Totally wiped out, and yet, at the same time, it feels as though the well is filled to the brim, spilling with magic.
Ready to face my final VCFA semester. I think. :)
A bit nervous at the prospects of working with one of the most intriguing, insightful, and inspiring advisors, Louise Hawes, one of the original founders of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program. But also feeling pumped, excited and blessed.
I am made of visions and ideas now dancing wild, now wrestling with fears.
What did I take away from the fantastical ten-day whirlwind that was this past residency?
Besides being reminded that I am now in my final six-month stretch? Gulp.
Here is a little list of topics some of which I hope to blog more about in the weeks to come (in between packet work, of course! Not to mention, the ongoing internship. And an upcoming family trip to Italy. Okay, so, yeah, you might have to bear with me, just a little.)
1. Stories’ Many Dimensions
Through the many wonderful lectures and conversations, I was reminded that writing transcends the 2-D of a sheet of paper of a computer screen. Because our work has more than one dimension. When we read out stories out loud, the physical act of passing the words through our mouths gives new physical life to the sound combinations we put together. Also, when we make the act of writing itself a part of the writing, we break down an invisible wall. Take for example Mo Willems’ unforgettable picture book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The story is based on the main character — the pigeon — talking to the reader the entire time, and it feels as though the readers’ answers to the pigeon’s desperate bus-driving pleas will determine the story’s ending. Wild, if you really think about it! Meta-fictive writing can be a fun, mind-bending tool to add to our writing toolbox.
If we think of the act of writing, too, as multidimensional, we can see deeper into our stories, we can live them with our characters. Look for a list of writing exercises that can help us get closer to our characters.
3. Questions and Answers
Story construction consists of a careful layering of one question over another, with answers that are strategically placed in a way that keeps the reader turning pages. Questions and answers can be a wonderful way to help us keep the reader’s attention.
4. The Beauty of Now
Once again, I was reminded of the value of letting go. When we stop fretting about the direction of our story, its future and its past, our future and our past, when we let go of control and focus on one scene at a time, amazing things can happen.
5. The Value of Adults
I got so consumed by the magic of the residency this time, I forgot to ask people’s permissions to share some of the insights from their lectures. But I plan to do it soon! One of the residency’s most amazing lectures came from Amy King (writing as A.S. King, author of Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Ask the Passengers, Reality Boy, and more.) In a passionate and insightful talk, Amy discussed the importance — and the value — of fleshing out the adult characters in stories for young adults. I hope to be able to share more details with you in the weeks to come!
In addition to absorbing all this wisdom, I reconnected with old friends, and especially my dear classmates, the Darling Assassins, who, more and more, are starting to feel like the siblings I never had. And I watched the previous class, Allies in Wonderland, receive their well-earned MFAs. The Allies, who were the ones welcoming us when we were wide-eyed first semesters, are the class filled with spunk and man, oh man, some serious talent. They held our hands (metaphorically speaking, for the most part), encouraged us, believed in us. They reminded us that we all are Allies, that we get to build portals for young readers, that Wonderland is our permanent address. They absorbed the program’s atmosphere of giving energy, and laser-beamed it back at all of us, multiplied. Now we got to see them off. Sometimes, because of all the tears, the picture got a little blurry.
Yes, the Writing for Children and Young Adults program is an incredible community, a magical home for everyone who dwells there.
But, in the end, we are all a part of a bigger community, we who write for some of the sharpest, most discerning, most open-minded and most passionate readers on earth, the young readers. In that mission, there is the magic that makes us all Allies in Wonderland.
So yeah, I am back. But, that’s the funny thing about magical places. You never really leave them, do you?
Fun fact: Once upon a time, at age 14, I sang this song, silly accent and all, and played it on the piano, on national Russian television. :)
Since then both the video and the audio of this little milestone had been lost in the craziness of emigration and moving and growing up and living. But sadder than that, when I sit at the piano now, all that comes to me are the song’s first two chords. (It was a unique arrangement, nothing I can find in sheet music, or re-create by ear). As far as the rest of it goes, beyond the two first chords, nothing comes or ever will again. It’s been too long. My fingers have lost the memory. I have no nostalgia for performing on TV ever again. But my fingers miss the song. I wish I could let my voice loose to those chords again, wish I could let my kids hear it.
