Not entirely in this order: The Klein Formula of Readerly Work ~ My recent change in employment ~ A brilliant new middle-grade novel and a free e-book ~ Some questions about writing across cultures ~ Five links ~ Upcoming appearances ~ And my handsome cat. 
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Dear |*FNAME*|,

Many years ago, I started playing with an idea I grandiosely called “the Klein Formula of Readerly Work.” This was a mathematical formula that would measure the mental effort involved in reading a specific novel, based not just on its vocabulary and diction, but on the reader’s ease in comprehending the story and connecting with the book. If I could put this together, I thought, it might be a useful way to scientifically delineate the difference between “easy” and “difficult” prose, or “commercial” and “literary” writing — say, Vince Flynn and Janet Evanovich vs. Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith. The resulting score wouldn’t be a value judgment, as one style of writing isn’t implicitly better than the other. But it would indicate the level of challenge a reader might expect from a novel at a particular moment in time. (Sometimes I want the richness of Colson Whitehead, and sometimes I want the directness of Courtney Milan.) And the formula could help me teach writers how to adjust their style for greater clarity or greater complexity, depending upon what an individual manuscript might need. 

When I went to work out the math, the easiest part of this was indeed accounting for vocabulary and diction. If we divided the total number of syllables in the sentence by the number of words in that sentence, “The cat sat on the mat” would have a KF score of 1, while “The feline lounged on the carpet” would earn an appropriately higher score of 1.33. “With a disdainful flick of its whiskers, the feline ensconced itself on the carpet” comes out to 1.67 — not just because of its length and vocabulary, but because every additional dependent or independent clause in the sentence should increase the overall score by .25, I decided. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” gets a KF score of 1.93 thanks to those two commas. (The presence of an emdash or internal parentheses is an automatic .375; a semicolon, a .5.) Apply that formula to, say, a representative thousand-word selection out of any novel, and you could get a decent textual-difficulty number.

So far, so straightforward — and precisely what reading-level programs like Lexiles and Guided Reading use rather more sophisticated methods to haruspicate. But then I tried to account for the other factors that make readers work to decipher novels, and it got stickier: 
  • The balance of action vs. introspection, or dramatized material vs. reflection. Action and dialogue are usually more exciting and easier to comprehend than long passages of reflection or narration, so perhaps I could count up all of the verbs and opening quotation marks within those thousand words and average them out. 
  • Frames of reference. “The Abyssinian luxuriated upon the Aubusson” is “The cat sat on the mat” in a high-end context. But how do you measure whether a reader would know “Aubusson”*? Or account for cultural cross-reading, where a white Midwestern reader might not get the references in, say, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or a non-gamer would be bewildered by Ready Player One? I guess we could take that thousand-word sample and have the reader count up the number of references that s/he didn’t understand in it, divide that by a thousand, and add the result to the total—but the selection of those thousand words would become very important here. 
* (As a side note, I first encountered the word “Aubusson” in The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough, my favorite novel when I was in high school; and “haruspicate” in “The Dry Salvages” by T. S. Eliot, still one of my favorite poems. I share this only to point out that the difficulty of a text—the new things we can learn from something unfamiliar—often actually increases our pleasure in it, rather than the reverse.)
  • Distance from the protagonist, either in terms of personal identification or emotional connection. Working off the commonly held hypothesis that readers find it more difficult to read about people who are unlike them, we could turn protagonist identification into a sub-formula that would spit out a number for use in the larger KFRW:  “Gender, race, class, historical period, religion, sexuality:  for every point where your answers differ from those of the novel’s protagonist, add .1” (let’s say). But I personally feel ten times more affection for Stephen Maturin (the half-Irish, half-Catalan hero of Patrick O’Brian’s marvelous Regency seafaring adventures) than I do for Carrie Bradshaw, who is, like me, a creative-class female writer in her 30s who lives in New York City; so it is much less “work” for me to read HMS Surprise than Sex and the City. Perhaps I could rank my emotional investment in the protagonist on a decimal scale of 0-1 (with 1 = the least investment) and add that to the total . . . But that takes the formula out of the measurable realm of fact and into the squooshy arena of feelings. 
  • The philosophical ideas within the text. Is a novel about the sweep of history — say, War and Peace — implicitly better or more difficult than one about individual moral and emotional development — say, Jane Eyre? How do we measure or account for that?  
  • The emotional intensity of the action. The horrors of slavery in The Underground Railroad, the concentration camps in Elie Wiesel’s Night, or the sexual trauma of The Handmaid's Tale all likely impose a greater degree of difficulty on the reader than, say, the emotional repression of the New York aristocrats in The Age of Innocence, or certainly the family dramedy of Beautiful Ruins. (And that traumatic effect could be redoubled if the reader has some personal identification with the protagonist.) How do we measure or account for that
Given these variables, and the many other factors I’m sure are missing here — not to mention, you know, math — I regret to say I wasn't able to compile all the elements of the Klein Formula into an actual equation. But it remains a fun thought experiment, and I share it with you for your own contemplation:  What makes a text easier or more difficult for you to read? What books have you struggled with, and why? What do you read when you want to relax? Turning the lens on your own writing, what degree of difficulty do you want in your current project, and how might you calibrate that? And if you’d like to take anything here and use it for the [Your Name Here] Literary Formula, please have at it, and let me know. 

