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At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Year in Review: Youth Literature

My tenure as a judge for the National Book Awards, 2011, ends today.  It was a fabulous, exhausting and  remarkable experience.  Along with four other judges (Ann Brashares, Nikki Grimes, Marc Aronson, Matt de la Pena), I read 278 books over the summer.  Our panel gradually narrowed the entries to about thirty, then ten, and then the five finalists

While the five finalists--make that six, what with the now infamous confusion of "Chime" with a non-contender by a similar title--got all of the attention, there were other  noteworthy books that got our panel's full attention, but didn't quite make the cut.  It was painful, letting go of books I greatly admired, but compromise was in order as we had a job to do:  pick a winner.

So below is an informal list of the "contenders"--books that all of the panelists came to know well, and to wish well beyond 2011:

Between Shades of Gray*
Chime  (finalist)
Inside Out and Back Again  (NBA Youth Lit winner)
My Name is Not Easy    (finalist)
Flesh and Blood So Cheap (finalist)
A Plague Year
A Girl Named Faithful Plum
The Babysitter Murders
Bird in A Box*
Black, White, Other*
Dragon Castle*
Eliza's Freedom Road
The Flint Heart*
The File on Angelyn Stark
How to Save A Life
The Near Witch*
Paper Covers Rocks*
Okay For Now  (finalist)
Saving Zasha*
Skate Fate
5000 Years Of Slavery
Small Acts of Amazing Courage
Vietnam:  I Pledge Allegiance
We All Fall Down

*books that got lots of discussion.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Super-Committees": If Writers Can Do It, Why Not Politicians?

          It occurs to me that I just served on a “super-committee.”  One that got its work done, on time, and with minimum drama. I recently concluded several months work for the National Book Foundation as a judge in the youth literature category (details below in earlier postings).   Reading and evaluating close to 300 novels was my main task, but it required me to work closely with the four other judges. All, like me, were writers.  And while we knew of each other, we had not met, or had met only in passing on the book trail.
          Our panel of five included three men and two women.  An age range from 28 to over 60.  Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian.  East Coast, West Coast, and the Midwest.  Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.  We all had distinct opinions on what constituted a really good book, and while some of our opinions overlapped, many did not.  Five independent thinkers charged with working together and reaching consensus on the 2011 National Book Award for young adults.
          Our first step was to meet and get to know each other–get a sense of each other’s personality, interests, inclinations.  Then it was quickly forward to our work as book reviewers.  Each of us, over a long summer, read the same 278 novels.  We communicated by conference call, email, and a secure, online spreadsheet where we weighed in on the books, and ranked them.  In September we narrowed to a list of ten titles.  In October, the final five.  And, just last week in New York City, we met again in person to choose a winner, which was not easy.  Over a three hour lunch we lobbied, cajoled, debated, dug in, gave ground and made compromises.  Failure was not an option.  People were depending upon us, and we came through.  The National Book Award for youth literature, as well as three other categories, was presented November 16 at a grand ceremony in New York City, after which our committee packed up and went home.
            Unfortunately, our national “Super Committee” charged with deficit reduction has not worked so well.  Worse, it is nightmarish kind of déjà vu for those of us from Minnesota:  we all remember the disastrous government shutdown of the summer of 2011 that, most of us agree, did not have to happen.  As I look back at my NBA “super-committee,” I see several factors that helped us complete the work, ones that politicians ought to try some time....
 1.      We approached our task with an open mind.  As best we could, we left our literary prejudices at the door.  I write realistic fiction and nonfiction that tilts toward boys and men; I’m not a fan of fantasy novels, or the so-called “chick-lit.”  One of the younger, women panelists was best-selling author of novels for girls.  I lobbied hard for a novel focused to the Inuit life of hunting and survival above the Arctic Circle, while she advocated for a fantasy novel about twin sisters, magic and misty glens. In the end, we came to understand and like each other’s books a great deal, and support both of them as finalists.
2.       We did not inject personal or cultural issues into the debate.  Our job was to discuss books.  Period.   Not religion, or what constitutes liberty, or whom we can marry, or what we can do with whom, or whether it’s right to buy wine in grocery stores on Sunday.  None of us believed it was our role to tell the others how to live their lives or what to think.  True, we had to choose one book out of a very large pile, which made us “deciders”, but we made our decision through a reasoned debate on the books only.
3.                    We made compromises.  No one had to give up his/her core beliefs about writing and literature, but all of us had to make tough choices.  Often we had to let go of one book in order to move another forward.  In the end, none of us got all of our choices, but all of us got some.  The winner was unanimous, a book we could all support, which is not to say we didn’t have regrets about some of our favorites not making the cut.  But without compromise, we would never have finished.
4.                   We were not beholden to or pressured by outside forces.  All of us authors had publishers, editors and agents, and our publishing houses especially stood to gain from a winning book. But our editors left us alone, and we them, and we made our choices based solely on the books at hand.
5.                   We did not make the process all about us, even though there was lots of opportunity to do so (I'm referring to the infamous error in the announcement of the final five authors).  The work of any committee is  is more important than any one member.  We did not seek microphones or the spotlight.  None of us tried to leverage our role into something more.
      In short, by using a few fundamental approaches to group work–ones that politicians ought to know– it is possible to get things done.  I can only hope our national and state legislatures can start to work half as efficiently as this disparate group of writers thrown together to get a job done.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Best of the 2011 Books for Young Adults

