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Writer Friends

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This is a guest post from author/illustrator Jed Henry, who is a total dear. I very rarely do guest posts, so I’m happy to bring this one your way today and help him promote his new book, CHEER UP, MOUSE! Plus, there’s a lovely video!

Just Be Yourself — Your Most Entertaining Self

First off, I want to thank Mary Kole for posting this. I’ve been following her blog for a couple years, and I’m always floored with the amount of thought she puts into each post. I recommend this blog to both newbies and veterans alike. Thank you, Mary!

We writers and illustrators can be a strange group (in a good way!) We come from all walks of life, and possess an impressive range of talents. Understandably, our main focus is to hone our bookmaking craft, but we should never discount our random skills! They can help us in surprising ways, to win the hearts of our eager readers.

The key is finding your particular voice on that Great Equalizer, the Internet. There is a social network tailored for almost any talent imaginable, where we can make our books shine. And the best part? If you create entertaining content, other people will re-post-tweet-blog it, for you!

If you’re a clever writer, Twitter is the perfect stage for you and your book. Words are not my forté, but Instagram has empowered illustrators like me in our daily tweeting. Other illustrator-friendly sites are Tumblr and Deviant Art. If you have acting or video experience, Vimeo and YouTube are powerful stages for your marketing efforts. And don’t forget Facebook! A Facebook page is the ideal place for a community of fans to gather and feed on each others’ passion. There are no limits or rules, except for maybe this: you gotta entertain us! We log on mostly because we’re bored. If you can catch our attention, we just might want to read your book.

My own path to publishing came by way of a BFA in Animation. Just before graduation, I switched to illustrating picture books instead. I’m grateful that I took the long way to making books, because I still have occasion to use my animation skills.

So how will you entertain us?

Book trailer credits:
Music by Jordan Henry
Voice by the T. Kids

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Daniel Nayeri is a publishing renegade. There, I said it. He’s an editor at Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also the author, with his sister Dina, of ANOTHER FAUST and ANOTHER PAN. His latest, out from Candlewick yesterday, is STRAW HOUSE, WOOD HOUSE, BRICK HOUSE, BLOW, a collection of four novellas, each in a different genre.

[The] novellas riff on influences as varied as The Wizard of Oz, Mad Max, and the sardonic Death of Pratchett’s Discworld…Strong and assured, these stories seamlessly merge different styles, teasing out and playing with readers’ assumptions about how westerns, fantasy and fairy tales work…provocative and deeply satisfying. (Kirkus Reviews)

After seeing some awesome new promotional stuff that Daniel is doing for his latest release, I wanted to sit down with him and pick his brain about why he’s so hardcore. Marketing is super important. A lot of writers are just trying so hard to get an agent that they don’t realize all the work they’ll have to do once their books are finally under contract. Daniel is a great example of an author thinking hard about his marketing. First, watch his four book trailers for STRAW HOUSE…, then check out our interview, below!

MK: STRAW HOUSE is a collection of genre novellas, which you don’t see much in today’s market, so it was innovative from the start. Tell us more about the why and the how of this project.

DN: I’ve always wanted to be versatile. Someone once said to me, “Daniel, your interests are a mile wide and an inch deep,” and I might have misread that as a compliment. As someone who has worked most of his life in a library or a bookstore, and now as an editor in a publishing house, I spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of stories people love. One thing I’ve noticed is that we get a lot of teens and early adults who just browse around aimlessly, and when you try to recommend something, they just shrug, “I don’t know what I like.” Then you get these middle-aged to elderly people, and they head straight for their section. Ladies who only read Sue Grafton or hyper-violent crime dramas. Men who are working their way through Louis L’Amour or the Aubrey-Maturin series.

That’s always been fascinating to me. I’m fascinated that at some point in their lives, they discovered a genre to become obsessed over. I had my own binges on Raymond Chandler and Cormac McCarthy, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip K. Dick. So I thought perhaps I’d try to show off a little bit of range, and in the process help a few readers step out into genres they might not otherwise discover–and fall in love with–until much later in life.

MK: For the book, you commissioned four “commercials,” rather than book trailers. What’s the distinction?

DN: I think the distinction is that a “trailer” implies that you’re getting a piece of the experience. When you watch a “Transformers” trailer, you’re getting an excerpt of the finished product. All the explosions and grimaces and oiled-up models are at the glossiest they’re going to get. But for a book, I don’t think a 30-second video is ever going to give people the experience of reading the story. More often, since I don’t have the budget of “Transformers,” what viewers would get is an inferior experience.

