Two days before her junior year, Janelle Tenner is hit by a pickup truck and killed–as in blinding light, her life flashing before her, then nothing.
Except the next thing she knows, she’s opening her eyes to find Ben Michaels, a loner from her high school, leaning over her.
And even though it isn’t possible, Janelle knows—with every fiber of her being—that Ben has somehow brought her back to life.
But her reincarnation, and Ben’s possible role in it, is only the first of the puzzles that Janelle must solve. While snooping in her FBI-agent father’s files for clues about her accident, she uncovers a clock that seems to be counting down to something—but to what?
Then when someone close to Janelle is killed, she can no longer deny what’s right in front of her: Everything that’s happened—the accident, the murder, the countdown clock, Ben’s sudden appearance in her life—points to the end of life as she knows it.
And as the clock ticks down, she realizes that if she wants to put a stop to the end of the world, she’s going to need to uncover Ben’s secrets—and keep from falling in love with him in the process.
From debut author Elizabeth Norris comes this shattering novel of one girl’s fight to save herself, her world, and the one boy she never saw coming.
Author Draws on Her Tween Experiences: A Feature on Jo Whittemore by Joe Gross from The Austin American-Statesman. Peek: “‘I try to write about things I know about,’ the 34-year-old Whittemore said. ‘And something I know about is being in middle school and high school theater and not being very good. Unlike me, Sunny is not a bad actress — she’s just not the favorite.'”
Process Talk: Shelley Tanaka on Nobody Knows by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “…the novelization would have to stick as close to the film as possible.
Whenever I tried to embellish or write more, it felt false. Everything
is in the film. I figured if I could transfer the film to the page, then
the reader would bring the rest, the same way the viewer does to the
Build a Better Author Bio for Twitter from Jane Friedman. Peek: “I do not recommend adding ‘Author’ to your actual name. I don’t recommend it for the handle, either. Save ‘author’ exclamations for the bio.”
When to Outline from Beth Revis. Peek: “Sometimes called a ‘backwards outline’ due to the fact that you write it at the end rather than at the
beginning, organizing my novel after the first draft has been enormously helpful.” Source: Anna Staniszewski. See more great links from Anna.
Louise Erdrich’s Chickadee: a recommendation by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “Resilience…and the strength of family and community is woven throughout….”
Goodies for Writers from Children’s & YA Lit Resources. Includes information on agents, editors and publishers, promotion, book design, illustration and art direction, publishing, writing, craft, the writer’s heart and much more. Note: blog author’s official site.
Her books have been honored with New York Times bestseller status; the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award; American Library Association Best Book and Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers notations; and more than a dozen state reader’s choice awards.
Margaret and her husband, Doug, live in Columbus, Ohio, with their two teenaged children.
How do you define success?
Margaret as a young reader (with furry friend)
My definition has changed dramatically over the years. In the beginning, my goal was simply to get a book published–at a time when I was receiving nothing but rejection letters, publication alone seemed like the pinnacle of achievement.
Then I sold my first two books just as my husband and I were starting a family, and the equation shifted. With so many other demands on my time, finding time to write seemed like too much of a selfish luxury unless it also paid off financially.
(In retrospect, I realize that I should have looked at the big picture: Writing helped keep me sane—or, semi-sane, anyway–during that challenging early-motherhood phase, and there’s no way to put a price tag on that.)
But the first time my editor offered me a contract for a book that I would be paid to write—not one that was already finished—I felt like I had truly arrived.
Then my goal became to do well enough with my writing that I wouldn’t have to go back to a full-time “real job” when my kids started school. I was writing to buy time to write, but also to buy control over my own time, so I had enough flexibility that I could be a PTO room mother and a Girl Scout leader and a Sunday school teacher and a volunteer in my kids’ classrooms—which conveniently also gave me a lot more material to write about. This arrangement seemed ideal.
Now I’m about to send my youngest off to college. He’ll start just a few days before my thirtieth book comes out (Caught, on Sept. 4), and I have the luxury now of being able to be a lot more philosophical about how I define writing success.
I hear a lot from parents who tell me, “I couldn’t get my kid to read until he read one of your books, and now he’s reading like crazy” or from kids who tell me, “I used to hate reading, but now, because of your books, I love it,” or from kids/teachers/parents who tell me specific examples of how specific aspects of my books have helped specific readers navigate real life.
And all of that seems like the truest definition of writing success.
How have your marketing strategies changed over the years? Could you tell us about one strategy that worked and why you think it was a boon to you?
I have spent many years resisting the notion that I have to have “marketing strategies,” because I would always, always, always rather write another book than do any marketing. But I do realize that the internet makes marketing much easier and more effective, even as internet-related changes makes self-marketing more necessary.
