Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What's LOVE got to do with it?

I've seen a lot of people online opine recently that agents who say they are looking for something they "love" are basically idiots. Agents shouldn't be looking for something they LOVE - what are they, giggling teenagers? This is a BUSINESS! Etc.

I also got an email response to a rejection today that basically said the same thing (though much more nicely) and, while it was not meant in a bad way, it was surprising to me. Very nice writer, nothing against them, but the fact is, I take on so few projects, out of thousands of submissions. Damn straight I have to love them.

As a writer, you write things that you love and are fascinated by, no? Isn't that one of the glorious things about being a writer? You might have unsteady income, you might not know if the next thing will sell, you might win the lotto with one project and strike out with the next... but you still get to write the stories you are passionate about. Sure you might make some concessions for "the market" - or sometimes you might be a 'pen for hire' and need to suit the company you're writing for - but you can still decide NOT to write something that makes you miserable, if you want.

You wouldn't spend a year or more writing and revising some project you don't believe in or enjoy (especially with no guarantee you'd  get paid for it!) unless you were a masochist. I'm not a masochist. I'm in the business I'm in specifically because I love books, and I love the freedom to choose the projects I work on and rep the stuff I love. If I wanted to work hard on something I don't enjoy, I could get paid more for it in another line of work.

Anyway, would you really want an agent who DOESN'T love your writing? Really? Come on. If I don't believe in a project or an author, I can't be an effective advocate for it. Full stop.

Thing is, of course, the things I love and the things I think I can sell tend to be one and the same. And in my career (knock wood) my intuition about the sort of projects I should take on has been very right.  FOR ME. That is no reflection about what the greater world will think, or what any other editor or agent will think. I absolutely would have turned down TWILIGHT or 50 SHADES or DA VINCI CODE, with no regrets... because it would have been a misery for me to work on them. I'm glad they exist, I'm not jealous of their success... they just aren't for me.

I'm going to quote myself because I've said it before :
For me, rejections and acceptances are entirely down to my personal weird quirky taste, and the fact that I only take on three or so new things a year. Very occasionally there is some concrete point I can give the author, and I try to do so when it is easy to see. But I advise against replying to a rejection with a plaintive "Whyyy??", because you probably won't like the answer: "I didn't like it enough."

Which totally sounds mean, right? But think about it this way: I also don't like the color yellow. Or the flavor of clove. Or Irish Wolfhounds. Or the way birds legs look like dinosaur legs. Or messy food. Or summertime. So what? Are any of those things bad? No! They just aren't for me.
So there. While I do agree it's a business, and I want to find the things that I think will do well... I also really do think that any publishing endeavor is much more likely to be successful if everyone involved is invested in the project. What do you think? Could you work on something you don't care for?  Would you? Ugh.



Monday, October 22, 2012

The "D" Word

Picture books are often rejected for being "overly didactic." This is a word that gets thrown around a lot by agent-and-editor types, and I know if you aren't familiar, it might sound sort of harsh and insulting (particularly since, as I said, it is normally coupled with a rejection) -- so just what does it mean when an editor or an agent says Didactic?

It isn't meant as an insult. Didactic just means "intending to teach a lesson." (The word is also kin with "moralistic" - which is of course "intending to teach a MORAL lesson.") These words can have a negative connotation (like if I were to say "my neighbor came over and hollered at me for playing rock music instead of hymns - what a moralistic jerk")... but neither of them is inherently a negative word.

They are just negative words to an agent or editor because they are so very rarely are used in the same breath as "HOT!" "HILARIOUS!" "WOW!" or "AWESOME!"

Many stories are meant to be didactic or moralistic. Fables are meant to teach a lesson (and in fact that lesson or moral is very clearly spelled out at the end!) Some nursery stories, rhymes and famous old tales are meant to teach a specific lesson. Some sorts of modern "issue books" (like HANDS ARE NOT FOR HITTING or HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES or DOG HEAVEN or MIND YOUR MANNERS, BB WOLF or even EVERYBODY POOPS) are meant to leave the audience with a specific message at the end. Some of these books are so successful at their job that they are at this point classics and will be found in nearly every bookstore or library, and stay in print for ages.

These stories definitely have their place.

That "place" is usually one shelf in the bookstore or library. Probably labeled "special issues." 

While the demand for them might be consistent, it is also comparatively rather small, which means they can be tough to sell unless they are REALLY well done, and the advances may be on the low side. The exception might be for a book by a well-established author or illustrator, or something featuring an already popular character, or on a "hot topic" possibly that can break it out of niche-ville... but I digress. The point is, because the market for them is limited, I believe very few (if any) agents would ever say that they are ACTIVELY SEEKING didactic picture book texts.

So if agents aren't looking for "teachy" -- what ARE they looking for?

