Virginia City---an old West mining town overlooking a high desert valley. Quaint and touristy. A place of Sunday church bells and t-shirt shops. And, last weekend, host to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Nevada chapter October conference. I came, I saw, I spoke, I critiqued. Here's the tally: (1) 45 minute speech 'The Picturebook Process: From Manuscript to Bound Book (9) 20 minute manuscript critiques (1) 1 1/2 hour seminar featuring 'After the First Draft: 12 steps to get your manuscript ready for submission' (2) panel discussions It was a busy weekend. The dozen or so members of the faculty stayed at the St Mary's Art Center, a former late 19th century hospital said to be haunted by a benevolent nun.
Saturday night, a few of us brave sorts went looking for her in the attic, only to be greeted by a mysteriously positioned chair:
There must have been around 300 people attending the conference, which started bright and early Saturday morning with an inspiring talk by Bruce Hale, author of the funny kid-noir Chet Gecko series. We'd had a nice talk the night before about our mutual admiration for Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (his favorite: The Big Sleep; mine: The Dain Curse; mutual favorite: The Long Goodbye---we both agreed the 1970's Altman movie was disappointing). Bruce's Saturday morning talk featured lots of four-letter words. Surprising in a children's author, really. No no no, actually, the four letter words were (not in the order he presented them): RISK, LUCK, PUSH, and a few others, useful to an author's evolution. The "risk" section, I believe, featured Bruce in a powder blue leisure suit looking quite Mr. Seventies. Now showing that photo, right there, was risky indeed. A very brave author, Mr. Hale.
Next came the lovely Houghton Mifflin editor Julia Richardson with wise words and tips for unpublished authors. I then shuffled up to do my little spiel. I couldn't find my notes when I packed my suitcase Thursday night so I had to wing it and go by the bullets on my Powerpoint presentation. Amazingly enough, I survived. Last of the Keynote gang was a young agent from New York's Donald Maass Agency, Stephen Barbara, who was funny, informative, and charmingly honest in his speech about the place of agents in the industry. He did an interesting on-the-spot survey about how people chose the books they bought. Funny how few of them had to do with advertising---the top two seemed to be 1) The book was by a favorite author 2) Someone had recommended it.
The afternoon was devoted to picturebook critiques (for me) and a selection of seminars, including ones by Ellen Hopkins, Suzanne Williams (our hard-working Regional Adviser), Susan Hart Linquist, Jim Averbeck, novelist and SCBWI president Stephen Mooser (who turns out to be a very lucky person to have standing next to you if you play the slot machines at the Reno Airport), Barbara Marquand, and Teri Farley.
That night, we all gathered at the historic Fourth Ward School for a reading of children's literature and storytelling by a member of the Paiute Indian tribe. Back at the Art Center, much chocolate was eaten and wine consumed. A dozen sugar high, half-drunk children's book authors and illustrators is not a pretty sight. I dragged myself off to bed feeling fat and slightly dizzy.
I woke up the next morning to this:
I hadn't been up to see the dawn since I'd caught a seven o'clock flight to Paris four years ago. Sunrise on the high desert has a very particular light---it's a light that makes you feel bright and hopeful. I got dressed quickly as I could and set off for a walk to one of the old cemeteries.
I came across some interesting headstones in the Catholic cemetery:
Back at the art center, it was time for more critiques with a break at lunch for a quick walk into town:
Mansion on Millionaire's Row Abandoned bank safe
The main street
After my afternoon seminar, it was time to say a quick goodbye to everyone and rush off to the airport with Mr. Mooser and Barbara Marquand.
This children's book editor was a long time in coming to the Harry Potter fold. I distrust anything with a mass following. Call it elitism or snobbery or rank individualism but the only club I would ever be a member of would have Groucho Marx as its president. So I refused to watch 'Lost' or 'The Sopranos.' I refused to read 'The Da Vinci Code.' And of course, I went nowhere near a certain series of books about a boy wizard. For professional purposes, I eventually perused the first chapter of book one while kneeling in the aisle of a bookstore. It didn't grab me and, snobby-me, I didn't think it was all that well-written. When people would ask me what I thought of the books, I would respond that, as someone who cared about children's literacy, I was immensely grateful that the series was getting kids to put aside their video games, DVDs, and Ipods, and crack open 500 page tomes. But I didn't understand the phenomenon.
Until last summer.
Book six was just coming out and my boyfriend's mother had given me a copy of the book---bought at midnight of the launch day. I figured I couldn't just dive into the sixth book. And I'd seen the movies and they hadn't been bad. After all, I had a big crush on David Thewlis who'd played Professor Lupin in the third movie. And I was impressed by the significant health-enhancing power given to chocolate in that movie. I could identify with the need to eat a little block of chocolate when such things as the dementors---or, in Muggle world, the DMV---had sucked one's life force. So I found a Scholastic paperback edition of the first book at Moe's books and took it with me to Cape Cod, where Brian's parent's lived, for a bit of light summer reading.
