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Originally posted on October 20, 2010

Pictograph. Bar Graph. Line Graph. Epigraph. If you’re thinking this is going to be a lesson in math, rest assured — it’s not!  :-)

Even though there is a concept of ‘epigraph’ in math, today I’m using this word very much in the context of writing.

Merriam Webster online defines an epigraph as:

            A quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or one of its divisions to suggest its theme.

Epigraphs are quotations, or phrases or poems, you find in some books at the beginning of each chapter. They are usually related to the theme of either that chapter or that of the whole book. They can be extracted from any number of sources: excerpts from a well-known book, folk sayings, or quotes of famous personalities, to name a few.

(I’m not sure why whoever coined this term couldn’t make up a more writerly-sounding word for it. You know what I mean?)

Here’s one excerpt topping chapter six of the book Rueful Death from Susan Albert Wittig’s China Bayles Mystery series. China is an ex-criminal lawyer, who has hung up her coat in favor of retiring to a small town in Texas where she owns and runs a small herb store and a tea shop. On the side, she keeps habitually happening upon dead bodies and solving the mysteries surrounding them, thus getting the necessary fix for her analytical side.

If gun-flints are wiped with rue and vervain, the shot must surely reach the intended victim, regardless of the shooter’s aim.

                            — C.M.Skinner

                             Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants

On my part, as a reader, such quotations make way for delicious meanderings such as:

— Does the verb rue (which is known to have been first used in the 12th century) as in to regret have its origin in the herb of the same name?

— Were the qualities of various herbs as legendary in the East as they were in the West?

And, whenever I come across any tidbit about the different medicinal plants, I begin to crave the latest book of the series. Isn’t that one of the better and innovative ways to make a series more memorable?

Another good example for an epigraph is from chapter ten of the fascinating O Jerusalem by Laurie King. (It is one of the books from her series: Novels of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. If you enjoy reading Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, then this series is a must for you.)

              The human body floats without exertion on the surface, and can be submerged only with difficulty; but swimming is unpleasant, as the feet have too great a tendency to rise to the surface.

                            BAEDEKER’s Palestine and Syria,

                                                             1912 Edition

Before you shudder, the passage above is merely talking about taking a dip in the Dead Sea (or Salt Sea), which the heroine, Mary Russell, proceeds to do in the chapter crowned by the words above.

Doesn’t the phrase — delivered in a most earnest and no-nonsense manner — make you want to get your hands immediately on that edition of Baedeker’s travel guide?

Another excerpt from Laurie King’s ‘O Jerusalem’

Epigraphs, for me, are:

  • A (fun) way to get readers to think about what may or may not happen in the chapter they’re about to read.
  • One means to bring out the subplot(s), obscured by the main plot line, a reader may not stumble upon otherwise.
  • An inkling of the playfulness of the author.
  • Tiny windows into the thought-process of the author and how he/she views the book in question. How a reader perceives a book is not always similar to how the author has envisioned it. Epigraphs help close the distance between the two.

Have you run into any good epigraphs you’d like to share?

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Below is some good advice I gleaned over the past few months, talking to/communicating with fellow-writers, reading blogs, perusing books on writing, and attending talks and conferences.

Almost all of the points sound simple enough to be obvious, and some of them border on being trite. However, sometimes, saying out loud something I already know makes it more immediate, and I begin to pay better attention to it.

  • Write Anyway: One of my readers had left this advice in the comments of this blog a while ago. (Thanks, Sharmon!) I think it makes a lot of sense to keep writing even when you feel like you’re not doing it right. That way, you’re not leaving a chink open for writer’s block to edge in. Also, once you write a scene or a chapter, even if you think it’s not up to par, you can always chip it away or embellish it later and transform it into a full-bodied scene. In case you can’t do that, think of it this way: you’ve learned how “not” to write via this exercise.

 

  • Always Carry a Notebook and a Pen: You never know when you may come upon an incident or a quote that you’d like to record to use later in your writing. Or, it may even happen that when you’re waiting for your train at the subway or at a café for your chai latte, inspiration strikes. You don’t want to cast about for a paper and pen at that point; you wouldn’t want your finicky muse to move on because of unpreparedness on your part, would you?

