Author Archives: Joni Sensel

Fantasy: fact or fiction?

I had an interesting conversation with a nonfiction author the other day regarding a manuscript about chakras.

The nonfiction author’s viewpoint: It had to be fiction. And most likely fantasy.

My viewpoint: Millions of people believe in chakras as fact. Who says it couldn’t be nonfiction?

Which makes me think there’s a discreet category of work that is not clearly fantasy, not like magic-and-dragons fantasy, but we’re not sure what else to call it because we don’t agree on how “real life” it might be. You don’t have to go as far as ghosts. Think of stories revolving around auras, intuitive or energy healing, reincarnation, remote viewing, etc. —  much of which is the typical stock-in-trade of New Agers (in the Western world) and Most Everyone (in the Eastern world). Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction depends on who you ask. And so does whether it’s fantasy or could fit right into a contemporary story.

The word “paranormal” used to have a definition that fit here pretty well. As in paranormal activity. But I think that, thanks to recent market trends, most people can no longer hear “paranormal” without associating it with 1) vampires, werewolves, or other supernatural creatures and 2) Romance (for teens or adults). I don’t often hear the term used with middle-grade work, and certainly not picture or chapter books.

I started to wonder if “occult” or something like that could work. Then I remembered the knee-jerk reaction that word causes among certain faith communities. (Speaking of which: would the same people consider a story about the devil fantasy? Or not? How about angels?)

Hey, I know — how about “speculative?” But that’s already got a much broader definition, at least here at The Spec. Too broad, maybe.

Is there any other word or characterization that would work? I’d especially be interested in hearing from someone with time in an Eastern culture or background. Or is it goofy to try to distinguish anyhow?

— Joni, who resisted the urge to give non-kidlit examples of “are they fact or aren’t they?” stories ranging from Holocaust denial to conspiracy theories to the lives of the saints. Almost resisted, that is.

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A glimpse of the e-future. Or not.

Kristen McLean

Last week I had the great fortune to spend several hours with Kristen McLean, CEO of Bookigee and former executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children (which recently merged into ABA). Kristen was on the West Coast sharing the results of recent Bowker research with surprising (to me, anyway) results and implications for the future of books and digital media for kids. Basically the same info was presented at Digital Book World in New York in January.

If you get a chance to hear Kristen speak on this topic, you should go. I can’t do it justice here. She’s generously put her presentations on her website, though (see the first two links, .pptx downloads, though others there are great, too). I highly recommend checking these out.

But to share a little, here are a few random highlights that struck me in the results of the research and her comments (admittedly, with my interpretive slant, but you can see the data and put your own slant on it, too). The research focused on households where at least one children’s or YA title was bought in the last year. (Based on the sound logic that it’s way easier and smarter to keep customers you have than chase after those you don’t.)

  • Grandparents get press and are supposed to have the cash, but they actually don’t buy a big percentage of books. It’s mostly parents between 18 and 44.
  • Reading kids (and their parents) value books highly — really highly, as in more important than any other media, including TV — and are not likely to give them up anytime soon. (Even teens, who text and FB a lot but generally spend less time online than conventional wisdom thinks.) They may *add* digital media, but by and large they’re not replacing paper with digital. Yay!
  • That said, households buying kids’ books are somewhat more tech oriented than adult book buyers. So they’re open to digital. But the penetration of ebooks in this market is tiny. Tiny tiny. There’s a strong preference for paper at this point, in part because teens use technology for social networking, and ebooks are less social than paper books, which can be more easily shared.
  • The bad news: Books are overwhelmingly impulse purchases. They have to be seen. Even the books that get checked out of the library are often first identified in a store. That means if you don’t get bookstore/retail distribution, and lots of it, you’re, well… screwed fighting an uphill battle.
  • Here’s an interesting one, though: teens at least say they’re more influenced to make a purchase based on the jacket blurb than either the cover or the title (though those are moderately important, too). But the single greatest factor is if it’s an author or series they know. (And as usual, this study reinforced the evidence that blurbs are almost pointless, except maybe to make the author feel good.)
  • All that time you spend with social media? Or updating your website? Uh… those things have a pretty tiny influence on book purchases compared to readers’ immediate circles: parents, friends, other family members, and then teachers and school librarians. And while your social media may well target teachers or librarians rather than readers or parents, it’s pretty well established that the prime movers for them are reviews. Not anything they see anywhere online. (About the only significant exception is mommy blogs.)
  • Extending stories across different platforms (e.g, book, movie, app, ebook, website); making story worlds somewhere readers can “live;” and allowing readers to participate in those worlds (e.g., with fanfic) are all likely to grow, grow, grow. Which is why one of the emerging challenges is helping people to find the stuff they’ll like among all that other stuff. Which in turn is why Kristen founded Bookigee — to come up with a discovery tool that would work. (‘Cause we all know how crappy Amazon’s searches and recommendations are, and that they have nothing to do with what we might like.)

