Friday, January 28, 2011

In Which I Spill My Sekrits

But not here. Gotcha!

Okay, seriously now: I'm being interviewed today! Woo-hoo!

The lovely Michelle Merrill is interviewing me today on her faboo blog, Perfecting the Craft. So, head on over there for some fun questions. (Also, if no-one comments, I'll feel like a doob. So, please, brighten my day and go comment on my interview!)

And don't forget to enter my One-Line Pitch Contest in yesterday's post to win a query/first 5/picture book critique!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

One-Line Pitch: Don't Leave Home Without It, and a Contest!

The SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC (and yes, you can just show up on Saturday and register as a walk-in!) kicks off tomorrow with the writer's and illustrator's intensives, and I am EXCITED! And one thing every writer - whether you're attending the conference or not - needs to have ready is a one-sentence pitch for their book.

But how can I condense my whole, complicated, 70,000-word book into one sentence, you ask?

Well, let me show you.

First, take out a piece of paper and write on it three headings: Main Character, Conflict, Stakes/Resolution. So for example, for one of the picture books I'm pitching, I've written: Penelope, huge hair overshadows all her achievements, figures out how to do something even bigger than her hair.

Then you just connect them all together:

PENELOPE'S HAIRY PREDICAMENT is about a kid who hates that her huge hair overshadows everything else she does, so after several failed attempts to make it less noticeable, she finally figures out how to out-do her own 'do.

Remember: it's one line. There's no room - and no need - for subplots and secondary characters. Focus on the heart.

Which brings me to the contest!

Post your one-line pitch in the comments below by MIDNIGHT on FEBRUARY 4th, and my favorite will win a query critique OR first 5 pages critique OR full picture book manuscript critique by yours truly.

If I get more than 50 entries, I'll offer TWO PRIZES! So, tweet and blog away! (Although this is a contest, so you won't get any extra entries for tweeting or blogging, but you WILL double the amount of prizes, thus increasing your chances of winning something.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Re-Post: On Critique

I'll be attending the Writers' Intensive sessions at the SCBWI Winter Conference this Friday (and while the writers' intensive is full, you an still register for the rest of the conference), and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get and give some in-depth critique. In light of that, I dug up this post from last August, which pretty much sums up my feelings about the whole process. Enjoy.

When I first started writing with the goal of eventually getting paid for it, I thought this meant that I'd be doing lots and lots of writing. I was right, in a way - I am doing lots, and lots, and LOTS of writing. But there's something I do even more of than that: critiquing. The art of giving and getting feedback is an integral and essential part of being a writer, and lately, I've been doing a lot of both.

And it is an art! In the past few days, I've been reminded of a couple of the finer points. Namely:

- Modesty. No-one is the be-all and end-all of publishing, and nothing grates more than critiquers who think (or sound like they think) they are. Your opinions are only your own, and it doesn't hurt to say so in your feedback. Equally, don't ask for critique when what you really want is praise. Which brings me to:

- Readiness. The person who asks for feedback and then argues with their critiquers will not have critiquers for very long. If you're still so attached to your manusript that you can't see how someone else's ideas can improve it, then you're not ready to receive critique. Which brings me to:

- Generosity, or as I like to say to my kids, "Do Unto Others". Offer honest critique, and you will get honest critique. Don't ask for feedback unless you're willing to reciprocate. Which brings me to:

- Moderation. An avalanche of edits, however well-intentioned, is still an avalanche. Choose the most important, most glaring things to point out. Too much negative can be overwhelming. Which brings me to:

- Balance. No manuscript, no matter how awful, has nothing redeeming about it. Find the good in each piece, and praise it.

Now, go forth and critique!

And thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Revision, Ishta Style

It's a Tuesday post, guys! And you know what that means: it means there's a lot to talk about this week!

First up, revision.

I actually love revision. It's where the real crafting of a story happens. The shiny new idea stage is lovely too, of course, but then when you're sitting there banging out your rough draft, the reality of how much work it's going to take to make this idea publishable sinks in and things start to feel a little tedious after a while. But revision! That's the good part.

So, with the SCBWI Winter Conference a mere 3 days away, here are my top tips on revision.

First, if you don't have a critique partner or group (or both), for the love of print, get one. No-one can critique your work better than someone other than you and your friends/relatives/fan club. And listen to them. Don't change everything - that gets complicated when you get differing opinions - but definitely give each point due consideration and really think about what will be best for your story. You can find crit partners in the Verla Kay forums, on the SCBWI forums, and in many other places.

