Friday, April 29, 2011

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...

There was a time when publishing a book pretty much meant one thing for an author: find an agent (optional, but helpful), get a publisher to say “yes” (never easy), and then wait for your “baby” to grace the shelves (usually at least a year in the waiting for this step). For many authors, this is still the preferred road to take, but let’s face it, the times they are a-changin’ (thanks, Bob Dylan). Nowadays, thanks in large part to the convenience and user-friendliness of modern technology, many authors are choosing a different road, “the one less traveled by” (thanks, Robert Frost), and that road is self-publishing.

While there are many authors who have found success via the traditional road, the field of authors who are finding success using the self-publishing road is growing every day (traffic is picking up). With this in mind, I wanted to invite an author who recently made the decision to jump from one road to the other and self-publish. To that end, take it away Anita Laydon Miller. Tell us about your journey on the road “less traveled by.” 

Anita Laydon Miller
Thanks, Michael. First of all, I want everyone to know I respect people who dream of traditional publication. It’s a beautiful dream and I wish everyone the best in making that dream reality. And I do not dislike or mistrust agents, editors or publishers…these people have given me treasures in the form of books I’ve read.

Here’s my story:
You know how sometimes when you view a situation through someone else’s eyes, the situation becomes clear? That’s what happened to me.

A couple years ago, I decided I wanted to be a published author, and so I began researching. I learned I needed to write a great book with a unique premise and likeable characters. Then I needed to find a kick-ass agent who would provide me with suggestions to make the manuscript more marketable. Once the suggestions were incorporated, the kick-ass agent would find a publisher for my book. I’d work for several months with an editor at the publishing house, and about a year after the book was edited, it would appear on the shelves of the major bookstores. Then I’d work my tail off marketing the book, but I probably wouldn’t make much money.

I explained the above to my husband, a pragmatic FedEx pilot (with an honest-to-God degree in rocket science) and he was like, “What? You’ve got be kidding me.” I assured him I must follow the publishing rules, and he shrugged and watched the kids, and I wrote.

Lucky me (and I know that sounds sarcastic, but it’s not), I hooked a great agent…she was professional, savvy and fun. We made some changes on my middle grade mystery and she submitted it to about 15 editors. They all said, “No,” but with some positive feedback like, “I want to read everything else she writes.”

Still, I started getting a little suspicious of the process at this point, because in the comments that accompanied the rejections, the editors were often in complete disagreement with each other. I knew it was a subjective industry, but when one editor says something like, “It’s too scary,” and another editor says, “It’s not scary enough,” it gives a person pause.

My husband was especially thrown off by this, but I assured him that’s the way things are done and that I must move on.

So, not to be dissuaded, I started work (also as part of my MFA requirements) on another book—a middle grade science fiction. When it was time to submit, my agent and I decided to send it to only a few editors. The manuscript got rejected, but with some great comments. One editor (at a big house) even had several other editors look at the book. Ultimately she decided not to send it to committee, because (among a couple other reasons), aliens weren’t selling in house—meaning it was difficult to get an alien book sold within the company.

My husband was like, “What? But kids love aliens.” And I started looking at my husband like maybe he was right.

My agent and I reviewed the manuscript again (we both thought this book was a winner) and she suggested some changes. Now, I’ve been a freelance writer for over a decade, and when the person in charge says to make a change, I make it and I make it fast. But not this time. I totally disagreed with the change. My agent and I discussed it and she said that if I didn’t want to make the change, we could shelve the book and move forward on a YA that I’m writing.

My husband was like, “What? You love that sci fi. There must be another way to get it to kids.” And everything became clear to me, because there was another way: epublishing.

My agent and I had a few polite discussions via telephone and email, and we decided (I like to believe amicably) to part ways. I still think she’s a great agent, incidentally, and highly recommend her to anyone seeking an agent.

11 days later, EARTHLING HERO was for sale. Sales have been steady and the marketing experience has been fun. I feel like I own a small business. And I like it.

Here’s what I think: Every writer should investigate independent epublishing before signing with a literary agency or publisher. Buy an ebook in your genre, so you can get over the notion that indie writers’ books suck. They don’t. Read JA Konrath’s blog and Google “Jane Friedman.” Find out the number of sales of Nooks and Kindles. Then you’ll be in a position to make an informed decision.

Below is information about my inexpensive kids’ ebook, a $.99 middle grade science fiction titled EARTHLING HERO. It’s a great family read-aloud. I’m the book columnist for the COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE, and I’m always pleased to find family read-alouds to recommend. I had that in mind when I wrote the book.

