Friday, March 29, 2013

I'm Off to See the Wizard(ing World), by Matthew MacNish

photo is from Wikimedia Commons
Happy Friday, Mayhemers! My family is driving down to Orlando this weekend, and then spending three days at Universal Orlando. Apparently there are two parks, but I only care that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is part of one of them.

I cannot express how excited I am about this. J.K. Rowling, and the Harry Potter books, changed my life a bit. Cliché, I know, but it's true.

When I first bought The Sorcerer's Stone, it was because I'd seen the hype on TV, and was curious what people were so excited about. So, this was in maybe the year 2000, I bought a copy for daughter, but when I tried to read it, it seemed like too much of a children's book, and I dismissed it as beneath me.

This was at a time in my life where I was not writing, and was only reading a bit. I'd always loved reading and writing as a teenager, but had given up on it in my twenties, as the stresses of being an adult took over.

Well, I'm glad to say, once my daughter fell in love with the series, and convinced me to give it another chance, I read every single book, and loved every minute of it. In fact, it's what made me fall in love with the written word again. I used to read The Lord of the Rings every spring. I did it for like ten years in a row when I was a boy. I used to write too when I was young. Poetry, song lyrics, short stories, whatever came to mind, really, but I stopped all of it when I grew up. I'm not really sure why, but it doesn't matter now.

After reading Harry Potter, I remembered the magic of storytelling. I started writing seriously, as in trying to become a published novelist, maybe 5 years ago. I won't recount every detail of that journey here, and some of it is available in other places anyway, but I will just say that, short of meeting J.K. Rowling, visiting Hogwart's seems like the most excellent way to celebrate.

What about you all? Did you ever forget your love of words, or were you always clear about your passion?

Anyway, have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chris Eboch on Self-Publishing and Middle Grade Novels: Should You or Shouldn't You?

Yesterday I discussed self-publishing as it applies to children’s books, sharing my experiences as both a traditionally- and self-published author, and mentioning some of the challenges and benefits to self-publishing for middle grade readers. Let’s continue the analysis.

Back in Print

Self-publishing can be especially appealing to authors with out-of-print books. Even if sales are low, you have the satisfaction of knowing the books are still available, and you can bring copies to sell at school visits. In addition, if you have 10 backlist books each earning $500 a year, that adds up. You may have to have the book scanned or re-typed, though, if you don’t have the final digital version. New art and book design also add costs, unless you can get permission to use the originals.

I also know several authors who are interested in continuing series dropped by their publishers. Fantasy novelist Joni Sensel published the third book in her Farwalker’s Quest trilogy, The Skeleton’s Knife. She cared less about sales numbers than about making the book available to her fans and finishing the story she started to tell. Still, she recently reported that sales had significantly exceeded her (low) expectations. She is still pursuing traditional publication, but also considering self-publishing new works that may not be high concept enough to interest a publisher. 

I recently published the fourth book in my Haunted series, about a brother and sister traveling with a ghost hunter TV show. I had written The Ghost Miner’s Treasure before there was a changeover at the publisher and they dropped the series. In the week before I released it, I had e-mails from a librarian, a teacher, and a kid, all asking where book 4 was. Having the first three books traditionally published is like free advertising for the fourth.

As a side note, my best indie moneymaker so far is Advanced Plotting. Since I have some reputation among children’s book writers as a workshop leader and critiquer, I drew on those contacts for sales and publicity. Although the book hasn’t sold as many copies as The Eyes of Pharaoh (209 e-books and 102 POD in 2012), it’s priced higher and thus has a higher profit margin. People are used to paying more for a writing guide than for a paperback novel, so at $10 print, $5 e-book, this seems like a bargain.

Good questions to ask yourself if you are considering self-publishing are: Who is my audience and how will I reach them? What’s the competition and will readers want my book instead of/in addition to others available? How will I price this book, given production costs and perceived market value?

What the Future Holds…

I don’t think the choice between traditional and indie publishing is clear right now. A good contract with a publisher definitely has its advantages, if they can get your book into schools and libraries. However, I expect the balance to shift in the next few years, as self-publishing becomes more accepted; review journals and blogs help people find the best books; and e-readers become more common for all ages (the latter is important because e-books can be priced much lower than print, encouraging readers to take a chance on an unknown author, and hopefully increasing book sales overall).

