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.

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 (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.


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!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

BleMals: Special Sunday Headache Edition

It's been a rough weekend. From yesterday's technical nightmare, which is still breathing its fiery terribleness, to last night's 4-child slumber party (our 3 kids + niece), I woke up this morning with a killer stress headache.

Either this guy has a headache, or
somewhere nearby spoons are bending.
Unfortunately, it hasn't gone away.

Not wanting to miss a day on my NaBloWriMo efforts this month, however, I figured a brief post asking for stress relief ideas was necessary.

Normally when I need to decompress, I take a nap. But it seems the older I get, the less effective this is.

Don't get me wrong. Naps are awesome, especially with the right weather and accompanying ambiance. But they're not a cure-all.

So this leaves me to wonder: What do you do to relax and unwind? Do you exercise? Do you listen to music? Do you head to the salon for a facial? Or schedule a warm stone massage? Do you pray? Do you read or write? Do you draw the blinds, light the incense, and assume the Full Lotus pose?

Chime in with your stress relief tips -- I'd be grateful!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

We are experiending technical difficulties

After a sufficient amount of blessings, I suppose it's only natural that a little malediction should befall me.

My family and I are devoted Apple users. The missus and I use iMac computers, I have a MacBook Pro for traveling, and the kids have their own iMac to share. As such, we use the MobileMe service that Apple offers, which gives everyone their own email account, online backup capabilities, not to mention automatically synchronizing our calendars, contacts, etc.

At $150 a year for the Family Pack (although it's readily available for much less), MobileMe is money well spent; not just for convenience, but also because it provides handy backup and security tools. For instance, we can locate our iPhones anytime with MobileMe's Find My iPhone feature. Last month, when her iPhone went missing, my wife was able to track its GPS signal to a booth at the Thai restaurant where we had lunch. How cool is that?

But like most technology, it isn't perfect. This is a lesson I learned today when, attempting to access an archived email folder, I discovered the entire folder was empty.

Now, I keep meticulous records and archives of keep-worthy emails going back at least a dozen years. Because of this, my email archives are all obsessively organized into folders and sub-folders. I mention this to point out that it was highly unusual for just one folder to be devoid of any messages, and also to illustrate that its content is, not unimportant, but quite literally over a decade of records.

The particular folder in question just happened to be my archive of every online shopping receipt I've ever received. And since I do a lot of e-commerce, that's thousands of emails lost.

I know what you're thinking: But Martin, didn't you make a backup?

In the days when I used a standard email account, yes, I did regular backups of email. And all of our computers have a regularly scheduled backup for files on the hard drive. But since switching to MobileMe in August--which, like Gmail or Hotmail, is an online email service and thus acts as its own backup--there was, quite literally nothing to back up. It's all "in the cloud" as it were. Heck, MobileMe's logo is... a cloud! It should be safe up there, right?

Looks like I'm not the only one
whose mailbox is empty.

After opening a trouble ticket with Apple in the hopes they can retrieve my missing messages (at $149/year, hopefully they have a backup), I have looked into viable options for backing up web-based email. There aren't many, and most of them are messy and don't preserve folders or labels.

So my search continues. I don't believe I am the only person to ever have this particular problem. If any of you, dear readers, are technically proficient with stuff like this, I would value your advice.

It's important for me to note that I haven't lost faith in MobileMe, or Apple. The responsibility for safeguarding my email is, ultimately, mine, and I do not treat ignorance as an excuse here. Had I known it was possible for online email to go missing, I would have certainly put some safeguards in place. Now I know better, and will be acting on that knowledge.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Do the voices, Daddy!

Never in my life have I been on stage in a theatrical production. Nor have I entertained any ambitions to become an actor. I didn't take drama in high school, and, with the exception of a fairly decent Sean Connery, I can't do celebrity impressions.

But when it comes to reading books to my kids, I do voices.

The Three Billy-goats Gruff (Easy-to-Read Folktales)
Trolls snort, goats bleat, and
hooves go clip-clop-clap.
My memory fails when I try to recall when I started doing it. It was probably when my oldest child, now 12, was still pre-Kindergarten. It just makes sense to me that if you want to engross a child in a book, acting out the characters and giving them some personality--beyond just tonal inflection--really does wonders. It makes the story come alive, and, as a result, gets the kids more interested in books and reading.

At least, that what I see in my own kids. Now it is impossible to read a book to my little ones without them begging me to do the voices. Thank goodness it's so much fun, especially books with unique characters like The Three Billy Goats Gruff or Froggy Goes to School.