Obviously, I wouldn’t want to introduce people to a story I worked on for four years by shoving my own cruddy AfterEffects skills in front of them. Plenty of authors can do that. They’re amazing with Photoshop, or they have a bullet-proof concept, or whatever. I’m not in that position. I want readers, not viewers. A “commercial,” on the other hand, never implies that you’re getting a piece of the experience. No one watches the Old Spice commercials and thinks they’ve actually smelled Old Spice. They just ogle that attractive guy, and laugh at the funny jokes, and associate a certain tone with Old Spice. Later on, they go to the store and smell it. If they like the smell, the buy the product. It comes down to the smell. The only thing the commercial did was get them to pay attention. It’s the same with food commercials. As a former pastry chef, I know the presentation of a dessert is important, but it doesn’t trump the taste.

That’s the distinction I was trying to make. I wanted people to get a sense of the presentation of the book, the tone, the ideas. But I didn’t want anyone to think they got a taste of the flavor. God-willing, the commercials are good enough for them to take the time to read a little of the book.

MK: Take us behind the scenes of the commercials. How involved were you? Any anecdotes?

DN: I was pretty involved, but I wouldn’t say I get any credit for the artistry. I’ve partnered with the guys at Plywood Pictures before. They’re good friends of mine. They’re also insanely busy, so when I asked them to do these videos, it came with a few elements that I think sweetened the deal. First, I think publishers should start spending money on good videos. I think that market should grow, and production companies like Plywood are just the type to do it for them. So they had the opportunity to show their skills to publishers.

I also asked them to do “commercials” instead of “trailers,” the same distinction I parsed above. So they weren’t creatively limited to the plot of my stories. They could pitch their own ideas. We brainstormed and they had these four ideas, and I just tried to make it all happen. I became a production assistant for the shoots, running out to get meals or coffee or whatever. I know I’m not a filmmaker, so I provided manual labor. Every once in a while, someone would go, “And that guy wrote the book.”

MK: What other marketing outreach are you doing?

DN: Well, we had a gorgeous paper-engineered mailer. If you look closely at the picture, you can see where the title has been laser-cut out of the top. It looks like it’s free-floating. Unbelievable work. We also had a gallery showing last week. We had around nine artists from all different styles illustrate any scene from the book. The show went really well, good food, lots of drinks, and several of the pieces were sold, and a couple of them had their first conversations with agents. That was pretty cool to see. The buyers hadn’t even read the book yet. They just liked the work. That was gratifying for me, because sure, they’ll check out the book. But more than that, it presented the artists on their own terms, as artists. They weren’t just there to prop me up, even though I’m certainly grateful that they did me the honor. I wish I could have afforded a bunch of them myself.

MK: How has your publisher, Candlewick, responded to your marketing plans?

DN: They’re amazing. Absolutely amazing. I can’t be easy to work with. I have random ideas. I’m opinionated. I put my foot in my mouth ALL THE TIME. I barely ever shave. I’m fairly certain I smelled like onions the last time I visited them. [MK: Maybe try some Old Spice?] And still, the Candlewick team listens to my ideas and gets behind the good ones in a way that I’ve never seen before. They are giving away one of the four stories on the Kindle right now (we were number 1 for a few days!). Of course, I don’t email them with a list of demands. They have more important authors on their list, and I’m aware of that. It’s ridiculous to assume I should get the kind of front-end investment that an award-winner or a perennial bestseller should get. That’s a huge misconception.

So I do a lot of early development on my ideas to make sure that if it’s a waste of time, they’re not the ones taking the loss. I pitch them with a plan, with partners in place, etc. But none of it would be possible if they didn’t bring their expertise, their enthusiasm, and their muscle. I couldn’t be more grateful.

MK: What can authors take away from your strategies here?

DN: The biggest “strategy” that I can think of is to have a community and to think of your book as a way to help other people showcase their talents. Let other people shine. As writers, we don’t realize sometimes that artists in other media have huge production hurdles in front of them. If a director wants to make a portfolio, they have a lot of costs to cover to make good films. As writers, we get to show our talent every time we open Microsoft Word. So I think writers can come alongside other artists and say, “Hey, you’re looking for promotional pieces for your work, and so am I. If you provide your talents, I can cover costs, and together we both get to present our work.”

