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.

Friday, June 15, 2007

June 2007 Book Reviews

I write a review column called "Hooked on Reading" for Hooked on Phonics/Reading Rainbow. Each month I recommend 5 children's titles for busy parents on the lookout for great books their kids might like. HOP clients, RR devotees, and other interested folks can sign up to get the free newsletter via email, and of course anyone can also view it online. I've been writing the column for just over a year, and it's a great little ongoing gig. It takes about a day and a half from start to finish.

Click here to see the June issue online. It just came out a few minutes ago. Those who receive the email version get a few extras, including a parent letter (written by me to sound like HOP is talking) and my byline.*

*An aside for my freelancing comrades: My attempt to negotiate getting credit on the site failed. But because I got the fee I asked for, I decided not to turn it into a deal breaker.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Like anything worth writing, it came inexplicably and without method."
—From the 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction

I recently rented this movie, and that line has stuck with me. It's just true.

Don't get me wrong. Writing exercises are invaluable. I recommend trying everything from free-form ramblings to narrowly focused drills. Broad practice strengthens skills. And it prepares you to properly handle those sublime moments when the real writing comes, inexplicably and without method.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Finding Your Voice, Part 3

Time for Part 3 of this semiregular voice-finding series. In Part 1 I introduced easy reflection activities that have you recall important books and music from your youth. Then, in Part 2, I talked about how such intentional reflection can help you begin to inhabit the mind of a child (specifically, your own childhood mind), which in turn will help you work on writing for children and figuring out the audience you'd like to target.

So, moving along, assuming you've looked at the previous posts. Here's the next question I think you should ask yourself:

At what age do you think you found your personal voice?

Don't think about your writer's voice yet. That comes later. For now just concentrate on remembering when that voice in your head started. I'm talking about the inner voice you hear as you move through your day. The one that recites your grocery list and rehashes memorable conversations as you shower, drive, or try to sleep. Etc. (Note that this voice presumably sounds *just like you* and is neither alter ego nor imaginary friend.)

Having trouble pinpointing an age? Sometimes it helps to simply think about the age at which you started feeling like you. I like to ask other children's writers when this shift happened for them, and so far I've heard all ages from 4 to 30.

I once asked my father to comment. I was about 16, I think, putting Dad in his mid 40s. We weren't talking about writing or voice, but I was writing then, and my interest in the topic was directly related to my intense need to explore and express how certain defining moments in my young life had affected me.

This conversation happened just a few years into my early, earnest "This is who I am, but how on earth did I get this way?" phase — and Dad's quick and confident answer to when he started feeling like him made an impact. "Well," he said, briefly raising his eyebrows and looking to the sky, "I'd have to say 9 years old." He felt that's when his sense of responsibility kicked in (he grew up the eldest son on a small Iowa farm in the 1940s, and the entire family worked hard). So it made sense for him to choose that age as the point at which his distinct child self began to fade into the background to make way for his (self-perceived) adult self.

Now, that is not to say that he didn't progress on a normal path from childhood to adulthood. We all evolve and mature across time, no matter when we start to connect with the world. But I do believe that we all can identify breaks between major life stages — and that your breaks will not correspond to mine. It's all about your experiences and how you process them.

If you're a writer trying to connect with an authentic voice for your work, it's critical to have a good sense of your personal voice. Without it, you'll end up manufacturing your authenticity. And that approach never quite makes it. Not, at least, in any sustainable way.

I found my personal voice at about age 12. Sure, I've matured and changed — and changed back — since then (I like to think), but 12 feels to me like the break between my child and adult selves. I do have zillions of memories about events, thoughts, and feelings from earlier childhood, but 12 is when I really started to hear the voice that guides me. And I believe that's why I prefer writing for the preteen to young teen market.

Last time I discussed some of my favorite children's works. They are stellar models of age-appropriate material and writing, and they also offer strong insights into my personal writing interests. I feel at ease writing to the preteen/teen set; and I most enjoy writing heavily researched nonfiction, historical fiction, and personal essays.

