Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, January 30, 2009

This Week in Publishing 1/30/09

This week! The publishing!

The publishing business is in the doldrums, but there's still gold in some of them thar hills. The New York Times examines the business of author websites, and Amazon's sales rose 18%.

And speaking of booming business, this week's "Self-publishing is the wave of the future" article is brought to you by, who else, the New York Times, who looks at the booming biz of POD. Motoko Rich begins with the ominous words, "The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them," for which I hope she paid Sean Lindsay a royalty.

This week in celebrity publishing news: Molly Ringwald. Yup.

HarperCollins has built quite a following behind its new site Authonomy, whose devotees are so rabid they make English football fans look like well-behaved choir boys. Anyway, Harper announced that they had given three book deals to authors they found on Authonomy. Meanwhile, one of the devotees of the site, Alexander McNabb, posted a great rundown on his experiences and thoughts on its future. (thanks to C. Michael Hall for the link).

An aside: what's most interesting to me about Authonomy is how thoroughly populated it is with people who grew tired of the "gatekeeping" system of publishing and networking. So they upload their manuscripts, then participate in a Darwinian system of elimination and calculated networking that would make Machiavelli blush, all in the hopes of making it to the editor's desk and hopefully pleasing Harper's.... gatekeepers. Also: just pointing this out will spawn a thousand e-mails, outraged anonymous comments, and message board threads. I'm telling you, these people are intense. (I kid, Authonomaniacs! I kid! I hear it's fun and you get good feedback! Please don't burn my virtual image in effigy!)

In depressing news: the Washington Post Book World will no longer be a standalone book section and layoffs at Publishers Weekly.

And finally, our first page contest ended a year ago now and...... people are still entering.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Open Thread!!

I found the responses to yesterday's post quite interesting, and before we get to the open thread I wanted to clear up some common misunderstandings about the Sony Reader and the Kindle (Sony and Amazon marketing teams, I accept free e-readers and Kings tickets. Call me.).

Steve Fuller summarizes things best:

"1) The screen is not like reading a computer, it is like reading a piece of paper. You have to trust me on this one.

2) Whenever you buy something, Amazon backs it up on their site, so if you lose your Kindle (or it breaks), you still have all your books.

3) The battery lasts for a LONG time and only takes a couple hours to charge.

4) There are options to highlight, take notes, etc. for those who like to interactively read a book."

I would add: it's not like reading on a PDA, and you can customize the font size. If you don't see well you can re-create the experience of reading a large print book. If you like your type tiny you can make it tiny. And if you like reading in the bathtub you can put it in a ziploc bag. Try doing THAT with a paperback.

I understand that people have perfectly valid and personal reasons for preferring paper books, whether it's cost, DRM, or the smell of paper giving you a tingle, but just wanted to clear up some of those misunderstandings.


Open thread!!!

I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to stop by very often, but thought you'd like to get to know each other a little better. So cozy up, make some room on the sofa, and see where the conversation goes.

Possible topics:

- When Are We?
- Who's Jason going to choose?
- Read any good books lately?
- How about that weather, right?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Will You Ever Buy Mostly E-Books?

The Bransford household has gone paperless.

Yes, I was recently given a new Sony Reader (more on the Reader next week), which I then gave to my wife, which, after a week of use, converted her to our new paperless overlords. Enthusiastically. We honestly can't imagine going back to paper books, and in fact, I haven't read a paper book since I got my Kindle. Which was a long time ago.

I asked this question a little over a year ago, and given how much has changed since then with the rise of the Kindle and Sony Reader, I thought it would be interesting to ask it again and see where things stand:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Questions: Answered. Kind Of.

Is there room to play with genres if you're querying in one and want to write while you wait. In other words, will an agent expect you to stick close to what you've submitted? I stay fairly dark, but play in horror, sci-fi and a mixture of semi-literary commercial fare. Also, am I able to start a book of short stories, or is that putting the car before the horse.

Write what you want and what you love and whatever is going to make you happy. However.

There are indeed authors who are able to branch out into multiple genres, who write wildly different types of books, and who are successful in different genres. These people also tend to eat coffee grounds for breakfast and mainline Red Bull.

For most mortals, it's best to take things one step at a time. Until you've reached John Grisham level, try and stick to one genre. Because as a writer, you get better. You learn the conventions. You can draw upon your previous work. If you are published, your readers get to know you and your style. Many of the bestselling authors of today weren't born so, they got there through gradually building their audience by writing books of a certain style.

As I've said previously on the blog, it's hard enough to break out in one genre, let alone several. When you have an agent you can discuss hopping and decide what's best. But for most it's best to stay near home.

Do you recommend writing groups, and if so, is there a website devoted to listing them?

This is a question for your fellow writers. I'm like Padma on Top Chef. I just eat the food. I don't need to see how it's made.

Which genres are hot?

Celebrity books and books by existing bestsellers.

(Seriously though, I strongly discourage trend watching.)

When is the new Amazon Kindle coming out?!

According to noted technology gossip site The New York Times, the new Kindle will drop February 9th

I know you only accept email queries, but I'm over here, freezing in Arizona, for a change, and wondering if snail mail queries hold more weight for other agents than the email. It's probably a frequently asked question but I'm really curious about your opinion.

