Category Archives: Stacey

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Notes from the kid lit conference front lines

I was asked this past spring to join the council for the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL.org), a group that has been in existence for forty years. RUCCL is known for putting together each year an annual conference where aspiring authors and illustrators send in samples of their material which are then evaluated by published authors who also sit on the council. Those whose work gets the highest scores are admitted to the conference and paired with industry mentors who volunteer to spend the day meeting with these authors.

I attended the conference for the first time Saturday, October 18th. It was a wonderful day, full of positive energy and hard-working authors, illustrators, agents and editors all coming together with a love of children’s literature. A highlight for me was meeting the author Collen O’Shaughnessy Mckenna, who has been out of the business for many years, but who brought with her and signed for my girls a copy of her book FOURTH GRADE IS A JINX, published by Scholastic in 1990. I happen to have a fourth grader, so all the better!

The two main components of the conference are the Five-on-Five session where five (or so) authors who work in similar categories sit with agents and editors at a round table and talk about anything the attendees are interested in hearing or learning more about.

Then the grand finale is the One-on-One session where the author or illustrator meets for a full hour with the industry professional they’ve been paired with. It was great to walk around and see pairs of people in every corner of the campus. The feedback we got from the attendees was really positive and that hour spent with an industry professional is priceless.

In between the two events is the key note speaker. This year it was the lovely Nancy Werlin, who spoke about the many ways to find joy in the writing life.

As far as takeaway advice for authors, one of the things that struck me was how prepared so many of the authors were for the conference and their meetings. Many had attended the conference before, and even those who did not seemed to have a good working knowledge of the industry and of the editors and agents who were in attendance. No matter what level of the writing game you are at, it’s so important to do your research and know your audience. I can’t tell you enough what a difference it makes to be prepared.

I’m looking forward to planning and attending again on October 17, 2015. For all of you children’s authors out there, please send in an application. I’d love to meet you there!

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Finding your writing style

Fiction is so subjective and it’s often hard to articulate what precisely isn’t working for a book that is good, but not quite good enough. There are so many lists out there about what to do and not to do to improve your novel and a lot of the advice is valid. But it’s also sometimes hard to apply general advice to your own work. So when I see something that feel it summarizes some big ideas in a unique or thoughtful way, I like to share it here.

That’s how I felt when I came upon this blog post by Dr. Stephen Carver, a British writing teacher and multi-published author who reviews manuscripts across categories to see if they are viable for publication. So here you have an authority on the craft of writing who reads extensively and across categories offering his top ten list of common mistakes in unpublished manuscripts. A lot of the advice is valid. So why can’t you just follow all the rules to write a perfect book that agents and editors will fight over? It seems simple and yet we all know it’s elusive, creating that perfect mix of elements that work throughout an entire book-length work.

I really liked this conclusion at the end: ‘Any halfway decent creative writing course or guide will tell you more about all these areas. But they cannot teach you style – that you have to find yourself. There is no big secret to good writing. All you have to do is read widely and critically, understand narrative structure, and then keep practising until your individual style emerges.”

I agree and have said here before how important it is to know your category or categories, and read everything you can to learn the market. How do you create your own voice or style that makes your work unique to you?

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Crazy genius

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the crazy genius. So many times we see talented, creative individuals struggle with mental health issues – depression, anxiety, addiction. Some of the most brilliant artists of our generation have had tragic endings to their lives, most recently and notably Robin Williams which brought the conversation to a much more mainstream place. That struck an emotional response with so many of us. He made us laugh, we loved him like a friend, he was so funny. And yet his personal demons ultimately got the better of him. The outpouring of support and willingness to talk about a difficult subject and offer help to those who need it was the best thing that came out of Williams’ untimely death.

I found this piece in Authormagazine.com by a freelance writer and it resonated with me. It talks about the links between creativity and sensitivity, as many artists have elements of both. It also highlights the fact that so much of the darkness we sometimes experience in our creative lives is normal. I like her line: “This buildup of feeling is where art is born”. It reminds me of a quote I once saw on my nanny’s Facebook page: “Life is beautiful, not easy.”

I have an interest in this subject and have worked on many books over the years that explore some of these dark issues. Perfect Chaos by Linea and Cinda Johnson was a dual memoir by a daughter and mother about a brilliant young pianist who suffers from bipolar disorder. The pair have worked tirelessly within the mental health community to raise awareness of the condition and reduce the stigma associated with it. And Come Back by Claire and Mia Fontaine was also a mother-daughter memoir that delved into the issue of child sexual abuse. It was a Target book club bestseller and has sold over 200,000 copies. These authors have shared stories with me and others of how their books have helped people who felt lost and hopeless. Ultimately they send a positive message about triumph over adversity that is both hopeful and inspiring.

So embrace your inner crazy genius and let it take you somewhere you’ve never gone before. That is often the place where great things can happen.

