Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Things I Learned at the SCBWI Winter Conference

You asked, so I promised posts about the SCBWI Conference.  Here's my brain dump.

This is what I learned about the children's market.  And I apologize for those of you who write for adults but perhaps some of these learnings are still relevant.

I realize what is to follow isn't the style I usually employ on this blog.  I don't like to make grand statements like this and I promise things will be back to normal tomorrow. 


I heard all of this straight from the mouths of smart people (I promise).  Anything I relay here is something I just kept hearing again and again.   

(Oh my goodness, Melissa, get on with it.)

(Oh my goodness, Melissa, you're talking in 3rd person.)

* Middle Grade is the thing.  I repeatedly heard editors and agents say they are actively looking for strong middle grade stories. If you're writing middle grade, this is your cue to smile.

* This is nothing new. If you're here, you're mostly like already there.  But the blog, website, facebook, twitter, get-yourself-a-platform thing is still...well...a thing.

* There was a lot of talk about enhanced e-books for kids and what this is going to mean for picture books.  Print picture books are still seen as the primary way young kids are going to read but publishing houses see dollar signs for e-books.  As an 'also' (not an instead).

* Everyone likes to throw around the word transmedia. This is something I heard tossed around in the toy industry about two years ago. I guess it has made its way to the publishing industry.  Basically, no one knows what it means but people like to say it.  You should say it.

* When you send out a manuscript to an agent or editor, they do not want be your first reader.  They prefer to be your 5th or 6th reader.

* Agents and editors really want to be able to explain a book to everyone they meet in one sentence. Thus, writers should be able to explain their books to everyone they meet in one sentence.

* Lists at the publishing houses are much, much smaller. Everyone in the industry is acting in a very conservative way right now. It's a 'duh' fact but I feel it is important to note.

* There was a small rumbling about a potential resurgance in contemporary/realistic fiction. I say a small rumbling because it wasn't as emphatic as the middle grade sentiment I kept hearing (over and over) but I definitely heard it more than once.

* Holes in the market:  Middle Grade (did I mention that?), compelling chapter books for grades K-2, and non-fiction for young people (though the latter is a very, very, tough sell.  You are forewarned.)

* And the usual.  I know you've heard it before but it bears repeating. Never write just to fill the hole.  Don't write to a trend. Write what you love.  Love what you write.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

In the Center of New York City, Fifth Avenue

There is so much to say about the SCBWI conference I attended over the weekend.  But I'm still digesting, still thinking it all through.  Look for more posts throughout the week.

In the meantime, I'm about a week behind in everything, so I leave you with a visual of last weekend.  Unable to sit still (it's a problem, I'm working on it), I walked 56 blocks down the heart of Fifth Avenue, something I hadn't done in years.  

As a New Yorker, there are areas to avoid unless you must go there out of necessity.  SoHo. Times Square.  Macy's.  Rockefellar Plaza.  To name a few.  Fifth Avenue is another.  Unless you have a relative or friend in town, it can be overwhelming, lined with tourists window shopping, figure skating, waiting park-side for carriage rides, getting to elevators that will take them to the Empire State Building or the Top of the Rock.

I am so often looking to hide away, to sit in tiny restaurants tucked on named streets, to find quiet along the river or under a bridge at the northernmost tip of Central park.  In a city like New York, to survive, you must walk to the edge of things.  That's where you find running paths and quiet playgrounds.  It's where astronomical rents fall, too many blocks away from transportation, a sanctuary from the office towers stretching to the sky.

And so, sometimes, I forget what it means to be at the center.  To get lost in the rush.  To never know darkness under all those bright lights.  

Going there last weekend, being reminded of all that, was, to sound as sentimental as possible, magical.  That's the only word I can think to use.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thoughts on John Green's The Fault In Our Stars

Yesterday, I mentioned that a certain sentence in John Green's The Fault In Our Stars struck me.  Today, I'll say that many things struck me while reading this novel and it doesn't seem fair to have highlighted just one sentence.

But I believe there are all kinds of copyright laws that prohibit me from copying the entire book in this blog post.  So...I won't.

All this, to say: there is far too much to say.  All of it said better by Green himself.

What impresses me, about all of his books, is the way he portrays young people.  They are always wildly intelligent, sharp individuals who seek answers to the big, important questions about the world they live in.    

As a teenager, I always felt, among all the adults I knew, there were two kinds.  Those that were amused by me, as if I was some kind of walking reality show.  And those that genuinely thought I was a real person with interesting thoughts and ideas.  I still feel that way, even though I am technically an adult.  And I believe that Green falls into the latter category.