I quickly became totally sucked in.
One thing about the Potter phenomena: the more books you read, the more fanatical you become. I remember seeing a guy in his twenties several years ago walking down a busy sidewalk in downtown San Francisco, nose deep in book three. At the time I thought, "poor deluded soul." But by the time I reached book three, I was calling in to work sick just to finish the darn thing. (It was professional development after all.) Over the course of two months, I read all six books, one right after the other. Now, most fans read one book and they have to wait six months to a year for the next one. It allows their poor fevered brains to cool down a bit. But I was piling on the Potter books one after another---not re-reading them, mind you: reading them each for the first time. So when I came to the end of 'The Half Blood Prince'---with all its awful revelations about Snape and, what I insist is a certain someone's FAKE death---I felt like I had just walked off a cliff.
I hit the ground back in Muggle world. Ouch.
But then the Goblet of Fire movie came out. For the first time I went to see one of the movies on opening night. I took my niece and nephew. I was actually giddy (though, sadly, Mr. Thewlis was not part of the cast). I remember as a kid going to see the second Indiana Jones movie and being so excited that I nearly hyperventilated and peed my pants at the same time. Twenty-five years later, this was a pretty close approximation. After the sad end of my 3150 page immersion, the movie was a chance to revisit a place which had become dear to my heart. It was a brief two-and-a-half hour visit and, of course, lacking in the intimacy that exists between page and reader, but it was all I would have until the next book.
Which took a year to get here.
Which will finally come out next Friday at midnight. And I'll have another Harry Potter first-time experience then: First time going to a midnight Harry Potter release party.
Just in time, too. There won't be another one.
AND the new movie has David Thewlis in it. Dreamy Prof. Lupin.
So have I learned my lesson about turning my nose up at mass phenomenons?
Hey, if they're as good as Ms. Rowling's creation, lay 'em on me.
I'm so excited! I've been tagged for the first time.
Here are the rules: Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog.
I was tagged by Gail at 'Through the Studio Door'.
1. I was born in a subburb of Paris and lived there until I was seven. The town's city hall was torched during the big Paris riots a couple of years ago.
2. John Malkovich ALMOST invited me to have lunch with him. I was studying in the south of France when I was 20 and came across a movie set near a friend's house. I sat down to watch as John Malkovich practiced a scene. He kept looking over but i thought he was looking at the cute high school girls sitting next to me. About a half hour later, everyone took a break for lunch. I sat there, all my myself, waiting for my friend who was bound to come home from class soon. Then John Malkovich came out of the building where they were filming and walked towards me. I looked around, but there was no one else around---everyone had gone to lunch on the lovely Cours Mirabeau. I got so shy and nervous, that I just stared at the ground. He walked up...took a few steps to my right....then turned around and went back inside the building. Maybe he figured I didn't look as good up close as I did far away. Who knows with these movie stars?
3. When I was eight, I would go to a horse ranch every Saturday morning and practice horse vaulting with my sister. This involved getting up on a trotting horse and doing tricks like standing on their backs, being the top girl in a five-person pyramid, and standing with one leg extended behind me. This is the closest I've gotten so far to my dream of performing in a circus.
6. When I was fifteen, I saved a girl from getting hit by a Mack truck when I grabbed her arm and pulled her back onto the sidewalk.
7. I just started beekeeping in my Berkeley garden.
8. My boyfriend and I went on a pilgrimage to Shirley Jackson's home in Benington, Vermont, even though it's a private home and somebody lives there and all we could do was stand outside and take a picture.
I'm not sure if it's an occupational hazard of being a children's book editor but every once in a while I develop a crush on an illustrator---not your standard secret-love-note heart-in-your-throat wanna-get-married-and-have-babies crushes. No! More like a visual crush. A visiting-their-website-three-times-a-day crush. A desperately-want-to-find-a-book-to-have-them-illustrate crush. Of course I have my list of favorite illustrators, many of whom I'm too shy to introduce myself formally to and must admire from the digital version of 'across the room.' But every few months or so, there's one illustrator I find myself obsessing about. Instead of the adolescent anx of 'Does he like me?', I ask myself, 'Would he or she work with me?' Mostly, though, I just look at the pretty pictures and salivate.
My latest illustrator crush is Ian Benfold Haywood. I love the quirky elegance of his style---light, loose lines but textured with collage elements. I love the cottony beard and cheery red Victorian parlor of his Santa Claus.
Another favorite is the little red-headed girl on the beach, by the old stately European hotel. It makes me think of Nabokov and Roald Dahl's The Witches. It has a very Old Europe feel.
Every once in a while, an illustrator will put a few of their sketchbook pages on their sites and I find that quite a treat. Sketches have a spontaneity and unselfconsciousness all their own. Check out these funny rabbit fellows from one of Mr. Haywood's sketchbooks:
These guys may never have a story of their own but in sketch form they provoke the imagination to wander and wonder: the bonneted bunny has a serious little determined look on his face. There looks to be the start of a mask on the middle rabbit---was he putting on a disguise? And what of the feathered head-dress of the third bunny?
