Sunday, January 29, 2012

When I FIRST knew I Was a Writer: January Theme (J. Cervantes)

I can still remember the innocent joy I felt when I began writing. I wrote for pleasure. I wrote to see where the story went next. I wrote to understand. There were no agent voices, no editor voices—nothing but the welcomed silence of my imagination excavating a story bit by bit. I know I will never go back to that voiceless place where there was nothing to fear. But I also realize that this is part of the writer’s journey. I realize the fear is what moves us forward, what gets us in the chair, what asks us to take the risks that help us grow.

And during the early part of my journey, I never had the audacity to call myself a writer. I was tinkering, playing, having fun with words. Even after the publication of my first book, I questioned whether I was a “real” writer. Or had I fooled everyone? Was it a fluke? Was I a counterfeit?

I can still remember the FIRST time it hit me. The first time I tried on the “Writer” title and it fit. It was long after TORTILA SUN was published. But it had nothing to do with holding a book with my name scrolled neatly on the cover. It had nothing to do with reviews, accolades, or awards. It had everything to do with a quiet sense of remembering why I write. It had everything to do with my desire to stay in the ring, to stay focused on the writing and to let the rest come as it may. Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) says that the battle is in our own heads. That we are programmed to feel rejection deep within and that our fear of this manifests itself in our thoughts which will always keep us from the writing.

I had my share of rejections, challenging moments, and tough times. I had often let these moments interrupt the art.

No more.

I know the resistance when I see it and I send it on its way.

No more do I fret over where the story wants to go or what the market looks like.

No more do I fret when I am out on submission, worrying whether an editor will
fall in love or not. You know why? Because there is always another idea percolating, another story demanding to be told. And as a writer I am focused on that.

Not that the other doesn’t matter; of course, we all want to
continue being published, finding readers to connect with etc. but when the
desire for this trumps the desire to tell the story, to spill our hearts on the
page…then we’ve lost our way.

Steven Pressfield writes “The artist committing
himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He
will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt,
despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”

Wow! Who would sign up for that?

The writer. A real writer. Because a true writer has no choice
but to write.

A true writer knows that there is also joy in the arena and
being in the arena is better than standing on the sidelines.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Nightmare Factory Cover Reveal!!!

Ok, so as we're doing the theme 'firsts' this month, I thought it would be the perfect time to reveal my first ever book cover!!! Due out 3rd May 2012!

Front and back (Click on image to see larger version)


When I received the proofs for The Nightmare Factory cover through my letterbox, I actually screamed. This was the big moment which made everything feel REAL. I was actually going to have a book published!!! I started imagining it on shelves and in shop windows. The first thing I did (after doing a happy dance all over the house of course) was to fold one up and put it around an actual book. You know, just to see what it was going to look like!

I had been told by my agent and other authors that Orchard Books always created amazing covers, but I still had no idea what to expect with my own cover. What if I hated it? What if I didn’t think they’d got the characters right? I’d seen an earlier version and had asked them to brighten the colours. What if they were still too dull? There were so many worries. Thankfully, I LOVE it with a capital L. The colours, the design, the font, everything. But maybe I’m slightly biased, what do you guys think?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Midwinter Recap

I spent the past five days in Dallas, working at the Flux booth for the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference. I love going to ALA conferences. Absolutely love them. I know that BEA is the trade show that most bookish people treat as the grail of book shows. I’ve been to BEA once and found it meh.* I’m told the timbre has changed over the past few years, as more bloggers and librarians attend. But overall, I find it to be very cold and businessy, which is fine (as that’s ultimately the purpose, I suppose).

But ALA is the place to go if you want to talk about books. I mean, really talk about books. Like, with people who’ve, you know, read them. I have the best conversations at ALA, largely with young adult librarians who have their fingers on the pulse of their patrons and can tell you exactly which person they’re going to give a specific ARC that they pick up. You often hear that librarians are gatekeepers. I prefer to think of them as champions. A librarian with fire in their heart and the mouth to back it up can be the best promotion a book can receive.

Some takeaways:

--Librarians are cool.

--They like their drama at the Youth Media Awards. You can feel the temperature in the room drop as an “ooooh” ripples through the crowd at the announcement that the Schneider Award Committee declined to name a picture book winner or that there would be only two Newbery Honor books.

--At the same time, it’s so awesome to hear the people assembled at the Awards get worked up in support of books they dearly loved.

--I can't imagine how hard it must be to serve on the committees that choose the award winning books. Lots of lots of work.

--If you ever get a chance to sit in on the teen feedback session where they discuss Best Fiction for Young Adults, do it. Just do it. The opinions are wide and varied and always very smart.

--I spoke to some publishers who were concerned that so many ARCs were being taken by bloggers, rather than librarians. All publishers love working with bloggers but the point of the show is to reach librarians. I wouldn’t be surprised if this concern turns into some sort of measurable policy in the future.

