A Washington Post review of The Magic Words

Mary Quattlebaum of the Washington Post gave a very kind review to The Magic Words last Thursday:

Above this bubbling stew of hope and ambition, Cheryl B. Klein floats like a craft-focused fairy godmother with “The Magic Words.” This book is a well-organized master class for serious writers seeking solid instruction. . . .  Klein brings a wealth of experience to this guide. As the executive editor at the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic Books, she has worked with acclaimed authors very different in tone and style, including Bill Konigsberg, Francisco X. Stork and Lisa Yee. And she has proved herself highly capable of helping authors succeed. . . . The sheer size of “The Magic Words” contradicts the still-too-persistent myth that writing for children is somehow “lesser” or “easier” than writing for adults. Klein ranges far beyond simple character-trait checklists and plot diagrams to substantively consider story premise, structure, openings, pacing, voice and characterization. The 18 chapters move logically from basic principles to revising and publishing. Exercises stretch the mind and skills.

To read the whole thing, click here

Newsletter Archive

I realized recently I didn't have a consistent archive of all of my newsletters (which are published once a month, full of chat and cats; you can sign up at the bottom of the page here). I'll keep updating it with new issues going forward.  

Interviews, Articles, and Reviews on THE MAGIC WORDS

I'm setting up this post as a one-stop-shop repository of all the interviews I've done for and writing I've been doing around The Magic Words, as well as the book's professional reviews. It will be updated as appropriate.

Interviews with Me

Writing by Me

Reviews of the Book

  • Time magazine: "Magic Words aims to be a master class. . . . Klein deconstructs the seemingly obvious (clear plotlines, sympathetic characters) to reveal the technical intricacies of beloved classics. . . . The Magic Words is more than a handbook. It is also a timely social commentary on the responsibility YA writers have to young adults."

  • The Washington Post: 'Above this bubbling stew of hope and ambition, Cheryl B. Klein floats like a craft-focused fairy godmother with “The Magic Words.” This book is a well-organized master class for serious writers seeking solid instruction.' 

  • Booklist magazine (starred review): "For anyone wishing to write for young readers, Klein's remarkable new book will be a sine qua non, an indispensable, authoritative guide to the act, art, and craft of creation." 

  • Library Journal magazine (starred review): "Wonderful . . . The volume also distinguishes itself from other similar titles with its wealth of exercises, each provocative, proven, and sure to write the ship . . . The new go-to guide for aspiring middle-grade and YA authors." 

  • Kirkus Reviews: "As executive editor at the Arthur A. Levine Books imprint of Scholastic, Klein has edited such well-regarded titles as Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee (2003), Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (2009), and If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth (2013). With this substantial volume, she distills years of experience into an intensely practical, appealingly conversational manual."

  • Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana:  "Klein has plenty of experience with what does and doesn’t work in a book, but she admits in her intro that 'I’ve found writing a book on "how to write children’s and young adult fiction" as humbling and delightful as writing about "what humanity is like" or ‘how to live your life.”' It’s therefore with humor and generosity that she lays out an almost step-by-step guide to writing a children’s/YA book, offering advice, guidance, and exercises."

  • Bookpage.com: "This is the kind of straightforward and knowledgeable feedback that can take writers years to receive in the literary marketplace."

  • TeachingAuthors.net: "Readers close the book smarter about story, craft, genre and format possibilities, children’s book literature and publishing, as well as smarter about themselves as writers."

 

Q&A of the Month: Quiet Books

Q. Is there a market for quiet books or do they all have to be LOUD to be signed? -- Gary

A. Hmm. What I would say is, we are in a very crowded book market, with, if I recall correctly, 300,000 new books published professionally in the United States last year alone. In such a market, books have to stand out in some way, in order to give both booksellers and our end consumer -- the reader / book buyer -- a reason to purchase the book. That method of standing out could be the book's exciting plot, its unusual subject matter, its marvelous writing, its author (as brand-name authors like John Green or Linda Sue Park have enough of a reputation to stand out no matter the nature of the book itself), any gimmicks that are built into it (like the photos in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children) . . . Whatever might distinguish the book to a librarian flipping through a catalog or a child surveying a shelf. 

In practice, the most common method by which a book stands out is its book's plot, because it's the element of writing we can all talk about most easily, and opinions about what makes "marvelous writing" differ so widely from person to person. If your book doesn't have a LOUD plot -- if its events are pretty everyday -- then you need to make the characterizations and delineations of those events as rich and meaningful to us readers as they are to the characters themselves, and then the quiet everydayness will become LOUD because we love your people so much and we're so deeply invested in what happens to them. (I'm thinking of Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell here, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca L. Stead, Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo....) Such a book can definitely sell -- both to a publisher and to readers -- and even be more beloved than loud books, because the experience of them is so much more intimate and precious. However, if you aren't a writer who goes into that much literary depth, it might be better to concentrate on developing a louder plot.  

A Wonderful Release Day, with Gratitude

The Magic Words was officially published today, and it's been a wonderful day, with messages from old friends and perfect strangers sharing their excitement about the book. I treated myself to a fine latte this morning (La Colombe on Lafayette St.); my coworkers brought cupcakes for our imprint meeting (Georgetown Cupcakes on Mercer); and I enjoyed quasi-bibimbap for dinner (Korilla on St. Mark's Place, where I previously ate on the Greatest Day Ever Excluding My Wedding Weekend*; this seems like a good celebratory habit).

I also sent out my monthly newsletter this morning (sign up at the bottom of the page here), and as the thanks in it will be eternal, I reproduce them below.

