Tuesday, February 21, 2006

One of the toughest markets in the industry

Top 10 List: Why Kids' Bookselling Is Tough - 2/20/2006 - Publishers Weekly

I lost count long ago the number of times that people have said to me, "Oh, you write for children? I've always thought that would be fun to do!" Short deadlines, tight word counts, cranky editors, shrinking market -- yeah, loads of fun.

Writers, of course, write what they love to read, and I do like children's literature, well enough to buy it and read it and keep on buying and reading it even though my son outgrew picture books over a decade ago.

However, one has to be realistic about the market. Books are just one form of entertainment in a child's world that is filled with many more dazzling choices than ever before. Kids seem to arrive in the world these days with their eyes glued to an LCD screen, a cell phone in one hand, and a game controller in the other. Where do books fit in? Bookish parents may instill the love of literature in their kids, but for kids whose tiny vocabularies are compiled entirely from computer games, a medium even more limiting than television, is there any hope that a love of reading will develop?

Kids are only one factor in shaping the children's book market. As the article above spells out, the market is busy shaping itself in the image if Big, Big Business. Chain stores dominate, and what the chain stores don't order soon disappears from publishers' catalogs, even if the independents would like to carry some of the quirkier titles. Some distributors are seeking exclusive contracts with schools, shutting out publishers that they don't carry. Discount stores put the squeeze on small bookstores when they can sell popular books for prices lower than the bookstores pay for wholesale. And with the resurgence of series in the children's market, what is there to tempt a child who is bored with the popular series?

It's a tough market. The realities of business are sometimes nearly enough to make writers forget why they're even trying -- until you remember your favorite picture books, or the looks of your own child's face lit up with pride at reading a book alone for the first time. That's why we keep on toughing it out.

Lucretia Borgia 'n me

When the nasty gastroenteric invader I wrote about in the last post refused to budge, even when assaulted by a tiny bland diet and regular salvos of Pepto-Bismol (O sweet yet odious pink goo, so gagging in the throat, so soothing on the innards), I betook myself to the doctor. An initial blood test revealed nothing unusual, suggesting merely an ugly virus, but a few more tests (on blood and... the obvious) are underway in case something more exotic is lurking within. In the meantime, the doctor sent me off with a prescription to calm the inner storms.

I had it filled immediately, and the pharmacist did the usual counsel. "It is a bit strong," he warned, saying that some people became a bit drowsy when taking it. Then he added in a hushed, by-the-way voice, "It is a controlled substance."

Oh. Spiffy. Exiting the pharmacy, wondering about the street value of my prescription, I expected the magical medicine to be an opiate of some sort. The pharmacist hadn't given a specific name, and I knew they'd been used often in the past for their constipating effect. I think at some point my son, as a very small child, had taken some such potion.

Then I read the label: "Diphenoxylate/Atropine."


The botanically-trained regions of my brain sat up, alert. Atropine. Vegetable alkaloid. Belladonna. Deadly nightshade. Toxic.

Oh, my.

I felt like Lucretia Borgia, walking around clutching my vial of vegetable poison.

The tiny white pills, each smaller than a paper match head, did the trick, quieting the smooth muscle contractions (as one web page on the substance said it would) and stopping the "intestinal distress" dead in its tracks after the third dose.

Because the other ingredient is a narcotic, the pills have a tiny "wheee" effect. Not enough to seriously impair, but enough that one doesn't want to drive a car an hour or so after taking a dose.

The overdue manuscript is done and submitted. The next book in the series is underway. The revisions of the book edited by committee will get done when they get done. And dissertation research continues.

I may have lost my three-day weekend, but life goes on.

So long as Lucretia doesn't throw anything stronger my way.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Of flu and grumbling guts

Thursday night I thought I was shivering because my office was so friggin' cold (half the time the heaters are on and it's too hot, the other half the heaters are off and all the heat goes right out the uninsulated windows). But when I woke up Friday morning with a temperature of 101.4, I knew it wasn't just the temperature that was giving me the shakes and chills.

