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Cheryl Klein is an editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic).
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1. This Is My Brain on Revising

(with my book due to my editor in fewer than two weeks)

SJKD;FIEWBNTBISLndjkfilgWEYGTBEHWYGF832G353BSJDKFNVIUNIo47brtntrlbyt23f5lbdishiuetblb t84295GAIUBFSEWG weuhi4b5laytbwoty4gbqtklhbglayeg8o8blef KBEDFIWEYRL

. . . That is actually a lie, but it was fun to write. My brain is tired but present, and mostly orderly. I have an entire edited ms. before me, with separate lists of things I need to do to implement said edits; I only need time to carry them out. I may not have enough time to carry them all out, and this distresses me extremely; but I will do the best I can, which is all anyone can do, and trust I'll get to revise it better still later. Onward! Or better: Excelsior!


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2. A Verbal Venn Diagram of My Summer 2015 List

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

  • Friendship!
  • Diversity!
  • Strong Female Characters!
  • Multiple starred reviews!
  • They're out now!
And a sixth, I guess:  I'm very proud of them! Here are brief descriptions, and a list of some of their other distinct and shared traits.


by Bill Konigsberg

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

The friends:  Carson Smith, Aisha Stinson

Shared traits with other books on this list:  Young adult; wildlife (symbolic); road trip; mystery; Internet searches; city setting (Billings, Salt Lake, and San Francisco); family

Distinct traits:  Contemplation of religion and God; improv comedy


by Cherie Priest
Art by Kali Ciesmeier

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

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

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

Distinct traits:  Hackers; printed in purple


by Megan Morrison

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

The friends:  Rapunzel, of the tower, and Jack, of beanstalk fame

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

Distinct traits:  Middle grade; debut novel


by Kate Beaton

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

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

Distinct traits:  Picture book; castles; sweaters; farting


by Daniel Jose Older

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

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

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

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


Thank you for checking these books out!

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3. Behind the Book AND Five Questions for Megan Morrison, author of GROUNDED: THE ADVENTURES OF RAPUNZEL



Megan Morrison and I met in 2003, via our mutual friend Melissa Anelli of the Harry Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron, and I read an early draft of Grounded in 2004. I liked its characters and action a lot -- Rapunzel descending from her tower against her will, and traveling across the land of Tyme with a thief named Jack -- but to my eye, it didn't have enough emotional and world-building depth to elevate it from "cute and smart" to "real and meaningful," and I thought Meg could do more with it. So I told her that, in a three-page editorial letter, and offered to look at a revision when she was ready.

I did not think at the time--and nor did Meg--that this readiness would take eight years. But when she contacted me about the ms. again in 2012, she said that she had rewritten the book, "revised the rewrite, plotted the entire series in detail from back to front, and then revised it again. . . . Though the plot sounds similar to what it was, the book is very different, with a cast of characters who are fully realized and motivated, including the peripheral characters, who don't come to the fore until later books in the series. I love it and believe in it." I had never forgotten Grounded--and in fact had been hoping for this e-mail for eight years--so I asked to see it again.

And this time, I loved it and believed in it too, as Meg was 100% right in her estimation of her revised novel. I adore fairy tales in part because the transformations they contain speak to some of our deepest human stories and relationships, and my favorite retellings round out those transformations with complex psychology and world-building, while honoring the readerly pleasures of wonder or romance or connection at their heart. The new Grounded kept all the charm of Rapunzel and Jack's banter and the cleverness of the land of Tyme, whose history, geography, and even the resulting economics and sociology have all been fully thought through. But it achieved the reality and deeper meaning I'd been hoping for, thanks to Rapunzel's complex relationship with her Witch, whom she truly loves, and who has good reason to keep her in the tower; and Rapunzel's own process of growing up, finding out hard truths, and yet moving forward into wholeness. The book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me intensely happy as a reader; and since it came out earlier this month, both Meg and I have been delighted by its critical reception -- including two starred reviews! -- which has praised both its many pleasures and that emotional depth. (It's also an Amazon.com Best Book of the Month for May.) Publishing it has reminded me yet again:  Good things come to editors who wait.

Four more notes, before I share Meg's Five Questions:

  • You can actually see a rare scene of the editor and author at work, sort of, in Melissa Anelli's Harry, A History. Page 79 documents a writing weekend among the three of us that took place at my apartment, where Meg was working on Grounded, Melissa was writing for the Leaky Cauldron, and I was editing A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce, another great fairy-tale retelling. (And also making pancakes.)
  • This entire series of five-question posts was actually inspired by Meg herself, as she's written "Five Reasons to Read _________" posts like this one on her blog for years. 
  • Meg wrote about her side of this story at Literary Rambles and in this interview, which also reflects on her experience as a Harry Potter fan and a fanfiction author.
  • And Meg and her friend Kristin Brown, who's a professional geographer, talk about their collaboration in creating "plausible geography" for Tyme in this fascinating interview.
Five Questions for Megan Morrison


1.      Tell us a little bit about your book.

It’s the story of Rapunzel – the hair, the tower, the witch – except that my Rapunzel loves her tower and doesn’t want to leave it. She has everything she wants and thinks she is the luckiest person in the world. Until things go wrong, and she learns otherwise.

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

I actually have a whole playlist for Grounded. It’s here on Spotify.

If I were to choose just one song, it would have to be “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell). This is Witch’s promise to Rapunzel: that she will allow nothing to divide them – that she’ll rescue her from anything. It’s a very different song at the beginning of the book than it is at the end.


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

Sometimes, the idea for a story will come before the writer is ready to meet it. That doesn’t mean that the writer should stop writing or give up on the idea, but it means that the story won’t mature until the writer does. I had the idea for Grounded long before I was equipped to write it well. Life experiences – in particular becoming a mother and a teacher – were necessary. Not that those particular experiences are prerequisites for writing. Far from it. They were just necessary for me. They changed me in big, important ways, and strengthened me as both a storyteller and as a professional. My work ethic and my openness to criticism are vastly improved over what they were ten years ago. I have hardened and mellowed both, in the ways that I needed to. 

4.      What is your favorite scene in the book?

Rapunzel’s conversation with Witch at the end.

That’s a hard question, though. Whenever Rapunzel and Jack are talking to each other, I am delighted.

5.      What are you working on now?

The second book in the Tyme series! A different fairy tale, set in the same world. Many characters who appear in Grounded will show up again. 


