Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Surprise me

I never thought I'd mention Harry Potter and The Karate Kid in the same post.

Of all the talk within the children's writing community about Harry Potter, there is one I remember the most. A speaker at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference (I think it was Bruce Coville) said the biggest draw of the series was that there was a surprise on every page. They were never just jelly beans, or portraits, or even bathrooms. In the world Rowling created, even the most mundane objects or activities were surprising.

The world was wondrous.

In a much smaller way, The Karate Kid remake surprised me. When I saw Mr. Han working on a car, I expected to hear"Wax on, wax off." I never did. There were the obligatory training montages, but one was punctuated with the young hero flexing and posing in front of his mirror. Nothing huge, but another small, funny, surprise.

(That the movie surprised me at all is incredible. This post is being written by someone who remembers trying to balance on one foot before delivering a brutal, match-ending kick. I also remember seeing half the playground trying to do the same thing during one second grade recess. We considered ourselves successful if we didn't fall down in the attempt.)

I knew what was going to happen in the remake. I knew all the plot points it needed to hit. Yet in many small ways, the movie didn't do what I thought it would- and so it kept my interest.

I'm in the middle of rewrites, and I keep coming back to the importance of surprising the reader. No conversation, description, or character should be just what the reader expects. That's easier said than done, but it forces me to dig a bit deeper into whatever I'm writing. It's also a way to measure the effectiveness of what I've just written. I feel that I can move on when something unexpected is revealed, even if it's a small something.

What about you? What books surprised you in big or small ways? How do you keep your own writing fresh?

And did you ever try that kick after watching the first Karate Kid?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Turning off the editor

One of the things that has changed as a result of my taking my writing more seriously is that I pay so much more attention to everything I read. The editor in my brain is always working. If a book I'm reading is particularly gripping, I'm able to turn it off. But other times, I just want to take a pencil to the book I'm reading and fix stuff so that I can read it the way I want to.

Last night I was reading one of those pencil books. It wasn't a book I had chosen, but my book club is reading it right now. Strunk and White would have had a field day with it. Single sentences take up six or seven lines on the page, and are so convoluted, full of commas, semicolons, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that even though they are grammatically correct and properly punctuated, they are exhausting to read and by the time I have finished reading one I have to go back to the beginning because I've forgotten what it was that I was reading about while I was trying to decipher all of it like a sixth grader diagramming sentences in middle school English class. How is it not exhausting to write that way?

I wonder if I enjoyed this kind of book more before I automatically edited inside my head.

Friday, November 19, 2010


You may have noticed I've been a bit quiet lately. I've had some family stuff going on the past few weeks, so I haven't been blogging. But I've been lurking on your blogs (that sounds so evil, doesn't it?), and keeping up with what's going on in the rest of the world.

One thing I just have to mention is that Kathy Erskine's book Mockingbird won the National Book Award this week! The Slushbusters have come to know Kathy through our local writing community, and we're very excited for her.

Another thing that's happened is that I've had a resurgence of communication with some of the friends I made at Chautauqua over the summer. I'm not sure what's up with that, but suddenly I've gotten several messages and emails from the gang. I appreciate everyone staying in touch. Right now, while I'm out of my writing groove, it helps to know these guys have my back when I'm ready to jump back in.

I'm on a major reading/audiobook tear right now. We had a Rapunzels meeting yesterday, during which we discussed The Jade Dragon by Carolyn Marsden and Virginia Shin-Mui Loh. The group is younger this year, as some of the older girls have outgrown us, and we've got a lot of new girls. This is where it's challenging choosing books, because the age range of the club is 9-13. Some of the older girls weren't sure they wanted to read a book with such a young character, but they all liked it after they did. If you want an example of how to make a simple problem feel like high stakes, read this one.

My big new excitement in audiobooks is that our library is launching Overdrive, which will allow us to download audiobooks using our library cards. When the "checkout" period expires, the file becomes unusable, but meanwhile, it can be transferred to an MP3 player or burned to CDs. So cool, especially now that I have a car with a docking station for my ipod.

So, like my Chautauqua friends, even when you haven't heard from me in a while, I'm here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Last Lines in Kid Lit

I love Sporcle. Today they posted a quiz about last lines in children's books. I scored 11 out of 20, which was still in the 90th percentile. Please, please, someone do better than I did!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Getting in and then getting out

I'm going to see "The King's Speech". The movie is about King George VI, the younger son who never thought he'd be king. Hitler is conquering Europe, and the UK needs to hear from their king. George can't speak without stammering, yet he is expected to speak to his country in a radio address. (It can't have helped that Hitler was an amazing orator.)

The trailer captured me. I think many of us write because we can't get the words to come out right the first time.

Or the second.

Or the third. But I digress...

I read this article about the movie today, and in the article was a link to an interview with Colin Firth who plays King George. He says that as an actor, his job is to get in and get out: to understand his character's dilemma, but not concentrate on expressing it. Rather, he should focus on the character's determination to get out.

He argued that if an actor concentrates too much on portraying the problem (in this case, stammering) then the audience sees an actor trying act. But Colin's goal is to pour his energy into portraying his character's struggle against the dilemma. The actor's effort should be towards portraying the fight, not the enemy.

He said it enables the audience to connect with the character. Few people want to follow a character whose energy is spent getting into his personal hell. But an audience is willing to walk with a character fighting his way out of one.

I've been banging my head against the wall with revisions. I have so much to do, precious little time, and even less creativity. But Colin's point made sense to me as a writer. I'm working to figure out the tension that pulls my MC through the story. That's huge. But once I clarify that dilemma, I need to go back to my MC's fight against it.

And speaking of fights- I need to go wrestle my own dilemma into submission. I'll let you know how it goes...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Fall Conference

This was my second time to this wonderful conference and, like last year, I was not disappointed. Ellen Braaf, the regional advisor, gives everyone a warm welcome. You immediately feel right at home. Being elbow to elbow with a hundred or so other like-minded writers for a whole day was just as inspiring the second time. This conference is high energy and high quality.

First in the queue of speakers was author Kathy Erskine. She presented GREAT writing tips. Using “great” as an acronym for her five elements of good writing. An agent panel followed her. We all love to hear what agents are looking for. Chapter books and books for boys were mentioned quite a bit. One of their recommended website was The website is for all types of writers. It has how-to articles, interviews and a business section. Andrea Tompa, Editor at Candlewick Press, compared revising your writing to wood carving. You get the big picture first then carve away to the details. The keynote speaker was author Lisa Yee. She had us in stitches. Winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award, she could be a standup comedian on the side. There was also a book buyer panel. What an interesting idea to hear the perspective of the buyers. The panel included a public librarian, school librarian and owner of an independent children’s bookstore. The conference ended with an editor’s question and answer session. All in all many worthwhile speakers and panelists plus good food and company.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dropbox Anyone?

I'll confess right up front that I'm terrible about backing up my documents. I was using a memory stick for a while but only remembered to do it once a month or so. Then there was the emailing-novel-to-myself phase. I remembered to do that about twice a month. I checked out some of the online services that you pay for (mozy, etc), but I'm so cheap I just can't stand paying for things if I don't have to. (Actually, I think they offer 2 gigs free now.)

But still, I thought there must be another way.

I just discovered dropbox. I'm not terribly tech-saavy, so this may be old news, but I'll share anyway. You go to dropbox, download it, and a folder will appear on your computer. Anything you put in this folder can be accessed from any computer connected to the internet.

