Monday, December 31, 2007

My Writing Resolutions: 2008

In no particular order:
  1. Use the word often less often in my nonfiction writing.
  2. Redo my author site.
  3. Say no to writing projects I don't want to do.
  4. Write at least one children's piece without a contract in place.
  5. Identify publishers that might like to see my back-burnered novels. See if they wanna see 'em.
  6. Apply for one writer's grant.
  7. Cut back on some of the industry-related volunteer work I do.
  8. Get intimate with all of my writerly software.
  9. Flex my weekday schedule enough to enable me to sit in on the local Tuesday morning writers' group once in a while.
  10. Address the bookshelf situation in my office.

I Get Questions

I frequently get emails from strangers asking me about various issues related to children's writing. I sometimes get them from distant friends of possible acquaintances, too. Questions generally fall under these broad categories:

(1) How to write for children/how to "break in" to the business

(2) What publishers want

(3) Where to find publishers/editors/agents

(4) Requests for comments on a story idea (or an attached work)

(5) How to get a child's story (one written by a child, that is) published

As much as I wish I could personally correspond with everyone who gets in touch, I can't.

I can, however, add an FAQ feature to this blog. So I will. Starting . . . soon. Appearing . . . on no particular schedule. Just like my other posts.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Dazed, Confused

That's how writing during a holiday week makes me feel. I sent off a project at 9:45 tonight after working practically nonstop since early on the 26th to finish it. I'd done nothing but holiday on the 25th, of course, and very little work of note on the 24th. The 26th went well, but the 27th was a killer. Apathy, envy, and seeming ineptitude ruled the day. Extreme exhaustion was my constant companion. Luckily, though, today went well. But it was a long haul to get where I needed to be. I don't think I moved anything but typing and darting (of the eye) muscles for my last several hours of work.

I joined my husband at 10 on the main floor for a saaaaad little orangey dinner of blue-box mac and cheese. (The beautiful prime rib of the 25th and 26th it was not.) I must say I was shocked that he'd waited to eat with me. I told him at 4 that I fully expected to be done by 7, at which time I'd love to get a pizza. You'd think that 17+ years into the relationship, he'd know that my prediction would be hours off the mark and not in my favor. That his best course of action by far would have been to save himself and eat something already. But he waited for me and supportively suffered through the same blah late-night dinner. Sweet.

I often feel too keyed up after working late to think about sleep right away. My wheels just keep spinning. So I've been sitting around, flipping through magazines, surfing the Net a little, and just trying to get a handle on what day it is. I keep swearing it's late Sunday night because it feels like I missed a weekend. But it really is a Friday. I'll take it since I don't plan to work again until the afternoon of the real Sunday coming up next.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Office-Job Envy

I've said it before, and I'll say it again (and again). I love freelancing. Taking my business full-time 5 years ago is one of the best decisions I've ever made. It's rare for me to think wistful thoughts about being back in an office. But today is one of those days where I'm struggling with extreme Office-Job Envy. Why? For the simple reason that I know I would have taken this week OFF. As in, no working period. No guilt about down time or family time or personal time. Instead, though, I am struggling to stay productive and focused on my several remaining 2007 deadlines.

Publishers love to collect as many projects from freelancers by the tail-end of the year as they can. It's nothing new, just tradition. Now, I know the same thing goes on in-house: writers are scrambling to pass copy to editors; editors are scrambling to move manuscripts into designers' hands; and on and on and on. Worker-bees/departments/companies in publishing and every industry want the decks cleared for a fresh start on January 1.

It's just that as an expendable freelancer, I often can't afford to schedule my breaks exactly when I want them. Yes, my days are my own to structure as I wish. But to make a living at this, I have to make myself available when it suits the clients. I have far less input — usually none — into any schedule (besides saying "No, can't do it" and waving good-bye; something I do on occasion) than office workers who can jockey for those last gulps of conference-room oxygen and better project schedules than their in-person colleagues. So, if I really want to work on a given project, my schedule must be more flexible than the client's and the nameless, faceless next writer-editor on the client's contact list.

Whine over. I'm happy for the work. Really, I am. I'm just sleepy from too many sweets in the house and a cold rain that's keeping me from a brisk "shake it off" walk. All the out-of-office autoresponders coming back to me aren't helping, either, but at least I don't have to fully engage with anyone this week. Big plus! The only thing left to do is completely erase from my mind that my husband is "vacationing" upstairs. And to start thinking ahead to my next dedicated block of vacation that I hope doesn't pan out due to loads of great work I coudn't bear to turn down.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Day in the Morning

Christmas has been in the air at my house the past few days. We're running last-minute errands, playing holiday music all day long, preparing special meals, indulging in goodies (again, all day long), arranging gifts under the tree, making special phone calls, and taking long light-viewing walks after dark. We've even dressed the dog in a holiday collar. It's fun.

Last night I spent some time with two wonderful seasonal picture books you might enjoy checking out:

A Christmas Memory
by Truman Capote wasn't written for children — it's a memoir of Capote's childhood experiences in rural Alabama, and a companion piece to The Thanksgiving Visitor — but its rich characters and beautiful story about true friendship and the search for Christmas meaning make it a great read-aloud for the whole family. The tale gives young ones something to think about, and Capote's beautiful yet accessible writing exudes warmth and comfort without hitting you with a trite or treacly message. Beth Peck illustrated the picture book version of this story (Knopf, 2006). Her subdued paintings perfectly capture the action and mood, making it seem as though she and the author worked together to create this gem of a book.

I read Pearl S. Buck's Christmas Day in the Morning for the first time last night. I enjoyed it so much that I reread it first thing today. The story was first published in 1955, but this is the first picture book interpretation of it. Illustrator Mark Buehner's gorgeous artwork (look for embedded symbols in the clouds, quilts, and wood grain) brings to life Buck's spare, sincere tale of a boy's Christmas gift of love. The story is easy to grasp even for the very young, but — as with Capote's story — the very old, and every age in between, will find beauty in the universally meaningful tale. (I read it while carrying on a brief conversation with my husband — meaning just half my focus was on it — and I still teared up.)

I probably won't do any more reading today. It's time to prepare our pre-Christmas Eve service hors d'oeuvres. We'll spend the latter part of the evening with a few more cookies and holiday spirit(s) as we listen to Dylan Thomas reading his A Child's Christmas in Wales. Then it's the traditional watching of Holiday Inn and off to bed to listen for reindeer on the roof.

Here's wishing all of you out there in blogland a peaceful and very Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Multiplatform Kids' Series Coming to Bookstores, Toy Stores, and Web Sites Near (or Accessible By) You

Stand-alone children's books are so century-before-last.

Publishers Weekly is reporting that Scholastic is developing a multiplatform middle-grade adventure series called The 39 Clues. Each book will be penned by a different author, with Rick Riordan writing the first (I love his Percy Jackson series).

Here's what makes the series "multiplatform":
  • 10 books published over the course of 2 years
  • collectible cards
  • online game
  • more than $100K in prizes
Whew! Readers will use the different platforms to solve clues that lead to the satisfaction of cracking a good mystery (and, I'm assuming, the satisfaction of winning a licensed ancillary product).

The games begin September 9, 2008. Should be an interesting ride to watch. Don't even try to tell me that a TV or movie series is not already in the works for 2010. Because I wouldn't believe it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What Sells in the World of Children's Publishing?

That's an easy one — the books that kids actually read. has an article today called "Kids Are the Experts in Reviewing Children's Books." It reminds us that even children's-lit heavyweights have faced rejection, and that publishers can't always predict what will sell. And trust me, what will sell to a publisher's target market (and every publisher has one; that's just good business) is much higher on the agenda than what's special or unique or "good."

From my acquisitions and reviewing experience, I know firsthand that what I think is good differs from what others think is good. Good is so subjective. And as an author, I know that one publisher can hate an idea while another loves it; or an agent can think a book is so-so even as it becomes a steady seller and garners more reader fan mail than anything else I've done.

