Monday, March 29, 2010

Nine Questions & Answers

In my previous post, I solicited nine questions from readers and promised to answer them. Voila!

1. Portia Pennington: How important do you think a personal connection between editor and manuscript is to the overall success of the project? Not only to acceptance (I assume that's an essential first step!), but to the crafting of a lasting work of which both author and editor can be proud?

I think the most important thing (and in some ways, the only thing) an author and editor need to have in common are their literary values and goals--that they both value the same things in the manuscript (whether that's characterization or beautiful prose or good trashy drama or whatever it may be), and they're both working toward the same vision of the manuscript based on those values (because they both value trashy fun, say, the editor suggests adding a shopping scene at Fred Segal and then a catfight at the heroine's villa in the Hollywood Hills, and the author sees the Judith Krantzesque hilarity of this and agrees). Those values and goals typically come from similar past experiences and present values that often lead to more personal connections; talking over a certain character's development naturally leads to discussion of past personal experiences analogous to the situation, say, which might in turn lead to real emotional connection and friendship. But a strong personal connection between author and editor isn't really necessary, so long as the values and goals are the same and the conversation is civil and respectful on both sides.

2. Jason: If you were a writer, who had no other connection to the publishing business and you had just completed re-re-re-re-writing your first novel and you were finally ready for submission... and considering the current economic climate... would you seek out an agent or focus on the publishing houses that accept queries from unagented writers?

I would seek out an agent, not only for the multiplicity of reasons that agents are good for writers, but because responding to unagented queries tends not to be the first priority for editors timewise (see: my previous post), and agents will get back to you much more quickly than we can. Editorial Anonymous had an excellent post on this recently, as she often has excellent posts on many topics.

3. Lauren: I've seen / heard some kidlit agents and editors asking for more magic realism on their desks. Are you seeing more of it in your SQUIDs and agented submissions, and do you think it'll become more popular on the shelves in the future?

Actually, yes, I have been seeing slightly more of it lately, at least in agented submissions. (At least I think it's magic realism. . . . It could also be the softer edge of urban fantasy, or the more magical edge of paranormal romance. . . . These things all bleed into each other, which makes it hard to determine when a trend starts and when it ends.)

Whether it will become popular, I have no idea. I tend to think kid and YA readers like more solidity in their reading than magic realism offers -- having rules underlying a fantasy world, and delineations between what's real and what's not, rather than the amorphousness of magic realism. But this just may be the kind of kid reader that I was, and the kind of adult reader I am. Magic realism works best for me when the vagueness of the Action Plot/world is balanced and/or given coherence by a really strong, distinct, and well-developed Emotional Plot.

4. Also, bonus!: What's your favorite Sondheim song?

Hardest question of the list! My favorite Sondheim song in performance is Barbara Cook singing "Not a Day Goes By / Losing My Mind" on her Sondheim album, which breaks my heart every time. My favorite Sondheim song purely by itself is probably "Finishing the Hat," with strong competition from "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Being Alive." "Pretty Women" is one of his most gorgeous melodies, IMHO, but I don't have the personal emotional connection to it that I have to the other songs I've mentioned.

5. Eliza T: In a review for *House Rules* by Jodi Picoult, a critic referred to Asperger's as the "disease du jour" (which shows some measure of ignorance since AS is not a disease.) There do seem to be a number of books, movies, TV shows, etc that have characters on the Autism Spectrum. When does the market become saturated? Is it like vampires (although I cringe to make the comparison) and there is room for more protagonists with different ways of being? How do publishers gauge which underlying topics have room left to explore and which do not?

We publishers know the market is saturated when (a) bookstore buyers start rolling their eyes and passing on the books when sales reps present them (a dangerous warning sign we try to avoid before we get there), or (b) the books stop selling (ditto). Another warning sign is when a manuscript involving the trend du jour presents all the cliches of that trend rather than any original thought involving it, but then that could just be the fault of one unimaginative writer rather than the fault of the trend. . . . Maybe many manuscripts like that would form sign (c).

With something like Asperger's, which is (or should be) a factor of a character's personality rather than the whole plot itself (in contrast to vampirism, where a vampire's mere existence in the real world alongside regular humans usually becomes the central problem/plotline of the book), I think there's still a lot of room to explore, because there are so many plots that might involve it in so many different ways. Also, the most recent statistic I've seen regarding autism said that 1 in 110 children born today are somewhere on the autistic spectrum -- which is up considerably (and distressingly) from the 1 in 150 statistic I saw when I was working on Marcelo in the Real World a couple years ago. If that's true, the interest in autism isn't going away anytime soon, though the subject will need to continue to be covered relatively well in order to be respectable. (Though those numbers should certainly be taken with a grain of salt: "lies, damned lies . . .")

