Cheryl Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, where she edits and publishes books for children, teenagers, and discerning adults. She is my guest today on The Blabbermouth Blog.
Last week, W. W. Norton published my second book: The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults. To mark the occasion, I ran a pre-order campaign and drawing where if you ordered The Magic Words by Sunday, September 11, you could (a) send me a question to be answered on my blog or newsletter, and (b) be entered to win a full manuscript critique.
This resulted in an array of interesting questions for editors to answer, and as Linda is kind enough to lend me this space, I decided to answer eight of them here, ranging from styling a picture book to dealing with tough subject matter in a novel. Thank you again for the space and attention, Linda.
- What is the best way to communicate illustrator notes in a picture book manuscript when the illustrations are integral to the plot? Is there a standard format? I have been receiving conflicting advice on this point.
Here’s what I like, and I think most editors would agree with the general principles: If it’s an overarching concept, like (for example) all of the illustrations should be in black-and-white except for a single bird in red, put that at the top of the manuscript, just under the title, marked [in italics within brackets, like this]. If it’s an image that comes up at a specific point in the book, use this [italics within brackets] method there as well. In all cases, keep the notes brief and strictly informational, and include as few notes as possible.
- I am an author-illustrator but I’m open to someone else illustrating my children’s book if that serves the project better. How is this best communicated to agents and editors?
By saying exactly that in a cover letter! And if you get an agent, tell him or her that you hope they’ll put that in their cover letters to editors.
- As an editor, do you think the industry would once again welcome an adult as the main character of a middle grade novel (Mary Poppins, Doctor Dolittle, Mr. Popper)? Especially in American middle grade literature?
Hmm. Yes, I think it’s possible, so long as the book is built as Mary Poppins, Doctor Dolittle, and Mr. Popper are (with caveats for the fact that I haven’t read those in decades): The adult is either very childlike, and/or surrounded by children or child stand-ins (like animals); the action is clearly designed to give pleasure to children, in part by showing the adult interacting with those children/child stand-ins, and in part through adventures; and the book is absolutely delightful. This last is a matter of tone, and the hardest part to pull off . . . but for contemporary examples, you could look at The Mysterious Benedict Society and Escape from Mr. Limoncello’s Library, both of which fulfill these requirements, I believe.
- I enjoyed your recent podcast on misunderstood characters. Would you give another example of a technique for creating empathy with a main character? I’ve heard you talk with Matt Bird about “saving the cat” and also about showing readers the protagonist’s “secret shame” or “secret honor.”
As you’ve purchased The Magic Words, I can just say: See Chapter 8! But for the benefit of blog readers, I’ll cite one of my favorite techniques there with a brief excerpt:
According to the Transitive Property of Reader-Character Relations, readers will echo the reactions of characters they already know and like and/or trust, and oppose the reactions of characters they don’t like or trust. Consider the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Dursley family is shown to be amusingly small-minded and aggressively normal, so we readers enjoy feeling superior to them. But we also learn the Dursleys hate the Potter family for being so different, and since we dislike the Dursleys, we automatically like the Potters—a useful first step in making readers sympathize with Harry. Think about how your character math works as you introduce new figures into your book.
You can also use supporting characters to create more dimension in a character who thus far has had only one identity.
In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening. . . . The sight of him waiting there brings on a smile. . . .
“Hey, Catnip,” says Gale.
—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In the first six pages of The Hunger Games, we see that Katniss loves her family, but she’s not a particularly kind, enthusiastic, or pleasant person. Then she goes to meet Gale in the woods, and this happens: She relaxes. She smiles. She experiences pleasure in someone else’s presence, and Gale likes her as well, which confirms Katniss must have some warmth we haven’t seen yet. That affirms our own interest in her and maybe even warms it up to affection, and that makes us extremely invested in her when she volunteers for the games at the end of the chapter.
A corollary to the Transitive Property: Readers like characters who are liked by other people. They are suspicious of characters who aren’t liked by other people. If you’re writing premise-driven fiction, consider giving your protagonist friends right away, because the friends provide an instant affirmation of the worthiness of the reader’s interest in the protagonist. With that interest confirmed, you can get right on with the plot.