This is what happens when you let go of something for too long — be it a song or a story. Right? You face the danger of losing it forever. Sometimes that’s just all right. Some stories deserve to be lost. But once in a while, you risk losing a treasure.
But there is another side to this “practice, practice, practice” coin. Once in a while, I believe we need to stop working on our craft so damn hard, stop completely. At least, I do.
It’s not easy either. Now that the semester is through, and I have finished writing and revising a novel I have been working on for (ahem) years, I am under strict orders from Shelley, my last semester’s advisor, to rest. I tried to resist at first. I kept going with some poetry, even though I could sort of feel it, my zeal and creativity grinding slowly to a halt. Now, before I go off to my next residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (next week!, OMG!) I am not writing. I am enjoying my family more. I am even becoming somewhat competent at our own crazy version of pool volleyball! (a HUGE surprise, trust me). Still, it’s hard. After the months of living my story, of my fingers flying over keyboard letters like they knew where they were going better than I did, not writing leaves a hole, an emptiness. Where had my super productivity and focus from the last six months go? My desk is a mess, I am waay behind on laundry, and I can barely go grocery shopping anymore without forgetting the sour cream and the hot dogs!
Look at this post, even, what am I saying here?
All of this only proves, of course, that I need this break, don’t I?
I am doing the best I can. Taking in the lazy-making swelter of summer, I try to just be, in the softest possible way, even if not writing makes me feel a little helpless, a little blind, a little lost.
This is all good, I know that. Seven days from now, I will be flying to Vermont. Before loading up with new inspiration, meeting my (last!) VCFA advisor and charging up with new ideas, I need to be as empty as possible.
So, cheers, guys. Here is to summer and to rambling. To emptiness, and to just being. Here is to floating. To memories of music. To making new memories.
Soon I will be writing my head off again, I sure hope so!
But today, I cheer for just listening.
Happy summer, my dear friends!
I will post again in late July when I come back from residency.
What are stories made of?
The answers are many: characters, setting, plot, theme, ideas, emotions. But underneath it all, we writers forget sometimes, don’t we? That first and foremost, stories are made of words. In this post, I would like to explore the storytellers’ most basic building material: language.
According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, language is “the use by human beings of voice sounds, and often written symbols representing these sounds, in combinations and patterns to express and communicate thoughts and feelings.”
Think about it — sound, combinations, patterns. When it comes to language, these can be great tools!
THE UNDERNEATH BY KATHI APPELT, A SONG OF A STORY
A story I’d like to use here to demonstrate the power of language, the power of sound and word and pattern, is Kathi Appelt’s middle-grade novel The Underneath, a magical tale about two kittens and a blues-singing hound facing danger together and forming a family in the deep dense woods of the American southwest. I was lucky enough to have Kathi as a workshop advisor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts last year, and I learned so much from her just in ten memorable days. But I also learned much from her writing, and that you too can do. Just look closely at this story, and the way she uses language here with precision and heart, to accomplish all sorts of storytelling aims, from plot, setting and characterization, to mood and theme.
If you haven’t read this book (and I hope you do!) or if it’s been a while, here is a little summary:
A pregnant calico cat befriends a chained hound and makes her home in “The Underneath,” a hole under a tilting house in the middle of the forest. The house is inhabited by a cruel and lonely hunter, Gar Face, and his sad blues-singing hound. The hound finds joy in the company of the cat and her two twin kittens – Puck and Sabine. But the happiness is short-lived. Unable to resist the pull of curiosity, Puck violates the most important safety rule of “the Underneath” and goes out into “the Open” to bask in the sun. Gar Face catches the kitten, then his mama, stuffs them both into a bag and throws the bag into the river. Puck makes it back, his mama does not. Stranded, away from his sister, his hound and his home, Puck faces dangers on the other side of the creek, dangers that include a powerful predator sleeping under the root of a tree, an ancient snake with her own magical story.
There are many, many strands in this richly patterned tale. Yet, Kathi makes it whole. There is so much magic here: talking animals, blues-singing dogs, ancient snakes, magic upon magic. Yet the narrative moves fast and feels incredibly real. I think Kathi’s use of language has a lot to do with this sense of unity and authenticity the story creates.
