I missed posting this back when it was first up, because I was hiding out in Australia with zero internet access. If you’ve been wondering how to back up your blog, head on over for the details for Blogger, LiveJournal, & both WordPress options.
Blogging is hard work. Once you’re set up, there’s idea generation, writing, proofing, posting, and interacting with your readers, usually two or three times a week. And if you spend at least an hour a post (I spend an average of two), that’s, say three hours of work per week, twelve hours of work per month, and 156 hours per year—or thirteen twelve-hour days. If something happens to your blog, that’s an awful lot of work to lose.Read More
If you’re a YA or kidlit writer in New England, chances are you’ve heard of the regional NESCBWI conference. I’m going for the first time this year (excited!) and am in list overdrive, writing out things I need to collect for the conference (chocolate), work out before the conference (the calories from the chocolate), and generally do before the conference (buy more chocolate). Of course, since this is only my second conference, I’ve also been spending a fair amount of time on the interwebs collecting tips. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Three tips from agent Sara Megibow @ Nelson Literary, via their marvelous e-newsletter:
1. Work the blurb. Make sure you can rattle off a 2 sentence pitch at any time.
2. Be prepared to submit. Have a sample (say 3 chapters or 30 pages) ready to email and easy to access/email. Have a full ready, too, both in MS word format and with all your contact details included.
3. Update your blog/site! It’s a fairly common practice to check people out online nowadays, so make sure your website puts your best (virtual) foot forward.
And a couple from Cynthea Liu’s Writing for Children’s and Teens (head over to Cynthea’s post for more great tips):
1. Work the room and meet people. If the highschool prom wallflower routine is your usual thing, it’s time to break out and try something new. Conferences are a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests–and people who take YA and kidlit seriously–and learn new things. You don’t have to engage in hours of dreaded small talk to get involved. Try asking about someone’s writing, or what they thought of last year’s Newbery/Printz/awesome award winners.
2. Think about your outfit. Don’t rock up to a conference in your PJs or baby-stained overalls. You don’t have to do the totally geared up business deal, but try to be neat and tidy. Worried you won’t be memorable without your hot pink fedora? Don’t worry. As long as you’re honest and involved, you’ll stand out to the people who matter.
And a few of my own, based on my experience at the Utah-based Brigham Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop a couple of years ago (and some intense, freaked out brainstorming this week):
1.Take a pen and paper. Do not depend on your laptop/smart phone/teeny-weeny device for everything. Sometimes, it’s too hard to whip the thing out, other times, well–devices fail. Batteries fail. Don’t let your love of funky new gadgets leave you in the lurch.
2. Get some business cards. In Utah, I ended up scribbling my email address on lots of tiny slips of paper ahead of time, because people kept asking for my details and I wasn’t prepared enough. And yet, it wasn’t ‘til this past week that I learned my lesson (I’ve been asked for a card three times). Business cards are easy and inexpensive to make–there are a lot of online services around, or you can do it in person at your local Staples/print center. If you’re a social networking tech kind of person, make sure you include your website, twitter, Facebook details etc.
3. Take snacks. Conferences do have some food, but there are often queues, and there’s not guarantee there’ll be food around you like/can eat, especially if you have dietary restrictions (I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t eat dairy products). Throw some granola bars and fruit, or even sandwiches in your bag. And include a bottle of water. All that discussion is thirsty work!
4. Know your stuff. Make sure you know not just about your work, but about what’s going on in the industry. You don’t need to know the finer points of everything, but it’s a good idea to be familiar with the Big Things in publishing. Spend some time reading up on PW.com, or surfing agent and writer blogs for information.
5. Learn new stuff. Even if you know all there is to know about a topic, try taking a back seat and letting other people talk. Most people clam up in the face of a lot of knowledge, which means you could miss out on a new or useful viewpoint, or learning about a great new resource.
