Sunday, December 18, 2011

Setting Up a New Year's Writing Resolution

Resolution Icon
I've never been big on New Year's resolutions, but this year I'm taking the opportunity to goal set and start up a writing routine.  No more excuses.  If I want to call myself a writer, then I need to write! (And regularly, not just when the mood strikes me.)

Between now and April is the most free time I will get all year.  No grad classes.  No reading lists to get ahead on.  Just me and my time.  I've already said that I relish this time of year because I get to read what I want to read, but this year, I'm setting a goal to start and complete a first draft of a new April 1st.  (April is when I get started on my reading list for summer, hence the April 1st deadline.)

It's no NaNo (writing 50,000 words in a single month), but considering there's some research that needs to be done, I think 3 months is a tough but realistic time frame.

Now here's where I had to do some troubleshooting.  I wanted to set up a specific time of day where I could productively write.  I've struggled with this in the past.  I get out of school around 3pm each day.  And while afternoons would be the preferred time to write because I'm not dragging tired yet... it's not realistic considering after school I could have meetings, parent conferences, errands, etc.  So 3-5pm is out.

And 8pm is prime TV hour.  So 8-9pm is out of the picture.  And then to be totally honest, any time after that I'm too tired to be productive.  And I need to start winding down around that time or else I suffer from insomnia.

So, I've decided prime writing time is going to be after fixing dinner, while drinking tea, from 6-8pm.  My goal will be 500-1000 words per day which will place me at perfect first draft range of 45,000-90,000 words over a 3 month time frame.

So if anyone would like to join me in gluing their butt to their chair from 6-8pm every night and cranking out some words.  Let me know.  We can exchange word counts or something.

Here's to a new year filled with the click clacking of freshly typed words!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Divergent by Veronica Roth

My mood and overall outlook on life becomes glowingly positive when I read a great book.  It's like how exercise junkies get endorphins.  Well, I swear there's some hormone that is released in my brain after a satisfying book.

And Divergent by Veronica Roth is going to have me in a good mood for weeks.

First, you should know there are three things that I value more highly than other qualities in books.
  • Pacing
  • Characters
  • Plot
Those three things have to be there for me in my pleasure reading.  My favorite books have to be page turners, have to make me fall in love with the characters and leave me wishing they were real people, and the plot has to be plausible and intriguing.

Divergent by debut author Veronica Roth blew me away in all these categories.  Pacing, characters, and plot were all fantastic.

So without giving away any spoilers, let me tell you why you should read this book:
  1. It's a combination of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, the violence and corrupt dystopian world of Hunger Games, with the vulnerability and growth of Ender in Ender's Game.  Plus there's romance and a male lead I swooned for way more than any Edward or Jacob.
  2. The premise: A future dystopian world where people are divided into factions based on what they believe in.  The main character, Beatrice, must decide whether to stay in the faction she grew up in or betray her family and choose a faction that better suits her.
  3. Pacing: I could not put this book down.  I lost sleep.  I took it to school with me to sneak in reading time.  At a hefty 487 pages... this shouldn't have been a quick read, but I started it on Wednesday evening and finished it on Friday evening.
  4. Characters: Hunger Games fans might hate me for this, but I liked the main character, Beatrice, way better than I liked Katniss.  Both girls are tough and must learn to fight for their own survival.  But Beatrice came off as a much more likable character.  This may even cause me to like Divergent better than Hunger Games.  And did I mention I LOVE FOUR.  Four is the male lead.  Weird name I know.  But I love Four.  You will love him too if you read this book.
  5. Plot: I love when I get to the end of a book and see how everthing fit together so perfectly--how events at the beginning led to the ending.  Everything in this book was plausible and not forced.  I never felt like the author was throwing in some deus ex machina to save the day.
I could go into so much more detail but I don't want to ruin this book for anyone.  I'm so glad it's going to be a trilogy because I need more!  As soon as I was finished I wanted to go back and read it all over again.

One Warning: This book is very violent.  Lots of blood.  Lots of gore.  Suicide and murder.  I'd be hesitant to recommend it to anyone under 13.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Adverbs and Adjectives

Back into writing exercises!

I've hopped back into doing writing exercises from Ursula K. Le Guin's Steering the Craft.

Today, I did exercise five which involves writing a paragraph of descriptive prose without adjectives or adverbs.

Here's what I realized:

  1. I need to brush up on my grammar.  Throughout the exercise I was asking myself, "Is this an adjective?"  And because I was actually sitting down and writing for the first time in ages, I really didn't want to substantially interrupt the flow of writing to look up grammar rules.  So I didn't.  But it made me realize that since I've been teaching Reading instead of English for the last two years, I've been neglecting my grammar knowledge.  I think I might start by re-reading a little Strunk and White.
  2. The point of the exercise was to make you more conscious of choosing strong nouns and verbs and making use of simile and metaphor instead of adjectives and adverbs.  I definitely concentrated on that, and more than once found myself trading out weak choices for stronger ones.
  3. My biggest dilemma in avoiding adjectives or adverbs was in describing color, material, size, and time.  You can see below in my sample that I slipped up quite a few times.  I figured I still got what was intended out of the exercise, and didn't want the end product to read weird.  Maybe I shouldn't care about the product if I'm just doing an exercise, but personally, if I'm making the time to sit down and write, then I want to be at least a little happy with the result.
Here's a sample of today's work:
The last time I'd traveled to London was well before my parent’s death, at least six or seven years ago.  I believe I was just ten years old.  The first shock that bombards my senses is the noise.  The din of the carriage that I’d thought was so deafening on the journey is nothing compared to the onslaught of sound that pours in as we open the carriage door.  Whistles of steam, the clanging of metal, bellows of men, and the clicking of gears surround me.  My head whips around as I try to find the sources of such noises.
“Come, Anne.  Or we’ll leave you behind,” my aunt snaps.
I hurry after her, already several paces behind after standing mesmerized by the cacophony.
As I weave between women wearing corsets and men in top hats, I run my hands over my own wool dress.  The color reminds me of a gray field mouse.  The plainness of it must stand out amid the jewel tones that are so clearly in fashion--I push through a sea of people in emerald silks and purple velvet.
Just as the crowd is beginning to be too much, just as my head becomes light and my eyes have trouble focusing, my aunt turns and climbs up a short flight of stairs to a rowhouse.
Feel free to try the exercise for yourself.  It's harder than it looks  ;)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Response to Maggie's "A Proper Education"

Maggie Stiefvater rocks my socks.  I heart her.  Glad that's out of the way because I'm about to agree and disagree with her a little bit.

Maggie recently blogged about her education to become a writer in a post titled "A Proper Education."

Some points I agree with, but others I don't.

Maggie brings up the 10,000 hour rule.  That you must spend 10,000 hours at something to become an expert in a field.  I totally agree with her on this.  People who spend the most time working at something will be the people to succeed.  It's crystal clear to someone who is a teacher: the more time a kid spends on something, the closer they are to mastering it.

Maggie's big argument seems to be that creative writing programs are not the end-all-be-all of getting a writing education.

"But I think that there are lots of ways to accomplish those [10,000] hours. You can self teach. You can apprentice. You can take classes. You can workshop. You can get a writing critique partner. You can steal someone else’s brain." 

I agree that all of the above are important to a writer's education. (Perhaps with the exception of brain stealing--  :P )

Here's where I start to disagree:

"I reckon before I post this, I should emphasize that I have nothing against degrees in Creative Writing. If you think you need one to keep you motivated or to structure your education, go for it. But it’s not the way I learn. And I’d wager in some cases it can do more harm to an introverted creative person’s psyche than good. But the most important thing is: they’re pretty much invisible when it comes to getting your book published. Your education, however you manage it, is the process: the book is the result. Agents, editors, readers: they don’t care how you got there, just that you did."