If you read The Underneath carefully, you will notice the narrative is peppered with proper nouns. Through the specificity of her words, the reader walks “dark damp streets of south Houston” with Gar Face or watches out nervously for snakes: “vipers, rattlers and corals, the copperheads, the venomous crew” in the “piney woods forest in far East Texas.” We aren’t just anywhere, and we aren’t dealing with some generic cat, either: she’s a calico. The personalized character of a tree isn’t just some pine: it’s an old loblolly pine. The Native Americans inhabiting the woods are the Caddo people. These choices provide the reader with a feeling of precision. The setting comes alive in its specificity.
CONTRASTS AND WORD PLAY
Kathi often plays with words, now setting them against each other, now pairing them in startling combinations. When now orphaned Sabine finds herself hunting in the forest, the way her mama used to, Kathit subtly chooses words to signal Sabine’s savage origins and her growing responsibilities. But in the same passages, these words — “rough” and “sharp” and “fearless” and “mother tigers of the Punjab” — are contrasted with adjectives, such as “small,” even “tiny.” Sabine is a descendant of the wild hunting she-cats. She’s also still a miserable, struggling kitten.
“With her rough tongue, she licked her front paws one at a time, taking care to polish her sharp little claws. Then she walked to the edge of the Underneath and looked out into the awful Open. Soon she would have to go out there, like her mother and her brother, now lost. … Sabine, descendant of the great lionesses of the Saharan plains, grandchild of the mother tigers of the Punjab, tiny heiress of the fearsome lynx and cheetah and panther, night hunters all. Here was Sabine.”
Through these contrasts, the poignant passage helps characterize the animals, create tension and raise the stakes.
But just as it can be used in creating tension, word play can be a great tool for tension release.
“Suddenly he was overwhelmed by it all. Such deep and utter Missing,”Kathi writes when describing Puck under the rain, in all his misery. She allows him to wallow for a few more sentences, before providing some quick comic relief on the following page, when Puck runs into a pine: “He was so full of Missing that he almost missed the tree.” :)
Sound, too, can set the mood and advance the story. Here is Kathi using assonance and alliteration of the sound “s” to add tension and set a menacing mood, while describing the emotional state of Grandmother Moccasin, a snake: venomous, grieving, angry.
“Loss. A small hissing word. A word that simmers into nothing. Beneath the old pine, Grandmother stewed inside her jar. Loss engulfed her as it had a million times before in this dark space. Lossss! she whispered. A word that scrapes against the skin.”
Repetition is a big part of using sound skillfully, and there is a lot of it in The Underneath.
Sometimes Kathi uses it for emphasis, and at other times to establish important plot connections between the narrative’s many threads and themes. One example is the repeated use of the word “curl.” When the kittens curl beside each other, or beside their hound, purring, the word is used to portray love. When Grandmother snake curls her body into a tight coil, ready to spring, the venom pulling in her mouth, the word “curl” describes hate and anger, underscoring an important theme in The Underneath, the contrast between love and hate.
Language of course has a lot to do with how we string our words into sentences. Kathi often varies the length of her sentences, going back and forth between fragments, alternating between short, simple, incredibly long and complex. When using long sentence, she builds a rhythm, often leaving the punch, or the revelation for the end. Look at this long, winding sentence, how it leads us slowly toward its dramatic end: the end of an ancient tree.
“So much water makes the ground softer than soft, so soft that an old tree, one that has stood for centuries, one that was struck by lightning and has dwindled down to less than half its greatest size, whose limbs fell to the earth with a crash, whose long and lovely needles turned coppery red and settled on the mossy ground, whose upper stories cracked off one another and dropped away, whose trunk split in two and made a nest for one lost kitten, this old tree, this singular loblolly pine, the one that has held an ancient jar in its web of tangled roots for a thousand years, held it deep under ground with its even more ancient inhabitant, this very tree finally let go of the soggy earth that had held it all these years and leaned over.”
Reading the winding sentence is akin to giving tribute to the long life of a loblolly pine.
Kathi’s use of punctuation is subtle most of the time, not calling attention to itself. But in some of the tenser, more action-packed passages, she uses ellipsis and exclamation points for added tension and italicizes selected words for emphasis. In the following example, Puck is chasing a log drifting down the creek, with an intention of jumping atop it and riding it to the other side.
