What Makes a Story Timeless? Emotional Truth

We all want our stories to be read forever. Nobody wants to be shuffled off to the dreaded out-of-print backlist. That’s worse than book death, it’s the purgatory, the nursing home of books; where they put you on life support and no one visits except maybe on special anniversaries or holidays and then they promise to visit more often but never do.

So what can we do to avoid this most horrible of endings for our beloved books?

In every article about him after his death, Sendak’s work was described as “timeless”.

There was much discussion about what makes a story timeless during the SCBWI LA Summer Conference. Many editors and agents were asked this question during panel discussions and most started by saying, “You know it when you see it.”

Arthur Levine even opened up the conference with a keynote address directed at just this topic. He reviewed books from his own list and discussed some of his favorites and what he felt made them timeless.

In the end, he said they all had, “love and connection with another human being.” No matter if he was speaking about The Once and Future King by T H White, The Rough-Face Girl written by Rafe Martin and illustrated by David Shannon, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J K Rowling, or Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathman; they all contain an emotional connection. They all showed an emotional truth.

This idea of emotional truth was a popular one.

Farrin Jacobs, executive editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, said during the Editors Panel that a timeless story was a story that contains the emotional truths of life. She then gave two good examples of this: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Elise Howard, editor and publisher at Algonquin Books for Young Readers, said during the Editors Panel that enduring stories have a core emotional experience that transcends any period of time.

Jordan Brown, senior editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books expanded on this idea: “Ones that contain core experiences like the realization that parents are not infallible/perfect. The tools or environments may change, but the stories don’t.” Those are the ones he connects with.

Laura Godwin, Vice President and Publisher at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, describes a more visceral response, “If I’m so excited I feel sick when I look at it – pleasure and pain.” This received some laughs, but she seemed fairly serious.

Lee Wardlaw, picture book author, responded when asked “What makes a classic picture book?” during the Picture Book Panel: “That’s so hard to say…authenticity that speaks not only to the child but to the adult reader. There have to be layers in it.”

The ever charming and eloquent author/illustrator Eugene Yelchin had this response to the same question: “You cannot NOT be a part of your own moment, but if your writing has the essential human quality.”

Illustrator and author Jon Klassen gave a less tangible response, but one that hit home to several on the Picture Book Panel:

“All my favorites I don’t ever fully understand them. They’re still walking just ahead of me. I still have a crush on them, but I don’t know why. They stay with you.” He gave two examples of these books: Good Night, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Go, Dog, Go! By PD Eastman. “These books don’t make sense, but I love them.”

It all seems so difficult to define and put into a calculated formula; if you have X + Y you’ll get Z, the perfect timeless book!

So what does it mean? Love and connection? Human quality? Authenticity? Core emotional experiences?

It all comes down to connecting through the emotions.

Emotional truth.

Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Gray (and don’t even think about getting it confused with the fifty shades kind) gave one of the most gut-wrenching, heart-felt speeches at the conference. And it was all about emotional truth.

You want to know about timeless? You want to know about emotional truth? Read this woman’s book. Study it. Read it again. Trust me. She’s the goods.

Ms Sepetys made me cry. And I hate to cry in public, as I may have mentioned, but I didn’t care; I couldn’t stop listening to her story. The reason she made me cry is because she asked tough questions and then gave hard answers. I had to dig deeper. I had more work to do.

She asked, “In writing the truth, what’s the price of admission? How much of yourself are you willing to give?”

She wanted to learn more about her own personal story. She knew she was Lithuanian, but she didn’t know what that really meant. She learned that some of her family escaped Stalin’s regime during WWII at the expense of the rest of her family members. When she found out what happened to them, the ones left behind – almost all tortured and killed by Stalin’s men – she wanted to tell their story, to experience as much of their lives as she could so she could tell the whole story. She even subjected herself to an unbearable experience that was supposed to simulate the conditions of the work camps in Siberia. While going through this simulation, she said instead of just finding the truth, she met her own savage self. She felt broken after this experience, but instead of stopping, she poured all out onto the page.

You have to be willing to turn yourself inside-out to reach a reader and bring them peace.

These are emotional truths:

What are you longing for?

What do you hide?

What causes you pain?

What do you wish would go away?

Bring these elements to a character. Make a partnership. There’s a reader out there that feels the exact same way.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The more we open ourselves up and let our characters have full access to the rawest of our emotions, the better rounded our characters will be. It’s not easy to be that vulnerable, but it makes for one hell of a great story – maybe even one that will be timeless.

Markets and Trends; Don’t let them run your writing life, but don’t run away from them either.

“Don’t Write to the Market.” So says writer turned agent Jill Corcoran during her break out session entitled, “Choosing Clients, Agenting their Work and the Evolving Market.

