Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Editor Interview: Stephanie Lane Elliott, Senior Editor, Delacorte Press

Stephanie Lane Elliott, Senior Editor with Delacorte Press (Random House Children's Books), was kind enough to answer a few questions concerning MG, YA and the mysterious journey from acquisition to publication:

Varian (VJ): What is your typical day like as an editor? Or is there no such thing as a “typical” day?

Stephanie (SE): Each day is a little different, depending on where in the season we are. But I would say usually, I get to work and spend the morning answering emails, returning phone calls, checking over passes and mechanicals, and keeping books moving through the system. I try to get most of the “procedural” stuff done during the morning. Ideally, I then have the afternoon to read submissions or edit. It doesn’t always work out that way, though—it’s hard to get that stuff done in the office, because there’s always something going on, always fires to be put out. That’s why I try to work at home when I’m really behind on reading, because I get more done there.

VJ: You acquire both middle grade and YA fiction. Aside from the age of the protagonists, what are the main differences you see between middle grade and YA fiction?

SE: In terms of content, middle grade is very innocent compared to YA and getting more innocent every day. We’re told more and more that middle grade is a young category, and that every aspect of the story needs to be appropriate for the youngest piece of the category—meaning eight-year-olds. So right now I think there’s a big jump in terms of content between middle grade, where you can’t even really say “damn” or have interest between the sexes except in a really innocent way, and YA, where you can kind of get away with anything as long as you’re okay with being classified as “fourteen up.” : )

Storywise, too, I think you see a difference between YA, where the characters are old enough to be pretty independent and get into trouble on their own, and middle grade, where kids’ lives are still fairly controlled by their parents—and so you see a lot of fantasy and magical realism. In middle grade, I think a lot of the action tends to come from imagination, whereas in YA, it’s tends to be a little more gritty and realistic.

VJ: Similarly, what are the main differences you see between YA and adult fiction? Are any subjects “off-limits” in YA fiction?

SE: This topic is sort of up for debate, but to me, the difference is tone. YA is very in the moment. If you’re a teenager, you are experiencing being a teenager right then, right there—you are making decisions in real time and still dealing with the consequences. Whereas adult fiction about teenagers tends to be more reflective, more “if I only knew then what I know now.”

In terms of what you can get away with, it’s tough—it’s changing all the time. I think we’re coming out of a strange, conflicting period in YA—on the one hand, we’re being told stores and customers want cleaner stories, and on the other, all the other forms of media, like television and movies and even the internet, are pushing the limits more than ever before. So there’s this weird divide: either you’re totally clean or you’re tackling very mature topics, and we’re calling your book 14 up. I think that middle ground where you’re writing about what most kids are realistically going through, messy subjects and all, is getting smaller and smaller. I hope that will change as the culture changes.

I think most of us working in YA fiction have a sense of responsibility toward our readers and our characters, so one thing you won’t see is a story that exploits its characters. I think you can get away with most things—if it’s written realistically and there’s a reason it happens—but when it doesn’t feel like a teenager him- or herself is experiencing it, that’s not a YA book.

VJ: Many adults freely admit that they prefer to read YA fiction as opposed to adult fiction. What is it about YA fiction that makes it “universal”?

SE: I think we all have really strong memories of that time in our lives. And just as stories, I think YA novels tend to be really strong, really compact, and quick-moving; you’re writing for an audience that doesn’t tolerate a lot of throat-clearing. I think that’s refreshing to a lot of people who want a story to really hook them and keep them involved.

VJ: In general, after a novel is acquired, it seems to take anywhere from 12 months to two years for that novel to hit bookshelves. Can you walk us through the life of a typical novel as it journeys from acquisition to publication?

SE: First there’s the task of getting it acquired—doing a profit and loss statement, getting the contract through. Then it’s usually a couple months before we’ll start revisions, assuming we’re not rushing it to make a certain pub date. Depending on the book, revisions can take anywhere from one to six or seven months. We usually go through at least two rounds, starting with the big issues and getting smaller. Then the book goes into production, is copyedited, then typeset; we send out a first pass for authors of the first typeset edition, and that’s usually the last time they see it. Meanwhile, we’re coming up with a marketing plan and making ARCs and sales proofs (jackets to sell from). There’s usually a lull of a few months between the time ARCs are done and the time we start selling in and then getting reviews. Then reviews start trickling in, and ta-da: finished books come in from the printer, and then it comes out.

VJ: I know that Delacorte is closed to unsolicited submissions. How do you find most of your authors?

SE: Most of my authors have come to me via agents, but I’ve also acquired several authors through our contests—we run two contests each year, one for YA fiction, one for middle grade. Sometimes a manuscript won’t win but will stick with me for some reason; I’ll write to those authors and see if they want to attempt a revision. Those manuscripts are often acquired down the line.

VJ: What types of novels do you like to acquire?

SE: I’m really open to anything, but I have a particular affinity for literary novels, funny books, absurd humor, magical realism and historical novels.

VJ: Can you tell us about some of the upcoming novels that you have coming out this Spring?

SE: Sure! In Spring 2009, my list is:

THE LAST SYNAPSID by Timothy Mason: This is a fantastic, gently humorous fantasy that reminds me of E.T. It follows Phoebe and Rob, two twelve-year-olds in Faith, Colorado, who befriend a prehistoric creature who wanders through a time snag into their town—and needs their help.

HOLLYWOOD AND MAINE by Allison Whittenberg: This is the companion novel to a novel I bought through our middle grade contest, actually—it was called SWEET THANG. It’s set in the 1970s in Philadelphia, and follows the adventures of fourteen-year-old Charmaine Upshaw as she learns to deal with her first boyfriend and her ex-con uncle, who’s come to live with her family.

BACKTRACKED by Pedro de Alcantara: This is an action-packed time travel book through the New York subway. It’s about Tommy Latrella, whose brother died a hero on 9/11 and he feels like he can never live up to his memory. So he plays a dangerous prank in the Times Square subway system and is hurtled back in time to the early 20th Century, the Depression, and WW2.

THE DIAMONDS by Ted Michael: This is a darkly funny YA novel that reminds me of the movie Heathers. Marni has always been one of the Diamonds, the most popular girls in school—until she breaks the rules by flirting with the ringleader’s ex. Pretty soon her former friends have taken over the school’s mock trial system and use it to try to take Marni down. This has a great voice, and some really smart things to say about civil liberties and what rights we’ll allow to be given away.

VJ: Thanks Stephanie.

For those of you looking for more information about Stephanie, check out her recent interview with Lori Polydoros for SCBWI.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Holly: Five Books That Made This Writer

When I first read this book I was the same age as the main character, 12-year-old Claudia, and I had a brother the same age as her 9-year-old brother Jamie. One of my favorite daydreams at the time concerned secretly living inside the mall, so it was tremendous fun to live vicariously through Claudia and Jamie as they ran away and slept inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I decided that I wanted to write for teens and pre-teens, Konigsburg's novel is one of the first I went back and re-read. It was everything a great MG novel needs--a strong, smart main character, adventure, and heart.

THE STAND by Stephen King
Stephen King is tremendously underrated. He's not just a horror writer; he's a master of characterization. At over 800 pages, THE STAND was by far the largest novel I'd ever read (and now that I think back, there were some terribly inappropriate passages for an 11-year-old!). I dragged the enormous hardcover book with me everywhere for three months and read a few pages whenever I could. I remember breaking down in tears one day, over my pancakes in Denny's, when my favorite character suddenly died. By then I'd already known for several years that I would be a writer, and it excited me to think that one day I might be able to affect strangers the way Stephen King had affected me.

WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones is my creative writing Bible. I first read it in ninth grade, while attending an arts school and majoring in creative writing. I rolled my eyes at the sonnets and terza rimas the teacher expected us to write, but I loved the 20 or 30 minutes for journal writing we were given every morning, and I loved the emphasis on Natalie Goldberg's approach to writing. The book is filled with advice that is simple and practical, but easily forgotten ("Show, Don't Tell;" "Writing is Not a McDonald's Hamburger"). I go back to the book often, when I'm feeling bored or uninspired or even lonely, because the chapters feel like old friends. Natalie Goldberg is a poet, and it comes through even in her non-fiction. I know all writers are different, but I can't imagine anyone reading Writing Down the Bones and not taking something away from it.

