Monday, March 07, 2011

Guest Post: Uma Krishnaswami Interviews Mark Dahlby of Writers.com/Writers on the Net

Mark Dahlby was a psychotherapist in private practice when he started Writers on the Net/writers.com in 1995. The two are somehow related. Earlier in life he was a carpenter, a mortgage broker, and a graduate student. He edited two books for Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche on Tibetan Bon Buddhism and has written many convoluted essays, a collection of bad poems, and a zillion emails.

Uma Krishnaswami is the author of picture books, a middle grade novel, and early readers. Her picture books include Monsoon, illustrated by Jamel Akib (FSG, 2003), The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story, illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran (Lee & Low, 2005), Out of the Way! Out of the Way! illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy (Tulika, 2010) and Chachaji's Cup, illustrated by Soumya Sitaraman (Children's Book Press, 2003). Her novel is Naming Maya (FSG, 2004), Her upcoming middle grade novel, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, a Bollywood-themed romp featuring best friends, dancing monkeys, and chocolate, will be published by Atheneum in May 2011, with a sequel due out in 2012. Uma is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Uma: Writers.com has been around for a long time--the first writing school on the Internet. Can you talk about how you began?

Mark: I started writers.com in 1995, so sixteen years now. I'd just gotten on the Internet, and as I'd always been involved with writing, I looked around for resources for writers. There were very few.

The New School for Social Research offered some kind of online writing class for its students, there were a couple of bulletin boards, and Compuserve and AOL were starting areas for writers, or were soon after that.

Although I was in private practice as a psychotherapist, I decided to start a writing community, although I didn't expect it to turn into a business. Mostly, I was curious about what seemed to be a new electronic continent and wanted to participate in the exploration. I bought the writers.com domain for fifty bucks--no one yet knew they were going to be worth more--and started contacting writers.

Initially I meant to set up a center for experimental writing and poetry and to provide mentoring programs. I was enamored with earlier literary relationships in which an established writer would take a young writer under wing: Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (1929) being a brilliant example, or Henry Miller's correspondence with Lawrence Durrell.

I started adding classes as an afterthought but that came to dominate what we do.

Uma: And where are you now? How many instructors, how many students? Geographical reach? Anything else you want to tell us about the terrific virtual resource the site has become for writers?

Mark: We have twenty-two instructors right now. I'm not sure how many students we serve in a year, but it's somewhere upward of six hundred. They come from all over the world. The biggest concentration is in the U.S. and Canada, then England and Europe, but we also have students in South Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico, India, Brazil: any place English speakers interested in writing live.

We draw students preparing for graduate school, first time writers, and surprisingly often, accomplished writers looking for inspiration or wanting to work in another genre. A lot of people who sign up for our courses are writers who want a structure to support them in producing new work or support in refining material for publication.

Uma: I taught for writers.com for 12 years and I have to say--you were always there. Behind the scenes, doing what it took, always an e-mail message away. Can you talk about the many hats you have to wear?

Mark: And I still miss you... I'm the office behind the scenes. Recently, one of the teachers met a student who thought I was a college kid we hired to answer emails. I got a grin out of that. I do answer the emails but am also the accountant, tech guy, secretary, problem solver, and I develop the curriculum.

Uma: Sixteen years down the road, you're not the only virtual writing school. Still, what sets you apart from others who offer online writing classes?

Mark (pictured right): Our teachers. I think we have the most generous split on the Internet in the teacher's favor, and it shows in the quality of writers teaching with us. We have teachers who are pro freelancers and teachers with university teaching careers and wild poets and fiction writers who have published a dozen novels. Everyone who teaches with us has teaching experience and a strong publication record.

We've also kept the business small enough that students involved with writers.com get whatever help they need. Much of our business is repeat business, which is gratifying, and a large number of our students have been referred by a friend or acquaintance who worked with us. I think we're also known because we were the first writing school on the Internet.

We offer a wide-range of classes for beginning to advanced writers: genre fiction and literary fiction, memoir and screenwriting, writing for children and spiritual writing, poetry and creative non-fiction, one-to-one work and classes. So what we offer is of interest to a broad range of writers.

Uma: Do you see changes ahead in how your online classes will be offered, as more and more people take avatars and fancy graphics for granted in their virtual lives?

