Bologna Wrap-Up

So, Bologna is over. VinItaly, the world’s biggest wine trade show, which I happened to be in Verona for completely by accident but which, of course, I also attended, is over. I don’t have to walk around another ginormous expo center until I see my nemesis–the Javits–for BEA in June. Although, if we’re being totally honest, it would behoove me to walk around and around and around the Javits for weeks to shed the evidence of a three-week-long European food and wine binge from my hips. Hello, jeggings!

But this isn’t a post about me expanding my booty food an wine horizons. For that you can check out Chowlit. This is a post about me expanding my children’s foreign market horizons. I have to say, right off the top, that none of this insight would be possible without ABLA’s incomparable foreign co-agent Taryn Fagerness. My colleague Jenn Laughran and I watched her pitch at meeting after meeting with something approaching awe. Girlfriend was meeting foreign publishers, scouts, and movie people from dawn to dusk, then somehow marshaling the energy for Bologna’s extracurricular parties and dinners (and…gelato excursions…oh, the gelato excursions).

Some of you eagle-eyes may have noticed that I’ve updated my Wish List (look in the sidebar to your right –>). This has to do with Bologna, sure, but, frankly, an overhaul was overdue. Some things have stayed (like heartbreaking MG voice, edgy YA, issue book), but others are new or edited.

Here’s the news that was heard up and down the halls in Bologna: the market has shifted away from paranormal and (most) dystopian, and we’re in a bit of a trend valley at the moment. I’ve been saying this for a few months at conferences, and it’s nice to have that opinion resoundingly confirmed. Contemporary realistic is on the rise, though I still have my doubts about it. I’ve been hearing editors request contemporary realistic for a year or two now, though not everyone can convince a more trend-minded house to actually buy it. Sure, we’re all sick of paranormal and dystopian, but not all publishers have been able to put their offers where their mouths are with contemporary. When I get more evidence of this, I’ll fully buy the contemporary “trend” we’re all talking about.

Another mini-trend: thriller. So you’ll see it added to my list, though with a caveat. Thrillers need to…thrill. A lot of the manuscripts that cross my desk with the “thriller” pitch are predictable, with low stakes, not enough action, and characters that aren’t sympathetic or worth my care. This is a problem. I’m sure we’ll see more excellent examples of YA thriller as they’re published, but to see something dark and psychological and irresistible, check out I HUNT KILLERS by Barry Lyga, pubbing next month from Little, Brown. I hope thrillers take off–I love suspense and surprise in my slush.

Light sci-fi has been a buzzword for about the last year, but I’m not seeing a lot of sci-fi publishing and doing well, so I don’t know if houses are jumping all over it like they said they were going to. There’s always demand for fantasy and action/adventure, especially in middle grade. Speaking of which, I saw domestic and foreign editors and scouts alike begging for more meaty middle grade. Movie people, too. Good MG is very difficult to write, I think, because it’s such an in-between time in a person’s life and therefore true character and voice for this age group is very difficult to nail. It’s also a lot less “sexy” than YA, especially market-wise, so maybe a lot of aspiring writers think that MG is “slumming it.” I wish they wouldn’t. Sure, the MG world is missing a lot of YA’s glamor, but the opportunity to publish in it is very much there.

Finally, while there are a lot of original and licensed properties being published overseas that originated there, the US and the UK really lead the charge for creating new content. A lot of the books that come out in smaller territories had their starts in the English-speaking publishing world. Exceptions with a lot of native material are probably Italy, France, and Germany, though they do buy a significant number of US/UK properties. In the English-speaking world, we are the big publishing deal, folks. So let’s make it count and put out some awesome books that will thrill not only local readers, but the world at large!

Overall, an invigorating fair with lots of interesting people and ideas swirling around. And gelato. Did I mention the gelato? Thanks to my colleague Jenn, as well as Jo Volpe and Kathleen Ortiz from Nancy Coffey, who were my constant companions. Now I’m going to eat a bunch of kale and pretend that most of those meals didn’t happen…

Big News and Big Sur!

