Friday

What I'm Thinking While Reading This Bad Pitch:

On Wednesday, I did two different pitches to illustrate the difference between good and bad.  Now, keeping in mind that I wrote this pitch, this is still what the editor in me (in red -- of course) thought while reading that pitch:

In my early chapter book for young kids, Liv gets really upset after her brother goes missing after a boring field party.  Wait. What? A field party in a chapter book for kids aged 7-9? How old are these characters? He's been kidnapped, but Liv doesn't know by who, kind of redundant because, really, that's not going to be very suspenseful if she does know and she spends the rest of the book looking for him and feeling guilty for hating him for most of their lives. Why does she hate him? Also, Morte Who is Morte? The brother? is a creepy looking kid that Liv thinks is somehow linked to death Wait. What? even though she doesn't have any proof for this.  What on earth does that mean? The book is a mystery no this pitch is a mystery and kind of paranormal and a great thriller for kids to read.  I can't wait for you to see the full manuscript. not likely

No way would I be requesting this book.

Wednesday

The Poorly Written Query


Now last week's contest highlighted the weird, crazy stuff that people sometimes do with their query letters.  But really, most of the time, the biggest problem with query letters is that they don't do their stories justice.  When pitching the story to the editor/agent, the author does not present it in the most flattering light.  As an illustration, I will use my own book that's now out, Missing or you can also get a physical book, here. (I don't know why the two aren't linked.)

First I'll tell you (in one sentence) what the general idea is, and then I'll pitch it poorly.  Finally, I'll pitch it correctly.  You'll see the difference.

Idea: After her brother's disappearance, teenage Liz finally addresses the intense sibling rivalry and hatred she has harbored towards her brother and dedicates her life to finding him.

Bad Pitch:
In my early chapter book for young kids, Liv gets really upset after her brother goes missing after a boring field party.  He's been kidnapped, but Liv doesn't know by who, and she spends the rest of the book looking for him and feeling guilty for hating him for most of their lives. Also, Morte is a creepy looking kid that Liv thinks is somehow linked to death even though she doesn't have any proof for this.  The book is a mystery and kind of paranormal and a great thriller for kids to read.  I can't wait for you to see the full manuscript.

Good Pitch:
Like their names, Liv and her brother, Morte, have always been polar opposites.  Neither can tolerate the others presence, and they spend most of their time fighting. Liv hates her brother and would give anything to just make him go away.  All of that changes, though, the day after her brother goes missing after a boring typical, field party.  Liv begins to face the sibling rivalry she and her brother have always shared and does everything she can think of to try to find him.  A mystery with a paranormal twist to the end, Missing is at its heart Liv's quest to know both herself and the brother she has spent her entire life pushing away.

Which book would you rather read?

Monday

Top 5 Most Common Query/Cover Letter Errors

Query and cover letters are not fun, but they are necessary evils.  I don't know of anyone who has ever gotten away without writing a single one.  However, in order to avoid sounding inexperienced, naive, or just plain crazy, avoid these common mistakes:

  1. Address the letter to the correct person. -- Nothing is more annoying than getting a letter addressed to someone else, or addressed to the wrong agency/publishing house.
  2. Do not make unrealistic claims about your story.  --  Your book might become a best-seller someday, but you have no way of knowing that.  However, if you already have (in writing) a deal from a charity to purchase 10,000 copies or you self-published and sold 45,000 ebooks or you've already sold the rights in 15 other countries that information is worth including.
  3. Do not tell who has already read your manuscript.  -- If it's other agents and editors who have read and passed on it, you don't want me to know that. For one thing, it would tell me others didn't like it, and for another it would make it clear that I wasn't your first choice. (This may be the case, but why rub the editor's nose in it?) If it's children, educators, friends, families, librarians, etc. this information isn't actually all that useful to me.  Only dedicated market research would work, and I doubt you want to go to the time (or expense) of a statistically sound study.
  4. Do not offer unrealistic comps (like bestsellers) or say there are none for your book. --  Either one makes you sound seriously unread or clueless of your market.  Don't get me wrong. Comps can be hard to do, but no book is truly incomparable.  If you are having trouble, don't bring up comps at all.
  5. Do not make demands. -- You can ask things politely, but don't tell me that I have to print this, or that I have to respond by a certain date, or that I have to give you XYZ royalty or to not even bother.  I don't know about you, but nothing irks me more than a bossy letter from a stranger.

Thursday

Why Dee's Query Letter Was the Worst

Now, I don't think anyone who has read Dee's query letter can argue that it isn't bad.  It's pretty much makes everyone who sees it cringe.  So, what exactly about the letter makes it so gut-wrenchingly terrible?

Let's examine it closely:
Deer Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Whatever M. Smoot: Ignoring the poor spelling found throughout the letter, there's still problems with the address.  It would never be appropriate to title something to "Whatever." Always try to find out about the person you are sending your submission to.  If the imaginary author had just google searched "m smoot cbay books" the first six entries clearly bring up me.

