Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review of The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell

by Kris Kahrs
Edited by Lupe Fernandez

The Pen and Ink Blog has always been a fan of homegirl, Kathleen O’Dell, she of the popular Agnes Parker series. So, in the interest of fairness, this blogger will be up front and simply say you must read everything Kathleen O’Dell has written. There, now that we’ve shared something, I feel so much closer to you, dear reader. To help you with your new mandate, Ms. O’Dell has given us The Aviary. It is everything this blogger looks for in a novel as well as her stock portfolio: believable characters, beautiful use of language, a brisk pace and a freakin’ good story with enough twists and turns to put the Ikea floor plan to shame. 

Kathleen O’Dell’s sixth book, The Aviary, is a middle grade mystery set in a nineteenth century coastal town. Clara Dooley and her mother (the property caretaker) live in the old Glendoveer mansion with the bedridden owner, Mrs. Glendoveer, the housekeeper, Ruby and a large cage of five shrieking birds in the backyard. Clara’s been homeschooled her whole life due to an indeterminate heart condition. Her mother equivocates on all of Clara’s questions regarding her father’s disappearance and the kidnapping and subsequent drowning of the Glendoveer children. Although the loving Mrs. Glendoveer treats Clara like her own, it is life in a gilded cage for the young girl. Until the day Clara meets her new BFF, Daphne. Daphne’s questions about the town rumor that the Glendoveers may have been responsible for the demise of their children makes Clara realize she needs to clear the Glendoveer name and bring the responsible villain to justice. As Clara and Daphne turn up more pieces to the puzzle, it becomes apparent that the frightening birds in the aviary are part of the mystery too. Clara teaches the birds to talk and discovers their true identity. 

Ms. O’Dell is a master of handling complex subject matter in a simple fashion without patronizing the reader. Although this feat appears easy enough, it can make an author apply to dental school. She adroitly handles the period setting of the story by not dwelling on historical detail, but generally addressing the differences in broad language in order to move on and get the story told, all of which, the middle grader reader will appreciate. 

The Aviary is the rare (cough) bird that both adults and their middle grade readers will share for their school reading or just for the enjoyment of it. 

For more on Kathleen O’Dell 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Publishing Contract: A Love Story


Glorious Contract. Note halo around it.
by Susan Berger

I have just signed a contract with Beach Lane Books!

“Hooray!” you say. “How did this happen?”

I’m so glad you asked. 

Last year, after doing a number of posts on first line/paragraphs, I decided to bring an archived picture book out of my file cabinet. The manuscript, The Undertoads, had the benefit of too much wonderful advice. I’d rewritten it so many times that I’d lost my impetus. After I read The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood and All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, I thought perhaps there might be room for The Undertoads as a mood piece.

I showed it to Pen and Ink. They gave me more excellent advice. Armed with three wonderful critique partners, I polished The Undertoads’ rhyme and rewrote it both as a story and as a mood piece. I wanted to submit it to Allyn Johnston at Beach Lane Books. I composed my query letter and the Pen and Inkers polished it. Hilde Garcia was the final polisher on all things query. 

Beach Lane Books rejected it.

Rejection Letter
After the usual internal dialog Of course, it’s not any good. Why do I think anyone would want to read what I write? I perked up and concentrated on the fact that it was a beautiful rejection letter. It was hand written AND the letter had stickers on it. 

I decided I wanted togive Allyn a gift for sending me such a nice letter. I decided to send her Log

Log is the only picture book I ever wrote and illustrated. I didn’t think anyone would understand it without illustrations, so I drew one log, one hog, one frog, one bog and one dog. I scanned the images and printed several copies of each and then moved the illustrations around on the dummy pages. I scanned the final result into a PB manuscript. 

Here’s the letter I wrote Allyn:

November 24, 2010 
Dear Allyn, 
In honor of the Holidays, I am submitting to you my version of the Great American Novel. 
Log has everything: The Circle of Life, The American Dream, The eternal struggle of Sentient Beings vs Nature. 
AND it can be read in ninety seconds. (I mean who has time to read these days.) 
With Joy 
Susan J Berger 

I sent Log off without a SASE because it was a gift. I never expected to hear back. I wanted to make Allyn laugh. 

