Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Topic 12: Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You

Making On-Line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 1:  Sandy
Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lora Koehler’s and Jean Reagan’s Picture Book Marathon . . . Julie Hedlund’s 12 X 12 in 2012. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Write Fifteen Minutes A Day Challenge . . . Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month . . . Maureen Thorson’s National Poetry Writing Month . . . and more. The Internet is awash in writing challenges, many of them well-organized, encouraging, free, and all but guaranteed to increase productivity for those who participate. 

How to choose?  Where to begin?

Much to my surprise, my answer turned out to be, “Why choose at all?  Begin everywhere.”   And that’s exactly what I did.  From January of 2012 through April of 2013, I took on and met every one of the above challenges, one after another and often more than one at a time.

Which might have been impossible, except that I added a twist:  “Do it your own way.”

“Why?” you might ask.  Well, I had my reasons . . .

As 2011 came to a close, I found myself wondering whether I had anything left to say to the readers and audiences I’d been sharing my work with for nearly 50 years.  Behind me stretched a publishing record of 30 books, more than three dozen plays, and well over 200 articles, stories, and poems in magazines and anthologies.  Ahead of me loomed a significant birthday.  A feeling of dread settled over me as I recalled a colleague’s announcement:  “I haven’t written anything in a long while.  Maybe I’ve retired and just don’t know it.”

But how does a writer retire?  Writing has always been far more than a job to me.  It’s been a way of experiencing life itself.  I write, therefore I am! 

If I stopped writing, I’d be . . . ?  Whatever that was, I didn’t want to go there.

So when a message arrived by email describing the on-line Picture Book Marathon – a pledge of 26 drafts in that February's 29 days, I signed up.  Perhaps this would be the very thing to nudge awake my snoozing brain cells, assuming they’d only dozed off and weren’t actually dead.  But as February approached with no further word from the Picture Book Marathon folks, I decided to sign on for Julie Hedlund's 12 X 12 challenge of a dozen PB drafts, one a month for all of 2012.  No sooner had I begun January's effort for the 12 X 12 than confirmation came through for my participation in February’s Picture Book Marathon, with the starting gun about to go off.  I was now entered in two races running at the same time!

Okay, I thought, I'll do both.  And then I added Laurie Halse Anderson's August event AND the well-known Picture Book Idea Month challenge of brainstorming a new idea every day in November.  AND THEN, with all that behind me, I took on the National Poetry Writing Month challenge to write poem a day every day in April, 2013. 

I completed them all.  BUT, with the exception of Anderson's writing prompts, which simply had to be addressed as posed, I tailored each challenge to meet my own needs.  Nothing against the original guidelines, mind you.  They were all impressively well thought out and, as each blog’s posted comments attested, all successful in helping writers get motivated and stay motivated, myself among them.  Call it cheating, if you will, but I had a personal agenda I couldn't ignore:  Along with various interrupted plays and one bogged-down novel, I had 50 years of short-form fiction manuscripts filed away in my cabinets, each of them carrying the promise, “I’ll get back to you some day.”  So my 26 Marathon drafts in February began as fresh revisions of some of those manuscripts.  I looked them over (finally!), all 37 of them, narrowed them down to the 26 most hopeful and set out to tackle one a day. 

To my happy surprise, reworking my ideas-gone-stale began sparking new ideas, so my daily output for February became a mixture of the brand-new and the old-becoming-new-again. 

Meanwhile, back at the 12 X 12 challenge, my one picture book draft per month became an opportunity to tackle the 12 most-likely-to-succeed pieces out of the 26 I'd generated or revived in February -- a full month of focus and further revision for each.  The new ideas took additional leaps forward; those that had fallen asleep in my files long ago began to stir, stretch, sit up, and take a look around.

Did I feel guilty not doing the challenges exactly as they were designed to be done?  Well, yes.  A little bit.  But how bad could I feel when I was writing each and every day, looking forward to that with renewed eagerness, and generating a wealth of material?  Retired?  Heck, no!  I was recharged! 

Did the on-going advice and encouragement offered by each challenge host still apply to me and help me?  ABSOLUTELY!   And reading about what others were up to as they met the challenges added to my options for and approaches to my work.  I’ll talk about one particular inspiration I received in my next post.  For now, I’ll just say that it was amazing how the sound of strangers cheering out there in cyberspace really did keep me going.  The challenge organizers were that good at communicating their encouragement and keeping their blogs lively with guest bloggers, participant comments, writing tips, mini-contests, and so on.  They offered daily reminders that I'd made a pledge -- maybe not the pledge they’d originally asked for, but very much the pledge I needed to make and keep.  With their help, keep it I did.

More specifics about how I did that next time.  But now, it’s your turn, David.  I’m curious about how on-line challenges look from the point of view of the challenger!

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Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 2:  David
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Well, dear Sandy, dear Sandy, I’m glad you asked how on-line challenges work from the point of view of the challenger. So far I haven’t been much of one to accept challenges but boy can I dish ‘em out.

