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Want to write a great voice? Listen.

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

On Sunday night, Meryl Streep won her third Academy Award for IRON WOMAN.  I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, but Streep is amazing as Margaret Thatcher.  It’s not only the makeup and hair that makes Streep look like the former prime minister, it’s the voice.  Streep nails it.  Just like she did with her roles of Julia Child, and Sophie, and Baroness Karen vo Blixen-Finecke. All are amazing performances. In fact, Streep is known as the actress than can do any accent like it’s her own.  How does she do it? And what does that mean for a writer creating voice in a character?

Once, during an interview right after the Golden Globes, Streep said she tries to really understand inside how the person speaks, then she goes to ethic neighborhoods and hangs out in cafes “to corroborate” what she’s thinking. Her process is pretty simple. She listens. People speak with a cadence, a pacing, a certain way of phrasing words, and Streep is a master at hearing that rhythm.

We’ve all heard how a voice comes to a writer and whispers in his or her ear.  For the rest of us, we can learn something from Streep’s technique. Listen. Find people who have similarities to the characters you’re writing, and corroborate if the voice in your head sounds like the voice on the page. Listen for voices in the coffee shop, in the grocery store, or in the mall. For most of us, one day in a middle school or high school would probably be an audible experience worth writing about!

Think about how your character’s voice should sound from the inside.  The slang.  The syntax.  The inside jokes.  Listen for the breaths, and the beats, and the pauses.  Listen for what’s said and isn’t said.  Listen.

Continue listening with your eyes.  Read John Green and Nancy Werlin and Franny Billingsley and Laura Halse Anderson.  Let yourself be influenced by great writers you admire. Pay attention to how they put voice on the page.  You don’t need to note every noun and comma, but notice the flow of the language.  The sound on the page.

I love the line from Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys, “Above all, a quirky human voice to hang a story on.”  Listen for that quirky human voice everywhere.  To write a really great voice, listen.  Just listen.

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Got Voice? Augusta Scattergood Does!

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

I first met Augusta Scattergood in 2005 at the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Conference.  I was nervous and wide-eyed seeing all the editors and agents who attend this day long event held each year in October.  Augusta was a kind face in a big crowd, and we started talking books and writing over breakfast.  It’s a friendship that’s lasted through all the ups and downs of writing and publishing. First off, Augusta is whip smart and reads with the critical eye of someone who loves children’s books and knows the literature as a former librarian. Plus, she writes with a voice that is funny and warm and real. And you have to admit, Augusta has the perfect name for a children’s author!  Augusta’s first novel for young readers, Glory Be, is just out from Scholastic Press, so I’ve invited Augusta to the Tollbooth today as I spend the week talking about voice.  The narrator of Augusta’s book rings with a true Southern voice, so let’s see how she did it!

Richard Peck says there’s a whiff of Carson McCullers in Glory Be.  I’m a huge McCullers fan and wondered if she was the inspiration or muse for Glory’s voice?

I’ve always heard character voices in my head! I was a librarian. I read aloud to kids, helped with classroom book discussions, book-talked all the new books. But when I left my school to write full time, the voice I heard was from my own childhood in Mississippi. While I’m honored by Richard Peck’s comparison and appreciate having even a whiff of McCullers in my writing, unlike Glory, I cannot tell a white lie. She was not really my muse.

For your readers who might not know about author endorsements, also knows as book blurbs, at least in my first experience the publisher, or perhaps your agent, asks authors to write the kind, generous words for the back of the book jacket. I was completely blown away when I read mine for the first time. Richard Peck, Barbara O’Connor, Kathryn Erskine. These esteemed authors actually read my book and took the time to write these amazing words. Wow was all I could think.

You say in the author’s notes that the story is fiction, but it seemed so authentic to my own Southern childhood.  Are there parts of the book that echo your own childhood?

There are so many things from my own childhood. I have a younger sister, and she’d say I’m a lot like Jesslyn. Bossy and controlling.