He respects the characters he creates.  And while they sometimes act with gestures that seem too grande, while they engage in impossibly witty banter and ask huge philosophical questions, I accept and respect them too. 

It's been a long time since I left a book feeling as if my heart is so full it could burst.  This is one of those rare moments.

If you've read it, I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Familiar Sentence?

I am in the middle of John Green's 'The Fault In Our Stars'. And perhaps it is because I am unable to sleep anymore, exahusted all day, wide awake as soon as my head hits the pillow, then ready for a deep sleep as soon as the day begins...but I was struck by this  line:

As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.

Personally, I think that is a beautiful line, perfect for its simplicity.

But when I told Tyler, he thought it sounded cliche, a line he's heard a million times before.

Perhaps the simplicity of the sentence makes it feel familiar?

But I really don't believe I've ever heard love described that way. 

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Muddy Flat

I think of spin class today.  I think of the muddy flat road we're told to experience.  It's not quite a hill.  But it's not easy breezy.  It's not enough to leave you choking for breath but it's enough to peak your heart rate and leave an ache in your legs. 

In this writing journey, I often feel as if we're all on the muddy flat for extended periods of time.  I hear these terrible stories, the kind that are supposed to inspire me or make me pump my fist in solidarity but, instead, leave me feeling sick. I wrote ten novels before my first got published!  I got 100 rejections before I landed an agent!  No one wanted to publish my book for years...then I won a Pulitzer!

I don't know.  Something about these stories makes the journey feel less like an uphill battle and more like a neverending muddy flat, tires trudging through the sludge.

Lately, I'm not interested in looking through this murky lens, feeling powerless as I let others determine my fate or watch others in my position get knocked down.

Because last night, I sat at my little desk, writing, and I met somebody new.  I put words together, at first clunky, smoothed them out, and thought they might not be porcelain, they might not be gold, but they'll do.  I felt the nervous excitement of a new world, its people stomping across the page. 

I was where I needed to be, all nestled up inside what it's really about.

And I thought, screw this stupid sludge, this off-road drool.  I'm not fixated on the muddy flat.  I am flying straight through.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On Networking, Attending the SCBWI Winter Conference and Eating Hot Pot

On Saturday, I will attend the SCBWI International Winter Conference here in New York City.  I've never attended a writing conference before and I'm terribly excited.  I'm trying to imagine what it will be like to attend a conference with a subject I am interested in.  All the conferences I have been to in the past have been mandatory for my job.

I'm not very good at networking.  I'll say this as elegantly as possible:  I suck at it.  When people are thrown into a room with the expectation to 'network', it feels fake to me, like wearing a poorly disguised veil.

For me, chit-chat is boring and I want no part of it.  Most people don't suspect this of me but I can see right through to anyone's crap.  If someone wants something from me, I prefer they come right out and say it.  When I want something, I prefer to do the same.

But I know it doesn't work like that.  People have to go on golf outings, attend business lunches, stand with a glass of wine in one hand, a pig-in-the-blanket in the other.

Once, I went out for Hot Pot (basically chinese fondue) with a friend.  The entire meal, she barked orders in her native language while the rest of us sat back, feeling as if we were a bunch of mis-behaved children with our ruler-slapping teacher. 

She explained that American's are wishy-washy, too polite, too passive.  In her culture, it is necessary to be direct about everything.  For example, if you receive the wrong order (as we did) there's none of this: "Oh, I'm sorry, can you please take this back? It wasn't what we ordered.  Can we have this instead?"  It is: "No. I do not want this. Give us green beans now."  It is not impolite.  It's just the way it's done.

I believe I could survive quite well in a culture like that.  A place where people do not beat around the bush.  It sounds efficient.

I'd like to attend a conference where the networking runs a little bit like Hot Pot.

But, in the meantime, while I still live in a society full of mandatory and polite chatter, I've decided to approach this conference differently.  Personally, I like to meet new people.  I like to talk with others.

I've decided not to worry about the networking aspect at all.  I plan to concentrate on the meeting-new-people aspect and avoid the veil all together.

Thoughts on networking? Are you attending this conference?  Please, please let me know if you are.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

But It's Snowing!

When I woke up this morning, I searched frantically for my glasses so I could run to the window and see this view of snow.

I have never considered snow bothersome.  

During childhood, it meant that I didn't have to go to school.  In college, it meant I could sled down Libe slope.  When I lived in Boston, I was within walking distance of my graduate classes.  And as I entered the working world in New York City, I never worried about whether or not I could get to work.  The subway runs, my friends.  It. Always. Runs.  