They market dropbox as a way to organize your files across multiple computers, phones, etc, but all of the files you drop in your dropbox folder are also instantly uploaded to the internet. So, if your computer breaks and your phone bursts into flames, you still have access to your files via "cloud computing."

Now, when I sit down to write, I open Chapter 18 from the dropbox folder and work on it. When I hit "save," the doc is saved not only on my computer but also on the internet. I don't have to remember to back up. I don't have to do anything special. I'm loving it.

So, what do you use to back up your writing and how do you like it? Ever tried dropbox? Have concerns I haven't thought about?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In the middle of the night

You know how sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night with what you think is a brilliant idea for your story? I did that last night. I thought about it for a while, after having trouble falling back to sleep. I thought about it long enough that I remembered it this morning, even not having written it down.

The problem is that in the light of day, it's not really such a good idea. It basically removes all but the simplest conflicts from my story, leaving it kind of old-fashioned with no real stakes for the main character. What is it about three thirty in the morning that makes us think we're brilliant?

Thursday, October 7, 2010


You know how we're supposed to write obstacles that get in the way of what our main character wants? I'm having a lot of those lately. Right now, for instance, I want to go to the James River Writers Conference tomorrow. But the obstacle is that I have a drippy, sniffly, chest-rattling cold and really should stay home. If I'm feeling up to it by Saturday, I may just do a one-day visit.

Alison will soldier on tomorrow as the sole Slushie. If you'll be at the conference, tell her hello. She's awesome. She called to check on me, and I'm hoping she takes some notes for a post-conference sum-up of her own.

My head hurts.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Short and Sweet

We've all got a lot going on this week. Sarah is preparing for her trip to the Nevada SCBWI, where she is going to participate in their mentor program. Alison and I are going to Richmond for the James River Writers Conference. I've looked at the list of registrations, and I know we'll see a couple of you there.

JRW offers a five minute agent "elevator pitch" session to conference attendees. I haven't had one in three years. Two years ago the agent I was supposed to pitch couldn't make it due to illness. JRW arranged a substitute, but it was an agent who didn't handle books for children. I gave up my time slot to someone who might have a book that agent would represent. Last year I didn't have project I wanted to pitch.

So here I am, trying to tighten up my log line. I know what my book is about, and I can get it down to a sentence or two. I've rehearsed it enough not to ramble, but not so much that it sounds like a memorized speech. But I'd like it to sound more punchy, you know? So that's what I'm working on this week.

We'll post a sum-up of the conference next week.

Monday, September 27, 2010

People really do love books.

I went to the National Book Festival on Saturday. I was impressed. I knew it would be big, but I didn't know it would be this big.

Due to delays in the Metro system, we got there later than I had planned. I missed the first panel of authors I wanted to see. I stuck around the children's tent, though, long enough to listen to Margaret Peterson Haddix and Linda Sue Park speak about the 39 Clues Series. They talked about the joys and challenges of writing a series with a lot of other authors.
One young person asked them their advice for future authors. Linda Sue gave one of the best and most original answers I've heard. She suggested aspiring authors attach themselves to a losing sports team. The constant cycle of hope at the beginning of a season and disappointment at the end is good practice for the life of an author.

After the presentation I headed over to the book signing area, where they were both signing books. They were to be in Tent 8, over there on the left. See all the people standing in lines?
That's not the whole line. If we turn to the right, you can see some buses back there. That's about where the lines ended. I decided I didn't need my books signed that badly. We went to the Pavilion of the States tent instead, stopping to peek in a few other tents along the way. I said hello to Fran Cannon Slayton, who was representing both Virginia and West Virginia. The crowds were so dense I waited in line to say hi, and then moved out of the way for some other folks who wanted to talk to Fran. She looked like she was having a great time.

By the time we finished at the States tent, we were done with the crowds. So we retreated to a nice, quiet museum with flush toilets and air conditioning. (The high in DC on Saturday reached 97!)

I'm glad I went to the Book Festival, but I much prefer the intimate setting of writing conferences.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Repeating relationship

I just finished reading an interview with Dan Harmon, the creator of the show Community. Both the interviewer and Dan talked about having "every relationship between every character different".

Now that's interesting.

For those of you who don't watch Community, it's a show with a large cast, and it would be so easy to have repeating relationships: multiple friendships between characters based on common interests, several mentoring relationships, or attraction between peers, etc. But it isn't that way at all. I should take more time to describe the show, but I'm going to move straight to writing.

I realized- in a blinding flash of insight- that it's easy for me to do that with the secondary characters in my MS. I might have several pairs of characters that relate the same way towards each other. Guess who's going to go back, look at all the relationships she's created, and make sure she's not being lazy with how her characters relate to each other?

One of the things that pulls me further into a story is surprise. Shouldn't the way my characters interact be surprising as well? (Not surprising as in: "Golly, Jane, I had no idea you enjoy roller derby in addition to your work CPA." Instead, the surprise should come from a weak person exhibiting strength, or from discovering a stoic character has a well developed sense of humor.

My story will be so much stronger if a character is strong with one person and vulnerable with another. That's the way we really are. I have people I'm cheerful around, and a few who will know if I've had a bad day. I might be serious with one person and never have any substantial sort of conversation with another.

Yes, the concept of non-repeating relationships is pretty basic, but it stood out to me. Had anyone else ever thought of that before?

Friday, September 24, 2010

It's National Punctuation Day!

I would be remiss in my duties as resident grammar geek if I failed to mention National Punctuation Day.

How should I celebrate?
I know!
I'll write a blog post-a brief one.

Anyone can participate in Punctuation Day; you could write a haiku. (See the website for details.)
There are other ways to celebrate: reading up on punctuation, decorating with it...
I have some ! and ? magnets in my office, of course.

What would we do without punctuation?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The end of the beginning?

This one is not about a story. Well, it is a story, but it's not my story. It is the publishing story.

Yesterday I visited the Library of Congress for the first time. We took the guided tour. All of it was beautiful and fascinating, and it contained far fewer books than you might expect. In total, we saw two books up close. Just two.

The first was the Giant Bible of Mainz. It is hand scribed on vellum. It is illuminated. It was written in 1452 and 1453 and the work took fifteen months. It was produced in or near Mainz, Germany, right around the time of the Gutenberg Bible.

The second book we saw was the Gutenberg Bible. It too was produced in Mainz, Germany in the 1450's. It represents the massive revolution in books that came as a result of Gutenberg's use of movable type. In the same amount of time it took the Mainz scribe to complete one copy of the Bible, Gutenberg printed about 180 bibles. A massive revolution.

The Library of Congress calls the Mainz Bible "The End." It calls the Gutenberg Bible "The Beginning."

Standing there, looking at these books, I couldn't help but recall Stephen Roxburgh's talk at Chautauqua about digital books, e-books, and print-on-demand publishing. And I wondered when the Library of Congress is going to look at the Gutenberg Bible as the end of the beginning. Given that most people can view it, as you may have just now, online, perhaps they already do.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is anyone going

To the National Book Festival? I plan to. I have never been, but I've wanted to go for a couple of years now. In my likes-to-be-prepared way, I've printed out the schedule and highlighted the authors I'd like to see speak. I'm going with a friend, and I hope she chooses some authors she'd like to see as well. We may visit the Library of Congress. I've never been there either.

