Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Lots of emails are popping up from the organizers of the N.J. SCBWI NJ June conference.It's going to be an exciting time in the Garden State in June when hundreds of New Jersey writers gather to participate in the annual meeting and learn from the faculty of editors, agents and published authors about the craft of writing for children. There are many intensives, workshops, presentations and sessions such as "The First Page"

Just this week we heard from Kathy Temean, NJ SCBWI leader, about our manuscripts for critique. Her staff of volunteers will accept the manuscripts and send them on to the appropriate editor or agent for review. Mine is just about ready!

Most of us tremble a bit when we go into the sessions for our critique or wait breathlessly when an editor on the First Page panel starts to read OUR first line! Palpitations!

But what an opportunity -- to have many New York editors and agents, and numerous published writers, giving their time to help writers. I gather new suggestions from the workshops and get a drive of enthusiasm to go home and write, hoping that with the steam of the conference that publishing my new story is just around the corner.

At the Florida conference I attended in January, speakers addressed current conditions in publishing, including publishers and the e-book situation and the unknown future. Perhaps in June we will hear more about e-publishing and also apps for the children's market such as Gale wrote about several weeks ago when she celebrated her sale of her first children's app book. Market condition discussions will certainly help us all focus on what's happening in our world of children's writing. What conferences have you felt provided good support in the craft of writing and the savvy on the market?

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kickin' It Old School

Hey Paper Waiters! I'm currently soaking up the rays in sunny Florida, but I found this gem in one of my old files and wanted to share it. I don't know who the author of this piece of genius is, so forgive me for not crediting the source - but a writer pal gave this to me about ten years ago...and it STILL stands...maybe even more-so than before. Enjoy!

Introducing the new Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge device, trade-named-BOOK.

BOOK is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It’s so easy to use even a child can operate it. Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere—even sitting in an armchair by the fire—yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM.

Here’s how it works: BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. The pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binder, which keeps the sheets in their correct sequence.

Opaque Paper Technology (OPT) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, doubling the information density; for now, BOOKS with more information simply use more pages.

Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet. BOOK may be taken up at any time and used merely by opening it. BOOK never crashes or requires rebooting, though, like other devices, it can become damaged if coffee is spilled on it and it becomes unusable if dropped too many times on a hard surface. The “browse” feature allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Many come with an “index” feature, which pinpoints the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.

An optional “BOOKmark” accessory allows you to open BOOK to the exact place you left it in a previous session—even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus, a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKs by various manufacturers. Conversely, numerous BOOK markers can be used in a single BOOK if the user wants to store numerous views at once. The number is limited only by the number of pages in the BOOK.

You can also make personal notes next to BOOK text entries with optional programming tools, Portable Erasable Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language Styli (PENCILS).

Portable, durable, and affordable, BOOK is being hailed as a precursor of a new entertainment wave. BOOK’s appeal seems so certain that thousands of content creators have committed to the platform and investors are reportedly flocking to invest. Look for a flood of new titles soon.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Getting Rid of Mom!

Moms can be a real problem for children's writers.

It's not that they mean to be. But when Mom is hanging out in our stories (or Dad or Grandma or a teacher), these adults can tend to take care of our young characters too much.

Now, in real life: Taking care of our kids = good parenting.

In fiction: Taking care of kids = less opportunity for our child characters to solve problems for themselves.

Recently, my critique group caught me. In my latest work-in-progress, I began to fall into "The Mommy Trap".

My young protagonist needed to go off an adventure. How could his parents let him do something so crazy? my Mommy mind questioned. So I spent my opening two chapters spending lots of time convincing Mom that it was safe.

In real life, this would be the right thing to do. After all, a mom is supposed to keep her child safe.

But in fiction, this put way to much focus on my protagonist's mom-- and way too little focus on him.

Of course, that's why so many of my favorite books as a child were about orphans like Anne of Green Gables. But even if their parents were around, the grown ups basically had to be unaware of all the crazy adventures happening right in their very own homes. And they definitely couldn't jump in and solve the problem!

