Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Is Your Favorite Banned/Challenged Book?

Over the years it seems like just about every great book was challenged at one time or another for reasons ranging from the well-intentioned to the indubitably dubious. At the Banned Book Week website you can check out a map of book banning and challenges, and the ALA has a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books in 2009 and the decade, as well as a list of banned/challenged classics, along with some of the reasons and places.

Which one is your favorite?

The great Tahereh Mafi (who by the way I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday she's awesome) is compiling a master list of blog odes to banned books, so if you decide to blog about it don't forget to add your name to her list and check out the others!

I'd like to give a shout out to #58 on the most-challenged-books list of the decade, Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going, one of those books that, when you see it on a banned books list, it makes you say, "Wait, what?!?!" I mean, what was this challenged for, EXCESSIVE AWESOMENESS?

FAT KID opens with an overweight teenager contemplating suicide on a subway platform, but instead Troy strikes up an unlikely friendship with Curt, who is cool and edgy and wants Troy to be in his band. It's a realistic and heartfelt and engrossing book that has an incredible friendship at its core.

This one is extra special because K.L. used to be a colleague of mine at Curtis Brown, and when I read it I was just blown away that I knew someone that insanely talented.

Please check it out if you haven't read it already!

And in the meantime, looking forward to hearing which is your favorite banned/challenged book in the comments section.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Which Book Would Prompt You to Talk to a Stranger?

Writer Kia Abdullah had the idea for this post, which is something we may lose in the e-book era: seeing what strangers are reading and possibly striking up a conversation.

Kia writes:

...So I saw a person reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides on the train and I just had to talk to them about the book (something I've never done before). If you haven't done something like this already, it might make a good You Tell Me (i.e. what book would make you talk to a stranger). I don't think it's always necessarily your favourite book, but one that you may have read recently or that is largely unread by your circle of friends and acquaintances.

Is there a book you're so passionate about that you'd strike up a conversation with someone you saw reading it?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Banned Books Week in the Internet Age

I was going to post about/celebrate Banned Books Week yesterday, but I needed another day to think this through. Certainly, I'm sure we all can agree that censorship, in all its forms, is retrograde, oppressive, contrary to democratic ideals, and rightly associated with totalitarianism and all sorts of other bad "isms." Free exchange of ideas serves the greater good. Censorship = horrible. And we should fight it when it happens.

At the same time, I want to kind of acknowledge that the fight against censorship and banned books is changing somewhat in the Internet era, no? And ultimately, I think, for the better.

Three cheers for the fact that it's less viable for someone to try and ban a book than it ever has been. Up until the Internet era, if someone successfully banned a book in a library or in bookstores in a region, that was it. Good luck finding that book! You'd have to drive to another region to find it, if you heard about it at all.

With the Internet though, good luck stopping someone from finding that book. Chances are they can buy it very easily online.

Now, obviously there is uneven access to money and computers and the Internet and this does not mean everything is peachy and that we should stop being vigilant. The youth of America will always be the most vulnerable to censorship as libraries are more central to their reading lives, so there are still choke points that can stop a worthy book from reaching a child who needs it.

And I also wonder if there's a new danger created by the Internet, which is that any yahoo with a crazy agenda can easily hijack our attention by doing offensive stunts. This has obviously always been a part of life, but it seems like it's now easier and more common than ever. You see this everywhere on the Internet and the media: someone wants to get some attention so they say the most horrible things they can think of, then they sit back and watch the show, feasting on their newfound attention. On every scale, from the smallest website to the national media, the Internet is greasing the crazyperson skids.

Lately I've been wondering if these people deserve our scorn or if they deserve our restraint. Is there a way to fight these people without playing right into their hands and giving them the attention they're craving? Is there a risk in elevating a crazyperson's agenda by treating them so seriously? What's the balance?

If there's actual censorship going on then yes, definitely, fight it like there's no tomorrow, because if censorship takes hold there may as well not be a tomorrow. I don't think there's much ambiguity about that.

But what about when people are staging book-related stunts and saying ridiculous things on the Internet? Is the best tactic to treat them seriously and fight back or to deprive them of the attention they're aiming for?

That's an honest question, I really don't know the answer.

On the one hand, truth and decency and free expression are absolutely worth fighting for, and even if it's a mosquito biting you, you swat it.

On the other hand, I can't help but feel that as we learn to navigate the Internet era, if there's a virtual dog pile every time someone says something vile, are we increasing the likelihood of people provoking us in the future? Does it become more appealing for people to try and pull similar stunts for attention? Do we make ourselves a target by being easily provoked?

I'm not leaving off this post with any answers, only questions, because I don't feel like I know what's best. The Internet is changing our lives very quickly, and our instinct is to use the tactics we know.

Maybe those tactics are still the best or maybe we'll need to change with the times.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Can I Get a Ruling: How Do You Feel About Chapter Titles?

Oh, to title a chapter or just go ahead and call it Chapter 72. One of the perennial questions facing any writer.

Do you notice chapter titles when you're reading? Do you like them? Dislike them? Not even realize they're there?

Where do you stand?

If you're reading in an RSS reader or via e-mail, please click through for the poll:

Friday, September 24, 2010

This Week in Publishing 9/24/10

THIS week IN publishing

First up, get your Query Critique Friday on in the Forums! UPDATE: my critique (and more about avoiding perspective shifts in queries if at all possible) posted here.