I finally got around to starting my own website
only when it began to seem that Harper Lee was probably the only other
living author who didn’t have one.
My then-fourteen-year-old daughter
was actually the person who set up my Facebook fan page,
because she deemed it “embarrassing” that I didn’t already have one.
For the first year or so, my husband maintained that page for me because
it was a time when I was overwhelmed with other work. Then his own job
became overwhelming, and he passed it off to me.
that time, the Simon & Schuster online marketing department told me
they could link my Facebook fan page to another fan site, and suddenly I
had the potential to reach more than fifteen thousand readers with a
single post. Even a lazy, reticent, marketing-averse writer like me can
grasp that that’s a wonderful thing.
I would still not say that I am good at using any type of social media to its fullest advantage, but I am getting better at it. I fully realize that authors nowadays have to take some responsibility for their own marketing (unless they are, you know, Harper Lee), and the internet does make that relatively easy and painless.
I know this is hardly ground-breaking, but I have been trying to do a better job of using the Facebook fan page and website together. For example, I’ll put a full list of my upcoming appearances on my website, and then post a mention of it on the Facebook page, so people will know that I’ve made the update. Or, I’ll post the new cover art for my next book on the Facebook page, and tell people that they can go to the website for a description of the book or for answers to FAQs.
It’s amazing to me how much response I can get to something like that, almost instantly. I am coming to appreciate having the ability to quickly announce something on Facebook, but also have a place where I can direct readers for ongoing information.
Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?
I did. After a few small, early successes with my fiction—and four years of working as a reporter for a metropolitan newspaper—I went through a two-and-a-half-year spell when I was concentrating much more on writing fiction and trying to get it published and having no success whatsoever.
At one point when I was distraught over receiving yet another rejection letter, my husband tried to comfort me by saying, “You know, there are people who spend their entire lives trying to get published and never succeed. If it turns out that you never get published, are you going to be miserable your whole life? Isn’t it enough to have a good life otherwise? Why write if it’s just going to make you miserable?”
Our joke now is that he told me I should give up, and I got published right away just to prove him wrong. In reality, it wasn’t that simple (or quick). But I do remember letting myself imagine what he described: giving up, collecting the rejection letters for everything I had out at that moment and not sending anything else out, not writing anything new, stomping out every new story idea instead of exploring wherever it might lead… and that seemed totally wrong.
The words playing in my head were, But I’m a writer. I write. That’s what I do. That’s who I am.
There may have even been some religious overtones to my conviction: Why would God make me feel so strongly called to be a writer if that isn’t what I’m supposed to do?
So I ignored my husband’s advice and I kept writing and kept submitting and kept collecting rejection letters. And eventually I did succeed.
Recently I read Madeleine L’Engle’s first Crosswicks Journal, A Circle of Quiet, and I came across a passage where she describes her moment of deciding to give up: when she received a rejection letter on her fortieth birthday, after a whole decade of discouragement.
And a second later she was imagining the next thing she wanted to write—which made her realize that no matter how much the publishing world rejected her, regardless of anyone else’s opinion, she couldn’t stop being a writer. And I felt like she was describing exactly the same epiphany I’d reached.
And I am so impressed that she could still feel that way on a dismal fortieth birthday, after ten years of discouragement. And I am stunned that the books she was having rejected were two that had a huge, huge impact on my childhood, and probably played a large role in convincing me that I wanted to be an author: Meet the Austins and A Wrinkle in Time.
What’s the secret of your success?
I mostly feel like I’ve done a lot of things wrong over the course of my career. I have not been particularly good at marketing or self-promotion or navigating the publishing world or, at certain points, even staying up to date with what’s going on in the publishing world.
But I guess a large part of the reason that I’ve succeeded, to the extent that I have, is that I always kept writing, and always considered that the most important part of my job.
I wrote my second book before my first book was published; whenever I finish a book, I usually start the next one right away, even if I’ve told myself, “Now you need to take care of all those other things you’re supposed to be doing.”
And it’s not because I’m such a virtuous person (if I were that virtuous, my office would be much neater) but because that’s what I want to do. What mattered to me in the beginning was writing stories that felt true and important to me, and writing them as well as I could, and that’s still what matters the most to me. If I stopped feeling that way, I think I would have to stop writing.
The other big factor that has helped my books and my career is that I think I have gotten very good advice and support from my editors and agents over the years.
Probably the biggest boost my career ever got—the change that bumped me up from one level of success to another, much higher up—was when I continued my book Among the Hidden into a seven-book series, the Shadow Children.
