Saturday, October 27, 2012

Each One Teach One: Joan Holub on Writing Pitches & Pitching a Series

Welcome back to the second installment of the wonderful interview with guest children's/MG book author Joan Holub!

Joan has written 130 published books for children, from picture books, to middle grade series. 
She is currently co-authoring a middle grade series, The Goddess Girls, and a chapter book series Heroes in Training for Alladin/Simon and Schuster and she recently gave a great presentation on writing middle grade series', at the SCBWI Conference in Charlotte, NC.

Here is Joan to give us her tips on 1.) Pitching a Series and 2.) Dealing with Rejection.

Thanks Joan, for being with us today!  Let's jump right in with a question about how to prepare before trying to write and pitch a series for middle graders, tweens, or teens.

     You’re currently co-writing (with Suzanne Williams) two great series, and you’ve written others in the past. Are there any tips you’d like to give to writers who are interested in pitching a series idea to their agent or editor? What do writers need to think about first before trying to make a pitch?

Start with a great, unique hook. Find an idea that is an intersection of what excites you as a writer and the interests of kids. Define and hone it. You should be able to explain what your series is to someone in one or two well-constructed sentences, so that they can visualize what you’re talking about and get enthusiastic about it.

Thanks Joan! That advice is a great place for anyone interested in writing a series to get started.  Now for those who are trying to think of how to explain your series idea to someone in 1 or two sentences, as Joan suggests, here is an example of how Joan described to me the Goddess Girls Series:

"Each Goddess Girls book is based on an existing myth. We give these myths a twist by setting them in a middle school at Mount Olympus Academy, where Zeus is the principal, classes like Hero-ology can be hard, godboys can be annoying, beasts may attack at any moment, and Medusa is the meanest girl in 

Of course then, within the series, you also need to know what each book is about, and be able to summarize that book's story and theme also in 1-2 sentences.  Here are some examples of how to do that from Joan and Suzanne's first few books in the Goddess Girls Series. The 1st four books are -- Athena the Brain; Persephone the Phony; Aphrodite the Beauty; Artemis the Brave. Here are two examples from within the series. (These summaries were borrowed from the Simon and Schuster website. Thanks Simon and Schuster for such great examples!)

Description: Book One: Athena the Brain
The first book of the Goddess Girls series stars Athena, who discovers that her intelligence has immortal value. 
And the longer version?
Athena always knew she was smart and special, but she didn’t realize that she was a goddess! When she’s whisked away to Mount Olympus Academy, she worries about fitting in and dealing with her dad—who just happens to be Zeus. Luckily, she meets the Goddess Girls—and finds the best friends she’s ever had.

Description; Book Two: Persephone the Phony  
Modern drama merges with ancient myths when Goddess Girl Persephone crushes on a boy her friends don’t care for.     
And the longer, more specific version:                                                                                                                      Persephone usually goes along with whatever everyone else wants instead of doing what makes her happy So when she meets Mount Olympus Academy bad-boy Hades, she finally feels like she has found someone with whom she can be herself. But her mom (Ceres) and her friends don’t exactly approve. If Hades can make her feel so special, is he really that bad, or just misunderstood?

For those of us who have difficulty summarizing our books for pitches in query letters -- a huge challenge for many of us -- these 1-2 sentence examples above are great for that!  Here are two more summary book descriptions that might also be helpful from Joan's other current series, the Heroes in Training series of books for elementary school-aged boys:

Description: Book One: Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom

After pulling a magical thunderbolt from a stone, ten-year-old Zeus goes on the adventure of a lifetime!                                                                                                                        The terrible Titans—merciless giants who enjoy snacking on humans—have dominated the earth and put the world into chaos. But their rule is about to be put to the test as a group of young Olympians discover their powers and prepare to righteously rule the universe.... 

Ten-year-old Zeus is mystified (and super-annoyed) by the fact that he keeps getting hit by lightening. Every. Single. Year. He also longs for adventure. Zeus gets his wish—and a lot more than he bargained for—when he is kidnapped by dangerous, giant Titans! In self-defense, Zeus grabs the first thing he sees—an actual thunderbolt he pulls from a stone that is covered in mysterious markings. Zeus sets off on a quest to rescue his fellow Olympians from the evil Cronus. Armed with his trusty thunderbolt (named Bolt, of course), Zeus is on an adventure of a lifetime—and a journey to fulfill his destiny as King of the Gods.