Obviously, I don’t think I broke even with ANY of these artists. Their talent is way more valuable than the dominoes I bought to make a Rube Goldberg machine (in the Wish Police video). But it’s the least I could do. The other part of this “strategy” is to say, “be as invested in the work of your peers as you are in your own work.” You have to curate your peers, because you can’t give time and effort to everyone, but be the guy who *does* favors more often than the guy who *gets* favors, and you’ll find that lots of people are interested in helping out.

MK: What are your plans for future books?

DN: Well, for the most part, I was inspired by Western themes and ideas for this book. Obviously, the Western and Hard-boiled Detective story are distinctly American. Sci-fi and Romantic comedy have broad roots, but I was mostly pulling from western tradition for my own. For the next book, I’m working on four Eastern themes and genres–an Arabian Nights tale, a Chinese Box story, a Ibn Battuta travelogue, and an Anime. I’m really excited about it. My family and I immigrated to the states from Iran when I was 8-years-old, so the East-West relationship has always been a subject I’ve enjoyed thinking about.

Thank you so much to Daniel for this interview and for the crazy-brainy answers. Now go buy Daniel’s book, which came out yesterday. RUN! HURRY! Look how happy-making it is!

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Howdy, readers! Summer has been a bit slow on the blog. Do not fear. After Labor Day, starting next Wednesday, September 7th, the posts will once again be full steam ahead. In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to open the blog up to another critique connection post since early summer, and here it is.

Before I do, let me tell you about the latest Writer’s Digest webinar I’m doing. In July, I offered a picture book craft intensive, focusing very specifically on writing for the youngest readers. It was my first “specialized” webinar and it was an overwhelming success. (Thank you so much to everyone who listened to that one! I’m digging into critiques for it right now!) On September 15th at 1 p.m. Eastern, I am offering a Middle Grade and Young Adult Craft Intensive webinar.

This 90-minute webinar will focus exclusively into the craft of writing fiction for the middle grade and young adult audience. I’ll talk about the marketplace, strategies to really make your novel stand out in the slush, character, plotting, tension, description, setting, voice, submissions, queries, and much more. It’s the first time I’ll be focusing exclusively on MG and YA, so even if you’ve taken one of my webinars before, you will be getting brand new content. You can sign up by clicking here.

The bonus of my webinars, as many of you already know, is that they include a critique from me for every registered student. For this one, I will read and critique the first 500 words of your MG or YA novel (one project per student, please). Instructions for submitting will come when you register for the webinar.

If you’re having scheduling issues with the time or date, don’t worry. By signing up, you will receive a recording of the webinar (emailed about one week after the original webinar date), you will have the same chance to ask questions as the other students, and you will still get your critique. So sign up even if the time or date doesn’t work for you!

This brings us to Critique Connection. I’ve done these posts in the past and leave the comments open so that you can connect with potential critique partners. Here’s what you need to post:

  1. Your genre (ie: fantasy, paranormal, realistic, historical, etc.)
  2. Your audience (ie: picture book, MG, YA, etc.)
  3. A little about your manuscript (practice your one-line “elevator pitch”)
  4. What you want out of the experience (a critique of your XX,000-word mss., someone to read your first 3 chapters, help with your query letter, etc.)
  5. Your email address for potential partners to contact you (I’d type it in the following format: mary at kidlit dot com so that you avoid spam bots.)

Only post a comment for this entry if you are looking for a critique partner. I will leave it up until after Labor Day to get the most exposure for it. And while you’re thinking of getting critique, do sign up for my webinar!

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Housekeeping:

I’m interrupting our workshops for the week to give you some housekeeping notes. July on the blog will be a little bit different, thanks to the fabulous students and faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s Writing. Sheryl Scarborough offered me the opportunity to feature some MFA student articles as guest blogs. Since I love the VCFA MFA program (and I’ll be at the weekend mini-residency this year, July 15th through 17th!), I jumped at the chance. So every Wednesday, starting this one, the 29th, and going for the next five weeks, I will let the talented MFA students tell you about issues we’ve discussed, from reading like a writer to the objective correlative to, yes, show vs. tell. I’m really excited for this opportunity to feature some craft-intensive voices. Workshop #5 will go up this Friday, July 1st, instead.

Also, check out editor Deborah Halverson’s book launch starting on Wednesday for her new book WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES. She’ll have seven days of events, interviews, and giveaways on the blog. And don’t forget about LitWorld, which I featured on Friday.

