Good morning, book people! It’s daylight savings in Massachusetts now – and this is the second day we’ve slept in! Of course, it can’t all be blamed on daylight savings–there were several hours’ worth of screaming toddler, too. And now for something completely different…
Author Maureen Johnson ran a hugely successful campaign–over $14,000 worth of successful–to raise money for disaster relief in Japan this weekend. Although her campaign is now closed, you can still donate to Shelterbox. Never heard of Shelterbox? Here’s why they’re awesome:
We respond instantly to natural and manmade disasters by delivering boxes of aid to those who are most in need. Each box supplies an extended family of up to 10 people with a tent and essential equipment to use while they are displaced or homeless.
In January The Hunger Games movie was given a release date–and now it may have its lead actress. Variety is reporting that Lionsgate is close to reaching a deal with blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned actress Jennifer Lawrence. I’ve written about why The Hunger Games needs an actress who’s closer to Katniss in terms of physical description in the past–and I stand by that now. Lawrence may be a skilled actress, but casting someone who’s clearly not “olive-skinned” to play Katniss is a Big Deal. Why? From my original piece (at PopMatters):
Although physical description is, generally speaking, a less-significant detail, Katniss’ status as a non-white heroine is important because she’s that rare commodity: a big time, mainstream non-white heroine.
Over at the Blue Rose Girls, a bit of fun - pictures from a children’s book bar! The murals are by Ludwig Bemelmans, the original illustrator for the Madeline books. I love Madeline – and the pics are definitely worth a look.
At The Guardian, David Barnett fills us in on the latest genre wars – as in last year’s Franzenfreude, the fracas is all about marginalization. Author Stephen Hunt is accusing the BBC of bias against his genre, science fiction. He’s taken his crusade one step further, though, and has launched a petition for one genre “to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.” Do you think SF (and its counterpart, F) are marginalized?
Graham Moore at The NYT has a review of Death Cloud, Andrew Lane’s attempt “to update and adapt Sherlock Holmes for a new generation, much the way Guy Ritchie has done with a swashbuckling Sherlock on screen.” The book follows 14 year old Sherlock, and sounds like a fun read. (I’ve read the entire Holmes series several times over, and will definitely be picking this up.)
And finally, at The WSJ, Helen Schulman writes about the process of constructing a novel: Write. Rewrite. Obsess. Repeat. Go read it now, especially if you’ve ever tottered at the edge of the Great and Terrible Abyss of Writerly Indecision.
And that’s all for now! I’ll be back later with the next installment of Cover Notes.Read More
The first time I heard Belle & Sebastian’s Storytelling, I stopped dead in the middle of a run. From the very first line of the very first verse, I was sucked in; the lyrics are so, so spot on it was like the duo were actually talking to me. The song is part of a soundtrack for Todd Solondz’ film of the same name where “college and high school serve as the backdrop for two stories about dysfunction and personal turmoil.” I still haven’t seen the movie, but it’s on my (extensive) TBW list.
Picture a scene in your mind
Look at all the people and take note of the setting behind
Listen, watch, and wait
A plot begins to take shape
There’s a story
And then characters will come to you
Relating events as they choose to
But all their words and actions come entirely from you…
Pay particular attention to the last verse. It’s a perfect end note.
Have you seen Storytelling? What did you think? Does this song reflect how you write?
I’ll be back later with a post on Goodreads and the new Scholastic social network, You Are What You Read .Read More
One of the things non-fiction is good for is cultivating voice. Because NF has no characters to hide behind, it forces us to write as ourselves in a way regular fiction (as opposed to fictive or inspired-by memoir) doesn’t.
The voice I’ve spent so long honing in my NF work has helped me a lot over recent months–it’s easier for me to get into a character’s head without mapping or noting or any of the other techniques I used to use. But the other NF stalwart I’ve come to depend on, the outline, doesn’t carry over to fiction.
