Tag Archives: Things that Make Kate Panic

Help! I’ll Be Very Embarrassed if I’m the Weak Link at YA for NJ.

Yes, I know this isn’t about me. It’s about raising money for the Community Foodbank of New Jersey. But look:  I want to be useful. And in this context, I am useful if someone (or a few someones) out there in the world are excited enough about getting a signed set of The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and The Kairos Mechanism that they’ll whip out their preferred means of online payment and bid like auction-crazed fools. The winner will be donating to a great cause, and will get three books with my scrawl in them, any one of which would make a really attractive doorstop or coaster. Here are some other things you can do with them:

  • The Broken Lands hardcover, with its attractive blue-green spine, can be confidently used to prop open a window.
  • The Kairos Mechanism has just enough give to work beautifully as a fan in the event that the heat in your home or apartment gets a little out of hand this holiday season, or use it to wave smoke away from the fire detector when you forget that last batch of
    cookies in the oven.
  • The Boneshaker is that beautiful shade of red that just looks great and will complement any room’s decor. Use it in December to enhance seasonal red-and-green decorations.
  • Use TBL on the floor to work those calves or stretch out post-run.
  • Use all three together to improve posture.
  • Find one more book and you can weigh down the corners of that antique map from the attic that won’t uncurl for long enough for you to work out the cryptic poem in the corner that miraculously rhymes even after you translate it from the Spanish.

I have worked retail for like fifteen years, people. I can do this all day. They also make pretty good reading. Even Kirkus says so. But seriously–check out YA for NJ. A ridiculous number of very exciting folks have put up some very exciting books and services to thank you for helping out. Bid here on my books, or scroll through the many, many offerings on the table and find the just-right reward for you. But don’t wait too long–the auction ends on December 7th.

The Importance of Dark Stories; or, Kate Talks for a Long Time about Lois Lowry and Crying a Lot

Wednesday night I got to meet Lois Lowry and spend 45 minutes in conversation with her before her appearance in conversation with Anna Holmes and Lizzie Skurnick of Jezebel.com. I was the guest of Jen Doll at the Atlantic Wire (you can read her interview here), because the two of us are reading The Giver Quartet for her YA for Grownups column (first part here), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had asked if we’d like to meet Ms. Lowry since she was going to be in NYC. (Tough decision, no?)

Well, last night, by the time I got to the café at the 92nd Street Y/Tribeca I was shaken and pretty sure I was going to burst out crying (I’ll explain this below), and desperately afraid that I was going to babble too much, but there were things I really wanted to talk about. I think Ms. Lowry and I have certain themes in common in our writing, especially the idea of memory (both human and social) and what it means to be a story-keeper. I also wanted to talk about ideas that many writers for young readers tend to share: the conviction that hope lies in children rather than in adults entrenched in their own worldviews; the belief that it’s necessary for children to question their elders; the idea that books are safe spaces (to paraphrase Ms. Lowry’s own words during that evening’s event) to practice overcoming things adults want badly to shield them from. I wanted to talk about all these things. I was in weird headspace, though.

This is going to be a bit of a longish and meandering post, and it’s going to involve a lot of me telling you about a lot of crying I did. Unlike many of those who’ll read this, I didn’t become a Lois Lowry fan until recently. I was a fan in the sense that I was and am still in awe of her contribution to literature for young readers, but that was it. But I have had something of a year of Lois Lowry, and it’s been a very emotional year.

Before I go any further, though–if you’re reading this and don’t consider yourself a kidlit person, please, read it anyway. This post is perhaps the best argument I can make for why children’s literature matters so very much—as much, if not more, than adult literature—and why adults should read it, too, and share it, and discuss it, even when it makes them uncomfortable.

Back up to the Children’s Book and Author Breakfast at this year’s Book Expo America; it’s a good place to begin. I had somehow managed to get myself up to be there on time, and I had (equally miraculously) managed not to knock my orange juice over onto either of my neighbors at our little table over near the wall. Walter Dean Myers gave the opening remarks; Chris Colfer was the master of ceremonies; John Green and Kadir Nelson each spoke, and all four were delightful, thought-provoking, wonderful to listen to. Then came Lois Lowry, who proceded to talk about her books, which I’d never read, and she made me cry.

