Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Ramble: Kindling, Including a Method for Dealing with Writerly Dramatic Despair

8:25 p.m.: "Kindling" has a lot of meanings for me right now. I am just home from Kindling Words, the annual and extraordinary writers', illustrators', and editors' conference in Vermont. I have my Kindle, loaded with manuscripts I ought to be reading at this moment; but I am so tired from the conference and January in general that my brain feels like kindling . . . the little pieces of wood you'd feed to a fire to help it grow. Or is that the right word? I don't know. My mind is mush.

Perfect time to write a Ramble, yes?

(Tinder? Timber? Tender timber? I haven't built a fire in forever.)

I think these will turn out to be monthly Rambles rather than weekly ones, as promised at the beginning of the year, because clearly when it comes to writing weekly ones, I vacuum. But monthly, surely, I can manage.

(Say this all together now: Ha! Ha!)

Kindling Words, for all that it has turned my brain to twigs, was as lovely as the first time I went. . . . A different kind of loveliness, the loveliness of an old friend and different responsibilities and expectations, rather than the oh-wow! discovery of everything it had to offer the first time I attended in 2008. I led the editorial strand this year, which is for editors only, and as part of that, I gave a speech on insiders and outsiders, eels and goldfish (long story), to the whole group, expanding on some of the themes and ideas in "Morals, Muddles," among other things. I wanted this speech to be VERY IMPRESSIVE, to be worthy of KW and all the great writers there, but because of that, I had a terrible time getting started or even settling on a topic -- for a long time I was half writing this insider speech and half writing a speech on the rights of readers vs. authors (which will doubtless show up later somewhere eventually, probably here). I've written enough speeches now, especially under pressure, that I felt confident that eventually the speech would come together as it should (a normal step in my writing process, Overconfident Orating); but by Monday, I had so much (self-imposed) pressure on myself to be VERY IMPRESSIVE that I slipped into another normal part of my writing process, which is Dramatic Despair. In dealing with it, I think I hit upon a technique that may be useful to other writers, so I share it here:

WRITE THE ABSOLUTE WORST THING YOUR IMAGINARY AUDIENCE COULD SAY ABOUT YOUR WORK. Because then the absolute worst thing will be out there, SAID, and you won't need to fear it any more; and that will give you the freedom to keep writing what you have to write, and damn the torpedos, because you've already identified them and taken away their sting. (This is kind of like having a Day of Vacuum in print form: You defang it by acknowledging it and turning its venom to your own ends.) For me, this took the form of writing a draft of my speech in quasi-poetic form, where I led the audience through a history of all my failed attempts to write this damn speech, and I made it into a sort of theatrical piece, where various luminaries in the audience stood up and shouted "NOT GOOD ENOUGH!" at me at various points. And I was then going to turn it around at the end to say that KW is a conference where things are always good enough, because it's an atmosphere of love in which we do our best work, and have everybody chant "GOOD ENOUGH" together at the finale. Cheesy, yes, but once I had articulated the idea of [writer-whose-work-I-adore-name redacted] and [ditto] and [ditto] standing up to tell me I was awful, contrary to my attempts to be VERY IMPRESSIVE . . . Well, nothing I wrote was actually going to be so bad that those particular people were going to do that, because of their good manners, if nothing else. And recognizing that (and sleeping on it a night) freed me up to write the speech I wanted to write, which, while perhaps not VERY IMPRESSIVE, at least had some good ideas and good lines and an interesting arc to it, and was satisfactory.

SO: If you are finding yourself stuck out of fear of what your editor or your mother or critique group or Kirkus will say about your work, write the absolute worst thing you can imagine them saying, in all its awful, particular, snotty, snarky glory. Then recognize that actually they will not say that, either because they love you (your editor, mother, and critique group, hopefully), or because your work is not actually that bad (this is actually true: you are just in a fit of Dramatic Despair). (And if it IS that bad, your editor and critique group will help make it better before Kirkus ever sees it.) And you have plenty of time, and it will all be okay. And, really, it will.

