Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!!

To all my friends, fans, and readers...

From our "house" to yours...the happiest wishes of the season!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: Leda Schubert

In all fairness, I should say up front that not only is Leda Schubert one of my most favorite people on the planet, but she also was my mentor for my second novel, Forgiven, when she was my last advisor (creative thesis semester) at Vermont College of Fine Arts. So any gushing you may sense from me is warranted. Even more so because Leda is supremely smart, funny, and talented, and hey - she loves dogs. I was thrilled that she agreed to answer questions for me so that I can bring you her answers.

Let’s start with your latest picture book, The Princess of Borscht (Bonnie Christensen, Illus.; Roaring Brook, 2011). Congratulations on all the terrific reviews (and they are terrific!!) I love the idea of food as cure-all (especially borscht) and as a centerpiece for the character interactions. Are you a cook? Do you think food holds “magic” properties? Please tell readers something about how this book came together for you.

Thanks, Janet! To answer this question, I have to order my few remaining brain cells back almost ten years and visit some ancient computer files. Most of you know that picture books can take a very long time, but this one took even longer. The short version: I started it in 2003 when my husband said offhandedly (I think) that someone should write a book about borscht. So I did. It went through many, many, many, many drafts. Many. Even some VCFA faculty had things to say about it (“Start over.” “No one in his right mind wants to read a book about borscht.” “What the heck is borscht?” Etc.)

Am I a cook? No. I hate to cook. I could live on bread, cheese, and salads, but I somehow suspect that is not an entirely healthful diet. So I do cook some things. About four. And I don’t eat anything that has/had four legs. (Once I thought chicken had four legs so I didn’t eat it for years. Maybe I am kidding.)

Does food have magic properties? Yes. It does. Somebody should bring me some; that’s what I think. Chocolate especially has magic properties. Especially dark chocolate with hazelnuts.

(Dark chocolate - we share another passion...) You also have an earlier fall 2011 release, Reading to Peanut (Amanda Haley, Illus., Holiday House). I happen to know you have strong feelings about dogs (which I share). Who are the current dog-members of your family? What do they think about Peanut?

How much time do we have? I’ll rein myself in. The current dog members are Pippa and Pogo. Both are mutts, but they are also so-called designer dogs, Goldendoodles. We did not pay goldendoodle prices for either one, and they’re both Vermont natives. Pogo is the sweetest person on the planet; he is pure love. Pippa—well, she’s a case. She’s the most independent dog I’ve ever had, and I’ve had several. It’s not that she dislikes us; she just has many things to do that don’t involve us.

As for Peanut, they both believe that more dogs are always a good thing. I’m sure they’d love to have another dog (Bob, husband dear, are you listening?)

You have six published picture books to your credit, including the multi-award winner Ballet of the Elephants (Robert Andrew Parker, Illus.; Roaring Brook, 2006.) Have you thought about writing something longer? What draws you to the picture book format? And...will the picture book format survive its current turmoil?

I’ve written a novel (actually I’ve written three novels) that’s set during McCarthyism and is about a girl growing up in a leftist family that’s under suspicion. It’s been roundly rejected, and I’m not sure I want to revise it any more. So it’s lurking around somewhere. So are the two earlier novels. Instead, I’m working on a longer piece of nonfiction for kids.

As for the picture book, I’d like to believe it will survive, because I love picture books with all my heart and soul. I cannot imagine a world without Horton, Ferdinand, Madeline, Max, ---   in fact, maybe one of the reasons picture books are in crisis is because characters as memorable as those aren’t being created as often.

You were a librarian for years and served on awards committees. How have these experiences colored your work?

Leda, hiding behind Pogo and snuggling with Pippa
It’s hard to describe the intensity of those experiences. My Caldecott committee was one of the professional highlights of my life. The quality of discussion, the brilliance of the committee members, the respect for artists and authors, and the leadership provided by our chair changed my life. I’m a better person for that experience, I hope. The Globe-Horn Book award committee has fewer guidelines and more books to read and I loved working with the other two women during that year.

For much longer periods of time I was on two of Vermont’s children’s choice awards committees: the Red Clover Award and the Dorothy Canfield Award. During those years, I read hundreds and hundreds of children’s/YA books every year. What an incredible privilege—and what an education. So much of what is published disappoints; so much of what is good doesn’t get “buzz” and disappears.

Most of my committee experience was before blogs gained the power they have now. I believe that blogging is changing the whole world of children’s books in ways that are both good and bad. I worry.

I’m eternally grateful to have had you as one of my advisors while I was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. What is the best thing about teaching? Can you share any fun stories about VCFA (trick question)?

The best thing about teaching, Janet, is the opportunity to work with students like you. I think all of us on the faculty learn as much, if not more, from our students as they learn from us. To read is one thing; to read and articulate responses is another; to read and articulate responses in a way that might push a student to a place she didn’t think she could go is pretty darned amazing.
Funny or fun stories about VCFA? Everything that happens there is fun, right? Guessing what’s for lunch, meeting all your friends in the communal bathrooms, waiting for the water to heat up, looking for caffeine---but you probably mean something more. I laugh more during residency than I do the whole rest of the year. And I suspect the students have even more fun than the faculty.  (We have a ton!)

Please tell us about the forthcoming Monsieur Marceau (Gerard DuBois, Illus., Roaring Brook, 2012).

Right after M. Marceau died, my agent, Steven Chudney, suggested I might think about writing a picture book biography. I rarely take suggestions from someone else (though this long blog post points to two such instances, hmmm), but this one resonated, particularly when I became immersed in research and learned about Marceau’s actions during WWII, which I had known nothing about. The more I learned of Marceau’s life, the more convinced I was to tell the story. Oddly enough, I studied mime in my senior in college with Jan Kessler, and a student of Marceau’s, Rob Mermin, lives close by.

