Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Peggy: Of Plot Promises and Michael Jackson

I had a FABULOUS sixth grade teacher. But there was one thing, though, that he didn’t get that writers HAVE to get.

You can't have unfulfilled plot promises.

My teacher made our class a deal. If we met certain goals– really, really hard goals the whole class would have to work for— THE Michael Jackson would come to our class. In all of his sequined glove wearing, king of pop being, video music making glory. We thought about how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to get him to go anywhere, and wondered how our someone on a teacher’s salary would be able to afford it. Then we wondered if maybe Michael Jackson was doing it as some sort of charity. An encourage-the-youth kind of thing.

But really, we doubted he'd come. So we kept asking, “Is he really going to come here?”

He’d say, “Yep, he'll come.”

The Michael Jackson. Promise?”

“I promise.”

We loved our teacher. He was the type who wouldn’t lie. Still, though, logic led most of us to believe there was a 99% chance that he wouldn’t come. The fact that there was a 1% chance made us work really hard. We met our goal and our teacher announced the day The King of Pop would grace us with his presence. On that day this came to class:

Yep. That’s a POSTER. If our teacher had been a book, we would’ve slammed him shut and hucked him across the room and never picked up the sequel because we no longer trusted the author.

And sometimes, you don't even realize you're making a plot promise! You may mention something irrelevant, but if you place too much importance on it, the reader is going to expect that plot thread to be followed through. How many times have you gotten to the end of a book, and as you're thinking about it after, you think, "Hey! The author never told us what happened with [fill in the blank]! Why did the author even mention it if they weren't going anywhere with it?"

As a writer, making your reader think that the plot is about to go in a certain direction and then NEVER GOING THERE is a bad idea. Even if you want the reader to think the plot is going in a different direction than it actually is. But what about Red Herrings? Sometimes I want the reader to think the plot is going in a different direction! Red herrings can be tricky, but a good rule of thumb is, if the direction your reader thinks you are going is cooler / more exciting / more interesting than where your plot is actually going, you might want to head back to the drawing board. Because no one wants their book hucked across the room.

On a scale of 1-10, when you're reading, how much do unfulfilled plot promises bother you?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


IRA in Chicago
 On Sunday, April 29th, I took part in an all day preconference institute at the International Reading Association in Chicago with seven other authors and another Crowe's Nester - Lisa Schroeder.
The title of our institute was Rekindling the Reading and Writing Fire. We spent an entire day sharing author tips with teachers about how professional authors write and think about stories as we explored a variety of genres that ended with a poetry panel that included me, Lisa, April Halprin Wayland, and Caroline Starr Rose.

The focus of our panel was on exploring how to hook struggling readers with verse novels in our segment entitled: Social Issues in Contemporary Fiction and Verse Novels: Recognizing Literary Devices and the Implications for Struggling Readers

Lisa and I have special places in our hearts for struggling readers. I work in the public schools as a speech-language pathologist and both of us have books selected as YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers.


Although TAKE ME THERE is not a verse novel, it contains several original poems. It's about a boy who can't read or write, but dreams of becoming a poet. My first true verse novel, FORGET ME NOT, will be published by Simon Pulse in October of 2012.

In my work as a therapist in the public schools, I'm continously searching for ways to inspire struggling readers and writers. The buzz word in education is "high interest, low readability." Reading teachers are always looking for books that are easy to read but will hook kids with an interesting story. That task gets harder as kids get older. There are many fabulous picture books and chapter books for young children, but reaching teens with reading disabilities is a real challenge. Verse novels offer an interesting alternative.

In preparation for our panel, I took one of the poems from my upcoming verse novel, FORGET ME NOT, and retyped it as prose. Then I ran readability statistics on both the prose version and the poetry version. When the selection was analyzed as verse, the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Level was over two grades lower than when it was analyzed as prose. The implication is that when all other content is the same, poetry is easier to read than prose because of the way it appears on the page.

Verse novels often explore topics that are emotionally charged for teens and this provides the high interest that many assigned readings lack. During our panel we explored several other reasons that verse novels appeal to struggling readers. Verse novels tend to:
  • Use short words and sentences with few true paragraphs.
  • Build in natural pauses.
  • Leave a lot of white space on the page.
  • Be descriptive and incorporate sensory images.
  • Use mostly nouns and verbs, allowing the reader to form concrete images.
  • Present complete ideas in a short space with each poem representing its own unit. You can talk about the main idea after one page instead of muddling through a fifteen page chapter.
Verse novels not only appeal to students, they appeal to teachers as well. They may be used to teach figurative language and poetic devices and tend to use more of these elements than do traditional novels. One of my favorite activities is to take lines from poems of verse novels and put them around the classroom. Then I ask students to go on a "Treasure Hunt" looking for poetic and literary devices.

