Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My favorite Christmas movies

I adore Christmas movies, but other than "Elf", I didn't see many on British TV this year. Not even The Muppet Christmas Carol! I just don't feel ready for Christmas.

So I figured I'd take this opportunity to reminisce a bit, play on You Tube, and share my list of favorite Christmas movies. I've always wanted to do a Christmas-movie marathon, but somehow I'm not sure anyone else shares a similar love of romantic comedies, dramas and children's movies. I'd love to see what your favorites are in the comments!

While You Were Sleeping

My second favorite romantic comedy ever (my first favorite is "When Harry Met Sally", which is unfortunately more of a New Year's movie, not a Christmas one). It's set in beautiful Chicago, it has snow, a cute and cheerful Sandra Bullock, lots of humor and (very important for a romantic comedy) I never once feel squirmy and tempted to write the studio complaining about their misogyny. Plus Peter and Jack's family completely reminds me of the family I married into.



Little Women

OK, I'm not sure many people would think of it as a Christmas movie, but it's got Christmas scenes, lots of snow, and a generous and loving family (and it's that last bit that really makes me think of Christmas).



A Charlie Brown Christmas

Every year I listen to the music (this year I listened while making latkes. Both the Jews and the Christians would probably be angry about that one!). My sister and I used to imitate the Peanuts' dances:



And every time I hear that passage from Luke, I hear Linus reciting it in one of my favorite TV moments ever. It gives me chills and somehow never feels didactic, more magical.



National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Phil has added a few comedies onto my list. Perhaps this movie gets a little closer to the truth than all my romanticized versions of Christmas.



The Christmas Story

This is Phil's family's favorite. Phil's dad is Ralphie and his Uncle is Randy. It's like the producers watched them grow up.



Christmas Eve on Sesame Street

The best Christmas movie ever. Ever. It makes me laugh, it makes me teary eyed, it perfectly captures the magic of Christmas. I realize it looks a little dated, but I'm so sad it is never shown on TV anymore. But you can watch the whole thing on YouTube! The below clip is the beginning, where you can see all the characters (including Mr Hooper!) ice skating, that incredible little skater with Big Bird, and the characters rolling Oscar across the ice rink and down the stairs.



I hope everyone has a merry holiday season. I'm taking a bit of a break myself, and will see you all again in January. Take care.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cheese! Adverts you won't see in the US

So pleased to share a year-end installment in my adverts you won't see in the US series. The two previous ads (Salmon Fish Fingers and Corsodyl Mint Mouthwash) would have never made it to US TVs because of their sexual content (outright nudity with the mouthwash!). In this Boursin cheese ad the actors are fully clothed. However, it's the ad's sadistic humor that would keep it off US airwaves. Oh, and celebrating a total love of cheese--not sure many Americans would get that either! Enjoy!


Friday, December 18, 2009

Wrapping up a year and a semester

Today is the final day of my first semester in my Writing for Young People course.

It's really quite amazing. I love looking backwards at life when it's turned out well. At the beginning of September, I blogged about all my anxieties upon starting school. It's such an incredible feeling to report, several months in, my lunch money has not been stolen once. I've also made friends, thoroughly enjoyed my classes, wrote more than I imagined I could, been challenged, and been successful. How often in life can one say all that? I feel so blessed in this unexpected life journey.

And how is my writing? Because, at the end of the day, that's why I embarked on this course, right? Right.

Well, I've learned a ton. I've learned I can write for different age groups. I've learned I love writing picture books. I've learned what I tend to be good at (setting, voice) and what I'm not so good at (plot, passive characters). I've learned I can generate a whole new character, setting and plot. A new story every week, if need be. That comforts a lot of fears. I have more than one book inside me.

I still have one major fear fluttering about my brain. Everything's moving way too fast. Can I possibly have a publishable manuscript ready by next September? Will I actually be happy with it? Will anyone else be? Deep breath. Exhale. Okay, moving on...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bright, fun and sparkly... until I mess it up

How do you start a novel?

Do you start at page one and just write until the story is completely told? Or do you put off writing for months and instead develop characters, brainstorm plot twists and create an outline? I've done both, and made both work for me, but neither technique was without its faults.

Good news? I've got a new idea.* It's bright and fun and sparkles in the light. I told my tutor about my new idea, convinced she would knock some sense into me and tell me to put it into a drawer. Instead, she loved it. Even better? I brought two pieces of it into workshop and my fellow students loved it. All very exciting. My tutor told me to keep working on it over the holidays and to see how it went.

But here's the thing... it's so bright and fun and sparkly... I really don't want to mess it up.

Over the years, and especially in this past semester, I've realized plot is a big weakness of mine. I'm so scared of not having it that I tend to have it in abundance, to shove it down all my characters' throats and mold them to my plot's will. That doesn't work so well. So, while my new idea already has a premise and an ending, I'd like to develop the rest of the plot through my character. I keep telling myself it needs to be organic.

But how does one DO organic? Isn't it just supposed to come naturally?

I feel like I'm at the beginning of a labyrinth. Just by walking forward, choosing to take only left turns, I'm making decisions. Even if I leave bread crumbs in my path, will I ever be able to totally erase the decisions I make?

My inclination at the moment is to write some more scenes and to see where they take me. Even though the efficient part of my brain dies a little bit every time I say that.

But all of this being said, I'm happy with my bright, fun and sparkly idea. I've waited a long time to get it. Now I just have to make the most of it.

Any advice?

* No, I won't share my idea publicly. Why? The writing process. Also I don't like feeling like an idiot when ideas blow up in my face.

Monday, December 14, 2009

5 Best Books of 2009

A lot of the blogs I read are doing summations for 2009 (The Book Smugglers have invented a whole holiday and ad campaign for their Smugglivus!). Not wanting to be alone, I have decided to share my five favorite books of 2009.

Why only five? Well, five were easy. There were five books that right away jumped out at me as some of the absolute best books I've ever read. Spots six, seven, eight, etc. started to get contentious.

So I bring you, in the order I read them, the Critically-Yours BEST BOOKS OF 2009:

1. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver
I know, I know, I had NEVER read THE POISONWOOD BIBLE before!!!

I've read one of Kingsolver's other books (which shall remain nameless) and it was... *shrug*... okay. So even though I kept hearing that I must read PB, I never really got around to it. I had to embark on a novel with three narrators to finally read PB as homework (PB has five narrators). And I was absolutely blown away. This was pre-blog days, so I didn't blog about it. But suffice to say I was in France in spring while I was reading it and had to force myself to leave the hotel room.

I'm not sure what I can say to do the book justice, but I felt as if I was in Africa. I completely cared for each of the characters and actively wanted to follow their journeys. I learned something about African history and politics. Because of Kingsolver's religious and political themes, I felt like shouting "Amen!" at the end of every chapter. And even now that I have finished it, I feel like I still carry a bit of it in my heart. How is that for loving a book?

2. CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers

Excerpt from my blog review in August:
Like SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson (one of my other favorites), CRACKED UP TO BE is about the horrors of high school and reveals the mystery of what happened at the end. But I found CRACKED UP TO BE surprisingly more complex, more real. SPEAK, for all its terror, has a clearer resolution. And SPEAK is about one horrific event, not so much all the games children play every day in school just to survive.


Click here for my blog's full review.


3. JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE by Wendy Mass

From my Goodreads review: What is the meaning of life? Jeremy Fink and his best friend Lizzy are determined to find out in time for Jeremy's thirteenth birthday. Jeremy's dad intended to tell him on this special day, but instead died in a car accident, leaving only a locked box with four keyholes and no keys. JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE is a beautiful book about friendship and family, but also all the random ways we are connected with the rest of humanity, even in a chaotic and sometimes frightening city like New York. This is a book one should buy, read, re-read, and then buy for your fifty closest friends. An absolute treasure.

4. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith

Excerpt from my blog review in October:
Readers often say they want the next Little Women or the next Harry Potter or the next Jane Eyre. But I think what they really want is a book that can recreate the feeling of reading one of those novels. A book that will keep you reading past dinner, late into the night, without once looking at the clock. A book that will have you laughing out loud, gasping, and re-reading passages just to recreate certain exact moments. A book that once you finish it, you want to run out into the night and buy a copy of your own to keep forever. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is such a book. And I am beyond annoyed that it was published first in 1949 and I have only heard of it now. Had I read this book in middle school or high school, I know I would have carried it through my life, recreated its scenes in my head, reread it until all its pages were falling out. But luckily I have discovered it now, and I still have the rest of my life to reread it often.