In my heart I always knew I would be a writer, but sometimes my rational mind wondered if that would really work out the way I wanted it to. I knew "regular" people and I knew of writers, but I didn't know any regular people who had become writers...until 2003 when Pamela Ribon's first novel was published. Okay, so I didn't personally know Pamie, but I'd followed her online journal for several years and she was very much a real person to me. Pamie's success renewed my faith in my own writing. Reading the book also gave me insight into the process of writing a novel. Like Pamie, her main character kept an online journal. The majority of the plot was clearly fiction, but some of Pamie's actual journal entries made their way into the novel, and it fascinated me to see firsthand how an author used her own experiences in her fiction.

Maureen Johnson's first novel was my gateway drug into the world of YA literature. I'd called my first novel "literary fiction" because I had no idea what it really was, but I knew it wasn't working, until I woke up one day with the brilliant idea to completely rewrite it (again!) from the perspective of a 16-year-old character, and call it Young Adult. Since I didn't know anything about young adult literature, I headed to the library and found Johnson's book. Right away, it felt like home. I related so strongly to the characters and the situation. I thought about all the novels and short stories I'd written, or started, or thought about over the last few years, and I realized they'd all work as YA. I think it was fortuitous that I blindly selected something as excellent as The Key to the Golden Firebird as my first YA read in years. If I'd picked something less stellar, I may have dismissed the entire genre, and then where would I be today?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Saundra: Building Your Mailing List- Data Mining for Authors

While authors may enjoy the art half of our industry, the business half can be confusing and overwhelming. For example, we could use a great mailing list- but where do you get the list? The free way is called data mining, and anyone with some time and an Internet connection can do it.

The most important part of data mining is figuring out what you need to know. You need to look at your book and determine who wants to read this, and who will help those people read it.

We'd all like to think the answer to those questions is everybody, but unless you have the funds for 30 million postcards, you might want to focus your efforts.

To start, let me show you how to break down your book into targeted audiences, using my book as an example:

YA novel = I want to target independent booksellers who specialize in YA or children's books.

YA novel = I want to target middle and high schoolers. Best way to get to them? Middle school and high school librarians.

YA novel about ghosts = I want to target independent booksellers who specialize in horror or genre novels.

YA novel set in Louisiana = I want to target independent booksellers in Louisiana.

Author lives in Indiana = I want to target independent booksellers and YA librarians in Indiana.

These are your basic categories- type of book (can be more than one category,) demographic of book, setting of book, author region. Now that you've narrowed your data requirements down from "every single person in the world" to, say, librarians in (your state), it's time to fire up Google.

Here's the beauty of the Internet- chances are, somebody more fastidious than you has already collected the information you need in ONE place. You just have to find it. Some of the best Google tools are simple searches. Start macro, and go micro- choose the broadest possible search terms first, then refine. For example:

indiana libraries returns LibCat, which just so happens to have lists of EVERY SINGLE PUBLIC LIBRARY in the United States, arranged by state, with links to each library website.


Bookmark your state page, open a word processor, and get to work data mining. Start at the top of the page, and go to the first library website. Copy and paste the name and address of the library into your open word processor. Then, click around the site to see if you can find the name of the director, or the specific librarian you need. Try


Because these two sections are where you're most likely to find a staff list with titles. And yes- this will take a long time. I like to do batches of 50, then switch off to another task so I don't start making errors.

For each targeted area, you're going to repeat that process, and you have to refine your search terms each time.

Sometimes, you have to go micro to macro- more specific to less specific. For example, "indiana independent booksellers" gives lots of great information returns, but you'll discover that the IndieBound website is hard to use for this because it wants you to search booksellers by zip code. That's great if you want to find one store, but not if you want to find all of them in a given region.

So if I go macro with just "independent booksellers", not only do I find great resources like the Southern Independent Booksellers, Great Lakes Independent Booksellers = regional bookseller groups that often have their own awards, and other resources- but I also find American Booksellers Association- and their search page lets you search by state. Get to pasting!

This works for any major groupings of information you need. Try "school districts indianapolis" (replacing Indy with your town, of course!) to get a list of all the school districts in your region. Then go micro by searching for "[name of school district]".

You'll usually find a centralized page for the entire district, which then gives you links to each school in the district. Target appropriately- again, you'll often want to use ABOUT US or CONTACT US to find out who runs the media center.

Tips and Tricks

Can't Find Staff Information for Schools or Libraries?

1) See if they have a blog. Most people use a variation on their name when they're making blog entries- is the YA librarian posting as Saundra? Then check her e-mail address to get her last name. In the US, school and library e-mail addresses are packed with information:
S. Mitchell at Akron Public Library, Indiana, United States
S. Mitchell at Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, K-12 Schools, Indiana, US

2) Check the activity calendar- sometimes they'll have contact information there that isn't elsewhere on the site.

3) Check out the gallery- sometimes, there will be pictures of library events, nicely labeled with people's names!

Further Refining Your Search Results

If getting more specific with your search terms isn't helping, try using modifiers. Did you know you can use quotation marks, and plus and minus signs in Google to refine your search terms?

shadowed summer = A regular search, this returns information about my book, but also poetry with those words in it, anything about summer, anything about shadows- it's kind of a mess. So I can refine my search like this:

"Shadowed Summer" = using quotes tells Google to search for that phrase exactly. Now all my search terms are either about my book, or they're probably poetry that features the words "shadowed summer" in the lines.

"Shadowed Summer" -poem = Using the minus sign tells Google to EXCLUDE anything that includes the following term in the search. Now I'm finding anything that has "Shadowed Summer" in exactly that order, plus Google is now removing any searches that are specifically about poetry.

"Shadowed Summer" +"Saundra Mitchell" = Using the plus sign tells Google that you want search results for your initial search term that ALSO include the additional search term. Now I will only get results for "Shadowed Summer" that also include my name on the page.

You can use multiple + and -, but Google, like anything else, works best when you refine, rather than overspecify.

Weigh Your Sources

Sure, there's all kinds of information on the web, but some sites are more accurate than others. Weigh your sources when you search for information- a dated government website listing all the libraries in your region is probably more accurate than an undated Geocities website made by an unknown author.

If a website seems sketchy, or incomplete, check the information there against other sources. It's especially important to have accurate contact information- you want to send your postcards to the librarian in charge of youth services now, not the one who retired in 1998!

Accept Limitations

Sometimes, you just cannot find the name of the librarian in charge at a particular institution. Sometimes, you can only manage a last name. Or an initial. Or nothing at all. And that's okay.

You can still contact an organization by phone or by e-mail to request specific information. And, some pages have Instant Chat help- just type your question, and get an answer in real time.

Don't waste a lot of time searching when you could resolve your question with one phone call, IM or e-mail. Take a quick look at CONTACT US, ABOUT US, the blog, the pictures, and if you can't find the info you need, send an e-mail and move on.

Stay Organized

You will end up with multiple files but fewer headaches if you organize like information with like information. One file for regional booksellers. One file for school libraries. Etc., etc., etc..

I like to keep my lists in Word. It doesn't do a better job than notepad, but when it comes time to use that information, I can change the color of each address after I use it- that way I don't multiple-mail people- harassing them, and wasting my postage and time!

Another way you can organize your mailings is to print your labels on a sheet of plain paper, then on the sheet of labels. Staple these together, so when you remove a label, you can see the address through the backing paper. When the whole page is empty, you can see which addresses have already been mailed.

And... those are the basics of data mining: tighten your focus, macro to micro, refine, refine, refine. That's all there is to it- now all you need is time and patience. And cocola. Cocola makes everything better. ^_^

Monday, December 8, 2008

Marianna: Let's Get It On -- Sex Scenes in Young Adult Novels

I’ve been a connoisseur of sex scenes in YA fiction since I was nine, when a dog-eared copy of Forever made the rounds in my fourth grade class. So I was shocked that when I tried to write one for the first time, it was a disaster. I was embarrassed. My characters were embarrassed. None of us knew what to do with our hands. We didn’t even get to first base.