6. Ask questions. At the Utah conference, a lot of people were very shy about asking questions because they didn’t want to look stupid. But, as my good friend Chris once told me, “There are no stupid questions. Just stupid answers.” Whenever I’m balking at opening my mouth, I repeat that a couple of times, then stick up my hand. Still feeling shy? Remember that asking a question actually puts the spotlight on the person answering. It also, for good or ill, puts all the expectations on them rather than you.
7. Make a list of what you want to get out of the conference. I like lists for a reason–they help me visualize what I want, remember what I need to do, and generally make me more effective. While you mightn’t want to include nebulous goals like “find the perfect agent”, a few well-thought out items like “meet writers in my area” and “learn about trends in YA” could help keep you focused on what’s important to you, and getting the most out of the event.
8. Agents and editors are people, too. I’ve heard several horror stories about people pitching agents and editors in bathrooms and elevators, and a lot of reasons not to do it. And while I agree you shouldn’t stalk publishing professionals, I think it’s important to remember that they’re a lot like us–people who love books, reading, and possibly even chocolate. So if you’re lucky enough to end up chatting with a couple of agents or editors, don’t freak out or go all hero-worship on the poor folks. Just relax, and talk like you’d talk to anyone involved in your industry–calmly and professionally.
Do you have any handy conference tips? Have you been making lists in preparation, or are you a more easy-going attendee? Are you excited about the conference? Nervous? Blasè?Read More
Young adult fiction is full of phonies. It’s not surprising–after all, the majority of YA is written by authors in their twenties, at the least. And teen vernacular is always changing. Words that were popular a few years ago (“wicked” comes to mind) are dated now, pushed aside as a new crop of words creeps in. But forced coolness and past-their-teen authors are just the tip of the phony iceberg. The true issue, lurking like only a giant, submerged slab of ice can, is style.
In terms of writing (in terms of anything, really), style is hard to explain. Everyone has a writing style, because it’s not so much about what we write as how we write it, a mingling of word choice, personal voice, experience, and grammar. Even things as basic as using/avoiding cliches and writing in first, second, or third person are a matter of style. Sometimes, shared experiences (such as an MFA program or time spent on the road as a dalek hunter) lead writers to develop similar styles, though no two people write, without intention, the same way.
What’s this got to do with phoniness? Everything. Writing, more than pretty much any other discipline, has a lot of “unbreakable” rules–rules we learn almost as early as we learn to write. Here are a few I’ve collected from English teachers over the years:
- don’t start a sentence with a conjuction (and, but, because, etc.)
- don’t use a conjunction with a comma
- always start sentences with a capital letter
- always put the comma inside the quotation marks (this is an American one I still can’t quite get me head around)
- always complete sentences; don’t use fragments
- don’t use “I” or personal style in essays and other formal writing
So far, I’ve broken all but “start sentences with a capital letter”. Does this mean I’m illiterate? A poor writer? Will you stop reading this post because I’m a rule-breaker of the worst kind?
Probably not, because the way I’m writing isn’t unusual–it’s familiar.
YA: when to use familiar style, when to skip it
YA readers aren’t stupid. Using big words won’t stop them from understanding your book. But it probably will keep them from reading it.
Why? Big words are phony. When was the last time you heard a teen talk about a soporific sussurus or a grove of arboreal trees? Formal writing has its place–journal papers and Proust and politics are full of it. It’s even well-used in some literary fiction (thank you, Annie Proulx). But formal language does not a good YA make.
Like anything, it’s possible to take familiar style too far–a problem in a lot of YA, published and unpublished alike. Cliches might make it easier to get a certain point across, but they’re cliches, aka the lazy writer’s shortcut. YA is about originality, discovery, and individualism (to name just a few). It’s about saying something in a new way, a way that speaks to your reader, makes them think about an idea from a different perspective. Unless you’re a secret Nigerian scammer, you can’t say anything new with a cliche, which is boring, and boring is what lands books in that magical circular filing bin in the sky.
