Saturday, July 30, 2011

Yes! Moments: How I Lost My Editor and Found An Agent (Christine Brodien-Jones)

The turning point in my writing career came the day I found an agent. Getting there, however, was far from straightforward.

I started looking in earnest for an agent in 2003, beginning all my letters the same way—“I am a published author in search of an agent….”—though I wasn’t totally convinced I needed an one. After all, hadn’t I sold my first book to Macmillan without an agent? Of course, that had been in 1990…

My novel "The Dreamkeepers" was published in 1992. I was thrilled, envisioning my future career as a children’s author. That wasn’t exactly what happened. A few months after the book came out, Macmillan folded, closing their children’s book department, and my editor moved on. With college looming ahead for my two sons, I did the practical thing and took a full-time teaching job.

Time passed, our sons graduated from college and, encouraged by my husband Peter, I quit my job to write full-time. Peter and I talked about starting our own publishing company, Dreamkeeper Press. (Hey, V. and L. Woolf did it, so why couldn't we?) The endeavor would deplete all the money I’d saved as a teacher, but we were willing to do that. The main thing, we agreed, was getting my books in the hands of young readers.

In 2003 I submitted a middle-grade fantasy novel set in Morocco to an editor at HarperCollins. He sent me an old-fashioned hand-written note saying the first three chapters looked intriguing and asking for the entire manuscript. I sent it, but the manuscript quickly bounced back, with a form letter from HarperCollins saying the editor had left the company without having a chance to review it. "Oh rats," I thought, "foiled again!"

Around this time the doors to all the publishing houses were banging shut with loud clangs: unsolicited manuscripts were quickly becoming a thing of the past. I stepped up my search for an agent, suspecting that, in many ways, it was going to be even more difficult than finding an editor.

Then something serendipitous happened. The name of the HarperCollins editor started popping up on the Internet. He’d gone from being an editor to being an agent! By then I was working on a new book, set in a dystopian future, about an owl and a boy who was allergic to the sun. In 2007 I sent a letter to Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. It nearly missed him because the agency was in the throes of moving, but somehow it reached him. He sent back an old-fashioned handwritten note that read: “Dear Ms. Jones, You tracked me down! Why don’t you send me a couple of chapters of your book to read…”

Soon after I sent the manuscript, the telephone rang. It was Stephen, saying how much he loved the book and its characters, and before I knew it I was signing a contract with his agency. He worked hard to find a home for "The Owl Keeper" (the title was his suggestion) with Krista Marino at Delacorte Press/Random House. He also sold my other book to Delacorte. “The Scorpions of Zahir” was the same book I’d sent him all those years ago at HarperCollins.

Friday, July 29, 2011

July Theme: The Masked Yes! (Jennifer Cervantes)

There are many Yes AND No moments on the road to publication, that’s for sure. And while the No moments can be challenging, they are an important part of the process as each one gets us closer to the Yes. My Yes moment, though, wore a small mask and it took me a moment to recognize it.
I was in the guidance counselor’s office with my oldest daughter waiting on her fall schedule when the email from my agent came through on my phone. I only saw “Congratulations!” My hands were shaking so hard, I couldn’t scroll down to see that the email was a forward with the editor’s comments.

Me: “Do you think that means it sold?”

Daughter: “Why else would she congratulate you?”

That’s when my mind began spinning and I compiled a whole list of reasons my agent might congratulate me. None of which were based in reality!
I think I might have cried at that point. It’s all a bit of a blur. But one thing I do remember clearly was a feeling of deep gratitude to know a story I had worked so hard on would be brought to life.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

July Theme: Seeing Stars (My Greatest “Yes!” Moment) by Holly Schindler

In all honesty, this post would not be possible were it not for a fellow author at Smack Dab, Brian Farrey, the acquisitions editor at Flux. Brian is, after all, the editor who picked my debut YA novel, A Blue So Dark, out of the slush pile.

My journey to publication was a long and winding road…Those of you who follow the blog Tracy Barrett (another fabulous author here at Smack Dab) created about taking the full-time author plunge (Goodbye, day job!), surely saw my recent guest post about the incredible financial support I received from my family as I sought publication…Basically, after obtaining my master’s in the spring of ’01, I jumped at the opportunity to devote full-time efforts into getting a writing career off the ground (my lifelong dream). I’d been fortunate enough to place poetry, short fiction, and literary critique in a few journals during college, and I was under the grand delusion that placing longer work would be a snap, too.

Yup, I figured it’d take a year or so to write the Great American Novel, then I’d sell it right off the bat, and in a couple of years, I’d have money in the bank and—

See what I mean? Grand delusions…

It took seven years. Seven and a half, to be exact. Seven and a half years of writing a floor-to-ceiling stack of manuscripts. Seven and a half years of submissions and rejections and close calls…until I spoke to Brian at Flux. He emailed the contract—my first contract!—and I’d just barely started to jump for joy when the reality of the situation hit me. Anybody with a book on the shelf knows what I’m talking about: that moment when it all truly becomes real, and you say to yourself, “So, when this book comes out, anybody who wants to can pick this thing up, sort through the contents of my brain, and then pass judgment on it???”

It’s a scary thought, when your first book is in development.

And then, a couple of weeks before A Blue So Dark’s official release, an email from my publicist at Flux: the book had received a starred review from Booklist!

That’s not to say that I suddenly figured anybody who ever picked up A Blue So Dark would think it was the best book they’d ever read (I like to think I left the whole grand delusion business behind long ago). But for the very first professional review I ever received to be so positive? I just had such an overwhelming feeling of relief and elation and surprise and—well—triumph, in that moment.

I still have the review up on my fridge, and every single time I catch a glimpse of it, I still find myself cracking a smile and celebrating a little inside…

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July: A few ‘No's' before my ‘Yes’ moment… Or Saved By The Bell (Hop)

Before I was a writer I was a ghost writer in the truest sense.

My name was not on my work and although I made a living writing, the whole operation did not feel genuine. Caught between two worlds, haunting the one I wanted but invisible, I couldn't call myself a writer -- not a 'real writer'.