As a download of pretty much my entire editorial brain up to March 2016, The Magic Words is the product of every book I ever read, every class I took involving narrative, every conversation I had with friends analyzing our differing takes on a story. I have a long list of acknowledgments in the back, including my husband James and the Marlster, and I mean every word. But the book's actual existence in the world can be traced to six people in particular:

My grandfather, Philip Sadler. My late Papa was a professor of children's literature at what is now the University of Central Missouri, and the founder of its Children's Literature Festival. Thanks to his influence, I grew up with an endless supply of books and hungry for a literary life, which led to my study of literature in college and eventually my job at Scholastic. (I wrote about his influence on me at length in my talk here.) He paid for the design costs on Second Sight, and while he passed away before the final book was produced, he knew that it was dedicated to him. I keep the picture below in my office, taken for a librarians' magazine in, I think, 1983; our t-shirts say "WRITING IS HARRD WORK," and I'm grateful I was able to become a published writer, thanks to him.

My parents, Alan and Becky Klein. My mom and dad encouraged me to read, gave me the freedom to be my dorky book-loving self, and supported my education in Minnesota and my move to New York City (both big departures from Kansas City). When I self-published Second Sight, my mom became my warehouse manager, overseeing my stock of books and shipping them out as necessary for the last five and a half years. If there is such a thing as "parental privilege" -- the undeserved good luck of being born to terrific parents -- I have it in spades, and I'm endlessly grateful for their love and care. 

My boss, mentor, and friend, Arthur A. Levine. In August 2000, I came to New York to interview for publishing jobs, and the legendary Susan Hirschman of Greenwillow Books put me in touch with Arthur, who was seeking an editorial assistant. I had a terrible, terrible interview with him because I was so desperately nervous and (as a Harry Potter fan already) I wanted the job so much; but he recognized my nervousness and was kind enough to let me write some sample reader's reports, which won me the position. From Arthur I learned how to analyze a manuscript, take apart a picture book, communicate with authors, write a reject letter and flap copy, advocate for a project in-house -- all of the hundred little things editors do every day -- and I still learn from his bravery, his tenacity, and his absolute faith in beauty and the reader's emotional experience. (And he's an author too; look for his new picture book, Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!, illustrated by Katie Kath) For my editorial education and the opportunity to be a part of the publishing world, I'm grateful to Arthur. 

My agent, Brianne Johnson. Bri called me to pitch a manuscript in November 2014 and mentioned how much she liked Second Sight, and I blurted out something like, "Do you think you could sell a revision of it?" There was a brief pause where I knew exactly what was going through her brain: Hmm, good book, but self-published, so it's been out there.... No national distribution or e-book, a good platform, solid reviews.... All the thoughts a smart publishing person would have in assessing the project. Then she said, "Let's get together and talk about it," and that started a marvelous ongoing relationship. Bri has wide-ranging and excellent taste, an eye for the unconventional, and joyful enthusiasm, which is a useful counterbalance to a slightly diffident author like me. (Another one of her clients is also publishing a book today, my Scholastic co-worker Rafi Mittlefehldt, whose YA novel It Looks Like This is a 2016 Indies Introduce selection.) Bri's faith and encouragement literally made The Magic Words happen, and I'll always be grateful for that.  

My editor at W. W. Norton, Amy Cherry. I talked with three editors about The Magic Words, looking for someone who would be as tough on me as I can be on my authors, and when Amy said, "Oh, I'm very hands-on," I knew who I wanted to publish with. She line-edited the book in depth, pushed me to rewrite one troublesome essay multiple times, and with her design staff crafted a beautiful, perfect package for the book. For taking me on and talking me through my own book's publication, I'm grateful to Amy. 

If you read The Magic Words, please know that the hands, hearts, efforts, and minds of all of these people have touched the book and helped make it what it is. If you like it, remember them; if not, well, you can blame me entirely. I hope very much that you do enjoy it, and it will help you write your own good books down the line. Thank you, as always, for your time and attention.

__________________________________________________

* The Greatest Day Ever Excluding My Wedding Weekend was April 17, 2015, when I got a new iPhone 6; met Amy in person for the first time when we had lunch at my favorite restaurant, Balaboosta; ate at Korilla; and then, via the cancellation line, saw Hamilton at the Public Theatre, fourth row center, all original cast -- thanks to Melissa Anelli, with whom I afterward kvelled over the show with wine. Holy jeebus, that was a good day.  

Win a Full Manuscript Critique from Me!

The Magic Words is now one week out from publication, and to mark the event, I'm upping the stakes for preorders: If you submit proof of purchase, you'll be entered to win a full manuscript critique from me! I'll read your ms., write up editorial notes or have a phone consultation with you (your choice), and line-edit ten pages of the text. To be entered to win:

  1. Purchase The Magic Words from a retailer of your choice by 12:01 a.m. on 9/11/2016. (If you've already bought it, great!) You can buy it from:
    1. The Strand (Order here if you're planning to come to my launch event at the Strand on September 7.)
    2. Reader's World in Lee's Summit, MO (Order here if you're planning to come to my launch event in Kansas City on September 20.)
    3. In person at the Bookmarks Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, on September 10. 
    4. Amazon
    5. Barnes & Noble
    6. Indiebound
    7. Apple
    8. Powell's
  2. Take a picture or screenshot of your receipt and e-mail it to asterisk [dot] bks [at] gmail [dot] com with the subject line THE SQUIDS ARE COMING! [YOUR NAME] Do this by 12:01 a.m. on 9/12/2016. 
    1. (The subject line is a reference to a VERY old joke from my blog where I referred to submissions as SQUIDs, for Submissions, Queries, and Unidentified Interesting Documents.)
    2. Kindly do not be a smartass:  Change "[YOUR NAME]" to your actual name. 
  3. I'll hold the drawing a week later, on 9/19, and notify the winner shortly thereafter.
  4. Fine print:  This offer is entirely transferable if you want to give the opportunity to a friend. You do not have to have a completed ms. by 9/19; the ms. can be sent at a later date. I reserve the right to take four months from the day you send the ms. to read and respond. I will also happily critique manuscripts for adult readers, though it's not my expertise.
  5. The Preorder Question Offer also still applies! In short:  When you send me your e-mail, include any question you'd like to ask an editor, and I'll respond here or in my newsletter (which, hey, you can join at the bottom of this page).

want to get a taste of the book? Check out this excerpt, or the Booklist review

Thanks for your interest all around, and I hope you enjoy the book!

Upcoming Appearances

Many fun things are happening for The Magic Words in the next two months! You can find me at all of these events:

August 13-14:  Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. I’ll give a talk called “YA Fiction:  What It Is, Why It's Hot, and How to Break Through.” The Magic Words will be available for sale for the first time at the conference bookstore.

September 7, 7-8 p.m.:  The Strand Bookstore in New York City. I'll participate in a panel on writing and publishing great children’s and YA books with Alvina Ling, VP and Editor-in-Chief, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Kass Morgan, author of The 100 series; Brooks Sherman, agent, the Bent Agency; and moderated by Eliot Schrefer, author of many excellent books, including the National Book Award nominees Endangered and Threatened. This will pretty much be the launch party for The Magic Words, so I'd be delighted if you were there!

September 10:  The BookMarks Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I’ll give a presentation on “Writing for Kids and Teens” and participate in two “Slush Pile Live” sessions (aka first page sessions), as well as doing a book signing. The festival is free, with a terrific lineup of authors, including Kate DiCamillo, Joseph Bruchac, Jacqueline Woodson, Lauren Tarshis, Sarah J. Maas and Renee Ahdieh, Victoria Schwab . . . It’ll be quite a day! (And somewhere in there, I’ll need to get barbecue.) Full schedule here.

September 13:  New York Metro SCBWI. I'll moderate a panel called “Crossing the Desk:  Editors Who Write," featuring Daniel Ehrenhaft, editorial director of Soho Teen and author of many YA novels, including The Wessex Papers; Andrea Davis Pinkney, editor-at-large, Scholastic Press, and author of many books for children, including A Poem for Peter:  The Story of Ezra Jack Keats; and Jill Santopolo, editorial director at Philomel Books/Penguin Random House, and author of two YA novels and many middle-grade books, including the Sparkle Spa series. Is it possible to separate the authorial and editorial mindsets—and if so, how? How does it feel for an editor to be edited, and what lessons have they taken from their publishing experiences? In this panel featuring four editors who write, we’ll discuss the pleasures and challenges of doing both kinds of creative work. You can buy tickets here.

September 20, 6-8 p.m.:  Cass County Library Northern Resource Center, 164 Cedar Tree Square, Belton, Mo. My hometown book launch will also be a fundraiser for the Cass County Public Library Foundation. (There may also be another event in Kansas City.)

September 21, 7 p.m.:  Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Missouri. I’ll give a presentation and sign books. 

September 27:  Park Slope Barnes and Noble in Brooklyn, New York. Presentation and signing.  

In Which I Disagree with Maggie Nelson about Relateability (Somewhat)

The Spring 2016 issue of Rattle magazine features an interview with the writer Maggie Nelson, who won massive acclaim in 2015 for her adult memoir The Argonauts. In the interview, she says: 

My mom teaches adult book groups, which is what I was getting at in saying that she came back around the long way to her background in literature. A lot of the time she teaches international literature, and some of her book groups, which are often full of white folks in the Bay Area with time and money to spend on book groups, will tell her, “I can’t relate.” Which you also get a lot in the undergraduate classroom. And my mom sometimes has to read them the riot act, tell them that relating is not the number one thing you’re looking for in the reading of literature. Which is back to this question about universalist projects. Often a lot doesn’t change when you just keep telling someone, for example, “I can’t relate to your experience with cops, that’s not my experience.” Well, that’s fine, listen to what they’re telling you about what their experience with cops is like and you might learn that it’s not equally distributed. You don’t learn anything by just insisting that your experience be the template for all others, but that’s a very common position for people, especially those in power who don’t want to hear. 

“Tell them that relating is not the number one thing you’re looking for in the reading of literature.” This sentence caught my attention, in part because this passage appears in The Magic Words:

About every six months, regular as the seasons, we see an upsurge of an old argument in the literary community about whether protagonists need to be “relatable.” Many adult literary novelists take offense at the very idea, saying that, as artists, their highest calling is fidelity to reality as they see it, and reality includes a large number of unpleasant people. (These people sometimes include adult literary novelists.) Some readers dismiss a protagonist as “unrelatable” if the character’s groundwork differs from theirs—their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or country of origin. Those people are bad readers. Other readers—perhaps the vast majority of the casual reading public—just look for protagonists to be “likable,” which usually means the protagonist is a pleasant person who acts in a manner the reader regards as right. Such inoffensive characters allow readers to slip unobtrusively into their skins and enjoy the action of the book. 

