Happy 2011!

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you and yours had a safe and joyful holiday season. Mine was predictably hectic, but ultimately merry.

I spoke a lot last year about finding balance between motherhood and writing. As you can see from my blog entries (or lack thereof), I have not been as successful at the balancing act as I had hoped!

It’s a new year, and a new start. I am planning to come at 2011 with new content, new plans, and a new resolve to find that balance. So stay tuned!

To start the year off on a fun note, a letter to the editor that I wrote appears in the February 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest. Not really a publishing cred, but it’s nice to see my name in print!

What are your writing resolutions for the New Year?

The Princess Blogs?

Not long ago, I read Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries. I enjoyed the use of the diary format—it brought immediacy to the action and intimacy to the character. I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if the diary format could be as successful today as it was then. 

The Princess Diaries was written in 2000—not ancient times, certainly, but before everybody and their mother had a blog/MySpace/Facebook/Twitter/etc. Kids today are highly comfortable posting their lives on the Internet, and their “diaries” are their blogs. In The Princess Diaries, Mia says that she wanted to write everything in the diary because she didn’t want anyone to know that she was a princess. That sort of secrecy would be impossible with an online journal or blog.

So, would a diary format book become a bestseller in today’s market? Possibly—kids still know what a diary is, and some may even still keep a “paper” diary. I suspect, however, that as the kids of today become the writers of tomorrow, the diary format will turn into a blog format. Will this lose some of the intimacy of the form? Kids writing on a public blog (even a fictitious one) are unlikely to be as forthcoming and honest with their thoughts and emotions. Although kids today are more willing to put themselves “out there” than most adults, they are aware that it is a public forum, and I think that will inevitably lead to some self-censorship. This could lead to some constraint of the form, some limitations to how far it can be pushed. 

A cousin to the diary format, the epistolary novel is also looking at a sea change. With letters dying out, replaced by emails, chats, text messages and the like, will epistolary novels go the way of the rotary phone? 

In her blog, Tracy Marchini notes that one of the defining characteristics of an epistolary novels is that time elapses between each letter—and a lot can happen in that time. With emails, the elapsed time between communications dwindles from several days or weeks to several minutes or hours. Granted that it only takes a moment for someone’s life to be irrevocably changed, it still brings a different cadence to the communication. 

Like the diary novel, I think we will see the epistolary novel morph into a new form—a “communication” novel involving email, chat and text. I also think this will be a smoother transition than the diary novel, because so many of the basics will remain the same. An email is, after all, often just a letter in digital clothing. 

Do you think these forms will evolve into something new, or die out altogether? Are there other formats that technology will make obsolete or change substantially?

SPEAK Loudly

Banned Book Week 2010 featured the firestorm over SPEAK, the powerful YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. A man in Missouri called it “pornography,” and wanted it (and just about every other book taught in the schools there) banned. Which, of course, has led to every blogger involved with writing to blog about censorship. So, here’s my two cents.

I favor censorship. Wait, wait! Let me explain. I favor personal and private censorship – if a book offends you, don’t read it. If you feel the content in a book is not appropriate for your children, don’t let them read it. Your right to NOT read a book is as inviolable as my right to read it. No one has the right to make those judgment calls for any other person, or any other person’s children. Your beliefs are not mine. Do me the favor of allowing me to make up my own mind.

I do not favor across-the-board, yank-it-from-every-library censorship. If a community were to decide to ban a book completely, there’s only one way that decision would be acceptable to me:  only if the majority of people who have ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK deem it ban-worthy. So often, the people who want to ban books haven’t read them—they just read blurbs on websites and make judgments. They read excerpts taken out of context on like-minded people’s websites and use those “details” to make their point to the school boards. I feel this must be the case with this man in Missouri. He knew some details, but if he had read the book, he certainly could not have interpreted them the way he did.

I read SPEAK a few months back, before the controversy. I had heard wonderful things about it, and wanted to read it to see if it lived up to its billing. At first, I thought I was going to be disappointed. It seemed like it was going to be a “typical” date-rape story, with the predictable plotline. Since there are only so many plotlines in this world, in many ways this turned out to be true. But what Halse Anderson did with this basic plot was brilliant. The way she depicted the complete breakdown of Melinda, the disintegration of who she was and her complete inability to find words to alleviate the pain was gut wrenching. Melinda’s finding her voice and fighting back was inspirational. SPEAK deserves all the praise it has garnered.

