Monday, March 29, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The thing is, neither you nor I shall be sorry. I promise. You want an agent who adores your writing, who is passionate about your book and who feels confident that they know how to sell it. No matter how good your book is, an agent who feels lukewarm about it will not be an asset to you. We say this often, but it is true- agents turn down saleable projects because we don't have the right experience or enthusiasm for the material. All agents might turn down a project that goes on to be published and performs well, and think maybe we should have rethought taking on that project, but this business is so subjective, we have to go with our gut. We did not love it, so we did not take it on, and someone who loved it sold it and another person who loved it bought it, and that is probably why it is doing so well.
There is a preoccupation with the idea that agents are often proven wrong and are sitting at our desks ruing the day we tossed that manuscript aside, and I can see why it is an appealing vision to someone in the midst of the frustrating, lengthy process of looking for the right agent. At every conference I have attended I am asked if I passed on something that I regret. I do see why you want to know, because we agents deal with rejections, too. We sometimes lose a new client that we want to another agent, and we have editors rejecting our submissions. We understand. But we have to focus on clients that want us as much as we want them, and on finding the editor who loves the project as much as we do, not on the editors who don't.
Instead of resending the same query over and over to the same agent, spend your time looking for the right agent, not trying to convince the wrong agent that she is right. Spend time on perfecting your query letter and on perfecting your manuscript, to give your project the best chance of success with the next agent who reads it.
Here is the hopeful side of this-- many successful books were once rejected by lots of agents, which means that even if one agent doesn't love it, another will. And that one or more rejections is not the end of the road.
But my no, on that particular query, is still a no.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
While Madeline has sported purple lipstick since the first draft of the novel, I didn’t think much about the use of color in a symbolic way until my first semester at Vermont College, when I was reintroduced to Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. In the novel, Paterson uses color to symbolically hint at Gilly’s true desire—something Gilly herself doesn’t even realize.
The novel opens with Gilly being taken to the home of her new foster parent, Maime Trotter. The outside of Trotter’s house is “old and brown”, and the furniture inside of the house includes a brown couch, brown chair, and a brown piano bench. In addition, the brown couch is topped with a “pile of cushions covered in graying lace”. A black table supports the television, and a black upright piano stands between the door and the chair. Lastly, Trotter’s other foster child, William Earnest Teague, is a young boy with thick glasses and “muddy brown hair.” (4-6)
Paterson’s use of brown and other dark colors at first seems like a quirky character trait associated with Maime Trotter. However, we soon begin to see other instances of color. In Chapter 2, as Gilly unpacks her brown suitcase in the brown house, she reflects back on her time spent with past foster parents. “The Nevinses’ house had been square and white and dustless, just like every other square, white, dustless house in the treeless development where they had lived. She had been the only thing out of place” (10).
Then Gilly unpacks her most prized possession—a photograph of a woman with brown eyes that “laughed up at her as they always had”, and glossy black hair that “hung in gentle waves without one hair astray.” Gilly was looking at a picture of her mother (Paterson, 10-11).
We quickly realize that Gilly has been waiting for her mother to show up and rescue her from the Nevinses, Richmonds, Newmans, and all the other foster families that have abandoned her. Gilly believes that everything will be okay once this beautiful, brown eyed, black haired woman reappears and takes her back home.
Of course, what Gilly doesn’t realize is that she can find everything she’s ever wanted at the brown house in Thompson Park. This is solidified throughout the novel, as we are introduced to Mr. Randolph, the blind Black man that lives in the grey house next door (Paterson 13), and her teacher, Miss Harris, a “tall, tea-colored woman, crowned with a bush of black hair” (Paterson 24).
Gilly eventually comes to love and trust her make-shift family, and is alarmed when her maternal grandmother arrives to take custody of her. However, Paterson lets the reader know that Gilly doesn’t need to worry; Paterson describes Gilly’s grandmother as “…a small, plump woman whose grey hair peaked out from under a close-fitting black felt hat. She wore black gloves and a black-and-tweed overcoat, which was a little too long to be fashionable, and carried a slightly worn black alligator bag over one arm” (129).
Through her use of dark colors, Paterson tells the reader that while Gilly is upset she is being forced to live with a woman she’s never met, her grandmother will provide Gilly with the love and attention she has been so desperately searching for.