Finally getting an agent and landing a two-book deal with a major publisher, then seeing my own name on my own book in a real live bookstore was amazing and stupendous, but I would not mark any of those milestones as major 'yes' moments. I still had a complex, a shameful hidden past as a fraud.

Then I got invited to a writer's conference in Florida. I was being flown somewhere to speak on writing, just like a real writer would. This should have been my 'yes,' moment. A week before the conference one of the organizers asked me for a picture. Figuring she needed it so she could identify me at the airport, I sent this lovely shot of myself eating churros in Barcelona.

When I arrived at the conference I found that picture blown up to poster-size and hung next to the real author photos. Needless to say, none of them were pictured with powdered sugar on their chins.

This was not my 'yes' moment, nor was it my most dignified.

A few years later after my second young adult novel, PRICE OF ADMISSION, was published I was invited to do some school visits in Rhode Island with two of my favorite writers Dan Ehrenhaft and Sarah Mlynowski. The school talks were amazing, but the chain bookstore event… less so. They stuck us in the cafĂ© so we had to read over the whir of Frappuccino blenders and milk frothers. During the Q&A an eager eight year old raised her hand. Her question: “What time is it?”

Apparently she had better places to be. Sadly, I did not.

A few weeks later, while visiting my parents in Los Angeles, I strolled into a Borders and asked if they had my latest novel. Before I explained that I wanted to sign the books the salesperson cut me off saying, “Oh, we took those off the shelves because they weren’t selling”.

Thankfully, I’ve had plenty of success since these most decidedly, ‘no’ or at least, ‘nope – not yet’ moments. My books are selling well in the USA and abroad. I get lots of fan mail. Disney recently optioned one of my books, so BOYS ARE DOGS may someday be a movie.

This past fall my fabulous publisher sent me on tour to promote GIRL’S BEST FRIEND, A MAGGIE BROOKLYN MYSTERY. And it was on the eve of that first event, at a fancy hotel in Baltimore, when I had a fabulous, “Yes, I have made it” moment.

When I went to check in, the bell hop said, “Good evening, Ms. Margolis. Congratulations on the new book. I hope you’re having a wonderful tour.”

Heads turned. My arrival had aroused intrigue. There was real writer in the lobby - no ghost. The bell hop said so. Who'd argue with a bell hop. Not me. So finally I could say, 'Yes'.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July Theme: Getting the big 'YES'! (Lucy Jones)

My first big ‘Yes’ moment came after meeting Madeline Buston of The Darley Anderson literary Agency at a SCBWI event. Before I had the courage to go over and speak to her, I went and brought myself a large glass of wine to settle my nerves. As it turns out I needn't have worried because she was really lovely and began asking me all about my book. I told her it was called ‘The Nightmare Factory’ and gave her an elevator pitch. She said how great she thought the title and concept was and I remember thinking there and then that I wanted her to be my agent. Then the moment came when she asked if she could see it. My heart stopped, and my mouth turned dry.

“It’s not finished yet,” I told her, hoping that I hadn’t completely blown my chance. To my relief, she didn’t seem to mind, and told me to go ahead and send her the first three chapters anyway. We chatted a little more (I can’t remember exactly what about, I was extremely nervous and was just concentrating on speaking without getting my words all muddled up!).When I left I literally skipped down the stairs and may have even punched the air when I reached the street. OK, so I hadn’t been accepted yet, but the book had garnered interest, and besides, I had a really good feeling about this.

As soon as I got home I sent the first three chapters off. The next few days I hoped, waited and prayed (and checked my emails constantly!) Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long. That Monday morning Maddie emailed to say how much she and Darley had enjoyed the chapters. What I read next had me running all over the house screaming with delight. She told me that she wanted to represent me and that she looked forward to seeing the rest of the book. What? I hadn’t expected such a positive response. Maybe a request for a full when it was finished but representation… on an unfinished manuscript!? It was almost unheard of.

I was blown away. Someone believed in me, other than my family, that actually mattered! Suddenly, all the self-doubt that had built up from previous rejection letters seemed to melt away. I kept wondering if it was real or just a dream. I had a constant grin on my face for weeks afterwards and couldn’t stop randomly squealing with excitement when out in public, which must have looked pretty weird to strangers. I spent the next few months working tirelessly to finish the book, but I had the enthusiasm and drive to push forward due to that one simple ‘yes’. Finally, I had broken through the first gate to publication… and the road ahead had never looked brighter.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

July Theme: The First Yes!

By Stephanie Blake

Throughout high school and college, I fancied myself quite the poet. I had notebooks full of poetry...mostly love poems and poems of angst and loss. I read a lot of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and e.e. cummings and tried to emulate them.

I got my first publication in 1989 at the end of my freshman year of college in Soundings the school's journal for creative writing. I wrote a sappy ode to my long distance boyfriend. I called it "Untitled." Because having work that was Untitled meant I was a serious artiste. Right?

After college, I submitted a poem to Colorado Poet in 1996. It was a monthly poetry magazine that gave out a $25.00 prize for their favorite poem that month. They printed my poem about a fairy dance, but, I didn't win the prize. Got two free issues of the magazine.

My third poetry publication and final poetry pub credit was in 2002 in Progenitor (another college produced literary magazine) entitled "Kayak." No, I didn't make any money from it, either. Got three free issues of the magazine.

Why are these piddly little credits so important to me?

It gave me the thrill of seeing my work and byline in print, which never gets old.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

July: Fantasies from a Fantasy Award by Dia Calhoun

When I received an e-mail from the Mythopoeic Society informing me that I had been awarded the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature for my book Aria of the Sea, I was surprised but not elated—because I knew nothing about this prestigious award. Not until I learned that the award is given to only one book a year--and Aria of the Sea had won over Donna Jo Napoli's Beast and Jane Yolen's Boots and the Seven Leaguers, and that previous winners included Tolkien, Salman Rushdie, Dianna Wynne-Jones, and Orson Scott Card—and in the adult category my idols Patricia McKillip and Peter S. Beagle—did elation arrive with a wild whoop!

