Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Post: The Scary Side of Writing (Christine Brodien-Jones)

Whenever I think about the dark, scary side of being a writer my mind flies off in twenty different directions. In the course of one day there are endless things for a writer to worry about and anguish over. Okay, maybe the image of an author wrestling with her/his demons is a well-worn cliché, but the truth is: the world of publishing is often harsh, the stakes are high, and as writers competing in this unpredictable and competitive world, we struggle.
For me the most terrifying demon is the double-edged Self-Doubt/Fear of Rejection demon, which never completely goes away. Rejection pops up in countless guises: agents/editors returning your manuscript (not once, but over and over), a review that rips your newly-published book to shreds, your editor’s decision not to take your next book, news that your book is going out of print. These are just a few scenarios that can raise your anxiety level…then the anguish of self-doubt creeps in.

How have I dealt with fears and insecurities? First, I’ve had a supportive family—a husband and sons who’ve often acted as “first readers” and offered honest opinions. I’ve also been a member of an incredibly supportive children’s writers group for nearly twenty years. And I highly recommend reading books by authors, including Stephen King’s “On Writing,” Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write,” and Ray Bradbury's "Zen in the Art of Writing."

In his book “Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips For the 21st Century Writer," Jeff Vandermeer talks about rejection, envy and despair. Yes, the writing life is hard, he says, and it is a constant struggle. And yet: "You're living the life you want to live, and any deprivation is as much a sign and symbol of your choice as is success."

This is the life I've chosen and the bottom line is this: I sit at my desk and I write. I keep putting words on the page, even if they're rubbish. I keep going, I write.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Killing the Demons (August Theme) by Jennifer Cervantes

Being a write means making peace with certain demons:
 Self-doubt
 Fear
 The critical voice that lives inside your head
 Impatience
 Despair
 Worry
 Frustration…

I wish I’d known all of this was normal when I started my journey. Instead, I kept these feelings to myself wondering what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just sit down and compose beautiful and eloquent prose on command? Why did I let this voice sneak up on me and kill my creativity? A few years into this game, and I have now made peace with those demons (mostly). And it was a certain book that opened my eyes and gave me that AHA moment: THE WAR OF ART by Stephen Pressfield.

This small book is loaded with thoughtful, demon-killing advice, but perhaps the most important is our tendency to swim into the waters of “Resistance.” That is, anything that keeps us from writing. All the demons above are only Resistance; doing the laundry when it’s time to work is resistance; telling yourself, “I can get back to this later,” is resistance; my dog needs a bath…well, you get the idea. After reading this book, I challenged myself to treat writing as a “Job.” I sit down for four hours every day (even if this means staring at the screen) and I think, I write, and sometimes I just wring my hands. It has changed my entire outlook and my productivity. And let me tell you there is nothing to kill those demons like productivity! They hate it! They will do anything they can to lead you back into the waters of Resistance. But once you know their game, you are the one in control and you will be amazed at what you can create when those buggers are put to rest. Do I still feel self-doubt? Yes. But, truly the best prescription for it is “to just write.” That really is our only job…so what are you waiting for?

Friday, August 26, 2011

August Theme: What doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger...

For me, being a writer was never a choice. Like most authors, it is something engrained deep inside my DNA. It’s what makes me who I am. After I wrote my first manuscript, it got rejected so many times I began to lose count. So when I found an agent, and subsequently signed a two book deal with Orchard Books, it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me (and still is!), but it was a bitter/sweet experience because around that time my Myalgic Encephalopathy took a turn for the worse.

I’d been suffering with M.E for about two years, but for some reason it decided to flare up at the worst possible time. Things changed fast. I stopped going out. I could no longer do the things I enjoyed like going to music gigs or to the pub with my friends. I found it hard enough working part time at my local shop, let alone finding the energy to write a novel! Before I met my agent, I wrote whenever I was feeling well, and even when I wasn’t, I’d simply curl up in bed and wait until I felt better again.

But I couldn’t do that anymore. Suddenly I had deadlines to meet and revisions to complete. I couldn’t just sit around and take forever to complete my book. I didn’t tell anyone about my illness, not even my agent. I felt ashamed, and worried that people would just think I was being ‘lazy.’ Besides, there were hundreds of authors out there who would have given their right kidney to have their books published, so I didn’t feel like I should be given any special treatment. Although I was pretty much bed-bound at this point, I was determined that I wouldn’t let my illness destroy my dream of becoming a published author.

So, in order to cope, I quit my part time job and became the definition of a struggling author! I developed a strategy where I would rest for a few hours, write for half an hour, rest for another few hours, write for another half hour, and so on… (you get the picture). All my spare energy went into writing the book, and sometimes, because I wasn’t doing anything else but sleeping and writing, my drive and enthusiasm waned. During these times, I found the best cure was chocolate (and plenty of it!) but when this failed, I’d sit and re-read my favourite books. You know, the kind of books that it doesn’t matter how much you’ve read them, each time feels like you’re being taken on a new and wonderful adventure. Books from the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Phillip Pullman or the Harry Potter series. I’d finish them and think “Wow, I want to write a book as good as that!” and I’d push through the exhaustion and get back on the computer again.

