March 27, 2013

Breaking Into YA Fiction: A Conversation with Ruth Witteried

Does a new writer trying to break into YA need to have a finished novel or can they submit a proposal?

If you’re new to YA and thinking about pitching a book proposal; think again. Typically, publishers of fiction want a finished product, and as a new writer your book is the best representation of your ability. Very few, if any, agents will shop a fiction proposal, YA or otherwise, from an unknown author. If you are established in a different genre, or have an amazing, interactive website for the YA audience you might stand a better chance, but any agent will want to make sure you can write fiction. Better just to write the book and get it to a reputable agent.

What are the recommended specs for a YA novel—page length, word count, language censored in any way?

There is still some separation in the expected word count of adult fiction versus young adult fiction. Adult fiction typically falls somewhere between 80,000-100,000 words (300-400 pages).  Writer’s Digest suggests a 55,000 – 70,000 word count for YA (220-280 pages); cautioning against going much higher, although they admit this is a very fluid category. If you are writing fantasy/sci-fi, you will probably go well into the 70,000 range, as world building uses a lot of ink. There are always exceptions of course, just check out these YA bestsellers: The Hunger Games (384), The Night Circus (528), Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (352), The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation (351), and Delirium (441).

Most of the restrictions we associate with YA—profanity, sexual situations, extreme violence—have fallen away. Profanity makes regular appearances in nearly all bestselling YA fiction; and appropriately so as it has become ubiquitous in our society. That’s not to say you should be careless with its use, but to ignore it completely may have your dialogue sounding inauthentic.

Most YA books are still fairly restrained when dealing with sexual situations. That is to say, they focus more on the yearning and the lead up to sex than actual sex scenes. Make no mistake, many characters are sexually active and speak openly about it, a lot about it, but the actual ‘going all the way’ scene in a book like Shiver, for example, leads you to the door and shuts it (nobody really considers 50 Shades of Grey to be YA, in spite of the young protagonist!).

And as far as extreme violence goes, you need only look at the success of The Hunger Games to realize how loose the restrictions on violence have become. It is listed on Amazon for readers “12 and up.”  When you look at the level of violence on television, in movies and video games, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Fortunately, Torture Porn (think The Saw movie franchise) is still relegated to adult fiction.

Which agents are the most easily accessible to a new YA writer?

Many agents, who five years ago wouldn’t consider YA, are now actively pursuing writers of the genre. When I managed a Waldenbooks in the eighties, books for teens fell under one banner: Young Adult, and it occupied two linear feet of shelf space. Judy Blume was its most provocative author, Forever causing uproars in school boards across the country for daring to deal with her protagonist’s loss of virginity. Today, YA easily occupy 15-20 linear feet, even in modest sized Barnes & Nobles, with subcategories for: Romance, Paranormal Romance, Fantasy & Adventure, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Historical, Dystopian, Steampunk, Humor, Anime and Graphic Novels. Agents are looking for the next hot voice in YA and are more receptive to a great pitch or query letter. Andrea Brown, Full Circle, Victoria Sanders & Associates, Andrea Hurst, Wendy Lamb, are agencies I see consistently at conferences, soliciting YA material. Laurie McLean of Foreword Literacy (The Iron Fey series) regularly attends the Willamette Writers Conference and signed Portland author, Marni Bates as a result of a pitch. Marni now has four YA titles in print and a film option.

Do you have to have an agent to get read?

It certainly helps, but like the music industry before it, everything is changing in publishing (and in film). Agents used to be the gateway to writing success. That is less and less true. Many publishing houses have laid off their in-house editing staff, formerly assigned to new writers to get their books in shape. Now, many of those editors are working freelance and often act as a conduit to agents and publishers.

Another way to get read is to pitch to a film manager, producer or agent. We’re seeing a lot of cross over at our conference; film people looking for completed, published and unpublished manuscripts, blogs, life rights, even Twitter feeds. Sh*t My Dad Says, was a book before it was a sitcom, and a Twitter feed before it was a book. So there are ways to get your book read outside of the traditional query.

Are there any conferences a new writer can attend that are actually helpful?

