Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interview: Author Sherry Garland

Years ago, when I was starting out, I met several authors who were beyond kind to me. They offered advice and support and never made me feel anything but accepted. One was Kelly Bennett, whom I featured recently, and another was today's guest, Sherry Garland.

Sherry moved to College Station, Texas, from Houston just about the time I was getting started with my writing. She was a real role model - highly successful, having written beautiful books that I continue to admire. And her career continues, through thick and thin, with gorgeous books of all stripes. I'm really pleased to welcome her to my blog. Here's Sherry:

You’ve been a successful author for many years now. Can you tell us a bit about how you began – your early sales, and the books you’ve published?

October, 2012 marks my thirtieth year of being a published author. I have thirty published books, so it averages out to one a year, but in fact there were many “dry” years with no books and some bountiful years of two or more books.

I give credit to my high school English teacher as the person who started me on the long journey to becoming an author. She encouraged me to read great works of literature and to write. She made our senior honors class enter a state-wide essay contest.  I won first place, was in the newspaper, on TV, honored at a banquet and received $100 (that was big bucks back then). She made me feel that I had a talent for writing. I also took journalism and wrote some items for the high school newspaper.

However, it was fifteen years later before I considered writing as a career and joined a writer’s group in Houston. I read tons of how-to-write books and attended conferences. At one conference I met an editor and submitted a proposal to her for a romance novel.  She bought two manuscripts from me (I used a pen name). I didn’t like writing love scenes and the editor was discouraging, so I quit writing altogether and figured my career was over. About five years later, I saw an ad in a writer’s magazine placed by an educational publisher wanting someone to write a children’s NF book about Vietnam. I had never written for children, but I knew a lot about Vietnam because of my friendships with the Vietnamese community in Houston.  That NF book launched my career in the children’s publishing industry. Because of that research, I sold seven books about Vietnam (2 YA, 4 PBs, and 1 NF) plus two magazine stories. Suddenly I was a children’s author!

Please share with us your most recent publications. Can you talk especially about your “Voices of...” collection – how that came into being and what’s planned for the future?

Even though the books are only 40 pages long, they have to be 100% historically accurate. It takes me about one year to do the research then write the book and back matter that includes a 1500 word historical note, glossary of terms and bibliography. Every time I write one, I feel like I have done the equivalent of a master’s thesis! It does make me good at playing Trivial Pursuit.

It started when my editor at Scholastic asked me to write a picture book about The Alamo. I was getting nowhere fast then one day, while sitting in the courtyard of The Alamo, I had a “Eureka” moment: I would tell the story from the perspective of sixteen first person narrative, some real historical figures, some fictitious people. The editor loved it and hired Ronald Himler to do the wonderful illustrations. That book sold very well, in fact this book is used in nearly every elementary school in Texas; it is even sold at the Alamo gift shop. When the Alamo book went out of print, Pelican Publishing, a regional publisher who specializes in southern and southwestern books, reissued it. 

One day the president of Pelican Publishing asked me if I would write a Voices of Gettysburg book using the same 40 page format. It was a topic that worked well with 16 narratives, alternating the POV between Union and Confederate soldiers and citizens. It was illustrated by Judith Hierstein and released in 2010.

Then, I saw a TV documentary about the Dust Bowl and knew it was a topic I had to write about. Being a native Texan, I have many older relatives who lived through the Dust Bowl period. Voices of the Dust Bowl, also illustrated by Judith Hierstein, was released in 2012.

Pelican also asked me to write about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I felt out of my element because I did not know much about WWII.  It was difficult to alternate the POV between Japanese and American narrators, plus get in all the historical data that needed to be presented, but I am happy with the results. The talented Houston artist, Layne Johnson, agreed to do the illustrations. Release date for Voices of Pearl Harbor is spring, 2013. 

Do you prefer to write picture books or novels?

A very tough question.  After 14 novels, I used to consider myself a novelist first and foremost.  I would happily say that it was easier for me to write an entire novel than one picture book. But after 14 picture books, I have become quite fond of the PB genre, too.  Nearly all of mine are historical in nature (except for the folk tales), so it takes a long time for the research. As I get older, I am finding it harder to sit still long enough to write an entire novel. One novel took me three years to research and write, so I want to make sure the novel is something I truly care about before I invest that much time in it.

