Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sex and YA Novels

By Jenny Ramaley

A  few weeks ago, some of us Route 19 Writers gave ourselves an assignment: write a sex scene.
(not porn, mind you, but a literary scene with story, character, etc.)
         Huh?, you might be thinking. Don't most of you write for children?
         Yes.  But Carol is working on an adult murder/mystery/suspense/thriller and we were encouraging her to raise the 'steamy' level in some of her scenes where the characters were peeling off various layers of clothes. "Hey," she protested. "It's not that easy. You guys should try it!" And being a supportive group, the rest of us, even the picture book gals, thought, "Yeah, this would be a good experience, a challenge that will loosen up our writing."
         Long story short, we had a blast one evening drinking wine and reading each other's stories out loud. Overall, group members surprised themselves. We produced good stories, rich in character and setting, where the physical act meant something – whether it was misguided love, first kisses, pure lust or corporate climbing.
         The project was especially useful for those of us who write YA novels because sooner or later we're faced with a physical situation in our stories. Whether a character suppresses his or her desires or tries to satisfy them, most teens have raging hormones. Because of our 'assignment', I spent some time picking through YA books to see how different authors handle sex in their stories.


         First I turned to Gossip Girl. Although written in 2002 by Cecily von Ziegasar, the concept was brainstormed and controlled by Alloy Entertainment. The book morphed into a well-known print and TV series with a reputation for copious amounts of drugs, alcohol and sex. The story focuses on a group of neglected rich New York teens and drips with sexual innuendo. But if you really study the book, there's a lot more talk than action, and when there is actual action, it's barely mentioned.
         Here's the scene where Serena has sex for the first time with her old friend Nate, who is also her best friend's boyfriend:

They both had sex for the first time. It was awkward and painful and exciting and fun, and so sweet they forgot to be embarrassed. It was exactly the way you'd want your first time to be, and they had no regrets.

         If you ask me, that sounds pretty vague. And tame.
         Compare that scene with another first-time experience and young love found in Forever, the YA book written by Judy Blume in1975:

I whispered "Are you in . . . are we doing it?"
"Not yet," Michael said, pushing harder. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Don't worry . . . just do it!"
"I'm trying, Kath . . . but it's very tight in there."
"What should I do?"
"Can you spread your legs some more . . . and maybe raise them a little?"
"Like this?"
"That's better . . .much better."
         Due to its explicit, almost clinical, physical scenes, I can't help but wonder if this story would be published in today's conservative anti-sex-education world. Marcy said this book has been hard to find in recent years, although it's still highly sought after. Apparently, when a library gets a copy, it often disappears. I found my copy on a shelf at Target a few weeks ago, so someone in retail land is recognizing the demand and putting it back in stores. Isn't it interesting that a book first published in the '70s still has an audience?
         Although our pop culture is drenched with sex – think MTV rap videos, Jersey Shore and a relentless avalanche of sexy advertising -- teenagers still seem to covet information about the nuts and bolts of sex from sources other than reality TV, Glamour magazine, and weird stuff on the internet. Carefully crafted YA books that deal with the subject of sex, openly, honestly, with the pros and cons of these decisions worked into the stories, can help fill this need.
         I wonder if any teens will be searching for Gossip Girl 36 years from now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Planting Ideas

This past weekend I went through my usual May ritual of planting a row of annuals in my backyard.  However, when I woke up this morning and went outside to check on my garden not a single flower was to be seen. I could only surmise that in the dark of night a cagy critter had feasted on my newly planted geraniums, impatiens and petunias. Finding ideas for stories is somewhat like planting a garden. A seed of an idea germinates in our minds. It may stem from something we read in the newspaper or overheard on a crowded bus. Perhaps a photograph catches our eye and begs to tell a story. Sometimes it’s a childhood memory or a mysterious neighbor. So here are a few wacky titles (and some you might recognize) for a book based on an event as mundane as my missing annuals.

1.  The Garden Thief
2. Gone With The Petunias
3. The Critter Runner
4. Weed, Pray, Love
5. The Lincoln Gardner
6. The Little Critter That Could
7. Oh, The Gardens You’ll Weed!
8. A Petunia In Time
9. Plant Two Geraniums
10. Harry Planter And The Garden Hollows

Please feel free to add to this list!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Conferences and Your Wallet $$$$

by Carol Herder

I’m a reclusive writer. I’ve designed a study I love, where I hole up and create story. Unfortunately, I can’t reenact the Bronte sisters’ lives. Sometimes I must venture out into the big bad world. One of those occasions is when I attend the annual Pennwriters Conference held in Pittsburgh, PA this past weekend.

