Imagine the story continuing: virtual author events and book launches

“Because sometimes the better the story, the greater the restlessness that comes when it ends and the listener has to go on, imagining the story continuing somewhere, but untold and out of sight.” -Kate Milford, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book

Probably no author envisioned that one day, a book they’d worked for years on would be released…during a pandemic. When libraries and bookstores are open on a limited basis, and certainly not hosting in-person events. However, authors, booksellers, and librarians are all making the best of it, and in some ways, author events and book launches have become more accessible: plenty of readers who couldn’t attend an in-person event in New York or Boston or San Diego in ordinary times can now attend via zoom, crowdcast, or other platforms – and attendance isn’t limited by fire code! Lots of authors are still doing signings and working with independent bookstores to get books to readers. Here are summaries of three author events – one adult, one YA, and one middle grade – I’ve attended in the last few months:

Deb Gorlin and Eula Biss at Hampshire College, December 2020

OnImmunityI’ve been following Eula Biss’s writing since I got a galley of On Immunity: An Inoculation back in 2014 (she said during this interview that she “would love for that book to become obsolete,” but if you know anyone asking themselves “to vaccinate or not to vaccinate?” please buy them a copy). Eula joined writing instructor and Emerita Senior Faculty Associate Deb Gorlin to discuss her writing career and her newest book, Having and Being Had.

They talked about “personal foundational texts,” books you return to over and over again, books that become part of you, that guide you. (I wrote about some of my personal foundational picture books recently, and am mulling over a piece about non-PB foundational texts.)

Eula said, “I do better and more interesting thinking when I believe that I’m in the margins.” She said that if Hampshire teaches any one thing to all its students, it may be how to draw connections between any two (or more) apparently disparate things. (I can say from my own personal experience that this is true, and led more or less directly to my invention – while waiting for the R train – of a game called Guess the Thing. In short: Person 1 thinks of a thing. Person 2 and 3 each guess a thing. Person 1 says which thing is closest to the thing they were thinking of, and why. The person whose thing was chosen gets to pick the next thing. Repeat until train arrives.)

Kristin Cashore and Malinda Lo in conversation with Tui Sutherland at Mysterious Galaxy, January 2021

Hearing from Kristin, Malinda, and Tui was perhaps less academic but more fun. I was thrilled to hear that Kristin was publishing a new Graceling Realm book; I have since read Winterkeep and it is amazing. Fans of the original three books will likely love it, and I think it works as a stand-alone as well: it’s got amazing world-building, complicated characters, and plenty of action. (And, yes, telepathic foxes.) I requested Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, from the library, and while I was waiting for my copy to come in, I read her brilliant essays on the craft of writing on her blog, Lo & Behold. I read Tui’s first Wings of Fire book as well, The Dragonet Prophecy – I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, because that series was incredibly popular at the last library where I worked – as it is in many places – and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Now I see! More excellent world-building, strong characters to root for, and a lot of action (and violence – like, Hunger Games levels of violence). I could have sworn I took notes on this event – I take notes on everything – but I can’t find them anywhere. However, I can recommend these books, as well as any future author events these three do together – it was so fun to be a fly on the wall.

Books from Other Worlds: A Conversation with Kate Milford & Melissa Albert, March 2021

raconteurscommonplaceIf we’ve met in real life, probably I have talked your ear off about Kate Milford’s Greenglass House books. Her kind of world-building is one of my favorite kinds: our world, but different. And the ways that it’s different are so inventive and compelling to me, from Nagspeake’s shifting iron and the Skidwrack river to the existence of roamers, a culture of smuggling, and an evil catalog company. Plus, the structure of her books is excellent, and nearly always features an ensemble cast of interesting characters, many of whom cross between books – basically, David Mitchell for middle grade, but completely her own. And her newest book, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, is actually the book that Milo (main character of Greenglass House) reads – so Kate invented a book-within-a-book, then wrote that book. And like Greenglass House, it’s an Agatha Christie-style strangers-stuck-in-a-house-together setup.

TalesHinterlandMelissa Albert pulled off a similar trick with Tales of the Hinterland, which she first dreamed up within the context of The Hazel Wood. Tales is a book of dark fairytales that is out of print and hard to access, adding to its mystery and allure. As a reader and a writer, I am in awe: it’s hard enough to invent a creative work that exists for your characters within the world of the book, like Nick Hornby does in Juliet, Naked and David Mitchell does in Utopia Avenue. This piece of art exists for the characters, and grows in the reader’s imagination until it has nearly mythological status. So then, to write that book – and have it meet or exceed expectations – takes immense bravery and talent. Brava!

SCBWI Winter Conference

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is usually held in New York, but this year, of course, it’s virtual. Ordinarily, there are about 1,000 attendees, but the online format hosted 4,000 attendees – many of whom were illustrators who contributed to the Virtual Portfolio Showcase, which is full of incredible art! (Not sure how long that link will be live.)