We still have space available at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s Big Sur workshop that’s happening March 2nd to the 4th in beautiful Monterey, CA. Guest editors this time around include the fabulous Lisa Yoskowitz of Disney-Hyperion, Sharyn November of Viking/Penguin, and Julie Romeis from Chronicle Books. We’ve also got film agent Brandi Rivers from Magnet Management in Los Angeles if you’re writing a screenplay or are otherwise interested in Hollywood. If you’re writing anything from picture books to young adult, come on down and hone your craft with four intensive hands-on workshops throughout the weekend. Learn more about the weekend and register here.

As for me, I’m up to something hands-on and intensive before Big Sur weekend. I’m not quite ready to make the big announcement yet, but you should be able to guess my news from these pictures. Here’s the first clue that I posted to my Twitter back in October. It’s me mailing something very important:

Hmm. What could it be? Here’s a new clue. This is what’s my desk looks like these days:

Actually, that’s a lie. My desk is nowhere near this orderly. I cleaned it up a little for the photo. Either way, I’m getting away from the point. I’ll do a proper reveal of my news in a few weeks, but I think you can figure out what I’m working on. Just for the hell of it, the first person to guess correctly in the comments will win…whatever this project might be…whenever it’s available! πŸ˜‰

Writer’s Digest Conference Discount

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to announce that you can now get $115 off the registration price for the upcoming Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City on January 20th-22nd! I have a special speaker’s discount code that I can send you if you’re interested in going. It’s not too late to register. Not only will you see me on a panel and doing a session on the children’s market, but you can attend the Pitch Slam and get a chance to meet and attract over 60 literary agents on Saturday afternoon. That alone is worth the price of admission!

If you are interested in the discount code, please email me: mary at kidlit dot com

Writer’s Digest Conference and Contest!

This January 20th to 22nd, I will be participating in the Writer’s Digest Conference at the Sheraton in New York City! I’m very excited about this conference.

On Saturday morning, I will be speaking on an agent panel and taking agent- and publishing-related Q&A with some fellow agents and moderated by 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET editor and Guide to Literary Agents blogger Chuck Sambuchino.

Then, Saturday afternoon, I will be in a room with over 60 literary agents for the annual Pitch Slam. You will have unprecedented access to come and pitch your book to some of the brightest and most hungry agents in the business. There is a nice mix of kidlit, adult, and non-fiction agents represented (and representing!).

On Sunday, I will be speaking about today’s kidlit marketplace and how to get published there. Yep, I am all over this conference, guys. But I’m not the only fantastic speaker. The Saturday keynote is digital/indie publishing guru and adult thriller writer Barry Eisler and I just saw that Chris Baty, the genius behind NaNoWriMo, which I know some of you just finished, has been added as a speaker, too!

The great thing about the Writer’s Digest Conference is that they’re running a special holiday promotion right this minute. If you register for the conference before midnight on December 16th, you will get a $50 discount. Just click here and use the following promo code: HOLIDAYWDC

If you’re going, spread the word on Twitter and Facebook by mentioning @WritersDigest and the hashtag #WDC12

It’s not too late to book that dream trip to NYC and get your 2012 writing goals off to a strong start at the Writer’s Digest Conference. And, of course, if you’re reader and planning on going, I would love to meet you!

Now, I also have a super special holiday gift for you guys. Speaking of Chuck Sambuchino and the new 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, I have two copies to give away!

Inside this handy volume, you will find articles on craft, writing, submitting, and landing an agent, interviews with kidlit glitterati like M.T. Anderson and Meg Cabot, and updated listings for agents, publishers, and magazines that take work from children’s writers and illustrators. If you want to land an agent or find a market for your work in 2012, this is the book for you.

I highly recommend it. In fact, you will see a familiar face featured on the back cover, and an official blurb from me that reads:

Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market is the most complete, trusted, definitive, and inspiring source of publishing opportunities for children’s writers and illustrators working today.