I was in the Pep Squad and actually had a college roommate who twirled a fire baton. I was envious, but alas it was beyond my skills.

Truly embarrassing confession: Many of the things about Elvis are straight from my life. I was a huge fan. This Christmas my niece gave me a small plaster-of-Paris Elvis bust that’s now in the Junk Poker box I show to kids in schools. (The statue replaces the large one my mother tossed out when I left for college.)

The food, the heat, the swimming pool noises and smells—all came straight from my Mississippi summers. Even some of the names. “Brother Joe” was my good friend’s daddy, the Methodist minister across the street. The family name was bestowed on the Hemphills before I ever met you, Helen. But, yes, we do have those deep Southern roots.

Darn!  I thought you named Glory for me!  Glory’s relationship with her father is a special one in the book, with a nice blend of love and exasperation.  Did that relationship come easily to the story?

What were the hardest relationships to “get right.”

Originally Brother Joe was a minor figure. A shadow who mostly existed to tell Jesslyn no on occasion.  I’d played down his fatherly role in an attempt to show Emma in charge. But the more I worked on it, the more important he became to the story and to Glory. Thank you for noticing and no, it did not come easily.

Relationships are so important in writing for young readers. I find when a plot line isn’t working, I go back to the relationships and dig deeper.

The two sisters’ story was probably the easiest. But Laura and Glory gave me the most to think about. Laura didn’t do much in the earlier versions. Perhaps because I didn’t know any Yankees when I was Glory’s age! What did they do besides talk funny and wear black socks and clodhoppers? Glory sure didn’t know what to make of her at first. But I worked hard on that part. Soon I realized they were just two girls getting to know each other, and they became good friends who loved Nancy Drew and the Beatles.

Tell readers a little bit about your writers’ groups in New Jersey and Florida.  Did they see bits and pieces of the novel as you wrote it, the whole manuscript, or both?

Writers’ groups are crucial to my literary endeavors! My New Jersey group started out with six women who wanted to learn more about writing. Our writing goals were widely disparate. One published personal essays. Another was a poet. Another a novelist with books published in many genres. I mostly wrote book reviews and essays.

Originally Glory Be was a short story for adults about a wedding planner who babysat the preachers’ daughters. It wasn’t long before I realized that was not what this story was meant to be. In the middle of this figuring out, we moved to Florida. I panicked. How could I live without my critique group!

Since moving, I’ve been in three critique groups. Actually, they kept disbanding, and I hope that had nothing to do with Glory! I’m now in an SCBWI group of fellow children’s writers, a perfect match. They see chapters, sometimes multiple times. I also have an amazing online critique partner whose skills complement mine perfectly.

The hard part about a critique group is that you can write a sparkling chapter or scene. Your characters may sing. Your settings glow. And then there’s that scary PLOT thing. Which can be hard to discern when you proceed slowly, chapter by chapter, with days or even weeks between readings.

You mention in the author’s notes the help of trusted readers and resources to make this book so authentic.  What advice would you give to new writers just dipping their toes into a manuscript?

The most important thing, of course, is to read. I had a headstart on that, having been a book reviewer and a school librarian (for a very long time). I suspect reading aloud to kids helped me get the rhythm of sentences, the sound of words, the flow of paragraphs and pages.

I still read my own writing out loud. When nobody’s listening, of course.

When writing historical fiction, especially for kids, I strongly believe you need to be sure your information is correct before you even begin to add it to the novel. I listened to oral histories for the words and stories of real people who’d lived during Freedom Summer in the South. I read a lot of non-fiction about the period. And when it came down to it, I reached out to friends and family. Especially in the final stages of editing, I needed help with crucial parts of the story. Emails and phone calls flew! Do you say doodlebug or roly-poly? Fireflies or lightning bugs? And the more serious questions, what happened in your community during those historic times. Would Glory have stood up and spoken out like she did? I knew I didn’t. But I discovered it was something a lot of us who grew up in the early 60s wish we’d been brave enough to do.

When I began to think like Glory, to worry about swimming pools and libraries closing for no reason, I knew I had a story.

