Wednesday, September 10, 2014

GUEST POST: "Publishing Middle Grade in the Indie Age" by J.B. Cantwell

I am not one of those writers who has been penning stories since I was five, dreaming of the day that I would see my work on store shelves. I started writing just sixteen months ago, practically by accident, and twenty pages into what was supposed to be a companion guide for a video game, I realized I had a novel on my hands.

Excited by my new, unexpected hobby, I took the story and ran with it, completing the first draft of 75K words six months later. But there were problems. The story was too descriptive, lacked solid structure, conflict, hard choices on the part of the protagonist. I was lucky to have a dear friend point these problems out to me, and committed enough to learn how to fix them.

Not long after the second draft was completed, I started querying agents. I probably contacted just about every agent listed on this website and many, many more. And so began the oh-so-long string of rejections. The work was still quite thick, not catchy enough, perhaps, for the mainstream MG crowd. I tore that novel apart and put it back together more than once (something I don’t recommend if you want to keep your sanity). But by the time I was done, it was too late. Over a hundred agents had been queried in my haste to see if I had what it takes to make a go at writing. And over a hundred “no thank you” notes have come my way since, despite a smattering of full and partial requests. They all sounded something like…

Too long
Something too similar on her list already
Voice isn’t right for MG
Voice is great, but character problems
Polished and accomplished, but not right for me
Portal stories are overdone in today’s market
Sorry I didn’t read it for six months, but turns out I don’t like it anyways

So, somewhere around rejection #70, I realized I was in trouble. I entered a contest called “Pitch Wars” in a desperate attempt to get help from an editor or intern or anybody so that I could get my query and first fifty into a better place. This was where I made the extremely fortunate choice of Brent Taylor as mentor/victim. You query the mentors just like an agent and then sit back and pray that somebody picks your story to lend their expertise to. Participants who are chosen get a fair amount of attention, winners get a real shot at getting agented.

Brent was interested in the story, and so kind in his critique. But in the end he also chose to pass. My experience with him had been so good that I decided to pursue working with him further. At the time, Brent was heading up a small editing service called “Teen Eyes Editorial.” I sent him my manuscript after the contest was through, and his sharp eye and immensely supportive nature really carried me through a difficult time in my writing. It still does.

It was only later that I realized that Teen Eyes is run by…wait for it…teenagers.  Yes, it was quite a facepalm moment when I realized that my dear Brent was eighteen years old. But months and months of working closely together had already taught me that he was a gem. I’d still scramble to work with Brent if he was twelve; it wouldn’t matter. You should, too, or any of the other talented young people at Teen Eyes.

But I was too late, in many ways, to succeed at going mainstream. Really, there are only so many agents in the world, and it seemed most of them had already rejected me, despite the hefty revisions I had worked on with Brent that had turned my story around. Now, I had what was shaping up to be a pretty decent book on my hands, but nobody left to query about it.

That was when I stumbled across Kboards, and my understanding and attitude about publishing was eventually changed forever. Here was a forum chock full of writers, some good, some not-so-good, who were making a go at indie publishing. I was fascinated, but refused to commit to the idea of going indie. At first, the whole idea left a bad taste in my mouth. If I couldn’t make it past the gatekeepers of the big houses, wasn’t I simply not good enough? Maybe. Or maybe, just as every rejection said, I just wasn’t the right fit at the right nanosecond of time for any of the agents I was coveting.

After a few months of reading Kboards every day, I decided I was going to go for it. I wasn’t ready to abandon my project, to chalk it up to that first book that ends up in the drawer and move on to something different.  All those hours reading the board had taught me that I already had all the right pieces of the puzzle in hand to have a shot at success

I had:
·       -- A five book series
·        --Experience with design
·        --Experience with art direction
·        --Some money to put into good covers and marketing
·        --General tech/internet savvy
·        --A kick-ass editor

I got to writing the second book and devised a strategy.