If you've followed the 2011 National Books Awards, it means you're a reader.  You are interested in what's going on in American literature and, what with the controversy of the "mistaken novel", you might be particularly intrigued by what happened in the Youth lit category.  A mistake was made, the wrong novel announced, etc.  Hopefully that's old news by now, because it's time to shine a light on the true, young adult "final five." 
Below are those novels, one of which will be the winner at the awards ceremony in New York City on November 16.  As a way of shifting the conversation, our five judges each have written a summary of one book.  It doesn't matter which judge wrote which summary; we are a group, a cohort of authors that read, discussed, had conference calls, argued, lobbied, laughed, cringed (at the error when the finalists were announced), got angry, discussed--well, you get the drift.  So below are our choices.  I think you'll like all of them, as we did.  And, as the old Sinatra song goes, "Let's start spreadin' the news."

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
Set in Alaska above the Arctic Circle, My Name Is Not Easy interweaves nature, culture clash, religion and science into a vivid, multi-voiced narrative. The time is the early 1960s at the Sacred Heart Boarding School near Barrow. Eskimo, Indian, and White kids huddle at their own tables. Nothing is easy for kids uprooted from their villages: the food is not what they’re used to (where is the caribou meat, the whale fat?), the Catholic school rules are forbidding, the Cold War looms. This novel is deeply informed by the history and landscape of the high arctic region, where the relentless march of modernity presses on native culture. Back home the villagers still hunt, but now with the help of snowmobiles, not sleds. Though, as a wise elder remarks to a young hunter, “How is that snow machine going to find its way home in a blizzard?” This novel is deeply authentic; Edwardson lives where she writes, and she never falls into cliché. Even the nuns and priests are fully realized characters, with dilemmas of their own. This novel gives voice to an overlooked, outlier part of America, yet the dilemmas and victories of the characters are universal.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
If you were fortunate enough to read the Newbery Honor book, The Wednesday Wars, you’ll be familiar with the main protagonist here. In the summer of 1968, Doug Swietek moves to a small town in upstate New York, which he fondly refers to as “The Dump.” Not that it would matter much where he lived, since he’d still have to contend with an abusive father, a delinquent brother who routinely mistreats him, while sorely missing the oldest, most beloved brother who is away in Vietnam. Desperate for inspiration, Dough clings to a one-time encounter with a baseball star in this tour-de-force. What are the stats? A town that offers up a literary dugout of eclectic characters with bite and wit: a librarian/art teacher, an eccentric playwright, past her prime, a feisty female friend who proves she is more, and a host of grandmotherly neighbors who show Doug was kindness looks like. Schmidt uses these, along with Audubon’s Birds of America, to layer a rich story about choice, inner strength, and the transformative power of art. In fact, this is the first work of fiction I’ve come across that actually takes the reader inside of the process of creating art, while allowing him to experience, along with the character, the wonderful ah-ha moments that comes with exploring the creative process. An additional element that made this book a standout was the prominent place of the library in this narrative. Altogether an amazing achievement!

