Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of 2009

Woosh! There it goes. Another year full of spastic hopes and kids that are growing just too darn fast.  Yes, the ghost children have probably gained a collective 12 inches in height over the last 12 months, though it came in bursts.  Adolescence has set in on one side and pre-adolescence is in full swing on the other.  But how have I grown this year?  If adversity is any indication, I should be a giant any minute, now.

Let's start with the bad:
  • Couldn't sell house for what it was worth and it took far too long.
  • Spent August 2008 - April 2009 apart from Ghost Hunk.
  • Moved away from a home I loved to a cultural desert
  • Still no book contract
  • Best friend's mom died
  • My Mom died
  • We won't even talk about the Estate...


What about the ugly:
  • Lost a lot of furniture in the move, (which was 2 days of driving in the pounding rain)
  • Caught a horrible respiratory infection while running the Pocono Retreat
  • Dealt with horrid relatives at the funeral and beyond
  • Had some wicked RA flares
  • Came home from Indiana with the freakin' Swine Flu
  • Discovered my YA is really a better MG...not sure how to feel about that one.


Okay, let's have some GOOD stuff:
  • Sold the house and reunited with Ghost Hunk
  • Stayed with a wonderful writer, Joyce Moyer Hostetter, on our way to GA
  • Had a FABULOUS Pocono Mountain Retreat
  • Met even more awesome kidlit writers
  • Put some kick-ass revision on my YA-turned-MG with my awesome agent
  • Watched both ghost kids blossom in their new school
  • Saw Ghost Hunk's book come out in paperback
  • Got my own writing office (finally!)
  • Learned to play golf again, and love sneaking out to the course with Ghost Hunk while the kids are at school.
  • Got my first article in print in the Nov/Dec Cricket Magazine
  • I'm still writing...


So now it's on to 2010.  Predictions?  Okay, let's play:
  • My stunningly spooky MG will be sold before March
  • I'll finish my brilliantly creepy and exciting YA (which will be genuinely YA)
  • We'll find a wonderful place to live that will still have a writing office for me.
  • We'll have another amazing Pocono Mountain Retreat
  • My kids will grow and flourish
  • Ghost Hunk will do brilliant work at ASU
  • Dear friends will never be far from my heart
  • And Danté the dog will learn to quit tugging at my clothes.
Wishing all the best to everyone out there, and thanks for following my rambling little blog.  A new website and blog is in the works for 2010 as well.  I hope to see you all there.




Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!









Happy Holidays, and may 2010 be full of shiny book contracts, glowing reviews, and the next bestseller in progress...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Are We There Yet?

It looks as though I'm in for another round of revision. At first the rejection news is disheartening, frustrating, and reason enough to down a vat of raw cookie dough. But when the dust settles, I think a little harder on the suggestions so kindly offered by the rejecting editors and slip them into three neat categories:


1.  Matters of Personal Taste—  You just can't win these battles.  And they are not necessarily wrong or twisted or evil.  They are simply opinions.  So I file these away in the "Ah, that's what this editor likes/doesn't like" file.

2.  Repeat Offenders — These are those annoying little points the seem to crop up in several rejection letters so you can't ignore them.  Now these can fall into 2 sub-categories:  things I can fix and things I don't want to fix because they have little or nothing to do with my goals for this book.
    • Things I can fix:  These will not change the story.  They are little quirks in my writing or basic structural or characterization issues that require more tweaking than full-on re-writing.  Quirks can be good, but sometimes they are distracting, so I weigh the comments and decide how to proceed.
    • Things I don't want to fix:  These are things that involve completely altering the direction of the book or trying to make it something it will never be.  Sorry guys, but I won't add sex or romance or addiction just to spice things up or appeal to a broader market.  Uh-uh.
3.  The Identity Crisis — Where does my book really belong?  I have a great story, but the how of it might fit better into MG than YA.  What?  But I always thought of myself as a YA writer!  Yep...I'm a straddler.  Much about the story is YA, or at least it would have been in another time.  But the modern YA reader comes from a very different place than many of us did at that age.  Add in the historical element and you complicate the issue even further.  How do I keep it authentic but still appeal to a modern teenage sensibility without completely re-writing the book?  That's the tough point.  It's a question that I have to ask myself.  And because I am a writer, I will ask it.

But how do I overcome this breathless sense of failure?  I revise my vision of success.  I want to write the best story I can write and I want kids to read it and enjoy it.  That part hasn't changed.  Refocusing this piece won't change that either.  I'm just starting this part of my career in a slightly different place than I thought.

So here I stand contemplating yet another revision.  Thanks to my dear BB buddy Mindy for talking me off the ledge and to my fabulous agent for hashing over all of it and coming up with a good plan for the next round.  And as Ernest Hemingway once said:


Optimism can keep a fool from accepting failure.


I guess I'll just be a happy fool and dive right back into what will surely be an awesome MG book.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Agent Appreciation Day

Skimming through the Blue Boards this morning, as is my usual a.m. habit, I came across a post entitled "Agent Appreciation Day," complete with a link to a lovely blog by Lisa and Laura Roecker. In their latest post, they pay tribute to Catherine Drayton and encourage everyone to take a minute to celebrate their agents today.  Thank you Kody Keplinger for getting the ball rolling.

Well, it's the first day of Chanukah (or Hanukkah), so it seems as fitting a time as any to pay tribute to my beloved agent, Elana Roth.  Okay, so my name may not ring any significant bells on anyone's list of authors, yet, but I have no doubt that Elana is the one who is going to help me change that.  To follow suit, I guess I'll list three reasons why I love my agent.

1.  She got me from the get-go.  When we spoke the first time about my book and our vision for it, we were definitely on the same page (pardon the pun).  She asked about my process and told me what she liked about my manuscript.  When I asked what kind of revisions she thought would make it stronger, she was dead-on straight with the spirit of the book.  She wasn't interested in stripping the guts out of it and creating something completely different (and believe me, some would).  Her strategy was all about enhancing the story, not changing it.

2.  She puts it all out there.  From pre-selling an idea to editors, to knowing when to put out an idea and then leave you to it, to helping authors develop their promotional presence, she's all about working it.  She's got the whole submission gig down and makes it so much easier for me to obsess about who's reading it, who's going to say yes, when are they going to SAY YES!!!?

3.  Twitter love!  I can't help it.  I always get at least one solid laugh or "uhuh, I know what ya mean" as I pop on twitter and see Elana's journey through the query pile or her latest jaunt through NYC (I miss you, East Coast), or the glory days of teaching Hebrew School.


So, as I await that fabulous first book contract (any day now...), I do appreciate you, dear agent.  Thank you for believing in me.  Thank you for always sharing the positive even when it comes nestled in rejection.  We've both had a wild ride through this last year (outside of our literary lives) and I hope the tracks are a little straighter from here on out.  But then again, where would the fun be without a few mind-numbing challenges?

One more thing...  HAPPY CHANUKAH!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Too Much Information

Most kids in the throes of puberty will tell you that adolescence is hell, but more importantly, their personal hell is much worse than any other in the history of the world.  I come from a generation whose parents walked 5 miles up hill in a snowstorm to school everyday and heard the words, "you have it so easy" almost every day of my teen years.  Yes, and my grandfather had to work to support his family when he was 14 years old while at that age I was only babysitting for pocket money.  I hate to burst my parents' bubble of martyrdom, but the stories of the modern teen experience I could share from my teaching days would easily curl even their hair, no doubt—kids with addict parents, abused kids, kids with no parents or guardians to advocate for, love, or support them.  There is plenty of hardship to go around.

But what about the average kid's experience?  To sum it up, too much information.  Texting, sexting, Facebook, LiveJournal, IM.  No longer is the honor of torturing a kid at school reserved for the odd note passed in study hall or taunts in the hallway or bullying at the bus stop.  Now they have 20 techno ways to exploit even the tiniest error in judgement wrought by raging hormones.  We've heard the stories of distraught teens hurting themselves because of something that is going around on FB about them or an incriminating photo snapped with a cell phone and launched into cyberspace by some petty kid to grace a thousand LED screens and invite even more denigration.