This is my first time attending (#SCBWIBIRD, per Jolie Stekly) and in many ways it’s similar to the many library conferences I’ve attended (except: there were ASL interpreters and closed captioning in every session!). The Golden Kite awards were Friday night, and the weekend was packed with sessions from 11:30am through the evening (EST). In a few time slots there were multiple choices for sessions, but all of them were recorded and will be available to conference attendees through March; I plan to catch up on those I missed over the next week, but in the meantime, here are some quotes and takeaways. (Note: I use quotation marks when I’m pretty certain I’ve got the exact quote. If there are no quotation marks, it’s close to the actual words used, but not exact.)

#NY21SCBWI badgeFriday, February 19

Orientation for first-time conference attendees: Jolie Stekly

  • “This is an industry full of turtles.” Slow & steady.
  • “If you’re able to be yourself, you have no competition. All you have to do is get closer and closer to the essence.” (Quote unattributed)

Golden Kite Awards Presentation & Gala

Saturday, February 20

Keynote Conversation: Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, The Picture Book as a Perfect Marriage Between Author and Illustrator

  • Matt read their new picture book, Milo Imagines the World. “Maybe you can’t really know anyone just by looking at their face.”MiloImaginesTheWorld
  • “I try to enter every picture book through [children’s] point of view…. What is it like if you don’t have all the information and the only thing you can really read is the adults?” (Matt)
  • “I don’t think good writers go into a story with a message…but I do think good writers go into a story with a point of view.” (Matt)
  • “I’m curious, how many wizards do you have at your school?”(Matt, pushing white teachers/librarians to make sure all book collections are diverse)
  • “Drawing and making pictures was my way of making space for myself.” (Christian)
  • “Talent can get you a job but character can help you keep it.” (Christian)
  • “Play well with others…. You have to make compromises and you have to trust that everyone has the same goal in mind – to make the best book possible and get it to the most readers possible.” (Christian)
  • “Authors of picture books have two jobs: you have to get the story right and you have to get the music right.” (Matt)
  • “A true collaboration is putting your collaborator in the best position to succeed.” (Matt)

State of the Industry Keynote: The Hard Questions and the Truthful Answers: Jean Feiwel with Lin Oliver

  • Jean Feiwel on adapting to the culture of each company she worked for: What do they want from me, and what can I accomplish for them?
  • On combining fiction and science in the Magic School Bus series: My answer to people who say “you can’t do that” is “of course it wasn’t the way it was done, but I did it anyway.”
  • Children are humans with information needs. “Rather than keep content away from kids, I think it’s important to expose them to many different types of books.” Adults should be “not gatekeepers, but ambassadors.”
  • “The market is crying out for diversity and expansion… The real growth and opportunity is in doing NOT what you did last year…but to change the landscape.” If publishers have a limited perspective, they’ll have a limited list.
  • Children today don’t have the prejudice against pictures anymore. Artists are incredibly varied and sophisticated. Illustrations add to the story. “Those boundaries don’t truly exist.”
  • Creators (authors, illustrators) should “be in the world,” be on social media, be well-read.

Behind the Scenes at a New York Publishing House: An Insider’s Tour of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers with Laurent Linn, Katrina Groover, Chava Wolin, and Paula Wiseman

Diagram of a book's circle of life

  • Art Director Laurent Linn’s “circle of life of a book” graphic (right)
  • Publisher and Editor Paula Wiseman offered an analogy: “the editors are the beads and the publisher is the chain”
  • “Backlist is frontlist to those who haven’t read it.” Paula Wiseman pointed out that children’s literature gains new readers every few years.
  • Laurent Linn described Katrina Groover, Managing Editorial Director, as both an air traffic controller and orchestra conductor. In her words: “What I am responsible for is meeting deadlines.”

Genre Breakout Sessions: Two Editors Discuss What’s Hot, What’s Not, What They’re Acquiring and the Rules of the Road 

  • I watched the middle grade session with Tricia Lin (Random House) and Krista Vitola (S&S), but plan to watch the picture book session with Elizabeth Bicknell, Joanna Cardenas, and Andrea Welch ASAP!
  • “Editorial opinions vary. If we don’t fall in love with a voice, it doesn’t mean another editor won’t fall in love with that voice.” (Krista)
  • You’re always going to write more than what ends up in the finished publication. “You still [need] to write those pages, because they’re gonna help you later in the story.” (Krista)
  • Series is the bread-and-butter of middle grade. Character driven, concept driven. (Krista)Screen shot of Writing Middle Grade slide
  • “A second pair of eyes is always super important. Someone not as close to your project as you are can really bring fresh eyes, things you would never be able to catch on your own. We get second readers all the time on our end…. Open yourself up to that feedback. Receive it with an open mind.” (Tricia)
  • There’s this idea of success in publishing…it’s important to keep in mind is that everything is subjective – what you choose to write, what I choose to acquire, what the customer is going to buy…every step of the way, it’s so subjective. You’re here, and you’re writing. With every idea you brainstorm and every word you write. … We’re trying to reach people, we’re trying to do good. (Tricia)

Keynote Address: Looking Back to Move Forward, Tami Charles (I was zoomed out and needed a break, I will watch this one ASAP as well. The tweets from her talk were ecstatic!)