You clearly love to do research as most of your books have some historical or cultural details. Please talk about how you choose your subjects and how you conduct your research.

Yes, I’m not a sci-fi, fantasy sort of gal.  I write realistic fiction, both historical and contemporary. Of course, all of my historical works, such as the two Dear America books, are inspired by actual historical events Even my contemporary novels have real events as their basis. For Shadow of the Dragon, I was inspired by the news about the beating death of a Vietnamese teenager by a gang of skinheads. For Letters from the Mountain, the idea came from a TV documentary about teens who “huffed” dangerous inhalants. I wrote The Silent Storm after experiencing a hurricane in Houston in 1983.

interior spread from Voices of Pearl Harbor
Because I want the novels to feel “real,” I have to research every aspect of the time period or culture – clothing, housing, language, means of transportation, lifestyles, customs, philosophies, religion – the list goes on and on.

I have two criteria when I choose a subject: 1) I have to love the topic myself and 2) it has to be something that will interest young readers and/or teachers. 

I know you’re something of a “school visit expert.” Do you have any tips or strategies that you can share with readers?

I consider doing school visits much like going into battle. Hope for the best but expect the worst. Be flexible. Don’t lose your cool when things go wrong.  Something will always go wrong – AV mechanical problems, schedule mess-ups, doors locking you out in the rain, fire-drills, kids throwing up on your shoes, and on and on. Always have a written contract that explains what materials are needed, length of presentation, size and age of audience, number of presentations, travel arrangements and fees.  Don’t trust the organizer to remember everything.  Get a schedule ahead of time. Get both school and home phone numbers of the organizer.  I have more information on my website.

What are you working on now?

Two YA novels set in the 1960s; two contemporary middle grade novels; a YA mystery; and a weird YA novella that I am afraid to send out to anyone because it is more edgy than my other works. And lots of picture books.

How can readers learn more about you and your books?

My website is:  www.sherrygarland.com
My blog is called “Into the Woods We Go”: sherrygarlandblog@wordpress.com

Thanks, Sherry! 

Here's one of Sherry's book trailers, this one for The Buffalo Soldier:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thank You!!!

This week I want to give a shout-out to some fabulous bloggers who are hosting give-aways and teaser reveals for my newest release SIRENS. You are all my heroes: we authors are forever grateful for the way you help to spread the word about new books.

So, thank you, thank you, a million times thank you! to:

My Friend Amy

Lauren's Crammed Bookshelf

The Compulsive Reader

Emily's Reading Room

The Mod Podge Bookshelf

In Bed With Books

The Story Siren

Poisoned Rationality

Check out the links - some of the contests are still open! I'll have more thank-you's very soon.

And don't miss the Crossroads Blog Tour on now. A bunch of fabulous authors, spearheaded by my friend Judith Graves, are on board that train, including me. Look for lots of paranormals. The grand prize for coming by this tour is a Kindle, preloaded with our books - wow!

We'll all be together for a Twitter chat, hosted by the awesome Mundie Moms, on Monday, October 29 - check it out.

And since this second baby is now out in the world, here's teaser number 2 for SIRENS, with a shout-out to my talented son, Kevin Fox, who makes all my trailers:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


There are books...and there are books that you want to read and re-read and tell everyone you know that they must read. Sheila O'Connor's KEEPING SAFE THE STARS is an extraordinary middle grade novel that in my opinion everyone must read. Beautifully crafted with believable characters and a heartbreaking rich premise, STARS is a winner.

Sheila is also the author of the highly acclaimed SPARROW ROAD - another must read. I'm so lucky to have Sheila here today to talk about STARS - now, go find this book! Just hang onto your heart.

Congratulations on a terrific second novel! Please give readers a quick synopsis.

Keeping Safe the Stars is the story of three siblings: Pride, Nightingale and Baby Star, who must fend for themselves when their grandfather, Old Finn falls ill.  Raised to be self-reliant, the Stars are determined to survive independently until Old Finn returns.  For the Stars this means selling pony rides and popcorn, a diet of SpaghettiOs and cake, and lots of pluck and courage and adventure.  It’s a book that celebrates the strength and ingenuity of children—how brave they are, how much they can accomplish on their own.  Set in 1974 during the week of Nixon’s resignation, it’s also a story about truth, and family loyalty, and what Publisher’s Weekly so aptly called “the murky territory of morality.” 

