Sunday, June 27, 2010

what do dirty little secrets, sea and cupcakes have in common? this...

C.J. Omololu (left) & Heidi R. Kling (right)

Young Adult authors Cynthia J. Omololu (Dirty Little Secrets; Walker Books, 2010) and Heidi R. Kling (Sea; Putnam, 2010) might want to consider doing presentations together more often. These two ladies made a marvelous team at a recent SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) event that took place yesterday in Walnut Creek, California.

There really is nothing like being around the like-minded sentimentality of other children's book writers. Something in the air changes, something makes sense as one writer discusses her manuscript pitfalls or triumphs with another head-bobbing scribe, or when someone sings the praises of the latest How To Be A Better Writer life-changing book. This shift, from the ordinary world to the world of congenial peers, couldn't have been more evident than when these two ladies, perched behind big rectangular tables with their books on display, uncloaked the tales of their journeys into becoming published writers.

C.J. Omololu began the discussion saying that she fell into writing accidentally. At the tender age of 7 she penned her first manuscript, but it took her many more years and several more stories - like close to 30 - before she was finally able to sell her words. Now her second book, Dirty Little Secrets - about a 16-year old girl who lives with the secret that her mother is a hoarder, and must make a critical decision to call 911 or keep a new terrible secret to herself after discovering her mother's body inside their crowded house - has been getting great reviews since its debut. My favorite part of C.J.'s story was how she serendipitously met her agent, Erin Murphy. "I researched an agent on Verla Kay and found Erin Murphy, who didn't take queries except if she met you through someone or at a conference." Turns out Erin Murphy was going to be at an upcoming conference in Kansas City, Missouri, so guess where C.J. went. Agent and writer had a freak encounter in an elevator at the hotel where the conference was being held, but C.J. says she blew her chance when all she could discuss was pleasantries and not her in-progress book. No matter though, because back at home she composed a self-described "ballsy query letter" which she shared with us, and sent it off before her novel was completely done - something she says to never, ever do! Her dream agent loved her query, signed her, but they had a difficult time with selling her first book. Eventually the idea of hoarders came along, also quite serendipitously, while reading an article in a gossip magazine, and with that C.J. was on her way.

Now, something I have to point out were the groans and sighs of familiar frustration as C.J. described how when she first started writing seriously, she was going to storm the market of children's books! - pause to look dreamily into the sky. I'm fairly certain that all beginning, hopeful writers think that they're going to nail their first book, land the first agent they query, secure a six-figure advance and a three book contract, and sit at signings with hoards of screaming, young fans begging for their autograph. Yeah, this typically isn't how it works. You're lucky if you can get an agent, land a $5,000 advance and get your own family members to attend your signings. But, like anything worthwhile, writing a good book takes time, and many, many, many tries - for most.

Next, jubilant, easy going Heidi spoke about her debut novel, Sea. Taking inspiration from the pages of journals her husband wrote while working on humanitarian efforts in Indonesia after the catastrophic 2004 tsunami, Sea is the tale of a young girl who reluctantly travels to the disaster-ridden place to aid her father in his own volunteer efforts, and discovers love and the truth about her mother's mysterious disappearance three years before. Heidi's road to published writer was speckled with writing musical theatre, protesting the potential loss of the creative writing major at UC Santa Cruz, where she attended college, moving to New York City and earning a writing degree from the New School, and naively passing on the opportunity to ghost write books as offered by an editor at a major publishing house while in NYC. She eventually learned more about the publishing industry, joined a critique group with the likes of Nancy Farmer (not bad) and after participating in a "speed-dating" for agents event back in San Francisco, was presented with three requests from different agents for her book also before she'd had it done. Like C.J., another no-no they say in the timeline of finding representation for your novel. Eventually, Sara Crowe became Heidi's agent. Heidi says she literally stood on her back deck and screamed when she got the call.

Main points the two authors said to take from their experience:
1) Do your research before submitting to an agent. Don't submit blindly.
2) Surround yourself with other writers.
3) Don't expect to sell your first book, or for that matter, your second or your third.
4) Pay attention to the reactions of people when reading your book. If they're yawning or spacing out, looking bored, then you may be working on the wrong project.

