Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One Year Ago Today

One year ago today I was waiting for the release of my book Illegally Blonde. I wrote a blog post on the day before the release where I wrote these words

... for now I am taking a deep breath, being a bit more reflective of what this not insignificant event means and what it might - or might not - change in my life. It may not change anything in my future at all, really. But even if it doesn't I know what has led up to it has already changed me. Writing and publishing a book has opened my life up in so many different ways. I've met so many new and interesting people I'd never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. I'm already changed, I hope, for the better. And because of that, I think I owe it to myself to reflect a little this week. To dream a little bit about the future but mostly, to appreciate my incredible good fortune on having gotten this far and understanding how special this moment really is. The past informs our future and while we can't live in it we must surely appreciate what has happened to us to get us here and to keep us going in the future. So tomorrow, when the book is officially 'out' I may just be sitting quietly at home, not doing anything much beyond spending time with my kids and husband and thinking to myself: Nelsa, you're a very, very lucky girl.

So then I was looking to the future and now I'm looking into the past and, let me tell you, it's a very interesting view. Why?

Because one year ago today I had no clue that right after my book was released my mom would be diagnosed with breast cancer. I had no idea that the stress and anxiety of planning and having a book launch would pale into insignificance when measured against the stress and anxiety about to invade my personal life for the next nine months. It was a surreal summer of celebrating a huge achievement in my writing life and also waiting with dread to hear whether my mom's cancer had spread. On one day I'd find my book was a recommended read in the Canadian Children's Book News magazine summer issue and the next day I'd be sitting in a waiting room waiting for my mom's surgery to be over. To say I was feeling exceptionally strung out would be a major understatement. Then add to that minor details like moving out of our home and my baby girl leaving for university and it's no wonder that my writing last year became something like the runt in a litter of puppies. There and still important but unfortunately neglected due to all the other stronger pups vying for the mother's limited attention.

But now, looking back on that surreal year, I think all that happened because the universe was trying to tell me that for every goal that you set for yourself and that you believe is the reason behind your life here on earth, for every mountain you think you need to climb, you need to remember that no goal is so important that it overshadows all the other stuff happening in your life. So, to all my fellow writers out there, indulge me a bit in my retrospective look back on a most momentous year and forgive me for giving some unasked for and maybe un-needed advice in the next few sentences. But if you can, please, please always remember this:

Your LIFE is about more than getting a book published. Your LIFE is joy, trauma, headaches, laughter, work, friendships, children, parents, school, vacation, bills, watching TV, walking the dog, cooking, cleaning, reading with your kid, picking out shoes with your daughters, crying, hugging your husband/boyfriend, taking a nap, going to every freaking cold hockey arena in the city to watch your kid play a game you still don't quite understand, taking your child to the dentist/doctor/optometrist, having lunch/dinner with a girlfriend, watching your mother cry with worry, sending texts to your brother, screaming in your car, singing Kanye West songs with your kids, painting a shed, writing in your journal, doing laundry, blubbering at Toy Story 3, going to the hairdresser, venting with a friend, having a glass of wine (or two), looking up at the sky and thanking God your mother is cancer free now.

So, yes, I achieved one goal by getting my book published. Yes, I'm very proud of that. But I'd throw it away in a second if I could have prevented my mom from having to go through her cancer scare last year. She made it through. I still have both my parents. I have my children and husband with me. What have I learned in the year since I became a published author?

I'm still one very, very lucky girl.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Which Influences a Teen Reader More: Title, Cover or Back Cover Blurb?

Last week on Twitter there was a very interesting discussion on #yalitchat about what draws a teen to pick up a book from a shelf. There was general consensus that the biggest influencer on teen reading was word of mouth. Of course teens listen and watch what their friends are reading - just like adults do. Reviews don't seem to be as big an influencer (whereas that enters into adult book choices much more. Not saying they don't help make a decision but I'm talking more about impulse buys.

My personal belief is that Covers and Titles are the biggest influencers for teens. As I have my very own little test group at home (i.e. a teen daughter) I thought I'd find out straight from the horse's mouth what influences her to get a book (forgive me for comparing my DD to a horse - she looks nothing like a horse. She's quite lovely actually. Not that horses aren't lovely too. And where did that weird saying come from anyway? Must research and do a blog post about weird sayings another time. Sorry. I digress.)So the next time Daughter Two and I were in a bookstore and she was picking up a couple of books for her collection I asked her why she chose those particular books.

