Friday, November 09, 2007

Cynsational News & Links

As you know if you've been visiting any children's book blogs for the past few weeks, Robert's Snow is an online auction that benefits Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Over 200 children's book illustrators have created art on individual snowflake-shaped wooden templates. The snowflakes will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to cancer research. You can view all of the 2007 snowflakes here. Jules and Eisha from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast have found a way for bloggers to help with this effort, by blogging about individual illustrators and their snowflakes. The idea is to drive traffic to the Robert's Snow site so that many snowflakes will be sold, and much money raised to fight cancer. The illustrator profiles have been wonderful so far - diverse and creative and colorful. And there are lots more to go.

Here's the schedule for Week 5, which starts Monday. As previously, this early schedule links to the participating blogs, instead of to the individual posts. You can find links to the posts themselves, and any last-minute updates, each morning at 7-Imp. Jules and Eisha have also set up a special page at 7-Imp containing a comprehensive list of links to the profiles posted so far. Also not to be missed is Kris Bordessa's post summarizing snowflake-related contests to date over at Paradise Found.

Monday, November 12

Tuesday, November 13

Wednesday, November 14

Thursday, November 15

Friday, November 16

Saturday, November 17

Sunday, November 18

Please take time out to visit all of these blogs, and read about these fabulous illustrators. And, if you're so inclined, think about bidding for a snowflake in the Robert's Snow auction. Each snowflake makes a unique gift (for yourself or for someone else), and supports an important cause.

See also the following note from Elaine Magliaro of Wild Rose Reader:

Note to Blog Readers about Blogging for a Cure: When Jules of 7-Imp put out her call in September for bloggers to interview/feature artists who had created snowflakes for Robert’s Snow 2007 at their blogs, a number of artists had not yet sent in their snowflakes to Dana-Farber. As time was of the essence to get Blogging for a Cure underway, we worked with the list of artists whose snowflakes were already in possession of Dana-Farber. Therefore, not all the participating artists will be featured. This in no way diminishes our appreciation for their contributions to this worthy cause. We hope everyone will understand that once the list of artists was emailed to bloggers and it was determined which bloggers would feature which artists at their blogs, a schedule was organized and sent out so we could get to work on Blogging for a Cure ASAP. Our aim is to raise people’s awareness about Robert’s Snow and to promote the three auctions. We hope our efforts will help to make Robert’s Snow 2007 a resounding success.

More News & Links

The Book Report podcast offers an interview with Linda Sue Park and Arthur A. Levine about Click (2007) as well as an interview with Christopher Paul Curtis. Listen here. Read a Cynsations interview with Linda Sue.

Submissions No-nos and Yes-yeses: a chat transcript featuring Nadia Cornier of Firebrand Literary Agency from the Institute of Children's Literature.

Oklahoma Author Molly Levite Griffis now offers online video talks on her books.

Author Interview: Alex Flinn on Beastly

From HarperCollins: "Alex Flinn loves fairy tales and made her two daughters sit through several dozen versions of Beauty and the Beast while she wrote this book...then quizzed them on how they thought a beast would meet girls in New York City. She is the author of five previous books: Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001)(author interview), an American Library Association Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults; Breaking Point (HarperCollins, 2003)(author interview), an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers; Nothing to Lose (HarperCollins, 2005), an ALA Best Book for Young Adults; Fade to Black (HarperCollins, 2004); and Diva (HarperCollins, 2006). She lives in Miami." Read an author essay by Alex.

We last spoke in September 2005, after the release of Fade to Black (HarperCollins, 2005). Could you briefly remind us what it's about?

Fade to Black is about a hate crime against an HIV-positive students. 17-year-old, HIV-positive Alex Crusan has moved to the town of Pinedale and pretty much been ostracized. One Monday morning, an assailant attacks his car as he's driving, breaking the windows and sending Alex to the hospital. The book is written in multiple viewpoints--suspect, victim, witness.

Do you have any updates for us on this title?

Fade to Black, like Breathing Underwater, has become a popular school read, particularly among reluctant readers. It was recently chosen as an International Reading Association Young Adult Choice, a list I particularly relish because it is 30 reader-selected books, so making the list is a guarantee of teen appeal. Here's the full list (PDF).

At that time, you were looking forward to the release of Diva (HarperCollins, 2006). Likewise, could you tell us about this novel and update us on its release and life to date?

Diva is about Caitlin, who just lost thirty pounds and also broke up with her abusive boyfriend, Nick, and is trying to make a fresh start by trying out for a performing arts high school. She is an aspiring opera singer. The novel follows Caitlin's first semester at the school, along with her relationship with Nick, food, and her mother. It is a companion to Breathing Underwater.

It was just released in paperback with a really cool "Extras" section, including an "Are You a Diva?" quiz, as well as a section about how the book relates to my own life as a teen opera singer and performing arts school attendee.

Congratulations on the publication of Beastly (HarperCollins, 2007)(excerpt)! What is the book about?

Beastly is a modern Beauty and the Beast, set in New York City, Manhattan and Brooklyn specifically. Kyle Kingsbury is a prince in his upper-crust prep school, popular, handsome, wealthy, son of a network newscaster. Then, he angers a girl in his class, who turns out to be a witch. She changes him into a beast and tells him he will remain that way forever unless he can find true love in two years. Desperate and abandoned by his wealthy father and his friends, he tries various means (including MySpace) to meet his true love.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Being a mom, I've spent a lot of time on fairy and folk tales, including Beauty and the Beast. The traditional story left me with a lot of questions, including, "Where was the Beast's family when all this was happening?" and "Why would Beauty's father allow her to come and live with the Beast?" Generally, I felt bad for the Beast and wanted to give him a voice.

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed books with the theme of beauty and ugliness, particularly The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). I included these books in Beastly and hope that, in this way, younger readers will discover them.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I started writing the book in 2005. It was one of those books that sort of took on a life of its own, with scenes coming to me, out of context, at odd moments. It is the only book I can recall writing where every moment was really pure joy.

I finished much of the first draft by candlelight, following Hurricane Wilma in October, 2005, and wrote the final chapters in a hotel room in Kansas City, Missouri, where I was attending the YASIG conference (For some reason, I've done some good writing in Kansas City--I've only been there twice, but I also remember writing pivotal scenes in Breathing Underwater when I went there as a lawyer). Revision took about a year after that.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The biggest challenge was making it true to the original tale while still being special and different. I used the French le Prince de Beaumont version of the story as the main basis, which is probably the most familiar version to American audiences, but I also read numerous other versions, particularly Betsy Hearne's excellent book, Beauties and Beasts.

Certain elements are common to most versions--the Beast's garden; an act of thievery (usually of a red flower, but in my version the flower is not specifically what is being stolen) on the part of Beauty's father; Beauty being offered to the Beast in exchange for the Father's freedom; a magic mirror, or sometimes, reflective water in which one can watch others, and in which Beauty eventually sees her father; the Beast unselfishly allowing Beauty to break the agreement and return to her father.

In some versions, the Beast has servants, and I knew Kyle would have them in my version because he was otherwise so alone and because he needed wise elders from whom to learn. The book is, essentially, a book about selfishness and learning to be unselfish, so Kyle must learn that selflessness from somebody.

