Archive for January 2011
Birthmarked wasn’t in the slush pile for long—two months—but that’s where it started. What I knew about the process of trying to sell a novel was based on my failures with my literary novels (see previous post: Slush Pile Code) and my success with six romances I’d published (agentless) before I became a teacher. I had no experience with children’s publishing whatsoever and no contacts, but there’s a way in for unknown people like me: through the slush pile.
I knew one thing for certain: the only way my book would get noticed was if it was genuinely good enough to merit attention. That seemed fair to me. Though I didn’t expect to succeed, I wanted the self-respect that would come with knowing I tried to sell my novel. My work deserved that much.
So here’s what I did. Once I had a complete manuscript of Birthmarked, to start my list of potential agents, I went to the library, looked up the latest YALSA Best Books for Young Adults list, pulled the available novels, and checked acknowledgement pages for writers who thanked their agents. For more leads, I bought a copy of The Writers Market, read its section about agents, and searched online for lists of the best agents for YA novels. Then I searched the AgentQuery.com database for four criteria: agents who represented YA, accepted email queries, were open to new clients, and were members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). I checked agencies’ websites to read about the agents and what sorts of books they represented, studied their submission requirements, picked the agents that best matched my work, polished my query letter, customized it for each agent, and contacted sixteen agents by email.
Done, I thought. That same afternoon, one of the agents replied and asked to see the first fifty pages. I sent them along, and four days later he emailed back to say he thought the book was good but he didn’t know whom he would send it to, so he wished me luck, recommended I check out Jeff Herman’s Guide, and passed.
No surprise there. I thought, this is going to take four years and no one will ever want the book, so I might as well maximize the speed of rejections and expand my search now.
I went back to AgentQuery.com and dropped the AAR criteria because, on further reading, I’d learned that plenty of legitimate agents didn’t bother with the AAR credential. I spent another three weeks researching individual agents like I had with my short list, tightened my query letter again, and sent out a second batch of email queries to twenty-five more agents.
The next day, I started receiving requests for the complete manuscript. Within a few weeks, eleven agents had requested partials or the complete manuscript, which seemed like a lot to me. Since they didn’t ask for exclusive looks, I didn’t mention that other agents had also requested the manuscript. I thought I might sound pushy if I did. I did start to worry, though, about the etiquette for handling it if more than one agent offered representation, so I studied articles about that on AgentQuery. I calmed down again. It almost never happens.
Then I received an offer of representation. It was three weeks after I’d sent out the second batch of queries, and this agent was excited about my book. He thought it was great. We talked for a while, and then I explained that other agents were considering the manuscript and asked for a little time to check back with them. He said that would be fine, and to let him know if I had more questions. We politely hung up.
Dancing and hooting ensued.
Agents, I found, were very courteous, hard-working people. When I emailed the others who had the manuscript to say I had an offer of representation, they responded within hours. They were very patient with me and their colleagues while I waited for other agents to read the manuscript and make an offer or not. The ones I spoke to all believed it mattered to find a good author-agent match and agreed it was worth taking the time to consider carefully, even if that took a couple weeks. So I did.
After talking to five of the interested agents, I ended up with four offers of representation. Then I had to decide, and I didn’t know what mattered most: experience, a list of award-winning writers, a specialization in children’s lit, the size of the agency, a strong foreign rights department, or an ability to represent adult novels too should I want to return to that. I asked questions and took notes during the phone calls. The agents connected me with some of their clients and to a retired editor so I could talk to them, and I learned a lot, fast.
I ended up with Kirby Kim of Endeavor, shortly before it merged with William Morris, and a smarter, nicer guy you’ll never find. In my opinion, that’s when I made it out of the slush pile, because that’s when I gained an ally to represent my work. Kirby guided me through three fairly light revisions, and then in late October, 2008, Kirby submitted my book to fourteen editors. That waiting time was the most stressful. I had no idea how long it would last or if we’d get an offer, and the stakes felt high.
