Friday, October 31, 2008

Nancy: A Shout Out To Some Great Indies

So many bookstores – so little time. I am blessed in New York's Hudson Valley to have so many terrific indie bookshops within a short drive. Actually, there are so many I couldn’t single one out to write about for this post. I thought of nearby Blackwood and Brouwer Booksellers in Kinderhook, New York – a wonderful small shop near the village gazebo run by Rondi Brouwer and her mom and dad. Rondi is one of those owners who know her merchandise and her clientele so well it is scary. Just mention a book you're interested in and Rondi can pull it off the shelf immediately or has it on order already. Her mom, Jean, makes the best snacks for book events. When I appeared at the shop to sign and read Pizza for the Queen she had made wonderful cookie pizzas and when I appeared at the shop for a program for my book, Oceans, she had made a jello-filled aquarium for the kids complete with gummy fish!

Not too far away is Oblong Books and Music with shops in Millerton, NY and also in Rhinebeck, NY. Former children’s buyer, Michelle Charles, had the brilliant idea to showcase a local children’s author or illustrator in the Millerton window each month with their recent title. Artists constructed their own window display. It not only drew shoppers to the store each month, but even was mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly. Author/illustrator, Kyra Teis will be removing her window display featuring her new title, The Magic Flute, in the coming days – so drop on over this weekend to catch a glimpse before it leaves.

The Little Book House in Albany, NY has been undergoing a major renovation along with their neighboring adult side – The Book House. Even though Barnes and Noble and Borders are within a mile of this indie, shoppers still flock there for the personal service and great staff recommendations. Another branch of the shop has opened up in Troy, NY, just a short drive away. I still have to get on over to that one!
There are still more to talk about - including The Open Door in Schenectady, Merritt Books in Red Hook and Millbrook. Those will come in a later post!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Kristen: Bear Research

I am a little bit intimidated to follow Coert’s blog entry on research, because his was incredibly useful and entertaining. Mine in mostly going to be about bears. Mostly. You see, when I was writing my first young adult novel about a teenager named Tess who loses her virginity underneath a canoe, it occurred to me that in addition to providing teens with accurate information about safe sex, it would probably be a good idea to provide them with accurate information about bear safety as well. Why? Good question. One answer: The big event took place near Yellowstone Park. Another answer(really, the truer answer): I like bears. In fact, I find bears infinitely interesting, admirable, furry, and entertaining. I make this next claim with a perfectly straight face: I know bears. I’ve watched a lot of bear shows on television. And I’ve seen lots of actual bears. Also, I tend to rip out articles about bears that I find in magazines and newspapers. During the first draft of my novel, I began researching bear safety, and to be honest, bears began to feel as important to my book as my actual characters. I don’t remember at what phase during the draft I realized that I needed to dig a lot deeper with my bear research. All I know is that it happened. My clipped articles weren’t enough. And my Discovery Channel viewing habits weren’t going to provide the scholarly angle I was looking for either. Furthermore, my trips to Bear World, while delightful and inspiring, didn’t yield much beyond glimpses of sleeping bears from my car. I needed to kick my bear research into a whole new phase. The book phase.

I didn’t realize how big the book phase would become. All I knew is that I needed annotated and footnoted and copyrighted books about bears--immediately. I found my definitive source about bears right away: Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero. It had everything. Information about bears. Photographs of bears. A cross-hatched drawing of where to shoot an attacking bear for maximum impact. (A word of warning, I do not suggest reading this book before a camping trip.) I had more bear facts than I knew what to do with. Seriously. I could have stopped. That would have been the logical and productive thing to do. But then I started reading through The Yellowstone Handbook: An Insider’s Guide to the Park as related by Ranger Norm. Again, a great source of information. I learned such things as “Grizzly claws are up to 4 inches long and light in color. Black bear claws are shorter, darker and curved--ideal for tree climbing.” (There were also drawings of the claws to further distinguish their differences.) Again, it felt as if I had enough information to put the bear books down. But I didn’t. After reading about Yellowstone, I bought another book: Attacked! By Beasts of Prey and Other Deadly Creatures: True Stories of Survivors. Really, there were only two chapters that dealt with my subject: “Come Quick! I’m Being Eaten by a Bear” and “Grizzly Attack!” But I was intrigued by other chapters too, such as, “I Hoped It Would Finish Me Quickly,” a graphic page-turner about a woman, her canoe, and a crocodile. Also, “Savaged By a Lion” was an amazing account of a safari gone wrong. Again, I could have stopped.

