Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

I hope the real stable was as cozy as this looks. I love how even the animals seem hushed and attentive. When I think that even birds and baby chicks, as well as donkeys, sheep, and goats, were privileged to witness the birth of Christ, it's a reminder that no creature on earth can be dismissed as insignificant. We have no idea what destiny may be assigned to such as these.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Swift Boys and Me, by Kody Keplinger

Nola, age 12, has been friends with the three Swift boys for her entire life. In fact, they live in the other half of the duplex. Brian, the oldest, is sensitive and kind. Kevin, the youngest, is constantly talking. And Canaan, the middle brother, is Nola's age, and he has always stood up for her.

Then one day, Mr. Swift gets in his car and drives away. He's left his family, without even a goodbye. Ironically, Nola saw him go, waved to him, and received a wave back, which, as she says, was more of a goodbye than the boys got.

And the Swifts fall apart. Kevin, who we find out blames himself because the last thing his father had told him to do was quit talking, goes mute. Brian tries to run the household for a while after their mother sinks into depression, but it's too much for him and in effect he runs away from home, staying first with one friend and then another. And Canaan takes up with the mean boys. Far from sticking up for Nola, he's now one of her tormentors.

Nola tries to support the boys, but succeeds only with Brian, and then only temporarily. She also tries to find their father -- mostly because she wants everything to go back to normal, which is no doubt realistic -- and actually does locate him living with another woman in the next town over. But Nola's life is changing, too. Her mom is remarrying, and the couple's plan to buy a house means Nola will have to move out of the duplex. And are the boys there for her? No, they are not.

My favorite aspect of the book is the characters. I liked Nola, the boys, her mom, the new stepdad, and Nola's other friends, Felicia and Teddy. We become disillusioned with Canaan, which I think is inevitable and probably the author's intent, not only because of how he's treating Nola, but because we come to suspect that Canaan's past bad-mouthing of Teddy was completely undeserved. In fact, now that Nola is less tied to Canaan, she is less dependent on his opinions and more able to stand up for herself.

The cover is a bit "cuter" than the novel itself, and does not portray Nola's slight overweight, which is often referred to in the story. (But as one of my editors once said, "That's marketing for you!") And it's possible that Nola understands everything just a bit too neatly at the end, although the plot threads are by no means tied up in a perfect bow. Recommended.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

It's Saturday Already?

My weekly post got away on me this week. But, on both my editing job and my own writing, I've been

 I'll be back next Thursday, though. I read another book to share with you. Till then, have a great one. :)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Oh, my. This is a simply beautiful book. Books written in verse aren't for everyone, but I tend to like them because the emotion is concentrated and the language precise. I didn't say "verse novels," because this isn't a novel. It's a memoir.

I think most writer/bookworm types are naturally drawn to a book about how a writer grows. To view the writing through a wider lens, it's about a girl finding her voice and her purpose. It's also about encouragement: I as a reader find myself a bit breathless at the fact that Jacqueline Woodson said, and told herself, that she wanted to be a writer from a very young age, and she did it. Oh, how she did it. And to broaden the scope even more, it's very much about the African-American experience in the days of the struggle for civil rights and beyond.

There are surprising bits, such as Woodson's upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness, and gut-punching bits, such as her younger brother lying in bed at night, eating paint chips off the walls. There are arresting lines, such as "Even Salome intrigues us, her wish for a man's head / on a platter -- who could want this and live / to tell the story of that wanting?" and lines that raise ire, such as her mother's warning concerning storytelling: "If you lie, one day you'll steal." As a matter of fact, I don't reject that statement in general; I think lying is a form of stealing; it's theft of the truth. But the claim, even by writers (about which I have ranted in the past), that storytelling is lies just makes me all kinds of crazy. Tell that to Jesus or to Nathan the prophet.

Although I'd like to know what Jackie's siblings did with their lives as well, we don't find that out. However, the book cries out for photos and that cry is answered; they're included in the back.

There aren't many books, when it comes right down to it, that should become required reading; this is one of them. Highly, highly, highly recommended.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

May your lives be fruitful and your baskets overflow. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

SCBWI-WI NE Area Fall Meet-up: "Working with Agents and Editors"

I had the pleasure and privilege of being on the panel with these lovely ladies just this past Saturday, November 15. Here we are:

Oops! Looks like I colored outside the lines a little there. But this way you can see us better.

We met in a lovely old building with lots of dark wood that houses Harmony Cafe in Appleton, WI. And the event was just what it sounds like: Attendees asked questions about working with agents and editors, and we shared our experiences. Researching, querying, revising, publicizing, deciding when a book is ready to query, when you should or shouldn't do an R&R (revise and resubmit), subsidiary rights -- all these and more were covered. Lunch was included, during which there was plenty of friendly chat; it's amazing how talkative a roomful of introverts can actually be. It would have been great to be able to stay longer and share more, which I guess is very much a sign of a successful event. A good time was had by all!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Guest Post by Bish Denham, Author of A Lizard's Tail

Today, let's welcome Bish Denham and let her tell us about her newest release, A Lizard's Tail. If you're like me, you love the look in that lizard's eye! And here's Bish, to tell us all about him.

It’s All in the Name

Thanks for letting me visit your blog, Marcia!

People ask me where I get my ideas and how long it’s taken to get something written. Well, A Lizard’s Tail has been simmering for a long time.

It began around 1977 in the Virgin Islands while I was working for a friend who had a ceramics shop. She made souvenir ceramic mugs and other touristy things, for wholesale. I helped with pouring slip, cleaning, and glazing. One slow days we’d sit around playing with clay, making small sculptures, beads, or hand-molding bowls.

One day I “sculpted” a lizard. When it was dry, I glazed it and fired it. It came out looking quite mischievous and obviously needing a name. Another employee, who helped pack and deliver orders to the various stores, was a nice, humorous guy name Marvin.

He saw the lizard and liked it so much I decided to name it after him, to which he replied that Marvin needed a last name. Right then a wind chime tinkled. From out of the blue his full name came to me. Marvin P. Tinkleberry. What the “P” stood for I had no idea, but we all agreed the name suited my little lizard sculpture quite well.

I knew immediately that I had a character for a story.

Early notes indicate that I was thinking of making him a kind of story teller that explained things like, why hibiscuses are red or why lizards do push-ups. But none of those ideas felt right.

And so Marvin slumbered. Later notes talk about him being vain and full of himself. I was getting closer. Then, about ten years ago, the actually idea for a story came to me. Marvin had to have conflict, what greater conflict could he have than dealing with a dangerous feral cat?

Thus, A Lizard’s Tale began to take shape. I wrote the first rough draft in short order. It was the revising and rewriting that took a long time. I did it in bits and pieces, in fits and starts, because for me, revising is the hard, boring part, though I’m getting better at it.

After I self-published Anansi and Company, I was determined to put Marvin out there too. And now, here he is in all his glory, a vain, young lizard who believes he has a destiny.

What, you may ask, does the “P” stand for? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find out.

Do you have ideas that have simmered for years before taking shape? Do you enjoy revising or is it a part of the job you don’t like? 


Bish Denham was raised in the U. S. Virgin Islands. Her mother's side of the family has lived in the Caribbean for over one hundred years and she still has plenty of family there whom she visits regularly. She says, "Growing up in the islands was like living inside a history book. Columbus named the islands, Sir Francis Drake sailed through the area, and Alexander Hamilton was raised on St. Croix. Then there were the pirates who plied the waters. Life for me was magical, and through my writing I hope to pass on some of that magic."

Bish has known many lizards in her life. Marvin and Leeza are based on two that lived in her bedroom. She is the author of Anansi and Company: Retold Jamaican Folk Tales which you can find on

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Short Blog Break

Once again, tomorrow is Thursday, it's late, and I have to admit that life has just plowed me under for now. I'm taking a blog break this week and next week. But please do join me back here on November 13, because there's going to be a guest poster, and you'll want to find out who it is! Until then, be well, my friends.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tomorrow (Today) is *Thursday*

I usually schedule my posts. I'm scheduling this one, too. Except I'm doing so at 10pm the night before, because I just remembered *tomorrow is Thursday*. Or, as you read this, today is Thursday.

