Monday, April 29, 2013

7 Questions For: Editor Alison Weiss

Alison Weiss is an Associate Editor at Egmont USA. As a kid, it was not unusual to find her huddled under the covers on a Saturday morning with a stack of books rather than downstairs watching cartoons.

Alison has been with Egmont for five years. During that time she’s been fortunate to work with debut authors and multi-award winning, alike. In addition to assisting on projects from Egmont’s stable of talented authors including Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, she’s worked with Lindsay Eland (A Summer of Sundays), Mike A. Lancaster (Human.4; The Future We Left Behind), Kristina McBride (One Moment), Lynn Kiele Bonasia (Countess Nobody), Penny Warner (The Code Busters Club series) and Tony Abbott (Goofballs series), among others. She’s excited to be editing New York Times best-selling author Jessica Verday’s new series, Of Monsters and Madness and debut novelist Kristen Lippert-Martin’s Tabula Rasa, both of which will be out in Fall 2014.

Alison is Egmont’s resident Twitter correspondent (@EgmontUSA) and hosts monthly Q and A sessions with teen writers at

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Uggh! This is so hard. It changes constantly. And you can’t limit me to three. It’s just not fair. Today, and in no particular order. . . 

Five Children and It by E. Nesbitt
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett, illustrated by Ronald Barrett
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie
Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

Rear Window
Sabrina (the original, with Audrey Hepburn)

The West Wing
Covert Affairs

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal writer?

I want an author brimming with ideas who can create captivating characters, has a standout voice, a distinct viewpoint, and can create engaging plots. But most of all, I want an author who loves revising and loves the process. For me, revision is the most important step. It doesn't matter what you first put on the page. It's what you transform it into. 

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I’m a gal with eclectic tastes, so I always try to duck out of this question. But I know you won’t let me.

I certainly have things I’m looking for: great middle grade that stays with you like Ingrid Law’s Savvy or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks; young adult that makes me cry (and it’s not easy to get me to cry over a book).

But I find that the projects that take me by surprise are what I get most excited about. Show me something that hasn't been done a million times over. Or if you’re treading well-worn ground, give me a twist I never saw coming. There’s always a place for familiarity – sometimes that’s just what a reader needs – but how do you make it truly your own? If you can accomplish that in a standout way, you’re on the right track.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an editor? What is your least favorite thing? 

I love the interaction with my authors. The exchange of ideas. This definitely goes hand in hand with my feelings on revision. I love the process of working with authors as we dig down to turn their manuscripts into the best they can be. I view the author-editor relationship as one of collaborative teamwork. And seeing how an idea evolves from draft to draft is incredibly fulfilling.

I shared my least favorite with a colleague, who laughed and said, “You didn’t really say that, right?” So . . . back to the drawing board.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Just write. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense. Get the words onto the page. You can wrestle them into submission later.

Know your audience, but write for you. If you love what you’re doing, it shows in your writing.

Rejection stings, but it’s part of the game. Everyone gets rejected (editors and agents, too). Don’t take it personally, but use it. Take in the parts of a critique that make sense. Let go of what doesn’t. You don’t have to agree with what someone else says about your writing, or implement changes to align your book with his or her opinions, but knowing how to filter and use the right information will make your work stronger.

Don’t make the mistake of saying you’ve written the next (fill in this blank with a huge book like Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games). I’ve never read a pitch where the project has come even close to living up to that claim. If your book is that big, others will make the connection. You don’t need to.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I think that Mark Twain would be a whole lot of fun.  Growing up, my dad had one of those complete sets of Mark Twain that are meant to just look pretty on a shelf. I would sneak up to the attic and steal books from the set, afraid that I’d get in trouble for ruining them (the glue in the bindings wasn’t all that secure). I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, like everyone else. And they made me think and laugh and want to be a bit naughty.  But I also read Tom Sawyer Detective and Tom Sawyer Abroad and wanted to be swept back into time and be a bit of a huckster as in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or just switch lives with someone else as in The Prince and the Pauper. And those just scratched the surface. Because Twain chronicled a world on the cusp of change through a satirist’s eye, I think he’d have a lot to say about contemporary times, and I have a feeling my gut would be sore from laughing by the time the check was paid.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Jeff Ourvan

Jeff Ourvan, an attorney, published author and former editor, is a literary agent with the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. His interests are varied: he represents non-fiction works, especially memoirs, histories, biographies, international current events and sports. He also represents fiction works, particularly in the young adult, thriller and international fiction categories. Prior to his career as a literary agent, Jeff was a litigator for many years at two large New York-based corporate law firms; a communications consultant working in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo; and an editor of Living Buddhism magazine.

Jeff’s most recently published work, How To Coach Youth Baseball So Every Kid Wins, was released by Skyhorse Publishing in 2012.  His next work, The Star Spangled Buddhist: Zen, Tibetan and Soka Gakkai Buddhism and The Quest For Enlightenment in America, will be published in June 2013.  A thriller writer and nonfiction author, Jeff studied writing for many years with the award-winning novelist John Rechy.  Prior to working as a literary agent, Jeff was a magazine editor, as well as a corporate attorney, public relations executive, geologist and commercial fisherman. 

Jeff Ourvan is also a writing instructor at The Write Workshop NYC,  You can follow him on Twitter @WriteWorkshopNY.

For more information, check out my friends Natalie Aguirre and Casey McCormick's wonderful blog, Literary Rambles.
And now Jeff Ourvan faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Don Quixote, The Wanderer (by Alain Fournier), The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?