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4. Five Questions for Lindsay Eyre, author of THE BEST FRIEND BATTLE



1. Tell us a little bit about your book.

Sylvie Scruggs is the heroine of this series, and she’s a lot like her name: interesting, energetic, and a little rough around the edges. In The Best Friend Battle, Sylvie comes home from a family vacation to find that her best friend, Miranda, has made friends with the enemy, Georgie Diaz. Sylvie’s entire world is threatened by this new friendship, and she does everything she can to get things back to normal. But normal doesn’t come easily, and Sylvie seems to have a penchant for making difficult situations much, much worse!

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

Sylvie’s theme song would probably be "Life’s a Happy Song" from the new Muppet movie. It’s all about how life is a happy thing if and only if you have someone, a best friend, to share it with. But what happens when you don’t? (Sylvie does not want to find out.)


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

Writing this book was not easy. I don’t believe (or at least I don’t like very much) writers who claim writing is an easy thing whether they are writing their first book or their hundredth, but certain things can make writing go much more smoothly. When you can hear the voice of your main character — when that person is large-as-life in your head — many difficult issues take care of themselves. Your writing struggles will revolve around plot, not plot and character. As flawed as Sylvie is, she’s now a friend I could sit down with and have a conversation about anything from mushrooms to ice dancing. That familiarity makes writing (mostly) a pleasure. I don’t always know what will happen to Sylvie or even what she will do, but I usually know what she would have to say about it!

4. What is your favorite scene in the book? 

The scene where Josh and Sylvie build the castle together. I love Josh (who gets a big role in Sylvie’s third book) and all of his interactions with Sylvie.

5. What are you working on now? 

Sylvie’s second adventure, The Mean Girl Meltdown, is in the final stages of publication [editor's note:  out this fall!], and her third book, The Spelling Bee Scuffle, is in beginning stages of the editorial process. I’m also working on a novel about a twelve-year-old girl named Rory, the middle child in a dysfunctional and eccentric family, whose mother is in Sweden for a month. As Rory, a very different character than Sylvie, attempts to save the family from their dictatorial grandmother and an impending eviction, she alienates her best friend, Owen, nearly kills her younger brother, and gets her grandmother arrested for illegal possession of a motorcycle. This book has been much harder for me to write because of what I was speaking about earlier — knowing your characters. I get into the heads of many characters in Rory’s book, and I’m finding out very quickly that I know some of them much better than I know others!

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5. "The Way It Is," by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

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6. Five Questions for Trent Reedy, author of BURNING NATION

(The first in a new series of brief interviews with authors of forthcoming books)


1. Tell us a little bit about your book.

Burning Nation is the second book in the Divided We Fall trilogy. It continues the story of seventeen-year-old Idaho Army National Guardsman PFC Danny Wright and his friends as they are stuck in the middle of a tense stand-off between the state of Idaho and the federal government of the United States. In the first book, Divided We Fall, Idaho has voted to nullify the Federal Identification Card Act. When Danny’s National Guard unit is sent to quell a protest/riot resulting from this nullification, he accidentally fires his rifle, which causes other people to shoot, leaving twelve dead and nine wounded. The president demands an investigation and prosecution. The governor of Idaho refuses to cooperate, saying that he gave a lawful order to the National Guardsmen under his command.

Burning Nation begins right where the first book left off, with the president sending the military to force Idaho to comply with federal law. Right from the beginning, Danny and his friends are caught up in the fight, but as the country descends into the chaos of the Second American Civil War, losses begin to take their toll. It becomes hard to understand what has been won, but easy to see what’s been lost. As the sacrifices mount and betrayals abound, Danny and his friends begin to think about the wounds they’ve suffered, inside and out.

It’s an action-packed book that continues to explore what happens when America’s current political divide widens into tomorrow’s nightmare, and it’s alarming how many real-life headlines seem to have been predicted by Divided We Fall and Burning Nation.

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

Ten years ago, when my fellow soldiers and I were serving in Farah Province in Afghanistan, we were struck by how much the landscape resembled that featured in the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. That movie features a song by Tina Turner called "We Don’t Need Another Hero." My fellow soldiers would joke about this song, with one man saying, “We don’t need another hero” and another replying, “We don’t even know the way home.” The video is a bit dated and cheesy, but if you listen to the words, the song really fits as a commentary on the brutality and waste of war that is very appropriate for Burning Nation.


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

When I began work on Burning Nation, I was under the naive assumption that writing the book would be easier because I had already finished Divided We Fall. I knew the characters, the setting, and at least the situation that led to the events in Burning Nation. I should have known that Burning Nation would be as significant if not a greater challenge than the first book. One of the challenges came from the situation the characters face. Throughout most of Burning Nation Danny and his friends must endure a federal military occupation of their small northern Idaho town. With U.S. soldiers hunting for them all the time, their movements, and thus my options for the kinds of scenes I could include, felt rather limited. I began to feel almost as claustrophobic as Danny and his fellow soldiers.

Another challenge with writing Burning Nation was that it was the second part of a story that already had its first part on the market. I was facing a situation that was new to me, that of having public feedback on characters and other aspects of the larger Divided We Fall story, while I was writing that story’s second installment. It felt like having many, sometimes too many, advisors in my office with me while I worked. Cheryl was wise, as she usually is, when she encouraged me to stop looking at reviews and reader comments as I worked on Burning Nation.

4. What is your favorite scene in the book?

I’m really quite happy with a lot of the scenes in Burning Nation, so I’m going to cheat and list two. First, since Burning Nation isn’t merely an action/war book, but is a piece which, I hope, encourages the reader to think about the terrible nature of war and its effects on those who live through it, I’d like to point out a scene that happens after Danny Wright has been through terrible physical and emotional torture. He is out of his mind from sleep deprivation and other torments, and when his one-time rival TJ bursts into his cell to rescue him, Danny isn’t sure if what is happening is even real. He’s confused and kind of cries, “Travis?” Travis Jones realizes that Danny is seriously messed up and it’s going to be harder to rescue him than he and his friends supposed. It’s a small moment, but I hope there’s a lot of emotion in that simple question, that exhausted and near-breaking-point, “Travis?”

And since I love some good action, I’m also quite happy with a hand-to-hand fight scene near the end of the book. It’s a fight between Danny and a U.S. Army major, a desperate fight to the death where Danny has to make an important decision about how deep into the war he’s willing to go, and how much of himself he wants to save. In addition to the moral question the fight raises, I just think it’s a clear scene, a tense and suspenseful fight. And the conclusion of the scene is really quite chilling.

5. What are you working on now?

I am hard at work on the third book in the Divided We Fall trilogy, entitled The Last Full Measure. The story follows America’s further final decline into a terrible civil war, and the difficult consequences this has for Danny Wright and his friends. I’m having lots of fun working on it, and it’s on schedule for a 2016 release.

