Thursday, July 28, 2011

Honor, Honesty and Integrity

These are the virtues I have always admired and aspired to. I have searched for these virtues in selecting my friends and my associates. I was not surprised to glimpse them only fleetingly as a child and teenager, but for some reason I expected to see them more often in the adult world. Instead, as an adult I see more dishonorable people, more perjurers, more individuals who seem not only to not care about integrity, but not to even know what the word means, and those who do not seem to recognize it as a virtue worth possessing.

Too many people I run into these days are calculating and out for as much as they can get, not caring who
they run over in their mad dash for success, or even for mere creature comforts. In other words, most of them would be sorted into Slytherin. There are times they do not even seem to profit, just to damage or defame someone else, and count it as some perverse victory.

I know - that sounds more like the angst-ridden plot of a young adult novel. And such jealousy, such competitive undercutting would ring true for that age group. But as adults we tell teens that bullying, cheating, lying about each other behind their backs - it will all get better when they grow up. But the truth is, it won't. We can only arm ourselves better to deal with it.

The handful of honorable men and women will attempt to surround themselves with others who possess the honor, honesty and integrity that they admire, and will remain shocked by the actions of the dishonorable people they encounter. The best attempt to change this that a writer can make is to honestly write about the dishonesty that young people can expect to find in the world they grow into, and to show them that the only possible way to change it is to hold the people with whom they associate to the same high standards they admire, and to shine the light on dishonor whenever they encounter it. Otherwise they (and we) will all remain the confused and frustrated teens we once were, who were shaken to the core when first we encountered injustice.

I am currently on a writing retreat with my writers group. I have been looking forward to this retreat since last year's retreat. I have eagerly been anticipating this time away from ordinary, day-to-day life to concentrate on revising my new young adult novel. And I'm making good progress. But at the same time, eating away at my concentration is outrageous injustice that my family is facing - due to the dishonor and malicious perjury of business associates. It infuriates me and it erodes the very idea that there is any sense of honor in the world we live in.

Every encounter with dishonor diminishes all that it touches - and makes it increasingly difficult to proceed with work and maintain one's own integrity. It is not fair to my family to put what they're going through out of my head in order to concentrate solely on my writing at this retreat, yet it's not fair to my book to let the injustice of the real world intrude into the world of my story. I'm trying to find a way to balance the two of them. I suppose I'll find out tomorrow, after our retreat ends, how well I've succeeded.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fiction Series Rant

Am I the only reader who detests fiction series? All right - not all series. Not completed series that astound me by how well thought-out the books are, and how perfectly they fit together and progress (think the Harry Potter series, for instance). But in-progress series books drive me mad. I start reading a book that doesn't advertise something frustrating on the cover or title page, such as "the first book in the X series," only to reach the end and realize by the lack of complete resolution that it's going to lead to a series, and I groan aloud.

When I was a kid, I liked series
books like Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown - a series that was really a collection of books or stories bound together by a central character. There were already a lot of completed books waiting to be read, and it didn't really matter what order I read them in. But today it frustrates me no end to stumble onto a series in progress. You have to wait at least a year for the next book, and with a lengthy series you have to struggle to find the patience to wait for the next and the next for years to come. Really - how many kids can hold on that long? At least the Harry Potter series grows with its readers. A ten-year-old who discovered Sorcerer's Stone and grew up with the series found herself only a little older than Harry by the time Rowling completed the series.

I was fortunate to come upon the Harry Potter books partway through the series' publication process. Although it was agony to wait (relatively) patiently for the final books, I was able to read the first several straight through, one after the other without pause. And each book was complete in terms of plot, building to a satisfying resolution, even though the complete series built to one overarching plot beyond the individual books. What a delight to discover that minor details in Sorcerer's Stone had their payoff in Deathly Hallows!

But few series are that satisfying. The plotting and writing are rarely of the same quality in each book. Even when individual books are excellent (such as the first two books in The Hunger Games series), the whole series fails on its payoff when the final book ends up relying on twists such as character inconsistencies that diminish the whole. And even though teen readers might have grown up with Bella in The Twilight series, they were betrayed by the breaking-down of the resolution pattern in Breaking Dawn which hurt the series as a whole.