Finally, you will have two opportunities to see me in July. One is for VCFA MFA alumni and students only, it’s the weekend mini-residency up in Montpelier, VT, and I couldn’t be more excited. The other is the Harriette Austin Writers Conference in Athens, GA on July 22nd and 23rd.

Utah:

Speaking of travel, I just got back from the week-long WIFYR conference in Utah last weekend. This is one of my favorite conferences in that it brings an awesome teaching faculty together with some NY publishing professionals and gives writers a week of total craft and marketplace immersion in beautiful Sandy.

Here was a sampling of the faculty this year, including Kathleen Duey and Holly Black, with some attendees mixed in (many from my client Kim Reed’s fabulous critique group: VaLynne, Emily/Wingnut, Brodi, Sarah), fabulous New York editors Lisa Yoskowitz and Alyson Heller, our fearless organizer Carol Lynch Williams (with right-hand man Rick Walton), and me in my cute hat:

I love these people. WIFYR is one of my favorite conferences and I highly recommend it to everyone, even if I won’t be there next year (gotta give some other agents a chance…grrr). This year’s shenanigans included a fake kidnapping plan, of which we have the following photographic evidence:

Our aim was to freak Carol out. Since Carol freaks out about everything, I thought we had a very easy sell. Not so. She wasn’t buying it. But it did make for a great entrance for my keynote (all about creativity). Yes, I danced to some Lady Gaga. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Come to WIFYR next time. :)

We also went to a lovely potluck at local superstar indie bookstore, the King’s English. Here’s me posing with a copy of Bethanie Murguia’s BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER, out from Tricycle Press/Random House. Everyone go buy it!

ALA:

Speaking, again, of travel, I am typing this from beautiful (and sultry-hot) New Orleans, LA, one of my absolute favorite American cities. I’ve been here since Wednesday for ALA and for general shenanigans. My mom is a fine art painter, so I’ve been hanging out with her gallery staff, who are like family, meeting some new locals, shooting a gun for the first time (long story), and greatly enjoying the food and the visiting publishing people who have descended on the Crescent City. It’s pretty surreal to be walking down Canal Street and run into Jeff Kinney, say, or Mo Willems.

I’m also thrilled to report that Disney-Hyperion editor (and rock star) Lisa Yoskowitz and I have added a fifth state to our unofficial Tour of Awesome. Lisa and I first met in Wisconsin in the fall, then lunched in New York, and have recently been to two more conferences back-to-back: Indiana and Utah (see above). It’s like we’re itinerary twins. We just had to meet up in Louisiana and have a good laugh about it.

While on the floor at ALA, I got the fun opportunity to be there when they laid out the WILDEFIRE ARCs, and to enthusiastically hand-deliver them to a throng of librarians. WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight is the first novel on my list to be published, and it comes out July 26th!

ALA is definitely one of my favorite expos. Not just because they had it in New Orleans this summer, but because there are a lot of books on the floor, there are tons of authors walking around (I got to see the lovely Sara Zarr and Carrie Ryan, who I don’t often have the opportunity to hang out with), and many great publishing colleagues are getting excited for Fall 2011 and beyond together.

Now it’s off to the last day of the show and then I’m hanging around and eating some more delicious Cajun food. After all this traveling, it’s time to take it a bit more Big Easy. Look for the first VCFA MFA guest post, “Pushing the Boundaries” by Tim Martin, on Wednesday!

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Austin, TX is the gift that keeps on giving, even when I’m in its hipster-sister city of Portland, OR. After my amazing weekend in Austin a few weeks back, I have been keeping up with my new friend Tolly Moseley (of PR By the Book and her own blog, the Austin Eavesdropper). It is through Tolly from Austin that I learned about this really awesome artist named — what a coincidence — Austin Kleon. (Fun fact: the guy who did my tattoo in Austin is also named Austin. Another fun fact: the woman who colors my hair in San Francisco is named California.)

Austin Kleon gave a graduation speech a few weeks ago to a college class in upstate New York about creativity. Even though he’s a visual artist (with a book out), there’s a lot of rich material there for any writer, artist, or creative person. I’ve been writing recently about creativity, because it’s so important to nourish that part of yourself, whether writing or just living life.

You can read his speech here. I don’t just love it because he quotes Kurt Vonnegut a lot, by the way, though that certainly helps. (Fun fact: for the longest time, I wanted epitaph to be a Vonnegut quote from GOD BLESS YOU, DR. KEVORKIAN: “Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt,” but this weekend I changed my mind. Why? Because, per my whole “being alive” philosophy, life does hurt sometimes, and that’s what makes it even more beautiful.) As Lady Gaga says in a really fascinating interview (which I’ve linked to once before), here, her favorite quote is, “If you don’t have any shadows, you’re not standing in the light.”

