Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Agent = My Hero

"Changing literary agents is like changing deck chairs on the Titanic." - Unknown

This quote made me laugh out loud, although I think it's open to interpretation. I read it as: "What's the point?" Someone else might think it means, "They're all the same."

Of course, I couldn't disagree more, with either reading of the quote. My literary agent (Edite Kroll, of Edite Kroll Literary Agency) has done such a wonderful job for me that I can't imagine being represented by anyone else.

It sounds so Hollywood, doesn't it? "My agent." Like I'm someone important. Ha. The fact is, an agent is a middle man, an industry insider who knows editors and publishing houses and understands the book market and knows what sells and what doesn't. An agent knows all the things a writer doesn't necessarily know, or want to know. And an agent does all the things ... like attend book fairs and schmooze and pitch and promote ... that a person like me would rather not do. I prefer to stay home and write about imaginary people.

But my agent is more than just a deal maker. She's a former editor herself, and, I suspect, was a hair dresser or lumberjack in a previous life because she's that fond of cutting. She has no qualms telling me, "Well, I like it [it meaning the draft manuscript] but it's a little long. Cut a third."

howl howl howl

Which leads me to another hat she wears: amateur shrink. Because sometimes I need the professional who can talk me down from the ledge. ("Don't jump, Maria. Just cut a third.") She puts up with my pouty-verging-on-pugnacious responses to her excellent suggestions, and even when I walk around my office fussing and fuming and INSISTING to myself that I can't POSSIBLY cut a third ... she's always right and the book is better once I've calmed down and done the work.

Which leads me to another hat she wears: wise counselor. Because even though my editor is a goddess and my publisher is terrific sometimes the sales department is ... okay, I won't write that bad word. Let's just say negotiations about the cover for my first book didn't go very well, and after Edite listened patiently to me rant over the phone, she said, "Now. Let's think about how you can convey those opinions in a professional way that they will listen to."

Ah. Yes. Professionalism. Forgot about that. Because when we write a book, it's our baby, and we think it's perfect and we love it. But if this is a job and a living we have to understand that it's not a baby. It's a piece of intellectual property we hope to sell, and we need to be professionals about marketing it and negotiating a price for it. We need a contract, we need ironclad agreements and clear deadlines. We need a savvy agent to pull that all together.

Which leads me to the most important thing about my editor: she's good. She took the first novel I've ever written and sold it to a major publishing house in three weeks. After we closed the deal, I remarked to my new editor that I felt so grateful, not only that they read it so quickly but that they read it at all. She looked shocked.

"Well, Edite sent it. Of course we read it right away."

I have friends who published their first books some 20 years ago and didn't have agents. They tell me things have changed and everyone needs an agent these days. I can't speak for everyone; but I sure needed, and need, mine.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Where Stories Begin

Where do you get your ideas?

When I visit schools I can always count on students to ask that question. You’d think by now I’d have an answer.

The fact is: I have no clue. I have a process, so to speak. I have a rhythm to my days and to my reading, and I keep a writing journal where I literally scribble thoughts with no regard to coherence or punctuation. My advisor in college introduced me to Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, and I’ve used the techniques in that book to pull stories from my imagination onto the page. But where a particular idea or character comes from is anyone’s guess.

Teachers say Write What You Know. But what does that mean, really? I play tennis and just completed a book with a character who plays tennis. Those scenes were very easy to write. But another character in the book is a ballet dancer, and I can scarcely touch my toes. To write the dance scenes, I had to rely on research … which included interviewing dancers, reading books on dance, watching instructional videos, and even attempting to go en pointe in toe shoes (Which, by the way, I do not recommend. Ouch).

No one could ever accuse me of knowing dance. I’ve seen it, I love it, I attend the ballet, but that world is beyond my experience or abilities. Yet the dancers who have read my chapters tell me I got it right. How can that be, if we’re supposed to Write What We Know?

I think the knowing here is not necessarily about facts. We can research facts and go out and gather enough details to make scenes and situations authentic. But what we know, and what we are ultimately compelled to write about, are emotional truths. The patina of factual accuracy is not what drives a story, although it can bring a story to a dead stop if you get it wrong. Emotional truth is what makes a story come to life, and we have to write about what we know is emotionally true. I can’t dance, but I know about performance pressure, the desire to excel at something you love, and disappointment if you don’t meet your goals. Because I know those things, I could write about my dancer.

So I suppose one place where my stories start is feelings. At the time I wrote Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, my middle-school aged children were going through the difficult phase (which I had gone through at the same age) of growing apart from old friends. Their pain was palpable; it brought back my own memories from those days. I knew I wanted to write a story about girl who had lost her best friend, so I began by mining those emotions and memories and what I knew to be true about that experience. A narrator emerged, and as I got to know her, the plot followed.

I’m sure there are hundreds of different answers to the Where-Do-You-Get-Your-Ideas question … and I’m always fascinated by writers describing their stories’ beginnings … but for me, even if the answer varies a bit from book to book, it always starts with a feeling. Tapping into what I know is emotionally true about a character is the only way I can write.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Adults: MIA in YA?

I just finished reading a fun, paranormal young adult romance called Shiver by Maggie Steifvater and it got me thinking about how adults are portrayed in books written for teens. This is something I wrestle with in my own novels, especially since the formula in a lot of YA these days seems to be that adults are either Missing in Action or idiotic.