Chapter book series and some middle grade series are satisfying, both because they are shorter and written (and therefore published) faster, and because most of them rely on the Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown series rules: the same or similar characters in each book, with plots that can be enjoyed in any order, not leaving readers desperate to find out what happens next.

YA authors, please consider writing more stand-along books. A sixteen-year-old reader who falls in love with the first book in your series will be in college and possibly graduated and married before the series is over! Her reading interests will have matured and, unless your writing skills are on par with Rowling's, she may never make it to the end of your series. However, if you write a single perfect book, she will read it and may never forget it. Isn't that what you really want?

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Month that Disappeared

Sometimes so much happens in a month that it's hard to remember to write about it here. May was that sort of month. Between talking to readers about my books, answering intriguing questions about writing that made me think, celebrating special occasions (my husband's birthday and our anniversary both fall during the month of May), reading several new books by friends and other writers I admire, and writing an entire first draft of a new middle grade historical fiction WIP, May simply disappeared. And here it is June already, and I realize I've written nothing since April! It's not that I haven't been thinking about the writing life, but rather that I've been living it too fully to write about it.

May also brought me some writing good news! An Unspeakable Crime won the Gold Medal in the Juvenile-Teens-YA Nonfiction category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards, otherwise known as an IPPY Award. As one of my friends pointed out: how cool is it to win an award that rhymes with Yippee!!

For those who are interested in the business side of the writing life, most publishers pay writers their royalties twice a year: in April and in October. The royalties in April are paid based on sales figures in the second half of the previous year; and the royalties in October are paid based on sales figures in the first half of that year. Some publishers pay writers on 1 April and some publishers pay writers on 30 April, according to their in-house accounting procedures. So by the time the Post Office delivers my mail, I receive a portion of my royalties in May. That means I found out in May 2011 how my sales in the second half of 2010 went. (Not too badly.) But this May I got a surprise!
My royalties include book sales and subrights rights sales (sales of rights to businesses, as opposed to sales of physical or e-books). Some years ago, a movie company optioned one of my books, Counterfeit Son, and since renewed the option. Well, sometimes in the fall of 2010, they decided to exercise the option, and their payment showed up in my April royalty check, which I received in May. That means my book is going to be the basis for a movie!

I think that calls for another May Yippee, even if it is June now.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Plea to Teachers and School Librarians

I love getting letters from readers (of all ages) and I always reply. However, it breaks my heart when I get a letter, as I recently did, that a student wrote six months ago and mailed to my publisher, confident (I'm sure) that I would reply within the week. Often, student letters write that they're doing a project for class, and ask specific questions for their project. I answer the questions when I reply, but I know in my heart that my answers are going to arrive far too late to be of any use in a project that was due last semester, and that the student who wrote them will probably hate me for life and never read another one of my books.

So, please, Teachers and School Librarians, if you are assigning a project to write to me (or to any author) or assisting students in figuring out how to contact me, do not tell your students to use the publisher's address. I'm not sure why, but it seems to take publishers a very long time to forward it to their authors. Of course, it also seems to take many of them a long time to answer their authors' questions and other correspondence as well, but we know the drill by now. Students can't be expected to know they'll have to wait so long.

First, have your students check the author's web page. I have my snailmail address on my home page and a link to my e-mail address on every page. Most writers have contact information - if not their home address, their agent's address. Agents are much speedier than publishers about getting any correspondence to their clients.

If you can't find any contact information on the author's web page, try Googling the author's name plus the residence information shown on the book's flap or the "About the Author" section in the book. Yes, we move over time, but that's a start. A little time spent Google-searching can save months of time waiting for a reply.

Unless you're combining author research with teaching letter-writing skills, urge your students to e-mail for the fastest possible reply. I must admit that I've received e-mails stating that the student has a project due tomorrow morning and can I summarize the plot of my book, identify the climax, describe the characters, identify the theme, etc. for him or her? And I answer these also, although I confess I tell those students that I cannot do their project for them, but they have to read the book. Even with legitimate personal questions such as how I came to write that particular book, or why I had this character do that, it's better to e-mail earlier than the night before the book report or paper or project is due, in case I'm out of town and unable to check my e-mail.

