Last night, I was part of a focus group at Penguin Canada (thank you, Twitter!), talking about books and marketing and specifically about Penguin’s new YA imprint, Razorbill. This morning I’m still giddy and wired with that after-prom feeling. Maybe it was the giant cupcake, slathered with enough icing to skyrocket the blood sugar levels of an elephant. But I think it was the pleasure of sitting with like-minded strangers and talking about books.
You know when you’re with a real bookworm. The minute you click on a shared story, one you both love, their eyes light up. And when they’re excited, telling you about a book they’ve read and you haven’t, they wave their hands in the air as if they’re turning pages. And you lean in closer, and ask them to spell the author’s name again so you can go look up the book first chance you get — because this person cares about books the way you do, and if they recommend a title, it’s worth checking out.
Besides, who wouldn’t love to wander around inside the real, honest-to-goodness offices of a publishing house? It’s better than Disneyland. Books everywhere. Kind of like my house, come to think of it. I admit, I was nervous until I walked in and saw so many old friends on the boardroom bookshelves. (Ah — Guy Kay is here. This must be a good place.)
There were around ten of us. Most were women around my age, which is strange when you consider that we were there to talk about a YA imprint. But let’s face it — grown-ups read YA. And those of us ignoring the pizza and drooling over the books on the boardroom table were big-time YA readers, and some of us are raising little readers of our own.
After pizza and chit-chat, we moved into a larger boardroom. This time, there was a woman there to lead the discussion and ask us questions. The Penguin team, we were told, was watching us through a camera on the wall — very Big Brother. But we forgot about that, because the first order of business was to introduce ourselves by name, and by the last book we read. As soon as we were talking books, we were off.
For me, the interesting part (other than the kid-in-a-candy-store aspect) was seeing how much effort and research Penguin puts into reaching their readers. They want to know where we’re finding books and how we choose them. They want to know what readers want, what drives them to choose one website or book over another, what they’re looking for. Before the event, I filled in a four-page questionnaire about my reading, viewing and Internet habits. At one point, we were asked to pretend that we were in charge of marketing a new website: What, specifically, would we do to reach our target audience?
As a reader, I appreciate being asked for input. As a writer, I loved the peek behind the scenes. Sometimes it feels like the publishers have all the answers; it’s nice to know that they’re working just as hard as we writers are to find and reach an audience. They’re working with and for their writers, as well as for their readers, finding out what works and what doesn’t.
For me, the hardest question of the night was “what do you want from a publisher?” It was hard because I can answer it as a writer (help! guidance! great editing to make my book the best it can be!), but I was there last night as a reader. As a reader, I’m not sure that I think about publishers much, other than as a quality control. As a reader, I want good stories. It wouldn’t occur to me to look for more than that from a publisher, but Penguin is trying to find a way to offer more regardless. They want to bring readers and writers together.
I can’t help thinking that, from either side of the connection, it’s a good thing.
Thank you, Penguin, for a lovely evening. Thank you for the pizza and the giant cupcakes, and for the armload of free books. Thank you for the movie passes. That wasn’t necessary, but it made my husband happy. Thanks for soliciting my input. And thank you for the opportunity to talk about books and publishing with a room full of interesting, intelligent people.
I’m going to share some Twitter recommendations here, because these women know their books, and are very much worth following:
And, of course, Bronwyn: @B_Kienapple, Penguin’s online marketing coordinator
(If those of you who have book blogs want to send me the links, I’ll be happy to post those here as well! It was wonderful to meet you.)
Before I get into today’s thoughts on writing (which are mostly: yay, school’s back in session — I get to write again!), I wanted to share some happy news.
1. Boarder Patrol was selected as one of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s “Best Books for Kids & Teens 2011.” Actually, I think I might have mentioned that in an earlier post. But I’m really, really happy about it, so please bear with me.
2. There’s a nice review of the SkinWalker books on the Keen Readers website (scroll down — it’s about the third or fourth from the top).
3. Next month will be my first time teaching a class for fellow writers. Gwynn Scheltema and I are teaming up to do an introductory course in writing for children, through Writescape. I’m getting excited about it.
4. Things are shaping up nicely on my two books due out next spring. I’ve had good feedback from both editors, and I’m about to plunge into revisions. I’ve even seen a sneak preview of one of the covers, but I don’t think I’m allowed to share it yet.
Okay. On with the pending doom. And the bonus picture of Noah Wylie.
My husband and I are science fiction fans. Not very lucky ones, either. Our favourite shows have a nasty history of being cut down in their prime. (Firefly, anyone? And if you haven’t seen Defying Gravity yet, you need to. Just be prepared to have your heart broken when the lovely, long story arc they were setting up for gets truncated after one season.)