“He could see the limb heading straight toward him. Closer and closer and closer. Almost. Yes! He slid down the bank and landed, oomph, right in front of the turtle-laden limb. He closed his eyes and…
See how, with the use of ellipsis and a paragraph break, Kathi has the reader feeling both the kitten’s desperate courage and his uncertainty? As though it is us, and not only Puck, who are about to jump onto a log in the middle of the creek!
Kathi’s writing can be an inspiration for us all. A lot of this — the rhythm and structure of the sentences, the sound of our words, will come to us naturally as we write and revise our own stories. But it doesn’t hurt to be more mindful, to remember that we sometimes can take a sentence and break it apart or meld it together for stronger effect, that we can set elements against each other, that we can dig deeper and give our readers a more specific experience.
Let’s honor the origins of all story. Let’s remember to love the place where it all comes from. We are writers, and language is our home.
Do you believe in serendipity? Happy coincidences shaping your life?
Do things just happen to you? Or has a chain of decisions and actions brought you to where you are today?
A combination of both?
Randomness may have a place in real life from time to time — and even that we could argue about. But in a tale worth reading, setting and life circumstance exert increasing pressure on the characters, who then push the plot ahead through their own actions, creating a chain of cause and effect. In great books, every detail, every would-be happenstance is laden with meaning and purpose.
Suddenly a character goes from happy to angry; then just as suddenly, the emotional storm has passed.
Suddenly a character wants something she did not want before. Why?
Suddenly a protagonist in need is rescued by Deus Ex Machina.
For a great study on cause and effect, look no further than a children’s classic, Holes, by Louis Sachar. The book is filled with surprising, unlikely happenings that include a waterless lake, two separate generations-old curses and survival in the middle of the desert. And yet, the reader believes every single event because it doesn’t just happen – it flows out of circumstance and character.
When Stanley Yelnats, finds himself at Camp Green Lake, a dried-up lake bed in the middle of a desert where troublesome youth are sent to rehabilitate themselves by digging holes, we learn that he is there for a crime he did not commit, as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It all seems so coincidental, doesn’t it? And yet, the reader finds out that everything about the story’s initial situation has a definite cause. The lake’s dryness can be traced back to a doomed romance of long ago, an event that eventually led to the digging frenzy, followed by the whole idea of Camp Green Lake.
Much goes on in the story that I don’t have room to analyze here. But you can go back to it on your own, pick out any event — anything at all — from the pair of stolen shoes falling on Stanley’s head “from the sky,” to his family’s rotten luck, to him finding the treasure at the end of the story — and you will easily be able to trace a cause that led to that event.
This is what I call marvelously tight plotting! As connections between various plot strands tighten, the pressure on the characters intensifies, and the reader’s fascination grows. Action builds upon action, each deeply rooted in character, until it all comes together in an exciting climax, where each wild and surprising event makes perfect sense.
Sure, great works of fiction, (as well as not so great ones), have been built on circumstance. Right now I am thinking of a young adult romance, The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith (Little, Brown, 2011,) which is about a girl who misses her JFK flight and meets her “true love.” But even though the inciting event, missing the flight, is coincidental, the rest of the story builds on the characters’ evolving emotions, which lead to their decisions and actions and form the basis of the story’s plot. I don’t remember which one of our Vermont College of Fine Arts teachers said — I am pretty sure it was Tim Wynne-Jones — that our stories are allowed one coincidence, which is the event that launches the adventuAfter that, let’s try our hardest to stick to cause and effect!
Sure, serendipity can be exciting. But in the end, books like Holes leave the reader with an optimistic, uplifting sense that everything we do matters. Maybe in real life we can’t make every action count, (though we sure can try!) But in creating fiction, we can – and we must.
Sometimes I get so private and so superstitious about my writing. Notice on this blog, I haven’t yet shared a word about the actual content of the novel I have recently finished.
Well, with apologies to those who asked me before, I am finally giving in. This writing process blog tour thing-y is stronger than me! :) And, honestly, it’s been so illuminating (not to mention, so much fun!) to read about other people’s works and their process.
I have been tagged by my good friend Nan Marino. Nan and I actually met because of this blog when, four years ago, her first book just came out, I reached out for an in-person interview, which became one of my best blog posts to date. We got together in a local restaurant that, sadly, no longer exists. It felt as though, the moment we started talking, we were no longer strangers. Since then we have been getting together regularly to talk writing, brainstorm, cheer, commiserate, sometimes even write together. Nan is the author of two middle-grade novels, Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle And Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me and Hiding Out At The Pancake Palace.
