I’m With -ER

I’m going to go off on a grammar tangent, you guys. I love grammar. LOVE IT. As a Linguistics minor in college, I learned to respect changing language, and in spoken language, I heed the general “if a person is understood, then the language is working” ideal. But written word is a different animal, and it’s harder to break me of these rules. Yes, if you’re understood, the language is working, but also, editors answer to a higher power: copyeditors (angel sound). And copyeditors don’t want ANY of your bs.

I totally understand (and embrace) that language is a living, growing, changing thing. I do. But there are some things that just sound like a farty honk in the middle of a beautiful symphony. And one of those is this new, strange tendency to use MORE something instead of something-ER in all cases.

I have hypotheses about why we are using MORE more. In brief: I think it’s partially because of the excessive use of hyperbole (it’s even MORE annoying than it was ten years ago when all we were saying was a thousand percent). But it also has to do with the rhythms of language now.

I listen to language a lot, and carefully. I hear patterns. And a very contemporary pattern is for very staccato sentences. We even do it in our writing, with. That. Very. Trend. (You’ve seen it, right? With the periods between words for emphasis? Can we just not though? It’s tired. I’m tired.)

The use of MORE instead of the often grammatically correct –ER plays directly into that trend. Consider this example:

(Incorrect) OMG I’m even more cool than I was yesterday. (You can practically hear the periods.)

As opposed to

(Correct) Yo, I’m cooler than I was yesterday. (This feels more languid, and almost skater-ish in tone.)

Coooooollllerrrrrr as opposed to more.cool. (laaaaaaaa vs. bam.bam)

I hear it, and I get it. But my grammar marm self (who is, actually, an editor) can’t get on board. If you want to sound staccato in this case, choose a word that takes more instead of -er. More kickass. More badass. More something with less ass but two or more syllables.

Here’s another example:

(Incorrect) Wanda is more smart than Patrick, and that’s why I’m voting for her!

I still hear what you’re getting at, but I also want to tear down Wanda’s streamers and balloons and replace them with flyers that say “I’m with -ER!”

The way to get my vote is to say

(Correct) Wanda is smarter than Patrick, and that’s why I’m with her!

The actual rule, according to my grammar teachers and the Interwebz is that we use more for polysyllabic adjectives, and –er for monosyllabic adjectives. So things are greener, but more yellow. Posher, and more elegant. Your writing can be more excellent, and also more marvelous, and your prose shorter, greater, and tighter. This blog post is more terrific and grander than the last one. (Look how I just combined a more and an –er in one sentence! Wut. Magic!)

There are exceptions, there always are. In this case they are words that end in y: Prettier. Funnier. Sillier. Jauntier. Wonkier. (All things I aspire to be.)

Write how you want to write. Use language how you want to use language. But know this: Editors know the rules and you better have a very good reason for breaking them. Don’t give us a reason to suspect you don’t know what you’re doing.

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Antagonists Need Love Too

Here’s something we haven’t talked about yet: antagonists. Urgh, that mean kid in school who is just relentless! The one who picks on the main character for being smart/weird/tall/anything at all. The one who makes life difficult.

More often than not, when I read these characters, they come across as a flat, simple, undeveloped sort of mean. So many bullies, especially in middle grade, are just mean for the sake of being mean. But you know what’s a lot more fun to read? Motivated mean.

I want to empathize with the antagonist.

Pure meanness is never believable. It’s hard to relate to a kid who beats up another kid, or tortures spiders, or sides with the evil aliens taking over Planet Margon unless we can believe that kid has something in her life that makes readers go “oh, yeah. I can see why she made that choice even though I wouldn’t do that.”

Let’s look at everyone’s favorite bad guy, Snape. He’s awful to young Harry Potter, and as it all unfolds that he has history with Harry’s parents, slowly, Snape becomes relatable and super sympathetic, squeezing our hearts by the end of the series. Rowling handles this neatly, expanding on the story as Harry is growing emotionally, and we don’t all have the luxury of 7 books to unpack our antagonists that way. So how can we do it?