My challenge-tossing habit began in 2009 when I became sole owner of a brand-new blog thanks to the devilishly clever Kathy Temean who, upon finishing the nifty website she’d created for me, said that I had to have a blog and, in spite of my manly protestations, proceeded to make me one anyway.

After some stuttering starts, I settled into the routine of searching for material to post. I didn’t want to talk about what I had for breakfast, as utterly fascinating as that might be. Besides, some mornings I skip breakfast so where would that leave me? I began to think about worthwhile content that would justify the time of anyone who happened by my speck of space.
One of my favorite exercises is to take a word – any word will do just fine – and see where it takes me. I’m hardly alone in doing this. What reminded me of it at the time was something I’d just heard Billy Collins say when he lectured in Springfield. One of his poems, “Hippos on Holiday,” sprang from those three words. First came the title, then the poem inspired by the thought.

I issued my first challenge, which I called, WORD OF THE MONTH POETRY CHALLENGE, in October 2009. It has continued each month since then. Again enlisting Kathy Temean’s help I created one category for adults and two for students (grades 3-7 and 8-12). Each month a number of poets, some in other countries, think about the word until a connection occurs that starts them off writing a poem. Long ago I stopped tracking how many poets, poems, and countries have been represented on WORD OF THE MONTH during the forty-five months since it began. Maybe one thousand poems? I get contributors from United States, Canada, U.K., Italy, Australia, Philippines, South Africa, Germany, France, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, and many others. I always accept my own challenge so I’ve now written forty-five poems for WORD OF THE MONTH.

The challenge hasn’t been as successful with students although we’ve attracted quite a few. Partly it’s a matter of time. Rules call for teachers to select up to three poems per month per class to post. But if a teacher is into a nonfiction unit or bearing down on math or preparing for testing or a million other things, spending time with young poets has to slip down the list of priorities.

Over the years I’ve thrown down the old gauntlet a few other times too. Now and then I’ll respond to some spontaneous urge. A year ago the lake behind our house was “turning.” Scum from the bottom was rising to the top as the weather changed and caused the semi-annual cycle. I moaned on my blog about my ugly lake and issued a plea for help in couplets. They came in serious numbers from poets who seized the moment to dash off a bit of sarcasm or encouragement.

Linking up with my friend and partner in two books (bugs and Vacation), I occasionally prevail upon Rob Shepperson to provide one of his wonderfully witty drawings, which I post with a challenge to caption it. The idea is borrowed from the weekly contest on the last page of the New Yorker.  I see it as a way to exercise a different writer’s muscle and many of my visitors apparently do too.

On several occasions I’ve enjoyed posting challenges issued by others. J. Patrick Lewis has come on my blog with such interesting challenges that poets leap into the game. Steven Withrow suggested a challenge. So have Joy Acey, Jeanne Poland, and others. I’m happy to act as host when these opportunities come along.

Sandy, for some reason the challenges I’ve issued so far have all involved poetry. I think I know why. There are many good bloggers who keep writers challenged with writing novels, picture books, creating story ideas, and so on. I also know of some who challenge their visitors to write poetry. Laura Purdie Salas posts a picture on Fridays and asks poets to write something in fifteen words. But poetry keeps me amused so I tend to stick with it.

My most recent addition, May 2013, is something called THEME OF THE MONTH POETRY CHALLENGE. The twist here is to help writers focus on one basic theme, very much like they’d probably need to do if working with an editor in hopes of being published. For this one I asked visitors to suggest themes and I got a lot. The first one I selected was fishing.  For June, the theme was food. This month it’s relatives.

Sandy, I think I’ll wait for my second act to talk about the responses I get from those who accept my blog challenges. By then maybe I’ll have some new comments from participants that I can pass along. So for now, back to you!

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Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 3:  Sandy
Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wow, David, so much to think about in your post!  Thank you!  Besides the fascinating insight into challenges from the challenger’s point of view, I note two points that resonate in important ways with my experience:  First, all those “others” who’ve influenced your decisions – Kathy Temean, Billy Collins, Rob Shepperson and the New Yorker cartoon contest, and all your guest bloggers – are absolute proof that writers do not and should not work alone.  We encourage, inspire, read, respond, and, yes, CHALLENGE one another.  Good for us! 

Second:  The line “See where it takes me.”  You’re talking about allowing a single word to lead you into a poem, but that’s exactly the approach I took to the on-line challenges.  They were a starting point that led me down unexpected but highly productive paths.  And isn’t that the creative approach to everything?  Whatever presents itself, see where it takes you.  That requires a certain amount of courage, doesn’t it?  But, oh! The places we go!

So, where was I?

Twenty-six picture book manuscripts in February.  Done.

A draft of a picture book each month in 2012.   Check.

Fifteen minutes a day of responding to writing prompts in August.  Yes, ma’am.  (Although, as Laurie Halse Anderson warned it might, this one did take until August 43rd.  And as she assured us, that was just fine.)

I was on a roll!  And then along came Picture Book Idea Month (familiarly dubbed PiBoIdMo), soon to be joined by National Poetry Writing Month (aka NaPoWriMo).  By now I was not only a writer emphatically and energetically still writing, I was a pro at taking on-line challenges and making them work my way.