It’s a wonderful book, Augusta.  I can’t wait to give it to some of the fifth grade students I’m working with here in Nashville.  They just finished reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, and I think this is a terrific companion novel to that book. You can see Augusta in person if you happen to be near Oxford, Mississippi!  She’s be signing books at Square Books Jr., one of my favorite bookstores, on March 1 at 5 pm.  Have fun, Augusta, and thanks for hanging out with us in The Tollbooth.

On Wednesday, we’ll talk more about voice. How does a writer “make it real?”  Come back, y’all hear!

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Eat Dessert First!!!!

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.


This was possibly the best advice I ever received.

Eat dessert first.

In other words: write the scenes you want to write. Then go back and write the other scenes. (The ones you don’t want to write.)

For me, these are usually the scenes with high dramatic tension or a lot of action. When I was writing BEYOND LUCKY, I loved working on the soccer scenes as well as the scene where Ari finds the card. I liked writing the humorous scenes, too. Now that I am working on something new, I find myself doing the same thing. I’m writing scenes where my main character confronts conflict and tension. I have a theme. A point. A destination. So now I’m putting my character in a situation, and I’m letting the characters talk. Writing is (almost) fun for me this way. If I had to write linearly, I’m not sure I could get to the point of worrying about all the other stuff: flow, sequence, critical information…..

So today, let’s eat dessert first. Then I challenge you: write the scene you WANT to write…the one that you can’t wait to get to.

Most Inspiring Molten Chocolate Cake

9 ounces bittersweet chocolate (splurge for the good kind)
2 sticks unsalted butter
4 large eggs PLUS 4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 T flour

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter your ramekins. (There’s never enough chocolate or butter in your life…like there aren’t enough great scenes.)

combine butter and chocolate. Melt together in a double boiler over barely simmering water. Stir and remove from heat.

Beat eggs and yolks. Add sugar. Beat until doubled in volume. Beat in chocolate mix, then flour. Divide batter into ramekins (I use six for this recipe) and cook 11 to 14 minutes. The sides should be set. The middle should be soft.

TO SERVE:

Although you will be tempted to eat this the second it comes out, give yourself enough time to create either a nice raspberry sauce…some whipped cream, or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

It’s not bad cold the next day.

Now WRITE THAT SCENE!!!!!!

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100 page soup

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.


Yesterday, I wrote very briefly about my personal correlation: cooking and writing. For me, they go together. I get into “creation” mode and we eat better.

(Unfortunately writing and cleaning seem to have the opposite relationship.)

Cooking special dishes is also how I celebrate writing milestones.

When I’ve gotten through a tough section of a story, I tend to make something chocolate.

When I’ve finished a draft, I usually crave brisket.

My favorite milestone is getting to page 100. Why? Well, it always amazes me when I realize that I’ve written 100 pages. When I’ve gotten that far, I know I have a story…not just an interesting character. I can’t help being amazed that once again, the creative process has actually worked!!!!

So to celebrate page 100, I treat myself to Thai Seafood Soup. I like it because it’s spicy and full of citrus. (I began developing this recipe when I first moved to Hanover, NH. I love YAMA, but I really miss good Thai food.) If you have loved ones sensitive to spicy food, cut back on the peppers…or watch steam rise from their scalps. When my kids were small, and esp before I had any success at all, I wanted to include them in the process, in these milestones. This is a commitment (living the writing life) that we have all made…and I never forget that.

ENJOY!

Sarah’s super spicy Thai Seafood Soup

Seasoning Mix: (Taken from Paul Prudhomme’s Fiery Foods That I love):

1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp ground ancho chili
3/4 tsp garlic powder
3/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp white pepper

Mix these seasonings together.