There are other goodies in the presentations; the data’s worth studying, and the Bookigee site’s worth a peek, too — it sounds like it could be pretty useful for authors as well as readers. It’s most effective to have Kristin talk through this stuff and share implications, etc., — but it’s all good reading even without that bonus. And it’s optimistic about the future of kids’ books, too!

— Joni, who’s trying to think more about transmedia while reducing her social media time commitment


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Knowing it’s “good enough”

Okay, one more post on self-publishing and I’ll stop. (I can’t speak for other Spec bloggers.)

I’ve been thinking about points raised by commenters in the last week that essentially get at this: how does an author know the work is “good enough” to self publish? How does an author know that her manuscript isn’t going to be just one more entry in the “aren’t they awful?” morass that represents the vast majority (still) of self-published books?

And why ARE so many self-published books bad, anyway? As someone pointed out, indie film-making and indie bands get respect; the indie publisher doesn’t. At least, not if only one person is involved.

And I think that’s the key. Even the smallest film requires a minor army of actors, camera folk, editors. Even an individual indie musician has a producer, a mixer, maybe a separate songwriter, and probably some audience members somewhere along the line who were encouraging — if not a full band with a vested interest in every member’s quality. True indie presses are usually the efforts of multiple people. But a lot of self-published books are written by one person, with input from maybe a spouse or at most a few other relatives, friends, or other people not in a position to be very objective and who are often as blinded by love as the author is blinded by authorial myopia.

To complicate matters, it really is so subjective. I’ve read a couple of books now by a small but acknowledged, mostly paperback publisher you’ve all heard of that made me think, “Really? Somebody really thought this was good enough to publish? Wow.” And I’ve heard an agent speak disparagingly about this publisher, too, for similar reasons. But obviously at least a handful of people there disagree with us both and were willing to put money behind their opinions.

Still, the more people involved, the more likely a consensus will be reached on marginal books. I think. And personally, I don’t think I’m any more objective about my own work than your average author, and I’m sure I’m less so than some.

So here’s a minor suggestion for authors to consider: If we think that one of the important roles of the publisher is to serve as third-party, objective discriminators who decide what’s really “worth” publishing and what isn’t, but we want to sometimes publish work without the benefit of a publisher, for whatever reason, there’s no reason on earth we can’t play that role for each other. Suppose authors formed in groups of five or six or 10 and agreed to vette each other’s work prior to (self) publication? Even tough critique groups may not pull their punches enough on the details of a critique — and this is a role that would probably be better served by a group of peers who are NOT as familiar with a work as crit partners become, anyway. But if it’s just an up or down decision, not actual feedback, it should be possible for groups to work out a system — with anonymous ballots or some interesting techie solution — where they could essentially say to each other, “you know, I don’t think this one is ready yet, ’cause you’re going to embarrass yourself — and us, too, by implication.” (The latter might be especially effective if the “Sanction Group” is identified on/in the books they give the thumb’s-up to.) Or, “yeah, go for it.” Or even rank it on a scale of 1 to 10 — 10 being “NY is crazy not to pick this up” and anything under, say, a 6 or 7 being a “no, don’t do it!”

That would be an interesting function for an SCBWI region to formulate, for instance. Or a longtime critique group with multiple published members. Or a writing school/class program. Or…?  I’ve talked a little with a couple of different people in the last few months about authors essentially forming publishing collectives along the same lines as we have marketing collectives (e.g., the Class of 2k7). This fits the same model, though it wouldn’t need to be quite as extensive in terms of scope.

