Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nobody Writes Alone

"You're the same person you were ten years ago but for the books you've read and the people you've met."

Writers meet all the best people at writers' conferences. I'm jazzed about folks I met at this past weekend's Central Valley Writers' Symposium.

Agents Elizabeth Wales, owner of Whales Literary and Kelly Sonnack from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and Associate Editor of Tor Books Stacy Hague-Hill lived with us through our San Joaquin Valley triple-digit heat and our bumbling one-one-one pitch sessions. They each shared what they are looking for in a manuscript and the things that turn them off. They ate with us, trying to swallow their food between our ubiquitous questions.

Okay I admit shouting questions over the bathroom stall wasn't my best moment, but here are some random treasures gleaned:

The story needs to come from the words--lively prose.

What are your goals as a writer? Positive earn out? Changing lives? Writing more books? Don't tell a prospective agent your goal is to be on Oprah, hit the N.T. best seller list and have instant worldwide recognition. May be true, but it's best not to overwhelm them up front.

Allow the child reader figure out the problem before the hero. We all love to feel smart!

Harry Potter changed children's publishing. Adults aren't ashamed to be seen reading YA. YA crossover has new energy. Big name authors are coming over--and isn't that just what we all needed.

Picture Book sales are down with the economic downturn. Pardon me while I blot my sniffles.

Agent/Editor Turn-offs:

mouthes dropping
faces draining of color
eyes widening in surprise, same with eyebrows
"as you know, Bob" dialog
chatty narrators
First sentence weather reports
children's manuscripts about pets, ABCs, holidays, rhyming anything
and paranormal creatures unless they are new and fresh
recaps of action as opposed to things happening on the page
too much emotion before reader knows and sympathizes with characters
too much description

Agent/Editors look for:

compelling stories & characters who make them "care"
real emotional responses described in fresh new ways
universal themes

I'm convinced now--at least at Whales Literary Agency, Tor Books and Andrea Brown Literary Agency--our queries are viewed by "friendly faces" who read submissions with anticipation because they love to discover talent. Kelly Sonnak says, "If you do what you love, part of your salary is loving your work."

These new acquaintances gave me insider tips, a new appreciation of our business and the jazz to keep on writing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Getting it Right For Kids cont.

Ray Bradbury says, “Libraries raised me.”

And if you’re a writer, I’ll bet you can say the same thing. I know I can. When I walked into my hometown library after being gone for 30 some years, I explained to the new librarian, “this is my natural habitat.” Over the past twelve years she’s placed dozens of inter-library book orders to help with my research and even shelved a few China related titles she might not otherwise have purchased.

She helped immeasurably when she steered me to the children’s section. Children’s non-fiction is an amazing resource. Easy reading too. One personal aside, collections of adult non-fiction tend to be a bit outdated in California public libraries. Friends of the Library funds often go to buy the latest best-selling novels and although our Governor’s proposed budget allows library funding to continue at present levels, our present levels have taken a 75% cut over the past few years.

Ray Bradbury recently appeared at a fund raiser to help a library in Ventura, California, threatened with closure. Libraries are particularly vulnerable during economic down turns. Ironically, it’s during these times that they are most valuable. Families rent books and videos they can’t afford to buy. People swarm the free computers. So, say a prayer for us in California and do what you can to protect your own dear public library. They are fundamental in getting it right for kid’s books.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

You'll Hear About It!

“Eastern dragons don’t have FLAMES! They are water beings.”

The Warlord's Puzzle, my first mathematical adventure picture book set in medieval China, had barely been shelved in bookstores when my sales rep called to tell me a woman in New England questioned its veracity. Second to a bad review—and I was smarting from several of those—nothing scares a newly published author more than being told she’s gotten her facts wrong.

Thank God, Nicolas Debon, the Warlord’s series artist and I based our picture and description of “red flames” curling around the legs of “painted golden dragons” on a photograph of Tang Dynasty artifacts! I subsequently learned Eastern dragons are indeed water creatures, bearers of thunder. They have flames coming from their joints, not from their mouths like St. George’s western dragon. I should have known all those things before I dared mention a dragon!

In his introduction to Bells and Grass, Walter de la Mare cautions, “I know well that only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” These words (and my fear of a certain New England reader) keep me in constant fact-checking and research mode. Do I make mistakes? Sure, but not for lack of trying. You probably will too, and you can be sure your readers will let you know.