I find it heartening that this kind of festival is going on right now. In the midst of all the buzz about some guy in Missouri calling Laurie Halse Anderson's book Speak "soft pornography," followed by panicked book banning in schools, it's reassuring to know people are still embracing books. Of course, if you've read any kind of book blogs this week, you know the community of authors and librarians has jumped up to support Speak and everything it represents, which is basically the ability to stand up for yourself.

Just by coincidence, I've been listening to Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 this week on audio. It's about--get this--book burning. Yup. A dystopian world in which firefighters don't prevent or end fires, they start them. To burn the books. I can't help but wonder what Bradbury thinks of all this nonsense of one man trying to censor the books of a community.

Banned Books Week
is next week. I bet every one of you reading this has read something that was banned in the last decade. Speak is already on that list, by the way. So if you can, celebrate by reading a banned book. Or even better, attend a book festival!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Objectification of writers

I don't know about you all, but after this week, I needed a blog post like the one I found tonight:

Apparently, some folks had twenty reasons why writers were great folks to date. I'm a writer, and I'd say I'm fairly date-able (on good days ... if you give me enough warning). However, these folks gave all the wrong reasons for dating a writer.

Enjoy! And if you have any thoughts/anecdotes on dating writers or just being one, please share!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Where do you write?

I'm one of those people who needs a routine for things. I don't sleep well if I'm not in my own bed, and I need a dark room. I've never been able to sleep on airplanes, and the first night in a new place is often a restless one.

Writing is the same way. I like to write at home, at my desk in my office. Preferably with the windows open for some fresh air, but I only get to do that in spring and fall. If I even take my laptop down to the kitchen table, I don't feel as productive. If my desk is too cluttered, I can't work well until I clear it. I think it's a Pavlovian thing. My brain perceives this space as a work space.

Sarah is different. She likes to write in cafes. I'm amazed by her ability to do this. I'd find that so distracting. I'd be eavesdropping on conversations and constantly pulled out of my writing by the sounds and movement around me. I can't even read in a cafe. If I'm alone and need something to do while I drink my coffee, I can knit. The most writing I seem to be able to accomplish in public is postcards. I'm a big fan of postcards.

When we were in Chautuaqua, of course, I had to write somewhere other than my own desk. Fortunately, our inn had several porches to which we could retreat. I found the smallest, most secluded one on the side of the house, facing neither the street nor the lake. The one with the fewest distractions.

I've heard of people who make a playlist for writing. That amazes me too. I know I'd be singing along with parts of the music. My only playlist is crickets. And sometimes the dog barking.

Are you a routine kind of person, or can you write anywhere?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Can you relate to Beaker?

You know the first thing I thought when I saw the video? This is what I do to myself sometimes. I swear there are times when I can feel the barbs pop up around me.

I am not saying that we shouldn't work on our craft. We should. Always.

However, there's a big difference between "I need to tighten the last three chapters" and "What am I doing? I'm embarrassed to even read this."*

This video was a good reminder for me: the best way to end up burnt out and weeping over my computer is to pay attention to the harpies. We gain the strength to improve when we refuse to listen to them.

Sometimes ... that means telling our own self to shut up.

Now let's go give Beaker a hug.

*I was sitting at Barnes and Noble, hammering out the first draft of a scene and praying that no one could read over my shoulder.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Research and the right word

Last night we were watching television, and the host of the show used the wrong word. It has been bugging me ever since. I'm not going to mention what the show was, because I'm not a television critic, and I have no idea whether the host or a producer or a writer chose this word, and all of that is beside the point anyway. If you figure out what the show was, good for you!

My husband and I went to high school in Syracuse, and he is a graduate of Syracuse University. We know the area.

Syracuse sits on the edge of Onondaga Lake. This is what Wikipedia has to say about Onondaga Lake:

Today, Onondaga Lake is a severely polluted lake. Onondaga Lake has been described as one of the most polluted lakes in the United States, primarily due to industrial dumping and sewage contamination.

I know Wikipedia isn't the most reliable source for information, and you shouldn't use it as a primary reference. But pretty much anyone who has lived in Syracuse in the past half century would agree Onondaga Lake isn't their first choice for a place to swim.

During the opening shots of the show, a photo of the lake flashed on the screen, while the host described Syracuse as "known for its...pristine lakes." Wrong. Word. Choice.

There are other lakes in the Syracuse area which may be more accurately described as pristine. Skaneateles Lake and Green Lake come to mind. But no Syracuse resident would ever use that word to describe Onondaga Lake. Even given the massive efforts to clean up the lake, once spoiled, it will never be pristine.

This underscores for me the importance of good research and good word choices. If you have a setting you're not familiar with, it is important to get the details right. Get a local to check your work. If you're writing about a sport you don't play, a profession you're not in, or a place you've never visited, make sure the people who know the ins and outs aren't going to immediately see that you don't. You don't have to be an expert, but you have to look like one.

And as for the word choice, I might have gone with "picturesque." Pollution aside, there's a nice park, and it's still pretty to look at.

Monday, August 30, 2010


I've never been much for detailed outlines. I like to have a starting point and an ending point in my head, and have fun getting from one to the other, not exactly sure where the path along the way will twist and turn. It's funny, actually, because in the physical world, I'm a lover of maps and plans.

I was asked during my time at Chautauqua to turn in a chapter outline. I believed I had one saved on my computer, so I didn't think that would be too much work. I was wrong. I did have a saved outline, but it was from over three years ago, when I first started writing this book, and didn't even have an inkling of all the characters. The first couple of chapters were okay, but the rest was completely outdated. So I wrote a new outline as homework.

Now, that outline is outdated. I think this is why I didn't like outlining to begin with. It's hard for me to stick to them. I'm working on a new one anyway, trying to create a framework that puts more action into my plot. But I'm so easily distracted this way. I find little spots that are going to require new research. Then I immediately want to know if the information I need is accessible, so I check the Internet. I get sucked into that, and the next thing you know, it's time to leave for work. I bookmark the relevant pages, and close the computer.

For some reason, this doesn't happen in the same way when I just write. I know I'll need to come back and research, say, the public transportation schedule in my setting, but I don't need to do it right then. When outlining, I want to know. I think this is a way of avoiding doing the outline in the first place. But I think having the outline will help in the long run. I just have to finish it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Call for a book review blogger

I'm also part of a book review blog over at Searching for a Good Read. We review middle grade and YA books, because we read a lot of them, and we love them. One of our bloggers has recently left the group, so we're looking for a new blogger. She read a lot of YA, so we'd like to find someone else who does too. If you're interested, check out the post over there. If not, check out some of the reviews. We try to keep a mix of new stuff and classics. Thanks!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Submission remorse?

As soon as I mailed out my submission last week, I thought about submission remorse. I sent out three chapters of a book that still needs revisions. It needs some new research and rewrites of whole big sections. Now, up until I got some new ideas for improving it, I thought this thing was done. I've sent it out before and gotten some pretty positive feedback. And this particular submission was sent to someone who specifically said not to worry about polishing it. So why worry?

We want to send our very best work out into the world. Somehow, submitting was so much easier a few years ago, when I was less educated about what that meant. I submitted a lot more work, probably because I was writing shorter pieces and not putting them aside to review later. As soon as I got a Slushbuster stamp of approval, into the mail it went. Not once during that time did it occur to me that I may have submitted a piece too early. Heck, I checked the caller ID on my cell phone every time it rang, thinking I was getting a call from an editor. Hah!

