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Please welcome Glenda Council Beall to the blog. She was inspired to write a guest post after reading Jeannine Hall Gailey’s post on poetry book reviews last month.
I really enjoy the guest posts on this blog, but they can only happen with your participation. If you have an idea, send it my way at email@example.com, and we’ll work to flesh it out. No idea is too big, too small, or too “out there.” Okay, maybe some are, but I won’t judge–and I’ll help you get it under control.
Readers get a more personal view of the poet, and I’ve found that today’s readers like to feel they know a writer or poet–know more than just what the blurbs on the book tell them. With social media, readers follow their favorite authors and become friends online.
Requesting an Interview
Karen Paul Holmes’ poetry book, Untying the Knot, reads almost like a memoir about the breakup of a thirty-year marriage. The honesty in the poems lends such depth that I wanted to know more and knew my readers would enjoy knowing more about this writer who openly conveyed her pain, her grief and sadness over the loss of her husband, loss of a family, and loss of three decades of what had seemed to be a good marriage.
I asked Karen for an e-mail interview and she was pleased to answer my questions. I believe that good writers must be willing to bleed on the page and that is why I was intrigued with this poet’s story. She held nothing back in her book and I knew she would do the same in an interview.
Conducting the Interview
I like to send the questions to the writer and let her answer when she has had time to think carefully about what she wants to say. If she chooses not to answer a question, that is fine. I am not an investigative reporter. My purpose is to recommend a book and an author to my readers, the same thing I would do if I were to write a review.
I post the interview with my questions and direct quotes from the poet. That way there is very little editing involved. It is raw and innocent of speculation as to what the writer wants us to know.
Here is an example of a candid response from my interview with Karen Holmes:
I didn’t set out to write those poems, nor most of the ones in Untying the Knot; they just happened. One of my friends said, “Oh now that you’ve had a tragedy, your poetry will get better.” I wince at that, but it’s probably true. My poems definitely got deeper emotionally and darker in tone. However, I also believe in trying to stay positive, so many poems have a positive spin. Some are even funny. Like I said, poetry was therapy.
In her own words, Holmes tells us more about her book and why we should read it than I could tell in a review. How can we find humor in this sad theme? The poet did use irony in a few poems, and, like the comedic actor in a drama, it helps move us along without breaking the spell created in this book.
For the past eight years, I’ve done e-mail interviews with a number of writers and poets, and I found them to be gracious and appreciative. Only one writer, Ron Rash, told me he would rather have a telephone interview than an e-mail interview and that was because he had trouble with his hands and limited his use of the keyboard.
Glenda Council Beall lives in Hayesville, NC. She is owner/director of Writers Circle Around the Table. She teaches writing in the community enrichment department at Tri-County Community College and began publishing poetry in 1996. Her poems have appeared in numerous print and online journals including Wild Goose Poetry Review, Appalachian Heritage, Main Street Rag, Journal of Kentucky Studies, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and plenty of other fine publications. Now Might as Well be Then, her poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press is available on Amazon.com and from City Lights Books in Sylva, NC.
Say you’re a new freelance writer. (Sound familiar?) You ask someone with more experience whether you should start a blog to help attract clients and let you use blog posts as clips.
Chances are, the other writer will tell you it’s absolutely, totally imperative that you have a blog. I even heard one freelance writer tell a poor newbie, “You only have a website? But that’s so STATIC!”
I’m here to tell you that if you’re asking whether you should start a blog, the answer is No.
And if you’re wondering what topic to start you blog on, the answer is that you shouldn’t.
If you start a blog, it need to be because you already have something you really, really want to say. Something you’re so passionate about that you can’t hold it back. Something that you can envision yourself writing about regularly for the indefinite future.
For example, Diana and I have written over 1,000 posts since 2006! That’s the kind of commitment you need. If you don’t feel inclined to write 1,000 posts on a particular topic, a blog may not be right for you.
Blogs are not an easy clip. If you start a blog, you will need to keep it updated, because nothing looks sadder to prospective clients than a blog that hasn’t been updated in six months.
Also, you’ll need to promote your blog if you want to get comments — so you don’t feel like you’re just writing to yourself all the time. Blogs are meant to be read.
And…what happens when you start getting some real published clips and no longer need the blog? Will you just let it die? Will all that work be for nothing?
It’s way easier to just start pitching clients based on your experience — for example, if you have a foodservice background you would pitch businesses in that industry — or to do a free assignment or two just to get the samples.
And don’t forget that your (static!) website works as a clip. If you have some kick-ass copy on there, prospects will be able to see you can write.
There is the issue that fresh content will push your website up in the search engine results, and blogs are of course perfect for that. But you can get a similar effect by updating your portfolio as you garner new clips.
If you have plans to monetize your blog and a topic you’re passionate about, go for it. And if you want to offer blogging as one of your services, you’ll want to show prospects that you can do that. But if you feel you need to blog just for the clip — there are better, easier ways to do that. Ways that won’t have you on the hook for the rest of your working career.
How about you: Have you wrestled with whether to start a blog? How did it end up? Or did you start a blog for the clips and later felt burdened with it? Let us know in the Comments below!
One thing I learned right away is that the most common question someone asks you when you’ve published a book: “How many books have you sold?” Or, “How are your books selling?” And I quickly learned to answer in this way, “It’s doing pretty well…for poetry.”
I have sold quite a few books personally. I’ve received my first royalty check from my publisher. Neither are going to pay my mortgage, but there’s a great joy in being compensated for something I would be doing anyway for free: that is, writing poems.
2015 Poet’s Market
Publish Your Poetry!
Learn how to get your poetry published with the latest (and greatest) edition of Poet’s Market. The 2015 Poet’s Market is filled with articles on the craft, business, and promotion of poetry, in addition to poet interviews and original poetry by contemporary poets.
In fact, it has an entire section covering various poetic forms.
Plus, the book is filled with hundreds of listings for poetry book publishers, chapbook publishers, magazines, journals, contests, grants, conferences, and more!
However, I work in the publishing business, so I know relative book sales, and I can tell you that sales are usually not spectacular for debut authors in any genre–but they’re especially lean for poets. So it’s the first question often asked, but I prefer to get past talking numbers.
Solving the World’s Problems
Numbers aside, I learned quite a few lessons about selling poetry books. The first thing is handling how to get the word out about the book. In some ways, I have a very good platform for a poet.
I have a lot of followers on social media sites, edit the Poet’s Market book, write a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine, and well, there’s this Poetic Asides blog too. All of that helped, but not as much as one (namely me) might expect.
Here’s how I achieved the most sales:
E-mail list. I’ve long maintained a personal e-mail list of writing contacts, and this list has helped me sell out two limited edition self-published chapbooks in the past and get a good jump start on pre-order sales for this book. If you’re one of those folks, thank you!
Remix challenge. I made quite a few sales directly as a result of a little challenge I created for readers and writers: the Remixing the World’s Problems challenge. I challenged writers/readers to remix the words in my collection, and I’ll be announcing a winner for the best remix on October 15–with that winner receiving $500 from me.
Live events. Beyond e-mail and challenges, live events really helped me sell books. While I was featured at some larger events like the Kentucky Book Fair and Austin International Poetry Festival (making sales at both), the most profitable events were usually the more intimate ones in which I was one of two or three featured readers.
Lesson learned: A little creativity in promotion can work wonders, but also a more intimate approach. Look for local and regional reading series and see if you can be a featured reader. As a published author, you have an added level of authority.
There are a few (obvious) opportunities that I missed as a debut author that I don’t plan to let slip by again with the next book. They are:
Book launch party. I really didn’t know how to handle this a year ago. And really, I didn’t put aside the time and resources to make it happen. Big time missed opportunity to bring friends and family together to help get it off to a good start.
Author contests. I did enter the Pulitzer contest knowing full well that I had next to no shot of winning, but I did not take advantage of entering several other book contests, including the Georgia Writers Association (as a Georgia resident), Ohioana Book Prizes (where I was born and raised), or others. Not saying I would’ve won those, but I’ll never know now–and I surely had a better chance than with the Pulitzer, right? Don’t discount the power of winning a reputable contest.
More live events. I have been to plenty of live events over the past year to promote the book, but I think I could’ve done more. And as I mentioned above, these are great places to sell books and connect with new readers.
Here’s the thing: No matter how prepared you think you are there will be missed opportunities. Don’t beat yourself up about them. Rather, pay attention and try to do a better job next time. I’m sure I’ll have a whole new list of missed opportunities with the second book. As with writing, selling books is a process.
My son Ben holding my book.
What Am I Up To Now?
Most importantly, I’m writing. The work of a creative person is to create. It’s not to write a poem and call it a day. Or write a book and call it a day. Or two books. Or three. Creative people create, and that’s what I’m doing for the sake of creating.
These creative acts are important for other reasons too. For starters, I’ve had a few new poems published online here and there over the past year, and nearly every new publication has coincided with a few new book purchases on Amazon. I’m not able to track it directly, but I’m pretty sure each new publication leads to more books selling.
Plus, I know from other genres that authors tend to build book sales over time by writing more books. Someone reads and enjoys your new book and then hunts down your older title(s). This isn’t selling out; it’s building a readership.
The entire enterprise of being a creative person, regardless of medium, is a process. After more than two decades of writing poetry and one year as an author, I’m enjoying the process more than ever and focusing on the art and the craft…and hoping it doesn’t take another 20 years to get my next collection together.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of the poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). He edits Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market, and Guide to Self-Publishing, in addition to writing a free weekly WritersMarket.com newsletter and poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine.
He honestly believes writing has done more than he’s done for writing. Before and beyond getting published, poetry has helped him deal with the real problems in his life. Material things come and go, but sanity is priceless–and poetry has helped him in that regard time and time again.
Umm, excuse me. You know what FICTION means, don’t you? It means it’s not a true story. I can’t research something that isn’t true. So fiction books can’t require any research.
That was how I felt at my very first writer’s group, before I was even involved in SCBWI. I was discussing how excited I was to be really getting into my first children’s book process. And someone asked me “So, how’d you do your research?”
I blinked a few times… and tried to pretend I understood the question. It’s not historical fiction, I thought to myself. So I squirmed around in my seat a bit and mumbled something like, “Well, it didn’t take much,” hoping that would change the topic.
But it led into a very valuable conversation that I will never forget.
ALL books involve research. (with the exception of some picture books)
If your book has more than 1000 words (and even many that don’t), some level of research is almost always necessary in order to develop the tangible reality of the characters. Does your character live in San Francisco? You need real street names, and even just some quick research of the city will show you that references to the hilly roads would add relatable layers to your story.
Is your character’s mother a nurse? Look into nursing schedules and rotating shifts, or some terminology that they may use.
Is someone preparing for college? What universities might they visit? What dorm names will they tour?
In order for your characters to be as alive to your readers as they are to you, there needs to be facts about them interwoven in the story that are laced in reality.
Obviously there are exceptions. Science fiction books or fantasy books create their own reality, and are more focused on sticking to the rules in the reality they have constructed.
But no matter the story, as writers, we are really jacks-of-all-trades.
