EAT, PRAY…SCHOOL VISITS!

When my book first came out in June 2015 I knew I wanted to do school visits.  The only problem was, I had no idea how.  To be honest, I was a little scared of the idea.  On paper, it sounded great.  In real time, it sounded like a panic attack–me in an auditorium with 300 elementary school students?  The prospect sounded daunting.

Soon I received my first invite from a friend who taught 6th grade to come and do presentations for his students (four classes in total, around 120 kids).  Now I had a deadline and I had to deliver.  I needed to create content, craft a presentation, and make sure that I could speak in front of a crowd. I immediately scoured the internet to see what information could be found on school visits.  I don’t know if you know this, but there is very little on the internet regarding school visits for children’s authors.  I was surprised, and then worried, because I needed help, and fast.

Here are a few things I learned in my “Year of School Visits”.

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Jen and Bookseller, Alexandra Uhl—The Whale of a Tale Bookshoppe

Ask for Advice from a Seasoned School Presenter: After my internet search fail, I reached out to talented author, presenter, and friend, Julie Berry.  (Hi, Julie!)  She is amazing.  For the price of a delicious bowl of ramen she walked me through her awesome presentation, told me how to talk to schools about author and administration expectations, and opportunities for book sales.  Julie was a gem and helped me see in a very real fashion the logistics of creating a great school visit that would be beneficial to me, the students, and to the school.  From her example I was able to tailor a presentation fit to my needs.  At the end of our chat, she also gave me a great bit of advice: Do as many school visits as possible in my first year to gain experience.  So that is what I did.  I presented to whole schools, small classrooms, book fairs, book expos, book clubs, writing groups, elementary schools, middle schools, and to teachers.  It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

(Best advice, Julie!  Thank you again.)

Julie Berry

Jen and Julie Berry

Look-Act-Be Professional: Of course as authors, we want to look the part and like we know what we’re talking about.  So shower, wear clean clothes, perform basic hygiene, and don’t forget to smile.  Looking professional seems pretty straightforward. But something I hadn’t really thought of was if my presentation looked professional.  In my case, I created a PowerPoint presentation, with various pictures and videos, along with written content. Think of yourself as a logo or trademark.  What do you want to convey?  What kinds of books do you write?  What images or ideas do you gravitate towards?  Whatever it is, make it visual and place it throughout your PowerPoint so it looks cohesive.  In my opinion, a well-placed theme makes you, as the author, more professional.  Another important point is to create a document that outlines what you present and for how long, so the school can get an idea of what to expect.  You want to inspire the students, but that won’t happen until you get past the gate keepers (teachers and school administrators) and show the school how valuable you can be as an inspiration and a teaching tool.

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Lone Peak Elementary

Think Like a Kid: As authors for children and young adults, this probably isn’t very hard. But it goes without saying, that whatever your younger self would find interesting, would now interest your younger audience.  In my case, I wanted to show videos of various animals in their natural habitats and talk with my listeners about how to survive. (After all, my book is SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE.)  The videos were a huge hit and a favorite of both teachers and students.  I loved talking with the students about survival strategies, Darwin, how humans have their own survival skills.  I also talked about the writing process, creativity, reading, my book, and my journey as an author.  Which brings me to my next thought….  think like a kid

 

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Jen with her sisters when she was young. Grand Canyon.

Get Personal…But Not Too Much: Of course you want to tell the audience about yourself.  They are interested in you as an author— what you were like as a kid, what books you liked then, what you like now, and maybe an embarrassing author photo or two, but don’t make the mistake of top loading your presentation with ME, ME, ME.   The students want to relate to you, but they also want to learn something about reading, writing, and your book.  If you’re too busy telling stories about yourself, you can’t convey the rest…which is really important, too.

 

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Indian Hills Middle School

Expect the Unexpected: In my “Year of School Visits” I learned that what can go wrong, probably will.  Sometimes you plan, prepare, check and double check, and things still go wrong.  All you can do in these circumstances is smile and work through it.   To help with any technology glitches, makes sure you carry whatever you need on an extra thumb drive.  Also, I always brought my own computer and ran my presentation through it.  This was helpful because the software I needed to run my presentation was already there.  One time the presentation on my computer wasn’t translating well into the school’s media and speakers, so I did the presentation without sound, but we rolled with it.  Be prepared for your media not to work.  What will you do then?  Do you need handouts?  An activity where the kids can get up and help you?  A game?  A writing prompt? Are you going to read from your book(s)?  I always suggest doing a short reading, it makes everyone in the room your instant fan.

 

Over Prepare: Sometimes you think you have your presentation planned out perfectly and then you end twenty minutes early.  Now what?  I always over prepare.  Before your visit ask the teachers to read a chapter of your book to the kids, or have your books on hand in the classroom and the library.  Kids and teachers who have read your work, are generally more excited to have you there.  Place your first chapter on your website so everyone has an opportunity to sample your work.  Also, plan extra content.  In my PowerPoint presentation I have extra quotes, writing activities, a game, and sections of my presentation that mostly go unused, unless, SURPRISE, I have more time than needed.  After presenting at a middle school and an elementary school, I now have two PowerPoint presentations:  one for elementary, and one for 7th, 8th, and 9th  You can tailor the same content for different ages.  You must have a bag of tricks to pull out when things don’t go as expected.  Consider it your SURVIVAL BAG.Felix

 

If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Have fun! If you don’t look like you’re having fun, the audience will feel it. Act like you’re speaking to some of your closest friends—they like you, you like them, and it is fun to be together.  A school visit should be the same kind of experience.  If you hate getting up in front of an audience, but love to talk about writing, maybe a smaller group is your best choice.  Figure out what works for you and then do that.

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Rancho Canada Elementary

 

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Vista Verde Elementary

I have to say, after I got over my initial nervousness, and built a great presentation with fab content, doing school visits is one of my most favorite things.  The kids are awesome!  How often can you interact with kids who have read your book, or who want to read your book, or who are just plain happy to see you?  I have made great friends– especially lovely librarians and booksellers who have, and still continue, to give me their best help and advice.  So get out there, people!  Share your genius.  School visits are a very good thing.

How to Finish a Novel

       I was stuck. I’d been trying for months to finish my novel, but my output had dwindled from a torrent to a trickle. Even though I knew what happened in the end, I couldn’t find the words to write the last few chapters. Other writers complain about the muddle in the middle. Not me. My challenge was figuring out how to bring the story to a close. So last month, I attended the VCFA alumni mini residency in an effort to seek wisdom from the source. While all the lectures and workshops were outstanding, talks by two inspirational writers in particular, Francisco X. Stork, and VCFA faculty member, Amanda Jenkins, sparked an epiphany for me.

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Finishing a novel, I learned, has less to do with forcing yourself to work than it does with easing up and listening to your intuition. If the muse stops speaking to you, the solution isn’t to grip your pencil more tightly and push down even harder. That only results in sore fingers and a broken lead. Instead, try what Jenkins suggests: “Notice your heart and trust it more than your head.”