Emily Jenkins (E. Lockhart) led the writers' strand at KW, which was a great thrill for me because I SO love her work. . . . I've discovered that if I first fall in love with a writer's work when I'm reading it for fun, I tend to be a little bit -- not scared of the writer, certainly, if I meet them professionally later; but I have the same feeling I did when I was a little girl meeting the writers at my papa's children's literature festivals: the shyness at how much time I've spent in their worlds vs. how little they know me, the awe at all the people who live in their brains and everything they're able to accomplish in their books, the gratitude for the experiences and thoughts and pure pleasure I've taken in those books, the squeeness of meeting them at last. And it still takes me a while to get over that, though I tend to be able to fake it till I make it pretty well now, I think. I admire Emily's work (I guess I get to call her Emily now) because it's so tough-minded, really: People always suffer real emotional consequences and complications in her books -- the endings are never unalloyed happiness. (Well, maybe in Fly on the Wall, which I just finished today. But there's an awful lot of alloying to get through before then, including the heroine spending a week as a fly in the boys' locker room. Tell me that isn't alloy.) And her heroines have very discursive minds, which clearly I appreciate, and they have way MORE on those minds than just boys, even in the Ruby Oliver books, where boys are in the titles. And they are both feminist and funny as hell. I want to reread The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks now, as well as the newest Ruby Oliver title, and go back and pick up all her middle-grade and picture books too.

Ten minutes left in this hour-long Ramble. What else do I want to say? There is a lot of good editorial talent coming up at Candlewick and Chronicle and HMH (three of the five houses whose editors attended this year) -- keep an eye on the editorial assistants and young editors at all three of those houses, because good things will be coming from them. Andrea Tompa once again brought her Graham Cracker Goodness, which disappeared from the baked-goods table in about an hour flat. We have SO MUCH SNOW here in New York, and more on the way. I got to wear my beloved eBay evening gown to the masquerade ball on Friday night, and I was snowed on while sitting in a hot tub on Saturday. These were both wonderful things.

Emily shared John Gardner's Five Questions from On Becoming a Novelist:

1. Does it create a vivid and continuous dream?
2. Does it exhibit authorial generosity?
3. Is it emotionally and intellectually significant?
4. Is it elegant and efficient?
5. Is it strange?

If your answer to any of these questions is no, GET TO WORK.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Behind the Book: WORDS IN THE DUST, + An Opportunity to Help Afghan Women

Sometimes I receive manuscripts that I don’t want to love. Something in the agent’s pitch or the query letter rubs me the wrong way; I know the genre or the subject matter will make it a terrible uphill climb to and in the marketplace; it is the least commercially appealing subject ever (incest, kitten torturers). I still read these manuscripts, of course, because quality writing will trump everything else, but even more than usual, I go in thinking, Convince me.

And though I’m almost ashamed to admit it now, one of these manuscripts was Words in the Dust. When I received the agent’s pitch letter in late September 2009, it told me that it was the story of a Muslim girl in modern-day Afghanistan, which DID sound exactly right for me and the Arthur A. Levine Books imprint; given our international focus, and the fact that I’d just published Sara Lewis Holmes’s Operation Yes (about Air Force kids with parents serving in Iraq and Afghanistan), it seemed like a good fit. But the letter then went on to explain that it was written by a guy from Iowa, with the decidedly un-Central Asian name of “Trent Reedy,” who had served in the National Guard in Afghanistan. I knew this agent had good taste and knew my tastes as well, that she wouldn’t be steering me wrong; but having long watched the kidlit authenticity wars with a fascinated and wary eye, I thought, Well, that just sounds like nine kinds of trouble, as I put the manuscript in the e-reader queue.

A couple weeks later, I handed my e-reader to Christina McTighe, a lovely young woman (and occasional commenter here) then working for me as an intern, and pointed to the manuscript onscreen. (I do look at every manuscript myself, but given the volume of manuscripts and the loneness of me, smart interns are enormously helpful for triage.) I said, “Would you take a look at this? I have my doubts about it, but let me know what you think.”

And she came back a few hours later and said, “You HAVE to read this. I love it. It’s really, really, really good.”

Huh, I thought. Who’da thunk? That was the most enthusiastic recommendation Christina had given anything in the six months she’d been interning with me; like the agent, she had good taste and knew my taste, and so that was two people who swore to the quality of this book. On the subway home that evening, as I was scrolling through the manuscripts on my e-reader, I saw the title and remembered her endorsement. So I clicked on the document. . . .

