Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Eight best books of 2013

My favorite books of 2013 highlight the diversity of my reading this past year. Not all of them are THE BEST BOOKS I EVER READ OMG! types, but all of them were wonderful, thought-provoking reads that I'd happily recommend. Actually, I already have. My students got a sneak peek at this list before they left for winter break.

In the order I read them, here's the best books of 2013:

1. The Rook by Daniel O'Malley (my review here)
2. The Broken Lands by Kate Milford (my review here)
3. The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Pointe Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (my very brief review here)
4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (my review here)
5. The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow (Unfortunately, my only review comes from Twitter!):
6. Fat Kid Rules the World by K. L. Going (my review here)
7. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler (my review here)
8. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith (my review here)

And because I love stats, that's...

1 Dystopian / Futuristic
3 Contemporary Realistic
1 Non-Fiction / Historical
2 Fantasy
2 Historical Fiction
2 Adult
3 Authors or main characters of color
2 Middle Grade
4 Young Adult

Click here to read the statistics on all of my 2013 reading.

And while there's a lot of diversity in this list, there's one thing most of these books have in common: incredible settings, from London (The Rook), to Brooklyn (The Broken Lands), to Berlin (The Berlin Boxing Club), to a futuristic New Orleans (Orleans).

I feel I should offer a quick note about The Penderwicks... I discovered these books two years ago, after a friend who didn't get on with them handed me the first one, and ever since I've been savoring them one by one. I kept avoiding reviewing them, or talking much about them, because on the surface they seem so simple. They remind me a lot of books I read as a child. But finally, upon reading Point Mouette, I couldn't keep quiet any longer. These books are AMAZING, so sweet, happy, and comforting, perfect for either a sick day or a summer day, or anytime really.

What are your best reads of 2013?

Oh, and I don't know when I'll be back on the blog, so Merry Christmas to those who celebrate and a very happy 2014!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reading Stats for 2013

Sorry for the lack of posting as of late. I haven't had much free time, and the bit I can garner, I try to use to work on my novel. But I couldn't miss my year end book blogging traditions!

For several years now, I've been keeping track of every book I read. I note the date I finished it, the title, the author, and a few other little details, like the type of book (audiobook, graphic novel, etc), whether I know the author, if the book was a DNF (did not finish) and why, if the author or main character is a person of color (PoC), and if and when I've read the book before. It's a lot of information, and I love being able to look back over a year and see what I read. But it really does only take me a minute to do, and gives me a chance to reflect on a reading experience.

When I started my new middle school Language Arts job, I discovered my students have been required to keep reading logs. I brought in my journal, so they could see that some adults keep track of reading, too. My 9th period asked if I could pass it around, and the kids poured over my books and codes. But I had to explain to them that I'd been reading a lot less since I started working full time. I've also been finishing far fewer books, and becoming even more impatient (who knew that was possible?!) in my limited time. But the good news is, throughout this year, and especially with the new job and numerous kid recommendations, I've been trying lots of different things: more adult fiction, more non-fiction, more bestsellers, more middle grade... one of my favorite books of the year is in a genre I hardly ever read: dystopian (well, sort of, it's got a near-future setting but it isn't a utopia gone bad. But still!).  

Anyway, enough talk! Here's my stats for 2013:

Total Books Attempted: 100 (yay for clean numbers!)
Total Books Read: 54
DNFs (Did Not Finish): 46
Some of my reasons for DNFs: "Bored, not scared, didn't care," "Read 1/2, slow plot, never engaged," "No bite," "Bored, no good characters," "No driving plot," "So cliche!" "Poor writing and long!" "Almost halfway, nice writing, but nothing happening."
Middle Grade: 38 (attempted)
Young Adult: 41 (attempted)
Adult: 18 (attempted)
Person of Color: 24 (attempted)

That's the most PoC books I've EVER read in a year! I'm just shy of 25%! I feel like I discovered a lot of good ones this year, too. See my diversity tag for all the PoC books I blogged about. Being back in the US, where there's more diversity in publishing, helped as well.

I also read a lot more Middle Grade books this year. Probably thanks in part to working on two middle grade novels this year, as well as working in a middle school. I'm also pleased with that number for adult books. Could I finally be growing up? Nah!

You can check out my previous stats here: 2010, 2011, 2012.  And next week I'll be sharing my eight favorite reads of 2013.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Sorry for the long hiatus. The return to teaching full time has been even more challenging than I anticipated. But also really fun (sometimes). Anyway, I wanted to stop by briefly because it's Thanksgiving, and after living abroad five years, and away from home even longer (wherever home even is), Thanksgiving has become kind of a big deal. And a good chance to remember all that I'm thankful for.

I'm thankful for company this Thanksgiving, new friends and old.

I'm thankful school is getting easier as I get to know all the kids' names, understand the district's expectations, and figure out I'm working with some really incredible, helpful, and dedicated people.

I'm also thankful for a four day weekend.

I'm thankful for a good book (Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game) to curl up with. I stumbled across it in my classroom library the other day, and remembered adoring it as a child. It's nearly as good on the re-read.

I'm thankful for Jake, the dog Phil and I adopted at the beginning of the month. He's been such a joy to come home to every day. And yes, that's him, strangely photogenic for this family!

I'm thankful for the amazingly astute and supportive writing group I've stumbled into in the Triangle area.

I'm also thankful for squeezing in a few minutes of writing time every week. I'm hoping to find a bit more in the coming weeks because I'm excited about where my currently project (Project Nameless?) is going.

And I'm thankful that Durham is beginning to feel a bit more like home.

What are you thankful for this season?

I hope and pray for all sorts of blessings in your lives, your writing, and your thanksgivings.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Letting go in life and writing

It should come as no surprise that I'm a bit of a control freak. And a little opinionated. Especially when it comes to kids and literature. So this past week, starting a new job as a middle school Language Arts teacher, has been full of ups and downs.

I've never encountered a curriculum, or even an educational philosophy, like the one at my new job. At first, I was purely bewildered. Then, as the week went on, I grew frustrated. I came home each evening railing about literature and kids and what's good for everyone involved. But when I finally hit Friday, I was feeling a bit more subdued. Maybe I don't know everything after all...

And while I haven't done any personal writing recently (don't worry, I'll get back to it! I just needed some time to fully devote to this job), I find myself thinking about how I might do this full-on control freak thing in my writing, too.

Lately, the words haven't been coming. I've worried I've lost interest in my new story, but anytime I re-read my notes, I'm as passionate as ever. I've worried I've plotted myself into a hole, but my brain is still bursting with ideas and work-arounds for every problem I encounter. Maybe I've been pushing myself too hard, worrying too much about conflict, character development, and perfection. What if, like with the job, I instead need to sit back, observe, and let my path become clearer rather than diving head-first into everything?

Easier said than done, of course, especially considering I spent the weekend on the coast, soaking up late-September sunshine and ocean breezes. Somehow I need to find a way to carry that beach mindset with me as the days grow shorter and darker.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Have you ever found letting go helped your writing? Your life?

*The picture is mine, one of my favorite "reflective" pictures from Santorini, Greece.*

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Life changes

Some of you are probably thinking, "Life changes?" But Anne, your life is all about changes! You just moved to North Carolina! And a year ago, from overseas to Massachusetts. True, but throughout all that, daily life has been pretty same-y. I've been writing a ton, as well as taking care of everything on the domestic front, and working or volunteering at schools a few days a week. I've had time to play in an orchestra, join reading groups, meet friends for coffee in the middle of the day, and occasionally travel around the world with my husband.

But last week I accepted a full-time Language Arts teaching position at a local middle school. I'm really looking forward to hanging out with kids full-time again, learning along with them, and passionately discussing books, writing, and words. Along with all the other things 13-year-olds find themselves getting up to. And I do think it was time for a change in my life, new challenges and hopefully successes. But obviously my daily life is about to undergo a giant shift.