Actually so said just about every editor, agent, writer, and illustrator asked about this subject during the conference. Usually it followed with this next statement: “But be aware of the market”.

CONFUSED?

There is a very important difference.

Oh, yeah, I found some out there.

To be aware of the market, you should be aware of what type of books are currently being published (interpret this as another reason to READ, READ, READ!!!!) if for no other reason, so you’ll know which houses have acquired an abundance of vampire dystopian love stories and not make the mistake of sending your vampire dystopian love story to the house that already has ten on the best sellers’ lists. Give them something they haven’t seen.

You’ll only know this by knowing the market. And if you’ve been studying the market, you’ll know that editors are currently experiencing vampire/dystopian fatigue.

Why?

Because they’ve been flooded with too many manuscripts trying to catch the trends that have already ended. It’s not that they didn’t love these stories, they just probably bought all of the vampire/dystopian manuscripts they wanted years ago. Yes, I did say years ago.

That leads into why you should not write a manuscript slanted toward a certain genre or storyline just to cash in on a current trend you see that’s selling like mad.  Agent Linda Pratt of the Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency explained during the Agent Panel that it takes the average book 14 months to come out AFTER you’ve delivered the FINAL finished product to your editor. That’s over a year! And that’s not after you’ve signed your publishing contract, oh, no! that’s after all of your work on the manuscript is completely done. Talk about a heavy dose of reality. My good friend Barbra Lowell was sitting next to me and whispered to me, as I sat there stunned, that for picture books it’s more like two years.

So one can see that during the months – nay, years sometimes – that it takes you to write your initial first draft, revise it and revise it again, submit your completed polished manuscript to prospective agents or editors, receive that initial publishing agreement, work on the multiple edits for your editor, then finally reach that glorious release day you’ve always dream of, any trend you’ve tried to capture will be long gone.

Write what you love. Write what you are passionate about; write your own story. You have to spend so much time creating it, shouldn’t that time be spent on something you care about? Editor Neal Porter, who works at Roaring Brook Press, discussed in the Editor Panel that every time he’s published a book based on market potential versus really loving a project, “It’s been a disaster”. He suggests to writers that they please themselves and NOT write to the trends.

So what if your own story, the one that you’re truly passionate about, IS a vampire dystopian love story? I might suggest you put it in a drawer  and work on something else for awhile. If you just can’t bring yourself to stop working on it, or if when you come back to it, you still feel that passionate about it, then find a way to make it original. You can start by knowing the market and knowing what’s already out there and for heaven’s sake, do your research. Find that one agent who really, really wants a vampire dystopian love story; don’t send it out to anyone who isn’t asking for it. They’ll reject it so fast it’ll make your head spin and your heart ache.

Author/illustrator Antoinette Portis gave a good example of how to take inspiration from the market and create something new when discussing the market in the Picture Book Panel. She said to, “Be aware of new openings”. She said that when Mo Willems talked directly to the reader in Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus, “It was really abstract. He created a new opening – a new style. It’s great to develop yourself that way”. You cannot copy this, but you can find inspiration from it an adapt it to your own style.

What do you think about writing to the market? Are there any redeeming qualities that the editors and agents overlooked? Are you an avid reader in the genre you are writing?

To help you find some of your own inspiration to write that classic children’s novel, the next post will be about enduring stories and what makes a book timeless. Until then, keep writing!

Are You a Premature Querier?

First of all, I must say that I have been absent from my blogging duties after being knocked down by one nasty summer head cold/sinus infection thing. Why do I always seemed to get the WORST colds in the summer? I wouldn’t know exactly what is was because I don’t like to bother my doctor for things like colds, flus, arms falling off, etc. – only real medical emergencies. I was actually in danger of being dragged into my lovely physician’s office for some serious care as this sickness held on way past it’s welcome – over a week of miserable leaky/stuffy head pain and sleepless nights. (This very whiny writer is ever so glad she married a nurse who loves to take care of her when he isn’t taking care of critically ill patients at the hospital. I’m like a vacation after taking care of actual sick people all day.) Maybe he was being sarcastic…

Anyway, now that I can feed and bathe myself (was that going too far?), a long overdue series of posts has been promised about knowledge tidbits gleaned from THE AMAZING SCBWI conference.

So here we go with post NUMBER ONE. Oh! It’s so exciting!

Speaking of which, THE NUMBER ONE complaint I heard from almost every editor and agent who spoke at the SCBWI LA conference was that writers are sending out their manuscripts too early.

Author and Editor Deborah Halverson echoed this when she reported her findings on the survey of the market:

“Of the unsolicited manuscripts, editors are wading through too many not ready to be submitted.”

I must admit that I myself, am a recovering premature querier.

