Nine Questions & Answers

In my previous post, I solicited nine questions from readers and promised to answer them. Voila!

1. Portia Pennington: How important do you think a personal connection between editor and manuscript is to the overall success of the project? Not only to acceptance (I assume that's an essential first step!), but to the crafting of a lasting work of which both author and editor can be proud?

I think the most important thing (and in some ways, the only thing) an author and editor need to have in common are their literary values and goals--that they both value the same things in the manuscript (whether that's characterization or beautiful prose or good trashy drama or whatever it may be), and they're both working toward the same vision of the manuscript based on those values (because they both value trashy fun, say, the editor suggests adding a shopping scene at Fred Segal and then a catfight at the heroine's villa in the Hollywood Hills, and the author sees the Judith Krantzesque hilarity of this and agrees). Those values and goals typically come from similar past experiences and present values that often lead to more personal connections; talking over a certain character's development naturally leads to discussion of past personal experiences analogous to the situation, say, which might in turn lead to real emotional connection and friendship. But a strong personal connection between author and editor isn't really necessary, so long as the values and goals are the same and the conversation is civil and respectful on both sides.

2. Jason: If you were a writer, who had no other connection to the publishing business and you had just completed re-re-re-re-writing your first novel and you were finally ready for submission... and considering the current economic climate... would you seek out an agent or focus on the publishing houses that accept queries from unagented writers?

I would seek out an agent, not only for the multiplicity of reasons that agents are good for writers, but because responding to unagented queries tends not to be the first priority for editors timewise (see: my previous post), and agents will get back to you much more quickly than we can. Editorial Anonymous had an excellent post on this recently, as she often has excellent posts on many topics.

3. Lauren: I've seen / heard some kidlit agents and editors asking for more magic realism on their desks. Are you seeing more of it in your SQUIDs and agented submissions, and do you think it'll become more popular on the shelves in the future?

Actually, yes, I have been seeing slightly more of it lately, at least in agented submissions. (At least I think it's magic realism. . . . It could also be the softer edge of urban fantasy, or the more magical edge of paranormal romance. . . . These things all bleed into each other, which makes it hard to determine when a trend starts and when it ends.)

Whether it will become popular, I have no idea. I tend to think kid and YA readers like more solidity in their reading than magic realism offers -- having rules underlying a fantasy world, and delineations between what's real and what's not, rather than the amorphousness of magic realism. But this just may be the kind of kid reader that I was, and the kind of adult reader I am. Magic realism works best for me when the vagueness of the Action Plot/world is balanced and/or given coherence by a really strong, distinct, and well-developed Emotional Plot.

4. Also, bonus!: What's your favorite Sondheim song?

Hardest question of the list! My favorite Sondheim song in performance is Barbara Cook singing "Not a Day Goes By / Losing My Mind" on her Sondheim album, which breaks my heart every time. My favorite Sondheim song purely by itself is probably "Finishing the Hat," with strong competition from "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Being Alive." "Pretty Women" is one of his most gorgeous melodies, IMHO, but I don't have the personal emotional connection to it that I have to the other songs I've mentioned.

5. Eliza T: In a review for *House Rules* by Jodi Picoult, a critic referred to Asperger's as the "disease du jour" (which shows some measure of ignorance since AS is not a disease.) There do seem to be a number of books, movies, TV shows, etc that have characters on the Autism Spectrum. When does the market become saturated? Is it like vampires (although I cringe to make the comparison) and there is room for more protagonists with different ways of being? How do publishers gauge which underlying topics have room left to explore and which do not?

We publishers know the market is saturated when (a) bookstore buyers start rolling their eyes and passing on the books when sales reps present them (a dangerous warning sign we try to avoid before we get there), or (b) the books stop selling (ditto). Another warning sign is when a manuscript involving the trend du jour presents all the cliches of that trend rather than any original thought involving it, but then that could just be the fault of one unimaginative writer rather than the fault of the trend. . . . Maybe many manuscripts like that would form sign (c).

With something like Asperger's, which is (or should be) a factor of a character's personality rather than the whole plot itself (in contrast to vampirism, where a vampire's mere existence in the real world alongside regular humans usually becomes the central problem/plotline of the book), I think there's still a lot of room to explore, because there are so many plots that might involve it in so many different ways. Also, the most recent statistic I've seen regarding autism said that 1 in 110 children born today are somewhere on the autistic spectrum -- which is up considerably (and distressingly) from the 1 in 150 statistic I saw when I was working on Marcelo in the Real World a couple years ago. If that's true, the interest in autism isn't going away anytime soon, though the subject will need to continue to be covered relatively well in order to be respectable. (Though those numbers should certainly be taken with a grain of salt: "lies, damned lies . . .")

6. Quartland: For a YA novel, what length of a synopsis makes you smile?

One page, single spaced.

7. Melissa: What, in your opinion, are some of the major differences between the run-of-the-mill published book and the stand-out-from-the-crowd published book? What do you see in books that get starred reviews, win awards, and/or become bestsellers, that you do not see in the rest?

"Get starred reviews and win awards": capacious characters with multiple dimensions; tight writing, often with a strong voice; a plot that points to a larger emotional or philosophical idea.

"Become bestsellers": plots that are "sticky," in the terms set forth by Made to Stick: a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Story, executed with some modicum of skill.