You're well known as an author of contemporary realistic young adult fiction. Why did you decide to write a fantasy novel?

Because it is the novel I wanted to write. I couldn't get it out of my head.

That said, I think this book will probably appeal to readers who liked my other novels. It is realistic in every way except one.

How was the process alike and different from writing your previous manuscripts?

Oddly, the main difference between writing this book and writing others was that this book took place in New York, so I had to learn about locales I hadn't written about before. I knew the Beast would have a castle, so I searched New York real estate ads for the perfect Park Slope brownstone (You can find photos of the Park Slope neighborhood in Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny books (Hyperion)). I also learned a lot about the New York subway system, which baffles me every time I visit the city, but which my character, of course, knows like the back of his hand.

How did it "grow" you as a writer?

It taught me to go where my muse took me. I really balked at writing this book because it was not what I write and, to a degree, I felt I was abandoning my core audience.

As it turned out, I think this book will appeal to that audience--at least from the reaction I get at schools I visit--so I was able to do something different while still appealing to my core reader. I do firmly believe that the book you want to write is always the right book to write.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Looking back, I'm actually pretty pleased with who I was as a beginning writer. I knew nothing about the market, so I just wrote what I wanted and what I would have liked to have read when I was in seventh or eighth grade, which is pretty much the advice I give beginning writers I meet.

If anything, I'd like to be able to un-know the stuff I know now. I enjoyed writing so much more before I really knew about reviews and committees and all the adults your book has to impress to get to the reader I envisioned.

What recent books would you suggest for study and why?

Some books I really loved include Inexcuseable by Chris Lynch (Atheneum/Ginee Seo, 2005) and The Rules of Survial (Dial, 2006)(excerpt)(author interview), as well as the fantasy titles below.

And on fantasy specifically?

The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsly (Atheneum, 1999)(author interview) is the book I most often mention to writers as a must-read YA fantasy. I love how the author plunges the reader directly into the character's world (which is populated with both selkies and gremlin-like folk) and makes it seem almost like historical fiction, rather than fantasy.

Generally, I've never been a big fan of the type of high fantasy that features characters in magical worlds, doing battle with forces of evil or creatures of different types (Narnia, the Hobbit). I've read a lot of these books, but they're not my favorite.

I love books that take place in the sort of real world, with some element off-kilter. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series (The Lightning Thief, etc.)(author interview), in which the characters are descended from mythological gods, is a prime example, and also a rare fantasy book that appeals to virtually every element of the YA audience. It is non-intimidating, even to reluctant readers. I hope Beastly can be that way.

Recent retellings I've particularly enjoyed include Gregory Maguire's Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (both HarperCollins), Mette Ivie Harrison's Mira, Mirror (Viking, 2004) and The Princess and the Hound (Eos, 2007)(which, the author tells me, was not meant as a retelling, but which contained elements of both The Princess and the Pea and Beauty and the Beast), and Gail Carson Levine's Fairest (HarperCollins)(author interview).

We first talked in 2001 about the publication of Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001), which was your debut novel and one of the break-out books of the year. What changes--for better or worse--have you seen in publishing since then? How have you adapted or stayed the course in response?

When Breathing Underwater was published, the main market for hardcover YA was libraries and schools. Yes, the books were carried in bookstores but bookstore sales were more of an added side dish than the main course. Now, there are bookstore sales for YA, but generally only for certain types of YA, typically high fantasy or chick lit, which appeal respectively to gifted kids and/or girls.

The market for books like I write is still the same as it always was, but I worry that that market is now a disappointment to publishers, due to the higher bookstore sales of these two genres. I commend my publisher and some others, who continue to publish books like mine, particularly books which appeal to boys, which are never going to sell 100,000 hardcover copies but which are still needed in the world and which teachers and librarians can recommend to kids.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I fit everything in where I can, and sometimes, it is overwhelming.

What one promotion tip would you like to share with fellow authors?

A lot of authors I know do not like to do bookstore signings. I am actually a big fan of the things, because they can have reverberations which the author might not even realize when they are doing them.

If you look at a bookstore signing purely as far as books sold at the event, it is never worth the author's time. So you really can't look at it that way. What you have to look at it as is goodwill and relationship building--getting to know the bookseller, who might be a bookseller at a conference and recommend your books there or who might tell bookseller friends in other towns about your books, which he only read because you were speaking at his store.

Also, if a teacher attends the signing and, based on seeing you speak, decides to use your book with her class, that equals hundreds or even thousands of copies over the years. And if it goes well with her class, she might tell her friends, and they tell their friends, and so on, and so on.

Even if people don't actually attend the signing, the bookseller's promotion of the signing (assuming they did some) will publicize your book and may cause people to buy it at another time. One local bookseller I know has authors sign fifty stock copies at every event--and they sell them. So, to me, getting yourself out there and putting your book in the universe, is definitely worth a few hours.

That said, I don't do bookstore signings unless I feel the bookseller has some plan to get people there or I can get people there myself. I'm also not eating my heart out over my publisher not sending me on a multi-city tour because the cost/benefit analysis of bookstore signings is different if you have to devote substantial amounts of time to the event.

I generally only travel out of town for paid events or large conferences such as NCTE or ALA. However, I do local signings and signings in neighboring counties, and if I happen to be in a city that has good bookstores, I try to set up an event. I think it's worth it.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I read a lot. I have a book discussion group which I recently founded (or, actually, jump-started--we were a group who had met through a mothers of preschoolers organization, but now that our kids are older, we hadn't been meeting).

This month, we are reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Penguin, 2005), and yesterday, we went to see "The Jane Austen Book Club" as a group. It was kind of fun because the ten of us were the only people in the theater, so we talked a lot about the movie, during the movie (which, obviously, I can't approve if there are other people present).

I also enjoy running and biking.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I am working on a modern Sleeping Beauty retelling. After that, I plan to write another realistic book.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Cynsational News & Links

REMINDER: Austin SCBWI offers a great line-up for its April 26th conference. Speakers include: author and editor Deborah Noyes Wayshak from Candlewick Press (author-editor interview); Alvina Ling from Little Brown (personal blog); agent Erin Murphy (interview from by Pam Mingle from Kite Tales, Rocky Mountain chapter, SCBWI); artist's agent Christina Tugeau; and writing professor Peter Jacobi. According to RA Tim Crow, "Not only will critiques and pitches be available for an additional fee, but we are expanding the number of slots available this year, so you can have a second or third manuscript critiqued." See details at Austin SCBWI (scroll to the bottom of the page); registration opened Nov. 1. IMPORTANT NOTE: Due to ISP issues, the Austin SCBWI website has been temporarily off-line of late, please keep trying! Critique spots are limited and going fast!

BookPeople in Austin, Texas, is hiring for several positions. If you are interested in applying for a job, please visit the store soon and fill out an application. Available jobs: part-time and full-time holiday cashiers; part-time information tech; part-time events leaders.

Children's Book Circle at YouTube: for those looking for youth literature book trailers.