So, I'm going back to rewrite. Mom is still going to be there, but my protagonist is going to take center stage.

If he doesn't, it won't make for a very interesting book. And I think my main character and his problem are pretty interesting. :o)

So, do you ever have problems keeping grown ups from dominating your children's stories? How do you keep them from taking over?

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

12 Questions for MG and YA Author Valerie Thomas

Valerie Thomas is a former member of the Paper Wait critique group whose debut MG novel, Karma Bites, co-written by Stacy Kramer, was recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Valerie and Stacy just sold their second book, a YA novel, to Disney/Hyperion (see below). Valerie took time out from working on her latest manuscript to do this Q&A. Thanks, Valerie, and a huge congrats to you and Stacy on sale number 2!!

1. The two books you've sold were co-written by Stacy Kramer. Could you explain the process of creating a manuscript with a partner? What does it take to make the partnership work?

It’s a lot like a marriage in that we try to treat each other with respect and trust. We’ve worked together for a long time now and we have established a great foundation. We start a project by brainstorming together about ideas. Once we’ve hit on an idea that we want to pursue we then talk, a lot, about the structure of the story, and working up an outline together. When we feel we have enough scaffolding to begin writing, one of us begins to write, and then passes that chunk of writing back to the other, who rewrites it. After a while we switch places so that the other person is out front. We pass things back and forth so many times over the course of a book that each chapter is probably rewritten 20 to 30 times before we are ready to hand it in. Then we get notes from our agent and then our editor, and we rewrite again. It’s a long process!

2. How hard was it for you and Stacey to land an agent and sell your first novel?

We were very lucky in that I knew someone who works at WME (William Morris Endeavor). I called her and asked her if I could send her the partial manuscript of our first book and she said yes. She is not a book agent, but she agreed to look at it, and once she did, she liked it enough to pass it on to two book agents at the agency. One of them, Erin Malone, loved it, and signed us. She gave us notes on the partial manuscript and outline that we had, we rewrote it, and then she went out with it to 10 publishers. One of them bit, and we sold it to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

3. After the sale, were you able to make a living as a writer?

No. We received a lot more for our second book, so we are on our way, but it’s still not enough to be entirely sufficient. Obviously, we are hoping that with time, it will be. We always have at least one or two projects in the works so we are never idle; that way if and when we sell a book we can get to work on the next one right away.

4 What have you learned about process of writing and pitching/selling your manuscripts since you started?

I have learned so much from writing these two books. I feel like my instincts for plot and character are much sharper now. I know what’s necessary for character motivation, for example, better than I used to. I know when something is too cliché, or when it’s okay if it’s a little cliché. I also feel like I have a better grip on what’s out there and thus have a better idea of which ideas to pursue. In terms of pitching/selling, our agent does that for us, thank God. It’s one aspect of the business that I am not great at. We do a fair amount of networking and self-promotion on the web, because it’s necessary, but it’s not my favorite activity.

5. How hard was it to switch your voice from MG, in your first book, to YA, in your second book?

It was easy for me. I found the MG voice a little harder. It was easier for me to tap into what it’s like to be a teenager, maybe because I remember it more vividly. The YA voice is also a bit more sophisticated, which is closer to how I think and feel as an adult.

6. Before you turned to writing kidlit, you and Stacy co-wrote a screenplay. Do you think your background as a screenwriter helped you in the kidlit market, both as a writer and in finding an agent and selling your manuscripts? 

I produced Ulee’s Gold, but I did write a screenplay (with Stacy) and I was a development executive and producer in film for ten years before I started writing. I learned a tremendous amount from working with other screenplay writers. I learned how to structure a story, the importance of getting things moving quickly, and the difficult but imperative job of creating a good plot. Movies have propulsive plots, generally, and many books don’t, which can sometimes work, but I find that often books drag because of a lack of plot. Working in film did help me find an agent because the friend I contacted at WME is a woman I got to know during my time in the film industry.

