Friday, August 12, 2011

A coward no more! (I hope.)

I had a marvelous time at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles last week. I was able to hang out with friends from Chautauqua, the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program, and my too-cool-for-school mentor Harold Underdown.

I had no trouble repeatedly walking through the lobby of a swanky LA hotel dressed as a monkey. (---->)

And yet, I have been an abject coward, because I really don't like to talk about my book.

When asked, I said that I wrote YA. (Which is only a little more specific than saying I write for children.) When pressed, I said it was a fairy tale adaptation. (Which is kind of true, but not really.) The truth is, I don't like to tell folks what my book is about because I am afraid.

I'm afraid I won't explain it clearly and concisely.

I'm afraid someone won't like it if I do manage to be clear and concise.

I'm afraid.

That fear is one reason why I gave the worst elevator non-pitch to an agent, ever.*

So I have resolved that by Sunday I will have written out my story in four sentences or less. Doesn't matter whether I call the description a pitch, a hook, a log line, or give it a Dickensian name like Estoria Quattlebush. From Sunday on, whenever someone asks what my story is about...

I. Will. Tell. Them.

How about you? Is it easy for you to talk about your story? Hard? I'd love tips for making it easier or stories that make me feel better about myself.

* He made small talk about staying on the floor right under the penthouses. I said the first thing that came to mind: "But you'd be the first to die if we had a fire." He had a funny expression on his face the next time he saw me. I don't blame him.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

And .... GO!
Time to apply for the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program

If you have talked to me about writing for more than a few minutes, you would have heard me go on ...
and on ....
and on about how wonderful it was to be part of the:

Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program
(There should be Star Wars style music right now.)

The Mentor Program matches writers and illustrators with mentors who work with them for six full months. Amazing mentors who are authors, illustrators, and (this time) agents.

A few things you should know:

It's all about the revising.
If you don't want someone to tell you how to make your work better, or if you don't like revising, this isn't the program for you.

It's your chance to be fearless.
Your mentor will help you think about your project in new ways. Be prepared for the ride.

It makes you part of an amazing community.
Each mentor picks about three mentees, so there were over twenty of us in the Mentor Program. Those people and their mentors have become awesome friends.

So go to the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program page. If you have any questions for me, let me know. I'd be happy to tell you more about my experience in the program.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Odds and ends- and two sites you should visit

This is my first blog post in ... I don't even know how long.

Not surprisingly, it is the first day of summer break for this teacher. Even less surprising, it is rather late in the day. (Hooray for sleeping in!)

This past week, I finished a revision workshop with Cheryl Klein, the ridiculously talented senior editor of Arthur A. Levine Books. Be sure to visit her resource-packed website! There's so much good stuff on the craft of writing and revision. Or just buy her terrific book on revision: Second Sight.

Two teacher workdays after that amazing weekend, I'm settling in for a summer of writing. I started, of course, by catching up on blogs while eating breakfast and found this amazing speech by Holly McGhee, owner and agent of Pippin Properties.*

So there you have it.

Odds and ends: summer has begun and I already started it with a lovely retreat.

Two sites to visit: Cheryl's website and Kathy's website.

Now I'm going to change out of my PJs.

Many thanks to Kathy Temean for posting it in her Writing and Illustrating blog!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

We're here, and we're reading.

We've all been pretty quiet on the blog lately, and unless something changes, I expect that to continue. We'll still post from time to time as we have something to share.

Our SCBWI friend Kathy Erskine has a new book coming out this week. You may remember our interview with Kathy last spring when her book Mockingbird was first released. Since then, Mockingbird has won a bunch of awards, most notably the National Book Award.

The buzz on Mike has begun, and we can't wait to see what people say about it. Meanwhile, you can read my take on it over at Searching for A Good Read, which I wrote after I read an ARC Kathy sent me.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

One for the archives

Back in 2008, when the Slushbusters blog was still new, Steph shared a post about how she started a critique group. If you read the whole thing, you can see that she mentioned posting fliers in the local libraries. That's how I found the group. I was browsing in the children's department of our Central Library and saw the flier.

That was over four years ago. I emailed the address on the flier, Steph wrote me back, and a few weeks later I attended my first critique group meeting. It was a good thing I emailed too, because by then the group was meeting at Panera. It didn't come out in the scan you see above, but Steph had written in pencil to "Please call before coming as we sometimes have to cancel."