Second, assuming you do have crit buddies, know this before you send your work to them: if there's something about your work that you're wondering if you need to change, you probably do. In other words, don't waste a critique opportunity confirming what you already know. If it's niggling at you, if you're not really sure, or even if you flat out know you need to fix it, take care of it before your critters see it. Use them for when you really can't think of a way to improve, or for when you know you need to change something but can't for the life of you figure out what it is. But don't think you can get away with leaving something in there that you kinda-sorta aren't quite sure about. Because that's the stuff of form rejections.

Third, don't be afraid to try everything. When I have ideas for three or more versions of the same moment and I can't figure out which one is better, I write them all. Then, I print them and lay them out and compare them. Which brings me to:

Fourth, which is that sometimes you just need to see it in print. Even though it's good to save paper, sometimes, if you're like me, saving those trees happens at the expense of making your story as good as it should be. Print on both sides if you have to, but don't be afraid to print it when you need to get that sense of pacing or flow.

Fifth, revision actually starts in the drafting stage for me. I never turn off my internal editor. I let her talk as much as she wants, and whenever she talks, I show her I'm listening by making a note on the side or in the body of my MS in italics. We have a mutual respect for each other, and a collaborative relationship. (Which might be just a little unhealthy, since my internal editor is basically me and I'm talking as if it's someone else, but... I write books. You write books. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. We can be crazy together, right?)

And finally, my sixth tip: when all else fails, take a shower. Or a nap. Or a walk. But get away from it. When you're in the depths of revision, and you hit that wall, try turning off the computer and letting your mind rest for  an hour or so. You'd be surprised how refreshed you'll feel when you come back to it.

How about you? What's your top revision tip?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Top Ten Countdown: Music Blogfest!

Happy Monday! To kick-start the week - as if we didn't have enough to talk about with the SCBWI Winter Conference in NEW YORK coming up (yes, you can still register!) - I'm participating in Alex Cavanaugh's blogfest today! In which you learn about ten of my most favorite songs EVER. (And in honor of the SCBWI conference, I'm going to be posting EVERY DAY between now and Friday - so buckle up and get your pencils ready, because we're going to be talking about some great writerly stuff like pitches and revision and critique. It's going to be awesome.)

Incidentally, some of these songs you might never have heard of, so please follow the links and check them out. And now, without further ado and in no particular order, I give you...


1) Praying for Time, by the gorgeous and talented George Michael. This song was so prescient, and is so timeless and true. He is so right on with this song, it makes me cry. And, it's a beautiful song.

2) Short Trip Home, by Edgar Meyer, played by the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell. This song lifts me up.

3) Under Pressure, by the amazing David Bowie and the immortal Queen. This song captures the essence of its title with its words, but keeps me moving with its beat.

4) Tears in Heaven, by Eric Clapton. I have two sons, and this song makes me cry every time.

5) Fanfare for the Common Man, by Aaron Copland. This song inspires me to carry on, and captures the majesty that is our world. Also by Copland is my next choice,

6) Appalachian Spring. This song is America to me.

7) We Are the World, by Michael Jackson, performed by him and a bunch of other incredible performers. Because when this song came out and people all over my city gathered in a long chain to sing it along the streets to raise awareness of poverty in Africa, I was one of them. All the kids and all the families of my elementary school participated, and I will never, ever forget that day.

8) Slip Slidin' Away, by Paul Simon. Of all the songs I love by this guy - and I love them ALL - I love this one the most. It's heartbreaking in its honesty, and its lyrics are perfect. He's a beautiful storyteller, and an incredible truthteller. Wherever I hear Paul Simon's music, I am home.

9) Atomic garden, by Bad Religion. I love them for their honesty.

10) Movin' Out, by Billy Joel, another great musical storyteller. This song reminds me that a lot of the time, bucking the norm is a good thing.

And that's (almost) it! Be sure to check out all the other bloggers talking about their top ten songs today.

