Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jeff: Inspiration: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Hi all, thought I'd take this chance to share a recent inspiration. Have you guys seen Banksy's Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop? If not, I highly recommend it. As soon as it was over there was nothing I wanted to do more than grab my laptop and get back to my revision. Gotta love a piece of art that can do that.

For those who haven't heard about it, Exit Through the Gift Shop follows filmmaker Thierry Guetta as he shadows street artists like Shepard Fairey, Space Invader and Banksy to record their work and methods. These are all artists who work (for the most part) outside the usual art world of museums, galleries and auctions and focus on putting their art out in public spaces, generally without permission. The work consists of spray painted graffiti, wheat pasted prints, stickers, mosaics, etc. and runs the gamut from the aggressively political to the surreal and whimsical. (For a good street art gallery check out Streetsy. For a look at Banksy's work go here. )

There's alot to like here. First, you get an exciting peek at these artist's processes as they dart around cities trying to put up pieces of art while staying one step ahead of the police. There's something incredibly pure about it all. These are artists doing what they do not because they lust for money and fame (few get either) but because they love what they do and they want people to see it. They're incredibly talented people that simply want to communicate with, challenge or delight groups of total strangers for the short period of time before the authorities appear and remove their work.

Now, I know that this has been said many times before, but heck, I for one can always use reminding...as a writer it's easy to get caught up in advances and bestseller lists and prizes and reviews and who's got the mos twitter followers and blog followers and facebook friends. Happens to me all the time. And I'm not saying that all of that stuff isn't important in its way, it's just great to see a movie like this and be reminded that the focus should be as simple as making something that you think is cool and getting it in front of others in hopes they'll think it's cool too. Everything else is secondary. This is a point the later half of the movie drives home pretty hard when it goes into great detail about what happens when an artist puts commerce way ahead of the work. Scary stuff.

Have you guys seen the movie? What did you think? Any thoughts on the "is it all a prank?" questions surrounding the film?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Interview With Erica Sussman

As promised last week, here is the interview with Erica Sussman, Senior Editor at HarperTeen. Erica is all kinds of awesome, and has been fantastic to work with throughout all aspects of the publishing process, and I was really excited have her on the blog. So, without further ado:

Rob: We probably ought to start with the standard "how did you become an editor?" question.

Erica: It was kind of random, actually! I had been teaching in a private school in Brooklyn, and one of my best friends was working at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She didn’t see herself staying in publishing long term, and she kept telling me that I would love her job, and that I should work in children’s publishing. I wasn’t loving life as a teacher as much as I thought I would, so I decided to apply for an open spot at Harper. When I went in for the interview, I had no idea what to expect, but I had the greatest time talking first to the HR director, and then the two editors who would become my managers, about children’s books. It was amazing. When I left, I knew that this would be the best possible career for me. And the rest is history!

Rob: Are you one of those people who corrects everyone's grammar?

Erica: Ha! No. That would be annoying. I do cringe when people say “I did good” because my parents drilled the “I did well” rule into my head as a kid. But I promise that, even though I cringe, I do not correct them out loud. I have a feeling that would earn me some enemies.

Rob: I've heard you say elsewhere that you usually know right away whether you'll like a manuscript. Is there anything that will make you quickly reject a manuscript? Any pet peeves?

Erica: I do know right away! But it’s nothing particular that I can tell you – it’s really just if the writing or the voice don’t pull me in. I can forgive a LOT of problems in a manuscript if the voice is compelling. It’s harder for me to forgive problems if the voice isn’t engaging enough. After all, most problems in plotting and structure are fixable – and if I didn’t like editing, I wouldn’t be an editor. A voice, on the other hand, is not easily fixable. Most times, either a manuscript has a voice that gets me right from the start, or it doesn’t. And I do mean literally right from the start. The first few pages are key.

Rob: When Sara first sent you Variant, you initially passed on it (though you wrote a very helpful note, and offered to take a second look if revisions were made). Could you walk us through that whole process? What made you reject it at first, and what caused you to look at it again? (That seems pretty unusual in the submission process.) And, of course, why/how did you decide to accept it after the revisions?

