For Writers

Interview with Stephanie Lurie, Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Stephanie Lurie at a Florida SCBWI conference, as well as take a workshop she was giving. Besides being extremely informative, she couldn’t have been nicer.

If you don’t know her, she’s the Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion, and I’m thrilled to feature her in the Editor Spotlight!

Hi Stephanie, thanks for joining us today!

JR: You’ve had a long, successful career in publishing. Could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor, and eventually working for Disney-Hyperion?

SL: Being a children’s book editor was a career choice I made very early on. When I was fifteen, a local bookstore owner asked me to review a book a townsperson had written for young adults. As I read the book, I thought, “Too bad this woman doesn’t know how kids really think.” It was an “aha!” moment for me: I could help authors make their books stronger. I’m not even sure how I knew such a job existed. . . .

I went on to be a creative writing major at Oberlin College, and during the first semester of my senior year, I had an internship for college credit at Dodd, Mead and Company in New York (a publishing house that was ultimately acquired by Thomas Nelson Books). My experience working for a children’s book editor at Dodd, Mead proved to me that I had found my calling. Dodd, Mead offered me a job after college–for a whopping $8,000 a year!–in sales promotion and customer service. I learned a lot, but I wanted to get back to children’s editorial. I jumped over to Little, Brown, where I grew up from editorial assistant to senior editor over twelve years. After that I ran the imprint Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for six years. My next stint was as president and publisher of Dutton Children’s books at Penguin. In my ninth year there, a friend of mine who was working at Disney Hyperion talked me into applying for an editorial director job by saying, “How would you like to do what you are doing at Dutton but not have any other imprints competing for marketing and publicity attention?” That sounded pretty good to me, and over the past decade there I have enjoyed being part of a boutique publisher within a huge entertainment company.

 

JR: That’s some exciting journey! What was the first book you worked on?

SL: I had a generous boss at Little, Brown who allowed me to “cut my teeth” on manuscripts by their top authors at the time, such as Lois Duncan, Ellen Conford, and Matt Christopher. One of the first authors I acquired was Neal Shusterman, who has gone on to be a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award winner with other editors.

JR: When you first saw The Lightning Thief, what about it appealed to you so much?

SL: Rick Riordan’s first middle grade novel, The Lightning Thief, was acquired at auction before my time at Disney. Rick chose to go with Miramax Books, which eventually became part of Disney-Hyperion. Jennifer Besser (now at Macmillan) edited the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I took over as Rick’s editor after she left, picking up on the Kane Chronicles trilogy. I was amazed by how he made ancient Egyptian mythology relevant to modern readers with exciting adventure, relatable characters, a healthy dose of humor, and a breakneck pace. He makes it look easy.

JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?

SL: What hasn’t? I’m so old (How old are you?), I pre-date office computers! Yes, we had to type on Selectrics, using carbon paper. The biggest changes have come from: corporate buy-outs of family-owned companies, which necessitated more attention to the bottom line; the rise of chain bookstores; the Harry Potter phenomenon, which brought hardcover fiction back from the brink of death; the importance of social media in author promotion; Amazon’s dominance; and today, more focus on diversity.

JR: I grew up doing all my reports on typewriters. Slightly easier now. And by the way, I could’ve sworn I heard Gene Rayburn say the “I’m so old” part before you answered (How old are you?) But back to the interview. Disney has recently acquired a lot of new properties. Does that mean anything for the publishing division?

SL: Disney now encompasses several premiere brands, such as Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox Entertainment. We can publish against all of these brands, from straight movie tie-ins to extension books that tell new stories based on the characters from the movies. It also means that there is more opportunity for intercompany synergy for authors writing their own IP (intellectual property).

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

SL: I’m having a blast helping Rick curate the Rick Riordan Presents line of middle grade fiction by under-represented authors who want to write stories about their own cultures’ folklore and mythology. I send him submissions to consider, acquire the projects we agree on, edit the manuscripts, and collaborate with my colleagues on book design and promotion.

JR: All that sounds like a tremendous amount of fun. What sort of books do you look for?

