Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Thank You Speech, A Kidlit Drink Night, and My Current Favorite Video in Life

A Thank You Speech: At the ALA convention a couple of weeks ago, Arthur and I accepted the Batchelder Award for translation for my dear Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. You can read the full speech (scripted by me and revised by both of us) here on Arthur's blog.

A Kidlit Drink Night: August 11th, 6 p.m.-ish, at our old favorite Sweet & Vicious in Soho.

My Current Favorite Video in Life: I love musical theatre. I love over-the-top power ballads. Therefore, I have watched this video of the cast of "Glee" singing Queen's "Somebody to Love" 47 times, and I don't think I'm exaggerating the number. SO. GOOD.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

They Are the Champions, My Friends

Our Celebrity Guest Judges have compiled their results and rendered their verdicts, and as a result, we have our winners in the Thomas Bowdler Fiction Contest! A drumroll, and the envelope please . . .

Winner in the Children's Category: Patrick!
His entry: "Adolf Hitler was sad today."

Runner-up: Monica!
Her entry: "Mask, the mommy raccoon, herded the nervous children at the side of the road, trying to aver their eyes from Big Ringtail, their dad, as he lay on the dashed yellow line -- 'He's just sleeping,' she said, blinking back her tears."

Winner in the YA category: lynnekelly!
Her entry: "He walked into the room looking like he was carved out of granite, if a granite carving had a musculoskeletal system that would facilitate movement."

(No YA runner-up)

Winner in the Fantasy category: jadedmetaphor!
His or her entry: "Once, a female tried to join the brethren, only to be turned down on account that 'The multi-gendered collective of the traveling skull' didn't sound badass enough to scare away minor enemy posers who were put off by gory names, thus leaving the brethren with enough time to outrun legitimately scary foes."

Runner-up: susiej!
Her entry: "With twenty-seven arrows thrust into his tall heroic body and scarlet blood shooting from him like a bright and noble fountain, Jargormandor charged across the battlefield and slayed the evil sorcerer, Crabgallion, before falling gracefully to the ground and declaring with his dying breaths that his young, valiant nephew, Brandormandor, would be the one to lead his people now safely to their homeland, and all wept the salty tears of great sadness mingled with the beautiful, silvery tears of joy; and so our story begins."

If the winners will kindly send their postal addresses to me at chavela_que (at) yahoo dot com, I will keep them on file until such time as my book exists, at which point they will receive copies. And in the meantime, CONGRATULATIONS and HUZZAH to all the winners and runners-up, and to all participants in this noble contest!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Celebrity Guest Judges! and Sundry Other Good News

I'm delighted to announce that the Celebrity Guest Judges for the Thomas Bowdler Fiction Contest below are none other than Dan Santat and Lisa Yee!

Lisa is the author of a series of three related middle-grade novels affectionally known as the "Milly trilly," as well as the young-adult novel Absolutely Maybe.

Dan is the author/illustrator of the past AALB picture book The Guild of Geniuses and future graphic novel The Domesticated Four. And the two of them collaborated on . . .

Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), a very funny and heartfelt new chapter book coming out this September! My thanks to Lisa and Dan, who will render their verdicts in the three contest categories early next week.

Other news:

  • ALA this past weekend was terrific, from seeing Elizabeth C. Bunce get the Morris Award to talking for the very first time with the translator and author of Heartsinger (we edited the book entirely over e-mail) to attending the Newbery-Caldecott dinner to spending time with my grandfather to giving the Batchelder acceptance speech with Arthur to just hanging out and talking with many awesome and passionate kidlit people. I've rarely had a happier or more exhausting five days, so thanks to you all!
  • It turns out that the very nice Jacqui Robbins is also having a bad-first-lines-of-children's-literature contest inspired by the Bulwer-Lytton, and hers started before mine. It ends today, so hop over there to leave a last-minute entry.
  • My book is going to happen! Hooray! Yes, thanks to all you kind people, Leaf and Tree* is already a fully funded project over at Kickstarter, with $2000 raised (to print 500 copies) in less than two weeks. The project page will remain open through September 1 should anyone else be inspired to donate; every additional dollar goes to printing additional copies, which in turn affects my unit cost, which in turn will affect the eventual retail cost, so donations are good for me and for you if you think you might buy the book. Thanks again!
  • * Though I'm now thinking of calling it Second Sight (plus a subtitle), since so much of it deals with revision and getting a fresh look at your work. No one would confuse it with this, right? Right.
  • I just discovered (via @editorgurl) a terrific post by Justine Larbelestier on How to Write a Novel. I particularly like her spreadsheet method of bookmapping.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Some Summertime Silliness: The Thomas Bowdler Fiction Contest