What about you, parents? Do you read with voices, or just inflection? What are your favorite books to voice act to? Most importantly, do your children prefer it with or without your creative flair?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Grammar Nazis. They're everywhere.

There are few things in life that get my goat more than the misuse of they're, there, and their.

Now, I'm not a "grammar Nazi" per se, but I have been known, under the guise of trying to be helpful, to point out when someone incorrectly uses they're, there, or their.

Not in a rude, insulting way, mind you.

For example, a buddy recently posted on Facebook that he and his wife ate at their favorite restaurant. "We love it their!" was the comment. So I, the good friend that I am, replied back with, "Glad you two enjoyed it! PS... 'there.'"

See. Non intrusive. Friendly. Innocent, even. I'm not trying to be a bad guy. It is the Internet, after all, and blogs (like this one) or social networking comments are meant to be conversational, not literature. So I look at my tiny correction as being the written equivalent of, "Excuse me, but you have spinach in your teeth."

My friends know I write, and that editing is part of my daily job, so they're very forgiving when I go all "red pen" on them. And they also know there's no arrogance behind my corrections. After all, if I make a mistake--and this happens more often than I'd like to admit--my friends are there to lovingly bring it to my attention. We're just trying to help one another be better people, right?

By now you've probably realized that this post is meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. But what say you? Are there any frequent spelling or grammatical mistakes your friends or colleagues make that drive you bonkers? Sound off in the comments. In the meantime, enjoy this clip.

Blessings & Maledictions Non-Hypocritical Oath: If any of you ever catches me incorrectly using they're, there, or their on this blog, for the first person who brings it to my attention in the comments (be nice), I will personally donate a children's book to the school or organization of your choice.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It's always Happy Hour at the Chaise Lounge

Last night I described my ideal reading environment. Inspired by today's post on NaBloWriMo, this evening I want to pay tribute to my favorite writing environment.

This is not my chaise lounge. But in case you were
wondering what all the fuss is about...
This is my ode to the chaise lounge.

When my wife and I were married some years ago ("It feels like yesterday, hon, I swear!") she brought along some of her things into our new home. There was an antique waffle iron, a three year old daughter, and a relatively new chaise lounge.

Needless to say, I learned to love all of these.

There is nothing exceptional about the chaise. It is plain and blue, with wooden stubs for legs. It doesn't even match the decor of the bedroom it's in, although that contributes to its appeal. Some parts of the fabric are now slightly worn, so it could definitely use a slipcover. The armrests are not symmetrical, but generously padded, creating lots of interesting ways to get comfortable. But it is still very much an upright chair, so it doesn't lend itself to naps, and that's probably a good thing.

What I like most about the chaise is that it feels like it's built for me. It supports me nicely, with ideal height on both the back and the armrest, and a length that extends precisely to my feet. It is just right for my six-foot-five self. It's ergonomic without intending to be.

The chaise is situated in our bedroom right next to one of two heavily-curtained windows. Outside is a relatively modest, fenced backyard. Within view is our deck, my fledgling apple and pear trees, and the small corner area where I keep our honey bee hive. Just inside the window is a painted wooden sill that is deep enough to support even the largest of coffee mugs, although I tend to prefer tea or water while writing.

Perhaps best of all, the chaise is facing away from our bedroom television, completely eliminating any temptation to become distracted. Instead, it is opposite from a large bookshelf where rests my current reading list and a humble little radio.

Despite being an apparent magnet for laundry begging to be folded, the chaise is regularly cleared off and serves as my writer's lounge. There I find a delicate balance of comfort and inspiration, tucked into a small corner, of a small house, in a large world.

Where do you like to write? In public? In seclusion? Can you write amidst noise or random people, like in a bustling coffee shop? Or do you prefer a more tranquil setting?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night...

Not to worry. I am not channeling Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Lord Lytton ponders his next
literary masterpiece.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London
Actually, the weather is picking up something fierce here in Middle Tennessee as I write this. Driving winds, pouring rain, and spectacular lightning strikes. It's not unlike a violent ballet.

It is also my favorite weather to read by.

Please, keep your sandy beaches, your breezy springtime hammocks, and your fireside lounge chairs. My ideal reading environment requires cozy refuge from severe weather.

This preference might have something to do with the element of danger, likely due to my time in Mississippi and Florida dodging hurricanes, and here in Tennessee admiring the ferocity of tornados.

