Monthly Archives: April 2013

The alphabet and anxiety

Today’s myth: elementary school kids don’t worry. More accurately stated: they have no real problems to worry about. They just slog across the snowy playground in boots thinking about how to escape carrots at dinner and negotiate extra TV time.

In my books, kids worry. They worry about grades, about their parents’ problems, about their friends’ problems, about their electricity being cut off, about whether their moms might start drinking again.

In my life, my child worries. My eight-year-old wants to know what will happen to Nana when she dies. She wants to know who started the divorce. Mom? Dad? She wonders if kids in war zones can drink milk. She’s scared her friends in Mankato will forget about her. She wonders if her older, pregnant sister will stop playing with her once the baby is born. She’s sad she doesn’t see her stepbrother, who lives in Seattle. She wants to know why that guy shot Martin Luther King and will someone shoot President Obama?

Her friend worries about her brother, who’s a cancer survivor with lingering health problems.

Another friend, a first grader, wonders if Mom will marry the nutty guy, the one who makes Mom cry.

Another friend wonders whether she’ll live with Mom next year, or will it be Dad?

A child in my family wonders if she’ll have to sleep on the couch when she visits Dad, because the couch smells like cat pee and she found mouse turds under the cushion.

We know a kid who no longer wants to visit Dad and his new wife because there are too many whisky bottles on the table.

Last year, my daughter’s classmate died during heart surgery a few days before school ended. The first-graders wanted to know if they needed heart surgery, too, and would they die? Why do kids die?

We know a child who’s afraid to eat grapes because a girl in the neighborhood choked to death on a grape.

I don’t want my books to be filled with despair. Despite these terrible things, kids still laugh and eat cookies and build snow forts and tie ribbons on their bikes and love silly hair day at school.

I want my books to be real. And funny. Because life is the strangest mix of joy and heartbreak, a mix of anxiety and silliness.

Kids know that. They know so much.


Shelley’s technology manifesto … from a non-techie

Commenter Ewan had a great question about aspiring writers entering the tech world: how do you start? What options should you consider?

The truth? I still feel like an aspiring writer. I still feel like an aspiring techie. But I’m happy to share my experience and lessons learned. Other writers – aspiring or otherwise – may completely disagree. So find yourself a grain of salt. And let’s begin.

Web stuff

Until you’ve got a contract or some cash, use a free platform. WordPress is great because it works beautifully as a blended web site and blog. And it’s free unless you upgrade. Be careful about spending a lot of money on technology until you’re getting writing contracts or paychecks. Instead, I’d spend my money on conferences and classes and books. Keep all those receipts for tax time.

I tried GoDaddy, the company that takes care of my domain name, but I felt like a crop duster on the space shuttle. Hours of frustration. The company’s sites are wonderful, but trying to construct one made me want to toss my precious laptop through a window. I also have a private Google blog with my writing group, but overall, Google blogs have limited functionality.

I guess Tumblr is the latest web toy. It synthesizes the microblog, web site, macroblog; and it’s easy to use and follow. Check out my friend and author Rachael Hanel’s Tumblr site.

I wouldn’t do a full web site unless you’ve got creative endeavors to showcase.


If you’re trying to build an audience, a pre-book audience, blogging is a great way to go.

Content is everything. Fresh content. I’ve Googled subjects, clicked on blogs, and see the last post was 2012. I won’t be going back there. My goal for this site is blogging every weekday with weekends off. I consider blogging part of my writing job, so it’s actually more than a goal. It’s an assigned task.

That said, the first thing a potential blogger should do is open a Word document. Trying writing (mostly) meaningful posts three times a week for a month. Can you do it? Or do you feel dry after week three? If you can’t keep up the practice run, you probably will struggle to post fresh content. (Remember, if your practice posts are good, you’ve got 12 posts in the vault.)

