Question of the Week June 30

I heard once that characters in books can be nowhere near as complex as people really are. So where is the line drawn between developing characteristics for your characters? Does any special characteristic (such as let's say likes to chew gum or something) have to have some relevant impact on the overall story? Is more allowance given for main characters as opposed to minor characters?

This is a multi-part question, so in true Buried Editor style I shall answer them in my own particular order.

First off, you wanted to know if more allowance is given for main characters as opposed to minor characters? Yes. They are the most important people in the book, so they get the most words. This means you can expand their characterization.

The other two questions are a set wanting to know just how far your characterization can go and if specific characteristics need to do double duty like a scene. At heart here is the difference between details and significant details. As writers, we all know that the easiest way to make our stories believable is to add details, lots and lots of details. After all, as a kid you were much better able to get away with a lie if you had enough convincing details to back it up. However, in writing, every word counts. You still need the details, but they need to be significant.

A good example would be the details in a Nancy Drew book. She’s fourteen (or eighteen depending on the edition), blonde, and drives a blue roadster. Now, some of those details are important. Some of them are not. Ultimately these are subjective, but here is my important. Important details: Age and Nancy can drive and has a car. Unimportant: Blonde and blue roadster. So why are the first two important? We need to know her age so we can tell if her actions are mature or immature. We need to know she can drive and has a car, or it doesn’t make sense how she can wander around town solving mysteries. The fact that she is blonde is unimportant. She wouldn’t act any different if she dyed her hair brunette. And who cares that her car is a blue roadster? It could be a purple VW Bug and still serve the same purpose.

Is there a way for insignificant details to become significant? Sure, if they serve a purpose. One purpose is to differentiate characters from one another. It can be useful to know Nancy is blond if it means that then we can pick her out in a crowd. A roadster is important if it shows Nancy’s social status or material wealth. Character tics like chewing gum can help identify one boy from another.

So use those details, but like everything else, make sure these details have a point.


Tip of the Week June 29

Tip of the Week: When writing a children’s book, your plot must have action.

In an adult book, the character can spend the entire 80k words of the novel watching a raindrop run down the outside of a window. While he watches this drop, he has a great epiphany about his life inspired by about 50 flashbacks of his childhood in which nothing happens except verbal fights with his father. Still, this book wins a bunch of awards and is a NYTimes bestseller. So now, we need to change the hero’s age to 17 and republish this book as a YA right?

Absolutely not. I can’t imagine anything more boring, and I’m an adult. Just imagine those hyperactive, short attention-spanned, stereotypical kids trying to stay interested in a book that takes the first five pages to describe the color of the water on the window. Kids and a lot of adults require books that have things that happen. There’s a reason why Holy Blood, Holy Grail was a bestseller, but DaVinci Code was a bestseller many times over despite both of them having the same controversial premise. (Okay, one was a nonfiction and the other a fiction, so there not entirely comparable, but you understand my point.)

So give your characters stuff to experience. Introspection may be good for the soul, but it’s boring if it’s the only thing your character does. (This is especially true in picture books. The illustrator has to have something to illustrate. You can’t have the same pictures on every page.)

When choosing my heroes, I prefer pastrami on rye.

The Hero’s Journey has lots of parts some big, some small. Not every one is necessary for a successful plot. I’m going to focus on the most common aspects. The Hero’s Journey is not just for high fantasies. It can work for every type of fiction out there, even mystery and romance which have their own specific plot arcs as well. I will endeavor to show how different book in different genres use the Hero’s Journey. I’m also going to break it up into my three main plot parts Intro to Conflict, Conflict, and Resolution to Conflict.

  • Intro to Conflict
    1. Call to Adventure
      The moment when the action is thrust on the protagonist.
      In Chasing Vemeer this is when the painting is stolen and the teacher interests the class in the thefts. For Jo in Little Women it’s when she decides to rescue the poor boy next door. Sometimes the call is refused like in The Last Starfighter. Ultimately, though something happens to make the protagonist agree to go on the adventure or enter in the conflict.
    2. Meeting of the Mentor
      When the protagonist meets the person who will help guide him/her on the path.
      In any of the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy mysteries this is when Nancy or the boys go their respective fathers for advice.

  • Conflict
    1. Crossing the First Threshold
      This is where the hero truly commits to the conflict.
      This is where the main kid teaches Zero to read in exchange for hole digging. He knows it may get him in trouble, but he still does it anyway.
    2. Tests, Allies, and Villians
      The hero tries to resolve the conflict, often unsuccessfully. On the way, he meets friends and enemies.
      Fairy tales are the quintessential example. The heroes in these try to solve their conflicts two times before succeeding on the third. Think “The Three Little Pigs.”
    3. The Ordeal
      This is the ubër-confrontation where the hero must succeed or die, metaphorically speaking. Eliza must pass at the ball or be exposed in My Fair Lady (not a children’s book, but a different genre.) In Twilight it’s Bella’s confrontation with James in the dance studio.

  • Resolution of Conflict
    1. Reward
      The battles been fought and the hero has won. Now he gets that item he’s been seeking. In Gossip Girlswhatever girl gets whatever guy or thing she’s been wanting. Meg gets her father and brother back in Wrinkle in Time.
    2. Way Back
      On the way back stuff happens that can still jeopardize everything. They decide that they are not going to open the territory to settlers, so in Little House on the Prairie Laura’s family might move again.
    3. Ressurection
      This is the climax, the character's last chance to grow. The main conflict may be past, but the hero still has to change to reenter his normal world. In Peter and the Starcatchers and its sequels, Peter always has one last encounter with Black Stache (Hook). This is where the mystery gets solved in every book.

Well, that sums it up. You’ll probably have questions since it’s hard to adequately discuss this stuff in a short post. Again, I strongly recommend Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. There’s an Amazon link in a previous post. He does an excellent job describing everything. If you can only get one writing book, I feel this should be the one.

And I do have a tip of the week. I'll try to get it up there tonight.


My Kingdom for a Plot

We have reached the third day of our Official Week of Writing and Musing on Writing. Yesterday, we discussed character. Today we will discuss plot. But before we go any further, I think it’s time for another writing exercise. This one will build character – both yours as a writer and your character’s character.