Yes, you caught me: I had never read The Giver. I graduated high school in 1994, and although there are books from my childhood that I revisited often in the meantime, I didn’t begin reading new (or new-to-me) childrens’ books again until I began writing for children, which was sometime in 2005 or 2006. I completely missed The Giver and its companion books, which were released in the years 1993-2004. Then I sat in the audience and listened to Lois Lowry. I listened to her repeat the phrase young readers believe they can fix the world. I cried. I tried to hide it, because I am deeply afraid of embarrassing myself and for some reason I thought smudged mascara would be a bad thing. I don’t know why. I’m good at worrying about irrelevant things at odd times.

That breakfast followed oddly closely on the heels of a two-day school visit I did at Deer Hill School in Massachusetts. On the second day, the discussion somehow turned to how these fifth-grade kids felt about endings. I honestly do not know how we got there. But the topic came up, about five hands shot into the air, and the first kid I called on said something along the lines of, “Like at the end of The Giver.” Immediately five more hands went up and started waving. We spent the rest of my time in the classroom talking about the ending of a book I’d never read. And it was awesome.

Now, I sure wasn’t about to admit I hadn’t read it–I wasn’t quite brave enough to do that–so I asked questions like, why do you think she chose to do that? What did it accomplish that a more concrete ending might not have? What is it about the possibility of the unanswered question that makes you so uncomfortable? And, since the class seemed to be fairly evenly divided about whether Jonas and Gabe survived or not, why do you not simply feel that you can decide what you think happened afterward? It was a really lively discussion, and I was fascinated by how strongly these kids felt about it. I decided it was time to read the books, and it happened to coincide with Jen reaching out to McNally Jackson about some other kids’ book-related question, and she decided to read them, too, thinking then we’d discuss them and she’d write about it.

I read The Giver on the beach in North Carolina in August and Gathering Blue and Messenger this past Tuesday and Wednesday while laid up with bronchitis. I didn’t make notes on the beach; I couldn’t put the book down. The best I could do was manage not to get sunburned. But this week, because I was going to get to meet Ms. Lowry and I didn’t want to forget what I wanted to ask, I made notes like:

  • Casual violence, especially between families
  • Artistry valued, but only to meet needs of society/perpetuate approved mythology
  • Use of “worship object”–reduced to fairly meaningless object to genuflect to
  • Chilling reading this on eve of 1st Presidential debate
  • Seeing that woman hit her daughter at Emphasis and coming back to this…not cool
  • Giving of true names both is and is not like the giving of occupations
  • Messenger vs. healer, beautiful distinction–right now, in religion message is all, so little emphasis on actual healing

I watched the BEA speech again before I left for the 92nd Street Y Wednesday night and once again I cried. I was amped up emotionally. I’d just finished Messenger (the ending of which carries pain), and earlier that day, less than 24 hours after the note I’d made about casual familial violence in Gathering Blue, I’d seen a young mother hit her toddler on the girl’s face because she wouldn’t stop crying. This happened at my local diner (ref. my fifth note above). I think this was the first time that, as an adult, I’d ever witnessed another adult hit a child. On the heels of that event I watched the speech again, and this time I was struck even more forcibly by an earlier part in which Ms. Lowry explains that before writing The Giver she’d gotten a letter from her son, then serving in Iraq, in which he asked, why do people do such terrible things to each other? 

I was also looking forward to the first Presidential debate, and I was in one of those mental states where you read something and everything, it seems, has relevance to you and your life right exactly at that moment. A good dystopia ought to have that effect–otherwise what’s the point?–and The Giver Quartet is exceptionally good dystopia. Immigration, the rights of women, the place of the arts and the government’s role in fostering them, and on, and on, and on…

The net effect of all of it is that I was in a state of high emotion on my way to the meeting. So much so that I was so afraid I would cry again while talking to Ms. Lowry and–remember I said I worry irrationally about things?–I wrote an apology letter in advance and took it with me.

So what was the conversation like? Much of it is covered by Jen’s interview, and although she recorded the whole thing since she was going to be writing it up, I didn’t take notes. I just listened, and talked sometimes. Maybe too much, or maybe that’s just me worrying unnecessarily.