And from the very first page, it was so exact about the heat and light and dust in Afghanistan, so honest about the good and bad, the dreams and frailties, in every single one of its characters, that I fell in love with the book too. Its heroine and narrator is Zulaikha, a thirteen-year-old girl with a congenital cleft lip, which makes the mean boys in her village call her “Donkeyface.” Her stepmother, Malehkah, likewise seems terminally disgusted by her, and no one, Zulaikha included, believes they'll ever be able to find her a husband--the only way most Afghan women can leave their father's house. But Zulaikha has a good attitude despite these difficulties, and her inner strength, unfailing hope, and occasional (internal) sarcastic remark instantly endeared her to me. When American soldiers arrived in her village, I shared her distrust and fear; when they offered to provide surgery to fix her cleft lip, I felt her joy and wonder—but that was a road not unmarked by trouble, and I held my breath with her through each turn in her fortunes. There was plenty of other action in the book as well: Zulaikha’s expertly rendered shifting relationships with her brothers; the wedding of her beloved older sister, Zeynab; her learning to read, thanks to a woman in her village, and her amazement at finding her feelings expressed in Afghan poems written eight centuries before she was born . . . all the way through to the heartbreaking yet optimistic ending, with its hope for the future anchored in the pain of Zulaikha’s growth in the story.

With all that, perhaps the author’s most impressive accomplishment for me was his characterization of Zulaikha’s father, who loves his family and works with the Americans on construction projects, but who also takes it absolutely for granted that his wife and daughters should obey him unquestioningly, and that he has every right to hit them if he wants. I’m a twenty-first century feminist to the core, so this should have put me off completely, and yet I loved this man, the same way Zulaikha does, because I saw and understood all of him, both his tenderness and his firmness. And I loved the author and book, as little as I knew them then, for not pulling any punches in showing us who all these characters were: revealing both the good and the bad, and thus ending up at real. I was reading the manuscript at just the time President Obama was performing his 2009 review of our Afghanistan policy, and when I heard the president’s decision on NPR, my first thought was, “But what will happen to Zulaikha?” It took me a moment to remember she was mostly fictional (see the Books page on Trent’s website or this wonderful article in the Los Angeles Times for the remarkable true story behind the book); but my heart ached still for the real-life girls and women of Afghanistan, and for that reason as well as all the others, I knew I had to publish this.

In the weeks that followed, I put the machinery in motion to accomplish that. I talked to Arthur and our publisher and sales and marketing staff. I called the agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, who was kind enough to put me in touch with Trent himself. We had a long talk one evening, after he’d finished teaching high school English for the day; and his obvious humility and good heart, his understanding of the issues surrounding his writing this book, and his eagerness to do everything he possibly could to make the manuscript as strong and as culturally right as it could be, convinced me that this was an author and book worth fighting for. (Not to mention his passion, when I asked him what he thought we should do for Afghanistan now, and he paused and said, “Uh, how much time do you have?”) I was lucky enough to be Trent’s first choice for an editor too, and in mid-December, we concluded the deal for the book.

Given the timeliness of the Afghanistan setting, we decided we wanted to publish Words in the Dust as soon as we possibly could without sacrificing full fact-checking or quality. So I went straight from the submitted manuscript into line-editing, which I rarely do; and at the same time, Trent and I started looking for vetters and other resources to verify those aspects of the text that didn’t come from his personal experience in-country. We found two wonderful Afghan ladies now living in the U.S. who read the book for us and sent us their comments—one of them through the organization Women for Afghan Women, whose emphasis on educating and empowering Afghan women and children became an inspiration for us both. (Trent was a hero throughout this process, I want to add, working full-time as a teacher, play director, and prom sponsor, and yet still revising intensively.) Trent quoted a number of Afghan poems in the book, and rather than using the flowery, outdated Victorian translations that were in the public domain, I commissioned new versions from Roger Sedarat, a professor of creative writing and translation at Queens College, so the language would hold the same magic for modern English-language readers as it does for Zulaikha. And Katherine Paterson, who had long served as a mentor to Trent and an author idol for me, agreed to write an introduction, where she called the book a “beautiful and often heartbreaking tale.”