One of the larger ongoing news items in the publishing world is the board spat between CEO Len Riggio and investor Ron Burkle. Confused about what's going on there? The NY Times has a very helpful breakdown of the who what when where why how of the whole thing.

In an interview, author Danielle Steel denied that she is a romance writer, which for some reason set the blogosphere a-sneerin'. For the record, I think the distinction she was making was between category/traditional romance and the novels she writes, which, sure, often have romantic plotlines, but which fall more in the women's fiction realm. Not sure why this one became news, but hey...

Flavorwire had a pretty priceless collection of cliches in author photos, and, as he was wont to do, Oscar Wilde stole the show. And over at AbeBooks, a pretty cool gallery of authors and pen names.

The world's first Wonka candy store is opening in the Times Square Toys R Us, and.... searching..... searching..... nope. No golden ticket necessary. Whew!

In writing advice news, Laini Taylor discusses the importance of writers having a cheerleader (preferably more than one), Moses Siregar writes about the difference between one, two, three, and four word adjective descriptions, agent Jennifer Laughran writes about the pros and cons of multi-book deals, and agent Kristin Nelson talks about how the best way to approach daunting query odds is by covering your ears and saying "La la la!"

And finally, coinciding with the upcoming Banned Books Week, YA author Laurie Halse Anderson posted about an editorial that called her novel SPEAK "soft pornography" because it deals with two rape scenes. Say what? The writing blogosphere rose up with a collective UM NO I DON'T THINK SO EDITORIAL and The Rejectionist, Janet Reid, Pimp My Novel, Matthew Rush, Laini Taylor, Stephanie Perkins, and Tahereh Mafi were among those eloquently weighing in.

Speaking of which, in honor of said Banned Books Week, Tahereh and The Rejectionist are co-hosting/sponsoring an Internet Happening wherein bloggy people will post about their favorite banned book next Thursday, September 30th. If you plan to participate, please be sure and enter your blog on Tahereh's master list.

Oh, and thanks to GalleyCat for their roundup of the #BadJobsInNovels Twitter hashtag related to Wednesday's post. There were some seriously hilarious entries.

This week in the Forums, how much money would someone have to pay you to make you never write again?, what is the extent of a writers' social responsibility?, if you were an agent what kind of agent would you be?, the dreaded synopsis, does the final battle have to be a cliche?, and discussing Arcade Fire's new album.

Comments! Of! The! Week! Go! To! There were some great responses to Wednesday's post about bad jobs in novels. Some highlights:

Amanda: Definitely the wench: always serving, never served...

T.N. Tobias: Think about who has to clean-up after the 30,000 strong orc war party comes strolling through town. Fantasy settings seem to leave out the sanitation engineers that must exist...

Jenn Marie: The beat cop or security guard in suspense novels. Just doing their job, thisclose to a commendation or promotion for noticing a clue that nobody else did, when WHAM. Serially killed.

Nate Wilson: It's gotta be tough being the chief inspector or head detective in a mystery. Not only do they arrest the wrong guy every single time, but they're constantly shown up by someone with no formal training whatsoever. Those poor, arrogant fools.

Anonymous: The poor soul that has to clean up the tavern after the fight, of course. Funny how they never mention him, huh? Chapter one, the tavern is in complete shambles. Chapter two, it is nice and clean and everything is put back just the way it was. Who did that? Not the innkeeper, of that you can be sure.

And finally, via Gizmodo is a video with three different e-book experiences OF THE FUTURE. I just want an animated cover.

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Defense of Dead/Absent Parents in Children's Literature

There has been some discussion in the book world lately about the prevalence of absent and/or dead parents in children's literature. In an interesting article in Publishers Weekly called "The Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome," editor and author Leila Sales argues that dead parents in children's literature are not only troublingly common, they can sometimes be symptomatic of lazy writing--after all, it's easier to write a book if you don't have to figure out the main character's relationship with their parents.

Now, you may be less than shocked to learn I have written a children's novel with an absent parent (or at least a parent who is either flying around the universe or currently living in Milwaukee who could say really??). Wherever he is, Jacob Wonderbar's dad is not living at home with Jacob.

Although I am biased on this subject, I definitely agree with Sales that there is a certain appeal to just getting the parents out of the picture so the kids can go have their adventures. Roald Dahl perhaps knew this better than anyone when he had James' parents run over by a rhinoceros at the beginning of James and the Giant Peach, and Sophie is already living in an orphanage in the beginning of The BFG.

And yet despite my good luck in the parental department (I had the incredible fortune of growing up with two relatively normal parents who managed to raise me to adulthood without getting run over by rhinoceroses), virtually all of my favorite books as a child involved kids having to fend for themselves with dead or otherwise absent parents:

James and the Giant Peach
Tom Sawyer
Island of the Blue Dolphins
By the Great Horn Spoon!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
and many many more

The tradition has been carried on in modern children's classics such as A Series of Unfortunate Events (orphans), Harry Potter (orphan), and The Hunger Games (fatherless), not to mention in movies as diverse as Star Wars (thinks he's an orphan, father actually a deadbeat/Sith) and The Lion King (father killed by wildebeests).

And it's not exactly a new tradition. Early and medieval stories across cultures, from Cinderella (orphan) to Aladdin (fatherless), feature characters who lack one or more parental units.

So what is up with all those dead parents?

I'm not a psychologist or an anthropologist or even a cultural historian (though I play one on a blog), but I am a former twelve-year-old, and I can remember how thrilling it was to read books where the kids were off on their own, fighting and outsmarting adults, dealing with harsh landscapes, facing their deepest fears, making unforgettable friendships, and, while I didn't know it at the time, learning how to be adults.

