Formatting my e-book

I’ve decided to go with Smashwords as my e-book distributor. There are lots of reasons: the reach of their distribution, the no up-front cost, their strict format requirements. I’m impressed with how much formatting they ask authors to do before uploading a book. Smashwords e-books have a consistent, high-quality look. Smashwords makes available an easy-to-read, easy-to-follow formatting guide. Although the formatting is time-consuming, it isn’t difficult.

A began re-formatting my book at about 7:30am this morning. Smashwords requires that the author save her document as a .doc file. I did that, then I followed the guide, formatting my novel and saving as I went so as not to lose my work. I took a long break for lunch, and finished the formatting about 4pm.

My book looked clean and beautiful. I was SO happy with the formatting! A day well spent!

I decided to send myself a copy on email so that I would have a backup.

When I clicked on the folder where I had saved my document, I was surprised to see two documents with the same name. Looking more closely, I saw that one was called Syncopation.doc and the other was called Syncopation.doc.docx.

My stomach started hurting.

I opened the document with the Smashwords required .doc file name. It was my original document, lacking the formatting clean-up I’d spent the day doing.  I opened the .doc.docx file and it was my beautifully clean, perfectly formatted document. Probably hiding all sorts of foul .docx formatting garbage.

I felt like throwing up.

Sighing heavily, I clicked “save as” and gave this document a new name and chose the .doc extension. When all other aspects are ready for my e-book upload, I will use this file and see if Smashwords accepts or rejects it.  I may have to spend another long day doing exactly what I did today.

Well, hopefully not exactly.

 

Best Books of 2015

I read 112 books in 2015, a lot of them children’s books. The order of this list is chronological: the order that I read them. I’m mixing children’s books (MG), young adult books (YA), and adult (A) books. Don’t limit yourself. They are all worth reading!

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (MG/YA)

This won the 2014 Newbery Award and deservedly so. My first response to the book is here. The Crossover is a novel-in-verse about two African American teen brothers who play basketball and have to get through some tough times.

The Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage (MG)

I wish Sage got as much attention for Septimus Heap as Rowling does for Harry Potter. This series in a magical world stars a lot of female characters and stays appropriate for elementary-aged readers. Exciting stories, good characters, impressive world-building, fun POV changes. I blogged about it earlier.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (A)

A Christian missionary to a distant planet copes with the strange new world and with the difficulty of maintaining a relationship with his despairing wife back home.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (A)

A crew leaves earth to make contact with inhabitants on another planet. The story unfolds in two time periods: as the exploration unfolds, and later, as the only surviving member stands trial on earth.

Here is a longer blog entry about both of these science-fiction novels.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (A)

An Australian geneticist decides to get married and creates a survey to help him winnow out unsuitable partners. In the process, he meets Rosie (completely unsuitable) and agrees to help her find the identity of her father. The way Don sees and interacts with the world is hysterical. Especially funny if you work with or are married to or are a male scientist/mathematician/engineer.

One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (A)

This is about a farming family. The patriarch has three daughters and is getting older, so decisions must be made about the family farm. Smiley is an incredible writer. Her characters are layered and real, and their development unfolds in ways totally unexpected. A captivating and painful read. Smiley won a well-deserved Pulitzer for this novel.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green (YA)

David and John wrote this story in alternating chapters about two teenage boys named Will Grayson. As I understand it, before they started writing, they picked the name the two characters would share (Will Grayson), David picked a time of year (February/March) and John picked a location where they would meet (Frenchy’s in Chicago). Other than that, nothing in the novel was planned. One would write a chapter, send it to the other, who would write the next chapter, send it to the other, and so on. How fun! I’d love to do something like this. Strangely, the starring role in the novel is neither Will Grayson, but a gay teen character named Tiny Cooper. He’s the best friend of the straight Will Grayson and eventually falls in love with the gay Will Grayson (not really a spoiler: Tiny Cooper is always falling in love). This book is funny and insightful and well worth the read.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth (A)

The Brothers Grimm did not travel the German countryside collecting fairy tales. Most of their fairy tales came from Dortchen Wild, a girl who lived next door to them and would eventually marry one of the brothers. As a lover of fairy tales and historical fiction, I wanted to read this novel from the moment I heard of it, but Forsyth is Australian, and the novel wasn’t immediately released in the US. I got it as soon as it was and wasn’t disappointed. Forsyth does a great job of bringing to life her characters, mixing in the themes and details of the fairy tales, while keeping true to history. Loved it!