 Some of these include:

• Alliteration (The repetition of initial consonant sounds.)
• Assonance (The repetition of vowel sounds without similar consonants)
• Consonance (The repetition of consonant sounds across word positions, usually at the end). Note: Definitions of consonance vary
• Metaphor (drawing a comparison between two unlike things)
• Simile (using the words “like” or “as” to draw a comparison)
• Personification (giving human attributes to something non-human)
• Allusion (reference to another literary work, history, art, person, event, etc.)

Below Lisa shares her experiences at IRA:

During our verse novel session, I wanted to try and convey what a great tool verse novels can be for reluctant readers. I get many notes from teens that talk about how they don't like to read but they like my books. I also get notes from parents occasionally, and I shared one from a parent of a 14 year old girl with dyslexia. She told me her daughter had always hated to read because it was so difficult for her. It was bad enough working extra hard for school, she didn't want to work extra hard just to read a book for fun. But, somehow she ended up with a copy of my novel, I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME and for the first time ever, her mother watched as her daughter enjoyed reading a book. She told me her daughter would share lines from the book as she read, and it made the mom so happy. She said she had to write to me to let me know about the miracle that had occurred in her living room. I also talked about why I choose to write in verse at times -- for the atmosphere it creates and the emotional impact it can create. Mostly, I wanted the teachers to walk away excited to check out some recent verse novels and share them with their reluctant readers.

We concluded the session with each author reading poem excerpts. Each example was shown via power point with the section highlighted that demonstrated a specific literary or poetic device. Participants were asked to guess which device was being used. Examples of metaphor and simile from TAKE ME THERE and THE DAY BEFORE are underlined below:

“The River” from p. 209 of TAKE ME THERE by Carolee Dean

Blood is a river.
       One drop follows another
                    until they all reach the bottom
                                                             of the

Excerpt from “Together Again” from p. 192 of THE DAY BEFORE by Lisa Schroeder

Back in his Beetle,
a dozen questions

circle my mind like vultures.
I can’t let them move in
on this moment though.

The entire institute was a huge success and got many great reviews. Teachers received a copy of the power point to use with their students.

The next time you're exploring a verse novel, look a little closer at all the literary elements the author includes in the poems. Just like my students, you might find a hidden treasure within the pages.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Nina: Behind the Scenes of a Book Trailer

I don't know about you guys, but I find the few months leading up to a novel's release a little paralyzing. There's that space between when ARCs are printed and when the reviews start coming in, and that space is so quiet. I start doing all the things I shouldn't: reading Goodreads, obsessively refreshing my email for any trace of news, checking on Amazon to see if there have been pre-orders. It doesn't feel good. So when the lovely online content manager at Penguin told me that they wanted to hire me to make the trailer for my second novel, The Disenchantments, I was thrilled: not only would I get to have creative control in the process, but I would also have a project to distract me from the pub day countdown. 

To provide a little context, a few years ago, my wife Kristyn Stroble and my BFF Amanda Krampf and I made a trailer for my first novel, Hold Still. We filmed it at my old high school, using my mom's photography students as actors. We used a Super 8 camera and the teenagers wore their own clothes and we didn't have a script or much of an idea of what we'd do, but we had so much fun and we put our hearts into it and it ended up becoming something that people really responded to. So, that's what Penguin was thinking of when they told me I could have the first shot at making The Disenchantments' trailer. Penguin gave us the copy and the concept and then set us free to make it happen.

Kristyn, Amanda, and I went to work on our new project, first searching for the right Colby and Bev. We were so fortunate to find Shelbie Dimond who is so gorgeous and intriguing that I didn't even care about the length of her hair, which is supposed to be much shorter in the novel. Next, through our brilliant stylists Oak & Roma, we found Brandon Heiman who was so charming and perfect in every scene we shot. 
We loved this sticker and graffiti-covered wall at the Phoenix Hotel.
Finding Meg and Alexa was a little easier. Vanina Howan and Kate Capurso used to go to the high school where I teach part time, and I was so happy that they both wanted to be in the trailer. The most difficult part of the entire trailer was figuring out Meg's hair. In the book, it's supposed to be all pink, but even after trying three different wigs of various shades of pink, it wasn't looking right on camera, so we went with pink extensions in a light brown wig instead. 