Around the age the books in this list are so appealing, we're starting to imagine life without our parents, we're starting to develop our own opinions and thoughts, and we're starting to realize that our parents are not always right about everything (eventually we'll learn that they were right about more than we realized at the time).

Dead parents, I would argue, are an externalization of this nascent independence. We're starting to imagine life on our own and love to read about kids who have been suddenly thrust into that position. A tradition this common cannot be accidental.

Now, that's not to say that we don't need more authentic (and living) parents in young adult literature. Sales rightly points to the incredible Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron as an example of a richly rendered life with two different, compelling, divorced, and refreshingly alive parents, and my client Jennifer Hubbard presents a richly rendered two-parent household in The Secret Year.

But even still, it's inevitably going to be a rare book that features a happy, stable child with happy, stable parents. We're always going to be drawn to stories about children having adventures on their own, or as in the case of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You and The Secret Year, living in broken or flawed families during troubling times.

There's a reason why when you reach "happily ever after" it means the story is over.

Originally published at The Huffington Post

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Who Has the Worst Job in Fiction?

For some reason I got to thinking this morning about how innkeepers in fantasy novels really have it made. Everyone always seems to have a good time, it's warm and cozy inside, there's a fire going, the ale is flowing, and the place is usually packed. At least, until the hero shows up, gets attacked, and everyone starts breaking stuff.

So. Who has the worst job in fiction?

Is it the non-hero who accompanies two main characters on a dangerous mission in science fiction?

An orc soldier (smelly AND dangerous)?

James Bond's mechanic?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The One Thousandth Post Giveaway

One thousand! One grand! 1,000! 1k! A G! M in roman numerals!

Facts about the number 1,000:

- The year 1,000 started on a Monday on the Julian calendar
- The ancient Egyptians represented the number 1,000 as a lotus flower
- The 1,000th richest person in the world is worth just over a billion dollars.
- 1,000 years from now we may finally have flying cars no for real this time.


This here is the one thousandth post on this blog! And there's only one thing to say, which is THANK YOU VERY MUCH SERIOUSLY THANK YOU for reading, for commenting (I have read all 110,575 comments), and making this whole blogging thing so much fun for me.

And in honor of the thousandth post, I thought I'd give ONE THOUSAND QUERY CRITIQUES FOR COMMENTERS! Oh. Wait. Got that reversed.

Let's try that again:

THE ONE THOUSANDTH COMMENTER ON THIS POST GETS A QUERY PLUS FIRST FIVE PAGES CRITIQUE! Which can be done over e-mail at the commenter's convenience.

Will we get to 1,000 comments? Well, I'm not sure.... But then again, I didn't ever think I'd get to 1,000 posts either.

Thanks again everyone! Looking forward to 1,000 more.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What Platform Means for Writers

Thanks so much to the organizers, faculty, and attendees of the Central Coast Writers Conference for a fantastic weekend! It was such a great opportunity to meet with eager and enthusiastic writers (including a group of wildly intelligent and talented teen writers). I spoke about why I'm optimistic about the future of books despite the challenging climate, and it was a pleasure to hear Jay Asher's inspirational talk about how his writing journey originally started at the CCWC. Now, of course, he's the author of Thirteen Reasons Why, which first landed on the bestseller list six months after publication, showing how it was propelled to success by a groundswell of word of mouth.

In National Book Award finalist Kathleen Duey's most excellent workshop on writing for children, a question came up about "platform," and what exactly that means. You hear so much talk of platform these days and about how it's important, but what in the heck is it?

Well, platform is one of those nebulous concepts that will result in a thousand different definitions if you ask a thousand different individuals. But here's how I think of it: platform is the number of eyeballs you can summon as you promote your book.

A "platform" may be comprised of an Internet or media presence, a very strong reputation in a particular field, a TV show, affiliation with a popular brand, a connection to a popular writing collective, celebrity status, or ownership of the world's largest soapbox.

When it comes to platform: publishers want authors to have it, especially for nonfiction, and it doesn't hurt for fiction either.

That's because especially for nonfiction, we trust and consider brands when making our purchasing decisions. We want to buy our books from the world's foremost authority on the subject. But just as importantly, a big platform allows an author to effectively promote their work.

Hence, publishers want you to have it. It's not everything, and don't get carried away trying to build platform at the expense of writing your book. But in your spare time as you're writing, it can be helpful to get to work building that giant soapbox.

Photo by  Zipacna1

Friday, September 17, 2010

This Week in Publishing 9/17/10

This Week In... Yeah I'm not here.

At this very moment I am likely in the car driving down to the lovely town of San Luis Obispo for the Central Coast Writers Conference. I might even be eating an In 'N Out Burger this very second. YOU DON'T KNOW. But as a result of my traveling, there will be no Page Critique Friday this week.

Also, I prepared this post to run in advance, so this news is all current as of 8pm Thursday night. Hopefully the industry is still there in the morning.

This week!

It is truly the end of the era as one of the great publishing blogs is closing shop. Moonrat gave us four great years at Editorial Ass but is moving on to other projects. Her blog will be missed!

Right now those purchasing e-readers have to choose between black and white e-Ink (which looks like ink on paper) and color LED (which is tough to read in the sun). Well, pretty soon color will be coming to e-Ink. The color in the current prototypes are a little drowned out, but the technology is evolving.

