Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Research. Lots of it. Perhaps I've gone too far.

As I've mentioned, I've been working with the 9-12-year-old girls' book club in the library. One of the things I didn't expect to do for this gig was research, but for me, it's been the most fun part of preparing for the meetings.

I got the idea when we were reading Rodzina. I started looking for a big map of the US, so they could trace Rodzina's journey from Chicago to California and see all the towns she stopped in along the way. I wanted to show which parts of the country were states and which were still territories. The atlases in the juvenile reference area had few details, and were too small to hold up to the group. The adult atlases broke the country into so many sections I would have needed a lot of page-flipping to convey it all. So I went to the Internet. Within a short time, not only did I have the map, but it was a railroad map from 1881. Perfect! We hooked the laptop to the projector, and followed the Orphan Trains west.

That went so well I challenged myself for From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Could I find photos of 1960's New York, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Automat? Yup. "Show, don't tell," right?

Last night we discussed the Green Glass Sea. I got a bit carried away. I started by looking for pictures of the atomic test at Trinity and photos of trinitite, the "green glass" of the title. Then I found a surprising number of photos of buildings and housing at Los Alamos in the '40's. Considering the secrecy of the location at the time, it was well-documented. "Hey, kids, want to see Dewey's kitchen? This is what it looked like!" And somewhere in there I lost them. It was the equivalent of looking at the neighbor's vacation slides as a kid. Shadow puppets, the works.

What I learned from this is that while a book needs to be well-researched, a book discussion does not. One or two photos was probably enough, and the author's research and description should speak for itself.

I also re-emphasized for myself how fortunate we are to live in a time where research can be quick and painless. And just because you've done the research does not mean you have to show it all to your readers. Note to self: apply this to my writing.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Recipes for a Good Critique Group Meeting Part II

I ran into a dilemma trying to finish my blog “Recipes for a Good Critique Group Meeting.” I wrote out the story about myself trying to make the brownies and running into problems with mice and breaking dishes etc., but the story also involved other people. When I finished, I suddenly realized that I was planning to put the story onto a place where potentially everybody in the world could read it. It is one thing for me to write about myself doing stupid things, but it would be another thing if someone else wrote about me being involved in a stupid story. I wouldn’t like it. I, therefore, couldn’t put my story on the blog. I’m not sure what this means for me as a blog writer.

Here are the last four paragraphs of the story and the recipes:

Michelle brought an eggplant dip (to a Critique Group meeting at Bridget’s House) and Joan brought some kind of bean dip that were very interesting.

Sarah’s brownies were like a really good book that you hug before you set it down to finally fall asleep and then pick it back up again to finish despite having to suffer the next day.

The two dips on the other hand were like books that you read slowly. You can easily set them down but you can joyfully pick them up to savor later. I kept having to taste them over and over. I’d get a little eggplant dip and let it rest in my mouth – so interesting. Then I’d get some of the bean dip and let it hang out in my mouth for a while – also very interesting. Eggplant dip, bean dip, eggplant dip, bean dip over and over. It was a very interesting and delightful evening and I don’t even like eggplant.

Okay that’s really the end of my story. I warned you from the beginning that it wasn’t really going to go anywhere. Now all I have left to do is to actually give you the three recipes for a good critique group meeting. Unfortunately, I don’t actually have the bean dip one yet from Joan. I have to get it for me and for you. I haven’t tried to make the eggplant one yet, because I am waiting for my free eggplant to ripen in my parents' garden. Do you have the nerve to try the brownies? They really are good. I am going to make them again myself as soon as I am finished with this blasted diet. Will I ever be finished? It takes forever to lose weight especially if the dieter is always breaking the diet. You all may have to make and eat the brownies for me. Good luck!

Sarah’s Brownies
3/4 cup butter
1 1/2 c sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 t. vanilla.
1 t. instant coffee
3/4 c flour
3/4 c cocoa
dash or two cinnamon
about 1 c. chocolate chips.

Melt butter, stir in sugar. Stir in eggs, one at a time, till well
mixed. Then add vanilla and instant coffee. Mix dry ingredients
together and add to butter mixture. Stir till mixed, then stir in
chocolate chips.

pour into greased 8 x 8 pan. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes.

The Eggplant Recipe is a link from Rachael Ray.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Recipes for a Good Critique Group Meeting Part I

Recipes for a Good Critique Group Meeting

I need to come clean right here at the beginning and confess that this story really is going to be about recipes - not writing. Unfortunately I have no clever twist at the end to bring it around to the normal theme of our blog. I am, therefore, asking you up front not to wait expectantly wondering how in the world I am going to bring this around to writing – I’m not.

