Defining Good Writing (Possibly Sententious)

Child_lit was having one of its periodic discussions of about the definition of "good writing" this past week, so I wrote the bulk of the message below offering my perspective. Reposting it here, edited somewhat for blog form and further thoughts:

If you'll forgive some possible sententiousness on this question of judging good writing, there are five qualities I think about a lot when considering whether I want to acquire a manuscript:

1. Good prose. The sheen of the writing -- its quality on a sentence-by-sentence level. Sometimes this beauty is lyricism, sometimes it's personality (especially with a first-person voice, though that introduces questions about the character-building as well as the prose), sometimes it's just plain cleanliness (no redundancies, lack of awkwardness -- cleanliness is a great virtue). And also the movement of the writing, its sense of timing and pacing and flow in connecting those sentences together, turning them into paragraphs, and moving the narrative forward.

2. Character richness. Are they interesting people with some dimension to them? Do they show that depth and change as the book progresses? Do I care about them?

3. Plot construction. Do things happen? Why? How? Do the events make logical sense or do they grow out of coincidences and implausibilities? Are they surprising or utterly predictable? What's at stake?

4. Thematic depth. Is the writer interested in more than just telling a story -- is s/he trying to make that story mean or say something about being in the world (without hitting me over the head with it)? Is what he or she has to say original, or at the least a new take on an old thought?

5. Emotion. Can the writer catch me (and most readers) up in what the characters are feeling, particularly the viewpoint character? Or, if we're meant to have some distance from that character, get us readers feeling whatever emotion the writer intends us to feel? The emotion intended can vary widely, from sadness to terror to hilarity to peaceful quiet, depending on the story and characters; and it usually (but somehow not always) grows out of #1-4.

To be a literary success, a finished book has to be really strong in at least four of those categories, most importantly (to me) #2 and #5. It doesn't have to have equal strength in all of those; I read and reread Hilary McKay's Casson series more because I love the characters so much than because of their plot construction (although they ARE tremendously well-put-together in retrospect). And different readers will value #1-4 in different quantities depending on personal taste at different times -- sometimes I love a good plotty mystery and sometimes I like something with gorgeously lyrical writing. And having all five equals, I would say, masterpieces: the Harry Potter series and The Golden Compass and Because of Winn-Dixie and Holes.

But a book can work solely as an entertainment, a page-turner, as long as it has #5; and if that emotion is strong enough and exciting enough, the reader will keep reading even if they recognize and care about the lack of everything else. (Which, I have to say, lots of readers don't seem to.) This is especially true if that emotion is a temperature-raising one, like violence (The Hunger Games*) or deception/betrayal (The Da Vinci Code) or sex (Twilight). Not that I think The Hunger Games is solely a page-turner or succeeds only at #5 -- it's terrific at everything else as well. But that compulsion to keep reading grows out of the way the characters and the plot and even the very structure of the sentences are all built for speed and conflict. And at the other end of the scale, as I've said before, Twilight gets a D+ at best in 1-4, and yet it somehow gets an A for emotion, in the way it's able to grab even readers like me, who are rolling our eyes at the flatness of the prose, characters, and plot construction, and yet we just keep reading on.

However it happens, the stronger that successful emotional reaction, the more likely the reader is to think that book good; the stronger the word-of-mouth from the editor onward, and the more likely it is that that book will become a bestseller.

An Oversight in My Submissions Guidelines, Now Corrected

I have been following the post-Liar-cover-controversy discussions about race and children's publishing with great interest, particularly Neesha Meminger's wonderful essay on power and privilege; Elizabeth Bluemle's ShelfTalker post, "Where's Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?", its followup today, and the list of multicultural books that grew out of it; Zetta Elliott's provocative "Something Like an Open Letter to the Children's Publishing Industry"; and the comments on all of these posts. This Newsweek article, "See Baby Discriminate," is also fascinating and instructive on the prevalence of white privilege that Neesha invokes and the negative consequences of that; and Mitali Perkins's "Straight Talk on Race" offered many useful questions about multicultural publishing and writing all the way back in April.

As a result of all of these articles and conversations that grew out of them, I was ashamed to realize today that my "What I'm Looking For" on my website did not include something that I've always been looking for, and something indeed my publishing reflects -- that is, my interest in seeing projects from writers and illustrators of color. This is a hard thing to talk about because race is such a sensitive issue, and people on all sides are so quick to feel slighted by the idea that someone else is getting a preference because of it. I can only say that my interest as an editor and publisher is in working to create really good books that show the whole range of children's and YA life experiences; and that most definitely includes the experience of nonwhite characters, and the contributions of nonwhite writers and illustrators.

(And it's sort of sad, frankly, that I just wrote a pre-emptive defense of this policy for white people who may feel slighted by it. White people who feel slighted: Please read all those links and comments and remember that good fiction writing is 90 percent imagining yourself in someone else's shoes. Also, while I'm recommending links, everyone of all races should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog at the Atlantic website; he's a gorgeous writer, and very thoughtful about race (as well as Mad Men, Renaissance art, the Civil War, and the NFL), with great commenters too. One of my favorite blogs.)

The representation of people of color in children's and YA lit is a complicated question with no easy answers; or rather, the only answer is the dialogue that will continue indefinitely on blogs, and in The Horn Book and School Library Journal, and on awards committees, and through the books we choose to write and publish. Here's my contribution to the dialogue tonight: There's now a line in my submissions guidelines stating "I'm very interested in projects from writers and illustrators of color." And if you are such a writer or illustrator, and your work suits all the other guidelines prescribed there -- in short, a literary picture book or novel manuscript with richly drawn characters who do things -- I hope you'll consider sharing it with me. Thank you.

And Looking Ahead to Spring . . .

The Scholastic Spring 2010 catalog has gone out, and I know many librarians, booksellers, and reviewers will be requesting review copies or ordering actual ones soon; may I suggest you keep an eye out for these novels?