It’s true. Not only did I lend my mug and stamp of approval to the book, but I have two articles featured inside. One is about writer’s conferences, like the Writer’s Digest Conference this very January in NYC, and how to make the best of your investment in them (whether it’s your first or your fiftieth), and the other covers my three favorite craft issues: Voice, Character, and Authority, with lots of juicy annotated examples from my favorite MG and YA books on shelves.

So if you want to see examples of Voice that works — an especially tricky topic that lots of writers struggle with — pick up a copy today! This elegant guide is crammed full of useful information and updated agency, publisher, and magazine listings to make your quest toward publication a no-brainer. Let 2012 be the year you really MARKET your writing!

Because I want you to have an awesome writer’s holiday gift this year, either for you or for a loved one, I am giving away two free copies of the 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET to two writers randomly selected from the comments. Leave a comment below (make sure to include your email address in the comment form, though know that only I will be able to see it and it won’t be published on the site). Deadline for entries is midnight, Tuesday, December 20th. The winner will be announced in Wednesday the 21st’s blog, and then I will ship your copy to you next week. (US residents only, please.)

Upcoming Workshops

Just in case you missed ABLA’s Big Sur Workshop in December, I’m writing to let you know that there’s another Big Sur in Monterey in March. The ABLA agents and a select group of editors will gather with attendees to workshop their writing over an intense and productive weekend in a beautiful location. I have participated in the workshops since 2009 and can tell you that it’s an amazing and transformative weekend for attendees. I see writers take real leaps in their craft each and every time. This workshop format is extremely hands-on — you’re in a group of only four or five attendees — and that kind of close writing scrutiny from faculty and fellow writers is invaluable.

Mark your calendars now for our first 2012 Big Sur, which will take place March 2nd through the 4th in Monterey, CA. Registration is now open. You can learn more and sign up here. Even though I’m not listed as one of the agents on faculty (an annual glitch), I will be there!

There’s also another intensive workshop on my radar, and that’s the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop that’s taking place in Pennsylvania in the middle of March. I had the great pleasure of participating in a Highlights workshop in the summer of 2010 and highly recommend this one to writers who can spare the week and are serious about their craft. The Foundation has opened a brand new conference center on their idyllic plot of land up in rural Pennsylvania, and this year’s Whole Novel Workshop leader is beloved novelist Helen Hemphill. The deadline to sign up is December 21st! You can find out more about it here.

SCBWI Tokyo and Hong Kong

It is with great pleasure that I share the following pictures from my wonderful visits to the Tokyo and Hong Kong SCBWI chapters. The first picture is me and the group from Tokyo. We met at the lovely Yokohama International School the Saturday before Halloween and then spent one long day talking about the marketplace, queries, craft, and the submission process. The Q&A session included concerns for the Aussie writers in attendance (there were several!) and, of course, curiosity about the digital changes coming to the publishing industry.

Overall, a talented group of writers and illustrators — and quite a few guys representing the SCBWI in Tokyo! (You don’t usually see a large male population at children’s writing conferences, though that’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful male children’s writers, both published and aspiring.) This brave crowd, well, braved about seven straight hours of talking, first pages, query analysis and Q&A from yours truly…

And then we all went out to dinner to celebrate the end of a long day! The only person missing from the above sea of beautiful faces is Holly Thompson, the intrepid leader of the Tokyo SCBWI chapter, as well as the author or the exquisite verse novel ORCHARDS, out from Delacorte.

Holly was kind enough to take me to the Sankeien Gardens in Yokohama after a more relaxed day of one-on-one critiques on Sunday. Because so much of my Japan trip revolved around food, here’s a picture of me from that afternoon with a soba noodle trio. I’m so grateful to her and all the SCBWI Tokyo members for the hospitality!

