Posted on June 30, 2016
Here is my attempt to guide writers and/or illustrators into the wide world of publication. Or, at the very least, in the right direction.
Previous posts in this series:
- Step One: What to do if you want to be published.
- Backing Up a Step: What to consider before you query an agent.
- This one.
This time we will discuss how to choose the agents for you, what to do while you’re querying them, and what happens when you do.
The following content assumes that if you are here, your goal is to be published by indie, boutique, Big Five or other established trade publishers. If your goal is self-publication or small presses, then sit back and enjoy how much less querying and waiting you’ll have to do (let’s not think about the marketing).
Before we dive in, I want to emphasize advice previously given: only query an agent if your manuscript is finished. And not just finished, but polished to your best expectations. Yes, it will be edited. Yes, it will be edited again. But if you send out something you are less than proud of, why should anyone feel proud to represent it?
Updated on April 6, 2016
A story for people who have left and regret it. Sort of.
Once upon a 2001, I started my Irish dance diary. It’s still out there. Unedited. I’ll even give you the link. Here is the link.
I deeply appreciate thirteen-year-old me for doing this, and for making it a solid couple of years before the novelty wore off and I was going to lessons two or three times a week and mired in dance school drama and politics. As is usually the case when things go from recreational to competitive.
The diaries would probably have been more interesting during my later years, but most of those thoughts were best kept to myself.
I have not been in a lesson since 2006. Well, I had not been in a lesson since 2006: until yesterday.
I’ve wrestled with thoughts of going back to Irish dance since I stopped. I stopped because I went to college. I went to college in a city where I attended most of my competitions, and there are a host of amazing schools I would have loved to be a part of. But I never did it. Expenses, transportation, time were all important factors. I did non-Irish dance classes through my university. Adult ballet. Dance 101 and 102, that sort of thing. Then I did Lindy Hop, which I’d always wanted to try. I want to go back to that, but not as much as I wanted to go back to Irish dance.
Because I started going to the gym, doing Zumba, and starting circus arts (aerial silks), I thought I’d jump back in now. Almost literally. Why not, right? I’m not getting any younger and my joints aren’t, either.
So let’s see if I can diary this like I did in the old days.
My mom got my shoes out of storage and is shipping them to me, but they haven’t arrived so I danced in my old ghillie socks I got at a feis something like fourteen years ago. OH WHAT CHEEK.
I emailed a couple of local schools to ask about adult classes, but only one responded. It took me a long time to decide if I wanted to do a more recreational sort of class or if I wanted to go to a proper school. I may yet divert to a recreational setting at the Irish Arts Center or something, but it depends on how this experiment at a proper school goes.
Okay, so first thing’s first: the MTA had a hell of a lot of train drama, so the certified teacher who founded the school could not come. He sent an assistant teacher, who was also late because seriously, the trains were going mental today. (Okay, not mine. I took the F.) This meant that the class didn’t begin for quite a long time, and everything had to be sort of squashed together after warm-ups.
Warm-ups brought back some memories. Very similar room crossings to the ones I used to do, though for some reason I found myself brainfarting quite powerfully on moves that I do at home for fun when I feel like a little softshoe… I don’t know. Performance anxiety? Lack of shoes? Lemme just say that my double cuts are still primo. And my turnout is still shit. I AM PIGEON-FOOTED GOSH. Lord, please let us not have to do any heel click intensives when I get my shoes back. I’m not ready for that embarrassment.
During warm-ups there was this turn with a little toe hit that they are calling a double back. We never did anything like that in my old days~ And to me, a double back is a double somersault. I am not Simone Biles. I am also annoyed because they didn’t break that down for me, either. I am going to practice what I think I figured out, but it’s probably wrong.
DEEP BREATHS. IT’S JUST DAY ONE.
After warm-ups they ran through each dance. I watched. The choreography looked nice. This school’s style isn’t completely opposite of what I’m used to, thankfully. But I had to laugh ruefully about learning the light and single jigs when I had finally qualified out of them at my last feis and I was so happy. OHH, THE HUMANITY.
So the first hour ended and hardshoe commenced. Hardshoe in socks is always fun and beneficial. I did the treble drills and the teacher attempted to teach me the first step of their treble jig but please, dear god, understand that I need at least five minutes of pointed instruction to make even half of a step come to life. I mean, they were doing right and left feet to full speed music as soon as I supposedly learned it.
I am going to practice a treble jig this week, but it will probably not be what I was taught.