Recently, my M.E has improved leaps and bounds, and some days I almost feel normal again, but I know in part it’s all thanks to my book. Although it was the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished, it gave me something to focus on, and stopped me from feeling completely useless. And I realised something; sometimes dealing with Illness is a bit like dealing with the struggles of becoming published. It reminds me of the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.”

You might feel like everyone and everything is against you, that your goal is beyond reach, but hopefully, when all the hard work has paid off, you’ll be able to look back on it and smile.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Get out the wooden stakes and hunt down self-doubt.

I have a dilemma.

Our theme this month is dealing with negative thoughts. I have a way of doing this. But… well, I’m a little reluctant to share it here. Not because it’s a big secret but because…

See, I’m a huge musical theatre fan. I really think that 90% of all problems can be found in songs from musicals. (Trust me on this.) And there’s a wonderful musical called [TITLE OF SHOW] (yes, that’s the name) that I often turn to when I’m experiencing doubt. The show, [TOS] to its fans, is about two guys trying to write a musical about two guys trying to write a musical. You can’t get any more meta than that. That’s, of course, the story. What it’s really about is the creative process. The show looks at all the different steps involved in making art: generating ideas, experimenting, dealing with criticism/suggestions, etc.

My favorite song from the show is called “Die, Vampire, Die!” It’s the song that deals with self-doubt. In it, we learn that a vampire is “is any person or thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative self expression.” This might be your grandmother disapproving of bad language in your writing or even a niggling voice in the back of your head asking, “What’s so special about you?” The song looks at all the different ways “vampires” can interfere with the creative process and offers advice for anyone afflicted.

It’s a great song, packed with honesty, humor, and hope.

It’s also R-rated.

Maybe PG-13.

Nope. Just listened to it again. Definitely R.

Normally, as I’ve done on other blogs, I would embed a Youtube file of the song but… I feel that would be wildly inappropriate here. However, I do recommend that any artist—writer, painter, dancer, what have you—should listen to this song. They should embrace it and wrap themselves in it and use it as a happy place to go to when confronted with any of the situations presented in the song. If you’re over the age of eighteen and would like to hear the song, follow this link. You’ll thank me.

I sometimes have a little pity party where I'm convinced I've been allotted more than my share of self-doubt. The vampires in my mind put Dracula to shame. So I listen to this song a lot. A LOT. It really is the best thing I've found to get past the crippling fear that I'm just a schmuck with a keyboard and that, yes, I can be creative and write things that people enjoy. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August Theme: Let's Make a Deal (With Yourself)

by Stephanie Blake

How do I deal with the ups and downs of a writing life? Well, that's easy. With chocolate.

No motivation to write?
An M&M for each sentence. The new pretzel ones are pretty darn good. Finish off a bag, and you'll have quite a few words on paper.

Typing The End?
A chocolate martini. Or two. But, never three.

Stinging rejection?
This calls for a whole slice of Godiva chocolate cheesecake. With whipped cream. Feel free to lick the plate afterwards.

Revision blues?
A entire bag of chocolate Twizzlers can get you through that long editorial letter.
What about the waiting, the eternal waiting?
Bake a batch of brownies. From scratch. By hand.

Book deal?
This calls for a chocolate facial. The ultimate celebration!

"I owe it all to the little chocolate donuts." --John Belushi

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August Theme: Writing Outside the Gilded Cage

In the deep and distant past of 1998, after spending five years writing Firegold, my first novel, and five more years trying to sell it, I finally received an offer from a publisher. In my joy and innocence, I didn’t know I had just entered a fantasy world. I didn’t know that along with shining splendors, there would also be dark labyrinths, gilded cages, pitfalls, and deserts without a drop of water. Even if someone had told me, I would not have believed them.

After Firegold came out, I did everything to promote it—in those days that meant sending out press kits, arranging book signings, school visits. I had an unusual publisher in Winslow Press; they still believed in flying their authors to librarian’s and teacher’s conferences. I was treated like a princess. One night as I was leaving my hotel with my editor, we bumped into a well published author I knew from SCBWI in Seattle. We chatted a moment. When she learned that my publisher was giving a dinner in my honor, her eyes grew enormous. Now I know why she was surprised. I was a brand new, totally unknown author being treated like a star. When I walked into the restaurant, I was startled to see fifteen round tables, with a copy of Firegold set at every place. At the dinner I spoke briefly. Afterword, a librarian told me, “You are a treasure, and I’m so glad they found you.” Days of splendor indeed.

When Firegold received a starred review—I think it was from Booklist—my publisher sent me roses. Winslow Press took my next book, too, Aria of the Sea. It sold well and won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature that year. Winslow also bought my third novel, White Midnight. They wanted everything. I now think of this time as the First Golden Age.

