Thursday, April 18, 2013
Publishing Perspectives is a blog series I started that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.
Today I'm happy to welcome picturebook and middle grade author Nancy Viau to the series, and to the blog. Last October when I attended the Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference at Rosemont College, I heard Nancy speak on a Writing for Children and Young Adults panel. I remember nodding along vigorously and thinking, "This lady really knows what she's talking about." I recently reached out to Nancy and she generously agreed to this interview. Thanks Nancy!
I took the experiences of my four kids, mixed them in with those of kids I observed in stores, schools, and on playgrounds, added in a little of young Nancy Viau (my brother will tell you I was loud), and tweaked everything together to create Samantha. A lot of Sam’s spunk comes from the fact that she’s a work-in-progress, and readers connect with that.
I read somewhere that you were initially dead set on writing picture books until a critique partner suggested you write for an older audience (This is the story of my life by the way). You've said that you "dabbled" in writing a chapter book and Samantha Hansen was born. What would you say to children's writers who are trying to figure out where they fit?
I would ask, “What kind of writing do you enjoy the most?” In order to answer that, you may have to experiment. Try writing poetry and prose—everything from adult mystery to teen romance, picture books to chapter books. Send submissions out and get feedback from editors. They’ll tell you if your writing sounds too old for middle grade, too young for YA, etc.
You glean inspiration from nature and it's a theme that runs through your work. Did you have a conscious moment when you realized you wanted to write stories with nature themes, or did it just sort of happen?
Sort of both. Take cookies, for example. They are in the pantry and since I (consciously) love them, I’ll eat a bunch. It just happens. Nature is all around, and since I’m an outdoorsy person who loves science and the natural world, I can’t help but write about it.
Look What I Can Do!, released earlier this year, is your first picture book. What new or surprising skills has writing in this genre/format added to your repertoire?
I’m surprised that I can write a story that makes sense using less than 200 words!
And your second picture book, Storm Song, was released just this Tuesday. Congrats! I haven't read it yet, but I already love it since I love anything to do with rain. Can you tell us what the book is about? Also how long did it take you to write the first draft?
Storm Song is filled with onomatopoeia that describes the beginning, middle, and end of a thunderstorm. The underlying theme is that storms are really very musical, and I thought that if I could get kids to see this, maybe they wouldn’t be frightened when a big storm looms over the hill. In the story, the family spends quality time together and even the dog relaxes a bit. The first draft took six months to a year. I’d work on it, put it aside, and then go back to it.
You managed to get an offer for Look What I Can Do! from Abrams while you were still unagented. Many writers wouldn't dare venture into that territory. What's your advice?
The one proactive thing writers can do is to go to conferences and meet editors. Pick editors’ brains; find out what’s on their Wish List.
I was browsing the Where's Nancy? page on your website. You make a lot of appearances! What's the secret to a great author event, be it a book launch, meet and greet, book signing, or author visit?
1. Be prepared. Practice what you will do or say. 2. Stay in touch with the organizer of the event so there are no surprises on either end. 3. Be on time. 4. Show up with a smile and an energetic attitude (even if the traffic was horrendous, your kid got sick at the last minute, the hotel had bedbugs, or the parking garage was full). 5. Put the audience first and be grateful they have come to listen to you.
You're represented by Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary. What would you say is the most important thing you've learned about working with an agent?
It’s really hard to find the right fit—someone who is your business partner and advocate; someone who understands and respects your passion and the fact that you are not perfect; someone who sees value in your writing and your ambition. What I’ve learned is that you don’t settle for an agent who offers anything less.
You started the KidLit Authors Club which brings together published children's book authors from from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and surrounding states. What, for you, has been the most rewarding aspect of running this group?
Oooh, where to begin…? There are so many rewards! The best part is that, given any moment of the day, I am surrounded by people who have a common goal—getting the word out about our books. We share info and opportunities without hesitation, and it’s that team spirit that has led to our success.
And lastly, what's the most fun or rewarding thing (or both) about being a children's author?
I can act like a kid and no one can say it’s not part of my job.
Look What I Can Do! (Picture Book/Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013), Storm Song (Picture Book/Amazon Children’s Publishing/formerly Marshall Cavendish Children’s, 2013), and Samantha Hansen Has Rocks In Her Head (Middle-Grade Novel/Amulet Books, 2008). Her stories, poems, and activities appear in Highlights, Highlights High Five, Ladybug, Babybug, and many other magazines. She is a member of The Authors Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and The KidLit Authors Club—a regional marketing group she started that consists of published authors who bring interactive book parties to bookstores, libraries, festivals, and conferences. You can follow her on Twitter at @NancyViau1.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
If you want to succeed in this field, it's important to know the standard genres and formats associated with books for children and young people. This is crucial information both for the purposes of writing your story, and for submitting your manuscript to agents and publishers. When you query a literary agent for example, you need to include the book genre and format in your query letter. The last thing you want to do is come across as an amateur who doesn't know their stuff. Below is everything you need to know to use children's-book-format-speak with ease. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know if you have any questions.
