Thursday, December 19, 2013

Merry Christmas

I love the "reality" of this picture. There are many lovely nativity scenes, but some of them, frankly, strike me as quite staged and over-religious. I think this picture, with Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus alone, and only God sharing their moment, is probably closer to the real nativity.

I will see you again in this space on January 2, 2014. I wish you all a holiday season filled with joy, celebration, family, friends, and reality -- not reality in its grittiness or grimness, but in its wonder and splendor, its love and peace. Blessings ~~

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Hint of a Playlist, and a Scary Idea

A playlist for a novel? Me? Nuh-uh. I've always written in silence. I may or may not be the mother of a kid who did his homework in front of the TV and protested that he needed two things going on at once, but for me, the background never stays in the background. It ends up becoming the foreground...which may make me the one who can't stay on task. Anyway.

I also think playlists are way more common among YA than MG writers, and I am MG. That is, until last week I got this completely impossible dangerous scary idea for a YA. I mean so impossibly dangerously scary that I may not ever write it. (And for now, I won't; I have to finish the one I'm on.) But it has a few notes jotted on its behalf, and now it may even have a song. The song came to my mind totally unbidden a few nights ago, and I seemed to "know" it was for this idea. Uh-oh.

So, before I leave you with Dan Fogelberg, I pose a discussion question: Do you think playlists are mainly/only a YA thing, and if you use them, by what process do songs "make the list"? Do you go looking for them, or do they just come?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo

It's hard to know where to begin with this one. Flora and Ulysses is a MG story that's part "regular" text and part graphic novel; part light and part serious; part fantasy and part realistic. It's funny and original.

It all begins the way superhero tales normally do: a freak accident endows somebody with superpowers. In this case, "somebody" is a squirrel who gets vacuumed up by an ultra-powerful vacuum cleaner, the Ulysses 2000X, and when resuscitated by the main character, Flora, has become a squirrel that has can lift large objects, understand English, and write poetry. Flora believes it's her mission to help the squirrel, whom she names Ulysses, to fulfill his destiny and vanquish his arch-nemesis. But what if his arch-nemesis turns out to be Flora's mother?

This book is filled with quirky characters, including Flora, who is a self-described cynic (which we learn is how she deals with the pain of her parents' divorce), both her parents, the neighbor lady who received the vacuum as a birthday gift from her husband, and the great-nephew she watches, a boy Flora's age who is temporarily blind due to family trauma of his own. Quirky isn't normally my taste, really, and you have to suspend disbelief to accept this many characters who are this quirky in one small geographical area (and two kids, ages ten and eleven, who can use such big words), but the good writing and the charm and the humor and the underlying poignancy drew me in and held me fast. You just might have to be Kate DiCamillo to pull this off, and she does. Recommended.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

A very happy Thanksgiving to all of my American friends. May your lives be filled with joy, gratitude, health, family and friends, and abundant blessings ~~ Marcia

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff

In this MG magical realism tale, most everybody has a Talent. It might be something useful and endearing, like Cady's talent, which is being able to look at a person and know what his or her perfect cake is, and then perfectly bake that cake. It might be something odd, like the ability to lick a hundred envelopes in eight seconds, or quite in keeping with what's expected of a boy who considers himself worthless, such as spitting with the accuracy of a sharp-shooter. Then there are those who don't have a talent, or haven't found it, who are called Fair, such as Marigold, who spends all her time trying one harebrained scheme after another in an attempt to find her Talent.

The book is itself a tangle of knots, and hard to summarize. It's about connections. It's about near-misses, and in that way reminds me of Lynne Rae Perkins's Criss-Cross. It's about a lot of disparate people and puzzle pieces coming together in the end, and in that way it reminds me of The Westing Game. I also think of it a bit as "The Penderwicks meets Savvy."

I saw a fair number of the plot twists coming; ditto which characters would turn out to be related and how. There are a lot of POV shifts, and at one point near the middle of the book I felt like I'd had one too many. But I cared about Cady, Zane, Marigold, and others, and wanted to find out how a dinosaur bone, a lost peanut butter recipe, a hot air balloon, an author who'd lost all verbal ability, a man in a gray suit with knots in his pockets, a place called The Lost Luggage Emporium, and more, would all come together. This novel, which is up for the National Book Award, is a fascinating puzzle that shows how a lot of different people and separate stories can converge at one moment in time.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Zero Tolerance, by Claudia Mills

Wow, this is such an innocent-looking contemporary MG novel, yet it pushed a lot of buttons for me. Seventh-grader Sierra is one of those "perfect kids." She's in Leadership Club, sings in the school's elite eight-member a cappella choir, has gotten only one grade ever that was below an A, and makes goal lists for herself that include: "Read a book a week," and "Speak up more in class." Then one day, she brings the wrong bag lunch to school. Instead of her own, she has her mother's, and her mother's contains an apple -- and a paring knife to cut it with. When that knife clatters out of the bag onto the cafeteria table, Sierra looks at it as if it's "a coiled serpent," as any of us would look at any knife that showed up in middle school. "Just put it back in your lunch bag," says one of her friends. "No one's seen it but us."

But Sierra doesn't do that. She's always been the kind of kid that teachers and principals adore; she's never had any reason not to trust the system. So she immediately brings the knife to the lunch supervisor, who turns her into the office, where, under the school's zero-tolerance policy, she receives in-school suspension and an appointment for an expulsion hearing. Effective immediately, no Leadership Club, no choir competition on Saturday, no Mayan history project, no way to stay caught up in her classes. No more life as she's known it.

For a mistake. Not an "I made a bad choice" mistake. She simply picked up her lunch bag from the kitchen counter, as she'd done every morning, and came to school. She had done nothing wrong. In fact, it was her mother who had taken the wrong lunch and left for work earlier, so Sierra wasn't even in a situation where she should have checked two lunch bags to make sure she had the right one.

This book took me straight back to childhood. I was also a "perfect kid teacher's pet," yet after the rare scrape or two I learned several things: (1) You cannot afford a mistake, ever. (2) If any authority figure in a school feels disappointed by you -- in other words, they no longer have you to make them feel successful in their jobs and be a bright spot in their day -- they will turn on you in a flash. (3) You will be punished for honesty. (4) When you are "the perfect kid" you have nowhere to go but down, and if you fall you will fall twice as hard and twice as fast as any other kid. I wanted Sierra to put the knife back in her bag, but of course she could not, and not only because if she had there'd have been no story. It was that she was still a system-innocent. She had no idea it could betray her.

I enjoyed Sierra's parents, and their close-knit family. Her father is a hot-shot lawyer who "always wins" and doesn't really respect his wife, but I got a kick out of him and cheered him on, perhaps because in my day parents did not take up for their children against the schools. The first thing he does is call the media, and the story of the honor student facing expulsion over an innocent lunch bag mistake ends up on national TV. Sierra must report to in-school suspension every day, and in a scenario not unlike The Breakfast Club gets to know the bad kids, especially the baddest of the bad, Luke Bishop, at the same time she is losing some of her perfect, surface-level friends. When Sierra gets an idea to actually do something wrong, I understand her emotionally. People live up to or down to what we think of them; if you're accused of being bad, you will eventually think of yourself as bad, and then it's a short step to doing something bad. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."

The ending is realistic in that Sierra isn't totally judgment-free by that point, yet we absolutely believe that from now on she will be much more open to different kinds of people and different ways of life than she would have been had she not gone through this experience.

