• beberly

(Twenty-) Two Heads are Better Than One

The problem with being one of the last in a long line of excellent writers coming up with a farewell post is that everyone before you has said everything you wanted to say and said it so beautifully that any attempt by you to do the same would fall miserably short. Therefore, let me start out by saying, “What SHE said!” That done, I will now turn my attention to those of you who, any day now, will be in our shoes. YOU will be the one screaming and doing the happy dance that finally, FINALLY, someone has bought your book! And once the excitement has worn off and your revisions are in, you’re going to start wondering about marketing your book and you may remember The Class of 2k9 and think, “How did they DO that? And how can I do that too?” Well, I’m here to tell you just that! So here you have it - group marketing advice, from The Class of 2k9....

1. Start small - as in the number of people in your group - Rosanne Parry (Heart of a Shepherd) and I started The Class of 2k9. Both of us had been in 2k8 until our books were moved to the next year. With just the two of us starting it up, it was easy to keep our focus. We adopted the same requirements of the previous classes: it had to be the author’s debut mg or ya novel, the publisher had to be in the US and the publisher had to be listed in CWIM. Your group might be All Fantasy or Dog Books or Books About Sludge. Whatever. Decide your objective first before opening up the group.

2. Invite potential members - After we established an email address and our basic requirements and drafted an introduction letter with application, we opened 2k9 up to new members. Our application and letter stressed that members would be expected to commit a fair amount of time and a bit of money (for website, print materials, etc) to the group. We “advertised” on Verla Kay, LiveJournal and SCBWI sites. The Class of 2k8 also helped us out by posting our address on their website.

3. Set up a meeting place - We set up two separate places - a yahoo list serve and a forum at proboards.com. The list serve was for announcements and communication and the forum was for the committees to meet and discuss their strategies/duties. Which brings me to...

4. Pick officers and committees - I tend to think the whole ‘officer’ thing sounds very grade-schoolish but it turned out to be extremely helpful, especially for a large group like ours. We had 2 Co-Presidents, a Treasurer, Secretary and 2k8 Liaison and all were chosen by a combination of volunteering and an all-member vote.

The advantage of having an “executive” committee really came into play when conflicts arose. The members needed someone to share their grievances with, without involving the whole class or potentially hurting feelings, etc. It’s like that scene in Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hanks walks up to a group of weary soldiers and asks, “Who’s in charge here?” and one of the guys answers, “Ain’t you?” Someone needs to be in charge.

After brainstorming as a class, we came up with the following committees: Executive, Website, Print Materials, Regional and State Conferences, Online Marketing (blog, facebook,etc), Guerilla marketing (outside the box type), Literacy/Outreach (Community Service), BLT (materials for Booksellers, Librarians, Teachers) and Media/PR. Every member joined 2 committees. These committees then met at the ‘forum’ site to hash out ideas. (Just as an aside, the use of the forum never totally caught on, as it was another place you had to go and log into. So what started happening was that committees formed email groups and would keep in touch that way.) The Executive Committee set goals, ran monthly ‘class meetings’ (on our list serve), problem solved and kept the committees accountable.

5. Set a Timeline & Choose Enforcers - Let’s face it, writers are busy people. Many of us in 2k9 were mothers, fathers, grandmothers and several had full time jobs outside of writing. One woman even had a baby during our year! (Go Danielle!) All of us had good intentions but, as I’m sure you have experienced, time has a habit of passing by too quickly and we were worried our tasks wouldn’t get done. That is why we chose strict deadlines for individual committee work so that all would be ready to go come January 1, 2009, when we wanted to “launch” our website. We also had a few individuals share the job of the blog calendar, nudging each of us when our time to blog approached.

6. Extract a Commitment - We kept the membership to 2k9 open for many months, giving those who just signed a contract (or those who hadn’t heard about us yet) a chance to join. New people applied weekly. Some older members changed their minds and dropped out. By the summer of 2008, there was so much coming and going, it felt like we had a revolving door installed on our list serve. Committees couldn’t get anything done. Finally (at the urging of my husband, tired of hearing me whine) we decided it was time to collect membership dues, with the understanding that if we had any leftover $ at the end of the year, it would be equally distributed back to the members or spent on something voted on by the class.

And wouldn’t you know it, the group stabilized - those who were really committed stayed on and we were finally able to get working! Maybe it was just a coincidence, I don’t know. But as my dear hubby pointed out, there is something about spending money - even a few bucks - that makes people take a commitment more seriously. It was time to fish or cut bait. In the end, we ended up with a fine group of fishermen!

