Relationships with Agents: Some Links to Good Information

Recently, there was news about a former literary agent and the ways in which they essentially lied to the clients they were supposed to be representing. I’m not going into details or names here; this is just context for a couple of links I want to share.

The first is a link to a recent episode of Literaticast, the podcast of Jennnifer Laughran, a Senior Agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. In this episode, Jennifer talks with Kelly Sonnack, another ABLit Senior Agent about their thoughts on what a client should be able to expect from an agent (with a little bit about what agents might expect from their authors). It’s a great discussion (like all of the episodes) and a good listen for anyone wondering about how the agent-creator relationship works.

This thread talks about what creators should expect from their agent.

And this one talks about things creators should watch out for.

 

After the episode aired, Kelly posted a couple of follow-up tweets.

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Humiliation in Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea Trilogy

I know, right? Humiliation? But I have been hunting for the right word as I try to explain to my husband what these books are like, and, really…the thing that is making them feel like something new is the way Joe Abercrombie humiliates his heroes. Or, if I’m looking at it from more of a craft perspective, the way  he uses humiliation to force his characters to change and grow.

I’m only halfway through Book 2 of the trilogy–Half the World. But Abercrombie used the technique in Book 1, Half a King, and I don’t see any reason to expect he’ll stop using it in Book 3, Half a War (which is on my nightstand, next in line to be read). So far, the protagonists have changed with each book, although Yarvi–the half a king from Book 1–has a major role in Book 2. While still young, barely a couple of years older than Book 2’s heroes, Thorn and Brand, he spent Book 1 growing comfortable with the person he is and learning to move, as that person, with power and impact on the world. So far, Thorn and Brand seem to be working their way along that same character path.

In Half the World, Thorn is the only girl to practice on the battle field, determined to be so good that she is sent to war with the boys. Brand is one of the three boys assigned to fight her together and to contribute not only to her being ousted from the army, but being thrown into jail for murder. Brand, trying to be the person who stands in the light, tells the truth about what happened. He, too, has his dreams of glory and wealth taken from him, as well as his determination to stay in the light. He takes to drinking and ends up, all too often, vomiting in back alleys. Yarvi steps in and pulls both out of what seems to be the lowest moments of their lives….only to make them consider whether they were wrong about that, too. Their journey with him to seek allies for their king slams them down, then down again, then down AGAIN.

Skifr has been hired to train Thorn into the fighter she already believes she is. A training session:

…Thorn dodged, wove, sprang, rolled, then she stumbled, lurched, slipped, floundered. To begin with she hoped to get around the oar and bring Skifr down, but she soon found just staying out of its way took every grain of wit and energy. The oar darted at her from everywhere, cracked her on the head, on the shoulders, poked her in the ribs, in the stomach, made her grunt, and whoop as it swept her feet away and sent her tumbling.

And it keeps getting worse. Brand, too, is embarrassed by Skifr, but he manages to stay firm to his dreams of glory until he has his first actual battle. He continues to have nightmares about the man he kills and, between that and the misery of the journey itself, his dreams are scrubbed clean.

…There was nothing in the songs about regrets.
The songs were silent on the boredom too. The oar, the oar, and the buckled shoreline grinding by, week after week. The homesickness, the worry for his sister, the weepy nostalgia for things he’d always thought he hated….The chafing, the sickness, the sunburn, the heat, the flies, the thirst, the stinking bodies, the worn-through seat of his trousers, Safrit’s rationing, Dosduvoi’s toothache, the thousand ways Fror got his scar, the bad food and the running arses, the endless petty arguments, the constant fear of every person they saw and, worst of all, the certain knowledge that, to get home, they’d have to suffer through every mile of it again the other way.

