Quote of the Day

“I was taken out to lunch and offered, with great ceremony, the opportunity to be an editor in the adult department? The implication, of course, was that since I had learned to publish books for children with considerable success perhaps I was now ready to move along (or up) to the adult field. I almost pushed the luncheon table into the lap of the pompous gentleman opposite me and then explained kindly that publishing children’s book was what I did, that I couldn’t possibly be interested in books for dead dull finished adults, and thank you very much but I had to get back to my desk to publish some more good books for bad children.”–Ursula Nordstrom

Currently reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom by Leonard S. Marcus and loving it. Nordstrom worked closely with authors and illustrators like E.B. White, Maurice Sendak, and Shel Silverstein. Pretty awesome career, right? And I love her commitment to children’s literature as a whole, as indicated in the quote above.

(image via Charlotte Zolotow)

Integrated Parts of Story and Removing Stuff You Love

The Horn Book has a fantastic interview with Rebecca Stead about her latest book, Liar & Spy. One part I especially enjoyed:

Roger: So many things worked well not only by being intrinsically interesting, like that taste test Georges’ science class does, which is just fun, but by being integrated parts of the story. Sometimes I’ll see authors throw in – I say throw in, which is disparaging; that’s how it feels to me – but it seems like someone has put his or her own little pet project or idea into a story but really hasn’t made it part of that story. Whereas I feel like you did.

Rebecca: I do believe there’s a great temptation to throw things in, as you put it, that you think are neat, or that you have a very clear, specific memory of and think you could do a good job writing about. What I find is that it’s like a seed you plant. You can try it, and if it will grow and connect with other ideas in the book, and you can see connections that you can actually realize on the page, then you’re allowed to leave it in. But if it just kind of lies there and doesn’t really add up to anything or there’s no chemistry with everything else going on in the book, then you have to take it out. I had a couple of things I tried to force into this book that just lay there.”

I think a lot of writers can related to this, especially at the first conception of a book vs. the final product. Trusted readers tell you that X just isn’t working or they’re not sure why it’s there. You argue. “No!” you say. “This is for real reasons!” But usually it’s just because you love the idea so much, and the story doesn’t really benefit from that extra page count.

The good news is that none of that X you loved needs to go away forever. Maybe it’s not right for this project, but keep it in your back pocket for something else.

Style Manuals Clash Over Titles

Whether in high school English class or on your blog, I’m sure you’ve run into this question: how do you indicate book titles? Are you supposed to underline them? Italicize? Put them in quotation marks? Make them sparkle?

The answer is…debatable. And you thought grammar was all about hard and fast rules. 😉

I tend to go with the Chicago Manual of Style on most grammar-related questions, so I italicize. But AP claims you should use quotation marks. So far I haven’t come across any style manual that suggests sparkles, but I’ll keep looking.

How do you denote titles?

Book Pricing and What’s Behind It

In all this debate over what e-books should cost, here’s an interesting look at what consumers think. Many people (understandably) can’t see why an e-book should cost almost as much as a hard copy of the same book.

But it’s not as simple as “there’s no paper so it should cost way less.” A publisher still needs to pay the author (hurray for writers getting money!) and pay the salaries of everyone working on the book (editors, marketers, graphic designers, etc.). Even though you’re not paying for physical assembly and shipping, there’s still a lot that goes into making a book. As someone who’s worked in publishing, I have to agree that making a book involves much more than putting pages together, and the people doing that work (which is necessary for both e-books and hard copies) deserve to be paid fairly.

Does that mean the debate about e-book pricing is over? Not even close. But I think it’s good to keep in mind that just because it’s digital doesn’t mean there was no effort in the creation process.

Writing the First Five Pages

Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing is hosting a First Five Pages Workshop, where you can read the first five pages of someone’s manuscript and offer them helpful suggestions for revision. They also share some good points to keep in mind when writing/reading the first five pages of a novel, such as:

“Are there enough grounding details to make the story feel real and alive? Is there enough introspection and connection to the main character? Too much? Is there enough dialogue? Too much?”

Those first five pages can be tough to write, so make sure to check out the full list.

Once in my writers group, someone mentioned that the first chapter of a novel teaches the reader how to approach the rest. What are you “teaching” your reader in those first five pages? Ideally, it should be similar in tone to the rest of the novel and touch on major characters/settings.

What are your tips for the first five pages?

Great Editors Still Want Great Writers

Editorial friends: ever wish you could have been the person to work on books by JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Tomie dePaola, Jerry Spinelli, and more? Arthur Levine has you beat. Check out this fantastic interview with him about his experience as an editor and how a hopeful writer can approach the world of publishing. A few nice points:

OLSWANGER: Do fiction editors want to find new writers?
LEVINE: Sure. The lists get full, but there’s always room for a new, special voice. There’s nothing more exciting than coming across that. I can’t imagine a point where I will have covered every possible form of great writing, not only serious literary fiction but humorous literary fiction, fiction from many different cultures, and mysteries, and . . . you know, there’s so many genres and so many types! I can’t imagine a time when I would have a writer that is the last word in every possible form of writing. There’s always going to be room for somebody new.

