Thursday, October 29, 2009

Zombie Jamboree

As a kid growing up in Ohio, our house wasn't quite the same as others. With a mother from Nicaragua and a father from Jamaica, not only did we eat food that was different from other people, we listened to different music too.

We had a liberal helping of calypso and steel drum bands mixed in with our Elvis, Johnny Cash and Ray Conniff Singers (don't ask). So today, in honor of Halloween and my Jamaican roots, I offer you Harry Belafonte's "Zombie Jamboree." This was one of my favorite songs growing up, probably because the chorus had a curse word that no one stopped us from singing :)

Back to back, belly to belly
Don't give a damn
'Cuz you done dead already
Back to back, belly to belly
In the zombie jamboree

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Editing Chair

This is my Editing Chair. It's the corner of my bedroom that beckons whenever it's time to critique.

My husband created this space thinking it would be perfect for reading a book. He set up a torchiere lamp to provide plenty of light. He found a lovely shelf to house the overflow of books from the shelf he built me a few months ago.

But somehow, I never seem to curl up with a paperback in this spot. Just my laptop. And the writing of a friend or my WIP. Not that it matters. I am still reading.

Of course, sometimes I have to fight for the right to sit here. It does, after all, catch the midday sun. And the chair is perfect for lounging. Over sized and comfortable, it's the ideal spot for cleaning up your fur. Or your writing.

In this spot I have edited words of love and despair, history and disappointment. I've read about lives filled with voodoo, drugs, ghosts, dragons, dreams, gold and music. I can read or write just about anyplace, but when I'm editing, this is where I want to be. Right here in my corner, the sun on my shoulders, birds chirping in the yard beyond, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves outside my sliding glass door.

Next time you hear that I'm editing or critiquing, picture me here. It's the place I go to unwind with a great story, maybe even yours.

What's your special place?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Agent Spotlight On: Marietta Zacker

This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting Marietta Zacker during SCBWI-LA. Friendly and responsive, she put everyone at ease in her workshops as well as during casual encounters. I was lucky enough to spend an evening with her in the lobby while she told stories about her life and answered our questions. (Yes people, this is one of the reasons you want to attend the conference next year!)

Marietta started working at the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency last September, home to authors like Rick Riordan, Jeanne DuPrau and Betty Birney. The agency also represents a number of first time authors as well as illustrators. Since joining the agency, Marietta has been signing authors, attending conferences and charming attendees with the trademark passion she puts into everything she does. She also owns SOMe Book Nook in South Orange, New Jersey.

Everybody dreams of being “discovered.” You literally were! You knew who Craig Virden was, you just didn’t know what he looked like, right? How surreal was it to find out you were standing there talking to him?
That is correct. It was a truly surreal moment and very difficult to put into words. Amazingly, I didn't have a problem talking about great books when, in my mind, he was simply a customer who seemed to know a thing or two about children's books. Yet, when he introduced himself 40 minutes into our conversation, all I could think about was the books I had on display, while doing mental calculations on the number that were Random House titles. I then reminded myself that it didn't really matter since he was retired!

What was he looking for in the bookstore?
I suppose you want an answer other than "books." He was purchasing books as gifts and what stood out the most was how careful he was in choosing books that were perfect for each person. It was fun to introduce him to a few books he had never read, although he purchased just as many tried and true titles. I will always regret not giving him a discount.

You took quite the circuitous route to becoming an agent, but every job seemed to tie in with books and/or children. Was it almost like an epiphany when Nancy Gallt hired you as an agent?
I admit that I don't think it was all that circuitous, although I understand what you mean. I certainly don't believe it is the only route, but I can't imagine being an agent without having followed that path. I feel the most at ease when I have considered something from every angle.

My varied experiences within the world of children's literature keep me grounded and allow me to understand the entire road for authors, illustrators, the books they create and the publishing houses that believe in their work. I feel confident in my conversations with all editors and in partnering with and guiding authors and illustrators effectively. There is no doubt that I owe that to the knowledge I gained during each step I took before joining Nancy and Craig. So it wasn't so much of an epiphany as a feeling of finally arriving home.

What was your first day like as an agent?
My first day? Funny. Very funny. We laughed together since day one. And my first day was possibly just as surreal as when I met Craig and Nancy. To hold the contracts of some of my favorite authors and illustrators and to work hand in hand with two people who have influenced the world of children's literature as much as Nancy and Craig have, was undoubtedly a dream come true. They trusted me from day one. Needless to say, the feeling was mutual.

