Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Dig Deeper: Connecting to Characters and Voice

Making your characters believable and relatable and your voice engaging takes more than surface-level details.

Let's take an example of a surface-level voice/detail and Dig Deeper:

I love flip flops. I wear them all the time.

They’re comfortable.

Why? Why does that matter?
Comfort is way more important to me than looking posh.

I don’t care what others think about my looks.

It’s not important.

What is important?
Family. Getting things done. I don’t need to spend a million years on my looks; I have too much to do.

Using these answers, re-write the sentence:

I throw my flops on; no need to spend a million years on my looks. Who cares what others think – I’ve got too much to do.

See the difference? Having dug into my character's statement, I scratched the surface to find out motivation, perspective, attitude...voice! I've taken a fairly common and bland statement and transformed it into an engaging voice.

Let your character talk to you. Had I gone even farther with my questioning, I might have hit on some internal flaws, internal motivations, fears...the deeper you go, the deeper the connection.

If you're struggling to make an emotional scene really punch hard, or trying to find that authentic voice, take some time to Dig Deeper.

An exercise in digging deeper:

  1. Find three places in your first chapter where you tell us something your character likes or is feeling.
  2. Ask "why" (and/or why-questions) a minimum of six times.
  3. Use the answers to re-write the original sentence.

Feel free to share before and after versions in the comments. I'd love to see them!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Thinking Visually

In novels, you're constantly told to show not tell. In picture books, this works a little differently, because the show is done as a partnership with the one who tells.

Illustration shows us: emotion, physical characteristics, detail
It is your MAP: what do you see?

Text tells us: context, direction
It is your GUIDE: where are you going?

Let's look at a few examples:

We Don't Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins

What can be shown in illustrations that you don’t need to say?

The text has given us the context: Penelope is nervous. She's starting school. It's important to know if they'll be like her (how many teeth will they have)? The illustrations show us: the emotion/what nervous looks like, that she REALLY cares about and loves school and friends, because she's been practicing - she has her own table of dinosaur friends pulled up next to her writing board, implying she's used to being alone/with her pretend friends - it deepens the emotional layers and context that the text provided.

Think back to your MAP and your GUIDE: what do you SEE vs. what are you TOLD

Here's another example:

                                                            Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima

The text tells the illustrator what direction to go in for these pages without telling her HOW to illustrate the pages; we aren't TOLD what his "tusk" being different means - we can see that. We aren't TOLD what it means they have different taste in food - we can see that. We aren't TOLD how he's a bad swimmer - we (very adorably) can see that with the ingenious use of floaties. And what's more, we aren't TOLD that his family loves and protects and accepts him anyway - but we can SEE that in the way they are surrounding him in a circle, soft smiles on encouraging faces.

Art notes should be used sparingly; think short and simple sentences. If you have multiple complex sentences, descriptive elements, have crafted the text so that you can see the image in your mind's eye...pare it back! The role of the author is to inspire the artist, to provide the artist with possibility, while giving direction.

So yes: this means, if you're the text author...you should tell not show!

Other considerations when thinking visually:

Is there room for dynamic illustration? 

Think about scene and perspective; would each potential spread in your story be in the same space? Would they look relatively the same? Is there room for an illustrator to give spot art, full spreads, motion, creative energy, different perspectives - a variety of art? The book needs to be visually stimulating to capture attention; if you haven't left room for dynamic illustration, you've limited the visual possibility.

Does it work in a traditional 32-page picture book?

Use a storyboard (red text mine):

In your text, place spaces between lines to denote potential pages. Is your conflict occurring around pg. 7, your climax around pg. 28? 

Do you have "page-turn"?

Does your text invite the reader to turn the next page? Do you wonder, what comes next? Look at the examples above: you know you've just started this story. You've been given the conflict...what happens next?

You can use punctuation to leave room for page turn, too. For example:

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by James Dean and Eric Litwin 

Mind your P's!

Provide possibility.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Read Royalty Statements (Without Losing Your Mind)

Royalty statements can be quite cryptic if you don't know what you're looking at!

Unfortunately, no two publishers report royalties the same way. However, there are a few* key things I can share to help you understand and interpret these statements.