I feel like I'm in a boat, watching the horizon change in front of my eyes, and madly trying to batten down the hatches, pull in the sails, and prepare for everything that's to come. But of course that's not possible. Rather, I should be enjoying the sea wind in my hair and settling down for a crazy ride.

I'm hoping to keep up with the blog, as well as the writing. But first I've got some maneuvering to do! Wish me luck!

*Picture belongs to me, taken on the deck of Bristol's S. S. Great Britain.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Diverse Reads: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Orleans has been on my radar since before it was published, right after I read and loved Sherri L. Smith's novel Flygirl. But I didn't exactly rush out and buy Orleans. As popular as the genre is, dystopian titles have never gotten me overly excited. They seem all doom and gloom, angst against a repressive government that's more of a strawman than a legitimate, believable threat.

In an absolutely chilling opening, Orleans turns all of that on its head.

It begins in 2004, with a lone trumpet player standing on top of the levee, watching a coming storm, daring it to do its worst. He won't leave New Orleans.

On the following page is a list, beginning with:

"August 29, 2005
Hurricane Katrina
Saffir-Simpson Category 3 at landfall
Casualties: 971; Survivors: 30,000"

 Then there's Hurricane Isaiah in 2014, followed by Lorenzo, Olga, Laura, and Paloma, each becoming worse and worse. The list ends with Hurricane Jesus in 2019:

"Category 6 at landfall,
based on new Saffir-Simpson Scale
Casualties: estimated 8,000;
Survivors: estimated below 10,000"

Next are government documents, describing the quarantine of the Gulf Coast as Delta Fever breaks out, then the "Declaration of Separation" as the United States becomes the Outer States.

Do I believe this is exactly what will happen to New Orleans? No. But having lived through those terrible days following Katrina, I can certainly imagine all sorts of grim possibilities. At this point, I was totally on board with Smith, whatever followed.

The next section of the novel (titled "After") begins with Fen, a teenage African American girl, part of a tribe of O Positives (or OPs). This is where the book slows down a bit, as Smith tries to catch her readers up on a society where due to Delta Fever, everything is based on blood, not race. I have to say, I read several paragraphs over again, trying to understand exactly what it meant to be an AB as opposed to an O-Neg. Thankfully, soon the story was careening through the Delta again, and in context everything started to make sense.

And what a crazy, fascinating world Smith has created, unlike anything I've read before. There's one computer in the whole city, working via foot pedal in the library, there's a church in an abandoned Super Saver, but most of the churches are places of sanctuary, hidden in treetops. There's thick jungles, swamps, tribes of Blood Hunters, The Rooftops, which is a grassy plain growing over city homes. Be light on your toes, though, because the ground isn't so stable, and underneath lurks deserted bedrooms and living rooms filled with mold and giant alligators.

And did I mention the non-stop action, and break-neck pace at which the story flies through these locations? Orleans received starred-reviews when it first came out, and I know The Booksmugglers reviewed it (Verdict: "Damn Near Perfection!") but otherwise I've heard so little about it. Why isn't everyone and their mother reading this book?!

I also loved Fen, who soon into the story has a newborn thrust upon her, when she's really not the mothering type. For the first several scrapes, Fen fantasizes about depositing the nuisance baby somewhere, either in relative safely, or in hopes of an easy death. But ultimately, she becomes desperate to get the child to the world outside Orleans, where the child can grow up safe from everything Fen knows and fears.

On the surface, race has nothing to do with this story. Race is dead, the scientists believe, because now everything depends on your tribe, which is determined by your blood type. But in order for her baby to have a chance, and maybe even the city as a whole, Fen bands together with a bumbling, white tourist / scientist from the Outer States. Ultimately, they'll be forced to trust each other with their lives.

I tried explaining this book (okay, gushing about this book) to a group of people, and found them looking at me like I was the most grim person on Earth. But it's that message of trusting in others different from ourselves, and a desperate hope that things can change (plus, of course, the crazy, fascinating world Smith has created) that meant I couldn't stop reading Orleans.

Now I'm out to snatch up every Smith title I can put my hands on...

How about you? Read anything amazing lately?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Poking holes

I recently finished reading agent Donald Maass' writing how-to book, The Fire in Fiction. His challenging, even combative tone put me off at times, and worse, sometimes I truly couldn't figure out what he was trying to show in his numerous fiction excerpts. Perhaps I'm just not a devoted thriller reader (which made up the majority of his examples). But all that said, Maass' book has some excellent, thought-provoking exercises that still made it a worthwhile read.

And in Maass' chapter "Making the Impossible Real," I discovered one of my favorite exercises ever:

"List twenty reasons why in the real world this event would not occur. Who prevents it? Who stops it?"

Twenty reasons is a LOT of reasons. But when I gave the Doubting Thomas portion of my mind free reign, it was rather easy to question everything. Wouldn't the girl's parents call a lawyer? Wouldn't that boy be afraid the police would get involved? Surely this highly sophisticated businessman realizes his actions are illegal. Would he really push the situation that far?

My stories usually begin with a single scene, and I extrapolate from this scene who my characters are, how they got there, where they'll go from here. It's a difficult thing to step back and say, "Wait, would that scene even happen like that?"

It's downright upsetting, actually, stomach ache inducing. But of course, Maass' follow-up question invites the writer to figure out why the event, or some slightly different version of it, actually does happen. Rather than patching together explanations after the fact, I love that I'm starting my new story by poking holes in it, questioning everything, and making sure all my answers are believable (if not 100% plausible!).

It's a new frame of mind for me, but one I'm definitely packing front and center in my writer toolbox. 

Have you discovered any good writing how-to books or exercises lately?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Idea insecurity

I hate it when idea insecurity strikes.

I'm just about finished with a thorough outline of my new idea. Sure, there's a few subplot kinks to work out, one of the antagonists is a little foggy in my mind, and the climax gets somewhat gnarly (meaning I'm not quite sure how it all plays out). But I've found those details usually sort themselves out in the writing, which I WAS about to start.

Then last week, I was innocently scrolling through Twitter, and saw BookPage's review of an upcoming young adult novel: A Wounded Name by Dot Hutchison.

"Set among the... prestigious boarding school Elsinore Academy, A Wounded Name opens after the sudden death of the school’s headmaster. Ophelia, a sophomore, knows that her father Polonius, the Dean of Curriculum, wants her to take her pills to keep her wild visions at bay, but other temptations beckon. The former headmaster’s son Dane, a senior, has the potential to become more than a friend. Dane’s mother quickly remarries to keep her position as chief hostess, the only role she’s ever known. Fellow senior Horatio balances studies with his devotion to his grieving best friend.

"A reader familiar with Hamlet will appreciate the way in which details from the play are translated into a boarding school setting...but what truly sets this retelling apart are the faerie creatures that only Ophelia can see and hear...they complement the story so naturally that readers might suspect that they were always there, just never mentioned. And although Ophelia still seeks final sanctuary in the lake, Hutchison undermines our assumptions about what awaits her under the water’s surface . . . and what might have driven her there. This is a highly recommended retelling by an author to watch."

I INSTANTLY added A Wounded Name to my LibraryThing list. What a COOL premise. What an Anne premise! So literary, mysterious, and magical!

My second thought? Why isn't MY new book that cool?

Sure, as the day went on, I remembered all the things I like about my new idea: it's a lot of fun, it's funny, the main character is perhaps the most likable I've ever written, I'm trying something new for me... But is it cool? And of course, more to the point, I'm getting old over here. Is it publishable? Is it the kind of idea that forces agents and editors to sit up and take notice?

I'm not sure. I don't have a good eye for those sorts of things when it comes to my own work. I wonder if I can get some of my crit partners to be painfully honest with me...

Anyone else suffer from the occasional idea insecurity? Do you plow through or go back to the drawing board?

By the way, on a TOTALLY different note, welcome back! I spent my summer vacation at my parents' cottage in Northern Michigan, reconnecting with family, some whom I haven't seen in years, and who haven't been all together in AGES.  And I welcomed my brand new, absolutely perfect nephew into the world, so I have to share!

