Read, Read, READ!!! A Writer Gets Back on her Soapbox…but this time she’s called in some backup.

For those all of those aspiring children’s writers out there who still think they can write an authentic manuscript that kids will enjoy reading without ever cracking open a single middle grade or YA book themselves, think again. Consider reading as your new homework. Some books are master classes on the art of writing all by themselves. For those of us really obsessed nerdy types who actually enjoy reading, this is one of the best parts of our job. The rest of you need to trudge through it and do the work, even if you don’t like it.

You don’t  have to take my word for it; the importance of reading was another resounding theme during the SCBWI LA Summer Conference.  The overall message? If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Period. It was stated over and over throughout the weekend. READ! Read everything!

Karen Cushman, author of the Newbery Award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice, gave a wonderful keynote address about courting surprise. It was all about how we can find inspiration; the magic that turns words and pictures into a story.

Be curious, be aware, be open.

This applies to so many aspects of the writer’s life – look for accidental repetitions, images in your drafts, go for a walk, daydream. As it applies to reading, Cushman said it was important not only to read many, many books – “Read 100 books, read 1000 books, like what you want to write” – but also to read diverse topics. She said she reads as many books about writing as she does about dieting.  If you really enjoy a book, ask yourself why you love it.

I would also add read diverse genres. Although you should definitely read the most books in the genre for which you want to write, you should read outside of your area as well. The more diverse the creative influences, the bigger the pool to draw from for inspiration.

Clare Vanderpool, author of the Newbery Award winner Moon Over Manifest, discussed how universal the need for stories is in her keynote speech. She said, “We learn more not by dissecting books but by immersing ourselves in stories. We all have this need for a connection to story. It is through stories that we find our bearings.”

I loved this. Story immersion? Sign me up. Emotional connection? Ah, I’m yours for life.

As a writer, I find I don’t always have to analyze every story I enjoy to see why it works, what plot devices were used to move it along at the right pace. The more I read, the more I intuitively absorb how a good story should ebb and flow. My writing reflects this for the most part. If something’s not right with a manuscript – mine or a critic partner’s – it usually starts with a gut reaction of something feeling off.

Ari Lewin, editor at GP Putnam’s Sons, discussed during a breakout session that she could detect a writer’s level of skill and competency from a query as well as how much they read.“All of you should be reading so much! Sometimes I read things and can tell that you’re not reading.”

That just blew me away. My writing could show that I’m not reading enough? Like a writer’s DNA map spelling out all my faults? Yikes. I felt naked just sitting in the room with her. I wanted to cover up with a big fat copy of Anna Karenina.

Jill Corcoran, agent with the Herman Agency, when answering a question during the Agent Panel about the path she would recommend for a new, unskilled writer said, “You have to learn your craft. If you read a lot of books, you will discover your own voice.”

What a concept, eh? Read enough books and you’ll find your own voice? I love it! Are you a writer who struggles with voice? Ask yourself if you’re reading enough. (I know, I know, I talked about voice ad nauseum in the last post, but if you’re one who’s struggling with voice, maybe this is something that could help.)

Eugene Yelchin, illustrator and author of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose, expanded on this point a bit during the Picture Book Panel. When discussing the issue of trends in picture books, he said,“When you read tons of books, research them and say, ‘Can I be a part of that?’ It’s still you.”

I thought that was an interesting point. Even if you read tons of books, research them and figure out what makes them tick, when you go to write your own books, what comes out will be all your own; your own story told in your own voice, filtered through your own unique experiences. It all goes back to:

Be curious, be aware, be open …and read!

Okay, okay, so I’ve brow-beaten you into wanting to read – have I got any suggestions?

Of course! I have a whole page all about the books I’ve read so far this year.

There were also several book suggestions that I managed to scribble down furiously during the conference:

  • Editor Farrin Jacobs was discussing characteristics of enduring stories and she recommended The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall and The Giver by Lois Lowry as stories with emotional truths of life.
  • Editor Neal Porter gave First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger as an example of an enduring story.
  • Three books that influenced author/illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi were The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, Peter Pan and Wendy by James M Barrie, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Editor Krista Marino recommended The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan as having one of the most captivating first pages she’s ever read. She also recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn as an adult novel with great tension, a real page turner.
  • Agent Linda Pratt touted Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby as YA version of Water for Elephants. She gave it as an example of the type of realistic fiction she is looking for.
  • Clare Vanderpool recommended Mystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor – an essay collection on writing.
  • Editor Ari Lewin recommended Chime by Franny Billingsley as an example of what she’s looking for. She also mentioned the following as pleasure reads: The Passage by Justin Cronin, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles, The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, and The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart.

What about you? Do you have any reading suggestions?

#writemotivation month check in…and Things Beginning Writers Don’t Know

Header image and thumbnail photograph by Hugh Lee and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sahlgoode/

Hooray! I’m so excited it’s another #writemotivation month! Not just because I’ve got some serious goals to get through and I’m going to need a LOT of cheering and cookies to get through them, but because last month was wrought with pitfalls and illnesses and too much time away from these wonderful people who help me stay focused and laugh while keeping my outlook positive.

On to the goals!

