Friday, September 30, 2011

October Theme: Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams Talk Inspiration

Joan: I love the view from my office window (above). Good thing, since I spend a lot of time here looking at it. I love all the green. I obsess over my hummingbird feeder, bird feeder, and bird bath. (Who knew that hummingbirds engage in constant battles, each guarding the feeder for themselves?) When the weather's wild, I can see it whipping through the trees in the distance, coming my way. This time of year, acorns rain down and autumn leaves flutter around like big snowflakes. We live in an old neighborhood of 70 families. There are October hayrides, December holiday potlucks, lots of neighbors out walking, and a modest lake in the center of it all. This peaceful setting is calming when work is hectic. By the way, in case you're wondering about my split keyboard, here's a closer look. I bought it on Amazon--a Kinesis Freestyle.

Suzanne: Since my office is on the side of my house and has no view, I compensate with lots of pictures of my family (in magnetic frames stuck to the side of my filing cabinet), and framed illustrations from some of my picture books. (Left: illus. by Steven Kellogg for Library Lil.  Right: by Barbara Olsen for The Witch Casts a Spell.) My suburban neighborhood is very green with lots of tall pines and fir trees, as you might expect in the Pacific Northwest since we get plenty of rain. Before I quit my "day job" as an elementary school librarian to write full-time, I worked at a school that was only three-quarters of a mile from where I live. I still occasionally run into former students (now grown up) at neighborhood businesses. One of my favorite things about my snug little office is the entryway below. When you open the door, you have to go around the corner to see my desk. That little entryway makes my office feel more private. The framed illustrations in the entryway are by Abby Carter for Edwin and Emily and Tedd Arnold for My Dog Never Says Please. On the table is an award for Library Lil from the New Mexico State Library Association,


September Theme: Thoughts on eBooks (Christine Brodien-Jones)

Like many authors, my feelings on the topic of eBooks are mixed. I write novels for middle grade readers and whether they read the hardcover, the paperback, or the eBook version makes no difference: the main thing is that they’re reading!

It's obvious that eBooks are here to stay, so it's not surprising that many teens and
'tweens who are growing up in this new digital world embrace Kindles and Nooks. Yet I can't imagine 'real' books becoming obsolete any time soon, especially middle grade and picture books: I'd like to think that children’s books will always be popular in book versions.

One worry I've heard expressed is that eBooks threaten small independent bookstores. I think of the one in my town, where I heard Sebastian Junger read from "The Perfect Storm" when it was first published. If stores like this one were to vanish, we've lost something irreplaceable. As one blogger points out, digital sales can only happen intentionally, not accidentally, so if there's no bookshelf to browse, no exciting new book will be discovered. A scary thought.

Maybe I'm an optimist, but I don't think local bookstores will disappear. The experience of being in a bookstore can never be replaced by a Kindle: the smell of a book when you open it, the book displays, the colors and designs of bookcovers, the feel of a book as you flip through it. And what about hearing a poet or novelist read from their work? None of these things can be fully duplicated by the Internet. Going to a bookshop is a treat. You might meet other book-lovers, or salespeople who rave about the latest books. You're part of a community during your short time there.

On the upside of the digital wave, I find it interesting to see what some authors are doing with eBooks. For instance, Cory Doctorow gives away eBook versions of his books, encouraging his eBook readers to buy a print copy and give it to a school, a library or a friend. J.K. Rowling has made her Harry Potter series available as an eBook on her interactive website Pottermore, saying she wants to "bring the stories to a new digital generation."

Perhaps the biggest impact of the digital revolution on authors has been the way we promote our books. I spent nearly six months investigating and trying out the best ways to promote my book "The Owl Keeper" online. The process was overwhelming and time-consuming - I might add I was on a steep learning curve - but in the end I connected with authors, readers, bloggers and people in the publishing industry, and a whole world opened up before my eyes. But that's a story for another day.

-Illustration by Quentin Blake

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September Theme: Transformation is the Word by Jennifer Cervantes

There have been intriguing and engaging posts this month on changes in the industry and as I thought about what I might add, I realized it had all been said so well. But one thing that stayed with me after I read each of the changes we are facing as authors is that everything is in constant flux—life is changing every millisecond all around us. Yet we too often resist it, uncomfortable with the unknown waiting on the horizon whether it be professional or personal.

Ironically, change has been a constant for as long as humans have occupied this planet and likewise, we have feared it in large and small doses. Socrates warned that writing would “Create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls.” Doctors in the late 1800’s argued that excessive study led to madness. Radio, TV, and computers have all been touted as harmful to IQ. Yet in hindsight, each of these advances have had lasting effects and somehow the word Change feels too small: these were transformations. What will people say about the e-reader fifty years from now? How will the organizational structure of publishing shift? What role will self-publishing play? We can’t know the answers to these questions, but there is something exciting about going along for the ride—to see the transformations firsthand. I love this quote by C.S. Lewis and keep it near my desk where I can be reminded of the value and importance of transformation:

“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

I think I’d like to learn to fly… even if it means falling.

Monday, September 26, 2011

September Theme: The printed book VS the digital world by Lucy Jones

In a world where digital media is so predominant, authors are having to compete for audience’s entertainment hours and £££’s with the internet, computer games, TV and cinema. In a bid to keep up to speed, the E book was invented. Personally, I don’t own a kindle, and probably never will. (I spend way too much time staring at a computer screen as it is!) I love to walk into a bookstore, gaze at all the wonderful covers, and take my time browsing through them all until I make my decision. Somehow, downloading a book onto a Kindle doesn’t seem to match that experience. There is something very mechanical about it, although I can see their appeal.