Erica: I’m so excited to answer this question, basically because, in my mind, I didn’t reject Variant. What I did was tell Sara that I would have trouble positioning it in the way I would want to for our sales and marketing teams if it wasn’t revised. I see a LOT of manuscripts from agents, and I ask to take maybe 2-3 through revisions each year. At the most. If I want to see something again, or I give suggestions for how it can be even stronger, that means I really like it. Sometimes, though, even if I like something, it doesn’t make sense for me to take it into meetings at Harper if I don’t think it’s going to wow our editorial, sales, and marketing teams. Our acquisitions process at HarperCollins is twofold – first we take manuscripts to our Editorial meeting, where the Editorial team, including our Editor-in-Chief and Publisher weigh in on it. If that group agrees that the manuscript will be a good addition to the Harper list, we take it next to our Acquisitions meeting, where we present the project to our Sales and Marketing teams.

We publish a lot of books at Harper. A lot. And oftentimes, the impression that a manuscript leaves readers with after Editorial and Acquisitions meetings is the impression that stays. First impressions are absolutely the most important in our process. If I’m concerned that a manuscript won’t be able to immediately wow the room in it’s original state, but I love it and see a place for it, the best thing for me is to be able to take it through a revision and then show the even-stronger-manuscript to the team at Harper.

With Variant, I really REALLY liked it – I was excited by how different it was and how interesting it was. And I loved Benson (the narrator) right from the start. However, I was concerned about how to position it because it the pacing wasn’t as strong in places as it could have been, and some of the twists and turns were a little confusing. When I asked Sara if you would be willing to revise for me, I did tell her that if she suddenly received an offer, that she should let me know so that I could determine whether it would make sense for me to take it in to meetings as is. Luckily, the other interest only seemed to come in after you revised for me – so, win-win! I was able to take a revised, stronger manuscript in and position it strongly for our sales and marketing teams and get everyone on board.

So there. I never really rejected it. :)

Of course, a good thing to keep in mind, is that an editor asking for revisions isn’t a guarantee that the revised manuscript will get through. I’ve had to pass on a lot of manuscripts that writers revised for me, for a variety of reasons.

Rob: Three book questions: What book (assuming there was only one, and if you can remember) caused your love of reading? What book has been most life-changing? And what book have you read and re-read more than any other?

Erica: Hm. This is hard. I think the books that caused my true love of reading were the Baby-Sitters Club books. I loved them. I devoured them. I read them, and re-read them, and re-read them some more. I just loved them. I even wrote my college essay about how much I loved the series and how it had been so important to me as a child. (I’m sure the admissions officers were a little baffled by a college essay about children’s books…)

I’m not sure any book has been life-changing, per se. I wish I could point to one! But alas. I can’t. I should probably make something up here. Oh well.

The books that I have re-read the most in recent years, hands down, are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Jellicoe Road. I know everyone out there has heard of (and hopefully read!) HP7, but I’m sure plenty of people haven’t yet discovered Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta. It won the Printz in 2009 and it blows me away every time I read it. I’ve read it at least 10 times now and I always discover something new. I love it love it love it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rob: It seems like a large part of an editor's job is to be the author's therapist--talking them (me) off the ledge when they got bad news/reviews/etc. Is there any other aspect of being an editor that you were surprised to find yourself doing?

Erica: Hm. There’s a lot I didn’t know about before I got into this career path. I think I, like most people, probably thought that the job involved spending the days sitting around and reading manuscripts. Not so! I don’t know anyone who has time to just sit around in the office and read submissions. That’s nighttime and weekend work for all of us.

It’s nice that you think I talk you off of ledges. I like to think I’m helpful like that. Of course, if there are that many ledges in your house, maybe you should move? No, no. Kidding. I’ve really really enjoyed the aspect of the editor-author relationship throughout the years. It’s so much fun to work with authors through the creative process and I love getting to know them. Authors are generally awesome.

Rob: What do you like to do when you're not editing/reading/talking authors off ledges?