I recognize that for some people snow is a real inconvenience.  I have never seen it that way.

So, this morning, I leapt down the stairs to look out the front door and my little two year old neighbor, Margot, came out in her pajamas.  

It's snowing!  I told her, excitedly.

She came to the door with me, peeked her head out and said nothing.

Look at it!  Isn't it pretty? Let's go play in it! I said, silently praying that this dear child would give me an excuse to play in snow.

She turned her attention to her scooter in the foyer.  Do you like my scooter? she asked.

Yes.  I like your scooter.  But it's snowing!  

I'm going to eat my breakfast.  

Well then.

Friday, January 20, 2012

How An Optimist Thinks

This week I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by writer and speaker Michael Gelb who, according to his website, is: 'a creativity and innovation expert, an inspiring speaker, and a juggler.'  I did, indeed, watch him juggle.  And I felt reenergized after his presentation.

Gelb is learning from the masters.  He aspires to think like Da Vinci and innovate like Edison. 

Many things struck me during his presentation but one idea stayed with me: to be optimistic in life.  I'd say that's a pretty standard inspirational tactic.  But when he broke it down for me, I thought that taking optimism to a new level might be necessary. 

To summarize what Gelb said, when optimists encounter failure, they believe that what happened to them is not entirely personal, that it's a temporary setback, and that it won't happen again.  Pessimists believe the exact opposite: Their failure is completely personal, the current situation is never going to change, and they will fail the next time.

The reverse occurs when one achieves success.  Optimists believe they are responsible for their achievements, that the moment is permanent, and that success will continue happening for them. Pessimists believe their success must be because of outside forces, it's a fluke, and will never happen again.

I consider myself a fairly optimistic person but there is always room for improvement.  And I liked that kind of breakdown.  Knowing how an optimist and a pessimist think is important.  I'd like to follow an optimist's lead.

Thanks Michael.

So, what do you think?  Room for more optimism in your life?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Covers Are The Fashion

Cover Design: John Gall Photograph: The Sartorialist

Sera Hur matched the famous Sartorialist's photographs with the book covers of Haruki Murakami.  

This is everything I love: people and color and texture and style and movement and mood...and a book.


I am in love with the idea. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Is A Book Review To You? -OR- How Should We Talk Books? (And Other Musings)

I've been struggling, for a long time, basically since I started writing this blog, to figure out how best to write about books.

For a while, I tried a series called Tuesday Books For Writers. Mostly, it was a challenge to myself. To articulate what I learned from a book as a writer and relay it to you. But I often found it excruciating to write. I never looked forward to the experience so I stopped full stop.

While I am inspired by those writers that review books (I read so many book blogs, it is insane) I have never felt comfortable writing a so-called book review. When you review a book you must examine it. You must study and consider it. In some ways, it becomes a formal inspection. A military-like evaluation. And when you write a review you must give a critical report.

That sense of formality, that structure, gives me anxiety. What are the terms? How should a book's quality be measured? And what kind of balanced evaluation do you owe a reader (or the author for that matter)? How many books can you celebrate or attack before you lose a reader's trust? And, in the end, is it really about earning that trust at all?

In other words...I am in awe of those that tackle these questions and churn out reviews so that I don't have to.

But the reviews I love to read have none of that formality.  They express a feeling, a guttural impression. They capture what it feels like to be with an author's words, to breathe them in, and be left breathless.

I want to do that. I don't know how. I will not call it a review. I might not call it anything at all. But I want to find the virtual equivalent of handing over a book to a friend and saying, I want you to have this.

Thoughts? I know you have them.

Monday, January 16, 2012

You Know You're At A Contemporary Art Museum When...

Over the weekend I headed out to Beacon, NY.  My thought was that I could get lost in the woods for a bit.  But freezing temperatures thwarted my plan.  Instead we sat in coffee shops, wandered through art galleries, watched glass-making demonstrations and visited the Dia, one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world.  My hiking boots sat unused.

The museum felt like one long massive warehouse, light pouring in to the long halls, big enough to house some of the largest art installations I've ever seen.  I was impressed.  I know absolutely nothing about contemporary art.  But I like to look at it.  I like that it makes me think.  And I'm fascinated by the things we say.  The things we hear.

This is a sampling, in no way meant to trivialize the exhibitions we saw.  Only to say, this was ordinary conversation.  This, in my opinion, proves that we saw some incredible things.

Museum Attendant (into walkie-talkie): Yes.  There are other spiders.  (long pause)  No.  Ours is the third largest.  There are two other spiders that are much bigger.

Me (to Tyler): You could be a geometric minimalist.