--In some ways, my favorite part of the show (besides meeting and talking to the cool librarians) is when the teen reading groups wander the floor in their matching t-shirts. These guys are amazing. They're so enthusiastic and intelligent.

The show felt a bit smaller this year but the energy was still good. I haven't missed an ALA for about three years now (well, let's not talk about New Orleans last year...)** and I hope to keep going for the foreseeable future. I'm telling you: ALA is where it's at.

*=I promise my feelings toward BEA were not at all influenced by the fact that I got food poisoning via room service on the first night and spent the rest of the show sick as a dog.

**=No, really, I don't want to talk about it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

January Theme: First rejections

by Stephanie J. Blake

I've heard that galleys for my debut, THE MARBLE QUEEN, will be ready soon. I'm pretty excited because the book is going on five years in the making. I finished writing it in late 2007 and started querying right before the holidays. (Rookie mistake). I had 13 rejections before the book sold in June of 2010. And I had one critique at the 2007 SCBWI conference in LA.

And I've used every single piece of feedback from each rejection to make the story stronger.

Some of the rejections are from editors and only a handful are from agents. I have five form letters (snail mail--on actual paper!) Most of the rejections were personal letters with actual paragraphs. And boy do I treasure them! I worked on the novel for one editor for almost a year. In the end, it was rejected. I was sad, but knew the book was stronger for it.

The book sat in the slush at Marshall Cavendish for almost a year before my editor emailed to ask if it was still available. I revised for her. She offered. The rest, as they say, is history!

I'd like to share my very first rejection. It's from an agent. He was the first agent I queried, and he asked for a full, which I sent just before Thanksgiving. I waited on pins and needles until...December 17, 2007.

Hi Stephanie--

Thanks so much for letting me consider THE MARBLE QUEEN OF IDAHO FALLS. I think this is such an endearing and wonderful story with many great qualities. Freedom's voice is uniquely engaging, and the way you've structured the novel makes it completely accessible to young readers as well as old(er) ones.

While I admire all of MARBLE QUEEN's strong qualities, in all honesty, colloquial language has never been a favorite of mine, and I tend to like stories with more central conflict. MARBLE QUEEN is a "quiet" novel, in my opinion, and while there is certainly a market for this type of literary middle grade (award winners!), the short length combined with a historical setting will make this a tough sell for an agent who isn't 150% behind it.

Ultimately I don't think I'm the right person for this project, Stephanie, but I know that for another agent, this will be a perfect match. Sorry for the disappointing news, but I truly do appreciate the opportunity to consider your work and wish you the best of luck and all success. (And Happy Holidays, too!)

Agent x

This letter made my heart sing! I knew I had written something special. I realized early on that an agent wouldn't be interested in my little book. I had to target publishers on my own and kept at it.

THE MARBLE QUEEN has been through 12 revisions since 2007. It's still a quiet, literary story, but it's full of heart. I can't wait to share it with the world this fall.

Monday, January 23, 2012

January Theme: Firsts Prevent Extinction by Dia Calhoun

 Writing is a long series of firsts—if you are learning, pushing your craft and yourself.  The first inspiration, the first draft, the first critique group, the first writer’s conference, the first rejection, the first acceptance!

In Firegold, my first published novel, I felt my way through the novel, reading books on craft, joining SCBWI, attending workshops. I kept writing Jonathon into the tunnels in the caves inside Kalivi Mountain—and couldn’t to get him out. So I started over and over—getting him into the caves a little later in each draft. I was essentially wandering blind in a dark cave myself.

Another first—learning how to do a visual outline on long sheets of continuous dot matrix computer printer paper.

Another first—working with an editor.

Another first—a dinner given by my publisher for my book.

Another first—a starred review.

Another first—an award.

Another first— breaking out of fantasy and into middle grade verse in my forthcoming book Eva of the Farm.

Another  first—writing a YA fantasy in four voices. What a challenge that was. I think it is one of my best ever books, but no one wants to publish it—it has no vampires, zombies, werewolves, or post-apocalyptic marketing hooks. Just plain old fantasy.

Another first—breaking out of fantasy and into middle grade verse in my forthcoming book Eva of the Farm.

Another firstreading Robert McKee’s book STORY. This book sharpened my story- telling skills immensely. I hope that is reflected in Eva of the Farm and its companion novel.

My next first? Scriveners—the writing software program is at last available for PC.

Who knows what my next first will be? I only know that if I want to stay alive as a writer, and not become extinct before I die, there must be many more firsts.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Scariest First Ever (January Theme) by Holly Schindler

While many of the firsts in my own life carried with them a swirl of different emotions—excitement and joy and uncertainty and confusion and elation—one first has the power, even as I think back on it today, to bring back only one emotion: pure, 100% terror.

