Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Few Words on P.O.V., Scotch, and The Cone of Shame


By the time you read this, I’ll be moving.  I’m leaving my sweet, small, college and VERY Southern town (affectionately and derisively called Mayberry, PhD) in order to return to the Metro DC area, where I have friends, family, and an on-going love/hate relationship with its pretentions of being a city.  ( Like Eloise, I am a “city child” and, as a born and bred New Yorker, I see the truth in the writer Colson Whitehead’s observation that being born in NY ruins you for anywhere else.)

I left DC four plus years ago with a husband and a cat and I will return to it without the husband, but with a dog and that same cat.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.  That sounds better in French, but then, what doesn’t?

Because of the move, scheduled to take place just when my blog turn comes up, I am writing this early (mid October) when I am particularly interested in how writing does and doesn’t change.

VCFA faculty members, I am told, often go in and out of interests in and obsessions with various aspects of craft.  No me.  I am a strict, straight-up Detail and Point of View kind of writer, teacher, and reader.   P.O.V has SO much power.  It’s like scotch on a cold, bleak night.  Used wisely, scotch can infuse the night with a warm and golden haze.  Used without care, that same scotch can put you into a tailspin of many cold, bleak nights.

To be less dramatic and lush-like about it, consider what would happen if we were to change the pronoun in the first sentence of this post’s second paragraph. Switch from ‘I’ to ‘She’ and we’d move from a confessional, almost over-sharing tone to one that tells us a series of facts in a boring manner that reveal very little.  Who tells the story (or the series of facts struggling to become a story) changes the very nature of what is told.

As you move into your 4th and 5th packets (or drafts!) ask yourself who is narrating and why.  The words “Cone of Shame” are in the post title simply to justify the photograph of the dog and cat who are coming with me to DC (the dog had, in mid- October, some surgery and had to wear the cone quite a bit).


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What’s Up With That? by A. M. Jenkins

An open question regarding sexism and misogyny in the children’s and YA publishing industry.

First, some background: A little over ten years ago, I wrote a YA ms that had alternating POVs—one male, one female. The girl was vain, manipulative, and selfish—all layers in a veneer of desperate self-protection driven by a bone-deep fear that she was inherently unworthy and unlovable (rooted in a traumatic loss that took place in her childhood).

What happened to this ms? As it made the rounds the girl character was consistently deemed unlikable. Around this time I realized that I was trying to avoid “going there” so I rewrote the book forcing myself to do my job and stay in the extremely painful-to-write male’s voice, mind, and heart. The girl character did not change at all; her actions, motivations, and words were exactly the same. The only difference was that now readers got the character through a male POV; in other words, they were one step away from experiencing the girl rawly and directly.

The book (Damage) quickly sold and got a positive reception.

A couple of years later, I wrote and sold a YA book with a single male POV. The POV character was vain, profane, bullying, selfish, and actively cruel—all layers in a veneer of desperate self-protection driven by a bone-deep fear that he was inherently unworthy and laughable (rooted in an undiagnosed learning disorder).

The book (Out of Order) was quickly published and was generally praised for its accurate depiction of a real teen guy.

And all of this—plus repeated, repeated experiences reading:

a)  pre-publication YA ms whose authors are told by editors/agents to change realistically flawed female characters so that they present as “likable” or “everygirl”
b)  reviews of published YAs calling realistically flawed female characters “unlikable” or “unpleasant”

has given me the very strong sense that publishing prefers its girls to be generically palatable and/or shallowly token-spunky. As a writer friend has pointed out, girls are allowed to wield swords so long as they aren’t negative or angry about it. My own observations tell me that a boy character can curse, lie, cheat, bully, steal, and kill, and still be deemed likable and someone to root for. But a girl who has a prissy streak? A judgmental bent? Not so much.