Does our character fall in love with a gear-head? We have to become the mechanic. We have to know what that rough-edged muscle car lover knows. What he’d talk about, even if it’s while she’s rolling her eyes.
Does someone in the story ride horses? We have to fall in love with horses as well. We have to know if she rides Western or English, what class her horse competes in, and how many hands high the withers are.
And it’s not just facts. Human behavior is often the most important part of any story and we have to be in touch with the many facets of psychology. How actions and experiences shape personalities from all different perspectives.
We may have to understand the psychology of a child whose mother is in jail, or perhaps divorced parents that use them as a pawn. We may have to understand the subtle symptoms of how an overactive child might act, the struggles the parents might go through, and how it can affect the siblings as well.
The first time I thought about this, my initial reaction was… but I just want to write!
It seemed like a hindrance, another consumer of my precious time.
But as I’ve developed in my writing, I have come to really appreciate and enjoy the research side of any story. It brings the story off the paper, and links the creation into the tangible world.
In fact, I find myself constantly looking for ways to do MORE research. Maybe my character’s sister is off at college. Sure, I could make up a fake college name. But why? Why not use a real college, real dorm names and streets in the area?
Not only does this add a layer of reality, but it can add interest for marketing as well! People like to see their town name in print. Got a character who loves sports? Use real teams. Other fans will cheer right along with them.
The characters we paint have more than just the story we put on paper. They have a past, and a future. Part of our job is to do the research, to delve into everything in their lives and in the lives of those around them. This is just one of the many ways we add tangible, relatable layers to our story.
Because simply put, our manuscripts are worth it!
Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!
Thanks Erika for another valuable, well written post.
The tendency to do this has risen to the level of such cliché that it is now a joke. But in case anyone hasn’t gotten the memo, I want to run an idea by you: do not save villain motivations until the very end. How has this usually happened in the past? A villain does all sorts of dastardly deeds, with seemingly no motivation in sight, until they have the hero in their clutches, and then they start to “monologue” about all the hurts they have endured (probably some perpetrated by the hero, often without the hero’s knowledge), and how they are now enjoying their sweet, sweet revenge. Then the power goes out, their death ray is rendered useless, and the hero turns around and saves the day, etc. etc. etc.
(Random thought: If anyone has read a lot of my writing, I would be honestly curious as to how many times “etc.” appears in my body of work. The total count must be staggering. I wish I had a way to tally all of my blog entries, my book, and my notes that I share independently with clients. I bet it would be a trip. So if we’re ever sitting down and I say something like, “You know, I think your overuse of ‘just’ is one of your writing tics,” don’t feel too badly, I clearly have them, too!)
But it’s one thing to say, “Don’t do X, don’t do Y,” and it’s another to delve into the “why?” factor. Here, it’s a matter of explaining why motivation works for your protagonist, and setting the same rules for your antagonist. Generally speaking, if your hero doesn’t have a clear reason for doing what she’s doing at the scene level or the manuscript level, it’s going to be that much harder to get reader investment (which is, probably, the most important aspect of attracting your audience). “I’m doing all this stuff and I can’t tell you why!” gets old.
The more you establish motivation, the more you can generate relatability. After all, we have goals and strive for them, so seeing someone else strive similarly is instantly attractive and releases deep feelings of empathy. You want this when creating any character, whether you’re working on your protagonist, their sidekick, or, yes, the villain*.
In my book, I talk about why Voldemort of Harry Potter fame is such a great antagonist. First and foremost, he’s eerily relatable. He’s a guy with a lot of hurt inside him, striving to know what love feels like, but going about it in a totally terrifying way. I remember the moment where, despite my best efforts, I sympathized with him. Wow! Think of all the interesting feelings I would’ve missed out on if Voldemort had been characterized in a way that saved all of his motivations and deeper drivers until the very end? That would’ve only given me a few chapters to wrap my mind around everything, and generated a much shallower experience of the story.
Another reason to leak villain motivations over time instead of saving them up until the end is the questionable payoff of “the big reveal.” There are only a few books in recent memory that have surprised me on a level that works well. Being mildly entertained by a twist is not the same thing as shakes-you-down-to-your-socks surprise. The former happens all the time, the latter, very infrequently. So unless you’re banking on the surprise to end all surprises that is so deeply rooted in the story that it will undo and reverse everything that has come before it, you’re not going to get as much mileage out of your reveal as you’re expecting.
Fiction structure and norms have before familiar. Hence the fact that we’re playing with all of these elements as clichés, hence the term “monologuing” even exists to define this phenomenon. There are few very real surprises in fiction because so many stories and plot points have been exploited over time. You aren’t likely to shock your readers, so stop investing so heavily in your reveals and start building character from the beginning. Readers these days are skeptical and wiser than their years. They are more likely to appreciate a complex character relationship instead of a big surprise at the end which, with social media and book review sites, might get leaked ahead of time and ruin the experience. A surprise is a gimmick. If you rely entirely on it, you may pay more in opportunity cost than have that gimmick pay off. (Unless you’re writing in a genre, like a thriller, where twisty plots and surprises are expected, of course.)
Plant clues and small explanations throughout about your villain’s psyche and needs. Their reasons. Their weak spots. Not only will this give your readers more to latch on to, it will give your hero more to work with when it comes time to face their foe. Don’t rely solely on plot and surprise at the climax, try for spychological depth as well.
* Come to think of it, don’t do the big motive reveal for your hero, either. I didn’t think that note could possibly apply to anyone, but now that I think about it, I might as well put it out there in case any writers happen to be struggling.
You come up with a mind-blowingly awesome article idea: You’ve discovered some really cool thing, and you want to write about it.
For example, you’ve found out something fascinating about how train schedules are developed, or how makeup is made, or a unique museum, or a new business that’s just opened its doors.
So you have this amazing idea — why is everyone rejecting it?
This kind of idea is what I like to call an “Isn’t This Cool?” idea. You’ve found something neat, and you want to share it with the world.
But sadly, most publications don’t want to just share random interesting things with their readers. Each magazine has its own slant, and the product, fact, business or person you found needs to fit in with their mission.
For example, let’s take the idea of some weird aspect of how makeup is made. You want to send it to a women’s magazine, of course. What woman wouldn’t be interested in finding out this cool fact about how her mascara is made?
But women’s magazines are service publications, meaning most of their articles offer some kind of advice. So the editors wouldn’t be interested in this fact about makeup unless their readers can actually do something with it.
So if you have an idea where you think, “Isn’t this cool?” — ask yourself, “So what?” Why would readers care? How can you make them care? What can they do with it, or how can they apply the knowledge right now? For most publications, your ideas need to be useful and actionable.
For example, maybe women need to avoid makeup products that are made with this method, and you can round up the types of products this applies to so readers know which ones to look out for. That’s an idea you could pitch to a health magazine.
Or, let’s take the article you want to pitch on the Burnt Food Museum, and yes, this is real. (“Hey, this museum exists. Isn’t it cool?”) Rare is the magazine that would want you to just write about what a weird museum you found. It would do better as, say, a round-up of weird museums in New England readers can visit, complete with info on location, price, and hours. Now, readers can do something with that information.
Some magazines do run “Isn’t This Cool?” articles. For example, magazines for hobbyists love to run interesting facts about their hobby — how it developed, who’s doing interesting things with it, and why some aspects of the hobby are the way they are. Maybe a magazine for train enthusiasts would want to run an interesting fact on how train schedules are developed. And I once wrote an article about the world’s largest marble collection for a collectors’ magazine.
But for most markets, you’ll want to go beyond a cool fact. Dig until you figure out what makes this fact relevant to the readers of the pubs you want to pitch.
Sometimes, this means the idea you pitch will barely resemble the one you first thought of. And that’s okay! That’s how the idea process works. You get what I call the “seed” of an idea, and when you nurture it, it grows into something useful and beautiful that doesn’t look anything like the original seed.
How about you…do you have an “Isn’t That Cool?” idea you’ve tried to pitch? How do you think you can reslant it to be more salable? Let us know in the Comments below!
Most writers know every story needs a protagonist with a problem, but your MC also needs to be interesting, compelling, and sympathetic to keep the readers wanting more. We want our characters to jump off the page and grab our readers by the throat. Plus, we want our readers to remember and think about our characters and our story long after they close our book.
Here are ten ways to make your protagonist do just that:
1. MC has a problem that needs to be solved
Make sure your protagonist is the one with the problem and no one else can solve this problem (or solve it as well as he or she can. The MC has to be central to the entire issue.
2. MC has the ability to act
Don’t let your protagonists go around just reacting to things when they happen. Your MC should make things happen and move the story along through his or her choices and actions. A protagonist who knows what she wants and makes the story happen is a far more compelling character than one who sits around and waits for the story to happen. Make sure your protagonist is more than just someone in the middle of a mess.
If this is not happening in your book, you need to adjust your story in order to get your protagonist in a position where they can affect the change.
3. MC needs reasons to act
You can always give your MC something to do, but they need to have good reasons for their actions or your story will start to stretch credibility as to why they would get involved in something that clearly don’t care about. If you want to have your protagonist risk their life or happiness, make sure it’s for a reason readers will understand. NOTE: This is where a critique group comes in handy.
4. MC needs a compelling quality
Like I said in the beginning, we want to make our MC interesting. Maybe they’re funny, smart or twisted. Maybe your MC has an unusual talent, skill, or quark. Whatever you choose, there needs to be a quality that makes a reader want to know more. Most times the thing that is compelling is also contradictory, making the reader want to know how these two things work together, thus hooking the reader.
5. MC has something to lose
Just having a reason to act isn’t enough, so think about having your MC lose something that matters. This is a powerful motivating tool that will enable you to force your protagonist to do what he normally wouldn’t. You can have them take risks they would never take if there are consequences hanging over their head. This will make readers worry that your MC might suffer those consequences and lose what matters most to him.
6. MC should have something to gain
An important aspect of the story’s stakes that’s sometimes forgotten or not thought through well enough is giving the MC something to gain. Readers want to see a protagonist rewarded for all their hard work and sacrifice, and a reason for your protagonist to keep going when everything says give up.
7. Give Your MC the capacity to change
The sole of the story is character growth. It’s what turns it from a series of plot scenes to a tale worth writing. Giving your protagonist the ability to learn from his experiences and become a better (though not always) person will deepen your story. Your MC shouldn’t be the same person as they were when the story began.
8. MC needs an interesting flaw
It is the flaws that make your MC interesting. Flaws let you show character growth and give your protagonist a way to improve themselves. Maybe your MC knows about this flaw and is actively trying to fix it, or perhaps he or she hasn’t a clue and change is being forced upon them. This flaw could be the very thing that allows your MC to survive and overcome the problems. Of course, it could also be the cause of the entire mess.
9. MC has a secret
You don’t want your MC to be predictable – boring. A good way to keep your protagonist interesting is to have your MC hide something. Readers will wonder what that secret is and how it affects the story. Having your protagonist be a little cryptic, will keep your readers dying to find out.
10. MC needs someone or something interesting trying to stop him
Don’t forget that your protagonist needs an antagonist standing against him. The stronger the antagonist is that goes up against your MC, the more tension, suspense and victory you will provide for the reader. Give the reader a villain they will love to hate. The payoff will be keeping your readers turning the pages and reading into the wee hours of the morning.