I have learned, at this point, that you do the right thing because it's the right thing, and you have to trust God to help you through the consequences, because you cannot trust that the world will treat you right. I'd like to think that Sierra will come this far, too. And, for me, a concern lingers for the Luke Bishops of the world: We want Sierra to have gotten off, because she was a good kid who made virtually the most innocent mistake possible. But suppose Luke, who had a history of trouble, had made the identical innocent mistake? Would anyone, especially the Sierras of the world, cut him a break even though he were innocent? The answer, "Not likely," is disturbing. An excellent MG read, full of ideas and issues to be discussed.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The (Invisible) Liebster Award

Thank you to Julie Whelan at The Paper Wait for giving me the Liebster Award! I'd post the picture, but it's being shy about showing up for me. This award is simply a fun shout-out from one blog to another, and like most such awards, has a list of questions to go with it! As I tend to enjoy interviews of all types, I'll gladly play. Here are the (possibly edited) questions Julie posed:

1. Where is your favorite place to write? In my basement dungeon garret bunker office, no question. If I tried to spend that many hours not in my proper chair not using my desktop (which I consider my real) computer, my chiropractor would really have his work cut out for him. Also, it's cozy and not distracting down here. If I had people around me or a window to look out of, that wouldn't be good.

2. What's the worst advice you've ever received? I read this in The Writer eleventy-fourteen years ago when I started writing: Writers should not have a day job, because they won't really pour themselves into their writing if they have a job to fall back on. Whew. Follow that at your own risk.

3. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A writer. Yes, at times I gave other answers to this question, but that was only to look good/normal. The only career desire I ever had that was not a passing fancy was to be a writer. Ha, which means that advice up in #2 looked pretty good to me. The answer other than writing that I probably should have given is "Librarian." But it took me decades to figure that out, and, really, everything has turned out fine.

4. What's your favorite book(s)? Oh, my goodness, the great unanswerable. Let me give you the most recent: Splendors and Glooms, Wonder, Masterpiece, The Penderwicks (all), anything by Gary Schmidt, Richard Peck, Kate DiCamillo, or Ruta Sepetys, When You Reach Me, Marcelo in the Real World, The One and Only Ivan, and that which must be marathon-reread on an annual basis, Harry Potter.

5. What's in your TBR pile? Story Physics, by Larry Brooks. A Dog Called Homeless, The Real Boy, W is for Wasted, The Cuckoo's Calling. That is a very short list for me, and it'll get a lot longer before it gets shorter.

6. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? (a) right here in Wisconsin's Fox River Valley, (b) I could be happy along the Milwaukee-Madison corridor too, especially near water, (c) wherever my family is.

7. What distracts you most from writing? The internet.

8. What is your biggest source of inspiration? An amalgamation of remembered childhood emotions, family stories, and prayer/scripture.

9. Why do you blog? Because I enjoy it, it's an outlet for writing other than my fiction, and it's a way to make friends with like-minded folk. And I get to think in public. :)

10. If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? England. Castles, cottages, and villages with gardens. Also Israel. But in my heart of hearts, I'm a homebody.

I know that a lot of people have gotten this award already. I, for one, love to read these little insights into people, so anyone who feels so inclined, please consider yourselves tagged. :)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Boy on the Porch, by Sharon Creech

This is a book that cuts to the heart of what a novel is about: an emotional journey. With not a lot of description, not a lot of plot, and an unspecified time period, The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech kept me turning pages as I wondered what would become of John and Marta, the young-ish married couple who seem to feel parenthood might be beyond their ken, and Jacob, the mute boy they find asleep on their porch one day, accompanied by nothing except a tragically illiterate note giving his name and saying "Wil be bak wen we can."

Unable to speak, Jacob soon shows artistic and musical talent, romps with the dog, rides the cow, and plays harmonica for the goats. John and Marta nervously assure each other that someone will be back for him, while at the same time they ease their way into parenthood and soon realize they will be crushed if anyone does return for him. Mistrusting the local sheriff but trying to do the right thing, John eventually works up his courage to visit the lawman's office and report that they have the boy. Though John is accused of having snatched him, this visit bring the sheriff out to their small farm, and when he sees that the boy is well cared for, he allows him to stay. John and Marta help Jacob make a friend, take him on walks, take him apple picking, and when they discover the abandoned trailer Jacob lived in, they consider selling all and moving away where no one will know them. And then comes the day the old car drives into their yard. Jacob's father is back. What happens next opens an entirely new world both for John and Marta, and for many others as well.

If I had to sum up the central point, I'd say it's that you can never be sure what can drop into your life, at any moment, even if you think you know exactly how it'll unfold, and even if you think it's sleepy and unnoted. You can never know for sure what small event, that you didn't ask for, might lead to a completely different path. And you can never know for sure that this won't be the day that love will knock you completely off your feet.

This novel alternates between two adult POVs -- John's and Marta's, and, though I'm very taken with it, it's the kind of book that makes you wonder if only a big name could get it published. The Boy on the Porch can appeal to all ages, although kids who want more action or don't care about adult POVs might find little to hold them. For others, the chance to gain insight into parents, or explore a feeling of being peers with adults due to ID-ing with the POVs, might be welcome.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

After Iris, by Natasha Farrant

Blue (Bluebell) Gadsby's twin, Iris, died three years ago, at age nine, and the lives of this entire British family have never quite recovered. The oldest, Flora, dyes her hair weird colors and takes up with the boy next door; the two younger ones, Twig and Jasmine, are all about their pet rats. Both parents have dived headfirst into their careers and are never home -- literally. Dad is living 100 miles away and from all appearances seems to be getting ready to make it permanent. Mom jets to major cities the world over, working as a bigwig for a cosmetics company. Their place is taken by a young man named Zoran, a Bosnian piano prodigy turned au pair, who tries mightily to cope.

The emotions drive this book, so it seems quiet at times, but we know the characters are moving toward a place where they must either recover or crash and burn. Blue handles life by viewing it through a video camera, and the moment she finally explains why is one of my favorites in the book:  "Outside the camera, there are no limits...more cities and prairies and mountains and cars, and they're all places and people you don't know but which exist anyway. Inside the camera, the world is limited to what you can see through the viewfinder. If you don't like it, you can change it. Or, with the flick of a button, you can switch it off. You just say goodbye, world. Time to go. Like dying, but not quite so final." Though Blue feels she is the only one of her family who properly remembers Iris, she gradually learns that her younger siblings are grief-stricken at remembering so little, and that Flora has been trying to escape and find little happinesses wherever she can precisely because she remembers so very keenly. The same is true of the parents, which fortunately creates some sympathy for them. Really, I spent most of the book wanting to give them a good swift kick, for they truly are neglectful. I cheered when Zoran, the odd caretaker with whom the kids get off to a bumpy start but later come to love, stands up for himself and tells the adults that with all due respect, he is not the parent.

The anniversary of Iris's death is Christmas Eve, and as December approaches, it appears Christmas will be a complete washout this year. One morning, Blue wakes up and the younger two are gone; after a frantic search in two feet of new snow it becomes apparent that Twig and Jas have set off on a train to go get Father and bring him home. In chaotic and improbable fashion, the entire family arrives home for Christmas, and though everything isn't tied up in a perfect bow, we are given to understand that the family will live together from now on. As I said, there were plenty of times I wanted to shake both parents, and I didn't find Mum's sudden declaration that she was going to quit her job completely convincing. But the ending is warm and satisfying without being over-emotional. This book takes a not-all-that-original premise and plot and proves once again that the characters and the writing can win the day. Recommended.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Which I Go Outside

Last week, a friend and I took a day and visited some points on the Niagara Escarpment, which runs through portions of Wisconsin. These photos were taken in the general area of Green Bay, which is half an hour north of us. (Yes, we have more than football and cheese!) They are her photos, since my camera mysteriously stopped working after about three shots but then was fine after I got home. She's by far the better photographer, so I could joke that I just wanted *her* pictures -- except my camera really did get wonky, and she'd've sent me the photos anyway. The fall colors are really just beginning, and the waterfall wasn't more than a trickle, but there was enough rain this year that it wasn't dry, and we could still hear it. The cliffs and rock layers are something to marvel at.

