Monday, September 30, 2013

NINJA STUFF: Going Indie (Part One)

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. I've been telling you I had some big news for you and if you've been following this blog you've probably already suspected this was coming. Actually, this post might more aptly be titled "Gone Indie," as I've already done it. Instead of reading this post, you could right now, this very moment be reading my extremely violent, absolutely offensive, and in-no-way-appropriate-for-children Young ADULT novel All Together Now: A Zombie Story. Here's a link.

I'll be telling you more about that book next week, but for now I'll let our old friend Ashfall author Mike Mullin do it:

"All Together Now: A Zombie Story is by turns disgusting, terrifying, funny, and heartbreaking. Fans of The Walking Dead will eat it up like, well, zombies munching fresh brains. A stellar debut from a novelist to watch!"

Instead of talking about the book, I want to talk about my decision to go "indie." As most of you Esteemed Readers are writers, I have to assume you've at least considered independently publishing your work. Indie publishing is not the right choice for all writers and if you're uncertain, I'd sit back and watch how myself and other indie authors fair before throwing your hat in the ring.

First, let me say I do not hold a grudge against traditional publishing. I know it's common fashion for indie authors to talk smack about big publishing and its many shortcomings (a silly trend), but I still love big publishers. How could I not? We have the same goal: producing quality books for readers. 

I still plan to promote books released by the big houses and as long as they're willing to appear here, I'm still overjoyed to feature interviews with literary agents and editors. Their advice is often golden and always worth paying attention to. I'd be happy to consider partnering with a traditional publisher down the road and I'd recommend pursuing that route of publication if it's available to you and suited to your goals.

My decision to go Indie is in no way motivated by ill feelings toward any of the fine publishing professionals I've encountered over the years. I try never to make a decision motivated by negative feelings. I'm independently publishing because it's the right decision for me for a number of reasons, among them this blog, Hugh Howey, Richard Adams, the pending birth of my son, a car accident, and you, Esteemed Reader.

You may remember I got to "meet" Richard Adams through this blog two years ago. I was able to tell him the profound effect Watership Down had on me and ask him my 7 Questions as well as some others not posted here. The Ninja doesn't kiss and tell, so I almost never post tidbits I learn in private from the writers and agents I interview, but I've had extended correspondence with many of my heroes through this blog and got to know a wide circle of writers. I'm not going to start blabbing now, but I must say chatting with Richard Adams remains one of the most profound experiences of my life.

What you don't know is that he read my book (a middle grade book, not the YA zombie thing). I can't imagine him liking The And Then Story (not actually the title) in the same way I love Watership Down, but he did like it. I know he did because he wrote me a blurb saying as much:

“Let me say at once that I think this is a most original and amusing piece of work. A reader is arrested at the outset by a paradoxical witticism and he goes on being arrested as the story gets into its stride. (Protagonist 1) and (Protagonist 2) appear as characters about whom the reader wants to learn more, and soon he begins to be in no doubt about this.”

Update: This book, Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, has since been published.

The first time I read that, my legs gave out and I had to sit down before I fell over. Richard Adams saying you wrote a good story is like Batman saying you're a good crime fighter. Ninja's don't cry, but this one got a little misty that day. If anyone, anywhere could offer the validation we writers naturally seek and assure us we are a really, for real writer, it's Richard Adams.

I don't want to come off as an old man, but I remember a time before cell phones. When I was a wee Ninja, my father was proud to own one of the original Macintosh PC's and one of the first things I did was use it to type up a book complete with a picture (two whole pages!). There wasn't anywhere for it to go and printer paper was expensive, so if I wanted someone to read my book, I had to hand deliver my one copy or sit them down in front of the only computer on which my book was available to be read on a blurry black and white screen. I didn't even have the option to email it to people as this was pre-internet (get off my lawn!).

Today's kids don't know how good they got it. These many years later I've sat in front of a computer with a high definition color screen and written another book that is right now, this moment available to be purchased by anyone, anywhere in the world. I, a middle-to-lower-class fella of average education who grew up in a small Indiana town, have been able to reach across the ocean to England and contact one of the greatest and most famous writers who has ever lived. We have corresponded, he's given me advice, and been gracious enough to read and endorse my novel.

When else in the entire history of mankind has this experience been possible?