The whole "if you think you need one" bit comes off a tad on the condescending side.  But knowing that she hasn't been through a writing program, I'll try not to hold it against her.

Because I happened to find a writing program that I consider a total blessing.  It has provided me with:
  • A nurturing creative environment
  • Companionship and writing peers that I respect
  • Mentors whose guidance has helped me develop my craft
  • Classes that have stimulated growth in me as a writer because they forced me to stretch myself outside my comfort zone
I know not everyone can afford to pay thousands of dollars to take college/graduate courses, and I should consider myself lucky that I've been privileged to do so.  But I really don't think I would have grown as a writer as much as I have in the past two years without my graduate program.

I adore my graduate program.  And I do think it's made me a better writer.

But I will concede some points she made:
  • A writing program could be damaging to someone if they don't find the right program.  I've heard horror stories about elitist writing programs that do more damage than good.  Persevering through that kind of program just for a piece of paper is not worth it.  Especially if you aren't growing as a writer and having your self-worth as a writer torn apart.
  • A piece of paper won't necessarily mean you are more qualified.  (Though I do think it will give you some street cred.)  There will be different levels of skill coming out of my program.  One piece of paper for each of us won't mean we're all equally skilled.  Your work will speak for itself.  I think that comes back to the 10,000 hours thing.  People who put in more hours will be more qualified, and that includes the hours you spend putting into your coursework.  If you truly take advantage of a writing program, then you do build up hours towards your 10,000.
I know Maggie's post was not meant to be a personal slight to writing programs.  She just wanted to say that you can become a good writer without one.

But I sincerely wish that everyone could experience what an amazing writing program can have to offer.  I was lucky enough to find a perfect fit.  :)

Monday, November 28, 2011

The End is in Sight...

This has been one crazy autumn.  From my online grad class to big changes happening at my school, the pace of my life has left me breathless and with a twitchy eye.  (For real, my eye has been twitching for months.  Stress or exhaustion induced.)

And as much as I've been enjoying my grad class on Newbery books, I'm greatly looking forward to having some free time at my disposal.

And here's why I decided to blog.  What will I be doing with said free time?

Two things.

ONE: Reading for Pleasure

My to-read list:

Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

And others, but those have made their way to the top for one reason or another.

TWO: Writing (New Exciting Project)

I had a fantastic idea in July for a novel that would be a steampunk twist on a classic book.  I made myself hold off on beginning to write, thinking I would use said idea for NaNoWriMo. (Click here if you want to know what NaNoWriMo is.)  When November rolled around, I knew I couldn't handle NaNo with the current state of my sanity (remember stress-induced twitchy eye?).  So I held off further.

And I'm glad I held off.  Here's why.

I've been brainstorming in a way that I haven't before.  I drive home to see my family pretty regularly, about an hour drive, and I've been turning off the radio and plotting in my head during the drives.  But I haven't just been plotting scenes--I've been thinking about character arcs.  (Click here for a nifty website explaining what a character arc is.)  The story has evolved over the past 4 months, and I'm pretty tickled.

I have three arcs that interweave for my main character; three ways she will grow over the course of the book.  I have a skill based arc, a fear based arc, and a human relationship based arc.  Each arc now has a clearly outlined progression and the arcs connect with each other in a logical way.

I never would have come up with this if I'd just started writing with the initial idea in July.  I would have had a really crappy first draft.  Probably one with a decent action plot but with no emotional plot whatsoever.  Having it brew over four months like this was something I'd never done before, and I'm hoping the payoff will be great.  I'm really optimistic and eager to start writing.

I also want to give a little tip of my hat to my Writing Fantasy teacher this summer who helped me learn to pay attention to both the action plot and emotional plot.

So look forward to more posts about writing in December  :)

Woo hoo!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Importance of Conflict

I'm taking a class on Newbery award winning books, and I'm reading some fantastic award winning literature for children.  Some of the books are truly out-of-this-world fantastic, such as:

  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
  • Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose

But some other books on my reading list I'm having issues with.  And they have have something in common: lack of conflict.

They're written beautifully.  They have big themes.  They have style and voice.

But I really take issue with the lack of conflict because it makes me ask: so what?  Why are we reading about this character in this moment?  So what?  Why is this event important?  So what?  How is this character learning, changing, growing, evolving if they don't face any challenges?  So what?  Why write this story, about this character, in this moment?

If there isn't any conflict, then the story itself loses immediacy, urgency, and importance.  Where's the risk? Where's the possibility of failure?  Why should the reader root for success?  And then why should that success mean something?

Stories that lack conflict also lack pacing.  And perhaps this is why the Newbery has been criticized as being a bunch of "great" books that kids don't read.  Pacing is critically important in engaging child readers.  Without conflict, without tension, without risk, keeping the pages turning is near impossible.

The Newbery committee typically focuses on the following criteria in literary fiction:

  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.

Hmmmm.  Development of plot.  Seems to me that's where conflict should go.  Or perhaps it could go under delineation of character. (As without testing your characters, how can you see what they're made of?)

However, maybe conflict should get its own category.  I'd argue it's important enough.  Aren't some of the most memorable characters in classic literature made memorable through the challenges they face? Would Romeo and Juliet be as memorable without the feud between their two families?  Would Jane Eyre be as memorable without her internal struggle between passion and morality?  Would Pip be as memorable without the conflict between his superficial values and his conscience?

Something to think about if you're a writer.  One of my favorite pieces of advice is: to be MEAN, be CRUEL to your characters.  Make them face their biggest fears.  Throw everything you can at them.  I love that advice.  When I do it, my characters become more alive, writer's block isn't a problem, and the plot moves at a steady pace.

Now if I can just get the Newbery committee to acknowledge conflict as its own crucial entity in the selection process...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Looking for a fresh, original high fantasy novel?  Looking for a book with a strong, complex female protagonist?  Check out Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon.

This is one of the best fantasy novels I've read since Kristin Cashore's Graceling.  Fantastic world-building, an intriguing villain (especially in the 2nd book), and fast-paced plot.  I absolutely love that this is an Asian inspired fantasy, and if you enjoyed Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days, you'll love this!

Essential plot: Ai Ling goes off in search of her father who she fears is dead, and while on her journey, meets the handsome Chen Yong and discovers she has the power to read and control other people's spirits. She must face a great evil who has been using other's souls for his own immortality.

Word of Caution: I definitely could not recommend this to my 6th graders because of some mature violence and sexual themes.  But a great read for the upper YA bracket!

Note: This is a two book series.
Book One = Silver Phoenix
Book Two = Fury of the Phoenix

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Meeting Maggie and SCBWI Fall Conference '11

I had the most awesome weekend ever and am now feeling so totally in love with books and writing.  This is seriously my calling.

First bit of awesomeness: Meeting Maggie Stiefvater

 Maggie ranks up there in favorite authors.  She's in the top 10.  I've read all of her books (BalladLamentShiverLingerForever) and follow her blog religiously (she has a fantastic sense of humor on her blog and gives great writing tips).

I'd always seemed to miss her book signings because they were in the summer while I was away at graduate school.  But her new book, The Scorpio Races, just came out this week, and she was having a launch event in DC at Politics and Prose.  This time I could go!  And I had no school the next day!

The afternoon started out with me wanting to cry because it took me over 2 hours to get down to DC for the event and I ended up being 30 minutes late.  I quietly walked in, found a seat near the front, and basked in Maggie's awesomeness.

I actually ended up missing any speaking that was done by her and arrived just as she was handing out prizes.  The girls next to me gave me one of the raffle postcards that were sitting on the chairs while Maggie began calling out numbers.

And guess what???  I won the big prize!!!  I won a copy of Scorpio Races with beautiful horses drawn on the cover by Maggie herself!  This is not only the first thing I've ever won, but by far the coolest thing I could ever possibly win.  I've admired Maggie's artwork whenever she posts pictures on her blog.  Especially her Sharpie guitars, but as I have no use for a guitar, the book with her art was perfect!