Sometimes the more you know, the more you question yourself.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Manuscripts ... and a surprising lack of theme music

You know that moment in the movie Little Women when Jo finally finishes her manuscript? The one when she ties the papers together with string and tucks a crimson flower under the bow?

I did not have that moment.

I spent my moment in the foyer of the Post Office...
pulling apart a shopping bag...
so I could use the brown paper to wrap the box...
that held the manuscript...
that I had to mail to Harold Underdown.

It's been a crazy few days. School starts next week, and I am up to my eyes in planning Algebra.

Was my manuscript lying lovely and pristine, all printed up, waiting to be mailed out and begin its life with my mentor in the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program?

Oh no. I'd just gotten back from Chautauqua. So of course, I kept revising and patching and and putting in completely new parts. I still haven't done as much revision as I would have liked on this MS. It's a complete read, but it's not a good one yet, especially the last third. That really bothers me- never mind that this whole program is about, you know, REVISION.

So when I got the word that it was time to mail the MS, I had some cleaning up to do that kept me up till the wee sma's.

I finished the cleanup today after work. I searched my MS for ???. (That's my placeholder for when I can't find the right word or for names I have yet to choose.) Then I replaced each ??? with a word, any word. I felt like that little Dutch boy plugging the leaky dike.

Off to Kinkos. Ten minutes later, I had the full MS in a box. I then grabbed an excedingly dull pair of store scissors and began hacking at the box so that there wouldn't be two inches of clearance between the papers and the top of the box.

Across the parking lot to the Post Office. They have an automated mailing machine that looks like something out of the Jetsons. I needed to wrap the box, hence the wrestling match with the brown paper shopping bag.

About the time that I centered the lopsided Kinko's box on the ragged brown paper, I thought of Jo and her flower. I also wondered whether it was horribly disrespectful to Mr. Underdown to send a MS in brown paper that hadn't even been cut with scissors.*

Suffice to say, there was no moving theme music.

But here's the truth. It was still pretty amazing. I've never seen my entire MS printed out. I've never mailed it to someone who wanted to read it. Do you know how cool it was to write "Harold Underdown, New York, New York" on that brown paper package?

I don't think there will be much theme music or flowers in my writing career. I foresee a lot of scrambling and a lot of chaos.

You know what? I'm good with that. I think most of us who write are.

So ... I'd love to hear about your writing moments. What are they like?

*I did fold down the edges, though, so it shouldn't look too bad.

Speed meeting

Last night at our meeting, five Slushbusters, three laptops, and piles of paper and notebooks crowded around and onto a table in Panera. The wireless connection was spotty. Sarah and I were both trying to connect to Skype so we could bring Lisa in. When we finally connected, we talked fast. I think we were afraid we'd lose her. Well, not her, exactly. The connection. You know what I mean.

For a meeting that covered some 50+ pages of work from two different Slushies, a few comments about work I'd already gotten feedback on, plus Joan's pictures from her trip to Alaska, we were very quick. Even after Lisa signed off. We usually critique her first, and let her talk to anyone else she needs to, but by then she usually needs to go be a mom again.

I got to thinking about how pared down critique can be. I learned at Chautauqua to look more at the big picture. The problem with a story is often not in the line edits, which we Slushies like to point out, one by one. It's in the overall thing. Like my WIP. Sure, there are line edits that need to happen, but the main thing wrong with it is that the plot needs more action. Most of the comments point to that in one way or another. Not all of them, certainly. There are still moments of confusion because I didn't clarify something. Or the voice sounded too adult for an eleven year old protagonist.

As we become better writers, we not only grow more efficient on the page, we grow more efficient in what we have to say about what others have written.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nothing like social networking to shrink the world a little

Nicola Morgan, YA author, is conducting an experiment. She's set up a facebook page to see how many followers she can get in just two weeks. For every 50 followers, she's giving away a book. She will share the results of her experiment with a workshop she's teaching.

I am a big fan of social networking. Look how many of you I've gotten to know just from writing this blog! And I think facebook is really cool. It allows you to discover a lot about your friends, including how many people you know in common.

In the grand demonstration of how small the world can be, I have an example. Today is only the second day of Nicola's experiment. She asked people to let her know how they found out about her author page. The first person to comment on that is a woman living in Costa Rica. She happens to be the sister of one of my high school friends and a friend of my husband. I'm pretty sure neither of them knows Nicola, and I know for certain that my husband has never read her books.

This stuff happens all the time. One of my sister's friends in Atlanta was a classmate of my husband's brother in Syracuse. One of my new Chautauqua friends from California knows one of my local author friends. I love finding these connections.

I know Nicola's intention is to demonstrate how social networking can help authors. But sometimes, I like to just look at this stuff and say, "how cool is that?"

Thursday, August 12, 2010

If you liked Monday's post

Our friend Hanna has some more of Patti's nuggets of wisdom on her blog this morning.

When one of our friends posts things I haven't gotten around to, I feel like the group of people contributing to our blog has expanded. I love having all these peers to count on for pointing out the details I missed, or phrasing the same information in a different or better way.

This has been one of the best things about working on a blog as a group as well. If you haven't yet checked out the article in the 2011 Children's Writer's and Illustrators Market about group blogs, please do. Yes, the Slushbusters are mentioned in the article. But we don't make any money by telling you about it. We didn't even get a free copy of the book. It's just some good information, and I'm happy that Carmela Martino is highlighting some of the many great blogs out there. I follow a lot of the others she mentioned. Our peers are an incredible resource.

If you're one of those bloggers out there sharing what you're learning, thanks. We appreciate it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

First Pages Critiques

I just entered the James River Writers conference First Pages Critiques. It's my favorite part of the whole 2 day conference. They have actors read a submission, then the panel, usually editors and agents, say whether they would keep reading past the first page or not and why. You get a green card or a red card from each person on the panel. They do about 20 submissions, but time really flies. The actors do a really great job bringing these pages to life.

I won't tell you which story I sent the first page of, since it is supposed to be anonymous. Of course, any Slushie who attends the conference with me (in October) will know and recognize it. Hopefully I will get at least one green card!

Who am I kidding?? What I am hoping is that an agent on the panel will say, "Not only would I keep reading, but whoever wrote this, please see me after the panel."

Let's not go too far though. Asking to read the whole manuscript may be too big of a dream, since I only have a few pages written.

Back to hoping for a green card....or two....

Come to think of it, they don't read every one they receive. Fingers crossed they even read it...

Post its

Patti Gauch has been an editor for a long time. She is also an author. She probably knows more about children's literature and publishing than just about anyone. She is also a phenomenal reader, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. When she gives you good advice about writing, you really want to pay attention.

This morning I worked for a while on transcribing my notes from our workshop sessions. I filled a whole notebook, so it's taking a while. I discovered that I enjoyed reading my notes from Patti's sessions almost as much as I enjoyed listening to them the first time.

One of the things Patti said was that we should write inspiring things on post-its and stick them above our desks. Or wherever it is that we can see them when we write. I've done this for years. I have some sticky-backed index cards I like to use. My favorite is written in fat black sharpie letters: "Finish!" E.L. Konigsburg.

Some of my post-its are lists of things to avoid, like weak modifiers. (just, so, such, very, etc.) Some of them are things the Slushbusters have said. (Give the hero the last word.) I have an index card with Freytag's pyramid, and one with Joseph Campbell's Hero Quest. And I have a couple of quotes from books about writing, such as Stephen King's On Writing and Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic. Finally, I have quotes from my own characters. Most of those are things I want the character to say at some point, but haven't gotten to that place in the story yet.