I’m signed up for an hour of softshoe followed by an hour of hardshoe. It’s an interesting format. It’s probably even a normal format. I’m not sure. My old school (oh my god I am Phoebe of Magic School Bus) combined both in each class, and each class was an hour, hour-and-a-half long (except figure classes, which were longer). Sometimes we might not even focus on one at all. I think having a dedicated class is a better idea, in terms of nailing technique. There was some good technique instruction.
It’s funny, though. I kind of vaguely remembered why hardshoe became my better side towards the end of my competitive career, despite the fact that I never got my clicks consistent, or my left-foot drumrolls very rolly. Oh, to have been born with any natural turn out.
So I am in an adult intermediate class. Everyone in it has clearly been dancing here for at least a year or more, or at least since last fall. Almost everyone knows a step of every dance, some people know more than one. Me, I KNOW NONE OF THEM YAY! And I still know none of them because I did not really get any dedicated time to learn them at a learnable speed.
I mean, the teacher was nice, the people were friendly and of mixed levels of execution, and the steps I watched I really, really liked and will be excited to learn. But I was hoping, and maybe this is largely because the head teacher wasn’t there, that I would be able to get a little more of a breakdown. The one dance I could execute (okay, like 90% of it) was St. Patrick’s Day. I even copied the way this school performed certain moves! Go me! I haven’t danced that thing since I was competing!
Ultimately, I’m really hoping that I will get some better time with the steps and the new lingo (it’s good I spent so much time reading dance diaries back in the early 00s or I wouldn’t know there were so many different terms for the same movements). Additionally, there are new elements and moves that weren’t really popular yet when I was dancing, so I didn’t learn them.
I don’t pick things up just by watching a run-through or by a single demonstration. My old school would break down every step until we had each section (mostly) worked out. Then we might do the opposite foot or we might save it for the following week. The problem, of course, is that I am the only new person and there is no time or place to take me out and give me individual attention. But, I mean, if I was encouraged to join, I hope they have a contingency plan… Or it’s going to be a messy couple of months.
The other thing, and this is very much a personal thing, is that I am not used to being the newbie Irish dancer in my class. Nope. I joined my old school when it was first branching out into my city, so there were literally all beginners. We became the advanced dancers. And I was one of the group who competed and were, well, the top of the class? I can say that. It was true. We were good, and the ones who kept dancing are now Open Champs and have been for a long time. I believe one is getting her or got her TCRG, too.
The wonderful and amazing founder of our school, Deirdre, told me during my very first session that I took to Irish dance like a duck to water. I’m sort of flailing around like a duck with a broken wing at the moment.
It’s just a strange mental space to be in, and I am trying to shrug it off so that I don’t develop some sort of weird anxiety.
I can say that I still have a lot of instincts and technique, but I am also reeeally rusty. Ten years will do that to a person. I dread wearing hardshoes next week. Lord knows what that will sound like.
Now I just have to figure out where the hell I’m going to practice in a small NY apartment.
Posted on March 25, 2016
Why do people read series? Probably not because nothing of consequence happened in the first book.
I love a good series. I don’t love a bad set-up.
There is this wonderful piece of advice that agents float around on their blogs or other social media homes: when pitching a novel that you envision as the start of a series (or as having series potential), please make sure that the first book stands on its own. There’s never any guarantee a series will happen, or maybe the series itself isn’t really necessary. Also, and most importantly, the first book in a series should feel complete.
I read probably a half-dozen MG and YA Book Ones over the last few months. Almost all of them were new, or their sequels were not yet out. And almost all of them were horrible examples of what a first book should be like.
Without fail (or, alternately, with a lot of fail), they were almost entirely set-up for the next book. Some were beautifully written, or funny, or had some good concepts, but they wrapped up maybe one plot point, and it often wasn’t even the major one. Most of the real development went towards something that never even happened. More infuriatingly, they posed tons of questions and hints and declarations that were not answered. Not even a resolution that we later find out (say, in book two) is false.
Like, think about this. What if the first Harry Potter book went along as follows:
Harry Potter weirds-out his aunt and uncle and schoolmates with his strange, unexplained abilities all summer long. He feels like he is destined for more and doesn’t fit in. Then, on his eleventh birthday, Hagrid shows up and the Dursleys imply that they know more than they are telling. Then the novel ends.
I mean, that’s essentially the structure of these books I have been reading. Had the first HP book been an example of it, you would never learn Harry was a wizard. You would never get to Hogwarts. The only thing “wrapped up” would be the idea that Harry is, in fact, extraordinary in some way. But the mystery would continue into book two, where the reveal would actually happen.
Instead of getting to the meat of the series (that is, Harry joining the magical world and learning about Voldemort), you’re focused on his plight while he’s still in the dark. There’s no momentum. No tension. Just a bunch of hints and allusions.