Here's the thing about corresponding with authors: we do not want to disappoint our readers - ever. Please, please help us keep your students happy and satisfied by making it easy for us to answer them speedily.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Balance Life and Writing with Kristi Holl

We writers tend to look at our work and our process as the most important thing in our lives. We read books about writing, about specific techniques that will help us write better. We buy software to help us write faster and more effectively. We look for ways to wring out every last second of the day that we can spend on our writing. In other words, we frequently overlook our lives themselves. At best this leaves us crippled in our writing.

Our lives shape our experiences, which shapes our writing. Most of us realize this. But do we stop to think about how the quality of our lives shapes the quality of our writing? Stressed lives produce stressed writing. But how can we escape the emotions and stresses that complicate our day-to-day lives? It seems as if it would be great to live in a safe, supportive writers' retreat year-round. But realistically, even the most imaginative writer I know realizes that's not going to happen. And it wouldn't be good for us if we could do it, anyway.

We share with fellow writers stories of writing through stress and dealing with writing issues like procrastination or writer's block, but when we're not with our writers group or enjoying daily coffee breaks or visits with writing friends, what do we do? I have a suggestion: we should all go to Kristi Holl's website and download her More Writers First Aid in pdf form or for your Kindle. It is one of the few practical how-to books on dealing with the emotions, stress and issues in our personal life that prevent us from doing our best writing and enjoying the process more than ever.

Kristi (I'm delighted to disclose that she is a longtime writing friend of mine) also offers practical how-to-write booklets at her site, such as Writing Mysteries for Young People and 50 Tension Techniques. Her years of experience and teaching allow her to give her readers simple, direct, easy-to-follow writing tips in these booklets. But the best writing tips are useless if you're strung so tight, or such a perfectionist, or a perpetual procrastinator, or someone who clings unknowingly to poor writing habits. Kristi's More Writers First Aid helps the writer, whether that writer has published many books or is only just getting started, recognize how she's sabotaging herself and shows her how to make wiser decisions about balancing life and writing.

I admit, I was predisposed to like this book because of the teddy bear on the cover - I know I write better when I've got a teddy bear for company. But I wasn't prepared to love it until I began dipping into the book and recognized so many of my own problems in her practical advice in dealing with burn-out, rejections, facing fears, writing in pain, and derailing our own writing. What is so helpful about the book is that Kristi doesn't write from way above us lowly mortals, telling us how to solve our problems; she generously writes as if she has experienced every problem we face, and shares how she has lived through it, or triumphed over it. Reading this book is like having a terrific visit with a friend. Even if all your friends are busy, you know that Kristi isn't too busy to spend some time with you, and help you through that rough spot so you can balance the ups and downs of life with your writing to give yourself write better than you ever thought you could, and to be happier doing it than you've ever been.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jumping into the ebook market

When ebooks became the new trend, I wasn't really sure how they'd go. Would teens and middle graders really want to read books on their computers? Would they be willing to invest in ebook readers?

It turns out that they are. And I can't blame them. I bought a Kindle two years ago and fell in love with being able to carry my library of favorite books around with me so easily. Last year my wonderful husband got me an iPad, and now I carry around even more books on it, as well as music, movies and the web. Now I wonder, would any of my readers actually want to read my books on their ebook readers?

Several of my publishers have brought out some of my YA titles in ebook format, and I've been thrilled to see the books available, but with the delays in the length of time it takes publishers to inform authors of subsidiary sales and the royalties they've earned, I still have no idea whether anyone is buying them.

