Saturday, February 27, 2010

I Swear I'm Not Doing It For the Cupcakes

Ok, I confess...I'm seeing another critique group. I can't help myself. I love both groups so much, it seems unfair to have to pick just one. I have needs, people.
Today I had lunch with my once-a-month critique group, and the elephant cupcakes they brought from Rao's Bakery were too cute not to post.

We meet once a month to critique a big chunk of a novel--one person hands over a half novel or whole novel manuscript, and at the following month's meeting we give the critique. When we don't have anything to critique, we still meet to have lunch and talk about our writing and what awesome books we're reading.

They also got me this adorable pillow that will hold my pajamas when I go to a slumber party...

And this teapot, also adorable.

Now tell me, who could resist such cuteness?

Conference Notes 2010: Put Every Word on Trial for its Life!

It’s been one week since the fantastic SCBWI Houston conference that my fellow Cakers have been blogging about …

Lucky us, this year’s mix of editors/agent/author/art director came together to form pretty much the perfect storm of speakers on writing & illustrating for children.

A particular high point for me was Balzer & Bray assistant editor Ruta Rimas’ presentation on What Makes a Book Great. This speech was a timely reminder of how we as writers can analyze our writing & make it as effective as possible.

Ruta shared a quote by Francine Prose from the book Reading Like a Writer, in which Prose implores writers to “put each word on trial for its life”.

How do we do that, you ask?

Rimas started us out thinking microscopic, encouraging us to look at the individual words in a sentence (ask yourself which words stick out as successful, which support the overall theme of the story) – to a more general analysis of a specific sentence (Does it build up suspense? What does this sentence do structurally?) to poring over whole (or groups of) paragraphs – noticing how their flow makes the story “breathe”.

We were shown concrete examples of successful word choice/sentence &paragraph structure from classics like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. The excerpts Rimas chose proved how this kind of attention to detail can strengthen a story.

The idea is that this kind of careful analysis -- from the smallest unit (the individual word) to the largest (the paragraph or chapter) will create a purposeful rhythm in your story.
Your reader may not ever consciously notice this “rhythm” but it is part of what will keep them reading, curious, wanting (needing!) to know what happens next…

You can bet I’m taking Ruta’s advice & sticking it in my editorial ammunition pouch. As I pound out my current wip, I can promise that I will indeed put every word on trial for its life. If it's not necessary, it's outta there! NO MERCY!

Are you to the challenge too?
Thanks again to the awesome Vonna Carter for the conference pics!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Conference Reflections: Lisa Ann Sandell of Scholastic

Ever been to one of those conferences where the presentations cover information you already knew or had heard so many times before? Well, that wasn't the case at the recent Houston SCBWI "Reach for the Stars" conference. All the speakers were excellent, and so many people-- beginning writers, seasoned writers, and everything in between-- complimented the quality of the speakers.

For the next few days, those of us who attended will be posting about the conference. See Laura's post about Nancy Feresten of National Geographic.

Author and editor Lisa Ann Sandell of Scholastic gave a presentation on "Breaking Through the Black Hole (aka The Editor's Desk)." Lisa has been with Scholastic for about 10 years, and works mostly with mid-grade and young adult novels. The books she's worked on include the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo, The Fire Eternal by Chris D'Lacey, and Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. An upcoming book she's excited about is Shadow by our own Jenny Moss!

If you've browsed through the young adult section of a bookstore lately, you've probably noticed a lot of paranormal books on the shelves. So many of us love reading them, too, but Lisa's noticed that it's getting harder for books in that genre to stand out. She also sees plenty of fantasy submissions and wonders if that genre has peaked. She sees more potential for growth in mid-grade books, and predicts that mysteries and thrillers are about to hit it big.

So what is she looking for? The book that hasn't been written yet. She likes to see a compelling hook on the first page, an original voice, something different from anything she's ever read. Whatever the story is, readers need to feel that the book is relevant to them, that the stories and characters are relevant to their lives. They need to be invested in the characters. The book needs to feel important to today's readers but have staying power too.

Lisa advises authors to find an agent, because they can fend for you in the best way.

She gave great advice on writing a stellar query letter. Here are a couple of her tips:
Keep the letter straightforward, with a concise summary of the plot and characters.
Focus on your story-- don't include a marketing plan or comparisons to other books.
Be yourself, because that will ring true. Can you write a description of your book on a 3 x 5 card? What about on a Post-it note? (I'm sure she means the regular size-- don't go out and get the poster size, you cheaters.) Keep that note at your writing table so you can refer to it now and then.

I was lucky enough to talk to Lisa at the pre-conference party, and again during my conference critique of my work-in-progress. Besides being a super-nice person who loves books, she was so helpful in discussing where my story is going and what I can do when I revise to make it better.