Neal Porter accepted the manuscript in 2008; it will be published next fall (2012). I’ve recently seen the proofs, and I was completely overwhelmed by the gorgeous art Gerard DuBois has created. He’s French and lives in Montreal. Wait until you see it!

Want to share a favorite borscht recipe?

It’s on the back of THE PRINCESS OF BORSCHT! Simple as could be. There are more complex recipes as well. They’re all good. Beets are good.

What’s the best way for readers to find out more about you and your work?

I do have a website which I maintain myself through the Authors Guild. It’s nothing fancy, but I update it frequently.

Janet, thanks so much for interviewing me. It’s almost as good as sitting in Noble Lounge at VCFA and talking with you.

Likewise. Almost. Sigh.

And The Winner Is...

Drawn from the "random hat generator" the winner of my give-away is (drumroll...)


Congrats to Kelly and THANK YOU to everyone who stopped by. Happy Holidays and keep watching because I will do more drawings in the future. Plus cover reveals, teasers, and excerpts from works in the works.

Hugs! - Janet

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Holiday Thank-you and Give-away!

I want to send a warm thank you to all my readers, fans, and friends. I’ve heard so many lovely comments from you about Faithful and Forgiven, and it means so much to me. I’m in the edit stage with my third historical YA, set in 1925 New York City, and featuring a gangster, a love story, a friendship, and a mystery that may have to do with a ghost (Moll was the tentative title but it may be in for a title change...coming soon. Plus, advance teasers...)

As a way of giving back to my loyal fans I’m running a holiday give-away. The prize will be your choice of one copy of either Faithful or Forgiven. The winner’s name will be drawn from among the entries.

If I receive more than 50 comments to this post, I’ll draw a second winner.

Here are the rules:

Comment on this post: 1 point
Tell me you’ve tweeted this: 1 point
Like my Author Facebook page: 1 point. (If you already have liked it, just let me know.)

Each point puts your name in the hat once.

Here’s a chance for you to win one of my books for yourself or as a holiday gift. The deadline is December 18th, and I can put signed books in the mail directly to you or your gift recipient for a timely delivery.

Thank you all for your support and kind words, and the best of the season to you!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: John Michael Cummings

Not long ago I received a collection of short stories under the title Ugly to Start With. Written by my guest today, John Michael Cummings, they feature a young man with a unique voice and clear-eyed view of the adult world, and I'm delighted that John, an accomplished award-winning author, agreed to this interesting and telling interview.

Please give readers a synopsis of your new collection of short stories, Ugly to Start With.

Here’s the synopsis the publisher and I came up with, which is pretty good: Jason Stevens is growing up in picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. Back when the roads are smaller, the cars slower, the people more colorful, and Washington, D.C. is way across the mountains—a winding sixty-five miles away.

Jason dreams of going to art school in the city, but he must first survive his teenage years. He witnesses a street artist from Italy charm his mother from the backseat of the family car. He stands up to an abusive husband—and then feels sorry for the jerk. He puts up with his father’s hard-skulled backwoods ways, his grandfather’s showy younger wife, and the fist-throwing schoolmates and eccentric mountain characters that make up Harpers Ferry—all topped off by a basement art project with a girl from the poor side of town.

Your main character, Jason, is an appealing teen with a distinctive voice, and the thread of the stories connects through him. Did you intend to write a collection, or did Jason drive the narrative?

No, I didn’t set out to write a collection.  Some writers do, and it’s an admirable project—a unified body of short narratives. 

For years I’ve been striving to publish book-length works.  As far as I know, that’s how to offer readers something of prosy bulk they can hold on to; a story or poem in a literary journal is easily lost, I’m afraid.  A writer could publish seventy-five stories in seventy-five different literary journals and magazines and never be a blip on the literary radar.  I’m talking about myself!  Before I published my first novel, that was my fate.  I’m still largely unknown, but my first novel stands in the cosmos of print as a kind of point of light at least.  Call it a nano-star. 

So I’ve been striving for years to publish book-length works.  Believe it or not, even with 75 stories in print, I could barely scrape together 13 stories (that’s how many are in this collection) that glimmer in any sort of sequence and offer both a variety and a cohesion—so so tricky to achieve. 

The best way I can explain this trick is, think of songs on an album:  6 or 8 have the same flavor of voice, with one or two oddballs thrown in to keep it interesting. 

So initially I managed to come up a theme of self-image for about 15 stories, and with the help of the team at West Virginia University Press, we reordered and shaped them to make them more continuous, cutting some, adding others.  I should back up and say that of my 75 stories in print, the last 30 have been about Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where I grew, and rendered in an open, unfussy youthful voice.  Those 30 tales gave me my best chance of finding a taut collection.  (The others were largely showy and scant, and a little off-putting with a disdainful hero).

But again, without editors and outside readers for WVU Press—suggesting which stories bounced them out of the theme and where the theme seeking lacking so that others could be added in, the collection would not have been created.  I myself just didn’t have the perspective.  They did, and they were very good about it.  They were also very good in line by line editing.

I should note that even though all the stories have previously appeared in literary journals, some changes were made to them for this collection, for the sake of cohesion.  (To toot my horn, “The Scratchboard Project,” a kind of anchor story for the collection and also the longest, first appeared in The Iowa Review.  It was both nominated for The Pushcart Prize and an honor mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.)

So to answer your question, Jason ultimately drives the narrative.  His youthful voice has appeared in so many of my short narratives that eventually I came up with 13 jigsaw puzzle pieces to fit together into a collection.