So I decided to take one of my early ghost stories, Tournament of Time, and do a little experiment. I controlled ebook rights to it, so I formatted it for Smashwords (much easier than I expected, using their helpful style guide) and uploaded it there at $2.99. I'm also in the process of getting it approved for the iBookstore, since I love reading on my iPad, and I'm sure other iPad readers feel the same way - if given the opportunity to buy an ebook in a variety of formats, most of us would go for the iBook version that could be read on our iPad or iPhone. If you enjoy ebooks, mysteries, and English history, check out my take on the murder of the Princes in the Tower in Tournament of Time. Decide whether you're Team Richard or Team Henry, then find out whodunnit.

I've already had several downloads since the book came out this morning, so I'm thinking it's off to a good start! And I hope you enjoy ghostly history mysteries, and ebooks, as much as I do.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Second Draft

Writers like to talk about the first draft, and then the excitement (or the torture) of revision. But for me there's a pretty major step in between those two parts of the process. That's the second draft.

For me, the second draft isn't a revision, or a re-envisioning of the book I set out to write. The second draft is when I read through my first draft and add in details that I realize I left out in my rush to complete the first draft (the phase I like to think of as taking a roller coaster ride with my characters.) There's no time for pausing to consider the perfect word or the small, descriptive details that accompany the main action while you, as the writer, are riding the roller coaster. The second draft is the time to consider those.

The second draft is also the time when I look at what I've written and recognize the subtle threads that are woven through the story as a whole. These threads may only peek through here and there in the first draft, because they may be so subtle that I didn't recognize their significance while I was on the roller coaster. Now they spring out at me in vivid relief, and as I work on the second draft I can pull those threads through, so they find their proper place in the book as a whole.

The second draft is also the opportunity for adding in facts. I do a great deal of research before I get on that first draft roller coaster, but once I've taken off I always run up against questions that I discover I need to answer before the manuscript is ready to be revised. Interrupting the roller coaster ride in order to look up these facts can upset the flow of the writing,
so I leave notes or gaps in the first draft to remind me to find out about this or that, and the second draft is my chance to look up those facts and fit them in correctly. These can't be big facts that will alter the way your characters behave, or course, or how your plot turns out - those have to be answered before I climb on the roller coaster. But the second draft is my chance to research those little facts I didn't know I needed to discover when I first started writing.

Sometimes I don't even realize when my first draft turns into my second draft. This evening my husband asked how close I was to the end of the book. As I tried to explain that I'd already written the end, I realized what I've been doing these last couple of days was pulling threads through and adding in those descriptive details and those additional facts. I realized I've completed my first draft, and I'm partway through my second draft. That means my new book should be ready to give my critique group soon, and then read to revise and send to my agent. I've got to admit, I'm thrilled to realize I'm well into my second draft!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Instant Gratification, Frustration, and the Internet

Over the years, my book buying habits have changed. I used to walk into a bookstore, eager to spend the next hour or two browsing, actually reading some of each book I considered buying. I read various review magazines, and I might go into the store with a list of titles I was interested in. I'd talk with the bookstore personnel, and often come up with recommendations for even more books.

Then online bookstores exploded into the market, offering many titles I couldn't find in my local bookstores. Nevertheless, I was slow to fill my bookshelves with online purchases. I liked to be able to dip into the book before committing myself to its purchase.

All that changed with e-books. Now I could download a sample from the book to my e-reader (I got a Kindle first, and then an iPad), and satisfy my craving for a dip before buying. And, as I did on my bookstore trips, once I decided I liked the book I could buy it immediately: my yearning for instant gratification was not only encouraged, but satisfied.

However, the internet changed more than just the ability to download e-books instantly. It altered not only book selling but review protocol. Librarians and other readers and writers always loved the joy of collecting ARCs at BEA and the ALA conventions, but as blogs spread across the internet, reviews came earlier and earlier, as if blog reviewers were excited to report "I just read this terrific book and I'm going to whet your desire for it, but you won't be able to see it for another six months!"

When I read an enticing review for a book, I expect that it may not be out until next month, but there's nothing so depressing as reading a review in November for a book that won't be out until April!

The internet has set up the expectation of instant gratification, so as soon as I read a review that intrigues me, I immediately check to see if I can download a sample of the book now, and I fully expect to buy the complete book as soon as I finish that sample if I like it as much as I hope. I don't mind pre-ordering something I expect to enjoy if it's going to be released next week or next month, but I've grown too impatient to wait for four or five months!