The first thing to know is that you can't read your statement without reading your publishing contract. Everything in the report is tailored to how YOUR contract outlines the publisher will pay you. 

Second, you need to understand what time period the statement is reporting (G). Your contract should state when your publisher will remit statements to you, and what time periods it will cover in those statements.

  •  The most common reporting structure is bi-annually: publishers will send you a report covering sales and returns from Jan-June, and July-Dec.
  • Publishers need time, at the close of a "period," to put all of these statements together and send them out with corresponding payments. That is why you will see the statement covering Jan-June a few months after the close of the period (i.e., in September or October).
Third, numbers in () will signal a NEGATIVE balance

Let's begin!

Here is an example statement; I put random numbers in so sorry, this isn't supposed to make sense - it's for identifying pieces of the statement!

  • (A) Books (editions) are (typically) broken out by ISBN 
    • Hopefully, your publisher has listed the format next to the ISBN as well, so you can tell what edition that page is reporting numbers for (i.e., the hardcover ISBN, the ebook ISBN, the paperback ISBN). If not, you can plug the ISBN into Amazon to look up what edition it goes to.
    • If you have multiple books with a publisher, they will report numbers on all ISBNs for one book before moving on to the next book you have with them (i.e., you'll see numbers for the hardcover and ebook and paperback for book A before you move on to those numbers for book B). 
  •  (B) Editions produced by third parties, or subsidiary licenses (i.e., translation, audio, permissions, book club, paperback reprints, etc) likely won't be broken down in as much detail as the other editions, simply because these are not products the publisher has directly produced, and thus not products they have as much information on. 
    • However, these licenses should be reported on the statement, and may be at the end of each title or on a summary page of subsidiary rights for that period. 
    • They may be reported ONLY in the statement in which the money was received. Meaning, if your publisher licensed French translation rights, that may only appear in the statement for the period that the publisher actually gets the advance money in - NOT the period in which the contract for the license was signed. 
  • (C) Some publishers include a "summary page" at the front, or end, of each statement, to roll all of these numbers up together per book or per author so you know in a glance what it means for you regarding any money due (or not due). <--eh, see what I did there?!
  • Some publishers will report a current period and cumulative period side-by-side in the breakdown. They likely won't be separated out by nice little divider columns. So you have to look for headings above the numbers to determine what goes with what.

You'll (likely) see an "X" and "Y" axis format to your statement. Let's begin with the "Y" axis. 

  • DIRECT: this refers to books sold directly to the consumer (and thus likely not discounted)
  • DOMESTIC: this refers to the number of books sold in the US
  • HIGH DISCOUNT: this refers to the number of books sold at a discount outside of the normal range vendors usually receive. 
  • EXPORT: this refers to the number of books the publisher sold and shipped outside of the US
  • Each of the Y axis categories will have a royalty rate outlined in your contract. 
    • For example, X% for books sold at export, X% for books sold at high discount, etc.

The Y axis of a report is interpreted in the context of the X axis:

  • LIST price: this refers to the suggested retail price 
    • Vendors don't have to sell it at this price, and publishers don't have to sell it to vendors at this price. However, if your contract says that you will be paid royalties based on LIST price, you will be paid a % of list regardless of what the publisher or vendor sells the book for. So if your book is priced at $17.99 list, you are paid a % of $17.99 list. 
  • Units sold: this is the total number of books sold (and can include books shipped - more on that in a second).
  • Returns: this is the number of books returned to the publisher. Usually in ()
  • NET units/Gross: this refers to the total number of sales, including returns. Typically followed by NET SALES, which shows the NET amount the publisher received for those NET sales. 
  • NET sales/proceeds/earnings: this refers to the actual amount of money your publisher gets for sales of the book. 
    • Vendors buy books at various discounts (commonly 40-50%) off of list price, so vendors can sell to customers at list price and make a profit. So, if your book is $17.99, and your publisher sells to B&N at 50% off list, the publisher is only actually getting $8.995 per book sold. If your contract states you are paid based on NET sales, you are being paid based on what the publisher actually receives ($8.995).
  • Royalty TIER/RATE/AUTHOR'S SHARE: this is the rate at which your contract outlines you are to be paid.
    • A tier could also refer to escalating rates; i.e., your contract states you will be paid X% for 1-5,000 copies, and X% thereafter. Not all contracts have escalating rates.
  • Royalty due: this is the amount due to you. It will be the calculation of #of books x royalty % x (NET/LIST) sales**.

