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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why Writers Are Like Pirates

“It's funny that pirates were always going around searching for treasure, and they never realized that the real treasure was the fond memories they were creating.”
~From Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy

Chasing the dream of publication can be a frustrating, time consuming, no-end-in-sight, life-sucking barrage of rejections stating that you, the author, though perhaps promising (but agents often don't have the time to tell you that), are not good enough. Period. So, why do we do it?

I believe we’re a bit like pirates—we like the game plan talks with the captain, we like sanding the splinters from our peg-legs and shining our eyepatches. And sure, we often follow a map straight to “X” marks the spot, only to find that some a-hole either:

A) played a trick on us--there's no treasure on this island
B) the map we chose to follow is a little off
C) we took a wrong turn at the coconut tree

Arrgghhh! Annoying!

Yet still we continue to sail around, full of sea air and rum, because really, it IS about the journey. The final result is awesome, that’s for certain, me-hearties (spelling?), but when the elusive treasure is finally found, that’s not the end at all. Because we have chosen a life of adventure—it’s the thrill of the next story, the pursuit of pillaging new territory—the gold fever of writing just won’t let us go.

In conclusion, rejection sucks. It’s unsettling and, after a number of people tell you “no,” can make you question why you wanted to be a Pirate, er, Writer, in the first place. But take a look around you—you’ve got a whole crew along on the trip too, thirsting for treasure just as much as you.

In the meantime, while we drift into unknown waters, getting nervous and giddy, knowing that success could be around the next corner, let’s not forget to honor the adventurous spirit of the life we’ve chosen.

It’s not easy. It’s got ups and downs. You'll rack up a number of scars along the way. But you’ve got goals and you’ve got friends in the same boat. So drink up (coffee or rum), polish for preparation (your sword or manuscript), sing a jolly song (of riches galore or publication), and brace yourself. Pirates and writers both need sea legs.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

DEADLINES--a double-edged sword

I used to enjoy running--in graduate school I would go to the gym during cold months and get extreme satisfaction by running 6 miles on a treadmill. Did I ever really want to? Of course not, I'm no fool. By "enjoy running" I mean the results, not the action of running for an hour and getting nowhere, while undergrads gawk at the color of maroon my face becomes after a certain amount of exertion. I never actually liked riding my bicycle in the icy slush to the gym. But I was always proud of myself afterward. Of course, that phase only lasted a few months--until I got a social life, but it was a good exercise in discipline.

Now writing is different. I actually DO enjoy creating a story in my mind, having the characters dialogue in my mind, and rushing to a computer to record my thoughts when a plot twist occurs to the little voice in my head ("oh, he's actually her Grandfather??? And he's gonna leave her a bunch of money if she refuses to enter the Army/Yale/Roller Derby??? Why didn't you tell me that sooner!). I love the feeling when my fingers are flying off the keyboard and I can't type the scene fast enough.

It's only when I became serious about finishing a manuscript and started setting deadlines that it stopped being fun all the time. Sure, I KNOW that I'll feel good afterward, but it's extremely easy to be undisciplined when there are a million other things to do--like laundry, like grocery shopping, like unloading the dishwasher--that are necessary. With only a limited amount of free time, it's easy to make the excuse that because my writing time isn't bringing in a huge amount of money, it's expendable.

Not to mention that fact that if you do get BIC (Butt-In-Chair), the internet awaits, daring you to browse around a little, which leads to a lot, which leads to you learning new and exciting things about Lindsay Lohan's latest court dates, but little in terms of your manuscript's development.

Deadlines can be a double-edged sword--they make you think of writing as a job which increases your discipline, but, then again, they make you think of writing as a job (and let's face it, a job is called "work" for a reason--it's not always a choice and it's not always fun).

Increasingly, articles are saying that this line of thinking is necessary for unpublished writers--if you don't think of writing as a career, nobody else will ever think of it as your career. It's a hard claim to make for many humble beginners, but taking yourself seriously is a major step in your growth as a writer.

Do you keep deadlines for yourself? Whether it's writing 500 words a day, 2,000 a week, or 50,000 in a month, the importance of making and keeping a writing schedule is more important than you might think. Here's a great article by Leslie Sartor on writing deadlines:

The Importance of Meeting Writing Deadlines

Just How Important Is It To Meet Your Deadlines?