My new epitaph candidates are: “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” (from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot) or “Only connect!” from HOWARDS END by E.M. Forster. If I really wanted to do Vonnegut, perhaps “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center,” from PLAYER PIANO. Or, you know, I could always do the favorite from SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE: “So it goes.” Why the gravestone thoughts? I just read STIFF by Mary Roach. Good, chilling, mind-bending fun, and really well-written.

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity, authenticity, and the publishing industry lately. I’ve also been trying to get back in touch with my own creative self. I minister to the creative selves of others for a living. I find that, in order to do that well, I need to refuel my own creative source.

This past (looong) weekend was just the thing the doctor ordered. And it’s not even over yet. I’m writing this from Portland, OR, where I’ve been staying with my inimitable friends, Nate and April, in a rented salmon-colored summer house. They were actually called away to Eugene halfway through my trip and I’ve ended up spending a fair amount of time alone and carless…just me, the sloping green backyard, and the sound of the (everpresent) rain. It has actually been perfect.

On Thursday, I ate perhaps one of the best croissants ever, bought really cute sky blue shoes, and ordered a pair of über-hipster glasses that I just pray are ready before BEA, where I will blow all the other publishing hipsters out of the publishing hipster water with my hipsterness. (Not that I care about being hipper than other hipsters, of course, since I’m a hipster and hipsters, by definition, don’t care.) We spent the night at the Kennedy School and I relaxed in the saltwater soaking pool for hours and hours and hours. My dear Suzanne Young showed up to take me out to dinner and drinks on Friday, stoking my perma-fire for good Cajun food and getting me even more excited for the week I’m spending in NOLA in June for ALA. (Fact: I go to New Orleans at least twice a year because it is one of my favorite US cities.)

On Saturday, Jeff Geiger (Grand Poobah of Radness) crammed into eight hours what would’ve otherwise taken eight days in Portland: a coffee tasting, three breweries, a beer festival, two meals, and even a little bit of Ben Folds goodness. Omakase is a Japanese phrase meaning “it’s up to you” or “I am in your hands.” If you want to make a sushi chef happy, say this and let them serve you whatever they want. That’s what I said to Jeff: I am in your hands. Give me the raddest, baddest, hippest tour of Portland. And he knocked it out of the park. And brought me the present of limited edition beer, to boot. (Bryan Bliss is decidedly unhip in that he did not show his face for these festivities. Boo. Hiss. Weak sauce. Martha Flynn and Melissa Manlove have hyperactive imaginations, but I would still like to invest in a limited print run of “What Wouldn’t Mary Do?” t-shirts. (Fun fact: ladies, you both like me more, so just admit it to yourselves and one another.))

I am so blessed to have these friends. I am so grateful for this time to recharge, listen to Ben Folds, read Kurt Vonnegut (BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, natch), think my thoughts, and methodically reread the New York Times Modern Love column archives (some of my favorite essays ever).

Speaking of cool things…I just found out (maybe I’m the last to know, I haven’t really been following the movie news) that my gorgeous, fierce, and talented friend from college, Tara Macken, is going to be a tribute in the HUNGER GAMES movie! Woo! Everybody go and “Like” her Facebook page, here.

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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. ;)

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?

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It’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind, the frustrations, the stress, the meetings, the slush, the traveling, the constant flood of emails, the endless readings of my work sometimes. Especially on cloudy days like today when it seems like the future stretching out in front of me is one long To Do list. Moments of inspiration come in the form of a brilliant project from one of my clients or from a potential future client, good news about a book that’s been sold (like, yanno, Hollywood calling for my most recent sale, THROUGH TO YOU!), charming emails from my super-smart colleagues, moments with friends, really good books that I’m reading.

I’ll have to add to the list the Friday and Saturday symposium portion of the Teen Author Festival last week. I heard several dozen authors, many of who are friends, speak about various issues important to YA fiction today. From hard issues like abuse and family, to a showcase of debut authors, to the thrills and tensions of young romance, as you can see in the picture below (l-r: Sarah Mylnowski, E. Lockhart, Terra Elan McVoy)…

…to influences and one’s literary inspirations, as you can see in the picture below (l-r: Adrienne Marie Vrettos, Maryrose Wood, Libba Bray, Susane Colasanti, Lena Roy, Carolyn Mackler, Barry Lyga)…

…to the struggle against the dark side, the internal and external darkness in a character’s world (l-r: Robin Wasserman, Lisa McMann, Maggie Stiefvater, Kim Harrington, and David Levithan)…

…to a brilliant panel on LGBT literature of the past, present and future with very special guest Michael Cart (l-r: Nick Burd, Jacqueline Woodson, Patrick Ryan, Michael, David Levithan, and Jack Martin).

