Monday, December 26, 2011

Note to Book Designers:

Don't do this. 

Publisher: Running Press Kids, April 2011

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers, August 2012

I personally know half a dozen talented professional photographers and a dozen trained representational artists who will create a one-of-a-kind image for you for peanuts. Call me if you want their contact information. But please, stop buying the same stock photos, it embarrasses your authors.

For an even more heart-wrenching example of this sort of disservice to authors, see this blog post in The YA YA YAs.

Monday, December 19, 2011

I Prefer the Word "Homage" to "Plagiarize"

A couple of weeks ago, Quentin Rowan wrote a confession of how he slipped into plagiarism with his now-recalled-and-pulped book, Assassin of Secrets. (I've been following the comments on his confession, and off-topic I want to say how pointlessly harsh non-YA people are on the Internet, how they mistakenly think ad hominem attacks are the same as debate, and how willing they are to spout off without first informing themselves of anything. You and I have been coddled in our kindly YA world, dear reader!)

Now, anyone who is a practicing writer (either published or aspiring) knows that you can't just string together paragraphs from other books and create something that Little, Brown and Company (Mulholland Books) would want to buy. It's just not possible. Without knowing the specifics of the case, without knowing exactly how much was cribbed, just knowing how difficult it is to publish anything, I'm willing to bet there were interesting characters, a good story arc, a satisfying mystery, and a decent setting in that novel. It seems hard to believe that Mr. Rowan didn't generate 90% or more of that content all by himself—or rather, like the rest of us, merely under the influence of hundreds of great writers whose work has seeped into our cores since we first cracked open Frog and Toad. Why he added the other 10% (or whatever percentage) verbatim from other books is something I can't wrap my head around, in the same way I can't understand shoplifting. There's a need there, but since I've never felt it, I can't empathize. Just as Winona Ryder could afford to pay for her purchases in Saks Fifth Avenue, Rowan seems to have enough literary chops to write 100% original stuff. I might have understood better if he had been aiming to create a written version of a musical mashup: if he had been creating hip-hop art by "sampling" from the masters in his otherwise original piece. But he didn't sell it as avant-garde literature, he sold it as his own, so the shoplifting analogy is the one that holds.

But enough of that, can we get back to me? I have a confession of my own to make. When writing Monstrous Beauty I absolutely knowingly lifted a sentence each from two of my favorite books. Unlike Mr. Rowan, I can't blame an alcoholic personality (although I make a great homemade margarita). I can only blame my pathological love of these two lines. I believe they are the most romantic utterances, not only in their respective stories, but in all of literature, and I wanted to pay them homage. I won't tell you where they are—you'll have to find them yourself—but I will tell you that one is from Pride and Prejudice and the other is from Middlemarch. Of course I tweaked them a tiny bit, and since Jane Austen died in 1817 and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) died in 1880, their work is not protected by copyright (otherwise Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could not exist.)

So as you're reading Monstrous Beauty, try to find the two sentences. And if you're a BBC addict, you can figure it out even sooner: the photos above are stills of the exact lines that I quoted in my book. Guess away, fangirls.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Characters Look Like

Over the years I'd read interviews of authors in which they were asked, "Who would be your dream actors to play the roles of your main characters if the book were made into a movie?" and I was always shocked that the authors actually knew the answer. Often they'd name TV actors I had never heard of (not surprising, given that I only watch Doctor Who, Community, Adventure Time, and Masterpiece—how's that for an eclectic viewing lineup?), and some of the time they had actually envisioned those actors as they were writing the book. It was unfathomable to me. My characters were their own people. It would be like asking who should play your mother in a film. No one else could ever be your mother without it freaking you out and being wrong, all wrong.

And then, as I was writing Monstrous Beauty, I stumbled upon this JCrew model, and I thought, "Holy crap, that's Ezra!"

Photo lifted from

I mean, he's a few years too old, and his hair isn't long and scruffy enough, and he needs to be in 1872 clothing, but that's the guy. My writing friend approved: "Handsome but not caddish. Noble and intellectual."

That experience changed how I envision characters during the writing process. I'm about two thirds of the way through my current manuscript (working title Plus One) and the male character had already become a teenage Adrien Brody by page six:

Adrien Brody
"Seeing them like that next to each other, eyebrows raised at fake, worried angles, I realized that it wasn’t just their coloring that was similar. He had the same nose as her. A distinctive, narrow beak. Too big for his face – so long that it lost track of where it was and turned to the side when it reached the tip, instead of facing forward. He had her angular cheekbones. I looked at the ID on his lanyard. D’Arcy Benoit, Medical Apprentice. His photo made him look older, and below it was that same phrase, Plus One. He was both her apprentice and her kid."
Having this living person for comparison—knowing how Mr. Brody's face works, for example—animates D'Arcy in a way that brings him to life for me.