I'm busy writing, editing, teaching, SCBWI-ing, prepping for Election Day (I'm a pollworker), getting ready to host a grandchild this weekend (aack! Groceries needed!), and planning an upcoming short vacay to Indiana. I am not, frankly, reading much right now. But that's another thing I must do: line up some books for the vacay. My daughter-in-law and I always build reading time into the visits. Really, we're all reading something or other at some time or other, and the girls will ask for stories before bed. I can picture those cozy book-and-ice-cream evenings already.

I'm writing this now -- it's kind of like being up late to do homework -- because just a little while ago I finished a big scene in my novel. I feel accomplished! But then I realized there's a problem. I want "tomorrow" in the book to be Sunday, guessed it, "tomorrow" is *Thursday*. I'll have to figure out what to do about that.

But now, I'm going upstairs to make that grocery list. Because I need the food by Friday morning, and *tomorrow is Thursday*.

Happy Thursday, everyone.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nest, by Esther Ehrlich

Naomi, eleven years old in 1972, loves birds so much that she's called "Chirp" by everyone who knows her. She shares a love of dancing with her mother, while her older sister, Rachel, relates better to their psychiatrist father's penchant for counseling, which he does even within their family, often with gently humorous results. At least, at first.

Early on, Chirp's mom is diagnosed with MS. She can't dance anymore, and with this loss her mental health declines even faster than her bodily health, to the point where she is eventually hospitalized for depression. At this point, I must say that my involvement in the book lay more with the mother than the MC. Because I imagined losing writing the way the mother lost dancing, and even though I know I could not make writing my identity the way the mother made dancing hers, it would still be hard at times not to do exactly that. On top of this, having a therapist husband didn't spare the mother at all, or even really help her any.

As Chirp goes through the absence of her mother, the acting out of her sister, and the misunderstanding of her well-meaning father who doesn't really get her, she becomes friends with Joey, a somewhat sketchy neighbor boy who in the opening scene is throwing rocks at poles. Joey has problems of his own at home, and the personal pain each one carries makes their friendship fragile, in part because Joey understands Chirp's situation from the start whereas she's mainly blind to his. The 1970s details were a pleasant trip back in time for me, but also a jolting reminder that back then issues such as child abuse and mental illness were both swept under the rug and less gently treated. One example of this is the matter-of-fact way that Chirp refers to her mother's place of confinement as the nuthouse.

This is a beautiful book, well written and with affecting emotions. While I don't really want to issue spoilers, I feel some obligation to point out that the book gets a lot harder, sadder, and darker before the story's through, and it could be a bit too much for a very sensitive middle-grader. Other than that, though, this is highly recommended.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Writing Retreat

Last week, I said I'd post next about my writing retreat. That place that's a little more "civilized" than the wi-fi-less getaways some of my friends prefer. Last spring, my friend Anne and I found The Audubon Inn in Mayville, WI, and after our second stay there just this past week, I think it's become our permanent semi-annual retreat spot for several reasons. First, it's about as equidistant between our homes as you can get -- about an hour's drive for each of us. Second, and highly important, we got great discounts for weeknight stays through Living Social. Third, it's lovely, every room has its own whirlpool, the staff members are friendly and accommodating, there are wonderful eateries in the area and in the inn itself, every room has its own whirlpool, there are writing desks with Tiffany lamps, there's wi-fi, and every room has its own whirlpool! Here it is:
Toward the left, by the tree, you can see the sign that says NOLA. This is a New Orleans themed restaurant where we ate once for a meal and twice for dessert, and it was great. (The other two nights of our three-night stay we ate Chinese and Italian.) My windows on the second floor, right side, overlooked the side street, as did Anne's. I did nothing but write, sleep, whirlpool, and throw my clock away except for meeting Anne for dinner at our chosen hour. Anne took a walk, too. Next time, which will probably, hopefully, be in spring, I will do the same, unless the winds of spring are too raw for my indoor-girl sensibilities.

The immersion benefits have carried over. I'm determined to recreate retreat conditions at home whenever I get the chance, and October looks pretty favorable. At this point I should probably pause and sing my husband's praises. This retreating business doesn't work only because we're empty-nesters; it's also that he strikes the most wonderful balance between attentiveness and self-sufficiency, and cheerfully does more than his share of household tasks. He and our sons have an event planned for this weekend, and I'm actually going to have two days and two nights to myself, so I sense another retreat coming on. Still, longing for another return to the Audubon come spring.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

I was tagged for this by my friend Vijaya Bodach, who, as she says, has powers of persuasion. And besides, this means getting to talk writing, so why not?

1. What are you working on?

Middle-grade fiction, in general. A MG contemporary literary mystery, in particular.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Oh boy. Possibly by breaking too many rules. I may come across as basically just a nice girl, but at any given moment I'm probably pushing the envelope, and a rule or two are probably being broken. :)

3. Why do you write what you do?

Good grief, even for someone who likes to ruminate at length, these questions are tough. I can give answer-fragments. Part of it is that my inner 12-year-old is very much alive and well, but she'd like to do a better job of being 12 this time around. Part of it, I'm sure, is that I'm dredging up from my spirit dilemmas and themes that I find important. Part of it is that I love and respect the power and the far reach of truly great MG fiction. And part of it is just mysterious: I do because I do because I do.

4. How does your writing process work? 

When an idea starts, I'm usually scribbling on a legal pad. When there's enough there that it looks like the thing has legs, I get it a three-ring notebook. That's like the commitment stage. I say to it, "You are henceforth a novel." I have sections labeled Characters, Plot, Research, Revision, Setting, Themes, Titles, and any other headings that might apply. This becomes the book's bible. I make notes in each section as the book comes together, in whatever order things come. I spend a lot of time working out the backstory and logic framework: How things got this way and exactly how they hold together. I find a floor plan for any important buildings, sketch maps, make calendars, and at the point where I really feel like I want to start writing, I don't hold back. I start.

I have a sense of the plot when I start, but I never outline fully. That ends up being too much like a pattern I have to follow. I love Larry Brooks's Story Engineering, and I fill out his four-box plot structure on a sheet of 11x17 paper as I write the first draft. So the outline doesn't precede the first draft; it grows alongside it. I loathe index cards.

I do research any and every time a question comes up. Some writers leave holes and come back to those spots later; not me. I find I might learn something that makes or breaks the whole scene, or the whole plot. Better to learn that now. This means that when I go on a writing retreat, I need an internet connection. I have friends whose major purpose for going on a writing retreat is to get offline. For them, a remote cabin with no wi-fi works. I need just a tad more civilization.

Tune in next week, and I'll show you what that "civilization" looks like!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K, by Greg Pincus

This is a realistic MG novel about math and writing. How could I not read it?

Gregory is a middle child. Not only that, he's the middle child math-hater in a family of math lovers. Really, math eaters, breathers, and sleepers, if you're looking at Gregory's father and his older brother Owen, who both won the famed "City Math" competition in their day, and who spend almost all of their time in an attic study devoted completely to math. Mom, whose feet are a bit more on terra firma, is an accountant. (Not the same thing, but to anybody who hates math, it probably is.) Kay, Gregory's younger sister, is just wicked smart, period.

Gregory loves to write, which he has not dared breathe a word of to anyone except his best friend, Kelly, who shares that love and who wants him to go to Author Camp with her in the summer. Especially since Kelly and her mom are moving away after the school year ends in a few short weeks and they won't see each other much anymore. Gregory promises they will go. Except he hasn't asked his parents, and he can't do that because they'll say no due to his current failing math score. In fact, his parents are going to make him go to Math is Magic Camp if he can't get his grade up. Continuing to fib to his parents about his love for math, because he can't bear to baldly state that he doesn't fit into his family, he recklessly declares that he's going to enter City Math himself.