I would be remiss not to mention that both ladies sang the praises of Twitter. C.J. was admittedly anti-Twitter at first, but once she got into it, and got a tweet back from YA super-author, John Green - squeals of delight - she was certain its benefits outweighed anything negative. And Heidi is the "queen of connections." Getting herself on the radar had fellow Tweeters changing their profile photo to the cover of her book, and generating pre-press buzz.

There was a short break to pause for cupcakes to celebrate another SCBWI member's birthday, and that's when I stole over to snap the photo at the top of this post. A Q & A section followed (but this post is getting too long so perhaps I'll mention more on that another time) and then the event was over.

I don't always make it to every local SCBWI event, not all of them appeal to what I'm working on - but I'm really glad that I attended this one. Not only were C.J. and Heidi gracious, funny and forthcoming, but I gained more insight into the mystical world of what it would be like to be a paid, published writer. Oh, and for future projects, both ladies are working on YA paranormal romances, moving away from the seriousness of their last books.

As for me, I'll tell you what's next on my to-do list: reading Dirty Little Secrets and Sea, and getting myself an account on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

mr. so-and-so said so - computers are gonna be big

Bert and Ernie (trust me, this will make sense in a minute)

No one would ever confuse me for being a tech-savvy snob. The highlight of my formative computer using years, came in fourth-grade when Mr. So-and-So - I forget his real name - the dreaded, older, only male teacher in my school - brought computers into our classroom in Irvine, California, where my family was living at the time. He told us those big white boxes with yellow, block letters and black screens would be the wave of the future. Mr. So-and-So had to beg the school to purchase computers for our classroom. We were the very first class to use them! No other teacher in the school wanted such silly things. We were lucky, said Mr. So-and-So. We were getting a leg up on the rest of our grade. Those other kids who got the new, nice, sweet, pretty teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, were going to be sorry Sally's that they didn't get computer time! We'd show them! They'd be stuck pumping gas while we were living the life in Palm Springs, all because we got to use computers. That's what he said to a group of scraggly fourth-graders rolling their eyes.

Well, turns out Mr. So-and-So, for all of his evil ways, was right. And the best I've ever been, and probably will ever be, at computers, was in that class when I ardently typed the letters falling from the top of the screen to the bottom of the screen, faster than they traveled. The golden years of computers for me - it's never been as good since.

Now, flash-forward to 2010, there are so many applications and reading thingamabobs like iPoodles, Kinkles and Nookies, that I can't keep up! But I think I got it! I think I finally got it when I read a recent article called MeeGenius!: A New Outlet for Picture Book Authors and Illustrators written by Alice Pope (who keeps a well known children's book writers blog here) in the May/June 2010 SCBWI Bulletin.

The MeeGenius! tag line is - Have you ever thought about having your books published on the iPad, iPhone and the web? Why wait to sell your books through a traditional publisher? Go digital today with MeeGenius! and become one of our noteworthy authors, distributing your books immediately to an international audience.

That said, the MeeGenius! people won't take just any joe-schmo writer or illustrator. According to Pope's article, they "plan to employ a MeeGenius! editor to monitor the quality of submissions." They don't want to be a YouTube for picture books. And the co-founder, David Park, says, "We think of ourselves as more of an Etsy type of company. We want to have really high-quality content on the site." Oooh, I love Etsy - this equals good stuff people.

Right now, if you go to the MeeGenius! site, you can view and read a couple dozen picture books for free. Mostly the classics like Jack and Jill, Cinderella, Goldilocks and The Three Bears, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. And what's super cool, is that you can personalize each book so that Goldilocks becomes Samantha, and the baby bear becomes Sadie. Yes, I personalized GL and her three bear friends. I had to try it out! It was actually really fun and easy. And you know that if I get it then a four year-old definitely will. What's more? There's a read-along voice and each word is highlighted as it's spoken - a couple of the key items that parents told MeeGenius! creators they wanted.

