25 random… one day late

Yes, it’s a Facebook meme, but I feed my LJ to my Facebook, so this is called efficient blogging.

1. I am too busy for this meme.
2. – 25. See above.

Honest – I’ll try it again in the summer. Everything that came to mind to write in the meme had to do with feeling overwhelmed or not having enough time or some other whiney crap that nobody wants to read.

For me this is the best of times, mostly, and a little of the worst of times. Obviously, I’m enjoying (well, basking in) all the wonderful attention that my work has recently received.

Interjected note for those of you seeking to break into writing: I started writing for kids on September 7, 1992. First picture book was published in 1996. First novel SPEAK, published 1999. So it’s taken me 17 years to get here. Be patient and keep working!

People have been very kind about my books, I have the chance to do work I care about, my family is healthy, my bills are paid. So I have no serious worries. The only small cloud on my horizon is learning how to better balance the time demands. I leave in about six weeks on the next book tour and have a bunch of other speaking trips after that. Once we get past ALA, I’ll have plenty of writing time, but the book I’m working on is due before that.

I’ve thought about taking a 6 month hiatus from blogging, but I’ve decided not to. The blogosphere is my water cooler, where I get to hang out with friends while I pour a cup of coffee. It is also part of the Author side of my job. If you are making your living writing books, you have two jobs: Writer = writing books. Author = everything related to publicity and contact with readers.

Despite the very cranky note on my website discouraging readers from contacting me with homework questions, I received a flood of them this week. Most of them wanted me to explain various aspects of my books for an essay or a report. These were usually accompanied by demands that I answer by midnight, because the paper was due the next day.

For the record: I don’t do homework. And I was such a bad student of English, that if I did give answers, they would probably be wrong.

A couple of the emails asked good questions about being a writer. I thought they might be of interest to you, too, so I’m going to answer them on this blog next week. If you have “What’s It Like To Be A Writer?” questions, leave them in the comments section, and I’ll answer those, too.

What’s it like to be a writer for me today? I am going to try to write 10 pages, and empty my email box and get started on the fan mail that came in this week. And I really need to go for a run.


to the parents of the future writers of America…

I often hear from young readers asking my advice about how they can become an author, but yesterday, the question came from a different angle. The mother of a talented teen writer wrote in asking my advice.

She wrote “I need some advice (please)…… My teenage daughter writes beautifully and her teachers are saying she should consider a future in journalism or writing etc. When I try to discuss this with her all I manage to get is “I hate to write”. Did you know from an early age that you wanted to be a writer/author? How do I cultivate such a gift without turning her away from it? You know how it is when you are a teenager, the more your mother wants you do something the less you want to do it.”

My first thought was that I’d love to have coffee with this mom. She’s she’s probably a little overanxious about her daughter’s future, but most parents are, and besides, this mom is reaching out for some information. How cool is that?

So I wrote back: “I have a strong opinion about this, so brace yourself.

Leave her alone. Please!

I had no idea I was going to be an author when I was in high school. I didn’t major in English or creative writing or journalism (though I wound up working at newspapers for years). But I found my path. If my parents had dragged me to this path, I can guarantee that I would never have become an author.

There are countless ways your daughter’s gift can unfold. Please give her the space to explore them on her own. Fill your home with books, art, music, and good food, and keep the “You Must Be A Writer” pressure locked out.

If she does become a writer, please don’t turn her bedroom into a guest room, because she’ll probably move back home to save money.”

She, in turn, wrote back a very nice note thanking me.

I wish I could take some of that mother’s enthusiasm about her daughter’s talents and sprinkle it on the parents who discourage their kids’ artistic dreams.

Come celebrate Banned Book Week with me tonight! Join me in downtown Syracuse where the Onondaga County Library System is hosting a reception for and presentation by Carolyn Mackler, author of wonderful books like The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, and Vegan Virgin Valentine. The reception starts at 5:30pm, and Carolyn speaks at 6pm.

More Financial Truth and WFMAD Day 19

Yesterday post about the financial realities of writing provoked a lot of comment. Has SCBWI ever done a workshop about this? It’s the kind of practical nuts-and-bolts stuff people should know, IMHO.

