Sunday, August 14, 2011

I'm jumping back to my old blog

Hi, everyone!

Google kindly informed me that my old blog still exists, so I've moved all my posts from here to there. If you'd like to continue following me, you can check it out at:

I will be posting my thoughts on writing for kids and teens, humor, creativity, publishing, fantasy and science fiction, and geek culture. There will be news about book releases, and there's a contest with prizes in the works.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

70 best romantic comedy movies

The Princess Bride is my all-time favorite movie, but I love romantic comedies in general. Here's a list of 70 romantic comedies I've loved. Are your favorites on the list?
The Princess Bride
French Kiss
Pretty Woman
Benny and Joon
When Harry Met Sally
Fever Pitch
Pitch Fever
Bridget Jones
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Jerry Maguire
Don Juan DeMarco
The Goodby Girl
Someone Like You
Educating Rita
Green Card
Sleepless in Seattle
Runaway Bride
For Love or Money
Maid in Manhattan
The Wedding Planner
Notting Hill
He's Just Not That Into You
Keeping the Faith
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Raising Arizona
Dan in REal Life
The Holiday
The Secret of My Success
Addicted to Love
The Addams Family
About a Boy
She's Out of My League
The Ugly Truth
The Proposal
Confessions of a Shopaholic
The Truth about Cats and Dogs
Shirley Valentine
Father of the Bride
The Accidental Hero
Local Hero
When in Rome
Leap Year
Fools Rush In
Must Love Dogs
Music and Lyrics
You've Got Mail
Gregory's Girl
Definitely, Maybe
Run, Fat Boy, Run
Mrs. Winterbourne
While You Were Sleeping
A Fish Called Wanda
Seems Like Old Times
Ghost Town
Morning Glory
I'll Be There
Never Been Kissed
She's the Man

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Episode 2--"What's So Funny?"


What's so funny? In a word: everything! Anything you can think of can be the setup for your humor. The only question is "What do you want humor to do for you?"

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The truth about ebook sales

I've seen several writers quote Bowker's figures on ebook sales, which say they only account for the smallest fraction of books sold and money made. The problem with this is that Bowker can't track Amazon Kindle sales. Only Amazon can, and Amazon is not giving that information to Bowker. While Bowker can track sales based on ISBNs, Amazon ignores ISBNs in favor of it's own Amazon Standard Identification Number.

See this blog post by Steve Weber, author of Plug Your Book, for more information:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Humor: Does It Have to Hurt?

I've been studying comedy since I was a little kid, collecting jokes I found on TV so I could tell them later and make my family and friends laugh. I've read many books on creative humor, and I've even taken a couple of courses in college on the subject. The teachers of the courses and most of the books say the same thing, and that is pain is a part of comedy. But is it really?

I was a political cartoonist for seven years, and in that time I came up with my own pain-free formula for creating humor, a formula that helped me write over 1,000 cartoons, and add humor to over 100 articles, 40 picture books, and seven novels. It's also helped me get jobs, make friends, get laughs when I had to speak as a member of a forum on humor, and deal better with stress. This formula is called the House of Funny, and this video is the first in a series I'm creating to explain what the House of Funny is and what it can do for you.      

I hope you enjoy it, and if you do I hope you'll subscribe to my YouTube channel, because I have a lot more fun planned.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Read a good book on public speaking

I bought How to Say It with Your Voice by Jeffrey Jacobi, because someone at a writers workshop said I talked really fast, and I wanted to correct that. I also wanted to make sure I did the best possible job when I sat down to start recording my vlog (which should be very soon).

It's a great book: informative, clear, nonjudgmental, and easy to put into practice. I discovered a few tricks to get over speed talking, and also discovered that one of the things I always thought was a defect in my voice--the way it rises and falls as I speak--is actually a good trait to have. I would recommend this book to anyone who is concerned about the sound of their voice or about public speaking.

There were a few tips I think will be particularly helpful when it comes to recording my vlog:

1. "Underline the important words of your talk with a colored marker to remind you which words need a dramatic pitch change. You can also use italics to signify key words." (You should do this with several words in each sentence. Adjectives and verbs frequently work well for this. You can change pitch by either raising or lowering the pitch, and you can vary is for interest.)

2. "Indicate where you want to take extra time by e-l-o-n-g-a-t-i-n-g key words with dashes. Slowing down can also be indicated with an arrow below the key word."

3. "Write in double slash marks // to signify pauses." Pauses add power to your words.

This book has made me more aware of why I react the way I do to people with different public speaking styles, and I'm looking forward to using what I've learned when I start recording my vlog.


Monday, June 13, 2011

SCBWI NJ Conference 2011

I've attended several SCBWI NJ Mentoring Workshops, and I feel I've got a lot out of them. This was my first SCBWI NJ Conference, and although I'd heard only wonderful things about it, I did go with some apprehensions. Would I feel overwhelmed by the crowd? How would I work out attending a conference over Shabbat? Would it be worth the cost? 

I talked it over with my husband. We could go as a family and spend Shabbat together. A little bit of duct tape over the locks meant we wouldn't have to use the key cards to get into our room, and we could lock all valuables securely in our car. We could bring our own food--that would have been necessary even if I didn't keep kosher because of my anti-yeast diet--and I didn't have to write anything during Shabbat. It was doable, and we agreed it was a good idea. After talking with Kathy Temean, the SCBWI NJ RA, I felt excited about it. We even discussed the possibility that I might give a workshop next year, although it was too late for me to do that this year.



I arrived at the hotel on Friday at noon. Too early to check in, I went straight to the conference center, schlepping my many bags with me. I wanted to hand my portfolio in early, because I couldn’t sign it in on Saturday (for religious reasons), but I couldn’t find the person I was supposed to give it to. (I didn’t bother to bring anything for the juried art show, because I didn’t have the proper equipment.) So I picked up my name tag and information packet, chatted with a few old friends, like Kathy and Laurie, met sweet and helpful Ame--with her happy high voice, her spiky red hair, and her little red bow--and went to my Friday intensive. 

I’d had a hard time choosing an intensive, because they all sounded too basic for me. I somehow ended up with “The Craft and Art of Writing” with Stephan Barbara. Too late, I noticed there was one on self-editing. I probably should  have gone with that one. 