I bought the bright green sticker on the outside of the envelope on eBay so I don’t really know what gender you are since I didn’t actually attend the conference at witch you spoke. Sorry. I paid good money for the “M. Smoot” sticker to gain access to your closed publishing house, so I hope you appreciate it. I’m sure you did a wonderful, stupendous, fantastic job at the conference and gave a fabulous, mesmerizing, interesting speech. Thanks for being such a helpful, kind, grate editor. I found this paragraph particularly genius for a worst letter contest -- it would never occur to me that someone could buy entry into a closed publishing house this way although the idea, now presented, doesn't surprise me.  However, even if this is the way that you got the sticker, don't admit it.  Don't mention the conference at all.

Anyway, enough about you. (Just plain rude.) Now for my soon-to-be best seller... you’re gonna love it! I read variations of this sentence in cover letters all of the time. Taking pride in your work is great, but this sentence makes me roll my eyes and chalk the author up as a naive first-timer. Since it has an elephant AND a donkey in it, it will surpass sales of "Horton Hears a Who" and "Winnie the Pooh" (with Eeyore) combined. These are not good comparables for this imaginary title since the other books are long-selling classics and not picture books.  It would be impossible for me to guess sales ranges based on these two. I know it will be made into a poplar movie and will be translated into many languages. Unless you or your agent already have deals in the works, your opinion isn't necessary.  That’s why I want to keep all foreign rites. I also want fool plush animal sales.  Save these demands for contract negotiations.

My book is called THE ELEPHANT AND THE DONKEY and it is completely in rhyme. Since it is about animals, I tested it out on my cat and dog and they absolutely loved it! Completely irrelevant, and it makes the author sound a little crazy. They showed their appreciation by marking the corners of this manuscript. You’ll probably be able to tell (or smell) witch corner is witch. That is so disgusting. Do I really have to remind you to reprint a sample that has urine on it?

I didn’t read my story to any pre-schools because I didn’t want the teachers to still the idea, but I know kids will love it!!! Even if the fake author had read it at preschools I wouldn't want to know. Also, the fear that someone will steal your work (so rare I don't know of any actual cases of unpublished author works being ripped off) sends up red flags of publishing ignorance.

Hear is more about it...

My 20,000-word picture book
For ages two to four,
Covers many topics
Other children’s books ignore.

Taxes, stocks, and politics
Are introduced in rhyme.
The story is sure to be a hit
At every child’s bedtime.

You’ll want to publish this right away.
It’s going to be a best seller,
More popular than "The Cat in the Hat,"
Or that tearjerker, "Old Yeller."

The conflict is that an elephant
And donkey can’t agree.
They fight over just about everything,
Including cups of tea.

Will they ever learn to get along?
Can these protagonists save the world?
I’m writing a 1000-page sequel,
Where the answers will be unfurled. 
All right. That was just insane. Contrary to popular belief, editors don't hate picture books in rhyme. Some of the best-selling books are written that way.  When rhyme is really well done, it is fun and great to read aloud. Unfortunately most rhyme submissions are not well done, cause the editor to cringe, and thus rhyme gets a bad rap.  However, unless you are excerpting a stanza of your manuscript, never, ever describe it in rhyme.

Believe me, this book will fly off the shelves and beat the ebook download record, so you’ll want to publish this by November so we can both become rich quick. That’s only about a month away, but if you overnight the contract to me, I’ll sign it write away and the illustrator can start immediately. Clearly has no idea how the publishing industry works. Oh, I really like the work of Tomie dePaola. Don't we all.  I hope you can get him for this book. Does he even illustrate books he didn't write? Do you have that kind of pool? Rude.

I know you only wanted a query and ten pages, but I am so confident you’ll like my work that I scent the hole book. Always, always follow the submission instructions.  I am offering this as an exclusive transmission does author mean submission? for one week, but after that I’ll really need to move on if I haven’t herd from you. I want to enjoy my millionaire status before the world ends or before the next election - whichever comes first. Who knows what the tax rate will be after that! Besides sounding crazy, this last bit again highlights the author's inexperience and lack of research on publishing.

I should tell you that I’ve already been published in my third grade newspaper, not the kind of publishing credits to include so I’ll want the “royal treatment” when it comes to royalties. Oh good grief. We can go over all that when I meat you in person. At this point, I would be going: Wait! When (and why) would we meet? Is this person planning on stalking me down? Yule love how punny I am. I highly doubt that.