Addressing the reader is another YA familiar style no-no. But wait–aren’t I doing that right now? Yes. But I’m writing a non-fiction blog post/essay/ramble, which doesn’t require you to suspend disbelief. Any time a narrator says “you know”, “you’ll see”, or some other variation on the you-theme, it pulls readers out of the story because you’re reminding them that narrator is a fictional construct.
Using dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked”, writing in dialect, using easily-dated words (groovy, rad)–there are many, many ways to abuse familiar style. If there are so many ways to screw it up, why use it in the first place?
Because it works.
Familiar Style: what, when, and where
Familiar style is exactly what it sounds like: a way of writing that’s easy to read and easy to understand because it uses common language and expressions. As far as anyone can guess, familiar style was first used sometime around the 16th century–Shakespeare was an early adopter, as was Montaigne. Today, it’s a fairly common way of writing, and part of what makes blogs such popular reading.
The problem with familiar style, though, is that it’s too darned well familiar. Writers (and teachers) love big words (onychogryphosis, a nail condition, was my favorite big word from ages 8-12). We like to sound smart; we love it when someone compliments us on a nice turn of phrase. And writing in a familiar style isn’t easy. The simplest way to get inside a reader’s head is to talk the way they do–except that writing the way we talk is messy, and usually full of “um”s. Familiar style usually ends up falling somewhere in between, using a cliche, then building on it, much like my iceberg line above (and yes, I did put that in just so I could reference it).
Nineteenth century essayist and critic William Hazlitt was a big proponent supporter of familiar style, writing:
I hate anything that occupies more space than it is worth. I hate to see a load of band-boxes go along the street, and I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them. A person who does not deliberately dispose of all his thoughts alike in cumbrous draperies and flimsy disguises, may strike out twenty varieties of familiar every-day language, each coming somewhat nearer to the feeling he wants to convey, and at last not hit upon that particular and only one which may be said to be identical with the exact impression in his mind. . . .
Familiar style is most used in general audience writing–advertisers, journalists (newspaper and magazine), and bloggers use it. Some book reviewers (the Boston Globe’s George Scialabba in particular) also use familiar style, though it’s still not common in print reviews (the last bastion of the would-be literary academic set).
Sound Smart? Or be Smart?
In 2006, an igNobel prize was awared to Daniel M. Oppenheimer, an associate professor of Psychology at Princeton, for his paper Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly. Here’s a section of the abstract:
Most texts on writing style encourage authors to avoid overly-complex words. However, a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective…When obvious causes for low fluency exist that are not relevant to the judgement at hand, people reduce their reliance on fluency as a cue; in fact, in an effort not to be influenced by the irrelevant source of fluency, they over-compensate and are biased in the opposite direction. Implications and applications are discussed.
Oppenheimer’s research was specific to non-fiction writing, such as journal papers and textbooks. But the idea that smart people use big words is a pretty common one–and with good reason. A lot of popular literary authors use big words (Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy come to mind.) And while big words do make us sound smart, clear simple language makes us sound smarter.
A few years ago, I actually put down a novel because the author wrote about “the soft, soporific sussurus that whispered through the grove of arboreal trees”. I’m a patient reader, and I know what every word in that sentence means. The author didn’t. “Sussuruss” is fancy Latin way of saying “whisper”; “arboreal” means living in trees, and while there are a few trees, like strangler figs, that actually do live inside other trees, it’s a stretch to imagine a whole grove of the darned things. Why write a sentence with words you don’t fully understand? As far as I can tell, said author (and I really can’t remember who/which book it was) wanted to create a sleepy atmosphere, so they used soft “sh”-like sounds for effect. Rewriting the line in simpler language would probably kill the author’s lovingly crafted literary atmosphere–but it would also make more sense. And sense is good.
Do you write in a familiar style? Do you prefer familiar or formal books? Did you keep track of my over-the-top cliche use in this post?
