A New Venture with a Grey Wolfe

When I wrote Winthrop Risk, Detective, it wasn’t meant to be a picture book.  It’s what I call a transitional book.

Let me explain.

When my younger son was a child, he struggled to read because of his dyslexia.  He loved stories but just couldn’t read them by himself.  After much time and struggle (thank you, Hooked on Phonics!), he began to get the hang of it.  Still, moving him from picture books to chapter books was proving to be impossible.  I managed to find a couple of books that had short, easy chapters and only a few pencil illustrations.  Each chapter he read on his own gave him the confidence to try another one.  Eventually, he was able to move on to full-length books.  At 27, he still struggles with words; but he loves to read and has even started to write a book of his own.  Helping children like him gently transition from picture books to chapter books was what I had in mind when I wrote Winthrop Risk, Detective.

I believe kids who have reading problems (especially boys) lose their interest in stories because they can’t make the move from books where the pictures tell the story to chapter books where there are only words to tell the story.  I wanted to write a few books that would serve as a transition between those two worlds.  Sadly, my attempts at illustration have been, well, unfortunate; and hiring an artist was financially out of the question.  I forged ahead and self-published the book as a simple 32-page, 4-chapter book.

The result was a book with a good story but an amateurish appearance.  I’ve sold about a half-dozen copies on Amazon and Kindle.

A couple of weeks ago, I came upon a TV interview with a local author and he mentioned a place called the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium (http://www.GreyWolfePublishing.com).  It’s an indie bookstore and publisher housed in a strip mall not too far from here.  They emphasize local Michigan authors in their store, offer publishing advice and services (including providing illustrators who work at an affordable price), and host a variety of writing events.  I contacted them and they graciously accepted a few copies of my book for their local authors’ section.

Sometime this summer, they’ll arrange for me to do a reading in the store.  They’ll also spotlight the book on their Facebook page.  I’ve been invited to sit in on their monthly meetings of authors, illustrators, and others in the book industry to swap ideas and get advice.  They’re also going to help me set up a website.  They love books and they respect the people who create them.  Amazon is simply too monolithic an entity for all that.  In fact, from what I hear, not even big traditional publishers put that kind of effort into their authors.

I don’t regret making the move to self-publish on Amazon.  If I didn’t have the book out there, I wouldn’t have something to put on the shelf at the Grey Wolfe Scriptorium.  I know other indie authors are doing well with Amazon, but it just doesn’t seem to be working for me the way I have it set up.  I’ll take the lion’s share of the blame for that; but let’s face it, Amazon simply prints on demand whatever people write, and a lot of that is garbage.  They profit when a book sells, regardless of its quality, so it makes no business sense for them to put any effort into promotion.  You have to pay to promote your book with them in the hope it will be noticed among the thousands of other titles Amazon carries.  More money for them.  It’s basic capitalism–they provide a service and we pay for that service.  Nobody holds a gun to our head.  We agree to the terms, but the odds definitely favor the house.

My plan, if the folks at Grey Wolfe agree, is to eventually pull my book from Amazon, have an illustrator do some simple drawings for each chapter, and republish the book through their indie publishing group, Write Duck Press.  The Winthrop Risk sequels I’m planning would go there, as well.  Eventually, I’ll save up enough money to pay an illustrator so I can start publishing the picture book manuscripts I’ve been sitting on.  And I’ll have the backup of experienced people who actually care whether or not my stories are purchased and read.

I wish I had known about Grey Wolfe Publishing/Write Duck Press/The Grey Wolfe Scriptorium a couple of years ago.  If you live in Michigan, check out their store in Clawson, Michigan.  They carry more than 100 titles by local authors.  Buy a book!  Wherever you live, look for an indie bookstore in your area.  They may have services available to you as an author that you’ll never get from the big boys in the publishing world.

Publishing doesn’t have to be the demoralizing experience it has become for so many writers.  There are still people out there who appreciate and respect the storytellers in the world.  Let the big publishing houses continue to crank out formulaic, trendy, market-driven, plotless titles featuring TV cartoon characters.  Thank goodness, today’s writers have other options.

Thank you, Grey Wolfe Scriptorium!

 

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Tasteful Butchery Well Done

Different writers seem to favor different parts of the writing process.  For some, it’s the brainstorming of ideas.  For others, it’s getting that first draft down.  A lot of writers, though, seem to shrink from the editing/rewriting part of the process.

As I continue my writing journey, I find myself having the most fun when editing or rewriting.  At that stage, I feel like the initial pressure to produce something is gone and the creative give and take with the manuscript can begin.

