Video: Trent Reedy & I Discuss WORDS IN THE DUST

When I was in Boise, Idaho, in September for the Idaho SCBWI conference, author Trent Reedy drove over from Spokane to film a video for the Scholastic Librarian Preview Webcast, promoting his wonderful novel Words in the Dust.

During a break in our formal video shoot, Trent and I talked at a little more length and in a little more depth about the book, its backstory, how it was written and edited, his friendship with Katherine Paterson (who wrote a lovely introduction for the book), and sundry other topics. You can see that conversation in two parts here:

(Aren't those just the most attractive stills ever?) There will be more excitement with this book coming later this week; in the meantime, I hope you enjoy this glimpse of the most excellent Trent and the book, and our conversation.

Next Kidlit Drink Night: Monday, December 13

Our next NYC Kidlit Drinks Night will be next Monday, December 13, starting at 6:30 p.m., at Faces & Names, 159 W. 54th St. at 8th Ave. (Apologies for the short notice.) Fortify yourself against the winter with a hot toddy, or, if you're overheating from being too bundled up, you can pretend it's summer with a nice G&T. Either way, we shall talk books, share end-of-year favorites, catch up with friends, and otherwise engage in holiday cheer.

And:  We will once again be doing a holiday book drive for a worthy cause -- the Children for Children Ongoing Book Drive, in partnership with Project Cicero. Please bring new and gently used children's books for grades K-12. As these books will be directed to New York City public schools and preschools, books featuring characters of color are especially appreciated, but ALL books are welcome and will find good homes. See the link above for more information.

Hope to see you next Monday, and happy December in the meantime! And if you would like to be on our notification list for future drink nights, just send us an e-mail at

A Mid-Line-Edit Ramble on Line-Editing

I am thirty-five pages from the end of a first-draft line-edit of one of my amazing Spring 2012 novels, and I wanted to stop and put down some thoughts quickly about the work of editing, because they're thoughts I have every time I line-edit a book, but I never pause to write them out as I should. So here they are:

Line-edit:  The process of reading the manuscript line by line, word by word, and examining all of it for rightness and flow:  that these are the right words, the right thoughts, the right lines, and that they link up together in a way that coheres emotionally for the Imaginary Reader, that leads him or her clearly through the plot action and the protagonist's emotional development. The goal is as T. S. Eliot says: "where every word is at home, / Taking its place to support the others / . . . / The complete consort dancing together." I love line-editing, as it's the most intense kind of literary conversation possible: all the close-reading I did as an English major combined with the opportunity to say to the author "Did you mean this?" and "I felt that -- was that what you wanted?", the conversation between two people working for the same ends; and knowing, or at least hoping always, that I'm helping the author to make the book better, to make an even more amazing book happen.

The Imaginary Reader: This is the reader I am editing the book for. Sometimes this Imaginary Reader is me -- I didn't understand the link between this emotion or that one, or it makes no sense to me for this character to suddenly do this or say that, or some pronoun or thought isn't clear to me. But just as often the Imaginary Reader is someone else, someone who isn't as invested in the book as I am, who hasn't read the text before (as I have, so I know what's coming and why everything matters) and who won't read it three or four times over again (though I hope said reader will reread the book, the world is crowded with books crying out to us, and we should all be thankful for even one reading). And of course, as I'm a children's and YA book editor, I must remember the qualities of those Imaginary children and teenage readers versus my qualities as an adult reader -- if they have less attention span than I do or more, whether they'd want all that detail that bores me, if this vocabulary is too hard or too easy for the likely age of said reader, if they'll get the reference to "The Tempest" there (and if not, should we explain it somehow?), whether it matters whether they get the reference to "The Tempest" or whether they can just pass right over it, grow into it later.

It's important that the editor's view of the Imaginary Reader line up with the author's, at least in the large outlines; because otherwise the editor will suggest changes that the author finds utterly useless or stupid. I know I sometimes suggest changes designed to make the book accessible to as wide a swath of certain Imaginary Readers as possible, because goodness knows I'd like the book to sell to as many Imaginary Readers as possible! But a book that will appeal to every Imaginary Reader would probably turn out bland as romaine lettuce, and the certainness of those "certain Imaginary Readers" is important -- that the author and I should choose which Imaginary Readers are our primary audience (their reading level, their interests, their cultural references) and shape the book for them. But still, I can't help thinking it's good to have breadcrumbs for readers outside that swath. . . . This is something I think about, and wrestle with, every line-edit, leaving the ultimate decisions up to the authors each time.

(There is an entire interesting speech to be written about how each of us in the publishing process envision the Imaginary Reader, and how that affects the decisions we make at each stage:  writers, in what stories they choose to tell; editors, in what books they want to acquire; Acquisition committees and bookstore buyers, in what kind of books they think they can sell, and therefore the kind of books they take under their roofs; editors (again) in how they edit and write flap copy; book designers and marketers, in how they design jackets and form marketing plans to appeal to said Readers. And the supreme satisfaction when a book does find its perfect Imaginary Reader, or a perfect reader, period:  someone who gets it, who gives it a good review or recommends it to a friend or writes a letter saying "I read this and loved it:  Thank you." No sweeter moment for anyone in the process than that.)

The Process. I wrote "first-draft line-edit" above because I line-edit a book in three stages:  First I read it to get the whole in my head, how the plot progresses and the characters develop. I make notes on any big things that might need to change, especially any emotional angles that might need to be played out more in the plot. Then I do my first-draft word-by-word workthrough, careful and slow, writing comments (explanations of suggestions, compliments, questions) on some things as I go and in other cases just suggesting changes. I can be so laissez-faire comments-wise because I then do a second-draft readthrough to be sure all the suggestions make sense and feel good to me as a reader, and to address Inconsistent Editor issues below; and I fill in the rest of the comments then. Generally then I do one more sweep to pick up any outstanding questions or fill in notes on larger issues.