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (MG/YA)

After the death of her mother, Joan works the farm with her father and brothers, feeling uncared for and unappreciated, with her intelligence wasted, and her dream of becoming a teacher dwindling. When her father burns her books, she runs away and is hired as a servant by a wealthy Jewish family in Baltimore. The story is told by Joan who keeps a journal. She is a delightful character, naïve and caring, adventurous and hard-working, and above all curious and smart. Her mix of intelligence and innocence is beautiful drawn.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (MG)

Ada was born with a clubfoot, and her mother has never allowed her out of their one-room London flat. When she learns from her little brother that children are being evacuated to the countryside, she makes her escape. She and her brother are placed with a depressed woman who does not really want them. A beautiful story about love and death, acceptance and family, set amid World War II. A Newbery contender.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (MG)

Suzy can’t believe her former best friend could have drowned because Franny was such a strong swimmer–but she could have been stung by a jellyfish. Suzy copes with Franny’s death by learning about jellyfish and no longer talking. Although never stated, Suzy appears to be mildly autistic. Franny and Suzy had stopped being friends, something Suzy also struggles with. Painful, beautiful, insightful, and I learned so much about jellyfish! My vote for the Newbery Award. (Note: I don’t actually have a vote.)

Winter by Marissa Meyer (YA)

The Lunar Chronicles conclusion! When I first started reading this, I was a little embarrassed by the sappy teen romances, and I thought to myself: Why am I so into this series? Then, the plot kicked in and I remembered why. Fast-paced action, fun characters, (sappy romance) and fairy tale tropes. Not only are Meyer’s characters racially diverse, but this title character, Winter, struggles with mental illness. A fine conclusion to a wonderful series.

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton (A)

I got this for Christmas. If you don’t follow Brandon on Facebook or read his blog, you should. It doesn’t take much time, and it will connect you to humanity. Brandon is a photographer who began by taking pictures of people in New York City. Sometimes he included a quote or two from his subjects. Then he began interviewing them and including their stories with their photographs. Then he expanded beyond New York City. This book is just NYC. The photographs and stories are beautiful, painful, joyful, surprising, but most of all, they uncover the diversity of the human experience.

So, there it is. A year of good books. I hope you have found some new titles to add to your reading list.

Happy New Year!

Interview with Author Pat Schmatz

Today I’m welcoming Pat Schmatz to my series of author interviews. Pat is the author of a number of novels for young adults including Bluefish, Mousetraps, Mrs. Estronsky and the U.F.O., Circle the Truth, and the recently released Lizard Radio.

Q: Welcome, Pat! Can you tell us about your new novel, Lizard Radio?

A: Lizard Radio is a coming of age story that takes place in an alternate universe, about Kivali, a gender-queer teen who might also sometimes be a lizard. It started a few years back when I sketched a young lizard wearing headphones. The lizard was trying desperately to get a signal. I began following the character, and she led me to some very unusual places. Kirkus Reviews called it science fiction, which surprised me. Others have called it dystopian. I don’t think it’s much more dystopian than our own world. I think my favorite description of it came from The Horn Book, who called it “mildly magical.”

More than anything, I’d say that it’s the story of Kivali figuring out how to tune into her own sense of ethics and truth, and to find the gray areas and gaps in the borders of a world that constantly demands either-or decisions and commitments.

Q: Many of your novels are character-driven, with a teenage protagonist who is, or thinks s/he is, an outsider. How do you go about developing your characters?

A: Like the lizard, most of my characters come to me as an impression, a feeling. They present themselves, and then I begin asking questions. I do a lot of question-asking throughout the writing process, actually writing out the dialogue of question and answer. I’ve found that a good tool for drawing out the character’s authentic voice. I also do a lot of work with setting, because I think setting and character are inextricably intertwined. I use poetry a lot. I’m not a particularly good poet, but I find the characters will often say things to me in poetry that they might not say in prose.

Q: You mentioned at a recent conference that because your novels are focused on characters, your books have been criticized for being “light on plot.” However, a starred review from Kirkus says that Lizard Radio has an “intricate, suspenseful plot.” Did you do anything differently when writing your most recent novel?

A: I did! I made up my mind that this time, by God, I was going to figure out how to plot. Someone had recommended The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson on draft #3, or maybe it was #4, I read from that book every day and followed instructions. I drew charts and graphs. I wrote out note cards. I hung graphs on my office wall. I thought very consciously about the rise and fall of action and emotion. I found it difficult – sort of like incorporating math into writing – but I think it helped.

Q: What do you find the greatest challenge in writing books for teenagers?