Six days later I got a phone call. “This is Allyn Johnston. You didn’t send a SASE.”

I didn’t answer right away because I was pretty sure I was hallucinating. Then I said something lame, like, “You have to give me a minute to get my heart back to normal.” 

Allyn said I’d made her day. She said she had been sitting on the floor of her living room, opening mail and feeling crappy. “I opened your envelope and saw the query and grumbled ‘I don’t want to read anyone’s “Great American Novel”.’” Then she said she started reading and laughing. She read it to her son and he thought Log was hysterical.

Allyn didn’t like my illustrations and I couldn’t say, “I’m fine with that” fast enough.

Then Allyn said the magic words:

"I think we can do business together.”

As soon as she hung up, I keyed her name to the phone number. I couldn’t wait to get to the meeting at Kris’ and show the group my phone. The amount of joy in that room could have lit Los Angeles. I know we are all going to get published. It’s just a matter of when. 

I emailed Allyn as she requested. And then… 


December…January….In February… I mailed her a revised ending for Log. I thought she might have changed her mind about publishing the manuscript, so this time I sent a SASE.


On St Patrick’s Day, I got an email from Allyn: 

Hello there, O Patient Susan! 
Many apologies for the delay in making things official with you for your very promising and funny picture-book text. We would indeed like to buy it. 

What followed was the deal memo which amazed me in its completeness. (Theme Park rights were covered.) 

Of course I said “Yes!” and added a request to come to La Jolla to sign it. I offered to bring Hilde’s amazing chocolate chip cookies. 

And then….May…June…July…

August 4th. The 2011 SCBWI conference started on the 5th. I decided to email Allyn before she left for the conference. 

Dear Allyn, 
I'm looking forward to seeing you at the conference and hoping Andrea is coming too. I'll be the one with the Log on my shoulder at the Saturday night party. Pen and Ink decided to come up with a T-shirt for the pajama party. I think you'll like it.
I guess I'm not supposed to pitch you again till after I sign the contract for Log, which is too bad cause I want to query you with War and Peace For Challenged Readers (alternate title: Cat and Rat) and The War of the Noses, (alternate title: Monks and Skunk) 

Allyn replied! 

And I have the contract for you--haha! Will be e-mailing it for you to print, review, sign, and then return for your advance due on signing! 

Hilde and I planned to ambush Allyn with Hilde’s cookies before Allyn’s first conference breakout session.

The ambush was successful, if you discount Allyn’s shock at being approached by two strangers with cookies. When we saw her after her Sunday session, “What the heck is a Picture Book?” Allyn said that Marla Frazee tasted the cookies and said, “Where did you get these? They’re divine.” Hilde promised to give Marla the recipe. 

The contract arrived by email on August 19th. I printed out three copies and returned them by snail mail. I signed the I-9 form and faxed it back to Simon and Schuster. On September 4th I got my copy of the signed contract. On September 9th, I received a check for the first part of the advance. 

I’m waiting for the editorial letter or an email from Allyn so I can make the changes she requests. After that I will be eligible for the second part of the advance. 

The Check
It’s hard to wait. I want everything to happen now. I want to know who the illustrator will be. I want to see the finished book.

I also know that Allyn is the conductor of this symphony called Log on Log and I’ve become a member of the orchestra. And, Ms. Johnston, I’m very happy to be under your baton.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Acetone and Alcohol
The Birth of the Pirate Alphabet

2011 Los Angeles Conference
Intro by Hilde Garcia
Each August, my birthday falls during the annual SCBWI Conference.  This year my birthday was a couple of days before the conference, so my fellow writing partners decided to surprise me for a little girl time.  Lupe stays home wondering what we are up to.

Manicures and pedicures came just in time for the conference. After all, we want to look our best.  The smell of acetone permeates the air as old polish is removed and new colors are chosen.  Six people speaking at once, three in English and three in Korean.  Jalapeño cheddar puffs and cookies being eaten carefully so as not to mess up fresh polish.

