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Today's post is a guest post from author Ella Kennen. Since CBAY is running what is essentially at this point a query contest, and since Ella initially contacted me through a query, I asked her to write about her experience.
You’ve written your story, revised it, critiqued it (and do get it critiqued!), and revised some more. Now it’s time to start slogging through market research and write that do-or-die query letter, right? Well, maybe. Here’s the other way to think about it:
You know you want to get published, so you’re on the prowl for a good fit. You stumble on an open call, contest, submission request, whatever. Aha! You poke around the publisher’s website, get a feel for their books (Maybe you’ve already read some—fantastic! If not, snag some from the library, or at least read free excerpts online.)
You sense possibility. Now it’s time to turn that into something more. You sift through your repertoire of ideas (because as a savagely writerly writer, you always have more ideas than you know what to do with) and you strike upon a match. Maybe, if you’ve binged on market research (and you’ve got to go through the motion sooner or later, so why not sooner?), you’ve got a list of several publishers that would make a good fit with your manuscript.
You plot your arc. You draft. You revise. You let any external deadlines propel you into a most un-you-like level of efficiency (or maybe you’re efficient, and that’s just me). And when you’ve got your finished product, something strange happens. Instead of meeting the next stage with dread, you find you’re looking forward to it. You’ve already done your homework and you know your project is a good fit. Instead of becoming a fearful chore, writing the query letter feels more like the exciting culmination. (Butterflies-in-the-stomach still allowed.)
I’ve found that writing this way gets me significantly better results. Not every submission leads to acceptance—though a lot do—and the rest usually result in some feedback. And that type of rejection is infinitely better and more hopeful than a canned letter or no response at all.
On to that whole wooing Ms. Smoot business. Some moons ago, CBAY had an open call for fantasy and sci-fi picture books. I knew I wanted in. So I sat and I thought … and I read the picture books I knew the editor was looking for (Thank you, internet! And people, do your homework—it’s a treasure trove out there)… and I thought some more. And finally, I had an idea. Looking back, I honestly don’t remember when I wrote my first draft of the query, but it very well could have been before the story was finished… or even started.
I won’t get into the mechanics of queries, which have been covered extensively by savvier people than I (like the Buried Editor herself). Do read up on the process and follow the rules. Stand out by delivering a great product, not by deviating from the guidelines.
I will, however, give you a looksee at my query:
I was thrilled to hear about your call for sci-fi picture book submissions. I have enclosed my gender-bender sci-fi retelling of the classic Cinderella story below for your review.
[Paragraph of synopsis]
I see CinderAdam as the beginning of a series of sci-fi picture books inspired by classic tales. The next two stories in the series, for instance, would be (1) about an alien Rumpelstiltskin literally spinning oxygen out of thin air at a space colony, and (2) about a robot scientist who creates a human (“It’s alive!”) only to discover he doesn’t know what to do with his Franken-baby.
[Paragraph about me]
Nothing magical there—boilerplate stuff. But it was enough to do the job…. even though the manuscript I sent was more storybook than picture book. When an idea is a great fit, the query has an easy task. It doesn’t have to convince, cajole, or hard-sell. (As a side-note, Cinders became ClinkerAdam, and the Franken-baby story never came to be, but three stories I hadn’t thought of at the time did!)
Matchmaking before you write won’t teach you the mechanics of query letters and it won’t make writing a synopsis magically easier… but it might give you a level of confidence you’ve not had before… and it will make the submission stage of the process a lot faster and less painful than going at things the traditional way. It’s not the only way to do things, and in some cases, it might not be a feasible way to do things, but it’s definitely worth trying. Who knows, it might even land you a book contract… and a guest post on your editor’s blog. ;)
Buried Editor's Note: The Rumpelstiltskin story that she mentions above is the story that just released yesterday, Out of Thin Air. It's my favorite of the bunch, and frankly the story that sold me on the whole concept!
Fun stuff is happening at CBAY Books this week/month. First, we're running a contest over there. The winners in both the middle grade and teen categories will receive publishing contracts for their entries. Intrigued? Then head over to the CBAY Books Facebook page and like it to get the details.
Also this week, the second in our Amazing Tales Bedtime eStories releases tomorrow. Called Out of Thin Air, it's a very imaginative retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale.
So, to celebrate the release of this new Tale, we're going to offer a very special Halloween Treat today. From noon to one this afternoon (CST) we are going to have a free download available of our first Amazing Tale, Boyd Who Cried Wolf. Just go to the same CBAY Books Facebook page link and if you haven't already liked it, do so to get your free copy.
These Tales are the perfect little stories for snuggling up with just before bed, and on a spooky night like Halloween, they are just the thing for those kids who are a little too scared of witches and ghosts. Be sure to grab this Halloween treat, and have a great candy-filled evening.