The castle in the air came crashing down when Winslow Press declared bankruptcy. (Too many dinners lavished on unknown authors?) I was owed thousands of dollars in royalties for Aria of the Sea. I never saw a penny. For many years I begrudged that money, but now I see that the unique experience that Winslow gave me—treating me as I imagine authors were treated in the old days, and only high selling or prestigious award-winning author stars are treated now—had a value of its own. Winslow sold the rights to my books—White Midnight was not yet out only under contract--to Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG).

FSG issued Aria of the Sea and Firegold in paperback, and brought out my next two hardcover books—White Midnight and The Phoenix Dance. But after Winslow, FSG was a culture shock. The first shock was the DREADFUL cover they did for White Midnight.

Bookseller after bookseller told me that this cover killed my book in spite of the excellent reviews it received. The bigger shock was that FSG sent me nowhere to promote my books. (Of course, I must say that FSG is still in business, so their thrift must be working for them.) The next shock—my new editor did not like the manuscript of The Phoenix Dance. I changed the book drastically—to its great detriment—something I still regret today. I was still trying to do what people told me. I still thought of my writing as “a career.” My first three books had all been chosen as ALA Best Books for Young Adults. The Phoenix Dance was not.

My editor declined my next fantasy—an early version of Avielle of Rhia. And I do not blame him. I sent it to him too raw, too soon. My agent sent it to Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish, who had been the editorial head of Winslow toward the end. I loved Margery, still do, and always will. Margery must have loved me, too, because she saw promise in Avielle. (To be honest, I think she also saw a later version). Cavendish did a SPLENDID cover. She also bought my first middle grade novel—The Return of Light.

Then Twilight arrived and vampires sucked all the blood out of the fantasy market.

I hate vampires. To this day I believe the connection between sex and death is SICK. I refused to write a vampire book. So I spent two years writing what I still think is a rich and complex fantasy novel in four voices. Nobody nowhere wanted it no how. Still thinking of writing as a career, I studied commercial middle grade fantasy series, and tried my hand at one. Again, nobody nowhere wanted it no how. “It’s not a Dia Calhoun book”, several editors wrote in their rejections. I did not know where to laugh or cry. Nobody wanted a literary, rich and complex “Dia Calhoun book.”

Next, the dystopian and zombie novels hit. I certainly did not want to write one of those either. Then the fairy novels invaded. Again, not interested. I received too much advice from other well-meaning YA authors. “If you want your books to sell to teen girls, spice up the romance, make them hip.” So I wrote yet another fantasy with older characters, romance, and even sex. But my heart was not in it. I wrote it to sell.

While I was writing that book in what I now think of as a spiritual and literary desert, my friend, the amazing verse novelist Lorie Ann Grover, read some poems I had written years ago about my husband’s family’s orchard—the Farm. She told me I was a poet, that I should try my hand at a verse novel. You can’t get less commercial than that!

So I began a verse novel. And something in my heart rekindled. Joy returned to my writing. I stopped caring about the market. I gave up the whole idea of writing as a “career.” I returned to the kind of book I had loved as a girl, books about twelve or thirteen-year-old girls on the brink. Eva of the Farm is a middle grade verse novel inspired by the Farm. While the book is not a fantasy, it is all about the magic of imagination and place. I loved writing it. Loved it.

The first editor my agent sent the manuscript to wrote a jaw-dropping rejection. She suggested, and I kid you not, that I should consider having zombies storm the Farm in order to make the book more current and action-packed. NYET! Eva of the Farm (still sans zombies!) then garnered interest from two publishers. Atheneum will publish the book in July of 2012. A companion volume comes out the following summer. I loved working with my editor, Kiley Frank, who unfortunately has just left publishing.

I am now working on my eighth book with my sixth editor at my fourth publishing house.

I feel like I have entered a second Golden Age—but one quite different from the first one. I no longer dream of awards, or reviews, of being wined and dined at conferences, of speaking to rapt audiences, of writing something “hip.” I no longer want a writing “career.” I will not throw a lavish launch party for Eva of the Farm, or sell my soul on Facebook to try to whip up a feeding frenzy. Emily Dickinson’s poem sums up my feelings about Facebook:

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog.
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

In this new Golden Age, my only goal is to write a good book, one with a story that has everything—wonderful characters, an engaging plot, gripping ideas, language that sings. I want to create something shining that will endure. I want to revel in a writing life.

Monday, August 22, 2011

It Ain't About the Bonbons (August Theme) by Holly Schindler

I spent seven and a half years on Rejection Island, as Jody Feldman so aptly put it in her post. And as those seven and a half years progressed, I found myself thinking that if I could sell one book—if I could just get my toe in the door—everything would be okay. I just needed that one yes. I saw that first acceptance, in many ways, as the end of struggle.