What was the first manuscript you repped?
Co-repped is the way I like to think about it - both Craig and I had read the manuscripts of the two authors he had signed on to the Agency shortly before his death - Hilary Wagner and Stephanie Barden. I took those manuscripts on with fervor as I, too, had fallen in love with the voices of their characters and the stories they had created. Both books will be on bookshelves in the fall of 2010. Nancy and I also co-repped author/illustrator Elizabeth Schoonmaker whose book will also be on the shelves next year.

During the conference you described yourself as a “passionista.” Can you elaborate on that term?
I don't know how to do things half-way and I certainly don't know how to express or do what I love without putting all my energy into it and then shouting it from the mountain top.

Of course, I have to pause and quote the Oxford American Dictionary, which defines passion as "a strong and barely controllable emotion." That's who I am - a person with strong and barely controllable emotions. I love great literature, I love how people can tell stories without using words at all, I love putting all the necessary pieces together so that children and young adults can have different worlds to discover every day. I choose to be in a profession that allows me to be surrounded by the creators of that work and others, who like me, love to see that work come to fruition. I am a passionista.

I found it interesting that even before you became an agent, you wrote a book and queried it, just to experience rejection. How does that affect how you respond to queries?
I think about it every day. It is scary to hand over something you have written or illustrated in order to have it critiqued. Yet, I know how important it is to be truthful because that is when the writer or illustrator truly grows (or more easily moves on, depending on the circumstance). I respect the road each individual takes to capture the voices and pictures they have swimming in their heads. I also have huge amounts of respect for the editors and agents who have to walk those very fine lines and, many times, make those tough calls on manuscripts.

I think it’s so cool that both your grandparents write. Did you have Abuela critique the manuscript before you sent it out?
That would have been the smart thing to do, but I was petrified to do so. I still am.

As a teacher you were able to influence the lives of a number of students. Do you feel like your job as an agent has the same impact?
Absolutely. The fact that I can play a small role in the books that are published means the world to me because I know with certainty that the trade literature a teacher puts in the hands of students can sometimes make a child a lifelong reader and even change lives. The influence of books is immeasurable and intangible, yet I have both lived and witnessed its immensity. I take pride in being a part of that.

For most people, just running a bookstore would be a full-time job. How do you find the time to be an agent, an entrepreneur and a mother?
Your guess is as good as mine. In all seriousness though, I have an extremely supportive spouse. The bookstore is a natural extension of the work I do as an agent - and it keeps me on my toes and up to speed. Being a mother is simply the most prized job of all.

Thanks, Marietta. It was great getting to know you a little better!


And just when you thought I forgot, here it is, the winner of MONSTERS DON'T EAT BROCCOLI by Barbara Jean Hicks:

Congratulations, Cathe! Send me your address and I will get the book out to you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Welcome to...

Next to reading and writing, traveling is probably my favorite thing to do. I love visiting new places, exploring and learning about them.

We didn't hit as many states as I thought we would, but we did manage to drive through parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri in one day. You can't do that where I live. It takes more than six hours just to reach the border of one state from here!

Branson is not like any other place I've ever visited. We had fun miniature golfing and bowling with the kids. (Somehow using a six pound ball was harder than the Wii controller. Go figure.) We filled up on sweet tea, sasparilla, fried okra, frito pie, frozen custard and all the other delicacies we can’t find in California. (Now I'm hungry again...!) Hiking around Table Rock Lake was so much fun one day, we went back and did it another day!

We did not go to a show (unless you count the one at the mall in front of Wal-Mart) and we did not visit any major attractions (just the dam, the fish hatchery and indoor mini golf). We mostly spent time bonding as a family, which made it a great vacation.

A few days before I left, Karen Denise at I'm Always Write (isn't that a great name for a blog?) gave me the Kreativ Blogger award. Thanks, Karen! I didn't have time to fulfill the requirements then, so I'm doing it now.

The rules:

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.

So, Seven Things About Me:

1. My first job out of college was writing for a legal journal. I had to take the proceedings from recently closed cases and condense them to four sentences. Hated. That. Job. I quit after two weeks.

2. I worked for a year in the corporate office of 3 Day Blinds as an advertising assistant. Loved my boss. (She introduced me to gin and tonics -- hello!) But hubby and I decided to move to AZ, so I quit.

3. I was a Writer/Editor for seven years in Arizona. For the Bureau of Land Management. Strange, huh? It was actually a really interesting job, it had GREAT benefits and I loved the people in my office. But it was killing my creativity, so...I quit. (Noticing a pattern here?)