Eighth Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. This book, a debut novel, came to me via query letter, and I will admit that the first thing that made it stand out to me was Olugbemisola’s (a.k.a. Gbemi’s) wonderful name. But I requested the first five chapters, then the whole manuscript, based on the characters, because they were so terrific and true and not like anything else I had ever seen in a novel: Reggie McKnight, the son of two Jamaican immigrants, struggling to figure out God and girls and his place in the middle-school ecosystem; his best friend Ruthie Robertson, a loudmouth activist with a terrific heart; his other best friend Joe C., an aspiring DJ and the artist on the “Night Man” comic that Reggie writes; Reggie's sister Monica, struggling with her own image issues; his “Little Buddy” Charlie, whose "Dora the Explorer" sneakers inadvertently inspire a revolution; George, a homeless man Reggie meets in a shelter, who inspires him as well. . . . In case you can’t tell, I feel like every character in this book is a personal acquaintance living just a few miles away from me in Brooklyn, and I adore them all (with a special affection for Joe C. and his woolly eyebrows; I think I occasionally drew hearts next to his name in the manuscript). It’s a great New York City book, with cameo appearances from the Atlantic Center and Fort Greene Park and Forbidden Planet. It’s also a great God book, one that shows how religious faith and questions can drive both activism and our everyday lives. And it just has more reality per square page than many books—about middle school, and race, and changing the world. Out in January.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork. This next book by the author of Marcelo in the Real World is very different from it in content (though not in quality): A young Latino man out to avenge his sister’s death meets a loudmouthed White guy dying of brain cancer, and the summer that follows—and a girl they both fall for—change them each irrevocably. The premise may sound schmaltzy, but there is not an ounce of sentimentality in this book; it may make you cry, but it earns the tears. (And damned if it won’t make you laugh, ache, and sigh as well.) This manuscript hit my desk in January, and it was so strong from the very beginning that I moved the pub date up a whole year; it's written in third person -- rare for a YA novel these days -- and Francisco handles it just as fluently as he did the first-person narration in Marcelo. With another gorgeous cover* by artist Dan McCarthy. Out in March.

* (Which for some reason is showing up with a blue wash in my Blogger window, though in other windows it looks properly gold and brown and black and beautiful. I'm going to post it as-is, and if it looks blue to all of you, I'll try to find another JPEG; in the meantime, you can see the right colors here. Thanks for your understanding.)

Announcing: Kidlit Drink Night and Race for the Cure

Hey there! Our next Kidlit Drink Night will be Monday, September 21, at the Houndstooth Pub at 520 8th Ave. (at 37th Street). (This is where we were for BEA, and we'll probably be in the downstairs room again.) Starting about 6 p.m., running as long as the chatter lasts. Agents, editors, librarians, writers, readers, all are welcome. Hope to see you there!

Also, if you'd like to be on an e-mail list for future Kidlit Drink Nights, we've finally gotten around to setting one up. Send a message to nyckidlitdrinks at gmail dot com, and we will let you know of all future events as soon as they're announced, with reminders on the day before or day of as well. My thanks to editor and former Scholastic colleague Greg Holch for this good idea.

And on a personal note: I will once again be participating in the New York Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, this year, I'm excited to say, in the company of my mom and my sister and James and other friends. We'll be walking in memory of my grandmother, Carol Sadler; the incredible and much-missed Jhumki Basu; and all the other women taken away from us too soon by breast cancer. If you'd like to donate to the cause, my page is here. Thank you.

In Response to "In Response to [My Previous Post]"

Agent extraordinaire Michael Bourret wrote a swift response to my modest proposal of last night; as he did me the courtesy of not putting words in my mouth, I'll do the same for him, and you can read his full reply here. He writes in part:
And, as much as I'd like to help Cheryl and her fellow editors out here, this comes down to just one question for me: what do I tell the editor who manages to read the manuscript and get the in-house support to make a good offer on a book in 48 hours? Clearly, in that situation, the editor and the house are enthusiastic enough to get their ducks in a row very quickly. They want the book, and they want it badly enough to beat other people to the punch. Editors, would you be willing to let a preempt sit for weeks while I tested the waters with slower editors? I think not.
Well, honestly, assuming a submission was made under the terms of my post, you would tell that editor to go back and read his or her cover letter, because you would have said clearly that you would not be making a decision on offers until a specified date. In other words: You'd be passing up the chance of a pre-empt in return for the chance of having all the editors to whom you submitted a manuscript giving it their best and most thoughtful reads and crafting a thorough and substantive offer. Sure, it's a risk, and one that might not be right for every agent or every project; but if you're a good agent with good authors (as Michael is), and thus fairly sure of having several editors interested, it might pay off even further in the range of participation you'd get and the number of editors who might come to the auction table. As Arthur pointed out once, "If EVERYONE is given the same timeline, then no one benefits from being first. It's being best that counts."

Michael continues:
For me, finding the best fit means finding an editor with the energy and enthusiasm to make a book happen. Doing all of the work necessary to make an offer in a short period of time is one (though certainly not the only) measure of that.
But the fact that "doing all of that work in a short period of time" is the only way to have a shot at buying said manuscript makes speed the most important measure of the editor's energy and enthusiasm. And this is not a good thing, as it creates the "lemming mentality" and unsustainable advances Michael speaks of later in his post. To quote Arthur again: "The fact that one editor may be able to marshal an offer more quickly than another isn't a definite indication that that editor will bring the most skill or influence or passion to a project ultimately, or to an author in the long run. And it's CERTAINLY not an indication that the house will be behind the author more firmly, or better able to publish her/him. It's simply an indication that the house's acquisitions procedures are more streamlined" -- that said editor could get approval quickest. Which is great for that editor, but which counts for very little in the long, long life of a book.