The rest:

2T unsalted butter
2 cups fresh white mushrooms
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced thinly
2tsp fresh garlic
2tsp fresh serrano chilis
4 T (or more) lemon juice
2T (or more) fresh lime juice
3 T fish sauce (a combo of prepared fish sauce, sugar, lemon juice and pepper…let it sit an hour.)
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 pound shrimp
1/2 pound scallops
1/2 pound salmon, skin removed
1 pound calamari, cut into rings (I like tentacles, too.)
silver noodles, prepared

For the end:
cilantro
chopped zuchini, red pepper, onion. peas bean sprouts

What to do:

melt butter in a saucepan. Add mushrooms, lemongrass, serranos and seasoning mix. When that begins to stick (about 2 min on high heat), add juice and fish sauce. Cook five minutes until thick. Then add stock. Bring to boil. Add fish and cilantro. Again, bring to boil. When fish is cooked, add vegees. Add extra lemon and lime to taste. Ladle into individual bowls with silver noodles, cilantro garnish, and some bean sprouts. Make sure you have a BIG pitcher of water.

Hints:

I halve the cayenne. For my husband. Because he is the one who has made it possible for me to stay home and write…..

Happy eating…and don’t forget to celebrate the milestones with your loved ones!!!

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Cooking and writing

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

When I am drafting a new manuscript, I do a lot of cooking.

Actually, when I’m revising I cook even more.

When I’m cooking, I’m creating. I’m thinking. I’m playing music. All these things let my subconscious ramble (and gives me enough space to think about something besides politics!!) When I cook, I think. I smell. I imagine details. My family thinks I’ve done something with my day!

(Let’s face it…sometimes we need some product while we’re in the process!)

If you aren’t sold yet, eating well also serves my creative process. I also write a lot better and faster when I take care of myself!

When I’m writing, I NEVER diet.

So this week, I’m going to share some of my favorite recipes that help me write. An appetizer. A main course. A salad. and a special celebration dessert.

Here’s your appetizer:

Sarah’s AMAZIN’ humus!!!

2 cups canned chick peas, drained
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh garlic
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (This is the SECRET ingredient!!)
1 tsp cumin
1/3 cup tahini
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice, plus lemon zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
parsley for garnish

Basically, put all this stuff in a food processor, season to taste, and eat. For years, my friends invite me to pot luck dinners JUST so I can bring the humus. It’s REALLY good with pita. Or tabouli. Or next to a piece of grilled tomato.

It’s also the kind of snack that can sit right next to the computer as I’m writing.

Bon Appetit, and happy writing!

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Kill Your Darlings, but Keep Their Shadows

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

Sometimes I feel like I’m wielding a machete or a flamethrower when I’m revising a book. Pages burn into ashes. Sentences blow away like the seeds of a dandelion clock.

There are times we must remove our Darlings. (“Remove”: a sterile word for “cut” and “kill,” which implies blood is involved.)

We may remove a word.

A sentence.

A scene.

A desire.

A motive.

A character.

Or another element of the story.

The revision may be substantial, and it is like we are pulling the warp threads out of a plot or sending the keystone from a character arc tumbling to the ground.

The art of writing involves knowing what needs to stay and what needs to be removed.

A positive spin: We are deleting cutting rescuing our Darlings from a place they don’t belong as we find the best way to tell our story.

What happens to the words we delete?

Scenes we eliminate?

Characters we yank from the pages?

Our Darlings may go on to another life as we tuck them away in our mental “use later” file or into a “cut from book” file in the computer. We can save an awesome turn of phrase to use at another time later. We can borrow and steal elements from a deleted scene for another story. Not a word we write is wasted.

When I remove words/ sentences/scenes/characters from a story, what else happens?

Example One: In my novel, River, I cut a significant secondary character. She wasn’t pulling her weight. (Truth be told, she didn’t want to be in the book.)

When I revised, elements of her character that were critical to moving the plot forward shifted to two other secondary characters.

Example Two: [These opening sentences are taken from one of my picture books that I wrote while at VCFA while in the picture book semester. This book was a finalist in the 2010 SCBWI Barbara Karlin Grant competition.]

1. “We climb our mountains from the inside, up and up we climb.” (First draft—when I was desperately trying to get words on the page so I could make my VCFA packet deadline.)