Writing sex scenes for adult readers can be awkward, as well, but writing for young adults brings a whole other set of concerns. The considerations of how to deal with the (touchy, sticky – insert pun of choice here) topic of sex in such a way that is appropriate for readers of varying levels of maturity can seem extremely complex. Add to that the worry about censorship, people accusing us of corrupting their kids, the issue of portraying responsible sex, etc.

All of those worries, along with basic inhibitions, distracted me from my main concern – crafting a good story. Once I stepped back and looked at YA novels I think handle sex beautifully, I realized I needed to come back to that – the craft. Because, in the end, good craft will set us free. My firm belief is that our responsibility is to tell the most honest stories we can, and that the question is not, “What is appropriate?” but, “What is appropriate for the story I am telling?” (I loved Varian’s Nov. 24th post that dealt with this issue of the writer’s responsibility.)

Anyway, I went back to that sex scene I’d tried to write and looked at it from a more objective, less panicky and emotional, point of view. I considered it from three angles: plot, level of detail, and language, and brought with me what I’d learned from studying those books I loved.

Regarding plot/”What should those hands be doing?” -- simply put, the physical actions should reflect the emotional truth of the scene, the relationship between the characters, and often, larger themes of the novel. I believe the key to finding this emotional truth is respect -- respecting the right of characters to make mistakes, to take risks, to be desirous, and, if the story calls for it, to do things that I wouldn’t do, or that I wouldn’t want my (hypothetical, at the moment) son or daughter to do. If a character is fully fleshed out, readers will understand her decisions.

In Bringing Up the Bones by Lara Zeises, Zeises’s eighteen-year-old protagonist, Bridget, is dealing with the recent death of her boyfriend, Benji. During one of her first post-death social outings, she briefly meets a boy, Jasper, goes to his apartment, and sleeps with him. This event is the catalyst for the rest of the novel – the story of how Bridget’s relationship with Jasper helps her overcome Benji’s death in unexpected ways. Zeises uses that first sex scene between Bridget and Jasper to establish the dynamics that will characterize their relationship throughout the book:

His lips brush from my breasts to my belly button to the dampened cotton crotch of my panties which soon find their way to the floor. I come quickly, guiltily. But it doesn’t stop there.
He reaches over me to the wood-laminate nightstand, fishes around the top drawer until he finds a condom. I can feel him looking at me in the darkness, can feel him wondering if I’m one of those girls who likes to slip it on the guy herself. My nails dig into the soft flesh of his shoulders; my tongue thrusts itself into his mouth. He decides to do it himself, rolls away from me a bit.
And then he’s inside me, and I’m expecting to feel the searing pain I did with Benji but it’s not like that this time. […]
When it’s over, I start to cry. Quietly at first, then louder (27-28).

The details of this sexual interaction hint at so many aspects of the novel: the oral sex speaks of Jasper’s tendency to give, and Bridget’s to receive; the moment with the condom reflects Bridget’s use of sex/body language to communicate instead of words; her mention of Benji shows Bridget’s constant need to compare Jasper to her idealized ex; and her guilt and tears reflect her emotional confusion.

This is brave writing. By allowing her character to have sex with a stranger, Zeises risks making her unsympathetic to readers. I would be very surprised though if anyone read this book and felt harshly towards Bridget, because the scene is emotionally honest. We fully believe that this is what Bridget would do in the situation, given her grief over Benji, and once we know Jasper, we believe it’s what he would do. The physical reflects the emotional – with all its mess and complexity.

Another book that does a great job of using the specific events in a sex scene to reveal theme and character is Doing It, by Melvin Burgess. Protagonist Dino wants to lose his virginity – primarily to reassure himself that he’s the stud people think he is, not the unsure, vulnerable kid he is inside. But his girlfriend won’t oblige. In his desperation, he decides to have sex with a girl he meets at a party at his house. His parents are away, the house is empty, she’s willing. Dino’s all set.

He pushed her gently to the bed, and she got in. He took his trousers off and got in after her. […] He peeled her knickers off and she lifted her legs to help him. And then…and then…
Dino began to lose it.
[…] He rubbed his pubis on hers, but as his fear of failure grew so his knob got softer and softer and now at last it was nothing but a felty slug hanging off him.
[…] The girl lay under him looking up with a half-smile on her face, and Dino had never felt so alone as he did then, in bed with a girl and no erection (99-100).

Adolescence is a time of losing control and gaining control – as you lose control of your body in some ways, you gain independence and control of your life. The sex scenes in Doing It perfectly illustrate this dichotomy. The physical result of Dino’s emotional confusion makes for a pretty devastating scene, one that, again, took bravery to write.

So, when I’m writing a sex scene, I think about what happens through the lens of what it says about my characters, and how it can illustrate the book’s themes. Both Zeises and Burgess succeed because they let their characters tell them what would happen, regardless of the fact that their characters’ actions aren’t ones that you would assume would be sympathetic to the reader.

The two examples I’ve given go into a fair amount of graphic detail, although less experienced kids might not grasp exactly what’s going on. And that’s certainly fine. Many sex scenes are written so that the meaning will only really be clear to more experienced readers. But sometimes, it’s appropriate to describe things with a certain level of detail. Again, the decision of which way to go has to come from the character, from the story, from the tone of the narration.

Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky is the story of seventeen-year-old Dominique’s first love and sexual experiences, and the sex scenes live up to the book’s title. None of the language or content is inappropriate or gratuitous, though. Scenes are written to reflect Dom’s confusion and curiosity.

Even by the dim blue moonlight filtering in through the glass balcony doors, I can recognize the features of his penis from my anatomy books. The shaft, the head, the urethral opening – it’s definitely all there. Only it looks so much more alive and urgent than any photograph could ever capture. […] (112-114)

Nothing left to the imagination here! But filtered through Dom’s eyes (she’s an avid science student in addition to being a curious virgin), this is the only way the scene could have been narrated. For Dom, these first explorations are not about passion so much as they are about experimentation.

In Jenny Downham’s beautiful book, Before I Die, terminally ill Tessa makes a list of things she wants to do while she’s still able. First on the list is having sex. The very night she makes her list, she goes out with a friend to a club, meets a boy, and sleeps with him.

He lies down, moves my legs apart with his, presses closer, his weight on top of me. Soon I’ll feel him inside me and I’ll know what all the fuss is about. This was my idea.
I notice lots of things while the red neon numbers on his radio alarm move from 3:15 to 3:19. I notice that his shoes are on their side by the door…
He supports himself with his arms, moving slowly above me, his face turned to one side, his eyes tight shut. This is it. It’s really happening. I’m living it now. Sex. (25)

The emphasis is on her distracted thoughts, not the sex. Tessa has no connection to this boy, no emotions about the sex. The details of it aren’t important to her. She couldn’t care less what his penis looks like. It’s the fact of finally having sex that matters.

So, I ask myself how important the actual details of what happens are to my narrative. Are they going to express something about the characters and about the book’s themes? Do they provide a necessary clue about something? Or would a full description be gratuitous?

Closely related to the issue of explicitness is the issue of language. Obviously, the language in the example I gave from Anatomy of a Boyfriend is an extreme example of one approach – using the anatomically correct words. More often, slang is appropriate, as that’s usually going to be a more natural fit for the narrative voice. But different slang words bring different connotations. Take the following line from Ellen Wittlinger’s Sandpiper: “…it’s clear that what he really needs is for me to put my mouth around his dick.” This immediately shows Sandpiper, the protagonist’s, hostility about her sexual encounters. “Dick” brings a sense of harshness. On the other hand, when one of the protagonists in Doing It says he has to go “shake hands with Mr. Knobby Knobster,” well, we know that his relationship with himself is a friendly one.