The Red Balloon, Lost In Translation, Rear Window

TV shows: 

Looney Tunes, The Honeymooners, Monty Python's Flying Circus

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

Excellent writings skills, open to editorial critiques, pleasant to work with, and living a courageous life.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

In particular, I'm looking right now for nonfiction sports and science, and also literary young adult fiction and middle grade fiction (but not paranormal). 

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

I love working with good writers and helping them to improve their works, and I love securing publishers for them.  Least favorite: managing expectations.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

1. Live a courageous and daring life so that you know, in your bones, how to write about gain and loss, victory and defeat.
2. Avoid adverbs.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Miguel de Cervantes.  He was an adventurer, a sailor, an escaped, recaptured and ransomed slave, and the father of the modern novel.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


First Paragraph: Mr. Weasley woke them after only a few hours sleep. He used magic to pack up the tents, and they left the campsite as quickly as possible, passing Mr. Roberts at the door of his cottage. Mr. Roberts had a strange, dazed look about him, and he waved them off with a vague “Merry Christmas.” “He’ll be all right,” said Mr. Weasley quietly as they marched off onto the moor. “Sometimes, when a person’s memory’s modified, it makes him a bit disorientated for a while . . . and that was a big thing they had to make him forget.”

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. I'm hoping you're well. I myself am just a bit sleepy. I've got a lot going on just lately--don't we all? But this week is particularly kicking my butt and its during such a hectic time that I'm most glad to take a Harry Potter break:)

For what's a great book for if not to distract and entertain the reader? For at least a little while this week I was sucked into the fantastical world of Rowling's imagination. I wasn't thinking about all the things I still needed to do or all the other stresses recently wearing me out. Instead, I was contemplating the Weasley family's marvelous clock that doesn't tell the time:

Mrs. Weasley glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner. Harry liked this clock. It was completely useless if you wanted to know the time, but otherwise very informative. It had nine golden hands, and each of them was engraved with one of the Weasley family’s names. There were no numerals around the face, but descriptions of where each family member might be. “Home,” “school,” and “work” were there, but there was also “traveling,” “lost,” “hospital,” “prison,” and, in the position where the number twelve would be on a normal clock, “mortal peril.” 
Eight of the hands were currently pointing to the “home” position, but Mr. Weasley’s, which was the longest, was still pointing to “work.” Mrs. Weasley sighed.

It's a fun clock, sort of a magical version of Facebook, but why doesn't it tell the time? Surely a clock capable of tracking all members of a family in real time could also tell the time. My phone can track email, Facebook, and Twitter. It can also play Avatar, all while keeping the time. The reason the Weasley's amazing clock can't tell time is because of this amusing description:  It was completely useless if you wanted to know the time, but otherwise very informative. I submit to you that if Rowling hadn't got the clever turn of phrase in her head, that magic clock would also tell the time.

Chapter 10 is about set-up and pay-off, which is Rowling's formula for the entire book: interesting set-up, satisfying pay-off. First, she pays off a set-up from chapters 6 and 7, when you'll remember she did a fine job establishing Mrs. Weasley's anger and exasperation with her boys. But my how the tables have turned:

“You’re all right,” Mrs. Weasley muttered distractedly, releasing Mr. Weasley and staring around at them all with red eyes, “you’re alive. . . . Oh boys . . ."
And to everybody’s surprise, she seized Fred and George and pulled them both into such a tight hug that their heads banged together. 
“Ouch! Mum — you’re strangling us —” 
“I shouted at you before you left!” Mrs. Weasley said, starting to sob. “It’s all I’ve been thinking about! What if You-Know-Who had got you, and the last thing I ever said to you was that you didn’t get enough O.W.L.s? Oh Fred . . . George . . .”

Witness that even as Rowling is paying off a previous set-up, she is also creating a new set-up for a later pay-off (even if it contains adverbs in speech attribution, which is a pet peeve of mine):

“What are you two up to?” said Mrs. Weasley sharply, her eyes on the twins. 
“Homework,” said Fred vaguely. (hate this "vaguely" as it adds nothing--MGN)
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re still on holiday,” said Mrs. Weasley. 
“Yeah, we’ve left it a bit late,” said George. 
“You’re not by any chance writing out a new order form, are you?” said Mrs. Weasley shrewdly. (I don't hate this "shrewdly," but we really don't need it--MGN) “You wouldn’t be thinking of re-starting Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, by any chance?” 
“Now, Mum,” said Fred, looking up at her, a pained look on his face. “If the Hogwarts Express crashed tomorrow, and George and I died, how would you feel to know that the last thing we ever heard from you was an unfounded accusation?” 
Everyone laughed, even Mrs. Weasley.

This final laugh is icing on the cake. Rowling has fully established both Mrs. Weasley and the twins as characters who leap off the page and she did it on both the micro and macro levels. These set-ups and pay-offs don't just move the story, they create character by showing us what's really important to Mrs. Weasley and her sons. On the micro level, the details about Mrs. Weasley's worry clock and the twin's joke shop order form establish who they are as set pieces, but only by seeing them tested and in action do we learn who they are as characters. 

One metaphor I might imagine for this book as a whole is a tapestry of some sort, woven with set-ups and pay-offs, each more satisfying than the last. This business with the twins and their mother was a short-spanned set-up and pay-off, and is not a major element of the story which is why it was cut out of the movie:) 

But there are longer stands. Remember, this is the book in which Ron and Harry are going to have their lover's quarell. But if Rowling waits until the big fight to show us Ron being a big jerk, there's a risk we not like Ron anymore and worse, we may not care about their fight. Therefore, Rowling plants the seeds of Ron's resentment of Harry and his money and popularity early, starting really in Chapter 7. She does in subtle ways:

There was a silence in which Ron fidgeted absentmindedly with a hole in his Chudley Cannons bedspread.