I love the evocative setting. Please talk about what it means to you.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was my early world.   Today it’s still the wallpaper in my brain; I can’t close my eyes at night without seeing the old historic town. 

But here’s where it gets dicey.  I love the place—I hate the place.   I’m gigantic there—I’m tiny there.   I’m happy, I’m despicable.  I’m ambitious, I’m depressed.  I’m healthy, sick.  You see, the town splits me in half.  Aesthetically, it defined me.  Emotionally, it traumatized me.

The short answer is, the town may be the most hauntingly beautiful place ever.  The other answer is, it’s a void, a hole of existential despair, a place where creeping emotions finish up in melancholy, where an aching emptiness clings to the mountainside, making faces in the rock as much grotesque as sympathetic.  It’s a town where a sensitive sort can go mad with desires repressed and memories imagined, with obsessive, exaggerated reactions to the insidiously sublime world around them. 

Do I sound strange?  Perhaps yes.  But this is my artist’s view of a town famous in history for the abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid.

Souls who live there today are unwittingly confused, menaced, and irreversibly changed.  The place laughs at time.  It’s original name was “The Hole.”  Need I say more. The place began and will end with an overriding hopelessness in its air.  Yes, life goes on there, quietly importantly, but human existence is without meaning and purpose. 

This I swear.  You would not want me writing its travel brochure.

I’m sure readers would love to hear something about your “writer’s journey” – your first publication, early experiences, or any start-up stories you wish to share.

Me Write?

In 1989, I was a 26-year-old art student who probably hadn’t read his first novel.  Secretly, though, I loved words, just not those written down, but sung.  Bruce Springsteen’s songs, in particular, had as much meaning as my ears could hear.  No artist put as much heart and soul into ordinary words as he did.

How could so much human meaning be captured on the page without music? 

During an elective poetry course at George Mason University, I tried to find out.  As an experiment, I typed out lyrics to a few of his songs, put in line breaks to make them look like poems, printed them out, and read them quietly. 

They were terrible!  I was shocked.  Nothing.  Flat.  Where was all the heartfelt feeling so richly steeped in the music? 

Whatever I would write in my poetry class, it would not sound like Bruce.

Around this time, by chance I opened a book by John Updike—and out poured sentences bejeweled with commas and printed in Technicolor: 

Now this was writing!  The visual artist in me was enchanted.  His sentences were endless and ornate, like fancy, curly, golden lines on sensationally green Victorian wallpaper.

As I went on to finish my degree in art, I found myself writing.  For years afterward, I referred to Updike’s Trust Me collection for technique and range in narratives.  As my stories written in his style began to be published, I grew bigheaded and overly confident.  I scowled at the idea of master’s program in writing.  And why not?  My undergraduate degree wasn’t in English or writing, but still I was getting published.  (In fact, not six months after graduating, I even got a job as a newspaper reporter with my art degree by putting together a few mock news stories and pulling off a certain moxie in my interview.)
I was all the more smug.  Writers aren’t made in classrooms, I told myself.  They’re forged out in the real world or in their hovels, alone. 

Over the next decade, leaving both formal education and journalism behind, I moved around, working odd jobs, writing creatively as much as I could:  photocopy clerk at night in D.C., office temp in Minneapolis, and innkeeper in Newport, Rhode Island.  I had few friends and romanticized my isolation.  I was a writer after all, fated to suffer.  Yet I remained highly ambitious.  When I published ten stories, I had to publish twenty.  Then thirty.  What little money I earned went, in large part, to stamps for submissions.    

Then I undertook a novel—and fell flat on my face.  Manuscript after manuscript, revision after revision, was rejected.  I was dumbfounded by the comments. What was meant by narrative arc?  Didn’t plot exist necessarily?  Rotating point of view—huh? 

My lack of reading was clearly exposed.  The fancy descriptive writing I had modeled after John Updike’s New Yorker stories, when spread out over a hundred pages, left a void where plot and action should have been.  My novel didn’t develop.  Worse, it repeated itself. 

I was left with questions that took me back to the starting point.  What makes a writer?  What’s in his heart?  Does he embody the truth?  More important, what’s his mission and what are his limits?  Then there were more specific questions.  What was my unique style?  Should I agonize over every word?  Or should I be frank and plainspoken like my father and others where I grew up? 

In my correspondence with publishers, I was referred to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, in the last chapter of which I found the commandment: “Write in a way that comes naturally…” 
While I understood the general idea, it gave rise to more questions.  What if nothing comes naturally?  Or what if what “comes naturally” is bad writing?

I decided I would take my questions to the source.  I drove up to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where, nosing around the antique stores, I came across a local lady all too willing to gab about the town’s most famous resident, American author John Updike, including where he lived.  Following her directions, I turned at the bridge outside town and took the snaky road through the trees.  I was brave and excited until I passed through a high gate and looked up to see a majestic white mansion on the hill overlooking the cold blue Atlantic.   My car lost its rev, and the courage in my chest turned to lead.  Meanwhile, the driveway was delivering me right up to the gleaming white Doric columns that stood on either side of Mr. Updike’s front door like well-uniformed sentries.  It was evening, and I was slipping in during the rose-tinted hour between day and night.  In an inglorious moment, I scampered out of my running car and up to his grand door, where I leaned my latest manuscript against the jamb so that the big envelope would plop down on the toes of his oxblood slippers when he emerged.  In a no less inglorious moment, I scurried back to my car and zoomed away, my head swirling in disbelief.  I had done it.  Not very magnificently, but I done it.