So what to do? People who successfully self-publish may wind up earning more money per book in the long run, because of higher royalties. They may also be able to release more books more quickly, avoiding publishers’ two- to five-year lead times, and publish books that publishers may not believe are marketable. (You can find plenty of examples of publishers being wrong about this.)

On the other hand, self-publishing requires an enormous amount of time, and the learning curve can be steep, especially for those who are not technically adept. (You can download my Indie Publishing Worksheet from my website, for an overview of what is involved.) Many authors do not want to handle the production and marketing side of publishing; they want to be writers rather than businesspeople (although every author who hopes for publication should really be both).

Self-publishing can be expensive, especially if you do it right, which typically means hiring a professional editor, proofreader, cover artist and book designer. Publishing books that are not yet ready for prime time can damage your reputation and waste your money.

Plus, self published authors have the most success when they have multiple books out – like more than five – because each book advertises the others. If you only have one or two polished manuscripts, it may be better to submit them traditionally while you produce new work. You could hold onto your manuscript and plan to release them in the future, but keeping your rights has to be balanced against starting to build a fan base now (and maybe getting some advance money so you can afford the time to write more books).

These are tough questions, and no one path is right for everyone. The typical author of the future may be a hybrid – releasing some books traditionally and others independently. Though indie publishing may not be the best answer for everyone (especially with children’s books), it’s opening new avenues. That’s good for authors, so long as we study the possibilities and make smart decisions. 

See Chris Eboch’s children’s books on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Smashwords.
See Kris Bock’s romantic suspense books on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

Who Should Self Publish:
• Traditionally published authors who want to make out-of-print titles available again.
• Published authors who wish to release books in a series that a publisher has dropped.
• Professional writers who have a book that doesn’t suit the current market, but may still find a modest audience.
• People who have a marketing platform for distributing their books, e.g. they do a lot of speaking on a professional topic and can sell books at their talks (best for nonfiction).
• Amateur writers who want to make a title available in print form for their family, such as memoirs or family genealogy, or a child’s favorite story.
• First-time authors who have studied writing for several years and gotten professional feedback on their manuscript, who also:
• want complete control of the publishing process
• prefer the work of self-publishing to the work of researching and querying publishers
• enjoy marketing and have experience with it
• and/or feel they don’t have time to wait on the traditional publishing industry

  • You retain all rights to your work. You can earn more per copy sold.
  • You get to make decisions about cover art, pricing, contentbasically everything.
  • If the book does extremely well, you may interest a traditional publisher.
  • You get to see your book in print in a few months, instead of several years if ever.
  • You get no advance. You may sell few copies and make hardly any moneyever.
  • You have to make all the decisions about cover art, pricing, contentbasically everything.
  • A poorly written/edited/designed book can hurt your reputation as an author.
  • To produce a professional-quality book, you will have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars and dozens or hundreds of hours of time. You have no marketing support from a publisher.
  • Your book will not be available in bookstores. Self published books don’t count toward membership in most professional organizations. Many conferences won’t let you sell them in the bookstore.

Helpful blogs on self-publishing:

Susan Kaye Quinn has posts on the indie publishing business, with a focus on writing for young people
The Writers Guide to E-Publishing has many resources and tips
David Gaughran has an article on Self-Publishing Basics, with links to other articles and information
Top Ten Self-Publishing Blogs of 2012, from The Future of Ink.
ebookery:101, downloadable from, is user-friendly with lots of images, showing what ebooks look like, how they function, etc.  