I gave a lecture on this topic at Vermont College that went into more depth about our responsibility as YA writers, but here I’m just going to say this: if we treat our characters with respect, and write the scenes with honesty, we are fulfilling our responsibility. And part of respecting our characters is respecting them as desirous, sexual beings. A well-written scene of a sexual interaction can show characters at their most vulnerable, truest selves, and can be among the strongest in the book. I leave you with one last moment from Downham’s Before I Die, when Tessa, now very close to dying, has a final sexual encounter with her boyfriend (someone she’s very much in love with, not the random boy from the club):

His hand slides to my waist to my belly to the top of my thigh. His kisses follow his hand, work their way down until his head is between my legs and then he looks at me, asking permission with his eyes.
It spills me, the thought of him kissing me there.
His head is in shadow, his arms scooped under my legs. His breath is warm on my thighs. He very slowly begins.
If I could buck, I would. If I could howl at the moon, then I would. To feel this, when I’d thought it was over, when my body’s closing down and I thought I’d have no pleasure from it again.
I am blessed.

And readers are blessed that Downham had the bravery to write a scene of such emotional honesty.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sara: Queries that Worked

All of my debut sales started with a query letter, and I still read each new query hoping to be excited and intrigued by a new author.

What works on me is most likely not very different than what works on all agents - a well written letter about a book I’d want to read. I can’t think of a better way to actually show what works on me, than to follow some other agent's blogs and to share some of the letters that did work on me.

What I want to highlight in the following letters is the description of the book. This is what I want to know about most, obviously — and is often overlooked in favor of a lot of unnecessary information about the writer of the letter, such as they have been writing since they were five and love Harry Potter and their grandchildren love their work. Especially when you have not won literary awards or had a book published before, the description has to grab me for me to want to see more. I have asked to see novels that have descriptions that I might think are too long, and too short — so its not so much about length to me. In a perfect world, I’d love all descriptions to be contained in a paragraph— because I have a lot of queries to read, but as you can see from the below, longer can work too, as long as the description stays focused and I do not get bored or confused by reading it.

Dear Ms. Crowe:

(She got my name right— but I am not too picky about this. About 50% of the time I am addressed as Ms. Harvey. I do appreciate that is is addressed to me, and is not a mass email where 40 other agents are copied.)

I am impressed at your track record in placing Young Adult books, and I was glad to read in Publishers Marketplace that you are actively seeking new clients. I would like to invite you to consider representing my young adult novel Just Like Mama Cass. (Short and clear introduction- with some flattery, which also serves to show that she has done her research.)

Once Dara Cohen was Little Miss Maine. Now she is an overweight seventeen year old who has to take a leave of absence from her prep school because an English assignment was grossly misinterpreted. She goes to live with Rachel, the sister she never knew, on a goat farm in Western Massachusetts. Jezebel Goat Farm has long been a home for outsiders. Now its residents include Belinda, the silent matriarch, and Owen, a striking teenage boy kicked out of his home for being gay. And of course there is Rachel, who lets Dara in, but keeps a wall around herself. When Owen enters Dara in the local beauty pageant, the whole farm rallies around her to help her succeed. Just Like Mama Cass (63,900 words) tells the story of Dara's summer spent preparing for the pageant in between feeding the goats, going to mandatory therapy sessions, and reading stacks of anonymous typewritten pages she finds in her closet. Over the summer she tries to figure out why her parents kept her from Rachel -- and why she wants to win Miss October Grove so badly.

(This is a complex plot, but Megan manages to describe it succinctly. The first two sentences work especially well to set up Dara’s conflict and to draw me in.)

I was in the first class to complete the Undergraduate Creative Writing Certificate Program at Columbia University. There I studied with Jill Ciment, Phyllis Raphael, and Siegred Nunez amongst others. I was accepted into the Senior Honors Fiction Workshop with Dani Shapiro. My own fiction has been published in several online magazines. Professionally, I am a high school librarian -- which fuels my love of YA literature and the teens who read it.

(This is a great example of a bio paragraph-- includes only information that is relevant and useful, and I liked the way she ties her work into her writing.)

Thank you for taking the time to consider my query. I would be happy to send you a full or partial manuscript. I look forward to hearing your response. (professional exit)

Megan Frazer

Megan’s first novel, now titled SECRETS OF TRUTH AND BEAUTY will by published in July ‘09 by Hyperion.

Dear Ms. Crowe:

As you may recall, we corresponded this summer regarding my first novel WAITING FOR TOM COREY. You invited me to contact you again with future manuscripts. I am writing to inquire if you would be interested in reading my 70,000 word YA novel, ON THE VERGE.

(Holly reminds me of our past correspondence in a direct and effective way. I did remember her first novel fondly, and was so grateful that I was getting a second chance)

18-year-old Lainey Pike can tell you everything you need to know about the people in her family just by telling you how they died. Her reckless stepfather drove his motorcycle off the highway and caused the biggest traffic jam in years. Her long-suffering grandmother lived through cancer and a heart attack before finally succumbing to a stroke. And Lainey's mother, still hung up over her husband's death, hung herself in the basement just days after Lainey's high school graduation. Now Lainey's five-year-old brother is an orphan and her estranged older sister moves back home to act as his guardian. Dealing with her brother has always been a struggle, but sharing the responsibility with her sister is proving to be just as challenging.

Lainey knows that this is all her mother's fault, and she also knows that she eventually has to move out of the "anger" phase of the grieving process. What she can't figure out, though, is how to make peace with a dead woman. But as she tries to pull away from everything familiar, she meets an intriguing young man with an unexpected connection to her mother.

(Holly's description is also very good- it manages to tell me that this is not your ordinary problem novel by giving me a hint of Lainey's dark sense of humor. I LOVE when a letter manages to convey the tone and voice of the book.)

I have pasted the first page below for your review. ( I think this is a smart thing to do in an email query) The full manuscript is available immediately upon request. Thanks for your consideration.

Holly Nicole Hoxter

Holly’s debut ON THE VERGE will be published by Balzer & Bray in 2010.

Dear Ms. Crowe:

Rhonda Lee is your everyday, overweight, African-American math genius. (Great opening!) finds comfort in the basic pleasures in life (geometry, calculus, and strawberry ice cream). She hasn't had a boyfriend since ninth grade (as she calls it - the Year of Hell). Now a senior, she spends most of her free time tutoring math at the local community center. Her short terms goals are simple- to get a scholarship to Georgia Tech, and to avoid the "in-crowd" as much as possible. (Varian has told us a lot about Rhonda Lee— but has also got us wondering what happened her freshman year)

Her last goal is put in serious jeopardy when Sarah Gamble, Senior Class Goddess, waltzes into the West Columbia Community Center. Rhonda hates popular, preppy, stuck-up teenagers like Sarah (and like Christopher, Rhonda's ex-boyfriend). Grudgingly, Rhonda agrees to tutor Sarah, and as much as Rhonda wants to hate the girl, she finds herself actually starting to like her.

Rhonda soon learns that trigonometry isn't Sarah's only problem when she discovers that Sarah is pregnant. Rhonda had been in the same situation three years before, and it destroyed her faith in herself and her father. Rhonda wants to make sure that it is Sarah that decides what to do about the pregnancy. Rhonda had that right taken away from her by her father, and she has never forgiven him or herself for it. ( I like that we did not find this out about Rhoda in the first paragraph— and it tells me that the focus of the novel is broader than her abortion)

As Rhonda helps Sarah deal with the new life growing inside of her, Sarah helps Rhonda to reclaim the life that she has allowed to slip by. After the Year of Hell, Rhonda rededicated herself to her studies. Boys were not to be trusted (or rather, she wasn't to be trusted around boys). However, with the help of Sarah's twin brother, David, that all changes, whether Rhonda wants that change or not. In the process of connecting with David, Rhonda begins to reconnect with her father. Come the end of the school year, Rhonda has a boyfriend, a pregnant best friend, a stronger relationship with her father, and a new and improved outlook on life. If only she had started tutoring popular, pretty, stuck-up girls sooner....

Dividing By Zero is a novel about second chances. Throughout the course of the novel, Rhonda deals with all of her issues with humor, emotion, and sheer determination. The manuscript is approximately 68,000 words, and features a multicultural cast.