Zoom Peer Critique: Picture Book: Despite a few technical difficulties – handled with grace and perseverance by April Powers and Julian Petri – a huge number of us eventually got into breakout groups for a useful critique, employing the “sandwich style” (praise, constructive criticism, praise).

Sunday, February 21

Keynote Conversation: Jerry Craft and Victoria Jamieson, moderated by April Powers

  • “All children need to see all children in their books.” (April)
  • “It’s hard to know which feedback to take and which feedback not to take.” (Victoria)
  • “If I don’t have to put words in a panel, I don’t.” (Jerry)
  • I like to have the pictures say one thing and the words say another…. That’s one of the beauties of graphic novels…that makes it a really sophisticated art form. Kids have to read something visually and in words and put them together. (Victoria)
  • Story arc for picture books: introduce character quickly, then they start having problems; a little denouement at the end.
  • Timeline for making a graphic novel? (1) brainstorming/developing, (2) sketches/writing, (3) final art (Victoria)
  • Every author/illustrator collaborator is different. At one point Victoria wished aloud to “phone a friend” (Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham), so I found a couple of interviews with them: School Library Journal and Publishers WeeklyScreenshot of story arc

Mock Acquisition Meeting with Wendy Loggia and Delacorte Publishing Team (planning to watch recording)

Mock Book Cover/Book Design Production Meeting with Yaffa Jaskoll and Scholastic Publishing Team (Stephanie Yang, Baily Crawford, Maeve Norton)

  • “There are a lot of opinions to consider and it takes time to make everyone happy.” (Yaffa)
  • On designing a series (e.g. Baby Sitters Club): Each book has to look individual and also look like part of the series (Yaffa)
  • Key takeaways (for illustrators): Keep your social media updated. Reply to email quickly (within 24 hours). Do your research, stay current, keep your work fresh. The conceptual solution is as important as execution; try a few different designs. Find where your style fits naturally and build on that. Be flexible: it can take a bunch of tries to get the art just right. Show variety in your artwork. “You never know what we’re going to gravitate to.”

Real Talk with Four Agents: A Deep Dive Into the Children’s Publishing Business: Kirby Kim (Janklow & Nesbit), Kevin Lewis (EMLA), Erica Rand Silverman (Stimola), Saba Sulaiman (Talcott Notch)

  • “I’ve always felt like I could be a good advocate for others.” (Kirby)
  • “It’s never too early to get engaged in the industry…. You don’t have to wait to have a book published.” (Erica)
  • “Children are really, really receptive to difference… Characters who don’t look like them, think like them. They embrace silliness, absurdity, the unexpected.” (Saba)
  • “You should be encouraged if you’re unpublished, that’s not a bad thing.” (Erica)
    • Or “pre-published,” per Lin Oliver.
  • “You have to care about something, and you have to engage in that thing you care about…. Find that thing that you can do, and do it!” (Kevin)
  • “Go by your compass, not your clock.” (Kirby, quoting Alvina Ling)

Keynote Address: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera: Writing for the Contemporary YA Audience, introduced/moderated by Kim Turrisi

  • Something that surprised me as an author…You end up hearing from readers all around the world and you find out that there are people who have something in common with you that you thought you were totally alone in feeling. It’s the most bizarre, surreal, and wonderful experience to have. (Becky)
  • “It’s really hard to keep in mind that our specific experiences can be night and day from other people… There are a lot of people who need a lot of different kinds of stories.” (Becky)
  • To some people it might feel like only marginalized stories are getting attention right now, and it’s like no, we’re gathering steam for sure, but there’s still so much catching up to do…. Not reading widely is doing a disservice to your worldview and your reading experience. (Adam)Screen Shot 2021-02-21 at 5.19.49 PM
  • Writing tips from Adam: I create a list of 10 random things/details about a character to get to know them. Helps get closer to the heart of the character. “All these choices lead to that authenticity.” There’s world-building in a contemporary space as much as there is in a fantasy space.
  • How to create high stakes if the main character is not facing a huge, life-changing problem? “The stakes are how badly your characters want the outcome that they want.” (Becky)
  • Re: social media: Authenticity is so important to me but also really scary…Privacy gets really complicated. It’s part of the job to figure out those boundaries. (Becky)
  • I was not prepared. I wasn’t prepared for being talked about in a public way. There’s a big difference between being a writer and being an author. (Adam)

My Life in Children’s Books: A Rare Appearance by the Legendary Patricia MacLachlan, in Conversation with Lin Oliver

  • “I like books that allow me to enter them, and if there are too many words, I don’t know where I’m going.”
  • A book should speak to all readers: “Something for the adult to hold, and something for the child to grab onto.”
  • Landscape: “It matters where a book takes place, and what’s going on and where it is.” Recognize your landscape: where did you come from, where have you been, where are you going, what is your great sadness and great joy?
  • Children know everything. They’re also very direct. “They believe everything and they want to know everything.”
  • Quoting her father: “The title taps you on the shoulder and the first line takes you by the hand.”
  • “Children matter.” They see everything, they know everything, they don’t always understand it. It’s nice to be able to reach out and touch them, even if it’s to ask them a question, or show them someone else going through what they’re going through. We owe them…quality of attention.