Instead of stopping, I dipped into Shark Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. You might be wondering what kind of bear information I found in that book. Well, none. But that book was next to another book I bought and it was on sale and it had an amazing cover that featured a great white shark surfacing with its mouth slightly open. By now you see the slippery slope. Research is not writing. And while you might convince yourself that it’s just as good as writing, it’s not. Sure, it’s important to explore your curiosities. Sure, it’s important to be factually accurate. Sure, it’s good to know what defensive postures are most effective in stopping hungry, apex predators from devouring you head first. But there’s got to be a stopping point. Seriously.

Recently, I met Ron Carlson, a nice guy and talented fiction writer who has written many fabulous books including an excellent collection of essays on craft called Ron Carlson Writes a Story. In it, he says one of the most important things I’ve come across in a long time and it’s not even related to bear safety. His advice? “Stay in the room.” While writing your story, there will be an incredible pull to leave the room. Your tea could be fresher. Somebody might have sent you an interesting email. Maybe you experience an urge to bake and/or eat. These are all legitimate impulses. But they are all versions of leaving the room. And as much as I’d like to look back and say that every animal attack story I read factored into the making of my first novel, I don’t think that’s the truth. I left the room. The house. The neighborhood. A few times, I even left the state.

What to do about that now? For me, it’s all about balance. Now while I write, I try not to look up anything. Not synonyms. Not city populations. Not titles of something I can’t quite recall. I flag it and I go back to it once my writing time is officially over. (Also, I snack a lot less. Because going to the kitchen requires that I leave the room.) Yes, email is still a temptation. As are live web cams chronicling the thrilling lives of bears. But to arrive at the level of productivity that my life now requires, I’ve got to be more aware of what’s real work and what’s *bear research.* Yes, bear safety and bee attacks and rampaging circus animals and air balloon mishaps and miraculous dolphin encounters are all still subjects that capture my attention. But when I write, I really do try to follow Ron Carlson’s fabulous advice. “Stay in the room.” (Ironically, this is also an excellent way to avoid bear attacks.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Coert: The Writer on the Factory Floor

One of the best things about being writers is that we often have no choice but to become experts in fields that might never have otherwise interested us. If a character turns out to be a gun owner, we have to convince someone to teach us how to shoot. If the character runs a restaurant, we need to learn how to cook all the dishes on the menu. If the character needs to pick a lock, we need to download how-to manuals off the Internet, buy practice locks from the hardware store, and drive ourselves insane trying to figure out how to keep the damn torque wrench steady enough while we nudge each of the pins above the shear line. For example.

Research is vital to my work because I’ve discovered that I like to build scenes—especially the important ones—by using processes as a structure. If my readers can learn about dove hunting or theatrical make-up application at the same time as they learn about the lives of the characters, it makes the scene more interesting. As significant, it’s easy to camouflage essential plot information or emotional revelations if the reader’s attention is focused on, say, the various types of wine racks on display at a regional trade show.

Research has obviously become easier with the Internet, and with sites like YouTube providing visuals in movement, it can be easy to convince ourselves that the information at our fingertips is enough. But just because it’s easy and pretty good doesn’t mean that we should become complacent. Over the course of researching for various novels and short stories, the best thing for my fiction has always come through primary research on the ground. People enjoy talking about themselves (as this post can certainly attest). When they think someone has taken a legitimate interest in their lives—You’re writing about what I do?—it can almost be impossible to shut them up.

For a while, I thought that a character of mine needed to access a safe deposit box, but my only experience with safe deposit boxes came from heist movies. I wanted my own version of the details, so I went to my local bank and asked if someone might help me, a fiction writer, represent the process accurately. The next morning, I spent an hour with a bank manager as he walked me through every step. He introduced me to the deposit box manager; he showed me the vault—yes, a vault, with steel bars and a big circular door that was locked every night and surprisingly threadbare green carpeting. He walked me through the sign-in procedure, let me pull out a box so I could feel the heft. I saw the scrapes on the walls where years of careless box-handling had gouged the wood. At the end of our meeting, he gave me his card and told me not to hesitate to call him if I had any more questions.