In response to the post, a Constant Reader on MySpace posed this question: When you go to conferences- like the ALA and such- do you pay your own way and use that as business expenses come tax-time or does your publisher/etc ever pay for it (like if you were the one that won the Newbery that year)? Do groups ever pay you to come, like if you are speaking at an event?”

These days (I’ve been writing for 16 years and have published 6 picture books, 6 novels, and a 12-book series) the publishers pay my way to big conferences such as American Library Association, International Reading Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English. But not every year. They pick and choose from their authors depended on if that person has a new book out, and the distance (= cost!) of getting said author to the event.

We are not paid for our time or for presenting at these big events. On my recent ALA trip, I was gone from home for five days. Two of those days were so jam-packed with book-and-librarian stuff I was only able to sneak in an hour of work. The other days I was able to work on the new book a fair amount. (That’s why I didn’t go play at Disneyland.) I have gotten much better at working on planes and in airports, too.

If you like speaking in public and are good at it, you can ask to present at state and regional conferences of librarians and teachers, and, of course, you can visit schools. If you are just starting out, you’ll probably have to pay your own expenses, and they won’t pay you a speaking fee. If you’re a good speaker and your reputation grows, you’ll gradually be offered an honorarium, and sometimes they’ll pay your expenses. Legitimate business expenses associated with this kind of travel are tax-deductible, but please, please consult with a tax professional about this.

In addition to conferences, I used to spend 60 – 100 days a year visiting schools. That’s how I paid my bills. It was fun and I loved it, but it wicked ate into writing time. (I’m on a hiatus from school visits right now – I promised my publishers I’d focus on writing for a while.) I always arranged my own travel, but a lot of authors rely on people like Catherine Balkin to set up their appearances and coordinate travel details.

What other facts of the writing life do you want to know?

WFMAD Day 19!

Today’s goal: Write for 15 minutes. Try to avoid melting.

Today’s mindset: humid

Today’s prompt: If you’re going to do this prompt, don’t scroll down to Part Two until you’ve completed Part One.

1. Write a list of five objects between the size of a hardback book and a toaster oven. Describe each item in glorious, precise detail.

scroll down for Part Two…

keep scrolling….

almost there…..

2. Imagine you’re on a vacation on a remote island; wo weeks and no electricity. You do have ample food and clean water, and a safe shelter, and you are fairly comfortable, but there are no stores around. You open your suitcase and instead of the clothes you packed, you find your 5 objects sitting there.

Write about what you’re going to do with them.


Cold Hard Facts About the Writing Life & WFMAD Day 18

This question came into my Facebook page earlier in the week: I am sure you are asked this question constantly, but do you have any advice for aspiring authors? i am so passionate about writing, i read often, and i hope to publish a novel one day and share my writing with others. it’s funny, i feel like saying i write constantly, because i always have ideas and stories in my head, but life is so busy that i seldom find time to write it all down! any suggestions would be very much appreciated! =]

Writers get this question a lot. It is second only to “Where do you get your ideas?”

I’m going to start my answer by posing a question: how far do you want to go with your writing?

It’s OK to recognize that you enjoy writing, that it’s important to you, and that you want to get better, but also knowing, deep down, that you’ll probably never make a living at it. But if you want to make your writing your career, if you expect it to pay your bills….

Warning: cold financial realities ahead…

….There is no nice way to say this. It is almost impossible to make a living as a writer.

Please don’t throw that tomato at me. Do not harm the messenger. I’m just saying what’s true.

I think the average advance for a novel might be up to $20,000 these days. (That is an optimistic number.) Your agent gets $3,000, and then you have to throw at least 30% of what’s left at the federal government for both halves of your Social Security and your income taxes, more if your spouse’s income or your other job boosts your tax bracket.

Let’s say it took you a year to write that novel. That means your take-home pay is around $12,5000…. for a year’s worth of work. And remember: it’s an advance against your royalties. Your book has to sell around 10,000 copies to pay your publisher back. (Last number I heard was that the average middle grade or YA novel in America sells 5000 copies a year. If I have that number wrong, someone please correct me.)