4. I have worked for myself as a freelance writer and graphic designer since 1998. But some days my boss can be a real bitch.

5. I was lead singer of a band (Stone Circle) while I lived in Arizona. Our song "Funky Blue Monkey" got airplay on the radio and an agent from Mercury Records considered signing us. It was pretty heady stuff. But the band imploded and I moved back to CA. Now I sing 80s music to my kids and they roll their eyes.

6. I was scared of the dark until I got married.

7. I don't like chocolate. Before you freak out and send the lynch mob, understand that I like my Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Snicker's bars as much as anybody else. And there's nothing better than a home made chocolate chip cookie fresh and melty from the oven. But plain old by itself chocolate? I don't get it. Not my thing.

My nominees…

1. A Walk in My Shoes (About writing, about shoes & Lazy no more)
2. Life Just Keeps Getting Weirder (Zany, crazy, fun)
3. Carrie Harris Books (Richard Simmons and Zombies. Yes!)
4. Suzanne Casamento (A new question every day)
5. The Things We Carried (Beautiful, beautiful writing)
6. Frolicking Through Cyberspace (I love those "UNREAD" interviews)
7. Holli's Ramblings (Adventures from South Africa and amazing writing)

If you'd like to win a copy of MONSTERS DON'T EAT BROCCOLI, be sure to leave a comment on the Barbara Jean Hicks interview before midnight on Sunday. I'll be randomly generating the winner on Monday. And also on Monday I'll be interviewing a fabulous agent. Don't miss it!

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Author Spotlight on: Barbara Jean Hicks

Vacations are over way too soon! But I'm glad to be back home and excited to have this interview with author Barbara Jean Hicks.

My daughter loves cats. So when we discovered THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER KITTY at the book store, it had to join our "cat book" collection. I didn't know Barbara Jean at the time, but somehow through the Central Coast listserv, we started emailing. Don't you love how the internet works that way?

Her new book, MONSTERS DON'T EAT BROCCOLI, came out last month and her publisher was kind enough to send me a copy. One of you lucky readers will get to win it! But before we get to the giveaway, here's a bit more about Barbara.

You started off writing romance novels. What made you switch to writing picture books?

I started writing romance novels because a friend asked me to help her rewrite one she’d been working on. It had been rejected numerous times, but she still believed in it. I had never even read a romance novel, but I started reading the ones she suggested and had a go at the manuscript. We sold it in six weeks, and they wanted more! So of course I had to keep at it. I ended up publishing one more romance with my friend and 11 more on my own.

But my heart was never really in it. I’d always loved children’s books and thought if I ever wrote for publication that’s what it would be. So when a particularly snide librarian wrote in a review of one of my romantic comedies that I “really ought to be writing for children, as no one else could possibly appreciate such silliness,” I took it as a sign and started work on a book about my cat. It wasn’t very good—or at least not very saleable—but eventually it became THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER KITTY. It took four years and the publication of three other picture books before I finished it and sold it to Knopf.

Romance novels and picture books are like two different worlds. How did you get your foot in the door for children’s books?
I sold all my romance novels without an agent, but I’d been told that was going to be harder to do with children’s books. I was on a romance writers’ listserve, and someone had posted a link to an interview with a brand new agent who was looking for authors in all genres, including children’s. She agreed to take me on. She sent my first finished manuscript, JITTERBUG JAM: A MONSTER TALE to 22 U.S. publishers before she finally got a bite from Hutchinson Children’s Books (Random House UK) in London. I’m afraid I would have given up on it long before. I did six months of revisions before they offered me a contract, but I was happy to do it! The agent and I have since parted ways. She is wonderful, but her focus is romance and “chick lit,” which I’m not really interested in writing any more.

How does being an author for children differ from your experience as a romance novelist?
Children’s authors get more respect! Crazy, isn’t it? There are some excellent romance authors out there and I don’t think I was half bad myself—despite what that nasty reviewer had to say. But I do feel as a children’s author that I get to exercise my creativity in a different way, and for me, in a way that’s much more fun than writing novels. Picture books are a lot like poetry, in that every word is important and the sound of the words is important. I love finding the exact word that makes a line in a picture book work, and knowing that no other word would work in quite the same way. That feeling is so pleasurable. The act of writing picture books makes me happy in a way that writing novels didn’t. They are both hard work, but for me, picture book work is fun work. Plus, I love that “silliness” can actually be a compliment in the picture book world.