One book, The Clearing by Heather Davis, she said she picked up first for the pretty colour of the green on the cover (she's into colour choices now since she has to pick one for her room walls) and that it drew her eye. The title was interesting (what happened in The Clearing?) and then the back cover blurb intrigued her because it was a bit of a time travel love story. So all three of these things drew her in but the most prominent was the cover.

The second book she got was Looking for Alaska by John Green. This was strictly a choice based on a friend of hers having read it and recommending it.

The third book was Whip It by Shauna Cross. Again the image on the cover drew her in but then she remembered that a movie was made of it and she heard the movie was good so she wanted to see what the book was like.

I also remember when I brought home Across the Universe by Beth Revis (which I purchased because of all the positive reviews I'd been reading) and Daughter Two's reaction was "Oh, I wanted to check that one out because the cover was so pretty."

Totally unscientific but it supported my belief that Covers are probably one of the biggest influencers for a teen who doesn't have a preconceived notion of what she/he wants to read when she walks into a book store. That cover may hook them but the back cover blurb might keep them hooked. Then they might check out the first page or two (at least that's what I've always counselled my kids to do if they're about to spend some hard earned cash on a book). I don't always check out the first page if a book has received fantabulous reviews but if I know nothing of the book besides what's written on the back or inside flap then I will check out the writing.

But what about the title, you ask? I always thought it was one of the things that hooked a potential teen reader more than anything. I still believe that though I have no scientific proof (or unscientific because Daughter Two only peripherally acknowledged that a title helped her in selecting her books). I know ILLEGALLY BLONDE was a title that got attention from agents and editors but have no idea if it hooks a teen reader. I do think the cover draws the eye and am hopeful that a teen will pick it up because of that and read the back cover blurb etc.

I know publishers spend a lot of time and money on getting the right cover so there must be more scientific data that confirms all the expense that goes into either getting the right stock photography, or hiring an artist or photographer to create original artwork. I wonder also, with the proliferation of e-books whether the same sensibilities will happen when browsing through e-books? My brother, not a teen mind you, but an avid iPad book user says his main determinant for buying an ebook now is the free chapter download and not cover or blurb. So the first chapter will become even more important than it already is I guess. But will teens buy e-books in the same way? Or will they browse through the covers and download the most evocative covers for them?

What do you think? Covers, title, blurb or all three?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Hit Book Series - Is the World Your Oyster or are you Pigeon-holed?

I just read this article about Jeff Kinney and his musings on life and writing with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise going stronger than ever. He describes the surreal moment of seeing his main character Greg Heffley as a giant helium balloon floating over him in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and he mused

"That was a real moment of joy, along with a feeling of ‘It can’t possibly get any bigger than this.’"

He's working on the sixth Wimpy Kid book now, which by any stretch of the imagination is a wonderful, every-writer-wants-this-kind-of-success, story. And yet, Mr. Kinney said he'd also like to write a non-Greg sitcome and feature film. "“I don’t want Wimpy Kid to be my one thing.”

Which brings up an interesting question: Does a mega successful series mean it will be harder or easier to do something else? Will you be pigeon-holed for life? And always found wanting?

Of course not, you say. There are many examples of writers writing other things beyond their successful series or novels. But what are the odds that the next thing you write would be just as successful as that hit series? The expectations from readers are huge. Writing that Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games or, the mother of all hit series, Harry Potter, is like catching lightning in a bottle - so rare, so once in a lifetime, that writing two hit book series is a rare, rare beast. But who cares, you say? That author got five, six or seven books out of this lightning. Years of being a successful writer. Mega bucks. Mega fame. Complete nirvana. And yet…

Would that kind of fame and success be stifling creatively? I mean we all know what happened to Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird) right? And that was just one book that did it to her. Having a series success, a series success that builds with each book mind you, that has to be even more stifling and stress-inducing. You've spent years only writing about these characters, this one world, questions must enter the authors mind when the series is over like: Will I ever be able to write another story? Will it ever be as big as the one before? Will anyone accept another character's world as they did the first one?

