It’s All About Taste

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing, publishing, and the importance of taste.

TasteMany of my friends are in the trenches of querying agents and submitting novels. They’re racking up long lists of rejection letters and wondering why they aren’t good enough. They’re asking: Why doesn’t this agent want my book? Why didn’t they connect with the material? What am I doing wrong? Should I give up writing?

Rejection seems to be a constant in the world of writing and publishing. The long-desired moments of praise and acceptance seem to be temporary and fleeting. Yet, rejection is something we writers deeply internalize, having spent hours, and months, and years creating our novels. We want people to see that effort as worthwhile.

Illustrated silhouette of a man sitting with his head in his handBut too often we believe that the rejection of a book is also a rejection of the writer. Slowly, brutally, I’m learning that it’s not that simple. In fact, I’m learning that a rejection has very little to do with me, and everything to do with the book. Or more accurately, sometimes it isn’t even about the book, it’s all about taste: the taste of the agent, the taste of the editor, or the taste of the market.

Let me take a moment to share three examples that have changed the way I look at submissions and rejection. Hopefully these will help you to see there is hope, lots and lots of hope.

1) My Editor Didn’t Want My Second Book

Last week my current editor (the one who adores my first book and bought it within two weeks of submission) just passed on my new novel. She said she “didn’t connect with it.” That’s the agent/editor kiss of death isn’t it? It’s a generic statement of rejection that won’t let me know how to move forward to what to change. Only – here’s what’s empowering about that statement. All it means is that this book doesn’t match my editor’s taste. Sure, I want my editor to love my books – all of them – but that’s unrealistic. This rejection doesn’t mean she doesn’t adore my writing. She would never have bought the first book if she didn’t think I was talented. All it means is she didn’t connect with this story. And after rejecting this book she promptly asked what else I’m working on. The rejection of one book is not the rejection of every story I will ever write.

2) Agents Want to Feel Goosebumps

goosebumps_2443265bA colleague of mine is the assistant to a top-tier agent at a large agency. Recently, I asked her what causes her boss to pass on a project or decide to represent a writer. She said: It’s all about taste. The book has to give the agent goose bumps. But here’s the part you need to hear: She also said that they pass on great books all the time, beautifully written books, books she knows will sell, books that she is certain another agent will scoop right up. So why doesn’t the agent scoop it up herself when she knows it will sell? The answer is simple: it didn’t give her goose bumps. It wasn’t something she loved. Finding an agent is all about finding the best advocate for your work, and that can only be done when both you and your agent adore the book. Would you really settle for an agent who doesn’t love your book?

 3) I Don’t Care if You’re a Bestseller

bestseller_graphicsmall1My last story is about a friend who is a New York Times bestselling author. She’s sold multiple book series, speaks at conferences around the world, and has had large publishing contracts. In all the traditional measures of success – she’s made it! But guess what, she’s currently self-publishing her next series. Why you ask? Because the market is scared. Her new series is a paranormal romance and well … we’ve all heard that market is dead. It doesn’t matter that she’s a bestseller. None of the publishing houses want to take the risk. Again, it isn’t about her or her writing, it’s about the book, and how scared the publishers are about the taste of the market. So what has she done? She’s taken the power back and is self-publishing the series on her own. She believes in her work and that the book will find an audience that loves it too.

Ultimately, we can only hand over so much of our power to others. You love the novel you’re writing and submitting. Have faith that it will find the right agent, editor, and reader that loves it as much as you do.

Yes, there are lots of gatekeepers on the road to publishing. But remember that gatekeepers are only taste-makers. They don’t determine what is great, they pick what they like. They pick what aligns with their own taste, and they gamble that others will have a similar palate.

Keep writing. Keep submitting. Write the next book.

New Adult: A Genre is Born

“Mixing romance with the life-changing experiences of early adulthood – college life, first jobs, independence, self-discovery and finding love – theses authors are defining the new genre of New Adult. New Adult fiction blazed onto the scene a few years ago and rapidly captured the hearts and minds of readers. YA readers love the contemporary settings and frank discussions of sometimes taboo topics, while older romance fans love the raw emotions.” – Publisher’s Weekly Promo Email for this Webcast

I’m getting back to the original roots of this blog – when I shared notes from workshops and conferences – and will be sharing some notes today! The following are my scribblings from the Publishers Weekly Webcast on Sept 17th, 2014.

**Disclaimer: None of these notes are direct quotes from the authors. Please listen the Publisher’s weekly archive of this webcast to hear exactly what the authors said.**

New Adult Authors

MODERATOR, Rose Fox (Reviews editor for Publisher’s Weekly) started off the cast by asking each author to introduce themselves and their books.

Cora Carmack is the author of the Loosing It Series and the Rusk University Series. She writes lighthearted and funny books about real people struggling with realistic problems. Her 18-25 year-old characters ask: who am I, and what do I want to do with my life. She has eight New Adult titles under her belt, and her series are companion novels so you can read them out of order.

Molly McAdams has three New Adult titles and writes the Taking Chances and Forgiving Lies Series. She likes to focus on the serious side of New Adult, and doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. For example her new title Sharing You explores what it means to be “the other woman” and involved with a married man. She considers herself an emotional writer, and wants to look at the things that have been swept under the rug.