When writers lose sight of the emotional story, that’s when things can get off track. “I’m not feeling it,” Jenkins would say again and again when commenting on manuscripts in our workshop. No matter what we thought we’d written, if readers weren’t feeling the emotion, then the truth was, it didn’t exist. And you can’t create a satisfying conclusion if you’re not “writing deeply… from the heart.”

imagesStork’s message was fortuitously similar. “You must learn to trust your intuition if you want to write characters with heart and soul who live forever in the minds of readers.”  Stork defined intuition as “a way of seeing a truth that is not dependent on words.” As the creator of one of my favorite fictional characters, Marcelo Sandoval from Marcelo in the Real World, the author clearly practices what he preaches. The truth of Marcelo, his “soul,” came to Stork in a flash of intuition. Later he tweaked and revised his protagonist, but because he trusted his gut instinct and embraced the “sudden illumination,” an extraordinary character was revealed to him.Unknown-2

While writers cannot force this kind of insight, Stork claimed that “we can create circumstances that are favorable for its arising.” He cited three writerly disciplines—mindfulness, a sense of play, and honesty—that make it “more likely for the lightning of intuition to strike.”

Mindfulness, “awareness without judgment,” is important, because it trains writers to keenly observe both the external and internal worlds. It’s hard, however, to watch thoughts go by in the conveyor belt of your mind if you can’t let go of judgment and self-censoring. I’d never finish my novel, I realized, if all I did was revise what I wrote the day before.  But I’ll choose revising over drafting every time, because once the words (however bad) are written, I have a roadmap to follow. If I have something to tinker with and fix, the analytical part of my brain kicks in, and I can enter my flow state.

We all need our inner editor when polishing and perfecting our work. But if you allow her voice to take over too soon, she can derail your writing. “Leave that editor mindset behind, especially when you’re drafting,” Jenkins said. “Listen to your gut more than your head.” In other words, embrace the ambiguity of drafting. Don’t get so mired in micro-level scrutiny that you miss out on the big picture.

Just a few of my many craft books

Just a few of my many craft books

Swapping out head logic for heart logic isn’t easy. I like to refer to checklists, tip sheets, craft books and the work of other authors when I write. I want so badly for my work to be perfect that I’m hyper aware of the pitfalls. Does my setting feel real, did I show more than tell, did I remember to use the five senses?   As manuscripts grow longer and more complex, the pressure writers can feel to tie up loose ends, bring character arcs to a close, and resolve the themes they’ve been exploring can kill creativity. The antidote? Stop trying so hard. Be willing to experiment and play.

When we become too obsessed with getting it right, we can lose sight of other things. Have you ever written something that didn’t sound quite right? But when you set it aside and came back to it later, the solution was suddenly clear? “Recognize the value of sometimes not doing anything,” Stork said, “the need to wait for the missing spark of life to appear, or for the insight that will untie the knot where you’re stuck.” Instead of forcing the story to go where you think it should, listen to your “wordless inner guide.”

Inspiration...So after the AMR, I went home and tried something new. Instead of tightening, I loosened. Instead of focusing on craft techniques, I thought about spiritual truths—and emotions. And I thought about why I started writing this novel in the first place. In my fiction and in my life, I tend to ask difficult questions. But I don’t need the answers to all those questions to write the end of my book. All I need is to keep asking the questions. That’s how the story will emerge. That’s how the ending of my novel will find me.

So, go deeper and stay there, as Jenkins says. Find your writing heart and hold onto it!

 

 

 

 

5 Tips for No Fail Author Visits

Young people at music festival

This week, I spoke to three very different audiences: college students in a creative writing class, public high school students in LA, and elementary and middle school kids and their parents at a Barnes & Noble book fair. I slammed it out of the park with two of those talks and bunted with the other.

Why the fail? Because I didn’t follow my own advice for author visits. It’s a short list, five points, but addresses the biggest reasons a visit falls flat.

1.Size up the audience.

I usually contact my host before my visit, and ask questions about the audience. The more I know, the better I can tailor my talk to them. College students who choose to take a creative writing class are nothing like high school students herded into a library by their English teacher.

2.  Size up my host.

Often I’m invited to speak by teachers, librarians, school administrators or bookstore staff. Sometimes my hosts want me to inspire kids to read, or to understand the importance of revision. One asked me to talk about how I write scenes in longhand first to let my creativity flow, because she wanted parents to hear that cursive is still important. And bookstore staff always want me to remind listeners that they can buy my books here.

3. Get my host’s support.

Just as I want to support my host, I want the host to support me. If I’m working with a library or a bookstore, I want to know they have copies of my books on the shelf. If my host is a teacher, I encourage him or her to assign students to read the free sample chapters from my book before I arrive.

4. Determine what will interest THIS audience.

Unhappy boy in art class

I can talk about writing my books in many ways, but I need to find the one that connects with the audience in front of me. I’ve spoken in prep schools about girl’s rights around the globe, talked to foster kids about surviving publishing rejection, and talked to writers about writing and the realities of publishing. While I always talk about my books, I try to imagine what these listeners care about.

My fail this week? I didn’t sex it up. These teens needed more drama,  and I didn’t make my book intriguing enough. Looking back, I should have read a high action scene, and talked about firing an M-4 semi-automatic during my research. That would have caught their attention.

5. Partner with my partner.

This week, I partnered with other writers for two of the events. Fortunately, I knew both writers, and we laid out in advance what we wanted to cover. But advance planning can’t eliminate all the differences in speaking styles or personal agendas.

While I’m fine with letting another person take the lead, I was reminded that I am responsible to myself for making sure I get to talk about what is important to me and my book. And that might mean politely and assertively redirecting the discussion. It’s not my partner’s fault if I don’t get to cover all my points, it’s mine.

Now I’m getting ready for the next round of visits and you can bet, I’m looking for the heart-pounding scene that will get a teenage boy’s attention.

Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can read her novella, Sparrow’s Story: A Girl Defiant for free on wattpad.com.  https://www.wattpad.com/story/28382310-sparrow%27s-story-a-girl-defiant

Anonymous Author Confessions

Being an author is weird. Here are a few anonymous quotes that I gathered from a variety of YA, MG, and PB writers on publishing, life, writing, etc.

WRITING

I don’t write every day. I’d be a better writer if I did, and it’s what I aspire to, but I don’t actually manage to write every day. And I don’t feel guilty about it. Being a writer is not always a straight line process.

I’m 100% certain I’d be much less moodier and a lot nicer to people in general if I gave up the stress-filled writing life, but I can’t possibly stop. Does that make me an addict? I’m pretty sure it does.

Most times, I’m afraid my writing is bad. Other times, I’m afraid my writing is great. The second fear is the one that blocks me.