We are adapting to a busy world where entertainment is something that can be found at the push of a button. If you look at the way books are written compared to fifty years ago, you can see the difference the digital world has had. The pace is much faster now, and modern novel tends to reflect this. Many bestsellers are extremely ‘Plot driven’ with shorter chapters ending in mini cliff-hangers so as to not lose the reader’s attention.

Change happens in every industry. It keeps things fresh and exciting, which is why I’m so pro The Kindle. Many authors shudder at the K-word, and understandably so. With more and more bookstores closing every year, it’s easy to get swept up in the idea that ‘publishing is dying’. But publishing isn’t dying. It isn’t even close to dead. Publishing is doing what it’s always done; evolving in order to give readers what they want.

Saying all this, I don’t believe that the printed book will tumble into oblivion, at least not for many years to come. The simple fact remains that many people, like me, still prefer to hold a tangible book in their hands.
And with all this new technology, comes the possibility of a bigger audience. Our books are now available to anyone, and anywhere.

Surely that can only be a good thing?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

September Theme: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

By Stephanie Blake

Because I'm a relative newbie and am just now going through my first experiences in publishing, I have some advice about surviving the highs and lows.

1. Mostly, you need to get an agent. And not just any old agent, either. You need to research and submit carefully. Get honest feedback from other writers. Search the Internet for information. Get a referral if you can.

2. No response means no. Deal with it. It's taking longer for editors and agents to respond. Have patience. This also goes for waiting for edits, cover art, release dates, etc. Write while you wait.

3. Editors are searching for the Next Big Thing (and they'll know it when they see it). Don't write to trends. Tell the story you want to tell. Don't throw in a vampire or a pirate, just because.

4. Blog if you want to, not because you feel you have to. Same goes for tweeting.

5. Get an author website. Even if it is only a page long. Go Daddy is cheap and easy.

6. Read. Read. Read. Read some more.

7. Be open to technology.

8. Pass it along. Talk about books you have enjoyed. Even a short tweet celebrating a book birthday is good karma. Don't say something spiteful about an author, a book, an editor, or the process. It will get around. And bite you later.

9. Be kind to newbies.

10. Stay on top of industry news. Publishers Marketplace, Publisher's Weekly, The Horn Book, Twitter, and Verla Kay's Blue Board are all good places to go for news.

Friday, September 23, 2011

September Theme: PUBKIDELOT—The State of Children’s Publishing by Dia Calhoun

The popular new guidebook, EXTREME TRAVEL, describes Pubkidelot—the State of Children’s Publishing—as follows:
Political System: Fiefdom
Population Demographics:
                Serfs: Authors
                Working Poor: Editors
                Rich: Amazon, Corporate Media
Economic Situation: Most of the population is poor, with a few living in kingly splendor.
History: Pubkidelot was once a glorious country founded to nurture literature and writers, and create enduring works of art. Although occasional glimpses of this legacy can be seen today, at present the country is largely devoted to making money out of garbage.
Geographical Location: Pubkidelot is located between the countries of Greed to the west and Marketing Manipulation to the east.
Climate: Barren desert sprinkled with difficult to locate lush oases.
Major Imports: The blood, sweat, and tears of writers.
Major Exports: Stories
Religion: Worships the great god Bestseller.
Popular Historical Sites: Vampire Monument, Zombie Valley, Disaster Vista, and Titillation Butte.
Culture: The Bottom Line
Heroes: JK Rawling and Stephanie Meyer.
Hazards: The terrain of Pubkidelot is extremely unstable. Be prepared for sudden earthquakes, hurricanes, whirlpools, and volcanic eruptions.
Travel Warnings: Do not enter Pubkidelot unless you have received ALL of the following vaccines:
1.       Vaccine for rejection
2.       Vaccine for endless waiting
3.       Vaccine for criticism
4.       Vaccine for nausea
5.       Vaccine for despair
6.       Vaccine for poverty
Major Reason to Visit: You may stumble upon occasional beautiful vistas.
Getting There: In spite of Pubkidelot’s harsh conditions, many people wish to enter. Visas are extremely difficult to obtain. There is no major route into the country. Most stumble in blindly after years of desperate wandering.
Travel Insurance: Not available. No emergency rescue service.
Overall Recommendation: Enter Pubkidelot at your own risk.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September Theme (Publishing Changes): On Blog Reviews by Holly Schindler

I always compare it to meeting up with a shadowy figure at the end of an alley—reading blog reviews, that is. You never do know, when you first start to read a review, if that blogger is about to become your newest ally, or someone who just wants to tear your work to shreds. John Claude Bemis wrote a post last month about some of the horrors of dealing with less-than-positive online reviews. Like John, I had to figure out what, exactly, to do with online reviews of my work when my first book released—a quandary for all current writers. I know some authors ultimately decide not to look—not at reviews on individual blogs, or on Amazon, or Goodreads. I decided early on to set up Google Alerts on my name and my book titles, and to read it all.

Now, with two books under my belt, I’ve got a few pointers for those about to face blog reviews for the first time:

1. Cut the umbilical cord. Your book is your baby; you raised it up from the tiniest germ of an idea into a complete, finished product. Like a proud parent, every writer does—and should—feel protective of their work, as well. This desire to be protective is often what carries you through rejection and multiple rounds of revision. But once that book hits the printer, you need to separate yourself just enough to grab a little objectivity. You should always love your book, and always feel proud of it. But a bit of distance is important when the book releases.

2. Accept that you’ll get some horrible blog reviews. It’s inevitable. Within the industry—among editors, agents, and reviewers for trade journals—there tends to be some similarity of thought. But once the book hits the public, there is absolutely no consensus. None. Somebody out there’s going to say, “Yuck.”