There are exceptions, of course. But I believe I have seen—and am seeing even more, as the larger publishing industry discovers that YA can be a huge moneymaker–a clear knee-jerk prejudice against realistically 3-D girl characters. And here’s what’s odd: the majority of people who work in the children’s/YA end of the publishing industry are women.

What do you think is up with that?


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Middle grade novels and the vast black marketing sea

What makes a reader pick up a book?

I guess if I’m honest, I’m really wondering…what makes a reader BUY a book?  (An artist friend recently told me she used to date a gallery owner who told her the only compliment he trusted was a sale.)

Once upon a time, there were children’s-only-independently-owned bookstores that were mostly owned and managed by passionate readers who would listen to sales reps and pour over galleys and ARCs, waiting to be dazzled, wanting to find the new gems they could talk about with the folks who darkened their doors.  I, myself, doing signings in said bookstores was the recipient of what was called “hand selling.”  And more often than not, I did buy the book that the bookseller pressed into my hands and talked about in such a compelling way. 

As those bookstores dwindled, we children’s book authors had readerly teachers and passionate librarians in public libraries and schools.  They poured over catalogs and read reviews and went to ALA and AASL and IRA their state library and reading conferences.  They met authors.  They sat in readings and at tables where we authors did our bewitching best, trying to  not wear our hearts too obviously on our sleeves while we shared nibbles of our stories.  Those teachers and librarians were powerful ambassadors for the books that caught their attention.  They put books into the hands of their colleagues and into the hands of young readers.

Booksellers–those that had survived the crunch–continued to hand-sell.  

Artistic careers rose and fell.

What about now?  How does a book find its readers?

My agent, Barry Goldblatt, once told me that readers of YA find something they like (can we say Twilight, anyone?) and want to read something else just like it.  This week I sat in a room at the Boston Book Festival listening to a panel that included Nancy Werlin and Maggie Stiefvater and Shelly Dickson Carr (VCFA grad) and Marissa Meyer–all talking about books inspired by fairy tales, ballads and legends.  The room was packed; people were turned away; signing lines were long; YA fans love what they love.  But many an editor or publisher, Barry said, has tried to do something similar with middle grade novels (“if they loved x, they will surely love something like x“) and failed.  

Middle grade readers are exploratory.  They are not set in their tastes.  They, too, love what they love but–as a group–they are hard to predict and harder to pin down.

I suppose I’m a lot like a middle grade reader, myself.  I get immense pleasure from reading picture books and adult nonfiction and YA fantasy and graphic novels and grown-up novels like Cutting for Stone and The Life of Pi and, oh, magazine articles and blogs and clever ads.  Right now, I’m in the middle of reading What We Found in the Sofa and How it Changed the World.  I’ve recently finished Chantress and Rogue and Saints by Gene Luen Yang am waiting my turn for my copy of The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp.  All of those books will also be read by kids in that 8-to-12-year-old middle grade age range.  All of those authors must wonder sometimes, as I do, how will the readers who are right for my book FIND my book in the vast black sea now that the book ambassadors no longer pop up–there, there, there–like islands in that sea?

I’d love to know.


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Book Talk


A whole weekend to talk about books?  If this sounds like your idea of heaven on a stick you will be envious of an event that my colleague Leda Schubert and I attended in September.  We met in a barn in Vermont with other like-minded folk to talk about the works of Susan Cooper.  That was it.  No prize to decide; no lectures to attend; no conclusion to come to; no report to write; just the pleasure of focusing on books that have accompanied some of us on the road for almost fifty years. (As befits a group of readers there was also eating, drinking, walking, gossiping and contemplation of sheep against a backdrop of crimson and golden hills.)

             In reading and re-reading in preparation for this treat I couldn’t quite set my teacher self aside and I noticed several inspiring technical things in Cooper’s writing.  Here are a couple:  The first is punctuation extravaganza!  In a book like The Dark is Rising you can see how Cooper uses punctuation to orchestrate the rhythm of her sentences. It’s as though she teaches you how to read her work, how to hear it, as you’re reading it.  I know we’re in a punctuation-averse age.  I feel it in my own writing.  Maybe it’s a tool we’re neglecting.  (Please note my daring semi-colons in the previous paragraph.)

