Monday, October 31, 2016

5 Things That Scared Me Writing This Book!

Happy Halloween! 

Hope you all have a booooo-tiful day!

In the spirit of the day, here are 5 things that frightened me writing this book (or, actually, the first 3 books of the series):

1. I was afraid kids wouldn't understand the concept; that it was too complex for them to realize the main character, a squirrel, was learning and evolving intellectually.

2. Kids would want a 'magic' explanation why the squirrel was smart and learning human things, like The Secret of Nimh, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where a scientist creates a serum which gives the animals super intelligence.

3. The series might be too long- originally I had planned 6 books (but now the series will stop at 4 unless an enthusiastic editor shows up waving a contract).

4. The squirrel would seem like a person in a squirrel suit- and not give the reader the 'feel' of the main character, Jack, of being a squirrel kids might find in their backyard.

5. The science would bog the story down and kill the adventure aspect. There are several STEM sciences (evolution, simple machines like lever and wheel/axle, loss of habitat, machines, engineering a wagon for a squirrel- but no math!) which might seem like too much.

All these fears were terrifying!!! But writers push on--and they write the story. After editing, revising, beta reading, and a final polish, it was ready. As I'm wrapping the series up with the last book as my NaNoWriMo project, I've read through the previous books. I'm still laughing at the jokes, Jack's antics, and holding my breath when his war against the machines commences. 

But I think it's come together; writer colleagues, initial reviewers and readers have given it a hearty thumbs up. At the Collingswood Book Festival, where the initial copies of Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines debuted, almost all the targeted age kids (7-12) bought a copy. They seemed excited about the science aspect and accepted that the squirrel learned without magic or scientists being responsible. And after the Harry Potter and other successful series, people in the book business see that kids love series. Stand-alones no longer have as much appeal, kids just don't want the story to end. As for the science, I tried to keep it in check, balanced with adventure and humor and tension. So far, it seems I've succeeded. I'll have to wait for further reviews--from kids who read the book. 

If you have kids of this age, (or even if you don't!) enter to win a copy from Goodreads (click on the link). Help them leave a review here (please!) or a comment on my blog or Facebook. I'm dying to know....

what they think. 

Tomorrow starts the insanity of NaNoWriMo which will see the finish of the series with the completion of book 4. If you're doing NaNoWriMo, good luck! And remember it's about getting the words down; not being the fastest, or writing the perfect manuscript or even completing the novel. Let's struggle--and succeed--together. 

Until then, 

No tricks, all treats!


Monday, October 24, 2016

You Know You Want a Free Book!

Goodreads Giveaway! Enter to win a copy of Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines!

The giveaway runs from 10/24/16 to 11/4/2016. Please mark as To Read! Simply click the colored link below!


Now I must finish up book 3: Evolution Revolution: Simple Lessons. Look For Evolution Revolution: Simple Plans in January!

All the best, and thanks for your support!


Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Science of Fantasy

The best part about writing fantasy is that your brain can envision things that don't (or maybe shouldn't) exist: time travel, zombie apocalypses, aliens, ghosts, etc.

But that doesn't mean you can pull anything out of your tush and throw it on the page. There's a science to writing fantasy. Anything you write needs to sound if not plausible, then possible.

While Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines may seem like a sweet animal adventure story, there's a lot of science and research that went into the creation of this series.

Here's what sparked the idea:

That's my middle son's third grade science homework papers on simple machines. I saw it, and thought, ok, I remember this stuff, but really thought nothing more about it.

Until I saw a BBC special not long after about how squirrels were brilliant puzzle solvers when it came to scoring food. I also learned that female squirrels are smarter (ha ha to my boys who always think they're the smarter ones!), share what they learn, and learn from others. They don't give up until they've solved the puzzle--and get this: they can study a puzzle and figure out a short cut. They think.

Suppose...just suppose they started evolving intellectually...using human things...

Story idea!

But that was the easy part. What kind of squirrel should be in my story? How will he understand simple machines like the inclined plane or lever, and use them? For a 'simple' adventure story, there were a lot of questions that needed to be answered.