In the final analysis, it always comes down to the books children read. Not just what parents, teachers, and librarians buy for them because they like a book or think it's appropriate — but what keeps a child's interest, awakens her imagination, speaks to her real-life experience, gets her talking about reading (and sneaking extra chapters after bedtime), and inspires her to recommend that book and seek others. Kids know what they like to read. And those books become the biggest sellers, the classics. Fad and celebrity-penned books may open with strong sales, but they won't go the distance if lots of children aren't really, really reading them.

The point to this post? Oh, I don't know. How about, "Enjoy seeing real children reviewing books, courtesy of the article."

And consider my advice —
  1. Take rejection, reviews (good and bad), and shiny bookstore displays with a salt lick.
  2. Continually work on developing ideas and techniques that will help you speak to your intended audience.
  3. And — by all means — take a page from Theodore Geisel's career (that's Dr. Seuss to you, buddy) and keep traveling your own best writing path. In other words, write what feels right to you, do the best work you can, seek out publishers who produce the types of stories you're really, really writing (hmmm, think there's a connection to what kids are really, really reading?), and hope that after 27 rejections your work will make it into the hands of generations of delighted youngsters who will never get enough of your timeless books.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Plug for the Literacy Site

Have you visited the Literacy Site recently? I hadn't clicked on it for quite some time, but I "went there" today to tie up some loose ends on the holiday shopping front. I'm glad I did because I found a few "just the thing"s.

I get no benefit from plugging them, but I thought other book/education lovers might like some of the site's gift options, especially those in which you give a donation and they direct 100% of the money toward providing books for needy children, sending Afghani girls to school . . . and even heating that school for the winter. They have other options of that type, all very affordable. And they also donate books with any merchandise purchase. Have a look!

Friday, December 14, 2007

December "Hooked on Reading"

My book review column went live today. This month's picks include a duet of lovely winter-based stories; a fun, informative collection of Chinese holiday tales and traditions; a book celebrating the individual in each of us; and an evergreen novel series that's still relevant 75 years after its first title was published.

  • First Day of Winter by Denise Fleming (prereaders)
  • When Winter Comes by Nancy Van Laan (ages 4–8)
  • Moonbeams, Dumplings, and Dragon Boats by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz, and the Boston Children’s Museum (ages 4–8)
  • Unique Monique by Maria Rousaki (ages 4–8)
  • The Little House Box Set by Laura Ingalls Wilder (ages 8+)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Biz Buzz: Rowling's Handmade Book Sold for $4 Million

From today's PW Children's Bookshelf:

London auction house Sotheby's sold J. K. Rowling's handmade book The Tales of Beedle the Bard today for 1.95 million pounds (or a cool $4 million U.S.).

Wow! Of course the sale broke all sorts of records.

Rowling created 7 copies of the book after finishing her work on the Harry Potter series. She gifted 6 individuals with copies and offered 1 for auction, with proceeds earmarked to benefit her charity The Children's High Level Group.

I know one little girl who loves, loves, loves all things Potter — and who asked Santa to bring her this book for Christmas. I'm sure she'll understand, though, that Santa decided to let the buyer have it instead so children in need can live a better life. That money will do a lot of good!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New Book: The Great Chicago Fire

My new book The Great Chicago Fire was recently released by ABDO Publishing. Thought I should mention that here since I'm not updating my author site for the time being.

I finished Benjamin Franklin last December and then got right to work on this one. I really enjoyed both books, but this one was especially fun to research and write because I lived in Chicagoland for a few years and could visualize the city and its post-fire growth.

The book gives the middle-grade audience an exciting overview of the devastating 3-day conflagration — from the first smoke sighting to the peak of the deadly fire to the lasting controversy about how it started (and who was to blame). Also included are survival stories, a look at how the city literally rose up from the ashes, and fascinating period images, such as maps and artworks depicting the fire and the city's response to it.

What I'm Reading

On my desk:
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll (new picture book)
No Applause—Just Throw Money
by Trav S. D.
And more! (think textbooks, articles, picture books)

Next to my favorite reading chair:
My Antonia by Willa Cather*
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

On the nightstand:
Leonard Maltin's 1997 Movie Guide
and Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide (What!)

On deck (ready when I am—I'm looking forward to them):
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
by Tom Brokaw
Harry Potter Books 4, 5, 6, 7
The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester
Pop Art Painter by Susan Goldman Rubin
Summer Crossing by Truman Capote
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

*My main selection at the moment and my short answer to "What are you reading right now?"

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Seeing Other Platforms

I registered at WordPress and started an L. L. Owens blog there too — it's just for testing purposes, though. I didn't enable the publicizing options.

So far I like the Blogger posting interface a bit better. But that may well be because I'm used to it. Hard to tell right off the bat. I do like the WordPress option that lets you add extra tabs/pages, even in the free version. A lot. The single-page view on here drives me crazy. I know you can view each entry as a separate "page," but I want tabbed areas to make the whole thing more useful and easier to work with.

I keep going back to my original wish to keep the blog and my author site separate, but maybe that's not as necessary as I once believed. With the right setup, the blog could easily be its own section on the overall site . . .

Friday, December 07, 2007

Building the Blog

While printing what seemed like a tree's worth of documents to digest over the weekend, I messed around with the blog this afternoon. I've said this before, I think, but MAN it takes (me) good chunks of time just to figure out what all I can do at the most basic blogging level. It's not that I expect whatever features I think of to easily materialize within two or three clicks. It's just that I want it to be that way.

I looked more closely at what FeedBurner does — and can do — for me; then through that account I added a headline animator and an email subscription form. Changes I'd like to make very soon include replacing the list of writerly books with a relevant blogroll and finding a different template. I'll tackle larger issues after those.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

End-of-Year Ramp-Up

Here I sit, in the peaceful glow of my Christmas tree (with some mellow B. B. King holiday tunes playing in the background), checking and re-checking my schedule and task list for the final weeks of 2007. During my short time back to work after an unexpected break, I've managed to sign up for a boatload of toil that's blowing my plans for a slower-paced, recovery-focused year's end. I'm not complaining, though. The financial boost will be worth any December frenzy I've created for myself. And it feels good to fully re-engage the old noggin.

My complete re-entry into the land of the active began last Saturday when I audited the Editorial Freelancers Association book proposal workshop. It was the first time I'd spent more than an hour or two away from home (wearing non-elastic-waisted pants! and cute street shoes!) in 6 weeks. I went partly to represent EFA/assess the day's success and partly to reintroduce myself to normal activity before a busy week. I'm feeling strong and doing great, but I still get sore and definitely experience sensory overload out in the world. Six weeks is a long time to be at home, mostly still, and fairly quiet.

Anyhoo, the workshop went well. I enjoyed being out and being there. The basic content wasn't new for me, but I didn't expect it to be (it definitely did cover the info bases for its intended audience very well). I still got a lot out of it, though. Namely, a full page of strategy notes for a pet personal project I focused on in relation to the course content. My ideas sprang directly from the instructors' many BTDT insights into the adult nonfiction industry (which, see my blog description, is not my niche). Inspiration is always great!

I think I'm ready to face the rest of the workweek now. And, well, I'm sure that the rest of the work year will take care of itself.

Author Harlan Ellison Says, "Pay the Writer!"

I first saw this on the Renegade Writer blog. Had to add it to mine, too.

My thoughts on those who ask writers to give them free work — and the many, many writers who supply it — mirror Mr. Ellison's. Hope you enjoy the clip as much as I do! (You'll want to use earphones at your workplace; if you're at home, send any young ears to another room.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Seattle Event: Time to Sign Up!

Just getting in a final plug for the EFA-sponsored workshop at Seattle Pacific University this Saturday, December 1.

Saturday, December 1, 12:30-4:30 p.m.
Bertona 2 at Seattle Pacific University, 103 West Bertona, Seattle, WA

Knowing how to create a winning book proposal is an essential skill in today's competitive publishing marketplace, whether you're a writer hoping to hook an agent/publisher or an editor helping authors prepare submissions.