Mark: Yes, but I don't know how it will look. No forum for classes is perfect so far. Blackboard is the standard in academic settings, but it's expensive and the teachers I know who use it don't like it. Our teachers are working in various ways now: Google groups and Yahoo groups, Nicenet, not so much with listserves anymore. Two of the teachers, Amanda Castleman and Mike Keran, are developing their own platform, which eventually may become our standard.

Uma: You're a writer. You've edited two books for Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Talk about your writing interests.

Mark: I've always been involved with writing or suffered those dispiriting periods when I felt I should be writing and wasn't. I write now when I have a project, and I also sporadically work in my journal, or tinker with a fiction or an essay or a rant. But mostly, these days, I write way too much email. Like most writers, I was infected with the writing germ early in life and never really recovered.

Author Uma Krishnaswami (pictured above).

Friday, March 04, 2011

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Canadian Library Association Announces 2011 Book of the Year For Children Award Shortlist from the CLA. Peek: "This notable award recognizes a Canadian author of an outstanding book published in Canada in 2010, which appeals to children up to and including age 12. The winner of the award, and the Honour Books, will be announced prior to the National Canadian Library Association Conference and Trade Show. The award will be presented at the conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia on May 26 at the annual awards reception."

The shortlisted books are:

More News

Q&A with Franny Billingsley by Michael Levy from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Once I found a geography, I could write it. I think that for some people geography is not so important, but for me, and for a lot of fantasy writers, the geography absolutely has to make sense in terms of the magical context or else you just can't go anyplace."

Sunday Salon: Interview with Award-winning Author Jacqueline Woodson from Rapsody in Books Weblog. Peek: "A lot of times, when people send me books to read – new writers mostly – I find that the book is still in a draft stage and that before it can leave the writer’s hands and head to a publisher, it needs about five more revisions. Some people don’t want to do that. I rewrite my books until they’re mostly memorized so that’s a lot of rewrites, a lot of time spent with my stories." Source: Color Online.

Newbery award brings Wichita author fame by Suzanne Perez Tobias from The Wichita Eagle. Peek: "After a handful of rejections from agents and publishers — and a first book titled 'My Grandmother Was a Spy' that never saw print — [Clare] Vanderpool found a taker for Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010)."

Build Your Book: Children's Book Illustrators Have New Options by Mark G. Mitchell from How to Be a Children's Book Illustrator. Peek: "We talked with Ezra Weinstein and Richard Johnson of InteractBooks, a publisher of books for iPads back in December in Austin. Weinstein is a programmer, app developer and the son of a school librarian. His business partner Johnson has a background in the computer gaming industry."

Congratulations to the Brown Bookshelf on Twenty-eight Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature! Learn about fellow Austinite and featured author Lori Aurelia Williams' latest book, Maxine Banks Is Getting Married (Roaring Brook, 2010).

Reaching the E-Teen by Karen Springen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Slowly but surely, teens are buying e-books, though not yet as often as their parents are. Depending on the title, YA authors may see 5%–10% of their titles sell in e-form." Source: April Henry.

Get the Most Out of Twitter in the Least Amount of Time: A 10-Tip Guide by Emlyn from Novel Publicity. Peek: "Why should you include hashtags with your tweets? Because they’re key search terms that other tweeters use to connect with new tweeters. They’re the single best way to get your tweets seen by those who don’t follow you already." Source: Janet Reid.

Play By Play Narration by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "A large part of narration and storytelling is acting as a curator of the story. You’re supposed to maximize what’s important and minimize what’s not and keep directing your reader’s attention from paragraph to paragraph and page to page."

Selling Out or Not by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog: Writer Talk. Peek: "I am tired of hearing people say this writer or that writer sold out."

Rukhsana Khan talks about Big Red Lollipop, writing, and culture by Sarah Blake Johnson from Explorations. Peek: "I wrote this version in about fifteen minutes. She asked for the change in point of view, I complied, emailed it off, and thought nothing of it. Months went by and I assumed it would be another rejection, but it wasn’t. So this story took about ten years and fifteen minutes to write." Note: Big Red Lollipop, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Viking, 2010) is winner of the 2011 Charlotte Zolotow Award and the 2011 SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Best Picture Book text.

