B.utt I.n C.hair — it’s not that hard. Really.

I have many friends who write, and they either swing from one extreme to the other; from those who feel like they have no control over their characters, and that the characters must “speak” to them to move the story along, to those who are leery about that whole metaphysical metaphor, and feel like you just need to stick with your B.I.C. and get things done. Garrison Keillor’s little screed in Salon yesterday was both amusing and revealing — Mostly because I realized that I’ve never felt comfortable with admitting that writing is easy.

Okay, it’s not so very easy every day; some days there are lawn mowers outside, and there are sinus headaches and small children screaming or cats miaowing and climbing on the keyboard. Some days there are spouses and grandkids and classes and deadlines and time clocks, but on the whole, the words are in there, our lives are a great reference, and it’s not that hard to pluck out the words.

I whine about finding the right word. I whine about lackluster prose and dull dialogue. I whine about revisions. Everyone whines about revisions, especially when one has a contract so close they can smell it, but there are those last four hoops to jump through, and they’re not sure they have any more elasticity in their knees – everyone whines then. Some of us whine because we have to remake the bed every day, it’s just a personality quirk, and we refuse to sleep on the floor. But this job truly is not that hard. As Keillor says, “It does nothing for the reader to know you went through 14 drafts of a book, so why mention it?” We are lucky to have this job. We are not breaking rocks. We are not shoveling. We are not flipping burgers and sucking up grease through our very pores.

We are simply chained to our keyboards.

It’s a Good thing.

Golden Kite Award Update…

We’ve been waiting and SCBWI has announced the changes to its Golden Kite Award.

The biggest change? Money. And it’s about time, too. Books for children and young people have been low on the totem pole of book awards forever, and it’s been a two-party system (Newbury and Caldecott) for quite awhile. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other great book awards, including some regionals and some for specific age groups (like the Michael Printz) but recognition has been slow and limited and YA and children’s writers can toil in relative obscurity because the marketing money just hasn’t been behind something as mundane as books. And then you get random hyped examples of people who get half a million dollars for a book they haven’t even written yet… (well, I would give Ms. Viswanathan a break today, but there is new evidence. Anyway, my point was that nobody gets rich off of writing).

Happily, that looks to be changing. Beginning with the 2006 competition, Golden Kite participants can win $2,500 in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Picture Book Text, and Picture Book Illustration. And the fun is including the backstage people, too. Editors of winning books will receive $1,000, and for the winning book in the Picture Book Illustration category, an additional $1,000 will be given to the book’s art director. That surprises me a lot, and I’ll need to think about what that means to the industry… do we get more “superstar” editors who are that much harder to get books to…? No offense intended, but don’t we have enough of those!? Hm. Anyway, what may be the best perk is that winners get an expense-paid trip to Los Angeles to attend the award ceremony at the Golden Kite Luncheon at SCBWI’s Summer Conference in August. Since we all know that the Summer Conference can be a spendy little venture, that was thoughtful on the SCBWI board’s part.

This is all part of a move to get the Golden Kite Award national recognition, and in turn to promote books and quality literature. Cheers!

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Meanwhile,the brave YALSA/ALA folks are going to have their annual conference in New Orleans. In June. In hurricane season. They’re already looking for volunteer opportunities as well. Good for them.

It was FATED…

It had to happen. One of my favorite nonfiction adult books has been made… into a children’s book. Publisher’s Weekly reports that Eats, Shoots & Leaves is going to make the 4-8 year old set grammar-savvy once again. Toning down her ‘zero tolerance approach to grammar,’ author Lynne Truss teams up with cartoonist Bonnie Timmons (made famous by NBC’s long-ago Caroline in the City and numerous quilting toilet paper commercials) and pairs amusing pictures with funny sentences to help kids understand what they’re really saying when they neglect commas, or add them in the wrong place. I can’t wait to get this one for my little brother – and a copy for me, too, because my literal mind simply cannot get enough of such silliness as “Becky walked on, her head a little higher than usual” vs. “Becky walked on her head, a little higher than usual.” Now, imagine that with pictures! Meanwhile, Fast Food Nation, retitled as Chew On This, is also being turned into a YA book… and here’s hoping that stocks in all fast food places plummet! Doubtful, but hope springs eternal…

Meanwhile the Random House/WaldenMedia marriage is already bearing fruit; Carl Hiaasen’s brilliant book Hoot is opening as what looks to be a brilliant movie on May 5. More children’s/YA novels look to be coming into movie form this year include Where the Wild Things Are, a few Nancy Drew mysteries, the His Dark Materials trilogy, the Spiderwick Chronicles, The Tale of Despereaux, A Bridge to Terebithia, The Giver, Charlotte’s Web (I’m a bit sad about, because with Dakota Fanning, it looks like a remake of Babe. Again. And Oprah is Gussie the goose!?) How to Eat Fried Worms, and more. Can movies really make readers? We’ll find out…

Kaavya Viswanathan: Too Good To Be True?