A few weeks later, Kirby said he was getting some interest. He set a deadline for offers at 3:00, the Friday before Thanksgiving. I hurried home from school to be there for a phone call, and I distinctly remember looking out the kitchen window, half sick with hope and doubt, praying that someone would buy my book.
Kirby called at 3:15. We had three offers for Birthmarked, and the best offer, from Nancy Mercado at Roaring Brook, was a three-book deal. It was beyond belief.
Sometimes, two-and-a-half years later, it’s still beyond belief.
Warning. This is not an inspirational post for the faint of heart.
I believe in the slush pile. It’s one of the purest forms of meritocracy left to us. You don’t get credit for effort. It doesn’t count that your work shows promise. It doesn’t matter that your teacher gave it an A or that you earned your MFA. The slush pile makes no apologies and accepts no excuses: if your manuscript isn’t good enough, it doesn’t get out of the pile.
The clear simplicity of this is not always happy to accept. On a different snowy January night, three months before I turned 30, I hit a low point that saw me sitting on the kitchen floor, my back against the stove, crying into my snotty sleeves. I’d been writing seriously for eight years. I was teaching adult ed and raising kids with my husband who was then in his post-doc. I had one romance to my publishing credit, just enough that it stuck in my relatives’ heads so they could always ask cheerily how the writing was going. I’d found an agent through a grad school connection, so I thought I was out of the slush pile, but when she sent around my literary novel for me, it was rejected. I wrote another literary novel and she sent that one around. That one was rejected, too. My agent wished me the best and cut me loose. I had wasted my twenties trying to become a writer, I thought. I was an utter and total failure, plus my sleeves were all snotty.
Mine is not the story of the girl who persevered, redoubled her efforts, overcame all obstacles and decades later, reached her dream. The point is, my writing wasn’t good enough, and there was no guarantee it ever would be. It took me far, far too long to learn that I wasn’t going to earn a living as a writer or as a professor who wrote novels on the side. Yet I did realize that happiness was in my own control. I had a loving marriage and three great kids, and I went back to school to become a high school English teacher, which gave me meaningful work I relished and students I loved, too. I did keep writing, but I recognized it as a hobby, an art I enjoyed, not a career path.
It’s true that now I’m out of the slush pile. Have I told that story somewhere already? (I can tell it next week if anyone’s interested. (Slush Pile Part Deux.)) Having work as a writer for now, however, has not made me delude myself. I’m aware that the publishing business is fickle, and if my agent can’t sell my next project profitably, I’ll look for a new teaching position, which will be totally fine. Happiness is still in my control, and nobody else’s. That’s what the slush pile, in code, was really telling me.
I’m writing this today because I wish I’d known, that night on the kitchen floor, that I was going to end up happy. I wish someone had written a blog back then to tell me this. If your writing is making you miserable, if you’re submitting stuff regularly and it isn’t getting picked up for publication, if you’re stuck in the slush pile, it’s all right to accept what it really means: your writing isn’t good enough. It might not ever be. Go discover something else that makes you happy and do it. You deserve to be happy.
No one prepared me for the day strangers would be unfriendly to me, and it happened when I most needed a smile. I was a young mom, haggard, sleep-deprived, and hauling my newborn in an awkward child-seat-carrier that looked like a piece of space-age armor. It happened in some innocuous, anonymous setting like a bank or a grocery store, when I needed to make some uneventful transaction. The person behind the counter was not especially rude—I’d certainly encountered bluntly rude people before and I knew what that was—but this person treated me as if I were a big, boring inconvenience, and I couldn’t at first understand why.
Then it hit me: I was ugly.
It was a huge and humbling discovery for me that I deserved no special welcome, no receptive, interested smile just because I was me. Even as I write this, I know it sounds appallingly egotistical that I felt so entitled in the first place, but there’s a point behind my implied bragging. I lived in California at the time, and when I had been pregnant, the world opened for me: strangers held doors for me, people put me ahead of them in line, old women came up to me in produce sections to put their hands on my belly. Okay, that was going a bit far, but still, I was excited for my first child, and I believe it showed in my pink-cheeked, sunny attitude anywhere I went.
