Choosing a Title and a Cover Design

Yesterday, I received a full-color mock-up for the cover of my debut novel, SO SHELLY, set for a February 2011 release from Delacorte/Random House. It led me to thinking about the process of title selection and cover design and the surprisingly limited control the author retains over each. Of course, the given exception is the well-established author with a proven track record whose input, I’m sure, is much more seriously weighed than that of a debut novelist.

As for titles, the fact is that the title under which a novel is acquired by a publisher is often jettisoned for one conjured by whatever magic formula editors utilize and through whatever market research has revealed to qualify as eye candy for potential buyers. As for my experience, I was one of the lucky ones. The first words I typed when I began SO SHELLY were exactly that: So Shelly, flushed right with the page number. In fact, I’ve written four complete novels (two sold) and have at least four partials wallowing in limbo. In each case, I’ve had a title before I penned a single word of narrative. My agent warned that in all likelihood the title would be changed. With each editorial letter, I expected a new title to be foisted upon me. However, that day never came, and yesterday, as I opened the attachment containing the cover, there it was, SO SHELLY: just quirky enough to invite interest and to serve as an inside joke to be shared by those who venture between the covers and roll around inside of Shelly’s sheets.

The cover design was a different story. At best, I had marginal input, and from the beginning, I liked it that way. I’m fully aware of my limitations. I’m no William Blake. Whatever limited artistic talents I have begin and end with words. From the outset, my philosophy regarding the cover was to let the professionals do their jobs. Actually, that not only applies to the cover design but also to the editing process. For good reason, I very well may have been the most compliant author in publishing history: editing is a unique talent for which I have the upmost respect, and my editor, Michelle Poploff, is one of the best. During the process of designing the cover art, Michelle asked for my input and kept me abreast on proposals, but my contributions were minimal. In the end, the team at Random produced a cover that, I believe, visually captures the heart of Shelly, and I have faith that, eventually, it will capture the eye of book browsers.

My advice? Stick to what you do best. Telling a compelling story is your job. Once you’ve sold a few million books, perhaps, you will have earned the right to expand your influence over titling and cover design. Until then, do your job and trust the other professionals invested in your project to do theirs.

The Doldrums

The Doldrums is a region of the Atlantic Ocean near the equator that experiences frequent bouts of such calm and light winds that, prior to the advent of mechanical engines, a sailing vessel might find itself, in the words of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” I reference this geographical anomaly to describe my mental state as I reach the almost halfway point between last fall’s signing with my agent and my debut novel’s pub date next February. The whirlwind excitement of those first months has given way to anxious anticipation; however, I at this juncture, both of those bookends seem a million years distant.

I don’t mean to whine; I know the waiting is a reality in the glacial pace of mainstream publishing. Throughout the editing, cover design, and typesetting processes, I have even come to understand the reasons and wisdom for the deliberateness. This understanding, however, provides little relief for my childlike impatience. I find myself wishing away months; although, I’ve reached an age where months are measured in smaller and smaller spoons, and I should know better than to wish away a moment –much less months. Nor do I for a second under-appreciate the good fortune I have experienced to be allowed this “suffering,” and I am fully aware that many would (many have) given everything to be in my predicament.

By way of update, I’m waiting on a final cover and for the manuscript of SO SHELLY to be set into pages. My editor is insanely busy (as editors always are) with the many other titles she is currently handling whose publication dates precede my own and, understandably, has little time to babysit me, nor do I expect her to do so. Regardless, I’m left feeling as if I and Shelly are getting nowhere fast.

So, in search of an antidote, I’ll throw myself once more into the penning of novel number two and remain on ever-vigilant watch for fairer winds to blow.

When an Agent Calls

While I slogged through the querying process, I allowed myself occasional flights of fancy. Most often, I’d imagine receiving “The Call.” You know, the one where your dream agent is on the other end totally geeked about representing your project. Even after writing and querying three novels and meeting with little but rejection, I never stopped dreaming that dream. Time and again, it was what most consistently compelled me to return to my laptop in order to pound out a few hundred more words.

