Thursday, December 20, 2012

Winter Comfort Reads

'Tis the season for cozy blankets, hot chocolate, and holiday comfort reads. Are there books that you re-read every year because it's part of your winter tradition? Fellow editor pal Martha and I talked about this a few years back , and she posted this and ever since then I've been accutely aware that there are certain books that just FEEL like Christmastime to me.

The Christmas Dolls. This one's top of my list, because despite the fact that I'm not nine years old any more, my inner reader often is. I'm not even sure when or where I acquired this book (which is long since out-of-print, though you can still find it on used book sites), but it's battered from years of re-reads. As it 1980s-tastic cover makes clear, this is a tale of orphans, snowstorms, dolls, & a very special Christmas Eve mission. It's also got a perfect--if utterly implausible--happy ending that arrives just in time, with a touch of Christmas magic. I can't really explain why out of all the books, THIS is the holiday story that imprinted on me as a lifelong favorite, but there you have it--it makes me suspend all disbelief & just believe in the goodness of people, & what more could you wish for in a holiday story, really?
(This is the copy I had as a kid.)

(This is the current cover. Much better!)
Angels &Other Strangers
This short story collection was on my family's bookshelves when I was a kid. Each time I re-read it, I'm reminded all over again of Katherine Paterson's incredible power as a storyteller &observer of the world: novel or short-story, she delivers honest, timeless truths about how important hope is, &how much, as people, we need each other.    

Little Women
The first line couldn't be more engaging, could it? "'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' Jo grumbled, lying on the rug." It's Victorian-era Christmas warmth and miracles and hope and family love in all its glory!

(I do confess that some years I skip the re-read and go for one of the movie versions instead.)


And finally, one of my own! A Christmas Goodnight is a modern classic in my mind; the perfect hybrid between Goodnight Moon and the familiar Nativity story. My illustrator Sarah Jane Wright shows some of her wonderful interior artwork here (though her contest mentioned in that post is no longer live), and I talk about the process from the editorial side here. The thing I perhaps love most about this book is that ever since I first began working with this text over 5 years ago, it unconsciously runs through my mind over and over at Midnight Mass each year. I'm a biased editor and all, but if you're looking for a new Christmas picture book to add to your family's collection, it's pretty perfect for sharing, reading aloud, and for talking with kids about the connections between the long-ago Nativity story & their own lives.

What are YOUR holiday/winter comfort reasons? Share them in the comments!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You Tell Me: The Home Library Dilemma

At the SCBWI-Rocky Mountains Conference I spoke at a few weeks ago, organizer Todd Tuell posed a great dinnertime question that I've been chewing on ever since.

Imagine that your entire home library is destroyed (anguish! woe!) in a fire or flood or some such disaster. None of the books are recoverable. When it's time to start rebuilding your library: what are the very first two books (one picture book, one novel) that you'd want to put on your new shelves?

After much internal conflict and mental re-shelving, I think mine would be Blueberries for Sal and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. With a veryveryclose third being Charlotte's Web.

What about you?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Thought(s) for the day

I'm just back from two weekends of SCBWI Writers' Conferences (great to meet you, new friends in Colorado and the Carolinas). While creating my presentation for last weekend's conference, I found a couple of sharp, smart quotes from writerly "greats" that I love:

“Lots of interesting things happen to people, but they don’t all make good stories. It’s a writer’s job to know which is which.”—Joan Lowery Nixon, The Making of a Writer

“A book for young readers has to tell a story. This may seem self-evident, but the truth is some people ignore it because plotting is very hard work.”—Katherine Paterson, The Gates of Excellence

Do you have a favorite quote about writing? Leave it in the comments!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Craft exercises

Hello! If you're here for the first time via Write On Con, welcome! (And if you're a faithful reader, I like you a lot, too. Thanks for being here.)

Over at Write On Con HQ today, I waxed lengthy and opinionated about the importance of craft in a writer's life. (It read something along the lines of the below, but with more words, and a particular focus on craft).