Imagine waking one summer night to see someone standing beside your bed. The “someone” is a complete stranger, but looks exactly like you. That’s what happens to eleven-year-old Mikey Murphy. The next few days are filled with adventures—breaking into a high-security military installation, engaging expert assassins in hand-to-hand combat, searching for an evil alien’s hideout in the middle of a national landmark—all with two new alien friends at his side. Can Mikey and his friends survive their adventures and save the world?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dear Norton Juster:

I just saw you’re speaking at the SCBWI-LA conference this summer, and it’s killing me that I’m not able to attend.

When my sixth-grader teacher assigned THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH to my class, I loved all your clever expressions, the “synonym buns”; the average guy who claimed to be the shortest giant, tallest midget, thinnest fat man, and fattest thin man; the Humbug’s anxious response of “Seventeen!” every time he was faced with a math problem.

Then I went on to teach sixth grade, and THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH became my favorite novel to share. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve read your book at least thirty times. There are phrases that still float through my mind, words that roll off the tongue so perfectly, like the Humbug’s pronouncement, “A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect,” or the Whether Man’s “It’s more important to know whether their will be weather than what the weather will be.”

Kids love  your book -- even kids who, like Milo, aren’t really into school and learning and things like spelling February. I had a student two years in a row, who when he discovered my younger students were reading about Milo, Tock, and the Humbug, begged me to let him read along. In his social studies class. This is a kid who otherwise would be labeled as a reluctant reader.

And the activities we did, all in conjunction with your book! A word market just like the one Milo encounters in Digitopolis, color poetry inspired by Chroma the Great’s colorful symphony, and everyone’s favorite, the words vs. numbers debate.

I’ve written you fan mail full of questions my students had, like why didn’t Milo’s car ever run out of gas? Did Milo ever return to the Lands Beyond? Did other kids get sent on a quest to return Rhyme and Reason to Wisdom?

Thank you for creating a book that has brought me so much pleasure and has awakened curiosity in so many children.

From a former sixth-grade fan,
Caroline Starr Rose

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hot Topic--An Interview & Book Giveaway with Middle-Grade Author Hillary Homzie

So not only is super-cool middle-grade author Hillary Homzie here to give us an interview today--we also have a fabulous giveaway of an autographed copy of her latest middle-grade novel, The Hot List. All you have to do to enter is be a follower of Project Mayhem and leave a comment below.

Hillary is the author of the middle-grade novels The Hot List (S&S 2011) and Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (S&S 2009), as well as the comedic chapter book series Alien Clones From Outer Space (S&S), which is being made into an animated television series. During the summers, Hillary teaches in the graduate program in children’s writing at Hollins University. A former sketch comedy performer in NYC, Hillary currently lives with her family in Northern California. Visit her online at 

And now--drum roll please--here's Hillary:

PM: You have two middle-grade books out, Things Are Gonna Get Ugly and The Hot List. Can you tell us a little about them?

HH: Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (Simon & Schuster/ Aladdin MIX 2009) is about Ernestine Smith who, when she moves from Pennsylvania to California after fifth grade, decides to restyle herself from a book-loving, studious and rather withdrawn self-described geek into Taffeta, who’s obsessively into style, appearances and definitely not her schoolwork. This transformation is so successful that Taffeta forgets all about her former self until the day that she cheats on a math test in Mr. Dribble’s algebra class. He tells her that instead of giving her a bad grade, he can give her a “fresh start.” Of course, Taffeta’s all over that idea since, if she flunks her test she won’t be able to go to the school dance and her mom would probably cancel her birthday party. However, it ends up not being the fresh start that Taffeta had imagined. She finds herself turned back into Ernestine, her former self. It’s as if she never was Taffeta at all. And suddenly, she’s friends with all of the kids that she, as Taffeta, had been judging. And, worst of all, she’s in all of these academic classes, including—ack—orchestra! She can only become Taffeta again if she can convince Winslow Fromes, the king of the nerds, to dance with her at the upcoming dance. No easy task. In this book, Taffeta learns who she really is and what’s important. Think of it like a middle school version of Freaky Friday, except she’s turning into a parallel version of herself. You can watch the book trailer at 

The Hot List (Simon & Schuster, Aladdin MIX March, 2011), my newest book, is about Sophie Fanuchi, who’s absolutely best-best friends with Maddie Chen all the way through the sixth grade. But something happens at the beginning of seventh grade. Suddenly, Maddie doesn’t want to have an exclusive best friend. She wants to widen her social circle and be a part of a large girl group. And chiefly, Maddie wants to be friends with funky and opinionated Nia, whose mother just happens to be dating Sophie’s father. Ug. Sophie desperately tries to think of something cool to reel back in her best friend, so she starts the hot list, a repository of all the boys and girls and girls who socially rank. The list soon spirals out of control, leaving Sophie all alone. She thinks the list is quite ridiculous and ends up betting Nia that she can get even the least hot worthy boy onto the list –Squid Rodriquez.