Click here for my blog's full review.

And... drumroll please... number 5. The inspiration for this whole post because I just finished it a few days ago and I think I'm having withdrawal symptoms!!!

5. THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz
Zafón

Somehow this book was an international bestseller, but I had never heard of it. I was book browsing in a Bath market when a friend pointed it out to me. The bookseller nodded in agreement and said, "Your friend is right, that book's amazing." Well, being the cheapskate I am, I promptly reserved it at the library.

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND begins in 1945 Barcelona in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books with a book that so moves ten-year-old Daniel that he refuses to sell it. Rumors of a faceless man calling himself the devil and burning every copy of the book inspire Daniel to do whatever it takes to protect the novel. Along the way he falls in love, befriends a homeless man who is a former political prisoner, and unravels the mystery behind the book, the devil, and its author.

From the moment I read the first sentence to the moment when I read the last (and then Phil sneezed, so I had to read the last paragraph all over again), I was transfixed by this book. The language is poetic and gripping; I could not believe I was reading a novel in translation. My friend, who is fluent in Spanish, says the original is even better. Its premise makes it the perfect novel for a book lover. It also has a Dickensian plot, with twists and turns and numerous fascinating characters. Wow.

It is interesting to look over this list of my five favorites. All of them, with the exception of THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, are character studies, not plotty (know what I mean? I think plotty is my new favorite word). They're all coming of age stories. Actually, they're all coming of age stories where the characters choose their journey, to some extent, except CRACKED UP. And I profess to love fantasy, but none of these novels are. Some have gothic or magical elements (SHADOW, PB) and surprising coincidences (JEREMY FINK), but none are unexplained. They're also serious novels, though definitely with laugh out loud moments. I think I'm developing a profile for my perfect book--and I'm wondering if it says something about the type of books I want to write, too! We'll see!!!

What are your favorites for 2009? I'm serious, give it a try. This was a fun exercise!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Even fantasies need real world problems

As part of my MA in Writing for Young People, I've been reading ghost stories and analyzing how they work. As a kid, I remember the scariest stories were those told around a campfire or at sleepovers. The final line was always something like: "And the murder happened in this very house."

Now obviously there's no way to recreate that effect in widely published literature, unless you happen to stumble across a novel set in your home town. So what can writers do to help us relate to ghost stories, to feel as if they could've happened in our own house and we might be the next victim?

In my reading, one of the ah-ha moments for me was that the main character needs to have a real world problem. This problem needs to be something the reader can relate to and sympathize with because then readers can believe this story could happen to them, too, no matter how unbelievable its ghostly premise.

I wrote an earlier blog post about the book BOG CHILD by Siobhan Dowd. One of the reasons I loved it so much was because of the main character, Fergus. Fergus has a brother in prison for helping the IRA and the IRA is pressuring Fergus to also join to show his support. Readers might not be able to relate to that, but they can relate to Dowd’s larger themes of peer pressure, family expectations and wanting to be a hero.

In that same blog post, I also mentioned DREADFUL SORRY by Kathryn Reiss. The funny thing about this book is that the main character's problem is very weird and supernatural--she's the reincarnation of a woman with a short and tragic life who wants to make amends. But Reiss makes Molly's problem entirely believable. The woman drowned, so Molly is terrified of water. When confronted with water, Molly is inundated with nightmares and visions. This phobia plays out in Molly’s every day world. She won’t graduate unless she passes her school’s swim test, she’s taunted by her classmates, and physically exhausted from countless sleepless nights.

So even though paranormal novels are filled with ghosts and werewolves and whatever other fantastical plot elements, I think these writers need to work hard to make their characters believable.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A childhood without Shel Silverstein?

Do you remember Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout?

If your answer to that question was: "She would not take the garbage out!" then you grew up with the children's writer Shel Silverstein. My classmates and I used to memorize Silverstein's poems, pass his books around like they were the holy grail, scream lines from them across the playground.

Shel Silverstein is the author American classics like THE GIVING TREE, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC. His stories and poetry are wacky and funny, but also sweet and even thought-provoking. I used to teach persuasive writing by asking my secondary school students to write thesis-statements about THE GIVING TREE.

So imagine my shock (even horror) to learn that Brits did not grow up with Shel Silverstein. Most Brits have never even heard of Shel Silverstein.

In my own very small way, I tried to remedy that earlier this month when my class discussed children's poetry. My classmates brought in several wonderful examples, including Robert Louis Stevenson's A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES; T.S Eliot's "Macavity-The Mystery Cat" and Roald Dahl's REVOLTING RHYMES (Do take note of the ages of the poems we shared; our class discussed the severe lack of modern poetry published, especially for children). Our teacher shared CURTAINS by Matt Harvey, which I thoroughly enjoyed (if you follow the link, you can watch him read it aloud!).

I couldn't limit myself to just one, so I bought in two Shel Silverstein's poems: "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out" (follow the link to see the poem is its entirety) and "Hug O' War" (see below):

I will not play at tug o' war
I'd rather play at hug o' war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses
And everyone grins
And everyone cuddles
And everyone wins.

"Hug O' War" is borrowed from Where the Sidewalk Ends: the poems & drawings of Shel Silverstein, published by Harper & Row Junior Books, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10022. Copyright © 1974 by Evil Eye Music, Inc.

Enjoy!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Holiday recipes: cranberry applesauce

As someone who loves food and cooking, when the holidays approach I get twitchy. I dream of Christmas cookies, thick soups and homemade applesauce. So, given that it's a chilly, rainy British day, I figure I'll share one of my favorite holiday recipes:

Cranberry Applesauce

Serves 4 as a side dish

½ cup sugar
4 medium apples, peeled and cored
1½ cup fresh or frozen cranberries (doesn’t make any difference)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger (fresh is nice, but not necessary)
½ teaspoon grated lemon peel (right… I just use a splash of concentrated lemon juice)

  1. In a large saucepan, heat sugar and 2 tablespoons water over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Stir occasionally.
  2. Stir in apples, and cover and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally
  3. Stir in cranberries for 5 minutes (cranberries should begin to pop)
  4. Cover and cook 5 minutes more, until apples are mushy
  5. Add spices and lemon, cook and stir 5 more minutes
  6. Remove from heat and mash with a potato masher or the back of a spoon to your desired consistency
The recipe is courtesy of my Aunt Janet--thank you! I won't tell how many times during the winter months (it might be more than once a week) I end up making this dish. Phil swears it tastes like pie filling, I love its tartness. Its festive red color makes it perfect for Thanksgiving, Christmas and various holiday potlucks. It's also cheap and easy to make. It goes well with turkey, chicken, latkes, and can also be a snack, breakfast, or an ice cream topping.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The best ghost stories out there?

About a month ago, I asked for suggestions for good ghost stories. For my MA in Writing for Young People, I'm working on an essay about plotting ghost stories. I was overrun with suggestions (but in a good way!).

My reading and writing this past month has been extremely fruitful, and I feel I've learned a lot about what it takes to tell a good ghost story. In the coming weeks I'm hoping to post more of my thoughts on this genre. But I wanted to start by sharing my two favorite finds from my reading (both authors whom I had never heard of!):

DREADFUL SORRY by Kathryn Reiss

"Ever since she can remember, seventeen-year-old Molly has been plagued by the same terrifying nightmare and an almost overwhelming fear of water. After almost drowning at a pool party, she flees to the safety of her father’s house for the summer. But Molly’s problems only intensify as she stumbles onto a series of strange connections linking herself to a girl who lived in that Cliffside house nearly a century before. Then the eerie coincidences start to form a dangerous pattern, and Molly finds herself haunted by visions that feel more like memories--memories of a time before she was even born!" (summary from Reiss' website)

Reiss breaks many of the traditional ghost story rules, yet I never stopped turning pages. When I reached the end, I sat on the couch and held the book for several minutes, desperately wishing there was a sequel, or perhaps even a trilogy. This is my first time reading Reiss; I must seek out some of her other books.

