Friday, December 17, 2010

Rushing to get out the door

Have you ever been on the eve of a much-needed vacation, and found that your day (or week) was incredibly productive?

Having the thought of rest and relaxation just around the corner, it's incredible how efficient some people become. Meetings are suddenly not so tedious. Projects seem to complete themselves in record time. And like water off a duck's back, those who would, under most other circumstances, annoy you, seem unable to penetrate your armor of optimism.

Personally I don't get many vacations. That whole "husband, father, business owner, writer" bio should be evidence enough that my routine, while manageable, is fairly busy. In the nearly-nine years my wife and I have been married, we've been away together only once. So when I know I'm on the cusp of a vacation, I don't just have a productive day, or week... I have an energy-filled month.

Such has been the case these past few weeks. In addition to working dutifully to finish a special children's book project for a major non-profit (which, I am now told, may not materialize), I have tackled my own personal KidLit project by polishing, editing and preparing it for the query and/or agent stage.

Professionally, my marketing company has taken on some new clients, re-awakened some old ones, and kept steadily busy in the fourth quarter.

Personally, a variety of nagging household projects (the dreaded Honey-Do List) are now complete. The dryer vent duct work has been cleaned and/or replaced. The shower in our master bath has been tiled. The garage is cleaned out and can once again, after a 2-month hiatus, hold both our vehicles, and not just one. And little pockets of clutter have been organized and properly stored, including what we like to call our Everything Closet, a bonus closet that holds everything from luggage to craft materials to light bulbs and air filters.

Oh, and I changed the air filter, too.

These are, of course, all superficial activities, albeit necessary. The real meat and potatoes of life, for me, involves my family, so much of my time recently has been spent on making extra time available for our three kids. That's what I love about being productive on the superficial stuff, because it means more time with them.

Whether it be building the next great LEGO space ship with Nod, helping Blinkin write "big words" on a card that (I'm assured, with all the playful deception of a 6 year-old) is most certainly not for me ("It's not, Dad, honest. Now how do you spell 'happy anniversary'?"), or relaxing with Winkin by playing games on the Wii, every minute is a blessing.

Of course, all of this time management, and resourcefulness, and family time was ultimately leading up to our departure from Nashville on our second vacation ever, which has finally arrived.

As I sit here watching the snow fall and the sun rise over the breathtakingly beautiful city of Lausanne, Switzerland, bells are ringing at the nearby Lausanne Cathedral.

Before sunrise in Lausanne, Switzerland, with the hazy outline of
Lausanne Cathedral just up the hill from us.

Photo Credit: © Martin Kozicki

For the next week, my wife and I are staying with friends in Switzerland, a first-time trip for us. We have... not much... on our agenda. Mostly it's an opportunity to refresh and rejuvenate during the winter holiday. We'll be touring around getting some local flavor, enjoying a unique gastronomique experience, and spending a day or two at a chalet in the Alps.

Already the environment is taking hold of my senses and the architecture is inspiring new ideas. Last night's snow fall couldn't have come at a better time. And while I watch it accumulate on the window ledge over this waking, gothic city, I can't help but wonder: what's next?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Time flies when you throw your watch at someone

The past ten days have been all sorts of adventure!

A picture book project I'm working on had its deadline trimmed short, necessitating FHDM (Full Hunker Down Mode). Happily, the manuscript didn't suffer and I was pleased with what I submitted. Not surprisingly, though, there are now... complications... so it appears that I'll be spending the next few weeks doing re-writes.

More on that later--like, next week sometime. For now I want to take a moment to expose my inner geek.

Late last week a shiny new toy arrived via the FedEx Man (thanks, George!) in the form of a new MacBook Air! You've probably seen the commercials--Apple seems to be running them on every channel at 90-second intervals (or so it seems).

So what's the verdict? Only a heaping spoonful of awesome!

Not since Blu-ray in 2006 has a new gadget exceeded its hype with such splendiferous panache, right out of the box. The Air is light, nimble and very fast. In a way, it is everything I am not. I guess you could say it completes me.

© Apple Computer
If you're unfamiliar with this Magical Device of Wonder, the MacBook Air is Apple's newest ultra-portable laptop. Available in both 11.1" and 13.3" screen sizes (I got the bigger one, of course), the Air is ridiculously thin, tapering down from a slender 0.68" to an Olson Twin-like 0.11".

It skips the CD/DVD drive, which is arguably unnecessary in a world where everything is available as a download. Instead of a magnetic hard drive like most computers, it utilizes the much faster Flash memory--a whopping 256 GB in the model I chose. Apple also integrated a series of smaller batteries instead of one big, heavy one. All of this adds up to, well, it doesn't add up to much--the Air is a modest 2.9 lbs. That's significantly lighter than any other notebook on the market, and just slightly heavier than Apple's iPad or Kate Moss holding a dictionary.

When Apple first announced the tech specs on the Air, many critics argued that it wouldn't be able to compete with other ultra-portables in terms of performance. Coming from a heavier, monstrously powerful MacBook Pro, I have to say that the Air keeps pace nicely for what I (and most people) use a laptop for: browsing the web, writing, playing around with photos, and the occasional game or two.

Some of this efficiency is due to the fact that yes, Apple did opt for a slower, less power-hungry processor, but they utilized the speedier Flash memory and also incorporated a very spry graphics processor. The trade-off seems to work well--the Air goes from Off to Ready! in about 11 seconds (most Windows laptops take about 45-120 seconds to boot up by comparison) and waking it from Sleep mode is, literally, instant.