It's easy to take the internet for granted and to forget it's only been with us a short time. When I was a kid, my father promised me it would change everything and so it has. The internet is one of the reasons I'm not a third generation Kent working for a newspaper. Who reads a paper anymore? The internet is also one of the reasons it's so, so hard to land a publishing contract.

I'll tell you a few more candid details about my publishing journey in the second and third parts of this post (I've been told "yes" by editors multiple times, only to be cut by committees), but know that I've been considering indie publishing for years. I wrote All Together Now: A Zombie Story with Kindle Direct Publishing in mind. I vowed to give the book a round of submissions to test the market, see if any intriguing options popped up, and if none did, publish it myself. 

The rejections I got from traditional publishers were very enthusiastic for the story, but cited the reasons for rejection (paraphrased) as  "in the two to five years it will take to get this book to market, the current zombie trend may be over" and "it's too hard to compete with all the cheap Amazon ebooks about zombies." 

Immediately, I thought "I could be the author of one of those cheap ebooks about zombies!" And I could get my book to readers now, this year, in time for Halloween and the start of season 4 of The Walking Dead. And I could do it without worry of being censored. My zombie book could remain just as violent, offensive, and outright gross as I prayed it would emerge from a traditional publisher. Also, I picked the cover and the marketing material so if I don't like it, I know who to blame.

The internets have been good to me, Esteemed Reader. What meeting you and running this blog have taught me is that with a bit of hard work, anything is possible. When I started this blog, it wasn't much to speak of, but with effort and luck I've been able to talk with childhood heroes Richard Adams, Lois Lowry, Jean Craighead George, Lynn Reed Banks,  and many, many other talented writers and publishing professionals. If I can reach those folks, isn't it at least possible I can reach readers?

I could've never pulled this off running a traditional print magazine in my spare time, but with a blog and an email account I've been able to reach a readership I would've never thought possible when I began and Mrs. Ninja was the only one reading my posts. What this blog has taught me is if you write it, they may come.

Esteemed Reader, that's good enough for me.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book Review: WRITING CHILDREN'S BOOKS FOR DUMMIES by Lisa Rojany Buccieri and Peter Economy

First Paragraph: For many, dreams of writing or illustrating a children’s book remain just that—dreams—because they soon find out that writing a really good children’s book is hard. Not only that, but actually getting a children’s book published is even harder. If you don’t know the conventions and styles, if you don’t speak the lingo, if you don’t have someone to advocate for your work, or if you or your manuscript don’t come across as professional, you’ll be hard pressed to get your manuscript read and considered, much less published. 

Today, we're discussing our first ever nonfiction book, Esteemed Reader, but it's one I think you might find useful. I certainly did and I wish this book had been available when I started writing books for children and was far closer to being a dummy than a Ninja:)

Truth be told, I put this review off a bit as I'm not quite sure how to go about it. First, the book took me a time to read. A reference book is not easily plowed through like a fiction novel (I'll be lucky if Doctor Sleep, released Tuesday, lasts me to the weekend, and I'm reading two other books simultaneously for this blog). Also, there's no narrative to discuss and picking out favorite descriptions seems to me to be missing the point:)

The book is wonderfully organized and indexed. I've been a big fan of the For Dummies books for years and I've got six of them already in my home on topics I've been interested in. Among my favorites are English Grammar For Dummies (not that you'd know it if you read this blog) and Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies For Dummies, both equally useful in their own ways. I've even taken a shot at editing them as Wiley Publishing has a hub I pass every morning on my way to my day job.

If you've read a For Dummies book previously, you have a pretty good idea what to expect already and Writing Children's Books For Dummies doesn't disappoint. It gives us a concise overview of both writing a book and publishing it and features an interview with our old friend Peggy Tierney as well as cover shots of Ashfall and Ashen Winter, which made Mike Mullin happy when I told him. 

Between the interviews and the advice sprinkled throughout, this book is valuable to a hardened Ninja as well as a newbie. But much of the book is dedicated to the basics, which is as it should be. These portions may not be of interest to you, Esteemed Reader. As you're reading a blog called Middle Grade Ninja, you presumably know what middle grade is. But everyone has to start somewhere and this book is great for a new-comer. Still, whether veteran or newbie, you have to love this definition of middle grade:

Middle-grade fiction and nonfiction books are what many of us remember reading from our childhoods. These are the first books we read that were long and detailed and complex and dealt with subject matter that was much more intriguing (and potentially much more divisive) than most children’s picture books.

