Thursday, March 17, 2011

Interview with Harold Underdown- Part I

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books Cover
Harold Underdown, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, is my guest for today's blog. In this interview he answers a variety of questions about writing and publishing for children. In Part II he will address questions which illustrators have. If you are an illustrator with a publishing question, please leave me a comment or email me at and I will relay them to Harold.

Question: A friend found the following advice under "sample query letter" at They suggested using the phrase, "This manuscript has been professionally edited and is ready to be published." I thought it sounded presumptuous. What do you think?

Harold: I don't think it's a good idea, for the reason you give and ALSO because it suggests the writer needed help to complete the manuscript! That is not something I would mention in a cover or query letter.

Question: In light of the increasing sophistication of YA book content, would you recommend that YALSA divide its services, awards and lists into two age categories--one for ages 12 - 15 and another for ages 15 - 18?

Harold: Personally, I wouldn't recommend that or speak against it. I think that's an issue that librarians should decide.

Question: We've learned that song lyrics can be an expensive minefield. What about movie lines? Are they protected by copyright? What about expressions that have entered the common lexicon, like "Show me the money," "You had me at hello," "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," etc? The specific line I'm wondering about at the moment is "Danger, Will Robinson." But I think the real question is the larger principle, since there are so many lines like this that have come into conversational use completely divorced from their origin. What I meant was, when the phrase is used with no reference to the original source. Like when a character says, "We'll always have Paris" or "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," but no one is talking about "Casablanca." Or "Make my day," "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," "I'll think about it tomorrow at Tara," or any other catch phrase that people commonly understand without having to know where it came from.

Harold: I am not a lawyer and have never discussed this issue with one, but I tend to agree that this is an area in which fair use applies.

A writer who wants to include such phrases in their manuscript should go ahead and do so, but make a note of where they are included. Then when/if the manuscript sells, they can raise this with their editor, who will most likely consult with the publisher's legal department.

Question: How important is it to plot a story with a traditional three-act structure or a hero myth structure? Can/should those structures be applied to picture books as well as novels?

Harold: It's not important. There are many ways to structure a plot. Writers should set up their story, novel or picture book, in the way that makes most sense for THAT STORY. I know that fantasy novels often follow a hero structure, but they don't have to.

Question: How much should a writer pay attention to a manuscript's "marketability" and market trends?

Harold: This is a short question but it needs a long answer. For one thing, the importance of what's expected in the market varies by type of book. A manuscript written for a packager creating a MG series MUST be focused on what the market wants, while a "literary" novel should simply be the best that the writer can make it.

In general, paying too much attention to the market is dangerous, as trends can change or die overnight. It can also be difficult to figure out what exactly would make a manuscript "marketable."

So my advice for writers in this area is to ignore the trends while they are learning the craft--improving their skills, finding their voice, learning what they most like to write. Once they have a good chunk of experience under their belts they can start to pay more attention to the market, as they will not be unduly influenced by it.

Question: what are the legal issues around using a famous person in your novel-- especially if it's not trying to be historically accurate?

In other words, if it's basically a fantasy novel. For example, Meg walked through her wrinkle in time and somehow met Elvis Presley..."

Harold: As with the movie lines, this is something that writers should go ahead and do, but keep track of. My gut feeling is that a dead famous person, who does not become a major character, but is mentioned in passing, will be OK. A living famous person, or someone whose estate is still actively defending the person's image, could be trickier, especially if they have a role to play in the story. Here it is not copyright that is an issue, but the right of a person (or their estate) to control the use of their image/name.


Thanks Harold! Stay tuned for Part II  which will address illustrators' questions.


Linda Phillips said...

Nice interview, Carol. And I see my question got answered!

Anonymous said...

FABULOUS! I'm ready for the next installment!

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Fascinating questions.

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad you all liked this. Joyce, it was your idea to host Harold on this blog- great idea! And the questions came from a variety of SCBWI'ers. Can only take credit for the last one!

Linda A. said...

Thanks Carol and Harold Underdown!
We can all benefit from identifying those spots in the draft that may cause legal issues. Thanks again.

Linda A.

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

Great interview, Carol. You just keep bringing us more and more good stuff.

Carol Baldwin said...

Linda & BOnnie- Thanks for reading my blog and leaving me comments. Hope this was helpful to you guys too!

Jean said...

Thanks, Carol. He is one handy man to have around, isn't he?


Carol Baldwin said...

Yes, Jean, he is. And I was blessed to have him as my critiquer at Chauttauqua a few years back!

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