  • Spend as much time with your antagonist as you do with your protagonist. Write as thorough a character sketch before you start writing. Consider her home life, the expectations the world may have of her, her inner conflicts.
  • If your antagonist isn’t human, give her some human qualities (like the jealousy of Hal in 2001).
  • Show readers what she cares about. Does she visit her grandmother in the home each week? Does she volunteer at the dog shelter? Does she recycle clothes into dolls for kids in Appalachia?
  • Give readers a taste of where she went sour. Are her parents bullies too?
  • Show the similarities of your antagonist and protagonist. If they both love collecting Lisa Frank stickers, that will help make your antagonist ever so slightly rounder.
  • Show the history of your antagonist and her relationship with the protagonist. It can be something seemingly small that somehow stuck with the antagonist and grew. (Confession: when I was in 7th grade and had few social graces, I once commented that a classmate wore the same pants two days in a row. I had no memory of this, but I met the person as an adult, and she brought the moment up. It had affected her in a “mean girl” way, and I have to say, I still hate thinking about it. My point is, tiny things can have unexpectedly big consequences.)

By rounding your antagonists, your whole story will become much more engaging and memorable. They say reading fiction makes people more empathetic, and that starts with being able to understand the mean kids, doesn’t it?

Hey, That’s Funny!

Funny is such a great tool when writing for kids. And the format of picture books is a natural fit for short form comedy.

BUT (you knew that was coming)…

Many funny picture book manuscripts come across more like a sketch in a comedy show. That is to say, they have a beginning, middle, climax, and (in the place of a satisfying resolution reflecting some sort of growth) they have a punchline.

I love a solid punchline. When they land just right, they can elicit snorts and guffaws and chortles and who doesn’t love that? It’s why we all hope for a Kate McKinnon cold open on SNL, and why we still go to see our friends’ improv shows.

BUT

Picture books are much more than a series of jokes. Without an emotional undercurrent, they lack that connectability that makes kids say, “gurl, I feel you”…a punchline is funny once or twice (or, ok, 35 times if you’re 4), but even the most unexpected punchline doesn’t have that emotional heft to keep readers coming back again and again.

It’s true that in most cases we like that emotional growth to be pretty invisible, but it should still be there. Even in the funniest books, readers and characters should come away a little bit different than they were at page one. Comedy in 32 art-filled pages can subvert expectations, use word play or page turns, or just be wicked-wacky. It’s easy to think of picture books as long form jokes, but I think of them more as an episode of a sitcom. (Thinking of setups and characters in Act III who go, “Oh, crap. Maybe we were wrong about that thing we thought in Act I.”)

Here are some that get it right. Give yourself a treat.

Bob and Joss Get Lost

I YAM a Donkey

Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great

Z is for Moose

My Teacher is a Monster

Boss Baby

I’m My Own Dog

The Thing About Yetis

Want more about writing funny picture books? Tune in to my KidLit College webinar (posting soon!) on April 8th. I’ll be talking with Mary-Kate Gaudet of Little, Brown, and she, my friends, is hilarious.

Title: Untitled

Titles are a funny thing. The good ones intrigue book browsers, grab attention, and are memorable. The best ones describe a whole book in a few words. (Some, on the other hand, are not as clever.) And so it’s normal that writers spend a lot of time stressing over giving their manuscript the very most intriguing, grabby, memorable title.

However, from this side of the table, I gotta say, titles are about the least important part of the work I’m considering. Yeah, it’s nice to be catchy in a query. But I’d estimate about eight times out of ten (four out of five, then), a title changes, sometimes multiple times, before it hits shelves. In at least one case, I’ve seen a title change after it was published.

Even if a title doesn’t change, it’s almost always part of a discussion at some point in the editorial process. So when writers and clients ask me what I think of their title, the truth is that I generally think of all titles as “working titles” until they are printed on jackets. It’s not something I focus on in critiques or edits, unless I think it’s wildly inaccurate or misleading. But as part of the query process, it’s not a make-or-break aspect. Make it as good as you can, but also know it may change a dozen times, and then a couple more.

