Friday, February 26, 2010


You know life is too hectic when you've got three books piled on your nightstand.  And, despite this blog heading, I can only partly blame the action in Vancouver.  Between jazz band, lacrosse, basketball and the upcoming school musical, my kids have kept me in chauffeur-mode for much of the week.  Just trying to keep my head above water, working, driving and definitely just writing-on-the-side!  That said, I have promised myself a few cozy hours by the fire this weekend.  Here's what I'll be reading...

In anticipation of the sequel, THE TIMEKEEPER'S MOON, coming out next month, and on the recommendation of my nine-year-old who could not put this one down, I MUST finish Joni Sensel's THE FARWALKER'S QUEST.

My thirteen-year-old has become a huge  Gordon Korman fan.  POP moved him so much that he was talking about it for literally weeks.  And he says SCHOOLED is great, too, so I've gotta get on that bus!

I'm hooked on everything John Green--his karma, his website, his blog and, of course, LOOKING FOR ALASKA.  So, there's nothing for it but AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES.

Having library books sitting waiting for me at the table is tantalizing fun.  Despite the frustration of not having finished them all (and the very real possibility of some library fines this month), I am much happier seeing the books there than looking at an empty wooden tabletop.

Have the Olympics interfered with your reading time?  Let's commiserate.  Or feel free to suggest some more titles to pile on my table.  And many thanks!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

THE BUSINESS OF CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "Free" Lessons for Children's Book Writers

On Wednesday mornings, I teach "Literary Magazine" in my son's third-grade classroom. I take half the class  at a time, so it's nice for the teacher to spend an hour with a smaller group. And, it's something different for the kids, so they seem to enjoy it, too. But the person who likes "Literary Magazine" best of all is me. (For a charming take on school visits, read Louise Borden's delightful THE DAY EDDIE MET THE AUTHOR.)
What's so great about spending an hour a week with ten third-graders?

• I get to experiment with writing strategies, themes and ideas I am developing for reading guides.

• I learn what works and what doesn't work--what makes sense and what goes right out the proverbial window.

• I get to see what third graders of all sorts of ability levels can and want to do.

• Working with my son's class reminds me that all kids don't find reading easy...all kids don't love to write...but ALL KIDS want to share their stories.

These lessons are valuable in so many ways, not the least of which is the way that they can prepare published and unpublished writers for the school and library marketing journey. Here (in no particular order) are six things I have learned.

1. I love teaching kids and I don't mind if they're a little bit flaky. In fact, I often find the disinterested or unfocused kid my biggest challenge and work hard to think of ways to help them get in touch with their "inner writer."

2. I can make kids think I'm cool (and occasionally funny) by not being too strict and admitting when I mess something up.

3. I love the hush that comes over the group when I read something really great out loud.

4. I find that kids enjoy breaking down WHY a story or paragraph engages them.

5. I have found free writing to be a great teaching tool, but it is skill that must be developed and tends to get harder as kids reach adolescence (this I've learned from also working with older students).

6. I find stereotypes such as "hyper kids should be onstage" and "quiet kids are probably going to become computer programmers or writers" to be highly amusing--and the kids do, too!

If you can't make a list something like the one above, go to your local elementary, middle or high school and volunteer to teach writing (aka, "free" lessons on developing your school and library marketing platform and presentation). If you wind up having fun, then school and library appearances are probably for you!

Friday, February 19, 2010

ON READING GUIDES, WRITING, AND HIDDEN SNOW: Some "Reading Guide Questions" for Writers

A couple of months ago, my husband made the mistake of doing some back-country skiing with a friendly old guy who'd been living on our ski hill for years (note random ski photo of me and husband to right). When my husband took his inevitable tumble, the guy told him that this had happened because he'd failed to look at "the snow beneath the snow." Go ahead, laugh at the expression. But, in the context of analyzing manuscripts and writing reading guides, I think it may have some merit. Seeing the author's craft, hopefully artfully concealed beneath a breathlessly wonderful story, is kind of like looking at the snow beneath the snow. And it can teach you a lot about writing and revising your own work.

