Friday, October 17, 2014

Book of the Week: THE MISSHAPES by Alex Flynn

First Paragraph: I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw a man fly. I was very small; I remember that much. My arms were tightly locked around my dad’s neck. He was giving me a piggyback ride through our perfectly ordinary town center. It was a crisp and cold fall day. Our heads craned upward as we tried to name the various clouds in the sky, giving them shapes, personalities, and identities. Mom still lived with us. I didn’t know about her abilities yet.

Quick Note: I don't think this YA book quite qualifies for the big red warning I throw up when I review hardcore cannibals-eating-and-raping-everybody-Mike-Mullin-style YA, but despite being kid-friendly, The Misshapes is not middle grade. There's some language and adult themes, but if a child sat through The Dark Knight (and they should, or their parents have failed them), they should have no trouble with The Misshapes

Do you love superheroes, Esteemed Reader? Unless this is your first time reading this blog, you know I do. Writing a superhero novel is one of the top items on my bucket list (Banneker Bones has no super powers, alas), and whatever the story, if a character has superpowers, I'm interested. 

The trick in writing about characters with superpowers is the same as writing about magic or zombies or any other subject. First, invest the reader in the character, then you can put them in whatever compelling situation you choose and pages will be turned. That's what I love about The Misshapes and particularly the paragraph above, which is one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read.

Alex Flynn first hooks us with the situation in sentence one: this is a world in which people can fly--or we'd be hearing about the time Sarah saw a man fly rather than just the first time. As a comic book junkie, I'm hooked at least enough to read to the end of the first chapter, but then Flynn sets the hook with the last sentence. Mom is apparently gone--not dead, but gone--and she also has abilities. Things just got personal. I'm interested in the world of the story and I'm now interested in our protagonist, Sarah Robertson, whose mother has left her and who may have inherited superpowers. 

16-year-old Sarah Robertson does indeed have superpowers, She's pretty much teenage Storm:

I flipped the switch on the humidifier. The plastic mechanism inside it whirred. A warm skein of moist air poured out of the nozzle. I waved my hand through it a couple of times and tried to focus my emotions on the jet. With a small dark thought and a little tension in my muscles, I was able to shepherd the rising moisture and form a small cloud. It looked like a floating pile of marshmallows.

How much fun is that? If you're like me, Esteemed Reader, you're hooked already and there's no need for you to read the rest of this review. Go ahead and buy your copy of The Misshapes. You can always come back and read this later:) And you'll be glad you did. The Misshapes is a fun book with a lot of heart and some truly interesting characters. 

Sarah lives in a world where superheros and villains are an everyday thing. Rather than concocting a scheme in which everyone in the town of Doolittle Falls is bitten by a radioactive spider, Alex Flynn has a much simpler explanation:

Mom said that Heroes have been around since the dawn of time. Throughout the ages, people have held them in high esteem and great disdain, depending on whether they’re fighting in a war or trying to rule a country.

Some of the national celebrities wear their capes around town, like Freedom Man, but almost everyone else Clark Kents it. Mom explained it like this: Everyone is born without powers, but as they grow older, they develop. And once puberty hits, boom, you’re a full-on one-person crime-fighting machine. Or, in some cases, crime-causing. But until that point, you’re in limbo, with some traces of powers to come. Some may find that they can control the elements, like turning rocks into liquid. Others may just be able to fly, although very few can without some assisted propulsion.

She tried to explain how superpowers happened once. They’re the result of a small rogue chromosome that broke off from the rest of the genes thousands of years ago. That was all well and good, but when some virus interacted with this chromosome, it transformed it into a source of potential superpowers. That’s how Heroes came into existence, and that’s how they marry other Heroes and they pass down powerful powers from kid to kid. The process of finding out who was going to have awesome powers, the right kind of powers, was similar to finding a prima ballerina. Prima ballerinas are discovered when they’re young, when experts check the make of their feet and their legs to determine whether they’ll develop into sylphs that you can throw around.

So there you have it. We've got a town full of superheros and you just know that sooner or later some villains are going to present themselves. There's some dark threats on the horizon that will likely follow Sarah into the sequels, assuming there will be some (don't worry-there's no cliffhanger ending, just room for more story if readers want it).

Comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable to most middle grade and young adult books written A.R. (After Rowling). I'm not about to tell you The Misshapes is basically Harry Potter with superheroes instead of wizards, nor is it the book version of Sky High. It's its own thing. Oh sure, the superheroes play a game that very much reminded me of quidditch, but more complicated and without brooms. But in some ways, Sarah Robertson is kind of the anti-Harry Potter, or Bizzaro Harry, if you will:)

Why do I say this? Well, Sarah's parents weren't killed by a super-villain. Sort of the opposite (or bizzaro-site):

I was rudely awoken by the sound of Megan’s whiskey-tinged drawl. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the Bane of Innsmouth’s little daughter. Oh, and let’s not forget, the sister of Stupor Man.” She lowered her sunglasses and glared at me. “You know no one wants you here. Half their parents tried to kill your mom, and with your brother drunk all the time your family doesn’t have the best rep.” It was a rude awakening, to say the least.

That's a coincidence, you say? Could be. But then Sarah gets a letter (true, it's not delivered by an owl) from the superhero Hogwarts uninviting her to attend. She actually gets it at a superhero party and is shamed in front of the group she most wants to be part of rather than triumphing over the family that's done her wrong. Doomed to never become a proper superhero (or is she...), Sarah becomes a Misshape.

I don't know if this Harry Potter stuff really holds up, so I'll drop it. Just struck me as interesting as all.

The Misshapes is a hilarious book perfect for fans of The Tick and other humorous superhero stories. Some of the powers, such as one boy's ability to conjure back-up singers, kept me chuckling and turning pages to the end. And there's plenty of social satire and a metaphorical discussion on class--lots of those going around now that America is at peak inequality. I had a good time making my way through this book and you will too.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Misshapes:

Even though there are a lot of Heroes in this town, parents are still pretty mistrusting of strangers. A town with Heroes can draw villains out of the woodwork.

Luke yelled after us as we made our way to the stands, “You should come to my place after the game. I mean, my parents’ place. They’re not home and …” He stopped and started again. “I’m having an after-party. You should come.” 

“Can my friends come or is this a party of two, Luke?” said Christie. 
He turned bright red. “No. I mean yes. Of course they can.” 
She smiled at him and he melted to the floor. Not literally though. That power would be gross.

The more I looked at her, the more I realized that even though she was a Normal, she totally had superpowers—she was super hot, she was super rich, and she lived in this super neighborhood.

Professor Cyclopso is so creepy. He always stares at the girls with his one eye.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

7 Questions For: Author(s) Alex Flynn

Alex Flynn is the pseudonym for the writing team of Stuart Sherman and Elisabeth Donnelly. They met at a clandestine book club in Boston, where they broke into a fortified tower in order to discuss literature. They like garrulous Irish writers, Pushing Daisies, and anything involving The Tick, from the comic book to the short-lived series with Patrick Warburton. Their secret lair is currently in a hollowed out volcano in Brooklyn.

Their book, The Misshapes, launches in print today! Pick up a copy at Barnes and Noble or Indie Bound

And now Alex Flynn faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

Only three, that’s unpossible! We moved recently and our books were taking all of the room. But if we have to choose 3 between the two of us, let’s pick Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, and James Joyce's Ulysses.

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

Depends on the week. We also both write a lot of non-fiction stuff for work (Elisabeth is an editor at Flavowire and Stu is the director of a bioethics Task Force), so probably another 25 hours on top of that. We usually try to spend at least an hour a day writing fiction and 2-3 a day on weekends, so 11 hours or so, which includes editing. That's average, some are much more and some are much less. We probably each read a book or two a week, tomes, and a huge amount of essays and articles. Maybe 40 hours or more a week reading. 

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

Circuitous to say the least. We went through the agent roundelay after 100 or so queries we got a lot of interest but no bites. We were considering self-publishing when I saw Jason post that he was starting Polis Books. We sent a query and some sample chapters and that's what started the ball rolling. Originally it was going to be an e-book, but there was enough interest to put it in print, which we’re absolutely thrilled about!