You will learn what publishers and agents are looking for and how to avoid the most common mistakes. You will also go in-depth to learn the basics of winning proposals, how to engage the reader with a great title, and what types of marketing information you MUST include.

For additional details and registration information, please visit EFA's Fall 2007 course catalog. Or you can call the EFA office toll-free at 866-929-5400.

We have a great group of participants all set to go, but there is room for more. If you're interested, follow the link above or call EFA today!

Please feel free to forward this notice to interested friends and

NPR Called

Technically, they emailed, but what's the diff?

The oh-so-briefly-exciting-to-me part of the anecdote is that they invited me, as an expert in Greek mythology, to comment on a story update they're doing for the next episode of Weekend America. I assume they got to me by finding my 1999 middle-grade book Tales of Greek Mythology and then following the trail to my author site.

I immediately laughed, and hard, at the notion of actually agreeing to be interviewed "as" an expert on the body of Greek mythology and the most common misconceptions about the gods. I believe my exact reaction to the topic was, "Huh? What?" And 2–3 minutes of furious Googling just to learn something relevant got me nowhere. (You try it. I dare you.) So I had to decline. Would have been fun, though.

Now, thinking back to late 1997/early 1998, when I was writing the book: Could I have discussed the differences among the various classic versions of the 5 myths I retold? Sure thing, and at length! And could I now (hint, hint) speak as an expert about retelling classic works for targeted reading/interest/age levels while maintaining original elements of story, and even voice — or about any number of writing-, editing-, reading-, and freelancing-related topics? You betcha!

I am waiting by the phone NOW.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Tidbits

Some info I collected while researching my book Pilgrims in America (Rourke, 2007) last year:

In October 1621, the 50 Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrated their settlement and a successful autumn harvest with a 3-day "feast of thanksgiving." There are only two known eyewitness accounts of that celebration.

The Pilgrims invited 90 Wampanoag Indians, who gifted their hosts with fish, clams, oysters, lobsters, deer, and wild turkeys. The Pilgrim provided foods such as ducks, geese, wild berries, cabbage, corn, beets, radishes, cucumbers, onions, carrots, and turnips.

Contrary to popular myth, the Pilgrims did not hold a similar feast the next year. Thanksgiving would not become an official national holiday for another 242 years. During the interim, several U.S. presidents, including George Washington in 1777, declared one-time national Thanksgiving celebrations. New York introduced an annual statewide holiday in 1817. And Abraham Lincoln used his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation to assign a permanent holiday to the last Thursday in November. He likely chose that date to correspond with the Pilgrims' November 21, 1620, landing at Cape Cod. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a time-frame change to the fourth Thursday in November to give people and businesses more time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Congress approved the change in 1941, and we've observed the holiday then ever since.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I Spy Site Upgrades

Both of my Web sites need makeovers. I built them in 2003, and I'm sure my failure to renovate in the years since violates every principle of good Web sense. My author site still looks decent in Internet Explorer, but it looks awful in Firefox and Safari. Because my editorial services site sports (yeah, it wishes!) a cleaner, more basic look, it's not as wonky looking in the latter two browsers — but it does not display as the push-button template intends.

I can think of many more reasons why it's past time for me to explore other options. For example, the page-per-book format is no longer right for my author site. Too unwieldy. And the editorial site needs a different vibe, I think.

I'm looking at new hosts, different sitebuilder options, switching to blog-only platforms, and the possibility of — gasp! — paying someone to help. I am interested in this part of my business; but I often find it hard to take time away from the work that results in a reasonably quick payoff (read: "Check's in the mail!") to give it the attention it deserves.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

New Computer, New Me!

Does that sound too . . . too? Sorry. (Not really.) It's Saturday — hmmm, already afternoon, I see — and I am voluntarily sitting at my desk. This is big for me right now. Firstly, I've been recovering from a surgery and so haven't spent time in my office for a while. I've been back to part-time work for 2 weeks, but before the new machine arrived, I was working on a laptop from bed. Sometimes the couch. To put that in context, I had 5 external abdominal incisions and a couple of internal slices, so part of my recovery has involved regaining my ability to sit upright for good long stretches, whether I want to eat at the dinner table, ride in a car, or prop myself up in front of my desk. (Wouldn't want anyone to think the working-from-bed-thing was just par for a freelancer's cushy course.)

Secondly, I took the plunge and bought a new iMac. I've been setting it up since Wednesday, my first day "back in the office." Still at it, but so far, so good. Nothing like a new toy to rev up a girl's interest in getting back to work. I'm hoping to realize the full productivity potential that having an up-to-date machine will surely bring. I have lots more room to house files/apps (and, let's be real, music), a bigger monitor (I sprang for the 24-incher!), the ability to use a current browser, and wireless communication between the iMac and my still-kicking iBook . . . plus I can easily fit the wireless, small-footprint keyboard and mouse on the smallish keyboard tray attached to my desk.

The keyboard is one of the bigger "whews" to me, believe it or not. It will go a long way toward allowing me to comfortably use my deskptop/office the way I want to. (I like my laptop, but I do prefer to do most of my work in my designated workspace.) I used to use a Datadesk TrackBoard because it fit my tray and worked great for me ergonomically. It happily coexisted for a time with my old G3 before presenting a few minor problems that I lived with. But when I last upgraded my desktop (in 2002 to a 2001 G4), the keyboard was no longer compatible, and neither was the updated Trackboard I bought. Tons of ridiculous glitches. But I kept going back to it every now and then (or begrudgingly working more and more on my laptop) because my right hand would hurt from mousing up high on the desk instead of at the keyboard tray level. I learned all the tricks for stopping the Trackboard's annoying problems, but several weeks ago — after I'd foolishly hooked it up again (my bad judgment, but I took a chance knowing I wanted to upgrade the computer soon) — my G4 suffered a major meltdown just after the Trackboard did. While I was on deadline, natch.

But all that is in the past! Luckily, I keep good backups, and now all necessary items from my G4 live on the iMac. I'm writing this surrounded by all 3 computers, and by Monday I expect to be back down to 1 on the desk with a laptop in the wings. Yay!

November "Hooked on Reading"

My November 2007 review column went live a couple of days ago. As always, this month's picks include classic titles and newer releases that I think are perfect for feeding a childhood reading habit:
  • The Poky Little Puppy by Janet Sebring Lowrey (picture book for prereaders)
  • The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord (picture book for ages 4–8)
  • No Talking by Andrew Clements (novel for ages 8+)
  • Niagra Falls, Or Does It? by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver (humorous novel for ages 8–10; great for reluctant readers)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

News: Biography Review in Children's Bookwatch

My latest release, Benjamin Franklin, is part of ABDO Publishing's brand-new Essential Lives series. I'm pleased to say that the November 2007 issue of Children's Bookwatch gave it a nice review in which they say it is "enthusiastically recommended for classroom use and school or public library collections." Here's hoping many school AND public librarians take note!

You can read the full review here (scroll down to the Biography Shelf) and purchase it from Amazon here.

Now . . . it looks like I need to go do the "Share your own customer image" thing on Amazon so people can see the cover. So many educational publishers list their books with online booksellers without providing cover images. That makes zero sense to me!

Monday, October 29, 2007

October "Hooked on Reading"

The latest installment of my children's lit review column "Hooked on Reading" is now live here. October 2007 picks include the following great reads:
  • Leonardo the Terrible Monster, an illustrated picture book for prereaders by Mo Willems
  • The Bee Tree, a picture book for ages 4–8 by Patricia Polacco
  • Germs Make Me Sick!, an informational picture book for ages 4–8 by Melvin Berger
  • My Last Best Friend, a novel for ages 8+ by Julie Bowe
  • How Angel Peterson Got His Name, a short story collection for ages 9–12 by Gary Paulsen

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Biz Buzz: Teen Read Week

The Young Adult Library Services Association's Teen Read Week runs October 14–October 20. That's right now!