Sincerely,
Dee Ranged

P.S. - I hope you like the red, white, and blue elephant and donkey sugar cookies I enclosed. They were only supposed to have white and blue icing on them, but my three-year old helped make them and she had an owie at the time, hence the red coloring. OMG, OMG, OMG. I knew the cookies weren't real and I still started to gag the first time I read this.  On a less insane note, do not send extra goodies with your query.  They are not appreciated and mark you as an amateur. I was going to send a tea bag, too, so you could have tea and cookies, but Tea Party stuff seems to be getting a bad rap lately and I didn’t know your fillings on that, so I decided against it. Unless your book is literally about politics, don't bring it up.  (The same goes for religion and any other traditionally controversial topics.  If you wouldn't bring it up at a dinner party full of strangers, don't put it in your query.)
Fortunately, I have never received a query or cover letter quite this extreme. After all, this was for a contest and therefore was supposed to be rather ridiculous. That being said, some of the errors made are common ones (if only in a less extreme version).  I'll discuss some of the most common query/cover letter mistakes next week.

Tuesday

Contest Winner

I have to say(or do I mean hate to say?)that I loved every single entry in the terrible query letter contest. All of them made me laugh, and all of them were horribly awful.

However, there was one that stood above the others. This one truly surpassed everyone else in awfulness for one simple brilliantly terrible reason: part of it was written in rhyming verse.

Genius!

So, congratulations to Dee Ranged (or whatever your real name is) for creating a truly terrible letter. I've copied it so everyone else can also appreciate the wretchedness. On Thursday, I'll dissect all of the things (besides the rhyme) that is wrong with this letter.

Deer Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Whatever M. Smoot:

I bought the bright green sticker on the outside of the envelope on eBay so I don’t really know what gender you are since I didn’t actually attend the conference at witch you spoke. Sorry. I paid good money for the “M. Smoot” sticker to gain access to your closed publishing house, so I hope you appreciate it. I’m sure you did a wonderful, stupendous, fantastic job at the conference and gave a fabulous, mesmerizing, interesting speech. Thanks for being such a helpful, kind, grate editor.

Anyway, enough about you. Now for my soon-to-be best seller... you’re gonna love it! Since it has an elephant AND a donkey in it, it will surpass sales of "Horton Hears a Who" and "Winnie the Pooh" (with Eeyore) combined. I know it will be made into a poplar movie and will be translated into many languages. That’s why I want to keep all foreign rites. I also want fool plush animal sales.

My book is called THE ELEPHANT AND THE DONKEY and it is completely in rhyme. Since it is about animals, I tested it out on my cat and dog and they absolutely loved it! They showed their appreciation by marking the corners of this manuscript. You’ll probably be able to tell (or smell) witch corner is witch.

I didn’t read my story to any pre-schools because I didn’t want the teachers to still the idea, but I know kids will love it!!!

Hear is more about it...

My 20,000-word picture book
For ages two to four,
Covers many topics
Other children’s books ignore.

Taxes, stocks, and politics
Are introduced in rhyme.
The story is sure to be a hit
At every child’s bedtime.

You’ll want to publish this right away.
It’s going to be a best seller,
More popular than "The Cat in the Hat,"
Or that tearjerker, "Old Yeller."

The conflict is that an elephant
And donkey can’t agree.
They fight over just about everything,
Including cups of tea.

Will they ever learn to get along?
Can these protagonists save the world?
I’m writing a 1000-page sequel,
Where the answers will be unfurled.

Believe me, this book will fly off the shelves and beat the ebook download record, so you’ll want to publish this by November so we can both become rich quick. That’s only about a month away, but if you overnight the contract to me, I’ll sign it write away and the illustrator can start immediately. Oh, I really like the work of Tomie dePaola. I hope you can get him for this book. Do you have that kind of pool?

I know you only wanted a query and ten pages, but I am so confident you’ll like my work that I scent the hole book. I am offering this as an exclusive transmission for one week, but after that I’ll really need to move on if I haven’t herd from you. I want to enjoy my millionaire status before the world ends or before the next election - whichever comes first. Who knows what the tax rate will be after that!

I should tell you that I’ve already been published in my third grade newspaper, so I’ll want the “royal treatment” when it comes to royalties. We can go over all that when I meat you in person. Yule love how punny I am.

Sincerely,
Dee Ranged

P.S. - I hope you like the red, white, and blue elephant and donkey sugar cookies I enclosed. They were only supposed to have white and blue icing on them, but my three-year old helped make them and she had an owie at the time, hence the red coloring. I was going to send a tea bag, too, so you could have tea and cookies, but Tea Party stuff seems to be getting a bad rap lately and I didn’t know your fillings on that, so I decided against it.

Friday

Worst Query Letter Ever Contest

Yesterday I got an exciting email from Chuck, the editor of the 2012 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market that I have an article in.  Apparently, if I run a contest here on the blog, then he'll send the winner a free copy of the book.  Pretty sweet, right?

So, I was trying to think what would make an appropriate contest for a book dedicated to finding your manuscript a home with the right editor or agent. And then I had it.  What could be more perfect than a query letter contest?  However, I just ran a query letter contest last spring.