I know how hard it is to emerge from even one story and then start another so I can't imagine spending YEARS writing about the same characters and then, all of a sudden, switching to completely different ones. The worry about repeating things/character types because they've become so ingrained in your writing repertoire must always be lurking at the back of the author's mind. I know the last time I read an interview with J.K. Rowling she was writing an adult crime/mystery novel I think. Maybe the answer is to go off with a completely different genre like she's doing and keep challenging yourself as an artist by trying new and different things. But I haven't heard anything about a new J.K. Rowling book coming out. And Stephanie Myers seems to have become a recluse. Hmmm.

I guess what's important to remember is, as Mr. Kinney said, as long as what you wrote before doesn't become your 'one' thing, you can appreciate that success and try not to let it defeat you, then keep creating more 'things'. And maybe keep your perspective by not expecting the next thing to be a big thing.

What do you think? Would writing a hit series be the be and end all for you? Or just the end?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Even Tim Burton Got Rejected

I just came back from a little March Break excursion with the kids. We went to see the Tim Burton exhibit, curated by MoMA, and being shown at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. If any of you have a chance to see this should the exhibit travel to your city I highly recommend it. The drawings, paintings and models are so weirdly beautiful you can't help but wonder how this nice suburban California boy came up with such dark, twisted fantasies. There are also props from his movies - my favourite one was the Edward Scissorhands black, vinyl suit. Johnny Depp's skin touched that suit people. That alone is worth the price of admission.

But what really got me was some of the memorabilia from Tim Burton's younger days. In particular, there was a handwritten submission letter from the young, teenager Burton to Walt Disney books attaching an illustrated story (The Big Zlig ?? I think that was the title). Even then you could see the talent he had as an artist. As a writer who's had her fair share of rejection letters I was curious to see what the editor at Walt Disney books had said. It was what you call a 'good' rejection. Back when editors had more time than they do now, I think because it was a good two paragraph critique pointing out that he enjoyed reading the story (apart from some grammatical issues :)
but that it sounded a bit too much like Dr. Suess. What he did spend time praising was Burton's art, how he could see even with the 'rudimentary' material Burton had to work with his artwork showed talent. He thanked him for submitting and encouraged him to continue pursuing his artwork.

First of all, what I thought was sweet was the kindness this editor showed a young, naive artist. Back then, with no email, the man had to write out his thoughts in long-hand and get a secretary to type it out then mail it. I mean, it took effort. He could have just sent him a form reject but he didn't. Secondly, I was surprised that Tim Burton kept all these old pictures, doodles, artwork from his teen years but I wasn't surprised he kept that rejection letter. Even then he must have known how special it was and hopefully he recognized that the editor saw he had talent. That encouragement must have meant the world to him. Maybe it kept him going when he started to doubt himself a little. And thank God he did. Who knows what he might have done if he'd gotten a curt, dismissive letter that shattered his confidence? I like to think Mr. Burton is a very confident man - now. But when you're a 17 year old kid, probably feeling slightly freakish because, let's face it, what came out of that boys head was a bit freakish, that letter VALIDATED him. And when we're so hard on ourselves to hear someone offer some praise, some encouragement, that is a long, cold drink of water in a baking desert.

Here's hoping that many of you have or will receive an "encouraging" rejection. It can keep an artist going for a long, long time.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Difference Between Commitment and Interest

I love stumbling upon articles in the paper about people who are changing their lives or are inspiring others in some way by the philosophy with which they live. They can be business people, teachers, office workers, stay at home moms or dads, whatever it is they've chosen to do they all have that special something that has driven them forward and continued to drive them forward towards success.

Today I read about a woman called Jen Hamel. She used to be a stay at home mom who one day saw a picture of herself from a family reunion and couldn't recognize herself. She'd gained weight. A lot of weight. She recalls "I saw those pictures and thought, 'Oh my gosh, where have I gone?" That moment drove her to exercise but not just any exercise it was something called Turbo Jam and from the moment she started that DVD exercise program she didn't quit. In a little over a year she lost 130 pounds and has kept it off. She's now a certified fitness trainer, nutritionist and owner of her own fitness company. What I really loved about this article are the following quotes outlining Jen's philosophy:

"There's a difference between interest and commitment. When you're interested in doing something, you do it only when it's convenient. When you're committed to something, you accept no excuses; only results."