And now, many months later, Words in the Dust is in stores, with strong first reviews from Booklist (“deeply moving”), Publishers Weekly (“a nuanced look at family dynamics and Afghan culture”), Kirkus (“both heartwrenching and timely”), and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (“Readers will readily find themselves rooting for Zulaikha in this simply told yet thoughtful story”). Trent spoke at ALA Midwinter a couple weekends ago, and I’m told his talk about Afghanistan and the real Zulaikha moved some people to tears.

I’m going to be blunt here: For all this, and for everything else this book has going for it—its amazing quality and heart; the kind words from Katherine and Suzanne Fisher Staples; the enthusiasm of Scholastic’s sales, publicity, and marketing staff, which has truly thrown themselves behind it—it is still the kind of book that often has a hard row to hoe in the marketplace. Why? Well, an Afghan girl with a cleft lip is not an automatic sell in a book world filled with crash-bang adventure and paranormal hullabaloo. The airwaves are filled with anti-Muslim and anti-Afghanistan sentiment, which will close a certain segment of people off to Zulaikha before they even pick up the book (if they ever pick up a book); and if readers can’t absorb a few non-English words or deal with non-American or non-Christian customs, well, it would not be an easy or enjoyable read for them.

But I believe passionately that for those who do find the book and allow themselves to be open to it, Words in the Dust is a book they’ll love, and a book that can change hearts and minds in the very best way possible: forming a connection with someone different from you by hearing their story. And to get the word out about it, I’m making the following offer:

For every person who “Likes” the Words in the Dust page on Facebook, and/or retweets the link and hashtag below on Twitter, I will donate $1 of my own money to Women for Afghan Women, up to a maximum aggregate amount of $500. Trent is already donating ten percent of his proceeds from the book to the organization, up to a maximum aggregate amount of $10,000, and I’m delighted to be able to further help the cause. Also, this is money that I’m offering personally, on my own initiative; this effort hasn’t been suggested or sponsored by Trent or Scholastic in any way, and they are in no way liable for any matters related to this donation.

If you’d like to take part, please just click over to Facebook or Twitter and include the information below. (Remember, you must include the #WordsintheDust hashtag in Twitter to be counted—I don’t have any way to keep track of the mentions otherwise!)
  • The book’s Facebook page: Words in the Dust fan page (It has 20 fans at the time I'm posting this, for the record.)
  • The link to this post:
  • The Twitter link for retweeting: RT to donate $1 for Afghan women in honor of Trent Reedy’s WORDS IN THE DUST! #WordsintheDust
  • Trent’s website:
Thank you for your interest and participation, and I hope very much that you read and enjoy the book.

The book on IndieBound | Amazon | B&N | Borders | Powells

Friday, January 21, 2011

Nature Abhors Them -- But They're Necessary Once in a While

Today was what I call a Day of Vacuum.* A Day of Vacuum has nothing to do with housework; rather, it's a day when lots of things go wrong, when you screw up repeatedly or get called on your screw-ups deservedly, when painful and annoying things happen, and they all pile up at once. For instance, my day included missing my train both going to and coming from work; being lambasted by someone whom I wronged, and deserving it; sending a group e-mail to important people with an incorrect e-mail address, thanks to autofill, and having to correct it (e.g. sending another e-mail acknowledging I did something stupid); writing catalog copy; a dentist appointment for a filling; another painful personal procedure; worrying about an issue related to my book I should have resolved months ago; being reminded of the endless and ever-growing list of things I have not done and need to do; and on and on. . . .