3. Don’t expect to glean much from negative blog reviews. When a reader doesn’t connect with a book on any level, their comments aren’t particularly constructive. But because you’ve cut the cord, and have gone into reading reviews knowing that you’ll get some negative comments, a one-star review won’t cut your heart out, either. You won’t dwell on it. You’ll be able to move on fairly gracefully to the next review.

4. Let bloggers tell you what you can do better. Even in the midst of a positive review, you’ll still hear, “The book would have been better if…” For instance, a blogger who reviewed—and loved—my first book, A BLUE SO DARK, noted that Aura, the protagonist, used figurative, poetic language throughout…and also swore quite a bit. The blogger wasn’t opposed to the swearing (which was used to help illustrate Aura’s desperation), but asked, If Aura speaks in such a unique, figurative way, shouldn’t she also swear in a unique, figurative way, too, rather than just dropping F-bombs? I found that to be an extremely insightful, thoughtful comment. But I don’t think this comment ever would have permeated if I was still being 100% protective of my work and not yet willing to listen.

I realize that, once a book is released, it’s done. There’s no changing that specific work. But as a writer, I know I’ll be writing more similar kinds of books—I’ll be releasing more YA, more literary work, etc. And as much as I write for acceptance from the industry—editors, trade reviewers, etc.—I primarily write to touch the audience: readers who buy my books. Without readers…well…

Constructive criticism goes into the back of my head, and it does, I would argue, help as I draft my next works…every bit as much as constructive criticism from my agent and editors also help.

Just a few years ago, a writer’s audience discussed books in private—in reading circles, over coffee, in living rooms—and the writer never got a chance to know what his or her audience was saying. I feel incredibly lucky to be writing at a time in which I do get to eavesdrop on the discussions of my books.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September Theme: State of the Industry (Alan Gratz)

I began writing and submitting novels for middle grade and young adult readers more than ten years ago now, and the industry is very different today than it was just a decade ago. One of the changes I've noticed is the rise of the kidlit agents.

There have long been agents who focus specifically on children's books, but there seem to be far more of them today than there were ten years ago. I think that's a result of the growing commercialization of kid lit. During the current economic recession, the one area of book sales that continues to grow is kids' books. I'm no economist, and I'm sure the explanation behind the numbers is more complex than I'm about to suggest, but the easy anecdotal answer is Harry Potter. When fans of the series lined up in droves for midnight sales in 2000, the industry sat up and took note: kids' books could be big business.

I began submitting before Harry Potter hit it big. I tried agents and editors at the same time, but I had trouble getting any agent to give me serious consideration. My queries almost always came back as photocopied form letter rejections--or worse, photocopied form letters explaining that The Writers Market had inaccurately listed them as interested in children's books when they really weren't. Editors, meanwhile, often sent back what I call "good rejection letters." They were nos, but they often said things like, "This book isn't right for us, but we like your writing. Let us see your next book." Encouraged by these responses and discouraged by the reactions of agents, I stopped submitting to agents altogether.

I sold my first book, Samurai Shortstop, out of the slush pile, and got an advance commensurate with my un-agented status: $8,000. That number pales in comparison to some of the agented advances being announced today. Granted, mine was a historical novel about baseball in turn-of-the-century Japan, not a paranormal romance primed for the bestseller list. But the truth is, having an agent for your first sale means you'll start at a much higher first advance, and every advance after that (assuming you can keep selling books) will build off that higher starting point.

And now it's easier than ever to get a kidlit agent. I'm not saying it's easy period, just easier. There are more and more kidlit agents hanging out their shingles every day. Agents who love children's books and are actively looking for new clients. You meet them all the time at SCBWI conferences. And they're getting big advances for their new clients' books, big advances which mean big promotional pushes from publishers when the books come out.

Ever since Samurai debuted, aspiring writers have asked me for advice on how and where to submit manuscripts. My advice for many years was always the same: submit to editors, not agents. Editors were more likely to say yes, and even if they say no, they might give you valuable feedback or keep the door open for you to submit again. But as the industry changes, my answer to that question is changing. Now, I think I would advise someone with a strong, marketable manuscript to look for one of these young, hungry agents first. The chances are better than ever he or she will say yes.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Leading a Double Life (by Lisa Graff)

Next year I will have not one but two new novels coming out, and I am very excited about both of them! One is a middle-grade novel, very much in line with the sorts of books I've written up until now...

...and the other is very different--my first YA novel, and a science-fiction novel to boot (funny sci-fi, but sci-fi all the same). It's called MOTHERSHIP, and I co-wrote it with fellow writer Martin Leicht, and it's the first in a trilogy.

Writing the YA novel was a new experience for me in many ways, including the fact that I chose to write it under a pen name: Isla Neal. There were several factors that went into this decision, but the main one was that, because all of my books to date have been for kids in the 6-12-year-old range, I worried quite a bit about "branding." I'd be horrified if, say, an eight-year-old saw my name on the cover of MOTHERSHIP and pulled it off the shelf assuming it would be appropriate for her to read. It would not be--it's for teenagers, not young children. MOTHERSHIP is a very, very different book than the ones I've written in the past, and while I think it is completely infused with my personality (as well as my co-author's), and I am extremely proud of having written it, I took on a pseudonym to reflect that difference.

But being an already-established author who suddenly takes up a pen name has its own set of quirks, and I am slowly beginning to discover them. Should I, for instance, be secretive about my "real" identity, and perhaps even use a different author photo and create a false second persona for myself, ala Richard Bauchman (aka Stephen King)? Or perhaps I could go the goofy route, ala Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)?

In the end, I decided to take inspiration from E. Lockhart (aka Emily Jenkins), who writes books for young children under one name, and books for teens under another, but is open about the connection.