In publishing news, after the departure of publisher Jonathan Karp to Simon & Schuster, the imprint Twelve has hired Susan Lehman as their new publisher. And while it hasn't been officially confirmed as of press time (ha! press time. As in the time I press the publish button time), rumor has it that none other than Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM will be the next pick in Oprah's book club.

Is the present tense taking over literature? That is a concern of Philip Pullman, who took a look at the Booker shortlist, noticed that three are in present, and called the present tense a "silly affectation" which "does nothing but annoy." Hate to hear what he'd think of second person future. "It will be a dark and stormy night. You will be very cold and wet." UPDATE: this summary was originally a little garbled and I misspelled Pullman's name. Whoops! Sorry! "You will regret rushing through putting together This Week in Publishing." UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Pullman clarified his remarks here.

Contrary to the myth of the loner creative genius, there's a terrific article in Slate that examines the incredible potency of creative partnerships, including not only the classic McCartney/Lennon combo, but some bookish examples as well, such as the influence of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. Behind some of the most creative people in the world were hidden partners that influenced, challenged, and elevated their art.

Ever wondered what the differences are between middle grade and young adult literature? Well, it goes farther than just the age of the protagonists. Hannah Moskowitz has a really awesome post about some of the thematic differences and necessities of the different genres. Really worth a full read because a summary won't do it justice.

In case you need any evidence about how the world is changing and bringing readers closer together, just check out this incredible post - a THE SECRET YEAR blog tour in Brazil! Now, bear in mind that this book hasn't been released in Portuguese. These are readers who are reading the book in English and discussing. The Internet continues to blow my mind.

Lastly, extremely sad news this week as David Thompson, beloved co-owner of Houston's indie store Murder By the Book, died suddenly at age 38.

This week in the Forums: the new Arcade Fire album, favorite activities to avoid writing, are there too many emotionally weak female characters in YA?, your favorite debut novel, and plot vs. character: which comes first?

Comment! of! the! Week! goes back to last Friday's post. In response to the book help desk video, Doug Pardee thinks we should resist that newfangled book thing.

Just say "no" to the codex. It's Big Religion attempting to save money by writing on both sides of the papyrus. A codex will never hold up like a scroll will.

And don't get me started on parchment.

And finally, science fiction blog io9 had a really awesome post on the cultural history of Halley's Comet, including its famed connection to Mark Twain. I have to say, this post really brought me back. When I saw Halley's comet when I was six and my parents told me the next time I would see it would be when I was eighty-one, for some reason it made me suddenly realize my mortality and I was completely horrified. Oh, little Nathan. So serious.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

When Dreams Become Expectations

There is a famous psychological study that shows that people who win the lottery and people who are involved in catastrophic accidents return to the same original base level of happiness after two years. People who make more than $75,000 are barely affected by further raises at all.

Success and fortune are normative. When we experience success, no matter how great, we first experience a blip of happiness, then we get used to it and start looking for what's around the bend.

And for writers, as previously chronicled, this leads to the "If-Only Game." If I could only find an agent, then I'll be happy. When you get that agent it becomes: If only I could find a publisher, then I'll be happy. If only I could make the bestseller list, then I'll be happy. If only I could have as many Twitter followers as Neil Gaiman, then I'll be happy. We allow our success to be the new normal and aren't satisfied even when we reach the next milestone because there's always another milestone to be had.

But I think there's another hidden danger for writers that can dampen writerly happiness: using our daydreams to get us through the tough times.

You know how it goes. You face a difficult time while writing, you don't want to do it, you're putting in such incredible hard work, and your mind starts drifting to your book being published and taking off and becoming a bestseller and being the next Harry Potter only more popular (don't worry, we're all J.K. Rowlings before publication) and sitting on Oprah's couch and building A FLOATING CASTLE IN THE SKY TRUST US WE'LL BE RICH ENOUGH. And you use those dreams to power through the difficult stretches and redouble your efforts.

And that's perfectly natural! No judging.

But these dreams are sort of like the dark side of the force. Use them too much and you'll turn into a Sith Lord.

When you allow daydreams to fill that gap to get you through the tough times, or even when you're just letting your imagination get the best of you, the dreams can gradually evolve into the reason you were writing in the first place. They were how you got through the tough times, so now they have to come true for it to be worth it. They start to become a crutch--take that crutch away and you fall over because you were leaning on an endlessly elusive dream.

Those dreams can morph into expectations without the writer even noticing it. You start thinking, if this doesn't happen, what were all those hours for? Why am I dealing with this frustration if it's not going to amount to anything? Why am I doing this?

And after those dreams are eroded by reality, suddenly there's a hollow place where those dreams used to reside. It doesn't feel worth it anymore, even if you've achieved modest success that you should be extremely proud of, and would have made you happy if your expectations were in check.

Careful with those dreams. They seem so bright and shiny and harmless and they can help you out through the tough times and it's so fun to let your imagination run wild for a little while, but let them get the best of you and eventually you'll hollow out and get all wrinkly and pale and lightning will start shooting from your fingertips.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Have You Faced Writer Burnout? How Do You Escape It?

Yesterday's post about how social media fatigue may be afflicting the Internet got me thinking about how hard it is for writers to escape periodic or even prolonged burnout. We're all trying to juggle writing with the modern life and the daily demands of day jobs, chores, blogs, commuting, cooking, sleeping, reality television programs, and oh yeah families and friends remember them?