Think of your main character. If you have more than one, think of the one the point of view is closest to. If you aren’t working on anything in particular right now, invent a character. Now, ask that character , “Before your book began, what was the most fun you have ever had in your entire life. What were you doing? Where were you? Etc. Wait for your character to respond, and then in first person, write down their (minimum of three paragraphs, at least a page is better) response. This works for picture book characters as well. Did your characters answer surprise you? Did you learn anything new? There are many variations to this exercise. Let me know if you want more.

Now, to plot.

A story’s plot is literally the action that moves the story. It is centered around a major conflict of some kind. It can be as simple as: The boys in school make fun of my tapping. How can I make them stop? (The conflict in Jessica McBean, Tap Dance Queen Blooming Tree Press 2006) or as complex as: An evil wizard is trying to kill me and takeover the world, and at the same time a teacher and his favorite evil student that both hate me are trying to make my school life a living Hell. (The conflicts in all the Harry Potter books.) Regardless of how simple or complex you make plot’s conflict, you must have one.

All stories must have some kind of main conflict otherwise it’s not a story. They can also have minor conflicts or subplots. Snape and Draco in the Harry Potter books are subplots. But for now, let’s just concentrate on the main conflict. Subplots work exactly like a main plot except on a smaller scale. All plots can be divided into the following parts:
  • Introduction of Conflict

  • Dealing with Conflict

  • Resolving Conflict

See how important conflict is? In school you probably learned it as:
  • Introduction

  • Conflict

  • Resolution

  • Denouement

At least, that’s what we were taught in the simplistic, Structuralistic literary analysis you enjoy in English class. Still, even if you don’t sit there and go – “Is this man vs. man? No, man vs. nature? No, no, it’s man vs. washing machine.” – you have to have some sort of conflict. Conflict, although unpleasant, is what makes life interesting. Think back to all your favorite self-deprecating stories that you can laugh about now, but completely sucked when they were occurring. Those had conflict.

In my earlier over view post, I mentioned the Hero’s Journey as an excellent way to map out your plot. I will go into greater detail tomorrow. I have to leave something for BEOWWMW Day #5.

Oh, and I worked on my thesis this morning. I’m up another 2500 words.


The Sleep Button

On my desktop computer, there is a botton for putting the computer to sleep. I encountered a manuscript today that hit my sleep button. Now in my defense I was tired. I'm not getting my 10 hours of sleep. Yes, I need 10 hours of sleep. Anyway, I was tired, but still I've never fallen asleep from a manuscript before. I'm not the kind of person that falls asleep reading. I'm the one that finishes a book and discovers it's four in the morning.

So what about this manuscript was so boring that I fell asleep? Nothing. It was not very good. It had problems. The dialogue did not match the tone and not much was happening in the book, but it wasn't any worse than anything else. It just was dull. And I fell asleep.

Now, I'm waiting for a manuscript so dull that I cry. I still haven't been bored to tears.

Characterizing Character

The most important part of the story are the characters. Without characters for the reader to root for and live vicariously through, there is no point to the story. So crafting compelling, dynamic, interesting characters should always be in the back of your mind. For a kids story the main characters need to be human (in the flawed not anatomical sense) and they need to have the sensibilities of a child. When you are picking the sex for the character there are two things to consider. Boys will not read girls books. They define girls book as books with female protagonists. On the other hand, teachers and librarians are always looking for more books with strong female characters. Also, a majority of children author, editors, and publishers (or imprint heads) are women. This tends to skew books towards female characters as well. But ultimately you have to write the character that calls to you. Normally, it tells you if it’s male or female. Your primary characters are the ones that must show growth and development during the story arc.

Now that you have your primary characters or characters, you have to start building the people in your protagonist’s world. These can be adults as well as other kids. Sometimes it includes pets. These characters will not be as fully developed as your primary character, but they still might show some growth. You might enjoy making up complex back stories for these characters, but you almost certainly will not work it into your book. Most likely it would be distracting and irrelevant to the story arcs.

And finally after you’re done building all these characters and working them into your story, you have to figure out which ones are irrelevant. You may find that two of your characters are similar and do the same things. Feel free to combine them into one. Others have little or no point at all. Save them for future books.

This is a very cursory discussion on character. Lots of books give more detailed explanations. If you have any questions, ask me. I’ll be happy to go into anything in greater detail.

Now I’m off to work at my other job where I have no internet connection but lots and lots of slush.


The Truth According to Me

Yesterday, I said to today would be a day of the truth. I’ve been scouring my brain (and my slush) for examples of writing truths – those unbendable writing rules you can never break, unless of course you need to. These were all of the ones I could think of so far. I’ll add some more tonight if I think of any during the day. Also, feel free to add any truths you have learned.

  1. Good characters make good stories.
    You may have invented the coolest world. Your character might be having the bestest adventure ever. But if you don’t have a compelling, at least somewhat likeable character for the reader to become emotionally invested in, your book will flop. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an anti-hero. Artemis Fowl in the first book is a villain. Holly, the fairy, is the good guy. But they are both such wonderfully well done, compelling characters, that as the reader you’re rooting for both.

  2. Good stories require conflict.
    Even if you write the greatest character that all your readers adore, if that character doesn’t do anything, the book will be boring. A character must have conflict and strife. The character must have something to do even if it’s just a battle with the evil dishwasher that just will not get those glasses spotless. If you don’t know how to structure your conflict, use The Hero’s Journey. Although primarily known as the formula used for quest fiction, it can be applied to anything. Look at Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey to see how the Hero’s Journey can be applied. Although the book is geared towards screenwriters, it works equally well for fiction. "But I would never write with a formula," you say. Well, there’s a huge difference between formula fiction like Nancy Drew and structured work. As the book shows, you don’t have to use every element. It’s more of a guide than a formula. But now that you have good characters and plots, what do you do to write the actual text?