And not-so-subtle ways:

“Mum, you’ve given me Ginny’s new dress,” said Ron, handing it out to her. 
“Of course I haven’t,” said Mrs. Weasley. “That’s for you. Dress robes.” 
“What?” said Ron, looking horror-struck. 
“Dress robes!” repeated Mrs. Weasley. “It says on your school list that you’re supposed to have dress robes this year . . . robes for formal occasions.” 
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Ron in disbelief. “I’m not wearing that, no way.” 
“Everyone wears them, Ron!” said Mrs. Weasley crossly. “They’re all like that! Your father’s got some for smart parties!” 
“I’ll go starkers before I put that on,” said Ron stubbornly. 
“Don’t be so silly,” said Mrs. Weasley. “You’ve got to have dress robes, they’re on your list! I got some for Harry too . . . show him, Harry. . . .” 
In some trepidation, Harry opened the last parcel on his camp bed. It wasn’t as bad as he had expected, however; his dress robes didn’t have any lace on them at all — in fact, they were more or less the same as his school ones, except that they were bottle green instead of black. 
“I thought they’d bring out the color of your eyes, dear,” said Mrs. Weasley fondly. 
“Well, they’re okay!” said Ron angrily, looking at Harry’s robes. “Why couldn’t I have some like that?”
“Because . . . well, I had to get yours secondhand, and there wasn’t a lot of choice!” said Mrs. Weasley, flushing. 
Harry looked away. He would willingly have split all the money in his Gringotts vault with the Weasleys, but he knew they would never take it.

And that's all the review time I can carve out this week, Esteemed Reader. I've got to get back to running every direction, but it was nice to stop by and see you for a bit:) Let's do it again next week. 

Last Paragraph: “Why is everything I own rubbish?” said Ron furiously, striding across the room to unstick Pigwidgeon’s beak.

Monday, April 22, 2013

NINJA STUFF: How I Met my Agent (Part Two)

THIS WEEK IN NINJA-ING: Things are going to be slowing down a bit from here on out. I'm taking a short break from Book of the Week reviews, which means I'm also taking a break from author interviews. Why?

I've got a great idea for a new book and it's time for me to roll up my sleeves  And I've only got until the end of the year to finish it as that's when a little ninja is due to enter our lives (more to follow, I'm sure). This month we're moving and I've got a conference to attend all while taking on new responsibilities at my day job.

My priorities are shifting a bit, but don't you worry, Esteemed Reader. I'll still be here and I've still got some great interviews to share. We're just going to have to value quality over quantity and do more with fewer posts:)

Wednesday we're discussing Chapter 10 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Thursday we'll be joined by a surprise literary agent

Last time on Ninja Stuff: I revealed my literary agent is none other than Dr. Uwe Stender after he revealed it two weeks before in his guest post:) And I discussed what makes our "marriage" a great professional relationship in hopes of helping you think of who you might want to be your agent, Esteemed Reader.

And now, the thrilling conclusion...

Marriage is an extremely odd metaphor for the relationship between I and Dr. Uwe Stender. But as I said last week, marriage is the most commonly used metaphor for the writer/agent relationship and it's not entirely off base.

Today I'm going to tell you how I met my agent and the only similar experience to compare it to I can think of is meeting Mrs. Ninja. And after all, as I've entrusted Uwe with the submission of my writing, the only person I trust with a bigger piece of my heart is my wife. 

And make no mistake: I write with my whole heart. Every time a manuscript of mine goes on submission, it's like sending a child into the world, and Uwe is the only one I trust with the care of my heart's children.

The Ninja loves the ladies and I also like literary agents--that's why I continue to interview them every week even though I've already got my dream agent. I want you to find your dream agent, Esteemed Reader, because it's so awesome. These days the Ninja frequently stays home on a Friday night and plays 3DS instead of heading out to the clubs to meet the ladies and I write only one query for my newest manuscript, but it wasn't always the case. I used to be like all you loveless singles out there:)

Most of the advice I would give to a writer seeking literary representation is the same sort of advice I would give to someone seeking a marriage partner. You aren't going to find a partner playing 3DS at home (that comes later). You have to get out there, and the same is true for finding a literary agent. You can learn a lot about agents online through sites like this one, and even better yet, Literary Rambles. But ideally, you want to meet agents in person.

Don't tell me you can't. The Ninja lives in Nowhere, Indiana, and next month I'll be attending a conference with our old friends Linda Pratt and Kathi Apelt (I'll be writing more about it soon enough). I met Joanna Volpe at a conference here in Nowhere, Indiana years ago when she'd just become an agent and I'd just started this blog and we've been friends since (and she's given me some invaluable advice). Mary Kole has discussed my manuscript with me in person here in Nowhere, Indiana, as have Suzie Townsend and Amy Boggs

A good portion of the interviews I've amassed here are the result of meeting people at conferences. If you take nothing else from this post, take this: get out of your writing area and meet others. Agents and writers go to these conferences to meet other writers--be one of those writers they meet. And don't be this guy.

Uwe Stender was not the first or the only agent to offer me representation. I'm no Roald Dahl, however much I may want to be, but I've been at my craft for years and I've worked hard to create sell-able manuscripts. Put in your time, Esteemed Reader, learn your craft, and you'll get there, probably faster than I did. 

