Saturday, June 16, 2012

What the Experts Say: Act Like an Adult. Think Like a Kid. And Write Like Your Life Depends On It -- by Jan Welborn-Nichols

Jan Welborn-Nichols was born in Peculiar, Missouri, really. Now that she lives in Bloomington Illinois she is near to Normal, the town next door. Jan was a chubby kid who survived a trying adolescence of bad skin, ugly glasses, and plus size clothes. She has been an opera singer, a cubicle drudge, a black belt in the Japanese martial art of Aikido, an entrepreneur, and is the owner of Market Arts Creative, a content development strategy firm.

Writing for kids is just like writing for adults – only harder. Children don’t have a lot of life experience; consequently they have very little patience for pokey pacing, false dialogue, and cardboard characters. Reader forbearance is acquired with age. But kids are brutal. They won’t stick with a book if it doesn’t grab them by the hand and pull them down the rabbit hole from page one. It’s okay if the situation is incredible, even far-fetched, as long as it seems real and “gets good” really fast.
Why then, would a first-time author choose the greater challenge of writing for children? Several reasons. First, the story came up, introduced itself, and like the worst possible guest refused to leave until I wrote it down. Second, I didn’t know what I was getting into until it was too late. Actually, not knowing is a really good thing. Think of all the cool stuff we wouldn’t even try if we knew at the beginning how much we didn’t know. Besides, I seem to be a leap-before-looking kind of person. Not that I don’t have a neo-cortex and on occasion use it for rational thought. I just love being swept away by an idea, being so engaged that all else momentarily falls away, and I end up, well, leaping. But the real reason why I wrote a book for children ages 10-12 is because that’s the true state of my emotional development.

Who Knew a Chubby Childhood was Book Fodder?
            I was a chubby kid before childhood obesity became a public health crisis. And I stayed overweight for much of my adult life until a funny thing happened. I wanted to change the way I felt more than I wanted to change the way I looked. I no longer wanted to defer feeling good about myself until after I lost weight as I had done so many times before. Taking a good, long look in the mirror, I resolved to forgive myself for having a weight problem, to accept and respect myself exactly the way I was. It was that emotional shift that allowed me to happily, whole-heartedly and gradually change my habits of eating and living. In time, the weight came off for good. And now, when my friends lament the crow’s feet around their eyes, or the excess underarm skin that flaps when they wave, I relish the fact that I’m finally comfortable in my own skin. Trust me, it pays to be a late bloomer.
So it’s no surprise that my 12-year-old protagonist, Henrietta Sharp, is chubby. But I didn’t write a book about me (thank goodness), I wrote a book that I would like to read, influenced by the books that I’ve read, lived in and loved. My book had to be in the science fiction genre like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It had to have a sly wit like Norman Juster’s The Phantom Toll Booth. And I wanted it to be “kind of” epic like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Mind you, I’m not saying I accomplished anything comparable to my writing heroes though I worked very hard at it.

The Business of the Book
            I say this without diminishing the importance of craft and the rigor of writing a book. But I’ve always thought of my book as a business. I’m an entrepreneur by profession, having run my own marketing firm since 1994. While I was working on the outline of the book, I was also working on the business plan, asking the simple questions that are so gnarly to answer: Who’s my audience? Is there more than one audience? How will I reach them, and the really big question, how will I make money?
It turns out that I had several audiences. Here’s how it worked out.
  • Book buyers: parents, grandparents, children ages 10-12
  • Book referrals: teachers, librarians, dieticians and nutritionists
  • Bulk book sales: dieticians and nutritionists, organizations and associations promoting children’s health, food industry associations promoting healthy children’s menus, and healthy products
So far that looks like a pretty traditional business approach to audience. Here’s the next step.

The Platform
In the book, the main character must learn to appreciate her whole self, including the chubby part, before she can claim the super power that is her birthright. One of the themes I wanted to explore was the idea of power, the super kind that can make you go crazy and lose your humanity, and the kind that each of us has within our grasp; the power to be our true selves.
Determined not to write a preachy book about making healthy food choices, we (not a royal we, my team) created a beta site designed to do two things: sell book (d ’oh) and demonstrate how characters from the book can be used to communicate nutritional information in a fun and imaginative way.
Here’s an example. We took Henri’s cat, a minor character in the book, and on the web site transformed him into Kitchen Kitty, leader of the Food Detective Club. Kitchen Kitty goes on field trips to the grocery store and reveals cool stuff about the stuff we eat: things like reading ingredient labels to detect the presence of Sugar Daddy in cereal; or learning that a pinto is a pony and a bean.
             We’ve gone from being in the book-only business to becoming a content development company. In addition to the core book series (coming someday kind of soon), I have the opportunity to sell additional products that are focused on healthy eating and healthy kids.
  • Picture books (expanding the audience base) featuring other minor book characters: Sir Broccoli, McCauley Flower, Sausalito (a serape-wearing bottle of hot sauce) and more
  • Branded books (customer cover/content) for companies who want to promote healthy eating habits
  • Sponsorship of Kitchen Kitty videos for healthy-minded organizations and companies
  • Product placement in videos (must meet nutritional standards or be labeled as a treat)
  • You get the point …

As a marketing strategist by day who writes middle grade fiction at night, I encourage my fellow authors, even those who write outrageous space-time travel adventures, to look at the universal themes within their books. Friendship and loyalty, courage and kindness, or anger and redemption; these themes can be the basis for a platform that does more than market your books. You can be both a writer and a rebel with a cause greater than any single book. And when you’re attached to something greater than yourself, you will reach more people, your platform will have more meaning for them, and guess what, you’ll sell more books.

The Leisurely Launch
            This is a great time to be an indie author if we could just slow down and enjoy it. The technology that opens a path to reaching readers directly can evoke the feeling that we should work machine fast, then even faster.
            I’m speaking out on behalf of the leisurely launch. It takes most businesses 5-7 years to be successful. So work hard, be ambitious, set outrageous goals, but decide you’re in the business (and writing is a business) for the long haul. You can go for a mega-hit or you can seek out nice audiences that can be sustained and become economically rewarding over time.
            Henrietta Sharp and the Magic Lunch Box is my first book so I don’t have multiple products to sell. (Yes, a book is a product, although a very precious one.) To compensate a bit, I’m bringing out an audio and a print version of the book in time for the 2012 holiday season. I’ve got a plan, a fledgling platform, a persevering nature and, oh yes, I’m learning patience. How about you?

Henrietta Sharp and the Magic Lunch Box is available at most eBook stores, at GoodReads, and at

Barnes & Noble
iBook Store