The lounge at the hotel is full of records, a perfect fit for Meg!
After the casting was complete, we began scouting for locations and props. Miraculously, Kate's dad owns a blue VW like the one in the novel. It wouldn't start, so we all had to push it into the street and then back into the narrow garage after we got the footage we needed. 

This VW bus is so loved and well-traveled, just like Melinda.
The Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco was a dream location with its blue and yellow doors, bright bedspreads, dynamic outdoor spaces, and rich musical history. (Joan Jett has stayed there, which felt especially fitting considering that the epigraph of the novel is a Runaways lyric!) 

One thing we couldn't film at the Phoenix was the band onstage, so after our day of shooting there, we crossed the city to Amanda's apartment, which, lucky for us, has a storefront-turned-living room with a raised floor under the front windows that worked perfectly as a little stage. 

Oak&Roma, the super creative and talented sibling duo, made everyone look fabulous all day and night. I love what they did here with red, white, and black:

In Amanda's apartment.
My favorite moment came at the end of the night, when we decided we needed more romantic footage of Colby and Bev. We had gotten a lot of arguing, a lot of aloofness, a lot of laughter, but not enough dreaminess. So we asked Shelbie and Brandon to lie on a rug and almost kiss. (They're both in relationships, and not with each other, so almost was the key word.) Kristyn tried a bunch of camera angles, and finally resorted to the one below. 

That black arch? It's actually Kristyn's legs.
We all were pretty comfortable with one another
by the time shooting was over.
It was late at night; we were all starving; the lights were hot; the positions were awkward--but it all lead to my favorite footage of the entire shoot. Isn't it beautiful?
By the end of the shoot, we were in love with the process, and in the time that followed that, when we were choosing the music and editing the trailer down to the thirty second limit required for ads, we were so consumed by what we were doing that I hardly checked Goodreads or Amazon at all. (Well, maybe that's an overstatement, but I definitely checked them less.)

One of Eli Harris's awesome posters.
(They're all available here.)
It was a long day, but Oak&Roma
were amazing throughout.
I'll leave you all with the final product: days and days of planning, two full days of shooting, distilled to thirty seconds. It features a song I love, "Alright You Restless" by AgesandAges. 

Also, we've been bitten by the book trailer bug. If you like our work, please get in touch! 

(Thank you, Roma, for the Instagram shots!)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Jenny: What a Conference Can Do For You

My area writers’ group, DFW Writers’ Workshop, is gearing up to host its annual event, so conferences have definitely been on my mind. If you’ve ever been to one hosted by another stellar organization such as SCBWI or RWA, I probably don’t have to explain you how worthwhile they can be. But if you haven’t ever registered for one, let me convince you to get thee to a conference like DFWcon.

1.  A conference can connect you.

Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Between you and the page, there may be nothing but a sense of isolation and creeping doubt. But when writers get together to learn from professionals and from each other, bonds are formed. Beyond the panels and the pitch sessions, there are endless opportunities to interact with other like-minded folks. I can’t tell you how many of my friends--online and IRL--I’ve met at conferences. I love that my circle of friends grows larger and more interconnected with each event!

2.  A conference can equip you.

If you’re like me, you’re always looking for learning opportunities. You’re always stretching for the words just beyond your reach. Conferences and workshops expose you to new ideas and experiences, elements that are crucial to a writer's development. If I had a dollar for every lightbulb moment I’ve had during a DFW event, I’d have more than enough cash to buy lattes for life.

3.  A conference can motivate you.

Have you been working on the same book for years? Are you stuck in revision hell? Have you started seven short stories and three novels, yet never quite finished anything? If so, saddle up and register for a conference with agent and editor faculty. The thought of pitching a polished project may be just the kick in the pants you need to get writing again. (Have I mentioned fabulous Sara, my own agent, will be fielding pitches and speaking at DFWcon????)

3. A conference can inspire you.

Few writers scribble out eighty thousand words and stumble into instant success. Publishing is a tough business, and writers often need more than mental toughness to make it very far. Conferences foster a sense of community and they help writers develop a strong support system--one that’s able to sustain them through setbacks and rejection and one that’s also able to spur them on. Many a workshop friend or panelist has inspired me to keep doing that impossible thing--to keep writing no matter what.

These are just a few of the many things a conference can do for you.

I’m fortunate to live in the Dallas area, where I can enjoy the camaraderie and the rich learning environment of both DFW Workshop and DFWcon. If you’re able to join us, Sara and I will be participating in a few sessions, and I’d love to meet you! If not, why not give another conference a try? Check out what SCBWI and many other fabulous groups have to offer--you might find yourself in the midst of something amazing. You may find a place in a vibrant community of writers.