Fight through the initial bumps and eventually the "Dear Author" rejections become personal notes, some even offering revision suggestions (gold). I nearly cried when I got a personal note from an editor at Esquire telling me "I loved your story, but it's far too dirty for us." I didn't always write Middle Grade:)

Before I met Mrs. Ninja, I kissed some other girls (shocking, I know), and I proposed marriage to another (one of Mrs. Ninja's favorite stories). That lady went on to live a life very, very different than mine and I'm grateful every time I have occasion to think of her (not often) that we broke it off because I hadn't met Mrs Ninja. I didn't even know what love was until I met the right one. The first time Mrs. Ninja and I went out together, we didn't want to separate because when it's right, you can feel that rightness as an invisible force like gravity or magnetism. 

There was an agent I nearly signed with I've since come to be glad I didn't. The publishing world is a very small place and stories travel. Another agent seemed like the perfect fit as her stated "ideal story" was more or less my manuscript and I was certain we were meant to be... until I read lengthy articles she'd written on her love of my life-long enemy, Ayn Rand (Nooooo!!!!! Damn you, Rand!!!!). 

I met Uwe Stender at the Midwest Writer's Conference. It's by far one of my favorite memories because a lot of great stuff happened that weekend, like me hanging out with Marcus Sakey and Candace Fleming, two very awesome writers. The first night of the conference, during a meet-the-professionals session, I spotted Uwe Stender sitting alone at a table. It never ceases to amaze me how timid so many writers are and I never understand why so many come to conferences and then spend the weekend talking to the people they came with--why not just stay home and save money?

So I sat with Uwe. At the time, he wasn't looking for middle grade or young adult, and he told me that, so I relaxed. He was a rejection before I queried, but I still wanted to get him to face the 7 Questions. He showed me his email inbox and the queries he received--even rejecting a couple as we were talking! I learned more about the publishing world in that one conversation than I'd ever learned by reading books or blogs. And because I wasn't using my questions as a segue to my manuscript (don't act like you haven't done it), I was able to have an honest conversation.

Uwe and I laughed a lot and when I went home that night I remember telling Mrs. Ninja it was too bad that nice guy Uwe Stender wasn't looking for middle grade as he was my favorite person at the conference. Over the next two days of the conference I sat in on Uwe's sessions and talked with him more, never about me so much as about books and publishing. But I was focused on chatting with the agents looking for middle grade. I even remember being annoyed when he came over to talk with me as I was chatting up another agent and ham-handedly segueing to my brilliant writing. I think you call that book block:)

At the end of the conference, Uwe and I shook hands and I told him I hoped I'd see him at another conference because I just wanted to be his friend. He's a cool dude and refreshingly honest and direct. He told me to go ahead and send him a query and I figured "why not?" I got my interview for the blog and moved on to seeking other agents.

A short time later I got the rejection I anticipated, but you should always, always read the entire rejection. Uwe had written how much he liked the book, but wanted some important revisions I later made. At the end of his rejection, Uwe asked if I had any other projects, which I took to be a huge compliment. And Esteemed Reader, I always have other projects so I sent him one. 

In the meantime, the local economy tanked and the company I worked for decided to start firing employees for trumped up reasons rather than holding an honest lay-off. I watched all my friends get fired and then they came for me. The very day I had to come home and tell Mrs. Ninja I was going to have to quit to avoid being fired, I had an email from Uwe I nearly deleted without reading as I was in no mood for a rejection.

I so admire hard-line thinking like that of Richard Dawkins, Esteemed Reader, but I've seen too many strange signs and wonders in this short life of mine not to believe in something greater lurking behind the veil. Sooner or later I'll tell you about the others, but Uwe's email that day and phone call the next day helped me maintain sanity and gave me my biggest win when I most needed it. 

Uwe was more excited about my writing than I was at the time and our conversation the afternoon after the morning I'd left my office with a box of my personal belongings was surreal. Imagine, if you will, the deepest, most German voice ever saying to you "I love your story about the little girl. It made me cry." I had to put the phone down briefly to laugh. 

I've had other people say nice things about my writing before (it keeps me going), but I'd never heard someone so enthusiastic and excited about it. Uwe convinced me I would never find a greater ally for my work. More, I felt another version of that invisible "force of rightness" I don't feel often, but never ignore when I do (I seriously need to monitor my flakiness before I end up with magic crystals and chicken's blood in my writing area), and I made my decision to break off talks with other agents and sign with Uwe. 

How I wish I could tell you I signed with my agent and lived happily ever after, but it doesn't work like that. Having an agent doesn't stop editors rejecting you. But having Uwe in my corner has got me some amazing opportunities. And after a particularly close call, Uwe was more upset then I was and I felt I had to cheer him up:) Keep an eye on this blog, Esteemed Reader. Sooner or later you'll see a link appear to where you can buy my book. I believe that because Uwe Stender believes it and I believe in Uwe Stender.

And that's where we'll leave it. I hope you dug this story and maybe even found it useful. If not, I'll have another literary agent here for you on Thursday:)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Molly Ker Hawn

Molly Ker Hawn represents authors who write for the young adult and middle grade market. 

Here she is in her own words:
My time in the children's publishing industry has included editorial roles at Chronicle Books and Dial Books for Young Readers, early social media development for a major teen magazine, and serving as National Programs Director at the Children's Book Council, the trade association of American children's book publishers. I've also been a bookseller, and I'm a past board member of the United States Board on Books for Young People. 

I live in London and I work with authors and publishers both in the U.K. and the U.S. I've bounced back and forth from America to England since I was a teenager: I grew up in Northern California, lived for a time in the West Country, read English at Cambridge University, spent many years in New York City, and now live a stone's throw from the River Thames. 