Then my own fantasies set in—my sales would soar, interview requests would come flocking in, I would happily but modestly accept the award at a dinner in my honor attended the literary luminaries of the book world.

None of this happened. My sales, while sound for Aria of the Sea, did not soar. My publisher was barely interested. There were no interviews—not even a mention in my local paper. Yes, there was some kind of award ceremony given by the Mythopoeic Society, but I would have to pay my own way—air fare, hotel, food, taxis. I couldn’t afford to go. I wrote an acceptance speech which someone read for me. I did receive a lovely trophy in the mail.

I am very glad to have won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award;it is prestigious and coveted by fantasy writers. Years later I met an acclaimed adult fantasy writer who lives in my town. She looked at me and said something like, “You have a Mythopoeic Award, don’t you?” I was flabbergasted—largely because I realized that no one else, NO ONE, had ever mentioned the award to me before.

The award did get me listed in Wikipedia. And it looks nice on my jacket flap bio. But the fantasy award opened no magic doors in my life.

Friday, July 22, 2011

July Theme: Five 'Yes's' and a Stunned Writer by Trudi Trueit

Your voice and style are unique, but unfortunately, this manuscript isn’t quite right for our list at this time. Whenever you have something else you’d like to share, I’d be most happy to read it.

I knew the rejection letter by heart, because I had been receiving the same letter from the same editor for three years. 

THREE years. 

My head told me to give up, but it was that last line, those final five words, that gave me that tiniest morsel of hope. And so, if she was “most happy to read it,” I was most happy to send it. Again.

In the meantime, I decided to take my writing in a different direction. A former TV weather forecaster, I had always wanted to write a nonfiction book for children about weather. I set to work on my manuscript. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to jam-pack all of my knowledge into one enormous book. My manuscript was filled with exciting trivia, ancient folklore, fascinating questions/answers, original poetry, and even illustrations. How could any editor say "no" to that? 

Well, 24 did. 

But the 25th was Melissa Stewart at Grolier (now Scholastic). Needless to say, she wasn’t interested in my colossal book of all-things-weather either, but she did appreciate my writing style and credentials. Melissa wrote to ask if I would consider writing four weather books in a nonfiction series for the Franklin Watts imprint. Yes, yes, yes, and yes! The first title that I was paid to write was Clouds (The Water Cycle, Storm Chasers, and Rain, Hail, and Snow soon followed, and the series was published simultaneously).

A week after the offer from Grolier, I received an envelope from my Most-Happy-to-Read-It fiction editor. My stomach did a flip as I contemplated the 'no' I was certain was inside. But I was wrong. This letter was different. This time, the editor liked my story of an ordinary middle child trying to find her place in her family and in the world. She wanted to do a series. Did I want to do one, too? Yes! And Julep O’Toole was born.

After five years of depressing 'no's,' within two few weeks, I had garnered five wonderful 'yes's!' Grateful to both genres for offering me a home, I have been writing fiction and nonfiction books ever since (74 published, so far).

Looking back, I now see what I couldn't before. The simple truth was that I wasn't ready for publication. The 'no's' had to happen so I could learn how to listen, take constructive criticism, and perfect my craft. If you are waiting for publication, and frustrated by rejection, keep the faith. Keep working. Keep writing. Keep trying new things. Most important, learn from every 'no'. And when the time is right, your 'yes' will come.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

July Theme: The Happy Dance (Alan Gratz)

So. My biggest "Yes!" moment. That has to be when I got the call that I had made my first children's book sale.

For three or four years, I had been trying to write books for young readers. My first, After School Heroes, was about a group of teenage superheroes who have to save their city when all the adult superheroes are taken out by a supervillain. I wrote it, edited it, and started sending it out to editors and agents.

No sale.

Undaunted, I started a second novel. This one was called Inventing Julia, and it was about a high school sophomore boy who is funny and decently good-looking who can't get a date, so he and his friend "invent" a fictional girlfriend for him so real girls will find him more attractive. It works, but he's made his fictional girlfriend so good he can't dump her without losing points with all the real girls at his school. Hilarity ensues, as they say.

But not enough hilarity, apparently, as that book didn't sell either.

Like the oafish lord in Monty Python and the Holy Grail whose castle kept sinking into the swamp, I wasn't ready to give up. I was still submitting After School Heroes and Inventing Julia to editors (I'd given up on agents) when my daughter Jo was born, and I left my job as an eighth grade English teacher to become a stay-at-home dad and a full-time writer. Well, more like a part-time writer, as being a newborn's dad takes a far amount of time.

But the die was cast, so to speak. I'd written two books, I was getting good nibbles but had no bites. I felt like something was about to break. If it didn't, well, my wife and I already had a day circled on the calendar a year away. That's when the money would run out if I hadn't found anything, and I'd have to find a "real" job.

About that time I got fascinated with Japan, and one book led to another until I discovered that Japan's samurai era had ended about the time the baseball era began. It was too good an idea not to jump on it, despite the time it would take me to research it, so I got to work. Samurai Shortstop was the first book I wrote as a "full-time writer"--an occupation I still refused to give when strangers asked what I did--and became my first sale. And just before the money ran out too.

I remember the call very clearly. I had sent in the full manuscript to an editor by request a week before, and was fully expecting another letter in the mailbox saying "thanks, but no thanks." Instead, I got a phone call. It was an editor. A real, live editor. She loved my book, and she wanted to buy it. I played it cool on the phone as my wife looked on, our one-year old in hand, and then erupted after I'd hung up. I did a happy dance with my daughter, much to her confounded delight. She had no idea what the happy dance was for, but I did. Somebody had just said "yes" to my life-long dream of publishing a novel.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

July Theme: A Truly "Butiful" Moment (Lisa Graff)

For this month's theme (our biggest "YES!" moments), I thought I'd focus on my very first "Yes": the moment when it occurred to me, for the first time, that I might actually be sort-of-okay at telling stories.