Critique Vs. Edit

Critique Versus Edit

Happy New Year, everyone! I know it has been a while since I’ve shared anything new with you, and that’s because I’ve had some exciting changes. I’m back on the editorial side of things again, where my heart lives, and where I can get my hands all wordy (and nerdy). You can find me at HeatherAlexanderEditorial.com for more information about that.

I have done critiques for many of you at conferences, retreats, and through KidLit College. And some of you have been wondering, what is the difference between a critique and an edit. Here is my attempt to explain.

A thoughtful critique will quickly help the author focus on the essentials of writing: Character, plot, pacing, dialogue, and any inconsistencies the reader comes across. A critique is an honest commentary on what is and isn’t working. It may offer a little feedback on how to improve, but doesn’t necessarily focus on the big, structural or thematic stuff.

An edit, however, takes the plunge. A good editor will go beyond the surface issues and offer suggestions when she can to improve the overall work. It will have margin notes to identify themes, help develop voice, pinpoint specific places that can be developed or eliminated, ways to reconstruct the plot, call out characters that might be superfluous, all accompanied by a big, fat letter to communicate all of these things.

Imagine it this way. You’ve just seen a movie with your best friend. On the way out of the theater, you both mention things you liked and didn’t like about the movie. The conversation may last until you’ve ordered dinner, but then you move on to other topics. That’s critique.

The edit is the 4 page New Yorker review of the same movie. (This analogy doesn’t totally hold up, since the author of the New Yorker review isn’t asking the filmmakers to revise, but in terms of depth of analysis, I think it’s pretty accurate.)

Or maybe it’s like House Hunters: Critique is when the couple is walking through a house, hating the countertops and cabinets, but loving the finished basement. Editing is when they begin tearing down walls to make the perfect home.

Reading Queries Like

I was browsing new books at a shop this weekend, picking them up, reading some flap copy, flipping to the text, and putting things back on shelves (or, for the lucky few, into my bookbag). It occurred to me then, and I can’t say why not before then, that the experience was very much like reading queries.

People ask all the time what it’s like to have an inbox full of manuscripts, and how agents and editors know when something is right for them. And I tell you what, if you’ve ever been looking for the right next thing to read out of the mountains of options at the bookstore or library, you already know what that experience is like.

We picky-but-voracious readers suffer from always wanting the next excellent story, and needing to comb the stacks to find it. How many times have you found yourself not knowing what you’re in the mood for, until you finally read a jacket that gets you excited? You take the book home and dig in excitedly and either it is as wonderful as you’d hoped and you can’t wait to tell everyone, or it falls flat and you move on.

Well then, surprise! You know exactly what it’s like to read as a publishing professional. We go through queries in that same mindset we all have at bookstores or scrolling GoodReads. Where is that thing we didn’t know we wanted? What ignites and delights and intrigues? Where is that thing we can’t wait to stay up all night to finish? Keep it in mind when you’re wondering what will make an agent request your manuscript. It’s basically the same thing that makes you want to buy one.

There, now you know. And for writing effective queries, knowing is half the battle.

Why I Don’t Care About the Rule of Threes

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions on Twitter about the so-called rule of threes. And my inbox is seeing a lot more refrains used at least three times in picture books. For those of you who aren’t aware, the rule of threes is something many picture books employ. For instance, in the Three Bears, Goldilocks tries out three chairs, porridges, and beds. In the Three Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs three times. It’s a story framing device that works pretty well for picture books.

But not all the time.

The rule of threes isn’t something that can be slapped into a manuscript with the expectation that it will help it stand. I think the hope is that kids will magically start chanting along with a book when it’s read out loud. And so many writers invent a phrase and just tuck it into a story willy-nilly. Many times, it isn’t necessary, and so comes across as forced.

