Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Time to Buck Up, Soldier

Jody Casella is this week's guest blogger. Her own blog, On the Verge, is one of my favorites.

So you’re thinking about quitting your day job and pursuing your lifelong dream to be a writer. Well, I have some advice for you. I could go into all of it here (how you should set up an office at home; treat your writing like a business; keep regular hours; resist the urge to take phone calls or sort laundry or scroll around on Facebook or rearrange your kitchen cabinets because you’re WORKING, darn it, and you need to act like a professional. Even if you’re not getting paid) but I won’t.

What I want to talk about is how you show up every day and do your work despite the fact that you’re not getting paid. And (gulp) may never be paid. I’m assuming here that you are independently wealthy and/or have saved up money from your high-paying day job and/or are blessed with a hardworking cheerleader of a spouse who’s taking care of the bills so you can pursue your dreams. Four years ago when I was about to take the plunge, I truly thought I was on the verge of breaking into publication. It pains me to say this, but back then I was prancing around bookstores making space for my as-yet unpublished books on the YA shelves. (Look for me someday beside Kristin Cashore’s brilliant Graceling. Not a bad piece of real estate, if I may say so.)

But I was a LONG way from a bookstore shelf. What I didn’t know when I quit my job to write full-time was that I had signed on for a War, one of those long protracted kinds with no discernible end in sight. Your enemies in this war are self-doubt and fear of failure. (Read Steven Pressfield’s writing manifesto The War of Art for a much better and more thorough discussion.) Waking up every day and facing the glaring computer screen is a battle, especially when you have a drill sergeant barking in your head about how pointless it is to keep writing and how silly your books are and if you’re so talented then why aren’t you published. You’re tempted to bark back, or worse, keel over in a cowering, sniveling mess at his feet. But don’t. Listen politely, then lace up your boots, grab your weapons (I guess I’m talking the keyboard here) and charge into battle.

Here’s some advice to carry with you on the long, muddy march:
1.      Read whenever you have spare time. After your writing for the day is done, of course. Read books in your genre and books outside of it. Not just for market research, but to remember why you’re working so hard in the first place. Because you love books! And you want yours someday to be read and loved, too!
2.      Find a community of other writers. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only soldier out there, sitting in that damp, dark trench, eating your, uh, tea biscuit. But you’re not. Join a critique group. Make connections at conferences. Track down people online.
3.      Find a mentor. Better yet, BE a mentor to someone just starting out.
4.      Stand up and stretch every once in a while. Be like Jane Austen and walk the heck out of your neighborhood. You need to clear your mind. You need to keep your butt from falling asleep. P.S. Yoga is helpful when it’s raining.
5.      Maintain a sense of balance. Set a word-count goal or a time goal, then stick to it. When you’re finished, STOP, and be 100% present for all the other parts of your life. The suffering cheerleader spouse. Your kids. Your pets. The toilets that you’ve neglected to clean.
6.      And last and most important, have a sense of humor. I heard author Linda Sue Park say once at a conference, “It’s not rocket science.” We’re writing books here, people—playing with words—we’re not doing brain surgery. Don’t take any of it too seriously.

A final warning to keep in mind as you head off to boot camp (cue violins or patriotic fife and drum, depending on your mood):

It’s possible that this experiment of yours may not work out as planned. It may take longer than you think to break even (or, ahem, earn anything). It may happen that one day you wake up and realize that your son, who you still think of as ten years old and sprawled out on the floor playing with Legos, is about to go to college and you promised your supportive cheerleader spouse that when that time came you would go back to your day job.

If this is you, by any chance, don’t fear; I am presently working on a battle plan.

Since Jody Casella quit her day job and threw herself into the battle four years ago, she’s had her fifth story published in Cicada magazine and has written a handful of novels, now floating around the Netherworld of the NYC Publishing Industry. All together she has logged over five hundred thousand words. You can read some of them on her blog, which chronicles her life as a YA writer perpetually on the verge.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dark of the Moon Release! and a giveaway

My nineteenth book for young readers, Dark of the Moon, released this week!

In my post of September 7, I blogged about hiring a publicist (see post titled "Now it Really *is* a BusinessEek!"). She got to work right away, and together we hammered out a press release. She told me to focus on the tagline (omitted on the image above, as it's so small it looks like a blur): "The myth of the Minotaur as it has never been told before." She asked me, "What do you mean, 'as it's never been told before'? What's so different about the way you told it?"