And that wasn’t my idea at all—David Gale, my editor at Simon & Schuster, suggested it, and even when I kept saying, “I guess that’s a good idea but I can’t see how it would work,” my agent, Tracey Adams, kept calling me back and saying, “What about doing it this way? Keep thinking about it—don’t say no yet.”
I had very little faith in my ability to continue Luke’s story past the first book, but David and Tracey did, and they essentially nagged me into developing a vision for the series and having the courage to follow that vision. And I am very grateful that they did.
The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.
Things are so bad, I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t do something…
Everyone has to keep a journal in Mrs. Dunphrey’s English class, but the teacher has promised she won’t read any entry marked “Do not read this.” It’s the kind of assignment Tish Bonner, one of the girls with big hair who sit in the back row, usually wouldn’t take very seriously. But right now, Tish desperately needs someone to talk to, even if it’s only a notebook she doesn’t dare let anyone read.
As Tish’s life spins out of control, the entries in her journal become more and more private…and dangerous. Is she risking everything that matters to her by putting the truth on paper? And is she risking more by keeping silent?
Jonah and Katherine are accustomed to traveling through time, but when learn they next have to return Albert Einstein’s daughter to history, they think it’s a joke—they’ve only heard of his sons.
But it turns out that Albert Einstein really did have a daughter, Lieserl, whose 1902 birth and subsequent disappearance was shrouded in mystery. Lieserl was presumed to have died of scarlet fever as an infant.
When Jonah and Katherine return to the early 1900s to fix history, one of Lieserl’s parents seems to understand entirely too much about time travel and what Jonah and Katherine are doing. It’s not Lieserl’s father, either—it’s her mother, Mileva. And Mileva has no intention of letting her daughter disappear.
If there is one universal struggle I hear about from writers, it is repeat gesturing. This is when those shrugs, frowns, feet shuffling and smiles sprinkle themselves across a manuscript because they are obvious choices to show a character’s emotions.
The most common are ones that involve the eyes, face and hands, as well as internal ‘tells’ such as heartbeat and breathing changes.
The big problem with obvious gesturing is that it is often synonymous with tired and overused, or worse, cliché.
Settling for phrasing that’s been done to death can not only make a character’s actions and emotions seem a bit hollow, it can also impact the empathy link between reader and character. For readers to fully immerse themselves in the story and character’s plight, they need to invest themselves emotionally. This means not only creating compelling circumstances that allow for rich, emotional interaction between characters, it means bringing the reader up close and letting them experience what the character is feeling.
Fresh writing is the key to emotional showing, and this means thinking beyond the basics of body language. It also means understanding the body’s instinctive responses (known as visceral reactions) and the thought process that accompanies an emotional experience. Drawing on all three of these as you describe will bright about a rich, layered description that will captivate readers.
Here are three tips to put the fresh back into your expressions.
1) Mine Your Memories
Sit back from the keyboard for a moment and think about what emotion your character is feeling. There may be several, but one will be the root cause of the others.
When you find it, think about a time where you felt the same emotion. Then, recreate that moment and allow your body to take over. What is it doing?
Let’s pretend it’s guilt. Is there a sour taste in your mouth? Does your stomach bunch up? Does your throat feel painful?
Act out the feeling and move around. Do you hold your arms close to the body? Is your posture slumped? Are your eyes closed, or open?
Keep mining until you find a movement that is fresh and unique.
2) Use the Setting
Setting is so much more than a backdrop, so have your character interact with it. Touching is intimate. What objects within the setting trigger feelings of safety or strife? Build these into the scene and show your character react to them.
Body language will also shift depending on how a person can express themselves. Confined to a chair, a character may show emotion differently than he would standing around a campfire, or in an elevator full of people.
Personality and comfort level will also affect body language, because people act differently alone versus in a group.
3) Watch People (but don’t be creepy about it)
I know, this one seems a bit basic, but it’s something all writers
should be doing. And don’t shy away from locations that provide high
emotion either–people who are visibly upset, excited or frustrated are
treasure troves of unique body movements!
Sasha takes five in Angela’s favorite reading spot.
Take advantage of wherever you are–a doctor’s office waiting room, at a pub watching the game, hustling through the grocery store.
Keep an eye out for that uncomfortable patient, exuberant fan, or overwrought mom with three kids bouncing all around her.
Bottom line is that each of us express ourselves in our own way, and we must strive to do this with our characters. Dig deeper and think beyond the ‘easy’ gestures. Then, using a combination of thoughts, visceral responses and body movement, create your character’s unique emotional footprint on the page!
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the challenging terrain of showing character emotion. This brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each. Written in an easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment.