And if you're curious how that differs from young adult, this book's got you covered:

Young adult books fall into two main age groups: YA appropriate for children ages 12 and up, and YA for children 14 and up. While each YA novel differs from the next, we can attribute the split in age ranges most of the time to five issues: sexual intercourse, foul language, drug use, extreme physical violence, and graphic abuse. Those YA novels that overtly and unashamedly deal with these topics are usually saved for the older kids. 

If you lack the funds to attend a writer's conference, pick up a copy of this book. Better yet, read this book, then go to a conference. If you've been writing for years, you might not expect there to be anything in this book for you, but you'd be wrong. There are plenty of fresh ideas sprinkled in among the basics:

If you haven’t recently spent any time around children, why not head back to school? You could be there in an official capacity, perhaps as the coach at a community center or a nearby school, or even as a teacher at your local church or synagogue. Many volunteers give their time and expertise for altruistic reasons, and you can say you do, too, while secretly gathering material from children by hanging out with them in a way benefiting both of you.  They get an adult to oversee and guide activities, and you get to observe them on the sly, mercilessly using them for the material and ideas they contribute to your idea notebook.

If the ideas won't do it for you, surely the advice of experts will. I love this quote from an interview with book buyer Jennifer Christopher Randle: 

Middle-grade fiction has little to no illustration to support it. I always ask myself, “Can I see it?” If I can’t picture my protagonist in the story he’s starring in, then I would pass. I have a very active imagination, so if I can’t picture your world, what chance does a ten-year-old have?

I'd recommend Writing Children's Books For Dummies to anyone and I'm glad to have a copy on my shelf. Do yourself a favor, Esteemed Reader, and get your own copy. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Writing Children's Books For Dummies:

Although we wish the world of literary agents was all fluffy bunnies, sweetness, and light, we’re here to tell you that it can sometimes be ugly. Although many children’s book agents and agencies are completely reputable, ethical, and honest, there are some whose primary goal is to devise efficient and effective ways to separate you from your hard-earned cash.

Of the many grown-ups who stand between you and your audience (children), agents and acquisitions editors or publishers are the first ones you must impress. An agent serves as the eyes and ears for the publishers and acquisitions editors—and all three are looking for the same qualities: a unique, well written, absolutely worth-the-effort, gotcha! manuscript. 

A great way to understand how children in your target age group think is to read them and then have a question-and-answer session. You can do this with children who are as young as three or four years of age, depending on how verbal they are and how accustomed they are to speaking in front of other kids (preschoolers are ideal for this kind of exercise because they love to raise their hands , give their opinions—often in great and meandering detail—and listen to themselves speak to an adult who actually cares what they have to say).

Don’t overuse the passive voice (“to be” verbs). If you want to keep your characters interesting, your plots active, and your writing strong, avoid overusing the passive voice.

According to the Association of American Publishers, children’s and young adult e-book titles surged 475.1 percent from January 2011 to January 2012, to a total of $22.6 million. Long story short, if you’ve been thinking of self publishing your own e-book, we would say that you are at the right place at just the right time.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: 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. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Jordy Albert

Jordy Albert is a Literary Agent and co-founder of The Booker Albert Literary Agency. She holds a B.A. in English from Pennsylvania State University, and a M.A. from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. She has worked with Marisa Corvisiero during her time at the L. Perkins Agency and the Corvisiero Literary Agency. Jordy also works as a freelance editor/PR Director. She enjoys studying languages (French/Japanese), spends time teaching herself how to knit, is a HUGE fan of Doctor Who, and loves dogs.

She is looking for stories that capture her attention and keep her turning the page. She is looking for a strong voice, and stories that have the ability to surprise her. She loves intelligent characters with a great sense of humor. She would love to see fresh, well-developed plots featuring travel, competitions/tournaments, or time travel. Jordy is specifically looking for:

* Middle Grade: contemporary, fantasy, action/adventure, or historical.
* YA: sci-fi, dystopian/post-apocalyptic, contemporary, historical (Though I am open to looking at other sub-genres, I'm looking for YA that has a very strong romantic element). 
* Romance (contemporary and historical).

