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My Writer's Journal

"Because of Lissa" Hotline #1 -- Now Live on Kindle!

The experiment begins. The first book of the Hotline series went live in the wee hours of the morning. And it's time now to introduce my publisher who has made this all happen.

My history with Vered Mares, owner of VP&D House, Inc., a small publisher in Anchorage, Alaska, goes way back. When I first began working on "Because of Lissa," Vered was a young teenager; she was also my stepdaughter--very bright, very funny, and (sorry, Vered) very bratty. During the course of writing those four books and getting them ready for publication, Vered went off to Israel; when she came back at the beginning of the Gulf war, we had moved to Denton, Texas, and she came to live with us. (She is the basis for a novel I wrote in Denton, DRUMMERS OF JERICHO.)

We both survived Vered's teenage years. Her interest in the arts led her to becomes a graphics artist, to move to Alaska, and to establish VP&D House. When I asked for advice in how to go about publishing the Hotline series as e-books, we decided to work together. The cover design is hers.

Have I mentioned that we're also very good friends?  Read More 
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The New Project: HOTLINE e-book series

Back in 1990 I was asked to write a 4-book series titled HOTLINE, about a group of high school kids who start a telephone peer counseling line after the suicide of one of their friends, to give kids someone to talk to about their problems. I went through suicide prevention training, volunteered for a hotline, and put in time at an Albuquerque High School with a diverse student population. Eventually I came up with four main characters, one to be the focus of each of the four books, a bunch of minor characters, and a theme for each book. The books came out in paperback over the next couple of years, and when my interest evolved to historical fiction, I pretty much forgot about HOTLINE.

Then my writer friend Kersten Hamilton (check out her terrific books) suggested that I bring back the series as e-books. It sounded like a great idea. How hard could it be? Just convert the yellowing paperbacks to a new format, right? The covers look dated, but those covers only hint at how dated the stories themselves are! They were written before cellphones changed the way teenagers--and the rest of us--communicate. Suddenly the four HOTLINE books read like historical novels.

So I'm rewriting them, start to finish, bringing them into the 21st Century. The first, BECAUSE OF LISSA, will be available as an e-book in a couple of weeks, with the goal of releasing one a month after that. Wish me luck! I'll let you know how it goes.  Read More 
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Between Books

This has been a busy summer--teaching kids at the ABQ zoo and writers at a conference in Taos, but mostly working on BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER with frequent interruptions to fix loose ends and read galleys of VICTORIA REBELS. But now Victoria is in production and yesterday I hit SEND on the Hermione ms.

So now what?

I used to worry that I'd run out of ideas. Or that the ideas I'd been sending to editors would all be accepted and I'd be buried under deadlines. So far I haven't run out of ideas, but occasionally I'm swamped. Then it's over, and my friends urge me to "Relax, take it easy, take a break."

Not going to happen. I need two days to straighten up my office, pay bills, clean out the refrigerator, answer emails--and then I'm ready to go. Today is Friday. On Monday I'll start my next project: a series of ebooks. More about this later. Read More 
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What's the Matter with Grammar?

I remember learning to write, probably because my mother saved some of my first efforts, but, oddly, I don't remember learning to read. I don't remember learning grammar, either, but it must have happened before 6th grade, because by the time I was in junior high (7th grade), I had it down. By the time I was in high school, Miss Frankenberry had taken over my writing life (see Grammar Dragon), and she simply didn't allow anyone to use bad grammar. Misspellings didn't go down well. And when I was a college freshman and took whatever that Writing 101 course was, 3 errors of any kind (grammar, spelling, punctuation) in a writing assignment and you were down one letter grade. Didn't matter how brilliant or creative your writing was--if you couldn't write correctly, well then, you weren't really writing.

So whatever happened to that idea? I worked with some 7th graders at the zoo this summer, and I could barely translate their sentences. 2 mch txting, I think. There was also this notion for awhile among educators that making kids write correctly somehow impeded their creative process; better just to let it flooooowwww. Were they kidding? I hope that has changed. At the risk of sounding like an old fartress, let me just say that grammar and spelling, and punctuation, too, are the basic tools of writing, and if you haven't mastered those skills, you're not going to get anywhere. Read More 
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The Simple Life

I try to keep things simple. When my sons were young, they used to complain that I didn't pay enough attention to them. "You were always thinking about writing," grumbled Alan, the oldest. He was right--I didn't help with homework ("Aren't you supposed to do that yourself?"), didn't take them to hockey practice ("Just find something to do you can walk to"), didn't bake cookies for the neighborhood kids ("We're out of milk? Drink some water.") What I did was write books.

So the boys are long grown up and gone with careers and families of their own, and I haven't changed much. I still don't want to spend time on things that don't interest me, and my goal is to keep things simple. Simple but good. Take breakfast, for instance. Here's my hot-weather recipe.