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Since its inception a few years ago, I've watched WriteOnCon, the free, kidlit-based, online writer's conference ("Exclusively for Everyone!" is their slogan), from the sidelines. I was always moving, or traveling, or doing something else when the conference rolled around in August. Or my manuscript wasn't ready to be shown to anyone else. Or, let's be honest here, I didn't really see the point. I subscribe to WriteOnCon's blog feed, so I read most of the posts after the conference. Some of them were even quite useful. But I wasn't participating in any of it.

So what's different this year?

After a long weekend at the New England SCBWI conference, I learned how challenging and rewarding a conference could be. I spent almost three days straight writing (notes, ideas, techniques), and am still referring back to those scribbles months later.

 Also, while I haven't made much noise about it on the blog, Project Fun is finished, and currently making the rounds, waiting for the right person to read it and fall in love. So I actually had something I could post on the WriteOnCon forums, to get critiqued and to show off. And maybe even Ms. Right herself would discover it.

So several months ago, I blocked off the conference on the calendar, making sure my schedule would be open. Last week, I screwed my courage to the sticking point, and posted my query letter and the first 250 words in the forums (and later added my first 5 pages, all linked here). And since then, I've spent most of my free time reading other posts in the forums, commenting, and making sure I'm a friendly writer on the boards, and not an anonymous stranger hoping for feedback. This weekend I made sure I had easy meals to make for dinner, no errands to run, and no other responsibilities. I could devote the full two days to "go" to my conference.

Things I've learned:

Where to begin? I've learned how to evluate a manuscript for market potential, how to make sure I invest enough of myself into it, how to dig deeper into my characters, what middle school kids are REALLY like... and tons more!

And not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I'm so pleased I decided to "attend" the conference this year. Devoting two full days to learning, thinking over my work in progress, and taking notes, I've been challenged so much more than I might have by skimming a blog post a week later.

Also, I didn't need to worry about posting my work on the WriteOnCon forums. Not only have people been welcoming and encouraging, they've been brilliant. I've received lots of tremendously useful feedback, even on things I thought were pretty polished.

Things I've enjoyed:

Just like attending an in-person conference, I've reconnected with friends from all over the kidlit world, including NESCBWI (I miss you New Englanders!) and the Blueboards. And it's been so encouraging to not only be surrounded by friends, but to have a ready-made fan club to read my work and cheer me on.

Plus, I've connected with tons of brilliant writers, from the forums and presentations, and added stacks of books to my to-read pile, and numerous followers on Twitter. And I've read some AMAZING writing that I really hope is going to be snatched up soon.

And I have to be honest, I love attending a conference in my house, taking time out whenever I want to go to the bathroom, take a walk to clear my head, do some laundry (yes, I did get some laundry done!). Maybe I'm flying my introvert flag a bit too avidly here, but I liked being in control of my day.

And I even got a Ninja Agent request for my novel! (Yes, the agents stalking the forums really are called Ninja Agents... kidlit people are just so much fun). Who knows if it will lead to anything, but the encouragement is very welcome.

Already I can't wait to dive into WriteOnCon next year, no matter what stage my work is in, no matter what other previous commitments I have. I'll be there! and I strongly recommend you join me!

In the meantime, I'm going on a well-needed summer vacation next week, so the blog will be silent for a few weeks. Happy writing!

Hah! File this under: Doomed to Fail. I wrote a draft of this post on Tuesday, in between breaks from WriteOnCon, and planned to come back Wednesday to add a few more links and tidbits. Then, because clearly the Universe thought I was way too on top of things, I spent the night in the hospital with my husband. Don't worry, he's fine now, safely home, and feeling much better. But I wanted to add a brief note to say, this post only includes links to the first day of WriteOnCon. But thankfully for ALL OF US, everything is archived here

Oh, and we should never get too sure of ourselves when it comes to life. It happens. Take care of yourselves.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Venturing forth

"We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle." The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I've been thinking lately about that fabulous line from the Poisonwood Bible, when the naive missionary family traipses into the Congo with all the things they think they'll need for their new home. It sounds quite familiar, actually. And while I didn't actually pack any cake mixes in the moving van, I have been cooking a lot lately, along with hanging pictures, and arranging books, trying to make the new house feel like a home.

I've also been venturing outside a bit more... There's a lot of aniexty involved in settling in a new place, but I've found one of the bits I really like is meeting such a variety of people before I know which shops I'll go to, which restaurants I'll avoid, and before I've raised any defenses, or figured out how to best fit in. It's like the beginning of an epic novel, with a huge and colorful cast of characters all introducing themselves.

There was the super friendly, and knowledgeable manager at Kroger who dropped everything to help us shop for patio furniture. Because, of course, the sooner it all goes, the sooner he can get the Halloween merchandise on the floor. Also, who knew Southern Krogers sold really nice patio furniture? Too weird.

Then there was the mother and daughter on the local trail, picking berries. I was so pleased to think there might be fresh berries practically in my back yard. I studied the bush as I walked by, tried to figure out what types of berries the little girl was shoving in her red-stained mouth. "Are those blackberries?" I called out to the mom.

The mom whirled around, and gave me a thoroughly suspicious look. Okay, I guess people here don't really talk to each other when they're out and about...

"Yeah... probably," she said, before turning her back on me and handing more berries to her daughter.

Probably? I bit my tongue before I started lecturing on eating unknown berries--and feeding them to a kid!--and instead kept walking.

Thankfully we've discovered the noise we heard our first night wasn't a turf-war or a psycho neighbor with a lot of leftover fireworks, but the firework display launched from the baseball game at the Durham Bulls stadium.

One of my favorite characters so far is the bug exterminator who pulled into the drive last week, just as I was simultaneously freaking out about a line of small bites trailing down my leg and a swarm of wasps flying around the mailbox. I was sure he was at the wrong house, as I hadn't yet been told the owner has the yard and interior sprayed every three months. It was a wonderfully unexpected Southern miracle. 

I followed the exterminator from room to room, turning on lights for him, asking about my bites and wasps, as well as listening to his non-stop bug chatter. He's TERRIFIED of bugs, and once he found out I wasn't from around here, he wanted to be sure to tell me everything I needed to know. He told me I didn't need to worry too much about Black Widows (spray, spray), but those Brown Recluses are nightmares! They're crazy fast (spray, spray), and their bites can land you in an emergency room. He knew his stuff, reassured me we didn't have bed bugs, told me the wasps I saw were actually Cicada Killers, which are harmless (spray, spray). He even managed to make me feel a bit better--until I started doing Google Image searches on Brown Recluses.

One of our movers used to live in South Carolina, and made a point of warning us about the snakes, too, including rattlers and copperheads. He also unfortunately told a gory story involving his former pet kitten.

But so far, other than squirrels and rabbits, dragonflies and Cicada Killers, an abundance of butterflies, and even a hummingbird at my study window, I haven't seen anything too worrisome.

Other than this article in the news last week about a 12-foot alligator killing an 80 pound pet Husky. The nearby creek is a little shallow for alligators... right?

Now do you see why my mind has stuck on this image of carrying cake mixes into the jungle?

For this Midwesterner, the weather really does feel tropical, with crazy high temperatures, and monsoon-like storms in the evenings. I start sweating two minutes after stepping outside, and I've been drinking like water's going out of style.

But I know I'll get used to this climate, and these people, and everything else. And in the meantime, I'm kind of enjoying figuring it all out.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Diverse Reads: India's Independence Movement

This past May, at the New England SCBWI Conference, author Padma Ventkatraman presented as part of a discussion on writing historical fiction. I'd never heard of her or her writing before, but she was wise, loud, opinionated, and very funny: just my type of person! So upon visiting the Durham Library for the first time last week, when I happened to spot Padma's debut novel, Climbing the Stairs, I immediately grabbed it. While I vaguely remembered the plot, I couldn't have told you anything about its historical backdrop. Here's the official blurb from Goodreads:

"During World War II and the last days of British occupation in India, fifteen-year-old Vidya dreams of attending college. But when her forward-thinking father is beaten senseless by the British police, she is forced to live with her grandfather's large traditional family, where the women live apart from the men and are meant to be married off as soon as possible.

