Breaking the Block

(cross-posted from my June 2018 newsletter)

You may have noticed – or you may not have – that it has been a long time since my last newsletter:  December 2017, to be exact. I’ve been silent in part because of many other things that were going on, like speaking at some conferences, and assistant-organizing another one, and editing books, and living my life. But the number-one thing holding me back was the fact that I expect myself to write an essay, this essay, to open the newsletter every time, and I could not think of anything to say. Or I could think of things to say, but nothing interesting, that I wanted to say, that compelled me enough to write it, that I felt it would be worth the time you are now spending running your eyes over it. I had, have, ideas; some of them were even good, and may show up in this space later. But the not-writing became a habit. My own silence intimidated me. My expectations of myself paralyzed me. 

In short: I’ve had writer’s block.

It’s a funny phrase, “writer’s block” – first used in 1949, per Merriam-Webster, though the dictionary does not say by whom. It’s a possessive phrase, like a writer has been gifted or cursed with a giant orthogonal mass that weighs her down or looms squarely in her way when she tries to move past it . . . which feels both exactly right as a metaphor, and exactly wrong in terms of who possesses whom. Writers cannot move these blocks, nor sell them, nor leave them behind if we want or have to keep working on the project they’re blocking. We can only climb up and over them, or tunnel through them or under them, or jackhammer them until they crack apart. Only then, with the block conquered or destroyed, are we free of the burden of ownership.

“Writer’s block” is also a supremely linguistically satisfying phrase, with that single heavy syllable that ends in a stop ensouling the weight we give it psychologically. If it had a different name, one that sounded lighter, it might feel lighter—something we could shove aside and keep moving. In service of this, and for the sake of accuracy, I propose the following varieties of writer’s block (with thanks to for the synonyms):

  • writer's lump: when you sit in front of the blank page and your brain feels like an inert misshapen brick unable to produce either ideas or sentences

  • writer's cube:  when you are capable of writing, but everything you put down feels squared-off, flat, boring; nothing you’re producing has any texture or is of any interest

  • writer's clog:  when you have too many things to say, do not know where to begin with any of them, and/or cannot figure out how to make them all flow together in one piece

  • writer's snag:  when you do have one specific thing you want to say, but you cannot say it to your own satisfaction, and hence, what is the point 

  • writer's neighborhood:  when other people are in your brain -- as competitors, censors, or critics –- and their chatter keeps you from getting work done

  • writer’s hindrance:  when other people or demands present in your life keep you from building up any significant work, momentum, or depth on a project

  • writer’s stoppage: when you have just stopped writing for some reason, and do not see any way or feel any inclination to start again

The inventor Charles Kettering said once, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved” (#editormottoes), and if you too have writer’s ________ at some point, you could maybe spend some time trying to choose the specific word that best describes your situation, to help you along the way to solving it. The other trick I found useful in getting me out of my funk here was a technique that always helps me: organizing my information, especially in outlines or lists. Once I made a list of synonyms for “block,” well, I just had to add an introduction and this conclusion, and there was my essay. If you’re in the middle of a novel and stuck, make a list of the events in every chapter you have so far, or all the things you like about it, or your twenty favorite moments. If you’re torn among projects, make a status spreadsheet for all of them and see how you feel when you look at it. And if all else fails, try writing an essay or short story narrating your situation; it’s meta, but it gets the words flowing, and at least in my case here, it got the job done.

Two Writing-Related Events This Month

Hey! I'm currently doing two writing-related fundraisers for my beloved church, Park Slope United Methodist. Will you please check them out, sign up, and/or share?

1) On Thursday, November 30, at 8 p.m. EST I'm offering a webinar, "The Secrets of Selling Your Manuscript: From Submissions to Acquisition." From the description: "In this one-hour benefit webinar, I’ll walk you through the submissions and acquisitions process step by step, addressing the agent search, the elements of a successful query letter and submissions package, and what’s happening on the editorial side of the desk, all the way through to a final response. Wherever you are in the submissions process, this webinar will provide the information you need to give your manuscript its best shot." Cost: $40. You can ask questions beforehand that I'll try to answer either in the course of the session or over e-mail afterward, and if you can't attend the webinar live, you can still sign up and receive a link to watch it after it's aired. I've never given this talk before, and I'm looking forward to it, so I hope you'll join me.

2) Through a silent auction, I'm offering five of my standard one-hour sessions of editorial time, which you can use for a critique, hands-on editorial work (line-editing, copyediting, proofreading), a strategy or career discussion.... It's up to you! The auction will conclude on Saturday, November 18. Click here to bid.

Thank you for your interest in both of these opportunities!

"Book Trailers! Pros and Cons? Do They Help Sales?"

(I received this question for my August 2017 newsletter, and repost my answer here.)

I do not have any real data on this, but these are my impressions of the pros and cons:


  • Fun! 
  • Good for marketing to kids, and those who work with kids. (E.g., it’s easy for teachers to show them in class, and it gives librarians an instant book talk.)
  • GREAT for school visits.
  • Can build up anticipation and interest in an ongoing series especially. If you search for "book trailers" on YouTube, the trailers that have the most hits have a recognizable character at their center. See, for instance, this trailer for "Pete the Cat:  Rocking in My School Shoes," which seems to be the book trailer with the most views ever, followed by a book about "A Day in the Life of the World's Cutest Dog" and a YA book trailer starring Zendaya


  • Hard to do them well on a meager budget.
  • Fresh, creative ones can be useful; bad ones—PowerPoint slideshows or iMovie clip jobs—probably don’t hurt, but they might be a waste of money and time if you don’t do a lot of school visits or have a way to get the clip in front of a significant audience. 