The Plan
·        --Complete first two books
·        --Commission professional, beautiful artwork for covers
·        --Release both books at the same (roughly) time
·        --Set first book to permafree on all outlets
·        --Use free status of first book to attract readers who may be wary of brand new authors
·        --Use first book to funnel readers to the other, paid, books in the series
·        --Promote first book like gangbusters
·        --Learn as much as possible about Amazon algorithms
·        --Build website
·        --Build mailing list

·       -- Kids in my target age range don’t always have access to electronic reading devices, but this is something that’s changing rapidly.
·        --Kids in my target age range may not have permission to buy books on their own.
·        --Need to figure out how to target Mom and Kid

“The Plan” may sound nutty to some. Why would anyone want to give away a book that took a year to write and revise (and revise and revise)? The proof is in the pudding. Permafree works very well as a marketing strategy, and though it isn’t quite as powerful a tool as it was a year ago, it’s still quite effective.

The thing about going indie that gets me excited is the fact that independent authors have total control over their final product. We have the freedom to experiment with covers, typeface, book descriptions (or blurbs), keywords, and all advertising. You may read this and think, “But I don’t want to do all that.” But I think it’s fun and extremely empowering to know that if a mistake is made, I have the power to fix it with just a few clicks. True, it would be glorious to be able to tell the whole world that the pearly gates of Scholastic were opened up to me amidst fanfare and worship. But the reality is that, from a business perspective, I’m much more likely to make money in the indie world than with a traditional publisher.

Last month, a month early, I released the first book in my Aster Wood series. I’ve barely told anybody before now about the release because I wanted to learn the process so that I didn’t crash and burn in the middle of a promotion. Now I understand how to create the ebooks, upload them to each vendor, tweak keywords, make changes, experiment with tiny promotions to see how they affect the ranking, and a zillion other miniscule things. I am currently getting about 70 downloads a day without promoting the book in any way. Will any of these readers turn into “conversions”? That is to say, will they buy Book 2 and the rest? Standard conversion rates from permafree titles vary from 2%-25%, so only time will tell.

But I feel good. Really good and really excited. How did I get here, claw myself up from the rejection of the query trenches? Reading Kboards every day. There are so many successful authors in the Writer’s Café who will share their knowledge with you. And when I say successful, I mean some of these people are making millions of dollars a year. There are also many up-and-comers who are testing the water, like me, who will share their first experiences with marketing, design, mailing lists, and anything else you can think of that’s relevant to the independent publishing world. And plenty who are making $10 a month. No matter what level of writing and/or marketing/luck you find yourself at, you can find support on Kboards.

The indie landscape is changing daily. What works to promote changes daily. So I read and study daily.

I don’t know if I’ll make any money on Aster Wood. But from what I hear, traditionally published authors don’t usually make much, anyways. I feel that, armed with the knowledge I have of my audience, the process of going indie, as well as how to work with Amazon to get my books in front of as many eyes as possible, that I have a better shot at making a living than many traditionally published authors ever could.

I may not have the prestige of the Big 5, but I have control

J. B. Cantwell

You can find the first FREE book in the Aster Wood series, Aster Wood and the Lost Maps of Almara, here:

And my website here:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

7 Questions For: Editor Jason Pinter

Jason Pinter is the founder and publisher of Polis Books, a new independent publishing company for the digital age focusing on commercial fiction. He is also the bestselling author of five thrillers: THE DARKNESSTHE FURYTHE STOLENTHE GUILTY and THE MARK, which was optioned to be a major motion picture, as well as the Middle Grade novel ZEKE BARTHOLOMEW: SUPERSPY. He has been nominated for the Strand Critics Award, the Barry Award, the Shamus Award and the Thriller Award, and his books have nearly 1.5 million copies in print in over a dozen languages. Prior to founding Polis Books, Pinter worked at Warner Books, Crown Publishing, St. Martin’s Press, Grove/Atlantic and the Mysterious Press. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonpinter.