1. Finish revision suggestions for interested agent and send off my FULL manuscript as soon as humanly possible. This is for my YA manuscript that I’ve been working on and submitting for the past few months. I had an amazing face to face critique in LA – just such a wonderful conversation with this agent –  I want to get it right and send her my absolute best.
2 .Finish up novel revisions on my Middle Grade manuscript for November workshop and mail off copies to my group. DONE.
3. Read through manuscripts received from my group for the novel revision workshop. Received the last one this week. Will take my time with these.
4. Continue first draft of new YA WIP. I want to keep working on something else once I’ve sent off my full manuscript so this will most likely be a goal I start near the end of the month.
5. Exercise at least four times a week – yeah, it’s time to step it up another day.

How are you all doing with your goals?

I’m also supposed to work on marketing ideas for my YA novel. The agent gave me some pitch idea homework I need to figure out. I’m constantly thinking about that, mulling ideas over in my head.  And a new title for my book. Apparently Institutionalized may not grab the attention of the average teen browsing the shelves. One should never get too attached to one’s working title. I’ve got some ideas I’m kicking around, but none that really wow me, yet.

This reminds me of some other things that I learned at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference that I wanted to share. A little segment I want to call…

Things Beginning Writers Don’t Know:

The first thing that beginning writers don’t know about how the acquisitions process works.

We all may know that it is hard to get published, but what beginning writers may not know is that even when an editor loves a manuscript and wants to buy it, they don’t always get to say “yes” right away. There’s this process called acquisitions that most manuscripts have to go through. Although each house is different, most publishing houses hold acquisitions meetings about twice a month. The editor must send out a proposal for the manuscript they want to buy, along with the manuscript, in advance of the meeting, as well as something called a profit and loss statement. This is “advanced algebra in a horrible excel spreadsheet” as Ari Lewin, editor at GP Putnam, described it and it spits a figure, projecting how much the house can expect to make on the book.

At the acquisitions meeting, everyone involved in saying “yes” gathers to review all the potential manuscripts. At some houses, this could be as many as twenty people including heads of imprints, editors, associate editors, the art director, the publisher, someone from marketing, sales, and publicity, etc. It takes a short time to say “no”. The books right on the edge are the hardest to decide on and may require more discussion and more meetings.

To learn more about acquisitions, I’d suggest reading Harold Underdown’s excellent article entitled “The Acquisitions Process” originally published in The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market back in 2010. He even shows what a sample acquisitions proposal looks like.

The second thing beginning writers don’t know is that they should be prepared to deliver EVERY YEAR after their first book is published.

Josh Adams, agent at Adams Literary, said this in the Agent Panel and went on to explain that there is a higher demand on writers; an increase on demand in social media, with school visits. You will also be expected to be active in marketing.

Jill Corcoran, agent at the Herman Agency, echoed this sentiment and added, “Books are coming out faster.”

Linda Pratt, agent with Wernick & Pratt Agency, expanded the discussion to talk about how second book choices for new writers are even more important than their first. Second book choices need to be weighed carefully. “You can’t always write the more obscure book or whatever you want – what you’re passionate about. You have to be a little more pragmatic. You have to consider your sales track.” Publishing houses are less likely to take a risk on an author whose first book sold poorly unless their second book shows more sales potential.

So think about how long it has taken you to perfect this current work that you are submitting to agents. Two years? Five? Do you have other projects you are working on while you are submitting? Are you thinking ahead about your next writing project? You should be.

The third thing beginning writers don’t know is how small the publishing world is, and that being unprofessional can close doors.

Josh Adams said during the Agent Panel that, “We see a lot of unprofessionalism out there and people burn bridges. The worst thing a client can do is close doors.”

Jill Corcoran seconded this: “You cannot bad mouth editors (or others in the industry) online. Be careful.” She suggested that you untag yourself from unprofessional pictures on Facebook or other social media and delete any negative content.

It DOES hurt to be rejected, but it happens to all of us. Remember that this is a business and conduct yourself accordingly. The publishing world IS very small; negative and unprofessional behavior does get noticed and word is easily spread.

The fourth and final tidbit of wisdom I am imparting to new writers is…you won’t earn a lot of money.

Shocker. But you’re not in this for the money, right? You write because you have to, because it’s your passion. If not…there’s your cue to exit.

As Josh Adams said, “You shouldn’t expect that you can quit your day job.” He also said that you should look at your career long term. School visits and multiple rights that a good agent should help you maximize can add to your income.

Jill Corcoran also said something really important: “The advance is not the end-all. You want to get to the royalties.”

So what does she mean? Don’t we all dream of that big, fat advance?

The advance is just a promise.

A bet.

A bet against how many copies you will sell.

You don’t start really making money until you sell more than that original promise. And what about your next book? You have to think about your career long-term, remember? If you DON’T sell enough copies of your first book to meet that promise, that advance, you’re going to have a much harder time getting the second book sold. The goal is to sell enough copies to get to the royalties. That’s where things really start to pay off. That shows the publishing world that you are worth betting on; you are worth the risk.

To recap; publishing is slow, painful, it asks you to work your ass off without always loving you back, (It really IS like raising a child) and it doesn’t always bring you riches. You have to do it because you love it, because you’re passionate about it, and because you’re in it for the long haul.

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!