One point worth noting is that Paterson goes against the traditional stereotypes associated with colors. Dark colors such as black and brown are associated with good, kind characters. Likewise, characters with questionable morals and agendas are painted with light colors. Miss Ellis, the social worker that wants to take Gilly away from Trotter after Gilly steals, had blonde hair and blue eyes. The red-headed Agnes Stokes helps Gilly steal from Mr. Randolph (72-78) and scoffs at the idea of Gilly considering Trotter and William Earnest as family (142-143). The Great Gilly Hopkins herself had straw colored hair (10), and when we are first introduced to her, she is chewing pink bubble gum (1). Gilly’s given name, Galadriel, evokes images of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elf queen of the same name, whom when she is first introduced in The Lord of the Rings is “clad wholly in white” and whose hair “was of deep gold” (398).
Most interesting is Gilly’s perception of her mother when she finally meets her face-to-face. Gilly travels to the airport with her grandmother, and is horrified at the sight of Courtney Rutherford Hopkins. She isn’t “tall and willowy and gorgeous” as Gilly had imagined (Paterson 174). And her hair is not the glossy black that Gilly had expected; instead it is “dull and stringy—a darker version of Agnes Stokes’s [red hair], which had always needed washing” (Paterson 174). Of course, Paterson had hinted at this earlier in the novel: Gilly had already spurned her mother’s pink room for her deceased Uncle Chadwell’s room, with is corduroy brown bed (Paterson 158).
Paterson leaves the reader to wonder if Gilly’s mother had once been good but had transformed into a more dislikeable character over the years since the photo had been taken. Or perhaps, being that it was just a photograph—a vision—Gilly’s perception of her mother was never accurate to begin with. Either way, the reader (and Gilly at this point) knows that Gilly has found a place where she will be cared for and loved. Paterson’s use of color reinforces this revelation—making the novel that much more layered.
Paterson, Katherine. The Great Gilly Hopkins. 1987. New York: Harper Trophy-Harper, 2004.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring. 1954. New York: Ballantine, 1965.
Monday, March 15, 2010
So when friends come over for dinner or we go out to dinner or we go out for some other reason, out where there are other live bipeds doing live biped things, we are carrying with us a world of secrets. Whether you drink your martinis stirred or shaken or whether you just drink beer from a tap, 007 has nothing on you.
I mean today, today my character discovered something essential about the world and tried to communicate it. This made some people really angry because that something involved exposing something they’d done they didn’t want exposed. What would the consequences be? How would it all turn out? All day long I struggled with the subtleties of the situation and what would happen because of them.
Some friends who came over for dinner asked what I’d been up to. I could have said discovering unbelievable essential secrets in the world and emotional violence and struggling with the future, but I thought this might make them uncomfortable.
“Just writing,” I said.
They asked the obligatory question. “What are you working on?”
But I can’t tell. I’m a secret agent. You can’t tell your secrets in casual conversation. They sound dumb. Also talking about secrets, such as what you’re writing before you’ve finished, sometimes makes them disappear. The Writing Gods are always listening. So I either have to remain silent or make something up. “A Podiatrists’ convention,” I might say.
Naturally, (unless they're really into feet, but we won't go there) they begin to talk of other things. Real jobs with real people. Selling, buying, doing. I nod and smile and pretend that their working lives are more interesting than mine. I have to pretend that all I did all day was sit on my butt and stare out my window and type a word here and there between weighty sighs. It’s part of being a secret agent.
But the truth? The truth is a secret.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
A couple of years ago, I was in between projects and found myself wanting to write another middle grade novel. When I say "another," understand I had written a couple, years ago, that eventually became drawer novels. I now call them my schooling!
My most cherished memories of books and reading are from that time when I was 8-12 years old. Even today, as much as I love young adult novels, it is often a wonderful mid-grade novel that sticks with me. I think I’ve mentioned my adoration of Kate DiCamillo before. I recently read THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT, and as soon as I shut the book, I turned to page one and started to read again. Another recent middle-grade book that I loved: Barbara O’Connor’s THE SMALL ADVENTURE OF POPEYE AND ELVIS. Two very different books, in both subject matter and tone, but both touched my heart, as the best books do, I suppose.
