Thursday 29 March 2007

Who are we writing for? More stuff from the readers

Who are we writing for?

I'm always saying we writers must resist carmudgeonly declarations that kids these days
  • Don't read
  • Have short attention spans
  • Are dumbing down because of TV and technology
On the contrary, kids these days are amazing!

And we YA writers are so lucky. Because the people we are writing for have the means and talent to talk right back at us!

YA author Maureen Johnson was thrilled to discover her readers had created a homage using one of her blog posts as their script:

These guys really rock!

Thursday 22 March 2007

If only we could write half as creatively as kids use language

YA writers are constantly asking themselves who their readers are. This week, the Education Guardian helpfully published a glossary of words from the "MySpace generation" and it's a great eye-opener for the YA author.

I especially liked "404", as in "he’s got the 404" — from the internet error message. I just love the mind-blowing inventiveness of it all!

Last year, I posted a piece on slang, quoting Uglies author Scott Westerfield on teen readers:

When you are a teenager you are still in the act of acquiring language. One of the reasons I really like YA is that teenagers are more interested in voice than adults.
His comment woke me up to the fact that the YA reader is a tough act to follow:
Teenagers, . . . write more poetry per capita. They play more word games. They memorise more song lyrics. They like to spell things creatively. And a high percentage are in fact learning a language in school.
The blogging agent Kristin Nelson recently described learning the word 'EMO' from a 15 year old at a dinner party.
His best friend calls himself an "EMO."

First time I’d ever heard the word but I guess this is quite the rage at the moment in high schools (and yes, I did start feeling a little ancient). “Emo” is short for "emotionals." According to him (and yes, I understand that one source is hardly scientific), EMOs like to wear tight jeans (really straight leg), color their hair (but they don’t always have to), and like to listen to death metal or something that might be similar (that was a little fuzzy for me and the bands he named weren’t ones I recognized).

I felt like I had been given a peek into a secret world.
Then what do you know, Agent Kristin got a submission featuring — guess — EMOs! And when you google it, you find . . . well I'm not sure if this is some kind of 'mock-you-mentary (the actual film is on YouTube, generating a lot of hate mail from EMOs) and there's this too.

I’d never heard the word either, until I saw it in the Guardian's glossary ("The new goth. Likes depressing and angry music and has long black hair swept across the eyes").

Whatever the politics of EMOs, all I can think is . . . if only I could write half as creatively as kids use language — how daunting to serve such an audience!

And what a privilege!

'You're so Emo' art by Chris Marzuola

Monday 19 March 2007

Desperately Seeking Grabby

"I would have difficulty finding you a publisher in a market saturated with 'grabby' books."

Nice agent's rejection letter
Grabby. That's what they're looking for. If your manuscript is grabby, doors will open and slushpiles will wither to nothing.

Here's a rejection I got from an agent I really, really respect:
Well, the good news is that I thought your writing has developed most wonderfully. I enjoyed your book enormously — your characterisation is marvellous ...well done!

The sad news is that I don't feel that I can offer to represent you. For all the drama of the ending, your style and tone are gentle and subtle, and I worry that I would have difficulty finding you a publisher in a market saturated with 'grabby' kinds of books. I am truly sorry. I do love quiet, literary books but find them enormously hard to sell ...
Once I'd torn all my hair out, beat my chest, gnashed my teeth, and all the things authors do in the throes of adversity, I forced myself into "sense of proportion" mode.

What in the world does it mean, "grabby"?

I searched my bookshelves for the books that grabbed me and came up with a list:
  1. A grabby character has a striking feature, mannerism, characteristic that endears us and makes us want to know more about them. Like Gary Boone who can't help telling jokes in Dogs Don't Tell Jokes by Louis Sachar; or Bibi, the burka-clad little girl in Kabul whose dream is to represent Australia in the soccer World Cup in Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman; or 16-year-old Mattie Gokey who learns a word a day from the dictionary her mother left her in Northern Light (A Gathering Light to UK readers) by Jennifer Donnelly.

  2. A grabby plot has a fresh take on old story-lines — in Artemus Fowl by Eoin Colfer, a boy criminal sets out to find the leprechauns' pot of gold at the end of the rainbow ... and steal it; in the coming-of-age tale How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, a teenager comes of age in the midst of a war that results in the enemy occupation of modern England; in the teen fantasy The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld, kids born at midnight find that they have an extra hour at midnight that ordinary folk don't experience.

  3. A grabby setting places the characters in an extraordinary situation: in the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, worlds that exist in parallel dimensions experience havoc when men discover they can cut their way in and out of them with a mystical knife; Uglies, Scott Westerfeld's version of dystopia has teenagers required to "turn pretty" (surgically) on their 16th birthday, thus dwelling on contemporary preoccupations on plastic surgery and self image; in Justine Larbalastier's Magic or Madness, a girl in Sidney goes out the back door of her grandmother's house and finds herself in New York.

Grabby is great. Grabby gets published. But I can see that there can only be more hurdles ahead.

After all, one agent's grabby might be another agent's idea of total, utter rubbish.

Saturday 17 March 2007

Authors' acknowledgements reflect grim reality not fashion

"There is more and more an atmosphere of carpentry that comes across in many creative writing schools."

Ian Jack, Granta Magazine, speaking on the Today show
Interesting short on the Today Programme this week :

Ian Jack, editor of literary magazine Granta, politely fulminated against a trend for writers to write pages and pages of acknowledgements in their books.