 

  • Develop Your Own Routine: Most successful and prolific writers have a set routine they follow for writing. This is easier to do if writing is your day job, but even otherwise, it’s best if you could develop the discipline of a strict routine and write every day.

 

  • Read Voraciously: Read as many books as you can, especially in the age group and genre you’re writing. Notice what works and what doesn’t in each of those books. This is by far the best, and cheapest, way to learn how to write.

 

  • Get Involved in the Writing Community: Immerse yourself in the large community of writers out there, be it via blogging or attending conferences or becoming a member of writing societies or being part of a critique group or all of the above. All these motivate you to keep forging ahead. Not only that, but they also help you make connections which in turn provide you with opportunities to learn.

 

  • Enjoy Your Work: Deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise, are good. However, don’t let them corner you; enjoy the whole process.

 

  • KISS: And when it comes to the actual writing itself, KISS: Keep It Simple and more Simple. (Okay, actually the second “S” stands for “Stupid,” but I like this version better. Otherwise it sounds as if writers should dumb their writing down for readers, which would be wrong counsel.) Use words sparingly. Choose the most effective path of writing to convey your point.

 

This list pretty much applies to any kind of writing, not just writing non-fiction or fiction. If you’ve ever written a story, a memo, an essay for college admission, or a letter to someone, chances are you’ve used one or more of these principles.

What would you like to add to this list? Words of caution, encouragement, opinions, admonitions, you name it, anything is welcome!

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I mentioned in my post last Monday that I happened to go to an Agent/Editor Day ten days ago, held by the local chapter of SCBWI.

I already shared with you my impressions from the topic discussed by Rachel Orr, the agent from Prospect Agency.

Now I present my impressions of what Margaret Miller, the other speaker for the day, had to share with all the writers gathered to hear her talk.

Margaret Miller is an editor for Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA, having moved there from Harper Collins Children’s Books in summer 2008. Authors she has worked with include Dan Gutman, Daniel Pinkwater, Philemon Sturges, Ann Rinaldi, and Kathy Lasky. At Bloomsbury, she will focus on middle grade and Young Adult fiction, with a few select picture books.

Margaret’s topic for the day was:

Working with an Editor: Your Bill of Rights – What to expect when you’re working with an editor when you, the writer, decides to submit your work directly to an editor at a publishing house without the aid of a literary agent.

Margaret basically explained the nuts and bolts of the relationship between an editor and an author at various stages of the book’s life:

  • Before a writer submits his/her manuscript to an editor.
  • When a writer gets an offer from an editor.
  • During the editing process.
  • After the editing process is finished.

She had this to say about what an editor means to an author:

  • an advisor
  • a champion
  • a therapist
  • a cheer leader
  • the one person who will read your manuscript with the utmost attention

She encouraged writers to:

  • keep their relationship with their editor professional (it means do not call her every single day, please!)
  • choose an editor who will help them to fulfill their vision for their book and
  • choose a literary agent to represent them, if possible.

One point that Margaret made in the course of her talk heartened me, because it is one aspect of the publishing industry today that keeps me awake at nights: book promotion by the author.

Let me explain.

Looks like in this technology-crazy world (sorry, I know that’s a strong statement, but isn’t it true though?), everybody’s attention is being pulled in several directions every second. So, most everyone is, whether willingly or unwillingly, trying to promote themselves and/or their products.

Authors and their books are no exception. Even if each publishing house has its own publicity and sales force, authors are expected to work hard at self-promotion and also at publicizing their books.

This includes school visits, making use of internet as a tool, book signing tours etc.

I hear everywhere these days how important it is to brand yourself, as an author, in order to promote your work. This means hosting your own web site in addition to blogging, face-booking, tweeting, and networking in all sorts of ways that you can think of.