Kelly Bennett has a long history of rambling (they used to call it running away/disappearing/lollygagging).
They say the first thing Kelly did, after being born, was to voice her opinion—loudly!
Her love of writing can be traced back to 1960, when she was two-ish, and used her mother’s black mascara and lipstick to write on the neighbor’s car! (And maybe blamed it on her brother…although she says he blamed it on her.)
She has been telling stories and writing ever since.
Her current obsession—writing picture books for younger humans and their adults to share—most recently resulted in publication of her new picture book with illustrator Terri Murphy, One Day I Went Rambling (Bright Sky Press), which celebrates friends, pets, imagination and all that goes into being a kid!
Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?
Wow! Gave me pause and chocolate urges…
They told Kelly she was too tall for ballet.
Mine has definitely been a meander through hills and valleys. Why?
Because I did not have a clear vision of what “being an author” or “successful” was for me until fairly recently—close to 20 years after starting up this path.
Family has always come first with me. But I mistakenly thought I had to choose: writing or family.
And so I played at writing, when it was convenient, when it didn’t interfere with family obligations, when dinner didn’t need cooking, clothes didn’t need washing, kids didn’t need schlepping, moms weren’t bellowing….
Too, for many years I wrote with a partner, Ronnie Davidson, which was great fun and hands-down the reason I stuck with it long enough, especially during some really rough personal years, to achieve publication. It was easy being a team player—sharing the job and the joy— and so I didn’t follow up on individual writing opportunities or consider what I wanted my writing life to be.
All that changed a few years ago when some friends and I formed the GGs, a girl’s creativity group. Through guided studies of books such as The Artist’s Way and The Passion Test, we explored how to live more creative, meaningful lives.
As part of that exploration I did something I’d never done before: I defined for myself what being a successful writer meant. Not vague “I want to be somebody,” wishes, either—I’d done that heaps of time, at the bottom of every valley, at the rise just before the top of every hill.
This time I visualized myself living my ideal life as a writer and from that formulated a step-by-step action plan with clear goals and touchstones.
How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?
I know I can write well. I know I can revise. That knowledge bolsters me when I hit the bad patches. The real hurdle is overcoming ones fear of failure and just going for it, trying… And to keep going when you get to the hard places.
That being said, I hit bad patches all the time, with every story, and so I have to keep telling myself “I am a writer! I can do this! I can tell this story!” over and over and over again. It’s my mantra.
An old-age prevention article I read recently suggested a good way to stay younger, engaged, interested and interesting is by cultivate friends from every generations. This holds true for writers, too. It’s like that adage about making new friends and keeping the old: One is silver and the other gold.
I study, read, take writing classes and workshops from established authors and emerging talents alike, they teach, challenge, and inspire me.
My current obsession is with picture books written by male authors: Peter Brown, Peter Sis, Mac Barnett, Chris Barton, Mo Willems, and the like. Men, like boys, look at the world differently. They don’t worry about being sweet or nice. They get right to it and they don’t mind getting dirty. It’s refreshing. So I’m studying their work with an eye to infusing my stories with some boyish grit.
What flummoxes me? How to make it come on the page the way it sounds in my head.
What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?
Marketing and all that goes with it: establishing a web presence; promotions, reviews, etc. is important, but it is not everything. If you haven’t already, define for yourself what kind of career you envision for yourself. Based on that, create a marketing plan that is aligned with your goals.
Don’t be afraid to ask your editor and the marketing team at your publisher for advice on how you can best compliment their marketing efforts. And whatever else you do, allow plenty of writing time. For if you don’t write it, there won’t be a “next” book.
What do you want to say to those one-book wonders or those that feel the market has left them behind?
Set your ego aside and go back to your roots—to what made you want to be
a writer in the first place and start fresh from there. Take classes,
study the market, and study “successful” authors you admire. Learn what
it is they do so well—whether it writing, marketing or both—and use all
you learn to set a new course for yourself. We’re writers, we get to
write and rewrite the future—reinvent yourself.
Where do you want to go from here? What are your short- and long-term goals? Your strategies for achieving them?
Back to work. As always, I have several stories on my desktop in needing attention, two middle grade novels I’ve been “too busy”—translation: “too scared”—to revise, that I am committed to see through to the end. And a new blog/journal idea I’m excited about—oh, and a notebook of “brilliant” ideas….
Long term, I would like to have a new book published every 12 to 18 months. To do that, I have to write more. And challenge myself to write better and to write those stories I’m afraid to tackle.
In writing my second book, Tracing Stars (Philomel, 2012), I managed to write nerdy oddball Owen Stone. For some reason, everyone just loves Owen. People ask “what’s the truth about Owen? Are you Owen. Is your husband Owen?”