The first day of junior high.

Sure, it can sound a little goofy, now, to call it one of my all-time most frightening experiences. And, to be fair, I certainly faced firsts, as I grew older, during which I had more to risk, had more at stake, than I did facing my first day of junior high. But I’ve never been quite as frightened by anything. Never.

In some respects, I shouldn’t have been scared at all—my junior high was actually an extension of my elementary school. I was going to the same building where I’d been a student for seven years by the time I started junior high. But…my closest friend had moved away the summer before; we’d been friends since the second grade, and of course I felt a bit lost going into junior high without her. I was also just incredibly shy, and my heart would race at the mere idea of being in the midst of so many new faces, strangers, in such a new environment—sure, the building was the same, but lockers? Fighting hallway traffic every hour? Changing clothes for PE? It was all uncharted territory.

Gonna Party Like It's 1987:
Far right: me (in the penguin T-shirt) and my closest elementary-school friend (in the pink shorts) at my brother's birthday party.

Thinking back on it, I can still feel the nervous sweat breaking out and my legs going weak as I rounded the corner to East Hall that first morning, toward the science classes (my first class was biology). I remember what I was wearing (purple shirt, vest, shorts), and how I literally thought I would faint before I got to that classroom.

Long story short, I made it. No fainting. I even made it through lunch.

Surviving junior high is just one example of a first that makes me certain, as an adult, that I’ll figure my way out of tough or scary situations. Back when I was twelve, though, I didn’t have that certainty. I hadn’t maneuvered on my own enough to know that I could trust myself. And that’s what made that first day so frightening.

It takes serious guts to be the kids we write for. Because every single day, one of them is facing some first that terrifies them the same way the first day of junior high terrified me. And they don’t have enough triumphs in their lives yet to know for sure they’ll figure their way out. They’re just taking the plunge…

I so admire those kids we write for, as MG authors. And I feel so privileged to be writing for such an incredibly brave bunch.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

January Theme: Firsts (Alan Gratz)

The first outline I ever wrote for a book was for Samurai Shortstop. I'm not Japanese, I had never been to Japan, and I didn't even have any Japanese friends--so as you can imagine, I had to do a lot of research. I read about thirty books about Japan, everything from general histories to diaries of travelers from the Meiji Period, the time I was writing about, and when I was finished I had an inch-thick notebook full of historical details I wanted to use. But how to organize them? I knew I couldn't be flipping back through that notebook looking for this bit of information, or that bit. When you're writing, you want to be putting together beautiful words, sentences, and paragraphs. You want to be focused on metaphors and allusions and beats and plot points.

So for the very first time, I created an outline. I broke the story down by chapter, writing a paragraph-long summary of each chapter on a different page in a Word document. Then I went back through my notes one line at a time, and every time I came across a bit of research that told me, for example, what a shinto shrine looked like, I moved that bit to my chapter one page, which takes place in a shinto shrine. A bit about what the Japanese ate for breakfast? I moved that to the breakfast scene in chapter seven. And so on, and so on. When I was finished, I had a notebook full of chapters telling me exactly what happened, followed by all the historical research I needed to tell just that part of the story. When the time came to actually write the novel, I was able to open my notebook in the morning, turn to the next chapter, read what was going to happen, and then start writing.

Separating what happens from how to tell it--that is, separating the story-planning process from the writing process--has been the biggest technical leap forward in my career. Those are two very different processes, but most writers try to tackle them both at the same time. For me, doing both at the same time was the root of all my writer's block. I still sit at my computer, banging my head on the keyboard as I try to figure out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, but that's the outline phase. I'm not expecting to come out of my office with seven pages written that day, and therefore don't come away thinking I've wasted my time.

Samurai Shortstop was the first book I created an outline for, and the first book I sold. I've used an outline ever since!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Interview with a Designer: Jay Colvin of Macmillan Children's (plus a giveaway!)

Today we are joined by my friend, Jay Colvin, a fabulous designer at Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, whom I had the pleasure of working with for many years when I was an editor there. Jay is also offering a giveaway of a pretty spectacular book, so be sure to enter to win!

(Side note: As evidence that Jay is a kick-ass designer, let's all take a gander at one of my favorite books he designed. Which is, uh, mine. Plug for Lisa's book!)

(Seriously, though, it's super awesome, right?? I told you Jay was fabulous!)

Okay, enough dilly-dally. Let's get started with our interview . . .

What is the name of your publishing house/imprint and what is your official title?

I work at Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers and Roaring Brook Press, which are both imprints of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. My title is senior designer.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Well, they’re never quite the same. It all varies depending on whether there’s a jacket meeting or a production meeting, or illustrators coming in to go over dummies or art that day [Ed note: for those of you who don't know what picture book dummies are, check out this amazing article by FSG author/illustrator Uri Shulevitz]. Some days are completely crazy and some days you can really just sort of Zen out and get totally absorbed in working on an interior text design. Also you can pretty much count on random requests for jacket jpegs or pdfs of picture book interiors.

