Thursday, December 20, 2012

Merry Christmas

Wishing you all the joys of the season. Times of rest, worship, gatherings, meals, festive lights, quiet evenings, good cheer -- and for those who may be bearing loss or uncertainty at this time, the comforting presence of God, loved ones, and friends. May the true meaning of Christmas be born in every heart.

This will be my final post of 2012. Enjoy your winter holidays to the full, stay healthy and safe, and I'll see you on January 3, 2013!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Are Your Favorite Words?

Do you have a list of favorite words? Words that you love just because of their sound or they way they look on the page? Here's my list, compiled over the years:


Yes, only seven words have made THE list so far. Maybe you can help me expand it? Please share your favorite words with me in the comments. I can't wait to hear them!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

If you like animal stories, verse novels, and books that tug at the heartstrings, Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan is for you.
Ivan is a silverback gorilla who lives in a shopping mall as part of a small, failing circus. In the next "domain" (cage) lives Stella the elephant, in declining health from a lifetime of performing, and resigned to her fate. Bob, not part of the show, is a small would-be tough guy dog, who claims he lives nowhere and likes it that way, though he sleeps on Ivan's sumptuous tummy almost every night. George, the kind human caretaker who works for the boss, and his daughter, Julie, come by often. Ivan appreciates these friends, but is emotionally stunted. He has only vague memories of his life with his parents and sister in the jungle that he prefers not to recall.
Ivan begins to awaken emotionally when two things happen: He discovers through Julie's help that he can paint, and a baby elephant named Ruby comes and moves into Stella's domain. Stella mothers the baby for a time, but soon dies, and Ruby is put into heavy circus training with Mack, the show's owner. Ivan now realizes that Mack brought Ruby in because he knew Stella would die, and that she will repeat Stella's life -- and his own -- unless he does something about it. Eventually, Ivan learns to call a cage a cage, and with the help of his paintings (which are bringing in as much as $65 from the tourists), he hatches a plan that he hopes will get Ruby sent to a kinder place with other elephants: the zoo. Ivan also faces his former life and what happened to his sister by deliberately remembering it. Though he doesn't know it yet, he's in fact learning to become the mighty silverback he is -- a true leader rather than the cartoonish, chest-beating ape that is pictured on the circus billboard.
The author's note explains that Ivan was a real gorilla who lived with a small circus for 27 years before public outcry found him a new home at a zoo in Atlanta. He really did paint, and he signed each of his paintings with his handprint.
A heartwarming story about compassion, art, and the nature of leadership, this book is highly recommended.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

November Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of the November critique giveaway are: Joyce Moyer Hostetter and Angelina C. Hansen!

Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
  • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
  • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
  • Put "Critique winner" in the subject line.
  • Deadline to submit is December 19.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Joyce and Angelina, and thank you all so much for stopping by and entering. Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

May God's blessings fill your home, your family, your loved ones, and your life on this very special day of thanks.

And for all that we've received, and all that He is, may our hearts overflow with gratitude to Him.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! :)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

November Critique Giveaway

It's critique time. Enter to win!
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
  • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
  • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
  • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
  • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
  • Enter now through Wednesday, November 28.
  • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
  • Winners announced Thursday, November 29.
Let the entering begin!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt

This MG novel is a bit of a surprise, in that it's not straight contemporary fiction like Schmidt's other recent work, but a combination of contemporary and high fantasy. Many galaxies from the Milky Way, the peaceful world of the Valorim is about to be vanquished by the Lord Mondus and his minions. The evil one isn't just Lord Mondus, but "the Lord Mondus." (I loved that name for a villain.) Just moments before all is lost, the last survivor of the Valorim secretes all of  his people's art in a single forged chain that he sends out into the universe, so that the culture of the Valorim will not be utterly destroyed. The chain tumbles through galaxies until it happens to reach one that contains a certain solar system, which contains a certain blue planet, and completes its journey by landing inside the school lunchbox of twelve-year-old Tommy Pepper.

Tommy's life is steeped in the cares of this world, from the devastating to the trivial. It's his birthday, the lunchbox is a present from Grandma, it's an Ace Robotroid lunchbox, and he's WAY too old for Ace Robotroid. This is also the first birthday Tommy has had since his mom died 257 days ago in a car crash that he believes his bad attitude caused. His dad can't paint anymore, his sister doesn't speak anymore, and a nasty realtor is trying to take their home in historic Plymouth, MA, for an oceanfront condo development. Tommy has no time for a chain from outer space; in fact it takes him a while to even find it in the hated lunchbox. Really, though, it's more like the chain has found Tommy. He suddenly begins to understand words, concepts, and especially art that he has no background for, and he can make this art, too.

Back on the faraway planet, of course, the Lord Mondus and his minions want to know where the art has gone. They will eventually find out, invade Plymouth in order to capture it, and Tommy will have to defend his home, family, friends, school, and town against enemies that are way, way beyond the cares of this world.

The chapters alternate between Tommy's world and the fantasy world, and the language is starkly different from one to another. In Tommy's chapters it's well-written but down to earth; the high fantasy chapters have the majesty of Beowulf or the King James Bible about them. I loved when Tommy began to fight the evil intruders and the high-flown language of the mythical world began to invade Tommy's world. We even see that though he is still Tommy, he is also "Tommim," a boy with a much grander purpose--an intergalatic purpose--than most people would ever dare dream of.

The basic plots of both worlds are not terribly original, but I'm not sure how much this matters. First, the high fantasy chapters are not easy reading (and in my opinion the glossary at the back of the book should be in front so readers find it before they finish), so it helps that the plot is familiar. Second, good vs. evil is so foundational to all of existence. Third, the themes are what matter here. Both this book and his previous novel, Okay for Now, are about the importance of art to individuals and to culture. More prominent though, I think, are other ideas. That we can receive grand assignments from "way out there" (God, in my book) that we did not ask for, that seem way beyond us, but that we will be equipped to handle even if we have to step out in fear. And that the key to fixing the mess in our earthly lives is often found in embracing a realer, truer, purpose. Gary D. Schmidt is a professor at Calvin College in Michigan, and I'm sure the underlying Christian themes in this story are no accident.

A "wow" book, recommended for readers who wouldn't mind some high fantasy with their contemporary fiction.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

SCBWI-WI Conference Highlights, Part 2

The title of my breakout session was "Idea Explosion Workshop." I obviously can't share it all here, so I will choose a section that addresses a common problem in dealing with book ideas: "I have so many ideas I don't know what to do with them all! How do I choose?" Well, here's the method I recommend.

Look at your list, file, or box of ideas

Pick out the one(s) that most excite you.
Pick out the one(s) that have the most emotional resonance for you.
Pick out the one(s) that capitalize on your writing strengths.
Pick out the one(s) that make use of subjects you know well.

For some of these categories, you may be choosing more than one idea. That's fine. Throw them all into a literal or virtual pot. Now examine them further.

Which one(s) are overdone topics or genres in today's market? Strongly consider putting these back in the general idea file.

Which of the remaining ideas in the pot have the highest concepts? Take these out of the pot, and put everything else that's in the pot back into the general idea file. Lay these higher-concept ideas side by side on your desk, literally or figuratively, and shine a light on them.

Compare these ideas head to head, two at a time. Let's say you have four ideas on your desk: A, F, P, and Q.
  • Compare A and F. Which do you like better? Let's say it's F. Put A back in the general idea file.
  • F is now the standard. Compare F and P. Which do you like better? Let's say it's P. Put F back in the general idea file.
  • P is now the standard. Compare P and Q. Which do you like better? Let's say it's P. Put Q back in the general idea file.
  • P wins!!!!
  • NOW, WRITE P! :)
Alas, I wanted to upload a video clip, but I tried multiple times and it didn't work.

