Monday, March 28, 2016

GUEST POST: “Self-Published to Small-Press Published” by Stacy Barnett Mozer

When my middle grade novel, The Sweet Spot, launched last June I was sure that I had made the final and best decision on how I was going to put it out into the world. The book had previously found an agent, gone through rounds of revision and rejection and revision - and not sold. It had been tabled it for a couple of years and not quite forgotten as I moved on to other projects, but I kept going back to it. 

I made changes based on an editor’s feedback and turned the whole thing from past tense to present tense. I got more beta readers, made additional changes, and could have tried to send it out into the traditional route again, but some workshops at the NESCBWI conference last year changed my mind. 

A number of self-published authors talked about the freedom they felt in doing it themselves. How they loved being the one in the driver’s seat and having the book’s success and failure on their own shoulders. It sounded great. I hired my school art teacher to draw me a cover and went right onto Createspace and Kindle Direct and used their author templates to produce a book.

And it was great. Having my book as a real book that I could hold in my hand, seeing it on Amazon and in the local libraries, reading reviews, having kids come running over to tell me how much they loved my book, was an absolutely amazing experience. I could try out some marketing idea and watch my account for the next few days to see what happened. The timeline was mine to control. The marketing ideas were mine alone. Everything was up to me.

So what went wrong? In a word: Bookstores. According to Createspace, selling books to bookstores isn’t a problem as long as you sign up for their expanded distribution service. But what they don’t make clear is that only some books will be sold in certain places. My book was available online from Barnes & Noble and it was sold in other random places, but nobody could buy it at a discount. Because of this, my local Indies could only take the book on consignment and most of the deals were so poor that I would have been paying them to sell my book. Plus some Indies didn’t like supporting a book that was published by an Amazon company and wouldn’t consider my book at all.

Fortunately, an author friend gave me another option. He told me about a brand new small press that was forming and looking for middle grade authors with books that were already doing well independently. I submitted my book, had it approved (well, everything except for the cover), and here we are: a brand new home for The Sweet Spot and a new way of doing things.

With the small press I have gained a support network, some oversight, minds more experienced then mine at doing this, a brand new cover, and a path into seeing my book in stores. I have lost the complete control and freedom, and some of the money that goes along with doing it myself. Which will I end up liking more…  The jury is still out. But so far I have been enjoying having a team.

Stacy Barnett Mozer is a third grade teacher and a mom. She started writing books when a class of students told her that there was no way that a real author who wrote real books could possibly revise their work as much as she asked them to revise. She’s been revising her own work ever since. The Sweet Spot launched from Spellbound River Press on March 25. You can buy it at Visit Stacy online at You can follow her on twitter at @SMozer and on Facebook at

To win a copy of The Sweet Spot go to

Friday, March 25, 2016

NINJA STUFF: My Review of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice

We're going to talk movies today, Esteemed Reader, specifically superhero movies. It's going to get really nerdy here and I'll understand if you'd rather opt out until I have a new interview with  a writer or literary agent. But this is my blog and those of you who are regular Esteemed Readers know how I feel about Batman movies and Superman movies and how I have long dreamed of seeing them in a movie together.

I try not to discuss movies at this blog too often, not because I don't love some of them, but because they get discussed plenty elsewhere and this is a blog about reading and writing. You may recall I got sick of movies last year when I had a perma-free pass. Alas, that pass has since expired and I haven't been back to the theaters for three months now. If I have to pay cash money for a movie in addition to leaving my house where I will be forced to put up with people talking and blinding me with their light-up cell phone displays set to maximum rude, somebody better be wearing a cape:)

But last Friday we got 13 incredible episodes of Daredevil on Netflix (and yes, I've watched them all over the course of 6 days) and we're about to get Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This may be the greatest week of entertainment in the history of the world and afterwards I'm going back to mostly reading books as I don't think Hollywood can top this week and I probably won't venture out to the cinema again until Captain America III: Spider-man Party.

I'm writing this on a Wednesday afternoon, March 23rd. My eyes are slightly crossed from hours of making revisions to the middle of my next horror novel, The Book of David (soon to be available provided no one releases any more episodes of Daredevil). My tickets are for the earliest available 3D showing of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice tomorrow, so I haven't actually seen the movie yet. I thought it might be fun to split my review into my expectations for the movie before seeing it and my reaction after seeing it.

Therefore, you can read the first part of this post without fear of spoilers, because I don't know any.


I'm so excited, Esteemed Reader. This might be the most excited I've ever been about seeing a movie in my adult life--certainly the most excited I've been since just before The Dark Knight Rises released. And I should've learned a lesson about adjusting my expectations. Because I keenly remember the disappointment that followed The Dark Knight Rises being worse than the disappointment that followed Batman and Robin.

You see, I expected Batman and Robin to suck. Every trailer leading up to its release looked terrible, so my expectations were managed. I didn't even see it until it had been out a day or two. I had a half hope that a movie chock full of so many beloved characters could somehow pull off something still worth watching despite the terribleness on display in those previews. In a way, it did, because I have yet to see another movie that's quite so much fun to hate (and I do love hating it). I have seen Citizen Kane exactly once (it was fine), but I have hate-watched Batman and Robin more than twenty times in the almost 20 years since it's release (oh my God, what have I been doing with my life!?!?).