You can read the whole post (and a lot of other great posts, too!) over there. But if you're here now, ready to turn abstract thoughts about craft into reality for your own writing, I thought a few practical craft-developing exercises might help. So, read on! Tweak, adapt, and adopt as you see fit for your own needs and own goals: And then write on!

1. Pick an ordinary object, or an ordinary view, or an everyday experience. Now describe it using five analogies or phrases that are entirely fresh, not clich├ęs or familiar ideas. In other words, create an image that's entirely new, out of your words and perspective, and give it to one of your characters to speak.

2. Read a book that you admire aloud. Pay special attention to what’s NOT in the text as well as what is. Return to your own writing and see, as a result of your study, what you can remove and how the reader might actually benefit as a result—from a more compelling pace, from a more streamlined plot, from tighter writing, from more suspense.

3. Find a book that achieves some of the same things you’re trying to achieve in your own work. Take it apart. Dissect it. Turn it into a chapter-by-chapter outline, or even a scene-by-scene outline. Then study that outline to pieces, noting things like when subplots are introduced and woven in and resolved, and where the action rises and falls (and how often it does each), and the balance of dialogue and prose, and the sort of emotion each chapter opens and closes with, and where in the story's telling unexpected things happen and how that affects the overall pace, and the arc of each key character’s growth across the book.
     Don’t try to do all this in a day. Spend days on it, even weeks. Use it as a warm-up exercise before your day’s writing. Or stop writing for a little while, and devote yourself to this study intensely: whatever works for you. But eventually, go back to your own book, armed with new knowledge, with the ability to better master your own craft having studied another’s mastery.

4. Try writing from a different point of view than you’ve ever tried before; a different voice than ever before; a character who on the surface shares nothing in common with you. What might that previously untried-voice or perspective make fresh in your writing, set free in your writing? What will you learn from your foreign-seeming character, as a writer, and as a person?

5. Share what you know: leave some of your own favorite craft-developing practices in the comments below so that others can try them, too!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Hello, August

I've come to accept--and so rather hope you have, too--that in the summer this blog is mostly about being out frolicking and avoiding too many deep thoughts. (Shouldn't we all be doing that, in summer?) But I'm pausing the summer funtimes (and sweating!) to pass along a few links:

1. Soon-to-be-published author Claire LeGrand has a fun blog series up in which she asks fellow writers and publishing folk about one of their favorite books as a middle grade reader. You can read my entry over there now (AND enter to win a giveaway for an advance readers' copy of Kathryn Fitzmaurice's next novel, Destiny, Rewritten.)

2. Speaking of Destiny, Rewritten and the spectacular Kathryn Fitzmaurice, want a sneak peek at the cover of its cover? (It's out in March 2013!) She revealed it recently, over on her blog. Go take a peek; our designers have really outdone themselves!

3. I L-O-V-E-D listening to this recent edition of This American Life (the segment is called "South of Unicorns," and suspect many of the bookish among you (especially fantasy-lovers) will feel the same way.

4. SLOTH. OLYMPICS. The pictures will slay you with cuteness.

5. Write On Con, the 100% totally free, totally online, totally awesome 2-day conference for Children's & YA writers is fast approaching--it's August 14th & 15th. In its third year, this conference is designed especially for those who can't get away from home for an in-person conference, or who just need an inspiration boost. It makes use of lots of digital tools to present dynamic offerings from publishing peeps, literary agents, authors, illustrators, and more, and though some of the presentations and forum offerings are most valuable during the actual days of the con, if you can't make it then, lots of the content will be archived.
     As we've done for the past two years, editor friend Martha Mihalick and agent pal Holly Root and I will be doing a video, in which we answer YOUR questions. Which means we very much want to hear YOUR questions that you'd like answered about kidlit, publishing, YA, cute baby animals....etc! The best way to get your question to us is on Twitter, using the hashtag #askhmm, but if Twitter's not your thing, you can leave your question here in the comments section, too. Either way, we're only taking questions through THIS WEDNESDAY AT MIDNIGHT, so don't dally!