It’s funny. When the call actually came, I found myself underwhelmed. Maybe, I’d dreamt of the moment so often that I’d become dulled to the reality. Maybe, having beaten the seemingly insurmountable odds of obtaining representation, I was in some sort of low-grade shock. Maybe, Keats was correct: “Heard melodies are sweet; but those unheard are sweeter.” I’m not sure, but I didn’t jump, scream, or shout. I didn’t cry or thank the heavens. I didn’t call all my family and friends or the college professor who gave me a “C” in creative writing. Instead of the euphoria I had anticipated, I experienced a calm satisfaction, a sense of vindication for the many hours I’d spent holed up in my writing space or wandering the streets of my imagination rather than enjoying the so many other things that normal people enjoy, like sleeping through the night.

I believe that my subdued response to the agent’s (to whom I am greatly and forever indebted) offer was the result of never doubting, always believing that “The Call” would someday come. My mantra has forever been, “Work hard and believe in yourself. Good things will come!” This time, at least, I was correct. In the end and in most things, it’s old fashioned stick-to-itiveness that takes the day. In addition, possessing the humility to withstand rejection and to accept constructive criticism is paramount to threading the needle of agent acquisition.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t take one iota of my good fortune for granted. I completely understand the opportunity I’ve been given, and now, in my moments of reverie, I imagine the day I walk into the bookstore and see my book on a shelf with my name on the cover and my picture on the back flap. Perhaps, that will be my “Oscar” moment.

How about you? How was your experience with “The Call”? If it hasn’t come yet, how do you imagine the experience?

Bullied by the Media

In the aftermath of the suicide of Phoebe Prince, the fifteen-year old Boston girl who chose to hang herself rather than submit to the seemingly ruthless bullying she endured at school, we once again find ourselves under a deluge of media attention directed at painting a less-than-flattering portrait of young adults. On the occasions that these incidents fall under the spotlight of the national media, a cry of indignant mortification sounds and is accompanied by a call to arms that rings out but fades from earshot with the onset of the next news cycle, and we, once again, find ourselves bullied by the media into focusing on that which is worst about our young people. Without denying the tragic nature of Miss Prince’s death or the presence of bullying in our society, I’d like to assert that the vast majority of kids do not practice nor are they victimized by perpetual bullying, and I’d like to remind everyone that bullying isn’t a teen problem; it’s a people problem. There are bullies on school boards, in softball leagues, at the work place, and even in nursing homes.

In what I can offer only as a personal observation, gleaned over twenty-five years of teaching high school, en masse, this current wave of teenagers is the most tolerant generation of kids I’ve encountered. They are less judgmental of externalities and more accepting of non-traditional lifestyles and beliefs than those that have come before them. In what I feel is a beautiful act of rebellion, many refuse to be imprisoned by the narrow-minded thinking or the ideology-swallowing practices of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. In increasing numbers, they’re jettisoning the racial, ethnic, gender, religious, and sexual-orientation prejudices that were thrust upon them. It’s this release of such hate-inspired ballast that is slowly allowing them to rise above the Neanderthal practice of bullying.

Any single act of bullying is worthy of public outcry and denunciation; however, rather than uniformly condemning teenagers and, fed by media hype, obsessing on the relatively rare occasions of outrageously bad behavior, I’d encourage the media and adults, in general, to learn from and imitate today’s young people and expedite the coming of an inevitably more-tolerant future. Perhaps, the promised “Age of Aquarius” is dawning on the horizon.

Finding and Querying Agents

After I signed with a publisher, the initial reactions I received from friends and family fell into two specific camps.  Those unfamiliar with the rigors of breaking into the publishing industry wondered how soon I would be on Oprah, when the movie would be made, and when the millions would begin rolling in.  Those knowledgeable of the eye of the needle through which a manuscript must pass to reach the promised land of publication immediately asked, “How’d you get an agent?”  They then waited anxiously for the coveted secret to pass from the lips of one chosen from among the many called to authorial heaven.