Part 1: throw a couple of big handfuls of thick-rolled oatmeal in a bowl with a few craisins and some chopped dried apricots and dump enough milk on it to cover it. Part 2: go for a 3-mi walk and think about what I'm writing, shower, and dress (tee shirt, pants, sandals).
Part 3: stir chopped apple, cutup orange, whatever, and a big blob of plain yogurt into the oatmeal. Serve with banana, nuts, cinnamon, milk.

This will feed 2 people a terrific breakfast for 3 days. Yes, boxed cereal would be simpler, but it's not delicious. Did I mention that food should be delicious, especially breakfast? Especially if I'm going to be at my desk all day?

And then I make my first cup of tea for the day and write books. Read More 
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Teaching in Taos

This Sunday I begin a week at the Taos Summer Writers Conference. Nine participants in my group, Writing for Young Adults, including me. I hope I can keep them engaged for 3 hrs a day for 5 days. I'm not really a teacher, just a writer who sometimes fakes it. The good thing is that I've been writing for a very long time and can draw on a lot of experience. The bad thing is that I've been writing for a very long time. Who knows if 40+ years of doing it is relevant to anyone but me? There will be a lot of other things going on, though, the inn is old and funky, Taos is great in the summer. They'll have a good time.

I first came to an artists' colony in Taos in 1978. It was my first time in the southwest, New Mexico was a whole new world, and I never wanted to go back to the old, familiar, East Coast life. So I stayed--several months in Taos, and then five years in Santa Fe before I eventually found my way to Albuquerque. I worked on a novel that summer; it was never published--for good reason: it was terrible! I think I've improved over the years. I'm still in touch with people I met in Taos in '78--Richard, a writer in Pittsburgh, and Ruth, a composer in Boston. We've all accomplished a lot since then. I wonder what's happened to the others.

I'll be working on BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER during my free time in Taos, and thinking about a new idea. One thing I know: I could never have attempted either of these projects 34 years ago. It took me a long time to get to this place.  Read More 
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Recovering Writing Addict

I'm still not managing a post a week, but things have gotten better. Much better.

My two days at the zoo turned out to be a lot of fun. The group was very small the first week, so I had a chance to figure out what worked and what didn't by the time 22 kids showed up the following Tuesday. The ABQ Zoo is terrific, and the kids were really into it, although the animals could have been more cooperative.

The launch of THE WILD QUEEN turned out well. I had a good turnout, thanks to friends, fellow writers, and a bunch from a local book club with the great name of "Reading Between the Wines." I felt good about the talk I'd put together, and Alamosa Books served scones (very Scottish!) and a ginger tea.

I've heard from all the members of the writing workshop I'll be working with in Taos, and I'm relieved to find that they're not all writing about zombies. Their preliminary work shows a wide range of interests, and I think we're going to have a good and very productive time.

After a week's family vacation in Colorado, I came home to find the copyedited manuscript of VICTORIA REBELS. It was a mess--the formatting of the electronic version I'd submitted had completely vanished; no italics, no underlining, no indents of paragraphs--and the copyeditor had no idea that I had attempted to incorporate Victoria's unique diary style. Three days to straighten that out.

So now I can focus again on my work-in-progress, BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER, for which I have now figured out an ending! Yay! All I have to do is WRITE IT. (And I got a postponement of my deadline to August 1st. Yay!)  Read More 
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My "Weekly" (?) Journal

The idea was to post a journal entry once a week. Now it seems I can barely manage once a month. Sometimes not even that! So what happened?

The problem is that there's so much more to being a writer than just plunking myself down in front of my computer for a few hours every day. Aside from the daily stuff that everybody has to deal with--grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning up, paying bills, doing laundry--there are the things I'm determined to do to stay healthy and intellectually alive: getting enough sleep, walking 3 miles every morning, working out at the gym 3 times a week, keeping up with the news, reading something that isn't related to what I'm writing, staying in touch with family and close friends.

But there is the work that goes along with simply cranking out a certain number of pages a day. At the beginning of April I traveled to Philadelphia to give a talk at a university about historical fiction for kids. At the end of April I was in Chicago taking part in an International Reading Association day-long institute. Both of these events required hours of preparation, plus airport and flying time, and I got home wanting to sit and do nothing for a couple of days. But I couldn't.

This Tuesday and next I'll be at the Albuquerque Zoo, teaching a class of 7th graders about Charley Darwin, prompting them to imagine that we're on board the Beagle and to write about our voyage. I've spent hours meeting with the directors of the program and working on projects to keep the kids engaged from 9 am until 4.

Next Saturday our wonderful Alamosa Books is giving a launch party for THE WILD QUEEN. Last week I did an email interview for the Albuquerque Journal, related to the event, and I've just spent most of my Sunday afternoon emailing everybody I can think of who might be interested in coming. Deciding what to read and how to present the book will take me an hour or so later this week.

It's still a month away, but I'm now preparing to teach a writing workshop in Taos, NM, on Young Adult books, a subject about which I'm supposed to know something. I do know something about historical fiction, but what if these students all want to write about zombies? Meanwhile, I need to contact them, find out what they're doing, if it is zombies, and shape the workshop around what they want to do.