A: I don’t find any different challenges in writing books for teenagers that I do any other kind of writing. The greatest challenge for every writing project is to get a draft written. Once I have a rough story on paper, honing it is a matter of patience and hard work. But to go from the blank page to a real story, with living breathing people? That’s the challenge.

Q: What are some of the things you’ve done to promote your books?

A: I’m not a great promoter. When I visit schools or libraries, I like to have a topic or a workshop to teach. I find readings and signings excruciating, and I’m not much of a performer, but I do enjoy teaching. I’m passionate about books and creative expression – whether that’s writing, music, art, dance, whatever – so it’s fun to bring kids into that world with me.

I usually start my school visits off with the (true-ish) story about my very first school visit, which involved an almost debilitating case of nerves and an unfortunate encounter with a poopsicle (dog-flavored). That story generally loosens up the crowd and settles me down. Most everyone likes a good dog poop story.

Q: Do you have a favorite book or author?

A: The book that changed everything for me was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I read it when I was 10 or 11, and it told some truths that resonated for me in a way nothing else ever had. I decided after reading it that I wanted to write for teens. I’m amazed, when I talk with students about it now, how much kids still engage with those characters.

We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Q: Pizza or salad?
A: Pizza

Q: Ocean or mountain?
A: Ocean

Q: Tree house or doll house?
A: Tree

Q: Violin or piano?
A: Piano

Q: Comic story or learn-something story?
A: Neither. I’ll pick feel-something story every time.

Q: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?
A: Can I pick Ginny Weasley?

Great Choice!

To learn more about Pat and her books, visit her website http://www.patschmatz.com, like her on Facebook http://facebook.com/PatSchmatzBooks, or follow her on twitter http://twitter.com/schmatz5

Thanks, Pat!

Comprehension Questions: The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Chapter One
1. Describe the place where Dorothy lives (use three details).
2. What does Dorothy do when the house is being carried by the tornado?
Chapter Two
1. Who does Dorothy’s house kill?
2. What surrounds the land of Oz and prevents Dorothy from easily returning to Kansas?
3. Why does the Witch of the North kiss Dorothy?
Chapter Three
1. What does Dorothy do to get ready for her long journey to the Emerald City?
2. What is the favorite color of the people of Munchkinland?
3. What does the Scarecrow hope to get from the Wizard?
Chapter Four
1. Is the Scarecrow able to scare crows?
2. Who tells the Scarecrow that he will only be as good as a real man if he has a brain?
Chapter Five
1. What does the Tin Woodman hope to get from the Wizard?
2. Why is the Tin Woodman made of tin? Explain the whole story.
Chapter Six
1. How does Dorothy protect Toto from the Lion?
2. What does the Lion hope to get from the Wizard?
Chapter Seven
1. How do they cross the two large ditches in the road? Who has these ideas?
2. What happens with the Kalidahs?
Chapter Eight
1. How does the raft get out of the current and to the other side of the river?
2. How is the Scarecrow rescued from the pole in the river?
3. Why are the poppy flowers dangerous?
Chapter Nine
1. Who does the Tin Woodman save by killing the wildcat?
2. How is the Lion saved from the field of Poppies?
Chapter Ten
1. What must everyone wear before entering the Emerald City gates?
Chapter Eleven
2. What does the wizard look like to Dorothy, to the Scarecrow, to the Tin Woodman and to the Lion?
3. What does the wizard ask them to do before he will help them?