I fall in the middle of this continuum, as I do feel strongly that if you’re writing fiction, especially for children or young adults, your protagonist should be relatable. But what makes a character relatable, in my view, is that the person is a full and credible human being, with all the strengths and vulnerabilities that implies: a love for something that can be taken away; a body, prone to embarrassment, injury, pleasure, and lust; fear of loss, of failure, of death; goofiness, stubbornness, blind spots, private jokes; a mind and heart unique in all the world. As a human being, I have all of these traits, so if an author can show me these qualities (or hundreds of other possible traits) operating realistically within a character, I’ll believe in and relate to that person. I might not like this person, particularly if she’s whiny or mean, but if I recognize the humanity in her, I can relate to her. When I can’t relate to a character, it’s usually because her emotions or vulnerabilities feel hidden from me somehow; her qualities don’t cohere in a credible manner; or she hasn’t been drawn with this much dimensionality altogether.

Why does relatability matter in children’s and young adult fiction? Well, pleasure can come from a number of factors in adult literary fiction—beautiful writing, a strong plot, an exploration of an idea or emotion, a connection to a character. But children’s and YA fiction operates a little differently. Child readers might not always appreciate lyrical writing because they’re struggling simply to decipher the words. Both child and YA readers like strong plots, but plots matter only because of characters—because we worry about our protagonist and we want to see her achieve her desire. We won’t worry about someone we don’t care about. Moreover, as children’s and YA books usually focus on a character’s emotional growth as he or she comes to a better understanding of the world, we readers need to be invested in the protagonist to want to see that growth happen. All of these factors point toward one conclusion: Whatever the other pleasures your novel offers, in children’s and YA publishing you need a protagonist who will capture the interest of readers—someone to whom they can relate.  


So I differ from Ms. Nelson in that I do think the reader’s ability to establish an emotional connection with a character — e.g., relatability — is important in children’s and YA literature, perhaps even “the number-one thing," to use her term. (This might also be a difference between children’s/YA and adult literature, I acknowledge.) But as I thought about the whole of what she was saying, I realized that we almost always talk about “relatability” in literature as if it’s entirely the writer’s responsibility to create a person relatable to the reader. But the reader must be willing to be part of that relationship—to listen to what the character has to offer, and to be open to the character holding some truth beyond the reader’s personal experience. An unwillingness to listen, or a lack of that openness, is what makes someone a bad reader, as I say in the first paragraph above. I think children can quite often be the best readers, because they have just enough understanding of the world to know what’s real vs. not-real (they’re great bullshit detectors, in short), while the rest is all openness to narrative and human possibility. 

A relationship always requires effort on both sides. If one of your beta readers complains that your character isn’t relatable, it’s always good to look at the character to see if he’s believable and where his vulnerabilities are shown on the page, to be sure those elements are coming out as you intend; but you might also suss out if that reader is willing to work. If they aren’t, find better readers.

Theatre Review: CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION at Mile Square Theatre

A review by my Narrative Breakdown cohost James Monohan. 

CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION
By Annie Baker
Directed by Chris O’Connor
Through July 2nd
Mile Square Theatre, Hoboken, NJ

Before The Flick (2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and John cemented playwright Annie Baker’s status as one of Off-Broadway’s most mesmerizing playwrights, Circle Mirror Transformation earned Baker and frequent director Sam Gold an equivalent amount of breathless praise, including Obie Awards for New American Play, Ensemble, and Director. Those who missed CMT’s original storied run at Playwright Horizons, or any other rendition of this five-character dramedy, should run to catch the thoroughly charming production at the Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken before it closes on July 2nd. 

The play follows a six-week acting class in small-town Vermont, led by Marty (Obie winner Deborah Headwall), a warm and spiritual type who leads her students through exercises that resemble awkward therapy sessions more than anything you would find at Juilliard. Marty’s students include her own troubled husband James (Jon Krupp); grouchy but ambitious high schooler Lauren (Annette Hammond); Theresa (Taylor Graves), a thirtysomething, free-spirited woman on the rebound from a breakup; and Schultz (Matthew Lawler), a recently divorced carpenter who becomes besotted with Theresa. 

One hopes that Baker never actually observed the artistically and ethically questionable tactics employed by this community center drama teacher, exercises that involve students having their most painful and darkest laundry hung out in front of near-strangers. But as one audience member observed, most of these games can be found in your average improv class. Whether contrived or not, the interactions that these lessons spawn are increasingly hilarious, the laughs coming from truthful, character-based moments. By the end, you may be surprised by just how much you’ve come to care about this motley group. 

Director Chris O’Connor has a sensitive ear and navigates Baker’s rhythms with aplomb. And the vignettes are tied together brilliantly by the pitch-perfect music of sound designer Matt Bittner. This production is part of Mile Square Theatre’s first full season in its new building. Only a twelve-minute bus ride from midtown, the cozy intimacy of the space feels more appropriate for Baker’s Green Mountain state setting than anything in Manhattan.

Visit the theatre's website and buy tickets here. 
    

The First Professional Review of THE MAGIC WORDS . . .

. . . is a starred review, from YA expert Michael Cart at Booklist, and it makes me really happy:

For anyone wishing to write for young readers, Klein’s remarkable new book will be a sine qua non, an indispensable, authoritative guide to the act, art, and craft of creation. An editor for 15 years, Klein clearly knows her apples about the writing—and publishing—process and demonstrates an extraordinary gift for analyzing it, breaking it into its constituent parts, and reducing those parts to other parts until an essential kernel of truth is uncovered. “Keep digging down until that inner truth is revealed,” she advises. Klein then shows how that truth can be applied practically and strategically, guiding the reader through, for example, eight principles of plotting, six of writing outside our experience, 10 strategies to build relatability or “compellingness” into characters, etc. The book should come with a warning, though: it’s not for the lazy because reading its generous contents (more than 350 detail-packed pages) requires careful attention and concentration; moreover, the inclusion throughout of exercises invites the reader to become the writer, interacting with the text. “Have characters make choices and DO THINGS,” Klein counsels; clearly the same can be said of her readers. Finally, though her focus is on chapter, middle-grade, and young adult books, her sage advice can be applied to writers for any age, who will—justifiably—treasure it.