Stephan is a young, amiable, good-looking agent with a Lit degree, who used to work as a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. Reviewing books turned out not to be a good job if you were hoping that people would write to tell you how helpful they found your reviews (also not the best if you want to get paid, or at least that’s been my experience). The only time people wrote to him was after he reviewed a book that painted the Boy Scouts in a less than favorable light, and then it was all hate mail. 

I didn’t even know the Wall Street Journal reviewed books, but in the week after the conference, a WSJ article on the darkness in YA drew a lot of criticism from YA writers who felt their work was being attacked. Frankly, I think this drew an unnecessary amount of attention to an article that otherwise would have only been read by a handful of people. Hate mail lends more weight to such articles than no attention whatsoever. This isn’t the famous New York Times book review section, after all. 

He asked us what the necessary parts of a story were, and he wrote the answers down on a large sheet of paper. Character. Conflict. One of the things he wrote down was an “antagonist.” I said it didn’t belong there. He said, “Name a story that doesn’t have an antagonist.” I said, “When Harry Met Sally.” Silence. (I could have added “Almost every episode of Friends.”) Someone else said that an antagonist didn’t have to be a person. Really? Let me look that up in the dictionary… From ”antagonist: noun 1. A person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competes with another; opponent; adversary. 2. The adversary of the hero or protagonist of a drama or other literary work: Iago is the antagonist of Othello.”  Sounds like an antagonist has to be a person to me, but I could be wrong.


He wrote down the parts, and then told us to write the start of a story. I did. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. So he suggested I write the starts of three stories, so I did. And I waited. And waited. And waited. It turns out everyone else was writing the outline for half a story, not the start of a story. We went around the room and read what we had written. Lisa had written a great outline for the start of a story, so we picked hers to work on as a class. We then discussed what would be the best opening scene and the best POV (Point Of View), and we wrote opening scenes. We then discussed what scene would make an interesting confrontation between two characters in the story, and we wrote those. After each writing period, we read what we had written out loud. Mine elicited a laugh at the right spot, so I guess it worked. 


The intensive lasted four hours, and I can’t say I really learned anything from it, except that if you write book reviews for the Wall Street Journal and you want people to actually read them, review a book that paints the Boy Scouts in a negative light. As for the less experienced writers in the class, I think the main thing they might have taken away is “Authority: set the stage on page one with confidence.” That’s something I do see as a distinction between some newbie writers and those who have been at it for a long time. Sometimes newbie writers can be too timid, not willing to let the story be all that it can be. You have to believe in yourself and in your story if you want your reader to, but it can take time to gain that confidence.   





My agent critique came next. I’ve talked with this agent before, and I think if I do get to the point where I need an agent, there’s a good chance I’ll choose him. I like his attitude, and I like his questions. They let me see things in my manuscript I maybe haven’t considered before. He doesn’t micromanage, which is good, because I really don’t need hand holding, just career guidance and help making the right connections and getting the best deal.


We talked about my plans regarding e-publishing (he said I seem to know what I’m doing) and about Why My Love Life Sucks. He loved Gilbert’s voice and the humor, loved the dialogue. I said that’s because I’ll often write the same scene three times, so I can get it just right. He put on a shocked face and said, “You mean you don’t get it right the FIRST time?” I laughed and said, “In Improv they like to say you shouldn’t worry that it’s going to suck--because it’s DEFINITELY going to suck.” He said, “I have a client I’d like you to talk to.” Then it was my turn to laugh.




I found someone who would take my portfolio for me, which lightened my load a little. Then schlepping what was left of my bags, I returned to the lobby and checked in. I got my room key, and then spent the next half hour getting extremely lost in the hotel. It’s not a huge hotel, but it’s very easy to find yourself going back and forth between floors, or maybe I should say half floors. The same floor can actually exist on two levels, and it turned out my second floor room was half a floor below the second floor where the conference was taking place. Eventually I returned to the desk, asked for directions again, and got the right room.


It was very nice, and the beds were extremely comfortable, possibly the most comfortable of any hotel beds I’ve ever slept in. The view was okay, although it mostly consisted of the branches of one tree that extended all the way to our window. Even in the middle of the day, there wasn’t much danger of bright sunlight getting into the room. (A little bit of sunshine would have been nice.) My husband and kids soon arrived with our luggage and flowers for me. It was our anniversary. That was so sweet for him to bring me flowers.


I enjoyed a quiet Friday night with my family. We ate dinner in our room. It was nice. I didn’t go to the Friday night Mix and Mingle because the charge was mostly for the food, and I couldn’t eat any of it. It was right outside our hotel room door, though, so I couldn’t help but walk through it. I guess it would be great if you’re a social butterfly, but parties aren’t my thing.  






Saturday started with breakfast, but again I couldn’t eat anything, so I asked my husband to check it out to see if there was anything he could eat. He got one bottle of orange juice, and found my portfolio had been laid out. He returned to the room, grabbed a bunch of the little wind-up robots I’d brought for promotional purposes, and put them next to my portfolio. We kept adding robots as they disappeared, so I’m glad I managed to give most of them away. (They have the URL to my website on them.)




After eating breakfast in my room, I went to the amphitheater to hear Grace Lin’s keynote. It was funny, heartfelt and sweet. Grace Lin talked about her childhood, how she grew up in a little town where her family was the only Chinese one. She thought of herself as American as anyone else, until someone read Five Chinese Brothers, and another kid turned to her and said, “Chinese just like you!” She grew up wanting to illustrate classic fairy tales, and she was well on the way. But then during a scholarship that took her to Italy, she realized she wanted to learn more about Chinese art. She discovered the bright colors of Chinese folk art, and she embraced it. After publishing one Chinese-American picture book, she had to decide whether she wanted to be labeled a multicultural writer, and she decided to embrace it. And in the end she discovered that by writing books for kids who were “Chinese just like me,” she ended up being a truly multicultural writer, one who is embraced by all children from all cultures.  




The Agent Panel mostly centered on ebooks, because that is, after all, the hot topic everyone wants to know about. I asked two questions. First, if one of your clients came to you wanting to self-publish an ebook, would you support that client? Second, with Nook books and ebooks for the iPad offering so many bells and whistles, how are paper books going to compete? The agent from Andrea Brown Literary said they’ve just published an ebook with one of their writers, and they’re looking to see how that goes. As for interactive picture books, most felt hardcover picture books still had a lot to offer, and that ebooks didn’t provide enough added value to make them replace hardcover picture books altogether.


