Writing Process Blog Tour

Every once in a while, a nugget of smiley goodness appears in my inbox. That’s how I’d describe being asked by author F.A. Michaels to participate in an ongoing blog tour about the writing process by answering four related questions. F.A. Michaels, or Mic, is the author of some amazing novels for middle grade and young adult readers. Some of those stories will come to life as e-books right off the bat. Others will land on print pages soon. Mic knows that I am passionate about books for young readers and that I enjoy a good ole fashion discussion about the writing process- which is as unique to an author as a fingerprint. I encourage you to take a look at what other authors have revealed, beginning with talented F.A. Michaels here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I know, Mic is brilliant, right? Well, now that you’re back, I’ll do my best to enlighten you about how I work.

What am I currently working on?
Lately, my multi-tasking muscles have gotten a workout. In the last two weeks, I did final edits on two books I wrote for the educational market, due out this summer. I’m also kicking around new title options for my debut trade book, a nonfiction picture book coming out next spring from Lee and Low, tentatively titled STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. And speaking of that debut, it will be out in less than a year. Ahhhhhhh! There’s so much to think about and plan for: book launch parties, marketing, the best pen to sign with, how to thank the multitudes of people who have helped me emotionally and craft-wise to bring the book to fruition. I suddenly feel pregnant all over again, stressing over a very long pre-baby to-do list that will lead to one beautiful event.

I’m in the research stage of a new project, but I’ll remain coy for now. Partly to avoid leaks in focus that would allow some of the magic to spill from the mental process by talking about it too soon. Once the story is well rounded, fully spiced, and tightly sealed, I’ll be thrilled to talk about it. For now, I’ll reveal only that it will probably be a nonfiction picture book (unless it becomes something else,) about an almost-forgotten historical event involving war, trains, destruction, kids, adults, hunger, and gifts. I am enthralled by all I am learning and antsy to begin writing. But, it isn’t time yet.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s funny, isn’t it, that we begin our writing careers studying the works and styles of other writers, trying to emulate them. Then, our goal is to be different, original, unique. To that end, I’m not sure how to answer this question except to say that every project I tackle has a bit of me in it. I think that’s true of all writers. There isn’t one characteristic that makes my work different. It is the collective gathering of ideas and the particular voice and spin I give it. So maybe the question should be “What topics and themes am I drawn to?” As I consider the many nonfiction topics I’ve tackled, it’s interesting to observe themes that have emerged organically from each. A reader might correctly assume that I root for underdogs and cheer at success-against-all-odds tales (STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. Lee and Low, spring 2015.) I like real, fallible people who acknowledge and evolve from their mistakes. (EN GARDE! THE DUELING WORDS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Peachtree, 2016.) I like characters who have the gumption to do what others think is impossible. (Stay tuned.) I cheer for strong women who break through gender barriers. (One newly on submission. Another awaiting first draft.) I like learning about the personal side to historical figures. (old project waiting to be re-visited.) I like people with such conviction, they’re willing to risk their lives to do what’s right. (my old magazine article begging to be a book.)

How does my work differ? I don’t know. I’m not sure that can be answered until I’m at the end of my writing career. Let’s hope that’s a long time from now.

Why do I write what I write?
Much of the answer to this can be found in the previous question, I think. Every year, I promise myself that I will begin my novel and tackle the fiction picture books that I have dabbled with. But, I can’t seem to drag myself away from nonfiction. I love true stories. I like the sense of wonderment and awe when I learn something remarkable. People are fascinating, complicated creatures built by life experiences and dreams. Historical subjects are doubly interesting because there’s an element of detective work and puzzle-solving to realize their stories. What fun! Sometimes, I think I’m drawn to biographies because it’s a way to put logic and order to the human experience which, while we’re living life, is chaotic and disorderly. We learn from the past.

How does my individual writing process work?
People often ask where I get my ideas, which is the first step in any writing process. Ideas come from everywhere. I once wrote a magazine article about fainting goats, after catching a news segment on a local television station. Sometimes, ideas come from snippets or blips or the merest mention in newspapers or magazines or documentaries. Sometimes, it’s a curiosity that sends me to Google. Not all ideas stick. But, when a topic nags me, when I can’t stop the “gee, I wonder…” inner dialog, I know it’s one I must pursue. Something about the topic must hit a nerve with me.

My research begins online, then on to books. I begin to horde copies of newspaper clippings from the day and I’ll even buy a copy of full newspapers if any still exist. It’s an ideal way to gauge what was happening in the community and the world around my subject. If the idea still has me fascinated, I’ll contact any known experts. By now, I have research files on my computer desktop and desk drawer where I deposit photos, newspaper and other articles, historical details, world events, copies of pages from books, etc. Without fail, the folder morphs into a bulging 4″ binder where print documents are cataloged chronologically. Timelines, details and sequences are categorized. Early on, I begin what I call my source notes document that is also broken into categories. From the massive amount of research I do, I extract important (to me) information and implant them into my source notes. Each source is cited on the document, for easy recall. My single-spaced source notes for a picture book biography can easily grow to 50 pages long. The categories grow and, eventually, a theme emerges.  When I begin coming across the same information over and over, I know it’s time to stop researching and start writing.