  3. Avoid hyperrealism.
    Hyperrealism is a coin termed by A. LaFaye to describe moments when authors meticulously describe every part of a character’s day. A lot of the times it’s not important that the character got up at 7, had breakfast, watched 2 hours of TV, got dressed, went to the mall, argued with Mom over the length of her skirt, stopped at the bathroom, etc. This kind of uneventful stuff can be glossed over with a passage of time summary like: "The highlight of her boring, never-ending day came when she fought with her mom over the length of her skirt. She never thought she'd say it, but she couldn’t wait for school to start back up." Okay, so I can’t think of a story where those two lines would actually sound good, but you get my point. Which leads me to my next one . . .

  4. Every scene must do double duty.
    I think this is another A. LaFaye wisdom. Simply put, every scene in a novel (and especially a picture book) must be doing a minimum of two of the following three things:
    • Expanding the setting
    • Expanding character development
    • advancing the plot

    The second and third are the two most important elements. If your scene isn’t doing at least two things, it borders on being superfluous. Hyperrealistic scenes are generally not doing any of the three.

There are many more truths, but this post has gotten long enough. These are the main things that I immediately notice when evaluating slush. Breaking any of the above truths tends to be a sign of a young or inexperienced writer. Something about the work has to be truly outstanding for a submission with one of these problems to move on in the acquisition process.


Ode to the Ode

You thought I was kidding about the Pindaric Odes, didn’t you? Well, I wasn’t. A Pindaric Ode has three parts each with a Greek name that I don't remember. The first stanza poses a question. The second stanza, identical in structure, answers the first. Then the third stanza of a different structure sums it all up. I tried one with only moderate success. Odes are supposed to be serious poems dedicated to serious musing on some subject. I chose the noun. Odes are always to a noun of some type (Keats, Grecian Urns, etc.) so I felt it was time the noun had an ode of its own. For the meter I chose Iambic Tetrameter (8 beats) and the following rhyme scheme: aabcdbcd aabcdbcd ee. Why did I pick that rhyme scheme? No idea. I just like having all the rules for my little works all plotted out before hand. That is a personal quirk. Here goes:

      Ode to the Noun

      Oh lovely noun, oh perfect word,
      Far superior to a verb,
      Show us your people, things, your place.
      Show us the proper or common
      Way to use upper or lower
      Case. Just how can we ever erase
      The confusion of the wrong one
      Used in our sentence? Oh horror!

      For when do I use turd or Turd?
      Will the answer be too absurd?
      I never want to have to face
      Dead wrong Capitalization.
      Please remind me to remember
      That all dull nouns are lower case
      While special nouns get all the fun.
      They get the caps since they’re proper.

      Thank you nouns for all that you do,
      Our odes would be strange without you.

Truly appalling. I see why I don’t do this often. I’m better at Carrollian parodies of other people’s work. Let me know if you have better luck with your odes.

And that’s it for the poetry challenge section of our BEOWWMW (Buried Editor's Official Week of Writing and Musing on Writing). I still plan to suggest various writing exercises that are outside our normal comfort zones. I don’t believe we can truly grow as writers until we try the things we think we can’t do to see if maybe we can. But I’ll also go back to talking about slush. Only this week I will focus on what in the writing itself separates good slush from bad.

Poetry Excersise Part Deux

And now for the much-heralded Smootonian sonnet. I was much inspired by Gregory K’s new poetic artform. I decided I wanted to develop a new poem of my own. Unfortunately I’m not as creative as him, so I just created a variation of an existing type, the sonnet. Sonnets are rhyming poems with four stanzas in iambic pentameter (10 beats). There are all types, but you’re probably most familiar with the Shakesperian sonnet with its abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme. Since the Smootonian sonnet is just a variation, it only changes the rhyme scheme to abcabcab cabcdd (or the final couplet could be aa, bb, or cc. I’m flexible.) Remember that like an ode, sonnets also can be divided into two sections. The first eight lines are about one aspect of the object of the poem (like the question being raised, etc.), the last six lines are an answer to the first eight.

Try your hand at creating a Smootonian sonnet. And if this variation already exists, be sure to tell me. Although Smootonian has a nice ring, I will happily call these things by their correct name. Here’s mine. I used slant rhymes occasionally, not because I’m lazy, but because I don’t have a problem with them.

      A Snapshot of a Life in a Glass Frame

      I’m not in a very good frame of mind.
      I’m tired and it makes me seem irate.
      I feel some disregard my chosen life
      As something frivolous and wasted time.
      I’m tired of being told that they hate
      Where my life is going. They cause me strife
      And stress. I want to kick each fat behind,
      To shove away their long, bitter debate.

      Who cares if they go dissect with a knife
      My fragile day-to-day existence? Find
      Me one person happy with the way Fate
      Has played the hand of another. The Wife
      Of Perfection would still manage to displease one.
      Some just have no compass to point at Fun.

Clearly, I was not in a pleasant mood when I wrote this. There is no reason your sonnet needs to be quite this morose. They’re normally about love. Alas. I don’t see any 2 book deals in my future.

If you still want to try other types of rhyming poetry, Wikipedia has some forms listed here. Let me know how you do.

Today we write Fibs.
Tomorrow, the truth.

One of the comments on the Weekend Dialogue post made me realize that all of my stuff up to this point has been about getting published, not about the art of writing. However, we are authors first and foremost, so I felt like this week should be devoted to writing. I shall call it The Buried Editor's Official Week of Writing and Musing on Writing. Tell your friends to join in this most auspicious week dedicated to our craft. But since the title's a little long, feel free to abbreviate it to BEOWWMW (pronounced beow-wum-wa) in all of your correspondance. I think I’ve glossed over writing up until this time because there are lots of books out there that cover most of the main points -- though some do it better than others. But I shall remedy that now.

So, to start our BEOWWMW, or BEOW for short, I thought we could all do some writing. Specifically I thought we could start with some stuff outside most of our comfort zones. Poetry.

I believe the haiku inspired the first type of poem that I think we should tackle. Like a haiku, each line of the poem has a set number of syllables. However, unlike a haiku these syllables are based on the Fibonacci number sequence. Called Fibs, they were invented by Gregory K of the GottaBook blog. Astoundingly cool poems. Gregory recently got a two book deal from Arthur Levine, who -- for those of you who don’t know -- is the imprint that put out the Harry Potter books among others. If you do decide to try writing a Fib, be sure to post it on his site if you post on mine. He loves to look at them.