Thank you to everyone who submitted to the contest. I have picked my top two favorites, and now it's your chance to pick who the winner is. Read the two selections and then vote:
Selection A: Monster Stomp (My title not author's!) Fay sat on the dirt floor of the cave she called home, eyeing the small monster for a moment before rolling her eyes. This particular one looked a bit like a deformed tortoise, except without the shell and with eight rows of needle teeth that could barely fit into its mouth. It hissed at her. She sighed heavily and resumed packing her books for school. Honestly, how many more of these things did she have to kill before they got the point and left her alone? A lot, probably. They’d been coming around since as long as she could remember. She tied her book bag shut and looked at the creature again. Again, it hissed, but this time bent down as if it were about to pounce. She lifted her foot and slammed it down on its skinny neck, severing it from the crusty body. It screamed, but its head continued to hop around, lunging for her foot. Fay dodged and got behind it, lifting her foot to crush it again, when her father suddenly flung open the curtain that separated her room from the other two rooms in the burrow. “Fay, didn’t you hear me calling? Your breakfast is on the table.” Her father looked at her march-like stance suspiciously. “What are you doing?” “Uh…stretching?” The monster was gnawing on her big toe. Apparently, all those intimidating looking teeth were just for show. She demonstrated a stretch by touching her toes, but really she just wanted to get her hand close enough to flick the little head away.
Selection B: Feasy My first kiss and it tastes like onions marinated in beer. The whole weird concoction permeates my mouth when he smacks his lips like a vacuum over mine. Some people hear bells when they get their first kiss. Me? I hear teeth clanking. Even worse, I feel his tooth ram into mine demanding my tooth move over so it could reside in my mouth instead. We’re in the basement of some random sophomore whose name I don’t know whose parents don’t know we’re all here. My first kiss. And my first high school party. Not that I didn’t always want to come. Just wasn’t invited. Funny thing is, I wasn’t invited to this one either. Teeny got the invite and then the guilt and brought me, her charity-case best friend, with her. The darkness all around makes a perfect blanket wrapping me in a cocoon of self pity as I sit waiting, wishing I was home watching old episodes of Jersey Shore instead of sitting by myself in the dark basement with dirty shag carpet watching classmates wearing way too little, drinking way too much. And making out. There’s so much making out on every couch in every corner, I start to think maybe I am watching Jersey Shore. That’s when he makes his move. Kevin Darby. I know him from Spanish class ---and football. He doesn’t just play football, he is the football team. I think he’s the fullback which means he might even weigh more than me. But I doubt it.
The runner-up gets 2 books from Pyr, finish copies of Ian McDonald's 2 books. (These were sent to a friend of mine as review copies. Pyr is not sponsoring this post in any way, and they'll probably be surprised when they come across it. However, I see no reason not to share a little smaller press love around.)
I do reserve the right to suspend or cancel this contest at anytime, and it is void wherever prohibited. But, I think this will be fun, and I look forward to reading everyone's entries!
Last week I talked about great first pages, why they are important and gave some examples of my favorite first pages. Now, I think it's time for you all to practice with your first pages. Why? Because next week I'm going to host a first page contest! For simplicity's sake, we're going to call the first 250 words of a work the "first page."
Here's what we're going to do this week:
In the comments field, post your first page.
Read others and offer feedback. As always, feedback should contain both positive and negative comments and should always be unfailingly polite. This is not a forum to boost your own ego by knocking others down. We've never had the slightest problems in the past, so I don't expect any now.
We'll do this for one week, so start posting now, and get your first page ready for next week's contest!
There is nothing like starting a manuscript (or a book) and getting hooked on the first page (or first few pages). Sure, the whole rest of the manuscript better live up to the beginning but there's nothing more exciting than being drawn in immediately.
Fortunately, there are tons of ways for this to happen:
Dynamic characters - I don't mean that they do something on the first page. They can, but they can also just be fascinating people, and be showing just how fascinating they are on that first page.
Unexpected plot twist - This is hard to do in only a page, but I've seen it done. One of my favorite books, The Amulet of Samarkand, does exactly this.
Strong voice - Obviously the voice of your work always matters, but it really makes a difference in that very beginning when you are trying to get someone hooked.
A really great idea - If you're world is truly unique or your book has some sort of really fantastic conceit, why not try to work it into the very beginning? (Unless of course it later acts as a surprise twist.)
In medias res - Ah, high school English terms. However, starting in the middle of things can be exciting, and it can be a great way to get the story started.
These are all things that can get my heart racing when I start a manuscript. Unfortunately, most of the time the work I see has a slow start. Especially with newer authors, there is a tendency to write a bit to get to know the characters and world of the story with the action and actual book not starting for pages or even chapters into the manuscript. This is absolutely a great way to start a first draft, but by the time I'm looking at a work, that sort of thing should have been edited out. That is of course where writing partners and critique groups come in.
So, before you put that manuscript in the mail (or in the email these days), glance back over your first few pages and see if they are the kind of thing that will really jump out and grab the editor/agent by the throat. Or at least gently catch their attention.
