Saturday, May 30, 2009

Give It Away Now

Talk about the universe rewarding those who give...!

Greg Pincus provided the link to this amazing story about Seth Harwood, a crime fiction writer. Read how he got a publishing deal by giving his book away and hook up your microphone. It sounds to me like a fun way to get your work out there.

Ready for your podcast?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spotlight on: Author Thalia Chaltas

Okay, I'll admit it. Except for a brief fling with Bukowski soon after college, I have never owned a book of poetry.

So when a friend gave me BECAUSE I AM FURNITURE, a new novel written in verse by Santa Barbara author Thalia Chaltas, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard a lot about the book (it earned a Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly) but I didn’t think it would be my thing.

How wrong I was. The story pulled me in from page one. I couldn’t stop reading until I was done and I’m still thinking about it. The confessional tone of the writing made me feel like I was reading a friend’s diary. Anke’s life is heartbreaking, but the thread of hope weaving its way through the narrative had me cheering for her all the way through.

This is Thalia’s first book and what a stunning debut! Read on to learn more about Thalia, her book and the connection between shoes and writing...

Novels in verse are not common. What inspired you to tell Anke’s story this way?

I wrote in verse because that is the way it came out of me. I actually think in groups of words, and tend to write most things in something that looks like free verse. If someone were to transcribe our trains of thought, it would most likely look like free verse!

But besides verse being the way my brain works, poetry works well for Anke's story because the subject matter is heavy and poetry is visually light. I could write about abuse in a descriptive way without spelling it out in blatant prose.

Will your next book be in verse as well?

At the moment, yes. Although my main character is very headstrong and she might change her mind. :)

How old were you when you wrote your first poem?
Elementary school, for sure. The first collection I made is from when I was about eleven, but I was certainly writing poetry before that. I actually have a very nicely naive poem about snow and Snoopy and Woodstock somewhere - that might be the first one I kept.

And you’ve kept every poem you’ve ever written? How many is that? How do you store them all?
Okay, I'm not counting how many! Lots and lots? When I was about eleven I started obsessing about keeping them all in one place so I wouldn't lose them. I copied them into a blank book as I wrote them, and I have four full blank books as of the time I went off to college. As an adult I haven't written them into books, since I have a computer. My blog is one way for keeping poetry experiments, as well.

BECAUSE I AM FURNITURE deals a very heavy issue that faces some teenagers. What made you decide to tackle such a difficult subject in a YA?
I think the subject decided to tackle me! I was raised in a house with an abusive father, and felt like furniture myself. I did not necessarily decide to write this novel, and it certainly is not an autobiography - I am very different from Anke. But it is the ultimate "write what you know" novel. I also believe that physical and sexual abuse are still not talked about enough, and if BECAUSE I AM FURNITURE opens that conversation between teens, that will be wonderful.

Since you grew up with an abusive father, was your family upset with this book even though it's fiction?
My brother and sister have been very supportive. My mom passed away some years ago, but I think she would be supportive and proud and sad all at the same time. Many family members have been impressed with the novel, and have steered away from the more emotional issue of what was behind the story, and who can blame them? Everyone has been supportive on the writing aspect, and I have not received negative reactions. I have never heard from my father, but I don't have contact with him, so that is not surprising.

How did you find a home for this book? Did you go the traditional agent/editor route?

I had the very good fortune to have been introduced to an agent by a member of one of my writer's groups. The agent did not like the manuscript at first, but three months later re-read it and asked if I wanted representation. That's called good luck coming atcha from several directions. Yes, I had to have a well-put-together manuscript, but much of that start was good luck. My agent, Ginger Knowlton, with Curtis Brown Ltd, gave the manuscript to two editors, and the first one hated it and the second one loved it and bought it. Art is in the eye of the beholder, indeed.

That's so unusual for an agent to change their mind about a book they've rejected! Did Ginger ever tell you what made her read the manuscript again?
She didn't get through the manuscript the first time she read it - but she said she didn't understand why she didn't like it the first time because the second time she loved it!

What has been your favorite experience as a new author?