Do you have another tips for juicing up your characters? We’d love to hear it.
Since it is now September, I figured I would post this opportunity for those children’s writers and Illustrators who live within driving distance in Michigan, New Jersey , PA, and New York to met David Small and Holly McGhee.
The third poster down: Studio B in Maplewood, NJ is bringing together five children’s author/illustrators to discuss the process of writing a children’s book.
You can see all the details in the posters below:
A COMPLETE LIST OF APPEARENCES:
Wednesday, September 10, 2014, 6 P.M., Kalamazoo Public Library
Monster Rule #9: A monster’s appearance should incite fear and significant revulsion to scare the socks off mere humans.
Shocktober 13, Year of the Scrull
Looking through the bus window, I tilted my nose up toward the sky’s “determined drear,” as Ms. Hagmire liked to call it. That was Uggarland—grim, gray, and delightfully desolate. From the bony skeleton trees, to the swampland grasses, to the lurking monsters. My itchy right palm brushed against my perfectly tucked shirt and my much too crisp pant leg. I should be an example of such determined drear, general disarray, and evil intent. Only I wasn’t.
“I saw a bat flying upside down last night,” said Oliver. My mummy friend sat next to me. His unwrapped, wrinkled brown finger skimmed down the page of the tattered book on his lap. “I’m trying to find out what that means.”
“That means trouble,” I muttered. The low rumble of voices from the other eccentric students on our bus seemed to echo the word. Trouble.
“Maybe its antennae were just damaged.” Oliver pointed to bold print on the right hand page.
I shook my head. “No. It means trouble.”
Our special Fiendful Fiends Academy Bus—otherwise referred to as OMO (Odd Monsters Only) bus—lurched to a stop in front of our school. We all climbed out, but as I tilted my nose upward again, I stopped in mid-step.
From the Grave, Middle-grade Fantasy, Cynthia Reeg
I was interested in Oliver and the first-person narrator, and I think it might be smart to start the story off with the dialogue about the bat. It’s important that the reader engage with the characters first, that we connect with them and care, before learning about the scenery of Uggarland. So I suggest moving the scenery further down in the story and pulling back on the detailed descriptions of clothing in order to laser-focus on the two kids. Hook us with them and then take us on a journey.
Best Chocolate Cake and Other Dramatic Disasters by Julia Maranan – MG Novel
Things I Am Good At
Starting middle school on crutches had been about as bad as it sounds. While I was hobbling around trying to find all my classes after an “unfortunate accident” during field hockey tryouts, everyone else found all their friends and where they fit in. By the time I was back on my own two feet, I was pretty much invisible (except to Angie, who’d been my BFF since, well, forever). And it’s not like I hadn’t been trying things. I just hadn’t found the right thing. But today, that would finally change. I could feel it.
I took another look at the picture of the expertly frosted Best Chocolate Cake our home ec teacher, Mrs. Collins, had projected in the front of the classroom, and my mouth watered.
Baking is a good thing to excel in. I mean, who doesn’t love chocolate cake? People are going to ask me to bake them things all the time! Maybe I can even get extra credit if I bake something amazing. I’ll have to find out what my teachers like before midterm grades are due…
I read through the instructions one more time: grease and flour the pan, mix everything in a bowl, and pour the batter into the pan to bake. This is going to be awesome.
“Do you want to grease the pan, or should I?” I asked my partner, Kate Nichols, who was the second worst person in the room Mrs. Collins could have paired me with.
“I think maybe you should just make your own cake. Over there.” She motioned vaguely to the counter by the sink, purple nail polish sparkling under the fluorescent lights.
“But we’re supposed to work together,” I said.
“But I want my cake to be edible,” she said, and took her pan over to a table.
Best Chocolate Cake, Middle-grade novel, Julia Maranan
I like the idea that the main character wants to find something to make her visible. But those first days of school are not here—those days with her on crutches, left out of all the quick-forming friendships circles. I would like to see them. That way I would make a connection, and I’d be rooting for this girl and her baking skills. Show us the character in her darkest moment, all those friends pairing and bonding while she can’t keep up, that anxiety and pressure, and then you’ll be set up to tell the story. I did like the list at the top! As for baking and home ec, I’m not sure when the story takes place, but in our schools, they don’t offer home ec anymore, sad to say, so make it clear what year the story starts.
All night long, Rufus snored and sniggled in his sleep. He dreamed about his birthday and getting super-duper treats. But when Rufus woke up… he got nothing.
“Not even a birthday card?” asked Dugan.
“Or pupperoni cupcakes?” wondered Nugget.
“Nothing,” said Rufus. “Not even the Happy Birthday song.”
The three mutts mulled over the situation while burying bones in the backyard.
“What’s the world coming to,” they groused, “when a dog gets less love than a mouse?” [Art: Rufus, Dugan,and Nugget watch a man mowing the lawn with his pet mouse peeking from his shirt pocket.]
“No walking in the park.”
“No dancing in the dark.”
“No purple pupsicle treat.”
“No cruising in the front seat.”
Something had to be done.
STRIKE??? [Art: Dogs vote at a meeting of the neighborhood dogs association.]
Rufus strode to the podium and proudly proclaimed, “Today dogs are changing the rules of the game. Our smiles and affection are no longer free. We demand nicer treatment. So until families agree…”
[Art: Families are shocked to discover…]
“No greetings at the door?”
“No footrests on the floor?”
“No herding cows or sheep?”
“No guarding while we sleep?”
“DOGS ON STRIKE!”
The cool cats stayed back. (They were not impressed.)
Dogs on Strike, Picture book, Rita D. Russell
This is a cute concept and I like the idea of turning the dog-people relationship on its head. That said, I don’t know why this dog is surprised that he doesn’t have a birthday celebration. Has he had them in the past? What is the context? If you can figure that out and keep this very simple, with excellent dialogue, you might have a winner. Check out David Ezra Stein’s I’M MY OWN DOG, just published, for a fantastic example of role reversal.
At first Elena thought it might be trees sighing or a faucet turned on somewhere else in the house. But the sound grew louder, as if coming at her through a long tunnel. She tilted her head to listen just as it burst out, filling the room.
Elena almost dropped the pickle jar she was preparing for a science experiment. Her knees wobbled, and she leaned against the kitchen counter.
“El-e-naaaaaa…” The whisper swirled around her. Then it was gone.
She ran to the window and nudged aside the white lace curtains. Outside, her ten-year-old brother Connor was tossing a plastic bag in the air and attacking it with a stick.
“For the king!” Connor cried, slashing at his flimsy opponent. “Victory is ours!”
“Did you call me?” Elena shouted. Her voice sounded high and thin.
“No.” Connor impaled the bag and didn’t even look toward her.
“Did you hear that?”
Elena eyed the woods beyond the lawn. Not even a leaf rustled. Gram’s car wasn’t in its usual spot at the top of the long dirt drive. Elena crossed the kitchen and peered into the living room. The solid, stuffed chairs and dark, polished tables sat undisturbed. Only the steady ticking of the grandfather clock broke the stillness. Breathing in the familiar smell of old books and fireplace ashes, Elena forced her shoulders to relax. See? It was nothing.
She returned to her experiment where vapor rose from a tray of dry ice. Like a genie from a lamp. Her hands shook, and she spilled rubbing alcohol as she tried to pour just enough to saturate the black felt she’d glued inside the jar. Tightening the lid, she glanced around the room.
Forever Magic, Middle-grade novel, Carol Foote
I think this is a fantastic opening page! Keep going. I want to know more. But get a better title. Well done.
The problem is, sometimes it’s hard to STOP writing and say… okay, it’s done.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean “Done” as in you’ll never alter anything about it ever again. My title is of course not realistic. We never stop writing. And we’ll revise again and again with editors or agents.
But at some point, we have to decide, it’s ready to be submitted.
This is tough for a lot of us. We may have been working on something for years, and it’s evolved, morphed and been not just revised but re-envisioned (a term I took from Jill Corcoran’s videos) so many times. And each time, it’s become better, stronger and more complete.
We could go on with that forever, and it would just keep getting better… right?
But there is a line. There comes a point where we have to make the leap of faith and start submitting our work. Sometimes easier said than done.
I can’t tell you when your work is done. I’m not sure anyone can. Some people are lucky, they can just “feel it”.
Me? Sigh. I wish.
Not at all. I’m ALWAYS left thinking… maybe one more person’s critique will help, or maybe one more re-write of the this paragraph will be even better!
I like to have a checklist. It gives me a good basis for being sure I haven’t missed anything major:
1) First round of revisions – this is usually checking for consistency and flow, because my first drafts are a bit… rough.
2) Time off – serious time off, usually a month
3) The big change – almost all of my manuscripts have at some point had some major change or revision that has made things click. Some have had more than one. For me, it’s an important part of my process.
4) More revisions and feedback from other writers and people I trust.
5) Falling apart at some point and thinking it’s not any good. For me, if this hasn’t happened at least once, I’m not done. This usually leads to another short spurt of time off, a week or so of ignoring all writing-related thoughts.
6) The writer in me wins out and I dive back in.
Then I usually sit here in this stage for a while, bouncing around in revisions, critiques, thoughts etc. Problem is: me? I could sit here forever. At some point, I just have to pull the darn trigger!
If I can look back and know that I did right by myself and the story I have to tell, it’s time to start narrowing down the list of agents I’m going to target.
Plus, at this point, I usually have a few new ideas percolating in the brain, so they’re a good distraction to keep myself from revising that sentence just one more time.
Am I saying this is a good checklist for other people?
NOT AT ALL.
I think everyone’s checklist/process is different. But I do think it can be helpful to have some sort of checklist in your mind, to go through whatever steps you need as a writer and individual to make your manuscript the best it can be.
I have one final step after the checklist. This is usually the only way I’ve ever able to draw that intimidating line of saying IT’S READY NOW:
Create a deadline!
I can never quite get to the point where I say, “It’s done NOW.” But I AM able to say, “It’ll be done in a month.” And then stick to that.
And then I have to just tell myself, that’s it. It’s ready. I have to trust myself and commit that that’s my Final Answer.
An exciting time for sure, but finishing a manuscript and sending it out into the world often holds it’s share of anxiety of uncertainty. But it’s an important part of the process and guess what…
… your manuscripts deserve it!
Thanks Erika for another valuable post.
Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!
A new book titled, CATCH THE COOKIE has hit the bookshelves written by Hallie Durand, a.k.a. Agent Holly McGhee and illustrated by David Small. I have the book and can truthfully say it is a very fun picture book. I scanned in a few interior shots and Holly sent a picture of the real Marshall to add to the interview questions. I also added a quick blurb to whet your appetite:
Marshall knows one thing for sure, despite what all the stories say: Gingerbread men cannot run. Cookies are for eating, and he can’t wait to eat his after spending all morning baking them with his class. But when it’s time to take the gingerbread men out of the oven . . . they’re gone! Now, to find those rogue cookies, Marshall and his class have to solve a series of rhyming clues. And Marshall just might have to rethink his stance on magic. Catch That Cookie! is an imaginative mystery, deliciously illustrated by Caldecott Medal winner David Small. It’s sure to inspire a new classroom tradition . . . and maybe even a few new believers!