I think people tend to buy books for their plots, but love them for their characters, writing, and ideas.

8. Patricia: If you have rejected one genre manuscript from an author, will you consider/read another genre manuscript from the same author?

It depends upon why I rejected the first manuscript, which usually has very little to do with genre. If I rejected the first manuscript because I thought the characters or writing weren't up to my standards, then I'm probably not going to be interested in the second unless the writer shows me the treatment of those things have changed in his/her work. But if I rejected the first one because I thought the plot wasn't hanging together right or I wasn't interested in that particular genre, then sure, I'd be glad to take a look.

9. Kaitlyn: How international is the publishing industry culturally? By that I mean the interchange of books/ideas across different cultures other than Western, and more specifically, American... One Australian author, Matthew Reilly, has commented that the reason why his first few books have American protagonists is because the American people only like to read about Americans. How true is this?

I don't think that American people only like to read about Americans. I think it is easier for Americans to read about Americans, because no cultural translation is involved; and as Americans (like most people the world over) tend to prefer things that are easy to things that are hard, it is easier to sell books about Americans to Americans. And sure, publishers do tend to like books that are easier to sell!

But that doesn't mean it's impossible to sell Americans books about people of other countries -- the bestselling author of modern times, for example, came from and wrote about a non-American country. And Australians especially have been doing pretty well at getting published here altogether: Markus Zusak, Jaclyn Moriarty (whose wonderful The Ghosts of Ashbury High Arthur A. Levine Books will publish this summer), Martine Murray (whose lovely How to Make a Bird we will also publish this summer), Garth Nix, Judith Clarke, Melina Marchetta, Justine Larbelestier, Margo Lanagan. . . . So I think the industry is open to great writers and characters, no matter their nationality.

The Brooklyn Arden Blog Review Policy

Just setting this out there as a matter of policy, and to save said authors, publishers, and publicists the time:

Occasionally I receive e-mails from kind authors, publishers, or publicists, asking me to review or feature a book on my blog. As much as I appreciate the interest, my reading and blog-writing time is already occupied with projects I've edited or read for my personal pleasure, and as a result, I must decline these requests.

I am interested in hearing from marketers of non-book products; I’ve received offers to review theatre productions and office furniture in the past, and quite enjoyed some of the experiences, so I’d be pleased to try something else new. (All reviews will be fair, and have disclaimers regarding how the tickets or products came to me.) My e-mail address for these is chavela_que at yahoo dot com. Thank you.

FAQ #9 (I think?): Questions About Voice

I'm continuing to struggle with writing my talk on voice--which is charming since I have to give it in five days. Sigh. Anyway, I decided I'd try to answer some of the questions in the comments on this post to get my brain going on the subject, and voila! Blog post!

the difficulty of making the first-person voice something--anything--other than my own inner voice. Occasionally it just clicks and suddenly you're speaking out of another person's head, but some concrete ideas about getting from Point A (my character is a mini-me) and Poing B (my character has her own voice) would be helpful.

This is all about going deep within your character, actually. Where does she live? How long has she lived there? How long have her parents lived there? Where are they from? What are they like? What books does she like to read? What is her personality and energy level like—is she open and voluble, or closed-in and secretive? What words would she use to describe herself?

Some concrete ways of doing this: Make up a character playlist, collage, or commonplace book of things that remind you of that character—voices that sound like hers, songs she’d love, images that look like her or of colors she’d love. Listen to/look at/read it before you start writing and use it to tap into her essence. Develop a list of words she’d use; read writers from her area or time period, or writers who might have influenced her style of thinking, and steal words or phrases from them.

A question I've been pondering about voice: when you write in the third person, how much does your voice, especially when you're voicing the protagonist's thoughts, have to match the age and ability of the character? I just read Kevin Henkes's Bird Lake Moon, and kept being irritated by what I thought of as an unbelievable voice--words and constructions that didn't make sense for young boys. But probably it's fine for the third-person voice to "speak" in a somewhat higher-level than the characters--right?

A third-person voice doesn’t have to match the age and ability of the character at all; it should be calibrated to the age and ability of the intended reader. In children’s fiction, these two usually match up, because we expect books starring 11-year-olds to be read mostly by 11-year-olds or wannabe 11-year-olds—that is, 9- and 10-year-olds—and so the writer usually pitches the vocabulary, diction, and content to appeal to that age. But sometimes they don’t, and that can create weird disjunctions that can be used to good emotional effect but often just alienate readers. . . . This is why John Updike was so annoyed with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a few years ago: He had no interest in being talked to by a ten-year-old. Or my own beloved Book of Everything is a book about religious doubt, which most American kids wrestle with as teenagers, and the style was magical realism, almost abstraction, so we considered it a YA novel. But it starred a nine-year-old, and so it struggled to find its audience, as incredible as it is. And then there is Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, another book for adults in the voice of a ten-year-old (or thereabouts) . . . It’s been years since I’ve read it, but if I remember it right, what made it an adult book to me was that it was as much about the adults as it was about Paddy: The underlying theme of the book was how their world and actions affected him, how powerless he was before them, while in children’s fiction, we give the kids power and centrality.

I'm currently writing in first person and feel very comfortable in the voice of a character who is not at all me. My problem? Striking a balance on how much to tell of the character's thoughts and feelings. Too little and the character is blank, too much and their inner monologue drags and slows down the action.