Back to frolicking!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

INSIGNIA: An Editorial Love Story

(I don't blog a lot about my authors' books while they're in-progress toward publication. In part, this is out of respect for the writing/editing/revising/ publication process: a lot can change for a story as we work on it. It's also out of respect for readers--because I think it's mean to taunt you with tales of fantastic books you can't buy yet! Thus this series of publication-day "Editorial Love Story" posts was born: to celebrate the fact that, at long last, an author's book is out on shelves, and to share a bit of the "making-of" story of that book, too. Hope you'll enjoy and be inspired by this post, and that you'll soon have a chance to read this great book!)
More than anything, Tom Raines wants to be important, though his shadowy life is anything but that. For years, Tom’s drifted from casino to casino with his unlucky gambler of a dad, gaming for their survival. Keeping a roof over their heads depends on a careful combination of skill, luck, con artistry, and staying invisible. 
   Then one day, Tom stops being invisible. Someone’s been watching his virtual-reality prowess, and he’s offered the incredible—a place at the Pentagonal Spire, an elite military academy. There, Tom’s instincts for combat will be put to the test, and if he passes, he’ll become a member of the Intrasolar Forces, helping to lead his country to victory in World War Three. Finally, he’ll be someone important: a superhuman war machine with the tech skills that every virtual-reality warrior dreams of. Life at the Spire holds everything that Tom’s always wanted—friends, the possibility of a girlfriend, and a life where his every action matters—but what will it cost him? 
   Gripping and provocative, S. J. Kincaid’s futuristic thrill ride of a debut crackles with memorable characters, tremendous wit, and a vision of the future that asks startling, timely questions about the melding of humanity and technology.  

INSIGNIA by S. J. Kincaid hits shelves today, and it marks an awesome YA debut: as a bookseller who read an early draft of the manuscript said to me, "This author is the real deal!" and I couldn't agree more: it is a thrill to watch an author launch, knowing she is talented in endless ways!

   S. J. Kincaid is an incredibly skilled world-builder, one who uses science and history to ground a tale of the future, making for a brainy, smart, totally plausible story. The plots that she brings to life are genius: full of sneaky twists and turns and high-stakes moments that make your pulse pound all the more because you're aware as you read that every bit of her story feels uncomfortably possible. And her ability to create characters and genuine relationships between them is perhaps her greatest talent of all. I want to climb inside this book and be friends with these characters! Tom Raines and his friends are hilarious and fiercely loyal; they have an endless capacity for having fun, and they belong to each other in a way that makes a reader somehow feel that same warmth of belonging, too. That's a rare writerly talent, and a special one. Each time I read this manuscript anew, it felt like I'd skipped work for the day and was hanging out with friends, scheming pranks and enjoying inside jokes--and being that girl laughing too hard in public, whether on the subway or in a coffee shop, editing, because this story is high-stakes and thrilling, but it is also wickedly, wonderfully funny! We don't see enough humor in YA, I think, for what a key part of life it is for teens, but these characters are pitch-perfect in the way they never miss a moment for sly wit or full-on hilarity.

It's easy to assume that an author like this comes out of nowhere, but I think one of the things that awes me most about S. J. Kincaid is knowing just how hard she worked to become an author. INSIGNIA is her debut novel, but it's actually the seventh manuscript she wrote. Along the way, not only was she incredibly perseverant, but she let those six early manuscripts teach her a ton about writing, about storytelling, and about craft. As a result, she is one of the most confident writers I've ever met, and one who is willing to drastically tear apart and rebuild elements of her story if she can see that doing so might make it stronger. I am convinced that she has entire epic universes in her mind, and I am so pleased that she's willing to share some of them with us, as books.

S. J. Kincaid found her way onto my list in a distinctly modern way: she and her literary agent responded to an appeal I'd made on Twitter: that I was hungry for stories that asked interesting "what-if" questions. The first manuscript they sent me wasn't even INSIGNIA. But I am delighted that the next novel she wrote *was* INSIGNIA, and that I've had the privilege of working with her on the series, ever since I read INSIGNIA for the first time over Christmas, two years ago, at my parents' house, and ignored my entire family for the better part of two days as I did so. INSIGNIA creeps up on you as it steals its way into being one of the most engaging stories you've ever read. It's about a gamer kid, and I am decidedly not a gamer, but by three pages in, that no longer mattered because I was hooked, and totally on the side of intensely likable mischief-maker Tom Raines. I think Tom's character taps into something that exists in all of us: a universal desire to *matter*, and to make a difference in the world somehow, by using the talents we're proudest of in ourselves, which makes it a story that a fascinating variety of readers will enjoy.