The most important change I've noticed in comparing the Air to my old MBP is that battery life is worlds better. The Pro gave me (maybe) around 2-3 hours of battery life. WiFi use, playing videos, and anything else even moderately taxing would drag that average down to 01:45 or so. With the Air unplugged, I'm still amused when I look at the estimated battery life and see 08:15--it never gets old!

Now, I'm a fan of Apple products, but I'm no fanboy. I understand the Air isn't for everyone. In fact, I'd say the market for an ultra-portable is small compared to tablet devices like the Samsung Galaxy or the iPad. But for what it does, the MacBook Air does it all exceptionally well, at least for me, at a price that isn't hard to swallow for this kind of tech (they start at $1199). And while I don't think it will make me a better writer, it certainly does improve my mood and eagerness to write when I get to do it with a fun new toy.

It makes me wonder... did Shakespeare enjoy writing more when he got a cool new pen? Do you get a nice "shot in the arm" when writing on a new computer, laptop or (*gasp*) pad of paper?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Another independent bites the dust jacket

News hit Nashville this week that beloved local independent bookstore Davis-Kidd is closing in December. Davis-Kidd is something of an institution around here, and while not truly "independent" in the rawest sense of the word--it is owned by the Joseph-Beth Group--the forthcoming shut-down has many Nashvillians already feeling pangs of loss.

Excessive use of hyphens aside, I am trying to be sympathetic to those who have expressed concern over the "death of the independent book store." Admittedly, however, I'm having trouble with that.

You've Got Mail
© Warner Bros.
Look, I get it. People form attachments to retail locations. Record stores, coffee shops, and hardware stores are all popular community favorites.

For authors and avid readers, there's something even more magical about a bookstore. It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling walking into a book shop and catching the aroma of billions of pages, that slight hint of ink, blended with the fragrance of ideas swirling in the air.

But at the end of the day, it's a retail store. It is bricks, and mortar, and shelves and employees. It is commerce. And in that respect, it is neither unique nor magical.

My natural conclusion is that these stores close due to loss of market share from larger, "corporate" bookstores, like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Using that as the basis for the following, some of the reasons I've heard why people lament the closure of independent bookstores are:

Independent bookstore employees are better qualified & know more about books - It's true that "big box" stores will employ just about anybody with a pulse. But it's ignorant to assume every employee at an indie store is inherently knowledgeable and every employee at a corporate store is clueless. My local B&N has been around for at least 15 years, and the employees are educated and passionate about their various departments.
The indie bookstore is an American icon - I roll my eyes to this one. Considering that moveable type is still a relatively "new" invention in the stream of human history, and that literacy amongst "ye common folk" runs almost parallel to its existence, book stores are not ancient and hallowed ground. Libraries are. As I mentioned earlier, I understand forming an emotional attachment to a retail location, but the fact remains that many of America's most beloved independent bookstores were opened in the 20th century. There are older car dealerships out there.
If [insert indie store here] closes, where will people get books/authors promote? - Again, another eye roll. It's not as if books turn into a scarce relic the moment an indie bookstore closes. There's likely another option available to the community, whether it be a library or corporate bookstore. There's also online sites aplenty. Corporate bookstores still host author events and signings. They have story time in the KidLit area. You can sit and read there for hours undisturbed, without actually buying anything.

To be clear, I'm not saying I don't support local businesses--especially bookstores--because I do. However, I make my decision on where to shop based upon distance, price, service, and availability. For example, there's a Books-a-Million less than 3 miles from my home, but I happily travel 14 miles to B&N because the Books-a-Million has mediocre service, high prices and lackluster selection (not to mention a depressing Children's section). The Davis-Kidd that's closing next month is twice the distance as B&N--not exactly "the shop around the corner." Alternatively, if I need a book and I'm not in a hurry, I usually turn to Amazon.com or BN.com.

The bottom line here is that, as a writer and book-lover, I am genuinely trying to understand more about why people are so grieved by the closing of a local independent bookstore. What are your thoughts? Do you bemoan the closing of indie bookstores? Do you not care? Do you prefer B&N or Borders, and why?

Sound off in the Comments section and give me the benefit of your perspective. Give me a compelling reason not to feel so indifferent, and I promise to listen with an open mind.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Amazon.com, pedophiles, and free speech

It happened earlier today. A few messages went out over the Twit-o-sphere proclaiming that Amazon.com "published" a "how-to guide" for pedophiles.

It spread like wildfire, with re-tweets and blog posts lighting up the web. The Twitter hash tags #amazonfail and #boycottamazon are on the verge of trending.

In typical Internet community fashion, this whole thing is being blown way out of proportion.

This is, on the whole, a family-oriented site, so I am not going to name the offending book, link to it, or give specific quotes or details. But here are the facts: there is currently (as of my writing this) a Kindle e-book for sale on Amazon that specifically mentions pedophilia and, according to the description, offers advice to pedophiles on how to avoid prosecution if caught.

Now, I'm not one to judge a book by its cover, but this is a terrible idea for a book. It goes way beyond the realm of "free speech" when you start actively promoting ideas on how to escape punishment for committing a crime, and a particularly heinous one at that.

Let's be abundantly clear: I am of the opinion that this book should--and hopefully will--be pulled from Amazon's online storefront. And while I am not an attorney, I would even go so far as to say the author should be investigated by authorities.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've been an Amazon customer for over a decade, and they've always treated me right. A week doesn't go by when a package doesn't arrive at my doorstep from them. Our household relies on Amazon for coffee, cereal, snacks, books, video games, movies--lots of stuff!