That is all well and good, but the amount of time that an author has to put into publicizing his/her one book is time that the author spends on:

  • not working at her craft
  • not putting time into his next project
  • not working at improving her style and content
  • not networking with a very important group of people: his core critique group
  • not taking some time to relax and rejuvenate herself, before she can tackle all those ideas hammering at her brain

Yes, these all worry me.

That’s why I loved what Margaret had to say before she went on to answer questions:

It is good to network, but not networking won’t necessarily make or break your book.

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In keeping with the topic for this week, here are excerpts from a few children’s classics from my bookshelf. Again, they are presented in no particular order, and these form but a mere fraction of all the incredible works available to us.

 All the books I have selected have the following things in common:

  • They are all written beautifully, almost in a lyrical fashion.
  • Each of them takes place in a different country (or countries) or has a diverse setting.
  • Every one of them provides us with glimpses of lifestyle from various time periods in the past.
  • Each of the authors was possibly influenced, in their writing (both in style and content), by the cultures and belief systems they grew up imbibing.

(And, oh, be sure to stroll by Books-For-Young-At-Heart and Books-For-Young at your leisure – I have populated the latter only recently.)

 

*****

“Anna Maria,” said the old man rat (whose name was Samuel Whiskers), – “Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner.”

“It requires dough and a pat of butter, and a rolling-pin,” said Anna Maria, considering Tom Kitten with her head on one side.

“No,” said Samuel Whiskers, “make it properly, Anna Maria, with bread-crumbs.”

“Nonsense! Butter and dough,” replied Anna Maria.

                    – The Roly-Poly Pudding by Beatrix Potter

As the children walked in, they saw that most of the walls had crumbled down. There were rubble heaps everywhere. In some places, parts of the walls were intact and they could see the niches in them, which must have been used for storage all those many years ago. Once or twice they came across wooden pillars rotting away. On one of them they saw something that looked as if someone had tried to carve a name on it.

The children stared in silence. It was so quiet, it was impossible to believe it was the middle of the day. There were no bird sounds, not even an insect. Two large crows, perched on one of the walls, flew away noiselessly as the children approached.

“It’s … it’s … eerie,” Dinu said, using a word he had just learnt. Polly was too subdued to ask ‘What’s that?’. It was Ravi who asked instead.

“It means, funny and frightening – like this is.”

“Frightening? Don’t tell me you’re frightened, Dinu?” Minu’s face was grave but her eyes held a mischievous twinkle.

                    – The Hidden Treasure by Shashi Deshpande

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry-trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in the aftermaths.

Anne revelled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill – several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

                    – Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

“Can’t I go out and play, Ma?” Laura asked, and Ma said:

“’May,’ Laura.”

“May I go out to play?” she asked.

“You may tomorrow,” Ma promised.

That night Laura woke up, shivering. The bed-covers felt thin, and her nose was icy cold. Ma was tucking another quilt over her.

“Snuggle close to Mary,” Ma said, “and you’ll get warm.”

In the morning the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gate-posts.

                    – Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth?”

In her eagerness she did not realize how queer the words would sound and that they were not the ones she had meant to say. Mr. Craven looked quite startled.

“Earth!” he repeated, “What do you mean?”

“To plant seeds in – to make things grow – to see them come alive,” Mary faltered.

He gazed at her a moment and then passed his hand quickly over his eyes.

“Do you — care about gardens so much?” he said slowly.

“I didn’t know about them in India,” said Mary. “I was always ill and tired and it was too hot. I sometimes made little beds in the sand and stuck flowers in them. But here it is different.”

                    – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 “You’ll not say anything about it at home, will you?”

“Not a word.”

“And you won’t tease me in private?”

“I never tease.”

“Yes, you do; you get everything you want out of people. I don’t know how you do it, but you are a born wheedler.”

“Thank you; fire away.”

“Well, I’ve left two stories with a newspaperman, and he’s to give his answer next week,” whispered Jo, in her confidant’s ear.

“Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!” cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again, to the great delight of two ducks, four cats, five hens, and half a dozen Irish children; for they were out of the city now.