Erica: I like to cook a lot. I’m relatively obsessed with my dog, so if I’m home and I don’t have work to do, I’m usually playing with her or trying to get her to go on walks. (We have the one dog who doesn’t really like to go outside…she’s a little shy around loud cars and people) I also watch a lot of TV. Probably too much, but what can I say? I like to be entertained and at a certain point, I can’t read anymore.

Rob: Even though this interview will be posted after the Super Bowl, explain why the Green Bay Packers are your favorite football team.

Erica: Heh. Nice try. I am a Jets fan through and through (J-E-T-S, JETS JETS JETS!), with the Buffalo Bills coming in a close 2nd (for nostalgia’s sake – I lived in Buffalo until I was 10). However, I do love the Packers, mostly because I like how dedicated the fans are (I’m big on fan spirit). I also love Aaron Rodgers since he was my QB on my Fantasy Football team the first year he started on the Packers. (And I have already decided that Jordy Nelson gets a spot on my Fantasy Football squad next season. Go, Jordy!).

So again, many thank to Erica for answering a few of my questions! Erica—you did good.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Jonathan: Love Among the Ruins

Boys do like romance in their novels, but they would rather be staked down over an anthill rather than admit it. I mean, even in movies that are absolutely sacred to my brothers in the Church of Testosterone, we do want John McClane to hook back up with his wife at the end of DIE HARD. We want Indiana Jones to get the gal. We want Superman to wind up with Lois Lane.

What we don’t want to hear (or read about) is the day-to-day aspects of those romances. Later, when we’re in our late teens, that will become more important. During college it will become very important to the point of poetic obsession. Brooding may even be involved. After college, it’s all about the hunt for the perfect female.

Give all that, when I sat down to write ROT & RUIN, my first teen novel, I was faced with the realization that I had to write a romance. Sure, there are zombies, and gunfights, and daring escapes, and chases on horseback, and murder and evil bounty hunters. But ROT & RUIN is also about falling in love.

Benny Imura, the fifteen year old protagonist, is maybe a little young for his age. Like I was at that age, he’s a bit dense, more cranky than he needs to be, and incapable of placing value on things close at hand. There is a girl, Nix Riley, who loves him. She’s a little younger, and Benny grew up with her. He CAN’T fall in love with her, even if those feelings are starting to percolate. That way lies madness. Actually, that way lies the quick demise of whatever ‘mystique’ we think we’ve built around ourselves. Guys, you see, want to be slouchy cool and mysterious. It’s impossible to be mysterious with a girl you grew up with. She knows everything about you. That’s half of the problem that Benny faces: no way to be all cool and mysterious and edgy.

The bigger and deeper problem is that of possible rejection and its dire consequences. If Benny decided that he did, after all, have feelings for Nix, what would happen his estimation that she had the hits for him was inaccurate? What if she didn’t love him? What if she rejected him? For Benny that’s the end of the world, at least in terms of his self-worth is concerned, because if the person who truly does know everything about you rejects you…then surely she must be basing that on actual knowledge that you’re just a loser.

I’ve read enough boy-oriented fiction to know that I could have left the romance out of the story…but where would be the fun in that? Especially from the writer’s point of view. It is our goal in life to create as many complications for our characters as possible. A story about happy people on a sunny day where nothing bad happens is booooring. Stir in complications, catastrophes, complexities, conundrums, conflict, clashes (and, apparently a lot of other ‘c’ words), stir vigorously and you have real drama.

So…much as I love poor Benny Imura, I could not leave him in emotional neutral, so just as he starts to get interested in Nix, I introduce the Lost Girl –a mysterious, beautiful ‘older’ girl living wild in the Ruin (oooo—air of mystery!)—and then I have Nix kidnapped.

This allowed me to use the main adventure of the novel as Benny’s pathway toward understanding his feelings for Nix (and for the Lost Girl); and for getting Benny to the point where he has a clearer idea of what romance is, what commitment means, and who he is.

