"The Journey," by Mary Oliver

(I did not know this poem before tonight, but then I saw it quoted on a friend's Facebook profile and Googled it, and my goodness . . . That series of connections shows why the Internet is great, and this shows why poetry is even better.)

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice--

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

"Mend my life!"

each voice cried.

But you didn't stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do--

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Video Sunday: Great Literary Love Songs

I love books, music, and romance, so here's a fun little video playlist of songs that celebrate all three things. And I'm always looking for more (or any song with "Book" in the title, really), so if you have one to suggest, please leave it in the comments.

Great doo-wop fun: "Who Wrote the Book of Love?" by the Monotones, performed here by Sha Na Na.

The first literary love song I ever knew, thanks to the "When Harry Met Sally . . ." soundtrack: "I Could Write a Book," music by Richard Rogers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, performed here by Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in the film of the musical in which it first appeared, "Pal Joey":

"Everyday I Write the Book," by Elvis Costello (thanks to my friend Ben for introducing me to this one):

I'm including this video because it seems like the result of a lot of teenage daydreaming about love as it's presented in books. . . . It's exactly the fantasy I would have had at age 15, after swooning over "Romeo and Juliet" in Honors English I and watching the Keira Knightley "Pride and Prejudice" two hundred times. And I'm also including it because, ah hell, I love this video now: "Love Story" by Taylor Swift:

But a much better and more honest song about love, and one of my all-time favorite songs, period, is "The Book of Love" by the Magnetic Fields, performed gorgeously here by Nataly Dawn:

And finally, to finish on a fun note, "My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors," by Moxy Fruvous:

Now in Paperback: An Absolutely Bobby Curse

Three paperback editions of books I edited came out this month -- and look how neatly alphabetical they are!

(her YA debut, and the book of the month at Readergirlz now)

(her chapter-book debut, with a faboo new paperback cover by Dan Santat)

A CURSE DARK AS GOLD by Elizabeth C. Bunce
(her everything debut -- and did I mention she won an award for it?)

Go read them, if you haven't already! Yay Lisa and Dan and Elizabeth! Yay books!


(Another guest blog from my dear friend and Scholastic Press Senior Editor Rachel Griffiths, who is entirely too modest about her editorial gifts in writing this post.)

"A charming little bonbon of a book.” That’s what Cheryl called My Invisible Boyfriend by Susie Day, a book I co-edited that just published on Scholastic’s Spring 2010 list. That’s it exactly, I thought, and spent so much time chattering to Cheryl about right she is, and how this book should be in everybody’s beach bag, and how it’s the kind of book that you read on the R train and embarrass yourself because you keep snorting with laughter and people look over worried about swine flu and other diseases you can catch on subways. I must have blathered a lot, because Cheryl offered once again to let me write a guest "Behind the Book."

Of course, what I really want to do is sit here and gush, because this is an adorable book – zippy, with awkwardness, wooing and a British boarding school completely full of glamorous misfits. But Cheryl’s Beyond the Books are so informative that even as an editor I learn something new each time. So this post is gushing plus information too – a case study in how to make a package that (I think) says "Pick Me Up, Please!"

One of the fun things about being an editor is that you get to work on all kinds of different projects. Right now, I’m editing The 39 Clues, a series about kids hopping around the world chasing a huge treasure; Kathryn Lasky’s new Wolves of the Beyond series about a wolf pup struggling to survive alone in the wild; a graphic novel about a superhero’s pets, and a host of others that I love. Cheryl and I, coming from the Arthur A. Levine School of editing, think about emotion first when we approach a book. The feelings a manuscript evoke are paramount for us.

And that’s how I approach a book’s package too. Each of the books on my list bring to mind a different mood. The little wolf story is deeply felt and written with profound respect for the natural world. And so the cover is realistic, a close up on a noble wolf alone in a vast wilderness. 39 Clues is full of action and danger, and so the covers are bright, vibrant, and with a lot of movement and motion lines.