Nichole Chase writes the Royals Series, which she calls happy fluffy romances. She has three New Adult titles and her latest book is her first foray into darker subject matter. She also writes Young Adult.

J.Lynn is a prolific writer who has published young adult, new adult, and adult books. She also writes under the name Jennifer L. Armentrout. She writes about secrets, which are a common thread in her New Adult work, and likes exploring how keeping secrets can shape your future. She has four New Adult titles, as well as some paranormal New Adult coming out.

Sophie Jordan writes the Ivy Chronicles Series, which was inspired by a news article about college Key Clubs that she and her agent were joking about, only to discover it was the great premise for a series. She has three New Adult titles in her repertoire, but also writes Young Adult and Adult Historical Romance.

Jay Crownover writes about all the stuff that got her into trouble when she was a new adult. Her books focus on counter culture: tattoos, metal, rock n’ roll, etc. With nine New Adult titles, she loves exploring opposites attract stories, and writes the Marked Men Series.

MODERATOR: New Adult has only existed for a few years. Can we define what New Adult is and what it isn’t?

Wait for youJ. Lynn: New Adult is not a market. New Adult means the characters are between 18 and 25 years in age. Sometimes the love interests are outside of that age range. New Adult is all about firsts without a safety net. It’s first love, first lust, first home, first job, etc. It’s not having your parents to fall back on. Instead these characters are becoming independent for the first time. It’s not sexed up Young Adult. It goes far beyond that. It’s also not a marketing ploy to attract 18 to 25 year-old readers. Our readers range from 15 to 75!

“New Adult is all about firsts without a safety net.”

Sophie: YA is read by adults, but YA teen readers don’t jump from young adult to adult books. New Adult has pulled from both the YA and adult readership and created a bridge between the two. YA is the first kiss or first love. New Adult is the first time that really matters. These are relationships that could last the rest of the character’s lives. In YA these romantic relationships have less weight.

MODERATOR: How has self-publishing been a part of your path as a New Adult author?

All lined upCora: My first book was self-published and then picked up by a traditional publisher. And now, I’m about to return to self-publishing with a New Adult paranormal series. I’ve decided to go indy because I’m ready for new sub-genres in New Adult. However, publishers are nervous to see anything in New Adult that’s outside of the current contemporary setting. It’s a shelving issue. Booksellers and librarians don’t know what to do with New Adult. The genre is just staring to find a mainstream audience. Going for digital self-publishing with this new series allows me to experiment. I can play with pricing, release dates, re-branding, etc. It creates a lot of great flexibility, and I only have to be worried about myself, rather than a whole company.

“When you self-publish as an individual you can front failure better than a publisher can.”

J.Lynn: My first New Adult book Wait for You was also self-published. Many of us on this panel actually self-published first. I am also working on a New Adult paranormal project that will be self-published. There’s a belief out there that paranormal is dead. But readers are still buying it. When you self-publish as an individual you can front failure better than a publisher can. Our readers are out there asking what’s next in New Adult. Is it paranormal, horror, New Adult without romance? But just because they’re asking for it doesn’t guarantee that they will buy it. Self-publishing allows us to experiment with lower risk.

RoyalNichole: My first New Adult book was paranormal and self-published. I think paranormal is something the market still wants to read. People who love the paranormal genre are still out there. They’re still reading it. I like paranormal because of the creativity it allows and how my imagination can run wild.

Jay: I always wanted to write what I wanted to read. I like exploring more grit, life hardships, and what it means to try to find your place. Not everyone’s journey is to the “sweeter places.” I like stories with a steel backbone.

MODERATOR: How has digital publishing and novellas influenced New Adult?

Molly: People like digital publishing and how they can get books quick. With a novella the publishing process is faster, and the product is cheaper for the reader. Novellas really are full-length novels that are branded as a novella. But they’re quick reads. My readers say they often read one book a day.

Taking ChancesJ.Lynn: New Adult is a digital phenomenon. The genre really took off in 2011 and 2012 with the explosion of e-readers. Books are priced at $3.99, which is considered the “impulse buy price.” And readers like the immediate download. The low price point allows readers to dip their toes in the water. There’s less risk that they’ve invested in something they won’t like. Often New Adult books are under 100,000 words, but I’ve seen them as high as 140,000 words.

“$3.99 is the juicy spot in e-book pricing.”

Cora: $3.99 is the juicy spot in e-book pricing. It means the reader will read it right after they buy it. Whereas a book purchased for $0.99 often languishes on their e-reader. A $3.99 purchase has more weight. It’s still under $5, but feels like enough of an investment to read the book. New Adult writers are really prolific, which has to do with the initial demand and boom of the genre. But there’s a lot of competition out there now, both from self-published books and trade publications. Pricing is a big deal where there’s so much content out there. I’ve heard some people say online that they won’t buy a book that’s over $2.99, and they’re waiting for my books to go on sale. But we’re constantly exploring what works.

Sophie: One of my favorite reviews said: “Great book. Don’t let the $2.99 price tag scare you.”

