Theme Vs. Plot

The theme is the thing.
Not that plot is not important–without plot, your novel is a jellyfish, no bones, no skeleton, no internal structure to give it shape and structure and hold it erect. Character-driven novels can be wonderful, but those totally devoid of plot are very difficult to pull off. At the risk of sounding contradictory, I think well developed characters are likely the most important element in a good novel–but that’s another blog.
Plot is what happens in a novel, and it’s much to do with the novel’s conflict, how the main character and others go about struggling with and resolving the conflict/problem: coming to a –we hope–victorious, or at least, bitter-sweet conclusion. (I hold with the late, great Madeleine L’Engle who said, if I may paraphrase, that a writer should always leave at least a glimmer of hope at the end of a YA novel. Adult readers can deal with a totally tragic ending, younger readers don’t have the experience as yet to cope–they need some optimism in a book’s conclusion to carry into their own life challenges.)
I’m sure you know the basics of plot and conflict: the main character must resolve the problem him or herself instead of an adult or an act of blind fate coming in at the last moment to make all things right, and so forth.
But that’s still not theme. Theme is the basic and overall idea that hangs behind the whole novel, that guides the momentum behind the character’s growth and change, his/her struggle with conflict, reaction to the setting, reaction to other characters, and more. Other writers have commented that theme comes from the characters’ issues–or perhaps, I might add, their issues develop partly from the theme.–and the theme grows from the writer’s heart. It’s possible you might write using a theme you don’t believe in, but I don’t really see how.

In the YA manuscript I’m working on now, working title: An Ounce of Courage, the protagonist has been relocated, after the death of his military father and much against his will, into a small isolated village from a much more cosmopolitan setting. His immediate conflict is being beset by the local high school bully. His bigger conflict is that he’s afraid he’ll never live up to his hero dad.

(My dad always said,’ Stick up for the little guy.’

My dad wasn’t on the bus.)

The theme, though, has to do with the nature of courage and the process of becoming a man, a journey every male teen has to make.  You might wonder why a woman is writing this book? The short answer, the story wouldn’t leave me alone until I started to write it.  Longer one: My writing has never been restricted to characters of one gender. : ) I do have a younger brother and a son, and now three grandsons, two growing old enough to begin this process. And perhaps sometimes a little distance is a good thing. . . And I am an army brat, so the backdrop of the story is one I’m very familiar with. There is a girl in the book, too, who is an important character, and she also has challenges to face and decisions to make. Courage is not just a question for boys–or men.

I feel every word and every page of this manuscript deeply, whatever the gender of the protagonist, because the theme matters. . . now my job as a writer is to make sure the reader does, too.

images-4Cheryl Zach is the author of Hearts Divided, Book 1 of the 4 book Civil War YA series, Southern Angels, and many other YA and MG novels.

The Ups and Downs of the Current Children’s Book Market

I’ve just returned from the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where the annual summer conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had to be relocated after our ‘old’ and usual hotel site in Century City broke its contract with the group. The Biltmore is an old and elegant building and the staff was friendly and helpful. However, it’s not really big enough for the conference turnout. Around 250 would-be attendees had to be turned away, so the search for a new site will likely continue.
As usual, the state of the industry was discussed with interest, first by Justin Chandra, VP and Publisher of 4 children’s imprints at Simon and Schuster, and later at the Market Report given by Deborah Halverson, author and former editor, and creator of advice site: DearEditor.com.
News is mixed. Children’s book sales are up by only 2%. Sales of teen books are falling, and there is a sharp decline in ebook sales. Chandra said the YA market has been saturated. He says right now fantasy and action/adventure are selling, but since by the time you write and sell a book and get it to market, no one knows what will be hot, he advises you to forget about trends and write what is closest to your heart.
He said that last year there were more sales of fewer titles, big sales of movie tie ins, and it is hard to get attention to midlist. (My note, when was it not?)
The good news, we’re seeing the return of independent children’s book stores, new stores opening, where children books can be hand sold by dedicated staff.
Middle grade sales are pretty solid, and picture book sales are picking up again. Diversity is not a trend, simply real life.
Halverson also talked about the drop in sales, hardcover fiction and YA. Nonfiction sales numbers rose sharply, but that was partly because adult coloring books were counted among juvenile nonfiction. She noted that paperbacks were up, picture books doing well, and ebooks flat for the third year in a row. Someone’s survey noted that 49% of consumers bought both print and ebook formats. She also noted new children’s bookstores opening, and also school book clubs bouncing back.  Middle Grade is a good place to be, open to literary and genres, buying contemporary and historical fiction but with a contemporary voice. Nonfiction is wanted, but with a fresh approach.