I'm sure this varies from agent to agent, but if they have submission requirements posted, follow that. For me: I look much more highly on the e-mailed queries, because that's how I ask to be queried. But I will say this: if Michael Chabon sent me a letter in the mail I would not throw it away. In fact, I might even write him back.

I'm currently shopping a YA paranormal; while I haven't been offered representation yet, some of the comments I've received make me think I'm getting close. Meanwhile, a friend with publishing experience in the erotica genre read some of my more adult work and thinks I should give erotic romance a try. If I use a pen name and place something with an erotica e-publisher, am I hurting my chances of publishing my YA? I've read up on the possible perils of working in different genres at the same time, including your take on the matter in your FAQ, but I'm specifically concerned about having a more adult publishing credit come back and bite me when I'm writing for younger readers.

You genre hoppers! Always with your hopping!

In the world of the Internet, it seems pretty hard to keep a secret. If you think one is going to endanger the other you'd need to think really carefully about whether you're willing to risk that.

How do you feel about pen names? Have your authors run into any problems using them that you could warn us about?

Pen names can be necessary at certain stages in a career when an author needs a fresh start, or when authors want to avoid the harsh glare of third world dictators. But they should not be adopted lightly and there should be a very good reason for it, mostly because it's an incredible pain to have to pretend you're another person. In this world of blogging and Twittering and nonstop publicity, it's even more of a pain than it used to be.

Do you think more agents will be following Firebrand's idea of offering "query holidays", where writers submit first pages instead of a query letter?


I'd be curious to hear how they felt it worked though. I heard third hand that they ended up requesting more material, which had query-hating authors rejoicing and saying "See! See!!"

But as an agent obsessed with efficiency, I'm not sure I see requesting more material as a harbinger of a successful system.

This past Friday, you mentioned in the comments section of your blog: "And, of course, it means I'm always on the lookout for the next great self-published book." What about small press books for which the publishing contracts have expired, or the publishing house has gone out of business?
Many small press books have impressive resumes: review quote from famous author, hundreds of copies sold, major book awards, placement in libraries, etc.; but absolutely no distribution in bookstores. I’ve seen many such books moved from one small publishing house to another, and have always wondered if the author ever tried to contact a literary agent before submitting to another small press.

Yes, definitely. There are certain difficulties involved with a small sales track, but look: if the major publishers are going to move to a model where they only publishing the safe bets, they're going to be missing stuff. I aim to find said stuff.

If and when a writer does get signed by an agent, are there any newbie mistakes you see newly signed writers making on a regular basis in regards to agents and editors? Maybe if we know about them, we can prevent them from happening in the first place! Knowing is half the battle and all that.

Not all writers know that when they sign with an agent that they are expected to purchase a very, very nice bottle of wine, preferably over $100+ and send it to the agent's attention. They are then expected to follow that up with subscriptions to bacon of the month clubs, courtside tickets to sporting events (preferably basketball games involving teams from Sacramento), and by arranging lunch with Cormac McCarthy at his favorite diner.

Hope that helps!

RIP John Updike

Wow. Another titan has fallen.

Open Questions

I also apologize that I haven't been as good about responding to questions in the comments and via e-mail lately. The queries! They don't stop! I don't know if it's residual NaNoWriMo, a result of coming off the holidays.... I don't know.

Anyway. There's nothing worse than hearing someone complain about how busy they are (and yes, I hear your collective violins)... so let's get onto the questions!

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments thread and I will respond with a blog post answering them later in the day. At this time I'll be limiting it to 10 questions, sorry.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Query Critiques

Thanks so much to everyone who offered up their query for critique. As always, if you want to discuss the queries in the comments section, please be polite as if your life depended on it. Because it does.

I'll reprint the queries in their entirety and then write my comments below each one.

I wrote the second draft of my query to you this weekend—your timing couldn't be better. See below (and note that the formatting got cut out):

January 26, 2009

(Sent via e-mail)

Dear Mr. Bransford:

Anders Davis and Shannon Niles, two University of Washington student reporters for The Daily, decide to explore the Greek System following what appears to be a rape at a fraternity house. Over the course of their investigation, the two become so enraptured with the object of their study that they become increasingly implicated in the events and crimes they are supposed to be covering.

I learned about you through your blog and am writing to offer A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night, an 80,000-word novel, largely because of it. One post in particular stands out, in which you wrote, “Around the publishing industry there has long been a hankering for a certain type of book that is both literary and yet commercial, familiar and yet exotic, well-written but not too dense, accessible but with some depth. They are books that are kind of tough to categorize, because they don't exactly fit into any one genre. I'd often hear people calling them either literary commercial fiction or commercial literary fiction.” I like to think that A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night fits the hybrid category you describe: it’s fueled by a powerful plot but is also concerned with language and expression, especially because its protagonists are self-aware writers.

The title refers a couplet from the Donne poem “Loves Alchymie:” “So, lovers dreame a rich and long delight / But get a winter-seeming summers night.” The couplet implies that what one so ardently seeks might, once it is acquired, seem quite different than how it is anticipated, and in that respect reflects the novel’s arc.

By way of background, I began the Ph.D. in English Literature program at the University of Arizona this fall, and I graduated from Clark University in 2006, where I earned a B.A., Magna Cum Laude, in English, with a specialization in creative writing. In addition, I write an independent literary blog, “The Story’s Story,” at, as well as “Grant Writing Confidential” with my father, Isaac, at Although I have never been a fraternity member, A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night draws on more than a dozen interviews conducted with current and former members as well as numerous books and articles about Greek life.