Reminder: High school students/English teachers! Teen writers are encouraged to enter the Hunger Mountain Young Writers Contest. Three first place winners will receive $250 and publication! Three runners-up will receive $100 each. Note: I'm honored to be this year's judge. See link for more information. Hunger Mountain is the Vermont College of Fine Arts journal of the arts.

Cynsational Blogger Tip: Double check the spelling of names. Especially authors and illustrators are byline conscious--our livelihoods rest with them. Don't assume that any name is spelled in the conventional way.

Facebook for Authors: How to Get Started by Nathan Bransford. "Facebook recently introduced a new version of Like buttons that make them more prominent in someone's News Feed.... They just got much more important."

Lola Shaefer, Author-In-Residence by Dianne from ReaderKidZ. See also Lola's Story. Peek: "After the first draft, I need to let it sit for a few weeks and then return with new eyes to the writing. It’s always apparent to me what I need to do next. But even then, I need to let that second draft sit and simmer..."

Self-Defeating Attitudes by Lucienne Diver from Authorial, Agently and Personal Ramblings. Peek: "I can’t always tell those who are going to succeed, but I can always see within a sentence or two those who will certainly fail…the people who want you to hear them but not vice versa. Those who don’t want constructive criticism or reasonable advice, even from the pros, because they already know better."

Query Letter Crazy by Cory Jackson from Corrine Jackson YA Writer. Peek: "She extended some invaluable advice. I promptly sent out my revised letter to new agents. Within two weeks, I had seven agents asking for full or partial requests. I can only believe it’s the letter, so I offer this up to you in hopes that it helps." Source: Lupe Ruiz Flores.

"Beastly" Movie with Photos by Alex Flinn from I Plan To Be A Diva Someday. Peek: "The red carpet was singularly surreal. Obviously, I've seen stars walk on the red carpet, but I've never really analyzed it before, so I'll just assume you haven't either and describe it to you."

Neesha Meminger on YA Romance from Diversity in YA Fiction. Peek: "Would a YA romance featuring South Asian teens hit the kind of success that, say, Sarah Dessen’s novels have? Or Meg Cabot’s? Who knows? But the few times those types of stories have made it onto the US market (for teens, especially), they’ve done remarkably well."

The Dreaded Author Bio by Rachelle Gardner on Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "Your bio in a query should be brief. You don't have to include the time you won Most Valuable Player in Little League or the fact that you got all A's in Freshman composition. If you're a novelist, then the relevant things are..."

Enter to win an autographed copy of JoAnn Early Macken's new rhyming picture book Baby Says "Moo!" (Disney-Hyperion, 2011) at TeachingAuthors.com. School Library Journal said, "As they pass different animals, the parents ask their baby, who clutches a toy cow, what each creature says, and Baby always answers 'Moo!' . . . The rhyming text reads smoothly, and the acrylic illustrations are childlike and cheerful, making the book exactly right for toddlers." Booklist said, "Everything about this picture book—concept, story, appealing art—is pretty much perfect for the two-and-under set."

Your Mother Should Know by Chris Barton from The Horn Book. Peek: "One document referred to “a letter from [redacted] dated 14 August 1944, in which she requested information concerning the whereabouts of her brother, Ferdinand S. [sic] Demara, who had been A.W.O.L. This was trouble." See also A Fine, Fine Line: Truth in Nonfiction by Tanya Lee Stone from The Horn Book.

Congratulations to Liz Garton Scanlon on the release of Noodle and Lou, illustrated by Arthur Howard (Beach Lane, 2011). From the promotional copy: "Noodle and Lou are unlikely friends. One is a worm and one is a bird. When Noodle is having a bad day, Lou knows just what to say to cheer up his wormy friend and help him see what it means to be liked just the way you are." See interior excerpts.

2011 Books by Austinites: Updated and Revised by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog.

Interview with Varsha Bajaj by Melissa Buron. Peek: "The size and diversity of India did make writing the book quite daunting. I grew up in India and wanted very much to portray it accurately. I made an effort to include aspects of India’s history, geography, and government as well as its popular culture, food and dress."

How To Leave Meaningful Blog Comments by Jane Friedman from There Are No Rules. Peek: "...leaving meaningful comments on others' blogs or sites is a good way to attract attention to your own site, so it's helpful to be consistent in your approach and tone." Source: Phil Giunta.