Know you’re audience and write mostly for them. I narrowed my subjects, and I suspect my audience is primarily book industry people, including librarians, teachers, and other writers. I have wonderful friends who follow me. I hope adult readers will find this blog, too. Yours might be the life of an aspiring writer. Research other blogs and see what you like.

I’m not trying to attract teens and tweens. I don’t think they’re interested in reading about the writing life, unless they love to write. I do plan, however, to make parts of my blog interesting to tweens and teens – book trailers, for example.

Bloggers build their Google position, and therefore audience, with “search engine optimization.” Google that phrase because I haven’t figured it out.

See? My own dirty dishes!

See? My own dirty dishes!

The bigger tech world

You probably already have a Facebook page. You’ll need a separate author page on Facebook when you publish, plus a Twitter account. It’s pretty easy to connect subjects on all three.

I’ve neglected Twitter. I’ve spent blog space making fun of Twitter. I don’t completely understand it, but I’m back to my Twitter account and giving it a good try.

See? My own lamp!

See? My own lamp!

Take lots of photos and keep them in a separate folder. Pictures you think you’d never use, pictures of yourself, pictures of books. Tons of pictures. I’ve managed to use photos of my overflowing stack of dirty dishes and even my living room lamp. You need art on your blog, especially if your posts get long. Copyright on Internet photos is something you have to consider.

That’s my tech advice. If anyone has time to add to it, or disagree, please comment.

Read our very short book rev—

A feature in the Ladies Home Journal: “Fifteen Second Book Reviews.” (Hey, I was at the doctor’s office. It was LHJ or Fishing Weekly.)

Fifteen-second book reviews. Is that all a book is worth? Fifteen seconds? Why include book reviews at all? Why not just say, we think you’re too dumb to read.

I know the deal. Today’s popular magazines have one or two long stories, a bunch of quirky short copy, and lots of tidbits. The trendy design involves pages broken into blocks of color, and editors need copy to fill those boxes. Like makeup tips. Kim Kardashian never leaves the house without Cover Girl Lash-Building Mascara! Because we’re supposed to believe Kim spends $2.99 on drugstore make up. Or diet tips. Madonna kicks those chocolate cravings with kale!

But books in 15 seconds … That’s not enough time to tie your shoes, to blow your nose, to find the expiration date on yogurt.

Fifteen seconds. The amazing essayist Diana Joseph has a book title that can’t be read in 15 seconds: I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog. Buy it anyway. It’s hilarious and poignant.

Fifteen seconds.

Luckily, my middle-grade novel, The Graham Cracker Plot, can be described in 15 seconds: Daisy and her sometimes friend Graham plot to break her father out of prison. But can it be reviewed with any insight in 15 seconds?

What about dense, classic literature? What about complex modern novels? What about challenging nonfiction?

The LHJ version:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a dead guy. Kinda long but pretty darn good.

The Corrections by the guy who dissed Oprah. Also long but pretty darn good.

The Graham Cracker Plot by someone new. Kinda short. Might be for kids. But pretty darn —

Damn. They ran out of seconds.

Hudson’s Chapter2 Books: One, Two, Ten

Brian, meet Little Rock Girl. Little Rock Girl, meet Brian.

Brian, meet Little Rock Girl. Little Rock Girl, meet Brian.

I recently brought copies of Little Rock Girl to my local indie bookstore. I met Brian, the owner, and we talked about doing a reading or presentation in the store.

First, the store. Chapter2 Books in Hudson. It’s my family’s favorite place. My daughter thinks she’s savvy because she can visit the store, read a chapter of the same book each time she’s there, and then she doesn’t have to buy the book!

I asked her, how would you like it if nobody bought my books? You wouldn’t get an allowance. (Or food, but no reason to scare the kid, right?) And if people don’t buy books from Brian’s store, his kid doesn’t get an allowance either!

She said, Oh. Okay. Then how about I read the first chapter to see if I like it and if I do, you buy the book.