However, I've also seen products pulled from their site before, for far more innocent offenses. They can, and do, respond to their customers.

The issue for me here is that most of the people I've seen tweeting and blogging about the e-book in question are not giving Amazon time to respond. The calls to boycott Amazon or bring them up on criminal charges are just knee-jerk, premature reactions that smack of idiocy and ignorance. The offending book may have gone up for sale on October 28th, but the buzz about its controversy appears to be less than 12 hours old in "Internet time."

Here's why I'm not writing off Amazon just yet.

First, from what I've read, the process for independent authors to submit their own Kindle e-book for sale on Amazon is still relatively new. It is by no means "commodity" and is very much still "novelty."

While Amazon claims they review all products submitted, it should be noted that Apple says the same thing about their App Store, but that hasn't stopped malicious or inappropriate content sneaking through. It's a law of numbers--there's just no way they can personally review everything in detail. And being that the system is new, it takes feedback (like they are undoubtedly receiving right now en masse) to properly refine the submission/approval system.

Naturally I agree that a book with the word "pedophile" in the title should have been flagged for further scrutiny, but it wasn't. Instead of whining about what wasn't done, let's focus on what can be done--that is, asking Amazon to improve their system. People need to understand this is a huge, international company; it isn't one guy sitting in an office rubber-stamping stuff.

The Catcher in the Rye
If this book had been
published today, would 
Amazon not sell it?
Secondly, there's the matter of legality. Again, I'm not an attorney, but I would bet dimes to donuts that when an "author" presents an independent book to Amazon for selling on their Kindle store that some type of official Terms & Conditions contract is entered into by both parties.

This contract would undoubtedly grant both sides various rights and obligations. It likely entails that Amazon will not just arbitrarily remove the author's work without justifiable explanation--and by that I mean something Amazon's lawyers have reviewed and can substantiate. Otherwise, a malicious person could send off emails to Amazon all day declaring that the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid is offensive and demand it be pulled from the store, "just because." Or, conversely, an author could take legal action against Amazon claiming their First Amendment rights were violated if their book was removed. This sort of thing can be a slippery slope, and every responsible company is going to cover themselves from a liability standpoint.

Imagine for a moment if you were an author who put up a "controversial" book for sale on Amazon, and had it removed pell mell just because of public outcry, with no opportunity to defend yourself or your work. I'd imagine you'd feel a bit like JK Rowling when a Georgia, USA mother demanded Harry Potter be pulled from schools. The proverbial knife cuts both ways.

Third, I haven't heard or read of anyone who has actually purchased or reviewed this book. If they did, I somehow doubt that person would actually admit it. As such, and given the appearance of this book shortly after Banned Books Week, it is possible, however unlikely, that the contents of the book are benign, open impudence, or just controversial for controversy's sake.

To be clear, I don't think this is necessarily the case. But this is the Internet. Stranger things have happened in a place where anyone can do just about anything they want.

Last but not least, many people are emailing Amazon customer service and getting replies back stating Amazon does not censor its product offerings. They immediately point to this as "evidence" that Amazon approves of the controversial book, without for a moment considering that Amazon, like many large companies, has thousands upon thousands of pre-written email replies for a wide range of regular customer inquiries.

One ABC News article (which I will not link to because it specifically names the book) goes so far as to equate Amazon's canned email reply with an officially issued statement.

Seriously?

As I mentioned before, in all likelihood Amazon's corporate office is aware of what's going on. They are likely consulting their legal team and their own policies in order to make a reasonable, responsible reply. The offensive book is probably being read and evaluated. And I have every confidence that Amazon will make a statement to the media and take proper action--they're a publicly traded company and have a reputation to uphold. But these things take time.

If they do remove the book, great! They listened to their customers and stood up for what's right, even if some minority may say it "tramples free speech." That book doesn't belong on a site like Amazon, in my opinion.

If they don't remove the book, then we should all take a long, hard look at who might be a better source for our e-commerce needs.

Until Amazon makes a formal decision either way, I will continue to buy from them. Unlike some who take a hard line, I will not let unreasonable fear-mongering and ignorance dictate my consumer habits. If we all endorsed this idea that a company should be vilified for carrying products we have ethical and moral qualms about--however justified we may be--then no one would shop anywhere.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Optimism on Sale - Selling Hope out today!

Selling HopeToday marks the release of Selling Hope (Feiwel & Friends), the new book by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb.

I had the privilege of meeting Kristin at September's SCBWI Mid-south regional conference. Ten seconds of chatting with Kristin is enough to make you want to read whatever she writes--she is vivacious and clever, with a winning smile and creative spirit.

Yep, all of that in ten seconds.

Now just imagine what kind of ingenuity lurks inside her new book. Or, you know, just read the synopsis:

It’s May 1910, and Halley’s Comet is due to pass thru the Earth’s atmosphere. And thirteen-year-old Hope McDaniels and her father are due to pass through their hometown of Chicago with their ragtag vaudeville troupe.  Hope wants out of vaudeville, and longs for a “normal” life—or as normal as life can be without her mother, who died five years before. Hope sees an opportunity: She invents “anti-comet” pills to sell to the working-class customers desperate for protection. Soon, she’s joined by a fellow troupe member, young Buster Keaton, and the two of them start to make good money. And just when Hope thinks she has all the answers, she has to decide: What is family? Where is home?

If you've read any of my previous blog posts, you can probably see why this type of story would appeal to me. It's also got Winkin excited, too! Granted, I'm not a huge fan or reader of YA books, but the artful blend of historical realities with imaginative fiction is irresistible.