7. Be Nice - Do I have to say it? Probably not but it’s a good reminder. Before we collected dues and became more of a cohesive group, our list serve was overflowing with messages from, really, a huge group of strangers. There were several times when a post could have been interpreted as flippant or mean or abrupt, even when that was not necessarily what the writer intended. This happens with humor a lot, I've noticed. Unless you know someone, it’s hard to tell in an email when they are being sarcastic or funny or silly or what. So, especially in the beginning, re-read your posts/emails before you send them to make sure they won’t be misinterpreted. Which leads me to...

8. Write Every Correspondence As If For Public Viewing - (because you never know when it will be.) Remember -again, especially at the beginning- you don’t know these people and you have no idea what they may chose to do with what you thought was a private correspondence. As the months went by and our group jelled, we did start sharing more personal information. We adopted a policy of keeping what was shared within the group private, unless told otherwise. It worked beautifully.

9. When In Doubt, Take a Poll - Yahoo has a Poll-taker tool which was great and easy to use. There were 22 of us in 2k9, and nice as everyone was, we all had differing opinions on certain issues. Decisions had to be made. A website theme had to be chosen. Colors for the website. Our logo. Our tagline. Whether we hire a publicist or not. The list was endless. Sometimes an informal majority opinion sufficed but other times, when opinions were stronger and discussion didn’t result in agreement, we’d take a poll. I must say it is a credit to our 22 members that once a poll was taken, there was no residual grumbling. (Not to MY knowledge, anyway!) Which leads me to my next and final tip:

10. Be Willing To Compromise - As you know, any time you have a group of people, from 2 to 200, you have to be willing to compromise. Decide what’s really worth holding out for and let the rest go. Because what I’ve found in working with these 21 other individuals is that what made each of them so different from me, made them invaluable to me as well. Some were great at blogging, others in talking to booksellers, others in writing proposals for conference panels, etc. Members joined committees they felt passionate about or had some experience in or were just eager to learn. THANK GOODNESS. Because half of the stuff, I couldn’t or wouldn’t have done.

By pooling our vastly different talents and interests, our group ended up with: a great website, a publicist, an active blog, bookstore signings, conference panels, outreach efforts, professional teacher/reader guides and some darn good book-related recipes! None of us on our own could have accomplished a fraction of what we accomplished as a group, which turned out to be the second-best reason for starting this group marketing effort.

The biggest benefit for me has been in getting to know a truly gifted and giving group of middle grade and ya authors. I know it sounds cliche and you may be rolling your eyes right now (stop that!) but it really is true. The individuals that stuck with the group lived out the old “all for one and one for all” approach to life and even if I never sell one book, just getting to know these incredible people has made the whole experience worthwhile.

As our debut year comes to a close, many of us are staying together in a new group blog, titled “Class of 2k9, Sophomore Year.” Check back here for our new address to follow the further adventures of The Class of 2k9! I hope you will come to visit, will bring your friends and will one day tell us about the new marketing group YOU have started! Good luck!
And to all my fabulous 2k9 buddies, a humongous group hug!
my books--gutg close up

Every End is a Beginning

It feels like just a couple months ago I started getting to know the many wonderful writers of the Class of 2K9. Hard to believe it's actually been nearly two years. Two years of revisions and copy edits and page passes. Two years of reviews and interviews and signings and visits. And two years of online support and in-person celebrations, knowing I had a group of people going through the same things I was to turn to if I was confused or concerned.

Although it's now the end of our debut year, I'd rather see it as one big beginning. The beginning of the rest of long and satisfying careers. The beginning of writer friendships that will continue far after the year turns over. After all, who knows what the next year, and the next, might bring? Four years ago I was halfway through the first draft of the book that would become GIVE UP THE GHOST. Now my little book is on the shelves, and people I don't know are buying and reading it. Craziness!

So please join me not in waving good-bye to the past year, but in welcoming in the future. And wishing every new author of 2009 more books, understanding editors, beautiful covers, happy readers, and many years of this wonderful, crazy, creative life to come!

When Your Friends are Older than Sixteen

Note: This is technically-speaking my farewell post. Waaah! Except I hate to say good-bye. So I won’t. Instead I’ll write about something else :D Denial is more fun than reality.

When I was working away on My Invented Life, I had a specific audience in mind—teen girls. People often ask me how I manage to capture teen language and thoughts in my book. Do I do a lot of research? The answer is yes and no. My connection with my inner teen remains strong. I observe teens in the wild all the time to make sure I have it right, but the feelings from those years are still etched in my bones. Writing a semi-edgy teen novel about sisters, secrets, and Shakespeare was a challenge, but not a ginormous stretch.

