March 28, 2011

It's Agent Appreciation Day!

Okay, I'm dubbing it Agent Appreciation Day although the "real" day created by author, Kody Keplinger, happened December 11th.

You can read lots of really nice posts about lots of literary agents here.

Since I missed the big day, my Agent Appreciation Day is, um, right now.

Tina Dubois Wexler, this one's for you . . .

In 2005, I wanted so badly to be on the other side of the divide between unpublished and published children's book authors. It's a dream that began when I was ten and wrote my first short story. There was nothing I wanted more.

By 2005, I'd published hundreds of greeting cards, funny essays for adults in major magazines and a story and poem in Highlights for Children, but selling just one children's book proved to be elusive. I have piles of rejection slips and six unpublishable children's novels in a drawer to prove it.

Then agent extraordinaire with I.C.M. (International Creative Management), Tina Wexler, came into my life.

Tina put out a call for writers on the SCBWI message boards in 2005. (If you don't belong to SCBWI and want a career writing or illustrating for children, stop reading this post and join immediately.)

The night I read Tina's call for new writers, I sent a book I'd written called How to Be a Naughty Kid and mentioned a "book" I was working on about a shy, gawky spelling bee champ whose mother was running for president in my query letter.

While Tina didn't think she could sell the Naughty Kid book, she liked my writing and loved the idea about the girl whose mother was running for president. In a letter, she told me to send her that book.

* Choke. Cough. Gasp. *

Oh honey, there was no book. There was a short story and the thought that it would make a good book. Someday.

I don't know where I got the courage, but I picked up the phone and called Tina, then Tina Dubois, and told her I didn't have a book, only a short story. I thought she might call me a big liar and hang up, but she responded differently. Tina said, "Take your time. Write the book and send it to me. My interest in this won't go away."

My interest in this won't go away.

So I wrote the book. I sent it to her.

She sent back MAJOR revision suggestions.

I quit. (Applied for a job as a children's librarian and didn't get it.)

Then I unquit, threw out all but the first two chapters and spent four months immersed in research and revisions.

I sent Tina those pages.

She loved it and sent it to seven publishing houses!

Three weeks later (Yes, three weeks.), Stephanie Elliott (then Stephanie Lane) at Delacorte Press/Random House acquired that novel.

The book came out in 2008 and went on to win the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. The weekend I flew to L.A. to accept that award at the SCBWI Conference was the best of my life because I was surrounded by my husband, Dan, dear friend, Jill, and agent/friend, Tina.

After As If Being 12 3/4 Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! it was time to write the next book.

So, I did. I wrote a 400-page book with four different perspectives and sent it to Tina.

In a very nice way, she told me to put that book away and start something else.

I'd spent a year writing and researching that book. And I would have been devastated by Tina's assessment had she not been 100% right. Cliched characters, dull story, etc.

The next book I wrote was How to Survive Middle School. And I would not have written it if Tina hadn't very gently told me to put the other book away and start something else.

That's what Tina does, what every good agent does -- looks out for your whole career, not just one book. A good agent doesn't tell you everything you write is wonderful. She keeps you from putting junk into the world. And for that, I'm eternally grateful.

Being between books is an uncomfortable place for me. I've learned that it takes time for me to let go of one book and fill the well before I can write the next book, but I don't like it. I get antsy and frustrated. I write junk. And I write more junk. I decide I need to do something constructive with my time and check out the want ads.

During this crazy-making time for me, Tina reminds me that I don't need to become-a-librarian, write-a-chapter-book-series, cure-cancer . . . She gently guides me down from the ledge and whispers, "All you have to do is write the next book."

All you have to do is write the next book.

Notice, she doesn't say, "You have to write the next high-concept, best-selling, vampire/ghost/wizard/zombie book." She simply says, "All you have to do is write the next book." And because she's funny, she usually follows that up with, "Easy for me to say."