I loved the parallels you chose between Pride's tendency to lie and the Nixon resignation. Which came first, your character or the time period?

The characters absolutely came first.  And it wasn’t until Pride went into the local cafĂ© and heard the grown-ups talking about impeachment, that I realized the book was set in that time period.  When I start a book, I start with discovery, and I like to let the story find its own way in the early drafts.  Also, I’m always interested in the ways the conflicts in the larger culture press in on young people’s lives—and how aware young people are of the mistakes that grown-ups make.  I remember being young and trying to make sense of all the drama swirling around Richard Nixon and Watergate. 

Your names and nicknames are fabulous (Woody Guthrie, for instance.) They tell volumes. Is that something that comes to you easily?

I think so—but again, it happens in the early stages, the dream stage of writing, when I’m just trying to be open to the story that’s been given to me, so I’m never consciously aware of significance.   I didn’t know these children, or their pets when the book began, but when I met them, all the names seemed exactly right.  Old Finn named his dog and horses, and I learned about Old Finn through those names.  The children’s nicknames all came from their mother—and it helped me understand the ways in which she loved them, and how much of her they still carry into the world. 

Character is clearly a strength of yours. Is that where you start when you begin a project? And are you a pantser or a plotter?

Ha!  I’ve never heard that term in a long lifetime of writing.  A pantser—someone who writes by the seat of their pants—yes, that’s absolutely me, at least in the early stages of a draft.  I don’t begin a book with plot, I begin with a world, and I enter that world deeply to discover the story.  Here are some people, they must have a problem, what is it?  Of course, as the book progresses, the trouble builds, it has to, and trouble is plot.  I do many many drafts of my books, and plot is important to me, dear to my heart actually, but it does come later.   

How was it writing the second book? Easier? Harder?

I think every book is hard.  This is actually my fourth published novel, my second for readers of all ages, and in between, I’ve written my share of books for both kids and adults that I’ve ultimately shelved.  They’ve all thrilled and exhausted me.  There’s so much unknown in the novel process—I can be 300 pages into a book and still wondering if I have a book. 

But I have a strange story about this particular book.  It was finished, written and rewritten and rewritten, about to be sent to my editor, when suddenly during breakfast with a writing pal, I discovered privately (I didn’t mention it to my companion) that the novel that I’d finished wasn’t what I wanted.  Not at all.  So two days later, I dumped that book into the garbage and started over—started this book that became Keeping Safe the Stars.  You would not recognized the other one. 

Wow. I'm impressed and amazed that you could do that, but the result speaks for itself. How about promotion? How do you manage it?

I try to do the best I can—conferences, school visits, bookstores.  I love to connect with readers and writers of all ages.   Teaching writing to kids and adults, both poetry and fiction, that’s been my life’s work, so I’m always eager to talk to people about writing, literature, the power of story and imagination.   Sparrow Road is just now out in paperback, so it’s making its way into schools and the larger world, and I love to go along with it.   And now I will go out with the Stars.  But I’m also a full-time professor and a writer, so some days it’s a challenge to do it all. 

Please tell readers what is up next for you.

I’m in the process of writing another middle grade novel for Penguin—which is mostly in its secret-even-to-me phase until I’m sure I have it right.  I’m a writer who likes to work alone, with plenty of confusion, until the book is clear in my imagination. 

How can readers find out more about you and your books?

Readers can visit me at www.sheilaoconnor.com.  I love to hear from readers, so drop a note. 
Thanks so much, Sheila!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Gut Shot: Hitting Readers Where it Counts

Okay, disclaimer time: Kelly Bennett is one of my favorite people. She was one of the first published writers who treated me like a equal (when I was a naive newbie). And she's enormously talented, having written acclaimed, fun and charming books like Your Mommy Was Just Like You, Not Norman, Dance Y'all Dance...and many more, including her most recent release One Day I Went Rambling. Plus, she's a Vermont College grad! 

Check out her website at http://www.kellybennett.com/ and all her fabulous books.

So when Kelly agreed to write me a guest post I told her to have at it, and she suggested writing about...FOOD. 