BOG CHILD by Siobhan Dowd

"Digging for peat in the mountain with his Uncle Tally, Fergus finds the body of a child, and it looks as if she’s been murdered. As Fergus tries to make sense of the mad world around him – his brother on hunger-strike in prison, his growing feelings for Cora, his parents arguing over the Troubles, and him in it up to the neck, blackmailed into smuggling mysterious packages across the border – a little voice comes to him in his dreams, and the mystery of the bog child unfurls." (summary taken from Dowd's website)

Technically I'm not sure I'd classify BOG CHILD as a ghost story. It's not scary (at least, not in a supernatural way) and Fergus is not literally haunted. However, he is consumed by dreams of a long dead child. And besides, it's really really good, so it had plenty to teach me.

I hope you'll give both books (and authors) a read. Do let me know if you enjoy them as much as I did.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo Round-up

Well, it's now December, which for many of my writing friends means the end of NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, the fabulously acronymed NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. In the month of November, new and experienced writers band together to challenge each other to write an entire novel of 50,000 words.

For several years I've wished to participate. I consider myself a slow and dreadful plotter, so I've often wondered if NaNo would free my creativity. However, because of personal concerns (being sick the entirety of October) and being immersed in several other writing projects, this year I couldn't commit. Yet I have actively followed other writers through their NaNoWriMo pursuits. The month seems to inevitably teach writers a lot about themselves and their writing process, whether they complete the 50K challenge or not.

So I wanted to take the opportunity on the blog to do a NaNo round-up of sorts and share several fascinating blog posts with you, written by those who finished NaNo and those who did not.

Children's author Anna Staniszewski completed NaNo, though she blogs about how the real win is improving your writing habits.

Joanna Smith also completed NaNo, writing a total of over 90,000 words! But her blog post is a honest and heartfelt description of how she feels she failed at NaNo. It's also a thoughtful discussion of the writing process and what she learned about her manuscripts and herself from NaNo.

Maggie Stiefvater (author of the NY Times bestselling SHIVER) shares a Dear John Letter to NaNo on her blog. Not only is the post hysterical, it's a fascinating analysis of Maggie's process and why NaNo doesn't work for her.

Author Keren David (WHEN I WAS JOE is coming out this January!) also didn't complete NaNo. Her blog post explains why she stopped and is an interesting description of her writing process and also of a published author's writing demands.

What about the rest of you? Did you or didn't you NaNo? Are you happy with the results? What are your plans for NEXT November?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Best British Adverts for Noughties

I would be remiss if I didn't share this fabulous Guardian collection of the best adverts of the noughties, including the hysterical John West Salmon Ad and the strangely captivating Cadbury Gorilla. Oh, and I do love many of the PG Tips ads (very British, though I'm not sure I fully get them). Enjoy!

Monday, November 30, 2009

A good book find!

Woo-hoo! Just finished my third walk to the shops near my house in the past two days (I now officially have all the paperwork completed and mailed to renew my US driver's license. Please, Jesse White, Secretary of State of Illinois, let this work!). To reward myself on the way home, I stopped in the Oxfam charity bookshop and lo and behold found Lucy M Boston's THE CHILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE which was one of the ghost stories recommended to me earlier this month. I think it's even out of print. 99p baby! Figured I'd share the joy.

Nudity and Mouthwash: Adverts you won't see in the US

My adverts you won't see in the US series was inspired by the below ad, which I first saw last winter. I thought I had lost it for good, but apparently it boosted sales over 9%, so it's back on the telly! I bring you the Corsodyl Mint Mouthwash ad 'Gorgeous' (warning: does contain nudity):

The ad actually starts thirty seconds in. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Around this time of year, many people like to discuss the "first" Thanksgiving. Americans debate Thanksgiving's historical accuracy and our culture's depiction of Native Americans. What I find interesting about the "first" Thanksgiving is that the idea of thanksgiving sprang from multiple countries' religious traditions of giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving was especially important for immigrants as they settled in foreign lands and faced the threat of war, starvation and death. So there are numerous records of thanksgiving ceremonies throughout early American history, in Massachusetts, but also in the Spanish colony of Florida, and in the Virginia Colony, near Jamestown.

Admittedly, when Phil and I arrived in Bristol just over two years ago, there was no threat of war, starvation or death. But even so, the transition wasn't exactly easy, so we were thankful for all the kindness shown to us on our arrival. Last year we celebrated Thanksgiving as a potluck at our house, inviting all of our new UK friends to join us. We are continuing the tradition this year.

And I feel I have so much to be thankful for.

I'm thankful for all the basic necessities I have which many others lack. I'm thankful for a roof over my head, plenty of food to eat, heat, fresh water and health (yes, I've had a cold/flu how many times this autumn? But really, it could be so much worse).

I'm thankful for a large and loving family which I get to speak to and see often, even though they live so far away (thank God for Skype!).

I'm thankful for my friends, old friends who have stayed in touch and new friends who have reached out to me.

I'm thankful for the opportunity this year to pursue my writing dream. And I'm also thankful for my fellow students, teachers and supportive family who have helped me enjoy pursuing it so much.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Writing on a rainy November day

As I said in my previous post, it has been a rainy, gloomy week. Of course, I shouldn't complain. There's been flooding and evacuations in other parts of the UK. As one Guardian journalist living in Wales, Robert Penn, writes, "November has always been the month we endure."

In order to prove his point, Robert Penn has collected several quotes from UK writers about the weather and they are so delightful, I have to share:

"'Continuous rain for the last three days... novel progressing well,' Evelyn Waugh noted on 1 November 1939.

'I really begin to doubt whether England is a beautiful country,' George Bernard Shaw wrote on 2 November, 1896...

and on 5 November, 1685, the diarist John Evelyn moaned: 'Extraordinary wett morning, & I indisposed by a very greate rheume.'"

Now, even if it is a gloomy, wet morning, doesn't that make you feel better? Hundreds of years ago, other writers were feeling gloomy, wet, and yet still scribbling away.

Cozy British things

A rainy day... actually, it's been a rainy week. So now seems like a good opportunity to blog about things I love about the UK.

Duvets. I know some people have duvets in the US, but I had never slept with a duvet until I came here. Here everyone sleeps with a duvet. In the UK, comforter means a stuffed toy or security blanket, not bedding as we think of it in the US. Duvets are cosy, warm and soft. Plus, the Brits have the term "duvet day" for those days where it's just too hard to get out of bed. Love it.

Scarves. I have picked on the Brits for wearing scarves indoors. It's very 80s power woman. Or hippy dippy. But then I tried it and have completely gone native in this regard. A warm neck is a happy neck.

Local meats and cheeses. When I make jambalaya, I can buy chorizo from my local butcher or farmer's market that has been made entirely locally. And it's so good and strong, it infuses the whole dish with flavor. Who knew goats cheese came in so many different varieties? I sampled four different types on Saturday as I tried to decide which to buy. Apparently the concept of farmers markets was invented by Americans, and is quite new to this country. But Britain definitely respects its local farms, in a way I didn't see when I lived in the US.

Friday, November 20, 2009

My life as a reality show

I've always thought an X-Factor / American Idol-style reality show with writers would be really interesting. Probably why I like Project Runway so much. I find it fascinating to watch creative minds struggling with a problem. Course, watching people in solitude banging their heads against desks and scribbling away might not be so interesting. At least, not to anyone but me.

Last night I watched The Restaurant, in which couples compete against each other to open their own restaurant in partnership with chef Raymond Blanc. Kind of a Project Runway with food, a snotty French accent and some truly incompetent people (no, no, don't flick the customers off!).

While I was watching it, it occurred to me that my current life (studying for my MA in Writing for Young People) is much like a writing reality show already. I have a variety of challenges each week. At the end of the week these challenges are judged (well, kindly critiqued) by my peers and teachers. Okay, there's no Heidi Klum or Raymond Blanc, but I do have the amazing Julia Green and Steve Voake.

And the best part? No elimination. And no competition, only support, friendship and the opportunity to discuss writing with people who love it as much as I do. And much like some of the true incompetents on The Restaurant, I find myself surprisingly learning so much and maybe even getting better at my craft.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gasping, choking, sputtering... to write a paragraph

I have been working on revising chapter 14 of my novel for a week? two weeks? It's hard to say exactly, because in between I have been revising other bits of writing, critiquing, writing pieces for my workshop classes, etc. But let's just say I've been agonizing over chapter 14 for some time.

Today I was at it again and had a terrific moment of insight. I scrawled in my notebook, "What does [main character] think is happening?" I knew this was a pivotal question and would help me break through many of my difficulties because as I wrote it I had no idea what the answer was.