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

Hmm, probably a little of both. Bio-psycho-social if you will. Stu’s grand theory is that storytellers are born and writers are taught. There are just some people who are natural storytellers, without having to understand plot structure or how the engage a reader, you can just listen to them for hours. They are often old Irishmen, too. Writing is more of a craft and requires patience, practice, and good teachers (although reading is the best teacher). You can learn to be a good storyteller, but there's something innate about the level of creativity and imagination that can't be taught.  What makes a good storyteller is someone who is naturally curious. If you have curiosity, and you can make the audience curious, you can tell a good story. If you are dedicated enough and put in the time, you can become a good writer. 

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

It’s great to create new worlds and concepts and explore ideas through narratives. Writing is a job, a fun one, and hopefully the resulting stories are fun to read.

For me, Stu, I'm a pretty crappy copyeditor. I was in special education classes until 5th grade because of learning disabilities, which was probably ADHD, but they didn't know it at the time (I wasn't hyper) and chalked some of it up to being diabetic and blood sugars. In reality not classifying me probably helped because I didn't feel confined by something, I just thought (and still do) that I think differently than everyone else, and I eventually learned to compensate in my own. Anyways, I make terribly stupid mistakes in first drafts and feel awful about them. If you ever read a first draft of mine you'd think I'm just learning English and not learning it fast. 

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)

Only do it if you love the process. No one gets famous or rich writing, despite the fact that there’s an ethically dubious industry out there of people telling you that they know all the secrets and how to do it right. Even if you do hit it Stephen King big, it's just you and a keyboard most of the time. And go do stuff that’s interesting in the world. Take weird jobs, learn about all sorts of people in the world, get a perspective on things that isn’t your own. Stay curious!

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

It's a tricky question because some of the greatest writers are probably terrible companions for a meal. I don't speak early Florentine Italian so anything Dante said would be wasted on me. And I'd be worried F. Scott Fitgerald would just get drunk and stick me with the bill. I think I'd like to speak with George Orwell. He was a great writer but also an astute social observer and critic, and I'd like to pick his brain about what's going on in the world today. George Orwell would be amazing. 

I, Elisabeth, would also love to talk with Tracy Kidder, your favorite nonfiction writer’s favorite writer, who’s able to take on topics mundane (a house) and great (the development of computers, genocide, human survival), and make them all pulse with relevance. He’s fantastic.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Michelle Witte

Michelle Witte brings with her a wealth of experience to her work as a children's literary agent with Mansion Street Literary Management, where she represents middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction. Over the past nine years, she has worked in a variety of positions that encapsulate the various stages of a book’s publication, from the idea and writing stages to editing and design, bookselling and publicity. With her editorial background, she has a keen eye for quality prose and storytelling. But it is her overall experience as a reader, writer, editor, and bookseller that guides her as she searches for enthralling new writers and manuscripts.
Michelle began her career as a journalist, first reporting and then later copy editing for the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, Utah. From there, she transitioned with her editing skills to nonfiction publisher Gibbs Smith, where she oversaw creation, editing, and production of more than thirty titles, including children’s activity, humor, gift, cookbooks, and a smattering of other topics from blacksmithing to green living.
In her spare time she writes on a variety of topics and genres, though her great love is young adult fiction. Her first book, The Craptastic Guide to Pseudo-Swearing was released 2012 by Running Press, followed a year later by The Faker’s Guide to the Classics: Everything You Need to Know About the Books You Should Have Read (But Didn’t), from Lyons Press in 2013.
And now Michelle Witte faces the 7 Questions: 

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?
It rotates, depending on what I've read recently or what I'm reminiscing about at the moment, but these three are almost always in the top 10: Matilda by Roald Dahl; Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith; and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

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

I tend to go through Netflix binges, so my favorite will probably depend on the day and/or show I'm currently binge-watching, though I'm always up for a good k-drama (Korean drama, for the uninitiated). Some recent faves include Longmire (about a sheriff in Wyoming; it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, and the cultural dynamics are great), Haven (sci-fi based on a Stephen King short story), and Hart of Dixie (NY doctor in smal-town Alabama). I'm also inordinately excited about the upcoming Galavant. (Google it. Seriously. You won't be disappointed.) If you can't tell, I'm a bit all over the place. Same goes for my reading habits and interests as an agent (hint, hint).