What made you decide to become a book designer? What was your career path?

I went to school for graphic design at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). We had a co-op program where after your sophomore year you worked somewhere every other quarter. You had to send out portfolios and interview, wherever you wanted to work, just like a real job. I had been to New York when I was 19, when the Airwalk shoe company paid for me to come to the city and skateboard as part of a promotional campaign, and I was just hooked right away, especially for the skating. So for my first co-op job I went for a New York design studio, Gerstman and Myers, that specialized in packaging, lots of Proctor & Gamble stuff. I learned to make perfect comps with silk gloves on.

After that I worked for a small studio in Philadelphia called Hemman Design, working on some animation and internet stuff, and then at some more traditional corporate identity and packaging places. When I graduated and moved to New York I bounced around for a bit freelancing for a few design studios, still doing packaging stuff, before taking a fulltime job working for American Photo Magazine. I’d always wanted to do books, but every place wanted you to have experience designing books. I eventually got my foot in the door at FSG thanks to some generous and kind people who took a chance on me even though I had no professional book experience. I’ve been here ever since, going on nine years.

When most people think about book designers, they tend to focus on them as jacket (or cover) designers. What else does a designer’s job entail?

With kids books we design the whole thing—jacket, interior, case, etc—so you’re constantly shifting back and forth between different modes of thinking. The good thing is that when you work on the whole thing, the design of the entire book as an object is coherent. Also, picture books are totally different. With those, you could be working on the same book for years before it’s printed. I've just gotten final art in for a book I started working on about five years ago.

What, if anything, is different about designing a middle-grade book (as opposed to, say, a YA novel or an easy-reader)?

The easiest answer is that sales always wants a photographic treatment for YA stuff, and an illustrative one for middle-grade. Aside from that, with the middle-grade stuff you have to get used to designing with bigger type and figuring out how to make that look not like crap. Other than those things, with the younger stuff you’ll often have illustrations thoughout the interior, so factoring those in is part of the fun.

What aspect of your job do you find the most challenging?

None at all. It’s all easy for me. Like taking candy from a baby.

Are there any titles that you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of?

Sophie Simon was a good one. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron, was interesting because it was paperbacked by Picador [the imprint for adult books at FSG] and they used the design I did for the YA publication, which I’m still surprised I got away with since it’s farther on the sophistiated side than I’m normally allowed to go. It’s the only time one of my designs has been used on an “adult” cover. That book was published a few years ago, but for some reason it's been getting a good bit of well deserved attention lately. I’m proud of everything though, in all honestly. A great thing about FSG and RBP is that we do really good books that are easy to be proud of.

Can you give us a general idea of the process of conceptualizing and creating a book jacket? For example, who is involved in the process, and how many stages does a book jacket generally go through before it is finished?

I’d like to put forward this extract from an interview between Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni. Substitute “book jacket” for “film” and “music.”

TOM WAITS: Because film and music are expeditions and sometimes you have no map. You just go drifting, and you go many days without water or food. When I am making music, I don't change my clothes for two full months.

ROBERTO BENIGNI: You know who did this, too? Michelangelo. He painted the Sistine Chapel. He never washed himself, he never changed clothes, especially shoes and socks.

ROBERTO BENIGNI: Michelangelo tried to take the socks off and skin came off with the socks. He never changed his clothes until he was finished, and was completely revolting.

TOM WAITS: Sometimes when you finish, you take the clothes and you put them in a pile, and you burn them. You make a fire of all your clothes. Sometimes to be a leader you must be a child, you must be a stinking idiot.
ROBERTO BENIGNI: Absolutely. You must be a stinking idiot.
That sounds about right. It’s all a balancing act where the author has to be happy, editorial has to be happy, and sales has to be happy. Sometimes getting there is easy, other times, not so much.

How closely do you generally work with an author or an illustrator on his or her book?

It varies. There are a fair number of authors that I’ve designed multiple books for over the years. Charlie Price for example, I’ve done three jackets for him now. I think the closer you work with them the better. These are things that they’ve been working on for some time, and it’s nice to be able to give them the attention to make sure the thing ends up being what it should be.

Lastly (and most important), if you were forced to live next door to either a ukulele player or a bagpipe player (bagpipist?), which would you choose and why?

I’m going with a steel drum player. Self explanatory.

Thanks for taking the time to visit with us, Jay. This has been a very enlightening interview!



Jay is offering one lucky blog reader a copy of Peter Cameron's stupendous YA novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (which Lorrie Morre called, in The New York Review of Books, "a bravura performance" and "a stunning little book." So there you go.). To enter the giveaway, simply email me at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line "SOMEDAY THIS PAIN." The winner will be chosen at random on February 1st.

