Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Award Winning Picture Book Author Pat Zietlow Miller On Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees’ mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own, as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Pat Zietlow Miller, who has four picture books in print and six more on the way! Her debut, SOPHIE’ S SQUASH, won the Golden Kite Award for best picture book text, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor and a Charlotte Zolotow Honor. It also won the Midwest Region Crystal Kite Award and was a Cybils’ finalist.

WHEREVER YOU GO briefly made Midwest Booksellers bestseller list, and SHARING THE BREAD was – at one point – the No. 1 Amazon.com release for new Thanksgiving books. Pat blogs about the craft of writing picture books at www.picturebookbuilders.com. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with one wonderful husband, two delightful daughters and two particular cats.

Her newest, THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE releases today from Chronicle!

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

My new book, THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE, had two specific points of origin. I started writing the story because I had read the wonderful picture book THE NEW GIRL … AND ME by Jacqui Robbins and Matt Phelan. It was so amazing that I really wanted to see if I could write something anywhere near as good. So I started writing my own friendship story featuring two girls – Alta and Charmaine – who both wanted to be the fastest kid on their block.

The resulting story was perfectly fine, but not particularly noteworthy. I set the story aside and it didn’t take out again until I attended the Rutgers One-on-One Plus Conference and talked with Random House editor Chelsea Eberly. She suggested adding a historical element. The second she did, I know just what I was going to do.

That’s how Olympic gold-medal-winning sprinter Wilma Rudolph joined the story. She gave my girls a common hero and gave the story a specific setting – 1960 Clarksville, Tennessee. 

The story wouldn’t be what it is today without those two pivotal moments.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

When I researched Wilma Rudolph, I learned she was more than the fastest woman in the world. I learned she’d overcome physical and economic challenges to earn her success and that she’d played an important part in integrating her hometown. I worked those elements into my manuscript, as well.

The story’s basic plot stayed the same, although I changed how the girls competed to see who was faster so that their challenges were loosely based on Wilma’s three Olympic events. And, I made Wilma’s real-life welcome-home parade the final event in the story where Alta and Charmaine realize they can be friends instead of competitors.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

My drafting usually goes one of two ways. 

1. My first draft is exactly what I had in my mind as it moves from my head to the paper because I had it fairly well thought out before I started. Of course, then it changes when as I think about it further and share it with my writing friends.

2. My first draft is nothing like what I had in mind because I started out with only a few words or a fragment of an idea and I figured it out as I typed. Stories that start this way also usually go through a lot of changes as I revise.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I almost hate to say this, because I don’t want to tempt fate, but I get a lot of ideas. Those don’t always turn into things that are worthwhile, but I’m constantly noticing things odd, interesting or unusual things and pondering how I might be able to turn them into a story.

I think writers tend to notice stuff other people look past. My husband is a sports reporter, and I remember accompanying him to a high school basketball game. He was evaluating the players and analyzing the defense and tracking points and rebounds. I played basketball, so I understand the game, but my big takeaway was the cool socks one team was wearing. I think that says a lot about how I think.

I wrote a blog post about where writers get ideas that you can see on Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month blog. Spoiler: It mentions rolling grapes.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I go with whichever idea I’m most excited about at the time. Usually, there’s one that I just can’t stop thinking about. So I follow that one until I’ve exhausted all its possibilities. 

I usually have several manuscripts in various stages at any one time. But, one of those is always the primary manuscript and I only work on the others when I’m stuck on the primary one or when it needs to rest for a bit.

Sometimes the perfect word eludes me. If I can’t come up with it in the moment I usually write something in ALL CAPS like A GREAT WORD HERE and move on to catch it later in revision. Do you roll with the flow, or go find that word right away?

My preference is to find the right word or phrase at the moment I’m writing. I’m kind of compulsive that way. But although that’s what I want to do, it’s not always the best thing to do. So I often put notes in manuscript saying things like: “ADD SOMETHING FUNNY HERE.” 

