Rx for Writers


"Humor and the Middle-Grade Reader" with Mary C. Ryan

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Mel: is Mel Boring, moderator of this chat with Mary Ryan, and editor of the ICL web site.

Mary is Mary C. Ryan. Elementary school librarian, grade school teacher, and mother to six children, Mary Ryan has a deep well to draw from. She wrote for the Niagara Gazette, Tonawanda News, and Buffalo News, as well as GRIT, the Wall Street Journal, Capper’s Weekly, New York Alive, Catholic Digest, and Writer’s Digest. Her career in children’s literature began 20 years ago with stories in Cobblestone, Humpty Dumpty, Young American, and a cover story for Boys’ Life. Her second cover story for Boys’ Life appeared in 1999.

Pink shows the usernames of the people who asked Mary Ryan questions.

Mel: On a warm summer evening most everywhere, a WARM WELCOME to you to the ICL Chat Room! We've been having a three-month series of Summer Refreshment, and our guest tonight is one I've saved for a rousing finale to the summer chats. Mary Ryan is specially gifted when it comes to humor. She knows what true humor is, and she understands what tickles the funny bones of kids in writing. TWO of her novels have been Junior Literary Guild Selections. We are very fortunate to have you in the chat room tonight, and our WARMEST WELCOME to you, Mary Ryan!

Mary: And welcome to all of you! It's great to be here.

Mel: Mary, when did you FIRST begin to write, as a child? And what was it you first remember writing?

Mary: I have some writing samples from back when I was about nine. I wrote poems, and then plays, which my friends and I produced. It wasn't until high school that I began writing anything of real substance.

Mel: Did you have any inkling back then that you would make a career of writing?

Mary: No. I didn't know that was something people actually did. It was just fun, not work.

Mel: Has it continued to be fun? As well as work, I mean!

Mary: Of course! Well, yes, there are moments when you want to tear your hair out, but they're not so frequent as to be disabling.

Mel: YUP, for sure, maybe writing is fun UNTIL you HAVE to do it! You're here tonight to discuss TWO areas with us, writing humor for middle-graders and self-publishing. Let's tickle funny bones, first! What is "funny?" What’s funny to you?

Mary: I like a more subtle form of humor--something that sneaks up on you. I remember my kids watching Saturday Night Live and for the life of me, I couldn't see what was funny about it. I love parody, too.

Mel: What’s different about today’s kids that wasn’t true when you or your kids were growing up?

Mary: They're often wiser in the ways of the world. Or think they are. They know more about sex, for example, but I doubt if they understand it. But at least they know it exists, which I didn't!

Mel: Here's a pre-submitted question, Mary:

Zorian Aratus: What types of humor can a middle grade reader understand and find funny? For instance, can they understand more literary types of humor involving such things as sarcasm, understatement, tongue-in-cheek, and puns? Would they find the writings of James Thurber funny?

Mary: They do like puns and sarcasm. Kids are good at that. Understatement, I'm not so sure of. I don't think they'd like Thurber. And I love him!

Mel: Why is humor important, Mary?

Mary: I think it's a great stress reliever. The barriers go down when we share a laugh. And we bond with those whose laughter we share.

mbvoelker: Can a person who can't tell jokes in a funny way learn to work humor into her writing? Or is humor from a non-funny person always going to sound contrived?

Mary: That's a tough question. There's a certain sense of the comic that's needed but almost anyone can write something that's funny,because we know what makes us laugh. Some people do try too hard, though. Like watching comedy Central. sometimes.

Mel: Mary, for those of us who may be new to the term, who and what are "Middle-Graders"?

Mary: Middle graders are roughly youngsters between eight and twelve. That's the peak of the reading age, by the way. They devour books.

Mel: Why did you decide to write middle grade?

Mary: I'm a tad longwinded! So writing picture books, say, wasn't an option. And I think I liked that age myself. You're old enough to do things by yourself, but still young enough to be relatively free from responsibilities. Major ones, that is.

Mel: How "longwinded" can we be with Middle-Graders?

Mary: Well, of course, you don't want to overwrite. But plots are more complicated and also sub-plots come into the picture. You can work in more detail and description, more character development.