With Tina's wise words in my head, I wrote Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, which was enthusiastically accepted by Stephanie Elliott at Delacorte -- our third book together. It was a bonus to learn that Stephanie, like my main character, is a big fan of Jeopardy!.

Tina had done a great job pairing me with Stephanie. I adored Stephanie's subtle wit and wicked way with a blue pencil on my manuscripts. (That's another thing a good agent does -- tries to match the right book/author with the right editor/house.)

So I was knocked right off my axis when Stephanie called to tell me she was leaving Random House for another job.

"But, but . . ."

It didn't help that I'm in that wonky place of letting go of one novel and gathering, gathering, gathering for the next one.

And while amazing things are happening for How to Survive Middle School -- landing on both the Texas and New York state reading lists and being picked up by Scholastic for book fairs and clubs -- that felt like pressure that my next book had to be out-of-this-galaxy spectacular, which of course made it impossible to write the only way that works -- allowing oneself to write a lousy first draft.

And there was Tina, with her calm, wise words. "All you have to do is write the next book."

My sister once asked me why I would give someone 15% of my earnings. I told my sister that without my agent, I'd get 100% of nothing. I would not have the career I have without Tina's guidance and wisdom. Tina earns her 15% by giving me and my career 115% of her time and energy.

Even though Tina has many wonderful clients, she always makes me feel like I'm her only one. She answers my questions promptly and is excellent about communicating during every step of the process.

I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have an agent who is also a friend, but I do. And today, I want to thank my friend, my agent for all the wonderful things she has helped bring into my life.

Thank you, Tina, for being my career partner, the person who ALWAYS has my back, my business guru, my champion and advocate for each stage of each book, my pre-editor and most importantly, my dear friend.

Tina, words can't convey my appreciation for all you've done for me (and my family) over the years, but maybe these seven simple ones will do: I'm off to write the next book . . .

March 22, 2011

Hammy Hits the Big Time . . .

Ever since Hammy found out he'd be featured in Scholastic's Book Fair Author Video, there's been no living with him.

He demands only organic veggies to stuff his cheeks with. He expects us to line his hamster wheel with shimmery, gold fabric and bring him fresh water every hour in a silver pitcher. And he squeals whenever I'm on the phone. He's afraid he'll miss a call from MTV, Oprah or Hamster Time, where he thinks he'll be named Hamster of the Year.

Sheesh! Who knew such a little hamster could get such a big head?

All this hamster hooplah just because Hammy's video will be part of the Scholastic video shown to middle school students before they head to their school book fairs this coming fall.

I mean, big deal. It's not as though he's as famous as this hamster . . .

March 16, 2011

And in the Beginning . . .

Beginnings are hard for me.

I fidget. I make a cup of tea . . . or twelve. I absolutely must take the dog for a walk. In fact, cleaning the toilets can often seem more appealing than staying put and putting pen to paper.

I don't know why. Once I'm in the story world, you can't keep me away. Cleaning, paying bills and speaking to my children often gets neglected.

But, oh, those pesky beginnings.

After a few false starts, I think I finally hooked onto the beginning of my new novel. I'm excited. I'm energized. I'm hopeful that I can sustain those feelings and create a whole new book.

For now, to celebrate beginnings, I'll share some of my favorite book beginnings . . .

"There is no lake at Camp Green Lake." -- Louis Sachar

"I was born with water on the brain." -- Sherman Alexie

"I was supposed to play the piano." -- Linda Urban

"That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me." -- Gail Carson Levine

"Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys." -- Judy Blume

What are YOUR favorite book beginnings?

March 14, 2011

Probably Not What Shakespeare Had in Mind . . .

To Bee . . .

Or not to Bee . . .

That is a silly question!

March 10, 2011

The Winner Is . . .

April Henry, thank you again for sharing your wisdom about creating suspense in fiction and for generously giving away an autographed ARC of GIRL, STOLEN!