I had a class to teach in the morning, and it was too late to try to get someone to cover for me, so I went in, gave the cherubs the basics of DNA, had them do a couple of practice worksheets, and then handed them a computer activity to complete. As soon as class was out I headed home, a miserable hour's drive with my insides romping about, thinking maybe they'd like to be my outsides for a while. Took a hot bath, tucked myself into bed sometime around 1:00, shut the door to keep the kitties out, and stayed put, seeing as how by then my temperature had soared to 102.1. The family members were on their own for dinner. I didn't move out of bed except to visit the porcelain throne until this morning.

Now, with a book deadline past and me still trying to finish the thing -- it's a stinker of a book to write, because the topic they gave me was too broad -- the flu or whatever this vile virus is was the last thing I needed. I will prop myself up on the couch and do what I can to finish the thing.

I'd already been thinking, "I'm sick of this book!" I didn't expect the cosmos to take me so literally.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Ten Basic Rules

Whatever: Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don't Want to Work at Writing

I stumbled across this today. One can fairly hear the smack as the author writes with face-slapping force about the rules that ought to govern daily writing. The rules are simple and common-sense enough, yet one sees them violated daily on message boards and blogs. People are used to forgiving bad writing on message boards -- except, perhaps, boards for writers where one might expect the participants to be able to write -- but since an unreadable blog by the very definition is not going to get read, bloggers may want to take note.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The hazards of editing by committee

Twitchy. That's how I'm feeling. Twitchy and pissed off. Next time I accept a nonfiction book assignment, I'll make a point of making sure that the book is to be edited by one editor to whom I am accountable, not a committee.

Now, because I'd still like to be a working writer and still get assignments, let's go all pseudonymous. Let's say it was Packager A who called me up one day and offered an assignment to contribute to Publisher XYZ's new children's nonfiction series. The subject was -- let's call it transportation. No problem I said. I've written on the subject before. I'll take two.

I dug out old notes and looked up new material. Because the series was new, there were no existing books to look at as models, so I requested a copy of the outline of another writer in the series whose outline was due before mine, to assure series consistency. It's highly unfun to get an outline back and find, "Don't like this, make it more like Author B's outline," when you've never seen Author B's outline. So after modeling my two after Author B's outline, I submitted them to Packager A.


Hell, no.

First problem: XYZ's editors, in an, "Oh, didn't you know?" statement, said that they wanted stories about the people, not just the vehicles. "Who are the people operating the vehicles?" they asked. "What are they doing? What kind of training do they get?"

Back to the keyboard, this time for a challenge. I sifted through article databases and put the word out on message boards to find people to interview. It's like gleaning wheat from a field after the combined, other gleaners, and an army of mice have been through, but I finally find a handful of stories. I revise the outlines, send them back, and they're approved by the people at XYZ, with the caveat that I make the stories exciting. "Fill this out," one says. "This is boring the way it's written."

It's an outline, for pity's sake.

All right, so with outline approved, I hack away at the manuscript. It's a short book, pitched for kids, so every word has to count. I write, rewrite, edit, and finally get it off just in time for the deadline. And that was that?

Hell, no.

See, I'm used to working for publishers who, after approving the outline, look over the manuscript, ask for a round of edits, and then turn their team of editors loose on the manuscript to make it look like the other books in the series. I've even written for Publisher XYZ before, and that was my experience.

Not this time.

The manuscript came back bleeding. Fine, I can deal with that on the inital edit. This is where you learn the difference between what the editors asked for and what they really wanted. But this manuscript had been hacked and slashed by an entire committee, and half of the comments completely conflicted with the other half. Orders were to cut 2000 words or so out of the manuscript that was under 6000 words to begin with, yet every paragraph had "expand this" and "can you elaborate on that?" in it. Cut, but expand. Trim, but tell us more.

I want to write. I want to keep getting assignments. So I bit back any commentary and took the draft with a smile. I worked. I cut. I trimmed. I added. I hacked out entire sections. I reluctantly removed a sidebar about careers for women in this field of transporation when a sensitive male editor squealed, "Let's not make this political without presenting the other side!" Women in the field -- there's another side?

This wasn't the end of it, either. This went on for three rounds before they finally accepted the manuscript. Hell, this was a work for hire job. They squeezed me for every penny of value that they paid, and then some, until I was ready to scream to the committee at XYZ, "Just write your own damn book if you know so much about it!" But of course, I didn't. Not within earshot, anyway. This is my bread and butter writing, and it's best just to smile and say, "Sure, I can do that. When do you need it by?"