That’s right! When I first started out on this writer’s journey, the minute I wrote the words, “The End” on my very first novel,  I couldn’t wait to get that newly minted manuscript hot off the printer, into an envelope, and out to the mailbox to be discovered – remember when we mailed queries? If not, don’t tell me. The only thing I discovered was how fast I could receive form rejection letters. Even by snail mail, you can get them pretty damn fast.

When Newberry Award Winner Clare Vanderpool gave her keynote address, she said it took her 16 years to get her first book published. SIXTEEN YEARS!  I’m a little over halfway there, but I still wanted to cry. Then she talked about how during those years, while she was writing her book, Moon Over Manifest, whenever and wherever she could – even at stoplights -  she was also studying her craft, practicing it. She learned that you have to put in the miles. She said one of the major factors for her success was joining a critique group. Sometimes we think what we write is good and it’s not and vice versa. That it’s important to know that what we’re putting out is what we intend.

You should know this before you start submitting your manuscript. You should know if your story flows well and makes sense to unbiased, knowledgeable peers before you blow your one chance with that dream editor or agent. Submit your best, your most polished work. How will you know if this is your best work unless you slow down and put in the time? Unless you get a second or third opinion? Whenever you finish a draft, put it away. Sit with it a few days before you start revising. Re-read it. Revise it. Revise it again. Have trusted readers read it. Revise it again. My good friend Anna Myers says she’d let someone see her first draft as soon as let them see her dirty underwear. You sure as hell don’t want an editor or agent to see your dirty drawers, do you? You know I’m not one for ironing, but I’d probably even iron my underwear before I’d send it to an agent.

Josh Adams of Adams Literary gave this advice to new writers during the Agent Panel: “Do everything you can to be ready, to be polished. There’s such a rush to be published. Do your research. It’s important to find your voice and the voice of an agent who will be an advocate for you.”

There is no hurry. Everyone is waiting for your best.

The only reason I can see for someone to be in a rush is if they are trying to catch a marketing trend and this is another major fallacy that writers should avoid. I will address this in the next post. Until then, keep practicing your craft!

Returning to the Source – I come back from my adventures out west and offer some advice on story beginnings

My first day of the conference, an ecstatic empty vessel, ready to be filled with the words of sages.

To be surrounded by the  kindred spirits of our international SCBWI “tribe” for four days was exactly what I needed. Every speaker added a little more to my depleted well of the creative self deep inside me. I left completely filled up and then some. Many speakers brought me to tears. I hate crying in public, damn it. Still, the tears spilled and inspiration came by the truckload. So much so that I had to just sit with everything for about a week after returning home to let it all soak in before I wrote one word.

Not only did I get to spend five days away from home, meeting new friends, filling my brain up with literary wisdom while surrounded by like-minded individuals, Ialso spent most of my free time with some of my dearest writer friends from our local Oklahoma region of the SCBWI. And what did we do after listening to fabulous speakers all day? Talked more about books and literary stuff! *sigh*

(A very special thank you, thank you, thank you! must go out to my ever-so-patient mate who suffered through countless rounds of questions like ‘where’s mom?’ and ‘when is she coming home?’ and ‘are you sure she didn’t run away for good this time?’ so I could take this much needed journey. You are my rock, and I love you!)

I even talked some of my friends into dancing their butts off with me at the Hippie Hop party on Saturday night. It had been way too long since this mama had dragged her tired self out onto the dance floor. We laughed at ourselves and kept on dancing anyway. Sorry for those of you who had to witness my out of control dance moves, but when the music commands it, you gotta shake it!

Fellow SCBWI’ers getting into the spirit.
Although my roommate Barbara, and crit partner extraordinaire, didn’t “dig” the rap music, she stayed and danced like a trouper.
Me and my Regional RA Assistant Feeling Groovy.

To top it all off, I had the best critique discussion ever with a fantastic agent who wants to see my entire manuscript.  YES! YES! YES!  There was a celebratory dinner in my honor. (Did I mention how much I love my writing friends?)

The week could not have gone any better.

I wish I could share all of the knowledge and insight I learned in detail, but alas, it is forbidden.

FORBIDDEN!

FORBUDT!

VERBOTEN!

I do understand the reasoning. After all, the presentations are the property of the speakers and many of them put so much of themselves into their words, that there is no way I could relay the depth of their presentations here. I can only give brief overviews, a quote here or there, my impressions of the keynote addresses and break out sessions that I attended, and what I learned overall.  Still, I think you’ll find many of these things very enlightening and useful. I shall be spreading this information out over several posts during the next few weeks.

(I don’t want to blow your minds all in one sitting.)

You can also find tons of information about the conference from the official conference blog site here.

To start us off slowly, here’s the first lovely literary tidbit to nosh on:

Several speakers addressed a recurring problem they see with manuscripts they read; the story doesn’t start in the right place.