And then I had an even more brilliant idea.  I would make this the worst query letter ever contest.  To enter this contest, your going to have to come up with most unbelievably awful query letter.  Basically, you should take all the advice I've ever given you in the past and do the exact opposite.  Then whichever fake letter is the worst, I'll critique on the blog so we can all review what should NOT be done.

To enter the contest:
  1. Paste your fake query letter into one of the comments on this post.  That way everyone can enjoy the awfulness.
  2. All entries must be received by 11:59PM CST Friday, Sept. 23
  3. We really want the query itself to be awful; however, the book being pitched shouldn't be ridiculous.  Don't pitch offensive or really extreme books that no one would want even if the query was fantastic.
  4. One winner will receive a copy of the 2012 CWIM direct from Writer's Digest.  Should they choose to substitute prizes (like a copy of the excellent 2012 Guide to Literary Agents instead), I have no control over that.  The winning entry will also be posted so that we all might critique/ridicule its awfulness. 

Wednesday

5 Writing Tips I Learned From My 2 Year Old

I don't know if you know this, but apparently when you take a baby home you are legally obligated at some point in its life to write a sickeningly sweet philosophical post on "life lessons" you've learned from said baby.

Don't believe me?  Then clearly you have not been on a parenting/website blog recently.

So, in order to fulfill my contractual obligation as a parent (it was in the fine print), here is my sappy post.  At least it's writing related.

5 Writing Tips I Learned From My 2 Year Old
  1. Never Be Afraid to Experiment -- My child will draw on anything, and we as writers should be willing to at least consider every writing idea that pops into our heads, no matter how ludicrous it may seem.  After all, futuristic Roman gladiator games sounds kind of silly, but no one is going to argue with the success of The Hunger Games.
  2. Never Be Afraid of Failure -- Because frankly, you can't ever entirely fail.  As my child practices at writing and drawing he constantly improves.  (Yes, I have a freakish child that with no prompting from me likes to try to draw letters.)  He has mastered the O and I and almost has a recognizable A.  And just like him, your writing improves both with every rewrite and in general as you practice it more.  Eventually, you will have that idea that works.
  3. Take as Many Breaks As You Need, But Finish Your Task Eventually -- This is true of not only attention span challenged toddlers, but us adults as well.  Sometimes we become so frustrated or hungry or tired or whatever that we need to briefly step back from a project and get some space.  This is fine, but at some point you have to come back and finish up.
  4. Do Not Judge Yourself By Other People's Measuring Sticks -- For various reasons (including a brief period of partial deafness and a "by-myself" independence streak) my toddler has a serious speech delay.  Other people's response to this range from condescending worry (from other parents who have decided my child is autistic -- he's not according to the various doctors/specialists) to complete unconcern (from his doctors and speech therapist who say he'll talk sometime before 5.  5!).  The point of this is that you have to define your own measures of success.  For some author success only comes after a certain advance or when they reach a certain level of sales.  For others, success is finishing a manuscript.  You have to decide for yourself otherwise you will drive yourself crazy trying to meet everyone else's (differing) expectations.
  5. Praise is Great Fun, But No One Appreciates a Tantrum in Response to Negative Feedback -- This is pretty self-explanatory.  We all like being told our stuff is good, but when we are told our stuff is not working, pouting or throwing a tantrum is not productive and often inappropriate.  You don't have to take every piece of advice you receive, but you should at least objectively consider it.

Sunday

Why Do People Find This Necessary?

Yesterday, I briefly touched on this rather shocking post I had read a few weeks ago.  In it, the author describes how her site and blog have been the victim of various hate postings and hackings that have escalated to death threats.  Specifically, she has been repeatedly told that if she goes to speak at various conferences, she will be hunted down and killed.

Hopefully something you & I will never see.
I was appalled at this, and I wondered what kind of controversial blog was the woman running.  So, I searched and looked around her site expecting to find a political or religious or some other controversial oriented blog.  Instead I found lots of posts on . . . social media and internet marketing.  Now, I don't know about you but I don't consider social media to be the kind of concept that should inspire enough passion in a person to warrant death threats.  I just personally can't find the energy (or interest) to become properly motivated to hate someone who tells you the most effective way to use Twitter.

(Of course there's more to the story, the hate originally came from someone accusing the woman of having an affair and then devolved into accusations of internet scamming.  I do not know about the woman's personal life -- it's not relevant for the blog, and you can look on the site yourself to see if it's true.  I will say that she has lots of content and appears to be running a real (not scam) internet marketing site, so that accusation appears false.)

The moral of this story is that no matter who you are or what you do, if someone takes it into their mind to ruin you, they can probably do it.

And since we all work in the children's book industry where even the tamest book can become controversial (after all more Banned Books are children's books than any other genre), let's review some internet safety precautions in case any of us ever come under attack for our writing (or some other reason).