For most of us, the hardest and most haunting remnant of adolescence is also the most eternal lesson:  we are the choices we make, for good or ill.  But we don't really get the until we are old farts.  So teenagers should be allowed to screw up and face humiliation as we all did.  BUT, it's just not that simple these days.  Every mistake a kid makes could be broadcasted to the entire school with the touch of a button.  And it often is.  That's a lot to take when you are still just trying to figure out who you are.  Why do you need 30 text messages to remind you about the dumb remark you make in front of the hottest guy in school.  A mild example, but a blow to self-esteem nonetheless.  Let's try another.  Back in the day, if you succumbed to pressure and took off you clothes for your boyfriend, people may have heard about it, but now they can see it in living color if you were naive enough to believe the cell phone photo you snapped really was for his eyes only.

And if cliques aren't bad enough in the hallway, let's just take it online and compete for the highest number of friends on Facebook.  Or better yet, start fan clubs for people who hate Courtney or whoever is lucky enough to wear the crown of most-hated loser that week.

I love Facebook, and I've been able to reconnect with some dear friends who fell out of touch over the years.  And when we moved away from PA, my 12-year-old son started an account so he could keep up with his buddies so far away.  As for the cell phone, I rarely text, but my smartphone is indispensable with its address book and calendar and instant emergency contact no matter where I am.  My 7th-grader, however, does not need one of his own.  He'll be just fine sitting in class without the aid of technological subterfuge and textual harassment.

I'm not saying we should ban social media or cell phones, but as a parent and a former high school teacher and now a writer for young adults, I think a lot about the impact this constant hook up to information has on our kids.  Every generation has its cross to bear.  Every generation changes what it means to be a kid.  Adolescence is about making choices, screwing up, and making new choices.  It's about learning how to be human, the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.

Laurel Snyder made a fabulous observation when we were talking about YA vs MG characters at a recent SCBWI event:  "The middle grade kid is looking out at the world and trying to understand it all, while the YA kid is looking inside, trying to figure himself out."  I think that is exactly right.  Add a barrage of information, a large portion of which can petty and destructive, and where does it all go?  Deep inside.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Spring is Coming!


Okay, so it's only December, but you know what that means...registration for the SCBWI Eastern Pennsylvania 2010 Pocono Mountain Retreat is OPEN!  Just click here to go to the registration website and get things started.  OR head over to our chapter website to download a PDF brochure.

Registration will be open until February 20, 2010 so maybe Santa will put a little something special in your stocking!  I hope to see you all there!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Check it out...it's FREAKY FRIDAY!

Just click on the title of this post to link to Kim's blog. Big thanks to Kimberly Sabatini for letting me raid her blog on Black Friday. Can't wait to see you in the Poconos...and on the book shelf!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Anticipation...

Yes, strains of Carly Simon are beating against my brain right now... in fact, most of the time, lately.

Let me tell you, it is nothing like a fine wine and it definitely does not mellow with age. I thought it was bad when I finished my first book and sent out those initial queries, but I can hardly stand it these days. Sure, I'm hard at work on my next YA masterpiece, but it's also comforting to know that writers aren't the only ones who suffer through this process. Check out Agent Nathan Bransford's quandary. (of course, for some reason, when I read the title of his post, Tom Petty temporarily shoves Carly aside for strains of Waiting is the Hardest Part...)

I don't know about others, but in my case, the evolution of my particular mania is somewhat perplexing to a logical brain and frankly, the obsession is reaching epic proportions.

In the beginning...(cue the music)...I posted my little missive, dressed in its finest and tattooed with the perfect postage, in the box outside my door and immediately started fantasizing about the arrival of a shiny new contract...quickly followed by the inescapable Newbery or Printz or a plethora other book prizes, then the image of my tapping out one awesome book after another. Oh, and yes, my ravenous fingers were groping the mailbox the very next day...and the next...and the next... Mail and I definitely have a love/hate relationship. Even when I lived abroad, I hoped against hope for something exciting in the post. It never came.

So then the question arose in my spastic brain, "will it be a letter? or a contract in the mail? or a phone call?" (email hadn't quite overrun the universe, yet) No matter what, I could never unchain myself from my completely irrational faith in the postal option. (To this day, I still haven't managed that!)

Of course now it is a digital universe and email is far more the standard. So I have another mania to occupy my days. How many times do you check your email? If I could, I'd hook myself up to it like an IV drip! And holy crap! Don't forget to check the spam filter!

When it came to getting my agent, it was email...at least for the introductions. Yes, the agent search can be as sphincter-clenching as the pursuit of the publishing contract...perhaps even more because you want to build a long-lasting relationship that will weather any publishing storm. After a lot of research, I would email a query. Then I would get a request for a partial or, in most cases, a full manuscript. (I was onto something!). And then there it was. AN EMAIL! Not an offer, mind you, but a request for a phone conversation. Perfect! Then it was the phone conversation...and then the offer. Followed by some end-zone dancing, spiking of pillows, a few squeals, and finally...breath. And the thing that made it great was that the phone call told me that this was a perfect match. We got each other. We shared the vision. We wanted the same things.

So, editors...now it's your turn. Make this little red-head dance like a Tazmanian Devil all around her house. I know you've had my manuscript for what, 2 weeks? I know that you saw that email come through. You know, the one with the amazing title and the pitch packet that you couldn't put down? Yeah...You've got the manuscript loaded on your kindle and can't put it down... You've read it twice already because you adore it, right? You're just stuck on whether to offer a basic contract or a multi-book deal...right? Am I right?

To answer Nathan's question...that's what I do when I'm waiting for a response on a submission.

Go stark, raving mad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

A couple of weeks ago, my 12-year-old son's English class was asked to write an essay on what Veteran's Day is. I haven't asked his permission, but I hope he won't mind if I post it. It brought tears to my eyes, this amazing essay that he wrote completely on his own. He didn't ask for help. He just wrote from the heart:

Veteran’s Day


What is Veteran’s Day? Why do we celebrate this day? Veteran’s Day is a day to celebrate all the veterans that gave and risked their lives so that we could live ours. The point is, on Veteran’s Day, we honor those who fought in the war, no matter which war. Many lost their lives, and many families grieved. Veteran’s day is celebrated to insure that their passing was not in vain. This is where the mystery begins.

Many people may ask, “Why do we go to war?” Many think it’s terrible. Many think it’s just what’s right, like it or not. My view is just this: it is not necessarily right or wrong. Back when people were drafted and forced to be in the war, most of them didn’t want to. However, when people sign up, they are choosing to join the war. They want to fight for their country. Luckily we have enough people like this that we don’t have to draft anymore.

A veteran is someone who participated in a war and still sees this day. I have personally met many veterans. One thing I can say is that they all seemed proud to have served in the fight for our nation. Our nation’s freedom is something people seem to not think about enough. We may not want to wear school uniforms, but imagine if we couldn’t ride our bikes in Americus, or we couldn’t eat green apples. These ideas may be a little outlandish, but no one would want to be controlled by someone else. Would you? Veterans helped prevent this, and we all should be thankful.

War is always going on, and it seems like there is too much. I am always hearing things in the news about soldiers dying in the war. This breaks my heart. I see footage of president Obama at the soldiers’ funerals. I have always wondered what a veteran would think seeing this. I never want to find out about what it’s like being in the war, but I thank those who fought for their country, knowing their lives were on the line.

And that’s what Veteran’s Day is: thanks. We thank the men and women who played a part in the war. Soldiers do not get paid very much. They may wonder why they are even doing what they do. The least they could expect when they come home is some appreciation. Veteran’s Day is a day that all should celebrate. That is Veteran’s Day.


~Connor Scott

Lee County, GA




Thank you, dear veterans and active service men and women. Most humbly, thank you.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Time to Feed My Soul...

