In the POSSESSION Posse ~ A New Writing Contest ~ A Q&A on Third Person Multiple POVs ~ Two Upcoming Conferences ~ New Books Out This Month, Edited by Me ~ Five Good Links ~ And a Cat Ensnared
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My brain has been busy with work editing and other writing this month, and try as I might, I could not put together an introductory essay for this newsletter that pleased me. So this is my favorite passage from my favorite novel, which speaks much more eloquently than I can right now about the experience and delectations of reading and writing:


It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex. Novels have their obligatory tour-de-force, the green-flecked gold omelette aux fines herbes, melting into buttery formlessness and tasting of summer, or the creamy human haunch, firm and warm, curved back to reveal a hot hollow, a crisping hair or two, the glimpsed sex. They do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading. There are obvious reasons for this, the most obvious being the regressive nature of the pleasure, a mise-en-abime even, where words draw attention to the power and delight of words, and so ad infinitum, thus making the imagination experience something papery and dry, narcissistic and yet disagreeably distanced, without the immediacy of sexual moisture or the scented garnet glow of good burgundy. And yet, natures such as Roland’s are at their most alert and heady when reading is violently yet steadily alive. (What an amazing word “heady” is, en passant, suggesting both acute sensuous pleasure and its opposite, the pleasure of the brain as opposed to the viscera—though each is implicated in the other, as we know very well, with both, when they are working.)

Think of this, as Roland thought of it, rereading The Garden of Proserpina for perhaps the twelfth, or maybe even the twentieth, time, a poem he “knew” in the sense that he had already experienced all its words, in their order, and also out of order, in memory, in selective quotation or misquotation—in the sense also, that he could predict, at times even recite, those words that were next to come, or more remotely approaching, the place where his mind rested, like clawed bird feet on twig. Think of this—that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone with each other. True, the writer may have been alone also with Spenser’s golden apples in the Faerie Queene, Proserpina’s garden, glistening bright among the place’s ashes and cinders, may have seen in his mind’s eye, apple of his eye, the golden fruit of the Primavera, may have seen Paradise Lost, in the garden where Eve recalled Pomona and Proserpina. He was alone when he wrote and he was not alone then, all those voices sang, the same words, golden apples, different words in different places, an Irish castle, an unseen cottage, elastic-walled and grey round blind eyes.

There are readings—of the same text—that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, which snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are—believe it—impersonal readings—where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.

Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark—readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge. 

Roland read, or reread, The Golden Apples, as though the words were living creatures or stones of fire. He saw the tree, the fruit, the fountain, the woman, the grass, the serpent, single and multifarious in form. He heard Ash’s voice, certainly his voice, his own unmistakable voice, and he heard the language moving around, weaving its own patterns, beyond the reach of any single human, writer or reader. He heard Vico saying that the first men were poets and the first words were names that were also things, and he heard his own strange, necessary, meaningless lists, made in Lincoln, and saw what they were. . . . 

. . . Tonight, he began to think of words, words came from some well in him, lists of words that arranged themselves into poems, “The Death Mask,” “The Fairfax Wall,” “A Number of Cats.” He could hear, or feel, or even almost see, the patterns made by a voice he didn’t yet know, but which was his own. The poems were not careful observations, nor yet incantations, nor yet reflections on life and death, though they had elements of all of these. He added another, “Cats’ Cradle,” as he saw he had things to say which he could say about the way shapes came and made themselves. Tomorrow he would buy a new notebook and write them down. Tonight he would write down enough, the mnemonics.

He had time to feel the strangeness of before and after; an hour ago there had been no poems, and now they came like rain and were real.


This is from A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which I first read as a sophomore English major at Carleton College. I take the book down and reread at least this passage every year, and often end up rereading most of the novel, because it is full of delights like this, beautifully written and coruscatingly intelligent. Part of the reason I love this passage is because I live it in reading it:  As my eyes approach the phrase “clawed bird feet on twig,” I know that phrase is coming up, that fluttering perfect union of thought and image, and I already feel a frisson of pleasure at its rightness. Then it arrives — oh — and on it goes to the next brilliant moment. (I have the same experience when I go to see a musical or Shakespeare play I know well and the show approaches one of my favorite songs or scenes or soliloquies: first “Here it comes, here it comes,” then “Here it is!”, and then mourning the end of the moment even as I’m luxuriating in it.) The on-rush of language embodies the sweep of emotion here, the pleasure of abandoning oneself to feeling in a text.

