Continuing with our discussion of kid beta-readers, we rejoin the Kid Editor Crew for Part the Second: How it Works.
Here’s how it works.
When I have a draft almost ready, I send out an email to the Kid Editors to find out what everybody’s schedules look like, and the Editors let me know if they’ve got busy times coming up (family trips, school projects, that kind of stuff), and we figure out when a good time for me to send them material might be. The Kid Editors know that I do not want to get them in trouble with their parents. Nor do I wish to get in trouble with their parents (all of whom, at this point, I consider friends as well).
When it’s time to send out reading material, I come up with a list of specific questions I would like answered. Sometimes I break these concerns into two parts; let’s call them things to keep in mind while reading and questions for afterward (the latter category might involve spoilers, or things I’m concerned might not actually be issues if I don’t point them out in advance and make a big deal out of them). I am learning to make these open-ended questions. I also always ask for the Kid Editors to make note of anything else that leaps out at them that I haven’t asked about, and to note any questions they have while reading, any characters or moments they particularly like, and any they particularly don’t.
The specific questions vary from manuscript to manuscript, but here are a few taken from the email I sent with the manuscript for The Broken Lands, earlier this year.
I want to make sure the specific concerns I have are addressed; but I also want to make sure that the readers know I honestly want to hear their thoughts, not just their responses to my questions.
Now, here I will pause to answer another frequently-asked question. It’s usually framed something like this: “How do you send the material?” I send it in Word, primarily because I’m too lazy to remember to convert it to a PDF, but when asked this question I actually think what people often really mean is, “You send your manuscripts to a bunch of kids? How do you know they aren’t emailing it off to all their friends? You don’t know where that manuscript goes! How can you possibly do that and not wake up in a cold sweat at night?”
I don’t wake up in a cold sweat at night a couple of reasons. I didn’t pick these four kids off the street at random. They are passionate readers, and passionate fans. They understand that what they are being asked to do is, essentially, take part in the secret, behind-the-scenes world of books-before-they’re-books. They know that’s something very special, and they understand it would be a tremendous breach of trust to share the manuscript with anyone else (however, talking about how awesome the book is with anyone and everyone is, of course, highly encouraged). But in the end, it is a leap of faith. Every writer has to decide for him or herself whether or not this is a leap he/she’s willing to take.
Some of the Kid Editors like to give me updates throughout the process. Others are fast readers and want to breeze through on their own. One pair of readers, twin girls, asked their father to read them the last draft out loud, because that’s how they read The Boneshaker (BONUS!! This parent was dragooned into being a Dad Editor). Eventually, though, I get messages from each reader as he or she finishes reading. These emails might contain answers to my questions, or just “I finished it” notes. In either case, the next step is to schedule a phone call.
I don’t ask for comments back in the manuscript itself, for two reasons. Firstly, I want them to be able to read the material in whatever manner works best for them. If they want to print it, that’s fine, but that can get expensive. If they want to read it on the family computer, that’s fine, too, but who knows if the computer can be spared for that. The second thing is, I find real-time discussion to be amazingly informative. Now, one of my readers, who I’ll introduce to you in a later post, is actually planning to become either an agent or an editor, so it’s looking like we may begin to look at options for in-manuscript critiques, too. Honestly, though, there’s a third reason for an actual conversation, which is simply that I like having the more personal contact of talking directly to them. It’s a treat for me. Actually talking to readers is rare, and special.
So, part the Third on the phone call, coming to you on Wednesday.
Every writer eventually gets asked at least once or twice what she thinks the most important things are for someone who wants to be a writer. There are any number of good answers to this question (persistence, self-motivation, delusions of having something to say, delusions of being able to take criticism, etc). Today I’m going to focus on this one: writers need critical readers they trust. We need them like we need coffee. Which is to say, they are absolutely something we cannot do without.
Now, my mother, my father, my sister, and my best friend are all good readers. They are smart, they ask good questions, and while they might be somewhat deluded about how totally brilliant I am, they are all of them, in one way or another, writers as well, and they know what’s helpful and what’s not. My husband is even better, if only because he is somewhat concerned that I eventually get paid for what I write, since I quit a full-time job to do it. My critique group, which is comprised of ten brilliant middle-grade and young-adult authors, is phenomenal, and takes a near-psychotic pride in its ability to apply razor-teeth to each others’ drafts and/or take those vicious crits like the nerves-of-steel ladies we are. That is an awkward sentence, for example, and I promise you there are ten ladies out there right now dying to fix it.