I got the book signed by Maggie, told her I'd read all her books, told her I loved her blog, told her I appreciated the writing advice she posted because I was in an MFA program.  She was so personable and cheerful.  Book signings can be awkward sometimes, but there was none of that.  I give her top marks!

I can't wait to read Scorpio Races, and will definitely post about it when I do!

Second bit of awesomeness: SCBWI Conference

I attended the SCBWI Fall Conference on Saturday.  For those of you who don't know, it's a writer's conference sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators.

There were 280 people in attendance!  We were packed into a ballroom in the Holiday Inn in Dulles for a day of speeches and advice regarding writing for children.

I'm not providing specific play by plays of the presentations because the material is copyrighted, but here is a brief rundown of the awesome day.

Author/Illustrator Brian Lies (Bats on the Beach, Bats in the Library, Bats at the Ballgame) spoke about marketing your book.  His presentation was magnificent and offered great ideas creating hype about your book and making a book signing more exciting.

There was an Agents Panel with Jennifer Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary Agency and Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary.  They gave lots of informative answers to questions about the writer/agent relationship.

Chelsea Eberly of Random House gave a talk about how to create the perfect "Hook for your Book" and how having a hook will both catch editors' attention and help them sell your book.

The keynote speaker was author Han Nolan.  She was so sincere and inspiring.  What really resonated with me about her speech is striving for excellence when we're writing, and reading the best books out there (award winners) so you know where the bar is set and to inspire you to reach for it.  Which is exactly what I'm doing by taking this course on Newbery books!  :)

There was an author panel (Meg Medina, Anne Marie Pace, Wendy Shang, Amy Brecount White) about the highs and lows post-publication which offered a very realistic look at what it's like to be a published author.

And finally, there was an Editor's Panel on creating credible characters.  Chelsea Eberly (Random House), Caroline Abbey (Bloomsbury), and Abby Ranger (Disney-Hyperion) offered some constructive advice on common character flaws they see in writing and questions to ask yourself to create stronger characters.

This was a regional conference, meaning I didn't have to travel far and it was relatively cheap (around $100).  The quality of information was excellent, and I came away feeling motivated and excited about writing and literature.  If you are a writer for children, I highly recommend you look into attending an SCBWI regional conference!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

National Book Festival 2011

Here is my annual post on the DC National Book Festival!  Best FREE book event in the country!

Authors I saw speak (in order of appearance):

Sarah Dessen
Teen author, Sarah Dessen
I knew she was popular and has been writing for awhile, but I haven't read anything by her.  I've never been a big reader of teen girl realistic fiction.  She was so charming that I downloaded one of her books on my Kindle while sitting in the audience.  She joked about how she was a very ordinary person and how when she came to events like this, she wanted to bottle up all the wonderful love and adoration from her fans.  Then, when she was home, doing laundry or dealing with crying children, she could be like, "See!  People think I'm amazing!"  She also jokingly said that she owes all her sales success to Mandy Moore.  Once Mandy Moore was on the cover of her movie edition, her books sold like hotcakes.  She joked that her family thanks Mandy Moore for everything in their house.  "We thank Mandy Moore for our refrigerator."  One other cool thing that she does in her books that was a completely new concept to me, is instead of writing the sequels that her fans beg for, she has some of her characters from past books make guest appearances in new novels.  I thought this was such a cool idea!

Katherine Paterson and John Rocco
Illustrator Jon Rocco and author Katherine Paterson
Katherine Paterson is a living legend and John Rocco did the cover art for the Percy Jackson series.  The two of them teamed up to create a gorgeous book with 60 color illustrations.  The Flint Heart is a 1910 fantasy story by Eden Phillpotts retold by Paterson in more modern friendly language with more reader friendly pacing.  I bought this book after hearing them speak, and it is a gorgeous piece of book art!  Katherine Paterson and John Rocco were so cute together, as seen here in this picture:

Jack Gantos
Jack Gantos is quite a character.  Very lively, humorous, and full of outrageous stories.  I think several members of the audience were quite shocked to hear about how he went to jail for drug smuggling (I already knew this bit of back story).  I probably wouldn't have chosen to bring it up at a national event in front of hundreds of people... but that's just me.  Everything came with a dose of humor, and he got quite the round of applause.

Gordon Korman
Middle Grade author, Gordon Korman
Very cool guy.  One of the better speakers of the day.  And this guy's book output is off the charts.  I loved how enthusiastic he was about the research process when writing books.  He said how research brings in some of the best plot ideas because sometimes the real stuff is too good for even the most creative brain to make up.  And he REALLY made me want to read all of the 39 Clues books.  The way they connect adventure to history and artifacts is too cool.  His advice to writers was to write about what makes you excited.  (I agree!)  Gordon Korman had one of the highest kid audiences of the day  :)

Cassandra Clare
Cassandra Clare was probably the biggest disappointment for me of the weekend.  Her books are great fun if you are looking for an action-packed paranormal read with hints of romance.  I was hoping she'd be great fun, too.  She read from a script in a tired, flat voice that suggested she didn't want to be there.  When teen girls flocked to the microphones for the Q&A portion and were showering her with praise... she didn't seem grateful, and didn't thank the readers for the compliments.  And then there was one off-color comment.  One girl asked if there was anything that was taken out of the books that Clare had wished had stayed in.  And Clare responded that there were several scenes detailing the villain, Valentine, killing masses of children.  And she thought that part was pretty cool and wished her editors hadn't made her take it out.  Her editors didn't think people would want to read about children being murdered.  I quite agree with her editors on this one.

Brian Selznick
Author and illustrator, Brian Selznick
Selznick was definitely one of the best speakers of the day.  I wouldn't be surprised if his IQ is in the genius range.  He mostly spoke about how he's trying to do new things with text and pictures through first Hugo Cabret and now with his new book Wonderstruck.  (You should run out and buy Wonderstruck.  It will win awards.)  He spoke of his love of museums and his love of E.L. Konigsburg, which inspired Wonderstruck.  His enthusiasm and innovation really shone through when he spoke about how and why he chose to tell two stories in Wonderstruck.  Two stories are interwoven from two different time periods in Wonderstruck; one story is told through pictures and one story is told through text.  But he thought about WHY a story would or should be told in just pictures and he was inspired by the deaf community who rely so heavily on images.  His speech really blew my mind and I wish it had been recorded (he requested no video recording).  A Hugo Cabret movie by Martin Scorsese is coming out this coming holiday season 2011, and Selznick said Scorsese was diligent in following the book and carried it around on set.  The trailer looks fantastic!

Rita Williams-Garcia
I was really looking forward to hearing Rita Williams-Garcia after reading One Crazy Summer this past weekend, and she did not disappoint!  (I was disappointed at the small crowd, but she was the last speaker of the day and many people were likely tired and hungry.)  Rita was so excited to be at the Book Festival speaking that she literally began by hopping up and down whilst giggling and grinning ear to ear.  She was so full of energy and absolutely adorable.  She said that one thing she loves about storytelling is you don't need anything to tell a story.  Just your brain and your voice.  She described herself as a character driven writer (which doesn't surprise me because her characters were so vivid in OCS).  She said she's asking questions about her characters all the time and constantly thinking about them.  Rita believes that it's the strengths and failings that make real characters.  She spoke about her own mother and how her mother wasn't like other mothers (echoing themes from OCS), and did a hilarious impersonation of her bombshell mother walking into a concert at her school.  She was scared to write middle grade because she always wrote for teens.  And when asked about her writing process, she said she writes the moments of greatest impact first, and then fills in the rest.  I thought this was a really interesting method of writing, but it makes sense.  By writing critical scenes and seeing how your characters react, you get to know your characters on higher level, which would make writing the less crucial scenes easier having established your character's inner workings.