And that’s a wrap! It was a great first SCBWI conference experience, even if it wasn’t in person. (On the plus side: I didn’t have to travel; I got to do yoga stretches, hang out with my kid, and eat snacks between sessions; and I could be in sweatpants the whole time. On the minus side, I actually like meeting people in person.) Overall: pandemic sucks, technology is a good workaround – and made the conference more accessible – children’s books are here to stay, everyone involved in the creation of children’s books is pretty cool.

Chunky Monkeys at Belmont Books

Tonight, seven of the eleven members of the Chunky Monkeys writing group spoke on a panel at Belmont Books. I’d seen Whitney Scharer, author of The Age of Light, speak once before (at the Arlington Author Salon) but hadn’t had a chance to hear the others speak, even though they’re all local (they meet in person) and many teach or have taught at Grub Street.

The group started in 2012 with Jennifer DeLeon (Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From) and Adam Stumacher, and expanded to nine members, then eleven. When the group started,  none of them had yet published a book; the goal was that, within a decade, all of them would. Grace Talusan (The Body Papers) said she believed in all of the others, but “I didn’t necessarily believe in myself – but all of you did.”

Grace, Jennifer, and Adam were on the panel tonight, along with Whitney Scharer, Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere), Sonya Larson (who just won an NEA grant), and Calvin Hennick (Once More to the Rodeo).

screenshot of @bostonbookblog tweet and photo of panel at bookstore

They started by discussing tenets of an effective writing group (noting that, of course, the exact same rules won’t work for every group):

  • Discuss and agree on expectations and hopes for the group, and level of commitment, at the beginning
  • Rigorous feedback
  • Positive support
  • Specific systems in place (more rigid at first, more flexible now)
  • Deadlines!
  • Ongoing experiences together
  • Relationship with each other and each other’s work (“they know how to give feedback in a way that you can hear it”)
  • Inspiration and integrity; mutual admiration and “healthy intimidation”
  • Respect each other as readers and as human beings
  • Make decisions by consensus

Sonya described the “standard workshop”: a writer submits 20-25 pages, and receives a written letter and line edits. The group meets once a month for three hours on a Sunday, planned 5-6 months in advance (they use a Google calendar and a Doodle poll to set the dates). Hosting rotates, and they workshop three writers’ work each time, but there is not a strict rotation.

Sometimes, in order for the group to thrive, and to be useful to every member of the group, they do things differently. (“Ask the group for what you need on this project right now.”) In fact, the name Chunky Monkeys doesn’t come from the ice cream flavor – it’s because they referred to “chunks” of writing, sometimes asking for the group to review a “double chunk” (twice the usual length) or asking a few members of the group to form a “side chunk.”

They are also connected via e-mail, daily (though this isn’t a formal requirement for group membership). They share “yay-ables” and occasionally have family get-togethers. After many years together, they have a high level of trust, and Sonya said, “with high trust comes high freedom,” which is reflected in their feedback on each other’s work. And being in a group with other writers you admire makes you “up your game” in a way that is positive, not competitive. “All boats float.”

Celeste also talked about the high level of trust among group members: not only do they workshop each other’s writing, but they offer support in “meta-writing” activities, like practicing Q&As before a book tour, helping each other with book proposals, helping each other find agents (“and break up with agents”), and figuring out how to ask for an honorarium. Because they’re at different stages of their writing careers, and have different areas of expertise (fiction, nonfiction, memoir, short fiction), it’s useful to compare notes.

When bookstore employee and moderator Miriam Lapson asked, “How many of you are in multiple writing groups?” the reaction was almost comical, with everyone looking around at everyone else, asking, “Who’s cheating on us?!” (Only one admitted to being in another group, but others said they sometimes asked other people to read their work to get “fresh eyes.”)

Moderator Miriam asked the group how they manage conflict; Jennifer replied that there’s usually something underneath, but “there’s a level of maturity – it’s our passion, but also our profession.” Adam reiterated the group norm of decision by consensus, which means they have to talk through big decisions (such as whether to allow members who move away from the Boston area to stay in the group, or whether to add a new member). It can be a long conversation, but everyone gets heard. Celeste said, “All of us are very invested in making sure everybody’s voice gets heard.”

Once the Q&A time opened up, I observed that every member of the group had a background in teaching writing – how did that inform their workshop process? (At the beginning of the panel, they had said that any writing group could have their kind of success, which I thought was a tiny bit disingenuous, since all of them had taken and/or taught classes at Grub Street and some had MFAs.) Adam replied that when the group started, they’d had a facilitator/moderator for each session, and that, as teachers, they had a specific way of thinking about craft. Celeste added that their feedback is focused on the intent of the writer; they don’t read a piece and say, “You should do this,” but rather, “It seems like your intent is _____, here are some ways you can do that.” (As someone who hasn’t taken creative writing classes or done any formal workshopping, I found this particular piece of advice really helpful.)

