Monthly Archives: September 2013

Banned Books Week

This week marks the thirty-first annual Banned Books Week, a celebration of intellectual freedom and the freedom to read sponsored by the American Library Association.  In honor of the event, I thought I’d share some stories of books that have been banned or challenged recently.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. This first story isn’t technically a book banning so much as an author banning, but it still caught my attention.  Earlier this month, author Meg Medina was uninvited from a school visit because she refused to refrain from mentioning the title of her latest book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, or showing the cover art during her talk.  Sure, the title may be a little colorful, but the book is about bullying.  It may be a difficult topic to talk about, but I think it’s an important one, and Medina’s talk could have fostered a really beneficial discussion at that school.
I read banned books. In March 2013, Chicago Public Schools removed Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic memoir about growing up during the Iranian Revolution because of graphic images, from the seventh grade curriculum.  Original interpretations of this were that the book had been banned by the schools, leading to student and parent protests and a letter by CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett clarifying that the ban applied only to the seventh grade curriculum.  Publisher’s Weekly published a good summary of the incident on March 21.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. One of my favorite banned books is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Often challenged because of swearing and racial slurs (the narrator, Junior, lives on a Native American reservation and uses some of the more colorful slang of “the res”).  I didn’t find the language overly objectionable, and I think it’s a great way to expose young adults to a way of life they may not be familiar with while also delving into a lot of universal themes.  For those who are unfamiliar with the book, this coming-of-age story chronicles Junior’s struggles after he decides to leave the reservation and go to the “white school.”  Yes, there is blatant racism in this book; but it’s not promoting racism.  On the contrary, it makes readers more aware of prejudices against Native Americans and seeks to diffuse those notions.
For more banned books, check out the American Library Association’s lists top ten banned or challenged books by year or their lists of 100 most frequently challenged books 1990-1999 and 2000-2009.
What are some of your favorite banned books?

Finding an agent through social media

Twitter logo. Recently, I’ve heard many stories about people getting their agents through online contests or on social media.  This method was virtually unheard of until the last several years, and is certainly a far cry from the traditional route of mailing queries to agents and publishers.  Though I tend to prefer a more traditional query (albeit via email, not snail mail), I thought I’d share a few of the social media events I’ve stumbled upon.
First, there was Pitch Madness (#pitmad) on Twitter last Thursday, September 12.  Writers pitch their finished novels in 140 characters or fewer (or technically 133 in order to include the hashtag), and if an agent likes a pitch, he or she will favorite it.  Pitch Madness etiquette suggests that writers pitch no more than once an hour throughout the twelve-hour event, and if you like something you see (and you’re not an agent or a publisher), retweet it rather than favoriting.  Also, don’t forget to put the age group and genre your pitching (such as YASF, NA romance, etc.).  If you can’t shrink your book into 140 characters, don’t feel bad!  Many agents have said they prefer traditional queries to Twitter pitches, and agents who favorite a tweet during Pitch Madness usually request that you send a query letter along with whatever other materials (synopsis, sample pages, etc.) they specify.  I don’t know yet when the next Pitch Madness will be, but you can always check the #pitmad hashtag for updates.
Another Twitter resource is the manuscript wishlist hashtag (#MSWL), where agents and editors will post books they’d like to represent.  These are more specific than just a genre or age group; for example, “new adult urban fantasy set in Dickensian London.”  (I just made that up, but if that’s your book, it sounds awesome!)  I usually check this daily, just to see if my project matches anybody’s wishes.  If you think your book is a good fit for someone, don’t be shy about replying to her tweet and/or querying her!
Finally, I’d like to point out a Tumblr page that’s similar to the manuscript wishlist: the Agent and Editor Wishlist.  From what I’ve seen so far, this pretty much just pulls straight from the manuscript wishlist, which tends to get more posts and more traffic.  But agent and editor wishlist has announced a day for posting wishes on Tuesday, September 24.  I’ll be checking this and #MSWL periodically throughout the day, and will have my query ready.
I’m certainly not knocking more traditional queries; in fact, I’m preparing to send a few out myself in the next few days!  These are just a few of the “newer” methods of finding an agent that I’ve stumbled upon.  Are there any others that you’d recommend?  Any tips for navigating these?  Please share in the comments!