Time For More Free Stuff!

So with that said, let's have a give-away! Selling Hope is set during the Vaudeville era, a time when American show business was hitting its stride. Many beloved entertainers became famous during this period, whereas others merely used vaudeville as a platform to launch careers in other venues.

Post in the Comments below and tell me who your favorite vaudevillian performer was, and why. You don't have to go into great detail, as it won't help your chances of winning, but this is a contest so we're trying to have fun -- be original!

On Tuesday, November 16th, I'll pick one comment at random. That participant will win a FREE copy of Selling Hope by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb.

And who knows? There might be an extra surprise in there for you, too!

(Please be sure to include an email address in your comment so I can notify the winner.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

5 Small Steps | Part 4: Dress for Success

You hear in business how employees should dress for the job they want, not the job they have. This is especially true of corporations with large hierarchies, where the rank-and-file are often "biz casj" and management is suited up, French cuffs and all.

A lower tiered employee with designs on a promotion may not have to copy that style, but in many cases dressing in less formal attire is an outward expression of inward motivation.

Athletes do the same thing. When trying to earn their spot on a roster, they'll train harder, buy new equipment, and work with mentors, all in an effort to impress the coach and show their dedication. A future on the team, and millions of dollars in contracts and endorsements, depends on it.

Not an author.
Applying that example to the dream of becoming a full-time author, both literally and figuratively "dressing the part" is a good way to let others know you're serious.

Now I'm not sure about you, but I have no idea what a writer looks like. So when I say to dress like a writer, I'm not implying you go out and imitate the fashion choices of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. But you can dress in a way that makes you feel like a writer, whether it be jeans and a t-shirt or something a tad classier.

More to the point, envision yourself at your first book signing, or book reading, and dress like that. You might be surprised by the psychological benefits to being "in costume," as it were, for your profession of choice, even if you're all alone with a laptop and your thoughts.


It'll Take More Than Just Good Looks

This is more than just an outward expression, though. Like the athlete example mentioned above, this is about building an identity, developing your skills, and creating a support network.

If you are seriously considering writing as a career, treat it like any other career choice. Proactively make yourself into what it is you want to become. Don't let it just happen, but do it on purpose!

Build a résumé of skills and talents - Professionals call this a CV, or Curriculum Vitae. It's Latin for "course of life." Where have you been? What have you done? How does it apply to where you're going? Think of it like a résumé, only more personal. There are limitless free sources online demonstrating how to create a good CV. Keep it updated as you grow, because you'll need it when that publishing deal comes along.

Not an author.
Attend classes & conferences to improve your craft - This really should go without saying, but it's been my experience most people overlook the benefits of continuing education in their selected field. It keeps you fresh! It also means that you will have a leg up on your peers who don't do this (and there will be many). No athlete would dare stop training or practicing after he made the team. No writer should stop learning how to be a better writer.

Enter contests to gain notoriety & win awards - There's a bazillion writing, short story, and essay contests available in newspapers, trade journals, at community colleges, and online. Seek out the ones that match your WIP and enter. If you win, or get some form of special recognition, it's an impressive addition to your CV. Not only does it add to your credibility, but it shows you have confidence in your work. Hint: Agents and publishers like this. Many book deals come about as a result of contest awards, both directly and indirectly.

Network with others & develop references - Every good job applicant is ready to produce references upon request. These can be professional or personal, but they have to be people who can speak to your abilities, talents, ethics, and personality. Writing is no exception. A critique group will make you a stronger writer, hands down. Get in one, or start one! Join SCBWI and communicate with other members. Let people know who you are and what you do. It's true what they say about "birds of a feather." And on the topic of cliché statements, don't forget that it really is all about who you know. With so many publishers and agents not accepting unsolicited material, being referred or introduced via mutual acquaintances is now the norm.

Is likely an author.
© Susan Kuklin
Start building your brand online and off - To you, it's a book. It is the culmination of hours and hours of heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, and millions of cups of coffee. To an agent or publisher, it's a product. And products have to $ell. You don't have to go nuts with social networking, blogging, or meeting others within the industry--if you do, you'll easily run out of time to write. But you do have to build your brand. Make sure you exist online, whether it be you or an alter ego, and update that existence with compelling content regularly. Gain "followers" online. Meet librarians, book store owners, and others who can be good people to know down the road. Your goal here is not to become a celebrity, but at least be on the radar of those you intend to read (and buy) your book. In short, be accessible, and not aloof or withdrawn.

Treat your goals like they're inevitable - One of my favorite quotes is from the classic video game Star Control II. In it, you play a space-faring captain seeking to save the galaxy from an alien threat. Along the way, you regularly encounter a merchant to trade with. His spaceship is named "Inevitably Successful In All Circumstances." I love this, and have made it my personal mantra for the last 18 years. No matter what you do, or who you meet, or how many times you're told otherwise, persist in your goals like they're going to happen. It's not a matter of "if." It's a matter of "when." This might require some patience, and shrugging off people who give bad advice (like the ones who tell you to quit). But confidence breeds success, and nothing establishes confidence like knowing something is going to happen. It's like Faith, but better!

In conclusion, you will never publish anything unless you engage the industry. To do that, you have to be, well, engaging! Just as money has no value until it is spent, your book has no value until someone wants to read it. Give them a reason to. Dress like a writer. Talk like a writer. Learn like a writer. Live like a writer. Be a writer... and, sooner or later, you will be!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November

There are many reasons why November 5th is such a memorable day for me. For starters, this is the day my little girl, Blinkin, was born, six years ago. Since Winkin is actually my step-daughter (I abhor the label, but for the sake of explanation we'll run with it), Blinkin was my first opportunity to be Dad to an infant.