That captures my ultimate plan for the manuscript, lets me keep going without losing momentum and lets whatever I need to eventually add simmer on my brain’s back burner for a while. And, eventually, the perfect thing bubbles to the top.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Beautiful Dichotomy Of My Life

As you may know, A MADNESS SO DISCREET was recently nominated for an Edgar award in the YA category. I was still in a little bit of shock from that announcement when I received my invitation to the ceremony, which is a black tie event in NYC.

I'm good with black tie. I'll have to shave and wash my hair and find some non-expired makeup, but I can pull it off in a pinch. But I've got a +1 on that invitation, and the boyfriend is something of a mix between Thoreau and Daryl Dixon. So if you can imagine trying to get either one of those guys in a tux and into NYC you see my dilemma.

I broached the subject while we were splitting wood this weekend. Yes, we heat the house with wood that we cut ourselves - that's how we roll. So I explained about the nomination and the ceremony while yelling over the wood splitter. And in between losing my breath from hauling logs as thick as my waist I added the bit about it all being black tie.

So we're pretty filthy, sweaty as hell, and wearing Carhartts when the boyfriend said sure, he'd put on a tux and come to NYC with me.

And... now I need a dress.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

Twelve-year-olds Abby and Brandon couldn’t be more different. Abby is a little rough around the edges, and lives in a cramped trailer.. Is this an ellipsis or a period that got cocky? She doesn’t have any friends, but that’s probably because she threatens to punch anybody in the face who gives her a sideways glance. Phrasing is a little awkward here, switch them around.

Brandon, on the other hand, has it all—a big house, perfect hair, and a pearly white smile. He’s impressed everybody except the person who matters the most—his super successful, workaholic dad.

But when a dead uncle names Abby and Brandon in a will, they discover they’re cousins--a small detail their estranged fathers forgot to mention. All Abby and Brandon have to do to inherit their dead uncle’s massive fortune and famous chain of pizza restaurants is to compete in a series of challenges designed to test their skills. It’s winner take all--and loser go home. Nice! This sounds fun.

As they compete to out-smart, out-create, and out-cook each other, Abby and Brandon discover things aren’t as they seem. Like, maybe neither one of them deserves the inheritance, and maybe their dead uncle isn’t all that dead, and maybe there’s something more important than money. Family. Use an em-dash here at the end before "family." 

PIZZA PALACE is a fast-paced and laugh-out-loud 42,000-word contemporary MG novel told in Abby and Brandon’s alternating perspectives. It will appeal to boy and girl fans of humor, action, and adventure.

This is great! I love the concept and it's a well executed query. Polish off a few things here and you are ready to query.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Talk & ARC Giveaway: MY LIFE WITH THE LIARS by Caela Carter

My book talks are coming at you from a librarian, not a reviewer. You won't find me talking about style or craft, why I think this could've been better or what worked or didn't work. I only do book talks on books I liked and want other people to know about. So if it's here I probably think it won't injure your brain if you read it.

Zylynn knows nothing other than the compound, that Mother God loves her, that the Light is good and that the Father will save her if she does as she is told. Hungry days are hard, but important lessons tot teach her and the other members of the Light how to behave properly. In a world where the constant buzz of ceiling lights has never stopped, and the only hugs she's ever felt came from the women - who were always leaving to harvest more souls for the Light - Zylynn is terrified of the Outside, where the Darkness is.

But a man - a Liar - from the Darkness comes for her before her 13th birthday, a man who says he is her dad. He takes her to a world where she has a room with pink stripes, her own bed, privacy, hot baths, and food... so much food she doesn't believe it's all for her. Afraid that mistakes have been made and it'll be taken from her, she hordes it under her bed for when she finally prepares herself to make the journey back to the compound.

The Father has not come to get her, and she must be at the compound before her 13th birthday, so that she can become a permanent part of the Light. The Liars buy her clothes, give her food, comb the mats from her hair - but they are still Liars. Zylynn has to make a decision soon - to become a permanent part of the Light, or risk a life with the Liars out in the Darkness.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Debut Author Andrew S. Chilton On Writing The Ending First

Welcome to another SAT (Successful Author Talk). Today's guest is Andrew S. Chilton. Andrew is a member of The Class of 2k16, and his MG fantasy novel, The Goblin's Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy With No Name and Two Girls Called Alice was released on Jan 19th by Knopf.