Either the writer is giving the reader too much history or back story in the beginning of the book or the writer is starting off at a break neck pace, leaping right into an action sequence without allowing the reader to make any connection to the character at all.

Take some time to think about your story and the best possible beginning it could have. Then start where the actual story starts. This may seem like a simple idea, but it’s harder than it may seem. If your story, for example, is about a girl who’s running away from her problems at home, who then lands in even bigger trouble while living on the streets when she crosses paths with a gang of street hustlers, do we need to see the precipitating event? The family dynamic, that drove her from the security of the familiar? Or do we want to jump straight into the action and watch her sneaking out in that first scene? It could be either way. It may depend on what story you are telling and where the story actually starts.

The best beginnings incite questions in your reader.

“What happens next?”

You need to introduce your main character and the conflict of the story as soon as possible without causing confusion and yet at the same time entice  your readers enough to want to turn the next page.  Give them enough set up of the character’s world so that they feel connected to it, but don’t give them so much of an information dump that they struggle to understand what is happening or get bored with a lecture on the history of the Land of Nod or with who begat whom.

If your reader is lost or unable to follow your plot, they will put your book down and cease being your reader. No author wants that.

One of the agents at the conference, Linda Pratt of the Wernick & Pratt agency, suggested that “It can be helpful to re-evaluate an opening line and/or page upon a work’s completion when you know how the whole novel plays out because a good opening sets off the whole work.”

Be flexible (another phrase I heard often) and try moving things around to see what makes the most sense. Figure out where your story truly begins.

That’s something to think about, eh?

I’ve got a ton more planned, so make sure you stop by every few days to see what’s new. By the way, I couldn’t get all 1,244 conference attendees to stand still long enough for a group pic, so here’s a panorama shot of the main ballroom right before a keynote speech. Most of us are in there. Hi, all!

One last thing, I’ve been interviewed – for the first time! – by AG over at Nerd Couture. So if you can’t get enough of me – I certainly can, but there’s no accounting for taste – stop on over and check it out. I’m going to pop over myself just to see what I’ve been whispering behind my back.

So glad to be home!

smile, everyone!

SCBWI LA Here I Come! (and other conference news…)

In less than twenty-four hours I will kiss the hubs and children goodbye and head off to Los Angeles to attend one of my favorite writing events of the year, The Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators Summer conference. I’m so excited that I can hardly think straight! ACK! It’s been four long years since I last attended this mega event. So many events and fabulous speakers – I still haven’t figured out how I’m going to be in two , sometimes three places at once during some of the break out sessions, even with the handy dandy conference phone app they’ve given us this year.(How cool is that, folks? I’ve been uber geeking out for weeks!) With keynotes from Arthur Levine, Tony DiTerlizzi, Ruta Sepetys, Dan Gutman, Clare Vanderpool, and Gary Schmidt, not to mention all the other fabulous editors and agents and authors on the faculty.

I’ve done a lot of pre-reading for the conference and have some more for the plane ride. I have my business cards ready to exchange this time. Pencils sharpened, notebooks ready. I signed up for a one-on-one critique, which is always nerve-wracking and yet very helpful. I have some prepared questions for my interviewer in case we have some extra time after the critique.  I’ve gone over all the conference dos and don’ts in my mind a thousand times.

(DO talk with authors when you bump into them in the elevator or in the Starbucks line and mention how much you enjoyed their presentation, book, etc. DON’T follow Jay Asher up to his room, telling him what a big fan you are. He WILL think that’s creepy.)

Gah! So excited! Did I mention that? I’ve even got my wardrobe planned out for the Hippie Hop Dance and I’ve been practicing my moves for the, oh! shh!…almost gave away the surprise. Yes, I have been unbearable to live with for a few days, now.

What do you do to get ready for a big conference? Are you going to any big writing events this summer?

Don’t despair if  you are watching your budget this year or your schedule just won’t allow for a cross-country trips to attend any of the distance conferences. There is another fabulous conference coming up that everyone can attend in their PJ’s and it is absolutely free! Yes, FREE!

WriteOn Con is two day online conference event that starts August 14th. To sign up for the conference or to learn more about the scheduled events, check out the website here.  They have a faculty of 56 industry professionals participating, including many editors and agents! They even have a convenient Twitter list of the entire faculty that you can subscribe to. The best thing about it is that most of the content stays posted after the scheduled event times, so if you can’t make it to one of the live chats, you can still view the information at your own convenience – wearing whatever you want. Not a bad perk!

Some of the fantastic events they have planned include blog posts, vlogs, live web chats, live forum events with opportunities to show off your queries, pitches, and first pages and even have them reviewed. Also, be on the look out for ninja agents! There’s also a writing contest with a $1000 prize! See details for the contest here.

I will be soaking up the California rays and the invaluable knowledge of the book sages for the next week. See you all back here then!