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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Whoa, I'm on the radio?!

Among my failed dreams, I never did get to be a rock star, but at least I get to hear myself on the radio. Sort of.  An essay of mine, "An Old Fashioned Love Song," just aired on Lit 103.3, "Fiction for the Ears." It's on Valley Free Radio out of Northampton, MA, and available as a downloadable podcast. Alan Vogel reads.

This is a poignant experience for me on several levels. I went to college out in the Pioneer Valley (Hampshire College), and so, as Alan Vogel puts it in his introduction to the piece, I am a former resident, of sorts. Also, this is a parenting essay, about a moment in my young son's life that is now passing, so it's like having a memory time capsule. I wrote it six months ago and it already feels like a fading photograph.

It's a surreal experience to hear someone else read my words, especially since this is a first-person work of creative nonfiction. This also was not an essay originally written to be read. I never dreamed of sending it to a radio show until my friend Deborah Vlock had a story read there and I realized what a great format this was. Alan Vogel handles my essay with great sensitivity, and has a golden radio voice. I'm so pleased with the result. I hope you'll check out my piece on the air, as well as Alan Vogel's fantastic show; his programming changes monthly.

It seems there are an increasing number of venues for audio fiction. Is this something that will help to keep short fiction and essays alive as the number of print journals decreases? I wonder.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dan Poblocki Interview

Commercial break! We have a fabulous middle grade mystery writer in our Interrogation Room at Sleuths Spies & Alibis today! Kristen Kittscher and I have interviewed the amazing DAN POBLOCKI. Dan is the author of THE STONE CHILD, THE MYSTERIOUS FOUR series, and THE NIGHTMARYS. He has a wealth of great writing tips to share, and, just in time for Halloween, he's divulged how he comes up with his super creepy monsters and spine-tingling tales. You can also enter to win his latest book!

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Monday, October 24, 2011

TOKYO HEIST galleys arrived!

I came home one day last week to find a mysterious box outside my door. I wasn't expecting anything. Hadn't ordered anything. Nobody's birthday is on the horizon. Christmas is still a long way off.

But when I saw "Penguin" on the mailing label I tore into that box. And found . . .

Bound galleys! This is the first time I've seen my book printed up, with the cover design on it. The final book will be in hardcover, and there are some back and interior jacket details to be finalized. But these paperback copies of uncorrected proofs represent a milestone. Now the novel is finally not just a manuscript, but a physical object you can hold in your hand.

I adore the book design. The chapter headings and part sections feature text running vertically down the page, Japanese style. Some unique aspects of the cover design are carried through in the interior pages. The font is really inviting. I can't stop looking at the printed pages. Did I actually write this? 

The feeling of seeing a box of books was completely surreal. Especially since my preschooler, who was frankly underwhelmed, was clamoring for me to finish his behavior sticker chart so he could claim his reward, a small windup toy. Then he had the audacity to want dinner, when I just wanted to gaze at my cover. It took all my strength not to say "There's the stove, Kiddo, make yourself some pasta." Then my husband came home after a particularly long day at work, and dropped everything when he saw the small tower of books. He was actually tearing up. "This one's mine," he said, taking a copy. And that's when it really hit. The book is a Physical Thing. In multiple copies. Officially entering the world in just under eight months.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Group Blogging: Is it for you? (Part 2)

A bit delayed, here is the second installment of my post on group blogging. Why the delay? I've been busy . . . with the group blog! Yes, it actually takes more time than I thought to get a group blog going. Today's discussion focuses on some of the hidden time costs of running a group blog. But now that we're in month two of Sleuths, Spies and Alibis, and we're finding our rhythm, I also want to address some of the most rewarding aspects of group blogging. (You can also read Part 1 of my discussion of group blogging, to learn more about why I started this group and how we initially organized).

Let's say you have a group. You have a general topic or purpose. You have a blog design that you like. And you've appointed people to various roles to keep thing running smoothly. Here is the next set of questions you'll need to consider:

How often should you post? How should posts be scheduled?
In my group blog, we set a goal of providing fresh content three times a week. We suspected we'd burn out if we were always writing essay-length entries three times a week, even with a rotating schedule. (Besides, is our audience really going to read all those meaningful essay-length entries three times a week?) So we decided to have ONE day where essay-length posts would appear -- every Tuesday -- and the seven of us would post in rotation, in alphabetical order, on a general topic. The other two days of the week would have special features: a writing prompt or exercise every Monday, and another type of feature every Thursday.

We do the Monday writing prompts in rotation, so each member has to come up with a writing prompt every seven weeks. That relieves a lot of pressure. Then we have three rotating Thursday features: Under Cover (books we're reading), Writing DNA (sources of inspiration for us) and Mysteries Among Us (mysteries that intrigue us in the news, in our communities, or in history). We've paired up, and each pair is responsible for a Thursday feature, which involves soliciting contributions from other members, formatting the post, and scheduling the post. Within those pairs, we take turns being responsible for the feature. So this is all a great time-saving device that group blogging can provide. We provide fresh content all the time, but no single person is responsible for all of it. Each person does one long post and a couple of feature items every five or six weeks. Not bad.

We also have interviews or bonus features on special topics, or guest posts. These can appear on other days of the week. Members are always free to add something else if they like.

We use Google Calendar to manage our scheduling, and to make sure any extra features (interviews, etc) don't get posted on the same day.

How should you communicate as a group?
Here's where we've had trouble. Using basic email works up to a point, but when you're figuring out major issues early on -- like blog design or scheduling -- the email chains get really cumbersome. Using Google groups or something similar will help you to manage and archive your discussions.

