Case Cracked: Editing Mystery Novels

This post was originally posted on the Lee & Low blog.

 

http://i0.wp.com/blog.leeandlow.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/192e8a7c5b856f76b5331623d80cf7cf.jpgI’ve long been a fan of mysteries. Trixie Belden was my BFF as a third and fourth grader. Nancy Drew was another favorite. Veronica Mars updated the teen sleuth idea, bringing the storytelling form to a new generation.

When I got the chance to work on Valynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes, our new YA mystery which comes out in June, all of those mysteries and more were going through my mind. Claire, the main character, has the spunk and curiosity of Veronica Mars and all of her predecessors, but she’s also a little different. And to honor those differences in the editing process, I needed to refresh myself on what’s out there right now in the teen mystery/suspense genre, and the mystery genre in general.

As I was editing Ink and Ashes over the course of about a year and a half (which spans two developmental edits and a line edit), between edits I was reading mystery after mystery. I stocked up on Agatha Christie, I rewatched Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and read the first book of the series it’s based on (Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood), I read multiple YA suspense, spy, and murder mysteries.

Miss Fisher ABC
Miss Fisher from the TV show “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”

That reading reminded me that a great mystery read requires the same elements as any good read: well-paced plotting, characters the reader cares about enough to want to know what happens next; even world-building, though that’s a term we generally associate with speculative fiction, is tremendously important in setting the stage in a mystery. But my rereading of classic and contemporary mysteries also showed me that more than in any other genre, a sense of suspense and danger must permeate the mystery book, must drive the reader to breathlessly wonder what will happen next.

Ask probing questions

One of the biggest challenges in this edit—with any edit, really, especially with an author you’ve never worked with before—was discovering how to bring the author’s vision of the characters fully to life. An editor’s job is often to just ask questions: Why is this happening right now? Why would that character decide to do this? What is the goal here?

In that way, figuring out the goal allows the editor to ask further probing questions on what the solution might be—figuring out how current plot points and character decisions hamper the desired effect.

“The plot thickens” turns out to be trueink and ashes cover

The biggest thing I learned while editing Ink and Ashes and reading all these mysteries is the importance of plot escalation. In the original draft, clues did of course build up into a frenzied final few pages of conflict that were very enjoyable—that’s one of the reasons the book won our New Visions Award. But comparing the early manuscript to mysteries I enjoyed the most, I realized that there were so many ways that the narrative could be complicated. (Valynne was on the same page. As she waited for the results of the contest, she was also already thinking of ways to improve the manuscript. That kind of editor-writer synergy makes a huge difference in any book project like this.)

We looked at the end goal, and discussed the plot points that got Claire and her friends to that point. In particular, we discussed how the inciting incident—the moment that gets Claire to veer her course to investigating whether her father and her stepdad ever knew each other—might be complicated and how those complications would have a ripple effect that would improve multiple other plot points, and increase the pacing.

In other words, escalation. If the reader didn’t feel the suspense at every page turn, we had work to do.

Valynne worked very hard on making that happen, and I’m very happy with the results! In answer to all my probing questions, Valynne improved on an already-well written manuscript to bring what was an interesting read to the level of an exciting page-turner that’s getting readers hooked. That’s the end goal for any editor and author: Creating a final book that readers can’t put down. I’m happy to say, we succeeded with Ink and Ashes.

Submit your manuscript to the New Visions Award

NVAL_WinnerLogoIn case you missed it, I’m open again for submissions to the New Visions Award. Details can be found on this blog post.

This is the first year we’re taking only electronic submissions. You can submit via our Submittable site. There is no charge for any of our submissions, including the New Visions Award.

Please note that the New Visions Award is open only to authors of color resident of the United States (including non-citizens, but you must be a resident). This includes Asian Americans and other people of Asian descent, African Americans and other people of African descent, Pacific Islanders, South Asians, Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, Middle Easterners, Latino/as, and mixed race people.