Vidya's only refuge becomes her grandfather's upstairs library, which is forbidden to women. There she meets Raman, a young man also living in the house who relishes her intellectual curiosity. But when Vidya's brother decides to fight with the hated British against the Nazis, and when Raman proposes marriage too soon, Vidya must question all she has believed in."

Weird personal tidbit: my grandfather directed a repertory theater company that toured India. He actually met Nehru, the first Prime Minister, and used to keep a photograph of that day in his office. So I'm embarrassed to admit I know very little about India's fight for independence, and feel lucky to have stumbled upon Climbing the Stairs to garner a bit of an education. I was also fascinated by the tensions amongst the different characters, with such disparate hopes for their country. Is non-violence always the way? What if a nation needs to protect itself? What if a person needs to save his or her family? Padma juggles all these deeper questions amongst a gripping story of a girl's struggle for independence (it reminded me a lot of Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light).

So upon finishing Climbing the Stairs, I instantly went searching for more literature about India's Independence Movement. Thankfully, the School Library Journal had a recent article, "New Titles On India's Struggle for Independence," and I instantly downloaded Jennifer Bradbury's A Moment Comes for my Nook. 

Bradbury's writing really transported me to 1947, and the hot, busy streets of India, aflame with tension and violence right before the British-designed partition takes effect, separating Sikhs and Muslims into different countries. I actually gasped aloud at one moment, and my husband was concerned something was wrong. It was--characters were in danger! Also like Climbing the Stairs, A Moment Comes takes several different viewpoints to allow readers to see that there is no simple answer to the violence and injustice.

In her author's note, Bradbury talks about how the numbers of people affected by the partition's relocation and violence is mostly unknown, only a range of estimates. As she writes, "Ultimately that range of numbers is more haunting than a definitive number might be. Because among the countless tragedies and casualties of the parition, perhaps one of the greatest is not knowing how many voices were silenced, how many stories were cut short and lost forever. I can only hope this story does honor to theirs."

One of the things I love about historical fiction is being transported to different places and times, and expanding my mind. This is doubly true with diverse historical fiction, learning about a time period I've never understood, stories I'd never heard. Both these books truly captured my mind, heart, and imagination.

Any other recommendations (fiction or non, children's or adult) about India's Independence? Or other favorite historical fiction?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Moving forward

Welcome back, readers!

When people ask how the move went, I'm at a bit of a loss as to what to say.

In all measurable ways, the move went fairly well. The movers were wonderful, and all their back-breaking, sweat-inducing labor insured most everything was set-up in the house only a weekend later. I haven't bumped into any major headaches as I've been paying new bills, changing addresses, and trying to set up services. The new house is clean, cool (thank God for central air!), and bug-free. 

But the truth is, even though I moved less than a year ago, I must've blocked from my mind how anxiety-ridden moving can be. Lately I've been remembering another move, over a decade ago, when my husband I first set up our home in Chicago, the first time I ever lived in a city.

I stopped at the small local grocery store to pick up a few necessary things. Ahead of me in the only open check-out lane were two older women, one black, one white. The white woman was convinced the the black woman had cut in line. She rammed her cart into the other woman's side. The black woman turned around, shocked, while the white woman cursed her out. The black woman responded by flipping her off. The white woman escalated her attack, screamed. The black woman pushed aside her cart, readied her stance in case the fight turned physical. Meanwhile, third in line, I began to cry.

The white woman looked vaguely like my mom. And I couldn't imagine why someone like my mom would ever lose control enough to scream like that. How had I ended up in such a place? How could I possibly find my bearings, my niche, in a world where strangers almost came to blows in the grocery store? How could I even get through the check out line to pay for my things without looking like a total wreck?

Life in Chicago did get better. It took years, but eventually I learned to love the city, made life-long friends, and would proudly call the South Side home when I moved again, this time to England. And honestly, I can't remember ever seeing another grocery store fight, though I also ended up shopping in other places, and learned as I went about my business to put on a city-face that protected me both physically and emotionally.

What makes moving so difficult is having no frame of reference, no sense of direction, no defenses, and no place in a new world. When I don't even know where the gas station is, I'm anxious to leave the house, anxious to use up gas, anxious about getting lost, and even the smallest trip (say, walking to the local grocery store) can turn into an existential crisis. But of course, like many other things, the only way out is through, the only way to get to know and love my new home is to make it so.

You'll be pleased to know, this level of anxiety already feels like a distant memory. And I haven't cried in the grocery store once! But I do think it's worth writing about, worth remembered and understanding as I move forward. Now my new office is set up, along with a table and chairs on the back porch, and I'm slipping back into my writing and blogging routine. Thursday I'll share some recent diverse reads, and next week I promise I'll post some happier (though perhaps weirder) stories about all I've encountered thus far in NC. Until then.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Movin' right along...

For my American readers, Happy Fourth of July!

For my British readers, Happy Book Birthday to both Sharon Jones and Rachel Carter! Go buy their books!

In other news, last night I had my first moving anxiety dream, so I think it's finally time to close up shop. Plans are still strangely up in the air with the moving company, but as I am definitely moving next week, I should probably start sorting through some things... 

It may be a few weeks until I make my way back here, maybe even a month or more, but I'll see you on the other end in North Carolina. Hopefully I'll have a plot outline in hand, too, and will be ready to dive into some serious drafting.

In the meantime, an exit song, just for you.

Do send all your positive moving thoughts and prayers my way! And have a lovely, safe, and brilliant summer.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Threading together a plot

I'm currently drafting an outline (what Truby refers to as a Scene Weave, for you Truby-ites out there) for my next work in progress. As I may have mentioned a few times on the blog and Twitter, it's been slow going.

What makes it so hard? Well, I'm trying to hold several plot lines in my head at once, weave them together so none of them get too much stage time and go stale, hit all the appropriate dramatic points, with rising tension and cliffhangers, yet I still don't really know my characters inside and out. Eventually I'll probably give up and just start writing, but I'd like to have as many twists and turns laid out in front of me as possible so I have some place to go once I start writing, even if the actual plot points later change.

However, a few weeks ago I had a revelation that if I figured out only one plot thread at a time, perhaps it would be easier than listing every single movement in the story off the top of my head. Isn't it funny how we tend to make things harder on ourselves than they actually need to be?

Since then, I've been brainstorming ideas for each thread. For example, I've got a sub-plot about my character needing to improve her grades in school and stay out of trouble. I tried to think of increasingly difficult setbacks, some of which are the character's own fault, as well as some successes. Character does badly on a test, decides to retake it. Character hears kids picking on her, and tries to be good, but eventually loses her temper and yells at one of them. Character is seen by the principal and gets in serious trouble. A new friends saves her by defending her to the principal. Her punishment is lifted, but from that point on, the character is determined to be on her best behavior. Then she realizes she needs to skip school to achieve her goals. Etc. I numbered this list, from beginning to end, keeping in mind that things should get worse, and worse, and worse yet before they get better. With several of these brainstormed lists, I can weave them all together, in mostly numerical order (all the ones should be in the beginning, the twos a bit further on, and so forth), to create a list of every scene in the book.

Does it work? Well, yes. It's not a miracle solution, and still involves a lot of thought, and pacing, and I still spend most of my writing sessions tugging at my hair. But slowly I'm adding more events to my outline, creating more excitement and complexity, and hitting all the major story points.

I've only written a complete outline like this once before, for Project Fun. It was a huge help, but I already knew the characters, and knew the basics of the story, so it wasn't such a struggle. Plus I wasn't in the midst of moving and trying to juggle fifty other things. But I will get there with this new book (as of now nameless). And I think it will be a good story, more complexly plotted than anything I've written before, full of exciting twists and turns. I just need to keep pushing forward, step by step, bird by bird.