Still, even after jumping this big hurdle, it turns out there are lots of tricks to being a pseudonymous author (the first of which, of course, is actually choosing the name in the first place. I had to pick mine in about 20 minutes--it's kind of a long story--and I really love it, but I kind of wish I'd read this first). The book doesn't even come out until next year, and already I'm feeling a bit like a double agent, setting up two email addresses, two Facebook profiles, two Twitter accounts. I'll log out of one account and into another, only to forget who I am twenty seconds later. And how do I decide who would post a certain funny thought that pops into my head--Lisa or Isla? Just wait until I get two websites! And what the heck do I do at conferences, or book signings? Should I sign copies of MOTHERSHIP as Isla Neal? That would only make sense, given as that's the name that's on the book, but . . . well, that's not my real name. Do I need a whole new signature now?

See what I mean? Crazy sauce. It's a whole new world for me. I guess what it really goes to show is that, no matter how "established" you are as an author, there is always a whole lot to learn about the industry, and lots of ways to feel like a duck out of water!

Anyone out there have any advice for me on how to handle my new crazy double-life (whether you have experience as a pseudonymous author or not!)? Clearly both Lisa and Isla could use it...

Monday, September 19, 2011

PUB NEWS: Dark of the Moon releases today! and a giveaway

I'm excited to announce the release today of my nineteenth book for young readers: Dark of the Moon!

(Amazon says Sept. 20, but my publisher says Sept. 19, so I'm going with the expert!)

This retelling of the myth of the Minotaur is told in alternating points of view by Ariadne, the Minotaur's sister, and Theseus, his killer. But my characters are different from the way they appear in the Greek retelling (yes, the version we know is also a retelling!) of a story taken from the Minoan civilization, which ruled the Mediterranean from the island of Crete in the Bronze Age. Greek travelers to Crete saw a shaman or priest wearing a bull's head or similar costume and either thought he was a half-man, half-bull, or garbled their story when they got home.

My Minotaur is no monster, but a witless and deformed man who kills without meaning to. Think "Lenny" in Of Mice and Men. He must be confined under the palace for his own and others' safety. And his sister adores him.

Ariadne is in training to replace her mother as the incarnation of the moon goddess and ruler of the island. Then Ariadne's world is shaken by the arrival of the Athenian Prince Theseus, who comes from a world of male gods and male rulers. Ariadne's family, her faith, and her entire world are threatened by the newcomer. But Ariadne feels drawn to this outsider, the first man to treat her as a woman, and not as a fearsome priestess and goddess-in-training.

Dark of the Moon has received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, which calls it a “world and story both excitingly alien and pleasingly familiar.School Library Journal says, "This retelling of the myth of the Minotaur is deft, dark, and enthralling,” and Publishers Weekly says, “Barrett offers clever commentary on the spread of gossip and an intriguing matriarchal version of the story. Fans of Greek mythology should appreciate this edgier twist on one of its most familiar tales.” Complete reviews are on my website.

So here's the giveaway: I'd love to read your comments! I'll send a signed (or unsigned, if you prefer) copy to someone chosen at random from among those who comment on this post over the next week.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Interview with an Editor: Katherine Jacobs of Roaring Brook Press (plus a giveaway!)

Today I'm pleased as punch to welcome to the blog my friend and one seriously fabulous editor, Katherine Jacobs, to talk about work, books, and the wonderful world of middle-grade literature. (CUTENESS ALERT! Katherine was clearly born to be an editor, as is made clear in this insanely adorable photo of her reading in the closet in fourth grade.) To add to Katherine's awesomeness, she has also offered to give away a galley copy of one of her books to one of our readers (details at the end of the interview).

Let's get cracking!

Hi, Katherine! Just to start off on a formal note, what's the name of your publishing house/imprint and what is your official title?

I’m at Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, and I’m an associate editor.

What sorts of books do you edit? What titles have you worked on in the past?

I work on everything from picture books to YA, fiction and nonfiction.

A sampling of middle grade books that I’ve edited are Betty Hicks’s chapter book series, Gym Shorts, Don Brown’s nonfiction picture book, America Is Under Attack, Georgia Heard’s poetry collection, Falling Down the Page, and Gregory Mone’s novel set on board the Titanic, Dangerous Waters (giveaway alert!).

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

I always loved children’s books and kept reading them even when I knew they were too young for me, so I wanted to do something with children’s literature. When I was in college I was working at an independent children’s bookstore (shout out to Pooh’s Corner in Grand Rapids, MI!) and we got in a copy of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. I was entranced. It had never occurred to me that there were people working behind the scenes involved in the creative process of making books. I guess I thought that they just emerged, fully formed from authors’ heads!

I did take a bit of a winding road on the way to the publishing business, however: first I was a Peace Corps volunteer and I taught English as a second language in Romania for two years, and then I got my master’s degree from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. And then I started working at Roaring Brook where I’ve been for just over 4 years.

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

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple years learning to lap swim and I love starting my day with a trip to the pool. I love to travel, especially internationally—the farther away and less developed the better. Although it hurts me to say it, I like many of the things that are trendy in Brooklyn like yoga and cooking (and eating!). I love watching television and going to the theater. I just got my grandmother’s old 1960s sewing machine and am determined to learn how to sew at least half as well as she could.

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

The book that was sort of a watershed moment for me—I distinctively remember that it changed the way I saw the world—was The Giver. I read it in the 6th grade and it made me aware of my own agency and the power of choices in a way I had never understood before. I can still quote lines from Sarah, Plain and Tall (I had it on book tape read by Glenn Close). Katherine Paterson was my hero, especially for Bridge to Terabithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins and, when I was older, Jacob Have I Loved. I wanted to be Anne of Green Gables (let’s be real, I still do!).

What would you say are some of the common pitfalls that you see in middle-grade manuscripts by new authors?