Here are the questions:
WHAT AM I WORKING ON?
Actually, right now, I am kind of caught between projects. I have just finished The Colors Underneath, a YA novel in verse set in Stalin’s Russia, a story of love, friendship and betrayal, about a pampered daughter of a popular artist who is unprepared for political trouble when her father refuses to paint anymore. There, I’ve revealed it! [shivers with superstitious dread]. I am also considering one last-est revise to a manuscript I just can’t let go — Castle of Concrete, a story set in the last year of the falling-apart Soviet Union, about a shy half-Russian, half-Jewish teen who faces a choice between friendship with her Jewish neighbor and the love of a fiercely patriotic Russian classmate. And I am just dipping my toe into a brand new story about an immigrant teenager who tries to conquer her suburban new town and make America hers through a series of ill-fated romantic pursuits. In addition, I am revising a fantasy short story for young adults about a girl’s last-ditch attempt to save her dying sister, this time by supernatural means. Finally, I am writing some poetry for a possible future chapbook collection about growing up in the Soviet Union, and the blurred lines between fantasy and reality in childhood and young adulthood. Through it all, I am submitting — short stories, poetry, and of course, the verse novel, right now. But to be honest, I can’t wait for my next Vermont College of Fine Arts residency and the start of my final VCFA semester, so I can forget about all these submissions and delve back into creative work.
HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN ITS GENRE
I am always interested in examining the complexities and the difficult choices involved in being a person. With my writing it is almost never as simple as good guys vs. bad guys, or right decisions vs. wrong ones. Also, I have noticed so far that though my manuscripts take place in the “real world” — especially the longer ones, but even some poetry and short stories — there is this undercurrent of almost-fantasy in everything I write. It’s not quite magical realism, not with my longer works. And yet all of my protagonists believe in magic, each in her own way.
WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I WRITE?
Ever since I came to this country, I have been trying to shed my Russian identity, to blend in. But even as I have been trying (unsuccessfully so far) to write about American-born protagonists, it seems the compost of my own Russian-ness, is where most of the richness lies, at least for now. I still hope one day to move on and explore other cultures, but that process may be a more gradual one than I had thought. It seems it isn’t something I can force.
HOW DOES MY INDIVIDUAL WRITING PROCESS WORK?
I am part seat-of-the-pantster, part outliner. I love letting my characters surprise me, but I also need some kind of a plan, even one I will be happy to depart from. I approach writing novels like a treasure hunt: I am digging for truth, figuring out the answers. Filling out questionnaires hasn’t worked for me so far. Sometimes I do give myself little “assignments” to figure things out. For example, writing my characters’ memories comes to me in vivid scenes and helps me figure out backstory. But mostly, it is through actual drafts of the story that I learn who my characters are, what they want, what they believe in, and what is standing in their way. As I finish draft after draft and it starts to look like something, I may share the story with a writing friend. My first VCFA advisor Tim Wynne-Jones warned me not to let “too many people inside your head.” So I try to limit the amount of people I ask for feedback at each stage. I am like Nan in that starting a new book is always the weirdest. So much is up for grabs: who are my protagonist’s parents? What tense and point of view should I use? And then there is the naming. Some names just come, and God knows I love it when it happens. But often it takes me a few drafts to get even that part right. I love writing out of order, then connecting the dots — another VCFA discovery. Oh, and endings seem to come to me easier than beginnings or middles.
Next up on the tour: another writing friend of mine Joyce Moyer Hostetter, the talented super author of historical middle-grade fiction Blue, Comfort and Healing Water.
Joyce has been there for me for many years, and her faith, friendship and support have been invaluable. Incidentally I have also “met” Joyce through this blog. One day I hope to meet her for real.
Take it away, dear Joyce!
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Stephen King (On Writing)
The name of my Vermont College of Fine Arts class is Darling Assassins. I will confess: when we were deciding on a name during the summer residency of 2013, I spoke up against it. I thought, must we as writers stand for destruction instead of creation? I supported the name of Liars & Spies, inspired by guest Rebecca Stead at our first residency.
And then, the next two semesters happened to me. Since last summer, writing has been all about killing.
It may sound harsh. But it’s been amazing.
