Category Archives: writing

1

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!

4

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)!

2

Why writing and editing are not the same

Full disclosure: I do not claim to have mastered the editorial craft, but this blog post is in response to the many people I’ve spoken to who wish to break into the publishing industry in order to become writers. Many intern applicants have told me that they want to go into publishing because they want to be writers. They, like most, believe that writing and editing go hand in hand. If you are a good writer, you must be a good editor. And vice-a-versa. I don’t blame them. It’s a reasonable assumption, one I even made myself. But I quickly learned that this is not always the case.

Writing and editing require very different skill sets. Among other qualifications, great writers must have a voice, they must have a story to tell and be able to bring it to life. The dialogue must be realistic and the characters vivid, interesting, engaging.

What, then, is the editor’s job? What makes a great editor?

Editors must be able to assemble the writer’s story in a cohesive manner, must clearly see what the finish product should look like and know how to achieve that endgame, like a master watchmaker who sees how all the minuscule, intricate parts of a timepiece should fit together so that each one works in perfect concert with the other, so that the whole mechanism runs smoothly, flawlessly, beautifully. Move a chapter here, dissect some paragraphs there, control the rhythm and pacing of the book as a ship’s captain does the wind.

Yes, great writers can make great editors. And great editors can make great writers. But to confuse the two jobs is a common mistake that we should all try to avoid. Not only does it cheapen the arts of both writing and editing, but publishing houses and literary agencies aren’t looking to hire writers. In fact, it’s often frowned upon and seen as a distraction or conflict of interest.

2

A whole new genre…

Crossing genres is always fun, and so when I saw this Buzzfeed listing titled “If Pop Songs Were Works of Classic Literature,” there was no way I wasn’t clicking to see. The results are wonderful, overly writerly passages based on silly pop ditties and I loved every one of them. Here’s my shot at one:

  SK8rBoi

“One could hardly blame her for her prejudices. She was, after all a blue-blooded, white-collared, silver-spoon fed debutante who had never known anything beyond the ivy-clad walls in which she’d spent her formative years.

“It was hardly Penelope’s fault, then, that it took four years of skipping home from Madame Delphine’s Dance Académie surrounded by the trills and chatter of the very best of her friends, ballet shoes slung over their shoulders, for her to even notice him, the boy in artful tatters and skinned knees whose eyes followed her with a longing that could only be matched by the fervor with which he practiced his art over and over again.

“It seemed unlikely, this, the ballet princess and the gutter punk, and perhaps, maybe it was. But the best stories are the unlikely ones, are they not?”

I wrote that sample off the cuff with no edits, and that’s half the fun. Writing with the purpose of being groan-inducing and completely purple is kind of one of my favorite sorts of writing exercises. It’s really freeing when you intentionally remove not only the self-imposed need to self-edit, but make the whole point of the exercise a chance to poke fun at your most frustrating tendencies (mine are, obviously, dreamy imagery, extra-long and confusing sentences).

So have at it. Do your worst (really) and let me know what you come up with! I promise, it’s fun, and writing for writing’s sake is the best practice there is.

9

“Kill your darlings.” No, really, kill them dead.

A big part of my job involves helping writers develop ideas and then editing their work.   Good agents, Jane taught me a long time ago, send out material in its most polished, ready-for-prime-time form.  Even though an editor brings his/her own vision and expertise to the process of making a book ready for publication, it’s our job to get that editor to buy the thing in the first place.  So, a brilliant but bloated novel of ideas about the robot apocalypse (just a hypothetical, although you never know with Jim’s list), will probably get a long edit memo from us suggesting a lot of slashing and some burning.

Now, after a couple of decades of responses ranging from sobs to name calling, I’ve learned that telling authors to kill their darlings is always a loaded proposition.  Some will argue with you like defense lawyers at the O.J. trial, trying to convince you to recant and let them keep every superfluous line of dialogue, every unnecessary adjective, and every irritating dream sequence (a particular bugaboo of mine).  Some will accept your comments politely and then send back a manuscript with infinitesimal changes.  Some will send you six-page letters refuting everything you’ve suggested and insinuating that you belong in a less think-heavy profession.

Seldom (although not never) do we get a reaction similar to that of the author of this piece in the Times.  For every author who loves cutting and throwing out, there are thousands of hoarders.

Be honest, are you able to cut with gusto (or at least without facing a clinical depression) or do you have the impulse to argue with or rail against anyone who suggests it?

 

2

Writing’s (un)willing partners?

 

The writing life, as so many of you know, is a difficult one. Inherent in devoting yourself to a solitary, maddening, financially precarious pursuit is the tacit understanding that those around you must also come to some accommodation with your avocation.

I’m off to Grub Street’s MUSE AND THE MARKETPLACE conference in Boston (and very excited to be a participant, thanks to Adam Stumacher!) and I noted that there is a session on managing writing and parenthood.  Kids are not especially solicitous of activities that require quiet, solitary time—at least they are not in my house–so I think swapping strategies makes sense.  If I were not busy taking pitches and doing critiques, I’d sit in and take notes.   But in the absence of children, things are not necessarily easier.  My client, Christopher Yates, whose terrific literary thriller BLACK CHALK is just being released in the US, wrote a frank and funny piece on being a stay at home husband in order to write.  http://nypost.com/2014/04/30/my-wife-couldnt-survive-without-a-stay-at-home-husband/. Without prying, I wonder how it works in your household.  How do you negotiate time to concentrate, to create?