So, I wanted to do that. I wanted to write a middle-grade book that would touch a reader’s heart. But mostly, I wanted to write about something happy, FOR MYSELF! My young adult novels, while ultimately ending in hope, are sad, and at times, dark. I needed to write something different. Something that the book-loving ten-year-old girl inside of me would love. Would it be published? I probably hoped so, but mostly, I just wanted to have FUN writing a book without any thoughts or worries of the outcome.
Driving home from work one day, I was brainstorming ideas, as I often do when I’m in the car. And I thought – what’s something that just the mention of the word makes people, including me, happy? That’s when cupcakes came to mind. Cupcake shops have become pretty popular in the past few years, so I thought, how fun to set a story in or around a cupcake shop.
As I wrote the story, characters came to me who made me smile. A barber who loves to tell knock-knock jokes. A grandma who has a thing for hats and loves to share stories about the famous people she’s met over the years. An artist who understands the healing power of art. In YA, you have to be careful about quirky characters. Too much, and you will turn readers off. But in MG? I think younger readers enjoy them, when they aren’t too far over the top.
Yet, all the while, amongst the fun characters and happy cupcakes, my main character, Isabel, was struggling. Struggling to keep her mom encouraged about the cupcake shop she was opening. Struggling to figure out a way to make her dream of traveling come true. Struggling to not be envious of her best friend, Sophie, who seemed to get everything she wanted.
Because as much as I wanted to write a happy book, we all know a completely happy main character isn’t going to make a good story. Nor is it going to be very realistic.
Still, I did what I set out to do - the book was so fun to write. I loved hanging out with the characters. I loved seeing the cupcake shop come to life. I loved researching cupcake flavors and tying a different flavor into each chapter and coming up with cute little sayings to go with them.
It was exactly what I needed at the time.
Sometimes, as an author, I think it’s easy to get caught up in trying to write the next big thing, trying to write what will sell, trying to please everyone but ourselves. I'm not saying we shouldn't keep those things in mind when we're thinking about our careers. But once in awhile, if we need to write something for ourselves, if we need to write something *without* thinking of any of that, but just to find the joy in writing, it's okay to give ourselves permission to do it.
I wrote this book, first and foremost, for me. And I have to say, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.Yes, my first middle grade novel, IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES, is released today! Now I just hope that lots of kids enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it!!
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
The funny thing is, when I was writing Secrets, the sexuality of the characters was not something that I'd really thought of as a big deal. There are gay people in the world, and so there are gay people in my novel. Nothing revolutionary there, or so I thought.
To be fair, while I wrote most of the first draft, I was living in what can only be called a LGBTQ Friendly Bubble. I lived in the Davis Square area of Somerville, Massachusetts, a stone's throw from uber-liberal Cambridge, and I was working at what could very well be the left-most high school in the America. Many faculty members were out and proud, and sometimes it seemed unusual if a student were not questioning his or her sexuality. This attitude was reflected in early drafts. When Owen described his coming out, it was as rosy as it might have been in my previous school. But my editor encouraged me to make it a little more rough, and after having moved out of my bubble, I knew what she meant.
As a librarian, I knew that some people would probably take issue with the book simply for its inclusion of gay characters. If I allowed myself to imagine any confrontations, I always played the role of the eloquent hero, vociferously tackling prejudice. In reality, it didn’t quite go down like that.
I was invited to meet with a book group at a small library. They had read Secrets and I went to discuss it with them. The conversation was going on nicely when a little old lady told me that she thought the book was fine – she had enjoyed it – but that it was inappropriate for children. She explained, “It makes it seem like homosexuality is normal.” I did not expect the challenge to come from a kindly woman. Her tone was both respectful and matter of fact. My strident reply: “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.”
While I didn’t write Secrets as a political book, it definitely contains my point of view. And if the book itself didn’t convince her that it’s okay to be gay, well nothing I could say at that meeting would. I can't decide if my reaction is just rationalization, but I do think that it's unlikely that any one book is going to change people's mind. We need more of a chipping away. We need, in short, many books, many movies, many stories – and many lists like the Rainbow List that celebrate these stories. And that's why I'm so proud to be a part of it.