Surf over to the new issue of The Edge of the Forest! Highlights include:

An Interview with Sara Zarr by Kelly Herold of Big A little a (see also a Cynsations interview with Sara);

"Can a Funny Book Be Taken Seriously?" by by Pam Coughlan at MotherReader;

A Discussion of 31 Flavorites for Teens by Little Willow of Bildungsroman;

What's in their Backpack? by Kim Winters of Kat's Eye Journal;

Blogging Writer: Interview with Eric Luper by Julie M. Prince.

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults has added Martine Leavitt to the faculty. Martine is the author of seven books for young readers, most recently Keturah and Lord Death (Front Street, 2006), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Listen to author Deborah Lynn Jacobs at Right Now! Podcast. Read a Cynsations interview with Deborah.

Reminder: Robert's Snow is an online auction that benefits Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More than 200 children's book illustrators have created art on individual snowflake-shaped wooden templates. The snowflakes will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to cancer research. You can view all of the 2007 snowflakes here. Note: I've been having strange coding trouble trying to post the schedule this week, so why not pop over to another supporting blog (and learn more about that blog too!)? Visit The Miss Rumphius Effect: a teacher educator discusses children's literature and issues related to teaching children and their future teachers.

More Personally

Look for a feature interview with me this month in the Kidsville News! Note: not on the website, but in the publication distributed across the country! Find your local Kidsville News! Thanks again to reporter and children's author Kim Norman!

Attention, Oklahomans! I'll be speaking at the Norman Public Library Nov. 11 as part of its Native American Festival, which will take place from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Note: Also honored will be Dr. Mary Jo Watson (Seminole) who is the Director of the OU School of Art and Commander John Herrington (Chickasaw) who was a NASA Astronaut and flew on the space shuttle in 2002. The Oklahoma Fancy Dancers will perform from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. I'll speak afterward, and then John's talk will follow. The event will include food, crafts, and vendors.

Attention, Austinites! Greg and I will be reading Santa Knows, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006) at 1 p.m. Dec. 2 at Barnes & Noble Westlake. From the flap copy: "Who knows if you've been naughty or nice? Santa knows, that's who! But not everyone believes in Santa Claus. Consider Alfie F. Snorklepuss. He thinks he's proven that Santa Claus doesn't exist. Alfie thinks there is no way that Santa could do all the things he's supposed to, like deliver billions of presents all over the world in one night or know what every little kid wants. When Alfie starts spreading the word that there is no Santa Claus, he makes someone very unhappy: his little sister Noelle. And so Noelle turns to the only person who can help her. The one person Alfie thinks doesn't exist: Santa Claus. Ho, ho, ho!" Visit!

YA Author Jennifer Ziegler Launches Official Site

Jennifer Ziegler launches her official author website. Jennifer is the author of Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006)(author interview), which was a recent finalist for the Writers' League of Texas Teddy award, and How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte, 2008). See also Jennifer's LJ.

From the flap copy of How Not to Be Popular:

Maggie Dempsey is tired of moving all over the country. Her parents are blowin'-in-the-wind hippies who uproot her every few months to go to a new city. When Maggie was younger, she thought their life was fun and adventurous. Now that she's a teenager, she hates it.

Each time she moved, she left behind good friends, a great school, and a real feeling of belonging. But this last time she moved it was even worse: she left behind a boyfriend, too.

Now that they're moving to Austin, Texas, Maggie knows better. She's not going to make friends. She's not going to fit in. And she's definitely not going to fall for the alpha hottie who won't leave her alone—no matter how gorgeous he is.

Instead, she will dress like a mental patient, in muumuus and flowered swim caps. She will say and do the wrong things at the wrong times. She will have a bad hair day every day. Anything to prevent her from liking this new place--and prevent the new people from liking her. That way it won’t hurt at all when she has to leave.

Only...things don't go exactly as planned. A misfit won't take the hint and becomes Maggie's friend anyway. And as wrecked as she is over the boyfriend she left behind, Maggie feels...something...for the last person she would have imagined. Who knew not being popular could be so hard?

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about Texas authors and illustrators from my website.

Jennifer's new site was designed by Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Author Interview: Alan Gratz on Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

It was definitely not a sprint. I began writing for young readers in earnest in 1998 while I was working in the Joseph-Beth Booksellers art department as an ad copy writer and designer.

The first kids' manuscript I wrote was called "After School Heroes." It was a middle grade novel about a group of teenage superheroes who save their city after all the adult superheroes are taken down by a super-villain.

While that one was collecting rejection letters, I wrote my second manuscript a romantic YA comedy called "Inventing Julia," about a high schooler who invents a fake "long distance girlfriend" for himself so real girls will find him more attractive.

Neither of those book have ever sold, despite serious bites along the way from editors. I've pretty much given up on "After School Heroes," but I took "Inventing Julia" to a novel revision workshop with Darcy Pattison (author interview) last summer and I plan to rework it and send it into the ring one more time.

Samurai Shortstop (Dial, 2006) was the third book I wrote for young readers, and the first one I sold. That acceptance came in 2004, so it took me six years of writing and submitting to finally make a sale.

Your first novel was Samurai Shortstop (Dial, 2006)(excerpt). Could you tell us about the book?

Here's the quickie blurb I give at parties and book festivals: Samurai Shortstop is the story of a sixteen-year-old boy in 1890s Tokyo who learns to blend baseball with bushido--the samurai way of the warrior--to prove to his father there is still room for ancient samurai traditions in a new and changing Japan. That's it in a nutshell.

If I need a quicker description, like when I'm talking to teenage boys, I usually say, "It's about baseball and samurai swords." That usually does the trick.

What was it like for you, being a first-time author?

It was fantastic of course, but this was something I'd been working for, and, if you'll forgive the hubris, planning for.

I don't think it's a bad thing to anticipate success. In fact, I think that's one of the ways to become truly successful. Even before I got the phone call from Dial to say they wanted Samurai Shortstop, I was reading books about marketing and contract negotiation.

It may sound like I was putting the cart before the horse, but during those six years before Samurai sold I had been going to writing workshops, getting professional critiques, reading books about writing--in short, doing everything I could do to become a better writer.

I had faith in my growth as a writer and believed (as I still do) that persistence and hard work was all that stood between me and being published.

That's not to say I didn't have a lot to learn as a first-time author. I made missteps with agents and with contracts, and I had the bad idea to try and follow Samurai Shortstop with another historical novel that ended up being banished to the bottom of my filing cabinet, never to see the light of day.

But my preparation allowed me and my wife to sit down the day I sold Samurai and write out a marketing plan that we began implementing a whole year before Samurai was even published, and my aggressive writing schedule meant I had already started writing the book that would eventually be my second sale--Something Rotten (Dial, 2007).

Do I sound like an arrogant jerk with all my talk of anticipating success? Jeez, I hope not. Trust me, I was horrified the entire time that I was writing books no one but my wife would ever read. I had to keep telling myself I was eventually going to sell one or else the horrible self-doubt I felt on a daily (hourly!) basis would have consumed me.

Congratulations on the publication of Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery (Dial, 2007)! Could you fill us in on the story?

Thanks! I'm still working on a Samurai-like blurb, but here's what I've got so far: Something Rotten is Shakespeare's "Hamlet" rewritten as a contemporary young adult murder mystery set in fictional Denmark, Tennessee, with the minor character of Horatio recast as a wry, sarcastic, seventeen-year-old detective.