Did I really need to sign on for PiBoIdMo?  With 26 first drafts and 12 second drafts in progress, I now had more than enough work to keep me busy for the foreseeable future.  Would any of it actually be publishable?  I had no idea.  I could already see that some of the stories I’d generated were better suited to magazines than the book market, but – hey! – I was generating something, a lot of somethings, and enjoying the daily doing of it the way I’d enjoyed myself as a very young writer.  I was writing for the sheer fun of it, because there was simply no time to worry about anything other than the writing itself.

Still, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at what was going on at PiBoIdMo.  How were folks generating an idea a day?  There were posts from those who had taken the challenge before and parlayed an idea or two or three into actual publishable manuscripts.  They had contracts in hand to prove it.  In describing their process for the benefit of the rest of us, they showed how they’d generated ideas willy-nilly.  Nothing censored; everything gained:  A Picnic with Monkeys, A Picnic with Rabbits, A Picnic with Ants . . . each and every one admissible as a day’s work.

Oooh! I thought, as another unconventional modus operandi hit me:  For years, I’ve wanted to write a cycle of poems around one topic – maybe even a book’s worth.  (Full disclosure:  I’ve loved David’s poetry books and longed to try one of my own.)  So how about my idea a day becoming not one for a picture book, but for a poem?  Yes!  Around the topic of . . . um . . . let’s see . . . well, I was up to my eyebrows in book ideas, how about around the topic of libraries?

I was off on a new brainstorming frenzy and accumulated my required number of ideas right on schedule, plus a dozen or so extras, because once you start brainstorming, you tend to keep on going.  In keeping with the storm metaphor, “It never rains but it pours.” 

Short pause, deep breath, and then BOOM!  A post on Facebook about National Poetry Writing Month!  I was too late to sign up, but that didn’t stop me.  With my ideas already written down, I was ready to begin my long-awaited cycle of poems, one a day and sometimes two, to catch up with those who’d left the gate before me.

Which brings me to today.  After considerable revision, I just sent off my collection of library poems.  Wish me luck, and stay tuned!  Plus I’ve got a couple of PBs out there knocking on doors, a magazine story submitted, and a bunch of other promising drafts awaiting my attention.

Does every on-line challenge fit everyone’s needs?  No.  National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is very strict in its procedure.  Write a full-length work of fiction in one month from scratch.   Excellent!  But not for me, thanks.  Not this year, anyway. 

Laurie Halse Anderson’s August challenge prompts are heavily weighted toward novels and therefore probably not well-suited to those with PB or poetry dreams.  Still, in my challenge-taking mood, I was interested in whether this wise and wonderful author had anything to offer me.  She did.  My responses to her varied prompts began to clear a path back to that novel I’d set aside years ago.  Am I ready to pick up the manuscript and dive back in?  Not yet.  But I did write all those 15-minute snippets Anderson called forth.  I’m thinking I may take the same challenge this coming August and see what more I can learn about my unfinished piece.  And maybe the August after that. 

Bottom line?  A writer writes.  On-line challenges – adjusted to fit my needs – have restored my confidence.  I am undeniably still a working writer.   So thank you, Laura and Jean and Julie and Laurie and Tara and Maureen and David and Kristi and everyone else out there giving back to the profession in this clever and uplifting way.   Much has been said about writing alone, but much can also be said about writing together.  It helps!

Back to you, David, master of the poetry prompt . . .

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Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 4: David
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hi again, Sandy. I’m astounded by the number of challenges you seem to handle without breaking stride! On occasion you have mentioned that you think I possess a lot of energy. But REALLY! You make me feel like taking a nap after reading about all the projects you’ve been working on. You also are the personification of a writer at work. As you so succinctly put it, “A writer writes.”

Some of us may accept writing challenges and/or propose them because writers sense a constant need to test our mettle, stay fit, compare our work, get it out there. Some highly successful writers, such as you, also provide a service as role models for writers who may be a rung or two down but actively engaged in improving their craft.

Jane Yolen, for example, occasionally jumps on my poetry challenges with one or several poems. It invariably causes a burst of energy that attracts other poets to join in. Others have lent their talents as well: J. Patrick Lewis, Joyce Sidman, Laura Purdie Salas, Sara Holbrook . . . the list is much longer. One surprise visitor was Gregory Maguire, author of WICKED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST.

As I mentioned earlier, not as many student writers have been represented on the Word of the Month challenge as I’d like, but we’ve had quite a few. Two in particular who stand out in my memory are Rachel Heinrichs and Taylor McGowan. They were both 4th graders when they first began posting their poems. In those days we held a vote-off at the end of every month to determine the Poet of the Month in each category. The girls mustered so many backers for their cause, some from other countries, that my total count of visits for the day – something over 1,600 – remained a record until early this year. It has been fun to keep track of Rachel and Taylor as they’ve grown, developed additional interests, and entered middle school; an unexpected bonus for issuing a challenge that young people can also take on.