Indeed (cue blatant plug). I have been attending the Willamette Writers Conference every year since 2008 (I became the Film Coordinator in 2011). This is a very reputable conference that offers a high caliber curriculum over a three day weekend, but also offers an opportunity to meet and/or pitch to an agent, editor or publisher. We’re in Portland, but there are undoubtedly conferences close to you worth attending. But they can be expensive, so it’s important to set clear goals about what you want to accomplish. If you only want to pitch your book, then you need to study the roster of consultants available to pitch to. Every conference has a website with biographies from each consultant, including a wish list of what kinds of books they’re looking for.  Study it, and follow up with a search at or to see who’s on their client list. Most of them have a website with a blog, or a Twitter feed with links to articles they think are important. Follow them for a few weeks to see if they’re a good fit for you. At the very least you will be more informed when you query them or meet them in person to pitch. Writers are signed every year at conferences around the country. I personally see it happen every year in Portland.

Can you submit directly to a publisher and which publishers are the most open to new writers?

No. You can query a publisher, but as a general rule unsolicited manuscripts are thrown away. Check their website for submission requirements and follow them.

What is the biggest mistake a new writer makes when trying to break into the YA market?

The two mistakes I see the most often are lecturing and shielding the reader. Teenagers are highly attuned to changes in air pressure when a lecture approaches and will run for cover. Your message may be important, urgent even, but it requires a light touch if it is to reach this audience. Likewise, if you sugar coat your subject matter in an attempt to protect the reader, you’ll come off as phony. I have been guilty of this myself, going all the way to the edge and pulling back because I was afraid of offending someone (more often a parent or school board). Teen audiences are far more savvy than we give them credit for. Forget about playing it safe.

How can a writer improve their chance for success?

Read young adult. Read lots of young adult. Not only will you take comfort in the amount of flat out crap being sold (we all need hope!); it gives you a point from which to compare your own story and writing. Then when you find quality writing, (I’m a fan of Lauren Oliver’s) you have a second point of comparison and can begin to close the gap.

Know your market. For example, the paranormal romance genre is glutted. Don’t write that unless you’ve found something no one else has. (How do I know that? I read it in an agent’s wish list on a conference website).

Is platform as essential in YA as it is in adult trade?

Yes and no. You don’t have to build up your CV with publications, lectures or speaking engagements to be a credible YA writer. But you have to be findable, so at the very least you need an internet presence. My website,, was launched in advance of the completion of the book; a new trend in marketing that agents and publishers are looking for. And once your website is up, you can elect to bypass traditional publishing and e-publish a chapter at a time if you like, on your own site.

What is the smartest move you’ve ever seen a writer make when it comes to their career?

Kelly Williams Brown, not long out of college, realized there was a whole lot of stuff involved in living on your own that she didn’t know how to do or was too undisciplined to do.  This became the concept for a book proposal: Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps, with topics like, “Make Your Fucking Bed!”
She started a blog two weeks before the Willamette Writers Conference with the intention of adding something new every day for a year, then pitched the non-fiction concept in a group pitch session. I think it was a Saturday (she only came one day expressly to pitch). By Monday night she had a book agent, who went on to sell the book at auction and FOX is producing a pilot. All based on the strength on her concept, presentation, and a self-made website.

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Randall Jahnson, (Mask of Zorro, The Doors) a screenwriter transplant from L.A., told me I had an annoying habit of ‘pulling my punches’ (see above!). After reading two of my early scripts, he got frustrated and said, “This is good stuff, you set the scene and build the tension and then—you wuss out! Fucking say it, don’t sugar coat it!”

It’s damn good advice.

What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

I wish I had been more confident, more trusting of my story instincts. It’s a difficult thing to gage until you put yourself out there, be it a contest, a critique group, or submission; but it’s important to have that trust in yourself. Nobody else can write from your gut, so it’s pointless to second guess yourself, especially on a first draft when everything is fresh. Errors in execution can be fixed in the rewrite.

Any last words of encouragement or warnings?

Do something every day to further your writing goals or move your story forward. Set up a space and a routine and guard it with your life. We are told to write every day for good reason—it keeps us connected to our story and keeps our skills sharp. So give it a try. Something is better than nothing. And when you miss a day, or two or three; cultivate self-forgiveness.

Then get back in your chair and write.