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

My ideal client is someone who is able to take feedback (and even criticism), and then leap into revisions, producing something so much better than I could have imagined. Good communication is essential, as is a willingness to have a dialogue about issues instead of holding things in until they explode.

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

I'd love to get more queries for narrative nonfiction, for both MG and YA. And by that, I mean stories that read almost like fiction but are based on fact, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood being one of the most famous examples. I'm fascinated by pretty much everything David McCullough writes, and Sam Kean's ability to make even the elements on the periodic table utterly enthralling is on the point of brilliance. Writers, send me stuff like that—but for kids.

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

The best—I love discovering new authors and falling in love with stories and characters that become an important part of my life. 

The worst? Rejection, both in sending it to authors and receiving it from editors.

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)

Learn everything you can. Be open to feedback, even if it seems utterly ridiculous at first. Don't shoot off emails or respond to reviews in anger. Be professional. But most importantly, have fun. Kids can tell when a writer's heart isn't in the story.

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

Couldn't we just have a party? I've had lunch and/or hung out with some pretty amazing writers—some famous, and some who I hope will become household names someday—and there are plenty who I'd consider close friends. It's one reason I'm so enthusiastic to participate in local writing events, because it's like a big family reunion, seeing various authors at different conferences and events throughout the year. Recently, my sister and her husband got to hang out with some of these writers during Salt Lake Comic Con, and they had a blast. I just like talking to writers in general. Most of them are great storytellers, if you can believe it. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

GUEST POST: "Screenwriting vs Prose Writing" by Dale Kutzera

Having written quite a few screenplays and teleplays, I looked forward to trying my hand at prose. I hadn't written a short story or novel in years and thought it would be a snap compared to the minimalist haiku of screenwriting.  Best of all, I'd have the final word (well words) on the story, without any pesky meddling from actors, directors, and editors. But there are differences between screenwriting and prose writing. Now that I've finished my second novel (the kid's adventure Andy McBean and the War of the Worlds) I thought I'd make a list:


Screenplays tell a story with images and dialogue. Those are the main tools in the utility belt, and the screenwriter conveys visuals in very sparse prose like, "The sun rises over the city." A prose writer can't rely on a great director and cinematographer to turn that simple sentence into a visual masterpiece, and must describe it.

Screenwriters also skip the description of characters unless it is integral to the story. A character may be introduced as  "tall, thirties, heavy-set" and that's it. There's a practical reason for this: anyone reading the script can imagine their preferred actor in the part. Novelists aren't writing a story that will be cast later, and I still have to remind myself to describe each character as they are introduced.

Screenplays are written in the present tense.  Events happen as you are reading them, just as they happen as you are watching the movie. While some novels use present tense, most are written in past tense. Novels have a lot in common with oral storytelling and we're used to being told stories as something that has already taken place ("How was school today?" "What did you do at work?").  I've found some agents and publishers won't even look at a novel told in present tense. I used it in my first novel "Manhunt," but I'll never do it again.

Prose does perspective better than any medium. A reader can crawl inside a character's mind and understand his or her every thought. Many novels are written in the first person where the reader is inevitably linked to that character. Films can approximate this with POV shots and voice-over narration, but it's not nearly as effective. 

One thing a movie can do is shift focus from one character to another merely by changing who the camera is pointed at.  I learned from the beta-readers of Manhunt that this is called "head-hopping" in the prose-world and can give readers perspective whiplash. The general rule is stick with the same character's perspective for the entire chapter.

This has nothing to do with writing…and maybe everything to do with writing. A screenwriter is but one contributor to a film or TV show that may or may not be made. Even a script written entirely on spec, from an original idea, is just a blueprint that other people follow faithfully or ignore completely. Unlike a theatrical play, a screenplay is typically bought completely, including copyright, so the writer is powerless to influence the final product.
Not so in novels, where the writer retains copyright. More importantly, the writer retains responsibility. There are no collaborators to muck up your work, but neither are there any to spot your mistakes and offer better ideas. A prose writer can't slack off and hope someone will "fix it in post." It's all on you.