Do you have idea tips? Have you been to a conference lately?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

SCBWI-WI Conference Highlights, Part 1

Our annual fall conference was held Oct. 19-21, and it was a great time to hear inspiring and informative speakers, chat with old friends, meet new friends, get away from normal life for a bit, and eat way, way, too much chocolate. Without further ado, here are the high points from three speakers that I took away from the conference.

Kathi Appelt:
  • What's your MC's main ROLE in your story? It's often something fairly straightforward like son, daughter, sibling, or student. While your MC will no doubt have multiple roles in life just as we all do, one of these roles will be main in this story. Identify it.
  • What is your MC's controlling belief? As soon as Kathi said this, I began jotting down the controlling beliefs of the three POV characters in my WIP. This is powerful stuff, because the controlling belief PUSHES the character through the story. If your character doesn't seem quite jelled, or does unbelievable things, check that he's operating according to his controlling belief and not violating it.
  • Identify your MC's goal. The goal PULLS the MC through the story.
  • The story should contain a crisis of faith moment when the controlling belief is called into question. It may or may not be changed, but it should be challenged.
  • Whether or not the MC achieves the goal may not matter that much, because confronting the controlling belief alone can make a satisfying story.
  • Can you tell I LOVED Kathi's talk?
Sara Zarr:
  • Your experience or memory of a book is of how it made you feel.
  • Even an action scene should do emotional work.
  • If a chapter doesn't have emotional progression, either add it or cut the chapter.
  • Control pacing by adding or subtracting stage business.
  • Control pacing with language, sentence structure, and punctuation.
  • By pp. 30-50, are the seeds of everything that's going to happen there?
EM Kokie:
  • Voice is the personality of the teller of the story.
  • Voice is a promise of what's to come in the book.
  • Voice can be deliberately strengthened in revision.
  • Pacing issues can be a matter of verb tense. 
Stay tuned for next Thursday, when I'll give you highlights from one more talk: mine! :)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Of Contests, Pitches, Book Beginnings, and Walking the Line

After finishing a MG novel -- not the one I'm hard at work revising now, but the finished one immediately prior to it -- I of course began querying agents. I entered some online contests, too. And while most agents ask for either the query letter alone, or the query plus ten pages, or five pages, or three chapters, or sometimes even fifty pages, most contests ask for a very small sample of the actual work. It might be a pitch sentence plus, say, 150 words, or 250. That's it. And it does make sense. Those first 150 or 250 are crucially important in engaging the reader's interest. There are practical considerations, too. Most contests are slammed with entries, and accepting more than the first page or so from each entrant would become overwhelming.

Still, I've looked at my finished novel, and the one I'm working on, too, and have wondered if they really lend themselves to being evaluated in only 250 words. 400-500? Absolutely. But I've realized that the story structure in both of mine would be hard to get a good sense of in only 200-250 words. And the truth is, I have had much better results with the standard querying process than with contests.

I thought about this question again as I read the beginning of Kate Messner's MG novel Capture the Flag. There was nothing wrong with what I was reading at all. But, really, if the author weren't already agented, I'm not sure how the first couple of pages would fare in a pitch contest. Because there isn't a single child's POV in the entire first chapter. Through an adult's POV, three kids are shown sitting on a bench, but that's it. They don't look up; they don't speak; they're just noticed in passing. The children are not referenced until past the 200-word mark. My guess would be that if you handed the first 150-200 words to a number of readers, many would not realize they were reading the beginning of a children's book. Only the pitch sentence would say otherwise. Yet, in my opinion, the book does begin in the right spot.

I've made similar observations about two other books: What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt; and Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz. One begins with the dreaded prologue (and not a short one). You know, that thing you're not supposed to use because "everybody hates it"? Neither begins with a child character's POV. Both are awesome, and rather difficult (I admire difficult), MG novels.

If you've entered an online contest, or thought about doing so, have you ever felt that contests may be best suited to certain types of books? Or do you think what I'm noticing is mainly a matter of the three cited authors being allowed to do what they like based on past sales? Might I even raise the question of whether there are two tiers of novels: debuts and/or books from authors with marginal sales figures that need to walk a somewhat narrow line to maximize their chances to be published, and books from proven sellers who have earned the chance to expand into storytelling in all its fullness without always being hemmed by what you "can't" do?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Next Big Thing

I've been tagged by Vijaya to spill about my WIP. I'm actually pretty excited about this book and I like questionnaire/interview type stuff, so I'm happy to play.

What is the working title of your book?

Where did the idea come from?
A newspaper article about how to legally steal real estate.

What genre does your book fall under?
Upper MG contemporary mystery.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I absolutely haven't the foggiest. I don't know enough actors to be able to choose. My guess is that the kids would be played by newcomers and the adults might be played by more established actors. Funny thing: My daughter-in-law is an actress, but this story wouldn't really have a role for her.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Candy, age twelve, reacts to her discovery that her mother stole their house, she unwittingly lures a murderer out of hiding.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I'm going for an agent and traditional publication.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
This is another toughie. I started the book so long ago; in 2003-04 if I remember right. Then I stopped writing it and wrote 1.5 others and published yet another in between. And I probably threw away more than half of what I wrote in that first stint. I'm going to say my overall total time on the first draft is 18 months.

May we see an intro?
Two summers have passed since the forgotten man--homeless, harmless, younger than his scraggly gray looks suggested--was murdered on a humid night in a small woods.

What books in your genre would you compare this story to?
Oh, I am horrible at this. In fact, I recently took a stab at this with a friend and she said, no, I don't write like any of those people. All I can say is that someone who likes "smart MG mysteries" would like this. Don't anybody quote me, but how about "The Penderwicks meets Elise Broach"? Y'know, I really am not comfortable with the comparison stuff.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I just couldn't let that great newspaper article get away. Plus, I've done mysteries before and adored mysteries as a kid.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
I actually see it as kind of a "big book." Large cast. Large homestead. Three POVs. 60,000 words.

Let's see: five people who might like to play. I know lots of people have already, and I don't remember who did or didn't, but here goes.

Mirka Breen
Joyce Moyer Hostetter
Ruth Donnelly
Ruth Schiffman
Barbara Watson

 Rules of The Next Big Thing:

*Use this format for your post
*Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
*Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
May we see an intro?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

September Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of the September critique giveaway are: Rhiann Wynn-Nolet and Jennifer Rumberger!

Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
  • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
  • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
  • Put "Critique winner" in the subject line.
  • Deadline to submit is October 24.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Rhiann and Jennifer, and thank you all so much for stopping by and entering. Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

750 Words, Every Day?

September Critique Giveaway still open! Scroll down one post.

This past August 8, I got an idea that is, for me, a little out there: commit to a target word count per day. Every day (mostly; keep reading). On my WIP -- not blog posts, student letters, conference-session planning, or any other kind of writing. That stuff would be extra. Over and above. Same with writing-related tasks like research. And querying. That would be over and above.

This is hardly a new idea, but I've always been one to schedule writing time rather than a daily word quota. And had I been happy with my productivity lately? Well, not so much, to tell the truth. Hadn't I been wishing for awhile that I could write faster without losing quality? Very much so. And, I suspected, I could. In fact, I might gain quality if writing a daily quota, and therefore writing faster, kept me more constantly immersed in the story.

So, I came up with a plan.
  • Write 750 words per day on the WIP, every day, for the rest of 2012, with days off as follows:
  • 12 specific dates that include 2 holidays, 2 election days (I'm a pollworker and we have 14-hour days), 3 conference days, and 5 vacation days to visit our kids this fall.
  • Calculating on August 8 the number of days left in 2012 gives 145. Subtracting 12 leaves 133. Multiply 133 x 750 and you get 99,750. That's the number of words I propose to write on my fiction between August 8 and December 31, inclusive!
Now, take one more look at that total. 99,750. Am I going to stop there? No, because add just 250 little words to that -- about a page! -- and you hit 100,000. How can I stop so very short of 100,000? And because my daily minimum is 750, there's every chance I can write a fair amount more. Because when you're more regular, you get more days when the words flow, and 750 can seem like not much at all. At least, I had more days like that back in the time of contracts and deadlines. And I'd like to get them back.

