Tuesday, August 26, 2008

New Children's Bookstore in Seattle

The new children's-lit focused Mockingbird Books will celebrate its grand opening this coming Sunday, August 31, in Seattle.

This is great news for the area after losing two stores just this year (Seattle's All for Kids and Issaquah's Lilypad).

I plan to swing by soon to take a look and buy a book or 12.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What Would Patton Do? Or Hemingway?

I love a good quotable. Each day my hard-copy day planner puts two motivational snippets at my fingertips. And a widget on my iGoogle home page funnels insights from literary giants to inspire me (or demoralize me, depending on the day).

Now, I don't read the daily quotes daily. My quote-reading record is pretty spotty, in fact. But I like knowing the pearls are there, ready to illuminate, annoy, or slip by unnoticed. I tend to take more regular looks at them when I have bigger issues on my mind and, thus, need (or just take) more mini breaks.

The past several days I've been mired in the task of figuring out how to balance upcoming personal activities with the responsibilities of keeping my business healthy and strong. Naturally such decisions are in play every single day for every single one of us. But the scale of that balancing act changes from time to time, and I'm in a phase where I can count on non-work issues taking an extra-special intense center stage for known stretches of time.

Enter my quote-peeking ways!

I love it when I come across a quote at the very moment I need to see it. Last night, for instance, I calculated detailed scheduling info on my calendar pages before firing off an email to someone with the power to help make or break my best-case life-and-work scenarios. I'd had to make some prior decisions . . . you know, which projects to work on, what I can and can't try to do in this life . . . just a few little things like that. Email sent, I looked at my planner notes one last time before heading to dinner with my husband. That's when I read this quote from George S. Patton Jr.:

"Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash."

THAT made my night. It felt like the universe was telling me that my decision to say yes to what matters, no to what doesn't, and let the rest take care of itself was sane. Not rash. It helped reinforce my knowledge that I had rationally examined all angles — and that risks are often necessary and usually worth it, regardless of outcome.

This morning, then, I was primed to check out at all the daily quotes at my disposal. None of 'em did a thing for me. Pretty typical, really.

Later, though, I pulled out one of those pet projects I've mentioned and stared at it over lunch. This is a nonfiction thing that I just don't know how to frame. Can I really do as I want and focus on a very small piece of the much larger story? Of course I know it's possible for someone to do it, but my real question with this has been, Can I do it? No telling till I make a serious attempt at writing it, eh?

I opened up my Stickies application to jot a couple of ideas before getting back to paying work. I saw an Ernest Hemingway quote I'd saved a few months ago:

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

Big a-ha for me even though it wasn't. For my completed works, I can easily point to ways I've omitted things I know. For example, unspoken (or unexplained) character backgrounds and motivations in fiction. And reams of detailed research that just doesn't make the cut in nonfiction.

But I wasn't seeing the obvious answer to my writing dilemma (= no dilemma) because I was too caught up in overthinking it. Of course I can tell one story that's part of a bigger one. What story in existence ISN'T one tiny part of something bigger? It's not even that deep of an insight. Sheesh!

Now that I'm feeling all "one with my brain," I can also see that there was no true dilemma involved in making the life-and-work-balancing decisions I struggled with either. In writing, as with life, you make decisions when you're ready.

Maybe someday I'll be as decisive as George and Ernest in everything I do. On second thought, maybe I don't want to be. They may have been brilliant, but those dudes were crazy!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Nifty Series of Articles About Working with Picture Books

Check out Darcy Pattison's August series 30 Days to a Stronger Picture Book. I've just skimmed it so far, but clearly she has covered TONS of valuable ground.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

That's It. I Want My Own Barista.

I sat down at my desk really early today for some reason (why???), and my morning coffee gave me fits . . . and now it's gone. So I thought I'd throw out some useless chatter I'd normally direct at a lucky coworker. You know, if I had one.

I pour myself 2 or 3 nice mugs o' joe each a.m., but while I'm working I get distracted and the coffee gets cold. Yuck. And as time gets away from me, the coffee loses that fresh-brewed taste. Double-yuck. I am, admittedly, finicky about it.