Updike, to my surprise, wrote to me: “There are many nice touches in these pages.  Try to generate more suspense the reader is curious about.  Keep writing.  But don’t keep bringing your work to me.  I’m a dead-end.  You need an editor.”

I’m a dead-end?  The man could move publishing empires around with a phone call. 

As I held his typewritten note in my hands, I could not believe what I was seeing.  His typewriter had flying caps.  He had left an “s” off “touches” and added the letter in blue pen.  He missed a comma too--though who was I to make this assumption?  He might be breaking a rule at his discretion. 

I was seeing something else.  He was polite.  He was brief.  He wrote in short, normal sentences.  Strange, of all the lengthy, elaborate sentences of his I had read over the years, these few short, plain ones were ones I understood best.   He was, for the first time, real.

At the time, I was working at a literary agency in New York, learning all about how big publishing is an unforgiving, money-driven business.  I had already been urged by agents to forget Updike’s exquisitely vivid adjectives.  Make me care, all the agents were crying.  Don’t write tortuous, snakelike sentences, they said.  Get in on the Toni Morrison style. 

Amid all this New York palaver of writing, I was realizing that my voice came from my West Virginia roots, not from Brooklyn’s parade of writers, not from pugs like Norman Mailer or upstarts like Rick Moody.  Keep it true, in other words.  All the artfully bundled phrases in the world, all the dense and sweetly rhythmic words, can’t say the sky is blue. 

Please tell readers where they can learn more about you and your books.

Here are three great sites:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Waiting...Extreme Waiting

Recently I've heard lots of talk about something authors are all too familiar with: waiting.

In the old days (at least this is how I imagine things) an author working in a solitary aerie would pound the keys until completing a masterful tome, and three days after mailing a box of loose pages to Major New York Publisher, the MNYP editor would call with great news: "This is a best seller! It'll be out for the holidays!"

Today, we write for a year, maybe two; we share with our critique partners; we revise; we send to our agent; we wait; we hear from agent and revise again; we wait; we hear that agent has received "no's"; we wait; we hear from an interested editor; we revise for editor; we wait; the book goes to committee; we wait; the book sells; we wait; we revise; the book's launch is bumped; we wait....well, that's the idea. And that's if you're lucky enough to have an agent who eventually sells your book.

Recently Steve Mooser of SCBWI crafted an excellent editorial in the Newsletter asking editors to be mindful that the new policy of "if you don't hear from us in 3 months, we aren't interested" is, well, cruel. That policy is hard on authors who sit on pins and needles, waiting, hoping. What happens after 3 months? How should an author feel? It's disheartening and enervating. I agree with Steve, though I don't know that this policy will go away any time soon.

So I've learned to think of this in a new way. Personally, I don't wait well (part of my anal control-freak nature). So I don't wait. I work.

The minute a manuscript goes out the door, in whatever direction, I begin or dive back into a new project. My own MO is to work on a very different type of project - say, moving from YA to MG or from historical to fantasy. I have to put the other work out of my mind, and in fact I look upon the waiting as a gift. A gift of time to start something new, to be creative, to read things I wouldn't read otherwise, to go back to my pile of craft books for new inspiration, to meet with colleagues, to catch up on publishing trends, to improve my craft.

I propose a new author game. Let's call it Extreme Waiting. Extreme Waiting is energetic and thrilling, rather than tedious. Extreme Waiting is a time of growth, development, renewal.

What do you say? I'll meet you on the keystroke. Let's go for the gold!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Galaxy Games: Greg Fishbone on Books for Boys

Greg Fishbone has written a fun, funny middle grade - Galaxy Games - that will appeal to young teen boys, especially boys who aren't ordinarily drawn to reading. As part of his blog tour I was delighted when he offered to write the following post on "books for boys."
Greg is also running a contest as part of his blog tour and here's today's clue:
Puzzle Piece #25 is here:

Books for Boys: What Keeps Them Reading?
I was in a classroom recently where reading-time was used as a reward for students who finished their other work. It was easy to tell which students were the readers in the class: boys and girls who raced through their work for a chance to spend a few extra minutes engaged with a book. A solid majority of the class seemed indifferent and probably would not have been reading if computer activities had been an option instead. Then there were those students who lingered over math assignments so they wouldn't have to crack open a novel; who chose the books from the classroom library with the highest ratio of pictures to words; who acted silly instead of reading; who subverted the process by picking the Guinness Book of World Records instead of a book with a narrative and plot.
These were the reluctant readers and in this particular classroom, they were all boys.
What does it take to engage reluctant readers? Thin books with cartoony cover art. Books with interior illustrations, especially graphic novels. Content that seems subversive. Humor. Science fiction. Sports. Books that tie into Star Wars, superheroes, video games, or other media. Books with boys as main characters. Short chapters. These books will get the boys reading, but I believe there is also a strong need for transitional books that are more challenging and literary while retaining the fun and accessible qualities that reluctant readers enjoy. To keep the boys reading, we need to up the ante.
We need books that continue to appeal to reluctant readers as they gain confidence and become less-reluctant readers. We need books that transition formerly-reluctant readers into almost-enthusiastic readers. We need books that will make today's reluctant readers into parents who model pleasure reading for their own children. 
Getting reluctant readers into books today is a good start, but turning them into life-long readers should be the overriding goal.

Greg R. Fishbone, Author - - Twitter @tem2
The Challengers - Book #1 in the Galaxy Games Series
Follow the Galaxy Games Blog Tour, all October long!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Debut Authors of the Class of 2k11: Kiki Hamilton

I'm delighted to be able to bring you another interview with one of the incredibly talented members of the Class of 2k11, Kiki Hamilton. Her debut novel, THE FAERIE RING, is exactly the kind of book I would curl up to read as a girl. Part fantasy, part historical, and (and this is the best part) part of a series! So, go ahead and fall in love!

