Friday, April 30, 2010

Social studies

I guess it should come as no surprise, but I find that I'm not typical in my social media habits. I've known that for a while --I first got clued in when I realized no one else follows my rule that I don't friend anyone on Facebook who I haven't friended, or at least met, in real life.

But now that I've been blogging and playing around with Twitter for a bit, I see that my ideas for how to make social media tools useful to me aren't the popularly accepted ones. It's kind of heretical to admit, but I don't want as many friends/followers/fans or whatever as I can get. And I don't want to follow every interesting person or blog I run across. Because it's just TOO MUCH. I can't pay attention to hundreds of people, no matter how fascinating they are.

The usefulness to me of Twitter, in particular, seems tied to being discriminating. I love how I can get glimpses into the lives of authors, editors, librarians and others I admire on Twitter. I like getting tips about a publisher opening to submissions or an editor changing jobs or books getting awards. I especially like getting a feel for editors' personalities and tastes.

I can do all that only because I limit how many people I'm listening to. I don't understand how people with hundreds or even thousands of connections keep up with any of them, even with the help of organizational tools and filters. My real-life friends who are busiest on Facebook hardly ever see my posts because they're lost among the hundreds of posts by their virtual friends. So why should I bother trying to communicate with them that way?

A social media professional I spoke with compared the social media world to being at a big party where there are lots of interesting conversations going on at once. She said you can decide which ones to join. But to me, the din of all those people talking and the effort of trying to figure out which conversations might be worthwile keep me from paying attention to any of them. (This imagery is getting away from me. I now have a picture in my head of me at a lively party, except I'm the old lady in the corner with a hearing trumpet, saying, "Eh? What's that?")

Call me old-fashioned if you will. But for now, I think I'll keep my social media involvement rather narrowly focused. That way, it's useful but isn't a major suck on my time.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Boone for kids' books

I don't read much John Grisham. So I'm not an expert in his usual style. But I just read the first chapter of the first book in his new series for kids, Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. (The chapter is available on the book's website.) The premise is great, and the adventure sounds like it's straight out of Nancy Drew.
With two attorneys for parents, thirteen-year-old Theodore Boone knows more about the law than most lawyers do. But when a high profile murder trial comes to his small town and Theo gets pulled into it, it’s up to this amateur attorney to save the day.
I'm sure it will sell all of the 1 million copies in its first print run.The first chapter, though -- not so impressive. There's nothing terribly wrong with it, but nothing special either. The voice seems a little old-fashioned for today's kids, and the overall effect is a bit of a time warp (enough so that it seemed weird when someone mentioned email) but I'm sure the mystery and action will be more than enough to make up for that.

Mysteries are about to get hot in the children's literature field, some experts say. In case any of you writers are casting about for your next project.

I feel like I should have more to say about this, but I'm tired of complaining about big names getting big contracts, which just feels like sour grapes. And Grisham isn't swooping into children's literature from show biz or some other left field. So why not? I keep trying to hang onto the idea that anything that generates money for publishing helps all of us.

So welcome to the world of kid lit, John Grisham.

(By the way, it's very possible we're distantly related. My maternal grandmother was a Grisham from almost the same area as his family. How about giving a helping hand to a Mississippi cousin here, John? Put in a word with your publisher? I'd be okay with a somewhat smaller print run. Say, a tenth of yours?)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Impossible dreams

Last week Elana Roth at Caren Johnson Literary Agency wrote a blog post she called The Picture Book Problem. Kudos to her for taking on a tough subject. She outlined just how tight the picture book market is and why most agents don't want to take on picture books. Having been to yet another writing conference loaded with people who want to write picture books, she said she wished more people understood that the chances for success in picture books is "severely limited right now."

Roth wrote, "I'm all for congratulating successes and perseverance, but I also want to ask this question: How are we measuring success and what are we telling picture book writers at the conferences to do? Just keep trying no matter what?"

Her post got some thoughtful responses from serious writers about why they stick with picture books. Lots of us just love them. Most commenters tactfully avoided bringing up the fact that a sizable portion of the people submitting picture book manuscripts aren't serious writers -- they're people who suffer under the misconception that writing picture books is easy. (And possibly profitable.)