I'm looking for young adult and middle grade fiction that's inventive, well-crafted, and rich with emotion, whether contemporary, historical, fantasy, sf, thriller, romance, or mystery. My favorite books have characters I wish I could talk to in worlds I wish I could visit, and I love stories that grab hold of me and keep me up reading long into the night.

For more information, check out my friends Natalie Aguirre and Casey McCormick's wonderful blog, Literary Rambles.
And now Molly Ker Hawn faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

WINTER'S TALE by Mark Helprin. I'd love to find a MG project with this much imagination and such a masterful voice.

A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth. He writes about families so engagingly -- again, I wonder if there's a MG book out there with that same affectionate humor.
THE GREY KING by Susan Cooper. I think it might be the perfect MG book: expertly drawn characters, finely tuned dramatic tension, and a vivid, impeccably researched setting. 

Looking at this list, I realize that each of these books is about place as much as its characters. WINTER'S TALE is as much a love letter to New York City as it is an epic fantasy; A SUITABLE BOY is a massive family saga but also a comprehensive lesson in the life and politics of post-partition India; THE GREY KING brings both modern and ancient Wales to life. That grounding in place is absolutely crucial for me.     

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows? 

I'm going to cheat and list 4:

1. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, for capturing a side of America we don't often see on television, and for constructing the most authentic-feeling characters I've ever seen on primetime.

2. The BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot, for sustaining that feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach over 75 episodes and asking such important questions.

3. ALMOST FAMOUS, for being brilliantly written and brilliantly cast, and satisfying my craving for stories about music and the different ways we love it.

4. And something historical -- I can't decide. The 2002 FORSYTE SAGA? The BBC adaptation of Mrs. Gaskell's NORTH AND SOUTH? MAD MEN? A Jane Austen adaptation? HOPE AND GLORY? I like being drawn into another time and getting a glimpse of how lives were lived in different periods, and how human nature is constant no matter what the era.

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client? 

My ideal client is a gifted writer with a strong work ethic, a resilient attitude, and a great sense of humor. This is a tough business, and when you sign with agent, the work is only just beginning. 

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for? 

I'm looking for intelligent, witty MG writing -- the kind that doesn't condescend -- that opens up a new world to the reader, whether real or imaginary. I'm a big fan of Jack Gantos's work, and I'm always thrilled when I get a submission that shares that kind of humor and big-heartedness. Gennifer Choldenko, Anne Ursu, and Neil Gaiman (among others) share those qualities.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

The excitement of discovering treasure in the slush pile never gets old! And helping to bring that treasure to an audience is so gratifying. On the other hand, I get so many submissions that aren't right for me, and it's frustrating that I don't have the time to explain exactly why when I decline them. Authors work so hard, and to have that work rejected with a quick form email must be so disheartening. I constantly find myself wishing for more hours in the day.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Finish your book. I get a lot of questions from writers that boil down to "Can you tell me whether or not I should keep working on this project?" -- but it's almost impossible to get a sense of a project's viability until it's completed. And by completed I mean fully drafted, read by critique partners or beta readers, revised, mulled over, and revised again. You owe it to yourself to make your project the best it can be before you send it out into the world; you need to give it its best chance of success. If you send off an incomplete manuscript or a rushed first draft, you're not doing justice to your work. 

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Ellen Raskin, whose masterpiece THE WESTING GAME has been a touchstone for me since I first read it in 1979. It's rare to find a writer with her kind of wit and inventiveness, but she was also a prolific illustrator and cover designer--I best she would have been great fun, and I'm sure she would have had some terrific tales to share about the publishing industry. I've yet to meet a fellow agent who doesn't appreciate a good bit of gossip! 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

7 Questions For: Author Charles Gilman

Charles Gilman is an alias of Jason Rekulak, an editor who lives in Philadelphia with his wife and children. When he's not dreaming up new tales of Lovecraft Middle School, he's biking along the fetid banks of Schuylkill river, in search of two-headed rats and other horrific beasts. 

His novels in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series include Professor Gargoyle, The Slither SistersSubstitute Creature, and Teacher's Pest.

Jason Rekulak is an Associate Publisher and Creative Director at Quirk Books. An alumnus of St. Martin’s Press and Quality Paperback Book Club, Jason Rekulak has acquired a number of Quirk favorites, including the international best seller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the smash sensation Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. When he’s not identifying Quirk's next big hit, he manages their spectacular team of book editors and designers.

And now Charles Gilman faces the 7 Questions:  

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I’ve been reading and re-reading The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl for more than twenty years, so that’s definitely near the top of my list.  Everyone knows about Dahl’s famous novels for children; fewer people remember that he wrote dozens of outrageous short stories for adults. Many were originally published in The New Yorker and quite a few were adapted for anthology-style TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The best ones usually begin with an outrageous or gruesome premise: A woman murders her husband with a leg of lamb; a scientist invents a machine that allows him to “hear” the voices of trees; and so forth.  I started reading these stories when I was 12 or 13 years old, and I’ve never grown tired of them. Two other books I’ve re-read many, many times are Holes by Louis Sachar and Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

I have a day job in book publishing that keeps me pretty busy from 8-6, and I spend a lot of that time reading and editing manuscripts by other authors.  When I’m working on the Lovecraft Middle School books, I probably log an additional 30 hours/week on nights and weekends writing and rewriting, which doesn’t leave me any time at all for additional reading.  It’s exhausting (and god bless my wife for putting up with me) but of course I love it.