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Immigration was a recurring theme in the books we read this year but this one, which happens to be a novel-in-verse, was the clear standout. In a pure and authentic voice, a girl named Ha tells the story of her family’s harrowing escape from Saigon as it falls, the horrific ship-ride to America, and the other-worldly experience of landing in Alabama where the coldness of strangers awaits them. Ha, a tough and tender ten-year-old fights for her place in America while relying on the strength of the culture that gave her birth. The emotional impact of this story is felt as much in the words that aren’t said, as in the words that are. With hints of humor throughout, the poetry carries the rhythms of the Vietnamese culture. Readers will think more kindly toward the immigrants in their midst after spending time between the pages of this book. For me, this was love at first read!
Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin
This work of non-fiction explores the infamous Triangle Fire, one of the worst, and most preventable, work-related disasters in American history, eclipsed only by the events of 9/11. In the hands of Marrin, the scope of this story is deep, and wide. The book traces key points in the history of Southern Italians and Russian Jews—the primary victims of the fire—exploring the reasons their forebears immigrated to America, and what brought their descendents into the factory sweatshops of early New York. Readers learn about the so-called “Black Italians,” the impact of the Mount Vesuvius eruption, the Russian pogroms, the Pale of Settlement, right up to Ellis Island, once known as “the Island of Fears,” and the fall of Tammany Hall, illuminating bits of history connected to the Triangle Fire event. The book then follows the impact this disaster had on shifting labor laws and practices to create the more humane, and safe, working environments we all enjoy today. Mirren also brings to light unheralded heroes and heroines of the American Labor movement who rose up to lead reform, and organize unions to push for necessary changes in the workplace. There is drama, poetry, and music in the language here, allowing this history lesson to flow with ease.
Chime by Franny Billingsley
Don’t be fooled by the cover. There is nothing cookie-cutter about this novel. Take twin sisters, a boggy landscape, a handsome young stranger, a ghost or two, then add a magic cauldron, and stir. This book features some of the most lively, original, engaging line-by-line writing you’ll find anywhere. What’s more, the lush language is at the service of a story which manages to explore a dark psychological bond that will be eye-opening for alert, self-reflective readers, and heart-pounding for fans of romance in a kind of steampunk fantasy landscape. This book will be a stretch for many readers, but the remarkable use of language makes the journey a singular experience.
Now that you’ve had a chance to learn something about these outstanding books, I hope you’ll check them out for yourself. They are well worthy of your attention and the authors deserve all of our support. Just imagine, for a moment, if you were one of these authors.

New Young Adult Lit to Look For (guest blog by Nikki Grimes)

Will says:  This summer and fall I had the pleasure of working with four wonderful writers in our role as panelists (judges) for the National Book Awards, Youth Lit division.  I've blogged some about about our experience, but now that we've gotten through almost 300 novels, we are starting to come up for air and to share what we've learned.

Below is a fine and useful blog by friend and fellow panelist, Nikki Grimes.  Check out her website and blog.  Here  Nikki writes:

". . . First, a couple of caveats: I don’t generally talk about specific books on this blog because that’s not what it’s for. I’m making this lone exception because, as a judge for this year’s National Book Award, friends have been asking me what wonderful titles I found along the way. So, this once, I’ll give you my two-cents worth of commentary on some of the latest, and what I, personally, consider the greatest YA titles entering the marketplace this year. Again, this is a one-time thing, so please don’t send me any books to review, because I won’t. That’s not my gig. You’ll also notice, I did not include publisher, price, or grade-level. Again, not my gig.

Second, the titles on this list are not the only good books published in 2011. There are many more, I’m happy to report, but you won’t find all of them here. These, in addition to the five finalists, are simply my own, top-tier favorites.

I love me some novels-in-verse, don’t you know. Besides Inside Out and Back Again, I found three titles to add to my collection. Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle gets my vote. An evocative story of adventure on a pirate ship and an island along the Caribbean Sea, this is a gem of a book with a lyrical lure. Eddie’s War by Carol Fisher Saller shows us the impact of WWII on a farm boy in the Heartland. True and tender. Then there’s Allan Wolf, who does not disappoint. This time around, his tome is The Watch that Ends the Night, a novel about the Titanic. Written in the voices of those intimately connected with the story—including the iceberg! (I love that)—Wolf steers the story place it’s never gone before. Kudos, Allan!

I’ve never been one for sci-fi novels, but one novel so catalogued got my attention. Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky was fascinating, and thought provoking. It answers the question “What if online communication completely replaced face-to-face human interaction?” The answer will give readers a lot to ponder, and they’ll enjoy the journey along the way.