For more about this book, including an excerpt, reviews, and purchase information, visit the Burning Nation page on the Arthur A. Levine Books website. 

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7. Happy News

This appeared today in the Publishers Weekly Children's Bookshelf e-newsletter:

Amy Cherry at W. W. Norton has acquired Cheryl Klein’s book on writing children’s and young adult fiction. Previously self-published as Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, Klein will be revising, re-writing, and updating the book. Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/ Scholastic, where she served as the continuity editor for the last two books of the Harry Potter series, and she also teaches in the publishing program at the NYU School of Professional Studies. Publication is planned for September 2016; Brianne Johnson at Writers House negotiated the deal for World English rights.
Hooray!

Some PAQ (Possibly Asked Questions):

W. W. Norton!

I know! The Norton Anthologies! And Michael Lewis! And Patrick O'Brian (swoon)! I am thrilled.

How will the new book be different from Second Sight?

We are still talking this through, but my goal is that it will be a more complete and fully integrated guide to writing fiction for children and young adults, with a structure that walks writers through all the major elements of fiction and the writing process, accompanied by exercises, worksheets, and practical examples to help them apply the ideas on the page. Much of the material will be new, and much of what is taken from Second Sight will be extensively revised.

So you're not self-publishing anymore. Why not?

This new project started because I wanted to revise Second Sight into the book I describe above. As I thought about what it would take for me to do that, I realized that I was (and am) at a different place in my life than I was when I put Second Sight together, and I could really use the support, structure, challenge, and deadlines provided by a traditional publisher.

When people have asked me about self-publishing in the past, I've always said that neither traditional nor self-publishing should be the universal prescription for every writer and every project -- that the choice always depends upon the nature of the book, its market, and the writer's abilities and expectations in relation to the project. This was the right book and the right time for me to switch to traditional publishing, and I'm very grateful to Brianne for encouraging me and connecting me with Amy at Norton.

What will happen with Second Sight?

Second Sight is now going into its fourth printing (also hooray!), and should remain on sale for at least the next year and a half. It is still available through Amazon, at my appearances, or by contacting me directly at asterisk [dot] bks [at] gmail [dot] com. I also remain enormously grateful to everyone who has supported the book through the years, and everyone who's told me about their experiences with it, good and bad. (Much of that criticism is informing the new draft.)

What's it like to be on the other side of the editorial desk?

Pleasant and yet extremely weird.

What will the title of the new book be?

We're still working on that, but I have faith the right title will come in time. Most titles do. (And suggestions welcome.)

Thank you for your interest!

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8. 2014 Statistics on Children's/YA Books by Race/Ethnicity

Yesterday, the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin released its annual report on the number of children's/YA books by and about people of color published in 2014. I made up the following chart for use in my NYU Editing Workshop, shared it on social media, and put it up here so it has a permanent home (click for larger view):

It should be noted that the CCBC does not create or provide statistics on either the U.S. population or the number of books by white people; those are my additions for comparison's sake. The percentages are also my math, so any errors are my own. Further to the question of how many protagonists of children's books are objects or animals and thus less likely to have an obvious race/ethnicity, KT Horning, the director of the CCBC, pointed me to this blog post she wrote in 2013 on that topic.

I am delighted to see the year-over-year almost-doubling of the number of Black and Asian book creators. But still:  We can do much better, people.  

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9. Oh My Goodness, I Almost Missed This

Today, February 4, 2015, is the ten-year anniversary of Brooklyn Arden!


This blog took its current form one Friday night when I was home alone and lonely, and consequently decided to talk out loud to the Internet. The years I've spent talking out loud here since led directly to writers' conference appearances, new publishing projects, my website, my book, and many, many great conversations and connections. (As well as much enjoyable silliness:  See here and here.) The Internet and my life have changed enormously since I started writing in this space, and I'm a little sad I don't chatter as much here anymore. But I am also enormously grateful to this blog for the chance to "know what I think when I see what I say" for the past ten years, and to all of you for coming here, seeing it, and sometimes saying back. Thank you.

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10. 2014 Editorial Year in Review

I published eleven books this year -- my most ever! I did not write about those titles here so much, however, because I was spending much of my time readying my 2015 books. (Such is publishing.) But I'm very proud of them all, and as always it was a pleasure to have such a wide-ranging list . . . to be able to turn from the proofs on Divided We Fall, say -- a YA novel about the start of the second American civil war -- to figuring out what piece of classic artwork would match a particular stage of our heroine's journey in I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed A Dreidel. (You'd have to see the book to get it.) So yay for my 2014 list!

Divided We Fall 
by Trent Reedy


Gold Medal Winter
by Donna Freitas


Amber House:  Neverwas
by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed


The Good-Pie Party
by Liz Garton Scanlon
illustrated by Kady Macdonald Denton


Curses and Smoke:  A Novel of Pompeii 
by Vicky Alvear Shecter


The Great Greene Heist
by Varian Johnson


Zoe's Jungle
by Bethanie Murguia


What's New? The Zoo! A Zippy History of Zoos
by Kathy Krull, illustrated by Marcellus Hall


If You're Reading This
by Trent Reedy



Finding Ruby Starling

by Karen Rivers


I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel
by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by David Slonim



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11. A Ramble: The Elements of Writerly Talent and Improvement

"A writer needs three things:  experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." -- William Faulkner

A writer on my Facebook feed asked a question of his fellow writers recently:  How much of writing success is talent, how much perseverance, how much conscious education in craft? I've thought about this a lot as well, so I'm going to ramble on about it for a bit. "Success" we're going to define here as "The ability to achieve the ends you want to achieve aesthetically for both yourself and a reader"; the elements of publishing/sales success are related, but much less in the writer's control. 