REVISING

Why is it that polishing silver looks so exciting when I reach act 2 in revision?

There are certain bits of writing advice that I’ve heard bandied about by so many people so often that they make me want to scream. “Show don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Butt in chair” come to mind. I think at this point one should have to pay $5 into the Overused Adage Retirement Trust Fund prior to invoking any of these.

WORKING WITH AN EDITOR

90% of the time I’m convinced my editor hates me, even when she’s writing totally innocuous or even positive emails. The compliments are just an elaborate cover for her searing rage at everything I’m doing wrong!

I stalk my editor’s Twitter feed. That’s horrible, isn’t it? I mean, I think I could say I just “check” her Twitter feed a lot, but for whatever reason it feels like stalking.

LIFE

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Fast, Cheap, or Well-Made: Pick Two.” Well, I have a writer’s equivalent. “Writing, Family, or Self-Care: Pick Two.” On any given day, I can only attend to two out of these three things.

The week before my deadline, no one gets a bath in my house. No one gets dinner either.

I was folding laundry and remembered that I just sold a book, so now I can buy new underwear! Triumph!”

CASH FLOW

I thought royalty checks would trickle in, but no. Even though my debut novel is selling fine (according to my publisher), it might be years before I earn back the advance — an amount that was less than a public school teacher makes in a year. (No matter that it took me two years to write the book.) Now I fully understand the advice, ‘Don’t quit the day job.’

Did you know you can sell a book to a publisher and actually lose money? Unless you’re with a big publisher and with support from their marketing team, you may have to hire your own publicist and attend conferences at your expense–or else nobody hears about your book. At this point, I have to wait for my finances to recover from my last book before I let my agent submit a new one.

ARE YOU THE NEXT J.K. ROWLING?

I cringe at the way people seem to automatically put the words “famous” and “author” together; there are a lot of us authors who aren’t the least bit famous. It embarrasses me for some reason when I get introduced by friends and acquaintances as a “famous author.”

You know darn well my name is not John Green or Veronica Roth, so please don’t ask if you’d have heard of my book before.

At least once a month, someone says, “So you’re an author. Where can I find your books?” And I inwardly chant, “Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’ Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’” It then tends to come out as: “A bookstore…?”

I learned the hard way…so much of our publishing fates are pre-destined the second our deals inked. Every season, publishers pick their horses, the favored titles that are slated to finish first. If you’re lucky, you’ll be one of them, and get incredible marketing, a huge print run and lots of support. If you’re not, you won’t. It’s not fair, but give it everything you’ve got, regardless. Just run like hell, race after race, against all odds. One day, you may win.

AUTHOR EVENTS

Nothing like not remembering the name of a friend of some twenty years when she comes up for a signing. And she is one of three people buying your book.

A customer admiring one of my picture books said with enthusiasm, “The illustrations are really great!” Pause. “Too!” she added, suddenly remembering that I was the author, not the illustrator.

If you’re ever wondering if authors are still fans at heart–I once found myself on a panel with one of my favorite authors, speaking about one of my favorite subjects. On the panel, I easily made the room laugh. Afterwards, I wanted to tell the author how much her books meant to me, and was completely tongue-tied. After a few highly uncomfortable seconds, I mumbled something unintelligible and beelined… straight for the bar.

At a group book signing, there is nothing more humbling than having so few people line up for your autograph that your “signing assistant” gets bored and wanders away to buy the other authors’ books. (She doesn’t want to buy your book, but could she have a copy for free?)

REVIEWS

I don’t read my reviews, but sometimes my family tells me about them anyway. My cousin once called to read me my one-star review on Amazon. He thought it would be hilarious. Still not laughing, cuz.

I refer to Kirkus as Jerkus.

I claim not to read my Amazon reviews, but I can’t help myself: I read all my bad reviews.

 

 

Soon to Be Seen: Lindsey Lane’s Debut Novel

I am delighted to bring my classmate from Vermont College of Fine Arts, the talented Lindsey Lane, MFA to the Tollbooth in anticipation of her gorgeous debut novel, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to be released on September 16th. The story tells of what happens in a small Texas town when 16-year-old Tommy Smythe goes missing.

DW: In the fabulous interview on your website, you say that this story woke you up from a dream in which you saw a boy standing in a roadway pull-out. This image got you out of bed and you started to write. Have dreams often been a part of your writing? Or were the dreamtime origins of this story a unique experience?

LL: Actually dreams are not usually a part of my writing process. What’s important about this dream event for me was taking the leap and trusting the process of writing into an image or idea. The dream became the first section I wrote in the novel. I saw this small Mexican child in the pull-out, his chubby legs dusty with caliche dirt. He looked lonely and forlorn. I wondered what he was doing there. Gradually, I saw Maricela trudging up the side of a road to meet the other migrant workers who were waiting for the van to take them to the next field. A comic book she’d found in the migrant housing the night before was stuffed in her back pack. All she wants to do is get on the van and read her comic book and then something else happens. That sectionComic Bookled to others, each of them occurring in the pull-out, that strange disconnected place by the side of the road. It wasn’t until later that I found Tommy Smythe and discovered that he had gone missing from the pull-out, and that his disappearance weaves in and out of every story. So to answer your question, dreams are not a part of my writing process but I will say that drafting a story is a very dreamy otherworldly process. I will often get up from a first draft writing session and be very disoriented. Does that happen to you?

DW: Yes! As though we’re inhabiting other worlds. You have said you took risks with the form of Evidence of Things Not Seen, using multiple points of view, chapters as unique episodes that come together to build a whole, bringing in journals, and shifting between first and third person. These risks let storytelling magic happen. What was the hardest risk for you? From our time at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I know that you have written wonderful short stories. Have you ever thought of this book as a secret short story cycle? Does that make it feel more or less risky?

LL: Originally the book was a linked short story cycle. I was interested in seeing how a place like the pull-out could be the setting for a series of epiphanies for characters who came there. Unfortunately, short story cycles are a tough sell and I needed to find a way to weave these stories together more tightly and make the book as a whole more compelling for the reader. I think the biggest risk I took was after I had sent the manuscript out to several agents and I realized I’d written an ending with a big fat bow. I pulled the manuscript from the agents, wrote myself a three page editorial letter and did a floor to ceiling kind of revision. That was the revision when I sharpened the first person sections and wove Tommy’s disappearance into all the stories. I worried a little bit about all these multiple perspectives but I feel that young adult readers are really sophisticated. They can hold multiple story lines in their head and are willing to accept ‘outside the norm’ storytelling.

DW: The gorgeous cover of Evidence of Things Not Seen picks up both the mysticism and physics that weave through your story. Can you tell us first about the journey for the cover creation—always exciting for a first novel—and also how you discovered that physics was such an integral part of Tommy’s character? Were there specific characters who brought in mysticism and faith, or do you see physics as naturally containing both those elements?