One of my favorite experiences has been going into my favorite local indie bookstore, Chaucer's in Santa Barbara, and seeing my name on my novel in the YA section. When I saw my book in Barnes & Noble, it looked out of place to me at first, but seeing it in my own bookstore was priceless. Teary eyed and everything.

Which authors/poets have inspired you as a writer?
Well, I'll be brief with this one! Sonya Sones, Ellen Hopkins, Patty McCormick, Ogden Nash, ee cummings, Issa, Edgar A. Poe, Charles Simic...and those are just a few of the poets.

How old is your daughter? Has she read the book? What did she think?
My daughter is 5 years old and although it is not appropriate material for her to read (even if she could read it), she is one very proud daughter! She accompanied me to both my launch here in Santa Barbara and the launch in New Hampshire, and took part in every aspect of sending this book on its path now that it's in print. She even sang a launch song to me in front of over fifty people!

On your website you list some of the places where you write. Which is your favorite place to write? Why?
My favorite changes in swaths of months or so. Recently the library seems to be the best place for me to write. It's quiet and dull in a cubicle and I get loads of writing done.

Are you a binge writer or do you write every day?
I am a binge writer who would love to write more regularly! At one point I thought "If I just write one poem a day, I'd have a hefty novel by the end of a year." Which is all very nice, but who writes one poem a day? I am often gathering information some days and writing five or six poems the next. The regularity doesn't seem to be my norm, although it sounds very organized.

If you had to give up home made vanilla bean ice cream or volleyball, which would you choose?
I would have to give up the ice cream. Volleyball is necessary for my well being. Ice cream is a delicious addition to the necessaries in my life.

Do you have any words of advice for writers who'd like to be in your shoes?
I wear a size 10. Rarely pointy, never stilettos. Often sneakers. Other than that, my advice is to write and read, and the only one who can tell your story with your flair is you; stay with your own style of shoes. Write and read. Write and read. Wear your own shoes, no one else's.

Read an excerpt from Because I am Furniture.
Visit Thalia's website.
Visit Thalia's poetry blog.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day Musing

Like all good Americans, I spent part of my Memorial Day holiday in a theater watching the first round of summer blockbusters. My kids really wanted to see Up!, but since that doesn’t come out until Friday, they settled for Night at the Museum Part II.

Now I’m the first to admit that when it comes to theme parks and kids’ movies, I’ve become kind of a curmudgeon. But really, am I the only one that sees all these plot holes? (WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!)

Like weren’t the Smithsonian people going to be a little suspicious when they found all the broken glass and displays in the morning? Not to mention missing planes? And would the hounds of hell (or whatever those bird men were) really turn tail and run from Abe Lincoln, even if he was made of stone? And why didn’t Abe finish the job? And if there was less than an hour left before sunrise, how would Amelia Earhart make it back in time? Wouldn’t she turn to dust and crash the plane?

And that’s just the beginning of my questions.

I know. I’m supposed to suspend belief, blah, blah, blah. But the thing is, when we’re writing books, we have to have all that covered, don’t we? All our loose threads need to be tied up, characters have to make sense and plot holes are seriously frowned upon. Is it me or does Hollywood get away with so much more? Why?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Poem for a Friday

I don't usually write poetry. But I read "Because I Am Furniture" last week (amazing book!) and then Laura Salas sent out this 15 word poetry challenge. I thought about the amazing circumhorizontal arc I saw on Monday (thanks for the name, Maggie!) and this just came to me.

Now be gentle. I don't claim to be a great poet. But sometimes it's fun to try something different, to challenge yourself to write in a way you're not used to. This is posted on Laura's site along with a lot of other (better!) poems.

Wisps of color
Trick of light
Something so simple, so ordinary
Brings hope and smiles

What can YOU say in 15 words or less?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Editor Spotlight on: Kate Harrison

I had the pleasure of talking to Kate Harrison, Senior Editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, over dinner one night at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Kate spent the first eight years of her editing career at Harcourt Children's Books. She joined Dial Books for Young Readers January 2008.