“Hush! It won’t come to anything, I dare say; but I couldn’t rest till I had tried, and I said nothing about it, because I didn’t want anyone else to be disappointed.”

                    – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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I present to you the different (very much simplified) perspectives a book engenders, right from the time of its conception up to the time it makes it to the bookstalls … and beyond.

Author: Writes the book based on her: research, past history and experiences, sensibilities, inspiration and motivation.

Publisher: Acquires a manuscript, which gets eventually published, based on: concept’s salability, market direction, industry’s current trends, economy, marketability of the author’s name.

Bookseller: Displays a book on the shelf based on: salability, cover art, name of the author, reviews, hype produced by the book in the market, bestseller list.

Librarian: Orders a book for the library’s shelf based on: genre, reviews, awards won by the book, concept of the book, author’s name.

Reader: Picks a book to read attracted by: the genre, the cover art, the flap copy, the name of the author/series, excerpts, assignments, current fads, his taste and sensibilities.

Parent: Chooses a book for his child based on: genre, child’s taste, his own taste, concept, price of the book, awards won by the book.

The perspective changes even for the same set of people, given a slight change in the circumstances. For instance, the same parent might not choose the same book for another of his children.

And these are only a few of the points of view that a children’s book produces. If it were a book in adult category, that too, one with political or religious context to it, then the whole ballgame changes and the perspectives multiply.

The adage Don’t judge a book by its cover isn’t really such a cliché, is it?

Hope you can find a book this weekend in which you can lose yourself willingly!

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PART B

Critique:

Hema: Is it advisable to get your manuscript read to a classroom before it is published?

Mark: No, not at all! (Mark was emphatically unequivocal about this point.) This exercise will not produce an objective critique for your manuscript, which is what you should be seeking. And I say this for two reasons:

  • The kids will say they love it anyway, because the book will provide a break for them in the day’s routine.
  • The teacher will say she’s excited about it; I was a teacher myself, so I know. Most everyone when they ask for criticism, they’re only willing to listen to positive comments about their work. So, the teacher will only focus on the positive aspects of the manuscript and will not be able to provide the kind of objective critique you’re looking for.

So, I do not suggest this kind of exposure for your manuscript. You should be part of a critique group which has published authors, or authors who are working at getting published. They can provide objective comments for your work.

I would advise you strongly against including anything like “I had my manuscript read to a classroom and the kids loved it” in a query letter; no one will look at it favorably.

(I always thought that reading it to a classroom would be a good beta test for one’s manuscript. Mark’s answer was sure an eye-opener for me!)

Questions Related to McVeigh Agency:

 

Clients:

 

Hema: What are you looking for in a client?

Mark: I am looking for authors who: 

  • Have a unique voice.
  • Have something they need to say that will be of interest to a wider audience.
  • Take a professional approach to writing.
  • Are willing to take criticism.
  • Are aware of industry trends and market direction.
  • Can write multiple genres for multiple age groups: picture books, middle grade, young adult, the lot.
  • Are not reluctant to talk to the agent. Authors should be upfront about what’s working and what’s not in their relationship with me. When I provide them with editorial suggestions, they don’t always have to take them. They should be able to tell me if they don’t agree with my suggestions.

Hema:    What is the ratio of established authors vs. new authors in your client list?

Mark:    About 2/3 of my clients are established authors and the rest are new talent.

 

Query Process:

Hema: What do you look for in a query?

Mark: I look for a letter that is simple and professional. See the submission guidelines in my web site for more details.

Hema: Writing a good query letter is a whole different ballgame than writing a good story. It’s very hard for the author’s voice to come through within the expected 250 words or so. I see that your submission guidelines include a query letter and the first 20 pages of the manuscript. So, if a query letter does not grab your attention, do you leave it at that, or do you go ahead and read the pages included in the email?

Mark: When the query doesn’t grab my attention, I do go on to read ten or so of the pages included. It depends upon those initial pages whether I will go ahead and read all 20 of them.

Hema: Thank you very much, Mark, for taking time out of you busy schedule to answer my questions!