Sara Zarr is up to nothing but good once again. How to Save a Life, a novel about a baby in need of a parent, and a parent in need of a mother, is a big story with an even bigger heart. When you’re done, you’ll want to give this book a hug.

Speaking of babies, do pick up Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan. I guarantee you’ve never met a character quite like Eleanor Crowe, nor thought of placing a pregnant teen in a so-called fat camp. Yes, there is some hilarity, but that’s not the half of it. What can a pregnant teen learn about herself in this environment? Read to find out.

I love books about tough-talking girls, and I could not put down The File on Angelyn Stark by Catherine Atkins. This smart, and smart-mouthed, teen is rough around the edges, and with good reason. But she fights to claim the good in herself, and discovers the courage to set her life on a healthy path. She’ll make you a believer.

Bird in a Box, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, is a break-out title about the impact boxing legend Joe Louis had on Depression-era America, in general, and on the African American community, in particular. The voices are authentic, and often joyful, and the historical detail brings the period to life. An uplifting story about hope and the human spirit, this would make a great classroom read. The author’s note and back matter expand nicely on the historical detail. Fabulous job, Andrea!

Another novel of note for its historical theme is Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Supetys. This novel explores a Holocaust story few have heard before. This book reveals the horrors suffered by citizens of the Baltic States, under the heels of both Hitler and Stalin. A powerful story of survival, compassion, and amazing grace. Another title that cries out for the classroom.

Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada is a small, but important contribution to the national dialogue on immigration. This gently written story takes readers inside the duality of being a first-generation American, with a foot in two cultures. The reader is challenged to examine what it means to be an American.

As most of you know, I am not a fan of profanity in books for young readers, but sometimes it’s necessary to make an exception. Compulsion, by Heidi Ayarbe is one. In this novel about a boy wrestling with OCD, the rough language is a powerful expression of the severe frustration this character experience every day of his life. He struggles, and often fails, to hide or control his symptoms, often teetering on the edge of despair. But he never gives up on himself, and neither will the reader. This is a great book for engendering empathy for those around us who battle their own disorders, whether they are physical, psychological, or economic. This book is one worth checking out.

Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams stole my heart, broke it, and then pieced it back together. This is a beautiful book about hope, with a character who emerges in layers. Loved, loved, loved this book!

There’s another Lynch on my list. The wonderful Chris Lynch rocked it out with Angry Young Man. In this story about, quite literally, being our brother’s keeper, we are reminded to check the timber in our own eyes before judging the mote in someone else’s. That will make little sense until you read the book, and I suggest you do. And, oh yeah, there’s a bit of eco-terrorism thrown in, so I’d call this title rather timely. Lynch is a master of the powerful voice, so you’ll be hooked in no time.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick. Need I say more? A light-filled combination of visual and literal storytelling, as only Selznick can produce. This tale is richly imagined, and gives a glimpse of the World’s Fair in NYC, then brings the story forward. This book is a treat. Do yourself a favor and get this one.

Hey 13! by Gary Soto
Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac
Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon
Lie by Caroline Bock
Bloody Times by James Swanson (non-fiction)
A Girl Named Faithful by Richard Bernstein
Joseph’s Grace by Sheila Moses
The Summer of Hammers and Angels by Shannon Wiersbitzky
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy
Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson (absolutely stunning!)
Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack
We Are America by Walter Dean Myers
The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright
Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck
The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson
Eliza’s Freedom Road by Jerdine Nolen
St. Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

So, there you have it! I’m sure I left off some important titles, but after reading 279 books in one summer, I’m doing good to be able to narrow the list at all! So forgive me. I hope this list gives you a good starting-off point. That’s the most I can hope for."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

More on National Book Awarding Judging

As an NBA panelist this year, I can tell you what the judging is not about. It's not about settling scores. Not about rewarding career achievement. Not about "side-lining already successful titles." Not about lifting up lesser known authors. In fact, it's not about literary politics or really anything described above: it's about the book at hand. Is it successful? That is, a good story extraordinarily well told? If so, the novel will rise up from the pile of hundreds of submissions, and find its way to the judges' final selections. Indeed, the panelists are so overwhelmed by the volume of reading that who wrote or published the book is far down the list of considerations. We don't much care about the author; but we care greatly for his or her book.