The main redeeming feature** of this day was that once I realized it was going to be a Day of Vacuum (after the lambasting, when I remembered the dentist appointment), I DECLARED it was a Day of Vacuum, thus embracing the vacuum. And this encouraged me to deal with lots of little vacuumy tasks I've been putting off for a while, and now they're done. The personal procedure, for instance: I chose to do it, because hey, it's a Day of Vacuum. Or when something else went wrong, I shrugged: Day of Vacuum. Once you accept the vacuum and you have this motto, then the refrain becomes almost a comfort: It reminds you that it's just one day, and it will pass.***, ****
* [Actually, I call it a Day of Suck, but my mother wouldn't let us use the latter word in its slang sense when I was a teenager, so my sister and I replaced the word then with "vacuum". And in deference to her sensibilities (hi, Mom!), I'll use that term in this post.]
** The other redeeming features: I finished a second-pass line-edit, when the book is more or less in focus and the rest is all pulling the pieces together; excited about a revised manuscript; my filling didn't hurt or require Novocaine . . . and getting to blog, I guess.
*** Or, to put a kidlit spin on it: Today was a difficult day, but tomorrow will be better. (Even in Australia.)
ETA: After I posted this at nearly 1 a.m., I decided to knock off one more task and write an e-mail regarding the program for an upcoming writer's conference. Finished it, hit "send": The computer system ate it. At which point there was nothing to do but go to bed to make the day be over.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Thought for the Day

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
                                           --  Father Pedro Arrupe, S. J.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

My First Review of SECOND SIGHT!

Rose Green was kind enough to take me up on last week's offer of a review e-copy of Second Sight, and she just posted a wonderful review of it on her blog:

Who this book is for: the intermediate to advanced writer, preferably someone who has already completed (or at least is deeply into) a first draft. There is definitely a hole in the market for books for intermediate writers, the ones who are past the introductory stages of how a book is put together but who don’t yet have an agent or editor of their own to guide them. It’s full of practical suggestions for deep revision, for finding those “electric fence emotions” (as she describes the raw feelings of middle school) and pulling them forward to connect with readers in a real, believable way. The book itself is written with authority; not just because of Klein’s editor hat, but because she herself is an excellent writer, particularly gifted at pinpointing and expressing plot structure, voice, characterization—in short, the underpinnings of a novel.
Glory! Thank you, Rose.

The designer and I should hash out the final details on the cover this week, and the book will go to print as soon as that's done, making it available for sale in early February, I hope. If you have a blog and you'd be interested in hosting me to talk about the book -- a Q&A or a guest post or whatever you like -- feel free to contact me at asterisk.bks at gmail dot com. All very exciting!

Monday, January 03, 2011

A Ramble: Eastern Standard Time

When I glanced back over the 2010 posts on Brooklyn Arden, I felt a little depressed, because I blogged less often and about less-thoughtful things this past year than I have in any year since the blog’s inception in 2005. Not that I expect readers missed me much, by any means, but writing here is one of the ways I think, and the lack of blogging was a sign of how little I felt like writing, and how little time I had to think for pleasure, if that makes sense, in 2010. . . . I wrote a lot of speeches and editorial letters and other important things, many of which turned out well, I’m glad to say, and of course I did all the revising on my book; but that wasn’t restful thinking for me, talking out loud about things that interest me—which was how this blog started, as my one-sided continuation of a lost correspondence, and how I always love it most, when it gives me a chance to know what I think when I see what I say, to paraphrase E. M. Forster. So with this post, I hope to start a tradition of letting myself write for one hour every Sunday, to put down what’s been happening in my life and on my mind; and if you all find things in it that are useful for you, wonderful, and if not, well, you know what you’re in for with future posts. This one is more of a catch-up, newsy post than I hope most of those future posts will be.