Having just gotten a particularly disappointing picture book rejection, perhaps I'm feeling unduly pessimistic. But I think it's healthy to face up to the truth about the extremely long odds of getting a picture book published, and even to ask the question about whether it's a reasonable thing to keep pursuing.

I know it's delicate to raise the issue of giving up on one's dreams. We live in a culture that likes to believe you can live your dream if you work hard and stay true to it. There's a lot of stigma attaching to "quitting," as it's usually called. But isn't is possible that sometimes it's the right thing to do? That being realistic isn't necessarily a failure of will, but a reasonable decision that allows someone to direct their energies toward something that's more likely to be satisfying?

When is it the right thing to give up on a dream that's probably impossible?

No one can answer that for someone else. That makes it hard for agents and editors to speak the truth. But it might be best for all of us if we realize that not everyone is a Don Quixote.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My year as a children's author

Maggie's Monkeys was released a year ago today, so this seems like a good time to look back on my experience as the author of a children's book. It's been one of the best things that has ever happened to me -- from the great launch party at Blue Marble Books to discovering last week that a reviewer on Amazon wrote that her 3-year-old loved the book and understood it was about 'mag-nation.

Through the opportunities the book has opened, I've had the chance to meet lots of interesting authors and to play with lots of little kids. The letters and drawings from classes, the parents who tell me their child asked to read it again, the brother and sister named Jack and Margie whose mom choked up when she talked about the relationship of their (almost) namesakes... it's all been unbelievable fun.

This weekend, I'll be at a book fair and will have the chance to meet even more readers and authors. It's the last of my scheduled events and a perfect capstone to the year. I'm honored and proud to have been allowed into young readers' lives. I'm grateful for all the people -- starting with Howard and Abbie, the rest of my family and friends -- who supported me and reveled with me throughout the long process of getting to publication and the fun afterwards.

Here are a few highlights:

A reader's version of the cover.

The French version.

A child with his "find the invisible monkey" sheet (and his car).

And a teacher's blog with Maggie's Monkeys on her Shelfari.

Thank you to everyone who's been part of this terrific year!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Stay tuned for Book Two

The Maze Runner by James Dashner succeeds in many ways. The main character is likable and sympathetic (if gifted with enough advantages that he is more "hero" than "everyday guy"). The construct is intriguing -- I especially liked the giant maze walls rearranging themselves at night. And the monsters are certainly monstrous. Dashner is a genius to combine robotlike features with a slug!

But the book does what far too many "first in a trilogy" books do. The conclusion is all about setting up Book Two, not paying off Book One. I understand cliff-hangers and all that, but I do think it's possible to make an ending satisfying and still leave readers anxious for the next installment.

When I've hung in there with a story for 350+ pages, I think I deserve a few pages devoted to a real ending. I want the characters to have a moment of triumph or insight that lasts longer than dinner.

Is that so much to ask?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wait for it

Most of the time, I like writing. I even like revising a lot of times. I enjoy keeping up with what's going on in children's literature and learning what I can about editors and publishing houses. In fact, I like almost everything about the writing process -- except waiting.

Anybody who's ever pursued publication knows about waiting. It's what we do after we submit. Wait. We distract ourselves with other tasks, including other writing, and we send out other submissions, etc. But on some level we're just ... waiting. Right?

The closer a manuscript comes to possible success, the harder the waiting gets. An editor asks to see a full manuscript based on a query. Or an editor asks for revisions. Or an editor says she's showing it to her editorial director. Each step of the way, getting through the time until you get the verdict is progressively more agonizing.

All the waiting is beginning to seriously wear on me. It's a bit like living in suspended animation all of the time. I've been doing it for years now, and I'm not sure it's a good thing for my mental health. It's hard to live in the moment when a part of you is caught up in anticipating/dreading what's around the next corner.

It's a separate phenomenon from having your hopes repeatedly dashed, which is tremendously hard to live through time and again. Waiting for feedback or a decision on a manuscript is holding your breath and getting a rejection is having the breath knocked out of you. Neither one is good for you.

Sometimes I wish I had an agent who could do the waiting part for me. Not even tell me where she's submitted or when. It might free me up to stay focused on the writing.

But of course getting an agent would mean more of the same. Research, query, submit ... wait.