An example. Recently, I read a highly-recommended, much-lauded book. I have to admit, I didn't love it. Usually I read books in one sitting and this one took me almost a week. Back in my pre-writing-guide days, I might not even have finished the book. But, as a writer and guide-writer, I WANTED TO KNOW what made the book work for so many people. This is important because, if you work for hire, you will from time-to-time find yourself working on a manuscript that is out of your comfort range. It is also helpful to look at your own work this way if you find yourself feeling disconnected from your story or its characters.

Here are 4 question bundles to help you keep reading and learning from both beloved and challenging manuscripts--to spot that underlying snow!

1. Is the book's point-of-view typical or unusual? Do I generally like books written from this POV? Why do I think the author chose this POV to explore the plot and themes of this story? Do I feel they made the right choice? Why or why not?

2. What are the three most interesting attributes the author has given to the main character? What is fresh about this mc? Do I like or dislike the mc, and why? How do I think middle grade, YA, or other age-level readers will connect with this mc?

3. Whether fantasy, historical, realistic fiction or even non-fiction, how does the author create a world for his/her reader? Does the world feel complete, fleshed-out? If so, why?  If not, what feels like it is missing (specifics, like plant life or smells are fine)?  Would I want to be a character in this world? Where would I fit in?

4. What do I think the author is trying to accomplish, show, or explore in this book (this is kind of that snow-beneath thing)? Does he or she achieve these goals, entirely or partially? What do I think is the strongest accomplishment (e.g., writing style, characterizations, plot twists, imagery) of this book?

In the end, by asking the questions above, I learned a lot from reading the aforementioned much-lauded book. I was impressed by the uniqueness, clarity and consistency of the point-of-view, as well as the work the author put into creating such an authentic world. The book, despite everything, has stuck with me. Because of my analytical read, I was able to find a lot to appreciate. Who knows, maybe it'll marinate awhile and wind up on my favorites list one day after all!

All the same, I am not taking up back-country skiing :)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Business of Children's Books: Activities for Reading Guides

Developing activities for reading guides is both fun and challenging.  While discussion questions speak quite directly to the themes and plot of the book and perhaps touch on the author's intention or the larger role of the book as a literary work, activities can leap from there into many different realms.  I think about activities quite clinically, as I do questions.  That is to say, I consider the quantity of activities, the page length, the age and grade level to which the book is directed as I frame my activity set.  Sometimes, as I write discussion questions, ideas for activities begin to take shape. Sometimes I'll try create an activity and realize what I'm trying to get at is something better considered as a simple question, so I'll move the notion there.  For me, it helps to think of activities and questions as fluid and interrelated.

In general, I divide my activities into two basic categories:

1. Activities tied quite directly to the novel and literature.  Such activities would include diary entries written from characters points-of-view; analyzing the text in terms of chapter headings, settings or other stylistic elements; writing the "next chapter" or outlining a sequel for a the novel.

2. Cross-curricular, interdisciplinary, or multi-media activities.  Such activities would include creating artwork (e.g. word collages, imaginary movie posters); researching and presenting information on the historical period in which a book takes place, or a particular subject to which the book refers; holding classroom debates or organizing school-wide activities inspired by events in the novel.

I think it's good to have both types of activities in your guide as different kids will hook into the story in different ways.


1. Brevity is good.  Include some activities that are very short, simple, and clear.  EXAMPLE 1: After you have finished reading the book, write a letter to the main character explaining why you agree or disagree with a choice they have made and what you would suggest they do next. EXAMPLE 2: Imagine you are the publisher of this novel.  Make a brainstorm list of five great titles for the book.  If desired, take a class vote to choose the best title (including the title the book was given).  CONVERSELY, if you find you have written a 20-line activity suggestion, go back and rewrite to make it half as long.  No activity for a marketing-focused guide should take longer to read than to do.

