Monday, March 30, 2015

Pitfalls Schmitfalls, It's All About Perspective by Tracy Holczer

I have been slaving over my second book for a long, long time. I originally got the idea for Lucia (Lucy) Melania Samantha Rossi's story about three years ago and whipped out a quick fifteen pages for the SCBWI conference. The premise had problems, but I fell in love with the characters, and decided she was worth the next chunk of my life. I noodled around as I started the submissions process on my first book.

A few short months later my whole world would change as I landed an agent and sold my first novel, The Secret Hum of a Daisy. It was a two-book deal and I felt confident that I would be able to wrap up Hum and then get started on the new project lickety-split.


I didn't know what was coming. The year leading up to debut is a busy one. Major edits that required full immersion. Marketing strategies. Attending events as I wanted to get to know fellow writers in my area, a busy one full of amazing talent. Suffice it to say my obsessive tendencies kicked in and I did all sorts of spinning-wheel type things. Spending hours identifying libraries I could pitch to or fill out their suggest-a-book forms. Researching and then contacting blogs for interviews, etc. Hours and hours spent fretting about reviews and galleys going to the right people and wah, wah, wah.

Hours I could have (note I did not say SHOULD have) been writing about Lucy.

And the reason I didn't say should is because I try not to should all over people or myself. I feel that we do the best we can in the moment, mostly, and in those moments leading up to debut, the best way for me to tackle the massive anxiety I had about the upcoming changes in my life was to Sweat the Small Stuff. Not create a new work of art. Not channel my energy in a positive way. Not rise above my lizard brain and it's imaginings. No, I poured myself 100% into the task of freaking out. For months.

And I wouldn't change a thing.

Mostly because for the first time in my life I was all I'M FREAKING OUT RIGHT NOW AND I TOTALLY DON'T CARE. I don't usually give in to that. Usually I tuck in my shirts and eat proportionate meals and act like a completely normal person. Mostly. But there was something about the excitement and intoxication of realizing a dream and about a hundred other things I hadn't anticipated that just made me fall into a hundred pieces.

So now, I'm stuck with the repair (which interestingly, is a HUGE part of what Hum is all about). I have to lose some weight, get back to the gym and finish the second book in my contract (which, if my editor or agent is reading this, I have been working on madly since debut-I swear!!). But the weirdest thing, that thing that makes me feel no time is ever wasted? Lucia Melania Samantha Rossi? She has poured herself 100% into the task of freaking out, too, and it brings her world crashing down around her. I'm not sure I would have seen that as clearly or written it as well back then.

I'm not sure what came first, the chicken or the egg. But I'll take both (after I lose this extra fifteen pounds, that is).

Saturday, March 28, 2015


How Long Can the Life of a Book Be?

At first glance it would seem that my experience reflects both ends of the publishing spectrum: a first book brought to market by a large publishing house that became a bestseller in three European countries, and a second, self-published book that has yet to achieve anything close to the success of the first. 

In fact the two experiences are not comparable at all.  It took 16 years for the first book (Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth) to become a bestseller.  By then the original hardcover publisher (Scribner’s) had long since passed from the scene; the book had been published in paperback by the Naval Institute Press; the country rights for Poland, Czech Republic, Latvia and Hungary had been sold; and it became a bestseller in each of those countries (twice in Poland) except Hungary.  Sales in Poland alone were about 100,000 copies.

My experience tells me the key number in the paragraph above is 16 years.  In all that time the book was only briefly out of print.  Each time its coffin was about to be nailed shut, it popped up in a new form.  All by way of saying books can live for a long, long time. 

In book years my latest (Honey the Dixie Dingo Dog – Champion of the Strays) is a mere neophyte; it has only been in print for about nine months and its promotional campaign is just revving up now.  Along the way I have shelled out a considerable sum to get “Honey” into the print pipeline.  First, I engaged a savvy and skillful firm, Telemachus Press that specializes in self-published books.  That means I own the book’s ISBN number and all rights to the book.  For its fee, Telemachus provided copy editing and other forms of editorial support and drew on a wealth of knowledge on pricing, the distribution chain and other matters that I know absolutely nothing about.