And because the text is so very intelligent and alive, I feel that way too as I read, noting how well Byatt uses color words (see “green-flecked golden omelette” and “grey little pronouns”), and how her sentences slow down and become shorter toward the end of the passage, as Roland returns to the real world. . . . The book actually makes me feel smarter. (And of course feeling smart is an additional delight.) Passages like these truly are like arias in operas, or showstoppers in musicals, where a writer can use all their gifts to draw us into their brains or worlds and make us live from word to word, sentence to sentence, breathing and feeling with the characters, alive to all that could happen. What are your favorite scenes or passages or moments like these in fiction? 

(And look:  The Byatt inspired me so much -- possessed me, indeed -- that I found something to say here.)

Write well,



Are you an unpublished writer of color with a draft of a book for children or young adults? You should submit it to the Lee & Low New Voices Award for picture-book manuscripts, or the Tu Books New Visions Award for middle-grade and YA novels. The winners of both contests receive a cash prize and a publication contract, and the chance to work with me and the other excellent editors at Lee & Low and Tu Books in publishing your work. The New Voices deadline is September 30, and New Visions submissions are open through October 31. For more details, click here.

Q&A of the Month

Q. in MG can two main characters share POV -- they're a team -- without alternating chapters? Equal but seamless? 

Yes, I think this is quite possible. When I thought about MG novels that do it, my mind went first to THE GREAT GREENE HEIST by Varian Johnson, which I edited, and which is always my go-to mentor text when talking about third-person multiple-perspective (as well as THE WESTING GAME, which was Varian’s mentor text for the book). But then the questioner added:

Maybe a better question is how to make omniscient as close as possible without committing infractions?

And I think the real answer here is, you need to have a strong third-person narrative voice — a voice that is in control enough, and distinct enough, that it can take us back and forth between the characters’ POVs without our ever feeling lost, because we trust the writer is in charge. The reason I originally took Possession down from my shelf was not to write out the passage above, but to look at how it handles this problem as the narrative camera shifts back and forth between Roland and his co-protagonist, Maud. For instance, here they are in separate rooms in a hotel by the sea:

He disposed himself for sleep. The sheets were white and felt slightly starched; he imagined that they smelled of fresh air and even the sea-salt. He moved down into their clean whiteness, scissoring his legs like a swimmer, abandoning himself to them, floating free. His unaccustomed muscles relaxed. He slept.

On the other side of the plaster-and-lath partition Maud closed The Great Ventriloquist with a snap. Like many biographies, she judged, this was as much about its author as its subject, and she did not find Mortimer Cropper’s company pleasant. 

I think we trust the narrative voice here first because it is so sharp and specific in the physical details — the whiteness of the sheets, the material of the partition — and that makes the world the characters inhabit feel real and believable to us, and the characters likewise. Then A. S. Byatt, the author, is very clear about whose head we’re in:  When Roland falls asleep, effectively shutting down his POV, she moves us with almost physical force into Maud’s perspective (literally taking us through the wall). She establishes this new POV with first a physical action — which gives us readers something to picture in our mental movies — then a thought that brings us into Maud’s head and lets us share her emotions. The efficiency with which all of this is done makes me feel like I am in good hands as a reader, so I don’t mind shifting from POV to POV, and the transitions are elegant and natural enough that I feel escorted rather than shoved.

So you should spend time studying Possession, The Great Greene Heist, The Westing Game, and other mentor texts to see how they handle these shifts. But more than that, try to develop your third-person voice to the point where it has enough authority to guide the reader from perspective to perspective, and a distinct rhythm to its thoughts and action, so that guidance feels natural (like it comes at the right moment) rather than artificial (like you're doing it for your own purposes rather than serving the reader and the story). Good luck! 

Upcoming Conferences Including Me!


Highlights Revision Retreat
August 5-9, 2017
Honesdale, Pennsylvania 
I'll drop in to discuss my peculiar revision methods
and how you can put them to work for you.


Novelists Inc. Conference (NINC)
October 4-8, 2017
St. Petersburg, Florida

Details to come.