Michael concludes, "In the end, my interests are those of the client, not of the editor, and I don't think timelines benefit authors. So, I'll continue to operate without them." It is his perfect right to do this, and I certainly wish him and his clients well. And, for the record, the proposal was a suggestion of a useful method for submitting to me (and all editors) -- certainly not a prerequisite for agented submissions, since every agent is free to set his or her own terms, as Michael is doing here.

But I would say that publishing works best when all of our interests are served -- when editors have time to bring their best energies to a project; when houses have time to craft their best offers for that project; when an author and agent have time to consider all of these offers' strengths and weaknesses, and match those with their plans for the author's long-term success. This is not fiction. It really does happen. We'd love to see it happen more. My thanks to Michael for engaging this conversation, and thanks again to all agents for considering these ideas.

An Open Letter to Agents, with a Modest Proposal Regarding Submissions

Dear Agents:

I love you. You guide difficult manuscripts into submissible shape; you send me the resulting interesting projects; you look out for your authors' best interests in a contract negotiation (even if we don't always agree on what those are); you act as sounding board and go-between should some sticky situation arise in the publication process; and ultimately you are our partners in working with the author to publish the book.

But there is one pattern in our current submissions system that I wish you and I (or rather, all agents and all editors) could work together to break. In the past few months, I’ve several times had members of your esteemed company submit a project to me and other editors on Monday, then call on Wednesday (once even Tuesday) to say that they’re expecting an offer, and on Thursday to announce that the auction will be held early the next week, if not sooner. This is understandably exciting for the authors and agents involved, and it must be very gratifying for you all to have such intense and immediate interest.

But I would argue that this is not a good process for helping your authors build the long-term, profitable, sustainable careers they’re (and you're) looking for. Why not? Because you’re limiting the pool of editors who are going to be able to respond with a strong offer in that super-short period of time. Not only is it usually difficult to drop everything on our desks to read and consider a 250-page manuscript (see Alvina’s post here for what that “everything” includes), we often have to get other people on board as well. Some editors have to take a manuscript to an editorial board and get second reads. Some of us have to take it to our bosses. Some have to go before an acquisitions committee, which often means preparing cover sheets, P&Ls, an author bio, a pitch to pass on to Sales—more or less an entire, well-thought-out publication plan. Sometimes we want to get Marketing to weigh in and craft a marketing plan as part of our offer. Some editors—like me—like to talk to the author to be sure that the author-editor relationship is the right fit and we're on the same page regarding future revisions. There are lots of pieces involved in putting an offer together, one that will be both financially and artistically sustainable and successful for both the book and the house—

And none of those pieces are improved by speed. Indeed, oftentimes they’re hurt by speed. The editor who’s desperate to get that second read has to give the ms. to a colleague who’s already stressed out—so she doesn’t like it. Marketing has no time to read the manuscript, so they have to craft a plan based on a plot summary. It's much harder to think through what a book needs editorially and publishing-wise when you're doing it under extreme pressure to make an offer or pass a ms. on. And when you have to get reads from everyone immediately, the burden of proof on a manuscript becomes proportional to the size of the interruption you’re demanding . . . because if you want everyone to drop everything to read it, plus you have to justify what will likely be a high advance in an auction situation, by God, it better be great. And never mind all the participation you agents aren't getting from editors who are out on vacation, or at Sales Conference, or simply swamped with deadlines when you want a response in 72 hours.

Now I am not protesting here against multiple submissions or auctions or having to work hard to acquire a manuscript; those are all facts of modern publishing life, and what you agents need to do to find the right (or at least most lucrative) home for a book. And I can read as fast as anyone else when I need to—I’ve acquired projects at auction, and I’ve been that damnable editor preempting a manuscript myself.

Still, I’d like to make a modest proposal regarding the multiple submission procedure. This is a method some agents and foreign-rights directors already use; we always appreciate it when we see it, and I don’t think it’s hurt their manuscript sales. It’s this: When you send out the manuscript, say in your cover letter that you will not make a decision about any offers until a certain date—at a minimum, a day three weeks from the date of the submission, and better still four to eight weeks out. And then stick to that, please.

This allows all of us editors a reasonable time frame in which to read the manuscript, and then:
  • If we are at houses that have an editorial or acquisitions board, it gives us time to get second reads or prepare our materials for the committee; and if there is some additional material an editor alone cannot provide, like a marketing plan, it gives those people time to create those materials with thoughtfulness and imagination.
  • If we are the kind of editors who like to talk to authors before we acquire a book, it gives us time to have these conversations in a rational rather than pressured manner, and time for the author to think through what he or she wants in an editor and look at prospective editors’ previous books and lists.
  • If we editors are on vacation/at Sales Conference/tied up in a big editorial project (like editing a novel by another one of the authors you represent), we won’t miss the opportunity to participate in the auction just because we are otherwise occupied when the submission arrives.
And it will benefit you agents and authors too, in that:
  • You know the editor is coming to the table with the full support of their house;
  • you know the editor has genuine enthusiasm for the project—it’s not just speed and competitiveness;
  • you can still take early offers, but you’re not beholden to them—you get to wait and see the full range of what might come in.
  • Then you will be able to craft the right deal for the book based upon a multitude of factors and not just who reads a manuscript the quickest.
  • And finally, if you have not heard from an editor by the date specified, you are perfectly justified in thinking that he or she does not have any interest, and letting him or her go by the wayside.
Will you please consider this? I, and several editors with whom I discussed the idea, would appreciate it, and editors who know you're reasonable and considerate of our needs will give your submissions priority. Authors who think “I don’t want to give up hearing news quickly” should remember that their purchased manuscripts might eventually get pushed aside so their editor can read the next must-be-read-yesterday submission. And patience is a great virtue for all of us to learn in publishing anyway.

Thank you for your time and consideration, dear agents, and I look forward to seeing more of the wonderful manuscripts you send my way.

With best wishes,

Cheryl Klein
Senior Editor
Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic

ETA: You can see further discussion of this idea in Michael Bourret's post here and my response to it here.