To write a Fib:
Fibs are six line poems with each line having the following number of syllables – 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 (the first six numbers of the Fibonacci sequence).

Here is my attempt at a Fib:

      My cat knows
      She can get whatev’r
      She wants from too generous me.

Later we’re tackling Pindaric Odes and a new version of the sonnet that in the footsteps of Shakespeare, Plutarch, and Spenser, I have named for myself. What? You don’t think my cat Fib ranks up there with the masters? :)


Weekend Dialogue: What do you think of conferences?

I had to go to part of the annual conference put on by the Writer's League of Texas today. Blooming Tree had a small exhibit we were manning so local authors could learn about our press. I should have been helping out longer, but my cat is sick and I ended up having to leave after only an hour and a half to take her to the vet. As far as I could tell, there wasn't much point in our having been there. No matter what we said, none of the authors seemed to believe that we were a traditional press that offered royalties and advances and not some sort of self-printing gimmick. It was depressing and tiresome.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've been to some tremendous conferences. The very first SCBWI one that I ever attended held in Roanoke, VA, did a fantastic job. The two editors who spoke at it were friendly, helpful people, and I'm not just saying that because I drove them around for the weekend and they not only inspired me to become an editor but also gave me pertinent advice on how to go about doing it. They also gave informative speeches at the actual conference and had useful advice and relevant answers to people's questions. I came away inspired.

On the other hand, the Writer's League of Texas conference that I spoke at last year was the most disorganized thing I ever saw. When I went to check in, I introduced myself as one of the editor's speaking at the conference. After a frenzied moment of looking for my material, the girl found it in a second pile. She then assured me that I wasn't "a real editor, just a speaker." It was a gratifying moment that made me feel I had come far in my writing career. They had asked me to talk about how to get a children's book published. I opened the program to discover I was giving a speech titled "The Dos and Donts of Children's Book Publishing." I admit that the two are similiar but not quite the same. I went home that night and reworked my speech and handouts. The next day, they moved my section to a different room without telling anyone, except apparently me and anyone who specifically asked. This did not include the person introducing me (one of my authors) who only strode in fifteen minutes with a small gaggle of people who had been waiting with her in the other room. I hadn't even known someone was suppossed to introduce me, so I didn't even realize anything was remiss before she stormed in. Hopefully, this year's conference had been better organized, I wasn't there long enough to be able to tell.

So my question is: What do you think of conferences? What have your experiences been like? If you could have any topic covered or see any speaker at your dream conference, what would it be? Use the comment link below to post. There are no right or wrong answers. I'd just like to know what others think.


Question of the Week June 23

Question of the Week: How do editors feel about "status queries"? My theory is that an editor on the fence would be more likely to reject a mss from a pestering author than one who waited patiently....

Well, for starters, there's a difference between a professional status query and pestering an editor. We will deal with each one individually.

Editors do not mind professional status queries. In fact, they can be down right useful. I recently discovered a manuscript I've had since 2004. Yes, 2004!!! I have no idea what the poor author must think (and I actually know the person), but I can guarantee I would have addressed it before now if I'd gotten a status query. And I mean a professional status query, not a telephone call or a dorp-in or anything like that. A professional status query is a politely worded letter that tells the editor the title of the manuscript and the date sent with a request for a response. Be sure to include somewhere (at the top in you letterhead or in the footer) you're address and email address. If you have a personal relationship with your editor (in that at the very least you know the editor's name), or you've communicated with him/her by email before you may email your status query. However, be mindful of the editor's personal policy. Some do not repond to email. If you have any doubt at all about your editor's preference, send a letter.

Editors hate pestering authors that want a status update every week or so. Now, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but we all know people like that, and mailing off a manuscript can bring out neurotic worrying in even the stablest of individuals. However, never start panicing to soon. You should always anticipate that it will take at least 3 months for your manuscript to work thorugh the system. Even at the smallest house (like mine) there are still lots of hoops and paperwork that has to be done regardless of the manuscript's fate. Usually around the four or five month mark you should have heard back from the press. If you haven't you may begin to feel antsy. This is the time to write that professional status query. The only exception would be if the press has a published turn around time on their website or in their corporate literature. Then, wait the allotted time plus 1 to 2 months before sending a query. If you still haven't heard after this letter, wait a month and send a second politely worded status query reminding them that you still haven't heard from the editor. And I stress polite. No one likes rude notes at any time. They just make for a bad day. If you still haven't heard a month after that second letter, write a politely worded letter withdrawing your manuscript from their consideration. Life is to short to let your work languish as a press that can't be bothered to contact you. Immediately submit your work someplace else, and think twice before submitting to that press again.

And if you're curious, Blooming Tree's turnaround for manuscripts that we recieve now is about 6-12 weeks. We're still catching up on some, so we do have some older ones, however we've greatly streamlined our process. Children's Brains are Yummy Books gets manuscripts back in about 1-18 weeks depending on workloads and how often I go to the post office.


Tip of the Week June 22

Tip of the Week: Do not assume your readers know as much about your topic as you do.

Now, I know what you’re saying. I promised you a good tip of the week, and I tell you something so obvious you don’t feel like this was worth the time it took you to type in the blog address. Just bear with me. There’s more to this simple tip than you may think.

Naturally, the tip applies to both fiction and non-fiction books that tackle a particular subject like hockey. Now, you may love hockey and think it’s the greatest sport in the world. All your friends love hockey. You can’t think of a single person in the world who doesn’t know what a slapshot is. Well, I don’t. I live in Texas where, Dallas Stars notwithstanding, hockey is not a big event. We worship football here in the Lone Star State. So, I don’t know a lot of hockey jargon. Most of the kids I know don’t know a lot of hockey jargon. If your book uses jargon without defining it, many of your readers might not be able to follow that pivotal hockey game where your character realizes she loves the ballet-dancing boy not the jock she felt was socially more acceptable. By the same token, if you had too many plies and posses, the readers who understood the hockey might not understand the ballet section of your book. Although you happen to be an expert in both fields, no else might be. You don’t want your readers (or your editor) throwing the book down in disgust because they cannot figure out what is going on.