And when you see some of Kiki's other upcoming work, why, I'm betting we'll be hearing lots about this gal.

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, THE FAERIE RING. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
Thank you so much!  I’m so excited for THE FAERIE RING to release on September 8th, 2011!
I’ve always loved the idea of things not being what they seem. That other dimensions or worlds exist side by side with our own, just beyond our ken; that the scope of our world is more than just the three dimensions that we are able to easily comprehend.  At the same time, I’m intrigued by the past, by our history, by what may have occurred that might not have been formally documented for future generations.  The untold story, if you will.  And I am particularly fascinated with those untold stories that have a thread of documented fact woven through them, which makes the reader question whether they are reading fiction or nonfiction.  A story that makes the reader say..”what if?”
The idea for THE FAERIE RING started with Tiki, an orphan, who survives on the streets of Victorian London as a pickpocket. I knew I wanted to write a story about a girl pickpocket because so often, girls / women have been cast as the weaker sex in books and movies and yet in my experience, women are often the brains and backbone behind the scenes.  Victorian London is a mysterious and magical time in history.  It is an era of great change, great technological advances, yet at the same time, beliefs in the occult remained strong.  Additionally, the era offers a startling dichotomy between the classes and the way people lived, providing a great gap of motivations.
So, I had a pickpocket who was clever yet sensitive and a mysterious time in history.  After Tiki stole the Queen’s ring, the next question I asked myself was:  What if someone else wanted the ring? What if there was something unseen happening in London at the same time?  So Tiki told me what happened next.
I wrote the first draft of THE FAERIE RING in thirty days.
How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I have been writing seriously for about five years.  THE FAERIE RING was the second book I wrote.  Since, I have written several others – see my answer below.

Can you describe your path to the publication of THE FAERIE RING?

My road to getting published was pretty typical. After writing, revising (and revising) my first book, I queried several agents.  While I waited, I wrote another book – THE FAERIE RING.  My agent asked for revisions on the first book so when I sent that back I mentioned TFR and she said to send that as well.  She signed me for both books but went out with THE FAERIE RING first, which sold to Susan Chang of Tor Teen.

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

My advice is to never give up.  It takes HARD work to write a book.  One of the sayings pasted to my computer is this: 

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.”

The same is true of writing.  Take classes, read books on craft, read books that you love and think about why you love them. And write and write. Get critiques and don’t be afraid to revise.  The work is often in the revision.  You can do it. Never give up. 

Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

I’d love to do more traveling.  I got to go to London for the first time in my life AFTER I’d written THE FAERIE RING. I fell in love with that city!  And it was totally surreal to walk in Tiki’s (the main character of TFR) footsteps from Charing Cross to St. James Park to Buckingham Palace.  I want to go back there and to Ireland.  I have another book that has parts set in Paris, so I’d like to go back there, as well.  Also, I have lots of ideas for more books so I’d love to be able to have the time to write them all!

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

As a matter of fact – I have several.  I have already written the second book (THE TORN WING) in THE FAERIE RING series and I’m over halfway through the third book (THE TARA STONE).  Also, I’ve written a YA contemporary novel with a hint of paranormal entitled PULSE.  After I finish THE TARA STONE I’m going finish a YA Steampunk Fantasy called ENIGMA which is set in London in 1895.  No rest for the wicked, you know. ;-)

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about THE FAERIE RING

Yes! Please visit my blog at which also has links to my website along with a map of London 1871. I’d love to hear from  you and your readers!

Janet, thanks so much for having me!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mistress of the Craft: Martha Alderson, "The Plot Whisperer"

One of the things I've struggled with the most throughout my writing career is plot. How could I create a novel that is both compelling and perfectly paced, without plot holes or draggy moments?

When, years ago, I discovered Martha Alderson, aka "The Plot Whisperer," I found answers. This is especially true since I am what she calls a "seat of the pants" writer. I've purchased her books and DVDs and used them over and over. And check out her blog - she has fantastic tips there, and you can sign up for her newsletter.

I was truly delighted when Martha contacted me to host her on the eve of the launch of her latest book on this confounding subject: THE PLOT WHISPERER: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Adams Media, a division of F+W Media; October 18, 2011). Martha agreed to write a guest post on the revision process (another constant struggle, and trust me, I'm going to take the advice she gives below), and I'm thrilled to bring it to you.

Congratulations. You have written the first draft of your story. Before you embark on your first major rewrite, first take time to re-“vision” the overall project.

The first draft of a writing project is the generative phase. Rather than become dismayed when you are faced with a manuscript full of holes and missteps, even confusion and chaos, accept that this is part of the process.

Your first draft is a fragile thread of a dream. You know what you want to convey—well, maybe. Few writers adequately communicate a complete vision in the first draft of a story, especially when writing by the seat of your pants.

Without reading your story from beginning to end, for now simply create a list of scenes or chapters. Then, make a new plot planner by locating and filling in the four energetic markers—the end of the beginning, the halfway point, the crisis, and the climax. This allows you to analyze your story from a plot and structural level without becoming seduced by the actual words themselves.