Thank you in advance for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.

Jake Seliger

First off, I don't know what formatting got cut out in the transfer, but you're lucky it did. This is precisely how a query letter should be formatted! Forget indents, forget centering..... just a single-spaced letter with two spaces between paragraphs. So good work on that.

I'm afraid, however, that this query demonstrates one very, very common foible: very little of the query is actually about the work itself. Particularly for a novel, this is a grave error. There's a paragraph about me, a paragraph about the title, and a paragraph about background. The amount devoted to the actual novel: 64 words. That's not enough.

I don't really need to know where the title comes from, don't really need to know so much background unless it's directly pertinent, don't really need to know the inspiration that led to the novel, and while I very much appreciate that one of my blog posts resonated, I don't need to see it quoted back: I remember it. Just a reference is ok.

What IS described here.... it sounds like an interesting premise, but I'm afraid I feel it's described somewhat awkwardly. How do two people, male and female, investigating a rape become implicated in the crime? I guess that's the plot, but I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

Attn: Mr. Bransford,

Gil Jacobs must die in order to save his soul. After living dozens of lives over hundreds of years, the events of Gil's past are catching up with him, and he is powerless to prevent it.

Gil is supposed to die in a car crash, it's his fate, but a ghost who knew Gil in a past life is trying to keep him alive as payback for a lost love. If Gil lives past today, he will not be able to cross over when death eventually claims him, and his soul will be ripe for the taking. If Gil dies, he will escape to his next life and the ghost's chance at vengeance will be lost.

Fortunately, Gil is not alone in his struggle. The soul of a friend watches over him, and she alone has the capacity to keep the antagonist at bay long enough for Gil to die. Even if it means sacrificing her own soul.

FATE'S GUARDIAN is complete at 120,000 words. It is a supernatural thriller directed toward a commercial fiction audience, and first in a series titled DESTINY'S WILL.

I have been writing professionally for the past eight years, although admittedly not in my preferred style or market. I welcome the opportunity to embark on a career as a novelist. Writing is in my blood and I want my stories to be read.

I am a longtime reader of your blog, and I chose to query you because I trust that you have the talent and contacts needed to sell FATE'S GUARDIAN to a respected publisher. I also think that we could work well together, after all, people do business with people.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Rick Daley

This query is fine. It's structured well, it's not too long and not too short, and I think the opening sentence is evocative.

But I'm afraid that while I think there's an interesting idea here, I found the setup confusingly described. Take just this one sentence: "Gil is supposed to die in a car crash, it's his fate, but..." This sentence could be very easily rewritten as "It is Gil's fate to die in a car crash, but...", which would be more readily comprehensible because it doesn't have a repetitive interjection.

I also came away from the second paragraph thinking, wait, why does this ghost want payback over some other ghost, how did vengeance get in here, and what does this have to do with Gil? The first ghost's relationship to Gil seems kind of crucial, no? Or is this two stories, and the only relationship that matters is between the ghost and the other ghost? And then there's a third benevolent ghost, but does Gil know this person is trying to help him by killing him? And most importantly: how does Gil feel about all of this?

Ultimately, I just didn't get enough of a sense of the "quest" of this novel. Is Gil just a pawn or does he have control over his fate? If Gil's the protagonist, what is he trying to accomplish?

I also am not a fan of things like "people do business with people" and "writing is in my blood." They're cliches, and even if they don't relate directly to the work itself, remember: Avoid cliches like the plague.

The Realm of Elin might look like 18th century anywhere, but it isn’t. Not even close. It’s the world where Joanna Messina wakes up, after she drowns herself. At least, that’s where Ruarc Trevelian, the man who saved her life and calls himself the king of wherever she’s landed, tells her she is. She thinks she’s delusional and hearing Ruarc describe visions that he’s had of her since she was five years old only confirms that assumption to her. Joanna tries as best she can to cope with being the honored guest of a king that rules over a land of wizards and feuding barons, some of whom would like nothing better than to see Ruarc abdicate and are on the verge of rebellion, and then, of the blue, Ruarc forces her to marry him. Since she’s less than thrilled at the idea, he agrees to keep it a marriage in name only, until she decides otherwise. But that turns out to take much longer than Ruarc ever imagines. Joanna doesn’t want to be a wife or, even more inconceivably, a queen. She wants to go home, especially after she begins having prophetic visions, herself, one of which is of her own death.
As Joanna’s new crown teeters very ineptly upon her head, Ruarc’s long dead cousin, Asric, returns to Elin, hell-bent on revenge for his own execution. To settle the score, he strikes at the two things Ruarc loves most and has sworn to protect. The kingdom he rules and his wife.


I'd like to take this opportunity to plug the following resources on this very blog:

The basic query letter formula

Anatomy of a Good Query Letter I
Anatomy of a Good Query Letter II
And please don't forget about the FAQs.

Thanks again to the brave authors who volunteered their queries!

Feedback Week

Happy Year of the Ox, everyone!

Readers have been requesting some more query feedback and a venue for asking questions that have not yet been answered on the blog.