In short, the key to Gregory's getting through all this is that he makes up a form of poetry he calls "Fibs." The poems contain 6 lines, a total of 20 syllables, and each line has a number of syllables equal to the first six Fibonacci Numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. (In the Fibonacci Sequence, each number is equal to the sum of the previous two.) The Fibs begin each chapter and are sprinkled throughout, besides, and are delightful.

Gregory's math teacher is a really good character, and Gregory does have to work for his grade. However, I have this underlying feeling that, despite the great things that happen in the personal study program they devise, Gregory is really leaving 6th grade not knowing what he needs to know. And I'm not sure his teacher, in real life, wouldn't have to face some backlash. Kay, the younger sister, has some wildly precocious dialogue that I had to take with a grain of salt, and I found it odd that the reason for Kelly's move, when her mom already owns a thriving dessert restaurant right here, isn't explained.

But I loved the emphasis on math that won't bog a non-math reader down, the true kid appeal (these are genuine MG problems and stakes), and I loved this: Studies have shown that boys fall into one of four categories -- they're good at math, writing, both, or neither. Girls, however, fall into three categories -- they're good at writing, both, or neither. What this means is that if a girl is good at math, she's good at language, too. When I first read this research, I thought back through years and years of experience in math classes, and realized my experience fit the statement. Girls who had math talent also had language talent. Gregory is good at language/writing and not math. Kelly is good at both. Kay is good at both. Had the girls been good at math only, I wouldn't have been convinced by them. But for me, all three kids passed the test. :)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Soapbox Series #9 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- Till, Until, and 'Til

Grammar Girl says she regularly gets questions about the differences between till, until, and 'til, and how to use them.

I say: ????? And when exactly did this "'til" thing come about?

'Til is apparently in the process of becoming accepted (shudder), but it is a totally unnecessary word. I think I know what happened: somewhere along the line people began to assume that "till" (as they heard it pronounced, not necessarily as they spelled it) was an abbreviation for "until," and they couldn't figure out why you wouldn't spell that as 'til. But till and until are actually separate words that are synonymous. Yes, till is a noun meaning cash register and a verb meaning to work the ground (lesser known, it's also a noun meaning a glacial drift or a stiff clay), but its #1 function and definition in my dictionary is as a preposition meaning "up to the time of; before; until." Of the two words, till is actually older. Until came later. 'Til came, well, way, way later, and, I believe, under mistaken circumstances. We don't need it. We already have the one-syllable form till, which is not an abbreviation.

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends till or until, but not 'til. Bryan A. Garner, of LawProse calls 'til a "little virus," and his quotes of several other usage guides includes this: "'Til is a variant spelling used by those who think (incorrectly) that till is a clipped form."

I'm pretty open to changes in the English language. I'll go pretty far with verbing nouns, and I think "they" and "them" will become standard singular pronouns for a person of unknown gender within my lifetime. But 'til -- nah. It's going to be a long time till I can go there.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Circa Now, by Amber McRee Turner

Someday, I'm getting a book cover this blue. Just saying.

Twelve-year-old Circa Monroe lives with her parents in a home whose most important room is Studio Monroe, where Mom runs her portrait photography business out of one half and Dad does his photo restoration work out of the other. Circa has a knack for intricate Photoshopping just as her dad does, and she had learned many techniques from him. But most important of all to Circa is the special file called "Shopt," consisting of just-for-fun Photoshopping weirdness and Dad's fun little stories to go along with the fantastical pictures. In creating this cozy, artsy, family atmosphere, Amber McRee Turner wastes no time at all making me want to live in Studio Monroe right now.

But that, as we know, is the status quo, and the status quo must change. When Dad heads out into a threatening tornado to deliver a restored photo to a particularly unpleasant family's reunion party, the worst happens. The tornado strikes the reunion site, and Dad is killed. Mom, whose depression and possible agoraphobia have been pretty well controlled by meds and the balance provided by Dad's presence, loses some of her functionality. This year, I have read no end of novels that are about dead parents and/or dysfunctional moms. I tossed some aside because it was just so much of the same that I was truly astonished. Not Circa Now. For one thing, the writing and turns of phrase are truly fresh. For another, the author makes me love the characters in the beginning, as "whole" selves, so that I care when they begin to falter. For yet another, the mother doesn't devolve so completely that she and Circa reverse roles. Besides all this, there is the mystery boy who appears at Studio Monroe out of nowhere, calling himself Miles and having lost his memory. And when random items that have been Shopt into photos start appearing or vanishing in real life -- e.g., a bird's nest appears in the tree outside Circa's window when Shopt into a picture, and a blemish falls off her friend's face when Shopt out of a portrait -- Circa has to wonder if maybe the reason they can't find Miles's home, and Miles can't find his memories, is that he doesn't have any -- because he himself was Shopt into existence.

Color me hooked.

This is one of those books where, even amid sad things happening, you want to be part of the characters' world. Add the good writing, the mystery, the light magical realism aspect, and the interspersed Shopt photos with attached stories (and the whole originality of that), and this book comes out a winner. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Another Book for our Critique Group

My long-time critique group has celebrated a lot of books over the years. Just a week ago we did it again, when Mary (second from right) brought her new book to our group meeting. Mary's Go Round is a self-published collection of all the short stories she has worked on since...well, since we've been a group. The physical book and its design are absolutely gorgeous, and it's filled with all of Mary's shiny, polished stories. With the release of this book, she has crossed a major item off her bucket list.

"I don't know what I'm going to write next," said Mary. "But I'll have to write something. You don't want me to leave you, do you?"

"No," the rest of us said, shaking our heads as one.

"Well, then I'll have to come up with something," she said. "What about family stories?"

"Yes!" we chorused.

So, we'll have to see what Mary has for us next time. Here we are, holding our autographed copies and our bubbly. Congratulations, Mary.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Eclectic MWW Highlights, and a Blog Break

I'm back from the MWW -- Midwest Writers Workshop -- held last weekend at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. I simply had the best time imaginable. I met my agent in person. It was just so spectacular that I don't even know what to say. (Except, "I want to do it again! Preferably now!") Let me say this: If you can meet your agent, do it.

Things I learned:

  • This conference has been going on since 1973! 
  • Divergent author Veronica Roth found her agent there in 2009.
  • Faculty over the years has included Jessamyn West, Madeleine L'Engle, Stella Pevsner, Marion Dane Bauer, Clive Cussler, Lawrence Block, Lois Duncan, William Zinsser, Joyce Carol Oates, and Robert Newton Peck, to name only a few.
  • I am definitely no longer the complete pantser I once was. My favorite session was called "How to Write a Novel in 7 Steps," in which mystery writer Jess Lourey shared how she writes 60K-word novels in three months in her spare time. 
  • In another session, on setting, William Kent Krueger asked everyone to nail a description of their hometown in a sentence of less than ten words. He said, "Think about everything you don't have to say because you've said one thing really well." His example was a motel room with a dripping air conditioner and moldy carpet underneath it. You've got that room pegged, don't you? Here's what I jotted down about my childhood town: "Paper mill sludge perfumes the river that splits it." (Yes, this was before the first Earth Day. :)) 
It's pretty common for writers to come home from conferences ready to write. But while inspiration can come from session content or quotable speakers, it usually comes from the connections we make. I met my wonderful agent in person. I don't truly believe in luck, but the word somehow captures the feeling in the way that loftier, and sometimes smugger, words like "fortunate" or "blessed" just can't: I feel like the luckiest writer on the planet.

And I have plenty of writing to keep me busy. I'll be taking August off, but I'll see you here again on September 4. Have a wonderful rest of the summer!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Off to the MWW!

That's Midwest Writer's Workshop, and it's being held July 24-26, at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. This is a large, annual conference with a fine faculty of authors, agents, and editors -- and this year, MY agent will be there! A link to the whole scoop is here.

The conference also happens to be not far from my son's home -- so, yeah, everything aligned for me to go. :) I'll share some tidbits next week!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Every Day After, by Laura Golden

It's the Depression, and Lizzie Hawkins's father has taught her to always be tough and never accept charity. The thing is, Lizzie's father wasn't so tough himself: After losing his job, he's taken off and abandoned his family. Her father's abandonment has in turn caused her mother's, only in a different form. Lizzie's mother is now completely catatonic.