If you are a white American, or any author who does not reside in the United States, you are welcome to submit to our regular submissions, guidelines for which can be found here.

TV math

Inspired by my recent marathoning of season 1 of Hawaii Five-O, in which the characters handed over a medium-sized backpack supposedly full of $10 million, I had to wonder if that was physically possible. Ten million dollars seemed a bit far-fetched to fit into just one backpack, even if it is in $100 bills. So I googled.

If Google’s right, a dollar bill is 6.14″ long, 2.61″ wide, and .0043″ thick. So, if a $100 bill is roughly the same dimensions (Wikipedia says that I’m right at least as far as length and width go), that would mean that a stack of $100 bills would be 35.8′ tall, or 430″. The volume of that stack would be 6890.922 in3, and weigh about 100kg, or 220 lbs.

Why does this matter?

Either he's pretty strong or he's not holding 220 lbs
Either he’s pretty strong or he’s not holding 220 lbs

Because they were handling that backpack as if it were full of a few books, not 220 lbs of money. Even the buffest Navy Seal (which, of course, Our Hero is!) probably wouldn’t be tossing around 220 lbs as if it were a sack of groceries.

And would that much money fit in a medium-sized backpack? Even a relatively thick one like the one that James Marsters is holding right here? The volume of a backpack that size, according to REI, is probably in the neighborhood of 50-80 liters. 50 liters is roughly 3051 in3. If we’re saying the pack has the high end of volume, it’s more like 4882 in3. And that’s assuming that you could fit the bills in without extra awkward space left over.

So, let’s break it down:

 

Capacity of pack that size Actual dimensions of $10 million
50-80 liters or 3051-4882 in3 6891 in3 (about 113 liters)
As much weight as the volume allows plus about 2.5 to 5 lbs for the weight of the pack 220 lbs plus weight of pack

You’d need another pack to fit that much money–not to mention to be able to lift that much money.

So if your characters are pulling off a heist, perhaps you might have to factor in the complication of how much that money actually weighs. Even paper can only fit so much in one pack.

#diversityinSFF is not superficial

Over the weekend, a discussion of diversity in SFF magazines has been brewing in SFF circles. I don’t read many SFF magazines, so I hadn’t been aware of the discussions until Janni Lee Simner pointed someone in the discussion to Tu as an answer for finding diversity in genre. So I won’t address the specifics of a need for diversity in SFF magazines, except to say, yes, it’s important.

Rather, I feel I need to address an article, and a tweet from the author of that article, who takes the position that diversity is “superficial” and therefore unnecessary.

Summer of the MariposasI couldn’t disagree more that diversity in SFF is superficial. In fact, it is at the root of some of the deepest, well-told stories I’ve read. Take Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Andre Norton–nominated Summer of the Mariposas. It would be an entirely different story if it were set in a Midwestern town starring white girls of European descent, or set in Vancouver or Maine and crossed the U.S.-Canadian border. The entire weave of the worldbuilding is centered around the girls’ identities as both Mexican and American, and the multiple identities that “Mexican” entails—that of both Aztec ancestry and Spanish-influenced Catholicism. The magical people and goddesses the girls meet are straight out of Mexican folklore. There is nothing superficial about anything regarding the Mexican influences within the book.

Simply changing the color of a character to “blackwash” them for diversity’s sake is far from what anyone who truly advocates for “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” is looking for when we seek more characters of color, LGBT characters, etc. We’re looking for the heart-deep diversity of experiences that so seldom are reflected in science fiction and fantasy. We’re asking for the genre to deepen its idea of “what it means to be human”—a question that SFF excels at asking. Yes, we’re all human and we have common experiences, but how we answer the deepest questions of humanity’s existence vary with culture, ethnicity, religion, country, community. (Are we communal or do we seek individuality? To whom are people loyal? Who is in control? How do we judge goodness?) It has to do with power dynamics and experiences of privilege and the lack thereof, and how privilege is intersectional. And the genre is richer when we explore that full breadth, even when we have dragons and aliens as part of the mix.