I love 'em, but man, these two are time consuming.
The other day I realized that it had been over a year since I last posted on this blog. A year. It has both felt like a minute, and at the same time decades longer.
It has not been a good year.
In June 2011, my two year old still couldn't really talk. He tested positive for hearing loss due to fluid in his ears which was corrected. He was expected to quickly start talking with a little speech therapy. He did not. Partly this was because his original speech therapist was an absolute ninny, but mostly it was because there was much more going on. In February he was finally diagnosed with dyspraxia (which no one debates) and PDD (which is still fairly up in the air with pretty much everyone including the doctor that diagnosed him with it). PDD or Pervasive Developmental Disorder (or as I prefer Physician Didn't Decide - I forgot where I saw that) means that you have a child who has autistic traits and falls onto the Autism spectrum, but the child does not fit into many of the other specific Autism diagnoses (like Asperger's or classic Autism). If you're curious to see some of what I've been going through, you can see my blog on it: Parenting is Overrated. I think the title says it all.
With the diagnosis has come special schools, lots (and lots and lots) of therapies and new diets. This also coincided with my husband going back to work, and my having to maintain a certain number of hours at the bookstore every week in order to keep our insurance. It was a stressful year. It was time consuming, and it meant the last thing I wanted to do was blog about query letters or book proposals that I didn't have the energy to read in the first place.
But the year has not been entirely in vain. I managed to finish the new Buried Editor website with all sorts of great information like tips and advice. I've also worked on the Facebook page, and I've been developing exclusive content for it. As one of those exclusive things, I started developing Writing Sprints -- focused writing prompts designed to help with specific parts of your projects. I didn't think I'd come up with many, but to my surprise, I thought of 51. I'm going to put one up a month on the Facebook Page where people can post what they write based on the prompt and get feedback. If you wait just a little over 4 years, you can get all of them off the site, but if you want all of them now, get the little ebook (or in a few weeks the little print book). I'm going to be giving away some copies next month.
I'm not going to make any promises that the blog is back up and running although I'm going to do my best. However, as I've now learned, life can get in the way in a major manner. I think everything is back under control. I think my son's progress is on track. But I only think.
On Wednesday, I did two different pitches to illustrate the difference between good and bad. Now, keeping in mind that I wrote this pitch, this is still what the editor in me (in red -- of course) thought while reading that pitch:
In my early chapter book for young kids, Liv gets really upset after her brother goes missing after a boring field party. Wait. What? A field party in a chapter book for kids aged 7-9? How old are these characters? He's been kidnapped, but Liv doesn't know by who, kind of redundant because, really, that's not going to be very suspenseful if she does know and she spends the rest of the book looking for him and feeling guilty for hating him for most of their lives. Why does she hate him? Also, Morte Who is Morte? The brother? is a creepy looking kid that Liv thinks is somehow linked to death Wait. What? even though she doesn't have any proof for this. What on earth does that mean? The book is a mystery no this pitch is a mystery and kind of paranormal and a great thriller for kids to read. I can't wait for you to see the full manuscript. not likely
Now last week's contest highlighted the weird, crazy stuff that people sometimes do with their query letters. But really, most of the time, the biggest problem with query letters is that they don't do their stories justice. When pitching the story to the editor/agent, the author does not present it in the most flattering light. As an illustration, I will use my own book that's now out, Missing or you can also get a physical book, here. (I don't know why the two aren't linked.)
First I'll tell you (in one sentence) what the general idea is, and then I'll pitch it poorly. Finally, I'll pitch it correctly. You'll see the difference.
Idea: After her brother's disappearance, teenage Liz finally addresses the intense sibling rivalry and hatred she has harbored towards her brother and dedicates her life to finding him.
Bad Pitch: In my early chapter book for young kids, Liv gets really upset after her brother goes missing after a boring field party. He's been kidnapped, but Liv doesn't know by who, and she spends the rest of the book looking for him and feeling guilty for hating him for most of their lives. Also, Morte is a creepy looking kid that Liv thinks is somehow linked to death even though she doesn't have any proof for this. The book is a mystery and kind of paranormal and a great thriller for kids to read. I can't wait for you to see the full manuscript.
Good Pitch: Like their names, Liv and her brother, Morte, have always been polar opposites. Neither can tolerate the others presence, and they spend most of their time fighting. Liv hates her brother and would give anything to just make him go away. All of that changes, though, the day after her brother goes missing after a boring typical, field party. Liv begins to face the sibling rivalry she and her brother have always shared and does everything she can think of to try to find him. A mystery with a paranormal twist to the end, Missing is at its heart Liv's quest to know both herself and the brother she has spent her entire life pushing away.
Query and cover letters are not fun, but they are necessary evils. I don't know of anyone who has ever gotten away without writing a single one. However, in order to avoid sounding inexperienced, naive, or just plain crazy, avoid these common mistakes:
Address the letter to the correct person. -- Nothing is more annoying than getting a letter addressed to someone else, or addressed to the wrong agency/publishing house.