This is tricky, because it depends on the kind of book you’re trying to write and the style of your writing overall. Two good rules of thumb: 1. Start out writing everything that comes to mind—all the backstory, internal monologue, etc., you want. Then you have it all laid out before you and you just have to choose what’s truly necessary and cut the rest. 2. To do that choosing, take a hard look at the bones of the book and scene—your plot, whatever dialogue you have—and let that show you what backstory and commentary you need. For instance: If we readers are going to see your protagonist stomp a kitten to death first thing, then you need to add a paragraph (or more likely a page or two) of backstory justifying that action if you still want her to remain sympathetic. Or if your character is going to lie to his parents about acing the spelling test, and this is an important plot point, but the reader doesn’t know that he’s lying, then you need a line like Thankfully, they’ll never know my real score. But if it’s not an important plot point, and/or the reader already knows he’s lying, then you don’t need that line of internal monologue. Does that make sense?

JK Rowling may write Harry Potter felt ashamed or frustrated, but then she backs it up with one or more full paragraphs describing his emotions, his past and present experiences, and provides the answer to the vital question - Why? So as I write this response, I realize it's not just about the character thinking something, it's getting the reader to understand why. Any shot at reader empathy with the character hinges on it.

Yes, exactly. Getting the reader inside the character’s thought processes and staying there is key for certain kinds of novels. I read a fascinating screenwriting blog by a guy named Billy Mernit, who scouts for Hollywood studios, and he made just this point in a post today (called "The Genius of Bad Writing," but that's another topic). I think what he says can also be applied to novels to some extent—I think it’s partly why Twilight works, for one thing: You get in Bella’s head, as annoying a place as that can be. But unlike what he says there, I do still want to see good prose that shows and not tells, even if it's not all that interesting a voice technically.

Which leads us to . . .

Also, this maybe a bit abstract and silly, but I'm going to ask anyway: what do you do if you almost never like the voice in which you write with? I am this close to hanging up this writing dream of mine because I can't seem to nail down a voice interesting enough for me. I mean, what do you do to improve this kind of situation? IS there anything you can do to improve it?

I don’t know. I just finished reading The Graveyard Book and started American Gods, and Neil Gaiman has been blessed by whatever gods he worships, because he clearly just has a really interesting brain—a brain that spouts original, unusual, often funny, sometimes profane thoughts right and left—combined with outstanding writerly discipline and years of practice, so he knows how to wield his techniques well to get the effects he wants. Most every sentence contains an interesting image or nugget or development, and you like even those that aren’t so interesting because the ones that are earn him such goodwill. But not every writer is so blessed with innate interestingness. (I overuse the word “interesting” on this blog, I know, but there’s no better word for it: the quality of being attractive to other people because of a particular freshness, unusualness, or truth.)

Maybe you should change the type of story you’re writing. There are stories that need interesting voices and stories that just need straightforward ones that report on the action—and then you can make the action and characters really, really interesting instead, and that’s good enough. Indeed, the voice in most bestselling (albeit not award-winning) fiction is pretty boring by literary standards because it’s so focused on delivering the action -- there aren't the startling metaphors or images or unusual insights that characterize, say, Gilead or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. But that means it’s easy to read and hook into, which the majority of readers love, and so it’s easier for the book to find a mass audience. You might be just this type of writer.

And, you have probably tried this, but if you haven’t, I would advise you to play with masks. Think of a really interesting person—imaginary or real—and work out a whole character profile of him or her, similar to what I recommended above for the first questioner; and then try writing as that person for a while, giving yourself time to grow into it.

Finally, I will say that readers can tell when a voice is trying too hard; and if the voice doesn’t give pleasure to you, it probably won’t give pleasure to the reader. So maybe you should give yourself a break a while from whatever kind of story you’re putting pressure on yourself to write and try something else. If you feel your voice is really vanilla, try using that stylistic purity to write an entire novel in newspaper articles. Or write very spare poetry.

If a novel is written in first-person POV, is it okay to "break the rules" if the character's voice supports it? Simple example: A teen character thinks in -ly adverbs. How many -ly words can the author use to be true to the character's voice without violating the apparently sacred rule of no -ly adverbs?

Yes, how a voice breaks the rules is one of the things that can make it interesting. (I use –ly adverbs all over the place, you’ll notice.) The only place –ly adverbs are really frowned upon is after dialogue tags: “she said snarkily,” “he bellowed angrily”—and that’s mostly because they are all too often redundant with either the dialogue verb (“angrily” is implicit in “bellowed,” for example) or with the content of what is said. (“'Stay away from me, you jerk!' he bellowed angrily” would be twice redundant.) Tom Swifties are funny because they point up just this redundancy, e.g., “ ‘I’ve been a baaaa-d boy,” said Tom sheepishly.”

I have a character who talks in the most incessant run-on sentences. She just keeps going, and there's no stopping her. So to broaden the question: What to do about voices that are unique to a character but perhaps not the prettiest or most elegant voices to listen to/read?

You’ve got to balance the truth with the beauty, and the reader’s pleasure and the needs of your story with the truth of the character’s voice. So put commas in those long run-on sentences, cut her off occasionally, be sure the especially relevant bits of what she says are discernible somehow to the reader in the flow of language. You can let her talk as much as she wants in the first draft, but in the second, remember that you control her, not the other way around.