When I’m not writing a book, I do a lot of reading for pleasure.  Probably 3-4 books a month on average.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

I‘ve worked in publishing since graduating college, so I’ve had easier access than a lot of other people.  If you want to make movies, move to Los Angeles.  If you want to publish fiction, move to New York (and, if you can afford to, get an entry-level job in a publishing house).

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you? 

I’ve been writing and making books for as long as I can remember.  I did a lot of copying and imitation all through elementary school.  In fifth grade, I was selling my comic books in the school cafeteria (each one was hand-copied on looseleaf).  I don’t know this means that I was born a writer (or born an editor?) but books and stories have been a life-long interest.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

Finding the whole story can be tough.  I usually sit down with a vague idea of where a story is going to go, and then discover the rest as I go along.  This discovery process can be very frustrating because I find that I have to explore a lot of dead-ends (and write a lot of wasted pages) to consider every opportunity.  I sort of have to think “on paper” which is not very efficient.  So I guess the beginning is my least favorite’s sort of like building a jigsaw puzzle, and I’m searching through all of these pieces, looking for the corners or the border.  It’s slow and tedious.  But as I move along, as more and more elements lock into place, I start to really enjoy the process — and my very favorite part is always the last draft, when I feel like every element of the story is finalized and I can focus on punching up language, punching up word choice, adding jokes, adding interesting details, all the actual ‘writing’ -- that’s a real treat.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Be careful when soliciting feedback.  If you’ve written the next Lord of the Rings, don’t mind the criticism of someone who’s never read Tolkien (or who doesn’t appreciate Tolkien).  You have to find readers who share your tastes and sensibilities.  Go find them on the internet, or (preferably) in real life. 

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why

I’m going to say Roger Ebert because he just passed away last week and I’m still feeling crummy about it.  I first discovered him more than 30 years ago — I was clicking the channels on an old black-and-white TV and discovered him reviewing the movie “E.T.” on his TV show, back when it was still on PBS.  I started watching him every week and turned into this weird 11-year-old Movie Geek.  I’ve been reading his reviews, books, essays, blogs, and tweets ever since.  Really terrific writer, really great human being.  I feel like I know him better than a lot of my friends.  I wish I could buy him lunch.


First Paragraph(s): Don’t tell your mother you’ve been gambling,” Mr. Weasley implored Fred and George as they all made their way slowly down the purple-carpeted stairs. 
“Don’t worry, Dad,” said Fred gleefully, “we’ve got big plans for this money. We don’t want it confiscated.” 
Mr. Weasley looked for a moment as though he was going to ask what these big plans were, but seemed to decide, upon reflection, that he didn’t want to know.

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. Have you seen the new Man of Steel trailer? It's pretty much my favorite thing in the world right now and I can't stop watching it. I'm putting it at the bottom of this post just in case you haven't seen it and also so I have a handy place to re-watch it. What's it have to do with Harry Potter? Nothing. I don't care how big this blog gets, I'm still going to be me, and that's a class-three dork:)

I've often read The Dark Mark is the chapter Rowling spent the most time revising. As I, alas, am not J.K. Rowling's critique partner, I couldn't tell you for sure.  I'd love to read her earlier drafts to see what didn't make the cut (and to assure me there were rough drafts and Rowling didn't simply take divine dictation). 

Something's amiss here in Chapter 9. See how Rowling builds suspense without actually revealing what's happening for another page or so:

Harry never knew whether or not he had actually dropped off to sleep — his fantasies of flying like Krum might well have slipped into actual dreams — all he knew was that, quite suddenly, Mr. Weasley was shouting. 
“Get up! Ron — Harry — come on now, get up, this is urgent!” 
Harry sat up quickly and the top of his head hit canvas. 
“’S’ matter?” he said. 
Dimly, he could tell that something was wrong. The noises in the campsite had changed. The singing had stopped. He could hear screams, and the sound of people running. He slipped down from the bunk and reached for his clothes, but Mr. Weasley, who had pulled on his jeans over his own pajamas, said, “No time, Harry — just grab a jacket and get outside — quickly!”

Rowling could've simply started the chapter with Harry running outside and beholding the wicked wizards up to terrible mischief. But where's the fun in that? If a girl wants to kiss a boy, she can grab his neck and plant one on him and that will accomplish the goal. But if she wants him to be more likely to kiss back, she should take him to dinner and talk with him and build rapport, count the smiles in their conversation, then lean in slow for the kiss. 

Rowling could've opened with the Death Eaters marching through the campground and causing a ruckus. A lesser writer would've, but Rowling knows how to build suspense. Death Eaters operating in the middle of the night makes sense as there's more than a little Klansmen about them. Also, having Harry wake up in the middle of the night, the ruckus having already started, puts him in a vulnerable position the reader has likely been in at one point or another--or maybe you've never awoken to something big going on around you. 

As Harry hears the sounds outside--and also, in the case of the singing, doesn't hear the sounds outside--he begins to worry and so does the reader. Harry worries because of the reactions of the other characters and so does the reader. By the time Harry goes outside he's nervous about what he's going to see and so is the reader. Rowling has got us ready to be kissed before she kisses us:)

Worth noting in the passage above is Harry sits up, paragraph break, he asks "S'matter?", paragraph break, and then he hears the noises outside. All three of these actions could've happened in the same paragraph, but Rowling breaks them up and I believe she does it to create more white space. 

I've written at length about this elsewhere, but I love white space and nothing punches up the page like shorter sentences that can be read faster, thusly turning pages faster. Also, having a just-woke-up Harry say "S'matter?" as opposed to the more correct, but less true-to-the-character "What is the matter?" further convinces the reader Harry really did just awaken.