Using that average, it will take two years to earn out the advance. If the publisher hasn’t taken the book out of print, you’ll start to see royalties in Year 3. (This assumes a 10% royalty, which not every one gets. If your book mostly sells in chain stores, it will probably be subject to the deep-discount clause in your contract and you see a considerably smaller royalty.)

Of course you’re not just sitting at home, waiting for the mail to arrive with your check. You’re hard at work on the next novel. Excellent! That’s the approach that works. If you can write a solid novel every one to two years, if you can live frugally, if you can balance family and life and publicity efforts with writing, after about third or fourth novel (so Year 6-8 of this effort), you should be able to quit your day job and make a living from your writing.

There is no glamor in the writing life, no fame in the mode of Hollywood. It’s a life of quiet dedication. It’s a life of writing every single day, like we’re doing here this month. You don’t have to become a monk, or live in a cave (though that helps sometimes). But you’re probably going to have to prioritize how you spend your time in order to make a good chunk of writing time available daily.

It’s almost impossible to make a living as a singer, too, and a dancer, and an artist, and a film maker. The course of a creative life is littered with lots of crappy temp jobs. It’s nice to get paid for living your dream, but the truth is, the real benefit of an artistic life comes in the joy and excitement of the work itself, the moments that no one else can experience; when you are in the story and you are surrounded by magic.

So it’s OK to decide to have a paying job (with health insurance!) and to write on the side. In fact, many successful writers do this. They are smarter than me (and they have affordable heath insurance!) and I think about joining their ranks about once a week.

If you’re still with me, and you didn’t throw a tomato at the computer, here’s my advice:

1. Learn how to live inexpensively.
2. Focus on the quality of your writing, not the publication process.
3. Turn off the television and step away from the Internet. You’ll be shocked at how much free time you have to write if you cut back on those activites.
4. Surround yourself with all kinds of art and people who enjoy it as much as you do.
5. Make time to write every single day, if only for fifteen minutes.

Any thoughts about this? Am I being overly harsh? Am I being too optimistic? What is your experience with trying to make the writing dream your reality?

Today’s goal: Write for 15 minutes.

Today’s mindset: silly-creative

Today’s prompt: Today’s prompt is a riff on the Poetry Friday that so many folks enjoy. Start with an idea. I’ll give you a few to choose from in case you’re feeling stuck:
1. the love of your life
2. the battle over the whether the toilet seat should be left up or down
3. one hundred things you can put on a peanut butter sandwich
4. the presidential election
5. fish

Now take your idea and shape it into a song. Feel free to borrow a tune (I cannot teach you how to write music) and turn your lyrics into something fun and loud. The style choice is yours; opera, country, scat, Broadway musical, blues, you-name-it. Write and sing!


More about what students write to authors

Apparently there is a discussion going on at some listserv about teachers assigning students to communicate with authors. I’ve talked about this here before. It can be wonderful (most of the time) and frustrating, especially if a reader’s grade hinges on hearing back from the author, or if the reader writes demanding the author explain all of the symbolism, setting, and themes of her book. But mostly it’s great.

I thought I’d post one day’s worth of notes so teachers could get a sense of things. Here is the email I got yesterday. (There was snail mail, too, but I am months behind on that.)

This comes from a teacher:
“I am teaching Speak in my Junior Honors class. As a parallel work, we watched the film version of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. My students found it a little weird that you named the wonderful art teacher the same name as Maya Angelou’s rapist. Since I didn’t have the answer (except to say it was probably more to demonstrate YOUR Mr. Freeman’s character and the connection to the other character was an accident), I told them I would ask you. So I am.”

A fairly detailed request, from a reader who hasn’t yet found the Biography or FAQ pages of my website:
“Hello…i m …. & im doing
a Author report on you and i was wondering
if you could help me and answer a few things.

like tell me thing what you liked to do in
your childhood?

How did you become intersted in writting?

What other degrees did you earn?

Did you earn one to become a writer?

how was your family?

anty brothers/sisters?

What are your most important awards/honrs?

What your favorite book?
[my speak]] very good!

Well i would apprecitate it VERY much if you took time to answer me these questions and tell me about your self!”

