Monday, May 18, 2009

Gatekeepers

This past weekend I heard some amazing declarations that had to be taken on faith, and I wasn't even at church. Uh-uh. I was attending my first professional writer's conference, organized by the snappily-named Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI--pronounced Scieszka, I think).

The hands-down most incredible statement was by one agent who, having been raised by generations of independent children's bookstore owners, ended on the battle cry, "Don't buy your books on Amazon! If we don't support independent bookstores, then Amazon gets to decide what everyone reads."

Huh?

I see Amazon as the great equalizer: anyone with a few bucks ($29.95/yr) can sell whatever they like on it. Take me for instance, and my soon-to-be-launched first novel--after serving up MOURNING BECOMES CASSANDRA to be ignored by three agents and impersonally rejected by a fourth, I've gone ahead on my own. If you can't get the gatekeepers to notice you, much less open the gate, just try pushing on it yourself and see if it won't swing wide.

And what gatekeepers they are! One agent did a session entirely on her pet peeves--things that make her reach for the auto-reject button. My own writing contains these gems straight off her no-no list:

  1. Don't talk directly to the reader. ("Reader, I married him" is straight out, Charlotte Bronte.)
  2. Don't have characters cry. One tiny teardrop will do ya.
  3. Don't have characters' faces "drain of color" when they're upset. (Okay, I don't actually have this one, but I can imagine doing it. Perhaps opt for "Gerald went all blotchy with stress.")
  4. Don't have characters blush. (Whoops. Blushing.)
  5. Don't write about your pet or grandchild or child. (Heck, almost everything I write has personal inspiration. Not for me the disclaimer about "any resemblance to any person living or dead is a figment of your over-active imagination." Mine would more likely read, "Yeah, that's her.")
One editor said she was primarily interested in morbid and strange stories because she found children morbid and strange. She must have been signing new writers right and left, then, because I heard at least three teen oracle/witch stories being pitched, as were tales where the protagonist had been raped/assaulted/lived in foster care/lived on the streets/witnessed a death/come from a long line of women who had been so treated, or, preferably, all of the above. Whew. I guess I understand, though--if there's anything teenagers need more of, it's angst.

I wouldn't have you think the weekend made me abandon my middle-grade novel project, but it did alert me to people I would never show it to. Which saves us all time and effort, I suppose. But I can't help thinking I'd love to whip something up that contained all twenty kisses-of-literary-death from that one list and seeing what happened if I shopped it around.

We're all gatekeepers in the end (unless your book club forces you to read stuff you hate). I'd love to know what makes you slam a book shut and throw it on the floor, and if I'm out of line here.

1 comment:

  1. What's up with not being able to blush?!? I have more to say about that---http://sierragodfrey.blogspot.com/

    Great blog and great post.
    Sierra

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