This doesn't mean that I don't respect the power of nature. In fact, I'd say I revel in it. It puts my mind at ease to know that, while the storm is raging outside, something equally powerful is happening when I'm engrossed in a great book.

So, where do you like to read? Do you have a favorite spot? A perfect chair? A secluded hideaway or public perch?

Monday, October 11, 2010

What are you reading this October?

It isn't uncommon for me to read one fiction and one non-fiction book every month. Not only is it fun, but I like the idea that I'm improving my life in some small way.

To paraphrase Charlie Jones, "In five years you'll be the same person you are today, except for the people you meet and the books you read."

Obviously this doesn't include picture books. With three kids in the house, picture books are a daily activity. We read them. We write them. My two little ones draw their own and staple the pages together. I guess that means they're self-published.

This isn't your father's space opera!
Credit: Dancing Lemur Press
Anyhow, coming off a September where I actually blitzed through four non-fiction business and travel books, it only seemed fair that October should be devoted to super-fun fiction experiences.

Enter Alex J. Cavanaugh, a self-proclaimed "sci-fi writer on a journey of discovery."

Alex's first published novel, CassaStar, comes out on October 19th. However--and I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but--the Kindle edition of CassaStar is available now!

So three guesses as to what I'm reading this week, but you'll only need one.

Just to be clear, this isn't a review. But as a general synopsis, CassaStar follows the story of a young and tenacious spacecraft pilot named Byron. Determined to become the best pilot in the fleet, his talents come to the attention of a battle-hardened commanding officer intent on exploiting Byron's abilities.

Sound like fun? It is, so far. According to my Kindle e-reader app (I don't actually own a Kindle, so I use the free software version for Mac and iPad), I am only about 14% of the way in. But so far the story is compelling enough to hold my attention, and that's saying something!

What about you? What are you reading this month? Or what did you just finish that's worthy of recommendation?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Yes, well, that sums it up nicely

There's been a lot of hullaballoo this week over that New York Times article. Spurning the traditional picture book!? What were they thinking?

Playful sarcasm aside, I think this video--a trailer for It's A Book by Lane Smith--is both brilliantly apropos and seriously funny. In other words, I've already placed my order. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Patricia Wiles has a big heart

Every once in a while, someone does something amazing and deserves to be recognized. Today, that someone is Patricia Wiles, children's book author and Assistant Regional Advisor Chair for SCBWI.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting Patricia at the SCBWI Midsouth Regional Conference. Prior to the event, she had sent a few friendly emails asking attendees for kid-lit book donations with the idea of passing them on to a few deserving schools after the conference.

What started off as a donation basket quickly became a donation table, and then a donation room.

The table was overflowing by Sunday morning, with bags, boxes, and stacks of books! Everything from picture books to middle grade, young adult, and even some age-appropriate textbooks. Fiction. Non-fiction. Historical. Poetry. Practically every genre was represented.

Even the faculty at the conference joined in, donating many of their newly released titles, some of them autographed by the author or illustrator.

The SCBWI Midsouth Regional Conference faculty poses with the donation "basket."
Credit: J. Michael Smith
That was two weeks ago. On Friday, October 8th, Patricia sent out an email to the SCBWI Midsouth mailing list. In it, she detailed the quantity of books donated, and briefly chronicled their delivery.

Exactly 147 board and picture books were donated to a special ed class at the West Broadway Elementary School in Madisonville, Kentucky. The kids haven't had a chance to see the bounty of books that just arrived, but the teachers were ecstatic! Patricia mentioned that they are already planning lessons around many of the new picture books, and expressed their gratitude again and again.

In Patricia's words, "it gets better." Over 400 middle grade and young adult books were then delivered to Alternate Day Treatment, a school for students who, for a variety of reasons, must be removed from traditional classroom settings.

It was also a school with absolutely no library.

These kids are stigmatized and abandoned. Their school is at the bottom of the list for funding. When Patricia started soliciting for donations from outside the SCBWI community, she was met with terrible replies like, "Those kids probably don't know how to read anyway," and, "They have computers. They don't need books."

In Patricia's email, she exposed the ignorance of those comments as she recounted the book delivery at Alternate Day Treatment:

"The principal and counselor asked me to give a brief talk to the kids about where the books came from and the importance of reading. [...] When I finished, the principal invited the kids to come up and look through the books.
"This was a wonderful moment. The kids swarmed the boxes! They picked up books and asked me about them. Some asked me if there were books by specific authors, [...] or if there were books in particular genres. 
"The principal made the comment that they were going to have to figure out how to get more bookshelves. They didn't have enough to hold all the books."