Woot woot! Just three more months till it's out. Preorder information here. 

 

Welcome to the New Cherylklein.com, and My New Blog!

This new iteration of my website has been live for a few weeks now, but I just went through and cleaned up a few pages enough that I feel comfortable playing hostess here. Welcome, all! Have a cold drink and a warm appetizer. (Many thanks to the marvelous Julie Trelstad for creating the beauteous template you're now enjoying.) Here you can find information about my new book, The Magic Words; a little about me; old talks, and on this blog, new news. Such as:

  • The Magic Words is now available for preorder at any retailer of your choice! If you preorder, you can ask a question that I'll answer at length in my monthly newsletter or here. Details at the link. 
  • I'll be appearing at the Writer's Digest Conference in New York City August 11-14, talking about how to break into the YA market.
  • And I'll lead the SCBWI-Missouri Advanced Writers' Retreat in September.
  • Joanna Marple hosted a lovely interview with me at her blog, Miss Marple's Musings.
  • Kate Beaton was just named the Children's Choice illustrator of the Year for her book The Princess and the Pony!
  • And Daniel Jose Older's terrific, highly acclaimed, all-around awesome Shadowshaper is only $2.99 on pretty much every e-book platform right now. See Daniel's tweetstream here for details. 

We'll see if I return to blogging regularly -- promises on this front are usually trouble, I've found. But I am glad to have new digs.

Two New Writing Workshops with Me!

I'm delighted to announce that on Saturday, November 21, I'll be teaching two writing workshops as a fundraiser for Park Slope United Methodist Church. One will be in the morning (9 a.m.-12 p.m.) and one in the afternoon (2-5 p.m.) at the church in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Each one is $50, and all proceeds go to PSUMC. (This will be the first public debut of some material from my new book, The Magic Words, and I'm excited about that.)

"So You Want to Write a Book?" (9-12): In this workshop for beginning writers, or even people with just an idea for a book, "We’ll talk about practical techniques for starting and sustaining a novel-length narrative, including questions to ask, story dynamics to explore, and tips and tricks for getting the work done. A brief overview of revision and submission practices and publication options will be provided at the end."

To sign up: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/so-you-want-to-write-a-book-tickets-18955014960

"A Master Class in Character" (2-5): "What makes a character come alive on the page? What details should you include, or not include? Do characters have to be likeable or relateable? If you want a character to be relateable, how do you make that happen? In this workshop for novelists, we’ll explore the many dimensions and mysteries of characterization, and discuss ways to create believable, compelling fictional people."

To sign up: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-master-class-in-character-tickets-18955102221

It would be great to see you there! If you have any questions, leave 'em in the comments. Thank you for your interest.

Five Questions for Emil Sher, author of YOUNG MAN WITH CAMERA

This debut novel by Emil Sher is quite honestly one of the most extraordinary and challenging books I've ever worked on--an incredible example of voice; a narrative that will ask you to think about the interplay between language and images, what you expect from a narrative, what makes a good ending in books and in life. It came over the transom to my colleague Anne Shone of Scholastic Canada, who shared it with me, and is illustrated throughout with richly evocative black-and-white photos. This past week, it was nominated for Canada's Governor General's Award -- their equivalent of the National Book Award. 

Without further ado, Five Questions for Emil:

1. Tell us a little bit about your book. 

At first blush,

Young Man with Camera

is about bullying. But as T— would likely ask: “What about the second blush?” At its core, I believe this novel is about a lifelong friendship between T— and Sean that is tested in ways that reveal the breadth and depth of their bond. It’s also about a blossoming friendship between T— and a homeless woman named Lucy that is cut short. T— values both relationships, and both are brought into sharp relief at the hands of Ryan, who is not simply a garden-variety bully: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool psychopath. T— has long been in the crosshairs of "Joined at the Hip," his name for Ryan and the minions who have tormented him ever since a kitchen fire accident left him with facial burns. His perch on the margins gives T— a singular perspective that he captures in striking black-and-white photographs. When he bears witness to an assault, camera in hand, he is forced to make some very difficult, life-changing decisions. To keep silent is to bury the truth. To speak out is to put the lives of loved ones at risk. For a young man who hungers for the truth, T— moves forward by being true to himself.

2. If this book had a spirit animal or theme song, what would it be and why?

In a world of tortoises and hares, it’s a tortoise that would feel most at home between the covers of this book. Tortoises often go unnoticed; they slowly make their way beneath the radar, so to speak, with none of the eye-catching speed of a hare. I think T— would feel a kinship with a tortoise. They may not make a move for a long time but you can practically hear their thoughts tumbling inside. And like a tortoise, T— needs a protective shell of his own as he navigates the bruising bumps of life.

And while I don’t know if T— would ever finding himself listening to Stephen Sondheim’s "Send in the Clowns," I do know it would resonate with him. Listen to it once and you would think it’s about a trapeze artist who has lost her timing. But, in fact, she is speaking of a whole other loss altogether that has nothing to do with circuses and clowns. There’s what you hear and then there’s what is actually being said. Just as there’s more than meets the eye in a photograph, this song takes on a very different meaning when placed in a larger context. Context, as T— believes, is a synonym for the larger truth. In that way, "Send in the Clowns" is of a piece with T—‘s world: there’s more to it than meets the ear.