Haunted: The Ghost Miner’s Treasure ebook is discounted to 99 cents today through Friday at AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Jon and Tania are traveling with the ghost hunter TV show again, this time to the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, where the ghost of an old miner is still looking for his lost mine. The siblings want to help him move on—but to help him resolve the problem keeping him here, they’ll have to find the mine. And even then, the old ghost may be having too much fun to leave! It’s a good thing Tania can see and talk to him, because the kids will need his help to survive the rigors of a mule train through the desert, a flash flood, and a suspicious treasure hunter who wants the gold mine for himself.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Author Choices: Traditional, Self-Publishing, or Hybrid

As Chris Eboch, I’ve been publishing children’s books since 1999, when my first novel, The Well of Sacrifice was released. Two years ago, I started writing romantic suspense for adults under the name Kris Bock. For various reasons, I decide to self-publish those books. (I won’t explain why here, but I’ve blogged about it before.)

While self-publishing seemed like a good choice for Kris Bock, romantic suspense writer, things aren’t quite so simple for Chris Eboch, children’s book writer. Young adult novels – aimed at teenagers with crossover potential for adult readership – have had indie success (Amanda Hocking sound familiar?). However, I haven’t heard of any breakout books for authors writing for middle grade kids.

For one thing, print is still king for kids. Younger kids are less likely to have their own e-readers, though that is changing as parents get the latest version and give their hand-me-downs to the kids. Some schools are also transitioning toward giving upper elementary and middle school children laptops or e-readers for classroom use. As more children get access to e-readers and get into the habit of using them, electronic book sales will grow. (And as color readers get cheaper, even younger children who primarily read illustrated books will join the trend.)

Jeremy Greenfield of Digital Book World has written about e-books for children a lot; find some links to his post here: The Future of Children’s Books.

Another challenge for indie writers is reaching children. Children’s book publishing has long depended largely on school and library sales. Librarians and teachers often read review journals for guidance. Plus, schools are limited in how they can order books for the classroom. (Although some teachers use their own money for classroom books.)

Illustrated books face additional challenges. Hiring a talented illustrator is expensive. Print on demand costs skyrocket for books with color interior illustrations. Even with novels, children’s books are more likely to need illustrated covers rather than cheaper covers using stock photography.

That’s not to say children’s book writers aren’t interested in indie publishing. I’ve heard a lot of curiosity, and some authors are diving in. After all, it’s better to be ahead of the wave than behind it.
 Teachers Say Yes, Publishers Say No

I had a middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt. The story had gotten great feedback from publishers, along with either “Historical fiction isn’t selling well” or “We already have an Egypt book.” And yet several teachers told me they wished I’d get the book published, so they could use in the classroom.

I sensed a market that publishers weren’t recognizing. And I had a manuscript I loved that wasn’t doing anything but sitting on my computer.

I traded a manuscript critique for professional proofreading and another critique for fully illustrated cover art and design from artist Lois Bradley. I know enough about design to do the interior layout for print on demand myself. Within two months of making the decision, I brought out The Eyes of Pharaoh in POD and e-book versions.

The Well of Sacrifice, an adventure set in ninth-century Mayan Guatemala, is used in many schools when they teach the Maya in fourth grade. I’ve done school visits or had other contact with some of those teachers, so I let them know about the new book. One e-mailed back that she’d ordered six copies for her lit circles. Most teachers still want print books for the classroom. That may be one reason why print on demand has sold substantially better than the e-book for The Eyes of Pharaoh (330 print copies versus 67 e-books in 2012).

If teachers find that The Eyes of Pharaoh works well in the classroom, they’ll tell others, so this book could gain popularity slowly, by word of mouth. Plus, many kids love ancient Egypt. If they go looking for books on the subject, they might find mine. There are a few other Egypt novels out there (though not as many as publishers imply), but the niche isn’t as crowded as, say, fantasy novels. It would probably be harder to gain attention for a self-published book that had more competition, from an unknown author.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a discussion of bringing books back in print, what the future holds, who should – and probably shouldn’t – self-publish, plus resources.