When applied well, the rule of threes helps to provide some tension. In both the classic tales above, the story moves forward because of each thing being done. Each time G-Lox sits in a chair is a chance for her to cause trouble, which ups the ante little by little. Each time BB Wolf blows a house down, the stress level of the pigs (and reader) goes up.

A refrain is something different, but should be employed with equal choosiness. Another post, perhaps.

Not every picture book uses threes. Some are a straight narrative. Look at Stop Following Me, Moon! by Darren Farrell. Or I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein. Or Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin.

It’s true that I could name a dozen picture books that DO use the rule of threes. And I have nothing against it. It’s a great tool. But I don’t want writers to think it’s absolutely necessary or to lean on it when it’s not structurally sound. I want it, like all the tools in the box, to be used thoughtfully and not just because “you’re supposed to”. And I’m certainly not going to reject something that doesn’t use this “rule” on those grounds.

You wouldn’t use a waffle iron to make pizza, would you? (On second thought…)

How to Find an Illustrator

I just got off the phone with someone who called because she had seen an image done by one of our artists, and she wanted to know how she could get him to illustrate her picture book for her. I spent some time trying to tell her that that isn’t really how it works, but she just wasn’t hearing me. And so I changed tacks, and ended up telling her it would be very, VERY expensive. That she heard. But I was left with the feeling that my point was not made.

Writers: You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

In nearly all cases (exceptions explained below) the publisher will hire an illustrator for you. Your job, as a writer, is to write. And you shouldn’t be spending money on an illustrator (or an agent, or making hard-copies of your work). You’re doing things out of order. Once your words have been sold to a publisher, they will work very hard to find exactly the right artist for the job. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator.

I know it seems like a smart idea to send out a full-package to potential agents or publishers. But agents, editors, and art-directors are very practiced at reading picture book texts without art. Part of the fun is imagining the pictures before they exist. By hiring an illustrator, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Here are a few reasons why you definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator:

  1. Your vision is not the agent or publisher’s vision. Your manuscript could be brilliant, but even the best professionals have a hard time separating text from art sometimes. And sub-par art could mean turning down a perfectly decent manuscript.
  2. The friend who you hired isn’t really as great an artist as you think, which can make you both look unprofessional.
  3. You end up spending money when you don’t need to. Let the publisher pay the illustrator for you.
  4. It would be nearly impossible for a picture book hopeful to hire, say, a New York Times bestselling illustrator, but it’s pretty easy for a publishing house to do so. Don’t you want a New York Times bestselling illustrator attached to your project?

But what are the exceptions? 

  1. The friend you paired up with has a few picture books under her belt already. Or is at least more than a weekend hobbyist-artist. You and she have been working hard together and attending conferences and understand that you are doing things in an unconventional way.
  2. You plan to self-publish
  3. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator

Here’s why it’s a good idea to trust the agents and publishers to hire an illustrator for you: 

  1. It’s their job to understand the entire industry, from what stories and styles are working in the current market, to who won which awards this year. We know people’s schedules and stuff, too. 
  2. It’s common practice to pair a new writer with a “known” illustrator to bring some name recognition to a debut. 
  3. The publisher may have an “open contract” with an illustrator, and they may be looking for just the right thing to fill it.

Please, please save yourself time, money, and the headache of art-directing someone who isn’t right for the job. Trust that your words are enough, and that the person in charge of finding you an illustrator will do so with aplomb.

You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. You definitely don’t need to hire an illustrator. 

Venturing Forth

Many queries tell me “this is my first attempt at writing” or “I’ve never written a word before this” or some such. And I always feel excited for people who’ve found the powerful magic of changing the world with words.

Like anything, though, one would never expect to become a professional at one’s first try. Imagine walking into an open tryout for the Brooklyn Cyclones, picking up a bat, and saying, I’ve never played this before, but I just love baseball. Or hanging a shingle on your front door advertising flu shots because you’d always wanted to be a doctor.

