Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

 

(Note: Links to two reviews are included in the text)

Reviews are dreaded (always), hated (often) and loved (if they are good).  A writer is so thrilled to have a book accepted for publication! It’s everything you ever wanted – a dream come true! But once the book is in the works, the sense of dread starts to build. Yes, it’s published but what if the reviews are unfavorable? That doesn’t mean it won’t find its audience and yet …. And a good review is a good review, but nowadays, it’s all about the *starred* reviews. A good review without a star is still excellent, but people tend to check the *stars* first.  We live in an increasingly judgmental and unforgiving world these days, in my humble opinion.

Someone not in the publishing world recently expressed her surprise that reviews were important at all for children’s books because, of course, children don’t read reviews or care about them – bless them! But they are still important. There’s the industry profile and reputation that a writer builds to consider. And there are the teachers, librarians and even parents, who keep up with children’s books and want to make sure their children are reading quality books. They are the gatekeepers who can pass your book on to young readers or lock the door.

A lot of authors (and actors) don’t read them or claim not to read them – after all, it’s only one person’s opinion -but reviews carry weight. That’s why a simple added, “however ….” or “but …” can make an author’s heart sink to her toes. Ignore them if you want but they exist. Reviews have sabotaged careers. They have  kept potentially good or great writers from ever picking up the pen again. I think most professional reviewers realize this and are responsible. Most.

I have been lucky so far – knock on wood here or any other superstitious warding off of evil – but that guarantees nothing for the future.

I have this evil eye in my office. I bought it in Greece, when my son was studying there. All of the shops have them -some of them huge – outside. They are to ward off any evil that’s approaching. It’s usually over the door, facing the street. Mine is directly opposite my glass office door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also have this lovely creature in my office. It’s the Brazilian equivalent of the evil eye, which my husband brought back from the rainforest, when he was shooting a film in Curitibo. (Which is an extremely progressive city, by the way.) I would definitely say I’m NOT superstitious, but you can’t be too careful.

I’ve not had a dreadful review so far in my career. I say that as an apprehensive person who always feels as if that bad review is lurking just around the next corner. I had a few books that failed to get many reviews. That might be a blessing if the reviews may not have been favorable.

All that being said, I put all thoughts of reviews out of my mind when coming up with an idea, executing it, publishing it. Thinking about them would prevent you from writing at all. You know they’re coming and you brace yourself, but I truly don’t dwell on it. But once the release date draws near, you prepare yourself.

The first review for Life According to Og the Frog was in Kirkus (here), which has a reputation among writers for being tough.  Even so, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs got a star from Kirkus and Humphrey got a highly favorable review. So when the review for the new book came out, I thought, “Well, even if the next review is bad, I’ll have this one as a back-up. It’s lovely and says so many things I wanted a review to say.

 

Then, I got a Google alert that Publishers Weekly, which is probably the one publication everyone in the industry reads, had a review up. It was FRIDAY afternoon at the start of the Memorial Day weekend. People in NY, the hub of the publishing business, had already gone home or left for a long weekend. I clicked on it and there was the *star*, followed by a beautiful review. The second word was “sparkling.” I knew no one would see it until Tuesday, but I had a gigantic adrenaline rush and walked on air for a few hours. The *review* (here) highlights elements that I worked especially hard on and this wasn’t an easy book to write.

Again I thought, well even if I get a bad review next, I have this one. (PW also gave The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs a starred review, which is quoted on the cover of the book.)

So what does it all mean? It’s not that huge in the giant scheme of things. It’s not life or death. Besides, now online reviewers – like you and me – are also really important. And in the end,  it’s up to the faithful and fabulous Humphrey fans to decide. But that star gave me a lift and validation I haven’t had in a long time, so I am grateful and I will live on that for awhile … at least until I have to worry about the next book. But at least I feel more confident that there may BE a next book, at least today.

(There WILL be a next Og book… I just finished it! Exploring According to Og the Frog.)