Not only is it inspiring to sit and hear writers talk about the craft, but Saturday afternoon especially, with a focus on LGBT YA, where it’s been, where it is now, and where it’s going, really helped me with some much-needed perspective after a stressful winter. The books that these authors (and many of you out there) are writing are essential. They’re very often a young adult’s fondest memory, their closest friend, their most trusted confidant, and, as I say every time I speak about YA, they really do have the power to change lives.

We can see this in most powerful YA books, especially those that take risks, feature characters who are marginalized, characters battling with some essential darkness, or otherwise being brave and strong and heroic in their lives, whether they’re in a contemporary school setting or aboard a spaceship and hurtling toward the unknown. In other words: characters who are being themselves.

The best YA books (and MG books, and picture books) are a lens through which writers focus their world…both for the sake of the artist’s creative journey, and for the sake of bringing clarity and understanding to readers’ lives.

My often-mentioned and very favorite quote about children’s books comes from Ursula Nordstrom:

The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.

You can tell I love this quote because several of the posts I’m about to cite repeat it. Over my blogging “career,” I’ve gotten frustrated with questions like “Can I swear in YA?” or “Can we feature sex in YA?” or “How many words exactly, and in what order, make the perfect query letter?” (an exaggeration, obviously) and whatever else mundane things people obsess over.

I know I talk a lot about publishing rules and guidelines and that I answer a lot of questions on this blog along those lines, which I’m very happy to do, but it doesn’t hurt every once in a while to be reminded that we’re all here for the sake of art and for the sake of teen readers. And that creativity and truth are the highest pursuits served by any artist, especially one reaching out to kids and teens. (For some really great soundbites on creativity, check out this lecture by Lady Gaga, who visited the Google campus in Mountain View, CA yesterday.)

The Teen Author Festival panels really reminded me of our true purpose here, at the end of the day (you can see the full schedule for the festival here, and I urge you to come next year if you can), and I’m grateful to have been inspired!

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This is a point that I tackled in slightly different terms in my Making Your Writing Exciting at the Sentence Level post from late 2009. It’s something I’ve been seeing a lot more recently, and so I wanted to delve into it again. Writing should strive to be mimetic of the action it’s describing. As with the example of a character being chased in the older post, the short burst sentences portray the feeling of being chased, even as the words describe a chase scene. In the language falling in love example, the long, flowing sentences portray the languor and lush feelings of infatuation, even as they describe it.

When you’re writing, not only should you strive to match your writing and syntax to what you’re describing, but you should also put yourself in the situation in a physical, emotional, and, above all, logical way. Doing all of this will not only work to make your readers feel like they’re part of the situation on a conscious level, but on a subconscious one as well. As always, you should strive to make writing work and blend, not stand out or pull the reader out of the story.

I’ve been reading a lot of scenes that just don’t make syntax sense or logic sense. For example, I find an action sequence unrealistic if your character stops to describe the scene, the characters, the mood, or any of the action in too much sensory detail. Why? Well, imagine fighting some baddies Matrix-style. As bullets zoom by you, are you really stopping to reflect on a character’s sleek black trench? Or describe the marble hall that’s currently getting blasted to hell? No. Action and danger spike adrenaline and tunnel your vision and senses. Or they make one persistent detail stand out. How many times have you heard grief-ridden or traumatized people/characters say, “And for some reason, I remember looking out the window and seeing this random kid crossing the street, and that’s all I remember from that time at the hospital when Dad passed.” You’re only paying attention to the things you need to survive, or sometimes your conscious mind isn’t working at all. So not only does superfluous description during an action sequence seem unnecessary and slow the pacing, I also just don’t buy it.

