Category Archives: John

5

When did you know?

When I was a kid, I had zero interest in being a writer. Rock star/shortstop for the Yankees/King of England–those were some of my early career aspirations, but writer never made the cut. In fact, no one I knew ever said they wanted to be a writer when they grew up. In high school, my friend James told people that he was going to be a poet, but I think that was more to get the girls than a serious vocation…

And yet, some people know from an early age that they want to be writers. Like Joyce Maynard, who describes how she made to-do lists at the age of 6 or 7 of the things she planned to write: “Write a play. Write a poem. Write a story. Write a book.” Talk about ambition! Then, there’s a certain friend from college who once told me that since she was a kid she wanted to be a novelist. And while med school and raising a family took her away from writing for years, she rededicated herself to it and recently scored a book deal.

So, readers, I’m curious–when did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it from an early age? If so, did you stick to it all the way through or come back to it later in life?

1

Why reading matters

As a parent of young kids, my Facebook feed is inundated with articles about parenting, and this week everyone seems to be passing around this piece by Leonard Sax, the famous child psychologist. Evidently, in his new book THE COLLAPSE OF PARENTING, Sax argues that, “American families are facing a crisis of authority, where the kids are in charge, out of shape emotionally and physically and suffering because of it. He calls for a reordering of family life in response.” 

Now, I haven’t read the book yet, but in the article Sax offers some concrete advice for helping parents regain their authorityno cell phones in kids’ rooms at night, family dinners, no earbuds in the car, and getting outdoors. All of which are certainly good pieces of advice that I’ll take to heart, particularly how to handle electronics when the kids get to the age of fully abusing them. It’s already starting with my seven-year-old, who fancies himself a budding iphone film director…

Yet, I have to say, among Sax’s advice was one glaring omission that should be obvious to anyone in our industrywhat about reading? 

Perhaps Sax does encourage reading to one’s kids in his book (like I said, I haven’t read it yet), but I’m a little disappointed he doesn’t list reading as a primary method for helping families. I would think the daily structure of a child listening to a parent read aloud, particularly at bedtime, would be an ideal way for parents to reclaim authority from their kids. And of course, the benefits of
reading are pretty darn fundamental, don’t you know
and don’t just take my word for it, it’s science

So, how many of you read or used to read to your kids aloud? And thanks to that reading, were your kids  absolute angels who always respected your authority? Of course they were! So I’ll be curious when I read THE COLLAPSE OF PARENTING to see if Sax does actually encourage reading aloudif anyone has read it yet, please let us know!

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The New Year’s purge

 

It’s a new year, and in the Rudolph house that means it’s time to get rid of clutter. I think we do a January cleaning, rather than Spring or Fall Cleaning, because we’ve just come back from the holidays in Maine crammed into a car that’s inevitably jam-packed with oversized kids’ presents and new clothes from the Freeport outlets, and all we want to do is find room for the new stuff in our too-small New York apartment–the only solution for which is to purge the old stuff. 

So, for the past two weeks, we’ve been clearing out every closet, cabinet, and bookcase, bagging clothes for Goodwill, bringing books to schools, and scrubbing down the general grunge in the kitchen. I can’t really say it’s been fun, particularly getting rid of the old clothes that I know I’ll never wear but liked to see in my closet just because… But the results are worth it–it’s nice to be able to actually see the back of my closet for a change, and not have a 3-foot pile of books on my desk, either. 
 
And coincidentally or not, recently I feel like I’ve been asking a bunch of my authors to do a lot of purging in their manuscripts as well. I know I’ve used the phrase “kill your darlings” at least three times in recent weeks, and I’ve had conversations with writers about getting out of the corners they’ve written themselves into. Now, darling killing and getting out of corners are always necessary, no matter what time of year. But I wonder–do writers have seasons or preferred times of the year when they feel more inclined to trim the fat and solve lingering problems? 
 
Well… do you? 

 

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Happy holidays, book lovers!

I’ve been sitting here all day thinking about what I could offer as a holiday gift to readers. Some insight into the publication process? Helpful writing tips for the winter break? What I’m looking for in 2016? Well, more on that last one in January, but right now, as I’m scrambling to wrap things up before taking off for Maine with the in-laws, my brain is pretty much fried to a crisp. And I’m sure tonight’s DGLM holiday party won’t help…

So, thank goodness for Buzzfeed! Yes, even though we’ve all seen and heard things like this a zillion times, there’s nothing like a good assortment of gifs to fill a reader with good cheer. And when I saw what Mr. Bean was reading in #6, I just had to share. Happy holidays, y’all, and have fun making a dent in your reading pile over the break—I know I will!

4

Running and writing

When my father first moved to New York City in the late 1960s, he got into the jogging trend that had just started sweeping the nation. And ever since, nary a week goes by where he doesn’t go out once or twice at the crack of dawn and log a few miles. As a kid, he’d often ask me to join him, and I still remember huffing and puffing up the hill from 90th street to 86th trying to keep up with his well-practiced strides.