Tomorrow I hit the skies and head for Pennsylvania once again. A dear friend is showing her work as the Emerging Artist at the phenomenal Red Raven Art Gallery in Lancaster, PA. I have watched her hone her craft just as she has taken almost every step of my artistic journey with me (and read thousands of my pages) over the last 7 years. Together, we have walked through the fire and shared our little bits of heaven and hell as we grew our gifts. I don't know what I would have done without her. And her latest work is truly brilliant.

I've complained a lot about our recent move to the "arm pit of the South," and I stand by my words. Or at least one word—"desolate." However, there is a feast of sub-cultures down here, and plenty of regional flavor to inform my writing. As of yet, however, the South doesn't really fit into my WIP's setting or plot. I haven't given up or anything, but it's time to feed my writer's soul with some dear friends and a breath of metropolitan life. Okay, so Lancaster PA isn't exactly a teeming metropolis, but it is the East and only a breath away from Philly. There is plenty of artistic influence seeping over the county line and I can't wait to get up there and take it all in again.

But I wonder how other writers who live in small towns far away from a cultural center deal with such cultural quietude. It's not that I'm a cosmo girl or anything. I grew up on a small horse farm in Northern Indiana. But I was close to some Midwestern centers, including Chicago, and I did my fair share of traveling. At heart I am indeed a country girl and I miss my farm, but I really miss the proximity of a city where I can feast on diversity, progressive attitudes, culture. And it wouldn't hurt to go to a real museum or even a real book store! I'm not that I'm a city girl. That's absolutely not the issue. I need my quiet place to nest and cloister myself on my own terms. But I have to know that civilization is close at hand if I need it.

So what is it in me, a girl from northeastern Indiana, that hungers for such things? Maybe it's a past life intruding on the present. Or maybe it's a deep instinct for escapism. Perhaps it's just an innate sense that the world is bigger than me and I don't want to miss something. Whatever it is, I gotta have it. So I guess I am destined to be a traveler. Which is probably a good thing, because I plan to do some major book tours...when my time comes!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Beginner's Guide to Your First Writer's Conference

In light of the recent issue with a certain reporter and the delicate spirits of newbie writers everywhere, I am offering a bit of advice for first-time conference goers in the KidLit world based on my own experiences of the last 8 years. It is true that writers coming into the world of children's books from other areas of writing may be surprised at the level of civility here. And those who have never experienced the wonderful world of a SCBWI conference often do not know what to expect from their first writers' conference. Sometimes their excitement over the possibilities gets the better of their otherwise inquiring minds, so I thought I would take a minute to offer some guidelines about expectations and etiquette.

First things First: What is the purpose of a writer's conference?

If you answer that question with something like, "the key to fame and fortune and a published book," then you are wrong...and you are right. No, a conference is not designed to give you instant gratification in the publishing department. Sorry to burst a bubble, but it is exceptionally rare that a new writer gets a book contract from her first conference. But feel free to keep that particular fantasy in the daydream file.

Yes, a conference is all about honing your craft and teaching you how to submit your work so that you can make that dream come true. If you read the brochure, you will see a list of workshops (note the word "work" in there) and speeches aimed at giving you insights into the publishing world as well as tips on how to craft that amazing book, seasoned with a little inspiration as well. So come prepared to learn a lot.

Next: How do you prepare for the conference?

Perhaps I should divide this section into the Do's and Don'ts of preparation. Let's start with the...

DON'Ts:
  • Don't gather a pile of manuscripts and synopses together and bind them neatly in envelopes to hand out to every editor at the conference—unless you are working on your biceps, because you'll be lugging those little bundles around all day.
  • Never plan to approach an editor with said bundle of writing at the conference. Each publishing house has its own guidelines and you will get that information in your folder.
  • Don't expect a lot of one-on-one time with an editor unless you have paid for a manuscript critique or portfolio review.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions, and even prepare some in advance.
  • Don't think that everyone else there is better than you or that they will have some secret you don't have. They have all come there to learn and be inspired.
Okay, how about the...

DO's:
  • Do pay for a manuscript critique if you can afford it. This is the one time you will get some quality face-to-face time with an editor or agent, but more importantly, it will bring truly professional feedback on your manuscript.
  • Do a little research about submissions and such at SCBWI's website or other writers' sites.
  • Do take a little time to jot down questions before the conference. When you are there, things often seem to come so fast and it can be hard to formulate your questions or feel confident in asking them unless you have prepared them ahead of time.
  • Do read the brochure carefully for things like dress code at the venue and workshop descriptions. Most conferences are casual dress, but occasionally a venue has a "no jeans" policy. And make sure you understand the schedule.
  • Do prepare business cards to share with other attendees (not the faculty).
  • Set your expectations to what you will learn at the conference, what you need to know about submissions, trends, matters of craft, etc., and you won't be disappointed.
  • Do plan to meet some awesome people!

What to bring:
  • A notebook and pen to take notes on all the fabulous things you will learn.
  • An open and inquisitive mind and a positive attitude.
  • Business cards (as stated above)
  • Courage...and a little faith in yourself.
What to do when you are at the Conference:
  • Don't take the critique comments personally—they are constructive criticism. Use them to hone your manuscript. You may not agree with all of them, and that is fine. But accept them graciously, discuss them, but don't argue them.
  • Talk to the people at your table and share your questions and experiences. Don't be shy.
  • Ask questions during panel sessions, critiques, and workshops. The only stupid question is an un-asked question.
  • Don't be afraid to admit you are a newbie. Everybody has to start somewhere.
  • You may talk to the faculty when the opportunity arises, but don't "accost them at the salad bar with your packet of goodies." Talk to them as people. Yes, believe it or not, editors are actual flesh-and-blood people who like to chat. Ask them about their latest project or what they think about the most recent scandal in publishing. Tell them you like their shoes (if you do, that is!). This is actually where you begin to understand why they like what they like...getting to know their personality a bit.
  • Look at the books for sale. You'll get to know a little more about what the editors work on.
  • Consider the attendees as colleagues. That is one amazing thing about Children's writers...they are nurturing and supportive. Sure it's a competitive market, but this is not the dog-eat-dog atmosphere that other areas of publishing might be. Embrace the generosity of these people.
What to do after the conference:

Let it all soak in. Process the critique information and then take time to respond to it with a fresh revision before you try to submit it to any of the editors you met (or heard).

Review your notes. Perhaps even blog about them to set them in your mind as well as share some great info with other newbies out there.

I hope you will feel inspired, but sometimes the whole experience can be a little overwhelming. Cut yourself a break. Remember, you went there to learn something and meet some amazing people. Keep it all in perspective.

Remember that writing is a process. So is publishing. And so is learning about all of it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Misguided Zealot Lost in the Wonderland of Children's Book Publishing

This morning I found steam wafting up from more than my cup of hot tea. It was pouring from my ears as I hopped online to catch up on tweets and blogs before I started my day. Yes, there it was. This ridiculous article from so-called writer Julia Duin on the Washington Times website, misrepresenting SCBWI and slamming a couple of conferences she attended, apparently in the hopes of instant literary stardom. To this, I will respond with an open letter to this poor misguided zealot:

Dear Ms. Duin,

I found your article in the Washington Times online this morning rather amusing, though more to the point, excessively irritating. I have attended many SCBWI events and have gained so much from them, that I now volunteer and put a lot of work into organizing an event. You begin by attributing some dubious claims to the organizers of some Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conferences.
These conferences lure you with the hope that you can be the next J.K. Rowling. The reality is far nastier, despite the names of various agents, publishers, magazine editors and art directors that grace the society's brochures.

You imply that these conferences proffer false hopes and make empty promises, as if they were scurrilous vanity publishers or unethical agents who prey on unsuspecting writers willing to fork over their dollars for even the smallest possibility of getting their book published. Believe me, there are plenty of people out there willing to con writers, good and bad, out of their money and it's not the SCBWI. I suggest you check out
Predators & Editors and Writer Beware Blogs! to make sure you won't become a victim.