Another person asked what the group members did when they had a complete draft ready for submission. Enter “side chunks”! Three or four people read the whole manuscript and critique it. This is also a point at which “fresh eyes” from outside the group may be helpful.

Thanks to Belmont Books for hosting, and to all seven of the Chunky Monkeys for sharing their time and expertise on a freezing Thursday night.

 

Epistolary books on The Reader’s Shelf

M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands
M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands, via Wikipedia

I’ve written about letters and epistolary novels here before, but I revisited the topic with my friend, librarian and fellow blogger Brita, in the Reader’s Shelf column for Library Journal. It was tough to narrow down our initial list of epistolary books to just six titles, but we did it!

Library Journal logo

 

 

Check it out, dear reader, and let us know what you think. Then come back and let us know, what are your favorite epistolary books?

Five Librarian Bloggers to Follow

I’m honored to be included in this Information Today feature by Brandi Scardilli, “Five Librarian Bloggers to Follow,” along with David Lee King, Justin Hoenke (a.k.a. Justin the Librarian), Rita Meade (a.k.a. Screwy Decimal), and Joe Hardenbrook (a.k.a. Mr. Library Dude). Please read Brandi’s article and check out some of my fellow librarian bloggers’ sites!

I’ll just be over here, wishing I’d come up with a cleverer name for this blog when I started it six years ago.

JustintheLibrarianTwitter

David Mitchell and Joe Hill talk writing

And Stephen King was there. (He’s Joe Hill’s dad, though he’s probably more often described as the author of The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Under the Dome, Joyland, Mr. Mercedes…)

boneclocksJoe Hill started off with a short but sweet introduction, comparing The Bone Clocks to the Escher-esque Way of Stones in its fifth part: “a dizzying climb.” David Mitchell protested that his head had become so enormous after this intro that he’d need a second plane ticket for the way home, then he launched into reading from the third section of the book, set in 2004, narrated by war reporter Ed Brubeck. Mitchell interrupted himself frequently to “translate” from British to American, apologize for his Yorkshire accent, accuse anyone who recognized the word “Silurian” of watching too much Doctor Who, and make other self-deprecating remarks, and he concluded the reading with a teaser: “If you want to know if they find Aoife [Ed’s daughter] or not, you’ll have to go to your independent bookstore…”

Hill began the Q&A by asking about genre. Mitchell views genre as “a set of preexisting formulae” that writers can tweak, change, invert, and conjoin. “Genre is dangerous to deploy,” he said, and one of the dangers is reviewers who have negative attitudes toward genres (“I don’t do elves”). However, he said, he doesn’t write for reviewers. “People can tell when books are riskless…and haven’t caused the author psychic pain.” His ideal bookstore wouldn’t have genre signs in it at all; “I don’t like these divisions,” he said. “Surely the only question that matters is Is it any good or not?

cloud_atlasHill’s next question had a geology metaphor; not “where do your ideas come from?,” but “if you drill down through your novel, what’s at the bottom?” Mitchell listed five elements of the novel: plot, character, style, ideas/themes, and structure. Plot and character are propulsive; style and ideas are…”What’s the opposite of propulsive?” (The audience shouted out ideas. Mitchell suggested this would be a fun game show. “What’s the opposite of a peacock?”) Structure is neither propulsive nor its opposite, but the neutral vehicle itself.

“Novels need ideas like bread needs yeast” – a little bit makes the whole thing rise up.

blackswangreenStructure, for Mitchell, is key: “When I find that key, the doors open in relatively rapid succession.” But you can’t impose a structure just for the sake of it; the structure must harmonize with the ideas in the novel. Cloud Atlas‘ Russian nesting doll structure suited its ideas perfectly, and may be part of the reason the book is Mitchell’s best-selling one. (“Cloud Atlas will probably be on my tombstone. It will probably pay for my tombstone.”) Black Swan Green‘s structure may be the most conventional of all Mitchell’s novels, with thirteen sections, one per month, January to January. (Hill to Mitchell: “There’s twelve months in a year, but you were close.”) Why such a radically different structure for each new book? “I’m vain enough to want to be original. Or maybe it’s not vanity…I wish to avoid cliche.” Hill commented that Mitchell’s structures make his books architectural, which chimes nicely with my own idea of each of Mitchell’s novels being like a room in a house, with characters wandering our of one and into another.

Next came the “speed round,” a series of short answer questions. “Why don’t you Internet?” Hill asked. “I do Internet. I don’t do social media,” Mitchell replied. “I don’t have time.” (If you’re going to crank out a 500+ page book every World Cup and raise children while doing it, this is probably true. Think what the rest of us could get done without Facebook and Twitter!) (Probably none of us could write The Bone Clocks, but we could do something better than “liking” pictures of friends’ cats, no?)