I’m so blessed to work from home and be able to add travel time to my conference duties. After ten nights in Japan, I flew over to Hong Kong on Thursday, November 3rd. There, I was greeted by Mio Debnam for critiques first thing Friday morning, then a delicious Shanghainese lunch. What a lovely introduction to a city that’s all about food. I would’ve posted a picture of the sea cucumber and abalone that we devoured, but it was gone too quickly. (A heads up: Sea cucumber does not stay on chopsticks well, and therefore doesn’t make very graceful eating. Sorry, Mio!)

On Saturday, I did another marathon day of talks, first pages, query critiques, and Q&A with the Hong Kong members. Here we are, below:

Everyone is looking pretty relaxed in those plush leather chairs. I’m glad you can’t see my feet in this shot, because this is probably after I took my shoes off. (That’s Kole Code for: “Now I mean business…”) Something about public speaking always makes me want to go barefoot.

I eventually shut my mouth and put my shoes on for a lovely post-conference dinner at the China Club with Mio, several members of the Hong Kong chapter, and Kathleen Ahrens, the International Coordinator for the entire SCBWI. She has the fascinating job of helping regions all over the world develop chapters and programming, and I also owe her a huge debt of gratitude for this amazing opportunity.

Here we all are at dinner. Mio, our gracious hostess, is wearing red in the back, and Kathleen is my gray-attired bookend on the opposite side of the bottom row. It was fantastic getting to know these writers over delicious soup dumplings.

Overall, the trip was wonderful. Truly the opportunity of a lifetime. And it was so great to meet writers in the larger SCBWI community. I’m still processing everything — and trying to find the energy to upload all of my pictures to share with friends and family.

Just as I was ready to go home this past Wednesday, my overseas adventure refused to sink quietly behind the International Date Line. My plane from Hong Kong took off in bad weather and suffered some kind of damage. They tried to fix it in the air for a few hours but were unsuccessful. The pilot decided he didn’t want to risk the trans-Pacific flight back to San Francisco. The plane was full up with enough gas for a 12-hour flight — a long-ish haul for a 747 — and we were too heavy to land, so we flew out over the ocean and dumped fuel for about two hours. That was a bit unnerving. In case anyone doesn’t have the memo, I’m an uneasy flier (even though I do it at least once a week…and, because I’m a glutton for punishment, apparently, I was home a day before jetting off to Southern California for the weekend, got back yesterday, and am flying again tomorrow). With jet fuel spraying out of the wing right outside my window and the plane shuddering from the aforementioned bad weather…let’s just say I was a bit on edge.

Long story short: We returned to Hong Kong, were rebooked on new flights, and I was back in the air about seven hours later c/o Singapore Airlines. I’m so happy with how it went, overall, and the United’s decision to turn around and be safe, even though it was the longest day I’ve ever had (40 hours). And that little hiccup was nothing compared to the absolutely tremendous time I had exploring Japan and Hong Kong and meeting my fellow children’s book enthusiasts across the globe!

I’m still having trouble sleeping because of jet lag, but I’m back stateside, baby, and ready for Big Sur, client business, and lots of new and awesome projects in my inbox! πŸ™‚ If you’re still curious about my food adventures, head on over to my older post from Chowlit. I plan to add a Hong Kong edition tomorrow, if I ever get all those pictures organized…

Big Sur Writing Workshop

My darling readers, hello! I loaded up some content and have had the blog set up on auto-post for about a week, so it feels wonderful to actually be writing to you “live.” If you want some food-related details from my trip to Japan (I’ll do a larger round-up for the trip on here, as well, but probably after I get back), you can check out my foodie blog, Chowlit.

Right now I’m in Hong Kong, getting ready for my one-on-one critiques with the members of Hong Kong’s SCBWI chapter. How exciting! I just flew in last night and can’t wait for my first real taste of the city (I’m writing this from an airport hotel, so I haven’t really been “outside” yet).

Before I rush off to breakfast (a weird idea for those of you reading this on Thursday afternoon), let me remind you that it’s officially that time again. Sure, it’s time to put in your 1,667 daily NaNoWriMo words, but I mean something else here: it’s time to sign up for Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s Big Sur Writing Workshop!