The Agent Panel was very interesting, which is why I regretted having to leave in the middle for my author critique.




I learned a lot from my author critique, namely how NOT to run an author critique. People pay extra to get these critiques. They don’t pay for condescension or attitude. At one point the author assumed I was offended by something she’d said. I replied, “No, I get it. It’s not personal. It’s business.” Her reply was, “Oh, it’s ALWAYS personal.” What the heck does that mean?


I only paid for an author critique because it was the only way to get an additional editor or agent critique. I had three critique sessions, one pitch session, and one consultation at this conference, and the only one who seemed to go out of her way to be mean was this writer, who is actually less experienced and less qualified than any of the other critiquers I had. Heck, she’s less experienced than I am! She said it was a good “rough draft” (I have edited it many, many times). And after telling me all the things she felt needed to be changed, she wrote, “While it may seem overkill, I have the satisfaction of hearing agents & eds tell me that my mss are polished. That’s a level you want to achieve to capture your publishing dream.” It’s a wonder she can get her shirt on with a head that big.


I have one word for a writer who thinks that much of herself and that little of everyone else, but it’s not a very nice word, so I won’t use it. Still, if I’m ever in a position to give author critiques at a conference, I will definitely go out of my way to be nice. It doesn’t cost anything, and it’s only fair to the person who has paid for the critique. A little respect goes a long way, and you get back what you give.




After this, I had my first pages session, which didn’t go well. The reader had a monotone voice and the editor and agent missed the humor in my manuscript. They also ripped apart someone else’s first page, even though it was hilarious. I told the author after the session that I loved her work. I hope that story gets published. It sounds fun, funny and cool.




I went to my room to join my family for lunch, and returned for one of the best workshops: “Minding Your Own Business” with Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. Sudipta has published many picture books, but she makes only about a third of her money from advances and royalties. The other two-thirds mostly come from school visits, work-for-hire, and professional development (like speaking at teachers conferences). She talked about how to get these jobs and what to do when you give an author visit so it’s all about giving your listeners something, not talking about your books. If you write picture books or Middle Grade novels, I’d say this workshop is a must.




The next workshop I had was Query Letters with agent Mary Kole, but unfortunately my Agent Pitch session pulled me out for the first 10 minutes, and my editor critique pulled me out for the last 20 minutes, which means I only sat in the class for 15 minutes. I’m sure it was great, but I didn’t really get to hear any of it. There might have been a handout, but I didn’t even get to find out about it.




I was very nervous about my Agent Pitch, but it still went surprisingly well. She laughed at the right place, and pointed out two things I needed to fix (I didn’t know a pitch needed the word count, but I did know it needed the main character’s age, and I can’t believe I left that out). She also said she’d like me to submit Why My Love Life Sucks to her. Yes!




The critique with the editor went very well too. Among the things she wrote: “This is really hilarious! Great writing and great work! You’ve done a great job at character development with Gilbert! He feels real and totally believable. I love his mom as well. Great, authentic teen language—great work! The voice in this piece is one of your biggest assets. It’s fresh and believable. I think this has a lot of [marketing] potential. I love that it’s a funny twist on the vampire story! I think you’re ready to look for representation.” She gave me some line edits to work on, and she asked to see the entire manuscript! Yahoo!




I then had a break for an hour and 20 minutes, so I used them to go swimming in the hotel’s pool. I know these conferences tend to revolve around food and eating, but what I wouldn’t give to go to a writing conference that revolved around swimming, going for walks, playing games, and just having fun instead. The swim was great. It helped me unwind, and I really needed it. I can’t be the only one who would have enjoyed a swim. 




My next workshop was YA’s Little Sister: Upper Middle Grade, with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick. It was a lot of fun, and not just because when we heard another workshop cheering, we opened the door to our room, clapped, and let out the loudest cheer we could. (That’s right, we messed with their minds, and it was hilarious.) There was a helpful handout, so we didn’t need to take notes, and we could just relax and chat. We talked about what distinguishes upper Middle Grade from YA and regular Middle Grade. Novels for younger readers usually have neat endings, but kids in seventh and eighth grades are in transition, and the endings of novels for them reflect that. Upper Middle Grade can deal with more serious issues, just not sex, and it’s best to avoid any PG language so that Scholastic doesn’t ask for edits if your book is selected as a book-club option. If you’ve written a clean YA, you might want to consider making your main character 13 or younger. Editors are looking for upper Middle Grades, written by writers who know how to capture a 6th-8th grade kid’s voice. We  chatted. We laughed. We had a great time. And it was nice meeting Olugbemisola, who until then I’d only met online. She had the cutest yellow smiley ring.    




I had dinner with my family, and at some point I played shuffleboard with a writer named Sonia. Okay, technically it wasn’t shuffleboard, because neither of us knew how to play, so we just made up a game as we went along. The shuffleboard table was in the same place the Mix and Mingle had been on Friday night, and so were a couple of pool tables, a foosball table, and a ping pong table. We had no idea what we were doing, but we laughed a lot and had a ball. The other people at the conference had no idea what they were missing.




I then had a consultation with Harold Underdown. It was great to finally meet him. I’ve chatted with Harold many times online, and I worked with him on the SCBWI Illustrator’s Market Guide a few years ago. Harold critiqued Why My Love Life Sucks, and he had a few ideas about submitting it, namely that I haven’t done that enough. It’s true. I have a fear of submitting my work. It’s so bad that there have been times I felt unable to breathe. I get palpitations. But if I do want to traditionally publish, I need to just do it. Thing is, I haven’t quite made up my mind yet. Indie publishing ebooks is looking better all the time.