Granted, I rarely outline my blog posts (though I do use a blog client rather than writing directly in WordPress. More on that in another post.). But other than these posts, I stick to my non-fiction outlines the way finger paint sticks to my jeans, shirts, walls, and kitchen cupboards. Writing an article without an outline is difficult for me–I end up scattered and utterly confused. When I write fiction, though, I find the very act of writing an outline leaves me scattered!
Here’s what my non-fiction outlines tend to look like:
Title: Blog Post on Outlines, Plot, Voice
- What am I writing about?
- Key point – using outlines, getting confused, thoughts
- Do outlines hinder voice or help it?
- Relevant links: x, y, z
Where Am I Going With This? 2 Paragraphs
- Point 1
- expand, include a relevant quote
- sum up
- What I’ve learned/am thinking about
Extra funny thing: I can write from someone else’s outline with no hassle. Hand me a writing exercise, or hash something out with me for a short story, and I’m fine. Ask me to write the outline myself, and I’m a mess.Remember when I said non-fiction helps with voice, because there are no characters to hide behind? I think that’s my problem. Outlines in fiction–for me, anyway–take the story in an NF direction, so that I end up thinking news-and-opinion rather than character-and-plot-development.
Overall, not writing outlines isn’t a killer for me, but it is sometimes annoying. My writing group has no problem working out plots and sequencing, while I struggle to get all my ducks in a row. Oftentimes, this means I have to write and rewrite large chunks of a manuscript until it’s all internally consistent–which is a pain and a half! Lately, I’m getting over the hassle of this by keeping a soap opera diary.
A soap opera diary (I have no idea what they’re actually called, but that’s what a guy I used to know, who worked on Passions, called them) is like an encyclopedia for any given show. Continuity people keep track of all the births, deaths, marriages, evil takeovers, one night stands, coffee hijinks and more so that the show doesn’t contradict itself. There are still gaffes every now and then, but for the most part, the writers and continuity folk manage to keep the show fairly consistent. So, for my latest manuscript, I’ve started doing post-outlines, summarizing chapters and highlighting anything that could be a Big Continuity Issue later.
Do you write outlines for fiction, non-fiction, or both? How do you keep track of continuity issues?Read More
Animal stories are everywhere. Many classic tales are animal stories, from Aesop’s Fables through Charlotte’s Web. Yet there’s an idea in kids’ publishing, out there on blogs, in classes and speeches, that animal fiction is no longer marketable, and has gone the way of the cute little bunnies in Watership Down.
Despite the naysaying, though, animal stories continue to show up in bookstores–Erin Hunter’s Seekers and Warriors, Kathy Appelt’s The Underneath, and Brian Jacques’ latest Insert-Redwall-Clone-Title-Here are jockeying for shelf space alongside more so-called middle grade popular fiction. So what is it about animal fiction that sets industry folk on edge?
Many classic animal tales, particularly Victorian stories, follow what I think of as the Beatrix Potter/Peter Rabbit paradigm: they blend the cuteness of anthropomorphic animals (usually woodland creatures) with starker realities, as if the fact that Peter wears a smart robin’s egg waistcoat makes it more palatable for his father to have ended up in Mr. McGregor’s stew pot. In the original Redwall , the war-like tendencies of the sparrows (sparra), the snake, Asmodeus, eating characters, and the concepts each represent are balanced by the fuzzy-wuzziness of the mice, badgers, et. al and their Arthurian style honor code.
In some cases, anthropomorphic animals serve a particular purpose. Jane Yolen’s picture book series How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight/Go to the Dentist/Go to School/&c? (illustrated by Mark Teague) puts dinosaurs in place of children, giving parents and children a way to discuss everyday activities and rules and express frustration. They also play to a child’s desire to be like a favorite character–Let’s brush our teeth like Stegosaurus!–in a way a book about another “every kid” may not.
