Early influences: Lois Lowry

I notice that a lot of writers tell me about their early literary influences, i.e., “Growing up, I read everything Beverly Cleary and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor ever wrote.” I enjoy hearing about these briefly, because I think you can learn something about a writer by knowing who s/he admires. So in the spirit of sharing, I’ll share one of my early literary influences: Lois Lowry.

Just about everyone I know who reads, regardless of their favorite genre, has liked something by Lois Lowry. Most often, they talk about The Giver or Number The Stars. I liked those, too, but those weren’t the Lois Lowry books I read over and over. That honor goes to the Anastasia Krupnik series, specifically Anastasia’s Chosen Career. Anastasia and Clarissa of Clarissa Explains it All were my heroines in my late 80s/early 90s period of self discovery. They both had their own strong world views and conflicts with younger siblings. All of us had fathers who were ultimately loving even though they never understood us. Anastasia had the coolest books and Clarissa had the coolest clothes. Since clothes are one of the few things I love in this world as much as I love books (see also makeup, jewelry, and shoes), and because I too recognized the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to be a little silly to ask an eleven-year-old, Anastasia’s Chosen Career spoke to me.

The most wonderful thing about Anastasia’s Chosen Career is that Anastasia goes into the assignment of interviewing someone with her chosen career (bookseller) with one idea and comes out not only with a different idea of what that  career entails, but she develops that variety of opinions through something completely unrelated to bookselling: a modeling course. At first, she’s not sure if the course will be beneficial. The modeling studio is in a seedy-looking room, and the instructors don’t exactly seem to be models themselves. But, as is often the case in literature, things are not always what they seem. The course instructors know some talented people in the business, and through their instruction, Anastasia and her peers in the course become better versions of themselves. Anastasia’s Chosen Career shows us how simple yet powerful trying new things can be, which I think is something just about every MG reader can benefit from.  At the end of the book, Anastasia isn’t any closer to becoming a bookseller than she was at the beginning, nor does she think she wants to try to be a model, but she has a cool new haircut, new self-confidence, new friends, and sees an old nemesis in a new way.

At the time I read Anastasia’s Chosen Career, I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was fascinated by what she learned in the modeling classes. (Yes, I had dreams of being a model when I was MG age, and then I shot up to 5’3″ and stayed there, so that was the end of that.) I thought her friend Henry was the coolest. I was thrilled along with her at what she learned and how her new haircut changed her.

Now that I’m a grownup, I mention this book specifically because it does what I think all MG books should do: tells a fun story and develops interesting characters. Lois Lowry can do what my favorite adult author, Shirley Jackson can do. She is a master of both humor and horror, who never sacrifices the characterization or setting for the “important lesson,” even when the books have important lessons.

All your formatting questions answered

Should you single or double-space your manuscript? What fonts are okay and not okay to use?

From author Philip Athans, here’s a wonderful post on how and how not to format: Manuscript Format. He’s also created a helpful PDF of what agents and editors like to see in terms of formatting, which you can find here. His philosophy is: Leave all your creativity in your story, and none in your presentation. I agree!

I was part of the workshop Phil mentions in his post, and during the Q&A one of the participants asked about formatting his pages as to not interrupt the flow of his words. I understand that authors want their books read a certain way and because of this, it’s tempting to format in a non-standard way. There are several problems with this, however. First, not all formatting will translate the same way between word processing platforms. I use Word for Mac 2011, and when I see documents that were written in Google Docs or Scrivener, even if they’re saved as .doc files, they don’t always come out looking the same way they do to the author. Second, when a book is produced by a publisher, they’re going to focus more on things like paper and font size, not the specific flow of words. Third, you can’t count on the visual aspect of a book to carry your message across. The design of a book is just one part of the overall package. And what about people who prefer audiobooks? All they have are your words.

Speaking only for myself, I’d also like to add that I prefer that submissions come in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format, not PDF. PDFs are great for reading on my computer, so I won’t discount them altogether, but I like to read full manuscripts (or anything beyond 50 pages, really), on my Kindle. And since I’m one of those people who tends to hang on to my electronics until they die, I’m still using a 2-year-old Kindle Keyboard, which I only have because my second-generation white Kindle broke past the point of repair.  I don’t own a tablet and it might be a couple of years before I buy one. And a certain company named after a long river, despite its billions of dollars, can’t seem to figure out how to make PDFs readable on its e-ink readers. PDFs come out really, really tiny.

When in doubt, go Times New Roman.