I wanted to know more about the book and Holly, so below is the interview I had with her. If you want to read more about David Small and read about the process of creating the book cover for CATCH THE COOKIE, he was featured this past Saturday on Illustrator Saturday - definitely worth reading. Here’s Hallie/Holly:
Most people know you as Holly McGhee. Why did you decide to write under another name?
A: On that first submission especially, I needed to know whether my writing could speak for itself, in no way connected to me as an agent—could I get published just because an editor and publisher believed in my work? I’ve kept with a pen name to separate my writing from agenting, though at this point it’s not a secret that I’m Holly McGhee & Hallie Durand.
When did you start writing your latest book, Catch That Cookie!?
A: I started Catch That Cookie! in earnest over the Christmas holidays of 2011. My son Marshall had been a preschool student of Mrs. Gray’s (the teacher in my book) in the fall of 2009, and he had gone on a gingerbread hunt at school. He’d come home with a recipe for gingerbread men, and he was obsessed with making the cookies. He kept nagging me, and so I finally borrowed the cookie cutters from Mrs. Gray and we made them for our class picnic in June of 2010, in ninety-degree heat. We put them in the van to bring to the picnic, and then Marshall started locking the van doors. I realized he thought the cookies would escape, ha ha ha ha! I knew there was a story there, and I wanted to know what Mrs. Gray had done in class to make Marshall believe those G-men could escape. So I interviewed Mrs. Gray and that inspired my picture book.
How did it find a home at Dial?
A: When I finally had a draft that I liked, I shared it with my agent, Elena Giovinazzo, who sent it out to editors. Lauri Hornik and Kate Harrison at Dial made an offer.
Were you the one who chose David Small to illustrate the book?
A: No, that was my editor, Kate Harrison, and the art director Lily Malcom. I couldn’t be happier about the choice—not only is David my client but he is one of my very close friends. (I was nervous he would turn it down though, and thrilled that he liked it—he’s picky!)
How long did it take David to do the illustrations?
A: He started early in 2013 and finished that fall. I sent him a picture of Mrs. Gray to inspire him and also pictures of Marshall, Avery, and Henry, who all appear in the book (they were Marshall’s classmates).
Do you plan any book signings or other marketing things now that the book is sold?
A: Yes, David and I are doing a little mini tour to celebrate both the book and our friendship. I am going out to Kalamazoo, Michigan on September 10 and we are doing one appearance for adults at the Kalamazoo Library and one for kids at the Book Bug, and then he’s coming back with me to Maplewood, NJ. We’ll have a big gingerbread hunt with Mrs. Gray at the Maplewood Library on September 13, and an event for writers and artists (together with Anna Kang and Chris Weyant of You Are (Not) Small and Richard Morris of This Is a Moose) on the 14th. We’re going to talk about collaboration. Then we’ll have an appearance at our local bookstore on the 15th as well as a private event for the preschool four year olds (all at Words, Maplewood). David will share some of his drawing secrets. I’ll have more details for you soon.
When did you write your first book and what was the title?
A: In 2007 I wrote my first chapter book / novel, Dessert First, and I wrote two more books in that series. Dessert First was published in 2009, Just Desserts in 2010, and No Room for Dessert in 2011, all illustrated by the amazing French artist Christine Davenier.
Were you an editor at that time?
A: Nope, I had been an agent for nine years already (though I’ve never stopped being an editor really—as an agent I’m often the first set of eyes on a manuscript, helping polish it enough to be acquired).
How did the idea come to you?
A: It started at a dinner with one of my best friends at the River Run Café in NYC. We ordered dessert to share, and as always I angled the plate so that the best part of the dessert “happened” to be directly in front of me. My friend had had enough of my bad behavior and she said, “WHY DO YOU ALWAYS TAKE THE BEST PART OF THE DESSERT?” And I, with nowhere to hide, said, “Because I thought I was getting away with it.” That honesty marked a turning point in our friendship. A few years later, we were sharing a slice of Iced Lemon Cake at lunch, reminiscing about our fateful evening at the River Run. And that very evening, on NJ Transit, Dessert Schneider barged into my life and wouldn’t be quiet till I wrote her story. I’d never experienced anything like that—she was really bossy!
How did that book get published?
A: It was multiply submitted, under my pen name, and was acquired in a two-book deal.
It looks like most of your books have a food element. Is that because you like to bake?
A: Funny you bring this up, because it hasn’t been intentional. Food has been a continuing thread throughout my life, and as a kid I always went grocery shopping with my dad (we still like to go together when we can); we like to see what new products there are on the shelves and what’s on sale. I was the New York State 4-H Bread champion (not kidding!) as a seventeen year old—baking bread was something to do in an otherwise pretty boring summer in farm country, so I went for it, baking bread every day for the entire two months that school was out. Cooking and baking are relaxing for me like nothing else, and when I’m not writing, I’m usually in the kitchen. I even like chopping leeks, just as thin as I can get them without slicing off my thumb in the process . . .
Do you feel that writing your own books helps you relate better with your writer clients?
A: I think my writers and artists appreciate that I understand what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling in a way that you only know if you are a writer or artist yourself. We talk . . . a lot.
When I heard David Small and Kate DiCamillo speak at SCBWI conferences, it sounded like you were not only a great agent, but a great critique partner for them.
Over the years, there’s a trust that builds, and with David and Kate and most of my clients, I’m a gatekeeper; they can share work with me before anybody else sees it, and they know that if I’m willing to share it with the world, I believe in it.
Why did you decide to leave HarperCollins to open a literary agency?
A: I’d been an executive editor for six years, and I had developed my own taste in books. I’d begun to believe that if I loved reading a book, maybe somebody else in the world would too. And so I was ready to set out of my own after a time, especially when some of the projects I tried to acquire were rejected by an acquisitions board. I wanted to succeed or fail based on my own taste.
What was your biggest success as a literary agent?
A: Biggest successes can run the gamut. There are the seven-figure deals with film rights and foreign licenses sold simultaneously, and there are the original books by new authors that become franchises, with television and live-stage deals coming along the way. But there are also the smaller deals that come with huge personal satisfaction, such as bringing a beloved book back into print decades after first publication, or placing that book I’ve always believed in, months after first submission. I think the biggest fun is finding an editor who loves a book, acquires it, and publishes it well, whether it’s snapped up in a pre-empt an hour after submission or acquired after months of waiting. They all matter.
On top of that, the feeling of comraderie I have with my colleagues is one I cherish–we root for each other and have a fabulous time together. That matters too.
Do you have any words of wisdom for writers from an author’s point–of-view?
~Be discerning but don’t be precious about your work.
~Take your work as far as you can on your own before showing it; your agent only gets a first read once.
~Let your work speak for itself—no need to tell your agent how much your neighbors and other writer friends love it first; that can set unrealistic expectations before that first read.
~Go to your laptop or drawing board every day. It’s easier to stay with the story you’re trying to write or illustrate than it is to reintroduce yourself after an absence.
~Think about a problem you are having with your book right before you go to sleep, and keep a pencil and notepad by your bedside table; you might get an answer during the night or first thing in the morning (it happens!).
~Don’t worry about how many books you have published / are publishing; Robert McCloskey did seven in his lifetime.
~Don’t get obsessed with Amazon rankings, etc. The secret is that a bad ranking will make you feel worse and a good ranking or review won’t make you feel much better.
~As long as you can say to yourself, when you’re looking back at your work, I did the best I was capable of at that time in my life, you’ll be a bit more impervious to negative comments. But make sure you can say that before your book goes out into the world.
Would you answer differently with your agent’s hat on?
A: No, but some of these things I only know from being a writer, inside information J.
Holly, thanks for answering the interview questions. I will remind people when they might be able to see you in September. It was such great fun to share the picture of your son with everyone. It looks like David really captured his looks and personality.
Best of Luck with the book!
PS: Remember to check back next Friday to read the four first pages critiqued by Holly.
Majoring in English always seemed to be a very puzzling thing for those around me. It took me five and a half years to finish my undergraduate degree, and I probably couldn’t count the number of times this question came up. I also couldn’t count the number of ways I’ve responded. Writer. Editor. Book publicist. Agent. Designer. All noble causes, all professions inhabited by creative and brilliant people. But somewhere, in answering that penetrating question—with all its strength of will in making me feel like my degree would be ultimately useless—I got lost in the possible options and forgot to think about the most important thing: what did I want to do in the first place?
You learn early that being a writer isn’t considered a “realistic” career. Going into editing, that can work. But writing, being an author, not so much. I’m still fairly certain that the Grade 11 Careers class I was forced to take (a Canadian rite of passage) existed just to tell me that my dream jobs (at the time: writer, musical theatre performer, etc.) were impractical, and that I was unreasonable.
I can still see my teacher rolling her eyes.
What they don’t tell you in Careers class is that it’s probably not that much more impossible to become a writer than it is to become an editor in this economic climate. Becoming a writer who creates a six-figure novel? Not so likely. But becoming a writer at all? It’s hard, it takes passion and dedication—but it does happen. And it isn’t really less possible than being an editor. But we’re told it is. We’re told as young writers that the publishing industry is the smarter, easier choice. Not only is that not necessarily true, but it also belittles the work done by the incredible, driven people in the industry. There are publishers who spend their entire lives making sure other peoples’ books do well. People who work in the industry are often ambitious and passionate and…well. Practically superhuman, in some cases.
But still, I really wanted to be an editor; and, admittedly, it wasn’t just because of Careers. I love editing, I love being the person who gets to polish something beautiful into something perfect. At this point I have a little more than year of experience in the Toronto publishing world. Not a lot. I’m a baby, and I know it—but it’s enough to get a peek. I worked as an intern at a small publisher, sorting through submissions and slush. At the same small publisher, I worked as a typesetter and graphic designer. This past summer I have been working as an assistant for the president of a literary agency. These have all been really rewarding experiences and I’ve learned a lot. Publishing is hard. There’s a lot on the line for everyone emotionally, mentally, and financially. Doing design on a fast-paced publishing schedule is one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had so far, and seeing how agents function while they work is awe-inspiring. So many people in this industry work 17-18 hour days with hardly any weekends, just because they love it so much.
As I’m starting to grow into a publishing toddler, this experience has given me a pretty startling realization. I knew going into these internships that I wanted to write, that I always have wanted to write. But somewhere along the way I started letting my Careers teacher’s voice whisper in my ear. I am dedicated to continuing to educate myself on how to edit more thoroughly and how to design more beautifully. I’m just starting to get good enough to freelance reliably. But what I really want to focus on at the moment is my writing.
It’s not to say that some people can’t balance both. I know some wonderful ladies and gents who pull off doing both with style. There is definitely value in being both a writer and involved in the industry, whether it gives you a greater understanding of what’s required of you to get yourself published or whether it lends you empathy towards your clients. But that life is only suited to some very specific people. I’ve met some ex-agents-turned-writers who realized that they loved their own work more than working on other peoples’, even if they ultimately loved doing both. And I know plenty of once-writers who seem to be leaning towards becoming editors.