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LL: The cover was created by Elizabeth Clark, associate art director at MacMillan. She is remarkable. I happened to see a few of the covers that the design team ‘rejected’ when I went to New York last year and I have to say the folks at MacMillan completely understood the content of EVIDENCE. I love the boy standing on this big landscape, slightly ghosted to suggest his disappearance. I love the symbols around him which hint at the connections within the book as well as Tommy’s fascination with physics. And then, of course, the wide open space of the Texas landscape which holds the story is perfect. As for your question about mysticism, faith and physics, I think that physics is kind of a mind blow. Let’s just start with the big bang versus creationism. Physics calls into question our very existence. I think these ideas light kids’ brains on fire. It did for Tommy. And because Tommy was obsessed with these ideas, it touched everyone’s lives. I mean, if a brilliant kid, who thought time travel was possible, goes missing, would you consider the possibility? Or would you think he was dead in a ditch? Would you have faith that the unknown universe works in mysterious ways? All the characters touch upon faith in some way: from Tommy’s disappearance to the unknowability of what will happen tomorrow.

DW: I love that Alexander Calder’s mobiles are part of your inspiration and indeed can see how his fractured spare shapes that move and float in space and yet create a unified whole, mirror the form of your book. What’s the story of how and when you discovered his work, and when you realized that these sculptures were connected to your writing?

LL: I have loved Alexander Calder’s work for forever. I love the way the elements (wind and light) interact with his sculptures. The moment he intersected my work as a writer was at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor was the poet Julie Larios. I was attempting my first long work and I described my novel to her as lumps of clay, very unformed. She disagreed with me. She said that the way I wrote was like Alexander Calder’s mobiles. “I would say they are more like pieces of a mobile – light enough to catch a current of air, but well-balanced, forming a whole structure. That’s what your writing is like. Playful, artful, throwing a lovely shadow on the wall, moving together gracefully.” I hope that readers of EVIDENCE will be able to see the whole as well as the pieces and how they interact with each other. I hope they will be struck by the notion of how light and shadow live next to each other.

DW: Over on Emu’s Debuts, I loved reading about your childhood closet filled with books and a pillowy place to read them, and was touched to learn that Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty especially spoke to you because it “told the truth about love and cruelty—two impossible roommates in the human heart.” This is a book that I missed as a kid and only just read it about five or six years ago. When I read it, I was also struck by Black Beauty’s struggles to be good. The stereotypical bookish kid tends to be well behaved and not to be a rabble rouser. Because your work takes on tough topics and emotions with such insight I have the sense that for you, like Black, childhood was a time of struggling with complexity and struggling to be good. You have explained beautifully why you write edgy YA (link), but could you also speak more about the role of books in your life as a younger kid: Did books save you? Does your relationship with books when you were young play a role in how you write for young people today?

LL: Books held me. My world was pretty safe and middle class. Still, I think every kid in the world goes through moments, short or extended, where they feel at odds with their surroundings and pretty much at the effect of the adults in their lives. It’s part of growing up. During those times I folded myself into the pages of a book. I lost my awkwardness in those pages. I grew through the awkwardness.

You know, one of my characters in EVIDENCE says that treating other people like you like to be treated is ingrained in our collective cells (aka the golden rule). She believes Tommy will be found and nothing bad has happened. In other words, I think we all strive to goodness. Really. I think that’s the miracle and wonder of books. We can open the pages of a book and see characters struggle to hold on to their goodness. That’s why I opened books. I wanted to see the characters fall in love, get lost, get hurt, survive, overcome the odds. I wanted to experience how they wrestled with their problems. As a teen, I read way ahead of my age level, trying to grow up as fast as I could. I think it satisfied a curiosity but kept me safely on the sidelines. We may want our sixteen year olds to have sugarplums dancing in their heads forever but chances are pretty good they won’t. As I said in my blog, I think edgy YA addresses a need for kids who want to look over the edge but not jump.

I do want to be clear about something, though. I don’t write edgy just to write edgy. It has to come from the heart of the characters. It has to make sense in the context of the story. It can’t be gratuitous. It can’t distract from the plot. For example, in the section of EVIDENCE called The Proposal, Marshall takes Leann out to the pull-out to tell her he likes her and wants to be with her but Leann freezes up and asks to go home. The reader knows the disconnection comes from Leann’s history of incest. Her intimacy meter was broken years before but Marshall has no idea. I didn’t want to write about incest. I wanted to write about the unseen cost of incest in this one moment in time. Will readers get a flashback glimpse of incest? Yes. Will it be gratuitous? I sure hope not.

DW: In your terrific post “Debut Author To Do List”  writing the next book is one of your key items. Can you tell us anything about what you are working on next?

LL: I don’t want to say too much because it dilutes my energy of working on it. The working title is Inside the Notes. Here is the inciting incident: A young girl arrives in Boston. First time away from home. She is staying with a couple near the music conservatory where she is studying for four weeks. As she is unpacking, the clock radio in her room clicks on and she hears men’s voices reading poetry and letters. It is a prison radio show. The girl knows her father is in prison for killing her mother when she was two years old. It is the first time she has considered he might be real and have a voice.

DW: This sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and process with us. I can’t wait to hold my copy of Evidence of Things Not Seen in my hands on September 16th!

A Mentor Talks About Mentoring: Kathryn Fitzmaurice

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s keynote at the Women’s National Book Association Writers Conference. Kathryn spoke eloquently about her mentor, her grandmother, science fiction writer Eleanor Robinson.

At lunch, Kathryn and I talked about how after becoming the successful author of several award winning/starred middle grade novels including The Year the Swallows Came Early, Diamond in the Dust, and Destiny Rewritten, she is now mentoring an aspiring writer.  I asked Kathryn if I could share her experience.

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Tell, me who are you mentoring and what are you working on together?

KF:  Her name is PB Rippey and she’s a member of  SCBWI in Northern California.  The title of her work in progress is “Trouble Beneath the Waves,” a wonderful story about a young girl with special powers.  I won’t say any more!

How were you two connected?

 KF: We were connected when I received an invitation from Catherine Meyers, who is the ARA to Patricia Newman, the RA for the Northern California SCBWI chapter.

 I understand this is a new program that the chapter is trying out and that you are one of several published writers who are mentors in this “digital mentorship” program. What are you expected to do?

 KF:  I am expected to stand along side her and do everything I can to help her bring her work-in-progress to a place where it is publishable.  I would like to see her obtain an agent and have the agent sell this story.

DestinyRewritten hc c

You wrote in a blog post that there are several mentors in the program that you would have liked to have been paired with as a young writer. Who among your fellow writers would have been your dream mentor? 