That was the obvious interpretation of my tip, but it applies to more than just jargon and acronyms and other areas of specialized knowledge. It also applies to genres. All genres have similar attributes within themselves. Mysteries have red herrings. High Fantasies (think dragons and swords) have mentors. Most readers who pick up a book in a specific genre have expectations that the author has to meet or deliberately break. And authors in these genres often write for readers already acquainted with the particular conventions of their genre. And for the most part, a majority of their readers are familiar. But what about the reader who isn’t? At one time or another, every one has been new to a genre. Even if you’ve now read every fantasy book ever written, at one point you had to have picked up your first one. And in that first one you probably didn’t realize the green-eyed character was the villain until they did something villainous. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Remember to write for all potential readers.

(Oh, and I’m tired right now, so I can’t remember if green eyes means you’re the hero or the villain in a fantasy. Feel free to correct me if I got it wrong.)


Administrative Detailing

I'm buffing and polishing the blog, and I noticed a few things:

1. Tomorrow is the Tip of the Week. It's a good one, so be sure to read it.
2. Friday is the Question of the Week. I would be happy to answer any or all of your questions. One of you must have something. If I don't get anything, I'll have to make up my own questions. Depending on my mood, the question might be one of the Monty Python quest questions: What is your name? etc.
3. This weekend I will host another dialogue. I really enjoy getting to have these informal conversations. Feel free to disagree with me. Discussion is how we all learn.

Finally, you don't have to answer one of these little please to ask me a question. Leave a comment on any posting, even if its not the least bit germane to the topic I discussed. I'm like an editor at a conference. I'm here to answer any and all questions (and nothing is to trivial) and to be your guiding string through the maze of publishing. Actually, I'm better than a conference editor. I'm here nearly every day.

Oh Happy Day!

I've snuck off to do this while I eat lunch. Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem typing on this at work. As a matter of fact, I've done some of my postings while sitting in our weekly editorial meeting. That tip of the week about not using a small presses contract to try to get yourself an agent came from the head honcho herself. No, the fact is that I'm normally to busy even consider posting during normal business hours.

But today is a special day. Today, I read my slush pile down to only two pieces of slush one requested rewrite. Yes, that's right. Only three manuscripts left for me to peruse. Kaloo! Kalay! I won't be able to get to any of them today, but it's just so nice to see your pile get little. It doesn't happen often.

Of course, tonight is the weekly editorial meeting and I'll get a whole bunch more slush then.

But for half of this blessed day, I only had three!!!


A Free Day

Today I worked on my press (Children’s Brains are Yummy Books aka CBAY books) instead of wading through BTP’s slush. I don’t get that much slush over at CBAY. Partly that’s because no one knows about my baby press, and mostly it’s because I don’t accept very many unsolicited manuscripts. Technically we take them, and I welcome slush provided it follows my guidelines, but I’ve never actually acquired anything through CBAY’s slush. (On an interesting note, CBAY has acquired from Blooming Tree’s slush. Yes, my boss at Blooming Tree knows. The first fiction novel to come out of my press will be The Book of Nonsense by David Michael Slater which originally was submitted to Blooming Tree. It was too controversial for that press, but it was soooo good that I jumped started my press into publishing books 3 years before I had originally planned. I’ve been working hard to fill the 2008 list ever since.) All the other books for that year (5 nonfiction picture books and 1 fiction mid-grade) have been accepted through solicited manuscripts. I don’t mean that they sent me a query that I approved. These were authors that I had discussed their projects with them in detail before they were submitted, and I was looking for them. That’s a true solicited manuscript.

But, today was slush free. I typed up a contract, did a few P&Ls (ask if you don’t know what that is. It would make a good question of the week, hint, hint, hint . . .) and edited a few rough drafts. It’s what I call a relaxing day.


Those Wacky, Chatty Animals

When I tackled the slush pile today, I found a talking animal novel manuscript. I know. I know. You're thinking yuk, a talking animal manuscript. And normally that's what I would think too -- even after acquiring, editing, and soon to be releasing the brilliant Kichi in Jungle Jeopardy, which is, yep, you guessed it, a talking animal story. So why do we tend to be predisposed to dislike animal stories?

(I'm talking about novel manuscripts here, not picture book. We tend to not like animal picture books because they tend to be bad, bad, bad writing-wise. They almost always involve the author's pet doing some incredibly cute thing that isn't actually enough material to make a good anecdote, let alone a good story. Animal picture books of a Beatrix Potter caliber are very, very difficult to write -- something new authors don't tend to grasp. And I can sympathize. I've been there too.)

But back to the animal story novels. Unlike the picture books, these tend to be written with attempts at plot and character development and the like. What I mean, is that they tend to be just as good or as bad as everything else in slush. So why do we (and I'm not using the royal we) still assume a talking animal manuscript is going to be the worst thing in the pile? There must be something about them that we instinctively know won't work for children.

There are lots of good animal stories out there -- Tale of Desperaux (Newberry Winner, though personally I don't know why. Because of Winn Dixie was better and less condescending towards the reader.), the whole Redwall series, and Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH(my all time favorite animal fantasy in the whole wide world -- I love you Kichi, but you're a second to Mrs. Frisby) are just a few. There are even good adult talking animal tales. Watership Down and Animal Farm are the two that immediately come to mind. What makes them so different from the animal stories that I tend to see in my slush pile? I pondered the question for an entire five second before the answer hit me harder than a new skier hits the ground. In the good children animal stories the main animal has the sensibilities of a child. In the good adult animal stories the main animal has the sensibilities of an adult. But, in the children animal stories that I tend to receive in my slush, the main animal has the sensibility of an adult. The author has assumed that because it is an animal story, it must be for a child, when often the author has written an adult story. The plot may be simple and moving; the character might be an animal that shows growth; the story may have a lesson or a moral, but that doth not a good children’s novel make. A good children’s novel has a main character that children can relate to, that thinks the same way they do. It does not have an adult character with adult problems. Children may read books like that (we read The Prisoner of Zenda in seventh grade), but they are reading adult books published for the adult market. Adults read children’s books; why should we be shocked if kids read adult books?