3. Please name and elaborate on at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book. 

It is sometimes said that “Character is plot,” which I believe to be true to the extent that I have long been drawn to stories anchored by compelling, complex characters. But a memorable protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean that the story will engage and keep us connected from start to finish. And so it was with T—, who I took a shining to from the get-go but whose motivations and intentions and reactions and decisions all had to be cracked open and justified and structured so they moved the story forward. One of my favorite photographs in

Young Man with Camera

(artfully shot by David Wyman) is of a bicycle half-buried in snow. “It makes me think of a story that ends before it’s over,” says T—. “There’s no And then.” No matter how rich and varied characters may be, they need an “And then….”

4.  What is your favorite scene in the book?

There are three moments in the novel that have stayed with me, and they are all linked to friendship. There is the scene early in the story when Ruby appears from the back of her father’s store with a paper towel she offers to T—. It’s a lovely gesture, made all the lovelier because of the loveless humiliation we know T— has just endured at the hands of Joined at the Hip.

T— is not accustomed to a lot of physical contact, other than being tripped and shoved, which makes what Lucy does all the more meaningful. During the scene where they look at a photograph together — "Girl with Striped Face" — Lucy reaches out and gently touches T— ’s scars, without judgment.

T— and Sean have long shared the same boat. We learn that boat is made from different stuff when T— describes the importance, the necessity of being by his best friend’s side as Sean wades through some very difficult waters: “If there’s something you really don’t want to do, it helps to have someone help you not do it. Not right away. Not for a while. Not until you’re ready.”

5. What are you working on now?

Is it premature to share a working title?

Unexpected

: a fish-out-of-water story about a seventeen-year-old single father.

A Verbal Venn Diagram of My Summer 2015 List

All of the books on my Summer 2015 list have five things in common:

  • Friendship!
  • Diversity!
  • Strong Female Characters!
  • Multiple starred reviews!
  • They're out now!

And a sixth, I guess:  I'm very proud of them! Here are brief descriptions, and a list of some of their other distinct and shared traits.

The Porcupine of Truth

by Bill Konigsberg

The author of

Openly Straight

 returns with an epic road trip involving family history, gay history, the girlfriend our hero can't have, the grandfather he never knew, and the very prickly Porcupine of Truth.

The friends:

  Carson Smith, Aisha Stinson

Shared traits with other books on this list:  

Young adult; wildlife (symbolic); road trip; mystery; Internet searches; city setting (Billings, Salt Lake, and San Francisco); family

Distinct traits:

 Contemplation of religion and God; improv comedy

I Am Princess X

by Cherie Priest

Art by Kali Ciesmeier

Best friends, big fans, a mysterious webcomic, and a long-lost girl collide in this riveting mystery, perfect for fans of both Cory Doctorow and Sarah Dessen, and illustrated throughout with comic art.

The friends:

May (a writer in glasses), Libby (a glamorous artist, until she drowns ... and then maybe after)

Shared traits:

 Young adult; mystery; Internet searching; street art; chase scene; fight scene; city setting (Seattle); fairy tale elements; YA debut of an adult author; ghosts; interior art; biracial main character

Distinct traits:

 Hackers; printed in purple

Grounded:  The Adventures of Rapunzel

by Megan Morrison

You know the hair, the tower, and the witch. But in the land of Tyme, that's just the start of the story . . .

The friends:

 Rapunzel, of the tower, and Jack, of beanstalk fame

Shared traits:  

wildlife (actual -- a frog); royalty; road trip; a chase scene; a fight scene; fairy tale elements; magic; over-the-transom submission (of sorts); big hair

Distinct traits: 

 Middle grade; debut novel

The Princess and the Pony

by Kate Beaton

The friends

:  See title . . . if they can work it out.

Shared traits:

wildlife (actual); fight scene; biracial main character; interior art

Distinct traits:

 Picture book; castles; sweaters; farting

Shadowshaper

by Daniel Jose Older

Paint a mural. Start a battle. Change the world.

The friends:

Sierra has an awesome group at her back: Bennie, Izzy, Tee, and Big Jerome

Shared traits:

 Young adult; street art; chase scene; city setting (Brooklyn); mystery; Internet searching; family; fight scenes; magic; YA debut of an adult author; ghosts; over-the-transom submission; big hair

Distinct traits:  

A completely heretofore-unseen form of magic in fantasy, deeply connected to its heroine's culture and imagination; a sweet and hot romance; tattoos

Thank you for checking these books out!

Behind the Book AND Five Questions for Megan Morrison, author of GROUNDED: THE ADVENTURES OF RAPUNZEL

Megan Morrison

and I met in 2003, via our mutual friend Melissa Anelli of the Harry Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron, and I read an early draft of

Grounded

 in 2004. I liked its characters and action a lot -- Rapunzel descending from her tower against her will, and traveling across the land of Tyme with a thief named Jack -- but to my eye, it didn't have enough emotional and world-building depth to elevate it from "cute and smart" to "real and meaningful," and I thought Meg could do more with it. So I told her that, in a three-page editorial letter, and offered to look at a revision when she was ready.