 Sadly, the secret is there is no secret.  I did what every would be writer does or should do, I queried, then I queried some more.  What I didn’t do was agonize over the darn thing or over-think it.  I researched the makings of an effective query, I wrote it, polished it, dispelled the demons of self-doubt, then commenced carpet bombing the agents on AgentQuery.com who identified themselves as being interested in YA novels and those who write them.  I did very little research on the agents I queried other than making sure I identified their gender and spelled their names correctly, nor did I waste time with flattery or trying to convince them how perfectly my book fit their list of clients.  There is not enough time or space.  After identifying my title, genre, and word count, I tore into synopsis, for the story is truly the thing.  Actually, in a query, the hook is the thing.  If I could give one solid piece of advice: if, like I was, you are unpublished, you got to have a hook, something that establishes your story as unique from all that has previously crossed the agents’ screens.  Without a hook, your novel is headed for the slushy center of manuscript hell.  Since I had no publishing history worth mentioning, I closed my query with only the biographical information relevant to my writing for young adults: one, I’ve taught high school for many years, and two, I have a masters degree in English literature.

 Over two weeks, I contacted over seventy agents.  Within six weeks (and I know my good fortune is annoying as hell) and after the submission of full manuscripts, I had four agencies seriously interested in signing SO SHELLY.  Now, mind you, the vast majority of agencies rejected my query faster than I could say, “God, deliver me from the temptation of self-publishing!”  (Note to all: I never did, nor should you, take rejection personally.  Rejection is a spiteful motivation guaranteed to F-up your Karma for several cycles.  Literary agents, even those who callously destroy our dreams, are our friends.)  Point is, as the adage goes, “It only takes one.”  For me, that one turned out to be Katherine Boyle of Veritas Literary Agency, who in less than a month had me signed to a two-book deal with Random House/Delacorte.

 Moral of this blog: Trust me, if I can do it, so can you.  There is no secret, only the necessity of hard work and mental and emotional toughness.  I am you; I’m just a few chapters ahead.  I’ll just slip a bookmark between the pages and wait while you catch up.

Sex in Young Adult Literature

Sex in Young Adult Literature

Early in-house readers of my young adult novel So Shelly (to be released in February of 2011) have described the story as “entertaining” and “sexy.” At first, I was thrilled to see the novel tagged with such exciting descriptors. However, I soon began to ponder the appropriateness of pairing “sexy” with young adult literature. I asked myself, “Is it in any way creepy for an adult author to compose scenes that place teenage characters in sexually-charged situations?” I wondered, “Will the experiences of my characters influence the sexual decisions made by real world teens who read the novel?” If so, “To what extent am I responsible for those decisions and their resultant consequences?” And, “What if the sex is good? Is it morally irresponsible to portray teenagers engaging in a pleasurable sexual relationship or even a toe-tingling “hook-up?”

After only a few moments of consternation, I found myself completely comfortable with the portrayal of teenagers’ sex lives. In fact, to ignore the role of teens’ emerging sexuality would be insulting to readers of all ages, and it would be a blown opportunity to engage them in a healthy and much needed exploration of their sexual past, present, and future. Although I don’t remember the “raging hormones” we were all supposed to endure as teens, I do know I was a sexualized being long before my thirteenth birthday, meaning I was already wrestling with thoughts of and curiosities regarding my sexual self. Yet there was no place to turn and no one with whom I felt comfortable enough to discuss these issues. Sadly, based upon conversations with my students, not much has changed for teens looking for a serious treatment of sexuality; therefore, they are making the same mistakes and developing the same unnecessary neuroses of the generations that have preceded them into lives as sexually dysfunctional adults. I believe that YA literature can serve as a source of information and as a safe place to experience or to relive vicariously both the pain and pleasure inherent in sexual expression, whether the reader is fourteen, forty, or eighty-four. If nothing else, teenagers can learn through fiction that they are not alone in their confusion, desires, and sexual expressions.

In my years of teaching high school, I’ve learned that the most common mistake made by adults regarding teenagers is underestimation. The fact is that they are far more capable of dealing with mature subjects than they are typically given credit. I believe they can handle the frank treatment of sexual themes, and I hope that my message will always be that the achievement of a healthy sexual self-actualization is a lifelong process and a worthy goal, but it doesn’t come easily or without a boatload of fears, misunderstanding, and self-doubt.

Tell me what you think.

Why YA?

In recent years, even during a down economic cycle, young adult novels have been one of the few categories of fiction to experience a growth in sales. Despite the alarmists who regularly characterize teenagers as disaffected, gaming-obsessed zombies, the fact is that a large number of them read. Perhaps, this return to the written word is a predictable Newtonian reaction or a conscious attempt to defy those who so consistently underestimate them. All I know for sure is that an increasing number of my students are reading novels these days – not for class but for fun. I see them peeking into these novels at every opportunity, and almost all of them are books by YA authors.