  • Holidays! In the last ten days, I visited these cities in order:  New York; Belton, Missouri; Treynor, Iowa; Belton, Missouri; Hemet, California; Santa Barbara, California; Los Angeles, California; New York, and as much as I love all the people in all the other places mentioned, I am very glad to be home again. 
  • And in truly major news, James and I won the Frog again in team play! (The Frog, for those of you joining us just now, is the traveling trophy in my family's Killer Klein Croquet Tournament; and Killer Klein Croquet is basically croquet meets Calvinball, played with great enthusiasm and emotion and no skill whatsoever. See prior reports under the "Frog" label at right.) I thus become the winningest KKCT champion ever -- neener neener neener, family! -- at least until James and I have the chance to defend his Brooklyn sojourn in May.
  • (And I have now set an impressively high bar for maturity in these Rambles by actually saying "neener neener neener." Look for "I know you are, but what am I?" in future posts.)
  • True Grit contains probably my favorite scene from any film this year:  Mattie Ross’s negotiation with the horse trader, her calmly wearing him down till she gets exactly what she wants and a thank-you for it. Its well-written rat-a-tat dialogue between two equally matched opponents reminded me of one of my favorite film scenes of all time, the opening exchanges between James Bond and Vesper Lynd on the train in Casino Royale (“How was your lamb?” “Skewered. One sympathizes.”)—though True Grit was much less sexy, of course. Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld are getting all the awards buzz, as far as I can tell, but I loved Matt Damon for investing the at-first-foppish La Boeuf with real dignity and character. I would have liked a bit more emotional payoff at the end, I think, but so the Coen Brothers go.
  • Black Swan was a potentially fascinating movie about the quest for perfection in ballet and its mental cost, made risible (to use J. Hoberman’s word) by ham-handed horror-movie plotting, details, and filmmaking techniques. Also, Darren Aronofsky has apparently never met a close-up of a bloody [insert your own body part here] that he didn’t like. But other than that, it was beautifully shot, and it made me want to see Swan Lake, which I never have. . . .
  • One of the good things in 2010:  I fell in love with making homemade granola, inspired by the amazingly simple Mark Bittman recipe in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (where he recommends toasting the oats and nuts first, which I endorse). The recipe is easy, tasty, and capable of endless variations; my version tonight has dried cherries, sunflower seeds, almonds, vanilla, and molasses as a sweetener (though the all-time best sweetener truly is maple syrup, I think). If you have suggestions for mix-ins, I’m happy to hear them.
  • Congratulations to Erin McCahan and I Now Pronounce You Someone Else for the book’s being named a Cybils YA finalist! I love, love, love romantic comedy, which is partly why I wanted to publish INPYSE; but it’s a category that doesn’t get recognized much come awards time, because the seeming lightness of the atmosphere and subject matter (and, perhaps, the fact that it’s a genre most often about, created by and consumed by women) make it easy to blow it off in the face of IMPORTANT books or movies about war or boxing or dystopias or whatall. But the real subject matter of all good romantic comedies are relationships and moral values; and the atmosphere in which those things are made coherent, consistent, realistic, and amusing, and in which they matter, even in the face of war or boxing or whatall, is in fact incredibly hard to create and sustain. Erin not only accomplishes that creation, she walks the line between the development of a relationship and the development of a self, and sharp wit and real pain, with truly impressive skill; and as an editor and romantic comedy fan, I wanted to say thank you to the Cybils judges for recognizing that accomplishment. 
  • If you have a blog or other publication and you'd be interested in reviewing my book, Second Sight:  An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, please e-mail me at asterisk.bks at gmail dot com with your name, blog address, and any other pertinent information. Not all respondents will be sent copies of the book, but all interest is appreciated.  
  • Pleasure reading this holiday:  Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time (devoured in 36 hours over the Christmas weekend) and George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings. At a going-out-of-business sale, I bought a second copy of J-Crusie's Welcome to Temptation, probably my favorite contemporary romance novel ever; The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe’s memoir of managing the Obama campaign, for 2008 nostalgia in the face of 2011 House horror; and Story by Robert McKee, because I’ve always felt like a bit of fake for talking about McKeean principles (well, really Aristotelian ones) without ever having read his actual book, and now this shall be corrected. 
  • My New Year's Resolutions have always been less about specific behaviors I want to have than specific things I want to accomplish:  to run a 10K, to learn to knit, to try three new cuisines . . . all of which lead in turn to those specific behaviors, as I have to run regularly to be ready for a 10K, I have to develop a new skill with the knitting, I have to get out of the house more in order to find the cuisines. I haven’t created a proper list since 2006 or so, but this year I want to try it again, to help get myself back on track. So I want to run another half-marathon; finish the baby blanket I started knitting in, um, 2007 (and haven’t touched since then, for the record--this is not a monster blanket four years in the making); publish my book (which should go to print as soon as the designer and I hash out the final details on the cover); eat less sugar; finish reading War and Peace; and write these Rambles once a week. Best of luck with your new year and resolutions as well!