My family had another quiet night. We considering going out for a walk around the hotel, but it was dark, and I have poor night vision. The hotel is located in a lovely wooded area with a lake and a waterfall. There’s a map to tell you were to go if you’d like to jog around the lake. There’s a bridge that connects the hotel to the conference center, and it passes over the water. This is where they set up the artwork for the juried art show, and the pieces illustrators had brought in were wonderful. I particularly liked Penny Weber’s giraffe, with the two boys painting spots on it. The framing and flow of the piece were perfect. I also loved Doris Ettlinger’s piece—how you could feel the heat coming off the sun in the painting—and Leeza Hernandez’s funny “Bad Hair Day,” with an angry girl pulling her huge mass of hair along in a little red wagon. The bridge was the perfect place to exhibit the work. The views from that bridge are gorgeous, particularly when there’s a rowboat or two on the lake. My husband enjoyed taking our son out for a walk during the day when I was busy at the conference, and I wish I could have joined them.




Another breakfast with my family on Sunday morning, and then it was off to David Caruba’s agents and editors survey.  



This was definitely the most informative speech that was given in the amphitheater. David Caruba surveyed close to 30 agents and editors, including a few that weren't at the conference. Although the agents and editors reported that 60% of their sales are in YA, and only 40% of their sales are in Middle Grade, they are acquiring almost 80% Middle Grade, and only 20% YA. Agents and editors are predicting that Middle Grade will be a hot age group in a couple of years, and while they are inundated with YA manuscripts, they don't get nearly enough Middle Grade novels.
The good news about the picture books is that they're holding ground, and agents are still acquiring them (although less than 5% of what their acquiring is from picture books). While it wasn't so long ago that the preferred length of picture books had dropped down to 1000 words and then down to 500 words, the preferred length now is under 300 words. Picture books also have to be character driven, because publishers want to know that they will be able to market a series with the character.

Middle Grade does more school and library business than YA, but YA sells better. They are actively looking for Middle Grade --- but not actively buying it! Magical realism in Middle Grade is HOT. They don't want "quiet." Quiet means literary, and when an editor says your manuscript quiet, what she means is "It's great, but it's literary, and I can't sell literary." What they can sell our books like the Percy Jackson and the Wimpy Kid series. Genre fiction sells, and that's what they want.

YA is in transition. "It's the machine and then knows no end. It is the Energizer Bunny." But there is too much of it out there. The competition is tough. And publishers want to see a big success right away. In this market you're better off if you haven't published before, because previous weak or middling sales can really hurt your chances. It's harder than ever to get published without an agent --- but getting known on the Net (and at networking opportunities like this conference) can help you get an agent.

FANTASY is HOT. How hot? 85%. That's pretty hot. But there's too much dystopian. "If you call it dystopian, editors won't take it."

In regard to vampire novels, ironic vampire novels are HOT -- YES! (I half suspect that the agents and editors I talked to at the conference skewed the results here, and if so I thank them!) Fat Vampire and Jane Jones: Worst Vampire Ever are two examples of ironic vampire novels.
The fact that Borders is closing is weighing heavily on their minds. They're hoping the money will transition into e-books sales. David said he believes that bookstores will it evolve to become more about coffee and board games and less about books, but he does think they will continue to exist.
Agents say that editors are offering lower advances.

Science fiction is the next big thing, but that six months from now, and agents and editors need to look two years into the future.

Humor in Middle Grade is good. E-books for YA are good. One major agent said, "People want series, not one-offs. I think it's a drag."

Only genre books are selling. That's all the agents and editors want right now. They're looking for all kinds of genres. While fantasy and science fiction are the hottest, they're also looking for good thrillers and the like. Both agents and editors lament that publishers want a hit out of the gate, and they don't want to build an author anymore. The biggest question right now is Amazon, particularly now that they’ll be publishing. Everyone wants to know what Amazon is going to do next.

So in short: YA is strong, Middle Grade is doing well, Picture Books are holding their own, Amazon is up, Borders is down, and the field is healthy.




My first workshop on Sunday morning was Overview of Book Contracts with Edward Necarsulmer, and it was great, because it allowed us to ask him questions about what an agent does. We learned a lot about foreign rights, movie and TV rights, and more. We learned about the parts of the contract that can be negotiated and the parts that can’t. Very informative.




The workshop after that was Banging Your Head—15 Things I Learned the Hard Way. Some of the things she learned the hard way I’m rather surprised anyone didn’t find obvious, but what was worse, I felt there were also a few pieces of misinformation. There was a handout, so I can give specific examples. Number one: “No cutesy pictures.” (Apparently, it didn’t occur to her that there might be a few illustrators at a writers AND illustrators conference.) Number five: “Also, substitute other words in place of said; [the semi-colons are hers, not mine] yell, cried, whispered, and the like because they are more descriptive…. Careful about adverbs, though, they are currently out of favor, but sometimes one is necessary; cried softly or cried loudly.” The problem with this is that you shouldn’t use an adjective when you can simply use a more specific verb. You shouldn’t write “cried softly” when you can write “whimpered.” You shouldn’t write “cried loudly” when you can write “wailed.” And very often writers—in trying to substitute words instead of “said”—use words that aren’t verbs of speech, which can produce some silly results. For example, “she breathed” or “she laughed.” You can’t breathe or laugh words.


I could add a 16th item to her list of things I learned the hard way, namely do not sign up for workshops with names like “Banging Your Head.”




Next came Co-Authoring a Book with Natalie Zaman and Charlotte Bennardo. I met Nat at a Mentoring Workshop in the fall, and it was nice to see her again. I’ve been thinking about contacting someone who writes thrillers so we could work on an idea I have for one, and I was hoping to get some information I might be able to apply. I didn’t. Instead we heard how these two writers met and ended up writing Sirenz together. Before they started writing, they decided that they would drop the manuscript if it ended up coming between them. They each wrote one of the two first-person characters. When one was finished writing a chapter in her character’s voice, she passed the manuscript to the other to write the next chapter in the other character’s voice. Charlotte likes to write the first draft, while Natalie likes to edit, so their talents complemented each other. It worked, and the book is coming out now.




At lunch I sat next to a children’s songwriter from a town outside of Philadelphia, although I ate my own sandwich (cold cuts in a brown-rice tortilla). Rob teaches kindergarten, and we talked about ebooks. He’s working with an app developer, and we both agreed that ebooks are the way of the future and the future is coming much sooner than the agents at the conference seemed to imply. Someone at the table suggested we each talk about our work and swap business cards. I got into an argument with someone about The Sun Also Rises. It was one of his favorites, but I hate it, because it ends exactly the way it starts. What’s the point of reading a book if it doesn’t go anywhere? Seriously, would anyone publish that today? And if they did, would anyone want to read it? Yes, it’s very well written. In a way, that makes the utter lack of change in the story all the more frustrating.




