Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Kitten Season

One of the more irritating things about being a veterinarian is that some people think you do nothing but play with puppies and kittens. Then again, one of the best things about being a veterinarian is...you get to play with puppies and kittens.

Not all day, of course. But sometimes, even during the most hectic, demanding, awful day—let’s get real, especially on a hectic, demanding, awful day!—taking half a minute to snuggle up to one of the littlest patients is like taking a big old Sanity Pill.

It’s mid-June, which means we’re smack-dab in kitten season. (1) When I lived in rural areas, this was the time of year you’d see little kids in front of the grocery store, with a litter of kittens in a laundry basket and a sign saying, “Free!!!” (2) Litters are abandoned by their owners, some of them literally on our doorstep. Other kittens are brought in by Good Samaritans, who find them in parking lots, hayfields, woodpiles, sheds, inside walls, underneath cars, on the side of the road, in the middle of the road...

And then there was the kitten who fell off a garage roof onto a client’s head. She was teeny-tiny, less than a week old, her eyes not even open. We figured momma cat must have carried her up there, then somehow lost her. It was a hell of a surprise to the client, who was not accustomed to kittens dropping on him out of the clear blue sky. Lucky for the kitten, though—if he hadn’t been standing there at that exact moment, she would have died from falling onto the concrete.

The kitty pictured above is one of the this season's many foundlings. He’s thin, and pretty scruffy, but once he gets some regular meals and TLC, he’ll grow up to be a big handsome cat. He knows it, too—he’s trying to walk across me to get to my lunch (tuna, yum).

Kitten season, we say, and sigh. The shelters are full, the foster homes are bursting, the rescue societies are strained to the limit. So many babies, not enough homes. And yet, despite all this, the kitten-mad among us cuddle each and every squirmy furry little monster, exclaiming, Isn't he cute?

Adorableness. The saving grace of kitten season.

(1) Kitten season starts in mid-spring, and, depending on where you live, ends in mid- to late-fall. That’s because female cats start coming into heat in late February, when the days start getting long. Then they cycle in and out of heat every 3 weeks until fall, when the days get short. They don’t come into heat at all during the winter. (Cats who spend all their lives inside, under artificial lights, are sometimes an exception). The kitty gestation period is about 9 weeks, so that means no winter babies!

(2) If you’re a parent, and you’re considering letting your female cat (or dog) give birth so that your kids can see “the miracle of life”…please, please, please DON’T. I’ll save that rant for another day, and tell you all my reasons why. Just, for now, please believe me when I say it is NOT a good idea.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

This Reading Experience Brought To You By...

Courtesy of the New York Times comes this article about product placement in a young adult novel.

Yep, that’s right: product placement.

You know product placement. It’s what made Reese’s Pieces a household name after E.T.; it’s why sitcom characters always hold the soda can with the name displayed toward the camera. Companies pay for the privilege of having their products onscreen. Nobody cares; after all, the hero has to swig something, and whether it’s a Coke or a Pepsi won’t make any difference to the story or to the viewer. If a company wants to cough up enough cash to ensure that their athletic shoes adorn the heroine’s feet, be my guest.

This seems to be the line that the publisher, authors, and Cover Girl are taking about the product placement in Cathy’s Book, a young adult novel due out in September 2007 from Running Press. Cover Girl isn’t paying the authors directly; instead, the company will help promote the book. In exchange, according the NYT article: “Some of the changes that the authors and illustrators…have made since the partnership was struck include altering a drawing entitled "Artgirl Detective" to "Artist! Detective! UnderCover Girl" and changing a generic reference to "gunmetal grey eyeliner" to "eyecolor in 'Midnight Metal.'”

So what? Does this hurt anyone? Probably not. But it makes me uneasy, if for no other reason than novels are one of the last ad-free bastions left in our world. Here in Portland, our city ballpark is named after a utility company. The Triple Crown races are now the Visa Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby brought to you by Yum! Brands. Everything, it seems, now comes with a tag attached. Even--if you can believe this--a kid’s bus ride to school.

If this works out well for Cover Girl, then certainly we’ll see more of it. How soon before a company offers to pay? How many authors could resist the kind of money and promotional opportunities a big company can offer? (Let me pop a balloon right here—nobody, aside from Steven King and John Grisham and a few others, makes a living writing novels. Even Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates have day jobs). Would we tell ourselves, as the writers in this article did, that it's not a big deal, it's not changing the story?

As far as that goes, I do believe them (and for the record, let me say that the premise of Cathy’s Book sounds absolutely delicious). But if a company pays for product placement in a novel, you can bet that at some point, pressure will come to bear on the author or publisher.