Research time.

First I read up on squirrels online and in the library. I had to answer questions like which squirrel species would work best? The answer is the common gray squirrel because they exist in so many countries and in urban, suburban, and rural areas and there was a lot of documentation of interaction with humans. What were they capable of, what physical limitations did they have? While they have dextrous paws with finger-like claws, they don't have a lot of strength so they can't actually manipulate large or difficult things. I collected newspaper stories about their exploits and the mayhem they instigated because my squirrel was going to cause a lot of trouble on his way to growing intellectually.

There are six simple machines- which meant one really long book to explain them all, which wouldn't work for a middle grade reader, or several books. Because there was so much information, I started a note/scrapbook. I collected humorous clippings and pictures of squirrels doing human things: water skiing, cartoons where they think like humans, etc. as fodder to help me write the story of how my main character, Jack, would get into situations and learn.

I almost always incorporate humor into my books, even horror stories. Seeing what squirrels were, and might be capable of doing, helped me to add levity into a story that had a lot of science. Evolution Revolution will teach kids about simple machines and conservation and evolution among other sciences just by reading Jack's story, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun to read. I didn't want it to sound like a textbook.

As any writer will tell you, ideas and problems to be solved in your story pop into your head. One of the big problems was language; how was Jack to understand human language? I made a list of words that Jack needed to learn so the story could be told:

Why does Jack need to know what toilet paper is? It relates to a funny bathroom scene. And while Jack can't speak the human words, he can understand them.

In the second book, Evolution Revolution: Simple Plans, I introduce new characters. One of them is a mynah bird. I needed a vehicle for Jack to communicate with his human friend, Collin, without magic or such. Jack is, and always will be, a normal, common gray squirrel like you find in your own backyard. The one concession I had to make was that different species communicated amongst each other. Fox taunts Jack, Beaver whines, and Owl encourages him. The mynah bird can repeat hundreds of human words. Mina (get it: Mina, mynah moe!) doesn't need to use proper grammar, only repeat words between Collin and Jack. But could such a bird, usually a pet in a cage, survive in the cold north? For that answer I had to reach out to mynah bird specialists. (There is a group devoted especially to them!) I emailed them and got my answer: escaped pet mynahs can survive in the northern US, and had for some time in southern Canada.

There were so many science questions that needed to be answered to write Jack's story. Yes, there is so much imagination in it, like animals working together to save another animal. A hop around the internet brings up stories about a lion saving a baby wildebeest from another lion, or an elephant trying to rescue a man that it thinks is drowning. Think about Koko, the gorilla who uses sign language, or the elephant that paints. Not such a far-fetched story anymore... Maybe animals are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and 'science' has to catch up to my imaginative tale...

Imagine the impossible- because it may be possible...


Look for Evolution Revolution: Simple Plans in January, 2017

Monday, October 10, 2016

Ms. Book Manners Says...

Growing up, my mom read Miss Manners to me. She taught me where the salad, entree, shrimp, and dessert forks go. That knives should be placed with the cutting edge toward the plate. Cover your sneezes. Hold doors open for older people. Wrestle in the backyard. All kinds of manners.

Sadly so many people are lacking in basic manners because they are not taught them (unless you're from a royal or noble house it seems). There are some manners that authors in particular should learn and follow. I've learned these- some the hard way- and some I've added. If you think of any more, kindly let me know and I'll add them to the list.