MODERATOR: Where should librarians shelve New Adult books? Some are afraid to put it with YA because of the sexy content, but others are afraid it will get lost in the adult section. Any advice?

jay cCora: Some libraries are doing New Adult displays. But they’re not committing to a whole section because they don’t know if there’s a readership for it. In bookstores you often see New Adult shelved in the romance section. It’s interesting, I went into Books-a-Million, which has a New Adult shelf, and noticed that a huge percentage of the books are bestsellers. There were more bestsellers in the New Adult section than any other part of the store. Libraries should give New Adult a chance, there is a readership!

J.Lynn: The label “New Adult” is also what can confuse readers. Anyone who isn’t on blogs or twitter may have never heard of this term. Books-a-Million relabeled their New Adult sections as “Summer Love” in the summer, and “Fall into Love” in the autumn. This is helping the mainstream readership learn what New Adult is.

MODERATOR: Is this a woman’s genre? Is there room for male reader and writers? What about diversity?

wildSophie: Right now the New Adult audience is a lot like the romance demographic. It is women of all ages. Some books are written in a guy’s POV, but most are in the female perspective. My Young Adult books have a higher percentage of male readers than my New Adult books do. But the YA books also explore other issues in them, where my New Adult is romance focused. It’s also about packaging and titles. A cover with a sexy guy kissing a girl is designed to only attract female readers.

Jay: I have more dude readers than most. I have a lot of college-age guys who email me and let me know they read my books. Fifty Shades has changed what is acceptable. Everyone bought Fifty Shades and read it on the bus or the subway.

“Reader purchasing habits speak for themselves. The power is really in the readers and librarians hands.”

J. Lynn: In terms of diversity, reader purchasing habits speak for themselves. The power is really in the readers and librarians hands. But yes, we do need awareness that these books exist. It’s taken a long time for diversity to make it into Young Adult books, I hope it doesn’t take as long to make its way to New Adult.

Molly: Readers do want mixed races in their New Adult books. I’ve had a lot of positive response to having an Asian character in one of my novellas.

Cora: Diversity is about getting the books into the readers hands, and then it comes down to buying power. We can say all day that New Adult has room for new subgenres (dystopian, sci-fi, etc.), and those books do exist. In fact, New Adult gets a lot of flak for being only romance. But those sub-genres are out there right now. But I can’t control what readers buy.

Moderator: I guess the genre really is what you make it! Thank you all for participating in this panel.

Learn more about this webcast, upcoming talks, and look through the archives here: Publisher’s Weekly Webcasts

Highlights from the 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference

Guest post by Lianna McSwain

Hi All! SCBWI-LA was a massive event. There were over 1,200 attendees and close to 100 professionals from the field. The conference took place over three days and included so much information I filled a notebook almost completely with notes, which I am happy to share with you. These notes cover only those events I was able to go to. It’s like a cupful of information that I collected from the fire hose.

I wish I could have been everywhere!



Meg Rosoff:

Meg Rosoff

After Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser kicked off the conference by charming everyone with their wit and loveliness, we sat back and had our minds blown by Meg Rosoff.

Her talk dissected several academic complaints that fairy tales are harmful because they give children unrealistic perceptions of the world. The academics charged that stories such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears are dangerous because they fail to teach that bears live in dens not cottages, that they eat ant pupae not porridge and that they are more inclined to disembowel and eat small children than they are to be suitable playmates for them.

Meg Rosoff responded that fairy tales are dangerous, but not in the ways the academics say. She reminded us that fairy tales are subversive. They upend cultural norms and allow us access to our most repressed thoughts and fears.

Fairy Tales take the dark matter of our unconscious minds and put them into our hands.

She assigned us the task of going out into the world and writing those stories we’ve been told we can’t or shouldn’t write. She asked us to write subversive.

Editor’s Panel:

Lin Oliver

There were seven editors on the Friday morning editor’s panel: Alessandra Balzer (Balzer+Bray), Mary Lee Donovan (Candlewick), Allyn Johnston (Beach Lane Books), Wendy Loggia (Delacorte), Lucia Monfried (Dial), Dinah Stevenson (Clarion), and Julie Strauss-Gabel (Dutton).

Lin Oliver moderated the panel and asked the editors to begin by naming things they’d like to see more of.

Nearly everyone called for more work with voice.

The editors also called for work that was authentic, original and that surprised them.

Julie Strauss-Gabel asked that the writers take the time to get to know the editors, so that when submitting a work, the writer would know whether the work would be a good fit for that editor. Julie stated that she only publishes 9 or 10 works per year, and she needs to fall in love with them.

The other editors agreed that they too were hoping for works that the writers or agents saw as being a good fit for them. Wendy Loggia said that when an agent says to her, “you’re the best editor for this book” she feels a need to put that manuscript on the top of the pile.

Lin Oliver jumped in and recommended that writers consult the fabulous SCBWI resource called “Edited By.” This is a list of current editors and the ten books that they believe best represent the kind of work they like to publish. This list is included as a chapter in the Market Section of The Book. If you are not familiar with The Book, it is a pdf compilation of the most current information about the state of children’s book publishing available to all members of SCBWI for free, download here.

The editors agreed that while they understand that multiple submissions are the norm these days, they really all frown on submitting a manuscript to multiple editors within the same house.