I think that new authors sometimes underestimate how astute middle-grade readers are. Some manuscripts I see are overwritten or do more telling than showing. Kids are actually remarkably able to fill in “gaps” in the story themselves. They can use context and character and plot to infer meaning in unfamiliar language or emotion filled scenes. Manuscripts that respect their young readers and their abilities always catch my eye.

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

I have not one but three adventure stories coming out this year—and they’re all completely different. Into the Trap by Craig Moodie is sort of a Hardy Boys mystery meets The Deadliest Catch. It’s about a boy who lives on Cape Cod and discovers some thieves who are stealing lobsters and it’s up to him to apprehend the crooks. The Other Felix by Keir Graff is sort of a middle-grade reimagining of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s about a boy who goes to the land of monsters when he sleeps and he learns to tame the monsters by confronting some of the challenges in his waking life. And, coming in March of 2012, is Dangerous Waters—an adventure on the Titanic that also involves rare books and secret codes.

Lastly (and most important), would you rather be an astronaut or a deep sea explorer, and why?

Definitely a deep sea explorer. I love fish and whales and the mystery and depth and power of the sea. My dream is to go scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef someday.

Thanks so much for stopping by and chatting with us, Katherine!



Katherine is giving away a galley copy of Dangerous Waters to one lucky blog reader! (Side note: How great is this tag line? "A stowaway, a stolen book, a murderous villain: an adventure on the most famous shipwreck in history.") To be entered in the giveaway, simply drop me an email at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line "DANGEROUS WATERS." The winner will be chosen at random on October 1st.

The giveaway is now closed. Congrats to our winner, Darcy!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Interview: Sheela Chari, Author of Vanished (Interviewed by Stephanie Burgis)

When I read Sheela Chari's debut novel, Vanished, I fell in love. It's a wonderful MG mystery and also a beautifully-written family story. It has music, mystery and adventure, and also some really beautiful, quiet moments that perfectly capture the changing relationship between an eleven-year-old girl and her mother.

So I'm thrilled to welcome Sheela to this blog!

I was delighted to read in your afterword that you had written Vanished as a gift for your niece, Neela, who shares the same first name as your heroine. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about, and what the challenges and rewards were of giving your heroine the same name as your niece?

Writing a character based on someone you know is both a blessing and a curse. The good part is that you have a character who is ready and vivid in your mind, from which to draw your inspiration. The bad part is that everything you know true about that person in real life has to be scrapped, because real people don’t always translate onto the page tidily.

When I started Vanished as a gift to my niece, Neela, I had no idea it would be published some day. By the time the book was sold and in its revision stage with my editor, we were having discussions about Neela’s character – what were her motivations? What were her fears? And I realized then with complete honesty that I had no idea.

I had always sort of superimposed the real Neela on my character. But I knew that for the sake of the book, I had to discover who the character was, and how her motivations and fears might best service the book. It was so very hard – but I had to abandon the real Neela – what she looked like, how she spoke and thought, what her friends were like, everything. The real Neela doesn’t have stage fright, but the character in the book did, so I had figure out why, and this meant creating relationships and conflicts with her teacher, her best friend, and her parents that were completely fictionalized. As writers we do this all the time, but when it came to a character rooted in someone I loved, it became especially challenging. It’s funny that when close friends and family read my book, they comment on how they can see the story in their minds because they picture the real Neela. For me, writing required the exact opposite –forgetting the real Neela as much as I could!

Despite all of these challenges, I was really pleased with the way Neela turned out in Vanished. While she might not be the real Neela in many ways, she still has a strong sense of ethics, an ease with being Indian-American, and a moral compass by which she makes important decisions. These are all things I admire in my niece, and I brought them to life in my character as much as I could.

I know that you're a musician yourself, but you play the violin rather than the veena. What kind of research did you do to write this book, as so much of the plot is based around the veena?

When I first started writing, I didn’t have anyone nearby who played the veena. So I looked at pictures on the Web, and then imagined the rest. Most of what I wrote concerning the instrument was really about what went on in Neela’s mind as she practiced, and for that I tapped into my own experiences as a violinist. I felt that technical rigor, discipline, and attention to form were all things that any musician had to master, regardless of the instrument they played on.

Only after I had written a draft did I interview Durga Krishnan (no relation to Neela Krishnan in the novel – just a strange coincidence!). She is my niece’s veena teacher, who lives in the Boston area. When I interviewed her, I went over all the technical details – like the structure of the veena, posture, techniques, and even a little of the instrument’s history. I also asked her to read over some chapters to make sure they were accurate and plausible. I also interviewed K.V. Kashinath, a veena maker in Bangalore, India, to go over the details of an antique veena.

This might seem like a backwards approach to writing about an instrument I didn’t know how to play. But I felt it was important to write as spontaneously as possible, so I came to the subject of music like a writer, and not a researcher. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find that the first draft contains something magical – an intuition for conceiving a scene in the most organic and authentic way. When I go back, a small part of that authenticity goes away, and I always feel like part of the job of revising is hiding the fact that you’ve revised – kind of like covering your tracks in the snow behind you. This might be a long-winded answer, but I really do feel strongly that as writers, we should first get to the heart of our story and fit the details in later. I always find a way to make the logistics work.

Like Neela, you did cross-continental travel as a kid, visiting family in India. What kind of advantages do you think that cross-cultural childhood gave you?

When I was young, I didn’t feel like I had much advantage. I used to dread going to India – I always felt very different from my cousins, and so out-of-place in Bangalore, where most of my relatives lived. My hair was different, my dress was different, and I didn’t speak the language well. I was also shy and mortified by what others thought of me. A lot changed from my childhood. Bangalore is a completely different city today – bustling, modern, with people wearing everything from traditional Indian clothes to mini-skirts. My relatives have also become more global in outlook thanks to Facebook and Twitter, and working abroad. Most of all, I’ve changed – I’m more comfortable with who I am. I still don’t speak my native language well, but I do my best, and I know that being an Indian is more than just what you speak. It’s a combination of food, traditions, religion, cultural practices, movies, books, and family. I try to give my children a sense of that – to be comfortable in their own skin, to accept their cultural heritages both from India, and here in America. I hope that my experience of being a cross-cultural kid will help me to be more empathetic with them.