What I admired most about SPEAK, from a writer’s point of view, was Halse Anderson’s use of weather/setting and the sculpting of the tree to illustrate Melinda’s emotional state and track her inner journey. Showing my character’s emotions without using the dreaded “felt” is something I have been working on in my own writing of late. In SPEAK, I got to see a master at work.

In my opinion, SPEAK should be taught in schools, both as an example of excellent writing and a way to discuss a difficult topic that is unfortunately very relevant to children these days. Those who seek to ban it have obviously missed the point of the book, if they have bothered to read it at all. SPEAK is certainly not the only book that is on the “threatened” list in Missouri or elsewhere (see Ellen Hopkins’ saga here). We as writers and as readers should fight censorship wherever we find it. We should all Speak Loudly.

My Lost Week

Last week, I spent four long, exhausting days in a small hospital room with my 10-month-old. I didn’t get a word written. And I started to wonder what on Earth I could blog about this week, since I hadn’t done any writing. It was a lost week.

Until I realized that writing about not writing was the blog topic.

My blog’s subtitle is “The journey toward publishing while parenting.” Sometimes the parenting comes first. I can’t tell my 10-month-old to stop babbling so loudly or to stop pulling up on everything she sees or to stop wanting to play with me. I can’t postpone testing until it is convenient for me. I can’t tell my baby not to be sick, or not to cry, or not to need me. I’m her mother. Period.

I have talked before about finding a balance between my writing life and my mommy life. Mostly, I have maintained it, but this last week I fell off the balance beam. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I was pushed off by events beyond my control.

So I spent 72 hours in a hospital room, playing with my baby girl. She was getting an EEG, so she looked like a cyborg mummy – gauze wrapped around her head, wires trailing wherever she moved. And I played with her, smiled with her, laughed with her, read books to her, and walked her around and around in circles.

I got no writing done. I got no social networking done. I got no blogging done.

But I realize now it was not a lost week. How could it be when I spent it cocooned with my baby girl? Getting to know this amazing little person she is quickly becoming?

Best of all, the EEG showed everything normal—my baby girl is healthy. Which means I can look forward to many more years of occasionally being knocked off the balance beam. I’ve learned my lesson, though:

I may not write a word, but time spent with my daughter is never “lost.”

WriteOnCon 2010

When you’re a writer traveling back and forth between two states every two weeks and constantly having an infant in tow, getting to a writer’s conference is next to impossible. Thanks to WriteOnCon, I got my chance to attend a conference this year.

WriteOnCon was a free online conference focusing on “kidlit” – picture books, middle grade and YA. It took place August 10-12, running from 6 am until after 10 pm. Jam-packed days with classes and chats with agents, publishers, and authors. I did not get to participate in the live chats, as they conflicted with my daughter’s schedule, but since this was an online conference, it didn’t matter. All the chats, as well as all the classes, are posted on the website, like a blog, so we attendees could access them at our convenience. This is quite the boon for time-pressed individuals like me!

Perhaps the best part was the critique forums. You could post query letters, first 250 words, first five pages of completed manuscripts and/or first five pages of current WIP. You could post as many things as you wanted reviewed, with the stipulation that for every post you made, you critiqued five others. We were also instructed to look for posts that had the lowest number of critiques, so that everyone who posted would get a decent number of responses.

I liked this feature because at in-person conferences, you are often limited to how many things you can get critiqued. Also, it was great to get feedback from other “kidlit” writers. Some lucky people also got feedback from the industry professionals, who were browsing the forums as well. I was not lucky enough to get an industry pro to weigh in on my posts, but I did get a lot of insightful feedback that will help me refine my projects. This feedback alone was worth the time I spent critiquing other people.

I think that for people who cannot afford either the time or the money to get to an in-person conference, an online conference like WriteOnCon is a good substitute. However, I think in order to get the best networking experience, a face-to-face conference is essential. And an online conference simply cannot generate the kind of visceral buzz you get from being in the same physical space as other writers sharing their passion and creativity. But I found it a worthwhile endeavor and many of the other attendees felt the same.