My Invisible Boyfriend is like a great pop song, and I wanted that flavor. Figuring out how to get a mood expressed as an image is beyond me, and my good luck here is that we have a great design team -- in this case Elizabeth Parisi and Becky Terhune. I asked them for a juicy cover, full of energy and a bit of humor, which would reflect how funny and awkward the book is. I also wanted a cover that would stand out on shelves. The YA section is currently overflowing with pale girls looking miserable and slightly ill (seriously, don’t vampires ever eat healthy people?), and this book is firmly YA, but has nothing paranormal about it. It’s outside the pack, and I wanted it to have that look – a splash of color in a sea of black. (Sometimes you advertise that you are different, and sometimes you want to make your book fit in. It depends on the book and your guess at the market. This book bucks the market trend, but I’m gambling here that some girls who like romance might be ready for a break from the supernatural.)

My first thought to get the book attention was to do a paper-over-board die-cut. I wanted the silhouette of a hot boy cut out of the board of the book, and no traditional jacket. But we tried a few covers like that, and nothing really popped. The cover looked like a gimmick and conveyed nothing of the flavor of the book. Then Becky came back to Elizabeth and me with a photo she’d found of a bunch of kids on a couch. What if we silhouetted one, she asked? The book has such a great ensemble cast, and the kids on the couch looked full of mischief and fun. The concept was perfect.

Unfortunately, the photo wasn’t. Occasionally our designers find a stock image that’s exactly right for a book, but in this case it was clear that we needed a photo shoot. So together, the designers and I picked models. We wanted attractive teens, but no one glamazon – we wanted to give readers the feeling that they could hop on the couch on the cover without anyone sniffing at them. So we cast our main character first, and then found others to fill in. (The photo shoot was a blast, by the way. There were five good-looking teenagers told to pretend to make out on a couch. The guys were flirting outrageously, and the couple on the right of the front cover ended up exchanging emails.)

So the cover was done, and now up to bat was the next part of the package – the flap copy. It was killing me. The list of cool things I wanted to convey was clear to me:
  1. The book has a very fun plot, in which the main character invents a boyfriend to gain acceptance from her friend. The neat thing is that Susie takes it farther than most books – her main character creates an Internet profile for her boyfriend, and her friends start writing to him.
  2. The book has a fabulous, fluttery love story and there is lots of romantic angst that gets resolved in a very satisfying way.
  3. It’s hilarious. (Reference the aforementioned subway snorting.)
But the author is endlessly inventive with language, making great daisy chains out of words, coming up with hilarious nicknames (Tarty McSlutcakes for an enemy of the main character), and playing a lot with Internet jargon. Susie is young and works in a boarding school near Oxford, and she has an ear for the language of the teens around her. I wanted to convey that in the flap copy, but I don’t have that voice at all, nor that knowledge – I recently had to ask my baby sister what LMAO meant. But my assistant, Mallory Kass, came to Scholastic straight from getting her master's at Oxford (I know. How lucky am I?). She had the British tone, she’s fully up to date on all things Internet-related, and she cracks all of us up all the time. So we wrote the flap copy together, tossing it back and forth until it worked, Mallory providing the clever bits.
Heidi has the perfect solution to her popularity problems – a fake boyfriend. She’s even made him a real-life Internet profile that makes him look like a motorcycle-wearing bad boy who reads poetry for fun. *swoon* Heidi’s friends are impressed. So impressed they start e-mailing Heidi’s fake boyfriend for advice about their own problems. Including their problems with, um . . . Heidi.

As if that weren’t bad enough, a mysterious, rather delicious and possibly single person who calls himself “A Real Boy” e-mails Heidi to say he knows the truth. Can Heidi escape from her (worldwide) web of lies before it’s too late? Or will her chance at real romance disappear faster than you can type gtg?