In the early phases of writing, I didn’t worry about what other-than-teens would think about my book. After it came out, though, I discovered something scary. The people who know me want to read it too. Most of them are not teens.

That’s when the nail biting began.

I’ve lived in many places, and know people of all sorts—young and old, Christian and pagan, liberal and conservative, normal and nutty, and everything in between. Some of them are over forty. And male.

It never occurred to me that older men might be read my book. Ack! At first, I tried to discourage my potential readers. “Oh, you don’t have to read my book,” I’d say. “It’s for teen girls. You’re not in my demographic.”

But then the friend would smile at me and say, “I’m looking forward to reading it.” Gulp. Here are a few of their reactions:

--My daughter had her nose in your book all day. She’s hooked.

--I wish there had been books like yours around when I was a teen.

--Now I understand how my daughter thinks.

--I saw your book in a display at my local bookstore. Yay!

And then there was the email sent by friends of my parents that I haven’t seen for almost ten years.

Hey, we're here in Oregon having fun reading your blog. We just finished your book aloud and liked it so much – very entertaining as well as tender. Bill laughed at all the right parts (I wasn't sure whether he would take to a teen book). We eagerly await your next book.

Viva 2k9!
Dreaming Anastasia new cover

This is it... for now

Is it really possible that this is the end? That 2009 is rushing toward 2010 and this amazing ride we’ve all had together is over? Those were my first thoughts when I got the reminder that I needed to write my final blog post. How could we possibly be done when in most ways it feels like we’re still beginning?

So much has occurred since I first joined this little “merry band of pranksters” back in 2008. (As for that reference, I’m not quite sure why Ken Kesey’s rattling in my head this morning, but I liked the sound of the phrase and decided to use it and then decided I’d better give attribution, lest my final 2k9 gesture be one of plagiarism…) Twenty-two debut novels have hit the shelves; twenty-two writing careers have been launched; twenty-one women and one patient man have learned the pleasure and pain involved in this crazy business.

As for me specifically, I am profoundly grateful. That is truth, simple and unvarnished. I get up each morning and that is honestly what I think. And most days, it’s what I think before I fall asleep. (Okay I’m also probably thinking crap, I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning and that I never did finish grading that stack of Antigone essays, but that’s not nearly as romantic sounding.) I threw my lot in with a group of writers who helped me traverse the craggy landscape of publishing and I am deeply changed for the experience in ways that I am only just beginning to understand.

Recently I had lunch at the quirkily wonderful restaurant Medici, in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, on a sunny, uncharacteristically warm November afternoon. I was in town on a mini book tour. Dreaming Anastasia takes place in Chicago and it’s also my hometown and so the plan evolved to bring me home for some book events. I was, in a word, delighted. And so there I sat, my Sourcebooks publicist on my right, across from 2k9er’s Susan Fine and Fran Cannon Slayton. Susan lives in Chicago and Fran was in town for her own book events and we were eating and laughing and talking and the sunlight was shifting through the windows and the wait staff was clattering up and down the wooden stairs because the dumbwaiter was on the fritz and I sat there picking at my club sandwich and marveling at how crazy wonderful this all was. Just a few years ago, I’d been simply another person who wanted to publish a novel. The world, it seems is full of us. And now here I was, having done that. I almost couldn’t think about it for fear that it would just disappear in a blip and I’d be just me again – teaching high school English, going home each day to my family and wondering if maybe just maybe there was something else I was supposed to be doing. And barely daring to put that dream into words.

So thank you 2k9. Together we figured out at least a little of what it means to be authors and public people. We survived losses – some professional, such as those of us who lost agents and editors to career changes and downsizing (I lost both, actually, which had the potential to turn out very badly and somehow didn’t), and some personal – illness and job loss and all those parts of life that stun the heart and challenge the spirit. We hung together against enormous odds. We talked and counseled and laughed and cried. (This is not just a turn of phrase; I do honestly believe that each of us has shed some tears this year- sometimes buckets of them)

If you’re reading this and you’re dreaming our dream, I say go for it. Risk it. Put yourself out there. You may fall and stumble and get lost. You will have to pick yourself up and keep going. You may spend some days thinking you are a horrible writer. You must keep writing. It is in your fingers, your hands, your soul. Don’t let it go.