Where are you in the writing process? Is it hard going?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Writing in seasons

With summer finally in full swing, I've seen a number of blog posts about fitting writing in around childcare. Or, with the approach of long days and late nights of raspberry picking, ice cream runs, campfires, and fire fly hunts, a parent might take a complete and well-deserved writing vacation.

On the flip side, as a child-free teacher (at least in those summer months!), my summers used to mean drafting, squeezing as much writing time in as possible before work again overwhelmed me.

But lately I've realized that while my writing is still seasonal, it no longer follows the temperature or the calendar, so much as the stages of the writing process. 

For example, as you may have noticed from all the whining on Twitter, lately I've been struggling to put together a plot outline for my next novel. But even though progress is agonizingly slow, I've also found myself unable to focus on it for than two hours tops before I'm creatively burnt-out.

It's completely different to last summer, when I was revising a novel practically non-stop, and had to consciously roll over every few hours to prevent festering sores.

Sometimes it's frustrating being a seasonal writer, fretting about slow progress, or overwhelmed with the lack of hours in the day, never accomplishing as much as I hoped. But even though I've tried to change, this seems to be my process. I might as well embrace it.

After all, in between outlining, this summer's been a good opportunity to practice my 45-minute chunk routine, allowing me time to do some more revisions on Project Fun, to work on other short pieces, to blog, and thankfully, to plan a major move.

If I'm lucky, I can maybe even squeeze some raspberry picking, ice cream runs, campfires, and fire fly hunts into this summer.

Are you a seasonal writer? How do you make the most of your time?

*Picture is mine, from Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes*

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Radical revision

What do you do when a chapter isn't working? The characterization is good, the language, the actions, the emotions--they're all there. And readers think it's good, too, but... well, not quite ready yet.

Clearly, it's time to do something radical.

What if you change the order of the scene? What is the scene really about? What if you lead with that element and work in all the rest later? Or just cut everything else?

Having a hard time breathing? Yeah, that was me last week when I got this exact advice from a writing friend.

But the more I thought about Ros' advice, the more I loved how big picture it was, how out of the box, and how radical. 

Sometimes I get so caught up in my literary self, changing one word here, and imagining it recolors a whole paragraph, that I can so easily lose that big picture view. Maybe I should be shaking things up a bit more.

My writing friend (and fellow Bath Spa grad) Ros said that she frequently finds when a scene's not working it's because she has the right events and emotions, but her brain somehow put them in the wrong order. She admits this might be just her brain, but I kind of suspect my brain does this, too, only I haven't been smart enough to notice it yet. By scrambling scenes around, Ros says she can then re-envision the scene, even heighten its effect, without changing the arc, and, more importantly, not having to write anything new.

How grateful I am for brilliant writing friends. By the way, while she doesn't (yet!) blog, you can find Ros on Twitter.

Any other radical revision tips to share?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Leaving Massachusetts

It's funny saying goodbye to a place I don't know all that well.

Before Phil and I left Bristol, we had a list of things we wanted to do--visit a favorite restaurant, walk along the harbor, eat jerk chicken at St. Pauls neighborhood carnival, stroll the streets of Bath one last time. There were also some quintessentially Bristol / Southwest England things we had missed--I went on a self-guided graffiti tour, and dragged Phil through the glorious tourist trap that is Wookey Hole (combination cave, circus school, dinosaur park, penny arcade, paper mill museum, and about two thousand other bits and pieces. Why have I never blogged about this before?!). We also took the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to Europe; I visited a friend in Switzerland, we spent a weekend with another friend in Paris.

I mention this because Tuesday was my last day subbing at the local school. It seemed momentous, yet I left the building late, so few of the staff were around, and I didn't say goodbye to anyone. That evening, instead of celebrating, Phil and I went from room to room of the house, creating a list of valuables for the movers.

There have been a lot of sad goodbyes with writing friends, and my incredible SCBWI critique group. In terms of favorite places, I'd like to take a few more pictures of the hiking trail to remember it by. And the Eric Carle Museum. But that's about it for Amherst.

Last weekend, Phil and I went to Plimoth Plantation, a place I've dreamed of visiting ever since I taught history in Chicago, way before I lived in Massachusetts. Unexpectedly, my favorite part of it was meeting the Wampanoag people who live there, not role-playing, but recreating their tribal life in the 1600s. It was so fascinating, and I had so many more questions that only occurred to me later. I'd love to live in this state longer, learn more, see more.

I realized as we drove there that I'd never even been in that corner of the state. I've never been to Cape Cod. Rick Steves, the travel guide author and guru, tells people to always assume they'll be back. That way you never overload yourself trying to see everything, but appreciate the bits you do see. Even better, it's not like Massachusetts is a distant, expensive European trip. I'm looking forward to coming back.

And yes, this is a picture of roosters (at Plimoth Plantation) eating lobster. I've lived here less than a year, but this seemed quintessentially New England:

*All pictures taken by Phil Anderson*

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On judgment

Sorry for the unexpected blog hiatus. I was briefly out of town (at my sister's baby shower! Yay!), and somehow traveling for just a few days snowballed into a lot more stress and busy-ness than I anticipated. I guess I DO have a lot on my plate at the moment. Thankfully it forced me to put my feet up for a bit, and take a few deep breaths, which was sorely needed. Now, back to my regularly scheduled writing.

Have you seen that quote about storytelling from NPR host Ira Glass? It's been making the rounds for years, as videos and jpgs, popping up on blogs and tumblrs and Facebook, and encouraging many many people.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

(here's the full video of this excerpted quote from Public Radio International)

I get why people find this quote encouraging: it's that reassurance that it's okay to stumble, that it's okay to take years to develop your craft. Glass' humility is comforting, too. And of course, there's the assumption that as a creative person, and someone who loves quality storytelling, you will get there. It's not lack of talent; if you just work hard, you too can get where you want to be.

Can I tell you a secret?

This quote frustrates me. I do see all the encouragement. And I'm a big Ira Glass and This American Life fan. But one of the things I personally find most difficult about writing is that most of the time, I like what I write. I'm not talking about rough drafts. But final, finished work, work I've poured over and edited to death--I'm usually proud of it. I can imagine a publisher snatching it up, it getting a gorgeous dust jacket, finding its place on a bookstore shelf. 

Sure, I like to think I have good taste. I'm certainly crazy critical. And I surround myself with books, and inhale stories day in and day out. But sometimes it's hard to see where I fall short with my own work. Time and distance help, as do my incredibly supportive writing friends, who sometimes pull the wool off my eyes just enough that I can see mountains of revision in front of me.

And not to brag, but I know I'm close, too. I've won contests with my writing, praise from published authors, had editors and agents seriously consider my work. But I haven't made it yet, and when I'm not shaking my fist at the heavens or railing against the commercial market (every writer needs a little hubris, right?), I'm usually honest with myself and know my work isn't ready.

But seeing it, for me that's the hardest thing. And not such an easy fix.

Are you a good judge of your own work?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Crafting the first line

First lines are a big deal in the writing world. A great first line can grab readers by the shirt collar, and force them to keep reading. Likewise, a boring, or confusing, or trite first line can be enough to make someone put down a book forever.

After hearing multiple comments on Project Fun's first line, from love, to a suggestion to tighten it, to a suggestion to delete it all together, I decided to do some research about what makes a great first line.
  • A hint of place
  • A hint of mystery
  • A hint of the end
  • An interesting character
A good line should draw in a reader, make them want to read line two, then line three, then devour the whole book. It should cause an emotional reaction. It should also convey all the basics of a novel, tone, genre, age-range, so a reader knows exactly what kind of story they're slipping into.

All in one line? Now you're getting why writers get a little uptight about crafting that perfect first sentence.