(in reaction to “What Does The National Book Award Stand For?  What Should It Stand For?”, Oct 14, 2011)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

National Book Awards: The Judging Part

Update on my work for the NBA this long summer and fall:  finally got through several hundred (yes) YA novels, along with my four colleagues on the Youth Lit panel.  We met first in New York City to get acquainted, then had our meetings on a Google document/spreadsheet where we reviewed and ranked each novel.  We also had many conference calls.  I will write at length about this process for the HuffingtonPost, then repost that here--so won't go on at the moment.

I'm actually back on my heels and then some.  After all our hard work, there was a public relations fiasco at the very end.  The list of five finalists the committee submitted was announced wrongly on National Public Radio.  Two of the books had a similar name, and the wrong one was announced as a finalist.  The "real" finalist was quickly added to the list, but the damage was done.  Damage control is ongoing by the NBA as I write, and going way too slowly for my tastes.  More to come on this.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Your novel: E-pub? Or "old school" Print Publisher?

If you've finished a manuscript and think it's ready to submit, your timing at this moment in the history of book publishing is unique.  On the one hand, the "old school" brick and mortar publishing houses of New York are still buying and producing books.  However, they are far more cautious about their bottom line.  The days of big advances--or even modest ones--are gone unless you are Jackie Kennedy.  In a nutshell, it's simply more difficult these days to attract the attention of Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins or the like for a first novel.

Working in your favor is the rise of smaller, quality presses and "imprints" of larger publisher.  An "imprint" is a small publishing venture, nearly always created by a venerated  professional editor, within a larger publishing house.  An "imprint" is a kind of reward for a successful professional career in publishing.  Often the imprints specialize in certain types of novels that are dear to the heart of the main editor--which means you need to do you research before submitting to an imprint publisher.  There are also smaller, indie presses that publish a few titles a year, and will sometimes take a chance on a first novel.  A small press might print only a few hundred copies, but do so with the knowledge that lightning can strike:  the title wins some awards, creates some buzz, grows "legs" (as they say in publishing) and starts to sell well.

But say you get no response from the Big Six publishers in New York, and not a peep from the imprints and small presses or agents.  Luckily for you, there is Amazon and Kindle and the whole new world of e-publishing.   There are just enough success stories (Amanda Hocking, for example, the mom from Minnesota and her fantasy series) to make e-publishing attractive.  A whole new layer of jobs in publishing has arisen:  formatting and design for e-publication.  You can send your manuscript via email to any of one of hundreds of little "companies" (often they are a person or persons working from home).  They will prepare for your novel for Kindle or other formats and charge you anywhere from $150 to several hundred dollars depending on what you want.  Then you "Kindle-ize" your novel, sit back, and wait for the royalties to roll in.  As an add for Lotto goes, "It COULD happen."

But it probably won't.  There is a great flood of low quality, self-published e-lit that makes it extremely hard for your novel to the attention it so richly deserves :-).

My advice at this moment?  Don't be in a hurry to go the e-pub route.  Try to get at least some traction in the print world.  If you're getting absolutely no response from print editors, your writing is probably not competitive.  Sorry, but this needs to be said.   If your writing is competitive an editor, even a junior assistant to the assistant editor going through the slush pile will spot it.  And it will be far easier to sell your books and make a buck in the new, e-pub world once you've proven that you can compete in the old school world of ink on paper.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Manuscript Appearance

I'm working with a couple of aspiring writers, editing their first attempts at young adult fiction.  Both are thoughtful, bright, clever people.  Both have teaching experience and/or kids at the grade levels their work is aiming toward.  Both would be fine dinner party guests; both could carry a conversation with wit and style.  However, both have a ways to go in their writing, including understanding one key, technical matter:  manuscript format.

It's a cliche' that you only have one chance to make a first impression.  But all cliches are grounded in truth.  The first impression you make as a writer is your manuscript-- a visual impression.  With people, we  judge them first on appearance, on how well "put together" they are.  We use basic criteria of clothing, tidiness and all the little markers of personal style.  We do this without fail before we get to know them, that is, understand their personality, their values, their world view.