You may think this is a no-brainer question, and I can you hear you right now saying, "Silly woman, of course it's important." Read on and see why I even bother to bring up the question.

Recently, during a BIAY (Book in a Year) progress check-in, a pre-published writer made the comment; "When I'm on the clock, I wouldn't dream of missing a deadline, but I get sloppy when I'm off the clock."

Her comment instantly reminded me of countless other times I've heard or seen variations of deadline sloppiness. So I started questioning why a writing deadline is less important than any other deadline? Isn't this a career?
Again, I'm hearing you say, "But I don't make any money at this...yet, so it's not really a career." Let's see if the definition of career changes your mind. From the Oxford Dictionary: Career >noun 1. An occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life, usually with opportunities for progress.

Now are you convinced you're endeavoring in a writing career? I hope the answer is a resounding yes.

It is my strong belief that if you have a page count deadline, a contest to enter or a proposal to send off, your deadline is no less important to meet than a NY Times best-selling author's deadline.
But it isn't only the pre-published writers who can be sloppy with a deadline. You'd imagine a published writer would be crazy to miss any deadline, be it a personal deadline to finish a book so it can boost a career, or a publisher's deadline because the book is under contract. Yet it happens. Careers have stalled or ended because of missed deadlines.

I know life intrudes and even with the best intentions, a deadline can slip away. And that's okay, as long as you meet the next one. WHY am I so emphatic about this? Because if you can't keep to your deadlines now, you'll have a much harder time meeting contractual, career boosting deadlines. By putting word after word on the page so your deadline is met is what gets a book, a proposal, or magazine article DONE. Then you have your next deadline to set, getting your work to a publisher, an agent or critique group. You make progress.

And that's what it's all about.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Below is an older post that I found interesting--it discusses the problem with newer writers submitting too early (something I've definitely done before). It's from the Cynsations website: http://www.cynthialeitichsmitch.blogspot.com/

The second paragraph hit home for me. Rushing into the query stage used to be my familiar game plan; I assumed that it was a good way to see if my ideas were something that interested agents--I would work on polishing the book after it was requested. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. In my own defense, I thought I was being logical in not wasting my time to polish if the idea wasn't getting any bites anyway. I now understand the importance of developing your craft and approaching writing as a whole--viewing all of its processes as necessary to complete the goal of publication.

Children's and YA Literary Agents

The Purple Crayon has updated and expanded its information on children's/YA literary agents, which got me thinking about the subject.

As a threshold issue, too many writers submit to agents/editors before their work is at a level of craft that would merit a close reading/revision request. I did this myself, and I understand that it can be difficult to evaluate one's own status. But critique groups, writing coaches and teachers, as well as simply being well read can offer a feel for the prevailing standards.

This early emphasis on submissions concerns me for a few reasons: (1) the beginning writers are spending time and energy on submissions that could be focused on improving their writing; (2) they're "using up" so many submissions opportunities for a particular work that they may be prematurely limiting their options (as well as those available to a future agent); (3) there seems to be an underappreciation of enjoying one's apprenticeship in the craft.

I'm in favor of writers not only successfully publishing, but, if at all possible, making a living off their writing. However, writing is about process, not product. Publishing comes with its own pressures and responsibilities, which, again, compete with the process. Better to take your time and debut strong than just sell a book to prove you can.

[Note that I'm not talking at skilled writers who've committed themselves over the years to reading and writing with an emphasis on craft. I understand that many great writers struggle for that first contract. When I speak of "early emphasis," I'm referring to true beginners.]

For those ready to submit to an agent, as Harold Underdown of The Purple Crayon notes in Finding and Choosing Literary Agents, the best venues for research include writer's groups. He also mentions meeting agents at conferences. Building on this, I'd suggest prospective clients make every effort to talk to current and former clients about the agent and his/her style, reputation, etc.

It's not the kind of thing, though, that you can walk into a SCBWI meeting and just start chatting up. Candid information is often shared between folks with more of a relationship. An established author is going to shy away from a stranger who pounces her in the bathroom or rushes her after a speech with a request to "give me your agent's name;" "read my manuscript and send it to your agent;" or, say, "let me use your name with your agent in my cover letter."