Writing has wrecked its share of relationships, so this strikes me as fairly essential question.

2

Teenage Dreams

One of the most important things an agent or editor values in a work of fiction, and something you’ll hear talked about ad infinitum is a resounding and real “voice” to a novel. Able writing, beautiful imagery or ingenious plotting are all well and good, but if a reader can’t connect to the protagonist and his or her voice, then a novel is left feeling flat, distant and, well, forgettable.

In reading queries and even published books, I find that the voice authors most seem to struggle with is the teen narrator—and this, of course makes sense. Most published authors and hopeful queriers have left their teenaged selves behind some (or many) years ago and so a lot of the thoughts and dialogue are supposed, remembered or possibly observed if the writer is lucky enough to hang around teenagers with some regularity. (Oof, did I say lucky?) The most impactful YA novels are those that have really captured what it’s like to be a teenager, the feelings, the impulses and the intense passion that can arise from those years. The slang needs to be perfect and not overdone or cliché and the same can be said for the characters’ predilections, motives and inner thoughts.

The best and worst part of reading good YA writing always hits me when I’ve been cringing at some of the supposed thoughts of teen girls thinking, “oh, god, who does this person think teenaged girls are, this is ridiculous,” and then I realize that the author is right and that’s what makes it so hard hitting. I was visiting my hometown last weekend and dug around my childhood bedroom a bit, unearthing the journal (I was too cool to ever call it a “diary” even though that’s exactly what it was) I wrote in faithfully when I was sixteen. As much as I wanted to punch/hug/kick/shake/comfort/congratulate the girl who was writing those words, I also had to admit that god, sixteen-year-old girls are annoying sometimes and yes, they do write and think and talk like those characters I had been scoffing at only hours before.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

With this artifact, a true relic of my teenaged years in my hands, I realized something like this could really help a writer capture the youthful voice that may be escaping them in a current work in progress—an unmanufactured, unedited transcript of high school. Is this something that any of you YA writers do? If not, and if you don’t happen to be the parent or teacher of a teenager, then how are you able to write in a voice that is so far removed and so easily, tritely overdone and keep it sounding real? It’s something I’ve always had difficulty with, myself.

10

Series fatigue

Jane and I had dinner with the delightful and very savvy Abbi Glines last night.  During the course of a delicious meal of tapas-like small plates at ABC Cocina (which, in case you’re wondering, we liked better than ABC Kitchen, its sister restaurant), we talked about a number of interesting topics, from trends in fiction categories—ever elusive and often fleeting—to the lasting power of series.  Abbi pointed out that series can get tired after a while and that readers get tired of the characters right along with them, so an author needs to know when to move on to new pastures.

This reminded me of my love of Patricia Cornwell’s early Scarpetta books and how tedious I found the later ones, Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries which I lost interest in at about the letter G, and that by the time my son and I were at the 24th Magic Tree House book, I was ready to chuck them all out the window.  It’s possible that I just have a short attention span, but, Richelle Mead’s wonderful Vampire Academy series, for instance, kept me hooked up to the very last page of the final installment.

Sbook serieso, is it that authors don’t know when to put a cash cow out to graze and so keep adding books to a successful series even when the characters would much rather have retired to their home in Florida?  Or is it the readership that is so enamored of the characters and their universe that they keep clamoring for more even after the passion has faded?

Do you read every book in a series or do you find your attention wandering to that fresh, bright newcomer on the next shelf?  And do your favorite series authors maintain their effectiveness over numerous titles?

Read this piece (aka more on Stephen King)!

I am really not obsessed with Stephen King. I do think he’s amazing and a genius, and I’d like to spend a day living inside his brain, but I really don’t follow his every move. Which is why it’s kind of funny that I’m doing another post about him.

I recently shared a link with what I thought was some great advice from Stephen King, and now I want to share with our readers an article I came upon this week while cleaning out my bathroom (I store much of my best reading material there!). It’s from an August, 2013 issue of the New York Times Magazine, and it goes into some detail about the immediate King family, all of whom have storytelling in their blood. I find it beyond fascinating that this entire clan lives and breathes books and writing, stories and ideas. Not to mention they genuinely seem to have a strong affection for one another, despite some very rough and rocky times.

One of my favorite anecdotes is about how when King’s kids were little and he needed books to listen to while driving, he’d have them record the books he was interested in hearing. It’s brilliant! I’m going to get my kids to start recording books immediately. I can’t think of a better family activity.

I also loved reading about King’s daughter in-law, Kelly Braffet’s, entrée into the family. Can you imagine being an aspiring writer (she met King’s son at the Columbia MFA writing program in 2001) and meeting your future in-laws named Stephen and Tabitha King for the first time?

And yet another great anecdote comes from King’s son, Joe, who struggled as a writer for years unwilling to use his dad’s name to sell books. He went beyond using a pseudonym, Joe Hill, refusing to even admit who he was to his literary agent for 8 years (a time during which he did not sell a book)!

The stories go on. Anyone interested in writing should read this article. To me, it illustrates how important it is that the environment we create for ourselves and our families be one that allows for thoughtful and creative thinking. If you surround yourself with smart people who have similar interests and ideas, you will naturally find yourself gravitating in that direction.

I hope you enjoy learning more about the King family, and that they inspire you to be better writers, readers, and storytellers.