I should add that Something Rotten is now officially the first book in a series, to be followed next fall by Something Wicked, based on "Macbeth," and in the fall of 2009 by Something Foolish, based on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and all starring teenage detective Horatio Wilkes.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book? Were there any literary influences?

I created the character of Horatio Wilkes almost seventeen years ago to the day he'll first see print, which is cool because he's seventeen years old in the book, too.

Horatio was created for a Mystery and Detective Fiction class I took as an undergrad at the University of Tennessee. It was easily one of the best and most influential writing courses I ever had. When developing my detective, which was one of our assignments, I looked to the character of Horatio from Hamlet for inspiration. I like that Horatio is grounded where Hamlet always has his head in lofty philosophical inner debate.

That famous line from Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," is supposed to come off as a condescending remark, pegging Horatio as unimaginative, but I've always liked that it points to Horatio's pragmatism.

For all Hamlet's philosophizing and dreaming, who is it who's left standing at the end of the play? Horatio, that's who. I'll take that kind of philosophy any day.

So my Horatio had his namesake's practical world view and healthy skepticism, but I never could find the right story for him. He began as a forensic anthropologist at a southern university, then morphed into a newspaper columnist, then a movie theater owner. All adult characters, and all failures fictionally.

Then years later when I was focused on writing for young readers, it dawned on me that the snarky, sarcastic Horatio I knew so well would make a perfect teenager. But what about a story?

For that, I again turned to Shakespeare since he'd already written the perfect story for Horatio, although halfway through my version Horatio takes the reins from Hamlet and steers the plot toward a different conclusion. (Still mirroring the play as much as possible along the way of course.)

My other major influence was someone with as much of a gift for the English language of his day as Shakespeare had in his--Raymond Chandler. I am a huge fan of Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and I channeled him when writing for Horatio. It's not a pastiche really, more of an homage. I like to call Something Rotten "Hardboiled Hamlet," or perhaps "Pulp Shakespeare."

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Wow--for Something Rotten, I can actually trace the spark for the protagonist back to 1990-1991, and I'm quite positive I have a writing journal where I explore the idea of rewriting Hamlet as a contemporary murder mystery as far back as 1996. That's a long time to be working on a story!

But of course I wasn't working on it the whole time--just letting it percolate. Once or twice I set out to write it--before I had even made Horatio a young adult--and I even flirted with the idea of writing a Macbeth novel first. (The notes for which of course went toward the writing of Something Rotten's sequel.)

The real planning and outlining of Something Rotten didn't begin until after I finished Samurai Shortstop in 2002. I had all of Something Rotten outlined and the first chapter written when I sold Samurai Shortstop, and then, as I mentioned before, I got the not-so-bright-in-retrospect idea to set Something Rotten aside and write a historical novel set in ancient Egypt.

Maybe it was better in the long run that I got my forced, panicked second effort out of the way on something besides Rotten; that way I was able to return to it without the stress and pressure that so often haunts writers on their second novels.

Once I committed to writing Something Rotten, it took me almost no time at all, relatively speaking. The first draft was done in a matter of three months, the editing process lasted only a month more, and my fantastic editor Liz at Dial snapped it up. That was 2006, and here it is coming out in fall of 2007.

Between that time, though, we went through, by my count, seven rounds of revision to make sure my mystery actually worked and that the book was my own and not Shakespeare's--or Chandler's, for that matter.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Well, turning Shakespeare's six-hour philosophical opus into a young adult page turner was a challenge, but I overcame that by focusing on the really pulpy parts of the story--some of which, like Ophelia's drowning--originally happen off stage.

I also had to be fairly intimate with the play as a whole, which meant multiple re-readings and deconstructions, all of which was fun for me because I really do enjoy Shakespeare. Perhaps not surprisingly then, my greatest challenge was learning not to be a complete slave to the play. "The play's the thing" gambit was a particular bugaboo.

To mirror Hamlet (with a modern twist, of course), I originally had Hamilton Prince show his Uncle Claude a DVD of "The Lion King" (which itself has Shakespearean undertones) to goad him into revealing his guilty nature, as Hamlet does with the Murder of Gonzago in Shakespeare's play. The scene never worked.

Seriously, even in Shakespeare's day, what kind of killer is going to get scared of watching a fictional parallel to his own crime and reveal his guilt by turning white and stumbling from the room? And what kind of proof is that, anyway? Maybe he just had some bad fish for dinner.

But I digress. Ultimately, I found a different way to use a play to reveal Claude's guilt (after a few attempts) that is far more realistic and dramatically satisfying. I also had to add a few things that were not in the play to make my story work, and what turned out to be my favorite scene in the book--a snappy conversation between Horatio and a colorful flunky--has no parallel whatsoever to Hamlet, although it owes a great deal to the spirit of Raymond Chandler.

What about the young adult audience appeals to you?

I love that everything for teenagers is so immediate and monumental. "This is the best day of my entire life." "I wish I'd never been born." "I will love this girl forever." "I will never love anyone ever again."

It's a bizarre time in our lives, when the future is wide open and unwritten and yet the present feels so consuming and indelible. It's a fun time to write about and to write for because the emotions and passions run so high.

I also feel very strongly that we need young adult fiction. We need books that give teenagers something to read in that ever-shrinking period between childhood and adulthood, something that is intelligent and mature enough to appeal to the "adult" in young adults, and yet still entertaining and riveting enough to keep the "young" part of them engaged as well.

What should mystery writers keep in mind about this audience?

The most difficult thing about writing a YA murder mystery is developing teenage villains who actually kill. As you might guess, this is a pretty tricky business.

In Something Rotten, the killer is an adult so I avoid that issue, but in the sequel, Something Wicked, the killer is a teenager Horatio's age. Teens certainly kill people in real life, but any time you write about teenagers killing anyone, everybody sits up a little straighter and pays attention. Teen violence is a hot-button issue, and there are many people who believe exposing teens to violence in movies and video games and books makes them into violent people.

I disagree with that--I believe that violent people are violent people, and don't need any prompting from media to be so--but many of the people who do believe that are the gatekeepers of the world, the teachers and librarians and parents who put books in kids' hands--or take them away.

At some point of course you want to stay true to your own story and say "gatekeepers be damned," but realistically, it's something you have to think about.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I'm not sure it would have mattered, because I'm sure I wouldn't have listened!

I know I wasn't listening in college when I got what would turn out to be the best writing advice of my career. My favorite creative writing professor turned a story back to me with a comment I remember to this day. He wrote, "Alan, you are a terrific writer but you lack discipline." The only part of that I heard then was "Alan, you're a terrific writer," and I frittered away the next ten years playing at writing.

It wasn't until I knuckled down and treated writing not like an art but a craft that I was finally able to succeed. Still, as I said, you couldn't have told me that fifteen, twenty years ago.

So if I could go back in a time machine, pop out, and say one thing to my younger self before having to leave, it would probably be, "Outline everything before you start to write!" Either that or, "Bet everything you own on the Tennessee Volunteers to win the 1998 college football championship!"