SL: For Rick Riordan Presents, we want the same qualities that make Rick’s own books so popular, because the imprint was created to satisfy his fans’ craving for adventure based on mythology. We look for a funny, snarky teenage voice; a fast pace; an exciting, high-stakes plot; and a likeable but flawed protagonist who grows over the course of the story.

JR: The kinds of books I love! Are you very hands-on with your authors?

SL: I’ve always enjoyed helping writers bring out their story by asking pointed questions and making suggestions to improve logic, flow, and clarity. For the Rick Riordan Presents authors, my guidance may be a bit more involved, because there is a certain flavor we are trying to achieve while retaining the author’s own voice. It’s a delicate balance.

JR: What’s the state of publishing right now, in particular, Middle Grade? 

SL: It can be difficult for a book—any book—to break out in this time when there is so much entertainment content for consumers to choose from and there are fewer retail outlets for print. Amazon is grabbing more and more market share, but the online site doesn’t encourage browsing. Buyers who shop there usually go already knowing what they want. This is part of the reason best-selling authors remain best-selling authors and new authors have trouble competing. Authors need to partner more with their publisher on promotion as a result.

JR: Probably more important than ever for authors to get involved in the promotion process. What advice can you give to authors?

SL: The best way to learn to write is to read, read, read, and write, write, write.

Remember that you are communicating with an audience and not just writing to satisfy your own ego.

A good concept isn’t enough by itself. Write the entire manuscript.

You may have to land a literary agent before you can land a publishing deal.

Choosing an agent and editor/publisher is like choosing any partner. Make sure there is good chemistry between you.

Be open to feedback but stand up for what is important to you.

Don’t expect the publication of your book to satisfy all your desires or change your life.

Writing the book is only 50% of the work; promotion after publication is the other 50%.

School visits are still one of the best ways to build word-of-mouth.

Support other authors on your way up, and they will (should) do the same for you.

 

JR: All of that is outstanding advice. In my experience, many authors have been extremely supportive of each other. I think strong relationships are extremely important in that regard. I read that Harriet the Spy was one of your favorite childhood books. I have a few friends who wholeheartedly agree with you. What did you love about it and what other books were among your favorites?

SL: I loved how honest Harriet the Spy was about a kid’s real life—I believe it was one of the first contemporary middle grade novels ever published. To this day I enjoy books in which a well-meaning main character makes a big mistake that causes them humiliation, e.g. The Truth About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. As a kid I also enjoyed animal-based fantasies such as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. High fantasies such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings stood out, too.

JR: The Narnia books were also among my favorites as a child. Speaking of childhood, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

SL: My fun-loving dad. He taught me to always remain a kid at heart.

JR: Okay, that answer hit me. If there’s one thing I could wish for from then, it would also be to see my dad. How can people follow you on social media?

SL: For publishing news and comments, Twitter is probably the best bet: @SOLurie.

JR: Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

SL: Thank you for inviting me to answer these questions. I greatly admire authors—both aspiring and published—and wish everyone a fulfilling journey. Your book could be the one that makes a reluctant reader a forever reader, changes a kid’s perspective, and inspires someone else to be a writer.

JR: Extremely true. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today!

 

Well, that’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers. I’d like to once again thank Stephanie Lurie for joining us! And if you ever see her listed to speak at a conference, I strongly suggest you go listen!

Until next time . . .

Chekhov’s Arsenal, Reloaded

Chekhov’s Gun

In my last article, I blogged about some notable writing advice from 19th Century Russian author and playwright, Anton Chekhov:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If a rifle hangs on the wall during the first act, it absolutely must go off in the second or third act. If the riffle isn’t going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

In this installment, we’ll be expanding our arsenal to include a variety of other narrative tools that look like Chekhov’s Gun but operate in different ways and in different contexts.

Chekhov’s Gun is a story element introduced to build anticipation, create narrative tension, or offer an explanation for events that happen later in the story.

As a reminder, Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t have to be a physical object, as in Chekhov’s example. It can also be a character trait, an aspect of culture, a setting, a relationship, or any other story element that’s introduced early in a story to create a narrative tension that pays off later in the story.