When I was a beautiful Madonna, I was treated with gracious kindness and indulgence. When I was an ugly mom, I was treated with indifference and annoyance. I learned that in order to get the smiling helpfulness I craved from strangers, I had to work for it by being really friendly and smiley myself. It helped that soon my infant was a very cute toddler, deserving of kindly attention himself, but I never forgot, and as I looked around me more closely, I realized my lesson went far beyond motherhood issues. I’d hit upon a permanent change for the rest of my life: I needed to exert myself, evermore, because I was no longer young and beautiful.
This may be so obvious to everyone else that no one ever bothered teaching it to me, but what I’ve learned is that pretty, young people get treated better than anyone else, just because they’re pretty and young. If they happen to be polite, as well, then everything is stacked in their favor from the moment they walk in any door. They become so accustomed to it, they don’t even realize they’re getting special treatment. Conversely, ugly people of any age are likely to get treated like garbage, and if they happen to look sullen, that reception will be repeated daily.
It’s absurdly superficial, but look around you. It’s true. It’s demoralizing, especially when you consider what cycles are perpetuated. Picture that scruffy-haired teenager smoking alone outside of Store 24. Yet there’s hope, too, because people really do respond to overtures of friendliness, even from us older, uglier types.
I’ve decided there are two things we can do about the problem: raise our children to be polite, and smile more at strangers, especially the ones who look like they’re having a bad day.
When you keep erasing as many pages as you write each day, and you keep going in wrong directions, don’t think that you’re not making progress, because you are. It’s just thinking progress, not pages progress, and when you eventually identify that you’ve put your main character in a position of power and influence where her problems are global rather than personal, then add in some guards and get someone arrested, preferably her.
You might think you would know by now the absolute basic rule of fiction: make things worse. But no. It kills you to think how many times you keep having to learn this. What’s more: it’s not enough to make things worse in general; they have to be worse for her. Much worse. And now.
At least you learned it again this morning. Evil laugh.
This is a bit story about characters from the world of Birthmarked. I wrote this “new beginnings” story in honor of Eve’s Fan Garden, which is celebrating its one year anniversary this week. I’m also joining their live chat on Thursday, January 20, at 8:30 EST if you’d like to drop by. Happy Birthday, Eve’s Fan Garden!
As Emily braced her palm against the pottery wheel and started it spinning, her foot picked up the rhythm of pressure on the treadle to keep it going. Wet, mobile clay spun beneath her hands and she concentrated to keep it centered in a circular mound, small enough so that her thumbs met easily over it and the slickness smoothed in a supple form inside her fingers.
“What are you doing working so late?” Gaia asked.
Emily kept her gaze on the spinning gray clay, but she heard Gaia coming in the door to her left and walking around the little studio, blocking light from one lamp after another as she moved. Gaia slunk down the wall to sit on the floor, just at the edge of Emily’s peripheral vision.
“I’ll splatter you there,” Emily said.
Gaia moved her loafers. “No, you won’t.”
The wheel made a steady hum. Emily pressed her thumb down in the middle of the clay and gradually worked the indentation outward toward the edge, where she pulled up a lip of clay to form a thick, small bowl. She grabbed a wet bit of sponge. Frowning, she leaned over to peer at the form at an angle while she smoothed outward from the center again, easing her wet sponge inside the spinning shape, applying equal pressure to the outside edge of the bowl as she firmly, delicately modified the shape. She lifted her hands away, watching the little bowl spin, and then finally took her foot off the treadle. The wheel spun slowly down to silence, and Emily wiped a strand of loose hair back off her forehead, not caring that she was smearing a trace of clay along her face, too. She was already filthy.
“You okay?” Gaia asked.
“I have five more of these to make tonight.”
“Why aren’t your parents making them?”
“They worked all day,” Emily said. “My dad had to use my wheel because his was broken, so now it’s my turn.”
“To do your share?” Gaia asked.
“You know how it is. Way too much work or not enough. We have to get it while we can or they’ll go to another potter.” Emily reached her arms over her head to stretch. “I can’t talk long.” She looked at Gaia closely for the first time, noting both the tired slump of her shoulders and the radiance in her expression. “Were you delivering a baby with your mom?”
