Monday, May 13, 2013

The publishing rock and the hard place

There are days, and then there are days. And weeks. And months. And years. 

This week I revised my submissions chart and put it into a spreadsheet, the advantage being that I compressed a lot of information into a smaller format, making it easier to get a bird's eye view of where my manuscripts have been, are now, or are going. 

One picture book manuscript stood out to me particularly. This story had something which you might consider as early success. The first publisher to look at it wanted a rewrite and held onto it for the editorial board until they (alas) decided they didn't want it. 

That's okay, I thought. How hard could it be to get a publisher if the first one wanted it?

Quite hard, actually. The whole thing reminded me of those probability problems I help my daughter with in her math. Just because the first publisher who looks at a story likes it doesn't mean there will be a higher likelihood that anyone else will want it. Thirty-one rejections, four years, and countless rewrites later, I'm still hawking the thing. I've had a prolific published author encourage me that it's perfect the way it is, but that it's just hard to sell picture books right now. I've had an agent tell me how much she liked it, but that she doesn't think it's salable. Auuugghh!

So here's my question: do I shelve this story when I've done all I can do, or do I attempt (sinister music) to self-publish? 

It's not that I'm against self-publishing. If you actually produce a high-quality product which has been thoroughly and professionally edited, self-publishing is okay. Even if I were only to make enough for a hot cocoa at Starbucks, I wouldn't turn that down, but with a picture book, one tiny problem remains. It's a PICTURE book. Ah, those pesky illustrations. Who would create them?

Who wouldn't create them is easier to decide. No amateurs. Period. When I was working in publishing, I hired professional illustrators. I wouldn't accept the kind of work I know comes out of an artist who doesn't do illustration for a living. (I have a degree in art and even I don't want to attempt it.) 

But on the flip side, I can't pay a professional, either. Years ago I used to pay $350 to $450 for one dinky, half-page, four-color illustration. Paying enough to finance a professional illustrator to do an entire book is pretty much out of the question. (And contrary to what the occasional picture book writer might thinks, illustrators have to eat. Illustrating is their full time job rather than a sideline like children's writing is for most children's writers. It requires full time hard work, and it comes with full time bills and full time taxes. An illustrator can't knock out a picture book in a couple of days, and they surely can't wait years to see if they get any sales from months of work so they can pay the rent.) 

So there it is. The rock and the hard place. 

(Tell me again: why did I want to write children's books?)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Adverbs...

Chris Brogan's post today led me to this article by Stephen King. I have been trying to avoid use of adverbs in my writing by using effective verbs and actions. However, I know that they sneak in there. I hate to place additional roadblocks in my own creative path when I am writing a first draft or a new section, so I don't focus on best writing practices. That means I "generally" have to go back in and edit. I  believe it is through the editing process where, over time, my original writing style improves -- especially with the great critiquing eyes of my writing group

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Guest author/illustrator Jeff Mack shares his most recent project

As part of The Next Big Thing Blog Hop, children's author and illustrator Jeff Mack is sharing his most recent project with us on the Last Draft blog. To see more of his wonderful illustrations and find out about his children's books, stop by his website, too.

What is the working title of your book?

"The Things I Can Do" (by Jeff Mack)

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was visiting a school to talk with kids about how to make books. A first-grader showed me a book he made about a squirrel who told jokes. He was extremely proud of his book regardless of the fact that none of his drawings looked anything like squirrels and none of his jokes made any sense. It was actually a really entertaining book, and I let him know how much fun I had reading it.

Later, I had an idea for a story in which a young first-person narrator makes his own book about all the things he thinks he can do. But his book is sort of a disaster. From his illustrations, it's clear to the reader that he can't really do any of the things he says he can. It's all about situations where failure and success overlap in funny and surprising ways.

What genre does your book fall under?

Picture book / fictional autobiography

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

No stars or professional actors could do it. Only an amateur could.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

It's a book about me, and the things (I think) I can do (but really can't).

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

This book will be published by Roaring Brook in Spring 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

It took me about 15 minutes to write it. It took me several years to illustrate it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I could compare it to Harold and the Purple Crayon if that book was illustrated by Henrik Drescher. But this book is really more like all of the hand-made books that kids send me after I visit their schools to talk about making books. It's wild, clumsy, and full of ideas.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I am inspired by all the ambitious and creative kids who push against the limitations of their abilities in an attempt to create what's in their imaginations. I suppose it's similar for adults, too.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

I illustrated the entire book using only those materials found in a five-year-old's art kid: crayons, construction paper, glue sticks, and some random household objects. While I was scanning the collages, I got bubble gum stuck in my scanner. Yuck!

