What are the odds?

>> Thursday, August 7, 2014



Before I get to the writing this morning, I wanted to post something interesting I ran across in a recent Time Magazine article. It's called "Summer Books" by Lev Grossman, and he talks about how some summers are defined by a particular book that becomes the summer "beach read" of the year. It doesn't happen every year, he argues, but when it does--like with 2012's Gone Girl or 2002's The Lovely Bones--those books define the summer. (He lists many more.) These books, he argues, deserve the title of "book of the summer" because they were unexpected hits--so he discounts books like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows because that was going to be a hit whenever it was published. (Here's the full article.)

The most interesting thing about the article to me, and the thing I thought would be useful to kids book writers, is a sidebar in which he playfully "gives odds" on which new books might potentially become 2014's "book of the summer." (The article appeared in the July7/July 14 issue; I'm a little behind on my reading, as usual.) He gives odds on each book, then lists pros and cons for why it might or might not become a special, bestselling, widely-read and -discussed book. It's the pros and cons I think are highly interesting. Here are the books and their descriptions, as presented in the magazine:

2-1
One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
Pros: Single mom plus nerdy millionaire equals unlikely romance. And there's a road trip!
Cons: Very few killer sharks.

2-1 
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Pros: Blind daughter of a locksmith meets reluctant Nazi engineering whiz! What more do you want?
Cons: Complex, historical fiction may not have the necessary mass appeal.

3-1
The Fever by Megan Abbott
Pros: Small-town girls hit by mystery syndrome. Tense, erotically fraught, has Gillian Flynn blurb.
Cons: Much adolescent angst. Are the stakes high enough?

4-1
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Pros: Rich people on an island; sharp, funny-sad writing; a head-snapping fourth-quarter reveal.
Cons: It's a YA novel, so some adults might pass.

4-1
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Pros: Keen psychological insight, irrepressible humor and a supernatural twist: a woman can call her husband in the past.
Cons: Relative lack of violence, perverse sex.

5-1
One Kick by Chelsea Cain
Pros: Child kidnapping victim grows up to become ass-kicking vigilante looking for other missing children.
Cons: A thriller but maybe not a rule breaker.

6-1
The Quick by Lauren Owen
Pros: Set in lovely, lush Victorian London. Plus: vampires, vampires, vampires.
Cons: Owen's pacing is slow and artful--maybe too slow for some.

8-1
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer
Pros: Genius techno-thriller ala Neal Stephenson, powered by social-media info-conspiracy ala Dave Eggers.
Cons: Low-key romance may not play to all quadrants.


Okay. Interesting stuff! But what's most interesting to me are the pros and cons. The pros work best when they have a great hook, don't they? "Single mom plus nerdy millionaire equals unlikely romance." "Blind daughter of a locksmith meets reluctant Nazi engineering whiz!" "Small-town girls hit by mystery syndrome." "a woman can call her husband in the past." "Child kidnapping victim grows up to become ass-kicking vigilante looking for other missing children." The ones that seem like they have a harder chance of striking it big are the ones with hard-to-describe plots. Although there's a lot to be said for the kind of mystery you can't explain without giving the whole book away, ala Gone Girl or We Were Liars, in which case a book can hit it big just from people saying, "You have to read this."

The cons are really instructive too. Here they are here, with my own comments:

1) Very few killer sharks. (He's being jokey, but he's does have a point: outrageous things do sell books.)

2) Complex, historical fiction may not have the necessary mass appeal. (These kinds of books win awards, but do they get the broader readership?)

3) Much adolescent angst. Are the stakes high enough? (We don't have to worry about the angst--it comes with our territory. But "Are the stakes high enough?" is a question we should be asking in every book we write.)

4) It's a YA novel, so some adults might pass. (Not a YA-writer's problem!)

5) Relative lack of violence, perverse sex. (Again, not a kids book-writer's problem, probably, unless they're writing high-YA or New Adult. But it does pay to give the readers what they want, no matter what the age.

6) A thriller but maybe not a rule breaker. (Love this. Are we writing the same old book that's been written before, or are we pushing, maybe even breaking, the rules of our genres a little bit?)

7) Owen's pacing is slow and artful--maybe too slow for some. (Pacing is more important the younger you go! Get to the main problem quickly, and then don't let up.)

8) Low-key romance may not play to all quadrants. (True for YA: do you have some love-interest stuff in there? That will help it play to different readers. For MG, do you have an all boy-book? An all-girl book? That will limit your readership too.)


Food for thought! I'd love to hear other opinions about all this.

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Apply now to become the next Thurber House Children's Book Writer-in-Residence!

>> Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Four years ago, I was honored to be the Thurber House Children's Writer-in-Residence for four weeks in Columbus, Ohio. I lived in the attic of James Thurber's boyhood home, led writing workshops with local students, and had lots of time to work on my then-current work-in-progress: The League of Seven, which comes out this August! I had a great time--and you will too!

The application period is now open for the 2015 Thurber House Children's Writer-in-Residence. Here are the details:

Qualifications: Candidates must have at least one middle grade (roughly 3-6 grade) book published by a traditional trade publishing house, but no more than five and one new middle grade book under contract. Must have experience teaching/working with children in an educational setting.

Program: This is a 4-week residency during June, July, or August 2015. The specific time period is negotiated with the selected author. During the stay, the resident will teach writing-based activities to middle grade children for eight to ten hours per week in a variety of community settings, including the Thurber House Summer Writing Camp.

Past Thurber Residents: Deborah Wiles (2001), Kathryn Hewitt (02), Natasha Tarpley (03), Laurie Miller Hornik (04), Shelley Pearsall (05), Sam Swope (06), Lisa Yee (07), Alan Silberberg (08), Hope Anita Smith (09), and (10), Alan Gratz (11), Donna Gephart (12), Jane Kelley (13), Kristen Kittscher (14).

Stipend: $4,000

Housing: A furnished, two-bedroom apartment is provided on the third floor of Thurber House, the college home in Columbus, Ohio of James Thurber. All utilities except telephone are included. Internet access is available. Furnishings include all basic household items. No allowance is offered for travel or moving expenses; employment benefits are not provided.

Deadline for receipt of application materials is November 1, 2014.

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Of Shakespeare, Rayguns, and Independent Bookstores

>> Tuesday, June 24, 2014

In 2007, I learned an important lesson about independent bookstores.

My second novel, Something Rotten, a contemporary young adult mystery based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, came out that year from Penguin. I expected that it, like my first novel, would be carried everywhere—by independents and chains and online. But a few months away from the publication date, my editor e-mailed to tell me the bad news: Barnes & Noble wouldn't be carrying my new book. The one person who chose what books all six hundred-plus Barnes & Noble stores would carry had decided that mine wouldn't be one of them. “We don't do well with Shakespeare adaptations,” Barnes & Noble's book buyer said. And that was it.

My second book was saved by independent bookstores like Malaprop's. With separate book buyers at each bookstore across the country, they each made the decision about whether or not to carry my book. And most did. Independent booksellers made Something Rotten a success, and for that and everything they've done for the five books that followed, I'm eternally grateful. As thanks, and to help make sure that every book and author and reader get a chance to connect, my family and I have committed to buying our books only from independent booksellers like Malaprop's, our local indie.

So when the time came to promote my eighth book, the first in a middle-grade steampunk fantasy trilogy called The League of Seven, I wanted to find a way to not only sell books, but sell books through Malaprop's. I'd seen online retailers offer digital short stories that download free with the purchase of ebooks, and thought, why can't Malaprop's and I do the same thing with my good-old-fashioned print book and a specially-printed short story? So that's just what we're doing.

The League of Seven is the story of seven super-powered kids who use rayguns and airships and steam-powered machine men to battle giant monsters called the Mangleborn. (If your kids like Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books, or the Justice League and the Avengers, this is right up their alley.) The trilogy is set in an alternate 1870s America where all contact with Europe was lost in 1770, forcing New England's European population to join the Iroquois League, becoming the seventh “tribe” in what becomes the United Nations of America. One of the architects of that union, Benjamin Franklin, is the star of the prequel short story I've written, called “Join, or Die.” In “Join, or Die,” Franklin battles sea serpents with the help of a young monster expert and a group of Mohawk warriors during a (greatly) re-imagined Boston Tea Party. It's lots of fun.

Malaprop's is printing up “Join, or Die” as a limited-edition chapbook that will be given away for free to anyone who pre-orders The League of Seven from Malaprop's between now and August 19th, the book's publication date. I'm really excited about this chapbook—it's being specially-printed and numbered, the binding is being hand-sewn, and it will be available exclusively through Malaprop's. And the story's pretty great too, if I do say so myself. :-)

I'll also be signing and personalizing all the pre-orders and chapbooks, which can be picked up at the store or shipped to you at home. You can pre-order your copy of The League of Seven in person at Malaprop's, online here, or by calling Malaprop's at 1-800-441-9829. I hope you'll pre-order a copy of The League of Seven and the limited-edition chapbook “Join, or Die” for a young reader in your life, and continue shopping at your local independent bookstore to ensure that every good book has a chance to find its readers!

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Me, podcasted

>> Thursday, October 10, 2013

In which I am interviewed on the Reading and Writing Podcast.

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