First, talent. I actually don't think "talent" as a term is very useful, because what we mean when we talk about "talent" breaks down into a number of constituent elements that are more interesting and helpful to discuss. To wit, I believe "talent" is actually a combination of:

Imagination:  The writer is capable of envisioning and creating on paper something new on this earth:  a new human being, a new form of magic, a new planet, a new story. Of course this is what most writers do, but writers who are gifted in imagination take that a step beyond, to put together things no one else has thought to join before, and then render those inventions thrillingly real and meaningful:  Ursula K. LeGuin with the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, or Shaun Tan's faceless exterminators in one of the nightmare worlds of The Arrival, or Neil Gaiman relocating gods from all around the world to the United States in American Gods, or J. K. Rowling's conception of wands as indicators of personality. Or these gifted writers demonstrate great depth and breadth in what they imagine.... Half of Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in a cramped, fluorescent-lit African hair-braiding shop shown in such well-chosen detail that readers can scent the oils in the air. Or Patrick O'Brian created Stephen Maturin, a short, half-Irish, half-Catalan doctor, naturalist, spy, violin player, Catholic, opium addict, faithful lover, terrible husband, worse housekeeper, excellent friend, awful seaman, who is more real to me than half of my acquaintance, because Mr. O'Brian imagined him that deeply and wonderfully. An original imagination, as with Ms. LeGuin or Mr. Gaiman, will attract readers for the chance to expand our minds beyond the familiar; a deep imagination, as with Ms. Adichie or Mr. O'Brian, will attract readers for the chance to delve farther into what we already know is real. Either way, they offer the pleasure of discovery to readers, who then feel they can confidently come to this writer to see something new. 

Observational Skill, leading to Emotional and Philosophical Insight: The writers whom I admire most are ones who are capable of creating human beings whom I believe in as real people, and then using those characters to say something true and maybe new about the real world that is all around us. That requires these writers (1) to have observed human beings carefully, and remembered and thought about what they observed, so they could combine those thoughts with their imaginations, and create characters with the histories and personalities and all-around richness of real people. (That in turn requires writers to have an interest in human beings to start with, and the skill and patience to observe and remember and analyze. Not all people have those qualities.) And (2) the writers must have something to say about our world -- about race, or death, or politics, or war, or how love feels, or the pleasure of hating something. Some of this wisdom can come about through observation, but a lot more arrives via life experience -- especially pain, if you can use it well.

Dramatic Skill:  The ability to make observed or imagined creations join together and move on the page in some emotionally compelling action. This usually involves a sense of timing on the writer's part -- knowing just how long to let the lovers stare into each others' faces before a kiss, or how to make a fight scene move at the proper speed. And it involves a sense of what is dramatically compelling to other people:  Not just that you have two men sitting on a stage for hours, but giving them something to do or to talk about, even if it's the fact that they aren't going anywhere. 

Writing Craft:  The ability to put the results of all this imagination and insight down on the page in a manner that clearly communicates those thoughts and feelings to a reader. That simple, and that hard. 

All of these things could be inborn, or they could germinate through the years before the writer starts to write, in combination with one other element that isn't exactly talent, but is absolutely essential to a writer's development:

Unconscious Reading:  Thirty percent of writing well is getting good prose and story structures into your bloodstream -- or maybe forty or fifty percent, I don't know. The younger you start, the better; the more you read, the better. (I often read submissions with prose that I find just not very good, and I think "This writer hasn't read enough good prose" -- the Writing Craft part of their talent just isn't there yet.) Your reading forms your sense of sentence structure: I spent ages 13-21 more or less living in Jane Austen novels, and as a result of the way her work blossomed in my brain, I am close to incapable of writing a sentence with simple structure and fewer than five words. Your reading also defines your vocabulary, which in turn defines the store of words available to you to convey whatever you want to say. The content of what you read then determines what defines a good story for you -- whether it's giant wham-pow fights or witty banter or two characters having long philosophical dialogues. That often becomes the kind of story you will end up writing in fiction, because that is what makes you happy as a reader. Or it becomes what you react against, as you see a story created by someone else, and you want to tell it your way, or just better. 

Your reading combines with all of the elements of talent identified above, especially dramatic skill and writing craft, to form the base level at which you work, the moment you decide to sit down in front of a blank page. And then you have to:

Practice:  So. Much. Practice. "I know what I think when I see what I say," E. M. Forster said, and a writer's unique personality and the range of their abilities can emerge only through doing a lot of saying -- writing, and writing, and writing, and then revising, revising, revising. Practice is the only thing that can help you close the Taste Gap, as Ira Glass calls it:  "Do a huge volume of work." It helps you develop confidence, as you see what you're good at and figure out how to fix the issues that come up in the Taste Gap. That confidence then frees you up to take risks and try new things. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, if all the skill and wisdom and imagination of Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Paterson and Ray Bradbury flows in your veins:  You will never become a good writer without practice and then more practice.

Let's say you have talent and you're practicing regularly in order to get better. The following things can then help you improve and/or increase your odds of writerly success as well:

Conscious Reading:  Separate from the Unconscious Reading above:  This is the reading you do to study the techniques other writers use to achieve their effects. You can then imitate or steal those effects for your own ends. When I wrote "So. Much. Practice." above, I was stealing an effect I have seen in many, many places -- mostly online, but I think it's shown up in printed work as well -- where those ultra-short sentences (hey, fewer than five words!) give the point about the necessity of practice extra weight by virtue of their brevity. Studying books about writing and storycraft (like my own Second Sight) would also fall into this category.

Cultivating a Process:  Write longhand first, then dictate that writing into a computer. Type 50,000 words in thirty days. Create a detailed outline of each scene and plot point, then flesh it out in prose. Be Anthony freaking Trollope and write precisely 250 words every fifteen minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning. Post all your writing on the Internet and get feedback from anonymous commenters. Never let any civilians see a word until your editor has reviewed the entire novel and approved of it. It doesn't matter what you do, and there is no wrong way to do it. Just find a writing and revising process that helps you do your best work.

Choosing the Right Material:  In the fall of 1815, Jane Austen entered into a correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, a cleric who served as domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent of England. Mr. Clarke suggested several ideas for possible future novels Miss Austen might write, and she turned them down in a wise letter dated April 1, 1816:
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in -- but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
I love this letter partly for the personalities that shine through for both parties -- Mr. Clarke clearly thinking no writer could want anything more in life than to recommend themselves to the Prince Regent; Miss Austen clearly thinking how much he resembles her own Mr. Collins. But I love it more because it is such a wonderful example of writerly common sense and self-knowledge:  She knows what her personal fictional strengths and limitations are, and what she enjoys writing in general, and she chooses to work within those boundaries. Or put another way, she knows what her fictional values are -- laughter and real people in country villages, not the highfalutin' pretentiousness of the serious romances of the time -- and she writes within and to satisfy those values. The result is six of the most enjoyable and wise novels in the English language, and I think I speak for most Austen fans in saying we are immensely grateful to have her Persuasion (the novel she wrote after this exchange) in place of any historical romance about the House of Saxe-Coburg. 