Whereas The Dark Knight Rises caught me by surprise by simply being not very good. It was the sequel to The Dark Knight, which is the best Batman movie of all time, and The Dark Knight Rises was made by all the same people, so of course my expectations were through the roof. And the movie has some top-notch Batman and Bane fights in between scenes of Alfred crying all over himself.  It's not Batman and Robin bad where you can enjoy making fun of it. It's just extremely dry and boring with moments of painfully bad acting and bad screenwriting and scenes of such sheer stupidity they stand out even in a goofy comic book movie (really? all the cops in the city went underground at the same time? really? this is your gritty, "realistic" Batman?).

And I'm aware my ire is puzzling to many normal readers who gave up on this post already. I felt the same puzzlement way back when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out and fans lost their minds hating it. I remember watching the flick filled with mediocre acting, some dodgy special effects, and a bunch of mystic space mumbo jumbo and thinking "yep, that was a Star Wars movie." Jar Jar Binks was annoying, but the big light-saber fight at the end was great and there were lots of interesting aliens. Oh, and I liked the pod racing (so sue me). I felt like I got my money's worth and so I recall being the only one in my friend group to leave the theater feeling happy with what I saw.

But that's because I'm a casual Star Wars fan. I totally dig those movies, but I don't love, love, love them the way some do. I had a couple Luke and Han action figures when I was young, but my mom sold them in a garage sale and that was fine. As I write this I have a shelf overlooking me stuffed with Batman and Superman action figures, including a new Batfleck and a Henry Cavil Superman. I feel about Batman V. Superman the way most of the country felt about The Force Awakens (which I really enjoyed, but not on the same level as the true fans, I'm sure).

Am I destined to be disappointed at my own personal The Phantom Menace? It's entirely possible. The early reviews for Batman V. Superman are out and though I'm trying to avoid them, I know they're not great. I'm really hoping they spend more cash and make Doomsday look less fake than he does in the trailer. I'm also hoping Jesse Eisenberg turns out to be a better Lex Luthor than he has been in the previews. For my money, the best Lex Luthor in any medium was Michael Rosenbaum on Smallville and I stopped watching that show when he dropped out of the cast. And above all, I hope they please, for the love of God, show Thomas and Martha Wayne being gunned down in quick flashes rather than making us sit through that enitre scene for the eleventy-billionth time.

I really, truly loved 95% of Man of Steel. Hans Zimmer's Superman theme makes my heart soar and Henry Cavil shows Brandon Routh how it's done, though neither of them can hold a candle to Christopher Reeve. I'd love Man of Steel all the way if only Kevin Costner's Johnathan Kent (inspired casting) had simply had the good sense to die of a heart attack instead of a bullcrap tornado that totally messes up Clark Kent's mythology and makes him a bit of a sociopath (why didn't you save your Dad, dude? And don't tell me it's because he told you not to. You're Superman. Dude. No, seriously, dude.).

Everything else about Man of Steel made me cheer and when I watch it at home, I just skip over the tornado scene and I'm a happy camper. And yes, I like that Superman snaps Zod's neck. I've rarely chuckled harder in a theater as I did at the concerned looks on the faces of parents sitting with their children ahead of me as they for sure weren't expecting that:) I like my Superman complex and my movie endings morally ambiguous. Say what you will about that ending, it challenged the viewer and made him/her think, and that's a rare moment in a comic book story.

I like all of director Zack Snyder's movies, yes, even Sucker Punch (though admittedly, I like that one least). His remake of Dawn of the Dead is my favorite zombie flick and 300 is Frank Miller come to life. The director's cut of The Watchmen is absolutely astonishing and a true work of art (it ain't Watchmen without the intentionally unremarkable death of Hollis Mason). I even enjoyed Legend of the Guardians.

I remember the internet going nuts over the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman, but for the record, I have always been pro-Batfleck. Ben Affleck has made a lot of terrible movies and I'm not saying he hasn't. I bet if I met him in real life I probably wouldn't care for him, but I'd imagine that to be true of most movie stars (anybody seriously think Christian am-I-gonna-walk-around-and-rip-your-bleeping-lights-down-in-the-middle-of-a-scene Bale makes an ideal dinner date?). But I used to audition for plays with one of Affleck's Chasing Amy monologues and he's turned in a few great performances between Reindeer Games and Jersey Girl. He's a huge dude with a great jaw and totally believable as a handsome rich guy who likes the ladies. I'm sure he'll make a fine Batman/Bruce Wayne.

I've been excited since this movie was first announced and we were promised the source material would be none other than one of my three favorite books of all time, The Dark Knight Returns. In the trailers, we've heard Batfleck say "It's way past time you learned what it means to be a man," and "The world only makes sense if you force it too." So I would say that even if the movie is mostly terrible all around the scenes of Batman saying those lines to Superman, I'm still going to be glad I sprang for tickets in advance.

In a way, this is the best part: this moment of anticipation before I actually see the movie. And even if the flick fails to live up to my highest expectations, life is short and often fraught with misery. How glorious it is to have something to love as much as I love Batman and Superman movies? How exhilarating it is to be this excited about anything in life. It's like the excitement I feel when starting a new novel by a favorite author.