The fun part now is that I had a meeting at the Central Library last week, and the flyer was still there. I took it down. It's funny for us for a few reasons. First, it's amazing that no one had removed it in all this time. Second, it's been years since we either met at the library or did any writing exercises. (Sorry, Steph!)

We used to do a five minute writing exercise at the end of every meeting. Back then, there were usually only two or three of us at a meeting instead of six. Critiques took a lot less time. Also, as we've gotten to know each other better, we usually have too much to say about each other's work and chat too much about other stuff to have any time left over. The other night I swear the staff at Panera were circling our table, trying to hint that we should wrap it up, but we were still offering comments to Joan on her latest chapter.

Anyway, I'm keeping the original sign. It's a great reminder of how and where we began, and how far we've come, even on the days it doesn't feel like that.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday morning review

Since I posted about the Virginia Festival of the Book last week, I felt I should tell you all about it. I forgot to bring the camera, and I still haven't figured out how to get pictures off my phone, so if you need pictures, you'll have to visit the festival website and see the official ones.

Friday evening Sarah and I went to Sweet Reads, the dessert reception to honor Ashley Bryan and meet all the children's authors participating in the festival. Fran Slayton and her friends at the Charlottesville Catholic School did an incredible job coordinating the event.

I bought a couple of books, chatted with some librarians from other branches in our system, and caught up with a few SCBWI folks. Ellen Braaf, our SCBWI Regional Advisor, made the trip from northern Virginia. We always enjoy seeing her. I talked with local authors Kathy May, Kathryn Erskine, Anne Marie Pace, and Fran. Several of the Slushies have taken Kathy May's class on writing for children, and she always is so encouraging, even though it's been awhile since I was her student. Sarah and I are super excited for Kathy Erskine, because she's going to be on the faculty at Chautauqua this summer. How cool is that?

The focus of the evening was the presentation for Ashley Bryan. Fran listed a few of his many accomplishments in children's literature, and Nikki Giovanni and Kekla Magoon, who both know him well, spoke about him. Then Mr. Bryan rolled up his sleeves and did what he does best--poetry. He did a recitation where he walked among the children on the floor, and then had them repeat back his lines. His warmth and humor were wonderful.

Afterward, people had an opportunity to meet all the authors. With 29 of them there, there weren't even long lines to get books signed. I had a special request to ask Jacqueline Kelly to sign several copies of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate for me, and she generously agreed.

Saturday morning, Sarah and I met our friend and blog follower Kristi, who had come in with her husband from Richmond for the day. After a few minutes catching up over coffee, we went to our separate panels. Sarah and I went to the one on picture books, featuring Jacqueline Jules, Kim Norman, Susan Stockdale, and Charlottesville's own Anne Marie Pace. Each of them talked a bit about how their books came to be.

Sarah and I walked to the next panel with Kristi, Adam, and Ellen Braaf. We had a beautiful sunny day to stroll over to the Village School, where five YA authors read from their books. The panel featured John Connolly, Jacqueline Kelly, Valerie Patterson, Tammar Stein, and Steve Watkins. Each of their books was very different, and not a vampire or werewolf in sight!

Sarah had to leave right after that. I had lunch with Kristi and Adam, and then we went to the second half of the first pages critique panel featuring the Mosely Writers. We all felt their critiques were kinder and gentler than those we've seen at other conferences. I realized that those panels are usually editors and agents. I think the difference is that a writer has been on the other side of that very public critique, and an editor's job is to really push to get the best work out of someone.

By the time that panel ended, I was ready to go home. I visited with a few folks in the lobby of the Omni before I left. All in all, a great day at the festival.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It's that time of year again

Around here, a sure sign of spring is the Virginia Festival of the Book. If you've been following us for a while, you'll remember that the Slushbusters usually try to meet up and go to some of the events as a group. While the festival lasts five days, we do have jobs and families and other obligations, so we generally make Saturday our big festival day.

This year, there's a Friday night event we're going to. If you're in the area, and you haven't heard about it yet, (which is hard for me to believe, because those of you in Charlottesville are usually pretty aware of this stuff) check it out! All the children's and YA authors attending the festival will gather to honor Ashley Bryan, eat dessert and sign books. What more could you want in an evening?

There are several other events geared toward children's authors. Saturday morning, there will be a panel on Picture Books. Saturday at noon we'll have to choose between panels on writing historical fiction for kids and books for young adults. Why do they always schedule two things I want to attend at the same time?