Chapter Twelve
1. What happens when the Witch’s wolves try to kill Dorothy and her friends?
2. What happens when the Witch’s crows try to kill Dorothy and her friends?
3. What happens when the Witch’s bees try to kill Dorothy and her friends?
4. What happens when the Winkies try to capture Dorothy and her friends?
5. What happens when the Winged Monkeys attack Dorothy and her friends?
6. How does Dorothy kill the Wicked Witch?
Chapter Thirteen
1. How are the Tin Woodman and Scarecrow rescued?
2. What does Dorothy find in a cupboard and take with her when they leave?
Chapter Fourteen
1. How do the friends return to the Emerald City?
2. What trick did the Winged Monkeys do to Quelala?
3. What punishment did Queen Gayelette give the monkeys for their trick?
Chapter Fifteen
1. Who is the Great Oz really?
2. How did the he get to the land of Oz?
Chapter Sixteen
1. How does the wizard give the Scarecrow a brain?
2. How does the wizard give the Tin Woodman a heart?
3. How does the wizard give the Lion courage?
Chapter Seventeen
1. How does the wizard plan to take Dorothy back to Kansas?
2. What goes wrong?
3. Who will rule Emerald City after the wizard leaves?
Chapter Eighteen
1. Why can’t the Winged Monkeys fly Dorothy to Kansas?
2. Who might be able to help Dorothy?
3. Where does she live?
Chapter Nineteen
1. What stops the travelers from going through the trees?
2. How do they solve this problem?
Chapter Twenty
1. What is on the other side of the wall?
2. Why won’t the china princess go with Dorothy to Kansas?
Chapter Twenty-One
1. Why did the animals of the forest call a meeting?
2. How does the Lion kill the monster?
Chapter Twenty-Two
1. How do the armless Hammer-Heads keep people out of their country?
2. How do Dorothy and her friends get past the Hammer-Heads?
Chapter Twenty-Three
1. What will each of Dorothy’s friends (the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion) do after Dorothy leaves?
2. How does Dorothy get back to Kansas?
3. What happens to the Silver Shoes?
Chapter Twenty-Four
1. What does Aunt Em do when she sees Dorothy?
2. Is Dorothy happy to be home?

Two Great Books for You to Read!

Within the last two weeks, I read two books about Christian missionaries traveling to alien worlds. I recommend them both. Both are works of fantasy, yet both are grounded in reality, providing wonderful character studies and handling deep philosophical questions.

book of strange new thingsIn The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Peter, an English pastor, is chosen by a powerful multi-national corporation to act as a missionary to the Oasans, people on a planet newly colonized by earth. Peter must leave his beloved wife, Bea, and their cat, Jacob. Bea introduced Peter to Christianity and their marriage has been one of deep love and total companionship. The difficulty of their separation and what it does to their relationship is one of the main focuses of the novel. The “aliens” that Peter ministers to are thirsty for knowledge of Christ, and we wonder why. We also wonder about the powerful muti-national corporation and its motivation for sending Peter. And what about the previous pastor who disappeared? And the linguist who taught the natives English and also disappeared? While the novel is suspenseful, it isn’t action-packed. The stress on Peter and Bea’s relationship also causes stress on their faith, and this is where the book excels. Its examination of love and faith in crisis is fascinating.

The Sparrow bookThe Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is also an examination of faith. Father Emilio Sandoz had it and lost it: why? Father Emilio Sandoz is one of a crew of Jesuit missionaries sent toward Alpha Centauri after radio signals demonstrate that intelligent life exists on a planet in that area of space. Sandoz is the only survivor of the mission. The book alternates between “past” and “present.” In present day, Sandoz is being interrogated by the Jesuits to discover what went wrong. He is accused of some horrible crimes. In alternate chapters, we learn about the discovery of the radio signals, the recruitment of the crew (all wonderful characters, that we readers fall in love with; Sandoz being the most wonderful), the trip across space, until the past meets up with Sandoz’s confessions. What went wrong? How did everyone die? How did Sandoz “go bad” ? This book has action, great characterization, and incredible world building. The author, Mary Doria Russell, has a PhD in biological anthropology, and uses her knowledge well. The development of the setting on the new planet–the cultures and languages and interactions of the races–is brilliant and probably my favorite part of the book.

I was disappointed by the endings of both books. However….

After thinking about the ending of The Book of Strange New Things for several days, I changed my mind. It ends exactly how it should. I didn’t “get” it at first, but I do now.

The Sparrow puts so much emphasis on what went wrong, what horrible thing happened, that its discovery was anti-climactic for me. I still recommend the book.

I highly recommend both books. So, get reading!

Writer’s Voice Contestant

QUERY:

Dear Krista, Brenda, Mónica, and Elizabeth,

Ever wonder why Cinderella’s stepsisters were so mean? They’ve been misunderstood. THE STEPSISTERS is a young adult, steampunk Cinderella told in alternating first person by the stepsisters. It is complete at 55,000 words.

Drusilla “Dru” is a mildly autistic, scientifically-minded teen who doesn’t use pronouns. When her father dies, she vows to complete all his laboratory plans and projects. Dru’s younger sister Charlotte “Lottie” is a social fashionista who grieves the death of her father and the loss of the family fortune. Their mother re-marries to save the family from poverty, and they move to a two-room farmhouse where their stepsister Cyntia Rellah runs a messenger pigeon service.

The Rellah farm is near the country palace of the King and Queen, who are expecting a child. For centuries the Royalty of Jacobia have been born with weak hearts because of an ancient curse. A special medicine is no longer available, so the King brings Dru to the royal laboratory to finish her father’s work: discover a new medicine or create a mechanical heart for an infant. As the day of birth draws near, Dru must complete the invention her father began or else the child won’t survive.

