Dear <<First Name>>,
Thank you for once again opening up this newsletter! We have two Q&As this month; some new books I've edited; a reflection on a heady writing experience; six links; and a cat picture. Let me know what you think, and kindly spread the word or forward this on if you enjoy it.
Thanks, and happy writing!
Q&As of the Month: Using Freelance Editors, and Chapter Books vs. Early Middle-Grade
Anyone who preorders The Magic Words can e-mail a question to firstname.lastname@example.org with proof of purchase, and I'll answer said question here or on my website (which has a new look! Check it out: cherylklein.com). This month’s first question comes from H.G.:
I've secured a promise for a narrative non-fiction MG story going live on PBS (yes! I know; this is a a very public website) with permission granted by the people involved in the documentary. There is no money involved, however the publicity will be priceless.
I have a regular critique group, and a writer's retreat coming up, but how do I take this story to the polished published stage without having access to the regular agent: editor team connections for a traditional book? Would it behoove me to pay for an editor's time? If so, how do I choose who it should be? I'd really like to avoid career-wrecking regrets.
Well, “polished published" to me means that you've written this (1) in a way that optimally serves the material, its publication venue, and the reader's understanding of it, (2) and in your very best prose, and (3) you’ve then had the manuscript fact-checked and copyedited, so It has the most professional presentation possible. If you don't feel your critique group is able to help you accomplish (1) and (2) to your satisfaction, then a freelance editor can certainly give you feedback and advice. Their websites outline the services they offer and their particular specialties, and most will take a brief look at your material and tell you if and how their skills can be of service to your project. You can then judge from their feedback whether you want to hire them for the full work. Here are some friends of mine who have in-house publishing experience and now offer freelance editorial services specifically for children’s and YA publishing:
Emma Dryden | Harold Underdown | Eileen Robinson | Catherine Frank | Anagram Editorial | Jen Arena
If you just need fact-checking and copyediting, you might try the Editorial Freelancer’s Association or the Galleycat Freelance Editor Directory.
All of that said, I urge you to keep this opportunity in perspective. This will give you a nice listing in your writing CV, for sure, and the experience of writing on a topic that interests you for a well-respected venue — all good things. But unless you plagiarize, falsify information, or otherwise violate the code of writerly ethics in egregious form, it is unlikely to lead to “career-wrecking regrets” . . . simply because the web is very wide, careers are very long, and most editors will hear about this directly from you, rather than discovering it on the PBS website. I’m guessing you want to get to a point where you receive not just exposure, but money or some other solid reimbursement for your work. Take this great experience and the credit, and then spend those resources on something that will get you paid.
And L. B. asks:
As you see it, what is the difference between chapter books and early middle-grade novels? Do you even see this as a useful distinction for writers?
I expect a chapter book to be (1) written with some consideration for the developing reading skills of the target audience; (2) illustrated (almost always by an artist other than the author); and usually (3) part of a series, as developing readers enjoy reading about continuing characters. An early middle-grade novel does not carry any of those responsibilities. This matters to writers insofar as the terms of your pitch (in a query letter or some other form) change an editor's or agent's expectations for the project and what it should accomplish, and it matters in publishing insofar as some retailers have special sections just for chapter books. (Other retailers group them with middle-grade.) Readers of this age, however, are always just looking for a good story. Write that first, and then depending upon your feelings re: (1)-(3) above, pitch it accordingly.
Four Books to Watch For
Out this month from Arthur A. Levine Books:
The Spelling Bee Scuffle by Lindsay Eyre, illustrated by Sydney Hanson. Sylvie Scruggs, the heroine of this chapter book series, lives out one of my favorite maxims about characters: They should DO THINGS. And lord, Sylvie DOES, whether it’s stealing her enemy’s ferrets (The Best Friend Battle), sabotaging an ice-hockey rival (The Mean Girl Meltdown), or getting into bets she really, really shouldn’t make, as here. The books are wonderfully character-driven and true to their character’s ages, and if you do not laugh out loud in reading them, my condolences on the death of your sense of humor.
The Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy. This action-packed and provocative trilogy about the Second American Civil War began with Divided We Fall, traced the ravages of a Burning Nation, and now comes to its conclusion in this third volume. No other series in young-adult fiction looks more closely at the political realities of the present moment in the United States, and the questions of how we as citizens are to engage with those realities . . . or feels more frighteningly real and plausible in light of current events.
I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, illustrated by Kali Ciesmeier — now in paperback, with a new cover! Two best friends create a comic-book princess together; one of them dies; years later, the other sees the princess on a sticker, and realizes her friend might live. Booklist said it best in its starred review (one of three the book received): “Interspersed with Ciesemier’s webcomic-style illustrations, Priest’s YA debut is an engrossing cyberthriller packed with a puzzling mystery, crackerjack detective work, and an eerie, atmospheric sense of place.”
Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel by Megan Morrison — also in paperback! If you love Harry Potter and fairy tales, you should check out this series, which take the dynamics of the fairy tales as a leaping-off point for the Rowlingesque world of Tyme and carefully woven plotting, all woven through with a humor and character growth that is entirely Meg’s own. It’s delightful, immersive, and brilliant, and the companion book, Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella, will be out in the fall.
In Which I Write a Poem, and It Changes All the Writing I Do.