Board books are also small in size and typically (although not always) square-shaped– the standard size being 6×6 inches – making them easy for the small hands of very young children to handle. The length varies, but 12 pages is typical and 300 words or less is usually what publishers require (in terms of your manuscript, think one-half to one page). Board books can have a single word on each page, or a few very simple sentences.
Since these books are for pre-emergent readers (babies and toddlers who are just beginning to grasp the basic concepts of books, letters, and print) and early emergent readers, they have very simple subject matter and basic plots. Many of them teach early learning concepts, like the alphabet, numbers, or colors. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, fingerplays, or wordless books are typical for this format. The illustrations in board books emphasize bright, colorful imagery to engage tots.
The pages of board books often have die-cut rounded corners, or may be shape trimmed with a special die cut. Board books can also have special/novelty features to engage very young children, e.g. lift-the flaps, "touch and feel", finger tabs, pop-ups, or books that make sounds. The vast majority of board books are printed and produced in China and Mexico.
The number of pages in a picturebook is always a multiple of 8. So 16, 24, 32, 40, or 48 pages; however the standard picturebook length is 32 pages. Why multiples of 8? Well, it has to do with a technical aspect of book bindery, namely, the fact that the pages of books are printed as signatures. This means the picturebook is actually printed on a single, large sheet of paper which is then folded and gathered to create the pages of the book. In terms of size, 8x10 inches (vertical book) is the most popular pictureook size. Other standard sizes used by traditional publishers include 8x8 inches (square book) and 10x8 inches (horizontal book).
Picturebooks are so called because the illustrations dominate the text or are as important. In fact, the hallmark of a good picturebook is that the illustrations and the text accompany and complement each other to the extent that the text would be incomplete without the illustrations, i.e. the pictures play an equally important role as the text in telling the story. It is not uncommon for every single page of a pictureook to be illustrated. Picturebooks are illustrated using a wide rage of media, from water color, acrylic, and color pencils to collage, photography, and digital illustration.
Picturebooks cover an almost endless array of topics and are written in different styles. They require simple, linear plots, i.e. no sub plots or complicated narrative twists. They also require one main character who embodies the child's feelings, concerns and point of view (usually a child or animal character; however, an adult protagonist that children can sympathize with can work as well (An example of this is the picturebook, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead). There are many types of picturebooks such as rhyming, rebus, multicultural, wordless, concept, and post-modern picturebooks (the categories can overlap of course). Another type of picturebook is the picture storybook which I describe next.
Another main difference between picturebooks and picture storybooks is the way they are illustrated. Above I explained that picturebooks rely heavily on the illustrations to tell the story. With picture storybooks, the illustrations aren't really integral to the story, but rather, serve the purpose of holding the child's attention. Often, with picture storybooks, the illustrations appear on every other page.
Some publishers use the term "picturebook" to refer to both picturebooks and picture storybooks. This is where people can get confused because they may have read on one publisher's website that picturebooks should be no more than 500, 600 or 900 words, while other publishers state that they accept picturebooks up to 1,000, 1,500 or even 2,000 words. Just remember that publishers who say they accept "picturebooks" longer than 900 words are using the term "picturebook" broadly or interchangeably to include both picturebooks and picture storybooks. Your picture storybook manuscript should be around 6 pages long, and certainly keep it under 9 pages. Shorter is better than longer.
Rebus books aren't usually included in the round-ups of children's book formats I've seen online which is why I'm including them here. Rebus books are a type of picturebook where pictures are used to represent certain phrases, words or parts of words (syllables). These word substitution books are great for getting children engaged in reading. Rebus books also allow children to "read" and understand a story that might have been beyond their reading level if text alone was used. Furthermore, rebus books are valuable for helping children understand a key reading principle, i.e., that words represent concepts.
If you are submitting a rebus story manuscript to a publisher, you can underline or highlight the words you think would make good pictures. Or you can simply send the full text of the story and the editor will pick which words to illustrate. Check to see what the publisher requires.