Do not make unrealistic claims about your story. -- Your book might become a best-seller someday, but you have no way of knowing that. However, if you already have (in writing) a deal from a charity to purchase 10,000 copies or you self-published and sold 45,000 ebooks or you've already sold the rights in 15 other countries that information is worth including.
Do not tell who has already read your manuscript. -- If it's other agents and editors who have read and passed on it, you don't want me to know that. For one thing, it would tell me others didn't like it, and for another it would make it clear that I wasn't your first choice. (This may be the case, but why rub the editor's nose in it?) If it's children, educators, friends, families, librarians, etc. this information isn't actually all that useful to me. Only dedicated market research would work, and I doubt you want to go to the time (or expense) of a statistically sound study.
Do not offer unrealistic comps (like bestsellers) or say there are none for your book. -- Either one makes you sound seriously unread or clueless of your market. Don't get me wrong. Comps can be hard to do, but no book is truly incomparable. If you are having trouble, don't bring up comps at all.
Do not make demands. -- You can ask things politely, but don't tell me that I have to print this, or that I have to respond by a certain date, or that I have to give you XYZ royalty or to not even bother. I don't know about you, but nothing irks me more than a bossy letter from a stranger.
Now, I don't think anyone who has read Dee's query letter can argue that it isn't bad. It's pretty much makes everyone who sees it cringe. So, what exactly about the letter makes it so gut-wrenchingly terrible?
Let's examine it closely:
Deer Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Whatever M. Smoot: Ignoring the poor spelling found throughout the letter, there's still problems with the address. It would never be appropriate to title something to "Whatever." Always try to find out about the person you are sending your submission to. If the imaginary author had just google searched "m smoot cbay books" the first six entries clearly bring up me.
I bought the bright green sticker on the outside of the envelope on eBay so I don’t really know what gender you are since I didn’t actually attend the conference at witch you spoke. Sorry. I paid good money for the “M. Smoot” sticker to gain access to your closed publishing house, so I hope you appreciate it. I’m sure you did a wonderful, stupendous, fantastic job at the conference and gave a fabulous, mesmerizing, interesting speech. Thanks for being such a helpful, kind, grate editor. I found this paragraph particularly genius for a worst letter contest -- it would never occur to me that someone could buy entry into a closed publishing house this way although the idea, now presented, doesn't surprise me. However, even if this is the way that you got the sticker, don't admit it. Don't mention the conference at all.
Anyway, enough about you. (Just plain rude.) Now for my soon-to-be best seller... you’re gonna love it! I read variations of this sentence in cover letters all of the time. Taking pride in your work is great, but this sentence makes me roll my eyes and chalk the author up as a naive first-timer. Since it has an elephant AND a donkey in it, it will surpass sales of "Horton Hears a Who" and "Winnie the Pooh" (with Eeyore) combined. These are not good comparables for this imaginary title since the other books are long-selling classics and not picture books. It would be impossible for me to guess sales ranges based on these two. I know it will be made into a poplar movie and will be translated into many languages. Unless you or your agent already have deals in the works, your opinion isn't necessary. That’s why I want to keep all foreign rites. I also want fool plush animal sales. Save these demands for contract negotiations.
My book is called THE ELEPHANT AND THE DONKEY and it is completely in rhyme. Since it is about animals, I tested it out on my cat and dog and they absolutely loved it! Completely irrelevant, and it makes the author sound a little crazy. They showed their appreciation by marking the corners of this manuscript. You’ll probably be able to tell (or smell) witch corner is witch. That is so disgusting. Do I really have to remind you to reprint a sample that has urine on it?
I didn’t read my story to any pre-schools because I didn’t want the teachers to still the idea, but I know kids will love it!!! Even if the fake author had read it at preschools I wouldn't want to know. Also, the fear that someone will steal your work (so rare I don't know of any actual cases of unpublished author works being ripped off) sends up red flags of publishing ignorance.
Hear is more about it...
My 20,000-word picture book For ages two to four, Covers many topics Other children’s books ignore.
Taxes, stocks, and politics Are introduced in rhyme. The story is sure to be a hit At every child’s bedtime.
I have to say(or do I mean hate to say?)that I loved every single entry in the terrible query letter contest. All of them made me laugh, and all of them were horribly awful.
However, there was one that stood above the others. This one truly surpassed everyone else in awfulness for one simple brilliantly terrible reason: part of it was written in rhyming verse.
So, congratulations to Dee Ranged (or whatever your real name is) for creating a truly terrible letter. I've copied it so everyone else can also appreciate the wretchedness. On Thursday, I'll dissect all of the things (besides the rhyme) that is wrong with this letter.