Diversity in SFF is about human protagonists that not only welcome readers who might not feel welcome in the genre, but about opening up the world of the reader who isn’t familiar with the culture or personality of a protagonist from a community that hasn’t been as well represented in the past. It’s about awesome worldbuilding, excellent storytelling, and finding inspiration in places that aren’t the same old Western European tropes—tropes we love, sure, but they’ve been overplayed. There are fresh ideas and characters to be found from authors with different perspectives, in places and cultures that haven’t been as well represented.

What those of us advocating for diversity want is simply to see the world as it is reflected in our literature.

So for anyone who thinks that diversity is superficial—that the only thing it has to do with is the color of one’s skin—you’re the one missing the point.

Diversity is one of the most important things this genre needs right now, for the sake of great storytelling.

New books!

The Monster in the Mudball by S. P. GatesJust in case you haven’t been paying attention in every other social media stream, Tu’s fall 2013 books are OUT in the WILD, just in time for Halloween!

For anyone with a young reader in your life, be sure to check out The Monster in the Mudball by S.P. Gatesthe perfect read for your third and fourth graders, and any reader looking for his or her first real middle grade book now that they’ve mastered chapter books. It’s a Junior Library Guild selection, as well—funny with a lot of heart, about a boy who teams up with an artifact inspector to save his baby brother from the monster Zilombo. It’s kind of like Warehouse 13 for the very young middle grade set.

For older readers, check out Joseph Bruchac’s postapocalyptic Apache steampunk Killer of Enemies—it’s been getting a lot of great buzz, and you need to pick it up.

The books are orderable on the Lee & Low website right now, and should be available for order from Amazon and BN.com and other online vendors within a few days to a week (it takes some time for the books to get from our warehouse to theirs and to be processed, so just keep pre-ordering until it’s available via your preferred vendor).

Killer of Enemies by Joseph BruchacE-books will be available in another couple of weeks. We always try to time version releases to be close to each other, but it’s not always perfectly aligned. Keep an eye on your favorite e-book vendor, and I’ll post here with links when they’re up.

If you love Tu Books and want us to publish even more awesome diverse science fiction and fantasy, one of the best ways you can support us (or any small press you favor) is to be sure to walk into your local indie bookshop and ask for the book by name. If they don’t have a copy, ask them to order it. Indies are very happy to be sure their customers have the books they’re looking for, and the more demand they see for a particular book, the more they’ll pay attention to ordering stock to keep in the store. And at the same time, you’ll be supporting a local business that works to serve your community.

Great new review for Killer of Enemies

koe_cover_FNLFrom Kirkus Reviews:

This near future dystopia starring an Apache female superhero has the soul of a graphic novel, if not the art.

Like her famous Chiracahua ancestor, Lozen too is a warrior, but unlike her namesake, it’s by coercion. Her masters are four semihuman rulers of Haven, a walled fortress in what was once Arizona. Much of humanity perished when the Cloud, a mysterious force that’s rendered human technology useless, arrived from beyond Jupiter. Although their bio-enhancements no longer work, the despotic overlords that survive rule. Holding Lozen’s family as hostages, Haven’s rulers send her out to battle gemods, genetically modified monsters left over from pre-C days. Lozen complies while working toward her family’s escape. On each trip, she caches supplies, food, weapons. Allies—natural and supernatural, known and hidden, at Haven and in the wild—offer guidance but not rescue. For that, Lozen must rely on her wits, tracking skills and weaponry (guns have survived the Cloud), drawing strength from her warrior heritage to dispatch monstrous birds of prey, a giant anaconda and more (the cartoonish tone helps mute the graphic violence). Lozen’s tactics and weaponry are detailed at length but within a cultural framework that fosters respect for the planet and its surviving natural inhabitants.

A good bet for fans of superhero fiction and graphic novels and readers in search of superpowered female warriors.

And if you didn’t see it, here’s a post on how that great cover came to be.