Most of our Critique Group meetings are BUSINESS, BUSINESS, BUSINESS. We meet at Panera Bread, and I am always late. I dash past the food counter not even bothering to order a cup of tea, much less food. Recently, however, we have had some out of the ordinary meetings. The first one was when Lisa came back through Charlottesville on her way from Belgium to Oregon. We decided to have a party meeting at my house in honor of Lisa being with us in person rather than on the computer screen. I had hoped for a slumber party, but with so many people having to get up to be at work the next morning, it turned out to be just a party party. We had food, wine, and a writing video about Richard Peck. People brought a smorgasbord of yummy things but what has stuck in my mind (even though it was two months ago) is Sarah’s rich, dark, chocolatey, with a touch of cinnamon and coffee, brownies. Everyone at the meeting kept saying how good they were, but I proudly resisted tasting one. I can’t resist brownies right out of the oven, but once they’ve cooled down I have will power. With every compliment those brownies received, though, my will power weakened until finally I found one of the morsels melting in my mouth.

“It’s the real butter, the extra chocolate chips, the dash of cinnamon, and the sprinkle of coffee,” Sarah said, noticing the look of delight in my eyes.

“Mmmm,” I said and I closed my eyes and savored the flavor


Right now I am on an official diet. I had my physical two weeks ago and experienced a moment of shock when the nurse told me how much I weigh. I felt hungry a while ago and realized that if I went to bed I could manage to not eat any more food today. I have set myself a goal, though, of writing for an hour a day and I had not completed my goal. I told myself that if I actually went to the computer and wrote I could have a bowl of cheddar cheese rice cakes as a reward. Well, my cheddar cheese rice cakes are gone, and I can’t handle writing about brownies anymore. Therefore, this is the end of part one of “Recipes for a good Critique Group Meeting.” I promise that although I am not going to write about writing I will give you the brownie recipe in a future edition. Stay Tuned.

No one will point and laugh, I promise.

The other day Tess Hilmo posted on sticking your neck out. Having just experienced the happy side of taking a risk, I agree with her. Well, I'd agree with her either way, but this makes it easier.

Miss Snark's First Victim has a monthly Secret Agent Contest. Basically it's a first pages critique on her blog. She holds a drawing to choose the participants, and each of them sends the first 250 pages of their manuscript to be posted on the blog. Then the tomato throwing begins. Anyone is free to comment on the submissions.

The upside of this is that one of the commenters is the Secret Agent. And said agent chooses a winner, who then gets to send in her manuscript. Honorable mentions get to send partials.

I took a risk. I put my 250 words (actually, I think it was closer to 280) out into the blogosphere and waited to see what would happen. Sure, I ducked a few tomatoes. But I also won honorable mention, and a request for a partial.

It's scary putting your work out there for the world to see. But repeat this to yourself: "What's the worst that can happen?" And really, when was the last time you saw anyone pointing and laughing?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Off to Bosnia!

I'm off to Bosnia with my friend, who came here from there in 2000. I'll miss the next Slushie meeting, but I'm so excited about this trip. See you all later!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

All right, blog readers, it's time to show the love. Book Blogger Appreciation Week is coming up. This is your opportunity to help your favorite book blogs find more readers and gain recognition.

If you're like me, in addition to the writing blogs, you're reading blogs about new books, blogs by authors, and blogs that review books. What are they? If you have favorites you can nominate them for awards. If you write one yourself, you can register to participate.

I'm looking forward to seeing some recognition of our favorite blogs, as well as discovering new ones. Go readers!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I'm co-leading the girls' book club at the library this summer. I realized today that we are reading an equal number of newer books (Rodzina, The Green Glass Sea) and old favorites that have been around since my childhood. (Tuck Everlasting, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.)

All of these books take place in the past. The only one that had a contemporary setting when it was written was The Mixed Up Files, but looking at 1960's prices (27 cents for a hot fudge sundae!) and icons (the Automat) makes it historical today. Yet it doesn't feel dated.

That got me thinking about timelessness in books. Why do some books remain favorites while others fade into dated-ness? I was a big Bobbsey Twins fan as a kid. Those books were old fashioned even then. I reread a few of them recently and realized just how dated they are. And I challenge you to find a kid under twelve who has heard of them. My sister read Sweet Valley High. Those were so popular they had a television show. I don't think I've ever seen one check in or out at the library.