And if you or someone you know is feeling like there’s no way out, here is the number and website for the national suicide prevention line: 1-800-273-8255 http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

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Why we do what we do

With my kids finally back in school and my twins finally starting Kindergarten, I feel like a new chapter of my life is beginning. And it’s one I’m really looking forward to. The focus is more on things outside of the basic needs of keeping small children alive, which in addition to working full-time, has consumed me in big and small ways for the better part of almost 10 years.

The last couple of years as my kids have grown and our amazing nanny and my supportive husband have enabled me to step up my work schedule, I’ve talked so many times to my kids (not to mention interns, editors and authors) about what I do, answered questions about what I like about my job (a lot — the creative process; working with smart, talented people; developing projects I’m passionate about; business lunches; the flexibility of my work schedule), what I don’t like (admin; industry challenges which include great books not selling or not selling well; commuting to NYC when I go in for meetings). I’ve also had many discussions about what my kids want to be when they grow up (so far, we have a pop star, a writer, a mom or Kindergarten teacher, and an undecided). There’s so much clichéd advice out there about doing what you love and doing what makes you happy, but it’s all so subjective and hard to articulate.

Now that it’s a new school year and my thoughts are with new beginnings, I wanted to share this lovely piece of writing advice from Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s not new or groundbreaking, but so much of what she has to say about writing and the life of a writer resonated with me. I especially loved the idea that you can begin a writing career at any age. It’s so true and how many jobs can you say that about?

So, enjoy the read, get inspired, and get to work on something you love. Let us know what that might be and what you want to be when you grow up, or grow old.

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Defining children’s categories

I often get asked what the differences are between a middle grade and young adult novel. I think with the success of the children’s category in general over the last decade or so, those answers have changed. There is a lot more overlap now between upper middle grade and younger young adult, and with older young adult to adult crossover. The books that work best in both categories are the ones that become widely read by boys and girls, children and adults. Think blockbuster series like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent and our own Maze Runner.

I found this article from my favorite source, writersdigest.com, about defining middle grade and ya fiction. While there is some really good basic beginner advice here, I do think that some rules were made to be broken. Don’t get caught up in word count to stick to category norms. Then again, don’t submit a manuscript that’s 150,000 words either. But straying 10k in either direction is totally fine.

Another important point to consider is that the majority of middle grade is third person, and the majority of young adult is first. You might think of this as children’s books 101 but I’ve had authors try to do third person YA and then find switching to first works a whole lot better for the book and the category.

I think that children’s books are opening up in many directions and kids today are able to digest a lot more than ever before. I see it with my own girls, two of whom are reading and two are about to be as they enter Kindergarten. Their minds are so open to the many adventures that await them in both middle grade and young adult novels. I can’t wait to share it with them! Please let us know about your favorite MG and YA novels, and if they follow the guidelines set forth by Writer’s Digest.

Writer’s Digest x2

Coinciding with my turn to blog this week, I was fortunate to realize that one of my wonderful clients was kind enough to write a guest blog post on Writer’s Digest about the author-agent relationship, and share her experience at finding an agent and publisher.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to link to the WD piece. First, I thought this post might be useful to aspiring authors. I think it gives a unique perspective that is just that – personal and individual. I always find stories of how authors got their start fascinating because they are all so similar in terms of the process but so different in terms of how it plays out. And there is something to be learned from each and every story. Beth talks here about how she got 32 rejections before she got to me. Persistence can certainly pay off, but so can paying attention to your rejections and learning from the feedback. She also talks about researching agents before you submit, a very important part of the process if you want to target an agent that is right for you and your work.

Second, I spent most of the day this past Saturday at the Writer’s Digest annual Pitch Slam conference at the Roosevelt Hotel in NYC where the several hundred attendees took turns pitching the many agents who volunteered to be there. Each author waited in line for the agent they wanted to pitch to, and then had 3 minutes to share their story. The day was broken up into 3 one-hour pitch sessions where they split up the attendees to make the room less crowded (I’m told it was the first time they did it this way, and it worked really well).  I really enjoy meeting aspiring authors in the trenches and seeing motivated people who are looking to improve their craft and network with professionals. It was a very fun, productive, exhausting day for authors and agents alike!

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Boost your traffic

Today I bring some smart and simple advice on growing your website or blog traffic from the always entertaining Chuck Sambuchino. In his column for thewritelife.com he offers tips for growing your platform. This has become widely applicable not only for nonfiction authors, for whom a large following is mandatory, but also for writers of fiction who need to engage with their audience as well.

It’s also worth paying attention to the comments section of the piece because there’s some good additional advice scattered throughout there as well, both from the editors at thewritelife.com and from authors who’ve tried things not included in Chuck’s list.

From an agent’s perspective as we are considering a new author, it’s so helpful to be able to confirm that the author has a good sense of social media and how to effectively run a website or blog. Even if the numbers aren’t huge, a successful site is one that’s professional, informative, and provides consistently updated content. Good luck, and let us know if you have any tips not included here.