Haunted: The Ghost Miner’s Treasure ebook is discounted to 99 cents today through Friday at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Jon and Tania are traveling with the ghost hunter TV show again, this time to the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, where the ghost of an old miner is still looking for his lost mine. The siblings want to help him move on—but to help him resolve the problem keeping him here, they’ll have to find the mine. And even then, the old ghost may be having too much fun to leave! It’s a good thing Tania can see and talk to him, because the kids will need his help to survive the rigors of a mule train through the desert, a flash flood, and a suspicious treasure hunter who wants the gold mine for himself.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Writing Life: On Pushing Through

For those of you who have read my posts here or on my own blog, Caroline by line, you've probably noticed a certain theme -- I find writing hard. Sometimes I feel like a high diver who is afraid of heights. Don't get me wrong: I love what I do and am so fortunate to be an author (I mean, pinch me!). But almost daily there are challenges I face in this writing gig, and almost all of them come from within.

That's why I surround myself with things like this.
The lines about making good art are notes I took while listening to Neil Gaiman give the commencement address at The University of the Arts. 14 Ways to Make Mediocre Art comes from Emily Freeman at Chatting at the Sky (get your own cool copy here). The framed note I received in a packet of thank you letters after a school visit. "It's okay to be scared to write," it says. "I am too!"

To the right of my desk I've pinned this quote on the wall:
“Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.
And when you work on your writing remember these things. Work with all your intellegence and love. Work freely and rollickingly as though talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally thumb your nose at the know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.”  -- IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, Barbara Ueland
Then there is this mini-poster I made, a response to all the thoughts rolling around in my head during my debut year. (Email me if you'd like your own copy!)
And other quotes I gather like sea shells, to pull out and examine when I need a boost:
"To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have. Art work is ordinary work, but it takes courage to embrace that work, and wisdom to mediate the interplay of art and fear." -- ART AND FEAR: OBSERVATIONS ON THE PERILS (AND REWARDS) OF ARTMAKING, by David Bayles and Ted Orland
"I am convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing... . Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as 'good' and others sorts as 'bad,' is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools [words] you plan to work with." -- ON WRITING, Stephen King 
"Be an unstoppable force. Write with an imaginary machete strapped to your thigh. This is not wishy-washy, polite, drinking-tea-with-your-pinkie-sticking-out stuff. It’s who you want to be, your most powerful self. Write your books. Finish them, then make them better. Find the way. No one will make this dream come true for you but you." -- Laini Taylor
"Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything." -- LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET, Rainer Maria Rilke 
How do you encourage yourself when writing is hard?

Monday, March 25, 2013

What the Kids Say ...

THE most important factor in book choice for MG readers:
the cover synopsis

A few weeks ago, Matt McNish posted about first lines. And he got me wondering: How important are first lines to MG readers?

Since I have a captive audience of MG readers every day, I decided to find out. I divided my class into discussion groups, gave them a stack of unfamiliar books, and asked what factors were most important in deciding whether or not to read any of them.

I specifically asked them to consider the first sentence, first paragraph, and first page. In spite of this, every group focused on the back cover or dust jacket. They had to be reminded to open the book and look inside before answering – even though that was part of their directions – because the cover blurb was the deciding factor for them.

A few students were more reflective. “You should really look inside,” Alexa said. “I wasn’t very interested in this one, from the back cover, but the first page is really interesting. I might read this.”

The Kiss of Death: no synopsis, only review blurbs.
Or worse -- nothing at all!
But in each group, the decision to start reading was almost always based on the blurb.  Not so much the front cover, which surprised me. “Covers don’t always show what the book’s about,” Grace said. “But the back of the book tells you the problem in the story, which is what I want to know.”

I asked how important the first page was in determining whether the students continued reading. If they weren’t hooked by the first page, did they keep going?  Some did not.

“I want some action on the first page,” Zoe admitted.

“I’ll give it till page two,” Grace said with a laugh. “And then I’m done.”

“If I don’t like the first chapter, I’ll skip to the next one,” Mike said.

Grace challenged him on that. “You mean, go back and read it later?”

“Nope,” said Mike with a grin. “Just skip it. I know I’m not supposed to.” He shrugged unapologetically.

But most students said they would not quit if the first page didn’t hook them; they’d keep reading further – a chapter or two at least. “Unless there are too many words I don’t know on the first page,” Chris clarified. “Then the book might be too hard for me.”