In another case a teacher began sending poems written by her high school kids. These were students with various learning issues and much of their work was not of the highest quality, but they loved the idea that they could write poems that would be published on my blog and they were proud of the encouraging comments they received from other visitors there. Their teacher wrote me a note. “When I introduced poetry, my students were interested.  At first, they tried to act cool and aloof, but I knew them... When I showed them poetry, they were a little interested.  When I taught them to read poetry, they were more interested.  When I told them to write poetry, they thought I was crazy.  When they wrote poetry, they came alive. Were the poems good?  No, not technically.  But they poured their hearts into them and they loved seeing their names on your blog. And that is when their reading scores went up.”

Sandy, I can see that my challenges may be different from those that come with specific rules and guidelines. You have had success accepting the challenges but making them work to your advantage by adapting them to your own needs. In my case, Word of the Month Poetry Challenge merely tosses out a word for anyone to accept or not. Some months most of the poems come from regular contributors but along the way new names are always joining in the fun. There is no long-term commitment involved so people come and go depending on whim, time, and energy. Some of the first devotees of Word of the Month continue to post their poems while others have dropped out somewhere along the line.

From a challenger’s point of view, I take pleasure in watching a community of writers come together around a central issue such as writing a poem inspired by one word or writing something that is theme related or, well, writing anything at all. What invariably happens is that the sense of community serves like an extended family to welcome in newcomers and develop ties with everyone involved. People get to know one another. They exchange bits of personal history, express their concerns about an unruly line or a rhyme. Sometimes they even ask for advice although an unspoken guideline is never to offer unless asked.

So what do I make of these challenges? I think they serve an important purpose and you’ve already stated it: Writers write. No one ever said that writing is simple, fast, or easy. It takes work. It requires patience. It demands passion. Whatever it takes to keep us exercising our writing muscles can’t be a bad thing. I don’t take credit for the marked improvement I’ve observed in the writing of many who routinely post their work on my blog where I can see it, but I believe that those who write on a regular basis are going to get better. That’s how it works.

And now – drum roll please – Sandy and I are delighted to announce our special guest for next week’s concluding essay on this subject of “Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You.” Our mutual friend Kristi Holl has agreed to join us on the 5th Tuesday so be sure you are here on July 30 to learn what she has to share. Until then here’s a way to get better acquainted with Kristi and her wonderful work. .

Thanks, Sandy! It has been good fun as always.

Kristi, the floor is now yours.

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Making On-Line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 5:  Kristi Holl
Tuesday, July 30, 2013

“I Challenge You!”

In April, I ran two 30-day challenges from my writing blog based on Dorothea Brande’s classic book Becoming a Writer. She claimed that unless you could do two certain types of writing every day, you’d never have a career as a writer.

Structure of the Challenges

One type was early morning writing—the kind you do as soon as you get up (after necessary restroom visits and letting the dog out.) I make microwave hot chocolate to have while I write. But within ten minutes you are to be at your keyboard, even if you have to get up half an hour early to avoid those you live with. You write whatever you feel like writing, a lá Julia Cameron’s morning pages. It might be creative writing, a gripe session, a planning session…anything.
The second type of writing Brande called scheduled writing. You study your day’s schedule in the morning, decide where you would most likely have 15-30 minutes free to write, and schedule your writing for that specific time. When that time comes, you stop whatever you’re doing and WRITE. No excuses for skipping, other than maybe the house is on fire. You change the time from day to day, depending on when you have available times to write.
I kept the challenge groups to eight or nine people. (There were four groups.) I wanted them to get to know each other; with bigger groups than that, it’s too impersonal. And when it becomes impersonal, the accountability is lost. (In a huge group of strangers, “no one will notice if I check in today or not, so I guess I won’t write”…is common.)

Challenges, Improvement and Progress

From January through March, I had done a “30 minutes per day” accountability exercise with another writer. She had read that it took three consecutive 28-day periods of writing to make a solid writing habit, so that was our goal. After just doing the challenge for six weeks, I had seen a significant change in my writing, especially in three areas: (1) my enthusiasm for my writing went up, (2) my procrastination went down, and (3) the actual word count increased significantly.

I blogged at Writer’s First Aid about how much the accountability was helping me, and many readers made comments like, “I wish I had someone to do that challenge with.” Voilá. I decided to set up the group challenges for April. I said participants could sign up for one or both challenges. Four people signed up for both.

Each group mentioned different difficulties when they checked in throughout the day. The early morning “dump it on the page” groups had the highest number who completed the challenge. At first they had a hard time putting the writing first, feeling like they were squandering time they didn’t have to waste. Gradually they realized that the early morning “dump” writing was clearing the decks—priming the pump—for the more structured writing later. As Heather W. said, “I forgave myself and wrote what I needed to write in the morning to get into my day. The ‘real writing’ is always waiting for me.”

The scheduled writing groups had more challenges because they were trying to squeeze the writing into their already crammed days of small children and day jobs. At first, many scheduled their writing session late in the evening, after their day job ended and the kids were in bed. If they got the writing done, often they were exhausted from staying up too late. Gradually, over the month, I noticed a number of them shifting to writing during newly discovered “down” times during the day: waiting room times, sitting in the car pool lane, sitting in bleachers, while cooking supper, etc. They became better at noticing previously wasted times throughout the day, and consistently they reported at the end of the week that they couldn’t believe how much writing they finished just by fitting it into odd “unused” times in their busy days. That was a major paradigm shift for many of them.