Book one, in no way, would stand on its own. It would be half a meal. Half a pair of pants. Half a car. Sure, it would do some of its job, but it wouldn’t fulfill its potential and it might be unbalanced and annoying.
Each book needs its A Plot. That plot needs to be wrapped up in some way. Sure, we knew Voldemort was probably not going away after his second defeat, but he had been defeated. Dumbledore gave an explanation as to how Harry survived the original attack, and though we later learn how much more to the story there is, at the time it seems serviceable. The school year ends. The biggest and most emphasized mysteries in the novel are dealt with. Only later in the series are there more loose threads.
I do not want to have to read the next book because the first book didn’t give me essential information. I want to read the next book to see what happens next.
Posted on October 6, 2015
So I just read this interview with Neal Porter and Julie Danielson and it was refreshing. In particular, the discussion of the state of publishing resonated strongly with my gag reflex. Emphasis all mine:
NP, talking about trends: But like most trends, they start when a really good book is published that breaks genuinely new ground—It’s a Book and Press Here, published six months apart, are examples that come to mind—and then everyone rushes to mimic its success. That’s frustrating.
But it’s only a part of a larger frustration—the need to serve “the market” at all costs.
JD, talk about the supposed Golden Age we’re in: I’m glad you said that about the “Golden Age.” I wrote in one of my Kirkus columns recently that, for me, the jury is still out on whether or not it’s a “Golden Age of Picture Books” right now.
To clarify, they both framed this uncertainty with the fact that you don’t know it’s a Golden Age when you’re in it. Well, I’m going to be controversial and say this ain’t it. What this is, I think, is the most markety, contrived time in children’s book history. And I’m sad.
I’m sad because the children’s market is catering only to The Market. This means that if x book does well, suddenly that’s the thing to aim for. Not just aim for, but copy. We want you to be Mo Willems, friends have heard from respected literary agents. Kids like to see things they could have drawn! Kids want a strong brand they can buy! Kids want simple things! Kids do not want the things that were published twenty years ago. Representational crap is out–kids hate that stuff!
All kids? Really? All however many million US children like the same thing? WHO KNEW! ALL CAPS ARE GOING TO HAPPEN A LOT. I’M HARRY POTTER IN BOOK FIVE (MY FAVORITE) AND I’M NOT AFRAID TO SHOW IT.
WARNING: I don’t like a lot of trends. Well, I like the trends when a few people are doing them. When they feel all genuine and (not) shit. I do not like it when trends replace variety. And I do not like it when people avoid saying they’re looking for trendy by framing it around what the kids like. I also don’t like to hear that we left innovation and experimentation back in the 90s. Because, well, we did. During that last Golden Age.
I was a child born in the late 80s. I was swept up in the rebirth of children’s fiction. I was exposed to the classics, and to what are now classics, like the Stinky Cheese Man and the Goosebumps series. I was exposed to high concept picture books (Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, a sorely neglected tale) and to lush retellings (The Talking Eggs). I was of the Scary Stories generation. My favorite early reader was A Dark Dark Wood, especially the story about the green ribbon and the woman’s head falling off. I lived for every American Girl chapter book. I made my parents come to loathe the Berenstain Bears.
Since people use anecdotes to try and dissuade certain concepts, Ima use anecdote to sway things back!
What I’m saying is, I liked everything.
The primary issue here isn’t necessarily concept, but visuals. I mean, the world of MG and YA is positively overflowing, and there are pretty heavy and innovative things happening there. It’s the picture book world that needs some help. (And this is less of an issue with books published outside the US. Lucky ducks.)
Kids haven’t changed. A kid born in 1900 and a kid born today are exactly the same. What changes is the stuff we expose them to. Deciding one day that kids can’t be sold x type of picture book is pure insanity. As a child, I did not prefer books that looked naive or “drawn by kids”. I loved lush, moody, creepy, representational things. Why a kid would suddenly not understand this, or be profoundly disturbed by it, is beyond me. For every kid too scared to read something is a kid not scared at all. Don’t deprive that second child for the sake of the first. They can avoid it. But the second child needs to be able to find it in the first place.
Everyone has an opinion about what kids can handle. The truth is that kids are as varied as adults. Not all adults can handle horror. Not all adults like genre fiction. But guess what, some do! You would never reject a pitch because “it’s too scary for adults”. That just sounds silly. So it should be equally silly to hear it framed around kids. Insisting that kids only like things that appear kid-like is, well, condescending. So many classic children’s books could never, ever be published in today’s market. I grew up at a time when I could get Paul O. Zelinsky and Lane Smith at the same damn time.