Thank you for considering this manuscript; I look forward to hearing from you. My first novel, Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid, was published in November 2005 (Genesis Press), and recently made the Essence Magazine Best Seller list for the month of March. I am also a member of SCBWI. ( He could have put this publication info up front— but as his first novel was not published as a YA — it makes sense to have saved it for last)

This novel was published as MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Flux in 2007. Varian’s new young adult novel, SAVING MADDIE will be published by Delacorte next year.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nancy: Falling Leaves Retreat Editors Respond

As the Assistant Regional Advisor for the Eastern NY SCBWI region, I chaired a novel master class retreat, titled Falling Leaves, last weekend. I was pleased to close out our weekend with 35 participants and have a waiting list - who would have guessed the weekend before Thanksgiving?

I asked each of the editors who attended to answer one question for me for Crowe's Nest - When did the editing bug bite? Please illuminate the path you took to becoming an editor.

Here are the responses:

Caroline Abbey (Bloomsbury): I decided I wanted to be a children's book writer in second grade. By college, it was still my dream and I was majoring in Creative Writing. But then, in workshops, I realized I was more interested (and better at) critiquing my classmate's work than working on my own. I got an internship at S&S in children's editorial and then I knew 110% that I wanted to be an editor!

Elizabeth Law (Egmont): I always loved to read, and in high school the children's librarian and I founded a children's book discussion group. So I knew I was crazy about children's books. In college, the legendary critic Zena Sutherland taught a children's literature course in which she told stories about editors she knew including Dick Jackson and Ursula Nordstrom. A lightbulb went off - editing was where I could really be in the middle of this industry - and art form- I liked best. So after graduation, I moved to NY and slept on a friend's sofa until I found an entry level job working for Deborah Brodie and Nancy Paulsen at Viking.

Alexandra Penfold (Paula Wiseman): I was an obsessive reader as a kid. I can probably attribute my living in New York today, at least in part to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, Eloise by Kay Thompson, and The Babysitter's Club Super Special #6: New York, New York! While I did a lot of writing and editing related stuff in high school and college, I actually started at Simon & Schuster as a marketing intern and then got a full time job here in children’s publicity. After a couple years an opportunity opened up to move over to the editorial side and work on Paula Wiseman’s fantastic list. Books have always been a great love of mine and it’s exciting to work in an industry with other likeminded folks.

Sarah Shumway (Harper): I started as a reader - my parents will tell you that I rarely wanted to leave my room if it held a new (or an old favorite) book. Day-in-bed-with-a-book days were better than anything. Then, I read a book where one of the adult characters had a job where she read books all the time - reading, I think, to scout what books might make good movies, and I thought, "I could read for a living when I grow up?" It's pretty wonderful, though maybe not as great as Day-in-bed-with-a-book days.

Jennifer Yoon (Candlewick):I attribute the desire to be a children's book editor to an internship with Arthur Levine at Scholastic Press. For a summer I was a member of a tight-knit and collaborative group of editors who were committed to making high quality books across genres and categories. Their drive to create classics - books to be read and re-read - inspired me to be a part of that process. And that continues to this day.

I think we will all agree that we are certainly glad the editor bug did bite these thoughtful and insightful professionals! My thanks to all of them for a wonderful retreat!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Varian: My Role as a YA author

A little over a year ago, as I was preparing for My Life as a Rhombus to debut, I received a great blurb from Ellen Wittlinger, author of the Printz Honor winning novel Hard Love. Giddy with excitement, I hurriedly placed the blurb on my website and blog. Then, a few days later, I found the following anonymous message in my blog comments:

"Without a bit of preaching..." - Why is it whenever anyone dares to take an unpopular position on a controversial moral topic in our society, their ideas are described as didactic, dogmatic, preachy, or any other apparently negative label? With all the destructive sexual activities and misinformation plaguing young adults in America, it would be immensely helpful if those with the power of the pen would use their gift to steer some attitudes in the right direction rather than be content with "keeping it real."

I normally ignore anonymous blog comments, but this one made me pause. The first part of the statement was easy to dispute: anyone that has written a novel for children and young adults in the trade market understands that authors should avoid peachy and didactic prose. However, the second part of his comment struck a chord with me. What is my role as a YA author? Is my job to simply tell a good, entertaining story, or should my writing have some underlying moral?

My Life as a Rhombus is a story of one girl’s struggle to reconcile with both her father and herself while dealing with the emotional effects of an unplanned pregnancy and abortion. I feel that the story is really about friendship and forgiveness; sex, teenage pregnancy and abortion are just plot devises to help me reach my goal. However, that’s a somewhat naïve statement; the main character’s abortion directly leads to her strained relationship with her father. Thus, the topic of abortion, and therefore sex and pregnancy, can’t be ignored.

In his message, the anonymous poster calls on authors to “use their gift to steer some attitudes in the right direction.” But in the case of abortion, what is the right direction? As an author, is it my right to dictate what someone should or shouldn’t feel on the matter, especially on an issue that continues to divide our country?

Personally, I don’t want to write a book that makes a statement about abortion because I don’t know how I feel about abortion. Or rather, it’s easy for me to choose a stance on abortion; I’m thirty-one years old, married to a wonderful woman, and am fully capable of supporting a child, both emotionally and financially. More importantly, I believe that it’s a little unfair for me to dictate if someone should or shouldn’t have an abortion, being that I’m not the one that can get pregnant.

The anonymous poster is correct, though. Many young adults participate in destructive sexual activities. Many young adults don’t have the necessary information to both educate and equip themselves once they decide to become sexually active. When I go school visits and see sixteen year-old girls wearing crimson-red stilettos and low-rise jeans with their green / black / blue / yellow thongs showing, I want to shake some sense into them. I want to warn them off all the dangers out there in the world. I want to tell them that they shouldn’t be so quick to become “women”; that it’s okay for a sixteen year-old to act like a sixteen year-old.

However, I can’t do this; not in real life, and not in my writing either. In my opinion, novels need to entertain first, inform second. If I’m skilled enough, perhaps I can find a way to include snippets about safe sex in my work. Or perhaps, the young people reading my novels can learn something about the mistakes that my characters have made. Of course, the key here is making sure that this information is both important to the novel, and is presented in a way that isn’t preachy or condescending.

Perhaps my biggest issue in all of this is the balance between writing for myself and writing for publication for a young adult audience. I’ve never started a book thinking, “Hmm, this would be a great topic for young adults to explore and discuss.” Rather, I pick a topic or theme of interest to me, then craft characters that can explore that theme. It isn’t until many drafts later that the reality of publishing for the YA market begins to affect my work. For me, writing is very much a personal process—my character’s struggle with the same issues that I struggle with, even as an adult.

Ultimately, I think most authors will have widely varying views on this topic. However, I must continue to write novels in a way that works for me. My goal is to create entertaining, realistic fiction. I like to explore topics that interest me—not necessarily to impart a moral or ideal, but rather to look at both sides of a topic. More times than not, I end up like my characters—stuck somewhere in the gray area between the “right” and “wrong” of an issue. And as a writer and a human being, I’m okay with this. Hopefully, a few potential readers will be okay with it as well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mary: Setting: Fiction's 'Lesser Angel'?

When I get the first glimmer of an idea for a new piece of work, it usually includes a character doing something in a particular setting—a younger brother secretly following an older brother through the woods, a girl rollerblading inside an old piano factory, two mice detectives working in a cluttered office, friends walking home from school in an L.A. barrio. Setting is part of my initial vision, and, as one draft follows the next, it becomes increasingly inseparable from the other elements of my story.

Many times a writer is so intent on developing captivating characters and a page-turning plot that setting doesn’t get the attention it deserves. A novel’s setting is as much a part of creating and enhancing a story’s meaning as any other part of the story.

I love how Eudora Welty, in The Eye of the Story, refers to setting as ‘a lesser angel’ of fiction and suggests we pay her more attention:

“Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wingbeating about her chair, and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade. Nevertheless, it is this lowlier angel that concerns us here. There have been signs that she has been rather neglected of late; maybe she could do with a little petitioning.”

Let’s take a look at place in two of my favorite novels.

Imagine, for example, changing the setting of Angela Johnson’s Toning the Sweep from desert to beachside community. Or, picture moving Cynthia Rylant’s characters, Summer, Ob, and Cletus, in Missing May, from the trailer on the side of a West Virginia mountain to a triple-decker in Boston.