Me? Somehow, coming out of all of this has ended a five-year novel writing block, and I’m happily typing away at a new project every spare moment I have. My industry experience helped me make some major life decisions, like moving on to grad school instead of going on to a publishing certificate without a single doubt. Doing this work now means I got the experience while I had as many doors open as possible. I’m able to acknowledge that just because I’m interested in industry work doesn’t mean I have to commit to it 100% now when I’m only 23. Even if my career advisor told me I should.
Besides, there are so many other things I can do with my English degree.
(Like getting a PhD!)
Kerrie Byrne McCreadie has dipped her toes/feet/shins/waist into the publishing world in various ways over the past few years, and thinks the whole industry is pretty fascinating. You can follow her on twitter, or find her on her brand new blog. She is currently writing a rather depressing fairy tale contemporary, and will thank anyone for holding her hand as she starts her PhD applications this fall.
I know what you want: To get more freelance writing jobs. And to earn good money doing what you love. And to enjoy the freedom that comes with controlling your own career.
That’s nice — but guess what? Editors don’t care what you want.
All editors care about is that you make their jobs — and their lives — as easy as possible. And for you, that means going beyond turning in great work on time. (Turning in great work on time is the bare minimum requirement.)
If you want to keep raking in the freelance writing gigs, you need to be freaking epic. You need to go waaaaaay beyond what the hordes of other freelance writers are doing.
Here’s how to level it up – and get more work:
Give Without Getting
Everyone loves a surprise freebie. What little extra can you offer your editor clients, without going broke yourself?
How about this: When you come across some news tidbit or research study you think would be perfect for a particular publication, but don’t want to pitch it yourself, send it to the editor anyway. Tell him, “I found this study I thought you’d be interested in. Hope you find it useful for X magazine!”
Or maybe you’re working on an article and come across some information that is important, but doesn’t quite fit in the piece. Write it up as a quick sidebar, and tell the editor, “I had some extra information, so I wrote up a sidebar you can use if you have room. Hope you like it!”
With some creativity, you’ll find many easy, painless ways to offer little extras to your clients. That puts you ahead of all those writers who turn in an article and call it a day.
Get the Best (Not the Easiest!) Interview Sources
Too many writers pick the first expert sources that come to mind: They go for people they already happen to know, like local professionals. “I need to interview a podiatrist? Hey, there’s one on my street!” Or they send out a HARO request and choose from among the people who respond.
When I recently wrote an article for a national health magazine on pet health, I needed to find two expert sources. Of course, I have a local vet who is great. But instead of going the easy route, I called a national veterinary organization and gave the PR rep my exact specifications: I wanted one male and one female vet from different areas of the country — and they needed to have a published book through a traditional publisher or work at a well-known veterinary hospital.
I got exactly what I wanted.
My editor did not ask for these requirements; I just knew these would be the very best sources and would impress the heck out of her.
When you’re on the search for sources for your articles, think of who would be the absolute best person to interview. You may think they’re out of your league, but you won’t know until you ask — and often, you’ll be surprised.
Push Your Style
If you can write in a clear, readable style, that probably puts you in the top 25% of freelance writers out there. But where you really create value and become epic is in bringing an amazing style to everything you write.
When I write an article, in my final edit, I go over every sentence and ask myself, “Is this the best possible way to express this idea? Is there any way I can make it more concise/interesting/entertaining?”
Writing for magazines (and copywriting, by the way) is about more than conveying ideas to readers in grammatically correct sentences. You need to do it in a way that entertains and keeps them interested as well. The perfect turn of phrase, the (truly) humorous aside, the killer lede — these are the things that keep readers — and editors — coming back.
So the next time you write an article, or a query, go over it one last time and make sure every sentence is as tight and compelling as it can be.
Don’t be one of the many writers who say, “I turned in an article on time. My sentences are grammatically correct. The end. Next!” Push yourself to be freaking epic and you’ll be rewarded with epic assignments in turn.
How about you: What do YOU do to level it up in your writing and business? What have editors’ responses been? Let us know in the Comments below!
Info-dump. Just the name of this writing misstep telegraphs that it’s something to be avoided. For purposes of this post, “info-dump” refers to a section of narration inserted into a story that explains important backstory essential to understanding the current action. Here’s an example:
“Marie!” Peter held her at arm’s length so he could look into the face he had feared he would never see again. “I can’t believe it’s you! Where have you been?”
Marie told Peter how she had been captured by the Slugs, a society of subterranean warriors. She had stumbled upon their home while spelunking in the abandoned mines north of town. The Slugs had come closer to the surface than they usually dared in search of a missing key that they believed a renegade Slug had carried to the surface. The Slugs had interrogated Marie, and they’d injected her with a drug that altered her perceptions and memories. In the end they’d let her go, but only after she’d agreed to search out the Slug with the stolen key and return it to its rightful place underground. Before they let her go, though, they’d implanted a tracking device in her brain.
“See the scar?” Marie asked, pulling the hair back from behind her left ear.
An info-dump dropped right in the middle of things can hurt your story in many ways:
It stops the forward momentum. When I’m caught up in the midst of a great story, I want to be carried along toward the climax. An info-dump can interrupt that progress and slow things to a crawl.
It removes the reader from the world of the story. In the example above, the reader is pulled from the reunion scene between Marie and Peter, which, without the interruption, has the potential to be an emotionally strong scene.
It’s boring. The narrator takes over and resorts to “telling,” so instead of experiencing what happened to Marie, the reader learns it in a mini history lesson.
What can be done in a situation like this? Sometimes it’s not possible to “show” all the backstory. In this example, Peter may be the POV character, so the reader wouldn’t be able to know what was happening to Marie while she was suffering through her underground captivity. Still, this information is necessary to the story. The writer needs to find a way to share it without an info-dump.
Here are some techniques to consider:
Find ways to show some of the information, either at this point in the story or later. “The Slugs had interrogated Marie, and they’d injected her with a drug that altered her perceptions and memories.” This is the kind of information that could be shown in a multitude of dynamic ways. It could be shown right here through her interactions with Peter, or it could be woven in a bit at a time, until the characters and readers come to understand what has happened to Marie. This would also work with the tracking device in Marie’s brain. A headache could introduce this information, integrating it into the current action.
Dialogue can be used to convey backstory. All the information in the info-dump paragraph above could be shared by Marie through dialogue, while the story continues. Imagine that, just as Peter encountered Marie at the start of this scene, he was hurrying to get to a meeting with a reclusive scientist, who, before his abrupt retirement a year ago, was the country’s foremost expert on subterranean societies. Peter’s need to hear Marie’s story while simultaneously needing to hurry to his meeting would add action to the scene, as he drags her to his car, blurts out a quick explanation of where they’re going, and tries to concentrate on Marie’s harrowing story while speeding through yellow stoplights and weaving through traffic to meet the professor in time.
Tell the backstory in one big chunk, but weave it into the narrative in a way that interests the characters and the reader. In this example, Marie could tell Peter and the other characters her story as they sit around a campfire at night, or as they hike through the woods toward the very same mines where she was captured. With this treatment, the backstory becomes a story-within-the-story, allowing the writer to build suspense and tension so that the backstory maintains the same level of complexity and interest as the current events that surround it. A story-within-a-story can also help with world-building, if the culture of your story has traditions in place for passing down history or sharing myths and legends, such as through sonnets or songs.
What are your thoughts on these techniques? Do you have any other methods for sharing important backstory? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Julie Eshbaugh writes fiction for young adults. She is represented by Adams Literary. You can add Julie on Goodreads and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.
Give out a ARC to people who have a large following on their blogs, but ask them to commit to reading your book and doing a review. Need to work on this months before your book is released. Remember the more reviews you get the better your book will do, but they need to be good reviews.
For the people who you gave an ARC to, ask them to pass on the book to another person to read to expand your audience.
Ask everyone who does a review on Amazon to also put it up on Goodreads, too.
If you have an ebook, consider having Amazon offer it on their Deal of the Day. Reducing the price for a few days or a week, will boost your sales and start word of mouth.
Have family/friends/colleagues/fans buy your book during a ‘soft’ launch (pre-advertising, or promoting your book on social media).
Price your book at 99 cents (the lowest allowed by Amazon) and drive as much traffic as you can during your ‘soft’ launch window. Once you have the bar filled you can re-price your book.
Please welcome the incredible Jeannine Hall Gailey to the blog! She’s going to cover a topic that I don’t feel gets enough coverage: poetry book reviews.
I’m enjoying the guest posts on this blog, but they can only continue with your participation. If you have an idea, send it my way at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll work to flesh it out. No idea is too big, too small, or too “out there.” Okay, maybe some are, but I won’t judge.
I recently had just this conversation over coffee with a colleague: Why do you write book reviews? I’ve been reviewing poetry books for almost a decade now, mostly (luckily) books I’ve loved, a few books I’ve been indifferent about, and very few books I’ve hated.
Does it benefit you in any way? Does it help your writing career? What do you gain from it?
All perfectly valid questions, and, easy to understand. Most of my reviews are unpaid, though I’ve been paid for a portion of them. It’s a lot of time and effort to spend lifting up someone else’s work, without a lot of reward – I mean, very few authors or publishers write me happy notes, saying “Thank you so much for that thoughtful review!”
Why Review Poetry Books?
The reward, I started to say, was being part of the larger critical conversation, where, let’s face it, not enough women are being heard. Reviewing teaches you to be a close and careful reader of books by writers I admire and respect, tests your aesthetic preferences and prejudices, and encourages you to slow down and pay attention to the poetry world around you, what’s being published, and by whom, what isn’t being published and why.
For instance, Copper Canyon Press and Wave Books are both Northwest publishers, but they have very different aesthetics. You learn something about publishers and publishing trends that might help you when you start sending your book around.
But even more than that, someone said to me in my late twenties, “If you want your poetry book to be reviewed, then you’d better review other people’s books.” In the spirit of paying it forward, we writers need to give back to our literary communities in real, concrete ways, and writing reviews is one of the ways we can do that.
In the same way that volunteering to edit at a literary magazine helps you understand the process of rejection and acceptance, reviewing helps you understand why your own book may or may not be reviewed.
How Do I Know If I Can Write Book Reviews?
Another question I’ve gotten a lot comes from a different angle: “How do I know if I’m qualified to write a book review? I mean, I have an MFA, but…” I hear this all the time.
How do you start writing literary criticism? I started out getting a lot of practice, starting at NewPages.com reviewing literary magazines, and from there I just kept practicing, writing for more and more outlets, some more chatty, others more academic.
If you want to learn how to review a book, read the reviews in some of the literary magazines you already enjoy, but also pick up The New York Times Review of Books, The Women’s Review of Books, Poetry Flash, The Review Review, and The American Book Review. Find and read the reviews from some of our best poetry critics, like Stephen Burt, one of my particular “critic heroes.”
Check out some of the more lively online review venues, like The Rumpus, to see what the hipsters are reading and reviewing (but full disclosure: I review for The Rumpus and cannot, strictly, be called any kind of hipster). After all that reading, you’ll have a good feel for what’s required, so just try your hand, practice, and send out some queries!