Description: Poseidon and the Sea of Fury    

A young Poseidon must triumph over his fear of water to help his fellow heroes escape Cronus.                                                                                                                               The merciless Cronus and his Titan buddies are in hot pursuit of Zeus, Hera, and Poseidon, who plan to travel across the treacherous boiling sea in order to save a fellow Olympian. They have a boat, but they also have a problem: Poseidon can’t swim and is terrified of the water (well, really of the creatures that lurk in its depths). The group faces danger after danger as they battle singing sirens, a fishy and ferocious Titan named Oceanus, and people-eating monsters sent by Cronus himself. Can Poseidon overcome his fears and help his fellow heroes escape Cronus and his cronies?

These great short summaries really make us want to go and read ALL of these books! They're full of action, an interesting plot, and a character flaw in every main character that causes them to have to "rise above" themselves if they're to win over evil in the end.  That's certainly the kind of pitch that pulls in my attention!

So now off we all go to summarize our individual books. And if you're hoping to pitch a series, remember Joan's advice to be able to pitch the concept of the entire series in 1-2 well-worded sentences!  We hear this advice often at writer's conferences, but it always seems so difficult to summarize our novels in so few words! Hopefully the examples above will provide a good jumping off point.

Next week we'll talk about writing with a Co-Author and having a fabulous web presence!

But before we end this week, here's one last question for you Joan:

      You’ve written 130 published children’s books. But your website also says “I have a file drawer full of rejected manuscripts.”  What advice do you have for those of us who still feel heartbroken over every rejection letter we get from an agent or an editor?  How do you move past rejections to keep your career moving forward?

A rejection is heartbreaking, no matter how many books you’ve already published. As far as I know, there’s only one way to soften the cruel blow that rejection delivers. It’s this: Make absolutely sure you are regularly writing, completing, and submitting new work to publishers.

If you mail off a manuscript and then just wait on an answer, you’ll be crushed flat if it’s a “no.” You only had one egg in your basket and now it’s broken. However, if you had written and submitted three more manuscripts while waiting on a reply to the first one, you’d still have three unbroken eggs left in your basket. Sure, you’d be sad about that one broken egg. But you’d have hope that one of the other three would hatch into an offer of publication. 

Thanks Joan! That's such important advice! See you all next week!

Friday, October 19, 2012

"Each One Teach One" Interview: Author Joan Holub on Scenes and Series'

Whether you've written a couple of manuscripts that you're just now beginning to submit to agents, or you've already written 1-10 published books and you're feeling like you're really beginning to get rolling with your career as an author -- either way, we can all learn a lot from this week's author interviewee, amazing children's book author Joan Holub.

Joan has written 130 published books for children, from picture books, to middle grade series.  She started out as an Illustrator, and worked as an Art Director at Scholastic.  Then she decided she liked writing books even more than illustrating them, so she begin writing, and her first children's manuscript was published in 1997.  Since then, she's been on a roll. One of  Joan's first two books, written in 1997, Boo Who? A Spooky Lift-the-Flap Book is still in print and will be in B&N this Halloween! Wow - that's a book with a long shelf-life! Check it out! 

Joan is currently co-authoring a middle grade series, The Goddess Girls, and a chapter book series Heroes in Training,  for Alladin/Simon and Schuster.  She recently gave a great presentation on writing middle grade series', at the SCBWI Conference in Charlotte, NC.

Over the next 3 weeks Joan will share with us her tips on Scene and Setting, pitching a series, collaborating with a co-author, having a fabulous web-presence, and dealing with rejection.  Welcome Joan, we're thrilled to have you. 

The first question we ask all of our fabulous authors is, who was another author, illustrator, or publishing professional who helped you when you were first getting started in the profession of writing?  How did he or she mentor, teach, or help you?

I'll give my shout out to Suzanne Williams, who co-authors the Goddess Girls middle grade series and Heroes in Training chapter book series with me for Aladdin/Simon and Schuster. She has also written picture books (Library Lil; Mommy Doesn’t Know My Name) and several other children’s book series (Princess Power). She said yes when I asked her to try writing a series with me; she taught me to believe in the value of writing synopses; and she introduced me to her wonderful agent at Eden Street Lit, who is now my agent as well.
Here's Suzanne!

I'm amazed, Joan, that you were able to write so many books without a synopsis before collaborating on books with Suzanne! :)  Congrats to Suzanne for being the kind of author and partner in writing who can teach another experienced author new tricks!  

Now Joan, we'll be doing this interview over three weekends because there are so many great questions we want to ask you.  But for today let's focus on writing descriptive scenes and settings.