My "solution" has been to TRY to remember to slam the java and make frequent early trips upstairs (I have a basement office) for refills, which I must also drink too quickly for my liking. My entire weekday coffee experience is lacking.

When our old coffeemaker died several months ago, I specifically bought one with a thermal carafe. The idea was that I'd just keep it on my desk on workdays. I thought the coffee would stay fresher (it does by a hair) and I'd naturally get to it faster from not needing to walk anywhere.

Well, this is the first time ever that I've remembered to haul the carafe to my office. (Old habits die hard.)

So far, not so good.

While pouring my first mug this morning, I dripped on my planner and a printed manuscript draft. Fine. It's just paper. With the second, I dripped on the desk and my keyboard (it's protected!) and then left a coffee ring on a library book (I wiped it clean in time!). Looks like I need special conditioning to pour, neatly, from a seated position.

As usual by my second cup, I forgot about the coffee long enough for it to cool way down. So I had to slam it at lukewarm to avoid a wasteful pour-out (and trip to the kitchen). When I wanted a third mug — I kid you not — I got out of my chair and started to walk toward the stairs. So it also looks like I'm more like my dog and my husband (hi honey!) than I realized. Meaning, apparently, I cannot deal with even a small break in routine.

Tomorrow I'll revert to my old unsatisfying coffee routine. Sigh.

Get back to work, people! Yak break over!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A to the Q: Talking Animals as Main Characters

A to the Q is an ongoing series of posts in which I answer questions I've received from blog readers, workshop students, and others about writing and navigating the waters of children's publishing. My aim is to share what I know and spark your search for even more information.

Q: I want to write a series featuring talking animals. How can I determine if it's worth the time or if, for example, talking animals are considered old hat?

A: No matter what you're thinking of writing, it's always good to (1) keep an eye on what's getting published and (2) track the trends ebbing and flowing in children's literature.

That said, I firmly believe that a strong desire to write a particular story means that you should write it. Write it first and see whether it works out the way you hope. Finish it. Then think about finding a home for it. There are no sparkly new plots, themes, or character types to be discovered. But good story is good story. Good writing is good writing. If you are excited about a story, your excitement will translate to your writing, making the effort "worth it" and helping the book you write stand out.

Make no mistake, though — it will need to stand out. Over the years I have seen many (MANY) writers' guidelines that specify "No talking animals." Anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to non-human entities, such as animals, dolls, teacups, and so on) is a popular literary device in children's literature. To be frank, it's probably the most frequently used element I've seen in the hundreds of manuscript submissions and writing contest entries I've evaluated. So I understand why some publishers (particularly small ones that publish a limited number of titles) want to nix it from the get-go.

But, the device is popular for a reason. Talking animals are cute and fun. Or scary and fun. Or insert-your-take here and fun. Kids like them, grown-ups like them, and some of the greatest children's works of all time have used them. No reason to shy away. Human-like critters will continue to crop up in children's books forever, as will wizards, ghosts, geeks, pirates, bullies, and best friends.

Quick extra note: Since you're talking series, it may be useful to keep in mind that few publishers want to see series proposals from a new writer. Your best bet is to write your first story and work on getting the manuscript accepted somewhere before trying to sell the series idea to your editor or agent.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Icy TaB and Cool Rick Springfield on a Hot Summer Afternoon

I'm all caught up with paying work today, so I'm grabbing the opportunity to do a little brainstorming on one of my pet writing projects. ("Pet" for me means nobody has assigned it — I'm simply writing it because I want to.) I've been batting it around for a while.

It's a YA novel about two friends who continually miss the boat with each other. I want to explore how even the slightest misperceptions about a friend's words, actions, and intentions can derail even the purest of relationships. And I love the idea of looking at the situation through teens' eyes. Kids, especially good friends, spend more insanely concentrated time together than adults, so the story can unfold over a relatively short time period. No idea how the whole thing will pan out, but I like having a bit of time to play with it.

After lunch I grabbed a TaB to perk me up. (I buy a six-pack when it goes on sale around here, so once a year, tops. I still love it.) The bright pink can and saccharine aftertaste never fail to elicit sunny summertime memories from the late 70s and early 80s — a perfect place for my mind to touch on as I conjure the teenage mindset. I decided to further help that mindset along by also cranking a couple of tunes from my own teendom as I settle back in at my desk.

