Friday, April 22, 2011

For the love of books... Confessions of a book nerd

Writers and readers love to collect books. Nowadays many of our bookshelves are tucked away in an e-reader or online, like mine at

Kristin's bookshelf: young-adult

The Things a Brother KnowsSnow Flower and the Secret FanThe Case of the Missing MarquessFlash BurnoutGreat HouseThe Memory Bank
More of Kristin's books »

Kristin's young-adult book recommendations, reviews, quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists

Kristin's bookshelf: young-adult

The Things a Brother KnowsSnow Flower and the Secret FanThe Case of the Missing MarquessFlash BurnoutGreat HouseThe Memory Bank
More of Kristin's books »

That digital display is fun, but nothing lifts my spirit like gazing at a roomful of books.

Clearly, I'm not alone. There's even a Facebook page titled bookshelf porn. (Don't worry, it's G-rated!) And have you seen Neil Gaiman's library?

While I'm still a heavy library user, and swapping books is green and generous, there are some books I just want to own for keeps. I loved The Book Thief so much, I was tempted to carry it about my day, hugging it close. Six months ago, I loaned The Amazing Adventures of Kevalier and Clay to my dad. He still hasn't read it, and I'm itching for its return to my shelves. The Hunger Games Trilogy has been circulating among my friends for so many months, I'm tempted to buy another set. Jennifer Donnelly's award winning novel, A Northern Light, and her latest, Revolution, inspire me to take risks with my writing. And those huge Harry Potter books... They bring me so much joy, I have them scattered throughout the house.

My bungalow in Oakland, California had built-in bookshelves on either side of the fireplace. When we moved to Michigan, I needed to buy a bookcase. My husband suggested our new bookshelves should hold more art, fewer books. Say what? Books are art.

Have you ever walked into someone's house and felt an instant kinship at the sight of their bookcase? The first time I visited the apartment of my friend, Joyce, I discovered we had all the same books, from Reviving Ophelia to The Color Purple, from Margaret Atwood to Barbara Kingsolver. Ten years later and living across country, we email to share new book finds. Her latest recommendation was A Short History of Women. It was already on my shelf.

So what's the take-away from this post? I haven't imparted any wise advice like my blog partners. How about I send you away with a free book?

To support Teen Literature Day last week, readergirlz promoted the Rock the Drop event. People were encouraged to drop a book in a public place - a coffee shop, the subway - for lucky readers to find. Years ago, I was delighted to discover a book left on a park bench, with a note tucked inside, encouraging me to read, then share. That book is long gone, but I'd love to share one of my recent favorites with you.

Here's what you need to do to win a free book:
1. Become a follower of this blog (click the Follow button if you haven't already done so).
2. Post a comment below, by April 29th.

I'll randomly choose one lucky commenter. The book will be new and YA, but otherwise it's a surprise - you'll just have to trust me.

*Note: some readers have had difficulty posting their comments. If it doesn't work for you, just send me an email at kristinbartleylenz at gmail dot com. I'll post your comment for you, and enter you in the drawing for a free book.

*Thanks to my friend, Todd Abrams, for the Books Are Art photo.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Writing and Risk

“Follow your passion. Figure out what you love to do, then find a way to make money doing it.” We’ve all heard this wisdom before. Easier said than done when you discover your passion is writing—a highly competitive and slow-moving business that takes years of practice and learning the craft before earning a penny.

And I’m the wrong person to ask about the money part because to date I’ve cashed one measly check from a contest win and received a handful of fancy certificates. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of those accomplishments because I love writing and couldn’t stop if I wanted to. But my point is; to get anything you want in life, you have to take risks. You have to be willing to face brutal honesty, rejection, and acquire a taste for patience.

Originally on Monday, when I started working on this post, it was going in the direction of this upbeat ‘just do it’ kind of rambling. I didn’t exactly know where I was going with it, and to be honest it wasn’t all that interesting. Then my dad came over to deliver my dead dog. He’d just run over our adorable little Jack Russell Terrier, Dodger. I was devastated, and still am.

At first, I was angry at myself. I knew it was going to happen because of past experiences. Since childhood, I can’t even count the number of dogs I’ve had that have gotten killed. Living on a farm and always having lots of pets, it seemed one of them was always getting run over or injured. After our last dog was killed, I vowed we'd never get another one.