Here are the rules I formulated for my sister (age 12 at the time) when I found her posting comments on this blog:

  1. Never put your physical address where you live on anything public. That's what PO Boxes are for. (Be careful where you put your physical address in general.  Even private pages can be hacked.)
  2. Never put pictures of the front of your home online.  It makes it easier for people to find where you live.
  3. Minimize the use of family member names (I always refer to husband, baby, Assistant Editor, etc. This isn't just a cutesy thing to go along with the semi-anonymous feel of the blog.  It protects their privacy.)
  4. Remember that everything that goes up online is pretty much up there forever.  Don't post a scandalous picture or a rude comment that you may regret 10 years later.  (For authors, this means think twice before telling the world how much you hate XYZ editor or ABC publishing house.  You may want to do business with them someday, and if they find your comment (and they will), they may not want to do business with you.)
  5. Just be careful.  After all, just because your paranoid, doesn't mean that someone isn't "following"  you.
Now what should you do if you are the victim of such an attack?  Well, I don't know.  Some say fight back. Others say lay low and wait it out.  What do you think? What are some of your tips for being safe yet still maintaining a public profile?

Saturday

A Bright Light

As I mentioned earlier, I was not having the greatest day.  I mean you can only redo a site from scratch so many times in one day before it really starts to get miserable.

My little one
working on his
next explosion.
And then while I was working in my at-home office, it started to get kind of stinky.  Since my two year old was in with me at the time, I assumed it meant he needed his diaper changed.  I turned around to get him, only to discover him on the floor naked with his hands in his diaper grinning and squishing and grinding into the floor this new plah-doh like substance he had discovered.  I have never manhandled a child into a shower so fast in my life.  My office now smells like cleaning supplies with a hint of poop.

2012 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's MarketHowever, when the mail came, my husband brought me a book from my buddy over at Writer's Digest. Chuck had sent me my contributor's copy of the new CWIM.  There was my article in this new shiny book.

I have to tell you, nothing fixes a day like seeing your name in print.  It works for me every time.

So thank you, Chuch and CWIM and WD for making my day!

A Long Few Days

So, last week (or was it the week before? It's all blurring together) I was all set to blog about this horrifying post I read about where this blogger has been receiving death threats. However, before I could get going, my father-in-law had to have a quadruple bypass and then another surgery to install a pacemaker, and I found myself and my family away from home dealing with that. (He is recovering nicely now, but it was a hairy couple of days.)

Once I got back, I proceeded to work on various projects that I had fallen behind on, like rebuilding madelinesmoot.com.  I must say, it was looking pretty marvelous.

I suspect this guy is more effective than me today.
Then this morning, I managed to delete the entire site. Yes, I did, and because I was using Wordpress, most of it was web-based and not on my local computer.

I reloaded Wordpress, uploaded my custom theme I had made and started over.

Two hours later I somehow managed to overwrite a key file requiring me to uninstall and reinstall Wordpress again.  (I still don't know what I did or how I made the entire site unviewable.)  I uploaded my custom theme again, reinstalled all of the plugins again, and wrote the copy for the site AGAIN.

So, if you're curious to see the site, and some of the different projects I've been working on for the past few months, head on over to madelinesmoot.com.

Now I just have to get the other 75% of the new Buried in the Slush Pile site up.  Hopefully, I'll only half to do it once!

Wednesday

I'm Back!

First off, I'd like to say welcome to all the folks who have discovered my blog from the CWIM article I wrote.

Howdy.

Second, I'd like to thank all of my current readers for being so patient while I spent the summer working at the bookstore and dealing with family health issues.  We are fine now, but it's been a long hot summer.

However, I was able to work on some things, several of which are pretty exciting.  Of course, the most exciting project has been the conversion of books to ebooks.  I have now successfully converted all of Emerald Tablet to ebook, and I almost have the Kindle version done as well.  Annnnnd, the Emerald Tablet has a beautiful, fabulous new cover.  Take a look:



And, if you want to see the first 3 chapters of the Emerald Tablet (and PJ's new teen book -- not put out by CBAY, alas, but still cool), you can read the ebook sampler I put together for PJ.  Click here to download it.

Tuesday

Ignoring the Light in YA Fiction

(I originally wrote this from a bookseller's perspective for something else.  However, we decided not to comment on the article after all, so I'm posting it here instead.  What have been your thoughts on this issue?)

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal printed an article on young adult fiction that I assume was meant to be provoking. Filled with gross generalizations and fairly extreme examples, the article titled Darkness Too Visible basically complains that nearly all books published for teens today are filled with dark topics that leave teens with nothing to read. (In the interest of space, I am grossly oversimplifying the author's argument. I highly encourage everyone to draw their own conclusions by reading the article themselves here.) According to the author, teen fiction has become "So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18."

What teen section is this woman shopping in?