*It is impossible for me to just pick ten songs and say that they are the best ten ever. In making this list, I had to leave out songs that regularly make my day's playlist: songs by John Lennon, Huey Lewis and the News, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, John Denver, Harry Belafonte, Tina Turner, WHAM, Adrian Legg, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Billy Idol, The Eurythmics, Willie Nelson... Tons and tons of songs that make the soundtrack to my life. I just couldn't let this post go by without mentioning some of them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Favorites: Mumford and Sons

Writers are always talking about music: what music we're listening to, what music our characters listen to, whether we MUST HAVE MUSIC when writing or whether music is just too distracting. Some of us even make up playlists for our books. (Not me; I'm not that organized. Or maybe I just can't be bothered. Or maybe I just don't feel like I have the time to obsess over choosing the perfect songs when I could be spending that time writing. Either way, I can write without doing that, so who cares?)

But even though I don't necessarily listen to special music for my manuscripts, I still love music. I'm one of those people who always has a song playing in the back of her mind, over and over, on a loop while it speaks its message in my ear.

These days, the music that's speaking to me is the album Sigh No More by London band Mumford and Sons. Their sound is a modern kind of folky string and keyboard, with energetic vocals and lyrics that are pure poetry. Just look at this excerpt from "The Cave":

It's empty in the valley of your heart
The sun it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears and all the
faults you've left behind.

The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater you see
But I have seen the same I know the 
shame in your defeat.

But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck
And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again.

I love that. I want my writing to be that evocative and poetic. How about you? What's on your playlist right now? What inspires you to write the way you do?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Two Faces of Publishing

Many of you have heard about the travesty that was the TODAY SHOW's snub of this year's Newbery and Caldecott award winners last Tuesday. Those of you who haven't can get the scoop in this Publisher's Weekly article. I won't get into the details here, but what it boils down to is that the TODAY SHOW chose to forego their traditional interview with the winners of the two most prestigious awards in children's literature, and aired an interview with Jersey Shore's Snooki instead. Interestingly, Snooki was there to promote her new book.

Let's just pause for a moment to let that sink in.

Are you ready to continue? Okay.

There has been outrage from the people in publishing, as well as disgust, which I share. Their move has been called a ratings grab, which in one respect makes good marketing sense, but when you look at it and realize that they have every other day in the year to do high-ratings shows with celebrity authors it becomes clear just what a flimsy excuse that is. And as for Megan Kopf's explanation that "the show was booked for the entire week," well. We've all known for a while when these awards were going to be announced. It's not like they crept up on us. It's called "planning ahead."

But let's get back to why Snooki was there in the first place, and who put her there. She has (purportedly) written a book. Published by a publishing house. (Gallery, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, in case anyone is interested.) And, since she's a celebrity author, she most likely has a publicist assigned to her by that publishing house, who probably called the folks at NBC (which broadcasts the TODAY SHOW) and got Snooki her spot on the show. This person could have requested a different date, or even insisted on a different date; maybe he or she did, maybe not. My guess is not, because I can't see NBC arguing a point like that with the publicist of someone as huge as Snooki. But either way, the publishing industry needs to carry its share of the blame here.

You all know that I have read books by celebrities that I have liked, and I have read books by celebrities that I have thought were drivel. (The books, not the celebrities.) And we all know the mantra: books by celebrity authors make the publication of all those other books (you know, the 80% that don't earn out) possible. Snooki's book is probably, at some point in my future, going to indirectly put bread on my table. And we say that we should accept it, because how else can publishing survive? If this is what people want to read, then we have to give it to them, and then we hope that while they're there they pick up some of the higher-quality stuff too. But if we're going to accept this, then we have to understand what comes with it: not only the loss of a publishing slot to a celebrity book, but a loss in publicity share.

The world of marketing and publicity is already extremely skewed towards celebrity authors. Even if the folks at NBC were right in their prediction that a story about award-winning authors and illustrators wouldn't garner much interest, they were wrong to pull the plug on the interview on the assumption that it would harm their show in the long term. This is an interview that should have happened. It is a sad fact that high-quality books, especially children's books, need this kind of publicity.

But it's a slippery slope, guys.

If you're upset by the omission of the Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners in the TODAY SHOW's programming, you can write to NBC and tell them. (Scroll to the bottom of that link.) You can also go to the campaign page on Facebook, and "Like" it.  And, of course, you can blog about it, and tell other people who care about quality in literature to do the same.

And of course, feel free to discuss this further in the comments.

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Posting Schedule, and GOLDEN GLOBES!

First, I'm shifting to a new Monday-Wednesday-Friday blogging schedule. It's not that I don't like hanging out with you guys every day - I love it! In fact, I love it so much that my writing time is suffering. So, a little less blogging, a little more writing. It's what this whole thing is all about, after all.