But here’s the thing. For both Thorn and Brand, and for Yavri in Book 1, humiliation acts as a crucible. It burns all away all the things they thought they were and all the things other people thought they should be, leaving only the reality of who they truly are. And, most importantly, who they want to be. And at that point, Abercrombie builds them back up. He takes the strengths they already have and make them stronger. He shows them their flaws in full clarity until they come to accept them instead of fighting or hiding them. He hones them like one of Skifr’s swords–so sharp and so fast that she could, if she wanted, slice you open without your seeing or–for a second–feeling it. And from that new place, they become critical contributors to their team, dangerous threats to their enemies, and true friends to their companions.

For the first half of Book 1, I was merely intrigued. I’m used to flawed characters who get trashed because of their flaws, then have to meet and beat obstacles so that they can grow. But I’m not used to the flaw being a self-perception that, on the one hand borders on cockiness and, on the other has a core of self-anger and self-doubt. I’m not used to an author taking their egos down a notch at a time and managing to do that with both humor and empathy. And I am so much more than intrigued. I am fully immersed, cheering on Brand and Thorn, and welcoming the solid and true character that Yavri built himself into in Book 1.

 

 

 

Roshani Chokshi: In Which I Go Down the Fantasy Genre Action & Philosophy Rabbit Hole

I was griping on Facebook the other day about needing some new fantasy novels to read, and a FB friend recommended Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes. I hadn’t realized until I looked up Chokshi that she is also the author of Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first book in her middle-grade series and the first book published by Rick Riordan’s new imprint. That’s been on my to-read list for a while, and I’m bumping it up to the top as soon as I finish A Crown of Wishes.

I love fantasy novels. The Hobbit probably started me off. It was the first book I ever cried over–I remember sitting up when I was 12, after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, and whole-body sobbing as…!!SPOILER ALERT!!…Bilbo said goodbye to Thorin. (Do NOT get me started on Thorin in the movie version; what were you thinking, Peter Jackson?) And then, in high school, I discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall series, and I was a goner. In the past decade or two…young-adult authors have been adding brilliant worlds and works to the genre. Kristin Cashore. Sarah J. Maas. Laini Taylor. Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, just to name a few. I’ll take a leap and add Joe Abercrombie, even though, so far, I’ve only read Half a King

And, now, Roshani Chokshi.

I like beautifully written, fun, fast-moving fantasy stories. Throw in some humor–even better. I love strong world-building, and if you throw in a bit of philosophy to the mix, you’ve got me.

As long as the balance is right. If you lean too far toward the philosophy, with the action as a side-note, I’m gone. Keep things moving, keep me intrigued by the character’s actions and reactions, as well as their life-view…yes!

It’s not that easy. Terry Pratchett does it brilliantly, especially in his Tiffany Aching books. (I sobbed as hard, if not harder, with The Shepherd’s Crown as I did with The Hobbit.) Kristin Cashore rocks it, especially in Bitterblue (which I talked about here.) And Roshani Chokshi has mastered it.

Chokshi has set herself an extra challenge, I think, by setting her stories in a world where magic has layers and layers and where, when you step into the magic world, the shields (or scabs) you have built up around your vulnerabilities are ripped away. Chokshi’s magic gets into your mind and plays games, it grabs onto the big thoughts–the foundation of who you are and how you see things–as well as the smaller, not-fully-developed thoughts that flutter across that foundation to both threaten and promise. There are sections, long passages and chapters, where Chokshi’s characters essentially swim in this disorientation, sometimes struggling to even stay afloat. And you swim with them.

So many books, when they reach for this place, this kind of storytelling, get lost. As a reader, you feel swamped by beautiful words that are all thoughts, all philosophy. Often they are thoughts that are true to the characters the author has created, but–in the end–they are still just thoughts. Chokshi tiptoes up to the edge, she skims over its shore, but she never once falls in.