Limiting herself to just one or two conferences each year, "So that I can still enjoy them!" Kate spent the weekend offering advice, encouraging writers and noshing on the vegetarian entrees. She was kind enough share some of her time for this interview.

How many original titles does Dial publish each year? And how many of those are from first time authors?

Well, I'll use 2009 as my example, since it really varies year by year. In 2009, we're publishing about 50 titles, and I think 3 of them were by completely new authors. That doesn't sound like many, but in fact a lot of the titles are second or third books from authors that Dial debuted. I love finding new talent and introducing authors and illustrators to the world--it's always very exciting to publish someone's first book.

How many books are you working on at any given time?

Oh wow, it hurts my head to think about this! I'm usually working on at least 3 different seasons of books at a time. (And I have been known to write the wrong year when I write the date because I'm usually working on projects at least a year in advance...) I would guess I'm working on around 10 different projects at a time, in various stages of production.

During the conference, you talked about your Stack of Shame, otherwise known as the dreaded slush pile. Have you ever discovered a fabulous book from an unknown author in your pile?
Oh, the Stack of Shame indeed--did I admit that on record? I wish I could say I've published a bestseller I found in slush, but alas... I've worked with people to revise promising things I've found in slush, but I haven't found that fabulous slush gem to publish yet. There's always hope...

Because Penguin allows unsolicited submissions, you must receive a great deal. How many manuscripts do you estimate come in each year and how many people does it take to get through the stack?
Over the course of a year, I get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts. Sometimes the assistants gather and have "slush lunches" where they go through the mail that comes to Dial, so it's a team effort in that way. I do go through all of the ones that come to me through conferences myself, though I can't always promise to be super fast!

You mentioned the importance of voice quite often during the conference. What type of voice appeals to you and what turns you off?
It's so hard to define what makes a voice really appealing. I know it sounds like a cop out to say that I know it when I read it, but it's really true. Basically, it's got to feel natural, true, unique. The thing that turns me off most is a voice that feels forced, like an adult's cliché version of what a teenager sounds like. I can tell when someone hasn't done their research--I always tell writers to eavesdrop, eavesdrop, eavesdrop!

I've heard many editors say that when they read submissions, they're looking for reasons to turn it down. Besides voice, what are some of the things that you look for as reasons to accept a submission?
A really fresh hook--a sentence that sums up the book that totally grabs my attention.

Can you explain the acquisitions process? Once you find a book that you love and are ready to get behind, how many more people does it have to go through before you make an offer?
Dial actually has a fairly unusual/informal acquisitions process. We do have a monthly manuscript meeting with just the editors (not the publisher) in which we'll give one another feedback on projects before we show them to the publisher. Once I gather any other editorial feedback, I write out the reasons I think we should acquire it and then take it to the publisher. And sometimes I'll show things around to the sales and marketing department for extra feedback, too, but we don't have a formal acquisitions meeting with them.

People keep saying the publishing industry has to change in order to remain viable. What changes do you see happening in the industry right now?
I think publishers are being a bit more thoughtful and cautious in deciding what to publish. We're still taking risks, but it's all about balancing the list with risks and sure things. We're also trying to reach readers in new ways through the Internet and by experimenting with different formats.

During one of the sessions where you were a panelist, you made the comment that great storytelling will always find it's way to the top. It was such a beautiful, optimistic thing to say to a room full of writers. Where does that optimism come from?
I'm really not normally the la-la Pollyanna type, but I honestly think what I said is true! It may take a while, but if your writing is really exceptional, it will eventually get noticed. It may be a matter of finding the perfect story for your voice, it may be a matter of getting it into the right hands, it may be a matter of pure perseverance, but I'm a firm believer that talent gets noticed.

What are some of the upcoming titles that you're excited about?
Oh, there are so many! One that's coming out in just a few weeks is DRAGONBREATH by Ursula Vernon. It's a middle grade comic-book hybrid about a dragon who's the only mythological creature in a school full of reptiles and amphibians. It's absolutely hilarious--Ursula has such a weird and wonderful sense of humor and is such a talented writer and illustrator.