FAQ #Something: Do I have to finish the manuscript before I send you a query letter or the first two chapters?

I’ve gone both ways on this question in the past, but I thought about it a little more over the last week, and I’ve decided: Yes. Yes, you do. Because, as Maxwell Perkins said, "You can't know a book until you come to the end of it, and then all the rest must be modified to fit that"; and because what you want to send, and what I want to see, is your very best work—a draft you’ve completed, thought about, reread, tweaked, polished, perhaps had other people read, and in general taken to the point where you’ve done everything you can with it, and you’re ready for an editor’s (or agent's) opinion or advice. And no matter how assiduously you plan out your writing, I don’t think you can know what your very best work is until you’ve actually written it. So yes: Finish the manuscript first.

Squids 101: What I Like to See in an Artist's Portfolio

I went to an SCBWI portfolio viewing at the Society of Illustrators this afternoon. All of the portfolios there were very organized and professional, but for the benefit of illustrators who may not have had much guidance in putting a portfolio together, here are some things I like to see in them:
  • Your best work. Don't put substandard pieces in your portfolio just to fill out the book.
  • All the styles and/or media you feel proficient in. If you're comfortable doing black-and-white line art as well as watercolor and acrylic, feel free to put all three in, though I then suggest organizing the portfolio by medium so I can look at your style and skill in each one. Some illustrators create a separate portfolio for each style/medium, which is good to see if we're having a one-on-one critique, but less practical for general portfolio viewings like today's.
  • Illustrations involving human beings, particularly children, but also covering a decent range of ages, races, genders, settings, and especially expressions. I don't mean that you have to have twenty portraits in your portfolio where the first is an old black woman rejoicing, the next a two-year-old Asian boy crying, the third George Clooney beaming: Just be sure that your illustrations include more than smiling white people.
  • N.B.I.: It's the smiling there that can really annoy me -- when I look at a picture of 10 kids on a school bus, say, and all of them have the exact same vacant beaming expression, then you're not creating individual characters so much as a group stare, which might feel warm but will also feel flat. I'm looking for the individuality that comes out of your characters -- a sense of how real and alive those people are, no matter what medium or style you use.
  • N.B.II.: If you are at all inclined towards caricature or portraiture, it's nice and fun to include a portrait or illustration of some easily recognizable famous figure as rendered by you. (Andy Rash and Sean Qualls are experts at this.) This allows me to get a quick handle on your style by seeing how it compares to the real person. Moreover, the biographical picture book is alive and well, so it's good to know you can recreate real people with accuracy and verve.
  • Illustrations involving animals, either anthropomorphized or real -- whatever your style is best suited for. I would suggest that you have at least two or three of the following common picture-book animals somewhere in your portfolio: a dog, a cat, a dinosaur, a cow, a pig, a chicken, a duck, a horse, a rabbit, a wolf, an elephant, a mouse, a tiger.
  • While we're talking common subjects, it could be useful and fun to have pieces showing your unique take on any of the following: a ballet class; firefighters or fire trucks (or other cars and trucks); a farm; dinosaurs (again); a goodnight scene. These subjects may be familiar, but they never go away completely, and we'll always be looking for new takes on these old stories. (This is not a requirement by any means.)
  • A few (3-4) pieces with the same subject, ideally a few consecutive spreads from the same story (extra points for having the text on the page). This could be an original story or a familiar text -- Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales are good choices for their familiarity (though I must say that most first-time illustrators will probably not be able to get either a Mother Goose book or a fairy tale retelling published in an overcrowded market). This allows me to see how you handle the same characters in different perspectives, positions, and situations; what parts of the written narrative you choose to highlight in your picture; how you transition from one scene/emotional atmosphere to another; and how you choose to advance the story through your illustrations.
  • Better still: A sketch dummy of your current project, with perhaps one piece of final art. It is probably not wise to make full final art of a book until it's sold, as the editor and art director will likely have some suggestions for you, but I love seeing sketch dummies, as they show how you sustain a story over 32 pages and how you handle your characters and their emotions.
  • N.B.: It's fairly common to see a couple of consecutive letters from an ABC in a portfolio, and while it's always interesting, it ends up being more of a stylistic demonstration than a narrative one. If you're going to spend the pages in a portfolio, narrative progression is generally more compelling, revealing, and useful.
  • If you have an interest in doing book jackets for novels, make some mockups of new jackets for already published books. I'll throw out three covers that could be fascinating to revisit: Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay. (Not that there's anything wrong with those original covers -- just that they provide a wide range of subject matter and characters for you to reillustrate.)
  • A few pieces showing the thing you're most passionate about or you most enjoy illustrating (if they weren't already incorporated in the above). That will likely be the thing you're best at illustrating as well, and it's great to know you're fantastic at and love to create sea scenes, for example, in case a manuscript set on the beach comes across my desk.
  • Samples, postcard-size or larger, including your name, phone number, e-mail address, snail-mail address, and website, and at least one piece of your very best work, as chosen by a couple of honest friends. A good sample makes me think, in order, (1) "Ooh, I love this piece!" (2) "Ooh, I want to see more!" and (3) "Ooh, I'll check out her website right now!" Any sample smaller than a postcard means it's difficult to see the art properly and start the process at (1), which is why I request that specifically.
  • N.B.: If you have not yet published a book and you do not have a website, please make one. I have heard illustrators say that it's difficult to maintain a website on top of everything else they have to do for their careers, and I sympathize; but there is no better way (besides this portfolio) to show me the whole range of what you're capable of, and sometimes a website is even better, as I can share it more quickly with colleagues and access it 24/7. Even a blogspot account (a la Dan Santat) is useful in showing the range of your work and the new stuff you're working on.
When I look at a portfolio, what I'm really trying to see is the illustrative equivalent of a writer's voice: the kinds of things you like to draw; your skill at rendering real life (even if said life involves dragons or fairies); the qualities of your unique style; how that style transforms real life; its emotional range; how that style might be applied to the manuscripts I have on my desk or future manuscripts that might come my way. So it is important to note that the bullet points above are all suggestions and not prescriptions: If you don't like drawing animals and you're not good at them, then by golly don't include them in your portfolio. Show me who you are illustratively, what you're good at and what you have a passion for, and the best projects will come out of those things.