And now Jason Pinter faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

REDWALL by Brian Jacques – I must have read this book a dozen times, and then devoured the entire Redwall series. A couple years ago I bought the repackaged books because they just felt like they belonged on my shelf as an adult.

THE SWORD OF SHANNARA by Terry Brooks – I actually read this series ‘before’ I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so I didn’t realize just how much Brooks owed to J.R.R. Tolkien, while also magazine to create a whole world on his own. I still remember literally waiting outside the bookstore every time a new Shannara book was released so I could finish it on the first day.

THE HARDY BOYS/ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN – This is probably where my love of crime fiction came from. I love the sleuthing, the detective stories, and trying to figure out the cases along with the characters.

Question Two: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

The “Indiana Jones” series of course. I must have dressed up as Indy for something like five straight Halloweens.

“Wall-E” - Perhaps the greatest animated movie of all time. I honestly got misty the first time I saw it, and probably couldn’t watch it around other people because the same thing would probably happen again.

“Ghostbusters” - because of course. But is it weird that my favorite character was always Slimer?

Question Three: What are the qualities of your ideal writer?

Someone who is just a born storyteller. Some people get caught up in the language and prose—which is hugely important—but I always look for a writer who knows how a story begins, progresses and ends, with writing that keeps the paging turning. A writer who has read enough to know what works and what doesn’t, and that a bad book can teach you as much as a good book. A writer who is also a professional and hits their deadlines, understands that the editorial process is for their own good, but is confident enough in their abilities that they’re willing to fight me on something if they think I’m wrong.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I still have a soft spot for epic fantasy, along the lines of THE SWORD OF SHANNARA or the ERAGON series. I’d also love to see mysteries and thrillers for younger readers. But I’m also a big fan of funny adventures, which is part of the reason I wrote my own middle grade novel ZEKE BARTHOLOMEW: SUPERSPY! In my mind there should be humor in just about every young novel, because who would want to live in a world without humor?

Question Five: What is your favorite thing about being an editor? What is your least favorite thing? 

I am and have always been a reader first, so I love the thrill of reading a submission that turns out to be good and sucks me in. The wonderful feeling when I’m lucky enough to acquire a book I really want to work on, and it’s even sweeter when the author turns out to be fun to work with. My least favorite thing is authors who don’t really get involved in the publication process, don’t really offer feedback on much and are happy to write and then stay out of it. I’d much rather work with an author who wants input into the whole process: editorial, design, marketing, everything. If an author truly cares how their book is published, it will help us and invigorate us.

Question Six: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Never stop reading. Read everything you can get your hands on, even books that you don’t think are your ‘taste’. You might learn something new from a book you wouldn’t ordinarily read, and sometimes leaving your comfort zone allows you to experiment and stretch your own abilities. If you’re writing in a certain genre, know the genre well. Know what works and what doesn’t work. You can follow tried and true formulas, but always put your own spin on it. A book, in many ways, should be a reflection of your own personality.

Question Seven: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Stephen King. Hes been my idol since I was a teenager. Only I’d make sure it wasnt just lunch, but dinner, breakfast, lunch the next day, maybe a few movies (on second thought, I might get arrested if I keep him that long).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

GUEST POST: "Breaking into Fiction with Nonfiction" by Shelley Tougas

When I was an aspiring novelist, I took freelance writing gigs to pay the bills. I wrote about community festivals, fire department budgets, and careers in construction. I even wrote inspirational essays.

Bills got paid, but I was no closer to being an author.

Then a friend connected me with an education publisher that sells books directly to the school and library market. Writing for government newsletters paid more – a lot more - but I wanted my name on a book. I took an assignment to write a nonfiction book for middle graders about terrorism.

This publishing model is called work for hire. The publisher gives specific guidelines to the writer, who gets paid a flat fee for the book. No royalties, no bonuses. On the other hand, the writer doesn’t have to pitch, market or sell.