Have you been able to get outside this fall?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Parched, by Melanie Crowder

Oh, my goodness, this book is all about the writing. Beautiful, poetic, spare, and evocative, it achieves its effect with strong verbs, concrete nouns, and abundant sensory detail. I can seldom read a book just for the writing; I need a story. But in Melanie Crowder's Parched, you can linger over so many sentences just for the sake of lingering. "A drop of sweat slid down the ridges of his bare spine." Can't you just feel that? "The city streets were clogged with rusted-out cars stripped of their tires and tilting at odd angles." Can't you just see that? In this book, you savor the words the way the characters savor a single drop of water.

And there is a story. This upper-MG literary novel is told from three POVs --a boy, a girl, and a dog -- and takes place in a land that might be Africa, might be the US, might be now, might be future. The setting is specifically drawn yet unnamed, and I find that so suited to the subject matter. Because this is a book about a land without fresh water, and to that problem no land is immune. Sarel is the girl who witnesses her parents' murder because her family had a hidden well. Musa is the boy with a gift for dowsing, who has escaped the gang that kidnapped him. Nandi is Sarel's dog, whose narrative opens and closes the book, and that dog's voice had me in four short sentences. These three must find water or die trying. And the relentless thirst, the feel of their throats, the caked dirt they have no hope of washing off, makes you feel like you're there with them.

At times, the book is almost too grim to bear (the fact that it's short helps). For that reason, I think upper MG definitely fits, although I don't consider it YA (as some have called it, and as my public library system has labeled it), and very sensitive kids might be better off waiting a while. For most anyone else, I would recommend picking up this stunning book and giving it a try.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Maps and Charts and Timelines -- Oh, My

I'm not a huge plot outliner, but I do make quite a few character and backstory notes, floor plans, sketches of important settings, musings on themes, a title-brainstorming section, and so forth, and keep them all in a sort of "bible" for each novel. And, yes, even some plot notes. :) On my office wall there's still a 5' timeline and a 2'x1.5' character chart from my finished book, and they'll stay there till I know not a single word more in that novel will be changed.

I do all this because I need the characters and their relationships and emotional states and backstory to feel like they're on a firm foundation (and mistake-proof) before I send them pantsing through the plot. This can mean different kinds of sketches for different books, and for my new WIP I need a serious timeline to keep me from just sitting here like a lump, tied in knots, head spinning. This could easily end up being twice as long as the one already on the wall, so here's what I came up with:
Yeah, it's still a little long. :) This timeline is vertical, though, covering four sheets of paper which are then taped end to end. This way, I can take advantage of vertical and horizontal and not end up with something hopelessly unwieldy. I can also see both the whole and the parts better if it's not so long and skinny. Besides, who's got any wall space left?

For this book, more than for any I've yet done, I also need a family tree. Everybody is everybody's else's cousin in this town, and certain villains may or may not be related to certain heroes, so I need to keep them straight:
Yep, we've got a bit of history going on here. I was going to copy this over nicely, but decided not to waste time on that. I can read it, and I rather like my little sketch. Besides, it'll make a nice artifact among my personal papers someday.   Oh, and if perchance you can make out "Wolf dad" and "Wolf mom" at the top of the page -- no, we are not talking werewolves here. :)

And then we also need, yes, a PLOT chart. This is a 11x17 sheet divided into four quadrants (one each for the beginning and end, and two for the middle) where every scene gets recorded -- a few key ones before they're written, but my inner 7th-grader writes *almost* all of them first and puts them in the outline after. The outline, then, happens concurrently with the first draft.
Okay, not the best photo in the world, especially taken on lavender paper in my basement dungeon office, but still gives a general feel for the chart. And now you can see just how much of the first quadrant I had done when I wrote this post: not that much. But as you read this, it is several weeks later. So I am now much farther. Really I am.

Do you use tools like this? What kind? Do tell.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sweet Talk

My wonderful, sweet (despite what she says) friend Vijaya gave me a "sweet award," and as I'm somewhat drawn to questionnaires and interviews and such (ha, probably for the same reason teen girls like quizzes), I'll play. And the rules are easy! Answer the following five questions having to do with sweets and then nominate five more bloggers. Okay, well, I usually have a problem finding people who haven't already played these things, so we'll just see how I fare with the second requirement. Anyway:

1. Cookies or Cake? No, no, no. The question is pie or ice cream, to which the answer is:
What? Instructions? I should follow? Okay. Cookies. I love a good chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin, Oreos, graham crackers with frosting on them, and I'd say probably the best basic all-around ice cream flavor is cookies and cream, closely followed by cookie dough.

2. Chocolate or Vanilla? Chocolate. Dark. But pure vanilla is also wonderful. And caramel. Good caramel is heavenly.

3. Favorite Sweet Treat? What? I have to draw you a picture?
4. When do you crave sweet things the most? Probably anytime from lunch onward is fair game.
5. Sweet Nickname? When I was a child, my best friend's dad called me Marshmallow.
Five bloggers to pass the sweets to. Okay, I'm gonna give this my best shot. Of course, feel free to play or not, as you choose.
And now, if you'll all excuse me, there's something in the freezer calling my name...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Quoth the Writer

In this quote round-up, instead of giving quotes from many different writers, I'm going to quote a few favorites more at length. Hope you enjoy these:

From Lucy Maud Montgomery --
  • I am simply a 'book drunkard.' Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.
  • Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.
  • I am very careful to be shallow and conventional where depth and originality are wasted.
  • Truth exists, only lies have to be invented.
  • Don't you know that it is only the very foolish folk who talk sense all the time?
From Madeleine L'Engle --
  • Some things have to be believed to be seen.
  • Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it. 
  • You can't be a writer if you're not a reader.
  • Creative scientists and saints expect revelation and do not fear it. Neither do children.
  • It takes too much energy to be against something unless it's really important.
From Louisa May Alcott --
  • She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.
  • The power of finding beauty in the humblest things makes home happy and life lovely.
  • Love is a great beautifier.
  • Strong convictions precede great actions.
  • Some books are so familiar that reading them is like being home again. 
Which of these do you like best? Do you have a current favorite quote?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Boy who Loved Math, by Deborah Heiligman

Now, I don't normally profile picture books on this blog, but this is about math, people! As soon as I heard the title, I knew I'd have to read it.

I love everything about The Boy who Loved Math, starting with the fact that Deborah Heiligman thought the life of mathematician Paul Erdos (born in 1913) was an important, and doable, subject for a PB biography. (I'm not able to reproduce the characters properly here, but this is a Hungarian name pronounced AIR-dish.) I love that though she could have portrayed him as a downright misfit, she portrays him as a joyous soul who creates a life for himself that works. This is a man who, as a four-year-old boy, could ask you your birthdate and instantly calculate how many seconds you've been alive, but who literally did not learn to butter his own bread till he was an adult.