I was eight years old, and I'd written lots of stories and poems for school. But one day, at home, I wrote one just for fun. It was called "The Strangest Flower," and it was, very clearly, a rip-off of "The Ugly Duckling." But it was really fun to write. I still have it, actually. And (drumroll, please!) I'd like to share it with you now.*

The Strangest Flower
By Lisa Graff

Once there was a flower in the garden that was a stranger to all the others. They had never seen a flower like this. This flower never got picked. This flower had strange things all over it. This flower was strange.**

The other flowers teesed the strange flower. And the flower sat there for it had no sisters or brothers to like it.

The flower just sat there feeling strange and lonley when it grew!

And grew, and grew, and grew!

Pretty soon it was a butiful flower. So butiful that the other flowers liked it. They liked it so much that they had a new friend. They liked it alot, but...

they never hugged it!


*All of the horrendous spelling is original.
**In case it isn't totally obvious from my Caldecott-worthy illustration, the flower is a rose.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Interview with an Editor: Beth Potter of FSG Books (Plus a Giveaway!)

Beth Potter, editor extraordinaire of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (and my dear friend) has stopped by the blog today to answer a few questions about life as a children's book editor, and to give away a super-fantastic galley. What could be more awesome?

Welcome to Smack Dab, Beth! Let's get started. What is the name of your publishing house/imprint and what is your official title?

I am an associate editor at Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, which is part of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

What made you decide to become an editor? What was your career path?

During my senior year of college, confronted with the idea of pursuing my majors—art history and philosophy—I realized that while I loved studying both, I didn’t want to devote my career to either one. I have always been a voracious reader and had a vague idea that publishing was where I really belonged. I attended the Denver University Publishing Institute, which is a fantastic introduction to all the different roles in publishing (and kinds of publishing!) My experiences there confirmed for me that children’s editorial would be the right fit.

I moved to New York City and spent a few months interviewing and networking before landing a job as an editorial assistant at FSG. (Lisa was the other editorial assistant and our friendship grew over marathon mail opening/slush reading sessions and lots of lunches outside in the park.) I gradually worked my way up and began building my own list about four years later.

What are your favorite aspects of your job? Your least favorite?

My favorite part of my job is actually, literally editing books. I love immersing myself in a story, living and breathing alongside the characters, and figuring out all the ways it could be even better. I love how epiphanies come while I’m in the right zone—on the subway or while making a fried egg sandwich. This probably sounds lame to writers, who inhabit this creative mindspace all the time—but I am only able to access it though my authors’ work. Like some kind of editor-parasite!

Least favorite parts: meetings and paperwork.

What do you think distinguishes a superb middle-grade novel from an only-okay one?

Well, I think superb middle-grade novels have the same qualities of excellent fiction for any age: a unique voice; an interesting, compelling plot; well-realized characters who feel like real people; carefully-crafted prose; et cetera! I most admire middle-grade novels in which the author is able to access and express something that feels uniquely, genuinely true about being eight or ten or twelve—I think it’s hard for many adults to really remember how it felt to be a middle-grader. (It’s much easier to remember how it felt to be a teenager!)

What is your favorite middle-grade novel from your childhood?

My favorite book hands-down is CHARLOTTE’S WEB (and it has been since I first read it when I was six!).

I read completely indiscriminately as a child, gobbling up whatever books were in my path, rereading them all a thousand times... Everything from The Babysitter’s Club and R.L. Stine’s Fear Street to the Little House books to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. My grandmother gave me a lot of books, and it wasn’t until I began working in children’s publishing that I realized that she had given me (and I had read over and over) a huge amount of Newbery Medal and Honor Books—Miracles on Maple Hill, Caddie Woodlawn, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and many more.

What are some of your favorite non-book-related activities?

I love to cook (and to bring it back to books, am always on the lookout for a good middle-grade or YA novel involving food or cooking!)

Do you have any books coming out that you are particularly excited about and would like to share with us?

I adore Tami Lewis Brown’s THE MAP OF ME, which comes out August 30. It’s a funny, poignant middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old girl who steals her daddy’s car, kidnaps her kid sister, and spends a long rainy night careening around Kentucky looking for her momma.

I am also right now putting THE SEVEN TALES OF TRINKET by Shelley Moore Thomas into copyediting—this is a book that makes me laugh and cry every time I read it! It’s a middle-grade fantasy novel about a girl named Trinket who travels the land accompanied by Thomas the Pig Boy. Trinket is collecting stories because she wants to be a bard… but she’s really looking for her father who disappeared years before. She meets gypsies, selkies, fairies, and a really scary highwayman and gathers plenty of story material—but the last tale, in which she learns the truth about her father, is the most important and is deeply moving. Look for it in Fall 2012!


Thanks so much for visiting with us, Beth!

Galley Giveaway


Beth is giving away a galley copy of THE MAP OF ME by Tami Lewis Brown to one lucky blog reader. (Side note: I had the pleasure of reading an early draft of this book when I was at FSG, and it is stupendous.) To be entered in the giveaway, simply drop me an email at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line "MAP OF ME." The winner will be chosen at random on August 1st.


The giveaway just got even better--Tami Lewis Brown is throwing in an autographed bookplate to go along with the galley! Thanks, Tami!!

The giveaway is now closed. Congrats to galley winner Lauren!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Guest Post: Researching Nonfiction for Kids By Heather E. Schwartz

When I (the "I" here being Holly Schindler, administrator of the Smack Dab blog) received an email from Heather Schwartz offering a guest post, I pounced. I have to admit, I've never published nonfiction for kids, but I'm absolutely intrigued by it. (I think writing nonfiction, especially for the younger set, relies on a completely different set of talents than fiction.) I wanted to get some insights from Heather on the process...after all, she's written more than twenty (20!) nonfiction books from kids. Here's what Heather has to say on researching factual material for young readers:

Researching Nonfiction for Kids

By Heather E. Schwartz

I’m so happy to guest post for Smack Dab – thanks for having me! My first middle grade novel is in the works, and I’ve written more than 20 nonfiction books for kids on subjects I previously knew nothing about. Here’s what I’ve learned in pursuit of data, statistics, general information and unusual details.

