April 2011 Archives

More Humor Mixed with Mystery - Belly Up

belly up.jpgBelly Up (Simon and Schuster, 2010) by Stuart Gibbs is one of those fun ridiculous stories, yet has such a satisfying ending. I loved the details of the unusual setting and think kids will too.

12 year old Teddy Fitzroy is the only kid for 30 miles and lives at FunJungle. Going to an entertainment place is one thing, but living there all the time? Marge the security guard has it in for him for his practical jokes, so when there's trouble at Henry Hippo's enclosure she blames him. But Henry is dead. And Teddy thinks it's murder. Could it be the Head of Operations, Martin del Gato, who hates animals and kids? Or Pete Thwacker, the head of PR, who's had to deal with Henry's messes? You'll have to read it to find out.

This is author Stuart Gibbs first book, but he already has two more in the publication process. The Last Musketeer will come out in fall 2011 and Spy School will be out in spring of 2012. Sounds fun to me.

More humor is available on Stuart's site, in his bio. You can even find a link to buy your own Belly Up shirt.

The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity (Simon and Schuster, 2009) by Mac Barnett illustrated by Adam Rex is one funny mystery. The story is modeled after the old time kid detective novels, so expect some corn.

12 year old Steve Brixton is enamored of the old mystery books about the Bailey brothers and himself gets mistaken for a detective by the Librarians (under cover agents) when he checks out a book on quilts at the library. He's on the run from the police, including Jerk Rick who's dating Steve's mom. The only way to prove himself innocent is to solve the case.

Author Mac Barnett bills himself as "writer and strongman-for-hire" on his website. Check out the piano keys for more details. Plus listen and watch this video clip of Mac talking about the first Brixton Brothers book.

But wait! There's more. Ghostwriter_182_wide.pngThe sequel Brixton Brothers 2: The Ghostwriter Secret came out last fall and is on my to-be-read list. The next in the series, It Happened on a Train, will come out this October.

Illustrator Adam Rex is the author/illustrator of The True Meaning of Smekday. What? You haven't read it? Learn more here about that title and stuff about Adam on his site where Abraham Superlincoln tells you to "choose wisely."

Do You Remember?

girl w pic of boy.jpgDo you remember? The agony of that boy or girl not "liking" you? Arguments with your parents about homework, or who you were going with, or curfew? Zits and feeling awkward? The joy of getting your driver's license? If you answered yes to any of these questions, perhaps you should consider writing short stories for teens.

Teenagers still have the same basic problems: wanting acceptance, striving for independence, peer pressure, etc. The trappings may have changed, but it doesn't take much to get up-to-date.

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The first important thing to do is: hang around with some teens. If you have teenagers living in your home, this should be easy. But if you don't, there are many places you can observe and listen to teenagers:
- Organizations such as clubs, associations and church youth groups
- A local middle school or high school
- The mall or a local fast food restaurant
- Sporting events
Making friends with teenagers, will get you an even closer look at the problems in their lives. In addition, talk to adults who have teens in their lives: your neighbor, a school counselor, a youth pastor, etc.

Next step, check out the magazines written for teens. There are high paying ones such as "Seventeen" and "Boys' Life" and ones like "International Gymnast" and "Thrasher" aimed at a specific audience. Religious publications for teens vary from glossy magazines to skinny church take-home papers. Read the magazines, get their guidelines and, for some, request theme lists.

When you look at these magazines, notice the following:
- The audience.
Is this magazine for younger teens or older teens? For boys only? Or girls? Is it for sports enthusiasts?
- Does it do fiction? If so, how might you need to tailor a story for this market?
A teen magazine may want an inner city setting. Another wants no reference to dating. Let sample copies, the market book and guidelines be your guides.
- Morals.
Is this magazine avant-garde or conservative? In the religious market, be aware of how much "Godly living" or "religion" each magazine shows. In any case, don't preach.
- Rights each one buys.
Some magazines purchase "all rights," but many buy "first" or "reprint rights" and others buy "one-time rights" or "simultaneous rights." A story written for one place may be salable to another and another depending on rights purchased.
- Themes and deadlines.
Some theme lists are very specific; others are more general. Either way they can kick off story ideas for you. Just remember, stories to fit an entry on a theme list must make the magazine's deadline to be considered.