For whatever reason, though, our Google group didn't seem to work for everyone -- we had a number of technical problems from the outset -- so we switched to a Yahoo group. Then two members mysteriously went missing from the Yahoo group. We finally solved that mystery, and now we're all on board. But figuring out the technical glitches cost us a lot of time, and some people were out of the loop for up to two weeks. Make sure you leave plenty of time before the launch to be sure that all members can access and use whatever communication system you choose.

I also recommend at least one initial conference call. We had one early on; it helped us get to know each other (we've never met in person) and it enabled us to brainstorm ideas about the blog's goals, topics, and schedule.

How and when should you launch the blog?
Some group blogs launch with a big splash. They might do a cool contest or book giveaway. They might drop hints about the impending launch for weeks in advance, and create some buzz. This works great if you have a following on Twitter and Facebook. If only 5, 10 or 15 people are following you, though, you may end up doing a lot of work for no impact. We knew our audience was going to build slowly, due to the specialized nature of our topic (kidlit mysteries), so we chose to do a "soft launch." No giveaways. We started up a Twitter account a few weeks in advance and started advertising the launch there. We begged our friends with big Twitter and Facebook following to help spread the word. We launched with an initial blog post and went right into our rotation of posts and features. We are still building our audience, slowly and steadily. It does take work.

You might also think of special events or times of the year that would help you to launch your blog. We timed ours with the start of the school year, since we wanted teachers and librarians to be a big part of our blog audience. We didn't think a July launch would make as much impact. Is there a holiday or festival coming up that relates to your blog? A convention or conference where you could advertise it? Is there a particular season when readers would be very receptive to your blog? (For example, a group blog on cooking might launch well near the holidays, when people are thinking of food and hunkering down in their kitchens).

Also think of your personal life, and the lives of your group members. Do you have a major event coming up, like a wedding or a big move? Or a new job? Maybe not the best time to launch a group blog. See hidden time costs, below!

What are the hidden time costs of group blogging?
I thought a group blog would save me time. In many ways, it does. As I've mentioned, scheduling posts in rotation means you don't have to think about the blog every single day. And it does get easier as you go along. You get into a rhythm with your group. Here are some potential time sucks to be aware of, however.

  • Gathering followers on the blog and on Twitter. You can't follow a million people and expect them all to follow back. You can't be a spammer. You have to be a little strategic about this. It takes time to find and build your audience. No one person should have to do it all. Ideally, someone is in charge of a Twitter account for the group, but everyone should be able to access it and work on followers, or at least retweet group messages from their personal Twitter accounts. 
  • Hunting down images. Images -- line art and photos -- are great to use on blogs. They add visual interest and can help your blog show up more on Internet searches. But finding just the right images online takes time, especially when you need to be aware of copyright restrictions. There are sites with free, public domain images, but they may not have just the image you want. You may need to take your own photos or provide your own art at times. And formatting posts with images can sometimes be a pain, depending on your blogging platform. Sometimes group members have different comfort levels working with images (or videos) and other members may need to bail them out. Budget extra time if you are working with a lot of images.
  • Running contests. Contests are great because they can bring followers and commenters to your blog and your group Twitter feed. But running them can be time consuming. You have to decide how you'll run the contest (a special widget that tabulates results in a Spreadsheet for you? Or a low-tech version, taking note of blog commenters/followers and doing a drawing?) You have to advertise the contest, pretty much every day -- we advertise our book giveaways on the blog posts and on Twitter. Then you have to go the post office and mail the book or whatever you're giving away, adding one more errand to your to-do list. I like contests, as I like the chance to get an author's book into the hands of an eager new reader, but I was surprised at how time-consuming giveaways can be. You've giving away a prize, and also some of your own precious time.
  • Dealing with technological glitches. If you have a technical guru on your team, you're in luck. Maybe someone can solve problems readily. But if you have repeated technological mysteries on your hands like we did in my group, you may find you are all trying to solve the problem together, or at least wading through lots of emails from people who are trying to solve the problem.
What are the rewards of group blogging?
Despite some pitfalls and time costs, there are lots of rewards. That's why I love my group blog so much and will stick with it as long as I can. Here are some of the benefits I've enjoyed:
  • Friendship! I've made six new friends. There's a lot of good humor in our group correspondence, and everyone is so supportive of everyone's writing, both on and off the blog.
  • Peace of mind. I know every single week, there is something going up on the group blog. Everyone is equally responsible for keeping it going.
  • New knowledge. I learn so much from my fellow bloggers' posts. I look forward to reading them every day. I've gotten great writing tips and book recommendations. And I'm becoming more adept with technology. 
  • A wider audience. I'm reaching more people with the group blog. I've enjoyed reading comments from people I don't know.
  • A sense of mission. I feel we're all providing a service together. I feel like we're a really great small company. (OK, a company that makes absolutely no money. But still. It's really fun to have a purpose with a group of like-minded people). 
I hope this helps anyone who may be on the fence about starting a group blog, or who has started one. I'd love to hear from group bloggers about what works/what doesn't work for you, and I'd also love to see examples of group blogs that people enjoy following.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Harriet the Spy Day

I had every intention of writing a new post today, and then copyedits descended! Because I'm on a tight deadline, I'm redirecting you to the post I wrote on my other blog, Sleuths Spies & Alibis. We're celebrating Harriet the Spy Day over there, in honor of Louise Fitzhugh's birthday today. Harriet and her spy route greatly influenced many writers, myself included. This was one of my favorite books as a kid, and I've been stunned to learn how many people continue to enjoy this children's classic as adults. Come share a tribute to Harriet, have a tomato sandwich on us (Harriet's fave!) and enter to win our giveaway book contest! I'll be back later this week with my second installment on Group Blogging.

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