A Year of Thanksgiving

With my first book, Pedro’s Pan, coming out this year, it has been a year of ups and downs. Check that, ups and downs isn’t the correct term because it has honestly been all ups, just some greater than others.

I got some great reviews (and a couple of confusing ones) and had a great start with my blog tour. My book launch itself was less of a turn out than I had expected, but my first signing at Barnes and Noble was a sell out.

An event while traveling in Sitka looked to be a bust, but ended with over 20 kids. A similar event in Durango which had been promoted well ended with only 3 kids. While not as big of a turnout as expected, Durango became one of the biggest sellers of my book in the whole country.

We tried to do events in Fairbanks for Golden Days and got very little interest. Did one event with very low numbers. The next day, we did the street fair and had my biggest day of single sales for the year.

Did a couple of events at the State Fair and they were okay. The mining association invited me back to their industry trade show and made many connections and gained some global awareness for my book.

As you can see, they were ups and UPS this year. Some things went well, others went better. I learned a lot and have been working on giving back. I have met some goals and made some new ones.

This week though, I probably got my biggest surprise; Pedro’s Pan made the New York Public Library’s Recommended Book List for 2019.  Of the thousands of children’s books (board books through middle grade) that they got this past year, Pedro’s Pan was selected. While I didn’t write this book hoping to get awards or recognition, I am grateful and honored that my book was recognized.

I am grateful to get an amazing illustrator, Jacob Souva, who had as much passion for this book as I have and made it what it is.

Thank you all who have read my book, checked it out of the library, sent me pictures of it from gift shops and airports, for those who have come out and listened to me talk, and those who have supported me.

Paying it Forward

In an attempt to market my book to a broader market, I set up a table at the local Mining Association Trade Show to promote my book, Pedro’s Pan.

I didn’t go into this expecting to sell a lot of books, but it was an opportunity to branch out to people in the industry both locally and globally.

What came as a total surprise was a native man who was at the trade show representing his tribal corporation. He picked up my book as many people do and started to skim it. He was about to put it down, then flipped the page. Within moments he was totally engrossed in the story.

When he was done, he closed the book and said, “I’ll take one!”

As I happily signed it, he began to tell me his story. “I can write something like that. I don’t mean any disrespect. I just realized that I could tell my story.”

“As I read your book, I can see me teaching my son his culture through stories. I can teach him the processes. The struggles. To persevere.”

“My culture is struggling to maintain and remember who we are and the old ways. I can write stories that can share that with others.”

We talked about diverse voices and own voices and the need for them. He lives in remote Alaska, but I shared how he can write and find a voice for his culture and how important that is for not only his family, but the world.

His uncle, an elder in his tribe, came by and he excitedly shared his idea with his uncle. His uncle grinned from ear to ear telling him it was a great idea.

The man clutched my book and before he left said, “I will read this book to my son, but it is really for me. I will look it and be inspired to tell my stories.”

That left with goosebumps.

If you had told me that I would have inspired a native man to tell his culture’s stories through his son and I would have met him at a mining trade show, I wouldn’t have believed you.

If you would have told me how it made my heart sing to hear is excitement, I would’ve likely rolled my eyes at you.

But today I am humbled. I truly hope he does tell his stories and that one day he will get into contact with me so I can help him on his journey and pay forward the gratitude.

This Will Do The Trick

It is time for another Halloweensie contest!

 

“This will do the trick!” the witch cackled as she plucked cobwebs from a dark corner. She leaned over her cauldron and stirred the foul-smelling potion.

The clock began to chime; it was All Hallows Eve. She had children to scare!

She scooped up her potions and headed for the door.

The sound of sniffles stopped her. In the corner, a spider wiped his eight eyes and stared at where his home used to be.

She lifted her hat, “Hop on.” After all, what is scarier than a spider in your hair!

Our Story to Tell

I am thankful everyday for a patient wife who does not grumble when I slow down on walks along the beach or streams, my eyes peering down and studying the rocks. I love to stop and study rocks as I try to interpret their story.

IMG_0135Take this rock for example. I picked it up during our annual writer’s retreat which took place in Talkeetna, Alaska this year. I look at this rock that I found along the river and see a story.

Now some people, when they see this rock, all they see is a rock.

So why do I see a story and they see a rock? Passion. I love to look at rocks and their mystery and it makes my mind yearn to know more.

I see the layers of soft mud that compressed under great pressure. I see the pitted layers of softer material, the light layer that interjects itself into the dark layer. I see the vertical fracture where this rock once broke and under extreme pressure fused back together again. I see the distance it traveled from its home way up in the mountains a hundred miles away. I see the irregular shape that has been smoothed by hundreds, if not thousands of years of pebbles, rocks and water chipping away at the jagged edges.