So where did that leave the animal story in my slush? Did it avoid this bear trap other animal story submissions have fallen into? No. Did I reject it? Not necessarily. I’m actually going to recommend it get a second read – just not by the other children’s editor. It was a beautifully crafted, well-written book. I actually read the whole thing. I’m going to hand it over to the adult editor with a recommendation that they consider it as a potential spiritual novel. It has that soothing, calming effect particular of that genre. I can’t say if they’ll accept it, but the book has moved on to the next rung in the acquiring ladder. We’ll just have to wait to see how far up it climbs.


Goodbye to Ann

Most of the time I live on my own special little planet in my own magnificent solar system populated by imaginary characters I've met in books, my fiance and his work minions, my coworkers, and people I still talk to on email. Generally I don't have to interact or deal with the "real" world until something sucks me back into it.

Yesterday, I read an email that sucked (me into the real world). I was sad to learn that Ann Sullivan had died.

Now, most of you didn't know Ann. I'll admit I didn't know her well, but somehow that didn't really seem to matter with her. She was one of those rare people that you meet and instantly feel comfortable with, and trust extremely introverted me, that's very hard to come by. Admittedly, we never discuss anything more than relatively superficial topics, but you had the feeling when talking to her that she would be approachable if you ever had anything dire and personal to discuss. I never did, but it was comforting to know there was someone around if you did.

Having a maternal soul around was important because I never saw Ann in familiar surroundings. I met her while I was in grad school at Hollins in Virginia. The MA (and now MFA) in children's lit at Hollins is a low residency program where the students only attend six weeks in the summer. It makes for an intense six weeks of eating, sleeping and breathing kiddie lit, but it’s also not home. No matter the friendships you make, it’s a revolving door of students coming and going each year, and it is only six weeks long.

Ann was a gifted storyteller, and that was the first thing anyone would tell you if they mentioned her. "Have you met Ann yet?" they'd ask me my first year. "She's the fantastic storyteller." Ann was the artist in residence the year before I started and taught a storytelling course my second year. She was also the wife of Chip, my SF professor I had my first year, so she was around even then. In fact, even the one year I was there that neither of them taught they still came one weekend for our student run conference. Although I never had her for a class - I took creative writing the year she taught - I enjoyed her various demonstrations and the storytelling skills she coaxed out of even her shyest students. And there was something omnipresent about the Sullivans. Even when they weren’t physically around, they still came up constantly in conversation. And, admit it guys, they were the main reason any of us went to the IAFA conference. Sure we mainly went because IAFA (Intl. Assoc. for the Fantastic in the Arts) was Chip’s baby and the Assoc. is nice to grad students, but it was also always nice to know Ann would be there as well. When the never-ending panels became too overwhelming, you could always go out the pool and chat about non-fantastic related literature with her. She was always a restful interlude, and she could always be counted on for soothing nerves before a presentation.

So, to end this little post dedicated to Ann, I thought I’d end with a story. It’s not a very good story. It’s lacking in plot, character development, hidden symbolism, and the like. For that matter, it’s probably not more than an anecdote, but in the hands of a master storyteller like Ann, you would never have noticed.

The Good Witch of the ICFA

Once upon a time four girls decided to travel to a conference. It was a conference in a large palace within driving distance of the sea, and the four girls had to travel far to get there. One by one the first thee girls arrived. They found their room and checked in with the conference. They found the panels they were hosting or the sessions where their papers would be presented. Satisfied that all was well, the three girls decided to swim in the pool.

Finally, later than the rest, the youngest girl arrived. She stared around the large palace looking a little lost, for though the others had been before, this conference was the largest gathering of academics she had ever seen. Everyway she looked there were tenured men and women mingling in the bar and starving graduate students carrying boxes of their dissertation research. The youngest girl stood staring, unsure of where to go. Should she try to find her roommates? They hadn’t been in the room when the front desk called. Should she check-in? But she didn’t know where. The palace had many floors. The conference check-in desk could be on any one of them.

The youngest girl sank onto the top of her roller suitcase that had barely been small enough to qualify as checked luggage. Her lower lip began to quiver, and her eyes began to well up. She cursed the evil, scholarly wizard who had enchanted her into thinking that coming to the conference would be a good idea. Clearly, she would never belong in such a magnificent bastion of intelligence.

Just as she was about to leave, a good witch appeared in front of the youngest girl.

“Oh, hello, Madeline,” the good witch said, giving the youngest girl a hug. “Are you just now getting here? Alaine, Sonia, and Amie are out by the pool if you’re looking for them.”

The youngest girl broke into a huge smile. “Thanks, Ann,” she said. “I didn’t know where to look.”

The good witch led the youngest girl to the other three. The others were pleased to see her, for they had wondered at her tardiness. The good witch left the four to catch up, but only after leaving a magic talisman that would allow the girls to visit the conference suite on the sacred eleventh floor.

The four girls enjoyed the conference, only parting company to attend different sessions. The good witch continued to run into them both at the pool and at other conference activities. All left in good spirits with the youngest girl promising to attend again the next year. She did, and the conference became a bit of a reunion with the good witch and the not-so-evil, scholarly wizard presiding over them all. The four girls became famous throughout the conference for the cogent arguments and the brilliant articles they routinely published in the most prestigious journal of the field, JFA. They all lived happily ever after.

The End.

All right, so this story isn’t strictly true, or for that matter based on any actual event. But it could have happened. And it made for an okay story, and I think that’s all Ann would have asked.


More tips on the Blogwave

I found another person giving excellent writing advice for you aspiring authors. Look at her blog for tips on submitting to publishers. She is dead on. Do these things. Do not make one of your manuscripts a Tale from the Slush Pile horror story.

Weekend Dialogue: What would you pick if offered the choice between a publishing contract or a potential agent?