For further advice on picture-book publishing, I recommend Marla Frazee's website (click on "Studio") and, always, the list of SCBWI Publications. And any editors, designers, or artists who happen to read this, please feel free to offer your own suggestions as well.

FAQ #7: About Requested Revisions

I'm going to be lazy and repost some of the Q&As from my teenlitauthors stint this past week in lieu of any original writing.

When you receive a requested noncontractual revision from an author, what is your process for reading it? How many revisions will you go through before you let something go? When do you judge it ready to take the next step?

When I like a manuscript a lot, I often (even usually) require revisions from authors before I share a manuscript with the rest of our editorial staff. This is partly a safeguard on my part, because I really want to know an author can revise well -- and that we're on the same page about the book and can work together well -- before we go forward on that journey.

I read a revision the exact same way I read an original manuscript -- beginning to end, making notes in my head as I go along. I've talked to authors before who say "You read the first draft, I sent you the revision with that new chapter two weeks ago, why haven't you responded yet?" It doesn't work like that -- I don't (I *can't*) read a book in pieces (and nor can any other editor that I know of). Every ms. has to be considered as a whole to see how its individual parts function, and whether the new parts are working in the old machine . . . or, better yet, if the parts have been so fully integrated that we have a whole new shiny gleaming machine, and it's ready to rock and roll.

Once I've given it a first read and made notes, I look back at my revision letter and compare the notes to the letter to decide whether the author fixed the problems I identified in a satisfactory manner. (Usually I will remember the ms. I invite for revision enough that I have the major problems in my head, but the letter is a useful reminder.) (Also, the author doesn't have to have taken my specific suggestions for how to fix the problems, certainly, but the problems have to have been fixed by *some* method.) And I hope the answer is "yes, the author HAS fixed the problems" -- though usually I'll know this just from my first read, whether those same problems were occurring to me again. Sometimes the revisions create new problems -- one character is now so fully rounded that everyone else seems cardboard, or the author has bulked up the action plot SO much that the emotional plot is getting lost; but if the author has intelligently fixed the problems I identified originally, then I will usually give it at the least another revision letter.

The most common problem with revisions is that an author will fix one part and not integrate it sufficiently with the whole -- introduced a subplot to add emotional depth, say, not realizing that the new emotional depth should affect every single aspect of the character's behavior in the main plot as well. In good revisions, the author has clearly thought through all the implications of the change s/he is making and implemented those throughout, not just in the places where problems were explicitly identified.

All of this also depends on the problems of the individual ms. -- it's much easier to fix plot editorially than it is to fix character and voice/writing, as those have to come from deep within the author; so if the problems revolve around plot, or if the writer shows ability to make a character deeper and more interesting in a revision, that's worth investing more time in. But if the author can't improve flat characterization from one revision to another, the ms. probably won't ever go any deeper or better than it is, and it's probably wisest for me to let it go.

I try not to go through more than three revisions with an author: If it hasn't gotten to a workable place by that point, even if I love the project, I start to lose enthusiasm for it (and I think the author does as well). But if the author DOES revise well, I judge a ms. ready to go when it satisfies me enough -- and I'm excited by it enough -- that I want to share it with other people.

FAQ #6: Why does it take editors so long to respond to manuscripts?

So you are a polite, mild-mannered children's book editor sitting at home on a Saturday evening, waiting to meet your boyfriend for a night out with some friends. You have 45 minutes to kill, and quite a bit of work you've brought home with you; so do you

A) Review the copyedit for the dauntingly long (but excellent) Fall 2007 novel, which will be due back to the production department within two weeks
B) Respond to the author under contract, who has written asking a few questions about your latest editorial letter, and who needs an answer to progress with her revision
C) Respond to an author who isn't under contract (but whom you like a great deal), who has written asking a few questions about a recent editorial letter and request for revision, and who likely won't move forward with full confidence until you write back
D) Read an agented manuscript, as the agent will need a response within a month if not sooner
E) Read an unagented requested revision
F) Read an unagented new manuscript
G) Work on your talk for April, which requires planning long in advance, and which has been retitled "Words, Wisdom, Heart, and Art: Making a Picture-Book Cookie"? (This title will make much more sense in practice than it does on the screen.)