The Inconsistent Editor. This word-by-word examination takes a lot of time, as you might imagine, and thus most of my line-edits happen over a long period and in a wide variety of circumstances -- sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes on planes, or in the office, or (my favorite place) at home on one of my couches, with sparkling water or tea at my side. (Right now it's a glass of sparkling water.) What this ends up meaning is that I edit with varying attention spans and in a wide variety of moods:  Sometimes I am tired or stressed or grouchy and thus not reading with as much generosity or closeness as I should, and sometimes I'm as alert as a squirrel to every nut of nuance, with as much affection for the text and author as said squirrel might have for its winter stockpile. (This is a simile I would certainly question in a manuscript, but I'm leaving it in this blog post because it amuses me.) Thus I need those second- and third-draft runthroughs to be sure my authors are getting me at my best and squirreliest, with all evidence of less bright-eyed Cheryls safely smoothed away. 

Paper vs. Word. I used to line-edit exclusively on paper, and I loved that, as it made that conversation with the author tangible in the blackness of the print beneath my fingers, the scratch of my pencil on the page. But for the last year -- indeed, almost the last two -- all my line-edits have been in Track Changes in Microsoft Word. There are significant advantages to editing in Track Changes that are nearly identical to the advantages of reading e-books:  easier and neater to mark up (or to erase marks); less paper, which is better for the earth; less weight in my bag (except when I carry my laptop about); swift digital delivery; a search function, which is well-nigh invaluable in tracking repetitions or navigating a manuscript quickly. And the disadvantages are the same too: the loss of the pleasures of tangibility and weight and messiness; the fact that I can't edit during the takeoff and landing of a plane! My affection for editing print is now directed at going over the first-pass proofread text of the book a few stages further on, as that still happens on paper and always will (surely, pray God, I hope).

Handing the Baby Over. I'm always nervous giving a manuscript back to its author, because the author holds the final judgment on my work, because the author is the only one who will ever see my work; and I want very badly to have served him or her well, and more than that, to have served the book well . . . to have edited in line with their vision, or helped them to expand or redirect the vision, if needs be, and to be sure every word contributes to that. I usually feel good about my work when I send the line-edit off -- the satisfaction of a job done to the best of my ability, and completed at last; but I also hold my breath a little until the author writes and says "All's well, edits moving forward, I'll send it back to you at X date."

And then satisfaction when the revision comes back in of seeing the author's replies to my side of the conversation:  the clarity, the tightness, the one word there that makes all the difference. The pleasure of making a beautiful thing, and the pleasure of the work itself:  When I doubt myself or this business, I remember those; and as the song says, they can't take that away from me.

Two Pithy Poems about Existence

(One I have liked since high school, and have been feeling more as I've gotten older; the other discovered in reading a sample translation once, much enjoyed, and never forgotten.)

A Man Said to the Universe
by Stephen Crane

A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

by Polleke
(a character in Guus Kuijer's Polleke series)

When I see a cow,
Then I know that God exists.
But if I say so to the cow,
She starts to moo.

In Which I Make Up for My Lameness with Cute Boys Singing

As far too many of my posts begin:  Apologies for the bloggy silence of late. I spent the last week traveling to Washington, D.C., for the Rally to Restore Sanity; Cape Girardeau, MO, to see my dear friend Katy (who some of you might recognize as the proper heroine of The Bad Mood Banana Cookies, now a terrific professor of history at Southeast Missouri State); home near Kansas City; Manhattan, Kansas, where I talked a lot and stayed at the marvelous Morning Star Bed and Breakfast (highly recommended); and then home again, where my family had a wonderful early Thanksgiving, and my Uncle John won the Frog for the first time ever. The trip marked the culmination of two intense writing projects I'd been laboring over for a while, including the second-pass proofs of Second Sight, and as a result, I've been taking off non-work writing for a bit. But I thought a lot during all the traveling, and I hope to have time and space to put some of those thoughts down soon.

Kidlit Drink Night on Thursday night the 11th, here in Brooklyn. Betsy has the details.

In the meantime, oh my glory! Handsome boys in uniform! Singing acapella! With a star who once played Harry Potter (unauthorized)! The look on Kurt's face! I LOVE this and can't wait to see tonight's episode:

Q&A: Neil Connelly, author of THE MIRACLE STEALER

Neil Connelly is the author of three published novels and a professor of creative writing at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. For ten years, he directed the graduate workshop in fiction at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He now lives in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons.

Fun fact:  He is the youngest of ten children, eight of them girls. 

What's your writing process like? Do you write in computer first or longhand? Morning, noon, night? Do you perfect every sentence as you go, or pound out a draft and then go back and polish it? Do you plan out a novel first or plunge in and see where the characters take you, or both?

When I'm writing, I write every day.  It's like working out then, just a natural part of the morning.  If it goes well, great.  If it goes poorly, you just don't save the new version.  The great benefit of this is that you've always got tomorrow.  In seventeen years, through five full manuscripts, I've never written for more than an hour and a half a day.

Typically I go back to what I worked on the previous day, or start at the chapter opening, and read through the draft fine-tuning, then get up a head of steam and produce some new rough text, maybe a half page or page a day.  If you're familiar with comic book artists' process of pencil and inking, it strikes me a lot like that.

I never plan my books out.  Doubt adds too much spice to life, so why should it be any different for my characters?  Really, that's one of the compliments I like to hear--"I didn't know how it would end."  Me
neither.  I write for the same reason I hope readers read--to follow the characters because I care.

What is your favorite part of the process (planning, drafting, revising) and why?