This rock’s story didn’t happen overnight. And its story is not over. It would have been lost had someone not stopped for a moment and admired its struggle, taken in its beauty and wondered at its story.

It is said that everyone has a story to tell, so don’t rush it. Tell your story for the right reason. Take time to appreciate its journey. Be passionate about what you do. Be patient.

Some people will see your story as a rock, others will find the beauty in the journey. Take time to chip away the rough edges. Let the soft layers compress into fine shapes. Don’t be discouraged by the rough patches in your story or the stress of perfection.

Tell your story. Take the time to slow down and appreciate the story the world around you is telling. You might just find a gem….or at least a rock that speaks to you.

The Mysteries of World Building

I have been working on some projects and getting them sent out to editors and agents in hopes of selling my next book. While my debut was a picture book, many of the works that I am sending out are Middle Grade novels.

Unfortunately, I have been getting the ever fearful silent rejection.

Last year, I got some feedback on a couple of my projects that told me I had too much world building in my stories and that it slowed things down. So I have worked diligently to remedy this problem by stripping down as much of the story as I thought I could to eliminate all this “unnecessary” world building.

So when I received an email with an actual personalized rejection, I was quite surprised that one of the big reasons my story was rejected was world building! Loved my voice. Loved the concept. My craft….not so much.

I have read books and blogs on world building and writing and found many of them helpful. So, what was I missing?

With a picture book, world building seems easier because you have an illustrator who is going to help build that world. (Please note that this is a false concept that I will explain later).

I decided to do a mentor study of how other people built their world in the first 3-5 chapters of their books. I chose a lot of books that I had already read so that I could focus on the craft and not so much the story. I also chose books from authors who had at least written 3 books and started on book 4 or later because they will have logically gotten better with their craft as they practiced it.

It was when I was reading one of Brian McClellan’s stories that things began to click. If you are not familiar with Brian McClellan, he writes epic fantasy and in my humble opinion, is one of the best of the modern writers in regards to craft.

What amazed me in his writing and world building is that he really didn’t do it, or at least forcibly. He introduces three characters in three chapters without really telling you anything about the setting.

The first character is in a bar early in the morning. He does not own the bar, but works for a shady government agency and he uses the bar as a meeting place to train recruits. And most of this is done through self dialogue and his interaction with the bar.

The second character is entering a fort that her regiment has just captured. Again, you get description through her interactions with the world, her senses and dialogue with the people she encounters.

The final character is in a labor camp. You see the world through his eyes as he observes the people around him in anticipation for parole.

In each case, we are not given details about the setting itself. We don’t get to learn about what decorates the walls of the bar or what the floor is made of. We don’t learn how big the fort walls were or even clearly how they are laid out. We don’t learn about what kind of labor is done at the camp or what they eat.

So the question is, how does Brian McClellan build his world?

He uses rich language and dialogue.

Remember how I mentioned illustrators, well, novels have illustrators too! The reader creates the world in the head. They imagine it, and if done well, fill in the gaps.

And that was my epiphany: World building is not setting and description, it is how the character views the world and interacts with it.

To clarify this thought, let’s do a little exercise.

What do you think of when you read the word school?

If everyone were to respond, each description would be different, but they would all have similarities. This is setting.

Now let’s build the world by adding a character: band nerd who is also debate team captain.

Again, everyone immediately defines this character through their own experiences or interactions with such people or through popular conventions as depicted on television or movies. Every person’s idea would be different, but you would also find similarities.

Now let’s add a conflict: our character goes to a prestigious private school that prides itself on academics and our character is the star of the school and the pressure is too much.

For some of you, your initial setting in your mind changed. For some, your character or the way you view your character may have changed. But for everyone, you have began constructing a world from the information that you have.

Right now, we know nothing of the character. We do not know their sex, age, likes/dislikes, their family, their goals, their struggles, where they live, when this takes place, ethnicity, nothing…..but each person has an image in their mind created from their own experiences.

There is no need at this time to tell how big the school is, who teaches third period, the number of doors to the next class, or what color the walls are painted…unless it is necessary to the story.

World building is not about the setting, but how the character views themselves in it and interact with it.

Tracy wiped the water from her chin with her sleeve as she glared at the group of boys huddled together down the hall. She didn’t care what they thought, she would drink from whatever fountain she wanted to and they couldn’t stop her.

Spinning on her heel, she strode down the hall, daring anyone to say anything. Everyone turned away from her gaze, except Sharon, who looked up with a smile as she passed.

Did your view of the school change? Did your view of the character change?

I would hazard a guess that if I were to ask many of you to give a description of the school and the character, there would still be differences, but overall, you likely have the same idea of the world this girl lives in and her struggles, even if you never experienced them.