Of course, if you were in the office, you would have even more choices/responsibilities, including:

H) Follow up on foreign projects
I) Respond to questions from the Legal department about contracts
J) Prepare materials for Acquisitions meeting
K) Line-edit a manuscript under contract (not right now, but a couple are coming in soon)
L) Write rejection letters
M) Write offer letters
N) Write editorial letters
O) Attend meetings
P) Basic office work: phones, mail, filing

And so forth. But because you're at home instead, the options include

Q) Read something for pleasure
R) Surf the Web
S) Talk to your sister
T) Procrastinate fifteen other enjoyable ways
U) Scrub the bathtub so you feel at least mildly productive, and
V) Write a blog post about your dilemma in deciding

So -- what would you do on a Saturday night?

I chose (U) and (V), because it is a Saturday night, so I didn't feel like getting deeply involved in work, and the bathtub was really water-stained. But I wanted to write this up precisely to illustrate the amount of work there is to do as an editor, and the number of choices and competing priorities I'm faced with when it comes to how to spend my time. So if you ever wonder why an editor isn't responding to your manuscript as quickly as you'd hope, it's not personal -- it's A-P, and the desire to preserve enough of a life for ourselves that we can have Q-V as well.

ETA: For more thoughts on this, from both me and many writers, please see the comments.

FAQ #5: Do I have to submit the *first* two chapters?

I am immensely annoyed because I just wrote a long thoughtful post about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which I finished reading last week), touching on aesthetics and racism and moral points and Jane Smiley. And then Blogger ate my post, quotes and all, and licked its lips afterward, so it looks as if the writing is to be its own reward. Bah. But I want to post something, so here's FAQ #5, because again it's a quickie:

Do you prefer it always to be the first two chapters of the manuscript or can it be two chapters a bit further in provided we include the synopsis required of SQUID submissions?

You should always include the first chapter, because it doesn't matter what happens later in the book if you can't make me care about the characters at the beginning. And I really, really prefer to read the second chapter immediately after that, so I can see how you develop the situation you lay out in the first chapter. HOWEVER, if you feel the second chapter does not represent the action or tone or whatever of the novel so well as another chapter further in, you may certainly send along that other chapter instead. But you should recognize that you'll be jerking me out of the world you establish in the first chapter and forcing me to completely reorient myself in that later chapter; so you should be really confident that the later chapter is a better example of your book's overall strengths.

Best of luck to you!

FAQ #4: How long can the chapters be in a chapter submission?

From a question by Elizabeth Boulware:

"A recent discussion began on the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Chat Board regarding the length of YA chapters, with the question specifically being is 72 pages for the first three chapters too long for a submission. The consensus of the published writers was that it was and what was more that a submission of that size would warrant an automatic rejection, regardless of the strength of the writing. . . . How long is too long?"

"Too long" is the point at which the editor decides to stop reading (which can happen as easily on page 7 as page 70). Enormously helpful, right? But it's true: The entire point of submitting chapters is to give the editor a taste of your writing and leave him or her wanting more -- wanting the whole manuscript, to be exact. Anything that causes us not to want that whole submission is not your friend, and "excessive length" is a definite candidate for the Enemies List.

Very few editors will reject a manuscript solely on the basis of length without even glancing at the writing: We're too trained to look for possibilities everywhere and in everything, too aware of what might grow from that first "You never know." That said, if I pull out a two-chapter submission that runs 50-odd pages, I'll think two things: (a) "Good lord, this final novel is going to be long," which could be wonderful but might also be exhausting; and more importantly (b) "The author better be able to justify the length of these chapters in the characters, action, and writing." If the author can justify it, I won't really care how long the chapters are, as I'll just want as much of the manuscript as I can get, period. And if the author can't -- well, again, I don't care how long the chapters are, as I'm turning it down anyway.

Sorry to be so cold-blooded about this, but I just went through my last month's submissions mail this week, and given that that required a whole valuable afternoon at work, I'm trying hard not to waste anyone's time -- my time in reading submissions that won't work for me, and the writer's time in requesting things I'm not truly and thoroughly excited about. Other editors, feel free to chime in with your own opinions.

In other news, I just finished The Sea of Monsters, Book Two of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" by Rick Riordan, and it was just as funny, action-filled, and cracktastically page-turning as the first book -- I haven't enjoyed a series this much since Hilary McKay's Casson novels. And it turns out I'll be attending the Rutgers One-on-One this year, as a replacement for Scholastic's Dianne Hess; if you read this and see me there, do say hello.

FAQ #3: Do you prefer manuscripts loose-leaf, stapled, or paper-clipped?

(asked yesterday over e-mail by Nilina Mason-Campbell, and answered so quickly because it's easy for once)

Picture book manuscripts should be paper-clipped. Novels should come loose-leaf, as hopefully I'll want to copy it to share it with other people; but if the manuscript arrives in a box or a folder, it stands a good chance of being read more quickly, as 1) it will stand out on my manuscript rack and 2) because it's more easily transportable, I can grab it on my way out of the office to read on the subway or at home. (It will also likely be returned to you in better condition if it comes in a box or folder -- I'm physically hard on manuscripts, I'm afraid.)

FAQ #2: How do I become a book editor?