Gaia nodded. “It was great. A little girl.” She smiled, hugging herself. “It’s just the most amazing thing.”
“She was so little! Right here in my hands,” Gaia said, holding them up reverently as if she could still feel the invisible infant there.
Emily reached for a wire to slide under the bowl to cut it from the wheel. “You’re lucky you like your work. Bring me that board, will you?”
Gaia stood to reach for it and passed it over. Emily gingerly lifted the bowl onto the board where it would dry and harden.
“Look at how pretty that is,” Gaia said. “I could never make that in a million years and you just tossed it off.”
Emily could see nothing graceful about what she’d just made. Competent work that would satisfy her mother; that’s all it was. “It’s passable.”
Gaia laughed, and then her smile faded. “You’re serious. Look, if you don’t like working as a potter, why don’t you tell your parents?”
Emily cleared off the wheel and reached for another block of clay that she’d pounded for air bubbles, and gave it a couple more smacks before she settled in the center of the wheel and wet it down.
“Emily,” Gaia said, “don’t ignore me.” She was sitting on the floor again and she gave a little wave.
“I’m not ignoring you. This is the only thing I know how to do.”
“That’s not an answer. If you don’t want to be a potter, don’t be a potter.”
Emily started the wheel again, and the awkward, lumpy clay jerked under her hands, resistant and stubborn. She made her hands strong and forced the clay to yield until it gradually morphed into a small, symmetrical mound that spun evenly. The basic, pre-bowl shape. She could close her eyes and feel it in her sleep.
“I mean it, Emily,” Gaia said over the noise of the spinning. “You could quit this.”
“You’re making it worse,” Emily said.
“I’m not. Would you just listen to me?”
“No, now. Now, when you’re miserable.”
“I’m not miserable,” Emily said.
Gaia laughed, and Emily released the clay to look across at her. Sometimes she hated the way Gaia could see right through her and laugh at the same time.
“Okay. I may be miserable,” Emily admitted. “But there are worse things than being miserable, and I don’t need you coming in here telling me I have choices, because I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Like what? Tell me, genius. What else could I do?”
Gaia shrugged. “You could be a midwife like me, or a weaver, or a teacher, or own a restaurant or a store or anything. You’d be a great teacher, actually. You’re super smart and patient.”
Emily scoffed out a laugh and kept her foot going on the treadle of the wheel so the clay spun before her. “A teacher. We don’t even have any schools in Wharfton.”
“You could change that.”
Emily laughed again. “I can’t read. Remember? Do you know any teachers who can’t read?”
Gaia came to her feet again. “I’ll teach you.”
Emily reached for her sponge and dipped it the water. “We tried that once before, remember? That stupid silent ‘e’ thing? No, thanks.”
Gaia came nearer, crowding Emily’s light. “We’re older now. I hardly knew how to read myself back then, but now I do. At least look at me.”
Emily bit inward on her lips and kept her focus on the spinning clay, but as Gaia continued to stand there, waiting, and Emily contemplated making more bowls like the last one every day for the rest of her life, she allowed herself to look up. Gaia’s kind, challenging expression was almost more than she could stand.
“Oh, Em,” Gaia said quietly.
“Could you really teach me?”
Gaia nodded. “Of course.”
“You won’t make me feel stupid?”
Gaia leaned nearer and set her clean hand on Emily’s slick, dirty one. Emily took her foot off the pedal and let the wheel spin down to motionlessness again, and the little studio had never been so quiet.
“Watch,” Gaia said. “It’s just putting together sounds.” Slowly, carefully, guiding Emily’s own finger to make the marks, Gaia drew a word in the muddy clay that covered the outer surface of the wheel in a gray film. “This is a ‘Y.’ It sounds like ‘y-y-yellow,’” Gaia said. “And this is ‘E,’ which is the start of ‘Emily.’”
“I know that one,” Emily said.
“And this one’s ‘S,’” Gaia said, still guiding Emily’s finger. “It’s the snake letter, making the ‘s-s-s’ sound. Put the three letters together, and you get an entire word you know.”