Mel: Is there a general length that is appropriate for the 8-12'ers?

Mary: Roughly between 20,000 - 30,000 words is about right. Then, of course, there's J.K. Rowling.

Mel: YUP, she IS the EXCEPTION, for sure!

Mary: I'm STILL not finished with Harry V.

Mel: Do you think one effect of the Harry Potter books may be to pave the way for OUR books to be longer?

Mary: Not in general. Because of their popularity, kids are reading (or, to be honest, pretending to read) because everyone else is doing it, and because they can enjoy them on some level. There's a lot of humor in them. She's a whiz.

shirley: What is the difference between Middle-Grade readers and Young Adult readers?

Mary: The subject matter. They say that middle graders drink coke; YA's smoke it.

lasmithm2000: I think a line is good when it grabs a reader with a scare, Mary. What do YOU think?

I'm not sure what's meant by a scare. Certainly, a line can make you catch your breath because of its cleverness or complexity or audaciousness (is that a word?), but scary?

Mel: You raised a GOOD point just a while ago that I wanted to follow up on, kids PRETENDING to read. I have a feeling that is happening with a lot of kids. Could you expand your thoughts to us about that?

Mary: it's kind of like the sex thing I mentioned earlier. They pretend in order to be like everyone else. That's not necessarily bad, mind you. They're bound to get something out of the experience, but as a general rule, writers need to consider the maturity of their readers first and foremost.

Mel: EXCELLENT thoughts!

red2: When writing humor for middle grades, is it okay to focus on the humorous situation or do you still have to have the conflict situation, only told in the framework of humor?

Mary: You always need conflict, but the humorous situation is part of that. In ME TWO, Wilf's clone has to go to the bathroom. Since they're trying to hide him, this makes the situation tense and Chuckie responds by doing a sort of play-by-play as the clone goes out into the hall alone.

Mel: That ME TWO is the cleverest of titles, Mary, for a novel about clones!

Mary: Yes, except nobody spells it right, not even on my contract or on the screenplay.

amadillo: Would a publisher reject a middle-grade novel right from the start if it were, for example, 50,000 words?

Mary: An editor would probably read a few pages. That's generally what we all get. If that captures his/her attention, then we might have a chance. Make those first pages gangbusters!

mbvoelker: I can't tell jokes and I often don't get them. But I want to use humor to create light moments in my rather serious book-in-progress. What's the best way to go about this?

Mary: Tough question, but a good one. There's plenty of room for humor in serious novels, so perhaps you might have the main character make some wry observations. In THE SECRET IN THE WEST WOODS, Jack makes an observation. "It always seemed to me," he said, "that someone who insisted on sharing usually wanted what the other person had." That often gets a chuckle.

Mel: Is there a difference between boy humor and girl humor, Mary?

Mary: There was a great article in the recent CHILDREN'S WRITER about just that. Yes, but you can't go by stereotypes alone. Some girls love the gross-out factor, but I'd be willing to wager that more boys go for it.

mayuri: When writing, do you start with a specific humorous incident and write the scene around it, or does the humor naturally flow as you write?

Mary: I tend to write funny. (I hope, anyway.) I talk funny, too. But sometimes there's an incident that sparks a humorous chord. Like when the clone tries to learn French by listening to tapes and because the tapes were actually Russian, he came out sounding like Gorbachev. I had to find a place for that.

Cup: What's funny to a preschooler?

Mary: Preschoolers like giggly things, like slapstick. Clowns are a good example. they dont' appreciate the written word much yet.

lasmithm2000: Don't you think there's a fine line between humor and shock?

Another toughie. In a word, yes.

Mel: What do you think of the current issue of "potty talk" in kids’ books?

Mary: Personally? I don't care for it. And I don't know if it started with the kids or with the books. It seems like everyone was trying to push the envelope and go beyond what we used to consider good taste. That doesn't mean I don't engage in it from time to time. I'm only human. But WALTER THE FARTING DOG? Give me a break.

paige: Hi Mary! Welcome. Can one write the gross stuff that kids, particularly boys, love without being crude?