There are never enough good poetry reviews out there, and despite my aforementioned lack of poetry review thank-you-notes, authors will be grateful!
In addition to being a great poet and supporter of poetry, including a guest judge for the 2014 April PAD Challenge on Day 27, she wrote a very generous review of Robert Lee Brewer’s debut collection, Solving the World’s Problems, in the most recent edition of Crab Creek Review. And Robert is very grateful!
Learn more about Jeannine (and buy some books) at her website: www.webbish6.com.
A few weeks ago, Agent Carly Watters on her blog talked about after you write a great manuscript, how does an agent decide to work with someone after that? She has seven tips.
7 Ways To Make Yourself An Easy Author to Work With by Carly Watters:
1. Open to revisions
Right away, I know if an author is going to be a fit for me based on how they react to revision ideas. Agents are looking for writers that are open to feedback and collaboration. If I gave you an R&R did you connect with my notes? Did you ask questions that take my notes from suggestions to big picture changes that make the novel better?
2. Always wants to get better
A line I like to use is “trust your future self.” What that means to me is if you can write good novel, you can write many more. Getting defensive about your novel means you are holding on to it when really you should be willing to let it go and work on the next. Agents are looking to represent authors for the long term, so what we need is the faith that you want to be the best writer, every time you write a new book. We know there will be ups and downs, but it’s that drive to succeed that will separate many writers from the ones that don’t make it.
3. Treats assistants and senior industry members alike
From time to time we get people who respond to our query letter auto-response with condescending and mean emails. It doesn’t matter who is on the other end of those emails, our principal agent or our assistant, you have to be friendly to everyone–not just the people who influence your career. Those mean emails just reinforce our decision to pass without a second thought.
4. Asks questions
I love it when authors want to know more about the process. Don’t be shy about wanting to know how the business works. Whether it’s a Twitter #askagent session or when you’re on ‘The Call’ with an agent, make sure you ask the important questions that help your understanding.
5. Trusts us
The number one way to work with an agent for a long period of time is trust. I know this isn’t built over night, but you have to trust your agent to have your best interests at heart. This is one of the most important long-term author/agent relationship requirements. Only query agents that you see yourself working with and that you already trust (whether it’s a referral, their taste or client list).
This is part of trust, but authors have to be up-front with agents. Did you self publish before? Have you had an agent before? Can you share your sales numbers from your previous book? It’s the little things that add up when it comes to communication. We need to know everything if we’re going to represent you well.
7. Professional on social media
As easy as it is for authors to Google agents to see if we might be a fit for you, when we fall in love with a query or manuscript the first thing we do is Google you back. What agents love to see on social media is a personality (not just link blasts). You don’t have to have a ton of followers (but points if you do!) to get our attention. It’s all about the balance between promotion and personality. We love it when authors are part of writing communities and support other authors. That means, when the time comes, those other published writers will support you too.
If you’ve read any of Donald Maass’ work, you may be familiar with the idea of “bridging conflict.” It’s a small bit of conflict before the inciting incident (the event that launches the plot) comes along. I want to talk about it in a little bit more detail.
But first, some empathizing. Writers are bombarded with advice (guilty as charged here, I know I’ve definitely contributed to this). Jump right into the action. Don’t just right in. Let’s have the inciting incident within the first 10 pages. You’re rushing into it! We need a physical description of your protagonist on the first page. You’re focusing on details that don’t matter! Don’t tell, show! Don’t show, tell! AAAH! It’s crazymaking.
And I’m seeing the effects of this confusion on writers who are trying to check all the boxes that they may have read about on well-meaning blogs and in helpful books. One symptom of this that I want to discuss today is starting too big. Yes. This is going to be one of those bits of advice that is controversial, because it seems contradictory.
Everywhere you look, you see blogs telling you to start with action, start big, and get readers hooked right away. And there’s a lot of good to this advice. It’s a great kick in the rear for writers who like to begin with twenty pages of chit-chat and backstory before anything actually happens. This is telling upon telling, and it’s likely your readers aren’t sticking around until your first plot point.
So is the natural antidote to this an explosion on page two? That might seem like a good idea. And I’m seeing it more and more. But let me tell you why it’s a well-meaning thought gone awry. I liken this situation to a first date. You meet a guy or gal at a restaurant after chatting online for a bit. In this situation, you’re very much like a fiction reader. You liked the cute cover, you liked the interesting blurb, you want to give this book a shot and devote a few hours of your time to it. You start some small talk, and, if you’re on a date with one of those slow-starting manuscripts, your date is likely to talk for the entire duration of dinner, filling you in on their entire life up until this point. That’s undesirable, right? Well, let’s talk about the flip side. What if your date suddenly has a massive episode and flops to the floor, seizing, before the first round of drinks arrives?
How do you feel (other than, you know, horrified because you’re a nice person)? It’s bizarre to imagine. Why? Because it’s too big. It’s an event but it’s too high stakes, too dangerous, too sudden. You don’t even know the guy. If he were to be hauled off in an ambulance, you wouldn’t know who to call because you just met him!
In opening a novel, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to blab for three hours, but you also don’t want to open with “Hey guess what, there’s a prophecy and you’re the chosen one to save the world. So, you know, get to it, kiddo.” One is too small on plot, one is too big. That’s why smart people like Donald Maass advocate for “bridging conflict” to start. You want to start with some action to get tension brewing. Maybe a conversation with one’s crush, or anxiety about an upcoming test, or a sibling getting in trouble and asking for help. Let that be the focus of the first chapter. And if this conflict is related to the main plot, even better. But it’s not the main plot, not yet. Because we have to care about the character before we’ll follow them through a really rigorous plot full of stakes, ups, and downs. Just like we should probably get to know our unlucky date a bit more before we’ll hop into the ambulance and follow him to the hospital.
Because before we have established a connection using some smaller, more manageable conflict, the protagonist is just a kid. The reader hasn’t bonded yet. The intricate relationship between the fictional entity and the audience is still too new, too tenuous. But once we get to know the hero a little bit, we start to invest. Just like if the date goes horribly wrong near the end of the night, it’s not just some guy who’s having an attack, it’s Pete! Who grew up three blocks away from you! And he’s allergic to peanuts! And why, oh why, did you order pad thai for the table?! And you’re that much more likely to care, to feel, to buy in. Keep it manageable at first, then ramp up the stakes and really get rolling on your main conflict.
It’s your baby, your pride and joy. It’s put you through countless cups of coffee, frustration and tears, drizzled with moments of incomparable joy when things just click. Fingernails have been shredded, dishes have piled up, and sleep?? You’ve basically forgotten what that is.
And now you’re supposed to let someone else actually READ it????
AND CRITIQUE IT???
But what if they don’t understand?? They don’t know the characters like I do!! How can I just hand it over to someone else, basically for the sole purpose of being criticized?
What am I? A masochist?
You want the honest answer? It’s simple. The answer is: Yes. Yes, you are. J
Here you are, actively seeking someone who will point out the flaws in your work… the more the better. And it’s going to hurt.
But you don’t want people to just tell you they loved it and what a great writer you are. Well… you do (or at least I certainly do! Sometimes I just need that motivator, that lift, that person that makes me feel good about my work, and myself). But that’s what your friends and family are for! If you do happen to be friends with your critique partners, you need to separate that friendship from the critique process.
It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to hand your manuscript to someone else. And it’s exciting at the same time. This means you have something complete enough for someone to actually read! Go you!! Now you have to be brave enough to let them.
Finding the Right Partners
There is a balance in a good critique partner that just fits. And like most relationships, it’s almost hard to put into words. (Unfortunately there is no eHarmony for us!) Finding the right person or people makes all the difference in what you get out of the process.
Here are a few things I look for:
Praise and critique combo: Everyone has a balance here. Rarely will you find someone who would just say “this stinks”. Most people will balance negatives will some level of positive. But personally, I want someone who isn’t afraid to tell me about major holes or plot arcs that they don’t think work, even if it means a huge re-write. But, for that ego side of me, I also need someone who can also point out a think or two that they DO like, and even better, WHY they like it. This also helps me see my own strengths so I can guide my writing in that direction in the future.
Relative Match in Style: While I don’t think the genres need to match, there does need to be some common ground. Someone who writes zombie thrillers may not be on the same page as a picture book author. Personal beliefs can come into play here as well. Some people believe strongly in books that push boundaries, others in the value of simplicity and comfort more within those same boundaries. Certainly neither person is right or wrong, but the two would probably not make good critique partners.
They GET Your Writing: You don’t want someone who is going to push you to be anyone other than the true writer inside you, so you need them to appreciates your voice. If your voice as a writer comes through as an edgy, jaded teenager from a broken home, and your critique partner only likes upbeat, bubbly writing, they’re going to want your writing to be less… you. No one can (or should) please everyone. No writing voice pleases everyone either. You need someone who will encourage the voice inside you to come out.
You Love THEIR Writing: Critique partners is often set up as an exchange. My critique partners are people whose writing I highly respect, I enjoy reading their work, and I learn from their writing. You want someone who you can build a mutual relationship with over time, sharing the ups and downs and exchanging motivation.
Good Communication: Are you looking for just a few comments? Line edits? Overall thoughts? At different stages in the process you may be in need of completely different types of critiques. For example, if you’re submitting to an agent in two days, you may be looking for typos, simple fixes, odd word usage, but NOT major character or plot changes. You need to be able to trust that you can communicate that to them without a problem.
Good critique partners are worth their weight in GOLD. I have been so lucky to have found a few who are amazing, and it really is hard to put into words. Their feedback has been helpful, not just for that particular manuscript, but has given me perspective on my writing that flows forward into all my work.
And as I’ve said before, like Kathy said to me the first time she gave me a critique. critiques are SUGGESTIONS NOT INSTRUCTIONS. It’s important to be open-minded, and put serious non-biased consideration (at least as non-biased as possible) into every one. But don’t feel pressured to take them all. A good critique partner will also never be offended if you didn’t take their suggestions.
Critiques are an important part in the journey of writing and publication. It may take a few tries to find the partners that work best for you. But it’s important to keep looking, because good critique partners can really help you bring your manuscript, and your writing in general, to the next level.
So take the plunge, send work out to be read by others, and find the critique partners that work for you.
Because your manuscripts are worth it!
Thank you Erika for another super article. I am sure everyone will enjoy reading this.
If you are looking for a critique group, you should look first to your local SCBWI Chapter. They should be able to set you on the right path. Plus, don’t forget you can find other writers from around the country to work with online.
I noticed that illustrator David Small’s new book, Catch That Cookie was hitting the bookshelves on August 14th, so I contacted him to see if he would like to be featured on Illustrator Saturday. He will be doing a book tour in September, so I’ll make sure I tell you all the ins and outs as soon as I know them. It will be a great opportunity to meet him and Hallie Durand, if they are coming to a bookstore near you.
Here is a little bit about David:
David Small was born and raised in Detroit. In school he became known as “the kid who could draw good,” but David never considered a career in art because it was so easy for him. At 21, after many years of writing plays, David took the advice of a friend who informed him that the doodles he made on the telephone pad were better than anything he had ever written. He switched his major to Art and never looked back. After getting his MFA at the Yale Graduate School of Art, David taught art for many years on the college level, ran a film series and made satirical sketches for campus newspapers.