However, I take exception your characterization of the SCBWI as some shady organization that "lures" innocent writers into what can only be swift and sure defeat. Obviously you misunderstand the purpose of a writers' conference and you arrived with unrealistic objectives of your own making. Moreover, you must have a highly inflated notion of the "reality" of children's book publishing if you thought all you had to do was show up at a conference and accost an editor with your packet of proposals and manuscripts. If you haven't figured it out, children's book publishing is one of the toughest, most competitive fields out there.

Like many professional organizations, the SCBWI offers guidance, creates a sense of community among its members, promotes dialogue on important issues in the field, and offers opportunities for professional development. When it comes to conferences, they are first and foremost about honing your craft and being aware of the market and your target audience, and learning how to submit your work. Volunteers dedicate untold hours to putting these event together. They don't get paid. I looked at the brochures for the conferences you mentioned, and they do exactly that. They claim nothing more. If you see a brochure for a conference that promises to get you published, run the other way.

Of course as aspiring authors we love to fantasize about being "discovered" at a conference, like some would-be starlet sipping her malted at Currie's Ice Cream Parlor in Hollywood. Let me know how many authors started that way. All the authors I know made it by working on their craft and learning from workshops at conferences, making the contacts that allowed them to get their work past the initial slush pile. They paid their dues. Even J.K. Rowling was not an overnight success.

Your flashing your credentials of 5 published books does nothing for me but prove you have a false sense of entitlement—a problem many of our teenagers have these days. The Christian market is very specific and has its own set of standards. Likewise, the children's market has its own rules of etiquette and quality assurance. I suggest you explore this in more detail by visiting SCBWI's website and reading their list of Top 10 FAQ, and visit some of the amazing blogs and discussion boards online. While you are at it, pick up a copy of the latest CHILDRENS WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET and read the articles as well as the publisher listings (which includes Christian publishers). And why not add Harold Underdown's COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING CHILDREN'S BOOKS as well? I won't even get into your broad generalizations of the current kidlit market, but if you really want to limit your experience to Christian publications, check out the Christian Writer's Guild.

But please, don't malign an organization that works hard to educate and support writers of children's books because you made unreasonable and uneducated assumptions. Sweeping generalizations and ignorance will get your name out there, but not in a productive or morally sound way.

~ A humble, soon-to-be-published writer who has paid her dues.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

CANDOR is out!


I have to take a moment here to plug a friend. Pam Bachorz has a fabulous YA novel out and you absolutely must run out and get it!

Imagine a world where parents can have their teenagers brainwashed into being "perfect" children.

In the model community of Candor, Florida, every teen wants to be like Oscar Banks. The son of the town’s founder, Oscar earns straight As, is student-body president, and is in demand for every club and cause.
But Oscar has a secret. He knows that parents bring their teens to Candor to make them respectful, compliant–perfect–through subliminal Messages that carefully correct and control their behavior. And Oscar’s built a business sabotaging his father’s scheme with Messages of his own, getting his clients out before they’re turned. After all, who would ever suspect the perfect Oscar Banks?
Then he meets Nia, the girl he can’t stand to see changed. Saving Nia means losing her forever. Keeping her in Candor, Oscar risks exposure . . . and more. (publisher description)

Click on Pam's name to see the amazing trailer for this thrilling ride through CANDOR and learn more about the author!


Friday, September 11, 2009

The Program and Guerrilla Teaching

WARNING:  RANT ALERT!!

Besides the lives of the students themselves, the greatest casualty of this ridiculous beast known as No Child Left Behind is learning, itself.   We know that the powers that were (SGWB) unleashed an infantile creature on a rightfully concerned public and it has been reeking havoc on education in America ever since.  But today the ravages of NCLB have hit an all new low.  My husband teaches the English/Ed Masters program at the university,  and his course at the moment revolves around methods of teaching writing to high school students.  He is giving his students excellent pedagogical information as well as viable lesson plans they can take back to the class room.  Well, some of them.

Imagine our horror when we discovered that there is a programmed curriculum, implemented primarily by at-risk schools, that does nothing more than teach to the test.  I'm not talking about a handful of teachers wasting time on worksheets and test drills.  No, I'm talking about a system that hogties teachers and forces them to implement the most asinine methodologies in a vain effort to insure that their school meets NCLB performance requirements.  This is far more insidious.  It is a program that does NOT require students to actually read books.  No, it simply "teaches concepts" that are necessary to pass the state standardized test.  You read that right—"concepts."  It's nothing more than a glorified exercise in rote memorization of terms.  

Now we all know that there are teachers who teach to the test for a couple of reasons:  1)  they have no imagination.  2) they are too scared for their jobs to risk actually teaching anything but rote memorization.  But holy crap, folks!  We're talking about the only link between our kids and actual learning!  

This so-called program requires only that the teacher give the students "snippets" of text in order to learn to recognize a concept that will appear on the test.  Do freshman read Romeo and Juliet?  Hell no!  What good would that do?  They read a few lines so that they can understand what a simile is.  

Do they read Animal Farm and speculate on the potential or plausibility of utopia?  Are you kidding?  They might have a few sentences to from the book and learn that this is an example of political/social satire (if they're lucky!)  Make sure you remember the word and its definition, kids.  It will be on the test.  But never mind about those nasty little nuances that actually make such literature relevant and important.  And FUN!

What happened to actually reading classic and modern texts for the sake of learning how to think and to follow a concept all the way through to its magnificent impact?   What happened to authentic assessment and active learning...and actual fun in the classroom?  

According to my impeccable source, deviation from the program could be risky.  When did it become professional suicide to read an entire book with students, to build a 3-4 week lesson plan on a single novel or even a group of poems that are connected by theme or style or some other relevant, interesting quality?  For the good teachers, their only resort is guerrilla teaching.  That's right.  Actually teach, but don't let the administration find out.  Put your job on the line to actually do your job.

Consider this:

The year after I left teaching, I met a student who not been allowed to learn.  On pain of death.  This remarkable young woman came to my former high school for her senior year after being home-schooled her entire life.  After one semester, she had moved into the top ten rankings, which unseeded a student who had been part of the smart crowd for years.  As you might imagine, at the top ten dinner, all the whispers were sniping remarks about how this home-schooler  had only one semester on her GPA and her success had relegated one of the golden children to the 11th slot.  

At this dinner, each student must stand up and explain why they brought the guests that they chose.  Many of these guests were teachers who had made a difference.  For this young woman, it was a man who had risked his life for her.  You see, this articulate, intelligent, courage teenager came from Afghanistan only a few months before.  Her mother had literally risked her life to educate her girls at home, for you see, it was illegal to educate a woman in their country.  And the man, he had risked everything to smuggle them out of the country so they could have a chance to live a decent human life.  

This wasn't about any stupid state exam.  This had nothing to do with coloring in the right bubble or memorizing a vocabulary list.  This was literally about life and death.  After she told her story to this group of whining, wonderful top ten students, education had a whole new meaning to every soul in that room.  Jaws open wide, eyes shining with emotion, every single person understood what it meant to be graced with the opportunity, the privilege to truly learn.

May we never forget it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Science Fiction and the Art of Being Human

Any visitor to my humble writing space would see that my bookshelves are crowded with an eclectic assortment of literary adventures. Ursula LeGuin, George Orwell, Rita Mae Brown, Debora Crombie, Isaac Asimov, Nadine Gordimer, Eoin Colfer, Donna Jo Napoli (just to name a few). It’s one wild party. But no matter how varied the genres, one thing these writers have in common is the ability to craft a phenomenal human story. When it comes to science fiction, however, novice writers often forget to do what science fiction does so well: ask the big questions. Sure an exciting and innovative plot is an essential hook, but the ultimate driving force of any book is its humanity.