Patti gave us a few more. My favorite is "Am I sassy enough?" I also love "I have the permission to let go to story, to let go to what is within me." I have added those, as well as her other gems, to my post-it wall above my desk.

Do you have any little quotes you put up to inspire you?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The fun part

During our second critique meeting at Chautauqua, Juanita Havill told me that the revisions I need to work on are the fun part. I have to agree. Now that she's helped me find a place to begin my revision, the ideas are coming quickly. The Slushies are going to see big changes in this new draft.

One of the things writers hear all the time is, "Kill your darlings." I've had to do that this go around. There was a whole journal thing my character was doing, but Juanita asked whether it really served my story. It was interesting. There was a twist to it. But she was right, I didn't need it. So I let it go. I'm now changing that "kill" for "euthanize." Let it go. It's like hanging onto the clutter from your past. It doesn't serve the life you live now. That fondue pot from the one fondue dinner you made twelve years ago? Let it go.

The other thing that is starting to happen is I'm liking my characters more, and letting them be more themselves. I have to thank Patti Gauch for that one. She dared to ask, "Am I sassy enough?" And, now that I think of it, she advised us to let go too.

I decided the other day that too much happened at Chautauqua over that week to sum it all up here. My notes, while helpful to me, may not be the most entertaining for you to read. But I will continue to post little snippets as I apply them. If you want more about what happened, check out the blogs of Nora and Louise.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Hanging out with the cool kids

There's a saying that if you can't be interesting yourself, find interesting friends.

I have taken that advice to heart.

The first interesting person of my acquaintance is our own Michelle. She is in the 2011 Children's Writers and Illustrator's Market. Carmela Martino* wrote an article about group blogs and asked the Slushbusters a few questions. Not surprisingly, Michelle's quote made it into the article ... that made it into the book (p. 69!) ... that we just bought from Barnes and Noble!

How cool is that?

The other interesting person I'll soon be acquainted with is...

Harold Underdown

Yes, Harold Underdown!!!

I was accepted into the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. Harold Underdown will be my mentor for six ... entire ... months.

Hear those squeals of joy? I'm just hoping that I can pull myself together soon.

*You should definitely swing by Teaching Authors blog.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A sign?

Last week when I was at Chautauqua and having all that trouble printing, I made a mistake. I was frustrated, trying to add printers, change default printers, and generally do whatever it took just to get something, anything, to hand in. While trying to print a chapter outline that my mentor had requested, I left several jobs in the print queue for my printer at home. Which, in my rush, I totally forgot about. So this week, when I went to print out some Slushbusters critiques for our meeting, guess what happened? Yup. I now have multiple copies of said chapter outline.

The most important information I got last week about my manuscript was to spend more time looking at the big picture. My mentor helped me see that my plot needs some work. Theme is clear, characters are pretty good, voice is good. Plot. Needs. Help. I was told that this is the fun part. Boy, I sure hope so! Regarding it as the fun part is way better than thinking of it as more work I have yet to do on this manuscript I've been working on for over three years.

I had been considering marking up my hard copy of the manuscript. I'm not a pen-in-hand kind of reviser. I'm more of a read-it-on-the-screen-and-delete girl. Now that I have on my desk all these copies of the very outline I need to revise, I'm thinking it might be a sign.

Tomorrow, the red pen and I have a date with at least one of those copies.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Remember those people I mentioned the other day?

One of them is our new buddy and Chautauqua Inn-mate (not inmate!) Nora Macfarlane, who deftly summarized our week on her blog. Last Monday morning at breakfast, we were told to write down the names of all the books the faculty mentioned in their presentations. I did, but haven't yet typed them up into a list to work from. Nora has.

I spent much of the day yesterday readjusting to the real world. You know, the one where there is no breakfast buffet. So sad. But there is air conditioning, and for that I am grateful.

This morning was all about critiques for tomorrow night's Slushbusters meeting. I already see where the things I learned at Chautauqua are coming up. I just hope my fellow Slushies will take my notes well, because I have far more of them than usual! I feel all editor-y. Now I want to go and work on my own book!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I Write Like....

Someone I know recently sent me to this website, I Write Like….

You enter in a sample of your writing and the site tells you what famous writer you most write like.

I’m not to willing to swear on this site or attest to its accuracy. But I thought it would be fun and possibly enlightening…

I entered 8 different writing samples of my own writing -- pretty diverse choices.

Apparently I Write Like:

George Orwell
Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow
James Joyce
Kurt Vonnegut
Cory Doctorow
Robert Louis Stevenson
Cory Doctorow

Well, obviously I’d better go and read some Cory Doctorow…or maybe I’ll go type in some Jane Austen to that site and see what happens…..bruhahahhhahahhaa…..

Check it out and let us know who YOU write like…..

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Humming in my head

No, it isn't music, although Chautauqua has plenty of that. It's the buzz of all the words heard, read and written over the past week. I'm going to take a few days to process and look at my notes. When the background noise quiets, I'll find the best bits of what we learned at Chautauqua and share them with you.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A different kind of goal

One of my goals at Chautauqua has been to talk to a lot of different people. I am a chatty person, but usually in a large group like this, I tend to meet a few people the first day, and they become my group. That hasn't happened here.

There are roughly a hundred attendees and around 20 faculty at the workshop. My goal coming in was to meet and have a conversation with at least half of each. I'm defining conversation as the give and take, "Where are you from, what do you write, what do you do when you're not writing," variety over just saying hello. If I ate a meal with someone, sat next to them at a workshop, or walked with them from place to place, and had a chat, that counts.

We have a booklet with everyone's photo and a brief bio. I love that. It gives me a kind of checklist to work from. I'm just about at my goal, too. I may have surpassed it. I haven't counted people yet today.

Sarah and I sat together at the first couple of meals after we got here. By mid-morning Sunday, we were both okay with splitting up and doing our own thing for a while. Later that day, Becky from Texas saw me at dinner and asked where Sarah was. She was surprised we weren't joined at the hip. But that's cool.

Most of our new friends know we came here together, but we've each met a few folks the other hasn't. And that's great. Because as important as all the writing is, the people are even more so. We may find new beta readers or blog followers. In fact, I'm sure we will. I know there are at least a handful of people I plan to stay in touch with. So, new friends, if you're here, hi. I'm glad I met you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The library

This is the library, taken from the center of Bestor Plaza. I had no intention of going there today. But in the grand tradition of libraries, they helped me when no one else could.

Our opening session today was presented by Patti Gauch. She read from a number of wonderful books, giving us the common theme of "a catch in your breath." We were excited to see Kathy Erskine's Mockingbird up on the dais. It was the last book Patti read from, and I actually heard a couple of gasps from the audience. Listening to Patti read made me want to lie on my stomach on the floor, propped up on my elbows, chin in hand, and listen. I didn't. I stayed in my chair.

We had about an hour and a half free after that, and I wanted to print my work from last night to give my faculty reader time with it before our meeting tomorrow.

I went to the business center. Unfortunately, they don't have wireless printing. More unfortunately, I forgot my flash drive. No problem, I think. I can email my work to myself from my laptop, open it on their desktop, and print it. But the internet was down. I asked if I could connect directly to their printer. Nope. The young woman helping me apologized. I felt worse for her than for myself. She sent me to the library.