Wishing you good luck with your writing this month,


Exciting news! As of March 1, I’ve started a new position as the editorial director of Lee & Low Books. We have open submissions, but also a very specific concept of what we publish, which you can see here. I miss my Scholastic friends and authors, but I’m also excited about the new opportunities and responsibilities in my new role, and I look forward to publishing some kickass books.
Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King. You might be familiar with A. S. King’s brilliant, sad, and funny YA books, including Please Ignore Vera Dietz and Still Life with Tornado. In her first middle-grade novel, she brings her talent for distinctive characters and unusual story concepts to a boy-meets-animal story like no other: the friendship that develops after 11-year-old Obe discovers a creature that eats only plastic. The result is both a deeply personal reflection on the land we care for and a gently political novel on the environment and consent -- a lovely and unusual book. (And it has three starred reviews!) Please check it out.
Upcoming Appearances

March 11 - JambaLAya SCBWI Conference
in New Orleans, Louisiana

March 23 - "Spine Out:  Writers Read Personal Essays"
at the Kraine Theater in the East Village.
(I'll be reading a brief personal reflection on religion, salvation, damnation, and books, alongside an impressive lineup of people I think of as "real writers.")  

April 8 - Kweli Color of Children's Literature Conference
in New York City
I'll moderate a panel and do critiques.

April 28-30 - Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference
in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Q's & A's of the Month
  • Is a YA novel set in south Africa in 1976 (soweto uprising) considered historical fiction? 

(I considered ending the Q&A here, but that would have been cheap, so here are a few more.)
  • If you have an age 12 main character, is there any benefit to specifying "upper" MG in query? Leeway in WC? Or is it overkill? 
I confess I’m not sure what “WC” means, but I do think “upper MG” is useful, simply because “middle-grade” as a category can encompass both a mass-market series designed for new readers and a sophisticated, elegant book starring a twelve-year-old, like The Girl Who Drank the Moon; and the more you can get a query-letter reader in the right headspace to read your book, the better it will go for you.  
  • I'm starting a new novel about a 15 year-old mixed-race girl. Any advice for a middle-aged, white guy to consider?
  • Is it (still?) OK to write about other races/cultures particularly in terms of their mythology if not #ownvoices?
I would refer both of you to Chapter 9 of The Magic Words, “Power and Attention,” where I address the topic of cross-cultural writing at considerable length. In the meantime, here are three excerpts of it  that might speak to your questions. 

... The goal for writers: Create complex characters whose lives, thoughts, feelings, and actions reflect both the groundwork they exist within and their own unique essences. 
In other words: Create real people, no matter what age they are, what culture they come out of, or when they lived. The reality of a character is rooted in her essence, as we discussed in [a previous chapter]. But a great deal of her essence will come from her groundwork—my term for the place, time, and cultures she lives in, and the power relationships among those cultures. Her groundwork will shape her postulates, behaviors, ethics, outward appearance, desires, and actions—indeed, every other aspect of her character—as it interacts with the essential qualities she was born with. It will also help determine her entire life philosophy, by giving her a sense of what is true, important, and possible for her within her time and cultures. To make your character real, you need to understand her groundwork as well as you know her essence.

This is important because, from an aesthetic perspective, it’s simply bad art to make characters who don’t seem real. This falsity can appear when a character’s essences or actions show no signs of the groundwork they come from: an eight-year-old who talks like a forty-year-old, or a Latino boy whose only indication of his heritage is what the text calls “skin the color of café con leche.” But it can also happen when you create characters who are only that groundwork, whose essences and actions are lost entirely in clichés of it: gay boys who mince and preen, or Victorian characters who are either poor but jolly strivers or overdressed sticks-in-the-mud. Either of these directions shows that you haven’t observed, imagined, researched, or thought enough about your characters and their reality yet, and you’ll need to go deeper and do better in revision.

... As noted earlier, when the topic of writing across cultures or groundworks comes up on panels or online, it often devolves into the question of “Who is allowed to write about whom”—whether a man can create a female protagonist, or a white person can create a protagonist of color. The answer is, everyone is allowed to write everything: There are no Writing Police who will break down your door and take you to Writer Jail the moment you daydream a story starring someone different from you. Moreover, if you’re writing a novel set in the ever more diverse contemporary United States, it ought to incorporate people with a wide range of groundworks, as otherwise it won’t reflect the reality your young readers see every day.