I love this look into the fascinating mind of a genius, who flew all over the world meeting with other mathematicians and proving theorems, stayed in their homes, played with their "epsilons" (their kids, so called because in higher math epsilon represents a very small quantity), laid the groundwork for today's computers and search engines, gave money to the poor, endeared himself to many as "Uncle Paul" -- and yet couldn't drive a car or keep house for himself, and thought the way to open a juice carton was to stab it with a knife. (As one who is near-hopeless at opening many sorts of containers, I feel a weird, slightly scary identity with this.) I love the artwork by LeUyen Pham, who has built all kinds of math into her portrayal of early-20th-century Budapest. I love the author and illustrator notes that explain their research and give further information on Erdos's life. I love that when Paul Erdos passed away (in 1996), it was at a math meeting. I love that Paul imagined there was a book in which God kept all the most elegant proofs.

This book is outstanding for encouraging an early positive opinion of math in children. For more on Paul Erdos, adults might be interested in The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman, and Bruce Schechter's My Brain is Open, which title is taken from the phrase Erdos used when announcing to colleagues, at any hour of the day or night, that he was ready to do math. Readable and delightful.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The BIGGEST Writing Mistake(s)

You've probably heard people discuss "the biggest mistakes writers make," or even "THE biggest mistake (singular) writers make." Maybe you've heard some of the following named as that big/biggest mistake, and I think they do all vie for the position.
  • The biggest mistake writers make is not knowing what a story is. I run into a lot of beginning writers who think an incident is a story. Or that an idea is a story. Or that, even, the plot is the story, which sounds truer, but I would say this: the story is the character growth. It's how the MC changes as a person after she's taken her goal or desire, battled all the odds (gone through the plot), and arrived at win, lose, or draw. At any rate, a story is more than "This happened, then this, and then this; the end," even if the sequence of events is amusing or really happened.
  • The biggest mistake writers make is not realizing it's about the writing. As a teacher, I see good stories paired with so-so or outright weak writing WAY more often than I see wonderful writing and a weak story. In fact, I can't think of when I've run into the latter. I've found that top-notch writers will have a good story, too, maybe because their excellent writing helps make their story great. But merely having a good story predicts nothing about the level of writing.
  • The biggest mistake writers make is not persevering. On the surface, this one almost needs no commentary. Most beginners have no idea how much work and time they're signing on for, either to learn the craft or to get published, and they have to slog through both. Honestly, though, I think some should quit. There's no shame in giving it a try and deciding it's not for you. That's true in any pursuit; why not also in writing? Yes, writers make a "mistake" in quitting too soon when they otherwise might have made it, but I think most writers who remain writers and really are writers simply cannot quit. In a sense, they cannot but persevere, so I look slightly askance at this "biggest mistake" claim.
  • The biggest mistake writers make is not writing. No doubt: this is a biggie. Writing requires, wait for it...actual writing. If everything else in your life comes first, and you want to make significant progress as a writer, you need to switch things up and give writing a high priority in your life. My opinion is that it needs to be no lower than 4th, assuming the first three are God, family, and day job. I've said this elsewhere, but "God" is not equivalent to "church work." "Family" is not equivalent to "satisfying their every whim." And this does mean housecleaning and all that other good stuff rank from fifth place on down.
  • This one might be my favorite, and it partly stems from the one just above: The biggest mistake writers make is to consider writing "something I do for me" instead of "career development like any other." Yes, I believe the biggest mistake is a wrong mindset. If you want to write and publish as a career, you can't think like a hobbyist. Agents and publishers don't take on hobbyists. You have to be as serious about your writing as your next-door neighbor is about getting her nursing degree. The Bible says that as we think, so are we. So I want to think right.
What do you think about these? What mistake(s) do you think are a writer's biggest?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Dogs of Winter, by Bobbie Pyron

When Bobbie Pyron's MG contemporary, A Dog's Way Home came out (well, sometime after it came out, to be precise), I talked about it here. Two weeks later, I had the great opportunity to interview Bobbie, here. This is Bobbie's latest MG novel, again about kids and dogs, The Dogs of Winter.

This book is fascinating on so many levels. First, it's based on a true story. It's not just that a five-year-old boy surviving Moscow winters (more than one of them) alone with a pack of dogs is riveting in itself. It's that, following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, thousands of children were in this boy's shoes. Government support was suddenly gone, and children ranging in age from toddlers to teens lived on the streets, stealing, begging, smoking, drinking, forming gangs and worse, all in an often futile effort to survive and/or avoid what they saw as incarceration in orphanages. The book is also fascinating because of the effect of the dogs. Though this book cannot be called light, or even humorous in any way, the dogs definitely lift some of the bleakness.

Five-year-old Ivan, who remembers being called the pet name "Mishka" by his mother, is desperate to avoid capture, because he is sure his mother is looking for him and will not find him in such a place. Innocent and even na├»ve at first, he slowly realizes that his mother is not going to return, and worse, that that bloodstain he'd found in the apartment they'd shared with an abusive man likely means she is no longer alive. Tired of being battered, taunted, and forced to beg and turn over the money to an older child, one night he sleeps under a bench in the subway over a heat vent. He awakens and finds a dog next to him. Ivan quickly learns that the dogs share food with each other, unlike the people. When he hides some of the money he gets from begging and buys food for the pack of dogs, he not only earns their friendship, but they welcome him into the pack.

They live in dens, ride trains, forage for food, and in general use their wits and their bond to stay alive, one day at a time. While always remaining in Ivan's POV, we also come to realize that through the eyes of other people he is turning into a "dog boy." He communicates as the dogs do, in growls and barks, though he has not forgotten language entirely. As much as we root for Ivan, we know that a boy cannot continue to live with dogs. We also realize that if he had, we wouldn't know his story. I don't think it's that much of a spoiler if I give away that, yes, he doesn't stay with the dogs permanently.

If you need an example of a MG novel in which the MC is much younger than the readership age, this is one. While at times I think Ivan is unbelievably mature for five, this is in part countered by the fact that he's narrating the story at an older (though indefinite) age. And, of course, by the fact that this is, in its basic aspects, a true story.

NOT just for dog-lovers, The Dogs of Winter is recommended for readers MG and older who will not be overly sensitive to or disturbed by the harsh conditions.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Interview with Angelina/Ace Hansen

So who is this little green guy? Well, I have it on good authority that this is Ace Hansen, and Ace has a funny MG novel out from MuseItUp Publishing called Julius Caesar Brown and the Green Gas Mystery! Yes, as you may surmise, Ace does have an alter-ego, and she is Angelina Hansen of the blog yascribe.
MH: First of all, Angelina (or should I say Ace?:)) congratulations on the release of your book. Humorous MG mystery written by an alien is quite different from your literary historical YA that I've had the pleasure of reading. Is this a new direction for you, or do you naturally have a wide range?
AH: I'm a neophiliac, which means I'm addicted to change, which means every project is completely unlike the last.

MH: So you DO have a wide range. Awesome! Do you view your MG writing as quite different from your YA writing, in general? How do you see Angelina's work vs. Ace's work?

AH: Most wouldn't believe the same person wrote both my YA and MG. That's why I use a pseudonym for the MG. Angelina's work is serious, bent toward the literary. Ace's work is outrageously funny.

MH: What was your inspiration for this story?

AH: A breath-mint commercial.

MH: LOL! A story's initial spark can be such a surprise, can't it? All it has to do is get our "what if?" thoughts working and we can go off in any direction! Is the book based on your childhood memories of being surrounded by boys? Did you set out to write a boy-friendly book?

AH:  Not really, but being surrounded by boys sure did give me a wacky sense of humor. I wrote this book for fun. Along the way, I discovered there's an 11-year-old boy inside of me.