Hill asked if Mitchell wrote on a computer or on paper; Mitchell answered that mostly he typed, but he started new novels on paper. “I can doodle my way” into a novel on paper, but not on the screen, often starting with sketches of characters’ faces, he said.

A couple more “speed round” questions: What’s the first book you remember reading and loving? A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Recent favorite book? The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. (Mitchell didn’t list any other contemporary titles, but added that the book he would “run into a burning building to save the last extant copy of” is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.)

Hill then turned the mic over to the audience for a few questions.

What’s your advice for writers whose characters are very different from them? Get your characters to write you letters. Consider what they have to say about money, class, prejudices, sexuality, work, religion, the state, society, early childhood experiences, health, fear of death. “People give themselves away in language all the time.” (This letter-writing advice is almost word-for-word the same as that which Crispin Hershey gives his students in section four of The Bone Clocks.)

thousandautumnsWhen you wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, did you already have the whole concept of the Horologists and the Anchorites? Did you know Marinus was a Horologist? “I knew Marinus had a flexible contract with mortality,” Mitchell answered, but he hadn’t invented the whole cosmology yet. (Marinus, along with Timothy Cavendish, is one of Mitchell’s favorite characters, and one we may not have seen the last of.)

Do your beliefs inform your writing, or does your writing inform your beliefs? If he’s anything, Mitchell said, he’s a Buddhist. “It’s a thing you work at all your life really,” he said. “We need a healthier relationship with mortality.” We’re a “youth-adoring” culture, and that doesn’t serve us well. (The 49 days between the Horologists’ deaths and reincarnations is a number from Japanese Buddhism.)

Timothy Cavendish (from Cloud Atlas) appeared in the Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) of The Bone Clocks, but was edited out of the final version. Does this really have to do with entertainment lawyers? Partially yes, but he’s been replaced by a character who is featured in Mitchell’s next “significant” book, set in SoHo and Greenwich Village in London in the ’60s. (I assume he meant the 1960s, but one can never be sure. Also: will there be an “insignificant” book in between? Or is he just preparing us for a high page count?)

number9dreamThe Bone Clocks wasn’t on the Booker Prize shortlist. (Not really a question.) Mitchell quoted Julian Barnes, who’d said, “The Booker Prize is posh bingo.” Mitchell then noted that Barnes said that before he won (for The Sense of an Ending in 2011), and might not say the same now. Mitchell did mention that his books had been on the list in previous years (The Thousand Autumns longlisted in 2010, Black Swan Green in 2006; Cloud Atlas shortlisted in 2004, Number9Dream in 2001), and didn’t appear bitter that The Bone Clocks didn’t appear on this year’s list.

“If I were the Beatles, Number9Dream would be the White Album.”

His goal, he said, was that if his name were removed from his books, that no reader would be able to tell it was the same author who had written them. (Although some of the character names would be dead giveaways.) He’s always trying something different, which he allows can be trying for his publishers. But the roomful of readers in Cambridge tonight wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks: to LibraryThing for an ARC of The Bone Clocks; to Porter Square Books for setting up the event; to Joe Hill for sharing his thoughts on Doctor Who; to the nice people in line; to David Mitchell for signing two books; to David Ebershoff for a few minutes of nice conversation after the signing.

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

I hesitate to mention this, as it’s January 14 and this is my first post here since the beginning of the year (though I did write about Simon Garfield’s engaging To the Letter, and the letter-writing resolution it inspired, on my other blog last week), but one of my new year’s resolutions is to post here more regularly: specifically, once a week, although occasionally there may be extra posts, and I’m allowing myself to miss the occasional week for vacations, illnesses, etc. I’m sure my twenty readers will be crushed by these lapses.

While I was considering a reasonable frequency for blog posts, I was also considering content. Should I limit myself to book reviews? That would focus things a bit more; this could be a book review blog. But I like having the latitude to write about any issue relevant to libraries, publishing, intellectual freedom, etc. that catches my interest, so I decided not to change the content much.

tenyearsinthetubThat said, Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub, a collection of his columns for the Believer over the past decade, presents a really excellent structure for writing about books, the only problem being that Nick Hornby’s already gone and done it. Even though, given 2,000 words a month, I’d write different things about different books (and I wouldn’t write at all about cricket or football), it seems a bit cheap to steal his format.

For today, then, I’ll just write about what Hornby has written about what he’s read. (How’s that for meta?) For those who aren’t familiar with his Believer column, he starts each one off with a list of “Books Bought” and “Books Read.” (It’s already a brilliant idea, isn’t it?) The overlap between the two lists varies from month to month, as you can imagine, and it’s interesting to see how one book leads to another, what gets read and what gets set aside, sometimes cropping up months later.