I have been working on one manuscript for many years now (asking me just how many would be more impolite than asking other people their age!). Draft after draft, I have been creating, until the thing grew so unwieldy, I wanted to burn it altogether. So many times I seriously considered hitting “delete” — a fresh start! But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The story wouldn’t let go of me. Then I came to VCFA. With the (mostly) gentle prodding of my advisors, I have been pruning and hacking at my mess of a manuscript. Packet by packet, semester by semester, I have been letting characters go, eliminating subplots, (destroying an entire fantasy world!), zeroing in, chipping away at the block of marble, getting closer to the core.
And, incredibly, magically, all this killing has created room for the story to grow into what it’s been meant to be. One week ago I finished a new draft . Yesterday I sent it to my advisor. The last time I completed a draft of this story was somewhere around 2011. Today, the story is so very different, and yet, so much closer to its truth.
Now I know, writers aren’t liars. (Though we may sometimes be spies, let’s admit :) ). We tell the truth.
From the very beginning, I have been proud to belong to my plucky, generous, fun-loving, talented class. Now, even as I anxiously await my advisor’s response to my new novel, I am proud to call myself a Darling Assassin, a name I feel I have earned.
Yikes, it’s really been a while! Sorry!!!
This post may not be a revelation to many writers out there, but the following idea was quite a discovery for me: writing out of order.
Sure, I’ve heard about it before. Somehow, I always thought this method was reserved for wizards and other super-human types. :) I thought my boring brain was too logical, my inner editor too bossy for such marvelous creative chaos.
And then in the middle of my semester, my advisor challenged me.
The beginning chapters of the manuscript I sent her were fraught with problems, she pointed out (quite gently). I yearned to try and work those out right away. But she said, “no. Leave the beginning alone. Send me some middle scenes instead.” She only wanted to see the scenes that explored a relationship between two particular characters. With the next packet deadline looming, I couldn’t afford to write in order. I had to try this crazy new upside-down way.
So I dove in, terrified (and a little excited, too).
Oddly enough, the first thing I started with was an ending. I wrote backwards from it for a while, then I jumped into late middle. Then I went kind of all over the place, in true jigsaw-puzzle fashion.
Only now, after more than a month of this work, am I allowing myself to return to the beginning again.
It’s been crazy how good it felt. Like play. Like candy. My bossy left-brain inner editor, totally disoriented, just gave up and left me alone to indulge. My characters, emboldened, seemed to come to life.
I used to think it was important to write in order so as to trace the main characters’ arcs, to watch them grow. But when I wrote out of order, I discovered things about my characters that I could go back and build toward instead. Now that I am looking at the beginning, I am amazed at how much better I know my protagonist and those close to her.
Part of the reason I enrolled into the VCFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program was to reconsider my process. I had tried NaNoWriMo, tried to take longer with a rough draft, tried an online Holly Lisle class, etc. All this time, I have been seeking a deeper, more honest way to write. I believe writing out of order is a big part of the answer.
Writing out of order. Scary — and freeing. Have you ever tried it? Do you think you ever will?
Yes, it’s real, though in the age of email it’s not an actual pile, but an overflowing inbox of potential treasure. What’s treasure, you may ask? Treasure is fresh, powerful writing (ideally, coupled with an exciting concept!) that makes you pay attention in the middle of a busy day.
While some agencies in recent years have made it a practice not to respond to queries if they are not interested, the agency I work with takes responses very seriously. It’s a question of courtesy and respect. But reading unsolicited queries is only a small part of the work that awaits a literary agency each day. The agency’s current authors are always a priority, and they write manuscripts, then revise them, then revise them again. Those all must be tended to. Then there are pitch letters to write, editors to meet, contracts to negotiate, exciting phone calls with new clients. Because of these constraints it can sometimes take the agents longer to respond. And they hate that. Trust me. But those are the realities of the slush pile.
Given those realities, here is the way I read slush pile submissions:
“Awesome” does not always mean “perfect.”
This should be sort of heartening to hear, I think. Sort of. The truth is, every manuscript is going to need some work. I am definitely a perfectionist. Still, if I sought perfection in the slush pile, I probably wouldn’t even bother. I am looking for “awesome,” not “perfect.”