Here's the lineup for this week:

Today: If you'd like to have your query critiqued publicly on the blog, please enter your query in the comments section of this post. The first three people will get a critique.
Tomorrow: I'll open the comments section up to 5 questions (maybe more if time permits), which I'll answer later in the day.
Wednesday: Your regularly scheduled You Tell Me
Thursday: Um.... well, I haven't decided what to do on Thursday.
Friday: This Week in Publishing

There you have it. Please enter your query if you'd like it critiqued!

Friday, January 23, 2009

This Week in Publishing 1/23/09

This week! Publishing!

This week in celebrity publishing, Sarah Palin has hired lawyer Bob Barnett for a possible book project, and there are rumors afoot that Britney also wants to get into the family business with a book or three of her own.

In completely 100% related news, the Telegraph in the UK has listed 100 novels everyone should read. What's #1? MIDDLEMARCH. Yikes, that's a little long, let's see, already read #2 MOBY DICK, what's next... Oh, ANNA KARENINA. Um. Scientists, aren't we a little behind on the technology of beaming novels directly into heads? Please stop your procrastinating. Thanks. (thanks to reader M Clement Hall for the link)

Speaking of, this week's "Future of Publishing" article is brought to you by Lev Grossman in Time Magazine, with usual suspects advances and returns being cited as plagues/relics of the 20th century, and self-publishing and e-books the wave of the 21st Century. Hmmm... why are the new "Future of Publishing" articles looking a lot like the old "Future of Publishing" articles?

And in case you need proof that the era of e-books has already arrived, 2.1 million people downloaded free electronic versions of Suze Orman's 2009 ACTION PLAN (via Pub Lunch, subscription). 2.1 million!!!!

Meanwhile.... Ugh. More layoffs.

Jessica Faust over at Bookends has been doing a series of query letters that worked, so stop by and check those out.

And finally, when I was a kid I was absolutely positive we'd have flying cars by the year 2000, but look! New flying cars!

Have a great weekend!

Polls and Books and "Trash"

Today I'm being roasted by the good people over at BookRoast (medium rare, I'm told), so please stop on by! Find out my strategy for escaping awkward lunches, the super-secret "First Word" contest, and how you can win a Thai statue (or at least $25 in cold hard gift card).


So why DID I ask the question yesterday about whether you think you're a better writer than the average reader of my blog? Some found it divisive, some found it provocative, some found it a no-brainer, and some found it an excellent opportunity to leave horrendously written SPAM (now deleted). So... why?

Well, there's one word floating around out there that really got me started on the path to asking this question. And that word is: "trash."

No, not your writing. Your writing is fine. But I've been seeing the word "trash" so much in the writing Internetosphere lately, even in the comments section of this blog. Not in reference to one's own writing, but rather in reference to other people's writing.

As in: "My book is so much better than the trash I find on the bookshelves."
As in: "The publishing industry only publishes trash."

One Oregon parent recently complained that National Book Award winner and seriously incredible book THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN was "trash" and had it removed (thankfully temporarily) from classrooms.

I. Loathe. This. Word.

A few months back, JA Konrath addressed this very topic. The Internet has made everyone a critic empowered with the ability to leave scathing Amazon reviews, and some wield their power to ill effect, leaving 1 star reviews and tossing around some extreme language. As Konrath writes, "The reality is, most movies and books don't suck."

And they don't! The vast majority are quite good, actually. Setting aside the occasional celebrity book that sails through the publishing process, which, hey, if you don't like them don't read them, books have to get through an insanely challenging gauntlet to make it to publication. Not just one person has to believe in a book: literally hundreds have to think it's worth publication before it winds up on your shelves.

Konrath attributes the rise of "this book is trash" reviews to "haters."

That may be so, but I was thinking... maybe there's psychology at play. Hence my experiment.

The vote now stands at 65%/35% who think they're a better writer than the average reader of this blog. That's obviously a statistical impossibility. I think.

Naturally people feel that they can write better than others. It's just human nature. People want to feel that they're good at something they spend so much time on, even when that might not be the case, and, as scientific studies have shown, particularly in the absence of accurate feedback (thanks to reader JohnO for the link). Ergo scathing reviews since an author thinks "I can do that" when, actually, not many people can?

Or maybe there's subjectivity involved. You know the saying: one man's trash is another man's treasure? Maybe they're just forgetting that what you might call "trash" might be my favorite book in the world.

Or maybe it's a mix of both. Reading is subjective. But there's also a part of writing that is definitely objective. When I have my contests and include publishing professionals in the judging, we always end up with roughly the exact same list of finalists. Does that mean that we're right and there are people who just can't recognize good writing? Or does it mean that we're just reflecting a certain taste that happens to be what the publishing industry collectively decides is "good," but which the reading public might not agree with?

I don't know why people reach the point of calling books "trash," but thought asking yesterday's question might help shed some light.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Do You Think That You're a Better Writer Than the Average Reader of This Blog?

A little experiment and conversation starter for this Wednesday.

We all know that getting published is hard and that only the strong survive, to the point that agents only take on a handful of clients a year despite thousands of submissions. At the same time, accurate feedback is rare in this business, and it's hard for someone to get a sense of their abilities. This might be a way of measuring that.

So You Tell Me: based on what you have seen from comments and contests, do you think you're a better writer than the average reader of this blog?

Then let's discuss the results and implications in the comments section.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes We Can

Whatever your politics or nationality and wherever you are and what you're thinking and feeling, I think we can all agree that this is a big day for America.