A few other tips I learned about what a first line shouldn't include: 
  • Dialogue. Without knowing the speaker, dialogue can be confusing, and once the reader does know the speaker, they'll probably have to go backwards--rather than forward in your novel--to re-read the dialogue in context.
  • Adjectives, adverbs, cliches--anything that can cloud the writing.
I brainstormed descriptions of my setting, mysteries in my book, and what my character discovers at the end. I combined all of that, along with a healthy sprinkling of character and voice, and jotted down over a dozen possibilities.

I also checked out my nearby bookshelf for some good examples:

"It's one thing watching someone get killed."
When I Was Joe by Keren David

I love how this is an incomplete sentence, forcibly pulling me to finish the thought and read the second sentence. It also manages to effortlessly (in 7 words!) convey voice and genre.

"You saw me before I saw you."
Stolen by Lucy Christopher

Spooky! Definitely a hint of mystery.

"The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World."
Going Bovine by Libba Bray

To me, this line has it all: hints of mystery and place, an interesting character, a hint of the end (hope I can say that without giving anything away!), voice and humor. Actually, at this very moment, I'm thinking I haven't ever re-read Going Bovine, even though I've wanted to for a while, and I'm tempted to scrap this whole blog post and keep reading.

But one last thing! After all that research and brainstorming, what first line did I end up with? Well... I stuck with the one I had.

I know. It's still a work in progress. But I couldn't craft anything I liked better and remain true to the story I wanted to tell (though I did tighten the second and third lines). So maybe it's a keeper after all.

"My first day of school, way back in kindergarten, ended with me cowering under the reading station table, my hands clamped over my ears."

Okay, I showed you mine! What's your current first line?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


I'm at that funny stage in the moving process where I can't wait for it to actually happen. Sure, it will be a logistical nightmare, exhausting, sweaty, overwhelming. I'll be leaving behind a place I've really enjoyed living, along with numerous friends, and an incredibly smart and supportive writing group. And I'll be moving some place I don't know well, and which feels a fair way out of my comfort zone. But at least, once the move is done, it's DONE, and I can stop dreading it. Plus, even though I seem to have a lot of experience at it, I really hate goodbyes.

Several weeks ago, Phil and I flew down to North Carolina, and found a small house for rent in an older, tree-filled neighborhood, within walking distance of lots of shops, cafes, and parks. Knowing where we're going to be living makes the transition easier; it gives me a place to visualize, to mentally decorate with our stuff, and to call home.

And it's encouraged me to start compiling a mental list of things I AM looking forward to in North Carolina:
  • Central air (it's been a really hot, sticky past week)
  • A dishwasher (my current dishwasher, Phil, is great, but sometimes a bit ornery)
  • A dog (Phil and I both have been waiting a long time--six years since Connor!--to live some place that will let us have a dog. A new best friend is one of our first priorities)
  • A back porch (I love the idea of writing outside, and our new porch has a great view. Plus, no creepy, too close neighbors!)
  • A house that's all our own, with no shared walls (see above hint regarding our current neighbor)
Admittedly, it's a small list, all focused on the new place. But hopefully, being safe, comfortable, and happy in our home will give us courage and excitement to explore our new surroundings, too. I have heard rumors of an excellent bookshop within walking distance. And eventually I'll find a new writing group, a local library, and hopefully even some friends.

The move is in July. Once it gets closer, I'll probably go on another blog hiatus, and my Twitter feed will be an endless string of stress and frustration (lucky readers!). But in the meantime, strangely, I'm counting the days.

How do you deal with big changes in your life?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Annie: A masterclass in writing

Annie and I have a rather complicated relationship. See, I was 4 when the movie premiered, frequently called Annie, and had a mop of curly blonde hair to boot. Over the years, people would often compare me to Annie, give me gifts of Annie-related merchandise, and assume I must love her. I distinctly remember a Little Orphan Annie pillow with those freaky empty eyes--at some point in my childhood I colored in her pupils.

But of course I did love Annie... plucky heroine with a dog, great musical numbers, and living her wildest dream. How could I not? And last week, while searching for books and movies similar in plot to my new work-in-progress, I ended up re-watching Annie for the first time in decades.

Some of it hasn't aged well, the stereotypical portrayals of Mr. Warbucks' Asian bodyguards (Punjab and The Asp), the cultural references, that ridiculously long "Let's Go To The Movies" Radio City Music Hall number. But mostly, I was absolutely delighted. My husband will tell you. I've been singing the rest of the soundtrack for the past week.

But even more amazing? Watching Annie was a complete masterclass in writing.

Firstly, think of the setting, which ranges all over New York. There's the busy, poverty-stricken neighborhood of the orphanage, Mr. Warbucks' mansion, a radio studio, Radio City Music Hall. Even the orphanage is like a fun house, with rows of beds, multiple stories, ornate staircases in between, with sheets, laundry carts, and kids singing and dancing. Mr. Warbucks invites Annie on his personal helicopter to visit FDR in the White House. The climax is on a precariously high railroad bridge.

I've been warned in the past that too many settings can make a story feel disjointed. But all these locations simply felt as if they belonged, were part of the whole, and showed New York in full, fun detail. Further, each setting illuminates the characters: Annie's impoverished world, and Mr. Warbucks' wealthy, but ultimately empty world.

I was even more impressed by Annie's use of ever-escalating tension. Take the scene where Annie's imprisoned in the orphanage's office closet after her foiled escape. Grace, Mr. Warbucks' personal secretary, arrives to pick out an orphan to stay for a week at the mansion. Annie's able to mime all sorts of details to Grace, so Grace will pick Annie, and Annie will finally be able to escape for real (yay!). Then Miss Hannigan announces that she won't let Annie go (rats!). Grace argues with Miss Hannigan, convinces her to let Annie leave (yay!). Then Annie's dog appears (rats!), and Annie has to start all over again, convincing Grace to let her take Sandy as well. This pattern, of Annie's excitement, followed by dashed hopes, was repeated in almost every single scene, making for fast, tension-filled storytelling.

I could say much more, about the movie's rapid pace, the interweaving of themes, the reliance on a child's point of view... but I'll stop for now. I'll leave you with my favorite song, from the star of the movie (of course, not Annie but the inimitable Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan!). Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Immersing myself in story

I'm at that funny place in the writing process where I mostly have a story. I can talk about it, make it sound like a story. I've even got an entire plot outlined. I know my characters, I've been through almost every chapter of John Truby's The Anatomy of Story (my bible for story creation). But there are still holes. And my brain is tired. Rather than just filling holes and moving forward, I find myself pacing around the holes, secretly hoping they'll magically fill themselves.

So I've spent most of the past week not writing, but reading voraciously. I've been seeking out young adult and middle grade books similar to my own, and outlining their plots, analyzing their symbols, and pondering their characters. I even found myself happily watching the movie version of the musical Annie the other day.

I'm a little worried I'm just killing time, treading water until I have enough energy to move forward with my work. But every so often as I'm reading, I end up scrambling for my notebook to scrawl down a difficult question, or grabbing my computer, so I can type an observation. I like to think, as my mind processes all this story, somewhere in a back room wheels are turning. At least, that's the theory.

Do you ever have to immerse yourself in story to move forward?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Auditioning characters: NESCBWI Conference 2013

I spent most of author Lisa Papademetriou's NESCBWI Conference session on The Art of the Outline scribbling like a fiend. Not only was her presentation lively (there were jokes! Musical interludes!), it was full of valuable information, from story format, to scene structure, to numerous tips about how to craft a plot. Seriously, looking back through my notes, I need to type these up, because I'm not sure otherwise how I'm going to hold onto all of these gems.

But thanks to some fortuitous timing, I was working on developing my characters the day after the conference, so I was able to take Lisa's character exercise for a test drive. I already take notes on my characters' weaknesses, my characters' needs and desires. But Lisa asked a few extra questions which I had never heard before:

How could your character's flaw lead to her downfall?
How could your character's greatest strength save her? 

I imagined it as an audition, each character moving to the center of the stage, looking down at me while I sat there asking my questions, my feet perched on the seat in front of me, notebook at the ready. There weren't any surprises when it came to my main character, but all of a sudden I was seeing some of my supporting characters in an entirely different light.