What do you read for pleasure?
I actually read a lot of young adult books for pleasure--the last two I read were Kristin Cashore's FIRE, which is the fantastic follow-up to GRACELING, and Neil Gaiman's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. Sometimes it's hard to find a lot of time to read adult books! (Shameful, I know.) I end up reading a lot of nonfiction when I read adult books--I guess just for a change of pace. I'm reading James Woods's HOW FICTION WORKS right now, and I just finished Dave Eggers's WHAT IS THE WHAT and Sloane Crosley's I WAS TOLD THERE'D BE CAKE.

Any last words of advice?

READ!! And don't just read the classics or the books you loved as a kid. Really, I can always tell when authors have read a lot of contemporary YA, middle grade, or picture books. It's important to study what's out there and working.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Rainbow Connection

Yesterday driving home from Santa Maria I saw a rainbow. It was a sunny warm day, no rain. Yet here was this rainbow, shining through a hazy cloud and following me halfway home.

I’m no scientist. I don’t understand how light and water combine to create these colors in the sky. For me it's just magic. But I do know that it made me happy the rest of the day. And I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road.

I’ve always believed happiness is a choice. You can focus on the positive or dwell on everything that goes wrong. Some days it’s harder than others. The editor doesn’t call, the agent says no, your children are manic, the bills are mounting up.

Those are the days to look for rainbows, to find just one thing that you’re thankful for. Then find another. Because the truth is, we’re all so fortunate. We have so much that we take for granted. And the rainbows are there, unexpected, waiting to be seen. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder…

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Truly, Madly, Deeply

After devouring "The Last Olympian" the day it came out (LOVED it!), I spent the last week blasting through Suzanne Collins' brilliant series of "Gregor the Overlander" books. I know, I'm late to the party. The hardcover version of the first book in the series came out in 2003. What can I say...better late than never?

In case you weren't aware, I LOVE middle grade fantasy. I'll read just about anything with words (including cereal boxes and milk cartons) but I get quite passionate about MG books. When I went to my son's class yesterday to read with some of the kids, his friend Zack came out with book one, "Gregor the Overlander." I squealed. Literally. "Omigosh, you're going to LOVE that book!" I gushed, I congratulated him on his brilliant reading choice. I might have overwhelmed him a bit. But I've known Zack since he was 3. He's used to me :^)

So what makes me fall so deeply in love with a book?

As a reader, I can't always verbalize what makes a story resonate for me. But as I delve more into the craft of writing, I'm learning to analyze, to step outside the story and look at the construct, how the writer leads me to truly love these characters without ever feeling manipulated.

For me it comes down to characters. I want to care about the people I'm reading about. I want them to be like me, but better than me. I want them to have the quick comeback that it takes me half an hour to realize I should have said. I want them to always do the honorable thing, even when in real life, the right choice might have been a little gray.

Yeah, it might be a tall order. I know as a writer the words don't always flow the way I want them to. Sometimes it takes days, weeks, of puzzling a scene out in my head before I can dash off a thousand words. But as a reader, I expect no less. When I plunk down my hard-earned cash (especially for a hard cover!) I want to be blown away. I want to be transported away from the ordinary and left thinking about those characters long after I've read the last page.

What makes a book memorable for you?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Author Spotlight on: Beth Kephart

I "met" Beth Kephart through a mutual internet friend, Vivian at Hip Writer Mama. I was immediately drawn to her positive spirit and lyrical writing.

Beth has authored 11 books and her short story, "The Longest Distance," was part of the HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World, that released earlier this month. Her first book, a memoir called A Slant of Sun, was a National Book Award finalist. Beth's YA novel Undercover comes out in paperback on May 26 and a new YA, Nothing but Ghosts, hits the bookstores on June 23.

Did you have a difficult time finding an agent/publisher for your first book, A Slant of Sun?