Well, here’s the story.
Initially, Owen showed up as a stereotypical nerd. No depth, just a nasally voice and some thick glasses. In frustration, I began to explore his character a bit more, asking a few simple questions.
What are Owen’s interests?
What Makes Owen’s voice distinct/what does he think and say?
What Does Owen look like?
In order to answer these, I needed to conduct some solid field research. I needed to observe a few big nerds out in the wild. Where would I find nerds, I wondered as I got up off the couch and walked into the dining room.
There, right in front of me was a triumvirate of nerdtacular action. One nerd sat at the table with a headset on, talking to two other nerds. Three huge nerds joined together in one place through the miracle of technology and gaming, right when I need to observe nerds… a coincidence?
Nerd #3: Timothy Raymond Cook, Chemist, professor, introvert, germaphobe with a nasally voice.
(Note: Do not use all of Tim’s traits—verges on nerdy stereotype.)
Despite the nerdiness of some of my real life characters, I knew if I could combine these three, I would have the biggest and most unique nerd the world has ever seen!
With that thought, I looked down at the table that surrounded Nerd # 1 and attempted to find some answers to the first question: What are Owen’s interests and strengths?
Items on table:
One autonomous RC airplane
One pack of unopened dental floss and one apple
Several tools (Lots of needle nose pliers, drill, and 2 types of knives)
Unused sun block (goes outside?)
One opened and unfiled patent document that says Jason H. Robinson, Inventor
One used tissue folded into an exact square. (This I knew to be a regular habit of Nerd # 1, and a habit that was explained to me as “the proper way to use a Kleenex to maximize the use of its surface area.”)
Right. And here I thought it was O.C.D.
Regardless, I was getting somewhere. I knew that this nerd was an inventor. He liked innovation. Judging by the use of Kleenex and the correct tools, he liked efficiency. Judging by the sunscreen and apple, he liked to be prepared.
I jotted Owen’s Strengths: innovation, preparedness and efficiency.
Check and Check.
On to question #2 : What would Owen sound like? What would he say when with a friend? Would he be using metaphors? Spouting facts?
In order to find out, I knew I would have to get the attention and engage in conversation with one of the nerds. Possibly separating one of them from the rest of the pack. I walked into the living room where I sat down at my own computer. I could see Nerd #2 was on gmail chat, and I jumped in. It took a few minutes for the response to come through, but when it did it went pretty much like this:
Nerd # 2: Hey
ME: So your middle name is Edison, huh?
Nerd #2: Eddison with two dd’s.
ME: Oh, I thought you were named after Edison, like Thomas Edison. The inventor.
I opened the link and smiled. Nerd # 2 had exceeded my expectations within six lines. Not only had he corrected me once, he then gave me an informational link that would tell me that Edison was not even an inventor and that Tesla was the one who should have gotten credit in creating the light bulb.
I scribbled in my book: Unprompted, Owen will inform you of…things that you don’t necessarily need to know. He knows uncommon knowledge. And would like you to know it, too.
Check and Check.
Lastly, I turned to question number three: What would Owen look like? Would he have short hair, long hair? Would he wear a hat? Would his clothes be boringly realistic? Would he have any outwardly odd quirks?
I tapped the pencil eraser against my cheek. I would need to document the nerds. That, or–a few clicks of the keyboard–facebook had done the work for me.
Nerd # 3. I pulled up a picture and bingo. A prime specimen. Face shot. Serious. Freckled nose. Thick Glasses. Straw Like hair peering from underneath what I immediately recognized as a vintage aviator cap. Why? I wondered. Then again, why not?
I jotted some more: Owen has typical bad eye sight, thin-ish hair, a friendly face and wears a vintage aviator cap.
Check and Check.
With my three questions answered I made my way back to the story and I
let the knowledge I had gained on my trek out into nerd-central inform
Owen in every breath he took.
Owen began to pop off the page, saying things like, “Did you know that a stomach growl is indicative of hunger? Your stomach muscles are contracting and forcing your digestive fluids and air around inside, making that gurgling sound.”
Owen keeps a journal. Not a diary. Just ask him. He’ll show you the front which says, Owen’s Book of Logic and Reason: Observation Log IV. Here he makes observations about the world and writes down plans for his innovations, like dual night vision and magnification goggles.
And yes, he does wear glasses, and he does have a slightly nasally voice, but he also will break the stereotype by wearing a vintage aviator cap that he picks up along the way.
In the end, Owen Stone wouldn’t exist without the valuable field research I was able to conduct. Seeing nerds in action gave me the chance to write the logical, sympathetic unique character that everyone just loves.