I was collecting rejection letters for my young adult novels, but the nonfiction assignments kept coming. My work-for-hire books were landing on shelves in schools and libraries.

It wasn’t a bestseller lifestyle, but I was an author – a paid author.

Then one of those work-for-hire middle-grade books garnered attention. Little Rock Girl 1963: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration landed on top ten lists from Booklist and School Library Journal. Because of its starred reviews and awards and sales, the book made the leap from schools and libraries into bookstores. I recently found it at a Barnes and Noble in a suburban mall.

I’m no marketing genius, but it occurred to me that I should leverage the success of Little Rock Girl. Clearly my voice worked more effectively in middle grade than young adult. So I stopped writing for young adults and turned my attention to middle-grade fiction.

In the span of a year, I wrote my first middle-grade novel, The Graham Cracker Plot, and landed a fantastic agent, who quickly sold the novel at auction in a two-book deal. (Roaring Brook is my publisher.) I didn’t have to produce a proposal or an outline or even a title for the second book.

But I wasn’t an exception to the Golden Rule of publishing. I wrote a great novel. (I’m hoping the world agrees.) That’s first and foremost. But did my nonfiction work help seal the deal? Absolutely. I was able to pitch myself as an award-winning author to agents, and my agent was able to pitch me as an award-winning author to editors. Now the marketing team is pitching me to librarians, booksellers and readers as the award-winning author of Little Rock Girl.

Even if Little Rock Girl hadn’t won recognition, my collection of work-for-hire education books gave me an edge. My credits showed I’d been published and hired again – that spoke to my ability to deliver quality manuscripts, work diplomatically with editors, and meet deadlines.

Here’s what you need to know about work-for-hire and publishing in the school and library market:

     --Education publishing is a lot of work for a small paycheck. (You need to be a meticulous researcher, which, at least in my case, took more time than the writing.) The length of the book and its complexity will affect what you earn. I can’t speak for all projects at all publishing companies. I asked other nonfiction writers I know about their contracts and factored in my own experience. Based on that information, I can say contracts have ranged from $1,000 to $5,000.

     --The quality of books in this market ranges from outstanding to embarrassing. Make sure you know what you’re putting your name on.

     --Understand the contract. I recently read an article about a publisher requiring the author to pay for photo rights for the book. That’s outrageous. I’m fortunate. I never dealt with a bad publisher, but obviously they exist.

     --The topics won’t necessarily excite you. I wrote a kids’ book about the science behind weapons. I’m not particularly interested in weapons or science. I know someone who wrote a book about cockroaches. (Someone has to write books about cockroaches, right?)

     --It’s not easy to track your sales. A service called BookScan tracks and reports retail sales information, but you won’t glean much about the school and library market. When I got my contract for The Graham Cracker Plot, the publisher was interested in sales numbers for Little Rock Girl for obvious reasons. Education publishers may not be willing to share that information with you or your new publisher.

     --You still have to sell yourself. Breaking into the work-for-hire school and library market is easier than publishing a novel, but it’s still competitive. My background in journalism was a huge selling point. Networking with people in the industry is essential. If you don’t “know people who know people,” you should consider attending conferences, taking classes and getting publication credit wherever and whenever you can. Check out resources such as the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

     --Do you have experience with curriculum, classrooms and reading levels? If you have education credentials and you can write well, you’re gold.

     --If you aren’t making progress with writing assignments, pitch yourself for proofreading or fact checking. I’ve done both. Those are the least glamorous jobs in publishing, but it’s a foot in the door.

     --Education publishers have limited resources, countless books in production and many freelance writers to manage. Don’t expect emails updating you about your book’s status. Google the title – and yourself - so you can keep track of reviews and recognitions.

Good luck building your publishing resume. No matter how much success you have in the work-for-hire market, remember that the Golden Rule for publishing fiction never changes. Write a great novel.