Further demonstrating her resourcefulness, Patricia contacted the city, who was preparing for a surplus auction. Moved by Patricia's efforts, the mayor pledged that Alternate Day Treatment could have any of the bookshelves in the auction that they wanted.

This is an example of people who, without any thought of personal gain, saw a need in the community and took action. It wasn't a PR stunt. Nobody's secretly getting rich. And there's no reality TV show waiting for the participants. Simply put, this was a genuine act of kindness.

Giving credit where credit's due, dozens of compassionate souls had a hand in this extravaganza of literary charity. But I'm singling Patricia out for two reasons: First, she organized this drive; it was her effort and her open-heartedness that made it possible. Secondly, she chose the worthy organizations that benefited from these donations, and, in my opinion, she chose wisely.

Not everyone can donate a truckload of books to a group of deserving kids. But you can do your part. Support people like Patricia. Buy one of her books! Better yet, buy two--one to keep, the other to donate to a local school or charity. Be a hero, and brighten a child's life.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Has the ugly duckling had its swan song?

Chatter within the children's book community exploded this morning thanks to an article published on the New York Times web site entitled Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. (Note: registration required.)

The article, written by Julie Bosman, discusses the decline of picture book sales. Writers, illustrators, publishers, book stores--the entire industry has felt the pinch.

Credit: Central Highlands Regional Library Corp.
Everyone seems to have an opinion as to why. It's the slumping economy. It's pressure from schools to meet greater testing standards. It's urging from parents to get their kids into more advanced books, whether for educational or social status reasons. It's digital distractions like video games, TV, and the Internet.

One parent, Amanda Gignac from book review blog The Zen Leaf, even had to go so far as to publicly defend her quote in the article. Not surprisingly, it was edited completely out of context, falsely painting Gignac to be a heretic for not encouraging her young child to read picture books.

In my opinion, humble as it is, the real issue here should not be why picture book sales are slumping, because all the reasons given are correct, and all the reasons given are beyond the industry's ability to change. The real question is how should the industry respond?

Some writers and illustrators want to band together and campaign for a massive push towards encouraging kids to read printed picture books. It may sound attractively grassroots, but reality says it would just be a Sisyphian effort. After the big push, kids would go right back to whatever's dividing their attention.

Here's a crazy idea: Why not embrace the direction things are going?

We as a society are just now learning to walk, rather than crawl, through the digital age. As a result, our children are growing up in a very different environment than generations past. Every form of popular media is now available in digital format, from games to music, movies and, yes, books.

It isn't that kids have lost their love of reading. It's that their developing minds are drawn to things that engage their attention. The world has conditioned them to prefer interactivity, and I, for one, see nothing wrong with that.

Warning: Armchair Author Advice Beyond This Point

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish
Picture books like the one seen
here are appealing to younger
and older readers alike.
To my fellow parents, I would say to keep buying picture books for your kids, even when they seem to have graduated to chapter books. There are some brilliant picture books out there, with superb writing, challenging concepts, and engaging characters. The fact that they are illustrated doesn't make them less of a book--just look at the popularity of graphic novels for evidence of that.

To my fellow writers, I would say your task is two-fold.

First and foremost, let's write better books. After all, for thousands of years, no matter what the industry, it has always been consumer demand that drives a market. Realize that the days of Dick and Jane watching Spot run are over. Kids are smarter, more attuned to the adult world, and they know when they're being patronized.

Recently I attended a presentation by a literary agent who claimed over 100,000 book manuscripts are submitted to publishers each year, but less than 6,000 see publication. I'm not sure about the accuracy of those figures, so take them with a grain of salt, but it seems about right. Editors and publishers know what's brilliant, what's marketable, and what kids want. Apparently 94% of writers don't.

You could argue that current economic conditions dictate the volume of titles published, and you'd be right, but it doesn't change the fact that only the best will ever become books.

Secondly--and I'm well aware this is a point of contentious debate in the industry--we as writers and illustrators need to embrace technology.

Look, I adore a printed picture book. The feel, the aroma, the crackle of fresh pages, and the sight of beautiful illustrations mixed with brilliant words--four out of five senses can't be wrong! (Conceivably five senses, if you lick your books, but I digress.) But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that digital books are going to become the norm. From the Kindle, to the Nook, to Apple's iBooks and iPad, there is simply too much consumer momentum and retail inertia to prevent it.