The trap for beginning sci-fi/fantasy writers is the urge to get so caught up in creating cool gadgets, provocative character names, and mysterious places that they lose that sense of humanness that transforms not only the narrative, but the reader as well. I’ve read a small share of early drafts and even published pieces that fall short, and the primary flaw is that lack of a truly human story. Many writers portray huge events and complicated plots, but they end up meaningless unless there is a real and relevant human cost.

Let's start with some basic questions:
  • Character
One of the first questions you should ask is do we care about the characters? Are they rich enough, real enough, flawed enough for us to actually care what happens to them? If they are cardboard cut-outs, cliché stock characters, then they will have no resonance with the reader. Even if your characters are robots or aliens, they must have emotional depth to reach the human audience. And believe me, they can. (Take a look at Helen Fox's MG book, Eager for an idea of how one robot can answer this question.)
  • Setting
Whether it’s futuristic or otherworldly, the setting must connect to the human story. At the same time, it needs to be an organic part of the narrative. If it takes too much effort to explain it, the setting loses its impact and becomes detached from the crux of the story. Treat it as another character that brings this world into sharper focus. What does it contribute to the conflict? What does it tell us about the characters and what they need? How does the MC’s view of the setting change through the course of the story?
  • Conflict
What kind of conflict fuels your narrative? Sci-Fi landscapes offer a lot of potential battlegrounds, literal and figurative, but how does it connect to what it means to be human? There is the crux of it all. What does it mean to be human? The further your narrative travels beyond what is the known world, the more diligently the writer must seek to answer that question.  
  • The Big Questions
What is the human cost? The stakes must be high and they must be relevant. The MC should grow through the narrative as well, even if he loses. This is something that good science fiction does so very well. It asks the big questions and pulls the audience, heart and head, into the discussion.

I'll close this brief treatise with a recommendation.  If you have not seen DISTRICT 9, you must. This film has set the gold standard for our time. Some people may wish to bill it as a science fiction movie and others as an action movie. It is neither. It is a human story.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Other People's Children

I was doing my usual blog rounds today, when I got a wonderful reminder about the reality of our artistic passion and our place in the world as writers. Thank you, Rachelle Gardner, for putting things in perspective so succinctly and so clearly.  Seriously, folks, how often do you hear yourself saying, "How did that piece of crap get published while my darling masterpiece languishes in a dark drawer along with a flood of rejection letters?"  As Rachelle reminds us, art is subjective.  And even crap has an audience.  Don't you occasional watch crappy TV just for some guilty, mindless pleasure?  I totally do...just ask my husband.

I've heard people bash best-sellers (and I'll name no names), but obviously someone is reading them.  Yes, we may see it as the last sign of cultural armageddon when what we call junk makes it to the NYT Bestseller list, but as writers we have to face the facts.  Not everyone will love our work.  To put a finer point on it, we may love our children to depths that we never could have imagined before we had them, but that doesn't mean that everyone wants to be their friend.   

How many times have you rolled your eyes when some kid acts up at a restaurant or says something outrageously rude and his parents just laugh and think he's cute?  Now think about some of the things your kids do that you find endlessly endearing.  Maybe she likes to hug everyone she meets.  Great, right?  Sweet, affectionate child, right?  Who wouldn't love some instant affirmation?  Well, Mr. Jones might think she's an annoying, presumptuous child who should keep her hands to herself.  Is he a jerk?  Maybe.  But then again, perhaps he was raised with different standards and different preferences.  I happen to like an open, cuddly kid, but not everyone does.  

It may be a cliché, but our books are our "rambling brats" as Anne Bradstreet would say.  Like our human children, they are born out of love, raised with discipline, and invested with bits of our soul that will bind us to them forever.  And doesn't every parent think their kid is brilliant?So when we see something "less worthy" than our own beloved offspring getting all the goods, we take it personally and we cry, "not fair!"  But honestly, doesn't that make you love your child (or your book) just a little bit more fiercely? 

For that matter, we spend a lot of time teaching our kids that life isn't always fair, but if we give it our best shot, we build character and confidence and ultimately we'll be happier.  Stop worrying about other people's children and other writers' books.  If we dwell on all those things that we deem "crap" and sit around and whine about how so-and-so didn't deserve to be published, we only poison our mood and waste time that we could be writing.  

We nurture our children and make sacrifices without even thinking about it so we can raise bright, secure, amazing people.  We should do the same for our writing.  Nurture the craft, never stop searching and learning and exploring.  Keep looking for opportunities and get to know your audience.  And when that masterpiece finally hits the shelves with its beautiful, shiny dust jacket and a host of glowing blurbs on the back, celebrate its birthday and all the accolades that may come along.

BUT, remember that even in all its published glory, your book will not please everyone.  So just don't read the negative reviews!







 

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Member of the Field

As I watch the amazing play and the wide cast of characters in the PGA Championships, I can't help but consider what it means for those stalwart players who make up the field of virtually faceless names that stalk the leader board.  Sure we all know who Tiger Woods is.  And Tom Watson.  And Jack Nicklaus.  And Vijay Singh.  We all have our eye on Padraig Harrington who seems almost unflappable playing alongside Tiger.    But what about Zach Johnson or Steve Flesch or Camillo Villegas?  Okay, Villegas (aka Spiderman) is a hottie and an up-and-comer, but for now he is a member of the field.

I wonder about these guys who love golf and are thrilled to get to play, even if they never win the PGA or the Masters or the British Open.  They get to play golf for a living, something they love.  They get to keep coming to the golf course every week, continue to hone their skills, and perhaps even snag an occasional win or challenge the greats in the last round of a major.  They aren't as famous as the big names, but they are always there.  They make fabulous contributions to the game in their own quiet way, without the glare of the spotlight or the excessive pressures of sponsorship that the big names face.  Are they happy?  They have gotta be.

So what does this have to do with writing?  As I launch my career as a writer, I see many of my colleagues making their way through the field.  Some of my Blue Boarding buddies are catapulting to the top and finding visible success like Maggie Stiefvater, who not only got a starred review but also just hit the NYT Bestsellers list with Shiver,  or Fran Cannon Slayton who is getting rave reviews and touring the country with her debut novel When the Whistle Blows, while others are quietly publishing their amazing books, getting fan mail and glowing reviews, and writing—happily writing—almost every day.  They may not win the Newbery or the Printz or a National Book Award.  But they are crafting stories and building a life doing something they love.  

Do they all want fame and fortune?  I doubt it.  If they are like me, they want to tell their stories, they want to bring something to kids that has meaning.  They want to make reading personal.  They want to create.  There are so many reasons that writers do what they do and to try to quantify them would not only be impossible, but it would be utterly foolish.  

Do I daydream about great reviews and sometime writing something award-worthy.  Absolutely!  But that's not why I write.  That is a goal, but not a reason.  Afterall, in many ways, the striving is the true reward.  For all you jaded folks out there in blogland, I apologize if that seems too idealistic.  But writing in itself is a process, not a product.  It's my daily workout, my passion, my teacher, my inspiration.  I can look out with genuine admiration and hopeful emulation at people like Neil Gaiman, Libba Bray, Jennifer Donnelly, and Jerry Spinelli and think Wow!  I would love to get to that place. Will I be a failure if I never get there?  Absolutely NOT.   If I am one of the field of writers who gets to do what she loves (and maybe even get paid for it), that is the dream.  That is my job.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Wisdom from an 8-year-old

If you are looking for recommendations for young readers, the Book Princess has just started a new blog.  Yes, she is 8 years old and she loves to read.  When she asked me to help her start her own web site for book reviews, how could I resist?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Murder in the YA Stacks

With my revisions on BTDV wrapped up (I hope), I am looking to my next project with unstoppable enthusiasm. This next project is even more ambitious than the last, and directed at a slightly older, more sophisticated YA reader. So I'm wondering, how much can you do with murder in a YA book?