Congratulations to Kelly Bennett on the release of Your Mommy Was Just Like You, illustrated by David Walker (G. Putman's Son's, 2011). Peek: "Once upon a time -- according to Grandma -- Mommy loved getting messy, wearing kooky costumes, and collecting dandelion fluff. Sometimes she was a terror, but most of the time she was a sweet potato-doll face-poopsie. Just like her own little girl today! A much anticipated follow up to Kelly Bennett's highly successful picture book, Your Daddy Was Just Like You (2010)." See also Guest Post: Kelly Bennett on Celebrating Fathers: Daddy, Father, Pop, Son, Shel, Cash And Cole from Cynsations.

Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month: "...we are fortunate to have so many resources for our children to learn about women's history, everything from fabulous biographical picture books about remarkable women from the past to historical novels to fascinating history books written to especially appeal to young people. We hope this blog will help you identify some of these resources, learn about new books on women's history, and enjoy reflections by some distinguished authors in the field."

Congratulations to Jo Whittemore on the sale of D in Drama to Aladdin!

Children's Authors Bookcamp in Austin

Children's Authors' Bootcamp, a weekend workshop for beginning and intermediate writers, will be April 30 and May 1 at the Best Western Inn & Suites in Austin.

Bootcamp is led by Laura Backes, publisher of "Children's Book Insider, The Newsletter for Children's Writers" and award-winning author Linda Arms White.

In two fun and info-packed days, you'll develop a solid foundation for writing fiction for children and young adults. Bootcamp covers creating characters and plots that sell; writing dialogue, description and point of view; show don't tell; editing your own work; writing cover and query letters; finding a publisher and much more.

Cost for the weekend (includes lunches, snacks and handouts) is $269. Discounts on hotel rooms are available. See more information and register.

Blessed Interview & Giveaways

Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith from Smart Pop Books (formerly Teen Libris). Peek: "The same big-picture fantasy rules applied, but I enjoyed crossing over characters from the previous books, seeing how their personalities and priorities meshed (or didn’t)."

Enter to win an ARC of Blessed from Smart Pop Books! Deadline: March 8.

Congratulations to Smart Pop Books on the redesign and relaunch!

The winners of the Blessed Blog Tour Prize Packs are: Erin in Georgia; Teri in Oregon; Brynne in Ohio; Jill in Minnesota; Teresa in Ohio; Kayla in New York; and Michelle in West Virginia! Congratulations! Your prizes will go out on my next trip to the post office.

Did You Enter to Win a Copy of Blessed from YABC? See the list of winners! February set a YABC record for entries! Thanks for your enthusiasm and for supporting this great website. Thanks also to YABC and Candlewick Press!

More Personally

Thanks to Patti Kurtz and her Adolescent Literature students at Minot State University in North Dakota for virtually inviting me into your class Wednesday. It was great visiting with you! I really enjoyed your mix of questions and friendliness. Thanks also for reading Eternal!

Blessed is available in Canada! You can order it here from Chapters or find an independent bookstore in your area!

Color Online Picture Book Review: Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) from Nathalie at Color Online. Peek: "Holler's face alone makes you want to laugh (he has the biggest mouth I've ever seen in a picture book). One of my favorite parts is the family portraits, which showcase that being loud can be transmitted from one generation to another..."

Texas Still a Literary Magnet by Steve Bennett from the San Antonio Express-News. Peek: "With all due respect to Bram Stoker, Austin author Cynthia Leitich Smith unites the casts of her young adult best-sellers Tantalize and Eternal in her new YA vampire novel Blessed (Candlewick, $17.99) Here, neophyte teen bloodsucker Quincie Morris is in the fight of her life — or undeath — while struggling to clear her best friend and true love — the hybrid-werewolf Kieren — of murder charges."

Links of the Week: Ed Spicer and Teri Lesesne from The Texas Sweethearts; #4 from Gwenda Bond (the other three are well worth reading, too).

Cynsational Events

"Jeanette Larson: Loving the Librarian" will be at 11 a.m. March 5 at BookPeople in Austin. Sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Peek: "Librarians can do a lot to help writers and illustrators do their work and get their books into the hands of readers. Learn the secrets of librarians from a 'semi-retired' librarian who continues to work with librarians across the country to improve services to patrons and the community. While she has written extensively for libraries, her first children's book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas (Charlesbridge, 2011), has just been published and she is seeing the world from the other side of the library shelf!" Jeanette's book launch will follow at BookPeople at noon and include refreshments and sample art pieces. See also an interview with Jeanette and Adrienne Yorinks by Donna Bowman Bratton at Writing Down the Kidlit Page.