One thing that’s relaxing about writing nonfiction is the facts are all out there. You don’t have to rack your brain dreaming up ideas or making the pieces of a story fit together. On the other hand, one thing that’s stressful about writing nonfiction is you have to be sure to get all the facts. Obviously you can’t make anything up, but you also have to be very careful about making assumptions. Every word you write has to be the absolute truth.

1. Finding the Facts
I’ve written on a vast array of topics—sports, science, animals, celebrities, history, etc.—but for the most part, the research process is the same. I usually start by searching on the Internet for an official organization representing the topic at hand. For example, there’s often a “National Association of” whatever I need to learn about. In the case of celebrities, I’ll check out their official website. For history especially, I search for museums dedicated to that period or event. These websites generally provide an overview of the topic, some history, and perhaps most importantly, contact info for people who can answer questions about the subject.

2. Bringing Those Facts to Life
Nonfiction writing—especially for kids—isn’t just a list of facts, though. It’s more than reporting. You need lively details to bring scenes to life and entice kids to read about your topic. Those kinds of details can often be found in newspapers and magazine articles. For example, it may be possible to reuse a quote from a celebrity interview. Of course, if you can talk to the celebrity yourself, that would be a great resource, too!

3. Getting the Nitty Gritty Details Right
Usually when I’m interviewing a source I need really nitpicky details—information I can’t find anyplace else. I may be having trouble understanding a science concept, or I may need to fact check a random item.

Finding sources to help in these cases is the most difficult part of researching nonfiction. I often start with ProfNet, an online resource for journalists that will send your query (“I need an expert on octopus behavior”) to a targeted community of professionals. If no one responds? First, I panic! But then I remind myself that someone out there knows the answer to my question. And not everyone is on ProfNet.

From there, I may contact a few local colleges through their communications departments. I may attempt some creative Googling (“octopus vet” – hey, that actually brings up a good source!). I may also rethink my question, so other types of experts might be able to answer it.

4. Avoiding Unreliable Sources
In general, children’s book publishers don’t want their authors relying on personal websites and user-written websites for information. Other children’s books are also generally off-limits, since you want to offer something different and you don’t know how other authors did their research.

That said, I have found these resources can be helpful for culling background information. Suppose, for example, you read a juicy tidbit about a topic on Wikipedia? It might be fiction, but now you have a chance to check it out. It could be something you can use, provided you can find that same tidbit verified by a more reliable expert, website or media outlet.

If I can’t find the information I need from a reliable source with real credentials (check the “About” section on websites), I’ll restructure what I’ve written. The information I originally planned to include may not be there, but the gap won’t be noticeable either.

When you’re writing nonfiction, it all comes down to one important rule: It’s better to leave something out than risk getting it wrong.

Heather’s middle grade novel, tentatively titled The Mysterious Case of My First Year in Middle School, is about a teen research detective who finds answers to quirky questions. Visit her blog at

...On behalf of everyone at Smack Dab, I'd like to thank Heather for stopping by...and I'd like to encourage everyone to check out Heather's books, available on Amazon!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

July Theme: My Yes! Moment (Stephanie Burgis)

I've talked before about the incredible, heart-stopping moments when I got Those Calls from my agent (first, to offer representation; second, to tell me that there'd been an offer for my book). I've even talked about the way that that sale, and the books themselves, saved me and my family in a moment of true crisis.

But here's my true Yes! moment as a writer:

It was early 2010, still months before my book was due to be published (and, as it turned out, over a year before it would be published). It wasn't even close enough that I was expecting big review publications to start reviewing it yet. I turned on my computer just to check my email quickly before my morning writing session.

There was an email in the box with the title of my book as its subject line. I opened it up.

The email was written by a twelve-year-old girl who had read an ARC of my book and loved it. Loved it. My book! My book, which I'd written in the solitude of my own house, writing it specifically for the kind of twelve-year-old girl I used to be. Now here one was and she genuinely loved the humor, she loved the emotions, she loved the characters. My book was really real, it was out there, and it had spoken to exactly the audience I'd always dreamed about.

I read the email over and over again. Tears formed in my eyes. I read it again.

No other review has ever meant more to me than that first email out of the blue.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"In the end, truth is truth"

Link alert!

Just needed to share this fabulous interview from fellow blogger MotherReader with middle-grade authors Matthew Cody and Aaron Starmer, all about darkness and its place in middle-grade literature. Fascinating stuff!

You can find the interview HERE.

Boys on Bikes by Bob Krech

I was in my second year of teaching at The American School in Aberdeen, Scotland. It was a Saturday and it was sunny with temperatures in the seventies. If it is a sunny day in Scotland and that warm, you get yourself right outside no matter what you have going.
Headmaster's Cottage - American School in Aberdeen

I needed to do report cards for my first grade class, so I packed up all the papers and forms and a blanket and drove out to Hazlehead Park. I spread the blanket out and got to work in the beautiful sunshine. The park was full of pale, bare-chested Scots spread across the grass having picnics, kicking soccer balls around, or just catching some rays.

I was in the middle of trying to decide whether Scotty Fournier should get an A or a B+ in Social Studies, when I heard the whirring and clicking of bike wheels. I looked up to see two young kids on bikes heading directly for my blanket. They were about twelve years old. The first was wearing mirror sunglasses, a silky red basketball shirt, red shorts, and was riding a BMX bike with a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read “Mongoose” on it. The other fellow dressed in a white t-shirt and some brown cut-off shorts hung back a bit.

Sunglasses rode directly up and stopped at the edge of my blanket. Clearly he was the leader of the duo. He tilted his head toward me. “Whatcha doin’?” he asked in a broad Aberdonian accent.

“I’m doing report cards,” I offered. "I'm a teacher."