This year, for the first time, I splurged. I spent upwards of $500. When I mentioned this sum to my critique group yesterday, one of colleagues gasped. Very audibly. Yes, many of you are now convinced that I’m totally insane. But I’ll have you know, I’m not. I know this because on Friday morning I attended Brent Maguire’s Psychoses & Psychopaths workshop.

In addition to attending the Friday through Sunday conference I also signed up for Ramona Long’s Thursday workshop, Mastering the Art of Self-Editing, where I learned new tricks to polish my manuscript. Packed with valuable information, I rushed my bathroom breaks to minimize losing any of Ramona’s words of wisdom.

Going to conferences is expensive, but for a writer intent on furthering her craft there is no better way to network and glean new information. Pennwriters does a wonderful job organizing a conference with a solid mix of workshops for beginners, more advanced writers, and progressive workshops for today’s exciting environment.

Thinking it would be a beginners workshop I nearly skipped, The First Page is the Worst, by Jason Jack Miller & Heidi Ruby Miller. But their no-nonsense approach to including “the promise” our first pages must deliver had my creative mind on fire.

Another favorite, Creating a Low-Budget Book Trailer, with novelist Gwyn Cready and filmmaker Mike Marsh, got me thinking about marketing in a new way. And their ideas on saving money and still getting a product that will stimulate book sales had me thinking I might make back that $500!

As well as the workshops there is the free 10-min pitch session with an agent of your choice. Nerve-wracking, but I promise, it gets easier each year. Another stomach-clenching event is the Friday night critique in your genre. This event is worth the possible migraine and sweat-inducing jitters. I spent my evening in the Thriller/Mystery room with author CJ Lyons and agent Barbara Poelle, and got fantastic feedback on my first-page and synopsis.

On Saturday night I slipped on a pair of high-heels and forced myself out of my hotel room to the cocktail party and dinner with the local Sisters in Crime chapter. At the cocktail party I did finally talk about something other than writing, but at the dinner, as we lingered over coffee and dessert the conversation turned to MFA programs. Does a writer need an MFA? I don’t know, but the conversation was another example of the limitless opportunities to exchange information with writers facing the same challenges.

Lastly, conferences produce pages of notes to take home and share with your colleagues. One such nugget I shared is agent Barbara Poelle’s excitement over YA fiction. Two of my best friends are completing YA manuscripts with multi-faceted girl hero’s I’ve come to love. Jenny Ramaley’s tough-girl character, Shay, in her novel entitled, The Disappearance of Dragonflies, is about a brilliant teen struggling with a terrible home-life and what she believes is a dead-end future. From the first page, I identified with Shay and her drive to succeed. Another exciting YA manuscript is Marcy Collier’s paranormal story, Plainly Gifted. In addition to having the normal teenage challenges, Jamie must learn to control a gift she never knew she had. When the “gift” starts to surface, Jamie finds a world with layers she never dreamed existed.

I don’t know if my friends will submit to Ms. Poelle, I don’t even know if my own pitch with agent Dennis Little will produce results. But I know I will write a better first page, my psychopath killer will be a more believable character, and my overall manuscript will have a polish it never had before.

So, was it worth slinking out of my comfort zone and mingling with other creative minds? Was it worth $500? You bet! Every single penny.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mother Knows Best