One service Telemachus does not provide is promotion.  From the outset I felt sure I would need help in getting the book sold—something more than one news release and a mention in a catalogue.  I looked at several companies that provide promotional services to authors and finally chose New Shelves Distribution (NSD).  They offered a straight-forward plan for getting reviews and blogs, distribution through large municipal library systems and selling through large independent book chains and big box stores like Costco, Target and others.  One of the things I liked best was that NSD priced its services on a flat fee basis.  There have been no add-ons, and thus far NSD has delivered everything it said it would and, perhaps, a bit more.

What impact have these efforts had on sales?  Well, thus far I’m still waiting for the gusher; so far I’ve only got a trickle but it is increasing.  Believe me, NSD monitors sales closely and provides me with updates on a weekly basis.

So, how do I rate the two experiences?  The first experience was one of the most frustrating of my life.  When the book came out in the fall of 1991, the Katyn Massacre was a white hot controversy.  Former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev had just been deposed by hardliners who bitterly opposed his liberalizing policies, such as the admission in April, 1990 of Soviet guilt in the Katyn crime.  The timing for my book was perfect: it attracted favorable reviews in leading U.S. newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books.  The book had a meager first printing of 5,000 books which sold out right away.  In the midst of a takeover by MacMillan, Scribner’s never reprinted; its promotional effort had consisted of one news release and mention of the book in its fall catalogue for 1991.

That experience was so disappointing that it soured me on writing and I quit until the opportunity to write a novel came along several years later.  That, too, became a long term experience.  I finally finished a draft but wasn’t completely satisfied with it, so I put it aside in order to write my Honey book.  This raises the question, why such a sharp turn in the road—from non-fiction history in in World War II to dog book for middle graders.

My only answer is that it felt right; I fell in love with the story and wanted to bring it alive as only a book can.  Perhaps this book, too, will take 16 years to find a substantial audience.  I certainly hope not.  What I can say is that I haven’t felt any of the angst I felt before.  This time at least I’m in control for better or worse; and I like and trust the people I’m working with.  If my Honey book does not become a bestseller, it won’t be the end of the line.  I wrote a book I’m proud of and feel better about being a writer than I ever have before.

Honey the Dixie Dingo Dog
Written by Allen Paul

Synopsis of the Book:

A young swamp dog named Honey yearns to rejoin her pack after being trapped and nearly shot; luckily, she gains allies who can help her, even as a two-legged killer stalks her old haunts.     

A coyote trapper named Topper Guy is about to pull the trigger when his sidekick, Raghead, warns, “That ain’t no coyoto.”  While they discuss Honey’s fate over beers, Miss Jane drives up.  She has a rescue operation for Dixie Dingos and often drives back roads around Savannah River swamps looking for stray dingo pups.  Sensing Honey’s peril, she tells Topper Guy he trapped a rare breed of dog – not a coyote – and ends up paying fifty dollar to ransome for Honey and take her to the farm where other rescues live.

Soon after that dead critters start turning up in the swamp.  A game warden points to poison.  Miss Jane and Honey are convinced it’s the work of Topper Guy.  How she uses Honey’s speeed and agility to get the best of the notorious trapper and put an end to the killings in the swamp… and how Honey’s pack gets rescued from the swamp … make for an unusual and exciting read.


Bio in Brief:

Allen Paul’s bestselling book, Katyń: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth, has been called the definitive work on a crime that arguably remains the thorniest issue in Russo-Polish relations nearly 75 years after it was committed.  In 2008, the Polish government awarded him the Commander’s Cross, its highest honor for non-citizens, for his work on the subject.  In 2010, he received an Honorary Diploma from the Polish Foreign Ministry for “exceptional contributions to international understanding of Polish history.”

A lifelong writer, Allen began his career with The Raleigh Times and the Associated Press, where he covered state government and wrote feature stories.  Later, he wrote speeches for prominent members of Congress and a member of the President’s cabinet.  While serving as President of the Agriculture Council of America in the 1980s, he pioneered grassroots lobbying methods to fight and eventually end economically crippling grain embargoes.  He has consulted widely on non-profit organizational development and fundraising.