The E-books are sold through the iTunes store and the web, and according to Pope's SCBWI article, MeeGenius! is still working out the kinks in terms of their author/illustrator payouts and pricing models for the E-books, but ultimately it will be left up to the audience to see what the people are willing to pay.

One more thing, MeeGenius! is enabling a "dating service" they say, to connect illustrators with authors. Who knows, they could produce the next Sonny and Cher, Bert and Ernie, Han and Chewbacca, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Ross and Rachel - I could go on - of children's book creators.

I hate to say he was right, but if he's still alive and somewhere out there tormenting a fresh batch of kids, Mr. So-and-So's probably awfully proud of himself for guessing that computers were gonna be a big thing.

Sonny and Cher

Han Solo and Chewbacca

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

x-city girl rescues a baby bird

Time to ease the vibe a bit, if possible, in regards to yesterday's unfortunate discovery and post. May I just say that I am very sorry to hear what happened concerning the recent story in Texas, and that my thoughts are with the family and friends.

Maybe seeing this little guy will bring a smile to an otherwise sad face...

I found this baby bird - who I named Willie - on my run this morning. I reversed my route and went up a road that I normally end my run with, and out of the corner of my eye spotted something fluffy hoping along the curb in the street. At first I thought it was a ginormous bumble bee - I do wear glasses - then I discovered that it was a little bird. Willie tried to run away from me, but eventually I scooped him up. His nest was nowhere that I could see. The only tree was a tall Oak, which I was not about to climb. Some sort of animal was lurking in the bushes nearby, so either poor little Willie was gonna become road kill, or a neighborhood cat's tasty treat.

Nobody really answers their doorbell anymore, do they? Then again, no one was really around at that hour. So with that, I cupped little Willie in my hands and we started the walk home. Luckily I had only gone about a mile when I found Willie - it would've been a much longer morning had I found him somewhere in the middle of my run, around mile three... Before long, Willie's soft chirps quieted down and his shaking stopped as he settled into my palm. I should mention, by the way, that I got some pretty amused looks from the two or three passerby. With my hands cupped out in front of my waist, I must've looked like some meditative-Buddhist-practicing walker. On top of that, a damn fly kept landing on my hand and then on my ear and then back on my hand, and since I couldn't swat him away I jerked my head from side-to side and blew on my wrist like some crazy, half-possessed lady!

Anyway, back at home, Willie was given the royal treatment - that's how we roll at La Casa de Hagar of animals. Perched in a soft pink blanket inside of a shoe box, Willie snuggled up while I researched where I could take him. Lindsay Wildlife Museum turned out to be the place. They have a whole web page on what to do if you should happen to find a wild animal, like I did. Of course, if you're a mile from home with no cell phone and no one around, it's hard to know how to's not like these things occur everyday.

What happened next? Well, Willie was given a bath and he will be nursed until he is strong and ready to be placed back where I found least that's what I think. I'll find out more in a couple days when I call over there to see how he's doing. Oh, and turns out, Willie was a Quail. Yeah, Quails nest on the ground. So while I was looking up in the trees, that thing lurking in the bushes could've been Willie's mom. This is what happens when an x-city girl finds a wild animal. Now I know, should I find a baby bird again, to look for nests on the ground, not only in the trees.....

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

to kill a mockingbird

Harper Lee on the set of To Kill A Mockingbird, via Wikipedia

How is it possible that I've gone 32 years without reading Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (J.B. Lippincott Company, 1960)?! I had good luck again on the free damaged books cart at the library where I snatched up this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, shoved it in my overstuffed laptop bag, set it on my bookshelf for nearly a month, ran out of books to read one night, remembered that I had Mockingbird, cracked it open on BART on the way to work, and have had my nose buried in its brown, withered pages for the last two weeks (yes, I read slow, but two weeks is actually fast for me).

Where to begin? There is so much to admire in To Kill A Mockingbird. Too many things to list here. So for this post, I'm going to focus solely on the protagonist, Jean-Louise Finch, a.k.a "Scout," the six-year old narrator, because she is an inspiration to me, and I'm guessing to all writers. Scout is the type of character that writer's dream of creating. I don't think Scout's physical appearance is noted anywhere in the book, other than that she wears overalls instead of dresses, and it doesn't need to be. Knowing whether or not her hair is brown or red didn't make one difference to me. Her image is crystal clear. Her actions are what set her apart...