 Recently I was struck by a photo of people lined up for a jobs fair--how consistently tidy and well dressed they all were.  They had researched "the look" of a job applicant, and conformed to it.  Likewise there are formal rules for manuscripts, and editors can see immediately if you know them.   Most publishing companies use "MLA standards", meaning the Modern Language Association's guideline for manuscripts.  The formatting guide is boring stuff, but every professional writer uses it (or something similar for scholarly writing).  MLA formatting speaks to margins, paragraphing, line spacing, pagination, etc.  In general, your manuscript needs to be double-spaced with one inch margins; have paragraph indents (not block paragraphs, which are for business letters); and your name and the page number on every page.   My two aspiring writers had somehow missed all of that.

Think of your manuscript like those people in the job fair line.  You don't want to be the one wearing jeans and tennies when everyone else is wearing a suit.  If your manuscript doesn't mostly conform to common standards, the editor begins to read it with great skepticism.   And that's the last thing you want.

Postscript:  I have also encountered aspiring writers who obsess over format at the expense of the writing.  Their novel becomes an exercise in secretarial exactness!  Put content first, obviously, but make sure it's at least close to the common standards of publishing (double spacing always!).  The goal is keep your manuscript moving forward.  As one editor told me, "I'll read a manuscript until the writer gives me an excuse to stop."  Don't let appearance be that reason.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

So You Want To Write

Or more like you have a need to write?  That's a very good thing; it means (1) you're not dead, and (2) you have something to say.  About the world.  About the people in it. About your place in it.  Most people don't feel a need to express themselves or to examine their own lives (which is what writing is really all about).  So a tip o' the hat to you no matter what level you're at in your attempts to write and publish.

That said, let me list a few things that might help you along the way.  Earlier blog entries address most of these in more detail, so we'll consider this a kind of grocery list for the would-be writer:

1.  You should be reading.  A lot.   Read in the genre in which you hope to publish--read in volume, as if you're carbo-loading for  marathon (which writing a novel nearly always is).

2.  But when you're writing, stop reading.   Reading other authors' work while writing your own manuscript can cause hair loss, hives, headaches, nausea and low self-esteem.  It can also wreck your literary voice not say your prose style.  Don't read anybody and don't listen to anybody while you're writing.  Stay focused.  Your novel, your short story--it has to be all you.

3. Everybody who wants to write does so because they have Ideas.  But a good idea does not a good novel make.  It's in the How you write.

3a.  Or, as Alexander Pope wrote, "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance/As those move easiest who have learned to dance."   There's walking (writing sentences and paragraphs) which most of can do, and there's dancing (writing smooth-flowing expressive sentences), which precious few people have mastered.

4.  In other words, your goal is to Tell A Good Story but you must tell it well.   The true goal is a Good Story, Well Told.  And the latter is more difficult than the former.

5.  So after you've got your story clear in your head, after you know where it's going, now you have to focus on delivery.  That is, your fictional style.  This part takes times and practice, but is what, if you "get it"--if you take the time to see the subtleties in really good writing--will  separate you from the millions of people who, like you, just want to write.

(Look deeper in this blog for more on Fictional Style.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Here Comes the Judge: Reading for Literary Contests

I've been remiss on the blog but for  good reason:  I'm a reader for a national literary contest.  I won't name competition herewith, as work is ongoing.  And I truly mean ongoing.   I have 275 novels to read over the course of 4 months.  Nearly every day the courier comes with another box.  These are young adult novels, but some of them run to 400 pages, and every one must be given its due.  Its fair shake.

I'm one of five other readers, who are also writers like me.  We live across America, and meet on a Google document/spread sheet where we log in our comments for each book, and rank it. I can't say more about that, as work is ongoing.....  You get my drift here.   A serious competition like this is perhaps like a trial, wherein everyone says, "I can't comment because matters are under litigation."

But I can a few things generally:  reading novels in bulk, in volume,  is like getting an aerial view of publishing in America.  The predilections of some publishing houses are clear (girls books, genre fiction, seriously literary, fantasy).

I can also see the common "mistakes" that authors make.  I'm not talking English language here, but rather failures of vision--failure to see the work clearly.  As an artistic whole.