Harold also rightly notes in his newly updated Children's Book Agents and Artist's Representatives: A Primer that the "big six" New York publishers (HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Penguin Putnam, and Disney/Hyperion) only consider manuscripts from published authors or agents. I'd guess that, though the lists are smaller, in targeting other nationally competitive literary trade houses like Candlewick, FSG, Henry Holt, Little Brown, Roaring Brook, and so forth, an agent would be equally useful. However, in addition to published authors and agents, attendees at writing conferences (especially SCBWI conferences) are frequently invited by editor-speakers to submit to them, usually for a limited period of time afterward. This is sometimes called a "get-out-of-the-slush" card. That said, my Dutton editor mentioned at a recent Austin SCBWI conference that he'd spoken to thousands of writers at such conferences and the resulting sales were statistically insignificant.

Yet I wouldn't automatically count out those ultra-competitive houses. In my circle of colleagues, a first sale to HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Candlewick, etc., is not uncommon (though writers typically secure an agent first). This isn't to suggest that there aren't additional specialty or regionally-based houses that one shouldn't consider. For certain books, they may be the hands-down best bet. But do look at the quality of the books publishered and market strength of the list because the house's reputation will effect yours and the odds of your book succeeding.

As for what an agent does, I'd add to Harold's overview that the sale of secondary (paper, audio, foreign, film, textbook, etc.) rights is likely best left in the hands of an agent. They're in a position to seek out such deals, and they'll take a substantially less significant percentage than a publisher would. Secondary rights sales can, financially speaking, add up and facilitate more readers connecting with your stories.

In addition, I tend to think of agents in two categories: editorial or thumbs-up, thumbs-down. Some highly respected agents do work with their clients on the texts themselves, and their clients greatly appreciate the help. This is especially true for those living in locales remote from a writing community who're perhaps lacking in good critiquers prior to sending off. Those considering an editorial agent, though, should consider that agent's strength in this area (or lack thereof). Other agents simply decide to send the manuscript or not and proceed accordingly. My agent is the latter kind. I prefer to wait for the editor's comments.

Again, as Harold emphasizes, research matters. If such qualities are important to the prospective client, he or she should make an effort to ask about them.

Cynsational Notes

Harold Underdown is a children's book editor and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, Second Edition (Alpha, 2004). Check out some materials from the second edition, and read an interview with Harold.

Children's Book Agents and Artist's Representatives: A Primer by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon. See also Finding and Choosing Literary Agents, also by Harold. The Purple Crayon is a highly recommended resource site for those writing or illustrating for children and young adults.

Children's & YA Writers' Reading List: Links: Agents from my website. Includes links to official agent websites, interviews, and related overview resources. See also recent interviews with U.S. agents Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary and Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Agency as well as Italian agents Costanza Fabbri and Gabriella Ambrosioni of Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna 2006.

"Do I Need An Agent, and How Will I Know If I Do?" from Cynsations; thoughts inspired by a chat by the same title with Sharene Martin, co-founder of the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency from the Institute of Children's Literature. See also Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


To piggy-back off a post on Sara Crowe's blog from late yesterday (see the HONE YOUR CRAFT sidebar for a link), I've searched cyberspace for a few places that talk about creating memorable characters, both middle grade and young adult. These can be helpful in giving you a few ideas for developing a character so that the reader loves them as much as you do, or as a check-list to make sure the protagonist in your completed manuscript meets certain criteria. The list of today's links is at the top right of this blog:

Unique Tips for Creating Memorable Characters

Layering Voice to Create Powerful Characters

Creating Believable Middle Grade and Young Adult Characters

How to Create Memorable Characters for Profitable Publishing

Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

Character Creation

Realistic Teen Fiction

Here' a list of the top 10 children's books of all time, in terms of book sales. Take a look and CONSIDER THE CHARACTERS in these biggies (figures are from paper-back books sold before 2000):

1. Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
2. The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton
3. Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, Judy Blume
4. Love you Forever, Robert Munsch
5. Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
6. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O'Dell
7. Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, J.K. Rowling
8. Are you there God, it's me, Margaret, Judy Blume
9. Shane, Jack Schaeffer
10. The Indian in the Cupboard, Lynne Reid Banks

Okay, first of all, do you see a pattern? 3 out of 10 best-selling children's authors use initials in their name--PEN NAMES MAKE A DIFFERENCE!! Okay...no...no, they don't (on a sidenote, never use a pen name when querying agents--it irks them).

Second of all, these lists seem to be objective because I've seen a million different variations of the above. Bottom line though, these books have strong characters or they wouldn't be so popular. Also, I'm thinking that this list might be influenced by the number of books sold to teachers and schools.