Your Missions, Should You Choose to Accept Them

  • A friend on child_lit sent me this list of Five Things You Can Do to Contribute to the Health Care Reform Cause. I've read a fair amount about this in the media, and the more I read, the more complicated it gets; but what doesn't change is the desperate need for SOME reform that will be sympathetic to those who are freelancers (like my boyfriend, and nearly all writers and illustrators), or out of work, or making minimum wage, to rein in costs and provide adequate care. Many of us worked for Obama last year so he could do precisely this; let's help him accomplish it now.
  • If you'd like to donate to the publication of my book, the deadline is Sept. 1. I have already collected enough to fund a 750-copy first printing -- donations for which I'm very grateful. Click here for more info, here to go to my Kickstarter page.
  • See District 9 and (500) Days of Summer.
  • Visit Governor's Island. Said boyfriend and I were out there yesterday, and we rode a surrey cart, played miniature golf on an artist-designed course, saw some awesome modern art, ate delicious ice cream, and wandered through the parkland and buildings left over from the Army outpost there -- a thoroughly enjoyable time.
  • If you're interested in literary translation, check out this Shelf Awareness writeup of the Heartsinger panel at ALA.
  • End of August is prime peach season; go find a farmers' market, buy a bundle, and eat one.

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.

The Arthur A. Levine Books Fall 2009 List

Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) by Lisa Yee, illustrated by Dan Santat. Coedited by Arthur and me. When Lisa first came to us with the idea for a younger middle-grade series, she said she wanted it to be like the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary—books with humor, heart, a strong central family, and, in her son’s words, “not a lot of commotion.” We’re glad to say that she’s succeeded in all but the last. Because Bobby is the first book in a series about Bobby Ellis-Chan, a sweet, sincere, well-meaning fourth-grader who somehow stumbles into one embarrassing situation after another; and the “commotion” he causes is both totally believable and laugh-out-loud funny. The amusing events are anchored in Lisa’s marvelous characters, from Bobby, to his retired-pro-football-player dad (who is struggling to adjust to his new status as Mr. Mom); to his goldfish Rover; to his best friends, sensible Holly and energetic Chess; to his nemesis, the annoying (and very tall) Jillian Zarr. Indeed, the relationship between lifelong friends Holly and Bobby forms the heart of the novel here, as they’ve reached that tricky moment in time where boys and girls must never be seen to be friends with each other (a rule strongly enforced by Jillian Zarr), and they have to figure out both the politics (literally) and the emotions of that. It’s a rare writer who can take everyday events and real-life situations like this and shape them into something special and new; and a rare illustrator, too, who can inject the images of those events with humor and verve. Already the recipient of a starred review from the Horn Book.

The Circle of Gold (The Book of Time III), by Guillaume Prevost, translated by William Rodarmor. Edited by moi. The time-travel adventure begun in The Book of Time and continued in The Gate of Days reaches its fiery conclusion as Sam leaps from Egypt to China and Renaissance Rome to the future. This is a great series for middle-graders looking for a fun and fast-paced read, and for parents who wouldn't mind slipping a little history and mystery into the action.

Lips Touch, Three Times, by Laini Taylor, with illustrations by Jim DiBartolo (who also now have a gorgeous baby!!!). Edited by Arthur. The best way to introduce this book is just to excerpt it:
There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends' laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends' laps? Yes.
The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.
Like Kizzy.
Yeah. That’s from the first story, a modern-day companion tale to the Christina Rossetti poem “Goblin Market”; the second story, “Spicy Little Curses Such As These,” set in colonial India, carries the scent of “Orpheus and Eurydice”; and the third, a novella called “Hatchling,” follows Esme and her mother Mab, who live a secret, enchanted life in London, on the run from a terror that Esme will discover. All three stories turn on the kisses of a lifetime; feature beautiful illustrative material from Jim DiBartolo; and are perfect for fans of Holly Black, Melissa Marr, or luscious writing.

Operation Yes, by Sara Lewis Holmes. Edited by moi. I’ve talked about this book before, in this blog post about flap copy, so you might already be familiar with its content (new teacher energizes her class on an Air Force base with improvisational theatre). And unusual as that content is (because when was the last time you read a middle-grade novel focused solely on military kids? That’s right—never), its form is just as fascinating, as Sara uses multiple points of view, a structure that reflects the interests of her characters, and some marvelous narrative cross-cutting to create a portrait of the whole community on base. Sara is herself the wife of an Air Force career officer, so she knows whereof she writes (see the wonderful picture on the book's site here), and the book reflects all her love for and knowledge of the military, theatre, and the transformative power of a good teacher.

Peaceful Heroes, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Addy. Edited by Arthur. This beautiful and important book describes the lives of people from around the world who changed it by nonviolent, even anti-conflict means: Jesus; Clara Barton; Mohandas Gandhi; Martin Luther King Jr.; Corrie Ten Boom; Paul Rusesabagina, and several others. Jonah is the author of many highly praised picture-book biographies, including AALB's Frida, Dizzy, The Secret World of Hildegard, and The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan (which was featured on NPR this morning). Arthur found Sean Addy at a showcase here in New York City several years ago -- I was with Arthur at the time, and witnessed his excitement at finding such a bold new young illustrator. We're thrilled to be publishing Sean's first book as a solo artist.

Stick Man, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Edited by Alison Green of Scholastic UK, with Arthur as its American midwife (midhusband?). The creators of The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and AALB’s own The Fish Who Cried Wolf spin a jouncy Christmas tale—the story of a stick separated from his family who tries to get home for the holiday. This is how rhyming text is done, people. Decked out with foil and out in time for the holidays.

Thank you for keeping an eye out for all these terrific books this autumn!