Red Herring

Red Herring

A Red Herring is a story element that offers an intentionally misleading promise to build anticipation, sends narrative tension in an intentionally misleading direction, or offers an intentionally misleading explanation for events that happen later in the story.

English journalist William Cobbett, in the early 19th Century, wrote about a boy who used a red herring to mislead the hounds who were following his trail. The Red Herring soon became a literary metaphor for intentional misdirection.

The Red Herring looks like a Chekhov’s Gun, and therefore evokes a reader’s expectation that it will resolve like a Chekhov’s Gun in a later part of the story–except that it instead leads elsewhere or fails to resolve at all, providing a satisfying misdirection for the author’s actual intent. Often, characters are “fooled” into following the Red Herring into a narrative cul-de-sac, bringing the reader along for the ride. The Red Herring is famously employed in mystery novels, but can be used anywhere to great effect.

Think of the Red Herring as a magic trick. We enjoy being fooled by a magician’s slight of hand. We enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out how the magician plans to fool us. We even enjoy knowing exactly how the trick works, while appreciating the skill it takes to pull off. 

Deus ex Machina

Deus Ex Machina

A Deus ex Machina is a story element that resolves narrative tension or offers an explanation for story events without being previously introduced.

In Ancient Greek theatrical tradition, an otherwise unresolvable plot could be neatly wrapped up by one of the gods, represented by a lifesized statue that would be lowered onto the stage by a mechanism from above.

The Deus ex Machina resolves narrative tension, much like a Chekhov’s Gun, but appears where and when it is needed without any advance warning. This device has fallen into disfavor, with many readers finding it to be an unsatisfying “cheat” on the author’s part.

All is not lost if you find a Deus ex Machina is your story. Planting a hint and suggestion earlier in the story can easily convert this element into a proper Chekhov’s Gun.

McGuffin

McGuffin

A McGuffin is a story element introduced to advance the plot, but which could be easily replaced by another generic item with little change to the story. Not to be confused with the fast-food sandwich that could be easily replaced by an actual breakfast.

At a 1939 lecture at Columbia University, English film director Alfred Hitchcock described a term used by his studio for an object that only exists to advance the plot. It’s the necklace in a crime story, which exists only to give a thief has something to steal, or the papers in a spy story, which exist only to give the two sides have something to fight over.

The difference between the McGuffin and a Chekhov’s Gun is that the Chekhov’s Gun has some inherent quality that creates narrative tension. In the classic example, Chekhov’s Gun is a weapon, creating a tension as to whether a shooting will occur. If the gun is used gets stolen and must be recovered by the protagonist, it has become a McGuffin.

McGuffins are necessary to drive a plot forward, but just because they can be switched out for other objects doesn’t mean they have to be entirely generic. The McGuffin can be magical, powerful, and memorable. Entire stories can revolve around them, and are often named after them, such as The Maltese Falcon or Raiders of the Lost Ark. While any old book or thumb drive can carry a cry for help from the captured princess to a retired general by way of a humble farmboy, we remember R2D2–so yes, characters can serve as McGuffins as well.

The Callback

Callback

A Callback is a story element from an early scene that reappears unexpectedly, without tension or anticipation, to link two scenes together, often used in humor or as a thematic symbol.

The Callback is distinguished from a Chekhov’s Gun because its first appearance doesn’t create anticipation that we’ll ever see it again. It’s intentionally planted by an author, like Chekhov’s Gun, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself.

The power in the Callback is that we recognize it, and are surprised by it because we weren’t necessarily expecting to see it pop up again in another context. In humor, the Callback can be a joke that gets a larger and larger laugh with each unexpected repetition or variant. But it can also be a message of inspiration that a mentor character plants early, which pays off when it’s remembered by a character in need.

The Easter Egg

Easter Egg

Easter Eggs are story elements that allude to people or events in the real world, or in other stories, and are included as gifts for an attentive reader to find.

Video game developer Steve Wright used the term “Easter Egg” in referring to secret elements planted in a game for players. In the Atari 2600 game Adventure, a signature screen could be accessed by navigating the maze in a certain way.

Unlike a Chekhov’s Gun, the Easter Egg doesn’t impact the plot and may go unremarked upon by the characters, but exists for a diligent reader to discover and enjoy.