And that's it, except for me to list my nerd bonafides so you will know how seriously to take my opinion once I've seen the movie. So, here ya go:

Favorite Batman movies ranked in order of my love: 1. The Dark Knight 2. Batman (1989) 3. The Dark Knight Returns (parts 1 and 2) 3. Batman Begins 4. Batman: The Movie 5. Batman: Year One 6. Batman: Mask of The Phantasm  7. Batman Returns 8. Batman Forever 9. The Dark Knight Rises 10. Batman and Robin

Favorite Superman movies ranked in order of my love: 1. Superman: The Movie 2. The Dark Knight Returns (part 2) 3. Man of Steel 4. Superman II 5. Superman III 6. Superman Returns 7. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace

Favorite superhero movies ranked in order of my love: 1. The Dark Knight 2. Unbreakable 3. Batman (1989) 4. Spider-man 2 5. The Watchmen Director's Cut 6. The Dark Knight Returns (parts 1 and 2) 7. Superman: The Movie 8. Man of Steel 9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier 10. The Avengers 11. X-Men 2 12, Supergirl (yes, I know it's not actually a good movie, but I don't care, I love you Helen Slater, please marry me)


I'm writing this second part of the post the morning after having seen Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I've only seen it once (but I'm going back to the theater as soon as I find an opportunity) and so I have yet to grock the flick's fullness, but I loved it. Surprise:)

It's absolutely not for kids (I felt sorry for the parents sitting ahead of us with their young children) and I'm not going to try to convince you that it's a perfect movie (it's not) or even an especially thoughtful movie. It's loud and kinda silly, but I can't wait to see it again and I wish I had the blu ray so I could rewatch parts of it over and over.

I'm kind of glad the early reviews came out and proclaimed the movie not good as they tempered my expectations. I saw it with my best buddy and we talked about Batman and Robin before hand and agreed that BVS had to at least be better than that. But right away the movie captured my imagination and about thirty minutes in I gave up waiting for it to start sucking. Sure, there were a couple lines of dialogue that fell flat and maybe one dream sequence too many and a few plot conveniences along the way, but at no point did any of that hamper my good time because  BVS gets right way more than it gets wrong.

In fact, I wanted to stand up and cheer about three minutes in. Yes, we have to watch Thomas and Martha Wayne get gunned down, again, but the filmmakers wisely knock that bit out during the opening credits, interspersed with scenes of Bruce Wayne discovering the batcave. They couldn't not provide the information as it comes up in a big way later, but they got Batman's origin story out of the way with a quickness. ATTENTION SUPERHERO MOVIES: this is how you do the origin of superheroes we already know and love. Put together a montage at the top and be done with it. Marvel, please don't make me sit through another hour of teenage Peter Parker cradling his Uncle Ben and being bit by a spider. Get to the interesting part already, which is what BVS did.

As I was watching the movie it occurred to me that anyone who didn't already know these characters inside and out by heart would have a hard time following parts of the flick because it is jam-packed with all kinds of story and it never slows down to explain. And there's a bit too much setup for sequels wedged in. I liked seeing Aquaman, Cyborg, and Flash, but they probably could've been saved for the next movie or a post-credits tease rather than BVS grinding to a halt to force them in (that felt like a studio-mandated commercial).

But oh well. Have I mentioned that this is a movie that has both Batman AND Superman in it? Because it totally did. And Superman was all flying around saving folks. And Batman was all punching people and looking the best on film he's ever looked. And then Wonder Woman showed up and she had a sword and a lasso and she was all like boom, and Superman was all like bam, and Batman was all like pow, and all my favorite heroes were fighting in glorious 3D and the Hans Zimmer guitar was wailing and it was so awesome and then Doomsday shows up because apparently you can rub some blood on a dead body and shove it in a Kryptonian microwave and make a monster because that's how science works and then Doomsday's all rahr! and Batman's all like batarang to the face, punk, and so on...

Look: if you're expecting MacBeth level drama or Birdman levels of subtlety and nuance or the poignancy of Spotlight, why are you watching Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (the whole plot is given away in the title)? If you pay to see Transformers 3 and are upset that it failed to enlighten us on the complexities of the human condition, that's not Michael Bay's fault. If you got really big action sequences of robots fighting, he did his job.

Batman V Superman knows what kind of movie it is, even if it occasionally aspires to be more with real subtle stuff like paintings of angels wearing red capes and demons with bat wings and you-can't-possibly-miss-them crosses in a scene that could've been taken directly from The Passion of the Christ (which makes an Easter weekend opening kinda funny). And there are many, many great references to The Dark Knight Returns throughout, which I loved because real talk, they're never going to make that book into a live action movie (not sure it would work if they did), but Zack Snyder knew to steal images and sequences from the best. There were plenty of moments throughout the film that made my fanboy heart soar such as when Bruce Wayne tells Alfred they've always been criminals (heck yeah you have!) or assures a criminal in a standoff "I believe you," (heck yeah you do!) or tells Superman that his parents taught them a different lesson dying for no reason at all (heck yeah they did!).

The biggest surprise to me was how much I enjoyed what Jessie Eisenberg did with Lex Luthor. I don't know if I'd give him the crown from Michael Rosenbaum just yet, but he swung for the fences and gave us a Lex Luthor we haven't seen before (he never even mentions real estate). He's grating at times, but he's supposed to be, and Eisenberg sold me on the idea that Lex was really as crazy and egomaniacal as he needs to be to serve the plot of this comic book story come to life. I'm not completely convinced by some of Batman's motivations (try talking to Supes first, buddy), I think some of Supeman's thinking only really makes sense if he occasionally forgets he has superpowers (you don't have to trust Batman to save your mom when you have super speed), but Lex Luthor 100% convinced me he wanted to kill Superman to get back at his dead father.