2. Kids are media savvy.  You do not have to give a great deal of explanation when suggesting kids write a mock blog entry, create a book trailer, or use PowerPoint or other presentation software.  Writing media-based activities acknowledges kids' technical abilities and shows them how to connect books to the high-tech academic world in which they live.

3. Encourage readers to write both about the novel and about themselves.  Ask kids to write about a time when they found themselves in a situation similar to the protagonist; to write journal entries, newspaper style articles, a book review; even to write suggestions for the author.  This connects readers to the story and shows them how a book can help them think about their own reality.

In sum, the goal of good reading guide activities is to help connect kids to the book they have just read, to make them want to read more by the author or in the given series, and to realize that thinking about books after reading them can be fun.  If you have fun writing the activities, I think this is a pretty good sign, too!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Business of Children's Books: Setting Your Fees for School & Library Appearances

I know that I've been discussing reading guides however, this very morning I had two authors emailed me asking how much they should charge for their school and library appearances. So, since I took some care providing answers, I thought I'd post a few highlights from my replies to them here.

Almost all authors do charge for school and library visits, generally in the form of a daily honorarium plus travel and expenses (I recommend stipulating something like "up to 3 (or 4) presentations per day"). EXCEPTIONS: (1) If the publisher is paying for your travel and hotel for a book tour or other promotional event, standard protocol is to waive fees for any schools you visit in conjunction with a publisher-funded trip. (2) If you have reached out to a school or library (instead of them contacting you) because you will be in their area, it is typical to charge a reduced, flat fee and no travel expenses.

Authors set their own fees. The typical range is about $500-$1,000 for newer authors to $2,500 for established authors (some high-profile authors charge more). Though it's no guarantee, charging a fee tends to make the host (school/library) invest more in preparing for your visit--kids are more likely to have read the book, learned about you, prepared questions--making for a more successful event and better promotion for you. However, the more expensive you are, the more often you'll price yourself out of school budgets, so it's kind of a balancing act. It's useful to decide WHY you're doing school visits. Are they fun? Do you want to do a lot? Do you want to make school appearances an income source? Or just find an audience for your book? Do some research by visiting websites of authors publishing in your genre and/or whom you feel are at a similar stage in their career, to see what they charge and what they offer--and be sure to look at their event calendars, if provided, to get a sense of whether their program is yielding the type of appearance volume you would like to develop. TIPS: (1) Consider offering writing workshops or other more tailored programs to justify your fees. (2) Consider offering a discounted fee for local appearances or multiple-day appearances--people always like a "deal"!

Back to setting up appearances for folks, now. Let me know if you've got any questions!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On the Bright Side...

When things get incredibly hectic and I find myself revising one of my own manuscripts, writing a reading guide for another author's book, and keeping things moving on the appearance front for the authors with whom I work at Simon & Schuster, sometimes I feel the need to read something that has nothing to do with work.  Tonight I am opening up Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl.  Just for me.  Just to remember that I love this business, and writing, and reading good books.  I mean, when you look at it that way, things could be a lot worse, huh?

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Business of Children's Books - On Titles and Reading Guides

Happy Friday, all!  This is my second post today.  Busy, busy.  First, a bit of business.  Thus far, I have been trying to distinguish craft-and-review blog entries from book-biz entries by title (The Business of Children's Books plus subhead and a #).  I am giving up as the numbering and subhead thing is just becoming a project of its own.  I'll try to keep the titles somewhat helpful and will add labels.

So, returning to the READING GUIDES (and please note that the HEADING TO NYC blog entry actually contains the introductory material for this topic)...


1. Be wary of plot-based questions.  While this is useful for teachers trying to ensure chapters are being read, it is NOT fun for young readers and feels like busywork (more school, not reading fun). I recommend asking plot-related questions in terms of theme.  For example: "In Libba Bray's A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY, how many times do Gemma and her friends visit the Realms?  Compare and contrast these visits.  Do they evolve, shift?  How do the characters change as a result of each visit?"