The Hot List is all about what it’s like to lose your best friend with a little bit of a My Fair Lady plot thrown in, but with a definite surprise twist at the end. For a taste of the book, here’s the book trailer:

PM: What inspired you to write your books?

HH: I was inspired to write Things Are Gonna Ugly because of a memory. The summer after seventh grade we moved from Virginia to California, and I remember deciding that I was going to transform myself into this cool girl. Someone who didn’t have her head buried in a fantasy book. Someone who knew how to dress and didn’t sound too smart. Bad idea, right? Well, for four miserable months, I somewhat succeeded. I wasn’t cool exactly, but I wasn’t a nerd. I ate with these really boring girls who had nice hair but nothing to say. They weren’t mean and I don’t want to speak poorly of them, but we had nothing in common. They just were happy that they weren’t part of the nerdy loser bunch. Yes, at this middle school the bookish kids were called losers. Very sad. Somewhere in the middle of December, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I joined up with the nerds and I couldn’t have been happier. So, emotionally, in Things Are Gonna Get Ugly, I wrote about that experience. Of course, Taffeta is not me, but a huge exaggeration of who I wanted to be. Also, I wanted to respond to the recession. There were a lot of kids who were used to their identity being wrapped up in what they could afford—sort of buying their image through clothes and what kind of car their parents drove. So, I wanted Taffeta to experience an economic loss and cope with that—the economic downturn can be a gift in that it forces reassessment.

I chose to write The Hot List because I wanted to explore those shifts in girl friendships that happen in middle school. Suddenly, all of the rules that applied in elementary school are thrown out of the window. The girls you once sat with in fifth grade, or even sixth, are branching out and finding new friends, and it can be very painful. Where kids sit in the cafeteria definitely reflects the status of their various friendships. In middle school, I remember having to deal with expanding my own friendship circle and having my best friends wanting to de-intensify our friendships. That was hard stuff. And I also love the Pygmalion/My Fairy Lady story so I wanted to throw that in there. But I wanted to do with a twist. What if the person being transformed was better off in their former state? I thought that was a question worth posing.

PM: Why did you choose to write middle grade?

HH: For some reason, I can remember what’s like to be 9 through about 13 really well. It’s like I never—at least emotionally—left that phase. For me, it’s much harder to remember high school, although I really do love YA, but I must admit that it’s more of a struggle for me to visit that era. I feel like I just stepped off the middle school bus. Really! Maybe it’s because it’s such a dynamic period of time. I feel like I learned so much about myself, even though the journey wasn’t always so easy. That’s an understatement, probably.

PM: Please tell us a bit about your journey to publication.

HH: Well, let’s see. I was working as a radio journalist and interviewed a children’s author, and I had this really strange and strong feeling—I don’t want to be interviewing this woman. I want to be this woman. So a couple of years later, a friend, the amazing author Mei Ng, suggested, well, she didn’t suggest she brought me the City College catalogue and said, “You’re taking this!” It was a class on children’s writing with author Pamela Laskin. I wrote a short story in that class and Pam recommend I send it to Teen Magazine and they published it! I was astounded, amazed, and thrilled. Then I spent the next few years learning how to write longer books. I wrote lots of books that I’m never going to show anybody. My first contract for a book was a non-fiction project. I had been volunteering for SCBWI in Pennsylvania, and Susan Campbell Bartoletti had too many contracts on her hands and asked me if I wanted one. Oh, boy, does it pay to volunteer. Of course, I said YES! I’ll always be grateful to her for that. I also worked hard revising manuscripts in my critique group and, during the summer, I took classes at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature and Writing ( Shortly after that, I got a contract for a chapter book series, Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster, Aladdin Books). There’s been ups and downs since then. But mostly gratitude. I really love the children’s book world so much.

PM: What advice do you have for writers interested in writing for middle-grade readers?