I did not think at the time--and nor did Meg--that this readiness would take eight years. But when she contacted me about the ms. again in 2012, she said that she had rewritten the book, "revised the rewrite, plotted the entire series in detail from back to front, and then revised it again. . . . Though the plot sounds similar to what it was, the book is very different, with a cast of characters who are fully realized and motivated, including the peripheral characters, who don't come to the fore until later books in the series. I love it and believe in it." I had never forgotten

Grounded--

and in fact had been hoping for this e-mail for eight years--so I asked to see it again.

And this time, I loved it and believed in it too, as Meg was 100% right in her estimation of her revised novel. I adore fairy tales in part because the transformations they contain speak to some of our deepest human stories and relationships, and my favorite retellings round out those transformations with complex psychology and world-building, while honoring the readerly pleasures of wonder or romance or connection at their heart. The new

Grounded

 kept all the charm of Rapunzel and Jack's banter and the cleverness of the land of Tyme, whose history, geography, and even the resulting economics and sociology have all been fully thought through. But it achieved the reality and deeper meaning I'd been hoping for, thanks to Rapunzel's complex relationship with her Witch, whom she truly loves, and who has good reason to keep her in the tower; and Rapunzel's own process of growing up, finding out hard truths, and yet moving forward into wholeness. The book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me intensely happy as a reader; and since it came out earlier this month, both Meg and I have been delighted by its critical reception -- including two starred reviews! -- which has praised both its many pleasures and that emotional depth. (It's also an

Amazon.com Best Book of the Month

for May.) Publishing it has reminded me yet again:  Good things come to editors who wait.

Four more notes, before I share Meg's Five Questions:

  • You can actually see a rare scene of the editor and author at work, sort of, in Melissa Anelli's Harry, A History. Page 79 documents a writing weekend among the three of us that took place at my apartment, where Meg was working on Grounded, Melissa was writing for the Leaky Cauldron, and I was editing A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce, another great fairy-tale retelling. (And also making pancakes.)
  • This entire series of five-question posts was actually inspired by Meg herself, as she's written "Five Reasons to Read _________" posts like this one on her blog for years. 
  • Meg wrote about her side of this story at Literary Rambles and in this interview, which also reflects on her experience as a Harry Potter fan and a fanfiction author.
  • And Meg and her friend Kristin Brown, who's a professional geographer, talk about their collaboration in creating "plausible geography" for Tyme in this fascinating interview.

Five Questions for Megan Morrison

1.      Tell us a little bit about your book.

It’s the story of Rapunzel – the hair, the tower, the witch – except that my Rapunzel loves her tower and doesn’t want to leave it. She has everything she wants and thinks she is the luckiest person in the world. Until things go wrong, and she learns otherwise.

2.      If this book had a theme song and/or a spirit animal, what would it be and why? 

I actually have a whole playlist for

Grounded

.

It’s here on Spotify.

If I were to choose just one song, it would have to be “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell). This is Witch’s promise to Rapunzel: that she will allow nothing to divide them – that she’ll rescue her from anything. It’s a very different song at the beginning of the book than it is at the end.

3.      Please name and elaborate upon at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book.

Sometimes, the idea for a story will come before the writer is ready to meet it. That doesn’t mean that the writer should stop writing or give up on the idea, but it means that the story won’t mature until the writer does. I had the idea for

Grounded

long before I was equipped to write it well. Life experiences – in particular becoming a mother and a teacher – were necessary. Not that those particular experiences are prerequisites for writing. Far from it. They were just necessary for me. They changed me in big, important ways, and strengthened me as both a storyteller and as a professional. My work ethic and my openness to criticism are vastly improved over what they were ten years ago. I have hardened and mellowed both, in the ways that I needed to. 

4.      What is your favorite scene in the book?

Rapunzel’s conversation with Witch at the end.

That’s a hard question, though. Whenever Rapunzel and Jack are talking to each other, I am delighted.

5.      What are you working on now?

The second book in the Tyme series! A different fairy tale, set in the same world. Many characters who appear in

Grounded

will show up again. 

Read more and purchase

Grounded

 here!

Five Questions for Lindsay Eyre, author of THE BEST FRIEND BATTLE

1. Tell us a little bit about your book.

Sylvie Scruggs is the heroine of this series, and she’s a lot like her name: interesting, energetic, and a little rough around the edges. In

The Best Friend Battle

, Sylvie comes home from a family vacation to find that her best friend, Miranda, has made friends with the enemy, Georgie Diaz. Sylvie’s entire world is threatened by this new friendship, and she does everything she can to get things back to normal. But normal doesn’t come easily, and Sylvie seems to have a penchant for making difficult situations much, much worse!

2. If this book had a theme song and/or spirit animal, what would it be and why?

Sylvie’s theme song would probably be "Life’s a Happy Song" from the new Muppet movie. It’s all about how life is a happy thing if and only if you have someone, a best friend, to share it with. But what happens when you don’t? (Sylvie does not want to find out.)

3. Please name and elaborate upon at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book.

Writing this book was not easy. I don’t believe (or at least I don’t like very much) writers who claim writing is an easy thing whether they are writing their first book or their hundredth, but certain things can make writing go much more smoothly. When you can hear the voice of your main character — when that person is large-as-life in your head — many difficult issues take care of themselves. Your writing struggles will revolve around plot, not plot and character. As flawed as Sylvie is, she’s now a friend I could sit down with and have a conversation about anything from mushrooms to ice dancing. That familiarity makes writing (mostly) a pleasure. I don’t always know what will happen to Sylvie or even what she will do, but I usually know what she would have to say about it!

4. What is your favorite scene in the book? 

The scene where Josh and Sylvie build the castle together. I love Josh (who gets a big role in Sylvie’s third book) and all of his interactions with Sylvie.