There are many steps between “I’d like to give this a go” and “I’m getting pretty good at this” and “a publisher might actually be interested in this”. And some of those steps can maybe be skipped, depending on circumstances, but it’s not the smart bet to walk in thinking they can ALL be skipped.

Don’t know what the steps are? That’s cool. The internet is the best place in the world* for finding things out. Like any profession, there are communities full of people who have advice for you. And like I always say, the SCBWI is a marvelous resource. So are webinars. So are blogs. And retreats. And books about writing books.

The path is a long one, but you’re on it, and you’ll find many people along the way to make sure you stay on it, show you appropriate shortcuts, and keep you from getting trampled. Your first attempt is a great start. But if you’ve never written a word before today, think about whether you’ve been at it long enough to be considered a professional. Don’t worry, books will be around a while, we can wait. And we’ll cheer you along as you go.

 

*take with a grain of salt, geez.

An Offer!

This post has been updated to clarify some points that were obviously confusing. 5/20/16

Oh my god, you got an offer of representation! Congratulations! That’s HUGE. So exciting! The very next thing you need to do is freak out. I mean, go into full on panic mode. The clock is ticking! Email all the other agents who have your manuscript and tell them they have 24 hours to decide whether they want to make an offer too.

This is a good idea, because then agents, very very busy people, will all say “Oh, crap. I don’t have that kind of time,” and drop out, making your decision very easy.

Obviously I’m being facetious. But this is something we see ALL THE TIME. Most weeks we get follow-ups to queries saying the author has an offer of representation, and the offering agent has given the author until x date (often a week or two) to claim their prize.

WTF?

I get the other agents’ motivation. Putting a time limit on these things prevents the endless stringing-along while all the other agents read and decide. Authors: You don’t have to agree to it. If the offering agent really wants to sign you, they’ll wait. They’ll wait and do battle with other offering agents. They’ll wait, and check in, and tell you again how much they love your work. If after two weeks, their interest in your work expires, well, they probably won’t be the best agent for you anyway.

Here’s the other side, and I’ll speak for myself. Other agents may have different feelings. But when I have a pile of urgent things that need to be done for my existing clients, and say this week someone has been particularly taxing, getting an email saying “you gotta read this and decide if you want to get married in the next week”, I may start to think, “Ugh. Here’s a demanding author. Do I really have time for her? Will she always be so insistent?”

Here’s a better way, in my humble agenty opinion: When you get an offer, tell the offering agent, “Hooray! Thank you! I need to get back to some people, and I will give you my response as soon as I can.”

If OA says, “You have two weeks to decide.” you can say, “Ok, I understand your time is valuable. I will try to respond in that time, but it may take a little longer to hear back from everyone. I hope that time limit is flexible.” Hopefully OA will understand. ETA: This doesn’t mean you should string them along for the next six months. But if it takes two weeks and 2 days, or three weeks, or a month, OA should be ok with that.

Then you go back to other agents, and say “I have an offer, and I’d like to be able to respond to it within two weeks. But if you need more time than that, please let me know.” Instead of “I need to know within two weeks or else.” ETA: You’re making a very big decision that will impact your career for a long time to come. Easing up on the timelines gives everyone the room to breathe. You can interview people. You can think about things. You can weigh out your options. Yes, two weeks is usually enough to decide. But sometimes it isn’t.

Also ETA: I’m not advocating for the process to take forever and ever. We all need to be respectful of each others’ time. What I’m saying is that 1. an offer of representation shouldn’t expire after a certain number of days, and 2. you can tell agents you want to hear from them by a certain time, but if they are interested and need more time, it’s in your best interest to work with that.

We’re all human, and believe it or not, we want everyone to succeed. So when we hear you have an offer, we’re happy for you. We may want in, but if you seem like a demanding diva, we may walk away on that basis alone.

ETA: Asking for what you want and need is not acting like a diva. Not being flexible to force someone to do things your way with no leeway is.

If time is money, is more time more money?