1. Assign different colored sticky notes for the protagonist and one or two major characters. Give all the other characters the same color. Link the protagonist’s emotional chronology from scene to scene.
2. Sticky notes of one color follow the energetic intensity in the dramatic action in every scene, above or below the line. Place scenes that hold tension above the line. Put scenes with no conflict below the line.
3. Now, stand back from the plot planner and evaluate how many scenes fall above and below the line, and where. Consider how the rising and falling energy influences the pace of the story.
4. Next, compare the beginning and the end of your story. How do they tie together? Do both the dramatic action plot and character emotional development plot coalesce at the end for more punch and impact? Does the beginning foreshadow this clash?
5. Draw a line connecting the scenes that are linked by cause and effect. To determine the coherence of the overall story and the linkage between scenes, use your plot planners as a cause-and effect vision board.

Once you have let your story rest for at least a few days, read your manuscript all the way through one time as a reader. Keep the next draft in the back of your mind. You may find you have completely zoned out about the character’s emotions in your zeal to create lots of zip and zing in the dramatic action, or in your passion to create a binding historical and/or political timeline. Notice when the dramatic action plot is physical and concrete.

Feel when the character emotional plot is emotional, sensuous, and human. Read for the sequence of the dramatic action and where, in the next draft, you’ll want to explore and discover the character’s emotional development in greater depth.

If, when you reread your manuscript, you find that you have neglected the dramatic action plot, create concrete goals in the next draft that incite the protagonist to action.

Investigate how the loss, betrayal, hurt, or abandonment in the protagonist’s backstory affects her as she moves from and reacts to one action scene after another. Watch for references and hints of themes, and when and how thematic elements of the plot are most accessible.

In the next read-through, make notes on the rough draft hard copy of scenes that need to be cleaned up, expanded, and deepened in their treatment of the characters, action, and theme.

You may find the first draft is wobbly and scenes ramble. The complete vision of your story was a bit hazy the first time through. The action was tangled. The protagonist comes off as bewildering. You have glossed over an energetic marker or two. Don’t panic—this is good. As a matter of fact, the worse the first draft, the better. Trying for perfection before you know what you are trying to convey commonly leads to procrastination.

As you did with the first draft, write this new draft as quickly as possible all the way to the end. Work out the really big issues first and forget about the details for now.

When you finish the next draft(s) and you are certain that the core dramatic action plot and character emotional development plot work and the “vision” of your story is clear, use the next rewrite to begin grafting on details.

Martha Alderson has worked with hundreds of writers in sold-out plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations for more than fifteen years. Her clients include bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow her blog, workshopsvlog, or follow her on twitter and facebook.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: Tami Lewis Brown

Kidlit writers are some of the nicest people on the planet. And one of my favorite people in the kidlit world is Tami Lewis Brown

Tami is not only sweet and generous, she's also talented. Her middle grade debut novel, The Map of Me, is outstanding - I predict that it will be read and loved and rewarded. Tami has written a wonderful blog post for me, and I'm proud to bring it to you.

Middle grade novels and their protagonists come in every flavor—Nancy Drew to Artemis Fowl to India Opal Buloni. Eight to twelve year olds want to be entertained with fun light reads, but kids who love to read also want to dive into a book that touches their budding emotional lives. They yearn to explore horizons beyond home and school and a serious middle grade novel can chart the way.

Eight to twelve-year-olds are fluent readers and the books written for them are windows into the great big outside world, perhaps offering them a taste before they explore that territory for themselves. Middle grade books offer entertainment—no nine-year-old will sit still for a boring book—but they can also serve up complex emotion and writing every bit as sophisticated as YA or even adult novels.

But even though every adult was once a middle grade reader, grown-ups in our country seems to suffer from some kind of adult onset reading amnesia. Many adults believe middle grade books are simplistic. Easy to read. Even easier to write.

No way.

Try one of these passages on for size:

I come from a family with a lot of dead people . . . (Daddy) say “It’s not how you die that makes the important impression, Comfort; it’s how you live. 
                                                            Debbie Wiles’ EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.
                                                            Carolyn Coman’s WHAT JAMIE SAW

There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road.
                                                            Kathi Appelt’s THE UNDERNEATH

The stories these books tell and the writing these writers use to tell it are every bit as sophisticated as any novel for older readers. Actually they’re even better because these writers fully respect their readers, often exposing them to difficult concepts and well-chosen words for the first time. Great middle grade authors put me in the mind of butterfly hunters as they catch elusive ideas with nets spun of prose, trapping tough concepts just long enough for young readers to observe and understand truths.

I wrote about hard ideas in THE MAP OF ME—exploring tough subjects with images and language middle grade readers relate to. One of my favorite bits is when the protagonist Margie pulls on her disapproving father’s jacket, symbolically taking on his feelings.

The jacket smelled of clove aftershave and the bacon-cheddar biscuits Daddy slipped in his pocket mornings he worked opening at the store. A whiff of ink from an old ballpoint that leaked in the pocket, its oily stink left along with the mark. Old Gold Filters he’d borrowed off Al and smoked behind the World of Tires. What Momma didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Soft and sad had worked into the jacket’s old plaid lining, leftover from a thousand days on Daddy’s back. Time and space were grooved into the corduroy. I pulled the front closed, tighter than the zipper, but I still didn’t feel warm.

But is the story of a girl who thinks she can’t do anything right, who can’t satisfy her father, who worries she’s run her mother off too heavy for middle grade readers? Is this really YA with a too young protagonist? Or even an adult novel in middle-grade disguise?

I don’t think so. Margie’s voice and experience are young. And young doesn’t mean dumb or blind to the world.

Obviously every reader has his or her own taste. No book is for everybody. But many middle grade readers know all about not measuring up. They don’t have to come from a family where a baby was thrown, or a pet cat dumped, or even a family with a whole lot of dead people to understand sadness and loss. And happiness and redemption, too. I’m so glad my job is writing those kinds of hard, true stories for people just learning about life.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The 50/50 Project: Help for Somali Refugees Plus a Critique for You

East Africa is suffering its worst drought in 60 years, and the people of Somalia – especially women and children – are traveling long distances under grueling and dangerous circumstances to end up in refugee camps. And there they find not refuge but underdeveloped resources.