Kazu Kibuishi
This young Asian graphic novelist, creator of Scholastic's Amulet graphic novels, was such a cool speaker.  I want to show his speech to my students.  He spoke of how difficult it was for him to figure out what he wanted to do for a living.  His parents wanted him to be a doctor.  He thought he wanted to be a writer.  He went to film school.  Was hired by Disney, left Disney.  He always denied his love of drawing.  He wanted to tell stories.  But when he finally discovered he could meld his love of storytelling with the love of drawing he'd been suppressing, he discovered his career as a graphic novelist.  I love seeing young, positive male role models for young people, and he definitely was one!
Graphic novelist, Kazu Kibuishi
Kazu drawing characters from Amulet

Rachel Renee Russell
What I didn't realize was that the Dork Diaries series (essentially the Wimpy Kid series but for girls) is done by a mother/daughter team.  Mom does the writing and daughter does the drawing.  The presentation was very cute and kid-friendly.  While mom talked, the daughter was drawing people in the audience in the cartoony style of the books.  Kids were so thrilled to see themselves drawn as cartoons.
Author, Rachel Renee Russell
Russell's daughter, Nikki, drawing a member of the audience

As soon as the book festival was over, I started wondering who I would get to see next year!  Such a great experience!  I'm so lucky to live near DC!

Who do you hope to see next year?  My number one hope for next year's festival: Scott Westerfeld.  Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Peeved on Spelling

Something that's driving me a little bonkers: spelling.

Specifically, the spelling of: Newbery.

The big book award, like the Oscar of children's literature.

It's Newbery.  NOT Newberry.

It's not a type of fruit.

Look it up on the website:

Monday, September 19, 2011

One Crazy Summer

Delphine and her sisters, Vonetta and Fern, travel across the country to see the mother who abandoned them.  They don’t just find a mother during their four week trip, but also an understanding of their cultural identity.

I absolutely loved this book.  In my opinion, this book deserved the Newbery Medal, not just a "Honor" title.  If you like books about mother/daughter relationships or historical fiction during the Civil Rights movement, definitely check this book out!

My Comments:
I agree with School Library Journal that this was an “emotionally challenging” book.  There are two threads that pull at reader’s heartstrings.  The first is the girls’ abandonment by their mother.  This thread is introduced to readers on page 4 when we learn of the young age these girls were left by their mother, “When Cecile left, Fern wasn’t on the bottle. Vonetta could walk but wanted to be picked up. I was four going on five.”  This instantly sets up sympathy and conflict.  It’s clear the girls have been without their mother but are now being sent to visit her for four weeks.  The author maintains this tension as Cecile remains cold and distant towards the children until the very end of the book.

The other emotionally challenging thread in this novel is the racial tension.  We are alerted to this racial tension very early on when Delphine thinks to herself, “The last thing Pa and Big Ma wanted to hear was how we made a grand Negro spectacle of ourselves thirty thousand feet up in the air around all these white people” (2).  This racial tension continues throughout the book.  The girls meet the Black Panthers, Delphine reads their news bulletins, and all three girls prepare for a rally.  The girls develop a growing awareness of racial tension and civil rights issues, but at the expense of their innocence.  The girls learn of the violence and unfairness that surrounds their race, and the author did this through the inclusion of true historical details such as the Black Panthers, jailed founder Huey Newton, and murdered Bobby Hutton.

Both School Library Journal and Booklist noted the strong voices and memorable characters of the three girls.  One of the scenes that I found most revealing of the three girls’ personalities is when Miss Patty Cake is ruined.  Vonetta’s insecurity and need for acceptance is revealed by her actions.  Her shame at Crazy Kelvin’s comment and desire to be accepted by the Ankton girls causes Vonetta do something hurtful to her own sister.  Delphine’s character is revealed in how she attempts to remedy the situation, “I grabbed Miss Patty Cake’s dimpled arms and chubby legs. I went after her cheeks and forehead. I scrubbed every blacked-up piece of plastic, wearing down that Ivory bar from a nearly full cake to nearly half flat. I scrubbed and scrubbed until my knuckles ached” (95-96).  Delphine is again acting like a mother figure, trying to protect and remedy Fern’s broken heart.  Fern reveals her innocence and need for love in how she carries Miss Patty Cake everywhere, but after the incident, we see a new maturity in Fern.  She does not whimper or pout the next day when Miss Patty Cake is gone, but instead, “Fern no longer looked for her doll when we left Cecile’s for breakfast” (97).  The author never said Fern’s heart was broken over the loss of her doll, but you knew it.  The author let actions speak for themselves, and in Fern’s case, actions prompted growth in character.  I really fell in love with these girls during this book, and I think that speaks for their excellent characterization.

Kirkus Reviews said that this story is told with “writing that snaps off the page.”  I completely agree.  There were so many memorable lines that had Delphine’s distinct voice.  A voice that was sharp but metaphoric.  Delphine describes what mother means to her in the beginning of the book,
“Mother is a statement of fact. Cecile Johnson gave birth to us. We came out of Cecile Johnson. In the animal kingdom that makes her our mother. Every mammal on the planet has a mother, dead or alive. Ran off or stayed put. Cecile Johnson—mammal birth giver, alive, an abandoner—is our mother. A statement of fact” (14).  
Delphine uses simple, direct language, and yet by comparing her mother to a mammal in the animal kingdom, she reveals so much about her feelings towards her mother.  Another line I loved and that reveals Delphine’s voice was, “We all have our la-la-la song. The thing we do when the world isn’t singing a nice tune to us. We sing our own nice tune to drown out ugly” (90).  This demonstrates the sharp yet metaphoric quality of the writing.  This statement uses short, simple words: nice, tune, ugly.  But Delphine is making a deep comparison between music and life.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughts on Moon Over Manifest

2011 Newbery Winner

Abilene Tucker is left by her father in the town of Manifest with no knowledge of if or when he will return to her.  Abilene begins what will be her summer mission: finding clues of her father’s past in the small town of Manifest. 

Merits of Moon Over Manifest

I agree with School Library Journal that “history and fiction marry beautifully” and that the story’s plots are “artfully intertwined.”  Similarly stated, the BCCB wrote that the book was "ingeniously plotted and gracefully told."  The melding of two different time periods through multiple medias while maintaining flow and clarity is one of the standout features of this novel.  Two years, 1918 and 1936, are woven together to create one cohesive plot strand.  Abilene Tucker hears the story of Ned and Jinx through a variety of modes.  She learns their story through Miss Sadie’s flashbacks, Hattie Mae’s News Auxiliary’s, and Ned’s letters.  The book’s presentation contributed to the clarity of these story forms.  Different fonts and page layouts aided the reader in their comprehension.  To use so many forms and still keep the story organized and clear was quite impressive.

I also agree with Booklist that the story had “believable dialogue, vocabulary and imagery appropriate to time and place.”  Historical novels present quite a challenge.  Authors must spend a significant amount of time doing research, but then it is up to the author in how that research is used to its best advantage in the story.  Vanderpool used many key details from the time period for both accuracy and plot development.  Small details such as food (Shady’s burnt biscuits or Lettie’s ginger snaps) helped create an authentic historical environment, while researched details such as Spanish influenza and immigration provided inspiration for key plot points.

I agree with Kirkus Reviews that the novel had a “deeply gratifying ending.”  I’ll admit that I found this book slow moving at first, but there were so many threads and unsolved mysteries that the reader had to keep moving towards a hopefully gratifying ending.  The revealing of both Gideon’s identity and Gideon’s motive for leaving Abilene really framed the whole story nicely.  Miss Sadie’s story was equally moving and paired well with Gideon’s past, strengthening themes of the power of a parent’s love and the pain of separation.  The interconnectedness of all the plots and subplots left the reader feeling immensely satisfied.

