Name Game

Here is something I’ve talked a tiny bit about in social media, and want to address with a few more words here: character names.

I read so many manuscripts where the names seem like throwaways.  It seems like many writers subscribe to the “first thought best thought” school, using the first name that pops into their head. More often than not, it comes across as unconsidered. It’s Sally or Billy or Bobby or Timmy or Jane. I have nothing at all against these names, and in fact, sometimes they are the perfect choice. (Author Peter McCleery chose Bob for Bob and Joss Get Lost for the internal rhyme, and for a joke I won’t tell you about that works really well in the book. Due out 2017.) But if your character is named Billy because it’s the first thing you thought of, you can do better.

Would you name your child the first name that occurred to you? I super duper hope not. There are so many marvelous names in the world, and parents (and pet owners) spend forever coming up with just the right one. A name can reflect so much about the character and story and add a layer of meaning, even. Sometimes it’s a symbol. Sometimes it’s a metaphor. Sometimes it’s ironic. The best ones are a couple of things.

For instance: My favorite dog-friend is a miniature Schnauzer whose name is Titan. That’s funny because he’s little. But it’s also meaningful, because his owner was obsessed with Days of Our Lives, and Titan Industries is the biggest corporation in Salem. Two reasons for one name!

Fantasy writers have a double struggle, because what are the chances that your Space Ninja from an alternate plane will be named Dave? But now you have to make up a name that sounds real. I have read many unpronounceable names, and when I do, I want to throw things. Woerud or Permnk or Xch. Take a page from Suzanne Collins. Katniss is a real plant. It’s edible. Gale is a strong wind. Peeta is a kind of bread (with a minor spelling difference). These names reflect nature and the world they live in, but allow us to step right into a place we know isn’t exactly ours. (I kind of wish Peeta was named Marble Rye, though.)

Speaking of Gale, it’s Dorothy’s last name in the Wizard of Oz. Get it? Dorothy Strong Wind? That’s not an accident.

Turning off the main road for a second: Can we just not with alliterative animal names? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My name is not Heather Human, so why are all squirrels sur-named Squirrel? Why can’t a squirrel be named Roy Feliciano? I’ll give the exception award to Betty Bunny because Betty Bunny is the only one in her family who has Bunny in her name, and her siblings are named Henry and Kate and Bill. In fact, there are lots of exceptions to this complaint, but in general, try harder.

I’m not saying that every character in your book needs to have a weighty, thoughtful name, but how can it hurt? Moreover, when I read manuscripts with throwaway names, I wonder how long the writer considered it, which then leads me to wonder how long they considered other things in the story. Your characters are at least as important as your guinea pig, so spend some quality time picking.

Here are a few I’d love to see: ChiChi, Fenella, Huxley, Kizzy, Zowie, D’Artagnan, Eustace, Remi, Miggy, Jansen, Dan (JK on that last one.)

 

No Frills Book Review: Drowned City

I was alive during Hurricane Katrina, but I did not live through it. I thought I knew how it went down, what it might have been like for residents and survivors. The powerful graphic non-fiction by Don Brown, Drowned City, made it completely clear that I had no idea. He does not hold back, so if you’re a sensitive reader (I am), be ready for very strong feelings. I never let myself imagine how horrible New Orleans was after Katrina hit, but all of the destruction and governmental BS is laid out clearly in gritty art, making a quick, but impacting read. Graphic is the perfect medium for this story.

Off to donate to the Red Cross.

Guest Post: Karl Jones of Grosset & Dunlap

Today is the first in a new feature, the guest post! Karl Jones is an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, the mass market imprint of Penguin Young Readers. He’s here to tell you about licensed publishing. What is it? How can you do it? Why would you want to? Ladies and germs, put your hands together for Karl Jones.

GET YOUR SPIN ON WITH SPIN OFFS

“Why would I want to write for licensed publishing?!”