So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I sat down to watch the first episode of Falling Skies with him. The premise: humans struggle to survive on post-alien-invasion Earth. Timeline is now-ish, and the star is Noah Wylie, as a history professor-turned-military advisor. He’s a father of three. Two of his sons are with him, one a risk-seeking soldier, one a child who’s crayon drawings will sucker-punch your soul before the opening credits have even aired. His middle son was captured by the aliens.
And here’s the thing. I don’t want anything bad to happen to these people. I like Noah Wylie’s character. I want his kids to be safe. I want them to stroll into the alien camp and rescue his missing son (and hey, why not the other kids, too?) with nary a shot fired. I want a happy ending for all, but this is television. We all know the nature of dramatic writing; I doubt there are picnics and pancakes ahead.
Conflict means tension, and tension means readers who keep the pages turning. Or, in this case, viewers who tune in for the next episode. So writers must provide conflict. More importantly: they must provide the possibility of conflict, different kinds of it. And then they must deliver. Two different things, both important.
The thing is, the writers of this show have done a great job of making me care about the characters. I want to write them a polite note suggesting that they leave it at that: compelling people in an interesting situation. No need to separate the family further, or kill anybody off. I’m happy, honest! I’ll tune in again.
(Okay, full disclosure: I’d probably tune in to watch Noah Wylie drink coffee and stare into space for an hour. But the fact that he’s playing an interesting character brings a nice legitimacy to the whole thing.)
In this case, the tension comes from the nature of the beast: I know that I’ve signed up to watch a story unfold. I know that when a story about aliens and guns and a post-apocalyptic future unfolds, bad things happen. Hunger Games fans, remember Rue?
The writers and actors did the important part of the job: they made me care. They introduced a high-stakes situation. And now I’m feeling the tension in my belly that comes from knowing that this is a story. The medium itself is enough: it sets up the expectation that bad things will happen. And this doesn’t come from a cliffhanger or a hint of what’s coming or anything like that. This just comes from my knowing that it’s a story, and having expectations around that.
When your reader picks up your book, they’re expecting things to happen. It’s what they signed up for. Leaving aside the obvious fact that you have to deliver on that expectation, you can take a certain satisfaction in knowing that the story-ness of your story is going to do some of the work for you. This ain’t your reader’s first rodeo, baby. They’re going to be imagining endings and possibilities and terrible fates with every turn of the page.
Drop hints. Leave openings. Make the reader care about your characters, and let them wonder. Let them put themselves into that story and start writing it for you, a million different ways. That’s where the knotted-up feeling inside comes from. It’s why Hitchcock liked to leave the bad guys hidden. The more the reader brings to the story, the better.
But here’s the trick: the story you write has to be as good as, or better than, the one the reader wrote in her head.
I want everything to be all sunshine and rainbows for Noah Wylie and his fictional sons, but that’s not what I’m expecting. I’m thinking, first, that the gut-wrenchingest thing I would do as a writer would be to separate them. Put them all in danger, and leave the father wondering what’s happened to his sons. And go from there. I don’t know if that’s how the story will play out or not, but if it doesn’t, it better do something at least as compelling.
Your readers have come to you for a roller coaster ride. They want to laugh and cry. Give them conflict. But first, give them a reason not to want it. Give them a reason to care about these people. They’ll tune in for more.
(And hope to heck that your story doesn’t go the way of Firefly.)
Today Maggie Stiefvater visited the Oshawa Chapters location. I found out via Twitter, half an hour before the event, and turned puppy dog eyes on Husband and Daughter. “Can we go? Can we, can we, can we?”
I loved Shiver. And after Linger, I was on edge, waiting for the third book to come out. I have it on my shelf now and will probably start reading it next week. I love this woman’s characters, and I think she’s an extremely talented writer. I ran out to see her like I would run out to see Holly Black, and that’s saying something.
So please keep that in mind when I say that the whole thing left me feeling… uneasy.
The stage was my first clue that something different was going on. I’ve been to lots of signings and book launches before, even ones at Chapters. There’s never been a stage. And there was loud music. Rev-up-the-crowd type music.
The rows of folding chairs were filled, so I joined the leftover people standing at the back. The crowd was mostly female and largely older teens, but there were enough adults there that I didn’t feel too out of place. Not like the beleaguered-looking husbands who kept glancing around to make sure no one saw them standing in the estrogen crowd. (I released Husband and Daughter to another part of the store.)
Maggie was wonderful. Entertaining and funny, friendly and seemingly perfectly comfortable in front of the crowd. She told funny stories about her book tours and got us all laughing. She talked a little about her book, but mostly about “life of an author” type stuff (you know — the phone calls on airplanes about hitting the NYT bestseller list; the visits to wolf sanctuaries in Hungary; everyday things).