2. “Today we will conquer a new peak, the highest peak in the mountain range.” (2nd draft.)

3. “Today we are explorers. We cross the bridge toward the mountains wild . . .”  (Final draft, after numerous revisions.)

Only two significant words remain in the final draft: “we” and “mountains.” The concept of going “inside” shifts to a spread later in the manuscript. The word “explorers” in the final version captures the idea I wanted to express in the earlier versions.

Ghosts and Shadows

The essence of what is cut removed often floats around and squeezes into other sentences or parts of the book. At times, deleting and writing more words acts as a palimpsest: not all that was removed is fully erased. Vestiges remain.

Even when we kill our Darlings, they live on as ghosts and shadows. Aspects of what we removed remain in the pages. In essence, although what we cut is no longer there, ghosts of those words will haunt our pages and flit between sentences.

What is your experience with the traces and shadows, the ghosts of your Darlings?

~Sarah Blake Johnson

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The Loving Heart

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

Hello, Boothers!

I just read Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now—a party I know I am late to, but one I am so glad to have joined.  I loved this book like I haven’t loved a book in a long time, by which I mean I was entirely immersed in the world of the book, entirely invested in its characters, and entirely in love with the author’s writing.  And, most importantly, in awe of the book’s loving heart.

And, indeed, in doing a mental rummage of books-I-love, books I adore so much I’d sleep with them tucked under my pillow, I realized that, for me, this loving heart is almost always the thing that sets apart a book I love and ache for and think about over and over again from the books I love or admire in a regular sort of way.  Alison McGhee’s Rainlight, for example, a novel told from the points of view of multiple characters who are dealing with the death of a man each of them loved, is a book so full of sadness and depth it could only have been written because McGhee was willing to love her way into the heart of each character and make their feelings come alive in ours.

Similarly, Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona—her whole oeuvre, actually—is deepened by the same intense compassion and understanding of her characters.  We feel the anguish and lovesickness and grief of teenaged Jessica Vye as deeply as she feels it, simply because Gardam must have been willing to love her, too, all the way from the inside out.

What’s to be learned from this?  A lot, it turns out.  For me, it’s been the key to what is the hardest part of writing for me—coming up with a plot.     And the only way that works for me to figure out what can actually happen in a book in is to try to live up to the example of writers like McGhee and Gardam and Schmidt by working very hard to have a loving heart that understands my characters and feels what they feel, loving them wholly from the inside.  Because how they feel drives what they do, and what they do is what turns into a plot.   So, loving hearts ahoy!  And thank you, Gary Schmidt, for such a gorgeous example.

The Loving Heart

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

Hello, Boothers!

I just read Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now—a party I know I am late to, but one I am so glad to have joined.  I loved this book like I haven’t loved a book in a long time, by which I mean I was entirely immersed in the world of the book, entirely invested in its characters, and entirely in love with the author’s writing.  And, most importantly, in awe of the book’s loving heart.

And, indeed, in doing a mental rummage of books-I-love, books I adore so much I’d sleep with them tucked under my pillow, I realized that, for me, this loving heart is almost always the thing that sets apart a book I love and ache for and think about over and over again from the books I love or admire in a regular sort of way.  Alison McGhee’s Rainlight, for example, a novel told from the points of view of multiple characters who are dealing with the death of a man each of them loved, is a book so full of sadness and depth it could only have been written because McGhee was willing to love her way into the heart of each character and make their feelings come alive in ours.

Similarly, Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona—her whole oeuvre, actually—is deepened by the same intense compassion and understanding of her characters.  We feel the anguish and lovesickness and grief of teenaged Jessica Vye as deeply as she feels it, simply because Gardam must have been willing to love her, too, all the way from the inside out.

What’s to be learned from this?  A lot, it turns out.  For me, it’s been the key to what is the hardest part of writing for me—coming up with a plot.     And the only way that works for me to figure out what can actually happen in a book in is to try to live up to the example of writers like McGhee and Gardam and Schmidt by working very hard to have a loving heart that understands my characters and feels what they feel, loving them wholly from the inside.  Because how they feel drives what they do, and what they do is what turns into a plot.   So, loving hearts ahoy!  And thank you, Gary Schmidt, for such a gorgeous example.

