Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dear Writers and Artists of SCBWI-Iowa

I am coming to meet you! Like, tomorrow. Like, I should be packing my suitcase right now instead of blogging (but I despise packing, so here I am). But I am quite looking forward to meeting you all, despite the fact that it will eventually involve packing. See you soon!

P.S. to writers and artists who aren't in Iowa: keep an eye on the "Places We Might Meet" list on the sidebar. I'll made some updates and will hopefully be adding another conference or two soon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vacation, vicariously. And also, writing.

I confess, it's a mite hard to come back to work after a week's vacation involving peaceful, miles-away-from-NYC moments like this:

and blazingly lovely sunsets over distant mountain-tops like this.

Okay, but I also confess that I'm leaving out all the days and nights where it rained and rained and rained, making highly-anticipated events like late night ghost stories around a campfire wholly impossible. (Despite the lovely fire pit that taunted us daily with its too-damp firewood.)

This weather tragedy, in turn, forced us to use up an entire bag of jumbo marshmallows playing Chubby Bunny instead of using them for s'mores/toasting purposes. And oh, how I would love to post those photos, but Travel Companion would disown me if I did so, given that few people look entirely flattering with nine jumbo marshmallows stuffed in their mouths. (For the record, I wussed out after six jumbo marshmallows, but mostly because I was laughing too hard to continue.)

But despite too much rain, a happy and creatively fulfilling vacation was enjoyed. And despite the foreboding signs that warned us that The Lone Zombie might be lurking in the woods around us,

(Beware of prowling zombies!)

we stumbled (err, deliberately off-roaded in the rental car) our way into some delightfully unanticipated scenic overlooks.

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes (if you've heard the "Traveler or Tourist" talk I sometimes give at writers' conferences, you've heard this one before): 

 “Happiness on holiday often only comes when we get lost—in the alleys behind the great museum, in a market off the Grand Canal, in olive groves beyond the guidebook recommended town. We are suddenly among people that are not “extras” in a travelogue, but simply themselves. We shed our tourist guise and rediscover living.”— Australian poet Pam Brown

I'm convinced that the best traveling memories are often found in the moments we do not (and usually cannot) plan. The moments where we "get lost." Or when we're forced away from our plans entirely--say, by rain or zombies or an alluring not-quite-a path, wanting to be explored. 

And so very often, the same premise holds true in writing, too. (You knew I'd bring all this back around to books and writing and editing somehow, didn't you?) Sometimes, it's the wholly unplanned-for plot twists, the previously-unanticipated character developments, the subtle details that were never even conceived-of in your outline or original draft, that come to matter most. They can slip in quietly but become critical elements or perfect lines or most-beloved scenes in a book. And when you're forced to discard your initial perceptions of what you thought a story would be, sometimes you get the delight of seeing it transform into something else--something more fully alive and blazingly memorable than you even initially imagined it could be. (Okay, the truth is, sometimes unanticipated tangents are just dead-ends or rabbit holes that lead you wildly, unproductively astray. But I hope that at least sometimes, you also get the glorious kind of unplanned results, too!)

So, you tell me--what's one of your best entirely unplanned-but-memorable traveling stories? Or, for the writers--one of your completely-unexpected-but-later-deemed-brilliant story shifts that changed everything about what you thought you were writing? Or both? Tell me in the comments!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Dog's Way Home: An Editorial Love Story

(2011 marks the year that books that I've both acquired & edited begin making their way out into the world, so consider this the start of a new blog series: editorial love stories! Hope you'll enjoy reading some behind-the-scenes tidbits about these books I've been busy making.)

Today's a special day. It's the official publication date for Bobbie Pyron's middle grade debut, A Dog's Way Home! I like to say that A Dog's Way Home is a love story, the kind that warms your heart and leaves you happy for days after reading it. But it’s a tween book, so this isn’t about sparkly vampires, or dark, sexy werewolves; this is about the love between a loyal dog and his beloved owner, both of whom are determined to find one another after being separated at opposite ends of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Daddy says, "Most folks got a north star in their life—something that 
gives their life extra meaning. Mine is music." 
Without even thinking, I say, "Mine is Tam." 

Abby knows that Tam, her Shetland sheepdog, is her north star, and she's pretty certain she's his, too. But when an accident separates Abby and Tam, it feels as though all the stars have fallen out of the sky and nothing will ever be right again. As the days between them turn to weeks, then months, dangers and changes fill up Abby's and Tam's lives. Will they ever find their way home to each other?
Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, A Dog's Way Home is an unforgettable tale of the many miles, months, and mountains that divide two loyal friends—but that can't possibly keep them apart. 

