I HAVE MADE IT AS AN AUTHOR

You can’t tell by book sales. I’m not on the best-seller lists. I’m still able to safely walk through airports without being flagged for autographs.

But the other day I walked into my eight-year old daughter’s class (I was there to volunteer as a writing coach), and I had to wait. I was happy to wait, because Read-Aloud had gone late, and no one wants to interrupt Read-Aloud. Especially WHEN THEY ARE READING YOUR BOOK.

Can Stephen King say that? Has he ever walked into an elementary classroom and watched a whole room of children laugh at his words? Has he waited breathlessly while they try to guess whether Cleo is helping Timber or leading him into a trap, as one child so astutely summarized? (Wise students of literature, these third graders are.) I think not.

I have arrived.

"Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . ."

“Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . .”

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Do Reading Logs Make Reading Horrible? Here’s a Handy Short-cut!

I don’t know about your school, but my kids’ school is pretty cool. If my kid wants to take his shoes off and run around in his socks, he can. If my daughter needs to chew gum because it keeps her from chewing her hair, no problem. I walk into the lobby, and I’m surrounded by children’s art, friendly faces, and good vibes. For the first four years, the only homework is “read to your child thirty minutes at night.” School rocks.

Except for reading logs.

Now, just to be fair, I know that teachers are just trying to hold kids accountable. And some kids embrace these with vigor, charting their hours read with enthusiasm. I admit, I might have been one of those children—I keep lists for everything. Food shopping? I’ve got a separate list for each grocery store. I’ve charted our kilowatt hours and carbon footprint for five years running. Packing for trips? Don’t get me started—there’s a whole spreadsheet. OK, so a five line reading log would not have been a hurdle.

But reading logs totally suck the life out of reading for my kids.

My son loves reading. I can’t get him to STOP reading at night. “Just one more chapter” is the most common phrase heard in our household after dark. But next to trying to get him to WAKE UP in the morning, getting him to fill out his reading log is the thing I nag him most about.

So if your child is like mine, I’ve prepared a handy PRE-FILLED READING LOG! As an example, I’ve used TIMBER HOWLIGAN, SECRET AGENT CAT! (Don’t have the book? No problem! I would never advocate using a homework crutch for a book your child has never read. The book is available HERE!) This won’t solve all your problems. But it might get you through one week, and if you’re like me, you’ll take that!

reading-log

Use this handy, pre-filled reading log to get you through a difficult week!

You might notice certain key phrases that may be of use to your child on future reading logs, such as “I wonder if . . .” and “My favorite part . . . ” and “A lot of things go wrong, but (main character) saves the day.” Feel free to re-use these as often as needed. And if your child grows up to be a double-agent, don’t blame me.

Timber Howligan First Month Update: Success!

Self-publishing is a business, so here’s the accounting: I promised to donate any proceeds to charity, the animal rescue organization Alley Cat Allies.

Here’s what Timber earned in his first month out in the world:

$4.07 from CreateSpace (11 copies)

$11.87 from Draft2Digital (5 copies)

$85.70 from paperbacks I sold directly (28 copies, including 12 to my mother, who made an extra $20 donation. This might have been out of the goodness of her heart or a math error and knowing her, could have been either…I’ll assume the best. Thanks, Mom!)

That makes just over $100 to donate! Not bad for a cat who only recently learned how to use an iPad.

Screenshot 2015-07-03 15.07.11

They are not kidding about the “wealth of information” part…beware becoming part of their email list. Good thing I REALLY like cats.

I’m not going to get much into the nitty-gritty business details, except to say that you might notice I made less royalties on CreateSpace (paperback sales, mostly) than Draft2Digital. However, if I’d raised the paperback price to $12 or $13, the royalties might be more—it’s all about how you price your books in the self-publishing world. So I still think CreateSpace is a pretty good deal, I just didn’t take full advantage of it by raising my price. Not that I don’t think authors deserve to make every cent they manage to earn on their hard won literary sweat and tears, and not that I don’t think my book is awesome, but I’m not bold enough to put my first offering out there at the same price as something by someone who’s been doing this professionally for thirty years.

Some might not call a first month’s tally of less than 50 books sold a “success,” but I’m actually very happy. First, I’m DONE. Getting this book ready for publication happened to coincide with my children’s last few weeks of school—what the eff was I thinking? So while I was pulling together class projects, class gifts, and generally overdoing things in my usual style, I was trying to figure out how to put together an ebook with illustrations (Note To Self: do NOT leave this until the last minute), maniacally fix every last typo, and still put dinner on the table every night.

Some things slipped through the cracks. I did not win a lot of “warm fuzzy spouse” points during those last hectic days. My husband did not put it so gently.

But he DID read the book, and he laughed his…butt off. So that is the SECOND reason I call this release a success: I have fans! Not all of them are related to me. At least two friends have texted me to let me know their kids were engrossed in the book, and one was already asking for a sequel. That’s kind of cool.

The most important reason Timber Howligan is a success is that feeling you get when you know you’ve finished something big, something that will last. This is a book that will be on my children’s shelves for years. You can drive your kids to school every day, feed them dinner every night, and they will forget it by morning. But write them a book, and they will remember it forever—forever! Ha! Parenting subterfuge at its finest!