We went back and forth a few times, and here's what we came up with:

When ancient Greek travelers returned home from visiting the powerful island of Crete, whose citizens worshipped a god in the form of a bull and whose priest wore a bull costume during rituals, they garbled the facts and came up with the marvelous story of the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull who devoured human children. Their inaccurate but exciting retelling of Minoan beliefs gave the world one of its most popular myths. Now, Tracy Barrett, a specialist in historical fiction set in the ancient Mediterranean, reimagines the shadowy world that gave birth to the legend.

Barrett imagines the world of the Minoan civilization, where the moon goddess rules and where a deformed and nearly mindless man, confined under the palace for his own and others’ safety, is feared as a monster. Feared by everyone, that is, except his beloved sister Ariadne, and eventually, Prince Theseus of Athens, who has been sent to kill him.

Told in alternating points of view by Ariadne, a lonely teenager who is also priestess of the moon, and Theseus, who has rediscovered his father only to be sent by him to almost certain death, Dark of the Moon (Harcourt Children’s Books, releasing September, 2011) explores the issues of love, faith, and betrayal, retelling the myth of the Minotaur as never before.

The two narrators face issues that today’s teenagers can recognize. Ariadne must decide what her obligations are toward her heritage and her religion. Theseus must discover how much he owes his absent father, his neglectful mother, and his kind stepfather.

Like Barrett’s King of Ithaka, a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus’s son Telemachos (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2010; starred review, School Library Journal), Dark of the Moon explores the nature of love, family, belief, and responsibility in a way that resonates with young readers today. Both books are rich in accurate historical detail and intriguing characters, and both explore the issue of how tales are created. 

Dark of the Moon has received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, which calls it a “world and story both excitingly alien and pleasingly familiar.School Library Journal says,This retelling of the myth of the Minotaur is deft, dark, and enthralling,” and Publishers Weekly asserts, “Barrett offers clever commentary on the spread of gossip and an intriguing matriarchal version of the story. Fans of Greek mythology should appreciate this edgier twist on one of its most familiar tales.”

So, what do you think? Does it work?

Complete reviews, if you're interested, are on my website.

And here's the giveaway: I'd love to read your comments! I'll send a signed (or unsigned, if you prefer) copy of Dark of the Moon to someone chosen at random from among those who comment on this post over the next week.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hello, Day Job!

Writer and friend Alan Gratz is this week's guest blogger.

I quit my day job as an eighth-grade English teacher nine years ago, shortly after my daughter Jo was born. The idea was that I would be a part-time writer and a part-time stay-at-home dad, even though I had never sold anything more than a couple of short stories and a few community theater plays. To be fair, I had been going to SCBWI conferences for a while and did have two finished novels for young readers I was already submitting to editors, while on the other hand I had zero experience being a dad. Looking back on it now, jumping unprepared into fatherhood was definitely the crazier leap to make, but quitting my day job gave me lots of time to practice both, and nine years on I can safely say I’ve done pretty well. (Though Jo isn’t a teenager yet, so the jury’s still out on that one, I guess.)

Quitting my day job and staying home to work on novels that hadn’t sold yet (with a newborn baby in the house, no less!) meant making a lot of hard financial decisions, but others have talked here about the financial side of quitting your day job, and besides, my personal experiences with making ends meet may be very different from your own situation. What I’d rather talk about is a problem that plagued me from day one, and still rears its ugly head nine years on: making time to write.

I hear you scoffing now. “Scoff, scoff, scoff, Alan. You don’t have a day job. That means you have all day to write.”  True, I don’t have to get up in the morning and drive to a soul-crushing office job where I daydream about writing a Newbery-winning novel, only to come home so exhausted that all I want to do is crash in front of the television. But I still have lots of other things that demand my attention at home. To illustrate, I’ll type up the hand-written “To Do” list sitting beside my computer right now:

Order firewood
Seal cracks in the siding
Cut down the weeds in the yard
Send Barry my 5-year plan
Create a reader guide for The Brooklyn Nine
Create a reader guide for Fantasy Baseball
Scan, PDF, and e-mail contract for Boiling Springs school visit
Respond to fan letters
Subscribe to Weird Tales magazine
Spray foam into cracks around windows before ladybug season
Call Amerigas to come move our gas tank
Call Bellsouth to come move our phone line to a different pole
Write a review of Toby’s book and post it online
Write a blog post for Goodbye, Day Job!

How many of those things are writing-related? Barry’s my agent, so sending him my 5-year plan counts. So does responding to fan letters and writing reader guides for my last two books. (The Brooklyn Nine one is WAY overdue.) The school visit contract needs to get sent out. That’s writing-related too. (And pays.)