And perhaps that sounds a bit dumb. It's a basic question. But I was so focused on my character's voice and her having a legitimate emotional reaction to the situation, that I had completely neglected to consider her powers of reasoning.

So what did I do when I made this startling revelation? I journaled for about 10 more minutes, sorting out what my main character is thinking, and how this changes my plot. Then I desperately wanted a nap. But I didn't give in. Instead I printed out my fellow students' assignments for the week and did some critiquing. I put chapter 14 away, possibly for the rest of the day. Why? Because I was all out of writing energy.

I'm a total writing wimp. Writing is a very physical activity, as well as a mental one, for me. When I struggle with a seemingly insurmountable task, like chapter 14, or plot out a story, or develop a character, I end up gasping. I'm exhausted.

I try to make up for this by keeping busy. I intersperse my writing time with blog posts (like now), critiques and various writing assignments. As long as my butt is in my chair, writing, for 3-4 hours a day, isn't that good enough? Lately I've begun to think it's not. Is it possible for me to work harder? I've been stuck on chapter 14 for an awfully long time.

Do other writers struggle with these issues of stamina? How do you cope?

Monday, November 16, 2009

A violent way of life

In September, a student at Fenger Academy High School in Chicago was beaten to death. Why am I writing about this now? Well, I used to teach at Fenger. And it's taken me this long to figure out what I want to say about it.

The year after I left Fenger, I wrote a personal essay combining some of my most horrific stories about the school. It was called Silence. The students who attend Fenger, many of whom are intelligent, ambitious and wonderful people, have no voice. The adults who know Fenger best, the teachers, other staff members, principals and parents, don't know what to say. The problems at Fenger are deeply rooted in poverty, the Roseland neighborhood, racism, drugs, alcohol, white flight, public housing, etc etc etc. There are no easy answers. After working at Fenger for two years, I'm not sure there are any answers.

The Chicago Tribune and other Chicago news sources have printed volumes on Derrion Albert's death, and the public shock has been immense. President Obama has arranged for his staff members to visit with Chicago Public School officials to discuss how to prevent this violence. But what many people don't understand is that this incident is not surprising. Fenger has one of the highest arrest rates in Chicago Public Schools. Fenger makes the news at least once a year for acts of violence. Last year (or was it longer ago?) a kid was beaten and then locked in a wire cage in the gym. One of my colleagues left after a gun was pulled on him. The only reason this incident is different is because it was caught on film and broadcast to thousands of people whom had never seen anything like it before.

Chicago Public Schools' immediate answer to the problem has been to increase security guards and police officers at the school. While this might prevent some violence, this "solution" is horrific. Imagine if a student were killed in a suburban school or an independent school. The school would invite hordes of counselors to talk to the students, to make sense of the random violence. But Fenger only gets more guards and police.

That's why I was pleased to see an article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday morning reporting that the organization CeaseFire had met with a group of Fenger students. According to the article, "The group [CeaseFire] sees violence as a learned behavior that has become acceptable in certain pockets of the city -- a learned behavior that can be un-learned."

CeaseFire has had tremendous success in areas like Roseland and I'm so glad to hear they are now working with Fenger students.

Violence is certainly a way of life at Fenger. Because I was an English teacher, so many of the stories I remember from Fenger revolve around literature. Here is one:

In my sophomore American Literature class, I taught TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Remember that seminal scene where the angry mob surrounds Atticus? Everything comes to a head when a man spits in Atticus' face. Atticus refuses to attack him. The situation is saved by the appearance of Atticus' daughter, who in her naivete and youth breaks up an ugly situation. My students were horrified by this scene. They had developed a grudging respect for Atticus, but now saw him as a coward, a complete wuss. I was horrified by my students. Surely Atticus was heroic by not giving in to violence? My students informed me he wouldn't last a minute in Roseland. They're probably right. They told me if someone spits in your face, you had better fight back, otherwise you develop a reputation for weakness. Doesn't it take more bravery, then, not to fight back? Maybe, they agreed, but what would be the point? In their community, it's a valid question.

My best wishes to CeaseFire and to all the students at Fenger. After two years, I chose to leave. I'm always aware my former students, and Fenger's current students, have no such choice.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My writing space

People are generally fascinated with work spaces, especially artists' work spaces. We see their work as magic and want to know how it happens. I've seen the coffee shop in Edinburgh where JK Rowling wrote a portion of Harry Potter. Blue Balliett apparently did most of her writing on her home's clothes dryer. A friend recently showed me the website Where I Write which features photographs of science fiction and fantasy authors in their work spaces.

The pictures are fascinating to breeze through. Big spaces, small spaces, lots of bookcases, cats and small dogs... Sci fi/fantasy writers seem to prefer dark wood. One guy with candles in an attic... MARGARET WEIS (a favorite childhood writer). Actually, Weis' picture is interesting; like the others she has a computer, but no desk or table. Judging from the picture, she just writes with her laptop as God (or IBM or whomever) intended, on her lap. That's nothing, though, compared to Gregory Frost's picture, where he appears quite reclined on his couch.

Now that I am writing full time, space has become especially important to me. Not because I think I'm more important or my writing is more important or anything like that. Just because, unlike Weis, I'm a spreader-outer. The more work I do, the more I spread out.

In case anyone is curious, here's a shot of my work space:


I know, I know, the plant is also becoming quite a spreader-outer. If anyone has any suggestions for how to tame it, I'm all ears.

My biggest problem with my work space...

Actually, we're studying conflict in class, so let me put this is conflict terms:

As the main character, my goal is to have a place to spread out my writing accoutrements. My opposition (my husband) also has a goal. His goal is to eat dinner on our dining room table. This conflict will of course escalate as I spread out more and more, and come to head every night at dinner. The resolution is that when I get a million dollar book contract (HAH!), we will use the money to buy me a desk.*

What about you? Where do you write? Is conflict involved???

*Not that I need a million dollar book contract to buy a desk (I do understand they're cheaper than that), but this just feeds into my whole anti-materialism, temporary life in the UK thing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ghost stories

As I believe I mentioned in my previous post, one of my tasks for this semester is to write a paper. The paper is intended as a review and reflection on a certain type of book or elements in books. For example, people have examined banned books, beginnings, gender roles, etc. I am writing my paper on plot elements (or maybe plot structure, something along those lines) in ghost stories.

There have been a number of American ghost stories which have come out in the past year to great reviews, but living in the UK, these are difficult for me to get a hold of. So my brief has been slightly older ghost stories, a mixture of traditional and non-traditional, for middle grade or young adult readers. I was going to read a few for adults (Audrey Niffenegger's HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY and Sarah Waters' THE LITTLE STRANGER), but so many children's stories have been suggested, I've had to rule adults out.

I've actually been overwhelmed by the number of suggestions I've received. I started this project thinking there aren't many good ghost stories out there. I still stand by that assumption. But "not many" in the fiction world, of course, can easily translate into 30 as opposed to 300. I've also learned there seems to be a second wave of ghost stories coming out. They were quite popular when I was growing up, in the 80s, and suddenly there has been a resurgence in the market. A good thing for me as a reader. As a writer? Who knows, I try not to think about those types of things.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints (and word limits for my paper!) I can only read 5-6 books. But I thought it would be fun to share with you all of my suggestions, and see if you have any to add (I would love to know of any goodies I'm missing!).

Here's the list. I'll put a star next to ones I've already read and a double star next to ones which are currently sitting in my house waiting for me:

Mary Downing Hahn; WAIT TILL HELEN COMES*
Mary Downing Hahn; THE OLD WILLIS PLACE
Mary Downing Hahn; WITCH CATCHER


Robert Westall; THE SCARECROWS*
Robert Westall; THE WATCH HOUSE*

Sonya Hartnett; SURRENDER*


Betty Ren Wright; THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS

Peggy Parish; a number of titles... also the author of the Amelia Bedelia books!

Hayden Thorne; BANSHEE

Steve Berman; VINTAGE: A GHOST STORY


Beth Gutcheon; MORE THAN YOU KNOW


Antonia Barber; THE GHOST

Vivian Vande Velde; THERE'S A DEAD PERSON FOLLOWING MY SISTER AROUND

Julia Jarman; GHOST WRITER*


Peter Beagle; TAMSIN**

Kathryn Reiss; SWEET MISS HONEYWELL'S REVENGE
Kathryn Reiss; DREADFUL SORRY**

Richie Tankersley Cusick; WALK OF THE SPIRITS
Richie Tankersley Cusick; UNSEEN**
(though this may actually be about zombies...)