Approaching tenure, he wrote and illustrated a picture book, “Eulalie and the Hopping Head”, which he took to New York, pounding the pavements and collecting rejections for a month in the dead of winter. “Eulalie” was published in 1981. Although tenure at the college did not follow, many more picture books did, as well as extensive work for national magazines and newspapers. His drawings appeared regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times. A learn-as-you-go illustrator, David’s books have been translated into several languages, made into animated films and musicals, and have won many of the top awards accorded to illustration, including the 1997 Caldecott Honor and The Christopher Medal for “The Gardener” written by his wife, Sarah Stewart, and the 2001 Caldecott Medal for “So, You Want To Be President?” by Judith St. George.
“At the Caldecott ceremony in San Francisco,” said David, “facing that veritable sea of smiling faces — of librarians, of friends in publishing, of my family and other well-wishers— I was so overcome that I lost my voice and croaked my way through the speech. Having been turned from a frog into a prince by the American Library Association, before their eyes that night, I turned back into a frog.” To date he has illustrated over 40 picture books. At an average of 40 pages per book, that makes around 1,840 illustrations, though someone ought to check that math. Currently David is working on a graphic memoir about his problematic youth.
David Small and Sarah Stewart make their home in an 1833 manor house on a bend of the St. Joseph River in southwest Michigan. David’s studio is an 1890 farmhouse also overlooking the river, just a short walk from home.
Here’s David discussing his process for the cover of his new book, CATCH THAT COOKIE written by Hallie Durand:
Every picture-book has its unique set of problems in the making of it. This one had relatively few worries on the interior art but, what we didn’t know was: we had a long hard struggle coming up, trying to find a good title and a good jacket design as well. This was a first jacket sketch, from back in the summer of 2013, when the working title was “Searching for Gingerbread”, which nobody liked.
By December, Holly had come up with a great title. I still clung to that original pose for the Kid but, as you can see from my inked notations, we were already discussing a different attitude, one without the theatrical “Scout-Searching-the-Plains” hand over the eyes.
Here the Kid’s pose is more dynamic, but still something was wrong. Nobody thought the Kid should be able to see the Cookie. They were right: it made it look like an uneven match.
Here their positions are reversed. The hiding cookie seemed okay, but the Kid has no verve. The thrill was going out of this jacket project. By now, six months had passed. It was February 2014, I was working from my studio in Mexico, and our deadline for a jacket was coming up very soon. We decided to get the creative juices kick-started by taking a radically-different approach. (We had no idea what that approach would be, only that it had to be radical. [Slide #4a:] Lily (the Art Director) and I decided to comb over some old movie posters for dynamic image ideas. Here is Mark Wahlberg as “Max Payne.”
…. and here is the Kid saying: “Stop right there, you darn cookie! Put your doughy little arms up or suffer maximum pain!”
Another wrong direction. The illustrator’s panic shows in the whole pose. I and Lily, Holly and two editors– were working every day, all day and often into the night on this. We had passed the deadline long ago and were nearing the drop-deadline. We had to find another way!
Some smart-thinking person (not me,) had come up with this “WANTED” poster for the back jacket. Another person (also not me,) decided it might work as the front jacket.
For several days we went with that, but nobody was getting buzzed. This one had too much text to read …
…this had less text but still no “Grab-Me-Off-The-Shelf” appeal.
How this– the final jacket design–evolved, was a similar ordeal full of false starts, wrong turns, bad decisions, do-overs and raw nerves but we finally got it. And that, in the end, is all that matters. I’ve shown you 10 examples here, but in my archives I have at least 50 different comps for this jacket, which doesn’t count all the others that went into the trash. It now seems amazing, unusual — even weird– that it took so long to get this right., but so it goes.
BELOW: DAVID ANSWERS TO THE INTERVIEW QUESTIONS I ASKED:
When did you first know you were destined to become an artist?
When I realized I was not fit for life in the real world and that any normal employment was out of the question.
Did you always live in Michigan?
No. I’ve lived in Chicago, in Boston, in New Haven and in a small burg in Upstate New York. Also, you should know that there are two Michigans: one is called Detroit, and I’ve done time in both.
What was the first thing you illustrated and got paid for doing?
An article in the NYTimes Book Review. I was in NYC for 2 months, trying to market my first children’s book. (This was in the early 1980’s, before the Internet, when you had to be in NYC to get work there.) I went up to the Times to the office of Steve Heller, showed him my portfolio, and then and there he gave me an assignment for the Book Review. Since he wanted it the next day, I stayed up all night, working on
the floor of an empty apartment on W. 10th Street. (Some friends had loaned us their apartment while they moved into another one, and the place had no furniture except a bed and a lamp.)
Do you feel getting your MFA at the Yale Graduate School of Art helped develop your style?
No. I had a far better art education getting my BFA at Wayne State University in Detroit, during the ‘60’s.
What made you decide to go to Yale vs. other schools for art?
I didn’t make the decision. My mentor– a Boston artist named Michael Mazur–decided I needed to go to grad school. Mike had gone to Yale, was good friends with the printmaker Gabor Peterdi, who at that time taught in the Printmaking Department at Yale, and he used his influence to get me in.
Did you have a favorite class at Yale?
Life Drawing was always my favorite class, wherever I was. At Wayne I had had great instructors in drawing the figure and Anatomy, so by the time I got to Yale all I really needed was to be left alone to continue practicing.
You may sense a certain “distant” tone when I speak about Yale? At the time I was
there, in the early 70’s, the Yale Grad School of Art was a ruptured institution, with one part of the faculty –the Traditionalists–at war with another, the Abstractionists. This tension got passed along to the students, who basically stayed hidden away in their studios, coming out only for the faculty group critiques of their work. These forums were staged in public, in an open pit, with people watching from the balconies tiered around that space. They were like gladitorial games and they always devolved into ideological screaming-matches between the professors, while students were frequently driven away in tears. I got spared these ordeals because we Printmaking majors weren’t considered actual artists.
You mention in your bio that you began with writing plays. Do you think you will ever write another play?
Making graphic novels is much like play writing, and it’s even more like film-making.
Do you feel getting your MFA at Yale opened doors for you?
Absolutely. In the world of academe, that Yale degree has genuine snob appeal. Out in the world of actual illustration, Art Directors at magazines and publishing houses could care less where you went to school. They don’t read your resume, they just look at your portfolio.
My opinion of art schools in general is they offer you two important things: 1) a place to work where you can avoid having to be out in the world while you develop your art, and, if you’re lucky, 2) possibly one or two good instructors who might encourage you. I still think the portfolio is more important than the degree.
What was the catalyst for your first picture book, “Eulalie and the Hopping Head”?
My family. I grew up feeling my parents wanted to trade me in for a different model.
Where did you teach art? How did the job to teach art come along?
I first taught at the S.U.N.Y. college at Fredonia. I presume it was the Yale degree that put me in the running for that position, but also, my work was substantial and I interviewed well. That job lasted 7 years. I left that institution -and tenure — when I was hired at Kalamazoo College ,which had all the qualities I was looking for in a place to teach; it was small, it offered a real quality education, it had that
Georgian architecture ( the look of a little Parnassus-On-A-Hill) and –a big plus–there were very few Art majors. That meant that my students came from other disciplines like the sciences and language, and so, had other interests than flinging paint around.
After 4 years there, the Reagan Recession hit and colleges everywhere began cutting positions to save money. My position was eliminated and my wife and I –both around 40 years old at that time– found ourselves out on the street, with no jobs, no savings and no place to live. At the time it seemed like a disaster, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. It pushed me out into the world of work. If I had stayed in academe I think I might have withered away and dried up completely.
How did you land your gigs with The New Yorker and The New York Times?
I showed them my portfolio and, to my surprise, they hired me. Then they hired me again. But there was absolutely no certainty that they would ever hire you after that. This uncertainly–to me– was exhilarating, and stillis. It’s so different from academia, where you could relax and be assured that your next paycheck would be coming in.
Do you still do illustrations for magazines?
No. Maybe things have changed now, but for the years when I worked for magazines, the work was always very interruptive, the pay was low, and it all had to be done very fast. The pace got even crazier with the advent of fax machines, overnight delivery and the Internet.
Which books of yours were recreated into animated films and musicals?
IMOGENE’S ANTLERS was made into a great little mini-musical. Weston Woods has made films of SYWTB President?, MY SENATOR AND ME, and– coming soon– ONE COOL FRIEND.
Did your illustrating and your wife’s writing bring the two of you together?
No. A mutual friend introduced us at a party and it was love at first sight. I loved her face, her intellect, and the tiny vase of live violas she wore around her neck that night. We were friends for eight years before we married.
Was it fun working on “The Gardener” that your wife Sarah Stewart wrote?
The word “fun” did not enter my work vocabulary on that project The story ,as you know, is set in the Great Depression, and concerns a child whose family can’t afford to keep her. She is torn away from everything she knows and loves and is sent off to work for her uncle in the city. When I illustrate a story I have to make my own. That is, I have to find myself in it. With The Gardener, at first and for a long time, I agonized over the pain and loneliness that child must have felt. I couldn’t find any light in it. Also, I was familiar with the black and white photos from that era, of the
starving families in the Dust Bowl, of the urban bread lines … It wasn’t pretty. I decided it was beyond my powers to illustrate that story, and I was ready to turn back the contract. Then came a breakthrough.
I had a talk with Lydia Grace Finch–the gardener friend of Sarah’s on whose childhood Sarah had based her story. I asked Lydia what it was like growing up during the Depression.She said: “I was just a kid like any other kid. I didn’t know what ‘the Depression’ was; that was just life. We all had to work, of course.
We worked hard, but we also knew how to enjoy ourselves. I had a lot of fun during the Depression!”
That conversation was an eye-opener for me. I put it together with my own childhood memories of growing up young and innocent in Detroit, and suddenly things began to develop rapidly on paper. I guess, maybe, at that point it started to be fun.
How excited were the two of you to win The Christopher Medal and receive a Caldecott Honor for that book in 1997?
Very excited and surprised as well. It was stunning for both of us, to have such a private, personal experience given such huge recognition by the larger world.
Did you see a jump in demand for your illustrating after those wins?
I suppose I did. I know I started getting offered a lot of manuscripts that resembled Sarah’s but that weren’t Sarah’s, so I really had no interest in doing them.
Did you have any idea that “So, You Want To Be President?” by Judith St. George would win the Caldecott?
I personally didn’t think that book would sell five copies. But, speaking of “fun?” … that book was fun to make! Maybe that’s why I had little hopes for it, because it seemed more like bad-boy misconduct than work.
Once we realized that a Presidential election (Bush v. Gore) was coming up that very Fall, we stepped up the production schedule and I had to work very quickly; I didn’t have time to fuss and fret over every drawing. So, maybe my pessimissim about its prospects was related to my anxiety that maybe I hadn’t done a “perfect job”. (Aways a worry.)
Was Imogene’s Antlers the second picture book that you wrote? How did you find a home with a publisher for that book?