Want to help S. J. Kincaid celebrate her INSIGNIA's debut? Check out the book trailer for INSIGNIA; buy a copy for yourself or a teenager or a gamer you know from your favorite bookseller or check it out at your library; "Like" to follow news about the series; or if you're in Huntington Beach (July 10th, B&N Huntington Beach; Salt Lake City, UT (July 11th, The King's English Bookstore); Houston, TX (July 12th) Blue Willow Books) or attending San Diego Comic Con, you can meet the author while she's on tour this week.  Finally, you can follow the author on Twitter (@sjkincaidbooks) or read her blog.

Happy publication day, INSIGNIA and S. J. Kincaid! I'm so excited for readers to find and love this book!

P.S. I posted this from my phone while out of town, so forgive any weird typos or formatting issues, please!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thanks, Mr. Sendak

for all the books, but especially for Little Bear, whose stories and pictures I pored over and over and over, until I learned how to read.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

INSURGENT: An Editorial Love Story

From this....
(that's about one-third of the rounds of editorial & production passes of INSURGENT, FYI.)

Sometimes, less is more. So this post will be short, but deeply-felt (yep, my faction would be Candor).

It is an incredible thing to watch a book take wings and find resonance with so many readers, as DIVERGENT has done.

It is an incredible thing to watch readers waiting with such enthusiasm for a book, and to know what awaits them (being an editor has its perks!), and to be so, so excited for the moment when readers and the story get to connect again.

And it is an incredible thing when an author outdoes herself and creates a sequel like INSURGENT, one that is even more compelling, even more powerfully written, than its predecessor.

Veronica Roth, you continue to amaze us all with this story. Thank you so much for creating it. Today (and every day), I am a lucky editor, and we are all lucky readers

Happy reading, friends!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Everything You Wanted To Know About Middle Grade: The Finale

Over the past month or so, agent pal Michael Bourret and I have held a series of back-and-forth blog conversations about what makes great middle grade books. We finished up last week, and you can read our final conversation here.

You can also backtrack and read the first installment here.
And the second installment here.
And again, the finale of our middle grade trilogy (ha!) of posts is over here.

Thanks to all who have read and shared the series, and who also share our love for middle grade readers and books. As you may have guessed, we're both on the hunt for more great middle grade stories to represent (Michael) and edit/publish (me), so cross your fingers that some memorable middle grade comes to us soon! And if you're a writer, we hope you found inspiration amidst our musings.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Inspiration of the day/week/month/year

So, you guys remember how we've been talking about middle graders, and their sense of wonder, and possibility? Yeah, all that. Captured right here, in one of the best 10-minute films you'll see all year:


Thursday, March 29, 2012

In case you were wondering

So there's been an utterly wicked Publishing Plague going around: last week I had it, and this week literary agent Michael Bourret has it, even though we're on opposite sides of the country. (The Evil Publishing Plague is undaunted by geography, apparently.) All to say, we haven't forgotten about our middle grade conversation blog series; it's just been waylaid, b/c if we'd tried to have a conversation in the last two weeks, it would have been all hopped-up on Sudafed and miserable and most likely incoherent, too. Anyway, we promise we'll get back to it soon! And thanks again to all who've read and contributed questions and shared the conversation thus far. You writers rock.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New favorite article of the week

The New York Times has begun what promises to be a *fantastic* series called "Draft," on the art & craft of writing. (Please go check it out, so they get good traffic/stats and choose to continue it!) Here's an excerpt from one of the pieces, by Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri, who is a master of powerful, evocative writing: 
“For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do. . . .
We encounter books at different times in life, often appreciating them, apprehending them, in different ways. But their language is constant. The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail.”