Shelley Tougas writes fiction and nonfiction for kids. The Graham Cracker Plot, her first middle-grade novel, will be released Sept. 2. Shelley lives in western Wisconsin. Her author website is

Thursday, July 31, 2014

NINJA STUFF: Calling All Guest Posters

Do you have thoughts on writing and/or publishing, Esteemed Reader? Would you like to share those thoughts with the world, or at least, the portion of the world that reads this blog?

Then my blog is your blog, my Esteemed Readers can be your Esteemed Readers. If you have something interesting to say and can say it in less than 2,000 words, email me. I'd like to fill up this page of guest posters with thoughtful posts a notch above what regular Esteemed Readers expect:)

In less than a year, I've become an author as well as a father and I'm busy, busy, busy doing things I mostly love, such as preparing audio book versions of my stuff. I have to type this fast before Little Ninja screams for his morning bottle, at which point I'll transition to editing the middle grade book I'm writing for next year (so nice to work on a story in which no one gets eaten by a zombie). 

As a result, this blog is going to remain as slow as it's been. I'll still be reviewing books once in a long while and I'll still refer to them as Book of the Week posts, I guess in memory of their previous frequency. But I have a hard time just now responding to review requests, let alone accepting them. And posts like this one will remain rare. 

I so admire Hugh Howey (you know, of course, because I never shut up about him and I made gratuitous references to Wool in All Right Now). He gets involved in interesting author issues and keeps an amazing blog I read every week. I admire that he doesn't have to do squat (his books are selling just fine whether he advocates for authors or not) and it would probably be in his best interest to say nicer things about traditional publishers or at least not to encourage his competition. You don't see James Patterson running around telling other would-be authors specifically how they can cut in on his fan base (quite the opposite), though he will let up-and-comers write his books for him:)

Hugh Howey doesn't have a new baby. I'm not convinced it would slow him down much if he did, but it slows me down and I also work 40 hours a week in a completely unrelated field. Even if I had the talent to compare myself to Hugh Howey, I don't have the same lifestyle, so I'm just gonna focus on being the best me I can be. If I reach the point where I can write full time, I'll make regular posting here more of a priority and I might even get informed enough to tackle publishing issues (the internets need my take on Amazon v Hachette: Dawn of Justice). 

Every month, my royalty checks are growing and I've got more books on the way. Making a living as a writer is no longer an impossible dream of mine. Writing could one day be a practical way to support my family. I've been publishing for less than a year and to date I've got one novel and two shorter works earning for me--and they are earning. It kind of blows my mind to see how many people are willing to part with cash for something I've written, but not only are strangers buying my books, they're buying T-shirts (more on that in a moment). 

So, in the event all these newfound readers don't disappear and I continue to reach new ones through word of mouth (how else can I explain strong sales in India where I've never been?), I could reach a point of dependable income from writing. At this moment I don't see this as the inevitable outcome of my efforts, only as a possible outcome, but that in itself is amazing and inspires me to write every morning. Because if I'm doing this well on three ebooks, how well will I do on four? Five? Ten? There's only one way to find out and this quest makes writing books more fun than it's ever been. 

While I'm busy finding out, this blog needs posts! So if you're looking for a way to reach new readers, and if you're a writer, you should be, why not try reaching my readers? I'm calling all authors and publishing professionals who have something interesting to say. Why not say it here? 

And that's it, except I wanted to comment on that T-shirt link that now appears in the upper left-hand corner of the blog. A while back I had a shirt made of the All Together Now cover so I could wear it around as a billboard because I'm shameless and also because I'm proud of that book and Mike Mullin has an Ashfall T-shirt  he wears to meetings of the YA Cannibals and it made me jealous:) Since then, several folks have asked me where they could get their All Together Now shirt, which is awesome, but I didn't want to have to make a new shirt every time someone asked. 