It was the fifth book I had illustrated, the second book I wrote. The editor of my first book– Alan Benjamin– had just become the Senior Buying Editor at Crown. Nobody among the higher-ups at Crown wanted to buy that book, but Alan made them publish it. He had a sense about it. He and I shared that bad-boy quality in our taste for books, but Alan was also very suave, very urbane, and could be very persuasive.
When did you meet your agent Holly McGhee?
It must have been 1997, the year she began Pippin Properties. I had given up on my search for a literary agent because all of the ones I met, for one reason or another, I had found disturbing. (One of them — a very famous kids book agent– was an outright crook. I had been warned away fromhim by several of my peers, but I interviewed him just to see if they were right. They were right. He met all red flag points on the official “How To Recognize a Sociopath” list. After that creepy encounter I had decided to go back to being agentless.
Then, Holly McGhee wrote to me. Her letter not only showed a genuine interest in– and enthusiasm for — my work, but she already had an impressive list of clients including William Steig and Jon Agee. When I met her face-to-face and found myself talking not to a self-inflated suit but to a genuine, straight-talking human being, I was convinced. I knew that she could help bring some business clarity to my life.
Were you Holly’s first client?
I was not the very first, but I was among them.
Was it hard to write “Stitches,” since it is so heartfelt?
It took me about 7 years to make that book, and yes, it was very very hard to make. But, that being said, I was driven to do it. All the false starts, all the re-do’s, the frustrations and self-doubts, the piles of material that ended up in the trash and the fifteen full-length versions (all of them different) were just things that seemed very necessary to working out a coherent story.
Holly, by the way, was very involved with Stitches from the beginning. She edited the first 12 versions of it. When we finally had it in a form she thought she could present with confidence, she spent a whole year of research to find a list of 6 editors at 6 different houses where she thought my book would fit. After that, she and the other Pips spent months putting together a presentation package. About that, Holly said, “I want this thing to be so extraordinary-looking that an editor will immediately
pop it into their briefcase and read it on the train ride home.” The day after she sent it out she immediately got 5 offers.
Was that your first graphic novel?
Which one of your books is your favorite?
Stitches is the book of my life, okay?–but it is in a much, much different category from the picture books. Of those, The Money Tree (by Sarah ) and my own Paper John were probably the most meaningful, because they both were pulled up from some place very deep in us both. As for the 50+ other picture books, I have to give the by-now cliched but still very-honest answer: I don’t play favorites with my children. That said, there are a few of those children who–although I wish them well– I’d prefer not to see again. You try the best you can every time, but sometimes the stars are misaligned …. something has gone wrong.
What is your favorite material to us when you do a colored illustration?
I first draw in waterproof ink, then do the color in water color and pastels.
Have your materials changed since your first published book?
Yes. By the time I did So, You Want To Be President? I was getting tired of Realism and was ready for a change in both my style and materials. That was when I loosened up my drawing style, began drawing more with a brush, and working in some patches of pastel chalk, for more emphatic color.
Have you tried your hand at Photoshop or drawing with a graphic tablet?
I have. Like everyone else in this ramped-up age of publishing, I was seduced by the “apparent” speed with which changes can be made with the computer, and by some of the impressive effects achieved by a few of the artists who use it. But, when I started taking Photoshop lessons I realized that I disliked more things about the medium than I liked. Most of all I missed the disconnect between the hand and the image. I missed having inky fingers and masses of art supplies surrounding me. I found out that being able to make speedy changes was not necessarily a good a thing for me: it felt strange that a drawing could be instantly evaporated into the ether, without having time to mellow and to reveal its good aspects. I should add that, when I go to an exhibit of original art I prefer to see original hand-made art, not a digital print-out. From the former I feel I’m always learning something useful about what the human hand is capable of doing, while from the latter I generally learn nothing. I also see a lot of computer artists trying clumsily to imitate the effects of
hand-drawn work. I’m not saying I’m against digitally-generated images, I’m only saying it’s not for me.
Do you spend any time promoting your work or does Holly take care of all that for you?
I spend Zero time in self-promotion. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. Holly is my advocate, my procurer (heh) , my confessor, my confidante, occasionally (as with Stitches,) my first editor and one of my best friends. As Artistic Director of her own company now, she chooses the best artists and authors she can find, gets them the best contracts she can, and lets their work stand for itself.
Promotion is up to the publishers and their Marketing Departrments. What makes them get behind a book –or not– is always a mystery, but I have to trust them. In any case, I’d much rather have them out there, doing all that, than doing it myself. I have other fish to fry.
What do you feel was your greatest success?
You can have many different kinds of success. There are books that might have been commercially successful that were not, in your own opinion, so successful as works of art or literature. There are books you are very proud of from an aesthetic standpoint, which sink without a trace. There are books that have a big critical success but which, for some reason, the public doesn’t go for. I’ve had all of these.
The 2001 Caldecott Medal ceremony was the most astonishing public display of success I’ve ever experienced. I think almost everyone present, that night in San Francisco, felt that something really significant had been done by the ALA. The crowd was immense and the air was electric. There was something very daring and spirited about the committee’s choice that year. I am sure it had something to
do with the political miasma swirling in D.C. at the time, and with the sense that Judy St. George, our editor Patricia Gauch and I had delivered some straight-talk to American children about the real human beings–full of real talents and real faults — who have held the highest office in the land. So, it was an enormous thrill being at the center of all that , but what I felt mainly was a fearsome lack of words with
which to express adequate thanks to the givers.
Since you have a separate studio, would you tell us a little bit about it?
We have two houses on our property. One is the house we live in, the other–a 3-minute walk along the riverbank– is my studio, which occasionally doubles as a guest house. When I used to work at home Sarah and I found the intertwining of our lives too distracting. Sarah needs absolute silence, while I need music on, sometimes very loud, when I work. Sarah likes to leave the phone off the hook, but I don’t
mind interruptions. I enjoy emails, while Sarah has never touched a computer and won’t have one in the house. Those are significant differences, but we both share a need for privacy, so having separate work spaces –when we finally got them–was a big relief. That being said, I have to tell you that Sarah never once complained while I was at work at home, but, when the opportunity came along for me to have a studio, she was on it like spots on dice.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
No. I don’t have a stopwatch for the amount of time I put into my work , just as I don’t go over my Profit & Loss sheets. I pay no attention to time and I pay even less to money. If I paid attention to those things, my worries would be all about time and money. As it is, my worries are all about art.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research, before you start a project?
For things like architectural styles and period costumes one must have research tools, books and the Internet. Computers are amazing tools for this, but I cherish equally my collection of books, which is big. A book is a often a better research tool, especially when you don’t know specifically what you’re looking for, you often find it by leafing through the pages.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Oh yes! I live on a prairie outside a small farming village, Population 800. There is a distinct lack of culture out here. We have a very small library, but nothing else, no museums, no theatres. Even though Chicago and Detroit are only 3 hours distant, we visit them only occasionally and for very brief stays. With e-mail I communicate daily with business friends, editors and art directors in NYC and with close friends in
Boston, San Francisco, Mexico, Paris and Brazil. It’s fantastic.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I hope to keep working and to fall over into my ink bottle when I croak. If there is an afterlife I hope they have a good art supply store there.
What are you working on now?
I have a book coming out with Dial this September, CATCH THAT COOKIE! written by Hallie Durand. Next year will see GLAMOURPUSS by Sarah Weeks (Scholastic, Spring 2015.) At the moment I’m working on finals for BLOOM by Doreen Cronin (Atheneaum, Spring 2016.) I also have a graphic novel in the works. That will be published by Liveright.
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
A few years ago I fell in love with a refillable brush pen made in Japan and distributed by Pentel. I buy mine from Wetpaint in St. Paul MN. (On their website store, click on Brush Pens and it will be the first item listed.) I drew most of Stitches with that pen, and I always travel with them to use in my sketchbooks.
As for”How To” tips, I have two good ones:
A. Always carry a sketchbook with you and use it. If you’re self-conscious about people watching you, wear tinted glasses and develop a “don’t mess with me” look. (You are, after all, at work, and you have to focus at all costs.) B. If you’re learning watercolor, try to put down no more than three layers of color, the first having so little paint in it that you can hardly detect any color. This advice comes from good old John Ruskin’s “Elements of Drawing” (1857.) When I can calm my own impatient impulses and follow it, a painting usually works out beautifully. When I forget Ruskin’s tip, my painting gets muddy and has to be done again.
Any words of wisdom you have on how to become a successful illustrator would be appreciated?
Sure. Don’t think about being a successful illustrator. Just try being a great one. Copy the old Masters.
Thank you David for sharing your journey, expertise, and process with us. Good luck with CATCH THE COOKIE. I hope it is a big success.
It’s perfectly possible, essential in fact, to engage in some interiority even when you’re working in third person narration. Most writers these days are getting around the whole issue by writing in first person. For years, this has been the vogue for MG and YA (a bit more for the latter). There is the perception that first person is more “immediate,” meaning, most likely, that there’s more that readers see from the protagonist’s POV, which means access to their thoughts, feelings, and reactions in real-time (which I have always called “interiority” for short, though Word still refuses to accept it as a word).
Without a lot of cues in the moment, or with reactions that come long after the fact, the reader is often a little stranded. A disconnect opens up between reader and character, and if you don’t nurture that relationship, or too many disconnects happen, then it’s unlikely to result in the type of connection that you’re looking to foster. So I teach that interiority is important. I’d rather know a little bit more about what’s going on in a character than a little bit less in any given moment, especially if you’re a writer who’s on the fence abut this whole interiority thing and you suspect that you don’t have a lot.
This brings me to third person. It’s first person’s more “distant” sister. And because first person POV already has the perceived advantage of being more “accessible,” third person writers (those brave souls!) need to fight a little bit harder–or at least be more deliberate–about making sure that the reader can still access interiority.
Most third person is “close,” meaning you technically can access one brain, usually the protagonist’s. Writing without this modification is really difficult. Writing “omniscient” is also difficult, as it involves “head-hopping” into many characters’ psyches, which (if you’re going to master the technique) involves pretty advanced characterization and voice development for each new personality.
So in close, you have some options. You can use the “thought” tag to voice a thought verbatim (put it in italics), then add “she thought.” Or just leave it in italics and leave the tag off. Readers will catch on to what you’re doing.
Why did I ever think calculus was a good idea? What an idiot.
Another idea is to narrate interiority just as you would in third person, only using the different POV.
“She looked at the exam in disgust before handing it over and skulking away, certain she’d failed.”
Lots of emotion in that example. For those writers who have trouble addressing interiority directly and want training wheels, dialogue is going to be your best friend. That and action.
“Thanks for nothing,” she said, shuffling out of the exam room and slamming the door behind her.
Subtle, these examples are not. But they all convey emotion, which is the point of interiority. No matter how directly you want to address the issue, whether you want to break third person for a peek into direct thoughts, or stick to third person that gets into the character’s head a little, or stay away from thoughts completely and deal with dialogue and actions, you should be thinking of ways to inject more emotion so that your characters’ inner lives rise a bit more to the surface. You’ll never regret fostering that connection to the reader and putting a little more heart on your character’s sleeve.