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January Theme: Firsts (Sarah Dooley)

One winter day, I trudged out of the school building and cut a path through shouting crowds and deepening snow toward the waiting bus, which would take me across town to our current rental. I was 16, and I had been writing as long as I could remember, but everything I wrote came from a brainstorming session: "What can I write about? What should happen first? What should happen next?" Lately, that hadn't seemed good enough.

I was feeling distant from my classmates, distant from my family, distant even from the snow I usually loved. As I climbed aboard the bus and took my seat, I wondered what was wrong with me. Why was I so distracted lately? Why did I have this feeling that something was about to happen, that something was supposed to happen -- that I was supposed to make something happen?

As the bus rumbled to life, I leaned my forehead against the glass, gazing out at filthy tire tracks in the snow.

Seconds later I sat up straight, so quickly that my backpack fell to the floor and the contents scattered. Ignoring the snickering students around me, I dove for the nearest form of paper and a writing utensil -- a chemistry notebook and a blue Bic. I hunched over the notebook and started pouring something onto the page that I hadn't so much as thought about beforehand. I didn't know the characters. I didn't know the setting. I didn't know the plot. All I knew was that something had been forming, in my heart and in my pen, for days, and it was time to let it loose on the page.

By the time the bus reached my stop, I had written three pages. Six weeks later, I had written a novel.

It was not my first novel-length piece of writing -- I'd written that a year or two before. (Something about flying horses? I can't remember.) Nor was it the first novel I would take seriously enough to revise and prepare for publication -- I wouldn't write that until my late twenties (that would be Livvie Owen Lived Here). But it was the first novel that wrote itself, the first novel that arrived fully-formed in my pen without ever stopping to consult my head. It was the first time a piece of writing swept me away.

That novel is an example of every type of writing mistake. It's a mess, but I love it dearly. It lives on my desk as a reminder that there are stories out there waiting to be told, and we writers need to keep our pens at the ready.

Monday, January 16, 2012

January Theme: Firsts (Stephanie Burgis)

Everyone knows how important first lines are in maybe it's not surprising that I agonize a lot over them as a writer.

Every so often, a first line comes to me like a gift from the writing gods. That happened with my book Kat, Incorrigible, where the first two lines ("I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin. I made it almost to the end of my front garden...") popped into my head out of nowhere one day, and gave me the whole novel.

Wow, I love it when it happens that way. But I have to say, it doesn't happen often for me.

With my second book, Renegade Magic, I struggled for ages to find the right first line. First of all, once I'd finished the first draft, I realized I was going to have to rewrite the whole opening of the novel. Sigh. That does happen a lot for me, unfortunately! Being an organic writer, I usually do have to write the whole book before I can figure out how it really should have started in the first place.

Here was the original first line, back when I was starting the book with Kat feeling antsy about her oldest sister's upcoming wedding:
It’s one thing to know for an absolute fact that your oldest sister is the prissiest female in all England. But it’s quite another thing to be left behind by her.

Well. Kat is an incredibly proactive girl. She's extremely physical, she's impulsive, and she does not sit around angsting, ever. She's the kind of girl who always DOES something when she feels upset (even if it's the wrong thing) to relieve that emotional discomfort. It was completely wrong for her to start the book by sitting around feeling ambivalent. That's so not Kat! So that whole opening was trashed, without regrets.

Luckily, I finally figured out the right opening. Instead of sitting around thinking about her feelings, she does something about them: she gets up before the crack of dawn, drags her older brother out of bed, and forces him to give her a secret (forbidden and unladylike) wrestling lesson, to give her a physical outlet and distraction from her feelings. That is very Kat!

But what about the first line?

Well, here's where it gets complicated. The book is being published in two different countries, the US and the UK. In the UK, it was published last August as A Tangle of Magicks; in the US, it's being published this April as Renegade Magic. So, it's got different titles, different covers...

...and, as it turns out, different first lines. They were both first lines that I thought up and wrote myself in different drafts of the book, but each of my two editors picked a different favorite version. In the UK, the opening paragraph is:
My brother Charles was a hopeless gamester, a ridiculous over-sleeper and the one sibling too lazy to take part in any family arguments, no matter how exasperating our sisters might have been (and usually were). But he had one shining virtue as an older brother: he was infinitely persuadable.

Whereas in the US, it's:
It was a truth universally acknowledged that my brother, Charles was a hopeless gamester, a ridiculous oversleeper, and the one sibling too lazy to take part in any family arguments, no matter how exasperating our sisters might have been (and usually were).

But he had one shining virtue as an older brother: He was infinitely persuadable.