KF: I would have loved to have been paired with someone like Gary D. Schmidt, who is my very favorite middle grade author.  I was able to meet him last year at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where I was on a middle grade panel with him, and Katherine Applegate, and Linda Urban.  Mr. Schmidt is so talented as an author, with one of his novels winning a Newbery Honor Medal, (The Wednesday Wars).  My favorite book he has written is Okay For Now.  Every time I read it, I find some genius page where Mr. Schmidt has made me cry, or laugh.   But even more, he is very nice.  In addition to writing, he teaches English at a college in Michigan.

 The aspiring writers had to submit several pages of a manuscript and a synopsis, and then the mentors chose their mentees based on the work. Can you remember what about PB’s story resonated with you? 

 KF: I remember when I read her pages, I thought to myself, I can see what might be missing, (it wasn’t much really), and I think I can help her bring the manuscript around to a place where we can cut some of the things that don’t need to be there, and bring in some things that will move the story forward faster.  PB is really quite lovely, she wants her story to be published and I believe it will be.  She is a hard worker.  She’s also a poet and has published a few poems.  Not every one can be a poet.  You have to understand rhythm and how words work together in a sentence.  It’s complicated to see this sometimes.  But she sees these connections.  She understands how words can be written to make the reader fall in love.

This is a one year program  in which the mentor is expected to read the writer’s entire manuscript between November and January, then do a video chat and provide a first round of editorial notes. The writer is supposed to have a rewrite by the end of March,  which the mentor then reads, and does a second video chat and editorial notes. 

Is this how the program is actually working for you and PB?

KF: After I go through her manuscript, I send my notes, (using track changes on word), to her and she reads through them.  Then we make an appointment for a Skype call and go through everything together.  We probably speak a lot more, though, than the rules say, because I have told her that she may contact me whenever she needs to.  I want her to know that I am available to her any time of day, for whatever reason she may want to discuss.  Because sometimes every author has, (including me), times when we need to discuss a very important idea.

 What do you find yourselves talking about during those Skype calls?

KF: We really discuss her main character and how she is growing, what she has learned, and how she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  Together, we do everything we can to cut out the things that aren’t working, and keep the things that are working in her story.  But honestly, her story is really very good.

What is the best part of being a mentor?

 KF: It’s always nice to help other people realize their own dreams.  I remember when my agent, Jen Rofe, of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, called to tell me she had sold my first book.  I want PB to have that same feeling.  I want her to be able to jump up and down and say she sold her novel.  That would be so wonderful!

 Lastly, I understand you’re working on a book that’s very different from your other novels. Can you give us a peek into what you’re writing now?

 KF: I’m on my third revision of a novel that I will continue to write until it is good enough to sell.  I keep going back and fixing it.  Everyday, I revise the story, so that my main character is growing, so she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  I am using a bit a magical realism, which I have never done before.  This is the part that is testing me.  I keep coming back to these sections and reworking them.

 Kathryn, thank you so much for sharing your mentoring experience. We look forward to watching PB on her journey. 

 To read Kathryn’s moving blog post about her relationship with her own mentor:

http://kathrynfitzmaurice.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2013-10-26T10:53:00-07:00&max-results=7

Writing Inspiration

What inspires your writing?

Hints of spring waft in the air and birds sing, and I consider what inspires me in my writing. Walking in nature is one of my favorites. Other writers a big inspiration to me, so I asked several to share what inspires their writing. I hope you enjoy their answers as much as I do.

Sandra NickelSandra Nickel

Madeleine L’Engle once said that being a writer can sometimes feel like you’re a battlefield with ‘a dark angel of destruction and bright angel of creativity wrestling.’ I think life can feel this way sometimes too. And I am drawn to write by both the dark and the bright, but especially the magic and surprise and so-very-human refusal to be less vivid just when it feels like the dark angel is about to take us down.

Sandra can be found at http://sandranickel.com

Robin Prehn  Robin Prehn book cover

Reading other books definitely inspires my writing; not only do I want to take certain stories in a new direction, but I also feel that excitement of discovering a new world and want to create my own.  Being in nature also inspires writing, mostly because I let my mind wander as I walk and enjoy the sounds and sights around me.  My thoughts will touch on this and that, and often, a story emerges.

Robin can be found at http://robinreadsnwrites.com/

Rose Green Rose Green

As to inspiration, the biggest thing that inspires my writing is probably places. I’ve lived in 22 different houses spanning 9 states and three countries, and both the geography and the culture of all those places provide tons of writing fodder. A recent book I wrote was inspired by watching my in-laws’ bicultural prowess between rural mountain Idaho where they came from, and wealthy urban southern California where they’ve spent the past 40 years.

Rose can be found at http://rose-green.blogspot.com

Sandra Tayler  Sandra Tayler

Everyone needs stories, but not everyone has the skill to tell them. The moments which most inspire my writing are the ones where I am able to give words to a story that someone else needs.

Sandra can be found at http://www.onecobble.com/

Katherine Cowley

Katherine Cowley

I try to notice things around me, and put myself in situations where I will learn or do interesting things that will inspire me. I’ve received story ideas from Baby Animal Days, visiting the aquarium, indulging myself with a trip to an art museum, traveling to exotic locations, and becoming friends with people who are completely different than me. I also try to read widely: classic novels, science news, and history books on very specific subjects, like batteries. Most of the time there will be one or two ideas that stick out to me which I’ll record and stew over until I find the right match for a story idea.

Katherine can be found at katherinecowley.com

Christy LenziChristy Lenzi

Sometimes the books I read provoke questions, which spark my imagination. When questions from my fiction and non-fiction reading find their way to each other, that’s when the sparks start a fire. “What the heck is wrong with Heathcliff and Cathy? How would it feel to be slightly unhinged, like her? And what if, instead of the moors, I lived in the Ozarks during the Civil War? What would happen if the revivalist preacher wanted to save my demon-possessed soul and marry me, but the only person who understood me was this outlaw, hated and feared by everyone else?” My questions and curiosity inspire me to find the answers within the pages of my own book.

Christy can be found at http://christylenzi.com/

Melodye ShoreMelodye Shore

My writing is inspired by sunlight and shadows, though not in equal measure. I’m drawn to birdsong and rosebuds, and the skirted palm trees that rise from the desert floor, fronds lifted toward an impossibly blue sky. But I’m intrigued, too, by the mysteries that lurk just beneath the surface of things…the soul’s desperate yearnings, whispered secrets in the dark.  Writing invites me to stay fully present for (in) all of this—to appreciate each moment for the miracle it is, and to bear witness to the truth as I see it.

Melodye can be found at http://melodyeshore.com/

Thank you to all these writers for sharing what inspires their writing. Their inspirations reinvigorate me and feed my creative energy. Feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to read your comments about what inspires you.

Sarah Blake Johnson

The Tollbooth Welcomes Cori McCarthy

Exciting news at the Tollbooth: two new authors are joining the Tollbooth crew and today, I’d like to introduce one of them: Cori McCarthy, the author of the forthcoming YA space thriller, THE COLOR OF RAIN. Cori has signed on to be one of our regulars, so look for her posts after the new year!