  1. When you send out a book for review, include a 'thank you' to the person for taking the time to do a review. Thank the blogger for featuring an interview, guest post, or giveaway. They are doing you a favor and deserve the simple courtesy.
  2. If the review is bad, remember that they did not guarantee a good one. Don't comment. Yes, you're hurt, this is your baby. Run a marathon, eat a whole cake, yell at the couch. Commenting will only make the blogger defensive and give you a bad rep. Agents, editors, and any published writer will tell you: Don't do it.
  3. With a giveaway, send a nice note to the winner. Just a simple 'thank you for your interest in my book, congratulations, and I hope you enjoy.' That's it. Don't pressure them to look at other books (but include a bookmark or other promotional items). This is good PR because you're thanking them without knowing their opinion (and don't ask them to get back to you; if they don't like your book, it will create awkwardness). By being pleasant beforehand, it may make them more predisposed to look favorably on your work.
  4. Social media can be a booby trap. Keep it friendly but impersonal. (Hard lesson learned here: people will believe the best of themselves and the worst of everyone else.). Keep mentions to your book, fluffy llamas, wishing people happy birthday, and pictures of clouds that look like your favorite rock star. Even if you have a separate author and personal Facebook page, people hunting simply by your name will come upon both. It's doubtful you'll meet your next best friend or a significant other or agent (although it must have happened, but the odds are against it), so don't feel pressured to engage in politics or issues where people who are looking for an argument can force one.
  5. Politely listen to the professionals: your agent, editor, publicist, illustrator or published mentor whether you have a contract with them, met them at a conference or simply asked their opinion. They got where they are because their opinion and knowledge is respected in the business. You don't have to like or agree with it. Arguing, getting defensive or refusing to consider advice (and yes, I struggle with this- I'm very emotional and strong-minded about my books), won't get you anything but dismissed. The editor for Sirenz (Flux), loved the concept! But only the first five chapters. We were advised to toss the last fifteen. Yup, three fourths of the book went into the garbage. And it was a good thing. We got published. I've made so many changes to my NA sci fi, some which I hated making, but I did them on the advice of my agent and editors- even though I never got offered a contract. It's sitting in a file on my hard drive... But not making the changes would have guaranteed it went nowhere, would have earned me the label of being 'difficult' and really, was rude to the editors and agent who spent so much time reading the book and thinking how to make it better. Take a break from it for a week, a month while you ponder.... Then suck it up.
  6. Don't bash anyone- editor, agent, other author. Complain about how frustrated you are, sure, because the cat or dog will keep your secret. Never say anything about a person in public because while it seems the publishing world is big- word gets around. I know people who are 'blacklisted.' Editors and agents refuse to work with them. You do not want to be this person. Karma, baby, karma. And as Ms. Manners and your mother might have said: Keep your thoughts to yourself.
  7. Distance yourself from other authors' fights/drama. It's different if you show support for someone who's being targeted, shamed, going through an illness, etc. If they're fighting with an agent, editor, publishing house, blogger etc., step away. You don't know all the details and how it will affect you. The same is true for their politics. What's popular today may not be tomorrow, and by taking sides, you alienate some readers.
  8. Please support each other. You don't have to buy every book, or go to every event, but share their good news, tell others about it, and be happy for others' successes. Your turn will come and what goes around, comes around...
  9. Share information. When you help a colleague or a debut author/illustrator, you help the book community, you build good relationships, and become known as a team player. Maybe you'll increase sales or get a school visit. Even if you don't, the good will is priceless.
  10. Be respectful at conferences. Don't shove your manuscript at editors and agents or well-known authors and demand they read it. (I've heard tales of newbie authors shoving their novels under bathroom stall doors or under hotel room doors. Don't.) There should be a process to get a chance to talk to these people and get some feedback or the chance to submit your work via their guidelines, which it behooves you to read up on and follow. 
  11. Always look professional at events. Your Kim K holey jeans, stained shirts, and ratty looking hair are turn offs. Editors and agents might be thinking that if you don't care about looking professional, will you care about how you represent the publishing house? Author events are not for you to show in-your-face style. Colored hair, character clothing, fun things are okay, but know where to draw the line. 
  12. Please know when to. Shut. Up. I've been to events where authors drone on and on and nauseam. Not only do you bore your audience, but you alienate the other authors (really, it's annoying), you risk the moderator telling you to wrap it up in front of everyone embarrassing you, and possibly kill any return invites. Practice your presentation so you know if it needs to be cut. If you're on a panel, keep your answers short. People who are really interested in what you have to say can ask questions afterwards. People not making eye contact, checking their phone (or like me, writing this blog post as I sat bored beyond tears) are clearly not listening anymore. Take the hint and be polite enough to wrap it up.
  13.  No one likes rejections. It feels like being told 'go away, you're not a good writer.' But that's not it at all; it's only a 'sorry, but I'm not interested.' Things will be okay; maybe not today or even this year, so don't do something stupid like criticize the editor (see Rule #6 again). I don't know of any author who didn't get rejected. You don't have to like rejections, but you have to accept them. Move on.
  14. When waiting for a reply from an editor or agent about your manuscript, or trying to book an event, send no more than two followups. If they haven't answered after that, truly they aren't interested. Agents generally send a definitive yes or no, editors only if they're interested. I once got a reply from an editor that he wasn't interested in my manuscript two years after the initial query. Yeah, I got that feeling after 3 months. I submitted it elsewhere and it was published by someone else in the meantime. When sending a follow up, don't issue ultimatums: if you don't answer, I'll send it to Ms. Other Editor.' Be polite, not 'why haven't you responded, it's been a year!'  Send a brief email which references your book by title, a 1-2 sentence synopsis, when you sent the query/chapters/ms, and circumstances where they asked for it, like at the NJ SCBWI annual conference in June, 201X. Wait at least two months for the first follow up, two months for the second. And if you decide to send it out to other editors/agents after the first 30 days, there is no need to throw that at the editor. Don't spend your life waiting for someone to respond.
  15. If you spam your friends and everyone you know with every little tidbit about your writing life, you're going to annoy them. You may even lose followers. Yes, announce when a new contract is signed, when a book will debut, about giveaways. That's sufficient.
  16. If you're in the industry, use the industry standards. Never use a fancy font for the entire manuscript (I've used a different font to make text look like it was handwritten because in the story, the character found a note; that's acceptable).  Use Times New Roman or Courier, 12 pt., double-spaced, new chapters begin halfway down a clean page. Page numbers on the top right corner, title/author on top left corner. The first page should have author's name and info, genre, word count, title.
Treat your writing life as you would if you were working for a business. You may not be in this for money, but you should always act professional because for editors, agents, publicists, other authors, it is their business.