Think something like that could work? Or would personal feelings, friendships, and other biases be impossible to set aside?

— Joni, who’s just thinking out loud now


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Full circle — or not — with self-publishing

As I get ready to follow Chris’s footsteps with my very first ebook, published by me and not one of my “traditional” publishers, I can look back to the first time I stood on Self-Publishers Row. Lots has changed. Other things haven’t.

Early in, early out

I first dove headlong into self-publishing more than ten years ago. This was early in the industry’s hey-day, before AuthorHouse or PublishAmerica or any of those other names we’ve learned to run screaming from, but after Dan Poynter was already on edition six or seven of his self-publishing “bible.” To make a long story short(er), I poured over a copy of that bible and won a substantial grant to create a small press. One of the two resulting books won a national award, both got attention in PW*, both had national bookstore distribution through IPG, and today, at least five years after one of them went out of print, I still have people regularly begging me to reprint it. Because I had a specific niche, lots of the required skills from my day-job, and a professional product (though I certainly would do some things differently now), I sold roughly the same number of each as I have my first “traditional” novel.

*Random side note: Not one of my four traditionally published novels has ever made PW, though they’ve been reviewed in all the other standard places. I can’t help but wonder if the PW folks later felt like I’d conned them and crossed my name off forever, but maybe that’s “writer blacklist paranoia” talking.

I learned an immense amount from that experience, which was by far and away its greatest value (a lot more than any monetary return. Marketing expenses add up fast, and I intentionally didn’t track how many hours of labor I spent because I sensed early on that the return would be pennies per hour, and it would have been too depressing to know.)

The most important thing I learned was that I didn’t really want to be a publisher. I’d rather write. I also wanted the third-party validation that traditional publishing bestows.

…and soon to be in again

But here I am again, and boy, how self-publishing has changed. I got in, and back out again, before the flood: before attitudes about it were quite so disparaging, before booksellers automatically said “no.” And while the sheer volume of self-published work only keeps growing, lately the disparagement is ebbing again, thanks to the small percentage of stand-out work that’s gone mainstream and to more traditionally published authors who are taking matters into their own hands. Their work is raising the quality average, at least perceptually. (I’m pretty sure there’s still plenty of dreck.)

What hasn’t changed for me is the answer to this question: Do I want to be a publisher? The answer’s still no. But I’ve become convinced that for some objectives, it’s the most logical route for an author to take. (And frankly, traditionally published authors without lead titles are now expected to do such a large percentage of the promotion, including sending around galleys and trying to finagle press coverage and events, that there’s less and less difference between the two roles anyhow.)

More good reasons all the time

I’ve taught workshops on the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing, and until recently, the best — and most honest — reason I ever heard to self-publish was this: an older woman told me she wanted to self-publish her book because doctors had given her less than six months to live, and she wanted to leave the book for her family. And we all know what would have happened if she’d tried the traditional route.

That was a few years ago. I still think there are bad reasons to self-publish, too, some of which Chris mentioned last week. I actually think my original reasons to self-publish ten years ago weren’t great, though it worked out to be very valuable for me anyhow. Nonetheless, and despite my ambivalence about becoming a publisher again, I think there are more valid reasons than ever… without invoking terminal diseases.

As also mentioned last week, for instance, I have the third book in a trilogy. I want closure on that trilogy, for myself and my readers, and I do have fans asking for it. The publisher (a collection of lovely, literary, art-driven people who must nonetheless function in a system whose only de facto goal is the bottom line) doesn’t even want to see it.  So I’m going to make a few copies available myself. Back in the day, I might have put them in a three-ring binder or emailed a PDF of the manuscript to a handful of people. Now I’m going to point them to an ebook and probably a POD book instead. I don’t expect to make a dime. That’s not why I’m doing it. I’m still actively writing and marketing other manuscripts the traditional way. But I think I know enough about all sides of the business now to make a book-by-book assessment of my goals for a book and my options for achieving them.