Writing takes time that is not in ready supply, endurance that can be sapped, attention that can waver, confidence that can ebb, and dreams that can be dashed. It's the brain's version of a marathon.

And that's before you face the publication process, with its waiting and inevitable frustrations.

Have you ever gotten burned out by at all? How do you escape it so you can keep going?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Can I Get a Ruling: Does Social Media Help Sell Books?

I've noticed what appears to be a percolating trend out there on the Internet: fatigue with social media. From people letting their blogs slide to celebrities quitting Twitter to an entire university taking a week off, it seems like quite a few people out there are needing a break from the web.

Though, I suppose if you're taking a break from the Internet it means you're not reading this right now. Conundrum. WHAT IF I YELL OUT LOUD CAN YOU HEAR ME??!!

Anyway, according to my completely unscientific Pulse-of-the-Internet-Meter (patent pending I'll sell it to you for seven billion dollars), it seems that a lot of people out there are having a collective "Wait, why am I doing this again?" moment when it comes to social media. So I thought I'd circle that back to books and a recent topic in the Forums:

Does social media work? Does it help sell books? Have you bought books because you heard of them through social media? Or do you simply follow the people whose books you're already familiar with? Do you think the time spent is worthwhile or is it a glorified time-waster? Are certain activities more productive than others?

Poll below. If you're reading via e-mail or an RSS feed you'll need to click through to see it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On the Experience of Seeing Your Cover for the First Time

I have been casting about for the proper metaphor for seeing the cover of your book for the first time. One writer I know compared it to childbirth: After a lot of hard work you get to see what your baby looks like. But then, well, I'm pretty sure people always like their babies, and they don't always like their covers (though I sure love mine!)

Then I was thinking it was kind of like pottery, how you spin a pot and throw some glaze on there and put it in the kiln and it comes out looking shiny. But that's not quite right either, because you pretty much know what a pot is going to look like when it comes out.

It resists comparison, people.

As an agent, I have heard many authors say that seeing the cover was when the whole publishing process seemed "real." And now I see what they mean. It does seem more real.

Only: I think I misunderstood what people meant by "real."

I had always thought it felt "real" for writers because the cover made the whole thing look more like an actual book. And yeah, that's probably a part of it. But that's not really how I experienced the "real" thing. There was more to it than that.

Up until that point when you see the cover, it's difficult to imagine that someone else reading your book will have a different imagination of how things look and feel than you. As a writer, you have a certain idea of the physical and artistic aesthetic of the book: what the characters look like, which parts of the book comprise the essence, and what people will take away from it.

So when you see the cover for the first time, at first there's inevitably a "Whoa, this wasn't how I was picturing it." And of course it wasn't how you were picturing it! No one is going to interpret a book the same way you do, even though you wrote the darn thing.

But then, when the cover is good, there's quickly a dawning that it captures the essence of the book. It's not your imagination you're seeing represented... and yet it is. It may not be how you physically pictured it, and yet there's something there that is so so so right.

The real metaphor, I realized, is that the cover process is kind of like a physical manifestation of the writing and reading experience itself. People are out there reading your book, and they're not picturing the same castle that you were picturing when you wrote it, and they're not imagining the characters looking the same way as you were, and they're not seeing the same fields and mountains. What's happening in the minds-eye is unique to every reader.

And yet despite those differences, there is an essence that binds the writer and reader, a shared kernel that is hopefully passed through the words. We don't often get those different interpretations drawn out for our viewing pleasure, but when the cover comes along, it's "real" because it's a reminder that a book isn't all yours anymore. It will soon belong to readers, who will picture a different character and world than you were picturing, while hopefully absorbing the essence what you were truly going for.

I couldn't be happier with how the cover for JACOB WONDERBAR turned out!! When I saw these characters illustrated I couldn't believe how well they were captured. Thank you so much to Christopher S. Jennings for the illustration and Greg Stadnyk for the design!

Friday, September 10, 2010

This Week in Publishing 9/10/10

This Week in Publishing!

First up, just wanted to give everyone a heads up that I've been experiencing some e-mail technical difficulties and some queries have disappeared into the great electronic ether. My policy is still to respond to all queries, so if you sent me a query and didn't hear back within a week or two please try again. Whenever you follow-up, please include the original query.

Also, Sheriff in the Forums Ink/Bryan Russell will soon be participating in the Terry Fox Run for cancer research! Please stop by his blog and consider donating, it's a great cause.

And it's Friday, which means it's time for a Page Critique. The page up for critique is posted in the forums, so check that out. UPDATE: my critique and more on pacing in action scenes here.

On to the links!

There has been an interesting discussion percolating around the writing blogosphere this week about the effect the Internet is having on writing and the life of a writer. Hannah Moskowitz wondered what effect Internet groupthink and such a tightly knit writing community is having on YA literature. Ally Carter talked about The Crazies, a reaction to the anxiety and helplessness writers feel during the writing and publication process, and how to combat them. And Natalie Whipple talked about putting the cart before the horse and the temptation of acting like a writer at the expense of being a writer.

And speaking of the effect of the Internet on writing and books, journalist Jack Shafer had an essay on the changing role of books in his life, noting how when we're curious about someone we now turn first to the Internet rather than to a book, and how he no longer feels the same attachments to books he once did. He writes, "Books are being replaced by reading." Agent Michael Stearns had a similar feeling about how books disappear into the iPad rather than being physical presences that remind us of their need to be read.