How do the books you mentioned in your list play into your current writing interests?

Here's where the music reflection exercise comes in handy —

Listening to specific 70s songs really helps me feel those childhood thoughts and experiences. It makes writing from a child's perspective (for fiction) and focusing on the types of scenarios and information a child will relate to (for fiction and nonfiction) that much easier.

For example, when I hear the 1977 Hall & Oates single "Rich Girl," I might as well be lounging on a floor cushion in my best friend's Asian-themed rec room. On at least one afternoon a week, you could find the two of us there laying out our (12-year-old!) convictions about everything from what went wrong on the playground that day — to world hunger — to gender roles — to how we expected to "be" as adults. We would lament that nobody gave us credit for being the grown-ups we so clearly were. Then we'd decide to prank call Jenny,* a frosty-white-nail-polish-and-rabbit-fur-vest-wearing snot of a girl who lived in my friend's neighborhood.

Jenny spent a great deal of time looking down her new nose at everyone while divulging details of her father's hefty income, bragging about all the cool stuff she had, and coldly judging the girls who couldn't afford to dress better.

What could be a better use of two eager-to-crusade girls' after-school time than getting Jenny on the horn and blasting "Rich Girl" in her ear? Certainly not pretending to be the radio station awarding a free Big Mac to the callee who recited the ubiquitous super burger's slogan faster than anyone else. You try: "Two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun." Think you said it faster than the last guy? You didn't.

To write effectively, I need to be able to tap in to all the feelings — mature, immature, and otherwise — associated with being 12. I need to inhabit and illuminate the 12-year-old's world. A significant-to-me song from my youth helps because it drops me into a memorable situation that I can still describe 30 years later. I won't necessarily ever write a scene focused on the same situation, but I can use the energy and the insight to inform a character's motivations. Times change, yes, but kids' core experiences, feelings, and growing pains are timeless and universal. So whenever there's something I can do to bring out my genuine been-there insight about a child character's mindset or actions, I do it.

Music works wonders for me. Do you think it can work for you? And do you think it can help you identify your best age-group niche? Try taking another look at your Part 1 song list to see which tunes might drop you back into an easily describable situation. I think you'll be surprised at your own treasure trove of material.

*Name changed to protect the formerly stuck up

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

I Say "Potato," You Hear "Pajamas"

Why are soooooo many professional writers, editors, and other minions of the publishing world flat-out incapable of competently handling even the most basic communications? WHY?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Biz Buzz: Simon & Schuster Tries to Clarify

Just posting the Authors Guild notice that came to my inbox this a.m.

Simon & Schuster executives yesterday apologized for "any early miscommunication" regarding reversion of rights, according to the Association of Authors' Representatives (the literary agents' organization). S&S is willing to negotiate a "revenue-based threshold" to determine whether a book is in-print, says the AAR. The AAR's alert follows.

Simon & Schuster's new position reflects substantial movement from their initial stance, but it raises many questions, including (1) whether revenues would be measured by income to the publisher or the author, (2) what level of revenues would meet the threshold, and (3) how unagented authors (particularly children's book authors) would fare under this policy.

We're off to BEA. More details certainly to come.

Feel free to post and forward this message. The Authors Guild ( is the nation's oldest and largest organization of published authors.
May 31, 2007

Representatives of the AAR Board and the AAR Contracts and Electronic Committees had a successful meeting this morning with Jack Romanos, Carolyn Reidy, and Rick Richter to discuss the ongoing issue of reversion of rights. The Simon and Schuster executives apologized for any early miscommunication on this issue, and appreciated the opportunity to clarify their position.

They informed us that S&S is investing a lot of resources in its digital publishing initiative, and their expanded efforts in conventional and newtechnologies will enable them to supply books to consumers in a variety of formats, including Print on Demand, electronic books, digital downloadable audio, online page views, et. al. Their goal is to keep books in print more effectively and to market frontlist and backlist titles more vibrantly.

They have confirmed for us that they are agreeable to negotiating with agents a revenue-based threshold to determine the in-print status of a book.