 

Cori and I chatted online, and I’d like to share what she had to say.

 

Cori, tell us a little about yourself.

I have a tattoo of one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s drawings.  I’ve lived in Ireland, helped build a feeding shelter in the mountains of Albania and looked for the monster at Loch Ness.  A military brat, I was born on Guam and spent the ensuing years skipping across New England and the Midwest like a loosed rubber ball.  Along the way, I earned a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University with a dual focus in memoir writing and poetry, as well as a graduate certificate in screenwriting from UCLA and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  I currently live in Michigan with my husband, a history professor, and my one-year-old son, Maverick.

Wait, you have a tattoo of one of Tolkien’s drawings? That’s so cool! What is it of, and why did you chose that particular drawing?

My Tolkien tattoo is an outline of the tree of Laurelin, which brought golden light to the Middle Earth “heaven,” known as the Undying Lands or Aman. I chose this drawing because I’ve always had a love of trees, of their varying shape and seasons, which feels so magical even while it is a natural part of our earth.

I should also share that I chose a Tolkien drawing because both of my older brothers have Tolkien tattoos. My eldest brother has Tolkien’s stylized initials and my other brother has the trees from the Gates of Moria embracing Gandalf’s symbol (my own design!). Our father read the stories to us as children, and the tattoos are a lovely reminder of that important family bond.

You’re a VCFA MFA grad, but you’ve also studied memoir writing, poetry, screenwriting. How have these different paths lead you to be the writer you are now?

Although I love writing for children above all other genres, I could not have found this path without studying different forms and experimenting in every direction. I do believe that having a poetic core has influenced my voice while having a screenwriting background keeps my plotting in check.

Memoir writing was the hardest style to try because it brought out an honesty that is sometimes surprising (or shocking) and always a little taxing. I feel like I’m now more aware of what my emotional history brings to each page because of my time spent strictly writing memoir shorts.

OK, so what about this outrageous book I’ve been hearing about?

THE COLOR OF RAIN,will be out in May from Running Press Kids. It’s my debut novel and it’s a YA space thriller about a seventeen-year-old girl who trades her body to a darkly handsome space captain for a chance to cross the Void and save her  little brother, only to face the horrors of human trafficking and the costs of going too far for someone you love.

I haven’t seen anything like this, and as a YA book buyer, I see most of what’s coming out on the market. So, what inspired THE COLOR OF RAIN?

Oh, this is a fun question. THE COLOR OF RAIN’s premise, a teenage prostitute in space, was a “middle of the night, can’t sleep” idea. From there I wrote a few pages and told some VCFA friends about what I thought was the craziest, most never-going-to-sell idea for a book ever, and because of that, I took a dare to submit the beginning of it for my graduating residency’s workshop. What I thought would shock and give everyone a lot to talk about turned out to be something of a buzz hit, and I thought, why don’t I really write this novel? I owe that workshop so much!

 I can’t wait to read it and I’m sure your VCFA classmates are dying to as well. Welcome to the Tollbooth, Cori!

To read more about Cori McCarthy, go to her website  http://www.corimccarthy.com or see her author page at The Greenhouse Literary Agency.

Debi Faulkner on the Teamwork of Indie-Publishing

It’s a pleasure to have Debi Faulkner join me in the Tollbooth today. Originally from Detroit, she has lived in Europe for over ten years.

Debi is a poet and the author of four novels, including the chapter book, Lilypad Princess, and the you Himng adult novel, Summoning. Her middle grade novel, Year of the WereCurse: WereWhat?, was recently released in its print version.

[Sarah] Publishing a book is always a team effort. Who did you choose to help prepare your books and what did they do?

[Debi] While I’ve always relied on my wonderful and talented critique partners and writing buddies to help me prepare my manuscripts in the initial stages, going past that into the indie-publishing field has been a real learning experience.

My first novel, Summoning, went through several rounds of revisions with my own writing circle, then several more based on advice from agents who’d suggested changes. Though none of those agents ultimately took on the book, I believed that it was a story that deserved a chance.

My husband was the one who convinced me to publish the book myself, and when I discovered that it was possible to publish electronically, I tried to learn everything I could about the process. Having a small (extremely small) bit of experience with digital photography and art, I made the original cover myself. Formatting was a bit trickier, because each of the venues available to create and sell an ebook has its own methods and its own formatting rules. For this book, I took on the (sometimes very frustrating) task myself.

I pushed the “publish” buttons on the various sites, and viola! a book was born!

It didn’t take long for me to learn that my cover was amateurish and that some of the paragraphs on the Kindle edition did not format correctly.

It was time for help.

A fellow indie author on the Kindle Board’s Writer’s Cafe, Thea Atkinson, created the current cover and various other members helped me correct the formatting errors.

But I’d learned my lesson, and I’d found a wealth of resources including Editor Extraordinaire, Lynn O’Dell, and Cover Artist to the Stars, Glendon Haddix.

[Sarah] You chose an experienced and well-known editor to edit your books. What was it like working with her?

[Debi] One of the main criticisms of indie-books is that they are poorly edited. Unfortunately, that statement can be all too true. It’s possible to write a horrible first draft, decide it’s pure gold and hit that publish button before a book is ready.

But writing is my career. My reputation is on the line every time someone samples or downloads my books. I wanted them to be the very best. I wanted them to be professional. As every serious writer knows, professional editing is a must in producing a professional book. And getting the right editor is important.

That’s where Lynn O’Dell of Red Adept Publishing Services came in. This woman is amazing. Not only does she have a copyeditor’s eye for all things grammatical, but her ability to analyze story arc, characterization, pacing, plot holes – everything a good editor needs to help an author fine-tune a manuscript – is spot on.

I hired her to work with me on Year of the WereCurse: WereWhat?, and it was definitely my best decision in this entire journey so far. She is tough, and she knows how to motivate a writer to work harder, dig deeper and find a story’s underlying “truth.”

Because she is so good, and because she is extremely popular with indie-authors, I booked a place on her schedule for my next book before I’d even started writing it!

[Sarah] How involved were you in choosing the covers for your books?

[Debi] As I described above, Summoning‘s original cover was my own. While it no longer has my cover, I did learn quite a bit creating it and through the criticism of it. On my second book, LilyPad Princess, I took the lessons I’d learned and designed the cover myself.

One of the biggest issues with ebooks is making the cover completely legible in a thumbnail format – that’s the size prospective buyers see, so making any part of the title or author name too small, or adding too much clutter that is not easily distinguishable at a small size, is counter productive. What works well for a print cover doesn’t necessarily work for an ebook.