Katie Alender; BAD GIRLS DON'T DIE (looks amazing, though unfortunately too American and recent, I can't get my hands on a copy)

Cliff McNish; BREATHE*

Tim Bowler; BLOODCHILD

Margaret Mahy; a number of titles...

Geraldine McCaughrean; A WHITE DARKNESS

Ann Pilling; BLACK HARVEST
Ann Pilling; THE PIT


AM Jenkins; BEATING HEART: A GHOST STORY

Even typing this list is depressing--so many lovely books!

But that being said--any suggestions? What are your favorites? Any books on this list you've read?

UPDATE:
Please read the comments of this blog post for some additional suggestions. My friends at Verla Kay's Blueboards have also added a few more suggestions:

Meg Cabot's MEDIATOR series
(can I just say how happy I am for an excuse to read ANOTHER Meg Cabot book? Unfortunately, my lovely husband is becoming concerned my obsession with Meg Cabot is a tad unhealthy).

Lucy M Boston; THE CHILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE


Patricia Clapp; JANE-EMILY

And I've had several people remind me of perhaps the best novel-length ghost story ever (yeah, I think I'm happy with that claim): A CHRISTMAS CAROL. How could I neglect to mention one of my favorites?

UPDATE II:

More fun suggestions!

Amanda Marrone; DEVOURED


Elizabeth Bunce; A CURSE AS DARK AS GOLD


Joan G Robinson; WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE

Monday, November 9, 2009

Organizing my sleep-addled self

When I first learned I would be doing an MA in writing, numerous people warned me I would write more than I ever had before.

I didn't believe them. I'm a little thick like that.

I figured I often spent 3 hours a day writing. How much more could a course force me to do?

Well, a lot. I wouldn't say I work more than 3-4 hours a day, but I also go to school for 6 hours a week, and spend an additional 3 hours a week traveling. Plus there's weekly talks by visiting professionals (agents, writers, publishers) and time spent getting to know my classmates. On top of all that, I am required to read 1-2 books a week for class. I read another book a week, and take notes on it, to prep for a paper due at the end of the term. I need to critique seven of my classmates assignments every week. And that doesn't count my own writing. Each week I'm given two writing assignments, one of which I submit for a class critique. I'm supposed to reflect on the critiques I receive, and note what comments are similar from week to week. I am then expected to revise my assignments for submission at the end of the term. Oh, and I'm supposed to be working on my novel in my spare time.

Freudian slip... there's a lot of "supposed to"s in that previous paragraph. Uh... yeah.

Actually, I think I'm doing pretty well with my work, but I am constantly making to-do lists in my writing notebook. And along the way, I've discovered a useful tip which I'd like to share.

In the evening, when I am finished writing for the day, I make a list of all the writing I hope to accomplish for tomorrow, in order. I try to set my most challenging and creative assignment for first thing in the morning.

In the morning, if I don't have a list, I find myself checking my email first thing, or sneaking a peek at Twitter. But if I do have a list, I almost always get right to work. Early in the morning I find I'm often too tired to argue with myself.

This tactic, small as it is, has helped enormously in making sure I accomplish the writing I need to, and also don't back down on the hard assignments.

Do you have any tricks for disciplining yourself to do those challenging or non-fun tasks?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Happy Guy Fawkes Day, Obama!

Yesterday was Guy Fawkes Day in the UK. In 1605, Fawkes and his co-conspirators planned to blow up Parliament to circumvent Protestant rule. They were arrested before the attack could take place. The anniversary of Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot is celebrated in the UK with bonfires, fireworks, and Guy Fawkes burned in effigy.

To me, it's a fascinating aspect of British culture that the triumph of the government over the individual is celebrated. Very un-American. But maybe I'm being too literal about it. Either way, that's a whole other blog post.

If you remember, a little over a year ago, Obama had just been elected president and celebrated in Grant Park in Chicago (oh how sad I was to not be in my hometown that night!). Meanwhile, a few days later, I was taking a writing course at the University of Bristol. It was an evening class, coinciding with Guy Fawkes night, and while we sat at tables in silence, trying to concentrate on our writing, fireworks exploded around us. Our instructor asked us to write about something we were passionate about. I'll share with you a bit of what I wrote:

"I am passionate about Barack Obama... I was so excited to wake up this morning. It is as if the whole world has changed. Fireworks are going off and I know it’s for Guy Fawkes, but America is celebrating a rebellion of its own... For a day I feel like I’m enveloped in this movie, the music swells and I need someone to pinch me as the fireworks flash through the sky. How will I ever explain this to anyone?"

I'm still not sure I can explain the joy and the complete unreality I felt that whole week. And how proud I suddenly was to admit my nationality.

So while the Brits remembered Guy Fawkes' failed gunpowder plot last night, to me the fireworks are a celebration of my country and Obama's election.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Looking for the next Bonfire

The UK has been having an interesting discussion lately regarding historical fiction.

This is one of the things I love about the UK, I must say. The US might have a discussion about race, if we're feeling really angry, but more often our discussions are about Balloon Boy and the Yankees dynasty. We would not have a national discussion about historical fiction.

Anyway...

The Man Booker prize ostensibly rewards the finest fiction produced in the past year as written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland (so no Americans, sorry). The release of the shortlist for this year's Man Booker prize stirred some contention when the public realized a number of the books listed were historical fiction. Indeed, the winner of the Booker prize, Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL, is set in Henry VIII's court.

As Tim Adams for the Guardian wrote:

"Writers have always mined the past for stories that will illuminate the present, but the current appetite for historical fiction, and historical drama and anniversary-based TV and journalism, seems like something different – a flight from the here and now. (The future, of course, has for a little while been something we would rather not think about, or hoped might go away.)"

This is surprisingly similar to the conclusion of Simon Schama's TV documentary series A History of Britain, where he summed up his reflections on the most recent episode on Churchill and Orwell, but also the entire series:

"…It's our cultural bloodstream, the secret of who we are, and it tells us to let go of the past, even as we honour it. To lament what ought to be lamented and to celebrate what should be celebrated. And if in the end, that history turns out to reveal itself as a patriot, well then I think that neither Churchill nor Orwell would have minded that very much, and as a matter of fact, neither do I."

Of course, one could argue that Americans also honor their history. But is it part of our cultural bloodstream? Tim Adams thinks not to the same extent. As he said,

"There was a time when British novels did what they said on the tin... they took on the present and found new ways to understand it (this is still what the best American novelists, by and large, attempt – it is hard to imagine Richard Ford or Jonathan Franzen, to take two examples, having too much to say about the Pilgrim Fathers or Abraham Lincoln)."

It's an interesting, complex debate. When I watched Schama's documentary, his claims about Britain's "cultural bloodstream" resonated as true for me, even as a former American history teacher. I think there is a certain level of fascination with the past here that I don't see in the same way in the US. But of course, these are all generalizations, not absolute truths.

So how interesting it was last week Tuesday, when I had the opportunity to listen to two literary agents share their thoughts on the industry as part of my writing course's Tuesday night series.

Both agents (I'm going to avoid mentioning names, since this was a private forum), are fans of historical fiction and historical thrillers and represent a number of authors of these genres. They're happy to get more, too. But they referenced the historical fiction debate, and said something I found quite interesting. They believe there aren't enough overarching commentaries on modern Britain published today. They praised BRICK LANE by Monica Ali, but wanted more, ala Charles Dickens or THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe.

I can't imagine writing such a thing, talk about intimidating. But I do love this writing. And perhaps they are right, perhaps the UK needs more commentary on its present.

Monday, November 2, 2009

England's Oldest Hotel


Sunday night, Phil and I took some much needed time off to celebrate our anniversary. We visited The Old Bell Hotel in Malmesbury, which claims to be the oldest continually run hotel in England. Here's their explanation:

"The central part of the building was built in 1220 by Walter Loring, Abbot of the Abbey [next door] from 1208 to 1244. Its function was to entertain important guests, as the Abbey was then one of the most important seats of learning in England after Glastonbury. As far as it is known The Old Bell has been continuously in use as a place of entertainment since that time."

I've actually been there before for work and kept thinking a place this neat, this romantic, and with such gorgeous food should not be used for work. So I had to take Phil back to properly enjoy it.