Her hot temper and propensity to fight:
"You can take that back, boy!" This order, given by me to Cecil Jacobs, was the beginning of a rather thin time for Jem and me. My fists were clenched and I was ready to let fly.

Her distaste for school:
"Despite our compromise, my campaign to avoid school had continued in one form or another since my first day's does of it: the beginning of last September had brought on sinking spells, dizziness, and mild gastric complaints. I went so far as to pay a nickel for the privilege of rubbing my head against the head of Miss Rachel's cook's son, who was afflicted with a tremendous ringworm. It didn't take."

And further, when she attempts to blame learning swear words as another reason not to go to school:
"Aw, that's a damn story," I said.
"I beg your pardon?"
Atticus said, "Don't pay any attention to her, Jack. She's trying you out. Cal says she's been cussing fluently for a week, now."
Uncle Jack raised his eyebrows and said nothing. I was proceeding on the dim theory, aside from the innate attractiveness of such words, that if Atticus discovered I had picked them up at school he wouldn't make me go.
But at supper that evening when I asked him to pass the damn ham, please, Uncle Jack pointed at me. "See you afterwards, young lady," he said.

See what I mean? Scout exudes personality in everything that she says and does. I couldn't help but fall in love with her innocent observations and naive queries. She is the epitome of childhood. Remember when you were young, and looking into a snow globe the world inside actually seemed real? Or on nights when the tooth fairy was to arrive, her hand could practically be sensed placing a quarter under your pillow. What about when playing international spies and the sound and vibration of enemy footsteps on a bridge overhead from where you hid could be heard and felt... (okay, maybe the international espionage game was unique to me and my sister - we weren't allowed to watch television during the summer, so we came up with some pretty intricate ideas). What I'm trying to get at in my roundabout way, is that Harper Lee's characterizations of Scout are very astute, endearing, and very real. Summon up the way that world looked inside the snow globe. Reach back in time and pull those memories from your head. If you can reconstruct the innocence and feeling of childhood, like Harper Lee did with Scout, then your story will be that much more real.

Monday, June 14, 2010

a summer reading list for the rich

In case you haven't heard, writers don't make a lot of money, it's true. But that doesn't mean that we can't read like we don't have second and third homes in Paris and Italy. The Wall Street Journal has released the Wealth Report: The Billionaire Book Club: What The Rich Are Reading This Summer by Robert Frank. Yes, the richest of the rich actually have their own summer reading list. The good news is that regular people like me and you don't have to be on Forbes Top 100 to join this book club. JPMorgan bankers from across the globe submitted their top book picks which were then narrowed down to ten by a committee of other financial industry folks, I presume.

The top three books are:

Read the full article here. Also, this makes me wonder, if this list is compiled by folks mainly from the financial sector, what would the list look like if top professionals from the worlds of art, music or food, etc., industries put their top picks together....?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

here comes the baby sister

Elizabeth and Amanda

Sorry I've been so absent lately. I'm trying to pick up some speed with the revisions to my novel Trevelyn's Shimmer, but also, I've been getting ready for my baby sister Elizabeth's wedding.

Lizzy is getting married this Sunday to a man that we all adore, Justin. We - as in all us sisters - like to say that only Justin can handle Liz's big personality. He puts his foot down when he needs to. He tells her like it is. He's the boss! least that's what he/we like to believe. But the truth is, I think they are an equally balanced couple. They've known each other for a number of years, went to high school together but didn't know it until after graduation, and have always loved one another thru thick and thin.

When my mom married Lizzy's dad, I was thrilled to have three new sisters, even if I only got to see them over holidays and during the summer. I remember walking down the street holding Lizzy's hand one summer, when a woman passing us by looked at Lizzy and a huge smile spread across her face. "She's so adorable!" she said. I squeezed my sister's hand tighter and smiled back. I was so proud to be a big sister.

Love you Lizzy and Justin! I'm so happy for you and honored to be in your wedding!