After you've finished your research, your mind will probably be brimming with story ideas. Choose one and get down to writing.

Keep focused on one problem per story. I have to ask myself, "what is the major issue I want to deal with in this story?" And then not let myself get side-tracked.

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As you write, think teenagers! Is this a problem a teen would have? Is this a place a teenager would be? Is this how they would say this? If you get stuck, ask a teen for help. Ask them what they would say or do. If you want to use slang, either use what's current--and know what it means--or use something that sounds slangy but doesn't come from any specific generation.

Also, as you write, think which youth magazines might like this story. Make yourself a list of the potential markets for each individual story.

A lot of work writing short stories for teens? Yes. But there are opportunities for sales and satisfaction in doing the job well. The ultimate reward though is teenagers reading your stories.

Words are things; and a

Words are things; and a small drop of ink falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
Lord Byron

In my opinion, page one

In my opinion, page one should have some element that things are changing and action must be taken.
Linda Robertson

What a sweet winner! - Moon Over Manifest

This past week I got to meet Kansan Newbery winner Clare Vanderpool, who wrote the lovely book, Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010). She shared with us how shocked she was when she got the call from the Newbery committee. Seeing her tears, her husband thought something was wrong! She said there's definitely a "before" and "after" when you win the Newbery. You can read more about what she thinks about the 2011 Newberry Award on her site. Click on the Upcoming Events tab to see where she's speaking.

Moon Over Manifest is a layered book with two time periods and two separate stories going on. It's a great story. The characters and place are so real.

It's 1936 and 12-year-old Abilene has been sent to live with her father's friend in Manifest, Kansas. No one there talks about her father, though she knows the town's people must have known him. But she's found something else to keep her occupied--a box with letters from 1918 and "treasures" under the floorboards in her bedroom. From info in those letters she and her friends decide to see if they can discover who the WWI spy is.

Not only did I have sympathy for Abilene separated from her father, but for Ned and Jinx and what they went through as revealed by the letters and the local diviner, Miss Sadie.

This is definitely a must read with a satisfying ending!

turtle_sm.JPGTurtle in Paradise (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2010) by Jennifer L. Holm just won a Golden Kite (an SCBWI award from her peers) in fiction for her historical middle grade novel and is one of the Newbery Honor books this year. Oh, how I love it when worthy books win awards!

Inspired by her grandmother's stories, Jennifer writes a humorous book with adventure, buried treasure, strange relatives, crooks, and one smart girl.

It's 1935, and when Turtle's mom gets a job as a housekeeper for a lady who doesn't like kids, 11 year old Turtle is sent to live with her aunt. Not only does this New Jersey girl have to deal with a new place (Key West, Florida), but her 3 boy cousins as well. The 2 older ones are part of the Diaper Gang--they get paid for babysitting and their secret diaper rash cure. The littlest one keeps running around without his pants. And that's just a small taste introduction to this story.

Listen to the first line and hear Turtle speak for herself: "Everyone things children are as sweet as Necco Wafers, but I've lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten."

Jennifer L. Holm previously won a Newbery Honor for My Only May Amelia, which after ten years now has a sequel, The Trouble with May Amelia. Woo Hoo! Read more here.

Every now and then go

Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.
Leonardo Da Vinci

Dragged to the Podium

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"I'm a writer, not a speaker," my friend said when asked to make a presentation at a library. Many of us would agree with her. We write in solitude to an unseen audience and we like it that way. The written word expresses what we have to say leaving us no desire to stand behind a podium and talk. Yet many of us are invited to speak because of our writing. How can we deal with these requests? For me the public speaking journey has taken unexpected roads down scenic byways and I not only survived the trip, but have grown to enjoy making presentations. Let me share with you some of the things I have learned along the way.

First and foremost: Know Your Topic (KYT). We can all tell the story of the funny thing that happened yesterday, because we know what happened. The more we know our topic the more we have to say and the more comfortable we'll be saying it.

"But what could I possibly speak about?" someone wails. The person inviting you will sometimes suggest a topic, but often they allow you to choose your own topic. There are three possibilities: what you care about; what you know well; or, what you want to learn more about.