What do you do when you're not writing?

What do I do when I'm not writing? Beat myself up for not writing!

Seriously, it's very hard for me to relax and enjoy myself when I'm not writing, because I always feel like I'm wasting my time if I'm not.

My favorite "wastes of time" are watching shows like "Project Runway" and "Firefly" with my wife and "Batman" and "Justice League" with my daughter, eating Mellow Mushroom pizza, reading anything and everything, watching baseball, and playing computer, video, and board games. But being able to separate my work time from my free time has always been difficult for me.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

This is becoming increasingly difficult as I'm being invited to more and more schools and libraries. That's a great thing, and I love doing them, but school visits can take two-to-three days away from my writing schedule.

Since I'm a full-time writer we're talking about twelve-to-eighteen hours of writing time I'm missing, and those hours add up as deadlines loom.

The only real answer is making the most of the time I do have in my office. I cannot afford to take a day off waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead, I now create very detailed outlines for my books before I ever get going (remember my advice to my younger self?) so that when I am finally ready to write I can sit down, open my notebook to the next chapter, and get going.

Working from a detailed outline, I can often finish a 7-10 page chapter a day. That's the discipline my college professor was talking about oh-so long ago--the discipline it took me a decade to understand and develop.

At some point, I suppose, I'll have to turn down some school visits or ask for a larger honorarium to make the interruptions more affordable, but I hate the thought of doing fewer events.

As for promotion, I could use a full-time assistant for that but I can't afford one, so I have to spend my evenings on the computer creating press kits and web sites and postcard mailings. At least that's work I can do with a baseball game or a "Columbo" rerun on the television!

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have fans!? Well, regardless, next up is the paperback of Samurai Shortstop in February 2008, then Something Wicked, the sequel to Something Rotten, next fall. After that, 2009 will be a busy year for me--I've got a middle grade historical baseball novel called The Brooklyn Nine due out in the spring, a story in an anthology of "Locker Room Tales" in the summer, and the third Horatio novel, Something Foolish, due fall of 2009. And somewhere in all this I also have a young adult novel coming out from Knopf that tells the story of Nemo before he became the infamous captain of the Nautilus!

Cynsational Notes

Visit Alan's official site, learn more about him, and read his blog!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Cynsational News & Links

Author Brian Yansky interviews Sherman Alexie in conjunction with their recent appearances at the Texas Book Festival. Scroll to listen.

Candie Moonshower on Dealing with Rejection from Alice's CWIM blog.

Spicy Reads: Ed Spicer's Teen Book Reviews has been updated.

Holidays Around the World from CBC Magazine.

Mo' Love for MO's Main Street Books by Alison Morris from Shelftalker: A Children's Bookseller Blog.

Debut Author of the Month: Crissa-Jean Chappell from Alice's CWIM blog. Here's a sneak peek: "I wanted to show that OCD is not a punchline to a joke. It's not about funny rituals: like tapping a light switch or counting footsteps. It's about feeling as if your life has slipped out of your control. I think that many teenagers can relate to that experience."

Interview With Debut YA Author Jo Knowles by Debbi Michiko Florence. Here's a sneak peek: "I began to think about how powerful and binding childhood friendships can be. How hard they are to pull away from. Almost immediately, a story began to take shape. I went home that night and started writing."

More Personally

Attention, Oklahomans! I'll be speaking at the Norman Public Library Nov. 11 as part of its Native American Festival, which will take place from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Note: Also honored will be Dr. Mary Jo Watson (Seminole) who is the Director of the OU School of Art and Commander John Herrington (Chickasaw) who was a NASA Astronaut and flew on the space shuttle in 2002. The Oklahoma Fancy Dancers will perform from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. I'll speak afterward, and then John's talk will follow. The event will include food, crafts, and vendors.

Attention, Austinites! Greg and I will be reading Santa Knows, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006) at 1 p.m. Dec. 2 at Barnes & Noble Westlake. From the flap copy: "Who knows if you've been naughty or nice? Santa knows, that's who! But not everyone believes in Santa Claus. Consider Alfie F. Snorklepuss. He thinks he's proven that Santa Claus doesn't exist. Alfie thinks there is no way that Santa could do all the things he's supposed to, like deliver billions of presents all over the world in one night or know what every little kid wants. When Alfie starts spreading the word that there is no Santa Claus, he makes someone very unhappy: his little sister Noelle. And so Noelle turns to the only person who can help her. The one person Alfie thinks doesn't exist: Santa Claus. Ho, ho, ho!" Visit!

Listen to a new podcast interview about my children's books--Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002), and Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006) from Children's Book Radio. Note: forgive a couple of stumbling answers and one overstatement; phone interviews with four cats in the room are perilous (the alternative is to lock the beasts out, which would result in howling screams in the background).

More of a YA fan? Listen to another new podcast interview, this one zeroing in on Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) from LibraryLoft (PLCMC Teen Page).

This month, Indian Education students in the neighborhood of the Maxwell Park Library in Tulsa, Oklahoma will soon receive signed copies of my debut picture book Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (HarperCollins, 2000). The gift was made possible by the Charles W. and Pauline K. Flint Foundation grant to the Tulsa City County Library. This program provides children with a signed book of their own to help foster a love of reading and learning. Sue Anderson of Maxwell Park Library said, "Jingle Dancer was chosen for it's positive depiction of American Indian children in a contemporary situation." View interior illustrations from Jingle Dancer at HarperCollins and my website.

It was a great honor to offer a keynote talk last Saturday at the Twenty-Fifth Annual Children's Book Festival and the Twenty-First Annual Young Adult Conference hosted by The Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University Nov. 3 in Huntsville. Featured speakers were: Joan Bauer, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, and Mo Willems. See Teri's report at The Goddess of YA Literature. It's incredibly hard work putting together a conference of this level and enthusiasm--much thanks!

I'd likewise like to thank Clay and everyone who planned and worked the Texas Book Festival Nov. 3 and Nov. 4 in Austin. I was among the YA authors featured at the Not-For-Required Reading Event from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Alamo Drafthouse. Authors also included: Sherman Alexie, Jacques Couvillon, Adrienne Kress, April Lurie (author interview), Perry Moore, Neal Shusterman, and Brian Yansky (author interview). I also participated with authors Adrienne Kress and April Lurie on the "Tough Girls" panel, moderated by author Julie Lake on Sunday. Thanks also to Julie for a wonderful job! Note: vote for the Texas Book Festival as your favorite Austin festival!

Author Interview: Shelley Mosley on The Suffragists in Literature for Youth: The Fight for the Vote

Shelley Mosley on Shelley Mosley: "I was born in Baxter Springs, Kansas, a small town in the far southeast corner of the state. My dad, Billy, dropped out of high school to join the Navy during World War II, and worked in the mines when the war was over. My mom, Jennie, stayed at home and took care of me and my younger sister, Vicki. Vicki had severe asthma, so we moved to Phoenix, where people with asthma and tuberculosis went to get well.

"I can't say that I ever saw my father read, but he worked so hard doing manual labor, he was too tired to do much of anything when he got home. Dad, who got his GED at 33, was a math whiz, and helped me with my algebra and trig in high school. My mom, on the other hand, read to us all the time. She surrounded us with books, even when we were low on cash, which was usually the case. She and my dad agreed on one thing. Vicki and I would go to college. No excuses.