 

 

 

A GIANT LEAP FOR OG

May 28th, 2018

I’ll always think of this as the book I wrote on the kitchen table.

That doesn’t sound extraordinary, but it was very unusual for me. After all, I have my sweet office in the back of our yard as a perfect writing haven.

But in early January 2017, I took one step down onto our patio and could tell immediately that something had gone very, very wrong. I already knew I was overdue for a knee replacement, but now I couldn’t put any weight on that knee at all. My first thought was, “Now I’m going to have to have the knee replacement.” Indeed, I had sprained all the ligaments in my knee except the ACL, and had a complex meniscus tear. But that problem was minor compared to the amount of arthritis in that knee.

I probably would have been in surgery within two weeks but there was one big problem. OG THE FROG! I was under contract to write the first book looking at Room 26 from the point of view of that other classroom pet. I’d already started, I had a deadline – the ball was rolling. I didn’t want to delay the book, so I put off the surgery for 5 months so I could finish.

(A little over a year later, it will be released on July 3.)

Because of a previous neck surgery, I was only working on a desktop computer, so I immediately ordered a laptop because I literally couldn’t make the 50 steps or so from my house to the office. I was rolling around the house in a desk chair, but we have a couple of steps to go outside so that was too difficult. I made one trip to the office to get any supplies I might need and I moved into the kitchen.

I am used to writing in solitude with only the sounds of the birds chirping and the squirrels scurrying around my office. I have a very thoughtful husband who never comes out to the office and interrupts unless it’s a true emergency. (They say it takes five to ten minutes to get back up to speed if you are interrupted.) I rarely even bring the portable phone to our landline out there unless my husband is gone and I keep my cell phone muted so I can screen my calls and not hear the sound. Writing in the kitchen meant phones and doorbell ringing, husband coming in to eat lunch (inconsiderate of him, right?) and more interruptions in general. Guess what? I found out I’m not such a special snowflake about writing after all. I was so completely engrossed in creating Og’s past life in the swamp and writing funny songs, I barely noticed any of it. I kept my laptop free from most apps and made it more difficult to go on the internet. All my attention was on Og’s story.

I did miss my office, but not enough to struggle to get out there. The squirrels were probably glad to have the territory all to themselves.

(Doesn’t it make a nice little nightlight for our yard?)

All I did was write. All I could do was write. My husband took over the shopping and I also used Instacart. I like to cook but I didn’t. I finalized the due date with my editor at Putnam’s, Susan Kochan, and scheduled surgery for May 23.  I even finished early and had time to prepare. (By then I was hobbling on crutches or cane as the injuries healed somewhat.)

In the end, I think that being so totally focused on the story made me able to ignore the pain, so in a way, Og did me a favor.

 

Knee replacements require a long recovery (a year) lots of physical therapy, lots of meds. But my husband was a wonderful nurse and a few weeks later, Og’s copy editing came back which I could handle at the kitchen table. I had no pressure to do anything except heal – and the healing went well. I was always ahead of the milestones they gave me – even in the hospital, I got out a day early because I met all the PT requirements.

I just passed the one year mark and my knee is great. I do Pilates twice a week and have gone back to a walking program. I’m stronger in every way. And I just had the other knee checked out, and it only has moderate arthritis around the kneecap. It pops sometimes, but I don’t need surgery.

I’m back in my office … and I just did a major cleaning and restructuring.

But I still write at the kitchen table sometimes. It’s cozy in its own way, with large windows looking out on the yard.

And there are squirrels there as well. If you want to see why we don’t have bigger avocado crops, check this link to a video taken through that kitchen window. I love how he uses his little paws just like hands.

 

 

I have been fortunate that for almost all of my son’s growing up and since then, I have been able to work at home. Even before books were my major endeavor (but I was always working on them), T.V. animation writers like me worked from home.

There are drawbacks, of course. Lack of social interaction is the major one so if you freelance, you have to make sure to schedule face-to-face visits with colleagues and friends. But there are advantages as well. Traffic in Los Angeles is horrible and continues to get worse. My commute is about 22 steps across my backyard to my little blue writing house. I make that walk MANY times a day! In fact, many’s the day I log 10,000 steps and I haven’t left the property. But I do walk around the yard, usually listening to audiobooks.