Deer Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Whatever M. Smoot:
I bought the bright green sticker on the outside of the envelope on eBay so I don’t really know what gender you are since I didn’t actually attend the conference at witch you spoke. Sorry. I paid good money for the “M. Smoot” sticker to gain access to your closed publishing house, so I hope you appreciate it. I’m sure you did a wonderful, stupendous, fantastic job at the conference and gave a fabulous, mesmerizing, interesting speech. Thanks for being such a helpful, kind, grate editor.
Anyway, enough about you. Now for my soon-to-be best seller... you’re gonna love it! Since it has an elephant AND a donkey in it, it will surpass sales of "Horton Hears a Who" and "Winnie the Pooh" (with Eeyore) combined. I know it will be made into a poplar movie and will be translated into many languages. That’s why I want to keep all foreign rites. I also want fool plush animal sales.
My book is called THE ELEPHANT AND THE DONKEY and it is completely in rhyme. Since it is about animals, I tested it out on my cat and dog and they absolutely loved it! They showed their appreciation by marking the corners of this manuscript. You’ll probably be able to tell (or smell) witch corner is witch.
I didn’t read my story to any pre-schools because I didn’t want the teachers to still the idea, but I know kids will love it!!!
Hear is more about it...
My 20,000-word picture book For ages two to four, Covers many topics Other children’s books ignore.
Taxes, stocks, and politics Are introduced in rhyme. The story is sure to be a hit At every child’s bedtime.
You’ll want to publish this right away. It’s going to be a best seller, More popular than "The Cat in the Hat," Or that tearjerker, "Old Yeller."
The conflict is that an elephant And donkey can’t agree. They fight over just about everything, Including cups of tea.
Will they ever learn to get along? Can these protagonists save the world? I’m writing a 1000-page sequel, Where the answers will be unfurled.
Believe me, this book will fly off the shelves and beat the ebook download record, so you’ll want to publish this by November so we can both become rich quick. That’s only about a month away, but if you overnight the contract to me, I’ll sign it write away and the illustrator can start immediately. Oh, I really like the work of Tomie dePaola. I hope you can get him for this book. Do you have that kind of pool?
I know you only wanted a query and ten pages, but I am so confident you’ll like my work that I scent the hole book. I am offering this as an exclusive transmission for one week, but after that I’ll really need to move on if I haven’t herd from you. I want to enjoy my millionaire status before the world ends or before the next election - whichever comes first. Who knows what the tax rate will be after that!
I should tell you that I’ve already been published in my third grade newspaper, so I’ll want the “royal treatment” when it comes to royalties. We can go over all that when I meat you in person. Yule love how punny I am.
Yesterday I got an exciting email from Chuck, the editor of the 2012 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market that I have an article in. Apparently, if I run a contest here on the blog, then he'll send the winner a free copy of the book. Pretty sweet, right?
So, I was trying to think what would make an appropriate contest for a book dedicated to finding your manuscript a home with the right editor or agent. And then I had it. What could be more perfect than a query letter contest? However, I just ran a query letter contest last spring.
And then I had an even more brilliant idea. I would make this the worst query letter ever contest. To enter this contest, your going to have to come up with most unbelievably awful query letter. Basically, you should take all the advice I've ever given you in the past and do the exact opposite. Then whichever fake letter is the worst, I'll critique on the blog so we can all review what should NOT be done.
To enter the contest:
Paste your fake query letter into one of the comments on this post. That way everyone can enjoy the awfulness.
All entries must be received by 11:59PM CST Friday, Sept. 23
We really want the query itself to be awful; however, the book being pitched shouldn't be ridiculous. Don't pitch offensive or really extreme books that no one would want even if the query was fantastic.
One winner will receive a copy of the 2012 CWIM direct from Writer's Digest. Should they choose to substitute prizes (like a copy of the excellent 2012 Guide to Literary Agents instead), I have no control over that. The winning entry will also be posted so that we all might critique/ridicule its awfulness.
I don't know if you know this, but apparently when you take a baby home you are legally obligated at some point in its life to write a sickeningly sweet philosophical post on "life lessons" you've learned from said baby.
Don't believe me? Then clearly you have not been on a parenting/website blog recently.
So, in order to fulfill my contractual obligation as a parent (it was in the fine print), here is my sappy post. At least it's writing related.
5 Writing Tips I Learned From My 2 Year Old
Never Be Afraid to Experiment -- My child will draw on anything, and we as writers should be willing to at least consider every writing idea that pops into our heads, no matter how ludicrous it may seem. After all, futuristic Roman gladiator games sounds kind of silly, but no one is going to argue with the success of The Hunger Games.
Never Be Afraid of Failure -- Because frankly, you can't ever entirely fail. As my child practices at writing and drawing he constantly improves. (Yes, I have a freakish child that with no prompting from me likes to try to draw letters.) He has mastered the O and I and almost has a recognizable A. And just like him, your writing improves both with every rewrite and in general as you practice it more. Eventually, you will have that idea that works.