Lizzie feeds the two of them by fishing and tending the vegetable garden. She puts her mom to bed at night and gets her up in the morning. She does the laundry (which procedure is described in detail) and fixes her mom cups of tea. She has always been a top student (another demand of her father's). But now her heavy responsibilities mean her grades are slipping, to the delight of her nemesis, a thoroughly mean girl named Erin Sawyer whose family has recently moved to Alabama from Georgia. Erin wants to be top dog above all else, and, among other unreasonable demands, continually harangues Lizzie to pull out of an essay contest they have both entered.

Lizzie is not completely likable, and that might be a stumbling block for some readers. Specifically, she is quite self-centered, and when her friend Ben confronts her about it, we root for him. But not only does the author keep many readers (judging by the love this book has gotten) rooting for Lizzie in spite of her rather blatant faults, but she manages, in first-person narration, to convey that Lizzie is a somewhat unreliable narrator. The characterization, setting, and writing itself are nicely done.

We keep hearing that the Depression era has been overdone in historical fiction, yet here it is again. I would probably read any number of Depression-era novels, and apparently I have lots of company. Minor quibbles: This is yet another mother/child role-reversal story, and I'm honestly full-up on those. Erin is allowed to be much brattier in front of adults than I believe a child of that era could have gotten away with. And I just didn't buy the name Erin. For an obviously Irish character that might have been okay, but Erin was a popular name in the 1970s and '80s, not in 1917, the approximate year of the MC's birth. But as I said, minor quibbles. This is highly recommended.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Promote that Non-Debut Novel -- Guest Post by Anna Staniszewski

Today I'd like to welcome Anna Staniszewski to the blog. Her newest novel is THE PRANK LIST, released July 1 from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. She's here to talk about a subject I'd personally love to hear more about: marketing a novel when it's not your first -- when you don't qualify to join debut groups or otherwise capitalize on "debut" buzz. What do we do when we have to gear up for promo again, but on a second or later novel? Anna has some great tips. 

Marketing a Non-Debut Novel 
by Anna Staniszewski

When people ask me for advice on promoting their debut books, I tell them to try anything they can think of. If something works, use it again! If something fails, you’ll know better next time. But what should you do when your second (or fifth) book comes out? If you’ve been taking notes on what worked or didn’t the first time around, you’ll have a better sense of where to start. Here are a few other things to consider.

--Have a launch party. Do you feel guilty making your friends and family come out for yet another book event? Don’t! Think of it this way: wouldn’t you want to come support your friend or family member’s newest accomplishment? If your publication dates are close together (like mine are) then it might be fine to forgo an official launch, but make sure to have some event to help celebrate the book’s arrival. (I’m hosting a cupcake-decorating party at a local bookstore, for example.)

--Reach out to your community. Hopefully you’ve been keeping track of enthusiastic booksellers, supportive bloggers, etc. to contact again about your newest book baby. If people were excited about your first book, they’ll want to hear about your new one. Make sure to help promote them in return. Not only is this good etiquette, but it helps forge relationships for the future.

--Find your book’s implied audience. Is your title particularly good for mother/daughter book clubs, for example? Great! Put together a discussion guide and reach out to local libraries to see if they might be interested in using it. Is your book about a robotics competition? Awesome! Maybe there’s a local club you could team up with. Remember that every book--even if it’s part of a series--comes with its own marketing opportunities.

--Don’t be afraid to say no. If you know you hate doing school visits, for example, it’s okay not to do them. Use that time to write, instead. You’ll never be able to do everything, so you want to make sure that whatever marketing you choose is enjoyable and worthwhile. Again, keep a list of what you like and what works, so you can focus on those types of opportunities.

What are your marketing tips for debut or non-debut novels? Do you have any fun out-of-the-box ideas you’d recommend?

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. Currently, she lives outside Boston with her husband and their crazy dog. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series and the Dirt Diary series. Her newest book, The Prank List, released on July 1st from Sourcebooks. You can visit Anna at

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Revising Gets the Mistakes Out, Right?

My daughter was reading a novel by a popular mystery writer. Quoting to me from a certain page, she said, "The main character says, 'I left the keys in the ignition.'" She paged ahead a bit. By now, the MC was tangling with the villain, had ended up flat on the ground, and was casting about for any sort of tool. My daughter went on, "But here, she says, 'I felt a lump in my pocket and realized it was the car keys.'" My daughter put the book down. "I hate stuff like that!"

I do, too. At best, blatant inconsistencies take you out of the story. At worst, they kill the story and you shut the book for good. No matter how exciting the action or heightened the emotions in a scene, that all goes poof if you the reader are yelling, "You do not have the car keys in your pocket! You left them in the ignition!"

The thing is -- and I told my daughter this -- I get why these mistakes happen. They happen because of revision.

Revision is supposed to fix what's wrong, what's weak, what's not there yet. And, overwhelmingly, it does. I love revision, much more than I love writing the first draft. But the most difficult aspect of revision isn't making yourself change things. The most difficult aspect is performing the microsurgery that's involved in removing all traces of whatever you're taking out, altering all the spots that need to be changed because of something you've added, and then stitching the book back together so seamlessly that the reader never knows you once had story parts lying all over the place.

And why am I thinking of all this now? Because I'm revising, and I got to p. 8, and there's a big, fat inconsistency sitting there. Yes, only EIGHT pages in, and I've already found a "car keys" moment. But why is that mistake there? That inconsistency did not exist in the first, second, or third drafts of the chapter. It's here in the fourth (thereabouts) because I cut something out a few pages earlier, and along with that cut passage went whoops the piece of information that we need in order to not go "Huh?" on p. 8.

Part of the nature of revising anything is that, besides tackling old errors, we can introduce new ones, and we have to get rid of those, too. Now I'm wondering if I should go show this chapter to my daughter. :)  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Seeing Red, by Kathryn Erskine

Generations of Porters have been fixing cars in Stony Gap, Virginia, "ever since cars were born," as Red Porter's dad told him. His family's street is even called Porter's Shop Road. Red is twelve, but he's been changing oil on his own since he was nine, and Porter's Shop is everything Red loves: oil, gas, paint, brake pads, hoses, filters, Lava soap, old rags, "and a sink with a faucet you could turn on with just your elbow." Barely three pages into the book, I was completely invested in Red's being able to stay in that shop, on this land. Doing so will turn out to be almost impossible, of course, as Red's dad died of a heart attack just weeks earlier, there's no one to run the shop -- and at least part of the land might not even belong to the Porters.

Set in 1972, this rich, layered novel portrays a world in which civil rights and women's rights have barely awakened, and the Vietnam War fills the nightly news. The characters, major and minor, present and face difficult situations like child abuse, racial discrimination, and developmental disabilities. The pastor is a hypocrite. Red's early-childhood friendship with a black boy crumbles because of the pressures they face. Red is temporarily ensnared in a youth version of the KKK. His teacher, who is far from a hippie yet is teaching his class to "think," gets fired for not doing things the way they've always been done. Red, his younger brother, and his mom seem separated and scattered because they grieve in different ways. Worst of all, Red uncovers evidence that his great-great-great grandfather Porter, whose exact name he bears, shot a black man -- ancestor of an elderly woman he deeply admires -- in the back and stole his land. Red has always been proud of the Porter name. Now, he is not so sure.

There's enough plot here to keep the pages turning, and definitely enough impact and literary quality to make this an award contender, I think. This is a novel about small, gradual changes, and small, right choices, adding up to significant progress. While it may not be for the younger or sensitive reader (besides the other difficult subjects, the real-life lynching of Emmett Till is described in some detail), I otherwise highly recommend this.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Filling the Well

Really, I should phrase that "letting the well fill." Part of the process is the letting, not the controlling, or worse, the forcing.

I've decided that letting the well fill isn't all about getting a new book idea. Because I have one of those. Sometimes it's about just shifting gears. Taking a vacation of the mind or spirit. Sometimes it's about being something besides a writer. Laying it all down -- which is quite distinct from kicking it to the curb.