And if, like me, you are lucky enough to share all that with an amazing group of talented writers, hold tight to them. They will make the dream that much sweeter.
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"You Asked!" #33: Research

Lesley asked: How do you go about tackling research? How much research do you do for a particular project and how do you know when it's time to stop researching and start writing?

2K9 authors answered:

J.T. Dutton: I invented the voice of Scotty Loveletter (from Freaked) based on the Deadheads I had known and one or two experiences I had had at a Dead shows. But because Scotty is a true believer where I am only a second tier observer of all things Jerry, I had to talk to and listen to people who knew more about the scene than I did. My research included studying playlists and reading discussions of bootleg tapes, talking to people who could describe Scotty's stoned-ness, and his prep school background. I didn't do this in a library, and I didn't do it all at once. I would write, wonder, read fan magazines and fan sites. I had a few close readers who were serious experts who looked for mistakes once I had a draft finished. It's my conclusion that Deadheads are very proprietary about their history and I did my best to get what I could of it right.

With Stranded, due out in June 2010, I started with a story that had been in the news in Iowa about a girl who abandoned her newborn infant in a field. I worked with the feelings ithe incident inspired in me, the curiousity I felt about the people involved and I used my questions about her as a jumping off point for fiction. Towards the end of the book, I was unsure how a girl in this situation would be prosecuted and what would happen to her after a trial. I went back to news stories but didn't quite find the answers in them. I called a friend who is a prosecutor in Connecticut and we talked about hypothetical scenarios. Her explanation for what would happen wasn't exactly what I expected or how I thought I wanted to end the book, but because of the research, something more complicated and interesting emerged--a sort of realism that wrapped things up in a way that felt honestl and true.

Rosanne Parry: I like to do a moderate amount of research ahead of time and then write a first draft so that I will know what I will need to research in more detail. I read a lot between my first draft and first revision. For my next book I read 43 books or articles. 

I think my favorite part of researching is finding a person who is willing to talk to me about their area of expertise. In the last six months I've discussed the resuscitation of drowned people with a physician, the location and name of the French national training center for the olympic fencing team with a fencing master, the type of school uniform worn by Australian school girls and they type of penny candy they eat with a librarian in Sydney, and the details of train travel in pre EU Europe with a half dozen writers who've traveled there in earlier decades. It's fun and often someone will offer up just the right telling detail that I would never be able to find on my own.

Cheryl Renee Herbsman: I usually do minimal research at the beginning of a project because it’s important for me to find my characters – their personalities, voices, etc. without it being affected by anything external. Once I get about half-way into the first draft and I feel like I’m really getting to know them, then I start in on the serious research. It makes for a fair amount of backtracking and revising. But this way my characters are true to themselves. Also, I have a better understanding of exactly what I need to research, so that part of the job is more efficient. It’s rare that I’m doing only researching and no writing. As far as the “how” part of the question: I research on the internet, read whatever books or articles pertain to the subject (both fiction and non-fiction), go to the setting if I can, interview people involved in similar situations, and observe. The rest is up to my imagination.

Danielle Joseph: I research in spurts. If I have a theme in a book that needs to be weaved through the manuscript, I'll go online and gather information. Then I'll save it and pull it out when needed. I also will go to the library or bookstore and either jot down notes or check out/buy the books that are related to the area I'm researching. Since I go back and forth between research and writing, I feel like I maintain a good balance and never have to worry that I'm neglecting my writing.

Sydney Salter: I'll start by saying that the first time I started researching a novel, I went back to college and collected a second major in History (my first is in English). So now I set deadlines! I LOVE researching. JUNGLE CROSSING required tons of research--I read books about modern and ancient Mayans, pretty much in every "ology" from archeology to zoology. I also traveled extensively in the area I wrote about before I put my fingers to the keyboard. MY BIG NOSE AND OTHER NATURAL DISASTERS had me diving into my old high school diaries, plus reading stuff about plastic surgery and psychology (that would be my next major, if I were still collecting them). For SWOON AT YOUR OWN RISK, coming out in April, I found myself reading a lot about ending relationships--because I happened to marry my first boyfriend. That was weird to explain to my husband & friends!

I prefer to research before I write because I always find little things that push the story in directions I otherwise couldn't have imagined.

Suzanne Morgan Williams: I’ve written eleven nonfiction books so I am comfortable with researching as I write. In fiction, I never know exactly what I’m going to need to research until I have an idea where the book is going – I’m already writing. When I hit a point where I know I’m making stuff up because I have no idea how to fight a polar bear or how you fit a prosthetic arm, I sometimes  mark it and go on, figuring I can research on one of those days when my ability to write seems to have abandoned me. If the idea is major or will affect the plot and timing of the book in profound ways, I stop right then and make interview appointments, go on the internet, hit the library etc. Sometimes the manuscript has to wait while I figure out what will happen. I also line up experts to vette portions of my book, and at the end of a draft I mark every fact or description that I’m not sure of and check it.