(D) Each reported category of sales in this Y axis is then added up, to show the total royalty due to the author for that book. This is NOT the amount PAID.

To figure out the amount to be paid, you have to look at:
  • Balance carried forward/prior period balance: this is the amount PAID (or remaining unearned) from the last statement. Your first statement will show the advance as the last amount paid.
  • Reserve held: this is the amount of money (they may also calculate a number of copies this correlates to) your publisher is holding on to in case returns are made. Publishers do this so that they don't pay you for all of the copies shipped out, and then have to recoup fees later when a bunch of those copies are returned. The reserve is a % of total sales. Your contract may state a % of sales cap the publisher can hold a reserve on.
  • Reserve released: this is the amount of money your publisher is releasing that they previously held on to

(E) These numbers are added together to show the total amount actually due to you in this statement period (previous balance + total all ISBNs + reserve held + reserve released). This is the amount PAID.

Your FIRST STATEMENT will (likely) include copies SHIPPED out to booksellers (the number of copies sold to booksellers as inventory); that means, the first statement isn't usually a reliable report of copies sold to customers. Your publisher tracks the number of copies in circulation that go on to sell to customers (typically) per week; you can ask your editor (or look in your author portal, if the publisher has one) for point-of-sale (POS) numbers - that is the number of reported sales to actual customers as reported by booksellers**.

The biggest period of returns you will see is usually 6-8 months after publication; this means that your SECOND STATEMENT is (likely) to show lots of returns. It does not mean your book suddenly flopped. Don't freak out. Publishers will use copies returned to meet future demand**.

Hopefully your publisher lists CUMULATIVE or LIFE-TO-DATE units sold (F). This is how you can see, each statement, how many copies of your book have sold since it published. If these words do not appear anywhere on the statement, unfortunately, the only way to get this number is to ask your editor, or keep a running tally statement to statement.

How do you know if your book is "doing good"? 

Well, that's sort of one of those "it depends" kind of answers. There is no magic number that = your book sold well! Publishers consider numbers in the context of multiple factors, including author history, advance paid, similar titles, sell-through, time, the angle of Jupiter's fifth moon, among other things. I.e.: you have to ask.

A common misconception is that your book going to reprint means you've sold a gazillion copies. While it's fabulous to go into reprint (it means that your publisher sold more than they expected), if your first printing was 5,000 copies, well then, you sold 5,000 copies**.

Your publisher will have an idea of what kind of numbers they're hoping to hit long before publication. It might be squirrelly trying to get this out of them, but you can always ask, if you want to keep this in mind! However, HUGE caution on this...it can lead to a rabbit hole of disappointment and obsession when you should be focusing on OTHER things, like promotion and WRITING YOUR NEXT BOOK!

So you sort of promised I WOULDN'T lose my mind?!

Did I?!

In reality, knowing what you're looking at and practice are the best ways to understand your statement. Not everything is always spelled out in a statement; reserves held or released, a summary page, etc.

I recommend setting yourself up with an excel template (because lord do I love templates) that looks like the example I prepared. Review your contract to plug in your X axis categories and the rates they should be reported at in the Y axis. Keep record of any sub rights (book club, translation, audio) your publisher has sold, and the statement that you saw it reported on, so you can keep track of those.

You can get fancy and create formulas for yourself that will calculate royalty output, but keep in mind, this is only going to be an accurate number if your publisher is reporting based on LIST price, because you won't have all the details (such as discounts to vendors, or agent/foreign transaction fees for translation deals) to calculate NET. But you should be able to get within the ballpark; for example, in the example report above, you can get a rough idea of what the publisher received per book for export sales by dividing Net Sales by Net Units.