For once, I was on the patron side of the desk, repeatedly going up and reporting my computer's various error messages as I tried to log in to their wireless system, tried to add their printer. I had to download a driver. Reset my default printer. Check the time...getting close to lunch. Really want to get this done, no more time until late in the day.

Finally, I got it printed! Wonderful, wonderful library. New system for me, same summer reading posters as at home. Thank you, Chautauqua librarians.

Sarah just headed over there to print her work. Cross your fingers that she gets it printed before the bus leaves for dinner!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Photo of the day

This is the Hall of Christ building, where most of the Highlights workshops take place. We get our lunch in the basement, too. All those folks you see are our new writing buddies.

Too busy to say much, but

I know some of you are curious. Sarah and I both had our first manuscript critiques today. Juanita Havill is my faculty reader. She couldn't be nicer, and even though I have things I need to work on, her manner of delivery was very gentle.

I got a little time to come back to the inn and write. I love that this laptop has a button to turn off the internet altogether! I sat on the balcony at the back of the house, overlooking the lake, and worked on a new outline while listening to the rain. That was literally the only rain we've had since we woke up this morning, so the timing couldn't have been better. It was clear out during all the times we had to walk between activities.

This afternoon we attended three fantastic workshop sessions. More on those later, when I have more time. I see from my perch on the front balcony that some of our new friends are heading out to dinner. I'd better go look for Sarah...


Boy, are those Spinellis smart.

We had a barbecue today, and while everything was being prepared, Jerry and Eileen Spinelli talked to us. (How amazing is that!!!!) They asked each other the questions they hear most often and then answered them.

My favorite takeaway was about ideas. You know I hate the concept of ideas equaling stories. I am convinced that good books are all about the execution of an idea- not the idea itself.

However, Eileen made an excellent point about why new authors especially focus on finding ideas. It isn't that they don't have ideas.

It's that they don't trust them. They're not sure it's a good idea. They're not sure it's grand enough. But Eileen said writing is not a case of capturing grand ideas so much as "the ability to pull the grandness up out of an ordinary day."

So take a second look at a few ideas that you have. Maybe they're ideas for new stories, or maybe they're ideas about how to make your current work in progress better. But give them a chance. Give them something cool to drink and sit down and chat a while. You might discover your ideas aren't so bad after all.

Let us know: how do you treat your ideas? What do you do with them? Have you found it easier to trust yourself the more you write?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Books! Banquet.

I wanted to upload a picture of the books we got in our bags, but for some reason, it keeps coming up sideways. No idea why. It's the right way up in the folder on my desktop. I've tried six times to flip it. This will have to do for now.

We enjoyed meeting many of the other attendees last night at the opening banquet. Patti Gauch was the faculty member at our table, and she and her husband Ron were very friendly. Donna Jo Napoli gave the speech, and was very motivational. We met a few people we'd talked to on the chat boards before we came, and now we're about to head out to brunch and meet some more.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Road, and the end of it.

Six am. That's what time Sarah arrived to pick me up this morning. I was ready, and we got on the road. It was an uneventful trip overall. At lunchtime, we were somewhere in Pennsylvania, just approaching Interstate 80, when I consulted the GPS.

"Look, there's a Denny's, just about two miles off the highway," I said.

"Great!" Sarah followed the directions.

We found ourselves in a residential neighborhood. The GPS said, "Recalculating," as we missed our turn.

I looked at all the run-down, wood-sided houses in need of a good paint job. "This doesn't look like a place where they'd build a Denny's.". Sure enough, there was a Denny's. But not the chain restaurant.

It was a biker joint. And pretty full for 11:30 on a Saturday. We decided to risk it. Good sandwiches, friendly service. A million choices of appetizers. What more could you ask for?

By 3:30 we were here. We met the infamous Roger, who we've been chatting with on the discussion board for weeks. He directed us to where we could leave our bags, and we headed inside for a brief orientation. Then, packed book bags in hand, we went to park the car. After a longish walk to the Chautauqua Inn, we're having a rest while we wait for the luggage to arrive. I hope it gets here soon. We want to leave for the Opening Banquet in about an hour. Meanwhile, I'm sitting on the balcony outside our room, enjoying the breeze. This is what it looks like from where I sit.

And we're off

As of this posting, Sarah and I are on our way to Chautauqua for the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop. We'll post as often as we can during the week. From the looks of the itinerary they sent us, we're going to be very busy, so I may just put up a few photos to give you the general idea, and then sit down and write more when we get back. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Getting to know you

One of the cool things about this whole process of preparing to go to Chautauqua has been their process of getting to know us. They sent us a two page questionnaire a couple of months ago. It had the basics of where we went to school and stuff like that, but also a few great questions to help them get to know who we are. They then used that to match us with our faculty mentors, and to create a brief bio of each of the attendees, so we can get to know each other and identify folks we share common interests with.

My favorite question they asked was who is our favorite character in children's literature and why. I hadn't considered this before, but it's very telling. We all want to create characters that readers will relate to, but it's the characters we've read that inspire us, and likely brought us to this place to begin with.

I came to my answer pretty quickly. I chose Claudia Kincaid, the heroine of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. She's practical. She's a planner. She wants to be appreciated, and she's willing to go the distance to earn that. She wants to run away from home, but she's not willing to give up comfort to do so, and finds a way to make that work for her. She also wants to make a difference. And perhaps most importantly, she immediately recognizes that she can't do it all herself. She knows where her own weaknesses lie, and enlists her brother Jamie to help her with the aspects of her plan she can't handle herself, mainly money.

Do you have a favorite character in children's literature? Who and why?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thank you.

Thanks to any of you who took the time to vote for the Harry Potter Alliance in the Chase Community Giving. They won! I can't wait to see what they can accomplish with $250K.

And it all started with a book. You never know what lives your characters will go on to lead once they leave you.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Packing for preparedness

I've started packing for Chautauqua. (Stop laughing, Slushies!) Today was my last day off until we go. I didn't pack my clothes or anything, but there's so much I want to take that I'm prepping a few different bags.

I organized my new, smaller laptop bag with a notebook, pens, and a couple of books I'd like to have signed. I put together my knitting project for the car trip. I like to make a little kit with everything in one place: yarn and needles of course, but also the pattern (cabled socks), some safety pins, a crochet hook (for dropped stitches), scissors, tape measure, post-its for keeping track of where I am on the pattern, and also some beads, because this pattern has a few beads in it. I packed my mini-pharmacy: cough drops, ibuprofen, bandaids, small tube of sunblock, all those things you never know if you'll need, and I like to keep on hand.

I haven't earned the title of "Our Lady of Perpetual Preparedness" for nothing. You have to keep earning a title like that year after year, on road trip after road trip. And no, I don't bring a huge bag. Just a small sampling of a lot of stuff. My purse is like Mary Poppins' carpetbag. Ask anyone. Although, I've yet to figure out how to get a floor lamp in there. The best I can do is a small flashlight.

For once, I'm not worried about maps. Sarah went to AAA and she's got that covered. Plus, we're bringing the GPS.

And if you haven't voted yet for the Harry Potter Alliance in the Chase Community Giving, please do. The link is still over there on the right margin. These guys work really hard for a lot of great causes. They were still in first place the last time I checked, but the second place organization has made a huge comeback over the weekend. You have until midnight Monday to get a vote in. Thanks!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Harry Potter and Helping Out

I'm in the middle of a summer cold, and I'm not feeling inspired to write anything original today. But I wanted to mention something where you, the kidlit community, can help out. It only takes a moment, and the results could be big.

