Sunday, May 26, 2013

Drawing Outside the Lines

It was an interesting day today. This afternoon, David Lubar posted the puzzle below on his Facebook page.
by David Lubar

Now I've met Mr. Lubar, heard him speak (he talks way too fast), and I've blown snot while reading three or four of his books. I might be wrong, but he seems to be more of a word guy than a number guy. So I started thinking about what the the words that go with all these numbers are. Well, they all start with a "T." The next number that starts with a "T" is 21. That was one right answer. (The other right answer is 22, of course, based on the pattern in the second number). The point is, if you look a little outside the obvious pattern--draw outside the lines, if you will--you can arrive at a more interesting answer.

by Kate Annex Terrasochi
Later this afternoon I paid way too much for two tickets to a Pacers game. My wife, Margaret, is gaga over the Pacers, and one of the nice things about royalty checks is that I can occasionally treat her to something we never could have afforded just two years ago.

There were a couple of Miami Heat fans in the section next to ours, and the large and obnoxious Pacers fan directly in front of them decided to stand the whole time to block their view.

First nearly everyone nearby tried to convince the guy to sit down--he wouldn't. Then one of the Heat fans spoke to a police officer, the officer called an usher, and there was a long conference during which they decided that there was nothing they could do--the obnoxious fan was allowed to stand for the whole game if he wished. This took all of the first quarter and most of the second.

Finally, it hit me--there was a simple solution to this problem. I asked Margaret if she was okay with it, she agreed, and we got up to go talk to the Heat fans.

The solution? We traded seats with them. The big obnoxious fan took one look at our vintage Pacers shirts (we've been fans for far longer than I care to admit), and he sat down. And the Heat fans got to sit with a group of non-obnoxious Hoosiers. We're like Canadians, for the most part--way too nice for our own good.

Anyway, the point here is to look beyond the obvious solution. Particularly if you're a writer. The first and the second ideas you think of are usually mundane: boring. Sure, they might be perfectly serviceable ideas, but to really thrill your readers, think deeper--try something unexpected or just plain weird. Color outside the lines.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Do School Library Visits Benefit Authors?

Well, duh, you might be saying. Most of us get paid to do school visits. But beyond that, do author visits create new readers? Do they sell books?

Me (Mike Mullin) at a school in Columbus, OH.
Below I've listed the top titles in circulation at a few school libraries I visited this year. Note that if you made a list like this nationally, none of my books would show up in the top ten. (They've sold very well, but not THAT well.)

Northwestern Middle and Senior High School:

1. Ashfall by Mike Mullin
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
4. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
5. (tie) Matched by Ally Condie

Rossville Consolidated (serves 6th through 12th grade):

1. Maximum Ride, the manga by NaRae Lee
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Cabin Fever: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
4. A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
5. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
6. Ashfall by Mike Mullin
7. Matched by Allie Condie
8. Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel
9. The Last Thing I Remember by Andrew Klavan
10. The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

Adams Central:

1.  Ashfall by Mike Mullin
2.  Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
3.  Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
4.  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
5.  Ashen Winter by Mike Mullin
6.  Maze Runner by James Dashner

Lakeland Leading Edge High School:

1.    Ashfall by Mike Mullin
2.       Amy & Rober’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson
3.       Hold Me Closer Necromancer by Lish McBride
4.       The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
5.       Ship Breaker by Paulo Bacigalupi
6.       The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
7.       Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
8.       Coming Back Stronger by Drew Brees
9.       The Last Thing I Remember by Andrew Klavan
10.   Chain Reaction by Simone Elkeles

So, yes, you can create new readers and fans with school visits. These are circulation lists, not sales, but higher circulation numbers lead to higher sales. Books wear out, libraries order more so their hold lists won't be so long, and new fans often buy the books they love and convince others to buy as well. This is one reason I've intentionally kept my fee for school visits very low--they're probably the best marketing I do. If you'd like more information, click here.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Code Red at Franklin Community Middle School

This morning I was about fifteen minutes into my first presentation at the library in Franklin Community Middle School when the principal came on the intercom: "Code Red. Code Red."
Unfortunately, he wasn't talking about Mountain Dew. I looked to the librarian, Trish Grady, for guidance. I figured it was a lockdown drill. I've been in those before--you crouch in a dark, locked room for five minutes until the principal calls all clear. Then I saw a policewoman sprinting past the windows outside. That's not normally part of the drill.

I'd just finished challenging the students to break a training board with a taekwondo move called hammerfist, so one of them piped up, "Hey, we're fine, we've got the taekwondo dude with us!" I decided it wasn't the best time to explain exactly how useless my mad taekwondo skillz would be against stray bullets.

