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.


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. 

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.


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 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!

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

Welcome to the Inside of My Head!

Oh, good, you must be thinking, another blog! Way to be late to the party, Heather. Better late than never, say I! Welcome, everyone. I’m glad you’re here. My intent with this page is to share my opinions alongside some information about the publishing world, and maybe some other things I find interesting, like the latest Prada collection, or kimchi tacos, or how I’m easing toward the life of a sneaker-head. I may include some book reviews, or interesting etymology, and maybe even, if I’m lucky, some guest posts.

So come one, come all, and leave your comments after the beep.