So now I have a Zazzle store with T-shirts bearing all my book covers. I can't imagine I'm going to get rich, but that's not really the point. Most of the items available there are either things I want (heck yes I want a Banneker Bones light switch cover!), my friends want, or that I think it's funny to create. I don't know who's going to use the All Right Now pacifier, but it amuses me that it exists and I cackle every time I see the Pizza Delivery cutting board. And why not? One day soon we'll all be dead, so let's have some fun now:)

Monday, July 21, 2014

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Danielle Smith

For more than six years Danielle Smith has been the well-known blogger behind the online review site There’s a Book, voted the BBAW’s Best Kidlit Book Review Blog and host to over two-hundred thousand page views per month. Her children’s book reviews have also appeared in top online and print publications such as Parenting Magazine and Women’s World.
Smith’s expertise in children’s literature led her to serve as a judge for The Cybils Awards from 2010 to 2012, and as a board member of The Central Coast Writer’s Conference and the BEA Book Bloggers Advisory.
Danielle comes to Red Fox Literary after a successful stint at Foreword Literary where she sold Julie Falatko’s highly anticipated picture book Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) in a pre-empt to Viking Children’s Books.
As the latest addition to Red Fox Literary, Smith will be looking to further expand on the sterling reputation she's built within the children’s trade publishing world. Her client list includes both authors and illustrators working in genres from board books to picture books to young adult novels.“There is something magical about working with children’s books,” says Smith who still cherishes the time she’s able to read with her own two children each day.
And now Danielle Smith faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

Only three?! Wow. Well, here goes! Three of my current favorites:

The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander, Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington and Socks by Beverly Cleary (the first book I ever loved).

Question Two: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

You really know how to make a person think, don’t you? Three is so tough! Here goes, my top three current favorites:
BBC’s Sherlock, HBO’s True Detective and The Lord of the Rings movies.

Question Three: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

The qualities I look for most, but aren’t a “requirement” by any means are passion for their own work and children’s literature, patience, persistence, talent, trust, savviness and knowledge about the industry and perhaps most important of all, humility.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

If I could get a manuscript that featured diverse characters the way that Kim Baker’s Pickle does with the magical realism of Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me in a well written middle grade novel I’d be delighted.

Question Five: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing would have to be working with my clients and watching them grow through the process. More specifically being a part of their success. I’ve always been the type of person that enjoys giving others the tools to shine in the spotlight and that makes this one of the very best jobs for me personally.

Getting rejections for books I love would have to be my least favorite thing. We all get rejections, at every stage in this process. For me, I only take on projects and clients I truly love and am passionate about. So receiving a rejection hurts almost as much as if it were my own writing. 

That said, one or even a dozen rejections on one piece doesn’t mean the end. There’s always more and it only takes one editor to love a piece to make things happen.

Question Six: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

My biggest piece of advice would be to be patient and don’t rush things. I get a number of submissions that, for a number of reasons, aren’t ready and it’s clear the writer was too excited to get the manuscript sent off that they neglected important details. Sometimes we get second chances to try again, but not always. Be sure to put your very best foot forward by paying attention to details and researching prior to submitting. 

And then, be comfortable with patiently waiting. During those waiting times keep writing and improving because your career will be filled with them, even after signing an agent and especially while waiting for books to be published. Stay busy and keep improving your craft!

Question Seven: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Another tough question! I feel very fortunate that in the past few years I’ve had lunch with a number of the authors I love and admire, but at this moment I’d have to say Patrick Ness. I’ve met him before and we know each other, but since the time we last saw each other he’s published a couple of books that I have big questions about, tough questions. He’s someone I really respect and I’d love to pick his brain and get to know a little more about his writing process and journey in general.

If I could pick another, someone that’s no longer living, I’d pick Homer. I studied Classical Literature in school, and loved studying The Iliad and The Odyssey. What would it be like to sit with someone from that time? I can only imagine. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Laura Biagi

Laura Biagi joined JVNLA in 2009. She is actively building her own client list, seeking adult literary fiction and young readers books. She also handles the sale of Australian and New Zealand rights for the agency. She has worked closely with Jean Naggar and Jennifer Weltz on their titles, as well as Jennifer Weltz on the submission of JVNLA's titles internationally.