Some new imprints: Quinera, (not sure of the spelling–we did not get a handout), wants contemporary and historical, American history and social justice themes; Peeko, picture books for the very young; Her Universal Press, sci-fi and fantasy with strong female roles by female writers, and a few more. SCBWI members can find these in “The Book”‘ on the SCBWI website.

So, you can still sell, but not easily. But authors have heard this for years, right? So don’t give up, keep writing, learning and revising, keep on keeping on! And good luck to everyone.

Cheryl Zach

Tea at the Biltmore

Tea at the Biltmore

D.I.Y.–With Help!

For the last several years, I’ve been saying/thinking that I wanted to reissue some OP (out of print) Young Adult books, to make them available to readers once again. Finally, after finishing a new YA ms, I decided that it was time to make good on the promise to myself. Years ago I published what was to be a 4 book Civil War YA series called Southern Angels, about four Southern girls who live through, and make a difference, during the Civil War.

I put three years of my life into researching and writing these books (they were to be accurate enough historically to be useful in schools)  and then they were, I felt, badly mishandled by their big NY publisher. I lost my editor (she was hired by another publishing house) and all support before the books were all out, and the 4th book wasn’t even printed, tho I had written it and it had been advertised. I heard a lot of complaints at the time, and still occasionally, from people who couldn’t find the final book. So I’ve always wanted to see these books back in print. (I’m doing this more for personal satisfaction than in the expectation of making tons of $, BTW.) The books received good reviews and I found them in public and school libraries, and they should likely have been published in hardcover, not mass market, where they made it to few store shelves, as marketing picked up the indifference of the editorial staff. I was crushed.

I am a total newbie to indie publishing. I will soon finish, I hope, the process for getting out ebooks and paperbacks, and boy, have I learned a lot.

First, the cover. It took me three tries to get a cover designer. Another writer gave me a name of a good cover person, which I checked out online–her website had some great looking covers, and she agreed to do the four covers at a reasonable price. She gave herself deadlines, but missed them all. Finally told me, after being out of touch for several weeks, that she had health issues and couldn’t, after all, do the work. I wished her well and was sorry to lose her. Later, I realized that I had undoubtably increased her stress by asking for almost impossible demands as I did not understand the process–more on that in a sec. The second website I admired, the cover d. said she couldn’t take any new clients, she had enough repeat customers to keep her busy. Aiiig. The third person said on her website she would only take a few new clients, but fortunately did decide to take the job, after showing me some stock cover shots to make sure I would be happy with the costumes she could find, as, she said, right now Regency and Victorian are the most popular historical eras and therefore the easiest to find costumes for, Civil War not so much. I was ok with what she found, and we agreed to go ahead as I liked her work a lot.

So, first lesson. I knew from prior experience that large publishers hire models, dress them in appropriate costumes (for romance, anyhow, or YA, and other genres, too) and make sure they resemble the characters in the book–or, that’s the theory. A pro photographer does a photo shoot, then either the photo itself (in middle grade or sometimes YA) is used, or an artist is hired to make a painting, often acrylic, and the cover comes from that. This process costs thousands of $.

Obviously, an indie publisher/author can’t afford this kind of money. So, a cover designer working with indie’s uses stock model shots from companies who handle just that–photos of models and objects already taken. Legit designers buy these shots, as close as possible to what you want, use computer programs to change hair and dress color and perhaps manipulate shots somewhat–I’m not an IT person so can’t tell you how much can be done. They also put in a landscape or suitable background, they choose fonts and sizes of letters for titles, etc. and put it all together in well balanced and artistically pleasing arrangement for a good cover. Some covers don’t have people in them, of course, sometimes a clever idea is used, instead. You can look up examples of all of this in websites on line.