We talked a bit about reading the quartet as an adult and in 2012–in particular I’d been fascinated by Messenger‘s Village as a group of its citizens traded away pieces of themselves and demanded the closing of the borders to fugitives. I’d been struck by the way that, in Gathering Blue, artists are of use only if what they create helps to perpetuate the narrative the ruling forces have created. As a somewhat-religious person who’s furious about the uses of religion in politics, I was fascinated by the presence of the “worship object” in Gathering Blue and delighted by Leader’s giving of the name Healer to Matty even though Matty himself had hoped to be called Messenger. “There have been other messengers, and there will be more to come,” Leader says. But only Matty was able to go beyond messages to actually undo some of the real damage scarring his world and dividing it and turning its people against each other. Reading the beginning of Son as a female outraged about what I see as threats to my access to health and reproductive care at the same time as I’m trying to become a mom–well, that’s a killer. Ms. Lowry added that often times readers had pointed out that one of the woven scenes of destruction Kira repairs in Gathering Blue sounds like a description of the World Trade Center falling, and that many readers assume that’s exactly what it is–but that book had been published in 2000.

In much the same way, I guess, so many of the disaster-future elements of the quartet seem troublingly and specifically relevant to the world I live in, even if the author herself hadn’t actively been setting out to push all of those buttons when she’d written them.

This is where, if you haven’t read the books, you’re wondering how on earth all of this is jammed in there for fifth graders to find and absorb and process. And the answer is, of course, it isn’t. It isn’t jammed in there, but it’s there to find, because the world and the characters are beautifully drawn, because they are complex, because a world is a complicated thing and a good book is a world. A young reader encountering this book will find much in it to provoke thought, but certainly not the same set of thought-provocations as a 35 year old writer angry about certain things and sad about others and afraid of a still different set of concerns. Nor will they find the same set of thought-provocations as a 35 year old writer with two nephews as well as an adopted child out there somewhere waiting to find his way home. (Also, I am not always angry, sad, and afraid.)

What we bring to the reading of a book is what enables us to find meaning in it. This is why so many adults read The Giver and find themselves up in arms. And this is why, to a fifth-grader, in many ways the ending is the most troubling part—what lies ahead of Jonas and Gabe, not what they escaped. Kids are so resilient, and for all the darkly good intentions and perfectly-constructed dysfunctionality of Jonas’s community, Jonas and Gabe escaped. Nothing that they experience beforehand is so frightening as the possibility that their escape was for naught. The importance of the book, for them, is that the boys overcome that which is not right in their world.

Lois Lowry said in her speech, then to Jen and I, and then again in the event that followed that over and over kids had written to her wanting to know what happened to Jonas, but even more than that, they wanted to know what happened to the baby he fled with. This raises an even more tantalizing possibility about what The Giver inspires a child to think about. Certainly kids who read the book aren’t projecting themselves onto the baby Gabriel; they’re far more likely to be identifying with Jonas, who is twelve at the time of most of the events of the story. Both boys are on the verge of death at the end of The Giver. Jonas has given up so much to try and save the baby. How wonderful would it be to think that it’s not only important to young readers that the young protagonist manages to overcome the things that stand in his way and survive in a troubling world, but that even as a child he is able to save someone even more helpless than himself?

I have often wondered whether the trouble adult readers often have with the world of The Giver–and with dark books that require sacrifices of children, in general–has less to do with the specific things that challengers cite as problematic and more to do with the fact that that books like these tend to be tales in which adults (at best) cannot protect children from the world they’ve helped to shape and/or (at worst) are actively antagonistic to the best interests of the children–although there’s almost always a good reason for it, from the adults’ point of view. They are worlds that require sacrifices of children like Jonas, Kira, Matty, and Claire, and adults—particularly parents—do not like to think about children being put at risk, to say nothing of children having to knowingly put themselves at risk or even to die in order to save someone else. That’s supposed to be what adults are for, and it’s that very protective wish for peace and comfort and trust that makes them leery of kids reading things that are potentially upsetting. But it’s also that same protective wish that causes a lot of the evil in the world, and in the worlds of these books. It would not be difficult, if you were of a particularly defensive turn of mind, to think that books like these send messages like, adults are not to be trusted, religion is not to be trusted, governments are not to be trusted.

I don’t personally think that’s what these books say, by the way. I think what they say is subtly different, and critically important: sometimes the entities you should be able to trust will make mistakes, at least. Sometimes you will have to trust yourself to survive.

And then, the most important bit:

And you can do it.

Novellablog, BEA Edition: My Beautiful Advance Copies and the Grammatical Error on Page One

First of all, LOOK AT THE PRETTY!!

