What’s up, procrastinators? If we’re all getting down like they do in Iceland this year, it’s time to zip down to your local independent bookstore, or big chain even. They will love to have your business, and your loved ones will be delighted to have a reason to ignore their families for an hour or so. (Just me?) Here are some last minute gift recs. You can pay me back in reading time.

Picture books: Got a 3-5 year old looking for some quality cuddle time? Try these.

The Thing About Yetis by Vin Vogel is a warm, charming book about that moment when we collectively decide winter stinks.

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton for that kid in your life who can’t get enough fart jokes.

Waiting by Kevin Henkes is a great choice for a quiet kid with a sentimental streak.

The Twelve Days of Christmas by Laurel Long has each of the previous gifts hidden in the stunning illustrations, and they are REALLY hard to find.

Middle Grade: for the older-ish kids who want to read on their own, or still like you to read to them.

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley weaves magic with real life, and has some incredibly memorable characters. Plus the package is gorgeous.

Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee is like a classic that just appeared on shelves this year. Full color illustrations, a firefly who wants to go to the moon, and a cricket who wants to play baseball, a real treasure.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is a Christmas story at its heart, and of course, was turned into that movie Home. But the book is way funnier.

Young Adult: books for teenagers and cool grownups.

Tracked by Jenny Martin will satisfy that Star Wars fan looking for more ass-kicking girls on interplanetary adventures. Plus racing!

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby is something exceptionally weird and cool.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson is the kind of graphic novel you keep thinking about way after it’s finished.

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle is the book that made me try to pay for coffee with my Metrocard because I couldn’t be bothered to take my head out of it for even a second.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is what I got for my own parents. Fantasy and criminals, what more can you ask for, really?



Too Soon!

Oh, the excitement of a manuscript request! An agent or editor has shown interest in the work you’ve labored over for so long and nothing could be better! But instead of the contract you were hoping for, they send editorial notes for revision.

The best thing you can do, while you have their interest, is to dash off your edits as quickly as possible and make sure all their questions are answered before they forget about you, right? Preferably overnight, and no more than three days, yeah?


I hear from editors and agents all the time who spend days, weeks, possibly even months, reading and considering a manuscript, thinking hard about ways in which to fix it.  And then a writer turns around and sends it back in less than a week. Pub pros, can I get a collective AAARGH?

This is frustrating for a few reasons, but here are my top two:

  1. It seems like you haven’t spent any time digesting my notes, or letting my ideas simmer and gel with your ideas. I cannot believe you’ve made the most thoughtful revision in a day or two. I’m glad you’re eager, but I’m bummed that you’re not being careful.
  1. Once something is off my desk, I’ve breathed a sigh of “done!” and moved on to other things. So when that thing appears again immediately, it’s like those effing birthday candles you can’t blow out. Just like I want you to spend some time apart from your manuscript to be able to approach it with fresh eyes, my eyes also need freshening. Plus the 50 other things I’m working on also need my attention.

I’ll paraphrase every writer ever: There is no writing, only rewriting.

Nothing brilliant is dashed off in an hour. You may want something to be finished, but more, you need to want it to be perfect. I’m a firm believer in putting a draft away for a week or two before digging back in. Let yourself forget what’s in there, and take the time to imagine how your story will look with new ideas implemented before putting fingers to keys. And if you think what you wrote in the last hour is gorgeous flawlessness, put it away for a week. You might find some flaws when you return. Revise. And then sit quietly and twiddle your thumbs for a bit. Then re-read and revise again. Then read out loud to your cat and revise again. THEN send it back.

Agents and editors aren’t going to forget you. You’re not going to lose the attention of a truly interested pro if you take the time to write smartly and considerately.

Let your email garner a “Yay, it’s here!” instead of a groan of “But I just sent those no-ho-hooootes.”

Q 4 U: Page Count

When I get queries saying a book is 9 pages, I wonder if that means book pages or manuscript pages. And if you mean manuscript pages, do you mean it’s 9 pages of 12 point font, double spaced? Or do you mean you’ve set it in 36 point, with one sentence per page because that’s how picture books look?