Greetings From The SCBWI Conference!

Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

Tollbooth friend Tim Martin joins us again this weekend to report on the recent SCBWI conference in New York–

The SCBWI winter conference in New York: thoughts from one tuckered out, dog-tired (but still-smiling) attendee.

The SCBWI winter conference came and went like an invigorating whirlwind of ideas, insights and connections. As usual, there were scores of diverse industry folks (including, this winter, people working in digital storytelling and marketing), and an inviting collection of breakout sessions of which we attendees could sample three. This seemed, at first, restrictive, but I think it pressed us to be specific and focused on our areas of passion and interest.

So, here are my picks of a few key moments, and the things that stayed with me as I jetted from the conference on my way home to Los Angeles:

Connections. SCBWI, along with all its regional and international tentacles, and associated writing groups, bloggers, and specialty discussion groups, has always been the nerve center for accessible networking between writers. The Society primarily functions as a community, and the twice-yearly conferences act as testament to this collective spirit. To that end, this winter get-together encouraged attendees to get to know their regional advisors, consider a submission to an editor, get involved in panel discussions, ask that burning question, and, of course, make that accidental connection over bagels and lox cream cheese. You know, the one that may just nudge a writer’s fortune in some unexpected direction.

Breakout sessions. A good assortment of topics were covered, from “Non- Fiction” (Ken Wright of Writer’s House) to “Diversity and Multiculturalism” (Stacy Whitman of Tu Books) to “Narrative Fiction” (Alvina Ling of Little Brown). For an attendee, it’s always hard to select from the list, and I found it worthwhile to check in on friends who had chosen alternative sessions, so as to get a gist of more themes, and more conference content. Many sessions were craft oriented (revision, dialogue, pacing and exposition), and some had an illustrative component. It was also interesting to see less conventional session topic selections, such as “Ebooks and Apps”.

The breakout sessions I chose were generally broad in scope, and tended to be genre related. Sarah Davies from The Greenhouse Literacy Agency took us through the subject of “thrillers” in an action-packed, spine-tingling, lightening-speed hour. She’s an inspiring speaker: passionate, articulate, and informative. She blended solid crafty talking points with the commerciality demanded from many agents such as herself.

In the second session, Arianne Lewin from G.P. Putnam put a spin on the topic of “fantasy” by focusing in on the first two pages of some well-known recent bestsellers. How did the authors manage to convey the fantasy world without too much exposition? What part did dialogue and action play?

In my final session, Tara Weikum of Harper Collins led us through the first sentences of evocative YA books, and gave her suggestions to what makes this early impression a key to each novel’s success.

Digital. Most presenters deduced that the current state of digital storytelling was still in its infancy, and one which is likely to become more “associated” material to books rather than “cannibalistic”. That said, it is a fast growing industry, and all publishing houses have digital advisors with plans to embrace any opportunities that present themselves as good ideas and/or money makers. Writers were encouraged to think about how their books could be redesigned for “enhanced” purposes, and how their stories could cross platforms so as to maximize all possibilities.

Promotion. Yes, the message that came through was that a writer’s website presence is mandatory, and blogging and twittering are encouraged (particularly if you are promoting a book). However, it is not a great idea to force these social media avenues if you’re not “that person.” Nothing like a stale one-blog-a-year, or a lackluster Facebook page that doesn’t really tell anyone anything. Friday’s “Marketing Intensive for Professional Writers” outlined how writers can use social media to our best advantage. The making of trailers, websites, and other promotional platforms were discussed and demonstrated. The term branding was bandied around (no-one seems to wholly embrace that word), although it became evident to me that, from a marketing perspective, that is what we writers should all be doing. As soon as an author’s name is registered as a dot com, she is stamping herself with a brand that begins to shape her professional identity. Any subsequent websites, blogging articles, and, of course, the writer’s work itself, begins to further sculpt their personal brand. It seems sensible to hone this identity than confuse or downplay it, as, ultimately, it is going to help increase book sales and readership.