I love reading the entries in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where entrants try to write the worst possible first line of an imaginary novel, and the 2009 winners were announced today. But I noticed that this year, no prize was given in the Children's Literature category, which seems a great loss, given past winners like these:

Jack planted the magic beans and in one night a giant beanstalk grew all the way from the earth up to the clouds--which sounds like a lie, but it can be done with genetic engineering, and although a few people are against eating gene-engineered foods like those beans it's a high-paying career to think about for when you grow up. (Frances Trimble, 2004)

Danny, the little Grizzly cub, frolicked in the tall grass on this sunny Spring morning, his mother keeping a watchful eye as she chewed on a piece of a hiker they had encountered the day before. (Dave McKenzie, 2007)
Hence I challenge all my blog readers -- writers, agents, editors, librarians, and critics alike -- to submit the worst possible opening sentence for an imaginary children's or YA novel in the comments here. We'll call this the Thomas Bowdler Fiction Contest, after that noble guardian of children's gentle sensibilities, and in keeping with Mr. Bowdler's delicate nerves, please try to make all entries rated PG-13 at most. Some other guidelines (after the BLFC's):
  • Each entry must consist of a single sentence. However, that sentence can be as long as you have space in the comment box (though beware of diminishing returns).
  • You can submit up to three times.
  • Please label each entry (C) for children's, (YA) for young adult, or (F) for Fantasy so it can be judged according to the proper standards.
  • All entries must be original to their creators and will remain the copyright of their creators.
  • Entries will be accepted until midnight Friday, July 17.
  • The Celebrity Guest Judges have yet to be determined/invited, since I just conceived of this contest in the last hour; but their decisions will be final.
  • In case this needs saying: The goal is hilarity through badness, not just plain badness. Identifying and puncturing cliches of both subject and language is strongly encouraged.
The winners in each category will each receive a copy of my book-to-be, pending its existence, and two runners-up in each category will each receive everyone's profound admiration (as will the winners, I'm sure). And, for their own enjoyment, all entrants are encouraged to spend some time looking through past Bulwer-Lytton winners (2004, 2007) and to submit to the real contest in future. Huzzah!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Four Techniques to Get at the Emotional Heart of Your Story

I am in various composition stages on one-two-three different editorial letters right now . . . so of course I'm going to procrastinate and write a blog post. But these are some of the models I'm using to figure out the hearts of these manuscripts -- the core character change (aka Emotional Plot) that needs to occur -- and then to think through the Action Plot that overlies them to see where we may need to add events or motivation or subtract unnecessary story elements.

1. Conflict, Mystery, Lack. I go on about this at length in various talks over on my site, so I won't spend much time on it here, but simply: Which model is your central plot and each of your subplots? Are all the narrative requirements of those plots set up at the beginning (e.g. a clear antagonist, a defined mystery, a hole of some kind), developed through the middle (escalating antagonism, clues, the filling of the hole), and satisfactory at the end (a clear victory for one side and/or reconciliation, an answer to the mystery, emotional wholeness at last)?

2. What Does the Character Want? (I admit I sometimes append "Dammit" to this.) Not all plots have or should have a character with a big goal, taking action to get it. . . . The best novels are like life, and often we don't know what we want in life and have to figure it out, and the dramatization of that figuring-it-out can be fun and fascinating if the people are real enough in it. (Case in point: The Treasure Map of Boys by E. Lockhart, which I read in one long, enjoyable trip around New York yesterday.) But if your plot does allow your character to want a specific thing from the beginning, and readers know what that thing is, boy, that makes the dynamics of the action so much easier and the character instantly attractive to readers, and gives you a strong narrative spine on which to hang all sorts of other subplots.