There is still space available for this year’s December 2-4th, 2011 weekend at the beautiful Big Sur Lodge. Fabulous faculty include Jennifer Hunt, VP and Editorial Director for Penguin Group/Dial Books, Diane Landolf, Senior Editor at Random House Books for Young Readers, Melissa Manlove, Editor at Chronicle Books, NYT Bestselling author, Ellen Hopkins and award-winning author Carolyn Marsden. Not to mention the wonderful agents from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency (if I don’t say so myself)!

The conference takes place at the gorgeous Big Sur Lodge in the majestic redwoods of the Northern California coast. During a Big Sur weekend, you get intense, hands-on feedback for your work, a chance to meet editors and ABLA agents, and the feeling that you’re on a writing retreat in one of the most serene and inspiring places on the planet. Plus, my colleagues and I will be there, with bells on, to welcome you to our favorite weekend of the year.

You can find more information on the weekend here. If you can’t make the December Big Sur, we are also meeting in Monterey the weekend of March 2-4th, 2012.

Boiling It Down

Recently, I’ve posted two things that I firmly believe are the cornerstones of my fiction philosophy. First, writing must make me care. I need to care about character (most important) and then about their story. If I don’t care, you’re dead in the water. If you aren’t thinking about the emotional impact of your story, good luck to you in someone else’s inbox.

Second, fiction is a balance of action and information. Too much action and we don’t hook into the character or situation. (Especially if the breakneck action is at the beginning of your novel, like if you start with a hectic chase sequence, for example, we have a really hard time figuring out what’s going on or why.) Too much information (a first chapter where your character sits in their room thinking about his life, for example) and there’s no action, no plot, no forward momentum, and the whole thing drags. The two elements must always be in balance. In times when there’s a lot of information being introduced, you must also keep your characters moving. You can’t indulge in an info-dump. In times of action, you must also work hard to keep us invested by giving us context and information (later on in the novel, once character and situation are established, this usually means emotional context, ie: interiority).

I was at the Rutgers One-on-One Conference this past weekend, in a roundtable discussion with super agent Tina Wexler from ICM. We were talking about novel beginnings and, of course, I sprouted off my “action vs. information” line. Then Tina put the missing piece together and it fit perfectly: “But it needs to have emotion, too. Emotion is the third point of that triangle.”

I made a joke at the time about really working a metaphor to death, but a lightbulb definitely went off because of her comment, and now I think I have the perfect image for my two most important tenets of writing.

If fiction is a balance of action and information, the axis of the scale, the part that holds everything else together, is emotion. Without emotion to lord over the work and to keep everything else in check, your whole manuscript falls apart. (And you do not get to hold the Sword of the Awesome Manuscript.)

We should always be in touch with your character’s emotions (especially if you are writing in third person, as that is a challenge for many) and they should be legible and resonant for readers. Whether you’re writing a scene of action or dropping information in your manuscript, keep in mind your characters’ interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) near the surface. You can even indulge in some strategic Good Telling.

The Wisdom of John Cusick

This past weekend I spoke at the excellent and first ever YA A to Z conference. While the Writers’ League of Texas has been connecting writers to the publishing industry and helping them reach their goals for 30 years, this YA-centric conference is just beginning. If this first year is any indication, I know it will be around for a long time, and you should all look out for next year’s. It was really well-organized, had a great roster of faculty (if I don’t say so myself), and got some really fabulous writers to the show.

I did three panels, some consultations, and still had enough time to explore amazing Austin, see some bats, catch up with an old writing friend and meet some new buddies (including the fabulous ladies from PR By the Book and the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, who were in town on an agency retreat), explore the food scene, play some midnight piano, and get into a little worthwhile trouble. πŸ˜‰

Speaking of worthwhile trouble, one of my esteemed agent colleagues and friends who I got to hang out with this weekend is John M. Cusick of the Scott Tremeil Agency (whatever bad joke you’re thinking about the name, he’s heard it before…I tried all of them, much to his fascination, I’m sure). He’s also the author of GIRL PARTS (an excellent book) and the upcoming CHERRY MONEY BABY, both from Candlewick Press.