Stories that are intended to entertain and delight first and foremost. Punchy, funny, warm-hearted texts, preferably featuring a great, kid-friendly main character. If funny isn't your thing, hopefully you've mastered beautifully spare and elegant writing. (Even straight-up nonfiction should be a joy and a pleasure to read!)

Hey, if the character has some entertaining experience and happens to learn a lesson or two organically along the way, fine, but the book should be about the EXPERIENCE -- if the resulting lessons overpower the story, that's a problem.

And if your query SAYS the book "is meant to teach a lesson about ______", that's a huge red flag that signals amateur.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

BUSHMAN LIVES!

HEY!  YOU THERE! PAY ATTENTION, THERE'S A NEW PINKWATER BOOK OUT:

Bushman Lives! tells the tale of Harold Knishke, an ordinary Chicago kid with a special place in his heart for Bushman, the famed departed gorilla of the Lincoln Park Zoo (who now lives in the Field Museum in Chicago).

After a chance encounter at the art museum, Harold decides to change his life. He's not going to be some schlub schoolkid - he's going to be a Great Artist. Also, he's going to figure out why and how he became the object of a famous folk song. Along the way he'll run into magic and mystery and some very weird people.

In his very nice BoingBoing review, Cory Doctorow wrote: "Bushman Lives is, more than anything, a book about art, and a very good one. I'd read Pinkwater all day long even if his absurdist fairy tales were nothing more than odd little stories, but as Bushman Lives proves, Pinkwater's absurdism is a delivery system for profound and important insight that stay with you for years and decades" 

Here's the thing about Daniel Pinkwater's books. You have no idea what will be in them. You may know how normal stories unfold, and often while reading you can predict what will happen next and even how the whole thing will come out. I promise you THAT IS NOT THE CASE HERE.

This story will come at you from all angles like some sort of literary starburst. You'll find yourself thinking about it long after it is over. You'll realize after the fact that some of the things you found most absurd in the book are, in fact, totally true. You'll begin to see coincidences and strange occurrences everywhere around you. It may even change the way your mind works forever.

Enjoy. Have fun. Relax. Don't be too freaked out.

BUSHMAN LIVES!


Saturday, October 06, 2012

Author Event Tips: THE READING (of dooooom!)

I've hosted a LOT of bookstore events over the years, and while most authors do fine, there is still a lot of angst about the reading portion of the event. Authors can be shy-boots or nervous-nellies who are amazing at strutting their stuff on the page, but are afraid to read aloud in front of people.

Deep breathing helps, as does finding friendly faces in the audience and trying to talk to them, as does practicing at home. But there is also something technical you can do beforehand to make sure you are totally prepared and ready to bring the awesome.

One of the biggest problems when reading aloud is that when people are nervous and confused, they rush. If you are rushing, mumbling or fumbling, you will lose your audience. This EXCELLENT advice on slowing down was given to me by the very sensible Bella Stander, founder of Book Promotion 101. (For the record, Bella herself got this advice from her son's bar mitzvah coach. So it is not only useful, but approved by G-d!)

MAKE A READING BINDER
 
* Decide the section(s) you want to read ahead of time.  90% of authors seem to be seeing their books for the first time when they are asked to read. Confusion reigns - what should I read? Where should I start? What who where wha???!  Remember, your goal here is to get people to buy the book, not just read it aloud to them - short and sweet is better than long and disjointed, and it's GREAT to end the section with a cliffhanger "and then what happens?" moment.

* Type this selection (or cut and paste) into a clean document.
This will also give you the opportunity to edit anything you don't want to include - like if there are references to something that the audience won't understand at this point, or story spoilers. You don't want to have to interrupt your own reading to explain what so-and-so meant by such-and-such, and the audience won't know or care that you skipped a bit.

* Make the font BIG - 18 point type or so, and give each paragraph its own page. The big font and space means you'll be able to see very clearly, you'll be able to look at the audience more and keep your notes further from your face, and you'll be forced to slow down to at least go to a new page between paragraphs.

* Now take these pages and put them in plastic sleeves in a loose-leaf binder, and read from THAT. 
The binder and plastic sleeves mean the notes won't get mixed up and you won't have to fumble for the section you want, and it will be ready for you at a moment's notice... and use anti-glare plastic in case there's a spotlight on you at a podium.

Personally, I love it when people read a few SHORT selections, as I tend to drift off/get bored after a few minutes of straight reading.  Luckily, your nifty new Reading Binder can include a variety of selections from the book. Also, if there are fans who know your work well in the audience, you might consider not just reading from the new book, but also giving a sneak peek at whatever you are working on next -- no spoilers of course, but teases can be great fun.

Now go make that binder - don't forget to breathe - and happy eventing!