Monday, October 01, 2007

September "Hooked on Reading"

The September 2007 "Hooked on Reading" review column I write for Hooked on Phonics went live today. My picks for the month (yes, the one that ended yesterday!):
  • Andy Warhol's Colors by Susan Goldman Rubin
  • Mars Needs Moms by Berkeley Breathed
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
  • Bea and Mr. Jones by Amy Schwartz

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Before You Write, Part 3: Act Like a Writer

I hope you've followed — and enjoyed — the whole Before You Write thread. This is Part 3, and here's a link to Part 2 if you'd like to catch up.

So, here's the third big thing I think you need to do before you start writing, for real. You need to . . .

Act Like a Writer

Here's how:

(1) Set up a writing space. I know that it can be difficult to designate one whole room (or even a portion of a room) as your writing space. But do the best you can with this one. A dedicated writing space can put you in the right frame of mind, help keep you organized, and reinforce your attitude (others' attitudes too, if that's an issue) that this is a professional endeavor.

(2) Set a writing schedule and a number of writing goals for each project. Each writer works differently, but everyone can benefit from setting a schedule and some specific goals. Keep them both reasonable and attainable. Try to create your writing schedule based on when you know you do your best writing.

For example, I write every weekday morning, without fail. That's when my head is clear, and it's when I'm conditioned to dig in. When I first plan a writing project, I establish some general benchmarks, such as when the writing begins (post-research), when I need a working outline, and when I should have my own first draft (this should always occur well before the date you're scheduled to turn in a draft to your publisher).

I tend to set my daily goals on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis, but many writers stick to relatively hard-and-fast daily goals such as 3 pages per day, 1 chapter per day, writing with no interruptions for 4 hours per day, and so on. With practice, you'll find your own rhythm and be able to set realistic schedules and goals.

(3) Set the mood. Each time you sit down to write, do something that signals, to you, that it's time to get writing. You could play some music while you get situated, make one "last" phone call, or do one more household chore so you feel ready to go.

Now you're ready to write! I'll talk about the writing stage, too, in upcoming posts, so be sure to check back often.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Before You Write, Part 2: Make an Outline

Did you get a chance to read Part 1 in this overall topic? I recommend that you read that first and then keep going with my outlining tips below.

Make an Outline

Outlines help you write to the recommended length for your genre and help you crystallize your vision for the beginning, middle, and end of your story. I like to outline my work, and I do it even when I'm not required to. This, I realize, comes from the more structured editorial side of my being; outlines always help me start and get through the work, but sometimes they do drastically change during the writing. Some writers don't need an outline, and some really can't work with them at all.

If you're planning to write all of your children's books before looking for a publisher, then I'd say making an outline is optional. But do understand that many publishers will require an outline as a precursor to seeing your manuscript. Sometimes they want to see it with your query, and other times they'll request it after reading your query, before committing to reading your manuscript.

At the very least, you'll need to get comfortable with creating outlines after you've done the writing. And if you end up working as a writer for hire in the education/school and library market (like me!), you'll certainly be required to submit a detailed outline as either the first or second step in any given project.

Outline structures can include any or all of the following elements:
  • Concept sentence
  • One-paragraph plot summary
  • Chapter-by-chapter summary
  • Spread-by-spread summary
  • Page-by-page summary
  • Paragraph-by-paragraph summary
  • Targeted and actual word count, sentences per paragraph or page, average sentence length, and reading level
May I just say that I still don't understand why text that follows bullet lists within Blogger displays differently than the typical style? I mean, the leading in this paragraph matches that used in the bullet text but not that which is used in the normal paragraph style. I wish I knew how to fix it!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Before You Write, Part 1: Do Your Research

Thus begins a series of blog posts in which I share my best tips for getting the job done. The writing for children job, that is. I'll look at the whole process, starting with this three-part topic called "Before You Write." Part 1 deals with researching — your field, the market, and your project — before you begin tapping those keys.

Do Your Research

What exactly do I mean by that? In short, the research is everything you need to do to feel ready to write your story and to be able to write with purpose and credibility. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction, and the research needed for each project will vary with your knowledge, experience, and comfort level. You may need to log some serious hours, or you may need to simply check on this and that (guidelines, deadlines, background info, etc.) or check in with yourself to feel mentally prepared for the work that lies ahead. But no matter what, some sort of research is *always* necessary.

In long, starting with some of the things you need to do if you are totally new to the genre (or even writing):

(1) Read children's books and adult books of all types and formats. Fiction, nonfiction, reference . . . picture books, YA novels, cookbooks, magazines . . . read everything. It's the best way to expose yourself to the endless array of writing styles, book types, and genres.

(2) Research the industry as a whole. Check out the myriad children's and YA publishers to see what they produce. Subscribing to writers' newsletters, joining the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (so you have access to all their printed resources and can network with other writers and industry professionals at conferences, local meetings, and other events), and reading Publishers Weekly are all good examples of tools that can help keep you up to date on the industry.

(3) Gather historical and other factual details, as necessary, depending on the book you want to write. Obviously, you'll have more of this to do if you're writing a biography or some other nonfiction piece, but you'll want to inform your historical fiction accordingly, too, and you'll often need to research physical setting and time period details for other fiction writing. Try to use the most current, legitimate reference materials, and always photocopy printed source material and print any online sources you use.

Keep in mind that you'll come across contract clauses stipulating that you can supply, in the event of any number of content disputes, the proper references to back up any factual information you include in your work. And in many cases, you'll need to physically send all of your source material to the publisher, especially if you're working with educational materials. For example, I've been required to send up to 3 sources (meaning copies of the pages containing the information) for every check-able fact contained in a manuscript. Every publisher has its own policy on this, but your best bet is to keep physical source files from the beginning.

(4) Interview experts, as necessary.

(5) Observe kids, and collect anecdotal information from them. How do they act at age 7? How do 15-year-olds talk to their parents? How do 9-year-olds talk to each other? What issues are important to children of the age you're writing to or about?

(6) Document relevant personal experiences. You've been a child, a teenager, a young adult, and more! Use yourself — you're a great resource!

(7) Know your story. That says it in a nutshell (and yes, I count this as research). These questions will help you get there:
  • What is the plot?
  • Who are the characters, what are their backgrounds, and how do they work together to drive the story?
  • What is the setting?
(8) Know your market, genre and format, and audience.

I should mention that there are two distinct camps on this issue. Camp A says you should never write with a conscious eye (I think I just coined a term) toward your market, genre, format — or even toward your audience, for that matter. The idea is that you should simply write, letting the story evolve, organically, into its own best self and trusting that an agent or editor will pluck the story out of the slush pile and champion it to publication for the appropriate market and in the appropriate format. I'm open to believing that such a miracle has happened and that perhaps we even know and love some stunning, successful authors/books that took that path.

But almost everyone I've ever worked and networked with in my editorial life, or Camp B, would tell you that you'd be C-R-A-Z-Y to choose this route to publication.

Agents and editors would not waste time creating the detailed manuscript submission guidelines they're known for if such guidelines didn't serve them well. Some publishers receive thousands of submissions every year, and it is anything but cost-effective for them to employ people to spend time thoughtfully considering manuscripts they know from the get-go will absolutely not help them attain their goals. After all, would a hospital looking to hire a neurosurgeon call me in for an interview? Nope! They wouldn't read past the first line on my resume!

Publishers work with annual or seasonal publication plans based on sales and marketing analyses, and in most cases, they are responsible for meeting the needs of a specific readership. No matter how wonderful your manuscript is, if your book doesn't meet a publisher's needs — and it doesn't clearly do so as described in your query (or, knock on wood, while they're reading your requested manuscript) — said publisher will not publish it.

It's nothing personal, it's almost all about the business. So why not give yourself a leg up by learning about and targeting a specific market, etc.? In my experience, doing so (or at least trying to: naturally, you can only do so much up front, and of course the work will be edited and sometimes completely reshaped by the publisher) is the single-best way to get noticed and published.