So far….none of the boys have complained that there is romance in the book. With all the zombies and gunplay, some of them haven’t noticed. The girl readers, on the other hand (always a little sharper in my experience) have noticed the romance, and based on the letters I’ve received, they like it quite well.


I just finished the second in the series, DUST & DECAY, in which each character wrestles with personal demons (instead of interpersonal struggles); and we just sold books #3 and #4. I’m already planning how to introduce all those C-words into the lives of Benny, Nix and the Lost Girl. I’m pretty sure the readers will dig it; just as I’m pretty sure the characters are going to want to sic a zombie on me.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Coming soon!

I'm on the calendar to blog today, but it has been postponed for a couple days. I'm interviewing the awesome Erica Sussman, Senior Editor at HarperTeen, and her schedule has required that we bump the post back a couple of days.

Sorry for the delay! Check back in a few...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brian Y: Where do your ideas come from?

Where do your ideas come from?

When asked this question, I sometimes like to appropriate and regionalize a line from Kurt Vonnegut and say I get them in a little store out in West Texas near Marfa.

I wish.

So where do they come from?

Don’t have a clue, but I do know every writer has many, many ideas. They come when you’re in the shower, walking the dog, on the drive to work. They fall out of the sky when you least expect them. Sometimes you see a hint of one disappear around a corner and you have to chase it down. Regardless of whether they come easy or hard, the little buggers are everywhere. So when someone says they have A GREAT IDEA FOR ME, A SURE MILLION SELLER IDEA FOR ME, and all they want for their brilliant idea is 50% of the profits when I write the book, I get a little dismissive. Ideas are the easy part.

Easy. Getting them, that is. Actually making them work? Not so easy. Most ideas aren’t enough to carry a novel. The novelist Patrick Ness says he waits to write a novel until he has an idea that is strong enough to attract other ideas. I like this notion that you start with one idea and others are attracted to it. Another way to think of it is you begin with an idea and other ideas grow out of that one. If they don’t, then the novel will wither and die. Usually this happens around page thirty-three for me.

There are lots of different kinds of ideas. There are the big ideas behind a novel that create theme and there are the more focused ideas that drive scenes and characters. Sometimes the ideas will change as the writer moves through his story. For example, you think you want to write a novel about loss. Your main character’s girlfriend dies and it’s a novel about how he copes with this terrible and difficult situation, but halfway through the novel, he meets another girl and he starts to fall for her (Where did she come from? One day she just appeared on the page, but that’s another post) and his grief begins to fade and he feels amazement and gratitude and guilt, so then the novel becomes about this experience. Maybe the novel then becomes about this whole journey to a new life.

I read this article in a writer’s magazine not long ago about the subject of ideas. One writer said that he started his novel based on a single word. I don’t remember the word but I remember it wasn’t one of the big ones. Not one like freedom or liberty or sex or greed. It could have been kumquat for all I remember. I could never write a novel starting with one word. How could anyone start a novel with the word kumquat?

“One morning Henry woke to find he was a kumquat.”

“One morning a kumquat in a fruit salad began to talk to Henry.”

It’s obvious I can’t write a novel starting with the word kumquat. I’m not responsible enough.

All I can think is that the word, whatever it was, had an association with something important in the author’s life. I imagine that it happened like the evolution of most ideas in a novel. The word made him think of something else, and something else, and something else. Maybe he thought of his father one afternoon when he came home from the store carrying a bag of kumquats and the news that the family had to move and the boy would have to leave all his friends, his high school, his everything. Obviously not going to be a lover of kumquats. Or maybe he is and that’s the story. Why does he love kumquats?

I do think it’s helpful to consider that this gathering or growing of ideas, whether it begins with character or setting or theme or some point of action, is a process that can be worked through. It makes the whole act of starting a new novel a little less daunting to me if I think of it as a process of attracting and growing ideas. Of course once I get going I’m mostly thinking about characters and the moment-to-moment experience of those characters, but the ideas are woven into this if I’ve begun with one that’s strong enough to grow others.

The truth is even if there was an Idea store out in Marfa and even if they had a 70% off sale, I wouldn’t be buying. It’s too much fun coming up with my own.