“You can have one year off to write.” That’s what Kimberly Willis Holt‘s
husband told her back in June 1994. She didn’t own a computer so she
began to write on yellow legal pads.
Since then she’s written seventeen
books, and won many awards and honors, including the National Book Award
for Young People’s Literature. She’s never gone back to a traditional
Kimberly is a former Navy Brat who lived around
the world, but always considered herself a southerner. She’s proud of
her Louisiana roots and attended the University of New Orleans and Louisiana State University.
The little town of Forest Hill where her parents grew up is reflected
in several of her books. She’s been a Texan for the last thirty years,
and her book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town is set in the Texas
Somewhere along the way, she bought a computer.
What memories of your debut author experience stand out? If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?
When my first book, My Louisiana Sky was six months from publication, I started to plan my book tour. I used most of my small advance to finance my travel and my promotional information.
The memories I treasure the most about that first tour were the encounters with the people who supported an unknown author. Lois Grant and Beth Vandersteen of Rapides Parish Library in Louisiana were the first two people to respond enthusiastically to my request to speak. They hosted two receptions for me, one at the main library in Alexandria and one at the small branch in Lecompte near my grandparents’ homes.
They weren’t the only supportive ones. Jean Dayton, the Community Relations Manager of the Shreveport Barnes and Noble (now a successful booking agent) went beyond the call of duty. She got me in touch with a local book reviewer. The review was in the Sunday paper right before my signing. I had thirty people show up. That’s a big turnout for an unknown writer whose first book has barely hit the bookshelves.
Another CRM in Baton Rouge was embarrassed when no one showed up. He even bought a book for a little girl who wandered over to get a cookie from the signing area. A few years later he left the store and worked for the Louisiana Book Festival. He booked me twice for that event.
Also a couple of months before I went on tour, I received a call from a sales rep who represented Holt books. Her name was Kathy Patrick. She is a Book Woman extraordinaire. (She now owns Beauty and the Book, a bookstore beauty shop, and is the founder of the famous Pulpwood Queens, the largest book club in the U.S.)
Kathy had read an advance copy of My Louisiana Sky, and loved it. She wanted to know if my publisher was sending me on tour. I told her, “No, but I’m sending me on tour.” She lived in Jefferson, Texas and asked if I would start my tour there. I agreed. After all, Jefferson is on the way to Louisiana.
She lined up a couple of book signings at two of her accounts and an event at her library. When she heard me speak, she said, “We need to get you at Mid-South.” Mid-South was a regional booksellers conference. That autumn I was in New Orleans speaking to booksellers who became early supporters of my work. Kathy opened a lot of doors for me.
On that first tour, I spoke free at a lot of schools, I lined up signings in every major Louisiana city. Most of those had few or no sales, but I felt gratitude for the people who ordered my book and allowed me to sit in their store. I have a hunch they hand sold my books after I left, because my books ended up in their other stores around the country.
If I could offer advice to that new voice, it would be to stay the course and appreciate every minute, good and bad. When I returned home from the tour, I learned that my book won a Boston Globe Horn Book Honor and that my book had been optioned for a movie.
Even if those things hadn’t happened, I still planted a lot of seeds. And best of all I met wonderful people and got to share the excitement with my three living grandparents.
Stay the course. Good things will happen.
Do you have a publishing strategy? If so, how has it worked and/or changed over time? If not, why not? And how has that worked for you?
I’ve always believed in writing from the heart. Over the years, I’ve observed other writers trying to chase the market, but I can’t write like that. There has to be joy in the journey.
Having said that, I’ve made some risky choices. When I began, I was quickly titled a southern middle grade author. And because two of my early books had some nice success, that seemed to seal the deal.
Then I wrote a Y.A. book set on Guam and a short story collection. I wrote picture books. I wrote a series for young readers.
It seems a lot of my early readers didn’t know what to think about that.
I’ve probably received an F in branding myself. But to me, I feel like I’ve had one heck of a ride. I’ve always written the stories I cared about. And that’s the way I plan to do it for the rest of my life. Maybe not the smartest publishing move, but one I accept wholeheartedly.
Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?
A couple of years ago, I experienced a big disappointment. I had struggled for seven years with a book that when I finished it, felt proud of. To me, The Water Seeker is my best work.
A month before the book debuted, I learned that most booksellers weren’t interested in selling the story. It crushed me. I couldn’t write. What is the point, I thought, if my best work isn’t appreciated?
I didn’t write for a year and half. Oh, I fine-tuned a book from my series, but I wasn’t inspired to write anything new.
Then I decided to go to my grandfather’s home and stay tucked away for a few weeks. The only things I packed were my clothes, an idea for a story, and the trace of a character’s voice. I just had to find the courage to pick up my pen, again.