1   I've noticed that writers who also have experience as illustrators tend to do a great job of describing setting in their books. I suspect this is because illustrators visualize in their minds what the setting described in a book would actually “look like” on paper if they were drawing it. 

As an illustrator who is now an author, are there certain things that you always try to include when writing a description of a place? Can you give us any tips on how to describe our settings so effectively that our readers can easily see them and feel like they are there?

Yes. I’m a visual person, and I agree that being an illustrator can help an author “see” what’s going on in a story. I usually create my board books and picture books on storyboards even if I don’t plan to illustrate them. It helps me figure them out. New York Times bestselling illustrator Tom Lichtenheld told me that my Zero the Hero picture book dummy helped him decide in favor of illustrating the book. His art looks waaay better than my dummy did and many things changed during his art process. But if you think visually, making a dummy could help an extremely busy editor organize your material and give an artist a jumping-off point.

 The black and white sketches below are Joan's dummies. The finished book, above, 
was illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld.

As far as writing setting description in a chapter book or middle grade book, do remember the visual details, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings/textures. Don’t go overboard with setting. Include just enough—just the right details--to set your scene. Often, a lot of description gets left out of my first drafts. I usually only realize it’s missing when I go back and revise. It’s more important to me to get the plot and dialog down on the page first.

Those are great suggestions, Joan!  Storyboards are great - and I know that many authors use them to show the rise and fall of action and emotions in chapters in longer books as well! ( Readers can click the link on "storyboards" above to see some examples). Also, I think it's so easy for us to write the visual details (what the character "sees") and leave out the sounds, tastes, smells and textures.  Great points!  Zero the hero is hilarious.

1   One other great example of description that seems both beautiful and also very age-appropriate to me, in your Goddess Girls books, was when young Persephone arrives in the graveyard to meet young Hades, in your middle grade book Persephone the Phony. The description of the graveyard that you and Suzanne wrote says: Here and there, scraggly laurel and olive trees poked up through the ground like stray feathers on a plucked chicken."  

      That's a great visual that’s easily understood by tweens – and, all of us!  It's short, yet from that one creative line readers can totally picture the place.

     Can you give any tips on how authors can make their descriptions of place relevant, interesting, and reading-level appropriate to tweens and elementary school-aged readers? What should we think about when describing settings or characters to that age group?

      I’m pretty sure that was Suzanne’s description line, and I’m guessing it probably just popped out of her head as she was writing. Since we’re co-writing fictionalized Greek mythology in the Goddess Girls and Heroes in Training series, it helps us to read travel guides and books about Greece and about mythology to get setting details.

     We base each Goddess Girls book on an existing myth. We give these myths a twist by setting them in a middle school at Mount Olympus Academy, where Zeus is the principal, classes like Hero-ology can be hard, godboys can be annoying, beasts may attack at any moment, and Medusa is the meanest girl in mythology.

     The way to find out what kids want in a book (setting, dialog, whatever) is to talk to them. Ask what they’re reading and why they like it. Ask about school. Get them talking. Listen in on kid conversations in malls. Consider having some middle-graders crit your manuscript. If your description gets too long or something is boring, they’ll tell you. Also, analyze what you liked about series books you read as a child and the series books that are popular now. What can you learn from that to help your own writing?

      Those are great suggestions, Joan.  Getting kids to read a section of our writing would definitely tell us whether our descriptions of scene and setting are clear to them, and whether we're being too long-winded. :)  

     I remember going back to read some chapter books that I read and loved as a kid.  I was surprised, upon reading them as an adult, how little description there actually was.  There were often just 1-3 short sentences here and there that gave us (the child-readers) the basics about the setting and situation, and from there our imaginations were able to build a very complex world.  So I think that you suggestion of researching how to write description for a particular age group by reading the books we loved as children, and the books our children love now, is a great suggestion on how to learn to increase our skills. 
      This has been a great start to the interview, Joan! Thanks for all your wisdom!

      We'll learn more from Joan next Saturday morning, October, 27th, as we continue our discussion about working with illustrators, co-writing with other authors, dealing with rejection, pitching a series, and more. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

And the Winners Are...!

In the "Thanks to the Readers" blog post in September, Writermosphosis readers had
the chance to enter to win a book written by one of the Amazing Authors who have
been interviewed on Writermorphosis over the past 5 months.

Now the names have been drawn with my eyes closed, and the results are in!