And to this day, I HATE jogging.

Of course, to make myself even more miserable, I ran cross-country in high school– it was either that or gym class. Fortunately, our coach realized that many of us were only there for the class credit and could care less about our personal bests, so practices were pretty low key. But boy did I dread the Saturday meets at Van Corlandt Park in the Bronx–getting passed left and right, the burning lungs, the brutal final sprint across an open field to the finish line, all of which was made worse by those Friday nights of experimental teenage drinking.

So yeah, I am still not a runner. But maybe that’s why I’m an agent, not a writer?

All of this brings me to this interesting piece in The Atlantic about how so many prominent writers pair their writing with a running regimen. And it does make sense—like writing, running can be a long slog, but supposedly you get better with practice. And several authors note how it’s a good way to clear one’s mind and work out story issues away from the page.

So, do any of YOU run? If so, do you find that it helps your writing?

5

You’re reading WHAT?!?!

We’ve been going through a bit of a weird reading time lately in the Rudolph household. For the past few weeks, my four-year-old son George has insisted onHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for his bedtime reading, no doubt inspired by his older brother Henry, to whom I’ve been reading all seven books in sequence for about a year now. While I’d like to believe that George is brilliant, precocious, and absorbing every word, the truth is that he consistently falls asleep after 5 pages or so–and since he falls asleep so easily, we aren’t going to discourage the routine!

Meanwhile, seven-year-old Henry wants to know about war–specifically, World War II. And since Dad can’t seem to explain WWII coherently without getting into a lot of evil stuff, he asked if we have any books on it instead, or if he could get some from the library. So it seems we’ve reached that fateful Parenting Moment where we need to think about what kinds of books are appropriate for our kids.

Now, like most of my publishing colleagues, I abhor censorship. One of my proudest projects from my early days at S&S was working with Judy Blume on Places I Never Meant to Be, an anthology that supported the National Coalition Against Censorship. But when it comes to Henry and George, is it right to feel concerned about what they read? Or am I being a total hypocrite if I tell Henry to wait on the war books until he’s older?

Fortunately, Roger Sutton of The Horn Book (and an outspoken anti-censorship advocate) pointed me to this little piece on Book Riot, where the author advocates letting kids discover books without restriction. And after reading it, I realized that I benefited from a laissez-faire book policy when I was a kid, too–discovering Lou Reed’s music in ninth grade led me to William Burroughs, and while I distinctly remember my Mom wasn’t thrilled when I took my copy of Junky on the plane to visit my grandparents in Florida, to her credit she didn’t stop me.

So while I might try to get age-appropriate book from the library on WWII, when Henry starts digging through our own shelves and comes across Ellie Wiesel and Primo Levi, I’m not planning on stopping him. And if George keeps up with Harry Potter through the somewhat disturbing ending, I won’t be the one to stop him either (even if manages to stay awake).

But maybe I’m being unrealistic and/or dogmatic here–how do you handle reading material for your kids? Do you keep an eye on them or give them free reign on your shelves? Where do you draw the line?   

0

All the book’s a stage

Checking Facebook obsessively does have its benefits when it comes to blog ideas–a Facebook friend posted this great blog post  on writing picture books. And while the author has a ton of good advice, particularly in how to handle revision and practice one’s craft, the phrase that stuck out most for me was “think of it as theater.”

I first heard the idea of a picture book as a theater when I was an editor working with the great art director Cecilia Yung. Cecilia would often encourage artists to look at their canvases (at least in the pre-digital age) as stages, with characters as actors and background as scenery. In fact, a lot of her instructions took the form of stage direction–“blocking” and “beats,” entrances and exits. I found it fascinating that artists working in a static medium like illustration would respond to the movement language of art so effectively, and indeed, I saw numerous books transformed under her tutelage.

But the theater analogy also spoke to my roots as an undergraduate classics major. Waaay back in my early days as an editorial assistant, someone pointed out that a picture books are an excellent format for employing the Aristotelean unities of action, time and place. In other words, like ancient Greek drama, a picture book ought to feature a single action or plotline, it ought to take place in a single day, and it ought to be located in a single setting. Off the top of my head, I’d say Mo Willems is an excellent practitioner of the classical arts–pretty much every ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE does Aristotle proud!

So, for those who are looking to write (and illustrate) picture books, I heartily encourage you to take a theatrical view. Instead of a 32-page format, think of your book as 16 scenes to be filled with characters and setting. Find a single problem or action that needs to be resolved in a short amount of time in a limited setting, especially if you’re writing for younger readers whose experience of the world and concept of time are only just beginning to develop.