While I’ve never heard this exact phrase spoken aloud, I’ve felt the dismissive stares and seen more than my fair share of raised eyebrows at publishing events from New York City to the Rocky Mountains.  Some folks assume licensed publishing isn’t sexy.  They’re wrong.  Others think the stories are lacking in creativity. Also wrong.  But more importantly for aspiring authors looking to get their feet wet before jumping head first into the wacky world of children’s literature, dismissing licensed publishing projects means many of them are overlooking some great opportunities to hone their craft and most importantly, get paid to write.

For those not in the know, licensed publishing includes an expansive side of the publishing industry in which books are made about existing creative properties such as movies, television shows, toys, video games and more.  Licensed books are as diverse in content and format as their traditional trade counterparts, including fiction, non-fiction, activity, picture books, and more but they are unique from trade publishing in that the characters and worlds that drive the content already exist other media platforms, oftentimes more than one.

Here is my brief and incomplete list for what becoming an author for a licensed publishing project can do for you!

  1. You can say you’re a published author. You may not have sold your big manuscript yet, but you can honestly impress your friends at cocktail parties with lines like, “well my editor thought my comic timing was on point but suggested that I tighten up the plot a bit,” or “the contracts department at [INSERT MAJOR PUBLISHING HOUSE] called yesterday to ask how I wanted my name to appear on the copyright line,” or my favorite “I just received my free author copies in the mail and I’d love to give you one!”
  2. You will learn how to manage successful relationships with actual book editors. Editors are busy people. Many of us edit anywhere from twenty to fifty titles (and sometimes more) each year.  In licensed publishing, the timetables are often fast and furious and we have to rely on authors to deliver outlines, finish manuscripts, and complete revisions on time.  If you can successfully survive writing a book on a licensed title timeframe, you’ll have earned some trusted friends in the industry.  We can’t afford to buy you presents but we can provide you with some impressive connections. Which means…
  3. You immediately gain new contacts in the publishing industry. In addition to your editor, you’ll likely develop relationships with designers and illustrators, as well as other editors on the team. Once you’ve delivered one rushed deadline manuscript in a timely fashion, the editor whose tush you saved will pass your information on to their colleagues and you’ll have more work coming your way in no time.
  4. You’ll see the world in new ways. Whether you’re playing the hot new video game you’ve downloaded with a free access code on the Steam platform or binge watching episodes of the a show with a zany grandpa and a giant, flying, realistic tiger, you’ll be exposed to the many ways kids today experience storytelling beyond the book.
  5. You will be able to speak “kid” again. Remember when grownups just didn’t understand? Accessing these fun and often educational properties will give you the vocabulary you need to be the cool mom/uncle/cousin/neighbor.
  6. The New Yorker said it’s ok for you to be impressed by storytelling that doesn’t win literary awards. I love it when certain intellectuals get shady about which types of entertainment have intellectual merit.  Calm down, smarty-pants.  I read obscure lit mags too, as well as the New Yorker cover to cover.  Enjoying a beautifully animated television series makes me even smarter sometimes.
  7. “Boundaries can often be creatively exciting.” I asked one of my trusted authors, Brandon Snider who writes for a variety of media and even appears on television from time to time what he thought about writing for licensed publishing projects.  He said this:

“What I value as a writer of licensed publishing is the discipline that’s required of me to work within a set of guidelines but then bring my own voice to the work itself. It’s a challenge. Boundaries can often be creatively exciting. I’m lucky to have been freedom to grow and stretch because an editor trusts I’ll know how far I can take things without deviating from the source material.”

  1. The Licensed Publishing field is incredibly dynamic and the books are really good right now. I am ceaselessly impressed by the quality of books I see coming out each year (not to mention the ones we make here) from all of my colleagues in the business.  I’d say you’ll never be prouder of working on a licensed book . . . but the books coming out next year are going to be even better.  I know.  I’m already looking for authors to write them.