The house became my muse. Everywhere I turned, I bumped into my ancestors. When I looked out the window at my grandfather’s camellia gardens, and boiled pasta on the same stove my grandmother had made chicken and dumplings on, I remembered I was born into a storytelling family. And that is a gift. I owe it to them to carry on.
What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?
You can study the market all you want. You can add zillions of friends on social media sites and plan out a top-knotch marketing plan. Marketing is important, but nothing trumps a good book. Tell a good story. Tell it the best way you can. Readers will find it.
The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for about a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business
landscape of trade publishing.
From the promotional copy of Piper Reed, Forever Friend:
Piper is excited to move to a new state and catch up with old friends. But the move doesn’t go as smoothly as she expected: Piper has trouble feeling accepted in her new surroundings.
But then she meets Arizona Smiley. Arizona is an avid stamp collector and bowls in a league. Piper is intrigued by Arizona’s originality and before long, she wins Arizona’s affections, and the two become great friends.
This move turns out to be the best one yet, and Piper is eager to spread her trademark “Get Off the Bus” catchphrase once again.
Congratulations to Anne Marie Pace on the release of Vamperina Ballerina, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion, 2012). From the promotional copy: “More than anything
Vampirina wants to be a ballerina, and she tells you just how to manage those pesky vampire-related stumbling blocks.” See the teachers guide.
Literary Agent Joseph Monti: How I Got Into Publishing from CBC Diversity. Peek: “I…acquired a few novels, one was largely about a brown boy and a brown girl, a terrible father, and a helpful monster, in a dystopian world. Science fiction, with brown protagonists. The narrative of publishing will tell you a book like this can’t succeed. But…”
The Rejection Reaction by Keith Cronin from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I think we can all agree: rejection sucks. And for most of us, the first few rejections we receive can be particularly painful. Why does this stuff hit us so hard?”
Gina Rosati on Taking Responsibility as a Writer from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: “I am no longer writing for myself – I have an agent, an editor and her publishing house depending on my ability to produce a marketable product. I’ll have bookstores counting on earning a profit and libraries
spending their dwindling budget on my book.”
Interviu cu o autoare: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Alexandra in Romania from Niahara’s World of Books. Peek: “I would order the wasabi deviled eggs, the West Texas rattlesnake ravioli marinara, the Chianti-marinated wild mushrooms, and the kumquat sherbet with frozen eyes of newt.” Note: the focus of the interview is on Blessed (Candlewick/Walker, 2011).
Even More Personally
Last weekend we returned to the Round Top, Texas area for more theatrical fun.
A high concept book/series hook should be original, unique, and have wide appeal. It’s a fresh spin on a universal situation or premise. The best hooks will cause others to think, “Wow. What fantastic idea. Wish I’d thought of it.”
Joan Holub and I had already written and published the first half-dozen books in our Goddess Girls series (Aladdin, ages 8-12) when we decided to try writing another Greek mythology-based fiction series.
We wanted to aim this new, concurrent series at both boys and girls, and at a younger audience. We already knew our subject—Greek mythology. And we knew our demographic—boys and girls ages 7 – 11.
But what would our series hook be?
Honestly, we didn’t know.
We discussed some existing adventure-fantasy chapter book series that we enjoyed or that booksellers had told us were popular with our demographic, such as Beast Quest and Time Warp Trio.
The fast-paced adventure and short chapter book length appealed to us. “We can do that,” we said.
Each book in our Goddess Girls series is loosely based on one or two existing Greek myths. We knew from the outset that we wanted to do something similar with our new series, Heroes in Training.
Next, we brainstormed our main characters, choosing a ten-year-old Zeus as our main character. After all, he’s king of the gods and ruler of the heavens! Who could possibly be more intriguing?
Our secondary characters would be other Olympians: Poseidon, Hades, and Hera, for example, all the same age as Zeus.
So now we knew our general subject, our demographic, desired book length and reading level, main characters, and that we wanted the books to have lots of fast-paced adventure. “They’ve got to be funny too,” we said. (We like to laugh when we write, and kids like to laugh when they read.)
Still, we didn’t have a firm series hook. It was time for a marathon phone call.
We talked for two hours and came up with: the Titans vs the Olympians. King Cronus and his Titan henchmen vs ten-year-old Zeus and the other Olympian boys and girls.
The hook is unique and a fresh spin on a universal topic (Greek mythology) because our series’ Olympians are all ten-years-old, yet they’re pitted against an army of adult Titans.