Incidentally, I can’t imagine another scenario in which a bank manager would want anything to do with me. I still haven’t mustered up the courage to let him know that the safe deposit box chapters had to be cut.

But while initial research is certainly helpful, I don’t believe that research should be simply a matter of gathering information before sitting down to write. I’ve found that the most helpful aspect of research can often be finding out how wrong my initial attempts are.

In my latest manuscript, my main character, Jason, is the son of a chicken processing plant owner. Once thought of as a potential heir to the business, Jason has squandered his inheritance and his father’s goodwill. The novel opens with him working the deboning line on the factory floor as his younger brother has assumed the leadership role for which Jason once seemed destined. I knew Jason was dissatisfied with the direction his life was headed, and I knew he felt stuck, and I knew it had been a while since he and his brother had been on friendly terms. What I didn’t know was the environment he worked in, so while I was able to get a pretty detailed idea of what the chicken breast deboning process was—thanks in part to the animal-rights posters on YouTube—I couldn’t put myself in the room.

So, I managed to finagle a tour of a poultry processing plant. A friend of mine works for a restaurant company, and he told the plant manager that I was a new employee and was interested in seeing where the restaurant’s poultry came from. In contrast to my experience with the bank manager, this time I had to pretend that I wasn’t a writer. The people at the plant weren’t interested in having anyone write an exposé, whether it be fiction or not, so I borrowed my friend’s company logo polo shirt and kept my notebook in my back pocket. Did I feel bad about this deception? A little. But my friend needed to see changes in the plant anyway. Even more important, the novel explores how Jason eventually becomes a con artist, so I figured that a little con on my part wouldn’t hurt.

Among the things I learned on my tour: to control bacteria growth, the temperature of a processing plant is federally mandated to be no warmer than 52 degrees. As such, there is a loud and steady drone of cooling fans. There are small forklifts constantly moving product, the USDA quality control guy wears a yellow hardhat, and in rooms where the birds are stored before processing, the temperature is 29 degrees. The floors are slick in places because of an anti-freezing solution.

The line workers don’t wear jumpsuits; they wear white smocks over multiple layers of clothing—hooded sweatshirts, down jackets, etc. They also wear hairnets and, if they have facial hair, thin mesh masks. As a visitor, I also wore the smock and hairnet, although because my tour-mates and I had come from the scalding Houston summer outside, by the time we’d spent an hour on the floor, we were all freezing. Our noses were bright red, our toes were numb, and I kept my hands under my armpits for warmth.

Some of the details that my first-draft mind pushed into the text were just factually incorrect. For instance, during an early scene where Jason’s younger brother pays him a visit on the factory floor, I wanted to show the difference between the two of them. I had Jason wearing a sweaty and blood-stained jumpsuit while his brother was in a tailored pinstriped suit. A number of things are wrong with this scenario, the most obvious (in retrospect) being that there’s no way the factory would exist in temperatures warm enough that anyone would sweat at all, much less actually become sweaty.

After my initial disappointment at having gotten so much wrong, I realized how much better the real facts of the factory were than what I’d come up with after my YouTube research. The sweaty, blood-stained jumpsuit is the type of contrived detail that emerges in a first draft. It was supposed to be meaningful—of course his brother would be well-dressed while he was sweating and gross. But because there was no way a real USDA approved plant would be hot enough for anyone to sweat, I was forced to imagine that someone so used to spending eight hours a day in the 52-degree factory might have trouble acclimatizing to the normal temperatures of the outside world. Now the detail of the factory became thematic, something more to do with his person than with the superficial difference between Jason and his brother.

In addition to the specific details about the plant’s operations—where the birds came from, how many workers on a line, the layout—I was also able to use some other sensory material to build on the thematic difference between the brothers. Because I learned that the cooling fans are everywhere, now when Jason and his brother interact on the floor, there’s nowhere they can go to escape the constant drone, and they have to shout to be heard. It may seem obvious and contrived in summary, but within the flow of the text it comes off as an organic way to show the difficulty the two brothers have in communicating.

As if that weren’t enough, the plant manager also provided me with a line of dialogue that made its way into the manuscript the moment I got home. We were walking by the trimming line, where five men and women trimmed the excess fat from chicken breasts destined for restaurants like my friend’s, and the manager pointed to a man whose knife moved far more quickly than the rest. “See that guy?” the manager said. “He’s so fast he could cut out your heart and show it to you before you hit the ground.”