posted by Andrea Perry
     Of all of the things that I ever wanted to be when I grew up:  a nun, teacher, drummer, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., interior decorator, Miss America, speech therapist, super model, librarian, and Stevie Nicks back-up singer - children's author never made an appearance on my list.  As a matter of fact, the notion of such a thing was not even mentioned until I was 35.  At the time, I was an at-home mom raising two toddlers.  I had degrees in psychology, education, and rehabilitation counseling and had worked for a number of years as the director of placement and housing for recently discharged state hospital patients.  So imagine my surprise when out of the blue one day my mother suggested I take a course in writing for children.  " I don't think you realize that you have a gift," she said.  "For talking on the phone, brushing my hair, and changing diapers at the same time, maybe, " I replied, "but that's about it."  Her evidence for making such a suggestion, she claimed, was that I had always written little rhymed ditties inside the cards I mailed to friends who were getting married, graduation, moving, or taking new jobs. And I had also won the grand prize in two recent writing contests hosted by Kaufmann's where I had to describe married life in one, and why my husband and I deserved a cruise to Bermuda in another.  "The craziest thing I ever heard," I believe I may have said. So convinced was I that she was so completely wrong, that I actually enrolled in the class to prove my point.  And getting out of the house for one evening a week for 12 weeks did sound rather inviting.  
Well, the rest is history.  Truth be told, I haven't quit my day job. Yet. But I have been lucky enough to publish three picture books.  My life as a children's author has been full of ups and downs, rejections and acceptances, and I continue to evolve, writing and rhyming away, still not knowing what the future holds, but loving it and knowing she was right. How did my mother know? I have no idea.  But I'm glad she did.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Writer's Block vs Writer's Flood

As I watch the stream in my front yard spilling over, I think of one of the biggest challenges I faced when I started writing. This problem plagued me for years. Writer's Flood. I had so many ideas and flashes that it was difficult to stay on target. Characters ran away with tangents. Tangents turned into spillways. Plot holes deepened. My stories remained on the surface because I was so frantic treading water. We are talking waste water and I was up to my neck in it. I just had too many ideas and too many things distracted me.

I'd get into that creative whirlpool and while working on one story I'd wake up only to find a new story on my pillow. I hemorrhaged story. If you asked me "What is this story about?" I'd choke on all the ideas buzzing in my brain.

Learning to keep task on track has been a decade of struggle, but now I can do it. Picture my process as a stove top. On that stove top I have two burners in the front with two big soup pots bubbling away. Those are the two I'm allowed to work on. The next row back has three burners. These pots have lids on them. I'm allowed to take the lid off, throw in some spice, but that's it, then the lid goes shut and I have to finish one of the two up front. There's a third row back with four burners. I can only whisk off the lid, put in a little salt, and that lid gets slammed shut.

I told my agent (who sadly passed away) about this and she laughed and told me not to tell anyone about this. "Why?" I asked. "Because not too many people will understand this. You're high creative." I assured her I didn't smoke any of THAT and again she laughed. She repeated her caution and told me to be patient, that she was certain I'd get the tiger by the tail.

Getting my MFA has helped because it helped me deepen my ability to focus on character. Something else that helps even now is to find a favorite book and type into my computer the opening chapter. It's almost like doing warm-up exercises. It slows my popcorn brain and channels some of that excitement.

Someday perhaps I'll write about writer's block. Maybe.
But trust me, writer's flood can be just as much of a disaster. This morning when I woke up there was a girl sitting there and she told me her name was Harley Ryder. She lives in a trailer court. Her parents love motorcycles and she loves books. She's searched the trailer looking for adoption papers but hasn't found them. Yet.
She's on the fifth row back in a small stainless steel pot. The lid is on tight.

Brave New E-Publishing

We sometimes like to think otherwise, but publishing is a business. That’s not a bad thing, or a good thing, it’s just a thing.

If you are trying to earn money through writing, then you’re a business (if you’re not trying to earn money, then you’re either a poet or possibly a children’s writer and you have my sympathies). I’ll leave it up to you whether you’re a good thing or a bad thing.

I’m in business. The hardest thing to do is to get and keep customers. You can pay other businesses to do it, or do it yourself, in-house. If you pay other businesses, they may be better at it than you are, but they’re not doing it out of charity for you. Let’s say you make widget-toys and you get Widgets-R-Us to sell them for you. If kids stop buying your widgets, the store is not going to keep selling your widgets because they think there’s a chance you’ll come up with a new best-selling widget, or because they think your widgets are good for kids. On the other hand, if you try to sell your widgets yourself in your own store, you’re going to have less time and $$ to make the widgets in the first place.

But here’s the thing: people aren’t going to widget stores as much anymore. So a bunch of them are closing. And Widgets-R-Us might go bankrupt.

Writers have one thing to decide. What’s the best way to connect with customers?