And if you need further inspiration, there are any number of children’s theater productions based on picture books these days–check out these guys if you’re in NYC. I can’t wait to see what they do with CAPS FOR SALE!

 

4

It ain’t over till it’s over

As the press has noted, with the passing of Yogi Berra, we’ve lost not only a baseball legend, but a legendary quipster, whose wit and wisdom (real or attributed) applies to so much beyond baseball. And one of his most famous Yogisms, “It ain’t over till it’s over” came to mind yesterday when I saw the front page article on the Times proclaiming that, hey, print isn’t dead after all!

Now, anyone who’s been keeping up with this blog and publishing news in general already knows that e-book sales have plateaued, and that both print and bookstores have had a nice resurgence over the past year. But as they usually do, the Times provides a nice overview, especially when it points out that the ABA counts 300 new independent bookstores since 2010, and that the big publishers are expanding their warehouse space to keep up with demand. And in their even-handed way, the Times does point out that both new e-readers and pricing could lead to an e-book resurgence, though I find it hard to imagine the $50 Kindle will lead the way…

Instead, I wonder if most people will end up as hybrid readers—e-books for travel, work, maybe for certain genres, and print for the rest. You might draw a parallel of sorts to the record biz, where hipsters gather physical vinyl for home listening but use Spotify on the go. If that becomes the new normal, then maybe the more prescient Yogism here would be “It’s deja vu all over again…”

Anyway, I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Has anyone ditched e-books completely at this point, or vice versa? If so, why? And if you’re a hybrid reader, how do you divvy up your reading between print and e?

6

Do you need kids to write for kids?

When I was a children’s book editor—even before I was married—people often asked if I had any children. After all, how could I understand what books kids might like to read if I didn’t have kids of my own?

It always struck me as an odd question–does a pediatrician or a teacher need to have kids to know how do her job? So I was very heartened to read Maile Meloy’s essay in the Times last weekend, and how she answered the question. In fact, her answer is so good that I have to print it in full:

“I write fiction, so I’ve written about many things I haven’t actually done. The novels would be very boring otherwise. But the thing I did do, for longer than anything else, was be a kid. Having had a childhood, I think my qualifications are pretty good.”

Amen! I only wish I was that pithy back when I was a childless editor–mostly I just fumbled out an answer or used the pediatrician/teacher analogy and got labeled as snarky…

To her credit, Meloy does allow that a parental perspective can be useful for a children’s book writer, particularly when it comes to parent characters (duh). And as a parent now myself, I appreciate how some writers (like Meloy’s brother) can write books for their own children that end up appealing to the general reading audience.

But I strongly agree with Meloy that tapping into one’s own childhood is most valuable for writing for children (that and reading widely in the field, of course). And I’d add that for writers who happen to be parents, keeping one’s own childhood in mind is a better strategy than observing your kids or, worse, using them as sounding boards. Kids are programmed from birth to tell parents what they want to hear, but if you can draw out the essence of your own childhood, you just might find the truth–and isn’t that what all writers strive to show?

Children’s Nonfiction

One of the more interesting and unexpected developments in the children’s book industry over the past year or two has been the rise of nonfiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article that surveys the landscape, and how publishers are having success with the kind of MG and YA nonfiction that, until recently, was thought to be going the way of the dodo. Who would have foreseen that in 2015, guidebooks for a video game would be bestsellers?

(Then again, if anyone can explain the appeal of Minecraft in the first place, please do!)

But while video game tie-ins are all well and good, obviously those are licensed products, and for the average children’s book writer, writing for a licensor is a hard gig to land. So how can writers take advantage of this NF “moment” and capitalize on the momentum?

Well, from my seat at the agent’s desk, books like BOMB and RAD AMERICAN WOMEN are the way to go–titles that can fit with Core Curriculum standards while having the kind of adult-market trade appeal that will catch parents’ eyes in the bookstore. Biographies are also attractive, particularly those of living figures (for instance, Hillary Clinton) recently deceased figures (Steve Jobs) or historical figures that are back in the zeitgeist (Alexander Hamilton). And if you’re a published adult writer whose book can be reworked for MG or YA, that’s a great way to further your reach, too.

I’ll also add that on the picture book end, nonfiction is in demand as well. Of course, the topics naturally skew younger than MG or YA–lots of animal stories and bios that can sidestep most controversy. Multicultural topics are also a plus at this level, as they can often be paired with the kind of highly imaginative artwork that editors love.

And here’s another plus on children’s NF–submission guidelines tend to be somewhat squishy. So while picture books submissions do require full text, often you can write longer than the 500-1,000 word limits that frustrate a lot of PB writers. And for MG and YA, my experience is that most editors will review a proposal in lieu of a full manuscript, and a fairly brief proposal at that.

So, for any children’s book writer who’s contemplating NF, this is the time to do it–and when you’ve got your MS or proposal together, send it to me!