The swearing in:

The speech:

Friday, January 16, 2009

This Week in Publishing 1/16/09

The 500th post!! Confetti and all that. I'd like to thank the Academy, I'd like to thank my agents, and *tears*... Thank you to everyone who has helped make this blog so much fun for me to write every day. But most importantly, this is for the children who are sitting at home and watching this 500th post and thinking that one day they too could be a literary agent who blogs about bad reality TV shows and is unhealthily obsessed with Cormac McCarthy. Dreams come true, kids. They really do.

And, uh, how about that pilot, right? We should have a competition right now for naming his inevitable book. I'm going with ROUGH SKIES AND SAFE LANDINGS: Life Lessons from the Pilot of Flight 1549, and Why the Geese Hate Us.

But perhaps more astounding than a safe touchdown in the Hudson River is news that people are reading more! No, really! Although Maya Reynolds digs a little deeper to find that they're including Internet reading in the study for the first time. Hmmm... But then they say that didn't cause the increase. I guess I'll take whatever good news I can these days.

In agent blog news, Jessica Faust at BookEnds reminds us that attitude matters. Hopefully you have a good one.

And speaking of reading, a million people are now not reading on their iPhones! E-reader iPhone App Stanza recently announced their millionth download, proving that the iPhone/iPod Touches are e-readers to be reckoned with.

Simon & Schuster recently launched a snazzy new website! Lots of new features and interactivity and Web 2.0ness.

And....... ugh. More lay offs.

Author Sasha Watson posted a really lovely ode to Paris and what it means to her on the Penguin US blog, making me want to get back there as soon as possible. Paris! I miss you!! I will return when I have enough Euros! Don't forget about me!

And finally, via Galley Cat, Macmillan's online marketing team has compiled a very helpful guide to the publishing process, including the way in which editors read manuscripts four times in order to memorize them and name all the characters.

Have a good (long) weekend!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Guest Blogger: Adrienne Kress On Why She Writes for Children

Adrienne Kress is the author of ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN, and her new book TIMOTHY AND THE DRAGON'S GATE is out this week!

As a writer of middle grade novels, I probably get this question most often: “Why do you write for children?” Actually that’s probably the second most common question I get. The first most common question is, “So are you the next JK Rowling?” which I could never find an appropriate answer to until I just started replying, “Yes.” At any rate. This second most common question of why I write for children has always been a very interesting one to me, and one which I would like to discuss now.

First I would like to discuss the nature of the question. Often it comes out of a genuine curiosity – why do I like that particular genre, kind of like “Why do you write mysteries, western, literary” etc. But it can also come from a place of total confusion where truly the question is, “Why do you write for children instead of adults?”

It is a question that supposes that in an ideal world, an author’s first choice would obviously be to write for adults, because those are the “real” books. I mean, let’s face it, there is a stigma attached with writing books that aren’t for adults. There is also a stigma attached to writing genre fiction (SF/Fantasy) or romance books. In general, it is widely known that there are certain genres out there that don’t, for whatever reason, earn the same respect as commercial or literary fiction. This can be best demonstrated, I think, in a recent round table for The New Yorker, where in their attempt to discuss and praise a YA novel, the members of the round table manage to insult an entire genre with sweeping generalizations and total misinformation, calling the genre “facile” and “boring”.

Why it is that otherwise seemingly intelligent people are so determined to put down entire genres altogether boggles my mind. I truly don’t know why anyone of reasonable intelligence would make such generalizations. The whole point in having a thoughtful mind is understanding that there are good and bad elements to most everything, that making generalizations is the complete opposite of thoughtful logical analysis.

At any rate, because of these prejudices, I often do get the question.

And this is my answer:

I don’t write for children.

Yes, I am incredibly fortunate that one of the side effects of my writing is that I get to meet with some of the most amazing kids out there. That I get to be a source of inspiration to children around the world (which is still a little overwhelming for me). No author could ask for more. But in all honesty, I write in a genre that I happen to really love.

So what I’m doing, actually, is not so much writing for children as writing what I enjoy.

The question then becomes: What do I enjoy about children’s books?


I have never once had to explain to a child why it is possible for my story to have tall ships and laptops in the same universe. Why there is an Extremely Ginormous Octopus having conversations with people in a world where the rest of the animals behave as typical animals and no one blinks an eye. But I have had adults balk at those elements. And I have explained these odd juxtapositions simply as typical elements of “Magical Realism” (because that is truly my genre). Children are so much more willing just to sit back and enjoy the story, instinctively understanding that not everything has to have an explanation and that, in fact, sometimes a lack of explanation makes the story that much more fun.

I love the whimsy in children’s books. I love the saturated emotions, the dealing with real issues without overcomplicating them and over thinking them. I love how dark children’s books can be, how the stakes can often be life and death. And yet despite these elements I love how unsentimental children’s books are (contrary to popular belief of some writers who think children’s books must be morality tales, all sugary sweet; kids for the most part don’t put up with that nonsense). Children’s books don’t have time to revel in their self-importance. Kids are a tough audience and they’ll turn their backs if the story is less than stellar.

I love the humour in many children’s books I’ve read, the originality, the freedom. And I love the writing. Yes, you read right. I love a well-written children’s book. Because the actual writing in a children’s book can – surprise! – actually be good. The fact that a phrase comes across as simple, or straightforward, does not mean it doesn’t take a great deal of effort and talent to turn that phrase. Some children’s book authors can capture an exact moment, an exact feeling, in such a lovely straightforward way – but in an entirely original way as well.