At the time I hadn't yet started my marketing company, so I took paternity leave for a few months and did the whole Mr. Mom thing. I'd do bottle feedings at night, diaper changes 24/7, take her to the store or park during the day, and my favorite thing: singing to her when she was restless. A little Phantom of the Opera and she'd drift right off to Sleepy-bye Island.

How did I enjoy those six months? They were a blast! I had so much fun with that kid, watching her grow before my very eyes. Even now, six years later, there is an unmistakable bond between us that I attribute to having that extra time together.

Personally I believe it's important for fathers to be there for their children, right from the start, and as often as possible. Not everyone's circumstances allow for a six-month leave of absence from work to be with a newborn. But I guess the point of this post is that it doesn't have to be six months, and it doesn't have to be a newborn. Fathers, especially, should make a conscious effort to devote extra time to their kids, as often as possible. Not a dad? What about your nieces or nephews? Can you be there for them? You might be surprised how positive an influence you can be... for each other.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

NaBloWriMo - A month in reflection

This blog officially opened on October 1, 2010, and I thought a fun way to kick it off--and get in the habit of blogging--would be to sign up for National Blog Writers Month, or NaBloWriMo.

The goal was to make at least one interesting post per day, and I'm happy to say that I only missed 3 days--all for very good personal reasons, and not just procrastination or laziness. So as far as NaBloWriMo is concerned, I consider the event to be a rousing success!

Here are some of the things I'm happy to have accomplished during the month of October.

Getting in the Habit - Over the last 10 years I've started and stopped a few blogs. Not only did I fail to develop a habit of updating them, but I lost interest for two reasons: No solid foundation to build on, and no passion to energize them. As a result, they fizzled. Not this one! BleMals has proved to be a fun place for me to share things with the world that I'm passionate about, using my pursuit of becoming a full-time author as a central theme.

Making New Connections - From the very first day of NaBloWriMo, I started making new virtual acquaintances and following the blogs of intriguing writers. It's been a trip! During the month, I've had the privilege to "meet" several great writers, authors and illustrators; many of them have been kind enough to comment on my posts. Special thanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh, PK Hrezo, Carolyn, and everyone else who checked in regularly. I know all of you are busy in your own right, so thank you for taking the time to support a fellow NaBloWriMo blogger! I will be reading your blogs and following your careers with great interest!

Becoming More Social - Thanks to this blog, I've renewed my interest in Twitter, and have been introduced to other social networks and the fine folks who frequent them. My posts here and on Twitter have resulted in contact with authors, editors, art directors, and others within the KidLit industry. Some have even thanked me for mentioning their projects, or for writing on a topic they are also passionate about. To this, I can only say thank you, ever so humbly, for the recognition, and for your kind words of inspiration!

Building Momentum - Writing a post per day is not easy, especially when I am also being a husband, father, and business owner. Moving forward, it will be my goal to post at least three times per week, and, to the best of my ability, keep up with Twitter and other elements of my "online presence." Other more experienced folks have clued me in to the fact that this is an important activity for aspiring authors. Who am I to argue?

The momentum built during the month of October should carry nicely into the future. Whether it be my quest to find a literary agent, improve my skills, sell my first book, attend KidLit events around the world, or other related topics, I promise to keep the energy alive from one milestone to the next! If you'd like to stick around for the ride, well, I'd be honored.

Friday, October 29, 2010

That's when I do my best work

When I started writing professionally in 1993, I had to contend with deadlines. Admittedly, I was young, and pretty lousy at meeting them. Or maybe I just enjoyed procrastinating. Either way, when I emerged out of journalism and into commercial copy writing, I got much better at staying on-task.

Clients were, understandably, reluctant to pay promptly for late work. So in all my years of copy writing, I was never late, but boy did I like to wait until the last minute!

Or, if a client had tried another writer unsuccessfully, and thus had a much shorter time frame to work with, I'd snap up those opportunities and not bother renegotiating the deadline.

It didn't take long for me to realize that I work well under pressure. In fact, when the heat is on, I do my best work.

So maybe all that time spent waiting until the last minute wasn't really procrastination... I was just letting my thoughts marinate in creative juices.

Whatever works, right?

Today I am faced with a familiar situation: I have a self-imposed deadline of This Weekend for putting the finishing touches and art notes on my picture book manuscript. Additionally, I've been informed that there is a meeting scheduled early next month regarding the children's non-profit project I'm writing.

Time will tell how this all plays out, whether or not I'll finish in time, and if it will indeed by quality work. Talk about suspense! I'd cross my fingers, but it's very hard to type like that.

How do you deal with deadlines? How do you keep yourself on-task? Or do you procrastinate... err... I mean, do you let your ideas marinate for extended periods of time before committing them to paper?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stepping through the wardrobe

This week an old friend of mine was asking for vacation ideas. Quite casually, and for no reason I could think of at the time, I suggested she visit Prince Edward Island.

Credit: NovaScotiaTravel.ca
She quickly responded that Anne of Green Gables was her favorite book, favorite movie, and favorite source of fun phrases like "bosom friend."

It is quite amusing to say. "Bosom friend." Yep, still fun.

Our conversation got me thinking: If I could visit any location from literature, where would it be, and why?

To this question I added some rules; otherwise I'd be imagining myself on some futuristic alien planet with robots and blue people. (We'll save that for a future post.) So my rules were:

  1. The location must be found in a book.
  2. It can be any time period from past to present.
  3. It must be on this planet.
  4. It can be rooted in fiction, but the general setting must be real.
    (Atlantis doesn't count. Hogwarts is stretching it. Watership Down is fine.)