I read literally hundreds of books a year, most of them teen or upper middle-grade. (I am not exaggerating. On a good day with no interruption, I can read three full teen novels in a 10 hour period.) I don't like books with kids getting molested, or that have incest, or include gory, unnecessary violence, so I don't read books like that. Yet, I still manage to read tons of books every year.

Of course, I'm not saying those dark books aren't out there. Problem novels have been a staple of the YA cannon since the genre was first identified 40 years ago. And I'm also not saying that some of those problem novels aren't graphic or dealing with some difficult topics. If the topics seem more gruesome today, it's because they are no longer quite as taboo as they once were. Incest and child molestation has always existed, but people often (especially in the past) refuse to talk or acknowledge it. Teens cut themselves, fight addiction, deal with eating disorders and homosexuality. It may not be commonplace, but for the teens experiencing these problems, the pain is very real. However, nowadays people are better informed about these topics, both the causes and the effects. It's less surprising that such subjects now find their way into a very small portion of YA literature. After all, all literature is a reflection of the society which creates it. YA literature is no exception.

But despite the ever present problem novel and the current vogue for dystopic fiction (not even mentioned in the article), a majority of teen fiction does not fall in the "dark" but "light" category. After all, many readers, especially avid ones in my experience, read books for the fun escape, and these dark, hard-hitting books are not exactly "fun". They can be moving, gut-wrenching, or chilling, but they are rarely "fun". So, I have compiled a list of some of my favorite teen books that are fabulous reads about utterly frivolous subjects.

(Unlike the Wall Street Journal, I have not divided these books by sex. Many of these books can be equally enjoyed by boys or girls.)

The Gallagher Girls Series -- Starting with I'd Tell You That I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You, this fun adventure series centers on a group of girls at a school for spies.

The Heist Society Series -- Also by Ally Carter, I always handsell this one as "a teen's Ocean Eleven." Yes, it's about kids that are international art thieves, but the books are just so darn cool.

A Brief History of Montmaray -- I'm not normally a huge historical fiction fan, but this book and its sequel are fantastic. Set on the fictional island kingdom of Montmaray just before the outbreak of World War II, the teens on it try to save their home (and lives) from Nazis.

Before I Fall -- On the surface this would seem like a dark book since it's about a girl who dies in a car accident, but as the main character relives the last day of her life over and over, she grows and changes so much that the book is just amazing.

Death Cloud -- I'm a sucker for a good mystery, and this first in a new teen Sherlock Holmes series is just good, clean fun. Yes, it's a murder mystery, but in an adventure, not gory kind of way.

A Matter of Magic -- I love books where an author takes our world and its history and then tweaks it in some way. In this book (which is really two novels packaged in one), Wrede writes two great adventures set in a Victorian London with magic. I also really like her similar Sorcery & Cecelia novels that she co-wrote with Stevermer.

Anything by Diana Wynne Jones -- She is marvelous; she is brilliant. She also recently died, so there won't be any more new books from her -- something my co-workers are tired of me bemoaning. Two of my favorites are Howl's Moving Castle and its companions and Dark Lord of Derkholm and its companion.

Thursday

A Brief Hiatus

Do you ever have a flurry of activity only to find yourself completely burnt out afterwards?  You don't want to do anything so just skate by with the bare minimum?

Well, it's definitely not something I recommend, but it's what I've been doing this past month. 

At Dallas ComicCon with
my authors.
For me, the bare minimum has been keeping up the BookKids Blog, editing the Book of All Things, and making various promo items.  (Did anyone get any of the Dry Souls trading cards at Dallas ComicCon?)
But now after a fair amount of quality time with family and my iPad Smurfs (yes, I'm addicted), I feel able to think about the art of writing again.

But for today, I'm going to refer you to someone else's thoughts on writing.  We had been discussing character, and I have found a wonderful article by Malinda Lo on writing about race in speculative fiction. I heard Malinda speak during the Diversity in YA tour, and she mentioned this article she had written.  I looked it up and feel it fits perfectly with our discussion.  So read it, and then let me know what you think about how you would treat this potentially controversial issue.

Wednesday

Great Primary Characteristics

To get back to our character discussion, I think it's time to discuss a few of the traits that all great characters have in common.  They are (in no particular order):
Anne of Green Gables may have red
hair, but it's her love of drama that
is the important character trait.
  • Significant Details
    These are not things like a characters hair color, eye color, or make and model of his/her car.  These don't actually tell us anything about the character, they simply help the reader visualize the character's outside.  What we are interested in are the things that tell us about the character herself.  Does your character rub the inside of his elbow when he's nervous?  This can be used as a detail every time he's in an uncomfortable situation.  That way you don't have to tell "David is nervous." Instead you can show him rubbing his elbow.