Being A Good Student of History

The music industry should serve as our cautionary tale here. Napster exploded on the scene in the late 90's, and the music industry freaked. Instead of embracing this rapidly proliferating technology called digital music, they fought it tooth and nail, suing tens of thousands of consumers and businesses in an effort to stamp out any threat to their decades-old approach to sales and distribution.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pop-Up Book
Novelty books, which need
to be in print for full effect,
will never go away.
What did that earn them? Heavy consumer resentment for starters, which tends to happen when you take little old ladies to court. But more importantly, the music industry's balance sheet paid dearly for its lack of ingenuity.

Now the bulk of profits from online music sales go to sites like iTunes, instead of to the publishers or the artists. Finding an independent record store these days is like sighting Bigfoot--even if you claim to see one, no one cares, and they all think you're a kook.

Most shockingly is that, despite plummeting production costs, the music industry still charges a whopping $19 MSRP on all new CDs, the same price they were in 1988.

Translate that to the publishing industry, and you're left with some fairly clear options. You can fight the consumer, or you can align your ideals with theirs. This isn't a capitulation, it's just smart. It's the evolution of all media.

Do I think physical printed books will ever go away? Absolutely not! After all, they still make vinyl and they still make CDs. E-books and print can co-exist. But the market is finite, and thus one medium must give up market share to the other.

Printed book sales may continue to ebb, but an opportunity exists to really open up the flow of creative picture books into the marketplace.

Dusty D. Dawg, an interactive digital picture book series,
has been popular with kids and parents alike.

Credit: Apple iTunes.
Some truly great things are being done with digital books. If you haven't seen one yet, picture books (in both e-book and app form) look amazing on a device like the iPad or iPhone. Using touch technology, parents and kids can literally turn the "pages" and get all sorts of bonus content like character profiles or author commentary right at their tiny fingertips.

Granted, it doesn't work for novelty books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle) or Open Me, I'm A Dog (Spiegelman)--which is why those books will always have their niche--but for a good majority of picture books it's a really engaging experience!

Best of all, while e-books have been around for a while now, there is currently a surging commercial interest in children's books in digital form. No industry battle royal is brewing over distribution. Publishers, authors and illustrators are, for now, playing nicely over things like royalties. Pricing is admittedly lower than printed books, but it should be, and consumers aren't objecting. So there's an opportunity here to not combust like the music industry and actually do this whole e-book thing right!

That's my rather lengthy $0.02 on the matter. What do you think? Do you like the way the industry is going? Do you think we should encourage kids to go into chapter books sooner? Or should we be making better picture books? Digital picture books? Picture book apps? Comment below and let me know your thoughts!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

5 Small Steps | Part 2: Create Leverage

Archimedes is believed to have said, "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth."

He wasn't too far from the truth. We move our individual "worlds" every day through the power of leverage--that is, utilizing resources to maximize results.

It might be easier than you think.
Think about it: Have you Googled something recently? Then the search engine was a fulcrum for skipping tedious research via more archaic methods. Thus, you've leveraged its abilities to work in your favor.

Now give yourself a little pat on the back.

As it applies to writing, many people I've spoken with over the years just long for an opportunity to transform their love of writing into a full-time career. But where they trip up--indeed, where almost everyone trips up when attempting to make a big change in life--is they fail to recognize their sole limitation:

If you do not make time, you will never have time.

Obviously no one can go out and manufacture time, although that would be a great premise for a story. And proper leverage is about more than just saving time. It is about using ingenuity in order to obtain what may otherwise be unobtainable.

Or, to paraphrase Archimedes, it's about moving the world simply by knowing where to plant your feet.

Where You Are vs. Where You Want to Be

Before deciding to throw off the shackles of corporate America and pursue your goal to be a writer, your life was aligned with its pursuits. That is, you had a schedule, maybe an office or workspace, people who held you accountable, and certain rules and regulations you had to follow.

Now consider what would happen if you were a full-time writer.

Would you be at home all day, or would you go somewhere to write? Coffee shops are noisier than you might realize until you're sitting in one trying to write over the din.
If you're home, how will you handle things like chores, interruptions, lunch breaks, and appointments? It isn't always easy to focus on your words when there's a big pile of laundry staring at you from across the room. And you thought you were OCD before!
How will you go about setting measurable, realistic goals, and then hold yourself accountable for reaching them? I don't know many writers who are lazy, per se, but I know plenty of self-employed types who love to procrastinate.
What kind of budget will you set for self-education opportunities, purchasing new technology, or traveling to writer's conferences and events? Believe it or not, it takes more than just a good idea and a laptop to make a writer. Sometimes it means broadening our horizons, or integrating new tools into our routine.