MH: How long did the book take you to write? Was there a difference in this from your more literary (and more researched) work?

AH: This book was the fastest I ever wrote. Three months to draft it and there wasn't a whole lot of major revision to do.

MH: I'd love to know how JCB got his name. What significance does his name have? What impact on him?

AH: I'll let Julius explain it in his own words, taken as an excerpt from the first chapter:

Parents should think before naming their kids.

Before I was born, my parents got married and spent their honeymoon in this Italian city called Rome. Mom loved the story of how she stood in that giant stadium, the Coliseum, and decided if she ever had sons, she'd name them after those dead Roman ruler dudes, the Caesars. A year later, her first little Caesar arrived. Me. Julius Caesar Brown.

I stuffed my test into my backpack and waited for the bell to ring, cursing my mother. Why couldn't she have just named me John or David or Mike? 

MH: I've always thought parents should think before naming their kids, so he's got my sympathy. :) Ace/Angelina, where can readers get Julius Caesar Brown and the Green Gas Mystery?

AH: From the publisher, MuseItUp Publishing. The ebook is available as of July 12, 2013. The print book will be available before December 2013. It is also available on amazon.

MH: Can you give us any hints on WIPs?

AH: A time travel set in the Southwest. ^_^

MH: Will JCB solve more mysteries?

AH: He might! 

Congratulations again, Angelina/Ace, and I'm sure MGers looking for uproarious, kid-friendly stories will thank you! 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Start Your Novel, by Darcy Pattison

Start Your Novel is the newest writing book by author, teacher, mentor, and speaker Darcy Pattison. If we've been writing for very long, or querying or submitting our work, we've learned the importance of a novel's beginning. When we send sample material, what does the agent or editor want to see? The beginning. Apply for an SCBWI grant and what must you send? The beginning. Include  pages for critique along with a conference or workshop registration, and what do they want? The beginning. Enter a contest, and what do they ask for? The very beginning! And what does a potential book buyer skim before deciding whether or not to plunk their money down? Yup...the beginning. It's no wonder that the beginning of your book can make or break your chances of getting the kind of attention that can lead to agent rep or a book contract. An entire book that guides you through planning, writing, and revising your beginning is a big help indeed.

Darcy Pattison divides her subject matter into six steps:
  • Clarify your idea
  • Review your skills
  • Plan the opening chapter
  • Plan the opening line
  • Now, write!
  • Revise
Even if you've already sat down and written your first chapter by the seat of your pants, Pattison's steps can help you revise it, and revise it again, until it's just right.

I think the material on backstory and flashbacks is especially valuable. My favorite quote from the book is this: "You put the backstory at the point where it impacts the emotional weight of the story." That is right on! The author presents practical techniques for writing flashbacks, but just as important is the discussion of the wheres and whys of flashbacks. She says, "Why include this flashback? It must up the stakes, provide motivation, increase the emotional tension; it must relate to the current novel in a vital way. If it doesn't do this, if it's just there to give us a history lesson, cut it."

I also appreciate that the author says a word about trying too hard to grab readers with your opening. Frankly, first lines that try too hard to be weird or bizarre or over the top jerk me out of the story before I'm even in it. She covers so much more, too, such as providing context in your opening (where are we? How are we, emotionally?), types of openings such as "the moment before" and the prophetic opening, using a mentor text, classic patterns for opening sentences, and assignments that can help you get unstuck. Whether you already have a draft of your novel's beginning or not, for guidance as you zero in on honing that beginning, try this helpful book.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Happy, but Possibly Not a Camper?

I have no little sticker to show you today, because I did not "officially" win Camp NaNo, mostly because I'm not one to post my stuff there for word-count verification. But I got a lot done, including 3,000+ words on a new project plus revisions for my agent. In the midst of a month that has been somewhat crazy, included more-than-usual family time (which is good), and thrown a surprise or two my way, I count that a success.

I joined Camp NaNo because a friend wanted someone to do it with. You go to camp with your friends, right? Really, though? I think we could have just had our own month-long slumber party. Our camp participation consisted of doing our own writing and messaging each other, on pretty much a daily basis at first. As the month went on, going faster and getting hairier for both of us for various reasons, we wrote each other at more length but a little less often. Finally, we just switched our correspondence out of the Camp NaNo site and over to our regular email. Really, the letter-writing and getting to know my friend better was the best thing about a "camp" experience, and I'd do it all over again for that aspect.

In general, I am not a speed-writer, and I'm one who revises as I go, which makes NaNo in its various forms not ideal for me. But setting goals with partners can help you be more productive than you'd otherwise be. Next time, though, I suspect we won't "join" anything official. We'll probably just make our own unofficial writers' retreat by ourselves.

How about you? How's your writing going? Do you do writing retreats in any form?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Camp NaNo-ing

This July, I'm "away at camp" getting a solid (I hope) start on a new MG novel. Actually, what I didn't know when I signed up for NaNo was that I would be getting a wonderful agent in the meantime, and an edit letter too! Accordingly, I need the rest of July off from blogging even more than I thought I would, and I will be back in this space, and will again be visiting blogs, on August 1. Very best wishes to you all, my friends, wherever you may be in your writing: drafting, revising, querying, subbing, conferencing, retreating, promoting, reading craft books, reading literature, idea brainstorming, dreaming, letting the well fill, or just plain living. See you all in three short weeks. :)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Monday, June 24, 2013

How I Got My Agent

If you're like me, you love "how I got my agent" stories. Preferably fairly lengthy and with all the details. I've long dreamed of writing this post, and I'm going to take my time drag it out milk it for all it's worth tell all.

First, though, the spoiler: I am beyond overjoyed to announce that I have signed with Peter Knapp of The Park Literary Group. And I do mean "beyond overjoyed." I have not simply "found an agent." I have found a MATCH. But not to get ahead of myself.

Backtrack to December, 2011. That's when I began querying a MG dystopian speculative novel, probably most accurately called post-apocalyptic, if we're splitting hairs on terms. When I started writing it, I had what I thought was a wonderful idea (I still have a huge soft spot for it, as do several of my CPs, one of whom maintains that it's her favorite of my books). And I wrote the book with that Wonderful Idea front and center in my consciousness -- but not so much the realization that a futuristic, dystopian, call-it-what-you-will trend was burgeoning in the marketplace. By the time I finished the book, the cry, "I am so done with dystopian" was beginning to ring loud and clear in the industry. I began to worry. "But those dystopian books are YA," I reasoned. "This is MG. Why couldn't, why wouldn't, a successful YA genre be adapted to MG?" And in a whinier mood: "I wrote it cuz it's a great idea, dagnabbit!"

So, on December 28, 2011, I began querying agents. Yes, during Christmas vacation, yet on January 2 I had a full request in my inbox. I sent out more queries, and got more requests. Rejections began to trickle in. "I didn't fall in love the way I'd need to, but I'm sure another agent will feel differently." Well, no, they basically all felt that same way. :) I researched more agents, sent out more queries. The request rate began to drop off. I researched more agents, sent out more queries. The response rate even to the queries dropped off. For some of the agents, of course, I had higher hopes than others, because they seemed like quite a good match, or the tone of their request had seemed especially chipper. Yet, over the course of 12 months, every single one of those queries, partials, or fulls either limped back home with an R or disappeared into the void. I sent my last batch of queries on October 31, 2012, and at year's end officially retired from querying the book. Now, since there is occasional math in this blog, and I like the stats and know that many of you do too, here they are:
  • Queries -- 85
  • Partials -- 16
  • Fulls -- 8
  • Rejections -- 14 personal, 25 form
  • Offers -- 0
  • Time span -- 1 year
But while I was querying this book, I was writing another: a MG mystery that I'd started around 2005 and then interrupted to write the dystopian plus the start of a MG historical. Deciding that the mystery was my best shot, I got back to it in earnest in January of 2012, was ready for beta readers by February of this year, revised, and sent my first query letters for the new book on May 6, 2013.