When I’m short on writing time, as I have been for the past several months while hubby is laid off, I keep the writing bug alive by reading books and blogs about writing.  In fact, I start each workday by reading through the blogs I follow and hitting a few of the freshly pressed for the day.  Right now, I’m reading Writers on Writing.  It’s a collection of  New York Times essays written by famous writers.  I’ll admit, there’s an awful lot of self-indulgent crap in there, but something I read this morning struck me as brilliant.  Author Paul West had this to say:

“I stay up long enough, usually, to correct what I’ve written, and on occasion to carve it up, then go to bed with that elated shiver of tasteful butchery well done.”

Tasteful butchery well done.  The whole book was worth that one quote.

I can chalk up my struggles with the WIP to stress and being overworked for months; but even in the midst of the turmoil, I’ve managed to give the story some structure.  I love the search for and discovery of ideas, the playful dialogue, and getting the first draft down, even though it’s tough right now.  But the part where I get to sit on my porch with a typed draft in front of me, red pen in hand, and smooth out the rough patches–that’s when I feel most like a writer.

Don’t be afraid of or dread rewriting and editing.  Savor it.  This is where we go beyond being overgrown kids with wild imaginations.  This is where we become writers.

Tasteful butchers, all.

Once more, into the breach!

I just submitted a manuscript to a small publisher in New York. I haven’t discussed this particular story on this blog at all, but my writing group read it and gave it a good review.

I worked on it for about a year, off and on. I had trouble getting myself to write the first draft of the ending but found myself with time on my hands when Hurricane Sandy struck last fall, putting my medical transcription job on hold for a couple of weeks while the doctors and patients put their lives back together.

I don’t know how the publisher I chose will like it. I suppose it’s possible to like the story but feel it has zero chance of seeing a bookshelf.

I don’t know how it works with other genres; but with children’s books, they only contact you if they’re interested or they send a form rejection letter. Most of the time, I’m just left wondering if they even received it. It’s a little disheartening.

If it gets a thumbs down, maybe I’ll just put it on the blog. It’s a fun read, even for adults.

Wish me luck.

 

Just Tell Me What You Want!

A friend very kindly suggested that my last post could turn off potential agents or publishers.  She’s probably right.  I thought about taking it down, but decided to let it stand.  There are bullies and manipulators in the publishing business and quite frankly, I have no stomach for them.  I wouldn’t be happy working with them, and they certainly wouldn’t be happy working with me.

On the other hand, an agent or publisher who wants a writer who works hard, meets deadlines, and is fiercely self-disciplined would have no problem with me at all.  I guess it’s all about perception.  If an agent or publisher describes the ideal writer in terms of a doormat, we just aren’t suited for one another.  Move along, folks; there’s nothing to see here.

Several people commented that they’d never seen submission guidelines that read like a request for an essay.  Here’s one, though it isn’t as bad as some others I’ve seen but can’t find right now (I probably threw them in the trash where they belong):

“Include credentials, intended audience/market; description of book, how does it benefit readers, and how does it differ from other books.”

Which brings me to another pet peeve about submission guidelines in which the company is very clear about what they don’t want but a little fuzzy on what they do want (mind you, this is a publisher of books for young children):

“No animal stories, concept books, folk tales, fairy tales, myths, legends, books in series format, novelties, fantasy, science fiction, or horror.”

We are talking about kids here, right?

Ok, I get the part about horror.

This publisher says it will accept “select fiction”.  WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!

I wish everyone would just lighten up.  We’re talking about stories.  Made up people, places, and situations.  Make believe.  We’re not designing launch switches for missile silos. I’m sorry if you don’t like the font.  I’m sorry if I sent the manuscript to you in the waning phase of the moon on a Tuesday in a month ending in “r”.  I’m sorry you don’t like where I placed the page numbers.  I’m sorry your guidelines were anything but.

Just read the story.

 

This is Awful

I spent the weekend working on a story that has been giving me trouble for years. I can’t settle on how to tell it.  I have the basic plot down and the main character, but I haven’t been able to move the story along.

In spite of my struggles, I know I have to write this story.  It’s been hanging around too long.  It won’t go away, though I’ve invited it to take a flying leap on several occasions.  This tells me there is a jewel in there somewhere.  I’ve just been digging in the wrong places.

I’ve never been this clueless about a story for so long.

Stubborn b***h that I am, I’m pressing ahead with the excavation, digging with my bare hands.  I’m writing the story down, knowing that this draft is awful and will have to undergo major surgery to make it work.  I read somewhere that you can’t edit what isn’t there, so I’m putting words on paper, forcing the story to take some sort of recognizable shape.  It will change again, perhaps many more times than it already has; but isn’t that what an embryo does? 