Here's something books and movies have in common: they have to be marketed to an audience of buyers. I'm pretty sure a falling tree always makes a noise, but a book or movie that isn't marketed won't. While there are more media-opportunities than ever before, this makes marketing more difficult. Studios prefer to make films about characters the public is already aware of like Godzilla or Spider-man. Publishers seek celebrity-authors who can promote their books on the talk-show circuit.
Independent authors are getting wise to marketing in the same way movie studios have. Writing in a series is one tactic. Branding your author name within a popular genre is another. Smart writers know the book cover is just as important as the movie poster. With "Andy McBean," I'm well aware that the story plays on the widespread name recognition of the H.G. Wells' story, and that the cover image of a boy chased by a giant alien tripod "sells" the story at a glance.

It's strange to think of an author as a programmer.  Writers are the folks locked in a room full of books who only come out twice a decade to promote their latest literary effort. That is also changing as writers learn their best chance of making a living is to program their work, much as a studio designs a release schedule, or a network devises an evening of television.
The goal is to develop a consistent product that will entertain a paying audience over time. A series of romance, mystery, or thrillers with the same hero has proven to be successful, and some writers are taking this a step further and writing shorter works in series, much like a season of a TV show.

In closing, no matter what medium you're working in - novels, movies, plays, comics, operas - a story still has a beginning, middle, and an end. Characters still have goals and face obstacles. If you have the skills to tell a story, today's transmedia world offers more outlets than ever. You just have to learn the rules of each particular road.

Dale Kutzera has worked as a screenwriter for both film and television. His credits include the VH1 series “Strange Frequency,” “Without a Trace” for CBS, and the independent comedy “Military Intelligence and You!”

He is a recipient of the Carl Sautter Screenwriting Award, the Environmental Media Award, and participated in the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop. In his youth, he won the National Scholastic Writing Competition.

His first novel, Manhunt was set in the absurd world of show-business. Andy McBean and the War of the Worlds is his second novel. A graduate of the University of Washington, he currently resides in Seattle.

Monday, September 29, 2014

GUEST POST: "The Magic of Middle Grade Book Marketing" by Daniel Harvell

After writing, publishing and marketing my first novel, The Survivors, I thought I knew everything there was to know about getting a book out there. The process isn’t easy, and there’s no one single path to take – a writer has to employ a variety of methods to get his or her material in the hands of readers. With my first book, I tried a lot of different things, learned some valuable lessons that would save me time and money with future releases, and plotted a general strategy I thought I could employ with all upcoming novels.

The Survivors is young adult contemporary fantasy. Wishing Will, my second book, is middle grade contemporary fantasy. They have different audiences, sure, but what difference does that make? As I came to find out – it’s as big of a difference as night and day.

A huge component of my marketing strategy is online-based – social media posts, online reviews, e-book sales, blog tours and interviews, and so on. But guess what? My target market of 8 to 12-year-olds aren’t online yet. They don’t have social media accounts (nor should they). I realized that going in, which is why I attempted to market to moms and the younger teen crowd. It didn’t work. Sure, some adults saw the cross-market potential of the book and have snatched it up (and loved it). But I was still left with the question of how to reach my core audience.

I did a lot of reading on middle grade book marketing, and even though the answer was staring me right in the face, it wasn’t until I got a real world invitation to participate in the perfect middle grade marketing event that it dawned on me – I had to visit schools. Two friends who are elementary school teachers first offered to have me visit their classrooms, read an excerpt of Wishing Will to their students and talk about being a writer. The idea was a great one – I remember being in fifth grade and meeting my first author (James Howe of the Bunnicula series) and finding the entire experience exhilarating. But I didn’t know many other elementary and middle grade teachers. How was I going to make this work on a mass scale?

It turned out to be a lot easier than I’d expected. The first thing I did was compile a list of all the area schools (and their principals) that met the age requirements of my target market. Next, I searched for the direct email addresses of the principals, which required a few hours of my time, but it wasn’t difficult – it just required persistence. Finally, I sent an email to each principal individually, addressing them and their school by name, briefly describing my book, what I was offering (copies of the book donated to their library and a brief classroom visit to discuss creative writing and/or read an excerpt of the book), background information on me, and then the book synopsis and the book cover image (embedded into the email, NOT as an attachment).