Both of my editors are really smart women whose opinions I deeply respect - and they know their target audiences very well, in the two different countries. My US editor felt strongly that the Jane Austen overtone at the beginning was a definite positive for my Regency-era fantasy; my UK editor felt it was safer to do without that because so many ten-year-olds wouldn't recognize the line I was referencing.

What do you think? Which version do you prefer?

And what's your favorite first line in a book?

(Note: if you want to read the final version of the opening of Renegade Magic - with the UK version of the first line! - you can read the full first three chapters on my website.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Reverse Fresh Air Fund (January Theme: Firsts) Bob Krech

In 1989 I returned to the United States from six years teaching overseas. My first teaching job back in New Jersey required that I attend a series of trainings on teaching reading and writing. In the writing workshop I was part of, the teacher asked that we write a piece about something in our childhood and use the five senses to describe the time and place. I began writing about an unusual arrangement my parents put together for me when I was about nine years old. They were both from Jersey City, a very urban environment. When my father, a state trooper, was stationed farther south, he and my mother moved to the suburbs. I grew up in Lawrenceville, a far cry from Jersey City. My parents felt it was important that I get to know what life in the city was like and so every summer I would go to live in Jersey City with my grandparents for two weeks, sometimes a month. And so the Reverse-Fresh-Air-Fund was born. Take the suburban kid and move him into the city for a few weeks during the summer. A novel idea and one I enjoyed immensely.
Jersey City, NJ

Lawrenceville, NJ
As I wrote about the sweet soapy smells that come with living in an apartment on the same block as The Colgate Palmolive Company, the sounds of tugboats on the Hudson River and sirens on the boulevard, the feel of a broomstick in your hand playing stickball, the view from the fire escape out the back window of the kitchen where improbably there was a cherry tree in the little yard, the sweet, sour, tangy taste of lemon ice from the food carts that supplied the kids and Colgate factory workers, I gradually finished up a piece I titled, "The Reverse-Fresh-Air-Fund." My instructor read it and suggested that I submit it for publication. The only magazine I knew that might have an interest something like this would be New Jersey Monthly. So I sent it off with very little hope of seeing it published, but pretty pleased that the teacher thought it good enough to submit.

Three weeks later I was in the kitchen helping get dinner together when the phone rang. It was an editor from New Jersey Monthly saying they'd like to publish my story. I was excited! My first call from a real editor. And then she offered me money!! Hundreds of dollars!!! (Okay, three of them.)

I'd never been paid for my writing before. I was happy enough just to see something of mine in print. Months later the piece appeared in the magazine on the last page. They had re-titled it, the more politically correct, "Summer in the City." And then soon after, I got it. My first check for writing! My initial crazy impulse was to frame it, which was totally out of the realm of the possible, so instead I think I photocopied it while the real thing went toward something pretty practical. Probably baby furniture. Or maybe the electric bill. The money is long gone, but the memory of that first feeling of an editor thinking that something I wrote was good enough to pay for-- that still makes me smile a little.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Evolution of a Blog Header... (Guest Post from Kathleen Higgins)

When I (the "I" here being Holly Schindler, administrator of Smack Dab) received a blog header in my inbox, I was thrilled. To know that a follower is so invested in the blog that she redesigns the banner is high praise indeed, I think. (How many times have you loved a blog so much that you spent time redesigning its header?)

Plus, I just happened to love the header. I put it up right away, sent it to my own web designer to have it included in the Links page on my author website, and asked the creator, Kathleen Higgins, to write up a guest post about the header design:

"I’m Kate Higgins. I redesigned Smack-Dab’s header…up there...just imagine an arrow pointing up. I am a graphic designer by day and an author/illustrator of hopefully someday published picture books and middle grade fiction the rest of the time. I’m literally smack dab in the middle of pictures and words, which is also the title of my own blog.

When Holly Schindler first mentioned the creation of a new middle grade blog, I was excited to visit Smack-Dab in the Middle. I often read middle grade books and author interviews to learn more about writing the halfway world between the little kid and teen phase. It’s truly one of my favorite stages of a child’s life. Eight to twelve year old middle graders are always open and honest (except when they’re not). What other age enthusiastically tells you their ages in fractions; “I’ll be 9 and half in two months!” That’s nine and four twelfths or more precisely 9 1/3.

When I saw the initial blog header I knew something was missing. The middle.

And I knew I could make it more…well…middle-er. The idea gnawed on me and I waited for the header to miraculously change. It didn’t.

You know that itch on the bottom of your right foot as you are driving? The one you can’t scratch and try to forget about it but you just can't? That’s how it felt until I finally sat down and created a blog header that closely resembled the original one and hopefully didn’t offend the original creator and solved my little itchy middle problem.

I meekly sent it to Holly (and the rest of the authors) as a holiday gift with apologies and my fingers crossed that I didn’t come across as some graphic design wacko perfectionist and get tossed into the middle of nowhere.