Some writers who publish ebooks do the covers themselves. I was quite sure I didn’t have that much artistic sense, and the one thing that often gives away a self-pubbed book is an amateurish looking cover. Sadly, people DO judge books by their covers. So I knew that I wanted someone good to do my covers, even tho it would cost money. (Prices vary hugely.) Many designers do predesigned covers which are cheaper and will work for some books: romance, mystery, women’s fiction, etc. I have 4 books in a series, so I had special requirements, and that wouldn’t work for me. I’m pleased with the progress of the first cover, think it’s going to look really good, and when it’s done will try to put it up here.  (PS I tried several times to put up the cover, but the file is too big, so sorry.  I will try to put it on my website, but not sure if I will have the same problem, will try to get around it somehow, even if I have to make a copy of a copy…  And I assume Amazon will have it in a short time.) I actually think it’s better than the original Big Company cover.)

Next, I’ll go to the company I choose and get the book put together, I’m doing both an ebook and a paperback of each book in the series.  These books were PAL books to start with, so they will remain so, if you’re familiar with SCBWI classifications. (BTW, I thought I would have to retype all 4 books, but a reader who emailed me–yes, looking for book 4– told me I could buy an external computer drive to hook up to my current laptop that would take the hard disks that I had had the book ms backed up on when the original computer, several computers back, on which I wrote these books, died suddenly. I was able to find three of the four disks, so only had to retype one, whew. I am revising the ms slightly as I go, can’t help myself! I do hope to have all four books: Hearts Divided, Winds of Change, A Dream of Freedom, and Last Rebellion, out by March, the first, Hearts Divided, in Feb.  (You can also scan hard copy into a file, if you have the right technology, or pay someone else to do it.)

The cover is likely the most expensive part of the process, tho you may also want to buy an ISBN, unless you get that from your distribution service, and that can be done. The friends I spoke to recommended d2d, (Draft2Digital) over Smashwords for ebooks, and CreateSpace, which is Amazon, for paperbacks, although Ingram also has a paperback program. I will let you know what I think when I get that far.

Onward into the future!

What’s New in the Publishing World?

tn

I attended the 2015 Summer Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Los Angeles, as usual, with no particular expectations except that it has always been a positive experience.  This year it seemed particularly filled with exuberant energy. (Having the delightful Mem Fox give the first keynote may have set the mood.)  I won’t try to give you an overview of the entire conference–there were official bloggers who can be found on the SCBWI.org website, as well as–for members–the annual Market Report.

In general, however, it was reported that children/YA book sales were up 21% in 2014, and up though somewhat less the first part of this year. (Last year’s sales were increased by movie tie in’s.)  Several new children’s imprints have been formed, including Epic Press, Flat Iron Books, and Imprint, the last from MacMillan.  We did not get a printout of the report this time, and most attendees I talked to are hoping they go back to that next time.

Publishers are again more open to short picture books, (short as in 500 words or less) character or narrative driven, and nonfiction is also of interest, especially on nature or the physical world, and they prefer that nonfiction also read like a story.

We were told that anything goes in middle grade: quirky action, classic MG, mystery, adventure, fantasy, nonfiction. Apparently 60% of kids read both digital and print.

YA is still the industry hot spot, but there is a lot of competition. Editors are very selective, and they receive many submissions. Contemporary realism dominates among published books, but editors are open to other genres, including S-F and horror. Pubs are keen to find new ways to reach readers, trying e-book subscription services, among other things. And of course, editors are always looking for good writers and illustrators, the ones who go just a little bit further.

I know I came home ready to write. : )  Hope you are, too!

Cheryl

P.S.  I would have made the photo smaller if I could have figured out how, and that is if it comes through at all. I’ve already wiped out the whole darn blog entry once, aggggg.

 

 

What’s New in the Publishing World?

tnI attended the Summer 2015 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s Conference In Los Angeles without any set expectations except that it’s always a worthwhile experience and found it infused with an upbeat attitude this time around. I won’t try to give you any comprehensive report–there were official bloggers who reported on the conference, which members can find on the SCBWI.org website, along with the latest Market Report and other members’ comments.