One of my favorite things about Vanished was the way that it mingled a fabulous, globe-trotting mystery-adventure with really beautifully written details about an ordinary eleven-year-old's life. Can you name some of the MG novels that have inspired you as a writer?

For plot structure, HOLES by Louis Sachar. I can’t think of a more perfectly crafted novel – there is nothing extraneous or redundant. The back-story and present day story in Holes are woven together effortlessly, and the results are just remarkable.

For mystery, CHASING VERMEER by Blue Baliett. After I finished reading this book, I was really inspired to write a mystery of my own – and when I decided to write one about a missing instrument from India, this was the book I kept close to my heart as my literary guide.

For atmosphere, THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall. I loved the gentle family dynamics of the Penderwick family, and that safe sense of knowing that in this world, nothing will truly ever go wrong forever.

For getting down the voice of a multicultural character, MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS by Lisa Yee. The voice is perfect! I love Millicent’s spunky personality, coupled with her unapologetic sense of character. She knows she’s smart and doesn’t pretend otherwise, and feels at home being an Asian-American. I wanted Neela to achieve that same sense of self-confidence.

For everything else – AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Cheldenko. *Happy sigh*.

Thank you so much for hosting me, Stephanie!

Thank you, Sheela! And for everybody else: you can find out more about Sheela here and you can enter to win a copy of Sheela's Vanished (along with my own Kat, Incorrigible) on this Sarvenaz Tash blog entry.

(Note: all photos of Sheela in this entry are credit: Paresh Gandhi)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

September Theme: State of the Industry (Bob Krech)

After having read the slew of thoughtful, articulate postings so far in September, I don't think I have much to add to this month's theme that hasn't already been said and said way better than I would have done. But, I will share a thought that occurred to me today that might be related in a way.

I have a book I'm working on that my editor likes. He would like it a lot more if my previous book had sold a lot more copies early on and so they're kind of waiting to see how sales progress before committing to my next book. He mentioned (maybe tongue in cheek, maybe not) how it would be great if I had a vampire story up my sleeve. (Both my books have sports themes!) He commented on how some very young folks around the publishing houses were writing these kinds of things and getting them snapped up by editors at very nice prices.

Now, I'd always been told that as a writer you should not chase what's hot, but just write what you write. (At the pace that I write, what's hot would be history by time I got a manuscript done) But, I guess jumping on the latest trend might work for some people or maybe those people were going to write those books regardless of the trend. I don't know, but it did make me think for a minute about going home and writing a story marrying my keen interest in sports with the supernatural trend and giving the world its first novel about basketball-playing vampires.

Then again, maybe I should just hold off until parodies get hot. :)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

September Theme: The State of the Industry (Tracy Barrett)

There’s so much contradictory information about publishing these days! The print book is dead and e-readers are taking over; e-readers are a fad that will burn out soon. Sales are up; sales are down. Children’s apps will replace children’s books; apps will enhance books and book sales. Using social media boosts sales; social media takes a lot of your time with little result.

One thing that’s clear, though, is that budget and staff for promoting books has been cut way, way back. Not that it’s gone away—publishers still promote. The thing is that they reserve most of their efforts and funds for top-selling authors. And without promotion, getting your book noticed is an uphill battle.

What’s a mid-list author to do? Take over your own promotion, of course! Problem: I don’t know much about marketing and I’m not very good at blowing my own horn.

So I've hired a publicist. I heard her speak at the SCBWI conference in L.A. last month and was quite impressed. Her credentials and client list are similarly impressive. (I wrote about the selection process in a bit more depth on my own blog, Goodbye, Day Job!)

The size of the check I wrote made me see stars for a moment, but I figured if I didn’t do it I’d always wonder what would have happened if I had. It’s time to invest in myself!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September Theme: The Future of Publishing ... or ... Didn’t I Already Answer That?

Three and a half years ago when my first book, The Gollywhopper Games debuted, I answered the following on the Class of 2k8 blog:

2k8: Imagine you have an offer from your dream press to publish your dream book, no matter how insane or unmarketable it might be (though of course it might not be). What story do you want to write next/someday and why?

JF: I don’t think my idea is insane. I don’t think it’s unmarketable. I do believe it’s too expensive. I would love to write a truly interactive book – a sit-down or lie-in-bed book with paper pages – that has mini computer screens embedded throughout so readers can actually play along with any type of games or puzzles I may choose to incorporate into future stories. Just imagine what else you could do with that combination of comfort and technology. (March 2008)

The Kindle had been out for three months when I wrote my response, and the reviews were mixed. There was a lot of ... Great idea, Amazon! But how many people actually want to cuddle up to a rectangle of plastic, metal, and glass? Turns out, millions. Turns out later generations of ereaders have interactive capabilities. Turns out my idea – minus the paper part – was well in the works.

So I can sit here with the crystal ball of my imagination and make up other stuff I’d love to see happen and I can otherwise speculate on the future of publishing in any of its Nooks and crannies, but truly? As much as I was nearly right 3 1/2 years ago, I’d rather just write.

–Jody Feldman

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Back to School! by Tyler Whitesides

I wanted to take this month to talk about some awesome adventures that I'm embarking on! My book tour has begun!

