Tuesday, August 27, 2013

“Childhood is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

(With apologies to Stephen Dedalus)

File:President George H.W. Bush holds Jessica McClure in the Roosevelt Room at the White House (1989-07-19).jpg

(I feel like I have to write something in this space, lest the universe explode.)

Miley Cyrus may be the best example going at the moment of a child who became public property (and if you don’t believe people are still possessive of her, why on earth do they feel compelled to explain what she does to their teen and tween daughters in terms of their daughters’ self-esteem and self-image?), but she is certainly not the first. She may, however, be doing an exceptionally good job of taking her self back. Are you going to tell her it’s not “her party”?

Teenage celebrity is part of what I believe makes the cultural phenomenon of teenageness so deeply fascinating. It’s why Sarah Aronson’s Believe was a manuscript I knew wanted to publish after I’d read five pages.

"I was fascinated by this thoughtful, twisty, and convincing story about faith in the media age. Halfway through, I felt so deeply for Janine that I found myself looking at my own hands and wondering what I'd do if I were her."

—Nancy Werlin, New York Times
bestselling author of Impossible and The Rules of Survival

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The sub-genres

“an agent told me that publishers are no longer looking for paranormal or dystopian, but now want contemporary realism. True?”

I’ve heard a few responses on Twitter and Facebook since the PW piece that made me want to revisit something I wrote earlier on subgenres in YA. It’s from 2010, but I don’t think my feelings have changed much. Here’s the piece: “The Rise of the Subs.”

In the PW profile, the interviewer asked me for my thoughts on two much-discussed YA “subgenres” (my term): paranormal and dystopian.

“What does make sense to Karre is the evergreen popularity of dystopian and paranormal YA fiction. Such stories, he argues, provide a prism through which to explore the realities of being a teenager.”

This is absolutely how I see these two subgenres—how I see any subgenre that’s consistently functional in YA. What I don’t intend in my answer is a comment on the market’s taste for these things in any given moment. Do I even need to say that the market doesn’t give a shit what I think about how YA works as art or rhetoric? Yes, paranormal and dystopian will always hold a certain natural attraction for  authors who make teenagers their subjects because, I believe, the set pieces, commonplaces, and building blocks of these subgenres resonate so very well with adolescent experience. This does not mean that the business of publishing won’t create peaks and valleys in the market popularity of these subgenres. Dystopian is evergreen in YA—you can find landmark examples across the decades. This doesn’t mean, though, that in any given year, every third dystopian manuscript on submission will sell in a five-publisher auction for six-figures. The market for manuscripts is a speculative economic market—with all the attendant inefficiencies, irrationalities,  and blind spots—not a literary salon.

Finally, I’d forgotten that I quoted Elaine Marie Alphin* in my post about subgenres, and I was so glad to re-read her thoughts. I don’t think I have anything to match this in terms of perceptiveness and wisdom:

[…] genres can benefit writers unexpectedly. But I think genres can also do writers a disservice sometimes. I've recently finished a novel about the need to protect words and books from being twisted and misrepresented. It takes place in our world, perhaps a few years in the future, and I thought of it as sort of a foray into science fiction, or speculative fiction (a term I prefer). But with the current interest in dystopian literature, it's being called dystopian. And editors have rather specific ideas about what they want to see as dystopian. So when they read my manuscript, thinking dystopian, they have problems with it not fitting neatly into the dystopian template they have in their mind.

This is good insight for writers, but as an editor, I will take it as a mandate from an author I respect and admire.

*As some of you may know, Elaine suffered a serious stroke two years ago, and though she survived, she has not yet recovered the ability to communicate verbally. I worked on one book with Elaine, and had many illuminating conversations with her. Re-discovering her post is one of many available reminders that she was a wise writer and her voice is much missed.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

“But I Dig Friction”

PW was very generous to ask me for my opinions, and that was a lot of fun. I do, however, want to add one thing to the record (and this is certainly not an oversight on Claire’s part): I think having strong opinions about why and how you do the books you do is very important to good editorial practice. It’s the main thing that separates a mostly objective practice like proofreading or copyediting from the vastly more subjective and variable practice of acquisitions and developmental editing. An editor should believe strongly in something.

But the purpose of those opinions is to serve as starting points for a conversation with the author. Philosophies are guidelines not laws. It’s true that I’m not interested in the present YA orthodoxy (YA is books for teenagers), but by the same token, I’m not interested in seeing my philosophy become the new orthodoxy. Let’s celebrate heterodoxy and apostasy. I want testing, dispute, and contradiction. In my work, I’m most interested in the friction between ideas and how that friction can bring new heat to a manuscript.

