Internet Scrabble games.
  • James, le boyfriend, who just made a book trailer for HarperCollins that has almost a million hits among YouTube, MySpace, and various other websites. (I'm not linking to it here simply because it's very deliberately geared to the sensibilities of nineteen-year-old frat boys (as is the book), with all that that implies, and I would like my family to retain a good opinion of James, who does NOT have the sensibilities of a nineteen-year-old frat boy.) But you need a book trailer? He's your guy.
  • Rachel Griffiths, who just got promoted to Editor and is moving to Scholastic Press in August. Yay Rachel!
  • Emily Clement, our fabulous new AALB editorial assistant. If you're submitting to Arthur, be nice to her.
  • My new part-time intern Shannon.
  • Five Bucks to Friday and Go Fug Yourself, which make me laugh every single day.
  • Dove ProAge Day Moisturizer, which actually does reduce the fine lines caused by laughing at GFY and FBtF.
  • Nice taxi drivers.
  • Church.
  • The Bruce Springsteen song "Badlands" off his Greatest Hits album. I am terminally musically uncool, so I'm always discovering artists one, or three, or in this case twenty-eight years behind everyone else, and this leaves me unable to grab people by the shoulders and say "This song is fantastic! You must listen to it!" because everyone already knows the song and they smile politely. But what the heck: This song is fantastic! You must listen to it! Hard-driving, hard-working, hip-shaking, damn fine rock and roll.

Finally, if you're thinking of sending me a SQUID in the next month, I would suggest you wait. While I'm keeping up with my agented manuscripts, I have to say that between the Bologna Book Fair (which Arthur attends and I prep him for), the SCBWI talk I'm giving in April, a crazy work project, and several novels to edit, I'm probably not going to get to my unsoliciteds again until probably May. Holding off will save you the stress of waiting and me the stress of the pile. Thanks for understanding.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Brooklyn Arden Review: "Essential Self-Defense"

"Essential Self-Defense," by Adam Rapp. Directed by Carolyn Cantor. An Edge Theatre production at Playwrights Horizons; through April 15.

A few years ago, for reasons I don't remember, I was thinking about what would be the hardest art form to do well, based solely on the number of people involved in its production. With this criterion, a poem, a novel, a short story, or a painting or sculpture would be easiest ("Ha!" all the writers out there say. "Ha! Ha!"), as it involves only one performer, the author or artist; followed by a monologue, song, or performance art, which would require both a writer and a performer (or one person with talent at both skills); followed by a play or symphony, which would require a writer, a director, and multiple performers (actors or musicians); and so on and so forth. I finally decidest that the hardest possible art form to do well would be a film of an opera or musical, as it would require all the talent necessary for a quality musical/opera, as well as all the talent necessary for a wonderful film. (This is one of the reasons "Singin' in the Rain" is superior to "The Godfather.") What makes each level progressively more difficult is that art is a series of choices, conscious or not; and with each additional person involved, you have one more person who can make a bad choice or give a bad performance. So each person raises the tightrope that much higher, makes the art that much less likely to be a full success -- and of course it's that much more of a miracle when an artistic work is a success, that much more worthy of praise and celebration.

This hierarchy came to mind again last night after I saw "Essential Self-Defense" by Adam Rapp, a play with music, and many of the choices on display -- from Mr. Rapp, from the director Ms. Cantor, and from the two principal actors -- utterly baffled me. When the curtain rises, a young woman named Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh) -- a production editor for a children's book publisher, natch -- is taking a self-defense class in the small town of Bloggs somewhere in the Midwest. She accidentally knocks out the tooth of the man serving as the attack dummy, Yul (Paul Sparks), and asks him out for a drink in apology. As their relationship develops over the course of the play, they trade personal stories, roller-skate, and sing punk-rock karaoke, while other characters periodically provide bulletins on the disappearance of some teenagers from the local junior high school, adding to the overall atmosphere of threat and oppression. The play as a whole is a black comedy on the role of fear in modern life -- fear of the culture, fear of corporations, and fear of other people, which may or may not be justified.