Finally, Mary Lee Donovan looked for writing competence. Dinah Stevenson wanted a story with a definite beginning, middle and end and nothing over 100K words. Wendy Loggia requested that manuscripts have page numbers. Julie Straus Gable wanted stories that weren’t boring. Allyn Johnston requested stories that were readable out loud.

The editors also agreed that respectful communication goes a long way.

Judy Schachner:


Judy let us into her mental art studio, and confirmed what I suspected all along—Ms. Schachner is a wellspring of genius! She showed us photos of her collage books. When she is creating a character and a story, she spends weeks and weeks pulling photos and compiling them into a workbook in a non-logical jumbled up way. She collages photos on top of drawings, loosely, with her editor’s eye turned off. When she has finished the book, she goes through and looks for juxtapositions that catch her eye. From this rich source material, she makes her story. I was very impressed by the amount of work she put into the generative stage, the stage before she began writing the story. Also, Judy is amazing at accents. She can slip into from a Tennessee drawl, to an Irish brogue, and then to Antonio Banderas. I’m in awe!


Aaron Becker:

Aaron led us in a two part sing a long of “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. Imagine half the auditorium singing the bass line, and the other half singing the tenor line while Aaron Becker sang the melody on stage. He said we sang better than the editors and agents did at his last presentation. We all sat down feeling very smug. They don’t call us writers ‘the talent’ for nothing. 😉

I didn’t realize how much I liked Aaron’s wordless picture book Journey, until I saw it projected onto a large screen, and I could immerse myself into his gorgeous artwork. Journey was the only book I bought at this conference. Aaron’s story was very inspiring, as his first book was published later in life. His story exemplifies a quote I heard earlier from Erin Murphy:

“The path to success is filled with many waiting periods that feel like failure.”

Aaron Becker

Maggie Stiefvater:


Maggie Steifvater stomped on stage looking like a punk rock cheerleader—all tight pants, boots, and leather bracelets covering up a shock wave of energy and enthusiasm.

Maggie talked about being a thief. She steals people’s souls. She freely admits to meeting people and finding their essence. Then she puts that essence into her characters. It’s easy, she said, “just find that one thing that makes them uniquely who they are.” If someone is wearing a plaid shirt, Maggie says, that detail is useless until you know why they are wearing a plaid shirt. When you know why, you can change the details, you can know how they will act in the future. Steal their soul, she said.


Deborah Halverson:

Deborah Halverson

Deborah started the Market Report by reminding us that the watchword for 2013 had been ‘dip’. She meant that 2012 had been higher than normal because of the Hunger Games, Divergent and the new Wimpy Kid book, so the sales of 2013 were a return to sales slightly higher than 2011, but not as high as the blockbuster 2012.

She stated that for 2014, the dip is gone. All trade publications are up. Sales of print and ebooks are up 31%.

Picture books in the last two years have been the best ever, specifically those aimed at the youngest markets. Because older kids are moving to chapter books sooner, there is a demand for heavily illustrated chapter books. There is not a lot of demand for digital picture books.

Non-fiction picture books are on the rise, though Deborah stated that they should be considered an extra opportunity rather than a driving force behind higher sales numbers. Writers should be aware that there seems to be a backlash against the common core, so non-fiction picture books need to have entertainment value apart from their ability to fill the common core niche. (A text’s compliance with Common Core requirements should be that extra hook that pleases the editor who would have bought the book anyway.) Non-fiction books that have a strong character driven narrative still sell well, and longer texts are still acceptable.

Chapter Book sales continue to grow because of titles such as The Magic Tree House, Geronimo Stilton, and Dragonbreath. These highly illustrated hybrid books help readers find their footing. Single title Chapter Books struggle for shelf space in the midst of many series which dominate the market niche.

Middle Grade is finally on the upswing. There seems to be a lot of excitement surrounding recent middle grade titles, both series and stand alone titles. Editors are eager to find the right the combination of voice and humor, which have to be spot on. There is a call for more adventure fantasy, and light humor. There is also a place for historical fiction as long as it sounds contemporary.

Young Adult sales are starting to slow down a little, except for within the field of realistic contemporary fiction. Editors are excited about stories that focus on normal kids within normal school settings. Editors are also eager to see YA thrillers and mystery stories including some speculative fiction with a thriller twist. Historical YA is still a hard sell, and paranormal titles are tricky.

Overall, the field is looking up and editors are optimistic that the market will continue to be strong.

linda sue parkLinda Sue Park:

Linda is gracious and calm but she writes like a ninja. Here is her advice for writing lean, clean prose. She says:

Take each block of text and treat it as if it were a prose poem.

Give each clause its own line so you can see which words are working and which ones are cluttering up the flow. Eliminate all clutter.

bruce_covilleBruce Coville:

Bruce advised creating a Bible for each series with detailed character studies, historical background, and the rules of the world. The more detailed the Bible, the more potential a story has for becoming a series.

At this point we were all exhausted, staggering around under the weight of our books, looking bleary-eyed for the exit.