Today pitted Jack against the author Christopher Cook, who included four pages of acknowledgements in his collection of short stories. Jack, careful to declare Cook’s book "a fine collection" nevertheless rubbished his public display of gratitude:
His acknowledgements go on for four pages and include all kinds of all people Including Stacey at Caribou Coffee … Creative writing skill tutors, wonderful friends of all kinds …It’s like watching the end titles of a film.
The acknowledgements, he said, "devalues" an author’s work:
Something else is happening in America which is beginning to happen here more often too in which… the creative writing experience is a kind of workshop experience in which you are encouraged to read your work aloud and have it criticised by your colleagues. And there is more and more I think almost an atmosphere of carpentry that comes across in many creative writing schools and I think that kind of cooperative effort in writing which is not usually expected as a way to write is becoming more and more common.
Interestingly enough, I just spent the other night reading my work aloud to my critique group – who definitely deserve vociferous thanks if ever my book is published. My acknowledgements would definitely include my husband for all his support, and SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which runs workshops and events that have helped me learn the craft … I could probably fill more than four pages if I thanked all the folks who’ve given me any input.

Ian Jack describes the acknowledgements phenomenon as if it is just another thing we in the UK are yet again picking up from the Americans. But there is more reality than fashion behind this trend.

The fact is, the publishing scene has changed beyond recognition. No longer can you expect to be taken under a gentle editor’s wing and nurtured. The market is so tough, the pool of people who imagine themselves authors so numerous, that you can’t take chances on talent shining from an imperfect manuscript, or an indulgent agent taking the time to cultivate you and your book into shining perfection. When you shove that manuscript package into the post box, it better be as good as it can get.

Hence the need for critique groups, writing school, workshops, book doctors etc. etc. etc.

Christopher Cook, in his defense against Jack’s withering scorn, pleaded guilty to honing his craft.
I don’t think it is being a craftsman like a carpenter. If a classical pianist admitted to having taken music lessons from fine teachers and other fine musicians then people wouldn’t bat an eye. Writing is an art like any other. It can be learned in a studio like any other.
To which Ian Jack went into full carmudgeonly mode: "Learning to write fiction is becoming more of a social accomplishment rather like water colour painting was in 1860 for certain kinds of young lady."

Yeah, right. But aren’t there easier ways of social climbing than spending month after lonely month writing a novel then allowing your critique group to slag it off?

Friday 2 March 2007

No talking teeth and vegetables

"My heart sinks when I get a manuscript featuring a dragon."

Agent at SCBWI UK's Agents Party
You heard it first here, folks. Please no more talking teeth. Or talking vegetables and rainbows for that matter. Sarah Molloy of A.M.Heath apparently received not one but two submissions last week on the subject.

At last night’s Agent’s Party hosted by SCBWI British Isles, 45 very well behaved members (the invite amusingly warned: “Please . . . make this an event that won't scare agents away so that we can have it again next year!”), one illustrator’s agent and three literary agents. Aside: If you think the warning is over the top, read this and think again!

What is probably most striking about finally sitting just a few feet away from these agents is how human they all were. None of them attempted to bite someone’s head off, they did not spit at us or stamp on our business cards and they seemed genuinely to want to meet a writer they could publish!

For your researching pleasure, here’s who was there:

Tamlyn Francis, illustrator agent
31 Eleanor Road
London E15 4AB
Tel 0845 050 7600

Sarah Molloy, literary agent
A. M. Heath & Co. Ltd.
6 Warwick Court, Holborn
London WC1R 5DJ
Tel +44 (0) 207 242 2811
Fax +44 (0) 207 242 2711

Caroline Sheldon, literary agent
Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency
Thorley Manor Farm, Thorley
Yarmouth, PO41 0SJ
Tel +44 (0) 1983 760205

Janice Swanson
Curtis Brown Ltd.
Haymarket House
28-29 Haymarket
London SW1Y 4SP
Tel +44 (0) 20 7393 4400
Fax +44 (0) 20 7393 4401

Apart from the teeth warning, here are some interesting highlights:

- Agents do the whole submitting and waiting and waiting and waiting thing that we writers hate doing. Except it’s the main part of their job. Over and over and over again. And they get rejected too. Over and over again. And the editors still take their sweet time responding even when they're dealing with agents. One agent just got a response from an editor eight months after submitting the manuscript!

- Agents are looking for a new voice but they can’t tell you what that is until they see it. “Something I pick up and I get all spine-tingly and I want to read on. A page turner.”

- Apart from talking teeth, vegetables and rainbows, Agents are fed up with dragons. But they are persuadable if the writing is good. “My heart sinks when I get a manuscript featuring a dragon. Oh no, not another one! On the other hand, I am currently reading one that is un-put-downable. So it’s all in the writing.”

If there was just one thing one should come away with from the whole evening it has to be the point about a new voice. How do you find that voice? Can a fresh voice be learned?

The other day, pounding away on the computer, my words had begun to creak and turn all wooden and coated in hairy bits like the stuff one finds under the sofa. To freshen up I browsed my way to the list of YA books that have won honours from the Michael L. Printz Award (just the Oscar of YA writing in the States).

Amongst others (and I am only mentioning the ones I have read and in no particular order), there were Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now), Jennifer Donnelly (A Gathering Light), David Almond (Skellig), Jack Gantos (A Hole in My Life). I only had to rummage through my bookshelf and pick one of those books up to find out what a fresh, new voice sounds like.

Of course, the big problem is one’s voice has to be fresh and thrillingly new and therefore not at all like any of these great writers otherwise one might quite easily inadvertently and very dangerously commit plagiarism.

I rooted out How I Live Now, opened to the first page and hours later found myself sobbing over the final chapter and wishing that the book wouldn’t come to an end. Well. So that's it. That’s The Voice.

Now to get my pages to speak with it.

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