His first love, however, has always been writing.  His Katyń book tells a gripping story based on the lives of three Polish families.  Published originally by Charles Scribner’s, it has been translated into five languages; Polish editions alone have sold more than 100,000 copies. In a New York Times review, Robert Conquest of Stanford University, one of the greatest living authorities on Stalinism, called the book “a moving reconstruction of the human [story].” The Boston Globe credited Katyn for “[laying] bare the massive cover-up of the murders and of the Soviet guilt—a cover-up that appears to have involved Roosevelt and Churchill, as well as Stalin.”

Allen recently completed his first novel, The Amber Eye, which is based on a daring raid carried out by the Polish underground in 1944 to capture evidence of Stalin’s guilt in the Katyn murders.  He researched the novel on a Fulbright Research Fellowship in Poland in 2010-11.  His first children’s book, Honey the Dixie Dingo Dog: Champion of the Strays has just been published by Telemachus Press.

He holds an undergraduate degree in English from Guilford College, and a Masters of International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  He first encountered the Katyn issue in 1986 during studies at the SAIS Center for European Studies in Bologna, Italy.  He and his wife, Betsy, grew up in Aurora, NC.  They have a daughter, a son and four granddaughters. 

Enter to win a copy! Provide a comment telling us why you're looking forward to Honey's story.


Anni doesn't know about Elementals, Funk, Zephyrs, excited talking Bat-Rat creatures, and least of all, Dragons. All that changes when her best friend Lexi is kidnapped and forces beyond Anni's control trap her on a hidden, floating island in the Elemental world.

In a race against time, Anni sets out to save her friend. Along the way, she finds allies among the Elementals, but she is also presented with a choice, one that might help save Lexi. If Anni agrees to an ancient, open-ended contract, will her sacrifice cost her more than she's bargained for? Or will it land her in the middle of an age-old war between the humans, Elementals, and the dreaded Fectus? 
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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Writing Pitfalls (March Theme): Sometimes I Forget Why I Write

So I'm glad that Anne Lamott is around to remind me:  

“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”  

"I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


I'm pleased to announce that THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY is a finalist for the South Carolina Children's Book Award!

Go, Auggie...

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Ides of Revision by Laurie Calkhoven

I’m going to begin with a quote from Parker Palmer from the Center of Courage and Renewal:

There is a hard truth to be told: before spring becomes beautiful, it is plug ugly, nothing but mud and muck. I have walked in the early spring through fields that will suck your boots off, a world so wet and woeful it makes you yearn for the return of ice. But in that muddy mess, the conditions for rebirth are being created.

That quote popped into my e-mail box one day (I get a daily gratitude e-mail) when I was in the middle of a hard revision. I couldn’t figure out how to make the story work and was thinking about abandoning the book completely. Then I realized I was in the plug ugly stage, but rebirth might be on the way. I had to be willing to walk through that field and get my boots dirty. Once I decided to revel in that muddy muck, to roll around in the messiness, I found my way out.

Friday, March 20, 2015


 Today, we're joined by Susan Griner, who's sharing the details of her latest book, her path to publication, and biggest lessons learned...

The Cemetery Sleeper is a middle grade book about a boy named Freddy Pesterfield who is lured into sleepwalking to a nearby cemetery by a vengeful ghost. Freddy desperately searches for a remedy against the ghost named Tump, but his cousin Emily believes Freddy's grief over his mother's death is what leads him to the cemetery every night. As Freddy learns about the ghost's mysterious death he begins to suspect his family's involvement in Tump's drowning. Will the secrets Freddy unearths keep him from walking to the cemetery for one last time?

My path to publication of a book was a slow one, but I wrote poetry and short stories on the side and had them published in Cricket and Babybug magazines. I recommend taking time to write something shorter and submitting it as you work on your book. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and some writing credits when your work is published. Committing to revision means being willing to throw a ms away even if you've completed it which I have done. I joined critique groups, submitted my work, went to conferences--all the usual routes to grow as a writer. I submitted my story to an indie press called Saguaro books which is open to middle grade novels. From there I had my first book published.