Josh added, “I always look to make sure there aren’t too many strange names and places and words in the beginning.”  I pointed out that Josh reads almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy. Aren’t they full of strange names and places and words? “Yeah, but too many in the beginning is just confusing,” Josh said. “I want to learn them a little at a time.”

Owen asked his group if they would read a book because of the author or because it won an award. The answer was yes for an author they liked – Andrew Clements and Gordon Korman were mentioned – but an award sticker was not as respected. “They give awards because the book is ‘heartwarming,’” said Zoe, using air quotes to make her point. “And then it’ll have no action in it.”

So – the message for writers? Make sure your opening pages are engaging and don’t dump too many strange things in the beginning. But you absolutely need a cover synopsis that’s a grabber. Even though the author doesn’t usually write that, (unless he or she is self-publishing), make sure the publisher is putting as much effort into that summary as they do on the front cover design.

Don’t worry if you don’t have an award sticker. Kids don’t care. And if you happen to be Andrew Clements or Gordon Korman, you’re golden.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Keeping sight of your story

You know those pesky Shiny New Ideas? The ones that pop up while you're supposed to be revising your current WIP, tantalizing as heck and glittering with potential? Well, I think one of the main reasons that they're so shiny is because they seem perfect. As though if only you could get your words down, you'd be able to craft a masterpiece from this idea.

This happened to me a while back: I was reading my sister's fantasy adventure comic, and I thought: I want to write an epic fantasy adventure like this. And it gripped me. Not the plot of her comic, but the concept of writing a sweeping fantasy where magic was used as part of modern life. I wanted to make it as epic and fun as the illustration style of the comic panels showed.

So I started writing. I fleshed out character and central conflicts and themes, but as I continued writing, the fun started to seep out. I began getting bogged down in plot wrinkles and relationships. And I think I lost what drew me to write the story in the first place.

In fact, when I thought of my sister's comic again, I was surprised to find how off my story felt. It didn't seem to be heading in that sweeping fantasy direction I wanted, and that was why it no longer felt fun. So I outlined a few scenes that would capture the essence I was trying to achieve. A fight scene; a market scene for worldbuilding; the climax, an ultimate display of girl-power.

And I think I've found my story again. I've found what made me want to write it in the first place.

It's vitally important to hold onto the essence of your story, to keep sight of the ideal. Even if it doesn't quite reach the perfection you imagined, you'll only get there by trying.

Has this happened to you before? How do you keep sight of your story?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How the story goes


Okay, so here we are- a pack of writers. And, as we know, what we do is write. And as most of us are somewhere in the middle of a project, getting to participate here at Project Middle Grade Mayhem is a treat and a diversion. I thought it might be fun to collectively write a story. Just something a little different. Here’s the idea…

I will start the story. Then, for comments, whoever arrives next will write the next installment. It can be a sentence or a paragraph or a page. Even a word can change the direction of the story. And a word often does (especially if it’s misspelled but that’s another story entirely, right guys?!) (that’s an interrobang)
To make it a little challenging, let’s have a few random words. Like strange ingredients in cooking competitions, I’m going to pull out some odd words that, for each installment, one or more from the list must be included.

I’m not sure where this is headed…then again, none of us are. But I hope you’re with me for a kooky ride.

Here we go:


Treasure map
Nose hair
Fairy soap
Unfinished business
Dog walker
Tomato sandwich
Bedroom slipper
Cotton wool
Let the games begin…