Goals, costs, benefits

For many authors, ebooks make that cost/benefit assessment radically different from what it might have been just a few years ago, and it’s going to look yet different even, say, nine months or a year from now — the business, and more importantly the business models, are changing that fast. I spent some time with an outrider in the digital revolution last week, and I’ll post some relevant tidbits from those conversations and related research soon. Everything suggests that while traditional books won’t remotely vanish, for a growing number of books and authors, even the definition of “published” is changing, perhaps significantly, and whether “self” is still attached is losing meaning.

Redefining “published” — and self-published, too

If I make an ebook available of my out-of-print but traditionally published books, for instance, am I self-publishing? Or, since those underwent third-party editing and all the other “gatekeeper” functions, am I just offering another edition? What if I package my trilogy, two-thirds of which was “traditional,” as an “e-boxed set?” What if a nonfiction author published a first edition traditionally, got back the rights, and released the revised edition themselves? There are plenty of scenarios with even more blurry lines.

I do think that outspoken pro-self-publishing authors like J.A. Konrath sometimes minimize the fact that the reason they can sell a decent number of ebooks themselves is that a traditional publisher first played a significant role in delivering an audience and building their brands. And some categories — like adult romance — appear to be much better than others at delivering audiences from scratch based on reader demographics and habits. Based on the data I’ve seen, I think books for young readers might be quite a bit more challenging, at least for a few years.

But I’m headed back into self-publishing with an advantage I did not have the first time — which is knowing that the most important thing I get out of it will be what I learn for the future.

What goals might entice you to do it yourself? Would you try it just for the experience?

— Joni, who is still half-considering that three-ring binder idea


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Sci-fi and POV

In discussing point-of-view with a group of writers the other day, I realized how uncommonly first-person narration is used in science fiction compared to some other genres. These things are subject both to trends and to the preferences of various age-groups, of course. It’s pretty well known that teen readers prefer first-person more than just about any age group. And perhaps because of the ascendency of YA, first-person is starting to become more common in fantasy, too.

But I can’t think of too many harder sci-fi books with first-person narrators. I could speculate (no pun intended) on why: maybe it’s enough of a challenge to put a reader in an unfamiliar world or time without making them feel there at the “I” level, too? Maybe it’s because sci-fi writers and readers are weighted toward the male persuasion? Maybe it’s because sci-fi often tackles social issues or grand ideas, and first-person narrators are more likely to focus on personal stories? Maybe it’s coincidence?

Maybe I’m wrong?

What recent sci-fi can you think of that’s written in first person, and what are your speculations about the relationship between story and narrative perspective?

— Joni, who likes third-person better anyway


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Hero Interview Part 2

More with Suzanne Perry of Secret Garden Books in Seattle:

Spec: Is there any other recent spec-fic for young readers you’re enthusiastic about?

SP: I’m really excited about I AM NUMBER FOUR. It’s going under the name Pitticus Lore, but it’s really from James Frey and a recent Columbia graduate. It’s amazing. It’s really a father/son story wrapped in this huge package with shape-shifters and explosions and epic battles. It has all these elements that I shouldn’t even like; I don’t read that kind of thing. But it’s pretty brilliant. It’s a great father son story. A great parent/child story. And there’s a love story in it, too. It’s quite wonderful. And it’ll pick up steam when the movie comes out.

[Cranky Spec editorial note: Suzanne’s recommendation not withstanding, readers who are authors should be aware of Frey's fiction factory and treatment of other authors.]

Spec: How about spec fic for younger readers? Picture books, for instance?

SP: Oh! The picture book I’m the most excited about right now is probably still MONKEY WITH A TOOLBELT by Chris Monroe. Does that count? I love Oliver Jeffers, too.

Spec: How do you like working with authors on events? Any tips?

SP: I find authors, especially kids’-book authors, to be the most highly evolved people on the planet. I really do. They totally get it. They don’t have raging egos, for the most part. They want to do what they can to help, and they do help.

We recently did an event with a bunch of self-published people, and I find that world difficult to traverse. I would say that self-publishing it not the way to go. It’s a tough road.

Spec: Give us a little secret Suzanne insight. Do you believe in ghosts, ESP, or—

SP: Yes, yes, everything, all of the above. Last summer we sold our house that we’d been in for the last 12 years, and there was an entity in it — definitely a black entity, but I wasn’t scared of him. It was just a blackness, an absence of light, and many times he would be in the closet or the front corner of our living room. I didn’t like him there, but I got used to him. Why am I saying he? But it clearly was gendered.