Ahhhh....isn't that all just so perfectly captured, so elegantly true?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Five articles worth reading this week

1. This great article that talks about the neurological effects of reading. If you're a brain science nerd like I am (for me it boils down to a fascination with understanding the things that make us human), or simply someone who likes when reading/storytelling make news, you'll probably appreciate this, too.
        Sample: "A psychologist...concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers." 

2. The text of a commencement speech given to West Point grads three years ago. It's long, but offers a really compelling definition of leadership by way of also discussing the critical roles of vision, solitude, courage, introspection, literature, and friendship.
        Sample (which isn't talking about writing fiction, but oh, how it could be!): "I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing."

3. A legendary magician offers his career secrets via an email exchange with a young admirer. I want to quote like six different passages from this, so really, you should just go read it, even though it, too, is lengthy. It's not about writing, but it IS about the creative life and I suspect you'll see the links just as I do. After all, making magic and making stories have a lot in common.... 
        Sample: "Surprise me. That's it. Place 2 and 2 right in front of my nose, but make me think I'm seeing 5. Then reveal the truth, 4!, and surprise me. Now, don't underestimate me, like the rest of the magicians of the world. Don't fool yourself into thinking that I've never seen a set of linking rings before and I'll be oh-so-stunned because you can "link" them. Bullshit. Here's how surprise works. While holding my attention, you withold basic plot information. Feed it to me little by little.  Make me try and figure out what's going on.  Tease me in one direction. Throw in a false ending.  Then turn it around and flip me over."

(Aside: like many of my best internet discoveries, items #3 and #4 on this list came to my attention via my pal @brainpicker. If you're not following her or reading her blog, you should be, as she is a constant treasure-trove of interestingness and inspiration.)

4. I don't always agree with Laura Miller's articles about publishing, but this look inside publishing the juggernaut otherwise known as The Hunger Games is one of the best journalistic looks I've seen at the strategic, carefully-layered work it takes to build success in the kids' book world. Even more importantly, it emphasizes what I tend to think is and always will be the most important truth of the industry, no matter how it morphs: the children's book world is a business built on personal relationships.
        Sample:  "It’s hard to imagine the first book in any adult series being greeted with a comparable level of grass-roots hoopla: buzzed, booktalked and big-mouthed for months before it appeared on any bookstore display table . . . "We got it in the hands of the right people. That’s what publishers do,” van Straaten said. "You’re leveraging one thing to build the next thing. You need the enthusiasm internally to convince that first layer of gatekeepers. Once you have the kudos of those people, you can get these people, and so on.'"

5. Um, actually, my list only goes up to number four today. So you tell me: what article did you find recently that others should read? Leave links in the comments, and thanks!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Middle Grade, Part 2: Technology and Gender and Marketing, Oh My!

This is Part Two in a series of online coversations between Dystel & Goderich literary agent Michael Bourret and myself, HarperCollins Children's Books editor Molly O'Neill, about middle grade books. If you missed the first part of the conversation, you can read it here.

MO: Zoinks! (Michael, we're going to get sooooo many submissions with that little joke from now on. I hope it was worth it!) Thanks to everyone who read/commented on and/or shared our first MG chat, and for coming back to read more. Your response definitely affirms something we've both been feeling: that the industry is definitely on the look-out for GREAT middle grade.
        What does "GREAT" middle grade mean, though? I guess like any sort of fantastic writing, great middle grade rises above the present moment and hopefully establishes itself as not just meaningful for readers today, but as a lasting part of the literary landscape. Sure, technology is changing the way we promote and even read books--though for middle graders, e-readers aren't quite as pervasive as they are for teens or even adults, just like the way it took a while for cell phones to trickle down into tween hands, once upon a time. And it's harder for us to market directly to younger readers since COPPA laws limit the ways we can target that readership, so I suspect that we're always going to be reaching out to gatekeepers (parents, teachers, librarians, etc.) as much as our ultimate readers for this genre. Which makes sense, because as a middle grader, the people in your life who model a love of reading can be a big reason a kid becomes a reader. And if the emotions and situations and relationships in a story ring true, and the creative imagination behind it transports reader after reader, that's part of what makes a book great--and why it will endure through generations of readers, no matter what format or delivery system or marketing vagaries might exist.

