Books, Glorious (and Not So Glorious) Books

pexels-photo-264635Chances are pretty good that if you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. Books are glorious! But chances are also good that you’ve read a not-so-glorious book, one that left you scratching your head. As in “how did an agent, then an editor, THEN a whole acquisitions team at a major publishing house think this was good enough to publish?”

Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. I just finished a middle grade novel like this, and yes, I did finish it. I kept reading even though the protagonist was whiny and unlikable. I kept reading even though the plot was something I’d seen a hundred times before. I kept reading even though the other characters were mostly undeveloped and/or stereotypical. I kept reading to the whiny, predictable end.

There was a time when I would let a book like this get the better of me. I’d stew and sulk and possibly–I’m not saying I did this, I’m just saying maybe–throw the book across the room. But not any more. Now, I read those books from start to finish. Because I want to know the why. What did an agent, an editor, and a whole acquisitions team see that I’m not seeing? Why did a book get published?

And while I’m pondering, why are kids reading this book? Because this particular book had a ton of reviews–great reviews! (Except for one which funnily, listed just about everything that had annoyed me.)

Publishing is a subjective business in some ways, but more importantly, it’s a money-making business. So if a publisher sees dollar signs, it’s a book they’ll acquire, in spite of cardboard characters, tired plots, or a boring protagonist. My mission, when I’m reading so-so books, is to see why it sold.

And here’s what I’ve found again and again: concept trumps everything. There are some subjects ( plots) that middle schoolers are always going to read. And there are emotional concepts that are highly relatable to the middle schooler. If I can find that relatable concept in a tried-and-true yet fresh plot, I’m halfway to the shelf.

You can be, too, in whatever you write. But first, you gotta read a lot of books.

(P.S. You might want to check out the Great American Read for more glorious but also head-scratching books. I mean, Fifty Shades of Grey? Seriously? On the other hand, look how much money that book has made…so yeah. I rest my case. Feel free to share your strong opinions.)



Why Are You Reading?

Goodreads pic close upI know most people ask what are you reading. But I often choose books because I have a specific need in mind.

That’s not to say I don’t read for the pure joy of it; I do. But I also read to learn a little something something. And I don’t mean the non-fiction books on writing (though I certainly learn a little something something from those pages, too). I’m talking about the stacks of kidlit fiction I read and what I glean from those pages. Today on The Muffin, I explain The Business of Reading and why I read the books I read.

But I’m afraid you’ll have to read just a bit more to get your answers.

Shaking Loose the Sand in September

ImageEven though it’s been forever a long time not so long ago, really, that I went to school in September, I still get totally excited after Labor Day. I just want to go out and buy a bunch of pencils and sharpen them into really, really sharp points.

That is to say, I’m ready to get down to business. Thank goodness, I have a wonderful conference to attend in October and the presenters are zipping around on a blog tour right now. So any sand left between my toes (or in my brain) shakes out along the way.

Maybe you have a few grains of sand you’d like to shake loose. Follow along with me and get your pencils ready to take notes. 

And oh, look! Agent Jennifer Rofe from Andrea Brown Literary is going to be HERE on Friday! So y’all come back now, you hear? (Uh-oh. It appears a little Southern has slipped into my writing. I’ll work on that, too.)

Blog Tour Schedule:

Aug. 28            Author Matt de la Peña at Stephanie Moody’s Moodyviews

                        Editor Lou Anders at F.T. Bradley’s YA Sleuth

Aug. 29            Author Doraine Bennett at Jodi Wheeler-Toppen’s Once Upon a Science Book

                        Author Robyn Hood Black at Donny Seagraves’ blog

Aug. 30            MFA program director Amanda Cockrell at Elizabeth Dulemba’s blog

                        Illustrator Prescott Hill at Gregory Christie’s G.A.S.

Aug. 31            Author Heather Montgomery at Claire Datnow’s Media Mint Publishing blog

                        Editor Michelle Poploff at Laura Golden’s Just Write

Sept. 3             Author Nancy Raines Day at Laurel Snyder’s blog

                        Author Jennifer Echols at Paula Puckett’s Random Thoughts from the Creative Path

Sept. 4             Editor Dianne Hamilton at Ramey Channell’s The Painted Possum

                        Author Janice Hardy at Tracey M. Cox’s A Writer’s Blog

Sept. 5             Author / illustrator Sarah Frances Hardy at Stephanie Moody’s Moodyviews

                        Agent Sally Apokedak at Cheryl Sloan Wray’s Writing with Cheryl

Sept. 6             Agent Jennifer Rofe at Cathy Hall’s blog

                        Author / illustrator Chris Rumble at Cyrus Webb Presents


Tuesday’s Tips: Best of a Writer’s Conference

ImageSo I thought I’d share what I remembered the best of the tips from Springmingle 2013, the Southern Breeze sponsored SCBWI conference where I chilled at the bar and chatted networked and studied the craft of children’s writing this past weekend.