Laura's writing background has honed her editorial eye and has driven her enthusiasm for discovering and developing literary talent. She studied creative writing and anthropology at Northwestern University. As a writer, she has participated in workshops at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She is the recipient of a Kentucky Emerging Artist Award for fiction writing.

Laura grew up in a small town in Kentucky and maintains a fondness for Southern biscuits and unobstructed views of the stars.

Follow her on twitter.

And now Laura Biagi faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?
Oh gosh, I can't list just three!  The Harry Potter books will always top my list because they made such a huge impact on me.  The level of world building J.K. Rowling did for the books and the incredible story she wove never fail to astound me.  I think Rowling was the first to prove to me everything books could be.

I'm very eclectic in my taste, but strong writing and incredible characters are the most important to me.  So, in the adult realm, I'd place Blindness by Jose Saramago among my top favorites; it's a dark, literary apocalyptic novel.  I'd also put The Shipping News by Annie Proulx up there; Proulx creates amazing characters.  And I loved No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July.  It's edgy and kept surprising me, taking me further than I ever expected it would go, brilliantly.

Other books on my favorite list in the kids' realm include Bringing Nettie Back by Nancy Hope Wilson, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi.  All have wonderful character development and are well-told stories.

Question Two: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?
I love the madness, the lushness, and the great story at the heart of Moulin Rouge.  Slumdog Millionaire is another favorite because of the thrilling story it tells and its social and cultural insight.  And I think Proof, the movie starring Gywneth Paltrow based on the (also amazing) play, is a fantastic psychological tale with pieces that slowly unfold, fitting together like a puzzle.  It's incredible.

The TV shows I love usually do a great job of pairing character crises with plot crises--using both to illuminate the other.  TV-wise, past favorites include House M.D. and the early seasons of Glee.  A more recent favorite has been Graceland, which has some fantastic character development and twists.

Question Three: What are the qualities of your ideal client?
My ideal client would be someone who's persistent and creative.  I also want someone who can keep challenging themselves creatively, someone who understands we're a team, and someone who treats writing professionally.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?
Well, adult-wise, I'd love to get more literary fiction, especially something of a magical realism bent and/or surrounding social or cultural issues.  For me, literary fiction usually has to have a strong plot, too, in addition to great writing and characters.

Kids-wise, I'm looking for a great story with great characters that's well told.  It sounds generic, but it's true.  Again, I'd love something that has a bit of a magical realism flavor (which doesn't mean straight fantasy), a bit in the vein of another of our agency books, Amber House by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed.  I skew more toward the literary side of YA rather than the commercial side.  

Question Five: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?
My favorite thing's got to be discovering that submission that stands out from all the rest, that makes me want to keep reading and reading, that makes me feel like the characters and their world are real.

My least favorite thing is probably the various administrative odds and ends--they can sometimes be menial, but everyone has to do them to keep business functioning!

Question Six: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)
Keep writing and don't let yourself stop.  Even if you do have to take a break for a bit (because life does get in the way!), find a time to keep going, and write.  Your first novel or picture book, etc, may not be the first one to make it out there, but if you keep writing, reading, and leaving yourself open to learning experiences, then you're that much more likely to make it.  And don't keep reworking the same piece for too long.  Your writing can only grow if you give yourself new things to write--much like a plant can't grow bigger if you keep it in the same pot.

Question Seven: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Hmm, well I suppose it would have to be J.K. Rowling.  I'd love to pick her brain about how she created such an astounding, complex world in the Harry Potter books and what her inspiration was.  And I'm curious to hear, in her own words, how she was able to keep persisting as a writer--she has quite an amazing success story!  And of course I'd also ask about her adult books, the writing process for them, her inspiration, etc. I guess this would have to be a long lunch!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

7 Questions For: Author Jessica Lawson

Jessica Lawson holds a BA in Spanish and an MS in Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resource Management. She’s worked in the nonprofit sector (with charitable-giving foundations), as a preschool teacher, at a dude ranch, and on National Forest trail crews. She lives in Colorado with her husband and children. The Actual &Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is her first novel. - See more at:
Jessica Lawson holds a BA in Spanish and an MS in Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resource Management. She’s worked in the nonprofit sector (with charitable-giving foundations), as a preschool teacher, at a dude ranch, and on National Forest trail crews. She lives in Colorado with her husband and children. 

