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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Inspiration and Depression

Since I write for children, I've lately been consumed with reading nothing but MG and YA novels. After a full year, I decided it was time to read something for adults. Enter Michael Chabon and his book, the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

This is an amazing book! I feel I am in the hands of a master.

He uses words like crepuscular, gelid, furcate, hirsute, revenants, and spavined, half of which I had to look up. (I won't say which half.)

As I'm reading, I'm thinking this is what I'm striving toward, this is superb writing. And then in the very same breath of thought, "Who am I kidding?" I can drool over the language all I like, but I'm never going to write like this. I'm having conflicting emotions. Awe and inspiration on the one hand. Defeat and depression on the other.

He did win the Pulitzer after all, and I'm just trying to finish my novel and get it published, so I suppose I should lighten up. Still, it's nice to see the possibilities and to dream...

...about one day using words like verisimilitude, aquiline, and chary in my own writing some day.

Monday, June 14, 2010

One step closer

Last night Sarah and I Skyped each other. This is funny, because we were probably within five miles of each other. But given time constraints and the desire to have a face-to-face conversation, it worked.

We wanted to go over our workshop choices for Chautauqua. There are about three different sessions offered during each time slot, and we were asked to choose a priority order. We wanted to check in with each other before submitting our final choices. As usually happens in these situations, we found some time slots that offered more than one workshop we really wanted to attend. Other time slots offered choices that didn't particularly jump out at us.

In both cases, we took the approach of working as a team. If two workshops we wanted to attend were going on at the same time, we each listed a different one as our first priority. We're hoping to be split up, and then we can swap notes. In the other case, we looked to what we might be able to bring back to the group as a whole. I may not be especially interested in early readers or writing about nature, but Steph and Joan are.

Each time we learn more details about the week, it feels just a little more real.

In other news, Steph and Joan went to the SCBWI Mid Atlantic Revision Retreat over the weekend. We're hoping they have lots of good information to share.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Do you use Google Reader?

I do. I love it. It helps me keep track of all your blogs without having to bookmark them or remember which ones I've checked when.

But one thing that it misses is the look of the blogs themselves. Last night I changed up our template. Call it a spring cleaning for the blog. If you're reading this in your Google Reader, you may want to pop on over to the actual blog.

And thanks, Google, for the new design templates. I had fun playing with them!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

More thoughts on critique groups

My blog buddy Christine Fonseca has a guest on her blog today. SM Ford (aka Susan Uhlig) gives her thoughts about joining a new critique group. Check it out!

Speaking of critique groups, the Slushbusters had a productive meeting last night. Remember when I said last week that we were all working on stuff? Well, almost everyone had work to submit for last night's meeting, which is rare for us these days. Most meetings, about half of us have work to be critiqued. Alison and Steph had submissions, even though they couldn't make it to the meeting! In those situations, we use track changes and insert comment in Word and email their work back to them, rather than having a physical discussion about it.

The Slushbusters use a few different techniques for sharing our critiques with each other. Most of us make notes on the document in Word, print out the pages, discuss our ideas/cheers/criticisms at the meeting, and hand over the pages. If a Slushie has submitted a long piece of work and I don't have a lot to say, I like to copy the paragraphs I have comments about into a separate page to print and bring for discussion, but I still email the entire submission back, so they can see my suggestions within the context of the whole. I always do that for Lisa's work, because she's not physically at our meeting anyway. There's no point in printing out more than I need to make comments.

When we talked to Lisa last night, I got to use Skype on my new laptop for the first time. It worked great, once I figured out how to add another wireless connection. This computer has a wireless button that can be turned off, which it was. Oops! It took me ten minutes to figure out. And the Slushbusters consider me the techie one!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Can you spell competition?

In addition to being a grammar geek, I am a serious spelling junkie. I was one of those kids who always participated in the school-wide bee, practiced my words from the little green book and dreamed of winning enough rounds to get to Washington, DC. I placed fourth in my school in sixth grade. My elimination word was "enthusiasm." I added an "a" right before the "m" at the end. In seventh grade I placed second in my school and got to go on to the county bee. My elimination word was "carillon". I had difficulty knowing whether it was the "r" or the "l" which was doubled. I have never misspelled that word since, not that I have much occasion to use it.

Friday evening our nation crowned a new spelling bee champion on national network television. I watched and shouted at the tv. It is my Superbowl. My husband laughed at me when I asked the television "Is that from the French?" or encouraged the spellers to ask for a definition or language of origin. But by a half hour in, he was picking favorites to win. I love that spelling is now treated like a sport, broadcast on ESPN. The pressure is real, the training for the kids who make it that far is just as intense.

Not only has spelling made it to national television, it has become a movie star. In 2006, Akeela and the Bee brought spelling to the big screen. But many people don't know that it was an indie film star first. Last night we watched Spellbound, which is a documentary following eight kids from around the country as they prepare for and compete in the National Bee. If you missed the live broadcast on Friday, this movie has a lot of the same footage from the 1999 Spelling Bee.

And if you're feeling the need to test your own skills, try the test on the Spelling Bee website. Sadly, I wouldn't have made the semifinals this year.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

It's always quietest when everyone is working

At least, I like to think so. We've been quiet on the blog this past couple of weeks, but I think we're all engaged in our own work, which is a good thing.

I, for one, am reading like crazy. Not only am I checking out new work to review on Searching, I'm looking at an assortment of work by the faculty of the Highlights Foundation workshop. This is a good time to be in the library almost every day! I know it's unreasonable to try reading everything, but I want to at least be familiar with some of those authors' books. I'm skimming a bunch, and reading a few that really strike me.

Steph and Joan are gearing up for the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI novel revision retreat. It's in the Shenandoah National Park, which is practically our own backyard. I took these photos when I was up there with my husband around this time last year. And while I don't think the writers will be hiking out to the waterfalls, those mountain views are visible from the lodge where the retreat is held. Who wouldn't be inspired by looking at that? I can't wait to hear what they learn there. If I wasn't going to Chautauqua, I'd have signed up myself.

Summer is almost here, and those of the group who are teachers will probably have more time to write. At least, that's the plan, if we can only keep our butts in the chairs!