With two paragraphs, I built a world for you. Now, for the rest of the book, I can shape that world as our character sees it. Now description should come through her eyes when it matters to her.

Now comes the hard part, putting it into practice.

My suggestion, word choice. Don’t berate the intelligence of your reader. Let them connect with the story by using rich language that they can get. And by rich language, I don’t mean fancy words, but rather, words the reader can visualize and make a connection too.

In the passage I wrote above, water fountain, is the rich word. When Tracy defies the idea of being able to drink from a fountain, the reader will likely immediately associate it with racial segregation which helps paint the picture of when this story might take place, Tracy’s ethnicity, and her struggles.

Empower the reader to feel empathy for your character and see the world through his or her eye’s. This will make your reader visualize the world by shaping it to their own experiences.

After all, why do people complain about how the book is always better than the movie?

I hope that my little epiphany has helped you understand world building a little more.

Never Be Afraid To Be Called A Newbie

Over the last couple of years, as I have grown as a writer, I have seen my own growth. I have also seen people come and go from critique groups, at conferences and retreats, and online as they pursue their dream of writing.

Here is a fact: Writing is wonderful and easy, writing well is not always wonderful and is never really easy.

Because of this, once you have been around for a while, you hear the word “newbie” thrown around. Depending on who is saying it (and hearing it) it has different meanings.

NEWBIE -Noun

  1. General – A newcomer who is inexperienced.
  2. Seasoned Writer – A newcomer who is inexperienced, often said with fondness as the writer reminisces about what it was like to once be a new writer.
  3. Growing Writer – A newcomer who is inexperienced, often said in denial that they were once recently asking the same questions.
  4. Newbie – A newcomer who is inexperienced only does not realize that they are because they write well and these people just don’t “get it.”

When you hear the word, you will quickly fall into one of these definitions. It is a good gauge as to where you are in your writing career.

But this article is for all the Newbies out there. Don’t be ashamed of being a newbie.

Do you want to know why? It really isn’t a secret. ALL of us where newbies at some point and we will often become newbies again in some different manner.

So, embrace it! This is your time to make mistakes, to ask “dumb” questions (and ask a lot of them, it is the best way to grow), and believe in yourself. A word of caution though, if you ask questions, be open to listening. One of the things I tell my first graders is the only dumb question is a wasted question.

Since you are new, you have a whole world to explore and experience!  Try something new. Learn. Grow. Read.

When you hear someone refer to you or your work as “newbie,” though it is hard, don’t take it personally. Use it as a growing experience. Ask questions. What about me is a newbie?

Here is another word of warning: You may not like the answers, especially those from growing authors who may think they are not newbies, but are often still are. They are just nearly newbies? Slightly usedbies? Narcissibies?

The truth is, authors are for the most part caring people who know what it is like to be a newbie. I can not tell you the number of people who have tolerated my newbie questions (and honestly still do).

To all those veteran writers, be careful how you use that word. You may not mean anything by it, but it could hamper someone who is not confident. Define for yourself what it means so that you can use it to help those that need it.

And to all the Narcissibies, grow up. If you answer their questions, you might just learn something yourself.

Pitch and Query

I have been doing a lot of writing and rewriting of late. I have a handful of stories that are close to being ready to send out, but just aren’t polished up enough yet. But I am ready for the next step: the ever dreaded query.

Which means I get to labor just as long on the letter, if not longer, than I did on my picture book story and my fate lies not in my story but these few words I put upon the page. And then I get rejected, over and over, and I start to flash back to high school and not being one of the cool kids and holing up in the library with books because they will never reject me and…..

Okay, we will stop reliving the past and focus on the future.

If you are getting rejected, why might that be? To be honest, it is not any one thing, but a culmination of multiple factors.

  1. Marketability. This is a business after all. They need to be able to sell your book in quantity. Those quantities differ between different size publishers, so who can market your book makes a difference. Perhaps your book should be with a smaller press that can get behind your story.
  2. Saturation. It may be a great story, but there are already too many similar ones in the market. Or the agent or editor has already has one similar in the works and they don’t want to compete against themselves.
  3. Off Day. Agents and Editors pour through hundreds, if not thousands, of stories every week. Monday-Thursday, they would have checked out your story, but they read it on Friday and Friday was a bad day for them.
  4. Your Query letter is off. Maybe your opening isn’t polished enough. Maybe your pitch fell flat. Maybe you need better comp titles. Maybe your bio doesn’t make a connection.

We know you can’t control 1-3, though you can familiarize yourself enough to understand 1 &2.

So let’s look at what you can control.

When it comes to writing a query, I like the acronym K.I.S.S. Keep It Short & Simple. Think of it like speed dating. You have just a moment to catch someone’s eye.