But. That doesn’t mean that writers should relax too much and start getting indulgent. The more polished the project is, the more revisions it has been through, the closer it is to its own truth, its own authenticity. With too many imperfections (clunky exposition, passages that feel stilted, a too-busy plot, weird formatting or obvious lack of proofreading, etc.) there is always the risk that my view as a reader will be obscured by all the problems, and that I won’t get to the awesome at all. If the writer gives me too many reasons to say “no,” he or she will save me time, because it will mean a quick rejection. On the other hand, if both the voice and the narrative hook are making my fingers tingle, and the writer’s skill and talent really come through, I am not going to let an imperfection or two get in my way.
“Maybe” means “no.”
I read quickly. I have to! I was offered this internship, I was told, because the agency was impressed with my knowledge and passion for the young adult and children’s book market. So, in order to maximize my reading time, I feel justified in relying on my own taste and gut instinct. The truth is, I could spend the entire day second-guessing myself. That’s what I did when I first started reading. I didn’t want something great to slip through my fingers! But you learn to become efficient, or you won’t get anything done.
At conferences, writers always ask agents and editors, what are you looking for?
I think the answer for every reader is, they are looking for “wow!” Book lovers just as you are, agents, editors and interns want to be bewitched by a story. And so they chase a feeling of magic, a tingly kind of this is it.
For me, if I request a manuscript, and then keep checking the inbox to see if the author replied yet, despite my crazy to-do list, that tells me something. It means that likely I am going to make time to read this one. And then, if the rest of the manuscript is just as exciting, when I talk about it at the meeting, I am going to beg the other agents to consider it. That’s the kind of “yes” a writer should want.
Sometimes the writing is “nice” or “competent.” But I have learned “nice” and “competent” isn’t good enough. If, as I read, I find my mind wandering, and I find myself thinking, with some guilt, about all the other things I should be doing now, that’s not a good sign. But even if I catch myself thinking, “well, maybe this project could work,” I have learned from experience, that I might as well stop reading.
Does it sound harsh? It shouldn’t.
Think about it: do you really want a “maybe?” If we are not truly excited about the project, how can we champion it? How can we ask an editor to fall in love?
Such passion must start with the first reader. It starts with the slush pile.
Well — really, no. The kind of passion that fuels the most powerful of stories, it starts way before all that, doesn’t it? It starts on the writer’s side of the desk. But that’s a whole another post :)
I have been interning for one of New York City’s top agencies (for about a month now)!
Already, it’s been an amazing ride.
As though a Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA isn’t enough, now I am learning so much more as a writer. While the writing program is focused almost exclusively on the craft and the hard work of being an artist (and I love that about it), my experience with the agency is completing my education from the biz side of the desk. My favorite parts of the job so far are treasure hunting through the slush pile, reading promising requested materials and working with the agency’s current clients in getting their manuscripts ready for submission. Oh, and the weekly meetings! It’s where a lot of the learning takes place.
A word of warning: I am limited in how much I can blog about my experience. I cannot talk about names, numbers or certain other specifics. But I will gladly pass along an occasional nugget of wisdom of a more general nature, whenever I can.
This experience is not just about the learning. It is a new beginning, a first step.
A few months ago, after I have decided it was time to start a new career to complement my writing and help support my family, I considered several options. I did not want to return to journalism or go back to school yet again. I am already in school! I looked for different possibilities that would allow me to capitalize on what I already know and on the things I can already do well.
Reflecting along those lines led me to the realization that I have been learning everything I could about the publishing industry for more than a decade now. To top it off, writer friends, published and unpublished have been telling me for years how much they have appreciated my feedback on their work. A couple of them said it straight out, “you should be an editor!” I brushed their comments off. More recently, the few editing clients I have taken on told me the same thing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I actually enjoy diving deep into a manuscript in search of its truth. Helping great books come to life and find their way to readers — especially young readers — this is an easy mission for me to believe in. It’s a mission I have already accepted a while ago.
So, this is my new life. The days when I take the commuter bus into the Serendipity office are now my favorite days. (Though I love returning home to my quiet town just as much). By the way, this may sound strange, but I LOVE the commuter bus. One hour plus of quiet with no distractions equals some quality writing time.
I love the city, my first American home, a busy nervous wondrous place where I fit right in. Its crazy energy feeds me with new ideas, while the new restrictions on my schedule actually seem to increase my productivity.