In award news, the much-anticipated Booker shortlist was announced, and congrats to China Mieville and Paolo Bacigalupi, who tied for Best Novel at the Hugo Awards. And now that it's September already it's Fall for the publishing world (gah!!), which means it's time for, as the NY Times puts it, The Big Books.

Tony Blair's memoir was released amid a great deal of egg throwing and protesting at his readings. Wow. Just for the record, I don't mind if people throw food at me when my book comes out, provided they are cupcakes (soft and delicious!)

Laura Miller at Salon took a look at TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES series and came away with a provocative question: is Bella a more empowered heroine than Katniss? Meanwhile, science fiction living legend and Twitter maven William Gibson just released his new novel ZERO HISTORY, and in an interview with the WSJ he talked about the future of books. His ideal is an Espresso-like book making machine in every bookstore.

In writing/publishing advice news, agent Janet Reid says no no no to the fictional memoir, Tracy Marchini has advice for those writing epistolary novels, and agent Rachelle Gardner has a great post on what goes on behind the scenes in acquisitions/publishing committee meetings, where the fate of many a book hangs in the balance.

The Wall Street Journal is starting a stand-alone book section, which many people feel is intended to take further aim at the New York Times.

And NPR has a great article on how to sell a book. The secret? Good old-fashioned word of mouth. Oh. And huge marketing efforts help.

This week in the Forums: discussing Banned Book Week 2010, plot vs. character: which comes first?, dealing with perfectionism, and sharing your writing space.

Comment! Of! The! Week! goes to Hannah, who has some great follow-up advice on yesterday's post about dialogue. An excerpt:

My main gripe with dialogue, and what I think can make it read as very false, is when characters respond too directly to what the other one says. In real life, people don't listen well. They've already formulated most of what they're going to say before they've heard the other person's side of the conversation.

And finally, not one but two videos! The first comes via Bloomsbury publisher Peter Ginna: a hilarious video on the steep learning curve posed by the invention of the book.

And finally finally, a really incredible video that will hopefully get your weekend off to a peaceful start. Giant bubbles:

(via Andrew Sullivan)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue

It goes without saying (but watch me say it) that dialogue is one of the very most crucial elements in a novel. Great dialogue can make a novel sing. Bad dialogue can sink it like a stone.

Here are a few ideas on what makes good dialogue work:

1. Good dialogue is not weighed down by exposition

When the dialogue is carrying exposition and trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of very unnatural and unwieldy things. You'll see things like:

"Remember that time we stole the frog from Miss Jenkins and she ended up giving us two hours of detention and that's how we met?"
"Yeah, totally! And now we're in 6th Grade and have to dissect frogs for our science project, which is due tomorrow. I don't know how we're going to get it finished in time."

So much of this dialogue would already be already apparent to the characters. They'd know how they met without having to talk about it, they'd know they're in 6th grade without having to talk about it, they'd know the science project is due without talking about it. So it's very clear to the reader that they're not talking to each other: they're really talking to the reader.

Exposition and dialogue only really mesh when one character genuinely doesn't know what the other character is telling them and it's natural for them to explain at the moment they're explaining it. Otherwise, if you're just trying to smush in info, your reader is going to spot it a mile away.

2. Good dialogue has a purpose and builds toward something.

Sometimes you'll see characters in novels bantering back and forth in a way that is meant to reveal character or fill space. Unless it's just so insanely unbelievably clever that the writer makes it work, usually this feels hollow and, well, boring.

A good conversation is an escalation. The dialogue is about something and builds toward something. If things stay even and neutral, the dialogue just feels empty.

Characters in a novel never just talk. There's always more to it.

3. Good dialogue evokes the way people actually talk in real life without actually sounding precisely like the way people talk in real life.

Paraphrasing Elmore Leonard, good writers leave out the boring parts. This goes doubly for dialogue: it's usually best to cut to the chase rather than spending time on the pleasantries that normal people use in everyday conversation.

In real life our conversations wander around all over the place, and a transcribed real life conversation is a meandering mess of free association and stutters. In a novel, a good conversation is focused and has a point.

And in a novel, dialect, slang, and voice is used sparingly. Just a hint of flavor is enough. As my client Jennifer Hubbard wrote, "good dialogue sounds like conversation, but is not an exact reproduction of conversation."

4. Good dialogue reveals personality, and characters only very rarely say precisely what they are thinking.

Human beings are not very articulate creatures. Despite all the words at our disposal, words tend to fail us at key moments, and even when we know what we want to say we spend a whole lot of time trying to describe and articulate what we feel without being quite able to do it properly. We misunderstand, overemphasize, underemphasize, grasp at what we mean, and conversations go astray. So when two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking to each other, it doesn't seem remotely real.

Good dialogue is instead comprised of attempts at articulation. There's a whole lot that is kept back, because we humans only rarely really truly put our true feelings out there.

Now, this shouldn't be taken too far and a conversation shouldn't be an endless string of misunderstandings (unless you're Samuel Beckett), but the way in which characters express their feelings and how they articulate what they're feeling is one of the most important ways of revealing character. Are they reserved? Boisterous? Do they bluster? Hold back?

Characters who say exactly what they mean are generic. Characters who talk around their emotions and objectives are much more interesting.

5. Good dialogue goes easy on the exclamations and exhortations.

When a character overuses "Ughs" and "Blechs" they can easily sound petulant. When they overuse exclamations, they can exhaust the reader with their excitability. When they overuse verbal tics and crutches, they can drive the reader crazy.