Easy readers, also called "beginning reader" and "easy-to-read" books, are books for children aged 6 to 8 who are just beginning to read on their own. They have 2 to 5 sentences per page and if they have chapters, the chapters are short (1 to 2 pages). Easy readers have very simple and somewhat predictable storylines, controlled vocabulary, and are grammatically simple. The story is told mainly through dialogue and action with very little description of characters or the setting. In terms of subject matter, easy readers cover themes and topics that children can easily relate to such as family, friends, pets, school, holidays, sports, being left out, first day of school etc.
Much in the same fashion as picture storybooks, easy readers have color illustrations on every page or double page that are included merely to hold the child's interest (i.e., the illustrations are not crucial to the story.) Easy readers are meant to be a stepping stone to longer chapter books; as such, they have a small trim size compared to picturebooks or picture storybooks making the format more "grown up", and they are usually soft cover.
Easy readers have different lengths depending on the publisher. They can be as short as 200 words or as long as 3,500 words (although most easy readers are in the 1,000 to 2,000 word range). That means anywhere from 32 to 64 book pages. Easy readers are commonly used in Kindergarten through 3rd grade classrooms for reading instruction. Many publishing houses have their own brand of easy readers with numbers or letters to indicate different reading levels.
Compared to easy readers, chapter books are meatier, with more complex sentences and plot development, however paragraphs are still short (2 to 4 sentences). They also tend to be character-driven stories. Many chapter books use hooks at the end of the chapter that compel the reader to keep reading. In terms of length, again, this varies from publisher to publisher, however the average range is 4,000 to 12,000 words. Your chapter book manuscript should be 40 to 60 pages. Chapter books may or may not be illustrated; when they are illustrated the illustrations are black and white.
Novels for young people fall into two categories: middle grade novels and young adult novels ("YA novels"). Both middle grade and young adult novels cover a wide range of genres from speculative fiction and fantasy, to historical fiction, science fiction and more.
Middle grade novels (also known as "children's novels") are novels for children's ages 8 to 12. These books are also sometimes marketed as "tween" or "pre-teen" books. The fiction ones can be anywhere from 25,000 to 45,000 words long. The vast majority of published middle grade fiction novels have 35,000 to 45,000 words, however you'll see longer word counts for fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction middle grade novels (think Harry Potter). When writing a middle grade fiction novel, aim for 100 to 150 manuscript pages. With non-fiction middle grade novels on the other hand, word counts vary a lot (from as short as 5,000 words to as long as 100,000 words) depending on what different publishers are looking for.
Compared to chapter books, middle grade novels have longer chapters, more sophisticated themes, and more complex plots (i.e., sub plots, secondary characters etc.) Middle grade novels typically aren't illustrated; however, some stylistic middle grade novels have illustrations every few pages (These are known as "illustrated books", an example being The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman). Some of the most popular middle grade novels are published as a series with each book featuring the same cast of recurring characters.
Young adult novels are books for teens ages 12 and up. These novels can be anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 words long, although YA novels in the paranormal, fantasy, sci-fi or historical genres can be longer, sometimes as long as 120,000 words. The safest bet is to stay below 100,000 words. That's 130 to 200 manuscript pages. By definition, in YA novels the main character, and usually most of the secondary characters, are teenagers. The content and plots of young adult novels can be quite sophisticated, however these books always address themes and issues that are relevant to contemporary teens (self-discovery, dating and sexuality, coming-of-age, death, substance abuse, school violence, etc.)
Short story collection/Anthology
Generally speaking, publishers are not interested in short story collections or anthologies for children and teens unless they are written by already established authors. The short stories may be by one author (a collection) or by different authors (an anthology). All the stories in a collection or anthology are at roughly the same reading level and target a particular audience/age group. Often, the stories will share a common setting or theme, e.g. bullying.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
|Zetta Elliott, PhD|
Today, I'm honored to welcome Dr. Zetta Elliott to the series! I first came to know of Zetta when she reached out to me via email back in 2010 and then I met her at the A for Anansi: Literature for Children of Black Descent conference at New York University that same year. Since then I've been following her blog, Fledgling, and have read all of her excellent books for young people. An outspoken advocate for diversity and equity in children's publishing for many years, Zetta's efforts on behalf of underrepresented writers and their stories have never ceased to inspire me. Many thanks to Zetta for agreeing to this recent interview.
I've said for years that we need greater transparency in publishing, so I’d better practice what I preach! Mostly I think that’s part of who I am—and why I write. Some people blog just to promote their work or their image as an author; I think I use my blog more as a kind of journal, and friends have warned me about my openness. There are risks, but as Audre Lorde reminds us, “Your silence will not protect you.” I don’t expect to reach a point in my writing career when it’s “safe” for me to speak my mind, so I might as well do it now. Telling the truth doesn't just help the speaker/writer, it helps those who are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves—and I do get messages from other writers thanking me for saying something their agent warned them against. I want change in the industry and that won’t come from staying silent when I see something unjust.