So what is the right material for your personal fictional values and range of practice, your strengths and limitations? What will you enjoy writing, and what are you good at writing? Finding a subject matter and style that brings all of that in line will vastly increase your odds of being successful as a writer -- especially if it's also material that uses the element of talent at which you're strongest to its utmost. (Jane Austen had a deep imagination, but perhaps not a hugely original one; enough dramatic skill to tell the domestic-village stories she wanted to tell, and then observational skill and insight out the wazoo. And then all of her teens and twenties were spent in reading and practice, most of it thoroughly delightful.) 

Cultivating a Purpose:  Why do you write? This is very useful to know, because it is what will keep you going, especially in finishing something: the need to see a story completed, or get paid, or receive other people's praise, or teach others a lesson, or make some noise, or think out loud. (The latter is mostly why I write, and why I write at such length; once I start getting my thoughts out through my fingers, I feel vaguely unsatisfied until those thoughts are out in full.) 


Finding Congenial Sources of Feedback: People who understand what you're trying to do, and can tell you where you succeed and where you're falling short. Essential for course corrections when you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve, feedback for knowing whether you're getting there, and emotional support all around.

If you have talent of some kind and then all of the above working together, then the last thing you need is:

Perseverance:  Sheer cussedness, frankly, to stick with the practice and the submissions, the slowness and the unfairness, the damned taste gap and the jealousy, the reviews that don't get it and the reviews that do and then correctly identify the places you failed (which are even worse). The lovely moments in writing are truly lovely, when you nail that thought down in words, when you change a reader's way of thinking and they write to tell you so. You need perseverance to pull you over the many moments in between. 

Writers, readers, reviewers:  Is there anything I'm missing here? What else do you think is necessary for becoming a great writer? 

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12. The Quote File: Talent

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." -- Thomas Jefferson 

"The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck." -- Hector Berlioz

"Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except the best." -- Henry van Dyke

"The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Talent develops in tranquillity, character in the full current of human life." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage." -- Sydney Smith 

"Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential." -- Jessamyn West

"If you want to write anything that works, you have to go with the grain of your talent, not against it. If your imagination is inert and sullen in the face of business or politics...but takes fire at the thought of ghosts and vampires and witches and demons, then feed the flames, feed the flames." -- Philip Pullman

"Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him." -- Mel Brooks

"The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved." -- Marge Piercey

"Talent is cheap. What matters is discipline." -- Andre Dubus

"Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so." -- Doris Lessing

"True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius." -- Felix E. Schelling

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13. A New Episode of the Narrative Breakdown & My NYPL Panel on Native American YA Literature

Guess what? Those two things in my subject line are one and the same thing! We have a new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up, which also happens to be a recording of a panel I mentioned many moons ago:   me, fellow editor and publisher Stacy Whitman, and our authors Eric Gansworth and Joseph Bruchac, respectively, discussing their books If I Ever Get Out of Here and Killer of Enemies, respectively. It was a really great, meaty, interesting conversation (IMO) about how Stacy and I came to edit these books, editor-author relationships in general, writing YA, privilege, and cross-cultural publishing. And now you can see a writeup of it from Publishers Weekly at this link, and listen to the full recording here. Thanks for checking it out!

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14. Registration Open for Spring 2015 NYU Editing Class

I'm delighted to say that I'll again be teaching a Book Editing Manuscript Workshop in Editing Children's and YA Novels at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, starting in mid-February 2015. I had a ton of fun putting the course together and working with my students this past year, and I'm looking forward to getting to know a new group of aspiring editors next spring.

(And I should say this course is very much intended for publishing professionals who want to know what goes into editorial work or get ideas for developing their own editorial work -- editorial assistants or aspiring assistants, agents, fellow practicing editors. Writers might get something out of it, but the focus is entirely on on how to be an effective editor for others, not on how to improve your own novelistic craft.)

Here's the course description in full:

Calibrating a characterization. Structuring a plot. Developing a theme. Polishing the prose. And bringing all of these elements into perfect balance to help a book become what it should be. In this eight-week course, we’ll learn how to practice these editorial skills, with special attention to the particular requirements of the child and young-adult audiences, and discuss the creation of the right public image for a book through its flap copy, cover, and editorial presentations.
If you're interested, you can see more details and register here, and I'd be happy to answer any questions in the comments. Thank you!

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15. Win an Hour's Editorial Consultation with Me!

I will read a portion of your manuscript or your synopsis, offer advice on agents or the market, critique a query letter, chat about plot or character or world-building. . . . In general, my brain will be at your service for pretty much anything literary- or publishing-related for an hour, and all for a good cause:  my dear Park Slope United Methodist Church. 


The auction runs through November 14. To bid, click here.

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16. A Terrific Panel: "The Importance of All Children Seeing Themselves in Literature"





In mid-August, I had the privilege of moderating a panel on diversity in children's literature with four wonderful authors: Lisa Yee, Sonia Manzano, Sharon Robinson, and Varian Johnson. There was one embarrassing slip-up from me that I'll let you all discover for yourselves, and otherwise, a lot of wise things said about reading and writing books in general -- not just books with diverse characters, or by diverse authors. Highly recommended!

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17. Some Wise Words from Kirk Lynn

One of the most thought-provoking plays I've seen this year was Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, at Playwrights Horizons, by the playwright Kirk Lynn. The theatre distributed a printed Q&A with Mr. Lynn after the show, and I've kept it for several months because there's a lot in the following that really resonates with me about art and life:

Q: You recently started running the UT Austin Playwriting and Directing program. What’s your pedagogy? What’s required reading in your playwriting courses?
A: ... The most controversial thing about me as a teacher, which surprises me, is that I—trained by my wife, who’s a poet—have really come to believe in a catholic taste: you should like everything; you should read everything. And this ties back to the no-experts thing. If you see something and think it’s totally full of shit, then you probably haven’t studied it enough. And you should spend time in its presence. I say this sentence, which I borrow from this classical music scholar Charles Rosen, who’s now dead. He said, “Admirers are never wrong.” For example, I find Shaw to be really stuffy. But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. They’re not wrong. And if I place myself in their proximity, I can learn to appreciate—you can learn to appreciate any kind of art. I say this to my students and, more than any other crazy shit I say, that’s the one where people just get outraged. They think the avant-garde is full of shit, or they think the Well-Made-Play is full of shit. They don’t want to task themselves with the possibility that they’re full of shit and they can learn something from all of these. 

When I was first dating my wife, I would wake up and she’d be sitting up in a chair, with a little light on, reading poetry constantly, every morning. I would always ask her, “What are you reading?” She would tell me, and I’d be like, “Do you like it? Is it good?” And she’d be like, “No.” And, just, the discipline of reading everything in the world because you’re an artist, and to be in conversation with it, seemed so radical to me. It has since become a practice of mine, to try and place myself—as much as I want to be in the company of plays that speak to me about my life—to put myself in the company of Shaw because I do not understand what he’s doing or why, and I need to stretch those muscles. 