Lunch was followed by agent Holly McGhee’s keynote speech, which I mostly missed because I thought I’d lost my Flip video camera, and I was in a panic.  All I remember is that it involved a writer who got cancer, and I think he got better.




I ran around the hotel looking for the camera, but couldn’t find it. (It later turned up in a compartment in one of my bags, thank goodness!) Then came the raffle, and I was glad when Laurie won the prize I had donated: a custom-designed book trailer, blog, or cover with stock artwork. I won a basket of paper products donated by Connie, which was nice. What writer doesn’t always need more paper? She said it should be lucky paper, and everything I submit on it should be bought. That was very sweet.




I picked up my portfolio and my big basket of paper, said goodbye to everyone, and headed off to the pool. My husband had already taken the kids home, and we’d arranged to meet at the pool. He made it just in time to get one more swim in, and then we went home. 


We had a good time, and I’m looking forward to doing it again, although next year I think I’d prefer to give a workshop. It will probably be about the House of Funny method for creating humor, which can be adapted to create an infinite number of story plots too. 


Until then, I need to get started on my vlog on that topic. Should be fun!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Found a new Twitter chat for writers

It's called #storyappchat, and they're discussing everything about picture book apps. There's a lot of wisdom to be learned from those with experience in this area.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

So what do you think?

My new cover for Mira Levy. I wasn't happy with the one I threw together in a hurry, so I made this today. I know I should be getting ready for the conference, but I put a copy of this into my portfolio, so it counts. Now to get it up on my website...

Monday, May 30, 2011


I've donated a custom-designed book cover,  blog, or book trailer to the SCBWI NJ conference raffle to benefit SCBWI members who need financial support. Here's my trailer for Why My Love Life Sucks to give an idea of what I can do. This was created on my Mac using iMovie. The donation includes music, fonts, transitions, and stock photography or illustrations from, or similar services.

I look forward to working with the winner!


Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Kindle with ads isn't that great, but not for the reasons you might think

I've had an Amazon Kindle with ads for about a week now, and I'm still on the fence about it. So far I only see a few pros to owning this ebook reader, and quite a few cons. Oddly, the ads are not among the cons. So here's my pros and cons list:

  • The liquid paper--Compared to the back-lit iPad,iPhone or iPod Touch, the liquid paper is easier on the eyes and it means you can go a long time between charges. But do you know what's even easier on the eyes and doesn't need to be charged at all? An actual book. 
  • The price--At $114, this is one of the cheapest ebook readers. 
  • The Amazon Kindle store's selection and pricing for ebooks--Amazon has the greatest selection of ebooks at the lowest prices.
  • The ads--The ads appear when the Kindle is shut off. When you turn the Kindle back on, a small strip at the bottom of the menu lets you click on a link to learn more about the product or offer. The ads don't bother me in the least, and when they offer something good (who wouldn't want a $10 Amazon gift certificate for buying a $5 ebook from the bestseller list?) I kind of wish there were more of them. Right now my only complaint about the ads is that they're repetitive and I can't tell the Kindle to stop showing me ads for some car and some beauty product. My guess is that in the future, the ads might be better tailored to the actual user. This would benefit both the Kindle owner and the advertiser.
  • Get any book you want within seconds--It's literally like holding a bookstore in your hand, but unfortunately this isn't a bookstore you can check out easily, no bargain bin or covers to look at or anything. (See below.)
  • The user interface--the placement of the buttons can be quite frustrating. There are buttons on each side of the screen to move you forward and backward. Press the top button, and you move back. Press the bottom button, and you move forward. This only applies to navigating books. To move back a page anywhere else, you need to press a tiny back button on the keyboard. Why? Why not have the same buttons take you back and forward a page no matter where you are? And why not just put one back button to the left of the screen, and one forward button to the right of the screen, which would be more intuitive? The main button you use on the keyboard (the one that lets you move up, down, left and right within a page) is tiny and difficult to manipulate. This is true of all the buttons on the keyboard, but because this one button is so important, its tiny size and the way it's situated so close to the Menu, Back, Delete, and Enter keys can be quite frustrating, making the simplest tasks take unnecessarily longer.
  • The on-board Kindle store--Unless you're interested in the bestseller list only and you don't care about price, the Kindle store as you can access it from your device is pretty much useless. You can't look up books by rating or price, and very often when you look something up by topic, the first things on the list are rubbish created by writers who have created lots and lots of ebooks in order to boost their ratings in the Kindle store. Sometimes they'll add something to a public-domain work (like drawings), so they can charge for an ebook you can get for free elsewhere online. This effectively makes the on-board Kindle store a joke, and the laugh is on the person trying to use it to find a book he or she might want to buy.
  • The price of some ebooks when compared to used books--If you want to read books on your Amazon Kindle, you're stuck with whatever the price is on Amazon. Sometimes that's a good thing. Many indie publishers charge $0.99-$2.99 for an ebook. However, most of the larger publishers charge $9.99, and sometimes more. So unless you have money to burn or really need to get that bestseller as soon as it comes out and you're willing to pay retail for it, you're probably better off getting a used (sometimes even new) paperback for a much lower price.
  • Everything the Kindle offers beside books--While some of the apps are nice (Mahjong, for example, looks lovely), the interface makes them unbearably frustrating to use. The worst is trying to access the Kindle store through Amazon's website. Sure, it's great that the device can access the Internet, but does it have to do such a terrible job of it? Frankly, I think Amazon needs to get rid of that feature until they find a way to make using it frustration-free.
In the end, the pros win out over the cons, but the cons show that Amazon still has a long way to go if it wants to get a Kindle into every reader's hands.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Where do illustrations come from?"

It might seem like magic, but it's not. Illustrating is a process, very much like writing. There are many ways to do it. Here's one of them:

1. Find a scene in the text to illustrate. I decided to add one illustration to every chapter in Dan Quixote, so I went through the book and copied and pasted scenes I thought would make good illustrations into a single file. Sometimes I picked more than one scene in a chapter, so I could change my mind later.