Once I entered the publishing world, though, I instantly found myself faced with a hundred new hurdles to climb: I needed a website and a web presence. (I had never even so much as commented on a blog—now I needed to have one of my own? Since I’d graduated high school in the pre-Internet days, and had attended college during the days when we all took class notes by hand and stood in line at a computer lab in-between classes, putting myself online seemed odd and, quite frankly, a bit scary.) I needed to edit my acquired book without killing what the publishing house loved in the first place. I was navigating new publicity waters (print ads, announcements, etc.) as I struggled to find my audience (and learning, too, that giveaways are not just something for people in a band…)

In short, only one struggle ended when I inked the first deal: the struggle to get that first elusive yes. After inking the contract, I quickly learned that a writer’s life is one mountain followed by another: the struggle to find an audience becomes the struggle to grow an audience, then turns into the struggle to maintain your current audience as you shift genres. The struggle to edit acquired work ends just as you find yourself faced with the task of coming up with a scenario for a new book that your current fans will connect with while appealing to a whole new group of readers.

And so on…

The thing is, though, I didn’t start writing because it’d be easy. I didn’t pursue writing because I had the intense desire to sit around all day, feet up, binging on bonbons. I did it because I’m a literature junkie, and have been ever since those days when my grocery store trips involved riding inside the cart and getting a new Little Golden Book before heading for home.

I did it because I love the work. And work, in short, helps me deal with absolutely anything. If I’m filled with the nervous energy of waiting for an editor to respond to a new manuscript or waiting for the first reviews to come in for a soon-to-release book, I dive headfirst into a new project. I take the plunge, whipping up outlines and drafting new chapters and feeling the joy of falling in love with new characters, new situations, all over again.

And when you’re falling in love, worries and struggle don’t seem so big, after all…

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fear Itself (Alan Gratz - August)

All this month I've been the Children's Writer in Residence at Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. It's been great--I get to live on the third floor of James Thurber's childhood home in downtown Columbus, where by day I work with young writers and by afternoon/evening get time to focus on my own writing. It's been an incredible experience.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of young adult writers (that is, writers who ARE young adults) when they held the last of their summer get-togethers at Thurber House. This group has been meeting bi-weekly for years now. Many of the young writers have grown up with the writing group, and a couple said tearful farewells before heading off to college this fall. It's a fantastic, supportive group. They're all very different writers, and they all have different writing goals, but they've been able to put aside all the doubt and angst and bravado that naturally comes with being a teenager and work together to make each other better writers. I heard better critiques during the hour they shared their own work with each other than I have heard at many adult critique groups.

Before they did their usual critiques, I held a Q&A where I invited them to ask me anything and everything about the writing life, from craft to business to daily life. There were a lot of great questions, including this one: "Is there ever a point where you stop feeling like you're just an awful hack?"

I laughed, and then I fake-sobbed, and I told her the truth. No.

I lose confidence in myself on a daily basis. I tell myself that I've already published the best book I'm ever going to write, or that what I'm working on is the worst book ever written. I second-guess my decisions. I think about jumping ship from a book mid-way through and starting a new project. I worry that my style isn't literary enough, or that my plot isn't commercial enough. I worry that I'll finish a book and it won't sell to my editor, or worse, won't even make it past my agent. (It's happened.)

At the same time, I told the young writers that I thought self-doubt like this was necessary to become a great writer. Imagine you were confident all the time, I told them. Imagine you always thought you knew what was right, and that you didn't need input from anyone else. You just knew you were awesome. Then you would never grow. You never get better. If you believe you're already at the top, you never push yourself to get better. You'll never accept constructive criticism, or editor's notes, and believe you me, every writer needs those. Some sense of, "I can always do better" is necessary for pushing ourselves to be great.

Negative thoughts can be debilitating if we let them, to be sure. I've known many aspiring writers who gave up for one reason or another because they told themselves no. Told themselves they couldn't do it. Heck, I have five books out, and I still tell myself this kind of thing. There are a few tricks I've learned though that help to see me through.

Think out where you want to be as a writer and what you want to write. Make a game plan: This is the book I'm going to write, this is my deadline, this is what I want to accomplish with it. This is my goal. Then commit to following through. Don't let the self-doubt derail you. Finish what you start.

Let other people tell you no. Don't assume you're going to be rejected. Make them reject you before you give up! Yes, it's painful. As other authors have said on this blog this month, it's perhaps the most painful thing you have to go through as an author. (Right up there with getting negative reviews of your work.) But don't tell yourself no before you even get started. There are plenty more people waiting to tell you no. :-) (And one, somewhere, who's waiting to tell you yes.)

Trust yourself, and listen to people you trust.

And finally, for every day that I feel defeated, I have another where I feel triumphant. You have to harness those times when you feel like you can conquer the world. Those times when you're in the bookstore or in the library and you see books on the shelf and you think, "I can do this! That could be me!" Use that positive energy to surge forward against the tide of doubt that will inevitably follow. It's the shield you're going to need for when the doldrums attack.