Who doesn't like food? (Silly question.) But, how can food be used in story? Here's what Kelly has to say:

Children know food. Eating is something they’ve been doing all their lives. By middle childhood most have accumulated a trove of textural, olfactory, visual, and aural food memories: the crunch of celery, the stinky sock stench of ripe cheese, the sticky spicy-cool sweetness of candy cane, the rasp of dry toast against the roof of a mouth, the slurp of spaghetti, to name a few. They’ve formed opinions about foods and, through the media and stories, have knowledge of foods they’ve never experienced personally. Additionally, they’ve amassed food memories, some with strong emotions attached (think mother’s milk, birthday cake, “clear your plate” and “no dessert until you…”). Why not draw on what readers already know—food—to connect them with your characters and spice up your stories? In other words: Aim for the gut!

Here are some examples to get you Thinking Food:

Plot: Each of us spends “more than fifteen full days a year doing nothing but eating” (Food Rules by Bill Haduch), so at its most basic food plays a central role in reader’s lives. Use it in character’s lives, too. Food issues, the quest for food, preparation of food, lack, need, or abundance of food, can serve as a plot points.
  •       Perfect by Natasha Friend, teens with eating disorders.
  •       James Cross Giblin’s The Boy Who Saved Cleveland, a survival story all about corn.
  •       Joan Bauer’s Close to Famous and Sprinkles and Secrets by Lisa Schroeder both center on cupcakes. 

Characterization: Consider the immortal words of J. Wellington Wimpy “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Thoughts, attitudes, and opinions about food add flesh to our character’s bones.
  • In Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look, this description of the new girl says it all: “When the ice-cream truck came down the street, Christina was always the first in line.”
  • Tracing the Stars by Erin Moulton, stars Indie Lee Chicory who loves chowder almost as much as she does her golden cola drinking lobster.
  • The Chocolate Touch, John Midas is a nice boy with “one bad fault: he was a pig about candy.”

Mealtimes:  Back-story and motivation are revealed, stories unravel, and secrets are shared.
  • Who’s coming to dinner? Meals are an excuse to bring all manner of characters together.
  • What’s for dinner? Mealtime fare reveals economic situations and informs readers about other times, places & cultures.
  • Where’s dinner? The place and table establish setting

Descriptions: Food is often used to describe color, especially skin color: white as cream, honey golden, mocha, Joe’s face “pale as an onion” (How to Eat Fried Worms, Thomas Rockwell). At best, food references create multi-sensory descriptions.

  • Sid Fleischman describes the prince’s face as “lobster-red from running” in The Whipping Boy. Readers unfamiliar with lobsters will visualize a reddish face and read on. Those familiar with lobsters will round out the image by picturing the prince’s face as hard and crusty like a lobster shell, and a whiff of sea salt.
  • Richard Best calls a classmate’s legs “Slim Jim pretzels” (The Candy Corn Contest by Patricia Reilly Giff) –long, thin, pretzel salt, bumpy, too.
  • Ruby Lu’s ink “as lumpy as tempura batter” (Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look)—Look is a master of food imagery. Here’s more:
  • “At night the rain was a lullaby of a billion grains of rice falling on the roof”
  • Ruby likens her father’s fast knitting to “a starving man’s chopsticks at a feast
  • Her brother was “wrapped up like a burrito”

Food names serve double duty as they conjure a multi-sensory image while giving name to a person, place or thing:

  • The island of “Tangerina” and port of “Cranberry” (My Father’s Dragon, Ruth Stiles Gannett)
  • Dogs “Fudge-Fudge” and “Marshmallow” (The New Animal by Emily Jenkins)

One of Kelly's inventive Halloween costumes...

Emotion: To quote Pillsbury:  “Nothing says loving like something from the oven.”

  • When disappointed in her brother, Ruby “felt all her love for him drying up like spilled soda on a hot sidewalk.”
  • When Ruby’s mad she feels “hotter than microwave popcorn.”
  • Lowji, Candace Fleming’s Indian character in Lowji Discovers America gets mad, too, he turns “hot, hotter than Bape’s curry sauce.”

Final Words on Food:

If it speaks; it eats. Therefore, as plot, character, description, or emotion, there’s room for food in every story. Bon appetite!