Some questions to address as you create your manuscript:
  • Do you see this as a trade book, mass-market book, or book for the educational market?
  • Is it a picture book, middle-grade novel, photoessay, or . . . WHAT?
  • What is the age level of your readership?
  • What reading level are you trying to reach? (Note that reading and age levels don't always match.)
Stay tuned for Part 2 in this topic!

Friday, August 31, 2007

EFA Fall Courses Announced

Just an FYI that the Editorial Freelancers Association Fall 2007 course catalog is now available online. The print brochure is in the mail, I've written the official member email announcement, and EFA's webmaster just helped post all info to the site. Now I can take a short breather from the whole world of volunteering until, oh, probably next Tuesday, when people start registering & asking questions, new instructors need help setting up online forums, and some big thing goes haywire.

Clicky here to take a gander at the lineup. These professional development opportunities are specifically targeted to the needs of editorial freelancers, and you will not get more bang for your buck taking similar classes elsewhere. Three courses take place in a cyber classroom (so anyone, anywhere can take them!), and the others happen either at EFA's New York headquarters or in Seattle. The Seattle thing is new — I'm trying to expand the program to freelance hubs outside NYC to better serve our many non-NY members. I chose to pilot the expansion in Seattle because that's where I am!

Classes start in mid October and run through December. They include
  • Copyediting Basics (online)
  • Cultivating Your Client List (online)
  • Writing from Healthy Starts (online)
  • Substantive Editing Clinic (NYC)
  • Advanced Substantive Editing Clinic (NYC)
  • Writing Winning Book Proposals (Seattle)

All EFA events are open to members and nonmembers. Visit the EFA site for full details and to register!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

August 2007 "Hooked on Reading"

The August issue of my online book review column posted today on the Hooked on Phonics site (that little graphic to the left belongs to them). This month's great reads:
  • The Frogs Wore Red Suspenders by Jack Prelutsky
  • Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears by Vera Aardema
  • Young Cam Jansen and the Pizza Shop Mystery by David A. Adler
  • Replay by Sharon Creech
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
Enjoy the reviews. And while you're there, be sure to sign up for the monthly email version of the full "Hooked on Reading" newsletter!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Biz Buzz: New Indie Children's Bookstore — Online

I just read a bit of news about Through the Magic Door, an independent online bookstore that launched in June. Founder Charles Bayless wanted to create an online version of the rapidly vanishing indie store, where customers can get their hands on stacks of wonderful backlist titles, gather to discuss children's lit, find personalized recommendations based on a child's reading preferences, and generally feel good about who is getting their money.

I've done little more than click on a few of TMD's main navigational buttons, but I am intrigued. The store is still somewhat under construction, it seems, but I'll definitely check on its progress — and track whether it can make a go of it. I like the sound of its mission, and I wish the enterprise well.

Check it out and see what you think.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The King Lives

I don't know about you, but Elvis Presley's death rocked my little 12-year-old world. At least for that one day, anyway. (Lots of other stuff going on then, too!)

Wait a minute! What does this have to do with children's writing? It is a stretch, but just watch me make a connection.

August 16, 1977: I remember that hot summer day. I'd just gotten home from swimming when I heard the news on the radio. Then I watched the story — and the spectacle — unfold on the evening news. True, the story really only began to unfold that night (and it still has legs).

Thirty is a big milestone, but the import attached always strikes me as odd when the anniversary marks a death. I guess we all like to look back, reminisce, place events in context, rewrite/reframe history . . .

Anyhoo, I remember being very upset — really sad — about not just Elvis's death, but also the way he died. (Who let him do that to himself?!) The details from the loo upset me, as did the corresponding jokes that took hold. And I could not abide Dr. Nick.

Let's see, what else. Oh, I very much wanted people to stop talking about Ginger Alden as though she was Elvis's "love," when clearly Priscilla was It. Like I said, I was 12.

August 16, 1978–2006: I'm no superfan. But I am a music, film, history, and pop culture lover, and the King of Rock and Roll fits into all those areas. As such, I've always paid some attention to the annual parade of Elvis Presley tributes and remembrances.

I enjoy his music and have seen MANY of his formula flicks MANY times. (Elvis movie marathon on AMC? I am there!) I absolutely love watching him in his prime, effortlessly banging out his performances in Same Movie, Different Title time after time after time. I'm in the camp that thinks he had great potential as an actor but forces outside his control (hello, Col. Tom!) sadly, somehow, for some reason, kept Elvis in a creatively unfulfilled place. Can't help drawing a line between whatever "that" was and his apparent need to medicate and self-destruct, either.

August 16, 2007: I'm 42 now. Guess that happened during those 30 years everyone has been counting since Elvis's sad demise. When the early-morning news said EAP would have been 72 today, I gasped a little at the math that makes me the same age he was in '77. To top it off, I see on Ginger Alden's wiki that she is only 50 right this very minute. Holy cow, she was just a girl herself back then.

Time to make that connection I promised.

It's easy, really. The life of any cultural phenomenon can provide countless avenues of inspiration for my own creative work. I don't even have to consciously look to or think about said phenomenon for that to be true. Anything I've read or seen or experienced is part of my makeup and, thus, potentially inspiring and part of my process.

If I wanted to specifically look to Elvis for inspiration, well, that would be easy too. Let's list some ways:
  • Research his life, work, and impact on history to help me write a children's biography, magazine article, piece of historical fiction, or contemporary story featuring an Elvis-esque character (or a fan character, or a young girl like Priscilla Presley who gets caught up in a the world of a megastar).
  • Use research — and either focus on a narrow portion of it or expand on it — to write about the greater history of rock and roll, teen idols, gospel, the Presleys, the Ed Sullivan Show, the story behind "Blue Suede Shoes," and so on. Any of that could show up in fiction or nonfiction.
  • Study the typical story structure of the typical Elvis movie and think of ways to apply elements of it to easy-reading adventure stories. Hey, some formulas work.
  • And my favorite: Use my own emotions, perceptions, impressions, and thought-processes from the era in which this event happened to inform my writing for children, whether I apply it to a specific character's actions, a story's tone, or the actual content of whatever I might be writing.
That's it, I think. My little Elvis tribute is over and out. Gotta go TCB!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What's Going On

Thought I'd share bits and pieces about the various things I'm working on and other day-to-day business issues.

Current projects:

For pay, I'm busy writing K–12 curriculum materials and children's book reviews, and I'm about to edit a couple of books. I am comfortably busy in the short term and looking for more work to do later this fall/winter.

For free, I'm still working with EFA's Education Program. I've put together the Fall 2007 season, and we'll announce the schedule by early September. I'll post details here, too, when all is officially official.

Some good news:

That book contract issue I mentioned a few weeks back? Well, the publisher agreed to terminate our two agreements. And I'm getting what I asked for — to keep my advances on both novels and for all rights to the works to revert to me. That means I can sell them (or try to) to another publisher or two. I'm happy for the resolution and can't believe I let the situation go for as long as I did.

I'll let you know when I get the final paperwork. It's been just over a month since I sent my letter and 3 weeks since the publisher said someone would handle the request "next week." In the meantime, I've become reacquainted with both manuscripts. Read 'em, marked 'em up a little. They were designed for a very specific audience and will need reworking before I start querying appropriate publishers. I'll enjoy that, though.

The nays have it:

I made a pact with myself at the beginning of the year to say no more often. Last year, I took on too many jobs for lower pay than is typical. They were great projects, don't get me wrong. That's why I said yes — to do interesting work and get ins with new clients. But I ended up agreeing to do more and more of the same to try to keep my income at a good level. It's so easy to get caught up in the cycle because once you've said yes to several projects of one type, well, you're at the top of the list for those clients and also not available when more lucrative jobs come along. Editors really have no problem finding someone else, and if that someone else does a good job it is just as easy for an editor to keep calling her instead of digging your number out of her piles, I mean, files.

When all was said and done in '06, the return on my efforts just didn't satisfy. The money was only one source of dissatisfaction. For example, I did too many all-weekend and all-night writing sessions (these are best handled by college kids, trust) — the very type of situation I'd learned to avoid as a mature professional with good organizational skills. Yet there I was, writing more, for less, and feeling like there was no time to take a breath and get myself back on another track.

