Jessica Day George

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Farewell to Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones passed away last night, March 25, 2011. I never had the opportunity to meet her, which makes me deeply sad. She was one of my greatest inspirations, and I have never read a book of hers which didn't delight me. And so, since I cannot tell her how I feel, I will tell you!

I discovered Dogsbody when I was about twelve years old at the Madison County Library. The cover had a background of stars, with a white dog with red ears and glowing green eyes sprawled across it. It was intriguing, and the description on the inside flap was a bit weird, but just tantalizing enough to make me check it out.

Joy. Delight. Wonder.

The story of the Dogstar, Sirius, being sentenced to live as a mortal dog to pay for his celestial crimes was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was a murder mystery. It was social commentary. It was fantasy AND science fiction. And, at its root, it was a beautiful, beautiful love story. I checked it out many times, and when I was an adult and had my own money, I wanted to buy a copy.

Sorrow. Frustration. Despair.

In the mid- to late-nineties, many of Diana's earlier books were out of print in this country. For Valentine's Day one year, my dear husband bought me three of her books, importing them from England at what was probably insane shipping expense. Dogsbody, Archer's Goon, and A Tale of Time City. These last two were the ones I had discovered right after Dogsbody, and the ones whose out-of-print status I most bemoaned. (You can see why I keep my husband around.) I cherish those copies, with their fun, very Britishy covers.

But you, you lucky reader who has yet to discover them, don't have to get your DWJ fix the same way I did! The Harry Potter Phenomenon was in full swing, and only a few months later (to the husband's disgust), all of Diana's books were rereleased in the US in shiny new covers, and put on display in bookstores under signs that read, "If your kids love Harry Potter, try these next!" I worked at Borders at the time, and I remember showing a mother to one of these displays and having her pick up Witch Week. She read the back and then rolled her eyes. "They're all copying J. K. Rowling," she said. "Rowling should sue!"

Imagine her shock when I then proceeded to "educate" her, informing her that Diana Wynne Jones' books had come out decades before Harry Potter, had delighted me since I was a child, and were, if anything, Rowling's inspiration. She looked like she was going to slink off, but her son was holding A Tale of Time City with a big grin on his face. I convinced them to take Archer's Goon as well.

And I know that he loved them.

I know that he loved them because there was something her books for everyone: dog lovers, cat lovers, fantasy, science fiction, Greek, Celtic, and Norse mythology, historical fiction, romance, mysteries, and satire.

Read a lot of fantasy books? Try The Dark Lord of Derkholm, about an entire world being exploited by a tour company from our world, in order to give Lord of the Rings fans their fix.

Ever attended a sci fi or fantasy convention? Deep Secret is for you! It seems that sci fi cons are really just cover ups for the meetings of interdimensional guardians. This explains the centaur in the bathroom . . .

World War II buff? A Tale of Time City is about those who live outside of time, whose job is to keep the unstable eras like world wars safe. But what happens when a young London evacuee is taken from her train, and moved out of time? Could the war start a year early, and what would happen to the world?

Just love a good story, with magic and plenty of humor? Try any of her Chrestomanci books. They're all fun, but I think the last two, Conrad's Fate and The Pinhoe Egg, are my favorites.

I can't tell you enough how much I love these books. I can't tell you enough how much they have influenced my life, and my writing. But I'm trying to tell you, because I no longer have the opportunity to tell her.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Editing- The Mystery Revealed!

I hate editing. And I love it. It's one of those things that most authors love to complain about, but take it away and we'd all have to admit that boy howdy do we need our editors! I am currently editing my upcoming book, TUESDAYS AT THE CASTLE, and tweeted and posted on Facebook last week that my brain was broken, and I didn't know how to begin. The tweets and comments that I received indicated that, frankly, nobody knew what I meant. Admittedly, none of the people who replied were published authors. The published authors of my acquaintance were probably all busy with their own cursing/pacing/snacking/napping method for dealing with edits. Or possibly in Cabo . . . Wish I was in Cabo . . . Anyway! I decided to take a little breaky-poo here and clarify:

What is editing? What does an editor do?

And, as per usual, I feel the need for a disclaimer. I am one person, who has only dealt with one editor. Your editor may be different. Your "style" maybe be different. It's all good. But this is what my editor and I do. Also my agent. It's a whole process.

So we begin!