Information at hand, I outline over and over and over again, keeping an eye on a narrative arc. One of the most difficult decisions about writing picture book biographies is where to begin and end the story. I write, rewrite, scrap the outline, begin again. The last thing I do is pick at my word choices and finesse the voice. Ideally, each story will have it’s own voice, appropriate to the topic.  I send this umpteenth draft on to my agent and cross my fingers. But there’s no time for a break. By then, another topic is nagging at me, begging to be a book.

Mark your calendars for next week, May 5th when author Carmen Oliver and author/illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson will share their own writing processes on their individual blogs.

Carmen Oliver, originally from Canada, is a former Assistant Regional Advisor of Austin SCBWI. She writes fiction and nonfiction picture books and middle grade novels and is represented by Erzsi Deak of Hen and Ink: A Literary Studio. Carmen has a special affinity for adorable picture books. I don’t doubt we’ll hear about sales of her books very soon. Carmen’s blog can be found here.

Shelley Ann Jackson is the current Assistant Regional Advisor for Austin SCBWI while also teaching illustration at Texas State University. Shelley and her husband, Jeff Crosby,  co-illustrated the newly released TEN TEXAS BABIES by David Davis (Pelican, 2014) as well as UPON SECRECY by Selene Castrovilla (Calkins Creek, 2009.) She co-authored and co-illustrated HARNESS HORSES, BUCKING BRONCOS & PIT PONIES (Tundra Books, 2011,) and LITTLE LIONS, BULL BAITERS & HUNTING HOUNDS (Tundra Books, 2008.)  Shelley’s blog can be found here.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Debut

I’ve been getting all kinds of antsy lately, worried that I am supposed to be doing something to prepare for
my spring 2015 debut. I’ve been plenty busy with other projects. I’ve sold a second book (woohoo!) and revised another for an interested editor (fingers crossed.) And there are the revisions on other projects, etc, etc. But, there’s something special about this debut experience. A first book is like a first child, right?

Some pre-release duties, like website updating, blogs, business cards, brochures, mailing lists, and library contacts, are predictable. Expected. But, how do we debut authors prepare for the unexpected?

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I reached out to some pretty awesome EMLA (Erin Murphy Literary Agency) authors and asked them what they wish they’d known as they approached their debut release and what advice they would give to those of us stocking up on anxiety. I hope you will get as much out of their responses as I have.

What about that title?
Jeannie Mobley, author of KATERINA’S WISH (McElderry, 2012) pointed out that authors often lose a beloved original title during the pre-release revision process. Your book will be around for a long time, so it’s important to negotiate, with your editor, a title that you will be proud of. Mike Jung, author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES (Arthur A.
Levine, 2012) expands on the notion, encouraging authors to be prepared “by writing up some alternative versions that you’ll be able to live with.

How about those blog tours?
Jeannie Mobley suggests spreading blog interviews out over time, rather than clumping them all into just before and just after the book releases. Especially close to holiday seasons, and award seasons. Janet Fox, author of SIRENS (Speak, 2012) noted the variations in blog styles: “I’ve found the most value for time in doing a creative blog tour. Not
just the answer-the-questions kind, but one that maintains a thread or through-line and informs. For my 1920’s historical, I wrote ten posts on different aspects of the 20’s, and got a huge response.”

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Natalie Dias Lorenzi, author of FLYING THE DRAGON (Charlesbridge, 2011) says, “If your time is limited, be
choosy about which blogs you agree to provide interviews for and pay close attention to the audiences they reach. For YA writers, blogs that reach book club facilitators, readers and librarians will give you more mileage… For middle grade and picture book authors, reaching readers via blogs is highly unlikely (there are a few, like http://thiskidreviewsbooks.com).

“In my opinion, librarian and teacher blogs are the most worth your time (and I’m not saying this just because I’m both, I promise.) I say this because librarians and teachers are the most likely to get your books into the hands of readers…Think of a blog tour as a chance to make your audience aware of your book. Take a look at who leaves comments on a blog–is it mostly other writers, or do other folks chime in, too?” Psst…Check out the below list of librarian and teacher blogs that Natalie has shared with us! Awesome, right?