I was both excited and nervous about getting back into querying. Every query represents new possibilities, but the process can be so grueling. I started out querying those who had liked but not loved the previous book, and/or those who had said they'd gladly look at more work. The result? Form Rs. I really zeroed in on agents who were asking for my type of book, which was a much easier task with a mystery than it had been with a futuristic. I sent out a few more queries. No thanks. I went into a bit of a slump. The new book, which I thought was better than the previous and more marketable to boot, was meeting with a deafening silence. No initial flurry of requests like the dystopian had gotten. Yes, it was a bit early to be panicking, but I felt like I was seeing the handwriting on the wall: every response will always be an R, and that will never change.

More agent research. I began to look very closely at Peter Knapp. Hmm. He wanted what I wrote. We had a LOT of the same tastes. Everything I could find about him online spoke well of him, from his interviews, to his critiques in WriteOnCon forums, to his Twitter account, to his other clients' "how I got my agent" stories. This is going to sound crazy, and easy to say in hindsight, but I thought something like, "If this is not a match, I'm not sure how to find one." Then I went to his blog and found its title: "The Emperor of Ice Cream." What? Books AND ice cream? I began to hear Twilight Zone music. I told myself to keep a lid on it, and sent him a query on May 30.

On June 10, I checked email on my phone and there was his name in my inbox. Now, I've developed a pretty thick skin, and, outside of the aforementioned slump, I've learned to let most Rs bounce right off. But there are those you know will sting if they come back as Rs, and this was one. I took a few deep breaths, leaned on the wall, and opened it. It was a full request. One that sounded like he really had enjoyed the sample pages. I imagine I was wearing a silly smile as I fired the full back through cyberspace. This was a Monday, and I even dared hope he might find time during the following weekend to read it. A girl can dream, right?

One week later, the morning of Monday, June 17, my critique group met. Afterwards, I checked email on my phone again, and there was his name in my inbox. Heart-attack time, right? Well, it might have been, but right above that email, time-stamped something like 13 minutes later, was the subject line "Peter Knapp is now following you on Twitter." Suddenly, my heart had wings. If he was now following me on Twitter, how bad could it be? I opened the email. It was a long, detailed, complimentary letter about my book, which he had read the night before, and could we talk on Tuesday? Yes, we could! And we did, for an hour and a half, and it couldn't possibly have gone better. As I had no other partials or fulls out, I was free to accept his offer, and, after a great email exchange with one of his clients, I did exactly that. Again, here are the stats:
  • Queries -- 12; Pete was the 12th. Did I mention 12 is my favorite number? For real?
  • Partials -- 0
  • Fulls -- 1
  • Rejections -- 0 personal, 4 form
  • Offers -- 1
  • Time span -- 6 weeks
I am so excited. For now, and for what the future will bring.

So this is what they mean by "a match." And what they mean by "trust your gut." The RIGHT agent is so worth the wait.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I'm Doing Camp NaNo

I've never done November's NaNoWriMo. Mostly because I don't care to rush through first drafts, but also because November, what with Thanksgiving, the start of Christmas shopping, and only 30 days, just isn't the best month for me. The usable time would end up to be about two weeks, if that.

I once did NaNoEdMo, though. I think this was in something like March, which was much better, plus I was editing, not drafting, which is easier for me to make good progress on than is the churning out of actual first draft words. So when I heard from an online friend about Camp NaNo coming up in July -- a chance to do NaNo at a different time of year --  accompanied by the magic words, "You can set your own word count goals," and "Does someone want to do this with me?" and "We could be in the same 'cabin,'" I did a reckless thing: Within the next half hour, I signed up.  I say "reckless" because I don't make decisions on the spur of the moment very often. Not to say I didn't hesitate for even a second; I did. I thought July might be too busy, since our family visitors are leaving just before the 4th (so I won't get to start till the 5th) and we have kind of a lot of appointments that month, and I just made the decision to open up to doing paid critiques again. Fortunately, sense smacked me in the brain right fast: "If not now, when? You're waiting for the perfect month? Like you don't know better by now?" So I quickly gave the "no time" excuse the boot. And, seeing as I am right now planning a new book, and should be ready to start writing, oh, long about the beginning of July, the timing was too perfect to ignore. All I needed was a little peer pressure, and the leap was taken. :)

I'm not going to write 50,000 words. Nope, that would just make me freeze and discourage me. I set my goal as 15,000. I'll be thrilled if I can have that many words down by August 1. Plus, I find that setting low-ish goals and trying to beat them works better for me than setting them too high at the start. So -- anybody else want to join? If you want to do Camp NaNo, you can sign up here.

***Edited to add: With what has come onto my plate (lots of goodies) since I made the decision and wrote this post, I considered reconsidering, i.e., dropping out of NaNo. But no. I'm going to stick with it and do what I can. :)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

In Which Marcia Does a Commercial

Ahem. I hope my bloggy friends will excuse a bit of shameless self-promo today. After several years of letting my freelance critique and copyediting service take a back seat to writing and teaching, I have decided to again give it more of a front-burner position on the stove of life, as it were.

Short version: I am currently filling critique slots for the months of July, August, and September. I critique complete MG and YA novels primarily, but will also consider NF and work for adults. I also do copyediting on books that have gone through developmental edits and are ready to be polished for publication. All the info, including services, rates, and my qualifications, are up on my website.

Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day of reading and writing! :)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Do You Have Favorite Letters (of the alphabet)?

I blogged recently, here, about favorite words. That led me to some thoughts about the elements that make up words: letters. Do you have favorite letters? I do. They are: G, J, K, L, Q, W, X, and Z.

Why? Well, I guess I just like how they look and sound. They're, I dunno, cool.

And as I thought about it, I realized that for me certain letters have certain characteristics. C is feminine and pretty. H throws his weight around. M and N are boring. P is a tad highbrow, mostly self-proclaimed. And A is always red. Later, I learned that viewing letters as having personality is one possible aspect of synesthesia. Seeing them in color, each letter always having its particular color, definitely is. Some, not all, of the letters have color for me, but I find it highly interesting that, while all the other letters vary in color from one person to another, most all synesthetes who see letters in color see A as red.

How about you? Do you have favorite letters? Why are they favorites?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I'm not big on fantasy, and not big on trilogies, though there are certain exceptions. This is one of them. Sometimes I don't even get the next book in a trilogy, but in this case I've already got it on hold.

The False Prince isn't high fantasy; rather, it reads like historical fiction set in an indefinite era on what could be Earth if we had countries named things like Carthya, Avenia, and Gelyn.

The premise: The king, queen, and crown prince of Carthya have been murdered, but, despite rumors, the news hasn't been confirmed yet. Also believed to be dead, several years prior in a separate incident, is the younger prince, Jaron. A nobleman named Conner concocts a scheme to seize the throne. He kidnaps four orphans and forces them to compete for a chance to impersonate the prince, serving as Conner's puppet and living out the lie for life -- and the losers, because they will know too much, will have no lives to live out.