Interjections and grunts are kind of like carpet cleaning concentrate. They must be diluted or you'll burn a hole in the floor.

6. Good dialogue is boosted by dialogue tags, gestures, and action, so the reader can easily follow who is saying what.

Poor maligned dialogue tags!!! Out there on the Internet it has lately become trendy for people to advocate stripping books of dialogue tags so that the person who is speaking is solely apparent through gestures and context.

This is overkill. Get behind me, dialogue tags, I will defend you until the end!

As long as you mainly stick to said and asked, your reader won't notice they're there, and they'll be way better able to track who is saying what. Yes, don't overdo dialogue tags and look for ways to add meaningful gesture and action to back and forths, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The key on the gesture and action is not to simply use it to break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful, which is hard to do.

7. Good dialogue is unexpected.

There's nothing worse than reading a stretch of dialogue where the characters are saying precisely what we think they're going to say.

The best dialogue counters our expectations and surprises us.

"Vladimir Putin!"

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Which Writer Would You Most Like to Meet?

Simple You Tell Me today.

Which writer would you most like to meet?

Let's go with one dead and one living.

For me:

Dead - F. Scott Fitzgerald. He'd know the trendy spot to hang out and we'd have a great time until he stuck me with the bill at the end of the night. (Kidding! I would have insisted on paying. My imagination is quite thorough.)
Living - J.K. Rowling. SO MANY QUESTIONS.

How about you?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How to Deal With Contradictory Query Advice

Just this morning out in the Literary Agentosphere there are two great posts that have wonderful advice. Rachelle Gardner delves into pen names and whether you need one, and Janet Reid's Query Shark offers feedback on a query.

There's just one problem for the compulsive reader of agent blogs: Rachelle thinks you should query as your pen name, and I think you should query as yourself. And Janet wants you to discard your prologue when you're sending the first five pages, whereas I want to see how you think the novel begins.

What in the world is a conscientious writer to do about all the contradictory advice out there?? It's hard enough just to write a query, let alone writing it when you're being spun in circles.

Here's a checklist:

1. Take a Deep Breath: As long as you're getting the big stuff right, you're going to be fine. You don't need to have every single little teeny tiny thing perfect. You can get my name or gender wrong and I still might request your pages (just did this last week in fact). I'm not going to reject you because you sent me the first five pages of Chapter 1 instead of your Prologue if I like the idea and your writing. Don't sweat the small stuff. Because really: if an agent is going to reject your query over some small niggling detail, are they someone you'd want to work with anyway?

2. Remember That Agent Blogs Are Just Trying to Help: I know how tempting it is to throw up your hands and just think that literary agents are so many Goldilocks with completely different ideas of how hot the porridge should be. Please just remember that we offer so much advice because people ask. We get e-mails and comments all the time asking about everything from paper size to fonts to anglicized spelling to serial commas. So we try to help, and we're not always going to agree on everything. Personally, when I'm wearing my author hat I'd rather have too much information than too little, so I tend to err on the side of dispensing too much agent advice. It's up to you to decide which advice you agree with and which you don't. Just remember that we're trying to help, not trying to make your life miserable.

3. Not All Publishing Advice is Created Equal:  I went back and looked at some of my early blog posts, and holy cow after just four years they're already wildly out of date. Consider the source, consider the freshness of the advice, and beware of anyone who tries to tell you that there's one way and only one way to find successful publication. Occasionally an author out there somewhere will have a sense that the way they found success is The Way That Should Work For Everyone, whereas people who have worked across the publishing spectrum have seen the proverbial cat skinned in an impossibly vast number of ways.

4. Try As Best You Can to Meet an Agent's Specifications, But Don't Go Crazy Trying to Do It: If you happen to remember that Rachelle wants you to query with your pen name and I want to hear from the real you: great! Query accordingly. But don't go creating a massive spreadsheet with every agent's particular individual preferences. No agent expects you to do that.

5. If You Think the Contradictory Query Advice is Mind Boggling, Just Wait Until You Reach the Publication Stage: In case you haven't noticed, this business is an art, not so much a science. There's no one way to do things, and you're going to face conflicting advice and opinions about your manuscript, cover art, marketing plan, you name it. There are even more opinions out there than people (sometimes people can't even decide what they think and have multiple opinions). At the end of the day, all you can do is just take all the advice into account, and choose the route that works best for you.

Friday, September 3, 2010

This Week in Publishing 9/3/10

This Week In Publishing!

Page Critique Friday!! Please stop by the Forums for your Page Critiquing Pleasure. That is, if you are not already splayed on a beach somewhere in anticipation of Labor Day Weekend and SNIFF the end of summer FOR THE LOVE OF SUNSHINE SUMMER WHERE DID YOU GO??

UPDATE: my critique and more about the danger of expository dialogue posted here.

Meanwhile, links!! I have had quite the busy week so I may have missed some news items - if you spotted a good link please share it in the comments!

First, in Truly Important Publishing News, EW wonders why there have been no authors on Dancing With the Stars. YEAH. WHERE ARE THEY?? Then again, Elaine Benes worked in publishing on Seinfeld and we all know how that turned out.

There have been some more interesting Future of Publishing discussions around the blogosphere this week. Tim Ferriss of the Four Hour Workweek has a far-ranging discussion of the economics of print vs. e-books and what this means for authors, and concludes that save for a few exceptions, traditional is still the way to go. And Kassia Krozser at Booksquare has a nuanced take on the idea of books and value and what happens to the collective notion of publishers' value when they let established authors rest on their laurels and publish books they know to be of questionable quality.