In Shiver, the adults are inept/neglectful at best, and murderous at worst. Don’t get me wrong: I really loved Shiver (and just added it to the Book Talk section on my website) which is a wonderfully imaginative, beautifully written girl-meets-boy-who-is-also-a-werewolf romance. Much of the plot is driven by the premise that the protagonist’s parents are fairly indifferent guardians, leaving her free to host a wolf-boy not only in their house but in her bed, unbeknownst to them.

It’s a Teen Theme: Parents Don’t Get Us. Parents don’t communicate with us. They don’t understand our pain. Adults are pretty stupid. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, the parents communicate with their clearly depressed daughter by leaving notes for her as they zip off to work. In Carl Hiassen’s Hoot, adults are highly comic idiots. In Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, parents are incapable of understanding or easing their teen son’s pain, whether that’s emotional or physical pain.

“Kids don’t want to read about adults,” my agent tells me. Under her direction I’ve slashed and burned countless pages containing scenes with grownups. Granted, she was right about those cuts (she tends to always be right) but I’m one of those YA authors whose teens inhabit a world where adults are clearly present and involved, for better or worse. Balancing readers’ desires for peer-centric fiction with my desire to create authentic stories has been challenging.

In the book I’ve just completed, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, overinvolved parents are one of the main problems facing the teen protagonists. I’ve got the stage mother and a sports-sidelines screaming father from hell in this book, so I couldn’t very well have eliminated adults completely. Still, I had to trim and cut and streamline all the scenes with the parents, in the interest of holding my readers’ attentions.

In my first book, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, one of the main characters is the protagonist’s grandmother. My guess is that if the plot outline and synopsis for that book had ever come before an editorial board, it would have gotten dinged. (Luckily my editor just bought the whole book outright; no board.) I can imagine the comments: “Teens don’t want to read books about grandmothers.”

Well … sure they do. If grandma is funny. If grandma has something interesting to say. If grandma actually listens to the teens in her world, and gets what they are about. In Speak, an art teacher throws the main character the lifeline she needs to save herself from drowning in depression. In Robin Brande’s Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, one of the coolest characters who helps put the whole science versus religion controversy into perspective is an adult (again, a teacher.)

Part of writing YA is understanding how important, developmentally, it is for teens to test limits, push back at authority and take ownership of their lives. Perhaps they need to see adults as inept and clueless in order to take those steps. I get that this is a device in YA; I’ve used it myself.

But if we want to write authentic stories for young adults, should “old” adults necessarily be missing in action or foolish? I don’t think so.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Picky Picky

A couple of days ago I finished writing the “Acknowledgements” page for my next novel, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best. As I did with my first book, I used this space to thank a woman I’ve never seen or spoken with: the copyeditor.

Until I rode the long conveyor belt known as Bringing a Book to Publication, I had no clue what role a copyeditor played in the process. I might have guessed this was some entry-level editorial assistant who had to pay his or her dues by checking manuscripts for typos. In the hierarchy of the publishing world, I would have assumed a copyeditor was an unnoticed, unloved, underpaid serf, performing his or her sad task in a cubicle behind the Xerox machine.

I have since learned that copyeditors are the unsung heroes of the publishing world, saving hapless writers like me from embarrassment on a global scale.

I mean, there you are, with the 250 page manuscript you’ve labored over for years, revised multiple times, spell-checked, run by your agent, and sold to your editor. It’s perfect, right? Or at the very least, fairly okay. Then, they give it to some mysterious person they call The Copyeditor, who spends a few days with it and manages to find, on virtually every page, typos, misspellings and punctuation errors.

Not only that: she finds massive inconsistencies. Gross mistakes that will reveal to anyone who buys your book that you don’t know what you’re doing. She finds that in Chapter Three your main character’s mother is called Marilyn, but in Chapter Fourteen she’s called Marian. A protagonist will walk into a room wearing a blue sweater, but when he walks out the sweater is described as red. People will drive from Point A to Point B over a span of 10 hours, but after consulting with an atlas your copyeditor notes that they’d have to motor along at 120 miles per hour to cover that distance in that time.

In my novel Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, my characters fire potato bazookas. When the copyedits for that manuscript came back, the editor had noted that in the first bazooka shooting scene the kids had loaded the potato first, then added propellant, while in the second scene they switched that order. I remember feeling exasperated over such picky attention to detail … until I called a friend who regularly constructs and shoots potato bazookas.

“That’s a really important sequence,” he told me. “Anyone who has ever fired a potato bazooka knows you load the potato first.”

Ah. “Anyone who has ever fired a potato bazooka.” In other words: not me. I am a mere observer of potato bazooka blasting, and have never owned and operated one myself. If not for my astute copyeditor, my lack of bazooka expertise would have been broadcast to the world, and the authenticity of the book severely eroded. I can imagine bazooka blasting teens tossing the novel aside in disgust, pronouncing it lame, a hoax.

Okay, I’m laying it on a bit thick here … but seriously, it would have been a problem. You don’t want your reader to come to a halt mid-sentence and question the basic facts. Otherwise the whole illusion you’ve worked so hard to create comes crashing down; game over.

So … thank you, Dear Copyeditors, for your obsessive compulsive attention to picky picky details. You’ve saved me from making mistakes which might have derailed years of hard work, and helped me maintain the illusion that I actually know what I’m writing about.