There’s only one thing that’s certain: A fake boyfriend causes a lot of real problems.
To me, the result is a book package that announces the story within as the delicious treat it is. I hope we did justice to the deeply charming cast of characters Susie created, and more, I hope that it will catch teen eyes and make teen hands itch to grab it.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.

A Blast from the Past; or, Desperately Seeking Melissa W.'s Pants

Back in the summer of 2006, I shared a list that still makes me giggle madly: "Lines from 'Star Wars' That Can Be Improved by Substituting 'Pants' for Key Words." A genius reader named Melissa W. applied the principle to selected quotes from Pride and Prejudice in the comments on that post, with equally hilarious results. However! In the years since, Blogger has apparently gone through and deleted nearly all comments on this blog prior to October 4, 2006, which means her work of brilliance has been lost. Melissa W., if you're out there and you still have that list, might you repost it here? My pants and I would appreciate it.

Quote File: Proverbs

Thanks to this fabulous quotation on today's A.Word.A.Day, I at first thought the theme of this Quote File would be "Parts of Speech," featuring quotes with the words "noun," "verb," "adjective," etc. Alas, the people whose quotations I collect have been mysteriously silent on the subject. But searching my actual, digital, one-hundred-plus-page Quotations File for the word "verb" brought me to these multiple wonderful proverbs, and voila, a different theme was born:

A proverb is a short sentence based on long experience. -- Miguel de Cervantes

The fly cannot be driven away by getting angry at it. -- African proverb

If there’s no enemy within, the enemy without can do you no harm. -- 
African proverb

A closed mind is like a closed book: just a block of wood. -- Chinese proverb

A diamond with a flaw is better than a common stone that is perfect. -- Chinese proverb

The man who strikes first admits that his ideas have given out. – Chinese proverb

A beautiful thing is never perfect. -- Egyptian proverb

Good deeds are the best prayer. -- Serbian proverb

No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back. -- Turkish proverb

A man is not old until his regrets take the place of dreams. -- Yiddish proverb

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. -- Zen Buddhist proverb

A Speech, THREE Drink Nights, Two Panels, and an Announcement

1. The text of the speech I delivered on Friday at Carleton College, "The Wand Chooses the Wizard: Of Carleton, Children's Books, and Creating Yourself," is now online at my website here. It's less about Harry Potter than about the idea of being yourself, and the pleasures and the real pain of that, with some thoughts for soon-to-be college graduates on adulthood and a life's work.

2. Our next New York Kidlit Drink Night will be tomorrow, Monday, April 26, at our old favorite Sweet & Vicious, in Soho between Bowery & Elizabeth, starting around 6:30 p.m. By coincidence we'll be there at the same time as the Teen Author Drink Night that David Levithan runs, so all your children's AND YA literature drinking needs will never be satisfied more fully than they'll be that night. Hopefully it will be warm enough that we can hang out in the back garden.

3. We will also host a BEA Kidlit Drink Night exactly a month later -- Wednesday, May 26, 6 p.m. at the Houndstooth Pub on 8th Ave. (where we were last year).

4. And if you're coming to the ALA convention in June in Washington, D.C., Sara Lewis Holmes has your Kidlit Drink Night goodness then! Mark your calendars for Friday night, June 25, and get the details here.

5. New Yorkers: Francisco X. Stork, the wonderful and very wise author of Marcelo in the Real World and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, will be appearing on two different panels on Thursday as part of the PEN World Voices Festival -- "Writing, Speaking, Dreaming," during the day, and "A Gathering of Voices" in the evening, alongside David Almond and several others, moderated by Betsy Bird. More information ahoy.

6. And on Saturday, May 1, at 2 p.m. I'll be appearing at Betsy's Children's Literature Cafe at the main New York Public Library as part of a terrific panel called "Lost in Children's Literary Translation." Les deets on that one.