Warning: Food references are like wine and chocolate: as much as we’d like to think otherwise, for best results they should be used in moderation.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lisa M. Stasse Talks About Her Debut Novel THE FORSAKEN

Today I'm delighted to introduce Lisa M. Stasse, whose debut novel THE FORSAKEN launched in August. Lisa is a digital librarian at UCLA, and as you'll see she has more novels in store, which is a lucky thing for the fans of her face-paced, exciting stories. Here's Lisa:

Congratulations on the publication of your novel THE FORSAKEN. It’s quite an exciting ride! Please give readers a quick synopsis.

THE FORSAKEN is about a girl named Alenna Shawcross living in a dystopian future, in which the United States, Mexico and Canada have merged. A government test is administered to all 16 year olds, and it claims to diagnose hidden violent and subversive tendencies. Even though Alenna has done nothing wrong, she fails the test and is sent to a terrifying prison island called "The Wheel" in which various tribes of kids battle with each other. She has to learn how to forge alliances, make friends, fight the government machines that control the island, and try to find a way to escape. Along the way she learns some surprising things about her government, her new friends, and her own identity as well.

Your concept is intriguing. What was your inspiration?

The general concept actually came from a nightmare I had, in which men in robes were chasing me with knives on a prison island. When I woke up, I instantly realized it was a good scene for a book or a movie. At the same time, a friend's sister was worried about taking the SATs. So the idea of a violent island and the SATs merged in my mind for some reason. I started to imagine what it would be like if there were a standardized government test that if you failed, you got banished from society and sent to an island to fight other kids. I suppose it's a bit like Lord of the Flies or Lost or The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, but with a few new twists. Those were definitely the kinds of books that influenced my writing.

You have a clear set-up for a sequel. Is one (or more) in the works? Can you give us a hint about it if so?

I actually finished the sequel, titled THE UPRISING, right as THE FORSAKEN was released! It's coming out next summer, but there should be plenty of ARCs available before then. I'm already working on Book 3. It doesn't have a title yet, so I need to think of something good pretty fast!

There are many double-crosses and character surprises here but it all makes sense in retrospect. Was that tough to pull off? Do you have any tricks you use while developing/plotting?

I plotted THE FORSAKEN fairly well in advance, on pieces of paper that I taped to the wall. I was really excited about the biggest twist (the "unmasking" scene near the end) so I wanted to make sure I had everything planned out. I love mysteries and thrillers, and it's really fun trying to come up with ways to surprise and entertain readers. At the same time, I didn't plan out everything, because I wanted to give myself some freedom and room to breathe while I was writing. I feel like a good balance is important. THE UPRISING has even more twists and turns, and some shocking betrayals as well.

On a different note, what was it like for you shifting from your role as a librarian to your role as author?

It's been a lot of fun so far! I love being a librarian and I love writing. Maybe I'm just addicted to being around books! :) Right now I'm doing both, and it's a blast. I suppose I've always been writing. Having a book published was a goal of mine since I was in high school. I started writing a few things before THE FORSAKEN (books and screenplays), but never finished them.

Can you tell us about your road to publication?

I managed to find a fantastic agent, Mollie Glick at Foundry Literary + Media, who really took me under her wing. She was one of the first agents I contacted, and luckily, she really loved the book. She gave me some great notes and advice, and had me do a few revisions, and then Simon & Schuster purchased the trilogy in a preemptive deal. It's been a very exciting journey, and I feel incredibly lucky to get the opportunity to write books. I just hope they sell well enough that I can keep writing. I already have a concept plotted out for my next trilogy, if it ever happens!

Where can readers learn more about you and your books?

Here are all my links! I'm usually on twitter the most, so readers can find me there anytime. Thank you so much for having me on your blog!

And the Winner is...

The winner of an arc copy of SIRENS plus my cool swag is...

M Malavec!

But don't be disappointed if you didn't win this time - I'll be running more contests here plus a Goodreads contest for a published copy, beginning on October 10, plus you can always pre-order now (pre-order from my local indie bookseller, Country Bookshelf, and I will personalize your copy before sending.) Thank you all for coming by!!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Sirens by Janet Fox


by Janet Fox

Giveaway ends November 10, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win