Now, I know you come to my blog to hear me say brilliant things on a mostly regular basis. And I appreciate that. But I’m not the only one who says brilliant things (shocking, I know). On one of my panels on Saturday, this one about Agent Secrets (dun dun dun), my new BFF John said something wonderful and I wanted to share it with y’all (still getting the Texas out of my system). We were talking about character development and relatability, and John said:

Relatable doesn’t mean generic.

Wise words! Storytelling in the Middle Ages would’ve laughed Mr. Cusick out of Ye Olde Hyatt ballroom. A lot of their traditional “character development” included naming some poor shmo John Everyman and then getting all allegorical on his ass. The character was basically a cipher, a blank screen that readers could project themselves onto in the watching of his or her tale.

Now it’s the opposite. Or at least it should be, for the tastes of me and my fellow agents on the panel. Specificity is the key to good fiction, and generalization is where fiction goes to die. The best characters, the ones that stick with me, are the ones who have very specific quirks and characteristics. I am not going to relate to a character because they are very much like me. That’s boring. I know myself, spend all day in my own head, and sometimes just want to get out…that’s why I crack a book. I relate to a character when they are thoroughly fleshed-out and unique, just like I am thoroughly fleshed-out and unique as a person. When I feel like I know their quirks and their particular outlook on life because the author has made those elements really comprehensive. We don’t just love people who are like us: we love loud, larger-than-life, authentic characters. (At least I hope so, ‘cuz that’s what I’ve pretty much been basing my entire personality on for as long as I can remember.) Those are the ones we remember in books and movies, and the people who spark our imaginations when we meet them in real life.

So aim for a really complex character, someone who is exactly who they are. That will pull a reader in so much more than trying to reflect and please everyone with your literary cipher. An example is this: I was reading either a book or a manuscript a few years ago. In it, a character was cooking something while home alone. Some food dropped on the dirty counter and, even though the character knew she was home alone, she glanced over her shoulder before succumbing to the guilty (and, for many people, gross) temptation of picking the food up and slipping it into her mouth. This taught me so much about the character and was so specific that I remember it all these years later. I can’t relate to the shame of eating counter food — I don’t care about the 5 second rule — but it’s so dang human that I could really see a person doing it in real life. And that’s what grabs me in a good character. Well said, John!

Also, I am in love with Carrie Ryan, and with a dude name Jeremy, who chopped all my hair off on Saturday. You like?

Best. Quote. Ever.

From now until forever, I am going to refer writers who ask me query questions to this quote. It comes from Andrea Brown, my brilliant boss and mentor, and it’s about query letters:

A query letter is like the perfect skirt: long enough to cover everything but short enough to be exciting.

I have worked with the woman for about two and a half years now and have never heard this gem. Where has it been all my life?

This Big Sur, I think, was my absolute favorite. Sure, it was at the Embassy Suites in Monterey (as our March workshops are) instead of the gorgeous Big Sur Lodge in Big Sur proper (as our December workshops are), and the weather spoiled on Sunday, but I think this mix of writers, faculty, and agency clients along for the ride was one of the best I’ve experienced.

A special shout out to Jamie Harrington and Pat Netzley, and to my wonderful colleagues. We missed two of our Jennifers (Mattson and Laughran) at this Big Sur. Fabulous faculty members like Ellen Hopkins, Eric Elfman, Mary Colgan, Anica Rissi, and Deb Wayshak shared their writing expertise with our group of just under a hundred attendees.

My two workshop groups inspired several blog post ideas which you’ll read in the near future. For right now, though, I’m going to catch up on my sleep after this exhausting weekend and start chipping away at my pent-up email. Today is a very exciting day for me in San Francisco, Berkeley, and the Napa valley, which all ties in to my secret new blog/professional project. Soon, my pretties, soon all shall be revealed! For now, delight yourselves with Andrea’s fantastic quote.