Kids love all kinds of things. Simple things, scary things, happy things, silly things, serious things, goofy things. EVERY DAMN THING.
Primitive. Naive. Representational. Conceptual. Digital. Traditional. Serious. Silly. Scary. Fantastic. Let them all exist!
We should be expanding and adding to the visual vocabulary, not closing doors as we walk down the hall. Trends come and go, but they need to be in addition to. Kids should be exposed to variety, and I know damn well they are not one homogeneous group who will resist it.
Sure, there are some groundbreakers still popping up and esteemed illustrators still doing their thing. But often the new kids on the block have a polished pedigree in some other field (especially animation), allowing them wiggle room that untested newbies don’t have. Which, fine, but those are different fields. Someone whose focus is on children’s books and always has been should be given as much credence and due respect as anyone else. They should be given the chance to add that missing variety.
What makes popular illustrators unique and exciting is that there aren’t a hundred others on the shelf nearby. Let them stand out. Let everyone stand out equally.
And this is from someone whose focus is on MG/YA and adult. I’ve seen too much carnage. TOO MUCH.
Posted on July 5, 2015
Listening to the illicit sounds of 5th of July fireworks.
When I was a small, wee, slip of a lass, I went through a period where I made my mom draw for me. It wasn’t that I stopped drawing; she was just better than I was. Sometimes I made her draw the hands for my people. Sometimes it was the whole people. I have a memory of sitting behind her on the couch and watching her progress.
Part of this ritual was that I would weave specific stories for every character I made her draw. Each person (it was always a person) had a story and a personality and some kind of future-shaped thing they were working toward.
My mom put up with it despite the fact that she has always maintained she can’t draw. I maintain that she can–she just never nurtured the skills because they didn’t interest her. There’s no disputing that her dad could draw, and we have his legacy of iconic 1930’s comic characters, especially Popeye, saved on yellowed envelopes and scraps of paper. But he was a civil engineer, not an illustrator.
My dad couldn’t draw, but there was definitely a literary sort of world inside of his head. If writing had been a stronger skill, he probably would have secretly written thousand-page epics of frontiersmen in 18th century Canada.
Story and visual art is in my family, though I’m the first to try to take it so far. I’m also the first to combine both sides of the creative coin, a fact for which I am really grateful. I mean, I’ve heard “I wish I could draw” from wordsmiths I adore, and I’ve heard “I wish I could write” from my fellow illustrators. From a practical standpoint, it’s just useful to have both skills. Sometimes you feel limitless (well, you know, until you look down at your work and think WOW I THINK I’LL QUIT TODAY). You could think of a picture book or graphic novel and do the entire thing yourself.
Since I could write, I have combined the written word with pictures. As a primary-schooler, this sometimes looked a little like butchered comic panels. Sometimes it was a long paragraph and a picture at the top. Sometimes it was a WordPerfect document with a trackball mouse drawing. As I approached the double-digits, it became illustrated chapter books (this is also the time when I said I’d become an author/illustrator and win a Caldecott–yeah okay, dream big, kid). And that is essentially where I have remained.
The nicest thing about being a writer/illustrator is that some things are better expressed in words, some in pictures. Some inspiration hits me write in the word-maker, and some hits me in the visuals. I will find that I need to draw something or I need to write something. I can read a book and be so desperately moved by the writing that I might spend weeks writing and not drawing. Or I might be so immersed in trying to get some kind of visual world-building out of me that I bang out a new illustration every day.
It’s a little funny that I’ve never automatically gone to picture books. That’s what so many writer/illustrators are, right? Picture book people. But when I have a premise, it sprawls out into this enormous, tentacled beast. What I always wanted to do was to write and illustrate a novel. Really illustrate it. Make the pictures sing alongside the paragraphs, so that they wouldn’t be forgotten in the spaces between each color plate.
But there are still picture books on my mind. There always have been. I read them even while I was reading Redwall and Dealing with Dragons. I still buy them today. I never went through that phase of thinking they were for little kids only. If the illustrations were fascinating, I didn’t care. I never felt self-conscious.
I imagined writing my upper YA/adult novels and having kid-friendly picture books about the same characters. I have never wanted to limit what I produce to one category. I want to write for every age and make a whole universe out of it. I mean, a universe inhabited with the characters I create. So, relatively small compared to the real one. You know.
So, being a writer/illustrator is pretty nice, I think, over all. I’m my own team. I’m my own storyboarder. I’m my own outliner. But it’s double the frustration. Fighting over your illustrations and fighting over your words–double the artistic temperament! Double the misery! Double the doubt! Double the practice!
But it’s also the double the satisfaction. I don’t know myself any other way and I don’t ever take it for granted.