I know death is no stranger to YA fiction, but how graphic, how specific, how much? Maybe I should start with looking back at some of my favorite books. Who could forget when Cedric died in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE? I've read every single HP book aloud to my son, and when we got to that moment when Wormtail curses poor Cedric, I could hardly speak it. The words barely made it over my lips. Then, of course, there is Sirius in THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and Dumbledore in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. And even more in THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. I must admit, however, these scenes are fairly "clean" in terms of details.

Another series that offered a bit of murder is Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy. Like the Harry Potter series, death is often accomplished by magic. But this is where my question becomes even more complex. How is murder portrayed in different genres, ie. murder mystery, historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary fiction?

I'm a huge fan of adult murder mysteries. Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series is wonderful, and the equestrian in me adores Rita Mae Brown's books. But even in adult murder mysteries, the original crime is often fairly detached. You might not even know the victim until after the murder has taken place. But then the characters you really care about are the ones doing the sleuthing.

Historical fiction could offer a more realistic portrait of murder. Jennifer Donnelly's award-winning A NORTHERN LIGHT is a lovely YA historical that takes a hard look at life in turn-of-the-century America. You do learn about the victim and face death in other ways through the main character. Contemporary fiction offers a look at many of life's harder edges (rape, suicide, death, drug addiction), though I must admit, I don't read a lot of "edgy" modern YA novels.

And my own work dances on the borders of fantasy and historical fiction, incorporating paranormal elements among the historical realism. I have dealt with death, and I suppose you could loosely say murder. But this book is quite different, and I'm not sure how far I should take it. Or for that matter, how far I want to take it. How graphic can I be? Perhaps that is just another vein of research I must conduct, but I would be curious to hear how others feel about the subject and by all means, if you have a suggestion for my reading list, please leave it in a comment.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pushing Through the Fear

Today, I was reminded of a very basic fact of life—we all have fears. It began last Thursday when my sweet 8-year-old daughter faced one of her greatest fears, and I actually had to stand behind her and throw her smack into the thick of it. Literally. Our goal for this summer: to learn how to swim, face in the water and all. Living in a northern clime (until recently), our access to a pool has been limited by a number of factors, so we never really had the opportunity to follow through on those early lessons we took 2 years ago. Until we met Duster.

On our way to Duster's house, I kept hearing, "I don't think I'm ready yet, Mama. I'm just not ready. What if I'm not ready?" And when the time came to confront the little demon, Ghost Daughter drew on her gift of imagination to concoct a host of excuses why she couldn't stick her face in the water. "I'm too tire. No, really! See the bags under my eyes, Mama? Look at the bags!" Of course she had tried others, like "I'm too hungry" or "My eyes hurt" or "I have to go pee!" But Duster knew that wall intimately, having taught most of the population of Albany under the age of 50 how to swim over the years.

And yes, I stood there dumbly as this wizened kid-whisperer dunked my screaming child under the water over and over. I said nothing when my darling daughter cried out, "I'm afraid!" and Duster calmly told her that she was going to help her break through that wall of fear. Yes, I actually threw my own child into the deep end of the pool despite her collapsing in a soggy pile on the concrete and pleading with me not to. And yes, I held my wee little one as she vomited after a several triumphant treks across the pool with her head under water, only to beam up at me with her little, pale face full of pride.

There is no coaxing here. No polite chat or tender conversation about how she must learn to swim for her own safety and fun. It's one of those moments, those come-to-Jesus, life-changing moments. And that girl kicked butt! She couldn't sleep that night, she was so excited that she actually did it. She really swam under water! She knocked that wall down!

Well...maybe she knocked a few bricks out, but it's a start.

So, our next lesson was today, and we have two dear friends visiting from Pennsylvania to witness another triumph. And Ghost Daughter was thrilled to show off, at least she thought she was. Last night she woke up in the middle of the night with a terrible headache. After a dose of motrin, she tried to go back to sleep, but the two of us ended up parked on the couch from 3:30 on, watching the final round of the LPGA Evian Masters. Nothing could shake that headache.

The telling question came at breakfast, "Will we have to cancel my swim lesson?" And again at lunch, "Mama, I feel like throwing up...will we have to cancel my lesson?" No matter how great that first triumph, fear is a rascal that will lay a few more bricks in that wall if you let him.

I was a sensitive, loving mama who comforted her child, gave her some Sprite and some kind words...and then drove her to her lesson. When we arrived, she ran into bushes, screaming, "I have to throw up!" Again, I dragged my poor child to the side of the pool. She went in, however grudgingly, but in one turn of the pool, that glow of success was all over her again. And this time it stuck. She had kicked down the wall, pushed through the fear, and found her inner mermaid.

It's easy to get jaded as we grow older and forget the significance of early battles such as these. As adults, no one is going to throw us into the pool. It is entirely up to us, and we may even choose to walk away from some challenges...simply because we are too tired, or too hungry, or we have to pee. Or so we tell ourselves.

But I have that beautiful moment that just leapt up before me today. And so many more to come. And I will push through my own fear...just like that skinny little 8-year-old in the green polka dot bikini.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Writer's Guilt

When I was a kid, I didn't dare get caught sitting—or heaven forbid, lying—on the couch anytime the sun was up or there would be hell to pay. I cringed and broke into a cold sweat every time the back door squeaked open. Always afraid it would be my father walking in, ready to ask that all-too-incriminating question, "What are you doing?"

Eventually I learned how to jump up without a sound and scramble to look busy. Maybe I'd move some stuff around on the shelf or re-fold the blanket or rearrange some pillows. Or, even better, slip out of sight before he made it into the family room. I spent a lot of time in the barn or in the woods or down by the river, but inevitably the sun would get too hot or the winds to chilly and I would seek the peace of the family room couch. Always laden with guilt.

Perhaps that's why I have a hard time letting myself be a writer. I mean hours can go by and I get only a few words on the page. I get a cup of tea. Bounce my magic glitter ball a few times. Clean out my fountain pen. And think...

Then I sit in my rocking chair for a while, with the laptop on my knee. And think...

Then I watch a little tennis or golf or show jumping. Or maybe I'll surf the net a while. And think...

I can hear my father's voice so clearly, "When are you going to get a real job?" Of course teaching high school was never a real job to him, either, but I did that for almost 10 years. Still, I can't help but feel guilty that there isn't more to show for all this thinking and tea drinking and web-surfing and magic glitter ball bouncing. My head gets it, but old habits definitely die hard. I have to keep reminding myself that all this nothing is what allows me to create something. And for that matter, writing is not a finite process. There is no true beginning and end. It is with you always—creating, composing, revising. Just because the words are not pounding across my computer screen a mile a minute does not mean I'm not writing. Hell, I'm writing in my sleep!

So I guess when I really need to feel more "active" and ease that writer's guilt, I should take my writing self and keep it going while my other self mucks out the horse barn (when I finally have one again). And if I want to sit in the rocking chair or take a nap or watch a bad movie in the middle of the afternoon...

Well, it's all part of the job.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Distractions

As you can gather from some of my recent blogs, I've been in serious need of distractions lately. I've considered blogging about the complexities of grief and the insanity of dysfunctional families, but I think I (and anyone who might stumble upon this blog) would be better off saving those musings for my next YA novel. Of course as a writer, just about any life experience, no matter how big or small, is fodder for some masterpiece in the making.

Consider my latest MOD (mode of distraction)—backyard birding. Yes, I could sit for hours watching the intricate ecosystem that is our backyard, if it weren't for the 105º heat. However, even with the scorching summer sun, I spend a lot of time in the lawn chair with Ghost Hunk's 2-ton camera in my lap while I meditate on life's crap and watch the birds. It's amazing the personality you can find out there. These are just a few interesting fellows who gather in the yard regularly:









There is so much chatter in my yard that I have to wonder what they talk about. Are they griping about their passive/aggressive maniacal sisters who seem bound to make life absolute hell? Are they gossiping about the neighbors and who's cheating on whom? Or is the greatest concern on their little minds how fast the bird seed seems to be disappearing from the plastic tube this crazy woman with the funky machine in her lap has hung on the wrought iron hook next to the tree?