7. What’s your typical writing routine?

I like to write first thing in the morning for a couple of hours. Then I putter around and clean up the house and eat a little something. I write for another couple of hours. Then I go to the gym, my daughter comes home from school and I spend time with her. I usually fit in another hour in the late afternoon and often an hour at night.

8. What do you like most about the way your agent, Erin Malone at WME, represents you?

I like the effectiveness with which she sells our books. I also think her notes are fantastic. She’s very straightforward, and we don’t actually talk with her much unless we are going out with a book or she’s in the process of reading something of ours.

9. What do you love most about writing books for children?

I love the openness of kids’ books. They are far less cynical and mannered, I find. And I love that my audience is made up of teenagers, people I can really have some influence over. They are such passionate readers and really take in what they love, so it’s a real privilege.

10. What's the most challenging aspect of writing books for children?

I think the challenges must be the same for all fiction writers – finding a story that is fresh, creating characters who feel real, finding a natural voice.

11. Do you have any books in the pipeline now?

We just turned in a draft of our second book, From What I Remember, which is a YA novel for Disney/Hyperion. It’s a romantic adventure that takes place mostly in Mexico. It will be coming out in the summer of 2012. And we are currently writing our next novel, a thriller set in Berlin.

12. What's the best piece of advice you ever got as a writer?

Just keep writing, and rewriting, and it will get better.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

An App Debut

My first app has been published! Or could I say my first app book has been published? Look, Ma, no paper, but it's still a book.

Why did I go this route?

TEN KINDS OF CHAIRS TO COUNT has a humorous, rhyming text aimed at toddlers. I wrote the story years ago and tried to peddle it as a board book, but individual board
books (from decidedly less-than-famous authors) are a hard sell. So when the app market opened, I started investigating companies. The first app publisher I submitted to loved the story, but they wanted it already illustrated. Then I discovered Okenko Books and learned they would supply illustrators. They bought TEN KINDS OF CHAIRS, a second manuscript called FALLING LEAVES AND FOOLISH BROTHERS, and plan to schedule a third.

As their website explains, Okenko Books works on a subscription basis - pay for six months, or for a year, and you receive one new title each month automatically downloaded to your reading device. Interesting concept. Some Okenko titles will become available as single purchases. They plan to give my TEN CHAIRS a voice over and eventually sell it as a standalone title - then I will get royalties.

I'll never get rich, and no publishing company is perfect, but it's an alternative for manuscripts dwelling in a dark drawer. I have favorites I've never been able to sell. My foolish brothers stories (in spite of numerous revisions for different big six editors) weren't bought as either picture books or easy-to-reads. Does the traditional publishing world have higher standards than the app world? Maybe, but I think each world publishes excellent, as well as mediocre material.

Has anyone else who writes for the 3-8 crowd considered entering the app market? What do you see as the pros and cons?

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Chomp, Chomp, Chomp.

I joined a five year old at play last week. He was surrounded by a group of animals, from plushy bears and squishy seals to plastic dinosaurs, including some ferocious looking specimens that bopped to their own roars. "Well," I said, "let's line up these nice animals and have a party. What do you think they would like to eat? Cupcakes and cookies?"

"Oh," he answered, "these dinosaurs are bad, bad, bad. They like meat. They're carnivores, and they're going to eat all these bears and seals and all the people, and everything's going to be dead. The dinosaurs are going to attack, and chomp, chomp, chomp."

And with that, the animals were scattered to the four corners of the room.

Oooh, I think. When do children start thinking about death? Is there something wrong here?

"And then," he said, "all the dead animals are going to get up again, and then they're going to get some good stuff like apples and cookies, and the dinosaurs are going to come and there will be a party."

End of story. Everyone is happy. Good narrative.

My point is that even at a very early age, children are able to create satisfying narratives. I find this extremely encouraging, as well as challenging, for it means they will demand from writers even better narratives.

It's tempting to open a story with a scene, one that will draw the reader in, but unless that strong narrative follows, our young friends will go back to creating their own. Chomp, chomp, chomp.

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