17 Nov

Projects + rejects = prejects

Let’s face it: Between the holidays and the Cybils and the fact that my current nonfiction project involves slowly reading a great big book, 2006 is just about over for me, productivitively. (Don’t bother looking that one up.) And between rewrites of older stuff and new projects that have gone into circulation, it’s been a satisfying year.

Which is kind of surprising, when I think of the projects I worked on this year that didn’t go anywhere, or at least not as far as I’d hoped. Remember E.F.? Toast? Tennessee? There was at least one more picture book manuscript that I don’t think I ever even gave a pseudonym to. Some of these took up a lot of my time, involved interviews and considerable research, and — for a while, at least — were what I expected to be working on for a long time to come.

As much as I’d like to have spent that time on projects that might sell, I don’t regret them. (And, of course, I didn’t know at the time that they wouldn’t sell, or that I wouldn’t be able to get them to a point where we could find out whether they would or not.) I learned a lot from each one, if not from the writing itself than from the research I did for them. I’m smarter as a result.

More importantly, I think I’ll enter 2007 with a better sense of the sort of project that’s right for me and right for the market. And if I don’t? Well, just watch this space next November.

28 Mar

Later, Tennessee

Sufficiently frustrated by my lack of an angle for Tennessee, I jettisoned all my research materials over the past couple of days. Back to the libraries went six books, a CD boxed set, and a DVD, but only after a last-ditch effort early this morning, in which I re-watched the DVD while skimming two of the books. Other than a minor, pre-coffee case of information overload, nothing came of it.

Nothing yet, anyway. As I said last week, I learned a lot of interesting stuff, and as I mull it — subconsciously or otherwise — who knows what I might stitch together? Maybe I can put my new knowledge to use in some fiction project down the road. Or maybe the whole exercise will prove to be a dead end. It wouldn’t be the first time.

But when I left the library after my lunch hour today, I felt a lot lighter than when I went in. It wasn’t just that I was no longer burdened by the materials I’d unloaded (which also included, unrelated to this nonfiction project, at least a half-dozen picture books and a jumbo graphic novel). While I was there, I began writing longhand the first few hundred words in the first draft of my sample chapter for E.F.

I’d begun thinking that having two proposals (or would-be proposals) in the works at one time was one too many, and I’m not entirely sure I was wrong. Lately, I’d been feeling a little overwhelmed, burned out, fed up with facts and how to find them. But if Tennessee was going to end up thwarting me, at least for now, I sure am glad I’ve got a more promising project to balance things out.

23 Mar

A modest proposal (or two)

I’ve spent most of my “writing” time lately on research for a couple of nonfiction projects for which I hope to start shopping around proposals this spring. These would both be different from anything I’ve done so far — targeted to teen readers and centering not on an individual person or people but on historical concepts or trends.

And so far, anyway, they’re very different from each other, not just in subject matter — one’s political, one’s cultural — but in how clearly I can see the shape I think these books would take.

The political one, E.F., is coming along nicely. I know the material is there, in spades, and I know how it ought to be framed. I’ve figured out the lens through which the story should be told, and now I just need to conduct a few interviews that will, I hope, give me what I need in order to write a sample first chapter for the proposal.

The cultural one, which I’ll call Tennessee… well, I sure am learning a lot. And it’s fascinating stuff, none of which I was more than vaguely familiar with prior to digging in. But I haven’t a clue what to do with what I’m learning, how it can be made relevant to modern young readers, or where to focus. There’s no physical action and I haven’t come across any intriguing personalities, both of which would be nice to have for both reader and writer.

I’m going with the assumption that I just haven’t dug deep enough into Tennessee yet, haven’t looked at the subject from enough perspectives. So, I’ll keep at it. Besides, this being new territory in so many ways — the subject matter, the audience I’d be writing for, shopping a proposal instead of a full manuscript — I’m not sure I’d know when to stop.

02 Mar

Mr. Smith gets back into circulation

Word came from Agent Erin this week that my latest revision of Smith did the trick, so this middle-grade biography is ready to make the rounds among editors. This will be the first manuscript that we’ve sent out as a pair to an editor I wasn’t already working with, and I’m excited to see how the process works.

The one last thing I needed to do was put together my bibliography for Smith, which I took care of late last night. So, now I think I’ll reward myself with a little break.

Well, that was nice.

This morning I was up at my usual 5 a.m., sending out interview requests for the proposal I’m working on for E.F., which would be for young adults. Meanwhile, I’m waiting on a bunch of library books to help me get started researching another YA project I’d like to propose (it’s so new, I don’t have a pseudonym for it yet), and I also need to completely rewrite some sample text for Holiday, another picture book biography I want to pitch.

Good thing I’ll be fortifying myself today with some BBQ.

17 Feb

Let me write like that

Prior to starting work on my research for E.F., it had been so long since I began a new nonfiction project that I’d forgotten what it’s like. And what it’s like is slow.

I’ve gotten going by poring over a pair of fact-packed, 250- to 350-page overviews of the topic, which have left me wondering how I can ever come up with a streamlined approach to such a complex subject that will not only be relevant to young audiences but also a joy to read.