Trends. Agents and editors are generally reluctant to forecast trends, and they usually fall back on the important mantra of “write the book you need to write, and write it well.” But there were some hints at shifts in the near-future publishing market. A “mash-up” or blurring of genres is being seen. Why not sci-fi morphed with supernatural and a slathering of romance, for instance? Some are also seeing themes, writing style and genre returning to a “classic” feel, although this seemed a very vague notion. There appears room for more very young middle grade stories (for, say, 2nd graders). In addition, “best seller hits” are intensely hunted down, so “commerciality” is becoming the new norm writ large. Most importantly, the strongest trend is that editors must not just love a book, but EVERYBODY must love the book (including sales, marketing, Barnes & Noble, etc). Books have to find a place in the marketplace. Those stories that have a global reach tend also to be more attractive to those marketing them (this may be the reason the fantasy genre continues to do well, as it tends to deal with plots beyond local issues, and thereby may appeal to a wider audience.) Beyond all this, each speaker made clear that the Bottom Line is, of course, great and engaging storytelling.

Focus. Kathryn Erskine’s final keynote lecture set out an abundance of ways we should, and can, focus our frail, skittish selves to get down to the business of writing. Candles were offered to calm us (a “transition ritual”); ways to fjord off unwanted interruptions of the human kind were recommended; headphones were suggested; playlists were proposed … and the list went on. But in our world of multitasking and distractions, focus is one of the hardest undertakings to achieve and keep. Kathryn’s point was that focusing eases the writer into a deeper state of imagination and consistency. Left and right brain sides speak to each more smoothly, threads are better connected, and, needless to say, progress is better made.

Awards. In a surprise announcement, Jane Yolen eloquently presented a new SCBWI award to be given annually to mid-list authors. It seemed an appropriate and over-due recognition, although her description of the “death-cycle” was pretty sobering. The Tomie DePaola award was given to Yvette Piette Herrera, with Laurie Eslick as runner up. In addition, two illustration students, Davin Choi and Eunhye Seo, won the Student Illustrator Scholarship. Finally, the Portfolio Showcase – where 185 illustrators competed – culminated with Mike Curato as the winner. Mike had entered a wonderful art piece of a tiny white elephant yearning over an elaborate iced cake in a shop window. Runners up were Wook Jim Jung and Lori Nichols.

Unwind. SCBWI parties bring out the “wild” in the writers, or at least show up those enthusiastic networking skills. Who says writers are shy and unforthcoming? In any case, it’s a testament to the Society’s accessible and welcoming nature that these parties turn out to be really fun. I was tugged between the lavish cocktail event, the Australian regional contingent (my country of origin), the GLBT discussion group (growing in greater numbers and diversification every conference), and the VCFAers (who gathered en masse for a fantastic Italian dinner on 42nd Street). If I didn’t know how to “network” before the conference, I could certainly do it two days later.

Tim Martin is a third semester student in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Writing for Children and Young Adults program. He is based in Los Angeles and his website is: www.timothyjohnmartin.com

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Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

As we continue our discussion about self-marketing, I want to talk a bit (well, more than a bit) about discussion, activity, and teaching guides. Should you have one? And how can a guide help you market your book? To give us a bit of insight, I welcome to the Tollbooth today Debbie Gonzales. Debbie is the author of eight “transitional” readers for New Zealand publisher, Giltedge. A Montessori teacher, former school administrator, and curriculum consultant specializing in academic standards annotation, Debbie now devotes her time to various freelance projects as well as serving the Austin SCBWI community as Regional Advisor. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

First, Debbie, welcome to the Tollbooth! Can you tell us a little about the business you run creating discussion and teachers’ guides for authors?