That's like asking what part of being a dad is my favorite, like which age I enjoyed my boys the most. Every age is special, and every part of writing has some attraction for me.  The earliest part, the chaos of raw creation, is exciting but anxious.  You don't know what you're dealing with.  But then you feel the kernel (typically an image) and it grows--you begin to see snippets of the characters in new situations, elsewhere in time, and they are mysterious and intriguing, and you start to try and connect a few dots from what you perceive as early in the narrative. And that's your opening, you hope.  On my first book I was on page 80 when I realized I was starting my opening scene.  Oops.

Drafting is fun because you have the extended thrill of finding out what happens next.  Right now I have a forty mile commute to where I teach. And after I write, I play with my kids, then hit the road, and I spend the whole time letting my mind roam through the characters' imaginary world, wondering what will happen tomorrow.  That's just cool.

Revising and editing are essential because, once you finish a thing, you know what it is.  And as strange as this sounds, you have to go back and mechanically make it all organic.  That may or may not make sense, but it's my experience.

Where did The Miracle Stealer start for you?

As a proposal that I had to write to accompany my first book, St. Michael's Scales.  That book was about a kid who felt doomed, and I wondered about his opposite, a boy who felt blessed.  There was a news story about a tornado that tossed a crib a mile and half, something insane like that, and the infant was fine.  I wondered about what he'd feel like later, and the phrase, "the burdens of blessings" came to me. That sat in my head for about five years or so, and in that time I thought about other babies who'd been miraculously saved.  I tried more than one draft focusing on the child, but I uncovered a truth I should have known--the truly blessed aren't interesting.  They have shining souls and do the right thing and don't worry and have no conflict. Fortunately I already had a built-in character who was deeply conflicted, Daniel's big sister Andi. She wanted the story and, pretty much, wrestled the manuscript away from me.

What challenges did you find writing across gender?

Plenty.  There was one draft, about a hundred pages if I recall, that was in third person.  Andi was ticked.  She wanted her own voice, and that overpowered any concerns I had about pulling  it off.

And what challenges (if any) did writing about faith present for you?

My faith is my faith.  It's a fluid thing with a solid core.  But there has to be room for doubt, for questioning and exploration.  Odd as it sounds, my relationship with religion is a lot like my relationship with narrative.  Both are ways to make sense of the world, and both are wonderful and troublesome.  Both demand a lot from you but ultimately, deliver a lot more back.

Did you discover or learn anything new in writing The Miracle Stealer? What part or aspect of the book are you most proud of?

I'm pleased with the ending. Part of the problem with the way I plot books is that systematically, I write myself into corners I then have to find ways out of that don't feel hokey.  And my editor had some very
specific concerns that made  sense to me and had to be addressed, but it was tricky business.  I'm glad that the major questions the book raises got addressed, if not answered, and that the ending seems--to
me--neither false nor gloomy nor glib.  It feels right.

The opening of a book is more important when someone buys it.  But people remember a book as good or bad based on the entire experience, and that is largely determined, I think, by the quality of the

You've published one adult novel, Buddy Cooper Finds a Way. How do you -- or do you -- find writing for a YA audience different than writing for adults?

I make no distinction, honestly.  As I wrote Miracle Stealer I simply followed the characters.  I did not edit their behavior or avoid language or play down my sentence structure, etc.  I was taught to produce a book first, then later, as an entirely separate act, figure out if anyone else might want to buy it.  That's horrible advice for someone who wants to be rich, but good advice for someone who wants to write a good story.

How has teaching writing on both the undergraduate and graduate levels influenced your own work?

Teaching is a blessing.  You're constantly forced to re-examine and re-explain the concepts that fuel your own fiction.  My graduates challenged me in wonderful ways.  And it's important not to be belligerent about your understanding of fiction, to be open to the views of others.  Your aesthetic should never set like concrete.  That suggests a kind of artistic paralysis I fear.  Teaching makes that impossible.

What is the most common problem you see in undergraduate creative writing? In graduate work?

Embryonic writers don't trust the image enough.  They don't trust it when they write it and they don't trust readers to "get it." In response, they overpower the image with explanation, which is an
injustice to reader and writer both.  Really, you read sentences like, "Jill tossed the engagement ring into the ocean, showing David she didn't want to marry him."  For Pete's sake, didn't you notice the verb "tossed?"  Trust it.

What have you been reading lately?

Lots of freshman essays.

Thanks, Neil!

My Fall 2010 Books: MAD AT MOMMY by Komako Sakai

The Library of Congress CIP data summarizes this book as "A little rabbit is very angry at his mother, and he tells her the reasons why," which is accurate. But what makes it terrific and real is how specific and at the same time universal those reasons are: that she sleeps late when he wants to play; that she always tells him to hurry up, but then she never hurries up herself; or, as you can see in this next picture, that she yells for no reason (when it's illustratively clear she has very good reason!).

The resolution is satisfying for mommy and child alike, and the illustrations will make you both laugh and say "Awww!" for their expressiveness. . . . I mean, really, just LOOK at that cover, or this next image, the soul of four-year-old petulance:

Publishers Weekly said in a starred review: "This honest account of a small rabbit's angry outburst and the contrast between the adorable protagonist and his simmering emotions demonstrate Sakai's (The Snow Day) uncanny ability to tap into children's feelings," and Kirkus, added, with another star, "A playful story that offers young readers—and their big feelings—a serious voice. Charming, classy and current" -- three words that we may just take as our new motto at Arthur A. Levine Books.

The story we always tell about this book around the office is that the first time Arthur's son was read the book, he finished it, closed it reverently, and said, "This is a PERFECT book, Daddy." We couldn't agree more.