What You Care About
Do you have a passion for your writing? Or the method you use to create, or edit? Do you have a unique way of keeping your office organized? Do you have strong beliefs about a topic? Have you had a dream come true? Then talk about one of those things.

What You Know Well
Do you know your genre? Have you studied the markets? The styles and techniques? Do you have favorite books you like to read? Or do you know what inspired you to write? Of course you do. That means you can talk about these subjects.

What You Want To Learn More About
Do you like to do research? Are there topics you would like to study? Are you trying new areas? You don't have to be an expert to talk about what you're learning.

The Audience
This is not like your first twelve years of school, where you were given a topic that you didn't know or care about, and you had to present to classmates who cared even less. Remember, you have been invited to speak before this group because of your writing. It's doubtful many in the audience were forced to attend. Even in school settings, students are usually interested in a special guest because it's outside their normal routine.

Many people like to meet someone who does something they can't do. Others are interested in how you got where you are. They may want to understand how you do what you do. Or they may be looking for help with their own writing or want to discover whether writing is for them.

"But I'll be so nervous," someone says. Yes, but there are methods to help.

Toning Down the Butterflies
Again, the first step is KYT. Knowing what you want to say, gives you confidence.

Prepare. Whether you write out a speech, outline your talk, or do note cards, plan what you are going to say and how you want to get it across. After you've got an initial draft, ask yourself if this is the best organization. Have you left anything out? Is every section necessary? Do you have quotes, facts, or anecdotes to reinforce your message? Have you answered the obvious questions? Is there something you really don't want to leave out? Place it early in your talk and/or mark it with emphasis. Reorganize until you are happy with what you'll say. I usually have a couple sections of my speech that I mark "could cut if run out of time." Plus I sometimes have a filler activity is my speech goes too quickly. Also you'll want to carve out time for questions.

Plan your props. Will you be using physical items to show and tell? Show slides, overhead transparencies, or a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate your talk? Make sure you discuss with the person who invited you the feasibility of visuals in the setting. Will you have handouts? Find out how many you'll need or ask if they can make copies for attendees. Are you planning an audience participation activity? Or none of the above.

Practice. I'm not suggesting you memorize, but you do want to be familiar with what you'll say. You'll also want to have some idea of how long your speech will take. Is there a word or ordering you stumble over? Perhaps you need to change it.

Think about gestures you might want to put with your talk. Or at the least think about where you will put your hands so you're not worried what to do with them. If you stand with your arms held loosely away from your body versus tight up against your sides, you'll be more relaxed. Practice looking up.

Practice speaking clearly and slowly. Practice pauses and where to breathe. I often practice in front of two different audiences: my dog--who has almost quit giving me strange looks--and a mirror. The former gets me comfortable with hearing my voice out loud. The latter helps me remember to smile, raise an eyebrow or whatever is appropriate. Both help me watch out for filler words and nervous motions.

If you decided to use props, practice how to use them without turning your back on the audience. If you find something to difficult to use, get rid of it. Will you be speaking into a microphone? Find somewhere to practice with one. "Sound" people are usually willing to explain the intricacies of microphones, how close to be, and other tips, such as no tapping the microphone to see if it is on.

Once you've really practiced--and I know this is a suggestion we all hate--video yourself and watch it. Where you cringe at what you've done, you know you need to change. Ugh. This is much worse than a critique group.

The day before. I like putting my speech notes in plastic pockets in a three ring binder. This means I can't drop the notes and get them out of order; it's very easy to find my notes amongst my supplies when I arrive; and it's really easy to review. I go over my speech again, reminding myself of what I plan to say. If there's something minor I want to add, I might use a sticky note. Don't make major changes on your speech now or the day you talk!

Pack up your props, handouts, notes, laptop and cords and cables or usb drive for computer presentations, cough drops, tissues, etc. I like using a large rolling laptop case so everything is together. If you bring your own projector, make sure you have all cables, connectors and cords.

Now go do something else! Refresh yourself and forget about tomorrow's speech. Do something you enjoy. Go to bed at a decent time and get a good night's rest.