MB: Zoinks, indeed! That's my reaction to trying to define "GREAT" middle grade. There's such a diversity in middle grade that it's hard to pinpoint the things that make it great. But I'll agree with Molly that the truly great books (for any age) touch on universal truths that don't depend on trends, fads or gimmicks. One of the great things about middle grade is that it seems much less susceptible to big trends--you don't have the same sort of vampire, werewolf, dystopian waves that you see on the YA side. Because middle grade typically gets less media attention (more on that in a second), I think there's a lot less groupthink and a greater degree of creativity and, dare I say, effort. To me, middle grade always seems so open and full of possibility; is there anything you can't do? In particular, I'm taken by the many books that combine realistic, relatable stories with the fantastic. Kids are so open to that, and it allows the writer to tell a story about real kids that also has high stakes (see our last post).
        Back to the marketing for just a moment: Molly makes such an excellent point about selling to kids. While middle grade novels are written for children, publishers can't market directly to them, so much of what we do goes through gatekeepers like parents and educators. It necessarily changes the role of the author in promoting the books, as well, since they aren't reaching their readers in the same way that they do on the teen side. In my experience, that can be a surprise for authors who are so keen to use their social networks to reach readers. It's not that social networking is any less important, it's just important to remember that while the audience for your book might be kids, the audience for your tweet is probably an adult.

MO: I, too, love the potential for possibility and sky's-the-limit creativity that middle grade allows--and that it's so much less trend-driven that our current YA market. Middle grade readers are some of the most voracious readers, I think, and though some are highly influenced by what their peers are reading, or firmly decide they only like one kind of book, many others are willing to sample widely, skipping across genres and loving them all in a way that teens and adults aren't always willing to do. I think middle grade readers are reading a lot less for status (though they do seem to find it cool to lug a big book around) or out of the need to be part of a collective conversation, and more for personal satisfaction.

       Michael nails it, though--while the genre seems wide-open, it's also about blending the right combination and balance of the relatable with the infinitely fantastical. Middle grade readers are miles away from being English majors, and are rarely interested in the author's bold stylistic choices or the reasons behind them...they just want a story that satisfies them! My own inner middle grade reader is drawn to the sense of wonder that can be found in so many great middle grade books. Sometimes that's the sense of wonder that rich friendship and powers of imagination can bring about, like in the classic Bridge to Terabithia or in the more recent When You Reach Me or Breadcrumbs. Or it’s the awe and wonder of otherworldliness that fantasies like Shannon Hale’s deliver, or it’s the wonder of a kid who gets to experience the utterly fantastical that's also somehow reminiscent of the world they know, like the cat clans of the Warriors books that aren't so very different than the cliques of middle school, or The Mysterious Benedict Society, which gives kids an opportunity to put their ordinary-seeming talents to use in extraordinary situations. And sometimes the wonder comes from a simpler place, like the “ahhhh” of recognition that comes from pitch-perfection depictions and articulations of the universal experiences and emotions of being human, and growing up: like the stories of Deborah Wiles, or Lisa Yee, or Gary Schmidt.
       We got some interesting questions about point-of-view for middle grade, but unfortunately, as with so much of writing, there's no single right answer. It's all about what the story demands, and what will allow readers to access the story most fully. For some books, a sweeping, omniscient storyteller voice is absolutely fitting, or a boisterously humorous and clever one is. For others, the closeness of a first-person voice makes the main character's victories and heartaches that much more real, or makes a long-ago time feel more accessible, or a third-person narration makes the setting come alive with details. The trick is that the perspective/point-of-view should bring the reader in close to the story AND also make the story’s telling feel effortless, not labored. You'll notice that I keep talking about things (often extremes) that need to be done simultaneously! I think balance is a HUGE part of good writing and storytelling. In a perfect book, to me, nearly every scene, if not nearly every single line of text, serves multiple purposes, moving the story forward but also revealing things about the characters, their relationships, the setting, the unfolding plot, etc., etc. When a writer is that deliberate and thoughtful about their writing and storytelling (and the revising that leads them there), the result can be a story that’s layered and nuanced and that has a sort of texture and richness that leaves readers feeling oh-so-satisfied throughout the whole reading experience. It’s not unlike the sensation of having eaten a meal that combined flavors you’d never imagined blending together, even if you’d encountered them all separately before—it’s memorable precisely because of the craftsmanship and daring and creative delight that went into conceiving and creating it. In great middle grade, the sum is always more than the seemingly-ordinary and often-familiar parts…but HOW the writer arrives at that sum is the thrilling part!