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Developing a nonfiction “slam dunk” book concept

We have many ways in which books become books. Each title we sell has its own history and path to print. I thought it might be an interesting exercise for you to hear about a recent project of mine and how it came to be.

I represent Amar’e Stoudemire, best known as an NBA basketball star, but also the co-author of the just-published  COOKING WITH AMAR’E, which he wrote with his personal chef, Maxcel Hardy. Max and I got together initially in February of 2012 to talk about book ideas that he and Amar’e could pursue together, and he was initially thinking about a Kosher cookbook. We went through a list of ideas and the one that seemed most interesting to me had the two of them in the kitchen together doing informal cooking lessons, Max teaching Amar’e how to cook for his family and friends. It felt very commercial to me, and very accessible for a broad audience.

After finding a writer, Rosemary Black, to help them develop the proposal, which was a process that took some time, we sent it to publishers and hosted a lovely cocktail party for interested editors with recipes and cocktails from the proposed book. We sold the book to It Books/HarperCollins just over a year ago and everyone worked tirelessly to produce the book in time for Father’s Day of this year.

The publication was a whirlwind of media events for Amar’e, including appearances on Today and The View, and several book signings in and around NY. A picture from a midtown B&N signing below of yours truly with Amar’e and Chef Max (good thing Amar’e was sitting down or we wouldn’t have fit together in the photo!).

So, what I’m trying to get at with this post in addition to showing you some fun behind-the-scenes insight into the publishing process, is that there are many ways to develop a book and no matter who the author is or what the book concept is, it is a process that can take many turns and a long time from soup to nuts. Being in the business of ideas allows for a lot of creative brainstorming and you never know when that next great one will present itself.

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Counterintuitive advice – what writers should not do

I mentioned a book I sold recently by Amy Morin based on her viral article 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, which resonated with so many people from around the world. One of the things that people mentioned was how she positioned the piece in the negative, from the perspective of things people don’t do, which highlights a different thought process than what we are used to when we think about things we should do to make ourselves better.

When I found this Writer’s Digest piece that offers advice with a similar interpretation, focusing on 15 things writers should not do, I thought it was worth sharing. In fact, there is overlap between Amy’s article and Zachary Petit’s. For example, Morin suggests mentally strong people should not resent other people’s successes, and Petit claims writers should not be spiteful about another writer’s success. Take those positive success stories and use them to motivate you, to try and learn something from them so you can apply them to your own work and eventual success.

Some of these traps are easy to fall into, like not wanting to give up on a particular piece that isn’t working, but if you can think about breaking the patterns, focus your energy on positive thoughts of looking ahead and learning and growing, you will be a better writer, and ultimately one with greater mental strength.

Are there any things in this piece that you struggle with? Personally I think there are many negative ideas in here that we’ve all experienced at one time or another. If you have any thoughts on how to take this advice to heart, please share. I’m sure there are other writers who would benefit not only from knowing what not do to, but learning more about how not to do it (therapists, feel free to chime in)!

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Actors and writers, a mixed breed

I might have mentioned at some point on the blog that I was a child actress. It’s a part of my past I don’t talk about all that much, but I started auditioning when I was eight and worked pretty steadily until I was almost eighteen. Sometimes it feels like another life, it was so long ago now, but I was a professional actress in commercials, films, on stage, and I was even on a soap opera for a year. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with many great actors, some of whom have gone on to write books (I would love to sign up a client from my acting days, and recently had coffee with a woman I auditioned with when we were kids!). One of those actors is Andrew McCarthy. We did a cute television film together called The Beniker Gang. I think you can still occasionally find it on cable somewhere.

I was happy to see that Andrew has gone on to become a prominent and well-regarded travel writer in his older adult years. He also published a critically acclaimed travel memoir in 2012 called The Longest Way Home. So when I saw this article with him doling out writing advice on Writer’s Digest, I thought it was worth sharing.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to pass this on. First, he offers some solid suggestions for looking at the world through a creative and unique lens. And the advice he dispenses for travel writers is more widely applicable for any genre. Ideas like find your hook in the details, and focus on storytelling, are useful tips.

But more broadly, I like the emphasis on seeing where creativity can take us. Actors and writers have a lot in common. They hone their craft with the intention of engaging an audience, whether it’s a live audience at the theater, or a person curled up on their couch enjoying a good book. The goal is to enlighten, entertain, and elicit a reaction or feeling of engagement from the audience or reader. So, even though it’s been years since Andrew McCarthy and I worked together in a film, we still have a lot in common in our publishing careers. He tells stories, and I sell those stories with the purpose of sharing ideas with others. We’ve found a creative process that works for us.

My takeaway of this is that we should all listen to our inner creative voice, and be willing to go wherever it might lead us. What other outlets do you explore that help to keep your creative juices flowing?