And then I wonder...

Do they know how rich and welcome their songs are at the first light of day? Do they realize how much I love to watch them go through their day, chattering away in the trees about who-knows-what? Do they ever see themselves as little saviors who guard my sanity?

Hm...

They should.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What Characters Live With You?

Yes, I have finally re-entered the blog-o-sphere, although my perspective may be a little shaky.  Please forgive me if I ramble a bit too much. 

With my own revision finally done, I actually had a chance to finish the fabulous book I had started before everything went pear-shaped.

If you haven't read THE GRAVEYARD BOOK yet, please run straight away to the nearest bookstore or library and grab this jewel. How could a boy named Nobody be so strong a character that he takes up permanent residence in my brain? Because Neil Gaiman crafted an amazing character in a brilliant setting with such a sublime mission. Yes, I gush. But this is one of those books.  And Nobody is one of those characters. 

Neil Gaiman makes it look so easy, but how does a character manage to transcend the page and haunt your thoughts for who-knows-how-long?  And who has done that for you?

First, what better mechanism for drawing on the reader's sympathy than opening your book with a prodigiously courageous infant in peril?  From the first meeting, we are drawn to Nobody in the most primal way.  Especially if you are a parent.  If you are kid, you can't help but admire this kid's tenacity and guts.  His loneliness haunts us, his hunger for knowledge tempts us, his evolution inspires us.  I think dear Bod will be with me for quite a while—most likely forever.

Second, what other characters stay with me?  Of course Harry Potter grabbed me from the start.  Again, I think the fact that I am a parent engendered a connection beyond what the intended audience would understand.  I wanted to protect him, to love him, to give him hope.  But of course, if I could, he wouldn't be Harry. 

Kit Tyler from THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND was one of my favorites from my childhood.  I read that book...32 years ago (Yikes!)...and I still think of her.  She has spunk.  She has righteous indignation...and the courage to do something about it.  

Others that stay with me:  Ramona Quimby, Gooneybird Green, Gemma Doyle, Edward Tulane, Ann Fay Honeycutt,... just to name a few.

It's not just their strength or their boundless courage.  Quite the contrary.  It's their fallibility.  Their humanness.  

I am thinking about all this as I begin work on my next YA novel.  Already I'm living with my characters and learning about them, watching them grow into interesting and flawed young people.  I just hope I can right them as clearly as I feel them.  

What characters haunt you?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Sad Week

Some of you may already know that my mother passed away last week. I was with her when her time came, and there is a lot to take in. I'll post again in a couple of days, but I just needed to take a little break while I process it all. You can read her obituary at D.O. McComb and Sons.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I Break for Birds


One benefit to our recent relocation is I have a better bird-watching perch. I find that when I need to think, I tend look out the window, often at nothing at all. I'm not sure why, but it just feels good. But I must say, it's definitely better to have a little natural drama to zone out to. At the old house, we had a bird feeder to watch, but it was in a flower bid in our front yard, outside the living room—not particularly conducive to taking pictures or journaling. Too much traffic to make the little tweeters comfortable enough to stay awhile. What I really need is a sanctuary so I can let my brain relax and wander through my character sketches and plots with a little bit of nature to inspire me.

So now, I have a chair on the back patio always waiting for me. I settle down into my cheap Walmart camp chair with Ghost Hunk's Nikon with the extra cool lenses...and wait...and think...and prewrite. Eventually, I'll have a little birding journal, but for now I guess I'll just play the voyeur. To the birds, only! My little oasis helps me clear my head and focus my thoughts so I can write. I don't know how it works, but it does. Love those birds!












Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Incredible Disappearing Woman.

How did this happen? What about that strong, independent chick who bought her first house at 24 and ruled her world as a single woman? She is still in here somewhere, but the DMV ain't gonna find her!

Yes, today I had to relinquish my PA driver's license so I could officially join the ranks of the South. I thought I had it all dialed in:
  • PA driver's license — check
  • birth certificate — check
  • marriage license (yes, I actually thought to bring that!) — check
  • the power bill with our new address on it — check...sort of.
The problem is that the name on our power bill is Ghost Hunk's, not mine.  In fact, none of the bills have my name on them — not the phone bill or the trash bill or the cell bill.  My name is not even on the lease! (At least my credit won't get hit if Ghost Hunk misses a payment!) So I'm looking at the DMV clerk behind the counter and trying to figure out what the hell happened to Ghost Girl?  

I do have my own bank account (as every woman should), and a statement would suffice, but I get my statements online (Go Green!).  I don't even have that in print!  Well, I'll chance it.  Yes, I drive all the way home (in the next county), scramble to find my power cord and USB cable for the stupid printer which hasn't been set up yet because my desk still hasn't arrived...

Sigh.

I print out my first statement (at this point, it's all I have), grab every piece of correspondence I have from the bank, and head back down to the DMV.  Totally sugar-deprived, mind you.  I haven't had lunch yet, and my blood sugar is taking a nose dive.  I pity the person who crosses me now!

I get to the DMV, where a handful of people has grown into a full-fledged throng in the hour it took me to get my crap together. I finally get up to the clerk and...the computers are down!  But somewhere in cyberspace, the binary gods take pity on me and the computers come up about 10 minutes later.  

After a few furrowed brows and a final "ok," my documents are deemed acceptable, and I get my friggin' GA license!

But who is that wide-eyed chick staring up from the drab blue square, looking half baked?  A married mother of 2 who somewhere along the way sacrificed perhaps a bit too much of herself for her own comfort.  20 years ago, my name was on a mortgage, a credit card, a bank account, a car loan, a payroll...  Now, I just feel a bit pathetic.  I guess next time I have to prove myself, I'll just have to take in my latest best seller with my stunning jacketflap photo and say, "There you go.  100% guaranteed legitimate woman.  That's me!"

Monday, May 04, 2009

Another great contest from some Awesome KidLit writers!

Click on the title of this post to see the list of fabulous prizes from Rick Riordan, Julianne Moore, Sarah Quigley, Cheryl Renee Herbsman, and C. Lee McKenzie.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Check out Caren Johnson Literary Agency's New Web Site!

If you haven't stopped in for a visit, yet, head on over the CJLA and check out the new digs! Just click on the title of this post and go!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Little Death, Anyone?

I am currently putting one more revision on my favorite book (so far), and it occurred to me that among all these ghosts and even a small pile of dead bodies, there is no actual funeral anywhere. Yes, I kill off the poor sots and leave them rotting somewhere outside the pages. That doesn't really seem fair, does it?

Yes, I'm in the "kill your darlings" stage (how ironic), so I don't want to load up my manuscript with another mountain of words. But there are some things missing. So it's time to weed out the blah and add a little more "gotcha!" Perhaps some up close and personal time with a corpse is the ticket. There are some good questions in this quest, though. Do I stay true to a regional 19th century funeral rite or branch out into something more experimental to suit the avant-garde community I've created? Or something to suit the ill-fated character in particular? How specific should I be? These are the things that make writing so fun!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Love is an Action

As a writer, you hear it all the time: "Show don't tell." Think about that when you consider what love is, in your book or in your life. Last weekend, I was away at a fabulous writers' retreat. Of course the only date we could get this time around happened to fall on my 16th wedding anniversary. I thought about Ghost Hunk a lot and missed having our "date night," but he knows I love him. And I know he loves me.

Sure, he tells me a lot and I tell him, but that's not what really convinces me. It's the way he never complained about the fact that the retreat was scheduled on that day. It's how he went ahead and moved us into the new house while I was gone, kids in tow and all. It's the little bits of dark chocolate he snags for me just because he happened to be at Walmart. It's the 4 oz. of my favorite tea from my favorite cafe that he bought as he headed out of East Petersburg for the last time.