If nothing else, it’s just a more interesting world to live in. 

I believe in this Wittgensteinian philosophy that words don’t correspond to meaning. There’s not a thing called “love” that actually corresponds to the word, there’s a kind of cloud of understanding that is different for each of us. So if I say I love you, you understand it as you understand love, but you don’t understand it as I understand it, and there’s a Venn diagram of how we sort of overlap in understanding. And if every word works like that, then making meaning together as humans is very complicated and we have to agree that there’s some leeway, that there’s not a right understanding of those things. That there’s not a right way to live, even. 

So you got a text from your wife last night after the preview, about how your daughter Olive has a crush—

—I don’t know if we should say his name! It’s Daniel.

We’ll just call him “D---.” And you were so excited about it. Can you talk about why?

Yeah, this’ll probably make me cry more than anything else. Some of it’s just longing, because I miss my daughter and it’s fun to know about her life. It’s also such a great mystery.  It’s interesting to have kids and realize that I’m not the central character in Olive’s life; Olive is the central character in her life. And [my son] Judah is the central character in his life. …I think there’s a little bit of fear in me that it will turn out that something like Christianity’s true, and I’ll become a crazy person who, like, wanders up and down the highway with a cross on my shoulder, shouting like, “Pleeeease repent.” Because if any of that is true, if what Christians believe is true, then everything you do is all wrong. There’s no sense in doing any of this. Making plays, being married. There’s just heaven and hell, and everyone’s fucking up really bad. I’m fucking up really bad. I don’t believe that’s true, thank goodness, but I do think placing yourself in service to people, there is a kind of—

You sort of make up for your narcissism by loving people. Does that make any sense? So knowing that my daughter is having this life, outside me, where she has her own friends at school, and she won’t tell me about any of them, and she has a crush at age three and a half, it just seems like a miracle. It seems like magic. And my job is to serve Olive so that she can have better and better crushes with crazier and crazier three-year-olds, and then four-year-olds, and then five-year-olds. That seems to me to be in the presence of the great mystery. It is insane that there’s a living being that I’m responsible for in some sense, and then that living being will jump ship and go off into the world and have the same experiences, both terribly traumatic and hard. And just the crushing sorrow and depression and, god forbid, addiction, anxiety, abuse, all those things. But then she’ll also have the experiences of friendship, and love—it’s insane. It’s a terrible system that we’re involved with! It seems poorly structured. My daughter’s life is this great thing that’s gonna unfold before me, and I get to watch it, and even participate a little bit. By recommending Daniel over, say, Ethan.


I think what I really appreciate and admire in this are Mr. Lynn's ideas that there is something to be learned from everything, even the things that don't resonate with you at all, about how art is made or how lives are lived. And how he decenters himself repeatedly, first from a universal absoluteness of meaning in language (meaning that all meanings would be dictated by him), and then from his daughter's life -- recognizing that she's her own person, doing her own thing, at age three, and finding that beautiful and sacred. To read the entire Q&A, click here.

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18. New Plot Master Class Opportunity in Brooklyn

On Saturday, November 8, I'll be teaching my Plot Master Class as a one-day workshop to benefit Park Slope United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York. The Master Class forces you to take an in-depth look at the plot of your manuscript through the pre-class homework; then I dissect all of the elements of plot in the course of the workshop; and then we put everything back together again by the end, at which point you should have plenty of knowledge about making plots operate effectively, and a number of tools to strengthen your own. It's the most popular course I offer, as I've taught it both online and at multiple locations around the country, and while it's always an intense* day, it's always a lot of fun too.

And this edition is truly for a good cause, as all proceeds will go directly to Park Slope United Methodist, my lovely, progressive, inclusive, social justice-minded church in Brooklyn,** which will also host the event. As this is being independently organized, you do not have to be a member of SCBWI or any other writers' group to attend; all you have to have is a manuscript in mind, a curiosity about plot, the cost of the fee, and the ability to get to Brooklyn on Saturday the 8th. Please check out the registration page here, and if you have any other questions, feel free to e-mail me through that page or leave them in the comments below. Thank you!

Oh! And while I am here and talking publishing:  The newest episode of The Narrative Breakdown features me and Katy Beebe -- also known as KTBB among commenters here, also known as my best friend -- talking about query letters. Katy wrote the original Query Letter from Hell that appears in Second Sight, and anyone who can parody something better know her subject inside and outAnd indeed, Katy also wrote an impeccable query letter for her picture book Brother Hugo and the Bear, which was published by Eerdmans earlier this year.


We discuss both of these queries in the course of the episode, and throw in some advice on copyright, synopses, and effective summaries besides. Please check the show out!

_____________________________
* Read:  slightly brain-melting (but in an enjoyable way).

** If you want to take the Master Class but for some reason you object to the funds going to a church, let me know, and I'm sure we can work something out. 

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19. A Few Brief Things

Also known as, "I was tired of seeing the stalker post first on my blog."

  • But good news on that front! Melissa was interviewed by both a New Zealand reporter and NPR regarding the situation, and we're hopeful this attention has created some new movement on the case. At the very least, she has appreciated all the support.
  • Nice awards news: The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb DID win the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award back in January, as well as the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Teens! Yay Neal!
  • And just yesterday, Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight won the SCBWI's Sid Fleischman Award for Humor! As a friend of mine observed, it's terrific to see this book getting recognized for something awesome about it (its sense of humor) that is not the obvious thing that's awesome about it (its thought-provoking take on being a gay teenager in the present time). Or, in the book's own terms, it's great that it's being seen for something beyond its label. Yay Bill!
  • (If there are any other kids/YA book awards named for Sidneys, please let me know, as my books seem to be having luck with them at present.)
  • The lovely Jill Santopolo -- Philomel executive editor and author of the wonderful new Sparkle Spa chapter-book series -- came on the Narrative Breakdown to talk middle-grade fiction with me recently.
  • I will be speaking at the SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle conference in Atlanta at the end of the month, giving my Plot Master Class, a talk on character, and a new talk. You can still register for all of it!