======

At this point, I had at least a dozen more questions that I would have loved for Mark to answer for me, but the 15 minutes allotted me were regrettably up.

Mark’s new blog is going to be officially launched soon, with interviews with publishing legends, give-aways, videos, and more. He also promises to up the gossip quotient to make it worth the time for those who follow his blog.

Need more reasons? Then how about this: he is going to give away more of these free chats in the first week of April! So, go on and start following his blog, if you aren’t already doing so.

It was a pleasure to talk to Mark, and he gave me a lot of food for thought. Thank you, Mark, for sharing all this excellent information with me and the readers of my blog!

Here’s Part A of the same interview.

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PART A

I got to chat with literary agent Mark McVeigh for fifteen minutes last Friday! Mark was direct and professional in the way he dealt with my questions and was immensely approachable. For someone like me, who is new to the publishing industry and has not been hitherto privy to firsthand information about how things worked, that in itself was very encouraging.

The McVeigh Agency (http://themcveighagency.com/) handles writers, illustrators, photographers, and graphic novelists for both the adult and children’s markets.

The agency web site says: “THE McVEIGH AGENCY does things those others think can’t be done”. Check out the web site for more information about what the agency’s vision and goals are.

I have recorded my conversation with Mark here, and I hope you all can get the same value out of it as I did when I talked to him face-to-face via Skype. (Btw, Skype is really cool – you should all try it out, if you haven’t already.)

Note: The text in blue within the interview is my commentary/impressions as the author of this blog; I added them whenever I felt the need to emphasize a point.

Current Publishing Industry:

Hema P.: With the economy the way it is currently, are publishers willing to take risks or do they tend to go more with trends?

Mark McVeigh: The publishing industry has always done both. Trends such as: vampires, werewolves, angels have come into vogue and are in various stages of publication. I think  Steampunk as a genre will be increasingly in vogue.

(Are you stumped as to what Steampunk is? I would have been, too, had I not read a post about it in Mark’s blog. Check it out.)

Hema: Do new authors have a harder time making a breakthrough into the industry today?

Mark: Yes, the industry is a tougher place today than it was even five years ago.

Hema: Is that because the publishing industry tends to play safe and go with established authors?

Mark: Not necessarily. Publishing houses are cutting down on the number of books they publish per year. If they were doing 100 books previously they’re only doing 75 now. As a result, fewer manuscripts are acquired, and so fewer new authors will get a break.

Hema: How are multicultural and historic fiction faring these days — especially in middle grade?

Mark: Historical fiction will always have an audience, be it middle grade or young adult. They aren’t typically blockbusters, although there are exceptions like Libba Bray’s gorgeous A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY, but they find a place in the market.

Hema: I understand that this question has a lot of variables in it, and may not have an answer, but I’ll ask anyway. What is the current average time between a manuscript being acquired by an agent and it getting published and available on the racks?

Mark: I have no answer to this question.

Hema: Do you see the publishing industry going towards E-Books in the future? Is this good or bad for the industry?

Mark: Yes, I do. And it is going to be a huge help! I see tremendous potential in that direction; E-Books are going to revolutionize the industry.

Hema: Do you see traditional publishing going away completely?

Mark: Traditional books will never go away completely, just as vinyl record stores still exist despite the fact that most people buy music online. We are very lucky as an industry to have this innovation available to us: E-Book technology is going to be big.

New Authors and Career Promotion:

Hema: In addition to attending conferences, blogging and being part of a critique group, what do you suggest aspiring authors do in order to get noticed in this industry?

Mark: Those are all very good things to do for aspiring authors to promote their careers. Authors should be well aware of market direction and current trends in the industry. They have to make sure they study those using resources such as Publisher’s Marketplace. You should also blog about industry news, so other authors start following your blog for the valuable information that they can get out of it. It is also important to Twitter, to put yourself as a branded individual out there.

I will post Part B (Edit: 3/14/2010 – link to Part B added retroactively) of this interview on Wednesday. It deals with questions related to Critiquing, and specific practices at The McVeigh Agency regarding Clients and Query Process.

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