Another big benefit was reported by McCourt T. “During the challenge I attended a writing conference, and I really appreciated how writing every day boosted my confidence. I felt that I could confidently talk about my works-in-progress because I was actually spending time on them!”  This confirms what professional writers frequently say: nothing makes you feel more like a writer than writing.

One surprising result was that one participant decided she didn’t want to write professionally after all. As Kim T. said, “I stopped checking in 2/3 of the way through the month because I realized that I don’t want to force my writing.  I don’t want to schedule it in my day and be held to that… I have realized that I don’t want to be a full-time author.  I want to keep writing as a hobby—to write what inspires me when I am inspired to do it.”

Did the challenges actually help the participants? Heather W. thought so. “I signed up for the early morning challenge. The theory was that if you wrote in the morning before your brain really kicked into gear that, when you sat down to write later, there wouldn’t be as big a struggle to focus and find the right words for your story. I hoped that would be true. It was… I initially felt I wasn’t ‘doing it right’ because my early morning writing was a more of a diary, a place to vent frustrations, count my blessings, organize my day, etc. I thought I wasn’t really ‘writing.’ Well it turned out that the ‘non-writing’ was one of the best things I could do with that time. It just made the rest of the day better.”

Many participants noted that even writing fifteen minutes daily reactivated the feeling that they truly were writers. As McCourt T. said, “I was surprised that some days were so busy, I really only had about 15 minutes to write, but those 15 minutes made a difference. Just focusing on my writing each day, even if for only a small amount of time, made my writing seem like a priority again… this challenge helped me realize that writing every day is good for me—not just for my writing itself, which definitely improves the more I do of it, but also for my mental well-being and sense of personal accomplishment.”

The participants exchanged email addresses when the challenges ended so that those who wanted to could continue. Many expressed the concern that Jennifer R. voiced here: “I would love to continue to stay involved in an accountability group. I have never written more consistently than I did while participating in this challenge. I am afraid that without the accountability group I will fall back into my old habits and writing will only happen when I get a chance instead of making time for it.”

I can understand that because I’m exactly the same way. I really need someone to “report” to. Many of us are truly helped by these daily check-ins. I hope my writing accountability partner never wants to quit!

Kristi Holl is the author of 42 books, including Writer’s First Aid and More Writer’s First Aid, as well as the new e-book Boundaries for Writers. Go to her blog to sign up for her free e-book Managing Your Writing Space and Your Writing Time

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Topic 11: About This Business of Internet Publishing

Response 1: David Harrison
Okay, Sandy, here’s a subject on everyone’s mind these days: the publication of e-books and books printed on order. In other words, technology-assisted self publishing. Do you remember the first time you heard authors talking about electronic publishing? I do. We were at one of the annual Children’s Literature Festivals in Warrensburg, Missouri. After a day of talking to students, some of us were relaxing in one of the rooms where we were staying when the conversation turned to e-books. No one in the group had tried one yet but there was lively interest in the potential. All I could do was listen. I knew so little about this newfangled kind of publishing that I was afraid to open my mouth.

As in any new field, someone has to go first. A lot of you know Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell and are familiar with their pioneering efforts to publish e-book collections of poetry for young people. My toe-in-the-water experience came last year when they invited me to be one of thirty poets represented in PoetryTagTime, the first anthology of children’s poems published as an e-book. They also invited me to participate in two other collections before the year was up, p*tag (for teens) and Gift Tag (for the holidays). To learn more, here’s the link.

So what led to my decision to publish my own e-book? Since 1989 we’ve lived beside a small lake that supports a rich variety of plants and animals. I’ve dubbed it Goose Lake. As an old biologist it pleases me greatly to watch and take notes. Two years ago I wrote a book of prose and poems about the place.

My wife liked Goose Lake (always a good sign!) and said it was my best work ever. I sent it out. Editor One said, “Absolutely lovely. I’ll buy a copy for myself if you get it published but right now my sales department would lynch me if I take on any more poetry.” Editor Two: “Your writing is quite wonderful. These poems are not simply gorgeous reflections on the beauty of nature, but rather active stories of animal observations and interactions. Unfortunately, nature poetry collections are sadly not at the top of my list.” Editor Three: “Your poetic prose and image-rich poetry complement one another in giving a multifaceted view of the many creatures, indoors as well as out.” And so on.

After two more such experiences I became a prime candidate to try an e-book. I knew I had a good manuscript and five editors had turned it down. I asked Janet Wong for advice. She took a lot of time to explain the procedures and nudge me in the right direction. Through her I was introduced to Sladjana Vasic, the talented artist who agreed to illustrate Goose Lake, and her husband, Milos, who formatted the finished book for uploading onto the Amazon and Barnes & Noble store sites. I’m skipping most of the details involved because one e-book hardly makes me an expert and any effort to try to describe them would take far more room than I have here. I hope it’s needless to say that I’m not encouraging people to go fogging over to Janet’s site with pleas for help! (Janet, if you’re reading this, let the record show that I’m trying to save you!)