My opinions are not my authors’. When I edit, I hope to advance my opinions and to be pushed back, forward, up, down, or sideways by the author—and arrive somewhere interesting as a result. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Poetical intersections

I can’t quite explain how this works, but there comes a point in a lot of books I work on where poetry asserts itself on the author or me or both of us at once. I don’t know exactly when it happens or what causes what, but I know a book is in good shape when I’m trying to justify three pages of epigraphs to myself (I’ve never yet let it go quite that far).

Some recent examples:

  • The Freak Observer: “Stars at Tallapoosa” by Wallace Stevens
  • Catch & Release: “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats
  • A Wounded Name: “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by W. B. Yeats.
  • Anything by Wallace Stevens in any conversation of five minutes or more with Andrew Smith. (See his “Green Screen” in Losing It.)
  • No Crystal Stair: “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes.

And I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting.

One marvelous example is top of mind this morning (because of some good news), and that’s Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian. We did cram two poems onto the epigraph page. The first is a bit of Larkin’s masterpiece “This Be the Verse,” which is joyous little ditty everyone should memorize. But much more amazing in its resonance is a poem Carrie had associated with the book from early days, a poem called “The Lake” by Michael Hettich. It’s a magnificent piece, and it does a subtle dance with Carrie’s book  that pleases me every time I think of it. You can read it all in the front of Sex & Violence or in The Sun Magazine.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Way It Could Be

How about a bit of utopianism for Monday morning? Maybe with skateboarding?


Here’s the deal. If you spend an hour with this 11-video oral history of skateboarding photography by photographer Andrew Norton, the minimum benefit you’ll derive is an hour spent with some extremely elegant and captivating photographs, described by their creators. And if you grew up in the 80s and 90s, you’ll probably see something you once had taped to a locker or a Trapper Keeper. That’s worth an hour right there, even if you didn’t ever skate.

If you’re in the YA racket, though, I think this series offers even more: a vision of how to make art (and money—all of these guys are making a living) that appeals predominantly to young people—particularly teenagers—without being explicitly concerned with what those young people want, what’s right/appropriate/appealing “for” them, etc.

These artists are literally and figuratively subject focused. They’re trying to great work with the creative material at hand, and even though that material is incredibly fluid and dynamic, the quality of the work over the thirty-plus years covered in these videos is uniformly high. What a concept.

Watch these videos with this analogy held loosely in your mind: Skateboard photographer is to skateboarder as author is to character. 

(Photo of Chris Senn links to an ESPN piece on photographer Bryce Kaknights.)

Friday, August 9, 2013

PDF Proof Without (Much) Pain

Paper proofs are becoming less common, and many authors can expect to see all their proofs in PDF. This is a good thing for a whole host of reasons, but PDFs remain a somewhat mysterious thing for many outside of the graphic design and layout fields.  I’m going to to try to demystify a few PDF features in hopes of making proof changes easier for all concerned.

First things first, let’s use Acrobat Reader so we’re all on the same page. If you’re using a PDF markup application like PDF Pen or you’re rocking proper Acrobat, then this post isn’t for you. You’re already ahead of the curve. However, if you’re on a Mac and you’re relying on Preview, the following will be more helpful if you install Reader too. (It’s free.) If you’re on a PC, you’re probably using Reader, but if you’re defaulting to some other third-party free PDF software, you might want to switch to Reader for purposes of this demo.

A couple things to note: Reader is not a great tool. Marking PDFs with Reader is not nearly as easy as, say, making changes in a Word doc. Selection always feels a little imprecise and adding things like paragraph breaks and style changes require precise comments—you can’t just insert them. But if you use all the tool’s capabilities, you can make life easier.

Second, all of this assumes the person who prepared the PDF has enabled all the comment and annotation features. We say “comment-enabled PDF” around here, and that’s basically the default setting for PDFs we create. But other houses may do things differently. If you don’t have the full palette of annotation tools when you hit Comment in Reader, you might want to ask your editor or the designer to make you a comment-enabled PDF.

Ok, on with the show.

(Note, I did this on a PC with Windows 7, but it’s not too different on a Mac.)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Youth culture, clothing, and context

Thought experiment: if sagging pants on young people—particularly young black people—signal degrees of availability for prison-style homosexual sex (yep, I'm looking at you, Don Lemon and Bill O'Reilly), what else do clothes signal about their wearers?

Do button down collars on dress shirts signal you're not in fact headed to the office, but to a polo match (the buttons on those collars come from real polo shirts from the turn of the 19th century, on which the buttons were meant to keep the collar points from flying in a rider's face)?

The selvedge strip one sees on any $350 pair of Japanese-made jeans once was the hallmark of the ultra-affordable clothing of the working class (leaving the selvedge on denim was a way to use the whole bolt of fabric and save money). What in the world does it mean when you roll your jeans to show it off?

