Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Familiars - The Big Book Hook

Published authors love to give advice to aspiring writers. Whether they have one book to their name or a store shelf filled with best-sellers, they share their wisdom on everything that led them to their success. Write from the soul. Be determined. Read, read, read! Write, write, write! More generalizations flow like write from the heart, have great execution, and never giving up. These bon mots are more like self-help mantras than secrets to getting your book published.

So, what are we going to tell you that you haven’t heard before? Well, authors rarely talk about the importance of the idea. The big idea. A hook that will grab a reader, agent, or editor right from the query letter. Here’s an exclusive, firsthand piece of advice we’ll pass on from an anonymous publishing industry insider: hundreds of manuscripts come across his/her desk each year, and only a handful have a sellable big book hook. Meaning, the major publishing houses are looking for books with big ideas that can be featured at giant retailers, get adapted into movies, and become best-sellers. Not just stand-alone books, but series.

In Hollywood, the major movie studios are looking for 4-quadrant, tentpole, franchisable ideas. Ideas that appeal to the broadest possible audience, that can justify the biggest possible budget and marketing plan, and can have sequel after sequel. The book industry is searching for the same thing. If this sounds crass, or makes you wince because of its commerce over art leaning, it shouldn’t.

A few of the biggest (and best) books from the last few years:

"Harry Potter" – an average boy is rescued from his ordinary, unlucky existence to fulfill his destiny at a school for wizards.

"The Hunger Games" – in a futuristic society, a young girl must survive a deadly game in which teens fight to the death in front of live TV audiences.

"Twilight" – a teenage girl risks everything when she falls in love with a vampire.

Now, I don’t want to dissuade anyone from writing about their coming of age, or their dysfunctional family, or their marriage or divorce. But, as our insider shared with us, it is stories like these that make him/her happy that self-publishing is so much easier today. Because the big publishing houses have a much harder time getting their marketing machine behind the smaller, hookless ideas. (*Big disclaimer here: of course there are exceptions! At the end of the day, a wonderfully written manuscript is still the MOST important factor in getting published.*)

New York Times YA and children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson says write the flap copy before you write the book. This exercise is a fantastic way to iron out your big book hook and make it impossible for that agent or editor you’re querying to pass. After that, see if you can pitch your idea to your husband or wife or co-worker in a sentence or two. Did they get it? Could they turn around and pitch it to someone else? Take it a step farther and imagine the book cover, too.

We’re not encouraging you to write something derivative and soulless. We’re just saying find the character or theme or story that you’re passionate about and find a big hook to sell it on. The Transformers, a billion dollar grossing popcorn extravanganza, was originally pitched by Steven Spielberg as a story about a boy and his first car.

So, before you begin the long journey of writing your manuscript (and rewriting it over and over again until it is ready to be submitted), take a long, hard look at the idea. Does it have a big book hook? Could you see the cover on a display at your local bookstore? How about a movie poster at the neighborhood megaplex? If you can answer yes confidently to those questions, then congratulations. Now you’re just 60,000+ words closer to getting published.

If you want to learn more about "The Familiars," please visit You can watch the book trailer here.

To enter for a chance to win a copy of THE FAMILIARS, please follow us and comment below.

Friday, August 27, 2010

And the Winner of WILDFIRE RUN is....

Bish Denham, your name was pulled out of a magician's hat! (The stuffed rabbit that came with the magic kit disappeared long ago, so I'm happy we had such a good use for the hat.) If you'd email me your address at, I'll get the book out to you.
Thanks to you and everyone else for commenting!  Stay tuned for future contests.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What's your favorite MG animal story?

I grew up on a farm, so I was always around animals. Big animals, little animals, gross animals, you name it. Animals. I saw more animals in a day than I saw people. (I didn't mind this, but I was always an introvert!)

What I got additionally that people in the city perhaps didn't get was the particular type of ruthlessness a farm breeds into people. Animals on a farm are there to produce. Eggs, babies, you name it. On most of the farms I knew, if there were animals on it there was a reason for them being there.

That's why some of the stories that had animals and the airy-fairy happy endings didn't ever cut it for me. I went through them; my school librarian knew of my animal love affair and kept us stocked with all sorts. But it never rang true to me if, against all odds, the animal survived. Because I knew that that would not have happened in real life.

Then I got my possum** and all my attitudes changed: at the exact same time I read Where the Red Fern Grows for the first time.

I was so physically sick after that book I couldn't get up for two days. It played so perfectly in my head; I knew that story, having begged and begged for my own dog, my own pet, for so long. And to read of a boy getting his wish, having it jerked away from him by the hands of fate. Ugh. Excruciating.

When I got up, I loved that book. LOVED that book. Here's a short list of my top animal books, in order, from when I was just a squeaker:

1. Where the Red Fern Grows
2. Summer of the Monkeys
3. Rascal
4. A Dog called Kitty
5. The Black Stallion (Extremely unlikely that a boy would make friends with a wild black Arabian stallion but hey, I was a horse crazy nut and I took it where I could get it)

Here's what I'd love to hear from you: what were your favorite animal books, growing up? List them! It could be I haven't read them and then...I have some new books to buy! It's all in the name of research, baby!