Chokshi’s characters are, much like Cashore’s Bitterblue, characters of the mind. The core of their being is the way they think–they way they see the world around them and the way they see their place within that world. It’s why they are so at risk–if the magic gets their minds, it gets their selfs. And so they fight it. And, I think, it’s the resistance that makes them so strong and that keeps Chokshi’s books concrete, active, and powerful. They have quests that force them into the magic and, to achieve those quests, they step in. Deeply. They immerse themselves in the magic as long as they need, and then…they jump back. Or draw swords against it. Or laugh at it. They grab for the pieces of magic they need to move forward; they dispose of the pieces that don’t. The magic is the vehicle for Chokshi’s characters; the characters are not simply vehicles for the magic.

Read any or all of the books I’ve talked about in this post. Just make sure you include Chokshi’s stories on the list. And cross your fingers that she has many more coming.

 

Shaking Things Up a Little

So I’m two weeks into the new job, and I’m loving it. I feel like, finally, I’ve found my day-job home.

The job is also having some unexpected benefits on my other life, the writing one. In the past, or at least since I haven’t been driving the boy to school, I’ve scheduled my work hours on the earlier side. I’m not so much a morning person as a not-night person. Getting home at a regular time has felt like getting home too late to do anything but eat, putter, and veg. Not to mention that, around here, later=more traffic.

With the new job, at least for a while, I’m working “normal,” 9-5 hours. Surprisingly, maybe because people are on summer vacations, commute traffic hasn’t been bad. And, even more surprisingly, I’m having extremely productive before-work hours.

I tend to wake up early, anyway, and I’m managing to push that back even a little more. I’m getting in my tiny fitness routine, and I’m having some reading time with my morning tea.

And then I’m writing.

*pause for cheers from the peanut gallery*

Yep. I leave an hour later than I used to, and I’m at my computer or a notebook for that hour. Not every single morning, and I’m not yet perfect at resisting the siren call of social  media. But I’m present, and I’m moving projects forward. I’ve refined a couple of picture books, pulled apart another one, and started letting my brain play with a new idea, inspired by a podcast episode. (Yet another benefit of staying away from the news during my commute.)

We get into ruts. We decide there is one way to be, one way to do things, and we decide we’re already doing it. And then Life happens, even a little bit of Life, and we find out there are other patterns available. When I was younger, I would have dug my feet in and pushed back on exploring those other possibilities. Silly younger me.

Will I keep up the later hours? For now, absolutely. When summer shifts away and night comes earlier, I’ll see if traffic also gets worse. And then I’ll look around at the next set of possibilities and decide which ones to check out.

What can you shake up in your life? When have things changed and led you down a different, better-for-now path?

 

How Revision Sneaks Up on You: Case File #219

Here’s how it goes:

  • You get a picture book idea in October.
  • Halloween is in October.
  • The story vibe starts with a gently spooky tone.
  • The idea comes to you, of course, with a little black cat as the littlehero.
  • You play with the idea for a while.
  • The story becomes, on paper, less spooky.
  • The story becomes, on paper, less about Halloween. Okay, not at all about Halloween.
  • You make lots of progress, all the time visualizing the little black cat as surrounded by non-feline characters. Human characters. None of whom seem bothered by the fact that there is a walking, talking little black cat in their world.
  • Someone makes a random comment about story animals in clothes. (You have never once pictured your little black cat in clothing. You have, of course, pictured all your human characters in clothes.)
  • Just like with Wile E. Coyote and the anvil, the realization hits you: You may have written a story about a little black cat with a bunch of humans, but any rational illustrator is going to think that those humans are other animals you just forgot to identify. 

MAYBE EVEN IN CLOTHING!*

  • And then, because that road runner is so cunning, a second anvil hits you on the head. There is absolutely no story reason the hero has to be a cat.
  • A brief sense of relief breezes by, followed, or course, by a chill wind reminding you that you now have no idea who or what that hero is. Or why they even need to do the thing you have then doing in Sentence 1. (Even, though, for some reason lost in the mists of musedom, it made sense for a cat. No, really. It did.)
  • You procrastinate by writing a blog post about it.
  • Then, finally, you open the file and get down to it.