I must say, it's fun to blog and think about the story this way. Nothing screams "teen mind" at me more than the retro-intense enjoyment of an ice-cold TaB and the still-heart-stopping-strains of "Jessie's Girl."

Time to put my freshly inspired brain back to work!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Bulwer-Lytton: 2008 Contest Winners Announced

Have you heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest? It's an unapologetic "bad writing" competition that San Jose State University's English Department has sponsored since 1982.

I own the 1984 book of BLFC entries It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, so named after the old-saw story-starter of the same words that inspired Professor Scott Rice to launch the contest. I recently wrote about the BLFC for a speech textbook I worked on and so remembered to look for results this month, probably for the first time in 20 years. It's still fun to read what contestants come up with!

Below are the winning entries in this year's Children's Literature category.

Joanne watched her fellow passengers — a wizened man reading about alchemy; an over-sized bearded man-child; a haunted, bespectacled young man with a scar; and a gaggle of private school children who chatted ceaselessly about Latin and flying around the hockey pitch and the two-faced teacher who they thought was a witch — there was a story here, she decided.

—Tim Ellis, Haslemere, U.K.

Dorothy had reasons to be nervous: a young girl alone in a strange land, traveling with three weird, insecure males badly in need of psychiatric help; she tucked her feet under her skirt to keep the night's chill (and lewd stares) away and made sure one more time that the gun was secured in her yet-to-develop bosom.

—Domingo Pestano, Alto Prado, Caracas, Venezuela

Dishonorable Mention
I'm convinced that the Doc is dealing drugs to most of the mining crew because they either can't stay awake, constantly sneeze, grin like maniacs, or won't look you straight in the eye (not to mention behaving like a moron) and they wonder why a dwarf gets grumpy!

—Neil Prowd, Charnwood, ACT, Australia

What do you think? Are they bad enough for you?

You can read the other winning entries, including the winner of the 2008 Grand Prize, on the contest's official announcement page.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A to the Q: Taking Low-Paying Children's Writing Work

A to the Q is an ongoing series of posts in which I answer questions I've received from blog readers, workshop students, and others about writing and navigating the waters of children's publishing. My aim is to share what I know and spark your search for even more information.

Q: I've heard it's a good idea to pursue some of the low-paying projects I see advertised to get my feet wet and build my children's writing credentials. Do you agree?

A: As you've found, pay ranges for children's writing projects run the gamut. Of course everyone has to start somewhere, and of course you'll want to move up the pay scale from your starting point. But I'm assuming that you're talking about working for peanuts — and that's something I simply never advocate.

Listen, there are some low, low, LOW fees out there. I've seen fees as low as a dismal $0.05/word, or maybe $100 for a week's worth of work. (Take a sec to do that math. Can you live on that? Can anyone?) Some writing-advice gurus advise newbie or wannabe writers to go after such "jobs." They'll even tell people to work for free to pad their writing credits. (Volunteer-type writing, such as when you're contributing content to an organization or cause that matters to you is a different matter entirely.) But I rarely hear of writers having a good experience working on pay-nothing projects, and I've never witnessed anyone parlaying such work into high fees or credibility/career viability.

Maybe you will get better projects after writing for next to nothing, but in most cases that will only happen because you move on and look for something better, not because you got great exposure or paid some nonexistent dues writing for publishers who want cheap content to feed to . . . uh, who is their audience, exactly?

Think of it this way: If you take on unreasonably low-paying work, you may miss out on decent-paying work. And worse, you'll set a precedent for your low worth as a writer. That, in turn, effectively contributes to your low-paying publisher's low opinion of writers' contributions to its revenue. If you feed that cycle, it will continue.

I realize that the issue of needing experience/specific writing credits to score assignments is a valid concern (and true in any field). As I said, you need to start somewhere, and very few people get to start at the top of a profession's fee scale. I would just hate to see you waste valuable time chasing gigs that treat the writing — your work — as something you should feel privileged to produce and give away.

Established publishers who pay fair rates know that they need to occasionally hire first-time writers to keep the pool fresh — and many are willing to take a chance on an unknown candidate who exhibits professionalism, talent, and perseverance. No reason why that candidate can't be you!