Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bruce Coville's 7 Sins for Writers

Bruce Coville, author of The Unicorn Chronicles and many other fabulous books, set down the 7 sins that plague writers during a speech at the SCBWI of Western Pennsylvania's Annual Fall Conference on November 7, 2009.

(And no, fellow journalism majors, I do not mean that the writers were being plagued DURING the conference. Oh, the delight of somewhat-misplaced modifiers and the art of plugging too much information into one sentence.)

7 Sins for Writers:

1. Dullness. Start at the latest possible moment in your story.

2. Repetition. A theme will naturally appear over and over in your work, but do not repeat yourself, and certainly do not repeat other writers' stories.

3. Cliche. "The thing is, they're just easy as pie to do."

4. Sloth. Not working at your best.

5. Inattention. Not thinking the story through.

6. Perfectionism. This is the worst enemy to the writer--the enemy of completion, of getting that first draft done.

7. Clumsiness (lack of craft). Spelling and punctuation do count at the final stages. If you want to be an artist, "master your craft."

7 Necessities for Writers:

1. Passion. "Great stories come from passion."

2. Sensuousness (but without temperance). Loving the description of the physical world.

3. Wisdom. The hard part is that wisdom is what our readers come to us for, "and we are, at best, [broken] vessels."

4. Guile. Do not fear the "ugly baby" slips, or rejection letters. Ugly baby slips sound like this: "Sir, we've looked at pictures of your baby, and MAN you have an ugly baby!" Actually, though, no rejection would ever be as bad as a publisher driving to your door and slapping you on the face.

"I went to school with writers who were better than me but they'll never be published because they wrote a story and put it in a drawer."

5. Humor. There is a humorlessness of the politically correct and the intellectually impaired. "Laughter may well be the highest point of worship."

6. Courage.

7. Joy. "To act from joy takes more courage than to act from fear."

Further reading:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Encounter: Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic

The Year Editors Forbade Bathroom Manuscript Pitches, and a Run-In with Arthur Levine of the Scholastic Imprint, Arthur A. Levine Books:

Editors at the SCBWI 2005 Annual Summer Conference in Los Angeles warned against pitching a manuscript to them in the bathroom.  Yes, really.  I did just type that.  The bathroom.

"Don't pass your manuscript to me under the stall," one editor said, "because you know what it will be used for!"

It's no surprise authors take advantage of any face time they can get.  If you've never attended a Los Angeles conference, you must!  The conferences are highly energized, inspiring, and great for networking.  The 2005 conference had a marked air about it that screamed "This Is My Chance!"

The editors were there.  Real ones.  Not cloaked behind a labyrinth of receptionists and email servers.  And everyone was dying to touch the fine hairs at the tip of one particular sacred cloak.  The cloak of Arthur A. Levine.

It was Harry Potter season, and here was a real live Scholastic editor.  The MAN who EDITED Harry Potter for the U.S.!  Maybe he will see me!  Maybe he will love my book!  Maybe he will put right the wrongs of writing without pay!  Maybe he will reach down and say, "Well done, good and faithful second-year college student who is dying to work in publishing."  (That would be me.)  "Come walk by my side!"

Despite the warnings against being rude, I hovered.  I couldn't follow him into the bathroom, of course, so I watched from a distance and looked for my chance to sneak in.

Levine was cornered in an unofficial "line" of attendees waiting to speak with him.  The "line" happened to look a lot like a swarm.  A swarm in which all participants note whose right of way it is at a bajillion-way intersection and itch to be next.  Unfortunately for me, Levine was on a precious break between sessions and looked ready to slip away.  Behind him loomed a cold metal elevator.

Finally, it was my turn to speak to him next.  Really, it was.  That's when another attendee slipped in front of me and launched into the most desperate pitch I've ever heard.  Again, I'm not hatin'.  But establishing a rapport with an editor and THEN sending him your writing is better than pitching your book straight off.  An editor cannot know the quality of the writing until he reads it.