Impossible! As Welty says, “The very notion of moving a novel brings ruder havoc to the mind and affections than would a century’s alteration in its time.”

In Toning the Sweep, fourteen-year-old Emmie and her mother must go to the desert in Little Rock, California to help grandmother Ola pack up her house and leave the community she loves. As they first drive into the desert, Emmie, the narrator, introduces readers to the setting:

I’ve always thought there should be bones in the desert. Turned white by the sun and lying on the side of the road for everybody to see so that they can turn back before it’s too late…. (7)

The image of bones burned white by the sun prepares readers for the bleak journey that lies ahead. As the story unfolds, the novel’s desert setting becomes a living, breathing presence, providing a fitting backdrop for a family’s quest to heal from the pain of Grandaddy’s murder after many years of suffering, anger, and denial. Towards the story’s end, Emmie climbs the hills at the edge of the desert with a friend. From there, she gets a beautiful view of the valley and hears the sound of water in a creek.

There’s a point where you can see the entire valley.… A creek twists around the bottom; we can hear it from the top of the hill. I can’t wait to put my feet in the cool water below.
David and I sit in the creek for a couple of hours. Leaves float by, and we lean back on the rocks and look up at the sky. (80)

Images of water and floating leaves contrast with previous descriptions of the dry, lifeless desert. During a crucial turning point, Johnson’s characters interact with a new setting, signaling hope and change.

Missing May tells the story of twelve-year-old Summer who lives alone with her elderly Uncle Ob after her beloved Aunt May has died. Summer’s personal struggle to get beyond her own grief is compounded by the fact that Ob is falling into a deeper and deeper depression.

There is a lot of sadness in Rylant’s story, yet the story is anything but gloomy. This is, in part, because of the setting.

Rylant provides her characters with unique, well-wrought settings that provide contrast to their emotions while comforting the reader during heartbreaking moments. Consider this description of their home in Deep Water, West Virginia.

Home was, and still is, a rusty old trailer stuck on the face of a mountain in Deep Water, in the heart of Fayette Country. It looked to me, the first time, like a toy that God had been playing with and accidentally dropped out of heaven. Down and down and down it came and landed, thunk, on this mountain, sort of cockeyed and shaking and grateful to be all in one piece. Well, sort of one piece. Not counting that part in the back where the aluminum’s peeling off, or the one missing window, or the front steps that are sinking. (5)

From the start, readers are grounded in a clear sense of place in which to watch the story unfold. The trailer is a toy of God, mistakenly dropped but cradled in the side of a mountain. Like its inhabitants, it’s grateful to be sort of all in one piece. When Summer takes readers inside and shows us shelves and shelves of the magical whirligigs and colorful cabinets of “Oreos and Ruffles and big bags of Snickers," (8), we know that, no matter how sad the book might become, we are in a place of safety, whimsy, and love.

Toning the Sweep by the ocean? Missing May in Los Angeles? The sense of place in these two books is as much a part of them as their endearing characters and uplifting themes. One can imagine the angels of plot and character and other novelistic elements “wingbeating about” Johnson and Rylant’s chairs as they wrote their novels, but place as a “lesser angel”?

In Toning the Sweep and Missing May the angel of place most definitely did not allow herself to be relegated to the shade.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lisa: On Encouragement

Four or five years ago, I went to a conference, with a special invitation-only retreat happening the day before the conference. People who wanted to attend the retreat submitted pages of a manuscript, and attendees were selected based on those pages. I submitted pages from the first novel I had ever written, a mid-grade. And I was thrilled when I found out I had been selected. At the retreat, we sat around a big table, with two editors at the front, and the twenty-five of us gathered around. One by one, our four-five pages were read by one of the conference organizers, and people around the table wrote down comments.

One of the editors had been mailed the pages and had typed up a critique in advance. When I got the critique for my pages, it wasn’t very positive. Of course going into it, I had told myself to be prepared for that. After all, this was my first attempt at a novel. I knew I had a lot to learn. And yet, her words stung.The other editor, though, who we’ll call Angel for this story, had nice things to say after my pages were read out loud. She liked the voice, she liked the concept, she liked where the story started, etc. And yet, I couldn’t help but focus on the other critique.

That night, in my hotel room, I woke up in the middle of the night, and thought, what am I doing here? I almost got up and drove home at three in the morning! Fortunately, I didn’t act on that impulse.

The next day, I arrived to the conference early enough to browse the books table, get a muffin, etc. Time got away from me, and suddenly I looked around and realized the conference had started. I hurried to the room, opened the door quietly and took a seat at the nearest table, which had a few people sitting at it, a couple of chairs with bags on them, and a couple of empty seats. The room was huge. There were probably 300 people there. Imagine my surprise when Angel the editor came and sat down at my table, where she had set a bag on the chair to save her place. What are the chances???

When we had a break, she reached into her bag, pulled out her business card, and as she handed it to me, she said, “I’m so glad I ran into you again. I want you to know I really enjoyed what I heard yesterday. If it's finished, I’d love for you to send it to me.”

While she ultimately rejected that manuscript, with one of the kindest, most indepth rejection letters I’ve ever received, her encouragement at that time in my writing career made all the difference. I didn’t give up on novel writing. I wrote another one. And another one after that. And now, years later, I have one book on the shelves and another coming out in a little more than a month. I still have her card, and it always gives me a good feeling when I pull it out and look at it. Over the years, I’ve saved e-mails from crit buddies, nice rejection letters, business cards – anything that might help when I’m having one of those “What am I doing here?” kind of days. It’s so easy to focus on the negative when it comes to our writing.

Thanks to those of you in the industry who provide encouragement when you see something promising in a person's writing. It really can make a difference in a writer's life. Believe me, I know!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nancy: On the Airwaves and America Recycles Day

This little known holiday has been keeping me hopping all week. My publisher arranged for a radio tour for my new title, Keeping Our Earth Green. I've been everywhere from Boston, to Roanoke, to Scranton, to Nevda, and St. Louis. Most days the interviews have started at 7 am with satellite stations. It's been great fun speaking with folks all over about what they can do to help the planet. I sort of have a little sense as to what our candidates recently went through on the campaign trail. It's interesting to hear all the different views and speak with so many different personalities albeit in a much smaller venue. This morning my tour wraps up in Tampa, Florida. I must say I'd love to be sitting in the station there instead of on the phone in the cool, rainy north.

After my interview I'm off to the Wellesley Booksmith, outside of Boston, for a great in-person event that combines my book signing with a sneaker recycling project. What fun!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nina: On Teenagers, Angst, and Panoramic Covers

I am a writer and a high school English teacher, so when I tell people that my first novel is for teenagers, they often assume that my book was inspired by my work. In reality, it was probably the opposite: I wrote my novel in graduate school, before I even considered teaching high school, and at that time my only contact with teenagers was through my little brother.

Now, I am constantly surrounded by teenagers. Even on the weekends, the students who live around the corner call up to me from the street below my apartment just to say hello.

Teenagers have a bad reputation, but as most of us who write about and for them would agree, it is ill-deserved. They are inquisitive, they are fun, they are passionate, and—fortunately for YA writers—many of them are perceptive and emotionally invested readers.

I’ve had an amazing group of people read and offer criticism on my manuscript, and the feedback from these wise and insightful adults has been invaluable. But last summer, I got to extend my group of readers to two former students, and I have to admit that to sit across the table from two brilliant fifteen-year-olds as they point excitedly to different scenes in your manuscript, to witness their joy over the joyous parts and sadness over the sad parts, to hear them say, “I know exactly how she feels here”—that is exhilarating.

I wish I could give every debut YA writer that experience, but because I can’t seal my students up in envelopes and send them to you, I am going to do the second best thing and let you hear from them. I asked them a few questions about books and reading.

So now, straight from Berkeley, California, here are the kids of Maybeck High School.

When you're browsing in a bookstore or online, what draws you to certain books?

Max: Despite the saying, the first thing I notice about the book is its cover. To me a good cover is aesthetically pleasing and does not show any pictures of the characters. I never like books with pictures of the characters because I feel that it limits my ability to imagine. The second thing I notice is the length: I tend not to like books less than 80 pages or more than 400 pages. If a book has both of these things (a good cover and the right length) I will usually read the back.