But while you can do whatever you want, you will not receive a Get Out of (Writer) Jail Free card for the end result. Writing a novel based in a cultural groundwork that’s not your own can necessitate a lot of work, over and above the work writing fiction already requires. You will likely be held to a higher standard of credibility than authors with that groundwork have to meet, and if you can’t achieve that standard, you may well get critiqued for it. If this seems unfair to you, and/or you aren’t up for doing the work, meeting that standard, or facing that possible critique, then it might be better not to try it at all.

That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth of the present climate in children’s and YA publishing, where we see intense demand both for more books that centralize marginalized cultures and people, and for more authority, empathy, and humility within those books when they are published. “Authority” means that the writer has either grown up in or demonstrated a long-term engagement with the culture portrayed in the book. (Research is a basic beginning here, but lived experience is vastly preferable.) “Empathy” means that the writer understands the realities, joys, and pain of that culture deeply, portrays its nuances within the book and the characters (so it’s more than a single story), and is on the side of the people of that culture in the face of the dominant powers—an alliance demonstrated through both the overt plot dynamics and the subtler intricacies of the writing. And “humility” means that the writer is aware of her power and responsibility in writing about this culture (especially if few portrayals of it exist), and she writes with honesty, thoughtfulness, and respect for that culture’s voices. Every writer, editor, critic, and reader sets their own standards for authority, empathy, and humility, which are often determined in part by their relationships to the culture shown in the book, and there is no method that will prove definitively to everyone that you possess these qualities. The best you can do is actually have them, and demonstrate them thoroughly in your writing.

... In her excellent essay “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation,” [acclaimed science-fiction writer] Nisi Shawl describes three categories of people who write about other cultures. (She credits Diantha Sprouse for originating this formulation.) The first category is Invaders, who “take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without think- ing anything that appears to them to be valueless. . . . Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.” The second is Tourists: “They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.” Finally, “Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.” (Writers do not get to decide whether they’re Guests.) Shawl continues:

When first learning about and incorporating aspects of another’s culture, then, we ought to act like the best of all possible Tourists: to stay alert and to be observant, watch for the ways our own background influences how we interpret our surroundings. We ought to remember that we have baggage. We ought to be prepared to pay for what we receive. . . . We ought to be honest about the fact that we’re outsiders. And since we’re in an unfamiliar setting, we shouldn’t be ashamed of occasionally feeling lost. We ought to swallow our pride at such times and ask for help, ask for directions.

In touring a new world, you’ll inevitably be confronted with the power relationships between cultures, and the history of dominant cultures invading and pillaging nondominant ones. Invaders assume all cultural material—historical experiences, artistic creations, religious and mythological systems—belongs to anyone who becomes aware of it, and it is all fair game for their own work. This attitude leads to cultural appropriation—the act of taking cultural property that belongs to a group with less power and using it for an Invader’s own ends. (It’s analogous to stealing a culture’s copyright.) When an Invader appropriates that property, it often gets stripped of the layers of meaning, ritual, pain, emotional effect, and accumulated experience that an insider would see in it; or worse, the Invader steals that effect and meaning as well, to lend to their own work a depth it otherwise would not achieve. Writers should tread carefully here, and consider the idea that some things don’t belong to them or are not for them to write about.

Have a Q you'd like to have A'd in a future newsletter? Please send questions about writing or publishing to me at

“Openly, Honestly” by Bill Konigsberg. If you read Openly Straight and wondered what happened to Rafe and Ben; if you want to see the brain of a New York extrovert writing as a New England introvert; if you’re excited for the forthcoming companion to Openly Straight, called Honestly Ben (out March 28! three starred reviews!); or if you just like free stuff, then you should check out this charming short story that charts one significant day in the lives of both boys, between the climax of one novel and the beginning of the next. You can find it — again, for free! — at the download links here

George Saunders on "What Writers Really Do When They Write" is humane and heartening. 

"The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious
and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” –
funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue,
both wiser and more entertaining.

And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual."

I was quoted in a Washington Post article on sensitivity readers a few weeks ago, along with many other wise people, including Dhonielle Clayton, Kate Messner, and Jenn Baker. (Fun followup: Afterward I got an e-mail from a producer for The Tucker Carlson Show asking me to discuss the topic on the air. I said no, because (a) I was on vacation in California at the time and (b) I am not a fool.) 

Jenn de Leon offers a wonderful writeup of the 2016 Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference, mentioned above. You should also check out our [siren emoji! fire emoji! 100 emoji!] faculty for this year's conference, and register here

The insights in this article on the NPR website on what’s wrong with many intern cover letters also applies to query letters. 

Do you know about Manuscript Wishlist? It's an excellent all-in-one site where agents and some editors lay out what they're looking for, the better to connect with writers. I find it useful myself. 
Last but not least:  The Roonster! This is actually my parents' cat, Rooney. He's more than ten years old, with a diva attitude to match his long hair . . . and a tail that looks suspiciously like a certain president's hair implants. But he's a sweetheart still. 
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