Donna Earnhardt --

You win Author Joyce Moyer Hostetter's award winning MG Historical Novel
Blue!  It's in the mail to you now!
For anyone who missed Joyce's great tips on writing historical fiction check it out
by clicking here: Joyce Moyer Hostetter on Writing Historical MG/YA Fiction.

Jenny Murray --

You win Author Alan Gratz' fabulous MG fantasy novel Fantasy Baseball!
For anyone who didn't get a chance to read Alan's great tips on plotting, click here for
his interview: Alan Gratz on Plot.

Carol Baldwin --  

You win Author Kathleen Duey's Brilliant dark YA novel Skin Hunger!
If anyone out there missed Kathleen's amazing 2 part interview on "World
building in Fantasy and Science Fiction" find it here: Kathleen Duey talksWorld Building, Description, and Research.

CONGRATULATIONS!  Happy Reading, Carol, Jenny and Donna! Thanks to all who entered!

We'll do another drawing of books from the next group of interviewed authors around Christmas time, so keep your eyes peeled, here on the blog, for a chance to win!

We also have a new crop of experienced authors who will be sharing their tips here on Writermorphosis, weekly, over the next few months, between now and Christmas.  We'll begin
next Saturday morning with Amazing Author/Illustrator Joan Holub! 

Joan has written approximately 100 -- yes,  I did say ONE HUNDRED books for young readers
over her life-time as an author, and her career is still going strong, with two series in which she's currently pumping out more fabulous new books.  If you have time before next week I encourage
you to take a trip to your local book store and just ask the books store staff to point out to you the kids' books they have on their shelves that were written by Joan Holub. By simply wandering
around in my local Barnes and Nobles in Raleigh I found 3 totally different sections of books
- both fiction and non-fiction written by Joan. Hooray Joan! So I really look forward to hearing
what she has to teach us next week! : )

In the meantime, one of our book winners, above, Donna Earnhardt also has a new book of her own out in bookstores this fall, so we want to celebrate that! 
Congrats Donna, on your recently released picture book Being Frank!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Each One Teach One: JK Rowling -- Characterization, and How to Be Normal : )

I'm back from the SCBWI CAROLINAS 20th Anniversary Conference and am thrilled to report that I have a stack of interviews from famous childrens/YA authors from around the country that will soon be rolling in and appearing on this blog  These authors will be showing up here in the Each One Teach One Interview Series every week over the next few months giving tips on specific aspects of YA and children's writing. 

Don't miss it!

In the meantime, here's a great interview (no I didn't do this one, alas) with one of the most famous (and fabulous) children's book authors of the current century - JK Rowling.  In this interview, which I first saw on the website of "the Guardian" out of the United Kingdom (aka Rowling's home,) Rowling shares about her new book for adults that's was released a few days ago, The Casual Vacancy.  She talks about her fears that being hugely famous for writing children's books about Hogwarts makes her wonder whether people will accept her as a fiction writer for adults or will tell her to "go back to wizards."  She also talks about her journey of life and about the changes brought on by the unexpected fame she achieved through the Harry Potter series. It's a great interview which shows Rowling being what she is - a normal human being who has written some truly brilliant books. : ) 




I have always been impressed with the way that each of Rowling's many, many characters in the Harry Potter series all have such different personalities -- and that's not just true about the "important" ones.  Each of Rowling's characters is an individual.  Even if we think about just the secondary adult female characters -- who are really much less important than the main characters in the vast scheme of the story -- we find that each of these women, from Ron's Mom Mrs. Weasley, to Draco's Mom Mrs. Malfoy, to Professor McGonagal, to Purple Haired Tonks, to the slightly loopy Divination Teacher Professor Trelawny, to the pink and evil Delores Umbridge who loves her cats, to the insanely evil Bellatrix Lestrange -- each one is a complete individual.  There are no "cardboard" characters in the writings of JK Rowling.  We have much to learn from her about creating characters that are truly believable.

So, in honor of her attempt to write in a different genre (adult mystery), I'm sharing this interview by the Guardian today.

If JK Rowling ever writes a book on how to write great characters I'll be the first one in line to buy it. : )

So -- which secondary or terciary character in the Harry Potter Series do you think is so brilliantly characterized that you wish you had created him or her in your own fiction? Which of her characters can you learn from when writing characters in your own books?

For me there are many - but I choose Horace Slughorn, or Remus Lupin, or perhaps Gilderoy Lockhart...and of course, Severis Snape.  Oh dear. It's really hard to choose.  Who do you look to as an example of a great Harry Potter character who you wish you had written and who you think you can learn from?