Basically, however, the market report said that sales of children/YA books were up 21% for 2014, also up so far this year but not as much; apparently media tie in’s drove some of the sales last year. The demand for picture books is picking up,  publishers open to short, character-driven or narrative-driven fiction, and also non-fiction especially about nature and the physical world.  They also want non-fiction picture books, bios and others, that read like a story.

Middle grade: anything goes, the presenter said:  quirky action, classic MG, adventure, mystery, elements of fantasy . Apparently 60% of kids read both digital and print.  And YA is still the industry hot spot, although editors are very selective, and there is a lot of competition. Editors receive many submissions, and contemporary realism dominates published books. They are open to other genres, too, especially S-F and horror. But editors and agents are looking for good writers and illustrators.

I came home ready to write. : )  Hope you are, too.

To Outline or Not to Outline, That is the Question. . .

by Cheryl Zach

With due apologies to Will….
Some writers call it jumping into the mist–that is, you have the idea and you just leap into the writing, with no outline to guide you. Other writers pale in horror at the prospect of starting a book with no concept of where they or their characters are going. When I took a decade off from writing for teens and children to create historical romantic adventure for grownups, the first few books (penned as Nicole Byrd) were written with my daughter, Michelle Nicole. (Later she felt overwhelmed by life and small babies–hers–and I went on as Nicole Byrd by myself, with good wishes all around.) We had similar writing habits–except for plotting.
I have the kind of brain that jumps from point c to point g, then maybe back to f and on to p. That used to drive Michelle bananas; she wanted to go from c to d to e to f, much more logical, I admit. But my brain wouldn’t work that way, probably why I’m not a plotter, but a pantser–another nickname for ‘flying by the seat of your pants.’
I do know where my characters are at the start and where I expect them to end up (once even that changed, and I had to call my editor and explain meekly that–honest to goodness–my main characters wouldn’t do what I wanted them to, and the book was going to end differently than I had expected.  However, that book, RUNAWAY, became an award-winning YA novel.) I know the conflict that faces each character, I know their backgrounds and motivations. From there, it’s a matter of following my characters and seeing where they lead me.
Right now, I’m working on a YA novel, and the middle is frustrating me because I’m a little unsure of where it’s going. That’s the problem when you don’t outline–but as I said, it’s not really a choice. Some writers profit by having a chapter by chapter outline, and they relish its security and guidance. Some writing books will tell you a plot outline is totally necessary. But some authors just don’t work their best from an outline, if they can make one at all. (Yes, from long practice I can fake a synopsis for my editor when I need to. But trusted editors understand me well enough to know the story will take its own direction.)
For me, the most important thing is knowing my characters inside and out, knowing where they’re coming from and what conflict/problem they are facing. Then I just watch to see what action they will take to overcome the obstacles, and how they will grow in the process.
In this book I knew my main character had to end up in Egypt but wasn’t totally sure why. She has a big problem–her mother has been abducted, and now her whole family is in danger. (Always ramp up the conflict, heighten the peril as the story progresses.) How is my MC going to rescue her mother and defeat the Baddies? I’m not yet sure, but I can’t wait to find out–it’s sure to be exciting!
Stay tuned, and good luck with your own plotting, whether you outline or not. : )

What Writers Are Thankful For

Cheryl Zach

It’s November, and in the U.S., that means an annual holiday: Thanksgiving. Like everyone else, writers are thankful for loved ones: family and friends and pets; for good health; a reasonable prosperity, and a place to call home.

Writers are also thankful when the computer doesn’t eat your last and best chapter for no apparent reason. . . there’s never an apparent reason!

Writers are thankful for notebooks and pens of just the right size and color: variable according to individual. I have a friend who swears that lavender pens produce the best ideas–I wouldn’t dare argue.

Writers are thankful for odd minutes when ideas come from the strangest places.  Maybe in overcrowded waiting rooms when you’ve quietly made up life stories for every stranger coughing along side you, and suddenly the plot problem of your latest WIP seems ready to untangle itself because a character in your book has become easier to decipher.