- Even though my writing partner and I have an editor with a stated interest in our book, said interest delivered to us by phone, we have been unable to find an agent willing to rep us; why?
Well, many agents have very full lists and hence only want to commit to a project and authors they really love. And it sounds like you haven’t found the right agent yet—one who loves your work enough to make that commitment. (As it stands, if you’re advertising this editor interest around, you’re sort of inviting someone to take you on just to get their 15% cut, rather than finding someone who will want a real relationship with you for the long term.) Agents may also be waiting until you actually have an offer in hand, when they’ll step in and negotiate it up. You can either keep looking for an agent, or go ahead, get an offer (if the editor is ready to go there), and keep 100% of the money, as opposed to giving 15% to an agent. If you’d like to do the latter, it’s possible to find lawyers with experience in negotiating literary contracts, who could advise you on rights, etc.
- In your job as an editor, what do you wish you spent more time doing? Conversely, what do you wish you spent less time on?
I mostly wish I could do all the things I do faster and more efficiently. I love line-editing, but it takes me forever; I like writing copy, but I’m horribly slow at it; I enjoy reading submissions, but the never-ending flood of them can numb my response muscles. My absolute favorite part of the job is the deep conversations I have with my authors as we figure out what their books are really about and how we can build the plot and characters to speak to those points. (These conversations are especially delightful over food.)
- Should a writer know the target audience for their story from the get-go, or should one write freely, letting the story speak for itself and worry about readers ages later on (or not at all)?
I will refer you to this excerpt from The Magic Words regarding what factors publishers use to determine the target age of a book. As books really can be published best when all of those elements are in sync, I would say that you should perhaps think about which of those is most important to you — your beautiful writing voice? The emotional age of the experience you want to show? The subject matter? — and then design the rest of the project to suit that.
- About animal cruelty (any cruelty) in children’s books: if it happens in real life and addresses a serious issue that children have been and are still being confronted with, why isn’t it allowed?
Oh, goodness, this is a tricky one, because you could substitute “racism” or “sexual abuse” or many other real-life societal ills for “animal cruelty” there, and the question would hold. I would say first that it IS “allowed”; books with these ills are published with some regularity. But books that focus solely on such subjects risk coming off as didactic, or what are known as “problem books,” as they seem to exist mostly to illustrate a problem and show a kid dealing with it; and those have a negative reputation within the mainstream publishing industry because they seem to prioritize the education of the child over the art of the book.
There is also a strong and often vocal audience of people who feel that kids shouldn’t read about these ills, or have to read about these ills, because of negative effects that will accrue to the children through reading about them. (See the debate over THE HIRED GIRL last year, where the protagonist’s unknowing anti-Semitism was judged to be corrosive to young Jewish readers. Or, in another direction, I was recently told that a middle-grade I published that briefly mentioned suicide should be changed to omit the subject, because tween girls would be encouraged to think suicide is acceptable through the inclusion of the topic.) People have been debating this point for as long as children’s and YA books have been published, and while there is passionate disagreement, the audience who DOES believe “children shouldn’t have to look at this” can be large or loud enough to limit the book’s commercial prospects when such a subject is included. And with animal cruelty specifically, a lot of kids themselves don’t want to look at that, or their parents don’t want them to see it because they know it would upset their child. So you need to have brave, patient parents and librarians to purchase those books and make them popular . . .
It is a very fraught topic all around. But again, I do think it is certainly “allowed,” if it’s presented with taste, written with sympathy for the child involved and the child reader’s viewpoint, and woven into the larger arc of the protagonist’s story, rather than being the entire point of the book (which would make it a problem novel).
I’m so grateful to Cheryl Klein for guest posting on the blog! Although she and I might differ in opinion regarding certain aspects of #5 above, I very much appreciate her sharing a bit of her vast knowledge with my blog readers. Here are links to order The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults from your local independent bookseller, Barnes & Noble, or on Amazon.