Take as Many Breaks As You Need, But Finish Your Task Eventually -- This is true of not only attention span challenged toddlers, but us adults as well. Sometimes we become so frustrated or hungry or tired or whatever that we need to briefly step back from a project and get some space. This is fine, but at some point you have to come back and finish up.
Do Not Judge Yourself By Other People's Measuring Sticks -- For various reasons (including a brief period of partial deafness and a "by-myself" independence streak) my toddler has a serious speech delay. Other people's response to this range from condescending worry (from other parents who have decided my child is autistic -- he's not according to the various doctors/specialists) to complete unconcern (from his doctors and speech therapist who say he'll talk sometime before 5. 5!). The point of this is that you have to define your own measures of success. For some author success only comes after a certain advance or when they reach a certain level of sales. For others, success is finishing a manuscript. You have to decide for yourself otherwise you will drive yourself crazy trying to meet everyone else's (differing) expectations.
Praise is Great Fun, But No One Appreciates a Tantrum in Response to Negative Feedback -- This is pretty self-explanatory. We all like being told our stuff is good, but when we are told our stuff is not working, pouting or throwing a tantrum is not productive and often inappropriate. You don't have to take every piece of advice you receive, but you should at least objectively consider it.
Yesterday, I briefly touched on this rather shocking post I had read a few weeks ago. In it, the author describes how her site and blog have been the victim of various hate postings and hackings that have escalated to death threats. Specifically, she has been repeatedly told that if she goes to speak at various conferences, she will be hunted down and killed.
Hopefully something you & I will never see.
I was appalled at this, and I wondered what kind of controversial blog was the woman running. So, I searched and looked around her site expecting to find a political or religious or some other controversial oriented blog. Instead I found lots of posts on . . . social media and internet marketing. Now, I don't know about you but I don't consider social media to be the kind of concept that should inspire enough passion in a person to warrant death threats. I just personally can't find the energy (or interest) to become properly motivated to hate someone who tells you the most effective way to use Twitter.
(Of course there's more to the story, the hate originally came from someone accusing the woman of having an affair and then devolved into accusations of internet scamming. I do not know about the woman's personal life -- it's not relevant for the blog, and you can look on the site yourself to see if it's true. I will say that she has lots of content and appears to be running a real (not scam) internet marketing site, so that accusation appears false.)
The moral of this story is that no matter who you are or what you do, if someone takes it into their mind to ruin you, they can probably do it.
And since we all work in the children's book industry where even the tamest book can become controversial (after all more Banned Books are children's books than any other genre), let's review some internet safety precautions in case any of us ever come under attack for our writing (or some other reason).
Here are the rules I formulated for my sister (age 12 at the time) when I found her posting comments on this blog:
Never put your physical address where you live on anything public. That's what PO Boxes are for. (Be careful where you put your physical address in general. Even private pages can be hacked.)
Never put pictures of the front of your home online. It makes it easier for people to find where you live.
Minimize the use of family member names (I always refer to husband, baby, Assistant Editor, etc. This isn't just a cutesy thing to go along with the semi-anonymous feel of the blog. It protects their privacy.)
Remember that everything that goes up online is pretty much up there forever. Don't post a scandalous picture or a rude comment that you may regret 10 years later. (For authors, this means think twice before telling the world how much you hate XYZ editor or ABC publishing house. You may want to do business wi
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As I mentioned earlier, I was not having the greatest day. I mean you can only redo a site from scratch so many times in one day before it really starts to get miserable.
My little one working on his next explosion.
And then while I was working in my at-home office, it started to get kind of stinky. Since my two year old was in with me at the time, I assumed it meant he needed his diaper changed. I turned around to get him, only to discover him on the floor naked with his hands in his diaper grinning and squishing and grinding into the floor this new plah-doh like substance he had discovered. I have never manhandled a child into a shower so fast in my life. My office now smells like cleaning supplies with a hint of poop.
However, when the mail came, my husband brought me a book from my buddy over at Writer's Digest. Chuck had sent me my contributor's copy of the new CWIM. There was my article in this new shiny book.
I have to tell you, nothing fixes a day like seeing your name in print. It works for me every time.
So thank you, Chuch and CWIM and WD for making my day!
So, last week (or was it the week before? It's all blurring together) I was all set to blog about this horrifying post I read about where this blogger has been receiving death threats. However, before I could get going, my father-in-law had to have a quadruple bypass and then another surgery to install a pacemaker, and I found myself and my family away from home dealing with that. (He is recovering nicely now, but it was a hairy couple of days.)
Once I got back, I proceeded to work on various projects that I had fallen behind on, like rebuilding madelinesmoot.com. I must say, it was looking pretty marvelous.
I suspect this guy is more effective than me today.
Then this morning, I managed to delete the entire site. Yes, I did, and because I was using Wordpress, most of it was web-based and not on my local computer.
I reloaded Wordpress, uploaded my custom theme I had made and started over.