Eeeeouch! Last April I mentioned the story of a very lucky girl who got into Harvard just about the time she got a very lucrative two book deal. At the time, I was a bit scared for her — only 17, and already — wow. I spoke at my undergrad alma mater about this 17-year-old girl who had gotten a $500K book deal based on a couple of chapters she’d written and told them that no, they’d have to work a bit harder, this kind of stuff never happens. It seems I may have been more right than I knew…

Like many other writers, I was a bit green with envy over this young woman’s succeess — but now I’m a bit nervous for Kaavya Viswanathan, now 19. Recent allegations claim that entire phrases from her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, are taken from Megan F. McCafferty 2001 novel “Sloppy Firsts” and the 2003 sequel “Second Helpings.” There is, in fact, a full 14 word paragraph that is all McCafferty with only the names changed.

My stomach just knots as I read the comments from the Harvard newspaper, where Viswanathan is a student. Much has been made of this obviously bright girl, but it does seem that her fairy-tale beginning was just too good to be true, and that sharp readers are already joining the fray to make sure and pick out every single incidence where she could have taken her pieces of work from somewhere else.

Viswanathan is the youngest author signed by Little, Brown in decades, and the movie rights for the novel have already been sold to DreamWorks.

Ouch.

A shameless plug for a favorite author, and a great teen book club

Happy Weekend! Here’s a fabulous little event for YA writers brought to my attention by a fellow SCBWI-er :Not Your Mother’s Book Club a Laurel Village, SF club of the incredibly hip, is throwing a party. This YA literature community for people grades 7-12 welcomes Sarah Dessen to cafe Lo Cubano, she of the myriad sensitive and intelligent books reviewed on our sister site. This shindig is on the 25th, so you’ll need to move quickly to get your tickets online from Books, Inc., drop by their Laurel Village store, or give them a call at (415) 221-3666. Don’t wait – it’s not a big place, and once the tix are gone, they’re history, and this will be just another great event that you missed! Ticket price includes Dessen’s newest book for all the lucky teens, tapas, prizes and more — take notes, writers. What a fabulous idea for doing your own PR!! And check out their blog. Man, if I ever am forced to reincarnate I’ll make sure I come back somewhere near the Laurel Village Books Inc., thanks. What cool folks.

Cheers!

Odds and Ends on a Sunny Monday

Carpe Diem, Memento Mori: Muriel Sparks, born 2.1.1906, and best known for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, died April 15th. Not at all a YA novel, Brodie still captured in essence the cutthroat competitiveness, petty triumphs and mobster-style clannishness of high school girls. I best loved Sparks’ book Memento Mori despite Brodie being more remembered for its cinematic adaptation of sinister plotting in a girl’s school. I preferred Memento because of its unusual villains; I rather like the idea of sinister plotting amongst the elderly; the disembodied phone calls and shadowy voices were hysterical, as were her descriptions of the foibles and fetishes of certain portions of our population (and now you know what happens to dirty young men – they just get old). Now I shall go onto the porch and open my happy tale of death in the geriatric years as a salute to the grand old dame of sinister. Goodbye, Ms. Muriel. Memento mori, on this sunny day: remember that you must die.

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This summer, if you’re not up to the spendy trip to L.A. for the SCBWI conference, if you want something more specifically geared to writers of literature for older children, or you just want somewhere new to go, here’s a conference that’s a little closer to the Coast, and a bit smaller:

THE PACIFIC COAST CHILDREN’S WRITERS WORKSHOP:

A Team-Taught Seminar for Middle Grade & Young Adult Novelists
Specializing in Character-Driven, Realistic Fiction

August 11-13, 2006 * Theme: Crafting Savory Scenes
At the Best Western Seacliff Inn * Aptos, CA (near central coast Santa Cruz)

SMALL GROUP; 90 PERCENT HANDS-ON; CLOSE CONTACT WITH FACULTY
* Joy Neaves: Senior Editor, Front Street Books * Deborah Noyes Wayshak: Senior Editor;
Candlewick Press.(Deborah is also a fiction and nonfiction author of adults and kids books.)
* Jennifer Jaeger: Associate Agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
* Martha Alderson: Author of Blockbuster Plots, Pure and Simple

THREE FOCUS SESSIONS: How to Craft Scenes Integrating Character, Plot, and Theme

PRE-WORKSHOP APPETIZERS: Personalized exercises, peer-manuscript critiques, readings

PROGRAM HIGHLIGHTS & FEES
*Basic (Fri.-Sat.): Friday: Dinner with editors; Martha Alderson’s hands-on session tailored to our group. Saturday: 9.5 hours of master-class clinics, keynotes, Q-A; gourmet lunch. Manuscript critiques (written or in-person) by 1-2 editors; Query/Synopsis & First Pages critiques. $149-339.