As he is writing about so many books in a relatively small space, his transitions can be a bit jarring (or rather, transitions are often lacking entirely); some books receive several paragraphs of attention and others are dealt with in a sentence or two. We can forgive this unevenness though, because Hornby writes with humor, self-deprecation, and intelligence. He often turns on himself, retracting something he wrote in a previous month or even earlier in the same column; for example, one month he writes, “Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else.” Yes! But the next time the World Cup rolls around, he does a reversal.

Hornby has a talent for articulating thoughts that might have occurred to many of us in a fuzzier form, but he does it in a way that is concise and sharp, observant and true. In two or three separate columns, he wrote about major works that have influenced literature in a significant way since their publication. Here he is, once he’s finally gotten around to reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: “But the trouble with influential books is that if you have absorbed the influence without ever reading the original, then it can sometimes be hard to appreciate the magnitude of its achievement.” And here again, after reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (whose other books he gobbled up like candy – or perhaps the more apt metaphor in his case would be ‘inhaled like cigarettes’): “Influential books are often a disappointment, if they’re properly influential, because influence cannot guarantee the quality of the imitators, and your appetite for the original has been partially sated by its poor copies.” Finally, here he is on Voltaire: “The trouble with Candide is that it’s one of those books that we’ve all read, whether we’ve read it or not….The meat was picked off it and thrown to the crowd in the eighteenth century…”

It just so happens I’ve read and loved all three of those books, though I was younger than Hornby when I read them. (I’m still younger than him now. Ha!) Candide, in particular, I read in eleventh grade; I remember being intimidated because it was old, and French, and a classic, but felt better when I saw how tiny it was, and upon reading it thought it quite funny and not intimidating at all. I do see his point about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; I saw the movie after reading the book (I think) and Maggie Smith was – as she always is – tremendous, and memorable. The point stands, though, about influence, and it makes me feel a bit better that I didn’t love Catcher in the Rye the way I was supposed to, even though I read it when you’re supposed to (age 16 or thereabouts). For a young adult classic, I love The Perks of Being a Wallflower a hundred times better.

Though at one point Hornby warns against revisiting old favorites, in case they don’t hold up over time, he also sees forgetting as an opportunity. In one column, he writes, “A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read….I am now cheered by the realization that, if I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time.” This is cheering, indeed. I used to re-read books much more often than I do now; as Hornby says, “I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality.” But at least a few times a year, I’ll read a book that I know, usually even before I’ve finished it, that I want to read again. Off the top of my head: Gold by Chris Cleave, The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. (Incidentally, that’s two British authors and two Americans, two men and two women. Neat.)

After I graduated from college and began working in publishing, I went on what could pretty accurately be described as a two- or three-year fiction binge. I forget which year it was that I made a resolution to read at least one nonfiction book a month, but I did it when reading nothing but fiction came to feel like eating nothing but candy. (Not to say that fiction can’t be just as “good for you” as nonfiction. I’m not getting into that here.) So when Hornby wrote that he was “beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes,” I knew exactly what he meant. (My reading diet has been much more balanced since that resolution, though it still skews toward fiction.)

In two of his more recent essays, Hornby wrote about books “of the moment” – those books saturated with contemporary period details, set in a very particular place and time, complete with all its cultural references. It’s often noted in criticism of books like this that they will lose their appeal over time. “The received wisdom is that novels too much of the moment won’t last; but what else do we have that delves so deeply into what we were thinking and feeling at any given period? ….Some fiction at least should deal with the state of the here and now, no matter what the cost to the work’s durability, no?” Hornby asks. These books, he argues, have just as much if not more historical value than well-researched historical fiction, because they provide insight to what people were thinking and feeling in a given place and time.

Speaking of “the moment,” why, when we have e-books, do people still buy and read printed books? In part because “all the books we own, read or unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal….With each passing year…our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are.” For readers, our books are us, and our bookshelves show who we are, what we love, who we aspire to be. As Oscar Wilde said, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

As someone who often tracks down books referenced, even fleetingly, in other books, it’s not surprising that I ended up with a nice list of books to add to my already intimidatingly long “to-read” list by the time I came to the end of Ten Years in the Tub. Here they are:

skelligFiction (including children’s/YA)
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
We’re in Trouble: stories by Chris Coake
Skellig by David Almond
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (nearly certain I read this as a child, but have forgotten it sufficiently to warrant a re-reading)
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
any book by Anne Tyler

sarahvowellNonfiction
How to Live: or, a life of Montaigne, in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell (on top of Hornby’s recommendation, I remember that the reviews and awards for this book were spectacular)
Book of Days: personal essays by Emily Fox Gordon
A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord
The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (this was already on my to-read list; I loved The Wordy Shipmates and Unfamiliar Fishes)

 

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Last year, on the last day of November, Dana Sachs published an essay in Publishers Weekly called “Doing 50,000 Words in 30 Days.”  The title of the article refers, of course, to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which started in San Francisco in 1999 and has grown and spread since then. Now there are participants all over the world – over 300,000 in 2012 – and hundreds of “write ins,” many at libraries.