It was a short trip, but completely relaxing. We wandered up and down Malmesbury's narrow alleyways, lined with stone houses, strolled along the river, poked our heads in various shops. I found a perfect travel bag, which I've been searching for forever! It's big enough for a book and a camera, has a wide, long strap so I can sling it across my chest and hopefully minimize back ache, and it's organic cotton, fair trade and blue with purple stripes. LOVE! Oh, and this morning I had a long soak in a claw-foot bath tub. I don't think I've ever been in such a big bath tub. So yes... much relaxed.

I apologize I don't have more pictures to show off, but of course the camera battery died an hour into the trip.

Now back to writing like mad!

Oh, but first, one random bit of British trivia for you, again from The Old Bell's publicity:

"An interesting fact about the spiral staircase at the East End is that it rotates in the opposite way to those in a castle. In a building that requires fortification the spiral staircase descends anti-clockwise, so leaving the "sword arm" free for fighting. A staircase that descends in the clockwise direction denotes men of peace."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Princess Mia Thermopolis, of course!


I was Princess Mia Thermopolis from Meg Cabot's THE PRINCESS DIARIES for Halloween.

Maybe you've already figured that out? But no one posted, so I thought I might need to let some of you in on it.

25% of my class got it, which made me quite happy (yes, that's only 2 people, but it's a small class!).

I did mean to post all of this earlier, but I've been quite busy. And then I thought I would write a blog post about how busy I am. And then I thought, Goodness, Anne, if you're that busy, get to work! So I have.

Happy Halloween, all!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A sneak peek

Don't tell my classmates, but I took pictures tonight so I could give you a sneak peek of my Halloween costume for tomorrow!




Props for anyone who has a clue who I'm supposed to be!

That says Greenpeace. Did you see the Docs?

And notice the snowflake necklace (I'm very proud of it).


Hint: she was a favorite character from my summer reading.

Ok, yeah, yeah, I know it's not great. But still, makes me happy. And that's all that matters, right?

Happy Halloween all!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What I'm loving right now: comic and movie edition

I started my "What I'm loving right now" series in September with a post about my orchestra, Brunel Sinfonia. Well, it's been a long month since then, and I've spent most of it sick (the doctor I spoke to most recently told me I was very "unlucky". Great, huh?). So not much viola playing.

But in continuation of my previous goal of celebrating the things I love, I want to share two recent finds with you.

My DH is a bit of a comic nerd. I actually really appreciate this about him. I can tell him all about the ins and outs of the children's writing world, and he explains to me the same about the comic world. In some ways they're very similar, but in other ways (audience, financial concerns, market set-up), they're quite different.

Occasionally the two worlds overlap, and Phil is always on the look out for comics I'll love. Thanks to him, I've had the pleasure of reading RE-GIFTERS by Mike Carey, POLLY AND THE PIRATES by Ted Naifeh and I KILL GIANTS by Joe Kelly, all well-written comics with young adult main characters.

When Phil read the first issue of THE UNWRITTEN by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, he told me we needed to read it together. We just finished the 6th issue this past weekend, and I am absolutely riveted by the story. Book lovers NEED to be reading this comic. It combines a Harry Potter-esque story with literary history (Kipling, Twain, and Wilde all make appearances). Here's a blurb of a review from Wired:

"The Unwritten is a fascinating piece of speculative literary geography wrapped in an unassuming comic book from DC Comics’ mature Vertigo line.

"With casual yet deeply informed writing from Mike Carey and accessible art from Peter Gross, The Unwritten sucks you in as a witty satire of heroic boy wizards like Harry Potter, then blows your mind in the strange netherworld between truth and fiction. The ongoing saga maps the intriguing territory where fandom, literature, conspiracy theory, metafiction and magic mash together, making it one of the brainiest and most interesting comics of the year.

"On its surface, The Unwritten chronicles the bizarro misadventures of Tommy Taylor, whose father wrote a series of insanely popular books about a boy-genius wizard named … Tom Taylor. The setup gives Carey and Gross the perfect springboard for diving into an ancient conspiracy that spans from literature to the internet, using the history of text as torsion. And as Taylor investigates, he stumbles from a low-level celebrity to an accidental savior, at war with a cabal with no name."

And yes, it's that good.

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of watching the movie The Jane Austen Book Club. It was recommended by Thea on the fantastic The Book Smugglers' blog. While I'm not a romance reader at all, I like chick flicks. A lot, actually. But nothing makes me more angry than an inaccurate or misogynistic portrayal of women. So I don't watch many chick flicks. Thea promised The Jane Austen Book Club to be "Heartstring-tugging, refreshingly romantic in a way that isn’t condescending, and realistic." And I trust Thea (and her counterpart, Ana). Plus, the doctor (and my parents) told me to take it easy (so lots of movies!).

I'm happy to say, The Jane Austen Book Club lived up to all my hopes. I laughed out loud, I got a little teary-eyed, and I want to tell all my fellow chick flick friends about this lovely movie. Besides, how can you go wrong when you combine a Jane Austen lover with an Ursula le Guin lover? Thanks, Thea!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Joining the material world


I just bought a printer.

I know that doesn't sound very exciting. I've owned printers before.

But this is my first printer purchased in the UK. I figured it wasn't fair to my husband's employer to make them support my MA in writing habit with paper and toner.

My husband and I also now own a TV, a DVD player, a radio, a microwave and a toaster (though it only toasts on the bottom half). We have over a dozen dvds and several dozen books. You'll notice we haven't quite made the commitment to a desk yet, though. Because every purchase makes me more uncomfortable.

It's "in" to worry about material consumption. But my husband and I worry much more than most, I think. For starters, we already own a printer, as well as a TV, DVD player and stereo system (I think we sold the microwave and toaster). They're sitting, unused, in a storage locker in Chicago. If we had to do the move all over again, would have sold more of our household? Probably. But we had no idea, beyond two years, how long we would live in the UK, what we would think of it, when we might return to the US. And selling a reliable printer that you've owned for less than a year? Hard.

Of course, I now own a printer which I know I will never bother bringing back to the US. I'd need an adapter plug just to run it. My willingness to sell (and donate!) has developed extensively since moving.

It isn't just the money, though my cheapskate heart does shudder with every purchase. It's the waste that bothers me. And, perhaps even more so, the thought of how hard it will become one day to pack up and leave the UK.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Now what do I wear?

In other news, my classmates asked me yesterday if I was going to dress-up for Halloween. Apparently I've ended up with a bunch of Halloween-loving Brits in my class! Who knew? Most people I've bumped into in the UK consider Halloween a crazy American holiday, only suitable for Americans and drunk teenagers.

In the past, I've tried to explain about the joys of a night of pure make-believe for children, a sense of community in caretaking for children and providing goodies. So imagine my happiness in discovering my classmates already completely converted.

We're all dressing up for class Friday. What will I wear???

The emotional core of children

Read an amazing picture book today called WHEN THEY FIGHT by Kathryn White, illustrated by Cliff Wright. It's about a family of badgers, and when the Mom and Dad fight, tooth and nail, it's overwhelming and scary for their child. But when the Mom and Dad are happy, the child feels safe and begins to realize how strong he is. The book is intended to help people, children and parents, work through and explain their emotions.

A little heavy? Certainly. According to my classmate, who shared the book with me, it couldn't even find a UK publisher until a publisher in the US picked it up. But the book doesn't feel irrelevant for a child. Parents do fight, children do get scared. We've been talking in class about the emotional core in picture books, and how the best stories speak to something inside children that is true and makes them feel accepted. Remember Max in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE? He's not a good boy; he gets sent to bed without his supper. The subtext in the pictures is even more terrible. Is he nailing his bed sheet to the wall? Has he hung his stuffed toy by the neck?

Because of the recent movie, Maurice Sendak has received a fair amount of publicity lately for his anger over parents saying WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE might be too scary for children (here's an article about it in the Guardian). Sendak says, in referring to an argument about whether or not Max's supper should be "hot" as opposed to "warm": "Just trying to convey how dopey 'warm' sounded. Unemotional. Undramatic. Everything about that book is 'hot'."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Writing for multiple ages

I've been surprised by two things since the beginning of my program (at least, two things that have to do with writing for multiple ages):

1. Our instructors have strongly encouraged us to write for multiple age groups.

Part of this is about experimenting, and helping us to find the age group that best fits us. When I worked in education, teachers used to talk about finding the perfect grade fit. Some teachers are afraid of high school students, some can't imagine wiping noses all day. I was surprised to discover how much I loved teaching 7th grade. Loved the reactions I'd get, too! Go ahead, try it, tell someone you teach 7th grade and watch their face sour! Anyway, I think the same is true in writing. I feel most comfortable writing for middle schoolers (say ages 11-14).