* Add-on (Sun.): Garden-patio champagne brunch with faculty. Jennifer Jaeger and Martha Alderson will each do a focus session. Brunch/talks: $39. Also, for added fee: morning critique or consultation with Jennifer/Martha (choose private or semi-private; 15-55 minute sessions).

There are only 40 spots for this conference, so if you’re interested, get cracking! Email conference director Nancy Sondel * go to www.childrenswritersworkshop.com

In passing…

As an addendum to my earlier post on copywriting, I did a little more research and found a website called Creative Commons. It is a non-profit company that creates licensing agreements for those whose creative work is posted via the Web, or found on blogs; whose work is shared, passed around, and eventually published. These licenses protect some rights while providing unlimited use of others, and, unlike that sealed-envelope trick, are viewed respectfully by actual judges. Professors who have written web-based texts for their students, bloggers, photographers and others have found these useful – and they’re worth checking out for writer’s purposes.

A concept equally intriging is copyleft! If you’re interested in your art never being copyrighted, and forever belonging to the public domain, freely passed around, added onto, changed, built from and morphed, this is for you.

Q Bon weekend, writers!b

Cracking the World YA Writing Markets

My *S.A.M. is back from the Bologna Book fair and is feeling quite happy to be back in the U.S. with his proper pillows (apparently all of Italy is pillow-deficient). He did have a good time, and had some interesting things to say on international markets and what sells to them — generally things with universal subjects and themes. He adds, “The Europeans are a fickle bunch and they aren’t interested in issue novels in the way American houses still are–and of course, books that are too American in feeling and subject, like the Vietnam War or slavery, just won’t travel over the Atlantic. Fantasy is still of great interest, but so are mysteries, thrillers and just plain wonderful books. Anything unusual, whether historical or whimsical, also seems to have caught their attention…”

From my own tentative research into the topic, I have realized that selling something to both American and international audiences concurrently is a big challenge. I recall being disgusted with J.K. Rowlings’ publishers for leaching the British-isms out of the Americanized Potter epics, but that’s what most non-American publishers seem to feel the need to do in order to attract American audiences. And what do we do to work more equitably with the rest of the world? Not much, unfortunately. Last June’s Library Journal noted that the 2005 Bologna conference had quite a few Canadian books, however, which garnered interest in international houses. These books, the author says firmly, did not water down their Canadian content.

Many international writers are writing work that is more “gritty” (there’s that strangely definition-free word again) than their American counterparts. American writers of YA fiction don’t often come from a political point of view, because for all of our democratic status, writing about our political system is, in a word, difficult. (I take that back — writing is easy, as many a rabid blogger can attest, it’s that pesky “getting published” thing…) A writer chronicling the cultural revolution in China, the horrors of the Holocaust or the deprivations of any nation’s war in a sort of fictionalized non-fiction style has been popular at past Conferences. Fiction which embraces a culture is also well received – for instance, just writing about what it is to be Fijian in Fiji, and in the world away. For more American works to receive wider readership, perhaps the focus of the YA international literature must be more about internal validation and personal goals that are germane to everyone’s growing up, and less about cultural divides like a first cars and huge Proms or experiences which involve something uniquely American – like lots of material possessions, disrespect of adults, and money for individual use. American publishing houses are going to have to take risks, too, and present readers with longer, more challenging fiction that seems to be more the norm in the UK and other places. (Places like Bloomsbury Press seem to have that idea well in hand.)

It’s a difficult question, how to write to be acceptable all over the world… You can’t, not really. We can hardly write to be acceptable to everyone in our writing group, much less the State or the Nation or the larger planet. The best thing you can do, I guess, is hone your voice. Be unique. Then, begin with a really good book…

*secret agent man

Monday Musings

I’ve discovered a new site, thanks to the heads up of some cool people at SCBWI. Since Autumn 2005, the website Children’s Media Professionals Forum, brought together by April Sayres, the phenomenally gifted and prolific picture book and middle grade nature author, has quietly flourished and given the people who work with and for children a place to meet.