But I do have to remember I’m writing fiction. There are times that things don’t have to be true. For example, in Bull Rider I needed to find out the timing of fitting and receiving a prosthetic arm. Anyone who knows about that would doubt my whole book if I got it wrong. But when I discovered that the only bus from Winnemucca to Redding ran in the middle of the night? Well, the book is fiction. I pretended there was one in the daytime – and who’s to say the schedule couldn’t change. Another note, if you are using real places, be sure to get the facts right. Nothing is more discouraging than reading a book where people take the wrong freeway to get to their destination, stare at the Little Dipper from Australia,  or enjoy a view of the ocean where none is possible. When are you researching too much? When you research to avoid writing. When you are going on tangents because of your interests, not because of your manuscript. When you start to think of “getting into my research” and not “getting into my story."

S. Terrell French: I did a lot of research on redwoods, the Headwaters, Julia Butterfly Hill, tree climbing and even -- like Suzanne -- bus schedules. Of course, only a tiny fraction of what I read made its way into OPERATION REDWOOD. Sometimes, I would just put in a place holder and go back and look up the information later. That helped me narrow the information to just what I needed to know and helped me avoid spending months wandering down the library aisles.

Donna St. Cyr: I research throughout the writing process. Often I research ideas to help me decide if I want to pursue them as stories. When I am working on a particular story, I start at my local library and continue on the internet. I use the internet heavily for “creative inspiration” in fiction – when I want to corroborate something I’m writing about that doesn’t have to be historically accurate. When I’m working on something that needs accuracy, from a historical standpoint or if it’s non-fiction, I like to use journals and books – although I will access them online when I have the opportunity to do that.
For nonfiction, I would say that I research everything that’s factual before I begin to write, then go back and research as more questions come up. It’s not exactly like that for fiction, usually I begin writing and then when a question comes up, then I hit the books (or the keys) looking for information.

Joy Preble: I do research before writing, but only once I have played around with the story enough to know what I need. For Dreaming Anastasia, I needed a lot: historical research on Russia and the Romanovs, Russian folklore and fairy tale research (both the tales themselves as well as folkart and even discussion of morphology of fairy tales), some background on ballet, a map of the Chicago El system, some basic Russian words. Eventually, I just figured I had what I needed, but there were still moments during revisions when I went back to research again or my copy editors did. For example we realized that I'd been having Anastasia call Baba Yaga "Auntie Baba" but she should really be calling her Auntie Yaga. So I guess the answer is you're never really as done as you think you are!

Fran Cannon Slayton: I think research differs depending on the individual book, the kind of book it is, and the personal knowledge the author has (or doesn't have).  When I was writing When the Whistle Blows many things from the book were inspired by my own family history, so my research was heavily focused upon primary resources - interviews with people, visiting places, looking at things from the era - up close, hands on kind of stuff.  I had to do book research too, and that was important, but that research wasn't "big research" - it was more to tackle the smaller details of the book.

Right now I am researching information for a double picture book biography that I am very excited about.  This time, I am hitting the books first.  I am trying to scare up every potential resource I can find and sift through them methodically, taking notes as I go.  After I go through my first round of research I will do a draft to nail down what I think the arc and flow of the book should be, using the information I have gleaned.  Then I will go back and do more research to make sure I didn't miss anything, and I will broaden the scope of my research to give myself a "wider berth" around the nut of the book.  Then I'll revise my draft.  Then I'll compulsively go back and try to find things I've not already found.  And I'll revise again.  And so forth until I am satisfied I've left no printed stone unturned.  (And by the way, I will ask for help from my local and University librarians along the way - after all, they are the experts in research, and I am grateful for them and I USE them!)  Then I will work on obtaining interviews with the subjects of my biography, and with those who know them, and I'll revise (and revise) again.