Sometimes letting the well fill involves reading. Who am I kidding: centers on reading. But I'm going to be selective and persnickety about that rather than going on a binge or a feast. If I were a runner, I'd run, but since this is me, I'll walk. And contemplate, and...and nothing, because this is letting the well fill. And it's trying on for size the idea of needing to be nothing except God's daughter.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

WRiTE CLUB, 2014

I know -- I usually post on Thursdays, and it's only Tuesday. But this is a time-sensitive post by guest-blogger DL Hammons, who is going to tell you all about WRiTE CLUB -- an annual writing contest whose final round is judged by published writers and industry pros! Submissions are open until this coming Saturday, May 31. So, take it away, DL!

WRiTE CLUB, 2014

First off, I'd like to thank Marcia for the opportunity to talk to you today about something near and dear to my heart...WRiTE CLUB. My modest writing contest has proven so popular that the DFW Writers Conference is now considering incorporating it into their agenda for 2015. 

What is WRiTE CLUB? It's a writing competition whose inspiration was derived from the movie Fight Club. There are numerous versions of this concept around the internet, but nothing quite like the way we do it. Its essence embodies simple, good-natured competition, with lots and lots of fun sprinkled on top.

Over the course of eight weeks, I hold twice-weekly bouts in which the winners advance to the playoffs, which will ultimately lead to a single champion. Bouts between whom, or what, you ask? Anonymous 500-word writing samples, submitted under a pen name by anyone who wishes to take part. The writing can be any genre, any style (even poetry), with the word count being the only restriction. It's a way to get your writing in front of a lot of readers without having to suffer the agony of exposure.

And the winners (except for the winner of the final round) are determined by WRiTE CLUB readers!

To find out how to become part of the fun, just head on over to and click on the WRiTE CLUB tab. Submissions are open now through May 31. After that date, a panel of a dozen judges will read all of the entries and pre-select 32 of the best writing samples to climb into the ring. Those 32 participants will then be randomly matched to compete over the next eight weeks, each of them hoping to make it into the playoff rounds and move toward the ultimate goal -- WRiTE CLUB champion. No one (other than my wife) -- not even the judges who pre-select the 32 contestants -- will see anyone's true identity. Unless you win, of course. 

Again this year, the most exciting part is that the winner of the final round will be chosen by a panel of publishing industry professionals! Judges include New York Times bestselling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning horror and thriller author Jonathan Maberry; agents Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates, Margaret Bail of the Andrea Hurst Agency, Sarah Negovetich of the Corvisiero Literary Agency, and Brittany Booker of the Booker Albert Literary agency; Candace Havens, Editorial Director of Entangled Publishing's Covet line; authors Les Edgerton and Lydia Kang;  and previous WRiTE CLUB winners Tiana Smith (2011), Mark Hough (2012), and Tex Thompson (2013).

Are you willing to WRiTE for what you want? Then crack those knuckles and get ready to flex that imagination. And whatever you do, tell your friends!

WRiTE CLUB -- the contest where the audience gets clobbered!

Thanks for the details, DL! Remember to check out his website for the full scoop, and, if you're an unagented writer currently polishing up a piece of writing, consider entering!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Cranky Reader

Random things I've noticed about reading:

  • There are piles of books I love, and other piles I return to the library unfinished. When I was a kid, I read pretty much everything I picked up. No longer being able to do this is something of an occupational hazard of writing. 
  • Plots that hinge on failure to communicate need big-time, compelling, convincing motivation for that failure.
  • Presently, I'm really tired of contemporary novels with dysfunctional moms.
  • I'm in a plot phase. I want something happening that keeps me turning pages.
  • If I reach a point where I can't remember why I'm reading a particular book, it makes me feel like the characters and author are self-indulgent.
  • I love beautiful language and quotable lines.
  • I love compelling emotion and motivations I believe in my very bones.
  • I love an overarching and at least somewhat concrete goal that the MC must accomplish by story's end. When I'm a third or halfway through the book and have lost sight of this, I get antsy.
  • I love a lot of books, but I'm not blown away by many. The last MG novel that blew me away was Splendors and Glooms.
What have you noticed about reading lately?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Nightingale's Nest, by Nikki Loftin

Twelve-year-old Little John feels responsible for his younger sister's death. They'd been climbing trees one day, and he jumped down, so she did too -- and was killed. Now, his depressed mother is losing her hold on reality, sometimes thinking her daughter is still alive. His father drinks too much. Money is so scarce that all luxuries (gaming system, cable TV) have been sold or dropped, and even making the rent is in question. Dad owns a tree removal service, and this summer LJ must work for him so that they can tackle a large job for the Emperor, so called because he is the rich owner of a string of dollar stores. LJ is only too happy to do so, because he feels that "every last murderous tree" in the world should be cut down. The first day on the job, though, he meets another little girl, about his sister's age at the time she died, who wants nothing more than to live in a tree and seems strangely able to do just that.

The book's first sentence sums up the story to a great degree: "When I first heard Gayle, I couldn't tell if she was a bird or a girl." Indeed, in this tale of magical realism, we are never sure. Her hair is soft as down, she "perches" and "hops like a wren," she's so light that possibly her bones are hollow. But the central story is Little John's, as he tries to dig himself out of a mountain of regret only to compound it. And when he faces a choice between betraying Gayle (as he, in a sense, betrayed his sister) or helping what's left of his family survive, he's facing a truly wrenching dilemma.

Based on Hans Christian Anderson's "The Nightingale," this is an emotionally affecting book with gorgeous writing, complex characters, a strong theme of forgiveness, and more richness than I can convey here. I would not be at all surprised if this novel becomes an award contender. While some readers may struggle with the sadness in the book, I never found it overwhelmingly gloomy, and it is balanced by the magic, and the ending. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Living the Dream (World)

The other day, something hit me. Now, this is not news, really. Not at all. But the impact of this realization was stronger than it's been in maybe forever: I live in a dream world. Like, all the time.

I can stare out the passenger window of a car (passenger window; I drive quite attentively, really I do) and be a million miles away. (When my husband's driving. If it's anybody else I feel less freedom and thus more duty to make conversation.) This dreaming goes way back, of course. When I was in sixth grade, and the in thing to do was play dodge ball every day at lunch recess, I always played, if by "played" you mean pranced around my side of the court and, on such rare occasions as I'd catch the ball, lobbed it with no particular aim at the opposing team. But that wasn't the real game, as far as I was concerned. Because, the whole time, I was observing the kids as characters and noticing how they threw the ball. One girl -- tall, skinny, tough -- cocked her arm straight back at waist level and threw bullets. Another, a "cute little thing," used both arms to swing the ball to her left and shot high, graceful arcs. During the game, I mind-wrote descriptions of  the kids and how they handled the ball. Everyone did it differently. Everyone had their signature throw. I couldn't just play dodge ball. I couldn't even mostly play dodge ball. It wasn't that I consciously thought there wasn't enough fun in an earthbound game. It's that I mostly don't know how to do something in the concrete, physical realm only. (And maybe that's why I'm always the one who can't work contraptions.)

The real world, so concrete, so full of things and tasks and jabber, has just never had much hold on me. Rather, the events of the real world have been doors into the games I really want to play, the scenes I really want to live -- and happily do, through imagination, and sometimes, I think, through spiritual, if not physical, reality.

Oh, and the the tall boy who didn't play dodge ball much, but the day he did, hit me "right in the numbers" with an overhand hardball that my surprised arms flew up and caught, causing my friend to scream, "Marcia? You caught that?" and causing me to zing, for once, fully into the moment? Him? He appears elsewhere in this story. Can you find him?

As for that recent event that caused me to realize how fully I live in a dream world? I can't remember what it was. The dream is ever so much more enticing.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ice Dogs, by Terry Lynn Johnson

I know, I know -- it's May. Winter was long enough! But I just have to squeeze this one in.