3. Compulsion vs. Obstacles. A formula I first heard from Laurie Halse Anderson:

  • What action or emotional pattern is the character compelled to repeat over and over?
  • What obstacles will keep him/her from doing it this time, and/or will force him/her to change this pattern? That is your frontstory.
  • What personality or life circumstances have formed him/her that way? That is your backstory.
4. Problem, Process, Solution. I talk about this as a picture-book-story technique in "Words, Wisdom, Art, and Heart," but it's proving enormously useful for novels as well -- basically "Compulsion vs. Obstacles" once the ending has been defined, which helps to identify the steps that actually make a difference in getting to the Solution. Those steps are the Process, and there ought to be at least one of those steps, in some form, in every chapter.

And three rules of thumb:

A novel ought to be at least 75 percent Process. Once the Problem is defined, it's time to start solving it. Don't spend valuable narrative time rehashing it, or too much time celebrating or talking about the Solution once it's been reached. (I love Emma, but the scene where Mr. Knightley reads Frank Churchill's letter and apostrophizes upon his faults drives me crazy -- a rare authorial slip in an otherwise perfect plot. I can only imagine that Jane Austen, too, adored Mr. Knightley so much that she indulged him in this fit of moralizing for the pleasure of spending more time with him.)

The main character ought to drive at least half of that Process.
Either through mistakes or conscious action, and whether he or she knows it or not.

Every scene has to have a point, which is often an emotional point.
This is the moment where someone finally says the thing they've been meaning to say, or misses the moment where they ought to say it, or does something else that makes a difference in the action or the characters' relationships. Often writers will either cut scenes off before this point is reached or just let scenes lollygag on and on without getting to this point . . . at which point the scenes are ripe for the "Justify Your Existence" test, and in danger of getting cut or combined with another scene if they flunk.

Back to my ms.; good luck with yours.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Announcing: My Book Project!

People have asked about it; I've long thought about it; and at last, I'm delighted to announce: I might be publishing a book of my collected talks! Hooray! But whether I'm actually going to go forward with it depends on YOU, dear readers and friends.

Here is the text of the dialogue that I imagine might now ensue:

You: Cool! What would the book include?

Me: All the talks that were on my old website, including "Finding a Publisher and Falling in Love"; "The Rules of Engagement"; "The Essentials of Plot"; "The Art of Detection"; "Words, Wisdom, Art, and Heart: Making a Picture-Book Cookie"; "Morals, Muddles, and Making It Through"; and "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter," plus all the supplementary worksheets and other materials that went with those talks. It will also include various speeches that have not been published on my website, including the talk on developing characters I gave at the Missouri SCBWI conference in the fall of 2007 and the New Jersey SCBWI conference in the summer of 2008, and the three long talks on plot, character, and voice from the Missouri SCBWI retreat this past spring, which I'll be revising and reprising for the Western Washington retreat in November. (The book will feature the revised versions.) I'll also include the Annotated Query Letter from Hell and an Annotated Query Letter that Does It Right to talk a little more about submissions; some recommended reading lists for writers; and a number of Greatest Hits blog posts on submitting, editing, and publishing.

What will it be called?

This isn't yet final, but I really like Leaf and Tree: Some Talk About Writing.

Okay. But what do you mean, "It depends on us"?

I plan to self-publish the book, and in order to get capital for a 500-copy printing, I'm asking my blog readers, friends, and family to help me raise $2000 through The Kickstarter process also allows me to gauge interest: To raise $2000, all I really need is 200 people to give $10 each, which is more or less like buying the book, thanks to the rewards system below. And if there aren't 200 people willing to buy the book, then I shouldn't go forward with publishing it anyway.

What is "the Kickstarter process"? is an awesome website for people interested in finding grassroots funding for their creative work. If you'd like to see this book be published, you can bop over to my project page, click "Back This Project," and enter whatever amount you like -- $1, $5, $18, $347 -- to be charged to your credit card. That money will be processed through the Payments system and held there until the total goal amount of $2000 has been pledged. Once that happens, all credit cards will be charged, and then the money will come to me. If the project receives less than $2000, then under the Kickstarter rules, all monies will be returned to their pledgers and I get nothing. The project can also collect MORE than $2000, though, and all additional proceeds would then go to printing additional copies of the book. You can read more about how Kickstarter works here and check out some really cool projects already underway here.