The Quote File: Voltaire

Voltaire's real name was Francois-Marie Arouet, and he was one of those Enlightenment polymaths who, by their prodigious output, would seem to have spent every moment writing -- except, of course, he was also advising noblemen, running estates, having quarrels, getting exiled, and conducting scandalous affairs. And saying wise things along the way:

Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.

Love truth, but pardon error.

In the midst of all the doubts which have been discussed for four thousand years in four thousand ways, the safest course is to do nothing against one's conscience. With this secret we can enjoy life and have no fear of death.

Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.

We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard.

One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth.

The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.

Appreciation is a wonderful thing, it makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

There are some who only employ words for the purpose of disguising their thoughts.

It is as impossible to translate poetry as it is to translate music.

Shun idleness. It is a rust that attaches itself to the most brilliant of metals.

I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition. (supposed last words)

Two Easy-Peasy Recipesies and Some Church Announcements

I baked both this yellow cake and these brownies for the soup kitchen at my church today, and they were both remarkably easy (one bowl each, with v. common ingredients) and quite delicious. We served the yellow cake with fruit compote and it made a yummy quasi-shortcake.

Also: My church runs a soup kitchen every Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. Should you or someone you know be in need of a good meal and company, please do stop by: Park Slope United Methodist, at the corner of 6th Ave. and 8th St. in Brooklyn.

Finally: I will be speaking again (that is, giving a lay sermon) at said church in two weeks. I don't think the talk will have anything to do with writing this time (unlike last time), but I was thinking today about sign-signified relations in religion, so you never know. (And if you actually think I know anything more about deconstructionism than sign-signified relations . . . well, I will allow you to continue to think that.) Services are at 10 a.m. if you'd like to come.

A Thank You Speech, A Kidlit Drink Night, and My Current Favorite Video in Life

A Thank You Speech: At the ALA convention a couple of weeks ago, Arthur and I accepted the Batchelder Award for translation for my dear Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. You can read the full speech (scripted by me and revised by both of us) here on Arthur's blog.

A Kidlit Drink Night: August 11th, 6 p.m.-ish, at our old favorite Sweet & Vicious in Soho.

My Current Favorite Video in Life: I love musical theatre. I love over-the-top power ballads. Therefore, I have watched this video of the cast of "Glee" singing Queen's "Somebody to Love" 47 times, and I don't think I'm exaggerating the number. SO. GOOD.

They Are the Champions, My Friends

Our Celebrity Guest Judges have compiled their results and rendered their verdicts, and as a result, we have our winners in the Thomas Bowdler Fiction Contest! A drumroll, and the envelope please . . .

Winner in the Children's Category: Patrick!
His entry: "Adolf Hitler was sad today."

Runner-up: Monica!
Her entry: "Mask, the mommy raccoon, herded the nervous children at the side of the road, trying to aver their eyes from Big Ringtail, their dad, as he lay on the dashed yellow line -- 'He's just sleeping,' she said, blinking back her tears."

Winner in the YA category: lynnekelly!
Her entry: "He walked into the room looking like he was carved out of granite, if a granite carving had a musculoskeletal system that would facilitate movement."

(No YA runner-up)

Winner in the Fantasy category: jadedmetaphor!
His or her entry: "Once, a female tried to join the brethren, only to be turned down on account that 'The multi-gendered collective of the traveling skull' didn't sound badass enough to scare away minor enemy posers who were put off by gory names, thus leaving the brethren with enough time to outrun legitimately scary foes."

Runner-up: susiej!
Her entry: "With twenty-seven arrows thrust into his tall heroic body and scarlet blood shooting from him like a bright and noble fountain, Jargormandor charged across the battlefield and slayed the evil sorcerer, Crabgallion, before falling gracefully to the ground and declaring with his dying breaths that his young, valiant nephew, Brandormandor, would be the one to lead his people now safely to their homeland, and all wept the salty tears of great sadness mingled with the beautiful, silvery tears of joy; and so our story begins."

If the winners will kindly send their postal addresses to me at chavela_que (at) yahoo dot com, I will keep them on file until such time as my book exists, at which point they will receive copies. And in the meantime, CONGRATULATIONS and HUZZAH to all the winners and runners-up, and to all participants in this noble contest!

Celebrity Guest Judges! and Sundry Other Good News

I'm delighted to announce that the Celebrity Guest Judges for the Thomas Bowdler Fiction Contest below are none other than Dan Santat and Lisa Yee!

Lisa is the author of a series of three related middle-grade novels affectionally known as the "Milly trilly," as well as the young-adult novel Absolutely Maybe.

Dan is the author/illustrator of the past AALB picture book The Guild of Geniuses and future graphic novel The Domesticated Four. And the two of them collaborated on . . .

Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), a very funny and heartfelt new chapter book coming out this September! My thanks to Lisa and Dan, who will render their verdicts in the three contest categories early next week.

Other news:
  • ALA this past weekend was terrific, from seeing Elizabeth C. Bunce get the Morris Award to talking for the very first time with the translator and author of Heartsinger (we edited the book entirely over e-mail) to attending the Newbery-Caldecott dinner to spending time with my grandfather to giving the Batchelder acceptance speech with Arthur to just hanging out and talking with many awesome and passionate kidlit people. I've rarely had a happier or more exhausting five days, so thanks to you all!
  • It turns out that the very nice Jacqui Robbins is also having a bad-first-lines-of-children's-literature contest inspired by the Bulwer-Lytton, and hers started before mine. It ends today, so hop over there to leave a last-minute entry.
  • My book is going to happen! Hooray! Yes, thanks to all you kind people, Leaf and Tree* is already a fully funded project over at Kickstarter, with $2000 raised (to print 500 copies) in less than two weeks. The project page will remain open through September 1 should anyone else be inspired to donate; every additional dollar goes to printing additional copies, which in turn affects my unit cost, which in turn will affect the eventual retail cost, so donations are good for me and for you if you think you might buy the book. Thanks again!
  • * Though I'm now thinking of calling it Second Sight (plus a subtitle), since so much of it deals with revision and getting a fresh look at your work. No one would confuse it with this, right? Right.
  • I just discovered (via @editorgurl) a terrific post by Justine Larbelestier on How to Write a Novel. I particularly like her spreadsheet method of bookmapping.