The characters here are wonderful. Sage, the protagonist, has on the surface the least chance of being chosen as prince. He's not as smart as Tobias, nor as strong as Roden, and when it comes to cutting classes in princely training or causing general trouble, Sage is always the one. All the boys are believable and fully developed, with their own arcs and changes. Conner, too, is a well-rounded antagonist.

The book quickly grabbed me and didn't let go, the plot contains plenty of twists and turns, the pace is neither too fast nor too slow, and the balance between plot strength and character strength is a rare pleasure. And while there's obviously room for more books as the story closes, this book does have a conclusive ending.

And while I was not completely, completely surprised by a certain development, and while I thought a certain aspect was maybe a hair too coincidental (I really don't want to issue any spoilers here), the conceals and reveals are still beautifully done. Upper MG; highly recommended.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Boundaries for Writers, by Kristi Holl

  • Wow, if Kristi Holl's new book, Boundaries for Writers, doesn't address the #1 writing problem I hear about from students, and even experienced writers, I don't know what does.
"My time just gets away on me. Not sure where it goes."
"I'm running VBS again this year, trying to get the garden in, then we're going to the cottage for two weeks..."
"My husband doesn't support me, because there's no money in it."
"My kids get in trouble while I'm trying to write."
"My BFF's life is one drama after another and she calls me every day."
"Promotion is brutal, doesn't suit my personality, and I'm scared to death my book won't sell. My love of writing is down the drain."
"I'm a Christian but not writing for the CBA, so my church friends are asking, 'Why aren't you writing for Jesus?'"

Kristi talks about four kinds of boundaries: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Physical boundaries may include such things as a desk of your own or a closed door. Mental boundaries allow you to own your own thoughts. Not that you have a closed mind, but you aren't a mental chameleon, constantly adopting the thoughts of whoever spoke to you last. Emotional boundaries prevent you from being a dumping ground for everybody else's woes. Spiritual boundaries keep you from caving in to others' opinions of how you should serve God, so that you fit their expectations or "look spiritual enough."

Not only are there four kinds of boundaries, but any of them can be in any one of four conditions: healthy, damaged, collapsed, or walled. Whew! No wonder we feel so tied in knots at times. Kristi provides a quiz so that you can assess the state of your boundary issues. (Disclosure: I did pretty well here, but there were a couple of points in the Emotional and Spiritual categories that made me cringe.) She also talks about how to separate and balance the business and creative aspects of writing.  Not shrinking from the tougher stuff, she covers setting boundaries with truly toxic family members, and, for those who have concerns about whether setting boundaries is even scriptural, she includes a chapter with many relevant scriptures and other helps.

If you're struggling with your writing in any way, there's a huge chance that boundaries are an issue, and that there's something in this book that can start you on your way to a solution. :)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Apothecary, by Maile Meloy

Though I usually focus on MG, I do tout the occasional YA title. I suppose this book straddles the line. Though the cover images may suggest MG, the book felt more YA to me as I read.
It's 1952, and fourteen-year-old Janie's parents are Hollywood screen writers accused of being sympathetic to communism. That's why the family moves suddenly to England, where the parents get jobs writing for the BBC, and Janie must, of course, go to a new school. As in many places at this time, when the signal is given, the kids and teachers must stop whatever they're doing and "duck and cover" -- hide under the desks and tables with their faces buried in their arms. The first time this happens, Janie can't help but notice Benjamin Burrows, the boy who will not duck and cover. It's stupid, he scoffs. Hiding under a piece of furniture will not save you from an atomic bomb.
Benjamin, the son of the local apothecary (pharmacist), wants to be a spy, even though his father wants him to go into the family business. Benjamin can't see pursuing a life of handing out headache pills and croup remedies. But as he and Janie do their own spying, they quickly find out that the apothecary is more than he appears, real spies are everywhere, amazing scientific discoveries are about to be lauched, and that entire nations and even magic are involved in the effort to keep the bomb out of Russian hands. It was very interesting to read this book almost immediately after I read the Newbery Honor book Bomb. I really feel as if I understand the background of the Cold War much better now, having read both.
This book is filled with likable characters, suspense, an intriguing blend of reality and magic, and believable, inventive ways of "getting the parents out of the way." There is a lot here; too much to list, expertly woven into a whole.
Recommended for those who like a "big, magical adventure" and a not-overdone historical period. In fact -- why not recommend they read Bomb, too? Each book sheds light on the other, and together, they illuminate an important time in 20th-century history.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Fun Day at SCBWI-WI NE

Our "Saturday in May" workshop has become an annual event. This year we had TWO workshops on Saturday, May 4. Picture book writer Linda Skeers spoke in the morning about how to incorporate humor into a manuscript. That's a question we all want to know the answer to, as humor can be tricky! I had the privilege of presenting my Idea Explosion Workshop again, in an expanded version, during the afternoon session.
We had 23 attendees, a fantastic welcome from the Muehl Public Library in Seymour, WI, a perfect-sized meeting room, a scrumptious snack table, and wonderful planning by our NE WI Area Rep, Miranda Paul.
Yes, I did actually use the Power Point. Just not quite yet. :)

It was a great day to connect with friends new and old, and I'm happy to say that both workshops received rave reviews. A good time was had by all!

Have you attended a conference or workshop lately? Gotten together with other writers? Come away with any tips?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Quilt Walk, by Sandra Dallas

Emmy Blue Hatchett, age ten, lives with her parents and a close aunt and uncle in Illinois in 1863. Little does she know that everything is about to change when her father and uncle announce that they're all setting out for Golden, Colorado. The men want their families to live in the clean mountain air; even more, they want to build a business block that will include stores, hotels, and restaurants to serve the population that has begun to boom following the gold rush.
On the face of it, The Quilt Walk is a good adventure story: friends, enemies, turn-backs, rattlesnakes, and death in a Conestoga wagon train. But as I read I was most keenly aware that the book is a study of male/female relationships, primarily in marriage, despite the fact that we are always in the child Emmy's POV. In many ways Ma is a typical feminine woman of her day: she quilts, as she does all needlework, with only the tiniest, straightest stitches; and if anyone dares question her husband she responds with a firm "Thomas knows best." Still, she voices to Thomas plainly, if calmly, that he did not consult her before making this decision, and that leaving her extended family, her sewing circle, and the graves of their deceased children will be a struggle for her that he does not appreciate. And when there is just not room in the wagon for everything they would like to bring, to the point where Thomas says they can't bring extra clothes, Ma and Emmy solve the problem by wearing every dress they own, and not taking them off until Thomas, later in the journey, is the one to back down. Aunt Catherine, by contrast, so hates the idea of going to Colorado that she almost refuses to leave home, but after a few days on the trail she accepts it, seems to purposely change her attitude, and becomes a helpful and even positive person, free of resentment. That there's a line not to be crossed in submission to a husband, and that the husband, for his part, is required to be a good man, is portrayed by another couple in the train, a new young bride whom the adult women, and eventually Emmy, realize is being physically abused, and her lazy, boorish husband, who hasn't the respect of a single man in the party. Yet another picture of what marriage meant for a woman in those days comes through a happy, vivacious lady and the wonderful husband who adores her -- until a single gunshot makes her the widowed mother of orphaned children, alone with a few oxen and a covered wagon.
Where Emmy's own feminity seems different from the typical is in her hatred of needlework. But walking alongside a covered wagon day after day can be incredibly boring, and tough going, and even Emmy is eventually encouraged to turn to the gift her grandmother gave her when they left: quilt squares from which to stitch her own quilt -- even while walking, as so many of the women did. And though I'm going to refrain from spoilers here, I will say that the progress of the various women's lives continues, showing the range of likely experiences for that day -- with a few surprises, and, in every case, hope.  
This novel is based on a true story, and one of the quilts that the family brought to Colorado is now in the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden.
Great for lovers of historical fiction and strong girl stories.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Crit Group Celebrations, and a Talk by Editor Wendy McClure

Our critique group met the other day, at Mary's house, and Mary had a birthday. So we had to celebrate. Left to right, we are Susan, Marcia, Mary, and Connie.