Each statement, review these key items:

1. Everything is calculated correctly (as best you can estimate, when you're dealing with Net)
2. Your royalties are being reported at the correct rates
3. Any subrights earnings are accounted for
4. Help keep tally (if the statement does not) of sales and returns

If you find an issue, or think something looks off, ask your agent - or, the royalty department!

I hope you have enjoyed this novel on reading royalty statements.

*I really meant it to just be a few when I started. Promise.

**there are qualifiers and extended things to discuss here that I'm not getting into

Friday, August 24, 2018

Establishing Motivation in Picture Book Biographies

If you've ever heard: but WHY did he do this? What was DRIVING your subject? What INSPIRED her to...

My friend, you are in need of establishing motivation.

Motivation is the heart of your subject's actions. It's a key element that your reader can connect to and be inspired by. It takes a biography from "telling" to "showing."

This doesn't mean you need to psycho-analyze your subject; the reader just needs to see the connection between how your subject grew up to who s/he became and what s/he did. Because the picture book audience is intended for children, typically that is set up through the childhood lens, because it allows the audience to connect on a relatable level.

How or what in your subject's childhood helped him/her solve the problem s/he faces later in life, that led him/her to do the thing (s) you are writing about?

Here are some examples (I linked to these so you can see the previews):

1. Funny Bones by Duncan Tonatiuh

Here, you can see the progression nicely; the author sets up why Posada become a printer & why he was into art, and leads into, why did he start doing political cartoons (you can't see in the preview, but it explains the political atmosphere in Mexico, and how most people couldn't read and write, thus Posada was doing the cartoons to help spread the word and reach people).

2. I Dissent by Debbie Levy  (Author) and Elizabeth Baddeley (Illustrator)

Here, you can see who inspired Ruth (her mother), the atmosphere she grew up in, and how her personality built into who she became.

3. For the Right to Learn by Rebecca Langston-George  (Author) and Janna Bock (Illustrator)

Here again, you can see how Malala developed her love and passion for learning in childhood, and why it was important to her, and when that was threatened to be taken away from her, she fought back.

4. A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. by David A. Adler  (Author) and Robert Casilla  (Illustrator)

Here you can see where Martin Luther King Jr. got his peaceful side (father was a pastor, attended church) while establishing the turmoil/problem within the atmosphere he lived in, both of which help the reader to understand why he approached the problem the way he did, what the problem was, and why he was passionate about advocating for equal rights.

It isn't so much a matter of picking THE defining moment in your subject's life so much as WHAT about your subject's life led him/her to who he/she became.

Within the span of a few pages and a few hundred words, of course!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Characterizing Parents in Children's & YA Lit

There's been enough talk about the over-used dead-or-missing parents trope in children's and YA lit, but something that needs to be considered if you're breaking the mold and KEEPING THAT FAMILY TOGETHER: appropriate characterization!

If your manuscript is set in "present day," more than the landscape, technology, culture and slang around your character should shift and change. Your characters' parents' generational traits should also shift!

Here's a breakdown of the most common parental-types I see (though of course, there are plenty of others, particularly with parents who weren't born and/or raised in the Western world):

Baby boomers
Born roughly: early-to-mid 1940s through 1964
As of 2018, this means your MC's parents would be 54-78
General characteristics: early boomers are experimental, into individualism, free spirited, and social cause oriented and tend to be Democrats; later boomers are less optimistic, have a distrust of government, and general cynicism and tend to be Republicans. Tend to have a belief that it is important for each generation to earn their own money.

Generation X
Born roughly: mid 1960's through early 1980's
As of 2018, this means your MC's parents would be 38-53
General characteristics: entrepreneurial spirit, balanced, active, and happy in mid-life, unfocused as twentysomethings, bleak, cynical, and disaffected as young adults,

Millennials (Gen Y)
Born roughly: early 1980's through mid 1990's
As of 2018, this means your MC's parents would be 23-37
General characteristics: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, achieving, a sense of entitlement and narcissism

I in no way want to imply by sharing these GENERAL characteristics above that you MUST write your characters to fit within the traits typical of their generation. However, it can be a useful starting point to think through how your MC's parents or grandparents act, what they're passionate about, how they raised their children AND, most importantly, that you aren't unintentionally assigning traits more common to another generation to your MC's parents/grandparents because that is what YOU know, even if that doesn't make sense for your book.