Thanks, Paige! ;-) It takes real skill, I think. And what's crude to one person might not necessarily be crude to someone else. Perhaps it's up to the publishers to keep some sort of leash on it.

Zorian Aratus: Can other genres be mixed with humor? (i.e., humor + western, or humor + horror.) If they can, how should the beginnings of such stories be handled?

Mary: Sure, any genre should have humor. The beginnings should be handled so the reader has an immediate sense of what genre it is and how humor is going to work into it. You can't have something deadly serious and then all of a sudden erupt into wild humor.

Mel: How do you find humorous ideas?

Mary: They find me. I guess it's a way of looking at things. We all do the "what if" thing for plots. Just carry it a bit further. What if John finds a dog? What if the dog can fly? It might end up in some funny situations.

margieh: Maybe someone already asked this, but is humor something natural or can it be learned?

Mary: Like anything else, some of it can be learned. But there's always going to be The Natural, like Jerry Seinfeld or Sid Caesar.

red2: A good example of a humorous book for younger children is THE MITTEN by Jan Brett. The idea of the book is so silly and the illustrations so great, my son and I laughed so hard every time we read it.

mbvoelker: Humor + Western = HANK THE COW DOG :-)

Mel: Is there room for humor in a serious book?

Mary: Absolutely. As I mentioned, it helps relieve stress.

lcf: Is slapstick humor in fashion now?

Mary: It's always been in fashion, but maybe even less now. Remember the Three Stooges? There's not much out there that I've seen that resembles that kind. Thank heavens, I might add.

lasmithm2000: What books do you think are best for humor for middle-graders to teens?

Mary: My personal favorites are anything by Beverly Cleary, especially RAMONA. WINNIE-THE-POOH is hilarious, and not just for toddlers. Paula Danziger is great. I loved Nancy McArthur's PLANT THAT ATE DIRTY SOCKS.

daisykid: How do you come up with your titles?

Mary: Well, we all come up with titles, but that doesn't mean the publisher is going to agree with them--sometimes it's a compromise. I've heard authors talk about the go-rounds they've had but the title needs to be captivating and also have something to do with the plot. Look for a major event or a recurring phrase. HOLES was pretty simple, but said exactly what the story was about. Kinda.

Mel: Have many of your own titles been changed on the way to publishing, Mary? If so, which?

Mary: THE VOICE FROM THE MENDELSOHN'S MAPLE and GHOSTS, GADGETS, AND GREAT IDEAS. On the latter, I wanted to use GECKOS, instead of GADGETS, but the editor didn't believe kids would know what a gecko was. Now there's a gecko line of clothing!

Mel: Ha, I bet they would've known geckos then!

mrspigglewiggle: Sometimes the spoken isn't funny when written, do you know any fix-it ideas for that?

Mary: Yes, that's hard. You have to present a picture, I think. Create an image in the reader's mind that points out the inconsistencies. There's a British series called the BAGTHORPE CHRONICLES that's hilarious. But it's British humor and it may not translate to the US. Actually, it's been around for a while. It's wacky.

Mel: Some of your books border on fantasy or sci-fi. Are you a sci-fi fan?

Mary: A little bit. I don't lug home those huge volumes, but I like a good story set in another world. One of my favorites is DRAGON'S BAIT by Vivian Vande Velde, who also won the Edgar a few years ago with NEVER TRUST A DEAD MAN. The latter is really clever and funny as all get out.

Mel: Who are your favorite funny characters?

Mary: Ramona, the Herdman children from THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER, the plants from Nancy McArthur's books. I'm reading some of the Lemony Snicket books. they're funny.

Mel: What is your own writing schedule?

Mary: It's been hit and miss lately, I'm afraid. But I'm working on a nonfiction article that's had our writing club hysterical for the past two months. I won't give away the subject, but I'm having fun with it. So, even nonfiction can be funny!

daisykid: So, can you use humor in nonfiction?

Mary: Sure. Go to your library and get some magazines and see the style of writing for some of the nonfiction articles. They're light and lively--guaranteed to get kids to learn things without them even knowing it.

paige: May I change the subject to self-publishing and POD? Why did you change to self-publishing, Mary, when you had already been published and won awards the traditional way?