YA A to Z Conference, sponsored by the Writers' League of Texas, will be April 15 and April 16 at the Hyatt Regency Austin (208 Barton Springs Road). Cost: $279 WLT Members, $349 Nonmembers (through March 15). See more information. Note: conference faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith.

See additional upcoming Texas events, rounded up by Lindsey Lane.

12th Annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 19 in Fort Myers, Florida. Note: speakers include Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Book Now for 2011-2012

It's two YA authors for the price of one! Book now for the 2011-2012 school year and beyond!

"From Classics to Contemporary:" a joint presentation offered by Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of the Tantalize series (inspired by Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)) and Jennifer Ziegler, author of Sass & Serendipity (inspired by Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)).

The authors will discuss how they were inspired by these classics, why Stoker and Austen's themes are still relevant to teens/YAs today, the ongoing conversation of books over the generations, and much more.

Look for our ad in the Texas SCBWI Speaker Source Book at the upcoming Texas Library Association Convention in Austin. Contact Dayton Bookings for more information and to schedule.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Guest Post: Andrea White on Her Writing Journey

By Andrea White

As a young girl, I read constantly. I don’t understand why, but I loved intertwining someone else’s world with my life. I enjoy learning from characters in books, whether they provide negative lessons or positive ones. Sometimes, I think this trait is a strength and sometimes a weakness. But I can get as absorbed in a character’s life as I am in my own.

That’s how I wrote my first YA novel, Surviving Antarctica.

I read a book by Apsley Cherry Garrard, called The Worst Journey in the World about the Robert F. Scott expedition. As you may recall, Scott lost the race to be the first person to reach the South Pole-- he and his men died in their tent on their way home.

I became obsessed with the expedition because of the men’s bravery. While waiting for my kids in carpool lines, I read everything that I could about that era of exploration. I never intended to write about Scott--the story was too sad. But when I sat down to a blank sheet of paper, Scott’s was the story that I told.

At first, I wrote novels for adults. Three such completed novels are gathering dust underneath my bed, as the saying goes. In between, I wrote for young readers. I have a better than average imagination. When I recognized this strength, I knew I had found my niche.

My favorite moment as a writer is when kids talk to me about one of my characters as if she were actually alive. I want to create characters that children remember like so many characters that I have read have stayed with me.

As to my new book, I met Stephen Roxburgh at a whole novel workshop in Pennsylvania. The novel I submitted featured a young girl, Shama Katooee, who receives a scholarship to attend a time travelers’ academy and is enlisted to carry out a secret mission.

Based on the comments received, I left the workshop with my fictional world intact but the plot in shambles. After finishing a difficult rewrite, I wrote Stephen and asked him if he would consider reading the book. He requested 50 pages.

After reviewing it, he told me that he couldn’t accept me as a student, because the work wasn’t polished enough. However, he promised to reconsider if I could show him that I could revise.

Thankfully, he later agreed to read the rest of the book along with book two of the series. Stephen’s editorial diagnosis: the first hundred pages of book one had energy and the last half of book two did. He suggested combining the two books.

In March, Namelos, Stephen’s publishing house, is releasing my book, now called Windows on the World, Book I in The UpCity Chronicles. It’s great working with a small press. Stephen makes the editorial decisions in short order. I feel very fortunate that he has stuck with me through the revisions.

It is an honor and a privilege to write for young people. I love researching, writing and talking to kids. In the past six years, I have visited over seventy-five schools.

Kids keep you humble. Whenever I go to a school with a new book, I am anxious. Will the kids like it? I am hoping that kids love my new character, Shama Katooee, as much I do. Whatever the result, I am so grateful that she is finally being born.

Cynsational Notes

Andrea White was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana but has spent most of her life in Houston, Texas. She received her undergraduate and law degrees from The University of Texas. After graduating from The University of Texas School of Law, Andrea joined the Houston law firm of Locke, Liddell & Sapp, where she became one of its first female partners

Since retiring from the practice of law, Andrea has published three books of historical fiction.