Or what about the legendary IBM salesperson who was once sent to buy real shoes after breaking the rules by showing up to work in Gucci loafers (“bedroom slippers,” his boss called them)? That’s a story we now repeatedly laugh off as a sign of natural change in cultural norms around dress. (And now the billionaire mayor of New York brags about only wearing black loafers.)

Why, then, are the clothes and sartorial sensibilities of youth culture (especially black youth culture) the only ones pundits are at pains to repeatedly insist still "mean" exactly what they meant when they began? Why do the rules apply rigidly to them?

Forgive me if I can't take seriously someone (Don Lemon, again; above left) who argues "if you're sagging, your self esteem is sagging" while wearing an outfit that, as it was originally worn, meant, "I'm on vacation at our place on the Cape. Care to meet me for martinis before dinner, Old Boy?" (The man is wearing suede bucks,  green socks, and a pink shirt!) Why is he allowed to sever that outfit from its very specific original context and its original "rules" and repurpose it for his own use, but a kid who wears his pants low must unknowingly be buying in to whatever his outfit might have meant in another time and place altogether unrelated to him?

Of course the answer is Lemon’s argument is not serious. It’s nonsense. It’s nonsensical when he makes it. It’s nonsensical as a Facebook meme.

I think Jay Smooth does a good job of rebutting Lemon’s argument in terms of race. Watch it here.

But there’s also a question of youth culture and dress that I find fascinating in all this, particularly as it relates to the unfettered exploration of teenageness that should be a goal of all of us in YA. Do I even need to argue how important teenagers severing clothes from their contexts and their rules is to the wider world? Isn’t it obvious how much cultural influence teens and their dressing transgressions have in that regard?

Annex - Dean, James (Rebel Without a Cause)_01

If you’re wearing a plain T-shirt  to work and calling it “casual Friday” rather than “showing up in your underwear,” thank youth culture.

And is this severance occasionally scary and disturbing for adults? Yep. And do the clothes often seem ridiculous and impractical and a bit like costumes? Of course. They’re supposed to. And it always has been this way as long as there have been teenagers. As they say, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

Not surprisingly, the American Ur-Teenager has something very important to say on the matter of severing clothes from context:

“I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning. It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks. I saw it in the window of this sports store when we got out of the subway, just after I noticed I'd lost all the goddam foils. It only cost me a buck. The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back—very corny, I'll admit, but I liked it that way. I looked good in it that way.”

Simple as that.

I understand that getting rattled by the sartorial choices of teenagers is as much a part of being old as rattling adults is of being young. One hopes, though, as an old person, to occasionally step back and appreciate the spectacle. One hopes not to reveal a sadly withered imagination. And one sincerely, pleadingly hopes not to delude one's self into believing that the problems of race in America hinge in any part on the height of any young man's pants. That is indeed a pathetic, deeply phony state.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Do Designers Read?

I have been a designer at Lerner Publication Group for 9 years and invariably the question that comes up the most when I tell people what I do for a living is: Do you read all of the books you work on? The answer is always an emphatic YES. Reading the manuscripts—especially for our novels—is one of the most important steps for my creative process. Not only do I gain insight into the author’s work and/or the subject matter, it generates themes, concepts and visual motifs that help steer me in my efforts to design the book’s make or break piece: the cover.

Unfortunately, even though it’s smart not to “judge a book by it’s cover,” that’s really what happens about 97% of the time (I mean we’ve all done it!). Reading the work gives me an edge to create the best “hey-that’s-intriguing-what’s-this-book-all-about” cover, instead of the “nope-not-for-me” cover. I also find that readers are more gratified when they finish the book and look at the cover again and discover new meanings there that they only could come to by reading the story. When you can accomplish that, well, I think it’s something very special, and I strive to do that every time.

Of course, you can’t please everyone all of the time. Quite often a book will have several good directions but, for one reason or another, some are discarded and some become the “Chosen One”. Take for example one of our new Young Adult offerings Sex and Violence: A Novel by Carrie Mesrobian (available October 2013). When I started working on this I was struck by many different scenes and visuals from the text. Without giving any spoilers I can tell you I focused in on the haze of a smoked filled room, how the seemingly benign and blank features of a bathroom could be menacing, the order and peacefulness of nature juxtaposed with the chaos of violence, and water as a substance both calming and violent. This is the cover we landed on:

And these are some of the others that didn’t make the cut: 

How did we do? Did we pick the winner? Which one do you like the most and why? I hope you’ll seek out Sex and Violence: A Novel in your bookstores and libraries and let me know after you’ve read it if I made the grade or missed the mark.

-Laura Rinne