My Fall 2010 Books: THE MIRACLE STEALER by Neil Connelly

Arthur A. Levine Books published Neil Connelly's first novel, St. Michael's Scales, nine years ago last spring. It was the story of a boy who was convinced he was doomed, and Neil says that writing it made him think about the opposite problem -- the burdens of being blessed, particularly with an unusual talent or gift. Thus emerged the story of the wonderfully complicated Andi Grant, who herself isn't unusually blessed, but who guards her six-year-old brother Daniel with all the fierceness of a mother lion. Daniel may not be a miracle worker, exactly, but strange things certainly happen around him; and when strange people begin to threaten him as well, Andi launches a plan to create an "Anti-Miracle" and give her brother a normal life forever after. I've previously blogged about this book (or the flap copy for it, rather) here and here, and as I said then, this is a great, twisty sort of philosophical thriller novel, where the tension reaches near-physical levels of stress as you turn the pages. . . . Perfect for fans of Francisco X. Stork (who blurbed it), Donna Freitas (likewise), or Sara Zarr. It's received a starred review from Booklist and much enthusiasm from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, the latter of whom called it "provocative and suspenseful," and concluded, "Deftly avoiding stereotypes and caricatures, Connelly creates an alternately ominous and wholesome atmosphere in which the mysteries of friendship, hope, sacrifice, love, and prayer reveal a community's spiritual complexity."

Look for a Q&A with Neil coming later this week, and I may have to post the first chapter too, as it truly does contain one of the most astonishing scenes I've ever read.

In stores now: | B&N | Borders | Powells | Indiebound

Movie Recommendation: HOWL

Last night, somewhat through random good luck, James and I went to see a new movie called Howl, about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial over his famous 1955 poem. The screenplay for this movie is entirely taken from transcripts of the court trial, interviews with Ginsberg, and the text of Howl, and the film cuts among those three different story strands, with the text portrayed through both a recreation of the first public reading of the poem and gorgeous animations illustrating its images and themes. James Franco plays Ginsberg in the interview and the reading; Jon Hamm, David Straithairn, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels play various figures in the trial.

And it is just an immensely intelligent, passionate, and well-acted film. I felt as if I were getting to know Ginsberg, and came to really like his humility and honesty, through the interview bits (and I learned a lot about the Beat Generation besides); I fell in love with the poem, which I don't think I'd ever experienced in full before, through the reading and the animations (which have been collected into a graphic novel); and the trial portions coalesce into a splendid defense of a writer's right to speak in the language that comes naturally to him, and the importance of writerly freedom in expanding the boundaries of literary art. (I thought more than once of the #Speakloudly campaign.) As the poem is frank in its sexual language, so is the movie, and if that would make you uncomfortable, it's not for you; but for everyone else, and especially lovers of poetry and haters of censorship, very highly recommended.

The Scholastic Spring 2011 Librarian Webcast

On Tuesday, Scholastic broadcast our Spring 2011 librarian preview across the web, with a number of editors, including moi, giving delicious little glimpses of some of the delights on the spring list. You can watch the preview (hosted by our intrepid School & Library Marketing Director, John Mason) here:

Scholastic Librarian Preview

If you're interested in Arthur A. Levine Books books particularly, you can see our books as follows:
  • At 7:59, Arthur discusses his forthcoming picture book, Monday Is One Day, illustrated by Julian Hector, with his editor for the book, Andrea Davis Pinkney.
  • At 18:51, he introduces Sidekicks, a super-awesome graphic novel by Dan Santat, edited by my friend (and yours) Rachel Griffiths.
  • At 20:17, fans of Ferragamo and Susan Shreve will adore The Lovely Shoes.
  • At 21:40, GENIUS ALERT! See selections from Shaun Tan's new compendium, Lost and Found.
  • And at 23:55, Trent Reedy and I talk about his wonderful middle-grade novel set in Afghanistan, Words in the Dust. (Apparently I move around a lot when I think I'm sitting still.)
And there is lots of other Scholastic-y goodness in there as well. Hope you enjoy!

Talk to Me: What Makes You Buy a Book?

I've been thinking a lot about book marketing lately, and what actually "moves the needle" in terms of selling a children's/YA book to a customer. So I thought I'd survey my readership and ask:  When you're standing in the bookstore or sitting at your computer on a bookselling site, what makes you actually purchase a book? (Beyond the title, cover design, and flap/descriptive copy, of course, as I take it for granted those need to be great; and friend recommendations, as those can be personalized to you.) I don't expect anyone to answer all of these questions, but just to list some things I'm curious about:
  • Are you usually buying books for children in your life, or for yourself?
  • Do you pick up a book because you've seen a great review? In that case, what sources (which blogs or publications) matter most to you as a reader? Do you pay attention to user reviews or stars on  
  • Do you watch book trailers? Why?
  • Do you ever click through banner ads for books? On what sites do you notice them?
  • Do blurbs matter to you?
  • Do awards matter to you? What about lists? (E.g. Horn Book Fanfare, Texas Bluebonnet List)  
  • Given the small world of the kidlitosphere:  Of the last ten books you've bought, how many of the authors did you actually "know"? (Meaning you've had some substantive contact with them either online or in real life.)
  • If you pay attention to buzz, at what point does that translate to your seeking out a book? When it's everywhere? When the right person says it?  
  • Which of these factors -- again beyond the title, cover, flap copy, and friend recs -- has the MOST influence on you as a reader?
  • Opening it up:  Given our limited budgets, what should publishers be doing that we currently aren't doing in order to market books? Are there places we should be advertising to reach kids or teens? Media we should be in*? Cross-promotions we should be seeking out?
Obviously the answers are going to be different for every reader, and even every book bought by every reader, but I'd love to see what y'all have to say. Here are some of my answers:  I'm usually buying books for myself. I watch book trailers mostly out of curiosity about how their makers translate the book into visual form, given the usually limited budgets for such things. Reviews, buzz, and blurbs from or comparisons to the right author will all get me to pick up a book in the store, but the first pages have to sell me on it to get me to buy it. I notice banner ads in the PW newsletters and in the Unshelved weekly digest, and I also really like the Unshelved visual book talks and reviews. I love getting the Goodreads digest every day with my friends' substantive reviews, and those can inspire me to put a book on my to-read list, which is why I take good care with my own reviews (and also why I only add people I know in real life to my Goodreads friends list -- I don't need anything more to read!). The biggest reason I buy books is author loyalty:  I love a previous book by the author, and/or what I know of the author, and I want to have, and more than that, own his or her new one.