Marina: I like short titles and covers that are either scattered and very busy or extremely simple. Everything in between gets lost in all the other books. It’s better when the back cover has an excerpt that represents the book well over a summary because those are often not well enough written. Praise for the book is always good. (I prefer it on the inside over the outside where it’s too showy.)

Julia: Of course, I can be superficial and judge books by their covers. I am usually drawn far far away from books with pink covers covered in candy or shoes or anything zebra-ish that seems superficial. I’m usually drawn to memoirs because they feel more real. I think that melodramatic teen angst novels are to some degree a guilty pleasure, but only really good if they are true, or seem true, because it is easy to over-do them and make them seem improbable.

Lucy: As many others are, I'm often drawn to a book by its cover, and I really love those that are a full color landscape, like a panorama over the whole cover, front and back. Basically if it's pretty, and the summary on the back looks good, I'm more likely to read it.

Dragor: I am especially drawn to books that are psychologically and ethically charged. Though I will generally read a book regardless of the content if it's by an author that I have a high level of respect for.

Sennett: I don't think I ever go to bookstores to find books by authors I haven't read yet. It’s all in the name. Cover attracts but, again, I don't buy books in bookstores anymore unless William Gibson or someone comes out with a new one.

Kathryn: I love novels with strong imagery, and a story I can connect with.

If you could read a book about anything, what would it be?

Naomi: When I was little I read the first Narnia book. I had never read anything like that before. I would give almost anything if I could capture that very moment of surprise that I had when I was a little girl reading those books. What I loved most about them was that they took ordinary kids like me and brought them to a magical world, I would go to the magical world with them.

Dragor: I would like a book that begins with the tone of a happy go lucky adventure story such as the Hardy Boys with superficial characters and a contrived unrealistic plot. I would like it to then take a turn to a darker tone and because of the setting become real and the characters become people.

Marina: People in subcultures/countercultures/anything outside ordinary society.

Max: The books that I enjoy reading the most are not the educational ones nor the ones with any particular literary value: they are the ones that keep me reading from page one. As far as subject matter, I enjoy the same types of books as lots of 12-year-old boys. Epic fight scenes, surprising twists and interesting characters are all good. Characters that rant about how bored or depressed they are not so good.

Sennett: Anything? I don't know. Its all about language and flow really. After that as long as the author is good the subject matter can be anything really.

Julia: If I could read a book about anything it would probably be about the life of someone who has lived it interestingly. The concept that the things and people in a book are actually real is usually very intriguing to me.

Kathryn: I'm with Julia, memoirs are great. I also am a huge Stephen King fan, so kind of creepy with a good plot line.

Lucy: I love fantasy, series where authors have built up whole worlds, because then you can read everything and really learn the world, understand it, and have fun in it. Despite this, I've actually started reading LGBT stuff, like Oranges Aren't the Only Fruit, Well of Loneliness, and am really enjoy them, maybe because I identify with the characters; I’m not sure. Is there a lot of LGBT YA stuff? If not, I think it might be nice for those who have already figured it out by then, or even for those who haven't, just to understand better. Gay people have to read about straight people, why shouldn't straight people have to read about gay people?

If you read YA, what do you like about it? Is there anything you wish for that you aren't finding?

Chris: I like books in general that include people of my age group as main characters because I feel as though I can become them more easily, even though the link would only be through paper. I like books in the first person, in general. I like books with sad endings, or with multiple endings, like the movie Babel, if you've seen it.

Julia: Mostly what I dislike is superficiality and over-done angst. Angst is certainly fine, and oftentimes enjoyable in a book; however, I do not enjoy reading POORLY WRITTEN fiction about sexually abused, drug addled, depressed, homeless 15-year-olds that then find their way in the world in some cliché fashion after undergoing every feasible stress and ailment in life, because while sometimes that actually happens, it is easily overdone.

Sennett: I don't know what YA even stands for. Young Adults? I guess I'm not really going to give a good response to this.

Marina: I kinda feel like anything with a teenage character is young adult. What I like about any book is the writing style because I like lyrical books with good timing. The thing I mainly remember about young adult stuff was how angsty it was. And in my opinion angsty is good unless its over played, clichéd or written by someone who has left the teenage mindset. (PS: breaking rules=good for young adult writing.)

Dragor: I read young adult mostly because I already know authors that I love and only have to find more books they have written. I would prefer to find more novels like Pullman's young adult novel The White Mercedes. That book deals with teenage problems but in a unglamorized realistic way that allows you to truly relate to the characters. It is a love story of ordinary love, true and devoted but still ordinary, that ends in a tragically ordinary way.

Max: My favorite book from childhood must have been one of the Harry Potter books, or all of them. Part of this might be because I listened to the whole series on tape, which is a medium I prefer, but I also think that the ease of sympathizing with the characters is a major strength. Sometimes I wonder why I like reading a book about an over-emotional teen with fairly two-dimensional friends (in the earlier books at least) but then I realize that I don't care what a book is about as long as it’s familiar.

Kathryn: I like novels that have twists and turns, something I can't put down. Strong characters, a solid plot.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Brian: A short interview with the fabulous Jen Yoon, Candlewick editor

1. What are some qualities in a manuscript that keep you reading and that make you start to believe you might want a manuscript? What, beyond these qualities, does a manuscript have to have in order to make it one of the select few you choose to acquire?

The one quality that draws me into a manuscript is voice. That trumps everything else for me. If I believe in a character, then I'll go anywhere with him or her. And a dose of humor never hurts with me. If I laugh out loud, it's a good sign. Anything beyond that is usually practical. If the book includes visuals or is unusual in its structure, then I have to consider how it will be published and that can involve other departments.

2. How do you acquire a manuscript? What's the process? You decide you want a manuscript. What happens from that point to the point you make an offer?

I always seek out a second opinion, so I share the manuscript with at least one (if not two) other editor(s). Since each of us have our own tastes and areas of expertise, getting others' thoughts is incredibly useful. And then, of course, it's a matter of getting everything approved by the necessary folks to make an offer.

3. Are there other factors besides the manuscript that enter into the decision to acquire?

I think at Candlewick we generally focus on the manuscript itself, but of course, we do have to pay attention to the book's market and where it fits in our publishing program. I wouldn't say that these factors would ever prevent me from acquiring a book since there's always a place for good writing and good stories.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Varian: Delacorte Dames and Dudes

I, along with four other Austin authors, were mentioned in Publishers Weekly's Children's Bookshelf this week!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Christine: Making the Media Your BFF

When I’m about to launch a new novel and start dusting off my media contacts, my mind wanders back to the time I used to be on the receiving end, sitting in the newsroom of a daily newspaper.

Here’s how a conversation might go if the present-day, fortysomething me (the one promoting my book) were to make a call to twentysomething me (the one choking down second-hand smoke amidst the clickety-clacking of forty reporters’ keyboards):

FORTYSOMETHING ME: Hi, Christine. This is Christine. How have you been?

TWENTYSOMETHING ME (guardedly, eyeing the clock as a deadline beckons): Okay….

FORTYSOMETHING ME: Great! Hey, by the way, I loved your column Sunday about your Vegas jaunt. Kinda Hunter Thompson-esque. Speaking of writing, I’ve touched base with you in the past when I’ve launched a new book, and I’m about to….

TWENTYSOMETHING ME (relieved to finally glean enough information to pass the buck): Um, you really need to talk to our features editor.

FORTYSOMETHING ME: Cara? Actually, I’ve already contacted her and she referred me to you. She said your paper doesn’t do book reviews anymore, but that a feature article might be a possibility, so….

TWENTYSOMETHING ME (casting evil glance at Cara on the other side of the newsroom for being one step ahead in the buck-passing department): Yeah, you know what? So many people are writing books these days that we’re really cutting back….

FORTYSOMETHING ME (making mental note that Twentysomething Me is way more cocky than her skills merit): Right. Everybody and his brother are self-publishing these days. More power to ’em! Landing a publisher is brutal. But my publisher is Random House, and….