Ruth Witteried has a M.A. from Pacific Lutheran University and teaches screenwriting at Clark College in Vancouver, WA. She took home the Columbine Award at the 2009 Moondance International Film Festival for her feature length script, A More Perfect Union, detailing the 1919 Centralia Massacre. She is currently writing the young adult book and screenplay, Zombie Noel under her pen name, RH Cohen. You can follow her on Facebook at SitYourAssDown; Twitter @sityourassdown1, or

April 05, 2012

"Rethinking Depression" Q&A Interview with Eric Maisel: Part One

The first section of your book focuses on debunking depression as a “mental illness,” which is not to say that sadness and unhappiness cannot be debilitating. Can you briefly describe the main thrust of your argument?

What I hope to demonstrate is that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders,” but we have few good reasons to collude with them. I ask that readers who do feel depressed seek help. I hope that this book aids people in understanding what help to ask for from professionals and what help we should realize they can’t possibly offer us.

If there is no “mental disorder of depression,” why are millions of people convinced that “depression” exists?

As soon as you employ the interesting linguistic tactic of calling every unwanted aspect of life abnormal, you are on the road to pathologizing everyday life. By making every unwanted experience a piece of pathology, it becomes possible to knit together disorders that have the look but not the reality of medical illness. This is what has happened in our “medicalize everything” culture. In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.

If there is no “mental disorder of depression” but only human sadness mislabeled as “depression,” what are your thoughts about antidepressants and psychotherapy?

Chemicals have effects and they can alter a human being’s experience of life. Chemicals can affect how your mind works. Chemicals can affect how you sleep. Chemicals can alter your moods. That a chemical called an antidepressant can change your mood in no way constitutes proof that you have a mental disorder called depression. All that it proves is that chemicals can have an effect on mood. There is a fundamental difference between taking a drug because it is the appropriate treatment for a medical illness and taking a drug because it can have an effect. This core distinction is regularly obscured in the world of treating depression. Psychotherapy, too, can help remediate sadness for the simple reason that talking about your problems can help reduce your experience of distress. Psychotherapy works, when it works, because the right kind of talk can help reduce a person’s experience of unhappiness. To put it simply, chemicals have effects and you may want those effects; talk can help and you may want that help. Antidepressants and psychotherapy can help not because they are the “treatment for the mental disorder of depression” but because chemical have effects and talk can help.

Why is recognizing the role of unhappiness in our lives an important feature of “rethinking depression”?

To acknowledge the reality of unhappiness is not to assert the centrality of unhappiness. In fact, it is just the opposite. By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood. One decision that an existentially aware person makes is to focus on making meaning rather than on monitoring moods.

What does your Existential Program offer people who are hoping to shed the mental illness label of depression?

I ask that people take as much control as possible of their thoughts, their attitudes, their moods, their behaviors, and their very orientation toward life and turn their innate freedom into a virtue and a blessing. Even if people decide to take antidepressants or engage in psychotherapy to get help with their unhappiness, they will still have to find ways of dealing with their meaning needs, the shadows of their personality, their consciousness of mortality, and the facts of existence. This book offers guidance in all of those areas.

How does your Existential Program make it possible for people to take control of their lives?

Living authentically means organizing your life around your answers to three fundamental questions. The first is, “What matters to you?” The second is, “Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?” The third is, “Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?” You begin by removing the protective blinders that human beings put in place to avoid noticing the many painful facts of existence, including painful facts about their personality shortfalls. You decide to understand “what meaning means” to you so that you can proceed to lead your life in ways that feel personally meaningful. You choose to take responsibility for your thoughts and your actions and to lead life instrumentally. You accept and embrace the fact that you are the final arbiter of your life’s meaning. With this approach to life, each day is a project requiring existential engineering skills as you bridge your way from one meaningful experience to the next. By accepting the realities of life and by asserting that you are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life, you provide yourself sure footing as you actively make meaning.

So much of what you propose is dependent on people accepting responsibility for their own life’s meaning. How does one arrive at such a definition?

Nothing is more important than meaning, and nothing is so little investigated. I encourage people to understand and embrace the fact that meaning — what we value, how we construe our life purposes, what we make of the facts of existence — is a completely subjective affair. Not only is meaning subjective; meanings are bound to shift and change. Once we accept this view, meaning is always available to us. It is waiting for us. All we need to do is think and act in ways that tease it out of its latency. What we are teasing out is a certain psychological experience. Things do not have meaning; human beings experience meaning. Some activities, such as service, ethical action, and self-actualization, and some states of being, such as contentment, appreciation, and intimacy, are regularly experienced as meaningful. A list of these meaning opportunities make for an excellent “meaning menu” to peruse as we decide where we want invest our human capital. But they are not intrinsically meaningful. They are only meaningful when they are experienced as meaningful.

Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than 30 books and is widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. He trains creativity coaches nationally and internationally and provides core trainings for the Creativity Coaching Association. Dr. Maisel is a columnist for Art Calendar magazine and a featured contributor to His books include "Coaching the Artist Within," "Creative Recovery," "Fearless Creating," "The Van Gogh Blues" and many others. His most recent book is "Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions." He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family. His websites include and and he can be reached at

On Our Radar launched by Creative Capital

"I am pleased to announce the launch of Creative Capital's new online initiative, On Our Radar, featuring 380 artists' projects from across the country. In our ongoing quest to find innovative ways to support artists, we have created On Our Radar, a searchable database featuring noteworthy Film/Video and Visual Arts projects that advanced to the second or third phase of our highly competitive grant round last year. Although the featured projects were not ultimately funded, we feel they are projects to watch.

During each grant round, we have the great privilege of learning about a wealth of exciting artists' projects, but Creative Capital is only able to fund a small percentage of the applicants each year. We hope that by promoting projects "On Our Radar" to our community of artists, arts professionals, supporters and other friends, we can forge connections that lead to new support and collaborative opportunities.

We invite you to begin exploring On Our Radar to discover an impressive array of artists' projects from across the country! On Our Radar will be active through August 31, 2012.


Ruby Lerner
President & Executive Director

About Creative Capital

Creative Capital is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing integrated financial and advisory support to artists pursuing adventurous projects in five disciplines: Emerging Fields, Film/Video, Literature, Performing Arts and Visual Arts. Working in long-term partnership with artists, Creative Capital's pioneering approach to support combines funding, counsel and career development services to enable a project's success and foster sustainable practices for its grantees. Since its founding in 1999, Creative Capital has committed nearly $25 million in financial and advisory support to 372 projects representing 463 artists, and its Professional Development Program has reached more than 4,000 artists in 50 communities across the country. For more information, visit

March 30, 2012

call for finished screenplays

Polaris Pictures – Seeking Modern Latin Dance Scripts

We are looking for completed feature-length modern dance scripts. We’d ideally like to find a hot Latina dance script, with a story featuring Latin-fusion music and dance moves. Scripts must be in English.
Budget will not exceed $5 million. WGA and non-WGA writers may submit.
Our credits include: "Back in the Day," "The Objective" and "Ask the Dust."

To submit to this lead, please go to:
Enter your email address.
Copy/Paste this code: 9cgbd5j0ka


Adventures in Film – Seeking Horror Scripts Set in Vietnam

We are looking for completed feature-length horror scripts where the entire story is set in Vietnam. The only type of horror story we will not consider is anything involving a ghost, so any other subgenre of horror is welcome, as long as the entire story takes place in Vietnam. Please note submissions must already be set in Vietnam. We are not open to scripts “easily adaptable to fit.”

Budget will not exceed $2 million. WGA and non-WGA writers may submit.
Our credits include “Johnny Was,” which was shot from a script we found on InkTip.

To submit to this lead, please go to:
Enter your email address.
Copy/Paste this code: 10xu1fva97

NOTE: Please only submit your work if it fits what the lead is looking for exactly. If you aren't sure if your script fits, please ask InkTip first.

back from a very long break

I've been out of the blogosphere for over a year but I have a very good excuse.

I had a baby.

It was a tough year and a tough pregnancy (such a long story, it will be made into a book) but we're all healthy and happy now and that's all that matters.

So I'm back. And the postings will return. Here. On Twitter. On Facebook.

Thanks for your patience.

March 01, 2011

To Be Or No To Be…Plat(form) Is The Question

To Be Or No To Be…Plat(form) Is The Question

by SJ Hodges

I wake this morning and find an email from an old friend in my inbox. Excerpts from his new novel. He’d like some feedback. Wants to know where to shop it. How to shop it. As a ghostwriter, I’ve dipped my pinky toe in the publishing pool. Been lucky enough to sell fiction off a proposal (when that was still possible), muscle a unheard-of memoir into a movie deal (when that was still possible) and will soon head back out in the market with a currently unnamed reality TV star’s life story. I have skirted around the periphery of the industry, clinging to the coattails of those personalities with “platform” in order to stay on the shelves. My friend has never ventured into books. As a screenwriter, he’s battled other demons. The kind who wear Armani. The kind who hire interns to read on their behalf. A different kind of beast. This is why he thinks I might have sage words to share.