The inverse is true, too. If your character is paying really careful attention to someone or something, vague description just isn’t going to cut it. If she’s looking into his eyes (is there a bigger cliche?), she most likely wouldn’t find them just “beautiful” or simply “captivating,” but she’d go into detail. This is an easy consideration, and perfectly logical, but it’s just one more small thing for writers to keep in their heads when they’re writing and people do forget

Whenever we describe something, we draw the reader’s attention to it. This doesn’t just apply to how we describe something, it counts for what we describe, too. We are the story’s curator, using all the tools in our storytelling arsenal to guide the reader through the tale. Mimetic writing — imitating the action of what’s being described — is a subtle way to do just that. Description is another related skill. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of description missteps. Next week, I think I’ll talk about overdescribing and underdescribing, the twin traps that some writers can fall into as they’re building their stories.

I’ve just come off a very invigorating weekend at the NYC Teen Author Festival — hanging out with friends and colleagues, listening to panels, soaking in the collective brilliance of this industry — and will also come up with a post to somehow distill the experience, though I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what about last week’s events impressed and inspired me so much. A thank you to all the authors, writers, librarians, booksellers involved…and to the achingly marvelous David Levithan for his tireless work and incredible insights, especially on Saturday’s LGBT panel!

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Thank you so much for all your comments and love for yesterday’s post. I think the worst thing now is that, with the weather, the building is shifting and I keep thinking about Sushi’s distinctive, heavy, ungraceful footsteps. A fat cat all her life, she plodded along more than walked, to the point where we had our own goofy sound effects to sing, lovingly, of course, as she made her way across a room. I kept expecting her to come back last night and crawl her way onto the bed in her usual spot. Sigh.

In other less depressing news, I wanted to do a quick wrap-up of the SCBWI NYC conference which happened Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown. No SCBWI conference post can be complete without a link to Team Blog, which detailed the events of the show with pizazz. Led by Alice Pope, Team Blog features my two good friends Lee Wind and Suzanne Young (who did her own wrap-up with some pictures), and posts about every session of the conference. Since I missed some sessions, even I read it for recaps.

My big involvement in the conference was the Writer’s Intensive on Friday. We had two groups of writers, about 8 or 9 to a table, and 12 minutes each for everyone to read and critique a 500 word writing sample. This is the kind of hands-on workshopping that I love, and it’s what we do at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s Big Sur Writer’s Workshop (coming up in March, and I’ll be there, even if I’m not on the website, click here for more information). I feel like a big keynote session is great, but there’s nothing quite like getting to look at your own sample and other writing samples from real, live attendees.

I’d say my biggest note to all writers after those two sessions is: Where does your story start? Are you really starting it where it needs to begin? Across both sessions, I saw writers who started a story in one place and then, within 500 words, had either skipped over to another different part of the story or flashed back to the past. That’s not what I’d call grounding your reader. If you find yourself jumping around too much in the first 10 pages of your work, you haven’t chosen the right beginning yet.

After that, I was free to meet up with friends…

… like the lovely Tracy Clark (who is one of the first people I met at my first ever writer’s conference, when I went as an attendee!), Holly Thompson (SCBWI Regional Adviser for Japan, where I’m going in the fall, ABLA agency client, and author of the upcoming ORCHARDS, out from Delacorte/Random House), and frequent Big Sur attendee, Bret…

… or perhaps a lovely lady by the name of Ellen Hopkins? Ellen is an agency client, a bestselling author, and the dedicated RA for Nevada, where she runs an amazing mentor program. Not only did we hang out at the conference, but we caught a live taping of the Daily Show on Monday. That night’s guest? Bill freakin’ Gates. I feel so much smarter now that I’ve been in the same room as him…

… or maybe Sara Zarr and Sonia Gensler? Sara’s famous or something because I hear she wrote some books or whatever. :) She’s been a Big Sur guest and we spent a week in Utah together last year at the WIFYR conference, which I’m doing again this year. Sonia is an agency client and about to be published! Her book THE REVENANT comes out from Knopf/Random House in April.

Another cool thing I did is a blog reader meet-up with about a dozen of my readers who happened to be at the conference. (Need I mention they were all brilliant and incredibly good-looking? :P) We didn’t have a cool Twitter hashtag like Team Blog did, but we did chat in the lobby for about an hour and a half on Saturday night. Thank you so much to all of you who came out:

Plus, I finally got to meet my smart, talented, gorgeous, and incredibly awesome client, Mandy Morgan!

