Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Reviews: Love them, hate them, let the kids write them

I once received a review for a novel of mine called Wild Dog Summer, published by an educational publisher for a classroom novel study package.

“Flow-charted fiction.” That’s what the reviewer said, along with some other highly uncomplimentary thoughts on my writing ability, character development and general world view. (The words “earnest” and “contrived” float to the surface of my memory…)

It hurt to read this review. It hurt for all sorts of reasons:

I had been thinking of myself as a good – or at least a decent – writer. So, ouch. 

This review was published in a journal dedicated to children’s literature. It would be read by teachers and librarians – in other words, the gatekeepers responsible for choosing books to use with kids in their middle school Language Arts programs. I heard the sound of a door slamming shut.

I was horrified that someone saw my work – saw me – in this way. For weeks I couldn’t write. I doubted myself as a writer, which is a terrible thing for someone who has defined herself by being a writer her whole life. (Yes, that’s me, writing about myself in third person…)

Two things helped me recover my confidence.

First, my husband noticed that something was up, read the review when I finally confessed my distress about it, and said: “So? She didn’t like your book.”

In other words, so what? One person didn’t like it. Whatever.

And second, I had already received messages from teachers and students who had read the book and were enjoying it as part of their school Language Arts program. Those messages continued to arrive – enthusiastic and positive responses to my story and characters.

(I also did a bit of research on the reviewer and discovered that her children’s literature cred was lacking. This wasn’t a teacher, librarian or parent reviewing the book. This was a recent university grad who worked in media and produced a short audio comedy series making fun of “mini-van people.” Enough said.)

So, reviews.

When they’re good, we love them. When they’re bad, it’s a bit more complicated.

Reviews help to sell books, so publishers (and writers) need them. Publishers will rely on curated sources, with reviewers who have been vetted, who have some expertise, whose views are edited (hopefully) for accuracy and relevance.

That doesn’t mean the reviews are always going to be positive. My self-published YA novel The Toymaker’s Son was “recommended with reservations” by CM: Canadian Review of Materials, which is a bit like receiving a pat on the head from someone who won’t make eye contact with you.

But the online universe means anyone can be a reviewer (cough, Goodreads, cough). Bloggers, vloggers, personal websites. Reviews are everywhere.

So, I’m trying to keep it all in perspective and appreciate the reality that not everyone is going to like my book, my writing style or my characters (and let’s face it: to writers, our characters are like our children to us! Beloved!).

My job is to write, listen to my editor and, after publication, to my readers.

Which brings me to my final point.

As a writer of YA fiction, my favourite reviews (sometimes in the form of personal messages, classroom feedback activities, online comments) have come from the kids reading my books. Kids are honest, which means the feedback is not always positive, but I’m absolutely okay with that, because…

Who better to tell you if your story resonates with the book’s intended audience than the book’s intended audience?

(Related thought: Throughout my trying-to-get-published journey, I’ve wondered more than once whether publishers are publishing what the adults want the kids to read, or what kids want to read. Who drives the children’s publishing machine? Adult readers/buyers/sellers or kid readers?)

So here’s a call-out to the world of curated, edited review sites and publications: 

If you’re reviewing books for kids, why not ask kids to contribute?

How can writers, booksellers, teachers, librarians, parents and the young readers themselves find out if a book – a book aimed at young readers – actually appeals to kids? Let the kids tell us.

To conclude: Here's my favourite review of Skating Over Thin Ice, from Kids’ BookBuzz, written by Tatiana, age 15.

Thanks, Tatiana!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Do you have a publishing dream? Here's how mine went... (yes, it has a happy ending)

When I was preparing for the Breaking In Panel at CANSCAIP’s annual Packaging Your Imagination conference, I knew there was no way I’d be able to share my entire how-I-became-a-published-author story. 

Because, you know, it’s a long story.

So, I’m writing this a few days before the conference takes place. Here’s a look at what I hope turns up during the panel discussion but might not: the stuff that I’d really like to share with you writers out there who are trying to get through the door to publication.

I had a dream.

Yes, I was that kid who read voraciously. Yes, I was that kid who wrote all the time. Yes, Language Arts and English teachers loved me. Yes, I studied English Literature at university. Yes, I have a BA and an MA. But the most important thing about my youthful literary education is that my dream was always to be a published author, to see my book on the shelf of a bookstore. I bet this is a dream I share with all of you.

That folder in the front? PYI 1998. Yup. I've been
coming to this conference for 20 years, and this year,
I'm finally a presenter. What a thrill!

First submission

In 1983, I was out of grad school, in my first job, and knew it was time to get serious about completing and querying some of my writing projects (poetry, a contemporary novel, a children’s middle-grade novel).

The kids’ book, about a girl who wanted to play goal for her brother’s hockey team, was complete and, I felt, polished. So I researched publishers accepting manuscripts and sent it off.

A month later I got a reply: “We really like this story and are considering it for publication. We would like to have more readers on our editorial board look at it and we’ll be in touch.”

Wow! I thought. That was easy!

Two-and-a-half years later (after much back-and-forth to see if they were still interested; they were) the story was turned down.

In those two-and-a-half years, a young girl named Justine Blainey took the Toronto Minor Hockey Association to the Ontario Supreme Court to win the legal right for girls to play on boys’ hockey teams. She won. She took her case to the Supreme Court of Canada and won there, too. So now it was the law that girls could play on boys’ hockey teams.

In other words, my story was no longer timely, and it was rejected for publication.