And now the second book is back for its second go-around. It's already been hacked by the committee once. This time we're dealing with comments from an editor who worked in this area of transporation. He's been busy "correcting" facts and figures that came directly from official industry factsheets, substituting his own from some damn Bob's Website kind of source. He's also tweaked that his own particular branch of the industry isn't represented in the book. Well, finding all those stories was no easy task. If Mr. Expert has some stories I can use, I'll look at them, but his most helpful comment was a listing of vehicles that I could write about. With no stories to go with them, without the people factor that his own publisher is asking for, and with the edits due in a week, I'm not going to cut and rewrite an entire chapter. If Mr. Expert wants a chapter on his industry, he's welcome to find the stories himself and write his own damn chapter.

But of course I won't say it quite like that. I still need the work.

Monday, February 13, 2006

An open letter to Dick Cheney

Dear Mr. Vice President:

The quail is the one with feathers.

Hope this helps.

Love 'n kisses,

Sleep Deprivation

It's my own fault, really. Sitting up too late at night, after I've done my writing for the evening, reading discussion boards and blogs. You'd think I'd known better than to go to bed at 11:30 when I have to get up at 5:30 the next morning. The cats romping around didn't help, either, nor did the DH's snoring. Wear earplugs. Sure. Earplugs don't cut out those bass rumbles. Nor does a pillow over one's head. Only a sharp poke and a, "Roll over!" is effective -- for a while.

So today I'm running on something less than six hours of sleep. If I were in the military, where they claim that sleep is overrated, I'd be praised. But today's Olympic athletes know something that the military would like very much to ignore: no one can perform at their peak when they are sleep deprived.

Athletes, who will do anything to squeeze out that extra edge, to be just a fraction of a second faster than their competitors, know the value of sleep. They know from hard experience that if they don't get enough quality sleep, their performance is affected.

Nor can one "get used to" shorter hours of sleep. We think we can. We get up an hour earlier, or sit up an hour later, and function on six or seven hours of sleep. The fact that we can function at all fools us into thinking that we're doing okay, that we've adjusted to less sleep. But a sleep-deprived brain is no qualified judge of our own performance. Objective tests show that when people get less than a full 8-9 hours of sleep, their performance goes down. Students who pull all-nighters frequently think they're getting more work done, when in fact the quality of their work declines, and it takes them longer to get the same amount of work done because they can't concentrate as well as someone who is properly rested. Learning is affected, too, because sleep has been shown, in scientific studies, to be instrumental in fixing learned material into our brains.

Folklore and military machismo are no places to learn the facts about sleep and human physiology. Instead, turn to Stanley Coren's Sleep
, a look into the scientific study of sleep. Coren describes his own ill-fated attempt to get along with less sleep, and discovered, through his journals, that when he stole a few hours of sleep from each night in an attempt to use those hours for greater productivity, his real productivity actually dropped. He got far more done when he was well rested, in much less time.

Hence sleep deprivation need not and should not be part of the writer's life. When the blank page mocks us, when we sit up and pound our foreheads for ideas, when our writing seems trite, it may not be writer's block. It may be sleep deprivation.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Introducing Writerious

I am Writerious, and this is my blog. Here I will explore the mysteries of the writing life. I'm a writer and a voracious reader. I'll be writing about my own writing experiences, struggles with editors, the thrill of publication and the sting of rejection. I'll also review the books I'm reading, an eclectic assortment of whatever turns me on at the moment, be novels, essays, or books on writing.

If any of my readers are published authors, I'll be happy to review your works. Send them in a self-addressed stamped mailer if you need them back. I review only books that are published by traditional publishers, or that are truly self-published (that is, bear the imprint of your own one-writer publishing company). I do not review books that bear the imprint of any of the vanity publishers: AuthorHouse, Dorrance, XLibris, etc. If you paid to have it published and it bears the name of some company other than your own, and if you did not buy the ISBN from Bowker's directly, it's vanity published.

Subsequent posts will be, I hope, more interesting than this one. Stay tuned.