Another plus is that it’s quiet and conducive to concentration, but I can be as distracted as the next person, if the truth be known. I can distract myself without any outside intervention.

Although we have neighbors on either side and behind our house, we have total privacy. Our house is 80 + years old with lots of old growth trees and California greenery including the epically huge avocado tree outside my office.  It’s like a little cottage in the woods.  At night, the light by the door serves as a nightlight for the whole yard. In a word, it’s cozy.

It may sound a little bit lonely out there, but I have lots of company. For one thing, I have my characters, like Humphrey and Og, or Eben McAllister and Rae Ellen Hubbell (rhymes with trouble) from The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs. They all live in my imagination and are good companions. There are also plenty of living creatures around whose lively workdays include hunting avocados (the squirrels) and building nests (the birds). Maybe I took Disney’s classic Snow White and Cinderella films too seriously, but I talk to them frequently. (To date, however, none of them have ever sewed me a dress – one of my favorite scenes ever.)

 

 

I do miss the best dog who ever lived, the irreplaceable Desiree Birney (Desi for short but often called Miss Birney), who lived a very long and happy life and loved spending as much time as possible in the yard, where among other things, she hunted squirrels as well as avocados.

She was vigilant about squirrels, seeming to believe they were our worst enemies that – without her – would take over the yard. (She was right. They have.) She never met a human she didn’t like but squirrels  were her sworn enemies. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, she sniffed the entire perimeter of the yard to see if any intruders had crossed into it. She even went behind the office, which abuts the neighbor’s fence and is frankly, a place I don’t want to go. There was one particular corner of the yard that commanded so much of her attention (it is hidden) that we came to call it Where Evil Dwells. Miss Birney kept the evil at bay.

 

 

 

 

This might look like a sunny and inviting spot, but behind that greenery is Where Evil Dwells. Maybe. You can’t be too careful.

These days, the squirrels fascinate me and keep me well entertained during the day as I sit at my desk near the glass door. I have a great view of the tree that I call The Squirrel Superhighway. The squirrels go up and down that tree dozens of times a day and often we even make eye contact.  Sometimes the males tell me off. The cute little females aren’t even afraid of me. Those big males carry huge avocados in their mouths and sometimes, unfortunately drop them along the way. Once an avocado is dropped, they don’t pick it up again. In fact with most avocados, they take a few bites and leave the rest on the ground.

Like today, for instance. What a waste of some potential guacamole! In fact, it’s the pits!

 

That tree outside my office  is amazing! It’s green most of the year, but turns red in the winter – I’m just starting to see a few red leaves. Soon it will look like the picture at the top of this post, which doesn’t LOOK like Southern California but we do get some fall color … in the winter. While there are still a few red leaves on the branches, the tree blossoms with beautiful white flowers. Eventually all that white looks like snow on the ground. Here’s Desi in the “California snow” some years back. There were still a few colored leaves on the ground.

 

I’ll write more about the squirrels soon. But there are other critters out there. I wake up really early and am usually walking those 22 steps at 5:00 or 5:30 am, in my pajamas. (Don’t worry – no one can see me.) Recently, in the shadows (heading toward Where Evil Dwells), I saw something small and black with a great big white stripe down his back. I tiptoed back into the house. I came even closer to one once when I went out early to get the paper. I retreated into the house VERY-VERY-VERY quietly. Desi, however, was happy to take on the skunks and we all suffered from her encounters. Once a skunk sprayed her squarely in the eyes and nose and we thought she was going to die. She was just dazed but for the first and only time in her life, she had to sleep in the garage. She didn’t argue. We tried the tomato juice routine and she turned a lovely shade of pink! The folks at our Petco store just down the street says the skunk removal stuff is one of the biggest sellers in our neighborhood. We even have a skunk season where we are awakened almost every night by the overpowering smell. Luckily, that season doesn’t last too long. But believe me, you will never see a photo of a skunk taken by me! It’s not worth the risk.