This is where a lot of aspiring writers fall by the wayside.  That initial flash of inspiration hits, but grinding out the details feels so much like work we are fooled into thinking that the inspiration is gone.  I used to think if the writing didn’t come easily, I wasn’t a good writer.  Not so, Writer Babes (and Bobs)!  The thinking, agonizing over words, trying a different voice, changing lines–that’s when the writing happens. 

The embryo takes shape over time and will not be rushed.  It will eventually emerge, but it will take heavy labor to get it out into the world.  Focus and breathe.

Not Sure I Did the Right Thing

OK, it’s nothing serious.  I found a local writing group and joined.  I’ve received several emails from them asking for an RSVP to their next meeting, but I haven’t replied.  I’m still not sure about getting together with a group of writers, let alone allowing anyone to critique my work; but like a lot of you, I find myself isolated much of the time.  Now, that’s usually not a problem for me.  I’m a loner by nature and generally don’t get along well with people.  I know it’s me and not them.  I just rub people the wrong way.  I don’t mean to.  But sometimes the isolation I prefer leaves me feeling disconnected in the sense that I’m not around anyone who understands the whole writing thing.

The next meeting is in two weeks, so I have plenty of time to think about going. I’m not sure what to expect. I’m not comfortable allowing other people to see and critique my work. I’ve heard bad things about writing groups, that there are people in them who think it’s their calling in life to tell everyone how much their work sucks. You know, the resident wet blanket. I don’t want my desire to write to be crushed by someone who has just had a bad day, doesn’t like my bumper sticker, or thinks my jeans are too tight. Is objectivity among writers (or any other group of humans) truly possible? I’m afraid of finding out through a soul-crushing experience.

My other major concern is that there seem to be so few people writing picture books. Most seem to be into novels or poetry. Writing picture books is incredibly hard. If you don’t agree, I invite you to give it a try. Trying to bounce ideas off another adult is tough because most adults have forgotten how to think like a child. A picture book story just doesn’t grab their attention.  It may come off as too simplistic or silly. Unfortunately, picture books seem to be the bastard stepchild of the writing world. I once complained to Writer’s Digest that they were neglecting a very difficult genre. They replied that they would be featuring more articles about writing picture books in the future. What they did was reprint a section from a book about writing picture books that I already had on my shelf. It’s also the one genre that agents and publishers seem most determined to talk writers out of pursuing.

My paranoid reservations aside, curiosity will probably compel me to attend the next meeting (if my husband can get the car home to me in time) and see how it goes. I hope all my fears are unfounded.

Have you ever belonged to a writing group? What was your experience?

The Self-Publishing Dilemma for Picture Book Authors

I wonder sometimes how much great literature has been lost for lack of a publisher or agent.

I have a friend who writes YA novels and publishes them online. It’s a viable way to go; but if you’re a picture book author and can’t draw a convincing stick figure, you’re out of luck. Without illustrations, it ceases to be a picture book; and when you’re writing for little people who can’t read for themselves or are just learning to read, those illustrations are essential to the book’s success. Simply e-publishing the words won’t do.

My sister sent me an article about some whiz kid named Charlie Kadado who, at the age of 17 (17!!!!), wrote a picture book and landed a publisher. Unhappy with the terms of his contract (25 cents per book), he decided to self-publish. So he hired an illustrator and published his first picture book, Perry Finds His Talent. The kid has chutzpah. I like that.

Charlie started Boundless Talents, a self-publishing company in Troy, Michigan, not too far from where I sit. It looks promising, though to date the website’s information is incomplete. It looks like Boundless Talents will be a full-service publisher, including illustrations and marketing, for those who want to bypass the traditional publishing houses and maintain control of their art, or who just can’t seem to get their foot in the traditional door. I wish Charlie and all of his future clients great success.

I have no lack of confidence in my stories. I think children would enjoy them and the books would sell. But money is a huge problem in that I don’t have any. I’ve checked out a couple of self-publishers and the fees are pretty scary. Some don’t provide illustrators, so you’re on your own as far as finding and paying for one. Some just print the books and leave all the marketing and distribution to the author. It’s a risky and expensive way to go.

The folks providing the self-publishing services have no real stake in an author’s work. They don’t collect royalties (as far as I know). They’re paid up front for their services and just put the product out there (often no further than delivering a box of books to the author’s home). What I would give for some middle ground! How about a publishing package that’s priced a little lower (OK, maybe a lot lower) in exchange for a cut of the book’s profits? That would certainly provide incentive for the marketing department to be aggressive while allowing the author to retain the rights and most of the money a book earns. Obviously, if they didn’t think the book had great sales potential, the self-publishing service would be under no obligation to offer such a package and could charge the standard fees.