Thank you, Jeff, for a great post. I can't wait to see "The Things I Can Do" when it comes out this year!

A work in progress

Special thanks to Nancy Sanders for inviting me to participate in the Next Big Thing Blog Hop. I was happy to share my latest book info below, but please don't miss the Blog Hop links at the end so you can meet four other authors and find out about their works-in-progress, too.

What is the working title of your book?

The Pirates of Time and the Navigator's Watch

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I'm not really sure. Most of my ideas come to me early in the morning while my mind wanders through a kind of no man's land of thought (before everyday issues take center stage). Once I have a plot idea, I focus on it and let ideas and dialogue play through my mind. Occasionally I brainstorm with my teens while we take walks in the evenings, because they sometimes suggest surprising twists which I haven't considered.

What genre does your book fall under?

Middle grade science fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

As far as my main character, I see a kid with scruffy brown hair who isn't afraid to look you in the eye in spite of being somewhat trouble-prone, because he's got an irreverent streak. Perhaps I could see a younger version of Liam James or Dylan Minnette for this part?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Jackson Everly discovers his grandfather is the navigator who stranded a band of time-traveling pirates in WW2 Europe, and when their timepiece falls into Jackson's hands, he must evade them while he attempts to save his father, who no longer exists in his timeline, without sacrificing his friend.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don't know. I have worked in the traditional publishing industry, so I would choose the advantages of working with a team of publishing professionals if possible. I'd like to have an agent, because he or she would know more about contracts and publishing than I do, but if I don't get one, I'll do my best on my own. While I have considered self-publication, especially after my interview with Mark Jeffrey, I still think it's best to go the traditional route. Each pair of trained eyes which goes over a manuscript helps it become better.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The main body of the first draft took about six months. I hate to admit it, but the end is still trickling in. I got bogged down in WW2 research, but I've finally decided just to blast out the end and fix it later, otherwise I'll never finish. (I do know how it ends, by the way.) For the sequel, I wrote out some scene cards and rammed through it in a month during Nanowrimo. Of the two ways of writing, I think that the second way was the best way to go, because I tend to forget the beginning by the time I get to the end if I don't write quickly.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

In voice, my writing group has told me that my writing is not unlike Richard Peck's writing (A Year Down Yonder, and A Long Way from Chicago), which I take as a mixed compliment, because I don't want to sound like anyone else. I just want to sound like me. On a good day, I might say it's also a bit along the lines of the 39 Clues series. (I'd rather not think about the bad days.)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

From the time I was a kid, I've held Madeleine L'Engle up as a standard of great storytelling. A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Many Waters are particular favorites of mine written by her. I can't say they directly inspired me to write this book, but their influence has still had an impact on me as a writer. I particularly like stories that deal with time.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

The key to my book is Jackson's motivation for what he does. He wants to know his dad better than he does from the letters which were written while his dad was deployed in the Middle East. Jackson's conflicting values give him an ethical dilemma, though. While he realizes it is in his power to change the timeline and at least attempt to bring his dad back, he also discovers that doing so will cause one of his best friends to never have been born. There is no way for him to do both.

So Jackson's initial problem is how to escape from furious pirates who have searched the world for years to find his family and take revenge on them, but the story-worthy problem is Jackson's choice of whether or not he is willing to sacrifice another person to be able to have a relationship with his dad.

TIME TO HOP! Please check out these great authors and find out what's up and coming from them:

John Manders, children's illustrator and author
Laura Knoerr, author of work-in-progress
 Jeff Mack, author and illustrator of Clueless McGee

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

English in the trenches—those pesky compound sentences

When I started writing for kids, I relied heavily on the English I had absorbed during my school days. Unfortunately, I was a little hazy on compound sentences and their punctuation. I could see this was something of a frustration to my ICL instructor when I took the class. She tried to help, but alas, it wasn't until I started teaching that the light went on for good.

1. How do you know when you have written a compound sentence?

This is easy. If you believe you have written a compound sentence, put your finger over the conjunction which is between the alleged independent clauses and read them separately. I've highlighting the conjunction in blue in my example.

Bob has booby-trapped Fred's locker, and he is waiting in the shadows. 

I put my finger over the conjunction. (I'll wipe away the smudge on my laptop later.) Now I have the following:

Bob has booby-trapped Fred's locker.
He is waiting in the shadows.

We most definitely have two independent clauses here. Each one can be a sentence all by itself. Each has a subject and a predicate. Each sounds complete. If English was algebra, my formula for this sentence would be S / V + S / V. Let's look at another possibility. What if I had written this instead?