In the 20+ years we have lived here, only once have I seen a raccoon. That was last year,  in the still-dark early morning as well. I’m glad the family didn’t settle in the neighborhood as they are destructive AND smart, which is a bad combination. Long ago, I twice saw coyotes in the very early morning. One was lying in the driveway. One was in the front yard against the hedge. This is not normal behavior for them. But with so much building encroaching on their territory in the hills, I’m sorry for them. Where are they to go for water and food? Not that they don’t make me nervous.

I won’t even talk about rats. Nope, not going to mention them. Just forget I typed the word. They’re gone now (the rodent rats, not the human kind). Occasionally, we’ve had opossums, too. Those slow movers are hardly a threat … but yep, Desi took them on, too.

More to come about the fauna and the flora in Mrs. Birney’s neighborhood – because it’s a very busy place!

 

 

Yes, it’s been a REALLY-REALLY-REALLY long time since I blogged. A few years back, I had major neck surgery that took over a year to recover from. The absolute worst, most pain-inducing thing I could do would be to sit, especially at the computer. I kept the book-writing going, but I dropped the blog and other things, like school visits (local only) and travel alone, because I can’t carry much of anything and was told never to lift a bag into the overhead compartment again – yikes!

Please don’t get the wrong idea. I’m active and healthy – I just have some skeletal issues. Except for the eight months of waiting for the bones to fuse, I’ve been doing Pilates twice a week and a deep tissue massage once a week at a local Wellness Center for several years, so I’m in better shape now than before this all began!

But sitting – not so great.

The writing continued but I stuck to writing about Humphrey and couldn’t accomplish much more than that. Though we did manage to have a great time at our son’s wedding 2016 with the whole family.

 

Then on the fateful day of January 6, 2017, I completely wrecked my knee. I knew I was overdue for knee replacements, but one step onto the patio and boom- the knee was shot. However, I had personal and professional obligations to fulfill, so I had to wait until the end of May to get the replacement. At first I rolled around the house in a desk chair. Then I graduated to crutches, a cane and finally hobbling for a few months. I hardly ever even made it out to my dear writing house in the backyard.

I got a laptop (bad for the neck, good for the knee) and worked in the kitchen. Here is the GOOD NEWS: I had a total knee replacement and it went very well. I was always ahead of the physical therapy milestones and my surgeon called my range of motion “phenomenal.” But since they completely realigned my knee, it caused subsequent hip/low back issues which “laid me low”.

I guess my mind was still working, because back when I was working in the kitchen, I had a sudden inspiration for a new kind of Humphrey book. It was a very challenging idea … but I quickly wrote some chapters and an outline, sent it to my agent and editor and got a two book deal. One of the reasons I had to wait until the end of May was to finish the book so Humphrey’s fans could get it in 2018. (There were other reasons as well.) Even though I was in the kitchen, where there’s more hubbub (phone, husband, repair people, etc.), I got it finished.

During my recovery, I was able to work with my editor on the copy-editing of this book and several new upcoming Humphrey’s Tiny Tales and eventually I went back to my office and to my sessions at the Wellness Center.

Now that I’m well on my way to recovery, I have discovered a renewed interest in doing lots of things I was struggling with before: writing more, reading more books, learning new things, connecting with people. Things I couldn’t do for a long time. I will never carry a suitcase or anything heavy again and I’ll never run a race, but I feel like my old self again.

Now I head out to my writing house at 5 am (or earlier) with lots of energy, looking forward to life.

 

As we approach the “cover reveal” of the new book, due out in July, 2018,  and its subject matter (this is not exactly an According to Humphrey book,) I remembered this long silent blog and decided to start communicating with fans again.