Why now? The practical answer is that YA literature is attracting the best of the large crop of unagented talent struggling to break into the world of mainstream publishing. More than ever, editors are searching for the next novelist who can capture the imaginations of this emerging group of readers, who time and again have displayed a willingness to spend their dollars on quality storytelling.

In addition, modern YA literature is a sort of literary wild, wild West. It’s one of the few places remaining in publishing still defining its ever-expanding parameters in terms of thematic appropriateness and targeted readership. Therefore, unlike other mainstream genres with well-established expectations and audiences: romance, mystery, chick lit, etc. and despite its glut of vampires and paranormal plot devices, YA novels have yet to be reduced to a formula. For a writer, this amorphous state is incredibly exciting and rife with opportunity for experimentation and innovation.

The not-so-dirty-little-secret of YA literature is that, unlike Trix, YA is not just for kids. Adults love it too! The fact is that no one really graduates high school. One may carry a paper diploma out of the brick and mortar school building on graduation day, but our high school successes, failures, sins, and regrets travel with us throughout our lifetimes. They are the experiences that have formed us, sustained us, limited us, motivated us, haunted us ever since our matriculation. YA novels, most of which are set in the petri dish that is the American high school, offer the adult reader time travel and the opportunity to vicariously relive their experiences or to redefine themselves in that most impactful period of life. Thus, the potential audience for a breakout YA novel is immense.

When asked what kind of novels I write, I used to – almost-apologetically and in a sheepish tone – answer “Young Adult.” Almost immediately, I would then insist on the crossover value of my stories, as if the tag “young adult” somehow devalued my work by applying the equivalent of a “G” rating to it. Today, however, I’ve come to embrace the YA label, and I proudly proclaim my devotion to the genre of fiction that, more than any other, has successfully inspired a goodly portion of a generation of readers to rediscover the joys of reading.

Beginnings: An Author is Born

The now-deceased, bestselling author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis, Frank McCourt didn’t embark on a literary career until his mid-sixties. Referencing his belated start as an author, in his memoir, Teacher Man, McCourt asks himself, “So, what took you so long?” Although, in general, I found the memoir bellicose and self-congratulating, it did serve as a major motivator in my own decision to pursue a career in writing. McCourt responds to his own question with, “I was teaching, that’s what took me so long.” The answer made it clear that it was not too late to begin the pursuit, and it reinforced my own complaint regarding the difficulty of teaching full-time while maintaining the creativity necessary to pen imaginative fiction. I wasn’t a lazy writer; I was an exhausted teacher.

That was 2005. I was twenty years deep into my own career as a secondary school teacher of literature and composition. With two masters degrees in hand, I felt myself at a crossroads. I could either switch on the cruise control and coast to retirement, or I could attempt to redefine my professional existence. Financial realities made it impossible to walk away from my teaching career, but I examined my life to find wasted time that could be better put to use writing.

Just under five years and after three rejected novels, I signed with an agent, Katherine Boyle of Veritas Literary Agency. Within a month, the talented Ms. Boyle had my mature young adult novel, So Shelly (currently slotted to pub in February of 2011), placed with Random House/Delacorte and its vice-president and executive editor, Michelle Poploff, with a healthy advance and a two-book deal. Although, I don’t see the day that I ever leave the classroom completely behind, I am a bit closer to restructuring my career so that the majority of my time is dedicated to writing.

What separates me from you, all of my better-day dreaming writing colleagues, is nothing. Like you, I’ve been persistent. Like you I write, because I want to. It fulfills me in ways that no television program, hobby, or workout program can. The only close second is reading for which, these days, I’m struggling to find the time.

So, Write On! I’m what they call living proof. If I can do it. Certainly, so can you. As I continue in this blogging adventure, I plan to share my experiences – those which have lead to this exciting juncture and those yet-to-come in the run up to publication and the days, weeks, months, and years that follow. Hopefully, you can share some of yours, and, together, we’ll all profit somehow and make sense of the writer’s experience.