"Sit down and listen, children! I have something to read to you. No, now, please. Turn that wii off. Stop hitting your brother. Come on, boys. It wont take long, I promise!"
My long suffering children are my test subjects. I read my stories aloud, and watch for tell tale signs of boredom. The usual subtle cues - glazed eyes, yawns, pleads to let them go now, please, so they can do their homework!
One child hangs on to my every word. Then again, he loves reading. One has the attention span of a gnat and interrupts with irrelevant questions. He's not exactly a bookworm. The youngest cuddles up and enjoys the word flow, but is still of an age where he really needs illustrations when he's been read to. He's below the age range of my work, but loves the inimacy of story time.
I never ask whether or not they liked it, but I do stop and check comprehension, in case my indirect descriptions are too vague, or whether my "show" could benefit from a little bit of "tell" (hey, there's good telling and bad telling apparently).
I hear that editors will take the words "My children really enjoyed my work and tell me it should be published" in a query as such a strong endorsement that their fingers itch to flick it into the "no" pile. My children's responses guide me in terms of concept development and difficulty when I'm developing the story. Ok, so I think their taste is impeccable when they appear to enjoy it, but comprehension is more pertinent.
My main measure of success is whether a story stays with them.
If they are asked to do some creative writing in class, and if the story produced resembles something that I've written (particularly if it had been some time since I'd read it), then I air-punch in joy. The story has meant something to them - I haven't wasted my time writing after all.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I’ve only been exploring the Land of Publishing for the past eight months or so. That gives me the credential of a world renowned expert. So today I am humbly sharing what I’ve learnt with those writers who are less astute than I....
-The cover letter is not just a piece of paper to keep dust of the manuscript (for the dwindling number of houses that still accept snail mail). It is (wait for it...) a business letter! It needs to make an impression. So....
use fancy paper with a crazy font to show just how creative you are. Try using different font sizes in the one sentence for effect.
-Add lots of exclamation marks to convey just how thrilled you are to be sending them your baby!!!!!! A smiley face will underscore, especially to a children’s publisher, that even though you’re on the wrong side of thirty, you’re still with it (groovy, baby!)
-“selling” the story with superlatives shows how much faith you have in your work. It will demonstrate that you’re fresh and enthusiastic. (My story is an original, hilarious, fast paced novel that will have readers’ eyes glued and breathless with anticipation until they turn the very last page).
-Compare yourself to the Giants in the industry. This is to demonstrate your faith in your work (“It combines the hilarity of a Roald Dahl with the suspense of a JK Rowling”.) Writers tend to be shy, humble folk, so someone confident enough to promote themselves aggressively will naturally stand out above the pack.
-Telling them how much your kids love your work shows them that you’ve researched the market. Even if you have no children.
-Tell them about your fresh idea. Don’t actually give away much about the plot. The industry is rife with plagiarism, and you don’t need to leave yourself open to an unscrupulous agent or editor. Just make the point again and again that it is wonderful.
-It doesn’t matter if you haven’t completed the manuscript, a good agent or editor will see the potential in it from your query alone. You’ll probably be more motivated to finish it once the agent is salivating for a taste. It’s ok to keep them hanging for a year. You’re an artist, they get that.
-Once you’ve sent or emailed your query, keep phoning the editor or agent to make sure they know just how keen you are. Daily, even hourly, phone calls will make sure they won’t forget you. It’s a hassle, sure, especially as they will pretend your calls are unwelcome. Think about it as raising a profile.
-Demonstrate your flair for originality by giving them a puzzle to solve with a password that gives them access to an excerpt of your manuscript on your web site. Agents and editors are dedicated folk; they won’t mind spending hours trying to solve the puzzle, and it just makes you look really, really clever. They like clever.
-If, by a miracle, the proposal is rejected, fell free to let them know exactly how you feel. Let off a barrage of criticism describing (in no uncertain terms) their feeble, puny brains and lack of taste. Then criticise the company on line, on every available forum. This will work to your advantage, as they will feel humbled at their obvious error. Rejection is personal. Treat it that way.
With my business savvy, it will be a matter of weeks, no, days – for my work to get accepted.
Now, I might have deliberately included a piece of misinformation. Or two. Just to see who was listening. And if you have more advice to add to this goldmine (that, even with my highly developed sense of this industry I may have failed to include), please add it to the comments. Prize of a 10-page critique for the info I judge to be “the best” (and two critiques for the worse).
Friday, June 10, 2011
My thoughts on the business of writing can wait til the next post.
Instead, I’m hopping on a bandwagon. A bit late, but that’s me. I’m hoping that nobody’s utterly sick of the Wall Street Journal article (article ) bemoaning the dark themes prevalent in YA literature, because I’m putting my 2cents worth in.