"I've been writing for as long as I can remember. From ages 7 to 10, I wrote stories and poems for the Boys and Girls Republic, a section of The Arizona Republic that came out once a week. Every Sunday, I'd grab the paper and see if something of mine had been published. If it had, I got a prize in the mail the next week, usually a coloring book or stamps from other countries. It was a great opportunity for kids.

"In 1971, I earned my bachelor's degree in education from Grand Canyon College and married my high school sweetheart, David. He finished his degree at Cal Tech in Pasadena, then we moved back to Arizona, where I was a teacher. While going for my master's degree in education at the University of Arizona, an extraordinary professor named Helen Renthal decided that my talents would be better put to use in libraries, so with her encouragement, I got a master's degree in library science. I was a school librarian, a reference librarian, and finally, the manager of the Velma Teague Branch of the Glendale Public Library System.

"After almost 25 years, I 'retired' from my job as a library manager, and became a full-time writer and part-time reference librarian at Glendale Community College.

"I love to write with other people, and have co-authored several non-fiction books with different people: John Charles, Sandy Van Winkle, Joanne Hamilton-Selway, and Dennis Tucker. These include: The Suffragists in Literature for Youth: The Fight for the Vote; Romance Today: An A-to-Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance Writers; The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List; the What Do I Read Next? series and Crash Course in Library Supervision. I review for both Booklist and Library Journal--it's terrific to be able to read books before they hit the shelves! Soon, I'll also be writing Read-Alikes for NoveList.

"My wonderful family has been most supportive, and this has been crucial to my writing career. My husband cooks most of our meals. My daughter, Jessica, and my mother do proof-reading and editing for me. My son, Andrew, is my main cheerleader."

Deborah Shelley on Deborah Shelley: "Writing can be a lonely pursuit, so it's a treat to work with other people. In addition to team-writing non-fiction, I'm half of the romance writing team of Deborah Shelley. The other half, Deborah Mazoyer, is the Director of Building Safety for the city of Glendale, Arizona.

"We wrote our first book in 1993, and, based on what other writers told us about how long it took them to get published, we promised each other we'd keep writing together for five years. We vowed if our book hadn't been published by then, we'd quit. Kensington bought Talk about Love in 1998, less than a month before our deadline. Much to our surprise, it was a finalist for the Holt Medallion.

"Debbie's been busy overseeing the new stadium for Super Bowl 2008 and all of the hotels and restaurants associated with it, so our writing time has been limited. Our newest novel, tentatively titled Marriage 101, will be our fifth--and an Avalon hardback! Our novels, all romantic comedies, have been translated into Dutch, Danish, French, Russian, Norwegian, and Portuguese. We also have a novella in Romancing the Holidays, Volume I, a romantic comedy that takes place during Purim."

Confessions of a multiple identity author: "I write many different things--romance novels, reference books, articles, poems, children's stories, lyrics. When I was a library manager, I'd write limericks for people on their birthdays, and we'd sing them to 'Blest Be the Ties That Bind,' an old hymn that's the only melody I know that works with a limerick! I ended up writing more than 600 limericks.

"Sometimes I have to remember what I'm writing at the time to keep the right tone for that project. For reference work, my brainwaves take a giant leap from the right side to the left.

"When we wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Ultimate Reading List, we read many, many books and did a lot of research, but we were encouraged to use humor in our writing. It was nice to use both sides of our brains on the same project!"

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

My path to publication began in 1993 or 1994, when I spoke on a panel of librarians who were advocates of the romance genre. Grace Anne DeCandido, an editor at Wilson Library Bulletin, asked if I'd considered writing an article based on my presentation. John Charles, who was also on the panel, had given presentations with me at conferences on the topic of the censorship of romance novels by librarians. He and I had actually already written an article, which was rejected by Library Journal.

Wilson Library Bulletin published the article, "The Librarian as Effete Snob: Why Romance?" We won a Veritas award from Romance Writers of America in recognition of the article, and two professional writers were born. Since then, John and I have written many articles (including some for Library Journal) and worked on four reference books together. We're developing a proposal for our fifth book.

Of course we've stumbled. In fact, we've fallen flat on our faces! There are snags with every project. Some are out of your control.

With The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List, the last editor on the book sent the uncorrected galleys to us the same time she sent the book to production to be printed. This means we could see the errors, but it was too late to get them corrected. There are only a few errors, even though the book has a thousand recommended titles listed by category and annotated.

Unfortunately, one of the mistakes was in a sidebar about Harry Potter, and that didn't set well with an anonymous librarian who happens to be a Potter fan. She posted in huge letters on not one, but two websites: "Why You Should Never Read This Book!" Underneath her warning sat a large picture of our book. We explained the situation in a post, and she responded that she was open to looking at it again...if a corrected second edition comes out. In the meantime, the banner discouraging potential readers flies proud and high over two very searchable blog sites!

This is a good book, and up to this point, we'd never had a bad review. What a frustrating, humbling experience!

Congratulations on the publication of The Suffragists in Literature for Youth: The Fight for the Vote, co-authored by John Charles (Scarecrow, 2006)! Could you offer us an overview of what to expect from the book?

John Charles and I wanted to spread the word about the suffragists and their sacrifices, so we designed this book to be useful for several audiences: teachers, librarians, researchers, students, and parents. The first part of the book has short biographical essays about fifty individual American suffragists. Each essay is followed by a list of books and other resources about that person. Next is an annotated list of collective biographies and general histories of the American suffrage movement. All resources in the book have been given a suggested grade level.

Other sections include:
Suffrage-Themed Fiction
Suffrage-Themed Drama
Suffrage-Themed Media
Internet Resources (including links to primary documents)
Field Trips and Places of Interest
Classroom Activities for Elementary School Children
Especially for YA Discussions or Papers
Suffrage Movement in Other Countries--Recommended Resources

You can browse the book and read the essays. We've tried to include as many interesting tidbits as space would allow. For example, did you know that Helen Keller was a suffragist...and Anne Sullivan didn't approve of women's suffrage one bit?

You can use our book as a starting point for your research. You can use it to teach your students about the suffragists. You can use it to develop library collections. We've tried to see that The Suffragists in Literature for Youth: The Fight for the Vote has something to offer just about everyone from ages five to adult.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My initial inspiration for writing this book was my life-long admiration for the brave suffragists who risked their families, their place in society, their health, their freedom, and even their lives so American women would have the right to vote.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Gosh, I've had the spark since 1975, when I saw the documentary "Shoulder to Shoulder," which chronicles the British suffragettes (Americans were called "suffragists"). I asked for the companion book for Christmas, which my ever-supportive husband gave me. (He even marched in support of the ERA!)

I had my first child, Andrew, in 1977, and worked full-time as a teacher. When Jessica was born in 1981, I'd made the move to public libraries. My life centered around my family and my work.