What's in it for me to pledge?

If you pledge $5, you'll receive $5 off the cost of the book, excluding shipping (final cost not yet determined, but it'll probably be somewhere between $10 and $18). If you pledge $10, you'll receive $10 off the cost. If you pledge $25, you'll receive $10 off, plus you'll be added to a list to receive e-mailed versions of any future talks. If you pledge $50, you'll receive all of the $25 rewards, plus your name will be included on a "Thank You" page in the back of the book. If you pledge $100 or more, you'll receive all of the $50 rewards plus a selection of my favorite thank-you sweets, including home-baked Banana Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies (the ones from "Words, Wisdom"), yummy brownies, McVitie's, and Swedish Fish. And if you are incredibly nice and rich and pledge more than $250, some Thank-You Gift of Awesomeness will be devised especially for you.

(For the record, this project is entirely personal, organized on my own time, and separate from my day job, so I will not offer any rewards related to editing, reading manuscripts, critiquing submissions packages, et al. Continuing the disclaimers: My employer has not sponsored, endorsed, or approved this book or its contents, nor is said company in any way responsible for or affiliated with it; it is all me.)

You could also pledge because you enjoy this blog, or you read something useful to your writing on my website, or you took something away from one of my appearances or critiques, or you admire the books I edit, or you came to a Kidlit Drink Night, or you know and like me. Or simply out of the kindness of your heart. All reasons, and pledges, are sincerely appreciated.

How do I know you'll use the money to publish the book and not, say, go to Jamaica?

You know where I live -- on the Internet, anyway, and some of you in person. You'll keep me honest. Also, I sunburn easily.

Why are you self-publishing this? Why aren't you doing it through a regular publisher?

Self-publishing is right for some projects and not for others. I don't recommend it for any writers who might benefit from the editorial process, which I fiercely believe in; nor for anyone seeking wide distribution and good sales through bookstores, which only traditional publishing can provide -- and I fiercely believe in that model too. And I imagine that covers nearly all writers!

For this particular project, though, self-publishing makes sense. I don't need an editor for this, as I'm my own harshest critic. I'm competent enough at book design to put a decent-looking volume together. And this may be an excess of Midwestern modesty, but I don't imagine the audience is all that huge for this -- mostly people who know me through my blog, website, Facebook, and appearances. And if it IS mostly people who know me, then I can handle the sales and distribution myself. I'm planning for a first printing of 500-ish copies, with more available on print-on-demand, and I'll be very happy if it gets bought by 1000 people total. Those are more self-publishing numbers than professional numbers.

Finally, my talks are always written as talks, not as proper essays, and because each has been given to a unique audience, I often take material from one and reuse it in another. This means I would have to rewrite all of the talks more or less completely to integrate them into a proper writing book and satisfy my own standards for professionally published writing, and as I turn into a Raging Perfectionist Beast and my writing stalls out like a '77 Datsun whenever I consciously try to write for publication, this will provide the same basic information with much less time and mental anguish on my part. You writers who can get past this block have my admiration.

Will you ever put the talks not currently on your website but included in the book up on the website?

Yes, probably, but not until sometime in 2010.

When would the book be available?

I'm asking to receive all pledges through Kickstarter by September 1, 2009. Assuming the project moves forward then, I hope to have the actual book available by the end of the year -- ideally in time for the Western Washington conference in November.

Can I buy the book even if I don't pledge?

Sure! I haven't yet reached the "how this book will be sold over the Internet" stage of planning here, though my mom has kindly offered to help with distribution. Dibs on the first 500 copies will go to people who pledge more than $5; a certain quantity will be reserved for my appearances at writers' conferences this fall and next spring; and the rest will be available for purchase through me (and my mom). I also hope to have the text available through a print-on-demand service.

I have more questions.

Leave them in the comments, please, and I'll update this page as necessary.

How can I pledge?

Check out my project page here. And thank you!