On December 15, 2011, Goose Lake was published as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I don’t have it up yet on iTunes but hope to master that trick one of these days. The process (exclusive of the writing), from my first note to Janet to the day the book was e-published, took 46 days.

You may be more interested in sales than in the details, so here’s the report to date. As my own publisher, I’m paid 70 percent of net income from Amazon and 65 percent from Barnes & Noble. And I get to do all of my own promotion. (You’re supposed to smile.) If you read Writers at Work in January, you’ll remember our discussion about how hard it is for many of us to pound our own chests. It doesn’t get easier when your book exists only if you download it onto a reading device or computer. In the books that Janet and Sylvia did, there were thirty poets, and therefore the potential for a lot of promotional oomph on the order of thirty times more than one person might do. Furthermore, children’s poetry is considered by most publishers to be difficult to sell in the best of circumstances. The niche is further restricted by its small foothold in the world of e-books. I could be wrong, but I bet the market is better for picture books and longer stories.

During the first week or so after Goose Lake came out, I e-mailed notices to quite a few friends and colleagues. I mailed letters to neighbors around the lake. I posted the news of my first e-book on my blog. I mentioned the free apps you can add from Amazon or Barnes & Noble so you can download the book onto your computer. A friend of mine also sent an e-blast to friends on her list. Goose Lake debuted well. After five days it ranked #1 on Amazon’s Kindle Store for e-books of children’s poetry and #44 for general poetry. I was feeling gooood. Uh-huh!

But that was all I knew to do. And when I stopped touting my book, it began sliding down the scale rather quickly. It went from 1st to 20th to 50th in a matter of weeks. Now and then it would shoot back toward the top when someone out there bought a copy, but we’re talking about small numbers making big differences. I just now checked the rating on and I’m back in 14th place so I’ve had a few more sales. It drives you crazy if you look too often. I think they change rankings every hour.

I’ve been delighted to have interviews and features lately on some wonderful blog sites such as Robyn Hood Black’s, Roxie Hanna’s, and Laura Purdie Salas’s. Such exposure helps very much. I’ve also received great advice on how to promote one’s e-book from Barbara Gregorich about selecting potential markets and seeking write-ups in special interest newsletters. God knows when I can get to such time-consuming activities, but I can easily understand the absolute need to try.

So, Sandy, my conclusions about this grand experiment so far? Hmm. Well I’m a long way from breaking even but it’s still very early. I enjoy the fact that I’ve able to bring my work to readers who might never have seen it otherwise. I appreciate (always did) what traditional publishers do to help promote their authors’ books. I’m admittedly still close to the bottom of the learning curve about e-books and how to make them work. Would I consider trying another one? I won’t rule it out but for now I need to get better at promoting Goose Lake. Then we’ll see…

Response 2: Paula Morrow
Independent Editors: What We Do and Why You Need Us

Self-publishing, e-publishing, and self-e-publishing have rightfully been hailed for breaking down the barrier between authors and publication. We're seeing a sea-change in the world of books and reading, and like the tide that drenched Canute, it's not going to go away.

I'm not worried that books might disappear, any more than movies disappeared when everyone bought televisions. My concern is about the effect self-publishing and e-publishing will have on the literature of the future. Are we seeing a rise to new literary possibilities? Or a decline to the lowest common denominator?

The internet teems with sites eager to publish your e-book and with advice from bloggers and self-publishing veterans. "You should write an e-book," declared a typical blog. Reading on, I learned that these are the Steps to Take:
  1. Get the software for you to create an electronic book.
  2. Write your e-book.
  3. Use the software to convert your document to the electronic book format.
  4. Make your e-book available from your website. Note that even if you wish to sell your e-book, you should still have a sample available freely to whet the appetites of your prospective customers.
  5. Publicize your e-book.
What ingredient is missing from this recipe? Alas, the instructions tell you how to publish your rough draft. Too many eager authors rush to publication before their manuscript is ready.

"But I have a critique group..." That's a good thing. Critique partners will give useful feedback during the creative process of writing your book. But how many of the group members have the time for multiple careful readings and the expertise to evaluate every aspect from voice to structure, not to mention page-by-page grammar and mechanics?

Most self-publishing companies claim to use professional copy editors. Okay. If you're reading this blog, you no doubt know about LinkedIn, an online site for business and professional networking. As of February 2012, LinkedIn has 824,000 users who list "editing" as a skill, marketing themselves as editors. I'm sure that most of these 824,000 souls know how to run spell-check and know something about grammar and punctuation. I'm afraid I don't consider fixing the mechanics to be enough.

A friend of mine self-published a children's book and paid for "professional editing" as part of the publication package. When I started reading the book, my heart sank. The interest level was junior high. The point of view was adult. The supplementary activities were just right for a five-year-old. The "editor" either didn't know or didn't care about giving feedback to make the book artistically satisfying (or even coherent) and marketable.