Well, as you know, there’s a difference between writing books and getting them published. I’ll always write, but publishing is another matter. I have stepped back from the advocacy work; I felt I was becoming too immersed in the children’s literature world and that field doesn't define me as a writer or a scholar. Fighting for access is a burden most white writers don’t have to bear, but writers of color make up less than 5% of the children’s book authors published annually in the US so the advocacy work has to be done. I work with See What We See and that social justice group will tackle inequity in children’s literature when it launches this fall.
Last year, you made 2 funded trips to Nevis, the Caribbean island where your father was born, to connect with your roots and do research for your in-progress family memoir, The Hummingbird's Tongue. I understand that you now have Nevis citizenship and are planning to open your own arts center, Black Dog Arts Center, on the island. What role does heritage and legacy play in your writing and in how you see yourself as an author?
“Funded trips?” I paid for both trips myself, though I did get two grants last year (one to do research in South Carolina, and another to do research in northern Ontario). My author income (royalties and honoraria) pays for my travel; this spring I’m heading to Ghana for the Yari Yari Ntoaso conference in Accra. I think travel is important for any artist. Writing is like wringing a sponge dry and then you have to absorb more ideas and observations.
I was named for my grandmother, Rosetta Elliott, and I want to know her story—that’s what took me to Nevis. I was then invited back to participate in their inaugural book fair. Right now I know more about Nevis in the 1700s than I do about the contemporary country. One day I hope to open an arts center/museum but I don’t think I could live in the Caribbean full-time; mostly I want to contribute something and an arts center could bring in visiting artists to lead workshops for Nevisians so they can continue to tell their own stories.
My father deliberately hid his past; he didn't want his children to feel connected to Nevis and in a way I’m going against his wishes by reversing his migration and digging for the truth. But I think I owe my ancestors a voice. I can do things they couldn't, and that’s why I write historical fiction—it allows me to turn back the clock and write them back into existence.
Speaking of The Hummingbird's Tongue, you write for both adults and children. I've previously had cause to wonder if authors who split focus and write for both adults and children have a harder time progressing their careers. What do you think?
I don’t know—I can’t think of anyone whose career failed because they wrote for different audiences. Really, my role models are people like June Jordan and James Baldwin and Toni Cade Bambara—they wrote for young readers and adults, and didn't seem to worry about their work finding a home. Publishers today prefer to market authors in just one way but hybridity is a big part of life in the African diaspora, and I don’t feel I should have to limit myself to please others.
You're one ideal of the independent, self-driven woman. You travel often and solo, live alone, and you recently blogged about becoming debt-free. What would you say to single women trying to build a career in publishing?
Being child-free definitely gives me more time to write, and not having dependents makes it easier for me to travel at will. I've worked with kids since I was 16 and I continue to teach children now that I’m an author and professor; no one has ever questioned my expertise but I suppose I move in mostly progressive circles. Being in Nevis last summer I definitely noticed that people were concerned with my marital status and whether or not I had kids—I got the feeling some people felt my “success,” which they admired, came at too high a price. Some people don’t think a woman’s complete unless she’s got a man and/or kids, but those people don’t worry me. I don’t have any advice for single writers—every writer has to make the most of the time and resources s/he has.
I don’t feel vindicated because nothing has really changed—I still struggle to place my manuscripts and publishers still refuse to reflect the diversity of our 21st-century world. I have one published picture book and about 15 unpublished picture books; I published two novels with AmazonEncore, but now my editor has moved on and I’m not sure whether my latest novel will find a home. Self-publishing remains an option but it’s hard work and very time consuming. A friend of mine wants to start a non-profit kids press one day and that’s probably my best option if I want to see more of my work in print.
Speaking of "on the way", let's talk about Judah's Tale and The Deep, your two in-progress YA novels. I'm really excited about both of these books. Please give us a two-sentence synopsis of each book.
The Deep: When fourteen-year-old Nyla find herself at the center of a battle between good and evil, she must learn to wield the astonishing power she inherited from the mother who abandoned her as a child. Far beneath the streets of Brooklyn, Nyla discovers a dangerous world filled with temptations that may lure her away from her friends forever.
Judah’s Tale: When Genna Colon magically opens a portal in Brooklyn, her boyfriend Judah finds himself pulled into the past and sold into slavery in the deep South. When hope of finding Genna fades, Judah must find a way to survive—and belong—in a country torn apart by war.