Trish told me to keep going, and I entertained my rather nervous audience while the rest of the adults locked all the doors, turned off the lights, and pulled all the blinds. Then we got word that we should move to a computer lab deeper in the building and wait for the all clear. So I wound up sitting with a roomful of middle school students in a dark room for nearly two hours. And it was wonderful!

We talked about my books, about their favorite books, about the books they were writing, about how authors get inspiration, about how I build my characters and my plots, and about a hundred other topics. I had a great time.

Finally we got a "Code Yellow," which the marketers at Mountain Dew wisely do not use on soda cans. That meant we could move around inside the building but not leave. Not even for the planned lunchtime cook-out. So, the intrepid library and kitchen staff moved the cookout into the library (with pre-cooked hamburgers, which were actually pretty good). Then my final presentation had to be cut short, but that was no problem--I have a short version ready for just this sort of thing.

It turned out that the "Code Red" was caused by an armed robbery and shoot-out at a nearby drugstore. You can read more about it here if you wish.

I was amazed anew at the yeoman's work our schools do in educating and protecting our students despite a society that sometimes seems stacked against them. Trish knew exactly where the flip-chart was with every conceivable disaster procedure. (Seriously, they have dozens of scenarios planned--including what to do if there's a nearby radiation leak.) Everyone was calm, cool, and professional even though the event played havoc with what was already a bit of an abnormal day.

Thank you to all the librarians, teachers, and administrators who prepare so diligently for all kinds of crazy events that we all hope will never happen. And a special thank you to Trish Grady, whose flexibility and resourcefulness made my day at FCMS a lot of fun despite the "Code Red." Maybe next time I visit we'll have a Code Read and bring flashlights to read in the dark.

(If you're interested in hosting me at your school, library, bookstore, or taekwondo dojang, there's more information about my author visits here.)

Monday, May 6, 2013

I Feel Like a Rockstar!

Check out what was sitting on my bed when I checked in at the Fairfield Inn in Burlington, Iowa this evening:

Someone from the library hosting me made a special trip to my hotel to leave a welcome gift! But that wasn't even the best part. Here's a close-up of the tag:

Iowa, in my books, is part of the Red Zone that the government basically abandons. And there were more ASHFALL-related goodies in the bag!

This is a cloth packet of what look to be kale seeds in envelopes made from the pages (photocopied, it looks like) of a Dan Brown novel. Exactly what I described in ASHEN WINTER! Here's a pic of the packets:

Then I pulled out the Guaranteed Human-Free Jerky. (Not packaged by the Peckerwoods.)

And Sterzings Potato Chips, a Burlington delicacy (they are really good!)

The obligatory mug:

But inside there was a box of matches. (If the Fairfield burns down, it wasn't me.)

And a plastic bottle of water, handy if I need to refill it from the toilet tank:

And cookies!

And here's the last thing I found--the best gift of all:

They gave me a library card! I kid you not! Why am I giggling like a little girl in all the other pictures, and in this one my eyes are closed and I'm not smiling? Because I'm struggling not to cry--that's how much that gift means to me. I've had a library card for the Indianapolis Public Library for 38 years now. My library card means nothing less than freedom to me. The freedom to enter thousands of imaginary worlds, to live other lives, to know how the world around me works. To be given one? I don't even know to adequately express the magnanimity of that gesture. I may never use it, but nonetheless, I'll forever feel I'm one of the proud patrons of the Burlington Public Library.

How am I ever going to live up to this welcome? I'll do my very best at 7:00 p.m. tomorrow night (5/7) at the Burlington, Iowa Public Library. Don't miss it if you're in the area!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Query Hell

Two of my friends and critique partners, Shannon Alexander and Jason Beineke, are going through query hell right now. For those of you not familiar with the publishing process, that's where you boil down your whole book into three or four paragraphs designed to make a literary agent slather and chomp at the bit to represent your work. It's quite possibly more difficult than writing the whole book. In fact, this is how querying made me feel:

Photo by reubens
I struggled and struggled with the query for my debut novel, ASHFALL. After almost two weeks of work, it still sucked. Here's how I finally wrote an ASHFALL query that generated requests, and what I suggest you try if you're mired in query hell:

1) Go to the library (this is a good start to nearly any list of things to do, by the way).
2) Sit down in whatever section includes your kind of book (young adult fiction, for example).
3) Pull a random book off the shelf and read the flap copy.
4) Write a query in the style of that flap copy.
5) Repeat until your brain starts to leak out your ears (I wrote about 40 of them).
6) Write a new query that mashes up all the best words, phrases, and ideas from your imitation flap copy.

That's it. Hope it helps. One word of caution: I'm not the best person to take query advice from. EVERY agent who saw ASHFALL turned it down at some stage: query, partial, or full. I wound up getting an editor to read it through a personal connection, and I'm still not represented by a literary agent. So I hope your mileage varies from mine for the better.

Any other great advice for queriers? Let me know in the comments, please.