Whether it is an agent or editor, make a connection. Keep it simple & short. My name is…. How do I know you…. How does this story fit your needs.

Example: My name is Matthew Lasley and we met at the SCBWI Spring Retreat in Alaska. I enjoyed your candor when you spoke about the future of the industry. I believe my story BLAH BLAH BLAH will fit into the super hero line of books you represent at These Guys Make Book.

You have made the connection, now you have to make the sale. Pitch your book. This is hard and is often the area where many of us (—> ME) fails. It is not always because it is written poorly, it may be we do not use our voice, or the character’s voice, or we put the wrong stuff in. Sometimes, we try to be clever…..remember K.I.S.S.

To understand what I mean, let’s look at three examples:

  1. In this 517 word picture book, Super Sam, despite his incredible strength, doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. His trusty sidekick, a tennis ball, has no hands and can not help him to tie his shoes. When he tries to leap tall buildings, he trips and the villain gets away. What is Super Sam to do?
  2. Super Sam has incredible strength and loves to save the day. But when his shoelaces come untied and he stumbles about, things go from bad to worse. This story is written like Scaredy Squirrel with the humor and pacing of Captain Underpants.
  3. Super Sam is super. He is super strong, super smart and super worried because he doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. Too embarrassed to ask for help, his day goes from bad to worse when he trips over his laces and lets the villain get away.

In the first example, we see two big problems. First, details about the book’s format are not necessary. That comes in the next part of your letter. Here, you want to keep it simple and short. This is where the agent or editor decides if they are going to continue reading. This is your idea, let it take the front seat. The second issue (and some will disagree, but it is my pet peeve) don’t end with a question. The only questions that belong are rhetorical, and those should be used sparingly to simply show writing style or establish voice. Let them come up with questions that they want answered. Let them feel involved.

Example 2, while short and sweet, is soulless. There is no voice or character. It is simply a plot. Also, comp titles do not belong here. This is another part of the story format. And if you are going to use comp titles, make sure they are from the right genre.

In Example 3, (while not the greatest…it is only an example) shows the writing style as being short and simple lines. There is a connection made with the character through empathy. Despite how super Super Sam is, he struggles and fails. I can see there is going to be a lesson in this story, so it does not need to be stated, or else it would appear to be didactic. This will lead the agent or editor to ask, how is Super Sam going to solve this problem? What growth are we going to see? How can I connect this to a child? Is there a big enough connection to market the book?

When you write your query, think about how it is going to be marketed. Who is going to read this book? Who is going to buy this book? They are not always the same.

The next part of the query letter is the dirty, technical stuff. This is where you give details about book format, word count, and comp titles. You might even tell who you see the market for your book. Sometimes there might be an unknown or untapped market the agent or editor never realized.

When I wrote my book, Pedro’s Pan, I shared about the local tourist market as well as the  diverse readership that may be found in other regions. Looking back, I totally missed the broader educational market and readership.

The final part of your query letter, the closing; your bio. Who are you? What makes you qualified to tell this story? What accolades or connections to the writing community do you have that shows you know what you are doing?

Remember, K.I.S.S.

Who are you and why are you qualified to tell this story? Tell them a little about you. Make it personal.

If you have gotten an agent or editor this far, you want to close strong. Your pitch and connection may have gotten them to consider you. The technicals may have made them consider the market. This last part may be the tipping point of which pile your story goes into.

Example: I live in Anchorage, Alaska where I teach first grade. Even as a kid, I wanted to be a writer, but no matter how good of a storyteller I thought I was, my dyslexia was a constant reminder that I struggled to read and write. I want to to tell stories that empower kids to overcome their struggles. I am a member of SCBWI and published my debut book, Pedro’s Pan, in 2019.

Keep it simple. You don’t need to talk about your kids, your pets, your job, your favorite color, or where you went to school….unless they are directly linked to why you are qualified to tell this story. Note that I shared my struggles with dyslexia as my link to telling this story.

If you so not have writing accolades or awards, don’t worry, the publisher and agent won’t really care if you have shown in this letter that you know what you are doing. Those are icing on the cake. But don’t over do it or embellish, they will know and it will stick to the top of their mouth like day old grocery store frosting.

Listing writing organizations that you are a part of shows that you are not just some Joe Shmoe at home who say his cat do a really funny thing and thinks that should be a story. These organizations are a link to your professionalism.

So the next time you get a batch of rejections, think about how you might tweak your story or your query letter. Remember, the editor/agent pond may be finite, but there are always new fish in the pond.

Wipe away the tears, eat a pint of ice cream (or a piece of good fruit) and do it all over again. And never stop believing that your story will find a home.