For the purposes of analogy that I hope becomes clear, please allow me a slight tangent: My wife recently received her MBA, and because she spent six years in the workplace before going back to school, her experience with her coursework was different from that of her classmates who started school straight from undergrad or with limited experience in the business world. For my wife, the material she learned had real-world application. She recognized solutions to problems she’d already encountered, whereas for her younger classmates, the subject matter was purely theoretical.

This is the reason I’m fond of continued research after an initial draft. Some research before a draft is necessary, of course, but when I do follow-up research, I know what problems have already presented themselves, so I can go into the research with my mind already primed.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how to defuse a bomb.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lisa: Books That Have Made This Writer

What a fascinating exercise, to come up with the five books that helped me become the writer I am today. I think what’s difficult for me is I feel like every book helps me become a better writer. I don’t think I’m one of those born with the necessary talent to do this writing thing. I really have to work at it. And I honestly feel like every single book I read is a lesson in writing, in one way or another. But here is the list of five I came up with!

DREAMLAND by Sarah Dessen – This was the first Sarah Dessen book I read, and actually one of the first young adult books I read after I started writing for kids. I started out writing picture books and middle grade novels, and since there were many mid-grade novels to keep me reading, I didn’t venture much beyond those. But when I read this book, I was hooked. Her characters were real. Her descriptions swept me up and away into the story. It’s no wonder her books are so hugely popular with both teens and adults.

OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse – As someone who writes in verse, how could I not mention this amazing book? It was actually the first verse novel I read. The poems were so vivid, I could taste the heat and dust as I read. It stuck with me for a very long time, and even now, when I’m writing in verse, I think of Billie Jo and the pictures Karen Hesse painted in such few words.

BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo – I don’t often reread books because I have so little time to read as it is, and my to-be-read pile is always about to topple over. But this book is the exception. When I need to remember why voice is so important to a story, I read this book. When I need to remember how important it is to create unique and vivid characters, I read this book. When I need to remember why books are so important for kids, I read this book. I loved books when I was at the middle grade age. Life was kind-of chaotic for me then, and most of my memories of books as a child come from that period of life. They comforted me in a way nothing else could. Those memories, along with this book, are what keep me going back to mid-grade fiction.

WHAT MY MOTHER DOESN’T KNOW by Sonya Sones – Another novel in verse I have to mention, because this book is hugely popular with the teen girls and when I finished I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME, I immediately sent an e-mail to Sonya and asked if she ever took on books to critique. By its very nature of being different, verse can turn some teens off. I really wanted to make sure I was being poetic while also being accessible. It’s a fine line! Fortunately for me, Sonya said yes and my book became stronger thanks to her feedback.

CAT IN THE HAT by Dr. Suess – I know, what an odd one to end with. Why? Because one of the top rules in children’s literature is don’t try to be Dr. Suess. Which is another way of saying, there is only one Dr. Suess. So when I find myself wishing I could write books like John Green or Laurie Halse Anderson or E. Lockhart or Suzanne Collins or a thousand other authors, I tell myself, don't try to be them. Just be yourself, and do the best you can with what you've got. After all, it worked for Dr. Suess, didn't it?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Saundra: Building Your Own Press Kit

One of the most basic tools in your PR and marketing portfolio is your press kit. A press kit provides basic biographical information and information about your work, in an easily accessible kit for reviewers and journalists. It makes it easy for people to write about you- always a plus- and it saves work for you, because you can avoid collecting and providing the same information repeatedly- definitely a plus.

There are 5 basic elements in a press kit:

1) Your biography
2) Contact information
3) Your photo
4) A synopsis of your most current work
5) Representative art for your most current work


Your press kit biography is a chance to present and brand yourself as a particular kind of author. Ideally, you should include a short, medium, and long biography in your press kit- each serves a different purpose.

Short should be no more than 50 words, about what you'd put on a magazine byline. Medium can be about 150 words- ideal for reprinting on websites- use the bio that would be on your jacket flap as an example.

Long can be as long as you like, but one page single-spaced should be more than enough. No one will be reprinting this bio, but this is where you get to brand and present yourself. Include your professional successes, especially ones that you want to emphasize (bestseller status, awards, grants, fellows, MFAs, etc., etc., etc..)