How to choose an agent

Now that I’ve got a polished manuscript, I’m ready to take that scary next step into querying.  I’ve spent hours lost in cyberspace reading about query letter dos and don’ts, tracking the Agent Editor Wish List Tumblr and following the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag on Twitter.  Though I’m still in the early stages of this process, I’d like to step back and reflect on the most important advice I’ve gotten.
First, be sure you’re querying the right agent.  If you’ve got a 100,000-word memoir, don’t pitch it to someone who only represents picture books.  You’re wasting both your time and the agent’s time.  When researching agents (and yes, I’ve read bios, perused agency’s websites, and even followed them on Twitter), the first thing I look at is whom they represent.  I look for agents whose client lists include authors whose writing is similar to mine — the genre, the setting, the voice, or ideally all of the above.  If they don’t represent young adult literature, I don’t even bother reading on.  For my first round of queries, I actually started with a list of authors who have influenced me and then looked up who their agents are.  This way, I know my query will at least reach people who represent the kinds of books that I write.  (That being said, if an agent has just represented a book that’s too similar to yours, he or she will probably not want to represent you.  I  know, it can be a fine line to tread, but if a book looks like it’s too close to what you’ve written, then it probably is.)
Second, personalize your query.  Agents get hundreds of emails a day; a “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern” will almost certainly end up in the trash folder.  Tell the agent why you chose to query her — your setting is similar to another author she represents, or you saw on Twitter that she was looking for a book like yours.  Maybe this agent is known for being a hands-on editor, or pursuing foreign rights.  You’ve (hopefully) done your homework; show the agent that you’ve invested that time and thought into the process.  I recently saw an applicant’s cover letter for a part-time position working in the library’s local history and genealogy department that said nothing about history, genealogy, or any of the tasks listed in the job description we’d posted.  The letter did rattle off a string of jargon about ACRL, LCSH, and RDA (all various ways to catalog materials) … but the position has nothing to do with cataloging.  If you want an agent to represent you, make it clear that you’re familiar with what he or she represents.  And unless you’re writing a book about string theory, you don’t need to mention your PhD in astrophysics.
Finally, remember that this is a relationship.  Some of the best advice I got while I was looking for a job was to keep in mind that while the employers (or in this case, agents) were interviewing me, I was also interviewing them.  Ideally, you’ll be with your agent for most, if not all, of your career, so you want to make sure it’s a good fit.  If you have reservations about any of an agent’s policies or practices, make sure you address them before you sign or agree to anything.  Don’t rush to sign a contract just so you can say you have an agent; if that agent turns out not to be the right fit for you, you could both be in for some major disappointments.
These are the biggest things I’ve come across in my research.  Do you have any favorite bits of advice?

Let’s talk about writing

I recently discovered the value of community as a writer.  Though I’ve participated in workshops and even co-founded a creative writing club in college, I’ve always found my “alone time” the most rewarding — and the most productive.
Then I went to a writer’s conference.  For the first time, the other writers I met weren’t just talking about writing books.  They had written books.  Often multiple books.  Some of them had even published those books.
More importantly, instead of my usual exchange when meeting other writers — “Oh, you write?  Me too!  What genre?” followed by the realization that we write for completely different audiences and the inevitable exchange of book recommendations — these conversations advanced.  Everyone wanted to talk about what she was writing.  Everyone wanted you to critique his pitch, and then wanted to hear yours.  It was the first time I’d ever talked — really talked — about my writing beyond my writing habits and what genre I wrote.  I used to avoid talking about my writing, because I worried that telling people about it would make them realize I was a talent-less wannabe with lame ideas and impossible dreams.  I got tongue-tied trying to explain my plots; I dreaded being asked, “what’s your book about?” and often responded that I didn’t like to talk about current projects until they were finished.
Mostly, I was afraid.  Afraid that my ideas weren’t good enough, and afraid that talking about them would lead others to discover glaring plot holes that I’d missed.
But throughout the weekend at MWW, the more I talked about my book with other writers, the more confident I became.  Sure, people asked me to clarify certain points.  But that saved me a lot of hassle in later revisions.
So this time around, when meeting a friend from the conference for lunch, I came prepared.  I’d come up with an idea for my next novel, and though I haven’t written a word of it yet (I’m thinking it may be my NaNoWriMo project), I wrote a pitch before we got together.  No, I didn’t pull out my notebook at the restaurant; but I did talk about a project I’m really excited about long before I had all the kinks worked out.  Writing the pitch, and having that conversation, helped me figure out what those kinks were.  It also let me share my enthusiasm with someone who was equally excited about my ideas.