Mary: Good question. THE SECRET IN THE WEST WOODS was initiated by a friend of mine who wanted to promote a new county park, The West Woods. I thought it was a great idea, but felt it would have limited appeal to others outside of the area. I suppose I could have tried it, but you know how it goes, send it out, wait months and months, get rejected, and so on. I decided to do it myself. ME TWO then became the Disney movie THE OTHER ME. Publishers wouldn't reprint the book, so I went with the POD.

Mel: When was THE SECRET IN WEST WOODS published?

Mary: Both THE SECRET IN WEST WOODS and ME TWO came out in 2000. I've broken even on SECRET and get royalties every quarter for ME TWO, so it's working for me. Fiction is really hard to self-publish, though, unless you have some sort of tag. Historical always works, of course.

Mel: When you decide to self-publish, do you look for a printer?

Mary: I had to learn the whole process and it was scary, let me tell you. There's the ISBN, the bar code, the typesetter, the illustrator, the printer, the marketing. Not an easy task. Still, I learned a great deal and would do it again if the right project came up. It's hard, by the way, with picture books because of the high cost of illustrations and color printing.

Mel: Are you saying, Mary, that when you self-publish, you do EVERYthing a publisher would usually do?

Mary: I did.

Mel: Is there a ball-park figure for what it costs to self-publish a book?

Mary: The difficult part now is to keep the contacts and make sure they have books in stock. Unfortunately big bookstores don't like to carry self-published books. As for cost, I paid about $5000 to print SECRET. I made some mistakes that made the figure a little higher than it should have been. That was for 2000 copies, by the way. Many of which are still sitting in my basement (wrapped up). But I don't have to worry about it going out of print and will have generations who will want to read it and visit The West Woods. It's middle grade and I'm now contemplating a book for slightly younger readers.

Mel: Why DON'T big bookstores like to carry self-published books?

Mary: they only have so much shelf space and need to carry the "popular" books. That's not to say that they haven't ordered copies from me when the need arose. But they also often only deal with book distributors who take between 50-60% off the top. I give the local bookstore a 40% discount to sell them for me. A lot of people don't realize that.

Mel: Mary, for those of us--and I mean ME, too!--who may not understand POD, can you explain it?

Mary: Print on Demand (POD) is a service whereby you send your manuscript, they scan it into a computer and handle all the publishing jobs, like copyright. When someone orders a book, they download it and bind it. Simple as that, whether it's one book or fifty. The problem is that the cost of a POD paperback is often higher than you'd pay for a mass- produced one, a lot higher. The good part is that you don't have to invest a huge sum and can get your book in print.

Mel: Why is it that you pay more for a POD paperback than for a mass-produced one?

Mary: Because they only bind them as needed, I guess. With mass production, they churn out hundreds, which makes the cost per copy go down. If they don't sell, though, they get remaindered and you often don't end up with copies for yourself. That happened to me. Now I either own them (self-published) or don't have the investment.

Mel: So, with POD, are you kind of, like, paying for "one book at a time," while in mass printing, you have to buy some thousands of copies up front?

Mary: Right, there are discounts for quantity.

Mel: Does POD cost more PER BOOK than mass-printing them?

Mary: I don't have the exact figures, but I think so, because, as I said, they can do it one at a time.

Mel: Could I purchase one of your POD books, Mary? If so, where and how, please?

Mary: ME TWO is the only one that's POD and you can order it through iUniverse.com. This is the one that was made into the Disney Channel movie--and what a great job they did translating it to film! Not always the case, I know.

Mel: Will a POD book, on average, cost about as much as buying a copy in the bookstore?

Mary: Well, the stores seldom carry them, so you have to go through iUniverse. A traditionally published paperback would probably cost about half what a POD does. the original paperback of ME TWO cost ten dollars years ago, but the POD version is currently $14.95.

silverdove: Can you put your books on Amazon.com to sell?

Well, they've gotten a bit sticky about that. I think ME TWO can be, since they're dealing with a publisher. But they don't want to carry SECRET unless I give them a big discount and then pay to have them shipped. I don't figure it's worth the hassle. I'm content.

amadillo: What percentage does the author get off the POD books in comparison to traditionally published books?