But that was when my stomach started dropping. Because she was up there and entertaining and wonderful for a solid twenty or thirty minutes; just like a stand-up comedian, only classier. And while in theory it was about the books, really it was about her. She was a Personality. A really wonderful, charming, interesting one.
For me, that’s the scary part. I could never pull that off. Talk about the writing process? Sure! Just try and shut me up. I love that stuff. Talk about books? Absolutely, especially if they’re someone else’s books. I’ll happily do school visits; it’s not that far off from teaching, and besides, I can keep the focus on the writing process. But to get up there and just… be?
It left me thinking about a few months ago, when I saw Sarah McLachlan in concert and was amazed by how warm and personal and just plain brilliant at the the whole thing she was. Not just the singing. The in-between parts, too. Pure, polished, professional showmanship.
Now, let’s face it. I’m not exactly in danger of going on tour. The NYT Bestseller list is, thus far, not a going concern in my life. I’m still at that point in my career where I aspire to the midlist. I’m okay with that; I’m learning.
Next spring I’ll have two books coming out; I’m thinking of getting in touch with independent booksellers within about a two-hour radius of my house and seeing if I can put together some kind of an event schedule. Maybe little free seminars, maybe signings. And at those events, there will probably be a small table and me, and maybe one or two friends if I happen to know people in town. I’ll bring candy to bribe people to come close. I’ll smile at them and hand out bookmarks. And for me, that’s good. That’s practice. That’s success.
Or I thought it was.
Don’t get me wrong, Maggie was amazing. Friendly and gracious and funny. I’m glad I went, and I look forward to reading the third book in her trilogy. Even more so, now that I’ve heard her talk about it a little bit.
But this was my first glimpse of Writer as Rock Star, and I think it scared me a little.
I’m excited about my friend Lena’s upcoming book, Witchlanders! Take a look at her cool new book trailer.
Boarder Patrol one of CCBC’s “Best Books for Kids & Teens 2011”
In other exciting news, I learned last week that Boarder Patrol had been chosen as a Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s “Best Books for Kids & Teens 2011” selection. I’m thrilled that my book was included because so many of my favourite authors are in there, too.
I wanted to do cartwheels. The trauma of the OAC grant is still fresh in my mind, though — my leaps of joy resulted in the premature death of my husband’s desk lamp. I’m working on a more reserved demeanour these days. When you’re clumsy, it really is the best way to go.
New Course in Writing for Children, based in Oshawa
I’m also teaming up with Writescape’s own Gwynn Scheltema to teach an introductory-level course on writing for children, right here in Durham. Gwynn and I have had fun working on this course together. The hard part is going to be fitting it into only six weeks. Course information can be found here.
I’m not wavering from my stance on the Mabel’s Fables courses — if you can get to Toronto, you need to be there. Ted Staunton is a wonderful instructor. We’re all going to miss Peter Carver now that he’s retired from the level two course, but I think it’s going to remain a great writing environment and supportive group for children’s writers under Ted’s guidance. But some of my Durham Region friends find that commute a bit off-putting, so I decided we needed a more local starting point.
Between my kid-lit fanaticism and Gwynn’s teaching expertise and experience, I think we’ve managed to put together something special. I’m looking forward to it, and if you’re a Durham Region writer who wants to learn more about writing for chidren, I hope to see you there.
(And then, of course, I’ll recruit you to Mabel’s and to CANSCAIP and all the rest of it, bwa-ha-ha. Kid-lit is an addictive world. Enjoy it.)
My guest post on Janice Hardy’s blog will be up Tuesday. I’m very excited about it! She asked me to write something on writing for the reluctant reader market.
(Update: You can read the post here.)
Lots going on in my writing life right now. This Friday, I’m heading out to a local school to visit some classes and talk about my books. And, hopefully, get the kids excited about doing some summer reading. And later this month is my visit to the local library’s teen writing group. I love meeting kids who are serious about writing. I haven’t quite worked out what I’m going to say to them yet. “You’re awesome, keep at it?”
And, of course, those deadlines. The end of June is getting closer. Fortunately, my manuscripts are getting closer to submission-ready, too. Just need to keep at it.
Proper blog post soon. Honest. In the meantime, keep writing!
The Skinwalker books are coming! This is the new hi-low fantasy series from HIP Books that Cheryl Rainfield, Deb Ouellet and I have been working on. Paul Kropp sent us the cover images yesterday. Mine is the one in the middle: Wolves at the Gate.
This series is different from the Dragon Speaker books in that the stories all deal with different characters within the same world. They don’t need to be read in any particular order, and you can read any title as a standalone, although I think the story concepts complement each other well.
The plan is to print the books in April for a May 1 release. I look forward to reading the final versions of Cheryl’s and Deb’s stories–I haven’t seen them yet!