For WereWhat?, I chose to hire a professional cover designer for two reasons: the story did not really lend itself to a photo-centric cover, and the genre/age-range (mid-grade paranormal aimed at boys) seemed to scream for something hand drawn. That’s when I found Glendon Haddix with Streetlight Graphics. Glendon and his wife, Tabitha, were extremely accommodating, but it’s Glendon’s vision of Jack Henry’s world that is on the cover of the book. He took my suggestions, my concerns and the main themes of the story and worked them into a fun, attractive cover. When something didn’t quite match my vision, he revised it. For me, it was an amazing process to watch – and have input on – my characters coming to life visually.

When I chose to add a print version of WereWhat?, Glendon expanded the cover to include the spine and back, too.

Streetlight Graphics also did all of the formatting for WereWhat?, both in all ebook and print versions. Glendon also included the lobsterclaw from the cover at the beginning of each chapter, which I absolutely love.

[Sarah] Which e-books formats did you choose? Why? [Did you need a company to help with publication and distribution?]

[Debi] This is another one of the ever-changing aspects of indie-publishing. When I began with Summoning, in October of 2010, there were three main venues: Smashwords (which distributes to various outlets such as Apple, Sony and Kobo, among others), Amazon for the Kindle and Barnes and Noble for Nook users. There seem to be more options now, though to be honest, I’m not as versed in them as I should be.

One of the areas of flux for this particular issue has been the addition of Kindle Select through Amazon. An indie-author can achieve higher rankings and visibility by choosing to include a book in the Select program, which is a plus, but in order to participate, the book cannot be offered in ebook format on any other site for the duration of the commitment (which is 90-days at a time).

The arguments both for and against this practice are lengthy, and I won’t go into them. I will say, though, that I am currently experimenting with Select, and both Summoning and WereWhat? are signed up in the project. For the time being.

[Sarah] What advantages do you see with e-books?

[Debi] For me, there are two major advantages and one really nice “perk” ebooks have over a printed book. First is the ease of reading and storing entire novels. My Kindle is much easier to hold than a 500-page hard cover, and it fits easily into my purse, so I almost always have it with me. Of course, I no longer have to beg to buy more book shelves, either. I have to admit to loving the feel of a new, hard-bound book in my hands and smelling that new-paper smell, but when it comes to really diving into and living in an imaginary world with well-written characters, I can do that just fine electronically!

The second major advantage for me is the ease of purchasing books. Believe me, that’s a big one, too. I live in a non-English speaking country, and while I can find English books in the local store, they’re not usually the ones I’d like to read and the variety is very small. Ordering books and paying for the overseas delivery is also very cost prohibitive. Even ordering books through the local bookstore has proven out of my price range, because the stores must charge me all the additional costs they incur in getting the book. With my Kindle, I can go online, choose a book and start reading it within seconds.

That same ease of purchasing is one that I hope translates to buyers of my own books. Anyone can go online, find one of my books and be reading it without ever leaving the couch. Of course, getting the visibility for my books has proven to be the challenge.

The “perk” is that the cost of most ebooks is less than the print versions. It means I can buy more books!

[Sarah] Your book, Year of the WereCurse: WereWhat? was first released as an e-book. Recently it became available in a print version. What did you need to do to prepare it for print publication? Why did you choose to take time and effort so it would also be available as a paper book?

[Debi] You’ve hit on one of the pitfalls of ereaders for me – not many kids have them yet. Sure, as parents upgrade to the newer versions, kids will get the hand-me-downs, but right now there are just too few kids, 9-12 years old, who have their own Kindles. Or their own Kindle accounts.

I decided to add the print option to WereWhat? mostly due to the age range. I want to make it more available to my target audience. This is a new venture for me, but the print books are available on Amazon and can be ordered through bookstores, which should make it more available to the kids who may want to read it.

As of this moment, I have not begun the process for my other books, but if WereWhat? does well, I would definitely consider adding print versions of them all.

[Sarah] What are your plans for future books?

[Debi] In the long run, I would like to pursue both indie and traditional publishing. They each have their strengths, and I believe pursuing both is the best strategy for authors at this point.

Of course, one of the biggest things about traditional publishing that holds appeal for me may be an emotional one: validation. Having someone read your work and believe in it enough to want to invest time and money into putting it out there into the big, wide world…well, I’m sure there’s no feeling like it.

But I also know that I have other options. I don’t have to place all of my worth as an author on what a particular imprint is looking for at any particular moment or whether or not my manuscript is commercial enough or too commercial or if it can be easily categorized. If I truly believe in a story, and if I can work with a team of professionals to put out a professional product, then I have that choice and the freedom, knowledge and resources to do it.

Whether a book is indie or traditionally published, it still comes down to story – whether the book will attract and engage readers. If it’s a good story well told, I believe people will want to read it.

[Sarah] Thank you, Debi, for joining me in the Tollbooth today.

You can find out more about Debi and her books by visiting her website.

~Sarah Blake Johnson

Margaret J. Anderson on publishing out of print books as e-books

It’s a delight to visit with Margaret J Anderson today. I discovered her books when I was in middle school, and I loved reading them over and over again. Her historical fiction books swept me away on adventures to foreign lands and earlier times. I particularly loved her fantasy time travel books.

Margaret J Anderson has been writing for publication for over thirty-five years and has published 12 novels. Her nonfiction books include biographies and science books. Her most recent books are Carl Linnaeus: Father of Classification and Bugged-Out Insects (2011).

Her out-of-print novel, In the Keep of Time, was recently released as an e-book.

[Sarah] Did your rights revert back to you or did you work with your publisher to regain your rights to your books?

[Margaret] Years ago, after my early fiction books had been out of print for a while, I asked my publisher (Knopf) for the rights back. I had the idea of getting a regional press interested in publishing some of them as paperbacks that I could sell when I was giving school presentations, but I was too involved with new projects to follow through. This was before the era of Nooks and Kindles, so I had no thought of issuing electronic versions of the books – and neither did Knopf. I’ve heard that publishers aren’t so quick to relinquish rights these days.

[Sarah] Could you explain the process you went through as you prepared In the Keep of Time to be published as an e-book?

[Margaret] Six years ago, I wrote a historical novel called Olla Piska about the botanist David Douglas (of the Douglas fir). A couple of months after it was published by the Oregon Historical Society, they went out of the publishing business, leaving Olla-Piska as an orphan child. They returned all the rights, so with the help of Ellen Beier, who had done the cover, I began to look into publishing it as an e-book. We learned the names of companies like Smashwords and BookBaby, but the big question of how you let people know the book is out there hung over us. In the end, I decided to get my feet wet by publishing a book that already had potential readers. I get quite a number of e-mails from people who read In the Keep of Time and my other early books as children and are sad that they can’t find copies to read to their children.