Change of title

You might notice some changes happening in my bio below my posts, on my About Me page, and on my social media sites. I’ve already mentioned it on Facebook, but I thought I’d better note it here, as well. For the last three years, I’ve been editorial director of Tu Books, focusing on the editorial side. Now my responsibilities have expanded to include marketing and sales, and so my title has changed to publisher to reflect that change in duties.

What this means for writers: I won’t have as much time to accept new submissions, so from time to time our submissions guidelines will reflect that we’ve closed to unagented submissions. We did this over the holidays, and haven’t yet reopened those submissions; I need time to catch up on what we’ve already received, including a nice large number of New Visions Award submissions. So keep writing, and watch for when we open for submissions periodically. This will allow me to concentrate my editorial time on the books we’ve already contracted, with concentrated windows during which I’ll seek new voices.

While this is a big change for me, for the purpose of writers things shouldn’t change too much.

New Visions extension announcement

As I was talking about yesterday, Hurricane Sandy has affected us at Lee & Low—our office is still currently without power—o we understand that it has made it hard especially for those in the path of the storm to get your New Visions entry into the mail. After all, in the middle of all this, a lot of us have more important things to worry about, like electricity and food. Subway and train service is also still a problem, which might be essential for someone trying to get to the post office, and I’m not sure if many affected post offices are back up and running yet.

In light of that, we’re announcing today that we’re going to grant a 2-week extension to the New Visions contest. Our new deadline is Nov. 14. Like the original deadline, that is a postmark deadline. As long as your entry is postmarked by Nov. 14, your entry has hit the deadline. We hope this extension particularly helps those in the path of the storm, but it applies across the board.

All the other guidelines remain in effect. The contest page will be updated when we are able to do so—can’t change it myself and those who can don’t have access right now.

Given that those who need this deadline most might not even have electricity right now, please share this far and wide and please retweet, Facebook, and share on your blogs and other social networks today and perhaps a few times later this week. Please get the word out. Thanks, and for those who are hardest hit by this storm, our thoughts are with you.

P.S. If you’re in another area and wondering how you can help with the hurricane, I’ve heard that they have had to cancel several local blood drives due to the infrastructure damage. If you can donate blood, that might be the best thing you can do, particularly because on the night of the storm they had to evacuate an entire hospital down at NYU. You might also consider donating money to the Red Cross.

Logistics of New Visions due to Hurricane Sandy

I have just weathered the hurricane in relative style—thankfully, my neighborhood came out relatively unscathed compared to other places. I still have power and internet (mostly, though some flickers), and I live on high ground. A friend and I just took a walk around the neighborhood, and the worst most of us got here were some downed trees and branches and some business canopies half-torn off. Down by the river, it’s still high, but thankfully in this neighborhood there’s not much down by the river except a park.

Further downtown it’s not such a bright tale, especially down by the waterfront here in Manhattan and in Brooklyn and Queens, and particularly over in New Jersey, which seemed to have gotten the brunt of it. From the press conference I just saw with Greg Christie, it’s going to be a while for New Jersey to really recover from this. The word “unprecedented” keeps coming up—this was a storm like no other on record in this area. It looked like a Cat 1, but the winds and the storm surge acted more like a Cat 3 or 4, from what I hear.

What that means for the New Visions contest, since I’ve gotten a lot of worried emails in the last couple of days from people worried about their entry either being received on time, or people in the path of the storm who haven’t been able to get out to mail their entries:

The deadline is a postmark deadline of Oct. 31, not a receipt deadline. So as long as you’re able to mail your entry by tomorrow, you’ll be fine.

However, particularly for those in the path of the storm, I understand that you’ve got a lot more on your mind right now than writing, and we don’t know when full services like the subway and the post offices will be back to normal. For today, I’m just going to encourage those of you who can to mail your entries by tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll probably know a lot more about the assessments of damage and timelines and such, and I’ll know whether I can even get in to the office this week. So tomorrow once we know a little more, I’ll announce if we might be able to allow a small extension, particularly for those in the path of the storm, in the greater New York/New Jersey area particularly. I don’t know yet, but I wanted to reassure you that we understand and sympathize, as we’re dealing with this storm as well.