Bob has booby-trapped Fred's locker and is waiting in the shadows.

Now what happens when I put my finger over the conjunction?

Bob has booby-trapped Fred's locker.
Is waiting in the shadows. (Oops! There is no subject here. We're using a conjunction, but we're using it to join two verbs rather than two sentences.)

We have two parts, but only one of the parts has a subject and a predicate and sounds complete. It's actually only a simple sentence with a compound verb. The formula for this sentence would be S / V + V. You'll also notice the conspicuous absence of a comma right before the conjunction.

2. What about commas? Where do they go?

Fred approached the locker, and he spun his combination lock. 

This is a compound sentence. Notice that there is a comma at the end of the independent clause before the conjunction and the next independent clause. This is important. Although there are a couple of exceptions to using the comma, you are always safe using a comma followed by a conjunction to join compound sentences.

But, you wonder, what do you mean about those exceptions? It is appropriate to omit the comma when you join two clauses which are very short and closely related.

Fred opened his locker and Bob snickered.

No comma, but that's okay. The two clauses are closely related and are also short, so they fit the requirements for a no-comma compound sentence.

You may also, on rare occasions, use a semicolon instead of a comma. This is done when the clauses are quite long and already have commas in them being used for other purposes. I've never run across these sentences except in text books, so I find it better to just write two separate sentences.

Bob knew it was prudent to duck, run, and hide; but he wanted to see the spring-loaded cream pie hit Fred in the face. 

3. Is there anything else I should know?

Unfortunately, yes. This post is my way of giving back after having driven my ICL instructor half nuts with my compound sentence density. At least now you'll be able to hold your head up confidently, knowing you have written a sentence that is, in fact, everything a compound sentence should be by definition. For finer points, I suggest The Elements of Style. It's short. If you are a writer, buy it and read it cover to cover. (If you need a cure for insomnia and want to become an expert on the stickier points of grammar, improve yourself by wading through the Chicago Manual of Style, which is updated every ten years or so.)

See previous post for more on sentences.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

English in the trenches—conjunction junction, what's your disfunction?

If you grew up around the time that I did and watched Saturday morning cartoons, the title to this post instantly brings a School House Rock tune to mind. I liked them so well that I set up a tape recorder next to the TV on Saturday mornings, hoping to record School House Rock songs to listen to later. (This was before CDs and DVDs.)

Combined with the occasional comma, I've noticed that there is quite a bit of usage confusion going on out there when it comes to conjunctions. If you suffer from conjunction disfunction, here are a few tips to help you.

Conjunctions can join words, phrases, or clauses.

Bob and Fred are tormenting the neighbor's cat. (Compound subjects)
The neighbor's cat is hissing and clawing. (Compound verbs)
The cat is jumping into the air and onto Bob. (Compound phrases)
Bob is bleeding, and Fred is laughing. (Compound sentences)

The main takeaway here is that the two parts which you join with a conjunction have to be equal to each other. This means you cannot join a word and a phrase with a conjunction. They are not equal.

Bob and ran to the store.

Obviously joining a subject and a verb with a conjunction doesn't work. It doesn't even sound right, so it's unlikely anyone will make this mistake. However, there are other possibilities which are more subtle.

Bob, frustrated (word) and showing quick thinking, (phrase), is dropping the angry cat on Fred's head.

This sounds a little better, but it's still wrong. You can't put a word and a phrase together with a conjunction. In the School Rock vein, it's like trying to hook up a bicycle and a train car. Not pretty.

So today's lesson is two-fold. Don't try to join unequal sentence parts with conjunctions, and don't mess with your neighbor's cat. It will be bad. Very bad.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Book cover memory lane

These are some of my favorite Nanowrimo covers. (I'm feeling reminiscent rather than exhausted because I didn't actually do Nanowrimo for the first time in several years.) But still, it's nice to think about those manuscripts of yesteryear. Here are some of our covers:

This was from 2009. Honestly, I had more fun doing the covers than anything else.

A cover for a friend, but she ended up doing something else.

Hubby's cover. He did a World War II novel (of course) for Nano.
Probably my favorite creation, although my daughter ended up wanting to do her own instead. (I didn't really mind. She was spreading her own wings.)

One of my daughters' covers.

Cover for 2010. Not terribly exciting, but I thought it worked, considering I was churning out 1667 word per day and not getting enough sleep. 

The novel I never write. Never. Year after year I consider it and never do it.
My serious sci-fi middle grade novel. Someday this one will have a real cover made by someone else.