Now—how many of them are actual writing? Yeah. None of them. I’m working on a middle-grade novel right now, and I know it’s my primary concern every day. That’s why I don’t bother to put it on the list. But that list sits there and stares at me all day long, begging me to get something checked off. And that doesn’t even include the 38 non-spam e-mails that came in today, and it’s just now 5 p.m.

There is always something else to do besides write. Always. And when you work from home, it’s hard not to take time out of your writing time to do those things. Heck, when I had a day job I still did some of those things during work hours. Call for a wood delivery, call the gas company or the phone company. I just slipped them in surreptitiously, always with one ear open for the boss coming down the hall. But when you work for yourself, there is no boss. There’s no one to catch you out. So why not take the first couple of hours of the day to make some calls? Answer some e-mails? Run some errands? Clean the house?

But you can’t do that. Because here’s a stunner for you: you DO have a day job.

It’s writing books.

You may not have a meddling boss, or a company lunch room, or faculty meetings, or, Seuss preserve us, a bi-weekly paycheck, but you do still have a full-time job. That’s what you have to realize about quitting your “real” job to stay home and write. If you want to be successful, if you want to make money at this (at least some portion of that salary you gave up), you have to work at it just as much as—if not more than—you worked at that soul-crushing cubicle job. You can’t afford to spend half your day knocking things off your “To Do” list. Not unless that list looks like this:

Brainstorm novel
Outline novel
Write novel
Revise novel
Submit novel

I still fall into the trap of just doing one or two things off my list before I get started writing—and then I look up and it’s noon. And I still catch myself telling people I don’t have a day job, nine years and five books later. “You need somebody to come over tomorrow and help knock that wall down? Sure I’ll do it! I don’t have a day job!” But I do. Every hour I’m not writing is an hour I’m not doing my job.

It’s easy to say, “Goodbye, day job!” What’s hard to remember is to say, “Hello, new day job!”

Alan’s first novel, Samurai Shortstop, was named one of the ALA’s 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults. His teen mystery Something Rotten was a 2008 ALA Quick Pick for Young Adult Readers, and a sequel, Something Wicked, hit shelves in October 2008. His first true middle-grade novel, The Brooklyn Nine, was among Booklist’s 2009 Top Ten Sports Books and Top Ten Historical Books for Youth, and was followed in 2011 by the fantasy/sports mash-up Fantasy Baseball. A Knoxville, Tennessee native, Alan is now a full-time writer living in Western North Carolina with his wife and daughter. Look for him online.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Now it Really *is* a Business—Eek!

It’s easy enough to tell yourself that you need to think of writing as a business (see my posts of July 27 and August 10)—but it’s harder to put your money where your mouth is.

I just did that, and it caused me a sleepless night.

In the olden days, publishers used to spend a lot of time and money promoting books. They still do—but now, financial realities make them reserve most of their efforts and dollars for their top-selling authors. So far, anyway, I’ve been a good, solid mid-list author, not a top-seller. My books earn out their advances and churn out nice royalties, making money for me and for my publisher.

Not a lot of money, though. There are readers and critics who love my books—just not enough of them. Historical fiction is a notoriously hard sell; I had several agents turn me down as a client because they say they can’t place it with a publisher. (These are the same agents who repeat again and again: “I don’t care about genre; all I want is a good story and good writing,” and then they tell me, “Love the story, love your writing, but I can’t sell historical.” But I digress.) Thank goodness I've found a wonderful agent who loves historical fiction and is willing to keep working on editors to love it too!

I don’t write dystopian trilogies, and I don't write about the monster du jour (vampires or zombies or werewolves or whatever), or about teen suicide or rape or bullying. Some of my favorite authors write important books in those genres, but that’s not what moves me to write.

My publishers do the best they can with their limited resources and limited staff, all of whom have been wonderful and helpful and have sent review copies everywhere I’ve asked them to. But my sales are hardly astronomical, and at many book fairs I’m listed as “also appearing,” while authors who have written less than I do, with less-glowing reviews and fewer sales, are headliners.

So what would you tell a manufacturer who is convinced of her product’s value but who has a recognition problem? Why, advertise, of course!

Do I know how to advertise? Can I identify what is a good place to send a review copy to, and what would be a waste of time and postage, not to mention a perfectly good book? Can I rattle off the names of the top reader blogs? No.

So I’ve hired a publicist. I heard her speak at the SCBWI conference last month and was greatly impressed. We talked on the phone for an hour the other day, and yesterday, after the sticker shock at the cost of a two-month “campaign” had eased a bit, I gulped, signed a contract, and wrote a check.

I tell myself clich├ęs like, “You have to spend money to make money”, but I still needed chemical assistance to get to sleep last night.

I'll keep you posted.