Emily pulled her hand free to trace the letters again herself, sounding them out softly. When comprehension came, she couldn’t say it. She could only think it, deep in the loneliness of her own heart: yes.
She didn’t want to move. She didn’t know what to say. She should have been grateful to Gaia, but somehow she felt enraged. Reading was so simple. Why hadn’t her parents let her learn? Many, many times Gaia’s parents had offered to teach Emily along with Gaia, and every single time Emily’s parents had declined, too proud to be in their debt. Worst of all, they’d also taught Emily to be too proud.
Now she moved her hands to the pile of clay on her wheel and slowly gripped her hands into it, ruining her work. She wanted to throw it, to smash everything around her, but instead she slumped backwards on her stool and hid her face in her messy hands. All she could see was clay, all she could smell was wet clay on her hands. She closed her eyes tight.
Then she felt her friend’s arms go around her and this girl, this neighbor girl that Emily had once secretly pitied for being so ugly and friendless, now seemed more powerful than any other person on Earth.
“It’s okay,” Gaia said.
Emily held onto her. There was really nothing else she could do. “I’ve tried so hard,” Emily said.
“I know. You’re such a good person. You work so hard. This won’t change that. We won’t tell your parents until you really can read, okay? Whole books.” Gaia let go of her to peer at her, still visibly worried, and Emily nodded, wiping at her face with the corner of her smock.
Whole books, she thought. It hardly seemed possible, and at the same time she felt both famished and exhausted.
“You’ve got clay all over you now,” Emily said.
Gaia gave a crooked smile. “So?”
Emily laughed. “I still have five bowls to make,” she said.
“Right. I’ll go. But you won’t change your mind? I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Emily was already scraping the destroyed clay off the wheel so she could start fresh with a new pile. For an instant she was afraid to smear away the word she’d learned, but then she realized she knew it. For good.
“Yes,” Emily said. “Good night.”
She started up the wheel again as Gaia slipped out the door.
Librarians! Public and school librarians are invited to enter a giveaway of 55 novels by the Tenners, middle grade and young adult writers whose debuts were published in 2010. The contest is free and open until February 15, 2011. Details are on the Tenners site.
As one of the Tenners, I’m extremely grateful to librarians who have been so supportive of teen reading and new authors. Best of luck!
Books included in the giveaway are:
The Absolute Value of -1 by Steve Brezenoff
All Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien
Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves
The Body Finder and Desires of the Dead by Kimberly Derting
Change of Heart by Shari Maurer
The Cinderella Society by Kay Cassidy
The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk
The Dark Divine and The Lost Saint by Bree Despain
The Deathday Letter by Shaun David Hutchinson
Dirty Little Secrets by Cynthia Jaynes Omololu
Eighth-Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Everlasting by Angie Frazier
Forget-Her-Nots by Amy Brecount-White
The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston
Freefall by Mindi Scott
The Ghost & The Goth by Stacey Kade
Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly
Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler
Hush, Hush and Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick
Inconvenient by Margaret Gelbwasser
Iron King and Iron Daughter by Julie Kagawa
Kids vs. Squid by Greg van Eekhout
Leaving Gee’s Bend by Irene Latham
The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz by Laura Toffler-Corrie
The Line by Teri Hall
Losing Faith by Denise Jaden
Magic Under Glass by Jackie Dolamore
The Mark by Jen Nadol
Mistwood by Leah Cypess
Nice & Mean by Jessica Leader
Other by Karen Kincy
Palace Beautiful by Sarah DeFord Williams
Paranormalcy by Kiersten White
Princess for Hire by Lindsey Leavitt
Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl
Prophecy of Days by Christy Raedeke
The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez
The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman
The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff
The Rise of Renegade X by Chelsea Campbell
Sea by Heidi Kling
The Secret Year by Jennifer Hubbard
Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland
Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai
The Snowball Effect by Holly Nicole Hoxter
Three Rivers Rising by Jame Richards
Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes
Wildfire Run by Dee Garretson
The Amelia Bloomer Project recommends feminist literature for readers from birth to age 18, and I’m particularly happy that Gaia’s story, where a girl is strong because of her midwifery and her difficult moral choices, is recognized in this way.