Sunglasses momentarily froze. Then he jumped off his bike and sat down. With obvious surprise in his voice he stammered, “Yer ‘merican aren’t ye?”

The American School in Aberdeen - Lower School
“Yes. I teach at the American school here.” 

His partner plopped down beside him saying nothing. Sunglasses then asked the question that started a conversation I would not soon forget. “Wha’s it like in ‘Merica?”

For the next half hour I was peppered with statements that ended with question marks. 
“Everybody in ‘Merica has a swimmin’ pool, yeh?”
“Yer all runnin’ around shootin’ at each other all the time, eh?”
“Ye drive yer cars all fast and crazy, right?”
“’Merican kids is all brainy, huh?”
“Surely ye live near Disneyworld?!”

I tried my best to give him a little more realistic picture without totally bursting his bubble about the wonders of 'Merica, but he had a pretty vivid ‘Merica already formed in his head from Starsky and Hutch and Dallas.

After about half an hour of this, Sunglasses announced that they had to be off and gettin’ their dinner. So they rode away leaving me with this incredibly fun conversation in my head. I felt compelled to share this. It was too funny. I jotted down as much as I could remember. Then I found myself structuring it, crossing out stuff, moving paragraphs around. While the report cards sat undone I worked on my little story. For what I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t written anything since college and those pieces were for classes. I’d always enjoyed writing, but most of that was back in grade school and high school when I could write whatever I wanted. Back then I thought about maybe someday being a writer, but I had gotten busy with some other things. Like making a living.

When I got home I retold the incident to my wife. She laughed. Encouraged I typed up my notes. Did another draft. Then another. Then another. Over the next few days I found myself going back to it each night after work, polishing it and trying to make it perfect. Finally I titled it, “Boys on Bikes.”

I liked it. It made me smile. But, I asked myself, what was this for? Then I remembered The International Schools Services Quarterly. A free newspaper for overseas teachers. I decided to send it to them. Maybe other overseas teachers would want to read it. They could probably relate to the little encounter between two cultures. I went to the library and read up on how you submit stories, typed up a nice copy and cover letter, put a SASE in the envelope, and off it went into the post.

The author "back in the day"
Then a weird little thought occurred to me. Why not send it to The New Yorker? I loved The New Yorker. I mean, people like Woody Allen, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Irving wrote for The New Yorker.  But it was late at night, when I tend to have these inane ideas, no one would ever find out, and I had the stamps, so another freshly typed copy of "Boys on Bikes" went out. I was certain it would be totally ignored, but well, you never know...

A month later, having pretty much forgotten about the whole thing, I found one of my return envelopes waiting for me on the dining room table after work. Inside was a letter from The ISS Quarterly. A very kind editor wrote that they would be delighted to publish the piece in their next issue. I was about to be published! Okay it was a free paper with a readership of maybe 2,000 and I was being paid in copies, but I was being published! People who were not my relatives or classmates would read something I wrote. Hooray! I felt like a real writer!

A month later my other return envelope arrived on the dining room table. Inside was my manuscript, unmarked and folded neatly, with a little piece of official New Yorker notepaper clipped to it. Unsigned, but handwritten in blue ink were these words:

“Nice piece, but not quite right for us.”

I was definitely a writer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

July Theme: My Yes! Moment (Tracy Barrett)

I was publishing a satisfying string of nonfiction books for young readers, not thinking about writing fiction, when I stumbled on the story of a Byzantine princess named Anna Comnena while doing research for something to do with my day job. She haunted me.

I decided to write an entry from an imagined diary kept by Anna (in the Middle Ages, women were about as literate as men). I read that chapter to my critique group. They liked it and said, “What happened next?” So chapter by chapter, critique-group meeting by critique-group meeting, I wrote Anna of Byzantium.

In the meantime, I also tried my hand at a picture book and submitted it for critique at an SCBWI conference. My critiquer was Françoise Bui (now executive editor at Random House). I was her last critique of the day, so we left the room together, and being a polite person, she asked me what else I was working on. I mentioned Anna, and she said, “Sounds interesting.” It was an off-hand remark and clearly she was just making conversation. But when I finished the manuscript and had it thoroughly critiqued and polished, I sent it to her, starting my cover letter with, “Since you expressed interest in this manuscript . . . ”, trusting that she would check her records and think, yes, I was at the SCBWI-Midsouth conference last year, and yes, a Tracy Barrett was among my critiquees, so I must have said I wanted a look at this.

Of course, she had said no such thing, but I figured it was close enough that I wouldn’t burn in hell for stretching the truth!

She called me a few weeks later and we worked out a deal for my first fiction sale. Twelve years later, Anna of Byzantium is still going strong, and is closing in on 200,000 sales.

Monday, July 11, 2011

I'm Jody Feldman, and This Is My 'Yes' Moment

Here’s the way my agent tells it ...

When she called to tell me we had an offer on my first kids' book The Gollywhopper Games, I nearly swerved off the highway in the driving rain.

Yes, I was on the highway. Yes, there was driving rain. But the experience was so surreal I don’t remember nearly having an accident, nor do I remember telling her about said (non)fictional almost-accident. I also don’t remember how I got to the parking lot of my haircutting guy.

I do remember sitting in the car with him looking out the shop window waiting for me while I tried calling my nearest and dearest. I do remember none of them were waiting by their phones for my call. So I also remember getting my hair washed, cut, and dried with this goofy look on my face because there was no way haircutter Mike was going to be the first to know I had finally realized a dream 20 years in the making.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

July Theme: My YES! Moment (by Tyler Whitesides)

My greatest YES moment happened last fall. I was actively working with two unrelated manuscripts. The first (Janitors) was in submission with Shadow Mountain Publishing. They had been looking at it and reviewing it for some time and I could feel success drawing nearer. The second manuscript was a humorous middle grade that I was using to query agents.

When the good fortune hit, it seemed to strike all at once.