Thanks for sharing!
* Writing this, I suddenly had a vision of a video game in which somebody sits down and reads . . . but then the camera dives through the book, and you participate in the marvelous adventure in that book, until that comes to an end, and that tired protagonist sits down and opens a book . . . and then the camera dives through the book, and there's a completely different protagonist and you have to win through THAT adventure, which again would conclude in a book. . . . It would be the If on a winter's night a traveler** of video games! And awesome.

** Though I guess the TRUE Ioawnat video game would end each level with the protagonist sitting down to play a video game, thus keeping the loop going. And also there would be meta-commentary on what you-the-player would be doing between levels. This also sounds awesome.***

*** Now someone will tell me this video game was actually created in 2002. Go ahead, spoil my dream.  

See My Friend's Movie!

When I was a senior in college, I was selected to attend the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium, where I met my friend Jeff Reichert. He and I both ended up in New York after graduation, and while I immersed myself in publishing and children's books, he became a fixture in the world of independent film and film criticism, working in marketing for several indie distribution companies and cofounding an excellent film journal called Reverse Shot.

Then a couple of years ago, Jeff decided to take the plunge:  He quit his job and became a full-time documentary filmmaker. His subject:  gerrymandering, the manipulation of Congressional district lines for political gain.

This process happens every ten years, after the Census numbers come in, so it was a film tailor-made for 2010, and Jeff worked terrifically hard to get the film done in time. He interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, lawmakers in Texas (the famous group of Democrats that hid out in Oklahoma for days to prevent the Republicans from redrawing district lines), and a representative from our neighborhood here in Brooklyn. He shot and edited and shot and edited and essentially went into a two-year filmmaking cave.

This week, all that hard work is paying off as Gerrymandering hits theatres. I saw its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, and it's smart, sharp, funny and passionate -- a film guaranteed to get both Democrats and Republicans talking, while offering some nonpartisan solutions to this knotty political problem. The reviews have been great, and it's even been talked up for the documentary film Oscar! Gerrymandering is showing in a series of one-night stands across the U.S. this week, and then opening in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego on Friday, before spreading wider later this fall. If you're a fan of politics, passion projects, or just really smart filmmaking, please check it out. And yay, Jeff!

Q&A: Elizabeth C. Bunce, author of STARCROSSED

What were the initial seeds of StarCrossed? How long had the book been growing for you before you started writing it?
A long time! I started drafting the manuscript right after submitting A Curse Dark as Gold to you, in the fall of 2005. But I first heard Digger’s voice whispering to me more than ten years ago, when she was the main character in an adult novella that never went anywhere. And the seeds of her world and her story were much older still. Digger inhabits a fantasy world I’ve been tinkering with since I was a teenager, back when I first realized I wanted to write.

I can’t remember exactly what made me realize that my shiftless novella could be a much better young adult novel, but I do clearly remember deciding that StarCrossed would be the book to follow Curse. I was coming off three very intense years inside Charlotte Miller’s head, and I was eager to kind of shed that skin and work with a new character, a new voice—and especially work on a book that could be potentially lighter in tone. I remember telling my agent that I wanted to write A Fun Book, because as enormously proud of Curse as I am, and as rewarding as it was to write, “nobody could accuse it of being rollicking.” My agent responded, “Yeah, it’s not a romp.”

As it happened, my idea of A Fun Book apparently involved the main character’s lover being murdered by secret police on Page 1, so clearly my Fun Meter still needs some calibrating!

A Curse Dark as Gold was loosely based in the historical real world and on the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” How did it feel to create a wholly original world and storyline here? (I wonder if you even felt more free, not having to get those historical details right . . . ?)
Going about creating a new world was not so different—but working without a plot net (without the framework of a fairytale to guide my storyline) was definitely a little intimidating. This is the first novel I’ve completed that is not a retelling of some sort. On the one hand, that was nerve-wracking, but at the same time it was also very freeing. Since I wasn’t constrained to a predetermined set of plot points and conclusion, I never felt like I was “forcing” my characters into position, and they were able to go about their business quite naturally. As long as I could keep up with them, we did fine!

Even though this is a made-up world, I still did my homework, familiarizing myself with everything from lunar science, to castle life, to the tools of historical espionage, to our own world’s history of religious persecution, to period firearms and the technology of warfare! There was a little more freedom here, however, for a couple of reasons. First, Llyvraneth is not so firmly grounded in real-life Earth history as was the world of Curse, so I could focus on the details that served the story best, without concern about anachronisms or inaccuracies. But more than that, Digger herself was a much more impatient character than Charlotte, and tended to pull me away from the research to tell my story, already! a lot sooner than Charlotte ever did.