And I kind of expected to see him in our new place, which is only a block away. But no. Nothing at our new house. That was an old house, and our new house is brand new. It doesn’t have anybody. Fancy that!

But I believe in all that, oh, yes. When I was nine I saw a UFO, and I will never, ever forget. Ever. These two mercury-silver circles were off in the distance at the top of a hill, and then they just took up and hovered a while, and then boom! They were gone. So fast! I have never forgotten and I never will.

The only thing that really scares me is alien abduction. I don’t want anybody to even think about coming to get me because the idea of being powerless to stop them really skeeves me out. I’m not interested in that!

Thanks, Suzanne! We’ll look forward to your next event and promise not to bring alien guests! (But readers in the Seattle area should check out the Secret Garden Books awesome events calendar.)


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Hero Interview: Suzanne Perry, Book Event Maven

Suzanne Perry handles events and PR for Secret Garden Books, one of Seattle’s great indies with a focus on children’s books. We recently broke into her hectic events calendar for a quick interview!

Spec: How long have you been selling books?
SP: In college, I worked at the last real Brentano’s in the whole world in Costa Mesa, CA. Then I didn’t work in books again until five years ago. In between, I had a regular corporate career in market research and advertising.

Spec: That must come in handy. What brought you back to the book world?
SP: I decided maybe we owned enough stuff, and I kinda just walked away from the corporate world. It was the best thing I ever did. I spent more than a year  just open, letting it be, shambalala — ha ha! I knew the next thing would present itself.

I did a little freelance organizing — and no. I had no patience for the people. It was just about stuff again. And you know, the world has enough stuff! I’m done with stuff!

Then my spouse, Pam, attended the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association convention, where Christy McDanold, the owner of Secret Garden Books, was asking everybody if they knew anybody awesome, because she’d decided to hire a full-time events/public relations person. She was taking a huge chance, but we think it has paid off.

I do the website, all the PR, and the events, but I don’t do any day-to-day bookselling. We have 13 experts at Secret Garden, and all of our young booksellers, 20- and 21-year-olds, are huge YA readers, and that’s who we rely on.

Spec: What do you like to read?
SP: I’m really excited about Michael Cunningham’s newest book, BY NIGHTFALL. Beautiful. I highly recommend it. I love Michael Chabon, too.

I love picture books, but it’s almost impossible for me to read middle-grade or YA. I don’t have the patience for it, and there are booksellers at the Garden who are VERY well versed, and I can totally trust them. So I rely on the experts.

But I do have to read a lot. If I’m going to have an interaction with an author, a dinner or an event, I read at least her touring book if not her entire backlist, because I have to introduce her. And usually I become a fan. (And if I’m not, I don’t think they would know it.)

The Spec: What’s your take on speculative fiction?
SP: Oh, the biggest themes in sci-fi are the best themes in literature! I honestly believe that. For example, I don’t want to spoil the story, but Beth Revis’ ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is about the fact that all we have is the moment. Right now. And what’s genius about it is, as in most sci-fi, that the theme is completely unspoken. But it’s what the whole book is about. That’s what I love about sci-fi.

Spec: Is there any other recent spec-fic for young readers you’re enthusiastic about?

Why, yes, there is — and if you want to find out what they are from Suzanne, you’ll have to come visit The Spectacle again tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview!

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This is not a hero interview

No, it’s not. It was going to be, but I’m still transcribing it. I’ll try to get it up within a few days.

In the meantime, I just read a partial adult fantasy manuscript for critique that wins the award in my lifetime for the “As you know, Bob” info dump. Which is making me think about world-building, and why many of us seem to have the impulse to create worlds almost separately from the impulse to tell stories. (Or are far better at the former than the latter.)

Is it the creative impulse rechanneled? A God complex? An intellectual exercise? Some Freudian impulse to control a world when we can’t control the one around us? Or is it just fun?