2. Draw character sketches. This helps make it easier to be consistent when you're drawing more than one illustration with the same character. It's even better if you can draw the same character in different poses. Find places in the text where the character is described, so the drawing fits the words. With Dan Quixote, I drew the cover first. This showed me what all the main characters looked like.
3. Start sketching thumbnails of the scene. Make these the simplest of outlines, with stick figures and so on Try to look at it from different angles. Work out the vanishing point or points. Don't settle for the first thumbnail, because the next one or the one after that could be even better. Here are two thumbnail sketches for one of the illustrations in this book.
I chose to use the angle at the top left, because it seemed more playful and open. The characters' world seems to go on forever, which is what I want for this scene, that sense of endless possibility.

4. Make an enlarged copy of your chosen thumbnail sketch, either by hand or with a copier. I used my multifunction printer.

I then used an improvised "lightbox" (in this case, placing the copy on a window in daylight and placing a piece of drawing paper over it) to trace the outline of that enlarged copy.

5. Start to sketch in the details. You'll note it says "night sky" where the sky is meant to go. I often mark large spaces that will be colored in black with an X. Draw in guidelines (for example, where the edge of the picnic table is hidden by the characters' legs), skeletal lines and so on.

6. Ask yourself if you're happy with it. If not, why not, and what can you do to fix it? I soon realized the important elements in this drawing were still too small, so I enlarged this drawing too.

7. Add the finishing touches, Play around with texture. This is all in pencil, so nothing is final until it's inked. Even then there are ways to fix mistakes, but it's easier at this stage. When you're satisfied, ink the lines you want to use while ignoring the ones you don't. Erase the pencil outline. Now scan your drawing, and unless you see something that still needs changing, you're done! Here's the finished drawing.
You might notice there are some significant differences between the preliminary sketches and the final one. I relocated the trees on the right, and Sandy's feet are closer to her body. You notice things at each stage you want to fix. (Actually, I just noticed the arm Dan is leaning on should be longer. Oh, well, too late to change that now.)

 8. Make last minute corrections. Computers can make this a lot easier provided you have the right software and hardware. I use Corel PhotoPaint (which is a part of CorelDraw), and I like it, but I haven't got used to using a tablet, and working with a mouse is even worse. That's why I'd rather do my sketches by hand and scan them in. Maybe one day I'll be able to afford a Cintiq tablet or a touch-screen computer, so I can see what I'm doing while I'm doing it.

And that's it. The most important thing to remember is to have fun.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hope you like these illustrations I made for Dan Quixote

Why less description might be a good thing

“Psychologists have shown that over describing a character is a bad thing, because it doesn’t let readers fill in the blanks, which is necessary because it helps readers see themselves in the character’s shoes.” This is what an editor told me at an odd sort of writer’s conference . . . in a dream. Apparently I’m getting reassured at writers conferences in my dreams now, and this particular conference looked a lot like summer camp, except with adults wearing suits. The editor wore a funny hat, and she had the bunk bed under mine.Oddly, the advice still seems to make sense.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What you always knew about high school but wished you didn't.

According to The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins, bullying in American high schools is worse than ever. What's even more troubling is that teachers and the educational system itself--which places athletes and cheerleaders above scientists and artists--is partially to blame.

The only good news is that bullying generally ends when high school does, which gives geeks and other outsiders the chance to finally shine. But if our educational system is meant to turn children into successful adults--and not not meant to be a something most kids have to suffer through before they're allowed to be all that they can be--shouldn't this book be a wake up call?

I've written about this topic extensively in Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey and briefly in Why My Love Life Sucks: The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer. I do think we need to take apart and rebuild our education system from the ground up. Our schools should teach our kids to be better, not bullies and victims.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Response to a Traditionally Published Writer Regarding eBooks

Of course it differs from one writer to the next, and you certainly shouldn’t move to ePublishing only if you’re already traditionally published and earning a living from your traditionally published work. However, I have noticed there’s a reason why your ebooks aren’t selling as well as they could be, a reason that you’ve apparently overlooked and that can be easily remedied.

EPublishing is a great option for writers who haven’t been able to find a traditional publisher yet, as well as traditionally published writers whose books are out-of-print. For most of those who choose to epublish, the choice isn’t between self-publishing and traditionally publishing a particular book: it’s between self-publishing and not publishing that book at all.

It goes without saying that a game that allows anyone to play would have many players who don’t know what they’re doing, so of course the average self-published writer would earn less money than the average traditionally published writer. Traditional publishing has a vetting process that self-publishing doesn’t.

However, if you’ve been in this game as long as I have, you know the vetting process isn’t perfect. Christopher Moore—my favorite writer—supposedly sent out a hundred query letters to agents and received nothing but rejections. He only got an agent through a connection in show business. The writer of the Pulitzer Prize winning A Confederacy of Dunces committed suicide because he couldn’t get that book published while he was still alive. Great writers are looked over by agents and traditional publishers all the time. In fact, it’s the norm. And we’ve all seen terrible writers who have somehow managed to get their books traditionally published. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have your own reality TV show, like Snooki on Jersey Shore.) Luck plays a huge part in the traditional publishing game—more than talent, hard work, or anything else. In Self-publishing, however, luck only plays the smallest role. Success is determined by talent, writing the kind of book people want to read, marketing it well,  and learning from those who have successfully epubbed their own books, like Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath, and John Locke.

As for why you personally would have a 66% drop in earnings if you decided to only epublish your books, I checked out your books on Kindle and discovered that you’ve priced them out of the market. A book you sell on Kindle for $7.99 can also be bought on Amazon used in hardcover for $.01 plus $3.99 for shipping for a total of $4.00. It doesn’t take a genius to realize people aren’t going to pay twice as much for the Kindle edition as the hardcover. If you reprice your books on Kindle so that they’re less than $4.00 ($2.99 is the price recommended by both J.A. Konrath and Amazon), you should see a significant rise in your sale of books on Kindle. Keep in mind that you don’t earn a dime on the used copies of your physical books that Amazon is selling, but you could be making $2 for every Kindle edition priced at $2.99 that you've epublished yourself.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Google search of book bloggers who review fantasy

Ebook bestseller Amanda Hocking credits reviews from book bloggers for her successs. To find them, use the Google book-bloggers search engine. Type in the genre, and you'll get a list of people who review books in that genre.

