Category Archives: John


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?


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?   


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!



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?


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!


Audio book ideas

As some readers might remember from past blog posts, my in-laws live in coastal Maine, which is about a 7-hour drive from NYC. Usually, we leave right after the boys wake up and arrive mid-afternoon. However, we’re going up next weekend, and to maximize our time, we’re attempting a night drive next Friday night. We’ve never done this before, but the boys are solid sleepers, and after a full week of camp they’re typically knocked out by Friday evening. So, I’m hopeful they’ll conk out before we hit Connecticut and stay that way!

Okay, what does this have to do with books? Well, typically when we drive up to Maine I get about a half-hour of radio in before the boys demand a DVD, and so most of the entertainment on the trip consists of me listening to the audio of their movie from the back seat. It’s a slightly surreal experience–I could probably recite the dialog of THE LEGO MOVIE and DESPICABLE ME before I’d even seen either movie.

But for the night drive, movies will be shut off by nightfall, and I figure the radio will be too noisy or distracting for the boys. And while they tend to snooze whenever we put on dub or reggae, I’m worried that might be a little sleep-inducing for the driver, too. So it dawned on me–here’s a perfect chance to listen to an audio book! And yet, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, I’ve never done an audio book before. Whenever I’m alone in the car, I’m a music guy–either I tune in to the radio or load up the ipod with something new.

So, any suggestions for a good listen? Any readers that I should look for or avoid if I want to stay awake but keep the boys asleep? I was thinking of downloading GIRL ON A TRAIN, since I haven’t read it yet–has anyone listened to it and can recommend? Thanks in advance for the feedback!


Men of constant sorrow

As my colleagues at DGLM know from last week’s staff meeting, I’m somewhat obsessed with the prison break in upstate New York. I think ever since O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? entered my all-time top-five movie list, I’m naturally predisposed to prison break stories, and this one is starting to shape up like a Coen brother’s movie. Yes, I know it’s poor taste to make light, given that our perps are actually violent killers not cuddly movie stars, but then today it comes out that Richard Matt painted a family portrait for Joyce Mitchell. Awwww…

And it doesn’t help, too, that the more I look at Matt and Sweat (such great names!) I see George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson playing them in the movie version:


150610103412-escaped-ny-convicts-split-richard-matt-david-sweat-super-169  george-clooney-o-brother1

But while I can’t wait to see how it all ends, I’m having trouble wrapping my agent hat around it. For one, where does a prison-break story fall in terms of genre? On first glance, I’d say True Crime, but the crime here isn’t murder—at least not yet—which still seems like a prerequisite for the genre. But if not True Crime, then what? Moreover, with the story having so much media attention and legs so far, what would be covered in a book that hasn’t already been seen on TV or the Web? It’s an issue that’s bedeviled traditional True Crime for years, and unless an author can get access to Matt, Sweat, or Mitchell, it’s hard to see what would pass the “new and newsworthy” test.

So, what’s the angle? It’s a question agents ask ourselves all the time, especially when it comes to stories in the news. If any readers have any ideas, I’d love to hear them, because I do think there’s something here, or that there will be down the line. At the very least, we can play the casting game—any thoughts on who plays Joyce?



Last week, I got a submission over the transom for a YA novel. The query was well structured, a sample was attached, and while it wasn’t for me, I did appreciate that the author took the time to research and follow our submission guidelines. End of story, until a few days later I got another email from the same author—turns out her son was a very close friend of my sister from college, and could I help her out with suggestions for other agents who might want to take a look?

Well, of course I’d be happy to help—but why didn’t she make the connection in the first place? Yes, it was a couple of degrees of separation, but I think if she’d dug just a little bit deeper, she would have connected me to my sister, and then she could have included that connection in her original query. And with that, while I still wouldn’t have taken on her project, I might have written her a personal note when I responded, or offered some editorial advice, rather than sending my form rejection.

The point is, connections are a major part of the publishing game. It’s why I stress to authors at every conference I attend that if they’re going to submit to me, make sure they reference meeting me or hearing me talk at that conference. And thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, etc., making those connections has never been easier.

If you really need further proof of the power of connections, go back and watch the MAD MEN finale again—or stop reading if you haven’t (SPOILER ALERT). For me, the most gratifying wrap-up by far was for Joan’s success in her new business—which is based, as they stress several times, on her Rolodex, i.e., her connections. Yes, it’s fictional and set 45 years ago, but the power of connection endure; after all, the job of a literary agent at root is to connect authors with publishers…

So while we always encourage authors to do their homework before submitting and check out the website, submission guidelines, etc., I’d urge you to go the extra mile and look for a more personal connection as well. Look around on-line, ask your friends and family if they know anyone in the publishing industry, check your college’s alumni listings—even the wedding listings in the Times can suggest a contact. Sure, at the end of the day it’s the work that matters, but that common link definitely helps get your foot in the door. And who knows where that connection might lead in the future?



As devoted DGLM readers know, we run an in-house book club here to broaden our horizons and keep abreast of categories we might not otherwise investigate. This month, we’re doing thrillers, and while I enjoyed my book—fast-paced, good characters, lots of practical information—ultimately it bugged me because the central premise was totally unbelievable. While there’s eventually a plot-twist that tries to explain away the implausibility of the concept, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Yet without naming names, the book came from a Big Six house, edited by a top editor, and was the author’s tenth novel. It came armed with tons of blurbs from major authors, and I could find only one review that took issue with the premise. To which I say… really? But while I sit here feeling like I’m taking crazy pills with Mugatu from ZOOLANDER, the book did make me think about plausibility in general.

I’m sure plausibility is a question  for all writers, but especially ones who write in plot-heavy genres like thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, kids books, etc. It’s hard enough to come up with inventive plots, character and voice, yet do it in a way that readers will buy–even if your story is about, say, zombie kittens from Mars. So if you’re wrestling with plausibility issues, check out this essay from Steve Almond in Writer’s Digest, which ably dissects the various plausibility traps writers often fall into (I’d say the premise of my Book Club book falls under the Factual/Logistical umbrella). Or, for an elegant summation of how to think about plausibility, it’s hard to beat this letter from Ursula K. LeGuin.

How many of you have run into problems with plausibility? And how have you found your way out of the traps?