Children’s books are also some of the last instances of the survival of an oral tradition. We rarely read books aloud anymore, nor sit around the fire and have someone tell a good old yarn. We read to ourselves, isolated in our own little world. But children’s books get read aloud. Parents read them to their kids, teachers to their students. For this reason many children’s book authors have great fun playing with language, with interesting words that are fun to say. There is a real love of language in children’s books.

In general there is a certain level of passion and excitement in the world of children’s books. It is a world that is, above all, interested in entertaining. I am not saying that kidlit authors aren’t interested in educating as well, but if the book isn’t entertaining you are going to lose your audience really fast and so lose out on any educating opportunities. The focus is so clearly on the audience and not on the author.

Finally there is also one rather grown-up pleasure for me as a kidlit writer: in the children’s book community, the authors, publishers etc, are just so wonderfully supportive of each other, so excited about what they do. It’s a community of warmth and generosity where, for once, the word “community” doesn’t have to stretch itself out of shape to be an apt description.

All of this is why I love children’s books.

Except that the books I read aren’t “children’s books”; they are “Adrienne likes this stuff books”. They are books meant for whoever enjoys them. I so often also get emails from adults who tell me they enjoy my work “even though they are meant for children”. Well, no. You enjoyed it, it diverted you, it was therefore meant for you.

The same can be said of any genre that one unexpectedly enjoys. We have to categorise things for practicality’s sake, but truly, every book is unique, every book has its own pros and cons. And that’s a wonderful thing. It might make life easier to put everything in its place, less messy, but, to me at least, doing so makes things a lot less interesting.

And a lot less fun.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's the Hardest Part About Being a Writer?

After Monday's post on the sobering odds involved in the publishing process, I think we can all agree that being a writer is not easy. Particularly when the publishing industry is going through such a tumultuous time.

It's not easy to pour out 250 pages, it's not easy finding an agent, it's not easy finding a publisher, it's not easy for your book to catch on, and it's certainly not easy to become the next Stephenie Meyer.

But what's the hardest part about being a writer?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Can I Get a Ruling: One or Two Spaces After a Period?

First off, congratulations to my childhood hero Rickey Henderson for being elected into the baseball Hall of Fame!! Not only was Rickey an incredible hitter and base stealer, he also said things like "Rickey don't like it when Rickey can't find Rickey's limo" (no seriously, that's an actual quote), making him spectacularly entertaining off the field as well. Rickey might just be the first baseball player ever to give his entire acceptance speech in the third person.

Now then.

I'd like to issue a parental advisory right now. Because of the impassioned feelings on both sides of this issue, this debate could get ugly.

Let's get this one settled once and for all.

(Deep breath)

One space or two after a period?


(Thanks to lotusgirl for the idea.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Picking Droplets From a Fire Hose

I have to admit that I was surprised by some of the responses to last week's discussion about queries. There's so much angst out there as authors struggle to find agents that some writers adopt an ends-justify-the-means mindset and think there's something wrong the entire process if their queries don't work.

But as I said in the comments section of Thursday's post, every successful debut book should be viewed on the order of a minor miracle. It's like throwing a manuscript across a river of paper-eating snakes and crocodiles and hoping that all the pages reach the other side. Success is hard and rare, and there is an incredible array of obstacles along the way.

Success is not the default, and success does not come easily.

And yet so many aspiring authors don't approach the business in this fashion. They expect success. They feel that they've earned success simply by completing a novel they think is good. And they feel that if they are not easily finding success something is wrong.

Then you start hearing things like agents don't know what they're doing, the query process is stupid, the publishing industry is going down the tubes because they won't publish MY book, etc. etc.

The system is not perfect, but it's also not broken. In fact it's working precisely as it should: It's winnowing tens of thousands of projects down to the few that are published. There are far more novels out there than can realistically be sold to publishers. Far, far, far, far more. To paraphrase Sean Lindsay, there are too many writers and not enough readers. Getting published is not supposed to be easy.

If there were a more effective system of winnowing down thousands of submissions than referrals and query letters I'd love love love nothing more than to find it and use it (and Jennifer Jackson agrees). But in order to decide if I'm interested in taking a look at a manuscript I need to know two things: what the book is about and whether the author can write well. And I need to know those things as quickly as possible because I have a million other things to do. That's precisely the point and function of a query letter. If the query did not exist, God would have to invent it.

It's not fun to be winnowed. But don't blame the winnowers. Just keep at it. And while you're at it, try and enjoy the process. Life's too short.

Please respect the system. It's there for a reason.

Friday, January 9, 2009

This Week in Publishing 1/9/09

There is a huge amount of news this week, and TWIP is bursting at the seams! Better get started.

First off, very sad news: long time reader Travis Erwin's house recently burned down, and Erica Orloff and Stephen Parrish have pitched in to create a website where you can donate virtual bricks to help him rebuild. I know it's tough times all around, but every bit you can spare would help.

As you vote for this blog to place far, far behind Neil Gaiman for Best Literature Blog at the Weblog Awards, be sure and also vote for reader Erik's blog Barataria for Best Culture Blog, and Amateur Book Blogger's The View From Here for Best UK Blog!