6. Quartland: For a YA novel, what length of a synopsis makes you smile?

One page, single spaced.

7. Melissa: What, in your opinion, are some of the major differences between the run-of-the-mill published book and the stand-out-from-the-crowd published book? What do you see in books that get starred reviews, win awards, and/or become bestsellers, that you do not see in the rest?

"Get starred reviews and win awards": capacious characters with multiple dimensions; tight writing, often with a strong voice; a plot that points to a larger emotional or philosophical idea.

"Become bestsellers": plots that are "sticky," in the terms set forth by Made to Stick: a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Story, executed with some modicum of skill.

I think people tend to buy books for their plots, but love them for their characters, writing, and ideas.

8. Patricia: If you have rejected one genre manuscript from an author, will you consider/read another genre manuscript from the same author?

It depends upon why I rejected the first manuscript, which usually has very little to do with genre. If I rejected the first manuscript because I thought the characters or writing weren't up to my standards, then I'm probably not going to be interested in the second unless the writer shows me the treatment of those things have changed in his/her work. But if I rejected the first one because I thought the plot wasn't hanging together right or I wasn't interested in that particular genre, then sure, I'd be glad to take a look.

9. Kaitlyn: How international is the publishing industry culturally? By that I mean the interchange of books/ideas across different cultures other than Western, and more specifically, American... One Australian author, Matthew Reilly, has commented that the reason why his first few books have American protagonists is because the American people only like to read about Americans. How true is this?

I don't think that American people only like to read about Americans. I think it is easier for Americans to read about Americans, because no cultural translation is involved; and as Americans (like most people the world over) tend to prefer things that are easy to things that are hard, it is easier to sell books about Americans to Americans. And sure, publishers do tend to like books that are easier to sell!

But that doesn't mean it's impossible to sell Americans books about people of other countries -- the bestselling author of modern times, for example, came from and wrote about a non-American country. And Australians especially have been doing pretty well at getting published here altogether: Markus Zusak, Jaclyn Moriarty (whose wonderful The Ghosts of Ashbury High Arthur A. Levine Books will publish this summer), Martine Murray (whose lovely How to Make a Bird we will also publish this summer), Garth Nix, Judith Clarke, Melina Marchetta, Justine Larbelestier, Margo Lanagan. . . . So I think the industry is open to great writers and characters, no matter their nationality.


  1. Ohhh, love these. I LOVE peeking into the minds of editors. Thanks so much for this. :)

  2. Great questions and answers. Thanks!

    I especially love this in #7:

    I think people tend to buy books for their plots, but love them for their characters, writing, and ideas.

    I haven't thought about it like this before, but that's definitely true for me as a reader.

    Great insight. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the response Cheryl, it is much appreciated!

  4. Appreciate the "sticky" idea and link.

    Re #5: Anyone thinking of/working on a novel with a character with Asperger's should keep a close eye on proposed revisions to the upcoming DSM-5, including this one to subsume the Asperger's classification under autism, which seems to suggest some of those currently being diagnosed with Asperger's would not get the autism diagnosis but would be said to be a "personality type" rather than having a diagnosable disorder.

    Serves as a general caution for writers to stay abreast of things.

  5. Yeah, I really love that quote too: "I think people tend to buy books for their plots, but love them for their characters, writing, and ideas." Excellent!

  6. This is GREAT, Cheryl! Thank you so much for posting. I'm contemplating the agent/publisher question myself. And I'm loving the interest in magic realism – takes me back to my fascination with the Twilight Zone.

  7. Wow. This was very informative. Thanks!

  8. Very informative, and very helpful, Cheryl. Thank you.

    But as far as question #4...I agree that Barbara Cook's "Not a Day Goes By/Losing My Mind" is a wonderful heartbreaker, but what about "Our Time" and "Opening Doors" from "Merrily We Roll Along"? Every time I hear those two songs I want to sit down and work on a new book.

  9. oh! made to stick looks interesting...
    i'm so glad to hear that there will be a new martine murray!

  10. Patricia NesbittApril 04, 2010 6:58 PM

    Thanks for taking the time to consider our questions and provide your answers. Your efforts are greatly appreciated.

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