School visits rock, but…
Pat Zietlow Miller, author of SOPHIE’S SQUASH (Schwartz & Wade, 2013) says, “School visits are a lot of fun, but they also are a lot of work in terms of preparing them, conducting them and decompressing afterward.” When she was faced with a flood of awkward requests for free school visits, Pat came up with a tactful and professional response similar to this: ‘I love doing school visits! What I charge depends on how long I’m there, how far I have to travel and what type of reading or presentation I do. I’d be happy to talk to someone from the school and see what they have in mind.’

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General, but fabulous marketing advice:
When it comes to choosing your marketing energies, Cynthia Levinson, author of WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, 2012) encourages authors to go into the process with eyes
wide-open: “I wish I’d known how much time it would all take–blogs, presentations, interviews, videos, library and school visits, trailer, website development, teachers’ guide, conference proposals, multiple trips, articles. It was fun but my recommendation is to figure out what you most like to do and focus on those. Feel free to set priorities, and decline the opportunities that cause you stress or distraction. Your book has value and stands on its own. It’s your publisher’s job to
publicize the book. Yours is to write the next books.

“Most of all, enjoy! You deserve it.”

 “I also wish I’d known how many people would ask me, ‘So…where can I get a copy of your book?’ says Pat Miller,  “So I made sure to know which bookstores in town carried it.”

“As far as gigs,” says Jeannie Mobley, “try everything the first time around, see what you enjoy and what you
don’t and then pare it down to the things you enjoy doing as you continue to promote (or better yet!) promote your second book.”

What about those reviews? They all agree that it’s a good idea to stay busy and distracted while waiting for reviews to
trickle in. Rather than fretting, always be working on another book. Mike Jung reflects on the review process in a humorous way: “Reviews can be a mutant porcupine demon of anxiety. But do not forget how awesome it is that your book is published and how awesome you are for having written it!”

Stress? What stress? “Stock up on chocolate,” says Janet Fox. “Hug your dog. The launch day will come and go and you’ll think, ‘what, no fireworks???’ That’s okay. Your baby is out in the world and you made it happen.”

For the finale to this What to Expect post, Jennifer Nielsen, author of THE SHADOW THRONE trilogy (Scholastic Press, 2012), brilliantly sums up the debut experience with a healthy mix of optimism and realism.

“Keep your expectations in scale. Some debut books are breakout hits (Divergent, for example), but most aren’t. For most debut books, the Amazon rank won’t skyrocket upon release, or if it does, it’ll slowly fall to a more average number. Most don’t hit the bestseller lists or take home the big awards. Most debut books won’t
garner requests to speak at conferences, or even at schools outside of your home area (if that). And I sometimes think we believe that if our debut doesn’t do all of that, that it’s a sign we’ll forever be mid list, or that we’ll never be “big.”
“It’s just not true. Don’t let yourself become discouraged. These things only mean that it’s your debut book and
it takes a long time for word to get out about an author, even if the publisher is doing mad publicity for you, and even if all the reviews are glowing. The fact that you are finally a published author is HUGE and amazing and wonderful, but don’t be distressed if the world continues revolving as usual on your release day. You might find your book on an end cap at B&N, or not. Don’t worry if half your family doesn’t get around to reading it for a while, or if your kids’ school doesn’t ask to host your launch party for the whole school to attend.
“The #1 best thing you can do for your first book is to write and sell your second. Every book raises your profile,
which is particularly important with young readers because once they find a book they love, they go on a search to see what else that author has written. Do everything you can to get the word out pre-release, but put your best attention on your next project.
“Everyone has to start somewhere. Publishing is like climbing a mountain. There’s no single trail to the summit, and always a higher summit waiting once you reach the one you were aiming for. The only thing that matters is you keep climbing, and with each book, you will. Let go of any worries about where you are on the mountain – because we’re all just climbing too – and just enjoy the climb, as every author should.”
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Many thanks to Natalie Dias Lorenzi for sharing her favorite teacher and librarian blogs below:

K-5 Librarian: http://mrschureads.blogspot.com

3rd Grade Teacher: http://sharpread.wordpress.com/author/colbysharp/

Elementary School Librarian: http://100scopenotes.com

Public Librarian (who is now a stay-at-home mom as of a few months ago): http://sharingsoda.blogspot.com/p/what-i-read.html

Children’s school librarian: http://www.jennysbookreview.com

Mother/Daughter Book Club: http://motherdaughterbookclub.com

Public Librarians for YA: http://www.stackedbooks.org

Youth services librarian: http://masalareader.wordpress.com

Two teachers: http://readingyear.blogspot.it

* Former teacher, current coordinator of instructional technology: http://www.teachmentortexts.com

* Two teachers of reading (high school): http://www.unleashingreaders.com/?page_id=15

* These last two blogs co-host a meme called “It’s Monday–what are you reading?” that draws in lots of librarians and teachers, so check out their links each Monday and read the comments.

Note: This post originally appeared on http://emusdebuts.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/what-to-expect-when-youre-expecting-a-debut/ on 4/3/2014.