To quote Franklin D. Roosevelt, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Or perhaps Pogo put it best: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Be afraid, my friends--but not too afraid.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August Theme: Going OP (Lisa Graff)

My second published novel, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, about a twelve-year-old girl who becomes a con artist for a summer, has always been very dear to my heart. For one thing, it was my graduate thesis for The New School. For another, I was reading a five-minute snippet of this story at a New School event when my soon-to-be agent sought me out and offered to represent me (that agent, for the record, was Stephen Barbara, who is still my agent and whom I love to pieces). It was also this novel that convinced my soon-to-be editor, Jill Santopolo (see my recent interview with her here!) to sign me for a two-book-deal.

And then . . . the book didn't sell very well. Oh, it sold some copies here and there, but it didn't do well. Not nearly as well as my first book, The Thing About Georgie, which is, in comparison, an extremely quiet book, but has sold shockingly well and continues to do so (not that I'm complaining!). If you had asked me before either book was published which one would have flourished and which one would have ended up dead on arrival, I would have told you the exact opposite.

Shows what I know.

Watching the numbers slowly level out over the months after its publication, I worried that the book's status might soon change into the two letters an author fears most: OP. Out of Print. I started to have nightmares about it--like, literal nightmares. One night I dreamed that the book was going out of print, and since the publishing house needed to clear room in the warehouse, they offered me all the remaining copies of the book at a discounted price (as publishers do in reality, outside the world of dreams). The nightmare really got going when I began desperately struggling to find space for three hundred Bernettas in my studio apartment.

Well, long story short: The book went OP.* And, yeah, I was pretty upset about it. When a book goes out of print, it's easy for an author to get pissed off. It's easy to want to blame the publishers for not marketing it well enough, or the reviewers for not giving it enough attention, or the world for not "getting" what you've written, and especially yourself for not writing something good enough to last the test of time. I've noticed that authors, even very established ones, tend not to talk books they've written that have gone out of print. It's sort of our secret shame, like if the world knew that we'd written an OP book, they wouldn't take us as seriously. Maybe they'd think that all our books should go out of print.

But I think that, for most OP books, it's really no one's fault. Tiny things add up that cause sales to dwindle, or to never take off at all. When I was an editor I saw many different kinds of books go out of print. Award-winning books whose time had passed. Books that once topped the bestseller lists, but had somehow gone out of favor. Quiet books that never quite found the right audience. And, yes, some books that I didn't think were very good in the first place. Some of these OP books I would have predicted. Lots I wouldn't have.

I can also name several books that I loved as a child that are now OP. Little Fox Goes to the End of the World, a picture book I made my mother read me about fifty times a night before I'd go to sleep. The Great Mom Swap, which I read probably twelve times in one summer. Happily Ever After . . . Almost, which was the first book I ever read about divorce, and which helped me understand my own parents' divorce just a little bit better. All of these books meant so much to me when I was a kid, and mean so much to me even now, and so it makes me feel a little better to know that I'm in such good company. The OP Club.

So I'm officially coming out of the literary closet, as it were, and announcing it to the world: My book is OP. I refuse to feel ashamed about it, because I still love that book of mine (goshdarnit), and because I think that going OP is something we authors should really talk about more.

And now I turn it to you guys: What books that you loved have gone out of print?

*The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower is still, technically, being printed in library binding edition, so it is available in a limited form, but the hardcover is OP and, as far as the publishing world is concerned, it's pretty much a lost cause.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Interview with an Editor: Jill Santopolo of Philomel Books (plus a giveaway!)

Today I feel especially honored to be posting an interview with Jill Santopolo, who is not only an extraordinary editor and fantastic writer (her Alec Flint mysteries are some serious fun), but who also happens to be my editor.Jill has edited all of my middle-grade novels to date (including the latest one, DOUBLE DOG DARE, coming to a bookstore near you this April (woot-woot, self promotion!)), and I can honestly say that my books wouldn't have turned out half as good without her editorial genius. Um, also, check out this adorable photo of Jill as a middle-grader. Are you smitten yet?? :)

And just to top off how super-awesome she is, Jill is offering a giveaway of not one but TWO middle-grade galleys. So enough from me. Let's get interviewing!

Hello, Jill! We're so thrilled to have you. First of all, just to be official and stuff, please tell us the name of your publishing house/imprint and your title.

I’m an executive editor at Philomel Books, which is an imprint of the Penguin Young Readers Group.

How long have you been working at Philomel?

I started at Philomel in August of 2009. Actually, if you want to get specific, as of the posting of this interview, I’ve been here for two years and two days.

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

My career path was pretty direct. I always loved reading and once I hit college I knew I wanted to find a job that let me work with words. I worked on my college newspaper, interned for a webzine, and then, in my sophomore year of college I interned at Philomel Books and fell in love with children’s book publishing. I kept interning through college (for Dutton and then for Holiday House), and then two weeks after I graduated I started working as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins Children’s Books for the Laura Geringer Books imprint. I stayed at Harper for seven years—and while I was there I got an MFA in Writing for Children at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and wrote two books. What I think is especially wonderful about editing children’s books is that you have the opportunity to work on a book that might open a child up to the world of reading and make him or her a reader for life.