Some great ones, beyond those linked above:

Feel free to post your own favorites, thoughts or tips below!


    On Writing Resolutions vs. To-Do Lists

    (cross-posted from my December 2016 newsletter) 

    New Year’s Resolutions often feel like genie’s wishes to me:  outsized, made under stress, and requiring supernatural effort to fulfill. So I make annual To-Do Lists instead — ten to fifteen specific items that I know I can accomplish in a year, if I keep the goals in mind and create the right long-term framework for the actions. While I haven’t written out these lists every year I’ve lived in New York, in the years when I have, I usually organize the items in three categories:  Read, Practice, and Experience. Under “Read” I set out a list of three or four novels I’vealways meant to read and never got around to:  The Brothers Karamazov, Midnight’s Children, Villette. Under “Practice,” I put things like “Cook dinner for a friend once a month,” “Eat four servings of fruits and vegetables a day,” and “Floss.” And under “Experience” went items like “Walk all the bridges connected to Manhattan,” “Eat at Momofuku,” “Go to the Whitney Museum,” or “Run a half-marathon” — trying to push myself out of my everyday life and work absorption toward special moments or more challenging goals. When I lived alone, I posted the list on the back of my apartment door, so I saw it every day, and as I completed each item on the list, I’d write in the date of completion next to it. I don’t think I ever finished the entire list in a year —Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest remain unread — but the “Practices” especially pushed me to make better choices:  When I hesitated over the bathroom sink late at night, torn between the annoyance of flossing and the allurement of bed, the list would say, gently but firmly, “FLOSS.” And then I would.

    So I offer this as a technique that might be useful to you as you contemplate the writing and publishing you wish to do in 2017 — both the making of the list, and the categories to break it down. Perhaps you want to create a “Draft” category for your dream projects, “Revise” for those already in progress, or “Submit” for those you’ve been fiddling with for too long. Maybe your “Practice” could be to write every day, or to write a chapter a fortnight, or to draft a picture book a month, or to keep a reading journal to reflect on and learn from the books you admire (or loathe). “Experiences” could include “Getting ten rejections” — because that would mean you had the bravery to send your work out ten times, and survived it — or developing a new school-visit presentation, or trying a different form or genre of writing, or attending a national SCBWI conference. And perhaps you want to “Read” some books that might help or inspire you; I’ll offer a brief list of suggestions below. 

    If you like the idea of this list, start by thinking through what you want your writing and publishing lives to look like in 2017, and identifying the goals and practices that will help you create those lives. This in turn leads us back to those big questions:  Who are you? What do you most want? What do you most need? And what kind of changes or sacrifices are you willing to make so you can get those things? Whatever goals you set out, remember to frame them as actions within your control:  You can’t control whether your book will make the New York Times bestseller list or you’ll get an agent; you can control how you shape your marketing efforts and the quality of your first ten pages. Try to make your list in a spirit of love and not punishment, as it should offer your writing and the best parts of yourself more space, more joy, more depth, honor, and time in your life, not be designed to starve you in any way. (Keep in mind the wisdom of the excellent pastrix Nadia Bolz-Weber:  “Nothing you resolve to change about yourself will make you more worthy of being loved.”) And do write or type the list out, and post it somewhere that you can see it regularly, to stay in touch with your to-dos through the next year.  

    2017 promises to be a remarkably tumultuous year on the world stage, and its noise and need for action could reach deep into our lives. I wish all of us good fortune in finding the answers, and setting the goals, that will help us stay focused and do great work through this new year.

    A Washington Post review of The Magic Words

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

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

    To read the whole thing, click here

    Newsletter Archive

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

    Interviews, Articles, and Reviews on THE MAGIC WORDS

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

    Interviews with Me

    Writing by Me

    Reviews of the Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Q&A of the Month: Quiet Books

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

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

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

    A Wonderful Release Day, with Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    Win a Full Manuscript Critique from Me!

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

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

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

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

    Upcoming Appearances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Theatre Review: CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION at Mile Square Theatre

    A review by my Narrative Breakdown cohost James Monohan. 

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

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

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

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

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

    Visit the theatre's website and buy tickets here. 

    The First Professional Review of THE MAGIC WORDS . . .

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

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

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


    Welcome to the New, and My New Blog!

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

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

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

    Two New Writing Workshops with Me!

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

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

    To sign up:

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

    To sign up:

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

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

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

    Without further ado, Five Questions for Emil:

    1. Tell us a little bit about your book. 

    At first blush,

    Young Man with Camera

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Young Man with Camera

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

    4.  What is your favorite scene in the book?

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

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

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

    5. What are you working on now?

    Is it premature to share a working title?


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

    A Verbal Venn Diagram of My Summer 2015 List

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

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

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

    The Porcupine of Truth

    by Bill Konigsberg

    The author of

    Openly Straight

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

    The friends:

      Carson Smith, Aisha Stinson

    Shared traits with other books on this list:  

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

    Distinct traits:

     Contemplation of religion and God; improv comedy

    I Am Princess X

    by Cherie Priest

    Art by Kali Ciesmeier

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

    The friends:

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

    Shared traits:

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

    Distinct traits:

     Hackers; printed in purple

    Grounded:  The Adventures of Rapunzel

    by Megan Morrison

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

    The friends:

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

    Shared traits:  

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

    Distinct traits: 

     Middle grade; debut novel

    The Princess and the Pony

    by Kate Beaton

    The friends

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

    Shared traits:

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

    Distinct traits:

     Picture book; castles; sweaters; farting


    by Daniel Jose Older

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

    The friends:

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

    Shared traits:

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

    Distinct traits:  

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

    Thank you for checking these books out!