Third of all...my baby is smelling suspicious, so I need to go investigate. Click on the links if you're looking for some extra info on characters, and peruse my other link lists for info on queries, etc. I update them as I see new stuff. I suggest popping into the agents' blog on the right and seeing what they're up to.

Have a great Tuesday!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Happy Friday...okay, so there are only a few hours of Friday left...

Lots of family obligations this week, so no time for deep thoughts or reflections. Instead, I suggest you pop over to Adventures in Publishing: http://childrenspublishing.blogspot.com/2010/06/best-articles-this-week.html

These guys do a great job of consolidating the week's blog posts that are informative and entertaining...sort of what I was planning on doing until I discovered their site. It's wonderfully done by two authors who seem to have their stuff down pat. They also do contests and critiques now and then.

By next week, I hope to look at similar sites and list the posts that I think pertain to you, the writer. There are lots of cool articles out there, but not all of them are super-relevant to aspiring authors yet--things like the developments in electronic publishing...at this point, lots of us just need to know how best to finish and polish our script, and get it noticed. Those are the things I hope to focus on here.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Know the rules before you break them

Have you ever noticed that just when you find out a new "rule" of writing...

-Don't open a novel with a dream sequence
-Don't open a chapter with dialogue
-Always SHOW, don't TELL
-Don't be overly dramatic or wordy
-For goodness' sake, lay off the adverbs!

...that's when you happen to read a new middle grade or young adult novel that is absolutely, positively, painfully, really excruciatingly drowning in a deep, gray sea of words that seemingly reach into the deep nothingness and pull back a golden, shining, gleaming orb of plot, and then suddenly, inexplicably...you're hooked.

Darn those authors for breaking the rules, right? I mean, why can Author X start with a dream sequence when I clearly read an agent interview that said those were overdone and placed inappropriately. And the last novel I read was BRIMMING with adverbs--they were all over the place! Why, oh why, didn't the stinking editors tell Author Y to get rid of them? And don't even get me started on Author Z--she totally used the adjective "finicky" three times and the tagline "he bellowed" twice in the same chapter! It's so unfair, right?

Hmmm, it depends.

Jerry Spinelli is one of the most original voices in middle grade reading, and some of the scenes in his books are full of description with zero dialogue, something that's supposedly a kiss-of-death for inpatient middle grade readers.

I've read several not-so-nicely-expressed opinions about a certain TWILIGHT author's inability to write--how the books are filled with "really sucky writing," but you know what? She's published and sitting fairly pretty, I would imagine. Her story lines are entertaining and match a certain audience's interests. Sucky writing or very smart lady?

And I recently finished the latest Pat Conroy novel (granted he's an adult novelist) SOUTH OF BROAD, and found it...well, dramatic and wordy, full of backstory and adjectives and adverbs. I loved it; I didn't even care that I could pluck every character out of it and easily place them into their alter-ego in another of his novel's, BEACH MUSIC. Know why? Because the man is a good writer, or at least one who has endeared himself to a large group of readers. Sure, some of his descriptions are overdone, but they are also delicious and spot-on and make me feel like I'm in the scene.

As newer writers, we're often told to CUT, CUT, CUT! TIGHTEN, TIGHTEN, TIGHTEN! And then we read wonderful novels that meander into character's thoughts for pages, bringing us closer to their world. Or that have sidebar plots that could be cut, but make the book just a little more clever when left in.

The point is, take a look at your manuscript. Know that some styles/choices are more acceptable than others. Do NOT shun the advice of others, particularly agents (aka, the posts you can find by clicking on the links to the right), but keep in mind that there are tons of opinions out there. Now, don't take that as an excuse to be lazy: DO make changes, but not at the expense of your voice. People will critique you harshly for not having dialogue in a scene, and then for letting your characters carry on a conversation for four pages straight.

Everything is relative. Are your writing choices making the book more enjoyable/exciting/suspenseful/angsty (whatever your angle is) and smoother to read, or are they getting in the way of telling a good story? Can you take a few things out and have the same effect? If so, do it, but don't be afraid of words or new/different ways to develop a plot line, etc.

Yes, it's important to follow the rules, but it's also important to follow your heart. After all, isn't that what made you start writing in the first place?

Anyway, some food for thought :)