But also include the personal information that makes you interesting- and that you don't mind being asked about. Consider this document the base of every single profile and human interest story written about you. Hi, I'm Saundra Mitchell- I write books, but I also make paper! I'm a screenwriter, I've been a phone psychic, and I do radio shows about urban legends!

Present it in a voice that cultivates the image you want to portray of yourself. I'm a funny writer, I'm a literary writer, I'm an edgy writer- whatever. Take Meg Cabot's writing vlogs for example- her voice is informative, but she doesn't take herself at all seriously.

Once you have all three of your biographies written, compile them into a single document. At the top of the document, include your name, your e-mail address, and your URL. Don't include your mailing address or your phone number, because you're putting this on your website for any n00b to download.

Then, include your bios under these headers: SHORT BIO (WORD COUNT) MID BIO (WORD COUNT) and then just BIOGRAPHY (no word count required.) Don't use special formatting (bold, italics, bullets, etc.,) and single-space.

You will want to provide this document (along with any others in the kit) in both Word .doc format, and plain TXT. It's the standard showing of fealty to Bill Gates, because most people use Microsoft products whether they want to, but also a nod to the fact that some people like to use vi editor in UNIX.

One you have everything in your document, save it as a .doc . I don't think there's a single word processing program out there that doesn't give you the ability to save cross-format into .doc (see abovementioned fealty to Gates,) but if you've managed to stumble across the only one that does, then have a friend convert it, and skip to the TXT instructions.

The reason we had no special formatting is because now you need to SAVE AS. Click on SAVE AS instead of SAVE. When you get the dialogue box that lets you put in a filename, keep the same filename (that way you don't get confused later,) but select ASCII TXT (.txt) from the pulldown menu beneath it to save as text.

It will tell you that you are going to lose special formatting, but you can click okay with impunity because you don't have any special formatting, right? Right!

Contact Information

No point in making a press kit if the press can't find you! This is a simple document that should include:

Your name, your e-mail address, your URL: again, anyone can download this, and you don't want whackadoos with your home address. If you have a PO Box for fan mail, go ahead and include that.

Then, include:

Your agent's name, your agent's company (if any,) and your agent's e-mail address. Most people don't need this information, but certain professional people will- namely, people interested in getting rights clearances for your work, people who want to acquire subsidiary rights, people who want blurbs, etc., etc..

Those folks would generally rather talk to your representation than to you, because all you can do is giggle wildly on the phone and go, "Seriously? You want to know if there are comic book rights left on my contract? WHEEEEEE!"

Don't lie. You know it's true.

Anyway, save this as a Word .doc and as ASCII TXT as well.

Your Photograph

Sorry guys. The media likes pictures, so you should include one in your press kit. It doesn't have to be your official author photo, but if you're like me, that's the only photo you dare show the public.

Whichever photo you choose, you'll want to include a high resolution (at least 1200X1200) version of the photo, suitable for being reprinted in newspapers and magazines.

Then, you'll want to include a medium resolution version (around 300X400 or thereabouts) that people can use on their website. That's large enough to let them add any frames or borders they might use for site consistency, or to resize as they need.

Finally, you need a thumbnail version (no bigger than 100X200, and a little smaller would be better.) This is suitable for use on forums, or in very short reviews or blurbs about your work.

Windows and Mac both have native image tools that will allow you to resize a large image file, or you can use online utilities like Shrink Pictures. I believe Flickr and Picasa will also resize for free.

Once you have all three photos, you'll want to compress them so it doesn't take 5 hours to download your press kit. Windows can do this natively, or you can download WinZip; Macs can also do this natively, or you can download ZipIt. (These are both pay-software titles, but they both include a free evaluation period.)

Zip all three files into a single file called, so you can keep track of the file later.


Those are the three elements which comprise your base press kit. Your bio, contact info, and photo only change when you want them to, so you can carry them over for each press kit you make. Each? Buh? Yes, you'll want to keep your press kit current with your career. And that's why we move on to:

Synopsis of Your Current Work

It's exactly that- a document that has your name, your e-mail address, and your URL on the header, and then the synopsis of your book. You can write a long or short one- I use one that's slightly shorter than what would be on the jacket flap. That way, if people just want to print a blurb about the book, they can use it wholesale.