Then, Susan had a book out! Route 2, Box 12 is the third collection of her weekly "life on Sunnybook Farm" columns that have appeared in several regional newspapers since the early 1980s. So we had to celebrate again. This time, we are Mary, Marcia, Susan, and Connie.

And yes, we did actually do some critiquing after all this. :)

This past Saturday, April 20, Wendy McClure, Senior Editor at Albert Whitman, spoke at the SCBWI-WI Spring Luncheon. She gave an entertaining program on her favorite MG childhood series, the Little House books. The most interesting part of the program for me was the excerpts from Laura Ingalls Wilder's early drafts; the long, single-spaced editorial letters sent to her by her own daughter, Rose Wilder Lane; and rejection/acceptance letters, the former from RWL's own literary agent and the latter from Knopf; which we got to see onscreen through Power Point.

I was really struck by this: Laura's early attempts were (1) all telling, and (2) from a distant observer's POV. Rose told her she had to be inside Laura, and Rose was right on. While listening, I thought about the need to allow first drafts to be poor if that's the only way they will come out, about how we sometimes can't put the emotional content into our stories until we can first bring ourselves to record them at all, about how steep and difficult the climb to publishable-prose level is for all of us, and how the newbiest of writers can go on to produce something special, even timeless.

And I thought of the kinks, rocks, and boulders in the road to publication even after you succeed. Because it wasn't Knopf who published Little House in the Big Woods, even though they accepted it. The year was 1931, and Knopf closed their children's book imprint because of the Depression. The book had to go back on the market and sell again, this time to Harper, who did publish it.

All of the biggest successes we can think of were achieved by people who, when they first set out, couldn't be sure they'd accomplish a thing. And this is why I believe, on every level, that life is a faith walk.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Of Fiction Writers and English Majors

I was thinking recently about something John Gardner says in his book On Becoming a Novelist. He says that taking an English major in college isn't necessarily the best route for someone who wants to be a writer. He suggests instead that you major in another field in which you're greatly interested, so you have something to write about; or that you major in philosophy so you know what questions are important; or psychology so that you understand people; and that whatever your major, you consider aiming toward an occupation you like but that won't eat up all your time (or that can be part-time) so you can write. The main problem when writers major in literature, Gardner says, is that literature scholars and writers read differently. Lit scholars are constantly considering theme and symbolism, and say that writers are "showing" us things, or "demonstrating," "depicting," or "exemplifying" things. Writers consider the story, and read to see how storytelling effects are achieved. Lit scholars take literature apart. Writers put it together.

Gardner's book gave voice to a lot of feelings I had when I was a teen, secretly wanted to be a writer, and ultimately decided not to be an English major. Already, English classes had about destroyed reading for me. I could no longer choose reading matter that wasn't sufficiently highbrow, couldn't decline to read something that bored me silly, couldn't enjoy a story without dreading the questions about symbolism, theme, and what the author was "saying" that would be asked in class the next day. My jr. high English teacher, who mainly taught HS English, once assigned our class to write a "novelette." I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. In presenting this assignment, by way of encouraging appropriate length, he said, "Maybe you'll spend an entire page describing one little flower petal." Gak, I thought. No, that is not what you do. Another time, he asked the class whether we thought a writer invests great thought into placing every single symbol in the story just so. It was very hard for me to buck a teacher, but I said, paraphrased, "No, they don't. They write a story and some of it just happens." He didn't reply, just smiled the small amused smile he usually wore when a student stepped in it. But this was one of those rare occasions when I didn't care if I gave the right answer in the eyes of the teacher. I knew I had this one nailed. And even though I continued to ace his English classes and all the ones through high school, I knew I couldn't wait to leave formal lit study behind.

So what makes me think of all this now? I think it's the new emphasis I see on outlining and structure today, compared to the pantsing that most writers seemed to be doing when I started out. I remember reading an article in The Writer in which the author spoke of "how gropingly" her novels were put together. Most everyone else said the same. But now we are all about first and second plot points, midpoints, beating it out, storyboarding, six core competencies, Story A and Story B, and in some cases even declaring that, for example, the theme shall be stated on p. 5 (or 4.5% of the way in). Don't get me wrong: I find many of these ideas fascinating and helpful, and I've become more of a planner as a result. I suspect the emphasis has swung in this direction because we are looking for the key to standing out in this competitive market. But it also makes me wonder if the writer is thinking a little more like the lit student these days.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Chained, by Lynne Kelly

2012 must have been the year of the MG animal story. Though some of the books were fantasy, some realistic, and some a mix of both, I found every one I picked up to be engrossing. Chained is no different, especially if you have a soft spot for elephants. While I must say that cats are my animal of choice, this book sold me on its cover alone.

Hastin is a boy who lives in a desert region in India with his mother and younger sister. Chanda, the girl, has been bitten by fever mosquitoes, and when her illness becomes desperate they take her to the hospital even though they cannot afford it. They learn her treatment will cost 4000 rupees, money they do not have, so Amma (mother) goes to work as a housekeeper in appalling conditions to earn the sum. But wait! There suddenly appears a man named Timir, who pays the debt for them. There's a catch, of course. Timir once owned a prosperous circus, and he dreams of returning to his glory days. He needs an elephant keeper, and asserts that Hastin can do the job. Besides, this is going to be a grand adventure, and when Hastin has worked for Timir for a year to pay the man back, he may return home. The truth, as we might guess, is that Timir has no intention of ever letting Hastin go. But the more immediate problem is that Timir has no elephant. He expects Hastin to trap one in the jungle.

This, he does, with the help of men who dig a pit large enough for a young elephant to fall into and not get out of. Hastin is drawn to the elephants from the beginning, even giving them names as he spies on a herd going to the river for water. When one of his favorites, Nandita, falls into the trap, he's so conflicted that he tries to set her free before the circus men find out. But, though Hastin and Nandita come to love each other in Timir's ragtag circus, both are chained: Nandita literally, and Hastin figuratively, to the debt, and even more so, to what Timir intends as permanent slavery. It will be a long time before either of them is free again.

All these characters, save Timir, are immediately lovable. There are two other important characters also. Sharad, the elephant trainer, has a "good past," but it's buried under a ton of pain and he has become a rigid, mean trainer as a result. And Ne Min, the circus cook, is a wise, grandfatherly type who obviously loves elephants but is hiding some secret shame.

This is a wonderful debut novel. Characters, prose, structure, action, research -- all are excellent.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

My Upcoming SCBWI Workshop!

SCBWI-WI Northeast presents: Giggle and Generate, two workshops for children's authors! Saturday, May 4, 2013 at Muehl Public Library, Seymour, WI.

Author Linda Skeers is the "giggle" portion, and from 10am-12:30pm she will speak about what makes humor work in books for all ages -- and how to tickle the funny bones of readers and editors. I am the "generate" portion, and from 1:30-4pm I will present my Idea Explosion Workshop and talk about how to get and develop ideas for the books you are meant to write.

Registration closes April 30, and the form is here:

Linda and I will be critiquing mss. as well. We're looking forward to a great day with you. :)