I remember it was a Monday. I received an email from an agent asking to call me. He had read my humorous middle grade manuscript and thought it was close but still needed work. Honestly, I didn't know why he wanted to call. I didn't think he was interested. During our discussion, I was surprised and overjoyed as he made an offer for representation! It was unexpected and thrilling. I hung up the phone feeling that I had just made a huge step forward in my path toward publication.

Only a day or two later, Shadow Mountain Publishing called. They had reached a conclusion about my manuscript and were in a position to make an offer! Again, I was ecstatic. I quickly contacted my newly acquired agent to inform him that we had received an offer. I hadn't told him that Janitors was in submission, so this sudden success was pleasant news to him also. He got in touch with the publisher and negotiations began.

Timing could not have been better. It was a great relief to have a good agent working with my publisher. It was a great blessing to have a publisher that was so enthusiastic about my work. And now, only a year later, Janitors is just a few weeks away from hitting the bookshelves. Watch for it on August 3rd!

Friday, July 8, 2011

July Theme: My YES Moment Landing an Agent (John Claude Bemis)

There have been many exciting moments in my career as a writer, but the one that stands out the most was when I met my agents, Josh and Tracey Adams of Adams Literary. In the spring of 2006, I felt my novel The Nine Pound Hammer was ready for submission. Having heard how tough it was for unagented writers to get a publishing deal, I began the grueling search for an agent. That process is a whole other story-- and one worth telling another time. After extensive research, I had my list of dream agents. And at the top was Adams Literary.

They handled many fantasy adventure authors. They had an interest in “discovering Southern voices in children’s book writing.” They represented an amazing array of talent. The catch was (at the time) they would only take submissions from authors they had met in person. Dang. I thought I was going to have to move down the list. But then I saw that Tracey was speaking at a SCBWI conference in North Carolina, where I live. Here was my chance. I registered for the conference.

Now if you’ve been through the submission process, you know there are rules to follow. Break those rules and you might ruin your chances. According to standard operating procedure, the first step is to send a query letter asking if the agent will consider reading your manuscript. So my plan was to introduce myself at the conference, follow up with the query after the conference, and hope for the best.

My wife had a different take…

She suggested I send them an introductory email saying that I was looking forward to meeting them at the conference. There was nothing about this in my research on the submission process. There were rules! You had to follow the rules. Be too pushy or make one misstep and you might blow it. But as she pointed out, they’re just people. I was hesitant, but I gave it a shot. Here’s what my email said:

Dear Ms. Adams,

I am familiar with Adams Literary and your work with Margaret Peterson Haddix and Jenny Nimmo (and as a J.M. Barrie fan, I am eagerly anticipating Ms. McCaughrean’s Peter Pan in Scarlet!). With Adams Literary’s move to Charlotte, I have been excited to learn of your interest in discovering and developing authors who reflect the voices of the New South.

I will be attending the SCBWI conference this weekend in Durham, and I look forward to hearing your sessions. The weekend looks to be both informative and inspiring. After the conference, I would like to send you a query regarding my completed Young Adult fantasy novel based on Southern folklore.

Warmest regards,

John Bemis

I quickly got a reply from Tracey thanking me for the email and saying she looked forward to meeting me as well. At the conference, I hadn’t had a chance to meet them yet when I attended Tracey’s presentation on “The Do’s and Don’ts of Submitting to Agents.” She was talking about all the bizarre approaches people take: sending glam photos, filling envelopes with glitter, sending bottle of champagne, etc. Then she asked if John Bemis was in the audience. Face burning that I was about to become an embarrassing example of a "don't", I raised my hand. Tracey read my email aloud. I was cringing. Heads were turning to locate me. She then said that this was how to do it. Be polite. Be brief and professional. And be yourself, a normal person without gimmicks.

Later we got to meet officially. I submitted my manuscript to them. And a few months later, I got the call that they wanted to represent me. Who knows how critical that introductory email was, but what I realized was that we began our relationship on the right note. I believe I showed myself as assertive but also easy to work with, and they showed me they were responsive and friendly.

While my writing career has had the rollercoaster ups and downs many authors experience, my agents have always been there as caring supporters. They have my best interests at heart. Nothing in my journey as a writer has been as critical as meeting Josh and Tracey at that conference.


As I gear up for August release of THE WHITE CITY, the third and final book in my Clockwork Dark trilogy, I’m doing giveaways. If you want a chance to win a copy of either The Nine Pound Hammer, The Wolf Tree, or an advance copy of The White City (winner's choice), make a comment here under my post by Monday, July 11th. The winner will be selected at random on Tuesday morning and announced here on Smack Dab as well as on my website To be considered you must be a follower of Smack Dab In The Middle and a resident of the United States or Canada.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

July Theme: My Biggest Yes Came After My Biggest No

by Naomi Kinsman

There I was, sitting on a windowseat next to an editor, and I saw in her face that she really wanted to like my book. Now, this in itself was a miracle, because editors have plenty of manuscripts to choose from, and stacks more besides. But, this editor stopped and took the time to talk to me. During my years of working on my writing craft, and on this book in particular, I had imagined this moment. Me and an editor, with my book between us on the cushion. (Well, maybe I didn't imagine the cushion.) And none of my imagining could have prepared me for what she said.

She didn't say, "This isn't the book for me," or "Maybe if you tweaked a character," or even "Perhaps if you set it in a dystopian world." No. She shook her head sadly and said, "I really like your writing, but I can't feel your heart in this book. I don't think this is the book you should be writing."

Terror dug razor-claws into my neck, shocking the words right out of me. This terror was too swift and sudden to be a product of what she'd said. After all, she didn't know me that well, and perhaps, with some revision, I could uncover the problem in the manuscript and, you know, squish some heart in there. No. This terror rose up because she had seen and told me what I already knew. I was hiding. No amount of fancy word play could hide the fact that I wasn't taking any real risk. I wasn't digging deep and doing the work of a writer.

Knowing she was right didn't change my misery. All that lost time. All those pages. And beyond those issues, the deeper problem: I had to make a choice. Was I, in fact, going to take a risk?

