Wednesday, February 29, 2012

from a writer's sanctuary, R.I.P. stately trees

majestic pines coming down
For many writers, our sanctuary is our home. I know mine is. I spend hours daydreaming and staring out our windows at the beautiful trees and lush quietude. Squirrels are wildly funny with their chasing games and we keep a bird book in the kitchen because of all the interesting visitors: Woodpeckers, Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, Mountain Bluebirds, Lazuli Buntings and the other day a Cooper's Hawk. I can sound like a park ranger with my enthusiasm for our local wild life.

But for the past three days we've been hearing the high-pitched buzz of chainsaws and the roar of a commercial shredder parked on our street.

Three of our next-door neighbor's beautiful trees are being destroyed because their landlord wills it so. The trees are not diseased. "We always hate to cut down the ones that are healthy like these," one of the sawyers told me, "but I want to keep the client happy." In other words, he needs the job. That part, I understand.

No more place to play
 A flowering crabapple is gone and now two beautiful 40-year pines. Birds' and squirrels' nests have fallen to the street. There will be no shade this summer and it can be blistering hot in Idaho. As you can see from the photo, no more tire swing.

Boise boasts that it's the City of Trees, but there's something wrong when any ol' homeowner can shave a neighborhood just because he's tired of raking leaves or wants a landscaping project. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

kids with e-readers: kindle vs nook, Part Two

On Friday my hairdresser and I had a good discussion about e-readers for kids. As I posted here in January, her 11-year-daughter had received a Kindle for Christmas. Initially thrilled, the sixth-grader was soon envious of her friends who had Nooks because they could read and play games.

Now six weeks later, it seems her peers are mostly playing games. With one click it's easy to fool a parent that comes into the room. It's easy to fool people at school. Her teacher organized a reading-for-fun pajama party. I didn't get all the details, except that the students with Real Books and Kindles were actually reading. Those with multi-use devises were just goofing off with games. Cheating. It's sad but the teacher canceled the program.

My friend said she's thankful this "1st generation" Kindle is for books only. She has three children. Like other good parents she's trying to be vigilant supervising TV, Internet, video games, and cell-phones.

"At least when my eleven-year old daughter goes to her room to read, I know she's reading."

Friday, February 24, 2012

writing obituaries as a young reporter & a haunting story

In the late '70s I worked for a daily newspaper in a small coastal town in California. One of the things I loved most was the cacophony of the newsroom. The teletype machine was always clacking in the background with breaking news from the wire services. Phones rang and editors yelled. Reporters were at their typewriters, mostly black Underwoods that dinged when you hit the return bar and had a satisfying clickity-swoooosh when you pulled the finished story out of the inked roller.

"Today it's news, tomorrow it wraps fish," an editor told me when I was laboring too long over a lead paragraph. Usually there was only time for one draft before an article appeared in print.

At first I wrote weather reports, wedding and anniversary blurbs and---most interesting of all--obituaries. By 8 a.m. the funeral homes would call with the death notices and I would then try to make the nicest stories out of the grimmest details. Sometimes I called family members to learn more about their loved one so that the obit could have a little warmth. It might sound macabre, but I really enjoyed writing these short stories, as I called them.

Sometimes, however, calls from the mortuaries were upsetting. One morning I took a page of notes before realizing the person I was to write about was my next door neighbor, a young man who had always waved hello, but had suffered a heart attack in the middle of the night.

The call that has haunted me the most was from a funeral director telling me about his cousin. I was sympathetic of course, then asked my usual questions. When I hung up the phone and set my pencil down, I felt numb. To this day I don't remember what I wrote. This is what he told me:

Sometime in the night his cousin, a middle-aged man with an undetermined illness, decided to end his life. Not wanting to inconvenience anyone with a mess or an ambulance bill if he were to have been found alive, he drove himself to the mortuary and shot himself. His cousin came to work the next morning and discovered his childhood friend on the steps with a note explaining all this.

As I said earlier, I don't remember what I wrote.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

traditional vs. self-publishing: my experience

For the past 35 years I’ve been a professional writer and have published more than two-dozen middle-grade and young adult novels for traditional houses: Harcourt, Scholastic and Holiday House. And as of last November, I’m also a self-published author. From big signings and national tours to now managing the whole thing myself, I can say there are joys and stresses to both routes:

Time: With several books I’ve waited at least two years between acceptance and seeing them in print, and often have already turned in the final manuscript before receiving the contract. With self-publishing you just click a button. It’s instantly gratifying to publish right away, but the time it takes with a traditional house isn’t for naught (points below:).

Support: Editorial, sales and marketing is a huge plus with regular publishers as is Production. This is the cover design, copyediting, formatting, and adding the title to their catalogue. It’s a team effort getting a book out to libraries, schools and stores. When you’re on your own, all this is up to you.

Economics: Okay, here’s the money part. An advance with traditional publishers is actually a loan against your future earnings, which may or may not blast out of the park like J.K. Rowling. If your works don’t sell, the advance is it, probably gone by Christmas, and it’s time to start the process of submitting and waiting—and waiting—all over again. Publishing with, say, Amazon Kindle, there’s no up-front money but you’re guaranteed 70% of sales if your title is priced at $2.99 or above.

Royalty statements:
Traditional publishers send these in the Spring and Fall, reflecting earnings from the prior nine months. I spent two years writing and editing my recent novel, STALKED, then my artist son did the cover. I published it on Amazon Kindle in November and have already received a check! Monthly royalties, wow!