Other times, animal characters acting like people provide more fun, accessible illustrations and stories. This isn’t to say stories have to have animal characters to be fun and relatable, but animal characters can certainly add an appreciable layer to an already strong story. In Edel Rodriguez’ Sergio Saves The Game, Sergio, a penguin, dreams of becoming a soccer star, but is woefully inept on the field. Taking on the keeper’s role, he works through his frustrations and practices until he ultimately saves the day, keeping the big bad seagulls from scoring a critical goal. Another penguin story, Tacky the Penguin (Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger), follows the aptly named Hawaiian-shirted Tacky, who is disliked by the other penguins for his loud habits and garish dress sense. But when hunters come, it’s Tacky who scares them off, and the other, stuffier penguins come to recognize the value of being an individual, and appreciating each other quirks and all.
In a similar vein to Yolen’s Dinosaur series, the animal character helps set up a distance between the reader’s life and the protagonist’s life. This sort of distance can be very important in issues books–it allows kids and parents to read and discuss problems, like belonging and bullying, without the frustration, or setting up possible feelings of inadequacy and the like.
Sometimes, though, the Beatrix Potter Complex goes a little far–animals in people clothing, eating people food, and acting cutesy merely for the sake of cuteness can be a warning sign of other problems in a manuscript, picture book and middle grade alike. In a long lost piece by a kids’ editor, the described a particularly frightening anthropomorphic chicken manuscript she’d received, handwritten on hot pink paper. The story? A little fried chicken drumstick is lonely and only wants to be eaten and loved, eventually finding home and happiness at a local KFC. Peculiar, slightly morbid stories aside, though, there are other, more tangible–and fixable–problems in many animal stories, such as:
- Cuteness carrying the story
- Two dimensional characters/stereotypical characters–fat, hoarding pigs, empty-headed sheep etc.
- No real story, merely walking through a jungle/farm/zoo setting or characters comparing notes
- Characters with no flaws/relatability
- Characters are too adult
- Stories are preachy or moralizing
Animals With Human Traits? Or Humans With Animal Traits?
As anyone who’s ever picked up a mythology book knows, history is rife with stories of half-animal, half-human creatures, from centaurs and minotaurs through Anansi, the West African/Carribean spider-god. In these stories, the lines are often blurred between animal and human characteristics, and the characters are usually imperfect or have a not-quite-fatal flaw. Stories are rarely cute, yet rarely moral in a religious or morality play style way. Interestingly–perhaps because of the sense of “other” or “not-like-me”–animal/human characters are often deeper, and more fascinating, than a reader might expect. Unlike other animal related stories, these books are not relegated to the picture book and middle grade set; most are YA or adult lit.
Examples of Human/Animal/Mythical characters in fiction
- Anansi in Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys
- Coyote & Raven in Charles DeLint’s Newford series
- Mermaids in Kathryn Lasky’s Hannah: Daughters of the Sea
Do you write animal fiction? Do you read animal stories? Or do you find them irritating? Can you think of any good examples?
Last week, agent Jennifer DeChiara opened the virtual floor to writers, taking questions on Twitter about everything from her flossing habits (once a year, like clockwork) to agent nudging. She represents a variety of genres, including kidlit and YA. Missed the conversation? Get the highlights below, and follow Jennifer on Twitter @4writers, and check out the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency online for resources and more.
Thanks to the Twitterverse for such great questions!
The Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency is a New York City-based full-service literary agency founded in 2001 and named one of the top 25 literary agencies in the country by Writer’s Digest.
The agency represents children’s literature for all ages – picture books and middle-grade and young adult novels – but also represents high-quality adult fiction and non-fiction in a wide range of genres. The categories we are most enthusiastic about agenting are literary and commercial fiction; mysteries, thrillers, celebrity biographies; humor; psychology and self-help; parenting; health and fitness; women’s issues; men’s issues; pop culture; film and television; social issues and contemporary affairs.
JDLA is proud to be one of the few literary agencies to represent illustrators, as well as screenwriters for both television and film, including Emmy-winning writers and a Peabody Award-winning illustrator.