I don't love everything about my job---but I do love some things: illustrator crushes are one of those things. And they're much less humiliating than the adolescent kind.
Alvina at the Blue Rose Girls blog bravely posted a photo of her messy office, so I decided I should do the same. I'm proud of my messy office! Look how colorful it is! Look at those beautiful illustration samples on the bulletin board! I'm especially proud of the full moon poster over my desk. My astrology friend is always talking about the importance of the moon to creative people. Once, when I was 16 years old and couldn't sleep, I went out in the garden and the full moon cast my moon shadow. The moon and I have been friends ever since.
There are definite advantages and disadvantages to having a children’s book agent, many of which depend on who your agent is and their strengths and weaknesses. One obvious advantage in having an agent is being able to get your work into the hands of editors who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Another advantage is having someone who knows the business negotiate the publisher’s contract on your behalf. However if your agent doesn’t know the children’s book business, doesn’t have a rolodex full of editors to contact, doesn’t have experience in negotiating contracts, you certainly might be better off managing your relationships with editors and publishers on your own and keeping the 15% commission for yourself.
Good agents are real networkers. They attend conferences, they regularly correspond with editors from an array of publishers (corporate and independent alike), they know the tastes and preferences of individual editors, and they keep current with news of the publishing biz, such as the formation of new imprints or changes in publishing staff. The children’s book publishing world is vast, with many different options for writers---a good agent will know which arena best suits your writing, whether that’s trade, institutional, or mass market. Tricycle Press is a solid trade publisher but I’ve had agents send me projects that were really suited to a mass market publisher. It’s important that an agent knows not to waste her client’s or an editor’s time by sending a publisher projects which don’t work for their list.
There are unscrupulous agents out there and writers should do their homework when choosing who to submit their work to. Luckily, there are websites that keep track of agents to avoid (like http://accrispin.blogspot.com ). Talking to fellow writers or attending SCBWI conferences are also good places to start your research.
Once you find the right agent, it can make all the difference in the world to your professional career. The right agent can provide encouragement, direction, and professional savvy, in doing so making the author/agent partnership incredibly powerful. Getting there, however, takes some responsibility on the author’s part. This can mean: 1) Finding the right agent for you and your work. 2) Having reasonable expectations. 3) Being clear with those expectations. 4) Trusting your agent’s suggestions to make your work more publishable. 5) Providing your agent with projects she can sell.
An author can get published by Tricycle Press without an agent. In fact, roughly a third of our authors and illustrators are unagented. At the moment, it may be easier for an illustrator to get their work seen by editors and art directors through illustration websites such as ispot or portfolios.com, or by setting up their own websites. But writers may soon have more and more forums for their work on the web. Certainly blogs are gaining more popularity and it might be conceivable that one day editors will look for writing talent on the web, just as they now search for illustration talent on the web.
As an English Major who made sure to take a creative writing course every semester, I'm familiar with the terror of the blank page and try my best to bring to my work as a children's book editor sympathy and respect for those who trade in words.
Those many writing classes I took in college taught me firsthand that writers, especially unpublished ones, do not get a lot of encouragement. They are told that publishing is one of the most competitive industries around, that editors receive hundreds of manuscripts a day, and that you are more likely to be attacked by a grizzly bear than to publish a book. It’s a little offputting.
What I have found, working on the other side of the publishing business, is that things aren’t all that grim for those with talent and those who take their craft seriously. Good, careful writing and imaginative stories are not flooding publishers' mailrooms. It’s HARD to write and though at times it may feel like one cannot throw a rock through a Starbucks without hitting a novelist, as many people have a talent for writing as have a talent for painting a landscape or playing the piano---which is to say, not THAT many people can actually do it. What makes writing different is that everyone uses words everyday while, on the other hand, few people know how to wield paintbrushes or tame musical instruments. That means that many of the submissions my publisher receives were sent in by someone who saw their nephew making friends with a cat and dashed off the story in fifteen minutes. So, even though Tricycle may receive between twenty to thirty manuscripts a day, when reading day comes around, we editors may have to go through five or six HUNDRED manuscripts before coming across one writer who genuinely has a gift with words, and who has spent time honing their craft and their voice.
With children’s writing, however, it’s not simply a matter of knowing how to string words together. As an editor I also look for another talent that’s just as rare: that of understanding the child’s point of view. Between childhood and adulthood most of us pass through a veil of forgetfulness---as adults we often look on children as short aliens. They talk differently than we do, they value things differently than we do, they have weird fears and phobias, dislike foods for no good reason, and can spend hours entertaining themselves with a stick and a sandbox. It’s not often that an adult can access a child’s sensibility. When I see a writer capable of this, I, as an editor, sit up and take notice. Combine this ability with good writing and the author will most assuredly stand out from the hundreds of manuscripts in the unsolicited manuscript pile.