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

I'm definitely a pantser, though I usually have a rough idea of what the story is in my head. Some pantsers will tell you that when they start, they have absolutely no idea what is going to happen. I'm not that extreme. I think it's important to have a general idea how the story ends. In fact, I usually write the ending first.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

It depends. I can do a first draft in thirty days, but that means setting aside thirty days to do no other kind of work. Getting that much uninterrupted time is a challenge, and if I have to stop and start up again, that adds a lot of time. And even if I get my thirty days, what I have is a very rough first draft. I'd say it takes a minimum of six drafts to get something into any kind of decent shape. Allowing for cooling off time between drafts and beta reading, I'd say that 18 months is the minimum for going from writing “Once upon a time” to hitting send on the email to my editor.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I do better work if I stick to one project at a time, so that's what I try to do. My brain, however, feels differently about this. (“Ooo, look! Shiny!”)

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Like a lot of writers, I have this part of my brain that's constantly telling me, “This is dumb. You can't write. You're an idiot. And not a funny one, either.” But that doesn't feel like fear to me. It's just negative self-talk, the kind of stuff you have to learn to ignore if you're going to do anything at all. But fear? No, I didn't really feel afraid. What is there to fear? Failing? Making an ass of yourself in public? I've done both of those enough times to have learned that they're no big deal (not fun, but not that bad.) There are things worth fearing in this life, but none of them will happen to you because you wrote a book.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

The Goblin's Puzzle was the first book I ever finished, but if we include projects that I worked on but did not finish, the answer is several dozen. I just peeked in my writing folder. There's about twenty abandoned titles in there, and I only keep the ones I think there's some kind of chance I might go back to.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Yes, but it was never a conscious decision. They all just slowly dribbled away.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?

My agent is Pam Howell with D4EO. Basically, I just sent her a query, but there's a little more to the story than that. A friend of mine is a middle grade author with a couple of books published. He'd read The Goblin's Puzzle and really liked it. (Well, he really liked it after I redid the opening scene—twice.) Anyway, he was kind enough to pass it on to his agent (who ultimately passed on it). While looking for other possible agents, I ran across Pam's book review blog. On it, she said that my author friend's latest book was her favorite middle grade of the year. So, with his permission, I included his endorsement in my query to her. 

How long did you query before landing your agent?  How many queries did you send?  

I kept pretty good records. Pam was the forty-first agent that I formally queried. I sent my first query on September 26, 2011. Pam called me to offer representation on July 8, 2013. So it took just over twenty-one months to land an agent. (Answering this question is the first time I ever actually worked out how long it took. It was a surprise how much shorter it was than I remember. At the time, it seemed like it took forever.)

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Try not to think of it as Hell. It's hard because our books are so much a part of who we are that having them rejected—especially having them rejected for no obvious reason—can be painful. It's best to try to get over that as fast as possible. Sure, some people land an agent the first time out. Or the second. But most don't. I know one author who queried 140 agents before finding representation for a book that went on to be a New York Times bestseller. Every individual query is a longshot. Think of it as rolling a pair of dice looking for double sixes. What happens if you don't? You pick the dice up and throw them again.

Of course, it's all going to be a lot easier if your book is good enough...

How much input do you have on cover art?

More than I knew what to do with. I don't have a very visual imagination. When Katherine Harrison (my wonderful, wonderful editor) asked me for ideas about the cover, I think I said something like, “Uh, maybe we should have the main characters on it?” She went out and found the amazingly talented Jensine Eckwall to do the cover and interior illustrations, which are beautiful. Hire her if you get the chance.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

You hear a lot about how publishing isn't like it used to be and no one really edits anymore and so on. This was not my experience at all. We went through several rounds of editing, and Katherine worked very closely with me on the book.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I do some of my own marketing but probably not as much as some other authors. I do have a Twitter account and an author page on Facebook, but I mostly use them to announce upcoming appearances.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I'm probably not the best person to ask this, but my inclination is to say that you shouldn't worry about this too much. If you enjoy having a blog, then you should have a blog. But if it you don't, I wouldn't bother. Every agent I've talked to will say that platform doesn't really matter to them. (At least not in fiction. Non-fiction, I understand, is another story entirely.) That said, every agent I know is a total social media monster. So, there's that.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think it helps more with young adult than middle grade. Your middle grade readership isn't on social media (or isn't supposed to be, anyway), so you have to be indirect. It's about building relationships with people like librarians and booksellers, people who will put your books in kids hands.