Self-publishing has come a long way over the last few years, growing from the disdained “vanity publishing” of the past to a viable publishing option for today’s aspiring writers. If it evolves a little further, it might be an option for all of us.

 

Writing Amidst the Misery

Ever have one of those weeks that are so miserable, so fraught with mind-numbing catastrophe, that you start to look back over your life and wonder where you went wrong? Where, exactly, did I turn left instead of right? Which decision in my past brought me to this point in time, with these people, and in these circumstances?

I find myself dealing, simultaneously, with serious illnesses in family and friends, a sick cat, unemployment, financial difficulties, and the newly-discovered betrayal of someone I trusted.

That’s a lot of crap to be juggling.

Now, we could say that the positive approach would be to see it all as grist for the creative mill. What am I, the main character here, feeling? What does the room look like? How do I eventually figure it all out?

I imagine that might work well for someone writing novels; but I write picture books. Picture books are supposed to be fun and never sad. Sad picture books may win artsy-fartsy awards, but kids don’t read them twice. I refuse to make a child associate sadness with books. That would be akin to advocating the wholesale slaughter of baby seals, complete with graphic illustrations.

So what do I do with this mess that is clogging my creative arteries with anger, resentment, worry, and overall I-really-hate-my-life angst?

Good question.

I don’t write well when I’m upset. My focus is on my problems and not my work. Hell, even the day job is suffering. My go-to when I’m stuck is to read about writing. Somehow, it’s easier for me to rekindle the desire to write than it is for me to think creatively when I’m standing in the middle of an emotional tornado. It’s that desire to write, to succeed, that gets my brain thinking in picture book terms again.

The common advice writers hear is that we should just write through the pain, even if it’s bad writing. I see that as a waste of time and (perhaps coining a new phrase here) muse abuse. Sometimes you just have to take that step back and catch your breath. Revisit what makes you love writing. Let your mind settle down, work on the personal problems at hand, and trust God.

I’ll write again. So will you.

Submission Jitters

You’ve been there. The manuscript you’ve toiled over, polished, and perfected is ready for submission. You have the name and email address of a new agent who looks like she just took off her cap and gown, and she’s accepting new clients. Her website says she loves picture books, the quirkier the better. You write quirky picture books. She’s young and fresh and surely not jaded! She’ll love you!

Nothing. Days, weeks, months.

She doesn’t love you.

You check her website and see she’s signed an author whose book you don’t think has an ounce of quirk in it. In fact, you think it sucks. You reread your manuscript and wonder why she hated it so much she didn’t even take the time to send you a rejection email. 

I’m looking at the email address of a new and very young agent. Says she loves quirky picture books. In fact, she says she has a special place in her heart for them. I have manuscripts I’d like her to read, but the jitters have settled in. I have to temporarily place my future as a writer in the hands of someone who has less life experience than the boots in my closet. I’m about to give a very young, self-proclaimed picture book junkie a chance to decide that my stories just don’t measure up to her standards. And the worst part is that she won’t even bother to tell me.

Welcome!

I’m a writer.

There, I said it out loud.

As a kid growing up with five siblings in a two bedroom Brooklyn apartment, escape was impossible. No privacy. No quiet. No space of my own (I was seven years old before I got my own bed.). The neighborhood wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t Mayberry, either. The only consistently safe place to go was inside a good story.

We did without a lot, but not without books. Even as an adult, I search out used copies of my favorite picture books and often reread them. They haven’t lost their magic. It’s because of those great books that I decided to write picture books of my own.

Like the rest of you, I discovered that writing and being published is much more difficult than I ever realized. To add to that difficulty, I learned that many publishers and agents won’t touch a picture book story that rhymes, involves talking animals, or (gasp!) has a moral. Makes me wonder if they’ve ever met a child or been one themselves.

Being a rule breaker of the first water, I write stories that contain rhyme, animals talk to one another, and in the end, the bad guy gets what’s coming to him. All of this means my chances of ever seeing my work on a library shelf are pretty much nil.

I won’t say being published doesn’t matter to me, or that it’s all about the art. Nonsense. Of course I want to be published, but I can’t write something I don’t love. Unable to find a market for my work, I’ve decided I will post some of it here. I’ll also tell you about my writing process, my ups, and my downs. I hope you’ll share your experiences as well.

For all the little ones out there who need a trip to the forest, who want to eavesdrop on animals, or find a hero to admire, these stories are for you.