Again, this too should be saved in .doc and TXT format.

Cover Art

Like your author photo, you'll want to provide your cover art in three resolutions, for the same reasons. Again, you want a large one (at least 1200X12000), a medium one (around 350X400) and a thumbnail (100X200 or smaller.) These are approximate resolutions- each file has its own dimensions, but as long as the first number is around the suggested size, the second number will adjust itself accordingly. :)

Again, zip these together into a single file, named something like

Compiling Your Press Kit

You will want to compile your press kit into two versions- high bandwidth and low bandwidth.

High Bandwidth: Include all of your files in this one. You should have your biography in .doc and TXT, your contact info in .doc and TXT, your synopsis in .doc and TXT, and two zip files: and

Collect all these files and zip them into a single file, called . This is suitable for folks on DSL or better to download, which should be most journalists and reviewers.

Low Bandwidth: In this version, include only the document files, leave out the two image files. Even when the images are compressed into zip files of their own, they're still pretty large, so we're omitting them.

Zip these files together into a file named . This version of your press kit will download even if somebody's still on a 7600 baud dial-up Internet connection (or if they don't need your pictures, just your text. I won't judge.)

Distributing Your Press Kit

You (or your webmaster) can upload both files to your server, and then create links directly to them. When someone clicks on a .zip link, they will download automatically.

You can also e-mail these press kits, although I would suggest asking if they need a photo before trying to send the high-bandwidth version out.

Also, you can burn copies of your press kit to CD to send via postal mail. If you do this, I suggest burning all the files without putting them into a zip first.

You have 800MB of space on a writable CD, and putting more data on a CD doesn't add to the mailing weight. It just makes it more convenient- someone can drop the CD into their drive and automatically access the files, rather than having to unpack them first.

And that's how you create your own press kit. Costs you nothing but time, but it's a great tool to make available to journalists and reviewers. It makes their job easier, which makes you an appealing subject for consideration! Have fun, and happy compiling!

Friday, October 10, 2008


Thank you to the Blue Rose Girls for giving us an I *Heart* Your Blog! Libby is a Blue Rose Girl and part of the Crowe's Nest, so she is, as she admits, biased -- but we will take it! Here are our nominees:

Alexa: I love Jet Reid's blog. She is funny! She is cranky.  She says harsh things.  But deep down, you know she cares. 

Don and Sara love A Fuse #8 Production. Don says its not only because she named him as a Hot Man of Children's literature
But he thinks she is one hot librarian, too.  And he means that in the most respectable way.

Erin: Lisa Yee's blog is a favorite of mine. She's smart, infomative and funny...  and takes a Peep doll everywhere she goes.

Lisa: I love Editorial Anonymous: A great blog by a children's book editor who gives honest feedback to writer's questions.

Mary: Through the Toolbooth is a group effort by several Vermont College alums with thoughtful and useful discussions on the writing life.

Michael: I really like Guys Lit Wire. They post new stuff all the time and do a really good job. 

Saundra: Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations.  It is an institution in the online YA community. She's the New York Times, People and Time all rolled into one!

Here are rules for the award:
1) Add the logo of the award to your blog
2) Add the link of the person who awarded it to you to your blog
3) Nominate at least 7 other blogs
4) Add links to those blogs to your blog
5) Leave a message for each of your nominees on their blogs.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sara: Revision from the Agent's perspective

The Crowe's Nest authors have been blogging about revisions -- revisions for me as well as for editors. In almost all of my conversations with a possible new client, I am asked— how much do you edit?

Before submitting a book we want to make sure it’s as polished as it can be, and almost always, I will have some revisions. These can be very small line edits, or more global— rethinking a scene, a character. If there is going to be extensive revision involved, then I’ve let the author know this prior to working together.

Of course, we can’t envision or prepare for every editorial opinion and desire, but we can send out the best possible draft. Doing so puts us in a much better position for negotiating with editors. And, even though we work together to send out the most polished version, this is only the first revision on a road of revisions (see Kristen and Megan’s posts) and so I hope it’s also good practice for my clients on what is to come.

There are times when an author and I do not agree on a certain revision, and I think there is room for disagreement, as long as we are both happy with what we are sending out. I want to be behind it 100%, and I want the author to feel the same.

