Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Just One Day Hype and the Amazing Writing of Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman is an amazing writer.

I first picked up her debut novel, If I Stay, one summer, but I couldn't finish it. At the time, it just struck some chord inside me in a way that was really disturbing. Needless to say, reading it was not an enjoyable experience. But some months later, I picked it up again, and that time I was ready. And I am so glad I gave it a second chance.

Forman has this amazing ability to take two characters and have you completely invested in the outcome of their relationship in just one book. She can accomplish in a single novel what people spend multiple books in a series or multiple episodes on a tv show trying to convey. I didn't think I could care more about those characters, but then she released the follow-up, Where She Went. I had a feeling at the end of If I Stay that these characters might not have a happy ending soon after where the book ended. But that was the beauty of the book: it could give these characters that happy ending as far as I, the reader, was concerned. So when I heard about Where She Went, I waffled. Another book by Gayle Forman! About characters I love! But what if she breaks my heart with what she writes for these characters? I don't know if I can spend another book inside Mia's grief-stricken head. And then Forman did something I completely didn't expect: she switched narrators. All of a sudden we were in Adam's head. Again, I waffled. But this is so different from the first novel! There's no magical realism, there's a different narrator...but of course I was silly to doubt, because after reading the book I was forced to utter a phrase rarely ever heard leaving my lips: "The second book was better than the first!"

Where She Went is devastatingly beautiful. To describe it in words other than Forman's own seems futile. And because of my love for those two books, I felt fairly confident Forman's next two book series would be amazing. And after reading the first two chapters on the Facebook page for the series, I can affirm that yes, these books will be amazing. I'm already in love with the chemistry between the two leads, and the condensed time frame of their story is going to make this book extremely intense. I can guarantee Forman is going to break my heart and put it back together again multiple times just in the first book. Tears are guaranteed to be shed. 

I had the pleasure of meeting her at an event at the Word Brooklyn bookstore and although I acted calm, inside I was jumping up and down, squealing with excitement. She's every bit as lovely as you hope she is after reading her books. I told her how much I loved her first two books, and I hope that I get a chance to meet her again and tell her how much I like her next two - because my enjoyment of them is guaranteed. 

Go like the Facebook page to help unlock the third chapter of the book! She's also doing a giveaway for Just One Day - just click the widget on the righthand side of my blog to find out how to enter.

And if you haven't read If I Stay, do yourself a favor and go read it. Just...keep a box of tissues nearby. You're probably going to need it. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Instead of a Portal World, Try Peeling Back the Layers of Our Own

This post about portal fantasies gave me some food for thought. The author of the post is wondering why no agents are interested in representing portal fantasies in the vein of the Chronicles of Narnia. Many agents feel that portal fantasies have low stakes because the danger never affects the protagonist's home world. I tend to agree with that sentiment. I remember that I liked The Magician's Nephew, the prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, much better than the actual first book. In the prequel, the White Witch actually comes into the human world and wreaks havoc, while in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the entirety of the action takes place within the portal world. I also find it a bit unbelievable when the residents of the portal world are these amazing, powerful beings who need a human to solve all their problems.

On another note, the author of this post notes that there is little YA fiction that involves space travel and alien planets. I think that is largely because for a long time, those premises were relegated to the hard sci-fi section and as YA doesn't have a ready made market for hard sci-fi, people may have been confused as how to sell these books in the young adult market. However, I think this is changing, due to the popularity of the Across the Universe trilogy and the recently published Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal.

Also, the author suggests that "Maybe the lack of portal fantasy is a metaphor for the belief that modern teenagers don’t want to travel to strange new worlds, even in their reading." I think this whole discussion about portal fantasy ignores the fact that perspective is crucial to the story being told. I have nothing against exploring a strange new world, but I don't need it to be introduced to me via a portal fantasy premise. To me, that seems like an extra step, and I'd like to cut out the middleman. Every time I read a new book, I, the reader, fill the role of the protagonist of a portal fantasy as I enter the world this book is showing me. I greatly prefer straight fantasy because the perspective is from the natives of that world. Some writers might find it hard to introduce their new world and use a portal world as a shortcut, however, for the most part, I find this to be lazy writing and story-telling. In Cinder by Marissa Meyer, for example, Meyer sucked me right into her futuristic Beijing retelling of Cinderella with a cyborg protagonist. I never say "never," so a well-written portal fantasy can certainly suck me in, but for the most part, I prefer a different premise.