I don’t understand authors. I really don’t understand first time, unagented authors who turn down contracts. Blooming Tree had a manuscript it was interested in acquiring. This wasn’t one of the ones I had read, or for that matter had much interest in reading. So, I don’t consider this a real great loss. However, my boss did like it and wanted it. She called and offered for it. She explained the general terms of the contract and the revisions we would want. The author was all excited and said okay. Then, she called and said that an agent was interested in it. She wanted to wait for the contract to see if the agent would take her. My boss was not pleased but said that if the agent took her, in the future she would need to talk to the agent. Then, the author called asking to see the contract to “just browse.” My boss lost her patience and told the author that she would not send the contract unless the author agreed in good faith to attempt to sign it. The author said no. The agent was willing to consider her manuscript again after she rewrote it with the general suggestions she had received from us. This author turned down a guaranteed contract for an agent who might or might not take her. I’m much too risk adverse to turn down a sure thing for a maybe. Personally, I would have taken the contract and sent my next manuscript to the agent with a new publishing credit on my cover letter.

So what do you think? What would you have done? Use the comments link below to start a dialogue with me and other users on this issue.


Small Press Complexities

I like Wednesdays. That’s the day I get new slush. And, oh the slush I get. Now slush is a pain on many levels, but it can also be interesting – in a bad way. I get strange submissions. I know I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it again, but it’s worth reiterating.

This week I got a manuscript that had obviously been written some time in the distant past. Most of the manuscript was a copy of a typewritten version that had been manually revised with handwritten notes. Every now and then was a computer printed page that replaced the typewritten copy, but even these had handwritten notes. It was the most unprofessional work I’ve seen since the handwritten one last week. Okay, so I see a lot of unprofessional stuff, but this one had me confused. The author is a published author. He/she had to know that this is an unacceptable submission. Then why was it sent?

And that leads us to the Small Press Complex. This is where people at small presses feel they are treated differently because they are not from a large press. In some cases it’s true. It can be harder to get books in the bookstore when you’re a small press, especially if you’re new. People ask if you produce real books. I’m not sure what fake books we would be printing, but they ask anyway. And sometimes, when we get an author that acts like we’re incompetent, we have to wonder if that author would say the same things or pull the same stunts at a bigger house. The Small Press Complex can lead to a very paranoid staff if you let it. In general we don’t accept these behaviors in our authors any more than a large press would.

So do I think we got this awful manuscript because we’re a small press? Uh, no. When it comes to unagented, unsolicited manuscripts, I think the big houses get the same weird, shoddy work we do.

Question of the Week June 16

Question of the Week: What is the difference between small presses and large presses?

I feel like I’ve been given an essay prompt in high school – In five paragraphs compare and contrast small and large presses. Well, I shall compare them in less than five paragraphs.

The very first difference (and this will shock you) is size. From their staff to their lists to their offices to their budgets, everything at a big press is bigger. That is not to say that some small presses – Candlewick or Tricycle for example – are not large, but the big presses like Scholastic are gargantuan. They have large staffs to support your book. Even the small imprints at the large presses can still draw on the knowledge of the other imprints’ workers.

Small presses are by definition small. There might only be a single person in each department and departments might be combined. Budgets are smaller, and fewer books are produced. On the other hand, your editor at a small press might only have three books coming out that year. That’s a lot of personal attention from that editor. They may have a smaller advertising budget, but they only have six books to promote that year. It’s much harder for your book to get lost in the midlist at a small press.

Another difference is that it is easier to get published by a small press. I don’t mean that it is easier to get any one particular small press like Children’s Brains are Yummy Books to publish your book. However, it is easier to find a small press willing to acquire your book. It’s simply a numbers game. There are lots and lots (and lots) of small to mid-size presses. There are only a few large presses. Those large presses produce tons of books, but they also receive tons of submissions. Smaller presses receive the same number proportionately to the number of books they produce as a large press, but the actual number of submissions are fewer. And finally, small presses are more likely to look at unagented work.

So, ultimately you’re wondering who you should submit to – a large or a small press? The answer is simple. Both. Don’t limit yourself to one type of press or the other. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. And within the different categories, individual presses have their own strengths and weaknesses. The important thing is to find the press and the editor that’s right for you and your work. Don’t worry about the press’s size.


Tip of the Week June 15

Tip of the Week: Do not query over the phone.

This ranks up there with being queried in the bathroom or at the door to your house. Besides being annoying, it’s actually a poor decision on the author’s part. I may remember being cornered and queried, but I rarely remember the actual project pitched. This is because I am often flustered and taken by surprise. This is true of phone queries as well. When I answer the phone, I expect to talk to someone I know or a telemarketer I can blow off. When it’s an author querying, I’m thrown off my stride. I am not my witty, debonair self. I can barely put a few words together. And I’m not alone. Even the most out-going editor can be discombobulated by an unexpected verbal query. So don’t cut corners. Send a written query like everyone else.


Deadly Deadlines

I have just finished typing in the production schedule for Blooming Tree Press's 2007 books. Now I like deadlines. I like to meet deadlines. I feel awful whenever I miss one, so I try to make that occasion as rare as possible. I made Children's Brains are Yummy Books' schedule months ago. But as I was typing in BTP's schedule and despite the weeks of padding I've added to the deadlines, I know that dates will be missed. Things will happen, the printer will sit on the files, something, and deadlines will be missed. Books will be delayed. Authors (and me) will be disappointed. I hate things I cannot control, and a production schedule is full of things I can't control. It's frustrating.

If you're curious about what a sample 2007 book production scedule at Blooming Tree looks like, here's one for a YA or mid-grade novel with no interior artwork:

June 15 final draft due
July 15 copyedits due
July 16 copyedits to author
August 15 copyedits back from author
September 15 layout due
September 16 proof to author
October 1 cover art due
October 15 proof back from author
October 15 cover due
November 1 final cover and layout due
November 7 book to printer
November 15-22 book proofs from printer (bluelines) recieved and returned
January 31 books arrive from printer
February 15 book to reviewers
June 1 book released


Plogging Away at

I've discovered a new thing at Amazon. It's called their AuthorConnect program where authors can blog and readers can respond. I've been having a dandy time reading and replying to Garth Nix's blog or plog as they call them on Amazon. Garth's posts are sporadic, but I don't care since I enjoy reading his stuff whenever I can.