The main female character in Plus One took a little longer for me to find. She was definitely a redhead with green eyes, and I knew she was less round-cheeked than Karen Gillan, but had the same skin tone. She needed to be more fragile and woundable than Amy Pond, for sure. As I was watching Lark Rise to Candleford this young woman popped out at me:

Olivia Hallinan
Olivia Hallinan is of course too old to play my character, and she would have to be emaciated*, because my protagonist has been to hell and back before the book even begins. Her red hair would have to be enhanced, to be a more fiery orange. But she is darned close, and thinking about Ms. Hallinan will help me continue to feel that Sol is real as I'm writing.

*Unfortunately, only Christian Bale and Natalie Portman seem to be obsessive enough to become truly skeletal for their roles (for "The Machinist" Bale's final weight was 121 pounds on a 6'2" frame; for "Black Swan" Portman weighed under 90 pounds, at 5'3), a feat I sort of wish Jennifer Lawrence had pulled off to play Katniss.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Packaging and Indentured Servitude

Business Week had an article about a new book packaging venture that seems to have slipped somewhat under the YA blogging radar, but is worth a conversation. The article highlights the new company founded by Laura Schechter (a.k.a. Lauren Oliver, the author of Before I Fall, Delirium, Liesl & Po, and Pandemonium) and Lexa Hillyer (a former Harper Collins editor), who have teamed up to form Paper Lantern Lit.

The "About" section on the Paper Lantern site says this:
Paper Lantern Lit is a boutique literary development company committed to quality fiction and fresh voices. Each of our projects provides a marketable premise, powerful prose, and a fresh angle.
We believe that all stories should have spark. They should be captivating, voice-driven, and unique. By fostering talented young authors and collaborating with editorial colleagues, we aim to create books that surprise and stimulate readers, books that spark the imagination.
Paper Lantern Lit has already sold 20 novels, and has made a deal with Fox 2000 Pictures that gives the film company first dibs on movie rights to the books. In the Business Week article, Schechter says that Paper Lantern aims to "build distinct voices" and be a "literary incubator" for promoting new talent. They advertise that their emphasis is on the quality of the writing combined with marketability (as distinguished, I suppose, from the Alloy Media and Marketing emphasis on marketability combined with marketability).

The production process is still book packaging, though. Schechter and Hillyer think up the novel ideas (the "spark"), and assign the writing to promising unknown authors who are referred to them through writing friends or whom they find online. The book deal is signed between the publishing house and Paper Lantern Lit, while the author of the book gets a flat fee and bonuses for good sales. This means, if I'm not mistaken, that Elizabeth Miles got a flat fee even for her three-book Fury deal. So perhaps authors who think of this as a "jumping off" point for their careers may discover that they're actually crawling out from under this obligation for several years, no matter how enthusiastically their writing is received by critics and readers.

As an author, the book packaging idea makes me nervous. Didn't we learn from the whole Silver Age of Comics that paying "the talent" a flat fee is not just a moral gray area, but also potentially bad business? Wouldn't it have been so much better for Marvel to have given Jack Kirby a percentage of the profits and the rights to his own characters rather than lose him and all his future creations to D.C.? I understand that in Schechter and Hillyer's model, they do a lot of work: they brainstorm the story idea and nurse the project along, editing the proposal sent to publishers, and guiding the plot and the prose; they take responsibility for the product being good and on time. But why not take a percentage of the royalties, rather than all of them?

How much more literary would a "boutique literary development" company be if it nurtured new talent, found "the most exciting [new] writers," mother-henned them through "versatile, passionate" projects, and shared the royalties with them? How much more literary would the company seem if it called its work a partnership with new authors, or a mentorship, and gave them a baby version of the contract they would have with a real publisher? I sort of wish Paper Lantern Lit had chosen that model, which seems like something truly innovative in a changing industry.

The project does seem like a savvy business move: it cashes in on the considerable expertise of the two main players, and makes use of the apparently overflowing story ideas from Schechter/Oliver's brain (which is impressive in itself). It's a fact that even for successful authors (Jo Rowling aside), paychecks are somewhat capped by the amount of time it takes to write new novels. If you write a good book every few years, you're a player; if you write one a year, you're a madman. Similarly, even for successful editors in traditional houses, a publishing salary is usually disproportionately low relative to the man-hours and skills the job requires. Simply put, even in successful publishing, authors and editors don't get rich. This Paper Lantern venture is designed to farm money from the fields. It will require a  lot of hard work on Shechter's and Hillyer's part to till those fields, don't get me wrong. But it also seems to require a little indentured servitude on the part of the farm hands.