What do you think makes a book timeless? Do you strive for that in your work, or is it something that never occurred to you?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Interview with Ann Haywood Leal

author of Also Known As Harper

A member of the 2k9 class, this is Ann's first published novel. Her interview is delightful and humorous. We hope you enjoy it!

Her novel focuses on Harper Lee Morgan, a fifth-grader, for whom life is up and down. Her father and his drinking are gone, and her mother is trying to hold the family together, but the rent is past due, and their landlady, Mrs. Early, is out of patience. Harper Lee knows that all too well, thanks to the snide comments of her classmate Winnie Rae Early. Harper is focused on readying her poetry for a school contest, but when her mother loses her job and Harper has to stay home with her younger brother, Hemingway, her hopes for the contest fade away. First-time novelist Leal takes a narrative with familiar elements—the family abandoned by the drunken father, a seemingly hopeless situation redeemed by a hopeful heroine—and elevates it with her characters, who though familiar are sharply and sympathetically drawn. One of the highlights is Harper’s poetry, interspersed throughout the book. Although the ideas behind the poems are sometimes sophisticated for a fifth-grader, they are written in a clear and natural way that will speak to readers and make them think.

1. What one thing helped you the most with your writing?
Definitely writing everyday and scheduling in a specific time for it. I’m teaching full-time, so if I don’t set aside that exact writing time, something else will come along to nudge it away. Also, if I don’t write everyday, I seem to lose the “flow” of my story, and I end up wasting a lot of time going back to pick that up.

2. Do you start with a plot, a situation or a character? Do you outline before you start?
I used to write for a small local newspaper and outlines worked great for that. But for fiction, I’m not a big outliner. I like to start with a character, or with a really unusual setting. I was out on a run one day and I passed a vacant lot. The house had been torn down to make way for a new housing development, and all that was left was an old swimming pool, partially filled with dirty rainwater. I went back later with my camera and that pool made its way into ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER. I’ve found that if I look beyond the obvious and go one step further, I always find my story.

3. How did you get an agent and find a publisher? What has your experience of the business side of being an author been like?
I read an article in a newsletter called Children’s Writer. My agent was quoted in the article and I really liked what he had to say. I appreciated his honesty and his candor and I knew that was the kind of person I’d love to have represent me. We had some emails back and forth for a few weeks and then he called me. So he is the one who actually found the right publisher for me. But I feel I need to backtrack and say that it wasn’t just a one-shot deal for me. I had been trying for years to get both an agent and an editor. I remember seeing Jerry Spinelli speak at an SCBWI conference; as he went up to the podium, he towed a huge shopping bag stuffed with rejection letters. I remember thinking to myself, I’ve got a whole room full of those! If Jerry Spinelli kept going, so can I! In hindsight, it’s probably a really good thing I didn’t get those early manuscripts published. When I look back at them now, I know they weren’t nearly ready.

The business side of being an author has been interesting and exciting. It’s completely new to me, so I try to ask questions of my agent and my editor whenever I need to. Being a member of the Class of 2k9 has also been wonderful, because you can bounce ideas off the rest of the group. They are incredibly supportive of each other, and they are going through virtually the same types of things at around the same time.

4. What is one of your favorite parts of your book? Why do you like it so much and how did it come to be?
One of my favorite parts is toward the beginning where Harper comes home from school and all of her belongings are spread out on her front lawn. I think I like it so much, because it shows that some things are just beyond your control and you have to pick yourself up and go on. That particular scene came about because I saw an article in my local newspaper. Outreach workers were trying to get an accurate count of the homeless in the area. The accompanying picture had a man sitting in the dirt under a tree in an upholstered armchair. His trailer had been towed away, along with all of his possessions, including his family pictures. I tried to imagine how that would feel.

5. Of all the possible readers in the world, who would you most like to hear had read your book and loved it? Why?
I’m going to cheat and pick two. My mother passed away ten years ago and she used to read everything I wrote. I would have loved for her to have read ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER. The second would have to be Harper Lee.