So what exactly does an independent editor do for you? That varies with the editor, of course, so be sure you understand what's offered before you make a commitment.

My own preference is the "forest and trees" approach. The forest is the big picture: structure, language, logic, emotional content, overall quality, and marketability. I pinpoint any problems and give the author specific feedback on how they could be fixed. The trees are the details, not only mechanics but also more subtle line-editing: word choices, stylistic inconsistencies, and the like. I also point out facts that need checking (important even in fiction!), although I leave the actual research to the author unless we contract for that separately.

A book edit is a time-consuming process requiring many, many hours of intense concentration. Before taking on a new client I read the manuscript, and sometimes I return it with a note that I'm not the right editor for this project. If I feel it's a good fit, I send a proposal and quote. I offer a choice of several levels of feedback, from a one-time critique to multiple revisions before final editing, and we contract in advance for a specific level and a specific time frame. Up to this point there's no reading fee and no obligation to continue. If the writer and I agree to work together, I determine a flat fee depending on what that particular manuscript needs.

Before contacting a private editor, look at your manuscript yourself, have a rough idea what help you want, and decide what your final goal is. If you have no idea what you need, start by reading a good book on writing for children (such as Barbara Seuling's How to Write a Children's Book and Get It Published) before you spend money on an outside consultant.

Once you have an idea what you expect from the editor, look for someone with experience and expertise in that area. Find out what the person's credentials are. In checking references, look for specifics: not "She helped me fix my story" but "She put her finger on the place where my plot went astray and gave me clear suggestions for getting back on track." Expect the person to ask you questions before agreeing to take on your project, so that you're both aiming for the same goal.

An author friend of mine does private manuscript critiques. Not long ago she plaintively commented that she is seeing more and more manuscripts that she describes as "trainwrecks." New authors are completely disregarding the basic tenets of writing for children. What's going on?

I believe what we're seeing is fallout from self-publishing. Folks go to press without being edited, others read their stuff and think, "Gosh, it's published, it must be right," and the snowball grows.

For new authors, editing is an essential step in the self-publication process. Even established, successful authors can benefit from an external perspective. (See Sandy Asher's book Writing It Right for lots of great examples of the creative conversation that a relationship between author and editor can spark.) Several years ago a dear friend who has published more than sixty books with traditional publishers decided to try self-publishing and asked me to edit the new manuscript. Our collaboration led to many exciting literary experiences—for both of us. But that's another story.

Response 3: Michael Wilde
Why an Editor?

Wondering what to write on this timely topic, I was instantly struck by two things: this recent article in The New York Times about e-books on tablets—a primer on the future of how we read; and a letter I received from a potential client. In the article, the conclusion looks grim: instead of providing that long-sought-for solace and comforting retreat from the world’s insane distractions, a book must now compete with every kind of addiction-forming instant gratification: “[T]he millions of consumers who have bought tablets and sampled e-books on apps from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble have come away with a conclusion: It’s harder than ever to sit down and focus on reading.”

So here is the not-so-distant future of how a book will behave: it will reorganize itself to accommodate every digital temptation—a dark current that flows under a lot of professional conversations these days. What happened to focusing on one thing at a time? The editor in me is constantly asking, By the time you reach the end of this sentence, have you already gone to Twitter? How can a book possibly survive?

It will, and the why and how came in a query I received only yesterday, four days after the Times article had me ruing not only the demise of books but the death of meaning itself (the Times is good at that). Having surveyed the poor quality of self-published books, the writer decided to seek out an editor. “No matter what the future of the book industry is,” the person writes, “editors are still crucial.” Apart from the obvious validation (that in fact means everything to me), this brief, simple statement gives me hope and a galvanizing optimism: here is understanding, at its core, of a fundamental relationship, an age-old calculus, that determines how a book comes into being and why it acts as it does, no matter the medium or how the end result is marketed.

A writer needs an editor and vice versa; that simple. The disparate activities take place in different sections of the brain, I’m convinced, and the writer is not well served should he or she attempt to do both at once. In the same braincase, the editor inhibits the act of writing until the flow is dammed to a dribble. One of them has to be switched off for the other to function properly (i.e., disinhibited, not easy and not recommended). What does all that have to do with publishing, self or otherwise, you might ask? It turns out, everything. Now, in the e-universe, a writer needs an editor more than ever (assuming, of course, the editor knows what she or he is doing, another subject for another day’s blog)—and nowhere is this more emphatically true than in children’s books, which are deceptive if not downright treacherous from an editorial point of view.

I don’t have space to go into the particulars, but generally speaking, of all the levels and genres of writing and reading out there, children’s books come closest to poetry in style and composition—and are therefore that much harder to write. In children’s, as in poetry, every word is important—and even more, the order all the words are in, on every page, in every sentence. I can’t stress it enough. There isn’t any wiggle room at all. The text must engage at once and entertain. A first-time author—even a brilliant one—might not automatically know this. A sweat lodge worth of effort and draft after draft may yield a pile of rejections for want of an active verb, a musical phrase, choice of voice, a character’s disposition, any of a thousand factors; then, of course, it has to be somebody’s cup of tea. A grown-up first has to love it. Frustrating, I know.