“I don’t even know what that is," Ingrid insisted, staring at the wooden bucket and the pile of sticks.
“I got a really great deal on it, Ingrid,” Beau insisted, “It’s an ancient device for pulling water from a well. There was this guy-”
“We don’t have a well, Beau, “ Ingrid said, wondering why she had sent her brother to the store in the first place.
“We don’t really need one,” Beau said, afraid to look at the pile of sticks because he knew they would now look as stupid to him as they did to Ingrid, “ We can have it set up as like an art thing. It’s really cool.”
“Do you know how to put it together?” Ingrid was running the various scenarios through her head that included this pile sitting in the back yard until their parents got back from lampshade designers convention next week.
“Yeah, well,” Beau scratched his elbow, then quickly stopped because he knew his sister would recognize that as a delay tactic and a sign of weakness, “The guy explained it to me. It should be easy.”
Ingrid raised her eyebrow. Beau was not good with his hands. And he never listened. And he had a terrible memory. “What’s it called?”
“Shadoof,” said Beau, smiling.
Ingrid scowled, “What did you call me?”
“It’s a shadoof,” he added, “It’s an ancient sort of pulley system water collector thing. This one is from ancient Egypt.”
“You are such a loser, Beau,” groaned Ingrid. She sent him to get some cleaning supplies so they help could get the house in order. The family had only been living there two weeks when their parents had to leave for work. At fifteen, Ingrid felt like she could easily stay on her own. But, at fifteen, her brother Beau was an idiot. “How much was it?”
“I’ll put it together,” said Beau, the lump growing in his throat.
He bent down and picked up two of the sticks. The problem was, no two sticks seemed to be the same size. He looked up at Ingrid and smiled, sheepishly. “Let’s build it and have some fun,” he suggested.
Ingrid kicked the small bucket towards her brother. He grabbed for it but it rolled through his legs and hit the tree by the back door. The bottom fell out.
“Now you’ve broken it,” grumbled Beau as he reached for the two parts of the bucket.
He picked up the piece with the handle first. Something fell out. It was a very old and yellowed scroll. Was it stuck in the bucket?
Look at this,” he said, walking over to his sister...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Well, it’s official.  I’ve unplugged.  I’m offline.  Checked out.  Whatever you want to call it.  I’ve dropped wifi at home, gone cell-free, and recently installed a corded phone, much to the delight and wonder of my boys.  I now live back in 1991.  And guess what?  I.  Love.  It.

Why on earth might I be posting about this on Project Mayhem?  Because it’s done wonders for my writing and reading life, among other things.  I read nine books last month, y’all.  Eight in January.  I don’t think I’ve read that regularly since middle-grade days when I was working toward the library’s summer-reading prizes.  I’m hitting writing goals on my new project with ease, and I’m much less constrained by all the external (though well-loved) voices of readers, reviewers, other writers, blogs, articles, op-ed pieces, forum posts…you get the idea.  Creative work is less stressful and rushed, and when I sit down to write, I no longer battle the siren’s call of Twitter and that latest Goodreads scandal.

I don’t have to tell you that there are so many voices daily competing for our attention– on both sides of the laptop screen.  I realized that I needed to do something different after I was glued to my computer in the weeks leading up to my debut release.  My rising stress level corresponded with my newfound ability to obsess online about my book: how it was doing, how readers were responding, and could I do more?  Fill in the blank with other components of my life that were becoming inextricably dependent on being online (parenting blogs, driving directions, recipe ideas, the inevitable Web-MD), and the internet was becoming very much the invasive all-present stream of chatter so well-described in M.T. Anderson’s YA novel, FEED.  Around that time I also read an interesting article suggesting that we have little idea of the mental health implications of constant connectivity.  I realized that I’d only had internet in my home for about seven years (as opposed to the quarter-of-a-century that came before), but, even so, I couldn’t imagine life without it.

I don’t want to go all extreme on you.  Many elements of being online are great.  The instant access to a wealth of information.  The constant connectivity that makes the life of a writer (and stay-at-home-parent!) seem much less lonely.  Meeting so many fascinating people who share my interests.  You fill in the blank.  There are so many good things.  I love the internet.  That was my problem.  One of my 2013 New Year’s Resolutions was to unplug, and I first started with axing wifi at home.  But having cell-only internet access just ended with my spending more time grumbling at the poor Facebook mobile options and rubbing my neck, which was now permanently cramped from being hunched over my cell.   For me, it was all or nothing, and I now am living in Luddite paradise. 