What 100,000 words represents almost makes me giddy. When I began my challenge, I needed less than half this total to finish my current WIP. I love revision more than drafting, so once I get to the revision stage, I could and can do more than 750 words most days. Another way to look at it is that 100,000 words will give you roughly two complete MG novel drafts. Maybe close to three!

How's it been going? If you'd asked me on August 7 whether I'd be almost done with my draft by the end of September, I'd have said no way. Sometimes I think I'm more of a binge person than a steady, everyday one; and often it's a lot more realistic and constructive to evaluate progress by the week than by the day. Still: I am almost done. And it rocks.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

September Critique Giveaway

It's critique time. Enter to win!
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
  • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
  • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
  • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
  • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
  • Enter now through Wednesday, October 3.
  • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
  • Winners announced Thursday, October 4.
Let the entering begin!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

You Gotta Love the Equation Bookshelf

For the math-loving bookworm or book-loving math geek in your life, this bookshelf is a hoot. The important stuff (i.e., the operations you do first) go inside the parentheses, the next most important inside the brackets, and finally you take care of everything within the braces. You could totally make a statement at any given time about which books you'll read first, next, and last, or what items on the shelf are your favorites. I trust those parentheses, brackets, and braces move, because that would be the coolest, and just imagine the equations you could arrange (with books or other items as Roman numerals, equal signs -- use your imagination!). You could send coded math messages to your fellow math person; you might not have a fellow math person in real life, but you would in a book. And yes, I do sense a book idea coming on...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

September Book Pick -- The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, by Trenton Lee Stewart

If you've read the three Mysterious Benedict Society books, two of which I posted about here, and here, you won't want to miss this prequel, which portrays Nicholas Benedict as a nine-year-old boy (he's a grown man in the MBS books). And if you haven't read the MBS books, do! (It doesn't matter if you read those books, or this one, first.) In a Dickens-meets-Agatha-Christie sort of way, Stewart gives us the story of an orphan entering yet another new orphanage, except that two things make this situation different: Nicholas is a genius afflicted with narcolepsy, who falls asleep whenever he experiences a strong emotion; and the orphanage was once the Rothschild Mansion and is rumored to contain a treasure. This last might be shrugged off as just a story, except that from his careful observation of the orphanage's director, Mr. Collum, and the man's tapping on walls and thumping on floors, Nicholas realizes that at least one adult on the premises believes the treasure is real. Well, who wouldn't want to get their hands on a treasure? And who better to match wits with Mr. Collum than a boy genius?

The portrayal of Nicholas's genius especially interests me, and when we get inside his mind and follow his observation and reasoning, and when he takes specific action such as figuring out how to make a key mold and then a key on the sly, his intellect is most convincing. I also love that his problem-solving includes clever ruses and acting at times, as well as puzzling things out in the expected mental-exercise sort of way. Other traits, such as his photographic memory and especially his extreme ability to speed-read, seem a little more like plot conveniences. We have to take the author's word for these more. On the whole, Nicholas is likable and believable, and part of the charm of the book is that though several of the characters seem stock (Mr. Collum, the bully group known as the Spiders, Nicholas's friend John), we don't care, because they come alive. In fact, that these are familiar characters coming alive just adds more enjoyment to the book.

Another thing I adore about this book is that it's one to sink down into. It's thick (468 pp.), it's definitely upper-MG reading level even though the MC is only nine, the writing is descriptive and all-around stellar, and Stewart has the confidence to take his time getting the mystery plot rolling -- not something a mystery writer normally does. As far as the reading experience goes, people who like Harry Potter or older-style MG that's a little longer, a little slower-moving, and a little higher reading level than a lot of fare today, will enjoy this. As will readers of smart mysteries such as Blue Balliett's or Elise Broach's books. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Marcia's Nightstand

Maybe this isn't quite representative. The TBR pile isn't as tall as it usually is. But usually the books are piled in a single stack, and the table contains hand lotion, a water bottle, a pen cup, a pad of paper, a tissue box, a book light, a calculator, a manicure set, and lip balm. I've spared you all that, all the better to see the books. But they don't show up very well here, so let's try a second shot...

Not quite so good yet? Well, Mewy has always been a rather literary cat,
making a pest of herself um, "participating in my process" in my office and occupying my lap when I read. So I guess she figured she should pose. Unless, of course she's here because she can read titles...

I was particularly looking for MG mystery when I compiled this stack, so that genre predominates here. On the right-hand side, we have, from top to bottom, my journal; Room One, by Andrew Clements; Closed for the Season and Deep and Dark and Dangerous, both by Mary Downing Hahn; and Witness, by Karen Hesse.

And on the left, we have, from top to bottom, Eleven, by Patricia Reilly Giff; the Thompson Chain Reference Bible; Emily's Fortune, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor; and three books on writing craft: Second Sight, by Cheryl Klein; Plot vs. Character, by Jeff Gerke; and Mewy's choice, by Blake Snyder -- Save the Cat!

What's in your TBR pile?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

When Introversion and Math Collide

When I was a university math major, in one of the later courses, I was sitting in class with a girl named Susa, listening to a lecture. We'd been exposed to a countless number of theorems over the many semesters, and that day the prof presented yet another heretofore-unheard-of mathematician and his theorem. "Someday," murmured my seatmate, without taking her eyes off the board, "there's going to be a Susa theorem."

My thoughts exactly. And, talking with a friend recently about how introverts need to refuel after an exhausting period of extroversion, I realized the time has come. So, I give you:

Hoehne's First Law

The approximate number of Introversion Hours (IH, or I-Hours) required to refuel an introvert after a given amount of extroverted energy release can be expressed as

3(XH) + s + .02(dB) = IH

Where XH is the number of Extroversion Hours,
s is any portion of the XH during which the introvert felt unwell,
dB is the decibel level of noise the introvert was exposed to during the XH.

As a simple example, let's say the introvert attended a three-hour party where loud music was played and had a headache the entire time. The approximate number of I-Hours the person will require to recuperate is calculated as follows:

3(3) + 3 + .02(115) =
9 + 3 + 2.3 = 14.3

So we see that, if we include the hours spent sleeping, this poor soul needs virtually an entire day to refuel.

If, however, the introvert felt well during the party, and the loudest sound was normal conversation, we have

3(3) + 0 + .02(60) = 10.2

In this case, we can expect the introvert to be able to handle about 6 hours of non-isolation during the following 24-hour period.

Caution: Empirical data only. No writing was slacked off upon in order to pursue rigorous scholarship in the writing of this theorem. :)

Now, if this fiction-writing thing doesn't pan out, maybe I can write a textbook?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eleven Questions