Cronus and his evil henchmen—an army of half-giants and Titans, and various “Creatures of Chaos”—pursue our young “heroes in training” from one book to the next as they recover magical items (a magical lightning bolt, for example), solve a dangerous problem in their universe, and rescue their fellow Olympians from the clutches of their enemies.
Here’s how we stated our overall series goal in the proposal we sent our publisher:
When he pulls a magic thunderbolt from an encrypted stone, ten-year-old Zeus discovers his destiny as King of the Gods. He goes on a quest to rescue his fellow Olympians (who’ve been imprisoned in various realms) in order to defeat the ruling Titans, thus halting their plans to dominate the world and reign havoc on mortals.
We included the following in our series proposal:
Series title and titles of individual books (publishers occasionally change titles)
Genre, age group, reading level, length of individual books
Overall series synopsis (1/2 page, includes your hook)
Overall series synopsis (1-3 pages)
Main characters (individual descriptions, about ½ page each) Synopses of individual books (we usually aim for four books)
–first three chapters of book one
If you’ve never written a series before, you’ll likely need to submit an entire first book manuscript along with synopses (one-to-three pages in length) for other proposed books. Most series start with two-to-six books and build from there.
Does your series absolutely need a high-concept hook? Not necessarily. The appeal of some books is only evident upon reading and cannot be understood by a three-sentence statement of premise.
But if you can write a wonderful book/series that is also high-concept, you’ll likely hear, “Wow! What a fantastic idea!” And even more importantly, you’ll soon have lots of happy young readers!
About the Heroes in Training Series
The terrible Titans—merciless giants who enjoy snacking on humans—have dominated the earth and put the world into chaos. But their rule is about to be put to the test as a group of young Olympians discover their powers and prepare to righteously rule the universe….
Life on the Greek Island of Crete is mega-boring for ten-year-old Zeus. Except for the stormy days when sizzling lightning blots chase him around. He’s been zapped dozens of times! He’d like to escape those pesky electric shocks. And he also longs for adventure.
Zeus gets his wish–and more than he bargained for–when he’s kidnapped by three half-giants—henchmen of the evil King Cronus. After braving a terrifying ship ride, constant threats of becoming snack food, and some oversized, boy-pecking birds, Zeus finds himself in a showdown with an entire army of half-giants. He grabs the first thing he sees to defend himself from a nearby stone—which turns out to be a thunderbolt with a mind of its own! With the help of the annoying Bolt and a talking stone amulet, young Zeus sets off on the adventure of a lifetime: a journey to find his destiny as King of the Gods.
The annual award, established by SCBWI and funded by Martin and Sue Schmitt, will be given to two writers or illustrators who are from ethnic and/or cultural backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented in children’s literature in America and who have a ready-to-submit completed work for children.
The purpose of the grant is to inspire and foster the emergence of diverse writers and illustrators of children’s books.
The work will be judged by an SCBWI committee and two winners will each receive an all-expenses paid trip to the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York to meet with editors and agents, a press release to all publishers, a year of free membership to SCBWI, and an SCBWI mentor for a year.
Deadline for submission is Nov. 15, 2012. The winners will be announced Dec. 15, 2012. The On-The-Verge Emerging Voices Award will be presented at the 2013 SCBWI Winter Conference in New York. Submission guidelines and information can be found at www.scbwi.org under Awards and Grants.
The award was inspired in part by the SCBWI’s increasing efforts to foster under-represented voices in children’s literature. According to SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver, “Every child should have the opportunity to experience many and diverse of points of view. SCBWI is proud to contribute to this all-important effort to bring forth new voices.”
The grant was made possible through the generosity of Sue and Martin Schmitt of the 455 Foundation who state: “While our country is made up of beautifully varied cultures and ethnicities, too few are represented in the voices of children’s books. We hope to encourage participation by those not well represented, and look forward to having these stories widely enjoyed by all children.”
About Martin and Sue Schmitt
Martin and Sue Schmitt are the founders of We Can Build an Orphanage, sponsoring the Kay Angel orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti. The organization was established in 2007 with the mission to provide a home and education for abandoned children infected with or affected by AIDS in Jacmel, Haiti. The Schmitt’s generous and continuous efforts to support SCBWI’s long-term goals also co-sponsored the 2007 Global Voices Program, which highlighted Mongolian artists and authors. To find out more information about the Kay Angel orphanage please visit www.kayangel.org.
Founded in 1971, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is one of the largest existing writers’ and illustrators’ organizations, with over 22,000 members worldwide. It is the only organization specifically for those working in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia.
The organization was founded by Stephen Mooser (President) and Lin Oliver (Executive Director), both of whom are well-published children’s book authors and leaders in the world of children’s literature.