Think you might want to join me back in the early ‘90s?  Some things I’ve learned along the way for being unplugged and yet still realistically engaging the world as we know it:

Figure out the absolute essentials you need to do online and schedule time for them.  For me, that means Monday-Friday, I set aside about half-an-hour to read e-mail and respond to time-sensitive requests.  I also use this time to scan my twitter lists and facebook updates, which I’ve sorted into a manageable circle of close friends.  I winnowed my blog reading down to two or three (of course, Project Mayhem is one!) that I read weekly.  I block off a couple of hours on Saturdays to catch up on anything else that I can’t fit into my internet-speed sessions (like scheduling this blog post).  I am lucky enough to have free wifi less than a mile away (yes, that’s me, checking e-mail in my car in the grocery store parking lot), and a public library very close to my house.

Consider other ways to remain connected.  I subscribe to the daily paper (I love the ritual of shuffling out in PJs to get it every morning), schedule weekly phone calls with good friends (which has been wonderful for some relationships that were stagnating with quick e-mail updates), write letters (gasp!) and actually use the yellow pages (ha!).  I have been astonished at the space I now have in my evenings, which is great for my family and friends, and I’m now actually doing a lot of the projects I was before only pinning.

Let other people know you might be online less.  I make it a goal to respond to important business-related e-mails within 24 hours, but I told other friends that if they needed me urgently, they should call.  Not being constantly available has been magical.  So has the freedom that comes with the realization that there’s a lot I don’t actually need to keep up with that before I felt compelled to read, respond to, or follow. 

Enjoy the quiet.  Sit outside more.  Multitask less.  Eat without a screen in front of you.  Respond to the need in front of you rather than the perceived virtual need.  Go for a walk without an electronic device.  Breathe.

Unplugging may not be for everyone, but it’s important to consider it as a viable option.  Challenge yourself with a day or a week offline.  See what you think.  And in one of your quick speed-internet sessions at the library, come back here and tell me how it went.  I’ll respond in a week or two.  ;)

What say you, Mayhemers?  Have you ever unplugged?  Do you feel constrained or liberated by constant online access?  How does being online affect your creativity?  Your life as a reader?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Let Poetry Energize Your Prose

In order to grow as a writer you have to be willing to journey to strange places, unfamiliar territory.  For many fiction writers, the world of poetry feels like a distant realm, often unreachable.  Many of us have been trained to believe that there is towering wall that separates poetry and prose.  You’re on one side or the other.  Scaling that wall is harder than climbing Everest.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

That wall is roughly as tall as a french fry.  Even I could climb over a french fry, as long as I wasn’t trying to eat it at the same time.  When you climb the wall and enter the realm of poetry, you will soon realize that the fruit on the trees will feed your voice as a fiction writer.  The papaya made out of poetry is extremely tasty when served in the middle of a landscape description or during a particularly poignant moment in your book.  Squeezing a poetry lime on a novel will bring out the flavor of any dish you might be preparing in the kitchen of prose. 

One need not write poetry to feast on its fruits.  You can simply read poems in order to strengthen your voice, learning invaluable lessons about compression and clarity and color and verve.  Keats, Yeats, Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop are waiting for you at the library.  They’re eager to help you on your journey.  So what are you waiting for?  Go for it!

Friday, March 15, 2013

How to Get Writer's Block in 63 Easy Steps by Lee Wardlaw


Allow your Inner Critic (I.C.) to squeeze beside you in your desk chair and hog the right armrest.

Reread what you wrote yesterday. Listen to the I.C.’s eyeballs as they roll with condescension and contempt. 

Listen to and believe the I.C. when she utters the following comments:

That last page (paragraph, sentence, word, font) sucked olives!

You're an embarrassment to all middle grade writers and readers!

How on EARTH did you ever get published writing this kind of diaper residue?

I mean, REALLY.

You will NEVER complete a middle grade novel again.

You will NEVER come up with a good idea for a middle grade novel again.

You. Will. Never. PERIOD.

Attempt to revise.  Listen to the I.C. yawn. (Oh, man! The ultimate insult!  Your work no only sucks, it BORES!)
Allow the I.C. to hog both armrests. She's in total control now.

Worry what your agent will think of your book.

Worry what your editor will think of your book.

And let's not forget Sales, Marketing, and Publicity.
Worry what reviewers will say about your book.

 Throw in anxiety about librarians, teachers, parents, bloggers and - - oh yeah! - - 
your readers.