This is why agents and editors prefer word count as a guideline in queries. Because then if you tell me your picture book is 3,700 words, I don’t have to think too hard before I understand that it’s way too long.

No Frills Book Review: Challenger Deep (Audio)

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman won the National Book Award this year for Young People’s Literature, and it totally deserved to. What a complicated delve into the mind of a kid first dealing with mental illness.

This review is for the audio book, specifically, which was voiced marvelously by Michael Curran-Dorsano. He not only got all the nuance of being a teenager without overacting it, but he also managed eight or nine different accents and voices, all believably and entertainingly well. (He mispronounces Calliope many times, and he almost lost me because of it, but when he gets it right you want to give a small cheer.)

It’s kind of a long listen, but so well done you won’t notice eight hours passing. After hearing the audio, I can’t imagine reading it without the bonus and layers of all the different voices. The narrator brings so much extra to the story, instead of just a straight reading, which is the best reason to audio-it-up.

Available at your local library, or through Audible.

Get to Know: Bechdel-Wallace

I recently read something with the insult, “A girl would do better.” And before that, this same week, I read a scene with a bunch of kids competing, and it was specified, “There is only one girl.” The girl did not have a name, nor was she given any discernible characteristics.

Please, come close. Take my hand. Lean closer. IT IS TWENTY FREAKING FIFTEEN. We are five minutes away from 2016, and we still have writers using girl as an insult and begrudgingly including them in crowd scenes.

Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and a million other things you should read, first included the test (which she attributes to her friend Liz Wallace) in her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. The test is simple: A movie must have 1. at least two women in it who 2. talk to each other about 3. something other than a man.

The same should go for books, and I shouldn’t even have to say that. I’m shaking my fist in the air right now! Most of you do a great job including all kinds of different humans in your manuscripts. But I do read plenty of “boy YA” (and for the record, I love YA that features boys as MC. Often, I prefer it.) which is about a boy who loves a really flat girl (character-wise…usually she has other non-flat attributes) for no better reason than she smiled at him and is hot. Or the girl is there to be the nag. Or the motherly type. Or the tomboy. It doesn’t really matter how boy-centric your story is, it’s really, really not too much to ask that it has two girls in it who talk to each other about something other than a boy. If you have to force yourself to include two girls, GOOD. DO IT.

If I catch any of your work not passing the Bechdel-Wallace test, you can count on an automatic delete. I just don’t accept any of your excuses. (Obviously there are exceptions based on concept, like Maze Runner, but concept shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not have girls. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.*)


*Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Etymology and the Great British Bake Off

I, like very many people, love the Great British Bake Off. Have you seen it? It’s the coziest reality show you’ll ever see. Some amateur bakers gather in a tent in a field and compete by making biscuits and suet pies and sponge and saying nice things to each other. The judges are a darling tiny woman named Mary Berry, and a total fox who is supposed to be mean, but isn’t really, named Paul Hollywood. The hosts are these two women, probably known in the UK, but just familiar to me as those funny ladies in weird blazers.

The show has been causing a quiet storm in the US. I was first told about it in 2014, and I thought I and the friend who mentioned it were the only two people watching. This year, I heard many more voices chiming in about how charming it was. There are two seasons available on PBS, if you want to get in on it. (Do NOT be fooled by the Great Holiday Baking Show on ABC, which is the American version. While identical in structure, theme music, and Mary Berry, it’s really lacking that je ne sais quoi of the original. Sorry Nia Vardalos.)

I thought the two seasons were it, but it turns out, those are seasons 5 and 6 and there are FOUR other seasons we haven’t gotten to see in the US! But I have some sneaky friends with bit torrent skillz and large Dropbox accounts who are willing to share. (To the internet police: Um. What?) The first season had a totally different structure, and by all accounts, I’m the only one who loved it. Instead of staying put in the same garden week to week, the giant oven-filled tent and its bakers traveled Great Britain, and the funny ladies in weird blazers interviewed historians about where these Great British baking traditions originated and how they became popular and enduring.

It’s fascinating!

For instance, I learned last week that French boudin (sausage) and English pudding probably come from the same root. And this makes total sense when you learn that a pudding was not the sticky toffee or plum thing we think of today, but black and white pudding, which are actually boiled sausages. Just think, without haggis, we might not have Snack Pack pudding cups.