I also believe that one of the major merits of this book was stated by Publishers Weekly: “insight into family and community.”  We witnessed firsthand the sadness that comes from a family’s separation through Gideon/Abilene, but we also witnessed the sadness that comes from a community that has fallen apart.  Manifest had lost its vibrancy and life, but we witness a rebirth as Abilene fosters communication and hope in the community.  This is a unique theme that empowers children by showing them the role they can have in their own community.  This theme was also echoed in Jinx's story when he is able to save the community through his con tricks.  I loved this message of empowering children in their communities and that even children can make a difference.

Things I Wasn't so "Over the Moon" About:

One issue that was never resolved is the issue of Abilene’s mother.  Supposedly she is in hiding, but her identity or reason for disappearance is never resolved.  At one point in the story, I thought that Gideon’s reason for leaving was to find Abilene’s mother because Gideon realized that Abilene was becoming a young lady and would need her mother.  But perhaps Gideon didn’t want Abilene along for the journey in case the mother wasn’t “alright.”

The large cast of secondary characters were a challenge to keep straight despite the nifty cast of characters in the book’s beginning.  While Vanderpool’s motivation was probably to create a true community within her text and to show the passing of generations, I wonder if some weeding would have been beneficiary.  I was taken out of the story due to confusion over a character on more than one occasion.

I heard Clare Vanderpool speak at the 2011 Gaithersburg Book Festival  :)

I hadn’t read the book at the time, so I don’t remember much in the way of plot details.  But she spoke about how the Newbery had changed her life, the impact on her family, how her kids had been supportive, how she had the opportunity to travel, and what it was like to get “the call.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Moon Over Manifest and Typewriters

Boo.  No writing was done today.  Instead I read over 70 pages of Moon Over Manifest of which I have an assignment due Monday at 9am for my online class.

Here's a favorite quote so far:
"The Manifest Herald newspaper office was about centered on Main Street and we walked into a holy mess.  Newspapers were stacked two and three feet tall.  A typewriter sat on a cluttered desk, its keys splayed open with some scattered on the desk like it tried to spell explosion and the explosion happened."  (Page 14)

I sort of have a romantic thing for typewriters.  As you can see by the prints over my desk.

I've never typed on one.  I recently saw a gorgeous, black, very antique-looking and relatively small typewriter for sale at a vintage store by me for $95 and was very tempted to purchase it.  As decoration?  I don't even know.  But it's driving me crazy that I could go back and it won't be there.

I need to read 70 pages a day in order to finish MoM by Saturday night.  Wish me luck!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Short and Long Sentences

Despite a daunting to-do list, I made time to do one writing exercise this morning.  I'm now on the third exercise in Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, and each day I find myself looking forward to the hour I spend doing her exercises.

I've found that most of the exercises are things I'm already aware of in my writing because of teaching writing to middle schoolers.  Once you've had to teach the 6+1 Traits of Writing, you become more aware of what makes good writing.

But her exercises are still a fun challenge.  And it gets the words flowing faster than if I were to sit down and attempt to continue a manuscript.  And so far, I've been pretty pleased with what the exercises are producing.

Today's exercise was to write a paragraph with short sentences (no more than 7 words) and then write another paragraph that is one long sentence.

Here are my results.  I'm doing every exercise with my Steampunk project in mind.  (And I really don't know if the second sentence is grammatically correct... but it flows alright.  I can check it later if I end up using it in a draft.)

The door closed with a clatter.  She didn’t want me there.  I was a child.  They were adults.  But this room didn’t want me either.  I felt the cold.  I saw the dust stirring.  I knew I was not alone.

The mecha-carriage sputtered to a halt and within seconds the door was swinging open, and a world was revealed to me: a giant stone Mecha Fac with curls of steam rising from pipes like turrets into the misty air, air that was filled with noises--clanking, screeching, clicking, wailing, druming--which filled my overwhelmed ears and matched my overwhelmed eyes which saw more people than I’d encountered in my entire lifetime.

One thing I thought about while doing this exercise is how long a sentence is too long when writing for children?  At what point will the length of sentences shut down your readers?  I'm very alert to pacing and readability in what I write because it's something that I evaluate a text on when choosing appropriate texts for my classroom.  Just something to think about...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Writing with NO punctuation

Today's writing exercise was to write with no punctuation.  No line breaks, paragraphs, nothing.  I thought the exercise would be rather pointless.  I figured it would just make me appreciate commas, periods, etc.  But the exercise caused me to focus on the rhythm of my writing, and I did not expect that.  Because I could not use punctuation, my brain tried to find other ways to make the writing flow smoothly.  After reading the results over, I found I did this two ways:

  • Conjunctions (and, but, then)
  • Repetition of words or phrases
The suggestion was to write about a hurried, hectic, or confused moment.  I chose to write about a character in the middle of a chaotic dream.  I thought whatever I came up with would be useless, but I may be able to rework it so it's usable.  I like the rhythm of it for a dream description.

Here, I'll share a bit of it:

then the dream shifted tilted whirled and I found myself surrounded by flames not warm not comforting but painful malicious burning flames and through the crackling spitting flames was cackling laughter and I knew this was the danger I knew he needed my help I knew I must find him I knew she was evil I knew he was amid the piercing flames I knew I was now strong enough and by my feet were chains hot chains snaking their way through the flames and the chains were my path my clue my link to him and i had to follow the chains

The Universals of Creative Genius

This morning on CBS Sunday Morning, there was a segment on Keith Richards (Rolling Stones guitarist) that I really enjoyed.  He's a far more traditional and normal guy than his reputation makes him out to be.

And while watching this piece, they spoke a bit about his creative process.  He spoke of the hard work, but also how guitar riffs would just come out of his fingers.

In reading bio pieces and watching interviews, I've come to notice three absolutes about creative greats (whether music, art, writing, design, etc.).

  1. The passion, the calling, creating your art is unavoidable.
  2. The process and the way in which great ideas come to your mind is mystifying.  They appear, they feel right, and you don't know quite where they came from.
  3. Hard work.  The true greats spend the hours it takes to get to the top.
I really find creativity fascinating in any form.  Whether music, art, or writing, the process of how your brain creates something from nothing is awe inspiring to me.  :)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sound of Writing

I did a writing exercise today from LeGuin's Steering the Craft that turned out really well and got me excited about a Steampunk novel that I'm itching to jump into.

The exercise focused on paying attention to the SOUND of your writing.  You could use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, made-up words, but NOT rhyme or meter.

I chose to write about the major settings in my upcoming Steampunk project:
  1. A Factory
  2. A Gothic Manor
  3. An Abandoned Building
I found I needed to brainstorm before I jumped into writing.  I made lists of sound words for the factory.  For the other two locations I brainstormed descriptive words, but then chose to focus on ones with similar sounds.

The exercise went AWESOME for the factory portion.  The sound words really brought the place to life, and I even created some made-up words that will become terms/jargon in my novel.  The gothic manor didn't go so well.  I couldn't come up with the right sound for that location.  The abandoned building went better because I knew I wanted to focus on soft sounds because the place reminds me of hushed whispers.

I'd read a post earlier today on the blog Operation Awesome where they wanted readers to finish the sentence "I love Harry Potter because..."  One reason I love Harry Potter is because the names, places, and made-up words have such strong sounds that seem to match their intent.  Severus Snape could be no one other than a slippery double agent.  The sound of his name just FITS.  And what could sound more evil than Voldemort?  Rowling had a real ear for sound in her writing.

Maybe if I do this exercise enough, I'll have the same skill she does in the area of SOUND.  :)

Life Gets in the Way

Life has been getting in the way of the more important things in life.  My more important things are reading and writing.