Annie McMahon tagged me recently with this "11 questions" meme. It looks like fun, a good way to do some introspection (something I hardly ever do -- yeah, right:)), and a good way to get some glimpses into other people, so here's the deal:
  • Write 11 random things about yourself.
  • Answer the 11 questions given.
  • Write 11 new questions.
  • Tag someone else. Maybe 11 someone elses, if you can.
11 Random Things About Myself
  1. I don't watch TV.  Don't ask me if I've seen such-and-such commercial or show; of these I am totally ignorant. I'd much rather read, or, if it's screen time, be online. 
  2. Exception to the above: I never miss Green Bay Packers football.
  3. I am a homebody to the core...
  4. ...but if I ever went abroad, I'd go to England. I'll take castles, villages, gardens, and a dose of London, please.
  5. I am quiet. Sometimes too quiet. Yet, when I was in first grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, "Too noisy in the hall." I had no idea I'd been noisy, but after that I learned to tamp down any exuberance. In the short run, good; in the long run, a loss, no?
  6. I cannot drink regular coffee. I get so jittery that all I can do is sit in a chair and quiver.
  7. People used to tell me fairly often that I look like Meryl Streep. I mean, there was a period when I was getting this all the time. 
  8. I'm a born-again Christian.
  9. The only foreign country I've ever been to is Canada.
  10. I was a TALL child, but I'm only a medium-sized adult. Guess I just did my growing early.
  11. At the risk of sounding weird, I rarely listen to music.
11 Questions, Answered
  1. How did you get your idea for your most recent book? From a newspaper article, but I don't want to say what it was about. :)
  2. What makes your books different from others in your genre?  I write commercial middle grade with a literary bent. Or is it literary with a commercial bent?
  3. What is your biggest challenge as a writer?  Getting through the first draft. I like revision.
  4. What other hobbies or occupations do you have besides writing? I teach two courses for The Institute of Children's Literature. I sometimes struggle with the fact that I don't really have any proper hobbies. Well, I read a lot. :) I sing on my church's worship team. I'm good at and creative with counted cross stitch, but it really doesn't fit into my (or my cats') life anymore.
  5. What's your favorite book in the genre that you write? I think I'm going to have to go with Anne of Green Gables.
  6. What's your favorite quote or expression? It's hard to name just one, but here's a favorite scripture from Jeremiah 42:10 that I have in counted cross on my office wall: "If you are willing to go on living in this land, then I will build you up and not tear you down; I will plant you and not pull you up."
  7. Are you a listener or a talker? Listener!
  8. Name one thing you couldn't live without. Jesus. Truly.
  9. What's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten? When I was a kid, my mom froze this horrible slushie-like stuff -- homemade from mysterious juices from the fridge -- by way of making us a summer treat AND trying not to throw something away. It was this brown, frozen goop in a pan. She made us eat it. Because, you know, she couldn't throw anything away.
  10. If you were an animal, what would it be? A cat -- provided I could be an indoor cat with a loving family and lie by the hearth. If not that -- maybe a dolphin? But I really don't want to be wet all the time.
  11. Name three adjectives that best describe you. Romantic, diplomatic, instrospective.
11 New Questions For 11 New Folks!
  1. Your house is on fire and you can run out with one thing. (Your family and pets are safe, and you are guaranteed to get out.) What do you grab?
  2. Health nut or junk foodie?
  3. What's your favorite form of exercise?
  4. What's the worst job you can imagine having?
  5. Have you ever broken a bone? How?
  6. If you could go back to college now, would you change your major? From what to what?
  7. Green thumb? Black thumb? Somewhere in between?
  8. What's the best book you've read in the last two months, on any topic?
  9. What's the hugest, gooiest, most fabulous dessert you can remember eating?
  10. What's your favorite writing tip?
  11. What's the stupidest writing tip you've ever heard?
Okay, now to tag some folks. Some of you may have done this already, so pardon my duplication. :)
My, this makes for a long post. :) Have fun!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fun With Kids Day

I should be doing a book pick post (hmmm, there's an interesting phrase) about now, but I've not had a lot of reading time lately, and this picture tells the story. However, I am reading (slowly) a MG novel that I'm really liking, and I'll post on it probably in early September. Meanwhile, life has been blessed with days like this. Longer post next week! :)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

July Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of the July critique giveaway are: Sharon K. Mayhew and Faith E. Hough!

Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
  • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
  • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
  • Put "Critique winner" in the subject line.
  • Deadline to submit is August 22.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Sharon and Faith, and thank you all so much for stopping by and entering. Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Quoth the Writer

Feel like some quotes today? Hope you enjoy these:
  • Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money. -- Jules Renard
  • Inspiration is the act of drawing up a chair to the writing desk. -- Anonymous
  • There's more of yourself in a book than a play. That's why we know all about Dickens and not much about Shakespeare. -- Sir John Mortimer
  • Nothing stops me writing except flu. -- Fay Weldon
  • When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God's business. -- Flannery O'Connor
  • There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. -- Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Once a writer is born into a family, that family is doomed. -- Czselaw Milosz
  • A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. -- Italo Calvino
Have you heard any good quotes lately?

    Thursday, July 19, 2012

    July Critique Giveaway

    It's critique time. Enter to win!
    • I will critique TWO manuscripts. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
    • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
    • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
    • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
    • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
    • Enter now through Wednesday, August 1.
    • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
    • Winners announced Thursday, August 2.
    Let the entering begin!

    Thursday, July 12, 2012

    Creativity Tidbits

    I've been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, which explains what's going on in the brain when we create. Here are some interesting tidbits from that book. Some are intuitive, but at least one is counterintuitive, which I always find fascinating. And naturally I can't resist a bit of my own commentary.
    • A relaxed state of mind is important for creativity, more important than relentless focus. Trying to force insight can actually prevent it. Directed daydreaming -- musing on the thing you want a creative solution to, while walking or showering, say -- works better. Though classroom teachers and sometimes parents may go half crazy dealing with daydreamers, these are the folks who are going to invent things and solve problems. We need them, and we need them not to change! 
    • Stimulants such as caffeine, Adderall, and Ritalin make creative epiphanies less likely.
    • However, these drugs make tedious details more interesting, and increase short-term memory. This is why writers, mathematicians, and scientists have taken amphetimines while revising, or when trying to fit diverse ideas together. They see more trees, but tend to lose the forest.
    • Undergrads with ADHD, in fields such as drama, art, and science, were found to be more creative than people without the disorder, both in creativity tests and practical applications, such as having won science fairs or ribbons at juried art shows.
    • Being surrounded by blue walls makes us more creative. (I knew there was a reason all the rooms in our house are blue. :)) Scientists say that we associate blue with sky, sea, and horizons, and alpha waves in our brains increase.
    • Travel increases creativity, because when you're in a place where you're the outsider, you don't have your surroundings in their usual boxes. "Our thoughts are shackled by the familiar."
    • Cities increase creativity for much the same reason. We think in new ways when we're exposed to variety.
    • Brainstorming doesn't work! Studies have shown that a group comes up with more and better ideas if they work alone and later pool their results. Brainstorming groups are normally directed to throw ideas out there without criticizing them. But studies have shown that including debate and criticism in a group discussion produces better results. This seems counter-intuitive; for so long we've been sold on the idea that everybody is "right." However, say the scientists, if everyone is right then there's no real incentive to embrace the other guy's thoughts. The absence of criticism keeps everybody in the same place -- where they were when the meeting started. Example: John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They were competitive and prickly together, and it drove them both to produce better music.
    Must be why critique groups work. :)

    Thursday, July 5, 2012

    Emily's Fortune, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

    Eight-year-old Emily Wiggins lives with her widowed mother in the servants' quarters of the big white house owned by the wealthy Miss Luella Nash. Old Miss Nash is prim, stern, and orderly -- except when she races her horse and carriage through town, grinning wildly and shouting, "Faster, faster!" Alas, one day Emily's mother and Miss Nash go shopping, Miss Nash at the reins, and the carriage tips over and falls into the river. Only the horse survives, and Emily is now an orphan.
    Emily's neighbors, Mrs. Ready (who always states the problem), Mrs. Aim (who always asks the relevant question), and Mrs. Fire (who always has the answer) help her get ready to travel by train and stagecoach to loving Aunt Hilda, her aunt by marriage. Far better than falling into the clutches of Uncle Victor, her mother's no-good, weasel-eyed, tiger-tattooed brother. But then Miss Catchum of Catchum Child-Catching Services butts in. Her office gets a handsome bonus only when an orphan is placed with a blood relative. So there's no help for it other than to outsmart Miss C and get Emily onto the train.
    Soon she meets fellow orphan Jackson, finds out that Catchum Child-Catching Services has branches in every town on the route, and to her shock finds a poster with her name and picture on it that announces she is heir to Miss Nash's ten-million-dollar fortune. And who is soon on her trail? Not just Miss Catchum, who wants her bonus, but Uncle Victor, who wants Emily's loot. She has to get safely to Aunt Hilda, who she knows loved her before anything was known about any money.  As for Jackson -- can she really trust that he won't turn her in?
    Published in 2010, this book is fast moving; filled with funny, large-font cliffhanger chapter endings like "And what in blinkin' bloomers do you think she saw?" and "Now what in the hokie smokies could that mean?"; and ends exactly the way we'd want this kind of story to end. A western of the rootin'-tootin' variety, this will appeal to younger MG readers, reluctant readers, and any who like their MG fiction to be a bit of a romp. That it's a western aimed at girls doesn't hurt, either. Recommended.