In 1993, I started freelance writing, but it wasn't until 2002, when Kim Tabor of Scarecrow Press offered me a chance to write the suffragist book, that my dream was realized. In 2004, I retired from my position as a library manager. A side effect of my "retirement" was more time to write and research this project. The Suffragists in Literature for Youth: The Fight for the Vote was published in Nov. 2006.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Believe it or not, the main challenge in writing this book was stopping. My co-writer, John Charles, kept telling me that I was writing way too much. For example, we were going to feature 50 suffragists. We ended up with 350. It turns out John was right--we had a 900 page manuscript, and the publisher wanted a 300 page book. We had to cut 600 pages and 300 suffragists. It broke my heart, but I intend to use that information in another book or two.

We had to dig deep into primary documents for much of the information, and spent hundreds of hours doing research. However, there were some wonderful ah-ha! moments.

One of the highlights of my research was when David took me to Seneca Falls, New York, where the woman's suffrage movement was born. It sent shivers up my spine to stand where Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave her famous speech in 1848 that started the whole thing. Wow! David took a photo of me by the statue commemorating Amelia Bloomer introducing Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony. He made it into a screen saver, so every day, when I turn on my computer, I'm reminded of these great women and how much I owe them.

Why was this subject so important to you?

Women's rights have always been important to me. Younger women often don't realize that before the mid-1970's, women couldn't get credit; their income didn't count toward qualifying for a loan to buy a home; and their career choices were limited.

I worked toward the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and was devastated that it didn't pass. The person who authored the ERA, Alice Paul, was one of the major players in getting women the right to vote. After the vote was won, she spent more than half a century trying to get the ERA passed. And it came so close to being ratified...

It's always upset me to think that the early suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Lucretia Mott, fought as long as fifty years for the right to vote, and didn't live long enough to exercise that privilege. How many of us would fight for something we believed in for half a century?

Some of the suffragists' daughters, such as Harriot Stanton Blatch and Alice Blackwell, took up where their mothers (and in Alice’s case, father, too) left off. The fight began in 1848 and didn't end until 1920. That's 72 years! These were extraordinary, never-say-die women. The later suffragists, including Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, were thrown into jail and force-fed. One of the most beautiful suffragists, later a symbol of the movement, attorney Inez Milholland Boissevain, literally worked herself to death by age thirty trying to get women the right to vote. Sometimes I cry when I read their biographies.

One day, I was showing a college class how to do research, and I used the suffragists as a topic. I asked who knew what a suffragist was. Not one person could answer the question! Not even one!

About the same time I'd taught that college class, Kim Tabor of Scarecrow Press called me and asked if I'd like to write a book in their "Literature for Youth" series. She said I could pick the topic. Any topic.

My immediate response was, "The suffragists." I'll always be grateful to Scarecrow for allowing me to write the book of my heart, and to my brilliant friend, John Charles, who agreed to write this book with me, as well as Romance Today: An A-Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance Writers at the same time.

What are areas of opportunity you see for youth literature authors on related topics? Or, what's the book you're aching to read, but hasn't been published (or written) yet?

It is almost impossible to find information on Lucy Burns. One of the few Irish-Catholic suffragists, she was co-founder and second in command of the Congressional Union, yet she’s usually an after-thought in books about Alice Paul. I'd love to see someone write a biography about her. A picture of her in prison is the cover of our book.

I would also like to see something written about the Native Americans getting the vote. The 19th Amendment, which passed in 1920 and gave most women the right to vote, failed to enfranchise them. They had to wait another four years. Even after these legislations, minorities have been given a hard time, received threats, or suffered bodily harm when they went to the polls.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I would tell myself that rejection can be a good thing, and you can learn from it.

I'd say that the best way to get published is to network with editors at conferences.

I would take as many courses and seminars on writing as I could (I have since then), because writing what you want and writing for publication aren't always the same thing.

I would only be in constructive critique groups. I’ve been in an excellent critique group (Sandy Lagesse, Marion Ekholm, Kimi Watters, and Carol Webb) for years, but my first group had a member who, at that time, was the only one published, and who trampled everyone's self-esteem with her comments.

I made some really dumb mistakes when I first began writing professionally. One incident that stands out in my mind was when a publisher asked me for a synopsis and three chapters, I sent him a synopsis and the three chapters I liked best! Since, as I was soon to find out, a proposal is the first three chapters of the book, I got my three hand-picked chapters returned with "What's This?!?!?!?" scrawled across the first page in huge letters.

How about specifically related to writing a book of this kind?

I would tell myself to stop at 300 pages, although I doubt it would do any good! I'd also work on the suffragist book by itself, not while I was writing another reference book at the same time. In fact, I'm still researching the suffrage movement. I can't stop.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I work part time as a reference librarian at Glendale Community College and meet really cool people of all ages from all over the world. I do things with my family; learn about other cultures and religions; read and review books; go to movies; try new restaurants and foods; listen to music; go to the theater; travel; and give my cats the level of attention they demand.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

First of all, I don't waste time doing housework!

It came as a shock to me that writers have to promote their own work. Now that I've done it for almost ten years, it's still challenging, but actually kind of fun.

I love doing classes for new writers. I also do quite a bit of one-on-one mentoring with aspiring writers.

I've just learned how to blog and have written my first post, "Chocolate for the Writer's Soul" (see Shelley's blog).

As I get more proficient at blogging, I'm going to offer tips for new and aspiring writers on the site.

Every so often, I teach a class at the public library on writing memoirs. The stories I've heard from participants are extraordinary, from being a child during the bombings in Scotland during WWII to surviving the Holocaust.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I just finished a book called Crash Course in Library Supervision, which can actually be used for any type of supervision. I co-wrote this with Dennis Tucker, whom I've never met. At first it was surreal, writing with a stranger, but the longer we worked together, I came to learn that Dennis is a very bright, nice person.

Debbie and I have a romantic comedy, Marriage 101 (working title), coming out from Avalon in June, 2008. It's set in a high school.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Agent Interview: Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency

Steven Chudney founded The Chudney Agency of Briarcliff Manor, New York in 2002.

What inspired you to become a literary agent?

Well, I've always loved books, of course, and I had long enjoyed working in children's book marketing. For me, it was also a timing issue. I had committed the cardinal sin of resigning from a job without another one already lined up. This was three days before Sept. 11...

Needless to say, all of New York and the world came to a standstill, and so most NY companies were not doing any hiring for many months. A wise friend urged me, again, to consider being an agent. In the past, I had dismissed the idea, but in 2001 it seemed like a good plan and I was ready for the challenge. So, I had my letterhead and business cards printed, made some calls, sent out tons of emails, and hung my agency shingle outside my door--The Chudney Agency was born.

What led you to specialize in youth literature? Could you give us a snapshot of your career?

My first job...was selling paperbacks for Dell Publishing in their small telemarketing department--so I have always believed that if I can sell a book over the phone from New York, sight unseen, to a book buyer somewhere in Des Moines or Anchorage, then I can sell just about anything.

Since then I have held various sales and marketing positions at Viking Penguin, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Simon & Schuster. My last publishing position was with (the now defunct) Winslow Press where I held the position of Senior Director of Marketing, Sales & Subsidiary Rights.

I have sold and marketed every imaginable type of book--adult and children's, hardcovers, pop-up books and paperbacks--to wholesalers, independent bookstores and chain stores alike, but spent the last 10 years of my corporate publishing years in children's books.