Hmmm. I did what everyone says you should not do—sent the book out to editors whose work I respected, without an agent. I found the brilliantly talented Alane Mason of W.W. Norton rather quickly; other editors also expressed interest. Following a single phone conversation with Alane, I knew I wanted her sensitivity and smarts as my guide (I subsequently worked with Alane on two other books, and she remains a dear friend). I then sought out an agent to help me with all the stuff that I don’t know about publishing, which is to say everything. Amy Rennert, my agent, has been with me since 1997. She found my query letter in the trash can of the agency for which she was then working, apparently. She soon went off on her own, and I’ve followed her since.

A Slant of Sun was a finalist for the National Book Award. What was your reaction whey you found out?

I was, to be honest, completely confused. I was in London, attending a wedding, at the time. I came back that night to a cramped hotel room littered with telephone message notes that had been slipped under the door. I honestly could not understand what my agent and editor were telling me. It seemed impossible. It still does.

You started off writing these very personal stories, memoirs on mothering and friendship. Even your fiction draws deeply from your personal experiences. What made you decide to fictionalize pieces of your life instead of continuing to write memoirs?

You can often write closer to the truth in fiction than you can in memoir, where it is, at least to me, essential to be sensitive to anyone your story might touch.

You’ve said before that you don’t outline your stories. How do you organize yourself when you’re writing?

I just write, sentence to sentence, with a general sense of mood and purpose in my head. This means that my work goes through countless drafts until I know what my story is actually about -- where the accents must be, the turning points. Then I have to go back and reengineer the whole thing. Many, many, many times. It doesn’t sound or seem very organized. But I am an organic writer, interested in meaning and language. Interested in going deep.

What was the most difficult book to write? Why?

They have all been almost impossible to write. Still Love in Strange Places, my memoir about my marriage to a Salvadoran man, necessitated 15 years of research and began as a novel that went through 30 or so drafts before I decided that I wasn’t qualified to write a novel about El Salvador and turned the whole thing into a memoir with a very different focus. FLOW: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River was a sui generis book—poetry, history, fiction, an autobiography of a river. There was no roadmap. Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business was a wild and out-of-the-box corporate fable; again, I was feeling my way through the dark. Every novel is a challenge, and at the moment I’m working on three that require enormous research into very different things—the Spanish Civil War, 1876 Philadelphia, and 1940s mental health assumptions.

I don’t know. Sometimes I think I should just stick to gardening and dance. It would be a whole lot less confusing.

When The Heart is not a Size comes out next March, you'll have written 11 books in 11 years. What has been the most surprising thing for you as an author?

How hard it all still is. How little I still know. How much I have yet to learn.

You’ve taught numerous workshops and this fall you’ll be teaching a class at the University of Pennsylvania. What advice do you offer to aspiring authors?

Oh my gosh. Well. I put a lot of that advice into Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World, my story about teaching emerging writers and about what they taught me. And I often put a lot of that advice on my blog (for example, I have recently written about beginnings, or I have mused about outlines, or I have talked about the power of certain words). I never teach the same thing twice, rarely use the same book or story twice in my classrooms. I grow right alongside my students.

You write freelance articles, you blog, you run a communications company with your husband…when do you find time to write books?

Lately, sadly, I can barely find the time. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to win a grant (though the last one was in 2005) that buys me some time. I tend to get up at 4 in the morning and try to fight for two hours of writing time out of most days. Since my major client is UK based, however, I’m often emailing with those good folks from 5 AM on. I have California clients or interviews that keep me working until 9 PM, sometimes, and then I have a China-based client. I don’t even know what time it is over there, or what day. I just know that sometimes I’ve got calls scheduled for 11 PM, when I’m less than bright-brained. This morning I wrote for an hour and I have four sentences. I’m just trying, like everyone else, to find the time.

I’ve heard that the paperback version of Undercover comes with a number of extras. What can you tell me about the extras and why were they included with this edition?

The extras extend my poet-heroine’s story forward, via a book of poems that she has written for her senior thesis. I was honored to be asked to do the extras, which is done for just a handful of HarperTeen books each year. I was told that I could do anything I wanted. I loved writing more Elisa poems.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Michael Ondaatje, Alice McDermott, Colum McCann, Stanley Kunitz, Jack Gilbert. And I absolutely loved The Book Thief, last year.