So when my nine-year-old son came to me with his birthday list--which included only one item--I was prepared with my list of valid reasons to not get a puppy. I didn’t have time to potty train, didn’t want dog hair in the house, the expense, or crap in the yard… In my heart, I knew there was a bigger reason—I didn’t want to fall in love only to have my heart broken when it died.

But eventually, my son's big blue eyes got to me, and we ended up with Dodger. When Dodger hopped across the yard like a rabbit, flipped on his back for a belly rub, or fell asleep on the couch with the kids, my original arguments for not wanting a dog dissolved, and my attempt at not getting too attached failed miserably. I was in love with this funny little dog and I tried not to worry when he started playing tag with the cows or wandering to the neighbors’. But he was a curious puppy who loved to be outdoors, and on Monday, my worst fear came true.

Nearly a week later, after much thought, self-therapy, and a knot in my throat the size of Montana, I look at his empty dog bed and feel sad and disappointed and frustrated. But I won’t tell my kids we were unlucky or that we’ll never get another dog. I’ll say we were lucky to have him because of the joy he brought to our family. I’ll tell them yes; eventually we’ll get another one because loving and losing him was worth the risk.

And on this writing journey, when I receive another rejection or brutal critique, I’ll probably feel sad and disappointed and frustrated, but I won’t say I’m unlucky and quit. I’ll say I’m lucky because that agent or editor wasn’t the right match for me anyway. Then I’ll pick myself up, work harder, and send out again because the passion I feel for writing is worth the risk.

It makes no difference whether it’s pursuing your passion or the decision whether to bring a new pet into your life; love is always worth the risk.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

NO VACANCY! How looking for an agent is like finding an apartment in an overcrowded city.

When I was in graduate school, I did a teaching assistant exchange at a university in Strasbourg, France. Due to strikes and paperwork delays, I didn’t arrive in France until the week before school started. Another American was in the same boat, so the two of us shared a rundown hotel room as we began a panicked search for an apartment in an overcrowded city.

The first thing we tried was the most obvious: the want ads. Finding phone numbers to call was the easy part. Writing down the addresses and directions we were given in French – somewhat nerve wracking! When searching for an agent, start with the obvious: a database of agents and what they are looking for. My favorite is They offer a free membership that you can use to find agents that represent what you write. They tell you what each agent wants in a query (just a query letter, a letter and the first page, three chapters, synopsis, etc.). You can even track your submissions and find out about agent response times. And the best part is the cute yellow smiley man with sunglasses that appears when you get an offer!

Lots of apartments that we were interested in were already taken by the time we called. When you’re querying, there will be agents who already have their plates pretty full. Along with well-established agents, you might want to consider querying a newer agent at a well-established agency or an agent with experience that has recently opened his/her own agency. Some of these agents may be more actively seeking to expand their lists.

Other apartments that we saw were horrific places that you would only recommend to the kid who tripped you in the cafeteria in seventh grade. To help make sure you don’t end up with an unqualified agent, always do additional research on an agent you are considering querying, such as checking him/her out on the Preditors and Editors website:

The second thing we tried while searching for an apartment was paying a small fee to an agency that gave us leads and set up appointments for us. NEVER PAY A “READING FEE” TO AN AGENCY TO READ YOUR WORK. However, you might consider getting a paid critique by an agent or editor when you attend a reputable writing conference such as one sponsored by SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Although the agent/editor may not ask to see more of your project, you can get valuable feedback that will help improve your work for when it is requested by an agent. Another opportunity which involves a fee would be entering a contest sponsored by a reputable organization, such as those sponsored by regional RWA chapters (Romance Writers of America). Many of the RWA contests provide written critiques from the judges and the finalists are often judged by agents and/or editors.

When I showed up for an appointment to see one particular apartment, I was shocked to discover that eight other young women had also been scheduled for the same time; the eight of us had to try to convince a girl seeking a roommate that we were the best candidate. I see this as the writing equivalent to pitch sessions – many will pitch, few will be chosen!

And then there was a small handwritten note posted on a random wall at the university. Student seeking roommate. I copied down the phone number, doubtful that it would amount to anything. But I called anyhow, set up an appointment, and visited the apartment. The moment I walked in, I was sold! The place was modern, clean, and bright. The roommate, a perfect match for me. We chose each other and we remain friends to this day. In the agent search, I would liken this to some of the less obvious places to look for agents – in the acknowledgments of books similar to yours, a deal you read about on the free PW (Publishers Weekly) daily or PW Children’s Bookshelf e-mail, a blog you happen to read, a hint from a list-serve you’re a member of, a tweet on Twitter, or in my case, a talk given by an agent at a monthly meeting of my local chapter of RWA.