A really good way for me to talk about this is to discuss a recent YA book I've read and loved: Croak by Gina Damico. This is a book that introduces the reader to a strange new world while still keeping the stakes high for the "real" world. In this novel, Lex is sent to live with her uncle after a recent run of delinquent behavior. Little does she (or her parents) know that her uncle is a Grim, someone who sends departed souls to the afterlife. Lex arrives in the little isolated mountain town of Croak, one of a few places where Grims live and work together. Non-Grims don't see these places for what they are, and the magic of the places send them away confused. The Grimsphere is another layer to our world, and Grims can still move freely through the rest of the world. One of the Grims goes rogue and starts Damning criminals (preventing their souls from reaching the Afterlife), but soon the Grim starts Damning innocent people as well. The eternal souls of the entire human world hang in the balance, which gives this story high stakes and makes it so compelling.

All in all, when I was younger, I read a fair amount of portal fantasies, but I've since left those stories behind, and I look with excitement to the future of YA fantasy. I'm only a lowly intern at the moment, but someday down the road when I'm an actual agent, I would love to represent something like Croak. For those interested, there are currently two books in the series with a third on the way. Add it on Goodreads here. By the way, how cool is that cover?

Friday, December 7, 2012

You Are Not Entitled to a Successful Publishing Career

Part of this post really resonated with me. Alvina Ling talks about an encounter she had with a writer at a SCBWI conference:

"'The problem is, agents and publishers aren't knocking on my door.'

I didn't have a response for this, and we were already walking away from each other, so I just continued on my way. But later I replayed the conversation and marveled at the woman's attitude. It was as if she felt she was somehow entitled to be published, that it shouldn't be so hard.

I don't know the woman's background--perhaps she'd been coming to conferences for years and was just speaking from extreme frustration. Or maybe it was her first conference, and she was disappointed by what she had learned. But I'm really not sure what that woman wanted me to say. That it should be that easy? Did she want me to somehow feel guilted into publishing her? That I'd say, without having read anything she'd written, that I'd publish her book?"
The nature of my job as a literary agency intern means I have to reject a great deal of people every week. I work at a smaller agency (in terms of the number of agents, not clients), and we receive about 400 queries a month. I've been here 4 months, and out of all those queries, I've probably requested about 25 full manuscripts, and of those 25, I've actually reported on about eight I felt were good enough to show to one of the agents. And of those eight, they've taken on exactly...none. Since I've been there, I think the agency has signed two new clients. As a small agency, most of their time in the office (like other agencies) is spent on their existing clients. They talk to their authors, they call editors they think are a fit for the manuscript they're shopping, they discuss foreign rights, they talk to Amazon about problems with their authors' ebooks, they read their authors' new manuscripts, and type up editorial notes and pitch letters, among other things. Most of their reading is done outside of the office. Your manuscript may not be bad, it may be just good - instead of great. For an agent to spend their precious time reading your manuscript, it has to really pique their interest (I think it's safe to say every agent wants to find that manuscript that makes them miss their subway stop).

So you can start to see how hard it is to get published. 

There are plenty of reasons why an agent will pass on your manuscript that have nothing to do with the quality of your plot or writing. I've passed on things because they're too similar to books my agency already represents. This is a huge problem. I see a lot of queries where people gush that they love X author or X book that we represent, and then proceed to pitch something that is almost exactly the same. I'm glad that you have the same taste in books as our agents, but there's not room on our list for something that's exactly the same as what we always represent. Selling both books would become a problem.

I've passed on things because their premise is too similar to projects that have over saturated the market. For example, I will almost always pass on something with vampires, unless the query really grabs me. Sometimes a project just doesn't fall under the scope of what the agency represents. For example, short story collections, poetry, and books written for an academic audience are not a good fit for our agency. Also, every agent has their personal list of things that make them groan when they see them in their inbox, because it's just not their cup of tea. I'm just an intern, so I don't take my personal preferences into consideration, but personally, I groan when I see a story with fallen angels or a story where the protagonist is 'fated,' 'destined,' or 'bound' to their love interest. However, if the author makes me like the manuscript despite my biases, that shows they are a strong writer.

I see the attitude she's talking about a lot in queries. There was one query in particular where the author felt compelled to inform me that even if I pass on their work, they "intend" to get published. The people who praise their own writing in their query, or who blog about how easy it should be for them to get published (I do google you, authors, I do), really turn me off. If you send me a strong query, and your sample pages deliver on what was promised in the query, that's all you need. It's cool if you have writing credits, degrees, and memberships in various writing groups, but none of those are relevant if I'm not compelled by your story and your writing.