This Saturday I’ll be presenting an hour-long workshop on writing for the hi-low and reluctant reader market. The workshop takes place at the Ajax Convention Centre, after the Writers’ Community of Durham Region monthly breakfast meeting. There are still a few spaces left, although I’m told that 20 people have already registered, so the room is filling up! Yay! You can find more information here.
It’s shaping up really well; I think the people attending will get their money’s worth and then some. (Okay, it’s a $10 workshop, but still. There’s a principle at work here, and I live to overprepare.) The publishers I’ve been in touch with have helped me by providing submission guidelines and “what we need now” hints, so I’ve got lots of great information to share. I’m looking forward to it.
Now to work on the whole ‘voice projection’ thing…
Lots of blog-worthy news lately. Not a lot of time for blog writing.
My book launch, held on May 15 at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, was a huge success. There were more than 50 people there–far more than the 30-40 that I had guessed might come. I feel hugely grateful to everyone who came: my wonderful family and friends and writing buddies, and even some people from Uxbridge who read about the event in the local paper and came by to see what was going on.
Uxbridge Cosmos, May 13, 2010, first page (links to a PDF file of the first page of the May 13 Uxbridge Cosmos, featuring an article on Boarder Patrol written by Neil Coxworth)
Thank you so much, everyone who was there!
Special thank you’s to my incredible mother, who made not only the cake but also many of the door prizes, to Judy Diltz (“Aunt Judy”) for baked goodies, to Peggy Pflanzer (“Aunt Peggy”) for putting together a yummy cheese tray, to Susan Blakeney for delicious rhubarb tarts and for offering to drive my Toronto-based writer friends, to Marty Bays of MORTIS Photography for being thoughtful enough to capture the moments with his camera and for granting me permission to use the photos, and to Orca Books for donating several door prizes and helping with the launch expenses. And especially thank you to Shelley Macbeth, who let me use her beautiful bookstore for the event, who was helping for months ahead of time with the organization and details, and who managed to make a success of a tricky situation.
Here are some photos from the event.
Apparently it’s traditional to have books at a book launch. We didn’t quite manage that part. The night before the book launch, Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books phoned me with the bad news: the books hadn’t arrived! Between us, we managed to scrounge together 16 copies. For the rest, we worked out an advance order system. Everyone was very gracious and understanding, so even without the piles of books that Shelley and I had hoped to have on display, the launch was a success. I received the books last week, and I’m working my way through the pre-orders, autographing and delivering the books. So far, so good!
For more about the book launch, stay tuned for my blog post on planning a book launch, coming soon to the Orca Books Web site.
Three days after the book launch, I headed to Greensville School for an author presentation to the fifth grade classes. My friend Jennifer Vince, a teacher at the school, arranged for me to be there–for which I am extremely grateful! It was a lovely experience. Great kids, a beautiful library, and lots of opportunity to visit with some of the younger classes for informal Q&A sessions on writing. Lots of fun!
Sadly, I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask anyone to get pictures. Oh, well. Next time.
I’m very, very close to being ready to send a new draft of Wolves at the Gate to Paul Krop, the publisher at H.I.P. Books. So close, in fact, that I have set June 2 as the delivery date. I’m excited, because I think this is a much stronger version than what I had previously. I’ve received some useful and encouraging feedback from my writing group and from a couple of critique-based night classes where I’ve shared chapters. I’ve struggled a lot with this project, so it’s nice to see things finally coming together.
Now… gotta go write.
The book launch approacheth. Five days. Eep.
Things are well under way, though. Door prizes taken care of. Icing topper for the cake ordered. Crafts and decorations in hand.
Aaron and I even managed to put together a handy-dandy “Beginner’s Guide to Uxbridge”, for those of you coming from out of town and looking for things to do in the area.
My authors’ copies of Boarder Patrol arrived in the mail last week. They look great. The cover is much shinier than on the ARC. Unfortunately, I don’t have any left, but I’ve ordered some more. I have bookmarks, too, thanks to the wonderful people at Orca Books.
Finally, here is the book launch poster. Hope to see you there!
Due to a conflict with Book Expo Canada (which, oddly enough, appears to lack a proper web site), the book launch for Boarder Patrol is being changed. Same wonderful location, slightly earlier date.
Boarder Patrol Book Launch
Blue Heron Books
62 Brock Street West, Uxbridge, Ontario
Saturday, May 15, 2010, 2:00 p.m.
Stay tuned for a “beginners’ guide to Uxbridge”! I’m researching restaurants, parking, cool shops… all the best stuff to help you make a day of it. Because let’s face it, Uxbridge is a bit of a hike for most of us. But it’s worth the drive!
There will be lots of food and great door prizes. And one really cool guessing jar… but I’m saving the details on that one, because it’s a surprise.
Should be a fun time. Hope to see you there!