Now, honestly, I’m not the best when it comes to taking notes. I have great intentions, and I listen really, really hard. But after five minutes a half hour, my brain tends to wander. I soldiered on, though, scribbling away as fast as my fingers could go, so that the Beneficent Mr. Hall wouldn’t complain about the money I’d spent I would become the best writer I could possibly be. On to the tips.

1. From wonderful poet/authoress Nikki Grimes, I learned the value of patience in writing. Sadly, there is a truth out there for many of us. Namely, that we want it all. We want it now. But classic writing takes time. (So fine. I’ll give it another month or two couple of years.)

2. From Dianne Hess, Editor, Scholastic Books, I learned that non-fiction in children’s writing is getting bigger every day because of the Common Core State Standards. If you like research, and can get your facts straight, you can give kids a better understanding of the world through great non-fiction.

3. From super agent, Jill Corcoran, I learned that before you write a word of your manuscript, you’d better look long and hard at your concept. Brainstorm the concept and the pitch. Because the best writing in the world won’t sell a been-there, done-that concept. But a superlative concept can sell so-so writing. (You know what? Just read her blog. Everything you need to know about writing–and didn’t even think to ask–is there.)

4. From Katherine Jacobs, Editor at Roaring Book Press, I learned that if you’re struggling to write a basic paragraph that tells what your book is about (ie. something that could be used as the back flap copy on a book), then your book might be unfocused. (I’m just going to jump to the chase here and say there’s no “might” be. It is. I speak from the depths of utter gloom and abject failure experience.)

So there you have it. Four really great tips from a great conference. And you didn’t even have to choke down the chicken.

The Rundown on Rutgers One-on-One Plus Conference 2012

I know you want to hear all about the One-on-One Plus conference…but I also know that what you’re really aching to ask is, “Was it worth it?”

We stopped in Hershey, PA. on the way for a chocolate bribe.

I mean, Rutgers (where the conference is held) is all the way in New Jersey, and I’m way down here in Georgia. And the Beneficent Mr. Hall and I decided to make a sort of vacation trip out of the journey (and about every three hours, he’d announce, “I’ve driven X miles.” Until by the end he said, “I’ve driven 7.2 million miles.”). It’s a fer piece, as we say in my neck of the woods.

But it was worth it. Worth a week of fast food, hard beds, and road rage (in my own car). Worth the Beneficent Mr. Hall asking me about 7.2 million times, “What’s that say?” (When of course, the sign invariably said exactly what we were looking for, and I’d say, “Turn!” and he’d say, “Here?” and I’d say, “YES!” and he’d say, “Well, great. Now I’ve missed it.” Except that he did not put it that politely.)

The funny and entertaining Tara Lazar started the morning with her success story. (You can read her inspiring words here.) And that was followed by the Five-on-Five session where we met our mentors and met in groups of, er, five. It was an opportunity to ask questions about trends in the publishing field, do’s and don’ts about cover letters or queries, or the importance of social media and branding. Which of course, with some digging, you could find for yourself. But you could not get personal answers, about your personal manuscript/situation like you get with the Five-on-Five. Totally worth it.

We heard a panel discussion about the digital age of publishing, and honestly, what I took away from this discussion is that digital is becoming more and more common. Embrace it and grow with the industry–or get left behind.

At lunch, we had the opportunity to speak with anyone–agents, editors, authors–and though we didn’t have a lot of time, every person I connected with was absolutely polite, encouraging, and attentive. And here’s the thing: these mentors donate their time. They hop on a train, on a Saturday, and come from New York or wherever, and read your manuscript when they get to the conference. And they all seemed so happy to do so.

And finally, the One-on-One mentoring session. I was paired with Bethany Strout from Little Brown Young Readers and we were well-matched. We went over the five pages I’d brought, but we talked in detail about the story as a whole. Which was great for me, to clarify themes and plot and characters. We looked at the query, too. Well, we just talked our faces off and it was immensely helpful.

I think the format works so well because, unlike a 15 or 20 minute manuscript evaluation, you (the writer) have an opportunity to discuss issues in the manuscript, really get a deeper understanding of what works–and what doesn’t work. But I’ll add this caveat: I think you’re going to get the most out of this conference if you’ve completed your manuscript–or at least have a very good idea where you’re going with it. But be open to changes in your story. Not so much a full-out revision, but a consideration of how a change in one aspect of your story might enhance another part of your story. I suppose what I’m saying is be prepared, open your mind to possibilities, and listen. Pretty much what you should bring to any critique, now that I think about it.

The day ended with a witty and wise speech from the prolifically-published Bruce Coville, who gave 13 pieces of advice to help a writer. Now, I have all 13 pieces of advice, but something tells me Mr. Coville, though quite charming and kind, would not want me to share every word of his speech. I mean, it might be Speech #12, right? But then I thought I’d just give you the best piece of advice, but of course, they’re all good. So I’m just picking a random one: Never throw anything away. Because you never know if an idea, a story, or a book might be the idea, the story or the book that will make all the difference.

So to answer the question, “Is it worth it?” Yes, it is. And I’d go again next year. ( But you know I’m leaving the Beneficent Mr. Hall at home, right?)