Check out the Chapter2’s web site. It lists book club events, author visits, and other fun stuff. I love the book chains, too, but there’s nothing like hanging out in an indie bookstore. It’s like chatting with friends at the coolest place in town while inhaling the scent of books. Nirvana.

Second, I’m finally trying that press-the-flesh meet-and-greet marketing with Little Rock Girl.

My career in public relations was based on promoting other people and policy positions, not me. Marketing yourself is an uncomfortable experience for Midwesterners. We’re raised to aww, shucks our accomplishments and then chalk it up to luck and never speak of it again, lest we be the worst thing a small town girl can be: a bragger.

Thankfully, my friend Mike came along, made introductions, and said nice things about my book. All I had to do was smile and shake hands. Let’s just say the next coffee round with Mike is on me. (Hey, you can find Mike’s books on his web site here. He’s the author of Haunted Heartland, Haunted America and more.)

So, Step1 at Chapter2 was a Rating10.

Statements that turn me into the Hulk. Can’t … stop … it

  1. The price of kids books is outrageous! And for nothing! Twenty pages of a bunny saying, Blue. Green. Red. Anyone could do that.

    You don't want to see me when I'm angry!

    You don’t want to see me when I’m angry!

  2. You’re a good writer. Why don’t you write a real fiction novel for adults?
  3. You got a lot of books out. Since you’re the millionaire, how ‘bout you buy lunch?
  4. Why don’t you call the Oprah show about your book? You’d probably sell more.
  5. I have a great idea for a book. Maybe you could write it and we’d split the profits.
  6. Why don’t you just publish it yourself?
  7. Who is this Little Rock Girl anyway?
  8. Kids books should teach a lesson.
  9. I can’t believe it took a year to write that.
  10. My kids would rather see the movie than read the book.

And now I’m big, muscular and green; throwing chairs out of windows and punching holes in walls. Damn lab experiment.

Let it snow!

As another Wisconsin snowstorm descended last night, I watched the brown muck in the yard turn white again. And I thought, bring it on!

I’d been sorting my bookshelf, and I realized I had the entire Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But one is missing, The Long Winter. Finding it is today’s top priority. It’s amazing plot development that  heightens the stakes with near perfect pacing.

In late summer of 1880, an Indian chief warns Laura’s father to prepare for seven months of blizzards. Pa moves the family into the pioneer town of DeSmit, South Dakota, where he’d built a small building.

Yes, sir! Long and cold.

Yes, sir! Long and cold.

Immediately the wind begins to howl. Residents aren’t worried because the supply train will come with food, kerosene, coal, and everything they’ll need. Except it doesn’t come. Buried by blizzard after blizzard, the train master decides they can’t make it past the town of Tracy until spring.

And spring that year doesn’t come until early summer.

Wilder’s book is one of the most tension-filled novels I’ve ever read. She pulls readers into the despair: loneliness, fear, the howl of blizzards, and cold so severe the reader needs to cuddle with a blanket. Wandering out of town is a life-threatening journey.

When the coal is gone, Laura and Pa twist hay into sticks that burn quickly, throwing just enough heat to keep them from freezing. Other families burn furniture. The town’s lumber baron burns his livelihood.

Then the town runs out of food. The Ingalls grind coarse wheat in a coffee mill and survive on tiny meals of bread.

The heroes’ journey begins.

Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland risk their lives on the frozen prairie. The young men, both friends of Laura, heard rumors that a man living about fifteen miles from town has a huge supply of wheat. With no map, and no sense of direction because the landmarks are covered, they take off with two horses and an empty sled.

As another blizzard blinds the town, the young men return, nearly frozen, with bushels of wheat; enough to sustain the town until the trains can run. Like any good novel, there’s more bad luck. The June flooding is so intense, the train can’t slog through the muck.

I’ve vowed there will be no more winter complains from me. My furnace keeps the house at a toasty 70 degrees, and my refrigerator is full, mostly with food rotting in Tupperware.