Conclusion

As useful as Chekhov’s Gun can be as a narrative tool, it’s important to distinguish it from similar narrative tools. And, having multiple narrative tools available, a writer can move a plot forward, manage reader expectation, create tension, provide humor and inspiration, or leave clever connections for the most diligent readers to find.

Interview & DEMYSTIFYING VOICE Course Giveaway with Darcy Pattison

I’d like to welcome Darcy Pattison to the Mixed-Up Files! I’ve heard author friends rave about Darcy’s workshops for years and am thrilled to interview her.

Thank you so much for giving one lucky winner access to your online course: DEMYSTIFYING VOICE. Can you share a few voice tips with everyone?

I started seriously studying voice when an editor told a friend that her story was good, but the voice just wasn’t quite right. And, the editor said, you can’t teach voice. It’s either there, or it’s not.

Well, that was a challenge. Game on!

Turns out, that editor was wrong. You can teach voice.

As writers, we have three things available to us. In any piece of writing, there are words, sentences and passages (or longer sections of the work). By focusing on each in turn, you can learn a lot about controlling voice.

For example, words can be long or short, smooth or abrupt. They carry both a dictionary meaning (denotation) and emotional meaning (connotations). Words have different origins, which bring shades of meaning. The sound of a word is important in many contexts, so I encourage the study of phonics.

Words alone can and do bring meaning and joy to writing. They help create voice.

To emphasize the importance of words, I often ask students to write a piece following these rules:

  • You can only use one syllable words.
  • No sentence can be longer than 10 words.

 

You might think that would be an easy reader with very little emotional content. But it can be powerful and poetic if you let it.

 

Wow! I love that exercise. Thanks for sharing—it’s a fantastic tool for authors and students.

What takes a book from good to I-must-read-it great?

People read to connect, to find out how others think and live. Besides a great voice, a great novel has to provide an insight into the common humanity. We can laugh or cry through a novel and yet still not feel connected. Great writers give us relatable characters who tug at our heartstrings. My new book, The Falconer, sinks you into the character of an orphaned young woman who must leave her home to find a new life. Her only companion is a magnificent gyrfalcon that she’s trained to hunt for her. The challenge was to give her an emotional life that would connect with today’s readers. She battles against a negative mother and hopes to make a difference for the Heartland’s future. Readers empathize with her struggles for identity and meaning.

 

I’ve heard raves about your Shrunken Manuscript technique. What makes it so successful?

When I teach, I have two goals: to clarify information so it becomes actionable and to make things visual. We are people of the word. And yet, a novel is so long that we can’t keep in mind everything over the course of 50,000+ words. We need an easy visual way to SEE the structure of a novel.

The Shrunken Manuscript asks you to shrink your story to about 30 pages by making everything single spaced, removing chapter breaks, and reducing the font to 8 pt or less. Then, you decide on your 5-6 strongest chapters. On the Shrunken Manuscript, use colorful markers to put a big X on those chapters. Lay out the 30 pages on the floor in three rows of ten pages. Suddenly, you can SEE the story’s structure.

Here are some things you might see:

  • The opening is flat. The first strong chapter doesn’t occur for a long time.
  • You have a sagging middle. The strong chapters are close to the beginning or the end, with nothing in the middle.
  • You didn’t write an ending. The last few chapters have no strong chapters.

In fact, there are many more things you can SEE about your novel’s structure with the Shrunken Manuscript technique. I did a webinar for Highlights Foundation on the Shrunken Manuscript and you can see it free on Youtube.

 

What a unique way to view the strengths and weaknesses of an entire novel. Thank you for sharing your Shrunken Manuscript technique—and your Highlights Foundation video.

 

How do you create a rich, believable fantasy world?

World building is a detailed, messy project. In my new book, The Falconer, it began with a deep dive into falconry. The largest falcon, the gyrfalcon, lives in the north country (think Canada). I was enthralled with the noble bird and decided to include it, which meant my setting needed to start in the north. Britt, the main character, is the granddaughter of Winchal Eldras, the main character of The Wayfinder, the first Heartland book. I had to go into the back story and figure out how Win wound up in the north country and why he stayed there. I also had to extend my mental map of the Heartland itself. This time, I drew a map (which made it into the book) and set about populating the world.