“Now what,” I say.

“I should get home,” Kris looks at her watch.

“Nonsense,” Sue admires her new nails, “We should go for a drink.”

“I’m in.”  It didn’t take much to convince Kris.  But where to go?

Kris, Susan and Hilde
“Hey how about El Torito’s?”

Five minutes later, we are there and lucky for us, it’s Taco Tuesday, so the bar has dollar tacos with your choice of meat and margaritas for $3.  How can we say no?

We drink.  We eat. We laugh. I can’t believe I’m out on a Tuesday night, without kids or at a PTA meeting.  Kris can’t believe she’s out either without her son.  Sue happily munches on chips and salsa and we all drink to Lupe, our token male, who happily declines manicures, pedicures and margaritas.

“So, we should do a pirate alphabet at the conference,” Kris says and takes a long drink.  I join her.

“What?”  Sue registered the question. I chose to ignore because I have no idea what she means.  When I don’t know what’s going on, I plead confusion or stupidity.

“We should ask authors at the conference to pick a letter and say it into the camera in their best pirate voice.,” explains Kris.

Kris and Hilde
My turn.  “What?”  I keep drinking. It helps.

“It would be fun to get a whole alphabet together with all these cool authors and make a video,” Kris continues.

“Why?”  Sue and I chime together.

“Because,” Kris says.

“Because why?”  We all take a drink and admire our nails and then break out into a gale of laughter.  We sound like our kids.

“Ok, sounds good to me,” Sue says and sips her margarita.

“Me too,” I say.  “But who is going to break it to Lupe?”

“Just bake him some cookies and he will cave,” Kris says.  We ask the waiter for our third basket of chips and salsa.

The evening is done.  We have consumed 3 margaritas, 13 tacos, 3 baskets of chips and dessert before dinner, which consists of jalapeño puffs and cookies.  Now that we are well fed, ha, and our thirst quenched, we make our way home, our heads swimming with ideas for the video.

“Here’s a thought,” I say as I hiccup, which makes us all laugh, “What if no one agrees to do it?”

The Management


“Well, we can hand out pens and bookmarkers,” I add quickly.  “And our t-shirts are cool too.”  I figure we need bookmarkers for when we fall asleep on the couch with our book and then can’t remember what page we are reading.  And who doesn’t need a pen?

“Hey and our shirts are very reminiscent of Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice,” Kris unlocks the car doors for us and we jump into her SUV.

“Ok, let’s do it,” Sue says with renewed confidence, “I’m game.”

We designate Lupe as cameraman and editor.  Kris and I shanghaied victims… ahem…schmoozed potential participants, while Sue stood by with our bag of pirate props.

It’s a good thing we were under the influence of a good time or we wouldn’t have been able to bring to you this once in a lifetime production. Enjoy it!  We surely did!  Here’s to all things that make your senses misbehave!

The ABC’s of Piracy
Ye Better Press This Here Image to Watch the Movie!

Here are links to the participating author's websites:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How Not to Write on Vacation


by Hilde Garcia

Easier said than done.  I had wanted to write about many things such as lofty ideas and writing styles, or how to speak to your agent while revising your novel.  On our family’s first road trip, I’m thrilled at the prospect of traveling the country via car and posting prophetic thoughts.  I also planned to finish the next draft of my manuscript to send to my agent.

Everything went wrong outside the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey.

First of all, beware of snacks your kids are fed by well meaning grandparents and friends of the family while on vacation.  Mixed with milk, it makes for a nasty combination.

“Hey kids, look there is the line that divides New York and New Jersey underwater.”

“Oooh,” kids chime.

“Mommy can I have some milk?”

“Sure,” I say.  It’s the first hour of our roadtrip and all is well.  We’ve had a great week with the grandparents who served as amazing tour guides.  New York City survived our motley crew.  I’ve opened up my laptop and I’m ready to write.

“Look, kids, we are in New Jersey,” says Daddy.  We take the sign that says 1-78.

“Mommy, I don’t feel good,” says my son.