Phase 1:

I write a rough draft. I love rough drafts. I run screaming through my rough drafts like a sugared up toddler in a meadow full of chocolate eggs and puppies. I rarely stop at this point to check or revise anything, I just start with Chapter 1 and babble on until I hit The End. Then I congratulate myself, loudly and frequently, and eat some chocolate. (Actually, the eating of chocolate is a daily if not hourly ritual, but let's just say I eat MORE chocolate.) Then I take a day or two off, to refresh the mind, then I plunge into reading the draft. I make some changes, I mull it all over . . . and I usually pronounce it a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I can rarely find fault with my own manuscripts. This is why people should send frequent thank you and condolence cards to both my editor and agent.

Phase 2:

I send this to my agent. I tell her it's my Best. Book. Ever. Not to mention Completely. Finished. She reads it over and makes a couple of general suggestions. It's too long in the middle, I didn't think the romantic element happened naturally, the ending was too abrupt, etc. I go back over the manuscript with this in mind and do some fixings, and she looks at it again and usually pronounces it Ready For the Editor. Sometimes it needs more work, but let's not discuss that.

Phase 3:

Off it goes to my editor! She reads it and often has her assistant (who is also an editor) read it and give her thoughts as well. My editor mulls it over, reads it again, makes notes, etc. In the case of TUESDAYS, she also sent a copy to an editor at Bloomsbury UK, and then combined this editor's feedback with her own. I meanwhile usually move on to gleefully shriek my way through another rough draft, because I have the attention span of a toddler.

Phase 4:

Time to edit! Long about the time I've become so obsessed with my new project I don't even remember writing any other book, I suddenly get a package from my editor containing a printout of my manuscript covered in tiny neat little pencilled notes. These range from grammar and spelling corrections to big picture things like adding in paragraphs and chapters to give more background for a character or event, or taking out paragraphs and chapters that are unnecessary to the story. There is also a 2-3 page letter giving her overall thoughts. This is usually a nice balance of praise for what is working well in the book (Loved this or that character, loved the interaction here and here), and cautions about what isn't working (this character is inconsistent, that part of the ending is confusing).

Now. Here is the thing that a lot of people don't realize. This is MY BOOK. I don't actually have to take one word of my editor's advice. They cannot fix a typo or move a comma without my approval. A lot of people seem to think that I turn a rough draft over to my editor, she fixes it all, and then the book is printed. Nope. I can choose to take her advice or not. She can refuse to publish the book if I do, however, because if she doesn't feel like it's something she and the publishing company would be proud of producing, then they can break the contract. Seems fair. I can also look at her notes, say, No way, this changes the entire point of the book, and break the contract myself. That's why you need to understand and trust your editor, and feel that your editor understands you and your book. I have been lucky enough to work on seven books now with this same editor, who I believe has the same vision in mind for my books that I do. Her suggestions are almost always right on the mark, and as soon as I see them I think, YES! That's what was missing here!

There has been one exception to this, which I think illustrates how we both work together. SUN AND MOON, ICE AND SNOW, and the four winds. In the original fairy tale, EAST O' THE SUN, WEST O' THE MOON, the Lass travels on the backs of the four winds to get to the trolls' palace. This is one of my favorite parts of that story, and in my original manuscript, her experience is pretty much word for word with the fairy tale. My editor thought this was a bit vague, and with it happening four times, repetitive. She suggested combining it all into one wind . . . and, actually, making it a person like a tinker or trader who had traveled the world rather than a magical being. Now, this is fine . . . except. I had read EAST by Edith Pattou, a lovely retelling of EAST O' THE SUN that came out about ten years ago. My editor knew of the book, but had not read it. In EAST, the winds are compressed into one person, a boat captain. It's very well done, and her boat captain is a great character . . . but this is MY version. I didn't want to copy Pattou, and I really wanted those four winds. I called up my editor, and we chatted about it for a bit. She asked me to find some sort of middle ground: they are the four winds, but they look like people, just to give the scenes something more easy to visualize. I paced and snacked and mulled and thought . . . and ended up with what I think is some of my Best. Writing. Ever. I came up with a concrete personification for each of the winds, and a slightly different way of carrying the Lass for each one as well. Cheers from me, and cheers from my editor when she saw what I'd done.

So that's how this works. She suggests things, like: Could we get a paragraph here to explain the history of the castle? Or: could this be rephrased to make her seem more decisive? Or even: I can't get a grip on these four winds, do we need all four? And what about making them into something else, like a tinker who accidently stumbled on the trolls years back?