It's August '07 now, and the frenzy from last year ended in about March. Some things are still settling as I reconnect with previous clients, negotiate higher fees with some lower-paying clients, close out dead deals (see the good news above), say no to many of the people my lower paying clients referred to me (birds of a feather 'n' such), try to sell myself to new clients, and just generally recast myself as a more proactive businessperson. Which leads to . . .

Creating my own work:

For the first time ever since turning to full-time freelancing, I've started dedicating tangible time to my own pet projects. And I'm letting that effort count toward my workday. This is HUGE for me. I am lucky to have enough reliably steady work to allow me to work self-initiated pursuits into my time, but Lady Luck has nothing on hard work. And I decided that it's high time I started rewarding myself for the many years of effort that got me to this point. Now that I'm in my fabulous (early) 40s and have let go of (lots) of my driving need to sometimes do what I think other people think I should do — I can do just that without feeling the need to apologize. It feels good, and I really love the entrepreneurial buzz it gives me. Plus, the reward I'm talking about is still work. So. There.

Current personal projects that I hope to place with publishers and/or present to the positively pretty public include:
  • The two middle-grade novels I need to rework. One is a mystery, the other is an adventure story.
  • A book about writing that's half done. I'm sending out the proposal by the end of August.
  • A historical fiction book I've been preparing to write for 15 years. This is the biggest thing I've ever worked on, so it's creatively satisfying and very, very, very scary. I'm updating my research and outlining it right now.
  • Two new web concerns. I'll leave it at that — although I will say that they fit in with my professional profile — and give full details as I launch the new sites over the next year or so. I'm very excited about this path and hope I have the stuff to make these ideas work. Right now I'm in the process of determining how much help I need/can afford/can't afford to not get to realize the sites I've sketched.
  • A YA novel that incorporates two very distinct perspectives on the same year; I'm most excited about the twisty end.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bad Blogger

Does anyone else find it difficult to fit blogging into a daily schedule? I have plenty of topics to cover, but each one takes time — time away from paying work, that is. I still want to blog, though. I've started a few posts about various children's writing topics in the past couple of weeks, but because I really don't yet have an audience that seems to be hanging on my every blogword, it's difficult to get motivated enough to write decent "articles"; and I'm not really into blogging strictly personal info/journal entries.

Oh well. The fact that I have not yet settled upon a strict purpose or format for this blog is okay, I think. At least as far as I'm concerned. I have 0 (zero) blog subscribers and relatively few regular readers, assuming my FeedBurner info is solid. So I have some room to play around and continue to think about what this blog should "be."

Look for new entries soon! And let me know if there's anything you want me to write about!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Autograph Party This Saturday

If you're attending the PNWA 2007 Summer Writers Conference at the Seattle Airport Hilton this weekend, be sure to say hi during the Saturday night Autograph Party. I'll be signing copies of my graphic novel Black Beauty and checking out the other 60+ authors' books during breaks.

The Autograph Party is open to the public, so you don't have to be registered for the conference to attend. It's a great place to see some of your favorite regional authors and meet the literary heavyweights speaking at the conference. And, they serve dessert!

This is always a fun event. It starts at 8:30, just after J. A. Jance's keynote speech. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter Is Here!

My copy landed on the front porch with a "THWAP" at about 10:50 this morning. The UPS guy literally dropped it and ran. I'm sure this is a crazy day for him.

I now own first editions of Book I and Book VII — and nothing in between. People often find it hard to believe, given the nature of my work, that I haven't read the series. But I have not.

I eagerly started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone when it was still hot off the press. (As I recall, I preordered that from Amazon, too.) At the time I had just landed a new in-house editorial position, and the job quickly turned into a nightmare. I ended up abandoning Harry before I'd even read 100 pages. I can still practically feel my hands going limp and setting aside the book late one evening, as the growing weight of my new job squashed my ability to concentrate on much of anything else. I wanted to quit almost from the start, but my husband and I were in the midst of purchasing our first home (having factored my nice new salary into the decision), and I decided to tough it out. Things simply could not be as bad as they seemed, I reasoned; and even if they were, they couldn't possibly stay that way for long.

My reasoning failed me (always go with your gut!), and life — and my career — took a bizarre 4-year detour. It all worked out, though, as things tend to do. I survived the turmoil, contributed to the company's success, did work to be proud of, and made a few good friends. So I have no regrets. Just lots of stories and a much stronger sense of the work I'm meant to do. Can't complain about that.

Thing is, I used to blame that job for interfering with one of my most basic joys as a book lover, children's book author-editor, reviewer, and creator of literature-based curriculum materials: the joy of relishing (and forming opinions about) an important work the minute it's introduced to the public. Naturally, since I didn't finish the first book, I never bought the second. I was so caught up in my own world that I barely noticed the hoopla surrounding the publication of the next few titles in the series.

But times have changed for me, as I'm sure they have for the boy wizard. It's a new era. Three weeks ago I jumped on Amazon's discount-price-and-free-delivery bandwagon. And now Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is here!

I started reading this morning. The first book, I mean. I'll make it to the final book soon. But in the meantime, I wouldn't dream of skipping ahead to the end!

Friday, July 20, 2007

July 2007 "Hooked on Reading"

My monthly book review column went live today. Each of the 5 titles I selected is a great summer read for its targeted age group: Daddy and Me by Karen Katz; Bad Dog, Marley! by John Grogan; Magic Tree House Series, Books 1–4 by Mary Pope Osborne; The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan; and Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson.

The column's intended audience is parents who need great book ideas for their kids, but I encourage children's writers to check it out, too.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bargain Book Bonanza

I made a quick trip to my small neighborhood Barnes & Noble yesterday to pick up a bargain-priced title I'd ordered. I don't do a ton of shopping there because, frankly, I can get better prices and a wider selection online and at my favorite independent bookstores. I do frequently stop in, though, to take a look at books I might want to review (or purchase elsewhere).

Well, B&N apparently knew I was coming. Before I even made it inside, I'd filled my arms with $2 clearance books from the sidewalk carts. I got Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (16th edition; the 17th has been out for years, but I do not anticipate knowing what I'm missing); references on linguistics, the Middle Ages, ancient Egypt, and the Civil War; and a boater's handbook. I can use all of these for work, so that makes me happy.

I went straight to the library after that — again to pick up the one book I had on hold — and I left with two bulging bags of research for a project I'm doing on my own time.

Anyone else have a couple of nice, tall, wobbly book towers on your desk?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Biz Buzz: Harcourt Education Acquired

According to a PW Daily Alert, The HM Riverdeep Group has agreed to acquire Harcourt Education in 2008. You can read the full news item here.

I'm interested in this because (a) I occasionally write for Harcourt and know the changes will somehow affect me, and (b) industry-wide acquisitions and mergers like this continue to change the nature of freelance work for all of us.

With each similar shift in the business, I notice that:
  • The freelancer (writer, editor, illustrator, designer, etc.) gets further removed from editorial discussions and decisions.
  • Frequent staff turnover and changing in-house processes make it increasingly difficult for the freelancer to establish ongoing relationships with staff contacts.
  • It's common for the new regime to institute individual project/sweeping product line changes to match new editorial philosophies and publishing goals. So, existing projects get shuffled, shelved, or scrapped.
  • Publishers make personnel cuts and lose valuable staff expertise.
  • "Liberated" staff compete for freelance jobs or leave the industry altogether.
  • Freelancer fees take another hit.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Crossed Something Off My "Don't Be a Loser" To-Do List

I sent my letter about an hour ago. It went to three people: The publisher, my regular contact at the publishing house, and the attorney with whom I consulted on the situation. The attorney said that it looks great — one bit of positive feedback down, two bits to go. Fingers crossed on this lucky Friday the 13th!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

No Pain, No Gain

The quote for today in my daily planner is "Winners have simply formed the habit of doing things losers don't like to do." Someone named Albert Gray (should I know him?) said this, and I have to agree.