Ah, spelling. But you have to love the sweet tone of this one:
“Hey, Im doing a school project on you, we were told to pick an author and do reserch and i really couldnt think of the books i have read cuz im not a big reader and the frist that came to mind was speak, i have read the book 2 times and have watched the movie plenty, it was a touching story, now i have got most of my info from writer lady, but thiers one thing i really coundt find and thats qoutes… i need a few qouets that u may say or live by and if u could reply back to this it would be much help and i would appreciate it tones!!!”

Never been asked for this before:
“Hi Laurie…. During our English 12 class, we have to choose one particular author and write an author study on our choice. I decided to write about you. I have read mostly all of your books besides a couple, only because our school library does not own them. But, I am hoping to buy them this summer. The reason I am emailing you is because we have to find a short story that our author wrote. I have looked long and hard and have not found a short story written by you. I was wondering if you have ever written any short stories. Sorry if that offended you, but in my search, every sight told me you have not written any. If you have, I was wondering if you had the time, if you could email me a short story you have written. I would appreciate it greatly. Thank you for reading this email. I understand that you have a life of your own and do not want to be a burden. If you’re too busy, I understand. I hope to hear back from you.”

Students are not the only ones writing:
“My name is… and I’m a bookseller at… my manager and I are trying to round up prizes and giveaways to put in our goodie bags. I have been given the unenviable task of e-mailing every YA author and/or publisher I can think of and asking for help. I read Speak when I was about 13 or so, and it made quite an impression on me, so of course, you were one of the first authors I thought to e-mail.

Do you have anything—and I mean anything—that you could send me to help me out? Anything from signed books to a stack of bookmarks would be fantastic. Not a lot goes down around here, so we are trying to make this as fun as possible. Let me know, and I can send you the store address and my manager’s name.”

This one is wonderful… she forgot to include the link to the site she was talking about, but did so in a post later in the day:
“i know you have no time for any of this, or maybe just no brain-energy left, but life is short & really what else matters?
so anyway i wanted to thank you for ‘twisted’, which i just read in one sitting / lying (sprawled, in someone else’s empty bed, in someone else’s empty house-)

i read ‘speak’ in high school, maybe when i was more part of the Target Audience, but now, finding ‘twisted’ at 22 i wish more than anything my (older) brother could have read it when he was most vulnerable.. it could have really saved him. you are doing immensely important work, i hope you know that..

though i understand you are terribly busy & probably inundated with emails like this, i would really be honored if you would look at something i made / am making… just a little nothing in the forest. click the house when it lights up.

if you find a moment, thank you, it takes awhile to load, i hope it’s worth it. oh, and your website is beautiful, by the way.”

This is simply lovely:
“I have recently read your book speak. I found it very interesting and i could connect with it in many different ways. Throughout my school years i have endured some very tough times, and reading this book brightened my life a little bit, and made me realize that anything is possible. I wanted to personally thank you for writing an excellent book, that is also very meaningful to me and many other readers. You are one of my all-time favorite authors and believe me i do not say this to everyone! Well once again thank you so much for the insight that your wonderful book provided me.”

As is this:
“hi laurie i’m yvette, i read three of your books and i loved them, i actully finished them it usally takes me a whole semester to finish a book but not this time. so far i read “speak” “fever 1793” and “twisted” i liked them all and i can’t wait to read the rest of your books!”

Gotta love this, too:
“that your book Speak is by far the best book I’ve read, and I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, but I am an absolute slowwww reader and I have a very difficult time just sitting down and concentraiting for a solid ten minutes. So like I’ve said before, I know you hear this a lot but i couldn’t put this book down, and this book has also inspired me to speak up. thank you.”

My conclusion:
Beefing up the website has definitely helped stem the tide of reasonable requests for information. (Though I have no plans to post essays about the themes in my books!) Answering reader mail is mostly a very nice problem to have. The only thing I ask teachers is please don’t make a student’s grade rely on my ability to respond in a timely fashion.

Any thoughts?

I’m back in the Cave of Revision, BTW. Will be crawling out for my booksigning in Oswego on Thursday evening.