And thirdly in reader news, Heather Wardell, who so graciously contributed the query behind Anatomy of a Good Query Letter II, is releasing the novel it describes, LIFE, LOVE, AND A POLAR BEAR TATTOO for free! Go check it out.

Is it too early to nominate a blog post for Best Post of 2009? Because this post by Jessica Faust at BookEnds on how to write a nonfiction book proposal, and I mean REALLY write a nonfiction book proposal, is my nominee, hands down.

Over at the New York Times, multiple people (thank you!) pointed me to David Streitfeld's article about how he is contributing to the publishing industry's financial ruin by buying and selling used books on the Internet, complete with anguished quotes from booksellers. I don't have much to add here except to further bang my already-bruised forehead on my desk.

Oh, but maybe e-books are the answer! Well, Booksquare is here to tell you they cost way too much and will only sell if they're priced far less. The worst thing about this is that I DON'T EVEN DISAGREE WITH HER. Maalox! Get me Maalox!!!

Oh, but at least e-books have DRM and people have to buy them new, right? Well, iTunes will soon be dropping DRM protection and will allow more flexible pricing, which will surely have some broad implications for the downloadable audio market. Can DRM free e-books be that far behind? Will we then have a "used" e-book market? Am I going to need something stronger than Maalox?

Steve Jobs famously asserted that people don't read anymore, which is interesting because rumor sites are asserting the perennial rumor that Apple seems to be coming out with a tablet-sized or dare I say Kindle-sized, iPod Touch for people to not read on this Fall.

My favorite Shrinking Violets have a seriously great post summarazing a Columbia University study and resulting New York Times Magazine article in which people try and predict the success of a song. Turns out that buzz is basically random but then strongly reinforces itself.

Via the VQR blog comes Julian Gough's plea for another book stimulus package, this one aimed at buying up toxic bad books, and asserts that the government must be the reader of last resort.

And finally, in this digital age of Twittering and commenting on blogs, who has time for.... not writing? Polly Frost published an extremely hilarious and helpful antidote in The Atlantic if you are suffering from the opposite of Writer's Block

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

More on Ghost Queries

Thanks to everyone who weighed in yesterday on the question of ghost queries and queries by committee. Strong feelings all around!

Having now read the relevant blog posts, I'm actually not sure that the query that kicked things off is actually the best test case for the debate that followed. I can't speak for Agent Kristin, but my guess is that since Courtney's query was preceded by a client's enthusiastic recommendation and a successful in-person pitch appointment, Agent Kristin probably would have requested the manuscript short of Courtney confessing to a crime and/or stating that she hates kittens and puppies in the query (and she doesn't -- she's very nice). That's more of an example of how well networking and referrals work than anything else.

But back to the subject at hand: My own personal preference is absolutely that the person who wrote the book should write the query. I want to hear from the person I'm potentially working with, in their own voice, with their own writing. Incorporating feedback is fine, but I want to hear from the author.

And yet despite those opinions I have always felt decidedly ambivalent about this question, mainly because I know my own personal preferences are basically irrelevant. People are going to do what they're going to do.

The more important question, to me, is this: does it work?

Call me skeptical.

A query letter is not a competency test. Well, it partly is. Researching how to write a good one is valuable and increases your odds of having your manuscript requested. And getting good feedback from those in the know can definitely help, and I don't have a problem with that in the least.

At the same time, I think there's a huge tendency out there to overthink the form of the query, namely because it's the one part writers can easily control (and what, ahem, blogging agents can blog about). Aspiring authors begin to view the query letter as a lock that can only be picked by those who hold the secret key.

But more important than nailing the form is conveying the author's voice. It has to come through in the query. And how can a ghost query or query by committee convey the author's voice?

In a recent interview, agent Dan Lazar talked about how in an otherwise rambling letter there are times when certain lines stand out and make him want to read a manuscript. If the author's voice wasn't there, that wouldn't have happened.

I'm sure a ghost query or query by committee worked before -- it's a big publishing world. But if I were an aspiring author I'd be very careful, paranoid even, about ceding my voice to others. Even if you were to get to the partial request stage, it's still your work that's going to rise or fall.

I still stand by my basic feeling: if you can write a publishable book you can write a good query. It may be painful, annoying, time consuming, need feedback, result in hair loss, need some more feedback, take years off your life, and take multiple tries, but you can do it. You are a writer, after all.

(Bonus: Jennifer Jackson addressed this topic as well.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Queries By Committee?

An anonymous commenter in yesterday's post asked me how I felt about people submitting queries they did not write. This apparently is the result of a discussion in the comments section of another blog (I don't know which one*).

This isn't actually a purely straightforward question for me and I'll have more on my own thoughts tomorrow, but I thought I would broaden the question a bit more:

1) How do you feel about these ghost queries?
2) What about queries that are substantially revised with the help of a critique group, i.e. queries by committee?
3) How much help is appropriate?
4) Is it a good strategy?

Looking forward to this discussion.

*UPDATE: The discussion originated at PubRants and Courtney Milan's blog.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Year Reminders

Last night's Bachelor: not over it. Barely able to discuss. We'd better move on. Um. Not that I watched it.

It's come to my attention that this blog has been nominated for something called a Weblog Award! If you feel inclined to vote for this blog or for one of the other (more deserving) nominees for Best Literature Blog, you can do so here. You can vote every day if you are stranded on a desert island with only a laptop to entertain you.