    Thursday, June 28, 2012

    Beautiful Blogger Award

    I will be offline for a week or thereabouts, so will be around to do some blog visiting as soon as I can after that. See you all soon! And now for our regularly scheduled post. :)

    The lovely Ruth Schiffmann of Out on a Limb has tagged me for this award. I'm supposed to list seven things about myself. Okay, here goes.

    1. I'm having trouble with this list already. Truth is, I write, I teach, I read, I pray, I do family stuff, and there's not much else.
    2. Truth is, I'm speaking in the voice of one of my characters right now.
    3. Oh, yeah, and we might be doing some painting on the house right now. Not the whole thing. But changing up the color scheme of the trim a bit. Minor excitement. :)
    4. I've always been interested in nutrition, but I'm redoubling my efforts to eat well and make sure I walk at least 30 minutes a day. I can't afford to turn into the blob here -- bodily or mentally.
    5. Reasonable amounts (drat:)) of dark chocolate are part of good nutrition.
    6. Good habits on a daily basis will forgive the occasional (drat:)) ice-cream indulgence.
    7. I sleep 8 hours per night. No boasting here that I can get by on 5 or 6, or that I'm too important to afford sleep (being overbusy is a status symbol, don't you know). I need it, and so do most of us.

    I hope anyone who's reading this will consider themselves tagged. I'd enjoy getting a glimpse into seven things about YOU. :)

    Thursday, June 21, 2012

    June Book Pick II -- Wonder, by RJ Palacio

    Ten-year-old August, who narrates most of this novel, tells us early on that he won't describe what he looks like, because whatever we're imagining, it's worse. He was born with facial abnormalities that literally make people scream and run away, despite the fact that he's undergone numerous surgeries since birth. He's been homeschooled his whole life, and now his mom thinks it's in his best interest to enter a good, private middle school in New York City for fifth grade. (His dad isn't so sure.) At first, as we might guess, Auggie wants nothing to do with it. After all, he spent most of his early childhood hiding inside a toy astronaut helmet. But then, in a believable fashion, he decides he will visit the school for a trial run, and he enrolls. Because one of the first things we learn about August is that, helmet or no, he has come to accept the face he has. He doesn't pity himself. He doesn't believe his entire existence is a tragedy, and I think the main component of the reader's initial attraction to him is respect.

    August comes from a wonderful family: Mom, Dad, teenage sister. Yes, they have their problems. Yes, Mom and Dad don't always agree. But all of them love each other fiercely. It's the love and the upsets and the loyalty and the mistakes and the acceptance that make them wonderful. They are doing a first-class job of raising Auggie without having to be perfect; they, like Auggie himself, send the message that life is precious, livable, and purposeful, even when you have a problem this serious.

    Yet, now August must figure out how to cope in the wider world. And yes, some of the kids he meets are as cruel as we'd expect. But many are not. Auggie makes friends because of the good person he is inside, while at the same time some reject him because they just can't cope with his deformities. And we get to hear from many of the people in Auggie's world in their own words, because Palacio uses eight narrators in all.

    This story manages to be full of hope without being at all Pollyanna-ish. I'm reaching the point where I'm going to start gushing and burbling, because so far this is my favorite middle-grade novel of 2012. And from a writer's point of view, it's interesting to note that several of these narrators are teens, yet the book was apparently (thankfully!) not seen as unmarketable for that reason. It is still MG, and rightly so.

    For me, this book raises the meaning of rooting for a main character to a whole new level. It's about how cruel we can be, how kind we can be, how triumphant we can be, and how powerful love is. You will be cheering at the end, and do make sure you have tissues handy! If you can read only one MG novel this year, you could hardly go wrong picking this one.

    Thursday, June 14, 2012

    Quoth the Writer

    It's been a while since we've had a nice quote round-up. Hope you enjoy these.

    The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium -- Norbert Platt

    The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.  -- Mark Twain

    A metaphor is like a simile. -- Unknown

    Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind. -- Catherine Drinker Bowen

    I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top. -- Unknown English professor, Ohio University

    Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. -- Hannah Arendt

    The expression "to write something down" suggests a descent of thought to the fingers whose movements immediately falsify it. -- William Gass

    Writing is a struggle against silence. -- Carlos Fuentes

    Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. -- EL Doctorow

    What do you think? Which ones do you like? Got any other good ones?

    Thursday, June 7, 2012

    June Book Pick -- The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter

    The Humming Room is a middle-grade novel based on The Secret Garden, and this delightful book may well send readers scurrying to pick up the latter, if they haven't already. Dark, yet sweet, this revisioning is modern yet hints at timelessness as well.

    Roo Fanshaw likes to hide, and she has very good reason. Just as Mary Lennox becomes an orphan at the start of The Secret Garden, Roo also loses her parents suddenly and violently, to a murder that occurs in her trailer home while she is hiding beneath it. Like Mary Lennox, Roo is unlikable, and Ellen Potter does an outstanding job of creating sympathy for and emotional identity with her to compensate for this disadvantage. Since Roo has spent so much time under the trailer lately, while her family life disintegrated, she has made friends of tiny living things and likes to put her ear to the earth and listen to the life inside it.

    Roo is shipped off to a wealthy uncle -- her father's brother -- who she didn't know existed (counterpart to The Secret Garden's Mr. Craven) and picked up for the journey by the acerbic Ms. Valentine (Mrs. Medlock). The uncle's mansion, a former TB sanitarium for children, is on an island somewhere in New England that the locals call Cough Rock. There, Roo meets Violet (Martha), is forbidden to go into the east wing, spends a lot of time puttering around by herself, meets a mysterious boy named Jack who has an uncanny connection to animals (Dickon), and finally, hearing horrible screams, goes to the east wing where she meets her unruly, sickly, bad-tempered cousin Philip (Colin). And, she takes an accidental trip down the body chute that had been used to remove TB victims during the building's days as a hospital, and discovers the secret garden, walled up and neglected after her uncle and Philip suffered the death of their wife and mother.

    First Roo, then Roo and Jack, and finally the threesome of Roo, Jack, and Philip bring the garden, and themselves, back to life.

    The Humming Room succeeds on all levels, and it does so, I was surprised to find, in a mere 182 pages. I was dimly aware, all the while I was reading, that this book was so much shorter than I would have guessed, yet the pace was never rushed. Beautiful language, convincing emotions, just lovely. Highly recommended.

    Thursday, May 31, 2012

    May Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of the May critique giveaway are: Barbara Watson and Ruth Schiffmann!

    Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
    • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
    • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
    • Put "Critique winner" in the subject line.
    • Deadline to submit is June 20.
    • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
    Congratulations to Barbara and Ruth, and thank you all so much for stopping by and entering. Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

    Thursday, May 24, 2012

    May Book Pick II -- Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

    As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I don't usually blurb YA unless it's on the borderline with MG. Furthermore, I usually highlight one book per month, but I'm in the happy situation of finding so many good novels lately that I might be posting on books more often, for a while at least. So here, I give you Between Shades of Gray, the 2012 SCBWI Golden Kite Award winner for fiction.

    This is one of those rare "if you read only one novel this year, let it be this one" books. It is captivating from the first line, but early on I wondered if I'd be able to continue because the story is so very painful. However, it's also compelling and beautiful, and my memories of a college professor who escaped another Baltic state (Latvia) under similar circumstances invested me further in the story.