Second: the Golden Globes were handed out last night! And what a night! Congratulations to the cast of Glee, who walked away with not only the best TV series in the comedy category, but BOTH the Best Supporting Actor (surprise!) AND Best Supporting Actress (okay, not so much of a surprise, but still a pleasing result) trophies for TV comedy or musical. Also congratulations to Colin Firth, who took the Best Actor in a Film Drama trophy, and to the many, many other people who won awards last night.

Watching the ceremony, I was struck by two things. First, not many projects (if any) were shut out. It wasn't like other years, where a film might get 6 nominations and not win anything. Pretty much everyone who got more than two nominations won something. I like that.

And second, the clear all-out winner of the evening was "The Social Network," a movie about e-networking and "social media." I think this says something about the word we live in, guys. If you were ever in doubt that blogging and FaceBook and Twitter were the way forward, this should clear it up for you. And I am a little embarrassed to say that I haven't actually seen that movie yet, even though I wanted to.

How about you? Were you pleased or horrified by the winners announced last night? Do you think this is a sign of the Oscar wins to come, or will the Oscars go another way?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Happy Days

I got to meet one of my online crit partners, the lovely Lindsey Carmichael, in person today. This was a huge treat for me - I knew from our exchanges that Lindsey is a talented, articulate, brilliant person, and I know that she is going to find some major success some day soon. And our meeting just confirmed all of that. It was great to meet you, Lindsey!

It got me thinking: as awesome as it is to have the internet to help writers from all over the world reach out and find one another, it's so much better when you can meet in person once in a while to chat. You can cover so much more ground in a one-hour conversation than you can in an email. And you can give each other a hug.

So, that's what I'm thinking about today. How I can make more opportunities to meet with other writers in person. Because it's important. And I like hugs.

And go check out Lindsey at her blog, Ten Stories Up. You won't regret it. 'Cause she rocks.

How about you? Do you have a local group you can turn to? Do you wish you did, or are you happy hanging out on your own?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesdays: Rolling With It

I've been feeling lately like life just keeps handing me setback after setback. I think that's true for a lot of writers, and it's also true for a lot of actors. We all go through periods when it feels like you take a step forward, only to be pushed back again.

But the more published authors I talk to, the more I learn that this happens to everybody. I don't know a single published author who hasn't had a book deal fall through at the last minute, or had their editor quit midway through a contract, or had to leave their agent for one reason or another, or faced a bazillion rejections. Not a single one.

Success in this industry is as much about perseverance and rolling with the punches as it is about anything else. A talented writer who lays down and quits after the first handful of rejections is never going to get anywhere. And an actor who quits after only a month of auditioning isn't going to get anywhere, either. And focusing on the negatives? Definitely not going to help.

I could wallow in self-pity after learning that my husband's job means I have to miss a meeting I was excited about, or I could take the time I would have spent at that meeting to focus on writing a new proposal. I think I know what I'm going to do.

Writers and actors take a lot of hits. If you want to succeed as either, you've got to learn to roll with it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Start Spreading the News...

Is anybody else planning to be at the SCBWI Winter Conference in NEW YORK January 28-30?

Find me. I'll be the 5-ft short lady with the huge hair. Or better yet, tell me here if you'll be there, and we can find each other.

I. Can't. WAIT.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Key Porter Books: Shocking, Yes, but Surprising?

Those of you in Canada will surely have heard by now about the immediate "suspension of activity" (which, since they laid off their last editor, sounds a lot like "closure" to me) by Key Porter Books, one of the largest Canadian publishers. Nothing slated for publication after January will be published. Learning about this was a real shock to the system for me; if the big fish can't make it, how will the little guys manage to survive?

Additionally, I was saddened to hear that none of their authors had any idea. In fact, from what I can gather from the news articles about the suspension, most of their authors didn't even learn about it from Key Porter. They heard about it on the news. Which is just sad, and also, in my opinion, unprofessional. (And ironically appropo, given my blog post last Thursday.) It's not at all what I would expect from such a large company, and I hope that the people at Key Porter have a good reason for their lack of communication with their authors.

But then when I looked into it more, and started searching for news about the company and their plans for the immediate future, I came across this CBC article from last September announcing that they were closing their Toronto office and laying off almost two-thirds of their staff, and only one thought occurred to me: the writing was on the wall for these guys, and has been for at least a few months now. Maybe it's the cynic in me - okay, it is definitely the cynic in me - but as soon as I see a company being bought out, downsized, restructured, merged, or what-have-you, I always assume that they'll be gone within 5 years or less. I never hope to be right about these kinds of predictions, and sometimes I'm not - but these are all signs, to me, that a company is drowning.