Life includes:

  • Returning to my home that was abandoned for 8 weeks
  • An earthquake
  • Hurricane Irene
  • Two power outages
  • The beginning of a school year that included more meetings and technology issues than any other start of year EVER
Between the largest earthquake the East Coast has seen in 100 years and a hurricane that did billions of dollars in damage and closed schools throughout Maryland.  Between replacing the entire contents of my refrigerator... TWICE.  And negotiating new traffic patterns around downed wires and trees.  And then getting organized for a new school year with a record breaking number of students... (We don't have enough lockers for our current enrollment.)

I've been BUSY.

So on this Labor Day weekend, I'm going to make some time to do the labor I love.  My main goals:
  1. Finish the last book in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series.
  2. Do some writing exercises from LeGuin's Steering the Craft
  3. Make a 3000 word dent in one of my manuscripts
Other things that may interfere with my main goals:
  1. Online class coursework
  2. Lesson Planning
  3. Recycling
  4. Laundry
  5. Grocery shopping
We'll see how this weekend goes.  Here's to hoping it's a CALM one.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Establishing Routine

This is my final week before school starts back up.  And I'm using this week for three things all of which fall under one larger category: establishing routine.

My goals for this week are:

1. Get my place clean and organized.
2. Spend 1-3 hours writing every day.
3. Get up early and begin the day with exercise.

The cleaning is necessary for me to be sane.  This is the first time since June 18 that I've been at my place for more than 2 consecutive days.  I need to pitch, donate, and recycle.  I need to vacuum and dust.  And I want to reorganize things so that my environment is more writing focused instead of teaching focused.  I'm going to try to keep teaching at school this year.  We shall see if I accomplish that or not...

I think it's crucial that I get into the habit of writing every day now that I'm settled back at home.  Whether it's writing exercises from Le Guin's Steering the Craft or working on a WIP, I need to make time to write.  By establishing that routine now, I'm hoping it will stick once school rolls around.

And exercise.  I have this plan to read on the stationary bike.  So it will serve the dual purpose of exercise and reading time.  But I've never been an early morning exerciser... so we'll see how this goes...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Maggie's Book Trailer, The Uglies series, and Bone Graphic Novels

Maggie Stiefvater is the queen of book trailers.  No, for real, she is.  Her book trailers for Shiver, Linger, and Forever are AWESOME.  And her most recent one for The Scorpio Races is totally gorgeous.  This is rare in the world of book trailers... most book trailers are terrible, miserable, amateur things.  Maggie's book trailers are art.

I definitely plan to pick up Scorpio Races this Fall!

In other bookly news, I was at the beach and finished five books.

 Uglies by Scott Westerfeld and book 2, Pretties as well.  I can't wait to start books 3 and 4!

I'm a little late in discovering this series.  They've been around for awhile (Uglies was published in 2005).  They just revamped the book covers and the new covers are what I bought and are what is pictured to the left.

If you want dystopian sci-fi, these are awesome.  They are about a future world where the government performs free plastic surgery on all people when they turn 16 to make them "pretty."  But what if you don't want the surgery...?

And there are these awesome hoverboards and other technology.  It's a really exciting story and fascinating concept.

I'm becoming a huge Westerfeld fan because I also immensely enjoyed Leviathan.  I bought Peeps the other day and plan to read that too.  I will review the whole Uglies series upon completion.

My brother brought along his Bone books to the beach and I finally read the first three.  They are so clever and gorgeous to look at.  The rat creatures are hilarious.  Thorn is awesome.  Grandma Rose and Lucius are endearing.  Phoney and Smiley drive me nuts.  I really enjoyed them and highly recommend them.  But I still have 6 more to go!!!

I'm currently reading Forever by Maggie Stiefvater on my Kindle, and then will pick back up with Specials by Westerfeld.  I want to see how many fun books I can get through in the next 10 days before school starts back up...  We'll see!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Got in to Pottermore!

J.K. Rowling is doing a week long trivia contest where the prize is early access to her Pottermore web experience.  Each day a clue pops up for a limited time (usually around 30-45 minutes or however long it takes for 140,000 people to register).

First day = 1st Book / Sorcerer's Stone
Second Day = 2nd Book / Chamber of Secrets
Third Day = 3rd Book / Prisoner of Azkaban
And so on...

I went to bed with my laptop beside me so that I could check if the clue was up without getting out of bed.  The first clue was at 4am (obviously missed that one) and the second was already closed yesterday when I woke up at 8am.

I woke up at 6:27 this morning, hit refresh on the Pottermore website, and BAM!  Day 3 clue was up and not filled!

The question was:

In the Gryffindor versus Slytherin Quidditch match, in Harry’s third year, how many points is Gryffindor leading by before Harry catches the Golden Snitch? Multiply this number by 35.

The answer was: 2100

It took you to the website of the UK Guardian, and an article about Pottermore.  Up in the top right corner was an ad box with the Magical Quill.  You had to wave your mouse beneath the quill to make it levitate and then click on it.

You then filled in all your user information, chose a username from a list of five choices, and set up a password and e-mail.  There was a cute little bit where there they show your name in a book as a "Magical Person" along with the recognizable Potter characters.

I got my brother in, too!  So exciting!

My confirmation e-mail came about an hour after I registered.  Woo hoo!

The whole experience feels very much like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the search for a golden ticket.

So fun!  J.K. Rowling, I love you.  :)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Not Done Yet...

So this time last year, I was done with grad classes... at least until next summer.

But I'm not done...  I am enrolled in a Fall online course!

I originally planned to do an Independent Study with one of my teachers on Newbery Medal books.  The idea for the course was so well received that they decided to offer it as an entire course instead!

Here is our text list:

2011 Newbery Medal- Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool;
2011 Newbery Honor- One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
2010 Newbery Medal- When You Reach Me  by Rebecca Stead
2010  NewberyHonor- Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
2009 Newbery Medal-The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
2009 Newbery Honor- After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
2008 Newbery Medal- Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
2008Newbery  Honor- Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
2007 Newbery Medal- Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
2007 Newbery Honor- Rules  by Cynthia Lord

Taking this online course is part of my master plan to devote more time to the things I love (and stop overwhelming myself with teaching duties).  Plus, once I'm done with this course I will have 24 credits towards my Masters.  WOO HOO!!!

Will have more details on the class in upcoming posts!

Time for laundry!  And some pizza!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Things I'll miss... and things I won't...

Things I'll miss:
  • the mountains
  • the library
  • the rocking chairs
  • the writing community
  • my teachers
  • free printing
  • the church
  • the restaurant/bakery across the street
  • the wonderful writers I've met/reconnected with

Things I won't miss:
  • the dorms
  • the shower
  • the assigned reading
  • writing critical papers
  • sitting in class for 9 hours straight
  • hanging out at Panera
  • staying up late to finish work

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Writer's Internet History...

So I'm writing this story about an angel that saves a boy from being recruited into a local gang.

And I'm writing a scene where I've had to do some research:

  • What are gang slang terms?
  • What types of guns are most commonly used by gangs?
  • What drugs are most commonly sold/used by gang members?
  • What types of cars are popular with gang members?
  • What would a "tricked out" car have?  (rims, lights, etc.)
  • History of Bloods and Crips
  • Known East Coast gangs
You get the idea...

Let's just say I'll be deleting my internet history after this story is finished!  I don't want Google to start sending me ads for... uhhh... gang paraphernalia or whatever.  Yikes!

(And I'm not the only writer friend who's concerned about this.  This was dinnertime conversation the other night.  Weird things we've had to look up for stories.  A writer's internet history can be a scary thing!)

Friday, July 22, 2011

What I've Learned about Writing Summer '11

It amazed me last summer how much I learned about myself as a writer.  Last summer I learned that writing exercises can blossom into full characters and book ideas.  I learned the magic of moving scenes around and the changes it can have on your narrative.  I learned how to read as a writer.  This summer I definitely grew too.