Keep Control of the Butterflies
On the day of your speech, make yourself as comfortable as possible. Choose comfortable clothes and shoes to wear. You don't want to worry about your feet hurting or being too hot or cold, although, I'm rarely cold when I speak. Nervousness is more likely to cause me to perspire with heat, so I wear a top or dress that won't show sweat marks under the arms as well as one that won't make me feel too warm. But I also usually have a sweater "just in case."

Be prepared before you head to your engagement. Take water, a cough drop or two, tissues, and anything else that you'd be frustrated to be without. Double-check that you have your notes, plus any other necessary supplies. Take the directions to the venue if you're unfamiliar with the location; also take your contact person's name and phone number with you. Leave with plenty of time to arrive at your destination--there's nothing worse on nerves than rushing in late.

Right before speaking is when the nastiest nerves hit. Try to ignore that sick feeling in your stomach and remind yourself that you're prepared. Sometimes it helps me to remember that I'll probably never see these people again. Or think about something else, preferably something pleasant! And remember that once you get started, nerves usually settle down.

When you stand up to speak, take a moment to get yourself organized. Smile at the audience. Breathe! Remember they came to hear you or hear this topic because they are interested.

Pretend that gal sitting in front of you is your next best friend. Think of your nerves as a revved up engine running around your body giving you extra energy to help you speak up. Focus on a friendly looking face. Think how unscary it is to talk to one person. Open your mouth and start talking to him.

Fixing Problems as You Go
If you feel yourself racing through your sentences, force yourself to slow down. Take a deliberate breath. Consider any nods or smiles as signs of encouragement--the audience is not your enemy.

Have a handout? People often cannot pass papers and listen at the same time, so be prepared to repeat anything you say while handing items out. Or don't speak while papers are being passed.

If you lose your place, pause and find it. You could say something like "before I go on, I want to make sure I haven't left anything out" if you don't feel comfortable with a moment of silence. Or you could ask "does anyone have any questions so far?" Although, I prefer asking audiences to "save all questions to the end."

Need a drink? Pause and take one. If you need to blow your nose, turn your back on the audience to do so, but watch out for lapel mikes; they'll amplify that noise, too.

Most audiences are respectful of speakers, but occasionally you'll have a problem to deal with. Two people in the back of the room whispering? Stop what you're saying and look at them. Usually, they quickly become aware of your attention and will be silent. If not, ask them, "Did you have a question?" If they continue talking while you talk, politely ask them to leave the room as they're making it hard for everyone else to concentrate. Sometimes someone asks a question that is totally off topic or deliberately heckling or inappropriate. It's okay to tell them that it is something you're not prepared to discuss. Or say, "let's talk about that when this session is done."

Any Questions
Don't assume when no one jumps in with questions that there are none. Sometimes people need a moment to formulate questions. Or sometimes they need a prompt such as "was my explanation of _____ clear enough?" Don't despair if there are few questions. You may have covered the topic so thoroughly no one can think of anything else to ask. Also, some people prefer to ask questions privately.

Thank them for listening, or inviting you, whichever seems more appropriate. If they applaud, smile.

If at First You Don't Succeed
Perhaps you just need more practice. Just like our writing usually needs more than one draft, your speaking can improve with work. Give it time.

You may also want to try a different type or size of audience. Maybe you'd be more comfortable talking to women only, or being in a smaller setting. I've found my favorite age to talk to is 4th graders--one class room at a time--and to other writers.

Try something different. A reading, a skit, or whatever you can dream up.

Sit in on some other writer's talks. Something that works for someone else may work for you. Check out public speaking classes, books and videos. Recently my husband has been sharing tips from the book called Confessions of a Public Speaker (O'Reilly, 2010) by Scott Berkun. I plan to read it myself. Ask other writers how they solve a problem you've come across. Check out TED talks--TED is a nonprofit organization that shares ideas worth spreading--a great place to be inspired.

Some writers prefer the expressway of speaking to large groups, while others like the country lane of a small group in a cozy bookstore circle. But you won't know what works best for you unless you take a few speaking trips on your own.

I hope my books help

I hope my books help children see some of the wonder in the world. I hope they show children that their own lives are rich material for storytelling. But most of all I hope that through my books, children know that I believe in them—in their ability to learn and to reshape the world.
Larry Dane Brimner