And now Jordy Albert faces the 7 Questions: 

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

To Kill A Mockingbird, Poison Princess, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (But the entire series, really!). 
Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

The Shawshank Redemption
Indiana Jones (All of them!)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


Doctor Who
Once Upon A Time/The Walking Dead

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

I would say a great sense of humor, enthusiasm and patience.

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

Romance, especially YA/NA contemporary, historical, paranormal (think Karen Marie Moning and Kresley Cole). Light sci-fi and fantasy. YA stories that involve travel (think 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson). Middle Grade stories that make me laugh and think.

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

I love my job! I am so thankful everyday that I get to do something I love, and work with wonderful, creative people, who love books and stories as much as I do! On the flip side, my least favorite thing would be having to tell a client that we have to move on from a project if we weren't able to find the book a home. 

Question Two: 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)

I know it's been said before, but I think it's really important so I'll say it again: Never give up! 

Keep writing! Do your research because it gives a sense of authenticity to your writing. Find a critique partner or two, and enter contests and attend conferences when you feel you're ready. Read a lot. Develop a strong, distinct voice. 

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

J.K. Rowling because it's J.K. Rowling! I remember loving the first Harry Potter book so much that I slept with my paperback copy under my pillow. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

7 Questions For: Author S.P. Gates

S.P. Gates was born in Lincolnshire, England, and is a former teacher who once taught in Malawi, Africa. She is the author of more than one hundred books, and has been commended for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award. She has twice won the children’s-choice Sheffield Children’s Book Award. She lives in the north of England with her husband.

Click here to read my review of The Monster in the Mudball.

And now S.P. Gates faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Can I do my top three favourite book series?
Simenon’s Maigret
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe
Chester Himes’ Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones
(Can’t leave out C.S. Forester’s Hornblower. Don’t know what most of it means but I just love that nautical language.)

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

Not as much of either as I used to. My concentration’s getting worse as I get older – that’s my excuse anyway. About 25 hours a week writing, maybe 4 hours reading.

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

Many years ago, I was teaching what used to be called “Life Skills” here in England to what used to be called back then “disaffected teenagers”. There was no money for books or any other educational resources. One day they started climbing on desks and punching out the ceiling tiles for entertainment.  Out of desperation, and to save the ceiling tiles, I wrote my own worksheets for my group.  I sent the worksheets to Oxford University Press (OUP), expecting nothing to come of it (no-one in my family had anything to do with writing or publishing). No-one could have been more amazed than me when OUP invited me to visit them.  We went down to Oxford with two toddlers and a new born baby in the back of the car. My husband, Phil, drove the kids round and round Oxford so they would stay asleep while I was in OUP’s Grecian temple-style HQ  ( yes, it has columns along the front!)  talking to one of their veteran (and rather formidable) editors. Don’t think she noticed the baby-sick on my blouse, or if she did she was far too polite to comment. Anyway, this wonderful editor helped me make my stuff into my first book, later I sort of side-stepped into fiction and in 25 years I haven’t stopped!

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

I think motivation always comes first. You’ve got to want to write. But then you’ve got to want to learn to write better. For myself, I see writing as a craft that I’m still, and always will be, learning.

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

My favourite thing is when there are no interruptions and you’ve got into the rhythm and you’re powering along and it all seems effortless and hours pass without you realising. It does sometimes happen.
My least favourite thing is what used to be a blank page in the typewriter when I started my writing career but is now a blank screen. And the other is waiting and waiting – and waiting - for publishers to read my stuff!

Question Two: 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)

I don’t know about wisdom. But here are a few practical tips that I like to keep in mind when I’m writing for Middle Graders.

Keep it tight. Your prose, the plot: practise being economic. It’s not so much what you put in but what you leave out.

Keep it focussed. Think in scenes not chapters, like you’re shooting a film. Decide, like a director looking through a camera lens, “What’s the purpose of this scene? What do I want it to show?”  And stick to what you decide. Don’t introduce any irrelevant business (we call it “waffle” over here!) that could hold up the action.

Keep it logical. Even the craziest, most fantastical imaginary worlds can be made believable if they have their own internal logic. 

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

I’d like to have lunch with the poet Kim Addonizio. My daughter would have to be there (she’d be furious if she wasn’t invited) because she loves her poetry even more than I do.