Do you think you’ll ever write adult novels again?
I won’t say never, but the novel form has become more difficult for me since I’ve been writing picture book texts. I’ve tried to start a children’s novel a couple of times and I never get past about 20 pages because I can’t stop myself from going back over every sentence again and again, trying to experience the pleasure of finding the perfect words for every sentence. You can’t write a novel that way. You don’t have time! So unless I can figure out how to write a first draft of a novel without obsessively revising as I go along, I don’t know that I even CAN write an adult novel again. On the other hand, there are adult themes I’d like to explore, so perhaps some day…

I love how your current book, MONSTERS DON’T EAT BROCCOLI, came about. How surprised were you to have the illustrations before the story? Was it more difficult for you working that way?
This was actually the second time an editor had sent me sketches and asked me if I could come up with a story for an illustrator’s characters (the first time didn’t come to anything). But yes, it was a surprise. And no, it wasn’t at all difficult to work from the illustrations. I’m extremely visual, and every one of my picture books so far has been inspired by an image. In the case of BROCCOLI, it was Sue Hendra’s friendly, goofy monsters that inspired me.

Once you saw the illustrations, how long did it take for you to write the story?
I played around with ideas for a couple of weeks, but once I realized that Sue’s trees looked to me like broccoli, the text came in a week, with very little revision.

How long do you typically take to write a PB?
I don’t think there is a “typical.” WALTER KITTY took four years and BROCCOLI took a week! Two of my first three published books took about six months each (with myriad revisions), the other a couple of weeks. Those are my published picture books. I have a lot of others that have been filed away for years, already gone through many revisions and that may go through many more. I don’t easily give up on an idea.

MONSTERS DON’T EAT BROCCOLI is your second book about monsters. Were they an issue for you as a child?
Not that I remember—but it does seem odd that out of five books, two deal with monsters. The monsters in both JITTERBUG JAM and BROCCOLI are exceptionally gentle and likeable creatures, though. I like to write about topics in a way that challenges the ordinary way of looking at things, and monsters are good for that. Everyone knows that monsters are ugly and scary…or are they? What is a monster, really? It’s all about perspective.

What is your favorite vegetable?

Asparagus. I especially like it snapped into smallish pieces and combined with sliced onions, mushrooms, red and yellow bell peppers and zucchini, tossed with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and roasted in the oven. Mmm!

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER KITTY is one of my family’s favorite books. I swear our cat thinks he’s Fang as well! Are there any more Walter Kitty books in your future?
I have been asked this question so many times—usually by kids after I’ve read the story to them—that I wonder if I ought to start paying attention. My fabulous illustrator for WALTER KITTY, Dan Santat, is in such demand these days I don’t know if he’d be available to do the artwork—and Walter wouldn’t be Fang without Dan. But it’s a thought…

What are some of your favorite books for children?
Four wildly different picture book favorites are the classics WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (Maurice Sendak) and THE CAT IN THE HAT (Dr. Seuss), Sandra Boynton’s rollicking BARNYARD DANCE and the gorgeous AN EGG IS QUIET by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long.
Barbara Jean Hicks published 13 romance novels and novellas before completing her first picture book, JITTERBUG JAM, in 2001. It was published in England in 2004 and the United States in 2005. MONSTERS DON’T EAT BROCCOLI (Knopf 2009) is her fifth picture book. She is grateful to have been paired with incredibly talented illustrators for each of her books, but also hopes one day to illustrate a book of her own. Visit Barbara at

Tomorrow, as part of Barbara Jean's blog tour,Terry Pierce will interview Barbara's editor, Erin Clarke
If you'd like to win a copy of MONSTERS DON'T EAT BROCCOLI, let me know in the comments. Followers get an extra entry. Winners will be chosen on Monday through Random Name/Word Picker.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Vacation Time

Our family didn't take a big vacation this summer. And since next week at school the kids have short days and Friday off, we thought it would be a good time to ditch the routine. Tomorrow morning we fly to Branson, Missouri and meet up with my husband's parents from Iowa.

Now I know what you're thinking. Branson? Really? None of us are big country music fans, so believe me, that was not the draw! We're more excited about the fact that Branson has lots of lakes and rivers to enjoy, and that it's close to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennesse, Kentucky, Illinois and Kansas. We could visit 7 states in less time than it takes to drive the California coastline! Of course we have to try!

As a result, I won't be blogging next week. (Yes, I'm sad about it too.) But before I go, I wanted to leave you with some great links and pick the winner of And Tango Makes Three. First, the winner (drum roll please!)