Jeremy Irons was an outstanding Alfred and Ben Affleck was a Batman I hope we get to see more of. I love that his Bruce Wayne isn't just pretending to be a billionaire playboy but actually doing it (best secret identity ever) and Affleck was better than Kilmer or Clooney, and possibly Bale (will maybe have to give that one more thought, but Michael Keaton is still the best). Batfleck killed a lot of folks, some of them with guns, which is a decidedly un-Batman thing to do. But all the other movie Batmen have killed folks as well, even the ones who spent a lot of time talking about how they didn't, so I'm just going to assume Batman somehow knew that all the people in the cars he blew up were bad and deserved to die.

I could go on about how much I loved this movie, but this post is already very long and I have actual writing that needs doing. I laughed a couple times and I got something in my eye toward the end. If you love Batman and Superman and want to watch a movie in which they fight, even if they make up and (spoiler, I guess) become superfriends like right away, without really even having to work that much stuff out, then this is a movie for you. I would probably rank it as my third favorite Batman movie. It's fun and made especially for a hardcore fan like me.

Batman V. Superman has not changed my life, but I would say its existence has improved my life. This movie entertained me and made me happy and God bless the good people at Warner Brothers for making something I love so much. Please go see this flick in the theaters so they don't do something silly like cancel Justice League. I want more Batman and Superman punchy smashy.

In conclusion:

Ultimate Edition Update 7/18/16: I've now seen Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (longest title ever) 3 times and I love this movie even more. I'm actually furious on behalf of Zack Snyder that this isn't the film Warner Brothers released in theaters as it's clearly the movie he made. Like his extended cut of Watchmen, this is simply a far superior film. If the studio had released this instead of the extremely compressed version, I'm convinced the critics would've been kinder and the sharp decline of ticket sales weekend over weekend would've been lessened, so way to shoot your tent-pole franchise movie in the foot, WB. 

If you hated the theatrical cut, this version won't change your mind (the Martha thing is still grating, the email advertisement for Justice League still grinds the film to a halt, and the giant bat dream sequence that seems to exist only to remind us that Bruce Wayne's mom is also named Martha is still silly), but it's 30 minutes more of a great movie and I'd sit through a five-hour version if there was one. 

There's only a little more Batman (why did they cut him taking out security guards!?!), but a ton more of Superman, Clark Kent, and Lex Luthor. Lex's scheme is fully flushed out and easier to follow and Superman acts more like Superman. It makes a huge difference in his characterization that he helps folks after the explosion of the capital building instead of just flying off to be emo and it's sort of important to know that he couldn't see the bomb responsible as it was cased in lead. It's also fun to see him investigating Batman as it gives him, ya know, a motive to fight him other than because Lex said to.

I'm not sure the F-bombs add much and I really didn't need to see more shirtless Clark or Batman's butt (was that the day Joel Schumacher stopped by to offer directing tips?). Batman's murder spree is even more hardcore, which God help me I love, even though it flies in the face of who he is as a character. I think this may be the darkest Batman or Superman movie we ever get as Snyder has promised to go lighter next movie, but I like all the death and emo wallowing. I like that Jimmy Olsen is introduced and shot in the head (he'll be back in another iteration). 

The movie certainly isn't perfect,but fanboys lambasting it online remind me of spoiled children. Old Man Ninja says: "Back in my day we had two or three years between superhero movies instead of getting a new one every couple months. You young punks don't know how good you got it. I sat through Batman and Robin in the theaters so don't tell me about superhero movies failing to live up to your expectations. We've lived to see Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman fighting in a live action extravaganza and we're going to get another one next year, and another movie that has Batman in it, Suicide Squad, next month. This is an amazing time to be alive!"

I was talking with friends about other movies that have come out and I haven't seen any of them. I've pretty much only watched one movie this year, but God, what a movie!!! I did see  Captain America: Civil War, once, and it was pretty good (even if it only had 30 stinking minutes of Spider-Man). But I'm a DC man from childhood and I can't imagine loving any other movie as much as I love Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition.

If loving this movie is wrong, I don't want to be right.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Clelia Gore

It was when Clelia first read Charlotte’s Web in the first grade that she got hooked by the magic of books. Her love of children’s books carried through adulthood and she is delighted to dedicate her life to bringing quality books and stories to young (and whimsical adult!) readers. 

Clelia is originally from the suburbs of New York City, but has also lived in Boston, Washington, DC, and now Seattle, a city she loves. She is a former corporate lawyer who joined Martin Literary Management as the head of their kid lit division in September 2013. Clelia represents authors of picture book, middle grade and young adult books.

To follow Clelia’s blog see Check out her agency website at

And now Clelia Gore faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Charlotte's Web --The second novel I ever read and it had a profound effect on me. I reread it every September right before school started every year through my first year law school.

Anne of Green Gables -- Kindred spirits. Raspberry cordial. Puffed sleeves. Gilbert Blythe. Dreamy sigh.

Harry Potter series -- I realized I was attracted to the man who became my husband when we both brought The Deathly Hallows to work the day after it came out. Needless to say, we were the only lawyers at our law firm who did that.

My favorite thing I read this year was the Elena Ferrante Neopolitan series. It shook me to my core.

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

Father of the Bride -- Tears and heart-warming. Every. Single. Time. 

Amelie -- A French whimsical delight.

Lord of the Rings trilogy -- I don't even typically like fantasy that much, but my love for this epic adventure is very intense.