OLSWANGER: You’ve worked with many writers over the years. In your opinion, how does a writer grow?
LEVINE: I think writers grow by pushing themselves to be more honest and revealing about themselves in their work. They grow by reading and turning outward, not by turning inward and becoming self-referential. The writer who says, “Oh, I only concentrate on my own writing–I don’t read other people’s books” is missing out on the opportunity to be exposed to new voices and approaches that help one grow. And taking risks. That’s another way that writers grow.

OLSWANGER: Do you believe good writing always gets published?
LEVINE: “Always” is too strong a word because nothing happens always. But I think if a person is determined, smart and professional enough, in addition to having that piece of writing, then they have a great chance of getting published. A person who has a truly original piece of writing will have their choice of opportunities. With enough persistence, they will wind up getting published.

Overall, I think there’s a lot of hope in this interview for upcoming writers. Rowling and Pullman may be great, but even Levine is excited about what’s next. Make sure to check out the rest of the interview, too!

Editorial Eye

When I was an English major, people would ask me, “So are you going to teach?” I’d tell them that teaching is an entirely different skill (there’s a whole different degree for it!) and just because you like reading or writing doesn’t mean you can teach it or any other subject. On the same wavelength, editing is an entirely different skill from writing. A lot of times the two overlap, but getting an editorial eye on your work is a huge benefit.

Over at Writer Unboxed, Juliet Marillier talks about why editors are important. It’s one thing to be able to write a novel. It’s another to be able to write a good novel. And even if you can write the most stunningly beautiful novel on your own, usually having another pair of thoughtful, critical eyes helps a lot. As Marillier says:

“I mention this because, of recent times, social media sites and other forums have seen a rise in scathing comments about traditional publishing houses, mostly coupled with pro self-publishing arguments. People who make those derogatory comments generally disregard the huge amount of support a traditional publishing house offers a writer, and completely overlook the critical role an editor plays in helping that writer produce the best book she can.

Folks, whether you are self-published or mainstream published, please understand that producing that ‘best book’ includes having the manuscript professionally edited. Yes, there are some readers out there who won’t notice (or who will forgive) your clunky prose, your typos, your misuse of words, your flaws in continuity, your gaps in logic, your weirdly random choice of character names. Maybe errors in your work don’t bother you. They will bother the majority of your readers. Get your ms properly edited. A good editor is worth her weight in gold.”

That doesn’t mean that you have to wait until you’re published to get a kind of editorial look. Obviously a professional editor has a lot of experience and talent, but even writerly friends can help catch mistakes or offer helpful advice. Anything you can do to polish your novel is worth it, and a sharp editor can help immensely. Ideally, your editor would also make you excited about your manuscript and any necessary revisions. They can give you all the suggestions in the world, but you need to craft them into an even better novel.

Punctuation Fans, Unite!

I’m a punctuation nut. When others argue against the Oxford comma or the semicolon, I get personally offended. So I love this list of 14 punctuation marks you might not have heard of. (If you’re in the writing/editing world, I bet you can pick out at least a couple.)

The Exclamation Comma. Finally, a way for me to express excitement without ending a sentence! The Snark is also wickedly delightful, but I think I’d end up using it too often.

Which punctuation mark is your favorite?

Promises and Why We Needed Jack

Over at Kidlit.com, Mary Kole has an excellent post about what a writer should promise in the beginning of a novel, and how he/she can deliver on that promise. So often writers start off with some background information and don’t get to the real story until several pages (or chapters) in. But the beginning should be just as much a part of the real story as the rest of the book, instead of just a dumping ground for information about a character’s “normal life.” Kole says:

“If you have to start in a normal setting, at least drop hints. If yours is a ghost story, make your character see eerie shadows that disappear when she looks them head-on. If there are going to be dragons, you better let us know that this is a world that has dragons in it (a news report about dragon shortages playing in the background would be a cliche, but I hope you understand what I mean). If your character will be going on a long journey, drop subtle hints and foreshadowing, like briefly describing walking shoes piled by the door. Whatever. Just think about your story — the core of it, the plot, the arc — and then make sure that the beginning either starts with it or strongly suggests it.”

A lot of times, I think this is a mistake we make in a first draft. You’re just getting to know the characters, so you want to ease into the major conflict. That’s fine, but you’ll need to go through major edits when you start revising. And if you include information early on, make sure they function as part of the larger story. It’s frustrating to spend fifty pages with your main character’s neighbor only to have him disappear and never return. Early on in a book (or movie or play), we want to latch onto characters or places. We need to be invested. If that character or place suddenly vanishes, it’s hard to trust the author.

My husband and I were talking about this the other day in relation to the TV show Lost. The first season in particular is excellent, but originally the writers had planned to introduce one of the main characters, only to kill him off at the end of that episode. It would have been a shock to the audience, but it might have also caused viewers to distrust the writers. At that point, I’m not sure I would have wanted to invest so much time and effort into characters we could lose so quickly. Obviously people died in Lost, but we had enough grounding to understand why those deaths mattered.

I would promise that I don’t watch so much TV, but I really do.

Beginnings require a lot of precision. You need to build a whole world and cast of characters, while still providing a reason for your readers to continue while not bogging them down with information. Again, I think a lot of this can get cleared up in revisions, if you’re willing to make major cuts.

What do you focus on when you start a new story? (image: Lostpedia)