What sorts of books do you edit?

I edit a broad spectrum of books—everything from funny picture books for little guys to sexy novels for teenagers. I’d say a majority of the books I edit, though, fall right [smack dab] in the middle. I edit a bunch of books for that elementary-school-age reader, from 7 to 12—both standalone titles and series.

Who are some of the authors you work with?

Gosh, I hate doing this because inevitably I’ll forget someone, but here’s my best shot: I’ve edited books that either just came out or will come out very soon by Peter Abrahams, T.A. Barron, Felicia Bond, Andrea Cremer, Olivier Dunrea, Lisa Graff, Mary Lindsey, C. Alexander London, John Madormo, Jane Manning, Erin E. Moulton, Jennifer Plecas, Shawn K. Stout, and Jane Yolen. (I’m also working with a few more authors whose books are a bit further out in the future than the ones by the authors I just named.)

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

I’m particularly excited about all of my books! But let’s see—this is a middle grade blog, so I’ll focus on those. The two middle grade books that are coming out the soonest are We Dine With Cannibals: An Accidental Adventure by C. Alexander London and Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen. Both are wonderful. Cannibals is a hilarious adventure with non-stop action, bickering siblings, a fun narrative voice, and a nearly killer game of dodgeball. Snow in Summer is a re-imagining of the Snow White story, but set in the mountains of West Virginia. It’s lush and magical and has a fascinating scene that takes place in a snake handling church.

What moment in your career thus far are you most proud of?

I don’t have a particular moment, but I’m proud every time a book I’ve worked on gets a good review or is nominated for an award or hits a bestseller list. I’m also proud when I see a kid on the subway or in a library or a park reading a book I worked on. That might be when I’m proudest. Especially if the kid looks like s/he’s enjoying the story.

If you had to have another job, what would it be?

I do have another job! Two of them actually. I write (middle grade!) novels and I teach writing (to people who want to write for middle graders—and young adults). If I couldn’t edit anymore, I’d probably write and teach more. Though I might enjoy doing something totally different—like being a stunt woman for action movies or an ice cream flavor inventor or a professional traveler.

What do you enjoy about working on middle-grade books in particular?

I love the middle grade audience and the themes that seem important to them—balancing family and friends, figuring out the world and where they fit in, getting a taste of being a grown-up for the first time (not always in a good way). Maybe a piece of me still grapples with those questions? I don’t know. But middle grade novels were some of the ones that had the most impact on me the as a kid, and are the novels I still reread now. (Especially Jacob Have I Loved, Harriet the Spy and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I know is an adult book, but which I first read when I was ten and which I think deals with the same themes that many middle grade novels do.)

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

I think for me there are two main things that can push a middle grade novel into superb territory: An authentic voice, and a universal truth at the heart of the story (like the ones I talked about in the last question) that is totally relevant and relatable to the middle grade audience.

If you could have edited any book in the world, what book would it be?

This is a hard question because any of the books I love might not have turned out exactly the way they did if their original editors hadn’t edited them. I think the best way I can answer this question is to say that I wish I could have been Ursula Nordstrom’s editorial assistant and could have watched her edit things like Harriet the Spy and Where the Wild Things Are and Charlotte’s Web.

Lastly (and most important), what is the most annoying song to ever get stuck in your head?

In reading this question, a song that I haven’t thought of in years just popped into my head. It’s the one that goes: “This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because this is the song that doesn’t end. Yes it goes on and on my friend….etc.” I used to sing with friends in summer camp and then would keep singing it in my head long after we stopped singing it out loud. That was pretty annoying.

...And now that is totally stuck in my head! :) Thanks so much for visiting us, Jill!!



Jill is giving away two galleys to one lucky blog reader! The galleys are We Are Not Eaten by Yaks and We Dine with Cannibals, the first two books in C. Alexander London’s Accidental Adventures series. To be entered in the giveaway, simply drop me an email at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line "ACCIDENTAL ADVENTURES." The winner will be chosen at random on September 1st.

The giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Lucy, who will be receiving these two awesome galleys!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August Theme: Obstacles - A Control Freak's Lament (Stephanie Burgis)

Honestly, there are bound to be a lot of bad moments in every writing career. For one thing, just to get started, you have to show your work to other people who will point out its flaws - ouch. Then you have to submit it to agents and editors, and almost every book - this even happened to Harry Potter! - gets rejected over and over again before it ever gets accepted.

I don't know any writer who's actually managed to grow such a thick shell that they don't care about rejection, but every successful writer has learned to get used to rejection and to not let it stop them - even if they have to cry in private, throw things, scream, or complain privately to their significant others or anyone else who's sympathetic and discreet.

For me, though, the single hardest part of having a writing career is this: the lack of control.

Now, just to give some context, I am a person who really, really cares about self-control. I'm not proud of this, but it is inherent in my personality, and has been ever since I was a toddler, so it doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. As a child, I wouldn't even start talking until I could speak in complete sentences! That's how much of a scary, perfectionist control-freak I really am, in my heart of hearts.