    In 1941, sixteen-year-old Lina, her parents, and her little brother are abducted from their home in Lithuania by Russian soldiers, loaded aboard train cars (the father is separated from the others) and shipped to labor camps in Siberia during Stalin's period of "ethnic cleansing" of the annexed countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. One day, Lina is a normal teenager involved with friends, interested in boys, and passionate about her art, and the next, she is riding in a filthy, overcrowded boxcar where she'll spend miles and miles and weeks and weeks, eating little but gray gruel while many in the car sicken and die (their bodies tossed out along the route) -- and the journey to Siberia isn't even the bad part. When those who survive the trip arrive, already weak and malnourished, they are forced to farm beets in the extreme cold and snow, sleeping the few hours they're allowed to in rude cabins they themselves had to build. The story is told from Lina's point of view, alternating between the present and snippets of the past that contrast with and inform the main storyline. The supporting characters -- Mother, her brother, the boy Andrius with whom she has a prickly but growing relationship, and ones she knows only by certain traits such as "the bald man," and "the man who winds his watch" -- come to life and portray the array of possible reactions to these experiences, from defeatism and depravity to almost unbelievable kindness and determination to survive.

    That people can go through such unspeakable events, survive, and go on to live reasonably well-adjusted lives is amazing and incredibly humbling. I sincerely doubt I could or would put up the necessary fight. Part of the reason Lina does, aside from her family, is her art, and her determination to use a series of pictures to get messages to her father, imprisoned elsewhere, that will tell him where to find them when -- surely it must be when, not if -- they are finally freed.

    If Anne Frank's diary put a face on Holocaust victims for us, then Between Shades of Gray does the same on behalf of the people of the Baltic states, whose history is so similar but less known. When you pick up this book, be prepared to need to read it in as few sittings as possible, and have a box of tissues handy. My only caution is that it may be too intense for kids younger than high school age. Otherwise, I can't recommend it enough.

    Thursday, May 17, 2012

    May Critique Giveaway

    It's critique time. Enter to win!
    • I will critique TWO manuscripts. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
    • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
    • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
    • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
    • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
    • Enter now through Wednesday, May 30.
    • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
    • Winners announced Thursday, May 31.
    Let the entering begin!

    Thursday, May 10, 2012

    To Plot or Not -- Tips for Either Approach

    Most fiction writers have heard about the plotter vs. pantser debate, or, in other words, have declared themselves either outliners or not-outliners. I'm reading Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and while I wasn't surprised that he touched on this subject, I was very interested in the specific suggestions he gives for both types, whom he calls NOPs and OPs (not-outline people, and outline people). Many writers agree that either way is a fine way to work if it works for you, but while there's some awareness that operating somewhere in between is possible, I think there's less being said about what the respective processes might actually look like in action, especially for the NOPs. So here, paraphrased and annotated, are Bell's tips on how to approach writing a novel if you don't outline, and if you do.

    If you are a NOP, pantser, or non-outliner (like me, mostly):
    • Set a word quota per writing session, and do more if it's going well. You discover your plot as you go along, so let the words come. Hitting your quota, at least, helps you keep up the momentum you need to keep you in the story and make what you're writing hang together. The pantser, more than the plotter, suffers if s/he takes too much time away from the story or allows production to otherwise sputter.
    • Begin each writing session by rereading what you wrote during the one before. Yes! I always do this. Some say you shouldn't, that it's just procrastination, but I find it primes me for today's writing like nothing else. This also serves as a checkup for the pantser to keep from getting really wildly off the track.
    • Once a week, record your plot progress. What are the major scenes? Are they in a logical order? Is the main character working on solving his outer conflict? Does he or she have an emotional arc going on as well? If you do this, you can't fool yourself as to whether you really have a story.
    If you're an OP, plotter, or outliner, there are many ways to work:
    • Record scenes on index cards. The advantage is that you can shuffle them easily.
    • Outline as you go. Actually, I do this, and if it means I have to give up my pantser identity, I guess so be it. I make notes in the margins about what comes next, using comment boxes. Usually, I have enough to carry me a chapter or so ahead of where I presently am. Bell refers to this as the headlight method, after E. L. Doctorow who said one could plot the way one drives at night, seeing only as far ahead as the headlights allow.
    • Write a narrative outline, like a long synopsis, instead of a roman numeral thing.
    • Write a letter to yourself about the project, constantly asking yourself WHY as you make discoveries about it
    • Go all out: Write summaries of your three acts, then one-line descriptions of each chapter, then full summaries of each chapter.
     For me, the pantser advice is especially affirming, as is the as-you-go outlining method, which to me is still pantsing with some discipline added. :) Can you find yourself here somewhere, even in two or more categories, maybe? Do you use something he doesn't mention?

    Thursday, May 3, 2012

    May Book Pick -- Bluefish, by Pat Schmatz

    Travis, an eighth grader, has more than his share of problems. He misses his old home in the country, misses his dog Rosco, who had the softest ears imaginable, and lives in a tiny place with his alcoholic grandpa who, drunk or sober, isn't very attentive. Worst of all, he has to start at a new school, and he can't read. Kids at his old school, in fact, called him "Bluefish," after the (to Travis) stupid-looking fish on the cover of a Dr. Seuss book. But at least he knew where he stood at that school. Here, he's got to figure out how to get by all over again.

    Here, though, there's Mr. McQueen, who not only figures out that Travis can't read but also understands how to motivate and teach him. And he meets, or more accurately is met by, a funny girl with problems of her own who calls herself Velveeta and wears a different brightly colored scarf every day. They are joined by Bradley, a smart kid from a stable family who they suspect is slumming, but, slowly, they learn he is not.

    This novel gets so many things right that I'm in my usual danger of beginning to gush about a book I love. :) Travis is lovable even though he's angry and reticent. His emotional progression is completely believable; for example, I was convinced that both McQueen's attempt to motivate Travis and Travis's resistance followed by acceptance were real and right on. The story features quirky characters without tipping over into implausibility or making me feel they're quirky for the sake of quirky. The trust that Travis and Velveeta develop progresses believably, even though there is much they never tell each other, and that's believable, too.

    The choice of third-person narration in Travis's POV, with each chapter followed by a first-person snippet from Velveeta, seems perfect for this novel. As difficult as some of the issues are, there is always hope. As much as Travis and Velveeta hide things (Travis never even finds out exactly where Velveeta lives), they are always making connections. It's impossible to read this book and still be able to consider kids like Travis, Velveeta, and Bradley to be one-dimensional or stereotypes. Though this book straddles the line between upper MG and young YA, I think its usual young YA designation is very accurate. A lovely book that I highly recommend.

    Thursday, April 26, 2012

    Voice, Tone, Style? Define That!

    I'm more abstract than concrete; more intuitive than sensory. So, much of the time, I'm content to use words that I understand both abstractly and intuitively, in context rather than by dictionary definition. Sometimes, though, I should be bothered by the fact that this comes uncomfortably close to a charge that's been leveled at my temperament type in general: "Tends to believe 'I know all about that,' but when pinned down to explain and define terms, proves to not know much at all."

    So what is this thing called VOICE? It's been discussed in a myriad of places, and we may not need another, but I feel the need/desire to state in a fairly concise manner what I believe it means for me and my writing, rather than rely on others' definitions or be all head-in-the-clouds imprecise about it. So, here follows my attempt at a definition:

    VOICE (in writing): The intelligent designer, authority, or god behind the book, who speaks it into being and decides what it shall be made of. The essence and expression of one's "authorness" in the writing of it. In first-person, this voice is bestowed on and channeled through the narrator. In third person, it's expressed through the author's narrative persona.

    What's TONE, then? My definition: The conveyance of an overall mood or emotion that pervades a book or scene, such as foreboding, humor, sarcasm, warmheartedness, and so forth.