TV Shows:

All time adult show: The Office

All time teen show: Tie with Greek and Pretty Little Liars

I'm obsessed with talk shows--morning, late night, political, celebrity--any kind, really. Right now I'm very into The Late Late Show with James Corden because he has all his guests have a conversation together and I've always loved Real Time with Bill Maher for the same reason. We also watch an insane amount of Charlie Rose in my house.

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

Beautifully talented! Also, professional, open to revision and reimagining, not too sensitive, and understanding that the path to acquisition can be a long, hard road with many twists and turns.

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

Right now, I am very keen on developing my YA and middle grade lists.  I love anything with a historical or true life bent to it. Memoir or narrative nonfiction will always appeal to me. I feel very strongly about doing my part to promote diversity in kid lit, so I like to see stories from voices or perspectives we need to see more of.

I also acquire picture books. I tend to love modern-humored, story-driven picture books that touch on universal experiences or emotions. And nonfiction!

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

My favorite thing is that I feel like I am using all of the skills I have--I am a good editor and writer, I am good with people, and I have a legal background that makes me very comfortable with contracts and negotiations. I'm being put to good use!

Least favorite thing -- The acquisition process can be very slow, which is frustrating.

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)

Read as many books in the genre that you are writing in, particularly books written in the last couple of years. It will only make you a better writer to see the genre done well, done poorly, and done mediocrely. It will also give you a sense of what the most current marketplace looks like.

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

JK Rowling. I know her head is filled with 100,000 Harry Potter stories and I just want to have a 56 hour lunch with her where she tells me all of them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Laura Crockett

Literary Agent Assistant Laura Crockett is interested in a variety of YA and adult fiction. In YA, she is interested in contemporary realistic fiction (such as study abroad experiences, strong female friendships, falling in love, anxiety and abuse), high and low fantasy, and gothic horror. In adult fiction, she is interested in WWI and WWII historical fiction, gothic horror, neo-Victorian mystery, contemporary women's fiction, and fantasy. 

Some of Laura's current favorites are: The Night Circus, Outlander, Fangirl, Prisoner of Night and Fog, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Long Lankin, and The Start of Me and You.

And now Laura Crockett faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Gahhhh picking three is always so tough! So for right now, I'd say Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, and One Day by David Nicholls. 

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

My favorite shows tend to be British period dramas of some kind. Because that list is very long, I'll stick to movies! Right now I'm obsessing over About Time, Age of Adaline, and Belle. I LOVE BELLE. There is so much to talk about in that movie, I don't even know where to begin!  

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

Someone who wants to make writing a career and is open to feedback and creative brainstorming. We have to work as a team, and communication is key. 

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

I am very picky about fantasy, but am absolutely dying for a rich, unique, gripping fantasy in YA or Adult. I'm looking for the next Marillier, in a way. I would be especially intrigued by fantasies inspired by Scandinavian folklore or non-Western European culture. I'm also seeking a Fiddler on the Roof retelling/expansion/-inspired manuscript. It's so specific, I realize that, but wouldn't it be neat?

I represent a whole spectrum of YA fiction -- everything except sci-fi -- and historical and women's fiction in Adult. The characters pull me into the story, and I'm drawn to polished writing and authentic voices.

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

I love working with my clients. From the first draft to the editor submission, the journey from the offer to the publication date. The whole process of watching someone's "baby" become a book for the world to read and enjoy is amazing!

Hands down, my least favorite thing is sending and receiving rejections.  

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)

Write the book you want to read, and don't give up. Do not take rejections personally. If anything, they'll bring you closer to the right people who will root for you from beginning to end.

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

Goodness, I have two! 1) Emery Lord. Her feminism fires me up, and I would love to spend a whole day with her and taking on the world! 2) JK Rowling. Harry Potter shaped my childhood and I still can't go a day without making a Harry Potter reference or remark. This counts as the second one today and it's not eve noon yet ;)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

7 Questions For: Author Jeanne DuPrau

Jeanne DuPrau is the author of The New York Times bestseller The City of Ember and its companion novels The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and The Diamond of Darkhold. She lives in Menlo Park.

She spends several hours of every day at her computer, thinking up sentences. She has this quote taped to her wall: "A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people" (Thomas Mann).

This gives her courage, because she finds writing very hard. So many words to choose from! So many different things that could happen in a story at any moment! Writing is one tough decision after another. 

But it's also the most satisfying thing she knows how to do. So she keeps doing it. So far, she has written five novels, six books of non-fiction, and quite a few essays and stories. 

She doesn't write every minute of every day. She also putters around in her gardens.

Click here to read my review of The City of Ember.

And now Jeanne DuPrau faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

And so many more that I can’t possibly choose among them. Novels, essays, mysteries, spy stories, science fiction, books about dogs, books about history, books about technology…. I could go on and on.

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

I don’t spend nearly as much time writing as I used to, unless you count emails. If we’re talking about writing books, then I sometimes spend two hours a day, sometimes more, sometimes no time at all. The problem with writing is that you have to sit still (or stand still) while you do it, and the older you get, the less comfortable that is. 

I spend an enormous amount of time reading. I always have a pile of library books going, along with books I couldn’t resist buying though I have no room for them on my shelves any more. I read while I eat, I read online, I read in bed. I can’t make a guess about how many hours a week it would all add up to.