I like to think of myself as a ‘professional,’ but I merely lurk on the site as of yet. I get a little thrill reading how one of my very favorite authors, Jane Yolen, works on projects and sees the world. It’s a free registration, but you can lurk without signing up (just don’t expect to be able to comment on threads or post your thoughts). Do check it out!

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Kentucky author Marcia Thornton Jones tells a funny story that has the best punchline ever. Her first book, Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots (published in 1990), was written to amuse herself when she was having a cruddy day. Before this, Marcia was a teacher and a struggling author, having never published anything major, but always hoping, and checking and double checking her work, and struggling to get the words just right. The one piece she wrote with a fellow teacher as a joke…shone. So, there’s something to be said for lightening up and letting your work sing. Here’s another bit of proof that writing what you love – in Thornton Jones’ case, silliness — always beats trying to write how you think publishers want you to. Forty middle grade books later, you’d better believe Marcia Thornon Jones believes that!
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Finally, the very best story of the day — favorite children’s author Beverly Cleary turns 90 this week. Yay! Another long-lived California writer! To celebrate this week, pick up a Cleary book. (My choice will be Dear Mr. Henshaw, a book my fifth graders requested to read over and over.)
Ms. Cleary talks to NPR’s Debbie Eliott about the manically magically memorable Ramona Quimby, the brightest, peskiest character in the neighborhood of Beezus and Ramona, Henry Huggins, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tibbets and all the others on Klickitat Street. Did you know there’s actually a group called “Ramona the Pest,” in Oakland?! People are scandalized, but they mean it as a tribute…I think. Another tribute is found on Recess: the World of Children’s Culture Every Day. (This is a cool site, too, on its own.)

Writing/Publishing Bits and Bobs

Listen:Quirky Australian author Markus Zusak is interviewed on NPR about his newest novel, The Book Thief. Death narrates the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, who steals books in her working class town in Germany and tries to rebuild a world that Hitler’s rhetoric in World War II steals away. Some people are surprised that such a darkly haunting book is marketed to YA readers, but Zusak says he feels that writers all too often underestimate YAers, and that if we give them something to step up to, they’ll surprise us every time.
Ours is a strange world indeed, wherein the world of entertainment goes hand in hand with our …coffee? Yeah, Starbucks, that mecca of, um, dubious taste, is in the movie business. Because children and young adults simply do not have enough marketing shoved down their throats, the chain coffee store is joining the fray and aggressively promoting their spelling bee movie Akeela & the Bee. On the up side, millions of coffee drinkers will be expanding their vocabularies and their spelling skills, according to the company, by learning to spell and define such words as pulchritude and prestidigitation. On the down side, well… it’s still Starbucks.

Coming soon to a theater near you!The Penguin Young Readers Group has just made a lucrative contract with Walden Media LLC. (Walden Media was the company which put The Chronicles of Narnia together with Disney, which was the top grossing domestic film release of the 2005 holiday season.) This deal is intended to get more children’s books to theater, television and to enable older books to be mined for stories suitable for ‘family’ type films. Should be an interesting venture, and hopefully beneficial to writers.
Bet you didn’t know that Communists are to be both unseen and unheard, even outside the U.S.! A Dade County (Florida) school district is yanking books that show Cuban children in Communist youth club uniforms from the library shelves of 33 schools. The book, entitled Vamos a Cuba (A Visit to Cuba) is deemed as offensive… of course, the fact that Cuba itself is a communist country seems to have escaped the notice of those who are offended…
Religious publishing just went really mainstream. Massive publishing conglomerate Penguin Group USA, Inc. (which includes numerous imprints) has just launched Penguin Praise in an effort to capitalize on the trend of blockbuster religious books, movies and music. High on their list of new authors are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, whose fictional Left Behind series sold a baffling 62 million copies. A first book of LaHaye and Jenkins’ new series will be available in November 2006 from Putnum/Praise, and you can look it up and find out all the buzz about it yourself, if you’re interested. Now, what I’m wondering is how this will mix and meld with the Walden deal. Hmmm…

Anybody who grew up loving the work and busy worlds of Richard Scarry might get a smile out of the fact that, before his death in 1994, he got… a little PC. Check out the differences between his very first book in 1963, and the 1991 update.

And finally, the SCBWI is making some changes to its Golden Kite Awards, to be announced on April 15th. They promise that the award will be increased in visibility and will “rock the publishing world.” We await the reverberations.