More importantly, does it change the reader's experience? To me, there's a big difference between "gunmetal grey eyeliner" and "eyecolor in 'Midnight Metal.'" The first is good, detailed writing that does what good, detailed writing is supposed to do: evoke a visual image. I read that phrase and I can see the color. In contrast, “eyecolor in ‘Midnight Metal’” pulls me out of the story, wondering what Midnight Metal might look like. Instead of a clear visual image, it evokes...shopping mall.

It's the same difference between the Civic Stadium and PGE Park. One belonged to the city residents. The other is bought and paid for, and you'd better not forget it.

It could be hard to lose yourself in a novel with that kind of message.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A ShoutOut, A Poem, and A Thank You

If you love books, but you haven't yet stopped by Bookseller Chick, get thee hence at once! In this particular entry, she writes about Tequila Mockingbird (hilarious--you just have to read it), and then rounds up a bunch of cool links. First up: Chicks Up Front, a poetry slam performance by Sarah Holbrook. Fantastic all on its own. Made even better by Bookseller Chick's comment that the poem reminds her of Ruth, the been-there-honey-and-you-don't-know-the-half-of-it receptionist in Tallulah Falls.

Thanks to Bookseller Chick for the mention, and to Milady Insanity for making sure I saw it!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Literary Agent Redux

You’ve written a book, and you want to find a literary agent to represent you and your work. How do you find this person, and how do you make sure you don’t get scammed?

(Do you need an agent? That depends. If you’re going to self-publish, no. If you’re aiming for the small, independent publishing houses—not necessarily. But if you’ve got your sights set on the big guns—Random House, say, or Simon and Schuster—then you probably do. Check out this article, or the resources listed below, for more info).

The first step is to make a list of agents who are looking for manuscripts like yours. There’s lots of ways to do this, and I recommend a combination of approaches (hey, it worked for me). First, look for published books that are similar to yours in genre or theme. Often, the author will include his or her agent in the acknowledgements. (If not, a Web search can often turn up the agent who represented the novel; or, as a last resort, you can call the publisher and ask who the agent of record is for that book). Once you’ve discovered the agent's name, you can then search the resources mentioned below to see what other books he or she has represented, to see if the agent might be a good fit for you.

A couple of nice bonuses to this approach is that 1) You’ll get a good feel for what’s already out there on the shelves. Agents appreciate writers who are knowledgeable about what’s happening in their genre. And 2) If an author thanks his or her agent with particular enthusiasm, that’s practically a personal recommendation!

At the same time, do some digging to turn up more agent names. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents is an great place to start. A new edition comes out every year; since agent information can change rapidly, be sure you’re using the current one. Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents is another good reference, also updated annually. On the Internet, two very helpful resources are Agent Research and Evaluation and AgentQuery.

When searching these references, remember you’re not going to contact every agent listed; that’s a waste of your time and theirs. Instead, you’re looking for those agents who represent books like yours. Using these strategies, you should be able to generate a list of twenty to fifty literary agents, and possibly more, depending on your genre.

How do you avoid scams? Pretty easily, actually, if you remember two principles.

First: Only query reputable agents. Reputable agents make their money by selling manuscripts to publishers. This means they'll have an established track record, which you'll be able to find. Most are also members of the Association of Author’s Representatives, and so are bound to the AAR Canon of Ethics. (Note that membership in AAR is not mandatory, and some very excellent agents are not members. Still, they voluntarily abide by the same ethical code). If you use the agent-hunting strategies described above, chances are good that your list will only include reputable agents.

Second: In the agent-author relationship, money flows toward the author, NOT the other way around. In other words, before the manuscript has been sold to a publisher, you never, ever pay an agent. For anything. Ever. As I emphasized above, agents earn their money by selling manuscripts. Once this sale is made, then the agent takes his or her commission (15% is standard) out of the advance paid to the author by the publisher. At this point, the agent may also ask to be reimbursed for any ordinary office expenses (postage, copying, etc) incurred in the sale. These expenses should be clearly explained to the author beforehand, and/or spelled out in the agent-author contract.

In contrast to the above, a scam agent usually has no verifiable record of sales to publishers. He or she will not be a member of AAR. Most importantly, a scam agent will ask for some kind of upfront payment from the author. This payment may be disguised as “reading fees”, “editing fees”, or reimbursement for office expenses (remember, any such reimbursement should only be made after the manuscript is sold). These people make their money from the authors they’ve scammed, NOT from selling manuscripts to publishers.

If you harbor any doubt about the agents on your list, do yourself a massive favor and check them out before you send them your manuscript. (Two excellent resources to help you: Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware). As I noted in last week's post, many authors spend little or no time researching agents. Before they know it, they’ve signed with a scam artist—and only come to realize it when, some months down the road, the manuscripts they've labored over for years remain unsold, and their bank accounts are smaller by hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars.

Be smarter than that. Next to writing a fabulous book, finding a good agent can be the most important step you take toward publication. You owe it to yourself—and to your writing career—to do it right.