Back in February and March I told you about the Harry Potter Alliance. They raised enough money for Haiti to send not three, but five airplanes full of supplies. They collect books do donate to kids around the world. They use children's literature as inspiration to work for positive changes. And they've got the support of many folks in the children's literature community, including J.K. Rowling herself.

They need more help. This is an easy one. Chase Community Giving is donating $250K to the organization with the most votes. Currently, HPA is in first place. I'm hoping you, the members of the kidlit community, keep it that way. The deadline to vote is July 12. You can get all the information here. I'll keep the link up over there in the margin until voting is completed.

And beginning today at noon EDT, if you can, head over to their livestream. They've got a super secret plan in the works.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

This has helped me...

I'm in the middle of huge revisions on my MS. I've lots of time to work now that school is out.

But more important than that, I have a deadline. I applied to be part of the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. Program participants are matched with a mentor who will work with them for six months (six months!) to get their MS on track.

I'll know by August 1 if I've been accepted. If I am accepted, I'll have to send my mentor my MS within a week of the notification.

So, I've been hauling though my MS, revising the new second half that I wrote last year. This is not a pruning, polishing sort of revision. This is digging in, up to my elbows, so I can extract gems from the rough draft and arrange them in some sort of compelling order.

I'm halfway through, but it's been exhausting work. Several times I've finished revising a chapter and not been able to tell whether it's been an improvement. I'd lost my vision, which is a big part of revision (six letters, by my count).

My tendency is to push on through, to show the MS who's boss, but Steph mentioned a piece of advice that Alisha Niehaus gave her: if a scene is giving you trouble, write a few scenes past it, and then come back to it.

Yes, it is ridiculously simple, but it has been saving my bleary-eyed self. When I get tired, I lose perspective of what's working, what's necessary. Every time I've worked a few scenes ahead, it's given me a better idea of what needs to happen to set up the scene I've moved ahead to. Then I'm able to return to the difficult scene, weed out the unnecessary, and emphasize what's working.

So, for those of you who are working hard, who (like me!) will be as pale at the end of this summer as you were at the beginning, consider skipping ahead when you hit a wall. I'd also love to hear any other tips you might have for tackling a difficult stretch of writing.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Camp 3 (Sunday morning) at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Novel Revision Retreat

We woke early in the Big Meadows campground despite our late night s’more party (lol! ended by 10 PM). The clouds hugged the Blue Ridge Mountains, or so we thought. Within half an hour the sky was clearing and the day turned sunny.

Over breakfast we talked about what a great party it had been. Though only three of the participants at our writing retreat attended, among them was Alisha Niehaus, Senior Editor from Dial Books for Young Readers.

In her Last Chapter session, Alisha mentioned the standard elements of tying up the narrative and emotional arcs. But also how authors can create a little mystery by opening doors for their characters in the final chapter. This engages the reader’s imagination at guessing what will happen next. Alisha suggests your think of the last chapter as a playground where you and the reader can have a little fun.

Other tidbits gleaned from Alisha on writing: salt heavily with pungent verbs and lightly with peppery adjectives, coming of age is often your focus, and your plot should move the characters through their emotional arc by building events and challenges.

I was very glad I attended the retreat and would recommend it. But I personally suggest you camp. It adds flavor to the retreat.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Camp 2 (Saturday afternoon) at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Novel Revision Retreat

My two fellow campers and myself sat through the downpour, happily dry in the Big Meadow Lodge but with worries about our campsite. The storm tracked along the Blue Ridge Mountains and put it directly over our tents which were comfortably snuggled among the trees of the Shenandoah National Park. But who could pull themselves away from the second craft session on First Chapters to the futile task of saving our camp? Our tents were staked down, so no threat of Wizard the Oz II. Fellow Slushbuster Stephanie, the engineer amongst us, had strung up a tarp over our picnic table the day before. It withstood a very windy night so we hoped it could survive this summer thunderstorm.

Again Alisha Niehaus, Senior Editor from Dial Books for Young Readers led the session. Her advice on what needs to be in your first chapter came in three pitches: show who the characters are emotionally, plant a seed of where the plot will take the reader and create a clear and unique voice. Hit all three and you’ll have the bases loaded.

On the matter of voice, she described it as heart, made from melding together the voices of the author and characters.

As examples Alisha used two novels she edited, showing the before and after rewrites. This was a real treat of the s’more variety. The two books were Savvy by Ingrid Law and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. Her edits included changes in plot to build more tension, scaling back characters so as not to overshadow the main character, creating other characters and, of course, grammar corrections.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Camp 1 (Saturday morning) at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Novel Revision Retreat

The three happy campers awoke to a beautiful day along the Skyline Drive only to discover the showers were coin operated. A mad scramble for quarters ensued. After showers and breakfast around the picnic table we headed for the Big Meadows Lodge for the start of the craft sessions.

“Visualizing Your Novel: Mapping Narrative and Emotional Story Arcs” was first at bat. Alisha Niehaus, Senior Editor from Dial Books for Young Readers led the session. All of the sessions were well thought out, expertly presented, and allowed time for writing exercises and discussions about writing problems and solutions. Alisha hit a homerun. She plotted a typical narrative arc, which of course looked like an ever-increasing mountain range while the emotional arc was a smile with happiness on one axis and time on the other. Juxtaposition the two graphs over top of one another and you have a slightly askew, gaping mouth complete with jagged teeth. (After all, she called it visualizing your novel.) She suggested you use events and roadblocks (narrative) to get the main character through the emotional arc. Two things to consider: what events will build and how the events could make the character grow. She reminds us to make the reader frustrated. This will involve them more deeply in the story. The classic plot she stated is to move your characters on a journey outside their comfort zone in order for them to mature.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Novel Revision Retreat – Base Camp

Recently I attended the Novel Revision Retreat sponsored by SCBWI Mid-Atlantic chapter. It was like going to camp with 20 of your best friends. Nineteen participants plus Alisha Niehaus, Senior Editor, from Dial Books for Young Readers converged on Big Meadows off the Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park.

The Big Meadows Lodge has a rustic look from a bygone era, much like a New Deal WPA work project with its hand-hewn logs. From its great room there are stellar views of the Shenandoah Valley below. This was where our retreat began on Friday night with a get-to-know-ya session.

Three of us (myself, Caroline, and fellow Slushbuster Stephanie) opted to camp. The campground is located adjacent to the lodge. This turned out to be a bonus when Alisha came to our s’more campfire party. My long-time friend and tent mate Caroline suggested the party. Alisha jumped right on it. Turns out as a kid she camped with her family in her home state of California.

Some of the purists insisted on real sticks for roasting their soft, white puffs of pure sugar. They wanted nothing to do with the new-fangled metal prongs, which looked like miniature pitchforks. But all strived for a toasted golden brown confection. The flame-broiled mishaps occurred but were quickly discarded into our bonfire.

Once the s’mores hit the stomachs talk turned to writers, good books and just about any topic you could imagine. This went on for hours. No, we did not end with campfire songs but we were three happy campers.

Stayed tuned for details about the craft sessions in next three blogs.