You can learn more about Beth by visiting her blog or her page at HarperCollins.
HarperCollins also has a great interview with her about her book Undercover.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Earth, Wind and Fire

I hear the hum of aircraft headed to the Santa Ynez Airport, helicopters and air tankers setting down to refuel. The dominating plume of smoke on the mountains warns of a dangerous summer.

Our homes are not threatened here in this little valley, but the highway we take on our frequent trips to Santa Barbara is closed, fire raging on either side of the roadway.

This is the second fire Santa Barbara has endured in the last six months. Our beautiful Riviera is charred. Ash rains down on the beach and most residential areas have been evacuated. So many friends are affected by this. They’ve had to decide what to pack, realizing that what they leave behind, they may never see again.

And the firefighters, many of whom are fathers to the friends of my children, putting their lives on the line to protect the places we hold dear. The children know their fathers are heroes. They try not to focus on the very real danger, or the fact that 10 from their ranks have already been hospitalized.

Every day the fire has doubled in size. The wind has made it harder to fight. I can’t remember a day without wind. It has blown without stopping for several weeks, maybe longer. It blows harder in our valley than it does in Santa Barbara. It makes me wonder...

Our hillsides are brown and humidity is low. I notice people mowing the roadsides. Everyone is trying to create a defensible space around where they live.

I hope it’s enough.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Catching Up

Much as I enjoy getting away, the reality of coming home can be overwhelming. I spent the last week working on one logo, two newsletters, and three ads for clients. The laundry didn't clean itself and the dishes seem to multiply if I leave them on the counter.

Oh, and then there's that manuscript that I finally sent off yesterday.

Am I the only one full of angst at the last minute about sending those pages to agents and editors?

My son had a book review published in the newsletter for The Book Loft, our local independent book store, so he was pretty stoked. (And did you catch my post about The Book Loft over on the Shrinking Violets website?) He also has a poem coming out this summer in a national anthology. The last few days he has been plotting out a graphic novel he wants to create, and he and his sister have been making books and planning to have a book sale. I keep telling him that at the rate he's going, he'll have books on the shelf at Border's (and the Book Loft) long before I do...

Today I felt like I caught up. To celebrate, I played hooky with my husband. We went out to lunch, did a little shopping while the kids were in school.

And now I'm back to working on my work in progress. Well, tomorrow. After I finish reading "The Last Olympian." I *heart* Rick Riordan.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Birds, Boxes and Book Stores

Alfred Hitchcock freaked me out as a child. I can remember KTLA running commercials for their Hitchcock Marathons and showing clips that were mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. Children running from attacking birds, Janet Leigh being stabbed by a disembodied arm. I still won't take a shower in the house alone!

Saturday a friend and I took our children to the beach (the husbands were working). When we got hungry, we bought two orders of milkshakes, fish and chips to share. My daughter was having too much fun dragging seaweed onto the beach to stop and eat her food, so I left the box sitting by my hip on the blanket.

I noticed a seagull staring at me. I would turn and talk to my friend, and the next time I looked up, the seagull would be closer. He was creeping me out. I took a picture with my phone and sent it to my husband.

The next time I turned away, I heard a rustling of feathers, felt the box jerk away. I looked up and that crazy seagull had tried to fly away with my box of food. He got about six feet from me before everything spilled out. A hundred birds instantly swarmed us, devouring the food in less than a minute. I don't even know where they came from. I barely had time to scream!

The weird thing was, after they were done eating, the birds stayed there staring at me. No amount of yelling, shooing or flapping would make them leave. So with visions of Hitchcock running through our heads, we left.

New rule for beach food: if you aren't eating it, cover it, or suffer the consequences. I learned the hard way.

On another, far less disturbing note, May is National Independent Bookseller's Month. I wrote an article about Solvang's independent book store, The Book Loft, that is posted on the Shrinking Violet's website. Get out there and support your local indies by buying lots of books from them. (The new Percy Jackson comes out tomorrow so I'll be at The Book Loft for my copy!)
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