Note: I’ve reformatted some of the text into regular English for readers not used to Tweet/733+ speak.
Responses, Rejections, & Agent Nudging
Is no response from an agent always a no? Should I re-query?
I respond to all queries, unless they’re not sent to me by name (Dear Agent) or no name at; no response just means I never saw it.
Yes, I would [re-query], but make sure that you’re querying the way that particular agent requested (email, snail mail, smoke signal).
How many submissions do you see a month? Have you taken on many new clients this year?
About 20,000 each month; I honestly couldn’t tell you how many new clients I’ve taken on this past year – at least six, I’d say.
Please remember that I get so many projects thrown at me that I can only choose the ones I’m the most passionate about.
Is it okay to status query? I’ve read agents don’t like it.
Hard to answer in 140 characters! Check agent’s policies. I don’t mind being nudged, but not 2 wks after submitting something.
If an agent takes a long time to respond, does it mean they’re just not that into me? If it does, I’d rather just get a “no”.
Of course; but don’t assume that no response means no, especially if you email a query. They might not have even seen it.
Honestly, agents are so busy that 3 months is like 3 days; I have a business to run, clients to take care of, before reading new mss.
Should I avoid querying during the summer? Are agents still reading then?
Not at all; agents and editors still work during the summer, although things might move more slowly.
Do you read your own slush? Or do you have interns?
We used to have an entire room filled with boxes of slush and submissions. Now we only accept email queries it’s better, I guess, but it’s still overwhelming. We receive hundreds of e-queries each day, not to mention requested work, clients’ mss, etc.. I’ve tried it by having assistants read for me, but it never works. I prefer to read everything myself, which is why it takes me so long.
Writing, Voice, & Genre
Is it okay to say a book is multiple genres in a query?
That’s a red flag to me: if there are too many, it’s usually a sign that the ms needs to be reworked and refocused.
Is chick-lit outdated? Is there still a market for it?
Yes, it’s [the term] outdated, but I admit I still use it.
Names might change, but women’s commercial fiction will stay the same. Substance might change slightly to reflect economy. Some say that women talking about their designer duds might not have an audience these days, but I think people need an escape, especially now.
Lots of agents and editors advise against prologues, but a lot of best-sellers and classics have them. Do you love them or hate them?
Some writers use them as a crutch, to give the reader information that they don’t know how to incorporate in their book. In my experience, I’ve found them to be unnecessary; I prefer jumping directly into the action anyway.
Agents and editors are always talking about voice. How can I develop my voice?
Every writer has his own beautiful voice, although it may need some finetuning. But most lose it by trying to be something they’re not, trying to copy other writers, not having confidence that they are unique and wonderful in their own right.
Market, Promotion, & What Agents Are Looking For
Are you interested in authors who write more than one genre/age range? Would you prefer an author who sticks with just one genre for a while?
Doesn’t really matter to me.
But when [the] 1st book gets published, the next few books should be in that genre; fans will be looking for more, writer needs to be established.
Is it okay to pitch a series?
[It’s] sort of a no-no; [the] first book must have numbers to do a series. Agents can envision a series from a grocery list; you don’t have to tell us.
Is it easier to get an agent if you already have a novel out?
Not necessarily, if the sales aren’t great. A debut novelist has more of a chance because of this, in my opinion.
What’s the best way to use social networking to promote your book?
Too much to say in 140 characters! Tons of books on the subject. Befriend many, offer help, don’t just try to sell your book.
Is it more important to write a story you love, or one the market loves?
Keep an eye on the market, but write what you’re passionate about, write from your heart. That’s where your best work will come from, IMO.
Advice For Writers
If there were one thing you could tell writers, something not up on blogs and other websites all the time, what would it be?
Believe in your talent and never give up. Don’t listen to naysayers. Take advice, digest it, but do what you think is best. Even if you never get published, no one can take away your joy in writing, which is why you should be doing it anyway.
Thanks to all the Twitter folk who posted such great questions!Read More