Now that I’ve wooed you to sparkly side of licensed publishing, you might wonder: How do I get a work-for-hire gig?  Most imprints post their submission guidelines online and I’ve found authors who’ve submitted samples of their writing with an express desire to write work-for-hire projects.  I’ve also encountered writers through various SCBWI conferences and workshops who’ve followed up with me after the events to discuss possibilities.  Like anything, you’ll have to do a bit of networking and research to find the editors in charge of the types of properties you’d like to write for, but we all know research is half the writing process, so it’s great practice.  See you on the sparkly side!

Karl Jones is an Associate Editor for Penguin Random House with the Grosset & Dunlap, PSS!, and Cartoon Network Books imprints.  He edits licensed books, acquires middle grade fiction and develops unique IP projects.  He is constantly on the lookout for the most creative authors in the business. Tweet him your love and thanks for this post @karljones

 

 

That’s Not a Category

Many queries come in that are neatly labeled as middle grade, or YA, or chapter book. I love when that happens. Sometimes, though, writers try to bust out of the regular labels, telling me their book is for 3-9 year olds, or is a “storybook”. Or even “upper middle grade”.

Here’s the thing: I love rule-breakers, but when the rule-makers are enormous institutions, they’re hard to fight. I’d love for all the rebel books to make it, but the established systems are in place for a reason. Consider: is your book for a three year old, or is it for a kid who can write a report about amoebas? It’s definitely not for both. Storybooks were once the common style of books for kids, but exist more as a historical artifact these days. The reason upper middle grade isn’t a category is because middle grade already covers it. (And if we started subdividing all the categories, ugh. So many headaches.)

[Here, I anticipate many questions about word count and how to know where your book sits. And for that, I refer you to this now-classic post by smart cookie Jennifer Laughran.]

One reason for the established categories is that they are the most direct way to sort books out for easy browsing. If someone is looking for a book for a kid in 7th grade, it’s pretty easy to direct them to a whole range of books for that age. But if you have a picture book with a character who happens to be 11, is it shelved that with picture books, or with middle grade? I don’t know. Publishers don’t know. Booksellers don’t know. And so those books rarely exist.

It’s not a perfect system, but it works pretty well.

Another angle of the same issue is when writers invent genres, or wildly mix-n-match hoping to make a custom label that fits. Your story may be sci-fi with a ghost detective, but that doesn’t make Paranormal Sci-Fi Mystery Thriller a legitimate genre. Keep it simple. Choose one that fits and run with it.

So here’s a simple rule of thumb: If it’s not a shelf/section at the bookstore, it’s not a widely recognized category. If it’s not in a widely recognized category, your book is going to be hard to place. If it’s going to be hard to place, an agent or editor is unlikely to take it on. Work the system before you try to blow it down.

 

Get to Know: Microsoft Word

I read lots of manuscripts. Dozens. Hundreds. Possibly even in the thousands by now. And I’d venture to say they are all in Microsoft Word. However, not everyone has a handle on the ins-and-outs of this marvelous software. It’s been around for a long, long time now, so really, there’s no time like the present!

When I’m critiquing or sending notes, I use track changes. That’s not necessarily the norm. Many editors still prefer to edit with a pencil and actual paper. I’m firmly in the “whatever works for you” camp. But when I’m working with a manuscript, there are certain formatting things that are standard, and really easy to use and learn, and very frustrating when they are not in place. This isn’t going to be a tutorial, because YouTube is littered with them. It’s a heads up on what you can do to make your editor and agent and critique partner’s lives easier.

First up, page numbers. So many people insert these manually. That must take forever, especially when you get past page ten! But moreover, when I’m looking at your page, they may not fall the same way they do on your screen. If I change the font, or the size of the font, all of the page numbers are suddenly on the wrong pages, or in the middle of the page. This way is a thousand times easier, and stays consistent.

Headers and footers work basically the same way as page numbers.

PS (or mid-post script?): Pippin and loads of other agencies’ submissions policies ask that you copy and paste your ms into the body of an email. Don’t worry about page numbers and headers when you do that. They don’t matter until we request an actual document from you.

I once edited a manuscript that was manually double-spaced. That was a formatting nightmare. Don’t do that, please. Try it this way.