Once you have your list, email the reviewers with Smashwords coupons for free copies of your book:

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Link to great article on how authors can best utilize Twitter

Alan Rinzler wrote a great article on how authors can best utilize Twitter.

He suggests that writers should use their real names (the one they write under) because your name is your brand.

Know your audience, and build a following by finding and following people who are interested in your topic through Google's book blogger search  and with which is like a yellow pages for Twitter. Also, @GalleyCat on Twitter has compiled lists of  useful people to follow, including book reviewers.

Putting people into lists on Twitter lets you see the most recent posts by people on that list. Follow them, and they might follow you. Start Tweeting, and make sure your posts are original, funny, timely,  or informative: the kind of stuff others may retweet. Retweet things you find interesting. Provide content about your topic, area of expertise, or if you write fiction, "a character, scene or situation you're working on." I would also add that you should ask questions. It's a good way to meet people in real life, so why wouldn't it work online too?

Link back to your blog, Tumblr page, website, Facebook, and include your Twitter name in your email signature, on your websites and blogs and so on. Put it in the back of your book. And after a while, mention that your book is available and link to where people can read chapters or buy it. Don't try to sell your book. Instead, simply try to provide useful content to others. 

Great article!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

This sums up how I'm feeling about my decision to epublish my first novel. I'll be starting with Toren: The Teller's Tale.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Places to get cover art, book trailers and more


2. Rob Siders, for ebook formatting:

3. Great illustrator who does covers:

4. Derek Mah's website for covers:

5. Carl Graves (cover designer, reasonable rates) website:

6. Sharon Pavón: "My cousins make independent films and are open to doing book trailers. This is their website"

7. Premade ebook covers at great prices:

8. Mia Castile says, did my amazing cover :) (She does book trailers too.)

9. Huge collection of images, reasonable prices:

10. Another huge collection of images, as well as video and audio, at reasonable prices:

11. From Arthur Slade "This is the company that did a few of my book trailers":

Useful blogs, articles and other info on epublishing

1.Blog of an ebook bestseller:

2. Great advice on ebook publishing:

3. Interview with Amanda Hocking:

4. Books for Kindle outselling all other formats--including paperbacks--sold by Amazon:

5. Published authors, like Arthur Slade, are self-publishing their out of print books as ebooks:

6. E Is for Book is "a coalition of respected children’s trade book authors developing their books for electronic media."

7. Arthur Slade's blog where he writes about his ebook adventures:

8. Up-to-the-minute information on ebooks:

9. Successful ebook self-publisher Terri Reid's blog:

10. Bestselling author L.A. Bank's reasons for choosing to epub her own books and how she did it:

11. A How-To article from CNet on self-publishing ebooks:

12. How to make full-bleed (allowing pictures to reach the edges) picture books for the iPad:

13. A couple of useful Yahoo! Groups, one for self-publishers and the other for self-publishers of children's books: and

Links for writers interested in publishing their own ebooks

Getting started with Kindle:

Getting started with CreateSpace (for paper books sold through Amazon):

PubIt! for Barnes & Noble's Nook:

SmashWords: ebook publisher and distributor (takes 10%):

Book Baby: ebook publisher and distributor (costs $99):

Ebook conversion starting at $99.95:

I had no idea you could do that with a Blogger/BlogSpot page

I was frustrated with the look of my BlogSpot blog. It didn't seem there were many options when it came to design. But then I discovered that if you pick the "travel" theme, there's a drop-down menu of really cool backgrounds you can access. I picked one that looks like Earth from space, which fits the whole "Shevi's World" concept. What do you think?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What is the worst advice you've been given that set you back?

Someone posted this question recently in Amazon's Gold Box forum, and here is my answer.

I'm a writer. I've been banging my head on the wall trying to get my books traditionally published, which is what every agent, editor, and writer's organization tells you to do. I have an English degree, a Theater degree, and I've worked 12 years as a journalist. I was an arts-and-entertainment writer for a couple of years, reviewing comedy and children's entertainment, so I know what audiences like. I've even won third prize in a national novel-writing contest. And yet  no matter how hard I try, I just can't seem to get an agent. Last year, I got seven requests out of ten to see the full manuscript of one of my novels, and, except for one agent I never heard back from, all seven turned it down. The most common reason given as to why? "I enjoyed it very much, but I didn't feel passionately enough about it." There's nothing I can do with that.

People keep telling me to just keep writing, editing and submitting my work, and it'll happen. Right now that sounds as silly to me as, "Just click your heels, and all your wishes will come true." I've been writing, editing and submitting for nine years with seven different novels for kids and teens, and I'm getting nowhere.

So I'm starting to think that maybe what everyone is telling me isn't the best advice. Maybe I need to give up on going the traditional route and epublish my books instead.

Is this bad advice I've received, and has it set me back? It's not bad advice. It works for some writers. But for some it doesn't. It's like playing cards at a casino. Knowing the game and how to play it helps, but it's still no guaranty you'll win. I've been sitting at this table way too long. I've done nothing but lose. It's time for me to walk away.

I don't really know if this advice has set me back. I have to see how well my ebooks do. But at least that advice has pushed me to hone my craft, which might not have happened if I had never tried to publish traditionally. And maybe I had to go through all that so technology and the world could get to the point where I could epublish my own books successfully.

The tide in the publishing industry is just starting to turn. Will it carry me on this new adventure? I haven't charted the safest course, but before today the safest course has been so hard, and it's led me nowhere. It's time for me to see what else is out there. If I can't get an agent to believe in me and my work, at least I can believe in me.

And I'm not giving up on getting traditionally published. I'm going to epublish my first novel first, and I have six more to go through. Maybe all my wishes will come true in the end.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Art for Japan

Like most of the world, I've been watching the news in shock and disbelief. The power of nature that struck Japan boggles the mind.  Houses turned into splinters. Cars carried by the tsunami like toy boats in a bathtub. Thousands of lives lost. Mothers losing children. Husbands losing wives. Daughters losing mothers. A country in mourning, struggling to find the missing. It's heartbreaking. And the world weeps for Japan.  