Some Summertime Silliness: The Thomas Bowdler Fiction Contest

I love reading the entries in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where entrants try to write the worst possible first line of an imaginary novel, and the 2009 winners were announced today. But I noticed that this year, no prize was given in the Children's Literature category, which seems a great loss, given past winners like these:

Jack planted the magic beans and in one night a giant beanstalk grew all the way from the earth up to the clouds--which sounds like a lie, but it can be done with genetic engineering, and although a few people are against eating gene-engineered foods like those beans it's a high-paying career to think about for when you grow up. (Frances Trimble, 2004)

Danny, the little Grizzly cub, frolicked in the tall grass on this sunny Spring morning, his mother keeping a watchful eye as she chewed on a piece of a hiker they had encountered the day before. (Dave McKenzie, 2007)
Hence I challenge all my blog readers -- writers, agents, editors, librarians, and critics alike -- to submit the worst possible opening sentence for an imaginary children's or YA novel in the comments here. We'll call this the Thomas Bowdler Fiction Contest, after that noble guardian of children's gentle sensibilities, and in keeping with Mr. Bowdler's delicate nerves, please try to make all entries rated PG-13 at most. Some other guidelines (after the BLFC's):
  • Each entry must consist of a single sentence. However, that sentence can be as long as you have space in the comment box (though beware of diminishing returns).
  • You can submit up to three times.
  • Please label each entry (C) for children's, (YA) for young adult, or (F) for Fantasy so it can be judged according to the proper standards.
  • All entries must be original to their creators and will remain the copyright of their creators.
  • Entries will be accepted until midnight Friday, July 17.
  • The Celebrity Guest Judges have yet to be determined/invited, since I just conceived of this contest in the last hour; but their decisions will be final.
  • In case this needs saying: The goal is hilarity through badness, not just plain badness. Identifying and puncturing cliches of both subject and language is strongly encouraged.
The winners in each category will each receive a copy of my book-to-be, pending its existence, and two runners-up in each category will each receive everyone's profound admiration (as will the winners, I'm sure). And, for their own enjoyment, all entrants are encouraged to spend some time looking through past Bulwer-Lytton winners (2004, 2007) and to submit to the real contest in future. Huzzah!

Four Techniques to Get at the Emotional Heart of Your Story

I am in various composition stages on one-two-three different editorial letters right now . . . so of course I'm going to procrastinate and write a blog post. But these are some of the models I'm using to figure out the hearts of these manuscripts -- the core character change (aka Emotional Plot) that needs to occur -- and then to think through the Action Plot that overlies them to see where we may need to add events or motivation or subtract unnecessary story elements.

1. Conflict, Mystery, Lack. I go on about this at length in various talks over on my site, so I won't spend much time on it here, but simply: Which model is your central plot and each of your subplots? Are all the narrative requirements of those plots set up at the beginning (e.g. a clear antagonist, a defined mystery, a hole of some kind), developed through the middle (escalating antagonism, clues, the filling of the hole), and satisfactory at the end (a clear victory for one side and/or reconciliation, an answer to the mystery, emotional wholeness at last)?

2. What Does the Character Want? (I admit I sometimes append "Dammit" to this.) Not all plots have or should have a character with a big goal, taking action to get it. . . . The best novels are like life, and often we don't know what we want in life and have to figure it out, and the dramatization of that figuring-it-out can be fun and fascinating if the people are real enough in it. (Case in point: The Treasure Map of Boys by E. Lockhart, which I read in one long, enjoyable trip around New York yesterday.) But if your plot does allow your character to want a specific thing from the beginning, and readers know what that thing is, boy, that makes the dynamics of the action so much easier and the character instantly attractive to readers, and gives you a strong narrative spine on which to hang all sorts of other subplots.

3. Compulsion vs. Obstacles. A formula I first heard from Laurie Halse Anderson:
  • What action or emotional pattern is the character compelled to repeat over and over?
  • What obstacles will keep him/her from doing it this time, and/or will force him/her to change this pattern? That is your frontstory.
  • What personality or life circumstances have formed him/her that way? That is your backstory.
4. Problem, Process, Solution. I talk about this as a picture-book-story technique in "Words, Wisdom, Art, and Heart," but it's proving enormously useful for novels as well -- basically "Compulsion vs. Obstacles" once the ending has been defined, which helps to identify the steps that actually make a difference in getting to the Solution. Those steps are the Process, and there ought to be at least one of those steps, in some form, in every chapter.

And three rules of thumb:

A novel ought to be at least 75 percent Process. Once the Problem is defined, it's time to start solving it. Don't spend valuable narrative time rehashing it, or too much time celebrating or talking about the Solution once it's been reached. (I love Emma, but the scene where Mr. Knightley reads Frank Churchill's letter and apostrophizes upon his faults drives me crazy -- a rare authorial slip in an otherwise perfect plot. I can only imagine that Jane Austen, too, adored Mr. Knightley so much that she indulged him in this fit of moralizing for the pleasure of spending more time with him.)

The main character ought to drive at least half of that Process.
Either through mistakes or conscious action, and whether he or she knows it or not.

Every scene has to have a point, which is often an emotional point.
This is the moment where someone finally says the thing they've been meaning to say, or misses the moment where they ought to say it, or does something else that makes a difference in the action or the characters' relationships. Often writers will either cut scenes off before this point is reached or just let scenes lollygag on and on without getting to this point . . . at which point the scenes are ripe for the "Justify Your Existence" test, and in danger of getting cut or combined with another scene if they flunk.

Back to my ms.; good luck with yours.

Announcing: My Book Project!