Written for middle school students, Surviving Antarctica tells the story of the Robert Scott expedition to the South Pole; Window Boy weaves the extraordinary life of Winston Churchill into a 1950s setting; and Radiant Girl focuses on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In 2006, Surviving Antarctica was selected for the Bluebonnet list, and the Texas State Reading Association awarded Andrea the Golden Spur award for the best book by a Texas author.

Her second novel, Window Boy, was translated into Chinese with a forward written by NBA star, Yao Ming. All proceeds from the Chinese version of Window Boy will be donated to the Yao Ming Foundation to aid underprivileged children.

Most recently, she published a journal describing the six years her husband served as mayor of Houston, entitled P.S. Passionate Supporter, Political Spouse. Married for twenty-five years, Andrea and her husband, Bill, are blessed with three kids.

The bird in the illustration below is Shama's sidekick in Andrea's new book.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Celebrate "Read Across America Day" with Former ALA President Loriene Roy on NPR

Celebrate Read Across America Day from National Public Radio. First Lady Michelle Obama today lent her support to a national campaign to encourage reading among American children.

As part of "Read Across America Day," Mrs. Obama volunteered to read the Doctor Seuss classic, "Green Eggs and Ham" to elementary school students at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

To talk more about reading trends and literacy among kids, host Michel Martin speaks with former American Library Association president, Loriene Roy and prize-winning author Achy Obejas.

See also a Cynsations interview with Loriene.

Guest Post: Loree Griffin Burns on Identifying Nonfiction Genres

By Loree Griffin Burns

Not long ago I talked with a writer friend about the difficulty of dialogue. I was working on The Hive Detectives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and having a heck of a time threading quoted material into the text.

I knew that including quotes presented an opportunity to reveal my story’s characters, reinforce the themes in my book, and nudge the story in certain directions, but since the story I was telling was true, the words I chose had to accomplish those goals and at the same time be completely accurate. I had to stick to words people actually said when I interviewed them.

My friend was surprised at my frustration. “What are you so stressed about?” she asked with genuine confusion in her voice. “I thought you were writing creative nonfiction.”

As if the creative part of that phrase meant that I could make up dialogue.

As if making my nonfiction entertaining was reason enough to insert made up dialogue into it.

As if I should know all this.

The truth is that I can’t make-up quotes. I can’t make up names, dates, weather conditions or any other detail either; if I did, the work would be fiction.

Instead, the creative part of creative nonfiction refers to creative storytelling, the use of compelling scenes, dramatic tension, telling dialogue, pacing, and a host of other writerly tools to craft true stories that read like novels. Always, always, the nonfiction author must stay within the bounds of recorded fact. It’s a tricky business.

In the years since this conversation, I’ve come to realize that confusion over the nonfiction genre in general, and the term creative nonfiction in particular, is somewhat widespread.

Even on the NF for Kids listserv, a wonderful virtual gathering place for nonfiction writers of all stripes, there has been heated debate over what should and shouldn’t be considered nonfiction, particularly in children’s books.

No matter where you fall in this debate, it’s handy to know what the genre terms actually mean. And so I’ve begun compiling a list of them:

Creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, new journalism, literary journalism

These terms are used somewhat interchangeably and refer to literary works based on true events and shared with as much emphasis on fine storytelling and literary style as on factual reporting. The terms can describe many forms, including memoir, personal essay, food writing, travel writing, biography, and more. They are used to distinguish works with a literary slant from more straightforward journalism or technical writing.

Journalism

In the context of this list, the bare bones reporting of true events for print, television, radio or internet media.

Technical writing

Articles and manuals of a how-to nature, for example The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Publishing by Harold D. Underdown (Alpha, 2008).


Historical fiction

Stories and novels based on historical figures, events, and time periods, but including fictitious characters, for example, Nory Ryan’s Song by Patricia Reilly Giff (Yearling, 2002).


Science fiction


A genre of fiction containing speculative and/or imaginative events and situations, usually based on actual scientific knowledge, for example, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (FSG, 1962).


Sciency fiction


A term I picked up from Jacqueline Houtman; it refers to fiction that relies heavily on accurate scientific information, for example her own The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street, 2010).


Eco fiction


This is fiction with an explicit environmental slant, for example Who Really Killed Cock Robin? by Jean Craighead George (HarperTrophy, 1973) or Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, 2002).