But in the end, all of these people are adults. And while I certainly hope adults will read my books, they are written for younger readers. Wiser folks than I have pointed out that there is sometimes a huge gap between the experiences of an adult reader and a kid reader, even if they’re reading the same thing.
Enter the Kid Editor Crew.
The Kid Editor Crew–my Kid Editor Crew, anyway–is a circle of four kids between 9 and 12, and it occasionally, but not always, includes their parents and siblings. But only if the Kid Editors decide to allow it. When I have a draft nearing readiness to submit to editors, these are the last eyes that see it before I decide it’s ready to go. Sometimes they see it before my critique group does, for various reasons. I have discovered in my perambulations throughout the writerly world that not everybody has Kid Editors, and I have several times been asked 1) how it works and 2) how did you find them?
Hence, readers, my gift to you this December: all about the amazing Kid Editor Crew and their thoughts on the beta-reading process, with special appearances by these genius kids themselves.
Email me your questions, and they will be passed along to the Kid Editors themselves. In the meantime, stay tuned. Part Two coming up on Monday.
Well, here we are. The Saturday before Thanksgiving. Usually for me this means the final phase of the Countdown To My Birthday (December 2, if you were curious, which you probably weren’t; but just in case, my favorite color is blue), things like attempting candied fruit peels for the millionth time and checking to see if the plum puddings stashed in the back of the fridge from two years ago still look edible (answer: with that much alcohol in them, they should be good until the next millenium).
This year, it also means I have 11 days to crank out the rest of a novel I didn’t know I had in me until September, and which I have committed to attempting to finish by the end of November. November, for those of you who may not have known, is National Novel Writing Month, during which thousands of writers attempt to crank out 50000 words in 30 days. NaNo.
I have never done this before, but I figured my “minimum day” target word count–the number of words I have to do to consider it a minimally productive day and not feel guilty about spending the evening watching anime or diving into my to-be-read-just-for-fun pile–is about 1500, which is something like 3 pages, double-spaced. 50000 words in 30 days breaks down to just under 1700 words. That’s two more paragraphs than a minimum day. No biggie. At least in theory.
Oh, I kicked those first two weeks’ number-crunchin’ backsides. I lost a week to pneumonia, but now I’m basically caught back up. I can crank out another 17000 words, this I know. The question is, am I going to be able to end the novel–or get anywhere close–with those 17000 words? I write LONG first drafts. I overcomplicate everything. I discover whole new plot points at the 2/3rds mark. To say nothing of the fact that as recently, as August, not even the barest shred of this story existed. This is going to be interesting.
An especially interesting part of this is the villain. If by any chance you read my previous post, you know I was looking for one. Well, I found her, but boy, is she strange. She isn’t my usual sort of bad guy, and not only because she’s female. But she is based on a persistent bit of folklore that pops up around the world: the lady in white. However, most lady in white legends are basically ghost stories. My lady in white is…well, she’s something else altogether. And I think she still has a few surprises in store for me.
I wonder if she’ll be done with me–and with Natalie–by December 1. We shall see.
This is a fascinating state of affairs for me. I will tell you why.
But first, let me say this. I love writing villains. I love dreaming them up, deciding on their quirks, their monstrosities, and the cuts of their bespoke suits (I’m looking at you, Walker). I love choosing which slivers of humanity to reveal, and when. I love when my beloved beta-reading genius editor kids tell me, “No, that’s not too scary. I think he could be a little scarier. And by the way, are you going to write more about Jake Limberleg?”
I love villains so much that, from time to time, they turn up in my head before the hero does. It may surprise you that this is what happened with The Boneshaker. That’s right; Jake Limberleg surfaced before Natalie Minks. The Broken Lands was a little bit different. I knew the villains in advance, but I knew the main characters in advance, too; and unlike Natalie, I knew them just as well, maybe better, than High Walker and Bloody Bones, the folks they were going to go up against.
