Writing

Taking Stock of Writerly Weaknesses and How to Avoid Overwhelm

One of my graduate students once told me that as she was reading a craft book on writing, she suddenly felt that everything she read about was a technique that she had failed to apply to her work-in-progress.

I laughed with recognition. It’s like a medical student who thinks she has every disease in her textbook.

This can feel a bit dire, even scary, as well as a little overwhelming.

However, just like a solid protagonist, you must comfort your flaws in order to achieve growth.

Today, my musings will be posting on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. And I will sit in synagogue and take stock of my behaviors, actions, and habits. This is a designated period of forgiveness as well as renewal.

As a writer, I try to also take stock of my areas of weaknesses and consider practices I might like to change. It is one of the greatest joys in writing—this idea that we can always grow, always learn.

But how to stop the overwhelm of it all?

Once when I was in graduate school, I visited my professor and I was really upset. She had read my submission, and I felt she had been too easy on me. “But what about setting?” I said. “I’m horrible with exposition. And my characterization and my rhythm and… and… and…”

She told me to take a deep breath and realize that it’s crazy making to try to fix everything all at once. Read a chapter for just one or two issues. For example, you could look at it to see if the dialogue sounds naturalistic and then edit with that in mind. Then you could examine how you’re dealing with tertiary characters, for example.

But after you’ve looked at a few craft areas, she recommended putting the piece down for a bit.

Although I didn’t believe her at the time, I do now.

There is be wisdom in putting your WIP on pause. You might, after a few months, have fresh eyes on your writing project. This does not mean to give up. Sometimes a little vacation can be healthy. You might even keep a notebook and, as you get an idea for revision, write it down, but not actually apply it right away. The WIP can be something you can attack when you feel ready and excited about it.

So, I guess, what I’m saying is take stock of what you want to fix in life, and in writing, but don’t feel like you need to remedy it all at once.

Tomorrow, PG&E will shut off my power for two to five days (I live in a wildfire area of California). It feels appropriate to me, on this day of awe, to take a pause, a break.

Although it seems a bit daunting, I’m actually looking forward to it.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2-18), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Writing MG Nonfiction: Top Researching Tips

I think half the fun of writing MG nonfiction is done before ever beginning to write. It all begins with research. I love to do research. I can spend hours just searching for that one really weird fact that sends me down another research rabbit hole. Those strange and little-known facts are what grab kids attention and what makes your book stand out from the rest. So research is not work to me—it’s really fun. And what it ultimately leads to is the story behind the facts. You want to get to that story . . . it’s what really hooks young readers.

Through working in publishing as an editor and solo as a freelance writer/editor, I’ve gathered some very reliable resources of interesting information that I either use on the book I’m writing or that I tuck away in my “future book ideas” file. I write a lot of science- and history-focused books, so here are some of the best resources I’ve found to help me with that research. Feel free to add some of your top research resources in the comments.

 

Library Databases: Free to access (with a library account) and filled with a wealth of information, library databases can be accessed either online or onsite at your local library. You can search academic journals, historical newspapers, scientific collections, historical collections, government publications, maps, music, and much more. Onsite databases offer even more than what libraries have online. Most writers wouldn’t be able to afford one or two of the subscriptions to these databases each year, but libraries can offer them free to the public. You just have to know where to look on their website or on computers in the library—and librarians are always willing to help you find the best databases for your research needs. Here are just a few of the many databases available through my local library’s online resources:

  • Birds of North America Online: Life histories of bird species breeding in the U.S. (including Hawaii) and Canada, including maps, images, videos, and audio files of songs and calls.
  • EBSCO Megafile: Magazine and journal articles, reference books, and images. Provides general and academic coverage of multiple subjects including science, technology, religion, philosophy, psychology, and business.
  • General Science Collection (from GALE): Full-text articles from journals on physics, mathematics, nanotechnology, geology, chemistry, biology, and more.
  • National Geographic Virtual Library: Full-text magazine articles. Includes books, maps, images and videos. Goes back to 1888.
  • New York Times, Historical: Digitized images from the original newspapers, New York Daily Times (1851 – 1857) and New York Times (from 1857 on, except the most recent 4 years).

 

An LOC image of Wilbur Wright gliding in level flight, moving to right near bottom of Big Hill; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Library of Congress: I am constantly findingnew treasures on the Library of Congress website. Whether it’s a historical photograph that helps me describe a hunting scenes and near-extinction of buffalo and bald eagles in North America or Civil War maps that help me understand more about the history of the war, this site is packed with primary sources that can be used not only for research on the topic, but also for free historical images that can be used in your book. It contains digital images, music, and manuscript collections; reference guides for researchers (like this one on natural disasters); great backmatter inclusions, like this list of sites for kids and families, turn-of-the-century films of San Francisco before and after the great earthquake and fire ; articles with links and images about important inventions, like the Wright brothers’ airplane and first flight; or the America’s Story site for student use.