Faction

Books of fiction based heavily on curricular subjects, to the point that they are often shelved in libraries and bookstores as nonfiction. Joanna Cole’s Magic Schoolbus books fall into this category, as does one of my daughter’s recent favorites, This is Your Life Cycle by Heather Lynn Miller and Michael Chesworth (Clarion, 2008).


Tall tales

Fictional stories that may be based on actual people and/or events but relayed with fictional extravagance, for example, The Trouble with Henry: A Tale of Waldon Pond by Deborah O’Neal and Angela Westengard (Candlewick, 2005).

Metanonfiction

Refers to works of nonfiction about nonfiction, for example, this article (an essay on the topic of nonfiction), or the picture book Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by John Hendrix (Schwartz & Wade, 2008), which uses a heavily researched historical anecdote to introduce young readers to the concept of historical research.


The list is a work in progress. If you have additional relevant terms, or thoughts about the definitions, by all means say so in the comments. I’ve labeled this post a work of metanonfiction. We’d better make sure it is completely accurate!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

New Voice: Ashley Hope Pérez on What Can't Wait

Ashley Hope Pérez is the first-time author of What Can’t Wait (Carolrhoda Lab, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Seventeen-year-old Marisa Moreno has smarts and plenty of promise, but she’s marooned in a broken-down Houston neighborhood—and in a Mexican immigrant family where making ends meet matters more than making it to college.

When her home life becomes unbearable, Marisa looks for comfort in a dangerous place, and suddenly neither her best friend nor her boyfriend can get through to her. Because she has a secret that makes it impossible to walk through the crowded school halls without cringing, a secret that will grow darker until she faces it.


How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?

Ultimately, this is the single most important piece of the writing puzzle—all the talent in the world doesn’t do a lick of good if we can’t figure out how to get ourselves to put in the time to write.

In 2006, when I first started working on What Can’t Wait, I was teaching high-school English full-time in Houston. I decided that year to set two big goals for myself: to write a YA novel and to complete a marathon. In many ways, writing and long-distance running are forever paired in my mind. In both cases, it’s the training day after day that makes success possible.

Finishing the Houston Marathon in January of 2007 gave a tremendous boost to my writing efforts. Because I’m not a natural athlete, to see that my body could learn to travel such long distances—precisely because I stuck to my training plan—brought home the importance of being faithful in my daily exercise as a writer. The sense of satisfaction I felt crossing the finish line of the marathon gave me a kind of “body knowledge” of success that I used to help myself imagine what it would be like to actually finish the book.

I also turned to many of the same motivational and time-management techniques that I developed working with teenagers to get myself to do the hard work of writing.

(Really, my writer self is very much like a teenager—always trying to get out of work, afraid of failure, and way too concerned with what everyone else will think.)

In the classroom, I worked hard to help my students value every minute and make it productive. I also encouraged them to break large tasks (writing a research paper, developing an original Shakespeare interpretation, applying to college) into manageable chunks.

When I felt tempted to get up and make a snack or otherwise distract myself from writing, I imagined my students collectively crossing their arms and raising their eyebrows. Where would my moral authority go—all that talk of delayed gratification, working toward a goal, knowing that something is hard an doing it anyway—if I couldn’t or wouldn’t do what I asked them to do every time they came to class?

To this day, if I am having a hard time following through on my writing schedule, I break out the teacher timer and lock myself to the desk until it goes off.

For me, the hardest part about writing is getting that crappy first draft out. I’m not a very fluid writer; I tend to agonize over every sentence. Sometimes I set word goals instead of time goals to just generate pages and to try to “get around” the word-Nazi editor I have in my brain.

The fun, in my opinion, starts once I have something with characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end that I can revise and revise and revise. In between drafting and revising, I read lots of books on craft to help myself identify the problems and opportunities in the draft. I do things like writing down the first and last sentences of every chapter so that I can “catch” chapters that aren’t pulling their weight and so that I can get a feel for the larger movements of the novel.

With every draft—and for What Can’t Wait I think there were probably ten substantial revisions—I start typing in a new document rather than just making changes to the old file.

This is very important psychologically because it helps me to get back into a story, both at the level of the sentence and in terms of the characters’ emotions and relationships. At this point, it is sometimes surprisingly easy for me to write new scenes or rewrite ones that aren’t working. I guess I thrive on the freedom that comes with having a clear purpose; once I know a little better what I’m up to, the writing isn’t so scary.