Then guess what? I clicked open Smack-Dab for an update and my new version was right there on top…the blog header that scratched my itch…Smack-Dab in the middle…right where it belongs.

Middle is good."

...On behalf of everyone at Smack Dab, thanks to Kathleen for the header...and for loving our blog!

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Last First Day

I’ve been a college professor for twenty-eight years. That sounds like a long time (and it is) but it sounds even longer if I say 56 semesters.

I’ve had 56 first days. Fifty-six times I’ve adjusted to a new schedule, new classes, new students, new colleagues, new textbooks. (I’m blogging about my last year of teaching at Goodbye, Day Job!)

The first day of the semester is always exciting and a little scary. Will my students be eager and curious and hard-working? Will there be one student—sometimes two, never more, in my experience—who will make me wish for a nice, long case of mono, nothing fatal, but something that will keep that student out of my class for a while to give me a break? Will my assignments get them excited, or will they be frustrated/bored/indifferent?

Last Monday was my last first day of the semester, and the last time I’ll face those questions. I’m retiring from teaching in May so I can devote myself to writing, traveling, and the ever-more-time-consuming activity of book promotion.

I’m hoping I’ll write more and promote more effectively, but I’m riddled with doubts. It’s scary and exciting, all at the same time.

I wonder how I’ll feel next fall when all my colleagues and former students are having their own first day and I won’t. I hope I’ll be so busy I won’t even notice it, that I won’t feel a pang of regret that they will be having those scary and exciting first days while I’m sitting in my home office.

I’ll let you know!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The First that Started Last Year (January's Theme Post fromJody Feldman)

This is me.

Yes, I’m a plunger. I think about a new book – envision main characters, bits of setting, plot possibilities, etc. – and when the excitement is about to blow steam from every pore of my being, I open a new document and plunge right in. No outline, no synopsis. Just a few notes I have jotted down to avoid the plagued, “What was that brilliant idea I had last Thursday!?!” That steam continues to power me through 2-3 months and a first draft.

A few months ago, though, I had my plunger’s license revoked. Or I revoked it myself. Sorry to be so cryptic, but I had reason to outline. Not just notes, but a full-fledged ...

I. Blah-blah-blah

A. Blah-blah-blah-blah
B. Blah-blah-blah-blah

1. Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah
2. Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah

II. Blah-blah-blah
... and so on.

The fact is, I’d written one of those before. About a thousand decades ago, I entered some competition which required entrants to submit the first however-many pages plus an outline. When it came time to write the rest of the book (the plan was to forge ahead while I waited for that rejection as well), I was too bored to continue. It wasn’t until years later that I actually finished the book (one of my practice novels), but I could only stand to work on it again because I took it in a new direction.

But back to today, to this year. Chances are high, I’ve been told, that I will need to follow through and actually write the story I’ve outlined. This will be a first for me. It will be a big challenge. I need to keep reminding myself that the milestones I’ve laid out are only checkpoints. The vast question marks that lie between are the possibilities, the steam, that will power me though 2-3 months and a first draft ... if I let them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

First Writers Conference (by Tyler Whitesides)

As I became more serious about writing to publish, I kept hearing the same advice from everyone. "Go to a writers conference or event. You'll be able to network and improve your craft." Of course, I ignored this counsel for a good long while before I finally decided to buck up, pay the money and go.

It was early autumn. The conference was located in a beautiful little valley in Utah. I didn't know a soul in attendance, but I went armed with query letters, sample chapters, and my best attitude. I felt like a genuine author, walking around the resort with my laptop bag, meeting new people that shared the joy of writing.

I had reserved a time slot to pitch my manuscript to an agent. Oh how I remember that first pitch. The agent kept saying, "take a deep breath, Tyler. Just calm down and tell me about your story." Even though he decided not to represent me, I gained valuable courage and experience for the future.

I returned to that little valley just a few weeks ago to spend some family time for the holidays. I had a smile on my face as I thought about how much had happened since that first conference - I'd acquired an agent, my book was published, and I'd been on a national book tour. It was wonderful to reflect back to the beginning and see all the little decisions and experiences that led up to where I am today.

May the new year be full of new firsts for many of you!
- Tyler Whitesides (author of JANITORS)

Monday, January 9, 2012

January Theme: A Roller Coaster of Firsts (Platte Clark)

As a new author I have the thrill and anxiety of everything being a first. The process is very much like a roller coaster ride, starting with that long climb of getting your book completed, to that very first drop called the query letter process. I still have my first response:
    “I’m sorry to say that in this instance I am going to pass on your work. The children’s and YA market is very competitive, as you may well know, and I have to feel a very high degree of confidence in a particular story to take it on. While yours certainly has its merits, I’m just not quite convinced it’s one for me.”
Ouch. Then on the heels of that came my first request:
    “Thanks for your query. I’d be pleased to consider The Codex…Can you kindly send the full manuscript as a word doc. attachment via e-mail?”
Others followed. And then came the fear, anxiety, excitement, and joy from the high speed twists and turns of getting an agent, a deal, and working through the publishing process. I suppose I have the advantage (and maybe disadvantage) of everything being a first at this stage. Like many, I just took a seat in the coaster car and pulled the arm down, not really knowing what I was in for. Maybe there's some advantage to being a little naive about it all.