    STYLE seems broader, and I've had to give this a fair amount of thought, because I realize that the way I've defined VOICE makes it the top authority in our writing (and conflicts somewhat with other things I've thought/written about voice), yet it's a new-ish idea for me to state that style does not encompass voice. If voice is the authority, then it seems it would have to be voice that determines style.

    STYLE: The voice's expression of the prose itself, in sentence structure, meter, word choice, punctuation, and connectivity between one idea and the next (for example, a style could be smooth and fast-paced if that connectivity is strong and direct, or convoluted and more leisurely if the author takes the scenic route).

    What do you think? And how important is it that we define these terms?

    Thursday, April 19, 2012

    She Gave In? I'd've Punched Him! Or, Believable Emotions in Fiction

    A month or so ago, I posted about some ways to handle implausible story elements so that readers might find them believable. Some of the good discussion that followed kept my thoughts on this issue going. Specifically, my thoughts turned from primarily plot elements more to emotional elements. The emotional arc of the main character is so important, because whether or not readers resonate with it has everything to do with how involved they can become in the story. Yet I've read many stories in which I find myself rooting for the MC to react or respond differently than she has chosen (or than the author has written her).

    I've discovered that, in general, I am more willing to follow unbelievable (to me) emotions than events. Of course, sometimes emotions and events overlap a great deal. For example, I'll never forget the episode of Little House on the Prairie in which Mary Ingalls does not take her baby with her when she and her friend (whose name I do forget) evacuate children from a fire, instead leaving it to her friend to escape with her baby. I am so not the type to get up and scream at the TV set, but I'm pretty sure that time I did. As a young mother myself, I knew with every fiber of my being that Mary would have and should have simply taken her baby from the other woman's arms and then rounded up the rest of the kids. The only reason she didn't was because the plot called for the baby and the other woman to perish in the fire. The implausible action, supposedly fueled by the off-kilter emotion, spoiled the episode for me.

    But plenty of times, I've read books in which I part company with the MC due strictly to her emotion in a certain scene: I buy what's happening, but I would not respond/react the same way at all. I realize that has seldom been a deal-breaker for me in the same way that implausible actions can be. My response to unbelievable emotion tends to fall into one of these categories:
    • I "should" feel more like the MC does instead of the way I actually do feel. Now isn't that interesting? And there may well be some truth to this, especially when the MC is taking the high road and I'd much prefer to tell somebody where to get off.  In other words, when the MC is less angry than I.
    • Precisely because of the above, I don't give up on the story because it has aroused so much emotion. Hey, I'm even more worked up than the MC is!
    • I've parted company with the MC only in that scene, not for the whole book, so I'm still invested.
    • I figure the MC and I are different people, and I signed on to read this book so that I may walk in her experience for a time. If the MC comes alive, which she should, why would I agree with her every step of the way?
    What do you think? Do you struggle more with implausibilities in the action plot than the emotional plot, or vice-versa? Have you figured out why? Has any of it come as a surprise to you?

    Thursday, April 12, 2012

    Critiquing Can be Weird

    First of all, critiquing can be valuable! In fact, not "can be," but is. I belong to a face-to-face critique group that's been meeting for at least 16 years, maybe longer; I'm not quite sure. And I've been critiqued in other situations: conferences, one-time manuscript exchanges, even in a second crit group (online) for a short time. Besides critiquing for my long-time partners, I do a whale of a lot of critiquing as an ICL instructor, I've served on critique faculties for conferences, and I even run a fairly frequent critique contest on this blog. But, sometimes, critiquing can be weird.

    For one thing, it's so subjective. One person's "Ugh" is another person's "Couldn't put it down till 4am." A personal rule of thumb I've come up with is this: If TWO people say something is wrong at a certain spot, something is wrong at that spot. They may or may not agree on how to fix it, and you may or may not take either or both suggestions. But you have to find a way to answer the objection.

    For another thing, it's the critiques that make you feel worst at the time you receive them that often turn out to be the most helpful. I've found that it's sometimes best to put the raw, torn-to-shreds thing to bed for three days or so while you kvetch, and then take it out and look at it. By then, I usually "know that I know that I know" which parts really do need to be overhauled, and which advice I'm going to decline and why. And specific ideas for solving the problems are usually beginning to form.

    Then there's the irony that a critique group may not always help all that much. Sometimes, frankly, if all the members are newbies they are the blind leading the blind, and I know some agents advise their clients to get out of critique groups that are "holding them back." It's often best to join a group that has a mix of newer and more seasoned writers, and/or to be sure the people in the group are seriously working to improve craft, have studied and written long enough to have gained at least basic knowledge, read widely, and know something about the field in which you write.

    Here's one more thing I find a tad strange: critiquing is the process of identifying what is and isn't working in a piece of writing, and there is "always" something that can be improved. Except ---certainly there are times when writing that is actually ready to be marketed is submitted for critique. We, as critiquers, feel duty-bound to find something "wrong," but there have to be times that nothing is wrong, because the piece is in fact ready to send out. We submit our work knowing that an agent or editor will have revision notes for us, but the work is still the best we can make it at the moment, or we wouldn't send it out. Yet if we were to take that ready-to-go work to a critique group, they'd be "supposed" to find something wrong with it.

    Maybe I'm just getting silly here, or maybe I'm easily tied in knots. :) How have you found critiquing either frustrating, helpful, or both?

    Thursday, April 5, 2012

    April Book Pick -- May B, by Caroline Starr Rose

    May is being sent to help out on a neighbor's Kansas homestead, because the neighbor's new wife just isn't adjusting to life in a soddy on the prairie. It's only till Christmas, her parents assure her, but that doesn't help much. She knows that if she spends this time at the Oblingers', her parents will be paid some money plus not have to feed her. How can they pass up this chance? And they can't send her brother Hiram because "boys are important." She is not.

    May finds Mrs. Oblinger not at all amenable to learning how to manage, so she must indeed do all the work around the tiny soddy. Not only that, but she now has no time to pursue her education, and she wants nothing more than to obtain her teaching licence when she is fifteen or sixteen. That is, if she can overcome her reading difficulty, which we would identify today as dyslexia. And that seems impossible, now that nice Miss Sanders has left the school to be replaced by a teacher who considers May stupid.

    Then, the worst happens: Mrs. Oblinger leaves, her husband goes after her, and neither ever returns. Abandoned an unimaginably long fifteen miles from home with winter coming on, May must fight to survive on her own in the soddy and eventually find her way home.

    May B is a beautifully written verse novel; it allows the reader to savor the language yet enjoy a fast pace. Say what they will about historical fiction not selling -- I'll gravitate to it again and again, and I know I've got company. Also, as an aside, this book was especially interesting to me because in my historical novel The Journey of Emilie, Emilie and her brother must spend several days on their own in a log cabin during a Wisconsin blizzard. Definitely recommended.

    Thursday, March 29, 2012

    March Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of the March critique giveaway are:  Annie McMahon and Sarah Ahiers!

    Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
    • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
    • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
    • Put "Critique winner" in the subject line.
    • Deadline to submit is April 18.
    • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
    Congratulations to Annie and Sarah, and thank you all so much for stopping by and entering. Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

    Thursday, March 22, 2012

    Sort of a Book Blurb + Sort of Math = Weird Post

    March critique giveaway open through March 28! Scroll down one post.

    I usually post about MG books here, or books that ride the line between MG and YA. But that doesn't mean I don't read YA. One of my favorite authors is, in fact, the YA writer John Green. Not because I like all of his books equally well (I don't, actually), but because as far as the sheer intelligence of his writing, and his ability to convey things I thought only I thought, I can't remember when I've encountered his like. I'll at least pick up anything he writes; that is for sure.

    I recently read his newest novel, The Fault in Our Stars. And it. Is. Brilliant. This year, his (next) Printz may very well come.