I realize building an editorial career in publishing, while continuing to raise my kids and writing is going to have its challenges. But, after months of careful research of potential other careers (what am I going to do when I grow up?) I realized, EVERY career has its challenges. The trick is to find one that would make me WANT to overcome them, maybe even embrace them And I am pretty sure this is it.
In my meandering train ride and plane sweep of a life I have learned not to commit to forever. Who knows what lies behind a distant bend? But I sure hope to spend the next long leg of the journey elbow deep in manuscripts, contracts, rights, P & L statements, and most of all, words, words, words.
Please wish me luck! Needless to say, I will keep you posted, as always. :)
Finally, I give you the long-promised post on Lucy Christopher’s fascinating writing process. Lucy shared this talk at the last Vermont College of Fine Arts residency, and I am posting it here with her permission. (Thank you, Lucy!) Lucy is a British and Australian author of three books for young readers. In her controversial first novel, Stolen, a Printz Honor Book, a British teenager is kidnapped from the airport and brought into an Australian desert, where she must deal with conflicted feelings of enchantment and revulsion for her kidnapper and for the land he expects her to love. Lucy’s second book, Flyaway, for younger readers, was actually the first one she wrote. And just last year, she published The Killing Woods, a YA thriller. Lucy teaches at Bath Spa University in England, as part of the Writing for Young People program. She came to VCFA last month as a visiting writer, to compare notes. She was a fun, gracious and curious guest!
While some writers may start a project with character, a spark of a plot, a theme they wish to explore, or maybe a conflict, Lucy’s entry point into any story is always a place.
“Generally, for me, it’s a wild place,” she said. Before she begins, Lucy doesn’t know who her characters are going to be. Once she has the setting that she “really [has] the urge to explore,” the question becomes, what could happen here?
Lucy approaches writing as a process of an exploration.
“Once I have my settings, I really really immerse myself in them,” she said. “I jump into them physically and mentally.”
In her research Lucy delves deep, getting as hands-on as possible. For example, when she wrote Flyaway, Lucy got a job as a field guide for kids in a nature reserve. For Killing Woods, she actually moved! Stolen was based on her most personal childhood landscapes. Though she was never kidnapped like her heroine was, Lucy said it sometimes felt that way when her parents moved her to Australia. But when she first approached the story, she had no idea a kidnapping would occur. She said, “I just wanted to write about the desert.” Even though she was intimately familiar with the landscape, Lucy did additional research and learned important things.
“I spent a lot of time in communities, working with some indigenous people. They don’t see land as separate from them. Land is them,” she said. “I made pages and pages of notes about the sensory details of the desert.”
Then, with setting details percolating in her mind, the first line of the story came to her.
“You saw me before I saw you.”
“And I was driving, and I thought, interesting. Who is watching her? A hot guy? Why? They’re in the airport. He’s about to kidnap her. Where would he take her? To the desert!!!”
Lucy often rewrites her stories several times, changing — everything. Her second book, Flyaway, Lucy said she wrote “ten times ten different ways.” From point of view and tense to the protagonist’s age and gender, nothing is sacred until the story starts to feel true. Lucy’s writing paths meander quite often. For example, for her third book — which was already under contract! — Lucy travelled to the rain forest, and did tons of research. But after she came home, even with the deadline looming, things just weren’t coming together. “I just felt like I couldn’t write about that setting,” Lucy said.
“[I realized], I do know these woods,” Lucy said. “I know them very well. I started to put the [original] plot into this setting, and it didn’t work. Then I asked myself, what would be the worst thing that could happen here? Someone could die. And what could be the best thing? Someone could fall in love. It was from there that the book started to come together.”
And thus a story that was supposed to feature some troubled kids in a reality TV show in the rainforest, ended up The Killing Woods, a novel about a teen, whose father is accused of murdering another teenage girl in the woods behind her home.
It takes courage, passion and trust for Lucy to immerse herself into her setting this way, and to then chase her stories’ truths, wherever they take her. And that’s Lucy’s advice to writers. Whatever our starting point is, be it character, theme or place, Lucy urges us to follow our passions, from yearning to wonder.
“When I wonder what it would be like, I have to write it,” Lucy said.
Just like Lucy and her characters, let’s be scared. Let’s be excited. Let’s take inspiration from Lucy to bring our own future readers on journeys to landscapes of terror and wonder.