7. Finally, I'm sorry about this, but starting May 1, I am closing to unsolicited submissions (SQUIDs) for a couple of months, except in the cases of conference attendees submitting under the terms established at that conference, and writers with whom I've previously corresponded and invited to send future manuscripts. (Agented submissions are also welcome, of course.) I'm doing this because there has been a remarkable uptick in submissions in the last few months (which I'm not the only one experiencing -- and anecdotally I've heard other agents say the same); this time off will hopefully let me clear out some of the backlog. Thanks for understanding.

"Beauty," by Tony Hoagland

When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.

After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,

but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.

I’m probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,

spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,

while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.

Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.

Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,

walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—

It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.

My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,

something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.


Poems by Tony Hoagland previously posted here: "A Color of the Sky" (my favorite breakup poem, besides "You Must Accept"), and "Hard Rain" (a bare knife blade). All of these via The Writer's Almanac.

Two Lovely Thoughts on Faith

This was the first Sunday after Easter, so the wonderful minister at my church preached about "Doubting" Thomas today; and he said a lovely thing and we sang a lovely hymn that each really resonated with both the religious and nonreligious parts of me. Because of course I thought also about keeping faith with one's literary work here, "waiting for the morning light" of inspiration, trusting you'll find the way through a difficult revision, and "being ready still to give" when that way is revealed. And doubt about a project is normal; it's only those other things that will kill it. In that spirit:

"The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith is fear, cynicism, and despair." -- Rev. Herb Miller

Faith is patience in the night,
waiting for the morning light,
never giving up the fight.
Spirit God, give us faith.

Faith is laughter in our pain,
joy in pleasures that remain,
trust in one we can't explain.
Spirit God, give us faith.

Faith is steadfast will to live,
standing firm and positive,
being ready still to give.
Spirit God, give us faith.

Faith is courage under stress,
confidence in hopelessness,
greatest gift we can possess.
Spirit God, give us faith.
-- Lyrics by Mary Nelson Keithahn

The Scholastic Fall 2010 Librarian Preview Webcast

On Monday, Scholastic did a very cool and, I think, generally unprecedented thing: We broadcast our Fall 2010 librarian preview across the web, with five editors discussing most of our terrific autumn titles. You can watch the preview (hosted by our intrepid School & Library Marketing Director, John Mason) here:

Scholastic Librarian Preview

The Arthur A. Levine Books portion begins around 15:00, and features Mad at Mommy, the next picture book from New York Times Ten Best Illustrated honoree Komako Sakai; Welcome to My Neighborhood: A Barrio ABC, written by Pulitzer nominee Quiara Alegria Hudes, with illustrations from Shino Arihara; The Memory Bank, by National Book Award honoree Carolyn Coman, illustrated by Rob Shepperson; Plain Kate by the very unplain Erin Bow; StarCrossed, the kickass second novel from the Morris Award-winning Elizabeth C. Bunce; The Miracle Stealer, a terrific religious suspense novel by Neil Connelly; and the uber-fun Bobby the Brave (Sometimes), by Lisa Yee and Dan Santat. I edited or co-edited Mad at Mommy, StarCrossed, The Miracle Stealer, and Bobby, so you can expect to hear quite a bit more about them in the months ahead. Hope you enjoy the show!

Poetry for Good Friday: "Little Gidding IV," by T. S. Eliot

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.

Read the complete poem here.

A "Baby Got Book" video!

Two years ago, for the fun of it, I wrote new literary lyrics to Sir Mix-a-lot's classic "Baby Got Back": a filk entitled "Baby Got Book," rapped by a narrator who only makes passes at girls who wear glasses (and are probably librarians to boot). Anyway, agent Janet Reid mentioned it on Twitter last week, and as a result, Gale Martin made it into this hilarious and highly enjoyable music video. Thanks, Gale!

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.

Status Updates

For those of you curious about my progress on SQUIDs: It has been slow -- mostly because I've been concentrating on agented manuscripts and books already under contract -- but I'm doing a little bit each day, and the responses are going out in batches. Look for a big burst next week.