Today, I’m guesting over at Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents. Here’s a snippet of the post:
Writing is hard work. First, you have to write the story. Then you have to revise it, workshop it, revise it some more, write a query letter, do query research, then mail your baby out. While many writers think the work ends the moment they sign a contract, pros know otherwise. Being a successful author is an awful lot of work, not the least of which is promotion. A blog is an easy way to get started—all you need is a computer and an Internet connection...[read more]
Read more over at GLA!
Inkpop had a soft launch in late 2009 and currently boasts more than 10,000 members ages 13 and up, and 11,000 written submissions, which include novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. An editorial board of Harper editors will review the top five member selections each month, offering feedback on their work as well as, potentially, the possibility of publication.
As a marketing ploy, inkpop is clever – it encourages teens to look for HC books, keeps tabs on current trends (Angels? Possessed Puppy-loving Poets? Daleks?), and gives editors the chance to jump on the next Christopher Paolini. As a slushpile, it’s genius.
2010 has seen the death of the slush pile. It’s been coming a long time–savvy writers have spent the past few years tracking down agents rather than editors. Social networking has continued the trend, with writers in all stages of their careers friending industry insiders in the hope of picking a few tips. Editors, though less disadvantaged by the new closed house policies, are now dependent on agents to find fresh, new voices.
Enter inkpop. The big question, of course, is would a virtual slush pile be less labor-intensive than an IRL one? It depends. The beauty of re-envisioning the slush pile is that it’s essentially a do-over – a chance for houses to evaluate why the old system wasn’t working and put new structures in place.
Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, says it best,
“As with all of our online consumer programs, the concept of community-building is aligned with our ongoing corporate digital marketing efforts to cultivate a two-way dialogue with our readers. Inkpop provides us with an interactive platform to engage directly with our audience, encourage a passion for writing, and discover new trends and opportunities in this growing and important community.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, there are a number of reasons publishing houses have been giving their slushpiles the flick. The cost of maintaing slush-readers – a mixture of interns and junior editors – is up top. So why not pass the burden of reading on to those with the most to gain?
Websites such as Verla Kay’s blue boards and Critters.org are proof that many aspiring authors are willing to put in the hard yards. Writers routinely swap industry tidbits and critiques. Focusing on science fiction, fantasy, and horror manuscripts, the Critters Writers Workshop was established in 1995. The site now boasts 10,000 members, and claims to have served in excess of 250,000 critiques. There’s no fee to join, though Critters requires members to complete a certain number of critiques each month.
Inkpop takes the idea further. Members are required to submit a minimum of 10,000 words (40 standard manuscript format pages) to the site, if not the whole book. While this may not mean the entire work gets read, it gives submitting members the chance to get feedback on the work in context. This sort of big picture editing can be invaluable. The top 5 submissions–as determined by a ranking process–are read by editors. Those members who consistently pick submissions that make the top 5 are dubbed “trendsetters”. Trendsetters replace the junior/associate editors in the slushpile chain, giving HC a way to find standout writing that may not have made it into the monthly top 5.
“What sets inkpop apart from other writing communities is the Editorial Board,” Kat Musallam, an inkpop user told WSJ.com. “Other communities only have that writer-reader interaction, but to have a panel evaluate your work is something that we writers-especially those who aren’t so familiar with the publishing world-can only dream of.”
Why the 10,000 word minimum? From the Inkpop FAQ,
“No one can support or honestly recommend a book if they can’t read a good amount of it first.
…We (HarperCollins) firmly believe that writers should be judged on the quality of the work they produce, not on their ability to pitch, market, or publicize themselves. Personal recommendations are by far the most effective way of building support for a project, and writers on inkpop stand to gain the support of a community of readers who are really motivated to spread the word about the best new writing. But they can’t help you unless you’re prepared to show them what you’ve got!