But our instructors have encouraged more than just experimentation. Currently, both of my tutors, Julia Green and Steve Voake, have written for multiple ages (Julia writes predominately young adult, but has also written for reluctant readers. Steve writes for 8-12, but he has also written picture books and early reader chapter books. Also, be careful on Steve's site with your volume--it's scary!).

2. I have really enjoyed writing picture books.

I thought it would be a fun challenge, but wasn't sure I would be happy with the results of my work. I'm still not sure I'm happy, but I've now written two rough drafts, and find myself thoroughly enjoying the genre.

Course, this could be because I'm addicted to writing in general... Yesterday I read an early chapter book (probably for 4-8 year olds) and thought, "oohhh, I wonder if I could write one of these!"

I was pleased to see Mary Kole, an agent at Andrea Brown, tackling this exact writing for multiple ages question on her kidlit.com blog.

I also read this fascinating (and funny!) article in the New York Times about Sherman Alexie's first young adult book and his reasons for switching genres.

But both Mary and Sherman Alexie (not quite brave enough to venture into a first-name basis with Sherman Alexie!) make this sort of multi-age, multi-genre writing sound rarer than I expected. Perhaps in the UK it is more common, at least for children's writers.

In the shower this morning (I get my best thinking done in the shower), I could only think of a few authors I know of who fit this profile. Jane Yolen has written everything from picture books to fairy tales to young adult books to adult books. Meg Cabot has written middle grade books, young adult books, and adult romances. I know of one up and coming author, the talented Cindy Pon, who has written a young adult fantasy and is now working on writing and illustrating her own picture book. Can you think of any others? And what about the writers out there? Do you hope someday to write for mutiple audiences?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Creating a writing community

I just returned last night from a weekend in Kingcombe, Dorset, with students and tutors from Bath Spa University's creative writing and writing for young people MA courses. The weekend was near perfect. I think I saw more cows and sheep than people. We were surrounded by forest, rolling hills and farmland, our B&B right outside a fishing lake that sparkled in the sunlight. And there was plenty of sunlight; for once there were blue skies all weekend. We were thirty minutes from the coast. We sat around the fireplace for readings every night. And late at night, walking back to the B&B, I could see whole galaxies of stars (of course, I didn't even think to bring a camera!).

But the purpose of the weekend was not solely an opportunity for Anne to relish the countryside. The idea was for the students and tutors to get to know each other, feel more comfortable with each other, and to begin to build a community so we might better critique and support each other as writers. And it worked. As several of my new friends have said to me, we already feel like a family.

So far Bath Spa has been near perfect in cultivating this community, and I've been thinking about what they've done right, what elements are important to forming a writing family.

  • Sacrifice
For me, one of the most meaningful things I've realized about my classmates in the past two weeks is the amount of sacrifices they have all made to take this MA course. Phil and I spent a lot of time discussing whether or not I'd leave my job, how we'd pay for the course, whether this kind of commitment would be worth it for my writing. What a unifying thing to discover all of my classmates have struggled with similar questions, and also different, much bigger sacrifices of family time, money, career, etc. No one on the MA is taking it lightly because they have had to give up so much in order to be here.

  • Required sharing
For any given class a student is required to share work every other week. Part of the reason I was so swamped last week, besides being sick, was that I had to share work for both my classes. For some students this honesty and openness with their art is incredibly hard. But already, in only two weeks of classes, I have learned from my classmates' amazing writing and storytelling, and learned about my classmates as writers so I'll be better able to support them in their future work.
  • Honesty about self
The first day of my workshop course our tutor, the amazing Julia Green, asked us to introduce ourselves. She suggested we be completely honest about who we are and our plans and hopes for the MA. Perhaps that seems obvious to you, but for me it was quite revolutionary. How often am I totally honest with strangers about how much I read? How much I love writing? How passionately I dream of making a career out of it? I fear non-writers thinking I'm a nerd or a bookworm or wasting my time. But by starting off the course being only myself, there are no subterfuges to overcome and I can begin in total honesty.
  • Honesty with critiques
This is really important to me, and one of the major reasons I signed up for the course. If people are not honest about their thoughts about my writing, their confusions, their struggles--how can my writing improve? And if it doesn't improve--what's the point of a whole course in writing?
  • Start with something good
That being said, Julia has asked us to always start our critiques with something good. I've heard the advice before, but it bears repeating. There is always something good and as writers we need to know what it is, the ways our writing is working. We also need that support.
  • Support
Richard Kerridge, a tutor for the creative writing MA, asked us to "look supportive" on Saturday night for the student readings. It was a funny line, but of course so true and essential too. Reading your own work in front of people takes courage. With my teaching background, I'm used to standing in front of others and making a fool of myself, but of course for some people, reading aloud is one of the scariest things they have ever done. We should listen. We should clap. We should tell them they did a great job. We should look supportive.
  • Time
I just spent almost three full days with my classmates. We lived together, ate together, read, wrote, studied, walked, laughed, shared. Forming a writing community takes time, and I'm so glad we were able to begin this course with this experience.

In other news, since my last post, I have written one full picture book and started a second. I've enjoyed them as much as expected, but I'm not confident they're any good. After a fabulous class with Julia this weekend, I have done some further thinking on my new novel idea and am quite enthusiastic about it. My problem is quickly becoming too many works in progress, not too few. But of course that's a good problem to have! I'm still hacking and wheezing, but perhaps the end is in sight? Or another trip to the doctor...

Best wishes for your writing and your writing communities!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tackling picture books

Welcome back, brain! You've been missed!

Well, I'm still hacking up a lung and developing Mount Kleenex, but after the first good night's sleep in--days? weeks?!--I'm feeling a bit more like myself. Which is good, cause the to-do list has gotten a bit massive in my absence. And okay, blogging is not on the top of the to do list... but I've missed it!

This week in my "Forms, Ages and Stages" course we're working on picture books. Which is good, because I don't think I could have handled much more this week! Specifically we're discussing one of the greatest picture books of all time, Maurice Sendak's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. (Ohhh... click here for WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE tattoos! Also some other literary ones). But our tutor recommended some other picture books as well. So I also read:

Our tutor also recommended we re-read favorites from our childhood. Makes me realize this would be much easier if I were living anywhere near closer to home (but maybe my parents have already thrown away GO DOG GO?) Anyway, I remember a few favorites, but I'm sure there were many more: Of course GO DOG GO, along with WACKY WEDNESDAY and just about anything else Dr. Seuss, the STREGA NONA books, SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE. Unfortunately, none of those were in the Bath Spa library, and I haven't gone out into the big world since Saturday, except to visit the doctor.

But I'm really excited about trying my hand at a picture book or two of my own. I think the excitement will wane dramatically when I discover just how hard it is to have character development, a climax and resolution in 300 words, but for now it sounds like a fun challenge. I'll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, what are some of your favorite picture books? And Mom, Dad (I know you're out there!), what were some of mine?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A short hiatus from the world...

Hi all,

Just wanted to apologize for not posting recently and to say it might be another week. Life seems to have gotten the better of me lately, and I have come down with the "cold that will never end."

Hope you're all feeling better and more creative than I am.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Writing update & happy news

Well... it's been a whirlwind couple of days here. But I'll get to that in a second. In my last post, I reviewed the books I have read in the past months, specifically those for my course. And, as my course starts TOMORROW, I promised an update on my writing as well.

When I left my job, countless people asked me how I intended to spend my time. I don't think they imagined I could just read and write all day. Actually, I was pretty nervous myself. I had trained myself to think in thirty minute chunks. I fantasized about what having more time would do for my writing, but was afraid I would never get past my thirty minute chunk mindset. Well, I'm happy to say that hasn't been a problem at all. The limitless time has been such a blessing, and I feel like I've been able to try new things and stretch myself in a way I was never able to before when working in thirty minute chunks. Most days I now put in 3-4 hours, sometimes as many as 9.