The best part of getting a book out there in the universe is having the students I used to teach reading my book. I recently finished an author visit with a group of third graders who brought up scraps of paper for me to autograph.The hardest part about having a book out there is getting someone to notice it. Marketing is tedious and many times fruitless. I'd rather be writing.

The biggest surprise in my writing career is how involved friends and acquaintances become in promoting your book. I'd had friends who have made sure my book in available in libraries, who gave me opportunities to speak in their classrooms at a number of schools. There are so many solitary benefits to writing for me, but it's good to for me to remember the support from others that I have received as well. 

The pitfalls I've faced as a writer is too much interior dialogue. I like my characters to ruminate on their dilemmas which is the last thing a kid wants to read. I catch myself doing it when my characters start asking themselves questions. 

My favorite writing tip takes up a lot of time, but it works for me. If I'm having trouble creating a character and I'm writing in third person, I'll take the character and write about him or her in first person at length. This gives me the voice which I am struggling with. Some writers do a character inventory but that's not usually enough for me.

I've finished my next manuscript which is a YA historical novel called The Hunt for the Heavenly Horse. It's a real departure for me and took years of research about ancient China and Central Asia.  The book is about a 14-year-old nomadic boy named Tagan who refuses to give up his horse after she’s taken by the Chinese army. Tagan sets out after her and the other 3,000 blood-sweating horses seized from his kingdom in an epic journey across the Silk Road.He endures the brutality from the soldiers who call him a barbarian but he later earns their respect by saving them from the hardships in the desert. 

Keep up with Susan at, and be sure to enter to win a copy of THE CEMETERY SLEEPER!
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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Writing Pitfalls (March Theme) by Kristin Levine

Writing group today reminded me of a mistake I sometimes make - which is feeling like I must perfect a piece of writing before I show it to anyone.  Now, I'm not saying you should send off an unpolished draft to an agent or editor, but sometimes another opinion, a fresh pair of eyes, can help to resolve a problem in half the time.

Another mistake middle-grade writers sometimes make is only getting feedback from other (adult) writers.  Kids make wonderful advance readers and can sometimes put their finger on a problem that grown-ups miss. 

Now I'm off to convince my nine year old and her friends to read another draft of my new book!   

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Peril of Predictability (March theme) by Claudia Mills

I consider myself somewhat of a pro at avoiding what may be the chief pitfall for all writers everywhere. But alas, my prowess at avoiding this pitfall has ended up plopping me down in the midst of another, perhaps more insidious one.

The pitfall that I'm a champ at avoiding? Self-doubt, that paralyzing uncertainty that leads so many writers to accomplish so much less than they otherwise might. Now, I don't lack self-doubt because I think I'm so amazingly wonderful. It's that when I'm writing, I don't think about myself much at all. Because of my other work and life constraints, I'm only able to write for an hour a day, and during that hour, I don't gnash my teeth and tear out my hair, I write. Just that. I write. I put one foot after the other, take one step then another. You want to get a job done? I am your girl!

Along with this pitfall-proof ability to keep on trudging forward with dogged determination is an ability to focus on a book's structure. Whether I'm plotting out one of my own books or critiquing a manuscript from a mentee, I usually have a clear sense of what a book needs, what has to happen next for a satisfying story structure, how one event in the story is going to lead to another. If you want get from point A to point B, I am on the job!

But . . . . my biggest writing pitfall is not that I stray too much from the path, but that I don't stray enough. I am a perky plodder, a cheerful churner, I get my words written, lots of them, on time, to meet my deadlines. But sometimes I miss out on the magic that comes when a writer heads off deep into the dark and forbidding woods. My stories are well structured, in my humble opinion - but sometimes too well structured: too neat, too tidy. If I can clearly see what has to happen next, this too often means the reader can see it, too. I cheat us both out of the delights of surprise.

Now, in my defense (and those who don't go in much for self-doubt tend to be adept at self-defense!), predictable is not always a bad thing. In fact, my favorite review I ever got in my entire career, of my book Dinah in Love from the brilliant Deborah Stevenson at the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, said, "It's predictable, sure, but so were Tracy and Hepburn." I've cherished that review for years.