My personal answer came easy: Victorian England. It's the era of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, plenty of clever authors, and many more amazing stories, be they real or fiction.

Plus, there was running water, a sewer system, and various other creature comforts that, quite honestly, I don't think I could live long without, even if I was just visiting. (Yes, I'm a pragmatic time traveler.)

What about you? Using the 4 rules above, where would you go from literature, and why?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

And the winner is...

It's a BookThe winner of this month's book giveaway--Lane Smith's new picture book, It's a Book--is smurphy379! Congratulations!

Which brings me to my announcement: Every month I will be giving out a free children's book on this blog!

This is a good way for me to both support KidLit authors and to say "thanks" to you, my guests!

As was the case with this month's giveaway--where all you had to do was post a comment to qualify--I will likely keep future giveaways very simple. No forms to fill out. No ReTweeting required. (Although if you do share the contest on Facebook or Twitter, I promise not to turn you over to the Anti-Free Book Police.) My goal here is to spread the joy of reading.

If you win, I'll contact you via email or post a follow-up to your comment, so check back often! I know a few folks had trouble leaving comments and emailed me their comments instead. Still others left comments, but their profiles were private and I had no way of contacting them directly. Blogger is still new to me, so if I find a more intuitive way to keep track of entrants (or if anyone can suggest one) then I'll be sure to post about it and provide adequate instructions in the future.

Congratulations again to smurphy379, and thanks to everyone for participating in the discussion!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You are now free to move about the country

Next January 28-30 is the SCBWI Winter Conference for 2011. Knowing I definitely wanted to attend, I signed up for the conference the very hour registration opened up on October 6th. But until today I wasn't entirely sure what my travel plans were going to be.

Well, check another item off my To-Do list, because I finally booked my flight!

There's something to that whole Patience is a Virtue thing. When I originally checked flights from Nashville to NYC, the lowest fare I could find was United at around $360 roundtrip. Granted, I don't fly often, but that didn't exactly scream "bargain" to me, and I am always looking for a good deal.

Y'all be flyin' somewhere?
Credit: Southwest Airlines
This afternoon I was browsing Slickdeals.net (one of my favorite bargain-hunting sites -- check it out!) and noticed that Southwest Airlines was offering some seriously good deals if you booked by October 28th and traveled between January and February. Well, well, well, isn't that convenient?

Long story short, I was able to book two roundtrip fares for a grand total of $322. Not each. Total.

My traveling companion will be a good buddy of mine, a very talented artist originally from NYC who now lives here in Nashville. I'm eager to get to the SCBWI conference. He's eager to visit his old neighborhood. We've been friends since we were 10 years old, so that virtually guarantees a good time. He knows New York inside and out, whereas I haven't been there in a decade. (My knowledge of NYC geography is pretty much limited to what I gleaned from Spider-Man comics.) To top it all off, a mutual friend of ours, and former Nashville resident, now lives in the city, so we're all looking forward to the mini-reunion.

I love it when a plan comes together.

If you're familiar with NYC and know of any good restaurants or points of interest, please let me know in the Comments section. Our itinerary gives us 2 extra days to bum around the city, and I'm eager to be entertained and well fed!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blinkin and the Busted Lip

Sincerest apologies for my absence over the weekend. Yes, I know it throws a wrench in my NaBloWriMo goal of one blog post per day during the month of October. But I am, foremost, a father and husband, and often find being both requires no small amount of time away from my electronicals.

For the purposes of this blog, let's call my three children Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod. They are 12, nearly 6, and newly 4, respectively. To say we have a busy household is a vast understatement, but all three are generally well-behaved children, unique in their own special ways, and unstoppably adorable.

Blinkin is a curious child. Not curious in the sense of, I have no idea what's going on in that little head of hers. (In fact, she's so much like me, I'm pretty sure I always know what she's thinking.) She is curious in the sense that she enjoys exploring and pushing boundaries, physical or otherwise.

This is generally a plus; she's a great problem-solver and beautifully creative. The down side is that, while engaged in her various explorations, Blinkin tends to lose track of her surroundings.

This happened on Saturday morning when, while playing with Winkin, she temporarily forgot she was on Earth... and that Earth has gravity... and that floors are hard. She slipped and fell face-first onto our living room hardwoods.

This is not the first time she has suffered a facial injury while playing. Last year, Blinkin turned to run during a game of Tag and immediately connected with a window. The resulting golf ball-sized knot above her eye necessitated long bangs and excessive hat-wearing, both at her request. I wouldn't go so far as to say she's accident prone, but they certainly know where to find her.

Saturday's busted lip injury wasn't all that bad, actually. It gave off very little blood, and, while significantly swollen, turned out to be a fairly minor injury. She barely cried. When my wife returned from her sewing class, she praised my triage skills. (Being married to a nurse certainly has its benefits.) She also praised Blinkin for being a good little patient. Indeed, by the time Mrs. Kozicki got home, Blinkin was already back in good spirits and playing once again.

It dawned on me later in the day that I suffered a similar injury when I was 5 years old, too. Although, granted, my case involved an older brother forcibly introducing me to the corner of a piano bench. Still, the whole situation was terrifying. I have memories of being held down on an operating room table while a doctor sewed up my lip, all the while cracking lame jokes with a chef hand puppet.

You might think I'm making that last part up, but there are pictures.