- Jen K Blom, animal lover extraordinaire.

** Yes, I had a possum. Yep, his name was Ike. Yep, he's the fellow in my book, POSSUM SUMMER; it's my final tribute to his cinnamon-grey, furry, funny little self.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Getting Published - What I learned along the way

I’m thrilled to be kicking off the Project Mayhem blog with a giveaway of a signed hardback copy of WILDFIRE RUN. I was so happy when Hilary asked me to be part of this blog. Writing is such a solitary occupation that being able to connect with other writers keeps me going and inspires me.

Mayhem is a good word for life these days. WILDFIRE RUN will be released on August 31st, and I’m working on revisions of book two, WOLF STORM, while also juggling the moving about of my children, who are suddenly old enough to have lives and complicated schedules, but not old enough to have driver’s licenses. Where is the time freeze button? Life was much simpler when they took naps and didn’t expect to go out at night. Anyway, it’s a good mayhem, and I wanted share some of the things I learned on my very long journey to get to the published stage. I could natter on about writing for pages and pages, but for now, I’ll just focus on three things that helped me get to this point.

When I first started writing, I assumed it couldn’t be too hard to write a book. After all, I’d read thousands of books. (I’m old enough to be able to claim this.) My early attempts sounded good to me, not so good to everyone else. Major ego deflation, but necessary to let me know I needed to improve. Over the years I wrote short stories, picture books, mysteries, and one failed romance so bad I’ve blocked most of it from my memory. I helped someone write his memoir. I rewrote stories over and over. All in all I wrote thousands of words, and by the mere act of writing, I learned. Just trying to get words on paper forced me to learn.

My first breakthrough didn’t come, though, until I decided to go beyond the advice to read, read, read, and to really study what made particular books work. I picked a few authors whose books I loved and took those books apart. I figured out what made me laugh, why I was interested in the characters, and most importantly, why I kept reading and rereading. In the process, I learned a tremendous amount about pacing, dialogue and description. I still go back to certain books for inspiration when I hit a dry spell.

My next light bulb moment came when I was struggling to write a synopsis, the bane of a writer’s existence. This is where other writers reading this will emit a sympathy groan at the sight of the word ‘synopsis’. I discovered a book on writing which not only helped me manage a synopsis, but also helped me develop characters who were more than cardboard versions of heroes, villains, mean kids and sidekicks. The book is called WRITING THE FICTION SYNOPSIS. Good title, right?

Shockingly, the book’s worksheets actually wanted me to organize my thoughts, to list the characters’ goals, motivations and conflicts. I hate to admit it, but I’d never really been organized about writing. I was one of those writers who just wrote, thinking the story would miraculously happen. Maybe it does for some writers, but I’m not that talented. My stories needed some intensive care and planning to be readable and interesting.

The last major breakthrough came when I realized I had to find a plot that would spark some interest, and a mystery story I had rewritten four times didn’t have it. At conferences I pitched the mystery to many agents who were polite but clearly not excited, which was incredibly frustrating for me, because I thought I finally had something with all the elements in place.

As a last ditch effort I signed up for an intensive writing workshop, and from it I concluded my mystery was not the right story for me to focus on as an unpublished writer. The workshop organizer stressed over and over that unknown writers have a hard time getting noticed with quiet stories. It’s not impossible, but it adds more difficulties on top of an already difficult process. There is a market for quiet stories and many people write them beautifully, but I decided in my case it was time to try another approach.

I decided I needed a loud story, a story I could describe in a few sentences, a story that would make people (agents and editors) lose the glazed look in the eye I had seen so many times before. I trunked the mystery and wrote something else. That’s how WILDFIRE RUN came about, the story of Luke Brockett, the son of the U.S. President who gets trapped at Camp David after a disaster. Luke and his friends Callie and Theo have to find a way to escape the security systems gone haywire before a wildfire overtakes them. When I got the offer from HarperCollins to publish the book, it made all those years of work worthwhile. I’m excited that the book has been selected by the Junior Library Guild for the fall in their new high interest middle reader category. You can view the book trailer of WILDFIRE RUN below. A teacher's guide and a book club guide can be downloaded from my website:

One of my writer friends, Alice Loweecey, who has had an equally winding publishing journey, has a saying I’d like to appropriate to end this post: “Never give up! Never surrender!” That’s a good motto to live by in the publishing world.

So I hope everyone reading this sticks around with us. Other members of Project Mayhem will share some of their publishing journeys in later posts, and I’m very interested to hear their stories as well. To enter for a chance at the copy of WILDFIRE RUN, please follow us and comment below. (My children are very excited because I told them they would get to pick the winner in a random drawing.)


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Our first "official post" coming Monday!!! Author Dee Garretson, WILDFIRE RUN Giveaway!

Our first "official" post goes up this Monday, August 23rd! Team Member Dee Garretson will be talking about her debut novel, WILDFIRE RUN (Aug. 31st, HarperCollins) and giving away a signed hardcover!

Help us celebrate her debut and errr...ours too!!!!!