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Amy Stern ([personal profile] astern) wrote2012-02-09 08:37 am

That Personal Spark

This is both the best and the worst thing I have learned from spending two years with the slush pile:

Every story is someone's favorite.

I'm not exaggerating. Even the worst story out there has an audience who loves it. The audience might just be the author and a single child they've chosen to share it with, but for those people, the book provided the perfect alchemy of creativity and time spent together that the story has forged something really meaningful.

There are a lot of blogs out there about the crap you get in slush, and trust me, those are just the tip of the iceberg. The very fact that you're reading a blog about YA lit tells me that you would honestly not believe the ignorant things some people say. (PROTIP: if you wrote a picture book or YA novel, the way to sell it is not to say that you haven't read much in the field since you were a kid but know you could do better than everything out there anyway. At least LIE, like a normal person.)

But I think what gets lost in discussion of the slush pile is how much people CARE. No one out there is writing a story because they think it's crap. No one sends in a manuscript that they just scribble out in a day. They figure it out, they refine it, they make it the best they can be with what tools they have (whether or not those are the CORRECT tools is another story), and they take that giant leap of faith saying they love it enough to want other people to love it too.

To that end, a lot of people mention in their query letters that they've tested it. They shared their work with their daughters and sons, their nieces and nephews, their neighbors, a local kindergarten class. And almost invariably, some of those kids have told them it's the best story they've ever heard. It's their favorite.

When I'm feeling cynical, it's really easy to ask how that's even possible. These are sometimes amazing manuscripts, but they're just as often manuscripts that manage to sink to the bottom of the slush pile, complete with a lack of basic understanding of character, story, plot, grammar, and theme.

But what it's taught me, more than anything else in this industry has, is that a book doesn't exist in a vacuum. I remember the excitement of being ten years old and getting a book signed by the AUTHOR, this person who MADE the book that you're holding- and that's just a ten-second exchange, not the full process of being read to while sitting on the lap of a person who's really passionate about the project. As an adult who has friends who are writers, too, I know that it's a different experience reading a manuscript when you know the person who wrote it and know they care about it: it makes you care more too. And as someone who's given editorial feedback, I know the thrill of seeing a manuscript that was influenced, even the tiniest bit, by something I said. Those books mean more to me than some of the best-written, best-plotted, best-themed books in the world (although, for the record, the books that I've helped edit ARE THE BEST OF ALL THINGS), because they have that personal spark.

The personal spark isn't always the personal connection with the author, obviously. Sometimes it's just that you relate to the protagonist so much it hurts, or an event in the plot strikes so close to home that you have to put the story down. But whatever it is, it transforms the book from something that you read into something that changes you. And that personal spark is the reason that good teachers and good librarians and good parents and good authors are so, so important: because the connection that creates a favorite is the connection that ends up changing a person.

Don't get me wrong. The existence of that spark doesn't necessarily mean it's GOOD. The personal spark won't sell a manuscript. It won't get an agent or a publisher or good reviews or a place on the New York Times bestseller list; with ninety-nine pennies, it could buy a carton of milk at the dollar store. But it's something that every single book out there has for someone. That's why I take people's assurances that someone really loved their book with a grain of salt. But it's also what makes me read as voraciously as I try to do, and it's what makes me love diving into the slush pile each day: the knowledge that even if a story doesn't connect with me it's connecting with someone, and the idea that in every story, there's a possibility of me finding that personal spark which will elevate a book from something I enjoy into something that changes the way I look at the world.
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[personal profile] deborah 2012-02-09 04:57 pm (UTC)(link)
this is actually really beautiful. Thanks for reminding me and giving me this bit of perspective. It should help me be less cynical, I think.