I scheduled all 85 emails to go out at 6am the following morning since it’s important to get to those inboxes before the administrators are overwhelmed by the day’s events. By the end of the day, I’d heard back from 20% of those I’d emailed – every single one was a positive response. Some wanted to review the book first, others were ready to sign me up immediately to come for a classroom visit. Some principals copied their librarians and teachers, and they were all very enthusiastic about having me to their school.

I’m still in the process of scheduling visits and handing out review copies of the book – but judging by the responses, I may have solved the mystery of middle grade book marketing.

Daniel Harvell is author of the middle grade contemporary fantasy novel WISHING WILL, which was named by as a “hot new release” for children’s fantasy coming of age novels during its debut in July 2014.  His first novel, THE SURVIVORS, was a #1 download for “superhero” fiction at in July 2013 and maintains a five-star rating. For more information about the book, upcoming novels, tips on writing fantasy and more, visit his website at

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ninja Stuff: The Making of My First Audiobook

Do you love a good audiobook, Esteemed Reader? You know I do. At least half the books I read each year are read to me by talented narrators. If you're a writer (and you're here, so odds are good you are), I don't see how you can afford not to listen to audiobooks.

You know I love sitting down and reading a good book. More, I consider it an essential activity for an author. I want to see how the author/editor formatted the book. I want to see the length of the author's paragraphs and their use of white space. I want to imagine the characters speaking dialogue the way it sounds to me. I even read the occasional print book just so I can experience the difference between it and my kindle screen.

That experience alone is enough for the casual reader, but a Ninja like myself mourns that there just aren't enough hours in the day to read more books. Sure, I take my kindle with me everywhere I go so that if I'm waiting in a line I can whip that sucker out (or sometimes my phone) and get in some extra reading time. But there are all sorts of other activities I have to do such as exercising, washing the dishes, driving my son 45 minutes away so Grandma Ninja can watch him, etc. during which I can't read. I could simply stare off and think about whatever story I'm writing (and I do), but I only have so many interesting thoughts in a day (not half as many as I think I do) and I have a forever long list of books to read.

I try to sit and read most middle grade books so I can highlight passages to share here if I decide to write a review. As I'm also a horror author, I make it my business to read new horror novels as well. Since I'm not reviewing them, most horror books get downloaded from audible as do nonfiction works (Robert Reich never sounds so eloquent as when he narrates his own economic complaints). And it occurred to me early on that if my horror titles were written by someone else I'd be in danger of skipping them as there's no audio version available.

Well, no more. My first audiobook, a brilliant narration of Pizza Delivery by David Radtke, hit the market last week. You could be listening to it now! And David reads the first four chapters of All Together Now after the story to preview my next audiobook, which will be out in October. I'm coming at readers on all formats! I'm in your ears and in your head! You try to shake me, but I just keep coming, and eventually you will succumb to my tale of haunted pizza (not actually what the story is about, but I kind of like that idea so maybe I'll write a sequel).

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there has never been a better time in the history of the world to be an author. Without ever leaving the comfort of my office (though I'll be doing a handful of public appearances in the near future) and while wearing Batman pajama pants, I've published three ebooks, a print book, and now two audiobooks (with lots of help). I've even sold the T-shirts. All these things are available all around the world and people are buying them. People I don't know who live in other countries write me emails to tell me how much they liked my scary stories.

I'm not telling you this to brag, or not just to brag. I'm telling you this in case you're an author on the fence about whether or not to join the indie revolution like I was for years. I can't tell you what to do or the best way to publish--only you can know that. But I'm less than a year into this whole indie author thing and I'm having more fun writing than ever before. It's a lot of work, but it's work I love. There has been and continues to be cost involved, but I've made it back and a whole lot more. No one's sent me a "request" for revision that I have to do to be published in over a year and it's freaking awesome.

Perhaps most important, I hold all my rights and I'll never consider giving them away again, though I might lease them. If I had signed those rights away to a publisher as I nearly did many times, I couldn't slap covers on T-shirts without permission and I certainly couldn't commission my own audiobooks. Some traditionally published author friends of mine have told me privately they're quite jealous. "You mean you can just DO that?" they ask. "Nobody has to let you?"

