Monday, April 30, 2007

The Principal in Pink Converse Shoes (and Other Tone-Setters)

A school's principal has an amazing influence over the vibe of a school. Teachers have their own classrooms, work independently, succeed in meeting the curricular demands without their "boss" breathing down their necks...some go for days without seeing their principal, and yet the principal's attitude influences the entire campus. This past week I spoke with a teacher who told me she'd like to participate in the Exercise the Right to Read campaign but then whispered into the phone that her principal "would never go for it." I felt sorry for her because the tone of her voice said it all. "My book club will do it, though," she added. "We'll do it on our own." I've met principals like that--and I haven't met them, too. I've done some school visits where the principal's been "too busy" to come to the assembly, let alone meet the visiting author. The teachers and librarians are always apologetic, but it's not their fault. I know the deal. Lip service to literacy is just a stepping stone on their quest to becoming superintendent. But for every principal like that there are dozens who set the tone right; principals who are involved and truly care about the kids and the teachers, not just career advancements. Like another principal I spoke with last week who is so enthused about the fundraising program that she's meeting with the other principals in the district, challenging them all to participate. And then there are the principals you can't help but marvel at. Two in particular spring to mind: I met the first one after I'd traveled long and far to reach a school in rural California. I was beat and still had a full day of presentations to give, so I decided at the last minute not to switch out of my travel shoes -- black and white Converse "low-tops". (I was still in that phase where I thought it wasn't appropriate author attire, but at that point I was more interested in being comfortable.) I was feeling a little self conscious, but when the principal stepped from behind her desk to greet me, my jaw dropped at the sight of her feet. She was wearing pink Converse high-tops! This was the principal? I loved her already! I should explain that my Sammy Keyes mysteries feature a spunky seventh grade girl who swears by high-tops, so this wasn't the principal's normal attire. She had declared it Converse Day at the school in honor of my visit, and I soon discovered that the entire student body and a lot of the teachers were decked out in high-tops. The tone of that school was amazing. They didn't have much in the way of "resources", but their principal was a source of inspiration beyond any educational gadget. The other principal that I will never forget headed up a middle school in Oklahoma. He was an intimidating sight -- you wouldn't want to mess with this guy! But he was soft spoken, patient, and when some kid got himself into trouble he'd sit them in his office (which was wall to wall books) and after discussing the infraction and necessary consequences, he'd ask, "What book are you reading, son?" And after discussing that for a while, he'd select one from his collection and give it to the kid to read. It would be a book relevant to what the kid was going through, and part of the "detention" would be a future discussion of the book: What did it teach? Did he relate? How could its lessons help him to become a better person? This principal did more than talk the talk about literacy and the value of books. He took action. He lived it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The UPside