Before I have a chance to turn around, I hear the oh so familiar sound of vomit being projected all over the back seat, his clothing and the new and nicely packed car activities.

“Crap!”  Yep, I said it in three languages.  I yelled at my son.  I swear to the moon.  I am pissed and thankful that my computer didn’t get slimed.  My husband is mad at my swearing and because I yelled at our kid.

Then I remember throwing up in the same place, at the same age, many years ago when I lived in New Jersey.  It must be genetic.

“Oh, sorry, dear and sorry sweetie,” I say, close to tears from the smell and from being such a bad mom.  But I was looking forward to finally sit down and write after a fun filled week of madness.  Instead, it’s clean up on aisle six.

I call my in laws who are following us for this first leg of our journey and signal them to pull over to the most run down gas station I have ever seen somewhere off of Exit 14 in Jersey City. 

“Ok, battle stations.  Mom, you get Sam and hose him down in the bathroom.  Here are new clothes for him.” 

I ask my daughter to sit and color and not move as I open her window.  My husband grabs a hose and starts on the toys, art supplies and bottle caps.  My son had collected quite a few of them, compliments of the drink fest from my husband, his brother and their friends.  I break out the wet ones and begin disinfecting the car, the floor, the seats.  My husband is attacking the car seat cover within an inch of its life. 

After about 30 minutes, we are de slimed and ready to hit the road.  When my son says, “Can I have more milk?”  There is a resounding NO from 2 adults and his sister.  Before we get on the road, I secure all slimed clothing in a zip lock bag.  Yes, I am prepared and tell my son that the paper bag in front of him is not for his car, but in case he needs to hurl again.

“Hurl?”  My sons says.

Both my husband and I laugh.  I’m in no mood to write.  I’m trying to get over the smell and the clean up and there is no alcohol to help.

We spent the next day in Virginia Beach.  I meant to write that night too, but my best friend’s husband showed me the most exquisite collection of coins dating back to Alexander the Great and muskets from Revolutionary days and well there was no writing.

“So honey, aren’t you going to write?”  I’m in the car, counting mile markers on the way to Charlotte.  I consult an old road map- on purpose- no GPS for us on this trip.  We went old school and decided to just find our way without electronics.

“Sure,” I take out my laptop and set myself up in the front seat while the kids watch a movie.  But I shut my eyes against a nasty sun glare and the hours of no sleep finally catch up to me.  And well, there was more snoring than writing.

My husband nudges me awake.  “What about your self imposed deadline with your agent, dear,” he grins.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.  I’ll do it when we get to Charlotte.”  Right.  I wipe some drool.

But there are other obstacles in Charlotte, North Carolina which make it impossible to stay on task.  There was sushi to eat.  Cake to savor.  Wii to play.  Wine to sip.  No writing, yet again. 

The post ideas got out of my head, the keyboard does not entice me, but an entire bag of starburst did as we traveled to Tampa.  I’m sneaking them while the kids watched their movie.  I mean, what kind of a role model would I be if my kids see me eat candy for breakfast?

I played baseball trivia, set up the kids with their activities and movies, feed everyone, monitor pee breaks and consult a map.  No time to write.  I will do it in Tampa.

In Tampa, drinking ensues, visit old friends, many hours in the pool and it isn’ t advisable to write with a laptop near the water.  I do start a letter to a friend that has been three years over due.  Seriously, they live in England and don’t have internet, so I’m determined to get them that letter.  I only have twins, they have triplets.  Certainly, I should be able to write a measly letter?

We arrive in Miami and drink margaritas on the beach for a week. 

I return to sunny CA and unpack us, get us settled, get kids in camp, catch up on paperwork, emails, calls and all that jazz and two months later, finally have time to write a post about writing while on vacation.

I highly advise against writing on vacation.  It can be hazardous to your vacationing.  But, then again, throw up outside the Holland Tunnel makes for good Middle grade fodder, doesn’t it?  And, no, I haven’t finished the letter to my English friends.

Happy trails.  May your iPad always be safe.

And may you always find time to write.