Wednesday, October 17, 2012
So I was at a writers’ conference this past weekend and I mentioned the blog to Brianne Johnson, an agent at the respected Writers House, and told her the question that comes in fairly regularly here, about how teens can get published. She said she’d be happy to look at manuscripts from teens, and I leaped six inches into the air.
If you decide to submit to Brianne, send her a cover letter describing the book and send the first 25 pages in a Microsoft Word document, as an attachment. Brianne prefers to receive submissions via e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org. In your e-mail, say you got her name from my blog. Your writing sample should be double-spaced in 12-point type and the typeface should be easy to read. Your name, address, phone number, and email address should appear on the left above the title. Your last name and the title of the book should be in the upper left hand corner of every page that follows, like this: Levine/Ella Enchanted. This is in case a page gets separated from the rest.
After you send it, be patient, patient, patient. And good luck!
And here are some questions for everybody. Are you writing poetry? Would you like some posts on the subject? Do you have questions? I’m not as experienced a poet as I am a fiction writer for kids, but I have been published, and I love to read and write poetry. Right now I’m reading a fascinating book of essays about poetry called Structure and Surprise, Engaging Poetic Turns, edited by Michael Theune, on a pretty advanced level, high school and above, I’d say. Anyway, I’d welcome poetry questions. I probably won’t have definitive answers, but we can explore together.
Now for the regular post. On June 1, 2012, Michelle wrote, I'm homeschooled, and recently in one of my school books I studied novels/novelists. The book talked about 'range': an author's limits and experiences, and his or her ability to work with them. They used Jane Austen as an example, saying that even though the Napoleonic Wars took place in her time, she chose not to write about them because wars were outside her range. Now, after pouring my heart into a fantasy series for over three years - a series that does include numerous battles - I'm wondering if I tried writing way outside my range. I know nothing about fighting other than what movies and the many books I read tell me. Do you think I was wrong to write outside my range? Can books like that still be successful?
The old adage is, Write what you know. If we all followed it, there would be no fantasy genre, no sci fi, no horror, no paranormal, no historical fiction earlier than its author’s childhood. So, no, I don’t think you were wrong.
However, if the books you’ve read and the movies you’ve seen are entirely fictional, you might want to supplement that with some nonfiction and documentaries and see if the wider reading changes or confirms what you’ve written. You may find first-person accounts particularly helpful, even if you’re writing medieval fantasy and the weapons are swords and pikes, or if it’s a space drama and the soldiers fire ray guns and wield energy shields. You’ll learn how it feels to be in the middle of a battle, what the after effects are, what the relationships are in the unit, and more. Surprises will come along that you'll use.
If any of you are writing realistic fiction, readers who are familiar with the weapons you include, for example, will notice if you get a detail wrong. If you’re writing historical fiction, to take another example, readers will hope to learn about the period, and it would be a shame to let them down.
When I write fantasy often I avoid elements that are too closely tied to our world. I made an important dog character in A Tale of Two Castles be a Lepai mountain dog, a breed that doesn’t exist outside my book. If I’d made him a poodle, that would have brought up associations with contemporary life. On the other hand, when I made Kezi in Ever be a gifted weaver, I learned about weaving. It didn’t seem to me that a made-up process would have been good enough.
The book you cite said that Jane Austen chose not to write about the Napoleonic Wars as outside her “range.” I suspect she knew a lot about the subject, which must have been much in the news and much discussed. “Range” may merely mean the kind of writing that suited her temperamentally. Narrow domestic concerns - marriage, family, fortune, local characters - were what interested her. You, Michelle and many others on the blog, unlike Jane Austen, may be more into the broad canvas of war, at least at this point in your writing.
Let’s consider the adage. It’s been around for a long time and, I suspect, must have some truth. What we all know most fundamentally is ourselves, our emotions, thoughts, physical sensations. We know what it’s like to feel well and to have a fever. We know our environment, the late afternoon sun shining slantwise on the street outside our house, the smell of a parent’s closet, the cell phone ring tone, and a zillion other details. Next level of distance, we know friends, family, pets pretty intimately. After that it gets more and more remote.
If you bring what you know well into your fiction, if you use a losing game on the soccer field last week in a battle between your heroine’s battalion and the invading aliens from the seventh planet circling a distant star, you’ll still be writing (partially at least) from what you know.
Complete knowledge is often impossible. Yesterday I shopped for groceries and asked a young woman if the store had any more of the ice cream my husband loves. When she came back with a case, she called me Sweetie. I’m about forty years older than she is! Where did that Sweetie come from? I didn’t mind. It was affectionate, so maybe it came from an excess of benevolence. Or maybe from a cheeky testing of the boundaries. I can guess, but I can’t know. Still, I see nothing wrong with putting her in a story and giving her a motive. I can call her Della Louise and make her live with an adored grandmother, or a hated one. I can turn her into a mermaid who’s living among humans and is really two hundred years old, so I’m a youngster to her. Not knowing, being outside my range, is a gateway to opportunity! If Della Louise comes across as real on the page, readers will slip inside her as easily as she slips into her scaly tail at midnight every night.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Your main character is lost in a forest filled with bears. Write what happens, and make sure the bears are part of the story. If you know a lot about bears and not much about aardvarks, make the forest full of aardvarks. Do no research! If you like, make the story fantasy.
∙ Read about bears or aardvarks. Write again, either a new scene or a revision, using your research. Compare. (I’m not thinking one will necessarily be better.)
∙ Write about an inventor, inventing an anti-gravity machine.
∙ Your main character parachutes into a battle in progress. Write what happens. Again, this can be fantasy.
Have fun, and save what you write!