Impressed by Lottie’s sense of fashion and magical aura, the Queen entangles her in a quest to find and kill the descendant of the sorceress who placed the curse. Lottie must choose between saving her family or serving the Queen.

The traditional Cinderella tropes are used and transformed in this tale of magic, science and romance.

I teach children’s literature at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. My adult historical novel, SYNCOPATION: A MEMOIR OF ADELE HUGO was published by Cornerstone Press in 2012. My middle-grade mystery, THE STOLEN GOLDIN VIOLIN, was self-published in 2010. I am a member of SCBWI, AWP and the Historical Novels Society.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

FIRST 250 WORDS:

The gondola of the luxury airship Ludtwidge sways gently beneath its hydrogen-filled webwrought balloon. Pilot Brijit Eyre studies the darkness out the bridge window and taps the barometer. Something’s off. She can feel it in the air, in her bones.

“Betti, change course 5 degrees north-northwest. Alec, get a mech-pigeon ready.”

Captain Eyre flips a valve. Steam hisses through a pipe, moving the engine to full throttle.

The Ludtwidge uses a Steppe steam engine. Instead of creating steam by burning coal or gas, Steppe engines use the flameless heat of firestones. A vast improvement over past airship engines. Flame and hydrogen are a deadly combination.

In the largest cabin of the Ludtwidge, inventor Sir Ernest Steppe lies on his bunk, melting into sleep.

His daughter Dru holds her hat, which begins to fly. She yells at Ernest. No, it isn’t Dru. It’s the Queen. She’s angry at Ernest. He hasn’t done what he should’ve done. Is it about Dru’s engagement to the Prince? He dreads explaining the situation to his wife. The Queen expands to twice her size. Her red hair ignites into flames. She leans over—

Ernest wakes when his body hits the floor. The airship’s gondola rocks. The floor tilts. He slides from one side of the cabin to the other.

Ernest grabs the porthole’s raised edges and pulls himself up. Rain pelts the glass. Lighting flickers in the distance. Thunder rumbles.

“Heavens undone.”

Ernest puts on his shoes and heads to the engine room.

Septimus Heap and International Children’s Book Day

Me reading to my boys (a few years ago)
Me reading to my boys (who no longer fit on my lap)

When my boys were little, we did a lot of reading aloud, including Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap books, a 7-book, middle-grade fantasy series about the seventh son of a seventh son. We read books 1-3, then got book 4 when it came out. By the time book 5 came out, we were reading them on our own, and I had forgotten so much about the earlier books, that I didn’t know what was going on all the time. I decided I’d wait for books 6 and 7 to come out and then start at the beginning again.

And then the years went by and I forgot….

Until I found book 7 in a store two weeks ago and re-started the series. Wow! It is even better than I remembered. Angie Sage’s world building is fabulous. She has many, many characters and they are well developed and interesting. The plot moves like an out-of-control roller coaster. The writing is clever and funny.

But the best thing. The most notable thing about this series: The number of female characters. The number of female characters either matches or is greater than the number of male characters. The female characters have important roles too.

The first in the series
The first in the series

This kingdom is a matriarchy, with power passing from Queen to Princess. Ten-year-old Princess Jenna is a main character, as “main” as the title character of Septimus. There are male and female wizards, but the top wizard, the Extra-Ordinary Wizard, is a woman. There is a coven of witches (all female) and a female boat builder. A series about a boy named Septimus Heap, who is the seventh son of a seventh son, is going to have a lot of boys in it. And it does. But not more boys than girls.

It is so rare to find as many female characters as male characters in a fantasy novel that this book seems female-heavy. Yet, when you sit down and count, the numbers of male and female characters are even. Just like real life.

Is this important? I think so.

Harry Potter has Hermione and Professor McGonagall and Bellatrix, but each of them stands in the shadow of a more important male character: Harry, Dumbledore, Voldemort. All the key characters are male.

I don’t blame JK Rowling. Would her books have gotten the same attention if Harry had been Henrietta, the girl who lived? I doubt it.

Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series (I must have loaned out book 2)
Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series (I must have loaned out book 2)

So, please, on this International Children’s Book Day, buy (or borrow) the Septimus Heap series (Magyk, Flyte, Physik, Queste, Syren, Darke, and Fyre) and read them to your favorite children.

You will be struck by the number of female characters. But guess what? Your children won’t.