You might be wondering about my friend, the other American who was also looking for an apartment. She ended up renting a “chambre”, one room in the attic level of an apartment building, usually reserved for a family’s au pair (nanny). It was in a beautiful neighborhood yet inexpensive because of its size. It wouldn’t have been the right place for me, but she loved it! It was perfect for her. The same is true of agents. What seems perfect for one person may not be the best match for another.

When I compare my apartment search in France to my search for an agent, one thing was completely different. The timing. In France, I had one week to find an apartment. In contrast, my search for an agent took months, which is how it happens for many people. In the end, however, I found my perfect match in both cases.

There was also one thing about my apartment and agent searches that was exactly the same. In both situations, I tried lots of different things, never knowing which one would lead to my ultimate goal. If you’re currently in search of an agent (a web designer, a publicist, book trailer designer, or an apartment in France for that matter!), I encourage you to do the same – try lots of different approaches – and enjoy the journey!

What about you? What are some of the ways you have searched for an agent (or other writing-related goal)? And if you’ve gotten to the end, which path ended up being the magic one for you? Please share!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Chew on the Bristle End of the Brush

“Chew on the bristle end of the brush,” and other random thoughts from, Impressionist Landscapes: Monet to Sargent.

“Look at all those little blobs of paint.” There we were, the author and the Impressionists, hanging in the basement of the Speed Art Museum. As usual, I had to do all the talking, and being a word guy, I turned the subject to writing. All those little blob of color? They’re like words. Stick enough together and you get a picture—or a book. Maybe not a good book, but then, maybe not a good painting either. Which lead to my next thought...

“Some of these paintings are kind of, you know, blah.” Well they were. Some were amazing, sparkling with vibrant colors that leapt off the canvas, but some were flat and dull. Apparently painting with blobs isn’t easy. Just putting color on a canvas isn’t enough. Dimension comes from contrast. The brights have to be super-bright, the darks deeply dark. The same is true in writing. Putting colorful words on a page isn’t enough. Even something as realistic as contemporary YA needs intense depth and contrast to hold a teen’s interest. So I had to ask...

“What’s with the fog?” Turns out, Claude Monet developed cataracts that left his world shrouded in purple fog. He painted what he could see. I have my own world view, too—my own mental cataracts. I don’t have personal experience being any other category on the census form, but YA readers are sophisticated enough to know if I’m faking it. Characters have to be whole, feelings have to be true. But speaking of faking it...

“I can’t define Impressionism, but I know it when I see it.” The exhibit is arranged chronologically. At the start, the paintings are clearly influenced by earlier art movements. At the end, there are hints of the styles to come. I know because somebody else said so. But with that nudge, I started seeing influences and hints throughout the exhibit. Book categories show the same blending. Writers may think in terms of age ranges and genres, but from Tween to upper YA, contemporary to fantasy, young readers don’t do boundaries.

And a final thought...

“Those blobs look like water.” Impressionist paintings are a wonderful visual reminder of the important writing rule—Show, Don’t Tell. For example, Impressionists paint the sea in dabs of yellow and green, with sparkles of white and streaks of red that blend into purple shadows. Yet at a distance, the canvas looks blue and wavy. The painter implies, the viewer infers. Just as an author should. Imply the crashing waves, the roaring surf, the salty spray. The reader will infer the sea—and the sun and the beach and the surf boards and the lounge chairs and could somebody put a little lotion on my back?

Please enjoy the extras below and feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts on art, writing, or just your—you know—impressions.

The Wikipedia article on Impressionism contains (horror) words, but also many pretty blobs of color.

The Speed Art Museum exhibit Impressionist Landscapes: Monet to Sargent is up through May 22 2011.

Trick of the Eye by Dennis Haseley. I’m throwing you a bit of a double curve with this recommendation. The book is recommended for 12 and up, so it’s a little young to be strictly YA. Also, the paintings in it pre-date Impressionism. But still... it’s a worthy read. The hero, a young boy, becomes engrossed in paintings which speak to him as he tries to remember a horrible crime. Apart from teaching a bit of art history, the book also shows just how easily we readers can accept the author’s vision and run with it. We really can walk into paintings and talk to the subjects inside.

In honor of the cross-dressing scene at Big Bob’s Truck Stop and Country Store (in my work in progress) Kurt poses next to Monet’s Woman with a Parasol.