One of my girls dreams of being a fashion designer. I was jotting down all her talents, her organizational ability, her eye for color, her mean ability with eyeliner, and suddenly she was telling me how she didn't really have a strength, as such, nothing that could save the world, but she could create some excellent disguises.

I practically leapt out of my chair, grabbed my imaginary character into my arms, and screamed, "I want this one!"

I'm not yet sure how the plot is going to play out, but I know there will be masterful disguises.

Sometimes these tools, character questionnaires, outlines, scene storyboards, can feel like a waste of time. But every so often, something essential leaps off the page. Lisa started her presentation by defending structure. She pointed out that even improv acts will ask for suggestions from the audience before they start a performance. A little structure, a little framework, doesn't have to curtail creativity--it can embolden it.

I've been recapping some of my favorite sessions from the NESCBWI 2013 Conference on the blog: Jeannine Atkins on using setting to create structure, Kate Messner on mystery and making time for research, and Gail Gauthier on time management

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Using setting to create structure: NESCBWI Conference 2013

I'm a setting girl. I love traveling and the outdoors, and frequently my stories are inspired by place. So when author Jeannine Atkins' session promised to use setting to create structure (something I always sorely need), I signed right up. And I wasn't disappointed! Her session was full of brilliant prompts that helped create several scenes, in the beginning, middle, and end, for my current work in progress.

We started off by brainstorming a character's favorite place. And not just listing this place, but truly describing it, its sights, smells, objects, people, emotions. Jeannine had us do the same with a place a character despises, a place she misses, and a place that makes her furious.

Then Jeannine told us to put our character in her despised place, and have her think about the place she misses. Could that be our beginning?

I was blown away, because the scene I had jotted down actually could begin my whole novel. It starts in the midst of action, as my main character struggles to survive in a place she can't stand. It also throws her desire into the mix right away, as she yearns to be some place else.

Jeannine continued to challenge us with mixing these places. What if something terrible happens in my character's favorite place? What if something wonderful happens in her despised place? Take a setting element from the first scene and try connecting it to a setting element in the final scene.

 I don't want to reveal all of Jeannine's secrets, but this intermixing of settings and emotions spurred three solid pages of notes, ideas, scenes, and even a beginning and climax for my work in progress. For me, it's such a new way of thinking about both setting and structure. I know this is a set of prompts I'll return to again and again.

Also, it's got me thinking... are there any other elements of writing that I love that I can combine with aspects that are more difficult for me? After all, every piece needs to work to make the novel an organic whole. Intriguing...

I've been recapping some of my favorite sessions from the NESCBWI 2013 Conference on the blog. Last week I posted about Kate Messner's session on mystery, and making time for research, and also Gail Gauthier's session on time management.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Time Management: NESCBWI Conference 2013

One of the best surprises of the NESCBWI Conference was author Gail Gauthier's talk on time management. See, I don't consider myself someone with time management issues. I'm generally hard working, I've got too much of a guilt complex to do much procrastinating, and I don't even hang out on Twitter when I should be writing. Between you and me, I only signed up for Gail's session because I couldn't find anything more relevant in that time slot. And I figured a little time management help couldn't hurt.
Not only was Gail a riot (surely her session was the only one that involved a drinking game?), she was organized, thorough, and very convincing. By the end, I was totally reformed, and have actually spent the past week and a half attempting to put her time management suggestions into practice.  How practical is that?

The main thrust of Gail's presentation was to suggest working for 45 minutes, and then breaking for 15. Apparently human productivity lasts, on average, 45 minutes before it starts going downhill. Maybe I'm above average, or used to writing for long stretches, because as I've been setting my timer this past week, 45 minutes feels quite short to me. But it's been a great motivation to regularly stand up and stretch. Plus because I know I'm only working for 45 minutes at a time, and then get 15 minutes free time, I'm much better able to resist the constant urge to check my email (or Tom & Lorenzo, my absolute favorite distraction). So I've probably been accomplishing a lot more in those 45 minute stretches than I used to.

Another benefit to working in these 45 minute chunks is that I can squeeze 45 minutes into almost any day, no matter how crazy. Sometimes my schedule gets all turned around, when I have to go to the doctor, or drive my husband to the airport, or the two thousand other things that get in the way of my writing time. Before I might have thought, "Right, there's the whole morning gone, guess I'm not getting any writing done today" (or, as Gail called it, the What the Hell Effect). Now I can still plan, in advance, to get in at least one 45 minute chunk even on bad days.

But beyond challenging me with a totally new way of working, Gail also offered one of my favorite take-home messages of the whole conference: there's nothing to be ashamed of in using a crutch.

Lately I've been trying to get back into the habit of starting my work in the morning before checking my email. I kept getting frustrated with myself for not having enough will power to make it through a whole hour. But why should I rely on will power alone? Why not just unplug the wireless router?

See? Simple stuff, but crazy useful! I'm glossing over a lot of details, so if you're interested, please do check Gail Gauthier out. She blogs regularly at Original Content, and provides time management tips every Tuesday.

I'm going to keep playing with these 45 minute stretches of writing, and see how it works out for me. I'll let you know.

How do you make the time to get writing done? Anyone else struggling? Trying something new? Have any of you experimented with this 45 minute chunk routine?

For the next week or two on the blog, I'll be recapping some of my favorite events at the recent NESCBWI Conference. Tuesday I posted about Kate Messner's session on mystery workshop, and making time for research

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Making time for research: NESCBWI Conference 2013

One of the reasons I've been crazy busy lately is a good one: at the beginning of May I had the opportunity to attend the New England SCBWI Conference. I got to meet in person some amazing online friends, enjoy time with Amherst critique group friends, and thoroughly enjoyed not being the only weirdo in the bunch! But all that knowledge gained, hours of workshop after workshop? Exhausting!

So I wanted to use the blog not so much to recap my favorite events, but to remind myself what I got out of them--and also to share that information with you.

First up: Kate Messner's mystery workshop, Whodunnit? and How to Do It, When It Comes to Writing Mysteries for Kids.

I don't actually have a mystery in mind for my writing, but I grew up on Harriet the Spy and my dad's battered old copies of Agatha Christie. The idea of writing a fun kid mystery has always been in the back of my mind. And I adored Kate Messner's The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., and have long-admired her teacher background (we both taught 7th grade language arts!) and her varied and productive career (she's written everything from picture books, to dystopians, to non-fiction writing guides!). However, the one thing I didn't expect of Kate was how organized and research-focused she is.

Like me, it seems she had always wanted to write a mystery, but realized she had no idea how to go about it. So she read a ton of mysteries to figure out how they work.

I know that sounds really obvious, but this was an illuminating moment for me. I think sometimes as writers we're encouraged to dive right in, to write 1000 words a day (more is better), to finish a novel in months, etc. But how can you write a mystery without implicitly understanding all the conventions of the genre, and the challenges? It would be so much easier to have a template to work with.

And this is basically what Kate presented: her template. Writing a mystery involves kid sleuths, with a motive to solve a crime (no professional detectives here!), a perpetrator, with a motive to commit a crime, and suspects, also with motives and fake clues. She's laid all of this information out in her presentation, which is available online here.

She also told a hysterical story about contacting the curator of the Star Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and asking how one might steal it, that culminated in a family trip to DC, and a curator suddenly less skeptical and buzzing with possibilities (though stealing the flag is a little more complicated in real life). People really do love to talk about what they do for a living!

So not only do I feel like I have another tool in my writer's toolkit, this one for writing a mystery, I also feel like I've gotten a well-needed smack on the head, and a reminder of how important research is to the writing process. I can easily imagine forgetting to pepper my mystery with false clues, and suddenly realizing my child sleuths have no reason to suspect the baker BECAUSE HE HASN'T DONE ANYTHING and I need to throw out large sections of my manuscript and start over. It's worth taking the time to get it right.