You describe both books as "urban fantasy" and in other places you use the term "speculative fiction". I know from reading your blog that you're fascinated with the possibilities of magic in the urban environment. You even wrote a scholarly paper on the topic. What, in your opinion, is the value of these types of stories?
They open up possibilities! I always ask myself, “What if?” I imagine alternate endings, alternate routes, alternate realities. Our youth need to develop the capacity to dream because we face many challenges in our communities, and we can’t create change without first creating a vision of the world we truly want to inhabit. Magic is a form of power, so it’s important that children of color know they come from people who have a long tradition of wielding power…
The Deep is the companion book to your 2012 middle grade novel, Ship of Souls (which I really enjoyed), and Judah's Tale is the much anticipated sequel to your 2010 YA novel, A Wish After Midnight (which I liked even more). Now that you've been through the process, what advice can you give to other writers about writing a series?
It’s hard! That’s not really advice, but it’s the truth. I think sequels are really hard and I've given up the hope of having the second book be “as good as” the first. Judah’s Tale is not yet done and I've been working on it off and on since 2003. I will NEVER do that again. These days I only start projects that I know I can finish within a few months, projects that fit within my academic calendar. The Deep is a companion book, so I didn't have the same burden to maintain continuity—the characters are the same as in Ship of Souls but it’s a totally different story. I see The Deep as the bridge to the last book in that series, not that I have any idea when I’ll find time to write that!
I read a recent post on your blog that seemed to just ooze with frustration. You were lamenting the complacency of individuals and institutions who have the power to do something about the lack of equity in children's publishing but aren't doing anything. The complacency of certain groups aside, are children's publishing diversity activists a close-knit, collaborative community? Or is the disconnectedness of advocacy efforts a part of the problem?
True allies stick together and strive for the same goals. The See What We See “crew” is made up of that kind of committed people. A lot of people TALK about diversity, far fewer talk about EQUITY, and even fewer actually work to transform the publishing industry. Whenever I talk about SWWS, like-minded people come forward and ask how they can contribute, so that’s encouraging. Most institutions and organizations within the children’s literature community are made up of people from the “know something/do nothing” category. There’s nothing I can do about that.
In the blog post I referred to in my last question, you stated in the same breath that you'll soon be leaving the world of children's literature behind. Are you still determined to call it quits and if so, what will you focus on next?
As you pointed out, I’m currently working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue; I have another family memoir in the works that will trace my mother’s African American ancestors who escaped slavery in the US only to “pass” for white to avoid racism in Canada. I have to finish Judah’s Tale (hopefully this summer) and then I have a couple of adult historical novels I’d like to explore, one set in Nevis and the other in London. I’ll still work with kids and promote my books for young readers but I won’t be giving as much of my time to the advocacy work.
Last year you were accepted into CUNY’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program. Do you think the university has a role to play in diversifying publishing?
It should, but it won’t! The academy is, in general, a very conservative space. Academic publishing is different from commercial publishing, and most scholars publish in order to get tenure; their books are sold mostly to academic libraries, little if any money is earned by the author, and scholars follow the rules and do whatever it takes to get the contract that will get them the job security they desire. The academy has not embraced digital publishing, certain presses are considered more prestigious than others…there isn't a lot of room for innovation. The FFPP is designed to give junior faculty time to polish scholarly essays for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Since The Hummingbird’s Tongue is a hybrid book, it’s unlikely to appeal to academic presses, though I may try to publish an excerpt in Small Axe or MaComère.
As a published author, you've been through the threshing floor of publishing multiple times. What are three of the most important lessons you've learned throughout the A to Z process of writing your books, getting them published, and being a published author out in the world?
Your work doesn't matter to anyone as much as it matters to you. Be prepared to defend your vision and nurture your book from infancy to old age.
Keep writing despite the obstacles and the rejection. Don’t stop and wait for everything to fall into place because chances are, that won’t happen.
Remember why you started to write in the first place and stay true to that because publishers mostly care about the bottom line. Would you write if you never won an award or earned a six-figure advance? I would.
Her poetry has been published in the Cave Canem anthology, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Check the Rhyme: an Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees, and Coloring Book: an Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers. Her novella, Plastique, was excerpted in T Dot Griots: an Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers, and her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand, and Hunger Mountain.
Her picture book, Bird, was a 2009 ALA Notable Children’s Book and won may awards including the Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award, the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers, and the West Virginia Children’s Choice Book Award. Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was published by AmazonEncore in February 2010; her second YA novel, Ship of Souls, was published in February 2012. Her short story, “Sweet Sixteen,” was published in Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance in July 2012. Zetta was born and raised in Canada, but has lived in the US for over fifteen years. She currently resides in her beloved Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter at @zettaelliott.