But predictable is not usually a good thing. And so a few years ago I hired a creativity coach, poet Molly Fisk, to help me learn how to un-learn my good-girl, stay-on-the-path, get-it-done ways. Molly set me the goal of writing "a book that will surprise me." Assignment number one: clear my schedule for a weekend, get in my car, and start driving without a map.

I did it. Well, sort of did it. I couldn't give it a whole weekend, so I did the assignment while driving from a conference in Cincinnati to Greencastle, Indiana, where I was living at the time. And I did peek at a map, just to figure out the general direction I needed to be heading. But then I followed Molly's advice. I got off the interstate. I drove on little rural roads. I stopped at small towns. And along the way I got an idea for a book unlike anything I've ever written: a time travel fantasy set in the cookie jar store I stumbled upon along the way.

I wrote the book. It hasn't been published. Some of my writing group friends loved it; one hated it. My agent didn't think it was "ready." I hired the amazing Plot Doctors to help me figure out what it needs, and yup, what it needs is a sturdier plot structure of exactly the kind that I pride myself on knowing how to produce. Their suggestions were excellent, but I haven't had time to take them because I'm so busy putting one foot in front of another with my usual projects in my usual way. But one of these days, I will. And maybe this will turn into a magical book, an enchanting book, a beautiful book. Maybe it won't. But it was a book that surprised me. Readers may find it predictable, if it ever comes into their hands. But I didn't find the writing of it predictable, not at all.

Whatever comes, I'm glad I strayed from the path a little bit. Straying from the path leads many into pitfalls. But this time, it saved me from one.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Party Like Never Before!

For years leading up to the publication of my first book, THE TROUBLE WITH HALF A MOON, I had dreams of the fabulous launch party I was going to have. These dreams were put together in my head from start to finish: who I’d invite, how I’d thank everyone for putting up with my crazy as I worked on the book, the awesome food I’d have and even the champagne toast. Oh, my outfit was going to be rocking, too! This party was going to be THE BEST.

But …

When the book finally came out, I was exhausted and pretty much just wanted to hibernate for a good long while and this meant no launch party. Looking back now, I realize this quiet ‘birth’ basically implied that my book wasn’t special. How sad! Of course publishing a book is special. My blood, sweat (literally) and tears (also literally) went into writing it. This book is loosely based on a childhood experience and had waited patiently in my heart for many, many years. I wrote it in order to give something to someone I was not brave enough to give as a child. It absolutely deserved a party, but instead of beating myself up about it, I have to trust that that was what I had to do at the time.

When my second book, SAVING BABY DOE, came out a couple of years later, I celebrated the heck out of it, party and all. And just in case you’re thinking about skipping a launch party for your book, please take my advice and don’t!

I’m getting a second chance to make things right with THE TROUBLE WITH HALF A MOON, though. It’s coming out in paperback on May 5th, complete with a beautiful new cover. It’s not that I don’t love the original, because I totally do. The young girl on the cover makes the perfect Dellie and my heart melted at first sight of her. It’s just, you know, a new cover is super exciting, and, this time around, there will be no hibernating. In fact, I just might shout from the rooftops.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Writing Pitfalls (March Theme) by Bob Krech

The Rolling Stones sang, "Time is on my side." I don't often feel that way when I'm writing. It just seems like there is never enough time. I used to think that I had to have hours of uninterrupted time to get some writing done. False!

Sure, it's easier if you have a nice, long stretch to get that momentum going, but I've found that I can get something done in ten or fifteen minutes, even if it's just editing a couple of pages, jotting down ideas, or adding just one new paragraph. Thinking that I can't is a pitfall that I've encountered many times and still deal with regularly.

If I just sit in the chair and put my fingers on the keyboard I'm half way to getting something done. One thing I've found that helps is setting these smaller, more realistic goals rather than the grandiose vision I usually have in my head when I wake up in the morning about how I'm going to finish a whole pass today. That, and actually seizing those little segments of time we get throughout the day and making the most of them. It doesn't have to be great or long, or well developed, it just has to be something. And little somethings add up.