What sorts of reference materials did you make up to help keep track of the world?
Since I’ve been working with Llyvraneth for more than twenty years, I didn’t need much for my own reference (aside from a map), but a critique partner requested a glossary and cast list (which became the Lexicon included in the published book), and you asked me for at least a couple of documents to help flesh out the worldbuilding. If I recall correctly, one was a timeline of the political history that feeds StarCrossed's crucial backstory; and the other was an account of Llyvrin/Celyst mythology, chronicling the lives and characters of the seven gods worshipped by Llyvrins. These documents were wonderful fun to come up with, and I really enjoyed drawing on all those years of worldbuilding!

One kind of amazing thing happened during the revision process. I ran out of printer paper while printing out a set of your editorial notes, and I had to go digging around the dark recesses of my office to find something, anything that would run through my printer. I ended up with a pack of typing paper from my college word-processor days. When I actually went through and read the printed notes, I discovered that I’d printed a page on top of a hand-drawn map of Llyvraneth I’d done years and years before!

Many writers talk about having a markedly different emotional experience writing a second novel after the first has been published . . . either that it’s easier, because they know that they can finish a book and they’ll have some support, or harder, because of new concerns about expectations. What was your experience this time around? And did your writing process change at all with this book?
To be honest, I really don’t know what my writing process is anymore, because it’s been so different on all two-point-seven-five books! Curse took three years of painstaking craft and research, with six months of revision after the sale. StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon both sold on proposal, so I was already on deadline when I wrote them. StarCrossed happened in big chunks between bits of Curse, then was revised on a crazy, oft-disrupted schedule, which I’m sure you remember well and which I believe we are both sworn never to speak of again!  For Liar’s Moon I did extensive advance plotting, outlining, and preparation before I ever wrote a single word—and then had a solid first draft in just over three months. I’m kind of looking forward to the next projects, to see how else my process evolves, or if it ever settles down into something that I can point to and say, “this works.”

As for the emotional experience? Wow. So, so different. Leaving aside the schedule and deadline, it took me ages to understand that StarCrossed is, in fact, a vastly more complicated story than Curse, which has essentially a single, straightforward plotline. StarCrossed has something like five intertwining mystery plots that must all be resolved in order, in order to achieve Digger’s emotional and thematic development. Realizing this was a turning point for me with the manuscript.

But more than that, there was this odd, award-shaped shadow over the writing of this book that made it much more difficult than I ever anticipated. It was really hard to separate the new book from the expectations set up by the Morris Award (&c), and give StarCrossed its own special attention. I think it took me six months to realize that when I wrote Curse, I had never sat down to write An Award-Winning Novel. I’d set out to tell Charlotte’s story with as much honesty and authenticity as possible. That’s all. And that’s all I needed to do for Digger—not write The Next Curse. Just tell Digger’s story to the best of my ability—and I could do that.

I remember sending you a list of everything that was bothering me about one draft of the manuscript, and you wrote back, “You are being very hard on this poor book!” And I suddenly felt like a parent whose second child is never good enough: “Why can’t you be more like your big sister Curse? She won the Morris Award, you know!”

But I am happy to report that Digger has no trouble at all standing apart from her big sister’s shadow, and from everything we’re hearing so far, readers seem to be enjoying her story immensely (some even more than Curse!).

One thing we seem to consistently discover in the editing process for your books is that you’ve written mystery novels in fantasy dress. Are you in fact a mystery reader? Any authors or titles from the genre that you’d recommend?
Here’s the funny thing: No! I actually read very few true genre mysteries, if we’re talking Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, P.D. James, and that ilk. But I grew up loving Trixie Belden, and must have read each of those books a dozen times, and as a teen I was a huge fan of suspense authors like Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike. As an adult, I watch a ton of mystery TV: “Masterpiece Mystery” on PBS, “Law & Order” (the original only, thank you very much), and almost any show with a paranormal bent, like “Eleventh Hour.” So even though I’m not currently reading much by the way of genre mysteries, I’m never too far from a mystery plot. I’m sure all of that early reading and TV osmosis has fed my stream of consciousness!

As a reader/viewer, I appreciate stories that can combine genres, like Ken Follett’s espionage thrillers. Though they’re not “mysteries” in the true Whodunit sense, there’s always an element of secrecy, and an urgency to bring those secrets to light. And I believe it’s that story sense that brings the mystery into my own work. (Well, and then there’s Liar’s Moon, which is, in fact, a pretty classic murder mystery! I guess it's sort of "fantasy noir").

Digger is very different from Charlotte, the protagonist of A Curse Dark as Gold . . . chiefly, I think, in that Charlotte is driven to fight for one place and people she loves, while Digger almost actively resists being part of a community. Do you have more personal sympathy with one or the other of these perspectives?
It depends on the day you ask me, I think! I’m definitely an introvert with hermit tendencies, so it can be a struggle for me to remember to engage in my community (be that my actual physical neighborhood or the virtual ones online), but I do tend to hold onto people fiercely once I’m attached. The thing that interested me about Charlotte and Digger is that family is very important to each of them, but what that means, and how they go about identifying and protecting Their Own is very different. Charlotte is devoted to her actual family—her blood kin and her small village—and risks everything to hold them together, even when they might not deserve it. But Digger is perfectly willing to sever ties with her blood relations in favor of a family she’s putting together for herself: a mother in Lady Lyll, a sister in Meri, a brother in... well. You know. The goal is the same, even if their methods and definitions may differ.

Are you creating any clothing related to StarCrossed, as you did for Curse? Also, I know that for Curse, you did actually practice shearing sheep, spinning thread, weaving, etc., to have mastery over those skills. . . . Did you learn to pick locks, forge documents, or scale walls for StarCrossed?
Sigh. I only wish. My husband bought me a set of lock picks for Christmas last year, but I am technically deficient (I can barely operate an actual key), so I’m afraid they’ve done little more than sit on my desk looking very cool! I do have a passing familiarity with calligraphy, however, so Digger’s book-crafting adventure wasn’t wholly alien to me. And I did track down a replica 16th century pistol recently, as well.  As for costuming, my primary field of interest is the Renaissance, so this time around my costuming informed the book, if that makes sense. I drew on my understanding of how the clothing moves and feels, as well as the various pieces of women’s costume and the myriad hiding places they afford that a thief might rely upon! It was during one of my costuming projects a couple of summers ago that I hit upon the perfect place for Digger to keep her lock picks, for instance.