For those of you curious about my progress on my book: Also slow, again because I've been concentrating on my day job; but also steady now . . . and the one good thing about the slowness is that I keep having more material to add, most recently a fun talk called "Twenty-Two* Revision Techniques *(Subject to Revision)." So. I already know April will be crazy workwise, plus I have to write the last of my speeches this spring ("'The Wand Chooses the Wizard': Of Carleton, Children's Books, and Creating Yourself") for delivery on the 23rd at my wonderful alma mater, Carleton College (so this is kind of a big deal for me); but by May, I hope, I'll be done with it.

For those of you curious about anything else in the whole wide world: Leave a question in the comments, and because I've been such a bloggy flake / flaky blogger this spring, I promise to give answers to the first nine queries with names attached (that is: no answers for Anonymii). Have at it!

An 110-Year-Old Rejection Letter

My grandfather gave me this framed piece of correspondence shortly after I started working as an editorial assistant. It's from William Dean Howells, the eminent American novelist and editor, politely turning down the novel of a "Mr. Shedd" on November 26, 1900 -- an 110-year-old rejection letter! The text reads:
Harper & Brothers
New York and London

Franklin Square, New York City

Nov. 26, 1900

My dear Mr. Shedd:

Your story is developed well on the political side, which is important and novel, but without a strong love-interest it would not go. Your men are boldly struck out, and the situation is good; and yet it is not the close, strong study of Western conditions which I had hoped for from your work in the "Kiote." I still hope for that from you.

Yours sincerely,

W. D. Howells
A little research reveals that the likely recipient of this letter was Harry G. Shedd, who wrote short stories for and published The Kiote, a Nebraska literary journal. An 1899 notice in The Publishers Weekly says "The Kiote is the title of a fad or freak magazine, fantastically described as 'a new venture by a new folk in a new field, being a literary monthly dedicated to the prairie yelper.'"

Professionally speaking, I find this an admirable example of the rejection-letter form: It identifies and praises the things the writer does well (the men "boldly struck out," "the situation is good") or makes new ("the political side"), but likewise explains why it wouldn't work commercially ("it would not go") and why it doesn't work for Howells personally, given his expectations. It's interesting that he apparently wanted to see a "close, strong study of Western conditions" combined with a love story. . . . I'm guessing that even in 1900, publishers wanted a love story to bring the drama of a nation down to a personal level, and to hook a female readership, perhaps. Still, the letter ends with the invitation for Mr. Shedd to send more manuscripts, and that is about the best an aspiring writer can hope for from this genre of letter.

Of Harry Potter, My Grandfather, and Five Uses of Reading

Frequent readers of this blog may remember that my grandfather passed away at the end of last year. Yesterday I spoke at the Children's Literature Festival he founded, and that talk is now up on my website here:

Raised by Reading: A Life in Books from the Children's Literature Festival to Harry Potter

There are a number of other little tweaks throughout the site -- updating the front page with my upcoming appearances and Et Cetera with material recently added to the blog. Thanks for checking it all out!

Several Habits of Highly Effective Writers' Conferences: Critiques

Continuing the series . . . Again, agents, editors, and RAs are welcome to chime in with their advice and preferences in the comments.

Organizers: When you send out a packet of manuscripts to a critiquer, please include a cover letter listing all of the manuscripts enclosed, by author and title. This is enormously useful in ensuring that I've received all the mss. I'm supposed to, and then checking off the critiques as I complete them beforehand.

I like a manuscript for critique to include the first ten double-spaced pages of the manuscript plus one single-spaced "description page." This page should have: the author's name and contact information; the genre of the manuscript; the length of the manuscript in page count (not word count; I have never yet met an editor who thinks in word count, so that number tends to be meaningless to us); its working and publication status (incomplete/complete/currently in revision; under contract/agented/available); and then a brief plot summary and/or the author’s intention for the book—what he or she set out to write with it--or both. I've found that ten pages of the manuscript usually gives me a good sense of the author's voice and writing style, and having the description page saves valuable time during a critique where the author would have to summarize the rest of the book or tell me "This book is really about a post-parental-divorce identity crisis" when it sounds like just another paranormal romance novel.