Maybe I love it because I used to be a teacher. Or maybe I just love being around kids. Even the middle school kids who have developed that "too cool" exterior -- I think they're a blast because by the time I'm done spazzing out in front of them, they've forgotten all about being cool. They laugh and gasp and elbow each other ("Did she really say that?") And they want to know why I'm wearing Converse shoes and "Are you ADD? ADHD?" and "Where did you get your earrings?" I'm talking about school visits. One of the fantastic things about being a children's book author is that schools all over the country invite you to give presentations to their student bodies...and they pay you to do it! A lot of children's book authors make their living, not through royalty checks, but by doing school visits. Besides getting paid, the cool thing about school visits is that you get to interact with the people you write for--kids. They love to tell you what they like about your books, and they love to tell you what they think should happen next (in a series). Through school visits you see again how important books are -- not just your book, all books. Kids share what they're reading, what they love, what they hate...and there are always a few who are dying to know how to become an author. Not a pop star or a rock star or an actress or the author. It's the thing they want most in the world. Anyway, I was away doing school visits the last few days, and I'm recharged with the value and purpose in what I do. I write books to help kids find themselves. For me it's about making them feel that they have enormous potential to do and be anything they set their minds to. Through my characters--or through relating the stories of my own struggles--I as an author have the opportunity to help kids believe that their dreams can also come true. I may only get royalty checks twice a year, but every time I do a school visit I get paid in ways that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. I get the priceless sense that what I do matters.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Another question I often get asked by kids is: Are you a millionaire? I don't mind that question--I think it's legitimate. A lot of kids (adults, too) seem to think that once you've landed a book deal, you've struck it rich. The truth is that the financial spectrum of being a children's book author runs from paltry to...well, who hasn't heard of Harry Potter? So it's hard to talk specifics, but here's a quick overview of the average financial reality of being a children's book author: Once you land a book deal, your publisher will give you an advance against royalties -- this is money up front for signing a contract. For my first book (How I Survived Being a Girl) that was $4,000 -- an average amount for a beginning author 10 years ago. If you have an agent, 15% goes to your agent. Since you have a government, 35% should be put aside for taxes. That leaves you with about half of your advance--in the case of my first book, about $2,000 There are no benefits in this package--no health insurance, 401K, etc. Most authors don't publish more than one book per year. Since the money was an advance, you need to earn that amount back before you see any extra money (royalties). Streamlining numbers, a basic royalty structure goes something like...10% of the hardcover, 6% of the paperback. That's about $1.50 per hardcover sold, $0.30 per paperback. All those buck-fifty and thirty-cent(es) have to add back up to the original advance ($4,000) before extra monies are paid. Many children's book authors barely earn back their advance (so they earn very little royalties). Many children's book authors also have books go out of print within a couple of years (which ends the meager royalties). Translation: Plan to keep your day job (at least for a while). (Next post, the financial UPside to being a children's book author!)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Good Intentions

Everybody has good intentions. My desk has a folder on it that's full of things I intend to take care of. Soon. Really, I do. So when people tell me that they're gonna do this, or gonna do that, I always take it with a grain of understanding salt. Everybody has good intentions. Months ago when I met a reading specialist at a middle school in New Hampshire, I told her about our plans for the Exercise the Right to Read fundraiser and she got really enthused about the possibilities. "I'm going to write my governor!" she said. She also said that she'd been meaning to get in better shape and was going to start exercising and lose some weight. And, as if that wasn't enough. she said, "As a matter of fact, I think I'll go to the marathon and cheer you on!" I loved all these good intentions. Well, this morning I heard from her, and guess what? She wrote the governor. (It's a great letter, too!) She's lost 17 pounds and 15 inches. (WOW!) And she swears she'll be in New York in November to cheer us on. (I believe her!) She's inspired me to open up that folder on my desk. It's time I followed through with some of my good intentions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Where Do You Get Your Ideas (or...The Man With No Nose)