There is so much suffering in the world right now it’s hard to know how to help. Here’s your chance to help Somali refugees, and give yourself a professional boost as well.

One of my fellow-members of Romance Writers of America, Kathy-Diane Leveille, created a mechanism to aid Somali refugees through CARE International. She asked for writers willing to participate, and I joined this group. Her idea was to form the “50/50 Project” – your writing critiqued by a published author – that is, each of the published writers involved in the project is available to critique 50 pages of your work for only 50 of your dollars. You can choose which writer you would like to submit work to, on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Bidding” opens Saturday, October 1, which is why I’m posting this today. I’d be thrilled to review 50 pages of your work in progress. And if I’m not a match for you, check out the other talented authors who have also volunteered their time and energy.

Please go to the link - writerswhocare - and check out the authors. For a flat $50 donation you can help the destitute and starving of Somalia and come away with a terrific critique as well.

And, many thanks.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Debut Authors of the Class of 2k11: Tess Hilmo

I'm so pleased to be able to introduce 2k11 author Tess Hilmo, whose middle grade novel With A Name Like Love debuts this week. 

Kirkus gave the novel a *starred review* (congrats, Tess!): "A story about the meaning of home, justice and love, beautifully told." 

A summary: "When Ollie’s daddy, the Reverend Everlasting Love, pulls their travel trailer into Binder to lead a three-day revival, Ollie knows that this town will be like all the others they visit— it is exactly the kind of nothing Ollie has come to expect. But on their first day in town, Ollie meets Jimmy Koppel, whose mother is in jail for murdering his father. Jimmy insists that his mother is innocent, and Ollie believes him. Still, even if Ollie convinces her daddy to stay in town, how can two kids free a grown woman who has signed a confession?  Ollie’s longing for a friend and her daddy’s penchant for searching out lost souls prove to be a formidable force in this tiny town where everyone seems bent on judging and jailing without a trial."

Tess graciously agreed to write a guest post for me, and it's my pleasure to bring it to you.

We Are All Connected

When I began writing With A Name Like Love, I knew three things:
1.     I wanted to celebrate the rich, Southern gospel music that I love so much
2.     I wanted to write an intriguing murder mystery
3.     I wanted to include a strong family unit

When I was little, I remember one of my grade school teachers telling our class about how the old Negro Spirituals are all written in a five key scale called pentatonic scale. Five humble keys that, when arranged, can give us feelings of loss, heartache, redemption and hope.  They have the ability to connect us and make us believe we can do great things.  Think about songs like Amazing Grace and the emotion it stirs.  Or the power within Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

I wondered if it could be the same with a novel.  If including basic elements of hope, heartache, redemption and love could bring us all together under the umbrella of story.  That was and continues to be my goal with this book.  It is a Southern murder mystery that highlights the triumph of the human spirit over difficult and, at times, dark events.

Music and stories bring us together and remind us that we are all connected.

What are your favorite songs and what emotions do they evoke in you?

You can find out more about Tess on her blog 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ten Thousand Hours

A short post for a busy week...

Several years ago I listened to Malcolm Gladwell reading from his wonderful book Outliers. He explores what makes someone a true success - an outlier - in their field. Think folks like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the Beatles.

His hypothesis is that it takes 10,000 hours of intense practice in whatever craft you work in - whether computers, music, or in our case, writing - to achieve the kind of mastery that can make you an outlier. There are other factors that weigh in, of course: native talent is nice, as well as a certain intellectual ability. But by and large, it is practice, and lots of it, that make someone more successful than those around him or her.

If you look carefully at the resumes of our most talented and renowned authors you'll notice that by and large they spent a long time getting to the top of the field; there are very few overnight successes.

Do I write every day? I try to, but there are days... The way I look at it, however long I spend at my desk I'm adding to the 10,000 hours I'll need to achieve anything even approaching mastery of the craft of writing for children.

With a rough calculation, 10,000 hours is the equivalent of a year and a quarter of 24/7/365 days. Which means if you work on writing like most normal people, at say, 5 hours per day (and take weekends off but no vacations) it will take you closer to 8 years of steady practice to achieve this kind of mastery.

Eight years of intense practice - constant, daily, rigorous practice with no vacations, sick days, family reunions, kid crises - to achieve anything approaching mastery. I'm sure that even with my steady effort over the course of ten years of writing for children I haven't even approached 10,000 hours.

I think it's time for me to get back to practicing...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Creating a Smartphone Picture Book App: Lindsey Lane

I was very excited to learn from my friend and Vermont College of Fine Arts classmate Lindsey Lane that she had acquired the rights to her first picture book, Snuggle Mountain, and then created a smartphone app for the book. Finally, someone who could explain this mysterious process! I've interviewed Lindsey, and am delighted to have her here this week.

Hi Lindsey! How were you able to acquire the rights? Was that a difficult process?