You’re familiar with the adage “Write what you know,” right? Well, that’s what I’m doing. I pull from my years and years of teaching and curriculum development experience and pour it all into these cross-curricular book guides. I make guides like the ones I wish I would’ve had when teaching. Science, math, crafts, creative writing, analysis, games – you name it, I put it in. They’re becoming so popular; I’m having a hard time keeping up with the demand. That’s a good problem, right?

When did you decide to start cross-curricular book guides?

I got started making these when a friend and YA author was told by a librarian that she needed a book guide made to compliment her latest book, one that met the Texas educational standards. She and I got to chatting about it and I told her I’d be glad to make one for her. Soon after, her book found its way to be listed by the International Reading Association. (I’m not saying that my guide got her on the list, but it sure didn’t hurt anything.) The rest is history.

What types of guides do you create?

Picture books, chapter, middle grade and YA, you name it. I’ll do it. I create three basic types of guides for any and all genres. One is an Activity Guide, which is packed with lots of manipulative learning games applicable to all areas of the curriculum. I just finished a really cool Research Activity Guide for two non-fiction books about dogs and horses that were such fun to make! The guide features activities focusing on anatomy, map skills, research skills, poetry writing and a bunch of other things.

Another type of guide is the basic Discussion Guide. This one works quite well for YA novels. I document quotes that, I think, resonate with meaning, and then imagine kids thumbing through the pages to find the selected phrases, reading them aloud over and over again. I like to not only create questions that are inspired by the text, but those that cause the reader to consider their own emotional response to the story.

Lastly, I make longer, more in-depth guides that are a combination activities and discussion that typically end with a special art project or a Reader’s Theatre script. These guides are designed to provide discussion and activities that will span over a 6 week period of time – a teacher’s gold mine!

A collection of guides I’ve created are posted on my website. Stop by and take a look. I think you’ll like what you see there.

When it comes to self-marketing, why do you think it is important for authors to invest in discussion and teacher guides?

I think any way we can make our books appealing to gatekeepers – teachers, booksellers, librarians, parents – the better. Guides demonstrate the academic soundness of your book to the educator. They show gatekeepers that you’ve taken their needs to heart and want to help make their lives a little easier. They elevate enthusiasm for reading by providing fun and interesting activities. When kids engage in learning on a multi-sensory level, they’ll always remember that book and the way they connected with it. I like to say that guides help keep your books in the hands of those that teach, and in the hearts of children that read them.

Should all authors consider having a guide to go along with his/her book? Or do you feel the guides work best for books more aimed at the school and library market?

It all depends on the author’s intended market. If you’re interested in letting folks know a little bit about your book, oftentimes authors devise a list of summary questions and post them on their website. That works. Even a few intriguing discussion questions written on a promotion brochure flap is helpful. You’re handing these things out at book signings anyway, right? Why not devise a little academic hook and lure those educators your way?

However, if you hope for your work to find a place in the classroom, I do think that a well-crafted guide is the way to go, something packed with clearly written lessons, easy to adapt to a learning situation. Why, just the other day I attended an open-house for an Austin magnet school and was wowed by the innovative ways the teachers were using The Book Thief as a teaching tool. Maps. Art activities. Journaling. Brilliant! You can bet I was taking some crazy notes, too.

Once a guide is made, how would you encourage an author to best use it?

Naturally, post it on your website, which would be the first thing to do. One illustrator couple I worked for is binding several copies of their new guide and making them available for giveaways at ALA. Most authors bind them nicely and give them out to teachers during their school visits. Some folks mail a copy of the guide, along with a thank you card, to schools who have booked school visits with them. Many folks film dramatize Reader’s Theatre scripts and post bits on YouTube. Lots of authors use the craft 3 ideas as activities to be done by the kids during book signings. Even librarians get into the act by using discussion questions for reading group interchange. The ideas are endless!

Go ahead and get a guide for your books, from me or any of the other clever guide creators out there. Do it. You’ll be glad you did.

All right, Tollboothers, let’s talk discussion, activity, and teaching guides? Do you have ‘em? Want ‘em? How have you used them to market yourself?

–Teresa Harris

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