What did I take from this experience?

1. Publishers are slow.

2. Timing is everything. And sometimes it’s out of your control. (Justine Blainey hadn’t hit the news when I wrote and submitted my story).

3. I must be doing something right, because they liked it and considered it for publication. So I should keep doing what I’m doing.

And that’s what I did.

It’s a long journey.

I kept writing my stories and sending them off.

To address the issue of slow publishers, I made sure I had lots of projects on the go, lots of queries out at different publishers, so I wasn’t sitting there waiting for one publisher, one project. I still got lots of rejections, but I felt productive and in charge of the querying process – which was nice, because so much of it is out of your control.

To address that lack of control – and the “timing is everything” issue – I made sure I was aware of publishers’ submission guidelines. I did lots of research, made phone calls and sent letters (yes, some of this was pre-email). I knew who was accepting YA fantasy and who wasn’t; who wanted middle-grade or early chapter books; whose submission period was January to June. And I followed those guidelines to the letter. I perfected my cover letter. I kept a log of my queries and submissions.

A few pages from my submission log. A lot of rejection there. Also a
lot of blank spaces where publishers never got back to me.
It's hard, just saying.

And I got lots of rejections. Lots.

Sometimes I got close: “These first three chapters are interesting and we would like to see the entire manuscript.”

Sometimes I got so close it was crushing: “We feel your manuscript has potential for publication, but I’m sorry, we just accepted another story about a girl and a dog.” Or, “This is a strong novel, but we are moving towards more urban settings in our YA fiction.”

Or my personal favourite: “This novel deserves to be published, just not by us right now.”

I have a folder full of rejections. An email archive, too. It’s pretty sad.

I was sad. Discouraged. But dammit – I had this dream…

Yeah. Okay. Thanks.

Not all bad – building on the successes

There were some successes in among all that rejection.

An educational publisher, Nelson Canada, accepted a couple of my manuscripts and turned them into novels for a school novel study program (CANSCAIP’s Sylvia McNicoll had some novels in this program, too).

I turned to freelancing and had reviews, articles and stories for kids published in magazines and newspapers. I did a lot of corporate writing and built up my editing skills. I became a college teacher and taught writing skills and business communications for 15 years at three difference colleges.

I did some self-publishing – one of the Nelson novels (when it went out of print, because teachers were still asking for it), a sequel, and a sports novel for a niche market.

I thought of myself as a writer – but, there was still this dream. A real book on a shelf in a bookstore…

What’s the point?

But the dream wasn’t coming true. I wrote the stories that just kept welling up out of me. Publishers kept saying “This is good, but…” “We really like this, but…” “This is a well-written novel, but…”

I mean, really, what’s the point any more? And add to that other things like job stresses, raising a family, Life.

I nearly gave up, so many times.

And then…

Fast forward to the spring of 2017. I’m querying a YA novel about a girl, a musical prodigy, named Imogen St. Pierre. It took me three years to write. I don’t have high hopes for it because, well, why would I? Rejections have already started to arrive.

But I love this story, this character. Writing her was the most satisfying, exciting, positive creative writing experience I’ve ever had. So even if Weird Girl (the working title) never sees the light of day, I consider it a win. Possibly the best writing I’ve ever done.

And then one day I get an email from Peter Carver at Red Deer Press: “I will be recommending to my publisher that we include it in our list as soon as possible. Thank you, again, for thinking of Red Deer for this remarkable story.”

Skating Over Thin Ice was published in June 2018.

Do the math. Yup. It took me 35 years – 1983 to 2018 – to “break in” and see my book on a shelf in a bookstore.

So if you learn anything from my story, let it be this:

Rejection is part of the process. Accept, learn from it, and move on.

Publishing is a business, and there’s only so much you can control.

Write the best story, your story, and keep working on your writing.

And most important of all, do not give up. Believe in yourself and your dream, and keep trying.

(I really, really hope it doesn’t take you 35 years, though…)

My rejections. Some of them, anyway...

Because if I had given up, my dream would never have come true: seeing my book on a shelf in a bookstore.

The Bookshelf, Guelph

Resources, suggestions, tips for breaking in:

1. Being a writer is a professional undertaking. So be a professional. Join a professional writing organization (such as CANSCAIP, Canadian Children’s Book Centre, Professional Writers Association of Canada…). Attend professional development sessions and conferences such as Packaging Your Imagination. Libraries and community groups, literary festivals all offer workshops. Be informed.

2. Enter contests. An internet search will bring you tons of suggestions – literary festivals, the CBC Literary Prizes, libraries, organizations. (And here’s a great story from author Lisa Dalrymple about how contests helped her break into publication). 

3. Connect with other writers on social media or in person. There’s probably a critique group on your area – or start one, if that’s your thing (it isn’t mine, but that’s just me). Make writerly friends in person or through social media. Don’t let it be a distraction, but be encouraged by being part of a community of writers. (I don’t know how I would have kept going if not for my writerly friends! You know who you are!)

4. All writing is grist to the mill. Find opportunities to build your writing cred. For example, does your local independent bookstore or library want book reviews for their newsletter or website? Explore freelance opportunities (PWAC is s great place to start for tips). 

4. Write your stories. Not stories to fit some market, or check a box on a publisher’s checklist. Write the stories that are in you. Published or not, you are a writer, and those are the stories that matter.

5. And finally, the most important thing to remember: don’t give up. 

Woozles Books in Halifax, N.S.