When I give talks or classes on writing, I like to harp on the most utterly basic part of the "How to be a writer" equation: To be a writer, you must write. A similar rule applies to the "How to get published" equation: To get published, you must submit your work. And, of course, to do that you're gonna have to write something. All the way to the end. (I know, weak so-called equations. But I'm tired and this is an of-the-moment blog post.)

Well today I saw the quote and felt like I'd been singled out as a LOSER. I am pretty good at being proactive and staying on top of work issues (you can't sustain a freelance business if you're not), but my reaction to the stupid quote told me that it was time to clear some emotional clutter and tackle a couple of things that I just don't like to do.

One of those oh-so-avoidable tasks was to write a letter requesting the termination of two (that's right, two!) stalled book contracts from 2005 (that's right, 2005!). I've been dragging my feet on the final follow-through because . . . well . . . just because. But the time has come to just get it over with. I wrote the letter this afternoon and will likely send it off tomorrow.

I'm truly hoping for a clean and pleasant break. Makes me a little sick, though.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Amazon Has (Some of) the Answers

I have two nonfiction books — a Ben Franklin biography and a history of the Great Chicago Fire — slated for release this month. I didn't know their official publication date till I saw it on Amazon a while back. (The author is always the last to know.) It's sooner than I expected, given that I wrapped up my work on them during the 2006–2007 holiday season. That seems like yesterday. The books I do for the school and library market usually take a good 18 months, 2+ years even, to make it to publication. One nice thing about the earlier pub date is that I still remember writing both books. With about 60 titles under my belt, sometimes I kinda don't.

I checked the Amazon listings today, just to see if cover images had been added or the books had gone on sale. No such luck. No mention of them at all yet on the publisher's site either. Oh well. Sooner or later, a box o' books will show up on my doorstep, and the cycle will be complete.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Through the Magic of Blogger . . .

I give you patriotic images from my four children's books about the Civil War. The magic part is that I'm posting this on June 29 but making it look like it's posting on Independence Day.

Enjoy the holiday!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Book of the Months

I'm about to call it a week. My SO returns from a 21-day business trip tomorrow, and we agreed to shun all things work until next Thursday. I decided to knock off a little early today and get a few weekend-type chores out of the way. (I could have done several of them during my three weekends as a single girl. But oh well.)

Anyhoo, I usually update my author site the evening before the 1st of each month. But I went ahead and did it today. Think anyone will notice? Or care? I don't!

Most months, unless I have a new title to add, all I really do is change the "Book of the Month" and "Quick Picks" options on my home page and update the News/Events section as needed. Today I did everything except change the featured book. June and July are my slowest traffic periods, so I figure my buddy Quasimodo can reign for two months running.

I've been seriously considering converting completely to the blog-as-author-site model. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that my current Web host is adding a blogging feature to its sitebuilder. I'm trying to hang on until they roll out the update before making any big decisions. The waiting has gotten old, though. They've been promising the new sitebuilder for almost two years now. Now they say "late spring 2007." Hmmmmm.

I can probably hold on a bit longer. But not much.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Safety First

Just got back from a morning research run. As I (slowly) made my way from the library back to the main city roads, I remembered this series of photos from the route. (My husband took them last year.) The important safety warning is always appropriate and, I thought, perfect for a Wednesday chuckle.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Jenna Bush, Children's Author"

That was the subject line of a recent PW Children's Bookshelf email, and I sent the bulletin straight to my trash folder. I don't know anything about Jenna Bush outside "news" reports that she partied hearty in the early days of her father's first term. She may be very bright and entirely capable of writing (or taking public credit for if there's a ghostwriter) a good book. But I was working on a proposal that day, wondering whether the publisher I was targeting would even recall sitting on a conference panel with me a few years back, and the teaser just rubbed me the wrong way.

I've since read that JB's attorney started shopping the proposal for the book Ana's Story early this year and that it will hit the shelves by October (wow, that's FAST). The book grew out of the First Twin's work with UNICEF in Darfur, and the HarperCollins PR machine bills it as a "powerful and personal nonfiction account of a girl who fights against all odds to survive" as she lives with HIV. I have to say that attaching a young Bush's name to a book with this subject matter is brilliant. It can't miss. Even if it does.

But let's face facts, fellow writers: Could there have been even the slightest question as to whether the manuscript would be purchased, published, and heavily marketed? The whole big-name-as-children's-author scene makes me tired on so many levels, whether I think about it as a writer, editor, reviewer, reader, consumer, or voter. To the point of my feelings as a writer, though — it's tough out there. Every big-budget book created to sell a personality, album, movie, or political agenda chips away at the quality of available literature, not to mention the morale of the work-a-day writer.

Listen, I won't even try to pretend that I think all celebrity books are junk. Some are quite good. And many industry pundits believe that any spike in book sales, whatever the reason, is good for the health of children's publishing. But that doesn't make the fuss over each new celebrity title less annoying for those of us in the real-life trenches of the marketplace.

Check out my big fat list of celebrity colleagues. It's something else!

Julianne Moore, LeAnn Rimes, Mel Brooks, Rhea Perlman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Cindy Crawford, Jerry Seinfeld, Madonna, John Lithgow, Julie Andrews, Will Smith, Kylie Minogue, John Travolta, Bobbi Brown, Henry Winkler, Caroline Kennedy, Bill Cosby, Katie Couric, Jay Leno, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Gloria Estefan, Joy Behar, Billy Crystal, Joni Mitchell, Spike Lee, Roma Downey, Boomer Esiason, Maria Shriver, Ray Romano, Jada Pinkett Smith, Dom DeLuise, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Prince of Wales Charles, Carly Simon, Larry King, Venus and Serena Williams, Paul McCartney, Sting, Sarah The Duchess of York Ferguson, Bob Dylan, Debbie Allen, LL Cool J, Jane Seymour, Mario Cuomo, Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Arkin, Mary Engelbreit, Jimmy Carter, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Jerry Garcia, Deborah Norville, Ed Koch, Olivia Newton-John, Ricky Gervais, Bette Midler, Debby Boone, Jason Alexander

I'll let the list stand alone — with a big "SERIOUSLY?" implied next to several names — as the sum of my own commentary on the issue. And I'll throw in a few highlights from a 2004 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article:

Wildly gifted, real-deal children's author Jane Yolen said, "Celebrity children's books eat up all the available oxygen . . . I have over 250 books out, have won a great number of awards within the field, have been given four honorary doctorates for my body of work, but have never been on Oprah or spoken to Katie Couric or gotten a $100,000 advance for my work."

The same article references a Madonna quote about why she got into writing kids' books in the first place: "I'm starting to read to my son," she said. "But I couldn't believe how vapid and vacant and empty all the stories were. There's, like, no lessons. . . . There's, like, no books about anything." (I admit to italicizing the "likes" in this quote for sport. But I've decided to refrain from pointing out the tense shift and examples of subject-verb disagreement.)

Yolen's funny follow-up addresses the perception by just about everyone that just about anyone can write for children. (I mean, how hard can it be to type up 750 words about a teddy bear or being a friend?)

She said, "I am not complaining. I do very well by the ordinary parameters of the field. But I have been thinking about getting out my pointy bra and brushing up on my singing and dancing because there's no good pop music out there."

Well, I'll end on that note. I have work to do. Obviously.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Biz Buzz: Harry Potter's "Literary Ecosystem"

A quick link to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg's 5/10/07 Wall Street Journal piece about the Harry Potter fan fiction universe.

My favorite quote from the article:

"Much like George Lucas's Star Wars films and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the Harry Potter books are whales to which many barnacles have attached themselves."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Is It Leading When You're Online?

I noticed this morning that the leading, or line spacing, is all wonky on a few of my recent posts. The font and type size displays differently in a couple of spots too.

I searched Blogger Help for a fix and ended up spending the next hour chasing my tail through a heap of civilian-created blogs on blogging. They lure you in with titles like Blogger for Dummies, Tips 'n' Tricks for Idiots Who Blog, and Hey, Fool — What Makes You Think YOU Can Figure This Out (Fool!!)?