"When we are motivated by goals that have deep meaning, by dreams that need completion, by pure love that needs expressing, then we truly live life."

Truly, a philosophy that is inspirational.

I've met many writers who are definitely committed (and some of us should be committed! :)) because of the consistent/persistent belief that the only way forward is by getting that result whatever you decide that result is. Whether it's getting published, finding an agent, finishing the book, only commitment will get you that result. Lots of people start things but, like many dieters (and I'm one of those) if you only have a peripheral interest in losing that extra ten pounds no amount of calorie reduction is going to work for you. You have to do more, do it often, do it consistently and, most importantly, DO IT FOR AS LONG AS IT TAKES AND THEN KEEP ON DOING IT.

Writing doesn't end when you've finished the first book. It doesn't end when you've got the agent and it certainly doesn't or shouldn't end when you've got a book contract.

So. Commitment or Interest. Which one do you have?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Power of the Outline

I've blogged about my writing process before (see this blog post)and you can see that I'm part pantser and part plotter. Usually I start with a back cover blurb one page synopsis thingy, I fly through my beginning, get lost in the murky middle, stop for a while, go back, can see my ending and six months later I usually have a book. However, this wip has been nothing if not different.

Everything started off pretty normally. I had a great idea, started off running, as per usual got lost in the middle, stopped, went back but this time I re-wrote (and re-wrote) the beginning, continued to struggle through the middle but forced my way through (it still needs a serious re-write) and for whatever reason (maybe because I didn't want to struggle so much anymore) as I hit the last third of the book, I decided to write an outline that would get me to the end. But not a short, vague outline. I'm talking about a scene by scene, chapter by chapter outline. How did that work out you ask?

Holy Mary Mother of Writers. Why had I never done this before?

I had characters with a purpose, where an action led directly and purposefully toward another action. Things I'd brought in at the beginning were pulled into the lead up to the climax so I now knew why I'd put them in the beginning in the first place. Everytime I stumbled now, I didn't need to angst. I could just flip back to my outline and remind myself of where I was, what my characters were supposed to be doing and, most importantly, where they were supposed to be going and why. I could see my finish! Heck, I could count the number of steps to get me there! No wonder plotters love their system. It's a great system.

But what of my old process? Will I ever outline that murky middle? Well, of course, you say. Didn't you just prove that outlining solves all writers problems? Ummm. Maybe. But you see, I outlined the last third of my book. I was almost done. If I'd outlined the whole thing right from the get go, knowing me, I'd be sick of the book. My scene by scene outlines are detailed things, people. I think I could only do that for the last ten chapters because I was so close to finishing already. Outlining 30 chapters or more?? No.

However, maybe for the next wip I'll outline the murky middle and then stumble through to the end with no outline. I can't just stop being a part pantser just like that!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Thoughts and Feelings on Becoming a Sophmore Author

I haven't posted much lately about my publishing journey and 'the trying to figure it all out' part (supposedly the purpose of this blog) and I feel a little guilty about that. But since this darn journey is so long and filled with so many hours of sitting by a roadside and waiting for something to happen it doesn't allow for that many scintillating and/or illuminating posts. However, as most of you heard or read about last week, I do finally have some news: my second book titled THE BREAK sold to Great Plains Teen Fiction for publication in Spring 2012!

Here's the PM announcement:
Nelsa Roberto's THE BREAK, in which a teenager is left alone during Spring Break to watch over her beloved, and increasingly forgetful, grandmother and will do anything to stop her from being sent to a retirement home, to Gregg Shilliday and Anita Daher at Great Plains Teen, for publication in Spring 2012, by Kris Rothstein at Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency. kris@swayzeagency.com

And the longer blurb found on my agency's website:

The Break. When Abby Lambert’s parents leave for an emergency Doctors Without Borders mission she knows she’ll have to give up her long-anticipated March Break ski trip with her friends to watch over her grandmother (Nona) Lucia. She doesn’t like it but if she doesn’t stay home she fears her mother will finally commit Nona to the Sunny Haven Community Retirement Home and Abby has no intention of Nona ever leaving her. So begins the craziest week of Abby’s life. She somehow agrees to help out at the very place she’s been trying to avoid – Sunny Haven. And to make her life even more stressful, she has to deal with Kyle DiLuca – the stuck up nephew of Sunny Haven’s owner. But when Nona disappears on a bitter winter night Abby discovers that assumptions aren’t always facts and intentions are only as good as what you can deliver on. Rights Sold: Great Plains Teen, Canada, for spring 2012.