HH: Oh, Dawn, that’s such a good question. I think it’s a combination of a few things. First, I’d recommend that they read, read, read to internalize the forms so that when they write, some of the architecture of the novel is already embedded into their soft tissue. This means that when you sit down to write your novel, some things are going to happen at a subconscious level. My good friend and colleague at Hollins University, the middle grade author A.Lafye, calls this “the primed mind.” I just love that term. The next thing, of course, is to write regularly. Even if it’s just 30 minutes a day. In a year’s time you’ll easily get a first draft done. Then, when you’re ready to revise, that’s the time to bring in the critical part of your brain and move things around, prune away liberally and add delicious sensory details. But the first go-round just get it all down on paper, even if it’s very messy and rough.

That’s my advice. Oh, and one more thing. Please, find a supportive network of other writers who will support you through the process. You can do this virtually and you can do this real time by joining groups like SCBWI and creating your own writing support group by posting notices at your local library or independent bookstore or online. Reading blogs, like this one, and leaving comments is a great place to meet like-minded individuals who will support you on your journey. I also think it’s not a bad idea to sign up for a writing class (once again this can be online or at a college). There are some really fantastic programs out there. Hollins University and Vermont College MFA programs are a couple, just to name a few. But the truth is, you don’t need a MFA program to be a writer. You need to read, write, and find others who believe in you and, most importantly, believe in yourself. Thanks so much for interviewing me today, Dawn! I had so much fun!

Many thanks to Hillary! And don't forget to comment for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Hot List. We'll do a random drawing in one week.

-Dawn Lairamore

Friday, April 22, 2011

Writing Middle Grade - Tapping into Childhood Fears of a Shoe Wolf. EEK!

Imagine a partly open closet door in a dark room and a child huddled under the covers watching that door to see if it creaks open. In the shadows it’s hard to tell if it has moved a fraction. Is there a soft noise from inside? Who or what could be in there? Monsters? Ghosts? Aliens? How about a furry shoe, a living wolf shoe from some twist on Little Red Riding Hood? That was what kept me awake at night, that and the belief there was always a gorilla outside my window as soon as it got dark.

Now I was a fairly smart kid and I knew wolves couldn’t be transformed into shoes. I also knew gorillas didn’t roam free in my small Iowa town, but that didn’t stop me from the horrors of imagination. On nights when my imagination raced out of control, I feared the gorilla was actually in my room under my bed. I also knew as soon as I stretched my legs out, it would reach out from the end and grab me, so I would lay there all scrunched up, determined to thwart the creature one more night.

I have no idea where these fears came from, except my mother did have a lot of shoes, but no furry ones beyond a pair of faux cheetah pelt high heels. (Note-I am not my mother’s daughter. I will never own faux cheetah pelt high heels.)As an adult, I have the whole array of normal adult fears of worrying about loved ones and illnesses and finances, but nothing as heart-pounding as those irrational childhood terrors.

Good thing the memories of those are there though, because writing for middle grade means bringing up as many memories as you can, not for the specific incidents, but for the feelings that came with them. In my books, I’ve never been trapped by a forest fire like the President’s son in Wildfire Run or caught in a blizzard like the actors in Wolf Storm, but I can call up the fear of disaster looming over them by remembering how I felt in less life-threatening disasters of my own.

So I’m curious, what fears or memories could you or do you use for writing? And how do you call them up? If I want to remember mine, I absolutely have to be away from people, away from all the chores of everyday life and away from the internet, as much as I love it. Sometimes I even do something I’m afraid of now to bring back the memories of those sorts of fear. After my children were born, I developed a fear of heights, so if I want to call up terror, I go out on a high place and look down. That does it. I’m also afraid of giant squid, though that’s a little harder to experience them first hand. With those giant creepy eyes they have, I don’t even have to run into a squid to get into that fear. It’s heart-pounding just to think about them.

Here’s your chance to confess and to help other writers realize the weird range of kid fear. Spill your childhood terrors!

~ Dee Garretson

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wherein Writer Cat Gets Published!

Only Writer Cat could make rejection adorable!
Number of agent rejections: 175
Number of requests for partials and fulls: 17 and 10
Number of times I rewrote the book while querying: Twice
Number of agents who offered representation: 2
Months looking for an agent: 13 months

Months it took my agent to sell NIGHTSHADE CITY: 7 weeks

I think everyone has a different story about their road to publishing, but I think almost every author could agree the process was far from easy, sometimes even painful. Sure, there are those anomalies, but still, even those required lots of hard work.