It was a great conference.
Lianna McSwainLianna McSwain lives in Northern California with her husband and her two extraordinarily charming children. After a career in economic development and fundraising, she finally returned to her true love, writing. Lianna is completing an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, specializing in YA and Middle Grade. When she is not writing, she is reading and eating chocolate. Or playing music and taking improv classes. Or hiking with friends.  She rarely does housework willingly. Sometimes she just sits there, thinking.

Writerly Doubts?

writing-a-letterGuest post by Peter Langella

Dear Writer,

It’s easy to think that what you’re writing doesn’t matter. It could be years before it’s published, if it’s ever even published at all, and it’s hard to imagine that someone else is out there waiting to read your words.

You’re wrong.

While it’s true that many of the students I work with as a high school librarian are too concerned with their smartphones, sports teams, and other extra-curriculars to care much about your characters, there’s also a core group of readers out there practically salivating for more books.

I know one student who checks in daily about new books, even though he knows that we don’t get new books everyday. When I told him that we order many of our books online and therefore can’t necessarily pinpoint a delivery date, he simply insisted that was all the more reason for him to check daily. He just doesn’t want to miss the chance to read a new book before the rest of his peers.

girl with booksI know a girl who checks out so many books that we often have to ask her to return them because others have put them on hold. These conversations can get a little dicey. She reads multiple books at a time, and she is very protective over the books she’s reading. First she gets mad, then a little sad, then she starts coming up with terms to a deal, like what if she finishes book x by Thursday if I agree to renew book y for two more weeks? It’s refreshing to see her so connected to the books she loves.

There’s this one guy who has no joke read every graphic novel we have. He’s barely ever said a word to me, and he rarely checks a book out, but he always sits in the same chair during his free block, devouring graphic novels. I buy new ones for him based on the notes he drops in our suggestion box, and every once in a while I’ll hand him something I think he’ll like. He doesn’t respond, instead just retreating to his chair, but I know if he likes it or not by the amount of time he spends with a particular title.

Our state teen-choice reading award is called the Green Mountain Book Award. We have a display of the fifteen nominees for this year and a punch-card with pictures of all the book covers. Students who read at least four books on the list (and get four punches) are then invited a special voting/make-your-own-sundae party in the spring. The student or students with the most punches will receive a gift card to our local independent bookstore. Long story short, one girl read five of the books over the summer and wanted to make sure that she got credit for it. She said that one of the books is her new favorite book and the writer of that book is her new favorite author and her mom could come in and tell us all about how many times over the summer she read that book and the other ones too and could we please find a way to punch her card even though she didn’t check the books out of our library. I didn’t make her mom come in.

teen boy readingI know one boy who’s pretty athletic and usually hangs around with his teammates. When they’re done doing a little group work and chatting and it’s time to leave the library, he often lingers, fiddling with his backpack or pretending to tie his shoe, that kind of thing. Once his friends are gone, he’ll head to the fiction section to grab something to read. Sometimes he’ll talk about books or ask for a recommendation, too. After he makes his selection, he calmly places the book in his bag and walks out. I don’t think his “friends” have any idea that he reads so much, but who cares? He clearly loves it, and it’s okay that it’s a private activity for right now.

There’s a girl who always notices when a display changes. New nonfiction? She reads the blurbs. QR codes linking to book trailers? She whips her phone out immediately. A sign? Reads it. A post on our webpage? Asks about it. And no matter what, she always has a book under her arm. Or two.

Teen readingI enter the school building through a side door every morning. Without fail, I see two students in that section of hallway. The first is a girl sitting in the doorway of her first class, knees tucked up under her chin, a book about two inches away from her face. Sometimes she’ll look up and say hi, but most of the time she doesn’t. She’s too entranced with the novel. The second student is a guy who walks and reads. Sometimes he’s pacing up and down the hall, other times he’s practically spinning in circles, completely lost in the pages he’s trying to devour.

I could keep going, but I hope you get the point. These kids exist. Still. In 2013. Their brothers and sisters and friends exist, too. I see them every day. They crave your words at a level that is nearly impossible to explain, although I’ve tried. They need you to keep writing. They need you to stay confident. So please, the next time you feel overwhelmed by the blinking cursor in front of you, think of these readers or someone like them and just start typing. You never know who’s trying to peek over your shoulder from afar.

Peter LangellaSincerely,

Peter Langella

p.s. I needed this just as much as you did.

Peter Patrick Langella holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and writes in Vermont and thinks elevenses should be recognized by his employer.

Other posts by Peter:

Writing, Bravery, and Charlie Kaufman

“Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that. But more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognize him or herself in you and that will give them hope.” – Charlie Kaufman (BAFTA Lecture)

I know a lot of you are not screenwriters, but recently I read/listened to the lecture on screenwriting that Charlie Kaufman gave to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. (Charlie Kaufman wrote the films Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I think his lecture will resonate with all writers, regardless of media and format. It was vulnerable, honest, and brave. Above all, it really hit on the struggle of being honest  in our writing, and how to keep that honesty when our current culture wants stories that sell, sell, sell. A lot of what he had to say really struck a chord with me, and I suggest the lecture to all of you.

An audio version of this lecture is available for download at:

Please note: the large image is a 3 minute snippet, but the whole lecture is available under that image. There is also a transcript button on the same page (on the middle/right under the image of Mr. Kaufman), if you would prefer to read the lecture.