So now we come to my current project. Let’s call it Peculiar Springs, since this is what it’s called in my head. This one is coming together in an entirely different way: the place happened first. This has happened to me before, too, but I didn’t start thinking about a book set in that place until I discovered I had a protagonist and a villain in mind. Fortunately, the minute I began building the Peculiar Springs Hotel in my head, I knew immediately who was going to have an adventure there, and why–partly because I was looking for an adventure idea for this particular character. Let’s call her…well, let’s just tell the truth and say it’s Natalie.
So now I have a place and I have Natalie. In the last month, since this idea first occurred to me, you would not believe the details that have come together for this story. This is how I always know I’m on the right track. Unrelated strange and interesting things suddenly reveal their connections to each other. I read something I’ve really been looking forward to, and immediately I see how it relates to Natalie in Peculiar Springs. Five or six different characters have shown up and come to life. But the one who hasn’t turned up yet is the villain.
So I’m ready to get moving, to start writing–and I’m missing my adversary. This is not normal. I always know who the villain is, because the villain is half the fun for me. What to do?
If you are reading this and you are not DC Comics, you may or may not know that there is a kerfluffle going on right now on the intertubes about DC. If you’re not a comics reader, don’t worry. This post is not going to rehash the Kerfluffle in too much depth, and it’s not about comics. I don’t read comics. I don’t write comics. If you are a comics reader, don’t worry. I’m not going to make the mistake of ranting at DC Comics and attempting to take them to task for their sexist failings without having read the books in question.
What I really want to do is provide my not-inconsequential insight to help DC understand how to write better women.
This is a brief public service announcement from Milford Command Central. The Broken Lands (which it’s a companion to The Boneshaker) has had its birthday rearranged. Rather than being released in May of 2012, it will now be arriving sometime in the fall of 2012.
What’s fun about this is that I suddenly have time to consider a really neat project I’ve been thinking about. More to come about that, but I will tell you that it’ll help to tide you over until next fall, and that it involves Natalie and a big, beautiful machine that lives in the real world where I work at McNally Jackson Books in Soho.
That is all.
Which it’s a post where I take books generally accepted to be of Great Literary Merit and swap them for books found in–GASP–other parts of the bookstore. This is partly inspired by a conversation I had with a customer at my beloved bookstore gig at McNally Jackson. It left me wanting to rant a little bit, which I got out of my system here and won’t subject you to, but the gist was, a man was looking for “literature” for his 13 year old son and was pretty sure anything I was going to suggest that didn’t look like a classic wasn’t worth his time. But guess what, folks? That’s just lame. Suit up, because just in time for beach-read season, I am going to take you on a safari into the sci-fi/fantasy and kids’ sections, and you are going to LIKE IT!
I just got back from Maryland, where I spent a whirlwind weekend doing Very Important Paperwork Things, running a 10 mile race I totally failed to train for (meaning I ran some and walked more), and visiting my baby nephew Oliver Patrick Lloyd, who obviously is going to grow up to be a statesman with a name like that. In honor of my future-statesman nephew, this edition of the Imaginary Curriculum will focus on United States History.
Now, I should tell you that I never got particularly excited about U.S. history in school. This will probably shock anyone who knows anything about what I write, which tends to focus on Americana, but I really was always more interested in European history. On the other hand, I sort of thought I understood the basics: colonization, independence, the Civil War, World War II (I never was really all that clear about WWI). Enough to pass the tests, anyway. I just never found them particularly exciting.
Which brings us to the books below. Now, I should also tell you that I have, in some cases, cited a connection to U.S. history strictly in order to carry the focus outward into the world. But I think that’s defensible. We should really try to look outward more often, I think. With that said, here we go.
A couple of days a week I work at my favorite bookstore, and last week I started one of my favorite projects: building the summer reads table for kids and teens. This got me thinking about all the research reading I’ve done over the last couple of years, the things I’ve learned since that weren’t part of my middle and high school education–discoveries of history, science, math, information theory, literature that I was lead to by people and projects I’ve met and worked on in my post-student years. Some of these subjects are things that I don’t think I would have looked up if not for those people and projects. My husband, for instance, frequently browbeats me into reading things he thinks I’ll like, oftentimes having to overcome heavy reluctance on my part before I’ll finally make space on my TBR pile. A prime example of this was when he finally got me to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. I had absolutely no interest in starting them, but Nathan is, shall we say, persistent. And lo and behold: I LOVE THOSE BOOKS. Love them, love them, love them.