In some fantasies, it seems that worlds and histories are created and almost go begging for a character we care about who happens to be living inside it. Such a world seems to be built from the outside in, with all the structure going up but the characters sometimes missing. And in others, the character is the focus and what world-building we get is only so much as the character bounces off of — built from the inside out. I wonder if those two ends of the spectrum reflect different sorts of creators, different ways of thinking, maybe even different goals.

And in our electronic, internet age, I’m kind of surprised that there aren’t more outlets just for the world-building part. Why don’t we see universes online that you can enter and role-play in merely for the chance to learn about the world? There are plenty of people who would volunteer to create them, I think. Is it more fun to create a world than to experience someone else’s?

What do you think?

— Joni, who has a hard time imagining building a world from the outside in, instead of the inside out


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Overheard in NY

A few random tidbits that relate to spec fic and were heard from speakers at the SCBWI conference in New York and other anonymous professionals with whom I met:

- The paranormal rage is (finally) subsiding.

- Dystopias are still going strong, with plenty of submissions still coming in.

- High-concept reigns. If you can’t describe it very briefly and make it sound hooky, it’s going to be a tough sell.

- From an agent: “Editors keep saying they want middle-grade, but then they won’t buy it. I’m not going to believe them any more.”

- From an art director: Cover art is trending away from faces.

- Next trend, perhaps? Historicals. Flapper steampunk. Or contemporary “normal” YA about “normal” teens.

Since “normal” doesn’t sound like much fun to us here at The Spec, I’ll take that as a call to battle. Let’s give them some good abnormal stories!

— Joni, who is still catching up on the lost sleep



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Interview with a Hero: Professor Watermelon (part 2)

More of our interview with writer, librarian, and writing teacher Chadwick Gillenwater, a.k.a.Professor Watermelon. (Read part 1 here.)

Spec: Who is Professor Watermelon?
Professor Watermelon is a character I created to teach creative writing to children. Many children feel stifled by the rules of writing (grammar, spelling, style, etc.). From the get-go I want my students to see that I am ready to have fun with writing. My character shows that I am not taking writing too seriously. I am not there to cross out and scribble over their writing with red ink. I am there to show them how writing is an outlet for creative self expression — just like drawing, painting, and building things with popsicle sticks.

Spec: Does Professor Watermelon have any supernatural abilities or unusual traits?
CG: Of course! He is in close connection with many magical people and creatures from this world and beyond. During every creative writing class, we receive a letter and artifact from one of these friends. We call this the MuseBox. These artifacts often become the jumping off point for many stories the students create. For example, we may receive a letter and a jar of honey from Herbert the Fly. Even though Herbert is a fly, he makes the tastiest honey on this planet. Herbert may ask the creative writers if their character can do something that is extraordinary to his or her species.

Professor Watermelon is also connected to the people and creatures that live inside the moon. There is a special bakery inside the moon called the Lunar Spooner. This is where Moonbean the Clown bakes Imagination Pies. Creative writers often get these as snacks. They magically cure writer’s block!

Spec: We might need a few of those for a giveaway! What’s the most rewarding thing about working with young writers?

CG: I have the opportunity to inspire a child to find the joy in writing every single day. I get to show them that even adults have the ability to act silly. And I love that I get to use my own imagination.

Spec: When teaching teachers how to teach writing, what are your top tips for doing it right?

CG: If you’re a writer, you know it’s important to write with your writer’s hat on and edit with your editor’s hat on. If you try to wear both at the same time, you will have a tendency not to believe in your writing. Your editor’s voice will keep your imagination from flowing, and you will most likely not finish the project.

If you’re a writing teacher, please separate writing time from editing time – maybe move them to completely separate days. Also, if you have not found the joy in writing yourself, how can you inspire a child to find that joy? It works the same for reading. I have parents ask me all the time how they can motivate their child to read at home. I ask them, “Do you read at home?” They often say that they are not much of a reader. BINGO! We must model the behavior if we want to teach it.

Spec: What writing project are you working on now?

CG: I’m working on a middle grade novel in which Professor Watermelon is one of the characters. The setting is Seattle; Lillyville, TN; and the moon! The protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a cemetery with his pet crow. That’s all I’m saying right now, heehee.

Good luck with that moon story, and thanks for stopping by, Chadwick! Please give our regards to the Professor!


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