So beyond being obviously thrilled that THE BREAK will be published (I truly do adore this story and the characters so much) what am I feeling about no longer being a debut (newbie) author?

Well, the most overwhelming feeling is one of GRATITUDE. I'm so grateful that Great Plains Teen and my awesome editor, Anita Daher, are behind this story and feel as passionately about it as I do. There is never a guarantee that the next book you write will be received with any enthusiasm. It's all a crap shoot, as we know. To receive the validation that people whom you respect and who know this business and see so many stories believe this one is worthwhile enough to spend their time, effort and money on is very humbling.

Gratitude is closely followed by RELIEF.

Yup, I'm relieved that I'll be published again. I have many stories inside me. I know not all of them will be published but I always have hope that the one I'm writing will be 'it'. But I'm also aware of how very, very hard it is to keep writing in the face of so many amazing books and so many talented writers out there. But as a beginning writer what I have learned is that you need to tune out a little bit of that overwhelming noise that is the publishing world. Keeping the focus on writing stories that you care about is the best thing you can do in trying to get (and keep getting) published. My personal formula for getting published (Passion + Persistence = Published) can be easily applied to Staying Published. There may be months or, more likely, years between books but all you can do is keep writing and keep that passion for writing alive.

The third thing I'm feeling is ANXIETY.

Unfortunately, this feeling doesn't stop the second time around. The excitement of knowing your words will see the light of day is always (for me, anyway) quickly followed by it's ugly sister: anxiety. The sophmore effort has a little more anxiety oomph for me as it has those extra thoughts layered in about trying to do better than your first effort. Why even bother writing if you don't learn from your past mistakes and make your next effort better? Then you start to worry are you repeating yourself? You want to keep the style and your voice consistent so that when someone picks up your books they feel like they are part of a family but, at the same time, you want to stretch and grow as a writer, even if only a little bit. Gah. I know, I know. Just enjoy the fact that it's being published, Nelsa. Sheesh.

I really liken this sophmore experience to being a sophmore in high school. You've gotten over the huge thrill and fear of starting your first year. You've bumped along, made some new friends, made some mistakes but hopefully haven't screwed up too much as you try and navigate the alien landscape before you. Now, in your second year, you kind of know what to avoid, who to trust, you don't get lost as much but there's still so much to learn, still so many things that you haven't experienced yet. It is still a long journey ahead (and you may never graduate!) but, as the old Beatles song goes: "I'll get by with a little help from my friends".

So thanks for listening to my thoughts and, as long as I keep writing, hopefully the journey will continue.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"I Vant to be Alone" - at least sometimes...

I grew up with huge swatches of time when I was, for the most part, alone. Parents out working on the farm, older brother away at school so I got used to quiet time with my books or my TV shows. Don't get me wrong - I wasn't abandoned! One of my parents was always around outside, a shout away, so it's not like Children's Aid needed to be called or anything but there were definitely hours that went by when I didn't need to speak to a living soul. And you know what? I really kinda liked it. Hence my Marlena Dietrich quote and picture on this post. Remember as well that alone is not lonely. Not by a long shot.

Now, with the life I lead as a working mom, alone doesn't happen so much. Maybe I'll get a half-hour in the car on the way to do the groceries if I'm lucky. But there's always that pesky cell phone that I feel guilty about turning off should somebody need to get hold of me. But that's not really alone. I can be alone in a room somewhere in the house but with other people yakking or squabbling with each other a wall away from me that's not so much being alone as 'hiding'.

What I crave is real alone time. I'm talking like an entire afternoon when no one is in the house, not even the dog. I don't have to be doing anything special. It could be an afternoon of laundry, I don't care. But that silence, that blessed quiet, when you know there isn't anything that will interrupt your thoughts or create stress, when you can revel in the peace that silence brings. Oh, my. That is gold to me, people.

What about you guys? Does being alone make you twitchy or does it rejuvenate your tired, over-stimulated soul?