Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Twitter Chatter Reminder: Tomorrow!

A reminder: Sara Lewis Holmes and I will be chatting on Twitter tomorrow at noon EST about Operation Yes; follow the hashtag #YESchat to tune in or ask a question. (NOTE: I had the wrong Twitter chat application listed below; you should use Tweetchat.com to join us, not Twitterchat.com. And if you need an FAQ on the subject, visit Inkygirl's Twitter Chats for Writers.) We'll collect your questions through the course of the chat and answer them at the end of our conversation, which will be archived on at least one of our blogs.

(The entire previous paragraph was shamelessly plagiarized from Sara's blog, which tells you an essential truth of the publishing industry: Great authors make their editors look good.)

And speaking of Sara's blog, I wrote an article for the On Our Minds @ Scholastic blog where I described how Read * Write * Believe made me even more interested in and excited to work with her after I’d read the Operation Yes manuscript. I see that already one writer has commented "Oh dear -- an editor might check out my blog in considering my manuscript?", and the answer to that is "Yes" (though I mostly do it when I'm extremely interested in a manuscript and want to know more about the author as a person whom I'd be working with; the quality of the manuscript always, always comes first. And not having a blog is fine too, of course).

Anyway, following on this topic, Sara and I will discuss social media in children's publishing in our chat tomorrow, as well as the writing and editing of Operation Yes, how our theatrical and educational backgrounds helped shape its direction, and various other topics. (We will also continue trash-talking the BBQ of each other’s respective geographical regions.) Lastly, Sara will announce a fun contest related to the book where you can win one of three signed copies, so I hope this should be well worth your time. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In Which I Ride A Segway

With a surprise ending:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Would You Rather . . .

. . . have brunch with Daniel Craig or dinner with Daniel Day-Lewis?
. . . stay at this resort in Fiji or this resort in the Alps?
. . . attend an author-editor Twitterchat or go to a Kidlit Drinks Night with cake?

Fantastic news: At least for the last, you can do both! Sara Lewis Holmes, the author of the fabulous, John-Peters-in-Booklist-starred novel Operation Yes, and I will be chatting live on Twitter about her book, the writing and editing process, our favorite Southern foods (North Carolina vs. Kansas City BBQ smackdown!), and sundry other topics. This conversation will take place on Wednesday, September 30, starting at noon EST, live on Twitter.com, via our Twitter feeds @saralewisholmes and @chavelaque. If you'd like to follow the conversation easily, look for the hashtag #YESchat in Twitterchat.com; if you'd like to skip it entirely, block us for the day on Twittersnooze.com. We'll compile a transcript and post it on one of our blogs afterward.

And before then -- tomorrow night, in fact, September 21 -- we are having the aforementioned Kidlit Drink Night, now with cake! Betsy's reportedly making a Boston Cream Pie in honor of our friends in Boston, who are having a Kidlit Pie Night. I'm bringing this Chocolate Cherry Cake. Free homemade cake, people. How can you not come? 6 p.m.-ish in the downstairs room of the Houndstooth Pub on 8th Ave.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Defining Good Writing (Possibly Sententious)

Child_lit was having one of its periodic discussions of about the definition of "good writing" this past week, so I wrote the bulk of the message below offering my perspective. Reposting it here, edited somewhat for blog form and further thoughts:

If you'll forgive some possible sententiousness on this question of judging good writing, there are five qualities I think about a lot when considering whether I want to acquire a manuscript:

1. Good prose. The sheen of the writing -- its quality on a sentence-by-sentence level. Sometimes this beauty is lyricism, sometimes it's personality (especially with a first-person voice, though that introduces questions about the character-building as well as the prose), sometimes it's just plain cleanliness (no redundancies, lack of awkwardness -- cleanliness is a great virtue). And also the movement of the writing, its sense of timing and pacing and flow in connecting those sentences together, turning them into paragraphs, and moving the narrative forward.

2. Character richness. Are they interesting people with some dimension to them? Do they show that depth and change as the book progresses? Do I care about them?

3. Plot construction. Do things happen? Why? How? Do the events make logical sense or do they grow out of coincidences and implausibilities? Are they surprising or utterly predictable? What's at stake?

4. Thematic depth. Is the writer interested in more than just telling a story -- is s/he trying to make that story mean or say something about being in the world (without hitting me over the head with it)? Is what he or she has to say original, or at the least a new take on an old thought?

5. Emotion. Can the writer catch me (and most readers) up in what the characters are feeling, particularly the viewpoint character? Or, if we're meant to have some distance from that character, get us readers feeling whatever emotion the writer intends us to feel? The emotion intended can vary widely, from sadness to terror to hilarity to peaceful quiet, depending on the story and characters; and it usually (but somehow not always) grows out of #1-4.

To be a literary success, a finished book has to be really strong in at least four of those categories, most importantly (to me) #2 and #5. It doesn't have to have equal strength in all of those; I read and reread Hilary McKay's Casson series more because I love the characters so much than because of their plot construction (although they ARE tremendously well-put-together in retrospect). And different readers will value #1-4 in different quantities depending on personal taste at different times -- sometimes I love a good plotty mystery and sometimes I like something with gorgeously lyrical writing. And having all five equals, I would say, masterpieces: the Harry Potter series and The Golden Compass and Because of Winn-Dixie and Holes.