Ellen Jensen Abbott: Research for a classic fantasy is a strange proposition because the author's job is to invent a whole world, complete with an economy, religion, history, mythology, climate, geography, etc. Most of my research for Watersmeet consisted of writing--and writing, and writing and writing as I explored the world that was emerging in my mind. Pages and pages that served a vital purpose but which will never--thank goodness!--see the light of day. I did turn to reference books at times, though. I read several books on wilderness survival--funnily enough, often written by ex-Green Berets and the like. I needed to know how my characters could clothe themselves, arm themselves, shelter themselves and feed themselves if they were left in the wilderness with nothing. The land in Watersmeet is also somewhat based on my experiences camping, hiking and pretending in Northern New Hampshire, so as I created the landscape I relied a lot on tree books. I wanted my trees, my Sylvyads particularly, to bear a resemblance to actual northern trees while still being imaginary. I also did a lot of research into herbal remedies as my main character, her mother, and the dwarf Hoysta are all herbal healers.

Finally--and I probably should have begun here--I read a folklore dictionary from cover to cover. The folk who inhabit the Watersmeet world came to me in my imagination: dwarves, fauns, centaurs, fairies, minotaur, trolls. But I also wanted to be sure that I wasn't violating some "dwarf-rule" in what I created. It turns out, there aren't too many rules. Yes, by definition dwarves are short, fauns are half man/half goat, and centaurs are half man/half horse, but all of these creatures--and fairies especially--have been interpreted and reinterpreted through time in any number of ways. I was able to take these classic figures and still make them my own.

Edith M. Hemingway: Maybe it's my lifelong interest in history and historical fiction, or maybe it's the relentless "snooper" in me, but I love the research part of writing--so much so that I run the risk of just researching and not getting to the writing!  For my middle grade novel, ROAD TO TATER HILL, set in the 1960s, I spent hours researching the craft of weaving and learning to play the mountain dulcimer.  Most of the novel I actually "lived" so didn't have to get lost in the research.

As for my current research, my novel-in-progress is set on the Island of Vinalhaven, off the coast of Maine.  If you can't find me at home in Maryland, I may be sifting through the books and old photographs in the Vinalhaven Historical society, interviewing the 7th and 8th graders in the island school, or kayaking the basin, hoping to catch sight of the harbor seals lounging atop the rocks at high tide.

Beverly Patt: As someone else said, it's different for different books and it depends how much I know about a subject. For my internment camp book, I did a fair amount of research first. Inevitably, tho, my excitement for the project took over and I plunged ahead and left bolded question marks in spots I knew I'd have to research. There came a point when I needed those question marks filled in, in order to move the story along. That is when I went back and did more research. Funny thing was, for my scrapbook, I just wrote what I thought were art notes to the editor ("newspaper article here" "candy label here") After I sold it and got my revision letter, I found out that I had to write that newspaper article and I had to find a candy label that could be used! So the research continued...!

Sharing a Literary Heart

When working on a critical essay during my Master of Fine Arts in Writing program, I came across this statement by Maria Nikolajeva: "The transparency of literary characters has long been emphasized as the main appeal of fiction. As readers, we are allowed to penetrate other people in a way that is absolutely impossible in reality. We can share their views and opinions, their fears and hopes, their most secret dreams and desires."

Although this was the first time the observation had been put in such specific terms for me, it was a sense that had been hovering in my awareness since I was a young reader. I learned early that as long as I had a book, I would never be bored. I could travel anywhere in the world and experience things I would never experience otherwise. I could perform magic, take chances, do things I knew I shouldn't do without suffering the consequences, and find friends I could count on for the rest of my life whenever I opened a particular book. This is what initially drew me to reading, and in my mind I found myself not wanting to lose my connection with the characters when I finished the books. So I continued their stories in my head until I was eventually drawn into another book and new characters. I guess this was my first experience as a writer--though only in my head.

During the years of working on my MFA, I found a community of like-minded writers. When I graduated, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, but at the same time I felt a sadness and reluctance to leave this shared community of the literary heart. As it turned out, I did not leave that community. It only grew larger when I joined the Class of 2K9 and found another amazing group of authors, who not only allowed me to share the views and opinions, the fears and hopes, the secret dreams and desires of their multi-faceted characters, but also of themselves. What a generous and supportive community! The arteries connecting our literary hearts have grown longer and stronger and now beat harder. They will not break as we step aside to give the Class of 2K10 their year in the sun.
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Not really the end

And now it is my turn – to bid farewell to our 2k9 community. It’s a surreal experience, watching my first novel become an actual book, and I am grateful for my classmates who have shared their experiences along the way. Each member of 2k9 has held up his or her own lamplight to illuminate our collective path through this new experience, and it has been fantastic to meet along the way so many new colleagues that I now call friends.