I highly, highly, highly suggest this!

Here’s another quote from the lecture to wet your appetite:

“A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. It’s a step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere; there is a starting point but the rest is undetermined. It is a secret, even from you. There’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them.” – Charlie Kaufman (BAFTA Lecture)

Young Adult Literature: Still Thriving

At the end of June I attended the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) panel event Young Adult Literature: Still Thriving. The event was moderated by IWOSC member Gary Young, and featured panelists: Jen Jones Donatelli (Team Cheer Series), Ann Stampler (Where It Began), Amy Goldman Koss (The Girls, Poison Ivy, Side Effects), Lauren Strasnick (Nothing Like You, Her and Me and You), and Jen Rofe (Agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, who represents children’s literature and is also Lauren Strasnick’s agent.)

The following are my notes from the event:

Moderator Question: According to the LA Times, the average teen watches two hours of TV per night and reads only seven minutes per day. Why then is teen literature so popular?

  • The adults are reading it!
  • “The average person has only one testicle…so it’s probably the same average.”

Moderator Question: Why do you think adults are reading YA?

  • The quality has gone up and lots of adults are reading YA. It’s just good literature.
  • Coming of age stories now bridge both late teen to early twenties, which it didn’t before.
  • YA is more story focused. Adult books tend to meander.
  • There’s a lot of great experimentation happening in YA and that’s exciting for both reader and writer.

Moderator Question: Who Do You Write For? Yourself? Your Reader?

  • Lauren writes for herself. She doesn’t have a teen in mind.
  • Others write with the audience in mind.
  • You have to be honest to a kid and his/her world. You can’t write what you want a kid to be.

Moderator Question: What do you think about Harry Potter and its influence on the Market?

  • One author said it was irrelevant.
  • Jen Rofe jumped in to say that it is essential! That the market is what it is today because of Harry Potter and Twilight, etc. These books created a new readership and pays for other children’s books to be published. You don’t have to like these books. But you should respect their influence.

Some comments about the publishing industry:

  • Target used to pick books for their shelves based on the covers. They wanted books that matched the color schemes of the displays they were creating.
  • Scholastic has a branch that reviews books for their book clubs. This is how you get into a book club. You want to get into the club! Your sales will increase.

Moderator Question: How much swearing and edgy content can be in YA books?

  • If you want to be in a book club then you should curb your swearing. Librarians also don’t like swearing.
  • Cursing can be unnecessary. Check and see if you really need it.
  • Kids are grappling with big issues today: sex, drug, etc.  If it is part of your character’s world then keep it.
  • Drug use (in most YA books) comes with consequences. It isn’t there unless it’s a big part of the story.
  • Powerlessness is a gigantic part of kids lives.

Moderator Question: What actually constitutes a YA book (for those unfamiliar with the market)?

  • YA books have protagonists that are 15 to 17 years old.
  • They are written from the point of view of the teen.
  • There are Adult books out there with teen protagonists, like The Lovely Bones, but they aren’t YA because the story isn’t just about teens or it is written from the POV of an adult looking at a teen, or back on his/her life.
  • YA books tend to be around 75,000 words.  But stay under 100,000 words. (Lauren’s books, however, are short. They tend to be around 30-40 thousand words.

Moderator Question: How do you see e-publishing and self-publishing affecting the YA market?

  • Self publishing and e-books haven’t taken off in the kids market like it has in the adult market.
  • If you want to self publish then you need to sell LOTS of books for a major publisher to take notice. Lots of books is 10,000 copies or more!
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid was a self-published book that sold around 20-50 thousand copies, and that’s why it was picked up.
  • There is a community of people who exist to help you publish the best book you can (editors, marketers, etc.). You miss out on this community by self-publishing your book.
  • However, publishers don’t do as much marketing for you anymore. So if you are willing to market, market, market your own book. Then maybe self-publishing is a good route.
  • Any book needs good editing! If you are self publishing don’t forget how important editing is.
  • Self-publishing means less time writing.

Moderator Question: If you have a book-series idea, should you write multiple books?

  • No. Put everything into that first book! You want that one to sell. Then you will see about the possibility of more.
  • Leave holes in the first book that could grow into other books.

Moderator Question: Jen Rofe, what are you looking for in terms of clients?

  • She primarily represents middle grade and picture books.
  • She only has 4 or 5 YA clients, and really does a limited amount of YA.
  • She has a low threshold for teen angst.

Moderator Question: How successful do you think book trailers are?

  • They can help. It depends on the quality, etc.
  • Lauren said she made one, but she’s not sure it actually helped in book sales. (Ingrid’s Side note: I may only be one person, but I personally bought Lauren’s book because I saw the book trailer). Check it out for yourself: Nothing Like You Book Trailer
  • Check out the book trailer for The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer it’s fantastic.

Moderator Question: What is your opinion on self-promotion and contacting your audience through the internet?