I approach each book with great hope that this will be THE ONE that will cut through the noise.  Will have the perfect balance of heart, vision, assemblage.  And I read until the author gives me an excuse to stop.  Which, dear reader (and writer), is the heart of the matter in terms of our writing

When I'm out the other side of this summer of reading, I'll be back here to talk about writing and everything I've learned from reading 275 novels in a row.  And why editors/judges stop reading your manuscript and move on to the next in the pile.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Self-Publication: The Debate (Stage Version)

                                        A Brief One Act Play With No Resolution

(Tidy home office full of books and manuscripts.  A baseball bat leans prominently against the desk of middle-aged male WRITER.  He is motionless, hands in lap, as he stares at blank computer screen.  He appears frozen. Standing to his left, dressed darkly in jeans with shirt tails fashionably out, is EVIL TWIN.  To the right, wearing pressed khakis, light colored shirt and tie, is GOOD TWIN.  They are arguing.)
Evil Twin
. . . But just weeks ago you wrote “Don’t Do It."  A commentary all the world see in the Huffington Post books section, am I right?

Good Twin
Yeah.  But I was talking about self-publishing real books.  The ones with hard covers, paper, glue and ink.  Self publishing E-books might be a whole different thing. . . .

That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!  I do not see why you stay with your New York publisher.  Those bricks and mortar house are going the way of the telegraph.  The steam engine.  The cassette tape.  The–

Hey, I like having professional editors.   Writers can only take a piece so far; then we need a pro to help us see it through.  And copy editors–they save us writers from looking stupid.  I couldn’t do without them.

Are you kidding?  You can hire all that shit done.  There are a million freelance editors out there begging for work.  They’ll work for food.

And how am I supposed to feel about that?

That’s you’re problem, don’t you see?  You’re too . . . too moral!   
(Shrugs).  Various editors have taken a chance on me over the years. Some of them have made money—big money—for their publishing houses.  Others have gotten stiffed or maybe even lost their jobs when one of my books hasn’t sold. So yeah, it is kind of a moral–or at least a loyalty thing.  Plus editors are bright, fun people, the kind you want to have drinks with.

And then these “nice people” take years to bring out your new book.

(Shrugs again.) Big ships turn slow.  But they’ll get you there safely–and in style.  Publishers like  HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster and Farrar Straus & Giroux put out high quality books, not the amateur crap you see online.
But you’re not an amateur, don’t you see?   You could do all of it yourself:  write the novel, hire an editor and a copy editor, pay an artist a few hundred bucks to do a great cover, a computer geek to format the e-book, and launch the thing next day through an e-distributor.  I ask you, how long has your upcoming young adult novel, The Survivors, been in the pipeline with your precious New York publisher?

                                                (greatly annoyed)
That’s a special case.  I was way late on delivery, and they're repackaging the prequel for a simultaneous release with the prequel, Memory Boy–it's gonna be a very big deal.

Dude, you sound like Willy Loman.  It's been almost three years for The Survivors in editorial and production, am I right?  The woods are burning, man! 

(silent but clearly agitated)

And royalties–what is your precious old school publisher paying you?

About 10 percent on hardcover and 6 percent on paperback.

Self-publish through Amazon and you get over twenty percent–which is a major gouge and is not going to last.  Do it all yourself, and you keep up to 70 percent.  You could sell your e-book for under five bucks–think of how many more copies you’d sell.  Think of the money you’d make!  You've got kids in college–think of them.

Now just hold your horses.  Sure, I get lower royalties from the old-school publishers, but they’re also going be there when some fly-by-night e-platform or e-agency, whatever you want to call them are long gone.  Do you actually think some e-distributor is going to keep paying me–or my kids– royalties when their business, which is probably run by 20 year olds, doesn’t have a fucking address?

Whoa!  I'm sensing some anger here.

 Bricks and mortar publishing houses are like the bond market– unspectacular but safe.  E- publishing  on the internet is probably like investing in a hedge fund–the returns look great, but there’s a 20 year old Bernie Madoff lurking in the shadows.

Yeah, well, you’re not getting any younger, my man.  Remember how you thought “Pong” was a really great game, and how your little green screen Apple IIC was the coolest thing since  toaster tongs?  But, circa 1975, you didn’t buy any stock in Apple or Microsoft?  Well we’re back to the future, amigo.  Don’t be stupid. The big wave is here–you want to miss it again?

         (grabs baseball bat)
Now you’ve gone too far, you %Y&%@$&_&*!  Come here.  I've got something for you!

(GT and ET, shouting, chase each other around and around the writer’s desk.  He remains motionless, staring.  Curtain falls)