But it is so much more, this love thing. 15 months ago, he told me he would have to look for a new job (please don't ask me to explain why). That we would almost definitely have to leave our home in Central PA. That he might even have to leave academia, for which we sacrificed more than a little. Did I cry? Of course. But in that moment, it was less about my loss and everything about what that meant to him. What would he be losing? It broke my heart to think of it.

Was I angry? Absolutely. At him, at his boss, at the whole situation. But that wasn't going to make things right. Somehow, I knew what I had to do. There was a certain unexpected grace that kept me from crumbling, that spared us from feelings of resentment and bitterness (and believe me, I was no stranger to those dark friends). When a job finally came, it meant six months as a single mom, dealing with the kids' separation issues, mourning, and immeasurable sense of loss all by myself while he tried to concentrate on his work and continued to hunt for a decent place for us to live 600 miles away.

Through it all, there was a sense of us. No matter how desperate it got, there was no question. It surprised even me—a little. This grace, this larger than life drive that carried us through some of the scariest moments of our married life. Forget the fluttery feelings, the wild sexual tension, the stumbling around for the right words because you're so afraid of the wrong ones. None of that means squat. Love is an action. It's when you can do things you never thought you could do, without question, without resentment. You DO them. Show, don't tell.

After my grandfather died, my grandma used to wear his watch all the time. And when it got chilly, she would fold herself into his sweater. There was no maudlin display. She never thought about what she was doing or even why. She just did it. She just loved him...all day long.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How Hairy Was Your Move?

Well, almost everything that could go wrong did, but not everything.  Let's start with the movers.  They said they would arrive either Wednesday or Thursday, assuring us that they almost always get there on the first of the two days they promise.  They arrived at 9:15 pm Thursday night!  Thank heavens for my awesome neighbor who gave us a couple of beds so the kids could sleep while we packed the truck all night.  Ghost Hunk stayed at the house all night and I caught a few winks at the neighbors as well.  

The walk-through took place as scheduled at 9:00 am Friday.  We still weren't done loading the truck.  And the buyers' real estate agent pitched a fit and refused to turn over the funds until we were completely out.  I was raised in real estate, and I've never seen an agent act like that!

The Moving truck that arrived was not the one we expected.  It was half the size!  So...We had to leave stuff behind.  Again, friends and neighbors came to the rescue.  However, what got left behind?  1.  My writing desk.  2.  My chair.  3.  My work table.  4. My elliptical trainer.  

Did we have gorgeous weather for travel?  Well, we left in sunshine, but halfway through Virginia, the rain came...and came...and came...all the way to Georgia.  Two days of it.  And of course, all the stuff in our car-top carriers got soaked.  So much for the waterproof claims!

One of the best things that happened with the move, however, was absolutely perfect.  Ghost Daughter and I spent Friday night with a dear writing friend.  Joyce Moyer Hostetter put us up for the night, and it was great to catch up and share our latest WIP info and life stories.  Even the dogs felt at home at the Hostetter house.  It was lovely!

And now, we are in GA with Ghost Hunk (ah...at last!) and getting ready for another wild weekend.  Yep, we have to move again.  This time into are "real" house, which will be wonderful.  The kids have held up so well and I am in awe of their strength.  

And my family is all together.  At least until Thursday when I board a plane back to PA for the SCBWI Eastern PA Pocono Mountain Retreat!  

Ah...life!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On the Move...


I don't know how I actually thought I would be blogging this month, but with the house finally sold, I've been useless the last 2 weeks. The truck is coming tomorrow and I will lose all contact with my beloved cyberworld for a few days...maybe even a week.  shudder   So hang on, dear friends.  I'll be back online ASAP.  In the meantime...it's good to be with Ghost Hunk once again. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

When Did I Quit My Day Job?

There is a literal answer to that:  When I had my daughter.  However...somewhere in the back of my brain, I've always held on to the notion that I am a teacher.  I love teaching, and it is one thing that I was destined to do.  But is it truly the only thing?  I'm also a writer and in the last few years, I have begun to evolve and find my identity as a YA writer.  Does that mean that I am no longer a teacher?

I was forced to answer that question the other day as Ghost Hunk and I were cleaning out the attic in preparation for the big move.  Like all gifted teachers (that's a joke), I am a maniacal pack-rat.  I have boxes and boxes of curriculum that I designed for gifted kids, AP classes, and academic courses.  I've held on to it all since I quit teaching high school in 2000.  Why?  Because it's me, part of who I am.  It's like all of my writing...I gave birth to it.  I nurtured it, raised it, and sent it to work when the time came.  Now it sits enshrined in its pristine file boxes from OfficeMax in the corners of my attic.  Will I ever have a use for it?  Do I really need to drag it all the way to Georgia?

So here I am again at that nagging question, "Am I a teacher anymore?" Perhaps the more appropriate question is, "Is that mountain of old curriculum necessary to validate one career or even me as a person?"  Of course the answer is "no." I will always be a teacher, even if I never set foot in the classroom again.  But even before I dragged that first yowling sophomore through the pages of LORD OF THE FLIES, I was a writer.  A writer and a passionate reader.  And that is what I remain.    

I guess I walked away from my day job back in 2000, but I quit it yesterday.  Yes, I'm letting it all go.  I really should construct a funeral pyre and send off those piles of brilliance (again, I'm joking) to their just rewards with pomp and ceremony.  But a dumpster will have to do the job for now.  (Don't want the fire marshall throwing me in jail just before the big move!)  

But I will also celebrate.  Waking the dead and celebrating life as a writer.  I am a writer.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Quick Note and an Amen

While I'm in the midst of furious packing (and I chose that adjective carefully), I'll take a minute to direct you to Nathan Bransford's latest blog and say a hearty "AMEN".  And my next post will address some of his oh so à propos points about the writer's life.  

But for now, carry on...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is a Debut Novel always the First Novel?

My guess would be—NO. Sure the fantasy of writing that first book and having it take off, sell to an amazing house, then top the NYT bestseller list has got to dog most of us writers at some time or another. Of course 8 years into my writing career, I've kind of figured a few things out. And yes, it is my career, even if my work hasn't rolled off a shiny press yet. 

Writing rarely just "happens" like that well-worn fantasy, even for those so-called overnight successes. It is an art and art requires inspiration, sacrifice, attention to craft, and a mountain of patience, not to mention an intense personal commitment and a small dose of luck.  If you look at the files of many of your favorite writers, you will most likely find a stash of manuscripts, some half-finished, some abandoned after a flurry of rejections, some no more than a scrap of paper with an idea scrawled across it. It's all part of the process. 

I teach my students that writing is a process.  The "final product" is just where we decide to stop working that process.  Every draft, every note scribbled in the margins, every hour of racing thoughts about plot and character that keep you awake at night, it's all part of the process.  Every draft of that first book was like vocal scales, stretching and developing my voice, getting it ready for that amazing aria. Okay, that might be a little over the top, but you get the picture. 

I've been thinking about that first book, the YA that is still awaiting judgement at a small house.  Even with it under consideration, the farther I get away from that first novel, the more I realize there is a lot I could do to make it better. To be honest, I'm not sure where I want it to go.  It's kind of like your mother showing those ridiculous baby pictures to your boyfriend.  I don't look like that anymore, but the same person is inside that goofy grin with the cat's eye glasses.  I love my first book, and I still think it's a good book that kids will enjoy, but not nearly as solid as my second, which is making the rounds to editors now.  

My current YA is sort of my coming of age in terms of writing and will soon be my debut novel (I hope).  I'm ready for the big "coming out" party and then on to my next, which will be even better.  What will happen to #1?  I don't know.  But it's all part of the process.  



Sunday, February 15, 2009

Need a Moment?

With all the disheartening news over at HarperCollins and all around the publishing world, as well as the maddening economic nightmare we're all facing, it may be hard to be inspired by the little things. I'm lucky. I have two beautiful little things that fill my days with wonder and hope and inspiration. As a writer, I'm always trying to capture a moment, a ripple of transcendence. Kids can do that for you...oh, so easily...

So here's one of those moments.

video