My conclusion is that I don't need an answer today. "Step away from the Google, Lisa. Step away."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Quote of the Day

"The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it."
—Jules Renard, Diary, February 1895

Hoping to snatch that story from the air this weekend!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Kids' Self-Talk

I just stepped out to get the mail. A neighborhood boy of about 13 is throwing a tennis ball at a garage-door target, scooping it up each time it bounces on the driveway. He's chanting, "I am amazing, I am amazing, I am amazing." Not in an arrogant way. He's just lost in the game and his thoughts. It is priceless.

Now, how to bottle that for a character?

P.S. I had my own positive chant as a kid. You?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Finding Your Voice: Reader Question on Part 1

A shy reader (hey, reader!) sent an email question about the Finding Your Voice series. She writes, "Can you give your own answers to the reflection exercises and explain how you would use them in your writing?"

Sure, glad to oblige. Keep in mind, though, that these exercises are meant to inspire your writing — you won't necessarily use your answers in a tangible way. But let's see if taking a look at my replies can help clarify the purpose of the exercises and give you some ideas.

Exercise 1: Last Children's Book I Read Just Because I Wanted To

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. I read this terrific Newbery winner back in January. A short synopsis I'd seen was enough to make me want to read it with no up-front intention of writing a review or lesson plan. I read it sooner than I normally would have because I wanted to support the work (by purchasing it) in the midst of its censorship controversy.

Why I think noting
your last "just because" kids' book is useful: In the context of finding your voice and identifying your niche (market, age of your audience, genre), I find that a writer typically will have read a title from within the category of books he or she wants to work with. Obviously, this is no scientific process. But when I'm using the exercise in class, I try to make sure each student answers with a book s/he chose to read for pleasure. Your toddler's current go-to story and the last book you picked up for your teenager do not count.

What if you've never read a children's book just for fun, or the last time you did you were still a child? That doesn't have to mean anything whatsoever. Start reading now, and you'll figure it out. But if you're having a particularly difficult time narrowing your focus or trying to write something, anything, for the younger set, low or no interest in reading children's literature could be an indicator that you need to examine your motivations for wanting to write for kids. It's not for everyone.

Exercise 2: All-Time Favorite Book from My Youth

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I loved it then as I love it now because it is perfectly suited for the intended age level (8–12; best, I think, for 9–10); it's hilarious, clever, and poignant all at once; and it stars a smart, capable girl.

Why I think this info can help: Often, the books that left lasting impressions are of the type you want to write.

Exercise 3: 1–10 Songs That Take Me Back in Time to My Youth

I went with 10. Some will list just 1 or 3 or 5. The point is to focus on songs that spring to mind in connection with vivid childhood memories. The point of that is for you to feel the feelings, see the colors, and milk all of it. You can use the essence of childhood — as you experienced it — to craft believable fiction and relatable nonfiction.

Why I think this exercise can help: Because music is a classic memory trigger. It serves as a backdrop to life's events, huge and minute. You can talk, think, read, play, eat, watch TV, celebrate, and grieve to it. When you were a child, music was playing in your house, your room, the car, the grocery store, your head . . . you heard it at the theme park, the swimming pool, your church. Your mom hummed it, and your dad whistled it. You learned it during chorus, piano lessons, band practice, and play rehearsals. Your basketball coach had you run drills to it, your teacher put it on for indoor recess, and a DJ filled the gym with it for the school dance. It went with you on vacation, picnics, and — if you came of age anytime from the transistor era on — walks, runs, and bike rides.

Below is my list. I've noted the memory I associate with each song and expanded a couple of them into full-blown anecdotes. I want to stress that I don't see using any of these moments as the basis for a story. But each trigger is so strong for me that I can practically touch the original scene. And when I pay attention, I can — and do — find ways to add elements of such experiences to my writing.
  1. “Rich Girl,” Hall & Oates. See anecdote here.
  2. “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” Cher. Oh. My. Gosh. This single is from the first album I ever bought with my own money. It may have been the first *anything* I ever bought. The LP cost $3 at Pamida. I was 6. I thought Cher was beyond spectacular. I loved her voice and look, and I lived for Sonny & Cher's variety show. First purchase, first album, first brush with fandom.
  3. “Cried Like a Baby,” Bobby Sherman. Reminds me of the few years I shared a room with my older sister and did my level best to not touch her stuff (which included that 45). My best didn't cut it.
  4. “Dancing Queen,” ABBA. At junior high dances. On the Midnight Special. In slumber party record stacks. Set to repeat while I chatted on the phone. Turned way up while I dusted the living room. This song was there.
  5. “Convoy,” C. W. McCall. Novelty song that evokes the CB craze and falling asleep to AM radio.
  6. “Last Time I Saw Him,” Diana Ross. One summer morning, my banker dad was at work and my older brother was out doing whatever older brothers did in the mid 70s. I begged to stay home by myself while my mom and sister ran an errand. Mom gave in, insisting that I stay in our music room with the dog, piano, stereo, and handy-in-an-emergency phone. I knew Dad's number, and the neighbor's. I would be FINE for half an hour. As the red Valiant pulled out of the driveway, I donned our clunky headphones and cranked that 45. I wanted to out–Diana Ross, Diana Ross. Less than a minute into my performance, I spun around to see my mom and sister in the doorway, jaws on the floor. (They'd forgotten something.) They laughed. At me. Really hard. It must have been a funny sight, and I'm sure they were laughing at the surprise and the fun of it all. They did not ridicule me. But oh boy, I felt deeply mortified in a way that I hadn't quite experienced. Why was it so traumatic? I was growing up and feeling more self-conscious. I did not want to look dumb. Yet there I was, caught in the act of being my goofy self. The horror! Every kid goes through this, no?
  7. "Angels We Have Heard On High." This hymn gave me chills during the Christmas season, and I looked forward to that every year.
  8. “Mockingbird,” Carly Simon & James Taylor. Such a joyful song, one that my best friend and I used as a mood lifter in high school.
  9. “Grease,” Frankie Valli. Grease was the word in the summer of 1978.
  10. "I Want to Hold Your Hand," Beatles. High school in the 80s. Guy Friend and I spent a Saturday together working on a project. As he drove me home that night (left hand on the steering wheel, right hand casually resting on the bench seat), we were laughing and having a great time. Until, that is, I spontaneously grabbed his wrist to punctuate some hilarious sentiment or another. It was a natural grab-and-release kinda thing. No biggie. Except that it was, apparently. Suddenly the sedan lost oxygen, a red-faced Guy clenched the wheel with a 10-and-2 death grip, and both of us were struck dumb. I dealt with the awkwardness by fiddling with the radio. Guy took over, punching buttons and loudly renouncing all the subpar musical options. He finally stopped on a rock station during an ad, and we relaxed a hair. I thought, "Wow, what just happened here?" The DJ said something like, "Here's that Beatles song I promised." Guy turned up the volume, but then hastily turned it back down a smidge as the "I Want to Hold Your Hand" theme registered. Again we sat in uncomfortable silence. The song's lyrics are lousy with references to, of course, hand-holding. I was convinced that Guy was on the verge of reaching for my hand. But he didn't. When he finally dropped me off at home, I was relieved . . . and a little peeved. On the one hand (representing my earnest, even-headed, exceedingly careful side), I was glad because I truly didn't want anything to mess up our easy friendship. But on the other hand (representing my emotionally reactive side that knew I could — or maybe already did — "like-him" like him), I was mad that he hadn't tried anything. I mean, what exactly was so horrible about me that some idiot teenage boy couldn't be bothered to at least feign an attraction under such exploitable circumstances? Ha! I did consider the possibility that — from his POV — nothing out of the ordinary had even transpired. And, that the tension was in my head and I was a complete dork. Luckily Guy and I survived, and things between us were back to normal by Monday. Tuesday at the latest. I still feel a bit of the silly, sweet, sharp, angst-y pain of that car ride whenever I hear the song. And it's fantastic.