Beth at McNally Jackson took my PDFs of The Kairos Mechanism‘s book text and front matter and laid them out all sorts of pretty. Then, since I won’t have Andrea Offermann’s cover illustration until about mid-July, Erin at McNally made a basic cover from my title page (the back cover has the disclaimer on it about this being an advance copy and to check all quotes against the final text). Then, ten minutes later, there it was. The books come out warm, like cookies out of an oven or something. It is honestly and truly a really beautiful little book. I am going to be so proud to show it off.

Now. For the second half of the title.

You heard me. I literally have a grammatical error on the first page. Plus I also somehow deleted two lines of text from the last page that make the first line of one paragraph seem a bit like a momentary non-sequitur. Neither are things that will spoil the read, if I stifle my emotional reactions and look at them academically. Still. Perfect brackets, on the first page and the last. Plus, reading it through last night, I decided that Christine Johnson, the final editor to comment on this before my last round of revisions, was right about my needing to spend more time explaining how the mechanism of the title works.

Having read my previous posts about the editorial panic attacks I’ve been having, you might be thinking that I’m having a bit of a nutty here at Milford Command Central. The truth is, I’m not. On the one hand, the grammatical error on page one (although it’s such a common error that most readers are likely not even going to catch it) is exactly the kind of thing I don’t want happening even once in the book, and I certainly can’t have issues of the “this needs more explanation” variety in the final copy.

On the other hand, this will be the third time I’ve experienced the exasperation that is the Advance Review Copy.

The first time I saw the ARCs of The Boneshaker, I was ecstatic. I was over the moon. My book, in actual-book form for the first time, with its beautiful shiny red cover and everything. I was too starry-eyed about that to freak out about the typos inside that were still being ironed out behind the scenes. With The Broken Lands, it was a bit different. I got the ARCs a week after I’d mailed the first mechanical pass back to Clarion, and the number of corrections I made on that mechanical pass made me look sideways at the ARCs because I knew none of those changes had gone into them, and because they were being mailed out to reviewers all over the place. The changes were mostly cosmetic matters of verbiage and poetry and that sort of thing, but there were a LOT of them, and I knew the ARC had been printed from a draft something like three iterations before the one I’d just edited. You can’t freak out about that. You just have to make sure everything’s caught before the final manuscript goes to the printers.

So, although it goes against every instinct I have, I am not going to freak out now, either. Well, not much, I’m not. I’m going to fix what needs fixing, and pass the ms on to the copyeditor. (This is not her fault, by the way; she only just received the manuscript last week. I’m the smartypants who up and decided last week that she wanted some ARCs for BEA. It’s also not the fault of any of the readers who edited the manuscript up until this moment; I’m the genius who somehow deleted the sentences at the end while formatting the manuscript to the specs required by the Espresso Book Machine.)

And ultimately, the professionals of the book world understand what an advance copy is: it’s a snapshot of the book at a stage when it is (to the best of everyone’s ability), fully presentable while still being decidedly still in-process.

Plus, they’re just too pretty and–well, too real not to be overjoyed about. I love them, and with the help of some wonderful, brilliant, dedicated friends and a hundred or so Kickstarter angels*, I made them myself.

So, in the immortal words of Vampire Weekend, who gives a f*ck about the Oxford comma?

*There is still time for you to become one of those angels, you know. The campaign ends June 9. No big deal. I’m just sayin’.


Novellablog: Yes, You Can Edit Your Own Work, but You Will Probably Frack It Up.

It will not surprise my nerd audience that I’m watching Battlestar Galactica as I write this. But that’s neither here nor there. We are now progressing into the portion of this series I like to call

From Beta Readers to Copyeditors; In Which Kate Panics About the Editing Process. 

Here’s a list of things I am worried about with this project:

  • 1)   Finishing the novella. (April Kate checking in: done and done.)
  • 2)   Raising the money. (June Kate, did you want to weigh in? . . . June Kate . . . ? You there? Or do we not have forward-going time travel budgeted into this thing? April Kate: No, we do not.)
  • 3)   Does anybody actually want to read this thing? (Anybody? Bueller….?)

Then, right on schedule, (I KNOW!!)  I finished the first draft of the novella, and a whole new set of panicky things set in.

  • 1)   Without running the agent/editor gauntlet, how do I actually know this thing is any good?
  • 2)   Who’s going to edit the thing?
  • 3)   Who’s going to copyedit the thing?