MB: What's interesting to me is that your list of middle grade titles that you mentioned above are some of the very titles I was thinking of: Bridge to Terabithia, When You Reach Me, Mysterious Benedict Society. The former has to be one of the best middle grade books ever written--it gets so many of the elements we've been talking about just right. And what a perfect segue to discuss gender! Several questions in the comments addressed the question of gender in middle grade novels, specifically asking if boys are willing to read books with female protagonists. It's a fair question, and something I know that gets discussed often, both by writers and publishing professionals. I have to say, I'm very curious to hear Molly's take on this. Gender (along with race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality) is often difficult to discuss, as what we as people believe or espouse doesn't always neatly line up with what the market wants or expects. While unfortunate, I do think that books with male protagonists, on the whole, tend to fare better in middle grade. Why that is, I can only speculate about, though I'm finding it increasingly difficult to believe that boys don't want to read about girl protagonists--I'd like to believe that gender politics, especially for kids, are much better than they were. There are many books, of course, with both a male and female protagonist, which is one way of avoiding the issue altogether, though it does limit the voice and POV of the book. All of that said, I've never gotten a submission, thought, "Oh, this has a female protagonist and therefore I cannot sell this middle grade novel." It's really only in the context of questions like this, which often come up at conferences, that it really crosses my mind. As with anything else, my advice is to write the book you want to write, write it the best you can write it, and try to find it a home. Worrying too much about what's going to happen in the marketplace (either of editors or readers) will surely drive you mad.

MO: You know, I wonder if when people say, "boys don't want to read books about girls," if that's actually shorthand for something slightly different and harder to articulate: that boys and girls look at the world through slightly different lenses, and care about different things, especially at this age. For example, middle grade boys rarely seem to go through the same endless catty frenemy drama that is so common for middle school girls--so would reading books where that theme is central be vastly appealing to most boys? I suspect not. Ditto books where pivotal parts of the story revolve around popularity or lots of details about clothing and crushes. Likewise, girls who read books in part to study/understand/identify how friendships and relationships work for other people may not find it compelling to read about survivalist stories where relationships don't play a big role, or about non-stop adventure with little character development. But you know, even as I type this, I too, am hating the way it sounds like stereotypes being perpetuated, even though I'm just trying to give illustrative examples. I think what it boils down to is that readers--boys and girls and adults, too, for that matter--subconsciously want to IDENTIFY with a book's characters and experiences. We want to see ourselves in a story, right? If there's a hero/heroine, we'd like to feel like we have some of those same heroic traits, and if there are problems, we might tuck away the character's solution/victory to try it out in our own lives when similar dilemmas arise. So I think it's worth asking yourself if there are ways to make your characters as dynamic and relatable to as many different readers as possible.

        Like Michael, I don't in any way find myself excluding books that skew to solely one gender--but as an editor, I also have to be realistic from day one about my expectations for a book, and I think writers have to do the same. A book with both a male and female protagonist does potentially have more reach than a book that hews to only one side of the gender divide. That means that more kids may be drawn to it, which means more word-of-mouth may spread more widely, or that teachers will have an easier time incorporating it into classroom use--all of which can help it find a bigger audience of readers. But you also have to be true to the story you're writing. Inserting a character that doesn't belong or ring true, simply in attempt to broaden marketability, could destroy an otherwise great book, which will limit its potential in a much more serious way than skewing to a specific gender. It's like the Aesop fable about the miller and his son taking their donkey across the river: in trying to please everyone, you might end up pleasing no one--not readers, and not yourself as a writer, either. And if you're not delighted and pleased by the writing that you're doing, then what's the point? 