Fourteen-year-old Victoria is one of Alaska's top junior mushers. She takes after her father, an award-winning musher who taught her everything she knows and who tragically died in a wilderness accident the previous year. Her mother, on the other hand, doesn't understand the love for dogsled racing.

So when Vicky qualifies for a big race, considers a new lead dog for her team, wants to look at the dogs her neighbor has for sale, and Mom turns thumbs down, Vicky hitches up six of her dogs and goes anyway. It's only thirty-five miles, and she'll be back by afternoon. Except she's hit by an unexpected blizzard. That, and she finds an injured boy about her age who has crashed his snowmobile. The extra passenger weighs her sled down,  knows zero about the wilderness (having just moved from a big city), and is unwanted company in any case, but in trying to bring him home she gets hopelessly lost. The rest of the plot follows the humans and dogs as they fight to survive the all-but-unsurvivable.

The emotional story progresses, too, as Vicky slowly discovers that a greenhorn city-slicker might have some value as a human being after all, comes face to face with the way her father died, connects with her dog team in an even deeper way than before, and begins to imagine and have compassion for what her mother is going through now that she, too, is missing in the Alaskan wilderness during a terrible storm. Victoria is a prickly, snarky character whom I didn't always like, but found fully believable. Definitely recommended, especially for readers who love action but prefer some depth along with it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

One-week Blogcation

I'm taking a break this week only, for family visiting. See you all on May 1!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's Thursday!

...and for the first time in a long time I didn't have a post ready to go up bright and early. My bad. Except, of course, it's not "bad."

I've been very busy writing, and just finished a big revision. Not big as in sweeping changes throughout the manuscript, but big in significance. So I am in that glow of "having written," which is one of the special moments we get as writers. And it feels especially good to be clearing my plate, as it were, for Easter weekend, setting daily life aside to focus on what, on Who, is most important to me.

Happy Passover/Easter, everyone.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What the Moon Said, by Gayle Rosengren

Set during the Great Depression -- an era we are often told is overdone in historical fiction -- this wonderful MG novel follows ten-year-old Esther from Chicago to a Wisconsin farm after her father loses his job in the city. From the beginning, it's filled with specific details that surround Esther and her sister as they make their way to a movie theater for a Rin Tin Tin matinee -- streetcars, a bread line, childhood games of the 1930s. But no details are as vivid to Esther as the signs her mother notices: a ring around the moon, dropping a spoon at supper, seeing a spider before breakfast, putting shoes on a table. All of these, and many more, foretell the good or bad luck that will befall their family, and Esther is proud that her mother learned so many important things back in Russia. Now, if only her mother would hug and kiss her. But Ma is a serious, even stern woman, and seems even more so toward Esther than her siblings. Wondering why she isn't loved as much as the others, Esther makes it her objective to please her mother so much that she'll win the affection she longs for.

It's this affecting goal that forms the through line of the story that follows Esther's adjustment from city to farm life. There are ups and downs, hard work and fun, until the day Ma "reads" a sign that Esther knows must be wrong. If she defies Ma she'll never gain her love, but can she be cruel to a new friend on Ma's say-so?

I loved the mother/daughter aspect of this story, the love of the family members that shows through despite the lesser physical affection true to the era, and the fact that Ma, as well as Esther, has to learn the hard way that not everything she thinks she knows is accurate. Heartwarming and beautifully written. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Random Thoughts on Revision

  • I love to revise.
  • Since revision often means writing new scenes, maybe a little more love will bleed over into drafting, too. You'd think, right?
  • When two books mash up against each other, I find that in the revision stage it's not terribly hard to switch from one to the other. I'm trying to think if I ever drafted two books at the same time while writing series on deadline. I don't think so. When it became clear that the order of two books was going to change, I set the one aside to write the other first. Either that or I have willfully blanked out the experience. 
  • Extended time in the revision cave has either turned me into more of a night owl or reawakened the night owlish-ness of my youth. My college roommate, a true morning person, got up at 6:45am seven days a week and was in bed every night before 10:30 with almost no ceremony. By which I mean she pretty much announced "I'm getting ready for bed" and immediately dove under her covers straight from her desk chair. I, on the other hand, often got up on weekends just in time to make it to lunch. This changed when I had kids (a shock, I know) -- but I was happily a morning person for a long time afterwards. And I've never been the die-hard night owl my two older children are. Guess I'm a hybrid. Anyway, I find the switch interesting, and I'm enjoying the quiet of late night to write. And for whatever reason, the temptation to waste time online is less then. 
So what do you think -- drafting or revising? One book at a time, or two at once? Have you noticed any changes in your writing life, maybe after having done things a certain way for a long time?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Below, by Meg McKinlay

This novel set in Australia has a wonderful beginning sentence: "The day that I was born, they drowned my town." The cover, first line, and premise form an almost irresistible triple hook. Twelve years ago, on the day of Cassie's premature birth, the mayor of her hometown, Old Lower Grange, flipped a lever and buried the town under 200 feet of water. The citizens celebrated the formation of this man-made lake from inside the borders of their new town, New Lower Grange, amid balloons and barbecue and a brass band. Except Cassie's parents, and their perfect two-child family, couldn't go. Because Cassie's parents were rushing to the hospital to have the baby who was doubly unexpected: Not only had they never intended a third child, but she was surprising them by coming way too soon.

Cassie's lungs were underdeveloped at birth, and her doctor requires her to swim six laps a day, every day, to exercise them. But the pool is always overcrowded, and Cassie is tired of people doing cannonballs on top of her when she's just trying to swim her laps. So one day she goes to the man-made lake. Not only is it fascinating because it's Lower Grange's own personal Atlantis, but because her family history lies there, a history that her parents and adult siblings made together that she, a late intruder into their lives, cannot share. Day after day, Cassie begins to swim in the lake, soon joined by Liam, a boy just enough older than she to have been born in Old Lower Grange, and whose family suffered a tragedy there. It doesn't take long before the kids realize the water level is sinking; the top of the fire lookout tree is now several feet above the surface. And then they start diving, and the mayor catches them, and gets way, way too upset. The rest of the plot is concerned with dredging up what the mayor's been trying to keep submerged.

I loved the language and writing style, especially since just prior to this book I'd tried to read another one that was so "loud and chatty" I had to put it down. Also, the midpoint of the plot is absolutely riveting. I had some quibble with the pacing though; I found it a bit slow to get underway and at the same time too rushed in the end. There was some symbolism that just kind of came and went. It's a short read, which in a sense I liked, but in another sense I'd like to have seen way, way more done with this material and these characters. All in all, I enjoyed it. Recommended.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What's on the Nightstand

What a nice place to retire to in the evening.
My nightstand is actually not as overburdened with books as it once was. I've found that if the pile is high enough to teeter, I tend to give each book less chance before I give up on it. What that means, I've realized, is that a tall TBR pile, at least these days, represents pressure to me. Well, perish the thought! It's taken discipline, but I've decided to have fewer books here at any one time. All the better to savor each one. But what's on the pile? Let's get closer.
That's CS Lewis's Mere Christianity, the Thompson Chain Reference Bible, another Bible with a pretty cover and a compact size that's easy to carry, and my journal. While Mere Christianity isn't always there, the other three are constants on the nightstand. And on the other stack:
Which means I can try some spine poetry:

What the Moon Said
Ghosts at Tupelo Landing
Ice Dogs

What's on your TBR pile?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My B&B Writing Retreat

Along with a writing friend, I spent Monday afternoon through Wednesday morning here, at the Audubon Inn, in Mayville, WI.

Yes, it is that gorgeous. And due to get even gorgeous-er, since they are updating the decor and making great new plans for the restaurant. All the rooms and suites are named after birds, and I stayed in The Falcon.