Unlike my experience, Blinkin handled hers with aplomb. She has always been brave about bumps, bruises, shots, and all the various harassment that tends to exist amongst siblings. I respect that about her, and love her all the more for being such a great kid and not making Daddy freak out under pressure.

The balance of my weekend was spent hanging out with Blinkin, reading books, coloring, playing games, all the while enjoying her unique humor. She might be a brave, creative, and goofy 5 year-old, but she's still a 5 year-old. When kids that age are hurt, for whatever reason, they tend to enjoy the security and comfort of being with Dad the most. At least Blinkin does, and that's OK by me.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Two pedants walk into a bar...

...You'd think one of them would've seen it.

Coming just days after my Grammar Nazi post, I found this video particularly fun and enlightening.


While I enjoy proper spelling and grammar, I'm less concerned with syntax than I am with using the right word in a given situation. Your not going to a wedding. You're going to a wedding. See what I mean?

The video is narrated by the brilliant Stephen Fry, and the thing that I took away from it was that language is a living, breathing, organic thing.

As a long-time believer in using "conversational grammar" in all but the most formal of circumstances, I know in my heart of hearts that Fry is right. We have the right to shape language and bend it and caress it into whatever form agrees with it.

As a personal favor, however, can we all commit to drawing the line at cramming language, shoving it, breaking it, or forcing it--kicking and screaming--into submission? It's not a pretty sight, and it seldom ends well.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's a Controversy

Careful. Books can be dangerous!
Two weeks ago I wrote a brief post about Lane Smith's incredibly clever and illuminating picture book, aptly titled It's A Book.

Today, an article on the School Library Journal web site--originally published in the SLJ newsletter Extra Helping--discussed the controversy surrounding Smith's use of the word "jackass" in the book as a double entendre.

For the curious, the characters in this book are simply referred to as the animals they are: mouse, monkey, and jackass. As you can imagine, it's the jackass who serves as the story's antagonist, quizzing the monkey about his choice of non-electronic entertainment.

"Can it blog? Can it tweet?" asks the quizzical donkey.

"No. It's a book, jackass," replies the monkey.

Smith admits his books are cheeky by design, definitely appealing to the more mischievous kids out there. But is his use of "jackass" a reason for controversy? Is it introducing young children to words their fragile ears shouldn't be exposed to? Is it forcing parents to have "uncomfortable" conversations with their kids?

More importantly, should It's A Book not be in Kindergarten classrooms, daycares, or libraries?

It's a Book
Yeah, what he said.
Credit: Roaring Brook Press
Some people are posting negative comments on the SLJ web site, viciously giving the book 1-star reviews on Amazon, and generally blasting Smith for exposing kids to "filth" and "profanity."

Here's my take on the matter: Words only have the power we attribute to them. I read this book to all three of my young children. They loved it! But they did ask me if "jackass" was a bad word. That's fine; I read the book in advance and expected them to.

"It depends on how it's used," was my immediate reply, and I explained to them that certain words can mean different things when they're used offensively. It doesn't make the word "bad" or "filthy", and they shouldn't ever feel ashamed for using a perfectly normal word in its proper context.

As for the people who think this book doesn't belong in classrooms or libraries, I can only shake my head in disbelief. No one parent has the right to decide what an entire classroom, or school, or community should learn. After all, child-rearing begins at home, and reasonable parents know this.

What's your opinion on the matter? Is Lane Smith over-stepping his boundaries as a KidLit author? Or are some critics just being, well, jackasses?

Sound off in the Comments area, and next week I will pick one comment at random. That guest will win a FREE copy of It's A Book, courtesy of yours truly. So spread the word!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I'm just mad about saffron

The rumors are all true: I'm a total foodie.

Many people who know me also know that I love to cook. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is host a dinner party for a few dozen friends, complete with theme ingredient, homemade menu, and custom cocktail.

Credit: Wikipedia
If this event can be combined with a much-anticipated football or hockey game, all the better. But I'm perfectly OK just hanging out with family and friends, hopefully giving them a culinary experience they've never had before.

This year I decided to start my own herb garden. With the exception of the chives that never quite managed to grow properly, the rosemary, cilantro and especially the sweet basil were phenomenal.

You'd be surprised what happens to ordinary pizza when you bake it over a charcoal grill and top it off with fresh basil. Even the frozen store-bought stuff is instantly transformed into something beyond delicious.

It's fall now, and all of my herbs have withered up for the year. Even the rosemary--which is supposed to be evergreen--just couldn't bear the Indian summer weather here in Tennessee, and finally gave up.

My two saffron planters, sitting comfortably
on a sunny dining room window sill.

© Martin Kozicki
All is not lost, however. I placed an order earlier in the summer for some fall-blooming, indoor-growing saffron, imported from the Middle East (or so they claim). It arrived this week in the form of two planters and 10 saffron crocuses (bulbs).

Saffron is an expensive spice. In fact, it's the most expensive spice in the world. In local grocers, I've seen a small container priced as high as $40! So growing my own made sense. From what I gleaned from the planting instructions, each saffron flower will produce three edible stigma, which are clipped and used in cooking. Being extremely potent, even one stigma is enough to flavor an entire dish.

To paraphrase the Bard, herein lies the (spice) rub. I've never cooked with saffron before. I know it is used extensively in many Central American, Middle Eastern, and Asian dishes. But, assuming it actually flowers and doesn't die a horrible death, this will be my first experience using it in my kitchen.