To celebrate the publication of this positively wonderful book, I thought I'd share some bits of the book-making story-behind-the-story of A Dog's Way Home, from the editor's side of the desk. I first met Bobbie, and read the opening pages of the book that would become A Dog's Way Home, at the Utah SCBWI Conference in 2008. Yes, this is one of those wonderful SCBWI Conference success stories! As I recall it, I actually didn't have a lot of comments to offer to Bobbie, and I was worried she might think she wasn't getting her full money's worth at her manuscript critique session. But the reason for my lack of comments was a good one, at least in this editor's mind: Bobbie had given me some of the most polished manuscript pages for critique that I've ever seen (and I've seen hundreds and hundreds)! We talked a little bit about starting the story in the exact right place: the pages she'd given me began the story with what is now Chapter Two, where (mild spoiler alert!) Something Tragic Happens. I suggested to Bobbie that such a scene might have more impact if we saw a bit of the "Before" for the characters first, so that we'd already know and care about them, and thus be more affected as readers, when that Something Tragic Happens to them. At the end of our session, I told Bobbie that I'd like to read more of her manuscript when it was ready, and she replied that she'd been thinking about trying to get an agent. I told her that based on what I'd read of her book, she was absolutely ready for that step.

Months passed. Actually, more than a full year passed. (Publishing means patience on both sides of the desk!)

During that time, though I didn't know it, Bobbie found and signed with a literary agent who loved her story, and they worked hard to make parts of it even stronger. When her agent submitted the manuscript to me, it had a different title than it had when I first encountered it (though neither of those ended up as the book's final title), but something about the description sounded familiar, and within a few pages, I knew why! It was the same story I'd read pages of at that Utah Conference, and I was delighted to finally get to read more. There was so much I instantly loved about the entire story: the southern flavor, the mountain musicality to the writing, the descriptive language, the vivid imagery, and most of all, the way two voices (first-person Abby and third-person Tam) alternated chapters to tell a story that, when blended together, was more complete than it ever could have been with just one point-of-view. I was even more delighted when my boss loved the story as much as I did, and when our Acquisitions Committee did, too. All of us could see this book being one that readers would read over and over, in the same way generations of readers have loved other stories about animal loyalty, like The Incredible Journey or Lassie Come-Home, and we were proud and pleased when Bobbie accepted our offer to publish it. Editors are often asked about their "wishlist," about the themes and topics they're seeking. Just as often, you'll hear us reply that it's hard to know exactly what we're looking for--until we find a story that we know we can't live without! I didn't know I was looking for a dog book, but I couldn't be prouder to have this one on my list!   

Now here's the funny thing. I like dogs. But I’ve never quite been what you’d call a dog person. We had a dog growing up, but he was more my brothers' dog than mine. And I've had friends whose whole lives have been changed by getting a dog, but that's something I never imagined would happen for me--especially living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn with a firm "no pets!" rule. Working on A Dog's Way Home changed something for me, though. Somewhere in the midst of the rounds of editing it, I realized I was starting to pay attention to dogs differently. I was noticing them in a way I never had, seeing them sitting outside of coffee shops and restaurants, and on street corners, as they often do in a walkable neighborhood like mine. And I was doing more than noticing them: I was pausing to say hello; I was wondering what inner dialogue was going through their minds as they waited patiently (or not) for their owners. Most of all, I was stopping to observe their interactions with their owners on the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. That’s the power of A Dog's Way Home—it makes you understand, so vividly, the bond that exists between dogs and their people. And really, that's the power of a good book, right? It changes something inside of you, so that you're not quite the same person you were before, once you've read it. And so I thank Bobbie Pyron for changing me--for turning me into more of a dog person than I ever dreamed I'd be, all through the power of her storytelling! A book-dog like Tam...perhaps that’s the dog for a city girl like me. It doesn’t need me to walk it, or a big apartment—it just needs readers who will find it and take it home and love it as much as I do. And oh, I hope that you'll be one of those readers, because I think everyone should have the chance to fall in love with this book and its tribute to loyalty, to perseverence, and to having profound faith in those we love.

Want to help celebrate the publication of A Dog's Way Home? Well, then, here's a few things you can do:

1. Follow Bobbie Pyron's blog: currently she's running a great series of interviews with children's book authors and publishing types about the dogs in their lives! (You can read about Gary Schmidt's dog, Kathi Appelt's dog, Kathryn Fitzmaurice's dog, and more!)

2. If you're in the Utah area, make plans to attend Bobbie's first book signing for A Dog's Way Home at The King's English on Saturday, March 12th. I'm told that there might even be some shelties at the event, so it's going to be quite a party!

3. Buy a copy of A Dog's Way Home for an animal lover in your life, young or old. Buy another copy for yourself, and settle in for a heartwarming read. Yes, there will be some tear-jerker moments, but don't worry, all those scarred by books like Where the Red Fern Grows...this dog doesn't die!

4. Spread the word! Great books need great readers to be their champions, and to help them live full lives in bookstores and libraries and in the hands of young readers. So if you read and love A Dog's Way Home--or any book, really--let the world know about it!

5. Go snuggle a pet you love. Or a person you love. Or a book (or manuscript-in-the-making) that you love!

6. Follow Bobbie Pyron on Twitter and wish her a very happy publication day for A Dog's Way Home!