Tyler: You think so?

Me: Absolutely.  

Exhibit features a framed piece of paper with instructions.  I point to the stack of identical papers beneath it.

Me: It says I'm going to have an erotic experience if I follow these instructions.  Do you think I'm supposed to take the instructions home?

Tyler: I think it's part of the exhibit.

Me: But it's just a stack of papers.  Don't you think you're supposed to take it home?

Tyler: I don't know.  I don't think so.  I really think it's part of the exhibit.

Me: How do we know?

Tyler: We don't.

Tyler: What was your favorite exhibit?

Me: I liked the sculptures you can wear.

Me: So what is this made out of?

Tyler (looks at brochure): Plaster.  Wax.  Wood.  Excrement.  And Urine.

Me:  Oh.  But--  Oh...

Friday, January 13, 2012

We'll Go To Coney / And Eat Baloney On A Roll

Winter is in hiding.  I haven't seen snow since Halloween.  Talk about a topsy turvy world. 

Last Saturday, in January, temperatures reached 60 degrees and I rode my bicycle to Coney Island.

In my humble opinion, Coney Island is one of the most visually stunning places in Brooklyn.  I like to go there in winter, to see it forgotten.  The stillness of the rides, the empty boardwalks, the boarded up shops, inspire me.  So much so that I wrote an entire novel that steals from its storied past (and present.)    

I took the trip there on Saturday because of a new project I am working on.  It's not a novel or fiction of any kind.  I don't really know what it is.  I'll let you know when I know.

But I've decided that Coney Island remains one of my favorite places in the world to be.

Hey Buddy, I know it was unseasonably warm. But it wasn't THAT warm...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


I am in this bonkers mood right now.  I mean totally bonkers.

I've been talking about Murakami on this blog so much as of late -- just saw the film adaptation of Norwegian Wood (my favorite Murakami book.)  I can not, will not, go into detail.  I'll just say the film was excruciatingly slow.  And long.   Two and a half hours long.  Well beyond what I can tolerate.

I'll add that I had to stop myself from laughing during one of the most dramatic and crucial moments.  Part of it was the result of sheer insanity (It was just so long.  So very long.)  Part of it was nervous laughter.  I had to pee like you would not believe.

When the film ended, I shot up from my seat.  But no one moved.  It was one of those films in which people felt the need to be with their thoughts.  They felt the need to display that they needed to be with their thoughts by not moving.  I nearly threw a tantrum.  Eventually, I had to trample over the still-not-moving crowd and was consequently cursed out of the theater.

I've been bonkers ever since.

Came home, walked into the bedroom and had a giggle fit.  Because, you see, the perfume I received in my stocking this Christmas, the one that has been sitting on my dresser for two weeks, that is featured in this lovely picture...

It's truffle oil.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Celery Tree: A Site for Authors With Books to Sell

The lovely writer and editor Karen Jones Gowen over at Coming Down The Mountain: A Writer's Blog has a new venture I'm excited to share with you all: celerytree.com.  In Karen's own words:

Celerytree.com came about because I know how hard it is to market and sell books. One day in 2010, this idea came to me: Why not build a website where authors support one another by agreeing to buy a modest amount of books from other authors each year.

If enough people join up, it can grow geometrically and make a real difference. 100 members buying 6 books a year is 600 books purchased from those 100 members. 1000 members buying 6 books a year is 6000 books purchased from 1000 members. 10,000 members is 60,000 books purchased from 10,000 members. You get the idea, right?

The more members we get the more books our members will sell, yet each member only has to ever buy 6 books a year, although most will buy more than 6. The more members sign on, the larger the pool of books and book buyers will be.

I like people with big ideas and I particularly like those who execute them.  Since I am guilty of saying 'Wouldn't it be great if...' and not doing a darn thing, I'm thrilled to support Karen's idea.

I hope you will hop over to the site and see what it's all about.  If you have any questions, Karen asks that you e-mail her directly at: karen@celerytree.com (that's the kind of gal she is, always making sure you're in good hands.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Vine Leaves Literary Journal and my Vignette

I used to do a lot of my writing in train cars.  The Long Island Railroad and the New York City subway were my usual spots. But I have also written on Amtrak, the Euro Rail and the T in Boston.  When I was not working on a particular project, I picked out a person on the train and began to write short pieces.  Sometimes, I simply described what the person looked like.  Other times, I stole a small moment and slipped it between the lined pages of my journal.  Always, I imagined a life for them and let it breathe.