No complaints except for one: the missing copy of The Long Winter. I’ll have to be satisfied with living it.

Starving writers. Mansion-buying writers. Who decides?

Before I continue with the second list of six, I want to share a link to author Maggie Stiefvate’s blog.

Maggie is the successful author of Shiver, Ballad, Lament and many others. (I hope I get a chance to meet Maggie someday.) Maggie is prolific, she’s brilliant, and she was “discovered” by a Minnesota publisher. That warms my Minnesota heart on a 20-degree spring day.

In a response to a writer’s question, Maggie delivered this bottom line: Publishing is run by readers.

I get her point, but I want to share some general disagreement.

I think publishing is run by editors going through a nail-biting process of figuring out what readers will want two years from now. For editors, it’s part guessing game, part experience, part marketing.

Functionally, there isn’t one big circle of readers. “Audience” is segments of different people. In data-driven marketing, companies have a process to engage consumers, collect responses, disaggregate the information, and use that data to make product decisions.

The other kind of marketing, the Don Draper model, is “Mad Men’s” ad team theorizing about what the product represents to a certain segment – and Don’s segments are very limited – and then throwing ads at them.

Publishers aren’t stupid. They understand modern marketing.

But the process of publishing is so slow – I’ve compared it to a snail crossing a pool of pancake syrup – the data loses its value. For example, Pepsi can spend millions on new messages and deliver new products quickly. They’re always developing new products, or twists on the old products, and keeping them at the ready. Because you never know.

They generate new data and experiment with new products based on data and then retest the product. Learning what people want is a circle. Don Draper is a line with some arrows.

Unlike Pepsi, publishers’ marketing budgets are relatively small. The budget goes to books they think – fingers crossed – have the best chance of being a hit. A handful of hits keeps the publishing business afloat. Most books never earn out their advances.

A publishing example: a company does a thorough marketing analysis of middle-grade boys. By the time they secure the “right” books, edit them and publish them, those boys are now teens with different interests. The new group of middle graders also might have entirely different interests.

Some things/events that change boys’ interests: (Remember, even middle-grade boys can be further segmented by income, reading levels, ethnicity, etc.)

  • New video games
  • New aps
  • A breakout television show
  • A novel goes viral
  • A book with a girl protagonist is megahit (Hunger Games), so they might dabble in a book or two with a girl protagonist
  • A megahit movie
  • New educational approaches in their classrooms
  • Teachers and librarians loving a new book and “hand selling” it to kids (awards and great reviews are motivators)
  • Sci-fi gets bumped by a new genre, like magic, thanks to books about wizard kids going to wizard school
  • A new, young celebrity hits the scene

So, what might have been a fabulous book to middle-grade boys in 2010 turns to mold in 2012.

I agree with Maggie generally. Readers want a good book. Writers, agents and editors are trying to deliver books readers want.

But bottom line, the decision-makers in publishing are often throwing darts at a big circle cut into lots of slices.

Good writers can starve. Bad writers can buy mansions.

Readers have a big role in deciding who starves and who buys mansions. But so do luck, timing, rapidly changing tastes, viral capacity, and the size of that year’s marketing budget.

The randomness makes me shiver. (Thanks, Maggie, for that awesome title.)

I bow before them

It’s a good exercise for a writer, or any artist, to think about the artists who’ve influenced his or her journey. In tough times, it’s reminded me of how far I’ve come. It reminds me to pay it forward. And I feel warmth and support from the circle of love in the writing community.

So I’m writing about a dozen people who made a powerful impact on me. Six today; six tomorrow. Some are dear friends, some are aquaintances. They share one thing in common. I probably wouldn’t be here, publishing my first novel, if it weren’t for them.

Six artists/writers I know who’ve influenced me – in no particular order.

A Bunkert from my dining room. The photo doesn't do it justice, especially the flash.

A Bunkert from my dining room. The photo doesn’t do it justice, especially the flash.