Timber Howligan–The art is here!

The interior illustrations for Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat are done! Always trying to support local artists, I hired Wendy H. Wilkins, who is also a children’s writer. Here’s a sneak peek!

Timber, Lester, and Pfizz in Horgan's office

Timber, Lester, and Pfizz in Horgan’s office

Cleo Patter Paws and Timber Howligan

Cleo Patter Paws and Timber Howligan

Every spy cat needs a grappling hook!

Every spy cat needs a grappling hook!

Is YA just for girls?

Are Young Adult books just for girls? Should they be?

Well, no.

But how do you explain this:

“Imagine your local independent bookstore’s shelves. They teem with pouting girls and hunky boys and various shades of purple. Few self-respecting teen boys would venture there to find their next great read…So you are taking quite the gamble if you target your YA to a boy audience or use a boy-centric male protagonist.” – Mary Kole, “Writing Irresistible KidLit”

And this, a snapshot of the latest YA titles from GoodReads:

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The landscape is remarkably similar to what Mary predicts. And her advice has never steered me wrong before. You can tell at a glance that most of these books are heavy on the romance and angst, spanning genres from high fantasy (The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen: “One war. Too many deadly battles. Can a king save his kingdom, when his own survival seems unlikely?”), Science Fiction (Cress by Marissa Meyer: “Rapunzel’s tower is a satellite. She can’t let down her hair—or her guard.”), the infamous dystopian novel, (Landry Park by Bethany Hagen: “Downton Abbey meets The Selection in this dystopian tale of love and betrayal.”), and Romantic Comedy (Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg: “For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are.”) Fourteen of 15 are clearly aimed at the female audience (we’ll come back to the exception, Grasshopper Jungle, at the end).

Young adult, as an audience, existed long before the broody “teen romance” market blossomed. Somewhere between The Outsiders—a 1967 novel about rival gangs, and Twilight—a 2005 novel about vampires who sparkle, publishers apparently got the idea that teenage boys didn’t go to bookstores.

But boys do read (although apparently not as much as girls), and they even read books with female protagonists. GoodReads’ list of “YA for Boys” has The Hunger Games series in its Top Ten. Other YA books I expect boys would like: Scott Westerfield’s similarly dystopian Uglies, Pretties, and Specials series (there’s a classic YA love triangle, but the sci-fi element is superb, and the action is gripping). When I was a teenager, I discovered science fiction, so most of my recommendations fall in that direction. Ask any male science fiction fan over 40 in your life about their favorite Robert Heinlein book, and most will sigh happily at the buxom babe on Friday—a book I loved for apparently entirely different reasons than my husband. In fact, I suspect that when we lose boys from YA, we gain some of them in Sci-Fi–a genre that tends to have more male readers. (I have absolutely no data to back this up, just a strooooong hunch.)

The teenage years are a time of finding your place in the world, and good YA usually reflects this by placing compelling external conflicts against a soul-searching internal conflict. In YA, the internal conflicts are always larger than life—a good YA author can make you feel 16 again, when every slight was the end of the world, every crush was your first love, every failed friendship was the downfall of a dynasty–it was all so breath-taking and terrifying because every experience was new. When you are 16, these books make you feel like you’re not alone. Some of the best books I’ve read lately (Veronica Roth’s Divergence, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle) place these conflicts against literally end-of-the-world scenarios, hence the appeal of the Dystopian genre.

Another reason we’re so drawn to books where things go so badly is that fiction is a kind of disaster-preparedness simulation: It helps us navigate potentially scary situations by modeling various horrible outcomes from the safety of our couch. Especially emotional outcomes—cowardice, fear, longing, sexual insecurity, love, rejection, betrayal. Boys need this sanctuary as much as girls, if not more. Our society is more forgiving of girls who show emotion. Boys are told from the time they feel the first rush of cold air in the delivery room to “Man up!”

So while it may be a bad “business” decision as a writer, I reject the premise that YA is just for girls, and that KidLit authors should target their YA that way. (I do, however, recommend Mary Kole’s book–she knows the market, she knows writing, and she is chock-full of excellent advice. She would probably advise me not to use cliches like “chock-full.”)

So if they’re not reading about brooding vampires, self-reliant heroines, and voluptuous fae, what are boys reading? And how do we write for them? Take a lesson from Andrew Smith. Grasshopper Jungle is a YA sci-fi/dystopian/weird tale—and the less you know of before you read it, the more you will be delighted when you do. It is about a 16-year old Polish boy who accidentally unleashes a plague of giant praying mantises on his dying rural town. He is in love with his girlfriend, Shannon, and his best friend, Robby. He is horny and confused. Never have I read anything that more perfectly overlays the outer end of the world with the inner.

How did Andrew Smith do it? In the Acknowledgements, he shares his secret: He gave up writing. This book is not written for girls or boys. He wrote this book for no one but himself.

Not only do boys read, they write, too.

More reading:

What were your favorite books when you were a teenager? What do you recommend for teenage boys today?