One thing I've noticed from the presentations here and at other conferences and workshops is that the popularity of different genres is cyclical. Several years ago, YA novels were hard to sell, and everyone wanted picture books. Now the YA market is huge, and as those who write picture books know, it's harder than ever to get an editor or agent interested in acquiring a picture book manuscript. I'm sure vampires and other paranormal creatures will never go away (especially if they're in the form of teenage boys with abs of marble), but maybe we are getting to the point at which people are saying, "Enough paranormal! Give me something else!" And that something else could be a mid-grade mystery, a picture book, or whatever you're writing right now.

We'd like to thank Vonna Carter for her awesomeness and for letting us lift pictures from her site, since none of us dorks thought to take any at the time. Visit her website to see more pictures and conference posts.

Conference Update: Nancy Feresten of National Geographic

From 2008 to 2009, the sale of eBooks rose 176 per cent. Revenue from them was only 1 percent of the market, but projected to be one-third of the market by 2013.

Nancy Feresten of National Geographic shared those statistics at the SCBWI Houston conference and scared me to death.

eBooks replacing print books? Please say it ain’t so!

Okay, I’ll admit it. I love books. I love the smell and feel of them, the sturdy, comforting bulk of them. I love to thumb through them or sink down into them and lose myself in a magnificent journey.

As an old time book lover, I can’t imagine giving up my precious books for a machine. No, no, and I repeat, no!

But then I listened to Nancy’s vision for the future of publishing and I can breathe normally again. She explained the endless possibilities so well that I can only give a brief recap. I was too enthralled to take notes.

Readers will always want stories, facts, photos, and fun. Print books will continue to instruct, inspire, and open new worlds for readers. After all, print books are portable, collectible, durable, and inexpensive.

But in the not-so-distant future, there will also be a whole array of eBooks that readers can download onto e-readers with multimedia options like moving pictures and sound. Digital books can be any length, they take up little or no space, they have adjustable text sizes, and they are searchable. Students will be able to carry all of their textbooks on one reader. Teachers will be able to customize materials for their students. Researchers will have access to all kinds of information that simply wasn’t available in the average library.

So, rather than fear the future of publishing, I’ve decided to embrace it. Thanks, Nancy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Critique Group Success: The Main Ingredient

Of the seven WWFC members, six of us have a published book or an agent. On reflecting over the last four years that we’ve been together, I would boil our success down to one main ingredient: cooperation. We haven’t discussed it much, but the Cakers have always worked with the assumption that success for one is a success for all.

With thousands of manuscripts circulating the inboxes of agents and editors, children’s publishing is a competitive business. Competition can bring out various emotions and strategies, and not all of them are helpful. It’s easy to feel that someone else’s slice of the pie means less pie for me. At the risk of carrying the dessert analogy too far -- if I have to eat more pie than you, chances are, I’m going to position myself in front of the biggest piece with my elbows pointed out.

But if we try to succeed alone, we shut ourselves off from allies that could be crucial to our success. Like critique groups everywhere, we read manuscripts. We applaud what we love and constructively critique the parts that don’t quite work. But we don’t just share manuscripts. We lend books, send links to great articles on writing, and share market information about new agents and opportunities.

Could we gain a slight edge by keeping great finds to ourselves? Maybe. But the Cakers have chosen not to and we’ve been rewarded with true friendships and a group where creativity thrives.

The submission process rides like a bumpy roller coaster with ups, downs, and unexpected twists. While it’s always easy to share good news, bad news takes another level of vulnerability. Genuine goodwill and commitment on the part of critique group members makes it possible to be open about failure. And that, in the end, may be our greatest success. Our learning curve has been steeper and faster because we’ve learned from each other about what works and doesn’t work in both our writing, and in the market. Together, we have six times over the experience any of us would have individually.

We’re just getting started, and the best is yet to come as we continue growing in craft and career. But one thing is certain: there’s enough pie to go around, and it’s much sweeter when shared with friends.
-- M.G.King

Sunday, February 21, 2010

We love Cake Wrecks!

Cake Wrecks is a fun blog to visit for unintentionally funny, horrifically bad cakes, but on Sundays they feature really, really good cakes. And their post today was literature-themed and adorable, so here it is!

Dr. Seuss cakes at Cake Wrecks

Friday, February 19, 2010

Houston SCBWI Conference or Bust!

It's been a big week for WWFC (see yesterday's post!) and it's not over yet... Tomorrow morning, at the crack of dawn, most, though not all :( of WWFC will be heading west toward Katy, Texas for the Houston SCBWI annual conference! We're all excited, kinda like college girls on their way to Cancun for Spring Break, minus the bikinis and umbrella drinks.