One of my goals for next year is to attend at least one “real” conference, since I will not be traveling between states and my infant will be a toddler.

What are your thoughts on writers’ conferences, virtual or otherwise?

Pony Penning

Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague did more for the island of Chincoteague than any planned publicity campaign could have. Written in 1947, the book painted such an enthralling picture of life on Chincoteague and neighboring Assateague that millions of people since then have travelled to the islands to experience it for themselves. That Chincoteague’s economy is almost wholly tourism-based is a direct result of this one little children’s book and the dreams it inspired in generations of readers. And the thing that most tourists come to see is the Pony Swim.

Assateague Island is a National Park. Its main attractions are the beach and the wild ponies. Come Pony Penning time (the last Wednesday in July), the ponies rule all. The wild ponies of Assateague roam semi-free (there are fences to keep them off the roads and public beaches) and once a year they are rounded up and swum across the channel to Chincoteague Island. There, a select number of foals are sold, with the proceeds benefiting the Chincoteague Fire Department, which owns the ponies.

So, once a year, thousands of people (they expected 40,000 this year) flock to tiny Chincoteague to see the ponies swim from Assateague to Chincoteague. Since I am living on Chincoteague this year, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join the fun!

Six a.m. saw the sun, me, and my mother rise. Slathered with sunscreen and bug spray (Chincoteague mosquitoes have carried off small children and pets), we arrived at Pony Swim Lane, where the ponies make landfall. To get close to the landing site, we slogged through a marsh composed of sucking black mud and biting grasses. A fellow adventurer, apparently not warned against wearing flip flops, lost her shoe entirely. Another, although clad in sneakers, ended up fishing his shoe out of the muck. We gained the other side of the marsh with all shoes accounted for.

Then we waited. The sun got hot (but thankfully not too bad), and the only bugs that bothered us were the grasshoppers – particularly the one that leaped from a stalk onto my chest. He was like something from Alien – a huge black creepy thing that sprang at me and grew larger and larger in my view like a monster in a 3D movie. I returned him post-haste to the grass.

We arrived at 7 a.m. The ponies swam at noon. The crowd grew and grew, and we all shared stories of where we came from – Kansas, Pennsylvania, Norway. People lent helping hands to those who needed it, sharing water, towels and food with those who had arrived unprepared – or those unlucky enough to have taken a tumble in the mud. The comraderie reminded me of the many hours I had spent hanging around stage doors at Monkees concerts – a shared passion that for the moment surmounted any differences we might have.

Noon arrived, the warning flare went up, the crowd cheered, and the ponies were in the water! The crowd surged forward, pressing to see the horses swimming and the famed “saltwater cowboys” wrangling them across the channel, in between two lines of spectator boats. In a little over four minutes, the first pony made landfall. 50-plus mares, foals and stallions sorted themselves out and fell to eating, resting after the swim. The 85th Annual Pony Swim was over.

I am grateful to have experienced this wonderful event and to have seen the wild ponies up close. The reality lived up to the dreams conjured in Misty of Chincoteague (although I did not buy my own pony at the auction the next day). As a writer, I could not help but marvel at the power of story. As long as children keep reading that book, they will want to come see the ponies, and Chincoteague will reap the benefits. The Misty legacy lives on.

No Answer Means No Interest

The Backspace blog STET! recently ran a series of posts on how to deal with waiting—which there is a lot of in this business! They spoke mostly about waiting once you are agented, and they spoke specifically about if you send in a requested partial or full and then never hear back. They did not address in detail the no-response-means-no-interest from agents phenomenon. Since this practice stirs up a great deal of ire with many writers, I started thinking about why that is.

Certainly, we writers are all aware of the state of the publishing business these days. We know that agencies and publishers are severely understaffed and chronically overworked. We have heard about (and contributed to) the vast mountain of queries that agents get in a day. And we have heard them tell us that if they responded to every query they would have no time for their actual clients. All of this makes sense. So why do writers still get so ticked off when they run across a no-response-equals-no-interest agent?

I think it comes down to respect. Most of us respect the agents enough to research them. We find out if they rep our genre, we find out who they rep, we spell their name properly, we find out precisely what their submission guidelines are and we even check out their blogs. We spend months crafting a query letter, send it off and…nothing.