1. Denise Bunkert. She’s a lifelong friend who never deviated from her dream to be a fine artist. She’s the first I knew who walked out of corporate life and plunged into her dream. She learned quickly how to treat her work like a business that could pay her bills. Her beautiful pastels can be found here.

2. Terry Davis, author of Vision Quest, among others. (My favorite Davis novel: If Rock and Roll were a Machine. Next line, it’d be a motorcycle.) I call Terry the Godfather of Mankato’s writing community. As a professor, he helped students (including me) improve their craft, search for agents, and land publishing deals – often at the expense of his own writing time. If Rock and Roll were a Writer, it’d be Terry Davis. Find him here.

3. Rebecca Fjelland Davis. Becky is Mankato’s Kevin Bacon. She’s somehow connected to everyone. An avid cyclist, she’s also Mankato’s hottest grandmother. Becky revises, revises and revises. She’s taught me tenacity. Her first wonderful novel, Jake Riley: Irreparably Damaged, took seven years to find a publishing home. Before I knew Becky, she asked my stepdaughter to read Jake so she could understand a teenager’s reaction. I grabbed it first and couldn’t put it down until

Chasing AllieCat, an on-the-edge-of-your-seat YA novel by my friend Becky Davis.

Chasing AllieCat, an on-the-edge-of-your-seat YA novel by my friend Becky Davis.

I’d finished. My stepdaughter had the same experience. We loved it and couldn’t stop talking about it. More about Becky here.

4. Nick Healy. When I took an MFA fiction seminar with Nick, I knew he could be running the class. He was already that good. Nick is also one of those brave writers who quit a cozy PR job to enroll in Mankato’s MFA program. His short stories have won awards, and recently his collection It Takes You Over was published by New Rivers Press. He helped me land my life-changing gig, Little Rock Girl. He’s modest and doesn’t have a web site, but you can read this MinnPost article about Nick here.

5. Steve Shaskan. I knew Steve’s talented wife Trisha from Mankato’s MFA program. I met Steve later at writing conferences in Minnesota and New York City. I’d sit next to Steve, who brought a notebook everywhere. He’d hunch over and doodle these amazing characters. He landed an agent, parted ways with the agent and sold his first picture book himself. He held firm, too. He was the illustrator and the writer or he was walking. Now that’s a guy with guts. His book is the popular A Dog is a Dog. And there’s more to come. Find him here.

6. Roger Sheffer. I’ve taken writing classes, workshops and seminars. I’ve attended at least a dozen state and national conferences. Yet I learned most about writing style and tone from Roger’s MFA class, Form and Technique. He’s a genius teacher and the bravest writer I’ve ever met. He’ll try anything just to challenge himself. He once sent me a story where not one word was longer than three characters. And he made it work. His only web presence, as far as I can tell, is his Minnesota State University, Mankato professor’s page.

Six more next time. Happy Friday, everyone!

Jowls be gone!

Welcome to my blog’s rhytidectomy. (That’s the smart word for facelift.)

Even though this blog was very young, it suffered from the cosmetic equivalent of eyelid creases and fatty deposits below the chin. (That’s the smart phrase for double chin.) Or, you could say the font was hard to read, the orange-mesh background made readers queasy, and the overall look screamed clutter!

When I started thinking of my blog as my web face, I felt like I’d gone to my class reunion with spinach in my teeth and fatty deposits under my chin.

Time for a blog facelift.

I think the blog is now simple, clean and reader friendly. Why daisies in the background? My protagonist (The Graham Cracker Plot) is named Daisy. Isn’t that just precious?!

The new look isn’t my ideal blog-web site blend. I still need to work on the pages, and things I’d like to tweak are “untweakable.”  That’s the reality of a free service. If you want custom stuff, you need a designer.

Someday. But right now, no designer until I’ve got some fatty deposits in my bank account. Ba-dum-bum-CHING! (That’s the smart phrase for “drum sound made after a bad joke.”)