Also a new book social networking community has launched! The Reading Room allows its users to generate reading groups and features a list of free e-books to peruse. Check it out.

In the wake of all the talk of whether NY Times favors men vs. women, Slate ran the numbers on the reviews for adult fiction and found that men received 62% of the reviews and 71% of the coveted double reviews (a review in the weekday paper plus a review in the Sunday TBR). They caution that missing from the analysis is the number of overall adult fiction novels that are published by men vs. women.

The $99 e-reader is here! Fresh off news that Borders will be selling Build-A-Bears (some people thought this was a spoof but it's true and hey whatever works, Borders! No judging here), they will also be selling $99 Aluratek e-readers featuring the Kobo bookstore. Meanwhile, Sony came out with a new generation of e-readers priced at $179, $229, and $279 depending on size, features, storage, and 3G capabilities. And on the horizon is an Android powered 7" tablet designed by Samsung, which will feature a bookreading App by Kobo.

Set your blasters to global! Harpers US, UK, and Aus/NZ are teaming up for a pan-world science fiction and fantasy imprint called Voyager. In addition to possessing the ability to time travel AND wield a +5 sword, the resulting imprint will feel no pain and can't be reasoned with.

In query news, Tahereh has an incredible ode to queries in Shel Silverstein form, the Rejectionist posted her adorable first query from Age 7 and promptly ripped it to shreds, my wonderful client Natalie Whipple is launching a Friday feature called Happy Writers Society by sharing her first query, and the Guide to Literary Agents blog has an interview with my fantastic agent Catherine Drayton.

This week in the Forums, Page Critique Friday!, don't forget about the Ask Nathan thread if you have any questions, how did your favorite childhood books influence you, turning a short story into a novel, how do you decide where to put chapter breaks, and teenage writers unite!

Comment! of! the! Week! Goes to Mira, who had a terrific comment on whether angst inspires writing. An excerpt:

The drive to write for me can come from witnessing human suffering up close. When you see a deep level of human pain, it makes you want to do something, anything to make it better. You want to tell the world, try to influence it, try to heal it, try to make it better.

And when you suffer deeply yourself....I've been trying to capture this in words forever, and I probably won't be able to here. But when you are in deep emotional pain for long periods of time it changes you. It softens and cleanses. It's so hard to describe, but for me it's been like a pumice stone. It scrapes away the edges and makes the channels run clear and clean. You have access to something very deep within you, and that's the part of you that can come forth and speak through the creative process.

And finally, acclaimed band the Arcade Fire has a truly groundbreaking video that allows you to input your childhood home address or school and uses it to create a personalized music video. It uses HTML5 and works best in the Chrome browser (thanks to Lawrence McKay for the heads up). Definitely worth checking out.

Have a great weekend!! The blog will be dark on Monday for the holiday and I'll be back on Tuesday.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Pernicious Momentum of First Ideas

Ever since I put the final period at the end of the last sentence of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, I had always imagined the beginning of #2 starting a very certain particular way. It was unexpected! Shocking! A little bit unsettling!

But after I submitted a partial to my editor, she came back and said (very politely): the opening didn't work. My agent (very politely) agreed.


But... but... I wanted to sputter, this is how I always imagined it. It's part of the fabric of the novel. How can I write this novel if this isn't the beginning?

Then I took a step back and realized something: they were totally right. It didn't work! Not even a little!

Thankfully, trained publishing professionals saved me from one of the deadliest foes of the writer: the first idea.

First ideas are much like first loves. You fall so hard for someone, they are your everything, you love them to the point of rendering you completely bonkers. Then there's a calamitous breakup, and you think the world is quite possibly going to explode. Then some time passes and you realize that person was perhaps quite nice but you know what they kind of smelled funny and maybe I should have wondered about that throwing star collection before I found one stuck ominously in the dashboard of my car.

Um. Where was I? Oh yes. First ideas.

The point is this: first ideas have a tendency to become intertwined with your conception of the entire novel. You start to think: this is how this character is. This is how this world is. This is how this novel is. If it doesn't work, well I guess the whole thing isn't going to work.

But who owns those characters? Who owns that world? You do! You're the writer. You can change it to make it work. You really can. You own your character and plot and setting.

Every book on writing I have ever read talks about how dangerous your first ideas are, and it's positively absolutely true. Some say you have to think of ten bad ideas to find every good one, some say you should discard five GOOD ideas for every one you keep, Stephen King advocates darling killing, etc. etc. The one thing all this advice has in common is that no idea should be sacred. If it doesn't work it doesn't work.

It's so important to move past those first ideas and to avoid making them too intertwined with how you envision the entire project. Obviously you can't change a novel beyond a point where it stops being the story you want to tell, but short of that, everything is changeable.

Take a throwing star to that first idea. Your second or tenth or hundredth idea is bound to be better.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Does Angst Help You Write?

There is perhaps no archetype more persistent throughout the history of art and literature than that of the tortured artist. From the tragically real cases (like Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace), to self-conscious poseurs (who shall remain nameless), angst-filled writers in both fiction and real life are an enduring staple in culture.

Is there something to it? Is there a link between creativity and the darker sides of life? Does angst help you write?

For me, I can't get a lick done when I'm feeling down. But then again, my books involve corn dogs and space monkeys.

What about you?

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