If this weren’t enough, houses could monetize the service (though inkpop is free) – the number of attendees at high-priced conferences is a testament to how much many would-be authors are willing to pay for a shot at publication. But paid models can be dicey–there’s a reason reputable publishers and agents say money should flow to the writer. A less-inclusive means-based set up also runs the risk of alienating for-the-love writers.
Fortunately, inkpop isn’t in it for the money. From the site,
“HarperCollins hopes to find talented writers that they can sign up for their traditional book publishing programs—they’ll read the most popular projects each month as part of this search…We don’t feel that our current, closed “slush pile” system is fair to authors themselves, nor do we believe it is giving us the best chance of finding the brightest new talent. inkpop is a genuine attempt to find a better way to determine the books on our shelves, and it hands selective power to the readers who will ultimately be buying them”.
Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon and Schuster, says the death of the publisher’s slush pile accelerated after the terror attacks of 9/11 by fear anthrax in the mail room. Online services cut the risk–the twin issues of viruses and hackers remain, but these are a given in the web business. Publishers, agents, and anyone with a website–even Google–run the risk of being hacked with every tick of their CPU.
A side-benefit of the virtual slushpile? A clearly stepped out process for getting work onto an editor’s desk may also cut down on the number of unsolicited emails cluttering said editor’s inbox.
Years ago, I sent a teleplay to Chris Carter of the X-Files. I was twelve, and didn’t really understand how the industry worked. A couple of months after I’d dropped my oft-revised (thanks, Mrs. Vickers, for teaching me the importance of the second, third, fourth, and fifth draft) story into the mail, I received a kindly worded letter from the studio informing me that, due to copyright restrictions, they were unable to accept my work. My hopes of breaking in were dashed, but it wasn’t all for nought. Chris Carter had scrawled “thanks” at the bottom, then signed his name in bright blue ink. (And yes, I still have it.)
The point is, even before the interwebs, copyright was an issue. Now, publishing houses and studios have to be proactive about avoiding lawsuits–and cutting down on unsolicited material is the cheapest, easiest way to do it. Inkpop, however, has the standard online waivers in place, and encourages its users to keep an eye out for any copyright issues.
Worried about other users stealing work? HC has thought of this, too, and disabled the cut, copy, and download functions on the site. This may not prevent Daleks from stealing your work, but I’m sure HC is on it (I’ve heard rumors of virtual staircases). Posting the 10,000 word minimum may help discourage thieves.
Although such a venture seems weighted toward writers, said platform gives houses a chance to go beyond the standard conference talks. Instead of being limited to a list of what a house is looking for, do’s and don’ts of the query letter, and miscellaneous newbie questions (“Why did x-editor-at-y-house never respond to my phone calls even after I sent them a muffin basket and a box of Godiva’s best?”). Inkpop is a good start–hopefully HC will take it to the next level with editor wish lists and ask-an-editor forums. Authonomy, based on the inkpop platform, is currently in beta. All “non-illustrated manuscripts, both fiction and non-fiction, are eligible for the site”.
Will other houses try something similar? Maybe. Several genres are suited to the platform, though YA is easily the most inclusive. Katz (on WSJ.com) says, “Teens are a key consumer group with significant financial impact. Teen fiction is one of the most robust and fastest-growing categories in publishing today.” A science fiction and fantasy version of inkpop could be a hit for another house–Tor has been ahead of the curve with regular newsletters, online only material, and more. Could a virtual slushpile be in their future? I hope so.
In the meantime, I’m headed over to inkpop for a bit of a stickybeak.
What do you think of inkpop? Would you submit to a virtual slushpile?
Edit: Some sites are listing inkpop as a teen-only community, others list it as all-inclusive. From the inkpop FAQ:
Everyone age 13 and older is welcome to join inkpop to submit writings and critique and rank the work of other inkpop members. As for geographical location, you can live anywhere in the world—whether you’re from Austria or Zimbabwe, we welcome you to inkpop.