I have a slew of fan mail that I've really got to answer. I always have such good intentions of getting back to these (mostly) kids the same week as the packages of mail come in, but life just interferes. But I do, eventually, buckle down and answer the letters. All of them. Well, no, that's not really true, now that I think about it. I've chucked a few in the trash. They went something like..."We're writing authors for a class assignment and I chose you. I read the first page of your book and I already know it's the best book in the world. I'll try to read more later. Could you send me something?" The ones I love to answer go... "I read your book and it changed my life..." I used to write a personal letter to each kid, but I just can't manage that with the volume of mail that I now receive. But I think it's important to answer kids' letters (and to not get too big for your ding-dang britches), so I do a sort of Top Ten Questions Answered form letter and add a personal note. And what is the Number One Question I get asked? "Where do you get your ideas?" It's the #1 question when I do school visits, and it's the #1 question in my fan mail. Is that because my ideas are a little wacky? Yeah, probably. But other authors I know say it's the #1 question they get asked, too. In my case, the answer to this #1 question is varied (depending on what wacky idea I'm currently stewing in), but the common basis is people. I get my ideas from watching people. Generic people are disposable. I spend no time looking at "normal" people because their story is most likely boring. No, I study the crazy-looking people. The lady who, at eighty, is still dressing like Barbie. The man with the sweat-stained, salt-encrusted cowboy hat and hairy ears. The snotty girl with her nose turned up so far that you can see clear up to her teeny-tiny brain. Or the man with no nose! What a shock he was! A few years ago I was driving my kids to daycare (on my way to my job teaching school), when I happened to glance over and see that the passenger in the car alongside mine had no nose. I stared straight ahead for a second, as we waited for the light to turn green. Had I seen that right? I had to know! So as I kept facing forward I cranked my eyes waaaay over, and sure enough--the man had no nose! Now, what you want to do in a situation like this is roll down the window and say, "Hey, Mister! What happened to your nose?" but of course you just can't do that. (Besides, he might retort, What happened to yours? as one might suspect that mine got caught in a pencil sharpener...) So when the light turned green and we went our separate ways, I couldn't stop wondering about him. Why didn't he have a nose? Was it an industrial accident that left him schnoz-less? Did he have nasal cancer? Was he born with no nose? Did he still have his olfactory senses? What would it be like to go through life noseless, having pencil-nosed women at intersections cranking their busybody eyes over to get a peek at your schnoz-free face? This, you see, is how my brain works. This is how I get my ideas. This is why they're often wacky. I just need to know the back story to the "characters" that I meet at the intersections of life. And if I can't know the real story, I'm forced to make up my own. Which I then build a theme up around , a plot up around , and a whole world up around. Usually when I answer kids I simply tell them that I get my ideas from watching people, or from reading the newspaper, or from things my kids have told me about being in school, or from having been a teacher for 15 years, or from my own experiences being an outsider kid. One time, though, I was doing a school visit and I tried explaining about the man with no nose. When I was done, a boy raised his hand and said, "But there are no people without noses in my neighborhood." "Oh, yes there are," I told him. "Keep your eyes'll see!" And that, really, is the nutshell of how a person gets ideas.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Running Miracles

When a friend of my husband's found out that we were training for a marathon, he suggested that we rent a movie called Saint Ralph (PG-13). So we did, and it was delightful. Set in the 1950's, it's the story of a 14 year old boy who tries everything to get his mother to wake up from a coma. "It's going to take a miracle," he's told. But later, in an offhand remark, he's told that him winning the Boston marathon "would be a miracle." He puts these two statements together and decides that that's what he needs to do to save his mother--win the Boston marathon. The movie reminded me how much mental strength is involved in marathon running. And watching the actual Boston marathon (well, the TV version) on Monday reinforced that. It was cold in Boston, with brutal winds and rain... but that didn't stop the runners. These are tough people. Tough, determined people. And although I was rooting for Deena Kastor to win the women's, I couldn't help but feel thrilled for Russia's Lidia Grigoryeva as she held up her trophy. And the men's winner, Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot--what a story there! His parents gave him and his siblings away when they were children because they couldn't afford to feed them, and now his running victories have enabled him to reunite his family and give them a better life. Which just goes to prove that running miracles don't only happen in the movies.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Long and Winding Run

Our running schedule has us doing our "long runs" on Saturdays. This marathon preparation plan says it's okay to fudge a little during the week, but to absolutely not cheat on your long runs. Which, of course, is the one run you're absolutely dying to cheat on. At least I am. But yesterday's run got put off because it was our son's birthday and we do have priorities! Besides, making strawberry stuffed crepes for breakfast, giving him an awesome new guitar amp, and going to the local laser-tag facility to run and gun were so much more enjoyable! But this morning it was time to pay the piper. 16 miles of roadwork for me, 20 for Mark. (His schedule is different because his goals are much loftier than mine. Mine consist of finishing the marathon. That's all. Plenty lofty, if you ask me.) So we're back now and I'm starving--the nice thing about the long run being you can eat all day long. Now that's something to look forward to!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Keepin' it Real

The great thing about being a "famous author" is that nobody knows who you are. Your books can be read all around the globe, be turned into audio books and movies...and you can still go down to the grocery store in sweats, having a bad hair day (or, in my case, week) without the fear of being recognized. I have a friend who anchors the local news, and every time I'm with her there are prying eyes and whispers and autograph requests. She used to begin to explain to her fans who I was, but I said, No, please don't! I'm happy to be one of her fans; happy to be in the background. I have no interest in giving up my sweats.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Going Thataway