Even as I wallowed there, full of I can'ts, the tiny seed of an idea started to grow. A crazy idea. An impossible idea. I knew that I was about to set out on the adventure of my life, a battle between the me who wanted to create something meaningful and the me who preferred to hide. I wanted to make that battle visible, tangible, and I wanted to bring every part of myself into the creative process.

So, I asked my graduate advisor at the time a ridiculous question: Would you, by any chance, be willing to let me write, produce and perform in a play about my journey to learn how to be a real writer? And will you count it as my critical thesis?

Yep. There was the yes.

I spent the next six months writing, sewing, filming, composing, choreographing, gathering actors, raising money, painting, building sets that would fit into a suitcase, but more importantly, taking my first real risk. This play wasn't a flashy word-showcase. The play followed a girl (me) who escaped her own perfectionism and workaholicism and learned how to play. I set out hoping to surprise myself... and I did.

I thought the yes came from my graduate advisor, and that's partly true, but the reason this experience was so vital to my creative life is because I also finally said yes to myself. Yes. I can try that, even if I have no idea if I can do it, even if I have no idea if it will turn out the way I hope. Really, I think the most important yes isn't from anyone outside ourselves. It's the moment we decide to stop holding ourselves back with all the I can'ts and I'm afraids and what ifs and we simply leap.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Your Non-Standard, 11-Question Interview (Including the Dreaded Speed Round) with Eric Luper PLUS Win His Latest Book

I've almost met Eric Luper several times. And I'm sure if I did, he would have made me laugh. Or maybe not. Maybe he saves all his funny for his writing -- I should have asked him. But I didn't. Instead, you can read Eric's answers to other questions I posed soon after the release of his laugh-inducing middle grade Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets. (See my review here)

First, in exactly 37 words (just picked that number out of a hat), tell us something about your latest book, Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets.

First of all, I am skeptical of this purported hat, but here goes…

One of the things I love about Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets is how it tackles gender equality in a humorous way. It’s a lot harder to be a girl than these boys had ever thought!

Okay ... so you got me on the hat. Sort of. There was an imaginary hat and the first number I though of was 37. Honest. Anyway ...
This is your first foray into middle grade authordom, so while your head is in that place where many of life’s humiliations live, I have to ask. What’s the most embarrassing thing that happened to you in middle school?

Hurm, middle grade was filled with humiliations, but I suppose the two that stick out are repeatedly getting shoved into the girls’ room by a few bigger kids as I would walk to class. You can learn about another humiliating thing I had to suffer by reading the first chapter of Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets! (hint: it includes grass)

In the book, Jeremy’s best friend Slater goes to great lengths to support Jeremy ... even dresses up like a girl. Tell us about a time when a friend went far to support you ... or you went that far to support a friend.

I can’t say I ever dressed up as a girl to support a friend, nor has a friend done that for me. However, there was one time in eighth grade when my friend stuck a rude bumper sticker to the window of a teacher’s classroom door. He was on his last warning before suspension and she all but knew that he had committed the act. In an effort to save my friend (who later turned out to not be such a good friend), I took the bullet and ‘confessed’ to putting the sticker up. It was sad because I had liked that teacher up until then, but I was convinced her opinion of me had changed and so things were never the same between us after that.

Well, raspberries to your so-called friend who undoubtedly wouldn’t have dressed as a girl to help you. But while we’re talking about dressing up, what was the strangest costume you ever wore on Halloween ... and the strangest thing you wore when it wasn’t?

One year, I was Mr. Potato Head and the Velcro-backed eyes, nose and mouth were moveable. A good time was had by all. Another year, I dressed all in black and was The Abyss (I was being lazy).

As for dressing up strangely when it wasn’t Halloween, I did have these black boots with an ankle chain when I was in college, but hey, it was the eighties… and Bon Jovi was huge in New Jersey!

(Buy ones like them here.)

Everyone joined one group or another when they were in school. Tell us about any group (organized or disorganized) you should not have joined.

Latin club, for sure. The entire Latin program in my high school consisted of 9 students. Several of them decided not to join Latin club and, of course, not everyone could make meetings so it ended up being three or four of us who sat around playing with words. As a group, we went to the State Latin Conference/Competition. When we got there, we discovered most everyone else was wearing togas and sandals. Clearly, we had not gotten the memo. That was way out of my comfort zone, anyway. I got killed in the Mythology Test but placed first in the state in Vocabulary and Derivatives, exactly the opposite of what I expected!

Jeremy and Slater soon realize the easy way to reach their goal isn’t so easy. What’s the longest shortcut you’ve ever taken?

Ha, well I suppose I’m still on the longest shortcut I’ve ever taken. It would have been quicker for me to get a job and work for 30 years to retire rather than becoming a novelist. But heck, who would want to retire from being a children’s author? After all, it’s so much fun!

I second that! Now for the speed round ...
Cake or ice cream?
Ice cream!
Camping or boating?
Boating, but not if it’s sailing. That is something I just do not understand.
Baking or bakery?
There’s nothing like perusing the yummy-looking cases. Bakery.
Organized sports or video games?
Sports, for sure. But I like solo sports like golf and skiing and breath-holding. I’m good at that last one.
Some Like It Hot or Tootsie?
I’m going to have to go off the board here and say To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.

Forgot about that one. I didn’t forget, though about giving away two (2) copies of Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets. Here’s how you can ...


1. Comment below ... OR
2. Go read the review of Jeremy Bender vs. The Cupcake Cadets and leave a comment here ... OR
3. Like or comment at the appropriate place on my Facebook page ... OR
4. Shoot me a Tweet (I'm @jodyfeldman).

And to make things more complicated, you’ll receive ...
1 entry for a simple, “Hey there, put my name in the hat.”
2 entries if you relate an embarrassing middle school story
3 entries if you can tell that story (at any of the sites) in Tweet fashion – 140 characters or less

Winners will be chosen by 7/20/2011. Any anonymous entries will count, but if I can’t easily find you, your prize will be donated to a worthy library or school.