Faithful blog readers: Thank you for your wonderful comments!

According to our independent judging firm,, the winner of an autographed ARC of GIRL, STOLEN is . . .


Congratulations, Laura!

March 9, 2011


Did you know it's World Read Aloud Day?

If you follow Kate Messner's blog, you did.

Thanks to Kate Messner and the miracle of Skype, I was able to meet with students from SIX different schools in FIVE different states (New York, Illinois twice, Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa).

We shared a lot of laughs. I showed the students some books I loved when I was their age, shared some behind-the-scenes stuff about my books and, of course, showed Hammy the Hamster and my rubber chicken necklace. Then I, um, READ because if you're not paying attention, it's World Read Aloud Day.

Here are the awesome kids from Oak Brook, IL . . .

And the students from Ohio made signs with pictures of my books on them, and at the end, several students held up letters that spelled out, "T-h-a-n-k Y-o-u!" Let me tell you, spelling-obsessed Vanessa Rothrock would have been proud. I know I was.

(Tip for authors: On the left side of my screen, I pulled up the section of my novel on Word so I could read without looking away at a book in my hands.)

It was super fun to read aloud and visit with so many students from so many states. The best part was that I didn't leave a single carbon footprint on the planet because I did it all from my home office.

Of course, I may have made bunny footprints because while it appeared that I was dressed in businesslike attire, down below, I was wearing these . . .

Thanks so much to Kate Messner for organizing this and the FANTABULOUS teachers and librarians who invited me to visit virtually with your WONDERFUL students!

March 7, 2011

Persistence Pays Off -- EXCITING NEWS!

In 2007, I read Lisa Yee's posts about when she was chosen as the Thurber House Children's Writer in Residence.

Living in James Thurber's boyhood home for a month. Quiet time to write. Teaching writing to kids at a summer camp and homeless shelter. This is perfect for me, I thought.

So I applied.

Alan Silberberg won that year. Alan worked on Milo during his residency. And I'm delighted to say that Alan just won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award for that book.

I wouldn't be deterred. When applications came due, I applied again.

Guess who won that year?

Hope Anita Smith.

Perhaps a normal person would give up at this point, but really, no one could accuse me of being normal.

I applied again.

Guess who won. C'mon. Guess.

Keith McGowan.

Okay. Okay. I can take a hint. I decided not to apply anymore. It wasn't fun getting that letter saying I wasn't selected year after year.

But . . .

"Most people give up just when they're about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown." -- Ross Perot

Who am I to argue with Ross Perot?

I applied one last time. In fact, I made a mistake with the deadline, had to make a mad dash to the post office and spend $18.45 to get my application materials there in time. $18.45!

Was it worth it?

Hmm. Can you guess who won the 2011 Children's Writer in Residence at the Thurber House?


I'm delighted to announce that I'm going to Columbus, OH for a month this summer and I'll live here . . .

I'm so excited about this summer adventure. Writing. Exploring Columbus. Working with the kids. Writing. Eating at this restaurant, owned by a guy I went to school with in Philadelphia. Writing. Meeting cool new friends. Checking out the library, zoo, gardens, parks, etc. Um, did I mention WRITING?

THANK YOU Pat Shannon and fellow Thurber House peeps for this amazing opportunity and for the kind words you sent to my editor when making the announcement: "It was Donna's persistence, humor, and positive attitude that made the difference."

Persistence. Hmm.

Next time you feel like giving up . . . remember that you might be on the one yard line.
(At least that what Ross Perot says.)

March 4, 2011

6-1/2 Ways to Create Suspense in Fiction by author APRIL HENRY

I'd keep you in suspense about today's post, but I'm too excited to share great info, a book giveaway and the author, April Henry, with you.

I picked up April's book, GIRL STOLEN, without knowing it would be filled with so much suspense that I'd ignore everything else to find out what happened next.