This week, I started in the Salt Lake City, Utah area. With school back in session, I've had so much fun going into the elementary schools and talking to the kids about some really fun stuff! My interactive presentation includes telling some funny stories, drumming on a garbage can, and even impersonating Jack Sparrow! More than anything, my presentation promotes reading and writing as effective ways to grow imagination. I tell about my personal experiences working as a janitor and how that led to writing my first book, Janitors. I explain how I was able to use my imagination to make seemingly ordinary things (like a mop or broom) and make them extraordinary.

I have been pleasantly overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the students. It is so rewarding to see them get excited about reading. This has been a great week... and it's only the beginning of the nationwide tour.

Check out my website,, to see if I'll be visiting a city near you!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

September Theme: Publishing Changes…or Not—Connecting With Kids the Old-Fashioned Way by John Claude Bemis

In the fast-paced world we live in, there’s always talk about what’s next and how we should adapt in order to survive. As writers we hear this all the time regarding the publishing world: Should I be doing Facebook or Google+? How can we build fans through social media sites, blogs, Twitter, websites? How will e-books affect readers and writers? What’s the next hot thing to promote books?

These are all important and fascinating discussions. However when it comes down to children’s book promotion, I’ve found the best avenues are old-fashioned ones. Of all the various ways I try to promote my books, I think the most successful venture has been school visits. I should preface this by saying I love getting in front of audiences, and I’m not big on doing things on-line (simply because when I have that time to myself, I need to be writing!). That said, nothing beats a good old-fashioned school visit.

For my school visits, I’ve put together a combination of performance and instruction. Often I begin the morning with an assembly presentation where I talk to the kids about how to generate story ideas. This is something many kids—and adult writers too!—struggle with. I tell them about how I wrote The Nine Pound Hammer drawing on my personal passions and quirky interests in American folklore, traditional music, and myths.

But I don’t just lecture or drone on. I play guitar and sing. I read a passage from my book with excitement and drama. I get kids on stage to act out the legend of John Henry (a critical piece to my Clockwork Dark trilogy). I involve the kids by making it as interactive and memorable as possible. This sets things up nicely for getting into classrooms for the rest of the school visit to lead writing workshops on characters, plots, and story-mapping.

The key seems to be getting the kids excited about writing their own stories, as well as getting them pumped to read my books. And the perfect thing about school visits is that you have these huge audiences of potential readers: the students, their teachers, and even parents. I love doing book store readings, but parents (sadly) don’t bring their kids out very often to these events. I don’t think it’s on most families’ radars. With a school visit, you’re guaranteed a big crowd.

Of all the things I do—posting on Facebook, participating in blogs like this fine one, going to book festivals, doing live chats on-line with parent groups, book store and library readings, building a strong website and web-presence—I hear the most from kids who picked up my books after a school visit. I’ve won many more fans this way than any other thing I do promotion-wise. And I’m proud to say, I’ve helped inspire young writers to pursue imagining and writing stories of their own.

(Click here to see a video of students in Jackson, Mississippi performing the legend of John Henry.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September Theme: What if? (Naomi Kinsman)

It's the artist's essential question, the question that spurs creativity, the question that whispers in the dark and wakes us up in the middle of the night: What if...?

I can't remember a time when I didn't ask this question. A rule would be posed, and I would ask, "Yes, but what if...?" At times, such as when I questioned the rule of gravity–Why can't I just fly off the bed–this question was slightly dangerous and more than slightly painful.

All what if questions are, though. Dangerous and painful. They question the status quo. They shake things up. And at the same time, they offer new possibilities.

I remember the first time I saw Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I took it off the bookstore shelf and started flipping through, and I actually looked over my shoulder, wanting to ask the nearest shopper, "Do you SEE this?" Fireworks went off in my brain–a symphony of new possibilities. I started to ask, "What is a book anyway?" "What do images do that words cannot?" "What do words do that images cannot?" "When should images move?" "When should images stay still?"

Something magical happens when a reader curls up in a cozy chair with a paper-and-ink book. It's an intimate experience, one in which the reader has access not only to what the character does and says, but to the character's emotional life too. Movies don't offer this possibility, neither do plays, and real life certainly doesn't. When else can we tiptoe into someone else's mind and heart and feel life from their perspective? E-books offer this possibility too, but somehow a printed book feels more solid, less changeable. Printed books don't have a button to push that allows me to surf the internet or face-time with friends. Books are quiet and comforting. Holding a book I read years ago can send me back in time, transforming me into the little girl who stumbled upon this book in the library.

I agree with Irene that physical books aren't going away. Like candles, they may become less necessary, but that will not change their ultimate value.

I think we also have to look, though, at the new possibilities that devices offer us as writers. In the theatre, when one begins designing a show, they start with vision. What do they want this show to say? Do? Be? Think Shakespeare's Tempest done steam-punk style, to give viewers a new vantage point on a familiar story. This is the question that content creators may need to start asking. What kind of thing is this story that's pouring out of me? What form should it take? Or perhaps there is a new role developing. In the theatre, the playwright might be the one to suggest form for their artwork, but more commonly, this is the foray of the director. The director casts a vision for the show and from there, the ultimate form is shaped. Perhaps writing is becoming a more collaborative art. Perhaps we will see our stories in more forms than ever before. To me, this possibility is exciting.

One more note before I sign off. All these new possibilities also open up the marketplace for books and stories that wouldn't top the best seller list. Often this is posed as a concern–how will readers find the quality books, when the marketplace is flooded with more and more and more? This is a valid concern, and we do need curators more than ever, people who can sort through the volumen to help us discover the gems. Yet, think of what print on demand and e-books offer, too. My company, Society of Young Inklings, can now publish novels by young authors, which wouldn't have been possible in the days of huge print runs. Visual artists can now publish works of their heart, which may never be publishable traditionally (because how would they sell more than one or two hundred copies) and yet, those one or two hundred copies are treasures.