So, apart from hoping that Key Porter finds a way to come back from the brink (which I do), what does this mean for writers? When we see a publishing house bought out by another one and merged as one of their imprints, (hello - and goodbye - Tricycle Press), or when we learn that a publisher is downsizing, how should we interpret that news? Should we be wary? Should we cross them off our submission list? Is it better to be optimistic, or to think about strict business potential when it comes to where we send our work and who we sign contracts with?

I honestly don't have answers to these questions, guys, so I'm opening the floor to comments and ideas. What do you think when you see that change is afoot for a publishing house? Do you rethink your submissions to them, or is it business as usual?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Favorites: People's Choice Awards!

Did anyone else watch the People's Choice Awards Wednesday night?  Did you? Did you? Did you?

Can you tell I like Awards Season? And I know, the PCAs aren't exactly on the same level as the Oscars or the Golden Globes or the Emmys, but they're still worth watching, especially for creators of things like books and TV shows and movies.

You know why?

The People choose them. And, you know, the People also choose to buy things that are important to writers.

Like our books. Yup. So, I watch the People's Choice Awards. I want to know what the People want these days, and what they like. And I want to know how my own personal picks do, of course!

I was thrilled (and not really surprised) that Johnny Depp won for favorite male film star, and I was even more thrilled to see Jane Lynch win for favorite female TV comedy star, along with Glee's win for favorite TV comedy. Because Jane Lynch is awesome. And her speech proved it.

How about you guys? How did your favorites do?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesdays...On Thursday?

I looked at the calendar this morning, and DOH! I had a brain fart yesterday and missed my Wisdom on Wednesday post! Sorry if I let my faithful Wednesday followers down.

I'm not even going to try to pretend I did that on purpose; the first week back from Christmas vacation is always nutso. But I'm making up for it today with this wisdom post, right?

Right. I thought so.

And it's good that you agree, because today's wisdom post is about Honesty, and how it really is the best policy.

I know when we mess up and miss a deadline, or an appointment, or screw up and send the wrong version of a manuscript, or forget ourselves and say something hurtful about an agent or editor or fellow writer in public, it's really tempting to cover it up, blame someone else, or just try to act like it never happened. But that doesn't really work in our favor, does it? All it does is show us up for the insecure little people that we are when we do that. (And we have all done that, haven't we?)

A much better road is the high road: own up, apologize, and ask if you can have a chance to make it right. It's mature, it's professional, and it's responsible. That's the kind of person I want others to recognize me as; it's the kind of person I want to be.

So, I'll start. I'm sorry I messed up and posted the wrong thing yesterday. And I'm sorry if it takes me a few weeks to mail out books people win on my blog. I'll try to do better next time.

How about you? What have you got on your mind that you need to be honest about?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

TV: One Giant Time-Suck, or Inspiration-in-a-Box?

Okay. Your favorite show is on, so even though you had the time slated for crits and writing, you decide to tune in. It's only an hour, right?

Then your show turns out to be a re-run, but you watch it anyway. You've already mentally rescheduled your writing time for when it's over, so what's the harm? And before you know it, your show is over and you're surfing for a show that's better than the one that came on after it.

Am I the only one who does this?

The thing is, the show I found was really good. And it's based on a book. And it's inspired me to think more broadly about a manuscript that I'm working on, and to think about how to incorporate certain elements into it better than I already have. So for me, even though I got less writing done, I got some valuable insights into how I've been approaching my story. And that's a good thing.

So, what is TV for you? A Time-Suck, or an Inspiration?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, New Goals

Happy New Year!

It's resolution time again. I actually like making resolutions. Christmas always throws everything upside down anyway, so why not take advantage of the aftermath to start over on a few things?

On top of getting more regular exercise (which I always resolve to do - it's a tradition I hold dear), I've decided to be more disciplined not only about my writing, but about submitting my work this year. I've got the "writing every day" thing going on, but I falter when it comes to sending out my work. And if you don't submit, you don't get published, right?

And I've resolved to be more disciplined in general. I hate that every year, I've crapped out on my resolutions by mid-March. This year, I'm not going to do that. This year, I resolve to keep my resolutions.

How about you guys? What are you going to do differently this year?