    You can tell the difference between significant and insignificant details pretty easily.  The insignificant ones are the ones that are completely inconsequential.  If I never told you that my character was a brunette, it would not change the story at all.  In fact, if I make an insignificant detail signifcant (for instance the hero is blond), I have probably succumbed to stereotyping, a big no-no.
  • Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle
    believes herself to be the
    stereotyped oldest sibling
    from a fairy tale.
  • Avoid Stereotypes
    Obviously bad stereotypes based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. are absolute off limits, but you should avoid good stereotypes as well. (Example of a positive stereotype: people with glasses are smart.)

    Sterotypes have the unfortunate effect of making a character seem two (or even one) dimensional.  It also does the character a grave disservice by grossly oversimplifying him/her.  You never want a simple primary character, even in a picture book.  All of the best characters (including PB ones like Olivia or Fancy Nancy) have layers.  Like a parfait.

    Of course, occasionally authors deliberately make use of a stereotype to debunk it or to prove some type of point.  That however is different than just using a stereotype for your main character and then moving on.
  • You don't get much more flawed than
    the anti-hero Artemis Fowl.
  • Have Flaws
    The best heroes have flaws.  I don't just mean the grand "tragic flaw" you learn about in school that inevitably leads to the heroes demise at the end of the Greek play.  No, I mean sometimes big, sometimes little personality traits that make the character's life just that more difficult.

    There are a couple of reasons you want a flawed character:
    • They are more interesting. -- Flaws create drama, and drama is fun to read (and write).
    • They are more realistic. -- No one is flawless.  Not even me (or you).  Sorry.
    • They are more sympathetic. -- There is literally nothing more aggravating than perfection.  People who appear perfect tend to make you want to slap them, and perfect characters in books make me want to tear them out of the pages and hurl them across the room. 
Cearly I feel strongly about flaws.

Tuesday

National Short Story Month Contest

I had no idea, but it seems that May is National Short Story Month. I didn't know anything like that even existed, but it seems that it's celebrating it's 2nd or 4th year depending on how you look at it.  (I found an interesting article on it here.)

I'm quite excited about this.  I love short stories.  There's nothing like being able to read an entire plot and character arc in a single sitting.  I like being introduced to different ideas, concepts, and even writing styles in a short story anthology.  And I love how compact a short story is; how every word counts.


Wednesday

Buried Editor's Book Club

So, while I've been gone (from the blog) putting my office in order, I've been seriously thinking about the Buried Editor Book Club idea that was suggested as a use for the forum.  I really liked the idea, but I didn't really know what books we should start with.  And then we started the character discussions.

Last night, I had a scathingly brilliant idea, and I have decided that the first books for the Buried Editor Book Club should be books that are great works of character.  And since we've been discussing primary and secondary characters and using secondary characters to help you show characteristics of your primary character, I have selected some books that I think exemplify this concept.

17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do AnymoreSo, the first Buried Editor Book Club Selection is: 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill.  In this book, the reader learns a lot about the first person narrator (the little girl) by how the other characters react to the things she does.  However, what makes this book so extraordinary is that there is no dialogue, and the other characters never once say a word.  It is all told in the pictures and in the way the girl reacts to the reactions.

That, at least is my opinion.  However, this is a Book Club, and thus the book should be discussed.  I would like to hear what others think about the book and the characters.  I've already set up a discussion board.  Go there and let me know what your ideas have been.

Thursday

Primary vs Secondary Characters (Part 2)

Yesterday we looked at primary characters, so today we'll look at secondary characters -- basically everybody else in your story.

He may be fully developed
with distinctive traits, a
personality, and back-story,
but Dumbledore is a
secondary character.
Secondary characters can be divided into 3 groups:
  1. Major secondary characters: These are the ones we think of when we say secondary characters.  These characters are nearly as important as the primary character(s) and may have their own backstories and subplots.  In Harry Potter, some major secondary characters would be Ron, Hermione, Malfoy, Dumbledore, and Snape.
  2. Minor secondary characters: These characters are less well-developed but are still distinctive enough to possibly be memorable.  In Harry Potter, this would be the Weasley twins, Professor McGonagall, and Neville.
  3. Filler characters: In a movie, these characters would basically be extras.  They are the folks you need to fill out a scene or the world, but they are generally stock characters with no real distinctive features. In Harry Potter, most of the student body falls in this category.

Wednesday

Primary vs Secondary Characters (Part 1)

Today we are starting at the very basics of character -- the primary versus the secondary characters.

Which have your read?  I've read all of HP
and only the first 2 in CB.
Just like in real life, the book world has your A-list, B-list, C-list, etc. characters.  And no, I don't mean the difference between Harry Potter and Charlie Bone.  (Both are wizards at school in series put out in America by Scholastic.  One is a household name, the other is less known, a B-lister if you will.)  Here, I'm talking about the A-list (or primary) characters and the B, C, and D-list (or secondary) characters in your story.

Your primary characters are the leads in your story.  These always include your protagonist and may include your antagonist (if there is only one or a primary antagonist).  Your primary character may or may not be your narrator.  However, your primary character is, literally, the most important character in the story.  This is the person that wants or needs something, and the entire story will be about that character trying to fill this want or need.