5. What are you working on now? 

Sylvie’s second adventure,

The Mean Girl Meltdown,

 is in the final stages of publication [editor's note:  out this fall!], and her third book,

The Spelling Bee Scuffle

, is in beginning stages of the editorial process. I’m also working on a novel about a twelve-year-old girl named Rory, the middle child in a dysfunctional and eccentric family, whose mother is in Sweden for a month. As Rory, a very different character than Sylvie, attempts to save the family from their dictatorial grandmother and an impending eviction, she alienates her best friend, Owen, nearly kills her younger brother, and gets her grandmother arrested for illegal possession of a motorcycle. This book has been much harder for me to write because of what I was speaking about earlier — knowing your characters. I get into the heads of many characters in Rory’s book, and I’m finding out very quickly that I know some of them much better than I know others!

"The Way It Is," by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Five Questions for Trent Reedy, author of BURNING NATION

(The first in a new series of brief interviews with authors of forthcoming books)

1. Tell us a little bit about your book.

Burning Nation is the second book in the Divided We Fall trilogy. It continues the story of seventeen-year-old Idaho Army National Guardsman PFC Danny Wright and his friends as they are stuck in the middle of a tense stand-off between the state of Idaho and the federal government of the United States. In the first book, Divided We Fall, Idaho has voted to nullify the Federal Identification Card Act. When Danny’s National Guard unit is sent to quell a protest/riot resulting from this nullification, he accidentally fires his rifle, which causes other people to shoot, leaving twelve dead and nine wounded. The president demands an investigation and prosecution. The governor of Idaho refuses to cooperate, saying that he gave a lawful order to the National Guardsmen under his command.

Burning Nation begins right where the first book left off, with the president sending the military to force Idaho to comply with federal law. Right from the beginning, Danny and his friends are caught up in the fight, but as the country descends into the chaos of the Second American Civil War, losses begin to take their toll. It becomes hard to understand what has been won, but easy to see what’s been lost. As the sacrifices mount and betrayals abound, Danny and his friends begin to think about the wounds they’ve suffered, inside and out.

It’s an action-packed book that continues to explore what happens when America’s current political divide widens into tomorrow’s nightmare, and it’s alarming how many real-life headlines seem to have been predicted by Divided We Fall and Burning Nation.

2. If this book had a theme song, what would it be and why?

Ten years ago, when my fellow soldiers and I were serving in Farah Province in Afghanistan, we were struck by how much the landscape resembled that featured in the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. That movie features a song by Tina Turner called "We Don’t Need Another Hero." My fellow soldiers would joke about this song, with one man saying, “We don’t need another hero” and another replying, “We don’t even know the way home.” The video is a bit dated and cheesy, but if you listen to the words, the song really fits as a commentary on the brutality and waste of war that is very appropriate for Burning Nation.


3. Please name and elaborate upon at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book.

When I began work on Burning Nation, I was under the naive assumption that writing the book would be easier because I had already finished Divided We Fall. I knew the characters, the setting, and at least the situation that led to the events in Burning Nation. I should have known that Burning Nation would be as significant if not a greater challenge than the first book. One of the challenges came from the situation the characters face. Throughout most of Burning Nation Danny and his friends must endure a federal military occupation of their small northern Idaho town. With U.S. soldiers hunting for them all the time, their movements, and thus my options for the kinds of scenes I could include, felt rather limited. I began to feel almost as claustrophobic as Danny and his fellow soldiers.

Another challenge with writing Burning Nation was that it was the second part of a story that already had its first part on the market. I was facing a situation that was new to me, that of having public feedback on characters and other aspects of the larger Divided We Fall story, while I was writing that story’s second installment. It felt like having many, sometimes too many, advisors in my office with me while I worked. Cheryl was wise, as she usually is, when she encouraged me to stop looking at reviews and reader comments as I worked on Burning Nation.

4. What is your favorite scene in the book?

I’m really quite happy with a lot of the scenes in Burning Nation, so I’m going to cheat and list two. First, since Burning Nation isn’t merely an action/war book, but is a piece which, I hope, encourages the reader to think about the terrible nature of war and its effects on those who live through it, I’d like to point out a scene that happens after Danny Wright has been through terrible physical and emotional torture. He is out of his mind from sleep deprivation and other torments, and when his one-time rival TJ bursts into his cell to rescue him, Danny isn’t sure if what is happening is even real. He’s confused and kind of cries, “Travis?” Travis Jones realizes that Danny is seriously messed up and it’s going to be harder to rescue him than he and his friends supposed. It’s a small moment, but I hope there’s a lot of emotion in that simple question, that exhausted and near-breaking-point, “Travis?”

And since I love some good action, I’m also quite happy with a hand-to-hand fight scene near the end of the book. It’s a fight between Danny and a U.S. Army major, a desperate fight to the death where Danny has to make an important decision about how deep into the war he’s willing to go, and how much of himself he wants to save. In addition to the moral question the fight raises, I just think it’s a clear scene, a tense and suspenseful fight. And the conclusion of the scene is really quite chilling.

5. What are you working on now?

I am hard at work on the third book in the Divided We Fall trilogy, entitled The Last Full Measure. The story follows America’s further final decline into a terrible civil war, and the difficult consequences this has for Danny Wright and his friends. I’m having lots of fun working on it, and it’s on schedule for a 2016 release.

For more about this book, including an excerpt, reviews, and purchase information, visit the Burning Nation page on the Arthur A. Levine Books website.