    However. The book says something that makes what's left of my mathematical mind (which has languished over three or so decades) shudder: That some infinities are bigger than others. That, for example, there are more numbers (not speaking solely of integers, but of all possible rationals and irrationals) between, say, zero and a million than between zero and one.

    No, there aren't.

    And here I'd really like to diverge from any direct comment on the novel. This is really no longer about the novel. It's just the compulsion that still arises within me every now and then to speak my mathematical piece.

    No, some infinities are not bigger than others. Such a notion doesn't make sense. Between zero and one lies an infinite number of fractions and decimals, almost all of them irrational, or non-repeating decimals. 0.5039285715790432... and on and on; you get the picture. No pattern to them. This means there's always another one. And another one. And one more. And yet one more.

    For every such number, for any number at all, that lies between zero and a million, you can find one that lies between zero and one to pair with it in a one-to-one correspondence. You will never run out of numbers between zero and one, any more than you'll run out of numbers between zero and a trillion bazillion.

    And this is just one of the things that make math, and creation, amazingly cool.

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    March Critique Giveaway

    It's critique time. Enter to win!
    • I will critique TWO manuscripts. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
    • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
    • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
    • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
    • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
    • Contest extended: Enter now through Wednesday, March 28.
    • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
    • Winners announced Thursday, March 29.
    Let the entering begin!

    Thursday, March 8, 2012

    When Your Reader Says, "I Don't Believe it!"

    Plausibility is a huge consideration in fiction. We're already asking people to read something we know and they know didn't actually happen, and since they're doing so willingly, they'll suspend disbelief to a point and even accept fantasy elements. Yet, if they just can't buy the premise, or the emotional reactions, or some of the plot events, they're often pulled out of the story to the point where they can't be recaptured. I think that's because, for those readers, the story is no longer fulfilling one of the great functions of fiction: To give shape and meaning to life and help tease out truth. Life can be random; fiction cannot, or it loses value. (Just as an aside, I think another great function of fiction is to nurture compassion and a sense of connection to others.)

    There are times, though, that we use in our stories events that might make readers skeptical. Here are some ways I've found to make the implausible more plausible in fiction.
    • If your premise is too weird or far out to be believed, postpone it. Open the book with related tension --- but not the full low-down --- that keeps building while at the same time deeply investing us in the character(s). Work in any necessary knowledge or background (history or science, for example) that will be needed for the reader to buy the premise, as the tension- and character-building continue. When the far-out premise is finally revealed, readers will hopefully be so emotionally in tune with the characters (their fear will be the readers' fear, for example), and so prepared by the groundwork, that they will accept the big reveal. Examples: Unwind by Neal Shusterman; The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell.
    • An aspect of the above: Make a believer out of your MC. Then make readers believe in your MC. Or vice-versa. This will help readers believe what the MC believes.
    • At the same time, try making one character a disbeliever. Let that character voice all the objections to the implausible aspect that you'd expect readers to voice. Readers feel a lot better when they know you know something's fishy, and will often cut you some slack if a character is saying the things they wish they could say. Then let other characters either prove the disbeliever wrong, admit he might be right, or take his objections into account when planning the next action. I think it was children's author Sid Fleischman who said, "If you can't cut the implausible element, point to it."
    • To make a villain believably scary, make sure he holds a valid point. If he's right in some way, that's scary. Also identify something good about him. Does he love his mom? Make him human. Is he a gifted musician? Make him normal. Does he love ice cream and forget to empty his pockets before he washes his jeans? Reveal some background that creates sympathy for him. The abusive man in Kathi Appelt's The Underneath broke my heart because of how he'd been treated as a little boy.
    • If you're using an unlikely event in your story, list as many reason as you can why such a thing could not happen. Then look at each obstacle in turn, and work out at least one reason why this obstacle will not prevent the event. 
    Have you had to "sell" an implausible aspect of a story? How did you do it?

    Thursday, March 1, 2012

    March Book Pick -- The Aviary, by Kathleen O'Dell

    Twelve-year-old Clara Dooley has lived her whole life in the crumbling Glendoveer mansion. There, her mother is one of two servants to the kind, widowed, and aged Mrs. Glendoveer. Clara's mother, though a genuinely caring parent, forbids her to leave the mansion because her constitution is supposedly delicate due to a heart condition. It's not a bad life, and Clara adores Mrs. Glendoveer, but she does long for a friend, and the five distinctly different birds who live in the aviary out back, squawking as they do whenever Clara comes within eyeshot, are a tad creepy.

    Mrs. Glendoveer has not had an easy life, and when she passes away Clara discovers that the Glendoveer family harbors many secrets -- which her mother seems to know all about but will not share. What Clara does learn is that Mrs. Glendoveer, as a young girl from a prominent family, had fallen head over heels for George Glendoveer, a famous magician, and been disowned by her family when they married. Worse, the Glendoveers suffered an unspeakable tragedy when their children were kidnapped, drowned under mysterious circumstances, and George Glendoveer was blamed. It's when she suspects the birds are more than mere birds (isn't the mynah shouting the name Elliott, the name of the youngest child?), secretly makes a friend with whom to partner, and longs to break free of her identity as the invalid shut-in that Clara plunges into a decades-old murder mystery.

    For me, this book pushes a ton of good buttons. It's historical mystery, literary writing yet with a definite plot, one of those "sink down into it" stories. Just as some contemporary stories have a timeless feel, so does this historical novel, and that "timeless classic" tone is a huge favorite with me. The friendship between Clara and Daphne is dear, and there's a good amount of pranking and humor as the girls turn the tables on the bad guys.

    There's just one thing: I figured out the big reveal, which comes somewhere around pp. 150-160 if memory serves, on p. 3. Occupational hazard, probably. But this did not stop me from reading the whole book, as I was already well hooked. Highly recommended.

    Thursday, February 23, 2012

    The Horizontal and Vertical of Writing

    Here's something I like about writing: It's not like running in the rat race as much as it's like finding your own little plot to till. It's not like climbing a career ladder as much as it's like being an artisan-entrepreneur, crafting and selling your own wares. Writing isn't about staying above the people on the lower rungs and hoping to surpass or knock off the people on the higher rungs---and I think the generosity among writers, especially children's writers, bears that out. Writing is about finding your place in the field of endeavor. About joining the guild. I don't know about you, but ever since high school graduation, when age stopped determining pecking order, I've wanted less of hierarchy and more of people simply finding their places and filling them. If you're at all familiar with 1 Corinthians 12, that's pretty much what I mean.

    Some hierarchy is necessary, of course; we need authority at times, and need to respect it. As writers, we may place ourselves under teachers for a period of training, and we cooperate with and often submit to editors who help us make our work better. But generally, a ladder, race, or stair-step model doesn't really work for writing, or probably for any art. The only constant vertical relationship I have as a writer is with God. The rest is all horizontal. I work beside others, and share the journey with them, but while I work I'm not thinking about whom I can beat out or who's going to climb higher than I. I just try to write the stories I'm given to write, and learn as much as I can about achieving excellence in craft and marketing.

    In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield touches on this topic and asks this question: If you were the last person on Earth, would you still be pursuing your activity? If the answer is no, he maintains, then that pursuit is not really your territory. You were doing it mainly to impress people, and now there's no one left. But if you'd still be doing it despite being the last person on Earth, because you were made to do it, then that pursuit is your territory.

    I read a book by a man who told of his mother's lifelong heart's desire: to be a dancer. "Life got in the way," as we often say, and though she had a full and successful life in other ways, she never seriously pursued dancing. But after the woman entered a nursing home, grew very frail, and became more and more affected by dementia, her son found that whenever she had even a moment's chance to step out of her wheelchair, she would try to dance. She really couldn't do anything anymore, didn't even know her family members some of the time. She was, in a way, the last person on her Earth. And what did she do? She danced.

    If I were the last person on Earth, I'd want a Bible, some books, a pad of paper, and a pen. And I'd pray, sing, read...and write. How about you?