Two hours later I somehow managed to overwrite a key file requiring me to uninstall and reinstall Wordpress again. (I still don't know what I did or how I made the entire site unviewable.) I uploaded my custom theme again, reinstalled all of the plugins again, and wrote the copy for the site AGAIN.
So, if you're curious to see the site, and some of the different projects I've been working on for the past few months, head on over to madelinesmoot.com.
Now I just have to get the other 75% of the new Buried in the Slush Pile site up. Hopefully, I'll only half to do it once!
Yesterday we looked at primary characters, so today we'll look at secondary characters -- basically everybody else in your story.
He may be fully developed with distinctive traits, a personality, and back-story, but Dumbledore is a secondary character.
Secondary characters can be divided into 3 groups:
Major secondary characters: These are the ones we think of when we say secondary characters. These characters are nearly as important as the primary character(s) and may have their own backstories and subplots. In Harry Potter, some major secondary characters would be Ron, Hermione, Malfoy, Dumbledore, and Snape.
Minor secondary characters: These characters are less well-developed but are still distinctive enough to possibly be memorable. In Harry Potter, this would be the Weasley twins, Professor McGonagall, and Neville.
Filler characters: In a movie, these characters would basically be extras. They are the folks you need to fill out a scene or the world, but they are generally stock characters with no real distinctive features. In Harry Potter, most of the student body falls in this category.
Secondary characters are important for a variety of reasons. Obviously they help fill out your world. They make it more realistic. But what makes secondary characters so interesting is the way they interact with your primary character. A reader can learn a lot about a character by seeing how he/she interacts with others. (This is true about real people too.) It's a great way to impart information by showing it instead of telling it. Also, secondary characters will view the primary character different from the way the primary character views him/herself. This kind of multi-layered approach can really add depth both to your characters and the story as a whole.
Finally, secondary characters can act as a foil to the primary characters. For example Malfoy is the foil to Harry Potter in school. He is what Harry could have been had he been raised by an important wizarding family aware of his heritage instead of by the fiercely muggle Dursleys.
So, while I've been gone (from the blog) putting my office in order, I've been seriously thinking about the Buried Editor Book Club idea that was suggested as a use for the forum. I really liked the idea, but I didn't really know what books we should start with. And then we started the character discussions.
Last night, I had a scathingly brilliant idea, and I have decided that the first books for the Buried Editor Book Club should be books that are great works of character. And since we've been discussing primary and secondary characters and using secondary characters to help you show characteristics of your primary character, I have selected some books that I think exemplify this concept.
So, the first Buried Editor Book Club Selection is: 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill. In this book, the reader learns a lot about the first person narrator (the little girl) by how the other characters react to the things she does. However, what makes this book so extraordinary is that there is no dialogue, and the other characters never once say a word. It is all told in the pictures and in the way the girl reacts to the reactions.
That, at least is my opinion. However, this is a Book Club, and thus the book should be discussed. I would like to hear what others think about the book and the characters. I've already set up a discussion board. Go there and let me know what your ideas have been.
To get back to our character discussion, I think it's time to discuss a few of the traits that all great characters have in common. They are (in no particular order):
Anne of Green Gables may have red hair, but it's her love of drama that is the important character trait.
Significant Details These are not things like a characters hair color, eye color, or make and model of his/her car. These don't actually tell us anything about the character, they simply help the reader visualize the character's outside. What we are interested in are the things that tell us about the character herself. Does your character rub the inside of his elbow when he's nervous? This can be used as a detail every time he's in an uncomfortable situation. That way you don't have to tell "David is nervous." Instead you can show him rubbing his elbow.
You can tell the difference between significant and insignificant details pretty easily. The insignificant ones are the ones that are completely inconsequential. If I never told you that my character was a brunette, it would not change the story at all. In fact, if I make an insignificant detail signifcant (for instance the hero is blond), I have probably succumbed to stereotyping, a big no-no.
Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle believes herself to be the stereotyped oldest sibling from a fairy tale.
Avoid Stereotypes Obviously bad stereotypes based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. are absolute off limits, but you should avoid good stereotypes as well. (Example of a positive stereotype: people with glasses are smart.)
Sterotypes have the unfortunate effect of making a character seem two (or even one) dimensional. It also does the character a grave disservice by grossly oversimplifying him/her. You never want a simple primary character, even in a picture book. All of the best characters (including PB ones like Olivia or Fancy Nancy) have layers. Like a parfait.
Of course, occasionally authors deliberately make use of a stereotype to debunk it or to prove some type of point. That however is different than just using a stereotype for your main character and then moving on.
I had no idea, but it seems that May is National Short Story Month. I didn't know anything like that even existed, but it seems that it's celebrating it's 2nd or 4th year depending on how you look at it. (I found an interesting article on it here.)
I'm quite excited about this. I love short stories. There's nothing like being able to read an entire plot and character arc in a single sitting. I like being introduced to different ideas, concepts, and even writing styles in a short story anthology. And I love how compact a short story is; how every word counts.