Writers are thankful for hours when they actually get to write. Somewhere between baking the pies and marinating the green beans and wrestling with the turkey, somewhere among the blessed days of left-overs, when you sneak back to the sneakier computer, there will time to write!  And the annoying relative or dear but trying friend has surely jarred loose another promising idea. . .

Happy Thanksgiving.  Happy writing.

Cheryl

 

CONFERENCE MUSINGS

I’m back from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in Los Angeles, as usual a terrific conference, and slowly getting over the brain overload–normal– and slightly sprained ankle–not normal–that I acquired during the week..

The good news this year is that everyone from Simon & Schuster Vice-President and Publisher Justine Chanda, who spoke about ‘The State of The State of the Industry,’ to Deborah Halverson, who gave the annual market report, (available to all SCBWI members), to various editors and agents, all agreed that children and teen publishing is in great shape, which cheered conference participants immensely.

Young adult fiction is still going strong, with the exception of dystopian novels, which are generally believed to have passed their peak.  (Personally, I never liked them that much to begin with, although some good books have come out of the trend.) Self publishing continues to be more accepted, although those who do it are urged to do it well, with careful attention to editing and book design.

One of the most interesting comments I heard, several times, was the agreement that YA novels are getting a lot of cross-over; that is, that many adults as well as teens are reading them.  No wonder, then, that so many YA novels have graced this last year’s best-seller lists. Someone, I forget who, put up a quote from TV comic Stephen Colbert, that said something like:  YA novels are regular novels that people actually read!

There were many good keynotes and many, many good workshops–I wish I could have attended twice as many as I did.  There was an editors’ panel, one composed of agents, and one with marketing and sales people.  Add that to seeing old friends and making new ones, and it was a very productive week.  (Have to come clean:  I’m on the SCBWI Board and have been a member for over 20 years, so not exactly unprejudiced, here. : )

I think most of us came home with renewed enthusiasm to get back to work. So excuse me while I switch to the WIP.

Cheryl

PS During the Board meeting, the dispute between Amazon and Hachette Book Group was discussed, and a statement will be released about that, soon.

Time and the Writer

Some writers I know have been discussing how unfair it is that more and more editors and agents are not responding to queries or manuscript submissions. That is, if the writer doesn’t hear back, you are to assume that the publisher or agent is not interested in your submission. If the editor does want to read more or make an offer, or if the agent is interested in representing you, of course, they do contact you, although there might be a long wait first.

The writers feel this is unprofessional and, as I noted, unfair. The editors and agents usually note that they regret this necessity, but they are receiving more and more submissions and simply do not have the time and perhaps lack the staff to send out rejections for each one.

I can see both sides of this. I can’t help remembering my husband telling the kids when they were younger, “Who said life is fair?” when they made the same complaint over some household rule. And goodness knows the old form rejections were not satisfying. “Tell me what you don’t like,” we wanted to scream, when we got the meaningless: “This does not meet our needs at the current time.” Most published writers remember the immense relief when we finally graduated to a “good” rejection when the editor scrawled something specific on the rejection letter.

I know most editors are hard-working people who wish they could do more for hopeful writers. They often read queries or ms. on the subway home or while they eat a hurried lunch at their desks. And I’ve seen their desks–overflowing with paper, even in these computer driven days! They’re not out there plotting to make us miserable.

And yet, it’s more than frustrating for us writers. Time is what writers also don’t have, what writers snatch out of hours and minutes of their days and nights.  I remember well trying to write after a full day at work, after coming home to throw together dinner, get kids through homework and baths and bedtimes.  I remember going to sleep with a pad of paper in my lap–the original laptop! So what can we do? No magic answers, I’m afraid. Keep writing, keep sharpening skills, most of all, just keep on keeping on. Go to conferences for greater access to editors and agents, and as Winston Churchill famously said, never, never give up! Talent, hard work, determination, the same answers as always, are the ones that will- sooner or later–and sadly, it’s most often later than we wish–carry us through. Mostly, don’t give up!

And of course, there are more avenues today than traditional publishing, but that’s a whole other column. : )