If your manuscript is set TODAY, think about how old your main character's parents are - what generation does that correlate to? The music they love, the way they act, the jobs they have, and experiences growing up that will have shaped how they raised your MC will vary depending on that. That, in turn, will have shaped your MC, too!

Other important things to consider (that is not an exhaustive list by any means):

  • The age your MC's parents started having children. This will ALSO determine how they are as parents. Did they start having children in their teens, early 20's, or later in life? This will also impact how the parents act, and interact, with your MC.
  • What immigrant generation (first, second?) your MC's parents are? If your MC's parents (or grandparents!) are instead emigrants?
  • The family dynamics of THEIR families - meaning, were they only children? One of six? Raised in foster care? Raised by a single mother?

I know guys. Characterization is complicated. And no, this doesn't mean that I comb through manuscripts looking to see if you've answered or addressed these questions through your MC's parents. (Or DO I?! ....no. No, I do not).

But I firmly believe that understanding the full dynamics of your characters, and writing them as real people, is worth it. Because at the end of the day, real characters are what agents, editors and readers are looking for!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What is Authenticity in Voice?

Are you hearing from agents that they're not connecting to your characters? Perhaps you need to work on authenticity in your voice.

Anyone could write a book about my grandmother. And they could probably find out a heck of a lot more about her life than I know through research.

That doesn't mean they knew her.

That's not authenticity.

It is factual; it is not authentic.

Authenticity is heart. 

I've written before that voice is the aspect of the novel that lets the reader forget about the writer. It's what makes characters real. It has perspective, a unique way of thinking about and looking at things based on where he/she is from and the experiences he/she has had.

If you were to ask me to describe my grandma, I would smile and laugh a little as I reflect and begin to speak. Why? What prompts that emotional reaction? Authentically writing about my grandma is evoking in the reader that same reaction - allowing them to feel my perspective.

A writer's craft is in figuring out what tools to use and how to do this; showcasing memories? Using key words (for example, notice I immediately switched to "grandma" instead of "grandmother" when I started writing about her)?

My point of view is one of the more intimate; it is not the only point of view or the whole story or even perhaps the most accurate. But it is authentic because it is based on experience. It is perfectly possible to portray her in a different way based on a different authentic point of view because mine is not the only experience with her.

Heart comes from an original experience.

So here's the challenge: a writer, who has never met my grandma, needs to figure out first, what an authentic point of view would be, and second, how to accurately evoke the emotional response in the reader to convey that POV

The farther the writer's intimacy with that point of view, the harder it will be to accomplish.

And it's not just research that will do that.

It takes a lot more introspection and dissecting. It takes a full understanding of the limitations the writer may have to understand that point of view.

The problem I often see is that a lot of writers confuse this work (creating authenticity) with research, or presenting facts.

An exercise in authenticity:
  1. Tell me about your grandma.
  2. What emotional reaction did you have as you began to reflect and think about what to say? (This is your authentic point of view).
  3. How (and what) do you write to evoke that same emotional reaction in the reader as they are given the information? (This is writing an authentic point of view).

I hope that you find this exercise challenging; it should be! It is the effort any of your characters' voices should be given. Find the heart!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Breaking Down 2017

Ok folks! I'm done incubating kids, and so excited to get back to fully dedicated agent time! I've JUST re-opened to submissions, and thought I'd finally share my last year's stats post!

Here's how my agent life stacked up in numbers for 2017:

Queries (unsolicited) rec’d:

Request rates (based on above):

Requested genres by number:

Hot buttons: humor, science, adventure, mystery, gritty, fantasy, assassins, poison, LGBT, gothic, romance, magical realism, #ownvoice, book club fiction, author/illustrator

Avg. response time: EONS

With being closed and preparing for leave, sadly, submissions fell very behind. But! No more! Promise!

Months with most queries: January- March

Months with most requests: Feb-April, June

Most active period of offering and signing: June-Oct

Happy querying! Here's some more info!

How to Submit to Me