One revision is not always enough, and sometimes we go back and forth many, many times (see Mary’s post) and often I have read a manuscript five or six times before it gets out the door. Once in a while, I read a few chapters at a time as the author writes them. I get to see firsthand how the book is developing. This is not always the right way to go -- thankfully, or I would not ever be able to go home at night -- but I’m able to give a different kind of feedback reading along, then when I read a full draft.

If the author is deciding between a few different ideas for a next book it can be helpful to have me look at drafts of chapters and synopses to try to help figure out what idea to develop first. I always tell my clients to send material to me when my feedback will be useful, and I think that point is different for each writer.

I do like to read drafts before they are sent directly to the editor, even when they are a second or third book under contract. I also like to be kept in the loop and read revision letters from editors—as well as the revision, but I usually read that draft at the same time as the editor, depending on the time.

My suggestions to an author can come out of conversations with the author’s editor, who has insight into the market. For instance, Christine writes so well for middle grade audience and will keep doing so, but the books are not finding the audience they should at this moment due to a shrinking market-- so does she want to write for an older audience, as well? Is it something she is willing to try? (see her post about this!)

My other job as first editor is to think about the author’s career as a whole. Could Michael write for middle graders as well as for young adults? He writes young adult boys so well, but he also edited Sports Illustrated for Kids for years and loves and knows sports-- shouldn’t he try to write a middle grade about sports? The answer is not always yes— but when it works, such as Michael’s work in progress about a soccer player— it’s incredibly exciting. Of course, Michael was thinking himself about writing a book about sports— and a push was all that was needed.

It’s very satisfying to get a revision back and see that my comments were of use to the author and that the book is stronger as a result of our working together. Though, I am often one of a few readers in the early stages. It’s a learning process— figuring out how each author works best. And I know it’s a learning process on the author’s side as well— figuring out how to make sense of my edits. Our hope is that this process pays off, not only in a book deal, but in the successful creation of a story. When I am on the phone discussing possible stunts Corky, the crazy roommate on a summer program, might attempt, or how Cecilia, who escaped the French revolution and is trying to find her French artist boyfriend, will find her lost fortune, I feel incredibly lucky.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mary: Getting to Know my Characters

I’ve been working with Sara to get a manuscript ready for submission. It’s a middle grade novel about a nine-year-old girl named Tillie who lives with her uncle in an old piano factory that has been converted to artists’ studios. Sara thought the ms. was just about ready to go. Except for one thing.

“I think we could have a bit more about [Tillie’s] mom and how they were when they lived at the piano factory--I can't picture her,” Sara wrote to me in an email.

No problem, I thought. A few words here, a new scene there—I looked forward to fleshing out Tillie’s absent mother. Revision at this stage in the game, is fun.

If Sara had asked about the mom in earlier drafts of the novel, however, I wouldn’t have felt so cavalier.

Draft one: Mom? What mom? All I was going on back then was a vision of a young girl rollerblading on the uneven wooden floors of an old piano factory, a girl with fierce determination to learn how to skate. Don’t ask me about a mom, I would’ve told Sara then. It doesn’t matter! Leave me alone and let me write skating scenes.

I wrote a lot of skating scenes. I was getting to know Tillie.

Draft two: Turns out Tillie lives with Uncle Fred. Her mom? She has nothing to do with the story, I would’ve told Sara. I just want to write scenes with Tillie and Uncle Fred and the other people in Tillie’s world.

I wrote a lot of scenes with Uncle Fred and the other people in Tillie’s world. I was getting to know my characters. But I didn’t yet have much of a story.

Gradually, over a series of drafts and revisions, meanderings and false starts, the mom began to emerge. I tried to push her away. I didn’t want her in my story. It was too sad, too hard. I wanted Tillie to have a happy story.

But Tillie had a huge hole in her heart—her motivating force—and that hole was put there by her mom.

So I wrote about the mom, I dreamed about the mom, I journaled about the mom. By the time of Sara’s email, I had spent so much time with all my characters that it was no problem to bring “a bit more” of the mom to the story.

For me, this is the joy of revision. To come to the point in my work, that I don’t have to think about what to write. My characters, now fully imagined, show me the way.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Christine: When a Character Hits Too Close to Home

“Why don’t you make her a little older?”

My agent, Sara, has just evaluated my novel synopsis and finds it promising. But instead of making the protagonist thirteen, how about . . . say, sixteen? Skew it to young adults rather than tweens?