But, it turns out that these plogs are not just for the best-selling authros. Any author with a published book being sold on Amazon can join. It gives you a chance to talk with your reader, and it adds content to your pages. The blog links all of your books together, and you can even add a link to your personal website.

If you aren't published yet, don't despair. File this fact away for the future when you are. Until then, amuse yourself by having a dialouge with one of your favorite authors. Click here for the Author Link main page.

The Drama of It All

And you thought publishing was a staid old profession where everyone calmly went about their jobs.

Dead wrong.

Currently we're running behind on two books. One is scheduled to be released in four days and hasn't even gone to the printer yet, the other is a month behind schedule. Both books had been sent to layout where one was half an hour from completion and the other was no where near. And then someone stole our graphic designer's computer. Yes, that's right. Stole the computer. With the files. Of the books.

Of course, we have backups, but only of old versions or raw, uassembled files. All the work that's been done recently has been lost, not to mention the fact our designer now doesn't have a computer. Fortunately, I am a mac head. My little laptop is over at her place doing the job. Still, we're forced to have an emergency meeting this Sunday.

And you thought editors kept banker's hours.


The Slush Faerie Strikes Again

Yes, the slush faerie has struck, the little devil. For those who don't know, the slush faerie is this little critter, an imp-like thing if you will, that attacks the slush pile. It takes perfectly good submissions and replaces them with a changeling manuscripts - strange, weird submissions that I just can't quite believe I've recieved. I've had submissions that didn't make sense, that were on flowered paper, and that contained pictures of the grandchildren the story was written for but that don't figure into the story. But even after all that, the slush faerie has sunk to a new low. I don't know what manuscipt was there before it struck, but the changeling was a handwritten short story on notebook paper. Let's review what wasn't working in that submission. It was handwriten. It was on notebook paper. It was a short story, and Blooming Tree Press only publishes short stories when we're doing a themed anthology. I get lots of submission that I have to reject for whatever reason, but only a small minority make me stop and go, "What the . . ." This was one of those. At least we can all learn a lesson from this changeling. Send normal manuscripts that are typed, double-spaced, with one inch margins in a standard 12 point font. Print this work on normal white printer paper. Review the house's submission guidelines to make sure you are submitting something the house is interested in seeing. So, the next time the slush faerie delivers me a changeling, the manuscript won't be yours.

New Editor

We've acquired a new editor at Blooming Tree Press in the adult division. We normally acquire books not people. This deviation excites me. I thought I'd take this moment to welcome him.


This has created an interesting development at work - we are now divided by sex lines. All of the adult editors are male, the children editors, female. Oh, overall, women still outnumber men in the company, but the editorial staff is evenly divided. I find it interesting how this has worked out that way. It's not important and doesn't make any differences, but I found it interesting nonetheless. So, I shared.

Question of the Week June 9

Question of the Week: Does an editor really take notice when an author submits and has commented in their cover letter or resume that they are members of the Society [SCBWI]?

First off, thanks to red2 for this week's question and to Gaijin Mama for last week's question. Let's keep those questions coming.

And the simple answer is yes, editors notice.

Now for the long answer.

I am the first to admit that I am not a huge fan of cover letters or resumees in submissions. They are neccessary evils, and I understand why they are there, but for me, they are just more pages I have to flip through to get to the good stuff - the manuscript. However, even in my cursory scans, those five letters, SCBWI, always stick out. Mostly it's because there are a whole bunch of capital letters squnched together. And those five letters tell me two things:

1. The person is serious enough about writing that they've invested the $75 membership fee. The submission might turn out to still be unprofessional or wierd or something, but I know the person is trying to learn.

2. The chances are much higher that someone be it a critique group, another author, or even an editor or agent at a conference has looked at least a portion of this MS before. I prefer to get manuscipts that at least someone has read through it, and I don't mean just read through it for typos. I like someone else being the one to tell the author that their work is missing a plot or character development. Then I'm left free to worry about style issues or the fact that your PB manuscript only has enough text for 7 pages instead of 32.

Finally, even if the editor your sending to doesn't care about your membership, it hasn't hurt you to mention that you belong. I've never known of anyone who thought less of an author for belonging to SCBWI.

Tip of the Week June 9

Tip of the Week: Put your phone number and email on every thing.

Don’t limit it to just your cover letter. Put those important contact points on the first page of your manuscript, on every page of your query – like I said, everything. Things get lost. It would be a shame if your work never got acquired because there was no way for the editor to contact you.


Naughty Me

I have been very naughty recently. I haven't been keeping this as current as I should. I haven't been reading slush like I should. I haven't been doing many things I should. What I have been doing is tiling the shower surround and floor of Bathroom #1 of the house my fiance (such a stupid word) and I are renovating. There's two more to go. We plan to have the house complete by July 1. It makes me laugh.

Still, that's no excuse. The fact is that I flat out forget to write on this thing. I'm not used to blogging, and I've never been good at keeping journals. They normally just end up bulleted lists.

Oh, and I got another question. I will be posting it on Friday.

Current thesis word count: 27,000 words
Goal: 40,000


Question of the Week June 1

I'm very excited. I got an acutal question, so for this week only I'm switching the Question and Tips. In the future I'll answer the question on Fridays. So here it is:

Question of the Week: How do editors feel about receiving submissions on recycled paper?

Well, I can't speak for all editors, but generally we like it. The more recycled paper around, the more books we can print. And the fewer trees we cut down to do it, the better. That being said, we like submissions on recycled paper that looks like normal white printer paper. Office Depot has printer paper made from post recycled products that's only about $2 more per 10 ream case. What I don't reccommend is using unbleached recycled paper. It is harder to read black type on gray paper than on white paper. I also don't reccommend using homemade recycled paper. Now, that may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised at some of the stuff I receive. Anyway, I think homemade paper would be hard to feed through the printer.