The Young Adult Library Services Association list highlights 99 novels for ages 12-18 in consideration of their literary quality and appeal to teens.
I’m deeply honored and grateful.
My happiest discovery about point of view (POV) happened back in college, when my professor assigned Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be an Other Woman” and I fell in love with 2nd person. Moore’s irresistible story begins with the directive “Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night” and has a neglected, lovelorn protagonist who reminds herself: “You don’t have to put up with this: you were second runner-up at the Junior Prom.”
Some of us are not Lorrie Moore and cannot pull off 2nd person with panache. But what about 1st and 3rd? Those are workable choices, and the biggest difference between them is immediacy.
Consider the first line of Mary Doria Russell’s Children of God and the same sentence in different points of view:
A. “Sweating and nauseated, I sat on the edge of my bed with my head in what was left of my hands.” (First person)
B. “Sweating and nauseated, you sat on the edge of your bed with your head in what was left of your hands.” (Second person)
C. “Sweating and nauseated, Father Emilio Sandoz sat on the edge of his bed with his head in what was left in his hands.” (Third person)
We get painfully close with all three examples, obviously, but there’s a different kind of honesty, a willingness to divulge, and a risky potential for whining or self-absorption when Emilio tells us his story directly with “I” (A). We’re privy to the way his mind works, and how his thoughts might conflict with what he says or does. We can have quick changes for humor, or feel his despair directly. Yet there’s never any escaping experiencing the world through his perspective. If he lies to himself, he lies to the reader. That complication can be fascinating, or a mess.
Second person (B) sounds just crazy nuts.
With third person (C), Emilio has a little dignity because the writer serves as a witness reporting the event. We’re invited to feel Emilio’s agony, but we’re allowed to have a little impolite, dispassionate curiosity, too, because we trust that the author, not Emilio himself, is telling the story. We can still get Emilio’s thoughts and feelings, and know if he lies, but there’s a controlled neutrality about the way we get that information. There’s also the implied possibility that Emilio can die, which isn’t possible for a person telling the story as “I” unless the narrator is a ghost (The Lovely Bones) or the writer is really breaking form. Because of the death factor alone, I’d say it’s more dangerous for a character to be in a third person POV. Russell’s book, incidentally, is written in third (C), and indeed, her character Emilio is in such rough shape that it would be hard for him to narrate a coherent description of events.
It’s no accident that many young adult novels these days are written in first person, when it so quickly establishes how a narrator thinks. First person lends itself especially well to a character who is thinking fast, possibly in fragments, on the spot, in a stressful situation. We know Katniss from The Hunger Games, for instance, in first person. First person works brilliantly when the protagonist has a lively, interesting mind, and it’s a riot to write with a funny character. On the down side, first person can limit vocabulary if the protagonist has a limited or non-standard education. Alice Walker gets around this by giving her characters without traditional educations the words they would use if they knew them, so there are ways to manage, but having education line up with how a person sounds when they think out loud is one of the things I enjoy most and I wouldn’t want to give that up.
For Birthmarked, I used third person because it felt natural and seemed to fit Gaia, who does things I am not morally comfortable with, like taking babies from their mothers. I was concerned that her actions would seem so cold that no reader would like her, and I needed the filter of third person so that the cruelty wasn’t part of her own, inner mental voice. When she begins to question things (“This was far worse than she’d imagined it could be”), there’s a play between Gaia’s understanding of events and the reader’s understanding. A little bit of distance gave me better control, plus I had no restrictions on vocabulary.
Like other aspects of writing fiction, point of view is a tool to consider, but I find it is intricately woven up with character and plot and setting. It’s not an arbitrary choice writers make on page one and then simply stick with. I like how Homer switches points of view from first to third for the last section of The Odyssey, when Odysseus is no longer perpetually bragging and there’s a chance one of those suitor’s arrows might kill him dead. 2,600 years later, POV still offers danger.