It's a New Year, we're soon to have a new president, and with all the new stuff I thought it might be helpful to remember some old stuff. Here are some New Year reminders on general etiquette (Colleen Lindsay also has a refresher on her guidelines here).

Curtis Brown agent Emilie Jacobson requested that I ask that people kindly stop sending e-queries that state "Here's a link to my query and bio:" Agents do not like clicking on strange links! Sometimes they bite. Plus it wastes time. It's fine to include a link to your website at the bottom of your e-mail, but anything you really want the agent to see should go in the body of the e-mail.

Please do not call agencies for submission information. If you can find it online: go by that. If not: guess. The default is (still) to send a query letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope through the mail unless you see otherwise. Agents of the world thank you.

Meanwhile, I'm still getting a mystifying number of e-mailed queries professing that they've included a self-addressed stamped envelope in the e-mail. I'm still puzzling out the physics.

Please don't ask if it's ok to send a query. Just send it.

Formatting your query: Don't. Touch. Anything. Don't touch the fonts, don't choose the "Insert Bunny" option in the File menu, don't center your name, don't make the background look like clouds, don't indent, don't change the color to fuchsia, don't attach anything. Just open it up, type it out, and click send. Trust me.

And remember, friends don't let friends begin queries with rhetorical questions.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Can I Get a Ruling: Beginning a Sentence With "That"?

I'm back! Happy '09, everyone. May all of you win the lottery.

Longtime readers may have noted that in an effort to make this blog more... well, professional, I have cut back on the amount of virtual ink I devote to reality television. Yes, I know. I was attacked by a bout of seriousness. I'm sure I fooled everyone.

But there are times when men are shaped by momentous events that leave us powerless to the whims of fate, and swift, forceful action is required as a result. Such an epochal event is occurring this evening. And that is the premiere of The Bachelor.

NOT JUST ANY BACHELOR. You see, this year's Bach is Jason, perhaps the most achingly earnest Bachelor in the history of Bachelors. Not only did Jason so wholeheartedly believe in the premise of finding true love on the Bachelorette that even host Chris Harrison had to have been confused, he is also proud father of young Ty, and thus the first single dad Bach.

So many questions. Will Ty give out the roses to the bachelorettes? Will Chris Harrison sit down with Ty for serious interviews? Will the bachelorettes try to bribe Ty with cool toys? Will people feel guilty for deriving so much guilty entertainment at the expense of Ty's lifetime of therapy bills?

It will be.... something.


Call me crazy, but I have been getting stuck on sentences that begin with the word "that." Not just as in, "That was cool," I mean actual complex sentences. As in:

That I am asking you this question should tell you that I develop strange aversions from from to time.


That he had the smelliest breath in the general vicinity was not in doubt.

Is this a conversational trope I just haven't heard? Is this some sort of Southern hemisphere thing? Are the kids beginning their sentences with the word "That" and I'm just hopelessly uncool? Can it be done well?

Please give me a ruling.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Holiday Cheer: The Secret Formula of Bestsellers

I am currently on blog holiday, and am re-posting some refreshing concoctions from Christmases past.

Another day another newspaper article that slyly (or not so slyly) questions the sanity of the publishing industry. Today's entrant into this very crowded pantheon: the New York Times Business Section, who published a Sunday article (now the most e-mailed article on the NY Times website) about how the publishing industry sometimes has surprise successes and sometimes whiffs on big bets. (Just like, you know, ALL BUSINESSES.)

Among the many salvos is this one, that the publishing industry does not pay enough attention to reader input. The NY Times writes:

The answer is that no one really knows. “It’s an accidental profession, most of the time,” said William Strachan, editor in chief at Carroll & Graf Publishers. “If you had the key, you’d be very wealthy. Nobody has the key.”

The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.
A part of me wants to agree with the underlying argument. We should know our readers, it would be wonderful to inject as much science as possible into the art of selling books, and there have been wonderful advances in market research. As anyone who has watched the Apprentice knows, if you are going to try and sell some Domino's pizzas on the street you had better interview people about what toppings they like.

But then, I tried thinking about what this would entail. This isn't the movie industry, with a couple of hundred movies produced every year, nor is it even cable TV, which has a couple of hundred choices. I mean, on any given weekend a bunch of extremely smart people are estimating the grosses at the box office of a handful of movies, and they are fairly regularly caught off guard by the occasional sleeper like 300. Meanwhile, there are thousands upon thousands of books published every year, not to mention all of the books currently in print, not to mention all of the books that fill used bookstores and bookshelves. There are millions and millions of books out there. How could you begin to predict what kind of success a book will have in such a vast sea of choices?

So sure, some more market research would probably be nice -- information is always good. Publishers might be able to respond more quickly to trends, and readers might have their tastes more accurately responded to. They might be able to more effectively focus marketing campaigns and take some of the guesswork out of which books get a big push.

But let's not forget this is art we're talking about. It's subjective. An industry that markets a subjective product is always going to be based on hunches and guesses. Market research could tell you that people want a dog memoir, but it's not going to give you MARLEY AND ME. It could tell you that people like fantasy, but it's not going to give you HARRY POTTER. At the end of the day, science might make publishers more efficient, but the formula that makes a book a bestseller will always be a mystery.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!!

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