When I learned about the idea for the Vine Leaves Literary Journal, I discovered that I had been writing something called a vignette.  According to the journal a vignette is:

 a word that originally meant "something that may be written on a vine-leaf." It’s a snapshot in words. It differs from flash fiction or a short story in that its aim doesn’t lie within the traditional realms of structure or plot. Instead, the vignette focuses on one element, mood, character, setting or object. It's descriptive, excellent for character or theme exploration and wordplay. Through a vignette, you create an atmosphere.

Well.  You learn something new every day.

On a whim, just a few hours before the submission window closed, I submitted a vignette to the journal and they published it in their premiere issue.   Feel free to check it out here.  As a tribute to my days writing on trains, it is called The Subway and it's on Page 6.  I like tellng people I'm on Page Six!  But you should read as much of the magazine as you can, such wonderful content there.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Inconclusive Thoughts on Murakami's 1Q84

I recently finished Book 1 of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.  I had been looking forward to the series for a long time, waiting impatiently for them to release it in the states.

Turns out they released the series as one book. A 925 page deadweight. (As in, I can barely carry it. As in, I am experiencing physical pain trying to hold it up and read it on the subway.)

I don't particularly like long works of anything.  I firmly believe a film should be no longer than 90 minutes.  925 pages does not exactly fit in the realm of 'what Melissa can handle without going completely bonkers.'

But I may have mentioned once or one million times that I will follow Murakami to the ends of the earth. So, I'm reading this 925 page book, because, when it comes to Murakami, I become Cyborg (or perhaps, in this case, sighborg?) Melissa.

What I love about Murakami's work is the straightforward manner in which his stories are presented.  I am fascinated by his ability to stretch both the mundane and the extraordinary, to take you on the most underwhelming, are we there yet, journey, then wallop you with a ball meets bat crack.

In my mind, his books are not without flaws but that is also what makes them appealing, as if he is one of his own characters, simply making breakfast, getting on the train, making a go at this whole novel thing.  He has a strange way of making a story feel painstaking and effortless at the same time.

I don't have too much of a desire to analyze his books.  I like to be with them for a time and get on with my life.

But I wanted to share this.  Because this is the only way I can adequately express what I love about Murakami.  This right here:

The moon had been observing the earth close-up longer than anyone.  It must have witnessed all the phenomena occurring -- and all of the acts carried out -- on this earth.  But the moon remained silent; it told no stories.  All it did was embrace the heavy past with cool, measured detachment.  On the moon there was neither air nor wind.  Its vacuum was perfect for preserving memories unscathed.  No one could unlock the heart of the moon.  Aomame raised her glass to the moon and asked, "Have you gone to bed with someone in your arms lately?"

The moon did not answer.

"Do you have any friends?" she asked.

The moon did not answer.

"Don't you get tired of always paying it cool?"

The moon did not answer.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: A New Year

For weeks all my photos have been trapped in the camera. I lost my memory card reader.  In other words, it was sitting quietly with all the other gadgets, right in front of my face. But it was not until I gave in and purchased another one that Tyler looked over and said, 'Hey, look. It's right there.'

So, I had been wanting to share my New Year's day in Prospect Park.  For you to know me, really know me, you must know I am obsessed with trees.  To spend the first day of a new year with them (oh and Tyler) was, in my mind, perfection.

Because the access to the pictures didn't quite match up with the day I say Happy New Year, again (waves).

And you have no idea, how much I wanted to join that boy in a tree. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Man On Wire

I know this documentary, Man on Wire, came out years ago.  Somehow, it stayed on my radar all these years as a film I wanted to see but never saw.  I always remembered the blue cover and the tiny figure of a man, just a speck in the sky.  I finally saw it the other day.

For those who haven't seen the film, it's about Philippe Petit, a wire walker who crossed (danced, tip-toed, conquered) a wire between the top of the Twin Towers in 1974.  The film follows the journey from idea to execution.  It is illegal to do such a dangerous stunt.  To hear from the men and women involved in this enormous undertaking is fascinating.

Two 'images' struck me in the film.  Both, just anecdotes.  One from Philippe himself.  He sat in a dentist's office and saw a photo of the planned Twin Towers in a magazine.  They hadn't even been built yet and he envisioned a wire between the two.  A wire he decided, at that moment, he would walk.

The second from his girlfriend at the time, Annie, who said Philippe had decided she would be his girlfriend, sent flowers, chocolates, made phonecalls, showed up at her door and asked for endless dates until she agreed.

This kind of certainty impressed me.  To know what you want, to have such a singular purpose, and chase it until it is yours. 

I thought it was an appropriate sentiment to bring to a new year. 

Have you seen the film?  Anything you wish you chase in this life?