But a book can work solely as an entertainment, a page-turner, as long as it has #5; and if that emotion is strong enough and exciting enough, the reader will keep reading even if they recognize and care about the lack of everything else. (Which, I have to say, lots of readers don't seem to.) This is especially true if that emotion is a temperature-raising one, like violence (The Hunger Games*) or deception/betrayal (The Da Vinci Code) or sex (Twilight). Not that I think The Hunger Games is solely a page-turner or succeeds only at #5 -- it's terrific at everything else as well. But that compulsion to keep reading grows out of the way the characters and the plot and even the very structure of the sentences are all built for speed and conflict. And at the other end of the scale, as I've said before, Twilight gets a D+ at best in 1-4, and yet it somehow gets an A for emotion, in the way it's able to grab even readers like me, who are rolling our eyes at the flatness of the prose, characters, and plot construction, and yet we just keep reading on.

However it happens, the stronger that successful emotional reaction, the more likely the reader is to think that book good; the stronger the word-of-mouth from the editor onward, and the more likely it is that that book will become a bestseller.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Oversight in My Submissions Guidelines, Now Corrected

I have been following the post-Liar-cover-controversy discussions about race and children's publishing with great interest, particularly Neesha Meminger's wonderful essay on power and privilege; Elizabeth Bluemle's ShelfTalker post, "Where's Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?", its followup today, and the list of multicultural books that grew out of it; Zetta Elliott's provocative "Something Like an Open Letter to the Children's Publishing Industry"; and the comments on all of these posts. This Newsweek article, "See Baby Discriminate," is also fascinating and instructive on the prevalence of white privilege that Neesha invokes and the negative consequences of that; and Mitali Perkins's "Straight Talk on Race" offered many useful questions about multicultural publishing and writing all the way back in April.

As a result of all of these articles and conversations that grew out of them, I was ashamed to realize today that my "What I'm Looking For" on my website did not include something that I've always been looking for, and something indeed my publishing reflects -- that is, my interest in seeing projects from writers and illustrators of color. This is a hard thing to talk about because race is such a sensitive issue, and people on all sides are so quick to feel slighted by the idea that someone else is getting a preference because of it. I can only say that my interest as an editor and publisher is in working to create really good books that show the whole range of children's and YA life experiences; and that most definitely includes the experience of nonwhite characters, and the contributions of nonwhite writers and illustrators.

(And it's sort of sad, frankly, that I just wrote a pre-emptive defense of this policy for white people who may feel slighted by it. White people who feel slighted: Please read all those links and comments and remember that good fiction writing is 90 percent imagining yourself in someone else's shoes. Also, while I'm recommending links, everyone of all races should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog at the Atlantic website; he's a gorgeous writer, and very thoughtful about race (as well as Mad Men, Renaissance art, the Civil War, and the NFL), with great commenters too. One of my favorite blogs.)

The representation of people of color in children's and YA lit is a complicated question with no easy answers; or rather, the only answer is the dialogue that will continue indefinitely on blogs, and in The Horn Book and School Library Journal, and on awards committees, and through the books we choose to write and publish. Here's my contribution to the dialogue tonight: There's now a line in my submissions guidelines stating "I'm very interested in projects from writers and illustrators of color." And if you are such a writer or illustrator, and your work suits all the other guidelines prescribed there -- in short, a literary picture book or novel manuscript with richly drawn characters who do things -- I hope you'll consider sharing it with me. Thank you.

Monday, September 07, 2009

And Looking Ahead to Spring . . .

The Scholastic Spring 2010 catalog has gone out, and I know many librarians, booksellers, and reviewers will be requesting review copies or ordering actual ones soon; may I suggest you keep an eye out for these novels?

Eighth Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. This book, a debut novel, came to me via query letter, and I will admit that the first thing that made it stand out to me was Olugbemisola’s (a.k.a. Gbemi’s) wonderful name. But I requested the first five chapters, then the whole manuscript, based on the characters, because they were so terrific and true and not like anything else I had ever seen in a novel: Reggie McKnight, the son of two Jamaican immigrants, struggling to figure out God and girls and his place in the middle-school ecosystem; his best friend Ruthie Robertson, a loudmouth activist with a terrific heart; his other best friend Joe C., an aspiring DJ and the artist on the “Night Man” comic that Reggie writes; Reggie's sister Monica, struggling with her own image issues; his “Little Buddy” Charlie, whose "Dora the Explorer" sneakers inadvertently inspire a revolution; George, a homeless man Reggie meets in a shelter, who inspires him as well. . . . In case you can’t tell, I feel like every character in this book is a personal acquaintance living just a few miles away from me in Brooklyn, and I adore them all (with a special affection for Joe C. and his woolly eyebrows; I think I occasionally drew hearts next to his name in the manuscript). It’s a great New York City book, with cameo appearances from the Atlantic Center and Fort Greene Park and Forbidden Planet. It’s also a great God book, one that shows how religious faith and questions can drive both activism and our everyday lives. And it just has more reality per square page than many books—about middle school, and race, and changing the world. Out in January.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork. This next book by the author of Marcelo in the Real World is very different from it in content (though not in quality): A young Latino man out to avenge his sister’s death meets a loudmouthed White guy dying of brain cancer, and the summer that follows—and a girl they both fall for—change them each irrevocably. The premise may sound schmaltzy, but there is not an ounce of sentimentality in this book; it may make you cry, but it earns the tears. (And damned if it won’t make you laugh, ache, and sigh as well.) This manuscript hit my desk in January, and it was so strong from the very beginning that I moved the pub date up a whole year; it's written in third person -- rare for a YA novel these days -- and Francisco handles it just as fluently as he did the first-person narration in Marcelo. With another gorgeous cover* by artist Dan McCarthy. Out in March.

* (Which for some reason is showing up with a blue wash in my Blogger window, though in other windows it looks properly gold and brown and black and beautiful. I'm going to post it as-is, and if it looks blue to all of you, I'll try to find another JPEG; in the meantime, you can see the right colors here. Thanks for your understanding.)