 

Google Alerts and GoogleScholar: If I’m working on a particular topic, I’ll set up a Google Alert on the topic. This is particularly helpful when writing about current topics that are affected by daily events. The alerts send me links to the latest news articles and research papers on the topic. For example, I found this really useful when writing a book about exoplanet discoveries, as new planets are being discovered on a daily basis. I use Google Scholar to search academic journals for the latest research.

 

Research Papers (Lead to Interviews and Much More!): Not only great for primary source information and data to support your arguments, research papers are a goldmine for interview leads. They always include author information, sometimes even email addresses for the scientists who led the study and wrote their analysis. If not, by digging a little further, you can usually find contact information through a scientist’s listing on the university website of where they work. I have gotten many interviews with top scientists in their field this way, and the majority are thrilled to speak with me. Many will even send me other papers relevant to my topic, or not-yet-published results from some of their studies.

I found this incredible photo through a research paper on earwigs and their intricate wings.

Research papers may also include photos and diagrams related to the study. Some include a release for media professionals or contact information for media inquiries. I’ve never had a problem getting permission to use these images in the books I write, and since they are so specific to the topic, they can show exactly what’s described in the text (rather than the typical stock images, which is often what publisher’s use when specific images are not available). Authors of these studies will often send me laboratory photos to use in my books as well, which cannot be found elsewhere. For example, for a book on animal and plant longevity, a scientist studying Greenland sharks sent me the most amazing photos of him tagging the sharks for further study and of the shark’s eyeball (which is used to determine its several centuries-old age). Scientists rock! Their willingness to help authors educate others leads to some of the most interesting angles and stories behind the data of their studies.

And just a few more . . .

Digging deeply into your research will lead you on pathways you had no idea existed for your book. So have fun and dig as deep as you can as you work on your nonfiction. Kids will notice your work!

Interview with Stephanie Lurie, Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Stephanie Lurie at a Florida SCBWI conference, as well as take a workshop she was giving. Besides being extremely informative, she couldn’t have been nicer.

If you don’t know her, she’s the Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion, and I’m thrilled to feature her in the Editor Spotlight!

Hi Stephanie, thanks for joining us today!

JR: You’ve had a long, successful career in publishing. Could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor, and eventually working for Disney-Hyperion?

SL: Being a children’s book editor was a career choice I made very early on. When I was fifteen, a local bookstore owner asked me to review a book a townsperson had written for young adults. As I read the book, I thought, “Too bad this woman doesn’t know how kids really think.” It was an “aha!” moment for me: I could help authors make their books stronger. I’m not even sure how I knew such a job existed. . . .

I went on to be a creative writing major at Oberlin College, and during the first semester of my senior year, I had an internship for college credit at Dodd, Mead and Company in New York (a publishing house that was ultimately acquired by Thomas Nelson Books). My experience working for a children’s book editor at Dodd, Mead proved to me that I had found my calling. Dodd, Mead offered me a job after college–for a whopping $8,000 a year!–in sales promotion and customer service. I learned a lot, but I wanted to get back to children’s editorial. I jumped over to Little, Brown, where I grew up from editorial assistant to senior editor over twelve years. After that I ran the imprint Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for six years. My next stint was as president and publisher of Dutton Children’s books at Penguin. In my ninth year there, a friend of mine who was working at Disney Hyperion talked me into applying for an editorial director job by saying, “How would you like to do what you are doing at Dutton but not have any other imprints competing for marketing and publicity attention?” That sounded pretty good to me, and over the past decade there I have enjoyed being part of a boutique publisher within a huge entertainment company.

 

JR: That’s some exciting journey! What was the first book you worked on?

SL: I had a generous boss at Little, Brown who allowed me to “cut my teeth” on manuscripts by their top authors at the time, such as Lois Duncan, Ellen Conford, and Matt Christopher. One of the first authors I acquired was Neal Shusterman, who has gone on to be a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award winner with other editors.

JR: When you first saw The Lightning Thief, what about it appealed to you so much?

SL: Rick Riordan’s first middle grade novel, The Lightning Thief, was acquired at auction before my time at Disney. Rick chose to go with Miramax Books, which eventually became part of Disney-Hyperion. Jennifer Besser (now at Macmillan) edited the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I took over as Rick’s editor after she left, picking up on the Kane Chronicles trilogy. I was amazed by how he made ancient Egyptian mythology relevant to modern readers with exciting adventure, relatable characters, a healthy dose of humor, and a breakneck pace. He makes it look easy.

JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?

SL: What hasn’t? I’m so old (How old are you?), I pre-date office computers! Yes, we had to type on Selectrics, using carbon paper. The biggest changes have come from: corporate buy-outs of family-owned companies, which necessitated more attention to the bottom line; the rise of chain bookstores; the Harry Potter phenomenon, which brought hardcover fiction back from the brink of death; the importance of social media in author promotion; Amazon’s dominance; and today, more focus on diversity.

JR: I grew up doing all my reports on typewriters. Slightly easier now. And by the way, I could’ve sworn I heard Gene Rayburn say the “I’m so old” part before you answered (How old are you?) But back to the interview. Disney has recently acquired a lot of new properties. Does that mean anything for the publishing division?

SL: Disney now encompasses several premiere brands, such as Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox Entertainment. We can publish against all of these brands, from straight movie tie-ins to extension books that tell new stories based on the characters from the movies. It also means that there is more opportunity for intercompany synergy for authors writing their own IP (intellectual property).

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

SL: I’m having a blast helping Rick curate the Rick Riordan Presents line of middle grade fiction by under-represented authors who want to write stories about their own cultures’ folklore and mythology. I send him submissions to consider, acquire the projects we agree on, edit the manuscripts, and collaborate with my colleagues on book design and promotion.

JR: All that sounds like a tremendous amount of fun. What sort of books do you look for?

SL: For Rick Riordan Presents, we want the same qualities that make Rick’s own books so popular, because the imprint was created to satisfy his fans’ craving for adventure based on mythology. We look for a funny, snarky teenage voice; a fast pace; an exciting, high-stakes plot; and a likeable but flawed protagonist who grows over the course of the story.

JR: The kinds of books I love! Are you very hands-on with your authors?

SL: I’ve always enjoyed helping writers bring out their story by asking pointed questions and making suggestions to improve logic, flow, and clarity. For the Rick Riordan Presents authors, my guidance may be a bit more involved, because there is a certain flavor we are trying to achieve while retaining the author’s own voice. It’s a delicate balance.

JR: What’s the state of publishing right now, in particular, Middle Grade? 

SL: It can be difficult for a book—any book—to break out in this time when there is so much entertainment content for consumers to choose from and there are fewer retail outlets for print. Amazon is grabbing more and more market share, but the online site doesn’t encourage browsing. Buyers who shop there usually go already knowing what they want. This is part of the reason best-selling authors remain best-selling authors and new authors have trouble competing. Authors need to partner more with their publisher on promotion as a result.

JR: Probably more important than ever for authors to get involved in the promotion process. What advice can you give to authors?

SL: The best way to learn to write is to read, read, read, and write, write, write.

Remember that you are communicating with an audience and not just writing to satisfy your own ego.

A good concept isn’t enough by itself. Write the entire manuscript.

You may have to land a literary agent before you can land a publishing deal.

Choosing an agent and editor/publisher is like choosing any partner. Make sure there is good chemistry between you.

Be open to feedback but stand up for what is important to you.

Don’t expect the publication of your book to satisfy all your desires or change your life.

Writing the book is only 50% of the work; promotion after publication is the other 50%.

School visits are still one of the best ways to build word-of-mouth.

Support other authors on your way up, and they will (should) do the same for you.

 

JR: All of that is outstanding advice. In my experience, many authors have been extremely supportive of each other. I think strong relationships are extremely important in that regard. I read that Harriet the Spy was one of your favorite childhood books. I have a few friends who wholeheartedly agree with you. What did you love about it and what other books were among your favorites?

SL: I loved how honest Harriet the Spy was about a kid’s real life—I believe it was one of the first contemporary middle grade novels ever published. To this day I enjoy books in which a well-meaning main character makes a big mistake that causes them humiliation, e.g. The Truth About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. As a kid I also enjoyed animal-based fantasies such as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. High fantasies such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings stood out, too.

JR: The Narnia books were also among my favorites as a child. Speaking of childhood, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

SL: My fun-loving dad. He taught me to always remain a kid at heart.

JR: Okay, that answer hit me. If there’s one thing I could wish for from then, it would also be to see my dad. How can people follow you on social media?

SL: For publishing news and comments, Twitter is probably the best bet: @SOLurie.

JR: Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

SL: Thank you for inviting me to answer these questions. I greatly admire authors—both aspiring and published—and wish everyone a fulfilling journey. Your book could be the one that makes a reluctant reader a forever reader, changes a kid’s perspective, and inspires someone else to be a writer.

JR: Extremely true. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today!

 

Well, that’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers. I’d like to once again thank Stephanie Lurie for joining us! And if you ever see her listed to speak at a conference, I strongly suggest you go listen!

Until next time . . .