It's a good idea to keep things going on Facebook and Twitter; I've been told that I need to tweet about 3 times a day. I manage in spurts to think up tweets and posts that aren't completely inane, but then I slack off, which is supposedly very bad. I do pretty well at keeping the content of this website up to date with new book covers and excerpts of reviews, except--obviously--for the Writer's Journal.

And then there's my current work-in-progress, BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER, for which I have not yet figured out an ending. It's due July 15th--the day I leave for Taos. Read More 
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A Reader Asks

"I would love to know some of the steps and stages you use to writing your books," a girl named Sophie wrote to me earlier today, and I thought that might make an interesting post.

It all starts with an idea, of course. Usually the idea just pops into my head out of nowhere, sparked by something I've read or a conversation I've had. Once in a while an editor actually asks me if I'd be interested in writing about a particular subject. I'm not sure where the idea for Hermione, daughter of Helen of Troy, came from. Someone mentioned Helen, and I wondered if she had a daughter, and when I discovered that she did--Hermione--I began to wonder what it would be like to be the daughter of "the most beautiful woman in the world."

Thinking about the idea means Googling it, getting a rough idea of the subject, checking to see what else has been done with the subject. Lots has been written about Helen of Troy, but very little on Hermione. I decided to read Homer's ILIAD, about the Trojan War. Nothing there about Hermione, not even very much about Helen, but plenty about the other players in the ancient story. I was hooked.

The serious research began. It has gone on for months, even after I began writing the first tentative sentences, feeling my way along, looking for the best way to tell the story. Sometimes I feel I'm on the right track; more often I have to back up and start again. I'm not even half way through BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER, and it's a rough slog. I keep going, even though I know I'll end up trashing most of it. I do most of my thinking on my morning walk, so that I'm ready to write when I sit down at my desk.

I hope to have most of a rough draft done in about two months. It will be hard. No days off, except when I have commitments to teach a workshop or attend a conference. I'm still doing research even while I'm writing. (Hermione decides to go with her father, Menelaus, to fight with the Trojans in hopes of getting Helen back. She knows her father will refuse to take her to the war, but she's determined. So how will I get her there? What will she do once she gets there? Who's with her? Does she have friends? Enemies?)

Each section will be rewritten several times. In July the manuscript will be sent to my editor in NY. She'll go over it and send it back a few weeks later, usually asking for MAJOR REVISIONS. I'll be in despair at first, but then I'll figure it out. Or try to. I'll probably end up having to do a complete rewrite, because anything less is just patchwork. Then I'll send the new version. Weeks later I'll get an email with a list of additional suggested changes. I'll work on them. There may be more, but we're getting there. Finally the editor and I are both satisfied.

Then the fact checker takes over. She/he will have dozens of questions, some small, some not so small. I'll try to fix them. She/he's going to have a hard time with this book, because it's all based on myth. After that, copyediting gets into it and finds sentences that don't quite cut it. I'll fix them. I"ll get a set of galleys to read for errors and hope I find them. By this time it will be 2013. The editor will send me a cover design, and I'll probably love it. There will be maps, and we'll figure out what should go on them. Flap copy has to be written and approved. An Advanced Reading Copy will arrive, the book is in the final states of production, and somebody will call in a panic because an error has been found. Fix it! Fix it!

And then it's done, on its way to being a finished book. And I've already started another one. Read More 
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About Kids Publishing

Last Sunday I took part in TEDxArcadia at a college in the Philadelphia suburbs, a long day with 18 live presenters alternating with videos of popular TED talks from other parts of the country. One was a 10-year-old girl who had already had several books published and was making a very strong argument against traditional publishers who "don't want to work with children." Probably she's a genius, and it may well be that her work is of the highest order.

Then in last Sunday's NY Times I read a front-page article about kids whose parents are paying hefty sums to have their children's stuff published as e-books. Apparently it helps their self-esteem. My own view, and it probably won't win me any friends here, is that this is no way to become a good writer. It also occurs to me that becoming a good writer may not be the goal at all. It's just to be a published writer; maybe even a writer read by someone other than your teacher.

I've always been worried about people who sign up for workshops and come with just one really burning question: "How do I get published?" Not how do I get more tension in this narrative, how do I make my characters more believable, how much description is too much, how do I make my dialogue better? And I never have a satisfactory answer.

I have a lot of friends who are writers--published writers, some more successful than others. I don't know any who have hit the jackpot on the first try (or the second, or the tenth). Years ago a friend who worked in another field called and asked for the name of my agent. "Why do you want that?" I asked.
"Because I'm writing a best-seller, and I need to get signed up right away." I told her I was glad to hear that and asked her how far along she was with the book. "First chapter," she said. I don't know if she ever made it to Chapter Two.

All my writer friends know that rejection is the norm, success is elusive, and becoming a writer is a lifetime job. Kids ought to know that, too. Read More 
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