Here's tomorrow's line-up:

Alexandra Cooper, Editor, Simon and Schuster
Patrick Collins, Creative Director, Henry Holt & Co.
Sara Crowe, Agent, Harvey Klinger, Inc.
Nancy Ferensten, Editor-in- Chief, National Geographic
Ruta Rimas, Editor, Harper Collins
Lisa Ann Sandell, Author and Editor, Scholastic Press
Cynthia Leitich Smith, Author and Teacher (Vermont College of Fine Arts)

The Houston conference always provides great networking opportunities, a chance to get your work critiqued by an industry professional, a way to meet fellow writers & illustrators & also an excuse to eat really yummy Mexican food after.

For those of you who will be there, make sure you look for us ... WWFC from Kingwood. For those of you who can't attend ... watch this blog for a conference recap next week!

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Agent News!

As Christina mentioned in this post, we got to celebrate some good news during our last meeting-- because I got an agent! Yay! Here's a bit about that agenty journey.

After working on my first novel for about three years, writing and revising and attending workshops and conferences and going to some awesome critique groups, I felt ready to start querying agents last year.
It was exciting when someone wanted to read more.

Of course there were rejections.

But I took it all in stride.

And I kept working and revising and submitting and attending workshops, conferences, and awesome critique groups.

Finally, one agent emailed to set up a phone call! So we talked, and she offered representation, and she was awesome and nice.

But the next day, I had a call from another agent!

She was awesome and nice too, and also offered representation.

So that was great, but I had to make one of those hard decisions-- you know, where you have two great things in front of you and you can pick only one.

I thought back to other tough decisions I'd had to face...

I took a few days to think about it, and made a decision about which agent felt like the right one for me. I sent her an email, and she called right away! But I was at work, so I missed her call.

But we talked the next day, and we're both thrilled to be working together.

She sent me the contract...

...and I'm now represented by Joanna Stampfel-Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary and Media Representation!

Here's her adorable self right here:

Doesn't she look smart and bookish?

Like always, we celebrate good news, so at our last meeting, the critique group brought me a cake!(I should mention that the novel is called CHAINED and it's about an elephant, so the theme of the cake will make sense.)

Monica was especially happy for me, since she's also represented by Joanna and knows how fabulous she is.
Joanna requires all clients to wear Snuggies after signing with her. It's kind of like a cult. A warm, comfy, cult.
Ok, not really. But that would be awesome.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Author visits

This is a busy week for me with two author visits and a Houston SCBWI Conference this weekend. I only write picture books, unlike the other writers in Will Write for Cake.

What's new that I can mention to you about an author visit? Probably not much, but gosh, they are just so much doggone fun.

My four picture books, published by Sylvan Dell Publishing, obviously have great appeal to students under the age of 8. But lucky for me, my books are also filled with facts for all ages, as well as wacky pictures to find. Even adults giggle while reading my books. Happy Birthday to Whooo? is full of baby animal birth announcements. Guess which baby has been born from word play in the announcement and the art around each announcement.

The best guess I've received from a student(who was three years old) was for an announcement that started, "We are flying high in the sky."It's an octopus!" he eagerly told me. Clearly the little guy knew everyone was telling me animal names, but was he exactly on the right page? Probably not! But who cares? I told him it was a great guess, while the teachers in the room giggled behind their hands.

My other three books, One Odd Day, My Even Day and My Half Day are all Math with a Laugh. Rhyming and full of unusual pictures, readers find oddities in each book, as well as being introduced to odd number, even numbers and fractions. Amazing art and verse involve the reader with all the fun.

When I first started author visits, I wondered what I would do, how would this work, was I a dud before I even opened the school door? But I've found out students love visiting authors. Not only am I visiting their school or the author at a literacy night, but I'm a real "live" author, which I like better than being a real "dead" author.

Teachers and librarians couldn't be more helpful, considerate and excited, too. What fun for everyone. I hope all children's writers have the chance to enjoy this aspect of publishing. What a book blast baked to perfection with sweet memories!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake!

Welcome to our blog!

As you can see from the column on the right, we write children's books and meet every other week to read & critique, talk books, agents, contracts, and trade gossip in general.

Oh, and yes, we eat cake -- whenever good news hits, or even if we've had a string of bad news (like the week our collective rejections hit the double-digits).

The cake doesn't happen every time we meet, but lately we've been swimming in it.

Our latest cake-worthy news just officially rolled in today -- in the form of member Lynne Kelly Hoenig's decision to sign with agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe at Nancy Coffey Literary & Media. Joanna also happens to represent fellow WWFC member Monica Vavra.

So congrats to Lynne, who has worked very HARD for this for a long time!

What's next? Hopefully a book deal, and definitely, CAKE!

We'll keep you posted!


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Critique today

Nothing like creative writers reading each other's writing to inspire. Critique groups provide words of encouragement, comments on plots, generate ideas and discuss publishing news. A treat every week we meet, with no calories!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Still stirring the batter

I'm typing this to see if it comes up and posts on the a trial run of a new recipe.