MB: I love when we agree. Which is a good place for us to pause, because boy, can we go on. And we will, next week! We'll be answering more of your questions in the next couple of weeks (so leave new ones in the comments if you have them), and we thank you so much for reading, commenting on, and tweeting what we've written. We sincerely appreciate your appreciation.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Zoinks, bud!" And other thoughts on middle grade novels.

As promised in my last post, literary agent Michael Bourret and I started a chat about middle grade fiction. You can read the first part over on his agency's blog today. We hope you find the conversation as interesting as we did!

P.S. Check back here on my blog in a week or so for a second installment!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Let's Talk About Middle Grade!

A couple days ago, literary agent pal Michael Bourret and I got to talking about middle grade books--about what makes the great ones so great, and about how we're both eternally hungry to discover that kind of memorable middle grade for our own respective lists. And the more we chatted, the more we thought it would be an interesting conversation to have "out loud."

So in a week or two, we're going to have a two-part blog conversation about middle grade (or as some folks call 'em, tween books); the first half on the Dystel & Goderich Literary Agency blog, and the second half right here on 10 Block Walk. In other words, exciting bloggish times are ahead, oh readers!

But first, we want to know: what curiosities and questions do you have about the writing and craft (and publishing) of MG books? Leave a comment here, or on Michael's post today on the D&G blog (or tweet me or Michael) and we'll use some of your comments as jumping-off points for our upcoming chats.

P.S. No question's too big, too small, or too silly!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

So it's 2012

...and my blog has been sorely neglected! (For excuses, I offer you a bout of bronchitis-turned-to-near-pneumonia that took me down for most of November and December; NCTE; Thanksgiving and Christmas travel; general holiday madness; and an enormous pile of submissions that only gets larger, no matter how much reading I do.) So sorry, dear friends. Mostly, I have been busy, busy, busy making books. But I've been writing lots of blog posts in my head of late, so I hope to share some of those with you very soon.

But in the meanwhile, here are a few assorted (and some much-belated) tidbits from this editor's life to catch you up to date.

1. I bought two amazing books from The Intern, and cannot wait to introduce her incredible voice to the YA world! Here's the "official" write-up from Publishers Weekly, or you can hear more about it on her blog.

In a two-book pre-empt, Molly O’Neill at HarperCollins’s Katherine Tegen Books bought North American rights to Hilary Smith’s YA debut, Midnight at the Radio Temple. Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency said the novel, which is scheduled for summer 2013, is a coming-of-age story about a teenage musician who uncovers shocking family secrets during “an unforgettable summer of love and chaos, music and madness.” Smith was behind the formerly anonymous publishing blog, The Intern (, in which she chronicled toiling away as an unpaid laborer in the editorial department at a nameless publishing house; the blog became something of an industry phenomenon in 2009, drawing, at its height, 10,000 visits per month.

2. The exceedingly lovely readers of Goodreads chose Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT as their favorite book of the year, the top award in the annual Goodreads Choice Awards. Cue a beaming editor. (Speaking of DIVERGENT, did you know it's only 95 days till INSURGENT comes out?)

3. I have some amazing books coming out in 2012, and I'm working on some fantastic projects for 2013 right now, too. I'll tell you about them in due course (i.e., I won't torture you too much by telling you about things you can't read yet), but in the meanwhile, I've just got to say that my authors and illustrators are some of the hardest-working and most brilliant and talented people I know.

4. My beloved alma mater Marquette University just did a career profile on me in their alumni magazine, which makes me feel ridiculously grown-up and reminds me just how lucky I am to have my dream job. If you'd like, you can read it here.

5. I'm thinking about starting a (semi-) regular blog series higlighting books about the craft of writing. I get asked for recommendations a lot at writers' conferences and thought it might make good blog fodder. Would that be of interest? Shout-out in the comments if so. 

Okay, more soon, I pinky-swear! And until then, you can find me on a much more regular basis on Twitter.