A lot of people on the podcast tour expressed an interest in publishing as a career, so I thought I'd make this the next of my extremely-infrequent FAQs. I decided I wanted to be an editor in high school, and this is more or less the program I followed—by accident far more than design, I assure you. But it served me well, so I hope it’s useful to any aspiring editors out there too.

In high school
Read. Passionately and widely: the newspaper, Jane Austen, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Crusie, Stephen King, Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Heinlein, T. S. Eliot, Sophie Kinsella, Geoffrey Chaucer, Lewis Lapham, The New Yorker, A. A. Milne, Alan Moore, Larry McMurtry, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mark Twain; fiction and nonfiction, children’s books and adult books, across all genres and at every literary level. If you’re not sure where to begin, ask a reading adult you respect for advice. Then try a little bit of everything and read more of what you love. The point here is developing your taste: finding your literary passions, and getting familiar with everything else.

It is also important to note here that you will probably not be ready for some of the literature you’ll encounter—if you try Philip Roth, say, or A. S. Byatt, or Patrick O’Brian, you may not understand it or appreciate it quite yet, and that’s okay. I took A. S. Byatt’s Possession out of the library when I was in high school because I liked the cover and the sound of the story and I wanted to impress the adults around me; the book itself, however, bored me stiff, and I quit after probably twenty pages. But I picked it up again in college, when I was studying literature and could finally get all the literary references, and it’s now one of my favorite books in life. So if something doesn’t work for you, don’t dismiss it totally; put it away, try it again in a few years when you’re a different person, and see how you feel about it then.

Think about what you read. If you loved a book, what did you love about it? If you didn’t like it, what didn’t you like about it? This will help you both to refine your taste and to develop the practice of thinking critically about literature.

Begin studying argumentative structure and language—or in other words, writing. All writing is persuasion, even fiction writing: You’re persuading the reader to be drawn into your world, to love your characters, to feel the emotion you’re feeling. The five-paragraph essay structure you learn in Language Arts class may seem stupid and suffocating beyond endurance, but it teaches you to practice the most essential principle of good writing, which is show, don’t tell. You lay forth your thesis (“Jane was a beautiful cat.”), and you prove it by showing the reader the evidence (“Her thick coat was a rich, pearly white, her eyes the glassy green of spring leaves, and each foot was tipped in deep black, like a period on her elegant sentence.”). Do this over and over again, and you can write a paper, or a short story, or a whole book.

Of course, you also need to move forward beyond description, and that five-paragraph essay also teaches you to structure and advance an argument the same way you do a plot: This piece of information or section of the argument leads to this piece of information or section of the argument leads to this piece of information or section of the argument, and you couldn’t have that information in any other order (or any of that information missing) without the whole thing falling apart. I knew a computer-science major in college who said that he wrote all his papers like C++ programs: The thesis statement was like setting the main function of the program running, and then each paragraph below that was a subprogram that served the main program. I love this analogy, as good writing is indeed like a well-constructed computer program: Every word is essential, nothing forgotten or else it won’t function, nothing extraneous to bug it up. (Debate is also useful for instilling this argumentative structure in your brain.)

Finally, pay attention to all the boring stuff your English teacher and various style guides put forth about diagramming sentences, "apprise" vs. "appraise," the correct use of the ellipsis versus the dash and so on. These rules are the nuts and bolts of everyday English usage, spelling, and punctuation, and the sooner you have all the rules in your head, the more second nature they will become.

Work on your school’s literary magazine or newspaper. This will give you experience in multiple areas useful in publishing: making editorial judgments; putting a literary product together; collaborating with others to do so, and learning how to negotiate sometimes differing visions; and of course the editing itself.

In college
Continue to practice reading, writing, and literary magazine/newspaper work. People often ask, “Do I need to major in English?” The strict answer is “no,” because the most important things in college are learning to think and read and write, and you can learn all those things in any discipline with the right teachers and challenges. However, English will give you the most hands-on experience with analyzing how a piece of writing (particularly fiction) is constructed and functions, so it is probably the most useful field of study for an aspiring editor. Besides, if you love fiction and reading, being an English major is huge fun because you’re studying the things you love most; ignore your uncle’s jibes about “Fries with that?” and follow your heart.

Work in your college’s Writing Center. This will give you experience with communicating your ideas about what’s not working in a piece of writing to the person who created that writing—an act that requires not just good editorial skills but good interpersonal ones as well.

Read “Publishers Weekly” in your college library. This will teach you about trends in the industry, familiarize you with the personalities and books associated with various publishers, and show you what reviewers value in books--a useful tool in forming your own critical judgment. I recommend this particularly during your junior and senior years, when you’re thinking about getting an internship or getting a job after graduation. (For extra credit and information, check out PublishersLunch and the New York Times Book Review.)

Do an internship. Nearly every major New York publisher offers summer internships to college students, and many offer internships during the school year as well (though they’re often unpaid). Internships helps you make connections, establish a publishing resume, learn what editors look for in manuscripts, discover all the various processes that go into putting a book together. . . . There’s no better way to see the day-to-day life of a publishing house (and particularly of an editorial assistant). Also, fifty percent of publishers are based outside New York City; if there’s an interesting small press located in a city near you, ask if you can do a part-time internship, or even just come in for an informational interview (see below).