I learned my lesson after readers hated my version of the All Together Now cover. Unless a task is something I'm qualified to do, I now partner with a professional. I looked into setting up my own recording studio in a closet to record an audiobook and I may still record one some day, but for now I'm better off letting the pros handle things. It's true that no one could perform my writing the way I would, but I've found someone who's done it far better than I could've.

So how did I, mild-mannered writer dad in Indiana have my book professionally recorded and produced in another country all while feeding Little Ninja, who was also wearing Batman pajamas? Because I own my rights and don't need anyone's permission, I was able to join up at Audiobook Creation Exchange for free and partner with my choice of brilliant narrators. If you're in a position to do this with your own book, I can't recommend it enough as it's a lot of fun and produced results surpassing my highest expectations.

Upon joining, I posted a sample from each of my books and various narrators auditioned. Within a week, I had dozens of recordings to listen to, all variations of the same poor pizza delivery driver on his way to Hell (still not actually what the story is about, but I like that idea too, so I think I'll save it for the threequel). I wish I could do this with rough drafts as I gained new perspective on my writing by hearing so many talented folks lend their voice. Sure, a couple were clearly just starting out and had no previous credits to their name, but I don't exactly have a full body of work to my name yet either, and I'll be watching for their future recordings as everyone who auditioned was passionate and professional.

I also had auditions from seasoned narrators whose work I'd heard previously as someone who listens to a lot of audiobooks. Choosing between them was one of the hardest things I've ever done as I know I shut the door to some incredible performances, but it's a good problem to have.

When I heard David Radtke read my words I knew in the first paragraph I had my narrator. I stalked him online, which is something I advocate doing when considering any publishing partner and David stalked me back, which is one of the many reasons it's important for authors to maintain a professional web presence. This blog's address appears on all my books, my business cards, my email signature, and anyplace else I can sneak it in. It's not the most professional site I've ever seen, but I work hard on it and it's opened more doors for me than almost anything else I've done in my writing career.

David maintains an incredible online presence and it's immediately clear to anyone who visits that he's passionate about audiobooks and extremely professional. Even if I hadn't had the opportunity to work with him, I enjoyed reading his blog and wanted to have a cup of coffee with him so I could learn more about audiobook creation. We emailed back and fourth and very quickly I realized David was a kindred spirit and my book was in good hands, so I convinced him to narrate All Together Now and some other upcoming releases as well.

I've been an actor and I've certainly had my share of rejection, so I reached out to all the narrators kind enough to audition and thanked them. Every writer should do this. Auditioning for a project requires a lot of work and the courage to put yourself out there. In a perfect world, I could release multiple versions of every book and listen to them all, but being an author means making hard choices. The good news is these folks are still available to narrate your audiobook, Esteemed Reader.

I've directed a couple films and plays and collaborated with a lot of really talented, creative people. I've learned the best way to work with such folks is first pick the right person for the job, then get out of their way and let them do it. David has been very good about taking my feedback and making any changes I requested, but I haven't requested many. We had upfront conversations about the characters and tone of the story, but once heread my books, he had his own unique take, which is why I picked them in the first place.

My job is to listen and offer my input. Not one chapter makes it into an audiobook without my approval and I won't lie, I enjoying having that power (and try never to abuse it). But honestly, after some up front discussion, David knew what I wanted and the chapters he turned in for me to obsessively listen to four or five times through almost always blew me away, and his reading of All Together Now is still blowing me away. I may ask for a word change here or there or I may have the occasional performance note, but I always feel like the princess atop all those mattresses complaining about a pea beneath.

I was nervous signing up through ACX, but it's been one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had and soon all my books will be available in audio form all around the world. If you're nervous about entrusting your book to a narrator, Esteemed Reader, I'll remind you you were probably nervous when you first started writing the book and then when you published it. As with anything, a writer should plan for success, employ their best judgement, and take the first step forward. The result may not be what you thought you'd get, but it's certainly more than you'll get doing nothing, and a lot of times what you get is better than what you hoped for.

I love being an author in the modern age. Anything is possible and there are no boundries. So go fourth and buy a copy of the Pizza Delivery audiobook:) Also, take your first step toward your dream and don't stop until you reach it.

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).