Tuesday

A Character Study

Who doesn't know this famous character?
Last month when we practiced the parts of the book proposal, we looked at the overall manuscript.  Each of us took our manuscript and worked on how it was presented to the world as a whole.

Now though, we are going to start looking at the individual pieces that make up a great manuscript.  And of course the key thing that keeps a reader reading is the characters.

Don't  get me wrong.  Lots or other parts of a story are important too, especially plot.  I know I'm the kind of person that is less interested in a character's growth than what happens next.  I have been known to even finish books I don't like simply because I want to know the ending.

However, the sad truth is if you don't have compelling characters none of the other stuff matters  You have to write characters that readers are going to be interested enough in to find out what happens to them.

Book Proposal Contest

I only had 3 people enter the book proposal contest, so congratulations!  All three of you are winners!  I'll have your proposal critiques back to you by the end of the month.

I must confess to being a little surprised that there weren't more entries, but I'm going to chalk it up to the fact that I was overwhelmed by TLA the last 2 weeks and wasn't able to post a flurry of nagging reminders.

Saturday

TLA Wrap-up

So, it turns out that if you stay in your booth the whole time repeating your pitch over and over again (yes, even I have to know how to pitch books), you generate interest and name recognition for your company, but you don't produce much interesting material for the blog.   However, here were the highlights of the TLA conference for me:
  • Giving out over 200 copies of Dry Souls to the teens at the conference on Thursday--  If the kids had a yellow shirt, they got a book.  Many of them thought the premise was pretty cool too.  I hope we start seeing reviews on Goodreads, Amazon and the web from them.
  • Having the booth next to Candlewick-- I can sum up the greatness of that in one word: Traffic.
  • Having my authors sign-- 3 out of 5 my authors were able to make it this year.  Besides being wonderful to see them again, I now have lots of signed stock.
  • Selling 42 Emerald Tablet to Taylor Middle School for their bookclub-- They are going to read the book and then come join us in Austin one day to meet PJ.
  • Having the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels have an ice cream social at my booth-- There was ice cream.  There were authors.  There were librarians.  How could it not be great?
And now, after that very long week, I'm taking the next 3 days off.  But you shouldn't be doing the same.  My book proposal contest ends on Monday, so this is the last weekend to polish them up and make use of the forum for feedback.  See you back on Tuesday.

Tuesday

TLA Setup

I am excited to announce that I have survived my very first TLA setup day all by myself.  I've only been to TLA as part of Blooming Tree.  CBAY has never exhibited before, and it's very exciting to have enough books to fill a whole booth.  I posted some pictures over on Facebook if you're curious to see the booth.

My plan for this week is to do a bunch of tweets, Facebook, and video updates throughout the conference.  So, be sure you're subscribed to everything so you can see the fun!

Friday

Convention Preparation

I have just spent the last few weeks getting ready for my booth at TLA next week.  I have been ordering bookmarks and buttons and tshirts and posters, buying tables and table cloths and book stands.  However, this is not what the usual person does to get ready to attend TLA (or BEA or ALA or any of the other large book trade shows).

So, since most of you are published and soon to be published authors, I thought I'd examine preparation for a large convention from that perspective.

Convention exhibition halls are a great place for authors to network and get a good look at what is happening in the publishing world.  All authors, even unpublished ones, should try to go to a convention if at all possible.  Before you go, here are some things you should do:

Tuesday

Goodbye, Diana

Howl's Moving CastleIn what sometimes feels like a lifetime ago, back when I was still in grad school (you know, last year), back when I was still working on actual class-work instead of my long, drawn out thesis, I wrote a paper on a brilliant fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones called Howl's Moving Castle.  A fun, exciting book that turns fairy tale conventions on their heads, I loved both this book and its companion, Castle in the Air for years.  So, you can imagine how excited I was when a third book, House of Many Ways, came out two years ago.  Ever since, I've been eagerly awaiting Jones next book.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to wait a very, very long time.

Archer's GoonFire and HemlockYou see, last week, Diana Wynne Jones passed away at the age of 76.  Although a collection of her articles will be released in 2011, it is not the same.  We will no longer see great Jones works like her masterpiece of form, Archer's Goon, or her greatest work of style and thematic subjects, Fire and Hemlock.

Personally though, I will miss her more light-hearted fare like her parody of sword and sorcery fantasies, Dark Lord of Derkholm, and the darker Chrestomanci books.

If you have never read one of Jones's works, I suggest you take the opportunity now.  Her books, besides being highly enjoyable, have also been a source of inspiration to children's fantasy authors for some time.  Her imagination and witty writing will be sorely missed.


The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1: Charmed Life / The Lives of Christopher Chant  The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 2: The Magicians of Caprona / Witch Week  The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Vol. 3 (Conrad's Fate / The Pinhoe Egg)