Remember that there are other jobs in publishing besides editing. Book publishers also need book designers; copyeditors; advertising designers; marketing strategists; subsidiary rights sellers; publicists; accountants; administrators, and many, many other people as well. If you love talking about books but you don’t really like the nitty-gritty manuscript work, you might make a wonderful publicist. Or if you think you’d enjoy translating a book’s ideas into visual form, maybe you’d be an excellent jacket designer. Follow your passion, and there’s probably a way that can fit into publishing.

After graduation
Consider a publishing course. A publishing course is a four- to eight-week summer course that introduces you to the industry and is usually taught by industry professionals (allowing you to make useful contacts for getting a job afterward). Most people who enroll in these courses have just graduated from college, but they also attract people looking to switch jobs or just interested in the industry.

The two best-established ones that I know of are the Columbia Publishing Course at Columbia University; and the Denver Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. (I thought NYU had one as well, but I can’t find a link to their summer program, only their Master’s degree in publishing.) The two programs differ in that the Columbia course is eight weeks long, covers magazine as well as book publishing, and, as it’s based in New York, is heavily New York publishing-centric, with a wide array of big-publishing luminaries. Denver is four weeks long, focuses exclusively on book publishing, and places its emphasis on small presses as well as big publishing. (I chose Denver because I knew I wanted to be in book publishing and I wasn’t sure I wanted to move to New York; I had a terrific experience there and recommend it highly.) If you’ve done a summer internship, you probably don’t need to attend one of these courses; but if you haven’t done an internship and you’re pretty sure you want to be in publishing, they’re a great way to learn the basics of the industry and make some connections.

N.B.: I do not recommend these courses for writers because you ought to be concentrating on the craft of your individual writing more than the overall business of publishing. Look into an M.F.A. instead.

Go on informational interviews. Editors love talking about their books and their jobs—at least I do—and as we were all editorial assistants once, we’re generally happy to speak with people who aspire to the position. Subjects covered usually include the day-to-day editorial life; how to begin and develop a publishing career; favorite books; and whatever else you’re interested in talking about that’s related to publishing. An intelligent informational interview also establishes you as a candidate for any future job openings with that editor. (For the record, it’s often useful to read one of the editor’s books before the interview; Rachel, our lovely assistant editor at AALB, came in for her job interview in fall 2003, sat down with me, said “I just read Millicent Min, Girl Genius and I loved it,” and instantly became my new best friend.) Editors can be very busy, and they’re doing this for you as a favor, so be considerate of their schedules and appreciative of any time they might grant.

Any other editors or publishing people who read this blog, please chime in with your own advice. And all aspiring editors -- good luck!

ETA, 10/15/09: This is the first entry that comes up on the Google search for "How to Become a Book Editor," so I frequently receive e-mails from people asking for further information or advice. I regret that I am unable to respond to these inquiries at this time. If you want to know more about the craft of editing, please click on the "Editing" and "Writing" tags at left.

ETA, 3/20/10: Two more excellent editorial takes on this topic: How to Get a Job in Publishing, by Margaret Maloney of Bloomsbury USA, and so you want to be an editor., by Sharyn November of Viking/Firebird.

FAQ #1: "Do Editors Have to Attend Conferences? Do They Enjoy Them?"

Long, loooonnng ago, as you may remember, I announced that I was going to add an FAQ page to my website and invited people to send or leave questions. Contrary to appearances, I have not forgotten about this -- I just need to carve out the time to write my answers alongside everything else there is to do on the website, blog, etc., never mind real life. So I'm going to make these questions an occasional series here, and eventually we'll have a webpage. Voila!

Do Editors Have to Attend Conferences? Do They Enjoy Them?

I don’t know of any publishing houses that mandate that their editors attend conferences -- indeed they couldn't, as our appearances always depend on the RAs who want to invite us. And most editors enjoy them, I think . . . or at the very least, we all appreciate the extra income. Speaking for myself, I like going to conferences because I like writing conference talks, which often help me think through my own standards and craft as an editor; I like meeting writers and other editors; I like talking about publishing and books; I like traveling to different parts of the country; and there’s always the thrill of possibility that I might find a great new writer or manuscript. (I’ve bought two manuscripts off critiques at SCBWI conferences.)

In fact, the only negative part of a conference for me are the writers who see me only as a path to publication and aren't really interested in anything else. These are the ones who are combative about or uninterested in the advice I give in a critique because they just wanted me to love their manuscript (if you can’t take criticism, don’t pay for it). And they're the writers who want to talk business at meals—what I’m looking for, what the latest trends are, would I be interested in their manuscript along with my roast chicken and asparagus. I completely understand the latter impulse: I’m right there, a captive audience, and the exact person they want to connect with. But when it comes to verbal pitches, I much prefer seeing query letters, because I’m interested in the writing, not just the story; and more to the point, I spend all day at a conference talking about my tastes, trends, and so on, and at meals I really want to talk about something else, be it books or kids or pets or movies or the Bush administration or the airspeed of an African swallow. (If the conversation wends its way around to publishing, that's fine, because goodness knows everyone at a conference is interested in it; but writing is made interesting through its resemblance to life, not the other way around.) So if you’re sitting next to me at dinner, you will make a much better impression on me if I remember you as “Oh, yes, she was the one who knew all those fascinating facts about chocolate-making!” than “Oh, right, he wanted me to critique his manuscript during dessert.” And moral of the story: Try to make a human connection rather than an editorial one.