Every page of the manuscript should include a header with the page number, the author’s last name, and a key word from the title, if not the whole title. It is very easy to drop a stack of paper-clipped critiques and mix up all the pages. (Not that I have any experience with this or anything.)

Fifteen minutes seems to me to be the perfect length for an in-person critique: time for the author to talk for five minutes, me to talk for five minutes, and both of us to converse and ask and answer any remaining questions for five minutes. If possible, timers should provide five-minute and one-minute warnings. Also, it is nice to break up the critiques if possible (e.g. do some in the morning and some at night, or have a half-hour break in a ten-critique block) so critiquers can stay sharp and useful to critiquees.

Most SCBWI conferences these days seem to be doing a great job at educating their members in how to receive a critique, and I hope that trend continues. A tip for critique-ees: Never ask “So, would you like to see the whole thing?” If the agent or editor wants to see the rest of the manuscript, or a revised version of the manuscript, he or she will let you know.

Blessed are the conferences whose critique area is furnished with water bottles or a water carafe and glasses, for they shall be called the
oases of people talking at great length and high speed.

Several Habits of Highly Effective Writers' Conferences: First Pages Sessions

I've attended a pretty good number of writers' conferences in nine years in the industry -- nineteen after last weekend, from Paris to the Poconos, Atlanta to western Washington. And as such, I've observed a lot of different ways of organizing certain types of sessions, and come up with the following list of what seem to me to be pretty good practices for first pages sessions . . . ones that benefit editors/agents and attendees alike. Later this week or next I'll post additional lists on Q&As and critiques. Other editors/agents and RAs are very welcome to chime in in the comments with their own experiences and tips.

First Pages
  • First pages should always be anonymous.
  • Since every writer seems to format his or her manuscript differently, ask attendees to send not the first page of their manuscript, but the first 300 words. That equals more or less one page of double-spaced text, and it means that poets and picture-book writers (whose work often leaves a lot more white space on the page) get the same amount of their work read as novelists or nonfiction specialists.
  • Ask writers to put the title, intended format (board book, picture book, MG novel, YA novel, PB / MG / YA nonfiction), and genre if applicable (basically, if it's historical, sci-fi/fantasy, or a mystery) at the top of their submission. This makes it MUCH easier for panelists to respond to the page according to the appropriate standards, rather than having to spend valuable time diagnosing the genre and going on from there.
  • This sounds wimpy, I know, but I often find my voice getting really, really scratchy in the course of a full day of speeches, critiques, and conversation. Thus it's very useful if someone from the conference can read the page submissions aloud, and then I (and all my fellow panelists) can save our voices for the responses and the other speaking we're doing.
  • If possible: Project each submission on a screen so all attendees can read along and see what particular lines, phrases, or other details panelists may be calling out.
  • If possible: Have a hard copy of all pages available for each panelist individually (particularly if the pages are being projected on a screen that we're sitting in front of and not facing). I find it very useful in my critiques to be able to look at the page itself, and we panelists certainly can pass the page in question back and forth -- but oh, the luxury of having pages of our own!
  • (In a totally ideal world, every audience member would have their own set of hard copies to make notes upon and then take home, but this is clearly problematic for environmental, organizational, and probably legal reasons, so it likely isn't feasible.)
  • If possible: Have a microphone available for each panelist individually likewise.
  • The Southern Breeze conference this weekend projected illustration samples on a screen for panelists' responses during the session. This was the first time I'd ever seen this done at an SCBWI conference, and it was a pretty neat way to include illustrators in First Pages.
  • Writers: If an editor or agent responds enthusiastically to your (anonymous) work, then I think it's OK to approach us afterward, identify yourself as the writer, and talk a little more about the project. If we respond negatively, you're likely not doing yourself any favors by identifying yourself as the author.
I really enjoy doing first pages sessions, which I admit is a little strange, since, as I've said before, it's sort of like being set an editorial oral exam: How quickly can you diagnose the literary quality and saleability of this manuscript? Go! But they're a great way for writers to get some solid stylistic tips; receive feedback on whether the first page, at least, is working; and hear all the different ways panelists can respond to a piece of literary art. Thanks for taking these ideas into account.