Sounds good, right? But here comes Baffling Choice #1: Yul, the hero, is played (and was presumably written and directed) as Forrest Gump with Asperger's and a violent streak -- a man with strange speech patterns, bizarre behavior, no skill at relating to other people (he says of Mein Kampf, "Boy, that man sure struggled"), and a near-perpetual grimace. His antisocial tendencies are explained partly by his having a thyroid problem, and he does display an unexpected ability to rock out in an early karaoke scene; and yet I was left unsure how to take him -- whether to sympathize, laugh, or shudder -- for pretty much all of the play. Baffling Choice #2: Sadie, the heroine, is played (and was presumably etc.) as a nervous nellie who may have some mental problems herself. Actually, the nervousness is understandable, considering that she fears attack by a wolfman at any moment; what's not clear is why she would be attracted to Yul for any reason other than her fear and loneliness, which aren't quite enough for the attraction the play wants us to believe. And the mere existence of said attraction made me distrust her in turn.

So I didn't much care for the protagonists or sympathize with their aims, which made it difficult to care about the play, period. Given this distancing, the musical numbers, and the way the fear theme drove both the characters and the action (Baffling Choice #3: The mystery of the teenagers' disappearance is resolved in a way that has everything to do with theme and virtually nothing to do with any of the people onstage), I wonder if perhaps Mr. Rapp and Ms. Cantor were going for Brechtian epic theatre here, deliberately pushing the audience away so we would focus on and think more about the fears in our own lives. If this was their intention, all the Baffling Choices would make sense; and it did succeed somewhat, as I thought a little about the current American atmosphere of corporate dominance and (this being New York) Republican fearmongering. But I'm afraid I thought far more about how off-putting I found the characters.

Being Playwrights Horizons, the production values are excellent and excellently carried off, and Mr. Sparks and Ms. Goldenhersh maintain their Baffling Choices with admirable skill. Cheryl Lynn Bowers as the punk librarian Sorrell, Joel Marsh Garland as Klieg the Butcher, and Michael Chernus as Isaak Glinka all turned in refreshingly human performances. The backing punk band -- consisting of Ray Rizzo on drums and an awesome guitarist named Lucas Papaelias -- rawked (they also wrote the music with Mr. Rapp). And, perhaps because Mr. Rapp is also a YA novelist, it contained an enthusiastic shout-out to YA literature, with Sorrell exclaiming "M. T. Anderson is a genius! Burger Wuss is one of my favorite books of all time!" -- surely the first time such sentiments have been expressed on the New York stage.

So, as a person who likes caring about characters and getting involved with the action, I can't say I enjoyed "Essential Self-Defense." But it's a thought-provoking evening of theatre, for both its themes and its artistic choices.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit

At church on Sunday, I saw the hymn title listed above on my way to the hymn we were supposed to be singing, and I thought, What the heck was that?. I flipped back to it after the song was over, and then I liked the lyrics so much that I borrowed the hymnal to type them out here. Its longing for mental and spiritual peace is certainly speaking to me this month, when I'm being driven by the "tyrant voices" of my to-do list, and that overwhelmed feeling is so common to modern life I thought this might connect even with readers who aren't religious or Christian. The lyrics are by Thomas Troeger (and BTW, if you are interested in Christianity, the interview linked there is fantastic), the music by Carol Doran; it's number 264 in the United Methodist Hymnal, 1989.

"Silence, frenzied, unclean spirit!"
cried God's healing Holy One.
"Cease your ranting! Flesh can't bear it;
flee as night before the sun."
At Christ's words the demon trembled,
from its victim madly rushed,
while the crowd that was assembled
stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.

Lord, the demons still are thriving
in the gray cells of the mind:
tyrant voices, shrill and driving,
twisted thoughts that grip and bind,
doubts that stir the heart to panic,
fears distorting reason's sight,
guilt that makes our loving frantic,
dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit
in our mind and in our heart;
speak your word that when we hear it,
all our demons shall depart.
Clear our thought and calm our feeling;
still the fractured, warring soul.
By the power of your healing
make us faithful, true, and whole.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Slush Pile Saturday

Work has been way too crazy these days for me to go through my February SQUIDs in the office, so I brought all the envelopes and my trusty letter-opener home and went through them this afternoon on my couch. Some observations:

  • The number-one problem with the picture-book manuscript submissions: a lack of unity in conception--either not having any point to the story, or not ending the story after the point is made, so said point gets lost in the action afterward. A picture book should have one central narrative or emotional arc, which runs in a consistent line from beginning to end, and the book should end when the story does.
  • A good picture book manuscript has a killer last line to provide that final "Ah!" of satisfaction as the reader closes the book. Often when I'm reading a promising PB ms., I find I'm holding my breath: Can the writer pull it off? Will the last line put that final stamp of emotional and narrative fulfillment on everything else the story has shown us? Or will it just . . . end?
  • The number-one problem with the novel submissions: showing too much leg, that is, telling me so much upfront about the characters or the situation that it doesn't feel like I need to read more. If your character is, say, painfully overeager to please, I will be much more involved with him if I see him trying to toady up to the principal (a dramatized scene) rather than him telling me, "I always want to make people happy, so today I brought Mrs. Rutherford the best lilies from my mother's garden." Etc. Or situationally, "Jenny looked out the window of the hotel room. There was a Verizon billboard right outside. The image brought tears to her eyes: Her father had worked for AT&T. Daddy . . ." "Okay," I think, "she is a great big quivering ball of pain about her father's death; she better have something besides pain to her or her story to be interesting." And if that interesting thing has not emerged by the end of the chapter, no dice.
  • Indeed, I see a lot of slush-pile novel submissions -- and far fewer agented ones, now that I think about it -- where the main character is coming to terms with a loved one's death (usually a father's) and that is the primary action of the book. I'm afraid I very rarely love these, or any novel where the emotional plot ends up pretty much serving as the action plot. I think it's because the character isn't really going after a Want and driving the action; rather the character is being driven by this emotional event that happened before the novel began, and that isn't as compelling.
  • And I also think those kinds of novels are a little bit harder to sell -- for both editors in-house to our sales staffs, and booksellers/librarians to readers -- simply because they're harder to talk about. If you were describing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to someone who'd never read it, you probably wouldn't say "Harry makes friends and finds a home at last" (the emotional plot), but "Harry goes to this AMAZING school where he studies magic, learns to fly a broomstick, and confronts this evil wizard that tried to kill him when he was a baby."
  • This is not to say emotional plots aren't enormously important, as they give a story meaning and value; the action in HP matters only because Harry makes friends and finds a home at last. And one of my very favorite novels I've ever read, much less had the privilege to work on, pretty much alternates emotional chapters with plot ones: The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley by Martine Murray. (Its Chapter 17, on love and the differences between boys and girls, is one of the wisest things I've ever read about relationships, period.) And all this applies much more to children's and middle-grade fiction than YA.
  • But: Please try to have both kinds of plot.
  • Still on novels: I saw a lot of first chapters where very little happened, which gave me very little incentive to read on. At the end of your first chapter, I should know who your protagonist is and what s/he Wants, with a hint of either what's standing in the way (Conflict action plot), what information s/he'll need to find in the course of the story and why that matters (Mystery action plot), or what's missing in that character's life and/or what might soon cause a change in it (Lack action plot). Don't tell me the new kid is moving to the old Jenkins place (merely a premonition of change); show your protagonist's first encounter with the new kid so we can see the change in action.
  • (If you have no idea what I mean by action and emotional plots and Conflict, Mystery, and Lack, and you would like to know, read The Essentials of Plot.)
  • Good first chapters are really, really hard to write. Kudos to those who accomplish them.
  • Thanks to all of you who said you like my website and this blog in your cover letters; the kind words are appreciated.
  • Apparently the next trend in fantasy: time travel. However, I am already editing a time-travel novel trilogy (The Book of Time, by Guillaume Prevost, in stores this September), so your time-travel novel will have to be demonstrably different from that for me to be able to take it on in the foreseeable future.
  • Man, you all should go out and read The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley if you haven't already. It is such a delight, quirky and sweet and wise. It is not for everyone -- in fact, our associate editor at the time we acquired it was the first reader on it, and she got twenty pages in and knew it wasn't for her, so she handed it on to Arthur, who loved it -- but the people who do love it, love it madly. In fact, I'm kind of surprised I love it, because it's so not action-plotty and I adore action plot so much . . .
  • But how can one not love lines like this: "Sometimes life hits you at such a startling lightning kind of angle that you get pushed off your normal viewing spot. You stop knowing how things are. Instead of what you know, there are the patterns that stars make; the sound of the night breathing; the small aching spot where your feet touch the earth. . . . And you've never felt closer to it. You think that if there is an It, you and It are nearly touching. You feel religious and devoted and tiny. Just for a moment you feel as if the whispering coming from the leaves and beetles and sky and footsteps and sighs is going directly towatd your ear. So you listen."
  • Isn't that lovely?
  • I can tell it's March because I was walking down the street today and I heard the pigeons murmuring to each other in their nests under the awnings, one of my very favorite sounds: Coodeloodeloo.
  • Coodeloodeloo to all of you too.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Discount Theatre Tickets: "Essential Self-Defense"