Mary: There is a difference. Traditional paperbacks can net you between 8 - 10% of the cover price, whereas I get, I think, 25% of the POD edition.

amadillo: Do you feel that your standing with tradtiional publishers was affected negatively through your self-publishing?

There's no way of knowing. I don't think so. If I produced a book they felt was going to make them money they'd probably go for it.

tarsus: Do you think POD will ever replace traditional publishing?

Mary: No, but it's a great way of getting that family saga out there. One person I know wrote a book about a historical place near where she lives and I encouraged her to go POD because she had a ready market there. You can get your book onto the POD’s computer, then order copies and sell them yourself, or let people order from them.

silverdove: How did you go about finding the right illustrator when you self-published?

Mary: Ah, that was the major problem with SECRET. I hired a person who was an excellent artist, but didn't insist on approving sketches first before signing a contract. In the end, I didn't like the result, but had to pay anyway, then find someone else to do it.

silverdove: How were you able to arrive at the right retail price?

Mary: I figured out what it cost me to write and produce it, including sending it to people to review, paying for postage, phone bills, etc. Then I looked at what I'd have to let a bookstore have it for and still come out with a decent and fair profit.

wupps: Do you need a lot of up-front money to self-publish?

Mary: I think I paid half to the printer first, then the rest when the books were delivered. The typesetter was separate. The bar code and ISBN # had to be paid right away. by the way, when you get an ISBN from Bowker you actually get ten of them, so I could produce nine more books without going through that step again.

Mel: HOW did you learn ALL that you had to do in self-publishing? Are their plenteous resources for learning it all?

Mary: Dan Poynter wrote the bible on self-publishing, and I knew people who were familiar with the printing process. It was hard, though, and scary, at times. But hey, nothing ventured, and all that, right?

Mel: What is the title of Dan Poynter's book, Mary?

Mary: THE SELF-PUBLISHING MANUAL. He updates it every year, too, I think. It's mostly focused on nonfiction but there's a lot that's good about marketing and promotion, etc. There's another book out there, too, by a couple, COMPLETE GUIDE TO SELF PUBLISHING, I think it is, by Tom Ross and Marilyn Ross.

Mel: What’s the hardest part of POD/Self-Publishing?

Mary: The hardest part of doing it yourself is getting the story right. I sent the manuscript to a fourth grade and had them read it. They were really helpful, too. Where it bogged down, they let me know. I also sent it to writer friends, a naturalist at the county park district, and had my husband proof it a few times. When the typesetter gets it, he/she isn't going to make any changes unless you authorize them.

Mel: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Mary: I wish I'd made better decisions on the illustrator, and not been in a hurry. I was trying to get the book out to coincide with the groundbreaking of the new nature center and it made some things too rushed. But all that's water under the dam, unless I run out and need to reprint!

Mel: WHY, again, did you say YOU decided to go the Printing-On-Demand (POD) and self-publishing routes with your books?

Mary: I felt SECRET was too much of a regional book. I may or may not have been right about that, but traditional publishers also take a long, long time to get a book out. Then, the average shelf life of a regular book is about 18 months, unless you're Rowling, of course. With ME TWO, I thought there would be interest because of the movie, and there was, but since they changed the name of the movie, there wasn't the connection, and even Hyperion didn't want to reprint it. But we tried. The movie producer hooked me up with four agents and none of them were able to get a nibble.

Mel: How quickly can you self-publish or POD a book from the time you're done writing it until the time you have copies in your hand?

Mary: Maybe four months after it goes to the printer. With POD, I think it might be even faster.

silverdove: Do you know of any self-publishing companies that specialize in certain genres of books?

Thanks for reminding me. I actually had to set up my own publishing company--Dragonseed Press. As for pritners, they'll usually print whatever you want. To my knowledge, there aren't any "self-publishing companies." That's when you do it yourself.

albertine: Do you make more when you self-publish or if you get it published by some publishing company?