This silence, even when expected, echoes with disrespect. It says, “My time is more valuable than your time.” Now, I understand that this is not what the agent intends. The agent is trying to get done a boatload of work in the most efficient way possible. But even unintentionally, this is the emotional impact on writers. And that is why so many get so upset.

It would be nice if the no response-no interest agents would specify on their website how long to wait for an answer before assuming no interest (to be fair, some do). I have at times gotten responses to queries 6 months later—long after I had assumed no interest. It would also be great if they could set up an automated confirmation for email queries/online submissions. Otherwise, we writers have no way of knowing if their silence is no interest or computer error.

As for the actual rejections? I don’t have the full answer, because everyone works differently. I know many agents who used to have interns to send out the form rejections no longer do. Perhaps simply cut and paste all the rejection email addresses into a document as they go, then when they’re done with queries for that day BCC the entire batch with a single form rejection?

More and more agencies seem to be switching to the no answer-no interest model, so it is here to stay. Personally, I don’t bother getting wound up about it. I send and forget about it. That way, if I hear from someone, it is a wonderful surprise!

What are your thoughts on the no-response-no-interest model?

Darkness in Children’s Literature

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” — G.K. Chesterton

 I saw this quote posted on a friend’s Facebook status, and fell in love with it. There are some people who believe that children’s books should not deal with darkness. Nothing should be scary, and no serious topics dealt with. Everything should be comforting, light and happy.

 How boring.

 Yes, some children cannot handle scary things in books, and maybe a literary diet with more sunshine and roses is best for them. But books are a way for kids to put words to their feelings of fear and to learn to vanquish that fear. After all, if a child is scared to death of a book, how will that child deal with the scary things in real life?

 Children are not blind, nor are they stupid. They see the same awful things in this world as we do, no matter how hard we try to protect them. Children, however, often lack the tools to process and deal with the evil in the world. Heck, sometimes even adults lack those tools! Many children’s books, fairy tales in particular, face the evil and show that it can be abolished. Good can triumph. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, just to name two successful series, prove that kids are open to reading about the dark side of life, and cheer for protagonists who can beat the darkness back. It helps empower children, to have them see children win out against evil done by adults.

 Not allowing children’s literature to explore the darkness in our world does a disservice to children. Yes, here there be dragons. But here also be dragon slayers.

My Comment on Nathan Bransford’s Blog!

I posted a comment on Nathan Bransford’s blog, on the topic of Why We Can’t Tell If Our Writing Is Good. He chose it as his Comment of the Week! I am honored – I love his blog! Check it out!

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/07/this-week-in-publishing_16.html

Judging a Book by Its Cover Copy

Cover copy (or jacket blurb) is important to a book, no question. It is one of the main things, if not the main thing that makes a reader buy a book. It is carefully crafted, often refined from the author’s pitch and query letter, and calculated to make the reader want to find out more.

I know that when I browse for books, the title catches me first, then I read the jacket. I don’t much care what the cover art looks like, as far as making a buying decision goes. And I find I rarely glance at the first few pages, although I know many people do. So the jacket blurb is of utmost importance to my buying experience.

I was in the pharmacy earlier this week, and I browsed the paperbacks while waiting. I found a book that I’d heard tons of people talking about – it’s all the rage. Since I really didn’t know what the book was about, I read the jacket. It seemed interesting—until I got to the glaring typo in the very last line. An extra word! That mistake immediately turned me off from the book. I suppose the part of me that is a professional editor wondered about the quality of what I would find inside the book, if they made such a mistake on a small blurb on the back. And while I may still read the book sometime, my strong negative reaction surprised me.

I’ve been thinking that the adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover” can also be applied to the cover copy. There have been times I’ve bought a book with a great jacket blurb, only to find that the story didn’t live up to the promise—sometimes it hardly seemed like the same book! And there are times when the book far exceeds the expectations raised in the blurb.

Authors often protest that it isn’t fair for their entire manuscript to be judged by a single-page query letter. Is it any fairer that your book, once published, is judged by a single blurb on the back? Which is precisely why we authors have to be so good at summing our book up, even though we find it so difficult sometimes!

How important is jacket copy to you when you buy a book? Should there be a better way for readers to be able to judge a book, instead of relying so heavily on cover copy? If so, what?

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