I also want to express my gratitude to all the people in the children’s literature community – bloggers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, booksellers, publishers, editors, and especially our audience of readers – you have greeted our class and our books with such enthusiasm. Your good will has helped our stories reach more children – which is what it is all about. When one child enjoys the story I created, I am filled with a deep sense of satisfaction. I appreciate fans of children’s books.

And so our journey is not ending, rather, it is changing as we reach a waystation. We will soon disembark from our 2k9 train and continue our individual travels – on to second books and many other aspirations. I wish each of you godspeed – our virtual distance is not so great – and we will meet again soon to laugh, and work – and to share our stories.

Final Post from Susan Fine

A while back, during our debut year, someone posted on the listserv about her feeling of being overwhelmed when she walks into a bookstore and is confronted by how many books are out there. It is daunting and I, too, have sat in my local bookstore, glancing around at the shelves that surround me, and sardonically thought, “Who couldn’t publish a book?” That setting can be so misleading about the accomplishment of publishing something.

I say this here in conjunction with another idea that surfaced on our listserv this year about the challenge of being supportive of each other and remaining so as the year unfolded and different experiences were had by our books in their lives with reviewers and the like. What’s remarkable and noteworthy is how generous and thoughtful everyone has been all year. Ellen’s post in which she highlighted something wonderful from every 2k9 book she had read is a testament to her and to the spirit that has characterized the group.

I’ve also found that this spirit goes beyond 2k9 to the larger world of children’s publishing. While I know everything is not perfect anywhere, there are remarkable communities in this world, which are facilitated by such organizations as the SCBWI, Anderson’s Bookshop, and many others. I loved the ALA conference and found myself floating around the large convention center, so happy to be surrounded by book-loving folks. (Who would know there was any financial trouble in the publishing industry?) It was impossible not to notice the enormous line that snaked around the place, all the folks waiting patiently to have books signed by Neil Gaiman, but who didn’t fall in love with him when he gave that wonderful speech, beautifully characterizing his childhood bliss in his local library, where the card catalogue let him find books on his favorite subjects so easily?

I am grateful for all that I have learned from my fellow 2k9ers this year, and I am wondering whether the generous spirit that has characterized our community might come from our shared belief about the value of stories and books and reading? In a piece published a while ago in Harper’s magazine on the teaching of literature in high school, Francine Prose captured some ideas that may explain, at least in part, why our community and others like it work so well: “Teaching students to value literary masterpieces is our best hope of awakening them to the infinite capacities and complexities of human experience, of helping them acknowledge and accept complexity and ambiguity, and of making them love and respect the language that allows us to smuggle out, and send one another, our urgent eloquent dispatches from the prison of self.” My book is not a literary masterpiece, far from it, but the effort to tell a story, to imagine the world from a variety of different perspectives takes empathy, and I wonder whether the empathy that writers practice can lead to communities like the Class of 2k9?
books shelf

"You Asked!" #32: Making or Breaking the Mold

Parker P asked: How does your book make or break the mold of its genre?

2K9 authors answered:

Suzanne Morgan Williams: Bull Rider is contemporary fiction but, because it’s about rodeo and the west, a lot of people think it’s historical fiction. They assume there aren’t cowboys anymore. Some people also guess it’s nonfiction since it has a lot to say about the human cost of the Iraq war. And the age range of its readers is unusual.  I know of teachers who’ve read it to third and fourth grade classes and yet it is recommended for middle and high school students. Bull Rider has plenty of adult fans too. I’ve begun saying it’s a book the whole family can read, from about age ten and up. Bull Rider isn’t always what people expect.

Joy Preble: Dreaming Anastasia definitely breaks some genre molds; in fact, although we were initially describing it as a contemporary fantasy, it actual blends fantasy, fairy tale, historical fiction, and romance. So it is most certainly a unique animal in that regard. This has delighted some readers and given others pause since it is certainly a risk to morph elements of so many genres and it does require readers to move outside the box a bit. I suppose this is what happens when a debut author simply writes the story that's in her head and heart and forgets to pay attention to the rules!

Donna St. Cyr: Make or break the mold? I think the idea of a fantasy surrounding cheeses with magical powers definitely breaks the fantasy mold. I’m trying to think of something corny to say about mold and cheese here, but I’m coming up short. Hopefully, the uniqueness of my premise and the vehicle I chose to carry out a relatively common questing story gives readers something to remember me by.

Megan Crewe: I think Give Up the Ghost steps outside the normal paranormal mold in a couple ways. First, the main character really enjoys her talent (being able to see and hear ghosts) instead of seeing it as a burden, as many paranormal heroines do. And second, she doesn't fall for the guy who comes to her for help--their relationship (at least within the scope of the book) is platonic, about friendship instead of romance. I explain why that was so important to me over here.