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20. My Lenten Calendar


I like disciplines (cf. my half-marathon training going on now), but I also like where my life is now generally and don't feel a call to give anything up. Thus I'm going to adapt the House for All Sinners and Saints' 2012 Lenten Calendar for my own instead. Sharing my adapted version here (with dates for 2014) in case it interests you too:

March 5: Pray for your enemies
March 6: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter
March 7: Internet diet
March 8: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing

(Sunday)

March 10: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon
March 11: Look out the window until you find something of beauty you had not noticed before
March 12: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill
March 13: No bitching day
March 14: Do someone else’s chore
March 15: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter

(Sunday)

March 17: Call an old friend
March 18: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)
March 19: Read Psalm 139 http://bible.oremus.org
March 20: Pay a few sincere compliments
March 21: Bring your own mug
March 22: Educate yourself about human trafficking www.praxus.org

(Sunday)

March 24: Forgive someone
March 25: Internet diet
March 26: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?
March 27: Check out morning and evening prayer at http://dailyoffice.wordpress.com
March 28: Ask for help
March 29: Tell someone what you are grateful for

(Sunday)

March 31: Introduce yourself to a neighbor
April 1: Read Psalm 121 http://bible.oremus.org
April 2: Bake a cake
April 3: No shopping day
April 4: Light a virtual candle http://rejesus.co.uk/spirituality/post_prayer/
April 5: Light an actual candle

(Sunday)

April 7: Write a thank you note to your favorite teacher
April 8: No shopping day
April 9: Use Freecycle www.freecycle.org
April 10: Donate art supplies to your local elementary school
April 11: Read John 8:1-11 http://bible.oremus.org
April 12: Worship at a friend’s mosque, synogogue or church and look for the beauty

(Sunday)

April 14: Confess a secret
April 15: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?
April 16: Give $20 to a local non-profit
April 17: Educate yourself about a saint www.catholic.org/saints
April 18: Pray for peace
April 19: Pray for your enemies (you probably have new ones by now) then decide which of these exercises you’ll keep for good

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21. Gratitude

My Lenten calendar yesterday asked me to tell someone what I am grateful for. Why not you, Internet? The list could go on forever, so I will do one thing for each day of Lent. These are not in order of importance, but in order of my random brain.


1. My sweet husband, for whom I still have a serious case of newlywed mentionitis.
2. Plain chocolate McVitie's.
3. The air traffic control system.
4. The students in my NYU class.
5. My mom.
6. My dad.
7. My sister, who is awesome and always makes me laugh, & her husband and son.
8. Pigeons (except the ones nesting in the exterior heating grate of our apartment). 
9. My apartment.
10. My best friend, Katy, who has a picture book coming out next month (about which more soon).
11-17. Melissa Anelli, Emily Clement, Donna Freitas, Rachel Griffiths, Mallory Kass, Ted Salk, Jill Santopolo.
18. My aunts, uncles, & cousins.
19. Ketchup.
20. Good picture books in rhyme.
21. Marla Frazee's illustrations.
22. The chance to teach my class, & to teach at various workshops around the country.
23. My authors and illustrators, particularly at the moment Vicky Alvear Shecter, who took me to a Waffle House & an antiquities museum in Atlanta this weekend.
24. The ability to run distances.
25. Good health in general.
26. Pencils & their sharpeners.
27. Kindness.
28. NPR, particularly WNYC.
29. Park Slope United Methodist.
30. The New Yorker.
31. The miracle that is my iPhone -- a miniature supercomputer in my hand, on which I'm writing this whole post. 
32. Fruit & nut chocolate bars.
33. A glass of wine at the end of a day.
34. The song "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)"
35. The work of Jane Austen, Jennifer Crusie, Patrick O'Brian, Dorothy Sayers, J. K. Rowling, Rainbow Rowell, and Hilary McKay.
36-37. The novel Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, who introduced me to it.
38. Hotel breakfast buffets.
39. People who think before they speak and are capable of quiet.
40. Sweet potatoes, roasted, baked, and fried, in fries, tater tots, and sushi.

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22. We Need Diverse Books.

Damn straight.

There is all kinds of great and exciting stuff happening with diverse children's literature these days! By the time you're reading this, the #weneeddiversebooks campaign should be live on social media, May 1-3 -- follow it on Twitter and Tumblr and please share your own thoughts there. Kudos to the awesome team who put that together!


Closer to home, The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson -- a modern, middle-school, multicultural Ocean's 11; a book I edited and am immensely proud of -- is getting a ton of awesome attention from indie booksellers and Varian's fellow authors, who are asking everyone to take the #greatgreenechallenge and help us get a diverse book on the bestseller lists. Kate Messner threw down the initial challenge; Shannon Hale raised the bar; and some guy named John Green sweetened the pot further for bookstores. You can check out all the action at Varian's blog post here. The book has received wide praise from many authors and a starred review from Kirkus, and it was named a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book of 2014! If you still need more convincing, you can check out this wonderful little prequel as a taster, or just join the challenge and preorder it now. (I advise the latter.) Out officially on May 27, 2014.

Equally exciting:  Sarwat Chadda is going to be in New York for the PEN World Voices panel this coming weekend, and appearing at Books of Wonder and a conversation on writing superheroes on May 3, and a great panel on sex and violence in children's literature on May 4. Good stuff!

Finally, I'm going to post this list here for anyone who might still need diverse book recommendations -- a list of books I've edited featuring diverse protagonists. Diversity has been a priority at Arthur A. Levine Books since the imprint was founded, and it's been a particular passion of mine for years, so I'm very proud of both this list and the many great books on our publishing lists to come.

Books I've Edited Featuring Diverse Protagonists

  • Millicent Min, Girl Genius and Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee (MG; Asian-American)
  • Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) and Bobby the Brave (Sometimes) by Lisa Yee (chapter book; biracial, Asian-American)
  • Eighth-Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (MG: American of Black Jamaican descent)
  • If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth (YA; Tuscarora Native American)
  • The Path of Names by Ari Goelman (MG fantasy; Jewish)
  • Marcelo in the Real World, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, and Irises by Francisco X. Stork (YA; Latin@)
  • The Nazi Hunters:  How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb (YA nonfiction; Jewish) 
  • The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman (YA; Chinese)
  • Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (YA; Gay)
  • Gold Medal Winter by Donna Freitas (MG; Latina)
  • The Savage Fortress and The City of Death by Sarwat Chadda (MG fantasy; British of Indian descent, Hindu(ish))
  • Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy (MG; Afghan, Muslim)
  • The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers (MG; biracial, of British-Caribbean descent) 
  • Moribito:  Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano (YA fantasy; Asian-inspired) 
  • Above by Leah Bobet (YA fantasy; differently abled cast -- which is putting it mildly -- and biracial protagonist of French and Indian descent)
Yay diverse books! 