The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is her first novel. Click here to read my review.

And now Jessica Lawson faces the 7 Questions: 
Jessica Lawson holds a BA in Spanish and an MS in Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resource Management. She’s worked in the nonprofit sector (with charitable-giving foundations), as a preschool teacher, at a dude ranch, and on National Forest trail crews. She lives in Colorado with her husband and children. The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is her first novel. - See more at:
Jessica Lawson holds a BA in Spanish and an MS in Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resource Management. She’s worked in the nonprofit sector (with charitable-giving foundations), as a preschool teacher, at a dude ranch, and on National Forest trail crews. She lives in Colorado with her husband and children. The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher is her first novel. - See more at:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

That’ll change every time you ask, but right this instant I’ll stick with kid lit and say Rumer Godden/Barbara Cooney’s picture book The Story of Holly and Ivy, Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion of the World, and Beth Hilgartner’s historical middle grade novel A Murder for Her Majesty.

Question Two: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

Not as much as I’d like! I try to find an hour or so during the day to write and I read about thirty minutes to an hour at night. My preference would be to write in the early morning, but babies tend to put a damper on preferences. As do 5-year-olds. With kids, it’s really just about writing and reading “in the cracks” and finding time wherever/whenever it presents itself.

Question Three: What was the path that led you to publication?

I was a stay-at-home mom who was watching too many reruns of Gilmore Girls, so I started writing in the summer of 2009 as a hobby—at least that’s what I told myself (it helped to keep my expectations low, which comes in handy when amassing rejections). 

In the fall of 2009 I started querying. My first effort was a women’s fiction novel set in a small town eerily similar to the one featured in…Gilmore Girls. Needless to say, that manuscript was trunked and padlocked. I soon realized that, as a woman who was still re-reading Where the Red Fern Grows in my 30s, maybe I should try writing for a different audience. 

I wrote/queried several other manuscripts (both middle grade and young adult) before writing The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, the manuscript that landed me both an agent and a book deal. Middle grade literature is my comfort zone and the resting place of my heart, both in reading and writing. 

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I’d say both. There are writers out there who were born to write—the people who seem to innately live the written word and it pours out of them compulsively, whether they want it to or not. As for me, it feels like a return to something that always fit me well, but that never really registered as a possibility for a career.

I’ve put a lot of effort into learning more about writing in recent years, but I still feel like a raw scrapper—more of a Rudy-type, who got really lucky with publication because of persistence, practice, love of books/writing, and the ability to take a lot of rejection without giving up, rather than because of a pure, natural skill.

Question Five: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is finding a character who seems special—who makes me want to discover and write their story. 

Least favorite thing is feeling guilty when writing takes me away from personal family time.

Question Six: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like) 
Set deadlines for the writing goals you want to accomplish as motivation, but don’t worry too much if those deadlines get extended…and extended again. 

Concentrate as much on the learning process and on writing the best story you can write as you do on rejection/request ratios. 

Find a solid critique partner or four who will give you honest and helpful feedback, keep you accountable, and join in your struggles/successes.

Question Seven: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Barbara Park. When I heard about Barbara Park passing, my heart hurt so much. The genius of her Junie B. Jones books is that they appear so effortless, but that voice, my goodness. They say that laughter is the best medicine, and Ms. Park was an understated master of blending laughter and truth. I would like to be able to tell Ms. Park that the joy she’s brought to several of my family members, both in easy times and times when we all could really use a smile, is immeasurable. I’d like to personally thank her for that.