Monday, February 1, 2016

So You'd Like To Follow My Blog, Eh?

Last week I suddenly lost about 70 followers, according to Google Friend Connect, which had me wondering how I managed to offend. My mom is fond of telling me I could stand to be a little nicer, but I'm 36 now (37 next month) and I think she's going to have to acknowledge the fact that I'm never going to be the roses type.

All that being said, it turns out I didn't do anything wrong (duh) but rather Google (of which Blogger is a product) chose to remove the ability for people without a Google account to log into Google Friend Connect. Quoting from their forum below:

In 2011, we announced the retirement of Google Friend Connect for all non-Blogger sites. We made an exception for Blogger to give readers an easy way to follow blogs using a variety of accounts. Yet over time, we’ve seen that most people sign into Friend Connect with a Google Account. So, in an effort to streamline, in the next few weeks we’ll be making some changes that will eventually require readers to have a Google Account to sign into Friend Connect and follow blogs. 

As part of this plan, starting the week of January 11, we’ll remove the ability for people with Twitter, Yahoo, Orkut or other OpenId providers to sign in to Google Friend Connect and follow blogs. At the same time, we’ll remove non-Google Account profiles so you may see a decrease in your blog follower count.

Mystery solved. Yet I'm saddened. I feel a little hole in my heart - I do have one - in roughly the shape of the number 70 plus a number in the tens place. So, if you're one of the people that got the Blogger boot, feel free to follow me via email (sign up in the sidebar to the right - but be warned you'll have an email in your inbox every single time I post), or bite the bullet and get a Google account.

I promise you'll only feel the twinge of conformity for a second.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

In a land ruined by war, seventeen-year-old Aurel Tritten knows the greatest casualties come the day the sky turns emerald. Every year, at the exact same time, mothers disappear from their homes, soldiers from their barracks and kings from their castles. She's been told since childhood the emerald sky takes people to a happier place, the City of El, where there are crystal palaces and colors brighter than a rainbow, but Aurel thinks there's an equally good chance they're dead. I'm into this so far! 

When the sky shifts to green like it does has? every other year I'd rephrase b/c "every other" makes it sound like a bi-annual event, even though I don't think that's what you mean, Aurel blinks and finds herself in El, a world immensely more beautiful than the stories—and more terrifying. For El is at war, too, and enclosed by a massive barrier protecting the city from a wasteland filled with starving darkness. Awkward sentence here - also what is starving darkness? Like the darkness is starving and wants to eat people? Or if you go out there there's nothing to eat and you will starve? The people from Aurel's world are replacement soldiers. Literal replacements, bestowed with the name, abilities and memories of one of El's fallen the moment they arrive. I'd combine these sentences to avoid the echo.

Aurel's identified as Nissa, the once-revered Gold Sentinel and prime suspect behind the latest tragedy of war. The sentinel stands accused of opening the barrier and letting in the shadow monsters for a bloody feast Aha - there's some answers here for my earlier question, but I'd clarify in the above para that there are in fact monsters present. Aurel is imprisoned for Nissa's crimes. Her only escape is proving Nissa's innocence by remembering what really happened, but with each memory, Aurel drowns deeper in the other girl's life. If Aurel can't unlock the secrets in her mind and identify the true traitor, she’ll be the death of an entire world. If she does, and Nissa was truly wicked, she'll be the death of herself.

HER EMERALD CHAINS is a young adult high fantasy complete at 83,000 words.

Barring my above comments, this looks really great! Polish up those little nits and you're ready to query.