What I've learned in Summer '11 about my writing:

  • I'm a better realistic fiction writer than I thought... or wanted to be.
  • I learned there are two threads in a narrative, emotional and action.  I'm pretty darn good at the action side, but sometimes neglect the emotional thread.
  • I'm pretty darn good at creating a plot skeleton in my first draft.  *pats back*
  • I'm not so good at deciding on a point-of-view and sticking to it.  *shakes head*
  • I've had a lot of experiences.  And those experiences are going to come out in my writing subconsciously.  It's then my job to use them... and disguise them!  Because I'm not writing an autobiography.  I'm a fiction writer.
  • I'm not a wordy or verbose writer.  I'm precise.  And it's totally okay if I don't have long, elaborate descriptions.
  • Part of the reason I'm okay with not being wordy: Readers usually can't remember more than three details when you're describing something.  (Learned that in class last night.)  And I noticed that I tend to describe things in threes anyways.  So pick three GOOD details instead of describing every last little thing.
  • I can crank words out!!!  Never thought I'd write over 60 pages in such a short amount of time while also doing reading and critical analysis.  I have no more excuses over the school year.  I can make it happen.
I'm sure there's more that I learned, but those are the biggies.

One thing I want to learn:

Is there a way to figure out your "word count for the day" when you're revising?  (Like deleting whole paragraphs and writing new ones)  Without stopping to add and subtract constantly?

Would love to know!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Borders Closing and Tips from an Agent

If you haven't heard, Borders will be liquidating and closing all its stores.  The filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and after no bids (...or bailouts *cough* *cough*) they are going under.

This is TERRIBLE, and let me tell you why:

Borders was the 2nd largest book retailer in the U.S. and has left Barnes and Noble with an overwhelming monopoly.  I've never been as big a fan of B&N.  They have more limited seating in coffee areas, and their coffee is more expensive.  (At Borders, I earned free coffees too!) Depending on the store, I have also found they often have a more limited selection of certain genres (Their graphic novel section is pathetic--just one skinny bookshelf).  And now the purchasers of books at B&N will control what titles you see on shelves.  You can't go to another store to see if there is a different selection of books.

This is going to take a huge hit on the publishing industry.  All of a sudden there are 400 stores not selling books.  There are 400 stores not promoting books.  There are 400 fewer stores to do book events and signings.  This is going to HURT.  I don't even know what the implications could be in the next few years.

There will be 11,000 people losing their jobs.  This is also 11,000 people whose job it was to read books and recommend books.  We are losing a big chunk of the population who promoted book sales.

And while this could be very good business for Barnes and Noble, it could very well be the beginning of their death as well.  People could become frustrated by the lack of availability of books in stores and turn to eBooks and online more so than ever before.  If people see this as the direction things are going anyway, then why fight it anymore.  Borders closing may be the push people needed in hopping on the eBook bandwagon.

The whole thing frustrates me.  I love my Kindle too, but I don't want to see brick and mortar bookstores disappear.  I still make an effort to buy books in stores, especially my favorites, or books as gifts, or books for my classroom.

If bookstores are going to survive, they are going to have to take a new approach.  If I were in charge of revamping the bookstore industry, here's what I would do:

-Hire event planners.
-Hold events and workshops. 
(Some free, some not.  I have a plan of attack ideas there, too.)
-Plan events and workshops that pair well with books.
-Sell those books.

Get people back in the stores by doing things that online or eBooks CAN'T DO.  Socialize, food and drink, hands-on opportunities.

If anyone would like to hire me to plan book related events, I am willing and able.  I could plan book events that would rock the industry's world.

Speaking of the book industry, literary agent Quinlan Lee came to speak to our grad program on Monday night.  Here's some of what she shared with us:

What an Agent Does:
  1. Support our clients
  2. Help manage your career
  3. Negotiate your rights
  4. Be your advocate
She spoke about how her job is much like that of a real estate agent.  People are hunting for the perfect house.  Publishers are hunting for the perfect book.  People have spent years building, remodeling, living in, and loving their home.  Writers have spent years writing, revising and loving their manuscript.  A real estate agent knows the housing market and matched buyers up with sellers based on what each is looking for.  A literary agent does the same thing.  They know the publishing industry and match up publishers and writers based on what they are looking for.

An agent also makes sure that you are treated fairly by publishers and plays bad cop when necessary.  You want your publisher/editor to love you.  So let the agent do the fighting dirty work for you so that a publisher still wants to buy your books and work with you in the future.

She advised to have confidence because editors need you.  They need people to write great stories.

Her tip for a dream manuscript is the 5 page rule.  You have to make the reader want to know what is going to happen next in the first five pages.  Hooking them in the first page is even better.

What they are looking for in a manuscript:
  • it's timeless
  • award winner potential
  • timely
  • action driven
  • suspenseful
  • high concept
  • fun
  • page turning
  • thought provoking
  • fresh theme
She also said all the publishers are asking for "Boy Middle Grade."  Funny, action-packed, pre-teen books.  (Like Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson, Capt. Underpants)

Overall, I thought she was very encouraging and realistic.

Time to get writing!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2

Spoiler Alert!
Seriously don't read if you haven't seen the movie or don't want to know what happens, etc.

I used to be quite fanatical when it came to Harry Potter.  Like obsessive.  My brothers will attest to it (and they don't even know all of it).

I've since calmed down.  Become more normal.  Grown up.  I can now go whole weeks without thinking about HP or connecting something in daily life to HP.  I've diversified my interests.

But I still deeply love Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling.  The only thing that may surpass my love for HP someday is giving birth to my own children.  You may think I'm exaggerating and being melodramatic, but I'm really not.

So it was really, really hard for me to not go to the last midnight premiere.  And it didn't help hearing people talk about it in class all day Thursday.  But I waited until Saturday when my mom and brother came to visit.  Me and my brother, who I will refer to as Pacman, have been through many midnight releases together.  We have lots of fond memories of eating jelly beans and talking to costumed people.  My mom went to midnight parties to get the books for us when either we were too young to stay up so late or when I had to work the next day.  They've both been through this HP craze with me, and I'm really glad we waited to see it together.

They brought costumes, and we dressed up...  No one else was dressed up when we went to the theater... Because the movie had no been out for 2 days and all the crazies had already gone.  But we looked cool.

I'm glad I waited to see the movie with them.  It was more meaningful and I loved experiencing it together.  We had so much fun dissecting the movie afterward and talking about our favorite parts.

My favorite part of the whole movie was any scene with Maggie Smith/McGonagall.  I didn't expect to love her parts so much, but she really stole the movie for me.

The Gringotts scenes were EXCELLENT.  So impressed with that part of the movie.  The preparation of the castle for battle was awesome as well.

The parts that were a bit of a let down for me were:
  • Molly Weasley's BIG line
  • Neville's killing of the snake
  • the battle post-Harry's death
Why these parts weren't so great:

There was no lead up to Mrs. Weasley's line.  I didn't even know Bellatrix and Ginny were battling.  They barely even show Ginny's face.  Without that build-up of Ginny being targeted by Bellatrix, the line didn't pack quite the same punch.  Though Mrs. Weasley is still AWESOME.

I thought Neville killed the snake in front of EVERYONE.  Harry was faking dead, and Neville was standing up to Voldemort.  Harry disappears under the invisibility cloak, Neville kills the snake with the sword of Gryffindor, Voldemort freaks out, but invisible Harry starts shooting out protective spells to protect everyone from Voldemort's fury.  The movie didn't do it that way.  Harry was visible and distracted Voldemort.  Neville didn't have a big crowd when he killed the snake.  I really wanted Neville to have his five minutes of fame in the movie.  And I really liked the idea of an invisible Harry protecting everyone in the book.  So that whole last bit of battle (after Harry died) was too cut up and different from how I pictured it.