Cheyenne is sick and waiting under a comforter in the backseat of her stepmother's car. While her stepmother runs into the pharmacy to pick up medicine for Cheyenne, someone STEALS THE CAR, unintentionally kidnapping Cheyenne. Finding a way to escape is almost impossible because Cheyenne is BLIND! The stakes in this novel are continually raised. (To win an autographed, advance reader copy of this suspenseful YA novel, scroll to the bottom of this post.)

But first, meet author APRIL HENRY . . .

New York Times bestselling author, April Henry, has written 10 mysteries and thrillers for adults and young adults, including Girl, Stolen, which has just been selected for the Best Fiction for Young Adults List and Quick Pick List. April 2011, look for her next adult book, Heart of Ice. A new YA thriller, The Night She Disappeared, is due out January 2012. April lives with her husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon. You can visit her on the web at



1. Give your characters phobias or fears - and then make them face those fears. Afraid of heights? The final confrontation should take place on a rooftop. Afraid of repeating the same mistake? Give them the opportunity to get it right.

2. Play on universal fears: darkness, wild storms, something crawling on the skin, objects that cover other objects, being alone, being helpless or unable to act, something under the bed, closed or partially opened doors, hallways or tunnels leading to the unknown, cramped spaces, basements, attics, heights, crowds, disease, end times, death.

3. End each chapter with an unresolved issue. Have a character open a door or answer the phone, be confronted by someone with a gun, receive a mysterious letter, or make a decision not revealed immediately to the reader.

4. Look for passages that describe the weather, the landscape, the aftermath, meals or coffee, or travel. Then cut them.

5. Hurt a main character. Do it early so the reader knows no one is off limits. Even better, kill somebody off – preferably a likable character. Readers will be on the edge of their seats, knowing that anything at all - even something very bad - could happen.

6. Force the character to make a choice between two things she wants—or the lesser of two evils. Two loves. Two people to save (when only one can be). Addict/temptation. Married/temptation. Knows brother is murderer who won’t stop killing/but if she turns him in, he’ll go to death row.

6-1/2. Write scenes that personally make your palms sweat. Don’t stack the odds in your character's favor. Multiply the bad things he faces - and see what he does in response.

* * *

For a chance to win an autographed, advance reader's copy of GIRL, STOLEN, click on the follow button on the right side of the page, then leave a comment below. A winner will be announced on this blog Thursday, March 10th. (Check back to see if you've won.)

Thank you APRIL HENRY for sharing your excellent 6-1/2 tips for creating suspense and for generously giving away a signed copy of GIRL, STOLEN!

March 2, 2011

School Visit with Invisible Students

A big barrel of THANKS to Kim Maihack for inviting me to speak to the 5th, 6th and 7th grade students at ALL SAINTS.

I'd show you a photo of the 150 students sitting on the gym floor, but someone, ahem, forgot to take out her camera and snap said photo.

You'll have to take my word for it when I tell you this was one of the nicest group of kids I've ever spoken before . . . and I've spoken in front of some pretty awesome kids. They weren't only nice to me, they were nice to each other.

And they asked excellent questions when the presentation was over.

One girl asked, "Don't you ever get nervous speaking in front of so many people?"

I answered her honestly, "I was nervous before coming here to speak to you guys. But being nervous isn't such a bad thing. It makes me practice more."

I chatted with some of the students, signed books and finally remembered to get a snap of Kim, who runs the beautiful media center at ALL SAINTS . . .

And Eileen, who is Kim's assistant in the media center . . .

Thanks so much for having me. It was a real pleasure to spend time with your wonderful students, who are unfortunately, um, not pictured here.

And the Winner Is . . .

A big THANK YOU to Janeen Mason for her insightful guest blog post about the wonder and magic of creating picture books.

And THANK YOU to those who took the time to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Janeen's lovely new book, GIFT OF THE MAGPIE.

The independent consulting firm of selected the winner . . .

Congratulations, LEANNE FRANSON!