2. Encourage readers to connect their own experience to the story.  For example: "In the opening chapter of  Barry Linga's THE ASTONISHING ADVENTURES OF FAN BOY AND GOTH GIRL, the narrator describes the social dynamics on his schoolbus.  Do his descriptions remind you of your own school bus scene?  Does having to ride the bus, versus driving/getting a ride, affect your social standing at school?  If you ride the bus to school, do you consider it a pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant experience?  Explain your answer."

3. Consider questions that will help students understand how literary techniques enrich the story while also identifying with the story.  For example, "In Louis Sachar's HOLES, what is unusual about the main character's name?  What is the author conveying to readers in the naming of his characters, and the descriptions of the way characters are given names?"

4. Bring in the outside world.  For example: "In LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow, the narrator is being closely monitored by his school and government.  Do similar monitoring systems exist in your world?  How might you relate the current issues regarding airport security to the way students are supervised in the world of the novel?  How do you feel a balance should be struck between security and privacy?  Cite examples from the story in your response."

Note that, depending on the genre (picturebook...MG...YA and everything in between), the balance between different types of questions changes.  Regardless, I encourage you to consider a variety of angles as you develop your question list.  Hopefully, this will give many types of readers opportunities to connect with the book.

Weighing in on the E-Book Situation

Just read in the Wall Street Journal that Hachette Book Group (Little Brown, Grand Central Publishing, etc.) has joined forces with Macmillan in pushing for an agency model for e-book sales.

Went onto Amazon and did some random, unsystematic research.  Did note that, while Randy Susan Meyers' new title, The Murderer's Daughters (St. Martin's--Holtzbrink/Macmillan family) and F. Paul Wilson's Jack: Secret Histories (Tor--Holtzbrink/Macmillan) have no buy buttons, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight (Little Brown--Hachette) is still for sale. So, I guess Amazon hasn't wrapped Hachette's knuckles quite as hard as Macmillan's. (As I meandered through Amazon, though, I actually think I spotted a couple Macmillan titles whose "buy" buttons have not been stripped--not telling which as I'd like those authors to be able to sell their books!)

I'm no lawyer and I don't know the statistics, but I do wonder about the legal issues surrounding a book/e-book seller with Amazon's market share linking its willingness to distribute traditional books to the pricing for ebooks.  Hmmm...

Oh, writers, writers.  Do not read the news today.  Go into that dark, scary place inside your head and write something wonderful.  Do not let the dark, scary places out in the world and cyber world interfere with your art, your craft, your heart!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Highlights of SCBWI New York Conference

1. The absolute charm and energy of Francesco Sedita, and the uncanny perspective and incisive intelligence of Julie Strauss-Gabel at the Friday writers' intensive.

2. Libba Bray's awesome keynote. Woke up this morning and promised myself to be a giraffe unafraid to jump off a cliff and then try to grow wings (that's a picture, huh?). Want to know what I'm talking about? Check out the SCBWI Team Blog.

3. Alvina Ling's eloquent and thoughtful presentation on the literary novel. And Tina Wexler's heartfelt enthusiasm and hope for writers and books in these chaotic days of publishing.

4. The astonishing number of Washington writers represented in NYC this past weekend! I was repeatedly amazed by the folks from the Western Washington chapter of SCBWI and feel extraordinarily grateful for all that they do for children's book writers in our rainy, coffee-addicted corner of the world. Seriously. Joni, Laurie and Kim (and Jolie and Jaime, and all the rest of you adcom superheros)--you are amazing!

5. Wonderful conversations with friends old and new. Thanks, Dawn, Jennifer, Nancy, Kathleen, Leah, Jim, Michelle, Angelina, Susan, Barb...

I return to my computer overwhelmed, frightened, challenged and excited but most of all more determined than ever to write my best and tell my own stories.