What drives you to write? What makes you get up in the morning and sit down at the laptop?
How are we defining “morning,” exactly? I have been writing for a very long time, and I can’t imagine my life without it; it’s at the very core of who I am. I do know that I definitely feel an almost physical need to stitch or sew, if I’ve been away from the needle for too long. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that same drive for writing, but, then, I’ve never really stopped writing long enough to find out! I can say that I have gads of stories to tell, and feel like it would be an awful shame not to tell them. That’s one of the reasons I’m so happy about StarCrossed—the world I created more than twenty years ago is finally really, truly a book! There is enormous satisfaction in that.

"In My Family," by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

In my family we're all tenacious, decide what we want and go after it.
We work hard, moving forward, when we're exhausted, and
think we can't move one inch more. I wonder if it's in the
genes, this need to finish everything we start, this belief that
hard work and perseverance will get us through. My sister
kept going to work for months after she had seizures and
couldn't walk. Her live-in aide took her to work in a wheel-
chair, pushing her down the road, because the sidewalks in
Hawthorne aren't handicapped accessible.

My father had a degenerative disease of the spine. He dragged
one paralyzed leg behind him wherever he went, and went he
did, driving until he was eighty-seven years old, cloth around
the pedals of the car so he could reach the brake, one shoe
built up to compensate for the unevenness of his legs, driving
to his friends' houses to play cards and visit, driving to the
courthouse in Paterson to file a petition for his friends or reg-
ister the legal papers he drew up, his body failing him, but his
mind sharp and willing him on.

My son John wants to think he is not like us. I hear how even
at thirty-two he takes responsibility for his life, how he gets up
at 5 a.m., so he can be at his office by 5:30, how he handles the
complex legal problems of a large corporation, working
straight through till he returns at 6 p.m. to help with the chil-
dren and to deal with the house, the yard, repairs. He takes
everything seriously. I love the way John carries his son in his
arms, the child running to him for comfort and the way they
speak to each other without words. I know that even my son,
who wants to think he is not like our family, is driven as we
are to keep on going, no matter what.

These are the things my mother taught us by example, my
mother who tripped over our skates when we were children
and got up and walked the twelve blocks to Farraro Coat
Factory on River Street. She worked until noon, walked back
home to make our lunches, and then walked back to work.
Only after she came home at 3:30, so she could be there when
we got home from school, did she collapse into a chair unable
to move. When she came back from the hospital clinic with a
cast on her leg, fourteen bones in her foot broken, she had to
rest her leg on a stool. That was one of the few times in her
life that I saw her cry, not because of the pain, but because she
couldn't do the work she told herself she had to do.

Cover Concepts for My Book!

For a long time--right up until this afternoon, in fact--I thought I knew exactly what Second Sight was going to look like: a pair of glasses spanning the width of the cover, held by their outside corners by a pair of fingers, with the title type floating over them and my name below. Then my book designer stopped by my office with the bad news: This image was so thin that it didn't take up much space vertically, which left the cover looking really awkward and unbalanced . . . and altogether, it was not going to fly.

I was momentarily cast down, but like all bad ideas that get recognized as bad ideas, this helped clarify my priorities (particularly this: I REALLY want eyeglasses on the cover) and cleared the way for better ideas, of which I quickly had four. If you'll forgive the self-indulgence, I'm going to analyze these four ideas the way we analyze cover ideas in-house, for first what they say about the book in and of itself and then how the covers might connect with my intended audience (adult writers of children's and YA literature). Pardon the lousy sketching and type design.

A., Left. Glasses on top of a stack of books with the title written on their spines. This looks booky; the image fills the space well; it offers an opportunity for lots of good colors on the spines (and I love bright colors) and fun glasses on top. This kind of cover has certainly been done before, but the covers it alludes to (in my mind, at least) are all good ties for the kind of book this is: Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose, which is a similar reading-and-writing book, and Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time by Lisa Yee and I Now Pronounce You Someone Else by Erin McCahan, which are both titles off my own list. So I like this one a lot.

B., Right. I think of this as the McSweeney's cover, as it would be mostly the gracious, formal type that's used on the inside of the book, with three or so small images of eyeglasses between the lines, most likely photographs (though it would be neat to find a cartoonist who could draw all of these glasses for cheap, if their style suited the font and the book). I was thinking a conventional or cats'-eye pair of glasses up top, a set of 3-D specs in the middle, and a Groucho Marx set down at bottom, to convey all the different ways one can look at writing, and also hopefully the book's blend of both seriousness and fun. OTOH, a pair of Groucho Marx glasses may convey not "fun" but ridiculousness or absurdity. None of those images say "books" or "writing" or "editing" directly, so a potential book-buyer would have to read the text for that, which slows down the potential buyer's emotional reaction, which slows down their buying reaction. And the images are really small, which means the cover might not reproduce well online, where it could be an inch tall on a computer screen. And as online will be one of the two primary ways I'm selling this book, it's important that it be instantly visually readable. Hrmm.

C., Left: A page made to look like a piece of notebook paper, with a pair of glasses resting on it. . . . Maybe add a pencil too to get the writing thing across more immediately. The most obviously writerly of these options; also, perhaps, the most academic and boring. But it could be fun if it was done well. (That's the challenge with book cover concepts as with plot concepts: As great as the raw idea may seem, everything is in the execution.)