Now here's the single most scary-to-me fact about a career in publishing: as a writer, I have almost no control over the most important parts of my career. Oh, there are things I can do, as a writer: I can write my best work; I can work hard to revise it; I can keep on submitting and submitting, not letting rejection stop me, until I find an agent I trust and admire to sell my work. But here are some of the things I can't control:
  • Which of my ideas are marketable, in the first place. This part drives me crazy. I want to be able to know which ideas will sell, and focus on those ones, letting the others go. Doesn't that make sense, from a practical perspective? Hahahaha. Yeah. If only!

    In my experience, the ideas that I think are marketable tend to turn out flat and unengaging - my heart wasn't really in them, only my brain, and it shows. On the other hand, the ideas I don't think are marketable often aren't, either. I just can't tell, as a writer, which ideas will sell. One of the hardest lessons I've had to learn is that I have to let go the whole idea of marketability and just write the ideas that call to me the hardest...and hope with all my heart that someone else will love them, too.

    The only rule is (and I wish I could remember this more often): I have no control over which books will sell, so all I can do is write the books I love, so that they'll be worth writing regardless.

  • How my books are sold. Writers have very little input on covers, and no involvement in how their books are pitched inside their publishing houses, or to the major buyers. And once the books are out in the world...well, as much as I might secretly yearn to, I can't visit every bookstore in the country to helpfully peer over reader's shoulders and say, "Wouldn't you like to buy my book?" Even if that didn't sound weird and stalker-y, it still wouldn't be practical...which is probably a good thing. But that lack of control - that lack of even basic knowledge of how many of our books are selling (which affects so many other parts of our career) - is what makes so many writers go crazy over Amazon rankings, Bookscan numbers, and every other seductive semblance of control - or at least awareness.

  • Whether readers will like my books. Of course we all want all readers to love our books. We revise and revise. I don't know any writer who didn't write the best book she/he could write. But just like I often love books that my friends hate, and vice versa, there are always going to be readers who don't like our books. And writers just court trouble when they try to do anything about that - as witnessed by every writer who's ever responded to a bad review. Ouch...
So. Here I am, a control-freak in a career that gleefully yanks away every pretense of control. It's a scary thing. But it's also the career I always dreamed of, the job that makes me feel happiest and most deeply fulfilled and most convinced that I am genuinely doing what I was born to do.

So how do I find a balance?

My personal solutions, when the lack of control starts driving me particularly crazy, include:
  • Chocolate (gourmet dark chocolate, in case you wondered! ;) )

  • Phone calls, emails, or private venting/cries-for-help to other writer-friends who understand exactly the issues I'm going through

  • Soothing music

  • Time spent offline

  • Visits to beautiful, peaceful places where I can sit and close my eyes and let my stress be (at least momentarily) swept away.
What about you guys? How do you deal with career-related anxiety, whether you work in publishing or any other field?

Monday, August 15, 2011

August Theme: Obstacles - Rejected! (Bob Krech)

A 2007 ALA Best Book for
Young Adults
(rejected 25 times)
Rejection is difficult. When your story has been rejected for the twenty-fifth time, it makes you wonder at the very least, whether you should continue to work on that story. But then, you read about some other terrific, classic book that was rejected 26 times or 42 times or 100 times. When do you give up on a story? I'm starting to conclude that the answer is never. At least not completely. Not that the story will survive as is and become that classic you always knew it was, but that every story either has something in it that can be the basis of another even better piece OR that you just had to write that story as part of your growth as a writer.  It seems we all have stories or ideas we have to work through and get on the page. Every time I write I learn something about writing even though I sometimes don't realize what it was till much later. It's like being at bat in baseball. You will not always get a hit, but if you attend to what you are doing and reflect on it, even though you may strikeout or ground out or pop up, you can learn from it. Next time you are up will know better how to face that pitcher or how you should alter your swing. You may pick up an idea about bat speed or grip. There is value in simply getting in the batter's box. Just that experience alone will teach you something. I think it may be the same for just getting in the chair and writing. Every piece will not be a home run, many will be rejected, perhaps numerous times, but they all teach us something if we stay open to the possibility of learning and continue to persevere in the writing.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

August Theme: How to Deal with Negative Thoughts (Tracy Barrett)

After my first novel was published, I suffered from a classic case of hubris, and as hubris always does, it led to a humbling fall.

My first novel was accepted by the first editor I sent it to, and it got some glowing reviews (not universally, and of course the one that starts “This uneven first novel” wound up at the top of Amazon’s review pile). It eventually was published in four other languages, was put on a lot of school reading lists, and garnered a lot of reader reviews.

I thought, “Hey, this getting published thing is easy!” and set to work writing another novel. When it was finished, not only did my editor reject it, but so did every other editor I sent it to, usually with a form letter. I shelved it.