NaNoWriMo2013bannerThe idea behind NaNoWriMo is simple: write a novel in a month. Specifically, write 50,000 words in 30 days. This works out to 1,667 words per day. (For reference, Sachs’ essay in PW is 750 words.) Admittedly, 50,000 words is pretty short for a novel – about 200 pages – but still, to write that much in a month is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of quality.

In fact, quality isn’t the point of NaNoWriMo. As Sachs writes, “Many writers…suffer from a gnawing perfectionism that can, at its worst, torment us over the placement of a single comma. Forget completing a first draft; perfectionists have trouble completing even a paragraph. NaNoWriMo forces us to ignore our incapacitating inner critic and keep going. The genius of NaNoWriMo is that it obliges us to (temporarily) lower our standards.”

After November, the writer has a working draft; s/he can edit, cut, amend, tinker, and add. The novel may eventually go into a drawer (or computer folder, more likely), may be self-published, may be published through the traditional process with an agent and an editor. No matter the outcome, it’s still an achievement: you’ve made something. And NaNoWriMo provides an encouraging community in which to make that something.

nano_12_new_Come_Write_In_Logo1Library literature has been full of buzz about MakerSpaces lately. Many libraries are re-envisioning their mission and redesigning their space. This is an old idea with a new label (“making” instead of “crafting”) and new technology (e.g. 3D printers). The library was never purely a place for consumption; people have always come to libraries to create as well as consume. And what better place to write (or “make”) a book than a library?

That’s why I’m pleased to be hosting Write Ins at the Robbins Library for the second year in a row. Are you a writer in the Arlington area? “Come Write In.” 

“The real secret is that anyone can write a book… Writing is for everyone, and this is your chance to scrawl your name across the page. By month’s end, you’ll have done that which many dream of, but never accomplish.” -Gennifer Albin, author of Crewel

“As you enter this month of writing, write for yourself. Write for the story. And write, also, for all of the people who doubt you. Write for all of those people who are not brave enough to try to do this grand and wondrous thing themselves.”  -Kate DiCamillo, author of The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie

Copyright and Plagiarism

Last month, I attended two webinars on copyright with Mary Minow of LibraryLaw.com. The first was Copyright Basics, and the second was called Hot Issues in Copyright; the webinars were presented by the Massachusetts Library System.

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Some of the material was familiar, of course, but some was new. Minow (coincidentally, the aunt of a close friend of mine) confirmed that all original creative content is automatically copyrighted to its creator. However, in order to gain the additional level of legal protection required to bring a lawsuit against someone who has infringed upon your copyright, it is necessary to get the official copyright from the government (there is an excellent Q&A page at copyright.gov).

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Some people infringe upon others’ copyrighted work because they think they can get away with it; others do it out of ignorance. Using a Creative Commons (CC) license is one way to raise awareness that you hold the copyright to your work, and that others must ask permission before using it. There are a variety of CC licenses, but, as it says on the site, “All Creative Commons licenses have many important features in common. Every license helps creators — we call them licensors if they use our tools — retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work — at least non-commercially. Every Creative Commons license also ensures licensors get the credit for their work they deserve.”

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Though I had included a note on the “About” page of this blog and my other blog (“Unless otherwise noted, all blog content © Jenny Arch”), I added Creative Commons licenses recently as well – partly thanks to Minow’s reminder, and partly because, coincidentally, some of my own work was plagiarized right around the same time.

The internet is vast; I never would have known about it had an alert former co-worker not e-mailed me to let me know. She sent me a link to a post entitled “Plagiarism Sucks: It’s More Than Just Drama” on the blog Sparkles and Lightning, which is written by Annabelle, a high school senior in California. Annabelle’s fellow blogger Jessi (of Auntie Spinelli Reads) compiled a list of plagiarized reviews and bloggers, which Annabelle included in her post; my former co-worker noticed that one of my Goodreads reviews (for Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward) was on the list.

I can’t slap a Creative Commons license up on Goodreads, because they have their own Terms. The “User Content” section of these terms includes the statement, “You understand that publishing your User Content on the Service is not a substitute for registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office, the Writer’s Guild of America, or any other rights organization.” This means that content-producing Goodreads users retain their automatic copyright, but don’t have an official government copyright – the same as if that content was posted on a blog online.

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The “License Grant” section of the Goodreads terms reads, “By posting any User Content on the Service, you expressly grant, and you represent and warrant that you have a right to grant, to Goodreads a royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, list information regarding, edit, translate, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivative works of all such User Content and your name, voice, and/or likeness as contained in your User Content, in whole or in part, and in any form, media or technology, whether now known or hereafter developed, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing for any purpose at the sole discretion of Goodreads.”

The key words in the above paragraph are grant and license. By adding content to Goodreads, all users give Goodreads permission to “use, reproduce, modify, publish,” etc. that original content. I’m not a lawyer or an expert in copyright law, but it seems pretty clear from these terms that the user still retains the copyright to their original content, while giving Goodreads these permissions.

Neither Goodreads nor its users, however, give permission for user content to be copied by a third party and passed off as their own work – otherwise known as plagiarism.