Not everyone is going to be a successful writer. Just like not everyone is going to be a successful doctor, lawyer, actor, artist, musician, etc. My family members joke around and ask me, "How many dreams did you crush today?" However, not everyone should be a published writer. For the most part, I'm confident when I reject people that they will keep writing for fun even if they never get published, or that even though they're not right for our agency, someone else will publish them. Fact: some people are just not good writers. Some people will never get better, and some people just need to write a couple more manuscripts to develop their skills before they query again.

Most published writers have day jobs, and only a very small percentage of writers can live off their writing. Even the most successful authors didn't get that way overnight. Meg Cabot has talked about the hundreds of rejection letters she received before she got published, and even then, her books weren't that successful. It wasn't until the Princess Diaries movie came out that she was able to republish her old books, and they became successful as well. John Green, arguably one of the most popular and talented writers in YA, wasn't a best-selling author at first, and he worked really hard to earn a devoted following that is largely responsible for his current overwhelming success.

Bottom line: Getting published is hard. Getting published is a business. Agents want to represent good writers and stories, and editors want to publish them, but nobody owes you anything. You have to work for it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I Want to Be John Green When I Grow Up

I'm pretty open about the fact that I love John Green and think he's a genius. I saw him at the National Book Festival back in September, and it was the highlight of the festival for me. He was very humble despite his extreme popularity. As soon as he realized that he had been announced a little prematurely and everyone was waiting for him, he jogged up onto the stage. My mother, who is a librarian, was not prepared for the amount of screaming that accompanied his arrival. It's very rare for authors - YA or otherwise - to get that kind of reception, and it's because John Green engages so intensely with his audience, cares so deeply about world issues, and treats his teenage readers as intellectual equals that he  is met by screaming fans everywhere he goes. It also doesn't hurt that he's not afraid to make a fool out of himself for our entertainment on occasion.

He is just as well spoken in person as he is in his videos. He spoke beautifully about his belief in the intelligence of teenagers and how thankful he is to have the opportunity to make communities and effect change through the platform he has as both a bestselling YA author and a Youtube sensation. When there was a question and answer section, a teenage girl asked him a question about whether he subscribes to the postmodernist belief that "the author is dead." As soon as she said "postmodernist," a lot of people in the crowd sort of snickered and I could tell they thought this girl was trying too hard to ask a question that was really pretentious. I knew exactly what she was talking about, but I guess a lot of people were confused by the question. John was a completely amazing human being, as per usual, and he showed his usual belief in the intelligence of teenagers and their questions and answered it as if it was the most important question he'd ever been asked. He clarified the question for the audience and launched into a thought-provoking answer about how his Internet presence has affected his books and career in ways he never could have predicted when he first started writing, before he was famous. I could go on and on about how much I love John Green, and how he's a beautiful human being, but maybe I'll save that for another post.

Anyway, that was all to preface this interview with John Green that I wanted to share. The whole interview is worth reading, but I think this bit underscores the point I made above, that John Green truly values the input of teenagers and is interested in making them feel like they can make a difference in the world:

SH: If you could handpick the ideal reader for your book, how would you describe that reader?
JG: Thoughtful, intellectually curious, self-conscious 17-year-old. (That is to say: all 17-year-olds.)

Now go forth and read something by John Green (if you haven't already. But really, what are you really waiting for?).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Oyster to Create the Spotify of Books? I'm Dubious.

I don't know how I feel about this news about Oyster deciding to try to make the Spotify or Netflix of books. I'm sure it works out well for publishers, but I'm not sure how agents and authors would feel about this model. I'm not sure how much money this would really give agents or authors (probably not a lot). I'm not sure how it would affect ebook sales (I'm sure it won't touch print sales, since not everyone is an avid ebook reader). I'm sure that's a question they'll have to worry about once they launch this to the general public.

It definitely sounds like it's targeted toward people who don't read a lot and want recommendations. I feel like people who read a lot and are active in their reading selections either have a Goodreads account or they have friends with whom they can exchange books and book recommendations. Since you're paying a monthly fee, I guess the extent to which people get their money's worth out of this depends on how fast they read. This is also targeted toward people who primarily read ebooks. I can't imagine paying a monthly fee to only read ebooks. I read books from a variety of sources and in a variety of forms. As a literary agency intern, I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts on my laptop. I also read books I get from the library. I read physical books I purchase. I also read ebooks I get from the library. I don't think I'm the target audience for this ebook library project, so maybe I'm not the best person to comment on this, but I just wanted to throw in my two cents before this actually hits widespread distribution. It's something I'll be keeping an eye on - we'll see how successful it becomes.