If you’re interested in track changes, there are lots of tutorials for how it works. I recommend it, because why not know more things instead of fewer? Try this one.

And just a reminder, 12 point font is standard. I like Times New Roman or whatever is the Microsoft standard now (they’ve recently changed to Calibri and Cambria, both are good). Some people like Courier, for the record, I am not one of them. Please don’t get creative in your font choices. They are hard to read, unprofessional, and when I get a document in them, I change it immediately to something standard. And that often throws off your other formatting. (See above.)

You don’t need to be a pro with Microsoft, but if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you should have a handle on the basics. It does so many things, and is quite easy to use. Now if I could just figure out how to make it do laundry.

What Are You Thinking?

Rhetorical questions are something I run across much too often and are yet another place I want to yell, “Show, don’t tell!” They pull readers where you want them to go, rather than subtly pointing the way. Trust readers to follow your breadcrumbs. And let them be surprised.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  “And then I’d had the freaky dream about that  purple cat again. Did it have something to do with Tony? Could it have been a message from him? Could he be trying to communicate from another world? And how had he escaped that evil bouncy-house anyway?”

Chances are, your readers are already wondering these things. So reiterating them in questions is making a beautiful allusion and then explaining it. Like if poetry came with a translation.

If we’d been shown that Tony had somehow escaped the evil bouncy house, and then the MC had this dream that seemed out of place, and that’s all we knew, well, I think that’s much more interesting than the author handing over all the pieces, saying “you should think about these things.”

You’re giving hints. And unless readers (beta, critiquers, etc.) have asked for hints, they most likely don’t want them. Or need them. Because readers are smart, and appreciate a little mystery.

A few rhetorical questions are fine. Sometimes it’s key to a moment of interiority. But when they’re overused, it’s taking away that sense of accomplishment that comes along with reading a really great book. If your reader can get to the end and say “I knew it! I was right!” that’s awesome. If they get to the end and are totally blown away by surprises, “I never saw that coming but it makes total sense!” that is even better.

Do you think I got my point across? Are the writers feeling inspired? Do I have something in my teeth?

It’s Shark Tank, Pitches

I once sat for a pitch during which an author arranged her self-pubbed book, a standing tri-fold marketing plan, related merch, and a sheet of sales points and irrelevant stats on the table in front of me. At minute nine of the ten-minute appointment, I interrupted her recitation: “You have a book, you have a tote bag, so what do you need me to do?” She said she wanted an investor who could help her market the book. I asked how many she’d sold on her own. She’d sold zero in ten months. Splat.

A well-defined pitch does not a successful product make.

I don’t only watch the Great British Bake Off. I also watch Shark Tank. It delights me to watch entrepreneurs, passionate about their ideas, hoping to find a partner to take their product to the next level. Every time a new person steps onto that rug and launches into their pitch, I think about queries.  (Of course, I’m the Shark in this scenario.)

Writers and queriers are generally very good at telling agents and editors what they have. Pitches are practiced and honed and sound pretty good. But without having a polished product and understanding the larger market, and where your product (book) fits into it, the pitch doesn’t do me much good. (Did you guys see the ST where the guy pitched the surgical Bluetooth implant? Great pitch, ridiculous product.)

Queries are for you to tell me what you’ve got, yes. It’s most easily digestible if I know you know there is a market for what you’re selling me. Your book is a product. If there are too many others like it, there’s little shelf space for another. If there is absolutely nothing like it, there might not be a market for it at all.

The people who get deals on Shark Tank are the ones who’ve done their due diligence. They’re not weekend inventors holding up a prototype made of toothpicks and peas. They don’t speak in hypotheticals. They’re not hobbyists. They know their market. They know their customer. They’ve made dozens of prototypes and tested and redesigned. (Is this analogy holding up?) And after all of that, they head in looking for investors.

This is why you owe it to yourself to do your research. If you’re writing picture books, read every new picture book on the shelves each week. If you want to sell me a YA novel (and I hope you do), it’s important that your frame of reference is wider than Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars. Much, much wider. I may not be as awesome as Barbara Corcoran (yet), but my hair is almost as good, and I expect as much from my partners as she does. (For the record, I don’t understand the appeal of Pipcorn.)