            The other writerly thing that really struck me was Cooper’s innovative use of point of view.  In King of Shadows for example she does something very cool with a dual point of view.  But that’s nothing to what she pulls off with first person in her recent Ghost Hawk.  I don’t want to give too much away here but it does contain the line, “I never heard the sound of the second shot that blasted a great hole in my chest and killed me.”  Intrigued?  Read the book and then find somebody to talk to about it.

Sarah Ellis


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My Neurotic Picture Book, Mark Karlins

Manuscripts, The Monk of Pizza, Dust

I was looking through a stack of my picture book manuscripts, trying to decide which, if any, to work on. I found one from about five or six years ago which I had been fond of, and which my editor at the publishing house had also liked, that is, before leaving for another job. Had my manuscript been so awful that I had driven her out of publishing?  In fact, driven this excellent editor out of New York itself, a city in which, she had boasted, she had located the best local pizza parlor, a six table joint in the West Village. Given that, according to Trip Advisor, NYC has 10,867 places to order pizza, my editor’s find was no small accomplishment. (I would, however, dispute her choice, favoring Di Fara on Avenue J in Brooklyn, run by the legendary Don DeMarco. Only three tables, ridiculously long lines, owing in part to the Don’s slow method of creating a pizza (he’s as concentrated as a monk working on an illuminated manuscript), but well worth the wait.) Anyway, my editor was gone. The manuscript was on hold until another editor could take over. My own interest in solving the book’s issues dwindled. It wound up on my bookshelf until a couple of days ago. With a tissue, I wiped off the dust.

I had hoped its quality would be better. But reading it, all sorts of problems became apparent. It was as unfocused as the above paragraph about manuscripts, editors and pizza. Certainly the manuscript was rich with ideas, but it had too many ingredients. It was going too many different ways at once — the more I had worked on it, both alone and with the editor, the more scattered it had become. Sure, it was inventive. But it felt restless, apprehensive, insatiable. It had no center. It was, in short, neurotic.

Colorful and spontaneous, it wasn’t a bad first draft; but it had never matured and made its way out of that stage. Lots of cutting was required. More than that, a central identity was missing. I don’t know if picture books need to be more focused than other types of writing, but I suspect they do, partly because of the brevity of the form. Many of the best picture books have a mathematical elegance to them.

A Note from My Editor

“As promised, here are the notes from our editorial meeting yesterday. Basically, everyone said some variation on this theme: ‘there’s too much going on in this story.’ Right now, the story is trying to balance:

the main character’s need for adventure

Hey Diddle Diddle

Nursery Rhymes in general


Don’t ask. Wanadoos? Hey Diddle Diddle? This is what my kind editor called “Karlins’s ridiculously creative mind.” Ridiculous indeed.

My Book Picks Up Its Suitcase and Takes to The Road of Self-Actualization

My poor neurotic picture book needed to be put on the road to self-actualization. With my faulty memory of some psychology books I had long ago read — and with the enormous help of Wikipedia, a source I like but also have some arguments with — I found this early definition: “[self-actualization] is the organism’s master motive, the only real motive. . . . The tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive. . . .” A little later in the history of the term, we get to Maslow, seeing self-actualization as “intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself. . . .” If we translate this from psychology to writing, or, for that matter, to any creative activity, is there a better description of the process which brings a work to its own fulfillment? The growth of what is already intrinsic to the organism, its center, its essence.