*There is nothing intrinsically wrong with stories about animals wearing clothes. I grew up happily reading my father’s old copies of Thornton Burgess’ Mother West Wind Books, I loved when Santa Mouse got his little suit, and I think Charlotte would have rocked a little goth outfit. Just…not this cat, not this story.

 

 

Well, I Killed THAT Darling

It’s a special darling. It’s been in my mind for nine years and in a story almost that long.

It was a darling in the first picture book I ever wrote when, as I was dreaming up imaginary picture books to “excerpt” in The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide, I dreamed up one idea that I didn’t want to just write a few lines of–I wanted to write the whole thing.

I wrote the whole thing. It became a full, complete picture book–my first ever–called Dragon Burps. The darling was a major source of inspiration and took its place in a place of honor–the story crisis. With the help of a Bay Area freelance editor (who is wonderful and now helping me with these other picture books!), I revised and revised. And submitted. I had no takers, but I got a few nice comments. I revised a little more, and it was better, but…

I worked on other things–some YA and middle-grade and those most recent picture books.

And then in February, I went to the 2018 SCBWI Spring Spirit conference and, in Mark Teague’s session on leaving room for the illustrator, I flashed on a new way to revise Dragon Burps. The new way didn’t touch the darling, but suggested a much better handling of the turning point of each scene in the middle. I knew it was going to let me build to the crisis in a much stronger, more tense arc.

I was right. I just sat down with the manuscript today. I cut and I tightened. (This manuscript is currently at 700+ words; my newer ones are all under 500.)

And I scribbled notes to weave in the turning points. It is going to be better. It creates a plot that makes much more sense in terms of setting up the ending.

Just not my darling ending.

As I realized what was going on, the first feeling was that click your brain hears when you make something better, more “right.” Then came the sadness. The recognition that the spark that started not just a single story, but an entire journey, had to go. Select, delete, gone.

This was a biggie.

Luckily, so was the feeling of happiness that flowed in, gave the sadness a nudge, and asked it politely to get out of the way. And luckily, the darling took a gentle bow befitting its stature in my life, then stepped aside.

I made a promise, years ago, to the darling, that I would turn it into an entire story, and I did. Today, I’m making it another promise, that I will turn it into a better story.

Post-Conference To-Do List

Yesterday’s SCBWI California: North/Central Spring Spirit conference was wonderful. All the sessions I sat in on were very good, and I got the best manuscript critique I’ve ever gotten from a publishing professional.  Best in two ways–the agent gave me excellent, concrete, and clear suggestions, and he also gave me some seriously positive and complimentary comments about the story and my writing of it.

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The critique made me feel like I’m at least not wrong about getting somewhere with my picture-book writing. The whole day was inspiring, and I came away with new ideas and possibilities. I can’t even tell you where they came from, but this happens just about every time I go to a conference–must be the energy sparkling in the air.

My to-do list from this conference is:

  • Revise the manuscript I submitted, based on the agent’s critique.
  •  Revise an older picture book that I’ve been meaning to go back to, with the idea for a new (and hopefully better) ending that came to me while I was in one of Mark Teague’s sessions.
  • Revise one more picture book that is currently out with my editor (editing editor, not publishing editor).
  • Start querying one of my picture books, starting with editors and agents who were at the conference.
  • Remember–when I get back to my middle-grade novel–that it’s smartest, at the stage I’m at with this book–to revise one element or strand at a time, rather than trying to fix the whole, tangled mess in one pass. (Oh, yeah, I knew that once!) Got this excellent reminder from a session of Alex Ulyett, from Viking Children’s Books.
  • Sign up again for the local rec drawing class. I signed up in the winter, but the class was cancelled for lack of enrollment. I was waffling, but I really would like to have more fun with whatever sketching I do, even if it’s just for me. So I’ll try again for Spring.

Lots to do and looking forward to all of it!

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