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23. A New Conference + Miscellany

News! Later this month, on June 28, I'll be appearing in a great little mini-conference in my hometown of Belton, Mo. (about half an hour south of Kansas City). I'll give a talk on the five things editors want to see in every manuscript. Then the picture book author (and my best friend) Katy Beebe and I will discuss query letters, particularly the one that led to the publication of her lovely book Brother Hugo and the Bear. And finally, we'll do a first-pages session to round out the morning. Registration is $60, to benefit the Cass County Library Foundation (one of several library systems that made Katy and me the writers and readers we are today). For more information and to register, please click here.

In sad news, last month marked the first month in the nine-year history of this blog where I did not write a single post! Not a one! Part of it can be attributed to this fine fellow:


Mr. Bob Jacob Marley Monohan, who has come to dwell in our apartment and demand my time and attention, cat treats, things to gnaw on (currently a pair of James's cargo shorts that he unwisely left on the couch), etc. Part of it is that I have Twitter to accept all of my random thoughts. Much of it was simply work and life. But I miss writing here. I'm going to try to do a post a week for the rest of the summer, and I hope it will result in good energy all around. 
  • The Great Greene Challenge is still on! Have you gotten your copy yet? It's a great opportunity to support diverse books, an independent bookstore, and fantastic middle-grade in one fell swoop. 
  • As this blog has often served as my running results archive: My sister and I ran the Brooklyn Half-Marathon a couple weeks ago in 2:10. It was my slowest time for a half ever, but I didn't care, because I super-enjoyed running and chatting with her.
  • We have a great new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up here, with Matt Bird and James and I talking character goals and philosophies. Our podcasting has fallen off a bit of late because we lost our sponsor.... If you'd be interested in donating to the cause or sponsoring an episode yourself (a great way to reach a wide audience of writers and other lovers of narrative), please contact us at narrativebreakdown at gmail dot com.  
  • And if you'd like to buy my book SECOND SIGHT, but not through Amazon, please e-mail me at chavela_que at yahoo dot com. I'd be happy to work out alternate means of payment and delivery with you. 
  • Happy summer!

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24. The Quote File: Energy

“Life begets life. Energy becomes energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.” — Sarah Bernhardt

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” — Duke Ellington

Twin Mystery

To many people artists seem
undisciplined and lawless.
Such laziness, with such great gifts,
seems little short of crime.
One mystery is how they make
 the things they make so flawless;
another, what they're doing with
their energy and time.
— Piet Hein

“Judge the goodness of a book by the energy of the punches it has given you. I believe the greatest characteristic of genius, is, above all, force.” — Gustave Flaubert

“Genius is mainly an affair of energy.” — Matthew Arnold

“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that's as unique as a fingerprint — and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.” — Oprah Winfrey

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. “ — Martha Graham

We all need to look into the dark side of our nature — that's where the energy is, the passion. People are afraid of that because it holds pieces of us we're busy denying.” — Sue Grafton

"Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal." — Albert Camus

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25. A Ramble: Ferguson, President Obama, Diverse Books, Time and Space

Earlier in this week of awful news out of Ferguson, in my home state of Missouri, my friend and colleague Rebecca Sherman commented on Twitter:


I do too. That speech remains the best speech I've ever heard a politician give in my lifetime, both honest and inspiring, both personal and national in its implications. It acknowledged the complexities of Mr. Obama's candidacy, of his relationship with the Reverend Wright, and indeed of the whole history of race in America after slavery. Rereading it now, I was astonished to see these lines:
We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.  
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students. Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.  
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.  
. . . What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them. But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it — those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations — those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.
This anticipates nearly everything in Ta-Nehisi Coates's brilliant article "The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic earlier this summer -- except, of course, Mr. Coates's conclusion, which is that Congress should investigate the idea of reparations for African-Americans. Rather, Mr. Obama describes this legacy of pain as an opportunity for all Americans to come together, first to listen to and acknowledge each other's sufferings across racial lines, and then to work to address that suffering:  the lost jobs, the lack of health care, the poverty and poor education that afflicts the 99% (to draw on another political metaphor). The speech received near-universal acclaim, and while politics, being politics, quickly reverted to the usual game of sound bites and wins and losses, it did create a quiet moment in the hullaballoo of that 2008 campaign, a moment when most people heard what Mr. Obama said, and glimpsed that opportunity, even if we did not take it . . .

Like Rebecca, I wish very much that Mr. Obama had the time and courage and clarity and political daring to make another speech like this in the wake of events in Ferguson -- to be our storyteller-in-chief of sorts, to help one part of America listen to and understand the anger and fear of another, and to point the way toward dialogue among and a shared mission for all our citizens. I am sorry that he doesn't make this a priority, because I think perhaps he could do some good. But in his absence, we have to do that work.

I am moderating a panel this Tuesday for Scholastic's Teacher Week -- a conversation with Varian Johnson (The Great Greene Heist), Lisa Yee (Millicent Min, Girl Genius), Sonia Manzano (The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano), and Sharon Robinson (Under the Same Sun) about diversity in children's literature and the need for all children to see themselves in books. There are a lot of dimensions to the diversity conversation, but the moral use of such books (and the moral necessity of publishing them) is fairly straightforward:  More than any other media, a book allows a creator to control and tell their own story, to reveal the world they see in all its joys and sorrows, complexities and nuances, and to have that story be heard. For readers, books provide that opportunity to step into someone else's story and hear it -- to be affirmed by the story if some part of it speaks to your own experiences, emotionally or racially or religiously or emotionally, to know that you are not the first to go through this; to learn from it, both intellectually and emotionally, if it does not match your experience; to be challenged by and grow from it all around. (I wrote more about this, and the moral and sociological necessity for diverse books, in the opening of this talk.)

And I can't help thinking:  How different might Ferguson have been if all the policemen had read Walter Dean Myers's Monster? Or Fallen Angels or Sunrise Over Fallujah, for something closer to their own quasi-military experience? Or Ta-Nehisi Coates's article, or The Beautiful Struggle? Or even listened to the "This American Life" stories on Harper High School -- about a very different place than suburban St. Louis, certainly, but unforgettable in showing some of the pressures on young black men? Or best of all, if the policemen had heard the stories of the people of Ferguson as individuals? If they had shared their own?

Perhaps nothing would be different. These can be seen as highly naive and facile questions, given the money and history and societal factors that went into the making of this as-yet-ongoing tragedy, and I acknowledge my highly privileged role in asking them. But I also believe that books, stories, do what not-yet-President Obama did with his "More Perfect Union" speech:  They reveal the complexities, allow us to see things as both individual and universal, make other people real, open up space for dialogue -- if we'll take the time to listen and talk and learn. I wish we could find more of that time and space.


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