So, there’s your first little etymology lesson. Courtesy of a funny lady in a weird blazer (the blonde one. I don’t wear blazers).

A Tip!

You: I should probably use a fun font for my query, maybe comic sans, or ooh, I know! I’ll make it red. AND BLUE! And I better put it in 48pt too because 12pt is just so regular. Kids’ books are FUN!

Me, opening your query: UGH. NOOOO. WHYYYYY?

Slang. On. Fleek.

Oh, that elusive teenager voice. Sometimes it seems impossible to get it right. We don’t often hear them speaking in their natural habitat. Ok, some of you are parents or teachers of teenagers, and will be like, Heather, I hear those bananas conversations every single day. Fair. But I maintain that when teenagers are aware they’re being heard by adults, the voice changes. I remember a thing from an early Linguistics class: As soon as a subject knows they’re voice/style/intonation/vocabulary is being studied, it changes. The things we notice are the things that stick out to us because they aren’t a part of our own speech. Slang, y’all.

Obviously teenagers speak only in slang and to make the voice sound real in a manuscript, it needs to be littered with all the latest phrases, right? I see many writers take the “extrapolation” approach. They troll Urban Dictionary and then double down. (And they may or may not be using slang correctly. I think about rolling my eyes at my own mother for trying to pull off totally tubular back in the day.)

This method can be fun to write, because it shows off how in-touch with contemporary youth culture the author is. But when there’s too much all at once, it’s tough to read. Very tough. It’s the equivalent of meeting a British person, and immediately busting out “Cheerio, guv-nah! Blimey! I say, good show! Fancy a spot of tea, mate? Bloody hell! Move yer bloomin’ arse!” I think we can all agree that this is cartoonish and not at all realistic sounding, and likely offensive to the person being imitated. So why then, do we have teenagers in novels saying “O.M.G. Your eyebrows are on. Fleek. Let’s chillax at my crib or whatever. My mom has some ancient movie about some guy named like Forrest Gump or something? I literally can’t even. Adorkable.” (Translation: “Your eyebrows look good. Let’s watch a movie.”)

If I actually heard a teenager speaking that way, I’d rush her to the hospital. Not only is it annoying to read, it gets in the way of the actual storytelling. My advice is to comb your manuscript and take out all the “like”s and “whatever”s and all the other slang you can spare. Be brutal. Then, when you’re done, go back and sprinkle it in like a seasoning, where it’s needed. Every dish needs salt, but too much will ruin the meal.

I have other things to say about voice and slang, but will save them for future posts.

Leave your comments below or whatever. IDK. As if.

No Frills Book Review: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Welcome to the first in a series, the No Frills Book Review. This is where I basically repeat here what I’ve been saying to people in real life about books I’ve read.

Have you read The Nest by Kenneth Oppel? Holy crap. What a weird and great read. I can’t tell you much about it without giving it all away, so just trust me. I’m not sure it’s truly a book for kids, but it is creepy and wonderful and you’ll read it in about an hour. Everyone in the office totally devoured it with the same response. This is the kind of book you’ve never read before, but it also feels like it’s always existed.

See? No frills.

A Note about Notes

One of the things I’m asked most often at conferences is whether a picture book author should include illustration notes in a manuscript. This seems to really vex some people. The problem with illustration notes is if we say it’s ok to use them, then people tend to abuse them, including levels of detail that are completely irrelevant to the story and bind the illustrator’s hand (and creativity). So here are some answers for you.

Q: Should I include illustration notes in my manuscript?

A: No.

Q: But what if  I need to make something clear that the text isn’t showing?

A: If there is no other way to know, and it’s vital to the story, then include some stage directions. You know, like in a script. But you have to promise it’s essential.

Q: And what if I want the illustrator to know my character has curly hair?

A: Your character does not have curly hair unless the illustrator decides she does. Your character might end up being an elephant. Deal.

Q: But she lives in a red house and that matters because her favorite color is red.

A: Are you sure it’s that important? You’re wrong. It’s not.

Q: But what if

A: No.

Q: But

A: We’re done. [exit stage left]