Looking back, I started querying way to early. First, I didn't have my query perfect--big mistake! I was so impatient after finally finishing the book, that my query just didn't make the mark on my first round of subs, so I racked up some serious rejections. Then I perfected my query, getting several requests for partials and fulls, but shortly after that, I realized I needed to rewrite the book, which I did--twice! The first time around it was way too long and just had to many side stories and nice little vignettes that really didn't need to be in the book--massively slowing down the pace. On the second rewrite, I realized my timeline needed an overhaul. My rats had to get from one underground city to another by way of a humans house, which (if you’re a rat) is a long chunk of travel time. The timing didn't make sense in the book and it got confusing. If you're confusing an agent as they read, just imagine how a kid will feel! So, after I completed the second rewrite, things really heated up for NIGHTSHADE CITY.

Craig Virden (Nancy Gallt's husband and former president of Random House Children's Division) was the agent I'd been wanting. I knew he was the one I wanted to represent me. We'd exchanged some funny letters. He'd requested the full and made me laugh out loud, telling me my book had more characters than a Russian novel (far less now) and even though Nancy (who'd I originally queried) is not a rat fan, he wanted to read the rest--how does this book end, he asked? This progression took about 6 months. Finally, I got a letter back from him. As much as I'd wanted good news, I knew before I even opened it; it was a rejection. It was the kindest, most inspiring rejection anyone could ever get, but a rejection even so. He said due to the current market woes (2008 economic meltdown) and competition he just couldn't take it on. You'd think I'd be broken, but I wasn't--not at all. He offered to read anything else I had "moldering" in my desk--that was the word he used. So, instead of self-pitying (which I'd become an expert at), I got to work that day on another MS I'd been waiting to finish. Then, about a month later my phone rang. I didn't recognize the area code, so normally I wouldn't have answered it, but I just had this extraordinary feeling. Yes, it was Craig Virden. He said he just couldn't stop thinking about the book and no matter the market, etc, he wanted to take it on if I was still interested...YES! So, long story short, that's how I landed my agent.

Sadly, a month later, Craig passed on. It was a horrible blow to his family and the children's publishing community at large. He was one of those remarkable men that everyone in the industry knew and loved--a truly singular person. Marietta Zacker called me immediately. She was good friends with Craig and Nancy and had just started working at Nancy Gallt as an agent. She called me right away and let me know everything was all right and most of all do not worry. Shortly thereafter, I officially signed with her. She is one of those inspiring agents that everyone in the industry should be thankful for. She answers all my emails (and I bug her a lot!) and is wonderful at touching base, even if not much is going on at a given time. Oh, and she sold NIGHTSHADE CITY in less than two months and then Book II, THE WHITE ASSASSIN (releasing this October) about 6 months later--pretty darn cool!

My Thoughts on Querying:
No one takes rejection well, so don't let anyone ever say you shouldn't be in the industry if you take rejection too personally. Who doesn't take rejection personally? We all might say we don't, but we do! At least the people I know! ;)

Don't query too soon. If your query and/or manuscript is not ready, it will show. Agents can pick out problems right away.

Before you sign with an agent do your research. Read everything you can find on them, shoot emails to a couple of their clients and get their take. You'll be surprised how honest clients are and it's not always with hugs and kisses for their agents! Also, make sure the agent is in it for the long haul, not just one book. You never want to think that your representation is only based on one manuscript, but from time to time it does happen--so ask before you sign!

Last but not least, don't take yourself too seriously OR the agents you're querying. In other words, don't be someone you're not. If you get on the phone with an agent, just be yourself, no need to try and act clever, etc. Be professional of course, but agents are just people and from what I can tell, pretty good ones, so never be afraid to be you. When you do sign with an agent, never feel like you're bothering them if there are things you need, as in questions answered, updates, sub lists, etc. They signed you after all. You're the talent! Too many writers are scared of their agent, especially if they haven't sold anything yet. If you feel intimidated or neglected by your agent, then you need to clear the air and really figure out where you stand.

Other than that, take a nice deep breath, smile and have fun! You've earned it!  

xoxo -- Hilary 

Originally posted on the childrenspublishing blog, Jan 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sometimes stealing is not so bad!

This awesome image of a fantasy freeway features a "stolen" idea: a Hot Wheels loop-de-loop. (I don't know if that is a real word, but it sounds so good that I'm not even going to try to look it up.) The result of this particular "theft" is an iconic image of real-world fun and games.

T.S. Eliot famously said, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal," which has since been paraphrased as "mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal." Is this winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature correct? Is stealing ever okay for writers, or at least not so wrong?

I'm not talking about plagiarism. I'm talking about reading Oliver Twist and thinking, wow, the character of the Artful Dodger is so great! I'm going to try to bring a character like that to life in a story.