Luckily, I know for a fact that it can be done, because last week I finished Karen Blumenthal’s Let Me Play — The Story of Title IX.

If ever there was a complex topic that needed to be tackled for young readers, this is it. And as I read it, I was fascinated not only by the history and backstory and personalities and ramifications of the topic at hand, but also by Blumenthal’s technical feat of selecting and paring and arranging and organizing the sprawling lot of information that the story required her to incorporate.

So, yes, E.F. is slow-going at the moment, and likely will be for some time. But I have a hard time imagining that Let Me Play was moving much faster at this point in the process, and look how it turned out.

09 Feb

What to do?

This may well be a very short-lived condition, but for the first time in well over a year, I don’t have a nonfiction revision roosting at the top of my to-do list. Earlier this week, I sent Agent Erin my Smith rewrite, and with James dispatched to an editor last week, that takes care of my major, non-Day-Glo projects of late.

So, how to fill my time?

  • Compiling and burning a companion CD for my Smith manuscript. I don’t do this for all my subjects (though I guess I could), but Smith was a musician whose work is not as well known as it should be. Obviously, I’m trying to change that. Does a companion CD enhance the experience of reading a manuscript or expose its flaws? Guess I’ll know soon.
  • Resuming work on my marketing database for The Day-Glo Brothers. Does anyone know a good children’s bookstore in Cleveland?
  • Getting back to my research for E.F.
  • At last revising, maybe, a picture book fiction manuscript that a friend critiqued last fall. I think it’s going to take me a long time before I’m even ready to write a proposal/sample for E.F., and I’ve got to be writing something in the meantime. It could be this one. Or maybe that middle-grade novel.
  • Insisting to Agent Erin that I really am focused on nonfiction. It just depends on what the meaning of the word “focused” is.
03 Jan

My three pseudonymous friends

Late this past Friday night I put the finishing (for now) touches on the latest version of my James manuscript and sent it off to my agent. An editor is already interested, so I could have sent it directly to her, but before I did I wanted it to get a reading untainted by way too many hours of staring at index cards and spiral notebooks.

Also, like a pet cat with a dead bird it caught, I wanted to show off my latest effort to my new handler. I hope the new draft is better received than most dead birds are.

One-year-old F was sick for several days after Christmas, so I spent a lot of time with him slumped on my shoulder while I read a recent book about E.F. and slathered it with Post-It flags (in Day-Glo colors, I’ll have you know). I’ve since started reading a second book and expect a third to arrive from Amazon this week. So, my research for E.F. is well underway, and I’m even more excited about the topic than before.

On my lunch hours this week, I’ll be revisiting the Smith manuscript I revised last summer. It’s filled with facts and as many quotes as a semiarticulate, taciturn man (Smith, not me — I don’t think) could muster. But now I need to add a certain personal spin to his story to make it come alive. On the other hand, that sounds fairly involved — maybe I should be saving it for a five-day work week…

12 Dec

Clued in

I somehow managed to get within a month and a half of the ALA Midwinter Meeting without realizing that it’s going to be just down the road in San Antonio. And unlike with the IRA show in San Antonio this past May, exhibits-only registration is priced quite reasonably. So I’m going.

(If you haven’t been to one of these shows, the term “exhibits” can be a little misleading. It’s not as if they’ll be displaying a prehistoric librarian perfectly preserved in amber — we’re talking trade show booths, albeit booths piled high with new books and giveaways and populated with real, live editors and marketing folks.)

In other news from the past week, I heard from an editor that Smith still isn’t working for her, had lunch with Don Tate (thanks for picking up the check, Don), interviewed a former Rolling Stone editor about James, and began lightly delving (if one can delve lightly) into E.F. I’m skeptical that I’ll get much more done before Christmas, but I’m OK with that.

28 Nov

E.F. takes hold

An idea for a new book took hold today. I don’t mean a new idea — it was one that I’d been kicking around for a while. But today, for whatever reason, it seized my imagination and demanded to be moved to the head of the line of my various projects. (It’s nonfiction, by the way.)

My family went on a short road trip this morning. Ordinarily on our outings I’m happy to drive while my wife knits. But on the way to today’s destination, I asked my wife to drive while I outlined the book and bounced ideas off her. By the time we got where we were going, I had what I needed in order to begin researching. (I’ve sung my wife’s praises before, and I’ll do it again. She’s the best sounding board a guy could have.)

Not that I actually can just drop everything and turn my undivided attention to this new project, which I’ll call “E.F.” I’m still reworking James and want to get it finished and submitted to an interested editor. Just yesterday I did a phone interview with the daughter of a labor organizer whose threatened deportation played a key role in James’ life, and early this morning, before E.F. took hold, I e-mailed interview requests to another couple of potential sources.

But E.F. is not going to be denied, I don’t think. It seems like the perfect next step for me professionally, a world of fun to research, an important topic for its audience to know about, and a timely one to boot. It’s all I can do to go to bed tonight and not stay up late to start my fact-gathering.