What if is a scary question, mostly because we don't know what will happen when we go down that road. We don't want to lose the wonderful elements of the here and now. I believe that if we ask the question, though, we can't help but find new possibilities. I believe, also, that we must fight to keep the best of the present and past, too. Treasure your paper-and-ink books. And be courageous about the what ifs, too.

Monday, September 5, 2011

PUB NEWS: Backyard Safari and The Vikings! Trudi Trueit

I am delighted to share the news that my new nonfiction series for children, Backyard Safari (Marshall Cavendish) debuts this month. At last! Here are the first five titles in the series (all will be available this month):

Backyard Safari is for every kid who loves small creatures that chirp, crawl, croak, fly, or jump. Designed for children ages 7 to 10, each book in the series introduces the characteristics, life cycle, and behaviors of a particular backyard animal. Once the reader is familiar with the subject, it's time for a step-by-step trek through their own yard in search of the animal. A basic field guide helps explorers identify the creatures they uncover and a project guide offers easy and fun projects to do. Plenty of fun facts, sidebars, and safari tips are sprinkled throughout the book (because I live to discover cool trivia!). I owe a big thanks to my wonderful editor, Christine Florie, and talented designer, Alicia Mikles, who outdid themselves to make these books shine.

School Library Journal says the series, “ … leads the reader into wanting to get up off the couch and get outside to see for oneself these animals.” 
Five more Backyard Safari titles will launch in the fall of 2012 (slug lovers, hold on, there’s one coming for you!). 

Also, for young history buffs, I have another book being released this month on the technological wonders of early Scandinavia. Technology of the Ancients: The Vikings (Marshall Cavendish) gives children, ages 9 and up, an inside look at Viking-age ingenuity. From agriculture to architecture to shipbuilding, readers will discover the secrets that gave the Vikings their edge when it came to exploration and invasion. This was a fascinating book to research and write. I didn't know Viking helmets never had horns. Turns out, it was just a myth (do you think we should break the news to a certain football team in Minnesota? Nah). 

And that's the beauty of nonfiction. Where else can you write about the quirky habits of squirrels and the daring exploits of the Vikings all in the same year?

For more info about these and other titles (I write fiction, too!) please visit my website at

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Continuing the discussion started by Goddess Girls authors Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams in their September 1 post...

When Amazon announced earlier this year that its digital sales outnumbered its traditional print-bound book sales 2 to 1, authors started writing eulogies and singing dirges. But I think that kind of drama is not only premature, it's completely unnecessary. Here's why:

1. Even though I used "vs." in the header of this post, it really isn't a contest between print and digital. The onset of digital publishing means more sales, more opportunities for authors. At least if what's happened in the music industry is any indication.

2. Humans -- at least modern day humans -- are collectors by nature. No matter how many e-versions come along, the instinct and urge will be to collect those well-loved volumes, to pet them and admire them. There will always be bookshelves filled with volumes.

3. Books are like candles.

This is not my original thought, but it is one I have clung to after hearing it sometime during my 2011 travels. It makes perfect sense to me: theoretically, electricity makes candles unnecessary. But people still buy them, just in case. And some people buy them just for pleasure. (See #2 above.)

So. If you've been worrying, stop right now. Break out the emergency stash of tea lights and remember it's the same for books.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September Theme: Publishing Changes--The Shift From Print to E-Readers: Some Thoughts About its Effects on Authors

Goddess Girls co-author Joan Holub and I have been in the children’s writing biz for over twenty years now, but it’s only been in the last year that we’ve seen sales of the e-book versions of  our books start to take off.  In fact, the e-sales of the first book in our Goddess Girls series, Athena the Brain, went from under a hundred sales in the first six months to around five thousand in the next six months—a pretty healthy increase.

We’ve probably all heard the news that this year—for the first time ever— reports that their e-book sales are now outselling paperbacks (though paperback sales have been continuing to grow too—at least online.) More and more Americans are buying e-readers, it seems. An August 2010 poll by Harris Interactive revealed that 8 percent of Americans were using e-readers and about 12 percent planned to do so in the next six months [source: Harris Interactive]. In 2011, sales of e-readers are expected to reach more than 20 million [source: IMS Research]. 

So how does the growing popularity of e-books and e-readers effect authors? On the bright side, it’s another avenue for sales. So far publishers have been pricing e-books at about the same price as paperbacks. Since the royalty rate for a paperback is typically 6%, but the royalty rate for an e-book is 25%, authors earn much more for e-sales than for paperback sales. (Which is only fair since there are no real production costs with e-books.)

Yet it remains to be seen what will happen if/when sales of traditional books decline, to be replaced by e-sales. Though most articles I’ve read say it's unlikely that traditional books will ever become completely obsolete, they’re obviously going to be effected over the long run. And this brings up an interesting dilemma: In my experience advances are calculated on print sales, not e-sales. That’s a model I think authors and agents need to be concerned about, otherwise advances will shrink as anticipated print sales decrease. Sales are sales, whether print or e-book, so as e-revenues increase it seems to me that publishers should begin to base advances on anticipated print sales plus e-sales.

I’m hoping that this is an issue SCBWI and other writers’ organizations will begin to address. SCBWI Western Washington recently put on a seminar for published authors that focused on e-books, so the interest in e-book issues is definitely out there, though most of this interest seems to be focused on e-book self-publication at the moment.
For those of you with further interest in the topic of e-books, I found this info on SCBWI-WWAs Chinook Update:

The Library Journal/School Library Journal will present the second annual Virtual Summit on Ebooks: The New Normal. It's a one-day virtual conference on ebooks and their role in the future of libraries. The virtual conference will be Wednesday October 12, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (EDT). Author M.T. Anderson will be the keynote speaker at this virtual summit. You can find more information and register here.

--Suzanne Williams