6. Are you part of a critique group? If so, how does that fit into your process? At what point do you let someone else read your work?
I am actually part of two wonderful critique groups. One I have been with for over seven years. One of the members, Margaret Welch, lives only a couple of blocks away from me, but the furthest member lives almost two hours away; so we meet in the middle at a little coffee shop/used book store in New Haven. There are four of us and we meet once a month. We each bring about ten pages or so to read, with copies for everyone. Our rule is to be kind, but brutal.
I trust my critique group immensely, so I will let them read my work when it’s a very rough first draft. Sometimes I’ll even run over to Margaret’s house to get her quick opinion on something.
Critique groups can be tricky, and I feel very lucky to have gotten the right mix of members. I feel that you have to be willing to politely disagree, and you can’t have too many members. I think once you get past 6 or 7, you can’t spend enough time on anyone’s work.

7. What is the question you never get asked in an interview but are always dying to answer?
Hmmmm…how about: What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I write five perfect chapters that need no revisions. I go for a five mile run that only takes me about thirty minutes and nothing hurts. Then Kevin Costner shows up begging me to go to a private showing of his new movie, but I have to say no, because my husband is waiting in the kitchen where he has made some chocolate with chocolate-covered chocolate that has negative calories. (It actually makes you lose a half a pound per bite.) I could go on, but I’m running out of hours in my day.

8. You hinted that you might read from your very first novel written when you were twelve, the one in the green notebook, at your book release party? Did you?
As tempting as it was, I did not read from it. I would love to debut it here on Slushbusters, though…

We've invited Ann to post this novel on the blog.

Kidlit is everywhere!

I went to the chiropractor this morning for my monthly maintenance appointment. When I was finished I headed back up the hall to the waiting room. Laura, the receptionist, was curled up on the floor with another patient's children. They were reading picture books. They were all so engrossed in the story that I stood there for at least two minutes before they noticed I was in the room.

Just a short observation that you never know where or when the kids books will pop into your day!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What have you heard?

Overheard at the Kroger deli last week:

"I. do. not. have. time to worry about something like that. You will earn your-self an ulcer if you think that far ahead."

Deli Lady was cutting sandwich meat for me, and her speech matched the cadence of the machine she used to slice my Ovengold Turkey. She was talking to a Timid Soul who had been stocking potato salad. I don't know what Timid Soul had been concerned about.

I do know that if I had a lapfull of trouble, I might visit Deli Lady and tell her about it while she cut my sandwich meat. Even if it took ten pounds of Blazing Buffalo, the conversation would be well worth it. She had one of those warm, sensible faces that suggested she would listen well and quickly dispatch any nonsense she encountered.

But I digress.

The point is, I think listening (even eavesdropping) is a lost art. Oh, the things you hear when you sit in a crowded place with your earbuds in- and the volume off.

Or you can just walk around and make a point of listening.

"I've lost 20 pounds. But the best part is, my man LOVES it!"

~ That was a grocery store, too.

"Her art is ... amazing. She uses eggbeaters and ink."

~ While waiting tables. (I cannot begin to communicate the mixture of reverence and pretension in the speaker's tone.)

"I told that bartender she sucked at her job and she should just quit if she always had an attitude like that. You know I always say what I think. Rob just laughed. He's used to me."

~ Spoken by a young women with matching attitude. Loudly. Into her cell phone. As the plane was boarding. This former server wanted to jump a few rows and suggest several reasons why said bartender might have had a poor attitude.

I could go on and on. I found the Slushbusters by eavesdropping on Michelle and Steph talking at an SCBWI meeting. At writing conferences, I stay on the edges of the folks that mob the agents/ editors/ authors. I can't think of an intelligent question to save my soul. So I let other (better) people do it for me.

Besides, as a writer, I need to listen. I already think far too much about:

1) the words in my head

2) how to get them on paper,

3) how many words I put on paper, and

4) were the words any good?

And then you add blogging to the mix? Good grief, it's way too easy to pay attention to moi (as Miss Piggy would say).

Listening demands that I take a vacation from myself. It reminds me that each person I see has their own story. (Even if it involves eggbeaters.) And it often helps with that whole putting words on paper/computer screen that we writers think so much about.

So I'd love to know: What have you heard? Do you ever use what you hear in your writing?

I'm all ears.

Monday, July 6, 2009

New Faces(sort of...), New Posts

The Slushbusters have been quiet for a while because we wanted to give you all time to read the fantastic interview with Ellen Jensen Abbott last week.

I'm sure many of you noticed the recent post by Joan, which was her first on the blog. She's also working on our next author interview which should post soon.

At tonight's meeting, we're going to have a mini-class on blogging, and I hope to welcome our seventh Slushbuster Bridget, as the last of us to start posting. I know you all will greet her warmly, as you have the rest of us.

I have to go now. I have critiques to finish!