 

 

No Frills Book Review: How to Avoid a Soggy Bottom

The Great British Bake Off has a book! My love affair can continue between seasons.

This isn’t a baking book, although it does contain recipes (for rough puff, hot-water pastry, and other things I’d never heard of until I watched the show). More, it contains answers to such questions as “why is shortbread called bread when it’s a biscuit?” and “what exactly is sugar?” making this a fascinating history and science book.

More later, I’m making some tea while I settle in to figure out how to reduce my proving time.

It’s Awards Season!

Golden Globe nominations are out, Oscar buzz is everywhere, but somehow, the mainstream media always seems to forget that the ALA Youth Media awards happen now too. Tomorrow, the careers of many writers and artists will change forever with the announcements of Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, Coretta Scott King, Geisel and all the other awards named after children’s book luminaries.

What I like best is that there are no nominations, so up until the live broadcast, everyone is a contender. Sure, there have been predictions for months, but it seems like every year, there’s a surprise. Those committees of librarians love to throw a curveball.

I really feel the excitement around the awards, and the hopefulness of the community as we band together is palpable, waiting to cheer for our friends and colleagues. I won’t be there in person, but I’ll be gathered around the monitor with my colleagues and a big steaming mug of coffee, ready to shout with joy. See you in the morning!

Expectations

I’ve noticed something over the course of the years that writers do. I didn’t really think about it until I was watching Ruby on The Great British Bake Off. Remember how she always took her bakes up to the judges and went “Oh, it’s just dreadful, isn’t it?”

And then they’d be all, “Ruby, you’re mental. This is delicious and beautiful.”

And she’d be all, “Really?”

So many times, I open my inbox to find a revision I’ve been waiting for (yay!) and it’s filled with a couple of paragraphs of what’s wrong with it (boooo!). Or it’s the complete opposite. It’s a revision or draft of something I’ve been waiting for (yay!) filled with all the praise beta-readers and critique partners have sprinkled all over it (booo!).

(I mean, none of MY clients do these things. I just want to clarify that point. My clients are all perfect.)

How could either of those things be bad? In the first case, the writer is giving me a heads up on what to look for, what they think might not be working yet and would like a hand with. In the second scenario, they are feeling pretty good about things and isn’t that also important to know?

So let’s address that first part: what’s the matter with someone telling me where the dents might be that they need help un-denting? Well, my first thought is usually, “Why didn’t you fix it if you know it needs fixing?” But also, and maybe bigger, I now have things in mind to look for, so I can’t read with a truly clean slate. If this draft or revision is from someone I know, generally we’ve spoken about what needed attention. I have some things in mind to keep an eye out for. But now I’m looking for different things, and instead of just feeling the bumps when they come along, I’m looking for them and anticipating them and way more focused on them than I might normally be.

So what’s wrong with the other way? Why shouldn’t you tell me that expert reader #1 thinks this draft is shining and perfect and whole? Two reasons: If I don’t agree, then I think your expert reader might not be the genius I was led to believe and that’s just unfair of you to taint their reputation. [insert winky face here] But moreover, I start to read with the attitude of “I’ll be the judge of that” and that’s a dangerous place for your reader to begin. If I don’t think the draft is glowing perfection, I may wonder whether we’re on the same page regarding glowing perfection.

When you set expectations, either low or high, you’re not allowing the reader to come at it with clear vision for a pure reading experience. And isn’t that the whole point of asking another person to read it?

It’s totally fine if, after I’ve read it, you think I’ve missed something huge and you say “did you notice the thing I thought was a big problem?” I might say yes and we can discuss, or I might say no, and it’s not an issue and we can move on to other things.

It’s not always possible to pass on a draft silently, and it’s probably never easy. The urge to explain changes is powerful. But 99% of the time, if you can simply say, “Here it is,” without setting expectations, you’ll get a better read from an agent or editor.