*****HUMPHREY DISCLAIMER***** READ-READ-READ! *****

Hi, Humphrey here! Just to say that I read this blog post and it does seem as if Betty G. Birney BELIEVES that she writes these books all by herself. Which is kind of cheeky, given that she doesn’t actually have to experience all of my sometimes scary but always hamster-iffic adventures! Just saying …. you’d better take all of this with a grain of salt, as they say. And some lovely crunchy celery would taste very nice with that salt. THANKS-THANKS-THANKS for listening!

************************************************************

 

HOW TO BE IN TOUCH WITH HUMPHREY AND ME

There are several ways to communicate with me. Writing a letter is not the best way – you will wait a long time for an answer. But I answer emails fairly quickly. If you want to scan a letter and attach it, you can do that on the Contact  form. If you have trouble with that, let me know and I’ll tell you another way to do it.

To email me through this website – look for Contact link at the bottom of the Home Page or use this: https://www.bettybirney.com/blog/contact/

You can follow Humphrey on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/AccordingtoHumphrey/

You can follow me on Facebook using my name. You can follow me on Twitter @bettygbirney

(I’m just getting started on Instagram.)

You can sign up to a list of fans called Humphrey’s Handlers. http://www.bettybirney.com/blog/humphreys-handlers/

And you can come back here very soon as I get ready for the BIG reveal of the next book! Right, Humphrey?

  RIGHT-RIGHT-RIGHT!

 

 

 

Humphrey Show and Tell

January 24th, 2015


This week was so exciting, Humphrey’s whiskers were wiggling and his tail was twitching. I was pretty excited as well because of four BIG-BIG-BIG releases.

On Thursday January 22:

 

BOOK 11, Imagination According to Humphrey, was released in hardcover in the U.S. (It comes out in the UK on 5 February.) I love the cover and I’m especially excited because the book has a lot to do with using your imagination and writing. I’ve learned from many students I’ve talked to that writing can sometimes be more difficult than it sounds. In this story, Humphrey tries to write a story and is surprised that his imagination doesn’t seem to be working. (Sometimes mine is a little sluggish, too.) Here readers can get some tips about jump-starting story ideas … and also read about real and imaginary dragons, as well as ghosts, crying babies and so much more.

Here’s an excerpt from the Booklist review – I cut out some spoilers and I don’t know where the reviewer got the idea that Humphrey’s been around for 15 years, but other than that, I’m pleased. (It’s 11 years, by the way.)

“Humphrey celebrates 15 years in this eleventh outing of the forever popular classroom pet series. In characteristic hamster style,
Humphrey solves a new sibling problem for a student, helps a lonely classroom pet in another classroom, and learns about creative writing.
Working along with the students, Humphrey experiences difficulty with the process. Birney cleverly intertwines various characters and subplots.
For example, a hissing bearded dragon briefly disrupts Humphrey’s concentration when Mrs.Brisbane is reading an absorbing book about dragons.”

 

The same day Imagination came out, BOOK 10, Secrets According to Humphrey, came out in paperback. I’m always happy when the paperback versions come out so more people can read about Humphrey’s adventures.

 

I’m thrilled that on Thursday, the Spanish translation of BOOK 1, The World According to Humphrey, was published in the US.  I’ve been hoping for this for a long time and here it is!

 


There’s been quite a gap in the audiobook releases but also on Thursday, this 4-book audio collection was released. It contains Mysteries According to Humphrey, Winter According to Humphrey, Secrets According to Humphrey and Imagination According to Humphrey. I hear from lots of families who listen to Humphrey books in the car.

Now Humphrey will have to spin his wheel until May, when the third Tiny Tales book is published: Humphrey’s Creepy-Crawly–Camping Adventure!

As for me, Book 12 is just about to go into editing as well as the fourth Tiny Tales book. Next week, I’m doing a Skype tour for Penguin Kids, visiting 16 classrooms from my desk. If you wish you had known about this opportunity and want to keep up with events like these, please follow Humphrey on his Facebook page.  www.facebook.com/AccordingtoHumphrey.  You can follow me as well. Also follow Penguin Kids – they always have great ideas for teachers and librarians.

HAPPY-HAPPY-HAPPY Reading!