In my view, it's perfectly acceptable ... as long as you put your pen to paper and declare (in gambler's speech) "I'm gonna take your Artful Dodger, Charles Dickens, and raise you mine!" In other words, build on the idea and make it your own. If you're lucky, the result might be a character like Spring-Heeled Jack in Paul Crilley's The Invisible Order (Egmont USA 2010), a definitely new and fresh twist on that skilled and cunning pickpocket.

Many people believe that Harry Potter wouldn't exist without Diana Wynne Jones. D.W.J. noted similarities between certain goings-on in her fantasy novels and J.K. Rowling's, and was very gracious about it. She surely knew that when a writer takes the same idea and adds something new to the mix, it contributes to a well of influence from which all sorts of fresh new fun can be drawn. After all, D.W.J. attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis while a student at Oxford, and likely "stole" from them, too.

The moment I read about Harriet M. Welsch I knew I wanted to create a character that was so strong-minded and true to her beliefs. (It took me a few years to get to it ...) There's a debt to Louise Fitzhugh in the characters in The Boy Who Howled. I did my best to build on her influence. Standing on the shoulders of giants can be a great kind of writerly tribute, when it's done to help see a new way forward.

Honor bright, now, authors! What have you "stolen," what would you LIKE to "steal," and what have you given back?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bill Peet Reforms a Reluctant Reader!

I bet a lot of these look familiar!
When I was in first grade, I had a bit of a problem, I loathed reading! I was a good reader, but I always thought it took up far too much of my valuable kid time! I'd much rather be scaling the monkey bars or playing Ghost in the Graveyard with the neighbor kids (nighttime version of tag, much more fun in the dark!).
At parent teacher conferences, much to their mortification, my parents were informed about my lack of enthusiasm when it came to reading. We had a list hanging in the classroom with everyone's name on it and a star for each book a student had finished. Let's just say my name might have been at the bottom of that dreaded list and might have had maybe one star...or possibly none at all!

Long story short, duly worried, my mother forced me to our local library. The librarian asked me what I liked. I told her I liked animals and I like going to the zoo. She said, "I have just the book for you!" She vanished into an aisle and quickly returned with a book in hand.  She handed me the book. It didn't look too long, so I liked that! It was called HUBERT'S HAIR-RAISING ADVENTURE. The cover looked crazy! There was a lion, a zebra, a rhino and something that might be a goat, all tangled up in a massive pile of legs and hooves. My interest peaked!

The book that won me over!
My fascination with books began at that moment, all thanks to famed author and illustrator, Bill Peet. His book that got me started, HUBERT'S HAIR-RAISING ADVENTURE, has been in print for 52 years (yes, I said 52)!

After that day in the library, I read every single book that Bill Peet ever created--and the list is long! I have an inkling that Bill Peet's wonderful books are a reason I love writing about animals so much today! It's amazing that one person's writing can make a child love reading and eventually writing so very much.
The Awesome Bill Peet
You can find out more about Bill Peet at I highly recommend his books for any young reader--reluctant or otherwise. His stories are absolutely relevant to today's world and could have been written yesterday! They are fun, exciting, teach great lessons about life and are beautifully illustrated by Bill Peet, covering just about any animal or creature you can think of!
A young Bill Peet sketching Dumbo for Disney

Hmmm...from reluctant reader to published author! Sounds like I've had a hair-raising adventure of my own! Okay, that was cheesy, but you know what I mean!

xoxo -- Hilary

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When we're talking series

Let's look at two of the most famous middle-grade series out there: Harry Potter, by J K Rowling, and Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer. Both are blockbusters, both are beloved by children and adults (I hope!) alike. But in terms of content, the big difference is the series' arc.

What I mean by arc is this: from the very first Harry Potterbook, the story is culminating up to the final hoedown throwdown between Harry and Voldemort. (Hey, did anyone notice that Voldy's name means "flight of death" in French? See, this is why you should be Canadian. Sorry, random side note. Back to your regular program.) Each book in Rowling's seven-part series builds up to number seven.

By contrast, the Artemis Fowl series has no arc. Each of the characters have their own arcs, yes, but plot-wise, The Arctic Incident (#2) has almost no impact on The Atlantis Complex (#7). Colfer introduces new characters with abandon and drops them with equal abandon. Anyone ever wonder, for example, what happened to Minerva from The Lost Colony (#5)? In this way, Colfer's means of sustaining his series are through the familiar characters and a lot of action. When he stops writing the Artemis Fowl series (or when he dies,not to be morbid), it's extremely likely that the series will finish open-ended -- very dissimilar to the HP series. It was said that The Time Paradox (#6) was to be the last book, before Colfer came out with #7.