So, I'm looking for some good recipes that make fine use of this pricey little plant. Feel free to email me, or share them in the comments. If I make your recipe, and love it, I'd be happy to reciprocate!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

5 Small Steps | Part 3: Write When You Want

Ever since I started writing professionally back in 1993, I've read several books on writing in an effort to improve my craft. A fair majority of them have preached that if you want to be a writer or an author, you need to write every day.

Hogwash.

Writing is not like working in a retail store, or in an office, where the day is basically made up of one mechanical task after another. Writing is an art, a trade, and a craft.

Anyone can write, but not everyone can be a writer. It takes some level of innate talent, a fair amount of education, and a level of intensity that, let's face it, is sorely underdeveloped in most.

To be clear, I'm not disparaging retail workers or office employees. As someone who has, in the past, done both, I know those jobs can be tough, and carry their own unique requirements of skill and effort.

Ultimately, however, those positions are very structured. You go to work. You do your job. You get paid. You go home. Wash, rinse, repeat. Creativity is often frowned upon in favor of sticking to the policies set in place by management.

Writing, on the other hand, is a lot like self-employment. Well, in truth, it is self-employment. You fade or flourish based upon your harvest of ideas.

A farmer doesn't gather every day; he spends time sowing seed and tending crops, too. Comparatively, writers shouldn't feel compelled to write every day. They need time to develop new ideas and nurture them.

Furthermore, when you're self-employed, you have a lot of hats to wear! You have to do research for projects, manage your budget, self-promote, make time to edit and revise, and generally keep your personal and/or family life organized. All of those things take time and energy, both of which are finite. Forcing yourself to write while ignoring other responsibilities will seldom result in your best work.


My Old Friend, Inspiration

Now, if you enjoy writing every day, then I certainly would never discourage that. More power to you! Nor would I encourage writers to procrastinate to the point that they do nothing with the blank pages in front of them.

What I'm cautioning against is the attitude found amongst many aspiring writers (and writing "teachers") who think they must churn out a certain number of words every day to be successful, or be taken seriously, or both.

We Planted a Tree
Ten years growing.
In a recent presentation for children's book writers, I listened to Diane Muldrow, author and editor for famed Golden Books, talk about inspiration.

While Diane is a huge advocate of having writers hone their craft as much as possible, she noted that it takes time to develop a great story. For example, she said that her new book, We Planted a Tree, slowly but surely took shape in her mind over the course of ten years! Eventually it all came flowing out, and she instinctively knew it was going to be a good book.

Notice that Diane didn't force it. Ten years ago she knew the idea had potential, but it was still sprouting. She worked on other projects, lived her life, and continued to grow the concept until eventually it blossomed on its own. (Yes, I am having fun with all these plant puns.)

If We Planted a Tree had been written and released ten years ago, I doubt it would have been as perfect a story as it is now. And believe me, it's a truly wonderful children's book, made even more fabulous thanks to the exquisite illustrations by Bob Staake.

So writers, please don't feel it's necessary to write 5,000 words a day, or 3,000, or even 1,000. Write what you want, when you want. When it comes to the creative process, don't feel you have to pound away at one project or story until it's done. Be flexible, not rigid. If a story isn't taking shape the way you'd like, shelve it and re-focus your efforts on something else that inspires or intrigues you. That intensity will come through in your writing.

Good luck!

Follow-Up Note: We're coming up on November when National Novel Writing Month kicks off. If you have an idea you've been anxious to put down in words, then NaNoWriMo is certainly a good time to do it. You'll have the support of over 100,000 participating writers across the world, all focused on a similar goal. Just remember that the point of NaNoWriMo is to encourage and foster a love of writing. As the organizers so eloquently put it, writers should value "enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft."

Monday, October 18, 2010

In defense of Mondays

It happens every Monday. My Facebook and Twitter streams explode with comments about how pathetic the first working day of the week is.

Inevitably, someone links that clip from the movie Office Space. Yep, this one.


I, on the other hand, don't mind Mondays. In fact, I kinda like them. Weekends are great, but Monday mornings are a chance to hit the ground running and tackle the week head-on.

The clients I serve at my company all work weekends, so Monday usually means an Inbox bursting at the seams. That's fine by me. I enjoy it. Why? Because while half the corporate world is moping around wondering when lunch is, I'm timing myself to see how quickly I can clear that To-Do List.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of my 5 Small Steps series, I avoid multitasking. Each line on the list gets my undivided attention, and I do that thing until it's done. Amazingly enough, I tend to get things done incredibly fast this way, with no lapse in quality or thoroughness.

By the time lunch rolls around--usually 1:00 pm for me--any and all major tasks for the day are finished. What's left is usually one-off activities, like responding to any voicemails or emails that rolled in while I was working on other jobs, or possibly fielding a call from a new client curious about our services.

This energetic method of time management makes Mondays feel like the day before you go on vacation. You know that feeling? How you seem to just breeze through everything thrown at you, because you know something great is just around the corner? Yep, that's most Mondays for me. As a result, the rest of the week tends to be steady-as-she-goes.

So if you too have a day job, and you're one of those folks who lives life like, "Thank God It's Friday! Oh God It's Monday!" then I'd encourage you to try this: When next Monday rolls around, wake up with the attitude that you have a quota to fill. By noon, you will deal with 3 annoying people, but you will also accomplish 5 simple yet worthwhile things.

Chances are highly likely, unless you're just a total curmudgeon, that you will easily get through those 5 basic tasks, and that you will not encounter 3 completely unbearable people. If you do, hey, you've met your quota. No worries there. You were expecting it. If you don't, then suddenly you're ahead of the game, and doing better than you thought you would!

Try it out. Let me know if it works for you. See you next Monday!