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

I always aimed to be a published writer. I knew writing was what I wanted to do and what I was good at, and I knew that having other people read what I wrote was a big part of the point of doing it. I sold my first piece of writing—a magazine article—when I was in my twenties, and I went on to publish essays, book reviews, stories, non-fiction books, and finally books of fiction. 

People often ask me what the secret to getting published is. My answer is that nothing about it is a secret. You must work hard at learning to write well, and you must be so interested in life and in the world that you have ideas you’re drawn to write about.

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

I think both are true. My mother was a good writer, and she did her best to make a good writer out of me. I took to it. She did the same with my sisters, who did not take to it in the same way. I had excellent English teachers in school, and I was very interested in what they taught me—grammar, spelling, sentence structure, composition—and I wanted to employ those skills in the exercise of my imagination. I probably had excellent math teachers, too, but their subject didn’t spark in me the same kind of interest. So I think I was born with a writing inclination, and I was lucky enough to be taught well, too.

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

My favorite thing is getting something right, usually after a long struggle. Most often I’m a slow, effortful writer. I have to revise over and over. I have to think. But I find nothing more satisfying than having succeeded (at least more or less) at what I’ve set out to do.

I have two least favorite things. One of them is working on something for a long time that I never do get right. The other is the backache that comes from sitting in a chair for too long.

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)

First of all, love reading. Try to notice why certain books draw you in and fire you up and others don’t.

Then, if you have ideas or stories in your mind, try writing. Remember that it takes a lot of time and work to be a good writer, just as it does to be a concert pianist or a top-flight tennis player or any kind of professional. Learn the craft. Write a lot, throw away what you write, start again, write more. Focus on what you’re writing about and how to make it clear and alive to someone who might be reading it. 

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

I would have lunch with Mark Twain, because he had a sharp wit and a great sense of humor, he was a keen observer of his time, he knew many interesting people, and he had a full life—success and failure, love and grief, war and peace. Also because I read Tom Sawyer over and over when I was child. At our lunch, I would tell him this, and then I would just sit back and listen to him talk.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Book of the Week: THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne Duprau

First Paragraph(s): When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the chief builder and the assistant builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak of the future. 
“They must not leave the city for at least two hundred years,” said the chief builder. “Or perhaps two hundred and twenty.” 
“Is that long enough?” asked his assistant. 
“It should be. We can’t know for sure.” 
“And when the time comes,” said the assistant, “how will they know what to do?” 
“We’ll provide them with instructions, of course,” the chief builder replied. 
“But who will keep the instructions? Who can we trust to keep them safe and secret all that time?”
“The mayor of the city will keep the instructions,” said the chief builder. “We’ll put them in a box with a timed lock, set to open on the proper date.” 
“And will we tell the mayor what’s in the box?” the assistant asked. 
“No, just that it’s information they won’t need and must not see until the box opens of its own accord.” 
“So the first mayor will pass the box to the next mayor, and that one to the next, and so on down through the years, all of them keeping it secret, all that time?” 
“What else can we do?” asked the chief builder. “Nothing about this endeavor is certain. There may be no one left in the city by then or no safe place for them to come back to.”

What a rare treat this week's book is, Esteemed Reader. If you haven't read The City of Ember, drop whatever lesser book you're currently reading (unless it's mine) and pick up this one (or switch files in your ereader). I haven't been reviewing many books as of late due to my fiction workload, but I've been meaning to review The City of Ember for years as I consider it to be a modern classic and this seems like a good week to do it as author Jeanne DuPrau will be here to Thursday to face the 7 Questions ***does this-blog-rocks-so-hard happy dance***.

Let's start with that opening above as it is just a red-hot hook. Jaws couldn't get free of that bad boy and I would be shocked to ever encounter a reader who read those paragraphs and was capable of not devouring the rest of the book. A creative writing professor drilled into my head that suspense is created by an author revealing information rather than withholding it, and after four years of him hissing it at me every time he saw me, I came to accept that truth. But it's a delicate balance that when done right is the first season of Lost and when done wrong is the fifth season:)

It is inarguable that Duprau hooks her reader by revealing that the citizens of The City of Ember are forced to live there for 200-220 years, but you'll note she withholds telling us why. And she masterfully opens the story of the citizens of this underground city in its 241st year, which is suspenseful because she revealed the city is built to be inhabited for 220 years. This book has several wonderful characters we'll talk about in just a moment, but the title character is the city itself:

In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark. The only light came from great flood lamps mounted on the buildings and at the tops of poles in the middle of the larger squares. When the lights were on, they cast a yellowish glow over the streets; people walking by threw long shadows that shortened and then stretched out again. When the lights were off, as they were between nine at night and six in the morning, the city was so dark that people might as well have been wearing blindfolds.

Sometimes darkness fell in the middle of the day. The city of Ember was old, and everything in it, including the power lines, was in need of repair. So now and then the lights would flicker and go out. These were terrible moments for the people of Ember. As they came to a halt in the middle of the street or stood stock-still in their houses, afraid to move in the utter blackness, they were reminded of something they preferred not to think about: that someday the lights of the city might go out and never come back on.