Teens attracted to the darker side of life? Who’d have thunk it?
Now, the argument seems to have been thoroughly refuted in a few other sites (see Janet Reid’s blog and comments for a comprehensive view, for example here . Hell, even I posted a comment there). But I’ve had another thought that doesn’t seem to have been expressed.
The main arguments promoted in favour of YA novels unabashedly depicting rape, incest, suicidality, eating disorders, self mutilation, depression, substance use and so on are 1) to not flinch from unpalatable subjects that are reality for a percentage of young people, and 2) to normalise the experience for the kids experiencing this. In other words, if incest is a daily part of a kid’s life, then reading about how another person lived through it can help and provide a role model for survival, for example. Both valid reasons, in my opinion.
There’s a third reason: compassion.
The majority of well fed Western teens, thankfully, do not go through any of these. But chances are that one of their classmates has. And chances are that the classmate sees him/herself as a freak, with a huge dose of self-blame thrown in. There’s shame attached to mental health and social stressors, and these kids will hide their problem and protect their family to appear normal. The boy who wears long sleeves when it’s sweltering? Stupid idiot? Or trying to hide the cuts on his arms? The girl with the pancake layer of foundation? Pathetic wannabe? Or trying to hide the bruising?
When I was growing up, the darkest book on the market was “Go Ask Alice”, the alleged diary of a substance-using girl who was found dead of an OD. Naturally, it was a best seller.
Growing up, my parents (ok, mainly my Dad) were just slightly judgemental. You know, the sort who viewed these loutish protesting student types as degenerate and immoral attention-seekers. Drugs were just for those people too stupid, reckless and self-destructive to know better, in their view. So my opinion as a thirteen year old was that “drug-addicts” were thick-headed criminals and death by OD was their just desserts. And then I read “Go Ask Alice”.
A book is a magical tool that allows you to walk in another person’s shoes, to experience their hopes and share their pain. And after the last page was turned, so had my opinion. Suddenly, I had compassion for people who used substances.
I chose to not experiment with substances, but have never judged anybody who did, and felt empathy for those whose lives had been taken over by any type of substance, illicit or prescribed. One book did that.
So, back to the Wall Street Journal article. Is it worth publishing a book about a kid who slashes their own arms? Yes, but not just for the kid who slashes. Also for her classmates who might just stop seeing her as a freak, and understand that her pain is real and overwhelming and outside of her control. Compassion, empathy and acceptance are powerful tools against any problem. Would we rather have a generation of judgemental or compassionate people?
Monday, June 6, 2011
It’s taken me a while to realise this, but if you wish to become a professional writer, you need to learn about not just one but two businesses: writing and publishing. These are linked but distinct professions, and each has a set of particular skills.
I’ve been focussing on the discipline of writing in this blog. The small decisions that one makes daily, whether to write or not, which has a cumulative effect. Procrastinate or not? Other blogs might focus on the mechanics of writing, such as plotting, pacing, structure, grammar and so on. It’s mandatory to master these before even thinking that you have a manuscript to sell.
But the publishing side of things has a discipline of its own. Everytime you approach a publisher or an agent with a manuscript, you’re putting forward a business proposal. So it makes sense to know about the business, learn the jargon and so on. Anything you put forward needs to say “I have taken the trouble to learn about this industry. I am a safe bet.”
Before I started thinking seriously about writing, I just assumed that all I needed was to finish my manuscript, and any editor with a brain would take the time to read through what I had written, and make a decision based on the merits of the entire novel. Therefore, they would be able to tolerate some grammatical flaws, spelling errors and not mind if the paper was not crisp and new. The editor (doubtlessly a bibliophile like me) would read on even if the opening was weak, as my story picks up in Chapter 3. The satisfying ending will hook ‘em.
I know now that this is laughable.
If I want to be taken seriously as a professional writer, then I need to understand the workings of those whom I hope will pay me. It reminds me of someone I knew who worked in the personnel department of a brewery. There was never any shortage of people willing to chuck in their current jobs to work for them. The trick was to find workers who were not just passionate but willing to work hard – and to not let the product go to their heads (literally, in her industry). Maybe that’s why there’s a “pub” in publishing, it’s an intoxicating thought, getting a book out.
There’s no shortage of manuscripts being thrown towards them. I was saddened the first time I heard that the pile of manuscripts they need to read through was called the “slush pile” – what high esteem they must hold it!. If my work did not attract their attention straight away, it would get tossed for the next one on the pile.
All I’ve learnt about the publishing industry has been garnered from publishers’ and agent’s blogs and websites, and from asking my contacts in the industry. The message is always about professionalism, but every industry has its own jargon and methods. I hope to outline some of what says "professional" in the publishing world in the next few blog entries. Stay tuned....