There are more events on publishing and book signings and speakers and the book fair. It's impossible to get to everything. Especially since this is also a time when we get to catch up with some of our writer friends who will be in town from Richmond, Northern Virginia, and elsewhere. If you'll be around, let us know. We'd love to meet up.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Clearing, freshening, changing

This morning I've been working on critiques to the sound of men talking about everything from where to get a good sandwich to the Charlie Sheen interview on TV. Punctuate that with a very squeeeaaky paint roller, the metallic creaks and clacks of boots on ladders, and the scent of fresh paint, and you have my morning.

We're planning to move. Not far, just to a different neighborhood. So we're having some work done on the house to get it ready to sell. And in the middle of it all, I've been packing. Clearing out closets to be painted. Donating stuff we don't want or need anymore. Putting our extraneous clutter into a storage unit, so the house will look clean and fresh and more spacious for showing.

All this has taken a lot of time away from my writing. That's okay, though. Although I'm compulsively creative, and need to make something every day in order to feel right with the world, sometimes it doesn't matter what that something is. I've never been one of those writers who must write every day. When I'm in a good place with a project, I have decent self-discipline, and will sit down and produce. Other times, I can go months without writing, and put my energies into something else. I always return to the writing. At best, I get some distance from my project. At worst, I have an excuse for procrastinating. This is the beauty of working without externally imposed deadlines.

So in the middle of all this chaos, what lessons can I take that I can apply to writing?

Editing is good. Whether it's your coat closet or your book, get rid of the stuff you don't need. I know we all know this, but a reminder never hurts.

Sometimes you need a change. It may be as small as a fresh coat of paint, or as significant as a new office window overlooking a new neighborhood.

Eavesdropping is fun. Most of the conversation in the background of my world today has been about what to do when, the order in which they're going to do things. Ceiling first in the living room. Drywall taping in the hall. In between, the dangers of cigarettes and too much diet soda.

Earplugs are useful. I got this one from Sarah. She wore them on one of our trips to a conference, and wasn't awakened at all by the noise in the hall of our hotel. I took a page from her book and used some this morning when I was trying to read and critique through all the background noise. Entertaining as eavesdropping is, it doesn't get the critiques done.

Mostly right now, I'm grateful that my office is one part of the house that doesn't need work. Yes, I cleaned out the closet in here too, but at least I can be in here and not feel like I'm getting in anyone's way. It's an odd feeling to be in some stranger's way in your own house.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Advice forgotten, advice remembered

As writers, we get a lot of advice. We get it from the classes we take, from the blogs we read, from the authors who have gone before us, from editors, and from our peers. In that great sea of advice, we choose the bits that stand out to us, that resonate with our mission. The rest we tend to ignore.

Today I've gone back to some advice I heard a few years ago. It was two pieces of advice, really. One was about following the structure of an existing picture book to help you develop a sense of pacing for writing one. The other was similar, to copy a picture book, word for word, to help you get a feel for the rhythm of it.

I've decided I need to take a break from the endless revision of my novel, and work on something short for a while. I've got this manuscript for a picture book that I've been fiddling with on and off for about four years, but which has been inside my head for maybe 20 years.

Today I took that advice about the structure. I was reading Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book the other day, and I had an epiphany. This story I'd been struggling with for so long has a very similar structure to something else. Not a surprise really, as it's often said there are only so many plots in the world. But nice to have finally figured out which one it goes with. I had tried to do this with the same story before, but the structure of the books I was following didn't mesh with it. I think I've got it this time.

So I've spent the morning copying the original. Just to get the structure into my head. And now I'm working my own words and characters and story into the structure. It's fun. I'm not sure how good it will be when I'm done, but either way, I think I've learned something.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reading to Kids

Is there anything better than reading to kids? Walking behind waterfalls ispretty cool, and I do love chocolate. But really, reading to kids is right up there in my favorite things to do. Kids are so responsive, so eager, and so easy to please. And I love doing all the funny voices; I am a theatre teacher, after all.

I am so excited right now because my son is about to turn four, and we have recently opened a new chapter in his reading life. We're reading chapter books. Some of them don't have pictures for at least six pages. And he is totally okay with this! He's actually loving it.

When I asked him if he missed reading books with more pictures, he said, "It's okay because I see the pictures in my head."