Then I take her suggestions, and I make them my own. I turn sentences around, I correct typos, sew up plot holes, rewrite dialogue, cut out redundant paragraphs. Or not. Sometimes fixing A and B makes C work better, and C doesn't need to be fixed after all. Sometimes changing chapter 2 inspires me to rewrite chapter 3 (or even 7. Or 11.) all on my own. That's what an editor does. They coach you, but they don't jump in and play the game for you.

When I feel that I've addressed all her concerns, and I've read it over and over until it's a big blur, checking that the changes are seamless, I send it back. Then comes . . .

Phase 5:

Usually, if the initial edit has gone well, this is just a couple of minor suggestions. There may be a new paragraph or chapter that feels a little choppy, but at most this is something that can be fixed in an hour. Then we go to copyedits, which is where someone whose expertise is grammar and spelling comes in and goes over the manuscript and makes sure that every comma is in its place and every hyphen is really supposed to be there. Once again, I approve everything here, and I can disagree with this person as well. I may be using Regency syntax or spelling, or inventing new words, and I need to explain what they are, and maybe see if they are really adding to the overall book or just confusing the reader. This is also when I usually put in my acknowlegements and such, if I haven't already. And it goes back to the editor again!

Phase 6:

We're in the homestretch now! This is the galley phase usually. Galleys are unbound pages that have been printed exactly as the book will be printed. The font is the same, the margins, page numbers, and any fancy doodads are all in place. I read over this, making sure that I don't see anything horrible that we've all missed before. The trick is: if I do, I have to write it on the galleys, and try to make it work without changing the page numbers. If I take a sentence out, I usually have to find a sentence to replace it that is the same length, etc. It's a bit like making a jigsaw puzzle with words, and I sweat harder over these things than I do with anything else. There was a problem with the galleys of DRAGON SPEAR that took me three days to figure out how to correct. It. Was. Awful.

Phase 7:

Hello, beautiful new book! I love you!

TA DA! Working with an editor!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Call Me Thumper . . .

"If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all!"

Sage advice, from the mother of a small, loud-mouthed rabbit.

In recent days, authors have been getting blasted for posting blogs either firing back at negative reviews, or urging people not to give negative reviews at all. I agree with some of this. Let me explain why.

I am not taking a stance against people who don't like my books. Honestly, I don't care. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, every book is not for every reader. As long as you don't get up in my face and rant about how much you hate my books, I have no problem with you. I don't love everything I read, I don't expect anyone else to, either. That's not what this is about. What this is about is professionalism, in my opinion. Or at least, that's what I want to make my blog about. I can't speak for the other authors posting on this topic, or variations thereof, but this is what I want to say.

I review books on Goodreads. Most of my reviews are positive. I review books on Bookshop Talk, the blog I started with a friend, where EVERY review is positive. This is not because I'm afraid that someone is going to come to my house and break my kneecaps unless I do, this is because I love to recommend good books to people. Bookshop Talk exists not to review books so much as to recommend books. We want to spread the love to readers with the site.

But I don't rant about books I've hated on Goodreads because . . . well, that's not my job! I'm an author, not a professional reviewer. You don't have to listen to any of my reviews or recommendations. I'm a writer, and a reader. I love Goodreads because I love making lists. I like having a To Read list. I like sorting through books I read as a kid. It's fun for me.

But it's also true I don't post reviews of books that I've hated because I don't want to look bad. I work with other authors. We meet at conferences and booksignings. We go to dinner together. It would be awkward (to say the least!) to be sitting side by side at on a panel or at a dinner with someone whose book I had torn to pieces online. What if they had seen the review? Authors take it very personally when someone hates their books, it's like calling someone's baby ugly. And if it's another author . . . that's teen times worse. I don't want to be in that situation. I don't want to put a fellow author in the situation of having to pretend that she doesn't know I hate her work. It's not good for either of us.

I have worked with the same editor for five years now, and I adore her. But if I write a book that's not a fit for her, I'll need to sell it to another publisher. How would that reflect on me if the editor I wanted to work with noticed that I had written scathing reviews of a book she loved? A book she had worked on? A book by an author who is a good friend? My rant, posted on Goodreads and forgotten two minutes later by me, could potentially kill my chances with an entire publishing house. Editors and authors don't hate professional reviewers who have panned one of their books (well, maybe they do, but they're not supposed to), because they know that it's the reviewer's job. But it's not an author's job to pan her colleagues' books, and that's where an author can run into trouble. Many authors don't review books at all for this reason, but some of us like to recommend good books, to spread the love, as I've said before. (Also, if you know me, you know that I can't shut up about books.) When I first started out, Shannon Hale gave me the advice that I didn't want to be known as the author who writes mean reviews about other authors' stuff, and I have taken it to heart.