The answer might be many ways. Or one way now and another way later. Things are changing. Keep your eyes open. You could find yourself drowning in a mud puddle, or maybe…Singing in the Rain.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Unagented Again

I hate to make people wait. The thought that someone has put some aspect of their life on hold for me, while I do whatever it is they're waiting for me to do, feels burdensome. I realized last week that I've been carrying that feeling around with me for a long time and it was getting heavy. Maybe I didn't know it then, but now that it's gone, I feel lighter.

I've had an agent for many years. I remember the day he took me on as a client. I couldn't believe it. I was ecstatic. It was the next best thing to selling a manuscript. And I bought into the myth that landing an agent is almost harder than landing a publishing contract, something that agented (but unpublished) writers like to believe. I loved that myth, too. It made me feel better, somehow, like all I had to do now was back-pedal a little, the hardest part was over. I don't know how many times I said to people, "Oh, yeah, it's actually harder to get an agent." It was a cocky thing to say. But it fit the way I was feeling. And then, to top it off, I would add, "He's in New York.". I think I said it so many times over the years that I started to convince myself I was almost done.

After a third rewrite of a third novel my agent began waiting. He was waiting for the fourth novel that I promised him I was half finished with. I've been half finished with it for years. And I knew he was waiting for me to be done because I was waiting for me to be done. Every week that I didn't write, I knew we were both waiting. I guess he finally decided he'd waited long enough. I don't blame him. I know how he felt.

We had some success. My rejections were, for the most part, great. I had a few requested rewrites of a few novels and each time really believed I'd nailed it. And, although editors "really enjoyed reading Mrs. McDowell's story" and thanked us for letting them, no one ever actually bought it. It takes more than liking, loving, enjoying, admiring to sell your work. It takes something special, at a special point in time. And it's all hard.

So, my life as an agented writer is over. Though I'd expected to be as devastated at the end as I was ecstatic at the beginning, I'm actually fine with it. I have the freedom to do with my work as I please, which may be something fun and exciting or nothing at all. But at least I know no one is waiting. And that feels good.

Fran McDowell

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Best Baby Shower Gift

By Susan Chapek

Invite a kidlit writer to a Baby Shower, and you know what the gift will be: a classic picture book.

We all have our favorites. GOODNIGHT, MOON; GOODNIGHT, GORILLA; TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES. . . . Everybody knows them; everybody loves them; everybody else is going to give the same books. Why not bring a new classic?

Here's the one I always bring:

With a handful of rhyming words (sleep, peep, creep, leap, heap…), Julie Stiegemeyer tells a big bedtime story. And Rt 19's own Carol Baicker-McKee provides the perfect illustrations—cuddly, colorful, and funny. One Amazon review notes that they make her little boy giggle until he hiccups.

CHEEP! CHEEP! isn't a board book, but its stiff, glossy cover and thick pages are sturdy enough for baby and toddler handling. (If it's not on your bookstore shelf today, offer a gentle hint to your bookseller to order more copies.)

For a baby shower near the holidays, be sure to add this sequel:

CHEEP! CHEEP! is only the first of several collaborations by Julie and Carol. (Watch for MONSTER CAKE, coming soon to make the pre-K crowd giggle.)

Carol and Julie first teamed up while they were part of a particularly fertile kidlit writers group that met weekly in the Peters' Township Library. Under Pat Easton's leadership, that group saw Cynthia Cotten, Millie Flanagan, and Julie Stiegemeyer—plus Rt19's own Dave Amaditz, Carol Baicker-McKee, Cynthia Light Brown, Kitty Griffin, Andrea Perry, and Judy Press—publish, and publish more.

Every writers group makes its own chemistry, but that group—from about 1996 to 2004—rose to the level of alchemy, I think. Many of us have moved far away, but we still cherish the memories and are nourished by the friendships.

* * *

By the way, one of Julie Stiegemeyer's specialties is making the most of the fewest words. Check out her series of church-time board books THINGS I SEE IN CHURCH, THINGS I DO IN CHURCH, THINGS I SEE AT BAPTISM, and the rest. They are wise and charming diversions for the toddler in your pew.)

* * *

NOTE: The birth of a sibling is a common picture-book theme, but the newcomer is usually portrayed (however humorously) as a monster or usurper. In CHEEP! CHEEP!, by contrast, the older sib is the star of the story, the birth is an exciting discovery, and the newcomer a welcome addition to the snuggly group.

Now that's a bedtime story that won't lead to nightmares.