The good people of Playwrights Horizons are once again generous enough to offer my blog readers a discount on an upcoming show -- this time with a children's-literature connection! The playwright is Adam Rapp, author of the YA novel Under the Wolf, Under the Dog and brother of Anthony Rapp from "Rent" (as I'm sure Adam *loves* to be described). Anyway:


Featuring Cheryl Lynn Bowers, Guy Boyd, Michael Chernus, Joel Marsh Garland, Heather Goldenhersh, Lucas Papaelias, Ray Rizzo and Paul Sparks

When a disgruntled misfit (Paul Sparks) takes a job as an attack dummy in a women’s self-defense class, he finds himself mysteriously drawn to the repressed bookworm (Heather Goldenhersh) who’s beating on him. But all’s not well on the mean Midwestern streets of Bloggs: with local children vanishing at an alarming rate, our hero, his lady friend and a motley assortment of poets, butchers and punk librarians prepare to battle the darkness on the edge of town. ESSENTIAL SELF-DEFENSE is a grim fairy tale with generous helpings of rock n’ roll karaoke by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of Red Light Winter.
[CK note: Repressed bookworms, random violence, and punk librarians in the Midwest! Ah, it takes me back . . .]

Special Discount Offer
Order by March 28th and receive $40 tickets (reg. $50) for all performances March 15 – April 15. Mention code “EDBL’’ to receive discount:
  • Voice: call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
  • In Person: Visit the Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Pretty Paintings, Trash Talk, and Bye-Bye Block

Tim O'Brien, the artist who created the jacket art for The Legend of the Wandering King among other many other lovely covers (and the husband of our wonderful art director Elizabeth Parisi), does a really cool painting demonstration on his blog here: (scroll down to the YouTube link).

Watching the painting take shape is like watching a Bob Ross episode -- soothing and mesmerizing, albeit at higher speed and with fewer trees. And also, sadly, less hair.


If you missed Go Fug Yourself's coverage of the Oscar fashions: It's never too late. I especially appreciated their takedown of Anne Hathaway, who is my nemesis because (1) she knows nothing about Jane Austen and yet is playing her in a movie; (2) in another movie, she implied that she could get her pale little hands on a HP manuscript before publication; (3) the film of The Princess Diaries made me want to throw my shoe at the screen (though to be fair, that was the script, editor, and director's fault as much as hers; feh to incompetent romantic comedies); and (4) nemeses are fun. So to paraphrase Lews Street 101: "Someone call the doctor cuz that dress was sick!"


Finally, I am pleased to say I have conquered my little "block-block-block" chicken when it came to writing my talk. What made the difference? Talking through what I wanted to say with my friend Ted; a long walk that gave me a beginning (probably not my final beginning, but a way into the writing); and a blessed hour with a good pen and trusty notebook, as I can never brainstorm properly on a computer. And click: structure (five ways picture-book manuscripts can go wrong), narrative (the development of one manuscript over time), perspective (which points I really need to make and which I can save for another talk). Also silliness and cookies, which always delight me. Indeed, the cookies will make an excellent final course after my upcoming chicken dinner. . . .

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"A Word on Statistics," by Wislawa Szymborska

(to mark my 350th post)

Out of every hundred people

those who always know better:

Unsure of every step:
nearly all the rest.

Ready to help,
as long as it doesn't take long:

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four--well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:
forty and four.

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

when forced by circumstances:
it's better not to know
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life but things:
(although I would like to be wrong).

Doubled over in pain,
without a flashlight in the dark:
sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few at thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:

Worthy of empathy:

one hundred out of one hundred--
a figure that has never varied yet.

-- from the collection Miracle Fair, translated by Joanna Trzeciak