Ding!  The cold elevator doors slid open and locked into position with a subtle shudder.  Levine stepped inside.  He could disappear!  My chance to ask a Real Life New York Editor about his job was dangerously close to disappearing!

So, I did something very obnoxious.  I followed Levine and his lamprey author into the elevator.

Floor 2.  (Chatter, chatter from the lamprey author.)
Floor 3.
Floor 4.  (Talk talk talk.)
Floor 5.


(Finally, a short pause.)

Floor 6.

Levine exited the elevator and turned around to face the two of us.  His body language prevented us from following him to his room, which was a smart move.

He looked at me.

"Do you like your job?" I said, very softly.

His face changed.

"I love my job," he said.  "I love making books."

He stepped away.  The doors closed behind him.

It was a very quiet ride down.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sneaks and Storytellers: Which Are You?

Publishing folk live in one of two homes:

1) STORYTELLERS: The Hobbit Hole

The first type of folk live in a cozy hobbit hole. STORYTELLERS sniff book pages. STORYTELLERS love finding typos but don't throw it in your face. STORYTELLERS read, read, read. Or edit, edit, edit. Or write. Or draw.

2) SNEAKS: The Rat Hole

Need I tell you what lives in a rat hole? Beware. SNEAKS use publishing to funnel money--without offering quality in return. Beware the individual who owns both a literary agency and a publishing house. Never go into a contract you don't fully understand. Never pay for "traditional publishing." Never pay an "agent" monthly. Never trust the SNEAK who can't give you a straight answer. There are some dishonest folk out there. Always trust your gut.

My upcoming blogposts will feature STORYTELLERS I admire and have met. Check out the awesome and sometimes embarrassing run-ins I've had. Have you had any?

Now you know the sneaks from the storytellers. Which one are you?

Further reading:

Scam case studies:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

5 Avoidable Cover Letter Blunders

We've all sat down to write that one-chance, first-impression letter to someone we admire. Editors, agents, and prospective employers are all recipients of our love mail: The Cover Letter. Let me share some avoidable blunders I've found in my perpetual days of reading.

Top 5 Cover Letter Blunders:

#1: A Disgruntled Voice

The mood you are in while writing the cover letter will shine through. So, write after you've just had the tastiest meal of your life, made by an endearing husband/brother/friend, in a land where dirty dishes disappear and reincarnate as clean ones in your cupboard.

#2: Not Enough Information or Materials

Have a stellar bibliography. Better yet, have an expert in the field read your work for accuracy. Your editor will pee a little bit when some verification has already been done. Verification of facts can be important in fiction, too.

Make it easy for the editor to respond to you! Rachelle Gardner, literary agent, prefers a signature with a first and last name so she knows how to address you. Initials don't convey gender, and that's nervewracking. Mr.? Mrs.? Ms.? Miss? Dr.? Professor? Knight? Queen? Dignitary?!

#3: Annoying Typeface

Ouch! Small type hurts. Your reader might not realize she's squinting, but it will surely affect her concentration and patience.

Use serif fonts. Serifs are the little swoops on the edges of letters. They help our brains recognize the letters faster, making for an easier read. Sans serif fonts (without serifs) are reserved for bold titles and billboards. They provide some contrast.

#4: Sending to the Wrong Publisher

I'm a big fan of submitting until your ears bleed. But if you know the publisher would never print your genre, maybe you should just be friends.

#5: Addressing to a General Reader

Addressing your letter to a "general reader," "submissions coordinator," or the like will add one more step to your manuscript's perilous journey. Addressing it to an editor by name will get it straight into her hands. Just quadruple check the spelling of her name!

For books, send to an imprint first. If the imprint says "no," you still have a chance with the main house or its other imprints.

Further reading:

See Harold Underdown's "Getting Out of the Slush Pile" at

See an interview with Arthur Levine of Scholastic's Arthur A. Levine books at

See Rachelle Gardners's blog at and follow her on Twitter at @RachelleGardner,