Trends: Success with traditional houses often depends on fads and inflated expectations for profits. I was invited to create two paperback series for young readers, which the publisher initially loved but soon cancelled. The reason? Despite mountains of fan mail from kids, parents and teachers, sales weren’t as brisk as hoped for. Now out on my own, I can directly reach my readers with new adventures.

All this to say, there are benefits to both approaches. I’m deeply grateful to my former editors and publishers. They put my stories into the hands of so many children, many of whom are now adults reading to their own kids—and many of these kids have e-readers! What a great time in history to be an author.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

at a tavern where Abe Lincoln slept

Abe Lincoln was 'here': New Salem, Illinois
Happy Birthday to Abe Lincoln!

When I visited Illinois for a library talk in Champaign, friends drove me on a side-trip to New Salem. They knew I'd love this reconstructed village where Lincoln spent his early adulthood and earned his living doing odd jobs: boatman, rail-splitter, shopkeeper, surveyor, and post master. For a while he owned a general store, but apparently not his own home, so at night he slept in this store or in a tavern. For meals, he boarded with families in the village.

My friends were right. I loved wandering through these shops and houses, taking in the humble beginnings of our 16th president.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

fun interview with Kindle Mystery Authors!

An interview with Kristiana Gregory, author of Stalked

KMA: Welcome, Kristiana. Stalked has something to do with Ellis Island, I understand. Can you explain to our readers the significance of Ellis Island?

Kristiana Gregory: From 1892-1954 it was the busiest inspection port for millions of immigrants coming to America, including my Danish ancestors.

KMA: Why did you set the book in the past rather than the present day?

Kristiana Gregory: Stalked is inspired by my great-grandmother Maren Kristine Sorensen who sailed from Denmark in 1893. I made several trips to Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, fascinated by what it must have been like to arrive in this new country not knowing a soul or speaking the language. I imagine that the stress, fear and excitement is similar to what modern immigrants and refugees must experience.

KMA: How did you go about creating an interesting cast of characters?

Kristiana Gregory: One family story is that my great-grandmother worked in the royal palace in Copenhagen. While doing research with my cousin however, we learned a different story, a true one: Maren Kristine married a Dane who ended up spending much of his life in a Wisconsin insane asylum and dying in his bed there of an infected carbuncle. This filled me with so many questions! How did a young man full of hope and dreams go crazy? If he’d been unstable during immigration, how did he pass the strict medical inspectors at Ellis Island? It made me wonder about psychopaths and sociopaths. Since they can be such good actors, how can a 6-minute exam weed them out? This is a good question for today as well.

KMA: Will any of these characters return in a future story?

Kristiana Gregory: I would love to continue Rikke’s story. The turn of the 20th Century was such a fascinating era, especially for a 15-year old girl.

KMA: Whom do you see as your ideal reader?

Kristiana Gregory: Ages 10 and up, but I get a lot of letters from adults who appreciate my stories because they’re easy to read. Gosh, I hope that’s a compliment!

KMA: When you’re not writing, what would we find you reading?

Kristiana Gregory: Usually non-fiction & biographies, news articles. This might sound weird, but as a child I spent hours & hours reading our family’s World Book Encyclopedias, and National Geographic when I could find copies. I love Ray Bradbury and Mark Twain.

KMA: What did you learn from writing this story?

Kristiana Gregory: I was surprised to learn that many immigrants were found “unsuitable” on Ellis Island and returned to their countries, usually at the expense of their original ship captain. Also I learned that summer heat in the tenements was unbearable, driving many to the rooftops at night. Sometimes a poor soul would roll of the edge in his sleep, to his death.

KMA: Who has been your biggest supporter?

Kristiana Gregory: Definitely my husband and our two adult sons. Since the boys were little they have read every manuscript and aren’t afraid to give an honest opinion. There is nothing like a child to tell you your story is tooooo long, for an author to make some swift edits! And my mother has been my cheerleader since I first was learning to put a sentence on paper.

KMA: How are you promoting your work?

Kristiana Gregory: Since Stalked is my first venture with self-publishing on Kindle, I’m trying to figure this out as we ‘speak’. I’m on Twitter [@kgregorybooks], Goodreads, have a fan page on Facebook, a website []; also I write a blog, Notes From the Sunroom, A Writer’s Journey[]. And I’m grateful to be talking to you!

KMA: Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

Kristiana Gregory: 1) Write your heart’s desire and don’t give up. 2) Don’t read reviews of your books: if they’re negative they hurt your feelings, and if they’re positive they give you a big floaty head. It’s better to just keep going forward.

KMA: As you know, our website is centered around Kindle novels. Can you tell us why you chose to publish your book for the Kindle, or give other authors advice about the process?

Kristiana Gregory: I have 30 children’s books with traditional publishers – Harcourt, Scholastic, Holiday House – and thought it would be fun to try something different, though I really miss the friendship and support of my editors. Stalked took two years to write and edit then my artist son, Cody Rutty, did the cover. Instead of waiting another year for a contract and publishing schedule, it was exhilarating to upload my manuscript in a matter of minutes and have it available to e-readers in a snap. Wow, it was a thrill! I’m still learning how all this works.

KMA: Where can our readers find a copy of the book?

Kristiana Gregory: It’s on kindle, here.

KMA: And finally, as an author, do you have any quirks or habits that help you write the story?

Kristiana Gregory: Quiet mornings and strong coffee then I’m ready to go! Actually, I’m fastidious about freshly sharpened pencils—long ones, no stubbies—and before I start a story I’ve GOT to have a title.

KMA: Thanks for talking to us. We wish you the best of luck with your writing.

Kristiana Gregory: Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be part of Kindle Mystery Authors.