D., Right: A plain background with floating type and a stock photo of a dachshund in oversized glasses. I adore dachshunds for their dignity in the face of their physical ridiculousness, and this image is so darling that I imagine it might get a lot of readers to pick up the book. Indeed, in that way, it would connect to Rule #1 of children's publishing: Cute dogs sell. But the image ultimately suffers the same lack of instant connection to the book's subject as B. above, and having a dachshund in oversized glasses on your front cover is not, perhaps, the best way to have your serious writing book taken seriously.

So of all of these options, I'm leaning towards A. -- or whatever my book designer will come up with, which will doubtless be much more original and all-around better than anything I've tossed out here. Anyone want to propose alternate concepts or change my mind?

Some Things I'm Reading, Watching, & Thinking About

Previous posts on this topic:

My Fall 2010 Books: STARCROSSED by Elizabeth C. Bunce

When we were coming to the end of the editorial process on A Curse Dark as Gold, I asked Elizabeth C. Bunce what she was working on next. She said hesitantly, "It's a novel about a girl cat burglar in the middle of a religious civil war," and I said, "Oh, I LOVE religious civil war!" At which point she made fun of me for being a dork, but it was true; and what I love about (fictional) religious civil war is that it offers the possibility of so much rich and deeply felt conflict -- between two religions or two citizens on different sides, who may have other bonds that they then have to choose between. . . . So much delicious drama!

And the book definitely pays that off. But to dwell on it too much here is to obscure the other bit of awesomeness in her description, which is "girl cat burglar"; and this is indeed primarily the story of a girl cat burglar -- one who can see forbidden magic -- caught in a snowbound castle, with several factions of that brewing magical-religious civil war circling around her. And just as that plot implies, there is lots of sneaking and spying and magic and deeply hidden secrets and grand confrontations -- reminiscent of Sherwood Smith or Tamora Pierce or George R. R. Martin, perfect for curling up with and getting lost in on a cool autumn day. As the Horn Book review said: ". . . satisfyingly stuffed with plots and subplots, towers and hidden chambers, genteel pastimes and death-defying feats. Celyn is a strong, imaginative heroine-more than the generic 'feisty girl,' and the rest of the female cast also show noteworthy fortitude and inventiveness." Hurrah!

Check out Elizabeth's marvelous book trailer for the book:

Some things I love in the book, for readers to watch for:
  • “Well, then, Celyn Contrare, it looks like you’re ours for keeps. . . . Give some accounting for yourself, and pray Tiboran made you a more entertaining storyteller than my son. And perhaps we won’t make you sleep in the scullery with the rats.” / “I’ve slept with rats before, milord.” Which didn’t sound at all like I’d intended
  • The unique chess game that Elizabeth has invented, and the clever way it's used in the scene in which it appears
  • How well and deeply she's worked out the seven gods and their associated powers and followers
  • All the excellent backstories for the human characters as well
  • How much this is a book-lover's book -- it involves reading and forging and secret codes and all sorts of delicious booky things like that
  • The descriptions -- of the castle, the clothes, the meals; and the heroine's description of her home city of Gerse in one critical scene
  • I paused in the threshold. “Why don’t you do it?” / He smiled. “Because I have you.”
  • "What do we always do with them?" -- a line spoken by the villain, and hence one to put ice in the heart.
  • The final climax, which made me behave rather more as if I were watching the climax of an action movie than reading a fantasy novel (e.g. some fist-pumping and woo-hoos)
And other links:
Check back here soon for a Q&A with Elizabeth and a secret about the cover!


Herewith beginning a short series of posts introducing my books on the AALB Fall 2010 list:

by Lisa Yee, illustrated by Dan Santat. Coedited by Arthur and moi. In his first outing, 2009's Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), Bobby Ellis-Chan accidentally precipitated an all-out boys vs. girls war. His second outing continues to explore the question of what makes a real man (in fourth grade, anyway), as Bobby has to face his fears on various fronts: against the evil six-toed cat down the street, in the class production of "Annie," with his recurring asthma, and after he hears his former pro-linebacker father say, "He's not like me." It is once again laugh-out-loud funny and lump-in-throat touching in both its text and art, with a great new cover look by the ever-versatile Dan Santat. Take it away, School Library Journal: "Readers will devour the fast-paced writing, spot-on dialogue, and heartfelt lessons embedded in the text and empathize with the sometimes-brave Bobby, his worries about his place in his family and at school, and his struggles and successes."

My favorite lines:
  • Jillian Zarr threw her head back when she laughed. She was the only person Bobby knew who did this, other than the evil genius from that movie Kid Kops.
  • One could never tell what the scary cat was thinking. That was the problem with sinister beings. They hardly ever told you what they were up to.
  • Bobby just shrugged. “Things,” he said.
More links:

Three E-mail Boxes

One of them public and important, two of them personal and somewhat trivial:

1. See the e-mail box here on the Springfield, Mo. News-Leader letters to the editor page? If you're a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, stand up to the Neanderthal who described the book as "soft pornography" and let them know why it and Slaughterhouse-Five should stay in the Republic school district. Maybe cc: your e-mail to the superintendent,, or the principal,, to be sure your message gets heard.

2. See the e-mail box over in the right sidebar? You can enter your e-mail address there to have these blogs delivered to you via e-mail, through a Google Group called chavelaque.

3. See the one smack-dab in the center of the front page of You can enter your address there for updates regarding my book, Second Sight (in first page proofs! and soon to have a cover!); future appearances; and my website in general (e.g. when a new talk is posted), through a Google Group called cherylkleindotcom. The e-mail from this address will be fairly infrequent -- I'd estimate no more than six or seven messages a year -- and neither list will be shared with anyone else. Thanks for your interest.