Before my first manuscript was accepted, I had no idea how much REwriting was involved in the writing of a book. Oh, I'd go through it a couple of times, but that was it. Then I'd send it off and hope that someone would like it enough to buy it. Through the process of whipping my first sold manuscript into shape, my editor taught me what it meant to rewrite. And re-rewrite. And re-re-re-re...write. Nowadays I rewrite a manuscript a good 20-30 times before I send it to my (same) editor, and after she gets done making notes about it, I go through it another five or six times. (I used to tell her it was like having your coach make you do sit-ups and push-ups right after you'd run a marathon.) I actually don't mind the rewriting process. The original writing/creation of a story is what's fun for me, but I now understand that the dozens of rewrites I do is what make it fun for my readers. The problem with the "grueling rewrite" that I've mentioned in previous posts is that it's not just a rewrite. It's more a re-do. A write-over. In the 17 books I've done with my editor, this has never happened before. It's like I set out for a long run (like I did on Saturday), took a wrong turn somewhere (like I did on Saturday) and wound up somewhere I didn't mean to go (like I did on Saturday). Now, I'm not saying I ran by the same stinky skunk (like I did on Saturday), and I'm not saying that the place I wound up wasn't one I liked (it was, I thought, a perfectly fine place to be). But my editor didn't agree. She said that I'd taken her someplace she hadn't expected to go, and she was not particularly liking the view. (Or, perhaps, she thought it just plain stank.) It did not, I promise you, stink. But she sent me back to the beginning of the journey and said, This time, dear, try going thataway. And so, attempting to keep an open mind about the benefits of a new course, off I went again from page one. It was a long journey, a painful journey, with lots of steep hills and switchbacks and twist-your-ankle ground squirrel holes. But tonight I finally reached my destination, and I must say that this is a much better place to be. It's sunnier. With bubbling springs of hope. And honestly, there are no skunks anywhere. So tomorrow I'll go back to the beginning and start re-running this new path. It won't take me as long; the hills won't seem as steep, and by now I'm familiar with the terrain. And by the time I've done this trail twenty or thirty times, those 225 pages will be quick and smooth, and I know I'll be a stronger, better writer for having done it.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

La La La!

Our jingle is up! If you want to hear it, go to the School Program page of the website and click on (you guessed it) JINGLE. Then get ready to sing along ('cause, as my son says, it's gonna stick in your head.) Exercise the body, exercise the mind, it feels good, guaranteed, So exercise the body, exercise the mind, and exercise the right to read... Now you may have things to do instead, Like watch TV Or just stay in bed! But get up, get out, get into a groove, You'll find there's nothing you can't do When you exercise the body, exercise the mind, it feels good, guaranteed So exercise the body, exercise the mind, and exercise the right to read!

A Map, A Song, and a Dead Skunk, too

It's been a couple of days since my last post. It's crazy around here! My kids have gotten way into music this past year, one playing guitar, the other drums. And since I (sorta) play guitar (loud, distorted, so you can't tell when I clam) and my husband plays drums (he's rock-solid and amazing), our younger son decided we should have a song-writing contest. Him and me against his dad and brother. First, I said, we've got to record the Exercise the Right to Read jingle. He groaned, but then totally got into it. It's just hand claps and singing, designed to be used by schools to get kids pumped about doing their reading and running. But in addition to deciding that the jingle was good and very catchy, my son also enjoyed making fun of the fact that I cannot clap and sing at the same time. (Not like the jingle requires, anyway.) Half a day later, we finally had the jingle finished... Now all I have to do is figure out how to upload it to the site! In other news, the progress map and the bookmark copy masters are done and on the site. Yay! Thanks to my amazing friend Jean, they came out great--kid-friendly and fun. Check out the School Program portion of the site to view/print them. And yesterday's run resulted in getting lost! It was such a long way home...and I never want to see that dead skunk I kept running past again! (Although I decided that, stench aside, skunks are very pretty, in a mink-stole-on-a-rat sort of way...) I'll let you know when the jingle's up. Meanwhile, off to do a few chores before finally rocking out with that drummer son of mine. He says he's got a great groove and some cool lyrics. Should be long as he doesn't expect me to clap and sing.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Changing My Mindset