Anyway, long story longer, I got to thinking about these latter-life surprises, especially in subjects like math, which I stopped being good at in 7th grade and feared for the rest of my school days but which I love to read about now. I started thinking about whether my experiences in math, chemistry, physics–even history and literature, which I always loved–would’ve been different if I’d been introduced to some of these books earlier. Would they have opened my mind to aspects of those subjects that would’ve given me different ways to access them, to understand them, to find a reason to care about them even if I wasn’t good at them? For that matter, might I have discovered that struggling with math didn’t mean I couldn’t be good at physics? What if I had discovered something of the poetry of math back before I started to think I wasn’t good at it?
So with that in mind, a couple days ago I started making a special summer reading list of books that have changed my mind or showed me something fascinating where I didn’t know there was fascination to be found. Then the list started growing, so I think this may turn into a couple of posts rather than just one. These are books I think would be fantastic reads for teens, and in my wildest dreams I imagine some of them would be so cool to use in the classroom. I could be wrong; I’m not a teacher–but its summertime and I am going to indulge my wild imaginings. And here they are.
I am collecting nephews like they’re going out of style. I started my collection in February with Oliver in Baltimore, and this month I added Phero in Kansas City. Nephews are awesome. I highly recommend them, if you can talk your siblings into having kids. And I’m sure nieces are awesome, too; I just don’t have any yet.
All this having-of-nephews this year made my husband and I really start thinking about creativity and dreams, and how important they are, especially in a world that’s changing as fast as ours is. We will have kids someday, too, and while we’re very concerned that they grow up with health care and education and libraries, we also want them to believe in their dreams. We want them to have what we had: the belief that no aspiration was out of our reach.
Nathan likes to sit me down for marathon viewings of TED talks, which is how I was introduced to Sir Ken Robinson. This year for Mother’s Day, Nathan and I sent the talk below to Oliver and Phero’s parents, and to our parents. And if you haven’t seen Mr. Robinson speak, I hope you’ll take a minute (or, really, twenty) and watch it, too. It is, apart from being inspiring, HILARIOUS.
Oliver and Phero are lucky kids. They were born into families that prize and encourage creativity and the importance of following dreams, even if they are the kind of dreams that would send normal parents into panic attacks and nightmares of useless liberal arts degrees. I’m pretty sure my father, for instance, had plenty of those nightmares when I told him I wanted to go to school for theatre and literature, when I said I wanted to move to New York and be a playwright, probably even last year when I left my full-time job. I never heard a single word about any of those panic attacks, though. What I did hear from both my mother and father, and from a very early age, was that the most important thing about following your dreams was to be able to imagine yourself achieving them. You had to be able to imagine them in detail, though. You had to be able to imagine, for instance, the work that would go into them, the potential disappointments and derailments along the way, just as well as you could envision success. And you had to be willing to make that dream a part of your life, every day, no matter what.
Shortly after The Boneshaker came out, my dad sent this email to our family mailing list, and I’d like to share it with you.
I was reminded of something my father said once, and I believe it to be true. I think we all knew this when we were young, and some of us vaguely remember it.
If you want something in this life, if you want to be something, if you really want something to happen then you have to make that thought a part of your being.
If you want to be a pilot, you have to think about it all the time, daydream about it, pray about it, imagine yourself actually being a pilot. See yourself inspecting the plane before take-off, imagine yourself climbing the steps to the cockpit, imagine gaining speed as you of the rumble down the strip, feel the G-force as you accelerate into the air and look down as the people and houses get smaller and smaller. Read pilot things. Talk about pilot things. Wear a pilot hat (that’s the part I like best).
And most of all–have fun just daydreaming about being a pilot.
If you do all these things and more–you will become a pilot. I am convinced of the power of it.
The old ones of us must remember to help our children daydream.
Funny old world, isn’t it.
I cannot wait to see what dreams my collection of nephews (and nieces, if I get a few, and offspring, if I get a few) go in search of. The world is a big place, and it needs dreamers.
Happy Friday, everyone.