Series like Magic Tree House have no arcs, because it works that way; the series's only purpose is to educate, so readers don't mind if the characters don't age. But in general, you want your series to have an arc. My thoughts? I'm betting Eoin Colfer didn't expect for his AF books to be so wildly popular (as a professional critic, I will say that he has an abundance of clich├ęs, adverbs and exclamation marks). Perhaps he's been forcing books #4 and on due to popular demand. And I won't lie -- count me in his fan base. I'm just worried for the direction his series is heading.

What do you think about series?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Back to School

I’ve been teaching English at the junior high level for twelve years.  With an eye on who my students are as readers, I realized I had some insight to share with my Project Mayhem friends. And that insight is: If you aren’t already doing it, start scheduling school visits. NOW! It’s your first step to building a loyal audience and becoming a “rock star” in the eyes of your primary demographic.

Let’s face it, young children are impressionable (witness the gazillion commercials for kids’ products during the holiday season). Add to that the fact that most parents and teachers stress the value of reading to young children, and this translates into an early interest in reading for many kids. True, that early interest wanes if the child can’t find anything of interest to read, but the point is that young readers are there for the proverbial plucking, and this is why school visits can serve as a great way to market your work and build an audience. Besides the fact that you’ll get paid for your school visit, I’d like to submit two pieces of evidence in the case of “Take Me to School vs. Heck No, I Won’t Go.” *I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on a blog.*

Exhibit “A” is the million-dollar basketball. My first two years as a teacher took place in a tiny school district and I taught in a grade 7-12 building. During a study hall, I had this seventh grader walk in holding a basketball. I asked him what he was doing with a basketball in study hall, and he responded with, “This ball is going to be worth millions.” I asked him why he thought that, holding back some laughter, and he said, “Because I just had every player on the team sign it.” I asked what team he was talking about, and he replied, “The varsity team. They’re undefeated.” I held in more laughter when I realized he really believed what he was saying. His young mind saw the school’s varsity basketball players as rock stars, capable of transforming an ordinary basketball into a million-dollar piece of memorabilia with mere signatures. Like I said, kids are impressionable.

Exhibit “B” is the Ben Mikaelsen book. A few years back, a seventh grader came up to me with a copy of Ben Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear and asked if I had read the book. I told him I hadn’t but I’d heard it was good (a common response when a student asks me about a book I haven’t read). The student quickly opened the book, pointed, and said, “Look, I got him to sign it when he came to my elementary school. He even addressed it to me! This is the best book I’ve ever read.” I was psyched to hear him say this. I mean, this was a book, not a signed basketball. It was refreshing to hear that Mikaelsen’s signature and his school visit had meant so much to my student. I actually borrowed this student’s signed copy and read it, and I really loved the book (highly recommended). The student and I talked about it many times afterwards, and all because the author had decided to visit an elementary school. Mikaelsen was a rock star to this kid.

I urge all authors to schedule school visits, especially new authors. It serves you well to do so, and if you’re looking for some tips on things you can do to make your visits productive and worthwhile, I recommend you take a look at Dan Gutman’s advice. Or, how about my fellow Mayhemers? Anyone care to share some insight? Heck, we like to be all-inclusive here at PM, so we’ll take non-Mayhemers too. What say you, people?  

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Ten-Year-Old's Wish List

My son's birthday was last week. Months ago he wrote up a wish list and stuck it on the fridge. And while it includes requests for the following:

821,265,000,000 dogs!
2 cats!
a million "Vinnila"Cokes
an Elvis wig 
and (I'm not making this up) new siblings named Sam the Horse, Spike, Pedro, and Lily,

there were also a number of books included:

Hank the Cow Dog #57: The Disappearance of Drover -- not available until mid-April
The Disappearence of Drover #57 (Hank the Cowdog)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid #6  -- next installment in this series (not yet available)

NERDS #3 -- next installment in this series (though -- you guessed it! -- not yet available)
Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat #3 -- not available until July

My son has had to make do with a few book promises and the puppy he already has. 

What series are popular with children you know?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is off limits in your MG?

Depending on your viewpoint, I think this can be a very loaded question.

Take, for instance, parents. As one myself, I've become a lot more picky about what I consider 'proper' middle grade. Very little romance. Painful stories ok, but preferably with an uplifting ending, or something that redeems the story. Funny is great, but not at the expense of others tooo much...I want books that could help her question things that others consider pro quo.