An editor can help.

Michael provides all manner of editorial services and help with writing. Email him or visit this website.

Response 4: Sandy Asher

Reading the posts by Paula and Michael has made me want to wax poetic about editors. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” I love editors for their intelligence, insight, and instincts. I love editors for their enthusiasm and encouragement. I love editors for their tenacity, which has so often roused me out of my natural laziness and forced me to do more and better. I love editors for not allowing me to publish anything that did not meet their standards. (Yes, I am referring to my file drawers filled with rejected manuscripts that fully deserved to be rejected. I’ve just spent a month rereading nearly forty such manuscripts. Thank goodness there were editors who prevented me from going public with them. Fortunately, I have the rest of my life in which to revise.)

There was a time, very early in my career, when I balked at editors’ detail-oriented, nitpicky thoroughness. Now I worry they may be too busy with other projects to give my work the full attention it needs. Even after many years of experience, I’m really nervous about publishing anything that hasn’t been vetted by a professional editor. We’re all far too close to our own work to see it as readers will receive it. Editors help us bridge that gap.
And so, my only experience with self-publishing has been to reissue—twice—Teddy Teabury’s Fabulous Fact, an already well-edited middle-grade reader. Teddy was originally a Dell Yearling Book. It had a good going-over—or three or six—for content and style by my then-editor Bebe Willoughby, as well as meticulous attention to mechanics, typos, and other details from an in-house copyeditor and proofreader at Delacorte/Dell. When the book went out of print and the rights reverted to me, I could reissue it by simply having it set up in a print-ready manner by my son Ben, a freelance professional copyeditor and proofreader. Together, we kept a keen eye out for late-blooming typos. (See Ben’s info here.)
That first reprinting of five hundred copies was done with a clear marketing plan, though this was long before social media began providing world-wide exposure. School visits, children’s literature festivals, and teacher and librarian conferences were the main marketing opportunities, and I was doing lots of those. With a reissued Teddy, I could continue to go forth armed with the dramatic and amusing story behind the book’s dedication “To the children of Otterville, Missouri, who asked me to write it and made sure I did.” I already knew from experience with the Dell edition that kids loved hearing the story and immediately wanted to read the book. I was confident I could sell five hundred copies. And I did.
Then I got tired of listening to myself tell the story. Five hundred copies were enough.
Time passed, and the whole self-publishing picture changed. With all the choices offered by technology, and writers doing so much of their own marketing anyway, it’s become quite an attractive way to go. Plus, Teddy has appeared a couple of times as a nineteen-part newspaper serial, and the illustrations commissioned by the serial licensing company were available. (The original illustrations by Bob Jones were not; my first reissue had no illustrations—not a good way to go with a middle-grade novel.) My agent mentioned that she’d checked out CreateSpace and was recommending it to her authors who wanted to reissue their own books. And there you were, David, all excited about your e-book Goose Lake. So I decided to give self-publishing another try. Teddy Teabury’s Fabulous Fact seemed the logical choice for my plunge, since I knew how to market it. I’m ready to tell the story behind the dedication again—not here, because it’s too long, but anywhere I’m invited to speak (hint, hint). 
Wow! This has been a very different experience from my first foray into self-publication. Back then, I used a general printer who did a nice job the old-fashioned way, following my directions but offering little guidance. With CreateSpace, I’ve had a steady flow of phone calls and email messages, an online account, a dashboard that alerted me to when I needed to take action and now tracks my orders and royalties, and helpful directions every step of the way. I got to alter and approve the jacket and proofread everything online first and then in hard copy, twice. And six days a week, there were real people to talk to, attentive, competent, cheerful people with satisfying answers to my questions.
I was impressed!
My personal “project team” at CreateSpace did an attractive design job and worked hard to get everything just right. Since my book had already been edited at Dell, I bought a simple and less costly package, but there are various options from do-it-yourself-for-free to full-service, in-depth editing. There’s a motive, of course, behind their perfectionism. CreateSpace books are automatically offered on and there’s a sizable cut for the company out of each copy sold. It’s to their benefit to create a superior product. I have no problem with that. 
The books are print-on-demand, which means I don’t have a basement full of copies I don’t immediately need. (Will I ever forgive the long-ago cat who once used a carton as a litter box?) I can order copies wholesale for presentations as I go. I could pay a little more to have an e-book edition as well, but I don’t quite trust the time lapse between my presentation generating interest and the listener’s opportunity to order the book online. I’d rather have hard copies right there with me. I’m fairly confident I can earn back my investment before once again tiring of the story, but even if I don’t, there’s selling the book online for me. Easy enough to email the link to family and friends and post it on Facebook. Best of all, print-on-demand guarantees that Teddy Teabury’s Fabulous Fact will never go out of print again.

So, do I recommend self-publication? Under certain conditions, I do, with these caveats: Have reasonable expectations, know your market, and devise a plan for reaching that market. Self-publishing isn’t right for all books, and, no matter how they’re published, books rarely sell themselves. Last but definitely not least: Do not venture out there alone. See above for how I love editors!