And your mom.  She used to be SO proud. Now she says things like:  "Are you working on anything new these days?"

Fret that she'll die before you publish another book.

Fret that you will die before you publish another book.

Or if you do (write another book, not die) you'll sell so few copies that it will go O.P. in about twenty minutes and you'll have to buy up all the remainders.

And they'll sit in unopened boxes, stacked in a damp corner of your garage, for the next 25 years, allowing brazen, burly rats the opportunity to gnaw their way through the cardboard and into the books' yellowing pages, where they (the rats, not the pages) will make nests for their disease-carrying, wormy-white babies between the lines of your precious but hackneyed prose.

Worry that your editor will stop returning your phone calls.  Or start bouncing
            your emails.  Or both.

And schools, libraries, bookstores, parent groups, etc., will cease to invite you to
            speak at their events.

Causing your income to dry up.

And what little income you DO make, will go toward feeding the 42 cats that now inhabit your house because you: a.) have become a crazy cat lady who goes out in public wearing feline pajamas and curlers in your hair; and b.) desperately need cats to hunt the rats
that are spreading The Black Death in your garage - and beyond.
 Snap out of it!  Start over. Just write one page.  One paragraph. One sentence.  
             You can do that, can’t you?  Just. One. Sentence.

 But what if that sentence doesn’t hook the reader? What if it doesn’t wow ‘em 
What if it isn’t P.E.R.F.E.C.T.?

Maybe you should change that adjective. And this verb here. Yes, that's better. Okay,
now write the second sentence.

Read both sentences out loud. To the cat.

Think: That second sentence is even worse than the first sentence! 

 Stare at the computer screen. Be unable to write a third sentence until you get the first
two Just. Right.

Revise vigorously.

Reread and revise again.

Grow sleepy.

And bored.


Check your email.

Check your Facebook status.

And your sales figures on Amazon.
Sonofahamster! Sales have plummeted in the last ten minutes! You’d better get
busy writing that new book and selling it ASAP, otherwise everyone in the world will
forget you’re a writer.

But first, fetch a snack.

Return to your desk. Discover the cat has confiscated your chair. 

Print out a copy of those first two sentences. 
Take the copy and your notebook to a different location.

Perhaps the couch. What with the cat and the I.C., that desk chair was way too crowded,

 Wait – where’s your special green pen?  The I.C. insists you can’t write without your SGP!
Spend ten minutes looking for the SGP.

Find it. (Under the cat.)  Sonofasecondhamster!  It’s out of ink!  (The pen, not the
cat.)  You simply cannot write with a black pen.  No-no. Must. Be. Green.

Find another green pen.

Copy those first two sentences into your notebook.

 Analyze and dislike your cursive handwriting.

Rip out the page, wad it up, and throw it across the room into the trash.


 Get up and retrieve the wadded page.

Aim and throw it again. Three more times. (Miss all three.)

The cat thinks you’ve invented a new game.  Play ‘Throw Little Wads of Crinkly Paper All Over the Room So the Cat Can Chase Them Until He Gets Bored’ for  
fifteen minutes.

Try to ignore the I.C. when she says: “You just wasted fifteen minutes playing with
the cat instead of writing your novel – maiming at least a couple of trees in the
process by throwing away perfectly good paper. You are pathetic!”

Argue, “Well, the cat doesn’t get enough exercise because I’m always too busy not
         writing to play kitty games!  And speaking of trees, just look at him! He’s so out of shape, he resembles a furry log!”

Think the word ‘log’ sounds funny.

Think that it rhymes with all sorts of funny-sounding words, like frog, grog, hog, bog,

 BLOG! You completely forgot you have a blog post due tomorrow on PROJECT MAYHEM!


Be struck by a grand idea.

Ignore the I.C.’s sputtering, indignant protests and noisy eye-rolling.

Push the I.C. out of your chair and type up a list of everything thing you’ve done this
morning to encourage writer’s block.

Schedule the list to be posted on PROJECT MAYHEM.

Pat yourself on the back. Pat the cat, too. Count both as 'playtime'.
Worry about getting Writer’s Block again tomorrow.

Break for lunch.