TWENTYSOMETHING ME (slightly more interested but still conveying studied indifference): Oh. A real publisher.

FORTYSOMETHING ME: Right. Anyway, my book is a tween novel called Talia Talk, about a middle-school girl who starts a commentary on her school podcast and….

TWENTYSOMETHING ME: Yeah, if you’ll just send me a press release….

FORTYSOMETHING ME: My publicist already has, so I’m following up with a phone call. Do you think I could stop by at your convenience and….

TWENTYSOMETHING ME (shuddering at the thought, what with newspaper people being introverts who avoid human contact at all costs): Maybe I can just ask you a few questions over the phone….

FORTYSOMETHING ME (triumphantly): Great! Is this a good time?

Morals of the story:

* The media are inundated with press releases and give most of them approximately as much attention as the gnat buzzing about in the newsroom. Follow up.

* The media (all media: print, digital, radio, TV, etc.) are busy and appreciate quick, concise pitches, although the occasional shout-out to their work doesn’t hurt.

* Because they’re inundated with pitches, the media are looking for reasons to quickly cut you off at the pass. Anticipate their brush-offs and stay one step ahead with information that makes your pitch distinctive and appealing.

* Be upbeat but not obsequious, persistent but not pesky. Above all, be professional.

* Mind your manners. Send thank-you notes for nice publicity. Seek out media contacts at social functions or community gatherings just to say hello. Ask about their lives, not because you’re trying to cultivate contacts but because you’re sincerely interested. (You’re a writer, so this comes naturally … right?)

* Handle brush-offs or bad reviews graciously. The air is rarified on the high ground.

Hope this helps. Oh, and one more note from Fortysomething Me to Twentysomething Me: You have SO much to learn. Get over yourself, will ya?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Saundra: Five Books That Made This Writer


Not only is this book willfully transgressive and stubbornly unsentimental, it's the first book that taught me that the words left off the page are just as important are the words left on.

Let the wild rumpus begin- and then it did in the most incredible way. Those strobe-captured moments left so much room for Max's celebration to become anything- as wild, as rumpusful, as infinite as our own imaginations allowed.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is the very essence of show, don't tell- the very foundation of writing.

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA - Katherine Paterson

A book of startling honesty, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is the first book that I remember reflecting the real caprice and chaos of the world. Sometimes people are strange and selfish; sometimes terrible things happen for no reason at all.

And for me at that age, I was comforted knowing that other people Went Away- to Terabithia, to their fantasies, and that these otherplaces could live with, not in spite of, the ungentled intrusion of reality.


There's a certain shell of despair to poverty, and this book gets that. In three brothers and a handful of greasers, S.E. Hinton revealed the distraction of hunger. The restless acceptance of a menial fate. The ordinariness of violence and death. The inescapable truth that your friends and your pride- these are all you will ever be able to call your own when you're poor.

But Hinton also let the sunrise and sunset bring hope- not a promise that things will be better, but a whisper that things could be better. That you could be more. That it's possible to be hungry, but still full- of thoughts, ideas, even beauty.


This book is quite simply the absolute distillation of everything I took from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and THE OUTSIDERS. It's non-fiction, beautifully written, revealing how directed, and how arbitrary, our short time here on earth really is.

Simon's exhaustive, exhausted look at the men and women who investigate murders in Baltimore, Maryland is not about true crime. It's about living, and finding the perversity, the tragedy, the beauty, and the sacred in all of it.

I can only try to capture the thinnest margin of his success there, but every time I sit down to write, I try.

ON WRITING - Stephen King & STARTING FROM SCRATCH - Rita Mae Brown

I love both of these books for the things they say about the art, the heart and the meaning of writing. King's description of the telepathic art and Brown's insistence that a book is only half done when it leaves your hands (and your cat's paws) were deeply meaningful for me.

But I also love them for reminding me that nobody- not even a best seller- knows anything about the act of writing.

The only way to write a book is to sit down and write it. And everything else- from Stephen King's absurd dismissal of word counts under 5000 words a day, and Brown's brow-lifting dictate that every writer should learn Latin, Greek and own all 13 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary- that's all personal eccentricity.

Having these books as reminders of both- art and act- has defined me, and I'm so glad to have them both in my collection.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Heidi: Election Day and You're Talking About Research?

Like they say, timing is everything.

So it's Election Tuesday and my dear agent Sara picks this day for me to write about researching my upcoming novel SEA. I hope you've brought your I-Just-Voted-sticker-wearing-self into your local Starbucks for a free cuppa joe and are just settling in to read about the election...or better read about how a virtually unknown future debut author researched her novel SEA. Obama who? McCain whaaaa?

In the hopes that you're all election'ed out, it started like this:

My husband, a young psychiatrist fresh out of residency intent on bettering the world, didn't want to start a big $ private practice. He was interested in non-profits and more specifically international humanitarian efforts. So after the Asian Tsunami hit, he volunteered and spent two weeks at an Indonesian orphanage helping the surviving children with their post-traumatic stress: nightmares, night terrors, anxiety, depression etc. It was the first time he'd done anything like this and came home *cliche warning* a changed man. I kid you not about this. I mean, he was always a great guy, but he came back...different, like the hero at the end of the disaster movie who somehow makes it out the other end and lives to tell. But how does this involve me?

This was 2005. I had already earned my MFA in writing for children and was working on another project albeit half-heartedly. Our son was a toddler; I was busy. But after he'd been home for a week or so, my husband looked me straight in the eye and said, "You should write about this."

I'm like, right. I know nothing about Indonesia. Nothing about the tsunami. I can't begin to imagine what those kids went through. He said, "Well, think about it. Otherwise their story might not get told."

So I thought about it. A lot. I tried to think how to take my husband's reality, his amazingly detailed journals, illustrations, stories, pictures and fictionalize them. How to create fictional characters readers could relate to. How to create a story of hope out of a story of tragedy.

I got in touch via email with some of the older kids he worked with, the teenagers. I talked with them back and forth, got a feel for their broken English, their strong, sensitive voices. Their incredible spirits and their never-ending questions about America. I read and re-read my husband's  journals, appreciating the humor in a situation that you might think humorless--the lack of toilet paper, the insane traffic, the goats riding sidesaddle on motor scooters.

And I created a voice to tell the story. Once I started I could not stop. The story just flowed out, my fingers flew across the keyboard. I dreamed about my characters, I fell in love along with them; the passion never let up.

Over the course of the next two years I wrote the book. My husband and his team went back two more times and spent a total of eight weeks there, coming back each time with more details about the people and experience. 

A lot of SEA involves non-verbal communication. The touch of a hand to a heart. The thick heat of dancing to the beat of a drum. Hand charades. Laughter. But I also wanted to learn some of the language so my main character could communicate with some of the children who hadn't yet learned English.

Bahasa Indonesia--the language of Indonesia. I studied mostly pocket Lonely Planet, the same guide my husband uses when he goes. I ran my dialog by our friend Skye who volunteered in an orphanage over there for a year and spent two full years in Indonesia for accuracy.

I emailed my friends, the boys who survived the tsunami. I asked them about slang. They happily offered any help I may need. As more story and plot came to me, I researched the setting. Googled pictures online. Used my husband's pictures to create story. SEA contemplates many religious themes as Indonesia is a land of many religions. Instead of researching the religion specifically, I'd ask a young Muslim to explain the story of Mohammad; a Buddhist to tell the story of the Buddha. I wanted to get these stories first hand from a believer's point of view, not the encyclopedia's, so the dialog would ring true.

So research. I'm no expert. I just explored all the options that were open to me. I set out to tell this story as authentically and honestly as possible. To honor these incredible kids who ran away from an enormous wall of water and lived to tell about it. Who lost most of their family to that menacing wave. Who with their strong faith in religion and in each other still wake up each day urging themselves to go on. Who play in the rain, tell talk-talk stories, and comfort each other when they're all alone in the dark and there's no one else to chase the ghosts away.

Looking at their pictures, I felt like these incredible kids looked me in the eye and dared me to figure out a way to write their story.

I would have been a fool to say no.

SEA debuts Summer, 2010 with Putnam (Penguin)


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.)