Sure, I tell her. I pride myself on flexibility, and particularly considering the bad economy, I’m ready to spin on a dime to optimize my novels’ marketability. Besides, I’d love to broaden my market and add a bit more edge and sophistication to my plots and characters. Sixteen, you say? Sixteen it is.

So why has it been such tough going? I’ve never given myself the luxury of writers’ block, probably attesting to experience early in my career writing for a daily newspaper. No waiting for the stars to align just so when daily deadlines beckon. If the creative juices aren’t flowing, saturate your copy in sweat instead. Just write.

But this book . . . this assignment . . . this character . . . .

I’m struggling.

I start rationalizing: “I’ve written fiction nonstop for four years straight, in addition to my day job. I’m due for a little vacation.” Or, “I don’t have a deadline. I’ll make like J.D. Salinger and take my own sweet time.”

But it doesn’t feel right. I love writing fiction; there’s no other way I’d rather spend my spare time, and the vacuum is making me vaguely anxious and depressed. I yearn to write this book. So I’ll start . . . tomorrow.

Enough tomorrows have passed that I’ve forced myself to face my fears head on. Why does this project have me so spooked?

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure it out. The sixteen-year-old in my head bears a striking resemblance to the sixteen-year-old in my house: my daughter. Terror, thy name is teenager.

My kids have always inspired my writing. I wrote songs about them as cooing newborns. I captured their toddler adorableness in rhythmic, rhyming Seuss-like stories. I wrote stories for their elementary-school classes. Their immersion into the social cesspool of middle school inspired my first novel, Do-Over.

But motherhood was so much easier then. Their problems were manageable, their temperaments sunny, their wounds slight. It was a joy plunging into their world. They got a kick out of it, too, reading over my shoulder and serving as my barometers for authenticity. (“None of my friends would ever do that,” or, “Nobody says ‘fly’ or ‘phat’ anymore. It’s ‘fresh.’”) Other than the time I wrote a humor essay in Family Circle disparaging my kids’ chore prowess and they plaintively begged me to collect all the newsstand copies so no one would ever read it, it was all good.

But my daughter—the sixteen-year-old who will, in some incarnation or another, take on life in my novel—has grown more complicated. It all happened so quickly. She seemed to move from Barbie to Death Cab for Cutie in one breathtaking instant. Her cheerful demeanor turned edgy, moody, angst-ridden. I transformed from beloved mentor and chief confidante to annoying-person-who-by-the-way-has-always-loved-my-son-more-than-my-daughter. (And it’s always been, like, so obvious.)

This is the age when computer screens are zapped with lightning speed the moment I walk into the room, or hushed cell phone conversations are abruptly cut short when my footsteps pad toward my daughter’s room. Boyfriends are center-stage. Homework is an afterthought, and any mention of it is met with aggrieved sighing and eye-rolling.

I know, I know. This is all typical teenage stuff, and I try to take it in stride. But I worry. Is she using good judgment? Are her friends harmless, pink highlights notwithstanding? Is her academic indifference simply a phase? Will she ever adore me unconditionally again? Can I ever again turn on a blinker without her indignation that I’ve done it too soon?

I think I know the answers to all these questions: yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes. I have such faith in this child, and God, if you knew her, I swear you’d be blown away by her fabulousness. She’s stunningly beautiful and kind to the core. She has a razor-sharp wit and a passion for dolphins. She’s a treasured friend and gives great advice. She’s a thousand times more comfortable in her skin than I was at her age and has a great eye for fashion. She’ll be ten times the writer I am if she ever cultivates her talent. She takes my breath away.

Yet I worry. So I’ve shied away from immersing myself in an edgy, moody, angst-ridden sixteen-year-old protagonist. Dare I really get to know her too well? Will her vulnerabilities hit too close to home? Can I embody her, love her, dissect her and know her without feeling terrified by what I’ll learn along the way? Is this a novel that is meant to be written three or four years down the road, when my daughter is safely ensconced in young adulthood?

Nah. I think I was meant to write this novel, and I think I was meant to write it now. My daughter talked me into parasailing during our beach trip this summer, telling me as a burst of wind buffeted us into the sky, “I’m going to live my life without fear.”

I have so much to learn from her. Time to get started.