Some things are worth waiting for–my experience with a professional editor

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Timber Howligan is a silver and gray Maine Coon…just like this one. He’s formidable, not fluffy!

There are so many good things about being a writer—author Katey Howes captures most of them in this post: http://kateywrites.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/an-almost-objective-look-at-choosing-a-writing-career-illustrated/.  I happen to agree with all of these, especially the part about showing up to work in pajamas, and loving it so much you sometimes forget to pick your kids up from school (although, strictly speaking, that is not a good thing if it happens too often).

Over a year ago, I decided to “be” a writer. I wish I could say I’ve forged ahead, guns blazing, conquering all obstacles in my way like my secret agent cat hero, Timber Howligan. Russian spies? Vicious guard dogs? Wily rabbits? No problem for Timber Howligan.

Oh. You haven’t heard of Timber Howligan yet? Er, that’s because the book isn’t published yet. It’s not, um, actually done.

My path has been more like the novel that gets rewritten seven times.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. More for taking a hard look at the first 65,000 words I ever wrote, and realizing…

Wow. That needs work.

Back in November, I thought the book was done. Almost signed, too—with a local independent publisher, but a publisher nonetheless. Obviously there would be one more round of edits, but according to the publisher, they’d be quick—she promised to have the book out within six months of signing the contract.

Except she didn’t want to sign the contract right away. Okaaaaay….I told myself I wasn’t the one in a hurry. She told me when she would call.

In the meantime, I started having second thoughts. As an independent publisher, she offered little in the way of marketing and not much more in the way of services beyond self-publishing, except she took most of the royalties. I did my homework—I talked to some of the authors who had published with her. I read some of the books she’d published.

I decided that when she called, I had a lot more questions to ask.

However, she never called.

So my “publishing” deal fell through, but to be fair, I kind of let it. I wanted my story not just to be published, but to be good.

In December, I hired a professional editor—Mary Kole, of kidlit.com.

This was by far the best thing I have ever done for my writing.

That book I thought was almost done? Major plot surgery. Serious character work. Right now, it’s on life support. I’ll do my best to stitch it back together—hopefully retaining some of the voice and style and humor that I loved about it to begin with.

They say you have to kill some darlings along the way. This edit may have murdered my baby. But not every first novel is going to see the light of the bookstore shelf.

Then why did I write it? I created a character—Timber Howligan, secret agent cat—who will live forever in the hearts and memories of those who have already read my book. Including my eight-year old son, who stayed up late to finish it and laughed at all the right places. My kids dressed up as Timber Howligan and Lester McMuffin (Timber’s best friend) for Halloween. I WROTE A NOVEL. I know how to do it—and because of the patience and professional help of Mary Kole, I know how to do it better next time.

I’m not giving up on this book—Timber deserves everything I can give him. I love this story. It still makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes I cackle while I’m typing. By the time I’m done with it, it will be a lot better than it would have been before…

And worth waiting for.

Syncing Your Reader’s Brain With Your Protagonist’s and Other Bits of Helpful Advice

Syncing Your Reader’s Brain With Your Protagonist’s and Other Bits of Helpful Advice

If you’re in the process of writing or editing a novel for the first time, this Writer Unboxed article by Lisa Kron may help you as much as it helped me.

I mean, I know I have a lot to learn. I read writing blogs the way other people watch TV. But I’d gone through five major drafts of my novel: Surely it was close to finished, right?

After reading this article, I realized: Nope. Not even.

Too many parts where the story just went blah. Flat. Forcing a transition between one scene and the other. What was missing? Neurons. The synapses and emotions of my protagonist’s brain.

So what if he’s a cat! That’s no excuse for not diving in there and figuring out what motivates him. So what if cats, technically, suffer from chronic short term memory loss. My main character had to have a back story, and I had to make sure it came out through his eyes, at the right time, as he lived his Adventures. If looking at a piece of bacon reminded him of his first bowl of kibble, gosh darn it, I had to mention it. (Bad example: Kibble rarely moves the plot along, even for Cats of Mystery and Adventure. Although bacon, it turns out, can.)

So that explains Major Rewrite Number Six.

Now for the other miracle: After adding all that back story (finally, the mystery of Near-Death by Bubble Gum, revealed!), my novel is 1,000 words shorter.

Enter: The 10% Solution, by Ken Rand. You could read it in less than an hour, and the take-home point is how to whittle your book down to its beautiful, stream-lined essential. (While I only cut 0.67% of my book, remember this was the sixth major pass. Almost every cut was a prepositional phrase, e.g. during a scene in which the cats were under the couch, I cut every single instance of “under the couch” unless it were mandatory for clarity. If Timber were jumping up, I deleted “up”. I had serious prepositional problems, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Through admitting our problems, they lose power over us.)

For that I have to thank Cat Rambo, who mentioned the book during her First Pages workshop, which I attended (on-line) last month. While it only focused on the first 500 words of my novel, it helped me re-evaluate and set-up the entire book for success. Minor tweaks, I’m happy to say, but dreadfully important ones. The two-hour workshop was professional, fun, and very worthwhile.