For now, if you can make it to the post office by tomorrow, just go ahead and send your entry that way. No need for any special delivery services like FedEx or UPS—in this situation, it will be *harder* for them because they don’t know when they’ll be able to get back into New York City, so from what I understand they’re not taking packages. The post office will go ahead and take your package, and they will deliver it when they can. As long as the postmark is Oct. 31 or earlier, you’re fine.

Thanks for your patience as we figure out what’s going on in the aftermath of this storm.

 

New Visions Award–deadline approaching!

I haven’t been blogging very consistently, I know—which made me only realize today that despite my many mentions of it on Twitter and Facebook, I haven’t yet talked about our New Visions Award here on the blog yet! With less than a month left before the deadline, I wanted to go a little into further detail about why we’re running this contest, and why you should share it far and wide with all your writer friends!

As you know, I focus on diversity in fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. We don’t require that our writers be people of color. Writing cross-culturally is perfectly valid—we’ve talked a lot here about how important it is to get a culture right if you’re writing cross-culturally, and to me, that’s what matters most when it comes to diversity in our books: that the books themselves reach beyond the status quo, and get it right while doing so.

But a vital part of getting it right is also welcoming voices from those communities we’re talking about, discovering new voices and adding them to the choral symphony. Look at CCBC’s 2011 numbers—the number of writers of color have mostly stagnated at roughly 6% of all books published, with roughly 8% of all books published featuring significant content about people of color (including formulaic non-fiction). Compare that with the population at large, which is roughly 25% PoC—or to the percentage of kids of color, our audience, which is fast approaching 50%—and you can see how stark those numbers really are, how bad we’ve been as an industry at offering “mirror” content to our readers and at sharing voices from their communities. If we were able to break it down into genres (does anyone have access to that kind of information? I’d love to see it), I have a feeling that YA SF and fantasy would have numbers that would look much worse.

So with that in mind, we started the New Visions Award, modeled after Lee & Low’s New Voices Award, to seek out new voices in genre fiction for young people. All the details can be found at our site (plus some awesome words about the contest from awesome people like Mitali Perkins and Nikki Grimes), but I’ll post a bit of it here so you can get an idea of what we’re looking for:

TU BOOKS, the fantasy, science fiction, and mystery imprint of LEE AND LOW BOOKS, award-winning publisher of children’s books, is pleased to announce the first annual New Visions Award. The award will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The Award winner receives a cash grant of $1000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash grant of $500.

TU BOOKS was launched in 2010, dedicated to diversity in the beloved genre fiction market for young people. Titles include Wolf Mark, Tankborn, and Cat Girl’s Day Off. This fall will bring the publication of Morris Award nominee and Pura Belpré Award winner Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Summer of the Mariposas. For more information about TU BOOKS, visit leeandlow.com/p/tu.mhtml.

Eligibility:

  1. The contest is open to writers of color who are residents of the United States and who have not previously had a middle grade or young adult novel published.
  2. Writers who have published work in other venues such as children’s magazines or picture books, or adult fiction or nonfiction, are eligible. Only unagented submissions will be accepted.
  3. Work that has been published in its entirety in any format (including online and self publishing) is not eligible. Manuscripts previously submitted to TU BOOKS will not be considered.

Dates for Submission:

Submissions will be accepted from June 1, 2012, through October 31, 2012, and must be postmarked within that period.

Notice that the deadline is coming up at the end of this month!! So please share on Facebook and Twitter, share with your writing groups, share with your listservs—post it wherever it might be appropriate to share it around. Let your writer friends know! And if you, reading this right now, have a book that would be right for me, send it along!

I’d also add for those who aren’t new writers of color who want to submit a book to me, we’re always open to submissions from all writers, both agented and unagented, in our general submissions.