Monday, June 28, 2010

An accidental story?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a letter on behalf of my dog. My niece and nephew, ages 4 and 6, are coming to visit from out of town. They haven't been here in two years. My niece is somewhat afraid of dogs. She likes small dogs, but it takes her a while to warm up to large dogs like mine.

To prepare her for the visit, I sent them both the book Why Do Dogs Do That? I'd had a copy for years, left over from my preschool teaching days. When I thumbed through the book, I realized I needed to personalize doggy behavior specific to Coal. So I wrote a letter to go with the book. I wanted the kids to make a connection between their own feelings and actions and Coal's. Like in this paragraph, for example:

Coal went to doggy school, so he’s very good at listening to directions. He can sit, lie down, stay, and wait to eat a treat. He loves to go on walks, and gets very excited if he is going somewhere, either in the car or just on a short walk. Sometimes when he is excited, he jumps around and he may bark to let us know he’s happy. Don’t you jump around and get loud sometimes when you’re excited?

Apparently, the letter was a hit. My niece listened to my sister read the whole letter, and even laughed at parts. Afterward she said, "Mommy, I didn't used to like Coal, but now I do." So now, instead of being afraid to come visit, she is excited.

The true test will be when they arrive today. But here's the funny part: everyone I've mentioned this to thinks I should turn this letter into a picture book manuscript.

The weird thing is I feel kind of defensive about it. We all know of people who, with no knowledge or interest in writing and publishing for children, say, "I made up a story and my friends and family think it would make a good book. How do I publish it?" Right? I feel like I should know better. That it takes more than a ten minute pass at the computer to make a picture book.

But then again, armed with the knowledge I have, I could revise this, and maybe come up with a publishable story. Right now, it's way too long. 563 words, to be exact. But I may work on it. Who knows? I may have written an accidental picture book.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wandering through nonfiction

I'm still reading more than I'm writing these days. Partly to prepare for Chautauqua. I'm also reading the junior version of Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Journey to Change the World, One Child At A Time By Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, Adapted By Sarah Thomson and Foreward By Dr. Jane Goodall. It's our first nonfiction selection for my tween reading group at the library.

I think a lot of us who read and write fiction tend to forget about the nonfiction out there for kids. Looking around the library, I'd say the amount of space devoted to each is pretty equitable. If you put all the picture books together with the middle grade books, they take up about the same space as the nonfiction. Maybe a little more.

Some kids read a lot of nonfiction. Boys in particular. I've learned that boys (and men!) like to read about things they can do. They like books about sports, or cars or sharks or how to draw superheroes or take digital pictures. Once they get interested in a subject, they will check out everything we have on it. The girls who read nonfiction tend to stick to the pets and crafts, but usually have one or two nonfiction books mixed in with a stack of fiction. Of course kids occasionally check out a biography or a random book about Argentina or Neptune, but I think those are mostly for school.

Every time the Rapunzels read a book, we display related reading at the meeting. Usually it's nonfiction. For Becoming Naomi Leon last week, we put out books about Mexico and books for children about alcoholism. For Strawberry Girl last month, we displayed books about Florida, growing sugar cane, and of course, strawberries. The girls never check them out. They're happy to discuss the nonfiction aspects of the books we read, but they don't usually want to take it further. And that's fine. We aren't school, after all, we're a book club. But now I'm wondering what will happen when we start with nonfiction.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

13 to Life Blog Tour with Shannon Delany

Welcome to Shannon Delany's Start Your Day with Serial Tour! Shannon's debut novel (and first in her YA paranormal series) 13 to Life started as a winning cell phone novel written in serial segments. During the tour you can read bits of the book in order. Miss a day? Hop to Shannon's blog and check the link to the blog tour calendar in her sidebar. (Our bit of the story is at the end of the interview.)

There will also be a contest* that will close at the end of the tour. Winners get a bunch of stuff.

So much good stuff! Okay then, let's dive into the interview:

I was intrigued that 13 to Life began with the contest. What was it like, writing with such immediate feedback? Do you miss that sort of feedback now?

I enjoyed the feedback I got (and the participation of people in some of my polls which challenged me to bend to what the public hoped for next in the story). When I need feedback now I call on my CPs and Betas and occasionally post snippets on Twitter. I want to get back to, though--it's a great site.

That brings us to the next question. How do you get feedback on your current projects?

My husband, CPs and Betas are great about giving feedback to me with my current projects. Everyone but my husband does an NDA and then gets email attachments to read and make comments on. And my CPs and Betas ROCK!

Has there been a particularly helpful critique? How did it strengthen your writing?

All of my CPs and Betas are very different in what they bring to a critique. I had one CP who was great at grammar. Robin is tremendous about looking at the feel and mood and romantic elements, while Carla and Annette are terrific about scoping out the humor and overall pacing. My husband and father are more about the story's flow and how it (literally) sounds as they listen to it read by a robotic voice while they're on the road. Their motto is basically: If it sounds great read by a robot, it should sound even better when people read it themselves. My agent, Stan Soper, also reads and makes suggestions. I have a great team really.

What sort of books did you read as a teen? How have they influenced your writing today?

I was a sci-fi, fantasy and mythology girl. I loved Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Robin McKinley, Shakespeare and Andre Norton. I think reading them helped me understand voice and character (The Ship Who Sang and The Hero and The Crown were awesome) and the depth of a world--without having to reveal all of the world's depth in the very first book (hint, hint).

You've blogged about how you never thought you'd never write about werewolves, even though it's turned out to be "enriching". So I have to ask, what made you write about werewolves in the first place?

Frankly, I was seeing a sea of vampires and (although they're awesome in lots of ways) I have a great respect and fondness for wolves. And the legends of werewolves have as rich a history as vamps (easily). I wanted to know where the werewolf heroes were and so I wrote some myself.

Your website biography says that you began writing in earnest when your grandmother fell ill. If it's not too personal, what did you write? Were you writing with the intent of getting published?

I was only a kid then, so I was writing about unicorns and volcanos erupting. I dreamed of being published as a kid (and first got published when I was still in 8th grade) but wasn't serious about it.

It's totally off topic, but you raise heritage livestock in upstate New York. I'd love to know more how you ended up in such unique work.

I like to believe I'm a relatively independent thinker and the idea of being self-sufficient (our animals and land produce a variety of products for us) is very appealing to me. Going back to more traditional breeds of livestock (and plants) is also a bit of a fascination for me--there are reasons certain breeds have lasted this long and (although I'd NEVER say it's easy work) farming's good and grounding. There's nothing better to check your attitude as an author than to have to scrape manure off your boots before you come in your front door. ;-)

(Love it. Nothing like manure to ground a person.)

And now... the promised 13 to Life snippet.

13 to Life: Chapter 3, part V (used with the author’s permission)

He blinked at the challenge and before he could speak, the bell rang, four hundred students leaping up from scattered tables and rushing towards three sets of doors. I allowed myself to be swept away by the mob, drifting and dodging along and keeping my head low as I raced through the corridors and took stairs two at a time.

More about Shannon and her series can be found at and

*Shannon's hosting several contests during the Start Your Day with Serial Tour. The big contest will award one lucky winner with a royal amber pendant, pietersite jeweled bookmark, stuffed wolf, 13 to Life mousepad, pen, tote, signed poster, personalized copy of 13 to Life and both of the 13 to Life pins. All you need to do is comment at 13 of the blogs hosting Shannon during her 30 day tour. Everyone who does so will be entered into a random drawing. Winner may be international.