Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Heading to NYC

I'm packing up for a morning flight to NYC.  The next few days are packed.  First I'll meet up with some lovely publishing  and writer friends, then it's on to A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC on Broadway with family, then the SCBWI writers intensive and winter conference.  All that in four short days.  Whew!

I've also been working hard to complete a writing guide before my trip.  As I wrote, I thought a lot about my techniques for writing guides.  Keeping in mind that you are writing a document to market the book, I think that the most important thing is to look for the author's intent in their writing.  What are they trying to say?  How do they employ images, themes, stylistic techniques, to develop their ideas? 

A good book is built in layers: story, character, themes/ideas, structure, and style.  While one's first instinct may be to invite readers to consider only plot or character-related questions, I think a much richer guide can be created by connecting these "why" questions to some "hows."  For example, how does the author use point-of-view, punctuation, imagery to create a sense of urgency or isolate a particular character?

On a practical level, I find it helpful to take a look at the number of questions I want to write, divide this by the number of pages in the book and, very generally, come up with a sort of one-question-per-X-pages formula.  Again, this is very general as books are not paced evenly.  However, it makes me pay attention to each section of the book and not only draw questions from, say, the denoument or conclusory part of the story.  In addition, within these sections, I also try to balance plot/character-related questions with structural and thematic questions.  Hopefully, in this way, I can offer something that will interest many different types of readers coming at the story from many different levels.

This may sound rather nuts-and-bolts but, again, the goal here is to honor and support the book and by making sure I am taking a broad and complete look at the text, I am hopeful that I can do so.

There is so much more to say about structuring questions in terms of grade/age level, vocabulary, quotations and references but, honestly, I've got to pack up some cute, NYC-worthy outfits before I fall asleep at this computer.

Back next week with stories to share and more on writing guides for readers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Titles and Lies

This past week, I read Justine Larbalestier's LIAR and
Judy Blundell's WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED. 
I chose these two books because of the "lies" in the titles.  I thought it would be interesting to consider the concept of lying as explored in titles that confronted it right from their covers.

At first, these books seem very different.  LIAR is an edgy fantasy while WHAT IS SAW is realistic fiction set in post-World War II America.  Yet they seem to me to have more commonalities than differences.  Both are set partially in New York, and characterize the city as home.  And both travel to a somehow wilder, unfamiliar setting (upstate New York, coastal Florida) where they are ill at ease and struggle to understand their place in the relationships they find there.

Both books are narrated in the first person by female, teenage protagonists whose confrontation of lying is critical to their sense of identity.  Both girls admit, albeit in very different ways, to being liars.

I started thinking about other recent YA reads in which teens explore lies and lying, be it to themselves, their family, their teachers or their friends.  In THE GOD BOX by Alex Sanchez, Paul tries unsuccessfully to lie to himself about his sexual identity.  In CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins, Katniss continually struggles with the potentially life-saving lie (?) that she loves Peeta. 

I begin to think that lying, perhaps very broadly defined as a failure to see or admit the reality of one's identity or circumstance, is an essential element of the teen experience.  And, perhaps, maturity comes with a more truthful perspective.  As I continue to read this month, I will be "hunting for lies" as a component of YA novels.  Please let me know if you can suggest any reads that might yield some tale-telling treasures!

Friday, January 15, 2010


Reading Guides, Part II

I've spent a great deal of time thinking about how to present my strategies for writing reading guides. Writing a really good guide--one that helps readers deepen their understanding of and connection to a book--seems to me to be much more than simply writing up a list of questions and activities. In fact, the more I considered how I approach the writing of guides, the more I realized that I treat each book entrusted to me as if it were something on a grad school literature course reading list. I'm going to explain what I mean with one caveat: If you are writing guides for your own titles, some of my suggestions may be impossible to employ but, for now, we're going to start by assuming you are writing materials for a book that is not your own and double-back to by-the-author guides a bit later. Read it either way because there is still some useful stuff here (I hope) as well as a bit of insight into how a marketing professional approaches a book.