But man did I bawl like a baby when Harry was going to surrender himself to Voldemort and die!  The movie was definitely emotional for me.

So now, I'm going to try to lose my memory of the Harry Potter books, so that maybe in 5 years, I can read them again and experience them almost like it was the first time....

Though Pottermore is coming out this fall...  Maybe I won't be able to forget them...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Everything is coming together!

I feel much better since my last post.  All my assignments for class are coming together.

Goose Girl Adaptation aka Dead Horse Talking is now revised and ready for it's final critique!  I had to work on fleshing out the relationship in the story and providing more closure at the end.  Summary of story: A childhood friendship is on its last leg as two teen girls grow apart, and a betrayal by one girl will be the last straw.

If you're interested in reading, Dead Horse Talking, shoot me an e-mail at

My second short story (after driving me a little crazy) is now ready to be revised.  I had a major brainstorming session and now know where I want to go with it.

For my YA Science Fiction class, I now finally have a paper topic.  I'm going to examine the female archetypal pattern of maiden to mother to crone in the character of Miranda in the YA post-apocalyptic novel, Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.

For my Forms and Boundaries class, I'm going to do a short presentation on how graphic novels engage reluctant readers.  I will be using the texts Maus by Art Spiegelman and Malice by Chris Wooding.  I'll do a whole blog post on my presentation info sometime next week!

And I'm seeing Harry Potter DH Pt2 tomorrow with my Mom and Brother.  Who are coming to visit!  Because they are awesome!  Woo hoo!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Subconscious Mind

I had a little bit of a breakdown today because I realized a lot more of me is making it into my stories than I intended.  And I don't like it.

I was critiqued last night in my Fantasy class about a story I'd written from the point-of-view of an angel.  The story was about a teenage angel who goes on her first mission to Earth to help someone.  All she is given is a gigantic manual as her guide to helping people.  She goes down to Earth, is overwhelmed, but accepts a mission to help a mother who is concerned about her son.  The boy is being approached by a gang that wants to recruit him.  The angel ends up helping him by reversing a terrible choice he makes, thus giving him a second chance.

So after my critique, and having all these questions thrown at my under-developed story, my brain was buzzing.  This morning I was thinking about a big question that my teacher had asked me.  "Why did you turn Heaven into a bureaucracy?  It's interesting and funny, but you need to think about why you did it." (I'm paraphrasing her here.)  She also asked what it was saying about Heaven (and God) that they are sending their angels out unprepared with nothing more than a book.

So after looking up the definition of a bureaucracy.  And thinking.  I had a terrible epiphany.

This story was a big giant metaphor for my feelings about teaching.  And I hated it.

I am the angel, getting thrown into the world of trying to help people, with little more than a "manual."  And I get put into situations that I don't know the answers to, but my actions are life-changing to the people I'm trying to help.  And ultimately, I'm giving kids chances or opportunities that will help them escape evil in the world.

Yes the angel in my story was unprepared and lost at how to perform a miracle.
But at least she had magic words.

I feel unprepared for the miracles I'm expected to perform in my classroom.
And I don't have any clue where to look up some magic words.

I came to Hollins to read and write, and pursue MY DREAMS.  I got very angry and upset to see teaching working it's way into my writing subconsciously.  The subcontext of my story was not something I wanted to tackle in my writing, but it appeared anyways.

I'm leaving this story alone for a few days.  I need a break from it.  Especially now that I realize how personal it is, it's going to be draining to revise/finish.

In the meantime, I'll work on my teen girl story.  (Which also turned out to be much more personal than I intended, but at least it's not about teaching!)

This summer is going by entirely too fast.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Character Game

In my writing fantasy class, author Ellen Kushner came in for a visit and talked about characterization.  She shared with us a fun and amazing little game which she dubbed "The Character Game."

The Character Game is a way to get inside a character's head particularly if you're starting a novel or feel like your characters are flat and not fleshed out enough.

Very simple.  Only two people required to play, though you can have many more.

Author-Player decides on a character and will then have to answer all questions as if they are that character.

Question-Player then proceeds to bombard Author-Player with questions.  These questions CANNOT be plot questions.  Think more like "first date" getting-to-know-you type questions.

"What's your favorite color?"
"What do you eat for breakfast?"
"What's your least favorite smell?"
"What's your favorite holiday?"

Those types of questions.

Rough game time is 20-30 minutes, and by the end of that time, most authors have an epiphany type moment where their character is suddenly a fully actualized real person.

Trust me, it works!

And it's fun!

Anyone want to play?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Inside Scoop on the Newbery Medal

On Wednesday, we had a visit from Laura Amos, a current committee member for the Newbery award.  While she couldn't divulge anything about upcoming contenders for the 2012 award, she did give us insider information on what it's like to serve on the Newbery selection committee.

She first went over the history of the Newbery.  Which you can read here.  The founder of the Newbery, Frederic G. Melcher, was ahead of his time when he demanded that the selection of the winner be kept a total secret until the official announcement.  The secrecy has been great for publicity and creates excitement and speculation each year.

The measures to maintain secrecy were pretty fun to hear about.  The committee is made of 15 members who meet 4 times in person throughout the year.  The room that they meet in is never used and kept locked other than the 4 times they meet.  I couldn't help but picture a Mission Impossible style sneak in to plant a hidden microphone so you could hear their discussion and the winner.  Hehe!

You have to be either nominated or appointed to the Newbery committee and they have a new rule that you can only serve once every 4 years.  This was done to encourage more panel variety and to bring in fresh faces.

The committee reads books throughout the year (Amos said she's gotten boxes of 30 books sent to her house from publishers!) and on the 1st of every month they can send "recommendations" to other committee members.  Once a recommendation is made, all 15 members have to read the book.  The final day for recommendations is December 31 of that year.  When they meet to discuss and vote on the winner, it starts on a Friday morning and they must have a winner and press release prepared by 6:15am Sunday morning.  It is often difficult to get 15 people to agree, and they often have to vote, discuss, vote again, discuss, vote again, discuss, etc.

The runners-up were given the official title of Newbery Honor books in 1971.  And it is not required to name any Honor books each year.  It is up to the committee.

Cool bit of Trivia:
In 1953, the Newbery Medal Winner was Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark.  The runner up was Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.  It's rumored that someone on the committee didn't like E.B. White and didn't want him to win.

It was a really interesting lecture, and I'm probably leaving a ton out.  But if you have any questions, ask me!  I might have heard the answer!

For Writers:

I highly recommend following the SCBWI blog.  Every Friday, Alice Pope posts interesting news articles related to publishing and children's lit.  I always find them fascinating and feel more up to date in the biz because of it.

A sampling of articles from this week:

Why You Should Own Your Domain Name (GalleyCat)
Having an online presence is critical for writers to market their work. In a recent blog post, author John Scalzi urged writers to purchase their own domain name online.
Tablet, E-reader Owners Also Print Junkies (MediaPost)
People who are heavy print magazine and newspaper readers might seem like the last ones to embrace gadgets like tablets and e-readers. But new research from Gfk MRI shows tablet owners are 66% more likely than the average U.S. adult to be big print magazine consumers and 54% more likely to be heavy print newspaper readers. Similarly, e-reader owners are 23% more likely to be print magazine enthusiasts and 63% more likely to get newsprint on their hands.  
Cherish the Book Publishers—You'll Miss Them When They're Gone (WSJ)
The Klondikers of digital publishing are rushing to stake their claims, inspired by tales of the gold to be found in the Kindle hills. A few pioneering prospectors have indeed struck it rich with light entertainments, most famously Amanda Hocking, who is a sort of Tolkien for our times (if Tolkien had been an avid fan of "Star Wars" instead of an eminent scholar of "Beowulf"). Her self-published e-books racked up so many sales over the past year that St. Martin's Press recently signed her for some $2 million.