Post-Breezy Bits

I had a lovely time at the Southern Breeze SCBWI conference this past weekend. For anyone who might be visiting this blog after being at the conference, here are a few more resources:
  • The Annotated Query Letter That Worked that I mentioned in the Q&A this morning (a companion to the Annotated Query Letter from Hell)
  • "The Art of Detection" goes into more depth on and provides concrete examples of some of the "Twenty-Two Revision Techniques" described in the talk of that name.
  • On the way to the airport today, I realized I should have mentioned "Make a dummy" or "Fit your manuscript into a 32-page framework" for the picture-book writers at the Revision Techniques talk; both of those techniques are discussed in this picture-book speech.
  • I sort of muddled through a paragraph from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in talking about establishing shots, topic sentences, and conclusions in paragraph structure; the paragraph I was trying to quote is used in full about halfway through this talk, "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter," if you'd like to see it for yourself.
  • I included on my handout at that talk, and will praise again for anyone who wasn't there, Anita Nolan's excellent article "'The End' Is Only the Beginning," which is full of useful revision tips.
I also said one thing that was, in retrospect, rather stupid, and though I worry I'm compounding the stupidity by commenting on it, it is important enough that I wanted to say something about it here. I gave my "Dimensions of Character" talk on Saturday, which includes this character-creation exercise, and after the character's ethnicity was decided as "Italian," I noted that not once when I've done that exercise has anyone suggested "White" for the ethnicity, which I thought was interesting because --

And here I said something like "We're mostly white here," which was to some extent true; the room was probably eighty percent white people, as the rooms are at most SCBWI conferences I attend. (And I often think that if we want to diversify the writers and illustrators publishing books for children, it would be a positive first step to get more people of color into SCBWI, since the organization is so immensely useful in teaching the basics of the business and connecting new writers with agents and editors.) But I absolutely did not mean to exclude or diminish the writers and illustrators of color who WERE in the room with that remark, and I very much apologize if it came off that way.

Finally, Francisco X. Stork's The Last Summer of the Death Warriors -- the next book by the author of Marcelo in the Real World, and the book I mentioned where I-the-generally-pacifist-reader learned on p. 5 that the main character wanted to kill someone, and by p. 10, in some feat of narrative and character alchemy, I was one hundred percent on board with that murder -- is out TOMORROW, March 1, so you can experience that same bloodthirsty transformation for yourself. (As well as all the wonderful transformations that happen after that.) Enjoy!

Metaphysical Monday: Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Tino Seghal experibit at the Guggenheim that I referenced in last week's post put me in the mood for lighthearted but serious-minded philosophical discussion; and the audience-participation exercise at the beginning of this month was so fascinating and fun, I thought it could be fun to try something like that again. So I'm going to post below one of my favorite manifestos -- Oscar Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray -- choose a line, and comment upon it in the comments; and I hope you too will pick out a line, mull it over a bit, and say whether you agree or disagree with it and why. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, just interesting human responses.

And for the record, when I say this is one of my favorite manifestos, that's because to me it is the perfect match of form and content, completely embodying itself: It is clever, and beautiful (it sounds good, especially when read aloud), and delightful, and conscience-free, because its only interest is in its own cleverness, beauty, and delight. But I am not sure it is right or true, because I don't think Wilde was necessarily interested in right or truth; or, at least, they were lower on his priority list than the clever and the beautiful. . . . And lord, I have already begun my comment! So here's the manifesto. The italics on the last line are Wilde's.


Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde


The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.