Lauren Bjorkman: My Invented Life breaks out from the--I have a different sexuality and that's a big problem--mold. I treat the subject seriously, but the novel itself is a light-hearted romp. For one reviewers opinion on just how different My Invented Life is from most LGBT novels, go here.

Rosanne Parry: One of the things that makes Heart of a Shepherd distinct from other coming of age novels is the inclusion of Brother's spiritual life. Religion is in some ways the last taboo in children's literature, and I was sure when I was writing HEART that I'd never sell it for that reason. Nonetheless, my agent thought the story was strong and my editor knew right away that among the stories of mine that he'd seen and liked, this was the one he wanted to publish as my debut novel. In our revisions he never asked me to tone down the spiritual elements. There are some people who are uncomfortable with it, but the readers who like HEART find the inclusion of religion very appealing.  

Ellen Jensen Abbott: I think I'm supposed to wrack my brain for why Watersmeet breaks the mold, but I'm going to take a different tack. Recently a bookseller said to me that she really enjoyed my book. "It was a good old-fashioned fantasy, and I mean that in a good way!" she said. And I took it in a good way. I have lots of creatures that are classic fantasy characters (dwarves, fauns, centaurs, fairies) but -- and here comes the breaking the mold part, after all -- I definitely put my own spin on all of them. I'm particularly happy with my centaurs and fairies who fit the mold only to break it. I also think the novel deals with archetypal themes (heroism, outsiderness, out-sized bad guys who embody evil), but again, I bring my own individual look at these themes formed by my experience at my point in time. As human beings, we've been telling each other these kinds of stories around a fire since we invented language! I wanted to join this ancient conversation, but do it in my own voice.

J.T. Dutton: Freaked is pretty much by the numbers for a road/prep school coming of age novel set in the nineties about the Grateful Dead. I don't deviate from the genre even a little.

Sydney Salter: Jungle Crossing intertwines a modern coming-of-age story set in Mexico with an ancient Mayan adventure story, also set in Mexico. But there isn't any time travel nor are there fantasy elements--it's about the very real tradition of storytelling.

Deborah Lytton: Jane in Bloom breaks the mold of a middle grade drama by telling the story from a secondary character's point of view.  Jane's story is about how she copes with her older sister's anorexia and death.  It is about her reaction to the action happening around her.  Jane in Bloom is Jane's moment to step out of the shadows and be seen. 

Fran Cannon Slayton: Well, that is quite a question!  So you want to know how I think my book is iconoclastic.  Okay, I'll bite - I'll try to answer!    But first let me say that I think it is the marketers, the publishers, the industry itself that all shoehorn authors' books into particular (and somewhat artificial) genres to begin with.  (I'm not really complaining here - after all, readers and booksellers alike use categories and genres quite appropriately in order to make books more easily findable by their audiences . . . but still, when you have a crossover book, you start questioning the "why" behind these things a bit!)

My book was marketed as middle grade historical fiction - for ages 10 and up.  And I guess one of the things that makes my book "break" a mold is that it is being enjoyed by 10 year olds, but it is also being enjoyed by the YA and adult crowds as well.  It is definitely a crossover.  It reaches people at many different levels.

But what truly sets my novel apart from others is its structure.  Each of the seven chapters in When the Whistle Blows is set on a different Halloween in Jimmy Cannon's life, from the time he is 12 to the time he is 18 - so the chapters are separated in time by one year exactly.  And each chapter is a separate and distinct short story.  This structure was inspired by my father's stories about growing up in West Virginia in the 1940s and by Rita Dove's use of poems to create a narrative arc reminiscent of a novel in her Pulitzer Prize winning book of poems, Thomas and Beulah.  Both of these things converged in my mind and heart and it was like suddenly discovering I had all the right ingredients in the refrigerator to make a new recipe. So I set out to create a novel that was made up of short stories that all tied together into a coherent narrative arc, so that in the smaller stories a much larger story could be told.  I could not be happier with the result - a book that I do think contributes something very different to the MG/YA landscape.  

Beverly Patt: Hmmm. I guess one thing that makes my book different is that it is the secondary character's (Latonya's) want/need that is the main "problem" of the book and the main character, Rudy, has to decide if and how he wants to help. It also takes an unblinking look at how much race has and should be taken into account in the foster care system. A generous amount of humor will, I hope, also help to separate it from heavier books like Dovey Coe.