As for the racists in masks, Rowling makes their threat clear by endangering one of the reader's favorite characters:

Ron told Malfoy to do something that Harry knew he would never have dared say in front of Mrs. Weasley.
“Language, Weasley,” said Malfoy, his pale eyes glittering. “Hadn’t you better be hurrying along, now? You wouldn’t like her spotted, would you?” 
He nodded at Hermione, and at the same moment, a blast like a bomb sounded from the campsite, and a flash of green light momentarily lit the trees around them. 
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Hermione defiantly. 
“Granger, they’re after Muggles,” said Malfoy. “D’you want to be showing off your knickers in midair? Because if you do, hang around . . . they’re moving this way, and it would give us all a laugh.” 
“Hermione’s a witch,” Harry snarled. 
“Have it your own way, Potter,” said Malfoy, grinning maliciously. “If you think they can’t spot a Mudblood, stay where you are.” 
“You watch your mouth!” shouted Ron. Everybody present knew that “Mudblood” was a very offensive term for a witch or wizard of Muggle parentage.

I love that Rowling has Ron and Harry swear and have lustful thoughts for girls, both appropriate things for boys their age, while keeping this book mostly MG friendly. It would be nice if kids disciplined themselves to read one Harry Potter book a year so that they would be old enough by the time they got to Book 7 for Rowling to unleash the full YA on them. But kid readers, like adult readers, will surely be unable to stop after just one Potter. 

In fact, one of the things I most admire about the Harry Potter series is that as soon as Rowling realized she had the attention of readers, she didn't squander it. She never quite halts the story completely to discuss larger real-world issues like slavery and racism, which, unfortunately, people still need reminding are bad (dude, seriously?). At no point do slavery and racism become the focus of the story, but Rowling makes sure she has her say on both these issues:

“You know, house-elves get a very raw deal!” said Hermione indignantly. “It’s slavery, that’s what it is! That Mr. Crouch made her go up to the top of the stadium, and she was terrified, and he’s got her bewitched so she can’t even run when they start trampling tents! Why doesn’t anyone do something about it?” 
“Well, the elves are happy, aren’t they?” Ron said. “You heard old Winky back at the match . . . ‘House-elves is not supposed to have fun’ . . . that’s what she likes, being bossed around. . . .” 
“It’s people like you, Ron,” Hermione began hotly, “who prop up rotten and unjust systems, just because they’re too lazy to —”

I've always suspected Rowling likes Hermione best. I'm certain Hermione Granger is very different than the actual younger J.K. Rowling, but they likely share the same DNA. But even if that weren't true, Hermione does come in handy when Rowling wants the reader to know something, be that thematic, as in the passage above, or more practical:

“Beauxbatons,” muttered Hermione. 
“Sorry?” said Harry. 
“They must go to Beauxbatons,” said Hermione. “You know . . . Beauxbatons Academy of Magic . . . I read about it in An Appraisal of Magical Education in Europe.” 
“Oh . . . yeah . . . right,” said Harry.

And that's going to do it, Esteemed Reader. I should maybe spend some time discussing Winky the house-elf being caught with Harry's wand after it's been used to conjure the dark mark in the sky--the batsignal for evil:) But the truth is I've always found that section belabored. 

Yes, it's important to implicate Barty Crouch in the reader's mind for what's coming later, but Mr. Crouch isn't interesting or likable  Also, although having Winky the house-elf involved seems a stretch as there's no practical need for her by the true culprit behind the dark mark. The only reason Winky's present is so Hermione can rail against the mistreatment of house-elves, and it feels forced. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is still a better book than any I'll ever write, which is why we'll back next week to discuss Chapter 10. Don't forget to check out that sweet Man of Steel trailer on your way out, Esteemed Reader:)

Last Paragraph: He thought of the letter he had written to Sirius before leaving Privet Drive. Would Sirius have gotten it yet? When would he reply? Harry lay looking up at the canvas, but no flying fantasies came to him now to ease him to sleep, and it was a long time after Charlie’s snores filled the tent that Harry finally dozed off.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book of the Week: PROFESSOR GARGOYLE by Charles Gilman

First Paragraph(s): Robert Arthur was surrounded by strangers. 
He stood outside the entrance to Lovecraft Middle School, watching the students pass by, searching for a familiar face. Everybody was talking to someone. Kids were joking and laughing and goofing around. But Robert didn’t recognize a single person. 
Earlier that summer, his neighborhood had been redistricted. This was a fancy way of saying that all of his old friends were attending Franklin Middle School, in the north part of town, but somehow Robert got stuck attending Lovecraft Middle School, in the south part of town.

Charles Gilman will be here Thursday to face the 7 Questions.

Do you like the scary books, Esteemed Reader? You know I do, which is why a scary book is two to three times as likely to be our Book of the Week. When I'm shopping for book, I'm two to three times as likely to buy a scary one and as a kid I was five to six times more likely. As you know, my favorite middle grade book of all time is Roald Dahl's The Witches

If younger me had discovered the extraordinary Professor Gargoyle, I have no doubt I would've torn through the entire series of Tales From Lovecraft Middle School. It has touches of Roald Dahl's sensibilities, some wonderfully scary moments, relatable characters, and grossness combined with humor. As an adult, I'm curious to read the next tale, but Gilman has crafted an excellent book designed to suck in young readers in to the full series--and it's not just that the covers of the books are really, really cool.