Like most geeks, I love Japan. I love its food, particularly sushi, but also miso soup and ramen. I love its magnificent gardens. I love its manga. I love its video games for the Nintendo DS and the Wii, like my favorite, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future. I love its anime, particularly Miyazaki's movies. Kiki's Delivery Service is one of my favorites. The wave reminded me of scenes from Ponyo and Spirited Away. Now I think I might never see those movies the same way again. I also admire the quiet stoicism and strength of the Japanese people.

Like most of the world, I felt helpless, and I still do. But I found a small way I can help. I created a piece of artwork for an auction: Art for Japan. It was inspired by Japan's beloved Hello Kitty. I just want to give that little kitty a hug and tell her everything is going to be okay. I hope she conveys my love of Japan and the Japanese people.

If you're an artist and would also like to donate a piece of your artwork to a good cause, check out the website and contact Meg Hunt. And if you're not an artist but would still like to help, I hope you'll consider buying one of the pieces.I'm sure every little bit helps.

All the best,


Thursday, March 10, 2011

How I'd fix America

I'm not a politician or an economist. I was a political cartoonist for seven years, so if what I'm about to say offends you, take it as being humorously intended. I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm just one person, and this is just one person's opinion.

I see two main problems with our economy: first, we buy too much stuff from overseas and not enough American-made stuff. Not only does this ship our money overseas, it ships our jobs there too. If companies can make more money producing goods in China with lower paid workers, they won't hire workers here. This doesn't just apply to manufacturing but customer support, some health services, and pretty much everything else.

The answer I see is to tax American companies that sell products here for every employee overseas. This should be a fixed amount, say $1,000-$2,000. Non-American companies should also have a tax added to the products they sell here, say 10%. This should also apply to parts produced overseas and shipped here to be put into products that are only assembled in the USA. This money should then go directly to American businesses to pay for American workers. For every employee who earns, say, between $20,000 and $50,000 a year in America, the company would get  $1,000-$2,000. Basically, a fraction of the taxes those employees pay would help finance their own employment. The price of goods from overseas would go up, but so would employment in the USA and our ability to buy things. This would be a good thing for the rest of the world, too, because our biggest asset to the global economy is as consumers. Americans buy products from companies that employ the world. The more buying power we have, the better it is for everyone.

The second problem I see is that 60% of our government budget is made up of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security--and that number is only growing as Baby Boomers retire and Americans in general become unhealthier. What most people don't realize is that the purpose of so-called "universal health-care" isn't to finance everyone's medical insurance but rather to force the middle class to finance minimal health-care: in other words, Medicaid. Everyone who can't afford good health care will get Medicaid, and the middle class will foot the bill. The rich, meanwhile, will continue to pay for the quality health-care they're already getting. This doesn't really seem like a good solution to me.

Instead, when it comes to health care, I would look to our current legal system. Today if you get sick because you once had a job that exposed you to asbestos, you can sue your former employee for your health costs, pain and suffering. That only seems fair. The person responsible for you getting sick should foot the bill.

But what if you're responsible for your own illness? Should the rest of us have to pay for your cancer treatments if you smoke a pack a day? Should the rest of us have to pay for your diabetes treatments if you ate yourself into obesity and never exercised? I don't think we should. If the only people who received Medicaid were those who became sick through no fault of their own, not only would we cut the cost of Medicaid by more than half, the quality of health care to those who deserve it would rise, others would be more motivated to quit smoking, eat right and exercise, and the new health care program would--gasp!--actually lead to people being healthier.

Because, you see, what we have now isn't a health-care system, but an illness care system. Go ahead, smoke a pack a day, spend all your free time in your car or in front of the TV, and eat nothing but fat and sugar. You might send yourself into a diabetic coma, but you won't have to pay for the tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, so what do you care? This doesn't make sense.

The only thing I can say about Medicare is that it shouldn't be given to those who can afford to pay their own health care. If you have over $1,000,000  in cash and property, you shouldn't get it. That just goes without saying. Otherwise, I wouldn't touch that program.

I would, however, eliminate the forced retirement age and make retirement optional after the age of 65. People live longer and are healthier when they're active and productive, so why should we deny them that? I'd also restrict Social Security to those who are retired, don't earn more than $40,000 a year, or don't own more than $1,000,000 in property. Again, I think this is just common sense. We could even give a higher Social Security rate to retired people who work as volunteers. Retired teachers could continue to work in the classroom as volunteers, and that would improve their quality of life. It would be a win-win for everyone.

Speaking of teachers, the teacher strike in Wisconsin has placed a lot of focus on the cost of public education. This is ridiculous, not only because education is only a small part of the budget, but because there is no greater investment in our future. A well-educated student can get a better job, earn more money, and put more money into the economy. A poorly educated student will have a hard time getting a job, is more likely to turn to crime, and will cost society as a whole over time.

Still, I do have an idea of how we could save money on public education: I would simply eliminate all competitive sports. Too much is spent of football, basketball and baseball, and not enough on actual education. Lately we've seen high-school athletes dying, in part because of the stress such sports put on young hearts. We've also seen a professional football player kill himself because he couldn't deal with the adverse health affects the sport had on his brain.

Just like people should be responsible for the illnesses they get stemming from their own actions, I believe we shouldn't finance activities that harm our kids both in the short run and in the long run. Sports take a huge part of a school's budget, but if that were put into something else--like math, science, and computer education--it would better serve our kids today and in the future, and that would better serve our community as a whole. Imagine an America where instead of dreaming of becoming the next movie, pop or basketball star, kids dreamed of becoming the next Steve Jobs or Jonas Salk? Not only would the next generation fix America, it would fix the world.

Lastly, one of the reasons state and local politicians give for wanting to fire or pay government workers--including teachers, police, and firefighters-- less is that the alternative is to raise property taxes, and people don't want that. I think property taxes should be raised, but only on houses valued at over $100,000 per resident. You're married and you have two kids? Your family of four can continue to pay the same property tax on your house valued at under $400,000. You're a single guy, and you live in a $200,000 house? Either pay the higher property tax, get someone to live with you (like your aging parent), move into a cheaper house, or sell your house and rent a place. If we did this, there might even be a little money left over to reduce the property taxes for people who are living within their means or simply can't afford to pay those taxes, like the unemployed.   

Like I said, I'm not an economist or a politician. I don't know if these ideas will work. But I do wish someone in government would stop asking, "How can we cut the budget without raising taxes?" and start asking "What's fair, and what makes sense?"