Undaunted, I plugged away at effort no. 3. I felt very confident about this one and sent it off to the editor of book no. 1. She rejected it with unflattering haste and included a note that said something like, “I think you’ll probably be able to get this published elsewhere, but I hope you don’t. I think it will be harmful to your writing career.”

What? Was it really that bad?

I re-read the novel and I still liked it. I liked it a lot, in fact. So I started sending it out again.

Rejection after rejection came in, and after a while I started thinking that the editor of book no. 1 had been right. It must be a terrible book for it to be rejected so often, and she was probably also right that it would be awful if someone published it because I’d become known as the author of such a bad book. Maybe I shouldn’t keep trying. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing at all—book no. 1 was a fluke. I’d written my one good book and I’d written myself out. I was a fake, a poser.

But somehow I knew that this book was good (unlike effort no. 2). I knew it. But I despaired of anyone else ever knowing it. I was about to give up—

—and then I got a contract offer. Not only an offer, but an offer from an editor I had heard was wonderful, from a house whose books I liked a lot.

I was happily negotiating the contract when the twenty-fourth rejection letter came in for that very project.

Cold in Summer won several awards and is still in print eight years later. I've had lots of positive feedback on it, and regularly hear from readers who love it.

What I learned from this is that you have to be honest with yourself. If I hadn’t been so carried away with the success of book no. 1, I would have recognized that the second one, although a useful learning project, wasn’t worth publishing. I would have saved myself a lot of time and heartache if I had allowed myself to see that from the beginning. Something about Cold in Summer felt different; it felt like a good book and one that would eventually find a publishing home despite what that editor had said about it ruining my career, and in that case too I was right. My nineteenth children's book, and ninth novel, is coming out in September.

Trust your instincts.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Temper Tantrums (The August Theme by Naomi Kinsman)

I was a really nice little girl. My parents could park me for hours in a library while they worked, and I would happily lose myself in the world of stories. I didn't scream that I had to have that bag of Reeses Pieces while we waited in the grocery line. (Even though I secretly thought I couldn't live without it). I even shared my treasured toys with friends without too much fuss. But, without fail, one thing made steam blast out my ears.

Here's how the scenario might go. At night before bed, my parents talked me through the next day. First, we would have breakfast. Then, we'd do a few chores. Afterwards, we'd ride bikes to the lake and feed the ducks. I'd fall asleep dreaming of the wind blowing through my hair. And usually, the day would go as planned.

Except for when it didn't.

That's when I'd lose it. Somehow, as long as I was prepared for a day filled with weeding the garden, or waiting at the doctor's office, I was fine. But surprise me with a trip to the doctor? What followed was a very bad day for everyone.

You'd think that as a grown-up I would have matured out of this behavior. But honestly, if I have set expectations and things don't go as planned, the temper tantrum ensues. You might not see it on the outside, but if you were inside my head, you'd be dodging flying shoes or books or dishes.

So, obviously, writing is the perfect career for me, right? Wrong! Talk about surprises. There's the good surprises--when an editor asks to see your full manuscript. The bad surprises--when you get a new, terrifying deadline. The throw-you-for-a-loop surprises when you run into one of your childhood heroes at a writing conference. The bang-your-head-on-your-keyboard surprises, when you realize the plot line you planned will never work. And on and on.

Here's the thing I'm (finally) learning. Took me long enough. Really, you might think you know what to expect out of tomorrow, but life just isn't like that. And if it were, it wouldn't actually be all that fun. I'm learning that maybe instead of imploding, perhaps I should be a little more playful. Perhaps I should laugh at myself a little more. So, today, as I go back to drafting my manuscript for the third book in my From Sadie's Sketchbook series (Waves of Light) I will try to laugh a little more and go a little easier on myself. I'll try to be open to the surprises.

I think that's the only way to deal.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Was My Own Biggest Obstacle (The August Theme from Jody Feldman)

I didn’t get it. I was writing exciting stories. I was using colorful language. I was creating brilliant segues. And who appreciated it? Not any editor, not any agent; that’s for sure And why was everyone else landing that first contract? Why was I still stuck on Rejection Island?

It got so routine for bad news to land in my mailbox, I’d simply go numb. I’d ease open the envelopes, scan the rejections and jam them into my file drawer. Then I’d ship the manuscript back out with the next available Pony Express. Wash, rinse, repeat.

My stubbornness ( I WAS going to get a contract someday) worked for me. I didn’t give up. I knew it would happen. That lovely characteristic, though, also worked against me. I was so certain every word was a jewel, and maybe each was. I simply could not see past those gems to some bigger pictures. Let’s call them scenes.

I fell into the dangerous trap that the story as I first captured it was the whole truth. All I had to do was pretty it up some more. When (with the help of workshops and wonderful critique partners) the thunderbolt struck and I realized I was making stuff up – not recording history – I was free to kill a once-important secondary character. I had permission to excise various events. I soared with the joy of making up more stuff.

Only then, did I get the rush of receiving The Call.