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.