I didn’t go to too many sessions this year because I was just so gosh darn busy socializing. I think expecting my cat to die at home really kept me out of the house this weekend, a good and bad thing. I did pop in to the workshop from Alessandra Balzer, from Balzer+Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, and I made a childhood dream come true by seeing R.L. Stine’s lunch keynote on Saturday. As Stine is a horror writer, I truly intend to make a pun when I say that he killed it! He was so funny and warm and charming and he read some of his best “reviews” from kid readers who wrote him to say incredibly candid things. A wonderful keynote! Here’s my obligatory fan pic:

Other friends of note are Bryan Bliss and poor Mr. Jeff, who now knows never to meet me at an Irish pub, and the wonderful team from SCBWI Western Washington, who took me to a lovely lunch. A huge shout-out of thanks to Kimmy T. who invited me to the Writer’s Intensive in the first place!

Good thing the LA National SCBWI conference is coming up in August…I don’t think I can bear to be without all my wonderful kidlit friends for a whole other year! Any writers who are on the fence about going to either NYC or LA for one of the big SCBWIs, I think it’s something you should experience at least once in your writing life, if not once a year.

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Speaking of the SCBWI, registration for SCBWI Indiana, where I’ll be speaking at the end of April, is now open. Click here to register and I’ll see you there!

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I just spent an amazing weekend at Big Sur with my colleagues, some great editor and writer friends, and a whole gaggle of talented, hardworking writers. How refreshing and invigorating (and, of course, exhausting, but so worth it)! I was especially proud of my workshop groups at this Big Sur because my writers became so close that they were eating together and hanging out long after our scheduled sessions were over. There was even talk of extending the conference connection and forming a critique group after the weekend ended.

This made me think, as I frequently do, about the glory of critique groups and readers. All writers need them, no matter if you’ve never thought so or had unsuccessful situations in the past. Good critique partners and readers are worth their weight in gold, truly. Seeing critique in action made me think of reader Melissa’s question:

What’s the best time to start submitting work to a critique group? Should you wait until it’s finished or submit chapters as they’re written? Also, are beta readers the same as a critique group?

The point of critique of any kind is to get other eyes (ideally, eyes that belong to writers who know what they’re talking about) on your work. How do you do that? First, there are critique partners or critique groups (the name isn’t important). These are other writers who you exchange work and commentary with, ideally on a regular basis. Some writers love working with local groups, but you don’t have to know your crit partners in person…these groups work well over the Internet or the phone, too.

Critique partners or groups work best when writers convene regularly and are committed to one another, so that a core group can stay together over the course of many projects. Critique partners become intimately familiar with your writing, your stories, your strengths, weaknesses, and goals. This kind of continuity lets you get down to business and really get into the nitty gritty of the writing (ideally…you can read more about what makes a great critique partner or group here).

Some groups all want a writer to have a completed manuscript, others will be open to seeing work in progress…sometimes literally as it comes hot off the press (or printer). You should talk this over with your critique partners and make a decision that appeals to everyone.

It can be useful and exciting to get feedback on a project while you’re still creating it. It is even more useful, I think, to finish something, revise it on your own for a few passes, and then bring in your critique partners. A novel changes so much during the writing process, that it may be more helpful for you to work it out and get it written first, before even thinking about feedback and revision.

There is a small distinction, in my mind, between critique groups (or partners…I’ve used both terms interchangeably here) and beta readers. When I think of critique partners, I think of a group that meets regularly, will read whatever you give them, and really drill into it. That could mean reading an entire manuscript, or it could mean reading twenty versions of one chapter as you try to get it right. Critique groups should be very hands on and intense. Beta readers are people who read the whole manuscript and give feedback, but who may not give as much writing/revision/craft advice as your regular critique group. Beta readers are great if you want new eyes on a project, or if you want to hear from someone who doesn’t already know the story (like if you’re writing a murder mystery and really want to see if your red herrings work, but you’re worried whether your critique partners, who already know the whole story, will be able to judge after a few revisions).

Most of the professional writers I know have a regular critique group and then a few beta readers who they reach out to after the manuscript has been revised and polished, just for some quick feedback and a last minute read before it goes to their agent or editor, just to make sure the book is working.

But if you’re just starting out, don’t worry about having a pocketful of beta readers and a five-person bi-monthly, dedicated critique group. Maybe find a partner online (through the Verla Kay Blueboards, or the SCBWI) or at a writer’s conference. If that partner doesn’t work, find another one. I just did a Critique Connection post a few weeks ago, so that might be a place to search. The point is, start finding some critique opportunities and getting comfortable with the practice of giving, receiving, and incorporating feedback from a supportive community of writers. Hone your revision skills. Take it one step at a time. You’ll find the right mix that works for you.

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