Last week, on the last day of National Poetry Month, I published a poem. By “published,” I mean I put it on Facebook; and by “poem,” I mean a brief reflection in which the sound, rhythms, and imagery of the language contributed something extra to the sense of it. (Would you have a different definition of a poem? I'd love to hear it.) Both the creation and the publishing of the poem were deeply unusual for me, because I am neither a very good nor a very frequent poet, and I normally don’t feel the need to advertise that fact.
But I really liked my poem. It started in the fall of 2014, when I boarded an empty subway train near my apartment in Brooklyn. Nobody else got into the car with me, and when the doors shut and we rumbled off, it created a peculiar exhilaration at my lonely state — the freedom and strangeness of possessing a public space entirely for my private enjoyment. A sentence popped into my brain, with a debt to Mr. T: “I pity the people / who do not know / the joy of a subway car / all to themselves.”
And it grew from there: words, syllables, pauses tapped into my phone to try to capture that exhilaration. I played with consonance and assonance, line breaks and litotes. Slowly, a narrative took shape, and my narrative analysis training kicked in; what was the emotion here moment by moment? Where was the climax, and was it right? I contemplated problems to solve: If I needed a silence at the end of one stanza, could I achieve that best with a colon or an emdash? I read through the text over and over in my free time, adding a comma here, tweaking a phrase there. . . . I hadn’t been taken over by writing like this for a long time, and it felt a little like a sickness, a little like being in love.
The entire experience reminded me of something the writing guru Brenda Ueland says:
I tell you all this because it is the way you are to feel when you are writing—happy, truthful and free, with that wonderful contented absorption of a child stringing beads in kindergarten. With complete self-trust. Because you are a human being all you have to do is to get out truthfully what is in you and it will be interesting, it will be good. Salable? I don’t know. But that is not the thing to think of—for a long time anyway.
If you’ve been around the writing world long enough to be cynical about it, like me, you might have just harrumphed at the innocence of that “happy, truthful, and free.” We’re in a highly competitive publishing environment where every word is under pressure to grab the reader’s attention and justify payment for it. This is work; who gets to be happy in it? And isn’t the requirement of happiness just another form of pressure?
And yet I was intensely happy writing my poem. The composition of it did absorb and content me, hold me in a place where I was just a mind, heart, and ears, and as I lived in the feedback loop among those inputs, minutes could pass in a blink. Just as Ms. Ueland says, writing the poem felt very much like playing with Legos, building my little poem one word-brick at a time; and now, when I think of how I want to feel when I’m writing, I want to return to that constructive state. I wrote my poem for the lowest possible stakes: There was no deadline, no money involved, no reputation to lose, no publisher advance to earn back, no editor, critics, or audience who would ever comment unless I wanted to give them that opportunity. (No judgment, in short, which can always be paralyzing.) But the experience also represented— not the highest, but maybe the best stakes: my own pride, pleasure, and joy in my work, one word, one brick at a time.
Lastly — and I do not know if this would be true for most writers — because I liked my poem and the writing of it so much, I didn’t care what other people thought of it. I showed it to a couple of friends who made editorial suggestions, and I considered and then mostly ignored their ideas. I submitted it to a few poetry journals, and it did not meet their needs at that time, apparently — which news I received with first indignation and then acceptance, since, if I’m honest, it’s more of a cheerful poem than a deep one, and publication wasn’t really my need either. My identity is not bound up in being a poet; I’m fortunate that my income is not dependent on it; and it still made me happy no matter what. When I put it on Facebook, people “liked” it, even without the quote marks; and that was enough.
If there is any lesson in this for people who are not me: If you’re feeling burnt out on your current writing project or the publishing world, find something that lets you play. Choose a form you don’t presently write, or one in which you never intend to work professionally, to take away the pressure of being good at it and even a secret goal of publication. Poems or picture books can be excellent experiments, because they’re short and all about language. Fan fiction removes the responsibility of making up a world, and just lets you dig in a beloved sandbox. Indulge yourself with story; marinate in syllables; pretend to be some other writer or a kid again, and see what happens.
The Linkin' Log
Dear Sugar Advice Column #48. Before Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, was known as “Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild,” she was Sugar, an advice columnist for the Rumpus. Her fierce, tender, and wise answers to all manner of questions constitute a refresher course in being honest and human (the columns are collected in the book Tiny Beautiful Things), and I often find myself revisiting this piece especially: “Write like a Motherf*****.”
The Three Levels of Dialogue. Douglas Sunger offers real talk with many smart examples and exercises for developing writers.
Rattle. My poem did one other concrete thing for me: When I decided I wanted to submit the poem, I researched poetry magazines, and discovered Rattle. Rattle is both a print magazine and a website that offers a poem every day via e-mail, and the Sunday poem is always a reflection on a news topic that came up the previous week. The range of poems, forms, and poets is spectacularly wide and diverse, and like modern art, even if I don’t like all of it, it’s wonderfully instructive and inspiring just to see the range of ideas and practice.
Race, Art, and Essentialism. This lovely, thoughtful essay by George Packer has much to say about our current discussions of diversity, who can write what, and what ultimately matters in art.
How much does it cost to self-publish a book? The self-publishing service Reedsy put together an illuminating infographic based on data from their marketplace.
And one bonus recommendation: In my last e-mail, I recommended the honest, daring, hilarious Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the CW, and for a limited time, you can get the entire season on iTunes for free.
A picture of the Marlster!
Finally, as a reward for reading this far: Here is Marley in repose. May you all be as happy as a cat in the sunshine this coming month.