Talk soon,


Monday, October 3, 2016

A New Book, A New Step

My new book went public on September 30th as I had originally planned. A few bumps in the road, but for its first outing at the Collingswood Book Festival, Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines sold more than my other books (Blonde OPS, Beware the Little White Rabbit, Sirenz, Sirenz Back in Fashion) all put together! Kids (especially boys!) seemed very excited about the book.

It's always joyous to have kids excited over your book, but I'm especially ecstatic with the reception this book has gotten for two reasons. The first is that the main character is a boy and as boys tend to be more reluctant readers, I have reached my target audience. Girls, generally, will read across a broader range; they will read stories about boys (a la Harry Potter, Percy Jackson). Also, they will read adventure, magic, science, fashion, mythology, etc. Through my own sons, I see that most boys have a narrower focus. Few read books with girl protagonists, or about subjects like fashion, romance, relationships and subjects they might consider 'girly.' So I grabbed their attention with my premise on mixing science, adventure and animals.

The next reason I feel this book is a success is based on the interior illustration below:

In the original manuscript, I do not describe the boy, Collin, who teaches Jack the squirrel how to use simple machines and vocabulary. I didn't want that restriction because I wanted every boy to see himself as the main character.  However, when my illustrator and I started working together on this project, I asked her to make the boy a person of color. Not that I consider myself an expert on the lives of people of color, but because I'm a qualified 'people person.' I have a broad spectrum of people in my life through my writing, my church, my children, my community. With the increasing awareness to include a more diverse reflection of characters in novels, film, and other areas, I felt it was important to step up to the challenge and out of my routine characterization. 

There are some who might argue that I do not have the qualifications to write about characters from cultures and ethnic backgrounds different than my own. I would disagree in that my friendships and professional associations give me a starting basis. I fully admit I have much to learn, but judging from the wonder on the faces of the boys that thumbed through my book-and the smiles on the faces of the parents who then proceeded to buy the book, I think I have made a good start, but I ask your patience as I move forward.