So if there's an older pre-K sibling in the expectant family--especially one who's been the "only" child so far--then wrap CHEEP! CHEEP! up as a shower gift for the soon-to-be Big Brother or Big Sister.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Potty Training Season

by Marcy Collier

The Preschooler Problem Solver
As the summer season approaches, so does the season of potty training. Yes, potty training. Talk about spring showers. Now you’re thinking, have I come to the right blog? Isn’t this a blog about writing? Hang on, you’ll see the tie in. If you’re a mother, you’ve learned patience, right?

I have received tons of great motherly (and fatherly) advice from my fellow Route 19 writers. But one of our members in particular has been my “go to” person for parenting advice. I was fortunate enough to meet Carol in a writing group when I was potty training my first child. At the time, Carol was the potty training expert for Nick Jr. magazine. Every Monday after group, I’d corner Carol with my potty training questions. With Carol’s expert help, I learned some greats tips on how to potty train my kids.

1. Summer is the best time to train your child because it’s easier for him to pull his pants up and down. For a while, I let my son wear only underwear and a long shirt to make it easier for him to use the potty.

2. Wear regular underwear. I made the mistake of wearing pulling ups on my son. He couldn’t feel when he wet himself, or he’d ask if he was wearing a pull-up and then go to the bathroom in his diaper. When I trained my second child, I wore underwear on him from the start and kept a change of clothes ready in case of accidents.

3. Allow your child to help buy new underwear. If he wants to wear the picture of a superhero in the front, let him.

4. Don’t push your child to potty train if he doesn’t seem ready or doesn’t show interest. My first child refused to try until he turned three. When we visited preschool, the teacher told him he had to be potty trained to attend. That incentive encouraged him to try.

5. Keep the potty close. Make it easy and convenient for him to use. Many times a child gets distracted with play and forgets he needs to go. Our potty stayed in my family room at home and next to my desk on a waterproof floor mat at work. If you have a dog, get to the potty before he does or train your child to close the lid immediately. Trust me on this one.

6. Find an easy to clean potty. The first potty I bought for my son had a detachable splash guard and a cushioned seat. It was hard to clean and the pee guard always fell in the pot before he finished. When I potty trained my younger son, I bought a simple, easy to clean potty that my son picked at the store. I LOVED the froggy potty. It had two pieces, a built in splash guard and was a snap to sanitize and clean.

7. Use small rewards right after your child uses the potty. M&M’s worked great for my sons.

I want to thank my friend Carol for all of her motherly advice and wish her and my fellow Route 19 writers a happy Mother’s Day!

Dr. Carol Baicker-McKee holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and has done an awesome job of raising her own three children. If you have children, Carol’s parenting books are a must have. The Preschooler Problem Solver sits on my night stand for quick and easy reference.

The Preschooler Problem Solver

FussBusters at Home: Strategies and Games for Smoothing the Rough Spots in Your Preschooler's Day

Fussbusters on the Go: Strategies and Games for Stress-Free Outings, Errands, and Vacations With Your Preschooler

Froggy Potty link and reviews

Monday, May 2, 2011

Cowboy Sam Tips His Hat to the New Grandma

posted by Jenny Ramaley

While Mother Nature has brought us April showers - and February showers and March showers and looks like a whole lot of May showers to come - a special shower has touched our own, much-loved Kitty.  She's recently been blessed with two grandchildren, first Arthur, who arrived in December, and last week, Cecilia.
After getting an email with the new grandbaby's photo, I took a memory trip to when my own girls were young. Kitty's first book, Cowboy Sam and Those Confounded Secrets, has a special place in my heart because it was my daughters' last picture book. They already thought they were a little 'old' for a story book, but because they knew Kitty, my girls cuddled up on the couch while I read this sweet and special book to them. Those 'read-to-me-Mommy' days don't last forever . . .
Just imagine how wonderful it will be when Arthur and Cecilia snuggle with their grandmother to listen as she reads them her own Texas tall tale!

Mike Wohnoutka's illustrations are texas-terrific!

So, a big congratulations to Kitty, and her daughters, Bea and Danika. If you've never had a chance to read Cowboy Sam and hear about his very special hat, you can check it out here:  http://www.amazon.com/Cowboy-Sam-Those-Confounded-Secrets/dp/0618088547/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1304348362&sr=8-1