Yes, that's a falcon picture above the writing desk. And while I'm partial to the lace and flowers, I spent a lot of great time at THE DESK making good headway on my WIP. In the evenings, we visited over dinner (Chinese the first night, Italian the second), then repaired again to our respective rooms where, for me and I suspect also for her, there was more writing sandwiched between whirlpool sessions spent reading other people's fiction. We may have to make this an annual event!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

In Which Not Having Time to Blog Results in Blogging

I am swamped! In a good way. There's lots of revision, and processing beta comments, and thinking about my story six ways from Sunday, and family phone calls, and planning my strategy for an upcoming writing retreat, and a manuscript to reread, and time to pray and dig into the Bible, and -- Must. Exercise. Must. Move. More! What's great is that walking, my exercise of choice, is great for both prayer and story-mulling.

What's also great is that DH (what's fun about calling him that is these are his initials) is perfectly content, nay eager, to be our main contact with the outside world. By which I mean he runs All The Errands. I tease him that the library ladies, who've taken to calling him "Mr. Marcia," would be disappointed if I showed up myself to check out the stream of books I normally keep on hold. Not all men would do this -- and with such a completely willing heart on top of it. Some men would bristle at the "Mr. Marcia" joke. Some people, frankly, would hear that phrase and suspect our family is "out of order." But he receives it in the good humor with which it's meant, and brightens others' days as he runs here and stops there. That's the man with whom I have been blessed.

So -- I am swamped, but in a good way. Do stay tuned, though, because next week I'll post about a friend's and my writing retreat at a B&B. Can't wait!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Quotable CS Lewis

Do writers and quotes just naturally go together? I don't mean are all writers eminently quotable; I mean do writers just need quotes in some way? To help us jell a theme, characterization, concept, or key moment in a plot or character arc? Do they help us get at the essence of truth? I think they do; at any rate, I know that when somebody nails a good statement it's as if I admire the idea, the verbal acuity, and feel that I've gotten a gift and made a connection, all at once.

Here are some quotes from CS Lewis, whom I'd definitely nominate for membership in Most Quotable Club, that have done one or more of these things for me:

"Friendship is born at that moment when one says to another: "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself..." Who can't recall moments like this? Aren't they golden? Wouldn't they make a great "moment when I knew so-and-so was my friend" in a story?

"Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to now one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness." Ouch. How true is that?

"A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." Has friendship been born, or what? :) (See the first quote.) The honest truth? I'd like to tell this to a few people on Goodreads.

"Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning..." I have nothing to add.

"The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only -- and that is to support the ultimate career." This is a Lewis quote that I never saw before until a week ago. We have to remember that the man died in 1963, back when you could say this. But this is exactly what I thought when I was a kid growing up. On an endless string of winter mornings I'd wake up to the radio my dad already had playing softly as he got ready for his day, and it would sing: "It's Cream of Wheat weather, we repeat; so guard your family with hot Cream of Wheat." And I'd think, "Oh, no, it's morning already, and it's Cream of Wheat weather on top of it!" I had to get up and get ready for school. My sister had to get up and get ready for school. My dad was already up getting ready for school. And we all had to leave the house with our snowpants and our mufflers and even our bag lunches if it was so bad we couldn't go home for lunch (which most kids did, but we did not walk uphill both ways, I promise, and I should add that my dad got to drive). My mom got up, too, and saw us off, made sure we had everything we needed, and got her own day started. But she didn't have to leave the house, and she was her own boss. Maybe it takes an introverted writer to really get off on this, but I knew which one of us four had the best deal. Mom the homemaker, I was completely convinced, had the ultimate career. And how I would love, love, love to believe that the other careers that exist are still in support of the homemaker, and the sacrifices s/he makes, and the very real financial risks s/he takes.

And all this helps answer my questions about quotes, I think, because when I began this post I had no idea I was going to write the above.  Good quotes are the pickaxes we need to tap into a fiction writer's ultimate goldmine: our emotional truth.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Next on the Steering Toward Normal ARC Tour is...

Oh, my bloggy friends, you are all so dear that I wish I could send the ARC to all of you!

So I turned to my impartial friend,, and R.O says the ARC of Steering Toward Normal is steering toward... FAITH!!!!!!!!!

Which is not a bad book title either, is it? :) Next stop, Connecticut!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Steer" Here for a Chance to Join this ARC Tour!

This contemporary MG novel is due out in May, 2014, from Abrams/Amulet. In Rebecca Petruck's debut, Steering Toward Normal, there is humor. There is heart. There's food for thought about what it means to be father and son, and what it means for 13yo Diggy to discover that one of his classmates just happens to be his half-brother. There's small-town, rural life, 4H, and the competitive raising of prize steers to show at the state fair, with a 12K purse at stake. There are plenty of April Fool's pranks. There may possibly be cow pies. 

I have had the fun of being involved in Rebecca's ARC tour. I got the ARC from MG writer Kim Van Sickler. Rebecca asked us to take a photo or make a short video with the ARC, and said that we get bonus points for involving a steer. Okay -- do you think this counts as "involving a steer"?

Now for the continued fun: the ARC needs to go to a new reader. Because state fairs figure prominently in the story, it would be great if the ARC could visit as many states (especially ones that have state fairs!) as possible. Here's all you have to do to get your chance to be next in line:
1. Comment below, using either the word "STEERING" or "NORMAL" in your comment.
2. You need to live in the US for this one (sorry).
3. Live in a state OTHER THAN: North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, seeing as how the ARC has already pranked toured these states.

That's all there is to it. So, comment away! Winner will be announced TUESDAY, February 18.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Doll Bones, by Holly Black

I have to admit, when I first heard this was a book about a doll made out of the bones of a murdered girl, I wasn't interested. I believe I shuddered, actually. But curiosity, the fact that this is done for a MG audience, and Newbery buzz combined to make me pick it up. And I'm glad I did.

Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever, and even though they are now twelve, they continue to role-play with action figures to the point that their fantasy storyline has gotten very elaborate and absorbing. They are not just misfit kids who have no other friends, though. Zach, the POV character, is also an up-and-coming basketball player, growing up into a handsome kid (though he doesn't see this himself), and loves the sense of belonging he gets from his teammates. Zach's dad, who is suffering hurts of his own, decides that the time has come for Zach to put away childish things, and since Zach isn't inclined, he'll do it for him: He throws out all Zach's action figures. Zach, angry, embarrassed, and suspecting maybe he should be ashamed, refuses to tell the girls what happened. Instead, he turns his anger on them and tells them he can't play anymore. That's it. The end. Finis. It's when Poppy gets The Queen -- her mother's antique doll made of bone china -- out of its glass case in a dramatic attempt to get Zach to change his mind that ghostly things begin to happen. In short, the doll convinces the kids, particularly the loud and dramatic Poppy, that she is the bones and ash of a murdered girl, and unless they take her to her grave, where the rest of her remains are buried, she will make their lives miserable.

From there, they go on a road trip in an effort to accomplish the quest. I'm not going to detail the plot much more, to avoid spoilers, but this book is at heart a friendship story. Where the novel really shines is in its delineation of the relationships between all three kids and how each one is changing and fears change in the others. The adventurous plot is a wonderful vehicle for this exploration, and there are some great quotes such as the one by Zach's dad when they reconcile: "I thought you needed to be tougher. But I've been thinking that protecting somebody by hurting them before someone else gets the chance isn't the kind of protecting that anybody wants." I'm also fascinated by the history of bone china, which is touched on and may or may not have been the impetus for this story.

I had a couple of minor quibbles with the book. It absolutely turns on the fact that Zach wouldn't explain to his friends why he wouldn't play the game anymore, and I wasn't fully convinced he would keep that secret for as long as he did. And, for me, the quest portion bogged down a bit until it suddenly got irresistibly exciting. In fact, I came this close to putting the book down, but I'm really glad I didn't. A very good novel, worthy of its Newbery Honor.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Soapbox Series #8 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- Write What You Love, Even if it's a Vampire Werewolf Dystopian Love Triangle?

My goodness, I haven't ranted in a while. Let me rectify this oversight! :)

I have seen the following question asked in a couple of different places. It goes something like this: "I'm working on a novel, and (a) it's in a genre everybody  knows is overcrowded but I love this idea, or (b) I just found out that two books very much like it are coming out next year. Should I write it anyway, or should I shelve this book even though I love it?"