New Books I Edited, Out Now

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN by Anne Sibley O'Brien. Donald Trump needs to read a lot of books, but of the three books in this month's roundup, he most ought to read THIS book. Then he would (a) be forced to sympathize with a girl and a person of color — Mia Andrews, our protagonist, an American twelve-year-old who was adopted from South Korea as a baby; (b) go inside North Korea with Mia, as she, her brother, and their aid-worker father travel there on a family vacation (or is it?); (c) experience real danger and hunger as Mia and her brother must flee cross-country to China after their father is arrested; and (d) learn a little something about the diversity, strength, and suffering of the people of North Korea, via written snapshots interspersed throughout the narrative. Annie grew up in South Korea, and she spent ten years off and on writing this book, as she describes here. And that effort paid off, as you can see in this excerpt of the book at Entertainment Weekly. It's a wonderful read even if you are not Donald Trump! (And I’m thankful you are not.)

INTO THE HURRICANE by Neil Connelly. After Neil's last YA novel, the lovely MIRACLE STEALER, we were discussing the book he should write next, and I asked for something that would build on his ability to do great action scenes. He reminded me that he spent nineteen years in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he weathered (ha) several hurricanes, and I said, "Yes, yes, yes, write about that!" So he crafted a story of both physical survival and spiritual renewal, as two teenagers with difficult pasts get caught up in a hurricane and fight their way out together. (For "a hurricane" there, read "encounters with the law, greedy religious zealots, innocent children, dead dads/sisters, one big ol' albino alligator, and, oh yeah, the storm.") It's as passionate, elegant, & exciting as I hoped from the original one-line pitch — as Michael Northrop called it, “a Category 5 adventure.”

THE TOO-SCARY STORY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia. This wasn’t intentional on either of our parts, I don’t think, but in every one of the five picture books of Bethanie's that I edited, her young protagonists toggle back and forth between the physical “real” world and the powerful “imaginary” worlds they create, in a manner that’s deeply affirming to the whole scope of children’s lives. This book anchors that toggling in a good-night story, as Daddy tells siblings Grace and Walter about a girl and boy walking through the shadowy woods at night. Grace demands more and more scares, while Walter wants nothing more than safety; and the resulting story seesaws back and forth between these poles to hilarious effect, while also managing to satisfy both camps in the end. It’s a great read-aloud that will please both your brave kids and your shy ones, and it promises to become a not-too-scary classic.


Agent Kate McKean on not getting her own writing done. "As it is my job to assist and support writers, I thought it might be helpful to provide a kind of reverse how-to guide—a how-not-to guide, if you will—so you can see that even literary agents make mistakes (and so you can try to avoid mine). Here, then, is an honest accounting of all the things I’m currently doing wrong."

What YA Gets Wrong about Teenagers, from a Teen. "Picture this. The teenage main character finds out a huge secret about the enemy fairy army / corrupt government / mysterious murder / sketchy biology teacher. They run to people with power. And then, just like that, they get to lead the resistance/investigation because obviously, they know what’s going on.

"Here’s the truth about being a teenager: NO ONE ACTUALLY LISTENS TO YOU EVER."

Jennifer Crusie on Design, Originality, and Craftsmanship. "Know your structure and the theme that pulls it all together; swing wide and high within the structure, no limits to your creativity; and then revise it to be tight and strong with beautifully clear syntax, no unnecessary words to clog up the works, no grammatical or punctuation errors to spoil a reader’s attachment to the narrative."

Teju Cole on Cultural Appropriation and Getting Others Right. "Sympathy is often not enough. It can be condescending. But taking on the identity of others, appropriating what is theirs, is invasive and frequently violent. I have heard appropriation defended on the grounds that we have a responsibility to tell one another’s stories and must be free to do so. This is a seductive but flawed argument."

I enjoyed all the ALA Youth Media Awards speeches, but especially Javaka Steptoe's quietly impassioned Caldecott Medal acceptance and his CSK Illustrator Award acceptance -- both very much worth your time. 

Finally, the Cat Picture of the Month.

The nice thing about being a cat is, if you ever find yourself in a cage of your own making -- like, say, a mesh laundry basket -- you can jump straight up and out again, as indeed Marley did right after this was taken. 
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