When I decided to start with In the Keep of Time, I was faced with a problem. The book was published in 1977 before I owned a computer, so I had no digital version. I would have to retype the entire book into Microsoft Word. Somewhere I’d read that scanning the pages could introduce mistakes that are hard to fix. Besides, I’d have to tear one of my few copies apart to scan it and I wasn’t sure my scanner was up to the task. On the upside, retyping meant I could avoid the five most common formatting mistakes cited in the Smashwords style guide. (Don’t use the tab key to indent a new paragraph, etc.) By the time I was finished, I had a new admiration for my younger self – hammering out all those long-ago books on a typewriter and correcting mistakes with whiteout!

[Sarah] Which e-books formats did you choose? Why?

[Margaret] I chose to go with BookBaby, though I can’t claim this was the result of extensive research. It was mostly based on their response to an email I sent them asking (among other things) what was the advantage of using BookBaby rather than one of the other companies out there. Someone named Meghan wrote back saying, “I believe that the best part about using BookBaby is that if you need help, you can pick up the phone and dial us and a real live human being will answer you!”  That’s very reassuring when you’re dealing with all this uncanny stuff like an entire book arriving on your Kindle with the click of a mouse! I’ve already talked to Meghan a couple of times. Also, BookBaby is located in Portland, so it feels local. As well as formatting the manuscript for all the popular reading devices: Kindle, i-Pad, Nook, Kobo, etc., they handle the financial dealings, collecting royalties and sending them on to the author.

[Sarah] Why did you choose to release In the Keep of Time first?

[Margaret] As I mentioned earlier, In the Keep of Time has loyal followers—if  I can find a way to reach them. Although the book was written years ago I think it will connect with today’s children.  It is a time-slip adventure in which the key to Smailholm Tower unlocks the past, taking four children back to 15th century Scotland, where border raiding was a common practice. The next time they use the key, the children find themselves in the 22nd century in a post climate-change world—a world without technology. Today’s kids are aware of climate change, but it wasn’t on many people’s radar back when the book was published 35 years ago.

[Sarah] You chose a photograph you took of the tower for your new cover. Where did you take the photo? Did the photo require any editing or photoshopping?

[Margaret] The photograph on the cover is of Smailholm Tower, a Scottish border keep near Kelso where my parents lived after I’d emigrated to Oregon. It’s the setting that inspired my story, and I worked in some legends associated with the tower. We always visited the tower when we went back to see my parents, and I’ve taken dozens of pictures over the years. Laszlo Kubinyi, who did the original cover, based his artwork on a photo I sent him. I couldn’t use his cover for the e-book edition because of copyright restrictions, but I did choose a similar view of the tower.

Ellen Beier helped me design the cover.  Yes, we did do some photoshopping. The first step was to straighten the tower. Ellen pointed out that my photo had a slight leaning-tower-of-Pisa slant to it that I hadn’t noticed! Then we changed the background colors to give the picture a more interesting science-fiction look. Finally we picked the font for the title, which was hard because there are so many choices.  I’m excited about what finally emerged.

[Sarah] What other books do you plan to release as e-books? When?

[Margaret] That depends on how long my enthusiasm for typing lasts! And also how the current project fares. I feel as if I’m climbing a fairly steep learning curve! But I’m already more than halfway  through typing In the Circle of Time, a sequel to In the Keep of Time, which focuses on the future people.  There’s a third book, The Mists of Time, but before I do that one I want to do my earliest novel, To Nowhere and Back. It has also generated a lot of letters and was a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 1975.  After that, I may do Journey of the Shadow Bairns, which is based on my husband’s family history in northern Saskatchewan. Next in line is Searching for Shona, a World War II story that draws heavily on my own background.  And somewhere in between I’ll do Olla-Piska.

[Sarah] What advantages do you see with using e-books?

[Margaret] It will be interesting to see how this technology evolves, but I do think it’s a great way to make books that might have a limited audience available to readers. It’s hard for publishers to justify the production and storage costs for a physical book that isn’t going to jump off the shelves. E-books don’t take up space in warehouses or on bookshelves. They can also be sold at a much lower price. I’ll receive a 70% royalty for In the Keep of  Time from most reading devices, so I can price it as low as $2.99, which will give me $2.00 per book, the equivalent of a 10% royalty on a $20 book. The buyer benefits from the cheaper price as well.

Like most authors, I’ve always been in love with books and have a whole wall of them behind me as I write. But when I look at my grandchildren I see the writing on that wall! They like their electronic devices!  It used to be that the paperback edition was the poor relative of the hardbound book. Then readers wanted the lighter, cheaper paperbacks. Pretty soon they’ll all be turning pages on their Nooks and Kindles with their busy thumbs.  Personally, I still love the look and feel of a book, but I do like being able to adjust the font size on my Kindle!

[Sarah] Do any of the e-book formats allow a reader to order a print copy of the book? In other words, is there a way for a reader to buy a paper copy of the book?

[Margaret] There are ways to publish your book in a format that allows the reader to buy a print copy, but I didn’t go that route, partly because there still are a few physical copies of my early books out there through Amazon etc. Though the prices can be crazy! I just checked Amazon and a used hardback edition of To Nowhere and Back sells for anywhere from $39-$319! In 1975 it sold for $5.50.

[Sarah] When you were retyping the story, did you ever have the urge to change anything?

[Margaret] I have found myself doing some tweaking and editing! I’ve had 35 years of writing experience since I wrote In the Keep of Time.  I was a bit too fond of run-on sentences in those days, so I have eliminated some “ands.” I’m making a few bigger changes while re-typing In the Circle of Time, where Robert and Jennifer find themselves two hundred years in the future. The present time in the book is around 1979, the year I wrote the book, and I haven’t changed that. There is, however, mention of something that happened in 2010, which must have seemed quite far into the future back then. Seeing it didn’t happen in 2010, I’m jumping the event forward to 2050!

[Sarah] How does it feel to work with this book again?

[Margaret] Re-reading a book I wrote all those years ago is a bit like a time-slip adventure! It takes me back! Some of the incidents in the story were triggered by real events. One evening, when we went into the tower with our four young children, a black bird fluttered down from somewhere up near the roof and fell dead at our feet. I used this incident in the opening chapter of In the Keep of Time. The characters in the book weren’t based on my own children, but they do bring back happy memories of those visits to Scotland. And the book also brings back memories of children’s eager questions in response to the many slideshow presentations I’ve given over the years.

I really am enjoying re-visiting these old books. It’s a dark day when you get word from your publisher that your precious book is going out of print. I started this project thinking that turning my books into e-books would confer some sort of immortality on them! It turns out that isn’t the case. I have to pay BookBaby $20 per year to keep a book alive!  And the real truth is that a book is only alive when someone reads it. So I hope my old titles will spring to life again when today’s kids reach for their Sony or iPad, their Copia, Kobo, Nook or Kindle.  I love those names!

[Sarah] Thank you, Margaret, for visiting with me today. Now I have a great reason to buy an e-reader.

You can find out more about Margaret and her book on her website.

In the Keep of Time is available on Kobo, Kindle, Nook and other ebook formats.

~Sarah Blake Johnson