My manuscript needed to find its overarching purpose, in order to become its best self. I found this purpose buried beneath all the events and language I’d created. The story which was asking to be written was actually quite simple. The main character wanted to go on an adventure in order to show her friends that she was capable of taking extraordinary actions and didn’t need to live within prescribed limits. Hopefully, the story is more interesting than that sounds, but that is the story’s governing principle. So, the need for adventure stays, but the Hey Diddle Diddle, the nursery rhymes in general, the Wanadoos, all the extras are gone. It is now, I hope, a better story. It is also, as far as I can tell, the story it needed to become.

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Looking for Something That Lasts

Globe at the Vatican

Globe at the Vatican

When I was in Rome several years ago, I went to the Vatican Museum late one afternoon and had only an hour or so to see the Sistine Chapel. I’d seen it before, but wanted to see it again – it’s hard to get enough of that ceiling. But I passed the day of my planned visit busy with other things – friends and writing mostly – and time got away from me, so I was in a rush. Once inside the building (which way to the Chapel???), I moved as quickly as I thought I could in a building that was old and hushed and sacrosanct – it really isn’t kosher to run through the Vatican (well, nothing is exactly “kosher” in the Vatican, is it?) Outside they have guards in fancy outfits, guards who mean business and hold lance-like things that look painful. Who wants to be told to slow down by someone dressed like that?

Scary guards ready to make me behave.

Scary guards ready to make me behave.

Inside, I moved through the long hallway of rooms, one after another after another (were they temporarily re-routing the way for visitors to reach the chapel that day?)  I came to a room – a corridor, really – filled with magnificent globes. Globes! Oh, I love a good globe – round, simple, beautiful, never anything but elegant –  and, even better, these particular globes were  centuries old. Some up on their stands were taller than me, at least that’s the impression they made as I rushed by. I almost stopped, almost…but then…there was that ceiling waiting….

Detail - Vatican Globe

Detail – Vatican Globe

On my way out after a brief hour in the Chapel, the museum guards were politely moving everyone along, back the way we had come, reminding us in several languages that it was closing time, repeating over and over that it was time to go, please move along, please keep going, the building is closing, please move along.  I came again to the long hallway full of globes. Again, there was no time to linger and be amazed, but I vowed (yes, at the Vatican, people vow) to return the next day.

Detail - Vatican Globe

Detail – Vatican Globe

Only I didn’t return – not the next day, not any other day.  I had classes, coffee with friends, trips to the market, a walk along the Appian Way, the catacombs, Hadrian’s villa – the list of things to see and do in Rome is always long, and my days slipped away.  I didn’t get back to the museum before I headed home to Seattle.  And I haven’t gotten back since, despite a trip to Florence a few years later with my husband. That room – those globes – are still waiting. Those globes. So beautiful.

Big sigh.

At VCFA, we talk about a “desire line” for the main character. Desire lines can be superficial (that is, on the surface, like me wanting to see those globes) or they can be deep, deep down (like me wanting to believe that things last, that beauty lasts, that the world is full of beauty that lasts, and that I will have time to experience it.) My sister has been ill, and I’ve been worried about her, and for some reason when my head and heart drift over to thoughts of her, those globes keep pushing their way in. Why? I’m not sure what the connective tissue is, but it’s there, it’s part of my story.

Maybe it’s about trying to hang on, to find something that lasts; maybe it’s a nagging feeling that there is something that I am failing to do that would change how this part of the story unfolds, or a reluctance to admit that not everything fits into one lifetime. And, as I said, maybe it’s just because the clock is ticking and life is short, and I hope the people I love will live forever and I hope beauty is long. I hope some things last. Now there’s a deep desire line.

I caught a glimpse of something that day and I haven’t gotten back to look more closely, but I still hope I will.  Not to stretch too far to make this relevant to writing, but I do believe hope is something storytelling touches on.  Writers try to get back to that definitive moment, that lost thing, that moment in the story when something changes and time stops – taking the time to look carefully helps us find the connective tissue that holds it all together. Makes it last. Some things last, right?

The Farnese Atlas in Naples

The Farnese Atlas in Naples

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