Oh, and curious how one WOULD steal the Star Spangled Banner? You can read Kate Messner's Capture the Flag to find out!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Disappeared by C. J. Harper

Author C. J. Harper tried to woo me into loving her debut novel, The Disappeared. As it's not published (yet!) in the US, Candy (as I know her), mailed me a copy from England. Not only is the cover a thing of beauty, even more so in person, Candy signed the book for me, along with a lovely message. And then, as the final straw, she included a postcard, sure to tempt me!

How well she knows my every weakness!

Thankfully, I LOVED The Disappeared. I'm sure poor Candy was on pins and needles waiting for me to let her know. Due to finishing Project Fun, and travel, and moving plans, it's taken me forever to get to, and almost as long to blog about. But between you and me, I wasn't worried. I saw this book grow up as I worked alongside Candy for our MAs in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. I read now-deleted scenes, listened to Candy agonize about how it was all going to come together. All along, I've been enraptured by this story. And the final, published version does not disappoint!

Here's the official book jacket blurb:

"Jackson's life is perfect: he's top of his class, wants for nothing and is destined to be part of the leadership that runs the country. But when a violent incident leaves Jackson badly beaten and his best friend dead, everything changes. Suddenly, his teachers claim not to know him, his records are deleted... Jackson doesn't exist anymore.

"Dumped in an Academy, where teachers are kept in cages and being a good fighter is all that matters, Jackson realizes that to survive he needs to adapt, and fast. And as he learns the Academy's terrible secrets, Jackson discovers his whole life has been based on lies; the leadership is corrupt tot he core and they're coming after him.

"Time is running out. Can Jackson destroy the man at the heart of it all before he makes Jackson disappear for good?"

The beginning of The Disappeared is chilling--I still clearly remember reading it as a rough draft years ago! Jackson's whole life is turned upside down in minutes, as people he's known forever stare at him blankly and swear they've never met him. And Jackson's reaction is so understandable: he races about his school, looking in his bedroom, at his desk, trying to find some way to prove he is who he says he is. But of course, that's the whole point: he's trusted the adults around him his whole life, and is only now discovering that they have thrown him to the wolves.

However, while the plot as a whole was full of twisty-turny reveals and heart-pounding action sequences, I have to say, my favorite bits were the quieter scenes, the big questions, the heart, and the LANGUAGE. See, even though the kids of the Academy have been denied a proper education and any cultural access, and are treated more like animals than humans, they're not dumb. And the way they use language, stringing together simple words to form complex thoughts, is so clever. This scene left goosebumps on my arms!

"'I tell you what, Kay. One day I am going to take you for a burger,' I say, suddenly.

She laughs. 'That's a can't-won't. I'm going to stop hearing you; you put bad thinks... I mean, bad thoughts in my head. But you make me laugh.'

I puff out my breath. I know the Leadership wants us to equip ourselves to fulfil our potential, but what does that really mean? Would it matter if Kay learned Algebra? And why shouldn't she have a burger?...

'What work do the Learning Community brainers do?' [Kay asks]

'They're employed by the Leadership.'

'All brainers are working for the Leadership?'

'Well, yes, but you could do lots of different things. Be an adviser, run a department, be a local leader, head an industry--'

'I don't know those things. Is it all for the Leadership?'


'So no choice-ing for the brainers, too.'"

The Disappeared is such a rich, immersive experience, in a chilling, yet totally believable dystopian future. And I do love a good revolution! I can't wait for the next book! And I'll be SURE to let my American readers know as soon as a US edition is available.

In the meantime, while she doesn't (yet!) have a website (Anne glares at Candy), you can follow the hysterical C. J. Harper on Twitter.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A welome break

The past few weeks have been slightly manic. I've been combing through final edits on Project Fun, ensuring every T is crossed, and every little detail makes logical sense. It's been unexpectedly time-consuming, and I've probably lost some hair in the process. I've also been searching for a new home in North Carolina, and busy with all the other fun stuff that comes with moving (cleaning my current apartment to show to prospective tenants, researching banks, health insurance, jobs, etc).

Meanwhile, I'm also helping to plan a baby shower for my sister.

Yes, that's right. My sister's expecting a little boy, and I'm SOOOO excited. I'll be a first time aunt!

I queried friends on baby showers, visited a number of stores to look at invitations and decorations, and searched through Pinterest and Etsy to gather ideas. I fell in love with some hand-made invitations, and decided I could create something similar. So I emailed my family with my brilliant idea, and made another trip to the stores, this time to look at card stock, buttons, and sequins. A few family members, very kindly, wrote back to ask if I was crazy (though of course they phrased it more considerately). Did I really have this kind of time?

Well, yes, okay, I am a little busy. And my husband laughed one day when he came home to find me wandering around with a pair of scissors, searching for the perfect little button. But don't you find that some things, even when they add time, subtract from stress?

Being artsy is one of those things for me. And for such a joyful cause? Even better.

On that note, I am going to be away from the blog for the next week, maybe longer, as I try to stay on top of everything.

In the meantime, what are your favorite anti-stress activities? And favorite picture book presents for parents expecting a child?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Babysitter's Here!

In between final edits (hopefully!) on Project Fun, I've been playing with ideas for a new project. As I mentioned last week, I'm a little scattered--I've got a few characters, a vague setting, hardly any plot. But almost from day one, I've known exactly who the narrator will be.

In my enthusiasm, I tried to explain the idea to my husband. You'd think I would've learned by now. Somehow my vague setting and complete lack of plot doesn't translate well. But my husband especially disliked my idea for the narrator.

See, even though I'm absolutely certain of my narrator, he's kind of an odd choice. For starters, he's not the main character. He's not the one who the story's really about, his stakes aren't through the roof. But I can't shake this idea--he has to be the one! I can hear the story in his voice.

So on a walk, I started thinking about other stories where the narrator isn't necessarily the main character. And I remembered a hysterical (yet sweet!) song by one of my favorite singers, Dar Williams.

It's narrated by a young girl, but as you listen (the music actually starts around 40 seconds if you want to skip ahead) you'll discover the bigger story really has to do with someone else.

Here's the lyrics if you'd like to read along:

"Tonight was just great, she taught us the sign for peace
Now she's made us some popcorn, we've turned out the lights
And we're watching movies
I don't understand and she tries to explain
How a spaceship is riding through somebody's brain
And there's blood and guts and oh

She's the best one that we've ever had
She sits on her hair and she's tall as my dad
And she tie-dyed my shirt and she pierced her own ear
And it's peace, man, cool, yeah, the babysitter's here.

Her boyfriend is Tom, but we call him the King of Romance.
He wears an American flag on the butt of his ripped up pants
and will they get married with kids of their own?
He says, "Not if she's going to college we won't"
And he kisses her, oh...
(Someday I'll have a boyfriend just like that.)

She's the best one that we've ever had
She sits on her hair and she's tall as my dad
And she got mad at dinner when Tom drank a beer
But peace, man, cool, hey, the babysitter's here.

And we all went to see her go dance at the high school
We made her a big card
And she told us that she'd be the unicorn wearing the pink
leotard, and
There she was leaping up just like she said
With a sparkling horn coming out of her head
And she's oh, oh, oh, oh
(I can't wait to give her the card, I can't wait to give her the card. She's the best one)

(OK, so the play was called "The Unicorn" and she was the
unicorn so that means that the star was my babysitter.)

But it's Saturday night I can't sleep and we're watching the news.
She says, "Do me a favor don't go with a guy who would make you choose."
And I don't understand and she tries to explain
And all that mascara runs down in her pain
'Cause she's leaving me, oh

You're the best one that we've ever had,
You sit on your hair and you're tall as my dad
And I'll make you a picture for college next year
So hush now, Peace man, the babysitter's here.
The best babysitters here."

I love how Dar conveys all the pathos of a young girl, yet the frustration and heartbreak of an older girl, too. She manages to tell both their stories.

So, at least for now, I'm keeping my narrator.

Can you think of any other stories where the narrator isn't necessarily the main character?