I also switch between using the computer and working longhand. I find it helpful to jot down a problem or question I have on an open page of my notebook; the blank space around it seems to serve as an invitation to solutions. These “solutions” tend to come in little half-thoughts and ideas that sprout up in clumps all over the page.

My other tricks for solving problems in my writing involve reading drafts aloud and “talking” through plotting issues or character concerns with an MP3 recorder. I usually listen to audio books while I exercise, but sometimes I talk my ideas out into the recorder instead (this results in some very breathy brainstorming). I’m sure the people on the trail where I run think I am craaazy. They are probably right.

These are just some of the things that have worked for me. The bottom line, when it comes down to getting published, is for a writer to find whatever strategies she or he needs to keep developing the story and polishing the writing.

With every revision, I distinctly remember thinking, “Okay, now I’ve really done everything I can with this.” And then I’d take time away from the book, come back to it, and discover that I still had real work to do. For me, that was exciting, not discouraging. But now that What Can’t Wait is in print, I have to let it go, and I get to turn to new projects.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

The most important factor in getting quality representation is having a strong manuscript. This seems so obvious that it often doesn’t even get said, but I know firsthand how tempting it can be to look for an agent before your work is ready for that stage.

Back in 2007, early in a very premature agent search, I was fortunate enough to have someone tell me, “Look, you’ve got something here, but you still have work to do on the writing front.” So I put away my query letters and went back to work on my manuscript.

A year later, I made a fresh and more focused effort. In getting the lay of the land, I found Noah Lukeman’s How to Write a Great Query Letter: Inside Tips and Techniques for Success (Kindle, 2009) and Nathan Bransford’s blog very helpful.

I also read The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit by Elizabeth Lyon (Perigree, 2002) and implemented Lyon’s idea of Marketing Mondays. The concept is that you dedicate your writing time on one day to doing all the “business” stuff related to getting published—researching agents, writing query letters, packaging requested manuscripts, mailing packets out.

This compartmentalization helped me to be more strategic in my quest for representation and kept that quest from overshadowing my real work of writing. Once you get an agent, you get that Monday back because she takes over the labor of handling business.

To find agents who might be a good fit for my work, I spent a lot of time reading the acknowledgment pages of books by YA authors I admire. I also read author interviews and looked for mentions of agents.

In a few cases, when I couldn’t find out the information I wanted from standard Internet stalking, I emailed the author to ask about his or her representation. Many agents also provide information about their interests and favorite books on their websites, which in some ways is more helpful than knowing who they are actually representing, since agents may not want to take on a client whose work is too similar to the novels of an author they already represent.

I researched every agent I queried and tailored my letter to that individual. Even when you have an awesome basic query letter worked out with the help of Brandsford, Lyon, and Lukeman’s advice, this personalization takes time. Still, it’s a critical step. Referring to specifics in the agent’s interests, clients she or he represents, or other details relevant to her is one way to signal your genuine interest—not just in securing representation—but in her particular talents as an agent.

Once I started looking for an agent in earnest, I sent out between three and five new query letters each Monday for about two months. By the end of that time, I started hearing back from agents. While I did get some form rejections, I also got a lot of manuscript requests and, eventually, personal responses to my novel.

I attribute this less to any particular awesomeness on my part than to the fact that I handpicked the agents to whom I submitted, so they were more likely to be interested in my work—or at least to wish me well. After about five months, I got to the dating stage with a couple of agents.

I’m thankful to have chosen and been chosen by my wonderful agent, Steven Chudney. One of the things that sold me on his representation is that he is focused almost exclusively on young-adult and children’s books. It was important for me that Steven had a long list of relevant contacts in the world of YA publishing since it was something of a slow process for us to find the right editor for What Can’t Wait.

Thanks to Steven, we eventually did, and I’ve loved working with Andrew Karre and Carolrhoda Lab. In both an agent and an editor, personality does matter. I tend to be a bit obsessive about details, and I’m fortunate that Steven and Andrew have been tremendously patient with my endless requests for clarifications and specifics. They are wonderful colleagues.

Cynsational Notes

Read an excerpt of What Can't Wait, and check out related teaching resources.
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