It was not difficult at all. Cynthia Leitich Smith had recommended Aimee Bissonette of Little Buffalo Law to me as someone who would review contracts for authors who don’t have agents. I contacted her in August 2010 and told her that Clarion, the publisher of Snuggle Mountain and imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, had let SM go out of stock about two years ago and that I would like to get the rights reverted to me. She asked me to send her the Rights Reversion clause in my contract. After reading it, she said it was very standard and all I needed to do was send them a letter requesting that the rights revert to me. Basically what’s going on is you have to make the request so that the publisher can decide to put the book back in circulation and, if they don’t do that, the rights revert to you. Because the book had been out of stock for two years, it was pretty clear they weren’t going to reprint it, so the letter was a formality. Still, Aimee was helpful in drafting the letter, subtly letting HMH know that she was representing me and then being available to me if I needed any extra help. Aimee said to give the HMH folks about three months to go through their process and then contact them again. Sure enough, three months later, I wrote them a brief: ‘How is the progress on the Snuggle Mountain rights reversion?’ email and, a week after that, a disk of the book arrived in the mail with a letter telling me that the rights belonged to illustrator Melissa Iwai and me. Ta-Dah!

I was so excited to learn that you have created a smartphone app of the book. Can you tell us (a) how you went about creating the app, (b) how you made it available, (c) how you think it's working?

After Melissa and I got the rights back in December 2010, I emailed her to see what she thought about making Snuggle Mountain into a digital book. She was all for it. She had already been approached by someone who was doing ebooks and apps so we just broadened our search. Fortunately, a group of authors and illustrators had just stared a blog called e is for book. The premise of the blog is that a book is a book regardless of the format and each contributor’s blog post focused on the creation of digital books for kids. Through that site and links to other sites, Melissa and I learned the names of ebook and app developers. We took turns querying and interviewing them. The one that popped out for us was PicPocket Books. They had developed Elizabeth Dulemba’s Lula’s Brew and Elizabeth was very complimentary of their work. We sent Lynette Mattke of PicPocket Books a copy of Snuggle Mountain and she said she would very much like to make it into an app. We had a conference call with her and afterwards, Melissa and I agreed that what we liked about Mattke’s approach was that she really likes to remain true to the integrity of the book. She didn’t want to turn books into games. We signed with her in March. I got busy adding bits of dialogue for Emma. Melissa handled all the reformatting of the artwork for the iPhone and the iPad as well as creating the artwork for specific animations like wagging tails and sniffing noses. In April, Lynette and I skyped and she showed me the app on the desktop of her computer. (That was co cool.) We tweaked a few things (the sheep dog sounded like a Chihuahua) and it was available on iTunes in Mid-May. Because PicPocket Books is an approved Apple app developer, Snuggle Mountain is only available through iTunes and, right now, only folks with iPads and iPhones can purchase the Snuggle Mountain app. But that could change next week. Seriously. The digital world changes that fast.

Did you find the process easy or was the learning curve steep?

PicPocket had about 30 apps under its belt when we came along so that made our process very easy. What was a bit disorienting is the speed of this process. The publishing industry moves at a snail’s pace compared to the app and ebook world. Normally you have time to prepare for publicity (you know make a trailer, do pre-release buzz, make a postcard), but suddenly the app was out and I still feel like I am catching up. But on the other side of the proverbial coin, the app is not a book taking up warehouse space so as long as I’m out promoting it, parents can download the app. Really, it’s pretty sweet to be in an airport, near a wiggly child and ask them if they like books. If they do, I ask the parents if they mind if I read them a book. Next thing you know, I’ve got this little one sliding her finger across the iPhone screen, turning digital pages. Kinda fun.

Would you recommend to authors who have not yet published but who may have a picture book ready that they try creating an app?

Hmm, interesting question. I know that there is a digital fever for books right now. App and ebook developers are cropping up like toadstools after the rain. Melissa and I had an advantage in that Melissa’s gorgeous artwork was already created so it made our project very viable and easy to convert into an app. Certainly, any author or illustrators with out of print picture book should try this route. It’s thrilling to me that Snuggle Mountain can be out there in the hands of the little readers and their parents. For pre-published writers who have written picture book that they would like to turn into an app, it will be a much different journey without already created artwork. But really, anything is possible. I mean, it’s sort like the wild west (at the Toadstool corral) right now with traditional publishing scrambling to catch up to epublishing and app developers opening up to the possibility of picture books.

Anything else about this mysterious world that you'd like to share?

A couple of things.

Melissa and I asked Lynette about making the Snuggle Mountain app available to other smart phones like the Droid. Right now it’s not possible. There is a digital divide between Apple and other smart phones and tablets.

When I started this process, I was a neophyte in the digital world. Really. I had to learn the difference between eBoooks and apps and why a picture book needs to be an app not an eBook. If you have ever seen a picture book an eBook, you would get it immediately. Basically an eReader only shows you one page at a time, so the artwork on a full-page spread gets cut in half. Not very satisfying when illustrators create artwork for a two page spread. With the app format, you can see the entire two page spread on the screen so nothing gets cut in half. It’s quite lovely, really. That said, I just read a post by Elizabeth Dulemba that she has formatted her Lula’s Brew to fit on a Nook. So once again, the digital world is shifting.

Contracts are changing to reflect the digital presence in publishing. Check out the rights reversion clause in your current and future contracts. Pay attention to where your rights will go if the print version of your book goes out of print. Pay attention to your rights period. Be careful they don’t drift off into the ethers of the eWorld.

Finally, in the digital world, there is a new kind of typo. When you first see your book as an app, it is really important to check all the bells and whistles it offers. Remember an app is short for application, which is a kind of software, which means that there can be formatting glitches. Fortunately, in the world of apps, you can send out an update and glitches gets fixed pretty easily but still, these glitches are like typos (and I hate typos) so check ALL the ways your app works before it goes out.

What are you working on now?

On October 8, Austin SCBWI is presenting a symposium called StoryTelling in the Digital Age. I am thrilled to join a stellar faculty and present the picture book app journey to participants. Oh, and I’m excited about taking a writing class with Margo Rabb this fall.

I'm so happy you came by - thank you!