How long have you been in the business? How has it changed?

I'm in the midst of my fifth year in business [as an agent]. In this period, I've seen the great slow down in picture book business. Also, when I first began agenting, fantasy was still hugely in demand, thanks to Harry Potter and other books like the Golden Compass. More recently I'm seeing less demand for fantasy. But I continue to be impressed with how children's literature continues to evolve and change, how new sub-genres emerge from time to time.

I especially think we're in an era where middle grade and teen fiction for kids and teens is the richest in history.

Would you describe yourself as an "editorial agent," one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

I'd describe myself as both, actually. I do get involved editorially on all my clients' manuscripts, both picture books and novels. I routinely work with my clients on as many revisions as it takes to bring out the best in every manuscript. Once I've placed a manuscript with a house, I then switch gears and begin to work with the client on marketing, promotion and sales concerns.

Is your approach more manuscript by manuscript or do you see yourself as a career builder?

I am definitely a career builder. Most agents typically like to know that there's more than one book in author. But sometimes there is only that first novel by a new writer--and that's all the material I have to judge their talents on. But I always ask if they're at least thinking or working on something else as well.

Why should unagented writers consider working with an agent?

One of the main reasons is that these days so many of the larger- and medium-sized houses are not accepting unsolicited material--and so if one wants to be considered by one of those houses, there really isn't much of a choice.

I also tend to think that agents really understand the process so much better than authors do and are better poised to negotiate terms and advances, as well as retain subsidiary rights like film/TV and foreign language rights. Of course, agents know the tastes of specific editors, and their likes and dislikes within the world of children's literature.

What do you see as the ingredients for a "breakout" book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim and/or both?

This is a toughie. It really can depend on so many things: storyline, genre, timing, etc. We can look to Harry Potter for its influence on the fantasy genre, The Gossip Girl series for contemporary teen chick lit, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (by Brian Selznik) for a new type of novel with art/graphic novel, or Stephenie Meyer (author interview) and her vampire novels for really fueling the powerful supernatural genre that is now so popular--all these huge successes established not just the authors but also genres within children's literature. But in the end, I think it is the writing and execution that really makes or breaks most books in the marketplace.

In terms of markets (children's, YA, fiction, non-fiction, genres, chapter books, ER, picture books, etc.), what sorts of manuscripts appeal to you?

I love them all! Even though the picture book market is still soft, I enjoy working on those--and I particularly love those picture books that will appeal first to the child--not the parent or librarian.

The market for chapter books is not huge, and for early/leveled readers even smaller.

I like all the different age categories, especially middle grade and teen novels. Here I really love a meaty, wonderful novel with great and memorable characters. I tend to shy away from genre or "hot," trendy type books. I'm not a fan of fantasy and must be one of the few agents not looking for any of that or science fiction. So, to use gardening terminology (I just moved into my first house ever), I prefer to work on novels that will become perennials, rather than annuals.

Do you work with author-illustrators and/or illustrators?

Yes, I do. I don't handle illustrators, but I've recently begun taking on more author/illustrators, and I'm having great fun in the process.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

At the moment, I'm looking for author/illustrators only. However, that will change soon, and I'll be looking for other types of material. The best way for any prospective writer to reach me (or any agent) is to simply go their website and review the agents' site to see what they are currently looking for—as our needs can change from time to time. The beauty of websites is that we can change our requirements according to the vagaries of the business and if our needs change.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

I feel that the submission information and instructions on my website are pretty clear--yet I'm astonished at how many prospective writers don't take the time to read it properly. How can they not realize that they are doing themselves a great disservice by sending in something I'm not looking for, or not providing all the material requested?

How much contact do you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs? What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

I have as much contact as is needed. We communicate heavily via email, but I also schedule lots of phone chats, especially with my novelists. I like to consider what I have with my clients a partnership, and I value good communication and trust between us. I've become very friendly with some clients, not quite friends, but enough that our friendship certainly takes the hard business edge off our relationship.

What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?

Oh, let me count the ways... Really, it isn't that bad. I suppose working with so many creative types can present some challenges, but I tend to shy away from prima donnas (and primo dons)--I much prefer working with fun and level-headed talent!

Sometimes I puzzle greatly over a rejected manuscript, especially one I truly love and believe in. I had one middle grade novel I adored and finally sold on the 18th submission. It is always a drag waiting to hear back from editors, and I really loathe nudging them for responses. Many agents have their own personal list of "black hole" editors--and we tend not to send them material after a while, which truly is a shame....

What do you love about it?

I love all the reading, of course, but most of all I love discovering that diamond in the rough, assisting in it's polishing, and sending it out into the world. I consider myself very lucky in my chosen profession! I love being a part of the making of a good book. I also especially love the phone call I make when I break the news to a client that a manuscript has received an offer.

Would you like to highlight a few of your clients and/or their recent titles?

Well, since I cannot mention them all, and I value my life, I think I'll share with you some recent an forthcoming books of note:

--Hungry Monsters ABC (Little Brown), Susan Heyboer O’Keefe. Sequel to bestselling picture book—we hope to develop the monsters into a nice franchise;

--Merry Christmas, Cheeps! (Bloomsbury), Julie Stiegemeyer, illus. Carol Baicker-McKee (both clients);

--The Return of Light (Marshall Cavendish), Dia Calhoun, all ages. Lovely Christmas fable;

--Do the Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra (Greenwillow), Wendy Lichtman. A smart tween series about math and life;

--Stray (Delacorte), Stacey Goldblatt. Teen novel. Dogs, romance…and life;

--Blood Brothers (Delacorte), Shirley Harazin. Teen. Riveting medical drama/thriller;

--Choices (Roaring Brook), Deborah Lynn Jacobs. Teen. Paranormal; sister seeking dead brother.

Avail 2008:

--The Youngest Templar trilogy (Putnam), Michael Spradlin. Teen. We’ve sold the trilogy to six countries in Europe so far!

--Braless in Wonderland (Dutton), Debbie Reed Fischer. Teen. Modeling in hot Miami;

--Temptress Four (HarperCollins), Gaby Triana. Teen. 4 teens on a cruise after HS graduation;

--Prom Kings & Drama Queens (HarperCollins), Dorian Cirrone. Teen. About romance and alternative prom.

As a reader, which books have you enjoyed lately and why?

On the adult side I love John Irving, Richard Russo, and Anne Tyler in particular. On the kid’s side, there are so many, but I love the Larry novels by Janet Tashjian, the novels of Blue Balliett, E.L. Konigsburg, John Green, Sarah Dessen. I suppose I could say that I like smart novels about smart kids. Some others I’ve enjoyed are:

--Bright Angel Time (Harcourt), Martha McPhee (published by an adult house, but features a young girl);

--Saint Iggy (Harcourt), K. L. Going;

--Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac and Elsewhere (FSG), Gabrielle Zevin;

--Al Capone does My Shirts and If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period (Putnam), Gennifer Choldenko;

--Absolutely True Diary of Part-time Indian (Little Brown), Sherman Alexie. One can't help fall in love with the protagonist, plus there’s so little literature about Native Americans.
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