One writing exercise I do with kids uses maps. The key is to name everything you put on the map. Is there a river? What’s its name? For me, naming generates images and ideas about the setting.

For individual scenes, sensory details are crucial to bringing a story to life. Things that you see, hear, smell, taste and touch (temperature & texture) create a fabric that’s believable and enticing for the reader. Choosing the right details to quickly evoke a mood is a skill to cultivate.

Worldbuilding in this case started with the needs of the story and character. But then everything had to tie together seamlessly to create a milieu in which the story would shine. The setting should enrich and uphold the story, but not come forward and take over.

 

How has publishing changed through the years and what do you think might be coming in the future?

I’ve been traditionally published with Harcourt, Harpercollins and Penguin, but I’m now happily self-published with my company, Mims House. This is only possible because of print-on-demand (POD) technologies and ebooks. Technology has put publishing within reach technically and financially for any writer who chooses. It’s an alternate path for a passionate author with creative business ideas. The explosive growth of audiobooks will be another frontier for enterprising storytellers.

As mobile-first users and voice-activated technologies take over in the next decade, it’s easy to predict that ebooks will dominate adult fiction and nonfiction. It’s harder to predict what will happen with children’s books. Many parents and kids still prefer print books. But apps like EPIC! point the way toward a wider acceptance of digital stories for kids. EPIC! has removed the barriers of cumbersome log-ins, added a gaming element and presents books in a smooth and easy experience. They’ve solved the technical and user-experience side of children’s digital books. It’s going to be interesting to see if digital books for kids spreads and how fast it will spread. Personally, I think it will always be a mixed experience for kids with some print books and some digital.

 

My favorite way to read is a physical book—but digital books can be helpful, especially when traveling. And if you ever have an unexpected wait, there’s always something wonderful to read.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to share, Darcy?

I’m more excited about storytelling than ever before. The channels for finding and connecting with readers has exploded because of technology. The next wave of technology will be artificial intelligence, mobile-first and voice-activated solutions. But humans will always need story that connects them to the world and to other humans. Our job is to adapt to the changing environment and yet keep our priorities straight. We connect people with themselves through well-told and emotionally moving stories. Storytellers—from the bards of old to the digitally adept today—will never be outdated.

 

Thank you for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files and sharing so many helpful writing tips—and how you believe that emotionally moving stories and storytellers will never be outdated. It’s also wonderful to know that voice can be taught!

 

Darcy has generously donated her online course: DEMYSTIFYING VOICE to one lucky winner. Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below.

Editors buy novels with a distinctive voice. It’s the single most important thing they are looking for. That means you need to understand voice and be able to control the voice of your writing. In this 30-minute lecture with PowerPoint, Darcy breaks voice into practical craft issues. Lots of examples make the concepts concrete rather than fuzzy. You’ll have solid ideas on where to start working on your own voice and will be a step closer to telling a powerful story.

 

The winner will be posted on August 1. Good luck, everyone!

Storyteller, writing teacher, Queen of Revisions, and founder of Mims House, Darcy Pattison has been published in ten languages. Her books, published with Harcourt, Philomel/Penguin, Harpercollins, Arbordale, and Mims House have received recognition for excellence with starred reviews in Kirkus, BCCB and PW. Four nonfiction nature books have been honored as National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade books: Desert Baths (2013), Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma (2015), Nefertiti the Spidernaut (2017), Clang! Ernst Chladni’s Sound Experiments (2019).

The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt) received an Irma Simonton Black and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature Honor Book award and has been published in a Houghton Mifflin textbook.  The Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News Story is a Junior Library Guild selection and a 2018 National Council of Teacher’s of English Notable Children’s Book in Language Arts. Pollen: Darwin’s 130 Year Prediction is a 2019 Junior Library Guild selection. Darcy is the 2007 recipient of the Arkansas Governor’s Arts Award for Individual Artist for her work in children’s literature.

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Find out more about Darcy on her blog, Facebook, Twitter, and you can browse her online video courses here.