People have asked about it; I've long thought about it; and at last, I'm delighted to announce: I might be publishing a book of my collected talks! Hooray! But whether I'm actually going to go forward with it depends on YOU, dear readers and friends.

Here is the text of the dialogue that I imagine might now ensue:

You: Cool! What would the book include?

Me: All the talks that were on my old website, including "Finding a Publisher and Falling in Love"; "The Rules of Engagement"; "The Essentials of Plot"; "The Art of Detection"; "Words, Wisdom, Art, and Heart: Making a Picture-Book Cookie"; "Morals, Muddles, and Making It Through"; and "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter," plus all the supplementary worksheets and other materials that went with those talks. It will also include various speeches that have not been published on my website, including the talk on developing characters I gave at the Missouri SCBWI conference in the fall of 2007 and the New Jersey SCBWI conference in the summer of 2008, and the three long talks on plot, character, and voice from the Missouri SCBWI retreat this past spring, which I'll be revising and reprising for the Western Washington retreat in November. (The book will feature the revised versions.) I'll also include the Annotated Query Letter from Hell and an Annotated Query Letter that Does It Right to talk a little more about submissions; some recommended reading lists for writers; and a number of Greatest Hits blog posts on submitting, editing, and publishing.

What will it be called?

This isn't yet final, but I really like Leaf and Tree: Some Talk About Writing.

Okay. But what do you mean, "It depends on us"?

I plan to self-publish the book, and in order to get capital for a 500-copy printing, I'm asking my blog readers, friends, and family to help me raise $2000 through The Kickstarter process also allows me to gauge interest: To raise $2000, all I really need is 200 people to give $10 each, which is more or less like buying the book, thanks to the rewards system below. And if there aren't 200 people willing to buy the book, then I shouldn't go forward with publishing it anyway.

What is "the Kickstarter process"? is an awesome website for people interested in finding grassroots funding for their creative work. If you'd like to see this book be published, you can bop over to my project page, click "Back This Project," and enter whatever amount you like -- $1, $5, $18, $347 -- to be charged to your credit card. That money will be processed through the Payments system and held there until the total goal amount of $2000 has been pledged. Once that happens, all credit cards will be charged, and then the money will come to me. If the project receives less than $2000, then under the Kickstarter rules, all monies will be returned to their pledgers and I get nothing. The project can also collect MORE than $2000, though, and all additional proceeds would then go to printing additional copies of the book. You can read more about how Kickstarter works here and check out some really cool projects already underway here.

What's in it for me to pledge?

If you pledge $5, you'll receive $5 off the cost of the book, excluding shipping (final cost not yet determined, but it'll probably be somewhere between $10 and $18). If you pledge $10, you'll receive $10 off the cost. If you pledge $25, you'll receive $10 off, plus you'll be added to a list to receive e-mailed versions of any future talks. If you pledge $50, you'll receive all of the $25 rewards, plus your name will be included on a "Thank You" page in the back of the book. If you pledge $100 or more, you'll receive all of the $50 rewards plus a selection of my favorite thank-you sweets, including home-baked Banana Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies (the ones from "Words, Wisdom"), yummy brownies, McVitie's, and Swedish Fish. And if you are incredibly nice and rich and pledge more than $250, some Thank-You Gift of Awesomeness will be devised especially for you.

(For the record, this project is entirely personal, organized on my own time, and separate from my day job, so I will not offer any rewards related to editing, reading manuscripts, critiquing submissions packages, et al. Continuing the disclaimers: My employer has not sponsored, endorsed, or approved this book or its contents, nor is said company in any way responsible for or affiliated with it; it is all me.)

You could also pledge because you enjoy this blog, or you read something useful to your writing on my website, or you took something away from one of my appearances or critiques, or you admire the books I edit, or you came to a Kidlit Drink Night, or you know and like me. Or simply out of the kindness of your heart. All reasons, and pledges, are sincerely appreciated.

How do I know you'll use the money to publish the book and not, say, go to Jamaica?

You know where I live -- on the Internet, anyway, and some of you in person. You'll keep me honest. Also, I sunburn easily.

Why are you self-publishing this? Why aren't you doing it through a regular publisher?

Self-publishing is right for some projects and not for others. I don't recommend it for any writers who might benefit from the editorial process, which I fiercely believe in; nor for anyone seeking wide distribution and good sales through bookstores, which only traditional publishing can provide -- and I fiercely believe in that model too. And I imagine that covers nearly all writers!

For this particular project, though, self-publishing makes sense. I don't need an editor for this, as I'm my own harshest critic. I'm competent enough at book design to put a decent-looking volume together. And this may be an excess of Midwestern modesty, but I don't imagine the audience is all that huge for this -- mostly people who know me through my blog, website, Facebook, and appearances. And if it IS mostly people who know me, then I can handle the sales and distribution myself. I'm planning for a first printing of 500-ish copies, with more available on print-on-demand, and I'll be very happy if it gets bought by 1000 people total. Those are more self-publishing numbers than professional numbers.

Finally, my talks are always written as talks, not as proper essays, and because each has been given to a unique audience, I often take material from one and reuse it in another. This means I would have to rewrite all of the talks more or less completely to integrate them into a proper writing book and satisfy my own standards for professionally published writing, and as I turn into a Raging Perfectionist Beast and my writing stalls out like a '77 Datsun whenever I consciously try to write for publication, this will provide the same basic information with much less time and mental anguish on my part. You writers who can get past this block have my admiration.

Will you ever put the talks not currently on your website but included in the book up on the website?

Yes, probably, but not until sometime in 2010.

When would the book be available?

I'm asking to receive all pledges through Kickstarter by September 1, 2009. Assuming the project moves forward then, I hope to have the actual book available by the end of the year -- ideally in time for the Western Washington conference in November.

Can I buy the book even if I don't pledge?