We started on the Lighthouse Family series and have moved on to the Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner. We'll be reading those books for a while. Today, we began Little House in the Big Woods. Of course, now Alexander wants to find a hollow log and put a roof on it so we can smoke the deer meat we get when we go hunting.

I'm so excited to read all the books I loved as a kid. I'm thinking we'll get to Pippi Longstockings soon, and the Wizard of Oz should be fun.

What I want to know is...What books do you love reading to your kids/grandkids/nieces/nephews/neighbors/etc? And what books did you love having read to you when you were a kid?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dated Language

I've been reading The Maltese Falcon, and I've come across a couple of words I had to look up. I like it when this happens. It often means one of two things. Sometimes it means the writer is stretching the language, using a more obscure word, which I like because it pushes me as a reader. Lisa is the Slushbuster most likely to use a word I don't know, and I love that. Other times, it means that the writer used a word that was common at the time the book was written, but isn't common anymore.

One of the words I had to look up from The Maltese Falcon was Levantine. Now, I had pretty much figured out what it meant from context, but I looked it up anyway. And a little bit sadly, I looked it up online, even though my dictionary is on the shelf right above my desk. I can look up now and see it as I type this. (Hi, Webster's New World Dictionary. Nice to see you. You're dated too, but I love you, so you get to stay there.)

I figured that if the story was written today, Hammett would have used the term "Middle Eastern" or more specifically "Syrian" or "Lebanese." Whichever. The use of the word Levantine helps define the time period in which the book was written.

Some words disappear because of technology. Anyone dialed a phone and gotten an answering service lately? Saved your work to a floppy disc? No? Some words change because of popular culture. When was the last time you listened to records after you got home from having a malted at the drugstore? Has anyone our age ever done that? Has anyone under the age of 30 ever gone to a video arcade with a pocketful of quarters to play Pac-Man or Zaxxon?

Political correctness changes a lot of what we write. The use of Levantine made me think of that other dated word that's been in the news a lot lately. Now I don't want to get into a whole "should they or shouldn't they" discussion about whether or not it's appropriate to substitute the word "slave" for "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn. I'm just observing that what is common usage in one time and place becomes inappropriate in another. In our age of political correctness, it happens a lot. For hundreds of years it was appropriate to use the word "cripple." But in the last 50 years, not so much.

I repeat that I'm not trying to start a heated discussion. But sometimes, when I write, I wonder what words will disappear in a generation or two. Or change. Desktop now means what you see when you turn your computer on, not the computer itself. A blackberry is no longer assumed to be something you eat. On the flip side, these evolving words are useful for writing with historical context. So when I tell you one of my books has a main character who was really happy to get an Atari, you know it is set in the 80's.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Clearing out in the new year, or why what you read really does make a difference.

Happy new year, everyone! We've been a bit quiet over the holidays. I can't believe how many of the other bloggers have been writing every day through the madness. Good for you!

I've just finished a round of critiques for this evening's meeting. They were revisions to stories that Slushies have been working on for a while. I love these kinds of critiques, because I get to see how far the story has come since I first read it. One of them was a story that had been shelved for a while, but it's one of our favorites, and it definitely deserves a fighting chance, so I'm glad it's back in revision-land.

I've been working on a project at the library the past week or so, which I thought might interest you. I've been weeding our young adult fiction. Weeding is kind of the library version of inventory. We check the circulation on each item. If it hasn't been checked out in say, two years or more, we give it a good, hard look and evaluate whether or not it deserves to stay on our shelves. With the limited space in a small library, sometimes we have to be brutal. There are other factors, such as whether it is an award winner, or if the author is generally well-known, or whether or not other branches have the book. But the main criteria for keeping something is if someone has read it recently. Even one checkout can make the difference.

This is where you come in. If you checked out one of these books I'm looking at, you may have inadvertently cast a vote as to whether it stays or goes. If you recommended that book to a friend, and she checked it out, between the two of you, the circulation just went from a zero to a two in the past year. Another vote for keeping the book. If you recommended it to a book club, therefore increasing the circulation of every copy in our system, well, you've likely just insured the book will stay on our shelves for quite a while.

Before I worked at the library, I knew I could request they purchase a book. That was as far as I thought my influence as a patron went. I don't think people consider their role in keeping their favorite books on the shelves once the library owns them. So recommend a favorite to a friend!