All of these things can become motivational vampires, draining you of energy and time. So be prepared to confront them, confront anything, that becomes an obstacle to realizing your dream. But do it smart. With a little brainstorming, you just might find out it's easier than you think to overcome your hurdles.

OK, So You Want Some Examples?

If you're like me and have the goal of becoming a full-time author, you probably have some ideas as to how you can make that happen. Excellent! Please comment below and share, as I'd love to hear them.

In the meantime, here are some of the things I've done to leverage my resources in pursuit of that goal.

  • Leverage Money - A slumping economy doesn't mean you can't afford to think of new ways to budget. If your old job had you spending $100 a week on gas commuting to work, you now have $100 a week to spend on paying other people to do stuff you hate. Before you jump in with, "But, if I wasn't working..." consider this: the average commute is 45 minutes each way. That's 33 hours of reclaimed time a month! With the time you save--not to mention all the chaos and stress you avoid--you can pursue freelance writing jobs that pay you 10x that. Personally, I hired a housekeeper. For $60 she cleans my entire home once a week. It is a huge emotional relief. Not having to do it myself lets me focus on generating new business, or working on my writing projects. It's an investment that pays dividends.
  • Leverage Accountability - People thrive when they're held accountable for reaching certain goals and milestones. If you don't empower someone in your life to tell you when you're failing, it can start to feel like you just stepped into Lord of the Flies. It's chaos. So join a good critique group. Communicate regularly with other writers. Sure, your spouse may be confused about this new pursuit of yours, but let he or she know you have aspirations and you need help achieving them. Or, if you're progressing nicely in your writing and you feel the time is right, consider signing up with a literary agent. Leveraging this support network of friends and colleagues might reveal your harshest critics, but you may also discover your strongest advocates.
  • Leverage Connections - Whenever I'm looking to start a new project, I often think about who in my personal "sphere" might have skills, resources or knowledge I can leverage to make it happen. Provided you're not obnoxious about it, this works amazingly well. If you want to write, make it known. Ask friends if their company ever hires freelancers. Talk to your old college English professor and see if he or she knows of any local media outlets looking for talent. (Note: It helps if you were actually a good student.) Don't just haphazardly put it out there and expect a favorable response, but actively think about who you know and what they do. Chances are everyone knows someone who could use a good writer.
  • Leverage Trade - For my part, I can be pretty fierce with a red pen. Friends and colleagues often ask me to re-tool their résumés, edit proposals, and tweak their profiles for social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. Many times I'll do it for free. Why? It's not because I'm being overly altruistic. It's because I know that eventually I'll need a favor in return. This coincides nicely with leveraging connections, too. Let's say you approach a local non-profit and offer to write some of their .org web content gratis, but with the understanding that you'll get paid if you write the copy for the brochure promoting their upcoming food drive. Or talk to your dentist and trade some teeth cleanings in exchange for writing his professional bio. If you're pleasant, and do a good job, those people will talk, and word-of-mouth promotion from raving fans is the best kind of leverage out there!

I hope you've enjoyed the second installment of my 5 Small Steps series, helping those who want to pursue writing as a career. It is possible! Find the right place to stand, and you too can move the Earth!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I less-than-three NYC!

Registrations have gone live for the 12th annual SCBWI Winter Conference!

The international conference for children's writers and illustrators is being held January 28-30, 2011 in New York City.

The Phantom TollboothSo far the list of events and presenters looks top-notch. In addition to keynotes by Goosebumps author R. L. Stine, Story of a Girl author Sara Zarr, and illustrator Jules Feiffer (The Phantom Tollbooth), the schedule also includes several sessions with notable editors, agents, writers and art directors from every nook and cranny of children's literature.

Because it is often difficult to express excitement via text, without copious amounts of exclamation marks, I encourage you to look at this picture to get an idea of how thrilled I am to be going.

Now, I haven't been to New York since 2000, and I know a lot has changed in 10 years. Thankfully, I have a friendly guide to keep me company during non-conference hours: former NYC resident and artist known as Price. We go way back, and he has assured me that we'll spend a few days either pre- or post-conference taking in some sights and maybe catching a show.

So fellow scribes and scribblers, are you going to the 2011 Winter Conference? What breakout sessions did you sign up for? Are you going to the writer or illustrator intensives on the 28th? Post in the comments or send me an email if you'd like to meet up!