At the moment I’m working with my first editor at S&S Aladdin, and I can say I've already learned a few things:
  1. Adding an unprompted 20,000 words to your rewrite is not necessarily a good thing. Apparently it messes up all kinds of profit and loss spreadsheets and it's harder to carry the pages around the office.
  2. The passive voice is not much loved.
  3. Don’t get too attached to titles.
  4. If your editor is from Texas, he or she will be delighted with any and all Jackalope references you can throw in.
So here’s to a new year with many great firsts, a few wiser seconds, and perhaps even a handful of well-informed thirds! But what I hope is that although the line may be long, the scaffolding a bit aged, and the seat not always ideal, the old publishing coaster will still be full of all the thrills and promise as the first time around. I suppose the only way to find out is to turn around and ride it again.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

January Theme: MY FIRST FAN LETTER by John Claude Bemis

Writing for young readers brings special rewards. Getting that email from a parent who says that your book turned their “non-reader” into a rabid reader. Visiting a school and seeing projects and skits based on your novels. Having a kid excited to meet you and get your autograph at a book signing.

I won’t deny it. It’s the best!

I’ve gotten some wonderful and humbling fan letters over the years. The one I’ll always remember and treasure with special importance was the very first fan letter I got. It came not a week after my first book The Nine Pound Hammer was released. Here it is…

September 1st, 2009

Dear John Claude Bemis,

I have recently finished your newest book The Nine Pound Hammer, the first book in your Clockwork Dark Series. I loved the book! I was lucky enough to get to see you at your book signing and Medicine Show debut in Hillsborough NC and you signed my book. Now I am craving more! You are the author of my favorite book! I can hardly explain to you how much of an impact this book had on my schedule. All I did was read. I would get home from school and do my homework then read until time to take a shower. Then I would finish getting ready for the next day and read some more! I do not have another SUPER book to read so I am pleading with you…PLEASE write your next book fast! I need it!



I know what it feels like to rush through a shower to get back to my newly discovered favorite book. I became a writer for young readers because of that thrill of finishing a SUPER book and dying for the next one to come out.

If all I ever do is have the kind of “impact” on some kid’s “schedule” like I did for Evan, then I consider myself a happy writer.

Happy 2012, all!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Courage of Firsts (January Theme by Naomi Kinsman)

Today I am at the first day of the January low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Hamline University. I'm one of the graduate assistants, having been a graduate of the program for a year now.

I'm thinking a lot about firsts today, actually, watching this incoming class of ten start the program fresh. I remember my first day about three years ago. So much of writing is about starting. Starting a new book. Starting to revise. Starting a new manuscript. Starting a new graduate program. Starting a membership at SCBWI. And on and on. The list never seems to end. As writers, we are consumate beginners.

I'm reminded today, watching new students start a two year journey in which they are committing to passionately putting everything on the line to develop their skill and craft as writers, that starting takes so much courage. By starting, making these commitments to ourselves, we risk embarassment, failure, emotional pain. We know we will be challenged. We know nothing will ever be the same. Once we commit everything to our dream, the dream of being the best writer we can be, we know we won't ever be able to whisper to ourselves in the dark anymore... I didn't really try. If I REALLY tried, of course, I'd be brilliant. But what I've done isn't everything I can do. I can do more than this. If only the world could see what's inside my brain.

When you put all your creative cards on the table and honestly push yourself to do the very best work you can, there's a bittersweet quality to the experience. You find out exactly how much you can do, today. And often, the critic inside you throws a fit. "Not good enough!" she shouts. No. Maybe the work I can do today isn't the most brilliant work I will ever do. Still, the choice remains. Do I have the courage to at least work, regardless of the quality? Regardless of what people think of me? Regardless of the outcome?

Do I have the courage to try, with every last ounce of my heart?

Tonight, my answer is the same as it was three years ago: I hope so.

I hope that no matter what, I will always have the courage to admit I don't know everything, that there is always something new to learn. I hope there will always be room in my creative life for me to place myself under the guidance of wise mentors who can help me push through to the next level in my work. I hope I will never become comfortable with what I can already do. I hope I will always want to challenge myself to grow.

Bob Dylan says, "If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying." Yes. So live. Challenge yourself. Take risks. Be courageous.