one of those weeks when the tide is out

I have long used the expression “the tide is out” to describe those times when the dark stuff in life is stark and unavoidable. This week qualifies.

Early Sunday morning, my brother-in-law, Calvin Stevens Jr., died of a sudden heart attack. He was 45 years old. His son is on his way back from Iraq for the service. If you know my sister, Lisa, and you want to express your condolences, these details will help you.

And David Foster Wallace died last week and I can’t stop thinking about it. Many thanks to Sara Zarr for writing what I needed to read.

And a friend of my parents on died Tuesday night. While her death was neither sudden, nor tragic in the manner of Wallace’s, her death is a sad loss to her family and friends.

So, yeah. The tide is out.

edited to add Coleen Salley has died, too. Her friends will be holding a jazz funeral for her in New Orleans. That is how you summon the tide back to fullness with style.


My extended family is going through a rough time right now (not Mom – she’s fine), so posting will be sporadic this week.

I received a nice link from a teacher in IL who featured some classroom ideas for SPEAK on her blog.

Publicist Deborah Sloan has a few review copies of CHAINS available (scroll down to the Sept. 4th entry).

If you can’t score an early copy, you can read what professornana thinks of CHAINS, or what Alissa the Teen Services librarian has to say about it.

Oh, and Reading Rants weighs in with a CHAINS opinion, too.

CHAINS extras and genre-bending questions

My author copies of CHAINS arrived! Opening that box is sort of like being handed your new baby in the hospital. All you can do is gasp and coo and babble.

Of course, now I have to keep my very ill Chapter 15, she of the dripping nose and viral motivation infection, from infecting the new baby…

Theo the WebGod has been hard at work getting the website ready for the new arrival. Check out his handiwork by clicking on CHAINS. What do you think of the Teacher’s Guide and Bibliography?

A few more questions about genre-bending trickled in.

What’s your take on writers using different names for different genres?

I think it makes sense sometimes, especially if the author can develop a strong following under each name. I have a book idea that is very much removed from what I’ve done before, and there’s a chance I’d publish it under a different name, but I listen closely to what my agent and publishers had to say first.

Do you go through an agent for both publishers? The same agent? When pitching differently genred stories to an agent, will they facilitate dealing with two different publishers for one client?

I published my first seven books without an agent (including SPEAK and FEVER 1793). My agent is very happy to represent all of my work; she’s in it to help me build my career and she does a great job.

How does one decide which direction to go (especially if there are many interests)?

Write down all of your stories ideas on little slips of paper (one sentence per idea per slip of paper). Put all of the strips of paper in a bowl and mix them up. Do not look at them for a week. Then sit down with a piece of paper and pencil. As you pull out the story ideas, rate them 1 – 10 on a scale of how excited you feel when you consider the idea. Write the idea that excites you the most. And it should excite you because the writing sounds fun, not because you think it will be the next Harry Potter. You can’t control the market’s reaction, you can only control the writing.

Other questions?

Chapter 15 needs me

Chapter 15 is like a large toddler who is both teething and suffering a nasty stomach virus. And has the chicken pox. All at the same time.

I will be spending the day with Chapter 15, cleaning up her messes and sorting out her woes. If she’s in better shape tomorrow, then I will answer the really good questions about genre-switching that were asked in the Comments section yesterday.

Feel free to ask more.

Oh, dear. Chapter 15 just vomited tangled strands of unmotivated plot all over the carpet. The dog wants to lick it up.

Must run!


Here is a terrific questions from sboman:

I wanted to ask your opinion about a subject my LJ friends have brought up. You are the perfect person to answer. It was about writing in different genres and whether you think that hurts you with followers wanting more of the same or has helped reach new readers or whether you haven’t noticed anything at all.

Some of us have been given the impression by industry professionals that you need to brand yourself – find a schtick and stick with it. How do you feel? Have you thought of the risks in switching genres or do you think there’s no risk at all? Any publishing people try to give you their input on the direction they would like to see your writing take?

Thank you for asking. This question goes to the heart of the tension between art and the marketplace.

In an ideal world, we would write the stories in our hearts and they would connect with readers and there would be peace in the land and health insurance for all. We aren’t quite there yet.

If you want your writing income to pay your bills, then you need to understand the perspective of the sales and marketing departments of your publishers, and you really need to respect how hard their job is. (If you want to make a living from your writing, be sure to read my post about the cold financial realities of being an author.)

Let’s imagine you’ve written a blockbuster YA novel, kind of edgy, kind of fresh. The readers loved it. Bookstores are eager for your next piece. So you turn to your heart and you say, “Heart? It’s time to write another book. What edgy, fresh YA topic are we going to explore now?” And your heart says, “I’m not in the mood for YA right now, but I have a great historical fiction idea.” So you follow your heart and write for a couple of years and turn in the historical novel and what is going to be the reaction at your publishing house?

In all likelihood, there will be a deafening silence. Later there will be meetings and emails (that you will never see) in which people ask if you, the Author, have lost your mind. And there is a better than average chance that your book will be turned down. If they publish it, do not expect a ton of marketing money to be lavished on it.

Because selling books is hard. Very, very hard, and the profit margin is so slim, there is no room for error. I know some readers squirm when I bring up “profit margin” but the reality is that this is a business and without the profit margin, we’d just be photocopying our stories and giving them to friends for the holidays.

A sales rep has one minute – tops – to present your book to the buyer at the store. The bookseller has less than a minute to explain your book to a potential customer. If that customer loved your first book, they will eagerly reach for the new one. They might love it, too, but if it’s a radical departure in genre or tone from your first book, they will scratch their head. Or – worst case – they could throw the book at the wall in anger because you disappointed them. And they’ll never trust you again, and won’t buy any more of your books.

End of career.

Does this mean you are doomed to write one kind of book only? Of course not! But if you want to write in different genres, be aware that it is going to take your career a lot longer to get rolling, and yes, you will meet with resistance from your publishers because by asking them to embrace all of the facets of your writing career, you are asking the impossible.

Please note: I write in different genres. From July of 2008 to July of 2009, I am publishing six books in five genres:

July 2008 Independent Dames – non-fiction picture book about history
Oct 2008 Chains – middle grade historical fiction
March 2009 Wintergirls – edgy YA fiction
April 2009 – Vet Volunteers books 8 & 9 — reissues of a series that I wrote for a different publisher a while back – genre: series realistic fiction young readers
July 2009 – The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher – picture book (fun, not facts!)

How am I able to do this without driving my publishers crazy?

I work with different publishers.

Viking/Puffin is my YA home. They have done a terrific job establishing my presence as a YA author. Simon & Schuster is where my books based in history are published, and I’ve done a couple of fun picture books with them, too. I think it’s safe to say that my books have a consistent “brand” within each house, and that seems to be working.

It is interesting to note that the two streams of my writing: historical and YA, don’t necessarily feed off each other. I’ve met countless people who have read my YAs and Fever 1793 (my first historical) and never made the connection that the same author wrote all those books. Even though I use the same name.

So, to answer your questions:
1. It is certainly easier to stick with one kind of book.
2. There are risks involved in genre-switching. Your publisher could refuse the second kind of book, the sales reps and book sellers will be confused about how to promote your work, it will be harder for your career to gain traction.
3. You need to write the story in your heart. If you want to switch genres, go ahead. It worked for me…. though I admit, I think it has taken longer for my career to get rolling because of it.

Any questions, gentle readers? Thoughts?