Blog reviewers, please wait to post your reviews until it's a little closer to the book's actual release date, to minimize your faithful readers' frustration. Chances are your enthusiastic review will excite me about the book, but by the time it comes out 5 months from now, chances are I'll have forgotten its title and why you convinced me I'd love it. Our online world has conditioned us to immediacy - we now expect instant gratification and have no patience for waiting. It's great to tantalize us with a list of ARCs you picked up, but couldn't you hold your reviews until closer to each title's release? I think it will lower my reading blood pressure, and make me love you more. Then again, I suppose blog reviewers are eager to publish their reviews as soon as possible - perhaps it's not fair to expect them to be immune to the desire for instant gratification themselves.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Take Time to Celebrate!

I was very touched when I heard Marion Dane Bauer's story about not properly celebrating her Newbery Honor win for On My Honor. And I've taken to heart her advice to celebrate each step of the way. As writer, it used to be true that ours was a solitary journey, but thanks to our writers groups, thanks to the internet, thanks to Facebook, we're now active participants in a larger community that allows us to have virtual celebrations with our friends and colleagues any time we want!

I celebrate a good writing day by updating my Facebook status, and share good news about great reviews or awards with my writers group by bringing
chocolate to our meetings. (My previous writers group celebrated with cookies - different foods, but both great ways to share good news with your friends.

Still, the writing itself, at least the first draft, is something done alone. And I do have a more private celebration ritual for good news or awards for one of my books - one that doesn't involve eating. I celebrate by getting myself a new fountain pen. It's a way to celebrate the writing, and my personal participation in it. No, I don't write my first drafts by fountain pen - but I write my notes for each book, and my journal, and my handwritten letters with fountain pens. I cherish the way the ink flows, and how a fountain pen solidly fills my hand. And I always love the way children and teachers point at it and say, "Look! A real writer's pen."
My fountain pens aren't magic, but they're special to me, and I was delighted to start writing with the newest addition to my working collection, the silver one at the bottom in this photo. We all have good writing news to celebrate much more often than we give ourselves credit for: finishing a scene, finishing a chapter, completing a first draft, trusting our first draft to our critique group, completing a second draft, completing a revision, placing the manuscript, signing a contract, completing revisions for the publisher, seeing reviews, holding the first copy in our hands. Make sure you do something to celebrate each step of the way, with writing friends, and perhaps even a personal celebration ritual of your own.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tis the Season to Reward Writers

No matter what the Today Show thinks, January is the time for the children's and teens' lit community to reward writers and illustrators and to celebrate those awards. I love January! It's the time when I discover what I've missed in my previous year's reading, and have the opportunity to download as many books as I can afford for my iPad. Fortunately this past Christmas I was blessed with lots of ebook gift cards! I've just finished Moon Over Manifest (how could I have missed that one?) and Jenni Holm's Turtle in Paradise which I like more and more as I think about it more and more. I also loved A.S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz - I shall never see ghosts the same way again. And I'm still reading (and loving) Dash and Lily's Book of Dares.

This year I'm also delighted to announce that my book, An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank has been honored in the round of January award announcements. An Unspeakable Crime was named an Honor Book in the Social Studies - Grades 7-12 category by the Society of School Librarians International, and was also named a 2011 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens. It has also been honored as a Cybils Finalist in the Nonfiction Book (Middle Grade and Young Adult) category, and a National Jewish Book Award Finalist in the Children's and Young Adult Literature category.

I am overjoyed to share my book's recognition for the same reason that I'm delighted to learn about other books that have been honored: just as I am eager to read those excellent books I mentioned above, I hope that readers will discover An Unspeakable Crime. That's why we write, after all, in the hopes that someone will read our book, and any recognition that makes it more likely for others to read it is a wonderful thing. If you're curious and want to find out about this 1913 legal case, please click here to watch a video about my research for this book. And many thanks to the organizations and committees that honored my book.