  • Jen Rofe is big on her authors self-promoting their work.
  • Try and connect with bloggers. This is a great way to get press. In fact, think about having teens create a blog–tour for you. (There are groups of teen bloggers who do this).
  • Some of the authors on the panel really like blogging and using the internet. It’s a great way to connect with their audience and fans. But you have to make a personal connection with them.
  • One author made a twitter account for their protagonist.
  • Check out the author Melissa Walker – she has amazing self-promotion.
  • Beware of being inauthentic. No one like someone who is always always always promoting. Be a real human being online!
  • Reach out to High School newspapers and see about doing an interview. This is a great way to promote directly to the source!
  • There is a difference between promotion and commotion.
  • You only get a certain number of ARC’s (advance reader copies) to promote with. So think about who you send them to.

Panelist Bios:

JENNIFER ROFÉ, ANDREA BROWN LITERARY AGENCY. As a literary agent, Jennifer handles children’s fiction projects, from picture books to young adult. Middle grade is her soft spot; she’s open to all genres in this category, especially the tender or hilarious. For YA, Jennifer is drawn to contemporary works, dramatic or funny romance, and urban fantasy/light sci-fi. For picture books, early readers, and chapter books, she’s interested in character-driven projects and smart, exceptional writing. Jennifer’s clients include Kathryn Fitzmaurice, Barry Wolverton, Nick James, Samantha Vamos, Meg Medina, and Crystal Allen. Jennifer is co-author of the picture book Piggies in the Pumpkin Patch.

LAUREN STRASNICK is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts MFA Writing Program. Her debut novel, Nothing Like You (Simon Pulse/S&S, 2009), was an RWA RITA award finalist in two categories, Best First Book and YA Romance. Her second novel, Her and Me and You (Simon Pulse/S&S, 2010), was an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. Then You Were Gone (Simon Pulse/S&S), Lauren’s third book, will be out in January 2013.

AMY GOLDMAN KOSS Amy teaches writing and has written 14 teen novels including The Girls, Poison Ivy, Side Effects, and The Not-So-Great Depression, as well as a few picture books and many LA Times Op-Ed pieces. She lives in Glendale, California, with her pets, family, and phobias, where she can usually be found hunched over, scowling at the computer.

ANN STAMPLER This March saw the release of Ann Redisch Stampler’s fifth picture book, The Wooden Sword (Albert Whitman, 2012), and her debut young adult novel, Where It Began (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, 2012), a story set in contemporary Los Angeles. Her picture books, primarily Eastern European folk tales, have been Sydney Taylor honor and notable books, a National Jewish Book Award finalist and winner, an Aesop Accolade winner, Bank Street Best books, and PJ Library selections.  Ann’s next YA novel will be published by Simon Pulse in the summer of 2013, and her new PB by Kar-Ben in the spring. Ann has two adult children, and writes in the Hollywood Hills, where she lives with her husband and their dog.

JEN JONES DONATELLI is an author and journalist based in Los Angeles. To date, she has authored more than 50 middle-grade non-fiction books for tweens and teens for publishers including Enslow Publishing and Capstone Press. In addition, her fiction series Team Cheer is being released in trade paperback this July, with four more books to follow later this year. Along with writing books, Jen is also a seasoned freelance writer and regularly contributes to print and online publications including LA Confidential, Natural Health, San Francisco, Variety, MSN, E!Online, Thrillist and many more.

Highlights from July 2012 VCFA Residency!

I just got back from my 4th VCFA residency. Woot! Woot! I can’t believe I only have one semester left and then I will have an MFA in writing for kidz! (How time flies!) As always, I’m super inspired from residency and have lots of great tid-bits to share. So without further adieu…

Tid-bits and Sassy Snippets from July 2012 VCFA Residencyin Writing for Children and Young Adults:

  • Try revising your manuscript from back to front. We spend so much time on the opening that the ending can get lost when we lose steam.
  • Structure is the overall form, and plot is a series of actions.
  • Ask your protagonist: “What is the incident (or incidents) in your past that got you believing in a lie? And what is that lie?” The presumption here is that your character has been hurt in the past and because of that event the character has created a “front” which they present to the world. Additionally, they act a certain way, or believe the world is a certain way, because of that lie.
  • Load your story events with stakes and symbolism.
  • Good vs. evil can be good. But, good vs. good is even better!
  • 99% of all art you make will fall short. You only make good work from lots of not-so-good work.
  • What’s “not” on the page is just as important as what “is” on the page. Don’t explain things too quickly. Tension is gained in what is held in the gaps.
  • Write in service of your characters! Get deep in your character and be with them second by second. A true “moment” is not a feeling you dictate to your character, but something that arises from what they would honestly think, say, or do.
  • “A kid will forget a book that reinforces their security, but they’ll never forget a book that introduces them to a truth for the first time.”
  • Consider revising like a poet. Take every sentence and analyze it like it’s a line in a poem. Add line breaks, edit, revise, and delete. It will help you to see what is necessary and what is excess.
  • Dead parents are not your plot bitch!
  • Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human. Character is revealed in the choices (and actions) a human being makes under pressure.
  • The protagonist doesn’t have to change in a short story (there may not be time due to length), but the reader must be changed.
  • If you lose your way in your novel, go back to the place where you fell in LOVE with your character and begin again there.
  • Surprise readers by crafting villains who do not easily fall into the label of “evil”!
  • When writing in dual point of view you are doubling the fun, but you are also doubling the trouble.
  • Don’t for get that the medium we work in is the reader’s imagination!

