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)