My goal was to have a complete rough draft of my work in progress before classes started. I had no idea how quickly I could work when I wasn't restricted to thirty minutes a day. I finished the draft within the next two weeks. I then spent several weeks sorting out the plot, tying up lose ends, making sure each character had a logical story. And now I am about a third of the way through my first revision.

The writing has gone so well, in fact, that I have begun to search for new story ideas. I'm pleased to report I've found a few since my last post about searching for inspiration. They're still quite amorphous, but I look forward to exploring them further as my course gets underway.

So picture this, if you will. Anne is confident, hardworking, feeling good about her current wip, excited about everything before her. Then, Sunday afternoon, the phone rings and all my confidence and composure vanishes.

I learned I had won a spot in SCBWI's* UNDISCOVERED VOICES 2010 for the first few chapters of my previous work in progress, ADÈLE (my ghost story). To quote UV's website, "Undiscovered Voices is an anthology of excerpts from unpublished children’s fiction from the members of SCBWI British Isles, as selected by a combination of editors and agents."

Actually, what the heck, I'll quote most of the press release I got:

"We are proud to announce the following twelve stories and authors will be featured in the British SCBWI's Undiscovered Voices 2010 anthology:

Adele by Anne M Leone (Anne ML Anderson)
Back from the Dead by Nick Cross
Fifteen Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins
One of a Kind by Jude Ensaff (Najoud Ensaff)
From Darkness by Emily George
At Yellow Lake by Jane McLoughlin
Not Just the Blues by Claire O'Brien
The Truth about Celia Frost by Paula Rawsthorne
Vivian Divine and the Days of the Dead by Lauren Sabel
Slugs in the Toilet by Lisa Joy Smith
Blinding Darkness by Abbie Todd
Becoming Invisible by Yona Wiseman

"We received nearly 150 submissions from SCBWI members. The response was beyond our wildest expectations both in terms of quantity and quality. These selected stories are a fantastic sample of the submissions we received. The judges endeavored to select a variety of voices, styles and genre from the anonymous submissions in an effort to demonstrate the array of talent in the British SCBWI.

"Undiscovered Voices will be published in February 2010 and distributed at no cost to US and UK-based editors and agents focusing on children's literature. Best-selling children's author Melvin Burgess will write an introduction to the book, and we will include judges' comments for each selected story appearing in the anthology. The book will be available for sale at British SCBWI events after its publication.

"The anthology's goal is not only to introduce new, promising voices in children's literature but also elevate British SCBWI in the minds of editors and agents which will help to benefit every SCBWI member.

"Special thanks to our judges for their hard work and for their enthusiasm for the project:
Julia Churchill, The Greenhouse Literary Agency; Zoe Duncan, Scholastic Children's Books; Lindsey Heaven, Puffin Books; Sarah Manson, Literary Agent; Jo Unwin, Conville and Walsh; and Emma Young, Macmillan Children's Books."

So yeah, a bit of a big deal. And you see how I'm first? Alphabetizing at its finest!

In all seriousness, though, I was blown away to be included in this very prestigious publication. SCBWI-BI has only done this once before (2008), and the writers from that publication have been extremely successful (Steve Hartley, Harriet Goodwin, Sarwat Chadda, etc). My hands still tremble every time I think about it. Who knew I could be such a flake? Needless to say, all my writing habits and plans for my current wip (not to mention house cleaning, email, and grocery shopping) have flown out the window for the moment. But in a good way. I'm thrilled for the opportunity to share ADÈLE (have I mentioned it's a ghost story??).

Best wishes to all of you in your own writing projects!


*SCBWI: The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (note: I've linked to the British Isles chapter, but it is an international organization).

Monday, October 5, 2009

A reading update II

My first class starts this Thursday, so I want to spend this week doing some wrap-up on my intense reading and writing for the past two months. I did the first reading update on my course reading list at the end of August, so I'd like to update that, plus add a few further thoughts on my non-course reading.

Read:
HOW I LIVE NOW and WHAT I WAS and THE BRIDE'S FAREWELL by Meg Rosoff
COSMIC and FRAMED by Frank Cottrell Boyce
THE SAVAGE by David Almond (SKELLIG is also on my reading list, but seeing as I just read it in May, I decided not to reread it right away)
NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS by John Boyne
CHARLOTTE'S WEB by E.B. White

As I said in my previous post, I'm really thrilled to have discovered Frank Cottrell Boyce and Meg Rosoff. Both FRAMED and COSMIC started slowly for me, but by the ends I enjoyed both immensely. Boyce is a very visual author, and with both books their gorgeous imagery stuck with me long after I finished reading them. FRAMED is about art and how it can transform a community, and Boyce manages to make the art's beauty come alive on the page. I must figure out how he does this. I would love to teach the book in conjunction with encouraging kids to create their own art.

THE BRIDE'S FAREWELL has been my favorite Meg Rosoff read yet. It was absolutely riveting. I don't think I got up from the couch, even moved, as I read the last hundred pages. Like the rest of her books, it is not a simple and happy story, but I found it especially thought-provoking. Another book it would be really interesting to teach, though with an older group than FRAMED. Horses play a major role in the story; maybe we could go on a horseback ride in conjunction with discussing that book. Anything to get out of traditional school worksheets.

Follow these links for posts on my thoughts on NORTHERN LIGHTS and THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS. More detailed thoughts on Meg Rosoff, Frank Cottrell Boyce and David Almond are available in my previous reading update.

I was really looking forward to rereading CHARLOTTE'S WEB, as I remember it well from my childhood. But on reading it, I had lots of mixed feelings. The book's language was gorgeous (as expected from E. B. White), Wilbur and Charlotte were charming as ever, but I was really confused by Fern (the little girl). No wonder she hadn't stuck in my mind. The novel begins with her saving Wilbur, but by the end of the book she's replaced him with thoughts of boys and fairs. Was White trying to make a point about growing up? Are little children supposed to emulate Fern? Or if the book is about friendship, are we supposed to see Fern as a bad friend? Either way, her behavior didn't strike me as realistic for a young girl. Perhaps my adult mind or my English literature degree has completely ruined a lovely book about life, death and the animal world, but I was disconcerted by its seeming lack of a central theme.

I haven't given up on childhood favorites, though. A former writing teacher had recommended I reread A WRINKLE IN TIME, as its climax reminded her of the climax of my own writing (imagine being compared to Madeleine L'Engle!). I found A WRINKLE IN TIME as magical and thought-provoking as I did as a child. I was also shocked to discover how many of the themes in my current work in progress may have originated from L'Engle's book. Funny how great literature can stick with you, even subconsciously.

Speaking of childhood favorites, I just finished I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith Saturday night. Here's my review from goodreads: A coming-of-age story combined with a modernization story. It takes its readers from a crumbling castle, classical music and books, and a tiny English village, to a modern world of radios, clothes, London, and post-modern literature. It is funny, sad and so true I often found myself nodding at the text, wanting to underline passages in my library copy.

Readers often say they want the next Little Women or the next Harry Potter or the next Jane Eyre. But I think what they really want is a book that can recreate the feeling of reading one of those novels. A book that will keep you reading past dinner, late into the night, without once looking at the clock. A book that will have you laughing out loud, gasping, and re-reading passages just to recreate certain exact moments. A book that once you finish it, you want to run out into the night and buy a copy of your own to keep forever. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is such a book. And I am beyond annoyed that it was published first in 1949 and I have only heard of it now. Had I read this book in middle school or high school, I know I would have carried it through my life, recreated its scenes in my head, reread it until all its pages were falling out. But luckily I have discovered it now, and I still have the rest of my life to reread it often.

I have one disappointment with the book, but as I'm trying to keep this review spoiler-free, I won't say more than that. However, even in my disappointment, I was up half the night after finishing the book, thinking through the text, railing against the author. Any book that can make me feel that passionately, good and bad, is incredible.

What else?

Well, since I left my job at the end of July, I've read 33 books. I read one memoir, one biography, two adult fictions and one adult fantasy. The rest have been children's books, a combination of middle grade and young adult novels. My favorites? Well, excluding some of those mentioned above, the absolute best,which I've linked to my reviews, are:

CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers
JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE by Wendy Mass

Courtney has a new book coming out this winter. You can see the trailer for it here.

I also strongly recommend Wendy Mass' earlier book, A MANGO SHAPED SPACE. Everyone says her most recent book, EVERY SOUL A STAR is the best of all. I'll need to save up my pocket money for the next time I visit the US.

Happy reading!