It probably comes as no surprise that the usual, very passionate, advice is "Write what you love!"

And I couldn't agree more! What troubles me, though, is the implied corollary: "If you love it, you must write it. If you love it, that's justification enough." I dunno. I wonder if it wouldn't be more accurate to say "Love what you write!" As in, yes, I will commit to a project only if I love it. Only if I think it's "mine" to write. Only if it really taps into my heart. But does it follow that if I feel this way about a project, I must write it, even if there are reasons to consider not doing so?

No. In the first place, most writers are already in a position where they will never write all the ideas they love: There are too many for one lifetime. So while love is necessary, it's not enough to assure that any particular idea moves from the "great ideas" file to the "finished manuscripts" file. To wax mathematical for a moment, love for an idea or story is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Unless you know you are writing a practice novel, I don't see how "Never mind the market and just go for it!" is the best advice. In days of yore, after selling a MG series written in third person, I started a mystery series in first person. The MC decided she was going to speak for herself, thank you very much. "No," my editor on the first series said. "We don't do first person." Period. Even if I loved the project, or had done it well, it still wasn't marketable to that house. Fortunately, I was able to sell it elsewhere, but that doesn't change the fact that love doesn't conquer all. It's a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

More recently, I caught "the last train out of the station" with a certain genre. I wasn't thinking about what was popular or unpopular in the market. I'd just found a great idea and dove into passionate work on it. I was about 3/4 done with the book when I started hearing that this genre was saturated. What's more, I found out that two other books on my specific subject within that genre were scheduled to come out within the following year to year-and-a-half. No, those agents were not going to take on what was essentially a competing book, nor were those publishers. My book's competition was too direct, and there wasn't room for another, especially since it was a latecomer. My love for the project could not change that.

Many would encourage the writer to stick with a project by saying, "Your book will be completely different from the other book because you are a different writer!" Well, maybe it will and maybe it won't. No one can blithely promise you that your book will be completely different. There can be uncanny resemblances between your work and somebody else's. And some topics in themselves are too specific to stand much competition.

I think "Write what you love/write what will sell" is a false dichotomy. I insist that the twain shall meet. I want to write salable work, and I'm willing to tweak both the love and the market aspects so that I'm writing something I love and that isn't market-handicapped. It just seems to me that since I love a lot of different books, there's always a new idea to love, and in the end I can have my story and (hopefully) sell it, too.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Writer Marathon Soup

Too busy writing to cook? Need sustenance during your writing retreat that you can "just grab" and that's also healthy? Try my Writer Marathon Soup. Amounts here are approximate, and you can make any substitutions or omissions you like. On the eve of a two- or three-day "writer immersion" event, spend about 40 minutes putting this soup together, and it can feed two or three people for the duration.

Writer Marathon Soup
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1-2 cartons chicken broth
1 can kidney beans
1 can white beans
1 can black beans
1 can green beans
1 can petite diced tomatoes
1-2 chopped onions
1/2 lb. baby carrots, cut if desired
2-3 ribs chopped celery
1/2 bag frozen veggies such as peas, corn, or green beans
garlic powder
lemon pepper
Italian seasoning

1. Place chicken breasts in microwave-safe casserole. Cover and microwave 20 minutes on high for frozen. Fresh will be somewhat less.
2. Meanwhile, plug in or set on stovetop a large Dutch oven. Add to it the broth and canned items. Set heat to medium or medium low.
3. Prepare the onions, carrots, and celery, and put them plus any frozen veggies you're using in a microwave-safe casserole or bowl big enough to accommodate them. Add a little water.
4. When your chicken is done, take it out of the microwave and put the dish of veggies in. Cover the veggies and microwave on high till done, about 7-8 minutes or done to your liking. While the veggies are cooking, cube chicken and add to Dutch oven. Using a colander or strainer, you may want to add any chicken broth from the casserole to the pot as well.
5. When the veggies are done, add them plus the water from their cooking dish to the soup pot.
6. Add enough water to make your pot as full as practicable.
7. Add your seasonings in any amounts you wish.

You can now heat this soup through and serve, or refrigerate for later. I also do the dishes as I go, so by the time the pot's in the fridge, or within minutes after, they're all stacked in the dish drainer. You can vary this basic recipe and method so freely that the soup can be different each time you make it. Perfect for these cold winter days! :)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Dog Called Homeless, by Sarah Lean

Cally's mother died in a car accident a year ago, and her father and older brother are dealing with their grief by packing away all the reminders and not speaking of their wife/mom. At school, Cally's mouth seems to always be open when it shouldn't be. Her best friend dumps her. When Cally begins to see visions of her mom in a red raincoat, accompanied by a large wolfhound who is not ghostly but real, she speaks up and says so. Dad gets angry and tells her he doesn't want to hear it; her aunt, more gently, tells her she's mistaken. Furthermore, Dad is putting their house on the market and moving the family to an apartment, and no amount of "please don't do this" makes any difference.

Then, at school, comes a charity fundraiser that involves volunteering to remain silent for 24 hours. When her ex-friend and other classmates jeer that Cally couldn't possibly keep her mouth shut, she volunteers. She completes the challenge with ease, and then, when the principal announces that the volunteers may speak again -- Callie doesn't. She realizes that she sees no reason. No one listens to her, anyway.

In the new apartment, Callie makes friends with a boy in the other flat who is blind, nearly deaf, and may have cerebral palsy or a similar condition. Though she doesn't speak, and in any event can speak to Sam only by spelling into his hand, the two grow into close companions. What the story seems to be saying here is that it's willing, listening hearts that really forge communication, not merely, or necessarily, the ability to speak.

Cally continues to see her mother's ghostly image, and the very real dog, which, while connected to her mother, is also being looked after by a homeless man, Jed. While everyone around Cally's family comes to believe that the dog belongs with them, to the point of telling her father so, he angrily insists they cannot take care of a dog.

We know that in the end they will, and that Cally will speak again, too. It's the emotional journey that's prominent here. I found myself rooting for Cally to not speak again until she was good and ready, and in that way this book tapped into powerful childhood emotions for me -- always a sign that I'll find that book a winner. Lovely and heartwarming. Recommended for anyone who would like a realistic story with overtones of magical realism.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

I Took the Plunge...

...and joined Facebook. Yeah, I know, what's so "plunge-y" about that? I mean, I got on Twitter without any angst, and my initial reaction to Twitter was, "Are you kidding? Who wants to TEXT the entire internet? And what for?" But I saw some advantages to Twitter. For me, at least, it's not a time suck. I can "get in and get out." And I've found that having to express something in only 140 characters results in a lot of "right between the eyes" quotes and uproarious lines appearing in my feed. In other words, it's not hard to find good food for thought or your laugh for the day, in only a few minutes. I like the challenge of saying something so concisely. I've found some great writing links. I've connected with people. And I know who I am on Twitter: I'm a writer.

With Facebook, most of this is murkier. I've only been on for two days -- and granted, the first evening it took some time to set up my account -- but the time-suck temptation is already stronger. You become Facebook friends with Cousin Hattie, and then you see that she's friends with Long Lost Mary, and whatever did become of good ol' Mary anyway...? I am absolutely firm that I will not get sucked in to excess, but I do get that you can suddenly look up at the clock and two hours have passed. And because the posts can be longer, they are, which means they (a) lack the punch of tweets, and (b) take longer to read. There's not the nice little challenge of boiling something down to 140 characters. And I'm not that sure who I am on Facebook. The mix of personal and professional has always made me a little skittish, and since we hear about people's FB accounts being used against them by prospective or actual employers, why shouldn't it?

I'm sure it'll all be okay. Despite the fact that I've friended mostly writers, while at the same time I'll enjoy keeping up with some cousins and other extended family that I don't see much. Because, truth to tell, what finally made me break down and join was missing out on an important piece of info once too often. As another writer said just recently, Facebook (among other, newer social media sites) is where the conversation is going on. With this mix of professional and personal, I guess that on FB I'll just have to be a person. :)

By the way, if you're on and I haven't sent you a friend request, feel free to send me one.