I will admit that I have occasionally hated a book so much that I gave it a negative review. I have mostly gone back over my Goodreads account and deleted those, however. It's not something that I want to be known for: hating certain books. Except for The Grapes of Wrath. I hate that book, and I'm not ashamed to tell the world. John Steinbeck's zombie might come for me, but I don't care. I will take that zombie down with a knitting needle if I have to. Ugh. Ditto The Red Pony. What was wrong with that man?!

But in light of the recent discussions about negative reviews online, I recommitted myself to the decision to "go nice or go home." I'm not going to give good reviews of books I hated. You can always trust me to be honest in my reviews. I'm just not going to review books I didn't like. I might rant to my sister, but not online. I see this as professionalism. You may see it as hypocrisy if you like, as I said, Everyone's different.

So this is my advice to aspiring writers:

You might want to make the same decision.

Editors know what a blog is. They know about Goodreads. If you submit a manuscript, the FIRST THING THEY DO IS GOOGLE YOU. They're looking for a couple of things: to see if you have an online presence, which is necessary these days for promotional reasons. But they're also looking to see if they want to work with you judging by the things you've posted. If you have crazy rants on Facebook where you talk about bringing a gun to work, if your blog is nothing but negative reviews, you could have written the Best Book Ever and they'll turn you down. My husband does some of the hiring at his work, he Googles applicants and has turned down people with stellar resumes based on their Facebook statuses. (Guess what, weirdos: posting the word "kill" over and over or joking about bringing a gun to work will not get you hired!) No one is going to want to read your middle grade book if you're already notorious for your profanity-laden Twitter feed. Editors want authors they can dress up and take out in public, to conferences for librarians and booksellers, for instance. If, judging from your blog, you are liable to go off on a rant about everything and everyone you hate at the drop of a hat, alienating those librarians and booksellers . . . well, you might be in trouble, my friend.

It's not a conspiracy. It's common sense.

I never thought I would bring this up on the blog . . . but I'm going to use a personal example.

A year ago or so, I got a Google Alert about a review of Dragon Flight. I don't normally read reviews of my books, I'm not really sure why I do the Google Alert thing. (Maybe because I feel paranoid that people would be talking about me and I WOULDN'T know?) But I could see from the header of this review that it was bad, and recklessly clicked on it. I'm very glad I did. This was the blog of an aspiring author, and every post was a dissection of a middle grade or YA fantasy book, basically ripping the book to shreds and detailing the "mistakes" the author had made and how the blogger would do it better in her book. She was, apparently, doing it to learn from our mistakes, but it really just sounded extremely mean and condescending. During the course of the Dragon Flight review, she misquoted or used out of context things I had said at a recent conference. I very politely commented on the post, saying that I was sorry she hadn't liked the book, but also setting straight what I had been saying at the conference. The blogger emailed me apologizing and asking how on earth I had ever found her blog, and we exchanged several perfectly polite emails, wherein I gave her the advice that since it was a public blog, anyone could find it. I explained about Google Alerts, and how many authors used them. . . And the next day got ANOTHER one from this same site! She had redone the post, mentioning that I had contacted her, and that in retrospect she had really, really liked Dragon Flight and thought I was an amazing author! While it was very nice, I knew for a fact that it was insincere, and there was very much a sense of "Whoopsie, I got caught!" I mentioned on my private Facebook status that I had commented on a bad review of Dragon Flight, which I know is unprofessional, but it had been an interesting couple of days. Five minutes later an editor friend messaged me to say that she had found that blog within 30 seconds, that she had seen the other reviews and mine, and that she would never sign someone who did that kind of thing on their blog. I passed this bit of advice on to the blogger, who I think has taken down her blog altogether. I'm sorry that that's what happened, I hope that she didn't think I was going to be watching her all the time, or that her potential career was being threatened. I'm not normally policing people's blogs, and like I've said, I don't usually read let alone comment on bad reviews of my books. But because I stumbled on one that was misquoting me, and I felt misrepresenting me and my books, I made the decision to speak up.

This is the kind of things that authors are warning people about, when they advise people to be careful about posting reviews. Being super, super nice and posting nonstop, totally dishonest reviews about how much you love everyone's books isn't a guarantee of a book deal. But posting a scathing review of a book? That can come back and bite you in the rear end!