I love being around positive people. It just lifts my whole being. I had a strategy session with a good friend of mine yesterday, during which I confessed to feeling overwhelmed by this fundraiser. She gave me some great advice: "You've got to give people the opportunity to help you." I'm so bad at that. I come from a family of do-it-yourselfers. Mark's family is like that, too. Our mindset is, if we can do it, we should do it. Also, we just don't want to impose. But what my friend pointed out to me is that people will want to help with this fundraiser if I give them the opportunity; that I've got to change my thinking from 'I'm asking for your help' to 'I'm offering you the opportunity to help.' Then she took out a pad of paper and made a list of all the things she was going to do to help. They were things I wouldn't have dreamed to ask for.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Newsweek Findings -- Exercise Your Body, Exercise Your Mind!

I've had this theory for years that the reduction in physical education hours/funding was contributing to an increase in the attention deficit (and, consequently, the medicating) of school-aged kids. I'm not a doctor, but from a logic standpoint it made total sense to me. Kids need to burn off energy! "Hanging out" at recess does not do the job. P.E. is just as vital to learning as good textbooks. So I was very excited to discover that this week's Newsweek magazine has in-depth coverage of this "Exercise and the Brain" correlation. Everyone in education should read this (March 26, 2007) issue. According to the Harvard Medical School findings, the connection between exercise and the brain goes way beyond behavioral benefits; it is key in the physiological development of a child's brain. (The magazine also covers the benefits of exercise on an adult brain. If you need motivation to get regular exercise, this'll do it!) Obviously having a healthy brain isn't all about exercise. Newsweek sums it up nicely, stating, "Kids have to hit the library as well as the gym." Right on!

Monday, April 2, 2007

Character Writing

There is no sleeping in around here. Even on the days when I don't have to get up, I still do. My biological clock is set to go off around 5:00 every morning, and even when I try to slap the mental snooze button, it's hopeless. I'm awake. Thinking. Fortunately, my husband has the same setting on his biological clock. Or maybe because his is set the way it is, mine's adapted. Regardless, we're up early, and the kids are, too. Our sophomore gets going at 6:10 in order to catch the 7:05 school bus. But this morning I didn't get up. I sat up, but that's not the same thing as rushing the kids off to school. This morning, since Mark had the day off, he brought me my laptop and said, "Stay here. I'll take care of the kids." My natural inclination was to get up and micromanage. It's a mom thing, as they say. But instead I resisted the urge, turned on my laptop and got busy on that grueling rewrite. The amazing thing is, it didn't feel grueling today. I wrote in bed until 1:00, and I wrote some funny stuff. (I love cracking myself up--sometimes I think I write so that I can have a good laugh. Not really, but it make the process so much more enjoyable.) I'm slowly turning a corner on this manuscript. I think my problem was, I wasn't letting my character have any fun. Now she is, so now I am. It's strange how fully I adopt my character's mood. I must be a 'character writer' (like a 'character actor'). If my character's distressed, I'm distressed. If they're happy, I'm happy. The problem being, a main character's issues aren't usually resolved until the end of the book. And since they're not happy until the end of the book I'm not either. And when a book is done, I do take a few celebratory days off, but then I become unsettled because my routine is broken. I start needing to write a new book. And of course once I do, the process starts all over again, with a character who needs to resolve a problem, which I adopt and stew over until the end of the book... I think that's why the funny moments are so important to me. They break it all up into manageable segments. They feel way better than reaching the end of a book. They're unexpected and uplifting and refreshing. And laughing just feels good. So I had a great day writing. It may even have been a great writing day.