How Writing About Terrible Things Makes the Reader a Better Person

Donna Jo Napoli spoke at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference on why she writes books with difficult subject matter and how it is essential too creating empathy in readers. Here are my notes from her talk:

I’m Often Asked Why I Write the Books I Write:

  • Napoli writes books with intense content like rape and slavery, and she is often asked why she writes these books.
  • Napoli’s favorite book as a child was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”. It was a very freeing and eye-opening book for her.

Let’s Talk About Censorship:

  • Napoli is very active in censorship issues.
  • The 1993 Alan Review is dedicated entirely to the issue of censorship.
  • Texas is the most frequent cite of censorship challenges.

Where Do these Attitudes Come From?

  • Why do people think that not swearing in books will make the kids act and behave better?
  • Napoli understands why a parent may not want a kid to encounter sexuality for the first time in a book, but she doesn’t necessarily agree with it.
  • Napoli thinks it is “Wrong Minded” to keep kids away from difficult topics like sexism, morbid topics, racism, violence, rape, drugs, etc. Parents hiding these from their kids are thinking the wrong way.

The Protected Child VS. The Un-Protected Child

  • In this context a “protected” child is one raised in a responsible caring culture, and an “unprotected” child is one that is abused by our society.
  • When an unprotected child reads about another unprotected child it can be amazing. They no longer feel alone anymore. They are less isolated.
  • Most children do not have the power to change their world.
  • We need books without magic and “charmed” lives to see what is real. A child reading about another child in a difficult and possibly similar situation where they character is still able to find hope is very important. That can make a huge impact on the unprotected child.
  • The protected child, however, may be even more important to talk to.
  • Protected children can become intolerant and feel like they have a right to things. They become entitled. They look down on others. We want these children to learn empathy.  The safest way to do that is through a book.

Closing Note:

  • Write from your places of joy, pain, and fear. If you need to write it, there’s someone out there who needs to read it.

Donna Jo Napoli is the author of many children’s books and young adult novels including: Alligator Bayou, The Smile, Hush, The Kings of Mulberry Street, and Bound. 

5 Tools to Survive as a Writer

“Don’t tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what is intolerable to bear alone that we must hide it in a story.” – Libba Bray

In all her guts, glory, humor, and wisdom the fabulous and charismatic Libba Bray spoke at the 2011 LA SCBWI Conference. During her keynote speech she shared the devastating story of writing a 560 page novel and having to throw it out and start over. If she wasn’t your hero before, she might be now. The following are her tips on how to write it all wrong and survive.

A little Backstory:

  • Libba wrote a 560 page novel all wrong…
  • It’s okay! Embrace the suck!
  • When she discovered the 560 page novel she wrote was all wrong she began to freak out and feared it wasn’t good enough.
  • She got a 12 page single spaced letter from her editor confirming that everything about it was wrong.
  • She did a 900 page revision of the book and only 100 pages of the original 560 were kept in that revision.
  • Find the real imbued with honesty, emotion, and truth. Her novel needed to be true to itself and it wasn’t.

 Libba Bray’s Five Tools to Survive as a Writer:

1) Gather Your Tools for Survival

  • “The voice is in there, we just had to find the right tools to find it.”
  • Your book is in there!
  • Use playlists to help you find it.
  • Go to your local café to find a comfort zone.
  • Do you have a reward system? Find yours.

2) Avoid the Quicksand

  • Beware of your irrational fear telling you “no one wants to read this book.” Or “what if my ex-boyfriend read this and realizes he’s the base for the asshole in my story?”
  • Breathe deeply!
  • That thing you are writing is AWESOME! (That message was on a postcard that Holly Black sent out to her writing friends).
  • Be your own thing and not a trend.
  • You are safe in the writing cave. No voices are allowed in the cave (the negative voices telling you you’re not good enough).
  • Readers are not trends, they want a well written story told from your soul.

3) Perfect Wants to Vote You Off the Island

  • Perfect wants to vote you off the island, but better wants to make an alliance.
  • Lower your standards!
  • Realize that you can’t make a book that is perfect. Perfect = Failure.
  • You just have to make it better.
  • Do it in small steps. Make that little bit of dialog better, or change that metaphor.

4) Explore the Whole Island

  • Sometimes you need a change of format.
  • Change the POV, format, tense, etc.
  • Form is function – this is what the architects tell us.

5) In Case of Emergency – Break Glass!

  • Writing is freakin’ scary!
  • Writing is vulnerable. It’s intimacy with a reader, and the possibility of failure and rejection.
  • We often write it wrong, because we think that’s what others want and we are afraid to show who we really are.
  • All writing holds our DNA, our bones and blood – a part of ourselves.
  • We are evasive and inarticulate when talking about projects that are emotionally autobiographical.
  • “Don’t tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what is intolerable to bear alone that we must hide it in a story.”
  • Find the part that hurts. The story you needed to tell.
  • Like us, stories have an adolescence that is awkward and gawky and pimply. It needs time to grow.

Other Great Advice from Libba Bray:

Libba Bray is the author books for Young Adults, including Going Bovine and the Gemma Doyle Series: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. In 2010 she was awarded the Michael L. Printz award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.