When I read Wool by our old friend Hugh Howey, I found myself thinking of The City of Ember, and the first time I read The City of Ember, I found myself thinking of the underground city in Derinkuyu, Turkey, and it occurs to me that there is likely room in the genre of underground city stories for a few more entries, so I might eventually try one myself. In rereading the book in preparation for this review, I was reminded of The Giver by our other old friend Lois Lowry. I'm not really sure what my point is here other than I've read a lot of awesome books by a lot of awesome writers and God bless America that we have so many great books at our disposal:)

Ember is a fantastic setting for a story as it's inherently interesting, made more so by the fact that it's got a built-in ticking clock, but for all that, it's still just a setting. I'd wager that if Duprau messed up every other element of this novel (not likely as talented writers have a vexing way of being talented in multiple areas so that the rest of us can only wish we had their ability), the setting and the premise alone would still have moved books and kept me reading to at least the 50% point if not 70:)

But Duprau has given us multiple characters to root for and at least one to actively root against:) Before I tell you about them, there's one more element I want to point out, and this is the main thing that reminded me of The Giver. What makes for a good dystopian novel is the details of how the society is arranged. If you're writing a dystopian novel for the middle grade or young adult market, you could do worse than adding a detail such as this:

Grown people did their work, and younger people, until they reached the age of twelve, went to school. On the last day of their final year, which was called Assignment Day, they were given jobs to do.

I'll tell you an open secret: middle grade readers dream of being given adult responsibility and obtaining adult autonomy and privilege, mostly because they haven't thought it through (suckers). Is it too late to let my parents pay the mortgage so I can read books all day? But I say this with the advantage of hindsight. I couldn't wait to grow up when I was the appropriate age for this story and starting my adult career at age 12 would've sounded like Heaven (does Ember have any openings for famous authors who spend their days autographing books and eating chocolate?). 

Unfortunately, the assignments are not given to our 12-year-old heroes by a wise and all-seeing wizard's hat, but appointed by a disinterested mayor who we'll learn later in the story is the last person who should be trusted with the future of young people. An arbitrary appointment might be an unpleasant one a 12-year-old could be saddled with for life. I might argue that's in some ways still fairer than our current real-life system of promising low-income kids they can grow up to be anything they want and then assuring them it's their character failure when they don't.

But let's stick to the story. In The City of Ember, our heroine Lina Mayfleet has been stuck with an assignment of working in the Pipeworks, which is to say she's a plumber/sewer technician. Duprau uses this opportunity not to build the character of Lina, which she'll be doing for most of the novel's length, but to build the character of our secondary protagonist, Doon Harrow, who stands up Katniss-Everdeen style and volunteers to take Lina's position. 

In fact, despite a bit of vanity, Doon Harrow is such the classic hero archetype, one almost wonders why some editor didn't insist he be made the main protagonist. Consider the following passages:

With wrenches, hammers, washers, and black goop, they did this, getting soaked in the process. It took them most of the morning and proved to Doon that the city was in even worse shape than he’d suspected. Not only were the lights about to fail and the supplies about to run out, but the water system was breaking down. The whole city was crumbling, and what was anyone doing about it?

All Doon’s life, his father had been saying to him, “You’re a good boy and a smart boy. You’ll do grand things someday, I know you will.” But Doon hadn’t done much that was grand so far. He ached to do something truly important, like finding the secret of electricity, and, as his father watched, be rewarded for his achievement. The size of the reward didn’t matter. A small certificate would do, or maybe a badge to sew on his jacket.

“Maybe,” said his father, “you’ll find some interesting new bugs in the Pipeworks.” “Maybe,” said Doon. But to himself he said, No, that’s not enough. I can’t go plodding around the Pipeworks, stopping up leaks, looking for bugs, and pretending there’s no emergency. I have to find something important down there, something that’s going to help. I have to. I just have to.

Some writers may not understand why Doon isn't the main hero, but not me. I'm the guy who wrote Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees from the perspective not of the hero, but of the sidekick. I get it. Doon is a fine character, but he's more difficult to relate to than Lina Mayfleet.

Lina is our way in to The City of Ember. Presumably, no one presently reading the book has been forced to live in an underground city (readers weathering a future resulting from a President Trump are exempt from this assumption). Lina is far more relatable to the average reader. If I project myself into this story, which is a natural part of the reading experience, I find it more difficult to relate to Doon than to Lina who has an artistic sensibility. Has there ever been a more apt description of this sensibility than the following:

What would she draw? Taking hold of a pencil was like opening a tap inside her mind through which her imagination flowed. She could feel the pictures ready to come out. It was a sort of pressure, like water in a pipe. She always thought she would draw something wonderful, but what she actually drew never quite matched the feeling. It was like when she tried to tell a dream—the words never really captured how it felt.

Lina is relatable not only because she has the capacity to imagine a world beyond the closed-off city of Ember, but because of the details of who she is. She may not be quite as passionate as Doon in his singular desire to heroically save the city, but she takes the same risks he does, and I say that makes her the same amount of hero. 

But Lina has a senile grandmother and a younger sister named Poppy to worry about. And what of her parents? I'm sorry, Esteemed Reader, is this your first middle grade novel:) Parents pose too many plot complications. Tragically, but also conveniently from a writer's perspective, Lina has been orphaned just as the best middle grade protagonists so often are. And I'm not one for spoilers, but don't get too attached to grandma.

And Lina, like the best protagonists, is imperfect, making her all the more relatable. Who among us can't relate to poor Lina, who when she spends money that should go to groceries for her grandmother and little sister, instead follows her artistic passion:

Later, in her bedroom, with Poppy asleep, she took the two colored pencils from her pocket. They were not quite as beautiful as they had been. When she held them, she remembered the powerful wanting she had felt in that dusty store, and the feeling of it was mixed up with fear and shame and darkness.