Does this directly go against what I write as a MG author? What I'd like to read as an actual middle grader?

You betcha.

I see tons of middle graders in my everyday travels. Holy guacamole let's talk about the BOY craziness. Girls. Obsessions with pop culture, and outfits. Girly stuff. And Twilight? I know 9 year olds who've read it.

But recently I read a mg I never would have picked myself and I loved it. LOVED it. And it made me question why I set those reading rules on myself. My honest short answer is that I fell into my comfort zone and just got stuck. I totally shortchanged myself.

It just goes to show that the Project Mayhem rule definitely applies: "No reading rules are the best reading rules!"

What I'd love to know is ::: what is off limits for you in your MG? Have you read a book lately that pushed your limits, made you question why you have limits in your middle grade at all?

Monday, April 4, 2011

To trailer or not to trailer?

So let's talk about book trailers.

When I first heard about the idea, I thought: Brilliant! The twelve-year-old me would have flipped to see theatrical previews of her favorite books. And a trailer is way better than seeing an adaptation for film, because, let's be honest, the book is always better than the movie.

While we're being honest, we all know there's some rough trailers out there. Cringeworthy, even. It's enough to scare me away from doing anything that won't turn out as fabulous as this:

Or how about this one?

What do you all think? What are some of your favorite MG book trailers? What makes them great? What do YOU like to see in a trailer?

I think my favorites are based around sketches. Like this:

And, out of respect for my twelve-year old cat obsessed self, I have to include the marvelous WARRIORS trailer:

Okay, my friends, it's your turn. Share your wisdom. Or some links to your favorite trailers. Or at least something to appease us cat lovers. M

Friday, April 1, 2011

Yes, You Have to Use Punctuation

That's no April Fools' Day prank—it’s the brand-spanking-new cover of Ivy and the Meanstalk, which I got to see for the first time a little over a week-and-a-half ago. I love it and just had to share! I especially love that Ivy looks a little older on this cover. Perhaps, in spite of all her efforts, she's starting to grow up, just a little :)

Now on to my blog post…

I've being hearing a lot of stories like these recently:

For many years, a friend of mine worked at a local high school. One day, an English teacher came up to her and wanted her to look at a student’s essay. “It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. My friend thought so, too. A ninth-grade student had typed the essay entirely in lower case letters and hadn’t used any punctuation—none whatsoever. Not a single period, comma, or quotation mark in the whole paper. When the teacher asked the student about this, he gave a very self-assured answer. “I’m going to be a writer,” he said, “so I don’t have to bother with punctuation. Someday I’m going to have an editor to handle all that for me.”

Another friend of mine was recently talking to a woman in her writing group. My friend was excited because she had just launched a snazzy new website to promote herself as a writer, complete with gorgeous artwork by a graphic designer pal. When she asked if the other woman had ever considered creating a website for herself, the woman replied, “Oh, that won’t be necessary. When I have an agent, they’ll take care of that for me.”

As writers, we often encounter individuals like these. Aspiring authors who, while I'm sure they're perfectly nice people, have some pretty big misconceptions about how the publishing industry works. Often these misconceptions center around the belief that writers have loads of people just waiting around to do things for them. Your sentences need punctuation? No problem—an editor will take care of that. Need a website? Bam! An agent will make one magically appear for you.

Don't get me wrong, I think my agent, editor, and publisher are pretty magical, too, but no one has yet to volunteer to pick through my manuscripts and insert periods at the end of my sentences for me :)

I'm always a little amused by aspiring authors who think that because agents and editors work hard, writers don't have to. I remember back when I worked for a small publisher specializing in non-fiction titles. One of our editors suggested to an author that a chapter would make more sense if he added a little background information at the beginning. "That's a great idea!" the (first-time) author was quick to reply via e-mail. "Let's do that." Of course, what he didn't do was actually send a revised chapter or supply any of the requested background information—he had just assumed the editor would "handle" this, even though he was the author and this was his book!

I know no followers of Project Mayhem would fall prey to this line of thinking. They understand that writing is hard work, and while there will be many wonderful, invaluable people who help on their journey to publication, much of the work falls squarely on the shoulders of the author. There are no shortcuts. So polish that manuscript carefully. Put in the time necessary to hone your skills. Want a website? Get one up there! No one is going to do it for you. Agents, editors, and publishers appreciate authors who are willing to put forth an effort.

Yes, this means you have to use punctuation.

-Dawn Lairamore