I generally divide the task of writing a reading guide into two steps:
(1) The format of the guide

(2) The content of the guide

We'll begin with format. I have found that having a sense of the "shape" of the guide before you begin to read and analyze the book/manuscript is both helpful and effective for producing a high-quality and timely piece.

THE SHAPE OF THE PROJECT. If you've been hired to write a guide, you want to clearly establish a word count or page length for the entire piece; determine the function of the guide (bookstore shelf-talker; promotional piece for educational conferences; website content); confirm that you will be responsible for content only (not design or visual materials, unless this is your preference); and set a deadline for your work.

Here, for example, is a link to content I wrote for the back of a poster promoting
 WIND FLYERS by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Loren Long.

GUIDE COMPONENTS.You may want to consider whether your guide will include some or all of the following components:

1. a book summary (note that if the guide is being used in an educational setting, it may be preferable to design the summary so it does not function as "Cliff Notes" for young readers but more as a teaser to read the whole book).

2. author biography and/or bibliography (often publishers have this material available and you can simply edit to suit your needs--ask if this is the case)

3. discussion questions (how many)

4. activities, such as research projects or ways to tie the content to multiple curriculum areas (how many)

5. literature based activities/prompts for writing

6. website or additional reading resources

After I have established what the editor, author or marketing staff has in mind for the guide, I like to make a sort of template, providing a heading for each type of material that has been requested along with some notes on length or number of questions/activities. I put this at the very back of my mind as I give the manuscript its first read, but it is good to have it there in some form.

THE FIRST READ. The first time I read any book, I try to ENJOY it as if I'd just taken it from the library for pleasure. I want to let the story sink in, to hook into the author's prose style, and to feel happy, sad, excited, informed, etc. Even though reading guides are written on deadline, I think it is very important to appreciate the author's work first as his or her carefully crafted, beloved book. Remember that you are writing a guide to promote this book--to produce something that will get it into the hands of more readers--so it is important to connect with it first!

I loved David Lubar's HIDDEN TALENTS and was thrilled that, after the first read,
I was going to be able to write and think more about this great story.

Must get back to my own ms right now. I've been under a lot of writing deadlines and got a bit behind on blogging this past week. More by Tuesday, no later, I promise! Have a happy weekend.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


This past fall my colleague, Allyson Valentine Schrier and I gave a talk about writing-for-hire to CWILL(Canadian Writers & Illustrators) in Vancouver, British Columbia. We had a great time but one thing I came to realize that authors have very disparate views and understandings of the READING (or TEACHER'S) GUIDE that may be written for their book. Some authors had been asked to create their own. Others felt it was their publisher's role to develop such an item. Some felt the guides were primarily of promotional value while others saw them as providing a sort of educational community service function. Largely as a result of my conversation with my delightful Canadian colleagues, I'd like to address the topic of the READING GUIDE. Then, we'll head back to the topic of School & Library Appearances--there's a lot more to discuss but sometimes a change of pace is good, too!

The Reading Guide (sometimes known as a Discussion Guide, Educator's Guide, etc.) can be created as a stand-alone document, often in pamphlet or newsletter style which can be used as part of a bookstore display or distributed at educational and sales conferences; bound into the final pages of an actual hardcover or paperback book; or provided as web content on a publisher and/or author's website. They can be slick, four-color productions or basic, photocopied pages. Publishers decide to create Reading Guides for individual titles or book series based on such factors as sales statistics, a desire to promote or brand a given author, and identification of a book's subject as conducive to book group discussion or educational purposes. Large trade publishers produce guides in-house or hire writers to create such materials. Smaller publishers may do the same, or they may invite authors to create guides for their own work.

In upcoming posts, I will discuss strategies for developing quality reading guides for hire or for your own titles, and then cover ways to use these materials to market your books.