As usual, I see we're running long, so it's about to time to call it a review. In summation, a great premise with an outstanding setting with the addition of well-developed characters make for a modern classic. Jeanne Duprau makes this look easy, but I know from experience that it's anything but. If you aspire to write great fiction (and what are you doing here otherwise) or if you're just looking for a great read, add The City of Ember to the top of your reading list.

As we'll learn on Thursday when Jeanne Duprau is here to face the 7 Questions, she is quite the garden  enthusiast. Knowing that makes well-written description of vegetation all the more noticeable:

On the days when she’d come here with her father, Lina had spent hours wandering along the gravel paths that ran between the vegetable beds, sniffing the leaves, poking her fingers into the dirt, and learning to tell the plants apart by their look and smell. There were the beans and peas with their curly tendrils, the dark green spinach, the ruffled lettuce, and the hard, pale green cabbages, some of them as big as a newborn baby’s head. What she loved best was to rub the leaves of the tomato plant between her fingers and breathe in their pungent, powdery smell.

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

He was a tall man, bald as a peeled potato, with a high forehead and a long chin.

"The main thing is to pay attention. Pay close attention to everything, notice what no one else notices. Then you’ll know what no one else knows, and that’s always useful.”

“What I mean is,” she said finally, “something is going on that we don’t understand. They say the Builders made the city. But who made the Builders? Who made us? I think the answer must be somewhere outside of Ember.”

“How could we have seen anyone? The lights were out,” said Nammy Proggs, a tiny old woman whose back was so bent that she had to twist her head sideways to look up.

It seemed to Lina that Lizzie was like a clock wound too tightly and running too fast. She’d always been a little this way, but today she was more so than ever. Her gaze skipped from one spot to another, her fingers twiddled with the edge of her shirt. She looked paler than usual, too. Her freckles stood out like little smudges of dirt on her nose.

At the north end of Harken Square stood a circle of Believers, clapping their hands and singing one of their songs. Lately they seemed to be singing more loudly and cheerfully than ever. Their voices were shrill. “Coming soon to save us!” they wailed. “Happy, happy day!”

She set her pencil down for a moment and studied what she’d done. It was time to fill in the sky. In the pictures she’d done with regular pencils, the sky was its true color, black. But this time she made it blue, since she was using her blue pencil. Methodically, as Poppy scratched and scribbled beside her, Lina colored in the space above the buildings, her pencil moving back and forth in short lines, until the entire sky was blue. She sat back and looked at her picture. Wouldn’t it be strange, she thought, to have a blue sky? But she liked the way it looked. It would be beautiful—a blue sky.

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, March 1, 2016

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Caitlin McDonald

Caitlin McDonald joined Donald Maas Literary Agency in 2015, and was previously at Sterling Lord Literistic. She represents adult and young adult speculative fiction, primarily science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and related subgenres, as well as contemporary fiction about geeky characters. She also handles a small amount of nonfiction in geeky areas, with a focus on feminist theory/women’s issues and pop culture. Caitlin grew up overseas and has a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.

You can learn more about her interests by following her on Twitter @literallycait.

And now Caitlin McDonald faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Oh, that is so hard, I have so many favorites in so many genres! The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin is my all-time favorite book, but for middle grade I’d have to say my favorites are Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, and Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer.

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

Also difficult! Leverage is definitely my favorite TV show, containing many of my favorite tropes and character dynamics, but otherwise my interests tend to jump around quite a bit. Currently I'm obsessed with Orphan Black and rewatching Parks and Rec.

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

Concept and voice are two very important elements to start with. They have to have an amazing idea, and they have to be able to pull it off brilliantly! I can help an author revise structure, character arc, pacing, etc., but I can’t come up with the premise and I can’t teach voice, so a project needs to have at least those two things for me to take it on. On top of that, I value enthusiasm, communication, commitment, and a willingness to revise. 

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

Anything on my MSWL! I’m always looking for books about girls and their relationships (platonic, romantic, familial, rivalry—any relationship), and I’m dying for a good heist book. But most of all, I just want something that makes me feel strongly all the way through, that makes me laugh and makes me cry, something that grips my attention right from the very beginning.

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

I love being able to choose who I work with and what I work on. As long as I believe in a project, I can take it on, and it's wonderful to be able to get in on the ground floor and help make something wonderful succeed. 

But by that same token, sometimes there are projects that you love and utterly believe in that don’t make it, and that can be incredibly disheartening. You give a little piece of yourself to every project, and so rejections can feel a little personal even though you know it’s just a part of the business. It’s a balancing act, like any creative job. 

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)

Write what you love, but be smart about it. If what you love is dystopian YA, which is so overdone right now, focus on what you can do to really make it stand out from the crowd. How can you make the focus be on something else: a ghost story, for example, that just happens to be set in a dystopian world? Be unique—and read lots in your genre so that you know what is and is not unique!

Also, don't self-publish your book while you "wait" to get picked up by a traditional publisher. It hurts, not helps, your chances of a traditional publisher taking your book! Self-publishing IS publishing, and like any business decision, you have to go into it fully informed. Do your research and be prepared to commit fully to the copyediting, design, promotion, marketing, and all the other work that comes with self-publication.

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

Ursula Le Guin. She’s my hero: so intelligent, thoughtful, progressive, and doesn’t take crap from anybody! I feel like I could learn so much from a conversation with her, not just about writing, but about how to be a better person.