Mary: Good question. I think perhaps you get more from a traditional company because you get royalties and they market it for you and reach a wider audience. Then again, it can go out of print faster, too. It depend on what you want.

amadillo: I have planned to go through iUniverse myself to self-publish my book in case it is rejected by traditional publishers. Can you tell a little bit more about your experience with iUniverse?

Mary: They were super. I did have a little deal with them through the Author's Guild, though. They didn't charge me anything, although I had to pay to get the rights to the original illustrations. I wanted the same cover as the original paperback so I had to track down the artist and make a separate deal with him. Also for the original hardcover artist for the interior illustrations.

Mel: ME TWO was originally published by Little, Brown & Company and Avon Books. Any difficulty getting the rights back for self-publishing?

Mary: No, I had them already. After the first movie option was dropped, I asked for them and got them. Then disney came back a year later, so I didn't have to split the loot!

Mel: Again, when Disney made a movie of ME TWO, why didn’t publishers want to put the book back in print?

Mary: I guess they wanted people to watch the movie. then there was the title thing. If you see the movie CINDERELLA and then see a book CINDERELLA, you can be sure it's probably the same story. If the book was called GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE, you probably wouldn't think of the connection.

daisykid: Do you have an agent, and how did s/he feel about your POD? Or how would any agent feel about POD or self-publishing?

Mary: I don't have an agent, never did. An agent wouldn't like self-publishing or POD because he/she probably wouldn't make any money. It's their job to sell to a publisher, then take a percentage of the royalty.

daisykid: I've always heard it was too expensive to self-publish. Is that true?

Mary: It certainly can be true. You have to get out there and aggressively promote and market your own book, or you won't make a dime. If you can do that, or have, as I said, some sort of connection, then it might be feasible.

amadillo: Have you tried to submit your book to a traditional publisher before you used POD? And if not, would you consider offering it to a traditional publisher after it has been self-published?

Mary: ME TWO, which was published POD, had already been published by Little, Brown and Avon. I did offer it to them but they wouldn't bite. I didn't try it with SECRET. Some people have been successful doing that, but usually with nonfiction.

silverdove: Please explain more why you had to set up Dragonseed Press?

Mary: You have to have a publishing company to get an ISBN number. It didn't cost me anything to set it up. I just thought of the name and presto! I was in business. Oh, I do maintain a PO Box for orders, although most of them come by FAX.

Mel: Dragonseed Press is a GREAT name for your publishing company, Mary! Can you explain just what IS an ISBN number?

Mary: International Standard Book Number. Every book has one and is registered by that number. Anyone in the world can order it through a bookstore if they have the number. It just makes things easier for selling.

tarsus: Are there any penalties to worry about with self-publishing?

Mary: Lawsuits, you mean? I was careful not to use anything that could be construed as being dangerous or hazardous, or invaded anyone's privacy. I sent the manuscript to the park district so they could correct anything that might possibly give them trouble.

Mel: Who replaces the traditional editor in POD or self-publishing?

Mary: Me! And the people I trusted to review it.

Mel: What are you writing now?

Mary: I'm working on that nonfiction that's had our writing club hysterical, have a picture book manuscript out, and a few ideas on scraps of paper that are waiting for me to get around to them.

Mel: Mary, I've gotten lost in the enjoyment of your talent in BOTH the areas of writing humor for middle graders and self-publishing. THANK YOU so much for all you have added to our knowledge in BOTH areas! I know that our chatsters are bound to want to hear more from you, so I want to ask you, will you come back someday?

Mary: Yes, thank YOU, Mel! And all those who visited tonight! Your questions were insightful. I would like to do it again sometime.

Mel: Please return for the kick-off of our fall series of Guest Chats two weeks from this evening. Keep checking at http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/iclschat.shtml to see who our special guest will be. Though I haven't completely confirmed it yet, on September 4, it may be a guest that you have been waiting for for some time now. This is my chance to THANK YOU, for your strong support of our chat room, and Writer's Retreat, and the various other activities of our web site. Besides special guests, it takes people like you to make our programs work--and I THANK YOU!

Mel: THANK YOU, too, again, Mary Ryan, for being here! And goodnight everyone!

Mary: Goodnight, all! Happy writing!



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