Professor Gargoyle is an excellent stand-alone tale, but it's an even better start to a series, laying the groundwork for all that is to follow. Series writers take note: though the ending of this book sets up Book Two perfectly and leaves the reader wanting to buy Book Two right then and there, Gilman also definitively concludes book one. By the end of Professor Gargoyle, Robert Arthur's first plot has been resolved, though the door is opened for the plots that are to follow. 

So what is Robert's plot? Well as you read in the first paragraph, he's starting at a brand new school due to redistricting. Having just been built, it's literally a brand new school. And on this first day this happens:

Finally Principal Slater stood up with oversized scissors and sliced the long green ribbon in half. At precisely that moment, the clouds turned gray and a low drum of thunder rolled across the sky. 
It was weird, Robert thought. Just one minute ago, it had been a perfectly pleasant and sunny day.

That can't be a good sign. Really, if you're headed anyplace with the name Lovecraft, you're probably screwed:) Even worse, Robert's not the only one starting at Lovecraft Middle School:

Robert glanced over his shoulder, peering up at the bleachers, scanning the faces. There must have been four hundred kids in the arena. He knew that, sooner or later, he’d have to recognize someone. 
And then he did. 
The worst possible someone. 
Oh, no. 
Robert immediately faced forward. 
But it was too late. He’d been spotted. 
“Hey, Robert! Is that you? Robert Arthur?” 
He couldn’t believe his rotten luck. Glenn Torkells? The one person he knew at Lovecraft Middle School—and it was Glenn Torkells? The bully who had tormented him for years? 
“Robert! I’m talking to you!” 
Definitely Glenn Torkells.

If you'll allow me a small spoiler: Glenn Torkells might not be all bad. It might just be he's the sort of character who, through events in the story, becomes a friend and sidekick to Robert for the series. If that were so, and you'll of course have to read the full book to verify, Esteemed Reader, wouldn't it be an interesting way to introduce the sidekick character? 

The problem with having your bully character turn friendly (if that happened) is you would need an immediate source of antagonism to take his place. And this is crucial: Gilman knows not to make the bully friendly until that secondary, soon to become primary, source of antagonism comes along in the form of Professor Garfield Goyle (get it?), a Snape-ish instructor with a hatred for rats, which is odd, considering his diet:

Goyle raised the hamster high above his head. The animal swung its paws wildly, desperate to scramble away, but Goyle’s grip was too strong. He opened his mouth, as though threatening to eat the animal. 
It was just a dumb, cruel stunt, Robert thought. The same kind of mean prank that Glenn Torkells seemed to enjoy. Goyle was just another bully. 
Then there was a hideous snapping sound, and the bottom half of Goyle’s jaw collapsed. It fell open like the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy, revealing sharp white fangs and a gaping black maw. Goyle lowered the hamster between his lips and swallowed it whole.

I just love how unapologetically gross Gilman allows himself to be. He has a great deal of fun with rodents, particularly of the two-headed variety, and this will not be a fun read for the squeamish -or certain young girls and sisters, which will no doubt make the book all the more palatable for young boys:)

Professor Goyle makes a fine foil for this story (yep, I did), but Gilman is planning for a whole series. I'm not going to give away all his secrets, but Lovecraft Middle School gives new meaning to the idea of recycled materials. What the boys soon learn is that they're in for a lot more trouble than just one hamster-munching professor:

“Once I saw this movie about a haunted house,” he explained. “It looked totally normal on the outside, but inside all this weird stuff kept happening. Stuffed animals floating around. The daughter got sucked into a television set. Finally they figured out the house was built on an old Native American burial ground. The spirits of all the dead bodies were trapped under the house, so they were rising up to haunt them.” 
“You think Lovecraft Middle School was built on an old graveyard?” 
“It’s possible, isn’t it?” 
Robert shrugged. “When you’ve got giant squids coming out of lockers, anything’s possible.”

Dude, I know that movie:) I'd like to thank Charles Gilman for not referring to it as an "old movie," though many younger readers will likely not have seen it. That's the nice thing about writing for children. Younger readers aren't as likely to have been desensitized by countless horror stories, and so the scares that won't faze hardened horror fans may keep them up at night. 

But even those kids whose parents let them stay up for The Walking Dead will enjoy Professor Gargoyle. Gilman's packed in plenty of scares into a good story, well told, and very well-paced. The book moves right along serving up amusing characters and thrusting them in harm's way, without ever dragging. 

And that's where we'll leave it, except that, as we'll learn Thursday, Charles Gilman is the pen name of Jason Rekulak, editor. Knowing that, I got a chuckle out of this passage:

An elderly woman with cat-eye glasses was demonstrating for the students how to use the e-readers. “These can be filled with downloaded books and checked out from the library—as long as you’re very careful with them, of course. Personally, I’m a little old-fashioned. I still prefer the feel of a real book with real pages. The best feeling in the world, if you ask me. But we have to embrace the future, don’t we, children?”

Indeed. I read my copy on a Kindle:) As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Professor Gargoyle:

Robert walked to his locker—A119—and entered the passcode he’d received in the mail. Each button made a satisfying chirp when he pressed it, and then the locker door opened with a gentle pneumatic whooooosh.

When he finally looked up again, the shelves seemed to have grown taller. It must have been a trick of the light—the tops of the shelves appeared to be leaning over him ever so slightly, like trees blocking out the sun.

“What is that?” Glenn yelled. 
“I warned you!” Karina said. 
“You told us scary spiders. You never said giant spiders!” 
“What’s the difference?!?”

He unfurled his glistening wings and they quivered with anticipation, spattering gooey mucus all over the classroom.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.