I respond favorably to his excerpt. A whole world contained within a few pages. It’s nice to hear his voice in my head again, after so many years on opposite coasts. I write back with encouragement and suggest that he finish the complete manuscript before showing it to agents or editors. With the major publishing houses in massive transition from dinosauric to digitized, an unpublished, “brand-new” writer with great talent, a half-finished manuscript and no platform is easily cast aside.

It used to be that product created platform. Now, platform creates product.

First time novelists are told to launch a website, to start a blog. Or contribute to blogs. Or to blog tour. They are encouraged to tweet. No, they are expected to tweet. They’re told that their followers need to number in the thousands. No, the hundreds of thousands. I login to Facebook each day to find double friend requests smiling back at me with the same photo attached. Writers, actors, directors setting up two separate accounts: one professional, one personal. Platform, platform, platform.

I know what it takes to put the platform on the page because I’m the one actually typing up that proposal. The one that will land a six-figure deal for someone else. I’ve seen the remarkable numbers that some aspiring authors bring to the table. I’ve mastered the careful calculations necessary to estimate past and projected media impressions – broadcast and print. I’ve learned the term “back-of-room merchandising efforts” and can, without blinking an eye, recite a massive list of alternative income stream opportunities. I’ve massaged the statistical analysis of demographic draws to more favorably represent my clients and I should have a PhD in branding, trending, promotional packaging…

It can be paralyzing.

It can kill creativity.

It has nearly killed my first novel.

To write in the face of obscurity. This is nothing new. From the moment the first person ever carved into a cave wall, every writer’s greatest fear is to have opened the vein allowing their life to spill and splatter and spurt onto the wall, onto the page and to have that effort go unrecognized, unappreciated, unheard. It’s just now…publishers and agents have the actual numbers to confront you. They’ve got the hard evidence, the proof…you most definitely are not Ashton Kutcher. You. Are. Unknown.

Still, I write. And my friends write. And we email each other excerpts of our work and ask for feedback. We tweet, wax poetic on our Facewalls and ask for connections. On the bad days, when the words are slow to form and Charlie Sheen instantaneously accumulates 150,000 followers on Twitter without even tweeting, I try to remember the stillness and quiet perfection of my days at The MacDowell Colony where every year, 250 artists, some known, most unknown, wander among the woods, hunker down in cozy cabins and create.

It was enough, those days at the MacDowell, to be alone in the woods. To write, to eat, to share wine with newfound friends. Having no connection to or awareness of the business, it was a freedom. There was happiness to be found there. Beside the fireplace, with a warm thermos of tomato soup watching fluffy flakes of sugary snow drift against my front door. After seven years spent on the sunny beaches of L.A., I can watch snow fall for hours.

It was enough, the writing. It was enough to sustain me.

It is a feeling I often try to conjure as I walk my daily tightrope stretched between creativity and commercialism, meaning and marketing, product and platform. As I program my days into chunks of time: minutes to wake, minutes to eat, minutes to shower, walk, return calls, build a website, meet a new contact, and oh yeah, write.

I click on my inbox. Find another friend’s new chapter on the screen. Read it. Love it. Want to hear more. And in that moment, I choose not to calculate her media impressions. I choose not brainstorm tie-in merchandising opportunities. I choose not click to follow her tweets. Instead, I send her words of encouragement. Then I say those same words aloud to myself. Creation for the sake of creation. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.

In the sunny confines of my Santa Monica office, I close my eyes and listen for snow.

SJ Hodges writes for the stage, tv, screen and print. She can be contacted via Facebook at The Constant Creator and followed on Twitter @constantcreator.

November 05, 2010

Face of Opportunity Entry: SJ Hodges asks Prithvi Theatre to become home base

There are only five more days to vote for my video online. Please remember to click and click each day from each browser and from each computer. You can also vote using your phones!

Face of Opportunity Entry: SJ Hodges asks Prithvi Theatre to become home base