Congratulations ladies! Email me an address and I'll send you the book when I get home from Branson! Don't forget to let me know who you pass it on to when you're done :D

As for the links, I have two fun ones:

Have a great week everyone!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Penguins, Giveaways & More Banned Books

I know Banned Book Week is over, but I'm still thinking about it today. I guess that's part of the beauty of a banned book. They actually make you think.

I enjoyed re-reading Forever by Judy Blume, although I have to say, I have a completely different perspective on the book now that I'm a parent. I still laugh at the name Ralph and I still get why I dog earred "the good" pages! But I also remember being really mad about the way Kath and Michael split up, thinking she was such a idiot. Now I understand. I've been her. I've done the same thing to someone I thought I loved.

This time through the book, parts of it almost felt like an instruction manual: How to be Responsible if you Choose to have Sex as a Teenager. Blume was never heavy handed, but as a parent, I realize how valuable this information could be for someone, especially a teen who has no one to talk to. I was also amazed by how good the writing still is. I don't always feel that way about books that were published 30 years ago. Yes, believe it or not, in March Forever will be 30 years old!

I also enjoyed reading And Tango Makes Three with my kids. The story is wonderful and it gave us a chance to talk about different types of families. Not that this is a new subject in our house. My daughter has had a friend since preschool who has two moms and the two guys who live down the street from my parents have the best house at Halloween. Because we have different types of families in our lives, it's all normal to my children.

I haven't done a giveaway in a while and I thought it might be fun to share And Tango Makes Three with other families. So if you would like this book to read to your kids, leave me a comment and let me know. But here's the deal: I want you to read it to kids (yours or someone else's), talk about it and then pass it on to another family. I want this book to get into the hands of as many people as possible. We'll sign and date the front before we send it out, and then you can do the same before you pass it on. Even if you don't have little kids, this book is a great story about love, family and penguins!

Even if you don't want the book, leave a comment and let me know what you read during Banned Book Week. I'm always looking for a good story :D

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bad Guys are People Too

I started subscribing to David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants last week. I don’t know if I’m the last person to discover this guy, but he offers writing tips and inspiration in your email every day.

The first one I got from him talked about the importance of character growth, not just for your main character, but for your villains, too. How many times have you watched a movie or read a book and seen a bad guy that was such a stereotype he was almost a caricature? You don’t want to create characters like that.

According to Farland, villains should have the opportunity to do the right thing. Their choices, for good or for bad, give them depth and make them more believable. He also suggests giving the villain some redeemable quality: a sense of humor, another character that he cares deeply about. I find that as I’m editing my manuscript, I’m looking for things like this to add richness to the story. These daily tips always give me something to think about.

Where do you go for writing inspiration?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Highly Recommended

I've read more than 60 books so far this year. Some are old, some are new, some you've probably never heard of. A few I'd never read again, but some I really enjoyed and those are the ones I wanted to pass along.

My top picks out of the books I've read this year (in no particular order):

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
This is actually a grown up book (I read them every once in a while!) but the main characters are kids through much of the story. I love this book. I want to write one like it some day.

City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
I know this came out a long time ago, but I just read it this year. The other books in the series didn't hold my interest, but this first one is incredible. As soon as I finished it I had to read it to my kids. Awesome, awesome story.

Need by Carrie Jones
I love a good fantasy novel, especially when it takes place in the real world. This book rocked. The sequel comes out in January.

Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas
I didn't think I would like this book. It's YA, it deals with abuse and it's written in verse. So not my cup of tea. But once I started, I couldn't stop. This is such an amazing novel, such beautiful writing. If you haven't read it, you should.

Nothing but Ghosts by Beth Kephart
Talk about beautiful writing! I loved this book because it's not high concept, it's just a really good story. The world needs more books like this.

Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George
My shelf book is a dragon story. I love dragons and I absolutely loved this book. It's high fantasy adventure with a plucky MC you can't help but adore. I can't wait to read this with my daughter.

Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles
This is another YA that I wasn't sure if I would like. It deals with how a teenage pregnancy affects the lives of four friends. I loved it. Amazing book. I want my daughter to read this when she's older.

Everything by Suzanne Collins
I read my first Gregor the Overlander book back in May and since then I've read every Suzanne Collins book. I love her writing. Seriously, I'm ready to start digging through her trash because I'm pretty sure even her grocery list would be well written!

Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
The blend of humor, action and mythological gods is brilliant. I devoured these books then begged my son to read them so we could talk about them. Please don't take offense J.K., but this series is even better than the Harry Potter books. I can't recommend them highly enough!

So those are my top picks for the year. The strange thing is, the more I read, the bigger my pile gets. How'd that happen?
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