So, to celebrate National Short Story Month and to incorporate the character discussions we are also having this month, I'm going to hold a little contest this week. I present the Buried Editor's Character Short Story Contest:
Take your main character from the story or picture book you are working on and write a 500-2000 word short story featuring that character. (Write an actual short story, not another picture book MS. For some short story writing tips, click here. To see the difference between a PB MS and a short story, click here.)
However, here's the catch. Your story must take place before the start of your existing story. In other words, the short story should be a prequel. Besides being good practice at writing a short story, this exercise should also help you become better acquainted with your primary character's back story.
The short story can be for any age range between read-aloud to teen. It just must be a short story.
To enter the contest, post your story before 11:59 CST Friday, May 6, 2011, on the Board I set up for the contest. I will pick my 2 favorite stories, and then the readers of this blog will vote on a winner.
The prize will be a signed copy of Mo Willems' latest picture book, Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator! This picture book is 6 1/2 short stories, so it seems like the perfect prize.
Any questions? Leave them in the comment field below!
(I originally wrote this from a bookseller's perspective for something else. However, we decided not to comment on the article after all, so I'm posting it here instead. What have been your thoughts on this issue?)
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal printed an article on young adult fiction that I assume was meant to be provoking. Filled with gross generalizations and fairly extreme examples, the article titled Darkness Too Visible basically complains that nearly all books published for teens today are filled with dark topics that leave teens with nothing to read. (In the interest of space, I am grossly oversimplifying the author's argument. I highly encourage everyone to draw their own conclusions by reading the article themselves here.) According to the author, teen fiction has become "So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18."
What teen section is this woman shopping in?
I read literally hundreds of books a year, most of them teen or upper middle-grade. (I am not exaggerating. On a good day with no interruption, I can read three full teen novels in a 10 hour period.) I don't like books with kids getting molested, or that have incest, or include gory, unnecessary violence, so I don't read books like that. Yet, I still manage to read tons of books every year.
Of course, I'm not saying those dark books aren't out there. Problem novels have been a staple of the YA cannon since the genre was first identified 40 years ago. And I'm also not saying that some of those problem novels aren't graphic or dealing with some difficult topics. If the topics seem more gruesome today, it's because they are no longer quite as taboo as they once were. Incest and child molestation has always existed, but people often (especially in the past) refuse to talk or acknowledge it. Teens cut themselves, fight addiction, deal with eating disorders and homosexuality. It may not be commonplace, but for the teens experiencing these problems, the pain is very real. However, nowadays people are better informed about these topics, both the causes and the effects. It's less surprising that such subjects now find their way into a very small portion of YA literature. After all, all literature is a reflection of the society which creates it. YA literature is no exception.
But despite the ever present problem novel and the current vogue for dystopic fiction (not even mentioned in the article), a majority of teen fiction does not fall in the "dark" but "light" category. After all, many readers, especially avid ones in my experience, read books for the fun escape, and these dark, hard-hitting books are not exactly "fun". They can be moving, gut-wrenching, or chilling, but they are rarely "fun". So, I have compiled a list of some of my favorite teen books that are fabulous reads about utterly frivolous subjects.
(Unlike the Wall Street Journal, I have not divided these books by sex. Many of these books can be equally enjoyed by boys or girls.)
Do you ever have a flurry of activity only to find yourself completely burnt out afterwards? You don't want to do anything so just skate by with the bare minimum?
Well, it's definitely not something I recommend, but it's what I've been doing this past month.
At Dallas ComicCon with my authors.
For me, the bare minimum has been keeping up the BookKids Blog, editing the Book of All Things, and making various promo items. (Did anyone get any of the Dry Souls trading cards at Dallas ComicCon?) But now after a fair amount of quality time with family and my iPad Smurfs (yes, I'm addicted), I feel able to think about the art of writing again.
But for today, I'm going to refer you to someone else's thoughts on writing. We had been discussing character, and I have found a wonderful article by Malinda Lo on writing about race in speculative fiction. I heard Malinda speak during the Diversity in YA tour, and she mentioned this article she had written. I looked it up and feel it fits perfectly with our discussion. So read it, and then let me know what you think about how you would treat this potentially controversial issue.
First off, I'd like to say welcome to all the folks who have discovered my blog from the CWIM article I wrote.
Second, I'd like to thank all of my current readers for being so patient while I spent the summer working at the bookstore and dealing with family health issues. We are fine now, but it's been a long hot summer.
However, I was able to work on some things, several of which are pretty exciting. Of course, the most exciting project has been the conversion of books to ebooks. I have now successfully converted all of Emerald Tablet to ebook, and I almost have the Kindle version done as well. Annnnnd, the Emerald Tablet has a beautiful, fabulous new cover. Take a look:
And, if you want to see the first 3 chapters of the Emerald Tablet (and PJ's new teen book -- not put out by CBAY, alas, but still cool), you can read the ebook sampler I put together for PJ. Click here to download it.