Sure! I haven't yet reached the "how this book will be sold over the Internet" stage of planning here, though my mom has kindly offered to help with distribution. Dibs on the first 500 copies will go to people who pledge more than $5; a certain quantity will be reserved for my appearances at writers' conferences this fall and next spring; and the rest will be available for purchase through me (and my mom). I also hope to have the text available through a print-on-demand service.

I have more questions.

Leave them in the comments, please, and I'll update this page as necessary.

How can I pledge?

Check out my project page here. And thank you!

Projects, Patterns, and Personalities

I was looking over the list of my past and upcoming projects, and I realized that a very good chunk of them fit into at least one and sometimes more of these subject categories:

Fairy Tales: The Legend of the Wandering King; A Curse Dark as Gold; Heartsinger; The Red Bird; The Pirate Princess and Other Fairy Tales

Religion, Religious Faith, or Religious Questions: The Book of Everything; The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children; Marcelo in the Real World; Crossing to Paradise; The Pirate Princess and Other Fairy Tales; Eighth-Grade Superzero (by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, forthcoming Spring 2010); The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (by Francisco X. Stork, Spring 2010); StarCrossed (by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Fall 2010)

Activism on Behalf of Others: Marcelo in the Real World; Operation Yes (by Sara Lewis Holmes, Fall 2009); Eighth-Grade Superzero; The Light of the World: The Life of Jesus for Children; My Senator and Me: A Dog's Eye View of Washington, D.C.

School Stories: Operation Yes; Eighth-Grade Superzero; Happy School Year!; Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) (by Lisa Yee, with illustrations by Dan Santat, Fall 2009); Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time

Uptight Young Women Who Learn to Loosen Up: Millicent Min, Girl Genius; A Curse Dark as Gold; The Singer of All Songs; Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit; Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness; I Now Pronounce You Someone Else (by Erin McCahan, Summer 2010); The Young Anthropologist's Guide to High School (working title; by Joanna Pearson, Spring 2011)

This is by no means all of the books I've edited (and even this list here is out of date), and many of those not listed above fall far from these categories. . . . Fast Food, for instance, is just pure veggie fun. But I will admit that those categories are a pretty good representation of subjects I love and think about a lot, or that resonate with my own life experience: stories, especially love stories, and how they are told; the power of religion and religious faith, for both good and ill; the responsibilities we as human beings have to one another, and the way we can make a difference in each other's lives; school as a setting; and -- yeah, being uptight and learning to relax. (I suppose if I made it "Uptight Young People," Marcelo might go in there too, sort of.)

This would mostly be a curiosity for me -- "Hey, look, it's my brain, as seen in my list!" -- but I'm sharing it here because I think this is one dimension of what we editors mean when we tell agents and writers to look at our list and see if their mss. are right for us. . . . We're encouraging them to look for these thematic patterns in what we publish, and, if their work fits into one of those patterns, to share it with us. This is absolutely NOT entirely or exclusively what we mean or want to see: We generally mean for writers to look more at the literary style of the list, at the sorts of writing and illustration we publish, and to try to judge whether their work fits into that. The fact that stories about uptight young women resonate with my personal experience does not mean I don't want to acquire another terrific middle-grade from a male point of view, because I really, really do; and it doesn't mean I wouldn't be a good editor for such a middle-grade, because I think I have been and would be again.

But those thematic patterns, if you can figure them out, allow you a way to fine-tune your submission to certain editors -- to say, "I notice from Book X and Book Y and Book Z that you seem to love stories set in South America; here's my picture book ms. about Venezuela," and perhaps then to make a stronger connection than you would have with just a general query. When Olugbemisola queried me about Eighth-Grade Superzero, for instance, she praised Millicent Min as "painfully funny," which meant a lot to me because it meant she hadn't just read Millie and thought "ha ha" at the character's cluelessness; she got the deeper level of pain there, and she valued it too, which meant that she shared my interest in emotional depth and realistic complication. Superzero reflects that general literary interest as well as all the subject interests listed above (as well as being great in numerous other ways I will talk about in coming months).

With that said, this is a strategy that is somewhat prone to pitfalls, because:
  1. Not everything an editor edits is his or her choice to do so, so if Books X, Y, and Z were all assigned or inherited from another editor, or done for reasons besides editorial passion, the editor in question might shout, "ANOTHER South American story? HEAVEN GRANT ME PATIENCE!" and reject it summarily;
  2. Your speculations could be wrong, in which case the editor would think you're a nutjob for discerning such a "pattern";
  3. Just because an editor has published books about Subject Q does not mean they'll like your ms. about Subject Q. Or the last book they published on Subject Q might not have done so well, or they may have three more books loosely tied to Subject Q lined up in the near future (For instance, at this point, I am clearly well provided for uptight-young-women manuscripts; I could use a cheerful hoyden or two, like Maybe from the eponymous Absolutely.);
  4. These subjects are all hugely general (The Book of Everything is the most atheistic text I ever expect to see in a children's book, at least until Christopher Hitchens writes one, while The Light of the World is a biography of Jesus, but they both fall under Religion), and
  5. The patterns can be hard to figure out anyway, unless you're the editor in question.
So, with all of THAT said, the better strategy may just be the one tested by smart writers for ages past: read a lot of recently published books, find the ones you love; find out who their editors are (which really is doable; look at acknowledgement pages, the SCBWI directory, and authors' websites); and submit your work to them. But this second level is worth thinking about as a refinement on that; and I look forward to all the mss. about princesses who decide to become nuns working in charity schools (and discover their joy in doing that) now heading my way. > grin <

Some True-Life Must-Reads

This Iranian election drama playing out now is infuriating, awe-inspiring (in the bravery of the protestors), heartbreaking, terrifying. Please follow the reports on Andrew Sullivan and the Twitter feeds at #Iranelection, @persiankiwi and other English-language Iranian Twitterers listed here (most other Internet and SMS communication seems to be down), and wear green on Monday to show support for the revolution.