I had already decided I needed to have someone else copyedit the manuscript. The biggest complaints I have been reading about self-published works all have to do with poor or absent editing. Heck, traditionally published books get poorly edited all the time, too. So, yes: having editors involved=critical. But I worry that the challenge is bigger than just having a strong copyeditor come in at the end.

We all make mistakes. I’m good with grammar, spelling, and apostrophes, but I’m bad with who/whom and further/farther. I have a tendency to use the words odd, strange, and bizarre too often (if you have read any of my books, you will understand why). I am fascinated by the different kinds of glances and smiles and grimaces that people use to communicate wordlessly, so I tend to overuse those devices when I write. I have characters fold their arms too often, and my first drafts have an excessive number of paragraphs begun with a character’s name. And this is just the stuff I know I do. Let’s not even think about all the awkward writing stuff I do that I don’t know that I do until someone hits me with a rolled-up newspaper and says, STOP THAT.

All of these things get fixed because someone other than me looks at the manuscript in a particular way. Awkward sentences that turn out to be a paragraph long? My husband usually catches those before they go to the critique group. Random missing words and bogus references to antibiotics prior to World War One? Thank you, critique group. “I don’t know why I think this, but I wish you would do this part differently, ’cause it bugs me”? That would be the Kid Editors, weighing in.

And yet. And yet.

A page from the revised final draft of Ellen Raskin's THE WESTING GAME. There is no such thing as a clean draft, evidently.

The last time I got a manuscript back from my editor at Clarion, it was prefaced by an email that said (I am not paraphrasing), “Great job, Kate! This manuscript is in great shape.” And it was still covered in blue. I mean covered. (She uses blue pencil, she told me once, because she figured if any author got a manuscript back with that much red writing on it, they might go into a cave in panic and never come back out.) And that was a manuscript that was in great shape. One on which I did a great job.

What would it look like if she thought the manuscript quote-needed work-unquote? The evil truth is this: even the cleanest, sharpest draft I’m capable of turning out needs several passes of editing before it’s ready to be picked over by a copyeditor.

And I think my critique group will confirm that I turn out fairly sharp drafts before I share them with anyone. This is not boasting. Remember that thing I said before about not always knowing where things are going in my stories before I get there? This means I don’t always even share a draft with my crit group until I’ve gone back and cleaned up the results of my (ahem) particular process, read it back through, cleaned it up again, revised a bit, read again–you get the idea. So who’s going to go three rounds with me with the blue pencil this time?

Then there’s this to panic about: catching potential historical mistakes. I’m a good researcher, and I do my due diligence with everything, but I’ve made some bizarre mistakes before. Only a couple weeks ago, I caught an error I’d made about the use of sugar in fireworks and had to send a frantic email to catch it before The Broken Lands’ ARC materials went into production. I sent the novella manuscript to my critique group still full of notes to myself like (CHECK THIS) or (ERA-APPROPRIATE ANTIBIOTIC) or (COLOR OF STITCHES?).

And how about the moment I realized was that I couldn’t remember whether the word “gingerfoot” had been capitalized in The Boneshaker, or whether Doc Fitzwater was referred to as the Doc or just the doc? I couldn’t immediately find my hand-drawn map of Arcane, so all of my locations were going to have to be double-checked. Last week my friend Lisa noticed that I changed the spelling of one character’s name midway through the manuscript. I fixed the inconsistency, then had a moment of doubt and went back to double-check how I’d spelled this guy’s name in The Boneshaker. Get this: when I’d “fixed the inconsistency” in The Kairos Mechanism, I’d changed all the spellings to the wrong variation of the name.

This nearly sent me into a full-on panic attack as I was reminded suddenly of a series of (incredibly, incredibly bad) fantasy novels I read last year in which the spelling of a character’s name was inconsistent from one novel to the next. How the hell does anyone make a mistake like that? I’d thought at the time, stunned at how very, very bad this writer was.

Okay, to be fair, it was also an adult series from the mid-Eighties, and the name thing was the most minimal of the reasons why these books were so very bad. I mention this because I’m now certain that guy and I are not the only ones to have made this mistake. And a mistake like that doesn’t make a book–or anyone’s writing bad; but it does make the writing in question look careless.

So what’s the answer? Well, among other things, I’m starting to compile a style sheet for myself and for the copyeditor, so that I can at least try to avoid calling a character Wylie when I’m already on record calling him Wiley. But more on that in my next post. I think I feel another panic attack coming on, and I’m going to see if going to the diner to get some new writing done will put a stop to that, at least temporarily.